Italian Lakes – Lago D’Iseo And Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

THE Lake of Iseo stands more aloof and withdrawn from travel, both of the ordinary kind and of the tourist variety, than the other Italian lakes. It is still waiting in a measure to be discovered or rediscovered, as the case may be. If one wishes to gain an idea of the atmosphere which pervaded the other Italian lakes before the era of modern cosmopolitan travel reached them, when they were still wholly local and circumscribed within Italian habits and customs, then Lago d’Iseo of to-day may fairly serve as an ex-ample. While the rest of the world has progressed into the twentieth century, the banks of Lago d’Iseo are still dreaming in the eighteenth, crude and primitive from one standpoint and fascinating from another.

There are certain aspects of this lake which recall Lake Lugano, though Iseo has less forest and more blue in its mountain shadows. The steamboats, too, are about on a par with those of Lugano. Again, a momentary intensity of water-colouring or a shore outline will suddenly conjure up the Achensee in Tyrol. At the upper end, where the stream of the Oglio brings down much melted snow from the great white Adamello range, the water in June assumes the pale opaque blue characteristic of the Lake of Brienz in Switzerland.

But Lago d’Iseo is certainly not any one of these lakes, it is distinctly itself; its shores, though subalpine, have the slap-dash of Southern Italy and are almost Neapolitan in spots.

Lago d’Iseo is long and narrow, — some fifteen miles long and only from one to three miles wide. It is superbly dominated at the northern end by the snow mountains of the Adamello group. John Addington Symonds writes of it as ” sterner, solitary Lake Iseo,” in comparison with the other Italian lakes. The customary approaches on the south are from Bergamo to Lovere, and from Brescia to the town of Iseo; or, on the north, from the Val Camonica to Lovere.

Taking the steamboat from Iseo for the trip up the lake to Lovere, the first impression the traveller receives is undoubtedly that of the remote romanticism of the landscape, into which a sense of adventure creeps as we advance.

There is nothing remarkable about the peat bogs at the southern approach to the lake, the place Iseo itself looks flat and primitive, but once fairly launched on the waters the interest grows with every mile. At Tavernola there has been recently a great landslide, then comes a little island with church, loggia, and walls effectively grouped; farther on rises a large rocky island, Montisola, gaunt and sterile above, but its feet clothed with fishing villages, Peschiera, Maraglio, and Siviano. This island is actually the largest of any on the Italian lakes. The nets are out drying and being mended along-shore, so that Bergamo and Brescia may receive the result of the catch. At Sale Marasino the eye is attracted up the steep mountainside to a house painted in red and yellow. A woman is seen in the act of step-ping out upon a balcony and throwing back a green blind. She seems to stand there a long time immovably, and as you continue to watch without detecting any motion, the conviction at last dawns upon you that you have been caught once more by a familiar but genial Italian trick born of exuberant fancy, — the woman is painted on the side of the house.

Now comes another island, small and deserted, with the ruins of what might once have been a fort. Many olive-trees clothe the banks, and, of course, the washerwomen are there doing the family washing as on the shores of all the other Italian lakes. The same heavy-laden barges, too, are crawling before a fair wind. At Marone a man comes aboard with a bicycle and throws a modern note into the picture. After touching at several more stations, the steamboat turns straight for Lovere, the imposing-looking crescent-shaped town at the upper end of the lake.

Seen from a distance, Lovere, with its line of trees on the quay, its arcaded houses and prominent balconies, looks almost citified after the tiny places along the shores of Lago d’Iseo, which have been seen on the way up.

There is a touch of Naples about Lovere’s water-front, it looks so architectural, but, like the larger city, Lovere on nearer acquaintance turns to the visitor a decidedly shabby side and a less favourable interior. A long arcaded building at the southern end of the town is called the Accademia Tadini, and contains a collection of paintings. There is a fine church and a collegio on the hill, with long porticos. A really charming hotel has been built at the northern end, and small as the place is, it possesses no less than three monuments, one to Garibaldi, another to the soldiers of the war of independence, and a third to a Count Tadini. It was not the fault of the good townspeople that a fourth monument does not grace the esplanade, if rumour is to be believed. As will be related later, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu claimed that she had great difficulty in restraining the citizens from putting up a statue to her, as a mark of the honour her residence conferred upon them.

