Letter from Charles S. Peirce to his wife Melusina Fay
(Syracuse, 22.09.1870)




Spanish translation & annotations

Syracuse 1870 Sep 22
Dear Zina. Sicily is a dreadfully vexatious place -they impose upon one so frightfully and especially upon me because I do not know one single word of the lingo. Consequently I was fretting most of the time I was in Messina & left there in thoroughly bad humour. But the extraordinary & picturesque appearance of the country was too much for the worst of tempers. It is difficult to give a notion of the character of a country so unlike what you have seen. You are to imagine hills almost mountains precipitously though rounded & totally without the grave & gloomy effect which hills usually have but on the contrary seeming particularly joyous. All is joy in Sicily. They were often covered with vines when not too steep & it was time of the vintage. The peassants were apparently in high spirits. These hills also derived a peculiar effect from being all covered over with horizontal lines thus.

They often had old strongholds on them but oftener far more picturesque churches & villages. No doubt this is the garden of the world, I thought. That evening I arrived at Giardini whence I was to ascend to Taormina. Thinking I should have to carry up my heavy trunks, I hired a voiture & then decided to leave behind all but my handbag.

I found on the way up that the man of whom I hired the carriage was not the voiturier

at all but a cicerone. I then thought of Aunt Sarah’s emphatic advice always to employ these men & puzzled my head all the way up in thinking how it could possibly be advantageous to me. I told him to drive to the Locanda Timeo. When we arrived there a very small affair, because Taormina is a mere dot of a place, I was shown to a decent but melancholy looking little chamber. Here in Italy one always begin by bargaining about the price of the room so I commenced by saying that the hotel had been recommended to me not by the guide but by Bädeker’s handbook. Ah! In that case, says the man, I will show you another chamber. He, therefore, took me into a perfect love of a room with two beds (which made me think how charming it would be to have you there. You know there are no double beds here) a room with a charming exquisite view from its balcony —with a separate room to wash & a third for other conveniences the whole in pimlico order. And the price was 2 francs a day. Now that’s the minimum. Now I said to myself this infernal cicerone’s officious & interested aid would have prevented my getting this room. I had a nice supper in my room with good wine (wine is always thrown in, & has been everywhere since I left Vienna —indeed, was there & at Pest) after which I sought what may be euphemistically termed the downy (beds in this country being composed of a couple of cotton mattresses laid on boards) where I laid awake all night (as I always do now) think-

ing what a charming place this would be for us to pass a month in. In the morning I was up at 5 o’clock & got up to go to the Greek Theatre to see the sunrise. The sunrise was in some respects rather unfavorable. It was cloudy. Still the sun did come out at last & the effects of light in the clouds & sea were very wonderful. I never saw the like of it at all. But how can I give you any sort of notion of the enchanting, enchanting view? I was standing in a very lofty promontory in the pure undeceptive light of morning looking down upon the sea. Just below me, 50 feet or so, was this ancient theatre. In ruins but enough left to show readily how it used to be with its beautiful columns, circles & arches, quite enough to be very beautiful still. Enough to make you think the people who selected this enchanting site for it hadn’t been gone so very long. I was not at the summit of the promontory, though very high. High above me was an awful rocky head, the ancient acropolis, crowned with a formidable looking fortress. For many miles along the shores stretched such hills as I had seen the day before with sunny valleys beneath them & the sea rolled in onto the beach. I could see many villages both in the valleys & on the hills —nearest of course the curious little town of Taormina & much verdure. Across the sea on one side


the shores of Calabria were very prominent & in the opposite direction over the land rose Etna majestic & awful. It is to see such things as this that it is worth while to come abroad, things which no art can reproduce. There is a great deal else of interest about Taormina but I had no time for it & hurried back to breakfast & to descend. A woman carried down my things on her head. I took the train for Catania and as we approached Etna & I saw the awful extent of its fields of lava & their depth & how this enormeus Etna was all blotched with craters each itself a mountain I got a respect for it.

You say I worship success, well this old fellow may have had bad aims but he had certainly carried out his views most thoroughly. The lava when it is many centuries old gets to be the most fertile soil. At first, nothing grows on it, then the Indian fig a tropical-looking juiceless thing, afterwards other trees olives etc. finally grapes. I will tell you how Sicily is like.

Take Nahant & magnify it 100 times in every dimension, clothe it with verdure in great measure & you have it. Unfortunately there appeared to be no chance of ascending Etna, a thing I very deeply regretted. Its head was in clouds. It would clearly remain so till cold weather which comes soon now. I should


have been here a week earlier. Arrived at Catania I went to the Grand Hotel of Catania —a villainous place where my bill for one day was 28 francs 70 centimes! The worst is I must return there, because I sent quantities of clothes to the wash there. The antiquities of Catania are many & insignificant & therefore everyway calculated to bore the visitor. The only thing I cared for was a beautiful bust of Faustina which I couldn’t tire of looking at. Marcus Aurelius & I are perhaps the only people who have ever appreciated this great creature. Here was another thing not to be reproduced. Memory itself cannot do justice to this beautiful work. Besides this I saw a great monastery —one of the largest in Europe. It rejoiced my heart to see this great quiet home for study, to see this nursery for chastity, to see it I say occupied by soldiers & to learn that there are now but two monks left. Alas, the Italians are so weighed down by the history & their relics & have become from the people most in grim earnest so poetical & unpractical that they never can come to anything. It’s a pity for they might become a fine race if it weren’t for that. I saw one very singular thing at this monastery. At the great eruption of 1669 a monstrous wall of lava, which after the lapse of two centuries is dreadful to see, came marching down to Catania and did indeed


annihilate a portion of the city. So when this was coming down uncomfortably near to the monastery the holy brethren went out with the veil of St. Agatha or something the consequence being that it turned aside & now it is to be seen just grazing the building coming within ten feet of it in two places.

