In Milan, in the Palazzo dei Trivulzio, a little girl was born on the morning of June 28, 1808, destined to one day fill Italy and Paris with her name. The palace is austere. In the atrium, to the right, lies a tomb. With the façade with simple and rigid lines, the building looks over the small square of Sant’Alessandro, where the baroque church stands: and on the same day of birth, there, in a narrow, obscure chapel of that church, the newborn received baptism. Twelve names were imposed: Maria, Cristina , Beatrice, Teresa, Barbara, Leopolda, Clotilde, Melchiora, Camilla, Giulia, Margherita, Laura: but only the second name prevailed: it was always called with the second.
So many luxury names responded to the Spanish traditions, which, despite half a century of Austrian domination and the violent subversions of the Cisalpine Republic, persisted in several families of the Lombard aristocracy.
Blood flowed through the veins of that child. She was descended from the princely Trivulzi family, founded in the twelfth century, and which had given to history the lightning-fast Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, Marshal of France, conqueror and cruel governor of Milan for King Louis XII.
Mens only is written on the emblem of the three faces of the Trivulzio; superb motto that that superb warrior didn’t deserve.
Little Cristina was born three years after the coronation of Napoleon I in the Duomo; she was born in the midst of the fleeting gleams of the first Italic Kingdom, she who should have risen so much as a supporter of the second Kingdom.
His father was the young erudite Marquis Gerolamo Trivulzio, appointed by Napoleon Knight of the Iron Crown and Chamberlain of Eugenio Beauharnais, Viceroy of Italy. His mother was Donna Vittoria Gherardini, lady of honor of the virtuous, gentle viceregina Amalia Augusta of Bavaria, praised by Ugo Foscolo in the Graces .
Godfather of the newborn was another knight of the Iron Crown, to whom Napoleon held so much: and it was another Trivulzio: Don Giacomo.
The curate of Saint Alexander, Antonio Orombelli, immediately after having baptized the daughter of one of the loftiest families, immersed, according to the Ambrosian rite, the head of a child of the people in the lustral water. Thus, from the first moments of life, the one who had to think with so much fire about the regeneration of the Italian people, was in contact with the people.
In the Trivulzio home, the feeling of ancient nobility lasted profoundly. For a long time, a Trivulzio, Donna Margherita, lived until the beginning of the XIX century, aunt of this little girl. To the curate of Sant’Alessandro, who, in order to temper her pride with a spray of Christian humility, was saying to her: – Signora Marchesa, at last we are all worms! – she replied with a click:
– Yes, I’m a worm, but Trivulzio!
This patrician wanted to remain unmarried in order not to contaminate the splendor of the blood. No noble, according to her, could compete with the descendants of the marshal, who slept the eternal sleep in the tombs of San Nazaro under the beautiful epigraph : Qui numquam quievit quiescit . Of mid-height, of a frowning appearance, Donna Margherita was dragged through the streets of Milan in the “bastardella”, the vehicle of that time, used by the rich. The servants had to stand, almost climbing, behind the vehicle; but of the endless promenade of the noble fair mistress they consoled themselves, philosophically nibbling chestnuts. The accentuated, tobacco-colored eyebrows of Donna Margherita were notes throughout Milan. A great Milanese poet, Carlo Porta, took from her the type of woman Fabia Fabron de Fabrian, the old lady of the Prayer , a comic painting of that time when noble babies were trying to fight against Jacobin pranks? … No; but the type was identical. Donna Fabia thanks the good Jesus:
My dear and good Jesus, that by decree
Your infallible will
You gave me birth in the class
Distinguished of the first nobility,
While he could, at a minimal nod of yours,
Nascer plebea, a vile worm, a monster,
I thank you for such a great good
Abbiev fills my humble person …
This language spoke about Donna Fabia del Porta: the same disproportionate language as Donna Quinzia, in a Milanese comedy by Carlo Maria Maggi, who lived a century earlier.
There were, however, some nobles who, in order to ingratiate themselves with the ruling democrats, despised or pretended to scorn their ancestral crowns; but how many others held them dearer, closer in their fist! A count Gaetano Porro (who had an unhappy end) led a crowd of furious people to the benevolent friezes of the tombs in the church of San Marco in the murky days of the Cisalpine Republic. Other nobles, on the other hand, thought it was the same as Count Vittorio Alfieri, who in the Satires thundered:
Vano is the pride of the ancestors. Nothingness in zero
Lathes; and let great he who has done great things,
Not who sucked the arrogant cradles.
