Travel. When only the bravest toured Southern Italy

Ramage in South Italy. The Nooks and By-Ways of Italy: Wanderings in Search of its Ancient Remains and Modern Superstitions, by Craufurd Tait Ramage. Abridged and edited by Edith Clay. Introduction by Harold Acton. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers. 232 pp. $18.95, hard cover; $8.95, paper. THROUGH the 19th century and well into the 20th, southern Italy was an isolated region, relatively unknown to the outside world. Brigands, malaria, political instability, a dearth of accommodations, and impassable roads rendered the area inaccessible to all but the hardiest explorers. More recently, roads and lodgings have opened up the region and travel interest has increased, which accounts for the new edition of this excellent book.

Craufurd Tait Ramage was one of the few 19th-century travelers to brave the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, as southern Italy was then called. In 1828, after three years in Naples as tutor to the British consul's sons, the young Scotsman set off on a three-month tour. He traveled alone, mostly on foot, down the east coast through Paestum as far south as Locri, then counterclockwise round the opposite coast, with visits to inland towns. Forty years later, from letters and diaries, he composed his classic ``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, 1828 was not a propitious time to travel in southern 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 as little heed of political dangers as he did of physical hardships. Drawn to the region by its customs and its ruins of ancient Greek colonies, he was determined not ``to omit the examination of any interesting spot full of historical recollections,'' and he journeyed through swamps and brigand-infested areas to find them. In his travelogue, he describes these historical spots, 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 traveler 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 southern 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 always endeared him to readers.

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