The contrast between the Greek and mediaeval modes of regarding Nature is not a little remarkable. Both Greeks and monks, judged by nineteenth-century standards, were unobservant of natural beauties. They make but brief and general remarks upon landscapes and the like. The [Greek: pontion te kumaton anerithmon gelasma] is very rare. But the Greeks stopped at the threshold of Nature; the forces they found there, the gods, were inherent in Nature, and distinct. They did not, like the monks, place one spiritual power, omnipotent and omnipresent, above all, and see in Nature lessons of Divine government. We ourselves having somewhat overstrained the latter point of view, are now apt to return vaguely to Greek fancies. Perhaps, too, we talk so much about scenery because it is scenery to us, and the life has gone out of it.
I cannot leave the Cornice without one word about a place which lies between Mentone and San Remo. Bordighera has a beauty which is quite distinct from both. Palms are its chief characteristics. They lean against the garden walls, and feather the wells outside the town, where women come with brazen pitchers to draw water. In some of the marshy tangles of the plain, they spring from a thick undergrowth of spiky leaves, and rear their tall aerial arms against the deep blue background of the sea or darker purple of the distant hills. White pigeons fly about among their branches, and the air is loud with cooings and with rustlings, and the hoarser croaking of innumerable frogs. Then, in the olive-groves that stretch along the level shore, are labyrinths of rare and curious plants, painted tulips and white periwinkles, flinging their light of blossoms and dark glossy leaves down the swift channels of the brawling streams. On each side of the rivulets they grow, like sister cataracts of flowers instead of spray. At night fresh stars come out along the coast, beneath the stars of heaven; for you can see the lamps of Ventimiglia and Mentone and Monaco, and, far away, the lighthouses upon the promontories of Antibes and the Estrelles. At dawn, a vision of Corsica grows from the sea. The island lies eighty miles away, but one can trace the dark strip of irregular peaks glowing amid the gold and purple of the rising sun. If the air is clear and bright, the snows and overvaulting clouds which crown its mountains shine all day, and glitter like an apparition in the bright blue sky. 'Phantom fair,' half raised above the sea, it stands, as unreal and transparent as the moon when seen in April sunlight, yet not to be confounded with the shape of any cloud. If Mentone speaks of Greek legends, and San Romolo restores the monastic past, we feel ourselves at Bordighera transported to the East; and lying under its tall palms can fancy ourselves at Tyre or Daphne, or in the gardens of a Moslem prince.
Note.—Dec. 1873. My old impressions are renewed and confirmed by a third visit, after seven years, to this coast. For purely idyllic loveliness, the Cornice is surpassed by nothing in the South. A very few spots in Sicily, the road between Castellammare and Amalfi, and the island of Corfu, are its only rivals in this style of scenery. From Cannes to Sestri is one continuous line of exquisitely modulated landscape beauty, which can only be fully appreciated by travellers in carriage or on foot.
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It generally happens that visitors to Ajaccio pass over from the Cornice coast, leaving Nice at night, and waking about sunrise to find themselves beneath the frowning mountains of Corsica. The difference between the scenery of the island and the shores which they have left is very striking. Instead of the rocky mountains of the Cornice, intolerably dry and barren at their summits, but covered at their base with villages and ancient towns and olive-fields, Corsica presents a scene of solitary and peculiar grandeur. The highest mountain-tops are covered with snow, and beneath the snow-level to the sea they are as green as Irish or as English hills, but nearly uninhabited and uncultivated. Valleys of almost Alpine verdure are succeeded by tracts of chestnut wood and scattered pines, or deep and flowery brushwood—the 'maquis' of Corsica, which yields shelter to its traditional outlaws and bandits. Yet upon these hillsides there are hardly any signs of life; the whole country seems abandoned to primeval wildness and the majesty of desolation. Nothing can possibly be more unlike the smiling Riviera, every square mile of which is cultivated like a garden, and every valley and bay dotted over with white villages. After steaming for a few hours along this savage coast, the rocks which guard the entrance to the bay of Ajaccio, murderous-looking teeth and needles ominously christened Sanguinari, are passed, and we enter the splendid land-locked harbour, on the northern shore of which Ajaccio is built. About three centuries ago the town, which used to occupy the extreme or eastern end of the bay, was removed to a more healthy point upon the northern coast, so that Ajaccio is quite a modern city. Visitors who expect to find in it the picturesqueness of Genoa or San Remo, or even of Mentone, will be sadly disappointed. It is simply a healthy, well-appointed town of recent date, the chief merits of which are, that it has wide streets, and is free, externally at least, from the filth and rubbish of most southern seaports.
But if Ajaccio itself is not picturesque, the scenery which it commands, and in the heart of which it lies, is of the most magnificent. The bay of Ajaccio resembles a vast Italian lake—a Lago Maggiore, with greater space between the mountains and the shore. From the snow-peaks of the interior, huge granite crystals clothed in white, to the southern extremity of the bay, peak succeeds peak and ridge rises behind ridge in a line of wonderful variety and beauty. The atmospheric changes of light and shadow, cloud and colour, on this upland country, are as subtle and as various as those which lend their beauty to the scenery of the lakes, while the sea below is blue and rarely troubled. One could never get tired with looking at this view. Morning and evening add new charms to its sublimity and beauty. In the early morning Monte d'Oro sparkles like a Monte Rosa with its fresh snow, and the whole inferior range puts on the crystal blueness of dawn among the Alps. In the evening, violet and purple tints and the golden glow of Italian sunset lend a different lustre to the fairyland. In fact, the beauties of Switzerland and Italy are curiously blended in this landscape.
In soil and vegetation the country round Ajaccio differs much from the Cornice. There are very few olive-trees, nor is the cultivated ground backed up so immediately by stony mountains; but between the seashore and the hills there is plenty of space for pasture-land, and orchards of apricot and peach-trees, and orange gardens. This undulating champaign, green with meadows and watered with clear streams, is very refreshing to the eyes of Northern people, who may have wearied of the bareness and greyness of Nice or Mentone. It is traversed by excellent roads, recently constructed on a plan of the French Government, which intersect the country in all directions, and offer an infinite variety of rides or drives to visitors. The broken granite of which these roads are made is very pleasant for riding over. Most of the hills through which they strike, after starting from Ajaccio, are clothed with a thick brushwood of box, ilex, lentisk, arbutus, and laurustinus, which stretches down irregularly into vineyards, olive-gardens, and meadows. It is, indeed, the native growth of the island; for wherever a piece of ground is left untilled, the macchi grow up, and the scent of their multitudinous aromatic blossoms is so strong that it may be smelt miles out at sea. Napoleon, at S. Helena, referred to this fragrance when he said that he should know Corsica blindfold by the smell of its soil. Occasional woods of holm oak make darker patches on the landscape, and a few pines fringe the side of enclosure walls or towers. The prickly pear runs riot in and out among the hedges and upon the walls, diversifying the colours of the landscape with its strange grey-green masses and unwieldy fans. In spring, when peach and almond trees are in blossom, and when the roadside is starred with asphodels, this country is most beautiful in its gladness. The macchi blaze with cistus flowers of red and silver. Golden broom mixes with the dark purple of the great French lavender, and over the whole mass of blossom wave plumes of Mediterranean heath and sweet-scented yellow coronilla. Under the stems of the ilex peep cyclamens, pink and sweet; the hedgerows are a tangle of vetches, convolvuluses, lupines, orchises, and alliums, with here and there a purple iris. It would be difficult to describe all the rare and lovely plants which are found here in a profusion that surpasses even the flower-gardens of the Cornice, and reminds one of the most favoured Alpine valleys in their early spring.
