Possagno, Canova's Birthplace.
( Originally Published 1893 )
IT did not take a long time to exhaust the interest of Bassano, but we were sorry to leave the place because of the excellence of the inn at which we tarried. It was called " Il Mondo," and it had every thing in it that heart could wish. Our rooms were miracles of neatness and comfort ; they had the freshness, not the rawness, of recent repair, and they opened into the dining-hall, where we were served with indescribable salads and risotti. During our sojourn we simply enjoyed the house; when we were come away we wondered that so much perfection of hotel could exist in so small a town as Bassano. It is one of the pleasures of by-way travel in Italy, that you are everywhere introduced in character, that you become fictitious and play a part as in a novel. To this inn of The World, our driver had brought us with a clamor and rattle proportioned to the fee received from us, and when, in response to his haughty summons, the cameriere, who had been gossiping with the conk, threw open the kitchen door, and stood out to welcome us in a broad square of forth-streaming ruddy light, amid the lovely odors of broilng and roasting, our driver saluted him with, " Receive these gentle folks, and treat them to your very best. They are worthy of any thing." This at once put us back several centuries, and we never ceased to be lords and ladies of the period of Don Quixote as long as we rested in that inn.
It was a bright and breezy Sunday when we left Monde," and gayly journeyed toward Treviso, intending to visit Possagno, the birthplace of Canova, on our way. The road to the latter place passes through a beautiful country, that gently undulates on either hand till in the distance it rises into pleasant hills and green mountain heights. Possagno itself lies upon the brink of a declivity, down the side of which drops terrace after terrace, all planted with vines and figs and peaches, to a watercourse below. The ground on which the village is built, with its quaint and antiquated stone cottages, slopes gently northward, and on a little rise upon the left hand of us coming from Bassano, we saw that stately edifice with which Canova has honored his humble birthplace. It is a copy of the Pantheon, and it cannot help being beautiful and imposing, but it would be utterly out of place in any other than an Italian village. Here, however, it consorted well enough with the lingering qualities of the old pagan civilization still perceptible in Italy. A sense of that past was so strong with us as we ascended `the broad stairway leading up the slope from the village to the level on which the temple stands at the foot of a mountain, that we might well have believed we approached an altar devoted to the elder worship : through the open doorway and between the columns of the portico we could see the priests moving to and fro, and the voice of their chanting came out to us like the sound of hymns to some of the deities long disowned ; and I remembered how Padre L had said to me in Venice, " Our blessed saints are only the old gods baptized and christened anew." Within as without, the temple resembled the Pantheon, but it had little to show us. The niches designed by Canova for statues of the saints are empty yet ; but there are busts by his own hand of himself and his brother, the Bishop Canova. Among the people was the sculptor's niece, whom our guide pointed out to us, and who was evidently used to being looked at. She seemed not to dislike it, and stared back at us amiably enough, being a good-natured, plump, comely dark-faced lady of perhaps fifty years.
Possagno is nothing if not Canova, and our guide, a boy, knew all about him, — how, more especially, he had first manifested his wonderful genius by modeling a group of sheep out of the dust of the highway, and how an Inglese happening along in his carriage, saw the boy's work and gave him a plateful of gold napoleons. I dare say this is as near the truth as most facts. And is it not better for the historic Canova to have begun in this way than to have poorly picked up the rudiments of his art in the workshop of his father, a maker of altar-pieces and the like for country churches ? The Canova family has intermarried with the Venetian nobility, and will not credit those stories of Canova's beginnings which his townsmen so fondly cherish. I believe they would even distrust the butter-lion with which the boy-sculptor is said to have adorned the table of the noble Falier, and first won his notice.
Besides the temple at Possagno, there is a very pretty gallery containing casts of all Canova's works. It is an interesting place, where psyches and Cupids - flutter, where Venuses present themselves in every variety of attitude, where Sorrows sit upon hard, straight-backed classic chairs, and mourn in the society of faithful Storks ; where the Bereft of this century surround death-beds in Greek costume appropriate to the scene ; where Muses and Graces sweetly pose themselves and insipidly smile, and where the Dancers and Passions, though nakeder, are no wickeder than the Saints and Virtues. In all, there ara a hundred and ninety-five pieces in the gallery, and among the rest the statue named George Washing-ton, which was sent to America in 1820, and after-wards destroyed by fire in the Capitol. The figure is in a sitting posture ; naturally, it is in the dress of a Roman general; and if it does not look much like George Washington, it does resemble Julius Cæsar.
The custodian of the gallery had been Canova's body-servant, and he loved to talk of his master. He had so far imbibed the family spirit that he did not like to allow that Canova had ever been other than rich and grand, and he begged us not to believe the idle stories of his first essays in art. He was delighted with our interest in the imperial Washington, and our pleasure in the whole gallery, which we viewed with the homage due to the man who had rescued the world from Swaggering in sculpture. When we were satisfied, he invited us, with his mistress's permission, into the house of the Canovas adjoining the gallery ; and there we saw many paintings by the sculptor,—pausing longest in a lovely little room decorated after the Pompeian manner with scherzi in miniature panels representing the jocose classic usualities : Cupids escaping from cages, and being sold from them, and playing many pranks and games with Nymphs and Graces.
Then Canova was done, and Possagno was finished; and we resumed our way to Treviso, a town nearly as much porticoed as Padua, and having a memory and hardly any other consciousness. The Duomo, which is perhaps the ugliest duomo in the world, contains an " Annunciation," by Titian, one of his best paintings ; and in the Monte di Pieta is the grand and beautiful " Entombment," by which Giorgione is perhaps most worthily remembered. The church of San Nicolô is interesting from its quaint and pleasing frescos by the school of Giotto At the railway station an admirable old man sells the most delicious white and purple grapes.