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Milan in 1796
On May 15, 1796, General Bonaparte entered Milan at the head of that young army which had lately crossed the Lodi bridge and taught the world that after so many centuries Caesar and Alexander had a successor. The miracles of valor and genius Italy had witnessed in a few months wakened a slumbering nation: just eight days before the French arrived, the Milanese still regarded them as no more than a band of brigands who habitually fled before the troops of His Imperial and Royal Majesty: at least so they were told three times a week by a little news-sheet the size of a man's hand, printed on dirty paper.
In the Middle Ages, republican Lombards had displayed a valor equal to that of the French, and were entitled to see their city utterly razed by the German emperors. Since they had become loyal subjects, their chief concern was to print sonnets on tiny pink taffeta handkerchiefs for the weddings of a young lady belonging to some rich or noble family. Two or three years after that great event in her life, the same young lady would take a cavaliere servente: sometimes the name of the cicisbeo chosen by the husband's family occupied an honorable place in the marriage contract. It was a far cry from such effeminate manners to the deep emotions produced by the French army's unexpected arrival. Soon new and impassioned standards of behavior were observed. On May 15, 1796, a whole nation realized that whatever it had hitherto respected was sovereignly absurd and on occasion odious. The departure of the last Austrian regiment marked the fall of the old ideas: risking one's life became fashionable; happiness depended, after centuries of insipidity, upon loving one's country with a passion, upon seeking out heroic actions to perform. People had been plunged into darkness by the persistence of the jealous despotism of Charles V and Philip II; they pulled down their statues and were forthwith flooded with light. For the last fifty years, even as the Encyclopédie and Voltaire were exploding in France, the monks had adjured the good people of Milan that learning to read, or learning anything at all, was a worthless effort, and that by promptly paying one's tithe to the curé and by offering him a faithful account of all one's petty sins, a fine place in paradise was virtually assured. To complete the enfeeblement of this people once so argumentative and so bold, Austria had sold them cheap the privilege of not supplying recruits to her army.
In 1796 the Milanese army consisted of twenty-four wretches in red uniforms who guarded the city with the help of four magnificent regiments of Hungarian grenadiers. Moral freedom was extreme, but passion extremely rare; moreover, aside from the nuisance of having to tell one's curé everything (or be ruined even in this world), the good people of Milan were still subject to certain minor monarchical restrictions which continued to vex them. For instance the Archduke, who resided in Milan and governed in the name of his cousin the Emperor, had conceived the lucrative notion of speculating in wheat. Consequently, no peasant could sell his crop until His Highness's granaries were full.
In May 1796, three days after the entry of the French, a young miniaturist named Gros, slightly mad and subsequently famous, arrived with the army and overheard talk in the great Caffè dei Servi (fashionable at the time) of the exploits of the Archduke, who happened to be extremely fat. Snatching up the list of ices stamped on a sheet of coarse yellow paper, he drew on the back a French soldier thrusting his bayonet into the obese Archduke's belly: instead of blood out poured an incredible quantity of grain. The idea of caricature or cartoon was unknown in this nation of wary despotism. The sketch Gros had left on the table of the Caffé dei Servi seemed a miracle from Heaven; it was printed overnight, and twenty thousand copies were sold the next day.
That same day, notices were posted of a war-tax of six million levied for the needs of the French army, which, having just won six battles and conquered twenty provinces, lacked only shoes, jackets, caps, and trousers.
So much pleasure and happiness poured into Lombardy with these Frenchmen, however ill-dressed, that only the priests and certain noblemen remarked this burden of six million, soon followed by many others. These French soldiers laughed and sang all day long; most were not yet twenty-five, and at twenty-eight their commanding general was accounted the oldest man in his army. Such youth, such gaiety, such free and easy ways offered a fine answer to the furious imprecations of the monks who for six months had preached that the French were monsters under orders, on pain of death, to burn down everything and cut off everyone's head; to which end, each regiment marched with a guillotine in its front ranks.
