Tuscan Midsummer Magic
Stefano Zocca: The Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca, Bologna, 2020 (Unsplash)
by Vernon Lee
“Then,” I said, “you decline to tell me about the Three Kings, when their procession wound round and round these hillocks: all the little wooden horses with golden bridles and velvet holsters, out of the toy boxes; and the camelopard, and the monkeys and the lynx, and the little doll pages blowing toy trumpets. And still, I know it happened here, because I recognise the place from the pictures: the hillocks all washed away into breasts like those of Diana of the Ephesians, and the rows of cypresses and spruce pines—also out of the toy box. I know it happened in this very place, because Benozzo Gozzoli painted it all at the time; and you were already about the place, I presume?”
I knew that by her dress, but I did not like to allude to its being old-fashioned. It was the sort of thing, muslin all embroidered with little nosegays of myrtle and yellow broom, and tied into odd bunches at the elbows and waist, which they wore in the days of Botticelli’s Spring; and on her head she had a garland of eglantine and palm-shaped hellebore leaves which was quite unmistakable.
The nymph Terzollina (for of course she was the tutelary divinity of the narrow valley behind the great Medicean Villa) merely shook her head and shifted one of her bare feet, on which she was seated under a cypress tree, and went on threading the yellow broom flowers.
“At all events, you might tell me something about the Magnificent Lorenzo,” I went on, impatient at her obstinacy. “You know quite well that he used to come and court you here, and make verses most likely.”
The exasperating goddess raised her thin, brown face, with the sharp squirrel’s teeth and the glittering goat’s eyes. Very pretty I thought her, though undoubtedly a little passée, like all the symbolical ladies of her set. She plucked at a clump of dry peppermint, perfuming the hot air as she crushed it, and then looked up, with a sly, shy little peasant-girl’s look, which was absurd in a lady so mature and so elaborately adorned. Then, in a crooning voice, she began to recite some stanzas in ottava rima, as follows:
“The house where the good old Knight Gualando hid away the little Princess, was itself hidden in this hidden valley. It was small and quite white, with great iron bars to the windows. In front was a long piece of greensward, starred with white clover, and behind and in front, to where the pines and cypresses began ran strips of cornfield. It was remote from all the pomps of life; and when the cuckoo had become silent and the nightingales had cracked their voices, the only sound was the coo of the wood-pigeons, the babble of the stream, and the twitter of the young larks.
“The old Knight Gualando had hidden his bright armour in an oaken chest; and went to the distant town every day dressed in the blue smock of a peasant, and driving a donkey before him. Thence he returned with delicates for the little Princess and with news of the wicked usurper; nor did any one suspect who he was, or dream of his hiding-place.
“During his absence the little Princess, whose name was Fiordispina, used to string beads through the hot hours when the sun smote through the trees, and the green corn ridges began to take a faint gilding in their silveriness, as the Princess remembered it in a picture in the Castle Chapel, where the sun was represented by a big embossed ball of gold, projecting from the picture, which she was allowed to stroke on holidays.
“In the evening, when the sky turned pearl white, and a breeze rustled through the pines and cypresses which made a little black fringe on the hill-top and a little patch of feathery velvet pile on the slopes, the little Princess would come forth, and ramble about in her peasant’s frock, her fair face stained browner by the sun than by any walnut juice. She would climb the hill, and sniff the scent of the sun-warmed resin, and the sweetness of the yellow broom. It spread all over the hills, and the king, her father, had not possessed so many ells of cloth of gold.
“But one evening she wandered further than usual, and saw on a bank, at the edge of a cornfield, five big white lilies blowing. She went back home and fetched the golden scissors from her work-bag, and cut off one of the lilies. On the next day she came again and cut another until she had cut them all.
“But it happened that an old witch was staying in that neighbourhood, gathering herbs among the hills. She had taken note of the five lilies, because she disliked them on account of their being white; and she remarked that one of them had been cut off; then another, then another. She hated people who like lilies. When she found the fifth lily gone, she wondered greatly, and climbed on the ridge, and looked at their stalks where they were cut. She was a wise woman, who knew many things. So she laid her finger upon the cut stalk, and said, ‘This has not been cut with iron shears’; and she laid her lip against the cut stalk, and felt that it had been cut with gold shears, for gold cuts like nothing else.
“‘Oho!’ said the old witch—’where there are gold scissors, there must be gold work-bags; and where there are gold work-bags, there must be little Princesses.'”
