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From Chambery to Milan

Your truly sentimental tourist will never take it from any
occasion that there is absolutely nothing for him, and it was at
Chambéry--but four hours from Geneva--that I accepted the
situation and decided there might be mysterious delights in
entering Italy by a whizz through an eight-mile tunnel, even as a
bullet through the bore of a gun. I found my reward in the
Savoyard landscape, which greets you betimes with the smile of
anticipation. If it is not so Italian as Italy it is at least
more Italian than anything but Italy--more Italian, too, I
should think, than can seem natural and proper to the swarming
red-legged soldiery who so publicly proclaim it of the empire of
M. Thiers. The light and the complexion of things had to my eyes
not a little of that mollified depth last loved by them rather
further on. It was simply perhaps that the weather was hot and
the mountains drowsing in that iridescent haze that I have seen
nearer home than at Chambéry. But the vegetation, assuredly, had
an all but Transalpine twist and curl, and the classic wayside
tangle of corn and vines left nothing to be desired in the line
of careless grace. Chambéry as a town, however, constitutes no
foretaste of the monumental cities. There is shabbiness and
shabbiness, the fond critic of such things will tell you; and
that of the ancient capital of Savoy lacks style. I found a
better pastime, however, than strolling through the dark dull
streets in quest of effects that were not forthcoming. The first
urchin you meet will show you the way to Les Charmettes and the
Maison Jean-Jacques. A very. pleasant way it becomes as soon as
it leaves the town--a winding, climbing by-road, bordered with
such a tall and sturdy hedge as to give it the air of an English
lane--if you can fancy an English lane introducing you to the
haunts of a Madame de Warens.

The house that formerly sheltered this lady's singular ménage
stands on a hillside above the road, which a rapid path connects
with the little grass-grown terrace before it. It is a small
shabby, homely dwelling, with a certain reputable solidity,
however, and more of internal spaciousness than of outside
promise. The place is shown by an elderly competent dame who
points out the very few surviving objects which you may touch
with the reflection--complacent in whatsoever degree suits you--
that they have known the familiarity of Rousseau's hand. It was
presumably a meagrely-appointed house, and I wondered that on
such scanty features so much expression should linger. But the
structure has an ancient ponderosity, and the dust of the
eighteenth century seems to lie on its worm-eaten floors, to
cling to the faded old papiers à ramages on the walls and
to lodge in the crevices of the brown wooden ceilings. Madame de
Warens's bed remains, with the narrow couch of Jean-Jacques as
well, his little warped and cracked yellow spinet, and a
battered, turnip-shaped silver timepiece, engraved with its
master's name--its primitive tick as extinct as his passionate
heart-beats. It cost me, I confess, a somewhat pitying
acceleration of my own to see this intimately personal relic of
the genius loci--for it had dwelt; in his waistcoat-
pocket, than which there is hardly a material point in space
nearer to a man's consciousness--tossed so the dog's-eared
visitors' record or livre de cuisine recently denounced by
Madame George Sand. In fact the place generally, in so far as
some faint ghostly presence of its famous inmates seems to linger
there, is by no means exhilarating. Coppet and Ferney tell, if
not of pure happiness, at least of prosperity and, honour, wealth
and success. But Les Charmettes is haunted by ghosts unclean and
forlorn. The place tells of poverty, perversity, distress. A
good deal of clever modern talent in France has been employed in
touching up the episode of which it was the scene and tricking
it out in idyllic love-knots. But as I stood on the charming
terrace I have mentioned--a little jewel of a terrace, with
grassy flags and a mossy parapet, and an admirable view of great
swelling violet hills--stood there reminded how much sweeter
Nature is than man, the story looked rather wan and unlovely
beneath these literary decorations, and I could pay it no
livelier homage than is implied in perfect pity. Hero and heroine
have become too much creatures of history to take up attitudes as
part of any poetry. But, not to moralise too sternly for a
tourist between trains, I should add that, as an illustration,
to be inserted mentally in the text of the "Confessions," a
glimpse of Les Charmettes is pleasant enough. It completes the
rare charm of good autobiography to behold with one's eyes the
faded and battered background of the story; and Rousseau's
narrative is so incomparably vivid and forcible that the sordid
little house at Chambéry seems of a hardly deeper shade of
reality than so many other passages of his projected truth.

