Castelfranco And Bassano
( Originally Published 1911 )
THE road from Treviso to Castelfranco is a pleasant way enough in the springtime when the tender green of the new leaf gives the great world of the plain an almost vivid radiance, which it soon loses in the monotonous richness of early summer, the dust and drought of July. Pleasant enough is the road, but it can boast nothing of any moment to differentiate it from half a hundred others that cross this wide plain; for indeed all this country between Venice and Milan is much the same; it lacks the infinite variety of Tuscany, and indeed of every part of Italy proper, and is, in fact, but a kind of green and living lagoon where desolation has been changed into plenty and misery into happiness.
Nor are the little towns one passes on the way between Trevis0 and Castelfranco of much beauty or interest. There is Paese close to Treviso, there is Istrana not quite halfway, and just off the road there is Vedelago and Salvatronda, but they are all much alike, and, so far as I could find, there is nothing really to be seen in any one of them save their own graciousness and humility.
Castelfranco, however, is not as these. To begin with, Castelfranco is a fully developed castello, a walled town defended by the Musone, with a great borgo on the further side of the river. Moreover, in all this region of the plain there is no more picturesque city than this of Castelfranco. For it is not merely walled but towered, and set, as it seems, on a little eminence out of the plain, which lends it so much dignity and charm that had Giorgione never lived there, had he never painted the beautiful altarpiece that now hangs in the Duomo, still one would go to Castelfranco, I think, for its own sake, and put up at the Albergo Stella d' Oro, that great posting house, and watch the creepers that wreathe the old topless towers and the cypresses that count the hours on the old red walls, and sit in the cool shade of the sacred plane-trees.
Nevertheless it would be but folly to ignore facts as they are, and so it must be admitted that of all the foreign travellers who come to Castelfranco, mostly for a brief day by train from Venice, scarcely one comes for any other reason than that Giorgione was born here, or for any other purpose than to see that fine picture of his in the Duomo, the Madonna enthroned with her little Son between S. Francis and S. Liberale.
An extraordinary legend has adorned out of all recognition whatever may have been the brief life story of penhaps the greatest of Venetian painters. Vasari's " Life," helped out by Ridolfi, makes us acquainted with a biography which is sure in none of its outlines, is delightfully vague in dates and rich in suggestiveness, and for the authenticity of which we have. alas ! not a single tittle of evidence.
Vasari, indeed, opens his tale with an assertion that. generally speaking, all who are acquainted with Giorgione's works will readily accept. He says, " The city of Venice obtained no small glory from the talents and excellence of one of her citizens, by whom the Bellini, then held in so much esteem, were very far surpassed, as were all others who had practised painting up to that time in that city." This in reference to Giorgione may be true enough, but it does not carry us very far. Vasari, however, goes on to give us the few facts in his possession. He tells us that " This was Giorgio, born in the year 1478 at Castelfranco, in the territory of Treviso. Giorgio was at a later period called Giorgione, as well from the character of his person as for the exaltation of his mind. He was of very humble origin, but was nevertheless very pleasing in manner and most estimable in character through the whole course of his life. Brought up at Venice, he took no small delight in love passages and in the sound of the lute, to which he was so cordially devoted, and which he practised so constantly, that he played and sang with the most exquisite perfection, insomuch that he was for this cause frequently invited to musical assemblies and festivals by the most distinguished personages."
