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A Chain Of Italian Cities by By Henry James

 

ONE day in midwinter some years since, during a transit from Rome to Florence too rapid to admit of much wayside dalliance with the picturesque, I waited for the train at Narni. There was time to stroll far enough from the station to have a look at the famous old bridge of Augustus, broken short in mid-Tiber. While I stood observing, the measure of enjoyment was filled up by the unbargained spectacle of a white-cowled monk trudging up a road which wound into the gate of the town. The little town stood on a hill, a good space away, boxed in behind its perfect grey wall, and the monk crept slowly along and disappeared within the aperture. Everything was distinct in the clear air, and the view was like a bit of background in a Perugino. The winter is bare and brown enough in Southern Italy, and the earth has even a shabbier aspect than with ourselves, with whom the dark side of the year has a robust self-assurance which enables one to regard it very much as a fine nude statue. But the winter atmosphere in these regions has often an extraordinary charm; it seems to smile with a tender sense of being sole heir to the duty of cheering mans heart. It gave such a charm to the broken bridge, the little walled town, and the trudging friar, that I turned away with an impatient vow that in some blessed springtime of the future I would take the journey again and pause to my hearts content at Narni, at Spoleto, at Assisi, at Perugia, at Cortona, at Arezzo. But we have generally to clip our vows a little when we come to fulfil them; and so it befell that when my blessed springtime arrived, I had to begin resignedly at Assisi.

I suppose enjoyment would have a simple zest which it often lacks, if we always did things when we want to; for we can answer too little for future moods. Winter, at least, seemed to me to have put something into these mediaeval cities which the May sun had melted away—-a certain delectable depth of local colour, an excess of duskiness and decay. Assisi, in the January twilight, looked like a vignette cut of some brown old missal. But you'll have to be a fearless explorer now to find of a fine spring day a quaint Italian town which doesn't primarily remind you of the style of portraiture enshrined between the covers of Bädeker. There were plenty of Bädekers at Assisi, and a brand new inn for their accommodation has just been opened cheek by jowl with the church of Saint Francis. I don't know that even its dire discomfort makes it seem less impertinent; but I confess I stayed there, and the great view seemed hardly less beautiful from my window than from the gallery of the convent. It embraces the whole wide plain of Umbria, which, as twilight deepens, becomes an enchanting counterfeit of the misty sea. The traveller's first errand is with the church; and it is fair, furthermore, to admit that when he has crossed the threshold, the position and the quality of his inn cease for the time to be matters of moment. This double temple of Saint Francis is one of the very sacred places of Italy, and it is hard to fancy a church with a greater look of sanctity. It seems especially solemn if you have just come from Rome, where everything ecclesiastical is, in aspect, so very much of this world—-so florid, so elegant, so full of profane suggestiveness. Its position is superb, and they were brave builders who laid its foundation-stones. It rises straight from a steep mountain side and plunges forward on its great substructure of arches, like a headland frowning over the sea. Before it stretches a long, grassy piazza, at the end of which you look along a little grey street, and see it climb a little way the rest of the hill, and then pause and leave a broad green slope, crowned, high in the air, with a ruined castle. When I say before it, I mean before the upper church; for by way of doing something supremely handsome and impressive, the sturdy architects of the thirteenth century piled temple upon temple, and bequeathed a double version of their idea. One may fancy them to have intended perhaps an architectural image of the relation between human heart and head. Entering the lower church at the bottom of the great flight of steps which leads from the upper door, you seem to penetrate at last into the very heart of Catholicism. For the first few minutes after leaving the hot daylight, you see nothing but a vista of low, black columns, closed by the great fantastic cage which surrounds the altar; the place looks like a sort of gorgeous cavern. With time you distinguish details, and become accustomed to the penetrating chill, and even manage to make out a few frescoes; but the general effect remains magnificently sombre and subterranean. The vaulted roof is very low and the pillars dwarfish, though immense in girth—-as befits pillars with a small cathedral on top of them. The “tone” of the place is superb—-the richest harmony of lurking, shadows and dusky corners, relieved by scattered images and scintillations. There was little light but what came through the windows of the choir, over which the red curtains had been dropped and were beginning to glow with the declining sun. The choir was guarded by a screen, behind which half a dozen venerable voices were droning vespers; but over the top of the screen came the heavy radiance, and played among the ornaments of the high fence around the shrine, and cast the shadow of. the whole elaborate mass forward into the dusky nave. The gloom of the vault and the side-chapels is overwrought with vague frescoes, most of them of Giotto and his school, out of which the terribly distinct little faces which these artists loved to draw stare at you with a solemn formalism. Some of them are faded and injured, and many so ill-lighted and ill-placed that you can only glance at them with reverential conjecture; the great group, however,—-four paintings by Giotto on the ceiling above the altar,—-may be examined with some success. Like everything of Giotto's, they deserve examination; but I don't know that they repay it by any great increase of cheerfulness. He was an admirably expressive genius, and in the art of making, an attitude unmistakable I think he has hardly been surpassed; it is perhaps this rigid exactness of posture that gives his personages their formidable grimness. Meagre, primitive, undeveloped as he is, he seems immeasurably strong, and suggests that if he had lived a hundred and fifty years later, Michael Angelo might have found a rival. Not that Giotto is fond of imaginative contortions. The curious something that troubles and haunts in his works resides in their intense reality.