If I spent an hour at Les Charmettes, fumbling thus helplessly
with the past, I recognised on the morrow how strongly the Mont
Cenis Tunnel smells of the time to come. As I passed along the
Saint-Gothard highway a couple of months since, I perceived, half
up the Swiss ascent, a group of navvies at work in a gorge
beneath the road. They had laid bare a broad surface of granite
and had punched in the centre of it a round black cavity, of
about the dimensions, as it seemed to me, of a soup-plate. This
was to attain its perfect development some eight years hence. The
Mont Cenis may therefore be held to have set a fashion which will
be followed till the highest Himalaya is but the ornamental apex
or snow-capped gable-tip of some resounding fuliginous corridor.
The tunnel differs but in length from other tunnels; you spend
half an hour in it. But you whirl out into the blest peninsula,
and as you look back seem to see the mighty mass shrug its
shoulders over the line, the mere turn of a dreaming giant in his
sleep. The tunnel is certainly not a poetic object, out there is
no perfection without its beauty; and as you measure the long
rugged outline of the pyramid of which it forms the base you
accept it as the perfection of a short cut. Twenty-four hours
from Paris to Turin is speed for the times--speed which may
content us, at any rate, until expansive Berlin has succeeded in
placing itself at thirty-six from Milan.

To enter Turin then of a lovely August afternoon was to find a
city of arcades, of pink and yellow stucco, of innumerable cafes,
of blue-legged officers, of ladies draped in the North-Italian
mantilla. An old friend of Italy coming back to her finds an easy
waking for dormant memories. Every object is a reminder and every
reminder a thrill. Half an hour after my arrival, as I stood at
my window, which overhung the great square, I found the scene,
within and without, a rough epitome of every pleasure and every
impression I had formerly gathered from Italy: the balcony and
the Venetian-blind, the cool floor of speckled concrete, the
lavish delusions of frescoed wall and ceiling, the broad divan
framed for the noonday siesta, the massive medieval Castello in
mid-piazza, with its shabby rear and its pompous Palladian
front, the brick campaniles beyond, the milder, yellower light,
the range of colour, the suggestion of sound. Later, beneath the
arcades, I found many an old acquaintance: beautiful officers,
resplendent, slow-strolling, contemplative of female beauty;
civil and peaceful dandies, hardly less gorgeous, with that
religious faith in moustache and shirt-front which distinguishes
the belle jeunesse of Italy; ladies with heads artfully
shawled in Spanish-looking lace, but with too little art--or too
much nature at least--in the region of the bodice; well-
conditioned young abbati with neatly drawn stockings.
These indeed are not objects of first-rate interest, and with
such Turin is rather meagrely furnished. It has no architecture,
no churches, no monuments, no romantic street-scenery. It has the
great votive temple of the Superga, which stands on a high
hilltop above the city, gazing across at Monte Rosa and lifting
its own fine dome against the sky with no contemptible art. But
when you have seen the Superga from the quay beside the Po, a
skein of a few yellow threads in August, despite its frequent
habit of rising high and running wild, and said to yourself that
in architecture position is half the battle, you have nothing
left to visit but the Museum of pictures. The Turin Gallery,
which is large and well arranged, is the fortunate owner of three
or four masterpieces: a couple of magnificent Vandycks and a
couple of Paul Veroneses; the latter a Queen of Sheba and a Feast
of the House of Levi--the usual splendid combination of brocades,
grandees and marble colonnades dividing those skies de
turquoise malade
to which Théophile Gautier is fond of
alluding. The Veroneses are fine, but with Venice in prospect the
traveller feels at liberty to keep his best attention in reserve.
If, however, he has the proper relish for Vandyck, let him linger
long and fondly here; for that admiration will never be more
potently stirred than by the adorable group of the three little
royal highnesses, sons and the daughter of Charles I. All the
purity of childhood is here, and all its soft solidity of
structure, rounded tenderly beneath the spangled satin and
contrasted charmingly with the pompous rigidity. Clad
respectively in crimson, white and blue, these small scions stand
up in their ruffs and fardingales in dimpled serenity, squaring
their infantine stomachers at the spectator with an innocence, a
dignity, a delightful grotesqueness, which make the picture a
thing of close truth as well as of fine decorum. You might kiss
their hands, but you certainly would think twice before pinching
their cheeks--provocative as they are of this tribute of
admiration--and would altogether lack presumption to lift them
off the ground or the higher level or dais on which they stand so
sturdily planted by right of birth. There is something inimitable
in the paternal gallantry with which the painter has touched off
the young lady. She was a princess, yet she was a baby, and he
has contrived, we let ourselves fancy, to interweave an
intimation that she was a creature whom, in her teens, the
lucklessly smitten--even as he was prematurely--must vainly sigh
for. Though the work is a masterpiece of execution its merits
under this head may be emulated, at a distance; the lovely
modulations of colour in the three contrasted and harmonised
little satin petticoats, the solidity of the little heads, in
spite of all their prettiness, the happy, unexaggerated
squareness and maturity of pose, are, severally, points to
study, to imitate, and to reproduce with profit. But the taste of
such a consummate thing is its great secret as well as its great
merit--a taste which seems one of the lost instincts of mankind.
Go and enjoy this supreme expression of Vandyck's fine sense, and
admit that never was a politer production.

