Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

Title: Italian Backgrounds
Author: Wharton, Edith
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Italian Backgrounds" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



ITALIAN BACKGROUNDS

[Illustration:

  _Group from the Crucifixion
  San Vivaldo_
]



  ITALIAN BACKGROUNDS

  BY
  EDITH WHARTON

  ILLUSTRATED BY E. C. PEIXOTTO

  [Illustration]

  NEW YORK
  CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS
  MCMV



  Copyright, 1905, by
  CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS

  _Published April, 1905_

  THE DE VINNE PRESS



TABLE OF CONTENTS


                                                         PAGE
  AN ALPINE POSTING-INN                                     1

  A MIDSUMMER WEEK’S DREAM                                 15

  THE SANCTUARIES OF THE PENNINE ALPS                      39

  WHAT THE HERMITS SAW                                     63

  A TUSCAN SHRINE                                          83

  SUB UMBRA LILIORUM                                      107

  MARCH IN ITALY                                          125

  PICTURESQUE MILAN                                       153

  ITALIAN BACKGROUNDS                                     171



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


  GROUP FROM THE CRUCIFIXION--SAN VIVALDO      _Frontispiece_
                                                  FACING PAGE
  BY THE PORT OF LOVERE                                    20

  THE MUNICIPIO--BRESCIA                                   28

  CHIESA DEI MIRACOLI--BRESCIA                             36

  THE INNER QUADRANGLE AT OROPA                            46

  THE MAIN COURT OF THE SACRO MONTE AT VARALLO             56

  A CHARACTERISTIC STREET                                 110

  THE “LITTLE PALACE OF THE GARDEN”                       116

  THE WORN RED LIONS OF THE ANCIENT PORCH                 120

  AN ITALIAN SKY IN MARCH                                 140

  COURT OF THE PALAZZO MARINO, NOW THE MUNICIPIO          156

  THE TOWER OF S. STEFANO                                 162

  THE CHURCH AT SARONNO                                   168



AN ALPINE POSTING-INN


To the mind curious in contrasts--surely one of the chief pleasures of
travel--there can be no better preparation for a descent into Italy
than a sojourn among the upper Swiss valleys. To pass from the region
of the obviously picturesque--the country contrived, it would seem, for
the delectation of the _cœur à poésie facile_--to that sophisticated
landscape where the face of nature seems moulded by the passions and
imaginings of man, is one of the most suggestive transitions in the
rapidly diminishing range of such experiences.

Nowhere is this contrast more acutely felt than in one of the upper
Grisons villages. The anecdotic Switzerland of the lakes is too
remote from Italy, geographically and morally, to evoke a comparison.
The toy chalet, with its air of self-conscious neatness, making one
feel that if one lifted the roof it would disclose a row of tapes
and scissors, or the shining cylinders of a musical box, suggests
cabinet-work rather than architecture; the swept and garnished streets,
the precise gardens, the subjugated vines, present the image of an
old maid’s paradise that would be thrown into hopeless disarray by
the introduction of anything so irregular as a work of art. In the
Grisons, however, where only a bald grey pass divides one from Italy,
its influence is felt, in a negative sense, in the very untidiness of
the streets, the rank growth of weeds along the base of rough glaring
walls, the drone of flies about candidly-exposed manure-heaps. More
agreeably, the same influence shows itself in the rude old centaur-like
houses, with their wrought-iron window-grilles and stone escutcheons
surmounting the odorous darkness of a stable. These are the houses
of people conscious of Italy, who have transplanted to their bleak
heights, either from poverty of invention, or an impulse as sentimental
as our modern habit of “collecting,” the thick walls, the small
windows, the jutting eaves of dwellings designed under a sultry sky.
So vivid is the reminiscence that one almost expects to see a cypress
leaning against the bruised-peach-coloured walls of the village
_douane_; but it is just here that the contrast accentuates itself.
The cypress, with all it stands for, is missing.

It is not easy, in the height of the Swiss season, to light on a nook
neglected by the tourist; but at Splügen he still sweeps by in a cloud
of diligence dust, or pauses only to gulp a flask of Paradiso and a
rosy trout from the Suretta lakes. One’s enjoyment of the place is
thus enhanced by the pleasing spectacle of the misguided hundreds who
pass it by, and from the vantage of the solitary meadows above the
village one may watch the throngs descending on Thusis or Chiavenna
with something of the satisfaction that mediæval schoolmen believed to
be the portion of angels looking down upon the damned. Splügen abounds
in such points of observation. On all sides one may climb from the
alder-fringed shores of the Rhine, through larch-thickets tremulous
with the leap of water, to grassy levels far above, whence the valley
is seen lengthening southward to a great concourse of peaks. In the
morning these upper meadows are hot and bright, and one is glad of the
red-aisled pines and the onyx-coloured torrents cooling the dusk; but
toward sunset, when the shadows make the slopes of turf look like an
expanse of tumbled velvet, it is pleasant to pace the open ledges,
watching the sun recede from the valley, where mowers are still
sweeping the grass into long curved lines like ridges of the sea, while
the pine-woods on the eastern slopes grow black and the upper snows
fade to the colour of cold ashes.

The landscape is simple, spacious and serene. The fields suggest the
tranquil rumination of generations of cattle, the woods offer cool
security to sylvan life, the mountains present blunt weather-beaten
surfaces rather than the subtle contours, wrinkled as by meditation, of
the Italian Alps. One feels that it is a scene in which _nothing has
ever happened_; the haunting adjective is that which Whitman applies to
the American landscape--“the large _unconscious_ scenery of my native
land.”

Switzerland is like a dinner served in the old-fashioned way, with
all the dishes put on the table at once: every valley has its flowery
mead, its “horrid” gorge, its chamois-haunted peaks, its wood and
water-fall. In Italy, the effects are brought on in courses, and
memory is thus able to differentiate the landscapes, even without the
help of that touch of human individuality to which, after all, the
best Italian scenery is but a setting. At Splügen, as in most Swiss
landscapes, the human interest--the evidences of man’s presence--are
an interruption rather than a climax. The village of Splügen, huddled
on a ledge above the Rhine, sheepishly turns the backs of its houses
on the view, as though conscious of making a poor show compared to
the tremendous performance of nature. Between these houses, set at
unconsidered angles, like boxes hastily piled on a shelf, cobble-stone
streets ramble up the hill; but after a few yards they lapse into
mountain paths, and the pastures stoop unabashed to the back doors of
the village. Agriculture seems, in fact, the little town’s excuse for
being. The whole of Splügen, in midsummer, is as one arm at the end of
a scythe. All day long the lines of stooping figures--men, women and
children, grandfathers and industrious babes--spread themselves over
the hill-sides in an ever-widening radius, interminably cutting, raking
and stacking the grass. The lower slopes are first laid bare; then, to
the sheer upper zone of pines, the long grass, thick with larkspur,
mountain pink and orchis, gradually recedes before the rising tide of
mowers. Even in the graveyard of the high-perched church, the scythes
swing between mounds overgrown with campanulas and martagon lilies;
so that one may fancy the dust of generations of thrifty villagers
enriching the harvests of posterity.

This, indeed, is the only destiny one can imagine for them. The past
of such a place must have been as bucolic as its present: the mediæval
keep, crumbling on its wooded spur above the Rhine, was surely perched
there that the lords of the valley might have an eye to the grazing
cattle and command the manœuvres of the mowers. The noble Georgiis who
lived in the escutcheoned houses of Splügen, and now lie under such
a wealth of quarterings in the church and graveyard, must have been
experts in fertilizers and stock-raising; nor can one figure, even for
the seventeenth-century mercenary of the name, whose epitaph declares
him to have been “captain of his Spanish Majesty’s cohorts,” emotions
more poignant, when he came home from the wars, than that evoked by the
tinkle of cow-bells in the pasture, and the vision of a table groaning
with smoked beef and cyclopean cheeses.

So completely are the peasants in the fields a part of the soil they
cultivate, that during the day one may be said to have the whole
of Splügen to one’s self, from the topmost peaks to the deserted
high-road. In the evening the scene changes; and the transformation is
not unintentionally described in theatrical terms, since the square
which, after sunset, becomes the centre of life in Splügen, has an
absurd resemblance to a stage-setting. One side of this square is
bounded by the long weather-beaten front of the posting-inn--but the
inn deserves a parenthesis. Built long ago, and then abandoned, so the
village tradition runs, by a “great Italian family,” its exterior shows
the thick walls, projecting eaves and oval attic openings of an old
Tuscan house; while within, a monastic ramification of stone-vaulted
corridors leads to rooms ceiled and panelled with sixteenth-century
woodwork. The stone terrace before this impressive dwelling forms the
proscenium where, after dinner, the spectators assemble. To the right
of the square stands the pale pink “Post and Telegraph Bureau.” Beyond,
closing in the right wing at a stage-angle, is a mysterious yellowish
house with an arched entrance. Facing these, on the left, are the
_dépendance_ of the inn and the custom-house; in the left background,
the village street is seen winding down, between houses that look
like “studies” in old-fashioned drawing-books (with the cracks in
the plaster done in very black lead), to the bridge across the Rhine
and the first loops of the post-road over the Splügen pass. Opposite
the inn is the obligatory village fountain, the rallying-point of
the chorus; beneath a stone parapet flows the torrent which acts as
an invisible orchestra; and beyond the parapet, snow peaks fill the
background of the stage.

Dinner over, the eager spectators, hastening to the terrace (with
a glimpse, as they pass the vaulted kitchen, of the Italian _chef_
oiling his bicycle amid the débris of an admirable meal), find active
preparations afoot for the event of the evening--the arrival of the
diligences. Already the orchestra is tuning its instruments, and the
chorus, recruited from the hay-fields, are gathering in the wings. A
dozen of them straggle in and squat on the jutting stone basement of
the post-office; others hang picturesquely about the fountain, or hover
up the steep street, awaiting the prompter’s call. Presently some of
the subordinate characters stroll across the stage: the owner of the
saw-mill on the Rhine, a tall man in homespun, deferentially saluted by
the chorus; two personages in black coats, with walking-sticks, who
always appear together, and have the air of being joint syndics of the
village; a gentleman of leisure, in a white cap with a visor, smoking
a long Italian cigar and attended by an inquisitive Pomeranian dog; a
citizen in white socks and carpet slippers, giving his arm to his wife,
and preceded by a Bewickian little boy with a green butterfly-box over
his shoulder; the gold-braided custom-house officer hurrying up rather
late for his cue; two or three local ladies in sunburnt millinery and
spectacles, who drop in to see the postmistress; and a showy young man,
with the look of having seen life at Chur or Bellinzona, who emerges
from the post-office conspicuously reading a letter, to the undisguised
interest of the chorus, the ladies and the Pomeranian. As these figures
pass and repass in a kind of social silence, they suggest the leisurely
opening of some play composed before the unities were abolished, and
peopled by types with generic names--the Innkeeper, the Postmistress,
the Syndic--some comedy of Goldoni’s, perhaps, but void even of
Goldoni’s simple malice.

Meanwhile the porter has lit the oil-lanterns hanging by a chain over
the door of the inn; a celestial hand has performed a similar office
for the evening star above the peaks; and through the hush that has
settled on the square comes a distant sound of bells.... Instantly
the action begins; the innkeeper appears, supported by the porter
and the waiter; a wave of acclamation runs through the chorus; the
Pomeranian trots down the road; and presently the fagged leaders
of the Thusis diligence turn their heads round the corner of the
square. The preposterous yellow coach--a landau attached to a glass
“clarence”--crosses the cobble-paved stage, swinging round with a grand
curve to the inn door; vague figures, detaching themselves from the
chorus, flit about the horses or help the guard to lift the luggage
down; the two syndics, critically aloof, lean on their sticks to watch
the scene; the Pomeranian bustles between the tired horses’ legs; and
the diligence doors let out a menagerie of the strange folk whom one
sees only on one’s travels. Here they come, familiar as the figures
in a Noah’s ark: Germans first--the little triple-chinned man with a
dachshund, out of “Fliegende Blätter,” the slippered Hercules with a
face like that at the end of a meerschaum pipe, and their sentimental
females; shrill and vivid Italians, a pleasant pig-faced priest.
Americans going “right through,” with their city and state writ large
upon their luggage; English girls like navvies, and Frenchmen like
girls; the arched doorway absorbs them, and another jingle of bells,
and a flash of lamps on the bridge, proclaim that the Chiavenna
diligence is coming.

The same ceremony repeats itself; and another detachment of the
travelling menagerie descends. This time there is a family of rodents,
who look as though they ought to be enclosed in wire netting and
judiciously nourished on lettuce; there is a small fierce man in
knickerbockers and a sash, conducting a large submissive wife and two
hypocritical little boys who might have stepped out of “The Mirror of
the Mind”; there is an unfortunate lady in spectacles, who looks like
one of the Creator’s rejected experiments, and carries a grey linen bag
embroidered with forget-me-nots; there is the inevitable youth with
an alpenstock, who sends home a bunch of edelweiss to his awe-struck
family.... These, too, disappear; the horses are led away; the chorus
disperses, the lights go out, the performance is over. Only one
spectator lingers, a thoughtful man in a snuff-coloured overcoat, who
gives the measure of the social resources of Splügen by the deliberate
way in which, evening after evening, he walks around the empty
diligences, looks into their windows, examines the wheels and poles,
and then mournfully vanishes into darkness.

At last the two diligences have the silent square to themselves. There
they stand, side by side in dusty slumber, till the morning cow-bells
wake them to departure. One goes back to Thusis; to the region of
good hotels, pure air and scenic platitudes. It may go empty for all
we care. But the other ... the other wakes from its Alpine sleep to
climb the cold pass at sunrise and descend by hot windings into the
land where the church steeples turn into _campanili_, where the vine,
breaking from perpendicular bondage, flings a liberated embrace about
the mulberries, and far off, beyond the plain, the mirage of domes and
spires, of painted walls and sculptured altars, beckons across the
dustiest tracts of memory. In that diligence our seats are taken.



A MIDSUMMER WEEK’S DREAM

AUGUST IN ITALY

          _.... Un paysage choisi
    Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques._


I

For ten days we had not known what ailed us. We had fled from the
August heat and crowd of the Vorderrheinthal to the posting-inn below
the Splügen pass; and here fortune had given us all the midsummer
tourist can hope for--solitude, cool air and fine scenery. A dozen
times a day we counted our mercies, but still privately felt them to be
insufficient. As we walked through the larch-groves beside the Rhine,
or climbed the grassy heights above the valley, we were oppressed by
the didactic quality of our surroundings--by the aggressive salubrity
and repose of this _bergerie de Florian_. We seemed to be living in
the landscape of a sanatorium prospectus. It was all pleasant enough,
according to Schopenhauer’s definition of pleasure. We had none of the
things we did not want; but then we did not particularly want any of
the things we had. We had fancied we did till we got them; and as we
had to own that they did their part in fulfilling our anticipations, we
were driven to conclude that the fault was in ourselves. Then suddenly
we found out what was wrong. Splügen was charming, but it was too near
Italy.

One can forgive a place three thousand miles from Italy for not being
Italian; but that a village on the very border should remain stolidly,
immovably Swiss was a constant source of exasperation. Even the
landscape had neglected its opportunities. A few miles off it became
the accomplice of man’s most exquisite imaginings; but here we could
see in it only endless material for Swiss clocks and fodder.

The trouble began with our watching the diligences. Every evening we
saw one toiling up the pass from Chiavenna, with dusty horses and
perspiring passengers. How we pitied those passengers! We walked among
them puffed up with all the good air in our lungs. We felt fresh and
cool and enviable, and moralized on the plaintive lot of those whose
scant holidays compelled them to visit Italy in August. But already the
poison was at work. We pictured what our less fortunate brothers had
seen till we began to wonder if, after all, they were less fortunate.
At least they had _been there_; and what drawbacks could qualify that
fact? Was it better to be cool and look at a water-fall, or to be hot
and look at Saint Mark’s? Was it better to walk on gentians or on
mosaic, to smell fir-needles or incense? Was it, in short, ever well to
be elsewhere when one might be in Italy?

We tried to quell the rising madness by interrogating the travellers.
Was it very hot on the lakes and in Milan? “Terribly!” they answered,
and mopped their brows. “Unimaginative idiots!” we grumbled, and
forbore to question the next batch. Of course it was hot there--but
what of that? Think of the compensations! To take it on the lowest
plane, think of the empty hotels and railway carriages, the absence
of tourists and Baedekers! Even the Italians were away, among the
Apennines and in the Engadine; we should have the best part of the
country to ourselves. Gradually we began to picture our sensations
should we take seats in the diligence on its return journey. From that
moment we were lost. We did not say much to each other, but one morning
at sunrise we found a travelling-carriage at the door. No one seemed
to know who had ordered it, but we noticed that our luggage was being
strapped on behind. We took our seats and the driver turned his horses
toward the Splügen pass. It was not the way to Switzerland.

[Illustration:

  _By the Port of Lovere_

  E. C. Peixotto
  LOVEIRE. 1901.

]

We mounted to ice and snow. The savage landscape led us to the top of
the pass and dogged us down to the miserable Italian custom-house on
the other side. Then began the long descent through snow-galleries and
steep pine-forests, above the lonely gorge of the Madesimo: Switzerland
still in every aspect, but with a promise of Italy in the names of
the dreary villages. Visible Italy began with the valley of the Lira,
where, in a wild Salvator Rosa landscape, the beautiful campanile
of the Madonna of Gallevaggio rises above embowering walnuts. After
that each successive village declared its allegiance more openly.
The huddled stone houses disappeared in a wealth of pomegranates and
oleanders. Vine-pergolas shaded the doorways, roses and dahlias
overflowed the terraces of rough masonry, and between the
walnut-groves there were melon-patches and fields of maize.

As we approached Chiavenna a thick bloom of heat lay on the motionless
foliage, and the mountains hung like thunder-clouds on the horizon.
There was something oppressive, menacing almost, in the still weight
of the atmosphere. It seemed to have absorbed all the ardour of the
sun-baked Lombard plain, of the shadeless rice and maize fields
stretching away to the south of us. But the eye had ample compensation.
The familiar town of Chiavenna had grown as fantastically picturesque
as the background of a fresco. The old houses, with their medallioned
doorways of worn marble; the court-yards bright with flowers and
shaded by trellised vines; the white turbulence of the Lira, rushing
between gardens, balconies and terraces set at reckless angles above
the water--were all these a part of the town we had so often seen at
less romantic seasons? The general impression was of an exuberance of
rococo--as though the sportive statue of Saint John Nepomuc on the
bridge, the grotesque figures on the balustrade of the pale-green villa
near the hotel, and the stucco shrines at the street corners, had
burst into a plastic efflorescence rivalling the midsummer wealth of
the gardens.

We had left Switzerland with the general object of going to Italy and
the specific one of exploring the Bergamasque Alps. It was the name
which had attracted us, as much from its intrinsic picturesqueness as
from its associations with the _commedia dell’ arte_ and the jolly
figures of Harlequin and Brighella. I have often journeyed thus in
pursuit of a name, and have seldom been unrewarded. In this case the
very aspect of the map was promising. The region included in the
scattered lettering--_Bergamasker Hochthäler_--had that furrowed,
serried look so encouraging to the experienced traveller. It was rich,
crowded, suggestive; and the names of the villages were enchanting.

Early the next morning we set out for Colico, at the head of the
Lake of Como, and thence took train for Sondrio, the chief town of
the Valtelline. The lake, where we had to wait for our train, lay in
unnatural loveliness beneath a breathless sky, the furrowed peaks
bathed in subtle colour-gradations of which, at other seasons, the
atmosphere gives no hint. At Sondrio we found all the dreariness of a
modern Italian town with wide unshaded streets; but taking carriage in
the afternoon for Madonna di Tirano we were soon in the land of romance
again. The Valtelline, through which we drove, is one vast fruit and
vegetable garden of extraordinary fertility. The _gran turco_ (as the
maize is called) grows in jungles taller than a man, and the grapes and
melons have the exaggerated size and bloom of their counterfeits in a
Dutch fruit-piece. The rich dulness of this foreground was relieved by
the noble lines of the hills, and the air cooled by the rush of the
Adda, which followed the windings of our road, and by a glimpse of
snow peaks at the head of the valley. The villages were uninteresting,
but we passed a low-lying deserted church, a charming bit of
seventeenth-century decay, with peeling stucco ornaments, and weeds
growing from the florid vases of the pediment; and far off, on a lonely
wooded height, there was a tantalizing glimpse of another church, a
Renaissance building rich with encrusted marbles: one of the nameless
uncatalogued treasures in which Italy still abounds.

Toward sunset we reached Madonna di Tirano, the great pilgrimage
church of the Valtelline. With its adjoining monastery it stands
alone in poplar-shaded meadows a mile or more from the town of Tirano.
The marble church, a late fifteenth-century building by Battagio
(the architect of the Incoronata of Lodi), has the peculiar charm of
that transitional period when individuality of detail was merged,
but not yet lost, in the newly-recovered sense of unity. From the
columns of the porch, with their Verona-like arabesques, to the
bronze Saint Michael poised like a Mercury on the cupola, the whole
building combines the charm and naïveté of the earlier tradition with
the dignity of a studied whole. The interior, if less homogeneous,
is, in the French sense, even more “amusing.” Owing, doubtless, to
the remote situation of the church, it has escaped the unifying
hand of the improver, and presents three centuries of conflicting
decorative treatment, ranging from the marble chapel of the Madonna,
so suggestive, in its clear-edged reliefs, of the work of Omodeo at
Pavia, to the barocco carvings of the organ and the eighteenth-century
_grisailles_ beneath the choir-gallery.

The neighbouring monastery of Saint Michael has been turned into an inn
without farther change than that of substituting tourists for monks
in the white-washed cells around the cloisters. The old building is
a dusty labyrinth of court-yards, loggias and pigeon-haunted upper
galleries, which it needs but little imagination to people with cowled
figures gliding to lauds or benediction; and the refectory where we
supped is still hung with portraits of cardinals, monsignori, and lady
abbesses holding little ferret-like dogs.

The next day we drove across the rich meadows to Tirano, one of those
unhistoried and unconsidered Italian towns which hold in reserve for
the observant eye a treasure of quiet impressions. It is difficult to
name any special “effect”: the hurried sight-seer may discover only
dull streets and featureless house-fronts. But the place has a fine
quality of age and aloofness. The featureless houses are “palaces,”
long-fronted and escutcheoned, with glimpses of arcaded courts, and of
gardens where maize and dahlias smother the broken statues and choked
fountains, and where grapes ripen on the peeling stucco walls. Here
and there one comes on a frivolous rococo church, subdued by time to
delicious harmony with its surroundings; on a fountain in a quiet
square, or a wrought-iron balcony projecting romantically from a
shuttered façade; or on one or another of the hundred characteristic
details which go to make up the _mise en scène_ of the average Italian
town. It is precisely in places like Tirano, where there are no salient
beauties to fix the eye, that one appreciates the value of these
details, that one realizes what may be called the negative strength
of the Italian artistic sense. Where the Italian builder could not be
grand, he could always abstain from being mean and trivial; and this
artistic abnegation gives to many a dull little town like Tirano an
architectural dignity which our great cities lack.


II

The return to secular life was made two days later, when we left
our monastery and set out to drive across the Aprica pass to Edolo.
Retracing for a mile or two the way toward Sondrio, we took a turn to
the left and began to mount the hills through forests of beech and
chestnut. With each bend of the road the views down the Valtelline
toward Sondrio and Como grew wider and more beautiful. No one who has
not looked out on such a prospect in the early light of an August
morning can appreciate the poetic truth of Claude’s interpretation
of nature: we seemed to be moving through a gallery hung with his
pictures. There was the same expanse of billowy forest, the same silver
winding of a river through infinite gradations of distance, the same
aërial line of hills melting into illimitable sky.

As we neared the top of the pass the air freshened, and pines and open
meadows replaced the forest. We lunched at a little hotel in a bare
meadow, among a crowd of Italians enjoying the _villeggiatura_ in their
shrill gregarious fashion; then we began the descent to Edolo in the
Val Camonica.

