The American and Brescia

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The American and Brescia

BY W. L. ALDEN


FEW tourists go to Brescia. Personally I know of only two Anglo-Saxons, besides myself, who have visited the place. One was the late Mr. Augustus Hare, who went to Brescia with his prolific scissors in his hand, intending to write up the place elaborately. But he probably met with no person of title in Brescia, and therefore he recorded his impression that there was very little to see in the place. The other Anglo-Saxon was an American whom I met at the Brescia station.

I had just descended from the Milan train, when I saw a tall, gaunt American, wearing a travelling-cap, and leaning in a limp and despairing attitude against the station wall. In front of him stood subdued and apologetic porters, with the American's hand-luggage, humbly suggesting in their native tongue that the traveller should see the station-master. Suddenly, and with a fierce gesture, the American exclaimed: "I ain't talking about that! I'm talking about a hat, a hat, a hat!"

Yielding to a weak impulse to do a kind action, I approached my fellow countryman and asked if I could be of any assistance to him. He looked at me as if I were speaking some unknown language, and made no reply. With the conviction that I had been served as I deserved for interfering with another traveller's concerns, I turned away; but before I had emerged from the station I felt a strong grasp on my arm, and heard a repentant voice saying: "Guess I was a little rude just now, but I've lost a first-class New York hat, and I was considerable mad. Thank you all the same for your politeness."

"You left the hat in the train, I presume," said I.

"Just so," he replied. "You see, I'm travelling with a friend, and we came from Venice this morning. I wanted to get out here and see them make carpets, but my friend wouldn't stop. So, being a little mad at him, I let him go on to Milan alone, and got out in a hurry and forgot my hat. That porter kept jabbering at me till I was ready to kill him. It's a shame that they don't have men on these Eyetalian railroads that can speak a decent language."

"I was not aware that they made carpets in Brescia," I remarked.

"They make Brussels carpets here, don't they?" asked the American. "I always thought that Brussels carpets came from Brussels, and having a brother in the carpet trade, I felt some interested in the matter."

"But this isn't Brussels," said I. "It is Brescia."

"My friend told me this was Brussels, only the natives called it Brushia, just as they miscall all their towns. A nation that don't know the proper names of its towns don't amount to much, in my opinion. My friend knows Europe down to the ground. He's in the elevator business, and he ought to know whether this is Brussels or not."

I could not quite see how familiarity with the elevator business made a man an authority in geography, but I did not say so. "Your friend," I remarked, gently, "was not quite right in this instance. Brussels is at least eight hundred miles from here. However, now that you are here, you had better come with me and have a look at Brescia."

"All right," he replied. "I've got to get rid of the time somehow, and I'm used to disappointments since I came to Italy. I haven't seen anything yet that hasn't disappointed me,—except the beer in Venice, and that don't come up to the Milwaukee standard."

So we took a carriage and drove for the next three hours through Brescia, stopping at churches and other buildings of interest. My companion strongly resented the fact that Brescia was not Brussels, and was inclined to divide the blame between the Brescians and his friend in the elevator business.

He was the only man I ever met who associated Brescia with carpets. Most English-speaking people who have heard of Brescia associate it either with Haynau or with Browning. A legend dating from the year 1848 charges Haynau, the Austrian general, with having flogged patriotic Brescian ladies, and it was the belief in this legend which led the draymen of Barclay and Perkins to mob Haynau when he visited London. That Haynau suppressed an insurrection in Brescia with stern severity is true. It was his duty as an Austrian general to suppress it, and he can hardly be blamed for so doing, no matter how warmly we may sympathize with the patriotic impulse which spurred the Brescians into revolt against their Austrian masters. Haynau shot men freely, but men who engage in an insurrection that fails must expect to pay the penalty. That he ever flogged women there is no sufficient evidence. The story was believed because, at the time, the hatred of Austria was so intense in Lombardy that the Italians were ready to believe anything against them. Still, until sufficient evidence that Haynau flogged women is forthcoming, it is unfair to charge him with that outrage.

Readers of Browning associate Brescia with the poem which describes a patriot on his way to be hanged, amid the applause of the delighted Brescian population. He had entered Brescia just a year previous to the date of his exit, and had been welcomed with enthusiastic demonstrations of approval. What he had done during the twelve months that reconciled the people to his death on the gallows is not mentioned. Possibly he wanted to introduce electric lights and automobiles and female suffrage into Brescia. At any rate, the Brescians had evidently had enough of him. Of course he was a purely imaginary patriot, and hence we are justified in saying that many people know Brescia only as the site of one or two mythical incidents. But that is not the fault of Brescia.

