( Originally Published 1893 )
IT was after sunset when we arrived in the birth place of Palladio, which we found a fair city in the lap of caressing hills. There are pretty villas upon these slopes, and an abundance of shaded walks and drives about the houses which were pointed out to us, by the boy who carried our light luggage from the railway station, as the property of rich citizens but little less than lords " in quality. A lovely grove lay between the station and the city, and our guide not only took us voluntarily by the longest route through this, but, after reaching the streets, led us by labyrinthine ways to the hotel, in order, he afterwards confessed, to show us the city. He was a poet, though in that lowly walk of life, and he had done well. No other moment of our stay would have served us so well for a first general impression 4' Vicenza as that twilight hour. In its uncertain glimmer we seemed to get quite back to the dawn of Feudal civilization, when Theodoric founded the great Basilica of the city ; and as we stood before the famous Clock Tower, which rises light and straight as ' mast eighty-two metres into the air from a base of even metres, the wavering obscurity enhanced the effect by half concealing the tower's crest, and letting it soar endlessly upward in the fancy. The Basilica is greatly restored by Palladio, and the cold hand of that friend of virtuous poverty in architecture lies heavy upon his native city in many places. Yet there is still a great deal of Lombardic architecture in Vicenza ; and we walked through one street of palaces in which Venetian Gothic prevailed, so that it seemed as if the Grand Canal had but just shrunk away from their bases. When we threw open our window at the hotel, we found that it over-looked one of the city gates, from which rose a Ghibelline tower with a great bulging cornice, full of the beauty and memory of times long before Palladio.
They were rather troublous times, and not to be recalled here in all their circumstance ; but I think it due to Vicenza, which is now little spoken of, even in Italy, and is scarcely known in America, where her straw-braid is bought for that of Leghorn, to remind the reader that the city was for a long time a republic of very independent and warlike stomach. Before she arrived at that state, however, she had undergone a great variety of fortunes. The Gauls rounded the city (as I learn from " The Chronicles of Vicenza," by Battista Pagliarino, published at Vicenza in 1563) when Gideon was Judge in Israel, and were driven out by the Romans some centuries later. As a matter of course, Vicenza was sacked by Attila and conquered by Alboin ; after which the was ruled by some lords of her own, until she was made an imperial city by Henry I. Then she had a government more or less republican in form till Frederick Barbarossa burnt her, and " wrapped her in ashes," and gave her to his vicar Ecelino da Romano, who " held her in cruel tyranny " from 1236 to 1259. The Paduans next ruled her forty years, and the Veronese seventy-seven, and the Milanese seventeen years ; then she reposed in the arms of the Venetian Republic till these fell weak and helpless from all the Venetian possessions at the threat of Napoleon. Vicenza belonged again to Venice during the brief Republic of 1848, but the most memorable battle of that heroic but unhappy epoch gave her back to Austria. Now at last, and for the first time, she is Italian.
" Of kindred that have greatly expiated
and but that I so long fought against Ecelino da Romano, and the imperial interest in Italy, I could readily forgive her all her past errors. To us of the Lombard League, it was grievous that she should remain 3o doggishly faithful to her tyrant ; though it is to be granted that perhaps fear had as much to do with her devotion as favor. The defense of 1818 was greatly to her honor, and she took an active part in that demonstration against the Austrians which endured from 1859 till 1866.
Of the demonstration we travelers saw an amusing phase at the opera which we attended the evening of our arrival in Vicenza. " Nabucodonosor " was the piece to be given in the new open-air theatre outside the city walls, whither we walked under the starlight. It was a pretty structure of fresh white stucco, oval in form, with some graceful architectural pretensions without, and within very charmingly galleried ; while overhead it was roofed with a blue dome set with such starry mosaic as never covered temple or theatre since they used to leave their houses of play and worship open to the Attic skies. The old Hebrew story had, on this stage brought so near to Nature, effects seldom known to opera, and the scene evoked from far-off days the awful interest of the Bible histories, — the vague, unfigured oriental splendor—the desert — the captive people by the waters of the river of Babylon — the shadow and mystery of the prophecies. When the Hebrews, chained and toiling on the banks of the Euphrates, lifted their voices in lamentation, the sublime music so transfigured the commonplaceness of the words, that they meant all deep and unutterable affliction, and for a while swept away whatever was false and tawdry in the show, and thrilled our hearts with a rapture rarely felt. Yet, as but a moment before we had laughed to see Nebuchadnezzar's crown shot off his head by a squib visibly directed from the side scenes, — at the point when, according to the libretto, " the thunder roars, and a bolt descends upon the head of the king," — so but a moment after some new absurdity marred the llusion, and we began to look about the theatre at the audience. We then beheld that act of c1imostrazion which I have mentioned. In one of the few boxes at a young and very beautiful woman in a dress of white, with a fan which she kept in constant move-ment. It was red on one side, and green on the other, and gave, with the white dress, the forbidden Italian colors, while, looked at alone, it was innocent of offense. I do not think a soul in the theatre was ignorant of the demonstration. A satisfied consciousness was reflected from the faces of the Italians, and I saw two Austrian officers exchange looks of good-natured intelligence, after a glance at the fair patriot. I wonder what those poor people do, now they are free, and deprived of the sweet, perilous luxury of defying their tyrants by constant acts of subtle disdain ? Life in Venetia must be very dull : no more explosion of pasteboard petards ; no more treason in bouquets ; no more stealthy inscriptions on the walls — it must be insufferably dull. Ebbene, pazienza! Perhaps Victor Emanuel may betray them yet.