“Well, and then?” I asked.
“Oh then, nothing at all,” answered the Nymph Terzollina beloved by the Magnificent Lorenzo, who had seen the procession of the Three Kings. “Good evening to you.”
And where her white muslin dress, embroidered with nosegays of broom and myrtle, had been spread on the dry grass and crushed mint, there was only, beneath the toy cypresses, a bush of white-starred myrtle and a tuft of belated yellow broom.
Sandro Botticelli, La Primavera (Spring), c. 1482
One must have leisure to converse with goddesses; and certainly, during a summer in Tuscany, when folk are scattered in their country houses, and are disinclined to move out of hammock or off shaded bench, there are not many other persons to talk with.
On the other hand, during those weeks of cloudless summer, natural objects vie with each other in giving one amateur representations. Things look their most unexpected, masquerade as other things, get queer unintelligible allegoric meanings, leaving you to guess what it all means, a constant dumb crambo of trees, flowers, animals, houses, and moonlight.
The moon, particularly, is continually en scène, as if to take the place of the fireflies, which last only so long as the corn is in the ear, gradually getting extinguished and trailing about, humble helpless moths with a pale phosphorescence in their tail, in the grass and in the curtains. The moon takes their place; the moon which, in an Italian summer, seems to be full for three weeks out of the four.
One evening the performance was given by the moon and the corn-sheaves, assisted by minor actors such as crickets, downy owls, and vine-garlands. The oats, which had been of such exquisite delicacy of green, had just been reaped in the field beyond our garden and were now stacked up. Suspecting one of the usual performances, I went after dinner to the upper garden-gate, and looked through the bars. There it was, the familiar, elemental witchery. The moon was nearly full, blurring the stars, steeping the sky and earth in pale blue mist, which seemed somehow to be the visible falling dew. It left a certain greenness to the broad grass path, a vague yellow to the unsickled wheat; and threw upon the sheaves of oats the shadows of festooned vine garlands. Those sheaves, or stooks—who can describe their metamorphose? Palest yellow on the pale stubbly ground, they were frosted by the moonbeams in their crisp fringe of ears, and in the shining straws projecting here and there. Straws, ears? You would never have guessed that they were made of anything so mundane. They sat there, propped against the trees, between the pools of light and the shadows, while the crickets trilled their cool, shrill song; sat solemnly with an air of expectation, calling to me, frightening me. And one in particular, with a great additional bunch on his head, cut by a shadow, was oddly unaccountable and terrible. After a minute I had to slink away, back into the garden, like an intruder.
There are performances also in broad daylight, and then human beings are admitted as supernumeraries. Such was a certain cattle fair, up the valley of the Mugnone.
The beasts were being sold on a piece of rough, freshly reaped ground, lying between the high road and the river bed, empty of waters, but full among its shingle of myrrh-scented yellow herbage. The oxen were mostly of the white Tuscan breeds (those of Romagna are smaller but more spirited, and of a delicate grey) only their thighs slightly browned; the scarlet cloth neck-fringes set off, like a garland of geranium, against the perfect milkiness of backs and necks. They looked, indeed, these gigantic creatures, as if moulded out of whipped cream or cream cheese; suggesting no strength, and even no resistance to the touch, with their smooth surface here and there packed into minute wrinkles, exactly like the little stracchini cheeses. This impalpable whiteness of the beasts suited their perfect tameness, passiveness, letting themselves be led about with great noiseless strides over the stubbly ridges and up the steep banks; and hustled together, flank against flank, horns interlaced with horns, without even a sound or movement of astonishment or disobedience. Never a low or a moo; never a glance round of their big, long-lashed, blue-brown eyes. Their big jaws move like millstones, their long tufted tails switch monotonously like pendulums.
Around them circle peasants, measuring them with the eye, prodding them with the finger, pulling them by the horns. And every now and then one of the red-faced men, butchers mainly, who act as go-betweens, dramatically throws his arms round the neck of some recalcitrant dealer or buyer, leads him aside, whispering with a gesture like Judas’s kiss; or he clasps together the red hands and arms of contracting parties, silencing their objections, forcing them to do business. The contrast is curious between these hot, excited, yelling, jostling human beings, above whose screaming Dio Canes! and Dio Ladros! the cry of the iced-water seller recurs monotonously and the silent, impassive bullocks, white, unreal, inaudible; so still and huge, indeed, that, seen from above, they look like an encampment, their white flanks like so much spread canvas in the sunshine. And from a little distance, against the hillside beyond the river, the already bought yokes of bullocks look, tethered in a grove of cypresses, like some old mediæval allegory—an allegory, as usual, nobody knows of what.
