A. L. (Antoine Laurent) Castellan.

Letters on Italy : illustrated by engravings online

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pear to run through all the paintings of this period, both Ita-
lian and German. The picture in the Campo-Santo is evi-
dently painted after the Hell of Dante. The painter however
has exaggerated the ideas of the poet, and there is no extrava-
gance which he has not permitted himself to use in expressing
the torments which the infernal ministers inflict on the damned
— Tuili sonpien di spirti maladetti, e di serpenti di diversa mena.
But I have no room for further description.

The travellers who generally visit Italy, and whose principal
aim is the examination of the monuments of antiquity, or of
those objects of art which adorn the principal cities of this
country, have neither leisure nor desire to wander out of the
well-beaten track in order to visit places which are not well
known, or which they fear would not repay their trouble. Of
this number are the convents dispersed amongst the Apennines,
which are scarcely known even to the pilgrims, naturalists,
and landscape-painters. To the latter the rugged situation of
the convent of Vallombrosa presents the finest contrasts with
the pleasant scites of the rest of Tuscany.

The mountains of the Apennines, though less lofty than the
Alps, are yet covered with snow the greatest part of the year ;
and the forests which shade these summits are the asylum of
perpetual freshness. One cannot therefore traverse them with
pleasure unless during the summer. It was at the end of that
season, and in the hope of finding some new food for study,
that I undertook this little journey Avith a skilful French artist.
We were furnished with letters of recommendation to the su-
perior of the convent of Vallombrosa, and with the necessary
permission to prolong our stay after the usual time allotted to
ordinary travellers or pilgrims. We were also particularly ac-
quainted with one of the monks, a zealous friend of the arts
and artists.

On leaving Florence we followed the banks of the Arno,
pursuing the course of the stream for several leagues. This
road, which winds through the fruitful Val d'Amo, is sheltered
with poplars and aspin trees, around whose trunks the vines
cling, throwing their arms from one tree to another, and
tying them together with garlands loaded with fruit. The
casinos and farm-houses, built on the side of the mountain,
display specimens of elegant architecture, and embellish
the country. The Florentines resort to these pleasant
retreats to enjoy all the delights of the finest part of the
season, to inhale the freshness of the dells revived by a

Villages of the Apennines. 103

thousand springs, and to breathe the scented air which
pours from tlie orange and lemon-trees. This part of the
country is well peopled, and we met troops of peasants
who were bending their steps towards the churches and ora-
tories, which are scattered in great numbers throughout this

The festival days which one sees here almost transport one
to Fairy Land. The sumptuary laws of Leopold have only
been acted upon in the towns ; and to behold the elegance of
the villagers one would really think that luxury had fled into
the countiy. Every young girl on her marriage brings as her
dowry three complete habits of silk of various colours. Their
little petticoats of rose-coloured or azure silk display a beauti-
ful foot and an ancle bound with a knot of ribbands ; the
sleeves of their corsets are tied up with many little bows of
roses, and iheir hair, separated into tresses, flows under a yel-
low or black straw bonnet, bordered with ribbands, and orna-
mented with a bouquet of flowers.

In proportion as we approached nearer to the mountains the
casinos and the farm-houses became more thinly scattered.
We left the beasts that carried our luggage at a little village
which lay at the foot of the rocks, which seemed in a manner
to form the base of the chain of Apennines, and which horses
could not ascend without great difficulty. By this means we
gained a greater power of leisurely observing the picturesque
features of these mountains. A steep path-way which followed
the windings of the ground led us to the first summit, where
we found a forest of chesnut-trees.

