Two Poets And The Euganean Hills
( Originally Published 1911 )
THERE is one journey that, if only in memory of two dead poets, all must make who stay more than a single day in Padua. It is a journey to the Euganean hills, and the two poets such a pilgrimage will commemorate are, of course, Petrarch and Shelley. But such a journey made with due piety will be something more than a duty performed, it will be in a very real way its own reward. For of all the various country of Venetia, of sea and seashore and delicate visionary island, of mountain, valley, and plain, nothing may compare for sheer loveliness with these Euganean hills which beckon one so mysteriously from Venice, and which fill every vista of the plain with their strange and mysterious beauty, where
" Beneath is spread like a green sea
It was with these lines in my head that one morning when the sun was shining after many days of rain I set out from Padua by Barriera Vittorio Emanuele for Battaglia, Arquà, and Este. The road was broad, straight, and flat, but the world was refreshed, the day young, and all the flowers in the world seemed to have come to meet me. So that for all the monotony of the plain I was not weary, but took courage and lifted mine eyes to the hills, ever growing clearer and more lovely as I approached them; and before midday in very good spirits I came to Battaglia, where I ate frugally but well, and setting out again presently turned out of the straight road westward, and a little after found myself at the foot of the delectable mountains, which, after I had passed a little lake, I began to climb, and before long found myself in Arqua Petrarca.
Now to describe the beauty of this place, and the hills, in a valley of which it lies, has been the vain attempt of so many of my betters, from Disraeli to Gabriele D' Annunzio, that I shall content myself with bringing the reader hither, giving him what information he should need, and perhaps quoting for my own delight a few lines of Petrarch's, a few verses of Shelley. Arquà is still what it was when Petrarch in his old age first saw it and fell in love with it, a little mountain village and a gracious fountain :
" Fonti numen inest ; hospes, venerare liquorem
What fame it has and since mere beauty is too common in Italy to attract the notice we give it at home, it would otherwise be but little renowned what fame it has it owes all to Petrarch.
That noble, lofty but pedantic poet found here the peace which he had sought in vain his whole successful life long, and here amid his roses in July, 1374, he died.
It was in the year 1369 that Petrarch had found out this village in the Euganean hills which ever after became his summer residence, where, indeed, he seems, with his usual generosity, to have kept open house, with something more of lavishness than might be looked for in a "simple canon." The Pope, Gregory XI, a Frenchman, loving him well, seems, indeed, to have been anxious about him, and instructed Francesco Bruno to write and inquire how he did. Petrarch answers that his means are sufficient for a simple canon, but since he has, as he can most truly say, a wider circle of acquaintance than all the rest of the Chapter together, he has very many unforeseen expenses. Besides an old priest who lives with him a whole swarm of these acquaintances will often suddenly descend upon him, and he has not the heart to turn them away without their dinner. Then, too, he finds he cannot do without servants, a couple of horses, and five or six scribes. Then he is building a little chapel to the Blessed Virgin, and he must accomplish this though he should be compelled to sell even his books. So he is rather pinched, and age makes pinching the harder. Therefore if Gregory is minded to do something for him he will not say nay. This letter so characteristic of Petrarch, he will ask for nothing, but, as he had ever done, accept what God sends him was written from Arquà at Whitsuntide, 1371. That was his third summer there. At first, in 1369, he had stayed in the convent of the Austin Friars, and it was then he was so taken with the beauty of the place that he got one of his friends to buy on his behalf a plot of ground with a vineyard, a garden of olives, and a little orchard. There he built the house we still see above the village on the hill side under the castello which in his day, unspoilt and unbroken, crowned the summit of the hill. Here he spent his old age, which was already come upon him. He was continually ailing and constantly ready for death.
In 1372, however, he had to leave Arquà, for war had broken out between Francesco da Carrara and Venice, and the country was full of marauders. Francesco, as we know, was compelled to surrender, and when called upon to plead before the Venetian Senate he sent his son to Petrarch to ask him to plead for him. Petrarch was much loved in Padua and had received many kindnesses from the Carrara House. He tried, in fact, to help his friend, but was too ill to speak on the day appointed, though his speech was delivered well enough on the following day. This unhappy affair can only have distressed him to the utmost. For Francesco was not only his friend, but in some sort his pupil, and it was to him that Petrarch had addressed the long letter on government, "on the best methods of administering a State," in which, knowing the House of Carrara, we may think he lays great stress upon the moral qualities necessary to a good ruler.
In Arquà, doubtless, too, in his quiet chair at night between the vines, and under the olives at morning or at evening, he composed that letter to Posterity which makes so noble an autobiography, so pathetic a plea, too, for remembrance, " what sort of man I was and what was the outcome of my works." There we read of his, home at Arquà : ' In one of the Euganean hills," he writes, " near ten miles from the city of Padua, I have built me a house, small, but pleasant and decent, in the midst of slopes clothed with vines and olives, abundantly sufficient for a family not large and discreet. Here I lead my life, and although, as I have said, infirm of body, yet tranquil of mind, without excitements, without distractions, without cares, reading always and writing and praising God, and thanking God as well for evil as for good ; which evil, if I err not, is trial merely, not punishment, and all the while I pray to Christ that He make good the end of my life, and have mercy on me and forgive me and even forget my youthful sins ; wherefore, in this solitude no words are so sweet to my lips as those of the psalm, ' Delicta juvenlutis meae : et inorantias meas ne memineris.' And with every feeling of the heart I pray God when it pleases Him to bridle my thoughts, so long unstable and erring ; and as they have vainly wandered to many things, to turn them all to Him the only true, certain, immutable Good."
