Visit to the Cimbri, by William Dean
1867 --- 1895
I had often heard in Venice of that ancient people, settled in the
Alpine hills about the pretty town of Bassano, on the Brenta, whom
common fame declares to be a remnant of the Cimbrian invaders of Rome,
broken up in battle, and dispersed along the borders of North Italy,
by Marius, many centuries ago. So when the soft September weather
came, last year, we sallied out of Venice, in three, to make
conquest of whatever was curious in the life and traditions of these
mountaineers, who dwell in seven villages, and are therefore called
the people of the Sette Communi among their Italian neighbors. We
went fully armed with note-book and sketch-book, and prepared to take
literary possession of our conquest.
From Venice to the city of Vicenza by railroad, it is two hours; and
thence one must take a carriage to Bassano (which is an opulent and
busy little grain mart, of some twelve thousand souls, about thirty
miles north of Venice). We were very glad of the ride across the
country. By the time we reached the town it was nine o'clock, and
moonlight, and as we glanced out of our windows we saw the quaint
up-and-down-hill streets peopled with promenaders, and every body
in Bassano seemed to be making love. Young girls strolled about the
picturesque ways with their lovers, and tender couples were cooing
at the doorways and windows, and the scene had all that surface
of romance with which the Italians contrive to varnish the real
commonplaceness of their life. Our ride through the twilight landscape
had prepared us for the sentiment of Bassano; we had pleased ourselves
with the spectacle of the peasants returning from their labor in the
fields, led in troops of eight or ten by stalwart, white-teethed,
bare-legged maids; and we had reveled in the momentary lordship of
an old walled town we passed, which at dusk seemed more Gothic and
Middle-Age than any thing after Verona, with a fine church, and
turrets and battlements in great plenty. What town it was, or what it
had been doing there so many ages, I have never sought to know, and I
should be sorry to learn any thing about it.
The next morning we began those researches for preliminary information
concerning the Cimbri which turned out so vain. Indeed, as we drew
near the lurking-places of that ancient people, all knowledge relating
to them diffused itself into shadowy conjecture. The barber and the
bookseller differed as to the best means of getting to the Sette
Communi, and the caffetiere at whose place we took breakfast knew
nothing at all of the road, except that it was up the mountains, and
commanded views of scenery which verily, it would not grieve us to
see. As to the Cimbri, he only knew that they had their own language,
which was yet harder than the German. The German was hard enough, but
the Cimbrian! Corpo!
At last, hearing of a famous cave there is at Oliero, a town some
miles further up the Brenta, we determined to go there, and it was a
fortunate thought, for there we found a nobleman in charge of the cave
who told us exactly how to reach the Sette Communi. You pass a bridge
to get out of Bassano—a bridge which spans the crystal swiftness of
the Brenta, rushing down to the Adriatic from the feet of the Alps on
the north, and full of voluble mills at Bassano. All along the road to
Oliero was the finest mountain scenery, Brenta-washed, and picturesque
with ever-changing lines. Maize grows in the bottom-lands, and
tobacco, which is guarded in the fields by soldiers for the monopolist
government. Farm-houses dot the valley, and now and then we passed
villages, abounding in blonde girls, so rare elsewhere in Italy, but
here so numerous as to give Titian that type from which he painted.
At Oliero we learned not only which was the road to the Sette Communi,
but that we were in it, and it was settled that we should come the
next day and continue in it, with the custodian of the cave, who
for his breakfast and dinner, and what else we pleased, offered to
accompany us. We were early at Oliero on the following morning, and
found our friend in waiting; he mounted beside our driver, and we rode
up the Brenta to the town of Valstagna where our journey by wheels
ended, and where we were to take mules for the mountain ascent. Our
guide, Count Giovanni Bonato (for I may as well give him his title,
though at this stage of our progress we did not know into what
patrician care we had fallen), had already told us what the charge
for mules would be, but it was necessary to go through the ceremony of
bargain with the muleteer before taking the beasts. Their owner was a
Cimbrian, with a broad sheepish face, and a heavy, awkward accent of
Italian which at once more marked his northern race, and made us feel
comparatively secure from plunder in his hands. He had come down from
the mountain top the night before, bringing three mules laden with
charcoal, and he had waited for us till the morning. His beasts were
furnished with comfortable pads, covered with linen, to ride upon, and
with halters instead of bridles, and we were prayed to let them have
their heads in the ascent, and not to try to guide them.
