IT was at Arbe that we bade good-bye to Dalmatia. Arbe the remote, though nearest of Dalmatian islands to the port of Fiume. For the fast steamers to Zara and beyond pass it by, though but a few miles from their course. Most travellers, if they know its name at all, know it only vaguely as one of the many islands of this island-studded coast. Yet here was once a considerable Roman colony; and in the tenth century Arbe still retained her Latin population.
Here, in the fifteenth century, was one of the fairest and most prosperous cities of Dalmatia. It is still fair, still adorned with towers and spires rising from the water and mirrored in the flood, but prosperous no longer, desolate, deserted by all but some three thousand souls, most of whom have never left their island home, and live to-day precisely the same lives as their forefathers lived in Arbe generations Page 226back. Lives, grey and monotonous enough, of daily toil in the fields or at the fisheries, varied only by the meeting of friends and kinsfolk when the country-folk flock into the little town of Arbe on festas, and gather in its narrow streets before and after Mass.
It was our privilege to witness such a gathering on Whit Sunday. I looked from my window very early in the morning, when the sun's rays had not long gilded the church spires, to find the streets filled with a picturesquely-garbed crowd of peasants, the hum of whose lively chatter had awakened me from my slumbers in a quaint old house which overarched the usually deserted main street. The women of Arbe delight in snowy stockings, which display substantial legs, only partly hidden by the short full skirts which reach but little below the knee. Their corselet bodices are laced over white chemisettes or coloured handkerchiefs. Earrings of solid gold, handed down as heirlooms, weigh down their often pretty ears; rings, sometimes reaching to the finger-joint, look curiously out of place on hands hardened by toil ! Strings of coral beads are a form of adornment much in favour, and Page [226a]
But the island beauties are shy; they flee from the camera as they would from the plague, hence their retreating figures instead of their pretty faces in our photographs. Group after group, maiden after maiden, we essayed in vain. Smiles and soft words alike were wasted-entreaties fell on deaf ears. We could but think they feared the evil "eye," for more than once in Dalmatia those who allowed themselves to be photographed for " largesse," took the precaution first of making the sign of the cross, and, even thus fortified, were fearsome.
It was hard to believe, as we walked the quaint streets among the quainter figures--ourselves, no doubt, the quaintest of all in the eyes of the natives, who do not see a dozen strangers in a year-that within a few hours' sail was busy Fiume and gay Abbazia with its international crowds; for here we were back far away in the past, in the primitive times when men were born and lived and died without leaving the place of their birth, in a town that the tide of life has left in the shallows, a city that lived and died some five centuries ago.
Page 228In the fifteenth century Arbe was at the height of her prosperity as part of the dominion of Venice. She had changed masters many times, being subject first to the Byzantine Emperor, then to Hungary, and, during the disputes over the succession to the throne of Hungary in the fifteenth century, to the King of Naples.
Just then, when peace reigned after strife, came the blow from which she never recovered. That fearful scourge of the Middle Ages, the Black Death, devastated Arbe, laying low nobles and burghers, priests and peasants ; and this is the reason you see to-day a city half in ruins, with the finest ancient campanile in Dalmatia, a beautiful cathedral, and churches out of all proportion to the present number of the populace, going to decay.
The ancestral palace of the noble family of De Dominis, and the birthplace of the unfortunate Archbishop who was its most famous member, is now an inn. In the great hall we dined, and thought of poor Mark Antony de Dominis and his tragic fate. The courtyard is a scene of picturesque confusion. Creepers and flowering plants cling lovingly to the old Page [228a]
The cathedral of Arbe dates from the thirteenth century, as is recorded by an inscription outside the walls; but some portions of it seem to have belonged to an earlier building. Its most interesting features are the choir-stalls and a remarkable baldachino, about which authorities differ, some saying that it is Byzantine work of the ninth or tenth century, others that it is not all of the same date, and the lower portion Venetian work of the fifteenth century. About the age of the choir-stalls there can be no controversy, for they bear the date 1445, and are fine examples of Venetian work of that Page 230period. The arms of the family of Nemira, whose palace at Arbe I before mentioned, are carved on the stalls in commemoration of their rich gifts to the church. The nobles of Arbe to-day live lives of the utmost simplicity, behind the often half-ruinous walls of the old palazzos. The present Podesta, who showed us great kindness and himself insisted on being our guide to the cathedral and round the town, told us that he was descended on his mother's side from the family of De Dominis. He drew our attention to an interesting picture of the Madonna in the Duomo, which is greatly venerated, though no one seems to know much about it. It is suggestive of Giotto, and may have been painted by one of his pupils. The most precious relic in the treasury is the casket containing the skull of St. Christopher, which the people of Arbe declare more than once miraculously saved them from their enemies in the Middle Ages, when they had only to expose it from the church to win the day !
The skull wears a jewelled crown, the gift of that Queen Elizabeth of Hungary who presented the ark which holds the bones of St. Simeon to his church at Zara, and is contained Page 231in a casket of silver gilt, with reliefs representing the Saviour and the Madonna and scenes in the Martyrdom of the Saint.
The great Campanile soars above the Duomo, a silent watcher by the sea over the ruined city. From its tower, anxious eyes scanned the seas in days when every sail on the horizon might be bringing fire and sword to desolate poor Arbe! From its tower, the great bell tolled to warn the living, and speed the souls of the dead and dying, when the danger was nigh at hand and men met in mortal combat in the city at its feet !
