At the Baths of Lucca

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By Neith Boyce

A DAY of nearly a thousand years had this Tuscan watering-place, now in the twilight of its fame—a twilight pleasanter to the contemplative visitor than its gambling and scandalous noon could have been. For its beauty lies not in the modern places of pleasure in the dusty valley, but in the surrounding hills, with their uncounted gray little towns and flowery gorges; and it is this beauty, rather than the gayety the place once had, or even the virtue of its waters, that has been the attraction, to poets and philosophers, of the baths of Lucca.

The three little villages, Ponte Seralio, Villa and Bagni Caldi, straggling up the hillsides along the valley of the emerald green Lima, their outlying villas embedded in "vines, myrtle-bushes, laurels, oleanders," as Heine describes them, and sentinelled by the "solemn green cypresses," have had many illustrious visitors. The charm of those chestnut-wooded slopes of the lower Apennines is celebrated in some pages of Montaigne's "Journal de Voyage"; in some of the best letters of Shelley and Mrs. Browning; and it inspires an amorous episode of Heine's "Reisebilder." Fewer philosophers and poets visit the place to-day; few gouty English, even. The sunset of its prosperity came when, after the cession of the duchy of Lucca to Tuscany, the archducal court made a summer residence at the Baths; built barracks, villas, and roads, and drew crowds. But now the grand-duke's villa on the hillside is a hotel with few guests; the barracks round the little piazza, whence a fine long flight of stone steps leads up to the terrace, have been turned into pensioni, filled with frugal Italians come for the baths; the casinos in the valley below, once gay with gaming and dancing, are deserted; and the landlords' noses grow redder with despair every year.

The water and the scarcely less celebrated air of Bagni di Lucca failed to cure the tertian fever of the young Marquess of Cerveno, heir presumptive of Pianura, but they performed for Michel de Montaigne more than all the most noted springs of France, as the curious pages of his Journal witness. We may regret that this philosopher was so absorbed in the study of his own symptoms, and that he put them down in such Pepysian detail. For he forgets, meanwhile, to tell us whether the baths cured also that poor Cremonese merchant whose head was so bad that he couldn't remember what he had had for dinner; and he gives only brief glimpses of the country and the people, as charming in that day as in this, evidently, and more prosperous. But we do learn that he gave a ball there to one hundred well-dressed women—certainly more than could be mustered in the resort to-day! These country people spoke the purest Tuscan and appeared like gentlefolk. And then—in 1581—some of the gray little towns which now hang like fossil-shells on the hill-tops were alive and gay. Benabbio, which Montaigne visited, was so well off that every woman in the town had a pair of white stockings. Today they go barefoot and the only proofs of former opulence are the flaky gold picture, Scuola di Giotto, in the church, and sundry columns and door-casings of fine design, built into the rough peasant dwellings. Yet one should see Benabbio—by preference on a day of late July, when the sky burns into purple through the gray of the olives, when the grape-vines running everywhere have taken a golden tinge and glow against the old gray-black walls and the black cypress.

There is a good road all the way to Benabbio, but to Corsena, a few miles away, one must go by a foot-path which crosses, on bridges made of halved tree-trunks, from side to side of a rushing brown brook. Yet in Montaigne's time the baths of Corsena were more fashionable than those of Lucca, and its springs were most poetically named, Savoury, Amorous, Sweet-crowned, the Despairing One. To-day the little place on its hill, hidden away at the head of an unvisited valley, almost never sees a stranger, and is never seen even at a distance, except by those given to exploring. From its unusual form, however, it attracts the curious; the church lifted high on the crest of the hill, and the town encircling it lower down, the whole somehow suggesting a monastery or a fortress. The path to Corsena skirts the hill crowned by Lugliano, the picturesque jewel of the whole region; and then penetrates a long narrow valley, solitary and looking quite untouched, with its woods and little plats of turf and wild flowers among the rocks. Yet in reality the peasant thrift noted by Montaigne still uses every available bit of ground and water. Here one passes a gray old mill, there a vineyard or a nursery of young olives, or perhaps a hay-field ten yards square. Now, as in the sixteenth century, and who knows how much earlier, the hills, wherever possible, are cultivated and planted to the very top. "Each gradation of every hill," as the philosopher observed, "is surrounded on the outer edge by a circle of vines, within which you see another circle of green corn; and the slope above this is covered with fruit trees till you come to another circle of vines. And each little pocket of soil on the hill-side or along the brook grows its trifle of wheat." The reason for this economy is connected with the fact that the population consists almost entirely of women and babies. In spite of its smiling look of plenty, its luxuriance of olive, fig, and garlanding vine, the country is bitterly poor. The women and children can easily till the soil, thin on these rocky slopes; and the men accordingly are "gone to America." In Corsena there are but two this side of their dotage, and the astonishment of the inhabitants at the sight of strangers is oddly marked if one of these happens to be a man. Cries of "Uomo!" and stares of curiosity greet him. However, these women and children—whose multitude really presents a serious problem—seem active, cheerful, and even prosperous. In mid-July they are all busy gathering in, from nook and corner, the wheat. In even-laid golden bundles it is stacked all along the walls of the houses on both sides the main street, an irregular lane paved with cobbles, and covers the low gray wall that terraces the hill-side. A woman in an upper window is winnowing her tiny harvest, tossing it in a basket while the wind carries away the chaff. The babies in the street are carrying their bunches of stalks, and by the bordering wall an old woman is picking up the grains that have fallen in the dust.