The ancient Albergo Leon d’Oro, the Golden Lion of Lovere, is reputed to be more than four hundred years old. As a hotel, it is almost incredibly picturesque and queer. You enter into a dark, forbidding courtyard, containing a fountain and basin. A flight of steps mounts to the dining-room on an upper floor, where a sort of loggia overlooking the lake is capable of being used on fine days. About two miles south of Lovere, by the road to Bergamo, is the striking gorge called the Orrido di Tinazzo.

As the sun declines before our eyes, the first impression of Lago d’Iseo deepens into conviction; its aloofness and romanticism mark it as a thing apart, a forgotten corner. The people have no distinctive costume any more, doubtless much of its eighteenth century gaiety, as depicted by Lady Montagu, has evaporated with the fall of the Venetian Republic, of which the lake once formed a part, and modern industry, in the shape of a large iron foundry, has placed a utilitarian stamp upon Lovere, yet, with all these changes, the town has charm to-day. The blare of the trumpets from a detachment of Alpini troops resounds through the streets, barges have hoisted huge square sails for a fair wind, and over on the eastern shore cattle are tramping on the highway to the mountains.

There is life and there is light and much colour on land and water and in the sky that arches over Lago d’Iseo.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1690 -1762)

Lady Montagu’s career stamped her as an extraordinary figure in the diplomatic and literary circles of Europe during the period prior to the American and French revolutions. She was the daughter of Lord Dorchester, later the Duke of Kingston, and of Lady Mary Fielding, a cousin of the novelist. As a child, clever and attractive, she developed into a brilliant woman in the society of London. At the age of twenty she translated the Enchiridion of Epictetus. She was a friend of Addison, Pope, and of others who belonged to the literary coterie of her day.

Her husband having been appointed British ambassador to the Porte, she resided in Turkey for two years. It is said that she was the third Englishwoman known to have visited Turkey, and it was there that she wrote those of her famous ” Letters ” which described the Oriental life of that time. This she did with much clearness and liveliness of style. Upon her return from the East she lived for twenty years in England. In 1739, thinking to benefit her health, and perhaps also because of her growing unpopularity in certain circles, she decided to leave England and, with her husband’s consent, took up her residence upon the Continent of Europe. She travelled to Venice, Rome, and Naples, then settled for a time in a palace at Brescia.

It was from Brescia that, upon the advice of her physician, she went to Lovere on Lago d’Iseo, situated at that time in territory of the Venetian Republic. This was in the year 1747. Lovere became in fact her regular residence for some years. She bought a deserted palace there, as well as a dairy-house and a farm in the neighbourhood. On the banks of Lago d’Iseo she planned her garden and read the books her daughter, the Countess of Bute, sent her out from England, entertaining the local gentry and nobility, and in general enjoyed herself in the hearty, sprightly, and independent fashion which was characteristic of her. She made occasional visits to Genoa and Padua. In 1758 she settled for three years in Venice, and did not return to England until 1761, where she died in the course of the year 1762.

Turning over the leaves of Lady Montagu’s ” Works,” as published in London in 1817, one comes across many letters dated from Louvere (Lovere), giving interesting little pictures of life in this secluded piece of Italian territory during the period preceding the great European upheaval. These letters are addressed to her daughter, the Countess of Bute. Without classification, or chronological order, the following excerpts are presented as containing interesting de-tails.

In a letter dated July 21, 1747, Lady Montagu writes:

” I am now in a place the most beautifully romantic I ever saw in my life. . . . I had the ill luck to be surprised with a storm on the lake, that if I had not been near a little port (where I passed a night in a very poor inn), the vessel might have been lost. A fair wind brought me hither next morning early. . . . The whole lake of Iseo . . . is all surrounded with these impassable mountains, the sides of which, toward the bottom, are so thick set with villages (and in most of them gentlemen’s seats) that I do not believe there is anywhere above a mile distance one from another, which adds very much to the beauty of the prospect.”