Throughout the countryside French soldiers could be seen dandling babies at farmhouse doors, and almost every evening some drummer scraping his fiddle would improvise a ball. Since French contredanses were far too intricate for the soldiers, who scarcely knew them themselves, to teach the local girls, it was the latter who showed the young Frenchmen the monferrina, the saltarello, and other Italian dances.
The officers had been billeted on the rich as often as possible; they were in great need of recuperation. For instance, a certain Lieutenant Robert was assigned to the Marchesa del Dongo's palace, which this unscrupulous young conscript entered with one scudo (worth six francs) as his sole wealth, having just received his pay at Piacenza. After crossing the Lodi bridge, he had stripped a handsome Austrian officer killed by a cannonball of a magnificent pair of brand-new nankeen trousers, and never had a garment been so timely. His officer's epaulettes were of wool, and the ragged fabric of his jacket was patched with the lining from its sleeves to hold the pieces together; sadder still, the soles of his shoes consisted of scraps of visors, similarly gleaned from the battlefield the other side of Lodi bridge. These extempore soles were quite visibly tied to the uppers of his shoes with bits of string, so that when the major-domo appeared in Lieutenant Robert's bedroom to invite him to dine with the Signora Marchesa, the officer was mortally embarrassed. He and his orderly spent the two hours until this fatal dinner attempting to patch the jacket and to conceal the lamentable pieces of string with black ink. At last the dreadful moment arrived. "I never felt so uncomfortable in all my life," Lieutenant Robert told me; "the ladies expected me to terrify them, and I was trembling much more than they. I glanced at my shoes and could not imagine how to walk gracefully. The Marchesa del Dongo," he added, "was then in the prime of her beauty: you have seen her yourself--those fine eyes of an angelic sweetness, that lovely dark-blond hair which so perfectly framed the oval of her charming face. In my bedroom hung a Salomé after da Vinci which seemed her portrait. Thank God I was so overcome by this divine beauty that I forgot how I was dressed. For two years I had seen nothing but ugliness and misery in the mountains around Genoa: I ventured to mention my rapture to her.
"But I had too much sense to waste my time on compliments. Even as I was turning my phrases, I noticed that the marble dining-hall was filled with lackeys and footmen dressed in what then seemed to me the height of magnificence. You realize, these wretches wore not only fine shoes, but silver buckles! Out of the corner of my eye I saw them all staring stupidly at my jacket, and perhaps at my shoes as well, which stabbed me to the heart. I might have terrorized every one of them with a word, but how to put them in their place without running the risk of alarming the ladies? For the Marchesa, to bolster her own courage (as she has told me a hundred times since), had summoned from the convent, where she was still at boarding-school, her husband's sister Gina del Dongo, who was later to become the charming Countess of Pietranera: in good times no one surpassed her in gaiety and sweetness of temper, just as no one surpassed her in courage and serenity of soul in adversity.
"Gina, who might have then been thirteen though she looked eighteen, vivacious and frank as you know her to be, was so afraid of bursting into laughter at the sight of my outfit that she dared not eat; the Marchesa, on the contrary, overwhelmed me with reserved attentions, having recognized hints of impatience in my expression. In a word, I cut a foolish figure as I swallowed my ration of scorn, a thing said to be impossible for a Frenchman. At last I was inspired by a Heaven-sent idea; I began describing my wretchedness to these ladies, and all we had suffered the last two years in the mountains around Genoa where we had been stationed by imbecilic old generals. There, I remarked, we were paid by promissory notes which had no currency in the region, and three ounces of bread a day. I had not spoken two minutes before the Marchesa had tears in her eyes, and Gina had become serious.
"'What, Signor Lieutenant,' she exclaimed, 'three ounces of bread!'
"'Yes, Signorina; but even so the supply failed three rimes a week, and since the peasants we were billeted on were even poorer than ourselves, we gave some of our bread to them.'
"Leaving the table, I offered the Marchesa my arm as far as the dining-hall door, then, swiftly retracing my steps, I gave the lackey who had served me that single scudo on whose expenditure I had built so many castles in Spain.