The elegant leisure of Valstagna (and in an Italian town nearly the
whole population is elegantly at leisure) turned out to witness the
departure of our expedition; the pretty little blonde wife of our
inn-keeper, who was to get dinner ready against our return, held up
her baby to wish us boun viaggio, and waved us adieu with the infant
as with a handkerchief; the chickens and children scattered to right
and left before our advance; and with Count Giovanni going splendidly
ahead on foot, and the Cimbrian bringing up the rear, we struck on
the broad rocky valley between the heights, and presently began the
ascent. It was a lovely morning; the sun was on the heads of the
hills, and the shadows clothed them like robes to their feet; and
I should be glad to feel here and now the sweetness, freshness,
and purity of the mountain air, that seemed to bathe our souls in a
childlike delight of life. A noisy brook gurgled through the valley;
the birds sang from the trees; the Alps rose, crest on crest, around
us; and soft before us, among the bald peaks showed the wooded
height where the Cimbrian village of Fozza stood, with a white chapel
gleaming from the heart of the lofty grove. Along the mountain sides
the smoke curled from the lonely huts of shepherds, and now and then
we came upon one of those melancholy refuges which are built in
the hills for such travellers as are belated in their ways, or are
overtaken there by storms.
The road for the most part winds by the brink of precipices,—walled
in with masonry of small stones, where Nature has not shored it up
with vast monoliths,—and is paved with limestone. It is, of course,
merely a mule-path, and it was curious to see, and thrilling to
experience, how the mules, vain of the safety of their foothold, kept
as near the border of the precipices as possible. For my own part, I
abandoned to my beast the entire responsibility involved by this line
of conduct; let the halter hang loose upon his neck, and gave him no
aid except such slight service as was occasionally to be rendered
by shutting my eyes and holding my breath. The mule of the fairer
traveller behind me was not only ambitious of peril like my own, but
was envious of my beast's captaincy, and continually tried to pass him
on the outside of the path, to the great dismay of the gentle rider;
while half-suppressed wails of terror from the second lady in the
train gave evidence of equal vanity and daring in her mule. Count
Giovanni strode stolidly before, the Cimbrian came behind, and we
had little coherent conversation until we stopped under a spreading
haw-tree, half-way up the mountain, to breathe our adventurous beasts.
Here two of us dismounted, and while one of the ladies sketched the
other in her novel attitude of cavalier, I listened to the talk of
Count Giovanni and the Cimbrian. This Cimbrian's name in Italian
was Lazzaretti, and in his own tongue Brück, which, pronouncing less
regularly, we made Brick, in compliment to his qualities of good
fellowship. His broad, honest visage was bordered by a hedge of red
beard, and a light of dry humor shone upon it: he looked, we thought,
like a Cornishman, and the contrast between him and the viso sciolto,
pensieri stretti expression of Count Giovanni was curious enough.
Concerning his people, he knew little; but the Capo-gente of Fozza
could tell me everything. Various traditions of their origin were
believed among them; Brick himself held to one that they had first
come from Denmark. As we sat there under the spreading haw-tree,
Count Giovanni and I made him give us the Cimbrian equivalent of some
Italian phrases, which the curious may care to see in correspondence
with English and German. Of course, German pronunciation must be given
to the words:—
English. Cimbrian. German.
I go, I gehe, Ich gehe.
Thou goest, Du gehst, Du gehst.
He goes, Ar geht, Er geht.
We go, Hamish gehen, Wir gehen.
You go, Hamish setender gehnt, Ihr geht.
They go, Dandern gehnt, Sie gehen.
I went, I bin gegehnt, Ich bin gegangen.
Thou wentest, Du bist gegehnt, Du bist gegangen.
He went, Der iganget, Er ist gegangen
Good day, Uter tag, Guten Tag.
Good night, Uter nast, Gute Nacht.
How do you do? Bie estater? Wie steht's?
