I am afraid that the talk of the modern railway traveller, if he is honest, must be a great deal of the custodians, the vetturini, and the facchini, whose agreeable acquaintance constitutes his chief knowledge of the population among which he journeys. We do not nowadays carry letters recommending us to citizens of the different places. If we did, consider the calamity we should be to the be-travelled Italian communities we now bless! No, we buy our through-tickets, and we put up at the hotels praised in the hand-book, and are very glad of a little conversation with any native, however adulterated he be by contact with the world to which we belong. I do not blush to own that I love the whole rascal race which ministers to our curiosity and preys upon us, and I am not ashamed to have spoken so often in this book of the lowly and rapacious but interesting porters who opened to me the different gates of that great realm of wonders, Italy. I doubt if they can be much known to the dwellers in the land, though they are the intimates of all sojourners and passengers; and if I have any regret in the matter, it is that I did not more diligently study them when I could. The opportunity once lost, seldom recurs; they are all but as transitory as the Object of Interest itself, I remember that years ago when I first visited Cambridge, there was an old man appeared to me in the character of Genius of the College Grounds, who showed me all the notable things in our city,—its treasures of art, its monuments,—and ended by taking me into his wood-house, and sawing me off from a wind-fallen branch of the Washington Elm a bit of the sacred wood for a remembrancer. Where now is that old man? He no longer exists for me, neither he nor his wood-house nor his dwelling-house. Let me look for a month about the College Grounds, and I shall not see him. But somewhere in the regions of traveller's faëry he still lives, and he appears instantly to the new-comer; he has an understanding with the dryads, who keep him supplied with boughs from the Washington Elm, and his wood-house is full of them.
Among memorable custodians in Italy was one whom we saw at Pisa, where we stopped on our way from Leghorn after our accident in the Maremma, and spent an hour in viewing the Quattro Fabbriche. The beautiful old town, which every one knows from the report of travellers, one yet finds possessed of the incommunicable charm which keeps it forever novel to the visitor. Lying upon either side of the broad Arno, it mirrors in the flood architecture almost as fair and noble as that glassed in the Canalazzo, and its other streets seemed as tranquil as the canals of Venice. Those over which we drove, on the day of our visit, were paved with broad flag-stones, and gave out scarcely a sound under our wheels. It was Sunday, and no one was to be seen. Yet the empty and silent city inspired us with no sense of desolation. The palaces were in perfect repair; the pavements were clean; behind those windows we felt that there must be a good deal of easy, comfortable life. It is said that Pisa is one of the few places in Europe where the sweet, but timid spirit of Inexpensiveness—everywhere pursued by Railways—still lingers, and that you find cheap apartments in those well-preserved old palaces. No doubt it would be worth more to live in Pisa than it would cost, for the history of the place would alone be to any reasonable sojourner a perpetual recompense, and a princely income far exceeding his expenditure. To be sure, the Tower of Famine, with which we chiefly associate the name of Pisa, has been long razed to the ground, and built piecemeal into the neighboring palaces, but you may still visit the dead wall which hides from view the place where it stood; and you may thence drive on, as we did, to the great Piazza where stands the unrivaledest group of architecture in the world, after that of St. Mark's Place in Venice. There is the wonderful Leaning Tower, there is the old and beautiful Duomo, there is the noble Baptistery, there is the lovely Campo-Santo, and there—somewhere lurking in portal or behind pillar, and keeping out an eagle-eye for the marveling stranger—is the much-experienced cicerone who shows you through the edifices. Yours is the fourteen-thousandth American family to which he has had the honor of acting as guide, and he makes you feel an illogical satisfaction in thus becoming a contribution to statistics.
We entered the Duomo, in our new friend's custody, and we saw the things which it was well to see. There was mass, or some other ceremony, transacting; but as usual it was made as little obtrusive as possible, and there was not much to weaken the sense of proprietorship with which travellers view objects of interest. Then we ascended the Leaning Tower, skillfully preserving its equilibrium as we went by an inclination of our persons in a direction opposed to the tower's inclination, but perhaps not receiving a full justification of the Campanile's appearance in pictures, till we stood at its base, and saw its vast bulk and height as it seemed to sway and threaten in the blue sky above our heads. There the sensation was too terrible for endurance,—even the architectural beauty of the tower could not save it from being monstrous to us,—and we were glad to hurry away from it to the serenity and solemn loveliness of the Campo Santo.
Here are the frescos painted five hundred years ago to be ruinous and ready against the time of your arrival in 1864, and you feel that you are the first to enjoy the joke of the Vergognosa, that cunning jade who peers through her fingers at the shameful condition of deboshed father Noah, and seems to wink one eye of wicked amusement at you. Turning afterward to any book written about Italy during the time specified, you find your impression of exclusive possession of the frescos erroneous, and your muse naturally despairs, where so many muses have labored in vain, to give a just idea of the Campo Santo. Yet it is most worthy celebration. Those exquisitely arched and traceried colonnades seem to grow like the slim cypresses out of the sainted earth of Jerusalem; and those old paintings, made when Art was—if ever—a Soul, and not as now a mere Intelligence, enforce more effectively than their authors conceived the lessons of life and death; for they are themselves becoming part of the triumphant decay they represent. If it was awful once to look upon that strange scene where the gay lords and ladies of the chase come suddenly upon three dead men in their coffins, while the devoted hermits enjoy the peace of a dismal righteousness on a hill in the background, it is yet more tragic to behold it now when the dead men are hardly discernible in their coffins, and the hermits are but the vaguest shadows of gloomy bliss. Alas! Death mocks even the homage done him by our poor fears and hopes: with dust he wipes out dust, and with decay he blots the image of decay.
