XXXI. SOUTHERN SAINTLINESS
But after the brilliant humanistic period of the Aragons there followed the third and fiercest reaction - that of the Spanish viceroys, whose misrule struck at every one of the roots of national prosperity. It is that "seicentismo" which a modern writer (A. Niceforo, "L'Italia barbara," 1898) has recognized as the blight, the evil genius, of south Italy. The Ionic spirit did not help the people much at this time. The greatest of these viceroys, Don Pietro di Toledo, hanged 18,000 of them in eight years, and then confessed, with a sigh, that "he did not know what more he could do." What more could he do? As a pious Spaniard he was incapable of understanding that quarterings and breakings on the rack were of less avail than the education of the populace in certain secular notions of good conduct - notions which it was the business of his Church not to teach. Reading through the legislation of the viceregal period, one is astonished to find how little was done for the common people, who lived like the veriest beasts of earth.
Their civil rulers - scholars and gentlemen, most of them - really believed that the example of half a million illiterate and vicious monks was all the education they needed. And yet one notes with surprise that the Government was perpetually at loggerheads with the ecclesiastical authorities. True; but it is wonderful with what intuitive alacrity they joined forces when it was a question of repelling their common antagonist, enlightenment.
From this rank soil there sprang up an exotic efflorescence of holiness. If south Italy swarmed with sinners, as the experiences of Don Pietro seemed to show, it also swarmed with saints. And hardly one of them escaped the influence of the period, the love of futile ornamentation. Their piety is overloaded with embellishing touches and needless excrescences of virtue. It was the baroque period of saintliness, as of architecture.
I have already given some account of one of them, the Flying Monk (Chapter X), and have perused the biographies of at least fifty others. One cannot help observing a great uniformity in their lives - a kind of family resemblance. This parallelism is due to the simple reason that there is only one right for a thousand wrongs. One may well look in vain, here, for those many-tinted perversions and aberrations which disfigure the histories of average mankind. These saints are all alike - monotonously alike, if one cares to say so - in their chastity and other official virtues. But a little acquaintance with the subject will soon show you that, so far as the range of their particular Christianity allowed of it, there is a praiseworthy and even astonishing diversity among them. Nearly all of them could fly, more or less; nearly all of them could cure diseases and cause the clouds to rain; nearly all of them were illiterate; and every one of them died in the odour of sanctity - with roseate complexion, sweetly smelling corpse, and flexible limbs. Yet each one has his particular gifts, his strong point. Joseph of Copertino specialized in flying; others were conspicuous for their heroism in sitting in hot baths, devouring ordure, tormenting themselves with pins, and so forth.
Here, for instance, is a good representative biography - the Life of Saint Giangiuseppe della Croce (born 1654), reprinted for the occasion of his solemn sanctification. [Footnote: "Vita di S. Giangiuseppe della Croce . . . Scritta dal P. Fr. Diodato dell' Assunta per la Beatificazione ed ora ristampata dal postulatore della causa P. Fr. Giuseppe Rostoll in occasione della solenne Santificazione." Roma, 1839.]
He resembled other saints in many points. He never allowed the "vermin which generated in his bed" to be disturbed; he wore the same clothes for sixty-four years on end; with women his behaviour was that of an "animated statue," and during his long life he never looked any one in the face (even his brother-monks were known to him only by their voices); he could raise the dead, relieve a duchess of a devil in the shape of a black dog, change chestnuts into apricots, and bad wine into good; his flesh was encrusted with sores, the result of his fierce scarifications; he was always half starved, and when delicate viands were brought to him, he used to say to his body: "Have you seen them? Have you smelt them? Then let that suffice for you."
He, too, could fly a little. So once, when he was nowhere to be found, the monks of the convent at last discovered him in the church, "raised so high above the ground that his head touched the ceiling." This is not a bad performance for a mere lad, as he then was. And how useful this gift became in old age was seen when, being almost incapable of moving his legs, and with body half paralysed, he was nevertheless enabled to accompany a procession for the length of two miles on foot, walking, to the stupefaction of thousands of spectators, at about a cubit's height above the street, on air; after the fashion of those Hindu gods whose feet - so the pagans fable - are too pure to touch mortal earth.