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    From Chambery to Milan

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    Chapter 6
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    Your truly sentimental tourist will never take it from any
    occasion that there is absolutely nothing for him, and it was at
    Chambéry--but four hours from Geneva--that I accepted the
    situation and decided there might be mysterious delights in
    entering Italy by a whizz through an eight-mile tunnel, even as a
    bullet through the bore of a gun. I found my reward in the
    Savoyard landscape, which greets you betimes with the smile of
    anticipation. If it is not so Italian as Italy it is at least
    more Italian than anything but Italy--more Italian, too, I
    should think, than can seem natural and proper to the swarming
    red-legged soldiery who so publicly proclaim it of the empire of
    M. Thiers. The light and the complexion of things had to my eyes
    not a little of that mollified depth last loved by them rather
    further on. It was simply perhaps that the weather was hot and
    the mountains drowsing in that iridescent haze that I have seen
    nearer home than at Chambéry. But the vegetation, assuredly, had
    an all but Transalpine twist and curl, and the classic wayside
    tangle of corn and vines left nothing to be desired in the line
    of careless grace. Chambéry as a town, however, constitutes no
    foretaste of the monumental cities. There is shabbiness and
    shabbiness, the fond critic of such things will tell you; and
    that of the ancient capital of Savoy lacks style. I found a
    better pastime, however, than strolling through the dark dull
    streets in quest of effects that were not forthcoming. The first
    urchin you meet will show you the way to Les Charmettes and the
    Maison Jean-Jacques. A very. pleasant way it becomes as soon as
    it leaves the town--a winding, climbing by-road, bordered with
    such a tall and sturdy hedge as to give it the air of an English
    lane--if you can fancy an English lane introducing you to the
    haunts of a Madame de Warens.

    The house that formerly sheltered this lady's singular ménage
    stands on a hillside above the road, which a rapid path connects
    with the little grass-grown terrace before it. It is a small
    shabby, homely dwelling, with a certain reputable solidity,
    however, and more of internal spaciousness than of outside
    promise. The place is shown by an elderly competent dame who
    points out the very few surviving objects which you may touch
    with the reflection--complacent in whatsoever degree suits you--
    that they have known the familiarity of Rousseau's hand. It was
    presumably a meagrely-appointed house, and I wondered that on
    such scanty features so much expression should linger. But the
    structure has an ancient ponderosity, and the dust of the
    eighteenth century seems to lie on its worm-eaten floors, to
    cling to the faded old papiers à ramages on the walls and
    to lodge in the crevices of the brown wooden ceilings. Madame de
    Warens's bed remains, with the narrow couch of Jean-Jacques as
    well, his little warped and cracked yellow spinet, and a
    battered, turnip-shaped silver timepiece, engraved with its
    master's name--its primitive tick as extinct as his passionate
    heart-beats. It cost me, I confess, a somewhat pitying
    acceleration of my own to see this intimately personal relic of
    the genius loci--for it had dwelt; in his waistcoat-
    pocket, than which there is hardly a material point in space
    nearer to a man's consciousness--tossed so the dog's-eared
    visitors' record or livre de cuisine recently denounced by
    Madame George Sand. In fact the place generally, in so far as
    some faint ghostly presence of its famous inmates seems to linger
    there, is by no means exhilarating. Coppet and Ferney tell, if
    not of pure happiness, at least of prosperity and, honour, wealth
    and success. But Les Charmettes is haunted by ghosts unclean and
    forlorn. The place tells of poverty, perversity, distress. A
    good deal of clever modern talent in France has been employed in
    touching up the episode of which it was the scene and tricking
    it out in idyllic love-knots. But as I stood on the charming
    terrace I have mentioned--a little jewel of a terrace, with
    grassy flags and a mossy parapet, and an admirable view of great
    swelling violet hills--stood there reminded how much sweeter
    Nature is than man, the story looked rather wan and unlovely
    beneath these literary decorations, and I could pay it no
    livelier homage than is implied in perfect pity. Hero and heroine
    have become too much creatures of history to take up attitudes as
    part of any poetry. But, not to moralise too sternly for a
    tourist between trains, I should add that, as an illustration,
    to be inserted mentally in the text of the "Confessions," a
    glimpse of Les Charmettes is pleasant enough. It completes the
    rare charm of good autobiography to behold with one's eyes the
    faded and battered background of the story; and Rousseau's
    narrative is so incomparably vivid and forcible that the sordid
    little house at Chambéry seems of a hardly deeper shade of
    reality than so many other passages of his projected truth.

