Italy – A Pilgrimage To Petrarch’s House At Arqua

WE said, during summer days at Venice, when every campo was a furnace seven times heated, and every canal was filled with boiling bathers, ” As soon as it rains we will go to Arqua.” Remembering the ardors of an April sun on the long, level roads of plain, we could not think of them in August with-out a sense of dust clogging every pore, and eyes that shrank from the vision of their blinding whiteness. So we stayed in Venice, waiting for rain, until the summer had almost lapsed into autumn ; and as the weather cooled before any rain reached us, we took the moisture on the mainland for granted, and set out under a cloudy and windy sky.

We had to go to Padua by railway, and take carriage thence to Arqua upon the road to Ferrara. I believe no rule of human experience was violated when it began to rain directly after we reached Padua, and continued to rain violently the whole day. We gave up this day entirely to the rain, and did not leave Padua until the following morning when we count that our pilgrimage to Petrarch’s house actually began.

The rain had cooled and freshened the air, but it was already too late in the season for the summer to recover herself with the elastic brilliancy that follows the rain of July or early August ; and there was I know not what vague sentiment of autumn in the weather. There was not yet enough of it to stir the

” Tears from the depth of some divine despair ; ”

but in here and there a faded leaf (for in Europe death is not glorified to the foliage as in our own land), in the purple of the ripening grapes, and in the tawny gras’s of the pastures, there was autumn enough to touch our spirits, and while it hardly affected the tone of the landscape, to lay upon us the gentle and pensive spell of its presence. Of all the days in the year I would have chosen this to go pilgrim to the house of Petrarch.

The Euganean Hills, on one of which the poet’s house is built, are those mellow heights which you see when you look southwest across the lagoon at Venice. In misty weather they are blue, and in clear weather silver, and the October sunset loves them. They rise in tender azure before you as you issue from the southern gate of Padua, and grow in loveliness as you draw nearer to them from the rich plain that washes their feet with endless harvests of oil and wine.

Oh beauty that will not let itself be told ! Could f not take warning from another, and refrain from this fruitless effort of description ? A friend in Padua had lent me Disraeli’s ” Venetia,” because a passage of the story occurs in Petrarch’s house at Arqua, and we carried the volumes with us on our pilgrim. age. I would here quote the description of the village, the house, and the hills from this work, as faultlessly true, and as affording no just idea of either ; but nothing of it has remained in my mind except the geological fact that the hills are a volcanic range. To tell the truth, the landscape, as we rode along. continually took my mind off the book, and I could not give that attention either to the elegant language of its descriptions, or the adventures of its well-born characters, which they deserved. I was even more interested in the disreputable-looking person who mounted the box beside our driver directly we got out of the city gate, and who invariably commits this infringement upon your rights in Italy, no matter how strictly and cunningly you frame your contract that no one else is to occupy any part of the carriage but yourself. He does not seem to be the acquaintance of the driver, for they never exchange a word, and he does not seem to pay any thing for the ride. He got down, in this instance, just before we reached the little town at which our driver stopped, and asked us if we wished to drink a glass of the wine of the country. We did not, but his own thirst seemed to answer equally well, and he slaked it cheerfully at our cost.

The fields did not present the busy appearance which had delighted us on the same road in the spring, but they had that autumnal charm already mentioned. Many of the vine-leaves were sear ; the red grapes were already purple, and the white grapes pearly ripe, and they formed a gorgeous necklace for the trees, around which they clung in opulent festoons. Then, dearer to our American hearts than this southern splendor, were the russet fields of Indian corn, and, scattered among the shrunken stalks, great nuggets of the ” harmless gold” of pumpkins.

At Battaglia (the village just beyond which you turn off to go to Arqua) there was a fair, on the blessed occasion of some saint’s day, and there were many booths full of fruits, agricultural implements, toys, clothes, wooden ware, and the like. There was a great crowd and a noise, but, according to the mysterious Italian custom, nobody seemed to be buying or selling. I am in the belief that a small purchase of grapes we made here on our return was the great transaction of the day, unless, indeed, the neat operation in alms achieved at our expense by a men-icant villager may be classed commercially.

When we turned off from the Rovigo road at Battaglia we were only three miles from Arqua.

