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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsPassages From The French And Italian Notebooks - Volume 2 - AVIGNON
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Passages From The French And Italian Notebooks - Volume 2 - AVIGNON Post by :KrazyFree Category :Nonfictions Author :Nathaniel Hawthorne Date :April 2012 Read :1054

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Passages From The French And Italian Notebooks - Volume 2 - AVIGNON

Hotel de l'Europe, June 1st.--I remember nothing very special to record about Marseilles; though it was really like passing from death into life, to find ourselves in busy, cheerful, effervescing France, after living so long between asleep and awake in sluggish Italy. Marseilles is a very interesting and entertaining town, with its bold surrounding heights, its wide streets,--so they seemed to us after the Roman alleys,--its squares, shady with trees, its diversified population of sailors, citizens, Orientals, and what not; but I have no spirit for description any longer; being tired of seeing things, and still more of telling myself about them. Only a young traveller can have patience to write his travels. The newest things, nowadays, have a familiarity to my eyes; whereas in their lost sense of novelty lies the charm and power of description.

On Monday (30th May), though it began with heavy rain, we set early about our preparations for departure, . . . . and, at about three, we left the Hotel des Colonies. It is a very comfortable hotel, though expensive. The Restaurant connected with it occupies the enclosed court-yard and the arcades around it; and it was a good amusement to look down from the surrounding gallery, communicating with our apartments, and see the fashion and manner of French eating, all the time going forward. In sunny weather a great awning is spread over the whole court, across from the upper stories of the house. There is a grass-plat in the middle, and a very spacious and airy dining-saloon is thus formed.

Our railroad carriage was comfortable, and we found in it, besides two other Frenchwomen, two nuns. They were very devout, and sedulously read their little books of devotion, repeated prayers under their breath, kissed the crucifixes which hung at their girdles, and told a string of beads, which they passed from one to the other. So much were they occupied with these duties, that they scarcely looked at the scenery along the road, though, probably, it is very rare for them to see anything outside of their convent walls. They never failed to mutter a prayer and kiss the crucifix whenever we plunged into a tunnel. If they glanced at their fellow-passengers, it was shyly and askance, with their lips in motion all the time, like children afraid to let their eyes wander from their lesson-book. One of them, however, took occasion to pull down R-----'s dress, which, in her frisky movements about the carriage, had got out of place, too high for the nun's sense of decorum. Neither of them was at all pretty, nor was the black stuff dress and white muslin cap in the least becoming, neither were their features of an intelligent or high-bred stamp. Their manners, however, or such little glimpses as I could get of them, were unexceptionable; and when I drew a curtain to protect one of them from the sun, she made me a very courteous gesture of thanks.

We had some very good views both of sea and hills; and a part of our way lay along the banks of the Rhone. . . . By the by, at the station at Marseilles I bought the two volumes of the "Livre des Merveilles," by a certain author of my acquaintance, translated into French, and printed and illustrated in very pretty style. Miss S------ also bought them, and, in answer to her inquiry for other works by the same author, the bookseller observed that "she did not think Monsieur Nathaniel had published anything else." The Christian name deems to be the most important one in France, and still more especially in Italy.