But, if prod’uom, of brave son, intact
The avowed glories, indeed increased, sends
To his children; this is splendor that breaks down
The dark vulgo, and tacit commands
Ch’altri give loco to the double merit, and yield …
Giuseppe Parini, too admired perhaps as a man, never quite admired as a poet, derides “in the long bitter poem” the “young lord” – but in Parini’s Milan, which flourished patricians of high genius and modern ideas! Bastino i Verri and Cesare Beccaria.
Part of the Lombard nobility soon threw itself into conspiracies because of the triumph of liberal ideas that had to diminish, at least, if not destroy, its centuries-old prestige. And so it happened to part of the Piedmontese patricians, and of other regions of Italy; Thus the Prince of Metternich, the Austrian diplomat, resembling the poet Lord Byron in his beautiful, almost feminine head, and Richelieu in his will, wrote in 1850, when he had fallen from the throne, these bitter words:
Parmi les symptômes de la maladie de l’époque, the faut compter the position tout à fait fausse que la noblesse ne prend que trop fréquemment. Presque partout c’est elle qui a favorisé les troubles dans leur période préparatoire, et elle s’est effacée lorsqu’ils ont éclaté.
Types like Donna Margherita, even stranger, in the upper classes were not rare. With new times, which try to level out, to standardize, to discolor, certain bizarre characters disappeared, which made life at least more varied. For the most part, those characters represented physiological anomalies, which appear in some individuals of ancient families exhausted. The Marquis Magenta received his friends in the vehicle, the “bastardella” mentioned above, placed in a room on the ground floor of his house. He was shut up inside, bundled up in the cloak, with his hands on a terracotta caldron. The visitors opened the little door, entered, sat opposite him pressed, and talked. The doctor Pietro Moscati, one of the members of the Cisalpine Directory, then count and senator of the Italic Kingdom, member of the Italian Institute of Sciences and Letters, argued that man is created to walk like dogs …. Even Cristina Trivulzio’s father was not lacking in any strangeness. And this should be noted to explain phenomena of atavism, which during Cristina’s life manifested themselves in the character of certain eccentricities that raised infinite clamor.
When her mother, Vittoria Gherardini, married the marquis Gerolamo in the flower of sixteen, she made her first honeymoon from Milan to Locate (land of the Trivulzi) through the wide monotonous prairies, along the endless moats … The journey, like most honeymooners, was silent. The bride, timid, bewildered, at a certain moment takes courage and dares to advance a humble question to the groom. But he responds sharply and strangely. It was the beginning of a conjugal life not sown with flowers, and which had to close with death, four years after the birth of the first and only daughter, Cristina.
Even at Corte, Cristina’s mother enjoyed peaceful hours. He had lunch one day next to Napoleon who frightened her with his rude ways:
– What is your husband doing? He asked, staring at her. “Are you raising dogs? … and you?” why don’t you put the face on the face?
The opposite of what Ophelia says in the Shakespeare tragedy.
I see her portrait in the rooms where I write these pages, here in Oleggio Castello, in Visconti land; here where she came in the best days. The expression of his oval face is sweet. Those small eyes under the slightly arched eyebrows should not have flashed imperious flashes; that tiny mouth, as a child, could not murmur but gracious words. The nose is long, sharp; up is the neck; the breast, in the free custom of that time, flourishing leaps; wavy hair; the smooth, simple hairstyle.
Soon, she must wear mourning. The husband falls ill in Varese. The auras of those pleasant hills do not serve to stop the disease, which precipitates and extinguishes it, on September 17th 1812, only thirty-two years old. Two days later, the body was transported to Milan in the family tombs; two weeks later, in the church of Sant’Alessandro pompose, clamorous funerals with a rich catafalque, with music, and a large crowd of priests are celebrated . His father, Giorgio Teodoro, had preceded it longer in the tomb; the parent, Countess Cristina Cicogna, also died, leaving her name in the small niece. The spouse, therefore, widowed and alone, in her twenties.
And here the scene changes, and we witness another development of the Milan society.
At the end of Via Brera, where Cesare Beccaria was born, where Alessandro Volta had lived, where Giuseppe Parini had died, an ancient palace stood up until thirty years ago, which was then destroyed to build a modern building. Gian Giacomo de ‘Medici, the famous pirate of Lake Como, brother of Pope Pius IV and uncle of Saint Charles, had had it built. It was said that Cicco Simonetta, the almighty minister of Francesco Sforza, who the Duchess Bona of Savoy sacrificed to the intrigues of his waiter Tassini, and who ended up beheaded in the castle of Pavia after atrocious torture endured with him the hero.
