Letter XVI.

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


Review of the Past and Present.—The Merits of Italian Literature.—Manzoni.—The Italian Dialects.—Milan, the Milanese, and the Simplicity of their Language.—The North of Italy, and a Tour to Switzerland Italian Lakes.—Maggiore, Como and Lugano.—Lago di Garda.—The Boatmen of the Lakes and the Gondoliers.—Lady Franklin, Widow of the Navigator.—Return to, and Festivals at Milan.—The Archbishop.—Austrian Rule and Austrian Policy.—The Future Hopes of Italy.—A Glance at Pavia, Florence, Parma and Bologna, and the Works of the Masters.

Rome, October, 1847.

  I THINK my last letter was from Milan, and written after I had seen Manzoni. This was to me a great pleasure. I have now seen the most important representatives who survive the last epoch in thought. Our age has still its demonstrations to make, its heroes and poets to crown.

  Although the modern Italian literature is not poor, as many persons at a distance suppose but, on the contrary, surprisingly rich in tokens of talent if we consider the circumstances under which it struggles to exist, yet very few writers have or deserve a European, an American reputation. Where a whole country is so kept down, her best minds cannot take the lead in the progress of the age; they have too much to suffer, too much to explain. But among the few who, through depth of spiritual experience and the beauty of form in which it is expressed, belong not only to Italy, but to the world. Manzoni takes a high rank. The passive virtues he teaches are no longer what is wanted; the manners he paints with so delicate a fidelity are beginning to change; but the spirit of his works,—the tender piety, the sensibility to the meaning of every humblest form of life, the delicate humor and satire so free from disdain,—these are immortal.

  Young Italy rejects Manzoni, though not irreverently; Young Italy prizes his works, but feels that the doctrine of “Pray and wait” is not for her at this moment,—that she needs a more fervent hope, a more active faith. She is right.

  It is well known that the traveller, if he knows the Italian as written in books, the standard Tuscan, still finds himself a stranger in many parts of Italy, unable to comprehend the dialects, with their lively abbreviations and witty slang. That of Venice I had understood somewhat, and could enter into the drollery and naïveté of the gondoliers, who, as a class, have an unusual share of character. But the Milanese I could not at first understand at all. Their language seemed to me detestably harsh and their gestures unmeaning. But after a friend, who possesses that large and ready sympathy easier found in Italy than anywhere else had translated for me verbatim into French some of the poems written in the Milanese, and then read them aloud in the original, I comprehended the peculiar inflection of voice and idiom in the people, and was charmed with it, as one is with the instinctive wit and wisdom of children.

  There is very little to see at Milan, compared with any other Italian city; and this was very fortunate for me, allowing an interval of repose in the house, which I cannot take when there is so much without, tempting me to incessant observation and study. I went through the North of Italy with a constantly increasing fervor of interest. When I had thought of Italy, it was always of the South, of the Roman States, of Tuscany. But now I became deeply interested in the history, the institutions, the art of the North. The fragments of the Past mark the progress of its waves so clearly, I learned to understand, to prize them every day more, to know how to make use of the books about them. I shall have much to say on these subjects some day.

  Leaving Milan, I went on the Lago Maggiore, and afterward into Switzerland. Of this tour I shall not speak here; it was a beautiful little romance by itself, and infinitely refreshing to be so near Nature in these grand and simple forms, after so much exciting thought of Art and Man. The day passed in the St. Bernardin, with its lofty peaks and changing lights upon the distant snows,—its holy, exquisite valleys, and waterfalls, its stories of eagles and chamois, was the greatest refreshment I ever experienced; it was bracing as a cold bath after the heat of a crowd amid which one has listened to some most eloquent oration.

  Returning from Switzerland, I passed a fortnight on the Lake of Como, and afterward visited Lugano. There is no exaggeration in the enthusiastic feeling with which artists and poets have viewed these Italian lakes. Their beauties are peculiar, enchanting, innumerable. The Titan of Richter, the Wanderjahre of Goёthe, the Elena of Taylor, the pictures of Turner, had not prepared me for the visions of beauty that daily entranced the eyes and heart in those regions. To our country Nature has been most bounteous; but we have nothing in the same class that can compare with these lakes, as seen under the Italian heaven. As to those persons who have pretended to discover that the effects of light and atmosphere were no finer than they found in our own lake scenery, I can only say that they must be exceedingly obtuse in organization,—a defect not uncommon among Americans.

