An Excursion to Paris, the Netherlands, and the Rhine (Petrarch)

An Excursion to Paris, the Netherlands, and the Rhine                                       To Cardinal Giovanni Colonna

I did not leave Aix-la-Chapelle until I had bathed in the waters, which are warm like those at Baiae. It is from them that the town is said to derive its name. I then proceeded to Cologne, which lies on the left bank of the Rhine, and is noted for its situation, its river, and its inhabitants. I was astonished to find such a degree of culture in a barbarous land. The appearance of the city, the dignity of the men, the attractiveness of the women, all surprised me. The day of my arrival happened to be the feast of St. John the Baptist. It was nearly sunset when I reached the city. On the advice of the friends whom my reputation, rather than any true merit, bad won for me even there, I allowed myself to be led immediately from the inn to the river, to witness a curious sight. And I was not disappointed, for I found the river-bank lined with a multitude of remarkably comely women. Ye gods, what faces and forms! And how well attired! One whose heart was not already occupied might well have met his fate here.

I took my stand upon a little rise of ground where I could easily follow what was going on. There was a dense mass of people, but no disorder of any kind. They knelt down in quick succession on the bank, half hidden by the fragrant grass, and turning up their sleeves above the elbow they bathed their hands and white arms in the eddying stream. As they talked together, with an indescribably soft foreign murmur, I felt that I had never better appreciated Cicero’s remark, which, like the old proverb, reminds us that we are all deaf and dumb when we have to do with an unknown tongue. I, however, had the aid of kind interpreters, for – and this was not the least surprising thing I noted there – these skies, too, give nurture to Pierian spirits. So when Juvenal wonders that

Fluent Gaul has taught the British advocate,
let him marvel, too, that

Learned Germany many a clear-voiced bard sustained. 

But, lest you should be misled by my words, I hasten to add that there are no Virgils here, although many Ovids, so that you would say that the latter author was justified in his reliance upon his genius or the affection of posterity, when he placed at the end of his Metamorphoses that audacious prophecy where he ventures to claim that as far as the power of Rome shall extend, – nay, as far as the very name of Roman shall penetrate in a conquered world, – so widely shall his works be read by enthusiastic admirers.

When anything was to be heard or said I had to rely upon my companions to furnish both ears and tongue. Not understanding the scene, and being deeply interested in it, I asked an explanation from one of my friends, employing the Virgilian lines:

 

. . . What means the crowded shore?
What seek these eager spirits?He told me that this was an old custom among the people, and that the lower classes, especially the women, have the greatest confidence that the threatening calamities of the coming year can be washed away by bathing on this day in the river, and a happier fate be so assured. Consequently this annual ablution has always been conscientiously performed, and always will be. I smiled at this explanation, and replied, “Those who dwell by Father Rhine are fortunate indeed if he washes their misfortunes away with him; I fear that neither Po nor Tiber could ever free us of ours. You send your ills to the Britons, by the river; we would gladly ship ours off to the Africans or Illyrians.” But I was given to understand that our rivers were too sluggish. There was a great laugh over this, and then, as it was getting late, we left the spot and returned home.

During the few days following I wandered about the city, under the guidance of my friends, from morning until night. I enjoyed these rambles not so much for what I actually saw as on account of the reminiscences of our ancestors, who have left such extraordinary monuments to the Roman power in this far-distant country. Marcus Agrippa came, perhaps, most prominently before me. He was the founder of this colony, to which, in preference to all his other great works whether at home or abroad, he gave his own name. He was a great builder as well as a distinguished warrior. His fame was such that he was chosen by Augustus as the most desirable son-in-law in the world. His wife, whatever else we may say of her, was at least a remarkable woman, the Emperor’s only child and very dear to him. I beheld the bodies of the thousands of holy virgins who had suffered together, and the ground dedicated to these noble relics – ground which they say will of its own accord reject an unworthy corpse. I beheld the Capitol, which is an imitation of ours. But in place of our senate, meeting to consider the exigencies of peace and war, here one finds beautiful boys and girls ever lifting up together their harmonious voices in nightly hymns of praise to God. There one might hear the rattle of arms, the rolling chariots and the groans of captives; but here are peace and happiness and the voice of mirth. There it was the warrior who made his triumphal entry; here it is the Prince of Peace.

I saw, too, the great church in the very centre of the town. It is very beautiful, although still uncompleted, and is not unjustly regarded by the inhabitants as the finest building of its kind in the world. I looked with reverence upon the relics of the Three Kings, who, as we read, came once upon a time, bringing presents, to worship at the feet of a Heavenly King as he lay wailing in the manger. Their bodies were brought from the East to the West in three great leaps.

You may perhaps think, noble father, that I have gone too far just here, and dwelt upon unimportant details. I readily admit it, but it is because I have nothing more at heart than to obey your commands. Among the many instructions which you gave me, as I was leaving, the last one was that I should write to you as fully about the countries I visited and the various things I saw and heard as I should tell about them, were we face to face. I was not to spare the pen, nor to strive for elegance or terseness of expression. Everything was to be included, not simply the more picturesque incidents. In Cicero’s words, you told me to write “whatever might come into the cheek.” I promised to do this, and from the numerous letters which I have despatched on the way it would seem that I had kept my engagement. If you had desired me to treat of higher things I should have done what I could; but it seems to me in the present case that the object of my letter should be rather to instruct the reader than to give consequence to the writer. If you and I wish to appear before the public we can do so in books, but in our letters let us just talk with one another.

But to continue, I left Cologne June 30, in such heat and dust that I sighed for Virgil’s “Alpine snows and the rigours of the Rhine.” I next passed through the Forest of Ardennes, alone, and, as you will be surprised to hear, in time of war. But God, it is said, grants especial protection to the unwary. I had long known something of this region from books; it seemed to me a very wild and dismal place indeed. However, I will not undertake with my pen a journey which I have but just completed with my horse. After many wanderings I reached Lyons to-day. It, too, is a noble Roman colony, a little older even than Cologne. From this point two well known rivers flow together into our ocean, – the Rhone here joining the Arar, or, as the inhabitants now call it, the Saone. But I need not tell you more about them, for they are hurrying on, one led by the other, down to Avignon, where the Roman pontiff detains you and the whole human race.

This morning when I arrived here I ran across one of your servants by accident, and plied him, as those newly arrived from foreign parts are wont to do, with a thousand questions. He knew nothing, however, except that your noble brother, whom I was hastening to join, had gone on to Rome without me. On hearing this my anxiety to proceed suddenly abated. It is now my purpose to wait here until the heat too shall abate somewhat, and until I regain my vigour by a little rest. I had not realised that I had suffered from either source until I met your servant; no kind of weariness indeed is so keenly felt as that of the mind. If the journey promises to seem tedious to me I shall float down the Rhone. In the meantime I am glad to know that your faithful servant will see that this reaches you, and that you will know where I am. As for your brother, who was to be my guide, and who now (my disappointment must be my excuse for saying it) has deserted me, I feel that my expostulations must be addressed to him directly. I beg that you will see that the enclosed message reaches him as soon as may be. Farewell. Remember your friend.

LYONS, August 9.

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