Letter XV.

From: At Home and Abroad, or Things and Thoughts in Europe (1856)
Author: Margaret Fuller Ossoli
Published: and Company 1856 Boston


Italy.—Fruits and Flowers on the Route from Florence to Rome.—The Plain of Umbria.—Assisi.—The Saints.—Tuition in Schools.—Pius IX.—The Etrurian Tomb.—Perugia and its Stores of Early Art.—Portraits of Raphael.—Florence.—The Grand Duke and his Policy.—The Liberty of the Press and its Influence.—The American Sculptors.—Greenough and his New Works.—Powers.—His Statue of Calhoun.—Review of his Endeavors.—The Festivals of St. John at Florence.—Bologna.—Female Professors in its University.—Matilda Tambreni and others.—Milan and her Female Mathematician.—The State of Woman in Italy.—Ravenna and Byron.—Venice.—The American Consul there.—The Adda.—Milan and its Neighborhood and Manzoni.—Excitements.—National Affairs, etc.

Milan, August 9, 1847.

  SINCE leaving Rome, I have not been able to steal a moment from the rich and varied objects before me to write about them. I will, therefore, make a brief retrospect of the ground.

  I passed from Florence to Rome by the Perugia route, and saw, for the first time the Italian vineyards. The grapes hung in little clusters. When I return, they will be full of light and life, but the fields will not be so enchantingly fresh, nor so enameled with flowers.

  The profusion of red poppies, which dance on every wall and glitter throughout the grass, is a great ornament to the landscape. In full sunlight their vermillion is most beautiful. Well might Ceres gather such poppies to mingle with her wheat.

  We climbed the hill to Assisi, and my ears thrilled as with many old remembered melodies, when an old peasant, in sonorous phrase, bade me look out and see the plain of Umbria. I looked back and saw the carriage toiling up the steep path, drawn by a pair of those light-colored oxen Shelley so much admired. I stood near the spot where Goёthe met with a little adventure, which he has described with even more than his usual delicate humor. Who can ever be alone for a moment in Italy? Every stone has a voice, every grain of dust seems distinct with spirit from the Past, every step recalls some line, some legend of long-neglected lore.

  Assisi was exceedingly charming to me. So still!—all temporal noise and bustle seem hushed down yet by the presence of the saint. So clean!—the rains of heaven wash down all impurities into the valley. I must confess that, elsewhere, I have shared the feelings of Dickens toward St. Francis and St. Sebastian, as the “Mounseer Tonsons” of Catholic art. St. Sebastian I have not been so tired of, for the beauty and youth of the figure make the monotony with which the subject of his martyrdom is treated somewhat less wearisome. But St. Francis is so sad, and so exstatic, and so brown, so entirely the monk,—and St. Clara so entirely the nun! I have been very sorry for her that he was able to draw her from the human to the heavenly life; she seems so sad and so worn out by the effort. But here at Assisi, one cannot help being penetrated by the spirit that flowed from that life. Here is the room where his father shut up the boy to punish his early severity of devotion. Here is the picture which represents him despoiled of all outward things, even his garments,—devoting himself, body and soul, to the service of God in the way he believed most acceptable. Here is the underground chapel, where rest those weary bones, saluted by the tears of so many weary pilgrims who have come hither to seek strength from his example. Here are the churches above, full of the works of earlier art, animated by the contagion of a great example. It is impossible not to bow the head, and feel how mighty an influence flows from a single soul, sincere in its service of truth, in whatever form that truth comes to it.

  A troop of neat, pretty school-girls attended us about, going with us into the little chapels adorned with pictures which open at every corner of the streets, smiling on us at a respectful distance. Some of them were fourteen or fifteen years old. I found reading, writing, and sewing were all they learned at their school; the first, indeed, they knew well enough, if they could ever get books to use it on. Tranquil as Assisi was, on every wall was read Viva Pio IX.! and we found the guides and workmen in the shop full of a vague hope from him. The old love which has made so rich this aerial cradle of St. Francis glows warm as ever in the breasts of men; still, as ever, they long for hero-worship, and shout aloud at the least appearance of an object.

  The church at the foot of the hill, Santa Maria degli Angeli, seems tawdry after Assisi. It also is full of the records of St. Francis, his pains and his triumphs. Here, too, on a little chapel, is the famous picture by Overbeck; too exact a copy, but how different in effect from the early art we had just seen above! Harmonious but frigid, grave but dull; childhood is beautiful, but not when continued, or rather transplanted, into the period where we look for passion, varied means and manly force.

