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Lippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science Volume 26, September, 1880 online

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purple pigeon smothered in rice which Maria had promised me! The pope
himself would have known me individually out of the cloud of his
subjects, and have frowned upon my image. And how it would have been
whispered behind me to the end of my days, "That is the lady who broke
the great bell of St. Francis"! But I had not broken it, and it still
hangs sound and strong, to send its melancholy sweet music out to meet
the centuries as they roll in storm and sunshine over the eastern
mountains. Let us be thankful for the evils which might have happened
and did not.

I cannot resist the temptation to relate a little incident concerning
this same learned Professor Cristofani, it struck me as so quaint. He
is a poor man - literature, and even teaching, do not pay very well in
Italian paesi - and he has a family. Cheaply as servants may be
employed, he could not afford one, and his wife was not very well. Last
summer the _Alpinisti_ visited Asisi, and some of the principal
members, having an introduction to him, wished to visit him. Their stay
in Asisi was short, and, being sunrise-and-mountain-top people, they
made their call at six o'clock in the morning on their way to the top
of Mount Asio, from which Asisi takes its name, and, I may here add,
the correct spelling of its name, which I have followed. A servant from
the Leone Hotel showed the visitors to the house, and very stupidly
knocked at the kitchen-door. A loud "_Avanti!_" from within answered
the knock. The door was opened by the guide, revealing a tableau. The
professor, with his shirt-sleeves rolled up and an apron tied on, was
earnestly kneading a mass of dough preparatory to sending it to the
baker's oven, where everybody bakes their bread, and his pretty blonde
young daughter was making coffee at the kitchen fire.

"Well, I am a poor man, and my wife was sick," he said afterward, in
telling the story, with a sad smile in his eyes, which are as blue and
almost as blind as violets.

These stories awaken a laugh only at the time, but gain a certain
sublimity when years have gilded them - like that one of St.
Bonaventura, which this reminds us of: When the two legates sent by the
pope of that time to carry the scarlet beretta of a cardinal to St.
Bonaventura set out in search of him, they were obliged to follow him
to a little Franciscan convent at a short distance from Florence, where
he had retired for devotion and to practise for a while the humble
rules of his order. As these two dignified prelates came solemnly
around an angle of the building they glanced through the open
kitchen-window, and were astonished to see the personage they sought
engaged in washing the supper-dishes. He accosted them with perfect
calmness, and, learning their errand, requested them to hang the hat in
a tree near by till he should have finished washing the dishes. They
complied, and the pots and pans and plates having been attended to, the
whole community adjourned to the chapel and the saint received the
dignity of prince of the Church.

The eight days' festa of Corpus Domini opened in Asisi with one of the
most exquisite sights I have ever seen, the procession of the cathedral
as it passed from San Francesco through Via Superba on its return to
the cathedral. We took our places in a window reserved for us, and
waited. There all was quiet and deserted. The air was perfumed by
sprigs of green which each one had strewn before his own house. One
living creature alone was visible - a little boy who knelt in the middle
of the street and carefully placed small yellow flowers in the form of
an immense sunflower chalked out on the pavement. Here and there, in
some stairway-window, a shrine had been prepared, with its Madonna,
lamp and flowers. It was near noon of a bright June day, but the houses
were so high that the sun struck only on the upper stories of the north
side of the street. All below was in that transparent shadow wherein
objects look like pictures of themselves or like reflections in clear
water. The whole street was indeed a picture, with its gray houses set
in irregular lines, and as distinct in character as a line of men and
women would have been. On the building opposite our window was an
inscription telling that Metastasio had lived there - on another a date,
1419.

