OLBIA

by John Warre Tyndale

The Island of Sardinia

London 1849

Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street. Publisher in Ordinary to Her Majesty


The plain of Terranova, about thirty miles square, approached by a gradual and beautiful descent, is enclosed by mountains on every side, except where it is open to the spacious harbour on the east. The Monte Congianus to the north, the Monte Pino and Monte Santo to the north-west, the distant ragged peaks of Limbara to the south-west, and a confused undulating mass of hills, to the south, form a fine panoramic horizon. Wherever cultivated, the plain is excessively fertile, and the shrubs and underwood, which thrive beautifully on the neglected parts, attest the natural richness of the soil.

The history of Terranova is involved in obscurity, and its origin has been variously attributed to Siculian, Greek, and Gaulic colonies. Its ancient name, Olbia, – meaning “happy,” – as given by Claudian and other writers, would imply a Greek origin; but a more perfect misnomer, in the present condition of the town, could not be found.

Olbia does not appear authentically mentioned till the year 259, b.C, when Lucius Cornelius Scipio attacked Corsica and Sardinia, to dispossess the Carthaginians of these islands. Having taken Aleria in Corsica, he proceeded to Olbia, and besieged it with a numerous land and sea force. […]

After the conquest of Olbia, Scipio laid waste the whole of the surrounding country, expelling the Carthaginians and defeating the Sardes, thousands of whom, as captives, adorned the triumph decreed to him on his return to Rome.

The indirect mention made of Olbia during the next 600 years, is such that we may believe it flourished and prospered under the Roman sway, as its proximity to the mouth of the Tiber made it the principal export town of the north of Sardinia. It appears that, about the year 54, b.C, Quintus Tullius, brother of Marcus Tullius Cicero, was residing here for what purpose is not positively known, though conjectured to have been for the purchase of grain; but the letters between the brothers contain nothing of importance. It was about b.C. 52 that Cicero made his celebrated defence at Rome, of Marcus Scaurus, the Praetor, against the charge of peculation in the island.

The town existed a.D. 397, and its destruction may, with probability, be attributed to Genseric, in his invasion in 462, a.D.; after which a village was raised on or near its ruins, called Fausania, evidently very insignificant, for Gregory the Great, a.D. 594, in a charge to the ecclesiastical authorities of Sardinia to put an end to the heathen worship then existing in Gallura, designates it as merely a “luogo,” a place.

In 893, having become a bishopric, it was styled Civita, by which name it is still known in ecclesiastical matters; and in 1198 was assigned over by Innocent III to the Pisans, during whose conflict with the Genoese the town was destroyed, and rebuilt with its last and present name of Terranova.

It suffered also during the wars between the Genoese and Aragonese, from the Moorish corsairs; and in 1553, when the French and Turkish fleets, in their alliance against Charles V, after subduing the greater part of Corsica, proceeded to attack Sardinia. Dragute, the Turkish admiral, entered the port of Terranova, and completely sacked and burned the town, seized a large number of the inhabitants while at mass, and carried them off from the church in chains.

It was known to the English in 1711, during the contest between the houses of Spain and Austria, when the Bourbon party had several points in Gallura, and among others Terranova. The English fleet was at that time cruising off Sardinia to intercept the Spanish vessels, and Admiral Noma, on hearing of the seizure of the town by Count de Castiglione, landed 1000 men, who, after a short contest near the church of St. Simplicius, forced the Count to surrender.

The Austrian disembarkation in 1717 was not so successful, for 450 troops having landed, on the supposition that the inhabitants had declared against Philip of Spain and had sided with them, were decoyed with every appearance of alliance, by a priest, who, with a band of Gallurese amounting to only sixty men, while conducting them through the country to Alghero, attacked them on a given signal in a defile called Della Scala, and, having disarmed them, reconducted them as captives to Terranova.

Some salt marshes to the north and north-west of the town formerly gave a profitable return, but the mountain streams having been allowed to flow into them, and no care being taken to drain them, or the plain, scarcely any salt is obtained, and the whole district suffers severely from intemperie. The wretched approach across these marshes is worthy of the town itself.

The houses, none of which have an elegant or neat appearance, are built mostly of granite, and are whitewashed, as if to give a greater contrast to the general filth and dirt within and around them.

The parochial church, a fair specimen of architecture, has a high altar rich in various colored marbles, a railing of corresponding materials, and behind it an old carved oak choir. The pulpit, – the most curious object in the church, – has panels of inlaid wood, on which are represented portraits of saints and scriptural scenes, among which the temptation of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife is an amusing specimen of morals and church decoration. The belfry commands an excellent view of the country.

