Fragrance in Literature-From "Wanderings in Italy (1919)"-Gabriel Faure

Wanderings in Italy (1919)
Faure, Gabriel, b. 1877

Orta is delightfully situated at the foot of a sort
of mountainous promontory, which leaves but scanty
space for houses at its base on the shores of the lake.
The little town is indeed but one long street parallel
with the bank, interrupted in the middle by a shady
piazza with a tiny town-hall. The slopes of the hills
are studded with rich villas embowered in the luxuriant
vegetation to be found in all the sheltered corners of
the Italian lakes. Rhododendrons and azaleas of
unusual vigour must show as magnificent bouquets
of bloom in the spring. Ivory-petaUed blossoms still
linger among the polished leaves of the magnolias.
In spite of a three months' drought, the trees are green ;
the oleander especially, that lover of sultry summers,
displays its sumptuous blossoms. The Olea fragrans begins
to perfume the gardens. By the roadside, fig-trees
send forth their pungent odour ; between their broad
leaves we catch sight of the glistening waters and of
the little island of San Giulio, smiling and quivering
in the brilliant light.

Outside there was a radiant blaze of
sunshine. Not often do we see a day so pure and so
luminous. Hills and villages were reflected with the
utmost precision on the unruffled surface of the lake.
The water is a smooth green suggesting molten emeralds,
and recalling Dante's beautiful simile : fresco smeraldo
allorache si fiacca} The garden scents were wafted
in warm gusts of sudden sweetness, sometimes so
intense that the boat seemed to be passing through a
perfumed cloud.

But let us not imitate Taine ; let us give these last
hours to the lake. At the end of last March, returning
from Toledo and the harsh plateaux of Castille, I ex-
perienced such physical delight in arriving on these
shores that they had never seemed so fair to me before.
I declared that their seduction was more enthralling
at that early season than in' the autumn. This is only
true from a certain point of view : the joy of the eye
is more perfect in the spring. Through the atmosphere,
not as yet tarnished by the dust of summer, the slightest
details of the soil appear. The hills, which enclose
the shores so harmoniously without imprisoning them,
take on more delicate tints ; their slender curves and
supple undulations become more definite; the leafless
trees do not mask them under the uniform tone of
their foliage. The snow which still crowns the mountain-
tops, relieves their crests against the blue, and at the
same time forms a most vivid contrast to the trees and
But the deep poetry of this lake, and its unrivalled
fascination, are only fully revealed in autumn when
the languors and perfumes of the dying summer float
about us in a perpetual incense. In the balmy alleys
of its gardens one recalls those groves of Tasso, where,
under the soft persuasion of flower scents, a hero's
hate gave way to love. If other lakes are too chill
and too unsympathetic, this one is perhaps too sub-
missive to our desires and too indulgent to our sensuality.
True lovers sometimes suffer here from so much un-
necessary complicity, and so much joy that owes
nothing to their own ardour.

In spite of the flowers and the garden walks all vocal
with birds among the azaleas in spring-time, it is in
September that I love best to visit these lakes, the
very names of which make my heart beat faster on dull
days in Paris. Italian lakes and gardens. Why
should these simple words move me more than any
others ? I have never, like some enthusiasts, vowed
to take up my abode for ever on their perfumed terraces,
at Bellagio or Pallanza ; but it is delightful to spend
a week among them, to know that they offer one a
refuge, a haven of peace or of love.

I COULD not tear myself away from the garden of
Lombardy without pausing at least for a few hours at
Bellagio. I longed *to see the sun set on those flowery
shores from the terraces of the Villa Serbelloni, which,
rounding the magic promontory, command the three
arms of the lake in turn. The paths are bordered with
roses, camellias and magnolias, pomegranate-trees with
gnarled, twisted trunks like huge cables, orange and
lemon-trees, the glaucous spears of the cactus, and
huge aloes with massive fleshy leaves. The oleanders
bend beneath the weight of their poisonous bouquets.
On this afternoon of dying summer, odours more
intoxicating than the must of vine-vats rise from the
hot earth and the banks of flowers, disturbing emanations
such as one breathes at Florence in the spring-time
in the overcharged atmosphere of the Mercato Nuovo.
It is as if one were standing in the middle of a hot-
house where the pollen hangs heavily in the warm air,
or plunged in a liquid pool of perfume. And above
all these odours, the Olea fragrans sheds its powerful
aroma. No flowering tree distils a scent more subtle,
penetrating and exquisitely voluptuous than this olive
of the far East, which has been acclimatised on the
shores of the Italian Lakes, where it flowers in September.
A single shrub perfumes a whole garden ; an invisible
incense seems to enwrap him who approaches it ; as
twilight darkens, the scent makes one almost dizzy.

