Selected Writings of William Sharp, Vol. IV., Travel Sketches

THROUGH NELSON'S DUCHY

1903

THE great Sicilian estates of the Duchy of Bronte, which came to Lord Nelson along with the title of Duke just a hundred and four years ago, have a capital. This capital is not the mountain-town which gives the title, but the ancient castle of Maniace, standing in the hollow of a vast mountain-surrounded plateau, covered with the immemorial lavas of Etna, and watered by the SimÍto, the classic Symaithos. To write the history of the Castello di Maniace would be to undertake an arduous volume. Nine hundred years ago part of these timeworn walls leaned over Symaithos' greygreen rushing flood, and in the intervening ages they have seen much. To-day, the present Duke of Bronte--in the English peerage, Viscount Bridport, Nelson's representative through the female line--owns these wide lands which Nelson won through a King's gratitude. Here Moor and Norman have ruled; here the Norse Vikings under Harold Hardradr, afterwards King of Norway, helped to defeat a Saracen host, and the Greek general Maniaces (from whom, the castle derives its name) made his sword a terror to the Paynim. Here pilgrims from afar came to venerate St. Luke's legendary painting of the Madonna--now replaced on the high altar of the beautiful Norman chapel at Maniace. Here, ages before, came and went the Roman armies, or, before these, the swift soldiery of Carthage, or the wandering legions of Hellas or Magna Grścia--or Greek travellers to the inland sanctuaries of Kentoripa (Centuripa, now CentÚrbi) or sacred Enna (now Castrogiovanni--locally and more correctly Castr'janni--from the Arabic Kasr-Yani, itself a corruption of Enna, the citadel of Enna); or Greek traders to the chain of Hellenic ∆tnean towns, from Tissa--of whose very existence we know only from a chance allusion in Cicero--to Hadranon or Hadranum, with its Fane of Hadranos guarded by a thousand hounds, and to Hybla Minor, ancient Sikelian strongholds before they became Grśco-Sicilian settlements, and now, as since the Middle Ages, known as the towns of Aderno and Paterno.

One of the great landowners of England boasts that he has possessions which were once in the fee of Harold, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings. What is that to the boast of a Duke of Bronte, who can say that Theocritus may have wandered thus far up the Symaithos; that down from yonder hills came Demeter looking for her daughter Persephone; that, according to a local legend Persephone herself disappeared in the high shallow lake between Maniace and Randazzo; and that Empedocles climbed this stupendous northern flank of Etna which towers over the region of inland Sicily with vast and menacing supremacy?

As a guest at the hospitable castle of Maniace, I have thrice visited these Sicilian highlands, and on two of these visits my stay was one of several weeks: and, again as these visits have been in autumn and winter and spring, I may claim to have some knowledge of that wonderful region in all its aspects save those of the blazing summer, when the encircling mountains are as the slopes of a brazen furnace, and along the whole vast serpentine strath, from the piana of Maletto to the Gates of the SimÍto, the malaria broods or stealthily climbs, more deadly than any dragon of ancient mythology.

And now, as I write here, I find myself listening to three persistent sounds which reach me through the open window: though it is so still in the gardens below that I can hear the continuous indeterminate murmur of the bees in the dense borders of the large and fragrant Sicilian amaryllides, so still that the floating fumes of roses and violets, of heliotrope and the long clustered spires of medlar and lemoncina, rise undrifted by the least eddy of air, an invisible smoke of sweet odours. The most compelling of these sounds is also the nearest. It is the monotonous rush of swift water over a stony bed--sometimes broken and multitudinous, sometimes fluent and swift as a mill-race. This is the SimÍto . . . that Symaithos so loved of the poets, and by whose goat-pastures, in the sunny regions south of the bat. haunted gorges a few miles below Maniace, many a Sicilian idyl has been lived as well as made and sung since Theocritus composed his musical Dirge on Daphnis, or wedded to poignant and unforgettable words the love-broken heart of poor Simśtha.