I assure the reader that I made none of these apt reflections in the Campo Santo at Pisa, but have written them out this morning in Cambridge because there happens to be an east wind blowing. No one could have been sad in the company of our cheerful and patient cicerone, who, although visibly anxious to get his fourteen-thousandth American family away, still would not go till he had shown us that monument to a dead enmity which hangs in the Campo Santo. This is the mighty chain which the Pisans, in their old wars with the Genoese, once stretched across the mouth of their harbor to prevent the entrance of the hostile galleys. The Genoese with no great trouble carried the chain away, and kept it ever afterward till 1860, when Pisa was united to the kingdom of Italy. Then the trophy was restored to the Pisans, and with public rejoicings placed in the Campo Santo, an emblem of reconciliation and perpetual amity between ancient foes. [I read in Mr. Norton's Notes of Travel and Study in Italy, that he saw in the Campo Santo, as long ago as 1856, "the chains that marked the servitude of Pisa, now restored by Florence," and it is of course possible that our cicerone may have employed one of those chains for the different historical purpose I have mentioned. It would be a thousand pities, I think, if a monument of that sort should be limited to the commemoration of one fact only.] It is not a very good world,—e pur si muove.
The Baptistery stands but a step away from the Campo Santo, and our guide ushered us into it with the air of one who had till now held in reserve his great stroke and was ready to deliver it. Yet I think he waited till we had looked at some comparatively trifling sculptures by Nicolò Pisano before he raised his voice, and uttered a melodious species of howl. While we stood in some amazement at this, the conscious structure of the dome caught the sound and prolonged it with a variety and sweetness of which I could not have dreamed. The man poured out in quick succession his musical wails, and then ceased, and a choir of heavenly echoes burst forth in response. There was a supernatural beauty in these harmonies of which I despair of giving any true idea: they were of such tender and exalted rapture that we might well have thought them the voices of young-eyed cherubim, singing as they passed through Paradise over that spot of earth where we stood. They seemed a celestial compassion that stooped and soothed, and rose again in lofty and solemn acclaim, leaving us poor and penitent and humbled.
We were long silent, and then broke forth with cries of admiration of which the marvelous echo made eloquence.
"Did you ever," said the cicerone after we had left the building, "hear such music as that?"
"The papal choir does not equal it," we answered with one voice.
The cicerone was not to be silenced even with such a tribute, and he went on:
"Perhaps, as you are Americans, you know Moshu Feelmore, the President? No? Ah, what a fine man! You saw that he had his heart actually in his hand! Well, one day he said to me here, when I told him of the Baptistery echo, 'We have the finest echo in the world in the Hall of Congress.' I said nothing, but for answer I merely howled a little,—thus! Moshu Feelmore was convinced. Said he, 'There is no other echo in the world besides this. You are right.' I am unique," pursued the cicerone, "for making this echo. But," he added with a sigh, "it has been my ruin. The English have put me in all the guide-books, and sometimes I have to howl twenty times a day. When our Victor Emanuel came here I showed him the church, the tower, and the Campo Santo. Says the king, 'Pfui!'"—here the cicerone gave that sweeping outward motion with both hands by which Italians dismiss a trifling subject—"'make me the echo!' I was forced," concluded the cicerone with a strong sense of injury in his tone, "to howl half an hour without ceasing."
The delight of one of our first journeys over the road between Padua and Ferrara was a Roman cameriere out of place, who got into the diligence at Ponte Lagoscuro. We were six in all: The Englishman who thought it particularly Italian to say "Sì" three times for every assent; the Veneto (as the citizen of the province calls himself, the native of the city being Veneziano) going home to his farm near Padua; the German lady of a sour and dreadful countenance; our two selves, and the Roman cameriere. The last was worth all the rest—being a man of vast general information acquired in the course of service with families of all nations, and agreeably communicative. A brisk and lively little man, with dancing eyes, beard cut to the mode of the Emperor Napoleon, and the impressive habit of tapping himself on the teeth with his railroad-guide, and lifting his eyebrows when he says any thing specially worthy of remark. He, also, long after the conclusion of an observation, comes back to himself approvingly, with "Sì!" "Vabene!" "Ecco!" He speaks beautiful Italian and constantly, and in a little while we know that he was born at Ferrara, bred at Venice, and is now a citizen of Rome. "St. Peter's, Signori,—have you ever seen it?—is the first church of the world. At Ferrara lived Tasso and Ariosto. Venice is a lovely city. Ah! what beauty! But unique. My second country. Sì, Signori, la mia seconda patria." After a pause, "Va bene."
We hint to him that he is extremely fortunate in having so many countries, and that it will be difficult to exile so universal a citizen, which he takes as a tribute to his worth, smiles and says, "Ecco!"
Then he turns to the Veneto, and describes to him the English manner of living. "Wonderfully well they eat—the English. Four times a day. With rosbif at the dinner. Always, always, always! And tea in the evening, with rosbif cold. Mangiano sempre. Ma bene, dico." After a pause, "Sì!" "And the Venetians, they eat well, too. Whence the proverb: 'Sulla Riva degli Schiavoni, si mangiano bei bocconi.' ('On the Riva degli Schiavoni, you eat fine mouthfuls.') Signori, I am going to Venice," concludes the cameriere.
He is the politest man in the world, and the most attentive to ladies. The German lady has not spoken a word, possibly not knowing the language. Our good cameriere cannot bear this, and commiserates her weariness with noble elegance and originality. "La Signora si trova un poco sagrificata?" ("The lady feels slightly sacrificed!") We all smile, and the little man very gladly with us.
"An elegant way of expressing it," we venture to suggest. The Veneto roars and roars again, and we all shriek, none louder than the Roman himself. We never can get over that idea of being slightly sacrificed, and it lasts us the whole way to Padua; and when the Veneto gets down at his farm-gate, he first "reverences" us, and then says, "I am very sorry for you others who must be still more slightly sacrificed."
At Venice, a week or two later, I meet our cameriere. He is not so gay, quite, as he was, and I fancy that he has not found so many bei bocconi on the Riva degli Schiavoni, as the proverb and a sanguine temperament led him to expect. Do I happen to know, he asks, any American family going to Rome and desiring a cameriere?