Since the French occupied Corsica they have done much for the island by improving its harbours and making good roads, and endeavouring to mitigate the ferocity of the people. But they have many things to contend against, and Corsica is still behind the other provinces of France. The people are idle, haughty, umbrageous, fiery, quarrelsome, fond of gipsy life, and retentive through generations of old feuds and prejudices to an almost inconceivable extent. Then the nature of the country itself offers serious obstacles to its proper colonisation and cultivation. The savage state of the island and its internal feuds have disposed the Corsicans to quit the seaboard for their mountain villages and fortresses, so that the great plains at the foot of the hills are unwholesome for want of tillage and drainage. Again, the mountains themselves have in many parts been stripped of their forests, and converted into mere wildernesses of macchi stretching up and down their slopes for miles and miles of useless desolation. Another impediment to proper cultivation is found in the old habit of what is called free pasturage. The highland shepherds are allowed by the national custom to drive down their flocks and herds to the lowlands during the winter, so that fences are broken, young crops are browsed over and trampled down, and agriculture becomes a mere impossibility. The last and chief difficulty against which the French have had to contend, and up to this time with apparent success, is brigandage. The Corsican system of brigandage is so very different from that of the Italians, Sicilians, and Greeks, that a word may be said about its peculiar character. In the first place, it has nothing at all to do with robbery and thieving. The Corsican bandit took to a free life among the macchi, not for the sake of supporting himself by lawless depredation, but because he had put himself under a legal and social ban by murdering some one in obedience to the strict code of honour of his country. His victim may have been the hereditary foe of his house for generations, or else the newly made enemy of yesterday. But in either case, if he had killed him fairly, after a due notification of his intention to do so, he was held to have fulfilled a duty rather than to have committed a crime. He then betook himself to the dense tangles of evergreens which I have described, where he lived upon the charity of countryfolk and shepherds. In the eyes of those simple people it was a sacred duty to relieve the necessities of the outlaws, and to guard them from the bloodhounds of justice. There was scarcely a respectable family in Corsica who had not one or more of its members thus alla campagna, as it was euphemistically styled. The Corsicans themselves have attributed this miserable state of things to two principal causes. The first of these was the ancient bad government of the island: under its Genoese rulers no justice was administered, and private vengeance for homicide or insult became a necessary consequence among the haughty and warlike families of the mountain villages. Secondly, the Corsicans have been from time immemorial accustomed to wear arms in everyday life. They used to sit at their house doors and pace the streets with musket, pistol, dagger, and cartouch-box on their persons; and on the most trivial occasion of merriment or enthusiasm they would discharge their firearms. This habit gave a bloody termination to many quarrels, which might have ended more peaceably had the parties been unarmed; and so the seeds of vendetta were constantly being sown. Statistics published by the French Government present a hideous picture of the state of bloodshed in Corsica even during this century. In one period of thirty years (between 1821 and 1850) there were 4319 murders in the island. Almost every man was watching for his neighbour's life, or seeking how to save his own; and agriculture and commerce were neglected for this grisly game of hide-and-seek. In 1853 the French began to take strong measures, and, under the Prefect Thuillier, they hunted the bandits from the macchi, killing between 200 and 300 of them. At the same time an edict was promulgated against bearing arms. It is forbidden to sell the old Corsican stiletto in the shops, and no one may carry a gun, even for sporting purposes, unless he obtains a special licence. These licences, moreover, are only granted for short and precisely measured periods.
In order to appreciate the stern and gloomy character of the Corsicans, it is necessary to leave the smiling gardens of Ajaccio, and to visit some of the more distant mountain villages—Vico, Cavro, Bastelica, or Bocognano, any of which may easily be reached from the capital. Immediately after quitting the seaboard, we enter a country austere in its simplicity, solemn without relief, yet dignified by its majesty and by the sense of freedom it inspires. As we approach the mountains, the macchi become taller, feathering man-high above the road, and stretching far away upon the hills. Gigantic masses of granite, shaped like buttresses and bastions, seem to guard the approaches to these hills; while, looking backward over the green plain, the sea lies smiling in a haze of blue among the rocky horns and misty headlands of the coast. There is a stateliness about the abrupt inclination of these granite slopes, rising from their frowning portals by sharp aretes to the snows piled on their summits, which contrasts in a strange way with the softness and beauty of the mingling sea and plain beneath. In no landscape are more various qualities combined; in none are they so harmonised as to produce so strong a sense of majestic freedom and severe power. Suppose that we are on the road to Corte, and have now reached Bocognano, the first considerable village since we left Ajaccio. Bocognano might be chosen as typical of Corsican hill-villages, with its narrow street, and tall tower-like houses of five or six stories high, faced with rough granite, and pierced with the smallest windows and very narrow doorways. These buildings have a mournful and desolate appearance. There is none of the grandeur of antiquity about them; no sculptured arms or castellated turrets, or balconies or spacious staircases, such as are common in the poorest towns of Italy. The signs of warlike occupation which they offer, and their sinister aspect of vigilance, are thoroughly prosaic. They seem to suggest a state of society in which feud and violence were systematised into routine. There is no relief to the savage austerity of their forbidding aspect; no signs of wealth or household comfort; no trace of art, no liveliness and gracefulness of architecture. Perched upon their coigns of vantage, these villages seem always menacing, as if Saracen pirates, or Genoese marauders, or bandits bent on vengeance, were still for ever on the watch. Forests of immensely old chestnut-trees surround Bocognano on every side, so that you step from the village streets into the shade of woods that seem to have remained untouched for centuries. The country-people support themselves almost entirely upon the fruit of these chestnuts; and there is a large department of Corsica called Castagniccia, from the prevalence of these trees and the sustenance which the inhabitants derive from them. Close by the village brawls a torrent, such as one may see in the Monte Rosa valleys or the Apennines, but very rarely in Switzerland. It is of a pure green colour, absolutely like Indian jade, foaming round the granite boulders, and gliding over smooth slabs of polished stone, and eddying into still, deep pools fringed with fern. Monte d'Oro, one of the largest mountains of Corsica, soars above, and from his snows the purest water, undefiled by glacier mud or the debris of avalanches, melts away. Following the stream, we rise through the macchi and the chestnut woods, which grow more sparely by degrees, until we reach the zone of beeches. Here the scene seems suddenly transferred to the Pyrenees; for the road is carried along abrupt slopes, thickly set with gigantic beech-trees, overgrown with pink and silver lichens. In the early spring their last year's leaves are still crisp with hoar-frost; one morning's journey has brought us from the summer of Ajaccio to winter on these heights, where no flowers are visible but the pale hellebore and tiny lilac crocuses. Snow-drifts stretch by the roadside, and one by one the pioneers of the vast pine-woods of the interior appear. A great portion of the pine-forest (Pinus larix, or Corsican pine, not larch) between Bocognano and Corte had recently been burned by accident when we passed by. Nothing could be more forlorn than the black leafless stems and branches emerging from the snow. Some of these trees were mast-high, and some mere saplings. Corte itself is built among the mountain fastnesses of the interior. The snows and granite cliffs of Monte Rotondo overhang it to the north-west, while two fair valleys lead downward from its eyrie to the eastern coast. The rock on which it stands rises to a sharp point, sloping southward, and commanding the valleys of the Golo and the Tavignano. Remembering that Corte was the old capital of Corsica, and the centre of General Paoli's government, we are led to compare the town with Innsprueck, Meran, or Grenoble. In point of scenery and situation it is hardly second to any of these mountain-girdled cities; but its poverty and bareness are scarcely less striking than those of Bocognano.
The whole Corsican character, with its stern love of justice, its furious revengefulness and wild passion for freedom, seems to be illustrated by the peculiar elements of grandeur and desolation in this landscape. When we traverse the forest of Vico or the rocky pasture-lands of Niolo, the history of the Corsican national heroes, Giudice della Rocca and Sampiero, becomes intelligible, nor do we fail to understand some of the mysterious attraction which led the more daring spirits of the island to prefer a free life among the macchi and pine-woods to placid lawful occupations in farms and villages. The lives of the two men whom I have mentioned are so prominent in Corsican history, and are so often still upon the lips of the common people, that it may be well to sketch their outlines in the foreground of the Salvator Rosa landscape just described. Giudice was the governor of Corsica, as lieutenant for the Pisans, at the end of the thirteenth century. At that time the island belonged to the republic of Pisa, but the Genoese were encroaching on them by land and sea, and the whole life of their brave champion was spent in a desperate struggle with the invaders, until at last he died, old, blind, and in prison, at the command of his savage foes. Giudice was the title which the Pisans usually conferred upon their governor, and Della Rocca deserved it by right of his own inexorable love of justice. Indeed, justice seems to have been with him a passion, swallowing up all other feelings of his nature. All the stories which are told of him turn upon this point in his character; and though they may not be strictly true, they illustrate the stern virtues for which he was celebrated among the Corsicans, and show what kind of men this harsh and gloomy nation loved to celebrate as heroes. This is not the place either to criticise these legends or to recount them at full length. The most famous and the most characteristic may, however, be briefly told. On one occasion, after a victory over the Genoese, he sent a message that the captives in his hands should be released if their wives and sisters came to sue for them. The Genoese ladies embarked, and arrived in Corsica, and to Giudice's nephew was intrusted the duty of fulfilling his uncle's promise. In the course of executing his commission, the youth was so smitten with the beauty of one of the women that he dishonoured her. Thereupon Giudice had him at once put to death. Another story shows the Spartan justice of this hero in a less savage light. He was passing by a cowherd's cottage, when he heard some young calves bleating. On inquiring what distressed them, he was told that the calves had not enough milk to drink after the farm people had been served. Then Giudice made it a law that the calves throughout the land should take their fill before the cows were milked.
