The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal


On the 15th of May, 1796, General Bonaparte made his entry into Milan
at the head of that young army which had shortly before crossed the
Bridge of Lodi and taught the world that after all these centuries
Caesar and Alexander had a successor. The miracles of gallantry and
genius of which Italy was a witness in the space of a few months
aroused a slumbering people; only a week before the arrival of the
French, the Milanese still regarded them as a mere rabble of brigands,
accustomed invariably to flee before the troops of His Imperial and
Royal Majesty; so much at least was reported to them three times
weekly by a little news-sheet no bigger than one’s hand, and printed
on soiled paper.

In the Middle Ages the Republicans of Lombardy had given proof of a
valour equal to that of the French, and deserved to see their city
rased to the ground by the German Emperors. Since they had become
_loyal subjects_, their great occupation was the printing of sonnets
upon handkerchiefs of rose-coloured taffeta whenever the marriage
occurred of a young lady belonging to some rich or noble family. Two
or three years after that great event in her life, the young lady in
question used to engage a devoted admirer: sometimes the name of the
_cicisbeo_ chosen by the husband’s family occupied an honourable place
in the marriage contract. It was a far cry from these effeminate ways
to the profound emotions aroused by the unexpected arrival of the
French army. Presently there sprang up a new and passionate way of
life. A whole people discovered, on the 15th of May, 1796, that
everything which until then it had respected was supremely ridiculous,
if not actually hateful. The departure of the last Austrian regiment
marked the collapse of the old ideas: to risk one’s life became the
fashion. People saw that in order to be really happy after centuries
of cloying sensations, it was necessary to love one’s country with a
real love and to seek out heroic actions. They had been plunged in the
darkest night by the continuation of the jealous despotism of Charles
V and Philip II; they overturned these monarchs’ statues and
immediately found themselves flooded with daylight. For the last
half-century, as the _Encyclopaedia_ and Voltaire gained ground in
France, the monks had been dinning into the ears of the good people of
Milan that to learn to read, or for that matter to learn anything at
all was a great waste of labour, and that by paying one’s exact tithe
to one’s parish priest and faithfully reporting to him all one’s
little misdeeds, one was practically certain of having a good place in
Paradise. To complete the debilitation of this people once so
formidable and so rational, Austria had sold them, on easy terms, the
privilege of not having to furnish any recruits to her army.

In 1796, the Milanese army was composed of four and twenty
rapscallions dressed in scarlet, who guarded the town with the
assistance of four magnificent regiments of Hungarian Grenadiers.
Freedom of morals was extreme, but passion very rare; otherwise, apart
from the inconvenience of having to repeat everything to one’s parish
priest, on pain of ruin even in this world, the good people of Milan
were still subjected to certain little monarchical interferences which
could not fail to be vexatious. For instance, the Archduke, who
resided at Milan and governed in the name of the Emperor, his
cousin, had had the lucrative idea of trading in corn. In
consequence, an order prohibiting the peasants from selling their
grain until His Highness had filled his granaries.

In May, 1796, three days after the entry of the French, a young
painter in miniature, slightly mad, named Gros, afterwards famous, who
had come with the army, overhearing in the great Caffè dei Servi
(which was then in fashion) an account of the exploits of the
Archduke, who moreover was extremely stout, picked up the list of ices
which was printed on a sheet of coarse yellow paper. On the back of
this he drew the fat Archduke; a French soldier was stabbing him with
his bayonet in the stomach, and instead of blood there gushed out an
incredible quantity of corn. What we call a lampoon or caricature was
unknown in this land of crafty ‘despotism. The drawing, left by Gros
on the table of the Caffè dei Servi, seemed a miracle fallen from
heaven; it was engraved and printed during the night, and next day
twenty thousand copies of it were sold.

The same day, there were posted up notices of a forced loan of six
millions, levied to supply the needs of the French army which, having
just won six battles and conquered a score of provinces, wanted
nothing now but shoes, breeches, jackets and caps.

The mass of prosperity and pleasure which burst into Lombardy in the
wake of these French ragamuffins was so great that only the priests
and a few nobles were conscious of the burden of this levy of six
millions, shortly to be followed by a number of others. These French
soldiers laughed and sang all day long; they were all under
twenty-five years of age, and their Commander in Chief, who had
reached twenty-seven, was reckoned the oldest man in his army. This
gaiety, this youthfulness, this irresponsibility furnished a jocular
reply to the furious preachings of the monks, who, for six months, had
been announcing from the pulpit that the French were monsters,
obliged, upon pain of death, to burn down everything and to cut off
everyone’s head. With this object, each of their regiments marched
with a guillotine at its head.