The guide-books inform us that Brescia is called "Brescia Armata," or Armed Brescia, and that it is so called because arms are manufactured there. I very much doubt this interpretation. Bologna has the title of "Bologna la Grassa," or Bologna the Fat. Does this mean that Bologna is celebrated for the manufacture of fat, instead of bologna sausages? Like many other Italian towns, Brescia is built on a hill, and is crowned with a castle which in medieval days must have been exceptionally strong. Perhaps Brescia was called the armed because she was always armed against her enemies. In the good old times when every Italian city fought against its neighbors, Brescia must have been a place which judicious generals left alone, while they sacked the cities of the plain.

The first thing which strikes the observant visitor to Brescia is the excessive number and abnormal length of the local cats. The town is fairly crowded with cats, and the guide-books furnish no explanation of the fact. The Brescian cat is so long and narrow that he might almost be described as a dachscat. Why he has developed this extreme length can only be conjectured. It may possibly have something to do with the fierce com- petition for food which must prevail where cats are so abundant. Most people who are familiar with cats, and have not had their minds warped by the study of text-books of natural history, know that the cat is elastic to a high degree. When he desires to reach some article cf food, or some new and possibly dangerous object, without approaching any nearer to it than is absolutely necessary, he stretches out his body until it is about a fifth longer than usual. Such is the excellence of the materials of which the cat is made that he can elongate himself and shrink back again to his normal length almost any number of times without permanently weakening his springs. But it is, however, quite possible that an excessive frequency of elongation may in time weaken the cat's springs, and prevent him from shrinking back to his original length. Now the Brescian cat is nearly always seen in the attitude of peering carefully around a corner, or of stealing up to some article that seems to him to have the promise and potency of food. In these circumstances he elongates himself to the utmost, and it is perhaps this that has made him permanently long.

My companion did not admire the cats, and the sentiment was reciprocated with much warmth. In every Italian church there are one or more cats, who have sought refuge from the cares of mice, and the temptations of the back fence, and have chosen a life of meditation and asceticism. There was a large cat sitting in an empty niche at the door of the cathedral. He seemed to be a distant relation of the dachshund, for in length and a marked tendency to bow-leggedness he resembled that preposterous animal. As we entered the church door he rose up and swore defiantly at my companion. The latter had done nothing whatever to merit such language, but wherever we went in Brescia the cats eyed him with strong disapproval. In the case of the cathedral cat this may have been due to the man's dislike of churches, but as the average cat is notoriously an agnostic, this would not explain the conduct of the other cats.

After we had glanced through the cathedral, and had emerged into the street once more, my acquaintance said:

"If you're going into any more churches, you must excuse me. I'll sit in the carriage till you come out again, but I don't want any more churches in mine. When we landed in Genoa, my friend made me go and see every church in the place. I don't believe there was a Catholic, or a Baptist, or a Presbyterian, or a Methodist, or a Mormon church in Genoa that he didn't drag me into. After that I struck, and this is the first church I've been inside of since I left Genoa. These Italian churches don't deserve the name. They are nothing but big, cold barns. Every one I've seen yet has been lit with candles, and nothing else. No lamps, no gas, no electric lights! Why, you couldn't get one of our Cyrusville preachers to preach in them, no matter what salary you might offer him."

I went into every church in Brescia that the guide-book told me I ought to visit, and I had so little time to give to each one that I felt that I was even as the traditional American who saw Rome in twenty-four hours. My companion sat in the carriage while I was in the churches, and I am afraid that there was something in his manner that failed to please the human as well as the cat population of Brescia, for twice I rejoined the carriage just in time to prevent him from using strong measures with certain men and boys, who approached too closely to the carriage in order to stare at him.

