Italian Backgrounds - Edith Wharton - ebook

Italian BackgroundsByEdith Wharton

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Italian Backgrounds


Edith Wharton

Illustrator: Ernest Clifford Peixotto

Table of Contents














Group from the Crucifixion San Vivaldo


To the mind curious in contrasts—surely one of the chief pleasures of travel—there can be no better preparation for a descent into Italy than a sojourn among the upper Swiss valleys. To pass from the region of the obviously picturesque—the country contrived, it would seem, for the delectation of the cœur à poésie facile—to that sophisticated landscape where the face of nature seems moulded by the passions and imaginings of man, is one of the most suggestive transitions in the rapidly diminishing range of such experiences.

Nowhere is this contrast more acutely felt than in one of the upper Grisons villages. The anecdotic Switzerland of the lakes is too remote from Italy, geographically and morally, to evoke a comparison. The toy chalet, with its air of self-conscious neatness, making one feel that if one lifted the roof it would disclose a row of tapes and scissors, or the shining cylinders of a musical box, suggests cabinet-work rather than architecture; the swept and garnished streets, the precise gardens, the subjugated vines, present the image of an old maid’s paradise that would be thrown into hopeless disarray by the introduction of anything so irregular as a work of art. In the Grisons, however, where only a bald grey pass divides one from Italy, its influence is felt, in a negative sense, in the very untidiness of the streets, the rank growth of weeds along the base of rough glaring walls, the drone of flies about candidly-exposed manure-heaps. More agreeably, the same influence shows itself in the rude old centaur-like houses, with their wrought-iron window-grilles and stone escutcheons surmounting the odorous darkness of a stable. These are the houses of people conscious of Italy, who have transplanted to their bleak heights, either from poverty of invention, or an impulse as sentimental as our modern habit of “collecting,” the thick walls, the small windows, the jutting eaves of dwellings designed under a sultry sky. So vivid is the reminiscence that one almost expects to see a cypress leaning against the bruised-peach-coloured walls of the village douane; but it is just here that the contrast accentuates itself. The cypress, with all it stands for, is missing.

It is not easy, in the height of the Swiss season, to light on a nook neglected by the tourist; but at Splügen he still sweeps by in a cloud of diligence dust, or pauses only to gulp a flask of Paradiso and a rosy trout from the Suretta lakes. One’s enjoyment of the place is thus enhanced by the pleasing spectacle of the misguided hundreds who pass it by, and from the vantage of the solitary meadows above the village one may watch the throngs descending on Thusis or Chiavenna with something of the satisfaction that mediæval schoolmen believed to be the portion of angels looking down upon the damned. Splügen abounds in such points of observation. On all sides one may climb from the alder-fringed shores of the Rhine, through larch-thickets tremulous with the leap of water, to grassy levels far above, whence the valley is seen lengthening southward to a great concourse of peaks. In the morning these upper meadows are hot and bright, and one is glad of the red-aisled pines and the onyx-coloured torrents cooling the dusk; but toward sunset, when the shadows make the slopes of turf look like an expanse of tumbled velvet, it is pleasant to pace the open ledges, watching the sun recede from the valley, where mowers are still sweeping the grass into long curved lines like ridges of the sea, while the pine-woods on the eastern slopes grow black and the upper snows fade to the colour of cold ashes.

The landscape is simple, spacious and serene. The fields suggest the tranquil rumination of generations of cattle, the woods offer cool security to sylvan life, the mountains present blunt weather-beaten surfaces rather than the subtle contours, wrinkled as by meditation, of the Italian Alps. One feels that it is a scene in which nothing has ever happened; the haunting adjective is that which Whitman applies to the American landscape—“the large unconscious scenery of my native land.”

Switzerland is like a dinner served in the old-fashioned way, with all the dishes put on the table at once: every valley has its flowery mead, its “horrid” gorge, its chamois-haunted peaks, its wood and water-fall. In Italy, the effects are brought on in courses, and memory is thus able to differentiate the landscapes, even without the help of that touch of human individuality to which, after all, the best Italian scenery is but a setting. At Splügen, as in most Swiss landscapes, the human interest—the evidences of man’s presence—are an interruption rather than a climax. The village of Splügen, huddled on a ledge above the Rhine, sheepishly turns the backs of its houses on the view, as though conscious of making a poor show compared to the tremendous performance of nature. Between these houses, set at unconsidered angles, like boxes hastily piled on a shelf, cobble-stone streets ramble up the hill; but after a few yards they lapse into mountain paths, and the pastures stoop unabashed to the back doors of the village. Agriculture seems, in fact, the little town’s excuse for being. The whole of Splügen, in midsummer, is as one arm at the end of a scythe. All day long the lines of stooping figures—men, women and children, grandfathers and industrious babes—spread themselves over the hill-sides in an ever-widening radius, interminably cutting, raking and stacking the grass. The lower slopes are first laid bare; then, to the sheer upper zone of pines, the long grass, thick with larkspur, mountain pink and orchis, gradually recedes before the rising tide of mowers. Even in the graveyard of the high-perched church, the scythes swing between mounds overgrown with campanulas and martagon lilies; so that one may fancy the dust of generations of thrifty villagers enriching the harvests of posterity.

