Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Nomads of the Campagna




We are toiling to civilise the barbarians of the far-off islands,—let us not forget the barbarians outside the Porta Pia.” Thus spoke a Roman Cardinal, one day in my hearing, to some persons whom he desired to encourage in a work undertaken by them for the benefit of the rural population of the Campagna. “The barbarians outside the Porta Pia!” thought I, in surprise. Has time retreated some cycles, and are Attila’s hordes once more at the gates of Rome? The whole world was once either Roman or barbarian; has the Roman world so shrunk up that it can fit within the compass of the seven-hilled city? When did the pomœrium become the limit of civilisation? Rome once held the sovereignty “Urbis et Orbis;” has the “Orbis” lapsed into savagery, leaving the walls of the “Urbs” to do battle with its wild men?

My occupation soon afterwards placed me in a condition to see these barbarians and to know them. What my personal contact with them has taught me concerning them, their manners and their customs, I will now lay before the reader.

Every one who is acquainted with the environs of Rome, and especially if he enters the Eternal City from Viterbo, necessarily preserves for some time an unpleasant recollection of the pastures of the Campagna. Spreading around in a circuit of many miles, they encircle the old walls with a zone of green. This zone bursts here and there into irregular mounds, which in places almost rise up into the dignity of hills. It looks like an angry sea, tossed and beaten by a storm into shapeless waves, and then suddenly, with all its fantastic heavings, turned into earth and carpeted with green sward. It was in a little valley opening out between two of these hills that, for the first time, I met with one of the barbarians to whom I have alluded. I had left the road, with its stones and dust, and found reason to congratulate myself on the change. The hard blocks of basalt that formed its pavement were far less agreeable than the springing grass; and the delicious perfume of the wild mint which I crushed as I walked, made me soon forget the blinding dust from which I had suffered so much. Turning short round the spur of the mount, I suddenly found myself transfixed by a pair of sharp, keen, glittering eyes. I knew, of course, that I was face to face with their owner, but the eyes searched me as it were of themselves, in such a penetrating, cold-blooded way, that for a moment I never thought of him to whom they belonged. When I did examine him, with a rapid flash of reflection that we were alone in the midst of a solitude, I was a little startled and alarmed. He stood erect or slightly bent, with his arms crossed upon his breast, and resting on a forked stick, one end of which was driven a few inches into the turf. He wore the conical hat usually worn by the Italian peasants, from under which fell his long hair, casting shadows on his neck and shoulders. His limbs were protected by a highly complicated invention. The leg and foot were first swathed in linen, which did duty for stockings, and then the foot was laid upon a sole of thick undressed leather, to the corners of which were attached long slender thongs of the same material. The thongs were then brought round the foot and leg, crossing and interlacing each other in a rude sort of network, until they were at length made fast at the knee. Coarse breeches and a sheep-skin coat, over which, bugle-fashion, hung a gourd for holding water, completed his attire. The coat, however, was not made in accordance with the rules laid down for such garments in the old song. The fleshy side of the sheepskin was in, not out, and the woolly side was out, not in. A flock of sheep close at hand, watched by a dog, told me that I had before me one of the Pecoraj, or shepherds of the Campagna. Curious to learn what kind of life was led by this class of men, so completely shut out from the world, I visited them more than once. That life I found to be quiet, tranquil, simple, and not unhappy. They are certainly not such shepherds as appear from plays to have lived in Arcadia, and I found but few among them who could claim a likeness to Corydon or to Alexis. But plain, homely, practical virtues I did find among them; and qualities for which I had never given them credit. I do not pretend to give here a complete sketch of their character and manners. I aim only at a faithful account of my own experience among them.

When October has come round, and the grapes and olives have been gathered in, there is a general stir in the hamlets on the mountains of the Abruzzi and the Neapolitan highlands. The fierce heat is now over, and the poisonous malaria of the plains is yielding to the fresh autumn breezes. It is time to bring the flocks to the valleys and low-lying pastures, where they may roam undisturbed until the month of May drives them back to the hills. The note of preparation is sounded among the shepherd families, and after a few days of preparation all is made ready for the journey. It cannot, however, be said that they leave their household gods behind them, for the simple reason that they carry their household along with them. First in the procession come the sheep, for whose benefit the entire march has been undertaken, guarded by dogs, whose names “Fidele,” “Pecorone,” and such like, sufficiently indicate their qualities and functions. Then the men, each after his own charge. The women and children, laden with the utensils and little necessary domestic property, bring up the rear. We may be certain that they have classed under the latter head of necessary articles, huge necklaces, each bead of which is as large as a pigeon’s egg, heavy pendants for the ears, and flaming red and green gowns, to make a brave show on Sundays and festivals. In this order they leave the sloping streets of the village, and wind along the mountain roads, now hidden in a chestnut forest, now emerging from its shady depths, now resting near some rustic chapel, where the women arrange the wild flowers they have gathered on the way. At length they arrive at the appointed pastures; the sheep are turned out, and in a short time the whole plain is dotted with their white fleeces. The shepherds then put up their huts; some building in solitary places, others sociably near each other. Thus settled for the season, they move about in search of new pastures when the wants of the flocks render such a step necessary. For a circuit of about six miles round Rome, the vast expanse of meadow is inhabited for six or eight months of the year by this nomadic population.

