At Padua, by William Dean Howells
1867 --- 1895
Those of my readers who have frequented the garden of Doctor
Rappaccini no doubt recall with perfect distinctness the quaint
old city of Padua. They remember its miles and miles of dim arcade
over-roofing the sidewalks everywhere, affording excellent opportunity
for the flirtation of lovers by day and the vengeance of rivals by
night. They have seen the now-vacant streets thronged with maskers,
and the Venetian Podestà going in gorgeous state to and from the vast
Palazzo della Ragione. They have witnessed ringing tournaments in
those sad empty squares, and races in the Prato della Valle, and
many other wonders of different epochs, and their pleasure makes me
half-sorry that I should have lived for several years within an hour
by rail from Padua, and should know little or nothing of these great
sights from actual observation. I take shame to myself for having
visited Padua so often and so familiarly as I used to do,—for having
been bored and hungry there,—for having had toothache there, upon one
occasion,—for having rejoiced more in a cup of coffee at Pedrocchi's
than in the whole history of Padua,—for having slept repeatedly in
the bad-bedded hotels of Padua and never once dreamt of Portia,—for
having been more taken by the salti mortali[Salti mortali are
those prodigious efforts of mental arithmetic by which Italian
waiters, in verbally presenting your account, arrive at six as the
product of two and two.] of a waiter who summed up my account at a
Paduan restaurant, than by all the strategies with which the city has
been many times captured and recaptured. Had I viewed Padua only over
the wall of Doctor Rappaccini's garden, how different my impressions
of the city would now be! This is one of the drawbacks of actual
knowledge. "Ah! how can you write about Spain when once you have been
there?" asked Heine of Théophile Gautier setting out on a journey
Nevertheless it seems to me that I remember something about Padua with
a sort of romantic pleasure. There was a certain charm which I can
dimly recall, in sauntering along the top of the old wall of the
city, and looking down upon the plumy crests of the Indian corn that
flourished up so mightily from the dry bed of the moat. At such times
I could not help figuring to myself the many sieges that the wall had
known, with the fierce assault by day, the secret attack by night, the
swarming foe upon the plains below, the bristling arms of the besieged
upon the wall, the boom of the great mortars made of ropes and leather
and throwing mighty balls of stone, the stormy flight of arrows, the
ladders planted against the defenses and staggering headlong into the
moat, enriched for future agriculture not only by its sluggish waters,
but by the blood of many men. I suppose that most of these visions
were old stage spectacles furbished up anew, and that my armies
were chiefly equipped with their obsolete implements of warfare from
museums of armor and from cabinets of antiquities; but they were very
vivid for all that.
I was never able, in passing a certain one of the city gates, to
divest myself of an historic interest in the great loads of hay
waiting admission on the outside. For an instant they masked again the
Venetian troops that, in the War of the League of Cambray, entered the
city in the hay-carts, shot down the landsknechts at the gates, and,
uniting with the citizens, cut the German garrison to pieces. But it
was a thing long past. The German garrison was here again; and the
heirs of the landsknechts went clanking through the gate to the
parade-ground, with that fierce clamor of their kettle-drums which is
so much fiercer because unmingled with the noise of fifes. Once more
now the Germans are gone, and, let us trust, forever; but when I
saw them, there seemed little hope of their going. They had a great
Biergarten on the top of the wall, and they had set up the altars of
their heavy Bacchus in many parts of the city.
I please myself with thinking that, if I walked on such a spring
day as this in the arcaded Paduan streets, I should catch glimpses,
through the gate-ways of the palaces, of gardens full of vivid bloom,
and of fountains that tinkle there forever. If it were autumn, and
I were in the great market-place before the Palazzo della Ragione, I
should hear the baskets of amber-hued and honeyed grapes humming with
the murmur of multitudinous bees, and making a music as if the wine
itself were already singing in their gentle hearts. It is a great
field of succulent verdure, that wide old market-place; and fancy
loves to browse about among its gay stores of fruits and vegetables,
brought thither by the world-old peasant-women who have been bringing
fruits and vegetables to the Paduan market for so many centuries. They
sit upon the ground before their great panniers, and knit and doze,
and wake up with a drowsy "Comandala?" as you linger to look
at their grapes. They have each a pair of scales,—the emblem of
Injustice,—and will weigh you out a scant measure of the fruit if you
like. Their faces are yellow as parchment, and Time has written them
so full of wrinkles that there is not room for another line. Doubtless
these old parchment visages are palimpsests, and would tell the whole
history of Padua if you could get at each successive inscription.