Heine discovered a remarkable fact about this neighborhood of Lucca, when he was writing at the Baths the third book of his "Reisebilder." "There are no Philistine faces here!" And he adds: "If there are Philistines, they are at least Italian orange Philistines, and not the plump, heavy, German potato-Philistines." And these Lucchese wear their cloaks and their individuality with a delightful flourish which may even extend to the handles of their knives on any provocation; whereas, he reminds you, if you offend one of a gathering of a dozen Germans, they will call with one voice for the police.

Of that year of 1828 Heine wrote to Freda Roberts, "It was the most splendid year of my life." Young, vigorous, and exuberant, eager for experience and joy, the "German Apollo" had gone down into Italy, partly after material for the Morgenblatt, full of his success and boyishly determined to make still more noise with his next "Travel Pictures." "This third series," he wrote to Moser, "shall be a man-of-war, far more fearfully equipped; the cannon shall be of greater calibre, and I have discovered quite a new powder for them. Neither shall it carry so much ballast as its predecessor."

It is the "ballast," however, as opposed to the enginery of destruction, that remains interesting to us, and especially when we have in mind the scene where Heine wrote. It is the portrait of Francesca, the dancer, with the red slipper and the blue, and of Matilda, the witty Irishwoman; the delicate bits of landscape and atmosphere painting; the broad picture of the ruined beauty, Letitia, and her two adorers, the philosopher and the poet; and the exquisite Heinesque images—like the comparison of that old poet to "a withered vine shivering on a wintry hill-side,while the juice of his grapes is warming hearts far away." And, above all, it is the delightful spirit of youth and freshness with which Heine threw himself into his four weeks' adventure. The very air of those hills, so soft, clear, bright, has got into his pages; and even his malodorous remarks about Count Platen are naughty rather than bitter. But this blowing up of Platen's poetical pretensions was certainly an absurd waste of time and gunpowder. Heinrich might have amused himself to more purpose with Matilda, the "rose sprinkled with pepper," or with the ballerina Francesca. Indeed, he came to think so himself, and his apology should be better known than the original offence. Platen, he admitted, "might have been a great poet, if he had only had a breath of poetry in him; he possessed everything needful—pride, irritability, poverty, debts, knowledge—everything with the exception of poetry. In a word, he had thoroughly learned the art of poetic cookery—he wanted nothing but meat and fire to be able to cook. Still, that does not justify the attack I made upon him."

Happily, in the intervals of war, Heinrich found time to fall in love. It is true that at his first meeting with Francesca (it was then he fell in love) he found also that he had a rival—the memory of "Cecco," the young abate who had loved Francesca when she was still a little girl, plaiting straw hats in the valley of the Arno. But Heinrich resembles Cecco a little, as Francesca instantly tells him, except that his hair is too dark and his eyes too small, and green rather than blue. Still there is a resemblance; and the dialogue which Francesca improvises on the spot (between the red slipper, representing Cecco, and the blue slipper, representing Francesca) does not quite shut out hope from Heinrich.