  Nature seems to have labored to express her full heart in as many ways as possible, when she made these lakes, moulded and planted their shores. Lago Maggiore is grand, resplendent in its beauty; the view of the Alps gives a sort of lyric exaltation to the scene. Lago di Garda is so soft and fair,—so glittering sweet on one side, the ruins of ancient palaces rise so softly with the beauties of that shore; but at the other end, amid the Tyrol, it is sublime, calm, concentrated in its meaning. Como cannot be better described in generals than in the words of Taylor:

“Softly sublime, profusely fair.”

Lugano is more savage, more free in its beauty. I was on it in a high gale; there was little danger, just enough to exhilarate; its waters wild, and clouds blowing across the neighboring peaks. I like very much the boatmen on these lakes; they have strong and prompt character; of simple features, they are more honest and manly than Italian men are found in the thoroughfares; their talk is not so witty as that of the Venetian gondoliers, but picturesque, and what the French call incisive. Very touching were some their histories, as they told them to me while pausing sometimes on the lake.

  On this lake, also, I met Lady Franklin, wife of the celebrated navigator. She has been in the United States, and showed equal penetration and candor in remarks on what she had seen there. She gave me interesting particulars as to the state of things in Van Diemen’s Land, where she passed seven years when her husband was in authority there.

  I returned to Milan for the great feast of the Madonna, 8th September, and those made for the Archbishop’s entry, which took place the same week. These excited as much feeling as the Milanese can have a chance to display, this Archbishop being much nearer the public heart than his predecessor, who was a poor servant of Austria.

  The Austrian rule is always equally hated, and time, instead of melting away differences, only makes them more glaring. The Austrian race have no faculties that can ever enable them to understand the Italian character; their policy, so well contrived to palsy and repress for a time, cannot kill, and there is always a force at work underneath which shall yet, and I think now before long, shake off the incubus. The Italian nobility have always kept the invader at a distance; they have not been at all seduced or corrupted by the lures of pleasure or power, but have shown a passive patriotism highly honorable to them. In the middle class ferments much thought, a capacity for effort; in the present system it cannot show itself, but it is there; thought ferments, and will yet produce a wine that shall set the Lombard veins on fire when the time for action shall arrive. The lower classes of the population are in a dull state indeed. The censorship of the press prevents all easy, natural ways of instructing them; there are no public meetings, no face access to them by more instructed and aspiring minds. The Austrian policy is to allow them a degree of material well-being, and though so much wealth is drained from the country for the service of the foreigners, yet enough must remain on these rich plains comfortably to feed and clothe the inhabitants. Yet the great moral influence of the Pope’s action, though obstructed in their case, does reach and rouse them, and they, too, felt the thrill of indignation at the occupation of Ferrara. The base conduct of the police toward the people when, at Milan, some youths were resolute to sing the Hymn in honor of Pius IX., when the feasts for the Archbishop afforded so legitimate an occasion, roused all the people to unwonted feeling. The nobles protested, and Austria had not courage to persist as usual. She could not sustain her police, who rushed upon a defenseless crowd, that had no share in what excited their displeasure, except by sympathy, and, driving them like sheep, wounded them in the backs. Austria feels that there is now no sympathy for her in these matters; that it is not the interest of the world to sustain her. Her policy is, indeed, too thoroughly organized to change except by revolution; its scope is to serve, first, a reigning family instead of the people; second, with the people to seek a physical in preference to an intellectual good; and, third, to prefer a seeming outward peace to an inward life. This policy may change its opposition from the tyrannical to the insidious; it can know no other change. Yet do I meet persons who call themselves Americans,—miserable, thoughtless Esaus, unworthy their high birthright,—who think that a mess of pottage can satisfy the wants of man, and that the Viennese listening to Strauss’s waltzes, the Lombard peasant supping full of his polenta, is happy enough. Alas! I have the more reason to be ashamed of my countrymen that it is not among the poor, who have so much toil that there is little time to think, but those who are rich, who travel,—in body, that is, they do not travel in mind. Absorbed at home by the lust of gain, the love of show, abroad they see only the equipages, the fine clothes, the food,—they have no heart for the idea, for the destiny of our own great nation; how can they feel the spirit that is struggling now in this and others of Europe?

  But of the hopes of Italy I will write more fully in another letter, and shall state what I have seen, what felt, what thought. I went from Milan to Pavia, and saw its magnificent Certosa. I passed several hours in examining its riches, especially the sculptures of its façade, full of force and spirit. I then went to Florence by Parma and Bologna. In Parma, though ill, I went to see all the works of the masters. A wonderful beauty it is that informs them,—not what is the chosen food of my soul, yet noble beauty, and which did its message to me also. Those works are failing; it will not be useless to describe them in a book. Beside these pictures, I saw nothing in Parma and Modena; these States are obliged to hold their breath while their poor, ignorant sovereigns skulk in corners, hoping to hide from the coming storm. Of all this more in my next.

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