How goes it? Bie gehts? Wie geht's?
I, I, Ich.
Thou, Du, Du.
He, she, Di, Er, sie.
We, Borandern, Wir.
You, Ihrt, Ihr.
They, Dandern, Sie.
The head, Da kof, Der Kopf.
Breast, Petten, Brust (Italian petto)
Face, Denne, Gesicht.
Arm, Arm, Arm.
Foot, Vuss, Fuss.
Finger, Vinger, Finger.
Hand, Hant, Hand.
Tree, Pom, Baum.
Hat, Hoit, Hut.
God, Got, Gott.
Heaven, Debelt, Himmel.
Earth, Erda, Erde.
Mountain, Perk, Berg.
Valley, Tal, Thal.
Man, Mann, Mann.
Woman, Beip, Weib.
Lady, Vrau, Frau.
Child, Hint, Kind.
Brother, Pruder, Bruder.
Father, Vada, Vater.
Mother, Muter, Mutter.
Sister, Schwester, Schwester,
Stone, Stone, Stein.
A general resemblance to German and English will have been observed in
these fragments of Cimbrian, while other words will have been noticed
as quite foreign to either.
There was a poor little house of refreshment beside our spreading haw,
and a withered old woman came out of it and refreshed us with clear
spring water, and our guides and friends with some bitter berries of
the mountain, which they admitted were unpleasant to the taste, but
declared were very good for the blood. When they had sufficiently
improved their blood, we mounted our mules again, and set out with the
journey of an hour and a quarter still between us and Fozza.
As we drew near the summit of the mountain our road grew more level,
and instead of creeping along by the brinks of precipices, we began
to wind through bits of meadow and pleasant valley walled in by lofty
heights of rock.
Though September was bland as June at the foot of the mountain, we
found its breath harsh and cold on these heights; and we remarked that
though there were here and there breadths of wheat, the land was
for the most part in sheep pasturage, and the grass looked poor and
stinted of summer warmth. We met, at times, the shepherds, who seemed
to be of Italian race, and were of the conventional type of shepherds,
with regular faces, and two elaborate curls trained upon their cheeks,
as shepherds are always represented in stone over the gates of villas.
They bore staves, and their flocks went before them. Encountering us,
they saluted us courteously, and when we had returned their greeting,
they cried with one voice,—"Ah, lords! is not this a miserable
country? The people are poor and the air is cold. It is an unhappy
land!" And so passed on, profoundly sad; but we could not help smiling
at the vehement popular desire to have the region abused. We answered
cheerfully that it was a lovely country. If the air was cold, it was
We now drew in sight of Fozza, and, at the last moment, just before
parting with Brick, we learned that he had passed a whole year in
Venice, where he had brought milk from the main-land and sold it in
the city. He declared frankly that he counted that year worth all the
other years of his life, and that he would never have come back to his
native heights but that his father had died, and left his mother and
young brothers helpless. He was an honest soul, and I gave him two
florins, which I had tacitly appointed him over and above the bargain,
with something for the small Brick-bats at home, whom he presently
brought to kiss our hands at the house of the Capo-gente.
The village of Fozza is built on a grassy, oblong plain on the crest
of the mountain, which declines from it on three sides, and on the
north rises high above it into the mists in bleaker and ruggeder
acclivities. There are not more than thirty houses in the village, and
I do not think it numbers more than a hundred and fifty souls, if
it numbers so many. Indeed, it is one of the smallest of the Sette
Communi, of which the capital, Asiago, contains some thousands of
people, and lies not far from Vicenza. The poor Fozzatti had a church,
however, in their village, in spite of its littleness, and they had
just completed a fine new bell tower, which the Capo-gente deplored,
and was proud of when I praised it. The church, like all the other
edifices, was built of stone; and the village at a little distance
might look like broken crags of rock, so well it consorted with the
harsh, crude nature about it. Meagre meadowlands, pathetic with tufts
of a certain pale-blue, tearful flower, stretched about the village
and southward as far as to that wooded point which had all day been
our landmark in the ascent.