It is part of the wealth of the lower church that it contains an admirable primitive fresco by an artist of genius rarely encountered—-a certain Pietro Cavallini, pupil of Giotto. It represents the Crucifixion; the three crosses rising into a sky spotted with the winged heads of angels, with a dense crowd pressing below. I have never seen anything, more direfully lugubrious; it comes near being as impressive as Tintoretto's great renderings of the scene in Venice. The abject anguish of the crucified, and the straddling authority and brutality of the mounted guards in the foreground, are contrasted in a fashion worthy of a great dramatist. But the most poignant touch is the tragic grimaces of the little angelic heads, as they fall like hail-stones through the dark air. It is genuine, realistic weeping that the painter has depicted, and the effect is a singular mixture of the grotesque and the pitiful. There are a great many more frescoes beside all the chapels on one side are lined with them; but they are chiefly interesting in their general effect—-as they people the dim recesses with startling shadows and dwarfish phantoms. Before leaving the church, I lingered a long time near the door, for it seemed to me I should not soon again enjoy such a feast of chiaroscuro. The opposite end glowed with subdued colour; the middle portion was vague and brown, with two or three scattered worshipers looming through the dusk; and all the way down, the polished pavement, with its uneven slabs, glittering dimly in the obstructed light, seemed to me the most fascinating thing in the world. It is certainly desirable, if one takes the lower church of Saint Francis to represent the human heart, that one should find a few bright places in it. But if the general effect is gloomy, is the symbol less valid? For the contracted, passionate, prejudiced heart let it stand!

One thing, at all events, I can say: that I would give a great deal to possess as capacious, symmetrical, and well-ordered a head as the upper sanctuary. Thanks to these merits, in spite of a great array of frescoes of Giotto which have the advantage of being easily seen, it lacks the picturesqueness of its counterpart. The frescoes, which are admirable, represent certain leading events in the life of Saint Francis, and suddenly remind you, by one of those anomalies which abound amid the picturesqueness of Catholicism, that the apostle of beggary—-the saint whose only tenement in life was the ragged robe which barely covered him—-is the hero of this massive structure. Church upon church—-nothing less will adequately shroud his consecrated clay. The great reality of Giotto's designs increases the helpless wonderment with which we look at the passionate pluck of Saint Francis—-the sense of being separated from it by an impassable gulf—-the reflection on all that has come and gone to make us forgive ourselves for not being capable of such high-strung virtue. An observant friend, who has lived long in Italy, lately declared to me that she detested the name of Saint Francis—-she deemed him the chief propagator of that Italian vice which is most trying to those who have a kindness for the Italian character—-the want of personal self-respect. There is a solidarity in cleanliness, and every cringing beggar, idler, liar, and pilferer seemed to her to flourish under the shadow of this great man's unwashed sanctity. She was possibly right; at Rome, at Naples, at least, I would have admitted that she was right; but at Assisi, face to face with Giotto's vivid chronicles, it is impossible to refuse to the painter's ascetic hero that compassionate respect which we feel for all men whose idea and life have been identical, whose doctrine was an unflinching personal example.