In 1419, when they piled the stones of that wall, Christopher Columbus
was not born, yet the basilica of St. Francis had been built more than
one hundred and fifty years; and on such a June day as this the
Asisinati leaned from their windows to see a Corpus Domini procession
come up the street, just as they were now doing. It came through the
fragrant silence and clear shadow like a vision. I could not restrain
an exclamation of surprise and delight, for I had not dreamed of
anything so beautiful. The procession would have been striking
anywhere, but shut in as it was between the soft gray of the opposite
stone houses, with the green-sprinkled street beneath and the glorious
blue above, it was as wonderful as if, looking down into clear deeps of
water, one should see the passing of some pageant of an enchanted city
buried deep in the crystalline waves centuries ago. There was nothing
here but the procession, leisurely occupying the whole street, treading
out faint odors without raising a particle of dust. The crowd that in
other places always obscures and spoils such a display here followed on
behind. The leisureliness of an Italian religious procession is
something delicious, as well as the way they have of forming hollow
squares and leaving the middle of the street sacred to the grander
dignities.

The members of the different societies wore long robes of red, blue or
of gray trimmed with red, and had small three-cornered pieces of the
material of the robe suspended by a string at the back of the neck, to
be drawn up over the head if necessary. The arms of the societies were
embroidered on the breast or shoulder, and each one had its great
painted banner of Madonna or saint and a magnificent crucifix with a
veil as rich as gold, silver, silk and embroidery could make it. There
were the white _camicie_ half covering the brown robes of long-bearded,
bare-ankled Cappuccini, and sheets of silver and gold in the vestments
of the other clergy.

Presently the canopy borne over the Host appeared, with the
incense-bearers walking backward before it and swinging out faint
clouds of smoke: the voices of the choir grew audible, singing the
_Pange lingua_, and everybody knelt. In a few minutes all was over.

There was a fair in connection with this feast, the most notable part
of which was dishes of all sorts set on tables or spread on the grass
of the pleasant piazza of St. Peter's, the Benedictine church, with no
roof over but the sky. The brown and yellow-green earthenware for
kitchen use would have delighted any housekeeper. We bought some tiny
saucepans with covers, and capable of holding a small teacupful, for a
cent each. Italian housekeepers make great use of earthen saucepans and
jars for cooking. One scarcely ever sees tin - iron almost never. In
rich houses copper is much used, but brown ware is seen everywhere.

The next notable festa, and the great feast of Asisi, is the Pardon,
called variously the Pardon of Asisi, the Pardon of St. Francis and the
Porziuncola.

In the old times, and particularly when this indulgence could be
obtained only in Asisi, the concourse of people was so great that there
were not roofs to cover them, and many slept in the open air. But since
the favor has been extended to other churches, as well as from other
reasons, the number is greatly diminished, and consists chiefly of
people in _villeggiatura_ near by and of a few hundred Neapolitan
peasants, who with undiminished fervor come to obtain the Pardon, and
whose singular performance, called _gran ruota_ (the great wheel),
everybody goes to see.

The Catholic reader will know that this Pardon can be obtained only
from vespers of the first to vespers of the second day of August, and
that while in every other church communion is a necessary condition, it
is sufficient to merely pass through the chapel of the Porziuncola, for
which St. Francis obtained the indulgence from Pope Honorius.

There is a large fair in connection with this festa - merchandise of all
sorts in the piazza and corso, and a cattle-fair in the upper part of
the town. The long white road stretching from Asisi to Santa Maria
degli Angeli in the plain was quite black with _contadini_ coming up
with their goods in the early dawn, and a sound of hoofs and of many
feet told that the procession was passing the house. There were carts
full of produce, men leading white and dove-colored cattle, and women
with large round baskets on their heads. These baskets contained live
fowl. In one a large melancholy turkey meditated on his approaching
fate: in another, two of lighter disposition swung their long necks
about and viewed the scene. One of these baskets was as pretty as the
blackbird pie of famous memory. In it sat eight chickens of an age to
make their début on the platter, all settled into a fluffy, soft-gray
cushion, out of which their little heads and necks and half-raised
wings peeped and turned and fluttered in a manner that testified to the
agitation of their spirits. The woman carrying this basket would have
made a pretty caryatid, chickens and all, so straight was she, so
robust her shoulders and so full and regular the oval of her face.

The cattle were superb - some immensely large, others delicately small,
and all with such long, slim, pointed horns as made one shrink. Those
strong, high-lifted heads carried their weapons like unsheathed
scymitars. Red cords were twined across their foreheads from horn to
horn, and red tassels swung beside their faces. This procession passed
in almost entire silence, with only a pattering of hoofs that sounded
like heavy rain.