Night has fallen gently and gradually. Things are
wrapped in silky veils. An invisible mist has risen
from the waters, has blurred the sharp outlines, and
draped the shores in supple velvet. The hills seem to
have drawn themselves together round the lake. Long
vaporous scarves float over the tree-tops. The moonless
heavens are spangled with stars which the moisture
in the air causes to seem less distant and more brilliant.
The Pleiades, still breathless from the pursuit of Orion,
twinkle hurriedly, like palpitating hearts. The Milky-
Way is all aglow. This evening the stars do not suggest
the golden nails of the ancients, but rather globes of
fire suspended in the darkness and ready to fall, drawn
down by the perfumes of the earth and the languor
of the waters. But very soon they pale. The moon
rises on the horizon, over Lecco where the mountains
dip. It seems to be emerging from the lake. In the
mist which veils all contours the ancient heathen
divinity, the confidant of lovers and astrologers, is
a fiery boat burning in the night. Under its slanting
rays the Lecco arm shines like a silver mirror.

It is a very hot evening. I hear the muffled panting
of a big steamer making its way to Menaggio in a blaze
of electric light. Then silence, peaceful and complete,
save for the blundering flight of an occasional bat,
and the tireless lapping of waves against the banks.
Gradually I yield to the solemn emotion which all
Impressionable souls feel before the serenity of Nature
on a still night. Life seems to pause and sleep in such
nocturnal hours, like Michelangelo's recumbent woman,
and until dawn only man and the world will continue
to grow old. From the silvery skies a bluish dust
falls on the scented gardens whose incense still flows
out in heavy waves. The sail of a skiff gleams in the
moonbeams, a great white swan afloat on the quiet
waters. Only a light or two still twinkle in the distance
like little winking eyes. Bellagio is falling asleep
amidst the perfumes.

The perfume of the flowers flows out as day declines.
The lawns are studded with beds of pinks. Clumps of
crimson salvias blaze fiercely in the slanting rays of the
sun. Great red and yellow cannas and pink gladioli
bend from the tops of their long stalks as if exhausted.
Lichens eat into the statues which rise among the
foliage, the only figures in this dream-landscape. The
marble is scaling. The trunks of old trees are drying
up and dying under the embrace of the stout ivy branches.
A moss-grown fountain weeps for the days that are no
more. But a gardener's cottage covered with roses and
wisteria speaks of realities. It adjoins a wall overgrown
with jasmine ; the foliage is starred with white flakes,
as after a snow-shower in April. On the first terraces in
the most sunny corners oleanders, orange-trees and
palms strike a warmer note. And on every side blossom-
ing tuberoses send out heavy waves of perfume, subtly
intoxicating on this September afternoon.

Through the iron gates, the inner courtyard of the
Castle smiles so invitingly that I want to go in. A
small huonamano overcomes the custodian's scruples.
We may stay till nightfall in this old garden, so eloquent
of the past with its cjrpresses, its oleanders, its walls of
red brick burning in the last rays of light. The walks
are narrow and ill-kept, but, gradually, the garden
widens out. A soft haze rises from the warm earth,
blurs all forms and spreads mystery round us.. As the
shadow grows denser, love takes on a sudden gravity.
We cease talking, hushed by the silence of things. Ah !
the languor of those Italian evenings among the perfumes,
the delight of a dear companionship when everything
fades and seems about to die. Without another heart
beside me, I could not await night in this old garden.
I remember the words of Dumas the Elder, when, after
his travels in Switzerland, he arrived at Lake Maggiore,
felt all the horrors of solitude on the very first evening,
and expressed his thoughts in this charming formula :
" To hope or to fear for another is the only thing which
gives man a complete sense of his own existence." In
the turmoil and agitation of the day, we do not feel
loneliness ; but in the peace of evening, we cannot
bear it.