I should find it hard to give a very definite account of my subsequent adventures at Assisi; for there is incontestably such a thing as being too good-humoured to discriminate, too genial to be critical. One needn't be ashamed to confess that the ultimate result of one's meditations at the shrine of Saint Francis was a great charity. My charity led me slowly up and down for a couple of hours through the steep little streets, and finally stretched itself on the grass beside me in the shadow of the great ruined castle which decorates so magnificently the eminence above the town. I remember edging along against the sunless side of the mouldy little houses, and pausing very often to look at nothing very particular. It was all very hot, very still, very drearily antique. A wheeled vehicle at Assisi is a rarity, and the foreigners interrogative tread in the blank sonorous lanes has the privilege of bringing the inhabitants to their door-ways. Some of the better houses, however, have an air of sombre stillness which seems a protest against all curiosity as to what may happen in the nineteenth century. You may wonder, .as you pass, what lingering Old-World social types are vegetating there, but you'll not find out. Yet in one very silent little street I had a glimpse of an open door which I have not forgotten. A long-haired peddler, with a tray of mass-books and rosaries, was offering his wares to a stout old priest. The priest had opened the door rather stingily, and seemed to be half-heartedly dismissing him. But the peddler held up something which I couldn't see; the priest wavered, with an air of timorous concession to profane curiosity, and then furtively pulled the peddler into the house. I should have liked to go in with the peddler. I saw later some gentlemen of Assisi who also seemed bored enough to have found entertainment in a peddler's tray. They were at the door of the cafe on the Piazza, and were so thankful to me for asking them the way to the cathedral that they all answered in chorus, and smiled as if I had done them a favour. The Piazza has a fine old portico of an ancient Temple of Minerva—-six fluted columns and a pediment, of beautiful proportions, but sadly battered and decayed. Goethe, I believe, found it much more interesting than the mighty mediaeval church, and Goethe, as a cicerone, doubtless could have persuaded you that it was so; but in the humble society of Murray we shall most of us find deeper meanings in the church. I found some very quaint ones in the dark yellow façade of the small cathedral as I sat on a stone bench beside the oblong green which lies before it. It is a very pretty piece of Italian Gothic, and, like several of its companions at Assisi, it has an elegant wheel window and a number of grotesque little sculptures of creatures human and bestial. If, with Goethe, I inclined to balance something against the attractions of the great church, I should choose the ruined castle on the hill above the town. I had been having glimpses of it all the afternoon at the end of steep street vistas, and promising myself half an hour beside its grey walls at sunset. The sun was very long setting, and my half-hour became a long lounge in the lee of an abutment which arrested the gentle uproar of the wind. The castle is a magnificent piece of ruin, perched upon the summit of the mountain to whose slope Assisi clings, and dropping a pair of stony arms to inclose the little town in its embrace. The city-wall, in other words, straggles up the steep green slope and meets the crumbling, porticoes of the castle. On the side away from the town the mountain plunges into a deep ravine, on the other side of which rises the powerful undraped shoulder of Monte Scabasio—-a fierce reflector of the sun. Gorge and mountain are wild enough, but their frown expires in the teeming softness of the great vale of Umbria. To lie aloft there on the grass, with a silver-grey castle at one's back and the warm rushing wind in one's ears, and watch the beautiful plain mellowing into the tones of twilight, was as exquisite a form of repose as ever fell to a tired tourists lot.

At Perugia is an ancient castle; but unhappily one must speak of it in earnest as that unconscious humorist, the classic American traveller, is found invariably to speak of the Coliseum: it will be a very handsome building when it is finished. Even Perugia is going the way of all Italy—-straightening out her streets, repairing her ruins, laying her venerable ghosts. The castle is being completely remis à neuf—-a Massachusetts school-house could not be less feudal and murmur fewer reminiscences. There are shops in the basement and fresh putty on all the windows. The only thing proper to a castle that it has kept is its magnificent position and view, which you may enjoy from the broad platform where the Perugini assemble at eventide. Perugia is chiefly known to fame as the city of Raphael's master; but it has an even higher claim to renown, and ought to be set down in one's sentimental gazetteer as the City with the Views. The little dusky, crooked town is full of picturesqueness; but the view,, somehow, is ever-present, even when your back is turned to it, or fifty house-walls conceal it, and you are forever rushing up bystreets and peeping round corners in the hope of catching another glimpse of it. As it stretches away before you in all its lovely immensity, it is altogether too vast and too fair to be described. You can only say, and rest upon it, that you prefer it to any other in the world. For it is such a wondrous mixture of blooming plain and gleaming river and waving multitudinous mountains, vaguely dotted with pale grey cities, that placed as you are, roughly speaking, in the centre of Italy, your glance seems to compass the lovely land from sea to sea. Up the long vista of the Tiber you look—-almost to Rome; past Assisi, Spello, Foligno, Spoleto, all perched on their respective mountains and shining through the blue haze. To the north, to the east, to the west, you see a hundred variations of the prospect of which I have kept no record. Two notes only I have made: one (I have made it over and over again) on the exquisite elegance of mountain forms and lines in Italy—-it is exactly as if there were a sex in mountains, and their contours and curves and complexions were here all of the feminine gender: second, on the possession of such an outlook on the world really going far to make a modest little city like Perugia a kind of aesthetic metropolis. It must deepen the civic consciousness and take off the edge of ennui. It performs this kindly office, at any rate, for the traveller who is overstaying his curiosity as to Perugino and the Etruscan relics. It continually solicits his eyes and his imagination, and doubles his entertainment. I spent a week in the place, and when it was gone, I had had enough of Perugino but I had not had enough of the view.

