Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

Letters of a Traveller by William Cullen Bryant

Part 6 out of 6

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.6 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

from the country in which they had hoped to find a shelter.

I have spoken of the practice of Switzerland in regard to passports, an
example which it does not suit the purpose the French politicians to
follow. Here, and all over the continent, the passport system is as
strictly and vexatiously enforced as ever. It is remarkable that none of
the reformers occupied in the late remodelling of European institutions,
seems to have thought of abolishing this invention of despotism--this
restraint upon the liberty of passing from place to place, which makes
Europe one great prison. If the people had been accustomed to perfect
freedom in this respect, though but a short time, it might have been found
difficult, at least in France, to reimpose the old restraints. The truth
is, however, that France is not quite so free at present as she was under
Louis Philippe. The only advantage of her present condition is, that the
constitution places in the hands of the people the means of peaceably
perfecting their liberties, whenever they are enlightened enough to claim

On my way from Geneva to Lyons I sat in _banquette_ of the diligence among
the plebeians. The conversation happened to turn on politics, and the
expressions of hatred against the present government of France, which
broke from the conductor, the coachman, and the two passengers by my side,
were probably significant of the feeling which prevails among the people.
"The only law now," said one, "is the law of the sabre." "The soldiers and
the _gens d'armes_ have every thing their own way now," said another, "but
by and by they will be glad to, hide in the sewers." The others were no
less emphatic in their expressions of anger and detestation.

The expedition to Rome is unpopular throughout France, more especially so
in the southern part of the republic, where the intercourse with Rome has
been more frequent, and the sympathy with her people is stronger. "I have
never," said an American friend, who has resided some time in Paris,
"heard a single Frenchman defend it." It is unpopular, even among the
troops sent on the expedition, as is acknowledged by the government
journals themselves. To propitiate public opinion, the government has
changed its course, and after making war upon the Romans to establish the
pontifical throne, now tells the Pope that he must submit to place the
government in the hands of the laity. This change of policy has occasioned
a good deal of surprise and an infinite deal of discussion. Whatever may
be its consequences, there is one consequence which it can not have, that
of recovering to the President and his ministry the popularity they have

Letter LIII.


[This letter was casually omitted from its proper place near the
beginning of the volume.]

Rome, _April_ 15, 1835.

Towards the end of March I went from Pisa to Volterra. This you know is a
very ancient city, one of the strongholds of Etruria when Rome was in its
cradle; and, in more modern times, in the age of Italian republics, large
enough to form an independent community of considerable importance. It is
now a decayed town, containing about four thousand inhabitants, some of
whom are families of the poor and proud nobility common enough over all
Italy, who are said to quarrel with each other more fiercely in Volterra
than almost anywhere else. It is the old feud of the Montagues and the
Capulets on a humbler scale, and the disputes of the Volterra nobility are
the more violent and implacable for being hereditary. Poor creatures! too
proud to engage in business, too indolent for literature, excluded from
political employments by the nature of the government, there is nothing
left for them but to starve, intrigue, and quarrel. You may judge how
miserably poor they are, when you are told they can not afford even to
cultivate the favorite art of modern Italy; the art best suited to the
genius of a soft and effeminate people. There is, I was told, but one
pianoforte in the whole town, and that is owned by a Florentine lady who
has recently come to reside here.

For several miles before reaching Volterra, our attention was fixed by the
extraordinary aspect of the country through which we were passing. The
road gradually ascended, and we found ourselves among deep ravines and
steep, high, broken banks, principally of clay, barren, and in most places
wholly bare of herbage, a scene of complete desolation, were it not for a
cottage here and there perched upon the heights, a few sheep attended by a
boy and a dog grazing on the brink of one of the precipices, or a solitary
patch of bright green wheat in some spot where the rains had not yet
carried away the vegetable mould.