Presently appeared a light wagon in which sat alone a large fleshy
woman, who had quite the expression of one making a triumphal entry
into the city. Her black hair was elaborately dressed in braids
fastened with gold pins and in short curls on the forehead, and was
lightly covered with a black lace veil. Her dress was a sky-blue silk,
with a lace shawl carefully draped over the wide shoulders. Her hands
were loaded with rings and her neck with gold chains, and a large
medallion swung over two large brooches. There was a smile of conscious
superiority on her coarsely-handsome face as she glanced over the
contadini, who humbly made way for her. A small, meek, well-dressed man
who walked beside the wagon seemed to be the proprietor of its
occupant, and to be somewhat oppressed by his good fortune. There was
no room for him in the wagon. It occurred to me that this might be an
avatar of the old woman of Banbury Cross.

The crowd thinned away like rain that from a heavy shower falls only in
scattered drops, and I was about turning from the window when my eyes
fell upon a beautiful bit of color across the way, standing out, as so
much Italian color does, against the background of a gray stone wall.
It was an odd, slim cone, something over five feet high, made of grass
and clover sprinkled through with burning poppies. I was just thinking
that this verdure must be fastened to a pole set into the ground when
it began to move. The fresh, long grass waved, the poppies glowed like
live coals when blown upon, two slim brown feet and ankles appeared
under the green fringe, and the dimpled elbow of a slim brown arm
peeped out above. Nothing else human was visible as this figure walked
away up the street toward the fair. Poor Ruth! She had neither cows,
pigs nor chickens, but she came with such riches as she could glean at
the roadside from bountiful Nature, clothed and covered from the top of
her invisible head down to her well-turned ankles in a garment as fair
as fancy could weave.

Later, Count B - - came to take me to the cattle-fair, where we found
the upper piazza all a drift of shaded snow at one side with cows and
oxen, and at the other a shining chestnut-color with horses and
donkeys. We walked among these creatures, my companion warding away
from me their long horns and telling me some little items of bovine
character which may be known the world over, but which were new to me.
Some cattle are women-haters, he said, and in a country where women
have so much to do with the cattle that was a great defect. The buyer
detected the flaw in this way: he passed his hand slowly down the
creature's back from the neck to the tail: then a woman would do the
same. If the animal made any difference between the two or looked round
at the woman, he would not buy. They try them also when they are eating
in the stall. If the animal looks round when it is eating at the person
who is approaching, it is ill-natured.

We went then to see the old theatre, where plays used to be performed
on great occasions. It was a large circle of stone wall, a miniature of
the old amphi-theatre of the Roman Forum, with the sky for a roof. But
now a vegetable-garden grows where the spectacle once was seen, and
along the walls where the audience sat and gazed deep-hued wallflowers
bloom and delicate jasmine-vines hang out their white stars.

Farther on is an old city-gate, which, unfortunately, was to be torn
down to make way for a new road. Those gates are veritable pictures,
with their beautiful round arches and the niche with its fresco
underneath. This porta preserved perfectly in the crimson stone the
smooth slide down which the suspended gate slipped at night or in times
of danger.

Returning through the piazza, I saw the balcony of a public building
draped with red satin, and a flag hung out in it. While this flag was
out, Count B - - said, no creature which was sold could be returned to
the seller, no matter what flaw might be discovered in it after the
bargain was concluded. It was then the time to get rid of women-hating
cows and oxen and "made-up" horses.

In the afternoon we went to the church of St. Francis to see the
_piccola ruota_ of the Neapolitan peasants, which is apparently a
rehearsal for the _gran ruota_ to be performed in the Porziuncola the
day following. These people were all gone, when we reached the church,
to follow a relic-bearing procession of Franciscans to the little
chapel built over the spot where St. Francis was born, and the
spectators took advantage of the opportunity to range themselves about
the walls and wherever they could find places. We were scarcely in the
seats offered us in the choir when a murmur of subdued exclamations, a
trampling of many feet and a cloud of dust that filled the vestibule
announced the return of the procession. The gates of the iron grating
which shut off the chancel and transepts from the nave were opened to
admit the monks with their relic, and closed immediately to exclude the
crowd. After the short function was ended they were again opened, and
the crowd rushed in and began to run around the altar.

