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Charles Dickens > Pictures From Italy > Chapter 2

Pictures From Italy

Chapter 2


Chalons is a fair resting-place, in right of its good inn on the
bank of the river, and the little steamboats, gay with green and
red paint, that come and go upon it: which make up a pleasant and
refreshing scene, after the dusty roads. But, unless you would
like to dwell on an enormous plain, with jagged rows of irregular
poplars on it, that look in the distance like so many combs with
broken teeth: and unless you would like to pass your life without
the possibility of going up-hill, or going up anything but stairs:
you would hardly approve of Chalons as a place of residence.

You would probably like it better, however, than Lyons: which you
may reach, if you will, in one of the before-mentioned steamboats,
in eight hours.

What a city Lyons is! Talk about people feeling, at certain
unlucky times, as if they had tumbled from the clouds! Here is a
whole town that is tumbled, anyhow, out of the sky; having been
first caught up, like other stones that tumble down from that
region, out of fens and barren places, dismal to behold! The two
great streets through which the two great rivers dash, and all the
little streets whose name is Legion, were scorching, blistering,
and sweltering. The houses, high and vast, dirty to excess, rotten
as old cheeses, and as thickly peopled. All up the hills that hem
the city in, these houses swarm; and the mites inside were lolling
out of the windows, and drying their ragged clothes on poles, and
crawling in and out at the doors, and coming out to pant and gasp
upon the pavement, and creeping in and out among huge piles and
bales of fusty, musty, stifling goods; and living, or rather not
dying till their time should come, in an exhausted receiver. Every
manufacturing town, melted into one, would hardly convey an
impression of Lyons as it presented itself to me: for all the
undrained, unscavengered qualities of a foreign town, seemed
grafted, there, upon the native miseries of a manufacturing one;
and it bears such fruit as I would go some miles out of my way to
avoid encountering again.

In the cool of the evening: or rather in the faded heat of the
day: we went to see the Cathedral, where divers old women, and a
few dogs, were engaged in contemplation. There was no difference,
in point of cleanliness, between its stone pavement and that of the
streets; and there was a wax saint, in a little box like a berth
aboard ship, with a glass front to it, whom Madame Tussaud would
have nothing to say to, on any terms, and which even Westminster
Abbey might be ashamed of. If you would know all about the
architecture of this church, or any other, its dates, dimensions,
endowments, and history, is it not written in Mr. Murray's Guide-
Book, and may you not read it there, with thanks to him, as I did!

For this reason, I should abstain from mentioning the curious clock
in Lyons Cathedral, if it were not for a small mistake I made, in
connection with that piece of mechanism. The keeper of the church
was very anxious it should be shown; partly for the honour of the
establishment and the town; and partly, perhaps, because of his
deriving a percentage from the additional consideration. However
that may be, it was set in motion, and thereupon a host of little
doors flew open, and innumerable little figures staggered out of
them, and jerked themselves back again, with that special
unsteadiness of purpose, and hitching in the gait, which usually
attaches to figures that are moved by clock-work. Meanwhile, the
Sacristan stood explaining these wonders, and pointing them out,
severally, with a wand. There was a centre puppet of the Virgin
Mary; and close to her, a small pigeon-hole, out of which another
and a very ill-looking puppet made one of the most sudden plunges I
ever saw accomplished: instantly flopping back again at sight of
her, and banging his little door violently after him. Taking this
to be emblematic of the victory over Sin and Death, and not at all
unwilling to show that I perfectly understood the subject, in
anticipation of the showman, I rashly said, 'Aha! The Evil Spirit.
To be sure. He is very soon disposed of.' 'Pardon, Monsieur,'
said the Sacristan, with a polite motion of his hand towards the
little door, as if introducing somebody--'The Angel Gabriel!'

Soon after daybreak next morning, we were steaming down the Arrowy
Rhone, at the rate of twenty miles an hour, in a very dirty vessel
full of merchandise, and with only three or four other passengers
for our companions: among whom, the most remarkable was a silly,
old, meek-faced, garlic-eating, immeasurably polite Chevalier, with
a dirty scrap of red ribbon hanging at his button-hole, as if he
had tied it there to remind himself of something; as Tom Noddy, in
the farce, ties knots in his pocket-handkerchief.

