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An essay by George William Curtis

From Como To Milan During The War Of 1848

Title:     From Como To Milan During The War Of 1848
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

As the afternoon was ending--walking from Lago Maggiore and the Lake of Lugano to the Lake of Como--we passed a shrine at which a mother and children were kneeling and chanting the Ave Maria, and an ass with loaded panniers jogged slowly by. The vesper bells began to ring from an old church-tower upon a mountain-side, while far over the rounding tops of orange and fig trees in the warm-descending vale a triangle of dark-blue water was the first glimpse of Como. My knees bent a little, not with fatigue, but with reverence, as if I were again entering the very court and heart of Italy. A group of girls, less timorous or more interested than the crowd upon the Lugano Lake shore, asked us if there were any news--if France were coming to help Italy. But ours, alas! were not the beautiful feet upon the mountains. We could only say "nothing" and "good-bye."

At Santa Croce we came out in full view of the lake, upon which lay the splendor of sunset, and, taking a path which we were told would shorten the journey, we lost our way upon a huge hill-side. But as we reached the summit the full moon rose from behind the heights upon the opposite shores of Como, and a handsome Italian boy showed us a straight path to Cadenabia upon the margin of the lake. I gave him a silver trifle, and he wished us "felice viaggio" with his black eyes and his musical lips; and leaving him like a shepherd boy of the purer Arcadia of the hills, we descended rapidly into a vineyard, and so came to the shore.

It was a moment of mingled twilight and moonlight. A glittering path lay from the Cadenabia shore to the Villa Melzi opposite; and, hailing an old boatman, we glided up that golden way to the vine-clustered balcony which I knew at Bellagio under the moon. The air was calm and bland. The water was oily and gleaming. The mountains stood around us dusky and vast in the ghostly light as we went silently over the lake.

We landed, and took tea upon the balcony at the hotel whose only rival in Europe for romantic picturesqueness is the Trois Couronnes at Vevey upon the Lake of Geneva. The "magic casement" of Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" was ours at Bellagio. The lake murmured with music everywhere. We saw the boats full of people singing choruses, then talking and laughing as they floated away. The sound of instruments, the throb of strings, the sad, mellow peal of horns, filled the air; and long after midnight a band was still playing in the village. About midnight Edmund and Frank bathed in the lake. Their figures were white as marble in the black water, and they struck the calm into sparkles of splendor as they swam out....

The boat which we took to descend the lake to the town of Como had three rowers. The chief, whom I remembered from last year, groaned bitterly over the war, because there were so few strangers.

"Trade, you see, is conservative," said I to Edmund.

"Como is conservatism itself," he tranquilly replied.

"We live upon the strangers," continued Giovanni Battista, the boatman, with a simplicity and truthfulness that made us laugh; "and this year nobody comes. The Italians are driven away, and the foreigners are frightened."

He had not been to Como for two months, although his business is plying upon the lake, and his winter depends upon his summer. "The war is bad for all of us," he said, "and after all the Germans are back again."

... Farther on, and nearer Como, the shore is covered with handsome villas, of which the most remarkable for beauty and fame are Madame Pasta's, a magnificent estate, and Taglioni's, which is not yet finished, and the stately Odescalchi. As we passed Madame Pasta's the old boatman shrugged his shoulders and trilled with his voice. "That's the way the money came there," he said, contemptuously. He was clearly of opinion that only the decaying and decayed families whose names he had heard all his life, and whose ancestors his fathers knew, were to be spoken of with praise.

"Whose villa is that?" asked I.

"Eh! che! nobody's," he replied; "if it were anybody's we should know."

At five o'clock we rounded the point over which I had stood upon the height the year before on a still September afternoon hearing the girls sing in a boat below, and so came to the shore at Como.

Everywhere there was an air of consternation. The Austrians had just re-occupied the town, and the streets were full of the "hated barbarians," rattling about with long swords and standing on guard at the doors of public buildings. The walls bristled with military notices. Among others I read one exhorting all well-disposed people to surrender arms of every kind by a certain day at a place named. The people seemed to be stupefied, and gazed in dull wonder upon the soldiers.

Out of the square, ringing with Austrian sabres, we stepped into the Duomo, dim and lofty and hushed, untouched by revolutions or triumphs. A few inodorous sinners were kneeling and praying. They were very poor and ignorant. But this was their palace, and they looked as if they knew that the great Emperor of the barbarians had not one more gorgeous or solemn.

We tried to secure seats in the post for Milan. There was no place. We applied at the offices of public and private diligences. It was still impossible. The evening was cool and clear, and we considered. The distance to Milan was but eight hours of our walking, and we were making a walking tour. And although we had scarcely bargained for a promenade over the plains of Lombardy in an August sun--yet this perfect moon? Should we turn back without seeing the Goths encamped around the most glorious of Gothic cathedrals?

It was nine o'clock when we shouldered our knapsacks and set forth. The dwellers in romantic Como, standing at their doors, looked wonderingly upon the four pedestrians marching in regular resolute tramp along the streets, evidently moving upon Milan. The small children plainly thought us a part of the imperial and royal army. "Here come the Austrians," whispered one boy to another, as he gazed at the gray wide-awakes and knapsacks.

The mild Francis looked at him with the air of an army which would respect persons and property so long as it was unmolested, and wished the boy so soft a buona notte that he smiled gently, and I am sure his dreams were not disturbed.

