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"The Entrance into Italy" 1

The coach shortly after overtook us. We descended a long and steep declivity, with the highest point of Mount Cenis on our left, and a lake to the right, like a landing-place for geese. Between the two was a low, white monastery, and the barrier where we had our passports inspected, and then went forward with only two stout horses and one rider. The snow on this side of the mountain was nearly gone. I supposed myself for some time nearly on level ground, till we came in view of several black chasms or steep ravines in the side of the mountain facing us, with water oozing from it, and saw through some galleries, that is, massy stone-pillars knit together by thick rails of strong timber, guarding the road-side, a perpendicular precipice below and other galleries beyond diminished in a fairy perspective, and descending "with cautious haste and giddy cunning," and with innumerable windings and re-duplications to an interminable depth and distance from the height where we were. The men and horses with carts, that were labouring up the path in the hollow below, showed like crows or flies. The road we had to pass was often immediately under that we were passing, and cut from the side of what was all but a precipice out of the solid rock by the broad, firm masterhand that traced and executed this mighty work. The share that art has in the scene is as appalling as the scene itself -- the strong security against danger as sublime as the danger itself. Near the turning of one of the first galleries is a beautiful waterfall, which at this time was frozen into a sheet of green pendant ice -- a magical transformation. Long after we continued to descend, now faster and now slower, and came at length to a small village at the bottom of a sweeping line of road, where the houses seemed like dove-cotes with the mountain's back reared like a wall behind them, and which I thought the termination of our journey. But there the wonder and the greatness began: for, advancing through a grove of slender trees to another point of the road, we caught a new view of the lofty mountain to our left. It stood in front of us, with its head in the skies, covered with snow, and its bare sides stretching far away into a valley that yawned at its feet, and over which we seemed suspended in mid-air. The height, the magnitude, the immoveableness of the objects, the wild contrast, the deep tones, the dance and play of the landscape from the change of our direction and the interposition of other striking objects, the continued recurrence of the same huge masses, like giants following us with unseen strides, stunned the sense like a blow, and yet gave the imagination strength to contend with a force that mocked it. Here immeasurable columns of reddish granite shelved from the mountain's sides; here they were covered and stained with furze and other shrubs; here a chalky cliff showed a fir-grove climbing its tall sides, and that itself looked at a distance like a huge, branching pine-tree; beyond was a dark, projecting knoll, or hilly promontory, and threatened to bound the perspective -- but, on drawing nearer to it the cloudy vapour that shrouded it (as it were) retired, and opened another vista beyond, that, in its own unfathomed depth and in the gradual obscurity of twilight, resembled the uncertain gloom of the background of some fine picture. At the bottom of this valley crept a sluggish stream, and a monastery or low castle stood upon its banks. The effect was altogether grander than I had any conception of. It was not the idea of a height or elevation that was obtruded upon the mind and staggered it, but we seemed to be descending into the bowels of the earth -- its foundations seemed to be laid bare to the centre; and abyss after abyss, a vast shadowy, interminable space, opened to receive us. We saw the building up and framework of the world -- its limbs, its ponderous masses, and mighty proportions, raised stage upon stage, and we might be said to have passed into an unknown sphere, and beyond mortal limits. As we rode down our winding circuitous path, our baggage, (which had been taken off) moved on before us; a grey horse that had got loose from the stable followed it, and as we whirled round the different turnings in this rapid, mechanical flight, at the same rate and the same distance from each other, there seemed something like witchcraft in the scene and our progress through it. The moon had risen, and threw its gleams across the fading twilight; the snowy tops of the mountains were blended with the clouds and stars; their sides were shrouded in mysterious gloom, and it was not till we entered Susa, with its fine old drawbridge and castellated walls, that we found ourselves on terra firma, or breathed common air again. At the inn at Susa, we first perceived the difference of Italian manners; and the next day arrived at Turin, after passing over thirty miles of the straightest, flattest, and dullest road in the world. Here we stopped two days to recruit our strength and look about us.

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NOTES:

1 "The Entrance into Italy" is extracted from Hazlitt's larger work, Notes of a Journey through France and Italy (London: Hunt & Clarke, 1826) and can be found reproduced in Selected Essays as edited by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Nonsuch Press, 1930).

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Peter Landry