So far Vasari ; let us see what he has told us. He says that Giorgione was born in 1478 at Castelfranco. The date, I think, every one has accepted, but Vedelago, the village on the road to Treviso, claims as well as Castelfranco the honour of being Giorgione's birthplace. However, he is generally called Giorgione da Castelfranco, and no one has yet success-fully contested the general opinion that he was born there. Vasari calls him Giorgio, and adds that he was later called Giorgione for certain of his qualities. He omits altogether to tell us that the painter's family name was Barbarelli, but he emphasizes what for me, at least, is one of the most important things in Giorgione's life—his love of and gift for music, for, according to Vasari, it was this and not his painting which won him his entry into Venetian society. The love of music and the training in that art thus emphasized by Vasari seem to me of as much importance as any date or fact of birth, because they give us the key to the charm of so many of Giorgione's fine works ; they are a kind of visible music. And, indeed, music like a gold thread seems woven into most of them, in the choice of subject, as, for instance, in the " Shepherd with a Pipe " at Hampton Court, or the Fête Champêtre of the Louvre, or the Apollo and Daphne of the Seminario at Venice, or, again, in those Giorgionesque works now attributed too completely to Titian, the Concert of the Pitti Palace or the Sacred and Profane Love of the Borghese Gallery. But everywhere in the work of Giorgione, whether the mere subject suggests music or no, the treatment and the expression always do, as though he alone had suddenly come to understand that truth expressed for us once and for all by Walter Pater : " All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it. That the mere matter of a poem, for instance, its subject, namely, its given incidents or situation that the mere matten of a picture, the actual circumstances of an event, the actual topography of a landscape should be nothing without the form, the spirit of the handling, that this form, this mode of handling should become an end in itself, should penetrate every part of the matter ; this is what all art constantly strives after and achieves in different degrees." This seems to me to be something like the vraie vérité, and how well it explains for us the secret of the charm of Giorgione's pictures ! What, then, is the subject of the Fête Champêtre of the Louvre, the Apollo and Daphne of the Seminario, the Sacred and Profane Love of the Borghese Gallery, the Concert of the Pitti Palace? Men have contended about their titles for centuries. What is the subject of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony or the Third Ballade of Chopin? I know not; only those pictures, like these pieces of music, seem to express something that is in the world though in no satisfying measure, to express what is otherwise inexpressible, and without them would cease to exist for us ; for it lives only in their beauty, and by them we are made aware of it.
It is almost the same with the Gipsy and the Soldier of Prince Giovanelli, only there, I think, anyone who hat ever doubted that Giorgione was born at Castelfranco has his answer, for it is that little towered city beside the Musone that we see in the background, under that gathering storm sweeping down from the hills.
This little city, set so deliciously beside a torrent in the midst of a country that in its rhythmical beauty, its vague outline, and submission to the effect and colour of sun and cloud, of dawn and sunset, has itself much of the spirit of a Giorgione picture, is the happy possessor of what will ever remain, I suppose, the work that is most certainly his very own I mean the altarpiece of the Madonna enthroned with her little Son between S. Francis and S. Liberale. This glorious picture was, as is generally admitted, painted in 1504, and, to my mind, is one of the very few Venetian pictures—Giorgione's altarpiece in Madrid is another which possess that serenity and peace, something in truth spellbound, that is necessary to and helps to make what I may call a religious picture. For something must be added to beauty, something must be added to art, to achieve that end which Perugino seems to have reached so easily, and which almost every Sienese painter knew by instinct how to attain. That quality is serenity, the something spellbound we find here. And Giorgione is the last Venetian master to possess that secret. Is it not the same in music? God forbid that I should claim that Palestrina is a greater master than Mozart, any more than I should claim that Giorgione is greater than Titian. It remains, however, that just as Giorgione, the Sienese and Perugino, to name no others, attained to this effect, while Titian, Tintoretto, Michelangelo, and a host of very great masters could not, so Palestrina, Byrd, and di Lasso could achieve it, yet Mozart, Beethoven, and the rest never once in all their work something has gone out of the world of which we are ignorant, only we miss it more and more in looking back on the beauty that was in the hearts of our fathers.
As for Giorgione, we must picture him as leaving Castel franco with his lute and his music and going to Venice, where he certainly entered the bottega of Giovanni Bellini, who seems to have loved music too, if one may judge him by his music making angels, which lie ever at the feet of Madonna like flowers almost. There in Venice he seems to have been welcome, at first at any rate, if we may believe Vasari, for his skill in music, and maybe it was to please those patrons, that he presently invented that new form of picture, the easel picture, only vaguely subjective, concerned really with a sort of music he discerned in that evening hour on the wide plain that was his home, where the cities seem so small and so far away, and the sky and the earth so full of a half-expressed poetry or music.