Now, all the way from this turning to the foot of the hill on which the village was stretched asleep in the tender sunshine, there was on either side of the road a stream of living water. There was no other barrier than this between the road and the fields (unless the vines swinging from tree to tree formed a barrier), and, as if in graceful excuse for the interposition of even these slender streams, Nature had lavished such growth of wild flowers and wild berries on the banks that it was like a garden avenue, through the fragrance and beauty of which we rolled, delighted to silence, almost to sadness.

When we began to climb the hill to Arqua, and the driver stopped to breathe his horse, I got out and finished the easy ascent on foot. The great marvel to me is that the prospect of the vast plain below, on which, turning back, I feasted my vision, should be there yet, and always. It had the rare and saddening beauty of evanescence, and awoke in me the memory of all beautiful scenery, so that I embroidered the landscape with the silver threads of west-ern streams, and bordered it with Ohio hills. Ohio hills? When I looked again it was the storied Euganean group. But what trans-oceanic bird, voyaging hither, dropped from its mouth the blackberry which took root and grew and blossomed and ripened, that I might taste Home in it on these classic hills ?

I wonder did Petrarch walk often down this road from his house just above ? I figured him coming to meet me with his book in his hand, in his reverend poetic robes, and with his laurel on, over that curious kind of bandaging which he seems to have been fond of—looking, in a word, for all the works like the neuralgic Petrarch in the pictures.

Drawing nearer, I discerned the apparition to be a robeless, laureless lout, who belonged at the village inn. Yet this lout, though not Petrarch, had merits.

His face and hands, and his legs, as seen from his nees down, had the tone of the richest bronze he wore a mountain cap with a long tasseled fall to the back of it ; his face was comely and his eye beautiful ; and he was so nobly ignorant of every thing that a colt or young bullock could not have been bet. ter company. He merely offered to guide us to Petrarch’s house, and was silent, except when spoken to, from that instant.

I am here tempted to say : Arqua is in the figure of a man stretched upon the hill slope. The head, which is Petrarch’s house, rests upon the summit. The carelessly tossed aims lie abroad from this in one direction, and the legs in the opposite quarter. It is a very lank and shambling figure, without elegance or much proportion, and the attitude is the last wantonness of loafing. We followed our lout up the right leg, which is a gentle and’ easy ascent in the general likeness of a street. World-old stone cottages crouch on either side ; here and there is a more ambitious house in decay ; trees wave over the street, and down its distance conies an occasional donkey-cart very musically and leisurely. By all odds, Arqua and its kind of villages are to be prefered to those hamlets of the plain which in Italy cling to the white-hot highway without a tree to shelter them, and bake and burn there in the merciless sun. Their houses of stuccoed stone are crowded as thickly together as city houses, and these wretched little villages do their worst to unite the discomforts of town and country with a success dreadful to think of.

Before she came, I had a mind to prove the celebrity of a poet on the spot where he lived and died, — on his very hearthstone, as it were. So I asked the lout, who stood gnawing a stick and shifting his weight from one foot to the other,

” When did Petrarch live here ? ‘

” Ah ! I don’t remember him.”

“Who was he ?

” A poet, signor.”

Certainly the first response was not encouraging, but the last revealed that even to the heavy and clouded soul of this lout the divine fame of the poet had penetrated — ana he a lout in the village when, Petrarch lived and ought to be first forgotten. He did not know when Petrarch had lived there, — a year ago, perhaps, or many centuries, — but he knew that Petrarch was a poet. A weight of doubt was lifted from my spirit, and I responded cheerfully to some observations on the weather offered by a rustic matron who was pitching manure on the little hill-slope near the house. When, at last, the custodian came and opened the gate to us, we entered a little grassy yard from which a flight of steps led to Petrarch’s door. A few flowers grew wild among the grass, and a fib tree leaned its boughs against the wall. The figs on it were green, though they hung ripe and blackening on every other tree in Arqua. Some ivy clung to the stones, and from this and the fig-tree, as we came away, we plucked memorial leaves, and blended them with flowers which the youth of Arqua picked and forced upon us for remembrance.