We arrived at Avignon, Hotel de l'Europe, in the dusk of the evening. . . . The lassitude of Rome still clings to us, and I, at least, feel no spring of life or activity, whether at morn or eve. In the morning we found ourselves very pleasantly situated as regards lodgings. The gallery of our suite of rooms looks down as usual into an enclosed court, three sides of which are formed by the stone house and its two wings, and the third by a high wall, with a gateway of iron between two lofty stone pillars, which, for their capitals, have great stone vases, with grass growing in them, and hanging over the brim. There is a large plane-tree in one corner of the court, and creeping plants clamber up trellises; and there are pots of flowers and bird-cages, all of which give a very fresh and cheerful aspect to the enclosure. The court is paved with small round stones; the omnibus belonging to the hotel, and all the carriages of guests drive into it; and the wide arch of the stable-door opens under the central part of the house. Nevertheless, the scene is not in all respects that of a stable-yard; for gentlemen and ladies come from the salle a manger and other rooms, and stand talking in the court, or occupy chairs and seats there; children play about; the hostess or her daughter often appears and talks with her guests or servants; dogs lounge, and, in short, the court might well enough be taken for the one scene of a classic play. The hotel seems to be of the first class, though such would not be indicated, either in England or America, by thus mixing up the stable with the lodgings. I have taken two or three rambles about the town, and have climbed a high rock which dominates over it, and gives a most extensive view from the broad table-land of its summit. The old church of Avignon --as old as the times of its popes, and older--stands close beside this mighty and massive crag. We went into it, and found it a dark old place, with broad, interior arches, and a singularly shaped dome; a venerable Gothic and Grecian porch, with ancient frescos in its arched spaces; some dusky pictures within; an ancient chair of stone, formerly occupied by the popes, and much else that would have been exceedingly interesting before I went to Rome. But Rome takes the charm out of an inferior antiquity, as well as the life out of human beings.

This forenoon J----- and I have crossed the Rhone by a bridge, just the other side of one of the city gates, which is near our hotel. We walked along the riverside, and saw the ruins of an ancient bridge, which ends abruptly in the midst of the stream; two or three arches still making tremendous strides across, while the others have long ago been crumbled away by the rush of the rapid river. The bridge was originally founded by St. Benezet, who received a Divine order to undertake the work, while yet a shepherd-boy, with only three sous in his pocket; and he proved the authenticity of the mission by taking an immense stone on his shoulder, and laying it for the foundation. There is still an ancient chapel midway on the bridge, and I believe St. Benezet lies buried there, in the midst of his dilapidated work. The bridge now used is considerably lower down the stream. It is a wooden suspension-bridge, broader than the ancient one, and doubtless more than supplies its place; else, unquestionably, St. Benezet would think it necessary to repair his own. The view from the inner side of this ruined structure, grass-grown and weedy, and leading to such a precipitous plunge into the swift river, is very picturesque, in connection with the gray town and above it, the great, massive bulk of the cliff, the towers of the church, and of a vast old edifice, shapeless, ugly, and venerable, which the popes built and occupied as their palace, many centuries ago. . . .

After dinner we all set out on a walk, in the course of which we called at a bookseller's shop to show U---- an enormous cat, which I had already seen. It is of the Angora breed, of a mottled yellow color, and is really a wonder; as big and broad as a tolerably sized dog, very soft and silken, and apparently of the gentlest disposition. I never imagined the like, nor felt anything so deeply soft as this great beast. Its master seems very fond and proud of it; and, great favorite as the cat is, she does not take airs upon herself, but is gently shy and timid in her demonstrations.

We ascended the great Rocher above the palace of the popes, and on our way looked into the old church, which was so dim in the decline of day that we could not see within the dusky arches, through which the chapels communicated with the nave. Thence we pursued our way up the farther ascent, and, standing on the edge of the precipice,--protected by a parapet of stone, and in other places by an iron railing,--we could look down upon the road that winds its dusky track far below, and at the river Rhone, which eddies close beside it. This is indeed a massive and lofty cliff, and it tumbles down so precipitously that I could readily have flung myself from the bank, and alighted on my head in the middle of the river. The Rhone passes so near its base that I threw stones a good way into its current. We talked with a man of Avignon, who leaned over the parapet near by, and he was very kind in explaining the points of view, and told us that the river, which winds and doubles upon itself so as to look like at least two rivers, is really the Rhone alone. The Durance joins with it within a few miles below Avignon, but is here invisible.