Very few of his works have come down to us, but the earliest we possess, according to Morelli, are the so-called Trial by Fire and the Judgment of Solomon, now in the Uffizi, and the half-length figure of Christ bearing the Cross in the Loschi Collection at Vicenza. These all recall his master, Giovanni Bellini. Then, according to the same critic, comes the Castelfranco picture. All this is, however, nothing but fine conjecture. Whatever else Giorgione did in Venice in his too brief life, he certainly fell in love "with a lady," Vasari says, " who returned his affection with equal warmth, and they were immeasurably devoted to each other." Is it she we see as Madonna in this Castelfranco picture and again in the beautiful altarpiece in Madrid? Tradition has it so, and it is part of my creed to accept tradition. And, as it happens, tradition tells us one fact more, namely, that it was through this lady he came by his early death. For as one story goes, that of Vasari, his mistress was attacked by the plague, which he took from her along with her kisses, and so departed. The other tale is less happy, and we owe its currency to Ridolfi, who says that Giorgione died of despair at the infidelity of his lady and the ingratitude of his disciple, Pietro Luzzo of Feltre, called Zarotto, by whom she had been seduced from him. Lanzi accepts this story, and will have it that Pietro Luzzo is Morto da Feltre ; but the other as tragic but less unhappy story has always held the field, and as there is no tittle of evidence for either, it seems a pity to let it go.
Giorgione died, as we think, in 1510-1511, in his thirty-fourth year. His vague story, his exquisite, serene picture, fill our minds in Castelfranco, where, in fact, there is little enough to see and nothing to note save the play of sun and cloud on the old towered and tufted walls that stand so well in the vast plain, and nothing to do but to pray to the mountains.
For in Castelfranco, as everywhere in that great flatness, it is the mountains that call one, that beseech one night and day, and will not let one be. It was therefore one morning I set out for Montebelluno, which, I told myself, was Portia's Belmont, as I think it is, and for those who think that villa was on the Brenta, I would say that Montebelluno is close to Can Brentettone. Nothing but the hills is to be seen at Montebelluno, but it is a fine point of departure for a delightful drive through Asolo to Bassano.
The road crosses the foothills of the Montebello range and at once proceeds to cross the plain to Maser, under the Monti Bassanesi. Here is a great villa, built by Palladio for Marcantonio Barbaro, and painted with frescoes for the same noble by Paolo Veronese. The frescoes are admirably lovely, and the whole villa, with its air of the sixteenth century and ancient luxury, is worth almost any trouble to see, which one is permitted to do by the generous owner. The road from Maser, after finally passing through Crespignaga, climbs some six hundred feet into Asolo, whence there is a great view over all this flat country and of the great mountains in whose shadow the little town lies. Here Queen Caterina Cornaro from Cyprus dwelt in exile. Born in 1454, this unfortunate lady married King James II of Cyprus in 1472. After her husband's death the Venetians claimed the island, and kept Queen Caterina for some time a prisoner, though she was far from unfairly dealt with. Free in 1489, she set up her home in Asolo, and kept there a court of poets. Pietro Bembo, later to be cardinal, here composed his " Asolani." There is little to be seen in the old and shrunken city save some wonderful views, and in the Duomo a spoiled but still charming altarpiece by Lorenzo Lotto of the Madonna and Child with S. Anthony and S. Basil.
Leaving Asolo and the memory of its ruined Lady, we pass on by a pleasant road enough under the hills to Bassano. Just before we enter Bassano we may see, if we look southward across the plain, the ruined Rocca of Romano, where one who had a profound influence on the history not only of Bassano, but of all this country so far as Verona, was born. Ecelino da Romano first saw the light here in 1194. He was the dreadful flower of a dreadful race. He seems at last to have regarded himself " with a sort of awful veneration as the divinely appointed scourge of humanity." After his death he became a name of dread such as none other was but Totila. Yet he founded a state that in its day was perhaps the most powerful in Northern Italy and certainly the most dreaded. This consisted not merely of Bassano and Treviso and their contadi, but of Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Feltre, and Belluno. He was a Ghibelline, and his abuse of power became so terrible that the Pope, Alexander IV, issued letters for a crusade against him, and it was actually preached at Ravenna by the Archbishop in 1255.