I should, perhaps, do the reader a service by telling him just how a week at Perugia may be spent. His first care must be not to be in a hurry—-to walk everywhere, very slowly and very much at random, and gaze good-naturedly at anything his eye may happen to encounter. Almost everything that meets the eye has an ancient oddity which ekes out the general picturesqueness. He must look a great deal at the huge Palazzo Pubblico, which indeed is very well worth looking at. It masses itself gloomily above the narrow street to an immense elevation, and leads up the eye along a cliff-like surface of rugged wall, mottled with old scars and new repairs, to the loggia dizzily perched upon its cornice. He must repeat his visit to the Etruscan Gate, whose extreme antiquity he will need more than one visit to take the measure of. He must uncap to the picturesque statue of Pope Julius III., before the cathedral, remembering that Hawthorne fabled his Miriam to have given rendezvous to Kenyon at its base. Its material is a vivid green bronze, and the mantle and tiara are covered with a delicate embroidery worthy of a silversmith. He must bestow on Perugino's frescoes in the Exchange, and his pictures in the University, all the placid contemplation they deserve. He must go to the theatre every evening in an orchestra chair at twenty-two soldi, and enjoy the curious didacticism of Amore senza Stima, Severità e Debolezza, La Società Equivoca, and other popular specimens of contemporaneous Italian comedy. I shall be very much surprised if at the end of a week of this varied entertainment, he does not confess to a sentimental attachment to Perugia. His strolls will abound in small picturesque chances, of which a dozen pencil-strokes would be a better memento than this vague word-sketching. From the hill on which the town is planted radiate a dozen ravines, down whose sides the houses slide and scramble with an alarming indifference to the cohesion of their little rugged blocks of flinty red stone. You cannot ramble far without emerging upon some little court or terrace from which you may look across a gulf of tangled gardens or vineyards at a cluster of serried black dwellings, which seem to be hollowing in their backs to keep their balance on its opposite edge; on archways and street-staircases and dark alleys boring through a chain of massive basements, and curving and climbing and plunging as they go, on the soundest mediaeval principles, you may feast your fill. They are the architectural commonplaces of Perugia. Some of the little streets in out-of-the-way corners always suggested to me, a singular image. They were so rugged, so brown, so silent, that you would have fancied them passages long since hewn by the pickaxe in some deserted stone-quarry. The battered brown houses looked like sections of natural rock—-none the less so when, across some narrow gap, I saw the glittering azure of the great surrounding landscape.

But I ought not to talk of mouldy alleys or even of azure landscapes, as if they were the chief delight of the eyes, in this accomplished little city. In the Sala del Cambio, where in ancient days the money-changers rattled their sculptured forms and figured up their profits, you may enjoy one of the serenest artistic pleasures which the golden age of art has bequeathed to us. Bank parlours, I believe, are always luxuriously furnished, but I doubt whether even those of Messrs. Rothschild are decorated in as fine a taste as this little counting-house of a by-gone fashion. Perugino was the artist chosen, and he did his best. He covered the four low walls and ceiling with Scriptural and mythological figures of extraordinary beauty. They are ranged in artless attitudes around the upper half of the room,—-the sibyls, the prophets, the philosophers, the Greek and Roman heroes,—-looking down with broad serene faces, with their small mild eyes, their small sweet mouths, at the incongruous proceedings of a Board of Brokers. Had finance a very high tone in those days, or was genius simply very convenient,, as the Irish say? The great charm of the Sala del Cambio is that it seems to murmur a yes to both these questions. There was a rigid probity, it seems to say; there was an abundant inspiration. . . . About the artist there would be much to say—-more than I can attempt; for he was not, I think, to an attentive observer, the very simple genius that he seems. He has that about him which leads one to say to one's self that, after all, he plays a proper part enough here as the patron of the money-changers. He is the delight of a million of young ladies; but I suspect that if his works could be exactly analysed, we should find in them a trifle more of manner than of conviction—-of skill than of sentiment. His portrait, painted on the wall of the Sala (you may see it also at Rome and Florence), might serve for the likeness of Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, in Bunyan's allegory. He was fond of his glass, I believe, and he made his art lucrative. This tradition is not refuted by his portrait, and after some experience of his pictures, you may find an echo of it in their monotonous race, their somewhat conscious purity. But I confess that Perugino, so interpreted, seems to me hardly less interesting. li he was the inventor of what the French call la facture, he applied his system with masterly skill; be was the forerunner of a mighty race. After you have seen a certain number of his pictures, you have taken his measure. They are all unerring reproductions of a single primary type which had the good fortune to be adorably fair—-to look as if it had freshly dawned upon a vision unsullied by the shadows of earth. As painter and draughtsman Perugino is delightful; one takes a singular pleasure in being able to count confidently on his unswerving beauty of line, and untroubled harmony of colour. Scepticism much more highly developed than Perugino's would be easy to forgive, if it were as careful to replace one conscience by another. The spiritual conscience—-the conscience of Giotto and Fra Angelico—-must have lurked in a corner of his genius even after the master had taken his position. In the sacristy of the charming church of San Pietro—-a museum of pictures and carvings—-is a row of small heads of saints which formerly ornamented the frame of the artist's Ascension, carried off by the French. It is almost miniature work, and as candidly devout in expression as it is delicious in touch. Two of the holy men are reading their breviaries, but with an air of infantine innocence which makes you feel sure that they are holding the book upside down.