A quaint old door opened into the little stone house, and admitted us to a kind of wide passageway with rooms on either side ; and at the end opposite to which we entered, another door opened upon a balcony. From this balcony we looked down on Petrarch’s garden, which, presently speaking, is but a narrow space with more fruit than flowers in it. Did Petrarch use to sit and meditate in this garden ? For me I should better have liked a chair on the balcony, with the further and lovelier prospect on every hand of village-roofs, sloping hills all gray with olives, and the broad, blue Lombard plain, sweeping from heaven to heaven below.

The walls of the passage-way are frescoed (now very faintly) in illustration of the loves of Petrarch and Laura, with verses from the sonnets inscribed to explain the illustrations. In all these Laura prevails as a lady of a singularly long waist and stiff movements, and Petrarch, with his face tied up and a lily in his hand, contemplates the flower in mingled botany and toothache. There is occasionally a startling literalness in the way the painter has rendered some of the verses. I remember with peculiar interest the illustration of a lachrymose passage concerning a river of tears, wherein the weeping Petrarch, stretched beneath a tree, had already started a small creek of tears, which was rapidly swelling to a flood with the torrent from his eyes. I attribute these frescos to a later date than that of the poet’s residence, but the portrait over the door of the bedroom inside of the chamber, was of his own time, and taken from him — the custodian said. As it seemed to look like all the Petrarchian portraits, I did not remark it closely, but rather turned my attention to the walls of the chamber, which were thickly over-scribbled with names. They were nearly all Italian, and none English so far as I saw. This passion for allying one’s self to the great, by inscribing one’s name on places hallowed by them, is certainly very odd ; and (I reflected as I added our names to the rest) it is, without doubt, the most impertinent and idiotic custom in the world. People have thus writ-ten themselves down, to the contempt of sensible Futurity, all over Petrarch’s house.

The custodian insisted that the bedroom was just is as in the poet’s time ; some rooms beyond It had been restored ; the kitchen at its side was also re paired. Crossing the passage-way, we now entered the dining-room, which was comparatively large and lofty, with a mighty and generous fire-place at one and, occupying the whole space left by a balcony-window. The floor was paved with tiles, and the window-panes were round and small, and set in lead — like the floors and window-panes of all the other rooms. A gaudy fresco, representing some indelicate female deity, adorned the front of the fireplace, which sloped expanding from the ceiling and terminated at the mouth without a mantel-piece. The chimney was deep, and told of the cold winters in the hills, of which, afterward, the landlady of the village inn prattled less eloquently.

From this dining-room opens, to the right, the door of the room which they call Petrarch’s library ; and above the door, set in a marble frame, with a glass before it, is all that is mortal of Petrarch’s cat, except the hair. Whether or not the fur was found incompatible with the process of embalming, and therefore removed, or whether it has slowly dropped away with the lapse of centuries, I do not know ; but it is certain the cat is now quite hairless, and has the effect of a wash-leather invention in the likeness of a young lamb. On the marble slab below there is a Latin inscription, said to be by the great poet himself, declaring this cat to have been ” second only to Laura.” We may, therefore, believe its virtues ,Q have been rare enough ; and cannot well figure to ourselves Petrarch sitting before that wide-mouthed fireplace, without beholding also the gifted cat that purrs softly at his feet and nestles on his knees, or, with thickened tail and lifted back, parades loftily round his chair in the haughty and disdainful manner of cats.

In the library, protected against the predatory enthusiasm of visitors by a heavy wire netting, are the desk and chair of Petrarch, which I know of no form of words to describe perfectly. The front of the desk is of a kind of mosaic in cubes of wood, most of which have been carried away. The chair is wide-armed and carved, but the bottom is gone, and it has been rudely repaired. The custodian said Petrarch died in this chair while he sat writing at his desk in the little nook lighted by a single window opening on the left from his library. He loved to sit there. As I entered I found he had stepped out for a moment, but I know he returned directly after I withdrew.

On one wall of the library (which is a simple oblong room, in nowise remarkable) was a copy of verses in a frame, by Cesarotti, and on the wall opposite a tribute from Alfieri, both manu propria. Over and above these are many other scribblings ; and hanging over the door of the poet’s little nook was a criminal French lithograph likeness of ” Petrarque ” when young.