This, indeed, is the only destiny one can imagine for them. The past of such a place must have been as bucolic as its present: the mediæval keep, crumbling on its wooded spur above the Rhine, was surely perched there that the lords of the valley might have an eye to the grazing cattle and command the manœuvres of the mowers. The noble Georgiis who lived in the escutcheoned houses of Splügen, and now lie under such a wealth of quarterings in the church and graveyard, must have been experts in fertilizers and stock-raising; nor can one figure, even for the seventeenth-century mercenary of the name, whose epitaph declares him to have been “captain of his Spanish Majesty’s cohorts,” emotions more poignant, when he came home from the wars, than that evoked by the tinkle of cow-bells in the pasture, and the vision of a table groaning with smoked beef and cyclopean cheeses.

So completely are the peasants in the fields a part of the soil they cultivate, that during the day one may be said to have the whole of Splügen to one’s self, from the topmost peaks to the deserted high-road. In the evening the scene changes; and the transformation is not unintentionally described in theatrical terms, since the square which, after sunset, becomes the centre of life in Splügen, has an absurd resemblance to a stage-setting. One side of this square is bounded by the long weather-beaten front of the posting-inn—but the inn deserves a parenthesis. Built long ago, and then abandoned, so the village tradition runs, by a “great Italian family,” its exterior shows the thick walls, projecting eaves and oval attic openings of an old Tuscan house; while within, a monastic ramification of stone-vaulted corridors leads to rooms ceiled and panelled with sixteenth-century woodwork. The stone terrace before this impressive dwelling forms the proscenium where, after dinner, the spectators assemble. To the right of the square stands the pale pink “Post and Telegraph Bureau.” Beyond, closing in the right wing at a stage-angle, is a mysterious yellowish house with an arched entrance. Facing these, on the left, are the dépendance of the inn and the custom-house; in the left background, the village street is seen winding down, between houses that look like “studies” in old-fashioned drawing-books (with the cracks in the plaster done in very black lead), to the bridge across the Rhine and the first loops of the post-road over the Splügen pass. Opposite the inn is the obligatory village fountain, the rallying-point of the chorus; beneath a stone parapet flows the torrent which acts as an invisible orchestra; and beyond the parapet, snow peaks fill the background of the stage.

Dinner over, the eager spectators, hastening to the terrace (with a glimpse, as they pass the vaulted kitchen, of the Italian chef oiling his bicycle amid the débris of an admirable meal), find active preparations afoot for the event of the evening—the arrival of the diligences. Already the orchestra is tuning its instruments, and the chorus, recruited from the hay-fields, are gathering in the wings. A dozen of them straggle in and squat on the jutting stone basement of the post-office; others hang picturesquely about the fountain, or hover up the steep street, awaiting the prompter’s call. Presently some of the subordinate characters stroll across the stage: the owner of the saw-mill on the Rhine, a tall man in homespun, deferentially saluted by the chorus; two personages in black coats, with walking-sticks, who always appear together, and have the air of being joint syndics of the village; a gentleman of leisure, in a white cap with a visor, smoking a long Italian cigar and attended by an inquisitive Pomeranian dog; a citizen in white socks and carpet slippers, giving his arm to his wife, and preceded by a Bewickian little boy with a green butterfly-box over his shoulder; the gold-braided custom-house officer hurrying up rather late for his cue; two or three local ladies in sunburnt millinery and spectacles, who drop in to see the postmistress; and a showy young man, with the look of having seen life at Chur or Bellinzona, who emerges from the post-office conspicuously reading a letter, to the undisguised interest of the chorus, the ladies and the Pomeranian. As these figures pass and repass in a kind of social silence, they suggest the leisurely opening of some play composed before the unities were abolished, and peopled by types with generic names—the Innkeeper, the Postmistress, the Syndic—some comedy of Goldoni’s, perhaps, but void even of Goldoni’s simple malice.

