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Chapter 35


A pilgrimage to Vallombrosa!--in sooth it has a romantic sound. The phrase calls up images of rosaries, and crosses, and shaven-headed friars. Had we lived in the olden days, such things might verily have accompanied our journey to that holy monastery. We might then have gone barefoot, saying prayers as we toiled along the banks of the Arno and up the steep Appenines, as did Benevenuto Cellini, before he poured the melted bronze into the mould of his immortal Perseus. But we are pilgrims to the shrines of Art and Genius; the dwelling-places of great minds are our sanctuaries. The mean dwelling, in which a poet has battled down poverty with the ecstacy of his mighty conceptions, and the dungeon in which a persecuted philosopher has languished, are to us sacred; we turn aside from the palaces of kings and the battle-fields of conquerors, to visit them. The famed miracles of San Giovanni Gualberto added little, in our eyes, to the interest of Vallombrosa, but there were reverence and inspiration in the names of Dante, Milton, and Ariosto.

We left Florence early, taking the way that leads from the Porta della Croce, up the north bank of the Arno. It was a bright morning, but there was a shade of vapor on the hills, which a practised eye might have taken as a prognostic of the rain that too soon came on. Fiesole, with its tower and Acropolis, stood out brightly from the blue background, and the hill of San Miniato lay with its cypress groves in the softest morning light. The Contadini were driving into the city in their basket wagons, and there were some fair young faces among them, that made us think Italian beauty was not altogether in the imagination.

After walking three or four miles, we entered the Appenines, keeping along the side of the Arno, whose bed is more than half dried up from the long summer heats. The mountain sides were covered with vineyards, glowing with their wealth of white and purple grapes, but the summits were naked and barren. We passed through the little town of Ponte Sieve, at the entrance of a romantic valley, where our view of the Arno was made more interesting by the lofty range of the Appenines, amid whose forests we could see the white front of the monastery of Vallombrosa. But the clouds sank low and hid it from sight, and the rain came on so hard that we were obliged to take shelter occasionally in the cottages by the wayside. In one of these we made a dinner of the hard, black bread of the country, rendered palatable by the addition of mountain cheese and some chips of an antique Bologna sausage. We were much amused in conversing with the simple hosts and their shy, gipsy-like children, one of whom, a dark-eyed, curly-haired boy, bore the name of Raphael. We also became acquainted with a shoemaker and his family, who owned a little olive orchard and vineyard, which they said produced enough to support them. Wishing to know much a family of six consumed in a year, we inquired the yield of their property. They answered, twenty small barrels of wine, and ten of oil. It was nearly sunset when we reached Pellago, and the wet walk and coarse fare we were obliged to take on the road, well qualified us to enjoy the excellent supper the pleasant landlady gave us.

This little town is among the Appenines, at the foot of the magnificent mountain of Vallombrosa. What a blessing it was for Milton, that he saw its loveliness before his eyes closed on this beautiful earth, and gained from it another hue in which to dip his pencil, when he painted the bliss of Eden! I watched the hills all day as we approached them, and thought how often his eyes had rested on their outlines, and how he had carried their forms in his memory for many a sunless year. The banished Dante, too, had trodden them, flying from his ungrateful country; and many another, whose genius has made him a beacon in the dark sea of the world's history. It is one of those places where the enjoyment is all romance, and the blood thrills as we gaze upon it.

We started early next morning, crossed the ravine, and took the well-paved way to the monastery along the mountain side. The stones are worn smooth by the sleds in which ladies and provisions are conveyed up, drawn by the beautiful white Tuscan oxen. The hills are covered with luxuriant chesnut and oak trees, of those picturesque forms which they only wear in Italy: one wild dell in particular is much resorted to by painters for the ready-made foregrounds it supplies. Further on, we passed the Paterno, a rich farm belonging to the Monks. The vines which hung from tree to tree, were almost breaking beneath clusters as heavy and rich as those which the children of Israel bore on staves from the Promised Land. Of their flavor, we can say, from experience, they were worthy to have grown in Paradise. We then entered a deep dell of the mountain, where little shepherd girls were sitting on the rocks tending their sheep and spinning with their fingers from a distaff, in the same manner, doubtless, as the Roman shepherdesses two thousand years ago. Gnarled, gray olive trees, centuries old, grew upon the bare soil, and a little rill fell in many a tiny cataract down the glen. By a mill, in one of the coolest and wildest nooks I ever saw, two of us acted the part of water-spirits under one of these, to the great astonishment of four peasants, who watched us from a distance.