Alfieri’s verses are written in ink on the wall, while those of Cesarotti are on paper, and framed. do not remember any reference to his visit to Petrarch’s house in Alfieri’s autobiography, though the visit must have taken place in 1783, when he sojourned at Padua, and ” made the acquaintance of the celebrated Cesarotti, with whose lively and courteous manners he was no less satisfied than he had always been in reading his (Cesarotti’s) most masterly version of ‘ Ossian.’ ” It is probable that the friends visited the house together. At any rate, I care to believe that while Cesarotti sat ” composing ” his tribute comfortably at the table, Alfieri’s impetuous soul was lifting his tall body on tiptoe to scrawl is inspirations on the plastering.

Do you care, gentle reader, to be reminded that just before this visit Alfieri had heard in Venice of the ” peace between England and the United Colonies,” and that he then and there ” wrote the fifth ode of the ‘ America Libera,’ ” and thus finished that poem ?

After copying these verses we returned to the dining-room, and while one pilgrim strayed idly through the names in the visitor’s book, the other sketched Petrarch’s cat, before mentioned, and Petrarch’s inkstand of bronze — a graceful little thing, having a cover surmounted by a roguish cupid, while the lower part is supported en three lion’s claws, and just above the feet, at either of the three corners, is an exquisite little female bust and head. Thus sketching and idling, we held spell-bound our friends the youth of Arqua, as well as our driver, who, having brought innumerable people to see the house of Petrarch, now for the first time, with great astonish tuent, beheld the inside of it himself.

As to the authenticity of the house I think there can be no doubt, and as to the, genuineness of the relics there, nothing in the world could shake my faith in them, though Muratori certainly characterizes them as ” superstitions.” The great poet was sixty-five years old when he came to rest at Arqua, and when, in his own pathetic words, ” there remained to him only to consider and to desire how to make a good end.” He says further, at the close of his autobiography : ” In one of the Euganean hills, near to ten miles from the city of Padua, I have built me a house, small but pleasant and decent, in the midst of slopes clothed with vines and olives, abundantly sufficient for a family not large and discreet. Here I lead my life, and although, as I have said, infirm of body, yet tranquil of mind, without excitements, without distractions, without cares, reading always, and writing and praising God, and thanking God as well for evil as for good ; which evil, if I err not, is trial merely and not punishment. And all the while I pray to Christ that he make good the end of my life, and have mercy on me, and forgive me, and even forget my youthful sins ; wherefore, in this solitude, no words are so sweet to my lips as these of the psalm : ‘ Delicta juventutis meae, et ignorantias meas ne mernineris.’ And with every feeling of the heart I pray God, when it please Him, to bridle my thoughts, so long unstable and erring ; and as they have vainly wandered to many things, to turn them all to Him — only true, certain, immutable Good.”

I venerate the house at Arqua because these sweet and solemn words were written in it. We left its revered shelter (after taking a final look from the balcony down upon “the slopes clothed with vines and olives”) and returned to the lower village, where, in the court of the little church, we saw the tomb of Petrarch — ” an ark of red stone, upon four columns likewise of marble.” The epitaph is this : —

Frigida Francisci lapis hic tegit ossa Petrarca; Suscipe, Virgo parens, animam ; sate Virgine, parce Fessaque jam terris Coeli requiescat in arce.”

A head of the poet in bronze surmounts the ark. The housekeeper of the parish priest, who ran out to enjoy my admiration and bounty, told me a wild lo-cal tradition of an attempt on the part of the Florentines to steal the bones of Petrarch away from Arquâ, in proof of which she showed me a block of marble set into the ark, whence she said a fragment had been removed by the Florentines. This local tradition I afterwards found verified, with names and dates, in a little ” Life of Petrarch,” by F. Leoni, published at Padua in 1843. It appears that this curious attempt of the Florentines to do doubtful honor to the great citizen whose hereditary civic rights they restored too late (about the time he was drawing nigh his “good end” at Arquâ), was made for them by a certain monk of Portagruaro named Tommaso Martinelli. He had a general instruction from his employers to bring away from Arquâ ” any important thing of Petrarch’s ” that he could ; and it occurred to this ill-advised friar to ” move his bones.” He succeeded on a night of the year 1634 in stealing the dead poet’s arm. The theft being at once discovered, the Venetian Republic rested not till the thief was also discovered ; but what became of the arm or of the sacrilegious monk neither the Signor Leoni nor the old women of Arqua give any account. The Republic removed the rest of Petrarch’s body, which is now said to be in the Royal Museum of Madrid.