The scenery changed rapidly as we drove on. There was no longer
any great extent of landscape, as on the other side of the pass,
but a succession of small park-like views: rounded clumps of trees
interspersed with mossy glades, water-falls surmounted by old mills,
_campanili_ rising above villages hidden in foliage. On these smooth
grassy terraces, under the walnut boughs, one expected at each turn
to come upon some pastoral of Giorgione’s, or on one of Bonifazio’s
sumptuous picnics. The scenery has a studied beauty in which velvet
robes and caparisoned palfreys would not be out of place, and even the
villages might have been “brushed in” by an artist skilled in effects
and not afraid to improve upon reality.

It was after sunset when we reached Edolo, a dull town splendidly
placed at the head of the Val Camonica, beneath the ice-peaks of the
Adamello. The Oglio, a loud stream voluble of the glaciers, rushes
through the drowsy streets as though impatient to be gone; and we were
not sorry, the next morning, to follow its lead and continue our way
down the valley.


III

The Val Camonica, which extends from the Adamello group to the head of
the lake of Iseo, is a smaller and more picturesque reproduction of the
Valtelline. Vines and maize again fringed our way; but the mountains
were closer, the villages more frequent and more picturesque.

[Illustration:

  _The Municipio--Brescia_

  E. C. Peixotto
  BRESCIA. 1901.
]

We had read in the invaluable guide-book of Gsell-Fels a vague allusion
to an interesting church among these mountains, but we could learn
nothing of it at Edolo, and only by persistent enquiries along the
road did we finally hear that there _was_ a church with “sculptures”
in the hill-village of Cerveno, high above the reach of carriages. We
left the high-road at the point indicated, and drove in a light country
carriole up the stony mule-path, between vines and orchards, till
the track grew too rough for wheels; then we continued the ascent on
foot. As we approached the cluster of miserable hovels which had been
pointed out to us we felt sure we had been misled. Not even in Italy,
the land of unsuspected treasures, could one hope to find a church with
“sculptures” in a poverty-stricken village on this remote mountain!
Cerveno does not even show any signs of past prosperity. It has plainly
never been more than it now is--the humblest of _paesi_, huddled away
in an unvisited fold of the Alps. The peasants whom we met still
insisted that the church we sought was close at hand; but the higher we
mounted the lower our anticipations fell.

Then suddenly, at the end of a long stony lane, we came on an imposing
doorway. The church to which it belonged stood on a higher ledge of
the hill, and the door led into a vaulted ascent, with shallow flights
of steps broken by platforms or landings--a small but yet impressive
imitation of the Bernini staircase in the Vatican. As we mounted we
found that each landing opened into a dimly-lit chapel with grated
doors, through which we discerned terra-cotta groups representing the
scenes of the Passion. The staircase was in fact a Sacred Way like
the more famous one of Varallo; but there was distinct originality in
placing the chapels on each side of the long flight of steps leading to
the church, instead of scattering them on an open hill-side, according
to the traditional plan common to all the other sacred mountains of
northern Italy.

The dilettante will always allow for the heightening of emotion that
attends any unexpected artistic “find”; but, setting this subjective
impression aside, the Via Crucis of Cerveno remains in my memory as
among the best examples of its kind--excepting always the remarkable
terra-cottas of San Vivaldo in Tuscany. At Cerveno, as at Varallo,
the groups are marked by unusual vivacity and expressiveness. The
main lines of the composition are conventional, and the chief
personages--Christ and the Apostles, the Virgin and the other
holy characters--are modelled on traditional types; but the minor
figures, evidently taken from life, are rendered with frank realism
and with extraordinary truth of expression and gesture. Just such
types--the dwarf, the beggar, the hunchback, the brawny waggoner or
ploughman--had met us in every village on the way to Cerveno. As in
all the hill-regions where the goitre is prevalent, the most villanous
characters in the drama are depicted with a hideous bag of flesh
beneath the chin; and Signorelli could not have conceived more bestial
leering cruelty than that in some of the faces which press about the
dying Christ. The scenes follow the usual order of the sacred story,
without marked departure from the conventional grouping; but there is
unusual pathos in the Descent from the Cross, where the light from
the roof of the chapel falls with tragic intensity on the face of a
Magdalen full of suave Lombard beauty.

Hardly less surprising than this remarkable stairway is the church to
which it leads. The walls are hung with devotional pictures set in
the faded gilding of rich old frames, the altar-fronts are remarkable
examples of sixteenth-century wood-carving, and the high altar is
surmounted by an elaborate tabernacle, also of carved wood, painted and
gilt, that in itself repays the effort of the climb to Cerveno. This
tabernacle is a complicated architectural composition--like one of the
fantastic designs of Fontana or Bibbiena--thronged with tiny saints
and doctors, angels and _putti_, akin to the little people of the
Neapolitan _presepii:_ a celestial company fluttering

    _Si come schiera d’api che s’infiora_

around the divine group which surmounts the shrine.

This prodigality of wood-carving, surprising as it is in so remote and
humble a church, is yet characteristic of the region about Brescia
and Bergamo. Lamberti of Brescia, the sculptor of the famous frame
of Romanino’s Madonna in the church of San Francesco, was one of the
greatest wood-carvers of the Italian Renaissance; and every church
and chapel in the country through which we were travelling bore
witness to the continued practice of the art in some graceful frame or
altar-front, some saint or angel rudely but expressively modelled.

We lunched that day at Breno, a town guarded by a ruined castle on
a hill, and sunset brought us to Lovere, at the head of the lake of
Iseo. It was the stillest of still evenings, and the little town which
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu has immortalized was reflected, with every
seam and wrinkle of its mountain background, in the pearly surface
of the lake. Literal-minded critics, seeking in vain along the shore
for Lady Mary’s villa and garden, have grumbled at the inaccuracy of
her descriptions; but every lover of Italy will understand the mental
process by which she unconsciously created an imaginary Lovere. For
though the town, at first sight, is dull and disappointing, yet, taken
with its surroundings, it might well form the substructure of one of
those Turneresque visions which, in Italy, are perpetually intruding
between the most conscientious traveller and his actual surroundings.
It is indeed almost impossible to see Italy steadily and see it whole.
The onset of impressions and memories is at times so overwhelming that
observation is lost in mere sensation.

Certainly he who, on an August morning, sails from Lovere to Iseo, at
the southern end of the lake, is likely to find himself succumbing to
Lady Mary’s hallucinations. Warned by her example, and conscious of
lacking her extenuating gift, I hesitate to record my impressions of
the scene; or venture, at most, to do so in the past tense, asserting
(and this even with a mental reservation) that on a certain morning
a certain number of years ago the lake of Iseo wore such and such an
aspect. But the difficulty of rendering the aspect remains. I can only
say it was that very lake of the _carte du Tendre_ upon which, in the
eighteenth-century romances, gay parties in velvet-hung barges used
to set out for the island of Cythera. Every village on that enchanted
shore might have been the stage of some comedy in the Bergamasque
dialect, with Harlequin in striped cloak, and Brighella in conical hat
and wide green and white trousers, strutting up and down before the
shuttered house in which Dr. Graziano hides his pretty ward; every
villa reflecting its awnings and bright flowers in the lake might
have housed some Rosaura to whom Leandro, the Tuscan lover, warbled
_rispetti_ beneath the padlocked water-gate; every pink or yellow
monastery on the hill-side might have sent forth its plausible friar,
descendant of Machiavelli’s Fra Timoteo, to preach in the market-place,
beg at the villa-door, and help Rosaura and Leandro cozen the fat dupe
of a Pantaloon in black cloak and scarlet socks. The eighteenth century
of Longhi, of Tiepolo and Goldoni was reflected in the lake as in some
magic crystal. Did the vision dissolve as we landed at Iseo, or will
some later traveller find it still lying beneath the wave like the
vanished city of Ys? There is no telling, in such cases, how much the
eye receives and how much it contributes; and if ever the boundaries
between fact and fancy waver, it may well be under the spell of the
Italian midsummer madness.


IV

The sun lay heavy on Iseo; and the railway journey thence to Brescia
left in our brains a golden dazzle of heat. It was refreshing, on
reaching Brescia, to enter the streets of the old town, where the
roofs almost meet and there is always a blessed strip of shade to
walk in. The cities in Italy are much cooler than the country. It is
in August that one understands the wisdom of the old builders, who
made the streets so narrow, and built dim draughty arcades around the
open squares. In Brescia the effects of light and shade thus produced
were almost Oriental in their sharp-edged intensity; the rough stucco
surfaces gilded with vivid sunlight bringing out the depths of
contrasting shade, and the women with black veils over their heads
slipping along under the mysterious balconies and porticoes like
flitting fragments of the shadow.

[Illustration:

  _Chiesa dei Miracoli--Brescia_
]

Brescia is at all times a delightful place to linger in. Its chief
possessions--the bronze Victory, and that room in the Martinengo palace
where Moretto, in his happiest mood, depicted the ladies of the line
under arches of trellis-work backed by views of the family villas--make
it noteworthy even among Italian cities; and it has, besides, its
beautiful town-hall, its picture-gallery, and the curious court-yards
painted in perspective that are so characteristic of the place. But in
summer there is a strong temptation to sit and think of these things
rather than to go and see them. In the court-yard of the hotel, where
a fountain tinkles refreshingly, and the unbleached awnings flap in
the breeze of the electric fans, it is pleasant to feel that the
Victory and the pictures are close at hand, like old friends waiting
on one’s inclination; but if one ventures forth, let it be rather
to the churches than to the galleries. Only at this season can one
appreciate the atmosphere of the churches: that chill which cuts the
sunshine like a knife as one steps across the dusky threshold. When
we entered the cathedral its vast aisles were empty, but far off,
in the dimness of the pillared choir, we heard a drone of intoning
canons that freshened the air like the sound of a water-fall in a
forest. Thence we wandered on to San Francesco, empty too, where, in
the sun-spangled dimness, the great Romanino throned behind the high
altar. The sacristan drew back the curtain before the picture, and as
it was revealed to us in all its sun-bathed glory he exclaimed with
sudden wonder, as though he had never seen it before: “_È stupendo! È
stupendo!_” Perhaps he vaguely felt, as we did, that Romanino, to be
appreciated, must be seen in just that light, a projection of the suave
and radiant atmosphere in which his own creations move. Certainly no
Romanino of the great public galleries arrests the imagination like the
Madonna of San Francesco; and in its presence one thinks with a pang of
all the beautiful objects uprooted from their native soil to adorn the
herbarium of the art-collector....


V

It was on the last day of our journey that the most imperturbable
member of the party, looking up from a prolonged study of the
guide-books, announced that we had not seen the Bergamasque Alps after
all.

In the excited argument that followed, proof seemed to preponderate
first on one side and then on the other; but a closer scrutiny of the
map confirmed the fear that we had not actually penetrated beyond
the borders of the promised land. It must be owned that at first the
discovery was somewhat humiliating; but on reflection it left us
overjoyed to think that we had still the Bergamasque Alps to visit.
Meanwhile our pleasure had certainly been enhanced by our delusion; and
we remembered with fresh admiration Goethe’s profound saying--a saying
which Italy inspired--

    _O, wie beseliget uns Menschen ein falscher Begriff!_



THE SANCTUARIES OF THE PENNINE ALPS


When June is hot on the long yellow streets of Turin, it is pleasant to
take train for the Biellese, that romantic hill-country where the last
slopes of the Pennine Alps melt into the Piedmontese plain.

The line, crossing the lowland with its red-tiled farm-houses and
mulberry orchards, rises gradually to a region of rustling verdure.
Mountain streams flow down between alder-fringed banks, white oxen doze
under the acacia-hedges, and in the almond and cherry orchards the
vine hangs its Virgilian garlands from blossoming tree to tree. This
pastoral land rolls westward to the Graiian Alps in an undulating sea
of green, but to the north it breaks abruptly into the height against
which rises the terraced outline of Biella.

The cliffs of the Biellese are the haunt of ancient legend, and on
almost every ledge a church or monastery perpetuates the story of
some wonder-working relic. Biella, the chief town of this devout
district, covers a small conical hill and spreads its suburbs over the
surrounding level. Its hot sociable streets are full of the shrill
activity of an Italian watering-place; but the transalpine traveller
will probably be inclined to push on at once to the village of Andorno,
an hour’s drive deeper in the hills.

Biella overhangs the plain; but Andorno lies in a valley which soon
contracts to a defile between the mountains. The drive thither from
Biella skirts the Cervo, a fresh mountain stream, and passes through
villages set on park-like slopes in the ample shade of chestnut-groves.
The houses of these villages have little of the picturesqueness
mistakenly associated with Italian rural architecture; but every window
displays its pot of lavender or of carnations, and the arched doorways
reveal gardens flecked with the blue shadows of the vine-pergola.

Andorno itself is folded in hills, rounded, umbrageous, cooled with
the song of birds. A sylvan hush envelops the place, and the air one
breathes seems to have travelled over miles of forest freshened by
unseen streams. It is all as still and drowsy as the dream of a tired
brain. There is nothing to see but the country itself--acacia-fringed
banks sloping to the stream below the village; the arch of a ruined
bridge; an old hexagonal chapel with red-tiled roof and an arcade of
stunted columns; and, beyond the bridge and the chapel, rich upland
meadows where all day long the peasant women stoop to the swing of the
scythe.

In June in this high country (where patches of snow still lie in the
shaded hollows), the wild flowers of spring and summer seem to meet:
narcissus and forget-me-not lingering in the grass, while yellow
broom--Leopardi’s _lover of sad solitudes_--sheets the dry banks with
gold, and higher up, in the folds of the hills, patches of crimson
azalea mix their shy scent with the heavy fragrance of the acacia. In
the meadows the trees stand in well-spaced majestic groups, walnut,
chestnut and beech, tenting the grass with shade. The ivy hangs its
drapery over garden walls and terraces, and the streams rush down under
a quivering canopy of laburnum. The scenery of these high Pennine
valleys is everywhere marked by the same nobleness of colour and
outline, the same atmosphere of spaciousness and poetry. It is the rich
studied landscape of Bonifazio’s idyls: a scene of peace and plenitude,
not the high-coloured southern opulence but the sober wealth poured
from a glacial horn of plenty. There is none of the Swiss abruptness,
of the Swiss accumulation of effects. The southern aspect softens and
expands. There is no crowding of impressions, but a stealing sense of
harmony and completeness.

From Andorno the obvious excursion is to the famous shrine of San
Giovanni; a “sight” taking up eight pages in the excellent “Guida del
Biellese,” but remaining in the traveller’s memory chiefly as the
objective point of a charming walk or drive. The road thither winds
up the Val d’Andorno, between heights set with villages hung aloft
among the beech-groves, or thrusting their garden-parapets above the
spray and tumult of the Cervo. The densely-wooded cliffs are scarred
with quarries of sienite, and the stream, as the valley narrows,
forces its way over masses of rock and between shelving stony banks;
but the little gardens dashed by its foam overflow with irises, roses
and peonies, surrounded with box-hedges and shaded by the long mauve
panicles of the wistaria.

Presently the road leaves the valley, and ascends the beech-clothed
flank of the mountain on which the church of San Giovanni is perched.
The coolness and hush of this wooded hill-side are delicious after
the noise and sunshine of the open road, and one is struck by the
civic amenity which, in this remote solitude, has placed benches at
intervals beneath the trees. At length the brow of the hill is reached.
The beeches recede, leaving a grassy plateau flanked by a long façade
of the monastery; and from the brink of this open space the eye drops
unhindered down the long leafy reaches of the Val d’Andorno.

The scene is characterized by the tenderest gradations of colour
and line: beeches blending with walnuts, these with the tremulous
laburnum-thickets along the stream, and the curves of the hills flowing
into one another till they lose themselves in the aërial distances of
the plain. The building which commands this outlook is hardly worthy
of its station, unless, indeed, the traveller feels its sober lines
to be an admission of art’s inferiority to nature in such aspects. To
the confirmed apologist of Italy there is indeed a certain charm in
finding so insignificant a piece of architecture in so rare a spot:
as though in a land thus amply dowered no architectural emphasis
were needed to call attention to any special point of view. Yet a
tenderness for the view, one cannot but infer, must have guided the
steps of those early cenobites who peopled the romantic landscape with
wonder-working images. When did a miracle take place on a barren plain
or in a circumscribed hollow? The manifestations of divine favour
invariably sought the heights, and those who dedicated themselves to
the commemoration of such holy incidents did so in surroundings poetic
enough to justify their faith in the supernatural.

[Illustration:

  _The Inner Quadrangle at Oropa_

  E. C. Peixotto
  LOVEIRE. 1901.
]

The church, with its dignified front and sculptured portal, adjoins
the hospice, and shows little of interest within but the stone grotto
containing the venerated image of Saint John, discovered in the third
century by Saint Eusebius, Bishop of Vercelli. This grotto is protected
by an iron grating, and its dark recess twinkles with silver hearts
and other votive offerings. The place is still a favourite pilgrimage,
but there seems to be some doubt as to which Saint John has chosen it
as the scene of his posthumous thaumaturgy; for, according to the
local guide-book, it is equally frequented on the feasts of the Baptist
and of the Evangelist. This uncertainty is not without its practical
advantages; and one reads that the hospice is open the year round,
and that an excellent meal may always be enjoyed in the _trattoria_
above the arcade; while on the feasts of the respective saints it is
necessary for the devotee to bespeak his board and lodging in advance.

If San Giovanni appeals chiefly to the lover of landscape, the more
famous sanctuary of Oropa is of special interest to the architect; for
thither, in the eighteenth century, the piety of the house of Savoy
sent Juvara, one of the greatest architects of his time, to add a grand
façade and portico to the group of monastic buildings erected a hundred
years earlier by Negro di Pralungo.

The ascent to the great mountain-shrine of the Black Virgin leads the
traveller back to Biella, and up the hills behind the town. The drive
is long, but so diversified, so abounding in beauty, that in nearing
its end one feels the need of an impressive monument to close so
nobly ordered an approach. As the road rises above the vineyards of
Biella, as the house-roofs, the church-steeples and the last suburban
villas drop below the line of vision, there breaks upon the eye the
vast undulating reach of the Piedmontese plain. From the near massing
of cultivated verdure--the orchards, gardens, groves of the minutely
pencilled foreground--to the far limit where earth and sky converge
in silver, the landscape glides through every gradation of sun-lit
cloud-swept loveliness. First the Val d’Andorno unbosoms its wooded
depths; then the distances press nearer, blue-green and dappled with
forest, with the towns of Biella, Novara and Vercelli like white fleets
anchored on a misty sea. This view, with its fold on fold of woodland,
dusky-shimmering in the foreground, then dark blue, with dashes of
tawny sunlight and purple streaks of rain, till it fades into the
indeterminate light of the horizon, suggests some heroic landscape of
Poussin’s, or the boundless russet distances of Rubens’s “Château of
Stein.”

Meanwhile the foreground is perpetually changing. The air freshens, the
villages with their flower-gardens and their guardian images of the
Black Virgin are left behind, and between the thinly-leaved beeches
rise bare gravelly slopes backed by treeless hills. The Loreto of
Piedmont lies nearly four thousand feet above the sea, and even in
June there is a touch of snow in the air. For a moment one fancies
one’s self in Switzerland; but here, at the bend of the road, is a
white chapel with a classic porch, within which a group of terra-cotta
figures enact some episode of the Passion. Italy has reasserted herself
and art has humanized the landscape. More chapels are scattered through
the trees, but one forgets to note them as the carriage turns into a
wide grassy forecourt, bordered by stone pyramids and dominated at its
farther end by the great colonnade of the hospice. A _rampe douce_ with
fine iron gates leads up to an outer court enclosed in the arcaded
wings of the building. Under these arcades are to be found shops in
which the pilgrim may satisfy his various wants, from groceries, wines
and cotton umbrellas (much needed in these showery hills), to rosaries,
images of the Black Virgin, and pious histories of her miracles. Above
the arcades the pilgrims are lodged; and in the centre of the inner
façade Juvara’s marble portico unfolds its double flight of steps.

Passing through this gateway, one stands in a spacious inner
quadrangle. This again is enclosed in low buildings resting on
arcades, their alignment broken only by the modest façade of the
church. Outside there is the profane bustle of life, the clatter of
glasses at the doors of rival _trattorie_, the cracking of whips, the
stir of buying and selling; but a warm silence holds the inner court.
Only a few old peasant women are hobbling, rosary in hand, over the
sun-baked flags to the cool shelter of the church. The church is indeed
cavernously cold, with that subterranean chill peculiar to religious
buildings. The interior is smaller and plainer than one had expected;
but presently it is seen to be covered with a decoration beside which
the rarest tapestry or fresco might sink into insignificance. This
covering is composed of innumerable votive offerings, crowding each
other from floor to vaulting over every inch of wall, lighting the
chapels with a shimmer of silver and tinsel, with the yellow of old
wax legs and arms, and the gleam of tarnished picture-frames: each
overlapping scale of this strange sheath symbolizing some impulse of
longing, grief or gratitude, so that, as it were, the whole church is
lined with heart-beats. Most of these offerings are the gift of the
poor mountain-folk, and the paintings record with artless realism the
miraculous escapes of carters, quarrymen and stone-cutters. In the
choir, however, hang a few portraits of noble donators in ruffs and
Spanish jerkins; and one picture, rudely painted on the wall itself,
renders with touching fidelity the interior of a peasant’s house in the
sixteenth or seventeenth century, with the mother kneeling by a cradle
over which the Black Virgin sheds her reassuring light.

The ebony Virgin herself (another “find” of the indefatigable Saint
Eusebius) is enthroned behind the high altar, in a tiny chapel built
by her discoverer, where, in a blaze of altar-lights, the miraculous
image, nimbused in jewels and gold, showers a dazzling brightness
on the groups who succeed each other at her iron lattice. The
incense-laden air and the sweating stone walls encrusted with votive
offerings recall at once the chapel of Loreto; but here the smaller
space, the deeper dusk, heighten the sense of holiness and solemnity;
and if a few white-capped Sisters are grouped against the grating,
while before the altar a sweet-voiced young priest intones the mystic

    _Mater purissima,
    Mater admirabile,
    Mater prudentissima,_

punctuated by the wailing _Ora pro nobis!_ of the nuns, it would be
hard to picture a scene richer in that mingling of suavity and awe with
which the Church composes her incomparable effects.

After so complex an impression the pleasures of the eye may seem a
trifle thin; yet there is a great charm in the shaded walks winding
through the colony of chapels above the monastery. Nothing in nature is
lovelier than a beech-wood rustling with streams; and to come, in such
a setting, on one graceful _tempietto_ after another, to discover, in
their semi-pagan porches, groups of peasants praying before some dim
presentment of the Passion, gives a renewed sense of the way in which,
in Italy, nature, art and religion combine to enrich the humblest
lives. These Sacred Mounts, or Stations of the Cross, are scattered
everywhere on the Italian slopes of the Alps. The most famous is at
Varallo, and to find any artistic merit one must go there, or to San
Vivaldo in Tuscany, or the unknown hill-village of Cerveno in the Val
Camonica. At Oropa the groups are relatively crude and uninteresting;
but the mysterious half-light in which they are seen, and the
surrounding murmur of leaves and water, give them a value quite
independent of their plastic qualities.

       *       *       *       *       *

Varallo itself is but a day’s journey from Andorno, and in June weather
the drive thither is beautiful. The narrow country road mounts through
chestnut-groves as fine as those which cast their velvet shade for
miles about Promontogno in the Val Bregaglia. At first the way dips
continuously from one green ravine to another, but at Mosso Santa
Maria, the highest point of the ascent, the glorious plain again
bursts into view, with white roads winding toward distant cities,
and the near flanks of the hills clothed in unbroken forest. The Val
Sesia is broader than the Val d’Andorno, and proportionately less
picturesque; but its expanse of wheat and vine, checkered with shade
and overhung by piled-up mossy rocks, offers a restful contrast to the
landscape of the higher valleys. As Varallo is neared the hills close
in again and the scenery regains its sub-Alpine character. The first
unforgettable glimpse of the old town is caught suddenly at a bend of
the road, with the Sanctuary lifted high above the river, and tiled
roofs and church-towers clustered at its base. The near approach is a
disenchantment; for few towns have suffered more than Varallo under the
knife of “modern improvement,” and those who did not know it in earlier
days would hardly guess that it was once the most picturesque town in
North Italy. A dusty wide-avenued suburb, thinly scattered with cheap
villas, now leads from the station to the edge of the old town; and
the beautiful slope facing the Sacred Mountain has been cleared of its
natural growth and planted with moribund palms and camellias, to form
the “pleasure” grounds of a huge stucco hotel with failure written over
every inch of its pretentious façade.