Hotel de l'Europe, June 2d.--This morning we went again to the Duomo of the popes; and this time we allowed the custode, or sacristan, to show us the curiosities of it. He led us into a chapel apart, and showed us the old Gothic tomb of Pope John XXII., where the recumbent statue of the pope lies beneath one of those beautiful and venerable canopies of stone which look at once so light and so solemn. I know not how many hundred years old it is, but everything of Gothic origin has a faculty of conveying the idea of age; whereas classic forms seem to have nothing to do with time, and so lose the kind of impressiveness that arises from suggestions of decay and the past.

In the sacristy the guide opened a cupboard that contained the jewels and sacred treasures of the church, and showed a most exquisite figure of Christ in ivory, represented as on a cross of ebony; and it was executed with wonderful truth and force of expression, and with great beauty likewise. I do not see what a full-length marble statue could have had that was lacking in this little ivory figure of hardly more than a foot high. It is about two centuries old, by an unknown artist. There is another famous ivory statuette in Avignon which seems to be more celebrated than this, but can hardly be superior. I shall gladly look at it if it comes in my way.

Next to this, the prettiest thing the man showed us was a circle of emeralds, in one of the holy implements; and then he exhibited a little bit or a pope's skull; also a great old crozier, that looked as if made chiefly of silver, and partly gilt; but I saw where the plating of silver was worn away, and betrayed the copper of its actual substance. There were two or three pictures in the sacristy, by ancient and modern French artists, very unlike the productions of the Italian masters, but not without a beauty of their own.

Leaving the sacristy, we returned into the church, where U---- and J----- began to draw the pope's old stone chair. There is a beast, or perhaps more than one, grotesquely sculptured upon it; the seat is high and square, the back low and pointed, and it offers no enticing promise to a weary man.

The interior of the church is massively picturesque, with its vaulted roof, and a stone gallery, heavily ornamented, running along each side of the nave. Each arch of the nave gives admittance to a chapel, in all of which there are pictures, and sculptures in most of them. One of these chapels is of the time of Charlemagne, and has a vaulted roof of admirable architecture, covered with frescos of modern date and little merit. In an adjacent chapel is the stone monument of Pope Benedict, whose statue reposes on it, like many which I have seen in the cathedral of York and other old English churches. In another part we saw a monument, consisting of a plain slab supported on pillars; it is said to be of a Roman or very early Christian epoch. In another chapel was a figure of Christ in wax, I believe, and clothed in real drapery; a very ugly object. Also, a figure reposing under a slab, which strikes the spectator with the idea that it is really a dead person enveloped in a shroud. There are windows of painted glass in some of the chapels; and the gloom of the dimly lighted interior, especially beneath the broad, low arches, is very impressive.

While we were there some women assembled at one of the altars, and went through their acts of devotion without the help of a priest; one and another of them alternately repeating prayers, to which the rest responded. The murmur of their voices took a musical tone, which was reverberated by the vaulted arches.

U---- and I now came out; and, under the porch, we found an old woman selling rosaries, little religious books, and other holy things. We bought two little medals of the Immaculate Virgin, one purporting to be of silver, the other of gold; but as both together cost only two or three sous, the genuineness of the material may well be doubted. We sat down on the steps, of a crucifix which is placed in front of the church, and the children began to draw the porch, of which I hardly know whether to call the architecture classic or Gothic (as I said before); at all events it has a venerable aspect, and there are frescos within its arches by Simone Memmi. . . . The popes' palace is contiguous to the church, and just below it, on the hillside. It is now occupied as barracks by some regiments of soldiers, a number of whom were lounging before the entrance; but we passed the sentinel without being challenged, and addressed ourselves to the concierge, who readily assented to our request to be shown through the edifice. A French gentleman and lady, likewise, came with similar purpose, and went the rounds along with us. The palace is such a confused heap and conglomeration of buildings, that it is impossible to get within any sort of a regular description. It is a huge, shapeless mass of architecture; and if it ever had any pretence to a plan, it has lost it in the modern alterations. For instance, an immense and lofty chapel, or rather church, has had two floors, one above the other, laid at different stages of its height; and the upper one of these floors, which extends just where the arches of the vaulted root begin to spring from the pillars, is ranged round with the beds of one of the regiments of soldiers. They are small iron bedsteads, each with its narrow mattress, and covered with a dark blanket. On some of them lay or lounged a soldier; other soldiers were cleaning their accoutrements; elsewhere we saw parties of them playing cards. So it was wherever we went among those large, dingy, gloomy halls and chambers, which, no doubt, were once stately and sumptuous, with pictures, with tapestry, and all sorts of adornment that the Middle Ages knew how to use. The windows threw a sombre light through embrasures at least two feet thick. There were staircases of magnificent breadth. We were shown into two small chapels, in different parts of the building, both containing the remains of old frescos wofully defaced. In one of them was a light, spiral staircase of iron, built in the centre of the room as a means of contemplating the frescos, which were said to be the work of our old friend Giotto. . . . Finally, we climbed a long, long, narrow stair, built in the thickness of the wall, and thus gained access to the top of one of the towers, whence we saw the noblest landscapes, mountains, plains, and the Rhone, broad and bright, winding hither and thither, as if it had lost its way.