Another performance was that of the woods of Lecceto, and the hermitage of the same name. You will find them on the map of the district of Siena; but I doubt very much whether you will find them on the surface of the real globe, for I suspect them to be a piece of midsummer magic and nothing more. They had been for years to me among the number (we all have such) of things familiar but inaccessible; or rather things whose inaccessibility—due to no conceivable cause—is an essential quality of their existence. Every now and then from one of the hills you get a glimpse of the square red tower, massive and battlemented, rising among the grey of its ilexes, beckoning one across a ridge or two and a valley; then disappearing again, engulfed in the oak woods, green in summer, copper-coloured in winter; to reappear, but on the side you least expected it, plume of ilexes, battlements of tower, as you twisted along the high-lying vineyards and the clusters of umbrella pines fringing the hill-tops; and then, another minute and they were gone.
We determined to attain them, to be mocked no longer by Lecceto; and went forth on one endless July afternoon. After much twisting from hillside to hillside and valley to valley, we at last got into a country which was strange enough to secrete even Lecceto. In a narrow valley we were met by a scent, warm, delicious, familiar, which seemed to lead us (as perfumes we cannot identify will usually do) to ideas very hazy, but clear enough to be utterly inappropriate: English cottage-gardens, linen presses of old houses, old-fashioned sitting-rooms full of pots of pot-pourri; and then, behold, in front of us a hill covered every inch of it with flowering lavender, growing as heather does on the hills outside fairyland. And behind this lilac, sun-baked, scented hill, open the woods of ilexes. The trees were mostly young and with their summer upper garment of green, fresh leaves over the crackling old ones; trees packed close like a hedge, their every gap filled with other verdure, arbutus and hornbeam, fern and heather; the close-set greenery crammed, as it were, with freshness and solitude.
These must be the woods of Lecceto, and in their depths the red battlemented tower of the Hermitage. For I had forgotten to say that for a thousand years that tower had been the abode of a succession of holy personages, so holy and so like each other as to have almost grown into one, an immortal hermit whom Popes and Emperors would come to consult and be blessed by. Deeper and deeper therefore we made our way into the green coolness and dampness, the ineffable deliciousness of young leaf and uncurling fern; till it seemed as if the plantation were getting impenetrable, and we began to think that, as usual, Lecceto had mocked us, and would probably appear, if we retraced our steps, in the diametrically opposite direction. When suddenly, over the tree-tops, rose the square battlemented tower of red brick. Then, at a turn of the rough narrow lane, there was the whole place, the tower, a church and steeple, and some half-fortified buildings, in a wide clearing planted with olive trees. We tied our pony to an ilex and went to explore the Hermitage. But the building was enclosed round by walls and hedges, and the only entrance was by a stout gate armed with a knocker, behind which was apparently an outer yard and a high wall pierced only by a twisted iron balcony. So we knocked.
But that knocker was made only for Popes and Emperors walking about with their tiaras and crowns and sceptres, like the genuine Popes and Emperors of Italian folk-tales and of Pinturicchio’s frescoes; for no knocking of ours, accompanied by loud yells, could elicit an answer. It seemed simple enough to get in some other way; there must be peasants about at work, even supposing the holy hermit to have ceased to exist. But climbing walls and hurdles and squeezing between the close tight ilexes, brought us only to more walls, above which, as above the oak-woods from a distance, rose the inaccessible battlemented tower. And a small shepherdess, in a flapping Leghorn hat, herding black and white baby pigs in a neighbouring stubble-field under the olives, was no more able than we to break the spell of the Hermitage. And all round, for miles apparently, undulated the dense grey plumage of the ilex woods.
The low sun was turning the stubble orange, where the pigs were feeding; and the distant hills of the Maremma were growing very blue behind the olive trees. So, lest night should overtake us, we turned our pony’s head towards the city, and traversed the oak-woods and skirted the lavender hill, rather disbelieving in the reality of the place we had just been at, save when we saw its tower mock us, emerging again; an inaccessible, improbable place. The air was scented by the warm lavender of the hillsides; and by the pines forming a Japanese pattern, black upon the golden lacquer of the sky. Soon the moon rose, big and yellow, lighting very gradually the road in whose gloom you could vaguely see the yokes of white cattle returning from work. By the time we reached the city hill everything was steeped in a pale yellowish light, with queer yellowish shadows; and the tall tanneries glared out with their buttressed balconied top, exaggerated and alarming. Scrambling up the moonlit steep of Fonte Branda, and passing under a black arch, we found ourselves in the heart of the gaslit and crowded city, much as if we had been shot out of a cannon into another planet, and feeling that the Hermitage of Lecceto was absolutely apocryphal.