Among their primal records there must be some account of the Roman
city, as each little contadinella remembered it on market-days; and
one might read of the terror of Attila's sack, a little later, with
the peasant-maid's personal recollections of the bold Hunnish trooper
who ate up the grapes in her basket, and kissed her hard, round red
cheeks,—for in that time she was a blooming girl,—and paid nothing
for either privilege. What wild and confused reminiscences on the
wrinkled visage we should find thereafter of the fierce republican
times, of Ecelino, of the Carraras, of the Venetian rule! And is it
not sad to think of systems and peoples all passing away, and these
ancient women lasting still, and still selling grapes in front of the
Palazzo della Ragione? What a long mortality!
The youngest of their number is a thousand years older than the
palace, which was begun in the twelfth century, and which is much the
same now as it was when first completed. I know that, if I entered it,
I should be sure of finding the great hall of the palace—the vastest
hall in the world—dim and dull and dusty and delightful, with nothing
in it except at one end Donatello's colossal marble-headed wooden
horse of Troy, stared at from the other end by the two dog-faced
Egyptian women in basalt placed there by Belzoni.
Late in the drowsy summer afternoons I should have the Court of the
University all to myself, and might study unmolested the blazons of
the noble youth who have attended the school in different centuries
ever since 1200, and have left their escutcheons on the walls to
commemorate them. At the foot of the stairway ascending to the schools
from the court is the statue of the learned lady who was once a
professor in the University, and who, if her likeness belie not her
looks, must have given a great charm to student life in other times.
At present there are no lady professors at Padua any more than at
Harvard; and during late years the schools have suffered greatly from
the interference of the Austrian government, which frequently closed
them for months, on account of political demonstrations among the
students. But now there is an end of this and many other stupid
oppressions; and the time-honored University will doubtless regain
its ancient importance. Even in 1864 it had nearly fifteen hundred
students, and one met them everywhere under the arcades, and could
not well mistake them, with that blended air of pirate and dandy which
these studious young men loved to assume. They were to be seen a good
deal on the promenades outside the walls, where the Paduan ladies are
driven in their carriages in the afternoon, and where one sees the
blood-horses and fine equipages for which Padua is famous. There used
once to be races in the Prato della Valle, after the Italian notion of
horse-races; but these are now discontinued, and there is nothing to
be found there but the statues of scholars and soldiers and statesmen,
posted in a circle around the old race-course. If you strolled thither
about dusk on such a day as this, you might see the statues unbend a
little from their stony rigidity, and in the failing light nod to each
other very pleasantly through the trees. And if you stayed in Padua
over night, what could be better to-morrow morning than a stroll
through the great Botanical Garden,—the oldest botanical garden in
the world,—the garden which first received in Europe the strange
and splendid growths of our hemisphere,—the garden where Doctor
Rappaccini doubtless found the germ of his mortal plant?
On the whole, I believe I would rather go this moment to Padua than to
Lowell or Lawrence, or even to Worcester; and as to the disadvantage
of having seen Padua, I begin to think the whole place has now assumed
so fantastic a character in my mind that I am almost as well qualified
to write of it as if I had merely dreamed it.
The day that we first visited the city was very rainy, and we spent
most of the time in viewing the churches. These, even after the
churches of Venice, one finds rich in art and historic interest, and
they in no instance fall into the maniacal excesses of the Renaissance
to which some of the temples of the latter city abandon themselves.