That building remained the unfinished work of the architect Seregno. It was majestic, with only one floor, with columns on the outside, part erect, part just beginning. The grand entrance door, not completed either. Time had spread its dark color over all the massive stones, increasing the austerity of the building, whose interior was equally solemn and severe. A wide staircase leading to a long, wide gallery of old paintings, bronzes, fabrics, porcelain, lacquer, all antique, all in large quantities, stacked up, confused.
A life of art was lived in this art museum. The owner and inhabitant of the building was Count Cesare Castelbarco, husband of the Countess Maria Freganeschi, last of an ancient and very rich family from Cremona. The count, together with his two sons, made the most festive receptions to writers and to artists of scream. He had learned from his mother to honor them: his mother was the Countess Maria Castelbarco, born Litta for whose beauty Parini’s old heart trembled as he wrote The message to her . Count Castelbarco performed music of his own composition, and recited his poems; the children also prayed. A prankster did not spare his father and children, singing:
Count Father’s sonnets do the same,
Count son son a thousand sonnets ….
Countess Maria Castelbarco Freganeschi was a great master of the Viceroyalty Court; therefore, every day, as the two began to fall, the caravan with servants in luxury livery stood waiting at the foot of the staircase to take the countess to the palace; and from a window, a very faint girl with big eyes, Cristina Trivulzio, with her mother, meanwhile looked out on the street the thunderous exit of the carriage with the lady.
The marquise Vittoria had married in a second marriage to the young Marquis Alessandro Visconti d’Aragona, and had gone to live with her second husband and the only daughter of the first, in a wing of that building. And it was there that Cristina, the future Princess Belgiojoso, developed lively intelligence; especially musical intelligence. The mother, in love with the art of sounds, transmits sentiment into her daughter; and in her the Malibran, the Pasta, and the maestro Nicola Vaccaj, who visited their mother, performed them, performing passionate and kind music in those rooms, so that all the air of Italy then vibrated.
Alessandro Visconti d’Aragona, having come out of a large, historic family, was adding luster to his name. His mother, Countess Virginia Ottolini, held a high position in the Viceroyalty Court. His father, Marquis Serafino Alberto, was one of those strange types we were talking about. He lived in the countryside all year in Castelletto sul Ticino and Ornavasso, with a crowd of cats: he spent the whole night until dawn reciting the psalms and the rosary with the waiter: at dawn, he went to bed quietly to make up in the night the ascetic life of before. On the other hand, sleeping during the day and watching the night was the life of many nobles at the end of the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth century; and Ippolito Pindemonte, in love with country life, in the fluid, shiny octaves of his Morning, stings that nonsense and the unhealthy custom.
Nice appearance of the Visconti d’Aragona: round face that emerges from the soles and from an enormous tie: beautiful eyes, beautiful the front spacious, made more spacious by sparse hair. Enthusiastic of Rousseau, he inclines to sighing sentimentality; at the same time it deals with agriculture with an uncommon doctrine. Easy to arouse admiration and, at the same time, shady, suspicious. How many can compete with him in botanical knowledge? He does not stop only by studying plants; he cultivates them with wisdom to embellish gardens; and design gardens. The beauties of art exalt him; but he loves his country even more, to which he wants to donate liberal institutions; and this love pushes him to danger, on the threshold of Spielberg.
He is a friend of the Manzoni family, and the great Lombard writer shows him goodwill. He attended the liberal count Luigi Porro Lambertenghi, and, in the count’s house, found Silvio Pellico; find Giovanni Berchet, Pietro Borsieri, Romagnosi, Melchiorre Gioja, the doctor Rasori, all writers of a new newspaper, The Conciliator, who wants to break the old molds of convention on which classicism is modeled and banishes popular poetry, a poem heard, a literature that lives in accord with the movement of the times. The Marquis Visconti of Aragon meets, in the Porro house, with a proud man: Federico Confalonieri. And with Confalonieri, and with others, the Marquis Alessandro Visconti of Aragon had the first steamboat built on the Po, he encouraged mutual teaching, he wanted to spread science: all noble efforts, seeds of healthy progress that the best opposed to servile lethargy then imposed on the Italian districts from Austria: from Austria which, having demolished the Napoleonic colossus with feet of clay, had returned to be mistress and referee.
