The Slow Food Award for the Defense of Biodiversity came into being in 2000 to spotlight activities of research, production, marketing, popularization and documentation which benefit biodiversity in the agro-industrial field. From researchers to farmers, from distributors to teachers, from trade associations to entrepreneurs—all those who help check the impoverishment of the vegetable and animal heritage which helps form a country’s gastronomic culture and conserve the global ecological balance are ideal candidates for the Slow Food Award. We thought it would be interesting to discover the modes and mores of the ‘ancestors’ of our present-day defenders of biodiversity. Hence this occasional new series of historical testimonies.
Taranto, in the old days, when it was called Taras, or later Tarentum, stood on a long peninsula, which divides a little inland sea from the great sea without. In the Middle Ages the town occupied only the point of this neck of land, which, by the cutting of an artificial channel, had been made into an island: now again it is spreading over the whole of the ancient site; great buildings of yellowish- white stone, as ugly as modern architect can make them, and plainly far in excess of the actual demand for habitations, rise where Phœnicians and Greeks and Romans built after the nobler fashion of their times. One of my windows looked towards the old town, with its long sea-wall where fishermen’s nets hung drying, the dome of its Cathedral, the high, squeezed houses, often with gardens on the roofs, and the swing-bridge which links it to the mainland; the other gave me a view across the Mare Piccolo, the Little Sea (it is some twelve miles round about), dotted in many parts with crossed stakes which mark the oyster-beds, and lined on this side with a variety of shipping moored at quays. From some of these vessels, early next morning, sounded suddenly a furious cannonade, which threatened to shatter the windows of the hotel; I found it was in honour of the Queen of Italy, whose festa fell on that day. This barbarous uproar must have sounded even to the Calabrian heights; it struck me as more meaningless in its deafening volley of noise than any note of joy or triumph that could ever have been heard in old Tarentum.
I walked all round the island part of the town; lost myself amid its maze of streets, or alleys rather, for in many places one could touch both sides with outstretched arms, and rested in the Cathedral of S. Cataldo, who, by the bye, was an Irishman. All is strange, but too close-packed to be very striking or beautiful; I found it best to linger on the sea-wall, looking at the two islands in the offing, and over the great gulf with its mountain shore stretching beyond sight. On the rocks below stood fishermen hauling in a great net, whilst a boy splashed the water to drive the fish back until they were safely enveloped in the last meshes; admirable figures, consummate in graceful strength, their bare legs and arms the tone of terra cotta. What slight clothing they wore became them perfectly, as is always the case with a costume well adapted to the natural life of its wearers. Their slow, patient effort speaks of immemorial usage, and it is in harmony with time itself. These fishermen are the primitives of Taranto; who shall say for how many centuries they have hauled their nets upon the rock? When Plato visited the Schools of Taras, he saw the same brown-legged figures, in much the same garb, gathering their sea-harvest. When Hannibal, beset by the Romans, drew his ships across the peninsula and so escaped from the inner sea, fishermen of Tarentum went forth as ever, seeking their daily food. A thousand years passed, and the fury of the Saracens, when it had laid the city low, spared some humble Tarentine and the net by which he lived. To-day the fisher-folk form a colony apart; they speak a dialect which retains many Greek words unknown to the rest of the population. I could not gaze at them long enough; their lithe limbs, their attitudes at work or in repose, their wild, black hair, perpetually reminded me of shapes pictured on a classic vase.
George Robert Gissing (1857-1903) was born in Manchester. He began his literary career with occasional journalism and traveled round the Mediterranean visiting ; Naples, Rome, and Athens; In 1897 he revisited Italy with H. G. Wells, and recorded some of his impressions in ‘By the Ionian Sea’ (1901), from which the extract above is taken. His most famous work is the novel ‘New Grub Street’ (1891)