Sampiero belongs to a later period of Corsican history. After a long course of misgovernment the Genoese rule had become unbearable. There was no pretence of administering justice, and private vengeance had full sway in the island. The sufferings of the nation were so great that the time had come for a new judge or saviour to rise among them. Sampiero was the son of obscure parents who lived at Bastelica. But his abilities very soon declared themselves, and made a way for him in the world. He spent his youth in the armies of the Medici and of the French Francis, gaining great renown as a brave soldier. Bayard became his friend, and Francis made him captain of his Corsican bands. But Sampiero did not forget the wrongs of his native land while thus on foreign service. He resolved, if possible, to undermine the power of Genoa, and spent the whole of his manhood and old age in one long struggle with their great captain, Stephen Doria. Of his stern patriotism and Roman severity of virtue the following story is a terrible illustration. Sampiero, though a man of mean birth, had married an heiress of the noble Corsican house of the Ornani. His wife, Vannina, was a woman of timid and flexible nature, who, though devoted to her husband, fell into the snares of his enemies. During his absence on an embassy to Algiers the Genoese induced her to leave her home at Marseilles and to seek refuge in their city, persuading her that this step would secure the safety of her child. She was starting on her journey when a friend of Sampiero arrested her, and brought her back to Aix, in Provence. Sampiero, when he heard of these events, hurried to France, and was received by a relative of his, who hinted that he had known of Vannina's projected flight. 'E tu hai taciuto?' was Sampiero's only answer, accompanied by a stroke of his poignard that killed the lukewarm cousin. Sampiero now brought his wife from Aix to Marseilles, preserving the most absolute silence on the way, and there, on entering his house, he killed her with his own hand. It is said that he loved Vannina passionately; and when she was dead, he caused her to be buried with magnificence in the church of S. Francis. Like Giudice, Sampiero fell at last a prey to treachery. The murder of Vannina had made the Ornani his deadly foes. In order to avenge her blood, they played into the hands of the Genoese, and laid a plot by which the noblest of the Corsicans was brought to death. First, they gained over to their scheme a monk of Bastelica, called Ambrogio, and Sampiero's own squire and shield-bearer, Vittolo. By means of these men, in whom he trusted, he was drawn defenceless and unattended into a deeply wooded ravine near Cavro, not very far from his birthplace, where the Ornani and their Genoese troops surrounded him. Sampiero fired his pistols in vain, for Vittolo had loaded them with the shot downwards. Then he drew his sword, and began to lay about him, when the same Vittolo, the Judas, stabbed him from behind, and the old lion fell dead by his friend's hand. Sampiero was sixty-nine when he died, in the year 1567. It is satisfactory to know that the Corsicans have called traitors and foes to their country Vittoli for ever. These two examples of Corsican patriots are enough; we need not add to theirs the history of Paoli—a milder and more humane, but scarcely less heroic leader. Paoli, however, in the hour of Corsica's extremest peril, retired to England, and died in philosophic exile. Neither Giudice nor Sampiero would have acted thus. The more forlorn the hope, the more they struggled.
Among the old Corsican customs which are fast dying out, but which still linger in the remote valleys of Niolo and Vico, is the vocero, or funeral chant, improvised by women at funerals over the bodies of the dead. Nothing illustrates the ferocious temper and savage passions of the race better than these voceri, many of which have been written down and preserved. Most of them are songs of vengeance and imprecation, mingled with hyperbolical laments and utterances of extravagant grief, poured forth by wives and sisters at the side of murdered husbands and brothers. The women who sing them seem to have lost all milk of human kindness, and to have exchanged the virtues of their sex for Spartan fortitude and the rage of furies. While we read their turbid lines we are carried in imagination to one of the cheerless houses of Bastelica or Bocognano, overshadowed by its mournful chestnut-tree, on which the blood of the murdered man is yet red. The gridata, or wake, is assembled in a dark room. On the wooden board, called tola, the corpse lies stretched; and round it are women, veiled in the blue-black mantle of Corsican costume, moaning and rocking themselves upon their chairs. The pasto or conforto, food supplied for mourners, stands upon a side table, and round the room are men with savage eyes and bristling beards, armed to the teeth, keen for vengeance. The dead man's musket and pocket-pistol lie beside him, and his bloody shirt is hung up at his head. Suddenly, the silence, hitherto only disturbed by suppressed groans and muttered curses, is broken by a sharp cry. A woman rises: it is the sister of the dead man; she seizes his shirt, and holding it aloft with Maenad gestures and frantic screams, gives rhythmic utterance to her grief and rage. 'I was spinning, when I heard a great noise: it was a gunshot, which went into my heart, and seemed a voice that cried, "Run, thy brother is dying." I ran into the room above; I took the blow into my breast; I said, "Now he is dead, there is nothing to give me comfort. Who will undertake thy vengeance? When I show thy shirt, who will vow to let his beard grow till the murderer is slain? Who is there left to do it? A mother near her death? A sister? Of all our race there is only left a woman, without kin, poor, orphan, and a girl. Yet, O my brother! never fear. For thy vengeance thy sister is enough!
'"Ma per fa la to bindetta, Sta siguru, basta anch ella!
Give me the pistol; I will shoulder the gun; I will away to the hills. My brother, heart of thy sister, thou shalt be avenged!"' A vocero declaimed upon the bier of Giammatteo and Pasquale, two cousins, by the sister of the former, is still fiercer and more energetic in its malediction. This Erinnys of revenge prays Christ and all the saints to extirpate the murderer's whole race, to shrivel it up till it passes from the earth. Then, with a sudden and vehement transition to the pathos of her own sorrow, she exclaims:—
'Halla mai bista nissunu Tumba l'omi pe li canti?'
It appears from these words that Giammatteo's enemies had killed him because they were jealous of his skill in singing. Shortly after, she curses the curate of the village, a kinsman of the murderer, for refusing to toll the funeral bells; and at last, all other threads of rage and sorrow being twined and knotted into one, she gives loose to her raging thirst for blood: 'If only I had a son, to train like a sleuth-hound, that he might track the murderer! Oh, if I had a son! Oh, if I had a lad!' Her words seem to choke her, and she swoons, and remains for a short time insensible. When the Bacchante of revenge awakes, it is with milder feelings in her heart: 'O brother mine, Matteo! art thou sleeping? Here I will rest with thee and weep till daybreak.' It is rare to find in literature so crude and intense an expression of fiery hatred as these untranslatable voceri present. The emotion is so simple and so strong that it becomes sublime by mere force, and affects us with a strange pathos when contrasted with the tender affection conveyed in such terms of endearment as 'my dove,' 'my flower,' 'my pheasant,' 'my bright painted orange,' addressed to the dead. In the voceri it often happens that there are several interlocutors: one friend questions and another answers; or a kinswoman of the murderer attempts to justify the deed, and is overwhelmed with deadly imprecations. Passionate appeals are made to the corpse: 'Arise! Do you not hear the women cry? Stand up. Show your wounds, and let the fountains of your blood flow! Alas! he is dead; he sleeps; he cannot hear!' Then they turn again to tears and curses, feeling that no help or comfort can come from the clay-cold form. The intensity of grief finds strange language for its utterance. A girl, mourning over her father, cries:—
'Mi l'hannu crucifissatu Cume Ghiesu Cristu in croce.'
Once only, in Viale's collection, does any friend of the dead remember mercy. It is an old woman, who points to the crucifix above the bier.
But all the voceri are not so murderous. Several are composed for girls who died unwedded and before their time, by their mothers or companions. The language of these laments is far more tender and ornate. They praise the gentle virtues and beauty of the girl, her piety and helpful household ways. The most affecting of these dirges is that which celebrates the death of Romana, daughter of Dariola Danesi. Here is a pretty picture of the girl: 'Among the best and fairest maidens you were like a rose among flowers, like the moon among stars; so far more lovely were you than the loveliest. The youths in your presence were like lighted torches, but full of reverence; you were courteous to all, but with none familiar. In church they gazed at you, but you looked at none of them; and after mass you said, "Mother, let us go." Oh! who will console me for your loss? Why did the Lord so much desire you? But now you rest in heaven, all joy and smiles; for the world was not worthy of so fair a face. Oh, how far more beautiful will Paradise be now!' Then follows a piteous picture of the old bereaved mother, to whom a year will seem a thousand years, who will wander among relatives without affection, neighbours without love; and who, when sickness comes, will have no one to give her a drop of water, or to wipe the sweat from her brow, or to hold her hand in death. Yet all that is left for her is to wait and pray for the end, that she may join again her darling.
