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Charles Dickens > Pictures From Italy > Chapter 3

Pictures From Italy

Chapter 3


Goblin, having shown les oubliettes, felt that her great coup was
struck. She let the door fall with a crash, and stood upon it with
her arms a-kimbo, sniffing prodigiously.

When we left the place, I accompanied her into her house, under the
outer gateway of the fortress, to buy a little history of the
building. Her cabaret, a dark, low room, lighted by small windows,
sunk in the thick wall--in the softened light, and with its forge-
like chimney; its little counter by the door, with bottles, jars,
and glasses on it; its household implements and scraps of dress
against the wall; and a sober-looking woman (she must have a
congenial life of it, with Goblin,) knitting at the door--looked
exactly like a picture by OSTADE.

I walked round the building on the outside, in a sort of dream, and
yet with the delightful sense of having awakened from it, of which
the light, down in the vaults, had given me the assurance. The
immense thickness and giddy height of the walls, the enormous
strength of the massive towers, the great extent of the building,
its gigantic proportions, frowning aspect, and barbarous
irregularity, awaken awe and wonder. The recollection of its
opposite old uses: an impregnable fortress, a luxurious palace, a
horrible prison, a place of torture, the court of the Inquisition:
at one and the same time, a house of feasting, fighting, religion,
and blood: gives to every stone in its huge form a fearful
interest, and imparts new meaning to its incongruities. I could
think of little, however, then, or long afterwards, but the sun in
the dungeons. The palace coming down to be the lounging-place of
noisy soldiers, and being forced to echo their rough talk, and
common oaths, and to have their garments fluttering from its dirty
windows, was some reduction of its state, and something to rejoice
at; but the day in its cells, and the sky for the roof of its
chambers of cruelty--that was its desolation and defeat! If I had
seen it in a blaze from ditch to rampart, I should have felt that
not that light, nor all the light in all the fire that burns, could
waste it, like the sunbeams in its secret council-chamber, and its

Before I quit this Palace of the Popes, let me translate from the
little history I mentioned just now, a short anecdote, quite
appropriate to itself, connected with its adventures.

'An ancient tradition relates, that in 1441, a nephew of Pierre de
Lude, the Pope's legate, seriously insulted some distinguished
ladies of Avignon, whose relations, in revenge, seized the young
man, and horribly mutilated him. For several years the legate kept
HIS revenge within his own breast, but he was not the less resolved
upon its gratification at last. He even made, in the fulness of
time, advances towards a complete reconciliation; and when their
apparent sincerity had prevailed, he invited to a splendid banquet,
in this palace, certain families, whole families, whom he sought to
exterminate. The utmost gaiety animated the repast; but the
measures of the legate were well taken. When the dessert was on
the board, a Swiss presented himself, with the announcement that a
strange ambassador solicited an extraordinary audience. The
legate, excusing himself, for the moment, to his guests, retired,
followed by his officers. Within a few minutes afterwards, five
hundred persons were reduced to ashes: the whole of that wing of
the building having been blown into the air with a terrible

After seeing the churches (I will not trouble you with churches
just now), we left Avignon that afternoon. The heat being very
great, the roads outside the walls were strewn with people fast
asleep in every little slip of shade, and with lazy groups, half
asleep and half awake, who were waiting until the sun should be low
enough to admit of their playing bowls among the burnt-up trees,
and on the dusty road. The harvest here was already gathered in,
and mules and horses were treading out the corn in the fields. We
came, at dusk, upon a wild and hilly country, once famous for
brigands; and travelled slowly up a steep ascent. So we went on,
until eleven at night, when we halted at the town of Aix (within
two stages of Marseilles) to sleep.

The hotel, with all the blinds and shutters closed to keep the
light and heat out, was comfortable and airy next morning, and the
town was very clean; but so hot, and so intensely light, that when
I walked out at noon it was like coming suddenly from the darkened
room into crisp blue fire. The air was so very clear, that distant
hills and rocky points appeared within an hour's walk; while the
town immediately at hand--with a kind of blue wind between me and
it--seemed to be white hot, and to be throwing off a fiery air from
the surface.

We left this town towards evening, and took the road to Marseilles.
A dusty road it was; the houses shut up close; and the vines
powdered white. At nearly all the cottage doors, women were
peeling and slicing onions into earthen bowls for supper. So they
had been doing last night all the way from Avignon. We passed one
or two shady dark chateaux, surrounded by trees, and embellished
with cool basins of water: which were the more refreshing to
behold, from the great scarcity of such residences on the road we
had travelled. As we approached Marseilles, the road began to be
covered with holiday people. Outside the public-houses were
parties smoking, drinking, playing draughts and cards, and (once)
dancing. But dust, dust, dust, everywhere. We went on, through a
long, straggling, dirty suburb, thronged with people; having on our
left a dreary slope of land, on which the country-houses of the
Marseilles merchants, always staring white, are jumbled and heaped
without the slightest order: backs, fronts, sides, and gables
towards all points of the compass; until, at last, we entered the

I was there, twice or thrice afterwards, in fair weather and foul;
and I am afraid there is no doubt that it is a dirty and
disagreeable place. But the prospect, from the fortified heights,
of the beautiful Mediterranean, with its lovely rocks and islands,
is most delightful. These heights are a desirable retreat, for
less picturesque reasons--as an escape from a compound of vile
smells perpetually arising from a great harbour full of stagnant
water, and befouled by the refuse of innumerable ships with all
sorts of cargoes: which, in hot weather, is dreadful in the last

There were foreign sailors, of all nations, in the streets; with
red shirts, blue shirts, buff shirts, tawny shirts, and shirts of
orange colour; with red caps, blue caps, green caps, great beards,
and no beards; in Turkish turbans, glazed English hats, and
Neapolitan head-dresses. There were the townspeople sitting in
clusters on the pavement, or airing themselves on the tops of their
houses, or walking up and down the closest and least airy of
Boulevards; and there were crowds of fierce-looking people of the
lower sort, blocking up the way, constantly. In the very heart of
all this stir and uproar, was the common madhouse; a low,
contracted, miserable building, looking straight upon the street,
without the smallest screen or court-yard; where chattering mad-men
and mad-women were peeping out, through rusty bars, at the staring
faces below, while the sun, darting fiercely aslant into their
little cells, seemed to dry up their brains, and worry them, as if
they were baited by a pack of dogs.

We were pretty well accommodated at the Hotel du Paradis, situated
in a narrow street of very high houses, with a hairdresser's shop
opposite, exhibiting in one of its windows two full-length waxen
ladies, twirling round and round: which so enchanted the
hairdresser himself, that he and his family sat in arm-chairs, and
in cool undresses, on the pavement outside, enjoying the
gratification of the passers-by, with lazy dignity. The family had
retired to rest when we went to bed, at midnight; but the
hairdresser (a corpulent man, in drab slippers) was still sitting
there, with his legs stretched out before him, and evidently
couldn't bear to have the shutters put up.

Next day we went down to the harbour, where the sailors of all
nations were discharging and taking in cargoes of all kinds:
fruits, wines, oils, silks, stuffs, velvets, and every manner of
merchandise. Taking one of a great number of lively little boats
with gay-striped awnings, we rowed away, under the sterns of great
ships, under tow-ropes and cables, against and among other boats,
and very much too near the sides of vessels that were faint with
oranges, to the Marie Antoinette, a handsome steamer bound for
Genoa, lying near the mouth of the harbour. By-and-by, the
carriage, that unwieldy 'trifle from the Pantechnicon,' on a flat
barge, bumping against everything, and giving occasion for a
prodigious quantity of oaths and grimaces, came stupidly alongside;
and by five o'clock we were steaming out in the open sea. The
vessel was beautifully clean; the meals were served under an awning
on deck; the night was calm and clear; the quiet beauty of the sea
and sky unspeakable.

We were off Nice, early next morning, and coasted along, within a
few miles of the Cornice road (of which more in its place) nearly
all day. We could see Genoa before three; and watching it as it
gradually developed its splendid amphitheatre, terrace rising above
terrace, garden above garden, palace above palace, height upon
height, was ample occupation for us, till we ran into the stately
harbour. Having been duly astonished, here, by the sight of a few
Cappucini monks, who were watching the fair-weighing of some wood
upon the wharf, we drove off to Albaro, two miles distant, where we
had engaged a house.

The way lay through the main streets, but not through the Strada
Nuova, or the Strada Balbi, which are the famous streets of
palaces. I never in my life was so dismayed! The wonderful
novelty of everything, the unusual smells, the unaccountable filth
(though it is reckoned the cleanest of Italian towns), the
disorderly jumbling of dirty houses, one upon the roof of another;
the passages more squalid and more close than any in St. Giles's or
old Paris; in and out of which, not vagabonds, but well-dressed
women, with white veils and great fans, were passing and repassing;
the perfect absence of resemblance in any dwelling-house, or shop,
or wall, or post, or pillar, to anything one had ever seen before;
and the disheartening dirt, discomfort, and decay; perfectly
confounded me. I fell into a dismal reverie. I am conscious of a
feverish and bewildered vision of saints and virgins' shrines at
the street corners--of great numbers of friars, monks, and
soldiers--of vast red curtains, waving in the doorways of the
churches--of always going up hill, and yet seeing every other
street and passage going higher up--of fruit-stalls, with fresh
lemons and oranges hanging in garlands made of vine-leaves--of a
guard-house, and a drawbridge--and some gateways--and vendors of
iced water, sitting with little trays upon the margin of the
kennel--and this is all the consciousness I had, until I was set
down in a rank, dull, weedy court-yard, attached to a kind of pink
jail; and was told I lived there.

I little thought, that day, that I should ever come to have an
attachment for the very stones in the streets of Genoa, and to look
back upon the city with affection as connected with many hours of
happiness and quiet! But these are my first impressions honestly
set down; and how they changed, I will set down too. At present,
let us breathe after this long-winded journey.

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