The second sound is the sighing of the far-off wind among the mountain-forests of the Serraspina and Serra del Re, the vast woods of the Duchy, which swell over crests of four and six thousand fee ; or among the chestnuts and last olives in the hill and valley of the torrent of the Saracens, or the dwarfed oaks and tortured ilexes on precipitous and freaked RapÓtť--a mountain rising to the west of the Bronte vinelands, with a general contour and serrated crest which would at once recall to any Scot of the west country the fantastic summit of Ben Arthur in Argyll ("The Cobbler").

The third sound is not so easy to describe. It is the refrain, vibrating a long way on the stilled air, of a chant of the vintagers, a mile or more down the SimÍto course, beyond the Boschetto with its droves of black pigs and gaunt sheep, where the immense Bronte vineyards flourish under the continual hawk-like vigil of Monsieur Fabre, the ProvenÁal overlord of these wild Sicilian mountaineers, who gain their living by these multitudinous little stunted plants. It is impossible at this distance to say what this wailing, musically-monotonous chant is. Perhaps it is one of these Sicilian hymns of la Madunnuzza, with swelling chorus of

Santa Matri, Santa Matri! . . .
GuardArti all' omu di la campia;

or,

Cu la paci di Ddi'! viva Maria!. . .
Lu Patr' Aternu sempri arringrazziammu!
*

or one of those characteristic folk-songs, as of the poor peasant who, when he finds things going from bad to worse, prays to Sant' Erasmo in his rude, stammering Sicilian,

Aiu un franciullo, e un bbardužnu sulu,
Lassŗtimi lu sceccu, ca mi campa,
E piggiativž 'scanciu lu figgiýlu,
Ca ppi tri ggiorna v'addumu 'na lampa.

[I have a child, and only, now, this little ass: leave me, then, the beast that wins me my day's bread, and take in exchange my little son, and I vow that for three days a lamp shall burn at thy shrine !]

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* These couplets of invocation to the Virgin and of blessing on the Eternal Father are, I may add, far more legible than Sicilian generally is. Here, for example, are the first four lines of one of the popular sonnets of Alessio Di Giovanni (A Lu Passu di Giurgenti), which I may leave to readers who know Italian to puzzle out!:

Jira u mmiaggiu agghiiri a Bbillafranca
' N zžmmula cu 'n cumpagnu scappuccinu . .
Ca ddŗ vidIatu sulu irvazza bbianca
E rruvetta, e unni cc'era lu caminu,

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But more likely the wild cadence, that already has ceased, or floated away from here , on some breath of wind, is that extraordinary chant of benediction which these Sicilian highlanders, suddenly throwing down their spades or other implements and raising their arms, cry out in honour of the Duchino* whenever he happens to appear among them, either with M. Fabre, or by himself, lines that in effect run,

O holy and Blessed Mary,
Our Lady and Protectress in Heaven,
Bless the hand, bless the hand, bless the hand
That gives us food!

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*
The Duchino . . . the young Duke--i.e. the Honble. Alex. Nelson Hood di Bronte, the son of Viscount Bridport, Duca di Bronte, who has given the best years of his life to the administration of the Duchy, and to whom so much of its prosperity is due.
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Down in the Sahara, and among the wild gorges of the Atlas, I have heard the Arab or Berber muleteer wailing a chant somewhat similar in sound, but in no European land have I heard anything more strange, barbaric, indescribably alien and remote.

If I rise and go to the window, to the right I look out beyond the near gardens and the great columnar poplars, beneath which winds the noisy SimÍto, splashing along its rock and boulder-strewn sinuous course, with, beyond, the fantastic peaks of RapÓti, and, northward, those "long ridges of the hills" of which Theocritus speaks in the eighth idyl. Or, better, I can go from my room into the great central corridor of Maniace (a museum of beautiful and interesting things, from lovely jars, antique Greek sculptures, rare Grścco-Sicilian casts, and a veritable Nelson museum of articles of all kinds besides every engraving, coloured print, and the like, associated with the great admiral) and from the balcony at this north end, overhanging the rushing grey-green flood (sometimes a thin swift stream, sometimes a raging torrent), look beyond the castellated walls on to the lonely hill-pastures, and see a Daphnis of to-day "following his kine," and a Menalcas of to-day "shepherding his flock"--and one at any rate will have "a pipe with nine stops, fitted with white wax, and smoothed evenly." And among the almonds yonder, round the first steading beyond the water-course, "the birds that cry beautifully among the thick leaves" may, if it be spring, be heard now, as in the days of Moschus' lament for Bion; or the cry of the quail or omnipresent magpie may be heard from the lentisk bushes, then as now "a plant of this land," as Theocritus wrote in his idyl of Pentheus, though then he had the Theban groves in his mind rather than these Sicilian highlands.