I was willing to know more of this quaint village of Arqua, and I rang at the parish priest’s door to beg of him some account of the place, if any were printed. But already at one o’clock he had gone to bed for a nap, and must on no account be roused till four. It is but a quiet life men lead in Arqua, and their souls are in drowsy hands. The amount of sleep which this good man gives himself (if he goes to bed at 9 P. M. and rises at 9 A. M., with a nap of three hours during the day) speaks of a quiet conscience, a good digestion, and uneventful days. As I turned this notion over in my mind, my longing to behold his reverence increased, that I might read life at Arqua in the smooth curves of his well-padded countenance. I thought it must be that his ” bowels of compassion were well-rounded,” and, making sure of absolution, I was half-minded, if I got speech with him, to improve the occasion by confessing one or two of my blackest sirs.

Ought I to say here that, on the occasion of a second visit to Arqua, I succeeded in finding this excellent ecclesiastic wide awake at two o’clock in the afternoon, and that he granted me an interview at that hour ? Justice to him, I think, demands this admission of me. He was not at all a fat priest, as I had prefigured him, but rather of a spare person, and of a brisk and lively manner. At the village inn, after listening half an hour to a discourse on nothing but white wine from a young priest, who had stopped to drink a glass of it, I was put in the way of seeing the priest of Arqua by the former’s courtlesy. Happily enough, his reverence chanced to have the very thing I wanted to see — no other than Leoni’s ” Life of Petrarch,” to which I have already referred. Courtesy is the blood in an Italian’s veins, and I need not say that the ecclesiastic of Arqua, seeing my interest in the place, was very polite and obliging. But he continued to sleep throughout our first stay in Arqua, and I did not see him then.

I strolled up and down the lazy, rambling streets, and chiefly devoted myself to watching the young women who were washing clothes at the stream running from the ” Fountain of Petrarch.” Their arms and legs were bronzed and bare, and they chattered and laughed gayly at their work. Their wash-tubs were formed by a long marble conduit from the fountain ; their wash-boards, by the inward-sloping conduit-sides ; and they thrashed and beat the garments clean upon the smooth stone. To a girl, their waists were broad and their ankles thick. Above their forelheads the hair was cut short, and their ” back hair” was gathered into a mass, and held together by converging circle of silver pins.

The Piazza della Fontana, in Arqua, is a place some fifty feet in length and breadth, and seems to be a favorite place of public resort. In the evening, doubtless, it is alive with gossipers, as now with workers. It may be that then his reverence, risen from his nap, saunters by, and pauses long enough to chuck a pretty girl under the chin or pinch an urchin’s cheek.

Our dinner was ready by the time I got back to the inn, and we sat down to a chicken stewed in oil and a stoup of the white wine of Arqua. It was a modest feast, but, being a friend to oil, I found it savory, and the wine was both good and strong. While we lingered over the repast we speculated somewhat carelessly whether Arqua had retained among its simplicities the primitive Italian cheapness of which you read much.

It surely was not a costly dinner, yet I could have bought the same chicken in Venice for half the money ; which is but another proof that the demand )f the producer is often much larger than the supply the consumer, and that to buy poultry cheaply you must not purchase it where raised, —

… ” On misty mountain ground, Its own vast shadow glory crowned,” —

but rather in a large city after it has been transported forty miles or more. Not that we begrudged the thrifty inn-keeper his fee. We paid it cheerfully, as well for his own sake as for that of his pleasant and neat little wife, who kept the whole inn so sweet and clean ; and we bade them a most cordial farewell as we drove away from their door.

RETURNING, we stopped at the great castle of the Obizzi (now the property of the Duke of Modena), through which we were conducted by a surly and humorous custode, whose pride in life was that castle and its treasures, so that he resented as a personal affront the slightest interest in any thing else. He stopped us abruptly in the midst of the museum, and, regarding the precious antiques and curiosities around him, demanded :

“Does this castle please you ? Then, with a scornful glance at us, ” Your driver tells me you have been at Arqua ? And what did you see at Arqua ? A shabby little house and a cat without any hair on. I would not,” said this disdainful eus. tode, ” go to Arqua if you gave me a lemonade.”