* * * * *
As I write, the Spring is coming in Cambridge, and I cannot help thinking, with a little heartache, of how the Spring came to meet us once as we rode southward from Venice toward Florence on that road from Padua to Ferrara. It had been May for some time in Tuscany, and all through the wide plains of Venetia this was the railroad landscape: fields tilled and tended as jealously as gardens, and waving in wheat, oats, and grass, with here and there the hay cut already, and here and there acres of Indian corn. The green of the fields was all dashed with the bloody red of poppies; the fig-trees hung full of half-grown fruit; the orchards were garlanded with vines, which they do not bind to stakes in Italy, but train from tree to tree, leaving them to droop in festoons and sway in the wind, with the slender native grace of vines. Huge stone farm-houses shelter under the same roof the family and all the live stock of the farm; thatched cottages thickly dotting the fields, send forth to their cultivation the most picturesque peasants,—men and women, pretty young girls in broad hats, and wonderful old brown and crooked crones, who seem never to have been younger nor fairer. Country roads, level, straight, and white, stretch away on either hand, and the constant files of poplars escort them wherever they go. All about, the birds sing, and the butterflies dance. The milk-white oxen dragging the heavy carts turn up their patient heads, with wide-spreading horns and mellow eyes, at the passing train; the sunburnt lout behind them suspends the application of the goad; unwonted acquiescence stirs in the bosom of the firm-minded donkey, and even the matter-of-fact locomotive seems to linger as lovingly as a locomotive may along these plains of Spring.
At Padua we take a carriage for Ponte Lagoscuro, and having fought the customary battle with the vetturino before arriving at the terms of contract; having submitted to the successive pillage of the man who had held our horses a moment, of the man who tied on the trunk, and of the man who hovered obligingly about the carriage, and desired to drink our health—with prodigious smacking of whip, and banging of wheels, we rattle out of the Stella d'Oro, and set forth from the gate of the old city.
I confess that I like posting. There is a freedom and a fine sense of proprietorship in that mode of travel, combined with sufficient speed, which you do not feel on the railroad. For twenty francs and buonamano, I had bought my carriage and horses and driver for the journey of forty miles, and I began to look round on the landscape with a cumulative feeling of ownership in everything I saw. For me, old women spinning in old-world fashion, with distaff and spindle, flax as white as their own hair, came to roadside doors, or moved back and forth under orchard trees. For me, the peasants toiled in the fields together, wearing for my sake wide straw hats, or gay ribbons, or red caps. The white oxen were willing to mass themselves in effective groups, as the ploughman turned the end of his furrow; young girls specially appointed themselves to lead horses to springs as we passed; children had larger eyes and finer faces and played more about the cottage doors, on account of our posting. As for the vine-garlanded trees in the orchards, and the opulence of the endless fertile plain; the white distance of the road before us with its guardian poplars,—I doubt if people in a diligence could have got so much of these things as we. Certainly they could not have had all to themselves the lordly splendor with which we dashed through gaping villages, taking the street from everybody, and fading magnificently away upon the road.
If you take the midnight steamer at Venice you reach Trieste by six o'clock in the morning, and the hills rise to meet you as you enter the broad bay dotted with the sail of fishing-craft. The hills are bald and bare, and you find, as you draw near, that the city lies at their feet under a veil of mist, or climbs earlier into view along their sides. The prospect is singularly devoid of gentle and pleasing features, and looking at those rugged acclivities, with their aspect of continual bleakness, you readily believe all the stories you have heard of that fierce wind called the Bora which sweeps from them through Trieste at certain seasons. While it blows, ladies walking near the quays are sometimes caught up and set afloat, involuntary Galateas, in the bay, and people keep in-doors as much as possible. But the Bora, though so sudden and so savage, does give warning of its rise, and the peasants avail themselves of this characteristic. They station a man on one of the mountain tops, and when he feels the first breath of the Bora, he sounds a horn, which is a signal for all within hearing to lay hold of something that cannot be blown away, and cling to it till the wind falls. This may happen in three days or in nine, according to the popular proverbs. "The spectacle of the sea," says Dall' Ongaro, in a note to one of his ballads, "while the Bora blows, is sublime, and when it ceases the prospect of the surrounding hills is delightful. The air, purified by the rapid current, clothes them with a rosy veil, and the temperature is instantly softened, even in the heart of winter."
The city itself, as you penetrate it, makes good with its stateliness and picturesqueness your loss through the grimness of its environs. It is in great part new, very clean, and full of the life and movement of a prosperous port; but, better than this, so far as the mere sight-seer is concerned, it wins a novel charm from the many public staircases by which you ascend and descend its hillier quarters, and which are made of stone, and lightly railed and balustraded with iron.
Something of all this I noticed in my ride from the landing of the steamer to the house of friends in the suburbs, and there I grew better disposed toward the hills, which, as I strolled over them, I found dotted with lovely villas, and everywhere traversed by perfectly-kept carriage-roads, and easy and pleasant foot-paths. It was in the spring-time, and the peach-trees and almond-trees hung full of blossoms and bees, the lizards lay in the walks absorbing the vernal sunshine, the violets and cowslips sweetened all the grassy borders. The scene did not want a human interest, for the peasant girls were going to market at that hour, and I met them everywhere, bearing heavy burdens on their own heads, or hurrying forward with their wares on the backs of donkeys. They were as handsome as heart could wish, and they wore that Italian costume which is not to be seen anywhere in Italy except at Trieste and in the Roman and Neapolitan provinces,—a bright bodice and gown, with the head-dress of dazzling white linen, square upon the crown, and dropping lightly to the shoulders. Later I saw these comely maidens crouching on the ground in the market-place, and selling their wares, with much glitter of eyes, teeth, and earrings, and a continual babble of bargaining.