Or I may walk to the other end of the long corridor, and through the drawingroom and music-room to the dark oak-wainscoted breakfast-room, and lean from Etna one of its windows and look at towering close by: may look on some such scene as limned in Empedocles on Etna :

The track winds down to the clear stream,
To cross the sparkling shallow: there
The cattle love to gather, on their way
To the high mountain-pastures, and to stay,
Till the rough cow-herds drive them past,
Knee-deep in the cool ford; for 'tis the last
Of all the woody, high, well-watered dells
on Etna . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .glade,
And stream, and sward, and chestnut trees,
End here; Etna beyond, in the broad glare
Of the hot moon, without a shade,
Slope behind slope, up to the peak, lies bare
The peak, round which the white clouds play.

Only, to-day, Etna is dazzling white in snow for the last four or five thousand of its eleven thousand feet, rising in a gradual, sweeping, majestic cone from the Syracusan shores and the Hyblśan Mount; and these nothern flanks are filled with violet shadow, and not a cloud is visible there or anywhere in the immensity of down-swimming azure--though from the four-mile-round cirque of the crater-summit rises a vast slowly spiral columnar mass of steam, which I am told is not, as I think, merely hundreds of feet in height, but, at the least, probably over two thousand.

The bell in the great courtyard clangs, and I know that it is time to start for the long drive to Bronte, where my host has one of his ever recurrent legal cases to attend to- -for in this still only half-civilised, Mafia-ridden, brigand-haunted country the people, individually, communally, and regionally, are extraordinarily combative both in aggression and in the defence of real and imaginary wrongs.

I have driven this upper mountain road many times, and yet every time the scenery is different, and the marvellous region seems never staled either in the fascination of its impressive physiognomy or in its compelling charm, at once more singular and more variegated (especially in spring or in the marvellous golden St. Martin's Sleep, "the time of the south-flying cranes than anywhere else even in Sicily.

There is an ancient chapel, which opens from the courtyard, just before the colonnade of the front exit. This church, dedicated to "the Mother of God" (but before the specific worship of the Virgin was ordained, not to "La Madre di Dio," but simply to "Santa Maria"), is not of as ancient foundation as the original building of what is now the Castello, though it dates back some seven centuries. The original fort and hamlet of Maniace date from about A.D. 1032, when the Greek general Maniaces-"First Sword-Bearer and Master of the Palace of Michael, Emperor of Constantinople," and by that imperial prince created Overlord of Sicily--gained his triumph over the Saracen host, on the slopes yonder on the north side of the SimÍto. To consecrate the town and commemorate the victory, there was sent from Byzantium the celebrated and much venerated painting of the Virgin by St. Luke the Apostle. The better to preserve this treasure, a Benedictine monastery was founded (now the Castello of to-day) in 1173 by Queen Margaret, widow of William the Bad, and it was she who dedicated the chapel to Santa Maria. It was the son of this Queen, William the Good, who raised that most superb triumph of sacred art in all Sicily, the splendid cathedral of Monreale above Palermo, and so, naturally, he placed the lesser under the jurisdiction of the greater. To this day the people on the Maniace lands believe that the treasure of Queen Margaret's jewels lies buried "an arrow's flight" from the Castello. Last spring, when a flood washed away part of the north bank of the SimÍto, near the vine-lands, and disclosed a series of ancient tombs, it was hoped the treasure- -or a treasure!--might be found. Alas! after days of exploration all we discovered was some skulls and bones which we could not tell to be Norman or Saracen or Greek or Sicilian (since adjudged earlier still, Sikelian), a number of very strong teeth, and one little gold earring!

