Italy – Como

MY visit to Lake Como has become to me a dream of summer, a vision that remains faded the whole year round, till the blazing heats of July bring ont the sympathetic tints in which it was vividly painted. Then I behold myself again in burning Milan, amidst noises and fervors and bustle that seem intolerable after my first six months in tranquil, cool, mute Venice. Looking at the great white Cathedral, with its infinite pinnacles piercing the cloudless blue, and gathering the fierce sun upon it, I half expect to see the whole mass calcined by the heat, and crumbling, statue by statue, finial by finial, arch by arch, into a vast heap of lime on the Piazza, with a few charred English tourists blackening here and there upon the ruin, and contributing a smell of burnt leather and Scotch tweed to the horror of the scene. All round Milan smokes the great Lombard plain, and to the north rises Monte Rosa, her dark head coifed with tantalizing snows as with a peasant’s white linen kerchief. And I am walking out upon that fuming plain as far as to the Arco della Pace, on which the bronze horses may melt any minute ; or I am sweltering through the city’s noonday streets, in search of Sant’ Ambrogio, or the Cenacolo of Da Vinci, of what know I? Coming back to our hotel, ” Alla Bella Venezia,” and greeted on entering by the immense fresco which covers one whole side of the court, it appeared to my friend and me no wonder that Garibaldi should look so longingly from the prow of a gondola toward the airy towers and balloon-like domes that swim above the unattainable la-goons of Venice, where the Austrian then lorded it in coolness and quietness, while hot, red-shirted Italy was shut out upon the dusty plains and stony hills. Our desire for water became insufferable ; we paid our modest bills, and at six o’clock we took the train for Como, where we arrived about the hour when Don Abbondio, walking down the lonely path with his book of devotions in his hand, gave himself to the Devil on meeting the bravos of Don Rodrigo. I counsel the reader to turn to I Promessi Sposi, if he would know how all the lovely Como country looks at that hour. For me, the ride through the evening landscape, and the faint sentiment of pensiveness provoked by the smell of the ripening maize, which exhales the same sweetness on the way to Como that it does on any Ohio bottom-land, have given me an appetite, and I am to dine before wooing the descriptive Muse.

After dinner, we find at the door of the hotel an ,English architect whom we know, and we take a boat together for a moonlight row upon the lake, and voyage far up the placid water through air that bathes our heated senses like dew. How far we have left Milan behind! On the lake lies the moon, but the hills are held by mysterious shadows, which for the time are as substantial to us as the hills themselves. Hints of habitation appear in the twinkling lights along the water’s edge, and we suspect an alabaster lamp in every casement, and in every invisible house a villa such as Claude Melnotte described to Pauline, — and some one mouths that well-worn fustian. The rags of sentimentality flutter from every crag and olive-tree and orange-tree in all Italy — like the wilted paper collars which vulgar tourists leave by our own mountains and streams, to commemorate their enjoyment of the landscape.

The town of Como lies, a swarm of lights, behind us ; the hills and shadows gloom around ; the lake is a sheet of tremulous silver. There is no telling how we get back to our hotel, or with’ what satisfied hearts we fall asleep in our room there. The steamer starts for the head of the lake at eight o’clock in the morning, and we go on board at that hour.

There is some pretense of shelter in the awning stretched over the after part of the boat ; but we do not feel the need of it in the fresh morning air, and we get as near the bow as possible, that we may be the very first to enjoy the famous beauty of the scenes opening before us, A few sails dot the water, and everywhere there are small, canopied row-boats, such as we went pleasuring in last night. We reach a bend in the lake, and all the roofs and towers of the city of Como pass from view, as if they had been so much architecture painted on a scene and shifted out of sight at a theatre. But other roofs and towers constantly succeed them, not less lovely and picturesque than they, with every curve of the many-curving lake. We advance over charming expanses of water lying between lofty hills ; and as the lake is narrow, the voyage is like that of a winding river, — like that of the Ohio, but for the primeval wildness of the acclivities that guard our Western stream, and the tawniness of its current. Wherever the hills do not descend sheer into Como, a pretty town nestles on the brink, or, if not a town, then a villa, or else a cottage, if there is room for nothing more. Many little towns climb the heights half-way, and where the hills are green and cultivated in vines or olives, peasants’ houses scale them to the crest. They grow loftier and loftier as we leave our starting-place farther behind, and as we draw near Colico they wear light wreaths of cloud and snow. So cool a breeze has drawn down between them all the way that we fancy it to have come from them till we stop at Colico, and find that, but for the efforts of our honest engine, sweating and toiling in the dark below, we should have had no current of air. A burning calm is in the atmosphere, and on the broad, flat valley, — out of which a marshy stream oozes into the lake,— and on the snow-crowned hills upon the left, and on the dirty village of Colico upon the right, and on the indolent beggars waiting to welcome us, and sunning their goitres at the landing.

