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Varese by T. A. T.

Varese is an ancient little town on a hill overlooking the small lake of the same name in the midst of the mountainous country between Como and Lago Maggiore, and a little to the southward of the Lake of Lugano. It is within a very few miles of the Swiss frontier. All this lacustrine region has for many generations been celebrated as a specially privileged one. It is Italy without the enervating heat and aridity which are such serious drawbacks to the enjoyment of its other charms by Northern folk. It is Switzerland without the rigidity of its climate and the comparative poverty of the northern vegetation. You have the oleander and cactus around your feet, while the snow-peaks high above your head are rose-colored morning and evening by a southern sun. You wander amid groves of Spanish chestnut, and may hear the while the Swiss-sounding cattle-bells from Alpine pastures high above them. The lakes themselves, with their branching arms and bays and their fairy-like islands, are of course a feature of ever-varying and incomparable beauty.

Accordingly, Fortune's favorites of all countries have long, even from the old Roman times downward, thickly studded the district with their villas and gardens and palaces and parks. But the possession of a villa on one of the Italian lakes implies that the happy owner is nothing very much less than a millionaire. And it has been reserved for these quite latter days to find the means of placing within the reach of the many all the delights which were heretofore the exclusive privilege of the few. In no instance has this been done with so complete a measure of success as at Varese. The hotel is situated about a mile from the little town. Its gardens look down on the lake, the intervening slope being covered with forest. To the left, as one stands at the garden-front of the house, looking toward the lake, are the hills in the midst of which the Lake of Lugano nestles, and on the right, beyond the Lago Maggiore, is a view of Monte Rosa with its eternal snows, perhaps the finest to be found anywhere. I have seen Monte Rosa and its chain very finely from the top of the pass called the Col di Tenda, between Turin and Nice, but I think the view from the terrace in front of this house is finer. Immediately at the back of the house we have the hills—mountains they would be called in any other part of Europe—of which Monte Generoso, now covered with snow, though with a hotel on the top, is the most conspicuous. The country more immediately around us is a district of rolling hills, partly vineyard, but in a larger degree wooded, and here and there diversified by the well-cared-for gardens of some large villa. Our outlook, it will be admitted, is pleasant enough. The house I am speaking of, now known under the style and title of the "Excelsior Hotel," was recently a magnificent villa of the Morosini family at Venice. The name will not be new to any who have visited Venice; for the traveler, even if his tastes did not lead him to take any heed of such matters, will not have been allowed by the ciceroni to overlook the tombs of the doges of that family in the grand old church of the beheaded Saint John, San Giovanni decollata, or "San Zuan Degolà," as the soft-lisping Venetians call it. Yes, the Morosini were very great men in their day: more than one of the brightest chapters in the history of the great republic on the Adriatic is filled with their name. But now their place knows them no more: the family is extinct. The last scion of the race, an old lady who died quite recently at Varese, is said to have declared that it was time for a Morosini to retire from the scene when their house was about to be turned into an inn. Poor old lady! One could have wished that she had vanished before that desecration had been threatened, especially as her end was so near at hand; for it would, I fear, have been too much to wish that the Excelsior Hotel should have been kept out of existence for another generation.

The Morosini had palaces among the most splendid of that city of palaces, Venice, as may be seen to the present day. But this Varese villa was their place of delight and enjoyment. And truly the ideas which we generally attach to the word "villa" are scarcely represented by the magnificent building to which the public are now indiscriminately invited. It is an enormous pile of building, the vast garden-frontage of which makes considerable claims to architectural magnificence. There are, especially in Switzerland, very magnificent and palace-like hotels which have been built for the purpose they now serve, but the fact that they were so built has very effectually prevented even the most splendid among them from rivaling, or indeed approaching, the grandiose magnificence of this superb hostelrie, which has chosen its name in no idle spirit of vaunting. For building is costly, space is precious, and the necessity of finding a due return for the capital employed is the paramount rule which the architect has to keep ever in mind. The old Morosini, who raised this pile with the abundant profits of the trade with the East when Venice had the monopoly of it, were curbed in their architectural ambition by no such considerations. The building of this Villa Morosini must have cost a sum which no possible amount of success in the way of hotel-keeping could ever be expected to pay a tolerable interest on. But the sum for which it was purchased by the present proprietors by no means represents the whole of the capital which has been expended on it as it now stands. It needed the expenditure of no less a sum than sixty thousand pounds sterling to adapt it in all respects to its present purpose, and it is now really such a hotel as does not exist elsewhere in Europe. The whole of the ground floor of the vast building, looking in its entire length on the trimly-kept gardens and on the lake below them, is devoted to public rooms, the spaciousness of which is such that even if the entire house were filled to its utmost capacity they would never be in the least degree crowded. First on the right hand is the breakfast-room. Then comes an enormous dining-hall, the coved ceiling of which, supported by noble pillars and ornamented with stuccoes in relief, is in perfect keeping with the style of the rest of the ornamentation. Next to the dining-room is a reading-room well furnished with papers and books: then comes a so-called ladies' drawing-room, though I do not observe that that better half of the creation has the smallest wish to monopolize it. Next to that is the very handsome general drawing-room; then a large music-room with a grand pianoforte and harmonium; then an equally spacious smoking-room; and, lastly, a billiard-room;—truly a princely suite of rooms. The manager speaks English perfectly, and the results of his English education may be seen in the admirably comfortable and clean arrangements of the chambers and every part of the house. The bedrooms are all warmed with hot air, and really nothing has been neglected which can contribute to ensure the comfort of the inmates.