One knows not whether to lament the impairment of such rare
completeness, or to find consolation in the fact that Varallo is rich
enough not to be ruined by its losses. Ten or fifteen years ago every
aspect was enchanting; now one must choose one’s point of view, but
one or two of the finest are still intact. Turning one’s back, for
instance, on the offending hotel, one has still, on a summer morning,
the rarest vision of wood and water and happily-blended architecture:
the Sesia with its soft meadows and leafy banks, the old houses huddled
above it, and the high cliff crowned by the chapels of the Sacred Way.
At night all melts to a diviner loveliness. The clustered darkness of
the town, twinkling with lights, lies folded in hills delicately traced
against a sky mauve with moonlight. Here and there the moon burnishes a
sombre mass of trees, or makes a campanile stand out pale and definite
as ivory; while high above, the summit of the cliff projects against
the sky, with an almost Greek purity of outline, the white domes and
arches of the Sanctuary.

The centre of the town is also undisturbed. Here one may wander through
cool narrow streets with shops full of devotional emblems, and of
the tall votive candles gaily spangled with gold, and painted with
flower-wreaths and _mandorle_ of the Virgin. These streets, on Sundays,
are thronged with the peasant women of the neighbouring valleys in
their various costumes: some with cloth leggings and short dark-blue
cloth petticoats embroidered in colours; others in skirts of plaited
black silk, with embroidered jackets, silver necklaces and spreading
head-dresses; for nearly every town has its distinctive dress, and
some happy accident seems to have preserved this slope of the Alps
from the depressing uniformity of modern fashions. In architectural
effects the town is little richer than its neighbours; but it has that
indescribable “tone” in which the soft texture of old stucco and the
bloom of weather-beaten marble combine with a hundred happy accidents
of sun and shade to produce what might be called the _patine_ of Italy.
There is, indeed, one remarkable church, with a high double flight
of steps leading to its door; but this (though it contains a fine
Gaudenzio) passes as a mere incident in the general picturesqueness,
and the only church with which the sight-seer seriously reckons is that
of Santa Maria delle Grazie, frescoed with the artist’s scenes from the
Passion.

[Illustration:

  _The Main Court of the Sacro Monte at Varallo_

  E. C. Peixotto
  VARALLO. 1901.
]

There is much beauty of detail in these crowded compositions; but, to
the inexpert, Gaudenzio lives perhaps chiefly as the painter of the
choiring angels of Saronno: so great there that elsewhere he seems
relatively unimportant. At Varallo, at least, one associates him
first with the Sacred Mountain. To this great monument of his native
valley he contributed some of his most memorable work, and it seems
fitting that on turning from his frescoes in Santa Maria one should
find one’s self at the foot of the path leading to the Sanctuary. The
wide approach, paved with tiny round pebbles polished by the feet
of thousands of pilgrims, leads round the flank of the cliff to the
park-like enclosure on its summit. Here, on the ledge overlooking the
town, stands the church built by Saint Charles Borromeo (now disfigured
by a modern façade), and grouped about it are the forty-two chapels
of the “New Jerusalem.” These little buildings, to which one mounts
or descends by mossy winding paths beneath the trees, present every
variety of pseudo-classical design. Some, placed at different levels,
are connected by open colonnades and long flights of steps; some have
airy loggias, overlooking gardens tufted with blush-roses and the lilac
iris; while others stand withdrawn in the deep shade of the beeches.
Each chapel contains a terra-cotta group representing some scene in
the divine history, and the site and architecture of each building
have been determined by a subtle sense of dramatic fitness. Thus, the
chapels enclosing the earlier episodes--the Annunciation, the Nativity
and the scenes previous to the Last Supper--are placed in relatively
open sites, with patches of flowers about their doorsteps; while as the
drama darkens the pilgrim descends into deep shady hollows, or winds
along chill stone corridors and up and down interminable stairs; a
dark subterranean passage leading at last to the image of the buried
Christ.

Of the groups themselves it is difficult to speak dispassionately,
for they are so much a part of their surroundings that one can hardly
measure them by any conventional standard. To do so, indeed, would be
to miss their meaning. They must be studied as a reflection of the
Bible story in the hearts of simple and emotional peasants; for it was
the piety of the mountain-folk that called them into being, and the
modellers and painters who contributed to the work were mostly natives
of Val Sesia or of the neighbouring valleys. The art of clay modelling
is peculiarly adapted to the rendering of strong and direct emotions.
So much vivacity of expression do its rapid evocations permit, that
one might almost describe it as intermediate between pantomime and
sculpture. The groups at Varallo have the defects inherent in such
an improvisation: the crudeness, the violence, sometimes even the
seeming absurdities of an instantaneous photograph. These faults are
redeemed by a simplicity and realism which have not had time to harden
into conventionality. The Virgin and Saint Elizabeth are low-browed
full-statured peasant women; the round-cheeked romping children, the
dwarfs and hunchbacks, the Roman soldiers and the Jewish priests,
have all been transferred alive from the market-places of Borgo Sesia
and Arona. These expressive figures, dressed in real clothes, with
real hair flowing about their shoulders, seem like the actors in some
miracle-play arrested at its crowning moment.

Closer inspection brings to light a marked difference in quality
between the different groups. Those by Tabacchetti and Fermo Stella
are the best, excepting only the remarkable scene of the Crucifixion,
attributed to Gaudenzio, and probably executed from his design.
Tabacchetti is the artist of the Adam and Eve surrounded by the
supra-terrestrial flora and fauna of Eden: a curious composition, with
a golden-haired Eve of mincing elegance and refinement. To Stella are
due some of the simplest and most moving scenes of the series: the
Adoration of the Magi, the message of the angel to Joseph, and Christ
and the woman of Samaria. Especially charming is the Annunciation,
where a yellow-wigged angel, in a kind of celestial dressing-gown of
flowered brocade, advances, lily in hand, toward a gracefully-startled
Virgin, dressed (as one is told) in a costume presented by a pious lady
of Varallo. In another scene the Mother of God, habited like a peasant
of Val Sesia, looks up smilingly from the lace-cushion on which she is
at work; while the Last Supper, probably a survival of the older wooden
groups existing before Gaudenzio and his school took up the work, shows
a lace-trimmed linen table-cloth, with bread and fruit set out on real
Faenza dishes.

After these homely details the scenes of the Passion, where Gaudenzio’s
influence probably prevailed, seem a trifle academic; but even here
there are local touches, such as the curly white dog at the foot of
Herod’s throne, the rags of the beggars, the child in the Crucifixion
holding a spotted hound in leash.

The Crucifixion is fitly the culminating point of the series. Here
Gaudenzio lined the background with one of his noblest frescoes, and
the figures placed before it are worthy, in expression and attitude, to
carry out the master’s conception. The gold-bucklered Roman knight on
his white charger, the eager gaping throng, where beggars and cripples
jostle turbaned fine ladies and their dwarfs, where oval-faced Lombard
women with children at the breast press forward to catch a glimpse of
the dying Christ, while the hideous soldiers at the foot of the cross
draw lots for the seamless garment--all these crowding careless figures
bring out with strange intensity the agony uplifted in their midst.
Never, perhaps, has the popular, the unimpressed, unrepentant side of
the scene been set forth with more tragic directness. One can fancy the
gold-armoured knight echoing in after years the musing words of Anatole
France’s _Procurateur de Judée_:--“Jésus? Jésus de Nazareth? Je ne me
rappelle pas.”

       *       *       *       *       *

From Varallo the fortunate traveller may carry his impressions
unimpaired through the chestnut-woods and across the hills to the lake
of Orta--a small sheet of water enclosed in richest verdure, with the
wooded island of San Giuliano on its bosom. Orta has a secret charm of
its own: a quality of solitude, of remoteness, that makes it seem the
special property of each traveller who chances to discover it. Here
too is a Sacred Way, surmounting the usual knoll above the town. The
groups have little artistic merit, but there is a solemn charm in the
tranquil glades, with their little white-pillared shrines, connected
by grass walks under a continuous vaulting of branches. The chief
“feature” of Orta, however, is the incredibly complete little island,
with its ancient church embosomed in gardens; yet even this counts only
as a detail in the general composition, a last touch to the prodigal
picturesqueness of the place. The lake itself is begirt by vine-clad
slopes, and in every direction roads and bridle-paths lead across the
wooded hills, through glades sheeted in spring-time with primroses and
lilies-of-the-valley, to the deeper forest-recesses at the foot of the
high Alps.

In any other country the departure from such perfect loveliness must
lead to an anti-climax; but there is no limit to the prodigality of the
Italian landscape, and the wanderer who turns eastward from Orta may
pass through scenes of undiminished beauty till, toward sunset, the
hills divide to show Lake Maggiore at his feet, with the Isola Bella
moored like a fantastic pleasure-craft upon its waters.



WHAT THE HERMITS SAW


In almost every gallery of Italy there hangs, among the pictures of
the earlier period, one which represents, with loving minuteness of
topographical detail, a rocky mountain-side honeycombed with caves and
inhabited by hermits.

As a rule, the landscape is comprehensive enough to include the whole
Thebaid, with the river at the base of the cliff, the _selva oscura_
“fledging the wild-ridged mountain steep by steep,” and the various
little edifices--huts, chapels and bridges--with which the colony
of anchorites have humanized their wild domain. This presentment of
the life of the solitaries always remained a favourite subject in
Italian art, and even in the rococo period, when piety had become
a drawing-room accomplishment, the traditional charm of the “life
apart” was commemorated by the mock “hermitages” to be found in every
nobleman’s park, or by such frescoes as adorn the entrance to the
chapel of the Villa Chigi, near Rome: a tiny room painted to represent
a rocky cleft in the mountains, with anchorites visiting each other in
their caves, or engaged in the duties of their sylvan existence.

A vast body of literature--and of a literature peculiarly accessible
to the people--has kept alive in Catholic countries the image of the
early solitary. The Golden Legend, the great Bollandist compilations,
and many other collections of pious anecdote, preserve, in simple
and almost childish form, the names and deeds of the desert saints.
In the traditions of the Latin race there still lingers, no doubt, a
sub-conscious memory of the dark days when all that was gentle and
merciful and humane turned to the desert to escape the desolation of
the country and the foulness of the town. From war and slavery and
famine, from the strife of the circus factions and the incredible
vices and treacheries of civilized life, the disenchanted Christian,
aghast at the more than pagan corruption of a converted world, fled
into the waste places to wear out his life in penance. The horrors he
left behind surpassed anything the desert could show--surpassed even
the terrors that walked by night, the airy tongues that syllabled
men’s names, the lemurs, succubi and painted demons of the tombs.
Nevertheless the lives of the early anchorites, who took refuge in
the burning solitudes of Egypt and Asia Minor, were full of fears and
anguish. Their history echoes with the groans and lamentations of souls
in pain, and had their lives been recorded by contemporary artists, the
presentment must have recalled those horribly circumstantial studies of
everlasting torment which admonished the mediæval worshipper from the
walls of every church.

But when Italian art began to chronicle the history of the desert
fathers, a change had passed over the spirit of Christianity. If
the world was still a dark place, full of fears and evil, solitary
communion with God had ceased to become a more dreadful alternative;
and when men went forth into the desert they found Christ there rather
than the devil. So at least one infers from the spirit in which the
Italian painters rendered the life of the Thebaid--transposing its
scenes from the parched African desert to their own fertile landscape,
and infusing into the lives of the desert fathers that sense of human
fellowship with which Saint Francis had penetrated the mediæval
conception of Christianity. The first hermits shunned each other as
they shunned the image of evil; every human relation was a snare,
and they sought each other out only in moments of moral or physical
extremity, when flesh or spirit quailed before the hallucinations of
solitude. But in the Italian pictures the hermits move in an atmosphere
of fraternal tenderness. Though they still lead the “life apart,” it is
shorn of its grimness and mitigated by acts of friendly ministry and
innocent childlike intercourse. The solitaries still dwell in remote
inaccessible regions, and for the most part their lives are spent
alone; but on the feasts of the Church they visit each other, and when
they go on pilgrimage they pause at each other’s thresholds.

Yet, though one feels that this new spirit has tamed the desert,
and transplanted to it enough of the leaven of human intercourse to
exorcise its evil spirits, the imagination remains chiefly struck by
the strangeness of the conditions in which these voluntary exiles must
have found themselves. The hermits brought little with them from the
world of cities and men compared to what they found in the wilderness.
Their relation to the earth--their ancient mysterious mother--must
have been the most intimate as well as the most interesting part of
their lives; as a “return to nature” the experience had a freshness
and intensity which the modern seeker after primeval sensations can
never hope to recover. For in those days, when distances were measured
by the pilgrim’s sandal or the ass’s hoof, a few miles meant exile,
and the mountain visible from the walls of his native town offered
the solitary as complete an isolation as the slopes of Lebanon. News
travelled at the same pace, when it did not drop by the way. There was
little security outside the city walls, and small incentive for the
traveller, except from devotional motives, to seek out the anchorite on
his inaccessible height.

The hermit, therefore, was thrown back on the companionship of the
wild; and what he won from it we read in the gentler legends of the
desert, and in the records of the early Italian artists. Much, for
instance, is told of the delightful nature of the intercourse between
the solitaries and wild animals. The lion having been the typical
“denizen” of the Libyan sands, the Italian painter has transplanted
him to the Umbrian hill-sides, where, jointly with the wolf and the
stag, he lives in gentle community with the anchorites. For instead
of fleeing from or fighting these lords of the wilderness, the wise
hermits at once entered into negotiations with them--negotiations
sometimes resulting in life-long friendships, and sealed by the
self-sacrificing death of the adoring animal. It was of course the
power of the cross which subjugated these savage beasts; and many
instances are recorded of the control exercised over wild animals,
and the contrition awakened in them, by the conquering sign. But the
hermits, not content with asserting their spiritual predominance over
these poor soulless creatures (_non sono Cristiani_), seemed to feel
that such a victory was too easy, and were themselves won over by the
devotion of their dumb friends, and drawn into a brotherly commerce
which no law of the Church prescribed.

The mystical natural history of the first Christian centuries
facilitated the belief in this intercourse between man and beast. When
even familiar domestic animals were credited with strange symbolic
attributes, it was natural to people the wild with the dragon, the
hydra and the cocatrix; to believe that the young of the elephant were
engendered by their mothers’ eating of the mandragora which grows on
a mount near Paradise; that those of the lion were born dead and
resuscitated by their parents’ breath; and that the old eagle renewed
his youth by plunging three times in a magic fountain. It is not
strange that creatures so marvellously endowed should have entered into
friendly relations with the human intruders upon their solitude, and
subdued their savage natures to the teachings of their new masters.
And as the lion and the wolf were gradually transformed into humble
but wise companions, so the other influences of the wilderness came
to acquire a power over the solitaries. Even after the early Thebaids
had been gathered in under one or another of the great monastic rules,
seekers after holiness continued to flee the communal life, and in
Italy every lonely height came to have its recluse. It was impossible
that these little restricted human lives, going forth singly into the
desert, should not be gradually absorbed into it and saturated with
its spirit. Think what a soul-shattering or soul-making experience it
must have been to the dweller in the narrow walled town or the narrower
monastery, to go forth alone, beyond the ploughed fields and the road
to the next village, beyond the haunts of men and hail of friendly
voices, forth into the unmapped region of hills and forests, where
wild beasts and robbers, and other presences less definable but more
baleful, lay in wait for the lonely traveller! From robbers there was
not much to fear: the solitaries were poor, and it was a great sin to
lay hands on them. The wild beasts, too, might be won over to Christian
amity; but what of those other presences of which the returning
traveller whispered over the evening fire?

At first, no doubt, the feeling of awe was uppermost, and only the
heart inflated with divine love could sustain the assaults of fear and
loneliness; but gradually, as the noise of cities died out, as the ear
became inured to the vast hush of nature, and the mind to the delicious
recurrence of untroubled hours--then, wonderfully, imperceptibly, the
spirit of the hermit must have put forth tendrils of sympathy and
intelligence toward the mysterious world about him. Think of the joy of
escaping from the ceaseless brawls, the dirt, disease and misery of the
mediæval town, or from the bickering, the tale-bearing, the mechanical
devotions of the crowded monastery! Think of the wonder of entering,
alone and undisturbed, into communion with this vast still world of
cliff and cataract, of bird and beast and flower!

There were, of course, different kinds of hermits: the dull kind whose
only object was to escape from the turmoil and rivalry of the city,
or the toil and floggings of the farm, and to live drowsily in a warm
cleft of the rocks (not too far from the other solitaries), high above
the populous plain alternately harried by war and pestilence; and
there was the ecstatic, so filled with the immanent light that he saw
neither cliff nor cataract, that the various face of nature was no more
to him than a window of clear glass opening on the brightness of the
beatific vision. But there must have been a third kind also--the kind
in whom the divine love, instead of burning like a cold inward flame,
overflowed on the whole world about him; to whom, in this new immediate
contact with nature, the swallow became a sister, the wolf a brother,
the very clods “lovers and lamps”: mute Saint Francises, born out of
their due time, to whom the life of nature revealed, inarticulately but
profoundly, the bond of brotherhood between man and the soil.

It was to these solitaries that the wilderness truly confessed itself,
yielding up once more all the terror and the poetry of its ancient
life. For the cliffs and forests shunned of men had not always been
thus deserted, and always there had throbbed in them the pulse of
that strange intermediate life, between the man and the clod, of which
the tradition lingers in all lonely places. The hermits of course knew
this: the life of ancient days was still close to them. They knew also
that the power of the cross had banished from temple and market-place,
from garden, house and vineyard, a throng of tutelary beings on whom
the welfare of men had once been thought to depend, but who had now
been declared false to their trust, and driven forth to join their
brothers of the hills and woods. This knowledge rested on no vague
rumours, but on authenticated fact. Were not many of the old temples
still standing, some built into the walls of Christian churches, others
falling into desecrated ruin on lonely cliff and promontory? And was
it not known that in these latter the wraiths of the old gods still
reassembled? Many pilgrims and travellers bore witness to the fact.
Who had not heard of the Jewish wayfarer, overtaken by night in a
lonely country, who sought shelter in a ruined temple of Apollo, and
would have been blasted by the god and his attendant demons, had he
not (converted by fear) dispelled the unholy rout with the sign of the
cross?

A tangle of classic and mediæval traditions, Greek, Etruscan and
Germanic, in which the gods of the Thessalian glades and the werewolves
of northern forests rode the midnight blast in the _chevauchée_ of a
wild Walpurgisnacht, haunted the background of life in that confused
age when “ignorant armies clashed by night” on the battleground of
the awakening human intelligence. To the citizen hugging the city
walls, this supernatural world was dark with images of sin and fear;
but to the dweller in the forest, bold enough to affront the greater
terrors of self-communion, it must have offered a mitigating sense
of fellowship. That it did so is proved even by some of the earliest
legends. It was not always in forms of peril and perdition that the
banished gods manifested themselves to the votaries of the usurper.
To the dweller in the city they may have come in vengeful shape, like
the Venus, _tout entière à sa proie attachée_, who held fast to the
Christian bridegroom’s ring (though surely here one catches a note
of the old longing); but in their native solitude they seem to have
appeared propitiatingly, with timid proffers of service, as when Saint
Anthony, travelling in search of a fellow-hermit, was guided on his
way, first by a centaur and then by “a little man with hoofs like a
goat.”

For generations indeed, for centuries even in that slow-moving time,
the divinities of the old dispensation must have remained more familiar
to the simple people than the strange new God of Israel. Often they
must have stolen back in the twilight, to surprise and comfort the
unlettered toilers who still believed in them, still secretly offered
them the dripping honeycomb and bowl of ewe’s milk, or hung garlands
in the cleft tree which they haunted. To some of these humble hearts,
grieving for their old fireside gods, and a little bewildered by the
demands of the great forbidding Christ who frowned from the golden
heights of the Byzantine apse, the “return to nature” must have been
like a coming home to the instinctive endearing ways of childhood. How
could they be alarmed by the sight of these old exiled gods, familiars
of the hearth and garden; they who had been born to the sense of such
presences, to half-human intercourse with beings who linked man to the
soil that nurtured him, and the roof beneath which he slept?

Even the most holy and learned men of the first Christian centuries did
not question the actual existence of the heathen gods, and the Fathers
of the Church expended volumes of controversy in discussing their
origin and their influence on a Christianized world. A strange conflict
of opinion waged around this burning question. By the greater number of
authorities the old gods were believed to be demons, emanations of the
mysterious spirit of evil, himself the Ahriman of the ancient Eastern
dualism, who had cleverly smuggled himself into the new Christian
creed. Yet the oracles, though usually regarded as the voices of these
demons, were always believed in and quoted by the Christian Church,
and the history of the dark ages abounds in allusion to the authority
of the Sibylline books. While Christian scholarship thus struggled
under the spell of the old beliefs, how could the artisan and serf have
freed themselves from it? Gradually, indeed, the Church, foreseeing the
perils of a divided allegiance, and fearing the baleful loveliness of
the old gods, was to transform their myths into Christian legend, and
so supply a new throng of anthropomorphic conceptions for minds unable
to keep their faith alive on the thin abstractions of the schoolmen.
The iconography of the early Church bears witness to the skill with
which these adaptations were effected, and the slender young Olympians
and their symbols pressed into the service of the new faith; but it was
long before the results of this process reached the popular mind, and
meanwhile the old gods lived on in simple fellowship with the strange
saints and angels.

Through all the middle ages the marvellous did not fail from the earth:
it simply receded farther from the centres of life, drawing after
it the hearts of the adventurous. The Polo brothers were no doubt
clear-sighted practical men while they drove their trade in Venice;
but wonders pressed upon them when they set foot in the Great Khan’s
domains. If an astute Italian prince, who lived till the middle of
the fifteenth century with the light of the new humanism flooding his
court, could yet, on his travels to the Holy Land and Greece, discover
castles inhabited by enchanted snakes, as well as wonder-working
shrines of his own creed, how could the simple hearts of the anchorite
and solitary remain closed to the old wonders?

Shapes which have once inhabited the imagination of man pass
reluctantly out of existence. Centuries of poetic belief had peopled
the old world with a race of superhuman beings, and as many centuries
would be needed to lay their ghosts. It must be remembered, moreover,
that no sudden cataclysm, political or intellectual, marked the
introduction of the Christian faith. For three centuries after the
sacrifice on Calvary, hardly an allusion to the new god is to be found
in the pages of the pagan historians and philosophers. Even after he
had led the legions of Constantine to victory, and so won official
allegiance throughout the Roman world, no violent change marked the
beginning of the new era. For centuries still, men ploughed the same
fields with ploughs fashioned on the same lines, kept the same holidays
with the same rites, and lived on the same store of accumulated
beliefs. And in the hearts of the solitaries these beliefs must have
lingered longest. For in fleeing the world they were returning to the
native habitations of the old gods. They were nature-spirits every one,
sprung from the wave, the cloud, the tree. To the cities they had been
borne triumphant by the will of men, and from the cities they might
be banished at its behest; but who should drive them from their old
stronghold in the breast of nature? Their temples might be re-dedicated
to the new god, but none could banish them from the temples not made
with hands. Daylight might deny them, but twilight confessed them
still. They made no effort to recover the supremacy which had been
wrested from them: the gods know when their hour has come. But they
lived on, shrinking back more and more into their primitive forms,
into the vapour, the tree-trunk, the moon-track on the lonely sea; or
revealing themselves, in wistful fugitive glimpses, to the mortals who
had come to share their forest exile.