Such was Petrarch at Arquà, blessed in the quietness which led him thus so perfectly to God. Nor is this merely a mood. His letters to all his friends are full of such words, only less beautiful than when he spoke them to himself and to us. To his best friend, and, in so much, his most devoted disciple, Giovanni Boccaccio, he writes in the same way : "You write that my ill-health makes you sad; I know it and am not surprised, for neither of us can be really well while the other is ailing. What I should really like is, not to be younger than I am, but to feel that I had reached old age by a course of more honourable deeds and pursuits; and nothing disturbs me more than that in all this long while I have not reached the goal I ought to have reached. . . . There is no nimbler or more delightful burden than the pen; other pleasures flee away and do you a mischief even while they soothe you ; but your pen soothes you in the taking up and delights you in the laying down of it; and it works profit not only to its master but to many beside, often even to the absent, and sometimes to posterity after thousands of years. I think I speak absolute truth when I say that of all earthly delights as there is none more honourable than literature, so there is none more lasting or sweeter or more constant; none which plays the comrade to its possessor with so easily gotten an equipment and with so little irksomeness. . . . This do I desire for myself, that when death overtakes me he may find me either reading or writing or, if Christ so wills it, praying and in tears."
Petrarch had his wish ; the best supported account of his death tells us that he died in his library turning the pages of his " De Viris Illustribus " on the morning of his seventieth birthday.
What his death meant to his friends we may gather best, I think, from that wonderful letter of Boccaccio's which he wrote to Francesco da Brossano, Petrarch's son-in-law. In reading it we may realize perhaps what manner of man Petrarch was.
Boccaccio, ill and himself not far from death, writes as one heart bnoken : " I received your sorrowful letter, most well beloved brother . . . and not knowing the writing I broke the seal and looked for the name of the writer, and as soon as I read your name I knew what news you had to tell me, that is to say, the happy passing of our illustrious father and master, Francesco Petrarca, fnom the earthly Babylon to the heavenly Jerusalem. Although none of my friends had written me save you, since everyone spoke of it I had known it for some time to my great sorrow, and during many days I wept almost without ceasing, not at his ascension, but for myself thus unhappy and abandoned. And that is not wonderful, for no one in the world loved him more than I... You say that he has ended his days at the village of Arquà in the contado of Padua; that he wished his ashes to remain always in that village, and that to commemorate him for ever a rich and splendid tomb is there to be built. Alas ! I admit my crime,if it can be called a crime. I who am a Florentine grudge Arquà this shining good fortune that has befallen her, rather through his humility than through her merit the guardianship of the body of the man whose soul has been the favourite dwelling place of the Muses and of all Helicon... It follows that not only Arqua, almost unknown even to the Paduans, will now be known to all foreign nations however far off, but that her name will be held in honour by the whole universe. One will honour thee, Arquà as without seeing them we honour in our thoughts the hill of Posilipo at the foot of which are placed the bones of Virgil . . . and Smyrna, where Homer sleeps, and other like places...I do not doubt that the sailor returning laden with riches from the farthest shores of the sea, sailing the Adriatic and seeing afar the venerable summits of the Euganean Hills, will say to himself or to his friends : `These, hills guard in their breast the glory of the universe, him who was once the triumph of all knowledge, Petrarch, the poet of sweet words, who by the Consular Senate was crowned in the Mother City with the laurel of triumph, and whose many beautiful works still proclaim his inviolable renown.' The black Indian, the fierce Spaniard . . . seized with admiration for this sacred name will one day come and before the tomb of so great a man salute with respect and piety the ashes which it holds, complaining the while of their misfortune that they should not have seen him living whom dead they visit. Alas ! my unhappy city, to whom it has not been given to guard the ashes of so illustrious a son, to whom so splendid a glory has been refused ; it is true that thou art unworthy of such an honour, thou hast neglected to draw him to thee when he was alive and to give him that place in thy heart which he merited. Ah! had he been an artisan of crimes, a contriver of treason, a past-master in avarice, envy, and bitter ingratitude, thou wouldst have called him to thee. Yet even as thou art I should prefer that this honour had been accorded thee rather than Arquà. . . . But since God has wished it let the name of Arquà live through the centuries, and let her inhabitants preserve always an honour for which they should indeed be thankful."