In the country districts one saw at the cottage doors the French
soldier engaged in dandling the housewife’s baby in his arms, and
almost every evening some drummer, scraping a fiddle, would improvise
a ball. Our country dances proving a great deal too skilful and
complicated for the soldiers, who for that matter barely knew them
themselves, to be able to teach them to the women of the country, it
was the latter who shewed the young Frenchmen the _Monferrina_,
_Salterello_ and other Italian dances.

The officers had been lodged, as far as possible, with the wealthy
inhabitants; they had every need of comfort. A certain lieutenant,
for instance, named Robert, received a billeting order on the
_palazzo_ of the Marchesa del Dongo. This officer, a young conscript
not over-burdened with scruples, possessed as his whole worldly
wealth, when he entered this _palazzo_, a scudo of six francs which he
had received at Piacenza. After the crossing of the Bridge of Lodi he
had taken from a fine Austrian officer, killed by a ball, a
magnificent pair of nankeen pantaloons, quite new, and never did any
garment come more opportunely. His officer’s epaulettes were of wool,
and the cloth of his tunic was stitched to the lining of the sleeves
so that its scraps might hold together; but there was something even
more distressing; the soles of his shoes were made out of pieces of
soldiers’ caps, likewise picked up on the field of battle, somewhere
beyond the Bridge of Lodi. These makeshift soles were tied on over his
shoes with pieces of string which were plainly visible, so that when
the major-domo appeared at the door of Lieutenant Robert’s room
bringing him an invitation to dine with the Signora Marchesa, the
officer was thrown into the utmost confusion. He and his orderly spent
the two hours that divided him from this fatal dinner in trying to
patch up the tunic a little and in dyeing black, with ink, those
wretched strings round his shoes. At last the dread moment arrived.
“Never in my life did I feel more ill at ease,” Lieutenant Robert told
me; “the ladies expected that I would terrify them, and I was
trembling far more than they were. I looked down at my shoes and did
not know how to walk gracefully. The Marchesa del Dongo,” he went on,
“was then in the full bloom of her beauty: you have seen her for
yourself, with those lovely eyes of an angelic sweetness, and the
dusky gold of her hair which made such a perfect frame for the oval of
that charming face. I had in my room a _Herodias_ by Leonardo da
Vinci, which might have been her portrait. Mercifully, I was so
overcome by her supernatural beauty that I forgot all about my
clothes. For the last two years I had been seeing nothing that was not
ugly and wretched, in the mountains behind Genoa: I ventured to say a
few words to her to express my delight.

“But I had too much sense to waste any time upon compliments. As I
was turning my phrases I saw, in a dining-room built entirely of
marble, a dozen flunkeys and footmen dressed in what seemed to me then
the height of magnificence. Just imagine, the rascals had not only
good shoes on their feet, but silver buckles as well. I could see them
all, out of the corner of my eye, staring stupidly at my coat and
perhaps at my shoes also, which cut me to the heart. I could have
frightened all these fellows with a word; but how was I to put them in
their place without running the risk of offending the ladies? For the
Marchesa, to fortify her own courage a little, as she has told me a
hundred times since, had sent to fetch from the convent where she was
still at school Gina del Dongo, her husband’s sister, who was
afterwards that charming Contessa Pietranera: no one, in prosperity,
surpassed her in gaiety and sweetness of temper, just as no one
surpassed her in courage and serenity of soul when fortune turned
against her.

“Gina, who at that time might have been thirteen but looked more like
eighteen, a lively, downright girl, as you know, was in such fear of
bursting out laughing at the sight of my costume that she dared not
eat; the Marchesa, on the other hand, loaded me with constrained
civilities; she could see quite well the movements of impatience in my
eyes. In a word, I cut a sorry figure, I chewed the bread of scorn, a
thing which is said to be impossible for a Frenchman. At length, a
heaven-sent idea shone in my mind: I set to work to tell the ladies of
my poverty and of what we had suffered for the last two years in the
mountains behind Genoa where we were kept by idiotic old Generals.
There, I told them, we were paid in _assignats_ which were not legal
tender in the country, and given three ounces of bread daily. I had
not been speaking for two minutes before there were tears in the good
Marchesa’s eyes, and Gina had grown serious.

“‘What, Lieutenant,’ she broke in, ‘three ounces of bread!’

“‘Yes, Signorina; but to make up for that the issue ran short three
days in the week, and as the peasants on whom we were billeted were
even worse off than ourselves, we used to hand on some of our bread to

“On leaving the table, I offered the Marchesa my arm as far as the
door of the drawing-room, then hurried back and gave the servant who
had waited upon me at dinner that solitary scudo of six francs upon
the spending of which I had built so many castles in the air.