In what gentle guise they showed themselves, one may see in many
pictures of the Italian _quattro cento_, some of whose lesser painters
seem to have been in actual communion with this pale woodland Olympus.
The gods they depict are not the shining lords of the Greek heaven,
but half-human, half-sylvan creatures, shy suppliants for mortal
recognition, hovering gently on the verge of evanescence. Robetta, the
Florentine engraver, transferred them to some of his plates, Luini
caught their tender grace in his Sacrifice to Pan and Metamorphosis
of Daphne, and Lorenzo Costa gives a glimpse of their sylvan revels
in the Mythological Scene of the Louvre; but it was Piero di Cosimo
who had the clearest intuition of them. The gentle furred creature of
the Death of Procris might have been the very faun who showed Saint
Anthony the way; and in all Cosimo’s mythological pictures one has the
same impression of that intermediate world, the twilight world of the
conquered, Christianized, yet still lingering gods, so different from
the clear upper air of classic art.

Was it, as the scholars would have us believe, mere lack of
book-learning and technical skill that kept the painters of the
_quattro_ cento spell-bound in this mediæval Olympus? Were these
vanishing gods and half-gods merely a clumsy attempt to formulate
the classic conception of divinity? But the Pisani had discovered
Greek plastic art two centuries earlier; but the uncovered wonders of
Rome were being daily drawn and measured by skilful hands; but the
silhouettes of the antique temples were still outlined against the
skies of Greater Greece! No--these lesser artists were not struggling
to embody a half-understood ideal. Kept nearer the soil and closer to
the past by the very limitations of their genius, they left to the
great masters the task of reconstituting classical antiquity, content
to go on painting the gods who still lived in their blood, the gods
their own forbears had known in the familiar streets and fields, the
fading gods whom the hermits were last to see in the lost recesses of
the mountain.



A TUSCAN SHRINE


One of the rarest and most delicate pleasures of the continental
tourist is to circumvent the compiler of his guide-book. The red
volumes which accompany the traveller through Italy have so completely
anticipated the most whimsical impulses of their readers that it is now
almost impossible to plan a tour of exploration without finding, on
reference to them, that their author has already been over the ground,
has tested the inns, measured the kilometres, and distilled from the
massive tomes of Kugler, Burckhardt and Morelli a portable estimate
of the local art and architecture. Even the discovery of incidental
lapses scarcely consoles the traveller for the habitual accuracy of
his statements; and the only refuge left from his omniscience lies in
approaching the places he describes by a route which he has not taken.

Those to whom one of the greatest charms of travel in over-civilized
countries consists in such momentary escapes from the expected, will
still find here and there, even in Italy, a few miles unmeasured by
the guide-book; and it was to enjoy the brief exhilaration of such a
discovery that we stepped out of the train one morning at Certaldo,
determined to find our way thence to San Vivaldo.

For some months we had been vaguely aware that, somewhere among the
hills between Volterra and the Arno, there lay an obscure monastery
containing a series of terra-cotta groups which were said to represent
the scenes of the Passion. No one in Florence seemed to know much about
them; and many of the people whom we questioned had never even heard
of San Vivaldo. Professor Enrico Ridolfi, at that time the director
of the Royal Museums at Florence, knew by hearsay of the existence
of the groups, and told me that there was every reason to accept the
local tradition which has always attributed them to Giovanni Gonnelli,
the blind modeller of Gambassi, an obscure artist of the seventeenth
century, much praised by contemporary authors, but since fallen into
merited oblivion. Professor Ridolfi, however, had never seen any
photographs of the groups, and was not unnaturally disposed to believe
that they were of small artistic merit, since Gonnelli worked much
later, and in a more debased period of taste, than the modeller of the
well-known groups at Varallo. Still, even when the more pretentious
kind of Italian sculpture was at its lowest, a spark of its old life
smouldered here and there in the improvisations of the _plasticatore_,
or stucco modeller; and I hoped to find, in the despised groups of
San Vivaldo, something of the coarse naïveté and brutal energy which
animate their more famous rivals of Varallo. In this hope we started
in search of San Vivaldo; and as the guide-books told us that it could
be reached only by way of Castel Fiorentino, we promptly determined to
attack it from San Gimignano.

At Certaldo, the birthplace of Boccaccio, where the train left us one
April morning, we found an archaic little carriage, with a coachman
who entered sympathetically into our plan for eluding our cicerone. He
told us that he knew a road which led in about four hours across the
mountains from San Gimignano to San Vivaldo; and in his charge we were
soon crossing the poplar-fringed Elsa and climbing the steep ascent to
San Gimignano, where we were to spend the night.

The next morning, before sunrise, the little carriage awaited us at
the inn door; and as we dashed out under the gateway of San Gimignano
we felt the thrill of explorers sighting a new continent. It seemed,
in fact, an unknown world which lay beneath us in the early light.
The hills, so definitely etched at midday, at sunset so softly
modelled, had melted into a silver sea of which the farthest waves were
indistinguishably merged in billows of luminous mist. Only the near
foreground retained its precision of outline, and that too had assumed
an air of unreality. Fields, hedges and cypresses were tipped with an
aureate brightness which recalled the golden ripples running over the
grass in the foreground of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” The sunshine
had the density of gold-leaf: we seemed to be driving through the
landscape of a missal.

At first we had this magical world to ourselves, but as the light
broadened groups of labourers began to appear under the olives and
between the vines; shepherdesses, distaff in hand, drove their flocks
along the roadside, and yokes of white oxen with scarlet fringes above
their meditative eyes moved past us with such solemn deliberateness
of step that fancy transformed their brushwood-laden carts into the
sacred _carroccio_ of the past. Ahead of us the road wound through
a district of vineyards and orchards, but to the north and east the
panorama of the Tuscan hills unrolled range after range of treeless
undulations, outlined one upon the other, as the sun grew high, with
the delicately-pencilled minuteness of a mountain background of Sebald
Beham’s. Behind us the fantastic towers of San Gimignano dominated each
bend of the road like some persistent mirage of the desert; to the
north lay Castel Fiorentino, and far away other white villages gleamed
like fossil shells embedded in the hill-sides.

The elements composing the foreground of such Tuscan scenes are almost
always extremely simple--slopes trellised with vine and mulberry, under
which the young wheat runs like green flame; stretches of ash-coloured
olive orchard; and here and there a farm-house with projecting eaves
and open loggia, guarded by its inevitable group of cypresses. These
cypresses, with their velvety-textured spires of rusty black, acquire
an extraordinary value against the neutral-tinted breadth of the
landscape; distributed with the sparing hand with which a practised
writer uses his exclamation-points, they seem to emphasize the more
intimate meaning of the scene; calling the eye here to a shrine, there
to a homestead, or testifying by their mere presence to the lost
tradition of some barren knoll. But this significance of detail is one
of the chief charms of the mid-Italian landscape. It has none of the
purposeless prodigality, the extravagant climaxes, of what is called
“fine scenery”; nowhere is there any obvious largesse to the eye; but
the very reticence of its delicately-moulded lines, its seeming disdain
of facile effects, almost give it the quality of a work of art, make it
appear the crowning production of centuries of plastic expression.

For some distance the road from San Gimignano to San Vivaldo winds
continuously upward, and our ascent at length brought us to a region
where agriculture ceases and the way lies across heathery undulations,
with a scant growth of oaks and ilexes in the more sheltered hollows.
As we drove on, these copses gave way to stone-pines, and presently
we dipped over the yoke of the highest ridge and saw below us another
sea of hills, with a bare mountain-spur rising from it like a scaly
monster floating on the waves, its savage spine bristling with the
walls and towers of Volterra.

For nearly an hour we skirted the edge of this basin of hills, in sight
of the ancient city on its livid cliff; then we turned into a gentler
country, through woods starred with primroses, with a flash of streams
in the hollows; and presently a murmur of church-bells reached us
through the woodland silence. At the same moment we caught sight of a
brick campanile rising above the trees on a slope just ahead of us, and
our carriage turned from the high-road up a lane with scattered chapels
showing their white façades through the foliage. This lane, making a
sudden twist, descended abruptly between mossy banks and brought us out
on a grass-plot before a rectangular monastic building adjoining the
church of which the bells had welcomed us. Here was San Vivaldo, and
the chapels we had passed doubtless concealed beneath their cupolas
“more neat than solemn” the terra-cottas of which we were in search.

The monastery of San Vivaldo, at one time secularized by the Italian
government, has now been restored to the Franciscan order, of which
its patron saint was a member. San Vivaldo was born at San Gimignano
in the latter half of the thirteenth century, and after joining in
his youth the Tertiary Order of Saint Francis, retired to a hollow
chestnut-tree in the forest of Camporeno (the site of the present
monastery), in which cramped abode he passed the remainder of his life
“in continual macerations and abstinence.” After his death the tree
which had been sanctified in so unusual a manner became an object of
devotion among the neighbouring peasantry, who, when it disappeared,
raised on the spot an oratory to the Virgin. It is doubtful, however,
if this memorial, which fell gradually into neglect, would have
preserved San Vivaldo from oblivion, had not that Senancour of a saint
found a Matthew Arnold in the shape of a Franciscan friar, a certain
Fra Cherubino of Florence, who, early in the sixteenth century, was
commissioned by his order to watch over and restore the abandoned
sanctuary. Fra Cherubino, with his companions, took possession of the
forest of Camporeno, and proceeded to lay the foundation-stone of a
monastery which was to commemorate the hermit of the chestnut-tree.
The forgotten merits of San Vivaldo were speedily restored to popular
favour by the friar’s eloquence, and often, after one of his sermons,
three thousand people were to be seen marching in procession to the
river Evola to fetch building-materials for the monastery. Meanwhile
Fra Tommaso, another of the monks, struck by the resemblance of the
hills and valleys of Camporeno to the holy places of Palestine,
began the erection of the “devout chapels” which were to contain the
representations of the Passion; and thus arose the group of buildings
now forming the monastery of San Vivaldo.

As we drove up we saw several monks at work in the woods and in the
vegetable-gardens below the monastery. These took no notice of us, but
in answer to our coachman’s summons there appeared another, whose Roman
profile might have emerged from one of those great portrait-groups
of the sixteenth century, where grave-featured monks and chaplains
are gathered about a seated pope. This monk, whose courteous welcome
betrayed as little surprise as though the lonely glades of San Vivaldo
were daily invaded by hordes of sight-seers, informed us that it was
his duty to conduct visitors to the various shrines. The chapels of the
Passion are about twenty in number, and as many more are said to have
perished. They are scattered irregularly through the wood adjoining
the monastery, and our guide, who showed a deep interest in the works
of art committed to his charge, assured us that the terra-cotta groups
were undoubtedly due to Giovanni Gonnelli, _Il Cieco di Gambassi_, for
whose talent he seemed to entertain a profound admiration. Some of
the master’s work, he added, had been destroyed, or replaced by that
of “qualche muratore”; but he assured us that in the groups which had
been preserved we should at once recognize the touch of an eminent
hand. As he led the way he smilingly referred to Giovanni Gonnelli’s
legendary blindness, which plays a most picturesque part in the
artist’s biography. The monk explained to us that Gonnelli was blind
of only one eye, thus demolishing Baldinucci’s charming tradition of
portrait-busts executed in total darkness to the amazement of popes and
princes. Still, we suspected our guide of adapting his hero’s exploits
to the incredulity of the unorthodox, and perhaps secretly believing
in the anecdotes over which he affected to smile. On the threshold of
the first chapel he paused to explain that some of the groups had been
irreparably injured during the period of neglect and abandonment which
followed the suppression of the monastery. The government, he added,
had seized the opportunity to carry off from the church the Presepio
in high relief which was Gonnelli’s masterpiece, and to strip many of
the chapels of the escutcheons in Robbia ware that formerly ornamented
the ceilings. “Even then, however,” he concluded, “our good fathers
were keeping secret watch over the shrines, and they saved some of the
escutcheons by covering them with whitewash; but the government has
never given us back our Presepio.”

Having thus guarded us against possible disillusionment, he unlocked
the door of the first chapel on what he declared to be an undoubted
work of the master--the Descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Disciples.

This group, like all the others at San Vivaldo, is set in a little
apsidal recess at the farther end of the chapel. I had expected, at
best, an inferior imitation of the seventeenth-century groups in the
more famous Via Crucis of Varallo, but to my surprise I found myself
in the presence of a much finer, and apparently a much earlier, work.
The figures, which are of life-size, are set in a depressed arch, and
fitted into their allotted space with something of the skill which the
Greek sculptors showed in adapting their groups to the slope of the
pediment. In the centre, the Virgin kneels on a low column or pedestal,
which raises her partially above the surrounding figures of the
disciples. Her attitude is solemnly prayerful, with a touch of nun-like
severity in the folds of the wimple and in the gathered plaits of the
gown beneath her cloak. Her face, furrowed with lines of grief and age,
is yet irradiated by an inner light; and her hands, like those of all
the figures hitherto attributed to Gonnelli, are singularly graceful
and expressive. The same air of unction, of what the French call
_recueillement_, distinguishes the face and attitude of the kneeling
disciple on the extreme left; and the whole group breathes that air
of devotional simplicity usually associated with an earlier and less
worldly period of art.

Next to this group, the finest is perhaps that of “Lo Spasimo,” the
swoon of the Virgin at the sight of Christ bearing the cross. It is
the smallest of the groups, being less than life-size, and comprising
only the figure of the Virgin supported by the Marys and by two
kneeling angels. There is a trace of primitive stiffness in the attempt
to render the prostration of the Virgin, but her face expresses an
extremity of speechless anguish which is subtly contrasted with the
awed but temperate grief of the woman who bends above her; while the
lovely countenances of the attendant angels convey another shade of
tender participation: the compassion of those who are in the counsels
of the Eternal, and know that

    _In la sua volontade è nostra pace_.

In this group the artist has attained to the completest expression of
his characteristic qualities: refined and careful modelling, reticence
of emotion, and that “gift of tears” which is the last attribute one
would seek in the resonant but superficial art of the seventeenth
century.

Among other groups undoubtedly due to the same hand are those of
Christ Before Pilate, of the Ascension, and of the Magdalen bathing
the feet of Christ. In the group of the Ascension the upper part has
been grotesquely restored; but the figures of the Virgin and disciples,
who kneel below, are apparently untouched, and on their faces is seen
that look of wondering ecstasy, that reflection of the beatific vision,
which the artist excelled in representing. In every group of the series
his Saint John has this luminous look; and in that of the Ascension it
brightens even the shrewd bearded countenances of the older disciples.
In the scene of Christ before Pilate the figure of Pilate is especially
noteworthy: his delicate incredulous lips seem just framing their
immortal interrogation. Our guide pointed out that the Roman lictor in
this group, who raises his arm to strike the accused Christ, has had
his offending hand knocked off by the zeal of the faithful.

The representation of the Magdalen bathing the feet of Christ is
noticeable for the fine assemblage of heads about the supper-table.
Those of Christ and of his host are peculiarly expressive; and Saint
John’s look of tranquil tenderness contrasts almost girlishly with the
majestic gravity of the neighbouring faces. The Magdalen herself is
less happily executed; there is something actually unpleasant in her
ramping four-footed attitude as she crawls toward the Christ, and the
figure is probably by another hand. In the group of the Crucifixion,
for the most part of inferior workmanship, the figures of the two
thieves are finely modelled, and their expression of anguish has been
achieved with the same sobriety of means which marks all the artist’s
effects. The remaining groups in the chapels are without special
interest, but under the portico of the church there are three fine
figures, possibly by the artist of the Spasimo, representing Saint
Roch, Saint Linus of Volterra, and one of the Fathers of the Church.

There are, then, among the groups of San Vivaldo, five which appear
to be by the same master, in addition to several scattered figures
presumably by his hand; all of which have always been attributed to
Giovanni Gonnelli, the blind pupil of Pietro Tacca. The figures in
these groups are nearly, if not quite, as large as life; they have all
been rudely repainted, and are entirely unglazed, though framed in
glazed mouldings of the familiar Robbian style.

Professor Ridolfi’s information was confirmed by the local tradition,
and there seemed no doubt that the groups of San Vivaldo had always
been regarded as the work of Gonnelli, an obscure artist living
at a time when the greatest masters produced little to which
posterity has conceded any artistic excellence. But one glance at the
terra-cottas sufficed to show that they could not have been modelled
in mid-seventeenth century: neither their merits nor their defects
belonged to that period of art. What had the sculptor of San Vivaldo
in common with the pupils of Giovanni Bologna and Il Fiammingo, that
tribe of skilled craftsmen who peopled every church and palace in
Italy with an impersonal flock of Junos and Virgin Marys, Venuses and
Magdalens, distinguishable only by their official attributes? The more
closely I studied the groups, the more the conviction grew that they
were the work of an artist trained in an earlier tradition, and still
preserving, under the stiffening influences of convention, a touch of
that individuality and directness of expression which mark the prime of
Tuscan art. The careful modelling of the hands, the quiet grouping, so
free from effort and agitation, the simple draperies, the devotional
expression of the faces, all seemed to point to the lingering
influences of the fifteenth century; not indeed to the fresh charm of
its noon, but to the refinement, the severity, of its close. The glazed
mouldings enclosing the groups, and the coloured medallions with
which the ceilings of the chapels are decorated, suggested a direct
connection with the later school of the Robbias; and as I looked I was
haunted by a confused recollection of a Presepio seen at the Bargello,
and attributed to Giovanni della Robbia or his school. Could this be
the high-relief which had been removed from San Vivaldo?

On returning to Florence I went at once to the Bargello, and found,
as I had expected, that the Presepio I had in mind was indeed the one
from San Vivaldo. I was surprised by the extraordinary resemblance of
the heads to some of those in the groups ascribed to Gonnelli. I had
fancied that the modeller of San Vivaldo might have been inspired by
the Presepio of the Bargello; but I was unprepared for the identity
of treatment in certain details of hair and drapery, and for the
recurrence of the same type of face. The Presepio undoubtedly shows
greater delicacy of treatment; but this is accounted for by the fact
that the figures are much smaller, and only in partial relief, whereas
at San Vivaldo they are so much detached from the background that they
may be regarded as groups of statuary. Again, the glaze which covers
all but the faces of the Presepio has preserved its original beauty
of colouring, while the groups of San Vivaldo have been crudely daubed
with fresh coats of paint, and even of whitewash; and the effect of
the Presepio is farther enhanced by an excessively ornate frame of
fruit-garlanded pilasters, as well as by its charming predella with
small scenes set between panels of arabesque. Altogether, it is a far
more elaborate production than the terra-cottas of San Vivaldo, and
some of its most graceful details, such as the dance of angels on the
stable-roof, are evidently borrowed from the earlier _répertoire_ of
the Robbias; but in spite of these incidental archaisms no one can
fail to be struck by the likeness of the central figures to certain of
the statues at San Vivaldo. The head of Saint Joseph in the Presepio,
for instance, with its wrinkled penthouse forehead, and the curled
and parted beard, suggests at once that of the disciple seated on the
right of Saint John in the house of the Pharisee; the same face, though
younger, occurs again in the Pentecostal group, and the kneeling female
figure in the Presepio is treated in the same manner as the youngest
Mary in the group of the Spasimo: even the long rolled-back tresses,
with their shell-like convolutions, are the same.

The discovery of this close resemblance deepened the interest of
the problem. It seemed hardly credible that a work of such artistic
significance as the Via Crucis of San Vivaldo should not long since
have been studied and classified. In Tuscany especially, where every
phase of fifteenth-century art, including its prolongation in the
succeeding century, has been traced and analyzed with such scrupulous
care, it was inconceivable that so interesting an example of an
essentially Italian style should have escaped notice. There could
be no doubt that the groups belonged to the period in question.
Since it was impossible not to reject at once the hypothetical
seventeenth-century artist content to imitate with servile accuracy
a manner which had already fallen into disfavour, it was necessary
to assume that a remarkable example of late _quattro-cento_ art had
remained undiscovered, within a few hours’ journey from Florence, for
nearly four hundred years. The only reasonable explanation of this
oversight seemed to be that, owing to the seclusion of the monastery
of San Vivaldo, the groups had never acquired more than local fame,
and that, having possibly been restored in the seventeenth century by
Giovanni Gonnelli or one of his pupils, they had been ascribed to him
by a generation which, having ceased to value the work of the earlier
artist, was profoundly impressed by the miraculous skill of the blind
modeller, and eager to connect his name with the artistic treasures of
the monastery.

To the infrequent sight-seers of the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, there would be nothing surprising in such an attribution.
The perception of differences in style is a recently-developed faculty,
and even if a student of art had penetrated to the wilds of San
Vivaldo, he would probably have noticed nothing to arouse a doubt of
the local tradition. The movement toward a discrimination of styles,
which came in the first half of the nineteenth century, was marked, in
the study of Italian art, by a contemptuous indifference toward all but
a brief period of that art; and the mere fact that a piece of sculpture
was said to have been executed in the seventeenth century would, until
very lately, have sufficed to prevent its receiving expert attention.
Thus the tradition which ascribed the groups of San Vivaldo to Giovanni
Gonnelli resulted in concealing them from modern investigation as
effectually as though they had been situated in the centre of an
unexplored continent, and in procuring for me the rare sensation of
an artistic discovery made in the heart of the most carefully-explored
artistic hunting-ground of Europe.

My first care was to seek expert confirmation of my theory; and as a
step in this direction I made arrangements to have the groups of San
Vivaldo photographed by Signor Alinari of Florence. I was obliged to
leave Italy before the photographs could be taken; but on receiving
them I sent them at once to Professor Ridolfi, who had listened with
some natural incredulity to my description of the terra-cottas; and
his reply shows that I had not overestimated the importance of the
discovery.

“No sooner,” he writes, “had I seen the photographs than I became
convinced of the error of attributing them to Giovanni Gonnelli, called
_Il Cieco di Gambassi_. I saw at once that they are not the work of an
artist of the seventeenth century, but of one living at the close of
the fifteenth or beginning of the sixteenth century; of an artist of
the school of the Robbias, who follows their precepts and possesses
their style.... The figures are most beautifully grouped, and modelled
with profound sentiment and not a little _bravura_. They do not appear
to me to be all by the same author, for the Christ in the house of the
Pharisee seems earlier and purer in style, and more robust in manner;
also the swoon of the Madonna, ... which is executed in a grander style
than the other reliefs and seems to belong to the first years of the
sixteenth century.

“The fact that these terra-cottas are not glazed does not prove that
they are not the work of the Robbia school; for Giovanni della Robbia,
for example, sometimes left the flesh of his figures unglazed, painting
them with the brush; and this is precisely the case in a Presepio of
the National Museum” (this is the Presepio of San Vivaldo), “a work of
the Robbias, in which the flesh is left unglazed.

“I therefore declare with absolute certainty that it is a mistake to
attribute these beautiful works to Giovanni Gonnelli, and that they are
undoubtedly a century earlier in date.”



SUB UMBRA LILIORUM

AN IMPRESSION OF PARMA


Parma, at first sight, lacks the engaging individuality of some of the
smaller Italian towns. Of the romantic group of ducal cities extending
from Milan to the Adriatic--Parma, Modena, Ferrara, Urbino--it is
the least easy to hit off in a few strokes, to sum up in a sentence.
Its component features, however interesting in themselves, fail to
blend in one of those memorable wholes which take instant hold of the
traveller’s imagination. The “sights” of Parma must be sought for; they
remain separate isolated facts, and their quest is enlivened by few
of those happy architectural incidents which give to a drive through
Ferrara or Ravenna so fine a flavour of surprise.