    If I spent an hour at Les Charmettes, fumbling thus helplessly
    with the past, I recognised on the morrow how strongly the Mont
    Cenis Tunnel smells of the time to come. As I passed along the
    Saint-Gothard highway a couple of months since, I perceived, half
    up the Swiss ascent, a group of navvies at work in a gorge
    beneath the road. They had laid bare a broad surface of granite
    and had punched in the centre of it a round black cavity, of
    about the dimensions, as it seemed to me, of a soup-plate. This
    was to attain its perfect development some eight years hence. The
    Mont Cenis may therefore be held to have set a fashion which will
    be followed till the highest Himalaya is but the ornamental apex
    or snow-capped gable-tip of some resounding fuliginous corridor.
    The tunnel differs but in length from other tunnels; you spend
    half an hour in it. But you whirl out into the blest peninsula,
    and as you look back seem to see the mighty mass shrug its
    shoulders over the line, the mere turn of a dreaming giant in his
    sleep. The tunnel is certainly not a poetic object, out there is
    no perfection without its beauty; and as you measure the long
    rugged outline of the pyramid of which it forms the base you
    accept it as the perfection of a short cut. Twenty-four hours
    from Paris to Turin is speed for the times--speed which may
    content us, at any rate, until expansive Berlin has succeeded in
    placing itself at thirty-six from Milan.

    To enter Turin then of a lovely August afternoon was to find a
    city of arcades, of pink and yellow stucco, of innumerable cafes,
    of blue-legged officers, of ladies draped in the North-Italian
    mantilla. An old friend of Italy coming back to her finds an easy
    waking for dormant memories. Every object is a reminder and every
    reminder a thrill. Half an hour after my arrival, as I stood at
    my window, which overhung the great square, I found the scene,
    within and without, a rough epitome of every pleasure and every
    impression I had formerly gathered from Italy: the balcony and
    the Venetian-blind, the cool floor of speckled concrete, the
    lavish delusions of frescoed wall and ceiling, the broad divan
    framed for the noonday siesta, the massive medieval Castello in
    mid-piazza, with its shabby rear and its pompous Palladian
    front, the brick campaniles beyond, the milder, yellower light,
    the range of colour, the suggestion of sound. Later, beneath the
    arcades, I found many an old acquaintance: beautiful officers,
    resplendent, slow-strolling, contemplative of female beauty;
    civil and peaceful dandies, hardly less gorgeous, with that
    religious faith in moustache and shirt-front which distinguishes
    the belle jeunesse of Italy; ladies with heads artfully
    shawled in Spanish-looking lace, but with too little art--or too
    much nature at least--in the region of the bodice; well-
    conditioned young abbati with neatly drawn stockings.
    These indeed are not objects of first-rate interest, and with
    such Turin is rather meagrely furnished. It has no architecture,
    no churches, no monuments, no romantic street-scenery. It has the
    great votive temple of the Superga, which stands on a high
    hilltop above the city, gazing across at Monte Rosa and lifting
    its own fine dome against the sky with no contemptible art. But
    when you have seen the Superga from the quay beside the Po, a
    skein of a few yellow threads in August, despite its frequent
    habit of rising high and running wild, and said to yourself that
    in architecture position is half the battle, you have nothing
    left to visit but the Museum of pictures. The Turin Gallery,
    which is large and well arranged, is the fortunate owner of three
    or four masterpieces: a couple of magnificent Vandycks and a
    couple of Paul Veroneses; the latter a Queen of Sheba and a Feast
    of the House of Levi--the usual splendid combination of brocades,
    grandees and marble colonnades dividing those skies de
    turquoise malade
    to which Théophile Gautier is fond of
    alluding. The Veroneses are fine, but with Venice in prospect the
    traveller feels at liberty to keep his best attention in reserve.