The chapel is small and insignificant. The most interesting thing about it is the admirable fantastic carving on the capitals of the pillars which support the obtusely pointed arches of the fine old Norman portal. Inside it is bare, even for a Sicilian church: so bare that it has not even a "confessional"-- what serves that purpose being a small movable metal screen (like a potato-scraper) with half a yard of red cloth hanging down one side! During the time that the much revered painting by St. Luke--certainly in any case a most interesting and fine example of the earliest Byzantine art--had been removed to the Castello, the chief object of adoration for the hill peasants who assemble here for mass on Sunday mornings was the tomb of a famous Abbot of Maniace known to good Catholics as the Blessed William--not Saint William, for, alack! as I was informed, his friends are too poor to pay for his Sanctification! This Blessed William won fame by adventuring, alone and unarmed, among a band of Saracens (probably Arab corsairs from Tunis) who happened to be raiding the region, in order to convert them there and then. The heathen proved obdurate, and added insult to this injury by mockery. The holy Abbot forthwith seized a peasant's donkey that was among the spoil, "removed" one of its hind-legs, and with this Sicilian substitute for the Samsonian jawbone put to rout the heathen marauders. Having accomplished this heroic deed, he performed the much more surprising feat of replacing the leg on the unfortunate donkey. In his haste he put it on askew, so that the donkey was practically reduced thereafter to three legs; but what did that matter, compared with the living testimony of the miracle thus afforded? The Blessed William now lies at rest under the altar, and the Maniace peasants must comfort his soul, if he ever wakes, by the unswerving loyalty of their veneration.

There was another Abbot of Maniace, who might more truly be called infamous than famous. Down beyond the SimEto one of the vineyards is still called after him, the Vigneto Borgia. The ecclesiastic in question was Roger Borgia, who afterwards became the terrible Pope Alexander VI. When I first visited Maniace I hoped to find that a papal ghost haunted its ancient precincts, but though the Castello does boast a spectre it has nothing to do with the Borgias, being a kind of useless, unlegended creature, a sort of genius loci, somewhat eccentric in appearance and habit, but wholly unobtrusive and inoffensive.

It is only a portion, however, of the ancient convent and court which stands to-day, for a terrible earthquake some two hundred and ten years ago brought the older Maniace to a heap of ruins.

It is a lovely ascending drive along the fine road made by the "signori Inglese." To the left are the rocky but cultivated lava-lands, with a few sheep, donkeys, and wigwam-like huts to lift the scene to the semblance of inhabited country. Beyond, across the great valley, rise the mountain lands of the Serraspina, and, overtopping these, the vast beech-woods of the Serra del Re, one of the chief sources of revenue on the immense Bronte estates. In front, after a winding ascent, Etna again comes into view, majestic beyond all power of words to describe, solemn in snow-white beauty for the last two or three thousand feet, and sombre with purple shadow in the huge bulk of its northern flank. In the nearer and lower foreground rises the conical shaft of the Rock of Maletto, which has saved the small town of the same name from slipping off the hillside, and also diverted from it the dreaded lava-torrents which at times have poured along these terrible volcanic courses. All the wild desolate country we see stretching away to the left is buried in lava-in spring lovely in a wilderness of yellow spurge and gold and purple crocus. Some idea of the prolonged disaster of a lava-eruption when it reaches the cultivated lands may be had from the fact that the great lava-flood of 1879, which swept this region, still emitted a heavy steam after a shower of rain some five years later, and ten years later was still hot a few yards from the surface. It was in this desolate region, lying between Maniace or Maletto and the mediaeval town of Randazzo, some fourteen miles eastward, that the Saracen host was routed by Maniaces and Harold Hardradr and his Norwegians. And that glittering space yonder is the malarious Lake of Gurrida, by which was once a lost Greek town, with a shrine of Demeter, and in whose waters, a local legend says, Persephone disappeared in the arms of the Lord of the Underworld. This stream that suddenly leaps from the lava comes from Gurrida, after falling away into subterranean passages. It is the land of Myth, and one realises easily here how the old legends arose. To-day, there is no "life" by the malarious shores of Gurrida, save the grey lizard, the drumming snipe, and the musically wailing cranes on their northward or south ward migrations.