There is a charming story told that at the casting of the bell the women of Arbe, great ladies and peasants alike, brought gold and silver trinkets, so dear to the heart of every Dalmatian, and cast them into the melting-pot, so that the tone of their bell might be worthy of the noble Campanile in which it hangs !
You may have wandered far and wide, and seen many lands, not even excepting Italy herself, and yet not found a fairer tower. In all the world there cannot be one more romantically situated than that of Arbe. Grass grows in the piazza before the Duomo, sheep graze Page 232around its walls in the shadow of the Campanile, the spirit of the past broods over it, and the owl's hoot by night sounds like a lament over the sad sweet desolation.
Arbe has been called "the city of campaniles"; it might also well be termed "the city of churches." No less than four lovely spires rise above the grey town walls, and though the population of the city to-day numbers but eight hundred and fifty souls, there are fully half a dozen churches, including small chapels, still in use. Others are in ruins, of which St. Giovanni Baptista, at the opposite end of the town to the cathedral, is the most important.
An old chronicler remarks, that in his time the inhabitants of the island did not exceed three thousand souls, and had to maintain no less than sixty priests, besides three monasteries and three nunneries. Only the Franciscan monastery and two convents of nuns still exist.
Arbe is best seen from the sea, but to enjoy it to the full you must hire one of the canoelike fishing-boats, locally called "zoppolos," towards sunset on a calm evening, or when the moon is at the full, and shines in a cloudless sky, for then you can look upwards at the lofty Page 233walls rising from the water, rosy in the sunset or pale in the moonlight, with here and there within them a ruined arch or Venetian Gothic window in the city outlined against the sky like the campaniles above them; or downwards to where all beauty is reflected in the still water. You will gain some impression of its charm on arriving by steamer if you are fortunate in your day and time, but the haste of arrival and departure is not conducive to the mood which can attune itself to such a scene as this, so if you are wise you will take your boat and a man of Arbe to row it who can tell you some of the tales and traditions of the islands, or sing to you in the soft tongue of Dante.
There is more to be seen on the island than is contained within the city walls if you have eyes for the beauties of Nature, for Arbe is mountainous, and more wooded than is common for a Dalmatian island. Just outside the gates you enter the delightful shade of cypress woods, which grow along the cliffs. Here there is coolness on the hottest day; and the nightingale filled the air with his rapturous melody by night when I was there in the early days of June.
The Franciscan monastery of St. Eufemia, Page 234most picturesquely perched above a little bay an hour or more's walk from the town, is worthy of a visit. It was founded in 1444, and has a charming if somewhat neglected garden, in which there is a famous stone-pine, suggestive of the iliar one which appears in so many pictures of the Bay of Naples, and some giant palms.
In your walks in Arbe you will notice that here, as elsewhere in Dalmatia, it is the women who work in the fields, and, barefooted, follow the primitive plough, which is that of the time of Virgil.
A coast road leads from the town to Barbato, past olive groves and vineyards, which show the fertility of the soil. From a height on which the ruins of St. Damiano stand you look across to the isle of Pago and more distant isles of erso and Lussin.
Delightful excursions can be made with a "zoppolo" around the coast of Arbe. If wind and waves permit, you must not fail to visit Loparo, where the hermit Marianus was born, and if you return to Arbe on foot it will be by the main road of the island, which passes through the fertile valley of St. Pietro and over the heights of St. Elia.
Page 235From the Tigna Rossa, the highest point of the Tigna range of mountains, which run so near to the coast that here' and there they slope directly to the sea, you can see across Cherso to mighty Monte Maggiore on the coast of Istria; to the north lies the large Istrian island of Veglia, with its green woods and pastures, and east of it the stormy straits of the Canale della Morlacca, bounded by precipitous mountains, which give to this channEl the character of a Norwegian fjord,with its memories ofpiracy when Segna was a stronghold of the Uscocs, whose bloody deeds made them the terror of this coast.
Blood-curdling tales are told of these bandits, who so ravaged the surrounding islands that the inhabitants feared to venture beyond their town walls. It is said that the robbers, who numbered at one time about two thousand, and were reinforced by the scum of all nations, had among them Englishmen of gentle birth, including a member of one of the noblest families in our land, who was among those hanged for their crimes in 1618.* The Uscocs' choice of a stronghold was most appropriate-behind them the wild inaccessible fastnesses of the mountains Page of Croatia, before them the wild waters of the stormy strait, which their wonderful seamanship and knowledge of its channels enabled them to turn to their own advantage. You cannot look upon these isles and waters, peaceful as they are to-day, without remembering the Uscocs' reign of terror.
Yet let not this be the memory with which you part from Dalmatia. Rather turn your thoughts back again to all of beauty and interest I have tried to show you by the power of the magic wands of my remembrance and your imagination-to exquisite Ragusa, with her splendid history; to the land-locked waters of the unique Gulf of Cattaro, with their smiling shore; to the palace where a Csar dwelt; and to the graves of the early Christians in the great basilica at Salone. Yes, and to those other isles of Adria, more tropical than Arbe, with their waving palms, but, like her, stamped for all time with the impress of the lion, though the majesty of the Serene Republic of Venice is but a dream of the past.