    If, however, he has the proper relish for Vandyck, let him linger
    long and fondly here; for that admiration will never be more
    potently stirred than by the adorable group of the three little
    royal highnesses, sons and the daughter of Charles I. All the
    purity of childhood is here, and all its soft solidity of
    structure, rounded tenderly beneath the spangled satin and
    contrasted charmingly with the pompous rigidity. Clad
    respectively in crimson, white and blue, these small scions stand
    up in their ruffs and fardingales in dimpled serenity, squaring
    their infantine stomachers at the spectator with an innocence, a
    dignity, a delightful grotesqueness, which make the picture a
    thing of close truth as well as of fine decorum. You might kiss
    their hands, but you certainly would think twice before pinching
    their cheeks--provocative as they are of this tribute of
    admiration--and would altogether lack presumption to lift them
    off the ground or the higher level or dais on which they stand so
    sturdily planted by right of birth. There is something inimitable
    in the paternal gallantry with which the painter has touched off
    the young lady. She was a princess, yet she was a baby, and he
    has contrived, we let ourselves fancy, to interweave an
    intimation that she was a creature whom, in her teens, the
    lucklessly smitten--even as he was prematurely--must vainly sigh
    for. Though the work is a masterpiece of execution its merits
    under this head may be emulated, at a distance; the lovely
    modulations of colour in the three contrasted and harmonised
    little satin petticoats, the solidity of the little heads, in
    spite of all their prettiness, the happy, unexaggerated
    squareness and maturity of pose, are, severally, points to
    study, to imitate, and to reproduce with profit. But the taste of
    such a consummate thing is its great secret as well as its great
    merit--a taste which seems one of the lost instincts of mankind.
    Go and enjoy this supreme expression of Vandyck's fine sense, and
    admit that never was a politer production.

    Milan speaks to us of a burden of felt life of which Turin is
    innocent, but in its general aspect still lingers a northern
    reserve which makes the place rather perhaps the last of the
    prose capitals than the first of the poetic. The long Austrian
    occupation perhaps did something to Germanise its physiognomy;
    though indeed this is an indifferent explanation when one
    remembers how well, temperamentally speaking, Italy held her own
    in Venetia. Milan, at any rate, if not bristling with the
    æsthetic impulse, opens to us frankly enough the thick volume of
    her past. Of that volume the Cathedral is the fairest and fullest
    page--a structure not supremely interesting, not logical, not
    even, to some minds, commandingly beautiful, but grandly curious
    and superbly rich. I hope, for my own part, never to grow too
    particular to admire it. If it had no other distinction it would
    still have that of impressive, immeasurable achievement. As I
    strolled beside its vast indented base one evening, and felt it,
    above me, rear its grey mysteries into the starlight while the
    restless human tide on which I floated rose no higher than the
    first few layers of street-soiled marble, I was tempted to
    believe that beauty in great architecture is almost a secondary
    merit, and that the main point is mass--such mass as may make it
    a supreme embodiment of vigorous effort. Viewed in this way a
    great building is the greatest conceivable work of art. More than
    any other it represents difficulties mastered, resources
    combined, labour, courage and patience. And there are people who
    tell us that art has nothing to do with morality! Little enough,
    doubtless, when it is concerned, even ever so little, in painting
    the roof of Milan Cathedral within to represent carved stone-
    work. Of this famous roof every one has heard--how good it is,
    how bad, how perfect a delusion, how transparent an artifice. It
    is the first thing your cicerone shows you on entering the
    church. The occasionally accommodating art-lover may accept it
    philosophically, I think; for the interior, though admirably
    effective as a whole, has no great sublimity, nor even purity, of
    pitch. It is splendidly vast and dim; the altarlamps twinkle afar
    through the incense-thickened air like foglights at sea, and the
    great columns rise straight to the roof, which hardly curves to
    meet them, with the girth and altitude of oaks of a thousand
    years; but there is little refinement of design--few of those