The road to Bronte ascends to a group of savage rocks of strange aspect--a landmark in all directions for many miles where Greek and Sicilian remains have been found, and whose precipitous hollows are still invested with supernatural terrors for the Brontese and Malettani. Through a lonely upland region, with northward and north-westward a most superb panorama of mountain scenery--wherein one may discern isolated Troina, the highest town in Sicily (3650 feet); Centuripe generally (locally, at any rate) called CentÚrbi ; the winding Dittaino (the ancient Chrysas) in its vast valley; Agira (which the hill folk prefer to call San Filippo d'ArgirÚ), the ancient Agyrium, and a Sicilian city before ever the first Greeks landed in Sicily, remembered now because it was here that the historian Diodorus Siculus was born, and here that (as he tells us) Hercules came in his wanderings and was honoured with a fane and long worshipped; and even, in clear weather, "the navel of Sicily," ancient Enna, the home of Demeter and Persephone. It would be a useless catalogue to give a summary of the picturesque hills and swelling mountain ridges, the vast shadowy valleys and clustered towns and villages visible from different points along this drive into Bronte: it must suffice to say that the scene is, in its kind, unsurpassable.

Bronte itself is a semi-barbarous, mediśval-looking town, of which the first impressions of innumerable black swine, swarming squalid children, and irredeemable sordidness, give way afterwards to the qualified admission that the place has a wonderful situation, that the little town is not a citadel of cut-throats, and that a day may come when residence there may not seem to continentali one of the most dreadful of enforced exiles. There have been days, indeed, when the present writer-spending a waiting hour or two on the terrazzo above the old formal garden at the back of the Palazzo Ducale--has even found a certain charm in this lava-cirqued townlet of one of the least tractable or pleasing of Sicilian populations. But in truth, as once in the hill train at Linguaglossa I heard an old gentleman of that town remark, after an eloquent outpouring about Paris and London and New York from a returned emigrant, "» tutto relativo . . . it is all relative: a crowd of fifty in Linguaglossa is as big as five hundred in Catania, or five thousand in Rome, or fifty thousand in London or Paris. It is only a crowd after all. And so with all you hear, all you see, all that makes life hard or good: it is all a relative question--si, si, Ť tutto relativo." And, doubtless, life in Bronte is, for the Brontese, by no means as terrible an affair as it would seem to you or to me, while quite certainly the women who chat among the black pigs at the doors of the Street of Polyphemus, or the native dandies who patrol the Road of TimŰleon, have pleasures and consolations of which we discern no trace.

Then there are the great orange-groves miles away south down the SimÍto valley, and the vast beech-woods of the Serraspina and the Serra del Re away yonder to the north!

These orange-groves, those beech-woods! Both in their kind, are they not unique in extent, beauty, and interest ?

There is no more fascinating excursion from Maniace in the spring than that through the lower part of the duchy to the celebrated orange-forest. This excursion is indeed a thing to be remembered with joy. From the start the day is a festival of beauty. First there is the drive past the immense valley wherein lie the vast vineyards, under the shadow of Rapiti, whence are won the famous Bronte wines and the super-excellent Bronte brandy; then the road crosses, and ascends to a great height, through a wild pastoral region, with ∆tna towering on the south, its lower flanks black with old lava-streams, or sombre with islanded forests of oak and chestnut, or here supporting a white village like a resting dove clinging to a rock, or here a town growing out of the wilderness of lava and landslip like some huge, uncanny flower. Then we come to the union of the SimÍto, or rather of the Giarretta as the peasants now call it when the confluent of several streams, with the rushing Fiume Salso--in Greek days the KyamosŰros--to be joined in the lower gorges (wild and precipitous depths where the surging flood becomes a green serpent writhing in a continual yeast of foam, and where in the obscurity above the maidenhair growing from jutting rocks bats continually flit, or the cliff-hawk shoots past on arrowy wing) by the Dittaino, the Chrysas* of the poets, and by