[Illustration:

  _A Characteristic Street_

  E. C. Peixotto
  PARMA. 1901.
]

The devotee of the fourteenth century, trained by Ruskin to pass
without even saluting any expression of structural art more recent
than the first unfolding of the pointed style, must restrict his
investigations to the Baptistery and the outside of the Cathedral; and
even the lax eclectic who nurses a secret weakness for the baroque and
rejoices in the last frivolous flowering of the eighteenth century,
finds little immediate satisfaction for his tastes. The general aspect
of Parma is in fact distinctly inexpressive, and its more important
buildings have only the relative merit of suggesting happier examples
of the same style. This absence of the superlative is, in many Italian
cities, atoned for by the episodical charm of the streets: by glimpses
of sculptured windows, pillared court-yards, and cornices projecting
a perfect curve against the blue; but the houses of Parma are plain
almost to meanness, and though their monotonous succession is broken
here and there by a palace-front embroidered with the Farnese lilies,
it must be owned that, with rare exceptions, these façades have few
palatial qualities but that of size. Perhaps not short of Ravenna could
be found another Italian town as destitute of the more obvious graces;
and nowhere surely but in Italy could so unpromising an exterior hide
such varied treasures. To the lover of Italy--the perennial wooer whom
every spring recalls across the Alps--there is a certain charm in
this external dulness. After being steeped in the mediævalism of Siena,
Perugia or Pistoja, after breathing at Vicenza, Modena and Bergamo the
very air of Goldoni, Rosalba, and the _commedia dell’ arte_, it is
refreshing to come on a town that holds back and says: “Find me out.”
Such a challenge puts the psychologist on his mettle and gives to his
quest the stimulus of discovery.

It may seem paradoxical to connect the emotions of the explorer with
one of the most familiar centres of artistic influence, but it is
partly because Parma is still dominated by Correggio that it has
dropped out of the emotional range of the modern traveller. For though
it is scarce a hundred years since our grandparents posted thither to
palpitate over the master, their æsthetic point of view is as remote
from ours as their mode of locomotion. By a curious perversity of fate
Correggio, so long regarded as the leading exponent of “sentiment,” now
survives only by virtue of his technique, and has shrunk to the limited
immortality of the painter’s painter. A new generation may rediscover
his emotional charm, but to the untechnical picture-lover of the
present day his prodigious manipulations of light and colour seldom
atone for the Turveydrop attitudes of his saints and angels and for the
sugary loveliness of his Madonnas. Lacking alike the frank naturalism
of such masters as Palma Vecchio and Bonifazio, the sensuous mysticism
of Sodoma and the fantastic gaiety of Tiepolo, Correggio seems to
typify that phase of cold sentimentality which dwindled to its end
in the “Keepsakes” of sixty years ago. Each generation makes certain
demands on the art of its own period and seeks certain affinities in
the art of the past; and a kind of personal sincerity is perhaps what
modern taste has most consistently exacted: the term being understood
not in its technical sense, as applied to execution, but in its
imaginative significance, as qualifying the “message” of the artist. It
is inevitable that the average spectator should look at pictures from
a quite untechnical standpoint. He knows nothing of values, brushwork
and the rest; yet it is to the immense majority formed by his kind that
art addresses itself. There must therefore be two recognized ways of
judging a picture--by its technique and by its expression: that is,
not the mere story it has to tell, but its power of rendering in line
and colour the equivalent of some idea or of some emotion. There is
the less reason for disputing such a claim because, given the power of
_seeing soul_, as this faculty may be defined, the power of embodying
the impression, of making it visible and comprehensible to others, is
necessarily one of technique; and it is doubtful if any artist not
possessed of this insight has received, even from his fellow-craftsmen,
a lasting award of supremacy.

Now the sentiment that Correggio embodied is one which, from the
present point of view, seems to lack the preserving essence of
sincerity. It is true that recent taste has returned with a certain
passion to the brilliant mannerisms of the eighteenth century; but
it is because they are voluntary mannerisms, as frankly factitious
as the masquerading of children, that they have retained their hold
on the fancy. As there is a soul in the games of children, or in
any diversion entered into with conviction, so there is a soul, if
only an inconsequent spoiled child’s soul, in the laughing art of
the eighteenth century. It is the defect of Correggio’s art that it
expresses no conviction whatever. He offers us no clue to the _état
d’âme_ of his celestial gymnasts. They do not seem to be honestly in
love with this world or the next, or to take any personal part in the
transactions in which the artist has engaged them. In fact, they are
simply models, smirking and attitudinizing at so much an hour, and so
well trained that even their individuality as models remains hidden
behind the fixed professional smile. The conclusion is that if they
are only models to the spectator, it is because they were only models
to Correggio; that his art had no transmuting quality, and that he was
always conscious of the wires which held on the wings.

It may, indeed, be argued that devotional painting in Italy had
assumed, in the sixteenth century, a stereotyped form from which a
stronger genius than Correggio’s could hardly have freed it; and that
the triumphs of that day should be sought rather in the domain of
decorative art, where conventionality becomes a strength, and where
the æsthetic imagination finds expression in combinations of mere line
and colour. Many of the decorative paintings of the sixteenth century
are indeed among the most delightful products of Italian art; and it
might have been expected that Correggio’s extraordinary technical skill
and love of rhythmically whirling lines would have found complete
development in this direction. It is, of course, permissible to the
artist to regard the heavenly hosts as mere factors in a decorative
composition; and to consider Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues,
Powers only in their relation to the diameter of a dome or to the
curve of a spandril; but to the untechnical spectator such a feat is
almost impossible, and in judging a painter simply as a decorator, the
public is more at its ease before such frankly ornamental works as
the famous frescoes of the convent of Saint Paul. It might, in fact,
have been expected that Correggio would be at his best in executing
the commission of the light-hearted Abbess, who had charged him to
amplify the symbolism of her device (the crescent moon) by adorning her
apartments with the legend of Diana. There is something delightfully
characteristic of the period in this choice of the Latmian goddess to
typify the spirit of monastic chastity; and equally characteristic is
Correggio’s acceptance of the commission as an opportunity to paint
classic bas-reliefs and rosy flesh and blood, without much attempt to
express the somewhat strained symbolism of the myth.

[Illustration:

  _The “Little Palace of the Garden”_

  E. C. Peixotto
  PARMA. 1901.
]

The vaulted ceiling of the room is treated as a trellised arbour,
through which rosy loves peep down on the blonde Diana emerging from
grey drifts of evening mist: a charming composition, with much grace of
handling in the figure of the goddess and in the _grisailles_ of the
lunettes below the cornice; yet lacking as a whole just that ethereal
quality which is supposed to be the distinctive mark of Correggio’s
art. Compared with the delicate trellis-work and flitting cupids of
Zucchero’s frescoes at the Villa di Papa Giulio, Correggio’s design
is heavy and dull. The masses of foliage are too uniform and the
_putti_ too fat and stolid for their skyey task. This failure of the
decorative sense is rendered more noticeable by the happy manner in
which Araldi, a generation earlier, had solved a similar problem in the
adjoining room. Here the light arabesques and miniature divinities of
the ceiling, and the biblical and mythological scenes of the frieze,
are presented with all that earnest striving after personal truth of
expression that is the ruling principle of fifteenth-century art. It is
this faculty of personal interpretation, always kept in strict abeyance
to the laws of decorative fitness, which makes the mural painting
of the fifteenth century so satisfying that, compared with the
Mantegna room at Mantua, the Sala del Cambio at Perugia, the Sala degli
Angeli at Urbino, and the frescoed room at the Schifanoia at Ferrara,
all the later wall-decorations in Italy (save perhaps the Moretto room
at Brescia) seem to fall a little short of perfection.

Of a much earlier style of mural painting, Parma itself contains one
notable example. The ancient octagon of the Baptistery, with its
encircling arcade and strange frieze of leaping, ramping and running
animals, is outwardly one of the most interesting buildings in Italy;
while its interior has a character of its own hardly to be matched
even in that land of fiercely competing individualism. Downward from
the apex of the dome the walls are frescoed in successive tiers with
figures of saints in rigid staring attitudes, interspersed with awkward
presentments of biblical story. All these designs are marked by a
peculiar naïveté of composition and great vehemence of gesture and
expression. Those in the dome and between the windows are attributed
to the thirteenth century, while the lower frescoes are of the
fourteenth; but so crude in execution are the latter that they combine
with the upper rows in producing an effect of exceptional decorative
value, to which a note of strangeness is given by the introduction,
here and there, of high-reliefs of saints and angels, so placed that
the frescoes form a background to their projecting figures. The most
successful of these sculptures is the relief of the flight into Egypt:
a solemn procession led by a squat square-faced angel with unwieldy
wings and closed by two inscrutable-looking figures in Oriental dress.

Seen after the Baptistery, the Cathedral is perhaps something of a
disappointment; yet to pass from its weather-beaten front, between the
worn red lions of the ancient porch, into the dusky magnificence of the
interior, is to enjoy one of those contrasts possible only in a land
where the humblest wayside chapel may disclose the stratified art of
centuries. In the great cupola, Correggio lords it with the maelstrom
of his heavenly host; and the walls of the nave are covered with
frescoes by Mazzola and Gambara, to which time has given a golden-brown
tone, as of sumptuous hangings, that atones for the pretentious
insignificance of their design. There is a venerable episcopal throne
attributed to Benedetto Antelami, that strangely dramatic sculptor
to whom the reliefs of the Baptistery are also ascribed, and one of
the chapels contains a magnificent Descent from the Cross with his
signature; but except for these works the details of the interior,
though including several fine sepulchral monuments and a ciborium by
Alberti, are not exceptional enough to make a lasting impression.

On almost every Italian town, whatever succession of masters it may
have known, some one family has left its dominant mark; and Parma is
distinctively the city of the Farnesi. Late-comers though they were,
their lilies are everywhere, over gateways, on palace-fronts and in the
aisles of churches; and they have bequeathed to the town a number of
its most characteristic buildings, from the immense unfinished Palazzo
della Pilotta to the baroque fountain of parti-coloured marbles which
enlivens with its graceful nymphs and river-gods the grassy solitude of
the palace-square. It is to Rannuccio I, the greatest of these ducal
builders, that Parma owes the gigantic project of the Pilotta, as well
as the Farnese theatre and the University. To this group Duke Ottavio,
at a later date, added the charming “Little Palace of the Garden,” of
which the cheerful yellow façade still overlooks the pleached alleys
of a formal pleasance adorned, under the Bourbon rulers who succeeded
him, with groups of statuary by the court sculptor, a Frenchman named
Jean Baptiste Boudard. Ottavio commissioned Agostino Carracci to
decorate the interior of the ducal villa, and even now, after years
of incredible neglect and ill-usage, the walls of several rooms show
remains of the work executed, as the artist’s pious inscription runs,
_sub umbra liliorum_. The villa has been turned into barracks, and
it is difficult to gain admission; but the persistent sight-seer may
succeed in seeing one room, where large-limbed ruddy immortals move,
against a background of bluish summer landscape, through the slow
episodes of some Olympian fable. This apartment shows the skill of the
Carracci as decorators of high cool ceremonious rooms, designed to
house the midsummer idleness of a court still under the yoke of Spanish
etiquette, and living in a climate where the linear vivacities of
Tiepolo might have been conducive to apoplexy.

[Illustration:

  _The Worn Red Lions
  of the Ancient Porch_

  E. C. Peixotto
  PARMA. 1901.
]

The most noteworthy building which arose in Parma under the shadow
of the lilies is, however, the famous theatre built by Aleotti for
Duke Rannuccio, and opened in 1620 to celebrate the marriage of
Odoardo Farnese with Margaret of Tuscany. Externally it is a mere
outgrowth of the palace; but to those who feel a tenderness for the
vivacious figures of the _commedia dell’ arte_ and have followed
their picturesque wanderings through the pages of Gozzi and Goldoni,
the interior is an immediate evocation of the strolling theatrical
life of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries--that strange period
when players were passed on from duchy to principality to perform at
wedding-feasts and to celebrate political victories; when kings and
princes stood sponsors to their children, and the Church denied them
Christian burial.

The Farnese theatre is one of those brilliant improvisations in wood
and plaster to which Italian artists were trained by centuries of
hurriedly-organized _trionfi_, state processions, religious festivals,
returns from war, all demanding the collaboration of sculptor,
architect and painter in the rapid creation of triumphal arches,
architectural perspectives, statuary, chariots, flights of angels, and
galleons tossing on simulated seas: evanescent visions of some _pays
bleu_ of Boiardo or of Ariosto, destined to crumble the next day like
the palace of an evil enchanter. To those who admire the peculiarly
Italian gift of spontaneous plastic invention, the art of the
_plasticatore_, to borrow an untranslatable term, such buildings are of
peculiar interest, since, owing to the nature of their construction,
so few have survived; and of these probably none is as well preserved
as Aleotti’s theatre. The ceiling of painted canvas is gone, and the
splendid Farnese dukes bestriding their chargers in lofty niches on
each side of the proscenium are beginning to show their wooden anatomy
through the wounds in their plaster sides; but the fine composition of
the auditorium, and the throng of stucco divinities attitudinizing in
the niches and on the balustrades, and poised above the arch of the
proscenium, still serve to recall the original splendour of the scene.
The dusty gloom of the place suggests some impending transformation,
and when fancy has restored to the roof the great glass chandeliers
now hanging in the neighbouring museum, their light seems to fall once
more on boxes draped with crimson velvet and filled with lords and
ladies in the sumptuous Spanish habit, while on the stage, before a
gay perspective of colonnades and terraces, Isabel and Harlequin and
the Capitan Spavento, _plasticatori_ of another sort, build on the
scaffolding of some familiar intrigue the airy superstructure of their
wit.

In the adjoining palace no such revival is possible. Most museums
in Italy are dead palaces, and none is more inanimate than that of
Parma. Many of the ducal treasures are still left--family portraits
by Suttermans and Sir Antony Mor, Bernini-like busts of the Bourbon
dukes of Parma, with voluminous wigs and fluttering steinkerks; old
furniture, old majolica, and all those frail elaborate trifles that
the irony of fate preserves when brick and marble crumble. All these
accessories of a ruined splendour, catalogued, numbered and penned up
in glass cases, can no more revive the life of which they formed a part
than the contents of an herbarium can renew the scent and murmur of a
summer meadow. The transient holders of all that pomp, from the great
Alexander to the Duchess Marie Louise of Austria, his last unworthy
successor, look down with unrecognizing eyes on this dry alignment of
classified objects; and one feels, in passing from one room to another,
as though some fanciful heroic poem, depicting the splendid vanities
of life, and depending for its effect on a fortunate collocation of
words, had been broken up and sorted out into the different parts of
speech.

This is the view of the sentimentalist; but from that of the student
of art the museum of Parma is perhaps more interesting than the palace
could ever have been. The Correggios are in themselves an unmatched
possession; the general collection of pictures is large and varied, and
the wealth of bronzes and marbles, of coins, medals and architectural
fragments of different schools and periods, would be remarkable in any
country but Italy, where the inexhaustible richness of the small towns
is a surprise to the most experienced traveller.

On the whole, the impression carried away from Parma is incomplete
and confusing. The name calls forth as many scattered images as
contradictory associations. It is doubtful if the wanderer reviewing
from a distance his Italian memories will be able to put any distinct
picture of the place beside the concrete vision of Siena, Mantua or
Vicenza. It will not hang as a whole in the gallery of his mental
vignettes; but in the mosaic of detached impressions some rich and
iridescent fragments will represent his after-thoughts of Parma.



MARCH IN ITALY


I

March is in some respects the most exquisite month of the Italian year.
It is the month of transitions and surprises, of vehement circling
showers with a golden heart of sunlight, of bare fields suffused
overnight with fruit-blossoms, and hedgerows budding as suddenly as the
staff of Tannhäuser. It is the month in which the northern traveller,
grown distrustful of the promised clemency of Italian skies, and with
the winter bitterness still in his bones, lighting on a patch of
primroses under a leafless bank, or on the running flame of tulips
along the trenches of an olive orchard, learns that Italy _is_ Italy,
after all, and hugs himself at thought of the black ultramontane March.

It must be owned, however, that it is not, even in Italy, the safest
month for excursions. There are too many _voltes-face_ toward winter,
too many moody hesitating dawns, when the skies will not declare
themselves for or against rain, but hanging neutral till the hesitating
traveller sets forth, seem then to take a cruel joy in proving that
he should have stayed at home. Yet there are rare years when some
benign influence tames the fitfulness of March, subduing her to a long
sequence of golden days, and then he who has trusted to her promise
receives the most exquisite reward. It takes faith in one’s luck to
catch step with such a train of days, and fare with them northward
across the wakening land; but now and then this fortune befalls the
pilgrim, and then he sees a new Italy, an Italy which discovery seems
to make his own. The ancient Latin landscape, so time-furrowed and
passion-scarred, lies virgin to the eye, fresh-bathed in floods of
limpid air. The scene seems recreated by the imagination, it wears the
pristine sparkle of those

    _Towers of fables immortal fashioned from mortal dreams_

which lie beyond the geographer’s boundaries, like the Oceanus of the
early charts; it becomes, in short, the land in which anything may
happen, save the dull, the obvious and the expected.


II

It was, for instance, on such a March day that we rowed across the
harbour of Syracuse to the mouth of the Anapus.

Our brown rowers, leaping overboard, pushed the flat-bottomed boat
through the line of foam where bay and river meet, and we passed
over to the smooth current which slips seaward between flat banks
fringed with arundo donax and bamboo. The bamboo grows in vast
feathery thickets along these Sicilian waters, and the slightly
angular precision of its stem and foliage allies itself well with
the classic clearness of the landscape--a landscape which, in spite
of an occasional excess of semi-tropical vegetation, yet retains the
Greek quality of producing intense effects with a minimum of material.
There is nothing tropical about the shores of the Anapus; but as the
river turns and narrows, the boat passes under an arch of Egyptian
papyrus, that slender exotic reed, brought to Sicily, it is supposed,
by her Arabian colonizers, and thriving, strangely enough, in no other
European soil. This plumy tunnel so enclosed us as we advanced, that
for long stretches of our indolent progress we saw only the face of
the stream, the summer insects flickering on it, and the continuous
golden line of irises along its edge. Now and then, however, a gap in
the papyrus showed, as through an arch in a wall, a prospect of flat
fields with grazing cattle, or a solitary farm-house, low, brown,
_tassée_, with a date-palm spindling against its well-curb, or the
white flank of Etna suddenly thrust across the sky-line.

So, after a long dreamy lapse of time, we came to the source of
the river, the azure bowl of the nymph Cyane, who pours her pure
current into the broader Anapus. The haunt of the nymph is a circular
reed-fringed pool, supposedly so crystalline that she may still be seen
lurking on its pebbly bed; but the recent spring rains had clouded her
lair, and though, in this legend-haunted land, one always feels the
nearness of

    _The faun pursuing, the nymph pursued_,

the pool of Cyane revealed no sign of her presence.

Disappointed in our quest, we turned back and glided down the Anapus
again to visit her sister-nymph, the more famed but less fortunate
Arethusa, whose unhappy fate it is to mingle her wave with the
brackish sea-tide in the very harbour of Syracuse, where, under the
wall of the quay, the poor creature languishes in a prison of masonry,
her papyrus wreath sending up an anæmic growth from the slimy bottom
filled with green.

We were glad to turn from this desecrated fount to the long
russet-coloured town curving above its harbour. Syracuse, girt with
slopes of flowering orchard-land, lies nobly against the fortified
ridge of Epipolæ. But the city itself--richer in history than any
other on that crowded soil, and characteristically symbolized by its
Greek temple welded into the masonry of a mediæval church--even the
thronging associations of the city could not, on a day so prodigal of
sunlight, hold us long within its walls. These walls, the boundaries
of the Greek Ortygia, have once more become the limits of the shrunken
modern town, and crossing the moat beyond them, we found ourselves
at once in full country. There was a peculiar charm in the sudden
transition from the old brown streets saturated with history to this
clear smiling land where only the spring seemed to have written its
tale--its ever-recurring, ever-fresh record of blossom and blade
miraculously renewed. The country about Syracuse is peculiarly fitted
to be the exponent of this gospel of renewal. The land stretches away
in mild slopes laden with acre on acre of blossoming fruit-trees, and
of old olive orchards under which the lilac anemones have room to
spread in never-ending sheets of colour. The open pastures are plumed
with silvery asphodel, and every farm-house has its glossy orange-grove
fenced from the road by a rampart of prickly pear.

The highway itself, as we drove out toward Epipolæ, was thronged with
country-folk who might have been the descendants of Theocritan nymphs
and mortal shepherds, brown folk with sidelong agate eyes, trudging
dustily after their goats and asses, or jogging townward in their
little blue or red carts painted with legends of the saints and stories
from Ariosto. After a mile or two the road curved slowly upward and we
began to command a widening prospect. At our feet lay Syracuse, girt by
the Plemmyrian marsh, and by the fields and orchards which were once
the crowded Greek suburbs of Neapolis, Tyche and Achradina; and beyond
the ridge of Epipolæ and the nearer hills, Etna rose white and dominant
against the pale Calabrian coast-line.

The fortress of Euryalus, on the crest of Epipolæ, might be called the
Greek Carcassonne, since it is the best-preserved example of ancient
military architecture in Europe. Archways, galleries, massive flights
of stairs and long subterranean passages may still be traced by the
archæologically minded in the mass of fallen stones marking the site
of the ruin; and even the idler unversed in military construction will
feel the sudden nearness of the past when he comes upon the rock-hewn
sockets to which the cavalry attached their horses.

Euryalus, however, more fortunate than Carcassonne, has escaped the
renovating hand of a Viollet-le-Duc, and its broken ramparts lie in
mellow ruin along the backbone of the ridge, feathered with those
delicate growths which, in the Mediterranean countries, veil the
fallen works of man without concealing them. That day, indeed, the
prodigal blossoming of the Sicilian March had covered the ground with
a suffusion of colour which made even the mighty ruins of the fortress
seem a mere background for the triumphant pageant of the spring. From
the tall silhouette of the asphodel, classic in outline as in name, to
the tendrils of scarlet and yellow vetch capriciously fretting the
ancient stones with threads of richest colour, every inch of ground and
every cleft of masonry was overrun with some delicate wild tracery of
leaf and blossom.

But to those who first see Syracuse in the month of March--the heart of
the Sicilian spring--it must appear pre-eminently as one vast unbounded
garden. The appeal of architecture and history pales before this vast
glory of the loosened soil. The walls and towers will remain--but
this transient beauty must be caught upon the wing. And so from the
flowered slopes of Euryalus we passed to the richer profusion of the
gardens that adjoin the town. Fringing the road by which we descended,
a hundred spring flowers--anemones, lupins, sweet alyssum, herb-Robert,
snapdragon and the fragrant wild mignonette--linked the uncultivated
country-side to the rich horticulture of the suburbs; and in the
suburbs the vegetation reached so tropical an excess that the spring
pilgrim’s memory of Syracuse must be a blur of golden-brown ruins
immersed in a sea of flowers.

There are gardens everywhere, gardens of all kinds and classes, from
the peasant’s hut hedged with pink geraniums to the villa with its
terraced sub-tropical growths; but most wonderful, most unexpected of
all, are the famous gardens of the quarries. Time has perhaps never
done a more poetic thing than in turning these bare unshaded pits of
death, where the Greek captives of Salamis died under the lash of the
Sicilian slave-driver and the arrows of the Sicilian sun, into deep
cool wells of shade and verdure. Here, where the chivalry of Athens
perished of heat and thirst, a damp mantle of foliage pours over the
red cliff-sides, fills the depths with the green freshness of twilight,
and effaces, like a pitiful hand on a burning brow, the record of
that fiery martyrdom. And the quarries are as good to grow flowers in
as to torture men. The equable warmth of these sheltered ravines is
as propitious to vegetation as it was destructive to human life; and
wherever soil has accumulated, on the ledges and in the hollows, the
“blood of the martyrs” sends up an exuberant growth.

On the edge of one of these hell-pits a monastery has been built; above
another stands a villa; and monastic and secular hands have transformed
the sides of the quarries into gardens of fantastic beauty. Paths and
rocky stairways fringed with fern wind down steeply from the upper
world, now tunnelled through dense growths of cypress and olive, now
skirting cliff-walks dripping with cataracts of ivy, or tufted with
the glaucous spikes and scarlet rockets of gigantic cactuses. In the
depths, where time has amassed a soil incredibly rich, the vegetation
becomes prodigious, febrile, like that of the delirious garden in “La
Faute de l’Abbé Mouret.” Here the paths wind under groves of orange
and lemon trees, over a dense carpeting of violets, stocks, narcissus
and honey-scented hyacinths. Trellises of red roses lift their network
against the light, and damp clefts of the rock are black with dripping
maidenhair. Here are tall hedges of blue rosemary and red-gold
abutilon, there shrubby masses of anthemisia, heliotrope and lavender.
Overhead, black cypress-shafts spring from the bright sea of foliage,
and at the pit’s brink, where the Syracusan citizens, under their white
umbrellas, used to lean over and taunt the captives dying in the sun, a
great hedge of prickly pear writhes mockingly against the sky.