“Great men are like the meteors of the sky that are consumed to illuminate the earth”; Napoleon seems to have said one day; even his meteor – a meteor of blood – was consumed; and Austria loved darkness. In the Memoirs of the Underworld of the Viscount of Chateaubriand, we read a very true page about the sleep Austria had spread over a newly awakened land, barely listening to her own conscience. The Chateaubriand had come to Milan at the time of the thunderous French occupation, with a letter from Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister, for the majestic Murat; and speaks of then, speaks of the aftermath: it is an admirable page:
A grand passage in Milan, a grand peuple réveillé ouvrait un moment les yeux. L’Italie sortait de son sommeil, et se souvenait de son génie comme d’un rêve divin: useful à notre pays renaissant, elle apportait dans la mesquinerie de notre pauvreté the grandeur of nature transalpine, nourrie qu’elle était, cette Ausonie , aux chefs-d’œuvre des arts et dans les hautes réminiscences d’une patriomatuse. The East Railway Authority; elle a remis son manteau de plomb sur les Italiens; elle les a forcés à regagner leur cercueil. Rome est rentrée dans ses ruines, Venise dans sa mer. Venise s’est affaissée en embellissant le ciel de son dernier sourire; elle s’est couchée charmante dans ses flots, comme un astre qui ne doit plus se lever.
And against this death imposed by Austria, the magnanimous fighters of 1821 fought, Cristina’s stepfather fought, she fought stubbornly, invoked, the same Cristina when, later, she became princess of Belgiojoso.
– I want devout subjects, not wise, – said Francesco I when he visited the University of Pavia where Ugo Foscolo had made his liberal voice sound. And the Austrian monarch could not say a more suitable phrase to reawaken a whole movement, a spread of mutual knowledge.
The Austrian police in Milan, who kept watch above all on the high poppies, did not miss the inclinations of the young Visconti d’Aragona: and when he discovered the plot of the Carbonari, he sought it out to arrest him. His wife is about to get into the carriage for the usual walk on the Corso, when they come to warn her that the police are performing searches in the homes of her husband’s friends, and that Count Porro Lambertenghi is in jail, and other arrests are imminent . Courageous and calm, she orders the coachman to fly at Àffori, where he arrives immediately: he enters a house that her husband owns there: he enters the room that serves his studies: he burns quickly and in fury, in the fireplace, all the cards that take them by hand. When the cops arrive with grim Bolza in the head, the fireplace still smokes; but incriminating caries are destroyed.
The Visconti of Aragon did not arrive in time to escape like Giovanni Berchet, like the Marquis Giuseppe Arconati-Visconti, like Giuseppe Pecchio, Giovanni Arrivabene, Benigno Bossi and the count Luigi Porro. He was arrested, in Àffori. The wife fainted.
The Visconti d’Aragona was subjected to interrogations by the Special Commission of Milan for “high treason crime”.
To obtain the release of her husband, his wife went to Verona, in which city the sovereigns of the Holy Alliance had gathered for the famous congress. The beautiful Marchesa threw herself at the feet of Emperor Francis I, who told her good words. Fortunately, the “legal evidence” was missing, and the prisoner was declared free with the same sentence that condemned Count Confalonieri and other patriots of 1821 to death.
The Marquis Visconti d’Aragona behaved very nobly in the process. I take it from his own interrogators, in the original deeds of the trials of 1921, kept in the Lombard secret state archives in Milan. According to the unjust criminal procedure of that time, the defendants were not granted lawyers. They had to defend themselves. The inquisitors used every means to capture the truth from the lips of the accused. Almost all unaware of the laws, taken prison, often fasting, and dismayed by uncertainty, and between obscure or open threats, were easy prey.
The young Gaetano De Castiglia, naive, very sweet spirit, who, at the suggestion of Count Federico Confalonieri, presented himself to the Piedmontese General San Marzano and to the Prince of Carignano, Carlo Alberto, in order to determine them to invade Lombardy with arms, to drive away the Austrians, and founding the Constitution, he told (who knows with what arts forced) in his questioning before the Special Commission chaired by the clever criminal Salvotti, from Trentino, who thought he was the marquis Visconti of Aragon was one of them, one of the federated! … This was enough for the Visconti d’Aragona to be arrested and closed in the “Casa di Correzione” at Porta Nuova, where, besides, it was not lacking for Alessandro Pajna, director of that prison, the chaplain Felice Maria Meloni and Salvotti himself; who, perfect in form, never appeared in the prison of political defendants without taking off his hat and holding it respectfully in his hand during the conversation; but then he condemned them to the gallows or to the Spielberg. Execrable, very good.
