It was bad enough to hear descriptions of it from a man who had repeatedly visited the region, and explored it thoroughly. Yet, to confirm his statements, I quote from a report made on this subject by Signor Adolf Rossi, of the Roman “Tribuna,” who with a member of the Italian Parliament made, a few years ago, a visit to one of these mines employing thirteen hundred laborers.
“We began the descent, stooping over and holding with our hands to the vaulted roof. The steps, dug in the soil, are very irregular, sometimes low, sometimes high, now worn away, now dry and dusty, sometimes wet and slippery. We had gone a few yards when we distinguished a faint light. It came from the lamps of a few carusi who were coming up, bending under their loads of sulphur. Then we heard their sighs of anguish, growing more distinct as they drew nearer to us, – the sighs of young children scarcely able to go forward, yet obliged to stagger on for fear that the miner should come to beat them with his stick, or burn their legs with his lamp. De Felice and I felt our hearts bursting, as we stepped to one side to let this procession of pariahs pass. As we saw them, bent under their burdens, trembling on their unsteady legs, pity so seized on us that we ourselves wept like two children.
We stopped some of them, and saw for ourselves that they had the skin of their shoulders and spines all the way down the back either red and raw, or callous where it had been abraded; and there were many scars and bruises. Farther on, in a gallery where the steps were higher and more difficult, we came on another procession of these carusi, bending under their terrible loads, which are from sixty to one hundred and fifty pounds; enough, one would think, to kill a child by exhaustion. I heard one say, weeping, to a companion, ‘I can go on no more; I must let the sack fall.’ At a third turn there was another, with his burden on the ground. He wept as he crouched beside it. He had fair hair and blue eyes; but the eyes were reddened with weeping, and the tears fell over pale, hollow cheeks. In my career as a journalist I have seen men shot, hanged, lynched, and massacred; I have seen horrors of every kind and deaths in every way; but I have seen nothing which affected me like this.”
In the city of Girgenti, but a few miles from these sulphur mines, a young man of refined appearance, gentle manners, and appealing eyes begged me to take him with me, and to let him work for me in even the most menial capacity. For this he asked no wages whatsoever, but said that he would be both grateful and contented to have sufficient food, some clothing, and a decent home. In answer to inquiries, he told me, quite as a matter of course and as a thing too common to be mentioned with surprise, that many people in the neighborhood annually die of hunger. The character and limits of this sketch of Sicily do not permit me to dwell further on this painful subject, or to discuss at length the problem of such awful poverty. But since it positively is not due to drunkenness, or even to idleness, the blame must lie far more with the Government than with the governed. The principal causes seem to be the absentee-ownership of large estates, which are in consequence worked by heartless middlemen; and the oppressive taxes levied by a nation more ambitious to have fleets and armies and to play the r61e of one of the leading European Powers, than to protect her citizens from hunger, wretchedness, and the necessity of emigration. Under such circumstances can we wonder at the growth of socialism, or that the truest friends of Italy are begging her to make some changes in the social status of her people?
Vender Of Snails.
The Age Of Poverty, And The Poverty Of Age.
Hard Times In Girgenti.
Crier Of Delinquent Tax Sales.
Wilt thou, Italia, spurn their prayers with scorn? Snatch the last morsel from thy serfs’ white lips, Ravish for murderous strife their eldest born, And squander millions on thy useless ships?
Make thine ill-paid officials banded knaves, Drive thy starved sons by thousands from thy shore, Send them to rot in Abyssinian graves, And hide the cancer festering at thy core?
Yet none the less shalt thou most dearly pay For playing thus the war-lord’s pompous part, When thou shalt feel, at no far-distant day, The people’s dagger driven through thy heart.
America And Sicily.
Notwithstanding the appalling misery of the Yellow Country, no part of Sicily was to me so interesting and impressive as the site of that illustrious city of antiquity, called by the Greeks Acragas, by the Romans Agrigentum, and by its present citizens Girgenti. This, like Selinus, its contemporary and rival, lies on the island’s southern shore, and in full view of that majestic portion of the Mediterranean, called the Mare Africano. It was undoubtedly one of the most splendid cities of the ancient world. Pindar, the greatest of Greek lyric poets, sang of it as the loveliest of them all; and the most famous man whom it produced – the poet and philosopher, Empedo-cles – said of his fellow-citizens that they built as if they were to live forever, yet gave themselves to pleasure, as if they were to die upon the morrow. Gaining colossal fortunes by their trade in oil, corn, and wine with Carthage, only eighty miles away, the merchants of Acragas showed a luxury and splendor which became proverbial. Before the house of the millionaire, Gellias, for example, slaves stood continually to invite all passing strangers to refresh themselves beneath his roof; and five hundred horsemen are said to have been received and lodged by him at one time. Within his cellars also were three hundred reservoirs of wine, hewn in the solid rock, each of which held about nine hundred gallons.