The name Colico, indeed, might be literally taken in English as descriptive of the local insalubrity

The place was once large, but it has fallen away much from sickness, and we found a bill posted in its public places inviting emigrants to America on the part of a German steamship company. It was the only advertisement of the kind I ever saw in Italy, and I judged that the people must be notoriously discontented there to make it worth the while of a steamship company to tempt from home any of the home-keeping Italian race. And yet Colico, though undeniably hot, and openly dirty, and tacitly unhealthy, had merits, though the dinner we got there was not among its virtues. It had an accessible country about it ; that is, its woods and fields were not impenetrably walled in from the vagabond foot ; and after we had dined we went and lay down under some greenly waving trees beside a field of corn, and heard the plumed and panoplied maize talking to itself of its kindred in America. It always has a welcome for tourists of our nation wherever it finds us in Italy ; and sometimes its sympathy, expressed in a rustling and clashing of its long green blades, or in its strong sweet perfume, has, as already hinted, made me homesick, though I have been uniformly unaffected by potato-patches and tobacco-fields. If only the maize could impart to the Italian cooks the beautiful mystery of roasting-ears ! Ah ! then indeed it might claim a full and perfect fraternization from its compatriots abroad.

From where we lay beside the corn-field, we could see, through the twinkling leaves and the twinkling atmosphere, the great hills across the lake, taking their afternoon naps, with their clouds drawn like handkerchiefs over their heads. It was very hot, and the red and purple ooze of the unwholesome river below ” burnt like a witch’s oils.” It was in-deed but a fevered joy we snatched from Nature there ; and I am afraid that we got nothing more comfortable from sentiment, when, rising, we wandered off through the unguarded fields toward a ruined tower on a hill. It must have been a relic of feudal times, and I could easily believe it had been the hold of one of those wicked lords who used to rule in the terror of the people beside peaceful and happy Como. But the life, good or bad, was utterly gone out of it now, and what was left of the tower was a burden to the sense. A few scrawny blackberries and other brambles grew out of its fallen stones ; harsh, dust-dry mosses painted its weather-worn walls with their blanched gray and yellow. From its foot, looking out over the valley, we saw the road to the Splügen Pass lying white-hot in the valley ; and while we looked, the diligence appeared, and dashed through the dust that rose like a flame before. After that it was a relief to stroll in dirty by-ways, past cottages of saffron peasants, and poor stony fields that begrudged them a scanty vegetation, back to the steamer blistering in the sun.

Now indeed we were glad of the awning, under which a silent crowd of people with sunburnt faces waited for the departure of the boat. The breeze rose again as the engine resumed its unappreciated labors, and, with our head toward Como, we pushed out into the lake. The company on board was such as might be expected. There was a German landscape-painter, with three heart’s-friends beside him ; there were some German ladies; there were the unfailing Americans and the unfailing Englishman ; there were some French people ; there were Italians from the meridional provinces, dark, thin, and enthusiastic, with fat silent wives, and a rhythmical speech ; there were Milanese with their families, out for a holiday, – round-bodied men, with blunt square features, and hair and vowels clipped surprisingly short , there was a young girl whose face was of the exact type affected in rococo sculpture, and at whom one gazed without being able to decide whether she was a nymph descended from a villa gate, or a saint come from under a broken arch in a Renaissance church. At one of the little towns two young Englishmen in knickerbockers came on board, who were devoured by the eyes of their fellow-passengers, and between whom and our kindly architect there was instantly ratified the tacit treaty of non-intercourse which traveling Englishmen observe.

Nothing further interested us on the way to Como, except the gathering coolness of the evening air; the shadows creeping higher and higher on the hills ; the songs of the girls winding yellow silk on the reels that hummed through the open windows of the factories on the shore ; and -the appearance of a flag that floated from a shallop before the landing of a stately villa. The Italians did not know this banner, and the Germans loudly debated its nationality.

The Englishmen grinned, and the Americans blushed in silence. Of all my memories of that hot day on Lake Como, this is burnt the deepest ; for the flag was that insolent banner which in 1862 pro-claimed us a broken people, and persuaded willing Europe of our ruin. It has gone down long ago from ship and fort and regiment, as well as from the shallop on the fair Italian lake. Still, I say, it made Como too hot for us that afternoon, and even breathless Milan was afterwards a pleasant contrast.