He is already captive. "The ballerina's figure was that of the Graces, yet almost frivolous in its lightness. Her countenance was entirely divine, such as we see in Grecian statues, the brow and nose forming an almost perfectly straight line, the skin clear and gold-yellow like amber. The black hair which framed its temples in a bright oval gave it a childlike turn, and it was lighted up by two black, abrupt eyes, as if with a magic light." Moreover, Francesca's upper lip was short, not long like an Englishwoman's. "She often," says Heinrich, "leaped up dancing as she spoke, and it is possible that dancing was her most natural language. And my heart danced ever with her, executing the most difficult pas. … And if I, dear reader, cannot tell thee what love really is, I can at least describe with the utmost accuracy how a man behaves and how he feels when he is enamored among the Apennines. For he then behaves like a fool; he dances on rocks and hills, believing that the whole world dances with him."


In the spring of 1818, Shelley and his wife, Mary, with their two children, and Claire Clairmont with Allegra, her daughter and Byron's, travelled into Italy together. Allegra, then two years old, was to be conveyed to her father at Venice, and Shelley was the intermediary between the hysterical Miss Clairmont and Lord Byron, who firmly refused to see or communicate directly with her. Determined that his daughter should be "a Christian and a married woman, if possible," Byron was eager to get her away, not only from her mother, but from the whole artistic and unpractical Shelley household, where, he appeared to think, Allegra might "perish of starvation and green fruit, or be taught to believe that there is no Deity." Accordingly, Allegra was sent to Venice in April, and in the same month the Shelleys established themselves at the Baths of Lucca.

Here they stayed until the last of August, living an easy, out-of-door life, and enjoying it thoroughly, as Shelley's letters show. Whether from domestic disturbances—for Claire was as usual troublesome, and the Shelley children were ill—or because of the sweet relaxing quality of the air, the poet found himself that summer almost incapable of original work. "I have finished," he wrote to Peacock, "by taking advantage of a few days of inspiration,—which the Camœnæ have been lately very backward in conceding—the little poem I began sending to the press in London." This end of "Rosalind and Helen," and the translation of Plato's "Symposium," which latter occupied ten days, were all he accomplished.

In the mornings he read Greek and Latin poetry to Mary with a view to forming her taste; and he was constantly urging her to original composition. At Leghorn, he had just found a manuscript account of the Cenci, and he wanted his wife to make a play of it, having then great confidence in her dramatic ability and none in his own. A letter to Peacock in July is worth quoting in full for its vivid picture of the poet al fresco, in the delicious environment of Bagni.

"Our life here is as unvaried by external events as if we were at Marlow," he writes "We have been over to the Casino, where I cannot say there is anything remarkable, the women being far removed from anything which the most liberal annotator would interpret into beauty or grace, and apparently possessing no intellectual excellence to compensate the deficiency. I assure you it is well that it is so, for the dances, especially the waltz, are so exquisitely beautiful that it would be a little dangerous to the newly unfrozen senses and imagination of us migrators from the neighborhood of the pole. As it is—except in the dark—there can be no peril. The atmosphere here, unlike that of the rest of Italy, is diversified with clouds, which grow in the middle of the day, and sometimes bring thunder and lightning and hail, and decrease toward the evening, leaving only those finely woven veils of vapor which we see in English skies, and flocks of fleecy and slowly moving clouds which all vanish before sunset; and the nights are for ever serene, and we see a star in the east at sunset. I take great delight in in watching the changes of the atmosphere. In the evening Mary and I often take a ride, for horses are cheap in this country. In the middle of the day I bathe in a pool or fountain formed in the middle of the forests by a torrent. It is surrounded on all sides by precipitous rocks, and the water-fall of the stream that forms it falls into it on one side with perpetual dashing. Close to it on the top of the rocks are alders, and above the great chestnut-trees, whose long and pointed leaves pierce the deep blue sky in strong relief. The water of this pool is as transparent as the air. It is exceedingly cold also. My custom is to undress and sit on the rocks, reading Herodotus, until the perspiration has subsided, and then to leap from the rock into this fountain—a practice in the hot weather excessively refreshing. This torrent is composed, as it were of a series of pools and water-falls, up which I sometimes amuse myself by climbing when I bathe, and receiving the spray all over my body, whilst I clamber up the moist crags with difficulty."


It is perhaps this same hill stream that appears in the scene of the declaration in "By the Fireside," for Browning is said to have taken for this scene a little gorge near the Baths of Lucca, where also he wrote "In a Balcony," and some other portions of "Men and Women."