The beauty of land-
scape adds a sensuous pleasure to the purely intellectual
pleasure of admiration. The coolness of water, the
perfume of flowers, the harmonies of the wind circulate
in the blood and in the nerves at the moment when
the splendour of colours and the beauty of forms stir
the imagination." No writer has more successfully
associated psychological states with natural surroundings.
How many lyrical passages one might select from her
works for a book to be called Landscapes of Passion, a
title I chose for a volume of my own in which I too tried
my hand at wedding picturesque description to action.
This evening it is pleasant to evoke the memory of the
too ardent pilgrim of love here under the lime-trees of
Bassano, and to think that she once breathed this same
south wind that blows so warmly on me, full of the
perfumes of the gardens of the Brenta.

The Villa Maser is too magnificent and pretentious
for my taste. I prefer the Villa Emo, which is further
South at Fanzolo, in the Trevisan plain. I like it
because it is less well known and little visited, and above
all, because it has always belonged to the same family,
by whom it has been piously and intelligently kept up.
The fact that it has never changed the name of its owner,
from the time of Leonardo Emo, a patrician of the
Republic in the middle of the 16th century, to that of the
present Count Emo, who welcomes you with the exquisite
grace of the great noble, gives it a special intimacy
and amenity. There is no solemnity about this dwelling,
set in bowers of the freshest greenery, and I cannot
imagine any country house where the inhabitants could
live in more artistic surroundings and at the same time
so close to nature. There is neither trim garden nor
park around the house, but a belt of woods, fields and
lawns, the tall grasses of which breathe perfumes.

Of all the cities of the rich Venetian plain I know none
more picturesque than the two neighbours and sometime
rivals, Cittadella and Castelfranco. Still enclosed in
their mediaeval walls, they are like stone baskets draped
with ivy and filled with flowers : in spring wisteria, in
June the perfumed tassels of the acacia, and again in
autumn the late flowering wisterias.

In spite of all I had heard of Cortina, I did not expect
to find it so lovely. No sight could be more superb than
the sunset view from the Crepa, a sort of rocky headland
thrusting out above the circus of Ampezzo. From this
moderate eminence the valley is seen in its entirety,
without that reduction of the landscape to a kind of
relief map which occurs from many famous points of
"view. Cortina lies at the bottom of a green goblet
filled with the perfume of its mjrriad-blossomed meadows.
The sturdy mass of La Tofana, the long chain of the
Pomagagnon dominated by Monte Cristallo, the Sorapiss,
the Rochetta and the Cinque Torri encircle it on every
side. Above the forests that cover their feet, the bare,
jagged walls rise into the limpid atmosphere, taking on a
greater intensity of light and colour as the shadow creeps
over the valley. The light clouds driven towards them
by the south wind (the sea-breeze, as it is called in the
district) are caught between the sharp points, like
strands of hair between the teeth of a yellow tortoise-
shell comb. Gradually the reds and golds become
stronger. The rocks seem to be on fire. The impres-
sion is strange, unique. I understand why d'Annunzio
when he wanted to suggest the illumination which occa-
sionally lights up a face, " till it surpasses reality and
stands out against the sky of destiny itself," could find
no more vivid simile than the glow on these Dolomites,
"when their crests alone are ablaze in the twilight,
graven upon the gloom."

What freshness ! What suavity of composition and
colour ! Never was the master more perfect ! And this
because he was never more sincere, because he put his
whole self into his work, without seeking to astonish
or dazzle us. All that he knew already, all that he had
learnt from Angelico, or from the frescoes of Assisi serves
to express the emotions inspired in him by the pious
country which had offered the hollows of its hills as a
cradle for renascent Christianity. No other horizon, no
other atmosphere could have been so inspiring to a
believing and artistic soul. Gozzoli lived here for two
years. After the work of the morning and at eventide
his eyes sought rest in contemplation of the gentle
valley. From the white walls of Assisi, from the roofs
of the Portiuncula where the first flowers of mysticism
blossomed, from the fields of Bevagna where S. Francis
preached to the birds, the aroma of the marvellous
legend rose to him, a heavy, intoxicating incense.