The municipal palace is a picturesque specimen of medieval architecture, and although the American compared it most unfavorably with the city hall of Cyrusville, Minnesota, he could not spoil it for me. Also the ancient Roman temple, which has been transformed into a museum, has been so judiciously restored that the most captious sentimentalist could not find fault with it. The market-place, which at first sight seemed to be covered with a monstrous growth of white and yellow mushrooms of gigantic size, under each one of which was seated a woman with a collection of fruit and vegetables, was also a delight. The mushrooms, which on nearer inspection proved to be immense umbrellas, filled my companion with inextinguishable mirth. He laughed in a low, choking way at the sight of them, and half a dozen times that day the recollection of them moved him to solemn laughter. I could not understand why the umbrellas amused him so much. Several times he said soft-ly to himself, "Those darned umberels!" and then chuckled. The memory of his laughter haunts me to this day. What on earth was the man laughing at? I shall never know, for he gave me no explanation, and now he has vanished from my world forever, taking the secret of the umbrellas with him.

The painter upon whom Brescia prides herself—and with good reason—is Moretto. There are a great many of his works in the churches and galleries, private and public, of Brescia. I induced my companion to enter the chief gallery with me, although he insisted that he detested pictures. However, there was one canvas that interested him. It was a St. Sebastian with rather more than the usual quantity of arrows, and my companion stopped before it and asked me what it represented. I told him the legend of the saint, and he laughed scornfully.

"So they set him up for a target and shot at him, did they?" he remarked, gazing at the picture. "Well! All I have to say is that they were mighty poor shots in those days. Just look at those arrows. There are about fifty of them, and only two have made a bull's-eye. The others are mostly outers, and bad outers at that. Why, there ain't a boy of twelve years old in the whole State of Minnesota who wouldn't be ashamed of such shooting" as that. It's disgraceful: that's what it is."

That was all the comment he made on the art treasures of Brescia, until after we were again in the carriage. Then he said: "What you fellows can see in pictures I can't make out. I never took no stock in them. Why should I want to look at a lot of angels in nightgowns doing a walk-around, or a man stuck as full of arrows as a pincushion, or a woman holding a fat baby, or a tramp with a big stick, and nothing on in the way of clothes except a bit of buffalo-hide? It's all nonsense to pretend that folks really do take, interest in such things. Give me a portrait of James G. Blaine or of John L. Sullivan, and I can take interest in it, for it means something; but these old masters, as my friend calls them, ought to have been set to painting- barns and fences."

Brescia is a busy town. The inhabitants are, as a rule, tall and robust, and they are always hard at work. The main streets are full of men employed in wearing large cloaks and talking to other men with the utmost energy. No matter how tired they may be, the Brescians scorn to rest, but they work at wearing cloaks and general conversation with an indefatigable earnestness that does them infinite credit. In the chemists' shops the local doctors are hard at work from morning to night, sitting on chairs and discussing politics with one another and with the chemist and his assistants. In front of the chief caffés there are dozens of young men who, from their dress, belong to the upper classes, but they work as hard as the rest of the people. They stand for hours at their post, tirelessly watching the ladies who pass. Some of these young men struck me as looking rather thin and worn, as if they had overworked themselves. But I presume that they hold that it is better to wear out than to rust out.

There is a superb view of the Lombard plain from the castle which crowns the summit of Brescia. To the south, east, and west stretches the plain, dotted with cities and isolated bell-towers. On the north rises the vast wall of the Alps, and in the far southwest the Apennines are dimly outlined.

My companion seemed interested in the view, but nevertheless it displeased him. Said he: "This country would make the best wheat-growing country in the world—that is, for its size. What the Italians want to do is to pull down all those miserable dirty little towns that they call cities, and to put all the inhabitants into one decent-sized city. Then they could grow wheat all over the country, and make big money. But you can't get any sense into an Italian. I know them all the way through, for we had gangs of them working on our new railroad last year."

I bade good-by to my acquaintance at the railway station. He was going on to Milan, and I was bound for Cremona. We parted in the most friendly way, and he thanked me warmly for having shown him Brescia, and said that if ever I came to Cyrusville he would show me a town worth seeing. "And," he added, "just you chuck away all that rubbish that folks talk about pictures and architecture, and such, and take interest in things that amount to something. Come over to Cyrusville, and see how business is hustling with us. It will just make your head swim, and you'll wonder how you ever had the patience to stay overnight in this miserable Italy."

As the Milan train rolled out of the station my late companion thrust his head out of the window of his carriage, and in a stentorian voice yelled to me, "Think of those umberels!" Then his laughter rose above the noise of the train, and presently I saw him no more.

On reflection I mean to go again to Brescia, alone, and try to see it. At present it is hopelessly mixed up in my mind with Cyrusville, Minnesota, and the mixture is far from satisfactory.


This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.