Yet Gellias was only one of many such luxurious and hospitable plutocrats in Acragas. Some of them built elaborate monuments to horses which had won for them distinguished races. Others erected tombs for household pets. When one of the city’s athletes returned vietorious from the Olympian games, three hundred chariots went out to welcome him, each drawn by snow-white horses. Moreover, some of the finest paintings and statues in the world were gathered in the temples and private dwellings of Acragas, among them being the famous painting of Venus, – the masterpiece of Zeuxis, who chose the five most beautiful maidens of the city for his models, and showed, as a result, a marvelous combination of their points of loveliness. In the gymnasiums of Acragas even the strigils were of gold, as were the jars containing oil for lubrication.
Yet this renowned metropolis had even a shorter period of prosperity than Selinus; for in less than two centuries after its foundation, the Carthaginians captured and destroyed it, in 406 B.C., sending its works of art to Africa, and carrying off twenty-five thousand of its citizens to slavery. This really sealed its fate; for, though it subsequently played a minor role, as Agrigentum, under the Romans, it suffered cruel outrages at every new invasion of its tempting territory, and never could regain its ancient glory.
The Modern Girgenti.
Ancient Sarcophagus, Found At Girgenti.
The modern town, Girgenti, perched on the summit of a cliff twelve hundred feet above the sea, was formerly the acropolis of Acragas; but the old city of the Greeks extended also over the adjoining slopes, and held within its walls, ten miles in circuit, those famous temples, whose remaining shafts and prostrate blocks alike bear witness “To the glory that was Greece And the grandeur that was Rome”.
It is hardly worth while entering modern Girgenti, for it possesses nothing of its ancient splendor. Its steep and ill-paved streets, lined frequently with narrow dwellings cut irregularly in the rock, have an unwholesome look and smell; and its cathedral, famous only for acoustic properties which make of it a sort of whispering gallery, seems out of keeping with the dominating genius of the place – the spirit of antiquity. In other words, the interest of the traveler centres here upon a broad, high bluff, some two miles distant from the town, where not a modern habitation now exists, save one well-kept hotel, and where the ghosts of vanished greatness haunt the historic slopes, still dominated by the pale gray olive of Minerva.
Here, overlooking the blue sea, where once the galleys of the Caesars rode at anchor, stand in pathetic solitude the relics of five Doric temples, unique to-day among the ruins of the world. Their situation is enchanting, and forms an illustration of the perfect art with which the Greeks united architectural beauty with a natural background of impressive loveliness. They are: in various stages of decay. The Temple of Concordia, for example, supports its weight of five and twenty centuries so lightly, that it suggests the Parthenon, and at a little distance one could almost fancy that a line of white-robed worshipers might step at any moment from its stately portico.
The Temple of Hercules, on the contrary, consists now only of one solitary column, rising in grandeur from the verge of a steep cliff, while all its former comrades have been scattered here and there, like mutilated pages from a volume, sacred to the gods. In this, originally noble edifice, was hung another celebrated work of Zeuxis, for which the artist had refused all payment, considering it as priceless, and which he therefore gave gratuitously to the city. Here also stood the grand bronze statue of Hercules, which the corrupt proconsul, Verres, tried to steal, with the result of being subsequently held up to the scorn and execration of mankind by Cicero. Of the superbly situated Temple of Juno no less than sixteen columns are still standing, although both they and their less fortunate companions were erected here before the year which saw the immortal exhibition of Greek valor on the plain of Marathon.
The Fates Of Sicily.
Hotel Des Temples, Near Girgenti.
Temple Of Concordia, Girgenti.
Interior Of The Temple Of Concordia.
Grandest of all these architectural triumphs of Acragas was, however, the Temple of Jupiter – the largest Grecian sanctuary in the world, except Diana’s splendid fane at Ephesus. We do not usually associate Grecian shrines with magnitude; but here at least are the ruins of a building, whose length was three hundred and sixty-three feet, and the height of whose nave exceeded that of St. Paul’s in London by eighteen feet. Moreover, some of the huge blocks weigh twenty tons, and into any of their flut-ings – as Diodorus certified more than two thousand years ago – a man can place himself with ease. Among the wreckage of this temple lies a monster figure, broken into thirteen pieces. In 1401 this was still standing with two comrades; but all of them were then pulled down, and in the subsequent century, the other two, together with innumerable other fragments, were carried off to build a pier in the neighboring harbor of Girgenti.
Temple Of Juno, Girgenti.