But it is time to return to Ajaccio itself. At present the attractions and ornaments of the town consist of a good public library, Cardinal Fesch's large but indifferent collection of pictures, two monuments erected to Napoleon, and Napoleon's house. It will always be the chief pride of Ajaccio that she gave birth to the great emperor. Close to the harbour, in a public square by the sea-beach, stands an equestrian statue of the conqueror, surrounded by his four brothers on foot. They are all attired in Roman fashion, and are turned seaward, to the west, as if to symbolise the emigration of this family to subdue Europe. There is something ludicrous and forlorn in the stiffness of the group—something even pathetic, when we think how Napoleon gazed seaward from another island, no longer on horseback, no longer laurel-crowned, an unthroned, unseated conqueror, on S. Helena. His father's house stands close by. An old Italian waiting-woman, who had been long in the service of the Murats, keeps it and shows it. She has the manners of a lady, and can tell many stories of the various members of the Buonaparte family. Those who fancy that Napoleon was born in a mean dwelling of poor parents will be surprised to find so much space and elegance in these apartments. Of course his family was not rich by comparison with the riches of French or English nobles. But for Corsicans they were well-to-do, and their house has an air of antique dignity. The chairs of the entrance-saloon have been literally stripped of their coverings by enthusiastic visitors; the horse-hair stuffing underneath protrudes itself with a sort of comic pride, as if protesting that it came to be so tattered in an honourable service. Some of the furniture seems new; but many old presses, inlaid with marbles, agates, and lapis-lazuli, such as Italian families preserve for generations, have an air of respectable antiquity about them. Nor is there any doubt that the young Napoleon led his minuets beneath the stiff girandoles of the formal dancing-room. There, too, in a dark back chamber, is the bed in which he was born. At its foot is a photograph of the Prince Imperial sent by the Empress Eugenie, who, when she visited the room, wept much pianse molto (to use the old lady's phrase)—at seeing the place where such lofty destinies began. On the wall of the same room is a portrait of Napoleon himself as the young general of the republic—with the citizen's unkempt hair, the fierce fire of the Revolution in his eyes, a frown upon his forehead, lips compressed, and quivering nostrils; also one of his mother, the pastille of a handsome woman, with Napoleonic eyes and brows and nose, but with a vacant simpering mouth. Perhaps the provincial artist knew not how to seize the expression of this feature, the most difficult to draw. For we cannot fancy that Letizia had lips without the firmness or the fulness of a majestic nature.
The whole first story of this house belonged to the Buonaparte family. The windows look out partly on a little court and partly on narrow streets. It was, no doubt, the memory of this home that made Napoleon, when emperor, design schemes for the good of Corsica—schemes that might have brought him more honour than many conquests, but which he had no time or leisure to carry out. On S. Helena his mind often reverted to them, and he would speak of the gummy odours of the macchi wafted from the hillsides to the seashore.
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The long hot days of Italian summer were settling down on plain and country when, in the last week of May, we travelled northward from Florence and Bologna seeking coolness. That was very hard to find in Lombardy. The days were long and sultry, the nights short, without a respite from the heat. Milan seemed a furnace, though in the Duomo and the narrow shady streets there was a twilight darkness which at least looked cool. Long may it be before the northern spirit of improvement has taught the Italians to despise the wisdom of their forefathers, who built those sombre streets of palaces with overhanging eaves, that, almost meeting, form a shelter from the fiercest sun. The lake country was even worse than the towns; the sunlight lay all day asleep upon the shining waters, and no breeze came to stir their surface or to lift the tepid veil of haze, through which the stony mountains, with their yet unmelted patches of winter snow, glared as if in mockery of coolness.
Then we heard of a new inn, which had just been built by an enterprising Italian doctor below the very top of Monte Generoso. There was a picture of it in the hotel at Cadenabbia, but this gave but little idea of any particular beauty. A big square house, with many windows, and the usual ladies on mules, and guides with alpenstocks, advancing towards it, and some round bushes growing near, was all it showed. Yet there hung the real Monte Generoso above our heads, and we thought it must be cooler on its height than by the lake-shore. To find coolness was the great point with us just then. Moreover, some one talked of the wonderful plants that grew among its rocks, and of its grassy slopes enamelled with such flowers as make our cottage gardens at home gay in summer, not to speak of others rarer and peculiar to the region of the Southern Alps. Indeed, the Generoso has a name for flowers, and it deserves it, as we presently found.
This mountain is fitted by its position for commanding one of the finest views in the whole range of the Lombard Alps. A glance at the map shows that. Standing out pre-eminent among the chain of lower hills to which it belongs, the lakes of Lugano and Como with their long arms enclose it on three sides, while on the fourth the plain of Lombardy with its many cities, its rich pasture-lands and cornfields intersected by winding river-courses and straight interminable roads, advances to its very foot. No place could be better chosen for surveying that contrasted scene of plain and mountain, which forms the great attraction of the outlying buttresses of the central Alpine mass. The superiority of the Monte Generoso to any of the similar eminences on the northern outskirts of Switzerland is great. In richness of colour, in picturesqueness of suggestion, in sublimity and breadth of prospect, its advantages are incontestable. The reasons for this superiority are obvious. On the Italian side the transition from mountain to plain is far more abrupt; the atmosphere being clearer, a larger sweep of distance is within our vision; again, the sunlight blazes all day long upon the very front and forehead of the distant Alpine chain, instead of merely slanting along it, as it does upon the northern side.
From Mendrisio, the village at the foot of the mountain, an easy mule-path leads to the hotel, winding first through English-looking hollow lanes with real hedges, which are rare in this country, and English primroses beneath them. Then comes a forest region of luxuriant chestnut-trees, giants with pink boles just bursting into late leafage, yellow and tender, but too thin as yet for shade. A little higher up, the chestnuts are displaced by wild laburnums bending under their weight of flowers. The graceful branches meet above our heads, sweeping their long tassels against our faces as we ride beneath them, while the air for a good mile is full of fragrance. It is strange to be reminded in this blooming labyrinth of the dusty suburb roads and villa gardens of London. The laburnum is pleasant enough in S. John's Wood or the Regent's Park in May—a tame domesticated thing of brightness amid smoke and dust. But it is another joy to see it flourishing in its own home, clothing acres of the mountain-side in a very splendour of spring-colour, mingling its paler blossoms with the golden broom of our own hills, and with the silver of the hawthorn and wild cherry. Deep beds of lilies-of-the-valley grow everywhere beneath the trees; and in the meadows purple columbines, white asphodels, the Alpine spiraea, tall, with feathery leaves, blue scabious, golden hawkweeds, turkscap lilies, and, better than all, the exquisite narcissus poeticus, with its crimson-tipped cup, and the pure pale lilies of San Bruno, are crowded in a maze of dazzling brightness. Higher up the laburnums disappear, and flaunting crimson peonies gleam here and there upon the rocks, until at length the gentians and white ranunculuses of the higher Alps displace the less hardy flowers of Italy.
About an hour below the summit of the mountain we came upon the inn, a large clean building, with scanty furniture and snowy wooden floors, guiltless of carpets. It is big enough to hold about a hundred guests; and Doctor Pasta, who built it, a native of Mendrisio, was gifted either with much faith or with a real prophetic instinct. Anyhow he deserves commendation for his spirit of enterprise. As yet the house is little known to English travellers: it is mostly frequented by Italians from Milan, Novara, and other cities of the plain, who call it the Italian Righi, and come to it, as cockneys go to Richmond, for noisy picnic excursions, or at most for a few weeks' villeggiatura in the summer heats. When we were there in May the season had scarcely begun, and the only inmates besides ourselves were a large party from Milan, ladies and gentlemen in holiday guise, who came, stayed one night, climbed the peak at sunrise, and departed amid jokes and shouting and half-childish play, very unlike the doings of a similar party in sober England. After that the stillness of nature descended on the mountain, and the sun shone day after day upon that great view which seemed created only for ourselves. And what a view it was! The plain stretching up to the high horizon, where a misty range of pink cirrus-clouds alone marked the line where earth ended and the sky began, was islanded with cities and villages innumerable, basking in the hazy shimmering heat. Milan, seen through the doctor's telescope, displayed its Duomo perfect as a microscopic shell, with all its exquisite fretwork, and Napoleon's arch of triumph surmounted by the four tiny horses, as in a fairy's dream. Far off, long silver lines marked the lazy course of Po and Ticino, while little lakes like Varese and the lower end of Maggiore spread themselves out, connecting the mountains with the plain. Five minutes' walk from the hotel brought us to a ridge where the precipice fell suddenly and almost sheer over one arm of Lugano Lake. Sullenly outstretched asleep it lay beneath us, coloured with the tints of fluor-spar, or with the changeful green and azure of a peacock's breast. The depth appeared immeasurable. San Salvadore had receded into insignificance: the houses and churches and villas of Lugano bordered the lake-shore with an uneven line of whiteness. And over all there rested a blue mist of twilight and of haze, contrasting with the clearness of the peaks above. It was sunset when we first came here; and, wave beyond wave, the purple Italian hills tossed their crested summits to the foot of a range of stormy clouds that shrouded the high Alps. Behind the clouds was sunset, clear and golden; but the mountains had put on their mantle for the night, and the hem of their garment was all we were to see. And yet—over the edge of the topmost ridge of cloud, what was that long hard line of black, too solid and immovable for cloud, rising into four sharp needles clear and well defined? Surely it must be the familiar outline of Monte Rosa itself, the form which every one who loves the Alps knows well by heart, which picture-lovers know from Ruskin's woodcut in the 'Modern Painters.' For a moment only the vision stayed: then clouds swept over it again, and from the place where the empress of the Alps had been, a pillar of mist shaped like an angel's wing, purple and tipped with gold, shot up against the pale green sky. That cloud-world was a pageant in itself, as grand and more gorgeous perhaps than the mountains would have been. Deep down through the hollows of the Simplon a thunderstorm was driving; and we saw forked flashes once and again, as in a distant world, lighting up the valleys for a moment, and leaving the darkness blacker behind them as the storm blurred out the landscape forty miles away. Darkness was coming to us too, though our sky was clear and the stars were shining brightly. At our feet the earth was folding itself to sleep; the plain was wholly lost; little islands of white mist had formed themselves, and settled down upon the lakes and on their marshy estuaries; the birds were hushed; the gentian-cups were filling to the brim with dew. Night had descended on the mountain and the plain; the show was over.