For the last two days, we had seen great sullen hills, the first
indications of the Alps, lowering in the distance. Now, we were
rushing on beside them: sometimes close beside them: sometimes
with an intervening slope, covered with vineyards. Villages and
small towns hanging in mid-air, with great woods of olives seen
through the light open towers of their churches, and clouds moving
slowly on, upon the steep acclivity behind them; ruined castles
perched on every eminence; and scattered houses in the clefts and
gullies of the hills; made it very beautiful. The great height of
these, too, making the buildings look so tiny, that they had all
the charm of elegant models; their excessive whiteness, as
contrasted with the brown rocks, or the sombre, deep, dull, heavy
green of the olive-tree; and the puny size, and little slow walk of
the Lilliputian men and women on the bank; made a charming picture.
There were ferries out of number, too; bridges; the famous Pont
d'Esprit, with I don't know how many arches; towns where memorable
wines are made; Vallence, where Napoleon studied; and the noble
river, bringing at every winding turn, new beauties into view.

There lay before us, that same afternoon, the broken bridge of
Avignon, and all the city baking in the sun; yet with an under-
done-pie-crust, battlemented wall, that never will be brown, though
it bake for centuries.

The grapes were hanging in clusters in the streets, and the
brilliant Oleander was in full bloom everywhere. The streets are
old and very narrow, but tolerably clean, and shaded by awnings
stretched from house to house. Bright stuffs and handkerchiefs,
curiosities, ancient frames of carved wood, old chairs, ghostly
tables, saints, virgins, angels, and staring daubs of portraits,
being exposed for sale beneath, it was very quaint and lively. All
this was much set off, too, by the glimpses one caught, through a
rusty gate standing ajar, of quiet sleepy court-yards, having
stately old houses within, as silent as tombs. It was all very
like one of the descriptions in the Arabian Nights. The three one-
eyed Calenders might have knocked at any one of those doors till
the street rang again, and the porter who persisted in asking
questions--the man who had the delicious purchases put into his
basket in the morning--might have opened it quite naturally.

After breakfast next morning, we sallied forth to see the lions.
Such a delicious breeze was blowing in, from the north, as made the
walk delightful: though the pavement-stones, and stones of the
walls and houses, were far too hot to have a hand laid on them

We went, first of all, up a rocky height, to the cathedral: where
Mass was performing to an auditory very like that of Lyons, namely,
several old women, a baby, and a very self-possessed dog, who had
marked out for himself a little course or platform for exercise,
beginning at the altar-rails and ending at the door, up and down
which constitutional walk he trotted, during the service, as
methodically and calmly, as any old gentleman out of doors.

It is a bare old church, and the paintings in the roof are sadly
defaced by time and damp weather; but the sun was shining in,
splendidly, through the red curtains of the windows, and glittering
on the altar furniture; and it looked as bright and cheerful as
need be.

Going apart, in this church, to see some painting which was being
executed in fresco by a French artist and his pupil, I was led to
observe more closely than I might otherwise have done, a great
number of votive offerings with which the walls of the different
chapels were profusely hung. I will not say decorated, for they
were very roughly and comically got up; most likely by poor sign-
painters, who eke out their living in that way. They were all
little pictures: each representing some sickness or calamity from
which the person placing it there, had escaped, through the
interposition of his or her patron saint, or of the Madonna; and I
may refer to them as good specimens of the class generally. They
are abundant in Italy.

In a grotesque squareness of outline, and impossibility of
perspective, they are not unlike the woodcuts in old books; but
they were oil-paintings, and the artist, like the painter of the
Primrose family, had not been sparing of his colours. In one, a
lady was having a toe amputated--an operation which a saintly
personage had sailed into the room, upon a couch, to superintend.
In another, a lady was lying in bed, tucked up very tight and prim,
and staring with much composure at a tripod, with a slop-basin on
it; the usual form of washing-stand, and the only piece of
furniture, besides the bedstead, in her chamber. One would never
have supposed her to be labouring under any complaint, beyond the
inconvenience of being miraculously wide awake, if the painter had
not hit upon the idea of putting all her family on their knees in
one corner, with their legs sticking out behind them on the floor,
like boot-trees. Above whom, the Virgin, on a kind of blue divan,
promised to restore the patient. In another case, a lady was in
the very act of being run over, immediately outside the city walls,
by a sort of piano-forte van. But the Madonna was there again.
Whether the supernatural appearance had startled the horse (a bay
griffin), or whether it was invisible to him, I don't know; but he
was galloping away, ding dong, without the smallest reverence or
compunction. On every picture 'Ex voto' was painted in yellow
capitals in the sky.

