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William Denison McCrackan.

The spell of the Italian lakes, being the record of pilgrimages to familiar and unfamiliar places of the lakes of azure, lakes of leisure, together with a description of their quaint towns and villa gardens, and the treasures of their art and history online

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Online LibraryWilliam Denison McCrackanThe spell of the Italian lakes, being the record of pilgrimages to familiar and unfamiliar places of the lakes of azure, lakes of leisure, together with a description of their quaint towns and villa gardens, and the treasures of their art and history → online text (page 8 of 17)
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sparkle, colour, and joyousness, and an at-
mosphere redolent with the scent of peren-
nial spring. Its delights constitute a perma-
nent possession, a part of mankind's stock
in trade of terrestrial romance. Its praises
are sung in distant lands, by foreign fire-
sides, and it has gathered for itself a veri-
table constituency of appreciators from
among those who love that peculiar classic
blending of nature and art, in which the
Italians are past masters.

Many travellers catch their first glimpse
of the city of Como from the high-lying St.
Gothard R. R. station. They look down
into a charming water basin, a snug little
pocket, shut in by steep slopes and bordered

149



The Italian Lakes

by white houses. From up there the place
looks as though prepared for a siege, with
its four gates and remains of walls. Water
and mountains are seen to be brought into
close contact and intimate relations, pro-
ducing a particularly cosy effect. The slopes
begin with a few vineyards and olive-trees
and top off with forests of chestnut and wal-
nut; their sides are well sprinkled with Ital-
ian villas in the customary white, yellow, or
pink, perched on terraces. On the summit
of the abrupt slope which overlooks Como
on the east stands the Grand Hotel Brunate,
reached by a cable road which has gashed
a deep white line upon the green. But a
carriage road also rises to the hotel on a
gentle incline. Due north looms Monte Bis-
bino with a white church, and south the
Baradello tower, a relic of the Visconti and
Sforza days and a landmark of modern
Como.

Descending into the city proper, we find
the shore-front of Como lined with women
in clusters kneeling to do the family wash-
ing, scrubbing and pounding their linen vig-
orously and loquaciously. By their sides
lie glistening bundles of their work well
done. Sharp-prowed boats are pulled up on

150



The City of Como

the paved slant of the shore. Canvas awn-
ings lighten up the scene. Carts, drawn by
cream-coloured oxen and laden with wood
or lime, crawl slowly along the quay, or a
carriage with men in livery from one of
the handsome villas goes by at a trot.

Como, the Roman Comum, is the most
populous of the cities directly upon any of
the Italian lakes. It is easily the most im-
portant from the standpoint of art and indus-
try, and has quite a through trade with
Switzerland. Its cathedral and its silk in-
dustry are both widely known, each for its
own excellence, and during the course of its
long history it has given the world a number
of famous men, such as the two Plinies from
Roman times and, in modern times, Volta,
the electrician. The city, as a sightseeing
centre, clusters very largely around the Pi-
azza Cavour, where most of the hotels stand,
and extends into the near-by cathedral square.
On the water-front there is a public garden
with lake baths; a jetty has been pleasantly
prolonged into the open water to form a con-
venient harbour; there is a steamboat pier
and a quay which serves the purpose of a
promenade. Como also has a second rail-



The Italian Lakes

road station for the lines running by Sa-
ronno to Milan and by Varese to Laveno.

A stroll through the streets assures us at
once that we are in a warm-weather city.
The architecture is adapted to shade and
shelter from the rays of the sun. There are
interior courts, arcades, loggias, and floors
of rough stone or mosaic. Many little ways
and means indicate a desire to let the air
circulate; little stands like great chess-
pawns, or stuffed cushions and bolsters are
used to keep doors ajar. Should you make
your entry into Como by landing at the pier,
an interesting view awaits you at once across
the Piazza Cavour, up a narrow street, to
where gleam the fine fagade and dome of
the cathedral and a curious adjoining tower
of rough stone.