III

At noon of such another day we set out from Rome for Caprarola.

The still air had a pearly quality and a mauve haze hung upon the
hills. Our way lay north-westward, toward the Ciminian mountains. Once
free of the gates, our motor started on its steady rush along the white
highway, first past the walls of vineyard and garden, and then across
the grey waste spaces of the Campagna. The Roman champaign is the type
of variety in monotony. Seen from the heights of the city, it reaches
in silvery sameness toward all points of the compass; but to a near
view it reveals a dozen different physiognomies. Toward Frascati and
the Alban hills it wears the ordered garb of fertility: wheat-fields,
vineyards and olive-groves. South-eastward, in the direction of the
Sabine range, its white volcanic reaches are tufted with a dark _maqui_
of sullen and reluctant growth, while in the west the Agro Romano rolls
toward Monterosi and Soracte in sere reaches of pasture-land mottled
with hillock and ravine.

Gradually, as we left the outskirts of Rome, the grandeur of this
stern landscape declared itself. To the right and left the land
stretched out in endless grassy reaches, guarded here and there by
a lonely tomb or by the tall gateway of some abandoned vineyard.
Presently the road began to rise and dip, giving us, on the ascent,
sweeping views over a wider range of downs which rolled away in
the north-west to the Ciminian forest, and in the east to the hazy
rampart of the Sabine hills. Ahead of us the same undulations swept on
interminably, the road undulating with them, now engulfed in the trough
of the land, now tossed into view on some farther slope, like a streak
of light on a flying sea. There was something strangely inspiriting
in the call of this fugitive road. From ever-lengthening distances it
seemed to signal us on, luring us up slope after slope, and racing
ahead of us down the long declivities where the motor panted after it
like a pack on the trail.

For some time the thrill of the chase distracted us from a nearer view
of the foreground; but gradually there stole on us a sense of breadth
and quietude, of sun-bathed rugged fields with black cattle grazing
in their hollows, and here and there a fortified farm-house lifting
its bulk against the sky. These fortress-farms of the Campagna,
standing sullen and apart among the pacific ruins of pagan Rome--tombs,
aqueducts and villas--give a glimpse of that black age which rose on
the wreck of the Imperial civilization. All the violence and savagery
of the mediæval city, with its great nobles forever in revolt, its
popes plotting and trembling within the Lateran walls, or dragging
their captive cardinals from point to point as the Emperor or the
French King moved his forces--all the mysterious crimes of passion and
cupidity, the intrigues, ambushes, massacres with which the pages of
the old chronicles reek, seem symbolized in one of those lowering brown
piles with its battlemented sky-line, crouched on a knoll of the waste
land which its masters helped to devastate.

At length a blue pool, the little lake of Monterosi, broke the expanse
of the downs; then we flashed through a poor roadside village of the
same name, and so upward into a hill-region where hedgerows and copses
began to replace the brown tufting of the Campagna. On and on we fled,
ever upward to the town of Ronciglione, perched, like many hill-cities
of this region, on the sheer edge of a ravine, and stretching its line
of baroque churches and stately crumbling palaces along one steep
street to the edge of a lofty down.

Across this plateau, golden with budding broom, we flew on to the next
height, and here paused to embrace the spectacle--beneath us, on the
left, the blue volcanic lake of Vico in its oak-fringed crater; on the
right, far below, the plain of Etruria, scattered with ancient cities
and ringed in a mountain-range still touched with snow; and rising from
the middle of the plain, Soracte, proud, wrinkled, solitary, with the
ruined monastery of Sant’ Oreste just seen on its crest.

[Illustration:

  _An Italian Sky in March_
]

From this mount of vision we dropped abruptly downward by a road cut
in the red tufa-banks. Presently there began to run along the crest
of the tufa on our left a lofty wall gripping the flanks of the rock,
and overhung by dark splashes of ivy and clumps of leafless trees--one
of those rugged Italian walls which are the custodians of such hidden
treasures of scent and verdure. This wall continued to run parallel
with us till our steep descent ended in a stone-paved square, with the
roofs of a town sliding abruptly away below it on one side, and above,
on the other, the great ramps and terraces of a pentagonal palace
clenched to the highest ledge of the cliff. Such is the first sight of
Caprarola.

Never, surely, did feudal construction so insolently dominate its
possessions. The palace of the great Farnese Cardinal seems to lord
it not only over the golden-brown town which forms its footstool, but
over the far-reaching Etrurian plain, the forests and mountains of the
horizon: over Nepi, Sutri, Cività Castellana, and the lonely pride of
Soracte. And the grandeur of the site is matched by the arrogance of
the building: no villa, but a fortified and moated palace, or rather a
fortress planned in accordance with the most advanced military science
of the day, but built on the lines of a palace. Yet on such a March day
as this, with the foreground of brown oak-woods all slashed and fringed
with rosy almond-bloom; with the haze of spring just melting from the
horizon, and revealing depth after depth of mountain-blue; with March
clouds fleeing overhead, and flinging trails of shadow and showers of
silver light across the undulations of the plain--on such a day, the
insolent Farnese keep, for all its background of gardens, frescoes, and
architectural splendour, seems no longer the lord of the landscape,
but a mere point of vantage from which to view the outspread glory at
our feet.


IV

The drive from Viterbo to Montefiascone lies across the high plateau
between the Monte Cimino and the lake of Bolsena.

For the best part of the way, the landscape is pastoral and
agricultural, with patches of oak-wood to which in March the leaves
still cling; and on this fitful March morning, with rain in the
shifting clouds, the ploughmen move behind their white oxen under
umbrellas as vividly green as the young wheat. Here are none of the
great bursts of splendour which mark the way from Rome to Caprarola;
and it seems fitting that this more prosaic road should be travelled
at a sober pace, in a Viterban posting-chaise, behind two plodding
horses. The horses are not so plodding, however, but that they swing us
briskly enough down the short descents of the rolling country, which
now becomes wilder and more diversified, with stretches of woodland
interspersed with a heathy growth of low fragrant shrubs. Here the
slopes are thick with primroses, and the blue vinca and violet peep
through the ivy trails of the hedgerows; but the trees are still
leafless, for it is a high wind-swept region, where March practises
few of her milder arts. A lonely country too: no villages, and only
a few solitary farm-houses, are to be seen as we jog up and down the
monotonous undulations of the road to the foot of Montefiascone.

The town overhangs us splendidly, on a spur above the lake of Bolsena;
and a long ascent between fortified walls leads to the summit on which
its buildings are huddled. Through the curtain of rain which the skies
have now let down, the crooked streets with their archways and old
blackened stone houses present no striking effects, though doubtless
a bright day would draw from them some of that latent picturesqueness
which is never far to seek when Italian masonry and Italian sunlight
meet. Meanwhile, however, the rain persists, and the environment of
Montefiascone remains so obstinately shrouded that, for all we know,
the town may be situated “Nowhere,” like the famous scene in Festus.

Through this rain-muffled air, led blindfold as it were, we presently
descend again by the same windings to the city gates, and thence,
following the road to Bagnorea, come on the desolate church of San
Flaviano, lying by itself in a hollow beneath the walls of the town.
In our hasty dash from the carriage to the door, there is just time
to receive the impression of an immensely old brick façade, distorted
and scarred with that kind of age which only the Latin sense of
antiquity has kept a word to describe--then we are in a low-arched
cavernous interior, with spectral frescoes emerging here and there
from the universal background of whitewash, and above the choir a
spreading gallery or upper church, which makes of the lower building
a species of crypt above ground. And here--O irony of fate!--in this
old, deserted and damp-dripping church, under a worn slab before
the abandoned altar (for it is only in the upper church that mass
continues to be said)--here, a castaway as it were from both worlds,
lies that genial offshoot of a famous race, the wine-loving Bishop
Fugger, whose lust of the palate brought him to this lonely end. It
would have been impossible to pass through Montefiascone without
dropping a commemorative tear on the classic Est-Est-Est upon which,
till so lately, a good cask of Montefiascone has been yearly broached
in memory of the prelate’s end; yet one feels a regret, almost, in
carrying away such a chill recollection of the poor Bishop’s fate,
in leaving him to the solitude of that icy limbo which seems so
disproportionate a punishment for his amiable failing.

Leaving San Flaviano, we press on toward Orvieto through an unbroken
blur of rain. The weary miles leave no trace in memory, and we are
still in an indeterminate region of wood and pasture and mist-muffled
hills when gradually the downpour ceases, and streaks of sunset begin
to part the clouds. Almost at the same moment a dip of the road brings
us out above a long descent, with a wavy plain at its base, and reared
up on a cliff above the plain a fierce brown city, walled, towered
and pinnacled, which seems to have dropped from the sky like some
huge beast of prey and locked its talons in the rock. All about the
plain, in the watery evening light, rises a line of hills, with Monte
Amiata thrusting its peak above the circle; the nearer slopes are
clothed in olive and cypress, with castles and monasteries jutting from
their ledges, and just below us the sight of an arched bridge across
a ravine, with a clump of trees at its approach, touches a spring
of memory and transports us from the actual scene to its pictured
presentment--Turner’s “Road to Orvieto.”

It was, in fact, from this point that the picture was painted; and
looking forth on the landscape, with its stormy blending of sepia-hues
washed in pallid sunlight, one sees in it the vindication of Turner’s
art--that true impressionism which consists not in the unimaginative
noting of actual “bits,” but in the reconstruction of a scene as it
has flowed into the mould of memory, the merging of fragmentary facts
into a homogeneous impression. This is what Turner has done to the view
of Orvieto from the Bolsena road, so summing up and interpreting the
spirit of the scene that the traveller pausing by the arched bridge
above the valley loses sense of the boundaries between art and life,
and lives for a moment in that mystical region where the two are one.


V

Our friends and counsellors had for many years warned us against
visiting Vallombrosa in March--the month which oftenest finds us in
Tuscany.

“Wait till June,” they advised--and knowing the complexity of
influences which go to make up an Italian “sensation,” and how, for
lack of one ingredient, the whole mixture may lose its savour, we
had obediently waited for June. But June in Florence never seemed to
come--“the time and the place” were no more to meet in our horoscope
than in the poet’s; and so, one year when March was playing at April,
we decided to take advantage of her mood and risk the adventure.

We set out early, in that burnished morning air which seems, as with a
fine burin, to retrace overnight every line of the Tuscan landscape.
The railway runs southward along the Arno valley to Sant’ Ellero; and
we might have been travelling through some delicately-etched background
of Mantegna’s or Robetta’s, in which the clear pale colours of early
spring were but an effect of subtle blendings of line. This Tuscan hill
scenery, which for purity of modelling has no match short of Greece, is
seen to the best advantage in March, when the conformation of the land
is still unveiled by foliage, and every line tells like the threads of
silver in a _niello_.

From Sant’ Ellero, where the train is exchanged for a little funicular
car of primitive construction, we were pushed jerkily uphill by a
gasping engine which had to be constantly refreshed by long draughts of
water from wayside tanks. On such a day, however, it was impossible to
grudge the slowness of the ascent. As we mounted higher, the country
developed beneath us with that far-reaching precision of detail which
gives to extended views in mid-Italy a curiously pre-Raphaelite
look--as though they had been wrought out by a hand enamoured of
definition and unskilled in the creation of general effects. The new
wheat springing under the olives was the only high note of colour: all
else was sepia-brown of new-turned earth, grey-brown of weather-mottled
farm-houses and village belfries, golden-black of rusty cypresses
climbing the hill-sides in straight interminable lines, and faint blush
of peach-blossoms floating against grey olives.

Then we gained a new height, and the details of the foreground were
lost in a vast unfolding of distances--hill on hill, blurred with
olive-groves, or bare and keen-cut, with a sprinkling of farm-houses
on their slopes, and here and there a watch-tower on a jutting spur;
and beyond these again, a tossing sunlit sea of peaks, its farthest
waves still crested with snow. Half way up, the abrupt slopes of
oak-forest which we had skirted gave way to a plateau clothed with
vines and budding fruit orchards; then another sharp climb through
oak-scrub, across the dry beds of mountain-streams and up slopes of
broom and heather, brought us to the topmost ledge, where the railway
ends. On this ledge stands the dreary village of Saltina--a cluster
of raw-looking houses set like boxes on a shelf (with a Hôtel Milton
among them), and a background of Swiss chalets dotted forlornly on a
treeless slope. Saltina must be arid even in midsummer, and in March
it was a place to fly from. Our flight, however, was regulated by the
leisurely gait of a small white donkey who was the only _bête de somme_
to be had at that early season, and behind whom we slowly turned the
shoulder of the cliff, and entered the pillared twilight of a great
fir-wood. The road ran through this wood for a mile or two, carrying
us straight to the heart of the Etrurian shades. As we advanced,
byways branched off to the right and left, climbing the hill-sides
through deep-perspectives of verdure; and presently we came to a wide
turfy hollow, where the great trees recede, leaving a space for the
monastery and its adjacent buildings.

The principal _corps-de-bâtiment_ faces on a walled entrance-court with
box-bordered paths leading to the fine arcaded portico of the church.
These buildings are backed by a hanging wood with a hermitage on its
crest--the Paradiso--but before them lies an open expanse studded with
ancient trees, with a stone-bordered fish-pond, and grass walks leading
down to mossy glens with the sound of streams in their depths. Facing
the monastery stands the low building where pilgrims were formerly
lodged, and which now, without farther modification than the change of
name, has become the Albergo della Foresta; while the monastery itself
has been turned into a government school of forestry.

Since change was inevitable, it is a fortunate accident which has
housed a sylvan college in these venerable shades, and sent the
green-accoutred foresters to carry on the husbandry of the monks.
Never, surely, were the inevitable modifications of time more gently
tempered to the survivor of earlier conditions. The monastery of
Vallombrosa has neither the examinate air of a _monument historique_,
nor that look of desecration and decadency that too often comes with
altered uses. It has preserved its high atmosphere of meditative
peace, and the bands of students flitting through the forest with
surveying-implements and agricultural tools seem the lawful successors
of the monks.

We had been told in Florence that winter still held the mountains, that
we should find snow in the shady hollows and a glacial wind from the
peaks. But spring airs followed us to the heights. Through the aromatic
fir-boughs the sunlight slanted as warmly as down the ilex-walks of
the Boboli gardens, and over the open slopes about the monastery there
ran a rosy-purple flush of crocuses--not here and there in scattered
drifts, or starring the grass as in the foregrounds of Mantegna and
Botticelli, but so close-set that they formed a continuous sheet of
colour, a tide of lilac which submerged the turf and, flowing between
the ancient tree-boles, invaded even the dark edges of the forest. It
was probably the one moment of the year at which the forest flushes
into colour; its hour of transfiguration--we might have tried every
other season, and missed the miracle of March in Vallombrosa. At first
the eye was dazzled by this vast field of the cloth-of-purple, and
could take in none of the more delicate indications of spring; but
presently we found our way to the lower glens, where the crocuses
ceased, and pale-yellow primroses poured over ivy-banks to the brink
of agate-coloured brooks. In the forest, too, ferns were uncurling and
violets thrusting themselves through the close matting of fir-needles;
while the terraces of the monks’ garden, which climbs the hill-side
near the monastery, were fragrant with budding box and beds of tulip
and narcissus.

It was an air to idle in, breathing deep the stored warmth of
immemorial springs; but the little donkey waited between the shafts of
his _calessina_, and on the ledge of Saltina we knew that our engine
was taking a last draught before the descent. Reluctantly we jogged
back through the forest, and, regaining our seats in the train, plunged
downward into a sea of translucent mountains, and valleys bathed in
haze, a great reach of irradiated heights flowing by imperceptible
gradations into amber depths of air, while below us the shadows fell,
and the Arno gleamed white in the indistinctness of evening.



PICTURESQUE MILAN


I

It is hard to say whether the stock phrase of the stock tourist--“there
is so little to see in Milan”--redounds most to the derision of the
speaker or to the glory of Italy. That such a judgment should be
possible, even to the least instructed traveller, implies a surfeit
of impressions procurable in no other land; since, to the hastiest
observation, Milan could hardly seem lacking in interest when
compared to any but Italian cities. From comparison with the latter,
even, it suffers only on a superficial estimate, for it is rich in
all that makes the indigenous beauty of Italy, as opposed to the
pseudo-Gothicisms, the trans-Alpine points and pinnacles, which Ruskin
taught a submissive generation of art critics to regard as the typical
expression of the Italian spirit. The guide-books, long accustomed
to draw their Liebig’s extract of art from the pages of this school
of critics, have kept the tradition alive by dwelling only on the
monuments which conform to perpendicular ideals, and by apologetic
allusions to the “monotony” and “regularity” of Milan--as though
endeavouring in advance to placate the traveller for its not looking
like Florence or Siena!

[Illustration:

  _Court of the Palazzo Marino,
  now the Municipio_
]

Of late, indeed, a new school of writers, among whom Mr. J. W.
Anderson, and the German authors, Messrs. Ebe and Gurlitt, deserve
the first mention, have broken through this conspiracy of silence,
and called attention to the intrinsically Italian art of the
post-Renaissance period; the period which, from Michael Angelo to
Juvara, has been marked in sculpture and architecture (though more
rarely in painting) by a series of memorable names. Signor Franchetti’s
admirable monograph on Bernini, and the recent volume on Tiepolo in the
Knackfuss series of Künstler-Monographien have done their part in this
redistribution of values; and it is now possible for the traveller to
survey the course of Italian art with the impartiality needful for its
due enjoyment, and to admire, for instance, the tower of the Mangia
without scorning the palace of the Consulta.


II

But, it may be asked, though Milan will seem more interesting to the
emancipated judgment, will it appear more picturesque? Picturesqueness
is, after all, what the Italian pilgrim chiefly seeks; and the current
notion of the picturesque is a purely Germanic one, connoting Gothic
steeples, pepper-pot turrets, and the huddled steepness of the northern
burgh.

Italy offers little, and Milan least of all, to satisfy these
requirements. The Latin ideal demanded space, order, and nobility of
composition. But does it follow that picturesqueness is incompatible
with these? Take up one of Piranesi’s etchings--those strange
compositions in which he sought to seize the spirit of a city or a
quarter by a mingling of its most characteristic features. Even the
northern conception of the picturesque must be satisfied by the sombre
wildness of these studies--here a ruined aqueduct, casting its shade
across a lonely stretch of ground tufted with acanthus, there a palace
colonnade through which the moonlight sweeps on a winter wind, or the
recesses of some mighty Roman bath where cloaked figures are huddled
in dark confabulation.

Canaletto’s black-and-white studies give, in a lesser degree, the
same impression of the grotesque and the fantastic--the under-side
of that _barocchismo_ so long regarded as the smirk on the face of a
conventional age.

But there is another, a more typically Italian picturesqueness, gay
rather than sinister in its suggestions, made up of lights rather
than of shadows, of colour rather than of outline, and this is the
picturesqueness of Milan. The city abounds in vivid effects, in
suggestive juxtapositions of different centuries and styles--in
all those incidental contrasts and surprises which linger in the
mind after the catalogued “sights” have faded. Leaving behind the
wide modern streets--which have the merit of having been modernized
under Eugène Beauharnais rather than under King Humbert--one enters
at once upon some narrow byway overhung by the grated windows of a
seventeenth-century palace, or by the delicate terra-cotta apse of a
_cinque-cento_ church. Everywhere the forms of expression are purely
Italian, with the smallest possible admixture of that Gothic element
which marks the old free cities of Central Italy. The rocca Sforzesca
(the old Sforza castle) and the houses about the Piazza de’ Mercanti
are the chief secular buildings recalling the pointed architecture of
the north; and the older churches are so old that they antedate Gothic
influences, and lead one back to the round-arched basilican type. But
in the line of national descent what exquisite varieties the Milanese
streets present! Here, for instance, is the Corinthian colonnade of San
Lorenzo, the only considerable fragment of ancient Mediolanum, its last
shaft abutting on a Gothic archway against which clings a flower-decked
shrine. Close by, one comes on the ancient octagonal church of San
Lorenzo, while a few minutes’ drive leads to where the Borromeo palace
looks across a quiet grassy square at the rococo front of the old
family church, flanked by a fine bronze statue of the great saint and
cardinal.

The Palazzo Borromeo is itself a notable factor in the picturesqueness
of Milan. The entrance leads to a court-yard enclosed in an ogive
arcade surmounted by pointed windows in terra-cotta mouldings. The
walls of this court are still frescoed with the Borromean crown, and
the _Humilitas_ of the haughty race; and a doorway leads into the
muniment-room, where the archives of the house are still stored, and
where, on the damp stone walls, Michelino da Milano has depicted the
scenes of a fifteenth-century villeggiatura. Here the noble ladies of
the house, in high fluted turbans and fantastic fur-trimmed gowns, may
be seen treading the measures of a mediæval dance with young gallants
in parti-coloured hose, or playing at various games--the _jeu de
tarots_, and a kind of cricket played with a long wooden bat; while in
the background rise the mountains about Lake Maggiore and the peaked
outline of the Isola Bella, then a bare rock unadorned with gardens and
architecture. These frescoes, the only existing works of a little-known
Lombard artist, are suggestive in style of Pisanello’s dry and vigorous
manner, and as records of the private life of the Italian nobility in
the fifteenth century they are second only to the remarkable pictures
of the Schifanoia at Ferrara.

Not far from the Borromean palace, another doorway leads to a different
scene: the great cloister of the Ospedale Maggiore, one of the most
glorious monuments that man ever erected to his fellows. The old
hospitals of Italy were famous not only for their architectural
beauty and great extent, but for their cleanliness and order and the
enlightened care which their inmates received. Northern travellers have
recorded their wondering admiration of these lazarets, which seemed as
stately as palaces in comparison with the miserable pest-houses north
of the Alps. What must have been the astonishment of such a traveller,
whether German or English, on setting foot in the principal court of
the Milanese hospital, enclosed in its vast cloister enriched with
traceries and medallions of terra-cotta, and surmounted by the arches
of an open loggia whence the patients could look down on a peaceful
expanse of grass and flowers! Even now, one wonders whether this
poetizing of philanthropy, this clothing of charity in the garb of
beauty, may not have had its healing uses: whether the ugliness of the
modern hospital may not make it, in another sense, as unhygienic as the
more picturesque buildings it has superseded? It is at least pleasant
to think of the poor sick people sunning themselves in the beautiful
loggia of the Ospedale Maggiore, or sitting under the magnolia-trees
in the garden, while their blue-gowned and black-veiled nurses move
quietly through the cloisters at the summons of the chapel-bell.

[Illustration:

  _The Tower of S. Stefano_

  E. C. Peixotto
  MILANO. 1901.
]

But one need not enter a court-yard or cross a threshold to appreciate
the variety and colour of Milan. The streets themselves are full of
charming detail--_quattro-cento_ marble portals set with medallions of
bushy-headed Sforzas in round caps and plaited tunics; windows framed
in terra-cotta wreaths of fruit and flowers; iron balconies etching
their elaborate arabesques against the stucco house-fronts; mighty
doorways flanked by Atlantides, like that of Pompeo Leoni’s house (the
_Casa degli Omenoni_) and of the Jesuit seminary; or yellow-brown
rococo churches with pyramids, broken pediments, flying angels, and
vases filled with wrought-iron palm-branches. It is in summer that
these streets are at their best. Then the old gardens overhanging
the Naviglio--the canal which intersects Milan with a layer of
Venice--repeat in its waters their marble loggias hung with the vine,
and their untrained profusion of roses and camellias. Then, in the more
aristocratic streets, the palace doorways yield vistas of double and
triple court-yards, with creeper-clad arcades enclosing spaces of
shady turf, and terminating perhaps in a fountain set in some splendid
architectural composition against the inner wall of the building. In
summer, too, the dark archways in the humbler quarters of the town are
brightened by fruit-stalls embowered in foliage, and heaped with such
melons, figs and peaches as would have driven to fresh extravagance
the exuberant brush of a Flemish fruit-painter. Then again, at the
turn of a street, one comes across some little church just celebrating
the feast of its patron saint with a brave display of garlands and red
hangings; while close by a cavernous _bottegha_ has been festooned with
more garlands and with bright nosegays, amid which hang the painted
candles and other votive offerings designed to attract the small coin
of the faithful.