Between Perugia and Cortona lies Lake Thrasymene, where Hannibal treated the Romans to an unwonted taste of disaster. The reflections it suggests, are a proper preparation for Cortona itself, which is one of the most sturdily ancient of Italian towns. It must indeed have been a hoary old city when Hannibal and Flaminius came to the shock of battle, and have looked down afar from its grey ramparts, on the contending swarm, with something of the philosophic composure befitting a survivor of Pelasgian and Etruscan revolutions. These grey ramparts are in great part still visible, and form the chief attraction of Cortona. It is perched on the very pinnacle of a mountain, and I wound and doubled interminably over the face of the great hill, and still the jumbled roofs and towers of the arrogant little city seemed nearer to the sky than to the railway station. “Rather rough,” Murray pronounces the local hotel; and rough indeed it was; it fairly bristled with discomfort. But the landlord was the best fellow in the world, and took me up into a rickety old loggia on the summit of his establishment and played showman to the wonderful panorama. I don't know whether my loss or my gain was greater that I saw Cortona through the medium of a festa. On the one hand the museum was closed (and in a certain sense the smaller and obscurer the town, the more I like the museum), the churches were impenetrably crowded, and there was not an empty stool nor the edge of a table at the cafe. On the other I saw—-but this is what I saw. A part of the mountain top is occupied by the church of Saint Margaret, and this was Saint Margaret's Day. The houses pause and leave a grassy slope, planted here and there with lean black cypresses. The peasantry of the place and of the neighbouring country had congregated in force, and were crowding into the church or winding up the slope. When I arrived, they were all kneeling or uncovered; a bedizened procession, with banners and censers, bearing abroad, I believe, the relics of the saint, was re-entering the church. It was vastly picturesque. The day was superb, and the sky blazing overhead like a vault of deepest sapphire. The brown contadini, in no great “costume,” but decked in various small fineries of scarlet and yellow, made a mass of motley colour in the high wind-stirred light. The procession chanted in the pious hush, and the boundless prospect melted away beneath us in tones of azure hardly less brilliant than the sky. Behind the church was an empty, crumbling citadel, with half a dozen old women keeping the gate for coppers. Here were views and breezes and sun and shade and grassy corners, to one's heart's content. I chose a spot which fairly combined all these advantages, and spent a good part of my day at Cortona, lying there at my length and observing the situation over the top of a novel of Balzac. In the afternoon, I came down and hustled awhile through the crowded little streets, and then strolled forth under a scorching sun, and made the outer circuit of the walls. I saw some tremendous uncemented blocks; they were glaring and twinkling in the powerful light, and I had to put on a blue eye-glass, to throw the vague Etruscan past into its proper perspective.

I spent the next day at Arezzo, in very much the same uninvestigating fashion. At Arezzo, you are far from Rome, you are well within genial Tuscany, and you encounter Romance in a milder form. The ruined castle on the hill, for instance (like Assisi and Cortona, Arezzo is furnished with this agreeable feature), has been converted into a blooming market-garden. But I lounged away the hot hours there, under a charm as potent as fancy could have foreshadowed it. I had seen Santa Maria della Pieve and its campanile of quaint colonnades, the impressive cathedral and John of Pisa's elaborate marble shrine, the museum and its Etruscan vases and majolica platters. The old pacified citadel was more delicious. There were lovely hills all around it, cypresses casting straight shadows on the grassy bastions at its angles, and in the middle, a wondrous Italian tangle of growing wheat and corn, vines and figs, peaches and cabbages.

 
 
 

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