Their architecture forms a sort of border-land between the Byzantine
of Venice and the Lombardic of Verona. The superb domes of St.
Anthony's emulate those of St. Mark's; and the porticos of other
Paduan churches rest upon the backs of bird-headed lions and leopards
that fascinate with their mystery and beauty.
It was the wish to see the attributive Giottos in the Chapter which
drew us first to St. Anthony's, and we saw them with the satisfaction
naturally attending the contemplation of frescos discovered only since
1858, after having been hidden under plaster and whitewash for many
centuries; but we could not believe that Giotto's fame was destined
to gain much by their rescue from oblivion. They are in nowise to
be compared with this master's frescos in the Chapel of the
Annunziata,—which, indeed, is in every way a place of wonder and
delight. You reach it by passing through a garden lane bordered with
roses, and a taciturn gardener comes out with clinking keys, and lets
you into the chapel, where there is nobody but Giotto and Dante, nor
seems to have been for ages. Cool it is, and of a pulverous smell, as
a sacred place should be; a blessed benching goes round the walls, and
you sit down and take unlimited comfort in the frescos. The gardener
leaves you alone to the solitude and the silence, in which the talk
of the painter and the exile is plain enough. Their contemporaries and
yours are cordial in their gay companionship: through the half-open
door falls, in a pause of the rain, the same sunshine that they saw
lie there; the deathless birds that they heard sing out in the garden
trees; it is the fresh sweetness of the grass mown so many hundred
years ago that breathes through all the lovely garden grounds.
But in the midst of this pleasant communion with the past, you have
a lurking pain; for you have hired your brougham by the hour; and you
presently quit the Chapel of Giotto on this account.
We had chosen our driver from among many other drivers of broughams in
the vicinity of Pedrocchi's, because he had such an honest look, and
was not likely, we thought, to deal unfairly with us.
"But first," said the signor who had selected him, "how much is your
brougham an hour?"
So and so.
"Show me the tariff of fares."
"There is no tariff."
"There is. Show it to me."
"It is lost, signor."
"I think not. It is here in this pocket. Get it out."
The tariff appears, and with it the fact that he had demanded just
what the boatman of the ballad received in gift,—thrice his fee.
The driver mounted his seat, and served us so faithfully that day in
Padua that we took him the next day for Arquà. At the end, when he
had received his due, and a handsome mancia besides, he was still
unsatisfied, and referred to the tariff in proof that he had been
under-paid. On that confronted and defeated, he thanked us very
cordially, gave us the number of his brougham, and begged us to ask
for him when we came next to Padua and needed a carriage.
From the Chapel of the Annunziata he drove us to the Church of Santa
Giustina, where is a very famous and noble picture by Romanino. But as
this writing has nothing in the world to do with art, I here dismiss
that subject, and with a gross and idle delight follow the sacristan
down under the church to the prison of Santa Giustina.
Of all the faculties of the mind there is none so little fatiguing to
exercise as mere wonder; and, for my own sake, I try always to wonder
at things without the least critical reservation. I therefore, in the
sense of deglutition, bolted this prison at once, though subsequent
experiences led me to look with grave indigestion upon the whole idea
of prisons, their authenticity, and even their existence.
As far as mere dimensions are concerned, the prison of Santa Giustina
was not a hard one to swallow, being only three feet wide by about
ten feet in length. In this limited space, Santa Giustina passed five
years of the paternal reign of Nero (a virtuous and a long-suffering
prince, whom, singularly enough, no historic artist has yet arisen to
whitewash), and was then brought out into the larger cell adjoining,
to suffer a blessed martyrdom. I am not sure now whether the sacristan
said she was dashed to death on the stones, or cut to pieces with
knives; but whatever the form of martyrdom, an iron ring in the
ceiling was employed in it, as I know from seeing the ring,—a
curiously well-preserved piece of iron-mongery. Within the narrow
prison of the saint, and just under the grating, through which the
sacristan thrust his candle to illuminate it, was a mountain of
candle-drippings,—a monument to the fact that faith still largely
exists in this doubting world. My own credulity, not only with regard
to this prison, but also touching the coffin of St. Luke, which I saw
in the church, had so wrought upon the esteem of the sacristan, that
he now took me to a well, into which, he said, had been cast the bones
of three thousand Christian martyrs. He lowered a lantern into the
well, and assured me that, if I looked through a certain screenwork
there, I could see the bones. On experiment I could not see the
bones, but this circumstance did not cause me to doubt their presence,
particularly as I did see upon the screen a great number of coins
offered for the repose of the martyrs' souls. I threw down some
soldi, and thus enthralled the sacristan.