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*
It has been denied that the Chrysas and the Symaethus were ever considered one river. The other day, in glancing through D'Orville's great Latin work, Sicula, I found several allusions to "Vagus Chrysas" and its more famous confluent, and also, in connection, the quoted line from Silius, "Rapidique colunt vada flava Symaethi."
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the Erykas. Near these, and at the junction of the rough hill roads for Bronte, we alight, and mount strong mules for the remaining five miles of the twelve-mile excursion. What a ride, along those picturesque banks and overhanging hills, through narrow lava lanes overgrown with giant cactus, past rude orchards filled with orange- and lemon-trees in full fruit and almonds in a dazzle of sunlit foam of blossom, meeting now a band of muleteers, now a solitary goatherd, now a wandering shepherd with his gaunt flock following him to the sound of the wailing monotonous bagpipe! . . . But how to convey even the most dimly approximate idea of the beauty of the orange-groves when at last, after a descent of a thousand feet through a narrowing gorge, one smells the odours of paradise, and suddenly comes upon the advance-guard of three million oranges! For that is the estimated crop of the twenty-six thousand trees in this forest of fragrance and beauty. Then there are also hundreds of lemon and citron trees, and the lovely mandarin-orange with its delicious fruit. To camp under this green wilderness, with a multitude of yellow and ruddy globes of light around one, with the hum of bees among the violets and narcissus along the undergrass, and the flutter of white and sulphur butterflies over trailing rose or convolvulus (the magic hour--the hour of the firefly and the rising moon--is a joy apart), and there to eat and drink in a pleasure of appetite of mind and body, is to know one of the unforgettable experiences of life.

These orange-groves are at the southwestern end of the Duchy of Bronte, and it is a far cry back from them to the oakwoods of the Serraspina and the beechwoods of the Serra del Re, away in the Sicilian highlands to the north of Maniace. And to go there is a long day's excursion. One has to rise early, and drive many miles up the valley of the Saraceni, with dťtour by the resident agent's summer abode (some three thousand feet high, and so beyond reach of the malaria) and the picturesque saw-mills above the hamlet of mountaineers, which occupies an outlook of superb loveliness, where the carriage is left for the inevitable mule. Then begins the long and arduous climb, past wild and romantic mountain glens, up steep and sometimes seemingly inaccessible slopes, through disappearing olive-groves and increasing oaks, till the Serra della Spina is crossed, and then over stony plateaux swept by the hill winds, and with views of ceaseless change and exciting beauty, till at last, afoot, for there is mercy even for mules, one reaches the first outskirts of the beech-woods of the Serra del Re, some eight thousand feet above the sea--nearly double the height of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Great Britain. To be viewed in their full glory these magnificent forests must be seen in late autumn. Never shall I forget their radiant splendour about the end of October or beginning of November. It was an ocean of majestically uplifted, miraculously suspended gold--an illimitable Sahara of sun-flamed foliage. In these ancient undisturbed recesses not only does the wolf lurk, but one may well believe the faun and the hamadryad still linger. Here, if in the remote forests of any country in the world, surely these lovely exiles from the Golden Age might be found!

From the summit--and at the extreme northern boundary of "Nelson's Duchy" --a great part of all Sicily is to be seen. Etna seems higher, more wonderful, more terribly impressive than ever: the southern highlands reach by mountain slope and valley, by the hill-towns of isolated Centuripe and Troina, by the ∆tnean towns of Bronte and Aderno to the great sea-frontiered plain of Catania; westward stands out the huge plateau crowned with "Enna, that holy city of the Korť and the Mother"; north-westward are the mountains which guard Palermo; northward and eastward the Tyrrhene Sea, the Lipari Isles, the smoking cone of Stromboli, and, nearer, the lovely northern coasts of Sicily westward from the promontory of Milazzo.

Between this beech-covered range of the Serra del Re and the orange-forests, many thousand feet below, a score or more miles away, lies this wonderful duchy which the King of Naples gave to our great Nelson. In the Castello of Maniace may be seen, among innumerable relics, his will, signed "Nelson and Bronte"; but he himself was never here. It was before Nelson's time, too, that the duchy extended up the slopes of ietna itself, past the upper precipices (from two to four thousand feet in height) which overhang the black and awful abyss of the Valle del Bove, to the very edges of the crater of the central cone, down which, more than two thousand years ago, as legend tells us, the great philosopher Empedocles swung into the flames which then and since have never ceased in the heart of this Titan among volcanoes.

 


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