Look at the ruined chapel again,
Half-way up in the Alpine gorge!
Is that a tower, I point you plain.
Or is it a mill, or an iron-forge,
Breaks solitude in vain?

A turn, and we stand at the heart of things;
The woods are round us, heaped and dim:
From slab to slab how it slips and springs.
The thread of water single and slim.
Through the ravage some torrent brings!


But this picture might be equally true of innumerable nooks in Italy's hills, while there are some phrases in Mrs. Browning's letters from Bagni that paint the one place clear in the memory.

Before quoting them, however, it is amusing to recall the observations of the English traveller, Richard Burton, who spent a few months of his wild youth at the Baths; and indeed it was here that the break-up of his family took place, the unmanageable sons going in one direction and the impetuous Irishman, their father, in another. Richard writing of 1840, says:

"In those days, the Lucchese baths were the only place in Italy that could boast of a tolerably cool summer climate, and a few of the comforts of life. Sorrento, Montenero, near Leghorn, and the hills about Rome, were frequented by very few; they came under the category of 'cheap and nasty.' Hence Bagni collected what was considered to be the distinguished society. It had its parson from Pisa, even in the days before the travelling Continental clergyman was known, and this one migrated every year to the hills, like the flight of swallows, and the beggars who desert the hot plains … The 'queen in ordinary' was a Mrs. Colonel Stisted, as she called herself, the 'sea-goddess with tin ringlets and venerable limbs' of the irrepressible Mrs. Trollope. In one season the Baths collected Lady Blessington, Count D'Orsay, Lady Walpole, and Mrs. E. B. Browning, the poetess, whose tight sacque of black silk gave us youngsters a series of caricatures."

The Brownings went to Bagni just for a glimpse, but found it so charming that they stayed the season. "We had both of us," the poetess writes, "but he chiefly, the strongest prejudice against the Baths of Lucca; taking them for a sort of wasp's nest of scandal and gaming, and expecting to find everything trodden flat by the continental English." That is one view of the place as it was in the middle of the century. And here is an exact picture of what it is like to-day.

"We have taken a sort of eagle's nest in this place—the highest house of the highest of the three villages which are called Bagni di Lucca, and which lie at the heart of a hundred mountains sung to continually by a rushing mountain stream. The sound of the river and of the cicale is all the noise we hear. Austrian drums and carriage-wheels cannot vex us, God be thanked for it. The silence is full of joy and consolation. …

"The air of the place seems to penetrate the heart, and not the lungs alone; it draws you, raises you, excites you. Mountain air without its keenness—sheathed in Italian sunshine—think what that must be! And the beauty and the solitude—for with a few paces we get free of the habitations of men—all is delightful to me. What is peculiarly beautiful and wonderful is the variety of the shapes of the mountains. They are a multitude—and yet there is no likeness. None, except where the golden mist comes and transfigures them into one glory. For the rest, the mountain there wrapped in the chestnut forest is not like that bare peak which tilts against the sky—nor like the serpent twine of another which seems to move and coil in the moving, coiling shadow."

These are the mountains which, Heine found, "true to their Apennine nature, are not magnificently misshapen in extravagant Gothic forms; but their nobly rounded, cheerful green shapes seem of themselves inspired with the civilization of art, according melodiously with the blue heaven."

And this quality of gentleness, of harmony, of the civilization of nature, is the real charm of this lovely spot. For, go where one will, even into the farthest recesses of the hills, one cannot get away from the civilization of art; there nature, however solitary, is never wild. The mountain tops seem to have been shaped to a purpose, the little gray-brown villages are set so exactly right between the deep green of the chestnut forest and the liquid sky. Their simple forms are interesting and grow ever finer and richer as one descends into the Lucchese plain, reaching a real beauty at Barga and picturesque Ghivezzano of the towers, and culminating in classic Lucca.

It was at Lucca that Heine, after a sixteen-mile walk from Bagni, met on a festival day his two friends—Francesca and the Irish lady, Matilda. One can see the very tombstones, with their figures carved by della Quercia, on which Matilda made jokes, till Heinrich told her that a pretty woman without religion was like a flower without perfume. And in this same church is the altar where Francesca knelt and prayed passionately. She would not speak to Heinrich afterward; and he knew from the look in her eyes that she had been thinking of Cecco.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1951, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.