One arm of Lake Como turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains, which cut it up into a series of bays and inlets as the hills advance into the water and retreat again, until it quite suddenly grows much narrower and takes on the appearance and the motion of a river between a headland on one side and a wide stretch of shore on the other. The bridge which connects the two banks at that point seems to make the change of state still clearer to the eye, marking the spot where the lake comes to an end and the Adda comes into being once more – though further on it again takes the name of a lake, as the banks separate, allowing the water to spread out and lose its speed among more bays and fresh inlets.
The stretch of shore we mentioned is formed by the silt from three considerable streams, and is backed by two adjoining mountains, one known as St Martin’s Mount, and the other by the Lombard-sounding name of Resegone because of the many small peaks that make up its skyline, which do in fact give it the look of a saw. This is enough of a distinctive sign to make the Resegone easy to pick out from the long and vast chains of other mountains, less well known by name and less strange in shape, in which it lies, even if the observer has never seen it before – provided that he sees it from an angle which shows its full length, as for example looking northward from the walls of Milan.
The slope up from the water’s edge is gentle and unbroken for quite a long way: but then it breaks up into mounds and gullies, terraces and steeper tracts, according to the geological structure of the two hills and the erosion of the waters. Along the extreme fringe of the slope, the terrain is deeply cut up by watercourses, and consists mostly of gravel and pebbles; but the rest of the area is all fields and vineyards with townships, estates and hamlets here and there. There are also some woods, which extend upwards into the mountains. Lecco is the largest of the townships, and gives its name to the territory; it lies not far from the bridge on the shore of the lake. In fact it lies partly in the lake, when the water level rises above normal. It is a sizeable town today, and on the way to becoming a city.
At the time of the events we are about to relate, Lecco was already a place of some importance, and was also a fortress. For that reason it had the honour of accommodating a garrison commander, and the advantage of providing lodging for a permanent force of Spanish soldiers, who gave lessons in modest deportment to the girls and women of the area, and who tickled the backs of the odd husband or father with a stick from time to time. They also never failed, at the end of summer, to spread out across the vineyards and thin out the grapes, so as to lighten the labours of the peasants at harvest-time.
Roads and tracks, some steep and some gently sloping, ran then, as they do today, from township to township, from mountain to shore, from knoll to knoll. They often sink into the earth, buried between high walls, so that if the traveller raises his eyes he can see nothing but a small patch of sky, and perhaps a distant peak. At other times the tracks run across high open terraces; and then the eye can wander over landscapes of varying extent, but always superbly beautiful and always with something new about them, as the different viewpoints take in now more and now less of the vast surrounding countryside, and as its various features appear and vanish, come into prominence and fade away, each in its turn. Now one small portion of the great varied mirror of the waters catches the eye, now another, and now a larger expanse. Here we see a lake cut off at the end by mountains, or rather lost in a cluster, a maze of foothills, but gradually widening out in another direction among peaks which spread out in sequence before the eye, and then appear again upside down in the water, with the villages that stand on their lower slopes. There we see a stretch of river, that widens out into a lake and narrows into a river again, which winds away from the observer in a bright serpentine course between mountains which accompany it into the distance, dwindling with it until they too are almost lost in the horizon.
And the place from which you look out at at those varied scenes itself offers the most beautiful sights on every hand. The mountain on whose lower slopes you walk unfolds its precipices and peaks around and above you, high, clear and changing in form with every step you take. What seemed a single ridge opens out and takes the form of a complex of ridges; a feature which you saw but now as part of the hillside now appears on the skyline as a separate peak. The gentle domestic beauty of the slopes pleasantly moderates the wildness of the landscape, and brings out the magnificence of its other parts.
Along one of those tracks, returning home from a walk, on the evening of the 7 November 1628, came Don Abbondio, the curé of one of the villages mentioned above. But the name of the place, and the surname of the priest, are not to be found in our manuscript, either now or later. He was peacefully reciting his office. From time to time, between one psalm and another, he would shut up his breviary, keeping the forefinger of his right hand tucked into it as a bookmarker, and then clasping both hands together behind his back, while he looked down at the ground and kicked to the side of the track any pebbles that obstructed the way. Then he raised his head and directed his gaze idly around until it fell on a part of the hillside where the light of the sun, which had already set behind the mountains opposite, penetrated through the gaps in the ridge and picked out certain projecting rocks with wide, uneven patches of purple. Then he reopened his breviary and recited another passage, which took him to a bend in the track, where it was his habit to raise his eyes from the book, and look straight ahead, as he did on this occasion.
After the bend the track ran straight for a matter of sixty yards or so, and then split into two paths, like the arms of a capital Y. The right-hand path went uphill toward the curé’s house, while the other one went down to a stream in the valley; on that side the wall was no more than waist-high. The inner walls of the two converging paths did not meet in a sharp angle, but ended in a wayside shrine. On it were painted long, snaky shapes with pointed ends, that were meant by the artist and understood by the local inhabitants to be flames. Alternating with the flames were other indescribable shapes which represented souls in purgatory. Both souls and flames were painted in brick-red on a greyish background, which had flaked off here and there.
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