A visit to Castelfranco is to me typical of one of those
full and joyous Italian days when, in exquisite surround-
ings and undisturbed by intruders, one may contem-
plate a masterpiece at one's ease. There is nothing to
disturb my wanderings under the plane-trees that are
mirrored in the Musone, where the tall water-plants
writhe like serpents. It is true that the Castle and the
12th century waUs are partly in ruins ; but a thick
drapery of ivy, moss and Virginian creeper covers them
as with a richly coloured mantle. The bricks show
different tints in the changeful light, from pale pink to
the dark red of clotted blood. The flowers that star
the verdure add to the romantic air of these ruins. I
know a corner where the grass plots are planted with Olea
fragrans, whose incense fills the air when the clouds are
fringed with purple and gold at sunset.

It was not on the shores of Lake Varese, as a some-
what ambiguous phrase might lead us to suppose, that
Taine longed for a country house ; he never even
approached its banks, and was content to view it from
the road leading to Laveno. It was Lake Maggiore
which so fired him that he wished to live by it ; he
preferred it to Como, the voluptuous beauty of which
did not appeal to him. But I should have understood
it had his choice fallen on the town of Varese, for it
is charming, and its environs are among the most
delightful spots in Lombardy. It is gay, prosperous and
animated, sometimes even over-crowded on the days
of its famous markets and horse-races; the Milanese
have made it one of their favourite residential quarters
and have built handsome viUas there. As it is little
known to tourists, the traveller may linger there at
his ease between its festival periods, and enjoy the
dignified calm of its public gardens, which are among
the finest in Northern Italy. They are the park of
the ancient Corte which Duke Francis III of Modena
built in the eighteenth century. Planted in the old
Italian style, they have an air of noble severity. Secular
hornbeams border the spacious lawns. I remember see-
ing them long ago in the spring, when camellias, chestnut
trees, lilacs and Australian magnolias with their satiny
white blossoms filled them with their youthful sweetness.
Now the scents of autumn, less strong but more subtle,
spread a fever through the groves. A knoll studded
with firs and parasol pines in the background adds
much to the character and majesty of this garden.
From the terrace the view extends over the whole of
Lake Varese and as far as the chain of Western Alps
dominated by Monte Rosa. Turning about, we see
above the roofs of the town, the Madonna del Monte,
and beyond, the Campo dei Fiori, which rises 3,000
feet above the plain, an incomparable belvedere to
which, sad to say, a funicular, opened within the last
few days, gives access. A rack and pinion railway
had already dishonoured the famous pilgrim's way
of the Madonna, which in former days was climbed
on foot or in bullock carts, a rough Calvary with inter-
minable windings. The joy of the gradual ascent,
and the discovery at every turning of a wider field
of vision, was infinitely greater under the old con-
ditions. The panorama from the top is magnificent.
The view extends over the whole of Lombardy, as far
as Milan, dimly divined on the horizon. We distin-
guish six lakes : to the left, Como ; in front, Varese ;
to the right, the little lakes of Biandronno, Monate
and Comabbio ; finally, a long way behind them, two
fragments of Maggiore. These no doubt, made up
the " seven " lakes counted by Stendhal, when he
exclaimed : " Magnificent sight ! One may travel
through all France and Germany without receiving
such impressions." It is true that there are few pros-
pects so superb, especially towards evening, when the
sheets of water gleam in the setting sun hke^ golden

But the water attracts me. I ask a fisherman to
take me across the lake. Lulled by the monotonous
movement of the oars, I see as in a dream the land and
the white houses which glisten in the sun fading away
in a golden dust. Here and there on the hills a village
clings round a hell-tower, like swallows' nests on the
edge of a roof. The water glitters till we seem to be
slipping across a frameless mirror. A warm breeze,
heavy with the scents of dying summer, fans us. The
air is so pure that I hear the sounds from the two shores
distinctly, and when the siren of a steamer shrills
through the air, I imagine I see the waves of sound
rippling over my head.