III

Yet Milan is not dependent on the seasons for this midsummer magic
of light and colour. For dark days it keeps its store of warmth and
brightness hidden behind palace walls and in the cold dusk of church
and cloister. Summer in all its throbbing heat has been imprisoned
by Tiepolo in the great ceiling of the Palazzo Clerici: that revel of
gods and demi-gods, and mortals of all lands and races, who advance
with linked hands out of the rosy vapours of dawn. Nor are loftier
colour-harmonies wanting. On the walls of San Maurizio Maggiore,
Luini’s virgin martyrs move as in the very afterglow of legend: that
hesitating light in which the fantastic becomes probable, and the
boundaries between reality and vision fade; while tints of another
sort, but as tender, as harmonious, float through the dusk of the
sacristy of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a dim room panelled with
intarsia-work, with its grated windows veiled by vine-leaves.

But nothing in Milan approaches in beauty the colour-scheme of the
Portinari chapel behind the choir of Sant’ Eustorgio. In Italy,
even, there is nothing else exactly comparable to this masterpiece
of collaboration between architect and painter. At Ravenna, the tomb
of Galla Placidia and the apse of San Vitale glow with richer hues,
and the lower church of Assisi is unmatched in its shifting mystery
of chiar’-oscuro; but for pure light, for a clear shadowless scale
of iridescent tints, what can approach the Portinari chapel? Its
most striking feature is the harmony of form and colour which makes
the decorative design of Michelozzo flow into and seem a part of the
exquisite frescoes of Vincenzo Foppa. This harmony is not the result
of any voluntary feint, any such trickery of the brush as the later
decorative painters delighted in. In the Portinari chapel, architecture
and painting are kept distinct in treatment, and the fusion between
them is effected by unity of line and colour, and still more, perhaps,
by an identity of sentiment, which keeps the whole chapel in the same
mood of blitheness,--a mood which makes it difficult to remember that
the chapel is the mausoleum of a martyred saint. But Saint Peter
Martyr’s marble sarcophagus, rich and splendid as it is, somehow fails
to distract the attention from its setting. There are so many mediæval
monuments like it in Italy--and there is but one Portinari chapel.
From the cupola, with its scales of pale red and blue, overlapping
each other like the breast-plumage of a pigeon, and terminating in a
terra-cotta frieze of dancing angels, who swing between them great
bells of fruit and flowers, the eye is led by insensible gradations
of tint to Foppa’s frescoes in the spandrils--iridescent saints and
angels in a setting of pale classical architecture--and thence to
another frieze of terra-cotta seraphs with rosy-red wings against a
background of turquoise-green; this lower frieze resting in turn on
pilasters of pale-green adorned with white stucco _rilievi_ of little
bell-ringing angels. It is only as a part of this colour-scheme that
the central sarcophagus really affects one--the ivory tint of its old
marble forming a central point for the play of light, and allying
itself with the sumptuous hues of Portinari’s dress, in the fresco
which represents the donator of the chapel kneeling before his patron
saint.


IV

The picturesqueness of Milan has overflowed on its environs, and there
are several directions in which one may prolong the enjoyment of its
characteristic art. The great Certosa of Pavia can, alas, no longer be
included in a category of the picturesque. Secularized, catalogued,
railed off from the sight-seer, who is hurried through its endless
corridors on the heels of a government custodian, it still ministers to
the sense of beauty, but no longer excites those subtler sensations
which dwell in the atmosphere of a work of art rather than in itself.
Such sensations must be sought in the other deserted Certosa at
Chiaravalle. The abbey church, with its noble colonnaded cupola, is
still one of the most conspicuous objects in the flat landscape about
Milan; but within all is falling to ruin, and one feels the melancholy
charm of a beautiful building which has been allowed to decay as
naturally as a tree. The disintegrating touch of nature is less cruel
than the restoring touch of man, and the half-ruined frescoes and
intarsia-work of Chiaravalle retain more of their original significance
than the carefully-guarded treasures of Pavia.

Less melancholy than Chiaravalle, and as yet unspoiled by the touch
of official preservation, is the pilgrimage church of the Madonna of
Saronno. A long avenue of plane-trees leads from the village to the
sumptuous marble façade of the church, an early Renaissance building
with ornamental additions of the seventeenth century. Within, it is
famous for the frescoes of Luini in the choir, and of Gaudenzio Ferrari
in the cupola. The Luini frescoes are full of a serene impersonal
beauty. Painted in his latest phase, when he had fallen under the
influence of Raphael and the “grand manner,” they lack the intimate
charm of his early works; yet the Lombard note, the Leonardesque
quality, lingers here and there in the side-long glance of the women,
and in the yellow-haired beauty of the adolescent heads; while it finds
completer expression in the exquisite single figures of Saint Catherine
and Saint Apollonia.

[Illustration:

  _The Church at Saronno_

  E. C. Peixotto
  1901.
]

If these stately compositions are less typical of Luini than, for
instance, the frescoes of San Maurizio Maggiore, or of the Casa Pelucca
(now in the Brera), Gaudenzio’s cupola seems, on the contrary, to sum
up in one glorious burst of expression all his fancy had ever evoked
and his hand longed to embody. It seems to have been given to certain
artists to attain, once at least, to this full moment of expression: to
Titian, for instance, in the Bacchus and Ariadne, to Michael Angelo in
the monuments of the Medici, to Giorgione in the Sylvan Concert of the
Louvre. In other works they may reveal greater powers, more magnificent
conceptions; but once only, perhaps, is it given to each to achieve
the perfect equipoise of mind and hand; and in that moment even the
lesser artists verge on greatness. Gaudenzio found his opportunity
in the cupola of Saronno, and for once he rises above the charming
anecdotic painter of Varallo to the brotherhood of the masters. It
is as the expression of a mood that his power reveals itself--the
mood of heavenly joyousness, so vividly embodied in his circle of
choiring angels that form seems to pass into sound, and the dome to
be filled with a burst of heavenly jubilation. With unfaltering hand
he has sustained this note of joyousness. Nowhere does his invention
fail or his brush lag behind it. The sunny crowding heads, the flying
draperies, the fluttering scores of the music, are stirred as by a wind
of inspiration--a breeze from the celestial pastures. The walls of the
choir seem to resound with one of the angel-choruses of “Faust,” or
with the last chiming lines of the “Paradiso.” Happy the artist whose
full powers find voice in such a key!


V

The reader who has followed these desultory wanderings through Milan
has but touched the hem of her garment. In the Brera, the Ambrosiana,
the Poldi-Pezzoli gallery, and the magnificent new Archæological
Museum, now fittingly housed in the old castle of the Sforzas, are
treasures second only to those of Rome and Florence. But these are
among the catalogued riches of the city. The guide-books point to
them, they lie in the beaten track of sight-seeing, and it is rather
in the intervals between such systematized study of the past, in
the parentheses of travel, that one obtains those more intimate
glimpses which help to compose the image of each city, to preserve its
personality in the traveller’s mind.



ITALIAN BACKGROUNDS


I

In the Italian devotional pictures of the early Renaissance there are
usually two quite unrelated parts: the foreground and the background.

The foreground is conventional. Its personages--saints, angels and Holy
Family--are the direct descendants of a long line of similar figures.
Every detail of dress and attitude has been settled beforehand by laws
which the artist accepts as passively as the fact that his models
have two eyes apiece, and noses in the middle of their faces. Though
now and then some daring painter introduces a happy modification,
such as the little violin-playing angels on the steps of the Virgin’s
throne, in the pictures of the Venetian school, such changes are too
rare and unimportant to affect the general truth of the statement.
It is only in the background that the artist finds himself free to
express his personality. Here he depicts not what some one else has
long since designed for him, in another land and under different
conceptions of life and faith, but what he actually sees about him, in
the Lombard plains, in the delicately-modelled Tuscan hill-country,
or in the fantastic serrated landscape of the Friulian Alps. One must
look past and beyond the central figures, in their typical attitudes
and symbolical dress, to catch a glimpse of the life amid which the
painting originated. Relegated to the middle distance, and reduced to
insignificant size, is the real picture, the picture which had its
birth in the artist’s brain and reflects his impression of the life
about him.

Here, for instance, behind a Madonna of Bellini’s, white oxen graze
the pasture, and a shepherd lolls on a bank beside his flock; there,
in the train of the Eastern Kings, real soldiers, clerks, pedlars,
beggars, and all the miscellaneous rabble of the Italian streets wind
down a hill-side crowned by a mediæval keep, and cross a bridge with a
water-mill--just such a bridge and water-mill as the artist may have
sketched in his native village. And in the scenes of the life of the
Virgin, what opportunities for _genre_-painting present themselves! In
Ghirlandaio’s fresco of the Birth of the Virgin, in the apse of Santa
Maria Novella, fine ladies in contemporary costume are congratulating
the conventionally-draped Saint Anna, while Crivelli’s Annunciation, in
the National Gallery, shows an ornate Renaissance palace, with peacocks
spreading their tails on the upper loggia, a sumptuous Eastern rug
hanging over a marble balustrade, and the celestial messenger tripping
up a flight of marble stairs to a fashionable front door.

No painter was more prodigal than Carpaccio of these intimate details,
or more audacious in the abrupt juxtaposition of devotional figures
with the bustling secular life of his day. His Legend of Saint Ursula,
in the Accademia of Venice, is a storehouse of fifteenth-century
anecdote, an encyclopædia of dress, architecture and manners; and
behind his agonizing Saint Sebastian, tied to a column and riddled with
arrows, the traffic of the Venetian canals goes on unregardingly, as in
life the most trivial activities revolve unheeding about a great sorrow.

Even painters far less independent of tradition than Carpaccio and
Crivelli succeeded in imparting the personal note, the note of direct
observation, to the background of their religious pictures. If the
figures are placed in a landscape, the latter is not a conventional
grouping of hill, valley and river: it has the unmistakable quality of
the _chose vue_. No one who has studied the backgrounds of old Italian
pictures can imagine that realistic landscape-painting is a modern
art. The technique of the early landscape-painters was not that of the
modern interpreter of nature, but their purpose was the same; they
sought to render with fidelity and precision what they saw about them.
It is this directness of vision which gives to their backgrounds such
vividness and charm. In these distances one may discover the actual
foreground of the artist’s life. Here one may learn what was veritably
happening in fifteenth-century Venice, Florence and Perugia; here see
what horizons the old masters looked out on, and note that the general
aspect of the country is still almost as unchanged as the folds of the
Umbrian mountains and the curves of the Tuscan streams.


II

As with the study of Italian pictures, so it is with Italy herself.
The country is divided, not in _partes tres_, but in two: a foreground
and a background. The foreground is the property of the guide-book
and of its product, the mechanical sight-seer; the background, that
of the dawdler, the dreamer and the serious student of Italy. This
distinction does not imply any depreciation of the foreground. It must
be known thoroughly before the middle distance can be enjoyed: there
is no short cut to an intimacy with Italy. Nor must the analogy of the
devotional picture be pushed too far. The famous paintings, statues
and buildings of Italy are obviously the embodiment of its historic
and artistic growth; but they have become slightly conventionalized by
being too long used as the terms in which Italy is defined. They have
stiffened into symbols, and the life of which they were once the most
complete expression has evaporated in the desiccating museum-atmosphere
to which their fame has condemned them. To enjoy them, one must let in
on them the open air of an observation detached from tradition. Since
they cannot be evaded they must be deconventionalized; and to effect
this they must be considered in relation to the life of which they are
merely the ornamental façade.

Thus regarded, to what an enchanted region do they form the approach!
Like courteous hosts they efface themselves, pointing the way, but
giving their guests the freedom of their domain. It is not too
fanciful to say that each of the great masterpieces of Italy holds the
key to some secret garden of the imagination. One must know Titian
and Giorgione to enjoy the intimacy of the Friulian Alps, Cima da
Conegliano to taste the full savour of the strange Euganean landscape,
Palladio and Sansovino to appreciate the frivolous villa-architecture
of the Brenta, nay, the domes of Brunelleschi and Michael Angelo to
feel the happy curve of some chapel cupola in a nameless village of the
hills.

“Une civilisation,” says Viollet-le-Duc, “ne peut prétendre posséder
un art que si cet art pénètre partout, s’il fait sentir sa présence
dans les œuvres les plus vulgaires.” It is because Italian art
so interpenetrated Italian life, because the humblest stonemason
followed in some sort the lines of the great architects, and the
modeller of village Madonnas the composition of the great sculptors,
that the monumental foreground and the unregarded distances behind
it so continually interpret and expound each other. Italy, to her
real lovers, is like a great illuminated book, with here and there
a glorious full-page picture, and between these, page after page of
delicately-pencilled margins, wherein every detail of her daily life
may be traced. And the pictures and the margins are by the same hand.


III

As Italy is divided into foreground and background, so each city has
its perspective; its _premier plan_ asterisked for the hasty traveller,
its middle distance for the “happy few” who remain more than three
days, and its boundless horizon for the idler who refuses to measure
art by time. In some cases the background is the continuation, the
amplification, of the central “subject”; in others, its direct
antithesis. Thus in Umbria, and in some parts of Tuscany and the
Marches, art, architecture, history and landscape all supplement and
continue each other, and the least imaginative tourist must feel that
in leaving the galleries of Siena or Florence for the streets and the
surrounding country, he is still within the bounds of conventional
sight-seeing.

In Rome, on the contrary, in Milan, and to some extent in Venice, as
well as in many of the smaller towns throughout Italy, there is a sharp
line of demarcation between the guide-book city and its background.
In some cases, the latter is composed mainly of objects at which the
guide-book tourist has been taught to look askance, or rather which he
has been counselled to pass by without a look. Goethe has long been
held up to the derision of the enlightened student of art because he
went to Assisi to see the Roman temple of Minerva, and omitted to visit
the mediæval church of Saint Francis; but how many modern sight-seers
visit the church and omit the temple? And wherein lies their superior
catholicity of taste? The fact is that, in this particular instance,
foreground and background have changed places, and the modern tourist
who neglects Minerva for Saint Francis is as narrowly bound by
tradition as his eighteenth-century predecessor, with this difference,
that whereas the latter knew nothing of mediæval art and architecture,
the modern tourist knows that the temple is there and deliberately
turns his back on it.


IV

Perhaps Rome is, of all Italian cities, the one in which this
one-sidedness of æsthetic interest is most oddly exemplified. In the
Tuscan and Umbrian cities, as has been said, the art and architecture
which form the sight-seer’s accepted “curriculum,” are still the
distinctive features of the streets through which he walks to his
gallery or his museum. In Florence, for instance, he may go forth from
the Riccardi chapel, and see the castle of Vincigliata towering on its
cypress-clad hill precisely as Gozzoli depicted it in his fresco; in
Siena, the crenellated palaces with their iron torch-holders and barred
windows form the unchanged setting of a mediæval pageant. But in Rome
for centuries it has been the fashion to look only on a city which has
almost disappeared, and to close the eyes to one which is still alive
and actual.

The student of ancient Rome moves among painfully-reconstructed
débris; the mediævalist must traverse the city from end to end to
piece together the meagre fragments of his “epoch.” Both studies are
absorbing, and the very difficulty of the chase no doubt adds to its
exhilaration; but is it not a curious mental attitude which compels
the devotee of mediæval art to walk blindfold from the Palazzo Venezia
to Santa Sabina on the Aventine, or from the Ara Cœli to Santa Maria
Sopra Minerva, because the great monuments lying between these points
of his pilgrimage belong to what some one has taught him to regard as a
“debased period of art”?

Rome is the most undisturbed baroque city of Italy. The great revival
of its spiritual and temporal power coincided with the development
of that phase of art of which Michael Angelo sowed the seed in Rome
itself. The germs of Bernini and Tiepolo must be sought in the Sistine
ceiling and in the Moses of San Pietro in Vincoli, however much the
devotees of Michael Angelo may resent the tracing of such a lineage.
But it is hard at this date to be patient with any form of artistic
absolutism, with any critical criteria not based on that sense of
the comparative which is the nineteenth century’s most important
contribution to the function of criticism. It is hard to be tolerant of
that peculiar form of intolerance which refuses to recognize in art
the general law of growth and transformation, or, while recognizing
it, considers it a subject for futile reproach and lamentation. The
art critic must acknowledge a standard of excellence, and must be
allowed his personal preferences within the range of established
criteria: æsthetically, the world is divided into the Gothically and
the classically minded, just as intellectually it is divided into those
who rise to the general idea and those who pause at the particular
instance. The lover of the particular instance will almost always have
a taste for the Gothic, which is the personal and anecdotic in art
carried to its utmost expression, at the cost of synthetic effect; but
if he be at all accessible to general ideas, he must recognize the
futility of battling against the inevitable tendencies of taste and
invention. Granted that, from his standpoint, the art which evolved
from Michael Angelo is an art of decadence: is that a reason for
raging at it or ignoring it? The autumn is a season of decadence;
but even by those who prefer the spring, it has not hitherto been an
object of invective and reprobation. Only when the art critic begins
to survey the modifications of art as objectively as he would study
the alternations of the seasons, will he begin to understand and
to sympathize with the different modes in which man has sought to
formulate his gropings after beauty. If it be true in the world of
sentiment that _il faut aimer pour comprendre_, the converse is true in
the world of art. To enjoy any form of artistic expression one must not
only understand what it tries to express, but know

    _The hills where its life rose,
    And the sea where it goes._

Thus philosophically viewed, the baroque Rome--the Rome of Bernini,
Borromini and Maderna, of Guercino, the Caracci and Claude
Lorrain--becomes of great interest even to those who are not in
sympathy with the exuberances of seventeenth-century art. In the
first place, the great number of baroque buildings, churches, palaces
and villas, the grandeur of their scale, and the happy incidents of
their grouping, give a better idea than can elsewhere be obtained of
the collective effects of which the style is capable. Thus viewed,
it will be seen to be essentially a style _de parade_, the setting
of the spectacular and external life which had developed from the
more secluded civilization of the Renaissance as some blossom of
immense size and dazzling colour may develop in the atmosphere of the
forcing-house from a smaller and more delicate flower. The process was
inevitable, and the result exemplifies the way in which new conditions
will generate new forms of talent.

It is in moments of social and artistic transformation that original
genius shows itself, and Bernini was the genius of the baroque
movement. To those who study his work in the light of the conditions
which produced it, he will appear as the natural interpreter of that
sumptuous _bravura_ period when the pomp of a revived ecclesiasticism
and the elaborate etiquette of Spain were blent with a growing taste
for country life, for the solemnities and amplitudes of nature.
The mingling of these antagonistic interests has produced an art
distinctive enough to take rank among the recognized “styles”: an art
in which excessive formality and ostentation are tempered by a free
play of line, as though the winds of heaven swept unhindered through
the heavy draperies of a palace. It need not be denied that delicacy
of detail, sobriety of means and the effect of repose were often
sacrificed to these new requirements; but it is more fruitful to
observe how skilfully Bernini and his best pupils managed to preserve
the balance and rhythm of their bold compositions, and how seldom
profusion led to incoherence. How successfully the Italian sense of
form ruled over this semi-Spanish chaos of material, and drew forth
from it the classic line, may be judged from the way in which the
seventeenth-century churches about the Forum harmonize with the ruins
of ancient Rome. Surely none but the most bigoted archæologist would
wish away from that magic scene the façades of San Lorenzo in Miranda
and of Santa Francesca Romana!

In this connection it might be well for the purist to consider what
would be lost if the seventeenth-century Rome which he affects to
ignore were actually blotted out. The Spanish Steps would of course
disappear, with the palace of the Propaganda; so would the glorious
Barberini palace, and Bernini’s neighbouring fountain of the Triton;
the via delle Quattro Fontane, with its dripping river-gods emerging
from their grottoes, and Borromini’s fantastic church of San Carlo at
the head of the street, a kaleidoscope of whirling line and ornament,
offset by the delicately classical circular cortile of the adjoining
monastery. On the Quirinal hill, the palace of the Consulta would go,
and the central portal of the Quirinal (a work of Bernini’s), as well
as the splendid gateway of the Colonna gardens. The Colonna palace
itself, dull and monotonous without, but within the very model of a
magnificent pleasure-house, would likewise be effaced; so would many
of the most characteristic buildings of the Corso--San Marcello, the
Gesù, the Sciarra and Doria palaces, and the great Roman College. Gone,
too, would be the Fountain of Trevi, and Lunghi’s gay little church
of San Vincenzo ed Anastasio, which faces it so charmingly across the
square; gone the pillared court-yard and great painted galleries of
the Borghese palace, and the Fontana dei Termini with its beautiful
group of adjoining churches; the great fountain of the piazza Navona,
Lunghi’s stately façade of the Chiesa Nuova, and Borromini’s Oratory
of San Filippo Neri; the monumental Fountain of the Acqua Paola on the
Janiculan, the familiar “Angels of the Passion” on the bridge of Sant’
Angelo, and, in the heart of the Leonine City itself, the mighty sweep
of Bernini’s marble colonnades and the flying spray of his Vatican
fountains.

This enumeration includes but a small number of the baroque buildings
of Rome, and the villas encircling the city have not been named,
though nearly all, with their unmatched gardens, are due to the art
of this “debased” period. But let the candid sight-seer--even he
who has no tolerance of the seventeenth century, and to whom each
of the above-named buildings may be, individually, an object of
reprobation--let even this sectary of art ask himself how much of
“mighty splendent Rome” would be left, were it possible to obliterate
the buildings erected during the fever of architectural renovation
which raged from the accession of Sixtus V to the last years of the
seventeenth century. Whether or no he would deplore the loss of any one
of these buildings, he would be constrained to own that collectively
they go far toward composing the physiognomy of the Rome he loves.
So far-spreading was the architectural renascence of the seventeenth
century, and so vast were the opportunities afforded to its chief
exponents, that every quarter of the ancient city is saturated with
the _bravura_ spirit of Bernini and Borromini. Some may think that
Rome itself is the best defence of the baroque: that an art which
could so envelop without eclipsing the mighty monuments amid which
it was called to work, which could give expression to a brilliant
present without jarring on a warlike or ascetic past, which could, in
short, fuse Imperial and early Christian Rome with the city of Spanish
ceremonial and post-Tridentine piety, needs no better justification
than the _Circumspice_ of Wren. But even those who remain unconverted,
who cannot effect the transference of artistic and historic sympathy
necessary to a real understanding of seventeenth-century architecture,
should at least realize that the Rome which excites a passion of
devotion such as no other city can inspire, the Rome for which
travellers pine in absence, and to which they return again and again
with the fresh ardour of discovery, is, externally at least, in great
part the creation of the seventeenth century.


V

In Venice the foreground is Byzantine-Gothic, with an admixture
of early Renaissance. It extends from the church of Torcello to
the canvases of Tintoretto. This foreground has been celebrated in
literature with a vehemence and profusion which have projected it still
farther into the public consciousness, and more completely obscured the
fact that there is another Venice, a background Venice, the Venice of
the eighteenth century.

Eighteenth-century Venice was not always thus relegated to the
background. It had its day, when tourists pronounced Saint Mark’s an
example of “the barbarous Gothick,” and were better acquainted with
the ridotto of San Moisè than with the monuments of the Frari. It
is instructive to note that the Venice of that day had no galleries
and no museums. Travellers did not go there to be edified, but to be
amused; and one may fancy with what relief the young nobleman on the
grand tour, sated with the marbles of Rome and the canvases of Parma
and Bologna, turned aside for a moment to a city where enjoyment was
the only art and life the only object of study. But while travellers
were flocking to Venice to see its carnival and gaming-rooms, its
public festivals and private _casini_, a generation of artists were
at work brushing in the gay background of the scene, and quiet hands
were recording, in a series of memorable little pictures, every phase
of that last brilliant ebullition of the _joie de vivre_ before “the
kissing had to stop.”