The dawn was whitening in the east next morning, when we again scrambled through the dwarf beechwood to the precipice above the lake. Like an ink-blot it lay, unruffled, slumbering sadly. Broad sheets of vapour brooded on the plain, telling of miasma and fever, of which we on the mountain, in the pure cool air, knew nothing. The Alps were all there now—cold, unreal, stretching like a phantom line of snowy peaks, from the sharp pyramids of Monte Viso and the Grivola in the west to the distant Bernina and the Ortler in the east. Supreme among them towered Monte Rosa—queenly, triumphant, gazing down in proud pre-eminence, as she does when seen from any point of the Italian plain. There is no mountain like her. Mont Blanc himself is scarcely so regal; and she seems to know it, for even the clouds sweep humbled round her base, girdling her at most, but leaving her crown clear and free. Now, however, there were no clouds to be seen in all the sky. The mountains had a strange unshriven look, as if waiting to be blessed. Above them, in the cold grey air, hung a low black arch of shadow, the shadow of the bulk of the huge earth, which still concealed the sun. Slowly, slowly this dark line sank lower, till, one by one, at last, the peaks caught first a pale pink flush; then a sudden golden glory flashed from one to the other, as they leapt joyfully into life. It is a supreme moment this first burst of life and light over the sleeping world, as one can only see it on rare days and in rare places like the Monte Generoso. The earth—enough of it at least for us to picture to ourselves the whole—lies at our feet; and we feel as the Saviour might have felt, when from the top of that high mountain He beheld the kingdoms of the world and all the glory of them. Strangely and solemnly may we image to our fancy the lives that are being lived down in those cities of the plain: how many are waking at this very moment to toil and a painful weariness, to sorrow, or to 'that unrest which men miscall delight;' while we upon our mountain buttress, suspended in mid-heaven and for a while removed from daily cares, are drinking in the beauty of the world that God has made so fair and wonderful. From this same eyrie, only a few years ago, the hostile armies of France, Italy, and Austria might have been watched moving in dim masses across the plains, for the possession of which they were to clash in mortal fight at Solferino and Magenta. All is peaceful now. It is hard to picture the waving cornfields trodden down, the burning villages and ransacked vineyards, all the horrors of real war to which that fertile plain has been so often the prey. But now these memories of
Old, unhappy, far-off things, And battles long ago,
do but add a calm and beauty to the radiant scene that lies before us. And the thoughts which it suggests, the images with which it stores our mind, are not without their noblest uses. The glory of the world sinks deeper into our shallow souls than we well know; and the spirit of its splendour is always ready to revisit us on dark and dreary days at home with an unspeakable refreshment. Even as I write, I seem to see the golden glow sweeping in broad waves over the purple hills nearer and nearer, till the lake brightens at our feet, and the windows of Lugano flash with sunlight, and little boats creep forth across the water like spiders on a pond, leaving an arrowy track of light upon the green behind them, while Monte Salvadore with its tiny chapel and a patch of the further landscape are still kept in darkness by the shadow of the Generoso itself. The birds wake into song as the sun's light comes; cuckoo answers cuckoo from ridge to ridge; dogs bark; and even the sounds of human life rise up to us: children's voices and the murmurs of the market-place ascending faintly from the many villages hidden among the chestnut-trees beneath our feet; while the creaking of a cart we can but just see slowly crawling along the straight road by the lake, is heard at intervals.
The full beauty of the sunrise is but brief. Already the low lakelike mists we saw last night have risen and spread, and shaken themselves out into masses of summer clouds, which, floating upward, threaten to envelop us upon our vantage-ground. Meanwhile they form a changeful sea below, blotting out the plain, surging up into the valleys with the movement of a billowy tide, attacking the lower heights like the advance-guard of a besieging army, but daring not as yet to invade the cold and solemn solitudes of the snowy Alps. These, too, in time, when the sun's heat has grown strongest, will be folded in their midday pall of sheltering vapour.
The very summit of Monte Generoso must not be left without a word of notice. The path to it is as easy as the sheep-walks on an English down, though cut along grass-slopes descending at a perilously sharp angle. At the top the view is much the same, as far as the grand features go, as that which is commanded from the cliff by the hotel. But the rocks here are crowded with rare Alpine flowers—delicate golden auriculas with powdery leaves and stems, pale yellow cowslips, imperial purple saxifrages, soldanellas at the edge of lingering patches of the winter snow, blue gentians, crocuses, and the frail, rosy-tipped ranunculus, called glacialis. Their blooming time is brief. When summer comes the mountain will be bare and burned, like all Italian hills. The Generoso is a very dry mountain, silent and solemn from its want of streams. There is no sound of falling waters on its crags; no musical rivulets flow down its sides, led carefully along the slopes, as in Switzerland, by the peasants, to keep their hay-crops green and gladden the thirsty turf throughout the heat and drought of summer. The soil is a Jurassic limestone: the rain penetrates the porous rock, and sinks through cracks and fissures, to reappear above the base of the mountain in a full-grown stream. This is a defect in the Generoso, as much to be regretted as the want of shade upon its higher pastures. Here, as elsewhere in Piedmont, the forests are cut for charcoal; the beech-scrub, which covers large tracts of the hills, never having the chance of growing into trees much higher than a man. It is this which makes an Italian mountain at a distance look woolly, like a sheep's back. Among the brushwood, however, lilies-of-the-valley and Solomon's seals delight to grow; and the league-long beds of wild strawberries prove that when the laburnums have faded, the mountain will become a garden of feasting.
It was on the crest of Monte Generoso, late one afternoon in May, that we saw a sight of great beauty. The sun had yet about an hour before it sank behind the peaks of Monte Rosa, and the sky was clear, except for a few white clouds that floated across the plain of Lombardy. Then as we sat upon the crags, tufted with soldanellas and auriculas, we could see a fleecy vapour gliding upward from the hollows of the mountain, very thin and pale, yet dense enough to blot the landscape to the south and east from sight. It rose with an imperceptible motion, as the Oceanides might have soared from the sea to comfort Prometheus in the tragedy of AEschylus. Already the sun had touched its upper edge with gold, and we were expecting to be enveloped in a mist; when suddenly upon the outspread sheet before us there appeared two forms, larger than life, yet not gigantic, surrounded with haloes of such tempered iridescence as the moon half hidden by a summer cloud is wont to make. They were the glorified figures of ourselves; and what we did, the phantoms mocked, rising or bowing, or spreading wide their arms. Some scarce-felt breeze prevented the vapour from passing across the ridge to westward, though it still rose from beneath, and kept fading away into thin air above our heads. Therefore the vision lasted as long as the sun stayed yet above the Alps; and the images with their aureoles shrank and dilated with the undulations of the mist. I could not but think of that old formula for an anthropomorphic Deity—'the Brocken-spectre of the human spirit projected on the mists of the Non-ego.' Even like those cloud-phantoms are the gods made in the image of man, who have been worshipped through successive ages of the world, gods dowered with like passions to those of the races who have crouched before them, gods cruel and malignant and lustful, jealous and noble and just, radiant or gloomy, the counterparts of men upon a vast and shadowy scale. But here another question rose. If the gods that men have made and ignorantly worshipped be really but glorified copies of their own souls, where is the sun in this parallel? Without the sun's rays the mists of Monte Generoso could have shown, no shadowy forms. Without some other power than the mind of man, could men have fashioned for themselves those ideals that they named their gods? Unseen by Greek, or Norseman, or Hindoo, the potent force by which alone they could externalise their image, existed outside them, independent of their thought. Nor does the trite epigram touch the surface of the real mystery. The sun, the human beings on the mountain, and the mists are all parts of one material universe: the transient phenomenon we witnessed was but the effect of a chance combination. Is, then, the anthropomorphic God as momentary and as accidental in the system of the world as that vapoury spectre? The God in whom we live and move and have our being must be far more all-pervasive, more incognisable by the souls of men, who doubt not for one moment of His presence and His power. Except for purposes of rhetoric the metaphor that seemed so clever fails. Nor, when once such thoughts have been stirred in us by such a sight, can we do better than repeat Goethe's sublime profession of a philosophic mysticism. This translation I made one morning on the Pasterze Gletscher beneath the spires of the Gross Glockner:—
To Him who from eternity, self-stirred, Himself hath made by His creative word! To Him, supreme, who causeth Faith to be, Trust, Hope, Love, Power, and endless Energy! To Him, who, seek to name Him as we will, Unknown within Himself abideth still!