"Eight days later," Lieutenant Robert continued, "when it was widely acknowledged that the French were guillotining no one, the Marchese del Dongo returned from Grianta, his castle on Lake Como, where he had valiantly taken refuge at the French army's approach, abandoning his sister and his lovely young wife to the chances of war. The Marchese's hatred of us was equal to his fear, which is to say, incommensurable: it was amusing to see his pale and pious countenance as he uttered his polite formulas. The day following his return to Milan, I received three ells of cloth and two hundred francs out of the levy of six million: I feathered myself anew and became the cavalier of these ladies, for the ball-season had begun."
Lieutenant Robert's story was much the same as that of every Frenchman; instead of deriding the plight of these gallant soldiers, people took pity on them and came to love them.
This period of unforeseen happiness and intoxication lasted but two short years; the craze had been so excessive and so widespread that it would be impossible for me to give any notion of it, except for this profound historical reflection: these people had been bored for a hundred years.
The love of sensual pleasure natural to southern countries had once reigned at the court of the Viscontis and the Sforzas, those famous Dukes of Milan. But since 1624, when the Spaniards had seized the duchy, and seized it as arrogant, suspicious, taciturn masters ever fearful of rebellion, gaiety had fled. Assuming the manners of their masters, the Milanese pondered avenging the slightest insult by a dagger-thrust rather than delighting in the present moment.
Wild joy, gaiety, sensual pleasure, disregard of all sad or even sensible feelings reached such a pitch between May 15, 1796, when the French entered Milan, and April 1799, when they were driven out after the battle of Cassano, that instances have been cited of old millionaire merchants, old usurers, old notaries who, during this interval, had forgotten to be dyspeptic and obsessed with making money.
At most one could number several families of the higher nobility who had withdrawn to their country houses, as though to sulk amid the general cheer and expansiveness of all hearts. It is also quite true that these rich and noble families had been provokingly singled out in the distribution of war-taxes levied by the French army.
The Marchese del Dongo, vexed at the sight of so much gaiety, had been one of the first to retire to his splendid Castle of Grianta on the far side of Como, to which Lieutenant Robert now accompanied the ladies. This castle, in a situation possibly unique in all the world, on a plateau some hundred and fifty feet above that sublime lake, of which it dominates a large portion, had been a stronghold built by the del Dongo family in the fifteenth century, as was evidenced by the many marble escutcheons; here were still to be seen drawbridges and deep moats, though at present without water; but with walls some twenty-four feet high and six feet thick, this castle was safe from assault; for which reason it was dear to the suspicious Marchese. Surrounded by twenty-five or thirty servants whom he believed to be devoted, apparently because he never addressed them without some insult on his lips, he was less tormented by fear than in Milan.
Such fear was not entirely gratuitous: the Marchese was actively corresponding with an Austrian spy stationed on the Swiss frontier three leagues from Grianta, in order to effect the escape of prisoners taken on the battlefield, an enterprise which might have been regarded as a serious matter by the French generals.
The Marchese had left his young wife in Milan; there she managed family affairs, dealing with the taxes imposed on the Casa del Dongo, as the local expression had it; she sought to reduce these as much as she could, which obliged her to consult those members of the nobility who had accepted public functions, as well as certain highly influential persons not of noble birth. There now occurred a great event in this family. The Marchese had arranged the marriage of his young sister Gina to an extremely rich personage of the highest birth; but the man powdered his hair: on this account Gina received him with peals of laughter, and soon committed the folly of marrying Count Pietranera. Who was in fact a very fine gentleman, most attractive in appearance but ruined in fortune as his father had been before him and--a crowning disgrace--a fierce champion of the new ideas. Pietranera was a Second Lieutenant in the Italian Legion, a further cause of the Marchese's dispair.
After two such years of folly and happiness, the Directory in Paris, putting on the airs of a well-established sovereign, revealed a mortal hatred of anything not mediocre. The inept generals assigned to the army in Italy lost a series of battles on those same plains of Verona which two years earlier had witnessed the prodigies of Arcole and Lonato. The Austrians drew close to Milan; Lieutenant Robert, now commanding a battalion and wounded at the battle of Cassano, came to stay for the last time with his friend the Marchesa del Dongo. The farewells were sad; the Lieutenant left with Count Pietranera, who accompanied the French in their retreat to Novi. The young Countess, whose dowry her brother had refused to pay, followed the army, riding on a baggage-cart.