It seemed to me that the average of good looks was greater among the women of Trieste than among those of Venice, but that the instances of striking and exquisite beauty were rarer. At Trieste, too, the Italian type, so pure at Venice, is lost or continually modified by the mixed character of the population, which perhaps is most noticeable at the Merchants' Exchange. This is a vast edifice roofed with glass, where are the offices of the great steam navigation company, the Austrian Lloyds,—which, far more than the favor of the Imperial government, has contributed to the prosperity of Trieste,—and where the traffickers of all races meet daily to gossip over the news and the prices. Here a Greek or Dalmat talks with an eager Italian or a slow, sure Englishman; here the hated Austrian button-holes the Venetian or the Magyar; here the Jew meets the Gentile on common ground; here Christianity encounters the hoary superstitions of the East, and makes a good thing out of them in cotton or grain. All costumes are seen here, and all tongues are heard, the native Triestines contributing almost as much to the variety of the latter as the foreigners. "In regard to language," says Cantù, "though the country is peopled by Slavonians, yet the Italian tongue is spreading into the remotest villages where a few years since it was not understood. In the city it is the common and familiar language; the Slavonians of the North use the German for the language of ceremony; those of the South, as well as the Israelites, the Italian; while the Protestants use the German, the Greeks the Hellenic and Illyric, the employés of the civil courts the Italian or the German, the schools now German and now Italian, the bar and the pulpit Italian. Most of the inhabitants, indeed, are bi-lingual, and very many tri-lingual, without counting French, which is understood and spoken from infancy. Italian, German, and Greek are written, but the Slavonic little, this having remained in the condition of a vulgar tongue. But it would be idle to distinguish the population according to language, for the son adopts a language different from the father's, and now prefers one language and now another; the women incline to the Italian; but those of the upper class prefer now German, now French, now English, as, from one decade to another, affairs, fashions, and fancies change. This in the salons; in the squares and streets, the Venetian dialect is heard."
And with the introduction of the Venetian dialect, Venetian discontent seems also to have crept in, and I once heard a Triestine declaim against the Imperial government quite in the manner of Venice. It struck me that this desire for union with Italy, which he declared prevalent in Trieste, must be of very recent growth, since even so late as 1848, Trieste had refused to join Venice in the expulsion of the Austrians. Indeed, the Triestines have fought the Venetians from the first; they stole the Brides of Venice in one of their piratical cruises in the lagoons; gave aid and comfort to those enemies of Venice, the Visconti, the Carraras, and the Genoese; revolted from St. Mark whenever subjected to his banner, and finally, rather than remain under his sway, gave themselves five centuries ago to Austria.
The objects of interest in Trieste are not many. There are remains of an attributive temple of Jupiter under the Duomo, and there is near at hand the Museum of Classical Antiquities founded in honor of Winckelmann, murdered at Trieste by that ill-advised Pistojese, Ancangeli, who had seen the medals bestowed on the antiquary by Maria Theresa and believed him rich. There is also a scientific museum founded by the Archduke Maximilian, and, above all, there is the beautiful residence of that ill-starred prince,—the Miramare, where the half-crazed Empress of the Mexicans vainly waits her husband's return from the experiment of paternal government in the New World. It would be hard to tell how Art has charmed rock and wave at Miramare, until the spur of those rugged Triestine hills, jutting into the sea, has been made the seat of ease and luxury, but the visitor is aware of the magic as soon as he passes the gate of the palace grounds. These are in great part perpendicular, and are over clambered with airy stairways climbing to pensile arbors. Where horizontal, they are diversified with mimic seas for swans to sail upon, and summer-houses for people to lounge in and look at the swans from. On the point of land furthest from the acclivity stands the Castle of Miramare, half at sea, and half adrift in the clouds above:—
"And fain it would stoop downward
To the mirrored wave below;
And fain it would soar upward
In the evening's crimson glow."
I remember that a little yacht lay beside the pier at the castle's foot, and lazily flapped its sail, while the sea beat inward with as languid a pulse. That was some years ago, before Mexico was dreamed of at Miramare: now, perchance, she who is one of the most unhappy among women looks down distraught from those high windows, and finds in the helpless sail and impassive wave the images of her baffled hope, and that immeasurable sea which gives back its mariners neither to love nor sorrow. I think though she be the wife and daughter of princes, we may pity this poor Empress at least as much as we pity the Mexicans to whom her dreams have brought so many woes.
It was the midnight following my visit to Miramare when the fiacre in which I had quitted my friend's house was drawn up by its greatly bewildered driver on the quay near the place where the steamer for Venice should be lying. There was no steamer for Venice to be seen. The driver swore a little in the polyglot profanities of his native city, and descending from his box, went and questioned different lights—blue lights, yellow lights, green lights—to be seen at different points. To a light, they were ignorant, though eloquent, and to pass the time, we drove up and down the quay, and stopped at the landings of all the steamers that touch at Trieste. It was a snug fiacre enough, but I did not care to spend the night in it, and I urged the driver to further inquiry. A wanderer whom we met, declared that it was not the night for the Venice steamer; another admitted that it might be; a third conversed with the driver in low tones, and then leaped upon the box. We drove rapidly away, and before I had, in view of this mysterious proceeding, composed a fitting paragraph for the Fatti Diversi of the Osservatore Triestino, descriptive of the state in which the Guardie di Polizia should find me floating in the bay, exanimate and evidently the prey of a triste evvenimento—the driver pulled up once more, and now beside a steamer. It was the steamer for Venice, he said, in precisely the tone which he would have used had he driven me directly to it without blundering. It was breathing heavily, and was just about to depart, but even in the hurry of getting on board, I could not help noticing that it seemed to have grown a great deal since I had last voyaged in it. There was not a soul to be seen except the mute steward who took my satchel, and guiding me below into an elegant saloon, instantly left me alone. Here again the steamer was vastly enlarged. These were not the narrow quarters of the Venice steamer, nor was this lamp, shedding a soft light on cushioned seats and paneled doors and wainscotings the sort of illumination usual in that humble craft. I rang the small silver bell on the long table, and the mute steward appeared.