Strain ear and eye, till sight and sense be dim; Thou'lt find but faint similitudes of Him: Yea, and thy spirit in her flight of flame Still strives to gauge the symbol and the name: Charmed and compelled thou climb'st from height to height, And round thy path the world shines wondrous bright; Time, Space, and Size, and Distance cease to be, And every step is fresh infinity. What were the God who sat outside to scan The spheres that 'neath His finger circling ran? God dwells within, and moves the world and moulds, Himself and Nature in one form enfolds: Thus all that lives in Him and breathes and is, Shall ne'er His puissance, ne'er His spirit miss.
The soul of man, too, is an universe: Whence follows it that race with race concurs In naming all it knows of good and true God,—yea, its own God; and with homage due Surrenders to His sway both earth and heaven; Fears Him, and loves, where place for love is given.
* * * * *
ON THE SUPERGA
This is the chord of Lombard colouring in May. Lowest in the scale: bright green of varied tints, the meadow-grasses mingling with willows and acacias, harmonised by air and distance. Next, opaque blue—the blue of something between amethyst and lapis-lazuli—that belongs alone to the basements of Italian mountains. Higher, the roseate whiteness of ridged snow on Alps or Apennines. Highest, the blue of the sky, ascending from pale turquoise to transparent sapphire filled with light. A mediaeval mystic might have likened this chord to the spiritual world. For the lowest region is that of natural life, of plant and bird and beast, and unregenerate man; it is the place of faun and nymph and satyr, the plain where wars are fought and cities built, and work is done. Thence we climb to purified humanity, the mountains of purgation, the solitude and simplicity of contemplative life not yet made perfect by freedom from the flesh. Higher comes that thin white belt, where are the resting places of angelic feet, the points whence purged souls take their flight toward infinity. Above all is heaven, the hierarchies ascending row on row to reach the light of God.
This fancy occurred to me as I climbed the slope of the Superga, gazing over acacia hedges and poplars to the mountains bare in morning light. The occasional occurrence of bars across this chord—poplars shivering in sun and breeze, stationary cypresses as black as night, and tall campanili with the hot red shafts of glowing brick—adds just enough of composition to the landscape. Without too much straining of the allegory, the mystic might have recognised in these aspiring bars the upward effort of souls rooted in the common life of earth.
The panorama, unrolling as we ascend, is enough to overpower a lover of beauty. There is nothing equal to it for space and breadth and majesty. Monte Rosa, the masses of Mont Blanc blent with the Grand Paradis, the airy pyramid of Monte Viso, these are the battlements of that vast Alpine rampart, in which the vale of Susa opens like a gate. To west and south sweep the Maritime Alps and the Apennines. Beneath, glides the infant Po; and where he leads our eyes, the plain is only limited by pearly mist.
A BRONZE BUST OF CALIGULA AT TURIN
The Albertina bronze is one of the most precious portraits of antiquity, not merely because it confirms the testimony of the green basalt bust in the Capitol, but also because it supplies an even more emphatic and impressive illustration to the narrative of Suetonius.
Caligula is here represented as young and singularly beautiful. It is indeed an ideal Roman head, with the powerful square modelling, the crisp short hair, low forehead and regular firm features, proper to the noblest Roman type. The head is thrown backward from the throat; and there is a something of menace or defiance or suffering in the suggestion of brusque movement given to the sinews of the neck. This attitude, together with the tension of the forehead, and the fixed expression of pain and strain communicated by the lines of the mouth—strong muscles of the upper lip and abruptly chiselled under lip—in relation to the small eyes, deep set beneath their cavernous and level brows, renders the whole face a monument of spiritual anguish. I remember that the green basalt bust of the Capitol has the same anxious forehead, the same troubled and overburdened eyes; but the agony of this fretful mouth, comparable to nothing but the mouth of Pandolfo Sigismondo Malatesta, and, like that, on the verge of breaking into the spasms of delirium, is quite peculiar to the Albertina bronze. It is just this which the portrait of the Capitol lacks for the completion of Caligula. The man who could be so represented in art had nothing wholly vulgar in him. The brutality of Caracalla, the overblown sensuality of Nero, the effeminacy of Commodus or Heliogabalus, are all absent here. This face idealises the torture of a morbid soul. It is withal so truly beautiful that it might easily be made the poem of high suffering or noble passion. If the bronze were plastic, I see how a great sculptor, by but few strokes, could convert it into an agonising Stephen or Sebastian. As it is, the unimaginable touch of disease, the unrest of madness, made Caligula the genius of insatiable appetite; and his martyrdom was the torment of lust and ennui and everlasting agitation. The accident of empire tantalised him with vain hopes of satisfying the Charybdis of his soul's sick cravings. From point to point he passed of empty pleasure and unsatisfying cruelty, for ever hungry; until the malady of his spirit, unrestrained by any limitations, and with the right medium for its development, became unique—the tragic type of pathological desire. What more than all things must have plagued a man with that face was probably the unavoidable meanness of his career. When we study the chapters of Suetonius, we are forced to feel that, though the situation and the madness of Caligula were dramatically impressive, his crimes were trivial and, small. In spite of the vast scale on which he worked his devilish will, his life presents a total picture of sordid vice, differing only from pot-house dissipation and schoolboy cruelty in point of size. And this of a truth is the Nemesis of evil. After a time, mere tyrannous caprice must become commonplace and cloying, tedious to the tyrant, and uninteresting to the student of humanity: nor can I believe that Caligula failed to perceive this to his own infinite disgust.
Suetonius asserts that he was hideously ugly. How are we to square this testimony with the witness of the bronze before us? What changed the face, so beautiful and terrible in youth, to ugliness that shrank from sight in manhood? Did the murderers find it blurred in its fine lineaments, furrowed with lines of care, hollowed with the soul's hunger? Unless a life of vice and madness had succeeded in making Caligula's face what the faces of some maniacs are—the bloated ruin of what was once a living witness to the soul within—I could fancy that death may have sanctified it with even more beauty than this bust of the self-tormented young man shows. Have we not all seen the anguish of thought-fretted faces smoothed out by the hands of the Deliverer?
FERRARI AT VERCELLI
It is possible that many visitors to the Cathedral of Como have carried away the memory of stately women with abundant yellow hair and draperies of green and crimson, in a picture they connect thereafter with Gaudenzio Ferrari. And when they come to Milan, they are probably both impressed and disappointed by a Martyrdom of S. Catherine in the Brera, bearing the same artist's name. If they wish to understand this painter, they must seek him at Varallo, at Saronno, and at Vercelli. In the Church of S. Cristoforo in Vercelli, Gaudenzio Ferrari at the full height of his powers showed what he could do to justify Lomazzo's title chosen for him of the Eagle. He has indeed the strong wing and the swiftness of the king of birds. And yet the works of few really great painters—and among the really great we place Ferrari—leave upon the mind a more distressing sense of imperfection. Extraordinary fertility of fancy, vehement dramatic passion, sincere study of nature, and great command of technical resources are here (as elsewhere in Ferrari's frescoes) neutralised by an incurable defect of the combining and harmonising faculty, so essential to a masterpiece. There is stuff enough of thought and vigour and imagination to make a dozen artists. And yet we turn away disappointed from the crowded, dazzling, stupefying wilderness of forms and faces on these mighty walls.
All that Ferrari derived from actual life—the heads of single figures, the powerful movement of men and women in excited action, the monumental pose of two praying nuns—is admirably rendered. His angels too, in S. Cristoforo as elsewhere, are quite original; not only in their type of beauty, which is terrestrial and peculiar to Ferrari, without a touch of Correggio's sensuality; but also in the intensity of their emotion, the realisation of their vitality. Those which hover round the Cross in the fresco of the 'Crucifixion' are as passionate as any angels of the Giottesque masters in Assisi. Those again which crowd the Stable of Bethlehem in the 'Nativity' yield no point of idyllic charm to Gozzoli's in the Riccardi Chapel.
