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Saunterings - Sea And Shore Post by :joannent Category :Nonfictions Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :2360

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Saunterings - Sea And Shore

It is not always easy, when one stands upon the highlands which encircle the Piano di Sorrento, in some conditions of the atmosphere, to tell where the sea ends and the sky begins. It seems practicable, at such times, for one to take ship and sail up into heaven. I have often, indeed, seen white sails climbing up there, and fishing-boats, at secure anchor I suppose, riding apparently like balloons in the hazy air. Sea and air and land here are all kin, I suspect, and have certain immaterial qualities in common. The contours of the shores and the outlines of the hills are as graceful as the mobile waves; and if there is anywhere ruggedness and sharpness, the atmosphere throws a friendly veil over it, and tones all that is inharmonious into the repose of beauty.

The atmosphere is really something more than a medium: it is a drapery, woven, one could affirm, with colors, or dipped in oriental dyes. One might account thus for the prismatic colors I have often seen on the horizon at noon, when the sun was pouring down floods of clear golden light. The simple light here, if one could ever represent it by pen, pencil, or brush, would draw the world hither to bathe in it. It is not thin sunshine, but a royal profusion, a golden substance, a transforming quality, a vesture of splendor for all these Mediterranean shores.

The most comprehensive idea of Sorrento and the great plain on which it stands, imbedded almost out of sight in foliage, we obtained one day from our boat, as we put out round the Capo di Sorrento, and stood away for Capri. There was not wind enough for sails, but there were chopping waves, and swell enough to toss us about, and to produce bright flashes of light far out at sea. The red-shirted rowers silently bent to their long sweeps; and I lay in the tossing bow, and studied the high, receding shore. The picture is simple, a precipice of rock or earth, faced with masonry in spots, almost of uniform height from point to point of the little bay, except where a deep gorge has split the rock, and comes to the sea, forming a cove, where a cluster of rude buildings is likely to gather. Along the precipice, which now juts and now recedes a little, are villas, hotels, old convents, gardens, and groves. I can see steps and galleries cut in the face of the cliff, and caves and caverns, natural and artificial: for one can cut this tufa with a knife; and it would hardly seem preposterous to attempt to dig out a cool, roomy mansion in this rocky front with a spade.

As we pull away, I begin to see the depth of the plain of Sorrento, with its villages, walled roads, its groves of oranges, olives, lemons, its figs, pomegranates, almonds, mulberries, and acacias; and soon the terraces above, where the vineyards are planted, and the olives also. These terraces must be a brave sight in the spring, when the masses of olives are white as snow with blossoms, which fill all the plain with their sweet perfume. Above the terraces, the eye reaches the fine outline of the hill; and, to the east, the bare precipice of rock, softened by the purple light; and turning still to the left, as the boat lazily swings, I have Vesuvius, the graceful dip into the plain, and the rise to the heights of Naples, Nisida, the shining houses of Pozzuoli, Cape Misenum, Procida, and rough Ischia. Rounding the headland, Capri is before us, so sharp and clear that we seem close to it; but it is a weary pull before we get under its rocky side.

Returning from Capri late in the afternoon, we had one of those effects which are the despair of artists. I had been told that twilights are short here, and that, when the sun disappeared, color vanished from the sky. There was a wonderful light on all the inner bay, as we put off from shore. Ischia was one mass of violet color, As we got from under the island, there was the sun, a red ball of fire, just dipping into the sea. At once the whole horizon line of water became a bright crimson, which deepened as evening advanced, glowing with more intense fire, and holding a broad band of what seemed solid color for more than three quarters of an hour. The colors, meantime, on the level water, never were on painter's palette, and never were counterfeited by the changeable silks of eastern looms; and this gorgeous spectacle continued till the stars came out, crowding the sky with silver points.

Our boatmen, who had been reinforced at Capri, and were inspired either by the wine of the island or the beauty of the night, pulled with new vigor, and broke out again and again into the wild songs of this coast. A favorite was the Garibaldi song, which invariably ended in a cheer and a tiger, and threw the singers into such a spurt of excitement that the oars forgot to keep time, and there was more splash than speed. The singers all sang one part in minor: there was no harmony, the voices were not rich, and the melody was not remarkable; but there was, after all, a wild pathos in it. Music is very much here what it is in Naples. I have to keep saying to myself that Italy is a land of song; else I should think that people mistake noise for music.

The boatmen are an honest set of fellows, as Italians go; and, let us hope, not unworthy followers of their patron, St. Antonino, whose chapel is on the edge of the gorge near the Villa Nardi. A silver image of the saint, half life-size, stands upon the rich marble altar. This valuable statue has been, if tradition is correct, five times captured and carried away by marauders, who have at different times sacked Sorrento of its marbles, bronzes, and precious things, and each time, by some mysterious providence, has found its way back again,--an instance of constancy in a solid silver image which is worthy of commendation. The little chapel is hung all about with votive offerings in wax of arms, legs, heads, hands, effigies, and with coarse lithographs, in frames, of storms at sea and perils of ships, hung up by sailors who, having escaped the dangers of the deep, offer these tributes to their dear saint. The skirts of the image are worn quite smooth with kissing. Underneath it, at the back of the altar, an oil light is always burning; and below repose the bones of the holy man.


The whole shore is fascinating to one in an idle mood, and is good mousing-ground for the antiquarian. For myself, I am content with one generalization, which I find saves a world of bother and perplexity: it is quite safe to style every excavation, cavern, circular wall, or arch by the sea, a Roman bath. It is the final resort of the antiquarians. This theory has kept me from entering the discussion, whether the substructions in the cliff under the Poggio Syracuse, a royal villa, are temples of the Sirens, or caves of Ulysses. I only know that I descend to the sea there by broad interior flights of steps, which lead through galleries and corridors, and high, vaulted passages, whence extend apartments and caves far reaching into the solid rock. At intervals are landings, where arched windows are cut out to the sea, with stone seats and protecting walls. At the base of the cliff I find a hewn passage, as if there had once been here a way of embarkation; and enormous fragments of rocks, with steps cut in them, which have fallen from above.

Were these anything more than royal pleasure galleries, where one could sit in coolness in the heat of summer and look on the bay and its shipping, in the days when the great Roman fleet used to lie opposite, above the point of Misenum? How many brave and gay retinues have swept down these broad interior stairways, let us say in the picturesque Middle Ages, to embark on voyages of pleasure or warlike forays! The steps are well worn, and must have been trodden for ages, by nobles and robbers, peasants and sailors, priests of more than one religion, and traders of many seas, who have gone, and left no record. The sun was slanting his last rays into the corridors as I musingly looked down from one of the arched openings, quite spellbound by the strangeness and dead silence of the place, broken only by the plash of waves on the sandy beach below. I had found my way down through a wooden door half ajar; and I thought of the possibility of some one's shutting it for the night, and leaving me a prisoner to await the spectres which I have no doubt throng here when it grows dark. Hastening up out of these chambers of the past, I escaped into the upper air, and walked rapidly home through the narrow orange lanes.

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