And all this can be enjoyed for nine francs per diem! A palace to live in, placed in one of the choicest spots in the world, abundant and well-skilled service, an excellently well-kept and well-served table, charming gardens, and all for about two dollars a day! Truly wonderful are the possibilities brought within our reach by co-operation! Still, I do not suppose that quite the same results could be attained without the fortunate chance which placed a magnificent palace at the disposal of the present proprietors at doubtless a comparatively very small cost. Morosini "nobis hæc otra fecit" The princely expenditure of that noble family in days long since gone by provided for us nomads these enjoyments; for one is afraid to guess what the cost at the present day of erecting such a pile would be. Throughout a large part of the house, in the huge corridors and antechambers, a great deal of the old furniture and the vast marble chimney-pieces and mural decorations remain as the Morosini left them, and contribute their part toward persuading us that we are not dwellers in a vulgar inn, but the guests of some magnificent old doge, who leaves his friends the most complete liberty and independence, and merely gratifies the commercial traditions of his race by requesting us pro formâ to drop a small present to his domestics at parting.

There are a great variety of charming drives and walks in the neighborhood in every direction; and the whole district is full of the villas and well-kept gardens of the rich Milanese, who have chosen this favored spot for their country residences. I have said well-kept gardens advisedly; and it is worth noting that the love of gardens and gardening seems to be a specialty of the Milanese among all the Italians. One sees in other parts of Italy the remains of care and magnificence of this sort—at Rome especially; but all (though in many cases belonging to owners still wealthy as well as noble) dilapidated, little cared for, and speaking in melancholy tones of decay and perished splendor. A ruined building may be an extremely picturesque object, but a ruined garden can never be other than a melancholy and repulsive one. But the whole of this district testifies to the love of the Milanese for their gardens; and most of them are on a truly princely scale of magnificence. There is one villa which I will mention, because the owner of it is doing there what recalls to our minds strikingly the old days which saw the creation of that Italian splendor the remains of which we still admire, and suggests that it is not beyond hope that the privileged soil of Italy and the genius for the arts which seems inherent in this people may, under their new political circumstances, lead to yet another renaissance. The villa I am alluding to is in the immediate neighborhood of Varese, on a rising ground above the town, commanding the most magnificent views of Monte Rosa, Monte Viso and the country between the lakes of Como and Maggiore. It is a new creation, and is the property and the work of the Milanese banker, Signor Ponti. The house and gardens are well worth a visit—if the traveler is fortunate enough to be permitted to see them—for the sake of the happy originality of idea which has inspired the architecture of the former and the excellent taste which has turned the favorable circumstances of the ground to the best account in laying out the latter. But the feature which I specially wished to mention is the ornamentation of the principal salon or ball-room in the villa. When permitted to visit it we found Signor Bertini, a Milanese artist well known in all parts of Italy, engaged in putting the last touches to a series of frescoes which form the principal ornamentation of the room. The four largest paintings commemorate the glories of Italy in the history of human discovery. In one the monk, Guido of Arezzo, the inventor of modern musical notation, is teaching a class of four boys to sing from the page of an illuminated missal—a really charming composition. In another Columbus is showing to the Spanish monarchs the natives of the newly-found world whom he had brought home with him. In a third Galileo is showing to the astonished pope, by means of a telescope, the wonders of that other newly-found world of which he was the discoverer. The fourth shows us the very striking and lifelike figure of Volta explaining the wonders of the "pile" to which he has given his name to the First Napoleon. The whole of these, as well as of the other decorations of the room, are in "real fresco"—that is to say, the colors are laid on while the mortar is yet wet (whence the name fresco), and thus become so entirely incorporated with the substance of the wall that the painting is indestructible save by the destruction of at least the coating of the latter. Of course, it is evident that a painting so executed admits of no second touch. The hand of the artist must obey his thought with absolutely unfailing fidelity or the work is worthless. Hence the special difficulty of this description of art, and the necessity of a very high degree of mastery in him who attempts it. In the present case Signor Bertini has succeeded admirably. But I was especially struck by the taste and liberality of the Milanese banker, who, instead of making his room gorgeous with damask hangings and satin and velvet, which any man who has cash in his pocket may have, is giving encouragement to the art of his country, and doing at this day exactly that which the Strozzi, the Borghesi, the Medici and so many other bankers and merchants did three hundred and odd years ago, and by doing made Italy what it was.