    felicities of proportion which the eye caresses, when it finds
    them, very much as the memory retains and repeats some happy
    lines of poetry or some haunting musical phrase. Consistently
    brave, none the less, is the result produced, and nothing braver
    than a certain exhibition that I privately enjoyed of the relics
    of St. Charles Borromeus. This holy man lies at his eternal rest
    in a small but gorgeous sepulchral chapel, beneath the boundless
    pavement and before the high altar; and for the modest sum of
    five francs you may have his shrivelled mortality unveiled and
    gaze at it with whatever reserves occur to you. The Catholic
    Church never renounces a chance of the sublime for fear of a
    chance of the ridiculous--especially when the chance of the
    sublime may be the very excellent chance of five francs. The
    performance in question, of which the good San Carlo paid in the
    first instance the cost, was impressive certainly, but as a
    monstrous matter or a grim comedy may still be. The little
    sacristan, having secured his audience, whipped on a white tunic
    over his frock, lighted a couple of extra candles and proceeded
    to remove from above the altar, by means of a crank, a sort of
    sliding shutter, just as you may see a shop-boy do of a morning
    at his master's window. In this case too a large sheet of plate-
    glass was uncovered, and to form an idea of the étalage
    you must imagine that a jeweller, for reasons of his own, has
    struck an unnatural partnership with an undertaker. The black
    mummified corpse of the saint is stretched out in a glass coffin,
    clad in his mouldering canonicals, mitred, crosiered and gloved,
    glittering with votive jewels. It is an extraordinary mixture of
    death and life; the desiccated clay, the ashen rags, the hideous
    little black mask and skull, and the living, glowing, twinkling
    splendour of diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. The collection is
    really fine, and many great historic names are attached to the
    different offerings. Whatever may be the better opinion as to the
    future of the Church, I can't help thinking she will make a
    figure in the world so long as she retains this great fund of
    precious "properties," this prodigious capital decoratively
    invested and scintillating throughout Christendom at effectively-
    scattered points. You see I am forced to agree after all, in
    spite of the sliding shutter and the profane swagger of the
    sacristan, that a certain pastoral majesty saved the situation,
    or at least made irony gape. Yet it was from a natural desire to
    breathe a sweeter air that I immediately afterwards undertook the
    interminable climb to the roof of the cathedral. This is another
    world of wonders, and one which enjoys due renown, every square
    inch of wall on the winding stairways being bescribbled with a
    traveller's name. There is a great glare from the far-stretching
    slopes of marble, a confusion (like the masts of a navy or the
    spears of an army) of image-capped pinnacles, biting the
    impalpable blue, and, better than either, the goodliest view of
    level Lombardy sleeping in its rich transalpine light and
    resembling, with its white-walled dwellings and the spires on its
    horizon, a vast green sea spotted with ships. After two months of
    Switzerland the Lombard plain is a rich rest to the eye, and the
    yellow, liquid, free-flowing light--as if on favoured Italy the
    vessels of heaven were more widely opened--had for mine a charm
    which made me think of a great opaque mountain as a blasphemous
    invasion of the atmospheric spaces.

    [Illustration: THE SIMPLON GATE, MILAN]

    I have mentioned the cathedral first, but the prime treasure of
    Milan at the present hour is the beautiful, tragical Leonardo.
    The cathedral is good for another thousand years, but we ask
    whether our children will find in the most majestic and most
    luckless of frescoes much more than the shadow of a shadow. Its
    fame has been for a century or two that, as one may say, of an
    illustrious invalid whom people visit to see how he lasts, with
    leave-taking sighs and almost death-bed or tiptoe precautions.
    The picture needs not another scar or stain, now, to be the
    saddest work of art in the world; and battered, defaced, ruined
    as it is, it remains one of the greatest. We may really compare
    its anguish of decay to the slow conscious ebb of life in a human
    organism. The production of the prodigy was a breath from the
    infinite, and the painter's conception not immeasurably less
    complex than the scheme, say, of his own mortal constitution.
