Bassano – Birthplace of Jacopo da Ponte

I have already told, in recounting the story of our visit to the Cimbri, how full of courtship we found the little city of Bassano on the evening of our arrival there. Bassano is the birthplace of the painter Jacopo da Ponte, who was one of the first Italian painters to treat scriptural story as accessory to mere landscape, and who had a peculiar fondness for painting Entrances into the Ark, for in these he could indulge without stint the taste for pairing -off early acquired from observation of local customs in his native town. This was the theory offered by one who had imbibed the spirit of subtile speculation from Ruskin, and I think it reasonable. At least it does not conflict with the fact that there is at Bassano a most excel-lent gallery of paintings entirely devoted to the works of Jacopo da Ponte, and his four sons, who are here to be seen to better advantage than anywhere else. As few strangers visit Bassano, the gallery is little frequented. It is in charge of a very strict old man, who will not allow people to look at the pictures till he has shown them the adjoining cabinet of geological specimens. It is in vain that you assure him of your Indifference to these scientific seccature; he is deaf and you are not suffered to escape a single fossil. He asked us a hundred questions, and understood nothing in reply, insomuch that when he came to his last inquiry, ” Have the Protestants the same God as the Catholics ? ” we were rather glad that he should he obliged to settle the fact for himself.

Underneath the gallery was a school of boys, whom as we entered we heard humming over the bitter honey which childhood is obliged to gather from the opening flowers of orthography. When we passed out, the master gave these poor busy bees an atom of holiday, and they all swarmed forth together to look at the strangers. The teacher was a long, lank man, in a black threadbare coat, and a skull-cap — exactly like the schoolmaster in ” The Deserted Village.” We made a pretense of asking him our way to somewhere, and went wrong, and came by accident upon a wide flat space, bare as a brick-yard, beside which was lettered on a fragment of the old city wall, ” Giuoco di Palla.” It was evidently the playground of the whole city, and it gave us a pleasanter idea of life in Bassano than we had yet conceived, to think of its entire population playing ball there in the spring afternoons. We respected Bastano as much for this as for her diligent remembrance of her illustrious dead, of whom she has very great numbers. It appeared to us that nearly every other house bore a tablet announcing :hat ” Here was born,” or ” Here died,” some great or good man of whom no one out of Bassano ever heard. There is enough celebrity in Bassano to supply the world; but as laurel is a thing that grows anywhere, I covet rather from Bassano the magnificent ivy that covers the portions of her ancient wall yet standing. The wall, where visible, is seen to be of a pebbly rough-cast, but it is clad almost from the ground in glossy ivy, that glitters upon it like chain-mail upon the vast shoulders of some giant warrior. The moat beneath is turned into a lovely promenade bordered by quiet villas, with rococo shepherds and shepherdesses in marble on their gates ; where the wall is built to the verge of the high ground on which the city stands, there is a swift descent to the wide valley of the Brenta waving in corn and vines and tobacco.

We went up the Brenta one day as far as Oliero, to visit the famous cavern already mentioned, out of which, from the secret heart of the hill, gushes one of the foamy affluents of the river. It is reached by passing through a paper-mill, fed by the stream, and then through a sort of ante-grot, whence stepping-stones are laid in the brawling current through a succession of natural compartments with dome-like roofs. From the hill overhead hang stalactites of all grotesque and fairy shapes, and the rock underfoot is ,embroidered with fantastic designs wrought by the water in the silence and darkness of the endless night. At a considerable distance from the mouth of the cavern is a wide lake, with a boat upon it, and voyaging to the centre of the pool your attention is drawn to the dome above you, which contracts into a shaft rising upward to a height as yet unmeasured and even unpierced by light. From somewhere in its mysterious ascent, an auroral boy, with a tallow candle, produces a so-called effect of sunrise, and sheds a sad, disheartening radiance on the lake and the cavern sides, which is to sunlight about as the blind creatures of subterranean waters are to those of waves that laugh and dance above ground. But all caverns are much alike in their depressing and gloomy influences, and since there is so great opportunity to be wretched on the surface of the earth, why do people visit them ? I do not know that this is more dispiriting or its stream more Stygian than another.

The wicked memory of the Ecelini survives everywhere in this part of Italy, and near the en-trance of the Oliero grotto is a hollow in the hill something like the apsis of a church, which is popularly believed to have been the hiding-place of Cecilia da Baone, one of the many unhappy wives of one of the many miserable members of the Ecelino family. It is not quite clear when Cecilia should have employed this as a place of refuge, and it is certain that she was not the wife of Ecelino da Romano, as the neighbors believe at Oliero, but of Ecelino il Monaco, his father; yet since her name is associated with the grot, let us have her story, which is curiously illustrative of the life of the best society in Italy during the thirteenth century. She was the only daughter of the rich and potent lord, Manfredo, Count of Baone and Abano, who died leaving his heiress to the guardianship of Spinabello da Xendrico. When his ward reached womanhood, Spinabello cast about him to find a suitable husband for her, and it appeared to him that a match with the son of Tiso du Camposampiero promised the greatest advantages. Tiso, to whom he proposed the affair, was delighted, but desiring first to take counsel with bis friends upon so important a matter, he confided it for advice to his brother-in-law and closest intimate, Ecelino Balbo. It had just happened that Balbo’s son, Ecelino il Monaco, was at that moment disengaged, having been recently divorced from his first wife, the lovely but light Speronella ; and Balbo falsely went to the greedy guardian of Cecilia, and offering him better terms than he could hope for from Tiso, secured Cecilia for his son. At this treachery the Camposampieri were furious ; but they dissembled their anger till the moment of revenge arrived, when Cecilia’s rejected suitor encountering her upon a journey beyond the protection of her husband, violently dishonored his successful rival. The unhappy lady returning to Ecelino at Bassano, recounted her wrong, and was with a horrible injustice repudiated and sent home, while her husband arranged schemes of vengeance in due time consummated. Cecilia next married a Venetian. noble, and being in due time divorced, married yet again, and died the mother of a large family of children.

This is a very old scandal, yet I think there was an habitue of the caffè in Bassano who could have given some of its particulars from personal recollection. He was an old and smoothly shaven gentle-man, in a scrupulously white waistcoat, whom we saw every evening in a corner of the cafe playing solitaire. He talked with no one, saluted no one. He drank his glasses of water with anisette, and silently played solitaire. There is no good reason to doubt that he had been doing the same thing every evening for six hundred years.