Beneath our feet was the gray, ugly old palace, and its many courts, just as void of system and as inconceivable as when we were burrowing through its bewildering passages. No end of historical romances might be made out of this castle of the popes; and there ought to be a ghost in every room, and droves of them in some of the rooms; for there have been murders here in the gross and in detail, as well hundreds of years ago, as no longer back than the French Revolution, when there was a great massacre in one of the courts. Traces of this bloody business were visible in actual stains on the wall only a few years ago.

Returning to the room of the concierge, who, being a little stiff with age, had sent an attendant round with us, instead of accompanying us in person, he showed us a picture of Rienzi, the last of the Roman tribunes, who was once a prisoner here. On a table, beneath the picture, stood a little vase of earthenware containing some silver coin. We took it as a hint, in the customary style of French elegance, that a fee should be deposited here, instead of being put into the hand of the concierge; so the French gentleman deposited half a franc, and I, in my magnificence, twice as much.

Hotel de l'Europe, June 6th.--We are still here. . . . I have been daily to the Rocher des Dons, and have grown familiar with the old church on its declivity. I think I might become attached to it by seeing it often. A sombre old interior, with its heavy arches, and its roof vaulted like the top of a trunk; its stone gallery, with ponderous adornments, running round three sides. I observe that it is a daily custom of the old women to say their prayers in concert, sometimes making a pilgrimage, as it were, from chapel to chapel. The voice of one of them is heard running through the series of petitions, and at intervals the voices of the others join and swell into a chorus, so that it is like a river connecting a series of lakes; or, not to use so gigantic a simile, the one voice is like a thread, on which the beads of a rosary are strung.

One day two priests came and sat down beside these prayerful women, and joined in their petitions. I am inclined to hope that there is something genuine in the devotion of these old women.

The view from the top of the Rocker des Dons (a contraction of Dominis) grows upon me, and is truly magnificent; a vast mountain-girdled plain, illuminated by the far windings and reaches of the Rhone. The river is here almost as turbid as the Tiber itself; but, I remember, in the upper part of its course the waters are beautifully transparent. A powerful rush is indicated by the swirls and eddies of its broad surface.

Yesterday was a race day at Avignon, and apparently almost the whole population and a great many strangers streamed out of the city gate nearest our hotel, on their way to the race-course. There were many noticeable figures that might come well into a French picture or description; but only one remains in my memory,--a young man with a wooden leg, setting off for the course--a walk of several miles, I believe--with prodigious courage and alacrity, flourishing his wooden leg with an air and grace that seemed to render it positively flexible. The crowd returned towards sunset, and almost all night long, the streets and the whole air of the old town were full of song and merriment. There was a ball in a temporary structure, covered with an awning, in the Place d'Horloge, and a showman has erected his tent and spread forth his great painted canvases, announcing an anaconda and a sea-tiger to be seen. J----- paid four sous for admittance, and found that the sea-tiger was nothing but a large seal, and the anaconda altogether a myth.