    There has been much talk lately of the irony of fate, but I
    suspect fate was never more ironical than when she led the most
    scientific, the most calculating of all painters to spend fifteen
    long years in building his goodly house upon the sand. And yet,
    after all, may not the playing of that trick represent but a
    deeper wisdom, since if the thing enjoyed the immortal health and
    bloom of a first-rate Titian we should have lost one of the most
    pertinent lessons in the history of art? We know it as hearsay,
    but here is the plain proof, that there is no limit to the amount
    of "stuff" an artist may put into his work. Every painter ought
    once in his life to stand before the Cenacolo and decipher its
    moral. Mix with your colours and mess on your palette every
    particle of the very substance of your soul, and this lest
    perchance your "prepared surface" shall play you a trick! Then,
    and then only, it will fight to the last--it will resist even in
    death. Raphael was a happier genius; you look at his lovely
    "Marriage of the Virgin" at the Brera, beautiful as some first
    deep smile of conscious inspiration, but to feel that he foresaw
    no complaint against fate, and that he knew the world he wanted
    to know and charmed it into never giving him away. But I have
    left no space to speak of the Brera, nor of that paradise of
    book-worms with an eye for their background--if such creatures
    exist--the Ambrosian Library; nor of that mighty basilica of St.
    Ambrose, with its spacious atrium and its crudely solemn mosaics,
    in which it is surely your own fault if you don't forget Dr.
    Strauss and M. Renan and worship as grimly as a Christian of the
    ninth century.

    It is part of the sordid prose of the Mont Cenis road that,
    unlike those fine old unimproved passes, the Simplon, the Splügen
    and--yet awhile longer--the Saint-Gothard, it denies you a
    glimpse of that paradise adorned by the four lakes even as that
    of uncommented Scripture by the rivers of Eden. I made, however,
    an excursion to the Lake of Como, which, though brief, lasted
    long enough to suggest to me that I too was a hero of romance
    with leisure for a love-affair, and not a hurrying tourist with a
    Bradshaw in his pocket. The Lake of Como has figured largely in
    novels of "immoral" tendency--being commonly the spot to which
    inflamed young gentlemen invite the wives of other gentlemen to
    fly with them and ignore the restrictions of public opinion. But
    even the Lake of Como has been revised and improved; the fondest
    prejudices yield to time; it gives one somehow a sense of an
    aspiringly high tone. I should pay a poor compliment at least to
    the swarming inmates of the hotels which now alternate
    attractively by the water-side with villas old and new were I to
    read the appearances more cynically. But if it is lost to florid
    fiction it still presents its blue bosom to most other refined
    uses, and the unsophisticated tourist, the American at least, may
    do any amount of private romancing there. The pretty hotel at
    Cadenabbia offers him, for instance, in the most elegant and
    assured form, the so often precarious adventure of what he calls
    at home summer board. It is all so unreal, so fictitious, so
    elegant and idle, so framed to undermine a rigid sense of the
    chief end of man not being to float for ever in an ornamental
    boat, beneath an awning tasselled like a circus-horse, impelled
    by an affable Giovanni or Antonio from one stately stretch of
    lake-laved villa steps to another, that departure seems as harsh
    and unnatural as the dream-dispelling note of some punctual voice
    at your bedside on a dusky winter morning. Yet I wondered, for my
    own part, where I had seen it all before--the pink-walled villas
    gleaming through their shrubberies of orange and oleander, the
    mountains shimmering in the hazy light like so many breasts of
    doves, the constant presence of the melodious Italian voice.
    Where indeed but at the Opera when the manager has been more than
    usually regardless of expense? Here in the foreground was the
    palace of the nefarious barytone, with its banqueting-hall
    opening as freely on the stage as a railway buffet on the
    platform; beyond, the delightful back scene, with its operatic
    gamut of colouring; in the middle the scarlet-sashed
    barcaiuoli, grouped like a chorus, hat in hand, awaiting
    the conductor's signal. It was better even than being in a novel-
    -this being, this fairly wallowing, in a libretto.
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