Beyond, our road led through forests of chesnut and oak, and a broad view of mountain and vale lay below us. We asked a peasant boy we met, how much land the Monks of Vallombrosa possessed. "All that you see!" was the reply. The dominion of the good fathers reached once even to the gates of Florence. At length, about noon, we emerged from the woods into a broad avenue leading across a lawn, at whose extremity stood the massivs buildings of the monastery. On a rock that towered above it, was the Paradisino, beyond which rose the mountain, covered with forests--

"Shade above shade, a woody theatre.
Of stateliest view"--

as Milton describes it. We were met at the entrance by a young monk in cowl and cassock, to whom we applied for permission to stay till the next day, which was immediately given. Brother Placido (for that was his name) then asked us if we would not have dinner. We replied that our appetites were none the worse for climbing the mountain; and in half an hour sat down to a dinner, the like of which we had not seen for a long time. Verily, thought I, it must be a pleasant thing to be a monk, after all!--that is, a monk of Vallombrosa.

In the afternoon we walked through a grand pine forest to the western brow of the mountain, where a view opened which it would require a wonderful power of the imagination for you to see in fancy, as I did in reality. From the height where we stood, the view was uninterrupted to the Mediterranean, a distance of more than seventy miles; a valley watered by a brunch of the Arno swept far to the east, to the mountains near the Luke of Thrasymene; northwestwards the hills of Carrara bordered the horizon; the space between these wide points was filled with mountains and valleys, all steeped in that soft blue mist which makes Italian landscapes more like heavenly visions than realities. Florence was visible afar off, and the current of the Arno flashed in the sun. A cool and almost chilling wind blew constantly over the mountain, although the country below basked in summer heat. We lay on the rocks, and let our souls luxuriate in the lovely scene till near sunset. Brother Placido brought us supper in the evening, with his ever-smiling countenance, and we soon after went to our beds in the neat, plain chambers, to get rid of the unpleasant coldness.

Next morning it was damp and misty, and thick clouds rolled down the forests towards the convent. I set out for the "Little Paradise," taking in my way the pretty cascade which falls some fifty feet down the rocks. The building is not now as it was when Milton lived here, having been rebuilt within a short time. I found no one there, and satisfied my curiosity by climbing over the wall and looking in at the windows. A little chapel stands in a cleft of the rock below, to mark the miraculous escape of St. John Gualberto, founder of the monastery. Being one day very closely pursued by the Devil, he took shelter under the rock, which immediately became soft and admitted him into it, while the fiend, unable to stop, was precipitated over the steep. All this is related in a Latin inscription, and we saw a large hollow in the rock near, which must have been intended for the imprint left by his sacred person.

One of the monks told us another legend, concerning a little chapel which stands alone on a wild part of the mountain, above a rough pile of crags, called the "Peak of the Devil." "In the time of San Giovanni Gualberto, the holy founder of our order," said he, "there was a young man, of a noble family in Florence, who was so moved by the words of the saintly father, that he forsook the world, wherein he had lived with great luxury and dissipation, and became monk. But, after a time, being young and tempted again by the pleasures he had renounced, he put off the sacred garments. The holy San Giovanni warned him of the terrible danger in which he stood, and at length the wicked young man returned. It was not a great while, however, before he became dissatisfied, and in spite all holy counsel, did the same thing again. But behold what happened! As he was walking along the peak where the chapel stands, thinking nothing of his great crime, the devil sprang suddenly from behind a rock, and catching the young man in his arms, before he could escape, carried him with a dreadful noise and a great red flame and smoke over the precipice, so that he was never afterwards seen."