Imagine to yourself an elevated country like the highlands of Pennsylvania
or the western part of Massachusetts; imagine vast beds of loam and clay
in place of the ledges of rock, and then fancy the whole region to be torn
by water-spouts and torrents into gulleys too profound to be passed, with
sharp ridges between--stripped of its trees and its grass--and you will
have some idea of the country near Volterra. I could not help fancying,
while I looked at it, that as the earth grew old, the ribs of rock which
once upheld the mountains, had become changed into the bare heaps of
earth which I saw about me, that time and the elements had destroyed the
cohesion of the particles of which they were formed, and that now the
rains were sweeping them down to the Mediterranean, to fill its bed and
cause its waters to encroach upon the land. It was impossible for me to
prevent the apprehension from passing through my mind, that such might be
the fate of other quarters of the globe in ages yet to come, that their
rocks must crumble and their mountains be levelled, until the waters shall
again cover the face of the earth, unless new mountains shall be thrown up
by eruptions of internal fire. They told me in Volterra, that this
frightful region had once been productive and under cultivation, but that
after a plague which, four or five hundred years since, had depopulated
the country, it was abandoned and neglected, and the rains had reduced it
to its present state.

In the midst of this desolate tract, which is, however, here and there
interspersed with fertile spots, rises the mountain on which Volterra is
situated, where the inhabitants breathe a pure and keen atmosphere, almost
perpetually cool, and only die of pleurisies and apoplexies; while below,
on the banks of the Cecina, which in full sigjit winds its way to the sea,
they die of fevers. One of the ravines of which I have spoken,--the
_balza_ they call it at Volterra--has ploughed a deep chasm on the north
side of this mountain, and is every year rapidly approaching the city on
its summit. I stood on its edge and looked down a bank of soft red earth
five hundred feet in height. A few rods in front of me I saw where a road
had crossed the spot in which the gulf now yawned; the tracks of the last
year's carriages were seen reaching to the edge on both sides. The ruins
of a convent were close at hand, the inmates of which, two or three years
since, had been removed by the government to the town for safety. These
will soon be undermined by the advancing chasm, together with a fine piece
of old Etruscan wall, once inclosing the city, built of enormous
uncemented parallelograms of stone, and looking as if it might be the work
of the giants who lived before the flood; a neighboring church will next
fall into the gulf, which finally, if means be not taken to prevent its
progress, will reach and sap the present walls of the city, swallowing up
what time has so long spared.

"A few hundred crowns," said an inhabitant of Volterra to me, "would stop
all this mischief. A wall at the bottom of the chasm, and a heap of
branches of trees or other rubbish, to check the fall of the earth, are
all that would be necessary."

I asked why these means were not used.

"Because," he replied, "those to whom the charge of these matters belongs,
will not take the trouble. Somebody must devise a plan for the purpose,
and somebody must take upon himself the labor of seeing it executed. They
find it easier to put it off."

The antiquities of Volterra consist of an Etruscan burial-ground, in
which the tombs still remain, pieces of the old and incredibly massive
Etruscan wall, including a far larger circuit than the present city, two
Etruscan gates of immemorial antiquity, older doubtless than any thing at
Rome, built of enormous stones, one of them serving even yet as an
entrance to the town, and a multitude of cinerary vessels, mostly of
alabaster, sculptured with numerous figures in _alto relievo_. These
figures are sometimes allegorical representations, and sometimes embody
the fables of the Greek mythology. Among them are some in the most perfect
style of Grecian art, the subjects of which are taken from the poems of
Homer; groups representing the besiegers of Troy and its defenders, or
Ulysses with his companions and his ships. I gazed with exceeding delight
on these works of forgotten artists, who had the verses of Homer by
heart--works just drawn from the tombs where they had been buried for
thousands of years, and looking as if fresh from the chisel.

We had letters to the commandant of the fortress, an ancient-looking
stronghold, built by the Medici family, over which we were conducted by
his adjutant, a courteous gentleman with a red nose, who walked as if
keeping time to military music. From the summit of the tower we had an
extensive and most remarkable prospect. It was the 19th day of March, and
below us, the sides of the mountain, scooped into irregular dells, were
covered with fruit-trees just breaking into leaf and flower. Beyond
stretched the region of barrenness I have already described, to the west
of which lay the green pastures of the Maremma, the air of which, in
summer, is deadly, and still further west were spread the waters of the
Mediterranean, out of which were seen rising the mountains of Corsica. To
the north and northeast were the Appenines, capped with snow, embosoming
the fertile lower valley of the Arno, with the cities of Pisa and Leghorn
in sight. To the south we traced the windings of the Cecina, and saw
ascending into the air the smoke of a hot-water lake, agitated perpetually
with the escape of gas, which we were told was visited by Dante, and from
which he drew images for his description of Hell. Some Frenchman has now
converted it into a borax manufactory, the natural heat of the water
serving to extract the salt.