Milan speaks to us of a burden of felt life of which Turin is
innocent, but in its general aspect still lingers a northern
reserve which makes the place rather perhaps the last of the
prose capitals than the first of the poetic. The long Austrian
occupation perhaps did something to Germanise its physiognomy;
though indeed this is an indifferent explanation when one
remembers how well, temperamentally speaking, Italy held her own
in Venetia. Milan, at any rate, if not bristling with the
æsthetic impulse, opens to us frankly enough the thick volume of
her past. Of that volume the Cathedral is the fairest and fullest
page--a structure not supremely interesting, not logical, not
even, to some minds, commandingly beautiful, but grandly curious
and superbly rich. I hope, for my own part, never to grow too
particular to admire it. If it had no other distinction it would
still have that of impressive, immeasurable achievement. As I
strolled beside its vast indented base one evening, and felt it,
above me, rear its grey mysteries into the starlight while the
restless human tide on which I floated rose no higher than the
first few layers of street-soiled marble, I was tempted to
believe that beauty in great architecture is almost a secondary
merit, and that the main point is mass--such mass as may make it
a supreme embodiment of vigorous effort. Viewed in this way a
great building is the greatest conceivable work of art. More than
any other it represents difficulties mastered, resources
combined, labour, courage and patience. And there are people who
tell us that art has nothing to do with morality! Little enough,
doubtless, when it is concerned, even ever so little, in painting
the roof of Milan Cathedral within to represent carved stone-
work. Of this famous roof every one has heard--how good it is,
how bad, how perfect a delusion, how transparent an artifice. It
is the first thing your cicerone shows you on entering the
church. The occasionally accommodating art-lover may accept it
philosophically, I think; for the interior, though admirably
effective as a whole, has no great sublimity, nor even purity, of
pitch. It is splendidly vast and dim; the altarlamps twinkle afar
through the incense-thickened air like foglights at sea, and the
great columns rise straight to the roof, which hardly curves to
meet them, with the girth and altitude of oaks of a thousand
years; but there is little refinement of design--few of those
felicities of proportion which the eye caresses, when it finds
them, very much as the memory retains and repeats some happy
lines of poetry or some haunting musical phrase. Consistently
brave, none the less, is the result produced, and nothing braver
than a certain exhibition that I privately enjoyed of the relics
of St. Charles Borromeus. This holy man lies at his eternal rest
in a small but gorgeous sepulchral chapel, beneath the boundless
pavement and before the high altar; and for the modest sum of
five francs you may have his shrivelled mortality unveiled and
gaze at it with whatever reserves occur to you. The Catholic
Church never renounces a chance of the sublime for fear of a
chance of the ridiculous--especially when the chance of the
sublime may be the very excellent chance of five francs. The
performance in question, of which the good San Carlo paid in the
first instance the cost, was impressive certainly, but as a
monstrous matter or a grim comedy may still be. The little
sacristan, having secured his audience, whipped on a white tunic
over his frock, lighted a couple of extra candles and proceeded
to remove from above the altar, by means of a crank, a sort of
sliding shutter, just as you may see a shop-boy do of a morning
at his master's window. In this case too a large sheet of plate-
glass was uncovered, and to form an idea of the étalage
you must imagine that a jeweller, for reasons of his own, has
struck an unnatural partnership with an undertaker. The black
mummified corpse of the saint is stretched out in a glass coffin,
clad in his mouldering canonicals, mitred, crosiered and gloved,
glittering with votive jewels. It is an extraordinary mixture of
death and life; the desiccated clay, the ashen rags, the hideous
little black mask and skull, and the living, glowing, twinkling
splendour of diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. The collection is
really fine, and many great historic names are attached to the
different offerings. Whatever may be the better opinion as to the
future of the Church, I can't help thinking she will make a
figure in the world so long as she retains this great fund of
precious "properties," this prodigious capital decoratively
invested and scintillating throughout Christendom at effectively-
scattered points. You see I am forced to agree after all, in
spite of the sliding shutter and the profane swagger of the
sacristan, that a certain pastoral majesty saved the situation,
or at least made irony gape. Yet it was from a natural desire to
breathe a sweeter air that I immediately afterwards undertook the
interminable climb to the roof of the cathedral. This is another
world of wonders, and one which enjoys due renown, every square
inch of wall on the winding stairways being bescribbled with a
traveller's name. There is a great glare from the far-stretching
slopes of marble, a confusion (like the masts of a navy or the
spears of an army) of image-capped pinnacles, biting the
impalpable blue, and, better than either, the goodliest view of
level Lombardy sleeping in its rich transalpine light and
resembling, with its white-walled dwellings and the spires on its
horizon, a vast green sea spotted with ships. After two months of
Switzerland the Lombard plain is a rich rest to the eye, and the
yellow, liquid, free-flowing light--as if on favoured Italy the
vessels of heaven were more widely opened--had for mine a charm
which made me think of a great opaque mountain as a blasphemous
invasion of the atmospheric spaces.