A charming feature of these temples is the fact that they are made of yellow sandstone. Hence, at a little distance and in certain lights, their columns have a look of tawny gold. No photographic illustration, therefore, gives the least idea of the delightful coloring of these structures, whose stony masses, in the spring, rise, golden-hued, from the florescent fields. They teach us the inestimable lesson that it is only soul and character that really are of value, and abide. They have no glittering marbles or mosaics to appeal to us, yet their sublime proportions even in their bare, rough nakedness evoke, in hearts that feel and brains that think, a lofty reverence for the past. The bindings of these beautiful stone poems have been rudely torn away, but the immortal poetry still remains. Seated among their time-worn shafts, one thinks with sadness on the slow and intermittent progress of humanity. Instead of one, unwavering advance along the entire line, the onward movement is irregular, relative, and local.
Interior Of The Temple Of Juno.
The course of human history reveals one country after another reaching an outpost in the march of civilization, far ahead of its contemporaries, but failing, after some decades or centuries, to hold the position thus acquired, and frequently relapsing into semi-barbarism.
Temple Of Jupiter, Girgenti.
To make the circuit of the Mediterranean along the coasts of Asia Minor, Palestine, and Egypt, the Grecian Archipelago, the shores of Attica and Italy, the plain of Carthage, and the ill-fated island of Trinacria, is but to pass from one place to another where mighty nations have, in turn, attained the zenith of their splendor, only to sink ingloriously back into the twilight of degeneracy or the night of national annihilation. Thus if each age, at some points on our planet, has its own preeminent achievements and successes, it has at other points its retrogressions and defeats. At present we are proud of our astonishing inventions for the rapid manufacture of commodities, and the swift transportation of our thoughts, our bodies, and our merchandise from one part to another of our globe. Indeed, while engaged in writing these lines, the news has just been given me that a telegraphic signal sent from Washington has made the circuit of our earth in seven seconds, its course being meantime indicated on an enormous map by the successive lighting of electric lamps!
But, is the net result of this and many other instances of wonderful rapidity of movement a really higher type of character and a more refined mentality? In architecture, sculpture, painting, history, forensic eloquence, ethics, poetry, and the drama, is this, our twentieth century of the Christian era, superior in masterful achievements to those which marked the age of Athens and Acragas? Have we a single modern building in the Occident which, like the temple at Segesta, will outlive two thousand years, or, if it does, will then elicit admiration ? Where do we find to-day in their respective spheres the equals of Praxiteles, Phidias, Socrates, Demosthenes, Thucydides, Homer, Plato, Euripides, and Æschylus ? What code of morals is nobler than that of Marcus Aurelius? What character in history surpasses in perfection that of Antoninus Pius? Such thoughts occur to one with indescribable intensity on such a memorable site as this of old Acragas.
The Prostrate Giant In The Temple Of Jupiter.
Temple Of Castor And Pollux, Girgenti.
How many worshipers have pressed these sacred steps with feet long since transformed not merely into dust, but possibly by this time into the very flow-ers, which now with every passing breeze exhale their perfume toward these empty halls! How many rulers, dynasties, and races have Girgen-ti’s temples seen pass brilliantly before them on this sunlit cliff, and fade away ! Yet Nature still remains the same as when the Greeks adored her manifold phenomena. Demeter, it is true, no longer haunts her hallowed home; Jove, Hercules, and Juno are no more; and their magnificent abodes are now but empty shells. But Spring, – the enchanting Spring of Sicily, – whose praises the Sicilian bard, Theocritus, sang more than twenty centuries ago, returns to-day with the same youth and beauty it has always worn. Day after day the sun still smiles upon these broken columns; night after night the moon in silvery silence steals along these lonely corridors, and softens their austerity; and over their deserted altars rise and set against the background of eternity the faithful stars. I never shall forget the last sweet moments of seclusion at Girgenti, when, lingering among its stately proteges of Time, I gazed in calm, delicious reverie through their steadfast arches toward the sapphire sea. It was the time of sunset – .the hour of poetry and romantic sentiment.
Across the purpling plateau the Angelus came stealing toward the radiant temples, calling the followers of the faith which has succeeded that of Greece and Rome to join in uttering that touching prayer which signals the declining sun around the world, and marks the solemn closing of the day. Below me lay the tranquil sea, sweeping in opalescent splendor from this legend-land of Grecian gods toward the mysterious continent, on whose unseen shore Gir-genti’s ancient enemy, Carthage, now lies buried in a shroud of sand. The marvelous beauty and impressiveness of my surroundings hushed my voice and filled my eyes with tears; for the enchanting landscape and its ruined temples together formed the pure quintessence of the two great charms of Sicily, – the smile of Nature and the culture of the Greeks, – that is to say, the two best things that God and man have given to the world.