I have rambled a good deal about the town. Its streets are crooked and perplexing, and paved with round pebbles for the most part, which afford more uncomfortable pedestrianism than the pavement of Rome itself. It is an ancient-looking place, with some large old mansions, but few that are individually impressive; though here and there one sees an antique entrance, a corner tower, or other bit of antiquity, that throws a venerable effect over the gray commonplace of past centuries. The town is not overclean, and often there is a kennel of unhappy odor. There appear to have been many more churches and devotional establishments under the ancient dominion of the popes than have been kept intact in subsequent ages; the tower and facade of a church, for instance, form the front of a carpenter's shop, or some such plebeian place. The church where Laura lay has quite disappeared, and her tomb along with it. The town reminds me of Chester, though it does not in the least resemble it, and is not nearly so picturesque. Like Chester, it is entirely surrounded by a wall; and that of Avignon--though it has no delightful promenade on its top, as the wall of Chester has--is the more perfectly preserved in its mediaeval form, and the more picturesque of the two. J----- and I have once or twice walked nearly round it, commencing from the gate of Ouelle, which is very near our hotel. From this point it stretches for a considerable distance along by the river, and here there is a broad promenade, with trees, and blocks of stone for seats; on one side "the arrowy Rhone," generally carrying a cooling breeze along with it; on the other, the gray wall, with its battlements and machicolations, impending over what was once the moat, but which is now full of careless and untrained shrubbery. At intervals there are round towers swelling out from the wall, and rising a little above it. After about half a mile along the river-side the wall turns at nearly right angles, and still there is a wide road, a shaded walk, a boulevard; and at short distances are cafes, with their little round tables before the door, or small shady nooks of shrubbery. So numerous are these retreats and pleasaunces that I do not see how the little old town can support them all, especially as there are a great many cafes within the walls. I do not remember seeing any soldiers on guard at the numerous city gates, but there is an office in the side of each gate for levying the octroi, and old women are sometimes on guard there.

This morning, after breakfast, J----- and I crossed the suspension-bridge close by the gate nearest our hotel, and walked to the ancient town of Villeneuve, on the other side of the Rhone. The first bridge leads to an island, from the farther side of which another very long one, with a timber foundation, accomplishes the passage of the other branch of the Rhone. There was a good breeze on the river, but after crossing it we found the rest of the walk excessively hot. This town of Villeneuve is of very ancient origin, and owes its existence, it is said, to the famous holiness of a female saint, which gathered round her abode and burial-place a great many habitations of people who reverenced her. She was the daughter of the King of Saragossa, and I presume she chose this site because it was so rocky and desolate. Afterwards it had a long mediaeval history; and in the time of the Avignon popes, the cardinals, regretful of their abandoned Roman villas, built pleasure-houses here, so that the town was called Villa Nueva. After they had done their best, it must have seemed to these poor cardinals but a rude and sad exchange for the Borghese, the Albani, the Pamfili Doria, and those other perfectest results of man's luxurious art. And probably the tradition of the Roman villas had really been kept alive, and extant examples of them all the way downward from the times of the empire. But this Villeneuve is the stoniest, roughest town that can be imagined. There are a few large old houses, to be sure, but built on a line with shabby village dwellings and barns, and so presenting little but samples of magnificent shabbiness. Perhaps I might have found traces of old splendor if I had sought for them; but, not having the history of the place in my mind, I passed through its scrambling streets without imagining that Princes of the Church had once made their abode here. The inhabitants now are peasants, or chiefly such; though, for aught I know, some of the French noblesse may burrow in these palaces that look so like hovels.