Villani, the Florentine chronicler, says of him : " This Ecelino was the most cruel and redoubtable tyrant that ever was among Christians, and ruled by his force and his tyranny (being by birth a gentleman of the house of Romano) long time the Trevisan March and the city of Padua and a great part of Lombardy ; and he brought to an end a very great part of the citizens of Padua and blinded great numbers of the best and most noble, taking their possessions and sending them begging through the world, and many others he put to death by divers sufferings and torments, and burnt at one time 11,000 Paduans; and by reason of their innocent blood by miracle no grass grew there again for evermore. And under semblance of a rugged and cruel justice he did much evil and was a great scourge in his time in the Trevisan March and in Lombardy, to punish them for the sin of ingratitude. At last, as it pleased God by less powerful men than his own, he was vilely defeated and slain, and all his followers were dispersed and his family and his rule came to nought."
Such was Ecelino da Romano. We shall find him everywhere as we pass through these cities and shall recall his dwarfish, wizened figure of hate never without a shudder. He died in 1260 of his wounds, from which he tore away the bandages of his foes. In Dante's universe we find him in the seventh circle of the Inferno.
Now of all the places between the mountains and Venice Bassano is the best, and the jolliest to live in, It is not like an Italian town, its great bridge is not like an Italian bridge, nor are its mountains like Italian mountains; there is something of Germany in all of them, and looking up to the great hills who can wonder at it? The frontier cannot be ten miles away. Yet for all its air of the north Bassano is a very charming place, full of hospitable folk, too, who are proud of their city, which indeed contains all the usual ingredients of an Italian town, fine and interesting churches, a noble Palazzo Pubblico, towers, palaces, terraces, walks, and as splendid a view as is to be had in all this country, as splendid and as surprising.
The story of Bassano has been exceedingly eventful. In the clamour of the end of the Dark Ages it was held in feud by the Ecelini from the Bishops of Vicenza. Their dominion raised the first circuit of walls, of which almost nothing remains but an old tower. When their appalling rule vanished at last in a sea of blood, Bassano was for a little a free Commune with a republican form of government. It was, however, but a small place, and as holding the mountains was coveted both by Vicenza and Padua. Padua seems to have prevailed, and when the Scala of Verona seized Padua in the fourteenth century Bassano also was ceded to them. Then, as we know, came Venice, and Bassano with Treviso made, as we have seen, her first acquisitions on the mainland. Bassano knew many vicissitudes after that, however, and fell into hands as various as those of the Carraresi and the Visconti, but in the fifteenth century she gave herself spontaneously to Venice, under whose excellent government she remained till 1797.
However one may come to Bassano, one is sure to come first into the long Piazza or market, with its fine old houses still faintly frescoed, for all the roads lead thither. Here are two fine churches, the upper of which, S. Franceso, erected in 1158 by Ecelino it Balbo, is the finer and historically the more interesting. This church was restored at various periods, but it still retains sufficient antiquity to interest us, and its campanile is beautiful. Within the church, on the right, is a fresco by Guariento.
Among the other churches S. Donato in Via Angarano, is to be noted. It was built by Ecelino it Monaco in 1208, and there he divided his possessions between his two sons, Ecelino IV and Alberico, in 1223. A Franciscan convent was added to it, and it is said that there S. Francis of Assisi and S. Antonio of Padua stayed.
The Duomo to the north of the city is interesting for its pictures by Jacopo Bassano, born here in 1501, who was the pupil of Bonifazio and died at eighty years of age. Like all the Venetian school, he was a painter of genre, only with him that came to mean painting just country scenes about his home, the life of peasants and farmers, out of which he contrived numberless scenes in the life of Christ or the lives of the Saints. Here in the Duomo are the Assumption of the Virgin, with portraits of Charles V, the Doge of Venice, the Pope, and so forth, which are less characteristic than usual. But on the other side of the church we find him altogether himself in a fine Nativity and a Martyrdom of S. Stephen. There is a fine Crucifix to be seen close by Jacopo's first picture.
