Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXV, 15

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XXXV, 14 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXV, 16

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXV, chapter 15
A description of Lugano

Lugano is a small town with an Italian feel: porticoes like those in Bologna; people conducting their lives in the street as in Naples, Renaissance architecture; roofs jutting out from walls lacking cornices, long narrow windows, bare or decorated with capitals and pierced to the architrave. The town has its back to a vine-covered slope that overlooks two superimposed mountain plateaux, one of meadows, the other forested: the lake lies at their feet.

To the east of Lugano, on the highest summit of the mountains there is a hamlet where the women, tall and pale, have the reputation of being Circassians. There was a procession to this hamlet on the eve of my arrival; people were going on a pilgrimage to Beauty: this tribe will be some remnant of a race of Northern barbarians preserved without admixture among the population of the plain.

I have been shown various houses indicated as being suitable for me: I have found a delightful one, but the rent is too high.

In order to obtain a better view of the lake, I took a boat. One of the two boatmen spoke a Franco-Italian jargon interlarded with English. He named the mountains and the mountain villages for me: San Salvatore, from whose summit can be seen the dome of Milan cathedral; Castagnola, with its olive trees, twigs of which visitors wear in their buttonholes; San Giorgio, capped by its hermitage: each of these places has its history.

Austria, who takes all and gives nothing, holds a village at the foot of MountCaprino annexed to the territory of Ticino. Facing it, on the other side, at the foot of San Salvatore, she still possesses a kind of promontory on which stands a chapel; but she has graciously lent this promontory to the people of Lugano to execute their criminals on, and erect their gibbets. She will someday claim this high justice, exercised by her permission on her territory, as proof of her suzerainty over Lugano. They no longer subject the condemned to the torment of a rope these days, they cut off their heads: Paris provided the mechanism, Vienna the theatre of torment: gifts worthy of those two great monarchies.

These images were pursuing me, when on the azure wave, to the sighs of a breeze perfumed with pine resin, the boats belonging to some confraternity passed, throwing bouquets into the lake to the sound of oboes and horns. Swallows played around my sail. Among these winged voyagers, shall I find again those I encountered one evening while wandering the ancient road from Tivoli and Horace’s villa? The poet’s Lydia was no longer among the swallows in the countryside around Tivoli; but I know that at that very moment another young girl was furtively carrying off a rose dropped in the abandoned garden of a villa of Raphael’s century, and sought only that flower in the ruins of Rome.

The mountains which surround LakeLugano touch bases only at water-level, resembling islands separated by narrow canals; they reminded me of the grace, form and verdant nature of the Azores archipelago. Shall I wear away my last days of exile then beneath the smiling porticos where the Princess de Belgiojoso consumed the days of her youthful exile? Shall I finish my Memoirs at the threshold of that historic and classical land where Virgil and Tasso sang, where so many revolutions have been accomplished? Shall I recall my Breton fortunes in sight of the AusonianMountains? If their curtain were to rise, the plains of Lombardy would be revealed; beyond that Rome; beyond that, Naples, Sicily, Greece, Syria, Egypt and Carthage: distant shores I have measured, I who do not even possess the earth I press beneath the soles of my feet! And yet to die here, to end here: is that not what I wish for, what I seek? I do not know.