A spirit of lawless effrontery, indeed, seemed to pervade the whole audience in the theatre that night at Vicenza, and to extend to the ministers of the law themselves. There were large placards everywhere posted, notifying the people that it was forbidden to smoke in the theatre, and that smokers were liable to expulsion ; but except for ourselves, and the fair patriot in the box, I think every body there was smoking, and the policemen set the example of anarchy by smoking the longest and worst cigars of all. I am sure that the captive Hebrews all held lighted cigarettes behind their backs, and that Nebuchadnezcar, condemned to the grass of the field, conscientiously gave himself up to the Virginia weed behind the scenes.
Before I fell asleep that night, the moon rose over the top of the feudal tower, in front of our hotel, and produced some very pretty effects with the battlements. Early in the morning a regiment of Croats marched through the gate below the tower, their band playing " The Young Recruit." These advantages of situation were not charged in our bill ; but, even if they had been, I should still advise my reader to go, when in Vicenza, if he loves a pleasant landlord and a good dinner, to the Hotel de la Ville, which he will find almost at his sole disposition for however long time he may stay. His meals will be served him in a vast dining-hall, as bare as a barn or a palace, - but for the pleasant, absurd old paintings on the wall, representing, as I suppose, Cleopatra applying the Asp, Susannah and the Elders, the Roman Lucrezia, and other moral and appetizing histories. I take it there is a quaint side-table or two lost midway of the wall, and that an old woodcut picture of the Most Noble City of Venice hangs over each. I know that there is a screen at one end of the apartment behind which the landlord invisibly assumes the head waiter ; and suspect that at the moment of sitting down at eat, you hear two Englishmen talking—as as they pass along the neighboring corridor—of wine, in dissatisfied chest-tones. This hotel is of course built round a court, in which there is a stable and — exposed to the weather — a diligence, and two or three carriages and a driver, and an ostler chewing straw, and a pump and a grape-vine. Why the hotel, therefore, does not smell like a stable, from garret to cellar, I am utterly at a loss to know. I state the fact that it does not, and that every other hotel in Italy does smell of stable as if cattle had been immemorially pastured in its halls, and horses housed in its bed-chambers, — or as if its only guests were centaurs on their travels.
From the Museo Civico, whither we repaired first in the morning, and where there are some beautiful Montagnas, and an assortment of good and bad works by other masters, we went to the Campo Santo, which is worthy to be seen, if only because of the beautiful Laschi monument by Vela, one of the greatest modern sculptors. It is nothing more than a very simple tomb, at the door of which stands a figure in flowing drapery, with folded hands and up. lifted eyes in an attitude exquisitely expressive of grief. The figure is said to be the portrait statue of the widow of him within the tomb, and the face is very beautiful. We asked if the widow was still young, and the custodian answered us in terms that ought to endear him to all women, if not to our whole mortal race, — " Oh quite young, yet. She is perhaps fifty years old."
After the Campo Santo one ought to go to that theatre which Palladio built for the representation of classic tragedy, and which is perhaps the perfectest reproduction of the Greek theatre in the world. Alfieri is the only 'poet of modern times, whose works have been judged worthy of this stage, and no drama has been given on it since 1857, when the " OEdipus Tyrannus" of Sophocles was played. We found it very silent and dusty, and were much sadder as we walked through its gayly frescoed, desolate ante-rooms than we had been in the Campo Santo. Here used to sit, at coffee and bassett, the merry people who owned the now empty seats of the theatre, — lord, and lady, and abbe, — who affected to be entertained by the scenes upon the stage. Upon my word, I should like to know what has become, in the other world, of those poor pleasurers of the past whose memory makes one so sad upon the scenes of their enjoyment here ! I suppose they have something quite as unreal, yonder, to satisfy them as they had on earth, and that they still play at happiness in the old rococo way, though it is hard to conceive of any fiction outside of Italy so perfect and so entirely suited to their unreality as this classic theatre. It is a Greek theatre, for Greek tragedies ; but it could never have been for popular amusement, and it was not open to the air, though it had a sky skillfully painted in the centre of the roof. The proscenium is a Greek façade, in three stories, such as never was seen in Greece ; and the architecture of the three streets running back from the proscenium, and forming the one unchangeable scene of al: the dramas, is - like the statues in the niches and )n the gallery inclosing the auditorium — Greek in the most fashionable Vicentine taste. It must have been but an operatic ch .rus that sang in the semicircular space just below the stage and in front of the audience. Admit and forget these small blem ishes and aberrations, however, and what a marvelous thing Palladio's theatre is ! The sky above the stage is a wonderful trick, and those three streets one in the centre and serving as entrance for the royal persons of the drama, one at the right for the nobles, and one at the left for the citizens — present unsurpassed effects of illusion. They are not painted, but modeled in stucco. In perspective they seem each half a mile long, but entering them you find that they run back from the proscenium only some fifteen feet, the fronts of the houses and the statues upon them decreasing in recession with a well-ordered abruptness. The semicircular gallery above the auditorium is of stone, and forty statues of marble crown its colonnade, or occupy niches between the columns.