From The Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc., Fourth Series. — Volume Seventh. January — June 1871; London; 1871; pp. 3-5.
I do not know that I have much that is new to say respecting Mons Vulture; but it is so seldom that a traveller penetrates to this secluded part of Italy, that anything, however trifling, will be interesting to some of your readers, particularly to the admirers of Horace and his words. It was a little beyond the middle of June that I mounted this beautiful mountain, clothed with oaks, elms, 4 chestnuts, and in its higher ranges with beeches and pines. It was such a day for heat as inspired Horace to sing Carm. III. 4, 9): —
“Me fabulosæ Vulture in Appulo,
Altricis extra limen Apuliæ,
Ludo fatigatumque somno
Fronde novâ puerum palumbes
Wood pigeons are still as numerous as they were in the days of Horace; while the cooing of the dove and the humming of the bees invited to sleep. I approached the mountain from the side of Melfi, which gives name to the highest peak, “Il Pizzuto di Melfi,” four thousand three hundred and fifty-seven feet above the level of the sea. The approach to the mountain is through vineyards, which grow with great luxuriance, as vines always do on volcanic soils. The wine is strong, and requires dilution for the sober Italian.
At the foot of the mountain to the north, the Aufidus could be traced for many miles by the winding of the valley through which if runs. In its upper course it is a stream of no great size in summer, though evidently a violent torrent from the winter snow and rain. I can easily understand why its presiding nymphs should have been propitiated by the superstitious, as the following inscription shows: —
NIMPHIS . AVFIDI
SERVATRIC . SACR
C . MAGIVS . C . F
REST . ET . DEDIC.
It is particularly interesting to find the name of Magius Velleianus in this neighbourhood, and we cannot but imagine that we may have here Magius Celer Velleianus, brother of the historian Velleius Paterculus, who served as legate to Tiberius in the Dalmatian war A.D. 9, and shared in the honours of his commander’s triumph. At the time of Augustus’s death (A.D. 14), he and his brother were the “candidati Cæsaris” for the prætorship (Vell. Pat. II. 115, 121, 124). It is the more likely that this should be so, as the family, though originally of the highest rank in Capua (Liv. xxiii. 7, 10), were evidently settled in this direction, as the “atavus” of Velleius Paterculus is called by him “Asculanensis” (Vell. Pat. II. 16), distinguished in the Social War (B.C. 90) by his fidelity to the Romans. Now Asculum Apulum Ascoli is at no great distance from the banks of the Aufidus, and the property of Magius might be often subjected to the inundations of the river.
The forest Monticchio, with its lofty and aged trees, afforded a pleasant shade as I ascended the slopes. There can be no doubt of the volcanic nature of the mountain: there are several craters, but one in particular far more perfect than that of Vesuvius. The sides of this crater rise in nearly an unbroken line around, dotted with finer specimens of timber than I have ever seen, even in our northern regions. Historical records are silent as to the time when it was in operation; but the intelligent inhabitants maintain that they would be in a great measure relieved from the earthquakes that desolate their country if it were again to burst forth and let off the pent-up gases underground.
It is curious that I should have heard the same observation when I was at Casal Nuovo, in southern Calabria, the central spot, where the earthquake of 1783 had been felt most severely, and where the Princess Gerace and many thousands of the inhabitants had been swallowed up. Towards the south my host pointed to the highest mountain, Aspromonte, and said that all their calamities arose from that central point. This was the opinion of one who had watched for half a century the shocks to which they were constantly subject, and this man, abnormis sapiens, was probably not far from the truth.
In the largest crater of Mons Vultur are two small lakes, from which at times issue sulphureous exhalations, like those which rise from Lacus Ampsanctus, which is at no great distance, and is no doubt connected with this ancient volcano. The inhabitants feel that they are resting on a volcano that might burst out at any moment, as Vesuvius did eighteen hundred years ago; but the Italians are in general a pious race, and have much dependence on a Higher Power. They have frequent admonitions by slight shocks; and I was told that the appearance of the lakes gave warning of what was likely to happen, as they became more turbulent and threw out exhalations more largely before a severe shock took place. There are more than a dozen cones scattered over the surface of the mountain, but, what is very curious, no appearance of any extensive stream of lava. To my eye, the little lava I saw had much more of a basaltic structure than what I had been accustomed to see round the base of Vesuvius.
Sulphureous springs are abundant. I heard of “una mofeta con due bocche” at La Rendina, where the country was efflorescent with sulphur. At Barile, originally a colony of Albanians, there is another very powerful spring, which is used for chronic diseases by the inhabitants of the surrounding country. Near Atella there is said to be another still more strongly saturated; indeed, on every side of the mountain such springs abound.
There is an idea prevalent among Italian geologists that Mons Vulture was in distant ages close to the Adriatic, as they believe that Puglia Piana, as it is called, was then submerged, and only raised gradually by the violent throes of nature. There is no doubt that this part of Italy is only slightly raised above the level of the sea, 5 and the land lying between the plains of Cannæ and Venusia would have then formed an inland bay.
I travelled for thirty miles along the banks of the Aufidus, from Cannæ to Venusia, and I was particularly struck by the level nature of the country till I arrived near the birth-place of Horace. Venusia stands in the water-shed of a ridge, on one side of which the waters flow into the Aufidus and hence into the Adriatic, while on the other they fall into the river Bradanus, now Bradano, at the mouth of which I found, some fifty miles farther south, the ruins of the celebrated temple at Metapontum, now known to the inhabitants as “Tavola dei Paladini.” The Bradanus has a long course, taking its rise at the foot of Mons Vultur, and flowing southward into the Gulf of Taranto, it formed the boundary between Apulia and Lucania.
At the time when Puglia Piana is supposed to have been submerged, geologists imagine that the Gulf of Taranto was untied to the Adriatic across the neck of land which joins Brundusium to Tarentum: so that the Japygian peninsula must then have been an island. No doubt this neck of land is at no great height above the sea level. I travelled along it from Manduria, through Uria, to Brundusium. I found that it was at Uria the central point, where the ridge began to rise, which runs northward and forms what is known to the Italians as Puglia Pietrosa. A very slight subsidence would again make the Japygian peninsula into an island.