The 'Crucifixion' and the 'Assumption of Madonna' are very tall and narrow compositions, audacious in their attempt to fill almost unmanageable space with a connected action. Of the two frescoes the 'Crucifixion,' which has points of strong similarity to the same subject at Varallo, is by far the best. Ferrari never painted anything at once truer to life and nobler in tragic style than the fainting Virgin. Her face expresses the very acme of martyrdom—not exaggerated nor spasmodic, but real and sublime—in the suffering of a stately matron. In points like this Ferrari cannot be surpassed. Raphael could scarcely have done better; besides, there is an air of sincerity, a stamp of popular truth, in this episode, which lies beyond Raphael's sphere. It reminds us rather of Tintoretto.
After the 'Crucifixion,' I place the 'Adoration of the Magi,' full of fine mundane motives and gorgeous costumes; then the 'Sposalizio' (whose marriage, I am not certain), the only grandly composed picture of the series, and marked by noble heads; then the 'Adoration of the Shepherds,' with two lovely angels holding the bambino. The 'Assumption of the Magdalen'—for which fresco there is a valuable cartoon in the Albertina Collection at Turin—must have been a fine picture; but it is ruined now. An oil altar-piece in the choir of the same church struck me less than the frescoes. It represents Madonna and a crowd of saints under an orchard of apple-trees, with cherubs curiously flung about almost at random in the air. The motive of the orchard is prettily conceived and carried out with spirit.
What Ferrari possessed was rapidity of movement, fulness and richness of reality, exuberance of invention, excellent portraiture, dramatic vehemence, and an almost unrivalled sympathy with the swift and passionate world of angels. What he lacked was power of composition, simplicity of total effect, harmony in colouring, control over his own luxuriance, the sense of tranquillity. He seems to have sought grandeur in size and multitude, richness, eclat, contrast. Being the disciple of Lionardo and Raphael, his defects are truly singular. As a composer, the old leaven of Giovenone remained in him; but he felt the dramatic tendencies of a later age, and in occasional episodes he realised them with a force and furia granted to very few of the Italian painters.
LANINI AT VERCELLI
The Casa Mariano is a palace which belonged to a family of that name. Like many houses of the sort in Italy, it fell to vile uses; and its hall of audience was turned into a lumber-room. The Operai of Vercelli, I was told, bought the palace a few years ago, restored the noble hall, and devoted a smaller room to a collection of pictures valuable for students of the early Vercellese style of painting. Of these there is no need to speak. The great hall is the gem of the Casa Mariano. It has a coved roof, with a large flat oblong space in the centre of the ceiling. The whole of this vault and the lunettes beneath were painted by Lanini; so runs the tradition of the fresco-painter's name; and though much injured by centuries of outrage, and somewhat marred by recent restoration, these frescoes form a precious monument of Lombard art. The object of the painter's design seems to have been the glorification of Music. In the central compartment of the roof is an assembly of the gods, obviously borrowed from Raphael's 'Marriage of Cupid and Psyche' in the Farnesina at Rome. The fusion of Roman composition with Lombard execution constitutes the chief charm of this singular work, and makes it, so far as I am aware, unique. Single figures of the goddesses, and the whole movement of the scene upon Olympus, are transcribed without attempt at concealment. And yet the fresco is not a barefaced copy. The manner of feeling and of execution is quite different from that of Raphael's school. The poetry and sentiment are genuinely Lombard. None of Raphael's pupils could have carried out his design with a delicacy of emotion and a technical skill in colouring so consummate. What, we think, as we gaze upward, would the Master have given for such a craftsman? The hardness, coarseness, and animal crudity of the Roman School are absent: so also is their vigour. But where the grace of form and colour is so soft and sweet, where the high-bred calm of good company is so sympathetically rendered, where the atmosphere of amorous languor and of melody is so artistically diffused, we cannot miss the powerful modelling and rather vulgar tours de force of Giulio Romano. The scale of tone is silvery golden. There are no hard blues, no coarse red flesh-tints, no black shadows. Mellow lights, the morning hues of primrose, or of palest amber, pervade the whole society. It is a court of gentle and harmonious souls; and though this style of beauty might cloy, at first sight there is something ravishing in those yellow-haired white-limbed, blooming deities. No movement of lascivious grace as in Correggio, no perturbation of the senses as in some of the Venetians, disturbs the rhythm of their music; nor is the pleasure of the flesh, though felt by the painter and communicated to the spectator, an interruption to their divine calm. The white, saffron-haired goddesses are grouped together like stars seen in the topaz light of evening, like daffodils half smothered in snowdrops, and among them, Diana, with the crescent on her forehead, is the fairest. Her dream-like beauty need fear no comparison with the Diana of the Camera di S. Paolo. Apollo and Bacchus are scarcely less lovely in their bloom of earliest manhood; honey-pale, as Greeks would say; like statues of living electron; realising Simaetha's picture of her lover and his friend:
tois d' en xanthotera men elichrysoio geneias, stethea de stilbonta poly pleon e tu Selana.]
It was thus that the almost childlike spirit of the Milanese painters felt the antique: how differently from their Roman brethren! It was thus that they interpreted the lines of their own poets:—
E i tuoi capei piu volte ho somigliati Di Cerere a le paglie secche o bionde Dintorno crespi al tuo capo legati.
Yet the painter of this hall—whether we are to call him Lanini or another—was not a composer. Where he has not robbed the motives and the distribution of the figures from Raphael, he has nothing left but grace of detail. The intellectual feebleness of his style may be seen in many figures of women playing upon instruments of music, ranged around the walls. One girl at the organ is graceful; another with a tambourine has a sort of Bassarid beauty. But the group of Apollo, Pegasus, and a Muse upon Parnassus, is a failure in its meaningless frigidity, while few of these subordinate compositions show power of conception or vigour of design.
Lanini, like Sodoma, was a native of Vercelli; and though he was Ferrari's pupil, there is more in him of Luini or of Sodoma than of his master. He does not rise at any point to the height of these three great masters, but he shares some of Luini's and Sodoma's fine qualities, without having any of Ferrari's force. A visit to the mangled remnants of his frescoes in S. Caterina will repay the student of art. This was once, apparently, a double church, or a church with the hall and chapel of a confraternita appended to it. One portion of the building was painted with the history of the Saint; and very lovely must this work have been, to judge by the fragments which have recently been rescued from whitewash, damp, and ruthless mutilation. What wonderful Lombard faces, half obliterated on the broken wall and mouldering plaster, smile upon us like drowned memories swimming up from the depths of oblivion! Wherever three or four are grouped together, we find an exquisite little picture—an old woman and two young women in a doorway, for example, telling no story, but touching us with simple harmony of form. Nothing further is needed to render their grace intelligible. Indeed, knowing the faults of the school, we may seek some consolation by telling ourselves that these incomplete fragments yield Lanini's best. In the coved compartments of the roof, above the windows, ran a row of dancing boys; and these are still most beautifully modelled, though the pallor of recent whitewash is upon them. All the boys have blonde hair. They are naked, with scrolls or ribbons wreathed around them, adding to the airiness of their continual dance. Some of the loveliest are in a room used to stow away the lumber of the church—old boards and curtains, broken lanterns, candle-ends in tin sconces, the musty apparatus of festival adornments, and in the midst of all a battered, weather-beaten bier.
THE PIAZZA OF PIACENZA
The great feature of Piacenza is its famous piazza—romantically, picturesquely perfect square, surpassing the most daring attempts of the scene-painter, and realising a poet's dreams. The space is considerable, and many streets converge upon it at irregular angles. Its finest architectural feature is the antique Palace of the Commune: Gothic arcades of stone below, surmounted by a brick building with wonderfully delicate and varied terra-cotta work in the round-arched windows. Before this facade, on the marble pavement, prance the bronze equestrian statues of two Farnesi—insignificant men, exaggerated horses, flying drapery—as barocco as it is possible to be in style, but so splendidly toned with verdigris, so superb in their bravura attitude, and so happily placed in the line of two streets lending far vistas from the square into the town beyond, that it is difficult to criticise them seriously. They form, indeed, an important element in the pictorial effect, and enhance the terra-cotta work of the facade by the contrast of their colour.
The time to see this square is in evening twilight—that wonderful hour after sunset—when the people are strolling on the pavement, polished to a mirror by the pacing of successive centuries, and when the cavalry soldiers group themselves at the angles under the lamp-posts or beneath the dimly lighted Gothic arches of the Palace. This is the magical mellow hour to be sought by lovers of the picturesque in all the towns of Italy, the hour which, by its tender blendings of sallow western lights with glimmering lamps, casts the veil of half shadow over any crudeness and restores the injuries of Time; the hour when all the tints of these old buildings are intensified, etherealised, and harmonised by one pervasive glow. When I last saw Piacenza, it had been raining all day; and ere sundown a clearing had come from the Alps, followed by fresh threatenings of thunderstorms. The air was very liquid. There was a tract of yellow sunset sky to westward, a faint new moon half swathed in mist above, and over all the north a huge towered thundercloud kept flashing distant lightnings. The pallid primrose of the West, forced down and reflected back from that vast bank of tempest, gave unearthly beauty to the hues of church and palace—tender half-tones of violet and russet paling into greys and yellows on what in daylight seemed but dull red brick. Even the uncompromising facade of S. Francesco helped; and the Dukes were like statues of the 'Gran Commendatore,' waiting for Don Giovanni's invitation.
