Chateaubriand's memoirs, XL, 1

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XXXIX, 21 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XL, 2

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XL- Chapter 1
Madame de Bauffremont’s arrival in Venice – Cataio – The Duke of Modena – The Tomb of Petrarch at Arqua – A Land of Poets

Venice to Ferrara, 17th to the 18th of September 1833.

There was an immense gulf between this reverie and the reality to which I returned on presenting myself at the Princesse de Bauffremont’s hotel; I was forced to leap from 1806, the memories of which had just occupied me, to 1833, where in fact I found myself to be: Marco Polo descended on Venice from China, after just such an absence of twenty-seven years.

Madame de Bauffremont bore in her face and her manners the unmistakable mark of a Montmorency: she might well, like that Charlotte, mother of the Great Condé and the Duchesse de Longueville, have been Henri IV’s lover. The Princess told me that Madame la Duchesse de Berry had written a letter to me from Pisa which I had not received: Her Royal Highness had arrived in Ferrara where she expected me.

It cost me something to abandon my retreat; I needed a week or so more for my sightseeing; above all I regretted not seeing the end of the Zanze adventure, but my time belonged to Henri V’s mother, and whenever I travel something always occurs that sends me off track.

I left my luggage at the Hôtel de l’Europe on departure, counting on returning with Madame.

I found my calash again at Fusina: they retrieved it from an old shed, like a jewel from the Royal wardrobe. I left the shore that may take its name from the King of the Ocean’s trident: Fuscina.

Returning to Padua, I told the coachman: ‘The Ferrara road.’ The route is delightful as far as Monselice: an extremely elegant hill, orchards of fig-trees, mulberries and willows festooned with vines, pleasant meadows, and ruined castles. I passed Cataio, adorned with soldiers: the Abbé Lenglet, otherwise very erudite, mistook this name for Cathay. This Cataio belongs not to Angelica, but to the Duke of Modena. I found myself face to face with His Highness. He had deigned to take a walk along the highroad. The Duke is an offshoot of the race of Princes invented by Machiavelli; he was proud enough not to recognize Louis-Philippe.

The village of Arqua displays the tomb of Petrarch, sung along with its site by Lord Byron:

Che fai, che pensi? che pur dietro guardi
Nel tempo, che tornar non pote amai,
Anima sconsalata?’
Disconsolate spirit, what do you think, or do?
Why do you look behind, at days
that cannot come again?’

All this country, to a distance of sixty miles around, is the native soil of writers and poets: Livy, Virgil, Catullus, Ariosto, Guarini, the Strozzi, the three Bentivoglios, Bembo, Bartoli, Boiardo, Pindemonte, Varano, Monti, and a crowd of other famous men, were engendered by this land of the Muses. Even Tasso was of Bergamese origin. I have not met the most recent of these poets except for one of the two Pindemontes. I did not know Cesarotti or Monti, I would have been happy to have met Pellico and Manzoni, the dying rays of Italian glory. The Euganean Mountains, which I travelled through, were gilded by the sunset with a pleasant variety of forms and great purity of line: one of those mountains resembled the main pyramid at Sakhara, when outlined against the Libyan horizon by the setting sun.

I continued my journey by night through Rovigo; a blanket of fog covered the earth. I only saw the River Po at the Lagoscuro crossing. The carriage stopped; the coachman summoned the ferry with his trumpet. The silence was complete; except for the barking of a dog on the opposite bank of the river, and the distant cascade of a triple echo responding to his call; a foretaste of Tasso’s Elysian empire which we were about to enter.

A splashing sound in the water, through the fog and the shadows, announced the ferry; it slid along the rope tied between anchored boats. Between four and five in the morning of the 18th I arrived in Ferrara: I stopped at the Three Crowns; Madame was expected there.

Wednesday the 18th.

Her Royal Highness not having arrived, I visited the Church of San Paolo; I only saw the tombs; and never a soul, save for those of the dead and mine which was barely alive: at the end of the choir hung a painting by Guercino.

The cathedral is deceptive: you see a front and two sides incrusted with bas-reliefs of sacred and profane subjects. On this exterior there is further ornamentation, more usually placed inside Gothic buildings, such as rudentures, Arabic sculptured corbels, soffits with aureoles, and galleries of little columns with ogives, and trefoils, built into the thickness of the walls. You enter, and you stand amazed on finding a different church with hemispherical vaults and massive pillars. Something like this disparity exists in France, both physically and morally: inside our old chateaux they indulge in modern offices, masses of rats’ nests, alcoves and wardrobes. Penetrate the souls of a good number of those men with historic names and coats of arms, and what do you find there: the inclinations of the ante-chamber.

I was quite embarrassed by this aspect of the cathedral: it seemed to have been turned inside-out like a robe: a bourgeois woman of the age of Louis XV disguised as a twelfth century lady of the manor.

Ferrara, once so lively with its women, pleasures and poets, is almost uninhabited: its wide streets are deserted, and the sheep can graze there. The decaying houses are not rescued as they are in Venice, by the architecture, the vessels, the sea and the natural gaiety of the place. At the gateway to so wretched a Romagna, Ferrara, under the yoke of her Austrian garrison, has the appearance of an oppressed person: she seems to bear Tasso’s everlasting grief; about to fall, she stoops like an old woman. The sole monument to the present, a criminal court, half rises from the ground, with some unfinished prison blocks. Whom will they put in these fresh dungeons: Young Italy? The new gaols, surmounted by cranes and edged with scaffolding, like the palace of Dido’s city, neighbour the ancient dungeon of the poet of Jerusalem Delivered.