I have mentioned the cathedral first, but the prime treasure of
Milan at the present hour is the beautiful, tragical Leonardo.
The cathedral is good for another thousand years, but we ask
whether our children will find in the most majestic and most
luckless of frescoes much more than the shadow of a shadow. Its
fame has been for a century or two that, as one may say, of an
illustrious invalid whom people visit to see how he lasts, with
leave-taking sighs and almost death-bed or tiptoe precautions.
The picture needs not another scar or stain, now, to be the
saddest work of art in the world; and battered, defaced, ruined
as it is, it remains one of the greatest. We may really compare
its anguish of decay to the slow conscious ebb of life in a human
organism. The production of the prodigy was a breath from the
infinite, and the painter's conception not immeasurably less
complex than the scheme, say, of his own mortal constitution.
There has been much talk lately of the irony of fate, but I
suspect fate was never more ironical than when she led the most
scientific, the most calculating of all painters to spend fifteen
long years in building his goodly house upon the sand. And yet,
after all, may not the playing of that trick represent but a
deeper wisdom, since if the thing enjoyed the immortal health and
bloom of a first-rate Titian we should have lost one of the most
pertinent lessons in the history of art? We know it as hearsay,
but here is the plain proof, that there is no limit to the amount
of "stuff" an artist may put into his work. Every painter ought
once in his life to stand before the Cenacolo and decipher its
moral. Mix with your colours and mess on your palette every
particle of the very substance of your soul, and this lest
perchance your "prepared surface" shall play you a trick! Then,
and then only, it will fight to the last--it will resist even in
death. Raphael was a happier genius; you look at his lovely
"Marriage of the Virgin" at the Brera, beautiful as some first
deep smile of conscious inspiration, but to feel that he foresaw
no complaint against fate, and that he knew the world he wanted
to know and charmed it into never giving him away. But I have
left no space to speak of the Brera, nor of that paradise of
book-worms with an eye for their background--if such creatures
exist--the Ambrosian Library; nor of that mighty basilica of St.
Ambrose, with its spacious atrium and its crudely solemn mosaics,
in which it is surely your own fault if you don't forget Dr.
Strauss and M. Renan and worship as grimly as a Christian of the
ninth century.

It is part of the sordid prose of the Mont Cenis road that,
unlike those fine old unimproved passes, the Simplon, the Splügen
and--yet awhile longer--the Saint-Gothard, it denies you a
glimpse of that paradise adorned by the four lakes even as that
of uncommented Scripture by the rivers of Eden. I made, however,
an excursion to the Lake of Como, which, though brief, lasted
long enough to suggest to me that I too was a hero of romance
with leisure for a love-affair, and not a hurrying tourist with a
Bradshaw in his pocket. The Lake of Como has figured largely in
novels of "immoral" tendency--being commonly the spot to which
inflamed young gentlemen invite the wives of other gentlemen to
fly with them and ignore the restrictions of public opinion. But
even the Lake of Como has been revised and improved; the fondest
prejudices yield to time; it gives one somehow a sense of an
aspiringly high tone. I should pay a poor compliment at least to
the swarming inmates of the hotels which now alternate
attractively by the water-side with villas old and new were I to
read the appearances more cynically. But if it is lost to florid
fiction it still presents its blue bosom to most other refined
uses, and the unsophisticated tourist, the American at least, may
do any amount of private romancing there. The pretty hotel at
Cadenabbia offers him, for instance, in the most elegant and
assured form, the so often precarious adventure of what he calls
at home summer board. It is all so unreal, so fictitious, so
elegant and idle, so framed to undermine a rigid sense of the
chief end of man not being to float for ever in an ornamental
boat, beneath an awning tasselled like a circus-horse, impelled
by an affable Giovanni or Antonio from one stately stretch of
lake-laved villa steps to another, that departure seems as harsh
and unnatural as the dream-dispelling note of some punctual voice
at your bedside on a dusky winter morning. Yet I wondered, for my
own part, where I had seen it all before--the pink-walled villas
gleaming through their shrubberies of orange and oleander, the
mountains shimmering in the hazy light like so many breasts of
doves, the constant presence of the melodious Italian voice.
Where indeed but at the Opera when the manager has been more than
usually regardless of expense? Here in the foreground was the
palace of the nefarious barytone, with its banqueting-hall
opening as freely on the stage as a railway buffet on the
platform; beyond, the delightful back scene, with its operatic
gamut of colouring; in the middle the scarlet-sashed
barcaiuoli, grouped like a chorus, hat in hand, awaiting
the conductor's signal. It was better even than being in a novel-
-this being, this fairly wallowing, in a libretto.

Henry James