Our train drew up at the humble door of the Capo-gente (in Fozza all
doors are alike humble), and, leaving our mules, we entered by his
wife's invitation, and seated ourselves near the welcome fire of the
kitchen—welcome, though we knew that all the sunny Lombard plain
below was purple with grapes and black with figs. Again came from
the women here the wail of the shepherds: "Ah, lords! is it not a
miserable land?" and I began to doubt whether the love which I had
heard mountaineers bore to their inclement heights was not altogether
fabulous. They made haste to boil us some eggs, and set them before us
with some unhappy wine, and while we were eating, the Capo-gente came
He was a very well-mannered person, but had, of course, the
bashfulness naturally resulting from lonely life at that altitude,
where contact with the world must be infrequent. His fellow-citizens
seemed to regard him with a kind of affectionate deference, and some
of them came in to hear him talk with the strangers. He stood till we
prayed him to sit down, and he presently consented to take some wine
After all, however, he could not tell us much of his people which we
had not heard before. A tradition existed among them, he said, that
their ancestors had fled to these Alps from Marius, and that they
had dwelt for a long time in the hollows and caves of the mountains,
living and burying their dead in the same secret places. At what time
they had been converted to Christianity he could not tell; they
had, up to the beginning of the present century, had little or no
intercourse with the Italian population by which they were surrounded
on all sides. Formerly, they did not intermarry with that race, and it
was seldom that any Cimbrian knew its language. But now intermarriage
is very frequent; both Italian and Cimbrian are spoken in nearly all
the families, and the Cimbrian is gradually falling into disuse. They
still, however, have books of religious instruction in their ancient
dialect, and until very lately the services of their church were
performed in Cimbrian.
I begged the Capo to show us some of their books and he brought us
two,—one a catechism for children, entitled "Dar Kloane Catechism
vor z' Beloseland vortraghet in z' gaprecht von siben Komünen, un vier
Halghe Gasang. 1842. Padova." The other book it grieved me to see, for
it proved that I was not the only one tempted in recent times to
visit these ancient people, ambitious to bear to them the relation of
discoverer, as it were. A High-Dutch Columbus, from Vienna, had been
before me, and I could only come in for Amerigo Vespucci's tempered
glory. This German savant had dwelt a week in these lonely places,
patiently compiling a dictionary of their tongue, which, when it was
printed, he had sent to the Capo. I am magnanimous enough to give
the name of his book, that the curious may buy it if they like. It
is called "Johann Andreas Schweller's Cimbrisches Wörterbuch. Joseph
Bergman. Vienna, 1855."
Concerning the present Cimbri, the Capo said that in his community
they were chiefly hunters, wood-cutters, and charcoal-burners, and
that they practiced their primitive crafts in those gloomier and
wilder heights we saw to the northward, and descended to the towns
of the plain to make sale of their fagots, charcoal, and wild-beast
skins. In Asiago and the larger communities they were farmers and
tradesmen like the Italians; and the Capo believed that the Cimbri, in
all their villages, numbered near ten thousand. He could tell me of
no particular customs or usages, and believed they did not differ from
the Italians now except in race and language. [The English traveller
Rose, who (to my further discomfiture, I find) visited Asiago in 1817,
mentions that the Cimbri have the Celtic custom of waking the dead.
"If a traveller dies by the way, they plant a cross upon the spot,
and all who pass by cast a stone upon his cairn. Some go in certain
seasons in the year to high places and woods, where it is supposed
they worshiped their divinities, but the origin of the custom is
forgot amongst themselves." If a man dies by violence, they lay him
out with his hat and shoes on, as if to give him the appearance of a
wayfarer, and "symbolize one surprised in the great journey of life."
