Letter 7

To BRYAN WALLER PROCTER

Milan, June 8th [1824]

DEAR PROCTER,–If I do not dream, this is the city of Sforza, and to-day I have seen a picture of his wife by Leonardo da Vinci. Paris, Lyons, Turin and Novara, and beautiful Chambéry in its bed of vines, they have passed before me like the Drury Lane Diorama, and I almost doubt whether I have been sitting in the second tier or on the top of the diligence.

Paris is far preferable to London as a place of amusement, and the manner of the lower orders is strikingly superior to that of their island equals. I saw the opera; the ballet much better than ours, but the music was French: the house is not nearly so commodious or elegant as Drury Lane, and the painting and mechanism of their scenery is not so dexterous and brilliant. The Teatro della Scala in this city I have not yet seen; it is considered only inferior to the San Carlo at Naples. Savoy, from the French frontier to Chambéry, is the most beautiful country I have yet seen; nothing between the Alps and Milan is equally rich, varied, and delightful. Towards the Alps the vines grow thinner, and give place at first to corn, then to ragged herbage, and finally mother earth hides her head under a coverlid of snow; and with their country and climate change the inhabitants. You have the goitred and the crétins instead of the Savoyard of gentle manners and frank countenance. On the frontiers of fertile Italy they brought us a salad of dandelions at dinner.

June 9th.–Since I began this letter I have been to the top of the cathedral, and in the pit of the Teatro della Scala. The former is the finest church externally which I have seen; but the interior of Westminster’s old Abbey is triumphant over the marble simplicity of the Milanese’s concave. The roof is finished with pinnacles and battlements of white marble of a workmanship as exquisite as if it were in ivory. From the summit, all the rich country from Alp to Apennine, river and hill and wood, the cool lakes and the vineyards of an ardent green, lay themselves at your feet.

Last night the clouds had unrolled from the mountains, which were themselves as visionary as clouds; the “roof of blue Italian weather” was here and there decorated by a tapestried vapour, silver or pale gold, gathered up among the stars and slowly toiling along the calm air. The sun fell quietly behind the Alps, and the moment he touched them, it appeared that all the snows took fire and burned with a candescent brilliancy. (I hope you like the opening of my new novel, as contained in the preceding paragraph.)

Now for Della Scala. It is a vast theatre–six tiers of boxes, all hung with silk, disposed like our window curtains, of a light blue or yellow colour, the pit, I should think, almost twice as large as Covent Garden’s. The opera was “Tancredi.” Madame Sesta the prima donna, old, but generally preferred to Pasta; the primo basso, a most extraordinary singer, with tones more like those of an organ than any human creature. The scenery is not, in my opinion, equal to the best at our theatres. One of the drops was a sort of Flemish painting; the subject, a village carnival, very well executed. Such a thing would be novel at C. G. if it could be well, but it must be very well, done. Now that silk is so cheap, too, I think they might be a little more lavish of draperies; but we are not managers yet. The ballet, i baccanali aboliti, incalculably superior to ours or the French in the exquisite grace of the grouping, the countless abundance of dancers, and the splendour and truth of costume and decoration. The house was about one-third full, and the people all talking; so that there was a buzz–outbuzzing the Royal Exchange–all the night except during “Di tanti palpiti.”

And what else have I seen? A beautiful and far-famed insect–do not mistake, I mean neither the Emperor, nor the King of Sardinia, but a much finer specimen–the firefly. Their bright light is evanescent, and alternates with the darkness, as if the swift wheeling of the earth struck fire out of the black atmosphere; as if the winds were being set upon this planetary grindstone, and gave out such momentary sparks from their edges. Their silence is more striking than their flashes, for sudden phenomena are almost invariably attended with some noise, but these little jewels dart along the dark as softly as butterflies. For their light, it is not nearly so beautiful and poetical as our still companion of the dew–the glow-worm with his drop of moonlight. If you see or write to Kelsall, remember me to him; and excuse my neglect in not writing to him before I left England by the plea of hurry, which is true. To-night at twelve I leave Milan, and shall be at Florence on Saturday long before this letter tastes the atmosphere (pardonnez, I mean the smoke) of London.

There and here,

Yours truly,

T.L. Beddoes

If you see Mrs. Shelley, ask her to remember me, and tell her that I am as anxious to change countries with her as she can be. If I could be of any use in bringing the portrait, etc., it would be a proud task, but most likely I only flash over Florence; entering on the flood of the stars, and departing with their ebb.

[Gosse, 1894]