In writing of life in Lovere she mentions an opera “which is performed three times in the week,” also ” diversions on the water, where all the town assembles every night, and never without music; but we have none so rough as trumpets, kettle-drums, and French horns: they are all violins, lutes, mandolins, and flutes doux.” Writing Feb. 2, 1747, she states : “We have hitherto had no winter, to the great sorrow of the people here, who are in fear of wanting ice in the summer, which is as necessary as bread.” A letter of Aug. 22, 1749, states: “We are all very quiet here, all the beau monde being hurried away to the fair at Bergamo.”

On June 19, 1751, she informs her daughter that ” this little town thinking themselves highly honoured and obliged by my residence: they intended me an extraordinary mark of it, having determined to set up my statue in the most conspicuous place: the marble was bespoke, and the sculptor bargained with before I knew anything of the matter; and it would have been erected without my knowledge, if it had not been necessary for him to see me to take the resemblance.” She declares she had great difficulty in persuading the good people to desist, finally placing her refusal on the score of religious scruples. In this letter she enumerates jocularly among her benefactions to the place: ” I have introduced French rolls, custards, minced pies, and plum pudding, which they are very fond of. ‘Tis impossible to bring them to conform to syllabub, which is so unnatural a mixture in their eyes they are even shocked to see me eat it, but I expect immortality from the science of butter-making, in which they are become so skillful from my instructions.”

In a letter dated June 23, 1752, Lady Montagu, writing of the lake and of her palace, tells her daughter: ” The lake itself is different from any other I ever saw or read of, being the colour of the sea, rather deeper tinged with green, which convinces me that the surrounding mountains are full of minerals. . . . This town, which is the largest of twenty-five that are built on the banks of the lake of Isco (sic), is near two miles long, and the figure of a semicircle, and situated at the northern extremity.” She describes her house as an ancient, half-ruined palace, ” with a very pretty garden in terraces down to the water, and a court behind the house. It is founded on a rock, and the walls so thick they will probably remain as long as the earth.” The whole purchase was made for the sum of one hundred pounds.

In a letter dated July 23, 1753, there are many details concerning her farm. It consisted of a dairy-house and garden made out of a former vineyard, and described as ” a long mile from the castle.” At the farm she spent much of her time. It was situated ” on a bank, forming a kind of peninsula, raised from the river Oglio fifty feet.” Her garden was full of arbours; she speaks of making a camp kichen, where the fresh fish was cooked and promptly eaten, of a little wood carpeted with violets and strawberries, inhabited by nightingales. She writes of her life at the farm: ” I generally rise at six, put myself at the head of my needlewomen and work with them till nine. I then inspect my dairy, and take a turn among my poultry, which is a very large inquiry. I have, at present, two hundred chickens, besides turkeys, geese, ducks, and peacocks. All things have hitherto prospered under my care; my bees and silkworms are doubled, and I am told that, without accidents, my capital will be so in two years’ time. At eleven o’clock I retire to my books: I dare not indulge myself in that pleasure above an hour. . . . The fishery of this part of the river belongs to me; and my fisherman’s little boat (to which I have a green lute-string awning) serves me for a barge.”

During her residence abroad, and principally at Lovere, Lady Montagu read much of the literature which was making a stir in England, and passed judgment upon it in her characteristic way. Fielding’s works, Smollett’s, Pope’s, Dean Swift’s, and Bolingbroke’s, all came in for witty comment in her letters to her daughter. She had perhaps most to say about Samuel Richardson’s novels. She was also much interested in the education of her grandchildren, and wrote freely to her daughter on that subject and on diplomatic questions.

Altogether Lady Mary Wortley Montagu displayed interest in a great range of subjects, her versatility carried her far afield, beyond the boundaries to which the women of her day were ordinarily confined. Her daring may not always have been marked by discretion, nor her judgments by accuracy, but it is quite possible that her fame as a traveller and a writer may have helped to break down some of the limitations and restrictions commonly placed upon women’s abilities in her day.