Longhena and his pupils were the architects of this bright _mise en
scène_, Tiepolo was its great scene-painter, and Canaletto, Guardi
and Longhi were the historians who captured every phrase and gesture
with such delicacy and precision that under their hands the glittering
Venice of the “Toccata of Galuppi” lies outspread like a butterfly with
the bloom on its wings.

Externally, Venice did not undergo the same renovation as Rome. As she
was at the close of the Renaissance, with the impress of Palladio and
Sansovino on her religious and secular architecture, so she remains
to this day. One original architect, Baldassare Longhena, struck the
note of a brilliant _barocchismo_ in the churches of Santa Maria della
Salute and the Scalzi, and in the Pesaro and Rezzonico palaces on the
Grand Canal; and his pupils, developing his manner with infinitely
less talent, gave to Venice the long squat Dogana with its flying
Fortune fronting the Lagoon, the churches of Santa Maria Zobenigo,
San Moisè and the Gesuiti, the Monte di Pietà, and a score of imposing
palaces. The main effect of the city was, however, little modified by
this brief flowering of the baroque. Venice has always stamped every
new fashion with her own personality, and Longhena’s architecture
seems merely the hot-house efflorescence of the style of Sansovino and
Scamozzi. Being, moreover, less under the sway of the Church than any
other Italian state, she was able to resist the architectural livery
with which the great Jesuit subjugation clad the rest of Italy. The
spirit of the eighteenth century therefore expressed itself rather in
her expanding social life, and in the decorative arts which attend
on such drawing-room revivals. Skilful _stuccatori_ adorned the old
saloons and galleries with fresh gilding and mirrors, slender furniture
replaced the monumental cabinets which Venice had borrowed from Spain,
and little _genre_-pictures by Longhi and landscapes by Canaletto and
Battaglia were hung on the large-patterned damask of the boudoir walls.
Religion followed the same lines, adapting itself to the elegancies
of the drawing-room, and six noble families recognized their social
obligations to heaven by erecting the sumptuous church of Santa Maria
degli Scalzi, with its palatial interior, in which one may well imagine
the heavenly hostess saying to her noble donators: “Couvrez-vous, mes
cousins.”

Though begun by Longhena about 1650, the church of the Scalzi is so
identified with the genius of Tiepolo that it may be regarded as an
epitome of eighteenth-century Venetian art. Herr Cornelius Gurlitt,
the most penetrating critic of the Venetian baroque, has indeed justly
pointed out that Longhena was the forerunner and _Geistesgenossen_ of
the great master of eighteenth-century decorative painting, and that
the architect’s bold and sumptuous structural effects might have been
designed as a setting for those unsurpassed audacities of the brush
which, a hundred years later, were to continue and complete them.

On the soaring vault of the Scalzi, above an interior of almost
Palladian elegance and severity, the great painter of atmosphere, the
first of the _pleinairistes_, was required to depict the transportation
of the Holy House from Palestine to Loreto. That Tiepolo, with his
love of ethereal distances, and of cloud-like hues melting into thin
air, should have accepted the task of representing a stone house
borne through the sky by angels, shows a rare sense of mastery; that
he achieved the feat without disaster justifies the audacity of the
attempt.

Tiepolo was above all a lover of open spaces. He liked to suspend
his fluttering groups in great pellucid reaches of sky, and the vast
ceiling of the Scalzi gave him an exceptional opportunity for the
development of this effect. The result is that the angels, whirling
along the Virgin’s house with a vehemence which makes it seem a
mere feather in the rush of their flight, appear to be sweeping
through measureless heights of air above an unroofed building. The
architectural propriety of such a _trompe l’œil_ is not only open to
criticism but perhaps quite indefensible; yet, given the demand for
this particular illusion, who but Tiepolo could have produced it?

The same ethereal effect, but raised to a higher heaven of
translucency, is to be found in the ceiling of the Gesuati (not to be
confounded with the Gesuiti), on the quay of the Zattere. This charming
structure, built in the early eighteenth century by Massari, one of
the pupils of Longhena, but obviously inspired by the great churches
of Palladio, is dedicated to Saint Mary of the Rosary; and Tiepolo, in
three incomparable frescoes, has represented on its ceiling the legend
of Saint Dominick receiving the chaplet from the Virgin in glory.

The guide-books, always on the alert to warn the traveller against an
undue admiration of Tiepolo, are careful to point out that the Mother
of God, bending from her starry throne above the ecstatic saint, looks
like a noble Venetian lady of the painter’s day. No doubt she does.
It is impossible to form an intelligent estimate of Tiepolo’s genius
without remembering that the Catholicism of his time was a religion
of _bon ton_, which aimed to make its noble devotees as much at home
in church as in the drawing-room. He took his models from real life
and composed his celestial scenes without much thought of their inner
significance; yet by sheer force of technique he contrived to impart
to his great religious pictures a glow of supernatural splendour which
makes it not inapt to apply to them the lines of the “Paradiso”:

    _Che la luce divina è penetrante
    Per l’universo, secondo ch’è degno,
    Sichè nulla le puote essere ostante._


VI

It is quite true, however, that Tiepolo was not primarily a devotional
painter. He was first of all a great decorative artist, a master of
emotion in motion, and it probably mattered little to him whether he
was called on to express the passion of Saint Theresa or of Cleopatra.
This does not imply that he executed his task indifferently. Whatever
it was, he threw into it the whole force of his vehement imagination
and incomparable _maestria_; but what he saw in it, whether it was
religious or worldly, was chiefly, no doubt, the opportunity to obtain
new effects of light and line.

If he had a special bent, it was perhaps toward the depicting of
worldly pageants. In the Labia palace on the Canareggio, a building
in which Cominelli, the ablest Venetian architect of the eighteenth
century, nobly continued the “grand manner” of Sansovino and Scamozzi,
Tiepolo found an unequalled opportunity for the exercise of this
side of his talent. Here, in the lofty saloon of the _piano nobile_,
he painted the loves of Antony and Cleopatra transposed to the
key of modern patrician life. He first covered the walls with an
architectural improvisation of porticoes, loggias and colonnades, which
might have been erected to celebrate the “triumph” of some magnificent
Este or Gonzaga. In this splendid setting he placed two great scenes:
Cleopatra melting the pearl, and Antony and Cleopatra landing from
their barge; while every gallery, balcony and flight of steps is filled
with courtiers, pages and soldiers, with dwarfs and blackamoors holding
hounds in leash, and waiting-maids and lacqueys leaning down to see the
pageant.

From this throng of figures the principal characters detach themselves
with a kind of delicate splendour. Royal Egypt,

    _On her neck the small face buoyant, like a bell-flower on its bed_,

in her brocaded gown of white and gold, with a pearl collar about
her throat, and a little toy spaniel playing at her feet, is an
eighteenth-century Dogaressa; Antony is a young Procurator travestied
as a Roman hero; while the turbaned black boy, the maid-servants,
the courtiers, the pages, are all taken _sur le vif_ from some
brilliant rout in a Pisano or Mocenigo palace. And yet--here comes
the wonder--into these “water-flies” and triflers of his day, the
ladies engrossed in cards and scandal, the abatini preoccupied with
their acrostics, the young nobles intriguing with the _prima amorosa_
of San Moisè or engaged in a sentimental correspondence with a nun of
Santa Chiara--into this throng of shallow pleasure-seekers Tiepolo has
managed to infuse something of the old Roman state. As one may think of
Dante beneath the vault of the Gesuati, one may recall Shakespeare in
the presence of these rouged and powdered Venetians. The scene of the
landing suggests with curious vividness the opening scene of “Antony
and Cleopatra”--

              _Look where they come!
    The triple pillar of the world transformed
    Into a strumpet’s fool--_

and one can almost hear the golden Antony, as he brushes aside the
importunate Roman messengers, whispering to his Queen: “What sport
to-night?”

Still more Shakespearian is the scene of the pearl. Cleopatra,
enthroned in state at the banqueting-table, lifts one hand to drop the
jewel into her goblet, and in her gesture and her smile are summed up
all the cruel grace of the “false soul of Egypt.” It is Tiepolo’s
best praise that such phrases and associations as these are evoked by
his art, and that, judged from the painter’s standpoint, it recalls
the glory of another great tradition. Studied in the light of Venetian
painting, Tiepolo is seen to be the direct descendant of Titian and
Veronese. If the intervening century has taken something from the
warmth of his colour, leaving it too often chalky where that of the
Renaissance was golden, he has recovered the lines, the types and the
radiant majesty of the Venetian _cinque cento_, and Veronese’s Venice
Enthroned, in the Ducal Palace, is the direct forbear of his Virgins
and Cleopatras.


VII

It is perhaps no longer accurate to describe Tiepolo as forming a part
of the Venetian background. Recent criticism has advanced him to the
middle distance, and if there are still comparatively few who know his
work, his name is familiar to the cultivated minority of travellers.

Far behind him, however, still on the vanishing-point of the tourist’s
horizon, are the other figures of the Venetian background: Longhi,
Guardi, Canaletto, and their humbler understudies. Of these, Canaletto
alone emerges into relative prominence. His views of Venice are to
be found in so many European galleries, and his name so facilitates
the association of ideas, that, if few appreciate his work, many are
superficially acquainted with it; whereas Guardi, a painter of greater
though more unequal talent, is still known only to the dilettante.

The work of both is invaluable as a “document” for the study of
eighteenth-century Venice; but while Canaletto in his charming canvases
represented only the superficial and obvious aspect of the city, as it
might appear to any appreciative stranger, Guardi, one of the earliest
impressionists, gives the real life of the streets, the _grouillement_
of the crowd in Saint Mark’s square, the many-coloured splash of a
church procession surging up the steps of the Redentore, the flutter of
awnings over market-stalls on a fair-day, or the wide black trail of a
boat-race across the ruffled green waters of the Canalazzo.

Far beneath these two men in talent, but invaluable as a chronicler of
Venetian life, is Canaletto’s son-in-law, Bellotti, who, in a stiff
topographical manner, has faithfully and minutely recorded every
detail of eighteenth-century life on the canals. Being of interest
only to the student of manners, he is seldom represented in the public
galleries; but many private collections in the north of Italy contain
a series of his pictures, giving all the Venetian festivals, from the
Marriage of the Adriatic to the great feat of the _Vola_, which took
place in the Piazzetta on the last Thursday before Lent.

As unknown to the general public as Bellotti, but more sought after by
connoisseurs than any other Italian artist of the eighteenth century
save Tiepolo, is Pietro Longhi, the _genre_-painter, whose exquisite
little transcripts of Venetian domestic life now fetch their weight in
gold at Christie’s or the Hôtel Drouot. Longhi’s talent is a peculiar
one. To “taste” him, as the French say, one must understand the
fundamental naïveté of that brilliant and corrupt Venetian society,
as it is revealed in the comedies of Goldoni and in the memoirs of
contemporary writers. The Venetians were, in fact, amoral rather
than immoral. There was nothing complex or morbid in their vice; it
was hardly vice at all, in the sense which implies the deliberate
saying of “Evil, be thou my good.” Venetian immorality was a mere
yielding to natural instincts, to the _joie de vivre_ of a gay and
sensuous temperament. There was no intellectual depravity in Venice
because there was hardly any intellect: there was no thought of evil
because there was no thought. The fashionable sinners whom posterity
has pictured as revelling in the complexities of vice sat enchanted
before the simple scenes of Goldoni’s drama, and the equally simple
pictures of their favourite _genre_-painter. Nor must it be thought
that this taste for simplicity and innocence was evidence of a subtler
perversion. The French profligate sought in imagination the contrast of
an ideal world, the milk and rose-water world of Gessner’s Idylls and
the _bergerie de Florian_. But Goldoni and Longhi are not idealists,
or even sentimentalists. They draw with a frank hand the life of their
day, from the fisherman’s hut to the patrician’s palace. Nothing can
be more unmistakable than the realism of Goldoni’s dialect plays, and
a people who could enjoy such simple pictures of the life about them
must, in a sense, have led simple lives themselves.

Longhi’s easel-pictures record every phase of Venetian middle-class
and aristocratic existence. To some, indeed, it is difficult to find
a clue, and it has been conjectured that these represent scenes from
the popular comedies of the day. The others depict such well-known
incidents as the visit to the convent parlour, where the nuns are
entertaining their gallants with a marionette-show; the masked _nobil
donna_ consulting the fortune-teller, or walking with her _cicisbeo_
in Saint Mark’s square; the same lady’s _lever_, where she is seen at
her toilet-table surrounded by admirers; the family party at breakfast,
with the nurse bringing in a swaddled baby; the little son and heir
riding out attended by his governor; the actress rehearsing her aria
with the _maestro di cappella_; the visit to the famous hippopotamus
in his tent in the Piazzetta; the dancing-lesson, the music-lesson,
the portrait-painting, and a hundred other episodes of social and
domestic life. The personages who take part in these scenes are always
of one type: the young women with small oval faces, powdered but
unrouged, with red lips and sloping foreheads; the men in cloaks and
masks, or gay embroidered coats, with square brows and rather snub
features, gallant, flourishing, _empressés_, but never in the least
idealized or sentimentalized. The scenes of “high life” take place
for the most part in tall bare rooms, with stone window-frames, a
family portrait of a doge or an admiral above the chimney-piece, and a
few stiff arm-chairs of the heavy Venetian baroque. There is nothing
sumptuous in the furnishing of the apartments or in the dress of their
inmates. The ladies, if they are going abroad or paying a visit, wear
a three-cornered hat above the black lace _zendaletto_ which hides
their hair and the lower part of the face, while their dresses are
covered by the black silk _bauto_ or domino. Indoors, they are attired
in simple short gowns of silk or brocade, with a kerchief on the
shoulders, and a rose or a clove-pink in the unpowdered hair. That
pleasure in the painting of gorgeous stuffs, and in all the material
splendours of life, derived by Tiepolo from his great predecessors of
the Renaissance, was not shared by Longhi. His charm lies in a less
definable quality, a quality of unstudied simplicity and naturalness,
which gives to his easel-pictures the value of actual transcripts from
life. One feels that he did not “arrange” his scenes, any more than
Goldoni constructed his comedies. Both were content to reflect, in the
mirror of a quietly humorous observation, the every-day incidents of
the piazza, the convent and the palace.

The fact that Longhi, in his _genre_-pictures, sought so little
variety of grouping, and was content to limit his figures to so small
a range of gestures, has given rise to the idea that he was incapable
of versatility and breadth of composition. To be undeceived on this
point, however, one has only to see his frescoes in the Palazzo Grassi
(now Sina) on the Grand Canal. This fine palace, built about 1740
by Massari, the architect of the Gesuati, has a magnificent double
stairway leading from the colonnaded court to the state apartments
above; and on the walls of this stairway Longhi, for once laying aside
his small canvases and simple methods, has depicted, in a series of
charmingly-animated groups, the members of the Grassi family leaning
over a marble balustrade to see their guests ascending the stairs.
The variety of these groups, the expressiveness of the faces, and the
general breadth of treatment, prove that Longhi had far more technical
and imaginative power than he chose to put into his little pictures,
and that his naïveté was a matter of choice. Probably no one who knows
his work regrets this self-imposed limitation. Additional movement and
complexity of grouping would destroy the sense of leisure, of spacious
rooms and ample time, of that absence of hurry and confusion so typical
of a society untroubled by moral responsibilities or social rivalries,
and pursuing pleasure with the well-bred calmness which was one of the
most charming traits obliterated by the French Revolution.


VIII

On a quiet canal not far from the church of the Frari there stands an
old palace where, in a series of undisturbed rooms, may be seen the
very setting in which the personages of Goldoni and Longhi played out
their social comedy.

The Palazzo Querini-Stampaglia was bequeathed to the city of Venice
some fifty years since by the last Count Querini, and with its gallery,
its library and its private apartments has since then stood open to
a public which never visits it. Yet here the student of Venetian
backgrounds may find the unchanged atmosphere of the eighteenth
century. The gallery, besides some good paintings of earlier schools,
contains a large collection of Bellotti’s pictures, representing all
the great religious and popular festivals of Venice, as well as a
half-dozen Longhis and a charming series of _genre_-pictures by unknown
artists of his school.

Of far greater interest, however, are the private apartments, with
their seventeenth and eighteenth century decorations still intact,
and the walls lined with the heavy baroque consoles and arm-chairs
so familiar to students of Longhi’s interiors, and of the charming
prints in the first edition of Goldoni. Here is the typical _chambre
de parade_, with its pale-green damask curtains and bed-hangings, and
its furniture painted with flowers on a ground of pale-green _laque_;
here the tapestried saloon with its Murano chandeliers, the boudoir
with looking-glass panels set in delicately carved and painted wreaths
of flowers and foliage, and the portrait-room hung with pictures of the
three great Querini: the Doge, the Cardinal and the Admiral. Here, too,
is the long gallery, with a bust of the Cardinal (a seventeenth-century
prince of the Church) surrounded by marble effigies of his seven
_bravi_: a series of Berniniesque heads of remarkable vigour and
individuality, from that of the hoary hang-dog scoundrel with
elf-locks drooping over an evil scowl, to the smooth young villain with
bare throat and insolent stare, who seems to glory in his own sinister
beauty.

These busts give an insight into a different phase of Italian life:
the life of the violent and tragical seventeenth century, when every
great personage, in the Church no less than in the world, had his
bodyguard of hardened criminals, outlaws and galley-slaves, who
received sanctuary in their patron’s palace, and performed in return
such acts of villany and violence as the Illustrissimo required. It
seems a far cry from the peaceable world of Goldoni and Longhi to this
prelate surrounded by the effigies of his hired assassins; yet _bravi_,
though no longer openly acknowledged or immortalized in marble, lurked
in the background of Italian life as late as the end of the eighteenth
century, and Stendhal, who knew Italy as few foreigners have known
it, declares that in his day the great Lombard nobles still had their
retinue of _bauli_, as the knights of the stiletto were called in the
Milanese.

It is not in art only that the _bravi_ have been commemorated. Lovers
of “I Promessi Sposi,” the one great Italian novel, will not soon
forget the followers of Don Rodrigo; and an idea of the part they
played at the end of the eighteenth century may be obtained from the
pages of Ippolito Nievo’s “Confessioni di un Ottuagenario,” that
delightful book, half romance, half autobiography, which, after many
years of incredible neglect, has just been republished in Italy.
Ippolito Nievo, one of Garibaldi’s young soldiers, was among those
who perished in the wreck of the _Ercole_, on the return from Palermo
in 1860. He was but twenty-nine at the time of his death, and it is
said that his impatience to see a lady to whom he was attached caused
him, despite the entreaties of his friends, to take passage in the
notoriously unseaworthy _Ercole_. Four years earlier he had written the
“Confessioni,” a volume which, for desultory charm and simple rendering
of domestic incidents, is not unworthy to take rank with “Dichtung
und Wahrheit,” while its capricious heroine, La Pisana, is as vivid a
creation as Goethe’s Philina or (one had almost said) as the Beatrix of
Thackeray.

Ippolito Nievo was himself a native of the Veneto, and intimately
acquainted, through family tradition, with the life of the small
towns and villa-castles of the Venetian mainland at the close of the
eighteenth century. The “Confessioni” picture the life of a young
lad in a nobleman’s castle near the town of Portogruaro, and later
in Venice; and not the least remarkable thing about the book is the
fact that, at a period when other Italian novelists were depicting the
high-flown adventures of mediæval knights and ladies, its young author,
discarding the old stage-properties of romanticism, should have set
himself to recording, with the wealth of detail and quiet humour of a
Dutch _genre_-painter, the manners and customs of his own little corner
of Italy, as his parents had described it to him. Nievo’s account of
the provincial nobles in the Veneto shows that to the very end of the
eighteenth century, mediæval customs, with all their violence and
treachery, prevailed within a day’s journey of polished and peaceful
Venice. His nobles in their fortified castles, of which the drawbridges
are still raised at night, have their little trains of men-at-arms,
composed in general of the tattered peasantry on their estates, but
sometimes of professional fighters, smugglers or outlaws, who have been
taken into the service of some truculent lord of the manor; and Nievo
describes with much humour the conflicts between these little armies,
and the ruses, plots and negotiations of their quarrelsome masters.

In another novel, published at about the same time, Pietro Scudo,
a Venetian who wrote in French, has drawn, with far less talent, a
picture of another side of Venetian life: the life of the musical
schools and the Opera, which George Sand had attempted to represent in
“Consuelo.” Scudo’s book, “Le Chevalier Sarti,” has fallen into not
unmerited oblivion. It is written in the insipid style of the romantic
period--that style which Flaubert, in a moment of exasperation,
described as “les embêtements bleuâtres du lyrisme poitrinaire”; and
its heroine, like Châteaubriand’s unhappy Madame de Beaumont, dies of
the fashionable ailment of the day, _une maladie de langueur_. The
book, moreover, is badly constructed to the verge of incoherence, and
the characters are the stock mannikins of romantic fiction; yet in
spite of these defects, Scudo has succeeded (where George Sand failed)
in reproducing the atmosphere of eighteenth-century Venice. He has
done this not by force of talent but by the patient accumulation of
detail. Though not the most important feature in the construction
of a good historical novel, this is an essential part of the
process. George Sand, however, was above such humble methods. Totally
lacking in artistic sensibility and in its accompanying faculty,
the historic imagination, she was obliged to confine herself to the
vaguest generalities in describing scenes and manners so alien to the
“romantic” conception of life. Nature and passion were the only things
which interested her, and in the Venice of the eighteenth century
there was no nature and little passion. Hence the Venetian scenes of
“Consuelo” give the impression of having been done _de chic_, while
Scudo’s bear the impress of an unimaginative accuracy. In “Le Chevalier
Sarti” the lover of “decadent” Venice will find innumerable curious
details, descriptions of life in the villas of the Brenta, of concerts
in the famous Scuole, carnival scenes at the ridotto, and _parties
fines_ at the Orto di San Stefano, the favourite resort of the world
of gallantry; while the minor characters of the book, who have escaped
the obligatory romanticism of the hero and heroine, help to make up the
crowded picture of a world as bright and brittle as a sun-shot Murano
glass.


IX

But it is, after all, not in Nievo or Scudo, nor even in Longhi
and Goldoni, that one comes closest to the vanished Venice of the
eighteenth century.

In the Museo Correr, on the Grand Canal, there has recently been opened
a room containing an assemblage of life-sized mannikins dressed in the
various costumes of the _sette cento_.

Here are the red-robed Senator, the proud Procuratessa in brocade and
Murano lace, the Abatino in his plum coloured taffeta coat and black
small-clothes, the fashionable reveller in _bauto_ and mask, the
lacquey in livery of pale-blue silk, the lawyer, the gondolier, the
groom, and the noble Marquess in his hunting-dress of white buckskin.
Surely nowhere else does one come into such actual contact with that
little world which was so essentially a world of _appearances_--of fine
clothes, gay colours and graceful courtly attitudes. The mannikins
indeed are not graceful. The Cavaliere Leandro can no longer execute a
sweeping bow at the approach of the Procuratessa, or slip a love-letter
into the muff of the charming Angelica; the Senator may stare as
haughtily as he pleases at the Abate and the lawyer, without compelling
those humble clients to stir an inch from his path; and the noble
Marquess, in his spotless buckskin leggings and gauntlets, will never
again be off to shoot thrushes from a “bird-tower” in the Euganeans.
But the very rigidity of their once supple joints seems an allegory of
their latter state. There they stand, poor dolls of destiny, discarded
playthings of the gods, in attitudes of puzzled wonder, as if arrested
in their revels by the stroke of the dread Corsican magician--for it
was not Death but Napoleon who “stepped tacitly and took them” from the
plots and pleasures, the sunshine and music of the canals, to that pale
world of oblivion where only now and then some dreamer curious of the
day of little things revisits their melancholy ghosts.



Transcriber’s Notes


Punctuation, hyphenation, and spelling were made consistent when a
predominant preference was found in this book; otherwise they were not
changed.

The spelling of non-English words was not checked.

Simple typographical errors were corrected; occasional unbalanced
quotation marks retained.

Ambiguous hyphens at the ends of lines were retained.

Redundant chapter titles removed by Transcriber.





*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Italian Backgrounds" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home