If the signor cared to see prisons, he said, the driver must take him
to those of Ecelino, at present the property of a private gentleman
near by. As I had just bought a history of Ecelino, at a great
bargain, from a second-hand book-stall, and had a lively interest in
all the enormities of that nobleman, I sped the driver instantly to
the villa of the Signor P——.
It depends here altogether upon the freshness or mustiness of the
reader's historical reading whether he cares to be reminded more
particularly who Ecelino was. He flourished balefully in the early
half of the thirteenth century as lord of Vicenza, Verona, Padua, and
Brescia, and was defeated and hurt to death in an attempt to possess
himself of Milan. He was in every respect a remarkable man for
that time,—fearless, abstemious, continent, avaricious, hardy,
and unspeakably ambitious and cruel. He survived and suppressed
innumerable conspiracies, escaping even the thrust of the assassin
whom the fame of his enormous wickedness had caused the Old Man of the
Mountain to send against him. As lord of Padua he was more incredibly
severe and bloody in his rule than as lord of the other cities, for
the Paduans had been latest free, and conspired the most frequently
against him. He extirpated whole families on suspicion that a single
member had been concerned in a meditated revolt. Little children and
helpless women suffered hideous mutilation and shame at his hands.
Six prisons in Padua were constantly filled by his arrests. The whole
country was traversed by witnesses of his cruelties,—men and women
deprived of an arm or leg, and begging from door to door. He had long
been excommunicated; at last the Church proclaimed a crusade against
him, and his lieutenant and nephew—more demoniacal, if possible,
than himself—was driven out of Padua while he was operating against
Mantua. Ecelino retired to Verona, and maintained a struggle against
the crusade for nearly two years longer, with a courage which never
failed him. Wounded and taken prisoner, the soldiers of the victorious
army gathered about him, and heaped insult and reproach upon him;
and one furious peasant, whose brother's feet had been cut off by
Ecelino's command, dealt the helpless monster four blows upon the head
with a scythe. By some, Ecelino is said to have died of these wounds
alone; but by others it is related that his death was a kind of
suicide, inasmuch as he himself put the case past surgery by tearing
off the bandages from his hurts, and refusing all medicines.
Entering at the enchanted portal of the Villa P——, we found
ourselves in a realm of wonder. It was our misfortune not to see the
magician who compelled all the marvels on which we looked, but
for that very reason, perhaps, we have the clearest sense of his
greatness. Everywhere we beheld the evidences of his ingenious but
lugubrious fancy, which everywhere tended to a monumental and mortuary
effect. A sort of vestibule first received us, and beyond this dripped
and glimmered the garden. The walls of the vestibule were covered with
inscriptions setting forth the sentiments of the philosophy and piety
of all ages concerning life and death; we began with Confucius, and
we ended with Benjamino Franklino. But as if these ideas of mortality
were not sufficiently depressing, the funereal Signor P—— had
collected into earthen amphoræ the ashes of the most famous men of
ancient and modern times, and arranged them so that a sense of their
number and variety should at once strike his visitor. Each jar was
conspicuously labeled with the name its illustrious dust had borne
in life; and if one escaped with comparative cheerfulness from the
thought that Seneca had died, there were in the very next pot the
cinders of Napoleon to bully him back to a sense of his mortality.