The cathedral of Como ranks third among
the Gothic structures of Italy, if the cathe-
dral of Milan be counted first and the Cer-
tosa at Pavia second. It is in the form of
a Latin cross. Originally begun in the
Gothic style in 1396, it was transformed and
enlarged by changes and additions in Renais-
sance style executed by Tommaso Rodari
and his brother Giacomo in 1487 to 1526.
These sculptor-architects were natives of

152






The City of Como

Maroggia on Lake Lugano. The result of
their work was to make this cathedral a
masterly example of " the fusion of Gothic
and Renaissance styles, both of good type
and exquisite in their sobriety," as John
Addington Symonds informs us in his
" Sketches in Italy." On either side of the
main portal are statues of the two Plinies,
seated under canopies. A relief shows the
elder, the naturalist, studying Vesuvius in
eruption; another shows the younger, the
author, kneeling to his patron and friend,
the Emperor Trajan. Within the cathedral
are noted paintings by Luini and Ferrari,
greatly prized by connoisseurs. A side por-
tal goes by the name of the porta delta rana,
on account of a frog watching a butterfly
which is carved there.

In strange contrast to the polished cathe-
dral is the curiously gay Broletto, or town
hall, which adjoins, and is built in stripes
of black and white marble with a few
patches of red. It was finished in 1215,
according to an inscription, and stands on
fine arches, under whose kindly shelter a
fruit and vegetable market has long been in-
stalled. At present the building is used as
a record office, but at one time it was the

153



The Italian Lakes

centre of the municipal life of Como, and
is still graced by a balcony for public ad-
dresses, appropriately called the parlera.
The people assembled below in parliamento,
hence the modern word parliament. A
rough-looking tower and a great ring in the
wall are suggestive of prison punishment and
clanking chains. Indeed the history of the
city of Como has been in general an agitated
one.

Its situation at the head of the principal
arm of the lake caused it to attain some im-
portance even under the Roman dominion.
Indeed it was originally settled by a Greek
colony, hence its Greek name Kome or city.
It weathered the period of the Longobards,
the Carolingian era, and struggled bravely
to maintain municipal independence. Como
passed through a period of almost constant
warring with rivals, especially with Milan
and Bergamo. Frederic Barbarossa and his
empress once lodged in the castle Baradello.
There was a period of peaceful development
under Visconti rule. Two native families,
the Vitani and Rusca, through their partisans
fought for centuries for control of the city,
alternately winning and losing, and under
the Sforza sovereignty Como suffered se-

154



The City of Como

verely from wars in which that family was
involved. The city changed hands several
times, coming later under Spanish and Aus-
trian dominion. It took a prominent part
in the Italian wars of independence and
unity from first to last. The scene of Gari-
baldi's famous entry into Como after his
victory over the Austrians at San Fermo is
the Porta delle Torre, now called the Porta
Vittoria, near which stands a statue of the
great leader.

In September a local rowing regatta is
held which presents a striking feature not
seen outside of Italy, and worthy of the at-
tention of sportsmen from other lands. From
the gondoliers of Venice the Italian oarsmen
of the lakes have learned to row and race
their shells standing. The outriggers rise
high above the hull, and are securely braced
to withstand the pressure. The effect is
exceedingly fine and bold. The rower faces
the bow of the boat; one leg is placed well
forward of the other, the chest is out, and
the weight of the whole body is thrown into
the thrust forward. It would seem that
great skill must be used in balancing these
frail-looking boats under such conditions,



The Italian Lakes

and in feathering the oars properly. " Catch-
ing a crab " would surely mean a spill.

And what noble auspices for the races. A
continuous series of villas line the western
shore of the lake. The water glistens and
sparkles. The colours come and go, and off
to the north a little cloud on Monte Bisbino,
the mountain which acts as weather prophet
for this greatly blessed bay, reminds us of
the popular saying in Como:

' Sf Bisbin mette il capello
Corri a prendere il mantello."

'* When Bisbin puts on its cap
Do you run to take your coat."



156



CHAPTER XV

SOME COMO CELEBRITIES: PLINY THE ELDER,
PLINY THE YOUNGER, ALESSANDRO VOLTA

Pliny the Elder

OF the two Plinies, whose statues have al-
ready been mentioned as adorning the fagade
of the Como cathedral, the elder was named
Caius Plinius Secundus, and the younger, his
nephew, Caius Caecilius Secundus. The
former is known for his monumental " Nat-
ural History" (Naturalis Historia) in thirty-
seven books ; the latter for his charming and
often valuable " Letters." They were both
natives of the Roman Comum (Como).