It was not until we had surmounted many of the crests of
the mountains that we discovered the immense forest of firs,
by which the convent is environed, and which forms a dark
green curtain in which the summits of this part of the Apennines
are hidden. Up to this moment we have experienced, in its
full power, the ardour of an Italian sun. Our guide advised
us to stop when we reached the chain of woods, whose frigid
and dangerous influence we now began to feel. In fact, when
you enter these venerable and almost interminable forests, a
sudden cold pierces you, and you almost imagine yourself
transported to the solitary and humid vallies of Switzerland.
The firs seem all equally old, and planted in a regular quin-
cunx shape. The multitude of trunks shuts out all light from
around you ; the foliage growing thicker as it ascends forms
above your head a vaulted roof, impenetrable to the rays of
the sun. There are no traces of vegetation on the ground,
which is covered with a collection of withered leaves and
branches, so deep that the successive accumulation forms a bed

104 Castellan's Travels in Italy.

which does not retain even the print of the passenger's

Indeed all things perish under the shadow of the fir trees,
which may be classed with those parasitic plants which absorb
the juices of the earth, to the destruction of all neighbouring
vegetables. This quality, however, causes neither expense to
the cultivator of the land, nor injury to the proprietor; since
it is the means of destroying many noxious plants, for the sake
of that nourishment which supported them. Attached to the
soil of its birth, this tree flourishes in the place where its pre-
decessor perished"; unlike most trees, which, having absorbed
the richness of the earth, leave nothing to their successors but
an impoverished soil, incapable of affording them nourishment.

When the monastery first breaks upon the sight, it forms an
imposing contrast to the wild and savage forms which surround
it, and presents, in the length of its edifices, almost the ap-
pearance of a city. A square tower, rising above the other
buildings, and furnished with a clock, the sounds of which
alone break the solemn stillness of the air, was the only thing
which bore signs of the monastery being inhabited ; for as yet
we had not encountered a single mortal since our entrance
into the forest. We were only disturbed by the noise of the
wind, Avliich beat against the branches ; and I do not believe
we saw, amid the depths of these shades, any other living
creatures than the troops of squirrels which lived on the fruits
of the fir trees. On arriving before the monastery, the grass
plots, the immense courts, were all deserted and solitary ; and
it was not until we had rung for a considerable time at an iron
grating, that we were attended to, and at last introduced into
the hail which is set apart for the reception of strangers.

The monks were at church; but the Father P , who

waited on us, received us with great attention, and led us to
some very pleasant cells, where nothing that could be useful
or agreeable to the tired and rejoicing traveller was forgotten.

He wakened us on tlie following morning, and reminded us
that it was proper we should return thanks to Heaven for the
happy termination of our journey. — ^These good monks, of
whom very few have ever been absent from their convent for
years, consider a walk of eighteen miles a very long journey ;
and, although they seem totally to have renounced the world,
they yet eagerly questioned us respecting what was passing

Father P did the honours of the convent in a most

pleasing manner ; he was our Cicerone, and our guide in all
our picturesque excursions. I cannot describe in detail the
various edifices which compose this immense building. The

Hermitage of Paradisino, 10&

walls which surround the monastery are" sufficiently lofty to
protect it from any sudden surprise; but the monks have
nothing to dread from the inhabitants of the country, to whom
they have proved themselves the kindest benefactors.

We have been shown all their treasures of rich relics and
other ancient works; and, amongst other pictures of the
fourteenth century, we have discovered two fine heads of Ma-
saccio. The cabinet of natural history contains a collection of
petrifactions of different kinds, amongst which are some fossil
bones and teeth of the elephant, found in Val-d'Arno and the

In the neighbourhood of the convent there is a hermitage
called Paradisino, situated, like the nest of an eagle, on the
summit of an isolated rock. The objects by which it is sur-
rounded, and, above all, the mountains which environ it, are of
so gigantic a character, that the building itself seems only like
a small ruin detached from an immense mass. A headlong
torrent mshes down the steep sides of the rock, threatening it
Avith destruction. — ^To reach Paradisino you pass over a bridge
thrown across the torrent, and at the extremity of which you
find a chapel. A large avenue of firs, planted on the steep de-
clivity, shade a paved road, which is passable even by carriages;
soon afterwards, however, you arrive at a i)athway constructed
with much labour and art, which follows the sinuosities of the
land, and winds in a spiral shape round the rock. The path is
sometimes only separated from the precipice which yawns be-
neath it by a barrier formed of the interlaced branches of young
trees ; and, notwithstanding this safeguard, the bellowing of
the cascade, and the rapidity and shock of its waters, from
which a thin humid vapour rises, astound the ears of the
passenger, and fill his heart with a sentiment very like terror.