  Before reaching Perugia, I visited the Etrurian tomb, which is a little way off the road; it is said to be one of the finest in Etruria. The hill-side is full of them, but excavations are expensive, and not frequent. The effect of this one was beyond my expectations; in it were several female figures, very dignified and calm as the dim lamp-light fell on them by turns. The expression of these figures shows that the position of woman in these states was noble. Their eagles’ nests cherished well the female eagle who kept watch in the eyrie.

  Perugia too is on a noble hill. What a daily excitement such a view taken at every step! Life is worth ten times as much in a city so situated. Perugia is full, overflowing, with the treasures of early art. I saw them so rapidly it seems now as if in a trance, yet certainly with a profit, a manifold gain, such as Mahomet thought he gained from his five minutes’ visits to other spheres. Here are two portraits of Raphael as a youth; it is touching to see what effect this angel had upon all that surrounded him from the very first.

  Florence! I was there a month, and in a sense saw Florence; that is to say, I took an inventory of what is to be seen there, and not without great intellectual profit. There is too much that is really admirable in art,—the nature of its growth lies before you too clear to be evaded. Of such things more elsewhere.

  I do not like Florence as I do cities more purely Italian. The natural character is ironed out here, and done up in a French pattern; yet there is no French vivacity, nor Italian either. The Grand Duke—more and more agitated by the position in which he finds himself between the influence of the Pope and that of Austria—keeps imploring and commanding his people to keep still, and they are still and glum as death. This is all on the outside; within, Tuscany burns. Private culture has not been in vain, and there is, in a large circle, mental preparation for a very different state of things from the present, with an ardent desire to diffuse the same amid the people at large. The sovereign has been obliged for the present to give more liberty to the press, and there was an immediate rush of thought to the new vent; if it is kept open a few months, the effect on the body of the people cannot fail to be great. I intended to have translated some passages from the programme of the Patria, one of the papers newly started at Florence, but time fails. One of the articles in the same number by Lambruschini, on the duties of the clergy at this juncture, contains views as liberal as can be found in print anywhere in the world. More of these things when I return to Rome in the autumn, when I hope to find a little leisure to think over what I have seen, and, if found worthy, to put the result in writing.

  I visited the studios of our sculptors; Greenough has in clay a David which promises high beauty and nobleness, a bass-relief, full of grace and tender expression; he is also modeling a head of Napoleon, and justly enthusiastic in the study. His great group I did not see in such a state as to be secure of my impression. The face of the Pioneer is very fine, the form of the woman graceful and expressive; but I was not satisfied with the Indian. I shall see it more as a whole on my return to Florence.

  As to the Eve and the Greek Slave, I could only join with the rest of the world in admiration of their beauty and the fine feeling of nature which they exhibit. The statue of Calhoun is full of power, simple, and majestic in attitude and expression. In busts Powers seems to me unrivalled; still, he ought not to spend his best years on an employment which cannot satisfy his ambition nor develop his powers. If our country loves herself, she will order from him some great work before the prime of his genius has been frittered away, and his best years spent on lesser things.

  I saw at Florence the festivals of St. John, but they are poor affairs to one who has seen the Neapolitan and Roman people on such occasions.

  Passing from Florence, I came to Bologna,—learned Bologna; indeed an Italian city, full of expression, of physiognomy, so to speak. A woman should love Bologna, for there has been the spark of intellect in woman been cherished with reverent care. Not in former ages only, but in this, Bologna raised a woman who was worthy to the dignities of its University, and in their Certosa they proudly show the monument to Matilda Tambroni, late Greek Professor there. Her letters, preserved by her friends, are said to form a very valuable collection. In their anatomical hall is the bust of a woman, Professor of Anatomy. In Art they have had Properzia di Rossi, Elizabeth Sirani, Lavinia Fontana, and delight to give their works a conspicuous place.

  In other cities the men alone have their Casino dei Nobili, where they give balls, converzazioni, and similar entertainments. Here women have one, and are the soul of society.

  In Milan, also, I see in the Ambrosian Library the bust of a female mathematician. These things make me feel that, if the state of woman in Italy is so depressed, yet a good-will toward a better is not wholly wanting. Still more significant is the reverence to the Madonna and innumerable female saints, who, if, like St. Teresa, they had intellect as well as piety, became counsellors no less than comforters to the spirits of men.