Pliny the Elder saw much military and
legal service in the Roman state, but his
fame rests rather upon his capabilities as a
student of natural phenomena and as an in-
dustrious compiler of physical facts. In his
" Natural History," which has come down
to us almost complete, he tabulated observa-

157



The Italian Lakes

tions and discoursed upon the stars and the
earth, upon earthquakes, upon man, wild
beasts, and domesticated animals, upon trees,
fruits, the precious metals and precious
stones, the art of painting, etc. He displayed
extraordinary versatility and tireless indus-
try in his researches.

His actual achievements as citizen and
naturalist were, moreover, crowned by his
personal investigation of the great eruption
of Vesuvius in 79 A. D., in which catastrophe
he lost his life. He was at the time in com-
mand of the Roman fleet at Misenum.
Among the " Letters " of his nephew are two
relating to this historic eruption, one de-
scribing his maternal uncle's movements and
their sad consequence, and the other his own
impressions and experiences and those of his
mother during those trying days. These two
letters acquire an added interest from the
fact that they were written to the famous
historian, Cornelius Tacitus, at the latter's
special request. In Book vi., 16, of the
" Letters " we read :

" Your request that I would send you an
account of my uncle's death, in order to
transmit a more exact relation of it to pos-
terity, deserves my acknowledgment; for, if

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Pliny the Elder

this accident shall be celebrated by your pen,
the glory of it, I am well assured, will be
rendered for ever illustrious, and notwith-
standing he perished by a misfortune, which,
as it involved at the same time a most beau-
tiful country in ruins, and destroyed so many
populous cities, seems to promise him an
everlasting remembrance; notwithstanding
he has himself composed many and lasting
works; yet I am persuaded, the mentioning
of him in your immortal writings will greatly
contribute to render his name immortal. . . .
He was at that time with the fleet under his
command at Misenum. On the 24th of
August, about one in the forenoon, my
mother desired him to observe a cloud which
appeared of a very unusual size and shape.
He had just taken a turn in the sun, and
after bathing himself in cold water, and
making a light luncheon, gone back to his
books: he immediately arose and went out
upon a rising ground, from whence he might
get a better sight of this very uncommon
appearance. A cloud, from which mountain
was uncertain, at this distance (but it was
found afterward to come from Mount Vesu-
vius) was ascending, the appearance of
which I cannot give you a more exact de-

159



The Italian Lakes

icription of than by likening it to that of a
pine-tree, for it shot up to a great height in
the form of a very tall trunk, which spread
itself out at the top into a sort of branches;
occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden
gust of air that impelled it, the force of
which decreased as it advanced upwards,
or the cloud itself being pressed back again
by its own weight, expanded in the manner
I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes
bright and sometimes dark and spotted, ac-
cording as it was either more or less impreg-
nated with earth and cinders. This phe-
nomenon seemed to a man of such learning
and research as my uncle extraordinary and
worth further looking into. He ordered a
light vessel to be got ready, and gave me
leave, if I liked, to accompany him. I said
I had rather go on with my work; and it
so happened he had himself given me some-
thing to write out. As he was coming out
of the house, he received a note from Rec-
tina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the ut-
most alarm at the imminent danger which
threatened her; for her villa lying at the
foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way
of escape but by sea; she earnestly entreated
him therefore to come to her assistance. He

160



Pliny the Elder

accordingly changed his first intention, and
what he had begun from a philosophical,
he now carried out in a noble and generous,
spirit. He ordered the galleys to put to sea,
and went himself on board with an inten-
tion of assisting not only Rectina, but the
several other towns which lay thickly strewn
along that beautiful coast. Hastening then
to the place from whence others fled with the
utmost terror, he steered his course direct
to the point of danger, and with so much
calmness and presence of mind as to be able
to make and dictate his observations upon
the motion and all the phenomena of that
dreadful scene. He was now so close to
the mountain that the cinders, which grew
thicker and hotter the nearer he approached,
fell into the ships, together with pumice-
stones and black pieces of burning rock:
they were in danger, too, not only of being
aground by the sudden retreat of the sea,
but also from the vast fragments which
rolled down from the mountain and ob-
structed all the shore. Here he stopped to
consider whether he should turn back again;
to which the pilot advising him, ' Fortune/
said he, ' favours the brave ; steer to where
Pomponianus is.' Pomponianus was then at