A woman dying in childbed is dressed for the grave in her bridal
ornaments. Mr. Rose is very scornful of the notion that these people
are Cimbri, and holds that it is "more consonant to all the evidence
of history to say, that the flux and reflux of Teutonic invaders
at different periods deposited this backwater of barbarians" in the
district they now inhabit. "The whole space, which in addition to
the seven burghs contains twenty-four villages, is bounded by rivers,
alps, and hills. Its most precise limits are the Brenta to the east,
and the Astico to the west."] They are, of course, subject to the
Austrian Government, but not so strictly as the Italians are; and
though they are taxed and made to do military service, they are
otherwise left to regulate their affairs pretty much at their
The Capo ended his discourse with much polite regret that he had
nothing more worthy to tell us; and, as if to make us amends for
having come so far to learn so little, he said there was a hermit
living near, whom we might like to see, and sent his son to conduct us
to the hermitage. It turned out to be the white object which we had
seen gleaming in the wood on the mountain from so great distance
below, and the wood turned out to be a pleasant beechen grove, in
which we found the hermit cutting fagots. He was warmly dressed in
clothes without rent, and wore the clerical knee-breeches. He saluted
us with a cricket-like chirpiness of manner, and was greatly amazed to
hear that we had come all the way from America to visit him. His
hermitage was built upon the side of a white-washed chapel to St.
Francis, and contained three or four little rooms or cupboards, in
which the hermit dwelt and meditated. They opened into the chapel, of
which the hermit had the care, and which he kept neat and clean like
himself. He told us proudly that once a year, on the day of the
titular saint, a priest came and said mass in that chapel, and it was
easy to see that this was the great occasion of the old man's life.
For forty years, he said, he had been devout; and for twenty-five he
had dwelt in this place, where the goodness of God and the charity of
the poor people around had kept him from want. Altogether, he was a
pleasant enough hermit, not in the least spiritual, but gentle,
simple, and evidently sincere. We gave some small coins of silver to
aid him to continue his life of devotion, and Count Giovanni bestowed
some coppers with the stately blessing, "Iddio vi benedica, padre
So we left the hermitage, left Fozza, and started down the mountain
on foot, for no one may ride down those steeps. Long before we reached
the bottom, we had learned to loathe mountains and to long for dead
levels during the rest of life. Yet the descent was picturesque, and
in some things even more interesting than the ascent had been. We
met more people: now melancholy shepherds with their flocks; now
swine-herds and swine-herdesses with herds of wild black pigs of the
Italian breed; now men driving asses that brayed and woke long, loud,
and most musical echoes in the hills; now whole peasant families
driving cows, horses, and mules to the plains below. On the way
down, fragments of autobiography began, with the opportunities of
conversation, to come from the Count Giovanni, and we learned that he
was a private soldier at home on that permesso which the Austrian
Government frequently gives its less able-bodied men in times of
peace. He had been at home some years, and did not expect to be again
called into the service. He liked much better to be in charge of the
cave at Oliero than to carry the musket, though he confessed that he
liked to see the world, and that soldiering brought one acquainted
with many places. He had not many ideas, and the philosophy of his
life chiefly regarded deportment toward strangers who visited the
cave. He held it an error in most custodians to show discontent when
travellers gave them little; and he said that if he received never
so much, he believed it wise not to betray exultation. "Always be
contented, and nothing more," said Count Giovanni.
"It is what you people always promise beforehand," I said, "when you
bargain with strangers, to do them a certain service for what they
please; but afterward they must pay what you please or have trouble. I
know you will not be content with what I give you."
"If I am not content," cried Count Giovanni, "call me the greatest ass
in the world!"
And I am bound to say that, for all I could see through the mask of
his face, he was satisfied with what I gave him, though it was not
He had told us casually that he was nephew of a nobleman of a certain
rich and ancient family in Venice, who sent him money while in the
army, but this made no great impression on me; and though I knew there
was enough noble poverty in Italy to have given rise to the proverb,
Un conte che non conta, non conta niente, yet I confess that it was
with a shock of surprise I heard our guide and servant saluted by
a lounger in Valstagna with "Sior conte, servitor suo!" I looked
narrowly at him, but there was no ray of feeling or pride visible in
his pale, languid visage as he responded, "Buona sera, caro."
Still, after that revelation we simple plebeians, who had been all day
heaping shawls and guide-books upon Count Giovanni, demanding menial
offices from him, and treating him with good-natured slight, felt
uncomfortable in his presence, and welcomed the appearance of our
carriage with our driver, who, having started drunk from Bassano in
the morning, had kept drunk all day at Valstagna, and who now drove us
back wildly over the road, and almost made us sigh for the security of
mules ambitious of the brinks of precipices.