Then began that period of reaction and return to the old ideas, which the Milanese call i tredici mesi (the thirteen months), because it so happened that their happiness compelled this reversion to imbecility to last only thirteen months, until Marengo. Whatever was old, pious, dyspeptic reappeared in the leadership of affairs and resumed the guidance of society: soon those who had remained loyal to respectable doctrines reported in the villages that Napoléon had been hanged by the Mamelukes in Egypt, as he deserved on so many counts.
Among these men who had withdrawn to sulk on their estates and who returned to Milan thirsting for vengeance, the Marchese del Dongo was distinguished by his fury; his exaggeration naturally carried him to the leadership of his party. These gentlemen, honest enough when they were not frightened, but perpetually in a funk, managed to impose on the Austrian general, a decent enough fellow who let himself be persuaded that severity was the best policy and ordered the arrest of some hundred and fifty patriots, the best men in all Italy at the time.
Soon they were deported to the bocche di Cattaro, where, flung into underground caves, humidity and especially lack of bread rendered a summary justice to all such wretches.
The Marchese del Dongo occupied a high position, and, since he united sordid greed with a host of other fine qualities, publicly boasted of not sending one scudo to his sister, Countess Pietranera: still deeply in love, she was unwilling to leave her husband and was starving to death with him in France. The good Marchesa was in despair; finally she managed to filch a few little diamonds from her jewel-case, which her husband took from her every evening to keep under his bed in an iron strongbox: the Marchesa had brought her husband a dowry of eight hundred thousand francs and received eighty francs a month for her personal expenses. During the thirteen months which the French spent outside Milan, this extremely timid woman found excuses for continually wearing mourning.
We must confess that, following the example of many serious authors, we have begun our hero's story a year before his birth. This essential personage is none other, indeed, than Fabrizio Valserra, Marchesino del Dongo, as they say in Milan. He had just taken the trouble to be born when the French were driven out, and found himself, by the chance of birth, the second son of that great nobleman the Marchese del Dongo, with whose pale and heavy countenance, false smile, and limitless hatred of new ideas you are already familiar. The entire fortune of the house was entailed upon the elder son, Ascanio del Dongo, worthy portrait of his father. He was eight years old, and Fabrizio two, when suddenly that General Bonaparte whom all wellborn people believed long since hanged, swept down from Mont Saint-Bernard and entered Milan. This moment is still unique in history; imagine a whole people insane with love. A few days later Napoléon won the battle of Marengo. No need to tell the rest. The intoxication of the Milanese was at its peak; but this time it was mixed with notions of revenge: these good people had been taught to hate. Soon the surviving patriots deported to the bocche di Cattaro were brought home; their return was celebrated by a national holiday, but their pale faces, huge staring eyes, and famished limbs contrasted strangely with the joy which exploded on all sides. Their arrival was the signal for the departure of the most compromised families. The Marchese del Dongo was among the first to flee to his Castle of Grianta. The heads of the noble families were filled with hatred and fear, but their wives and daughters remembered the delights of the first French occupation and regretted Milan and the gay balls organized at the Casa Tanzi immediately after Marengo.
A few days after the victory, the French general in charge of maintaining peace in Lombardy discovered that all the farmers and the old women on the estates of the nobles, far from marveling over that wonderful victory of Marengo which had changed the fortunes of Italy and reconquered thirteen fortresses in one day, were preoccupied exclusively by a prophecy of Saint Giovita, first patron of Brescia. According to these holy words, the prosperity of Napoléon and the French would cease precisely thirteen weeks after Marengo. What somewhat excuses the Marchese del Dongo and all the surly nobles of the countryside is that they really and quite seriously believed in this prophecy. None of these people had read four books in all their lives; they were openly preparing to return to Milan once the thirteen weeks had elapsed; but time as it passed marked new successes for the French cause. Returning to Paris, Napoléon, by astute decrees, rescued the Revolution from within just as he had saved it from foreign enemies at Marengo. Whereupon the Lombard nobles, having withdrawn to their castles, discovered first of all that they had misunderstood the prophecy of the patron saint of Brescia: it was not a matter of thirteen weeks, but of thirteen months. The thirteen months passed, and the prosperity of France seemed to increase with every day.