This struck me as marvellous and as beyond a doubt an argument in favour of monasticism having the special favour of heaven. I found however that the earthquake of 1693 had not been so considerate but had totally destroyed the building, in consequence of which another, the present one, was built & of course was put as marvellously near the lava as was thought necessary. The morning after my arrival at Catania it looked rather promising for a view from Etna for the next morning so I determined to go but the coachman was so extortionate, demanding 35 francs to go to Nicolosi & come back next day, that I gave it up. It turned out I should have had a perfect sunrise. I was sorry for it is no doubt one of the greatest sights in the world. So I left in a great hurry for Syracuse leaving most of my baggage behind. I took the train for Lentini & thence by diligence (10 francs!) to Syracuse. Arrived at night & put up at the Albergo della Sole. Nobody speaks French & I haven’t even an Italian phrase book & I can’t understand one word of Italian nor the pople here one word of French. Of course English and German are simply out of the question.


Up early in the morning after my usual tumbling & tossing & went to the museum. Here was a Venus of which I had high expectations. It is certainly a great work but quite different from what I had imagined it. It has no head. It is very pure but excessively delicious. In that way it far surpasses any Titian’s Venus or anything I ever saw while it is much less voluptuous. I should think the Sicilian women might some of them be of this type. I would have got a drawing of it but they so miserably failed to catch the point of the original that I thought them much worse than nothing —positive libels. From here I went & saw ever so many antiquities, some very absurdly uninteresting —the fount of Arethusa for example. I wanted to laugh when I saw it, it is so completely different from what it used to be— iron railing and all. I got dreadfully exhausted by my walk not having had a good sleep for a long time & the sun being hot. Strange by the way how at every step southward I have found it cooler. At London & Berlin it was broiling. At Dresden more comfortable. At Pest quite so. At Wien a little chilly at night. At Constantinople decidedly cool & I caught a cold. At Larissa a fur lined great coat was grateful at night. Here when I came away from Catania dressed


for Etna in my thickest clothes throughout I did not find it uncomfortable & tonight again I have shut the window & put on a winter coat to keep warm. It feels autumnal. I suspect summer is the time for Italy. The vintage is good it is true. But come in summer & take quinine all the time is I guess the best. However, yesterday being out exposed directly to the sun for a good while & feeling quite exhausted when I started & having drunk I think too much strong Sicilian wine for breakfast I did get played out. The most interesting things I saw were the Greek theatre & its vicinity, the Roman amphiteatre, & the so called ear of Dionysus.

Sunday Sep 25. I will not bother you with an attempt at describing these things. Suffice it to say that the theatre & amphitheatre are in good preservation except the stage of the theatre, the part best preserved at Taormina. The situation of the theatre is magnificent & one can see that the squares & streets just about it were very rich & fine. The ear of Dyonisus is in one of the inmense ancient quarries here. It is a great chamber having a vertical section like this.

It is hewn out of the rock & a horizontal section thus. It has a wonderful echo or rather a wonderful resonance for the echo is strictly single but it is much louder than the original sound. Thus, tearing a piece of paper produces a loud echo. This chamber is believed to be a prison which Dyonisus had constructed so


that he could hear every word said in them. I think it is probably the true explanation of it. I returned from my excursion to see these things feeling quite exhausted & at night I had what I now perceive was a little attack of fever & ague which has been repeated in a somewhat more decided form the two following nights. It quite incapacitates me for doing much of anything during the day. Syracuse is a filthy place. On the other side of this leaf is a figure of my hand as it was yesterday morning showing the flea bites. Bedbugs also abound. But the worst of all are the lice of which the less said the better. Only they seem to be in every pillow. To add to my discomfort a great piece of gold has come out of one of my teeth & that aches. Considering that I can’t speak a single word to anybody, I think I do well not to have fallen into low spirits. I am quite out of health & am tempted to omit going to Spain & come right home. When I get to Naples I will take a week to recruit & see how I feel then.

I meant to have left here day before yesterday evening. But hearing that there would be a steamboat in the morning & not fancying a diligence-ride all night I concluded to wait. In the morning the boat didn't come. It appeared that owing to bad weather it could not leave Malta. This morning it is hoped for about noon. What a thing it is for Syracusan schoolboys to read that account by Thucydides of the seige of their own city & be able to understand & see just where the line of ships was stretched across the harbour & where the double wall was built etc. C.S.P.


Una de las ventajas de los textos en formato electrónico respecto de los textos impresos es que pueden corregirse con gran facilidad mediante la colaboración activa de los lectores que adviertan erratas, errores o simplemente mejores transcripciones. En este sentido agradeceríamos que se enviaran todas las sugerencias y correcciones a sbarrena@unav.es

Proyecto de investigación "La correspondencia europea de C. S. Peirce: creatividad y cooperación científica (Universidad de Navarra 2007-09)

Fecha del documento: 16 de diciembre 2008
Última actualización: 14 de septiembre 2017
[Main Page]