Was this the steamer for Venice?
All that I could do in comment was to sit down; and in the mean time the steamer trembled, groaned, choked, cleared its throat, and we were under way.
"The other passengers have all gone to bed, I suppose," I argued acutely, seeing none of them. Nevertheless, I thought it odd, and it seemed a shrewd means of relief to ring the bell, and pretending drowsiness, to ask the steward which was my state-room.
He replied with a curious smile that I could have any of them. Amazed, I yet selected a state-room, and while the steward was gone for the sheets and pillow-cases, I occupied my time by opening the doors of all the other state-rooms. They were empty.
"Am I the only passenger?" I asked, when he returned, with some anxiety.
"Precisely," he answered.
I could not proceed and ask if he composed the entire crew—it seemed too fearfully probable that he did.
I now suspected that I had taken passage with the Olandese Volante. There was nothing in the world for it, however, but to go to bed, and there, with the accession of a slight sea-sickness, my views of the situation underwent a total change. I had gone down into the Maelstrom with the Ancient Mariner—I was a Manuscript Found in a Bottle!
Coming to the surface about six o'clock A.M., I found a daylight as cheerful as need be upon the appointments of the elegant cabin, and upon the good-natured face of the steward when he brought me the caffè latte, and the buttered toast for my breakfast. He said "Servitor suo!" in a loud and comfortable voice, and I perceived the absurdity of having thought that he was in any way related to the Nightmare-Death-in-life-that-thicks-man's-blood-with-cold.
"This is not the regular Venice steamer, I suppose," I remarked to the steward as he laid my breakfast in state upon the long table.
No. Properly, no boat should have left for Venice last night, which was not one of the times of the tri-weekly departure. This was one of the steamers of the line between Trieste and Alexandria, and it was going at present to take on an extraordinary freight at Venice for Egypt. I had been permitted to come on board because my driver said I had a return ticket, and would go.
Ascending to the deck I found nothing whatever mysterious in the management of the steamer. The captain met me with a bow in the gangway; seamen were coiling wet ropes at different points, as they always are; the mate was promenading the bridge, and taking the rainy weather as it came, with his oil-cloth coat and hat on. The wheel of the steamer was as usual chewing the sea, and finding it unpalatable, and making vain efforts at expectoration.
We were in sight of the breakwater outside Malamocco, and a pilot-boat was making us from the land. Even at this point the innumerable fortifications of the Austrians began, and they multiplied as we drew near Venice, till we entered the lagoon, and found it a nest of fortresses one with another.
Unhappily the day being rainy, Venice did not spring resplendent from the sea, as I had always read she would. She rose slowly and languidly from the water,—not like a queen, but like the gray, slovenly, bedrabbled, heart-broken old slave she really was.
I have already told, in recounting the story of our visit to the Cimbri, how full of courtship we found the little city of Bassano on the evening of our arrival there. Bassano is the birthplace of the painter Jacopo da Ponte, who was one of the first Italian painters to treat scriptural story as accessory to mere landscape, and who had a peculiar fondness for painting Entrances into the Ark, for in these he could indulge without stint the taste for pairing-off early acquired from observation of local customs in his native town. This was the theory offered by one who had imbibed the spirit of subtile speculation from Ruskin, and I think it reasonable. At least it does not conflict with the fact that there is at Bassano a most excellent gallery of paintings entirely devoted to the works of Jacopo da Ponte, and his four sons, who are here to be seen to better advantage than anywhere else. As few strangers visit Bassano, the gallery is little frequented. It is in charge of a very strict old man, who will not allow people to look at the pictures till he has shown them the adjoining cabinet of geological specimens. It is in vain that you assure him of your indifference to these scientific seccature; he is deaf and you are not suffered to escape a single fossil. He asked us a hundred questions, and understood nothing in reply, insomuch that when he came to his last inquiry, "Have the Protestants the same God as the Catholics?" we were rather glad that he should be obliged to settle the fact for himself.
Underneath the gallery was a school of boys, whom as we entered we heard humming over the bitter honey which childhood is obliged to gather from the opening flowers of orthography. When we passed out, the master gave these poor busy bees an atom of holiday, and they all swarmed forth together to look at the strangers. The teacher was a long, lank man, in a black threadbare coat, and a skull-cap—exactly like the schoolmaster in "The Deserted Village." We made a pretense of asking him our way to somewhere, and went wrong, and came by accident upon a wide flat space, bare as a brick-yard, beside which was lettered on a fragment of the old city wall, "Giuoco di Palla." It was evidently the playground of the whole city, and it gave us a pleasanter idea of life in Bassano than we had yet conceived, to think of its entire population playing ball there in the spring afternoons. We respected Bassano as much for this as for her diligent remembrance of her illustrious dead, of whom she has very great numbers. It appeared to us that nearly every other house bore a tablet announcing that "Here was born," or "Here died," some great or good man of whom no one out of Bassano ever heard. There is enough celebrity in Bassano to supply the world; but as laurel is a thing that grows anywhere, I covet rather from Bassano the magnificent ivy that covers the portions of her ancient wall yet standing. The wall, where visible, is seen to be of a pebbly rough-cast, but it is clad almost from the ground in glossy ivy, that glitters upon it like chain-mail upon the vast shoulders of some giant warrior. The moat beneath is turned into a lovely promenade bordered by quiet villas, with rococo shepherds and shepherdesses in marble on their gates; where the wall is built to the verge of the high ground on which the city stands, there is a swift descent to the wide valley of the Brenta waving in corn and vines and tobacco.