Though votive offerings were not unknown in Pagan Temples, and are
evidently among the many compromises made between the false
religion and the true, when the true was in its infancy, I could
wish that all the other compromises were as harmless. Gratitude
and Devotion are Christian qualities; and a grateful, humble,
Christian spirit may dictate the observance.

Hard by the cathedral stands the ancient Palace of the Popes, of
which one portion is now a common jail, and another a noisy
barrack: while gloomy suites of state apartments, shut up and
deserted, mock their own old state and glory, like the embalmed
bodies of kings. But we neither went there, to see state rooms,
nor soldiers' quarters, nor a common jail, though we dropped some
money into a prisoners' box outside, whilst the prisoners,
themselves, looked through the iron bars, high up, and watched us
eagerly. We went to see the ruins of the dreadful rooms in which
the Inquisition used to sit.

A little, old, swarthy woman, with a pair of flashing black eyes,--
proof that the world hadn't conjured down the devil within her,
though it had had between sixty and seventy years to do it in,--
came out of the Barrack Cabaret, of which she was the keeper, with
some large keys in her hands, and marshalled us the way that we
should go. How she told us, on the way, that she was a Government
Officer (concierge du palais a apostolique), and had been, for I
don't know how many years; and how she had shown these dungeons to
princes; and how she was the best of dungeon demonstrators; and how
she had resided in the palace from an infant,--had been born there,
if I recollect right,--I needn't relate. But such a fierce,
little, rapid, sparkling, energetic she-devil I never beheld. She
was alight and flaming, all the time. Her action was violent in
the extreme. She never spoke, without stopping expressly for the
purpose. She stamped her feet, clutched us by the arms, flung
herself into attitudes, hammered against walls with her keys, for
mere emphasis: now whispered as if the Inquisition were there
still: now shrieked as if she were on the rack herself; and had a
mysterious, hag-like way with her forefinger, when approaching the
remains of some new horror--looking back and walking stealthily,
and making horrible grimaces--that might alone have qualified her
to walk up and down a sick man's counterpane, to the exclusion of
all other figures, through a whole fever.

Passing through the court-yard, among groups of idle soldiers, we
turned off by a gate, which this She-Goblin unlocked for our
admission, and locked again behind us: and entered a narrow court,
rendered narrower by fallen stones and heaps of rubbish; part of it
choking up the mouth of a ruined subterranean passage, that once
communicated (or is said to have done so) with another castle on
the opposite bank of the river. Close to this court-yard is a
dungeon--we stood within it, in another minute--in the dismal tower
des oubliettes, where Rienzi was imprisoned, fastened by an iron
chain to the very wall that stands there now, but shut out from the
sky which now looks down into it. A few steps brought us to the
Cachots, in which the prisoners of the Inquisition were confined
for forty-eight hours after their capture, without food or drink,
that their constancy might be shaken, even before they were
confronted with their gloomy judges. The day has not got in there
yet. They are still small cells, shut in by four unyielding,
close, hard walls; still profoundly dark; still massively doored
and fastened, as of old.

Goblin, looking back as I have described, went softly on, into a
vaulted chamber, now used as a store-room: once the chapel of the
Holy Office. The place where the tribunal sat, was plain. The
platform might have been removed but yesterday. Conceive the
parable of the Good Samaritan having been painted on the wall of
one of these Inquisition chambers! But it was, and may be traced
there yet.

High up in the jealous wall, are niches where the faltering replies
of the accused were heard and noted down. Many of them had been
brought out of the very cell we had just looked into, so awfully;
along the same stone passage. We had trodden in their very

I am gazing round me, with the horror that the place inspires, when
Goblin clutches me by the wrist, and lays, not her skinny finger,
but the handle of a key, upon her lip. She invites me, with a
jerk, to follow her. I do so. She leads me out into a room
adjoining--a rugged room, with a funnel-shaped, contracting roof,
open at the top, to the bright day. I ask her what it is. She
folds her arms, leers hideously, and stares. I ask again. She
glances round, to see that all the little company are there; sits
down upon a mound of stones; throws up her arms, and yells out,
like a fiend, 'La Salle de la Question!'

The Chamber of Torture! And the roof was made of that shape to
stifle the victim's cries! Oh Goblin, Goblin, let us think of this
awhile, in silence. Peace, Goblin! Sit with your short arms
crossed on your short legs, upon that heap of stones, for only five
minutes, and then flame out again.