Among the three other small churches in the immediate district, and eight more in other parts of the commune, the ancient cathedral dedicated to St. Simplicius, about a quarter of a mile to the west of the town, is more interesting from its antiquity than architectural beauty.

The supposition that it was founded in the seventh century is borne out by the characteristic simplicity of many parts; while those added by the Pisans equally attest their era. The granite pilasters supporting small arches, retain the sharpness of their original cutting; four of the granite columns forming the aisles are apparently of Roman workmanship; the upper part is of brick and cement; and its dark and gloomy appearance, having no window or light but that which enters by the door, is quite is accordance with its ruined and dilapidated condition.

Service is only performed thrice in the year; that on the 15th May, the natal Festa of St. Simplicius, a Sarde saint of great repute, who is said to have suffered martyrdom under the Dioclesian persecution in 304, is the most important, and celebrated by the Gallurese with horseracing, masses, and dancing.

Near the church are the remains of some buildings, the masonry of which bespeaks a more ancient date than the Pisan dominion. One, circular, and made of granite, about twelve feet high and thirteen feet six inches in diameter, with a small arched building adjoining, may possibly have been part of a baptistery or campanile, as supposed; but now has more the appearance of a brick kiln.

The inner wall of the ancient Olbia, in many parts tolerably perfect, may be traced close round the present town; and an external embankment with a shallow fosse, and occasional remains of brickwork taking an irregular course about a quarter of a mile distant, were probably the outer wall.

A friend with whom I was staying recollected the inner wall of the city being quite perfect, as well as two archways of Roman construction which served as the east and west gates, – the Porta marina and Porta di terra of the town. Not a stone of them, however, remains, – the inhabitants having, from time to time, made use of them for building their own houses, to which purpose also the city walls have been applied. The large and beautiful square tower facing the shore, – of a much later date, – has suffered a similar fate, and its external walls are all that remain.

The king having, at his late visit to Terranova, expressed a wish that some excavations should be made, the spot selected was between the church of St. Simplicius and the town; and being there a few days afterwards, I saw them in nearly the same state as when first opened. In several tombs made of brick and cement, lying close to each other, and averaging from six feet two inches long by two feet two inches wide, to eight feet by three feet six inches wide, and about three feet deep, were found vases, intaglios, rings, and buckles; and in other parts of the excavations were pieces of mosaic, the position and form of which denoted them to have been a bath.

Other remains which, judging from the large blocks of granite, must have been those of a massive building, were discovered; and brickwork and well-chiselled stones may be found in almost all parts on turning up the ground to the depth of three feet.

A circumstance narrated to me by the gentleman who had the management of these excavations, illustrates the influence of the priesthood on the superstitious prejudices of the people. A heavy gale of wind and storm having done some damage to the town during the progress of digging up the graves, the priests assured the people, and the people reiterated the assurance, that the calamity arose from, and was a punishment for having disturbed and dug up the tombs of the holy saints and martyrs of Terranova!

Many of the inhabitants have rings, intaglios, and other Roman relics, found at various times in the immediate vicinity of the town, some of which are well cut and very perfect. Parts of the aqueduct which brought the water from the hills on the north side of the town, are still to be seen in the plain; but it has no appearance of having been a work of importance; and about half a mile to the north-east, on the sea-shore, are the remains of the Roman Mole and Quay.

The bay of Terranova, six miles in length, has the appearance of a lake, being land-locked by headlands at the entrance, behind which the island of Tavolara stands as a wall on the horizon. It is ill adapted for shipping, being shallow towards the shore, full of small rocks, and its average depth in the centre only three to four fathoms.

A large bar at the entrance, generally supposed by the ignorant and inert Sardes to have been made by the Pisans, or Genoese, in their wars, has just been examined by order of the King, and found to be merely an accumulation of sand and alluvial deposit from the river Olbio, – more commonly known as the Padrooianu, – a beautiful and rapid mountain-torrent, which, rising in the Limbara, and after receiving several tributary streamlets, and passing through the ravines of the mountains on the south of the plain, empties itself at the mouth of the harbour. […]

As there are not above eight feet water over the bar, and that depending on the winds and currents, only small vessels can enter, and those of larger tonnage lie in the roadsteads, either under Cape Figari, or off the island of Tavolara, from whence the goods are transported to and from the town in large flat-bottomed barges; and should the accumulation of mud and sand continue as heretofore, it is calculated that in thirty years the whole harbour will be converted into a lake; and the town itself, which has every capability of being one of the most commercial and flourishing in Sardinia, will then be deprived of the little prosperity it now enjoys.