We went up the Brenta one day as far as Oliero, to visit the famous cavern already mentioned, out of which, from the secret heart of the hill, gushes one of the foamy affluents of the river. It is reached by passing through a paper-mill, fed by the stream, and then through a sort of ante-grot, whence stepping-stones are laid in the brawling current through a succession of natural compartments with dome-like roofs. From the hill overhead hang stalactites of all grotesque and fairy shapes, and the rock underfoot is embroidered with fantastic designs wrought by the water in the silence and darkness of the endless night. At a considerable distance from the mouth of the cavern is a wide lake, with a boat upon it, and voyaging to the centre of the pool your attention is drawn to the dome above you, which contracts into a shaft rising upward to a height as yet unmeasured and even unpierced by light. From somewhere in its mysterious ascent, an auroral boy, with a tallow candle, produces a so-called effect of sunrise, and sheds a sad, disheartening radiance on the lake and the cavern sides, which is to sunlight about as the blind creatures of subterranean waters are to those of waves that laugh and dance above ground. But all caverns are much alike in their depressing and gloomy influences, and since there is so great opportunity to be wretched on the surface of the earth, why do people visit them? I do not know that this is more dispiriting or its stream more Stygian than another.
The wicked memory of the Ecelini survives everywhere in this part of Italy, and near the entrance of the Oliero grotto is a hollow in the hill something like the apsis of a church, which is popularly believed to have been the hiding-place of Cecilia da Baone, one of the many unhappy wives of one of the many miserable members of the Ecelino family. It is not quite clear when Cecilia should have employed this as a place of refuge, and it is certain that she was not the wife of Ecelino da Romano, as the neighbors believe at Oliero, but of Ecelino il Monaco, his father; yet since her name is associated with the grot, let us have her story, which is curiously illustrative of the life of the best society in Italy during the thirteenth century. She was the only daughter of the rich and potent lord, Manfredo, Count of Baone and Abano, who died leaving his heiress to the guardianship of Spinabello da Xendrico. When his ward reached womanhood, Spinabello cast about him to find a suitable husband for her, and it appeared to him that a match with the son of Tiso du Camposampiero promised the greatest advantages. Tiso, to whom he proposed the affair, was delighted, but desiring first to take counsel with his friends upon so important a matter, he confided it for advice to his brother-in-law and closest intimate, Ecelino Balbo. It had just happened that Balbo's son, Ecelino il Monaco, was at that moment disengaged, having been recently divorced from his first wife, the lovely but light Speronella; and Balbo falsely went to the greedy guardian of Cecilia, and offering him better terms than he could hope for from Tiso, secured Cecilia for his son. At this treachery the Camposampieri were furious; but they dissembled their anger till the moment of revenge arrived, when Cecilia's rejected suitor encountering her upon a journey beyond the protection of her husband, violently dishonored his successful rival. The unhappy lady returning to Ecelino at Bassano, recounted her wrong, and was with a horrible injustice repudiated and sent home, while her husband arranged schemes of vengeance in due time consummated. Cecilia next married a Venetian noble, and being in due time divorced, married yet again, and died the mother of a large family of children.
This is a very old scandal, yet I think there was an habitué of the caffè in Bassano who could have given some of its particulars from personal recollection. He was an old and smoothly shaven gentleman, in a scrupulously white waistcoat, whom we saw every evening in a corner of the caffè playing solitaire. He talked with no one, saluted no one. He drank his glasses of water with anisette, and silently played solitaire. There is no good reason to doubt that he had been doing the same thing every evening for six hundred years.
It did not take a long time to exhaust the interest of Bassano, but we were sorry to leave the place because of the excellence of the inn at which we tarried. It was called "Il Mondo," and it had everything in it that heart could wish. Our rooms were miracles of neatness and comfort; they had the freshness, not the rawness, of recent repair, and they opened into the dining-hall, where we were served with indescribable salads and risotti. During our sojourn we simply enjoyed the house; when we were come away we wondered that so much perfection of hotel could exist in so small a town as Bassano. It is one of the pleasures of by-way travel in Italy, that you are everywhere introduced in character, that you become fictitious and play a part as in a novel. To this inn of The World, our driver had brought us with a clamor and rattle proportioned to the fee received from us, and when, in response to his haughty summons, the cameriere, who had been gossiping with the cook, threw open the kitchen door, and stood out to welcome us in a broad square of forth-streaming ruddy light, amid the lovely odors of broiling and roasting, our driver saluted him with, "Receive these gentle folks, and treat them to your very best. They are worthy of anything." This at once put us back several centuries, and we never ceased to be lords and ladies of the period of Don Quixote as long as we rested in that inn.
It was a bright and breezy Sunday when we left "Il Mondo," and gayly journeyed toward Treviso, intending to visit Possagno, the birthplace of Canova, on our way. The road to the latter place passes through a beautiful country, that gently undulates on either hand till in the distance it rises into pleasant hills and green mountain heights. Possagno itself lies upon the brink of a declivity, down the side of which drops terrace after terrace, all planted with vines and figs and peaches, to a watercourse below. The ground on which the village is built, with its quaint and antiquated stone cottages, slopes gently northward, and on a little rise upon the left hand of us coming from Bassano, we saw that stately edifice with which Canova has honored his humble birthplace. It is a copy of the Pantheon, and it cannot help being beautiful and imposing, but it would be utterly out of place in any other than an Italian village. Here, however, it consorted well enough with the lingering qualities of the old pagan civilization still perceptible in Italy. A sense of that past was so strong with us as we ascended the broad stairway leading up the slope from the village to the level on which the temple stands at the foot of a mountain, that we might well have believed we approached an altar devoted to the elder worship: through the open doorway and between the columns of the portico we could see the priests moving to and fro, and the voice of their chanting came out to us like the sound of hymns to some of the deities long disowned; and I remembered how Padre L—— had said to me in Venice, "Our blessed saints are only the old gods baptized and christened anew." Within as without, the temple resembled the Pantheon, but it had little to show us. The niches designed by Canova for statues of the saints are empty yet; but there are busts by his own hand of himself and his brother, the Bishop Canova. Among the people was the sculptor's niece, whom our guide pointed out to us, and who was evidently used to being looked at. She seemed not to dislike it, and stared back at us amiably enough, being a good-natured, plump, comely dark-faced lady of perhaps fifty years.