Meanwhile the porter has lit the oil-lanterns hanging by a chain over the door of the inn; a celestial hand has performed a similar office for the evening star above the peaks; and through the hush that has settled on the square comes a distant sound of bells.... Instantly the action begins; the innkeeper appears, supported by the porter and the waiter; a wave of acclamation runs through the chorus; the Pomeranian trots down the road; and presently the fagged leaders of the Thusis diligence turn their heads round the corner of the square. The preposterous yellow coach—a landau attached to a glass “clarence”—crosses the cobble-paved stage, swinging round with a grand curve to the inn door; vague figures, detaching themselves from the chorus, flit about the horses or help the guard to lift the luggage down; the two syndics, critically aloof, lean on their sticks to watch the scene; the Pomeranian bustles between the tired horses’ legs; and the diligence doors let out a menagerie of the strange folk whom one sees only on one’s travels. Here they come, familiar as the figures in a Noah’s ark: Germans first—the little triple-chinned man with a dachshund, out of “Fliegende Blätter,” the slippered Hercules with a face like that at the end of a meerschaum pipe, and their sentimental females; shrill and vivid Italians, a pleasant pig-faced priest. Americans going “right through,” with their city and state writ large upon their luggage; English girls like navvies, and Frenchmen like girls; the arched doorway absorbs them, and another jingle of bells, and a flash of lamps on the bridge, proclaim that the Chiavenna diligence is coming.

The same ceremony repeats itself; and another detachment of the travelling menagerie descends. This time there is a family of rodents, who look as though they ought to be enclosed in wire netting and judiciously nourished on lettuce; there is a small fierce man in knickerbockers and a sash, conducting a large submissive wife and two hypocritical little boys who might have stepped out of “The Mirror of the Mind”; there is an unfortunate lady in spectacles, who looks like one of the Creator’s rejected experiments, and carries a grey linen bag embroidered with forget-me-nots; there is the inevitable youth with an alpenstock, who sends home a bunch of edelweiss to his awe-struck family.... These, too, disappear; the horses are led away; the chorus disperses, the lights go out, the performance is over. Only one spectator lingers, a thoughtful man in a snuff-coloured overcoat, who gives the measure of the social resources of Splügen by the deliberate way in which, evening after evening, he walks around the empty diligences, looks into their windows, examines the wheels and poles, and then mournfully vanishes into darkness.

At last the two diligences have the silent square to themselves. There they stand, side by side in dusty slumber, till the morning cow-bells wake them to departure. One goes back to Thusis; to the region of good hotels, pure air and scenic platitudes. It may go empty for all we care. But the other ... the other wakes from its Alpine sleep to climb the cold pass at sunrise and descend by hot windings into the land where the church steeples turn into campanili, where the vine, breaking from perpendicular bondage, flings a liberated embrace about the mulberries, and far off, beyond the plain, the mirage of domes and spires, of painted walls and sculptured altars, beckons across the dustiest tracts of memory. In that diligence our seats are taken.


.... Un paysage choisi

Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques.


For ten days we had not known what ailed us. We had fled from the August heat and crowd of the Vorderrheinthal to the posting-inn below the Splügen pass; and here fortune had given us all the midsummer tourist can hope for—solitude, cool air and fine scenery. A dozen times a day we counted our mercies, but still privately felt them to be insufficient. As we walked through the larch-groves beside the Rhine, or climbed the grassy heights above the valley, we were oppressed by the didactic quality of our surroundings—by the aggressive salubrity and repose of this bergerie de Florian. We seemed to be living in the landscape of a sanatorium prospectus. It was all pleasant enough, according to Schopenhauer’s definition of pleasure. We had none of the things we did not want; but then we did not particularly want any of the things we had. We had fancied we did till we got them; and as we had to own that they did their part in fulfilling our anticipations, we were driven to conclude that the fault was in ourselves. Then suddenly we found out what was wrong. Splügen was charming, but it was too near Italy.

One can forgive a place three thousand miles from Italy for not being Italian; but that a village on the very border should remain stolidly, immovably Swiss was a constant source of exasperation. Even the landscape had neglected its opportunities. A few miles off it became the accomplice of man’s most exquisite imaginings; but here we could see in it only endless material for Swiss clocks and fodder.

The trouble began with our watching the diligences. Every evening we saw one toiling up the pass from Chiavenna, with dusty horses and perspiring passengers. How we pitied those passengers! We walked among them puffed up with all the good air in our lungs. We felt fresh and cool and enviable, and moralized on the plaintive lot of those whose scant holidays compelled them to visit Italy in August. But already the poison was at work. We pictured what our less fortunate brothers had seen till we began to wonder if, after all, they were less fortunate. At least they had been there; and what drawbacks could qualify that fact? Was it better to be cool and look at a water-fall, or to be hot and look at Saint Mark’s? Was it better to walk on gentians or on mosaic, to smell fir-needles or incense? Was it, in short, ever well to be elsewhere when one might be in Italy?

