In 1897 the Victorian novelist George Gissing undertook a brief but eventful journey in southern Italy. His itinerary took him from Naples to Reggio di Calabria, via Paola, Cosenza, Crotone and Squillace, through the area once known as Magna Graecia. Meditating on the vestiges of Greco-Roman civilization, Gissing visited tombs and temples, museums and cathedrals, in search of the imprint of antiquity and "that old world which was the imaginative delight of my boyhood." The result was By the Ionian Sea, first published in ...
In 1897 the Victorian novelist George Gissing undertook a brief but eventful journey in southern Italy. His itinerary took him from Naples to Reggio di Calabria, via Paola, Cosenza, Crotone and Squillace, through the area once known as Magna Graecia. Meditating on the vestiges of Greco-Roman civilization, Gissing visited tombs and temples, museums and cathedrals, in search of the imprint of antiquity and "that old world which was the imaginative delight of my boyhood." The result was By the Ionian Sea, first published in 1901. Gissing's journey by boat, train, and carriage revealed not just the ruined glories of a classical past, but also the hardships of rural life in turn-of-the-century rural Italy. Meeting poverty-stricken peasants and corrupt local officials, he endured discomfort, danger and illness in a remote and little visited corner of Europe. Yet throughout he appreciated the warmth and generosity shown to him by local people, curious about this solitary stranger. By turns lyrical and melancholic, Gissing's masterpiece of travel writing alternates between light and dark, life and death, Paganism and Christianity. Looking at Italy in both its classical and contemporary dimensions, By the Ionian Sea celebrates Calabria's rich cultural past and beautiful landscapes while providing a candid account of the region's hardship and poverty. More than a century after its first publication, this is the first critical edition of the book in English.
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By 1897, the English novelist George Gissing (1857 - 1903) had achieved a degree of financial and critical success after years of writing. He took a vacation to Calabria, the "toe" of the southernmost part of the "boot" of Italy. From his youth, Gissing had loved the ancient world. He was especially fond of Gibbon and had been awarded a set of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" for his early academic accomplishments. Calabria had been the home of the Greeks, Romans, and Goths. Although Gissing had earlier traveled to Italy he had never been to Calabria. He was eager to see the places he knew only from books for himself. Thus with guidebook in hand, Gissing set out for his "ramble" to southern Italy.
In 1901, Gissing wrote a short memoir of his journey titled "By the Ionian Sea". At the time of his visit, Calabria was difficult of access, little developed, known for an unhealthy environment, and rarely visited by tourists. Friends and people further north in Italy tried to discourage the visit. But in the first chapter of his book Gissing explained with enthusiasm the attraction Calabria held:
"I shall look upon the Ionian Sea, not merely from a train or a steamboat as before, but at long leisure: I shall see the shores where once were Tarentum and Sybaris, Croton and Locri. Every man has his intellectual desire; mine is to escape life as I know it and dream myself into that old world which was the imaginative delight of my boyhood. The names of Greece and Italy draw me as no others; they make me young again, and restore the keen impressions of that time when every new page of Greek or Latin was a new perception of things beautiful. The world of the Greeks and Romans is my land of romance; a quotation in either language thrills me strangely, and there are passages of Greek and Latin verse which I cannot read without a dimming of the eyes, which I cannot repeat aloud because my voice fails me. In Magna Græcia the waters of two fountains mingle and flow together; how exquisite will be the draught!"
Although almost all of Gissing, including "By the Ionian Sea" remains too little known to modern readers, this short work is among the best travel books ever written. It ranks with the best of Gissing's work and has rarely been out of print. The book is written in a lyrical, elegant prose with Gissing speaking throughout in his own voice about a place he knew and loved. The book has a sense of ease and happiness that is absent from most of Gissing's novels. The book is written with almost painterly detail, as Gissing describes the sea and the mountains, the orange groves, ruins, small dusty towns, hotels, and people that he observed on his journey. Much of the book describes Gissing's search for places of the ancient world. He discusses sites related to Horace, Alaric, Hannibal, Pythagoras, and Cassidorus, among others. Without pedantry, Gissing gives an relaxed sense of the ancient riches of Calabria. Throughout the book, he contrasts the ancient history of the region with the contemporary people he met and places he observed.
Gissing's journey began in Naples, just north of Calabria. The story begins with a short vivid portrait of Naples as well as of his steamship voyage to Paola at the northernmost part of the region. Although located on the sea, much of Calabria is mountainous. Gissing describes his journey from town to town by railroad, horse-drawn carriage, and steamer. The towns described include Taranto, Cotrone, Cantazaro, and Squillace. Gissing concluded his ramble at Reggio, at the southernmost tip of Italy just across from Sicily. He describes the mostly simple and unsophisticated people of the Calabria of his time and the sites. He tells of ancient churches and monasteries, hidden rivers, mountain villages, caves, farmers and their donkeys plowing the fields as they did 1000 years earlier, tiny book stores, street musicians, museums, and frequently bad food.
As had been predicted by his friends, Gissing fell ill with malaria during his visit to the town of Cotrone. He almost died. Gissing recovered his health under the care of a young doctor, Ricardo Sculco, who receives an affectionate portrayal in the story. Even with this serious illness, the overriding tone of the book is one of happiness as Gissing discovered for himself a place he had long only imagined. At the end of his journey, for all his experiences of the sights around him, Gissing's heart remains with antiquity. He concludes the story of his ramble:
"Alone and quiet, I heard the washing of the waves; I saw the evening fall on cloud-wreathed Etna, the twinkling lights come forth on Scylla and Charybdis; and, as I looked my last towards the Ionian Sea, I wished it were mine to wander endlessly amid the silence of the ancient world, to-day and all its sounds forgotten."
In 2000, an American journalist, John Keahey, was inspired by Gissing's travel book. Keahey retraced Gissing's journey of over 100 years earlier and wrote his own sequel, "A Sweet and Glorious Land". (2000) I found it helpful in reading Gissing's book to examine a map of southern Italy. Because I have no independent knowledge of the area, I also found it useful to read the Willkipedia article on Calabria for brief background on the places Gissing so beautifully describes.
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