The man with whom I had fallen in belonged to a numerous community, composed for the most part of Neapolitans from a district in the Abruzzi Ulteriori, north of the town of Rieti, and not far east of Terni. About two hundred of his comrades were employed in the pasturages near the place where we stood. A simple organisation rendered the government of this large body of men a very easy task. They were divided into four sets, each set consisting of fifty men, and commanded by a corporal called by way of distinction “il padrone,” the master.

Although nomadic in every sense of the word, this shepherd community was almost entirely free from the dissolving influences such a life is naturally prone to create. They brought with them from their mountains not only the spirit and traditions of hamlet life, but also that life itself. Each household remaining entirely, or almost entirely, the same in its members as when under its roof-tree, preserved towards its neighbours the same relations that bound them when at home together. It was a village without the cottages; it was rustic life without the cultivation of land. The poet who would write for them, should sing to them both Bucolics and Georgics; the former for their wanderings in the plains, the latter for the season of their abode on the hills. They might be taken for a small Jewish community of old, what time each seventh year brought rest from the labours of the fields, and blunted the edge of the pruner’s knife. Yet, in them no traces were visible of that thorough idleness which we have been taught to believe natural to the Italian peasant. Bravely and unrepiningly did they endure much hardship while tending their herds. A simple occurrence served to make me acquainted with the manner in which, after the day’s work, they spent the evening hours. One day as I conversed with one of the youths of the party, he happened to. let fall close to my feet a few small books. Surprised not a little at the love of reading to which the books bore witness, and wondering that he was even able to read at all, I inquired what they were. “Only some nonsense,” was the reply. They were a collection of ballads of adventure, such as still delight the Trasteverini in the popular drama of “Meo Patacca.” He had learned to read from one of his fellow shepherds, who in his younger days had attended a school specially founded for boys of his station. The education thus received was liberally bestowed by him in turn on his companions. Every evening at sunset, surrounded by a group of boys, this excellent man held a reading school. Never was the task of teaching more generously undertaken; never did scholars apply with more ardour to learn. Nor was this the only school. At the same hour the fathers of families gathered their little ones around them, and with touching and tender solicitude spent hours in teaching them to pray and to recite the catechism. What a picture! the sunset spreading over sky and prairie-like pasture

Hues that have words, and speak to you of heaven,

and bathing in light the poor huts with their rustic groups; the young busied in learning to read, the old bending lovingly over their little ones, whose infant lips lisped after them a prayer to their Father above!

Among the children thus trained I noticed one chubby, large-headed fellow, whose very history was a practical commentary on the moral teaching imparted. He had been left an orphan some years before, but had found a father and a mother in every household in the community. He was at home with all, and although he was attached to one family in a particular manner, he was nevertheless equally the favourite of the rest. If the bread of strangers can ever be eaten without that bitterness which the great Italian poet has ascribed to it, surely love had sweetened its salt for the shepherd orphan-boy.

Their notions of geography were very limited indeed. Of course, being Neapolitans, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, or, as they styled it, “the Kingdom,” was in their minds the central point of the system of the universe. The doctrine concerning the countries of the earth that seemed to prevail held, that the entire world is a reproduction on a grand scale of the pasture lands in which they themselves lived. The world was but a more extensive Campagna, the different countries were but larger farms, belonging to a proprietor who wore a crown, and was called Emperor or King.

As one farm bordered another, so did one realm touch its neighbour, like so many pieces of variegated cloth in a patchwork quilt. Nor were they by any means clear in their views as to the order in which the various countries came. This one thing, however, they knew full well, that in all the world there was nothing to equal Rome.

It would be an unprofitable task to endeavour to trace in the shepherds of Virgil’s Eclogues the types of those shepherds whom I have been describing. Fearful of giving offence to the fastidious, the rules of art vigorously exclude from pastoral poetry many details which occur every day in pastoral life. But even when allowance is made for the enormous difference between the ideal and the real, in every case, the Italian pastoral life as described by the great Roman poet is marvellously unlike what we find near Rome in our own day.

With regard to it, the whole cast of imagery which he employs is completely out of place. No modern shepherd would dream of doing the things his predecessors did, or of using the language they used. Who, in a spot where a tree is hardly to be seen, would speak of Tityrus as reclining under the shade of a spreading beech? Which of them would plant pear-trees and vines where all vegetatation droops? And it is quite impossible that any one of them could think of seeking the cool shade by the side of the sacred fountains, in the hope of being lulled to sleep by the buzzing of Hyblœan bees. But if we turn from the verses where the smooth speeches of Melibœus and the railleries of Menalcas are embalmed, we shall find striking points of resemblance between our modern nomads and the nomad shepherds of Africa described in the third Georgic, 339—345.

Why should my muse enlarge on Libyan swains,
Their scatter’d cottages, and ample plains,
Where oft the flocks without a leader stray,
Or through continued deserts take their way,
And, feeding, add the length of night to day?
Whole months they wander, grazing as they go;
Nor folds nor hospitable harbour know;
Such an extent of plains, so vast a space
Of wilds unknown, and of untasted grass,
Allures their eyes: the shepherd last appears,
And with him all his patrimony bears,
His house, and household gods, his trade of war,
His bow and quiver, and his trusty cur.—Dryden.

Well is it for humanity that instead of bow and quiver and the trade of war, the men of our time bear with them the tenderness of home ties, the culture of education, and the law of charity.