These people were all poor: many were old and had to be held up and
helped along by a younger person at either side. The women wore
handkerchiefs on their heads, and many wore those sandals made of a
piece of leather tied up over the foot with strings which give these
peasants their popular name of _sciusciari_, an imitative word derived
from the scuffling sound of the sandals in walking. They hurried
eagerly on, hustling each other, murmuring prayers and ejaculations,
and seemed quite unconscious of the crowd of persons who had come there
to stare, perhaps to laugh, at them. The Asisinati looked on without
taking any part, and with a curiosity not unmingled with contempt. "The
Neapolitans are so material!" they say.

These repeated circlings of the altar, I was told, are intended as so
many visits, each time they go round having the value of a visit. Many
of these people seek the Pardon not only for themselves, but for
friends who are unable to come. The absent confess and communicate at
their parish church at home, and unite their intention with that of the
person who makes the visit for them.

My _padrona di casa_ told me an anecdote in illustration of this
materialism of the Neapolitans, which the Asisinati are anxious not to
be thought to share: On the first of August several years before, she
said, when the church of St. Francis was full of people waiting around
the confessionals, a man at one of them was observed to be disputing
with the priest inside. Pressed so closely as they were, many might
excuse themselves for being aware that the penitent was refusing to
agree to the penance imposed by the priest, who consequently declined
to give him absolution. The priest cut the dispute short by closing the
wicket and addressing himself to the penitent at the other side. The
man left his place and wandered disconsolately about the church,
followed by many curious eyes, for not to listen in silent submission
to the penance imposed by the priest is a rare scandal. After a while
he seemed to have resolved on a compromise, but it was no longer
possible to obtain his place in advance of the crowd, where each one
waited his turn. He took a post, therefore, directly opposite the front
of the confessional, as near as he could get, but with half the width
of the nave between, and waited till the priest should be visible. The
moment came when the confessor, turning from one penitent to another,
was seen from the front. The man leaned eagerly forward, and throwing
out his right hand with three fingers extended, as if playing _morra_,
called out, "Quello del casotiello, volete farlo per tre?" ("You in the
confessional there, will you do it for three?") (These peasants call
the confessional _casotiello_.) Whether the bargain related to a number
of prayers to be said, a number of visits or of masses, does not
concern us.

The next afternoon we went down to Santa Maria degli Angeli in the
plain, the very penetralia of the Pardon. Those who have visited this
church know that the little chapel of the Porziuncola, which is
enclosed in its midst like the heart in a body, has two doors - one at
the lower end, the other at the upper right corner. It is very dim
except when its altar is blazing with candles and its hanging lamps
lighted. As we have already said, a visit to this chapel or merely
passing through it, for a person who has confessed, satisfies the
outward conditions of the Pardon.

In the gran ruota which we were about to witness the Neapolitans
entered in an unbroken line at the lower door, passed out without
stopping at the upper, ran down the side-aisle of the church and out of
the door, in again at the great door, up the nave, and again through
the chapel, repeating this over and over for fifteen or twenty minutes.
While they make the wheel no one else enters the chapel: all are
spectators.

It was for these poor people the supreme moment. They had come from
afar at an expense which they could ill afford; they had endured
fatigue, perhaps hunger; and they had been mocked at. But, so far, they
had accomplished their task. They had confessed their sins with all the
fervor and sincerity of which they were capable, had visited the
birthplace, the home, the basilica and the distant mountain-retreat of
St. Francis, and they had gathered the miraculous yellow fennel-flowers
of the mountain. Now they were to receive the Pardon. The chains of
hell had fallen from them in confession: at the moment of entering the
chapel the bonds of Purgatory would also be loosened, and if they
should drop dead there, or die before having committed another sin,
they would fly straight to heaven as larks into the morning sky. No
passing from a miserable present to a miserable Purgatory, but
unimaginable bliss in an instant. Their ideal bliss might not be the
highest which the human mind is capable of conceiving, but it was the
highest that they could conceive, and their souls strained blindly
upward to that point where imagination faints against the thrilling
cord with which the body holds the spirit in tether. To these people
heaven was not a mere theological expression, a vague place which might
or might not be: it was as real as the bay and the sky of Naples and
the smoking volcano that nursed for ever their sense of unknown
terrors. It was as real as the poppies in their grass and the oranges
ripening on their trees. Maria Santissima, in her white robe and the
blue mantle where they could count the creases, was there, with ever
the vision of a Babe in her arms, and Gesù, the arms of whose cross
should fall into folds of a glorious garment about his naked crucified
form, in sleeves to his hands, in folds about his feet and raised into
a crown about his head. Into this blessed company no earthly pain could
enter to destroy their delights. Cold and hunger and the dagger's point
could never find them more, nor sickness rack them, nor betrayal set
their blood in a poisoned flame, nor earthquakes chill them with
terror. Lying in that heavenly sunshine, with fruit-laden boughs within
reach and heaps of gold beside them if they should wish for it, they
could laugh at Vesuvius licking in vain with its fiery tongue toward
them, and at the black clouds heavy with hail that would spread ruin
over the fields far away from these celestial vineyards and the waving
grain of Paradise.

Exalted by such visions, what to them were the gazing crowd and their
own rags and squalor? They entered the Porziuncola singing: they came
out at the side-door transfigured, and silent except for some
breathless "Maria!" or "Gesù!" Their arms were thrown upward, their
glowing black eyes were upraised, their thin swarthy faces burned with
a vivid scarlet, their white teeth glittered between the parted lips.
Round and round they went like a great water-wheel that revolves in sun
and shadow, and the spray it tossed up as it issued from the
Porziuncola was rapture, the fiery spray of the soul.

At last all remained outside the chapel, making two long lines from
either side the door down the nave to the open air, their faces ever
toward the chapel. Then they began to sing in voices as clear and sweet
as a chorus of birds. Not a harsh note was there. They sang some hymn
that had come down to them from other generations as the robins and the
bobo-links drop their songs down to future nestlings, and ever a
long-drawn note stretched bright and steady from one stanza to another.
So singing, they stepped slowly backward, always gazing steadily at the
lighted altar of the Porziuncola, visible through the door, and,
stepping backward and singing, they slowly drew themselves out of the
church, and the Pardon for them was over.

But though Asisi is not without its notable sights, the chief pleasures
there are quiet ones. A walk down through the olive trees to the dry
bed of the torrent Tescio will please one who is accustomed to rivers
which never leave their beds. One strays among the rocks and pebbles
that the rushing waters have brought down from the mountains, and
stands dryshod under the arches of the bridges, with something of the
feeling excited by visiting a deserted house; with the difference that
the Undine people are sure to come rushing down from the mountains
again some day. There one searches out charming little nooks which
would make the loveliest of pictures. There was one in the Via del
Terz' Ordine which was a sweet bit of color. Two rows of stone houses
facing on other streets turn their backs to this, and shade it to a
soft twilight, till it seems a corridor with a high blue ceiling rather
than a street. There it lies forgotten. No one passes through it or
looks into it. In one spot the tall houses are separated by a rod or so
of high garden-wall with an arch in the middle of it, and under the
arch is a door. Over this arch climbs a rose-vine with dropping
clusters of tiny pink roses that lean on the stone, hang down into the
shadow or lift and melt into the liquid, dazzling blue of the sky.
Except the roses and the sky all is a gray shadow. It reminds one of
some lovely picture of the Madonna with clustering cherub faces about
her head, and you think it would not be discordant with the scene if a
miraculous figure should steal into sight under that arch. It is one of
the charms of Italy that it can always fitly frame whatever picture
your imagination may paint.

One finds a pleasant and cultivated society there too. One of my most
highly-esteemed visitors was the _canonico priore_ of the cathedral,
whose father had been an officer in the guard of the First Napoleon. A


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Online LibraryVariousLippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science Volume 26, September, 1880 → online text (page 8 of 20)