MASOLINO AT CASTIGLIONE D'OLONA
Through the loveliest Arcadian scenery of woods and fields and rushing waters the road leads downward from Varese to Castiglione. The Collegiate Church stands on a leafy hill above the town, with fair prospect over groves and waterfalls and distant mountains. Here in the choir is a series of frescoes by Masolino da Panicale, the master of Masaccio, who painted them about the year 1428. 'Masolinus de Florentia pinxit' decides their authorship. The histories of the Virgin, S. Stephen and S. Lawrence, are represented: but the injuries of time and neglect have been so great that it is difficult to judge them fairly. All we feel for certain is that Masolino had not yet escaped from the traditional Giottesque mannerism. Only a group of Jews stoning Stephen, and Lawrence before the tribunal, remind us by dramatic energy of the Brancacci Chapel.
The Baptistery frescoes, dealing with the legend of S. John, show a remarkable advance; and they are luckily in better preservation. A soldier lifting his two-handed sword to strike off the Baptist's head is a vigorous figure, full of Florentine realism. Also in the Baptism in Jordan we are reminded of Masaccio by an excellent group of bathers—one man taking off his hose, another putting them on again, a third standing naked with his back turned, and a fourth shivering half-dressed with a look of curious sadness on his face. The nude has been carefully studied and well realised. The finest composition of this series is a large panel representing a double action—Salome at Herod's table begging for the Baptist's head, and then presenting it to her mother Herodias. The costumes are quattrocento Florentine, exactly rendered. Salome is a graceful slender creature; the two women who regard her offering to Herodias with mingled curiosity and horror, are well conceived. The background consists of a mountain landscape in Masaccio's simple manner, a rich Renaissance villa, and an open loggia. The architecture perspective is scientifically accurate, and a frieze of boys with garlands on the villa is in the best manner of Florentine sculpture. On the mountain side, diminished in scale, is a group of elders, burying the body of S. John. These are massed together and robed in the style of Masaccio, and have his virile dignity of form and action. Indeed this interesting wall-painting furnishes an epitome of Florentine art, in its intentions and achievements, during the first half of the fifteenth century. The colour is strong and brilliant, and the execution solid.
The margin of the Salome panel has been used for scratching the Chronicle of Castiglione. I read one date, 1568, several of the next century, the record of a duel between two gentlemen, and many inscriptions to this effect, 'Erodiana Regina,' 'Omnia praetereunt,' &c. A dirty one-eyed fellow keeps the place. In my presence he swept the frescoes over with a scratchy broom, flaying their upper surface in profound unconsciousness of mischief. The armour of the executioner has had its steel colours almost rubbed off by this infernal process. Damp and cobwebs are far kinder.
The Certosa of Pavia leaves upon the mind an impression of bewildering sumptuousness: nowhere else are costly materials so combined with a lavish expenditure of the rarest art. Those who have only once been driven round together with the crew of sightseers, can carry little away but the memory of lapis-lazuli and bronze-work, inlaid agates and labyrinthine sculpture, cloisters tenantless in silence, fair painted faces smiling from dark corners on the senseless crowd, trim gardens with rows of pink primroses in spring, and of begonia in autumn, blooming beneath colonnades of glowing terra-cotta. The striking contrast between the Gothic of the interior and the Renaissance facade, each in its own kind perfect, will also be remembered; and thoughts of the two great houses, Visconti and Sforza, to whose pride of power it is a monument, may be blended with the recollection of art-treasures alien to their spirit.
Two great artists, Ambrogio Borgognone and Antonio Amadeo, are the presiding genii of the Certosa. To minute criticism, based upon the accurate investigation of records and the comparison of styles, must be left the task of separating their work from that of numerous collaborators. But it is none the less certain that the keynote of the whole music is struck by them, Amadeo, the master of the Colleoni chapel at Bergamo, was both sculptor and architect. If the facade of the Certosa be not absolutely his creation, he had a hand in the distribution of its masses and the detail of its ornaments. The only fault in this otherwise faultless product of the purest quattrocento inspiration, is that the facade is a frontispiece, with hardly any structural relation to the church it masks: and this, though serious from the point of view of architecture, is no abatement of its sculpturesque and picturesque refinement. At first sight it seems a wilderness of loveliest reliefs and statues—of angel faces, fluttering raiment, flowing hair, love-laden youths, and stationary figures of grave saints, mid wayward tangles of acanthus and wild vine and cupid-laden foliage; but the subordination of these decorative details to the main design, clear, rhythmical, and lucid, like a chaunt of Pergolese or Stradella, will enrapture one who has the sense for unity evoked from divers elements, for thought subduing all caprices to the harmony of beauty. It is not possible elsewhere in Italy to find the instinct of the earlier Renaissance, so amorous in its expenditure of rare material, so lavish in its bestowal of the costliest workmanship on ornamental episodes, brought into truer keeping with a pure and simple structural effect.
All the great sculptor-architects of Lombardy worked in succession on this miracle of beauty; and this may account for the sustained perfection of style, which nowhere suffers from the languor of exhaustion in the artist or from repetition of motives. It remains the triumph of North Italian genius, exhibiting qualities of tenderness and self-abandonment to inspiration, which we lack in the severer masterpieces of the Tuscan school.
To Borgognone is assigned the painting of the roof in nave and choir—exceeding rich, varied, and withal in sympathy with stately Gothic style. Borgognone again is said to have designed the saints and martyrs worked in tarsia for the choir-stalls. His frescoes are in some parts well preserved, as in the lovely little Madonna at the end of the south chapel, while the great fresco above the window in the south transept has an historical value that renders it interesting in spite of partial decay. Borgognone's oil pictures throughout the church prove, if such proof were needed after inspection of the altar-piece in our National Gallery, that he was one of the most powerful and original painters of Italy, blending the repose of the earlier masters and their consummate workmanship with a profound sensibility to the finest shades of feeling and the rarest forms of natural beauty. He selected an exquisite type of face for his young men and women; on his old men he bestowed singular gravity and dignity. His saints are a society of strong, pure, restful, earnest souls, in whom the passion of deepest emotion is transfigured by habitual calm. The brown and golden harmonies he loved, are gained without sacrifice of lustre: there is a self-restraint in his colouring which corresponds to the reserve of his emotion; and though a regret sometimes rises in our mind that he should have modelled the light and shade upon his faces with a brusque, unpleasing hardness, their pallor dwells within our memory as something delicately sought if not consummately attained. In a word, Borgognone was a true Lombard of the best time. The very imperfection of his flesh-painting repeats in colour what the greatest Lombard sculptors sought in stone—a sharpness of relief that passes over into angularity. This brusqueness was the counterpoise to tenderness of feeling and intensity of fancy in these northern artists. Of all Borgognone's pictures in the Certosa I should select the altar-piece of S. Siro with S. Lawrence and S. Stephen and two Fathers of the Church, for its fusion of this master's qualities.
The Certosa is a wilderness of lovely workmanship. From Borgognone's majesty we pass into the quiet region of Luini's Christian grace, or mark the influence of Lionardo on that rare Assumption of Madonna by his pupil, Andrea Solari. Like everything touched by the Lionardesque spirit, this great picture was left unfinished: yet Northern Italy has nothing finer to show than the landscape, outspread in its immeasurable purity of calm, behind the grouped Apostles and the ascendant Mother of Heaven. The feeling of that happy region between the Alps and Lombardy, where there are many waters—et tacitos sine labe laous sine murmure rivos—and where the last spurs of the mountains sink in undulations to the plain, has passed into this azure vista, just as all Umbria is suggested in a twilight background of young Raphael or Perugino.
The portraits of the Dukes of Milan and their families carry us into a very different realm of feeling. Medallions above the doors of sacristy and chancel, stately figures reared aloft beneath gigantic canopies, men and women slumbering with folded hands upon their marble biers—we read in all those sculptured forms a strange record of human restlessness, resolved into the quiet of the tomb. The iniquities of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, il gran Biscione, the blood-thirst of Gian Maria, the dark designs of Filippo and his secret vices, Francesco Sforza's treason, Galeazzo Maria's vanities and lusts; their tyrants' dread of thunder and the knife; their awful deaths by pestilence and the assassin's poignard; their selfishness, oppression, cruelty and fraud; the murders of their kinsmen; their labyrinthine plots and acts of broken faith;—all is tranquil now, and we can say to each what Bosola found for the Duchess of Malfi ere her execution:—
Much you had of land and rent; Your length in clay's now competent: A long war disturbed your mind; Here your perfect peace is signed!