A large church, with a massive tower, stands near the centre of the town; and, of course, I did not fail to enter its arched door,--a pointed arch, with many frames and mouldings, one within another. An old woman was at her devotions, and several others came in and knelt during my stay there. It was quite an interesting interior; a long nave, with six pointed arches on each side, beneath which were as many chapels. The walls were rich with pictures, not only in the chapels, but up and down the nave, above the arches. There were gilded virgins, too, and much other quaint device that produced an effect that I rather liked than otherwise. At the end of the church, farthest from the high altar, there were four columns of exceedingly rich marble, and a good deal more of such precious material was wrought into the chapels and altars. There was an old stone seat, also, of some former pope or prelate. The church was dim enough to cause the lamps in the shrines to become points of vivid light, and, looking from end to end, it was a long, venerable, tarnished, Old World vista, not at all tampered with by modern taste.

We now went on our way through the village, and, emerging from a gate, went clambering towards the castle of St. Andre, which stands, perhaps, a quarter of a mile beyond it. This castle was built by Philip le Bel, as a restraint to the people of Avignon in extending their power on this side of the Rhone. We happened not to take the most direct way, and so approached the castle on the farther side and were obliged to go nearly round the hill on which it stands, before striking into the path which leads to its gate. It crowns a very bold and difficult hill, directly above the Rhone, opposite to Avignon,--which is so far off that objects are not minutely distinguishable,--and looking down upon the long, straggling town of Villeneuve. It must have been a place of mighty strength, in its day. Its ramparts seem still almost entire, as looked upon from without, and when, at length, we climbed the rough, rocky pathway to the entrance, we found the two vast round towers, with their battlemented summits and arched gateway between them, just as perfect as they could have been five hundred or more years ago. Some external defences are now, however, in a state of ruin; and there are only the remains of a tower, that once arose between the two round towers, and was apparently much more elevated than they. A little in front of the gate was a monumental cross of stone; and in the arch, between the two round towers, were two little boys at play; and an old woman soon showed herself, but took no notice of us. Casting our eyes within the gateway, we saw what looked a rough village street, betwixt old houses built ponderously of stone, but having far more the aspect of huts than of castle-hails. They were evidently the dwellings of peasantry, and people engaged in rustic labor; and no doubt they have burrowed into the primitive structures of the castle, and, as they found convenient, have taken their crumbling materials to build barns and farm-houses. There was space and accommodation for a very considerable population; but the men were probably at work in the fields, and the only persons visible were the children aforesaid, and one or two old women bearing bundles of twigs on their backs. They showed no curiosity respecting us, and though the wide space included within the castle-rampart seemed almost full of habitations ruinous or otherwise, I never found such a solitude in any ruin before. It contrasts very favorably in this particular with English castles, where, though you do not find rustic villages within the warlike enclosure, there is always a padlocked gate, always a guide, and generally half a dozen idle tourists. But here was only antiquity, with merely the natural growth of fungous human life upon it.

We went to the end of the castle court and sat down, for lack of other shade, among some inhospitable nettles that grew close to the wall. Close by us was a great gap in the ramparts,--it may have been a breach which was once stormed through; and it now afforded us an airy and sunny glimpse of distant hills. . . . J----- sketched part of the broken wall, which, by the by, did not seem to me nearly so thick as the walls of English castles. Then we returned through the gate, and I stopped, rather impatiently, under the hot sun, while J----- drew the outline of the two round towers. This done, we resumed our way homeward, after drinking from a very deep well close by the square tower of Philip le Bel. Thence we went melting through the sunshine, which beat upward as pitilessly from the white road as it blazed downwards from the sky. . . .

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Hotel des Colonies, Marseilles, May 29th, Saturday.--Wednesday was the day fixed for our departure from Rome, and after breakfast I walked to the Pincian, and saw the garden and the city, and the Borghese grounds, and St. Peter's in an earlier sunlight than ever before. Methought they never looked so beautiful, nor the sky so bright and blue. I saw Soracte on the horizon, and I looked at everything as if for the last time; nor do I wish ever to see any of these objects again, though no place ever took so strong a hold of my being as Rome,
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