Let us skip ten years of progress and happiness, from 1800 to 1810; Fabrizio spent the first of them in the Castle of Grianta, giving and receiving many punches among the peasant boys of the village and learning nothing, not even how to read. Later, he was sent to the Jesuit College at Milan. The Marchese his father required that the Latin language be revealed to him, not according to those ancient authors who continually mentioned republics, but upon a magnificent volume embellished with over a hundred engravings, masterpieces of the artists of the seventeenth century; this was the Latin genealogy of the Valserras, Marchesi del Dongo, published in 1650 by Fabrizio del Dongo, Archbishop of Parma. The fortune of the Valserras was chiefly military, the engravings represented many a battle, and some hero of that name was invariably shown dealing mighty blows with his sword. This volume delighted young Fabrizio. His mother, who adored him, occasionally obtained permission to visit him in Milan; but since her husband never gave her money for these expeditions, it was her sister-in-law, the lovely Countess Pietranera, who loaned it to her. After the return of the French, the Countess had become one of the most brilliant ladies of the court of Prince Eugène, Viceroy of Italy.
Once Fabrizio had made his first Communion, she persuaded the Marchese, still in voluntary exile, to allow him to leave the College from time to time. She found her nephew to be singular, witty, very serious, but a fine-looking boy and by no means a liability to the salon of a fashionable lady; furthermore, he was quite ignorant, scarcely knowing how to write his name. The Countess, whose enthusiastic character was evident in all she undertook, promised her protection to the establishment if her nephew made remarkable progress and carried off many prizes by the year's end. In order to afford him the means of deserving them, she sent for Fabrizio every Saturday evening and frequently returned him to his masters only the following Wednesday or Thursday. The Jesuits, though dearly beloved by the Prince-Viceroy, were under sentence of expulsion from Italy by the laws of the realm, and the Superior of the College, a cunning fellow, perceived all the advantage he might derive from his relations with a woman omnipotent at court. He was careful not to complain of Fabrizio's absences, and at the year's end the boy, ignorant as ever, obtained five first prizes. On this stipulation, the brilliant Countess Pietranera, accompanied by her husband, commanding general of one of the divisions of the Guard, and by five or six of the greatest figures of the viceregal court, attended the prize-giving at the Jesuit College. The director was complimented by his superiors.
The Countess included her nephew in all those brilliant parties which marked the too brief reign of the lovable Prince Eugène. She had created him, by her authority, Officer of the Hussars, and Fabrizio, at twelve, wore their uniform. One day the Countess, delighted by his fine turnout, requested that the Prince give him a page's functions, which would mean that the del Dongo family was recovering its position. The following day she needed all her influence to keep the Viceroy from remembering this request, which lacked nothing but the consent of the future page's father, and this consent would have been vehemently refused. After this folly, which made the surly Marchese shudder, he found a pretext to recall young Fabrizio to Grianta. The Countess felt sovereign contempt for her brother; she regarded him as a grim fool who would commit any wickedness within his power. But she was wildly devoted to Fabrizio, and after ten years of silence, she wrote to the Marchese in order to reclaim her nephew: her letter was left unanswered.
On his return to that formidable castle built by the most bellicose of all his ancestors, Fabrizio knew of nothing better to do than to drill and to ride. Count Pietranera, as fond of the boy as his wife, had often put him on horseback and had taken him along on parade.