The reason of this midsummer magic—whose existence no legitimate descendant of Goths and Vandals and other early lovers of Italy can possibly deny—the reason is altogether beyond my philosophy. The only word which expresses the phenomenon is the German word, untranslatable, Bescheerung, a universal giving of gifts, lighting of candles, gilding of apples, manifestation of marvels, realisation of the desirable and improbable—to wit, a Christmas Tree. And Italy, which knows no Christmas trees, makes its Bescheerung in midsummer, gets rid of its tourist vulgarities, hides away the characteristics of its trivial nineteenth century, decks itself with magnolia blossoms and water-melons with awnings and street booths, with mandolins and guitars; spangles itself with church festivals and local pageants; and instead of wax-tapers and Chinese lanterns, lights up the biggest golden sun by day, the biggest silver moon by night, all for the benefit of a few childish descendants of Goths and Vandals.
Nonsense apart, I am inclined to think that the specific charm of Italy exists only during the hot months; the charm which gives one a little stab now and then and makes one say—”This is Italy.”
I felt that little stab, to which my heart had long become unused, at the beginning of this very summer in Tuscany, to which belong the above instances of Italian Midsummer Magic. I was spending the day at a small, but very ancient, Benedictine Monastery (it was a century old when St. Peter Igneus, according to the chronicle, went through his celebrated Ordeal by Fire), now turned into a farm, and hidden, battlemented walls and great gate towers, among the cornfields near the Arno. It came to me as the revival of an impression long forgotten, that overpowering sense that “This was Italy,” it recurred and recurred in those same three words, as I sat under the rose-hedge opposite the water-wheel shed, garlanded with drying pea-straw; and as I rambled through the chill vaults, redolent of old wine-vats, into the sudden sunshine and broad shadows of the cloistered yards.
That smell was mysteriously connected with it; the smell of wine-vats mingled, I fancy (though I could not say why), with the sweet faint smell of decaying plaster and wood-work. One night, as we were driving through Bologna to wile away the hours between two trains, in the blue moon-mist and deep shadows of the black porticoed city, that same smell came to my nostrils as in a dream, and with it a whiff of bygone years, the years when first I had had this impression of Italian Magic. Oddly enough, Rome, where I spent much of my childhood and which was the object of my childish and tragic adoration, was always something apart, never Italy for my feelings. The Apennines of Lucca and Pistoia, with their sudden revelation of Italian fields and lanes, of flowers on wall and along roadside, of bells ringing in the summer sky, of peasants working in the fields and with the loom and distaff, meant Italy.
But how much more Italy—and hence longed for how much!—was Lucca, the town in the plain, with cathedral and palaces. Nay, any of the mountain hamlets where there was nothing modern, and where against the scarred brick masonry and blackened stonework the cypresses rose black and tapering, the trelisses crawled bright green up hill! One never feels, once out of childhood, such joy as on the rare occasions when I was taken to such places. A certain farmhouse, with cypresses at the terrace corner and a great oleander over the wall, was also Italy before it became my home for several years. Most of all, however, Italy was represented by certain towns: Bologna, Padua and Vicenza, and Siena, which I saw mainly in the summer.
It is curious how one’s associations change: nowadays Italy means mainly certain familiar effects of light and cloud, certain exquisitenesses of sunset amber against ultramarine hills, of winter mists among misty olives, of folds and folds of pale blue mountains; it is a country which belongs to no time, which will always exist, superior to picturesqueness and romance. But that is but a vague, half-indifferent habit of enjoyment. And every now and then, when the Midsummer Magic is rife, there comes to me that very different, old, childish meaning of the word; as on that day among the roses of those Benedictine cloisters, the cool shadow of the fig-trees in the yards, with the whiff of that queer smell, heavy with romance, of wine-saturated oak and crumbling plaster; and I know with a little stab of joy that this is Italy.
About the Author
Vernon Lee was the pseudonym of Violet Paget. She was an English essayist and novelist.
This essay is in the public domain. Text thanks to Project Gutenberg.