When you arrive on the terrace of Paradisino, you imagine
yourself transported to another world, and your charmed eye
stretches over the wide prospect. — The opening of the valley
serves as a frame for the most picturesque beauties of all kinds.
The foreground is filled with hanging rocks, through which
dash fierce torrents ; some fallen trees offer a temporary ob-
struction, but the waters soon loose themselves in the deep
obscurity of the forests, which stretch to the borders of the
valley where the towers of the abbey burst upon the view.

On the other side the aspect of the country is changed. — It
is less wild, and, although mountainous throughout, there are
more signs of cultivation. — It is traversed by streams bordered
with rural edifices and intermingled with wood. Further on,
stretches a vast plain, and a rich tract of country, watered by
a majestic river, on the banks of which rise the temnles, the
Voyages and Travels, No. 5, Vol. III. P

106 Castellan's Travels in Italy.

palaces, and the towers of Florence ; and the landscape is
closed with the mountains of Lucca and the sea of Tuscany.

Evening is the time for enjoying this sublime prospect. At
the moment when the sun approaches the horizon, the sea seems
all on fire; an inflamed vapour marks out the different ranges
of mountains ; while the deep vallies are already in dimness,
adding by their sombre verdure to the effect of the picture.

As soon as we arrived at the gate of Paradisino, we rung the
bell; and the hermit, opening the gate of that part of the
building which he inhabited, admitted us. — He lighted a fire
by which we might dry ourselves, and oflTered us some of his
humble provisions, which hunger, excited by violent exercise,
rendered extremely palatable to us.

This man, though now very old, appeared still endowed with
prodigious force and energy. — His white bristly hair, his im-
mense beard, his aquiline nose, his fiery eye, sparkling under
a thick eye-broAV ; in short, his whole physiognomy, gave him
more the appearance of a satyr than an anchorite.

Ic was not without trouble that we could prevail on him to
suffer his portrait to be taken ; at length, however, he con-
sented, and seated in his usual position, with his body a little
bent, and his hands crossed on his beads, his countenance as-
sumed that expression of calmness and reflexion which be-
comes a repentant sinner. The conversation soon afterwards
falling on the Avars which desolated the north of Italy,
the face of the hermit was touched with a character of fierce-
ness, and his features were changed to those of an animated
warrior ; by degrees his eyes began to sparkle, and almost to
strike fire, and we soon recognized under the hermit's cowl,
the outlaw at whose name Italy had formerly trembled.
*' Why," cried he, fiercely, " why have I renounced the
world, whilst my country is menaced with invasion ? At the
voice of Fornacciaio many a brave fellow would rush forward
to shake off" the yoke." He accompanied these words with some
very strong imprecations, then all at once casting himself on
his knees, he besought pardon of God for this burst of earthly
passion, and lay for a long time j^rostrate on the ground.

We endeavoured to restore him to calmness, and telling
him how his words had excited our curiosity, he consented
out of pure humility to relate to us the history of his ci"imes
and of his repentance. i

The name of Francesco Fornacciaio is well known through-
out all Italy, and more especially in Lombardy, where it is
still the terror of the children^ — the latter countiy was the
theatre of the many bold and open robberies of this man, who
^vas the Captain of a disciplined troop of banditti : he took

Francesco Fomacdaio, the Outlaw. 107

possession of a castle, which he converted into his retreat .
there, after overrunning the country with his band, he re-
turne d to divide the fruits of successful violence.

T'ne situation of the castle, fortified by nature, protected for a long time from the terrors of justice, and it was at
last found necessary to besiege it with cannon and regular
troops, to dislodge the robbers, of whom a great number were
surprised. Fornacciaio escaped almost alone, but a price
was immediately set on his head ; he wandered about a long
time oppressed with fear and remorse, until at last he volun-
tarily surrendered himself into the hands of justice, and ex-
periencing the clemency of the Pontiff, in consideration of his
repentance he was absolved from his crimes : from this mo-
ment he took the resolution of devoting himself to the life of
a hermit, and entreated permission to bury himself in the
solitudes of the Apennines.