The vanilla-like scent of oleander mingles with
the pungent smell of box and cypress. The wind brings
the odour of the neighbouring gardens. Here, again,
everything tells us that we must enjoy life for the
brief span remaining to us.

Before me, bumble-bees shake out their wings and then
drop heavily to the ground. Little gray lizards flee
at my approach, slip into a hole in the wall, and peep
at me with their shining eyes. Pigeons run about
on the gravel, rolling along heavily as if they had not
the strength to rise ; they remind me of the Borromean
doves described by Barres, which, intoxicated by the
accumulated scents of the terraces of Isola Bella, rose
so lazily that he might have caught them in his hand.
The hreva, the south wind which blows upon the lake
after the mid-day calm, is still so warm that as it touches
one's face, it feels like the brushing of moist lips. On
each side of the path the flowers droop in voluptuous
languor. At the ends of their long stalks, cannas
open their hearts to the caresses of the breeze. Hot
tears of resin flow from the burning bark of the pines.
Cantharides spread their green wings motionless on the
leaves. A golden mist hovers over the sharp summits
of the cypresses, which seem to vibrate in the metallic
atmosphere. The trees are wreathed with Virginian
creeper, blood-red amongst the green ; others, clothed
in ivy intermingled with climbing roses, recall Mantegna's
flowery porticoes. ^

The building is a square, each side of which is faced
by a peristyle of six Ionic columns supporting a triangular
pediment adorned with statues. Within this square is
a circular hall on the ground level, entered by four doors
corresponding to the peristyles, which form so many
little terraces ojffering views in every direction. And
this is the secret of the incomparable charm of this
Hotunda ; the prospect on every side is admirable.
On the north, the undulating plain of Vicenza, the line
of the Alps forming a majestic background ; on the
west, the slopes dominated by the Madonna del Monte ;
on the south, the green flanks of the Berici hills ; but
the finest view of all is from the terrace on the east
guarded by three ancient eagles and a swan in stone ;
we see the entire valley of the Brenta as far as Padua
and the Euganean Hills, which are distinguishable on a
clear day. In the foreground all around the Rotunda
are gardens, fields, meadows, clumps of flowers and
thickets of lilacs which form a scented girdle in spring-

One spot, however, in the region has always been left
to the Southern rival : this is Misurina, whose musical
name is as harmonious as the shores of its little lake.
The road which leads to it from Cortina is one of the
most enchanting imaginable ; a writer has called it the
passeggio romantico del Cadore (the romantic promenade
of Cadore). It ascends along the Bigontina, now under
the feathery foliage of larches, now through flower-
enamelled meadows. Here and there, the air is sweet
with the scent of new-mown hay. From the top of the
Tre Croci, at the very foot of the pale rocks of the
Cristallo, we overlook the whole amphitheatre of Am-
pezzo, like a vast green scallop-shell covered with forests,
meadows, cultivated fields and scattered houses. Then
we go down into a fresh valley, where the grass is studded
with tall blue gentians, and almost immediately we see
the wide opening at the end of which the lake is sparkling
in the sun. The scene is at once grandiose and gay.
Above the water, greenly transparent as a fine emerald,
woods and meadows, terraced on the hill-sides, form a
first dark girdle, behind which rise some of the finest
of the Dolomites : Cadini, the spurs of CristaUo, the
imposing rocks of the Tre Cimi di Lavaredo, sharply
cut as geometrical figures, Cyclopean pyramids, built
by giants, and lofty Sorapiss stretching out its mighty
snow-draped flanks.
The lake is slumbering peacefully in the radiance of
dying day. We are alone upon these banks which the
approach of autumn has already left to solitude. There
is not a ripple on the water ; when we lean over it, it
sends back our moving figures set against the eternal
background of peaks and forests reflected in its depths.
But why has civilization intruded, to tarnish this mirror
by building two huge hotels, so riotous in the season,
so melancholy when their factitious life has been
extinguished by the first touch of winter in the air ?

