A VISIT TO THE CIMBRI.
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.