We were glad to have the gloomy fascination of these objects broken by
the custodian, who approached to ask if we wished to see the prisons
of Ecelino, and we willingly followed him into the rain out of our
Between the vestibule and the towers of the tyrant lay that garden
already mentioned, and our guide led us through ranks of weeping
statuary, and rainy bowers, and showery lanes of shrubbery, until we
reached the door of his cottage. While he entered to fetch the key
to the prisons, we noted that the towers were freshly painted and
in perfect repair; and indeed the custodian said frankly enough, on
reappearing, that they were merely built over the prisons on the site
of the original towers. The storied stream of the Bacchiglione sweeps
through the grounds, and now, swollen by the rainfall, it roared, a
yellow torrent, under a corner of the prisons. The towers rise from
masses of foliage, and form no unpleasing feature of what must be, in
spite of Signor P——, a delightful Italian garden in sunny weather.
The ground is not so flat as elsewhere in Padua, and this inequality
gives an additional picturesqueness to the place. But as we were
come in search of horrors, we scorned these merely lovely things, and
hastened to immure ourselves in the dungeons below. The custodian,
lighting a candle, (which ought, we felt, to have been a torch,) went
We found the cells, though narrow and dark, not uncomfortable, and the
guide conceded that they had undergone some repairs since Ecelino's
time. But all the horrors for which we had come were there in perfect
grisliness, and labeled by the ingenious Signor P—— with Latin
In the first cell was a shrine of the Virgin, set in the wall. Beneath
this, while the wretched prisoner knelt in prayer, a trap-door opened
and precipitated him upon the points of knives, from which his body
fell into the Bacchiglione below. In the next cell, held by some rusty
iron rings to the wall, was a skeleton, hanging by the wrists.
"This," said the guide, "was another punishment of which Ecelino was
A dreadful doubt seized my mind. "Was this skeleton found here?" I
Without faltering an instant, without so much as winking an eye, the
custodian replied, "Appunto."
It was a great relief, and restored me to confidence in the
establishment. I am at a loss to explain how my faith should have been
confirmed afterwards by coming upon a guillotine—an awful instrument
in the likeness of a straw-cutter, with a decapitated wooden figure
under its blade—which the custodian confessed to be a modern
improvement placed there by Signor P——. Yet my credulity was so
strengthened by his candor, that I accepted without hesitation the
torture of the water-drop when we came to it. The water-jar was as
well preserved as if placed there but yesterday, and the skeleton
beneath it—found as we saw it—was entire and perfect.
In the adjoining cell sat a skeleton—found as we saw it—with its
neck in the clutch of the garrote, which was one of Ecelino's more
merciful punishments; while in still another cell the ferocity of
the tyrant appeared in the penalty inflicted upon the wretch whose
skeleton had been hanging for ages—as we saw it—head downwards from
Beyond these, in a yet darker and drearier dungeon, stood a heavy
oblong wooden box, with two apertures near the top, peering through
which we found that we were looking into the eyeless sockets of a
skull. Within this box Ecelino had immured the victim we beheld there,
and left him to perish in view of the platters of food and goblets of
drink placed just beyond the reach of his hands. The food we saw was
of course not the original food.
At last we came to the crowning horror of Villa P——, the supreme
excess of Ecelino's cruelty. The guide entered the cell before us,
and, as we gained the threshold, threw the light of his taper vividly
upon a block that stood in the middle of the floor. Fixed to the
block by an immense spike driven through from the back was the little
slender hand of a woman, which lay there just as it had been struck
from the living arm, and which, after the lapse of so many centuries,
was still as perfectly preserved as if it had been embalmed. The sight
had a most cruel fascination; and while one of the horror-seekers
stood helplessly conjuring to his vision that scene of unknown
dread,—the shrinking, shrieking woman dragged to the block, the wild,
shrill, horrible screech following the blow that drove in the spike,
the merciful swoon after the mutilation,—his companion, with a sudden
pallor, demanded to be taken instantly away.
