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An essay by Vernon Lee

The Cook-Shop And The Fowling-Place

Title:     The Cook-Shop And The Fowling-Place
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

In the street of the Almond and appropriately close to the covered-over canal (Rio Terra) of the Assassins, there is a cook-shop which has attracted my attention these two last months in Venice. For in its window is a row of tiny corpses--birds, raw, red, with agonised plucked little throats, the throats through which the sweet notes came. And the sight brings home to me more than the suggestion of a dish at supper, savoury things of the size of a large plum, on a cushion of polenta....

I had often noticed the fowling-places which stand out against the sky like mural crowns on the low hills of Northern Italy; Bresciana is the name given to the thing, from the province, doubtless, of its origin. Last summer, driving at the foot of the Alps of Friuli, such a place was pointed out to me on a green knoll; it marked the site of a village of Collalto, once the fief of the great family of that name, which had died, disappeared, church and all, after the Black Death of the fourteenth century.

The strangeness of the matter attracted me; and I set out, the next morning, to find the fowling-place. I thought I must have lost my way, and was delighting in the radiance of a perfectly fresh, clear, already autumnal morning, walking along through the flowery grass fields in sight of the great mountains, when, suddenly, there I was before the uncanny thing, the Bresciana. Uncanny in its odd shape of walled and moated city of clipped bushes, tight-closed on its hill-top, with its Guelph battlements of hornbeam against the pale blue sky. And uncannier for its mysterious delightfulness. Imagine it set in the loveliest mossy grass, full of delicate half-Alpine flowers; beautiful butterflies everywhere about; and the sort of ditch surrounding it overgrown with blackberries, haws, sloes, ivy, all manner of berries; a sort of false garden of paradise for the poor birds.

But when I craned over the locked wicket and climbed on to the ladder alongside, what I saw was more uncanny yet. I looked down on to rows of clipped, regular, hornbeam hedges, with grass paths between them, maze-like. A kind of Versailles for the birds, you might think. Only, in the circular grass plot from which those green hedges and paths all radiated, something alarming: an empty cage hung to a tree. And going the round of the place I discovered that between the cut hornbeam battlements of the circular enclosure there was a wreath of thin wire nooses, almost invisible, in which the poor little birds hang themselves. It seems oddly appropriate that this sinister little place, with its vague resemblance to that clipped garden in which Mantegna's allegorical Vices are nesting, should be, in fact, a cemetery; that tiny City of Dis of the Birds, on its green hillock in front of the great blue Alps, being planted on those villagers dead of the Plague.

The fowling-place began to haunt me, and I was filled with a perhaps morbid desire to know more of its evil rites. After some inquiry, I introduced myself accordingly to the most famous fowler of the neighbourhood, the owner of a wineshop at Martignacco. He received me with civility, and expounded his trade with much satisfaction; an amiable, intelligent old man, with sufficient of Italian in that province of strange dialect.

In the passage at the foot of his staircase and under sundry dark arches he showed me a quantity of tiny wooden cages and of larger cages divided into tiny compartments. There were numbers of goldfinches, a blackbird, some small thrushes, an ortolan, and two or three other kinds I could not identify; nay, even a brace of unhappy quail in a bottle-shaped basket. These are the decoys; the cages are hung in the circular walks of the fowling-place, and the wretched little prisoners, many of them blinded of one or both eyes, sing their hearts out and attract their companions into the nooses. Then he showed me the nets--like thin, thin fishing nets--for quail; and the little wands which are covered with lime and which catch the wings of the creatures; but that seemed a merciful proceeding compared with the gruesome snares of the Bresciana. When he had shown me these things he produced a little Jew's-harp, on which he fell to imitating the calls of various birds. But I noticed that none of the little blinded prisoners hanging aloft made any response. Only, quite spontaneously and all of a sudden, the poor goldfinches set up a loud and lovely song; and the solitary blackbird gave a whistle. Never have I heard anything more lugubrious than these hedgerow and woodland notes issuing from the cages in that damp, black corridor. And the old fowler, for all his venerable appearance and gentleness of voice and manner, struck me as a wicked warlock, and own sib of the witch who turned Jorinde and Jorinel into nightingales in her little house hung round with cages.

A few days after my visit to the fowler, and one of the last evenings I had in Friuli, I was walking once more beneath the Castle. After threading the narrow green lanes, blocked by great hay-carts, I came of a sudden on an open, high-lying field of mossy grass, freshly scythed, with the haycocks still upon it, and a thin plantation of larches on one side. And in front, at the end of that grey-green sweetness, the Alps of Cadore, portals and battlements of dark leaden blue, with the last flame-colour of sunset behind them, and the sunset's last rosy feathers rising into the pale sky. The mowers were coming slowly along, shouldering their scythes and talking in undertones, as folk do at that hour. I also walked home in the quickly gathering twilight; the delicate hemlock flowers of an unmowed field against the pearly luminous sky; the wonderful blue of the thistles singing out in the dusk of the grass. There rose the scent of cut grass, of ripening maize, and every freshness of acacia and poplar leaf; and the crickets began to shrill.

As the light faded away I passed within sight of the fowling-place, the little sinister formal garden of Versailles on the mound marking the village which had died of the Black Death.

This is what returned to my mind every time, lately in Venice, that I passed that cook-shop near the closed-up Canal of the Assassins, and saw the row of tiny corpses ready for roasting. The little throats which sang so sweetly had got caught, had writhed, twisted in the tiny wire nooses between the hornbeam battlements. What ruffling of feathers and starting of eyeballs in agony there had been, while the poor blind decoy, finch or blackbird, sang, sang on in his cage on the central grass-plot!

And we scrunch them under our knife and tooth, and remark how excellent are little birds on a cushion of polenta, between a sage-leaf and a bit of bacon! But fowling-places have come down from the remotest and most venerable antiquity; and they exist of all kinds; and some of them, moreover, are allegories.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: Cook-Shop And The Fowling-Place