The church attached to the monastery is small, but very solemn and venerable. I went several times to muse in its still, gloomy aisle, and hear the murmuring chant of the Monks, who went through their exercises in some of the chapels. At one time I saw them all, in long black cassocks, march in solemn order to the chapel of St. John Gualberto, where they sang a deep chant, which to me had something awful and sepulchral in it. Behind the high altar I saw their black, carved chairs of polished oak, with ponderous gilded foliants lying on the rails before them. The attendant opened one of these, that we might see the manuscript notes, three or four centuries old, from which they sung.

We were much amused in looking through two or three Italian books, which were lying in the traveler's room. One of these which our friend Mr. Tandy, of Kentucky, read, described the miracles of the patron saint with an air of the most ridiculous solemnity. The other was a description of the Monastery, its foundation, history, etc. In mentioning its great and far-spread renown, the author stated then even an English poet, by the name of Milton, had mentioned it in the following lines, which I copied verbatim from the book:

"Thick as autumnal scaves that strow she brooks
In vallombrosa, whereth Etruian Jades
Stigh over orch d'embrover!"

In looking over the stranger's book, I found among the names of my countrymen, that of S. V. Clevenger, the talented and lamented sculptor who died at sea on his passage home. There were also the names of Mrs. Shelley and the Princess Potemkin, and I saw written on the wall, the autograph of Jean Reboul, the celebrated modern French poet. We were so delighted with the place we would have stayed another day, but for fear of trepassing too much on the lavish and unceasing hospitality of the good fathers.

So in the afternoon we shook hands with Brother Placido, and turned our backs regretfully upon one of the loneliest and loveliest spots of which earth can boast. The sky became gradually clear as we descended, and the mist raised itself from the distant mountains. We ran down through the same chesnut groves, diverging a little to go through the village of Tosi, which is very picturesque when seen from a distance, but extremely dirty to one passing through. I stopped in the ravine below to take a sketch of the mill and bridge, and as we sat, the line of golden sunlight rose higher on the mountains above. On walking down the shady side of this glen, we were enraptured with the scenery. A brilliant yet mellow glow lay over the whole opposing height, lighting up the houses of Tosi and the white cottages half seen among the olives, while the mountain of Vallombrosa stretched far heavenward like a sunny painting, with only a misty wreath floating and waving around its summit. The glossy foliage of the chesnuts was made still brighter by the warm light, and the old olives softened down into a silvery gray, whose contrast gave the landscape a character of the mellowest beauty. As we wound out of the deep glen, the broad valleys and ranges of the Appenines lay before us, forests, castles and villages steeped in the soft, vapory blue of the Italian atmosphere, and the current of the Arno flashing like a golden belt through the middle of the picture.

The sun was nearly down, and the mountains just below him were of a deep purple hue, while those that ran out to the eastward wore the most aerial shade of blue. A few scattered clouds, floating above, soon put on the sunset robe of orange and a band of the same soft color encircled the western horizon. It did not reach half way to the zenith, however; the sky above was blue, of such a depth and transparency, that to gaze upward was like looking into eternity. Then how softly and soothingly the twilight came on! How deep a hush sank on the chesnut glades, broken only by the song of the cicada, chirping its "good-night carol!" The mountains, too, how majestic they stood in their deep purple outlines! Sweet, sweet Italy! I can feel now how the soul may cling to thee, since thou canst thus gratify its insatiable thirst for the Beautiful. Even thy plainest scene is clothed in hues that seem borrowed of heaven! In the twilight, more radiant than light, and the stillness, more eloquent than music, which sink down over the sunny beauty of thy shores, there is a silent, intense poetry that stirs the soul through all its impassioned depths. With warm, blissful tears filling the eyes and a heart overflowing with its own bright fancies, I wander in the solitude and calm of such a time, and love thee as if I were a child of thy soil!

Bayard Taylor