161



The Italian Lakes

Stabiae [modern Castellamare], separated by
a bay, which the sea, after several insensi-
ble windings, forms with the shore. He had
already sent his baggage on board; for
though he was not at that time in actual
danger, yet being within sight of it, and
indeed extremely near, if it should in the
least increase, he was determined to put to
sea as soon as the wind, which was blowing
dead inshore, should go down. It was fa-
vourable, however, for carrying my uncle
to Pomponianus, whom he found in the
greatest consternation: he embraced him
tenderly, encouraging and urging him to
keep up his spirits, and, the more effectually
to soothe his fears by seeming unconcerned
himself, ordered a bath to be got ready, and
then, after having bathed, sat down to sup-
per with great cheerfulness, or at least (what
is just as heroic) with every appearance of
it. Meanwhile broad flames shone out in
several places from Mount Vesuvius, which
the darkness of night contributed to render
still brighter and clearer."

The account goes on to state that Pliny
then went to bed and slept soundly, until
the stones and ashes were so deep that a
decision had to be taken to escape. The

162



Pliny the Younger

party finally decided to tie pillows over
their heads and ventured forth, but down
at the shore they found the waves still run-
ning too high to permit them to embark.
There Pliny lay down upon a sail-cloth.
At this juncture flames, preceded by a strong
whiff of sulphur, dispersed the party, and
Pliny was apparently suffocated by the nox-
ious fumes.

In his other letter to Tacitus, Pliny the
Younger gives a dramatic recital of his own
feelings and those of his mother at Misenum,
while waiting in vain for his uncle's return,
and wandering about in the phenomenal
darkness. The mother and son both fortu-
nately escaped unhurt.

Pliny the Younger

As revealed by his " Letters " and by the
facts of his career, the younger Pliny was
an excellent type of a public-spirited Roman
gentleman, having considerable administra-
tive and literary talent. Like his uncle, he
belonged to the nobility of the Roman Co-
mum (Como), where he was born in 61 or
62 A. D. His father died while he was still
a boy, and he was placed under the guardi-

163



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anship of Verginius Rufus. He was sent to
Rome to finish his studies ; became a pleader
in the Roman courts; and rose steadily in
the service of the state, through various
positions of trust and preferment. He was
made a member of the Senate, and by steady
advancement a military tribune, a quaestor,
prastor, praefect, and consul. He saw serv-
ice in Syria and as imperial legate in Bi-
thynia and Pontica. His famous book of
" Letters " consists of a selection which he
made from his correspondence with his
friends. Besides the letters to Tacitus already
mentioned, unique value attaches to Pliny's
correspondence with his friend, the Emperor
Trajan, upon the subject of the Christians.
This correspondence is considered of para-
mount value as historic evidence of the con-
dition of the Christians toward the end of
the first century and of the peculiar official
Roman point of view toward a supposedly
incomprehensible sect which was making
great headway. Pliny's inquiry of Trajan
and the latter's reply are here appended.
In Book x., 97, we read :

" It is my invariable rule, sir, to refer to
you in all matters where I feel doubtful;
for who is more capable of removing my

164



Pliny the Younger

scruples, or informing my ignorance? Hav-
ing never been present at any trials concern-
ing those who profess Christianity, I am
unacquainted not only with the nature of
their crimes, or the measure of their punish-
ment, but how far it is proper to enter into
an examination concerning them. Whether,
therefore, any difference is usually made
with respect to ages, or no distinction is to
be made between the young and the adult;
whether repentance entitles them to a par-
don, or, if a man has been once a Christian,
it avails nothing to desist from his error;
whether the very profession of Christianity,
unattended with any criminal act, or only
the crimes themselves inherent in the pro-
fession are punishable; on all these points
I am in great doubt. In the meanwhile, the
method I have observed toward those who
have been brought before me as Christians
is this: I asked them whether they were
Christians; if they admitted it, I repeated
the question twice, and threatened them with
punishment; if they persisted, I ordered
them to be at once punished: for I was per-
suaded, whatever the nature of their opinions
might be, a contumacious and inflexible ob-
stinacy certainly deserved correction. There