The political reports of Austria against the Italian conspirators present themselves with a regularity of impeccable legal forms. On one side of the sheet, the question of the accused is written, he specifies, without apparent suggestion: on the other side, his answer is written; he is often dictated by himself; he is always signed by him.
The Marquis Visconti d’Aragona defended himself with dignity, and betrayed no one. He said only that Silvio Pellico, at the table of Count Luigi Porro (of whose sons he was a tutor) sometimes pronounced irreligious phrases. The author of My Prisons then tilted to the Volterra trifles. But the misfortune raised that soul to the faith: the long martyrdom in the Spielberg turned his thrill into resignation. He could hate him and dragged his chains for having loved his country; he could hate, and pitied; he could threaten revenge; and he wanted to forgive his own executioners.
Released for “lack of legal proof” after three years in prison, the Marquis Visconti d’Aragona returned to the useful first life: to help the unfortunate, to help new attempts at industry, to converse with the best on high things. The Conciliator had been suppressed by Austria; but the spirit of the generous newspaper hovered in the hearts of men like Visconti d’Aragona.
Such a man, that fate gave Christ his mistress. Having lost her father only four years, she grew up in the Visconti d’Aragona home; and for the Visconti he fed domestic affections.
The conspiracies, the imprisonments, the escapes, the atrocious condemnations of the liberals, here are the sad spectacles that paraded before his mind child. The anxieties, the tears of the mother for her imprisoned husband, the imprisonment of the stepfather certainly did not arouse her affection for Austria.
Around Cristina, four brothers grew up, born of the Visconti of Aragon: Alberto, Teresa, Virginia and Giulia. Alberto, an inflexible aristocratic gentleman, passionate about the costumes of English high society, passionate about horses, friend of Massimo d’Azeglio, enemy of the Austrian Court, was loved by his sister Cristina with that fraternal affection, confidant, which fills so many voids of the heart .
And the mother, always thanks and smile, continued meanwhile the beautiful musical evenings.
Vincenzo Bellini, blond, rosy, timid young man, who suddenly became famous with the Pirate at La Scala, he frequented that house, trying to execute on the cymbal the soft melodies he created: I say trying, because awe tied his hands. Seeing the young man’s embarrassment, the marquise put herself to the harpsichord, and at first sight interpreted the music of that gentle genius, who rejoiced to hear her.
The enthusiasm for the masters and the singers then erupted with sensational impulses; and both deserved it for their excellence. Difficult communications, sparse relations between state and state, between province and province, even between cities and cities, circumscribed life; but the music, the theatrical spectacle cheered that small circle, they enlarged it, almost, with the light of genius. The music spoke to the hearts a common idiom, and united them, braced them in a warm affinity of noble sentiments; and soon he lit them with patriotistic hopes. How many conspirators vented in the musical enthusiasm the occult fever of the homeland that shook them! And an indefatigable observer, a highly original German poet, Enrico Heine, noticed them at the Scala Theater in Milan. The author of the Reisebilder, coming to Milan he not only admires the Duomo in the moonlight, which seems to him both a grand and gentle masterpiece, an enchanting “toy for the children of a giant”, not only admires, in the streets, more than one graceful woman “that sharp chin that gives a sentimental air to the lady of the Lombard school”, as he tells in the Reisebilder , so flashing with impressions and images; he also finds “pale Italian faces with sadness in the whites of the eyes and a painful tenderness on the lips”. And it tells a scene from La Scala theater, passed between an Englishman and an Italian:
We had witnessed the representation of a new opera at La Scala and the infernal din that is made on such occasions. “You other Italians,” said the Englishman to the pale man, “seem dead to everything, except for the music, which alone still has the power to shake you.” “You’re wrong,” the pale man replied, shrugging. Alas! (he added with a sigh) Italy sits elegantly dreaming on its ruins, and if sometimes it wakes and leaps with impetus to the melody of some song, its enthusiasm is not for the song itself, but for the memories and feelings of the past, which that song has evoked, which Italy always keeps in its heart, and which then overflow with tumult. Here is the meaning of the great din you heard at La Scala.
A people that possessed those melodies; a people that burned with enthusiasm, it was not dead: it was preparing to rise again. And Cristina Trivulzio wanted to be the angel of the revolution, next to the beautiful prince Emilio Belgiojoso, the prince charmant .