The fortress is used as a prison for persons guilty of offenses against
the state. On the top of the tower we passed four prisoners of state,
well-dressed young men, who appeared to have been entertaining themselves
with music, having guitars and other instruments in their hands. They
saluted the adjutant as he went by them, who, in return, took off his hat.
They had been condemned for a conspiracy against the government.

The commandant gave us a hospitable reception. In showing us the fortress
he congratulated us that we had no occasion for such engines of government
in America. We went to his house in the evening, where we saw his wife, a
handsome young lady, whom he had lately brought from Florence, the very
lady of the pianoforte whom I have already mentioned, and the mother of
two young children, whose ruddy cheeks and chubby figures did credit to
the wholesome air of Volterra. The commandant made tea for us in tumblers,
and the lady gave us music. The tea was so strong a decoction that I
seemed to hear the music all night, and had no need of being waked from
sleep, when our _vetturino_, at an early hour the next morning, came to
take us on our journey to Sienna.

The End.


[1] The following is a Spanish translation of this hymn as taken down in
writing from the mouth of one of the Mahonese, as they call themselves, a
native of St. Augustine. The author does not hold himself responsible for
the purity of the Castilian.

Dejaremos el duelo,
Cantaremos con alegria,
E iremos a dar
Las pascuas a Maria.
O Maria.

San Gabriel
Aca porto la embajada.
De nuestro rey del ciel
Estareis prenada.
Ya humillada
Tu que vais aqui servente,
Hija de Dios contenta
Para hacer lo que el quiere.
Dejaremos el duelo, &a.

Y a media noche,
Paristeis reyna
A un Dios infinite
Dentro de un establo.
Y a media dia,
Los Angeles van cantando
Paz y abundancia
De la gloria de Dios solo.
Dejaremos el duelo, &a.

Y a Belem,
Alla en la tierra santa,
Nos nacio Gesus
Con alegria tanta.
Nino chiquito,
Que todo el mundo salvaria;
Y ningun bastaria
Sino un Dios todo solo.
Dejaremos el duelo, &a.

Cuando del Oriente los
Tres reyes la estrella vieron,
Dios omnipotente,
Para adorarlo ivinieron.
Un regalo inferieron,
De mil inciensos y oro,
Al bendito Senor
Que sabe qualquiera cosa.
Dejaremos el duelo, &a.

Todo fu pronto
Para cumplir la promesa;
Del Espiritu Santo
Un Angel fue mandado.
Gran fuego encendido
Que quema el corage;
Dios nos de lenguage
Para hacer lo que quiere.
Dejaremos el duelo, &a.

Cuando se fue
De este mundo nuestra Senora,
Al ciel se empujo
Su hijo la misme hora.
O emperadora,
Que del ciel sois elijida!
La rosa florida,
Mas resplandesciente que un sol!
Dejaremos el duelo, &a.

Y el tercer dia
Que Gesus resuscito,
Dios y Veronica
De la morte triunfo.
De alli se bajo
Para perder a Lucifer,
Con todo el suo poder,
Que dienuestro ser el sol.
Dejaremos el duelo, &a.

[2] Thus in the Spanish translation furnished me:

Estos seis versos que cantamos
Regina celestial!
Dadnos paz y alegria,
Y buenas fiestas tengais.
Yo vos doy sus buenas fiestas;
Dadnos dinero de nuestras nueces.
Siempre tendremos las manos prestas.
Para recibir un cuatro de huevos.

Y el dia de pascua florida,
Alegremonos juntamente;
El que mori para darnos vida
Ya vive gloriosamente.

Aquesta casa esta empredrada,
Bien halla que la empedro;
El amo de aquesta casa,
Quisiera darnos un don.
Quesadilla, o empanada,
Cucuta, o flaon,
Qualquiera cosa me agrada,
Solo que no me digas que no,

[3] Thus in the Spanish:

Aquesta casa esta empedrada,
Empedrada de cuatro vientos;
El amo de aquesta casa
Es hombre de cortesia.

[4] "Now they are fighting!"

[5] "Kill! kill! kill!"

[6] "Look, look, it will do you no harm."

[7] "Put it on, put it on."

[8] "Publicly, sir, publicly."

Book of the day: