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Charles Dickens > Pictures From Italy > Chapter 6

Pictures From Italy

Chapter 6


There was such a very smart official in attendance at the Cemetery
where the little Cicerone had buried his children, that when the
little Cicerone suggested to me, in a whisper, that there would be
no offence in presenting this officer, in return for some slight
extra service, with a couple of pauls (about tenpence, English
money), I looked incredulously at his cocked hat, wash-leather
gloves, well-made uniform, and dazzling buttons, and rebuked the
little Cicerone with a grave shake of the head. For, in splendour
of appearance, he was at least equal to the Deputy Usher of the
Black Rod; and the idea of his carrying, as Jeremy Diddler would
say, 'such a thing as tenpence' away with him, seemed monstrous.
He took it in excellent part, however, when I made bold to give it
him, and pulled off his cocked hat with a flourish that would have
been a bargain at double the money.

It seemed to be his duty to describe the monuments to the people--
at all events he was doing so; and when I compared him, like
Gulliver in Brobdingnag, 'with the Institutions of my own beloved
country, I could not refrain from tears of pride and exultation.'
He had no pace at all; no more than a tortoise. He loitered as the
people loitered, that they might gratify their curiosity; and
positively allowed them, now and then, to read the inscriptions on
the tombs. He was neither shabby, nor insolent, nor churlish, nor
ignorant. He spoke his own language with perfect propriety, and
seemed to consider himself, in his way, a kind of teacher of the
people, and to entertain a just respect both for himself and them.
They would no more have such a man for a Verger in Westminster
Abbey, than they would let the people in (as they do at Bologna) to
see the monuments for nothing. {2}

Again, an ancient sombre town, under the brilliant sky; with heavy
arcades over the footways of the older streets, and lighter and
more cheerful archways in the newer portions of the town. Again,
brown piles of sacred buildings, with more birds flying in and out
of chinks in the stones; and more snarling monsters for the bases
of the pillars. Again, rich churches, drowsy Masses, curling
incense, tinkling bells, priests in bright vestments: pictures,
tapers, laced altar cloths, crosses, images, and artificial

There is a grave and learned air about the city, and a pleasant
gloom upon it, that would leave it, a distinct and separate
impression in the mind, among a crowd of cities, though it were not
still further marked in the traveller's remembrance by the two
brick leaning towers (sufficiently unsightly in themselves, it must
be acknowledged), inclining cross-wise as if they were bowing
stiffly to each other--a most extraordinary termination to the
perspective of some of the narrow streets. The colleges, and
churches too, and palaces: and above all the academy of Fine Arts,
where there are a host of interesting pictures, especially by
GUIDO, DOMENICHINO, and LUDOVICO CARACCI: give it a place of its
own in the memory. Even though these were not, and there were
nothing else to remember it by, the great Meridian on the pavement
of the church of San Petronio, where the sunbeams mark the time
among the kneeling people, would give it a fanciful and pleasant

Bologna being very full of tourists, detained there by an
inundation which rendered the road to Florence impassable, I was
quartered up at the top of an hotel, in an out-of-the-way room
which I never could find: containing a bed, big enough for a
boarding-school, which I couldn't fall asleep in. The chief among
the waiters who visited this lonely retreat, where there was no
other company but the swallows in the broad eaves over the window,
was a man of one idea in connection with the English; and the
subject of this harmless monomania, was Lord Byron. I made the
discovery by accidentally remarking to him, at breakfast, that the
matting with which the floor was covered, was very comfortable at
that season, when he immediately replied that Milor Beeron had been
much attached to that kind of matting. Observing, at the same
moment, that I took no milk, he exclaimed with enthusiasm, that
Milor Beeron had never touched it. At first, I took it for
granted, in my innocence, that he had been one of the Beeron
servants; but no, he said, no, he was in the habit of speaking
about my Lord, to English gentlemen; that was all. He knew all
about him, he said. In proof of it, he connected him with every
possible topic, from the Monte Pulciano wine at dinner (which was
grown on an estate he had owned), to the big bed itself, which was
the very model of his. When I left the inn, he coupled with his
final bow in the yard, a parting assurance that the road by which I
was going, had been Milor Beeron's favourite ride; and before the
horse's feet had well begun to clatter on the pavement, he ran
briskly up-stairs again, I dare say to tell some other Englishman
in some other solitary room that the guest who had just departed
was Lord Beeron's living image.

I had entered Bologna by night--almost midnight--and all along the
road thither, after our entrance into the Papal territory: which
is not, in any part, supremely well governed, Saint Peter's keys
being rather rusty now; the driver had so worried about the danger
of robbers in travelling after dark, and had so infected the brave
Courier, and the two had been so constantly stopping and getting up
and down to look after a portmanteau which was tied on behind, that
I should have felt almost obliged to any one who would have had the
goodness to take it away. Hence it was stipulated, that, whenever
we left Bologna, we should start so as not to arrive at Ferrara
later than eight at night; and a delightful afternoon and evening
journey it was, albeit through a flat district which gradually
became more marshy from the overflow of brooks and rivers in the
recent heavy rains.

At sunset, when I was walking on alone, while the horses rested, I
arrived upon a little scene, which, by one of those singular mental
operations of which we are all conscious, seemed perfectly familiar
to me, and which I see distinctly now. There was not much in it.
In the blood red light, there was a mournful sheet of water, just
stirred by the evening wind; upon its margin a few trees. In the
foreground was a group of silent peasant girls leaning over the
parapet of a little bridge, and looking, now up at the sky, now
down into the water; in the distance, a deep bell; the shade of
approaching night on everything. If I had been murdered there, in
some former life, I could not have seemed to remember the place
more thoroughly, or with a more emphatic chilling of the blood; and
the mere remembrance of it acquired in that minute, is so
strengthened by the imaginary recollection, that I hardly think I
could forget it.

More solitary, more depopulated, more deserted, old Ferrara, than
any city of the solemn brotherhood! The grass so grows up in the
silent streets, that any one might make hay there, literally, while
the sun shines. But the sun shines with diminished cheerfulness in
grim Ferrara; and the people are so few who pass and re-pass
through the places, that the flesh of its inhabitants might be
grass indeed, and growing in the squares.

I wonder why the head coppersmith in an Italian town, always lives
next door to the Hotel, or opposite: making the visitor feel as if
the beating hammers were his own heart, palpitating with a deadly
energy! I wonder why jealous corridors surround the bedroom on all
sides, and fill it with unnecessary doors that can't be shut, and
will not open, and abut on pitchy darkness! I wonder why it is not
enough that these distrustful genii stand agape at one's dreams all
night, but there must also be round open portholes, high in the
wall, suggestive, when a mouse or rat is heard behind the wainscot,
of a somebody scraping the wall with his toes, in his endeavours to
reach one of these portholes and look in! I wonder why the faggots
are so constructed, as to know of no effect but an agony of heat
when they are lighted and replenished, and an agony of cold and
suffocation at all other times! I wonder, above all, why it is the
great feature of domestic architecture in Italian inns, that all
the fire goes up the chimney, except the smoke!

The answer matters little. Coppersmiths, doors, portholes, smoke,
and faggots, are welcome to me. Give me the smiling face of the
attendant, man or woman; the courteous manner; the amiable desire
to please and to be pleased; the light-hearted, pleasant, simple
air--so many jewels set in dirt--and I am theirs again to-morrow!

ARIOSTO'S house, TASSO'S prison, a rare old Gothic cathedral, and
more churches of course, are the sights of Ferrara. But the long
silent streets, and the dismantled palaces, where ivy waves in lieu
of banners, and where rank weeds are slowly creeping up the long-
untrodden stairs, are the best sights of all.

The aspect of this dreary town, half an hour before sunrise one
fine morning, when I left it, was as picturesque as it seemed
unreal and spectral. It was no matter that the people were not yet
out of bed; for if they had all been up and busy, they would have
made but little difference in that desert of a place. It was best
to see it, without a single figure in the picture; a city of the
dead, without one solitary survivor. Pestilence might have ravaged
streets, squares, and market-places; and sack and siege have ruined
the old houses, battered down their doors and windows, and made
breaches in their roofs. In one part, a great tower rose into the
air; the only landmark in the melancholy view. In another, a
prodigious castle, with a moat about it, stood aloof: a sullen
city in itself. In the black dungeons of this castle, Parisina and
her lover were beheaded in the dead of night. The red light,
beginning to shine when I looked back upon it, stained its walls
without, as they have, many a time, been stained within, in old
days; but for any sign of life they gave, the castle and the city
might have been avoided by all human creatures, from the moment
when the axe went down upon the last of the two lovers: and might
have never vibrated to another sound

Beyond the blow that to the block
Pierced through with forced and sullen shock.

Coming to the Po, which was greatly swollen, and running fiercely,
we crossed it by a floating bridge of boats, and so came into the
Austrian territory, and resumed our journey: through a country of
which, for some miles, a great part was under water. The brave
Courier and the soldiery had first quarrelled, for half an hour or
more, over our eternal passport. But this was a daily relaxation
with the Brave, who was always stricken deaf when shabby
functionaries in uniform came, as they constantly did come,
plunging out of wooden boxes to look at it--or in other words to
beg--and who, stone deaf to my entreaties that the man might have a
trifle given him, and we resume our journey in peace, was wont to
sit reviling the functionary in broken English: while the
unfortunate man's face was a portrait of mental agony framed in the
coach window, from his perfect ignorance of what was being said to
his disparagement.

There was a postilion, in the course of this day's journey, as wild
and savagely good-looking a vagabond as you would desire to see.
He was a tall, stout-made, dark-complexioned fellow, with a
profusion of shaggy black hair hanging all over his face, and great
black whiskers stretching down his throat. His dress was a torn
suit of rifle green, garnished here and there with red; a steeple-
crowned hat, innocent of nap, with a broken and bedraggled feather
stuck in the band; and a flaming red neckerchief hanging on his
shoulders. He was not in the saddle, but reposed, quite at his
ease, on a sort of low foot-board in front of the postchaise, down
amongst the horses' tails--convenient for having his brains kicked
out, at any moment. To this Brigand, the brave Courier, when we
were at a reasonable trot, happened to suggest the practicability
of going faster. He received the proposal with a perfect yell of
derision; brandished his whip about his head (such a whip! it was
more like a home-made bow); flung up his heels, much higher than
the horses; and disappeared, in a paroxysm, somewhere in the
neighbourhood of the axle-tree. I fully expected to see him lying
in the road, a hundred yards behind, but up came the steeple-
crowned hat again, next minute, and he was seen reposing, as on a
sofa, entertaining himself with the idea, and crying, 'Ha, ha! what
next! Oh the devil! Faster too! Shoo--hoo--o--o!' (This last
ejaculation, an inexpressibly defiant hoot.) Being anxious to
reach our immediate destination that night, I ventured, by-and-by,
to repeat the experiment on my own account. It produced exactly
the same effect. Round flew the whip with the same scornful
flourish, up came the heels, down went the steeple-crowned hat, and
presently he reappeared, reposing as before and saying to himself,
'Ha ha! what next! Faster too! Oh the devil! Shoo--hoo--o--o!'

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