For many years he lived an austere penitent in a damp
,^rotto; at length he was with difficulty prevailed upon to
transfer his habitation to the hermitage of Vallombrosa, his
perseverance in this course being esteemed a proof of his

One of the most singular circumstances in the life of this
man was related to us by the Prior of the convent; Fornac-
ciaio had passed it over in silence and humility. — Being in the
neighbourhood of Sinigaglia, the Governor of the Castle, who
wished to gratify his private revenge, cast his eyes on this
man, as a person whose intrepidity and hardy enterprize ren-
dered him well adapted for his purpose. He sent for him to
hear his proposal, on the execution of which he promised him
a pardon, and an oblivion of all his crimes, and moreover a
safe conduct. Fornacciaio, without hesitation, accepted the
safe conduct and waited on his employer ; at his ajjproach the
gates opened, but they shut on him as he entered ; he betrayed
no fear, however, but was presented to the Governor, who
took him aside, and made him acquainted with the murderous
designs, which were to be the price of the pardon. Fornac-
ciaio answered with indignation, " Do you take me for a vile
assassin ? Know that I have never killed any one, but in fair
combat face to face, and I would not though it should save my
head, commit in cold blood so cowardly and guilty a deed."
The Governor then threatened to arrest him, but the robber
reminding him of his promise of safe conduct, and drawing
two pistols from underneath his mantle, swore that if he called
for assistance he would take his life, and then sell his own
as dearly as possible. The Governor, trembling gave him
permission to retire, but Fornacciaio obliged him to unfasten

]08 Castellan's Travels in Italy.

the doors himself, and to accompany him out of the castle gates.*

I cannot quit this country without giving some account of
an excursion, which we made to the most elevated summit of
this part of the Apennines.

We remarked, what a celebrated Tuscan naturalist had al-
ready observed in other parts of Italy, that about half way up
the mountains the woods of chesnut and fir trees disappear,
and nothing is found on the summit but immense beech trees,
which with firs are the primitive and indigenous trees of the
mountains of Tuscany ; one perceives as the ground rises a
gradual diminution in the size of the trees : on the sides of the
mountains of great magnitude as they approach the summit
they become rough and tufted, and bear fruit in great abundance.

From the summit, (which is covered with a very fine
herbage, or rather with a thick moss, and extremely slip-
peiy,) one of the most elevated of the Apennines, we took
a survey of all Tuscany ; it was spread like a vast map
beneath our eyes, where we could distinguish all the rami-
fications of the mountains which separated the provinces
into vallies ; the streams spread over the land like threads of
silver ; the towns and villages seemed like accumidations of
grains of sand, and the city of Florence, notwithstanding all
its colossal monuments, seemed only like a single point in this
immense plain 5 in the west the Mediterranean distinctly
bordered the horizon ; on the opposite side the Adriatic flowed.

I shall not attempt to describe the various scites, which
furnished us with numerous subjects for oiu* ])ictures during
the remainner of our stay at Vallombro'^ Eveiy day we
made fresh discoveries of this kind, while ti. varied scenes
which this wild country presented, and chc peaceable and
quiet life which we there led amid solitudes which invited us
to study, prevented us from feeling any lassitude.

I have, I doubt not, forgotten a number of objects which
well merited description, and this account will convey but a
feeble idea of Vallombrosa ; it may, however, serve to excite
in the minds of artists a desire of visiting this ancient monas-
tery, and they will not repent of their pilgrimage.


* Some time after our visit, the hermit was found dead at the return of
spring. If we may believe pubhc report, this man, although reclaimed from
many of his ancient errors, still nourished a vice which the rigour of ihe
cold to which he was sometimes exposed in winter rendered somewhat ex-
cusable. The unlimited use of strong liquors is said to have produced a
spontaneous combustion, which consumed his body without burning his
cloaths. The common people, always fond of the marvellous, attributed this
death to the divine vengeance.

Printed by Benjamin Bensley,
Bolt-court, Fleet-street.


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Online LibraryA. L. (Antoine Laurent) CastellanLetters on Italy : illustrated by engravings → online text (page 12 of 12)