Close by the Duomo is the old broken palace of the Ecelini, now partly occupied by the Dean of the Cathedral a picturesque place.
As for pictures, one may have one's fill of them in the Museo Civico, not far from S. Francesco, in the convent indeed once attached to that church, built on the site of the cell where S. Francis and S. Antony are said to have stayed. The collection is chiefly interesting, as it should be, for the works of the Bassanesi, of whom Francesco, Jacopo, and Leandro were the chief.
In the first room we have a picture by Francesco Bassano, the father of the more famous Jacopo, of the Madonna and Child with S. Peter and S. Paul. Here, too, are three pictures by Jacopo—S. Valentine Christening a Dumb Girl (15), the Nativity (17), and S. John in the Desert (19), and a Deposition (22) by Leandro Bassano, the son of Jacopo.
In the second room is a great painted Crucifix by Guariento of Padua, and some works of the school of Mantegna. The third room is devoted to the memory of Canova, who was born at Possagno, near by, in 1757. His original models for his Venus and Hebe are here and casts of other of his works.
It is not these things, however, that would keep a man more than a single day in Bassano. The charm of Bassano lies not in her churches, her palaces, and her pictures, but in herself, in the unique position she occupies in regard to the mountains, and in the great views she commands of mountain and valley. One realizes this at once, and best of all, I think, from the great and lofty terraced road to the north of the city, whence one sees the ruins of the castello of the Ecelini, and, beyond a wide green valley, the sudden rise of the mountains in gigantic precipices and vast cliffs of rugged stone. They stand like a wall which no man could breach, but which the river has broken, so that from the gate of Bassano these mountains may be passed.
Nor is the charm of Bassano less felt on the western side of the town, where the little foothills rise in the distance beyond the borgo which the river, crossed here by its strange wooden roofed bridge, divides from the city proper.
This bridge over the swiftly flowing Brenta has a long history. No one knows when the first bridge was built here, but we hear of one in 1209 for the first time and of rebuildings in 1450 and 1499. The structure was always of wood, and it was always being burned down, which befell again in 1511 in the war of the League of Cambrai. It was rebuilt in 1522, and then again, in stone this time, in 1525, only to be rebuilt in wood in 1531. A flood destroyed it in 1567, and Palladio rebuilt it in 1570. This seems, though repaired, to have lasted till 1748, when a new bridge was built on the old model, only to be burnt in 1813, and finally rebuilt as we see it in 1821. Passing across this bridge, we come into the Borgo Angarano,where stands the Church of S. Donato, built, as I have said, in 1208 by Ecelino it Monaco.
But I cannot sum up half the charms of Bassano in a brief chapter, for they are composed of very many small things, unimportant in themselves, but when found all together a treasure. Come and see : and then when you have seen and understood Bassano, take, with a good courage, the great road that runs almost due south from Bassano out across the plain for Cittadella and Padua.
If you start at dawn you may take lunch in Cittadella, for the road is a good road, though a little monotonous, yet in spring amid the corn and the vines it has much to recommend it.
Cittadella, however, has little to offer you but its walls, built by the Carraresi of Padua in 1220 to face the. Trevisan fortress of Castelfranco, founded two years earlier. Yet for all its poverty it possesses a picture of some note, as what Italian town does not ? This wonder, a Last Supper, by Jacopo Bassano, is to be seen in the Duomo. But Padua called me, Ind was far—twenty-five miles across the plain. I thought of my long tramp that morning from Bassano, I thought of the Inn [ knew in Padua, I thought above all of the dust and length of the way. At three o'clock I found myself in the station of Cittadella awaiting the train, which, not too late, presently bore me through a great green garden all the way to Padua and there I came without longing or weariness before nightfall.