Possagno is nothing if not Canova, and our guide, a boy, knew all about him,—how, more especially, he had first manifested his wonderful genius by modeling a group of sheep out of the dust of the highway, and how an Inglese happening along in his carriage, saw the boy's work and gave him a plateful of gold napoleons. I dare say this is as near the truth as most facts. And is it not better for the historic Canova to have begun in this way than to have poorly picked up the rudiments of his art in the workshop of his father, a maker of altar-pieces and the like for country churches? The Canova family was intermarried with the Venetian nobility, and will not credit those stories of Canova's beginnings which his townsmen so fondly cherish. I believe they would even distrust the butter-lion with which the boy-sculptor is said to have adorned the table of the noble Falier, and first won his notice.
Besides the temple at Possagno, there is a very pretty gallery containing casts of all Canova's works. It is an interesting place, where Psyches and Cupids flutter, where Venuses present themselves in every variety of attitude, where Sorrows sit upon hard, straight-backed classic chairs, and mourn in the society of faithful Storks; where the Bereft of this century surround death-beds in Greek costume appropriate to the scene; where Muses and Graces sweetly pose themselves and insipidly smile, and where the Dancers and Passions, though nakeder, are no wickeder than the Saints and Virtues. In all, there are a hundred and ninety-five pieces in the gallery, and among the rest the statue named George Washington, which was sent to America in 1820, and afterwards destroyed by fire in the Capitol. The figure is in a sitting posture; naturally, it is in the dress of a Roman general; and if it does not look much like George Washington, it does resemble Julius Cæsar.
The custodian of the gallery had been Canova'a body-servant, and he loved to talk of his master. He had so far imbibed the family spirit that he did not like to allow that Canova had ever been other than rich and grand, and he begged us not to believe the idle stories of his first essays in art. He was delighted with our interest in the imperial Washington, and our pleasure in the whole gallery, which we viewed with the homage due to the man who had rescued the world from Swaggering in sculpture. When we were satisfied, he invited us, with his mistress's permission, into the house of the Canovas adjoining the gallery; and there we saw many paintings by the sculptor,—pausing longest in a lovely little room decorated after the Pompeian manner with scherzi in miniature panels representing the jocose classic usualities: Cupids escaping from cages, and being sold from them, and playing many pranks and games with Nymphs and Graces.
Then Canova was done, and Possagno was finished; and we resumed our way to Treviso, a town nearly as much porticoed as Padua, and having a memory and hardly any other consciousness. The Duomo, which is perhaps the ugliest duomo in the world, contains an "Annunciation," by Titian, one of his best paintings; and in the Monte di Pietà is the grand and beautiful "Entombment," by which Giorgione is perhaps most worthily remembered. The church of San Nicolò is interesting from its quaint and pleasing frescos by the school of Giotto. At the railway station an admirable old man sells the most delicious white and purple grapes.
My visit to Lake Como has become to me a dream of summer,—a vision that remains faded the whole year round, till the blazing heats of July bring out the sympathetic tints in which it was vividly painted. Then I behold myself again in burning Milan, amidst noises and fervors and bustle that seem intolerable after my first six months in tranquil, cool, mute Venice. Looking at the great white Cathedral, with its infinite pinnacles piercing the cloudless blue, and gathering the fierce sun upon it, I half expect to see the whole mass calcined by the heat, and crumbling, statue by statue, finial by finial, arch by arch, into a vast heap of lime on the Piazza, with a few charred English tourists blackening here and there upon the ruin, and contributing a smell of burnt leather and Scotch tweed to the horror of the scene. All round Milan smokes the great Lombard plain, and to the north rises Monte Rosa, her dark head coifed with tantalizing snows as with a peasant's white linen kerchief. And I am walking out upon that fuming plain as far as to the Arco della Pace, on which the bronze horses may melt any minute; or I am sweltering through the city's noonday streets, in search of Sant' Ambrogio, or the Cenacolo of Da Vinci, or what know I? Coming back to our hotel, "Alla Bella Venezia," and greeted on entering by the immense fresco which covers one whole side of the court, it appeared to my friend and me no wonder that Garibaldi should look so longingly from the prow of a gondola toward the airy towers and balloon-like domes that swim above the unattainable lagoons of Venice, where the Austrian then lorded it in coolness and quietness, while hot, red-shirted Italy was shut out upon the dusty plains and stony hills. Our desire for water became insufferable; we paid our modest bills, and at six o'clock we took the train for Como, where we arrived about the hour when Don Abbondio, walking down the lonely path with his book of devotions in his hand, gave himself to the Devil on meeting the bravos of Don Rodrigo. I counsel the reader to turn to I Promessi Sposi, if he would know how all the lovely Como country looks at that hour. For me, the ride through the evening landscape, and the faint sentiment of pensiveness provoked by the smell of the ripening maize, which exhales the same sweetness on the way to Como that it does on any Ohio bottom-land, have given me an appetite, and I am to dine before wooing the descriptive Muse.
After dinner, we find at the door of the hotel an English architect whom we know, and we take a boat together for a moonlight row upon the lake, and voyage far up the placid water through air that bathes our heated senses like dew. How far we have left Milan behind! On the lake lies the moon, but the hills are held by mysterious shadows, which for the time are as substantial to us as the hills themselves. Hints of habitation appear in the twinkling lights along the water's edge, and we suspect an alabaster lamp in every casement, and in every invisible house a villa such as Claude Melnotte described to Pauline,—and some one mouths that well-worn fustian. The rags of sentimentality flutter from every crag and olive-tree and orange-tree in all Italy—like the wilted paper collars which vulgar tourists leave by our own mountains and streams, to commemorate their enjoyment of the landscape.
The town of Como lies, a swarm of lights, behind us; the hills and shadows gloom around; the lake is a sheet of tremulous silver. There is no telling how we get back to our hotel, or with what satisfied hearts we fall asleep in our room there. The steamer starts for the head of the lake at eight o'clock in the morning, and we go on board at that hour.