  Ravenna, too, I saw, and its old Christian art, the Pineta, where Byron loved to ride, and the paltry apartments where, cheered by a new affection, in which was more of tender friendship than of passion, he found himself less wretched than at beautiful Venice or stately Genoa.

  All the details of this visit to Ravenna are pretty. I shall write them out some time. Of Padua, too, the little to be said should be said in detail.

  Of Venice and its enchanted life I could not speak; it should only be echoed back in music. There only I began to feel in its fullness Venetian Art. It can only be seen in its own atmosphere. Never had I the least idea of what is to be seen at Venice. It seems to me as if no one ever yet had seen it,—so entirely wanting is any expression of what I felt myself. Venice! on this subject I shall not write a word till time, place, and mode agree to make it fit.

  Venice, where all is past, is a fit asylum for the dynasties of the Past. The Duchess de Berri owns one of the finest palaces on the Grand Canal; the Due de Bordeaux rents another; Mademoiselle Taglioni has bought the famous Casa d’Oro, and it is under repair. Thanks to the fashion which has made Venice a refuge of this kind, the palaces, rarely inhabited by the representatives of their ancient names, are valuable property, and the noble structures will not be suffered to lapse into the sea, above which they rose so proudly. The restorations, too, are made with excellent taste and judgment,—nothing is spoiled. Three of these fine palaces are now hotels, so that the transient visitor can enjoy from their balconies all the wondrous shows of the Venetian night and day as much as any of their former possessors did. I was at the Europa, formerly Giustiniani Palace, with better air than those on the Grand Canal, and a more unobstructed view than Danieli’s.

  Madame de Berri gave an entertainment on the birthnight of her son, and the old Duchess d’Angoulême came from Vienna to attend it. ‘T was a scene of fairy land, the palace full of light, so that from the canal could be seen even the pictures on the walls. Landing from the gondolas, the elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen seemed to rise from the water; we also saw them glide up the great stair, rustling their plumes, and in the reception-rooms, make and receive the customary grimaces. A fine band stationed on the opposite side of the canal played the while, and a flotilla of gondolas lingered there to listen. I, too, amid the mob, a pleasant position in Venice alone, thought of the Stuarts, Bourbons, Bonapartes, here in Italy, and offered up a prayer that other names, when the possessors have power without the heart to use it for the emancipation of mankind, might be added to the list, and other princes, more rich in blood than brain, might come to enjoy a perpetual villeggiatura in Italy. It did not seem to me a cruel wish. The show of greatness will satisfy every legitimate desire of such minds. A gentle punishment for the distributors of lettres de cachet and Spielberg dungeons to their fellow-men.

  Having passed more than a fortnight at Venice, I have come here, stopping at Vicenza, Verona, Mantua, Lago di Garda, Brescia. Certainly I have learned more than ever in any previous ten days of my existence, and have formed an idea what is needed for the study of Art and its history in these regions. To be sure, I shall never have time to follow it up, but it is a delight to look up those glorious vistas, even when there is no hope of entering them.

  A violent shower obliged me to stop on the way. It was late at night, and I was nearly asleep, when, roused by the sound of bubbling waters, I started up and asked, “Is that the Adda?” and it was. So deep is the impression made by a simple natural recital, like that of Renzo’s wanderings in the Promessi Sposi, that the memory of his hearing the Adda in this way occurred to me at once, and the Adda seemed familiar as if I had been a native of this region.

  As the Scottish lakes seem the domain of Walter Scott, so does Milan and its neighborhood in the mind of a foreigner belong to Manzoni. I have seen him since, the gentle lord of this wide domain; his hair is white, but his eyes still beam as when he first saw the apparitions of truth, simple tenderness, and piety which he has so admirably recorded for our benefit. Those around lament that the fastidiousness of his taste prevents his completing and publishing more, and that thus a treasury of rare knowledge and refined thought will pass from us without our reaping the benefit. We, indeed, have no title to complain, what we do possess from his hand is so excellent.

  At this moment there is great excitement in Italy. A supposed spy of Austria has been assassinated at Ferrara, and Austrian troops are marched there. It is pretended that a conspiracy has been discovered in Rome; the consequent disturbances have been put down. The National Guard is forming. All things seem to announce that some important change is inevitable here, but what? Neither Radicals nor Moderates dare predict with confidence, and I am yet too much a stranger to speak with assurances of impressions I have received. But it is impossible not to hope.

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