Curzola was the Korkyra Nigra of the ancients, so called on account of its dark woods to distinguish it from the other Korkyra (Corfu). It is one of the few places in Dalmatia where the forest still remains, which is doubtless one reason why it is still the home of the now almost extinct European jackal.
The long narrow island is all but joined to the neighbouring peninsula of Sabbioncella, and in the narrow strait between took place the World-famous battle between the Venetians and the Genoese, in which the latter captured the celebrated navigator, Marco Polo, and took prisoner the Venetian admiral, Andrea Dandolo, who, as everybody knows, dashed out his brains against the side of the galley which bore him into captivity, preferring death to dishonour.
Curzola is essentially Venetian. Here the galleys of the Republic were built, here the Page [194a]
It is a place to rejoice alike the heart of the artist and the student of architecture, with exquisite bits at every turn of the steep narrow streets; here you catch a glimpse of a Venetian Gothic window, there of a picturesque courtyard, where a carved stone balustrade leads to an upper story; and at yet another point a shower of blossoms falls over the lovely carving of the balcony of some old palazzo.
In one such courtyard of the Palazzo Arneri there is a door-knocker which is one of the finest known examples of its kind, and has aroused the cupidity of many a collector. Millionaires have offered large sums for it in vain. It still keeps its place upon its ancient door in the apparently deserted sunny courtyard, though its working days are done.
Just below the Palazzo Arneri the upper story of one of the old houses forms a bridge across the street, and frames in a vista of blue sea far below, for all the town is on a slope, and Page 196the streets are formed of steps more frequently than not.
All roads in Curzola lead to the little piazza before the Duomo; so here you must ascend, and admire first the Italian Gothic doorway flanked by curious figures of Adam and Eve similar to those at Trau and Sebenico, and then the interior. The baldacchino over the high altar is unfortunately spoilt by its red cloth trappings-the four columns supporting it are covered with this abomination-but the fine Renaissance capitals are free. The light is not good enough to do justice to Ridolfi's pictures in a side chapel, nor to the painting behind the high altar attributed to Tintoretto, but the whole gains in impressiveness by the partial twilight; it attunes the mind to reverence, and through the dimness the red light before the altar glows like a giant ruby. A dimly lit cathedral, with here and there the solitary kneeling figures of silent worshippers,-is not this a fitting ante-chamber to the unseen world ?
The medieval walls and towers which compass the little town of Curzola are broken by siege and earthquake, but still stand to show how well Venice guarded her own. Even Page [196a]
To appreciate the picturesqueness of the fortifications you must see them from the water. So now I want you to come with me to the Franciscan island of Badia. In going and coming we shall skirt the old walls and see their grey towers reflected in the limpid flood, with the roofs of the quaint houses and the beautiful Duomo rising amphitheatre-wise above them.
The Badia is one of many smaller islands lying off the eastern end of Curzola, and on Page 198the way to it we pass through a part of the narrow channel which separates the island from Sabbioncella, and was such an important passage in the old days for small ships which sought the shelter of the islands.
Like our own Iona, the island was a place of refuge in troublous times, a seat of learning and piety, while the mainland was given over to warfare and bloodshed; but once at least the tide of war swept up to the very monastery walls, and the peaceful friars put aside their missals and breviaries, and interrupted their daily office to take part in its defence; so well they fought that the invaders were driven back, and the Turkish spears you see to-day were taken from the foe.
The monks' most precious treasure is the great crucifix which hangs above the altar in the church; tradition says it was brought by faithful hands from Bosnia at the time of the Moslem conquest, to save it from falling into the hands of the infidel, and that it is over five hundred years old.
The most remarkable feature of this crucifix is that the face of Christ takes wholly different expressions, from different points of view, from Page 199the agony before death to the sculptured calm of the corpse from which life has passed. The emaciated figure on the cross is so painfully realistic that it at once fascinates and fills you with horror, as doubtless the unknown artist intended it should, and even after you have withdrawn your eyes the memory of it haunts you. Who the master was whose vivid imagination and skilful hands fashioned it, history records not; but there is another curious sculpture at the Badia, of the world supported by the four Evangelists representing the Church, which is very like it in workmanship, and may be by the same artist.
In the library are many interesting old pictures and precious manuscripts, but all records perished at the time of the siege, and what is related concerning them is but tradition and conjecture.
The cloisters at the Badia are very interesting architecturally on account of the fine carving of the capitals of the fifty-four columns, every one of which is different; but the general effect loses in picturesqueness by having no garden in the centre as at the Franciscan convent at Ragusa. The garden of the Badia is on the Page 200other side of the monastery, and a very peaceful spot it is with its pergolas covered with the foliage of the vine and its border full of sweet-scented flowers. Here you must rest a little and taste the good monks' wine, and tell them a little of the outside world they so seldom hear of, for visitors to Curzola are few, and to the Badia still fewer. You will hear on your part much that will interest you about the manners and customs of Curzola, how the national dance, the " Moreska," is still danced at festas, and a curious medieval play called the "Kumpanjija" takes place at the great cattle fair held at Blatta. You will hear too, alas how the people of this lovely island are leaving it in increasing numbers every year to seek their fortunes in America by the huge emigrant steamers which sail for the new world weekly from Triest. It is becoming difficult in Curzola to find labourers to till the soil of its fruitful valleys, and you will doubtless wonder that the natives of this land can throw away their heritage of so much loveliness to seek for gold. But so it is, and sometimes one comes back who has prospered and fills his neighbours with emulation to go and do likewise.
Page 201I have told you already of the jackals on Curzola. According to the hunters and the peasants, who suffer from their depredations, they must number hundreds, and are, perhaps, reinforced from time to time by new arrivals from the mountains of Sabbioncella, as it would be quite easy for them to swim the channel.
They are so numerous in the neighbourhood of Pupnat, a large village surrounded by wooded hills and ravines which afford them shelter, that a night watch is set to warn the peasants of their approach, and the man who succeeds in shooting a jackal is the hero of the village, and receives a present of two eggs and two loaves of bread from every member of the community, which number about six hundred. This, at least, is the tale that is told, but as twelve hundred eggs and a like number of loaves would be rather an embarrassing gift all at once, it is probable that the presents are not all made in kind, and that the hunter is rewarded only by the heads of families and the wealthier inhabitants. At all events, the dead jackal is dragged round the village, for every one to see, amid great rejoicings. The animals are said to be extraordinarily fond of grapes, and Page 202just before the vintage visit the vineyards in sparsely populated parts of the island, where there are no farmyards to be raided for lambs or poultry.
The north coast of the island is another jackal haunt, and strangers who have slept at Racisce, a charming village on the north shore backed by wooded mountains, which you see from the steamer's deck in passing through the channel say that they have been kept awake all night by a strange weird-howling, very like that of a pack of wolves. The jackal and the wolf are nearly related, and have much in common; both hunt by night and in packs, but the little jackal is a braver beast than his bigger brother. Young ones have not infrequently been tamed and made household pets, but there is always a certain wildness about them. Some say that they have hyena-like propensities, and have been known to dig up and devour corpses; and, again, it is whispered that the souls of the dead, unable to rest, take the form of jackals, and for this reason the natives fear to hunt them, for the islanders are not a little superstitious.
As organized hunting parties are rare, and the mountainous wooded island of Curzola, Page 203and the still more mountainous peninsula of Sabbioncella afford sufficient shelter for wild creatures, it is probable the jackals of Dalmatia will not be extinct for another hundred years. When they are, beautiful Curzola will have lost one of the chief interests of her forests !