There is some pretense of shelter in the awning stretched over the after part of the boat; but we do not feel the need of it in the fresh morning air, and we get as near the bow as possible, that we may be the very first to enjoy the famous beauty of the scenes opening before us. A few sails dot the water, and everywhere there are small, canopied row-boats, such as we went pleasuring in last night. We reach a bend in the lake, and all the roofs and towers of the city of Como pass from view, as if they had been so much architecture painted on a scene and shifted out of sight at a theatre. But other roofs and towers constantly succeed them, not less lovely and picturesque than they, with every curve of the many-curving lake. We advance over charming expanses of water lying between lofty hills; and as the lake is narrow, the voyage is like that of a winding river,—like that of the Ohio, but for the primeval wildness of the acclivities that guard our Western stream, and the tawniness of its current. Wherever the hills do not descend sheer into Como, a pretty town nestles on the brink, or, if not a town, then a villa, or else a cottage, if there is room for nothing more. Many little towns climb the heights half-way, and where the hills are green and cultivated in vines or olives, peasants' houses scale them to the crest. They grow loftier and loftier as we leave our starting-place farther behind, and as we draw near Colico they wear light wreaths of cloud and snow. So cool a breeze has drawn down between them all the way that we fancy it to have come from them till we stop at Colico, and find that, but for the efforts of our honest engine, sweating and toiling in the dark below, we should have had no current of air. A burning calm is in the atmosphere, and on the broad, flat valley,—out of which a marshy stream oozes into the lake,—and on the snow-crowned hills upon the left, and on the dirty village of Colico upon the right, and on the indolent beggars waiting to welcome us, and sunning their goitres at the landing.
The name Colico, indeed, might be literally taken in English as descriptive of the local insalubrity. The place was once large, but it has fallen away much from sickness, and we found a bill posted in its public places inviting emigrants to America on the part of a German steamship company. It was the only advertisement of the kind I ever saw in Italy, and I judged that the people must be notoriously discontented there to make it worth the while of a steamship company to tempt from home any of the home-keeping Italian race. And yet Colico, though undeniably hot, and openly dirty, and tacitly unhealthy, had merits, though the dinner we got there was not among its virtues. It had an accessible country about it; that is, its woods and fields were not impenetrably walled in from the vagabond foot; and after we had dined we went and lay down under some greenly waving trees beside a field of corn, and heard the plumed and panoplied maize talking to itself of its kindred in America. It always has a welcome for tourists of our nation wherever it finds us in Italy; and sometimes its sympathy, expressed in a rustling and clashing of its long green blades, or in its strong sweet perfume, has, as already hinted, made me homesick, though I have been uniformly unaffected by potato-patches and tobacco-fields. If only the maize could impart to the Italian cooks the beautiful mystery of roasting-ears! Ah! then indeed it might claim a full and perfect fraternization from its compatriots abroad.
From where we lay beside the corn-field, we could see, through the twinkling leaves and the twinkling atmosphere, the great hills across the lake, taking their afternoon naps, with their clouds drawn like handkerchiefs over their heads. It was very hot, and the red and purple ooze of the unwholesome river below "burnt like a witch's oils." It was indeed but a fevered joy we snatched from Nature there; and I am afraid that we got nothing more comfortable from sentiment, when, rising, we wandered off through the unguarded fields toward a ruined tower on a hill. It must have been a relic of feudal times, and I could easily believe it had been the hold of one of those wicked lords who used to rule in the terror of the people beside peaceful and happy Como. But the life, good or bad, was utterly gone out of it now, and what was left of the tower was a burden to the sense. A few scrawny blackberries and other brambles grew out of its fallen stones; harsh, dust-dry mosses painted its weather-worn walls with their blanched gray and yellow. From its foot, looking out over the valley, we saw the road to the Splügen Pass lying white-hot in the valley; and while we looked, the diligence appeared, and dashed through the dust that rose like a flame before. After that it was a relief to stroll in dirty by-ways, past cottages of saffron peasants, and poor stony fields that begrudged them a scanty vegetation, back to the steamer blistering in the sun.
Now indeed we were glad of the awning, under which a silent crowd of people with sunburnt faces waited for the departure of the boat. The breeze rose again as the engine resumed its unappreciated labors, and, with our head toward Como, we pushed out into the lake. The company on board was such as might be expected. There was a German landscape-painter, with three heart's-friends beside him; there were some German ladies; there were the unfailing Americans and the unfailing Englishman; there were some French people; there were Italians from the meridional provinces, dark, thin, and enthusiastic, with fat silent wives, and a rhythmical speech; there were Milanese with their families, out for a holiday,—round-bodied men, with blunt square features, and hair and vowels clipped surprisingly short, there was a young girl whose face was of the exact type affected in rococo sculpture, and at whom one gazed without being able to decide whether she was a nymph descended from a villa gate, or a saint come from under a broken arch in a Renaissance church. At one of the little towns two young Englishmen in knickerbockers came on board, who were devoured by the eyes of their fellow-passengers, and between whom and our kindly architect there was instantly ratified the tacit treaty of non-intercourse which travelling Englishmen observe.
Nothing further interested us on the way to Como, except the gathering coolness of the evening air; the shadows creeping higher and higher on the hills; the songs of the girls winding yellow silk on the reels that hummed through the open windows of the factories on the shore; and the appearance of a flag that floated from a shallop before the landing of a stately villa. The Italians did not know this banner, and the Germans loudly debated its nationality. The Englishmen grinned, and the Americans blushed in silence. Of all my memories of that hot day on Lake Como, this is burnt the deepest; for the flag was that insolent banner which in 1862 proclaimed us a broken people, and persuaded willing Europe of our ruin. It has gone down long ago from ship and fort and regiment, as well as from the shallop on the fair Italian lake. Still, I say, it made Como too hot for us that afternoon, and even breathless Milan was afterwards a pleasant contrast.