We passed out of the gate of Como full against the round rising moon, and took the broad hard highway for Milan. We passed a few wagons loaded with the furniture of some fugitive rolling slowly along. As we pushed on, the idea of penetrating by night and on foot into a country at war was stimulating and novel. But what consciousness of war could survive in the deep peace of that night? The fields were covered with high corn, and the hard straight road went before us in dim perspective. There were no other travellers. Two or three empty vetturas or a wine cart straggled lazily by, the little bells upon the horses tinkling, and the drivers fast asleep. Nor were the villages many. As we passed a group of half a dozen houses a fellow was sleeping soundly upon a bench at a door. When we broke in upon the silence of night by asking the name of the village, he sprang up nimbly and limped rapidly out of sight as if the question had been a pistol-shot and had wounded him. Everybody was nervous "in questo momento." Towards midnight we stopped at a house which should have been near the point at which we meant to sleep until sunrise, and roused an old lady who shrilly chirped and twittered her terror through the slide in the door. But satisfying her that we were neither Croats nor cannibals, she told us that we were yet a mile or two from Balasina.

It was now twelve o'clock, and the land seemed sunk in a sleep of death. There was no sound but our own echoes as we entered the dreary, dismal village, which, like all Italian villages, is merely a dirty street bordered with gloomy houses. They looked so hopeless with their grim stone fronts, high-barred windows out of reach, and huge gates, as if expecting nothing but hostility, that when we stopped before the inn we felt like the wretched wights who beheld the dungeons of an ogre; and when Edmund exclaimed in what seemed a terrible voice, so still was the night, "Shall I not take mine ease in mine inn?" we started as if he had joked in church. Then the vision of a pleasant inn hung for a moment in our minds, and the sense of the preposterous contrast awakened a loud peal of laughter which died away echoing among those houses which were as hospitable as sea-crags. While we stood debating, a group of peasants, with their jackets slung over their shoulders, passed spectrally by, staring steadily at us, as if they would not be unwilling to strike a final blow for the kingdom of Italy.

They disappeared, and we struck a resounding blow upon the door of the albergo, and another and another. After a while there was a sound of stealthily unbarring window-shutters, followed by a voice demanding the reason of the tumult. We explained that we were friends who wanted beds for the night. No, that was impossible, "the voice replied far up the height;" there were no beds, and we had better push on to the next tavern. We expostulated in many tongues with the dimly-visioned head that now appeared, pleading that we were strangers from a far country who were very tired and sleepy. The head disappeared for a few moments and we heard a low colloquy. Then the great gate of the albergo swung sullenly open, and we stepped into a dim court, and the dimly-visioned face became a face like a dull razor, it was so thin-featured and stupid. The man asked us to stop, and, stepping aside, he called a woman's name, then stood waiting, his wretched dozing face illuminated by the weak lustre of a long-wicked tallow-candle which he held. Presently he moved on along the windows of the court conversing with an invisible within the house. When those murmuring arrangements were made, he led us up a dirty stone staircase, trying to open various doors with keys that did not fit the locks; and finally, after a desperate wrestle with one, he swore fiercely in a thin, wiry voice that made the blood run cold, and then smashed the door of the chamber, carrying away wood-work and lock together. It was a vast room of immense discomfort, and after barricading the disabled door with tables and chairs, we lay down and fell asleep upon beds which could furnish no dreams.

In the morning we ate grapes and peaches, and finding a wagon which we could hire, we bribed our pedestrian consciences and bowled over the beautiful road to Milan as republicans, reluctantly confessing that the imperial and royal post-roads were the best in the world.

"Yes--but not for the public benefit," said the mild Francis; "they are for the quicker transport of troops and artillery to oppress the people."

Silent, broken-hearted Milan! No, not yet visibly broken-hearted, for the Cathedral sparkled pure and lofty in the rare, blue summer air. It was the morning of the Feast of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary, to whom the Cathedral is dedicated, and was therefore high festival. But the people had little aspect of joy. We stopped at the gate, and sat in the steady glare of the sun while our passports were closely inspected. Outside the city wall lay a wilderness of tree trunks, which had been levelled in expectation of a siege by the Austrians. They were useless now; and groups of soldiers in gray slouched hats and black plumes--a kind of Robin Hood uniform--were clustered idly and curiously about the gate. They looked worn and red and wasted, and I fancied had taken part in the fight of the burning day which had made almost as many idiots as corpses in the Austrian army.

Within the city the streets were broken up, and the paving-stones designed for barricades were merely roughly laid back again in their places. In the long vista of the streets there was no shop open. The only signs of traffic were the stands of the fruit-merchants shaded by gayly-striped awnings, and covered with piles of glowing fruit. Multitudes of brightly-dressed people strolled idly and curiously up and down, and a company of sappers and miners marched by without music, but carrying their implements and their soiled accoutrements. They were dirty and draggled, like a corps marching across a battle-field to dig a hopeless ditch. There were no carriages moving; there was no noise, no hurry, no excitement, only that scuffling murmur which makes the silence of a great city spectral. The stately Milanese women walked finely by. Their long black hair was drawn away from the forehead and folded in massive plaits; and the black veil that hung from the back of the head was partly gathered over the arm. Queen-like they walked, carrying the bright-colored fan which was raised to shield their eyes from the sun, or languidly waved against their bosoms. Forms of the Orient or of Spain, the imagination touched them with pathetic dignity--matrons of a lost country.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: From Como To Milan During The War Of 1848