Minutes! Seconds are not marked upon the Palace clock, when, with
her eyes flashing fire, Goblin is up, in the middle of the chamber,
describing, with her sunburnt arms, a wheel of heavy blows. Thus
it ran round! cries Goblin. Mash, mash, mash! An endless routine
of heavy hammers. Mash, mash, mash! upon the sufferer's limbs.
See the stone trough! says Goblin. For the water torture! Gurgle,
swill, bloat, burst, for the Redeemer's honour! Suck the bloody
rag, deep down into your unbelieving body, Heretic, at every breath
you draw! And when the executioner plucks it out, reeking with the
smaller mysteries of God's own Image, know us for His chosen
servants, true believers in the Sermon on the Mount, elect
disciples of Him who never did a miracle but to heal: who never
struck a man with palsy, blindness, deafness, dumbness, madness,
any one affliction of mankind; and never stretched His blessed hand
out, but to give relief and ease!

See! cries Goblin. There the furnace was. There they made the
irons red-hot. Those holes supported the sharp stake, on which the
tortured persons hung poised: dangling with their whole weight
from the roof. 'But;' and Goblin whispers this; 'Monsieur has
heard of this tower? Yes? Let Monsieur look down, then!'

A cold air, laden with an earthy smell, falls upon the face of
Monsieur; for she has opened, while speaking, a trap-door in the
wall. Monsieur looks in. Downward to the bottom, upward to the
top, of a steep, dark, lofty tower: very dismal, very dark, very
cold. The Executioner of the Inquisition, says Goblin, edging in
her head to look down also, flung those who were past all further
torturing, down here. 'But look! does Monsieur see the black
stains on the wall?' A glance, over his shoulder, at Goblin's keen
eye, shows Monsieur--and would without the aid of the directing
key--where they are. 'What are they?' 'Blood!'

In October, 1791, when the Revolution was at its height here, sixty
persons: men and women ('and priests,' says Goblin, 'priests'):
were murdered, and hurled, the dying and the dead, into this
dreadful pit, where a quantity of quick-lime was tumbled down upon
their bodies. Those ghastly tokens of the massacre were soon no
more; but while one stone of the strong building in which the deed
was done, remains upon another, there they will lie in the memories
of men, as plain to see as the splashing of their blood upon the
wall is now.

Was it a portion of the great scheme of Retribution, that the cruel
deed should be committed in this place! That a part of the
atrocities and monstrous institutions, which had been, for scores
of years, at work, to change men's nature, should in its last
service, tempt them with the ready means of gratifying their
furious and beastly rage! Should enable them to show themselves,
in the height of their frenzy, no worse than a great, solemn, legal
establishment, in the height of its power! No worse! Much better.
They used the Tower of the Forgotten, in the name of Liberty--their
liberty; an earth-born creature, nursed in the black mud of the
Bastile moats and dungeons, and necessarily betraying many
evidences of its unwholesome bringing-up--but the Inquisition used
it in the name of Heaven.

Goblin's finger is lifted; and she steals out again, into the
Chapel of the Holy Office. She stops at a certain part of the
flooring. Her great effect is at hand. She waits for the rest.
She darts at the brave Courier, who is explaining something; hits
him a sounding rap on the hat with the largest key; and bids him be
silent. She assembles us all, round a little trap-door in the
floor, as round a grave.

'Voila!' she darts down at the ring, and flings the door open with
a crash, in her goblin energy, though it is no light weight.
'Voila les oubliettes! Voila les oubliettes! Subterranean!
Frightful! Black! Terrible! Deadly! Les oubliettes de

My blood ran cold, as I looked from Goblin, down into the vaults,
where these forgotten creatures, with recollections of the world
outside: of wives, friends, children, brothers: starved to death,
and made the stones ring with their unavailing groans. But, the
thrill I felt on seeing the accursed wall below, decayed and broken
through, and the sun shining in through its gaping wounds, was like
a sense of victory and triumph. I felt exalted with the proud
delight of living in these degenerate times, to see it. As if I
were the hero of some high achievement! The light in the doleful
vaults was typical of the light that has streamed in, on all
persecution in God's name, but which is not yet at its noon! It
cannot look more lovely to a blind man newly restored to sight,
than to a traveller who sees it, calmly and majestically, treading
down the darkness of that Infernal Well.

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