Italy – Where The Mountains Meet The Plains

THROUGH the blank horror of this war, many of us no doubt have prayed, even unconsciously, that the beauty of Italy might be spared for the refreshment of a world, beaten and bruised, lacerated and despoiled, as our world is to-day. We have prayed that the murky river of wrong and bitter pain the cruel, the unimaginable material forces which one nation has let loose on neighbour nations for their destruction might still be stayed. We have longed that it should not pollute yet one other of the gracious lands of Europe : that it should not touch Italy that land more crowded with the artistic achievement of man than any land on earth. Morally, we have not wished that her new-formed people should escape the agonising struggle ; but artistically, yes, we have longed for an escape. And our hearts these months have crept back surely to the old loved places ; some have travelled here, some have gone there in memory. For myself, my ,thoughts have lingered most on the south side of the Alps which guard them, rather than amidst the palaces and cities of the plains.

As the news of June leaked into our papers, a poignant memory of girlhood returned to me, and round it seemed to focus all the mustering of the brave Italian armies. It was the memory of a May evening in 1 888. I had spent that spring with my father in our little house upon the Zattere at Venice. My brain was soaked with the art of Venice my heart filled with rare new friendships and experiences. We were to travel back to our Swiss home by way of Pieve di Cadore and Cortina, one of the great highways which lead from Italy into Austria. Our first night was spent in the little town of Longarone. It was late in the afternoon. The heat of the day had been intense, but the inn to which we came, with all its large palatial rooms, felt curiously cool and sleepy. I remember how I rested in the shade of a great salon ; sitting on one of those wide settees peculiar to old Italian inns, my feet cooled by the scagliola floor on which water had been lately sprinkled. Then the sun went down outside, and I threw the heavy wooden shutters open.

It is nearly thirty years ago, but the scene is vivid in my memory. Below was the main street of the little town, and beyond it the walled-in mountain torrent ; immediately opposite was some fantastic, possibly a quite modern, palace, with a frieze of pomegranates and of fleur-de-lis, painted in white and brown, below its roofs. The street ended abruptly ; the road wound up the hillside to the left. Then suddenly, in the hush of the sunset, a little band of Bersaglieri ran quickly up the street, and up the road and away into the first gaunt crags of the mountains up beyond. My father came from his room and told me how the Bersaglieri always run into action and are never allowed to walk. We went out on the iron balcony, and we watched them up the mountain road till they disappeared amongst the shadows of the rocks. But long after we ceased to see their gay cocks’ feathers and white gaiters, we could hear the shrill call of their bugles as they wound up the mountain-side.

And I remember how, later, my father and I ourselves walked up the street, and the road to the mountain ; and how we came in the evening to a green meadow, where grew abundantly the white spiraea with feathery blossom, and amongst it, here and there, like torches amongst fair ladies, the splendid orange tiger-lily. Below us lay the brown roofs of the little town ; above us towered the Alps —those amazing natural ramparts which guard the Lombard cities from the cruelties of the North, and which have broken, though they could not stay, the force of so many Northern invasions.

I shall never forget that meadow. I shall never forget the Bersaglieri. I have wandered much since then amidst the pleasant cities of the plain Milan, Bergamo, Brescia, Vicenza, Verona, Padua, and many others. I have crossed the next great natural rampart of the Apennines, and come to Florence and the gentle hills and towns of Umbria ; and thence again I have passed to Rome and Naples, and those more fearful cities of the South. All the treasures of man’s creative mind are here contained jewels set in a hundred natural crowns. I have read the history of these places, and thought and pondered on the whence and wherefore of their unparalleled loveliness, and on the genius of that strange mixed people who created them. Turning over the old chronicles, I have read of their wars —the fierce, fantastic wars of all the separate cities —cities which may be said to have arisen from the very blood of their citizens. What a gay and gallant clash of swords was theirs, after all at least by comparison with modern methods. Hand to hand fights they were things of the miraculous inconsequence of children’s quarrels.

And what a wealthy heritage we have gained from all that curious jumbled history. For whilst the blood of the young men coursed through the piazzas, whilst citizens poured stones and boiling oil on the heads of the approaching hordes, up in some quiet room of an old palace, or down by the altars of a new-built church or chapel, men who were passionately acquainted with Beauty in all her forms, would set their easels up, or hang their mighty can-vases ; and there, through all the noise and stress, would sit the whole day through, painting their placid pictures, cutting their golden marbles creating just because of, or in spite of the wrong and turmoil, those pictures and those sunny marble garlands which we may pray for power to make, in vain.

Yes, they are very good to think about, the cities of Italy. But always, in memory, I myself come back to the delightful unfrequented places where the mountains meet the plains, and where the spirit, rather than the achievement of the Italians, seems to me most to linger. When exhausted by the purposeless and often hideous crowd of red-brick English villas, I still can close my eyes and can remember, how somewhere, for miles on count-less miles, the great Alps roll, down to the great plains. I can see the granite boulders at Chiavenna, with the fantastic curves of the chestnut trees which spring above them ; the sparkling mountain streams, the delicate green pastures where snowflakes and narcissus grow in spring. I can see the shimmer of lilac crocus round the tall barocco churches in September ; the slender campaniles with their bells against the sky ; and the wayside shrines with poor, but passionate, paintings of our Lord. And women I can see, beautiful as Titian’s women, with copper pails or baskets on their heads ; and children, brown and lithe as fawns, dancing on autumn afternoons around the white ash of their chestnut fires, in woods where the traveller rarely goes, but where the Bersaglieri mustered this summer of dread and war.