In their swift withdrawal, they only glanced at a few detached
instruments of torture,—all original Ecelinos, but intended for the
infliction of minor and comparatively unimportant torments,—and then
they passed from that place of fear.
In the evening we sat talking at the Caffè Pedrocchi with an abbate,
an acquaintance of ours, who was a Professor in the University of
Padua. Pedrocchi's is the great caffè of Padua, a granite edifice
of Egyptian architecture, which is the mausoleum of the proprietor's
fortune. The pecuniary skeleton at the feast, however, does not much
trouble the guests. They begin early in the evening to gather into the
elegant saloons of the caffè,—somewhat too large for so small a city
as Padua,—and they sit there late in the night over their cheerful
cups and their ices, with their newspapers and their talk. Not so many
ladies are to be seen as at the caffè in Venice, for it is only in the
greater cities that they go much to these public places. There are few
students at Pedrocchi's, for they frequent the cheaper caffè; but you
may nearly always find there some Professor of the University, and
on the evening of which I speak there were two present besides our
abbate. Our friend's great passion was the English language, which
he understood too well to venture to speak a great deal. He had been
translating from that tongue into Italian certain American poems, and
our talk was of these at first. Then we began to talk of distinguished
American writers, of whom intelligent Italians always know at least
four, in this succession,—Cooper, Mrs. Stowe, Longfellow, and Irving.
Mrs. Stowe's Capanna di Zio Tom is, of course universally read; and
my friend had also read Il Fiore di Maggio,—"The May-flower."
Of Longfellow, the "Evangeline" is familiar to Italians, through a
translation of the poem; but our abbate knew all the poet's works,
and one of the other professors present that evening had made such
faithful study of them as to have produced some translations rendering
the original with remarkable fidelity and spirit. I have before
me here his brochure, printed last year at Padua, and containing
versions of "Enceladus," "Excelsior," "A Psalm of Life," "The
Old Clock on the Stairs," "Sand of the Desert in an Hour-Glass,"
"Twilight," "Daybreak," "The Quadroon Girl," and "Torquemada,"—pieces
which give the Italians a fair notion of our poet's lyrical range, and
which bear witness to Professor Messadaglia's sympathetic and
familiar knowledge of his works. A young and gifted lady of Parma,
now unhappily no more, lately published a translation of "The Golden
Legend;" and Professor Messadaglia, in his Preface, mentions a version
of another of our poet's longer works on which the translator of the
"Evangeline" is now engaged.
At last, turning from literature, we spoke with the gentle abbate of
our day's adventures, and eagerly related that of the Ecelino prisons.
To have seen them was the most terrific pleasure of our lives.
"Eh!" said our friend, "I believe you."
"We mean those under the Villa P——."
There was a tone of politely suppressed amusement in the abbate's
voice; and after a moment's pause, in which we felt our awful
experience slipping and sliding away from us, we ventured to say, "You
don't mean that those are not the veritable Ecelino prisons?"
"Certainly they are nothing of the kind. The Ecelino prisons were
destroyed when the Crusaders took Padua, with the exception of the
tower, which the Venetian Republic converted into an observatory."
"But at least these prisons are on the site of Ecelino's castle?"
"Nothing of the sort. His castle in that case would have been outside
of the old city walls."
"And those tortures and the prisons are all"—
"Things got up for show. No doubt, Ecelino used such things, and many
worse, of which even the ingenuity of Signor P—— cannot conceive.
But he is an eccentric man, loving the horrors of history, and what he
can do to realize them he has done in his prisons."
"But the custodian—how could he lie so?"
Our friend shrugged his shoulders. "Eh! easily. And perhaps he even
believed what he said."
The world began to assume an aspect of bewildering ungenuineness,
and there seemed to be a treacherous quality of fiction in the ground
under our feet. Even the play at the pretty little Teatro Sociale
where we went to pass the rest of the evening appeared hollow and
improbable. We thought the hero something of a bore, with his patience
and goodness; and as for the heroine, pursued by the attentions of the
rich profligate, we doubted if she were any better than she should be.