165



The Italian Lakes

were others also brought before me possessed
with the same infatuation, but being Roman
citizens, I directed them to be sent to Rome.
But this crime spreading (as is usually the
case) while it was actually under prosecu-
tion, several instances of the same nature
occurred. An anonymous information was
laid before me, containing a charge against
several persons, who upon examination de-
nied they were Christians, or had ever been
so. They repeated after me an invocation
to the gods, and offered religious rites with
wine and incense before your statue (which
for that purpose I had ordered to be brought,
together with those of the gods), and even
reviled the name of Christ: whereas there
is no forcing, it is said, those who are really
Christians into any of these compliances. I
thought it proper to discharge them. Some
among those who were accused by a witness
in person at first confessed themselves Chris-
tians, but immediately after denied it. The
rest owned indeed that they had been of
that number formerly, but had now (some
above three, others more, and a few above
twenty years) renounced that error. They
also worshipped your statue and the image
of the gods, uttering imprecations at the

166



Pliny the Younger

same time against the name of Christ. They
affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their
error, was that they met on a stated day
before it was light, and addressed a form
of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, bind-
ing themselves by a solemn oath, not for the
purpose of any wicked design, but never to
commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never
to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when
they should be called upon to deliver it up;
after which it was their custom to separate,
and then reassemble, to eat in common a
harmless meal. From this custom, however,
they desisted after the publication of my
edict, by which, according to your com-
mands, I forbade the meeting of any assem-
blies. After receiving this account, I judged
it so much the more necessary to endeavour
to extort the real truth, by putting two fe-
male slaves to the torture, who were said to
officiate in their religious rites; but all I
could discover was evidence of an absurd
and extravagant superstition. I deemed it
expedient, therefore, to adjourn all further
proceedings, in order to consult you. For
it appears to be a matter highly deserving
your consideration, more especially as great
numbers must be involved in the danger of

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The Italian Lakes

those prosecutions, which have already ex-
tended, and are still likely to extend, to per-
sons of all ranks and ages, and even of both
sexes. In fact, this contagious superstition
is not confined to the cities only, but has
spread its infection among the neighbouring
villages and country. Nevertheless, it still
seems possible to restrain its progress. The
temples, at least, which were once almost de-
serted, begin now to be frequented; and the
sacred rites, after a long intermission, are
again revived; while there is a general de-
mand for victims, which till lately found
very few purchasers. From all this it is
easy to conjecture what numbers might be
reclaimed if a general pardon were granted
to those who shall repent of their error."
To this letter Trajan replied, Book x., 98 :
" You have adopted the right course, my
dearest Secundus, in investigating the charges
against the Christians who were brought be-
fore you. It is not possible to lay down any
general rule for all such cases. Do not go
out of your way to look for them. If indeed
they should be brought before you, and the
crime is proved, they must be punished;
with the restriction, however, that where the
party denies he is a Christian, and shall

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Pliny the Younger

make it evident that he is not, by invoking
our gods, let him (notwithstanding any
former suspicion) be pardoned upon his
repentance. Anonymous informations ought
not to be received in any sort of prosecution.
It is introducing a very dangerous precedent,
and is quite foreign to the spirit of our age."

Pliny the Younger inherited considerable
property on and near Lake Como, both from
his father's and mother's families. In Book
ix., 7, of his " Letters " he writes to Ro-
manus:

" I have several villas upon the borders
of this lake, but there are two particularly
in which, as I take most delight, so they give
me most employment. They are both sit-
uated like those at Baiae: one of them stands
upon a rock, and overlooks the lake, the
other actually touches it. The first, sup-
ported as it were by the lofty buskin, I call
my tragic; the other, as resting upon the
humble sock, my comic villa. Each has its
own peculiar charm, recommending it to
its possessor so much more on account of
this very difference. The former commands
a wider, the latter enjoys a nearer view of
the lake. One, by a gentle curve, embraces
a little bay; the other, being built upon a

169



The Italian Lakes

greater height, forms two. Here you have
a strait walk extending itself along the banks
of the lake; there a spacious terrace that
falls by a gentle descent toward it. The
former does not feel the force of the waves;
the latter breaks them; from that you see
the fishing-vessels; from this you may fish
yourself, and throw your line out of your
room, and almost from your bed, as from off
a boat. It is the beauties, therefore, these
agreeable villas possess that tempt me to add
to them those which are wanting."

Various attempts have been made to find
the sites of these two villas of Pliny, play-
fully compared to the lofty and low cothur-
nus and soccus of the tragic and comic actors


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Online LibraryWilliam Denison McCrackanThe spell of the Italian lakes, being the record of pilgrimages to familiar and unfamiliar places of the lakes of azure, lakes of leisure, together with a description of their quaint towns and villa gardens, and the treasures of their art and history → online text (page 8 of 17)