We tried to quell the rising madness by interrogating the travellers. Was it very hot on the lakes and in Milan? “Terribly!” they answered, and mopped their brows. “Unimaginative idiots!” we grumbled, and forbore to question the next batch. Of course it was hot there—but what of that? Think of the compensations! To take it on the lowest plane, think of the empty hotels and railway carriages, the absence of tourists and Baedekers! Even the Italians were away, among the Apennines and in the Engadine; we should have the best part of the country to ourselves. Gradually we began to picture our sensations should we take seats in the diligence on its return journey. From that moment we were lost. We did not say much to each other, but one morning at sunrise we found a travelling-carriage at the door. No one seemed to know who had ordered it, but we noticed that our luggage was being strapped on behind. We took our seats and the driver turned his horses toward the Splügen pass. It was not the way to Switzerland.

By the Port of LovereE. C. PeixottoLOVEIRE. 1901.

We mounted to ice and snow. The savage landscape led us to the top of the pass and dogged us down to the miserable Italian custom-house on the other side. Then began the long descent through snow-galleries and steep pine-forests, above the lonely gorge of the Madesimo: Switzerland still in every aspect, but with a promise of Italy in the names of the dreary villages. Visible Italy began with the valley of the Lira, where, in a wild Salvator Rosa landscape, the beautiful campanile of the Madonna of Gallevaggio rises above embowering walnuts. After that each successive village declared its allegiance more openly. The huddled stone houses disappeared in a wealth of pomegranates and oleanders. Vine-pergolas shaded the doorways, roses and dahlias overflowed the terraces of rough masonry, and between the walnut-groves there were melon-patches and fields of maize.

As we approached Chiavenna a thick bloom of heat lay on the motionless foliage, and the mountains hung like thunder-clouds on the horizon. There was something oppressive, menacing almost, in the still weight of the atmosphere. It seemed to have absorbed all the ardour of the sun-baked Lombard plain, of the shadeless rice and maize fields stretching away to the south of us. But the eye had ample compensation. The familiar town of Chiavenna had grown as fantastically picturesque as the background of a fresco. The old houses, with their medallioned doorways of worn marble; the court-yards bright with flowers and shaded by trellised vines; the white turbulence of the Lira, rushing between gardens, balconies and terraces set at reckless angles above the water—were all these a part of the town we had so often seen at less romantic seasons? The general impression was of an exuberance of rococo—as though the sportive statue of Saint John Nepomuc on the bridge, the grotesque figures on the balustrade of the pale-green villa near the hotel, and the stucco shrines at the street corners, had burst into a plastic efflorescence rivalling the midsummer wealth of the gardens.

We had left Switzerland with the general object of going to Italy and the specific one of exploring the Bergamasque Alps. It was the name which had attracted us, as much from its intrinsic picturesqueness as from its associations with the commedia dell’ arte and the jolly figures of Harlequin and Brighella. I have often journeyed thus in pursuit of a name, and have seldom been unrewarded. In this case the very aspect of the map was promising. The region included in the scattered lettering—Bergamasker Hochthäler—had that furrowed, serried look so encouraging to the experienced traveller. It was rich, crowded, suggestive; and the names of the villages were enchanting.

Early the next morning we set out for Colico, at the head of the Lake of Como, and thence took train for Sondrio, the chief town of the Valtelline. The lake, where we had to wait for our train, lay in unnatural loveliness beneath a breathless sky, the furrowed peaks bathed in subtle colour-gradations of which, at other seasons, the atmosphere gives no hint. At Sondrio we found all the dreariness of a modern Italian town with wide unshaded streets; but taking carriage in the afternoon for Madonna di Tirano we were soon in the land of romance again. The Valtelline, through which we drove, is one vast fruit and vegetable garden of extraordinary fertility. The gran turco (as the maize is called) grows in jungles taller than a man, and the grapes and melons have the exaggerated size and bloom of their counterfeits in a Dutch fruit-piece. The rich dulness of this foreground was relieved by the noble lines of the hills, and the air cooled by the rush of the Adda, which followed the windings of our road, and by a glimpse of snow peaks at the head of the valley. The villages were uninteresting, but we passed a low-lying deserted church, a charming bit of seventeenth-century decay, with peeling stucco ornaments, and weeds growing from the florid vases of the pediment; and far off, on a lonely wooded height, there was a tantalizing glimpse of another church, a Renaissance building rich with encrusted marbles: one of the nameless uncatalogued treasures in which Italy still abounds.