About eighty vessels were trading with Terranova in 1842, the greater part of which were Genoese, the rest from Leghorn and Naples, with one from France and one from England. The state of commerce may be judged of by the exports during four months of the year I was there. The principal articles were cork, skins, cheese, cattle, and wood […].

The population of Terranova is about 2000, including the pastori of the district; with the exception of whom and of a few fishermen, the greater part are engaged as viandanti in the transport of the produce from and to the interior. The languid and pale appearance of the inhabitants may be attributed to their natural inertness and the intemperie.

About five miles to the south south-west of Terranova is a pyramidal granite rock rising abruptly in the plain about 250 feet, and except on one side, inaccessible. On its summit are the remains of the old castle of Detrès [Pedrès], to which no peculiar interest is attached, though some of the walls have survived, and the cisterns and secret passages through the crevices of the rocks silently tell of past feudal importance and warfare. The exterior masonry of a large square tower about seventy feet high, is in excellent preservation, but the interior has entirely fallen in, and left no means of ascending to the top, where flocks of wild pigeons hold their undisturbed reign.

Its position is not to be compared to that of Castel Doris on the Coquinas; but the view from the terrace is fine, and embraces the ruins of several other castles and towers on the craggy points of the hills surrounding the plains. Among them, Telti, or Castelazzo della Paludaccia [Paulazza], is the most considerable and picturesque.

The ascent of the lower ranges of the Monte Nieddu is very steep, and the manner in which the horses threaded their way up and between the large blocks of granite was incredible. After an hour’s ride through another wild parterre of aromatic flowers, herbs, and shrubs, the path loses itself in a magnificent forest of oak and ilex, a district from time immemorial abounding in banditi, and in the present day so secure a retreat for them and the vagabond malviventi, that even the inhabitants of the few “stazzus” hardly know the passes and fastnesses. […]

My guide through this wild and trackless country was selected for me as being known to the banditi, and thereby ensuring me a safe passage and friendly reception. He always kept a little in advance, and was spokesman to several very suspicious-looking characters we fell in with during the day; but I could neither hear nor understand the low mumbling words they exchanged, nor elicit from him what had transpired beyond his invariable “è un amico mio,” perfectly compatible with banditi, fuorusciti, or any other species of outlaw.

One of them asked me, as a favor, for some gunpowder, an outward and visible sign of his profession; hut seeing I had no gun, he seemed to believe my assertion that I had no powder; so in lieu of it I gave him the usual “bonus dias,” with which he seemed equally well pleased, a soft half Spanish, half Sarde answer which has turned away many a man’s bullet, as well as his wrath.

The path descending from the mountain, passes Bilchi Nieddu, an assemblage of six or eight miserable hats, the only habitations in a tract of many miles, and, compared to which, the shepherd’s cottage in the road from La Madalena to Terranova, was quite luxurious. The whole population of men, women, children, dogs, pigs, and fowls, collected around me on my arrival; and various were the questions as to who and what I was, whence I came, and whither I was going.

As usual, they could not comprehend that any one could travel for pleasure, merely for the purpose of seeing their country; they amusingly applied my visit as peculiar to themselves; were quite puzzled why a “cavaliere from Terra ferma,” should possibly come so far for the purpose of seeing them, and should refuse their offer of eating meat and milk with them, and of being escorted over the next mountain.


SOURCES OF ILLUSTRATIONS

19th Century Paintings, Drawings and Lithographs (captions translated freely)

Lorenzo Pedrone, “Shepherd from Gallura”, ca 1841, IN Luciano Baldassarre, Cenni sulla Sardegna, illustrati da 60 litografie in colore, Torino, Botta, 1841; Torino, Schiepatti, 1843 (rist. Archivio fotografico sardo, 1986, 2003).

Craveri, “Gulf of Terranova”, 1739.

Contemporary Photos

coll. Marella Giovannelli

San Simplicio, in www.paradisola.it

coll. Binari a Golfo Aranci

Foto contemporanee

FZA_1970 – Flickr, Aurelio Candido – Flickr, Mauriziolbia, CC BY-SA 4.0, wikimedia commons, Nerone – museo archeologico di Cagliari (ma proveniente da Olbia), di Dan Diffendale – Flickr, Margherita Cossu – Flickr, Christophe Dayer – Flickr, Dan Diffendale – Flickr, Salvatore Solinas – Flickr, Luca Farneti – Flickr, Olive Titus – Flickr, Marco Lostia – Flickr, Roberto Saggia.

Wreck of a Roman ship – Archaeological Museum of Olbia, by pp02918, CC BY 3.0, wikimedia commons

Reconstruction of ancient Olbia by Rubens D’Oriano – Superintendence of archaeological heritage Sardinia

San Simplicio, archaeological excavations, di www.gruppogedi.it