On this September morning when summer is in its
death-throes, a delicate light plays in the atmosphere
and floats in gentle waves over the autumnal landscape.
The magnificent plane-trees, a double avenue of which
leads from the town of Saronno to the church, are
bathed in a golden light. The traveller treads on a
thick carpet of dead leaves ; there is something melan-
choly and bitter in their slightly acrid scent.
And here we have one of those delectable sanctuaries
of art, in which we discover the soul of an artist under
an insignificant or mediocre exterior. There have been
hardly any changes here for four centuries ; cosmo-
politan snobbery has not yet found its way here ;
and the student may spend long hours undisturbed
by tourists or guides.

How fully I can enter into the soul and the work of the
great Cadorian on this fine afternoon of early autumn,
here at Pieve, breathing the good healthful smell of the
country, along meadows enamelled with red clover,
dark blue salvia, colchicum and buttercup. Sturdy
mountaineer, who wast still painting firmly and vigorously
when nearing thy hundredth year, it is here I love to
evoke thee, rather than in the cold galleries of a museum,
rather even than at Venice, where none will ever eclipse
thy glory. It was here thou hadst thy purest joys, in the
midst of these landscapes thy childish eyes gazed at so
eagerly, on this soil to which thou wast attached by all
the roots of thy being, in this little town where the illus-
trious artist of the Most Serene Republic, the familar
of the greatest men, to whom Doges, Kings, Emperors
and Popes had sat, was but the son of Gregorio Vecellio.
There can be no more intimate delight for a man who
has reached the summit of earthly honours than to
return every year to the village where he was born.
Far from artificial life, he comes back to Nature, and to
the land in the presence of which he need no longer play
a part, and in whose sight all are equal. It was at
Pieve, when reverses befell him, that Titian sought
healing for his stricken soul, and gained strength for
further struggles, robust as those forest-trees to which
Dante, in a magnificent image, compares the springs of
the soul, those trees which raise themselves again by
their own vigour after the passing of the storm :

Among the numerous Italian cities which have trans-
formed their ancient fortifications into shady avenues,
not one has solved the problem more successfully
Here we have not merely a circular boulevard planted
with chestnut trees which are burnt up by the summer
heat, and present a lamentable appearance in September,
but a superb girdle of gardens and lawns with splendid
trees. About the ivy-covered red walls of the mined
castle one may wander as in the alleys of an ancient
park. North and west, the view extends as far as tha
line of the great Alps that spread out fan-wise around
the Lombard plain ; the panorama is almost the same
as that we see from the roof of Milan Cathedral. Here,
indeed, the majestic mass of Mount Rosa is even more
sharply defined ; when the atmosphere has been cleared
by a storm, its peaks stand out against the azure with
the precision of a piece of goldsmith's work. Some-
times in the warm hours of the day when the foremost
mountains are bathed in mist, it emerges alone, Uke some
dream summit set in a mysterious ocean ; and in the
evening, when the blue shadow is creeping over the
plain, it flames fantastically, a fiery flower in the twilight.
The fall of day, seen from these ramparts of Novara,
is full of serenity. And the evenings are dehcious
in these nocturnal gardens propitious to intertwined
shadows, at moments when the desire latent in every
soul for the help of another soul to stiU the anguish
of solitude before the mystery of things awakens.
Round the old trees half stript of their leaves and
the withered grasses hovers the odour of autumn, the
very melancholy of which attunes the soul to love.

To get to the Rotunda we must quit the portico and
take a strange little path paved with cobble stones
which runs between walls, first high and bare as those
of a prison, and then gay with draperies of Virginian
creeper. We skirt the ViUa Fogazzaro, where the
famous writer pursues his noble meditations, and the
Villa Valmarana, where Tieopolo's frescoes slumber.
The walls are crowned by the grotesque grimacing
figures which abound in the villas of the district, notably
those on the banks of the Brenta. It was an odd fancy
of the people of the 1 8th century to set up these deformed
guardians of their homes along their walls. The stone
crumbles away from day to day, and sometimes it is
difficult to make out the oddly dressed and contorted
mannikins. Then the path becomes rural. The pave-
ment makes way for grass, dappled with aromatic mint.
Pines and cypresses shoot up from behind the walls.
We cross a road and we are before the Rotunda.