Ramage in South Italy
The Nooks and By-Ways of Italy: Wanderings in Search of Its Ancient Remains and Modern Superstitions
By Crauford Tait Ramage. Edited by Edith Clay, with an introduction by Harold Acton. Academy Chicago Publications, 1987, 232 pp.
Through the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, South Italy was an isolated region, relatively unknown to the outside world. Brigands, malaria, political instability, a dearth of accommodations and passable roads rendered the area—once the most civilized part of Italy—inaccessible to all but the hardiest explorers.
Craufurd Tait Ramage was one of the few 19th century travelers to brave the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, as South Italy was then called. In 1828, after three years in Naples as tutor to the British consul’s sons, the young Scotsman set off—alone and mostly on foot—on a three-month tour. Forty years later, from letters and diaries, he composed The Nooks and By-Ways of Italy: Wanderings in Search of its Ancient Remains and Modern Superstitions, upon which Edith Clay’s abridgement is based.
Politically, l828 was not a propitious time to travel in South Italy, as Harold Acton observes in his introduction. The king was “inept and gouty,” the kingdom "infested with secret societies,” and everyone was suspect—especially, as Ramage discovered, strangers, who by law could not stay overnight in someone’s house without a magistrate’s permission and whom police would routinely stop.
Ramage took little heed of political dangers or physical hardships. Drawn to the region by its customs and its ruins of ancient Greek colonies, he was determined not to miss any interesting historical spots, and he journeyed through swamps and brigand-infested areas to find them. In his travelogue, he describes these places, and also gives us vivid descriptions of people and landscapes; lively (if skeptical) accounts of superstitions and religious customs; and reflections upon the region’s haunting past, to which he responded as only someone deeply immersed in the classics could. “The whole coast,” he observes sadly, “was once studded with mighty cities, whose commerce extended to every part of the known world; now we traverse a shore where a traveller finds it difficult to obtain even shelter at night, from the deadly exhalations that its barren and deserted fields send forth.”
Vivid as his portrait of South Italy is, what has made his book a classic is Ramage himself. He was, as Edith Clay remarks, one of “the world's eccentrics.” Indeed, one wonders what the Southern Italians, who saw so few outsiders, made of this one: “I have a white merino frock-coat, well-furnished with capacious pockets...; nankeen trousers, a large-brimmed straw hat, white shoes, and an umbrella...” Confronted by the prospect of brigands, he responds that he will flourish his umbrella at them, “in the way we sometimes alarm cattle..” Informed that there is simply no road to Taranto, where he is headed, he replies, “I shall not allow myself to be turned aside by any common difficulty.” His energy, his zest, his fortitude, and the “transparent innocence” which, Acton suggests, protected this “classical crusader” on his journey, have long endeared him to readers.
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Ramage in South Italy