Florence, however, who had expelled Dante, threatened him with death, and had seen him buried with honour at Ravenna, was not to be so easily resigned to the loss Boccaccio bemoans, though in truth since she expelled Petrarch's father and confiscated his goods she deserved nothing else. Petrarch was buried at Arquà with much ceremony, his coffin was borne by sixteen Doctors of Law, and four Bishops took part in the funeral. He was laid temporarily in the parish church till, six years later, a sarcophagus was made in Padua. For many years Florence watched, hiding her envy and her shame. But one day in 1630, when the tomb had fallen into disrepair, a certain monk, or friar, more like, named Tommaso Martinelli, attempted to steal the body, and actually brought away with him to Florence one of the dead poet's arms, which is said now to be in Madrid. Petrarch no more than Boccaccio, the one for love, the other for hate was allowed to rest in his grave.
There is really very little to be seen within the old house that indubitably was Petrarch's: a few poor frescoes concerned with his life, his bedroom, which is said to be as it was in his day, his study with his broken chair, table, inkstand, and—his stuffed cat. These are all, and these remind us less of him than the landscape does, the byways of the village, the tender vines and quiet gardens, and the beautiful hills he loved. It is to these we shall be wise to give ourselves ; to these and to the road which will presently lead us down into the valley beyond Arquà, and winding about Monte del Castello bring us through Baone to Este on the southern skirts of the Euganean, where another poet had for a brief summer his home.
The villa I Cappuccini, which may still be seen, was lent to Shelley by Byron, who had rented it as a summer residence for himself. Writing to Rogers on 3 March, 1818, Byron says: "The villa you speak of is one at Este which Mr. Hoppner (Consul-General here) has transferred to me. I have taken it for two years as a place of villeggiatura. The situation is very beautiful indeed, among the Euganean hills, and the house is very fair. The vines are luxuriant to a great degree, and all the fruits of the earth abundant. It is close to the old castle of the Estes or Guelphs, and within a few miles of Arquà, which I have visited twice and hope to visit again."
Writing from Venice, where, leaving Mrs. Shelley at the Bagni di Lucca, he had gone to meet Byron, Shelley writes to his wife in the late summer of that year : ". . . Pray come instantly to Este, where I shall be waiting in the utmost anxiety for your arrival. You can pack up directly you get this letter and employ the next day on that. The day after get up at four o'clock and go post to Lucca, where you will arrive at six. Then take a vetturino for Florence, to arrive the same evening. From Florence to Este is three days' vetturino journey,and you could not, I think, do it quicker by the post. Make Paolo take you to good inns, as we found very bad ones ; and pray avoid the Tre Mori at Bologna, perchè vi sono cose inéspressibili nei letti. I do not think you can, but fry to get from Florence to Bologna in one day. Do not take the post, for it is not much faster and very expensive."
That letter tells us that travelling in Italy was of old as leisurely a business as one could wish.
In a letter to Peacock, dated Este, 8 October, 1818, Shelley says : " We have been living this last month near the little town from which I date this letter, in a very pleasant villa which has been lent to us. . . . Behind us here are the Euganean hills, not so beautiful as those of the Bagni di Lucca, with Arquà, where Petrarch's house and tomb are religiously preserved and visited. At the end of our garden is an extensive Gothic castle, now the habitation of owls and bats, where the Medici family resided before they came to Florence. We see before us the wide, flat plains of Lombardy, in which we see the sun and moon rise and set, and the evening star, and all the golden magnificence of autumnal clouds. . . . I have been writing, and indeed have just finished, the first act of a lyric and classical drama to be called ` Prometheus Unbound.' "
On 7 November Shelley left Este for Naples. He had written something more than the first act of the "Prometheus" at Este, he had composed the "Lines Written among the Euganean Hills," and there we find, as we might expect, one of those strangely vivid pictures that none knell better how to paint of the world that lay before his eyes in those quiet autumn days:---
Noon descends around me now :
thirteenth-century church of brick, S. Lorenzo ; here is a fresco by Montagna in the choir chapel on the left ; and here Montagna was buried. To the north-east of S. Lorenzo we pass another Palladian palace, Palazzo Valmarana, before we come to the Church of S. Rocco, where over the High Altar is the masterpiece of Buonconsiglio, the best of Montagna's followers. It represents the Madonna enthroned with SS. Sebastian, Bernard, Peter, and Paul, and was painted in 1502.
But the best work Vicenza has to offer us, and the most characteristic of her greatest painter, is not within the city wall, but just without it in the great Temple of the Madonna that crowns one of the spurs of the Monti Berici, about a mile from the town. The way thither is steep and perhaps tiring, but it is full of rewards, for the views we get thence over the plain and towards the mountains are finer than anything to be seen in Bassano or, I think, at Arquà. The whole Veneto seems to lie at our feet not divorced from the hills, but indeed their own child, created by them and in a very real way subject to them.
A church and convent have stood here since 1428, in which year the Blessed Virgin appeared in a vision on this mountain to some shepherds. In 1688 the church was rebuilt in the latest fashion, that is to say, in the form of a Greek Cross under a dome. The church is coldly interesting, but what we have come to see is the marvellous picture by Montagna a Pietà, one of the few truly religious pictures painted in the sixteenth century.
Beyond the church there is a magnificent walk along the ridge of the hill, where all that is best and most characteristic in the Venetian terra firma, is spread out before you. Vicenza is at your feet, and as evening comes over the vast plain you begin to understand what primarily a city is, why it was built, and whence its origin.