Arriving at the Castle of Grianta, Fabrizio, eyes still red with tears shed upon leaving behind his aunt's splendid salon, met with nothing but the passionate caresses of his mother and his sisters. The Marchese was shut up in his study with his elder son, the Marchesino Ascanio. Here they concocted letters in code which had the honor to be sent to Vienna; father and son appeared only at mealtimes. The Marchese repeated meaningfully that he was teaching his natural successor to keep double-entry accounts of what his estates produced. In fact, the Marchese was too jealous of his power to speak of such things to a son who was the inevitable heir to all these entailed properties. He kept him busy coding despatches of fifteen or twenty pages, which he forwarded to Switzerland two or three times a week, whence they made their way to Vienna. The Marchese claimed to inform his legitimate sovereigns of the internal condition of Italy, of which he himself knew nothing, though his letters enjoyed a great success. This is the reason: the Marchese's trustworthy agent counted the soldiers changing garrison in every French or Italian regiment, and in reporting this fact to the Austrian court, he scrupulously diminished by at least a quarter the number of soldiers in the field. Absurd as they were, these letters had the merit of giving the lie to more accurate ones, and they pleased their recipients. Hence, shortly before Fabrizio's arrival at the castle, the Marchese had received the Star of a renowed Order; it was the fifth one to embellish his Chamberlain's coat. True, he suffered the chagrin of not daring to sport this garment outside his study; but he never allowed himself to dictate a despatch without having first put on the coat embroidered with gold lace and embellished with all his decorations. He would have felt he was lacking in respect had he proceeded otherwise.
The Marchesa was astonished by her son's graceful manners. But she was still in the habit of writing two or three times a year to General-Count d'A---- (the current name of Lieutenant Robert). The Marchesa had a horror of lying to those she cared for; she questioned her son and was appalled by his ignorance.
"If he seems uneducated to me, ignorant as I am," she mused, "Robert, who is so learned, would find his education absolutely inadequate; yet nowadays it is true ability that counts." Another peculiarity which amazed her almost as much was that Fabrizio had taken seriously all the religious notions he had learned from the Jesuits. Though quite pious herself, her son's fanaticism made her tremble; "If the Marchese has the wit to divine this source of influence, he will rob me of my son's love." She shed a great many tears, and her passion for Fabrizio was thereby increased.
Life in this castle, inhabited by thirty or forty servants, was gloomy indeed; hence Fabrizio spent all his days hunting or rowing on the lake. Soon he was closely attached to the coachmen and the grooms; all were wild partisans of the French and openly derided the pious lackeys serving the Marchese or his elder son. The principal excuse for their mockery of these solemn personages was that they powdered their hair in imitation of their masters.
Excerpted from "The Charterhouse of Parma"
Copyright © 2007 John Stendhal.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Reading Group Guide
1. This novel has often been praised for its effect upon readers. The French writer Jean Giraudoux famously remarked that it produces "some incomparable air of which every human being needs absolutely to have taken at least one breath before they die." Discuss the overall effect of Richard Howard's new translation of Charterhouse on you as a reader.
2. The impetuous, idealistic Fabrizio is, like many of the characters that inhabit this novel, an intensely vivid literary realization. Discuss Fabrizio's character, and in particular his relationship to authority and the state as we follow the course of his tempestuous life.
3. Some have argued that the true heroes of this book are Fabrizio's aunt and her lover. Do you agree?
4. Stendhal was an officer in Napoleon's army, and later a diplomat in Italy. How do these experiences play into the places and events recounted in the novel? Could only a seasoned diplomat have rendered court intrigue with Stendhal's precision?
5. A number of critics (for instance, French feminist Simone de Beauvoir) have noted that female characters are often more sympathetically portrayed than male characters in Stendhal's work. Do you agree? Discuss the way Stendhal treats femininity and masculinity in Charterhouse, and the virtues and foibles that seem to be associated with each.
6. Stendhal wrote this novel in a breathtaking fifty-two days, a pace reflected in the galloping prose style. Remarking on this, Bernard Knox, in The New York Review of Books, wrote, "From the very beginning the narrative takes the reader by storm with its fervid pace ... and this speed lies at the base of another aspect of the narrative, its unpredictability." Discuss this comment, and your reaction to the pace and plot of The Charterhouse of Parma.