“A week later,” Robert went on, “when it was satisfactorily
established that the French were not guillotining anyone, the
Marchese del Dongo returned from his castle of Grianta on the Lake of
Como, to which he had gallantly retired on the approach of the army,
abandoning to the fortunes of war his young and beautiful wife and
his sister. The hatred that this Marchese felt for us was equal to his
fear, that is to say immeasurable: his fat face, pale and pious, was
an amusing spectacle when he was being polite to me. On the day after
his return to Milan, I received three ells of cloth and two hundred
francs out of the levy of six millions; I renewed my wardrobe, and
became cavalier to the ladies, for the season of balls was beginning.”

Lieutenant Robert’s story was more or less that of all the French
troops; instead of laughing at the wretched plight of these poor
soldiers, people were sorry for them and came to love them.

This period of unlooked-for happiness and wild excitement lasted but
two short years; the frenzy had been so excessive and so general
that it would be impossible for me to give any idea of it, were it not
for this historical and profound reflexion: these people had been
living in a state of boredom for the last hundred years.

The thirst for pleasure natural in southern countries had prevailed in
former times at the court of the Visconti and Sforza, those famous
Dukes of Milan. But from the year 1524, when the Spaniards conquered
the Milanese, and conquered them as taciturn, suspicious, arrogant
masters, always in dread of revolt, gaiety had fled. The subject
race, adopting the manners of their masters, thought more of avenging
the least insult by a dagger-blow than of enjoying the fleeting hour.

This frenzied joy, this gaiety, this thirst for pleasure, this
tendency to forget every sad or even reasonable feeling, were carried
to such a pitch, between the 15th of May, 1796, when the French
entered Milan, and April, 1799, when they were driven out again after
the battle of Cassano, that instances have been cited of old
millionaire merchants, old money-lenders, old scriveners who, during
this interval, quite forgot to pull long faces and to amass money.

At the most it would have been possible to point to a few families
belonging to the higher ranks of the nobility, who had retired to
their palaces in the country, as though in a sullen revolt against the
prevailing high spirits and the expansion of every heart. It is true
that these noble and wealthy families had been given a distressing
prominence in the allocation of the forced loans exacted for the
French army.

The Marchese del Dongo, irritated by the spectacle of so much gaiety,
had been one of the first to return to his magnificent castle of
Grianta, on the farther side of Como, whither his ladies took with
them Lieutenant Robert. This castle, standing in a position which is
perhaps unique in the world, on a plateau one hundred and fifty feet
above that sublime lake, a great part of which it commands, had been
originally a fortress. The del Dongo family had constructed it in the
fifteenth century, as was everywhere attested by marble tablets
charged with their arms; one could still see the drawbridges and deep
moats, though the latter, it must be admitted, had been drained of
their water; but with its walls eighty feet in height and six in
thickness, this castle was safe from assault, and it was for this
reason that it was dear to the timorous Marchese. Surrounded by some
twenty-five or thirty retainers whom he supposed to be devoted to his
person, presumably because he never opened his mouth except to curse
them, he was less tormented by fear than at Milan.

This fear was not altogether groundless: he was in most active
correspondence with a spy posted by Austria on the Swiss frontier
three leagues from Grianta, to contrive the escape of the prisoners
taken on the field of battle; conduct which might have been viewed in
a serious light by the French Generals.

The Marchese had left his young wife at Milan; she looked after the
affairs of the family there, and was responsible for providing the
sums levied on the _casa del Dongo_ (as they say in Italy) ; she
sought to have these reduced, which obliged her to visit those of the
nobility who had accepted public office, and even some highly
influential persons who were not of noble birth. A great event now
occurred in this family. The Marchese had arranged the marriage of his
young sister Gina with a personage of great wealth and the very
highest birth; but he powdered his hair; in virtue of which, Ghia
received him with shouts of laughter, and presently took the rash step
of marrying the Conte Pietranera. He was, it is true, a very fine
gentleman, of the most personable appearance, but ruined for
generations past in estate, and to complete the disgrace of the match,
a fervent supporter of the new ideas. Pietranera was a sub-lieutenant
in the Italian Legion; this was the last straw for the Marchese.

After these two years of folly and happiness, the Directory in Paris,
giving itself the ate of a sovereign firmly enthroned, began to shew
a mortal hatred of everything that was not commonplace. The
incompetent Generals whom it imposed on the Army of Italy lost a
succession of battles on those same plains of Verona, which had
witnessed two years before the prodigies of Arcole and Lonato. The
Austrians again drew near to Milan; Lieutenant Robert, who had been
promoted to the command of a battalion and had been wounded at the
battle of Cassano, came to lodge for the last time in the house of his
friend the Marchesa del Dongo. Their parting was a sad one; Robert set
forth with Conte Pietranera, who followed the French in their
retirement on Novi. The young Contessa, to whom her brother refused to
pay her marriage portion, followed the army, riding in a cart.

Then began that period of reaction and a return to the old ideas,
which the Milanese call _i tredici mesi_ (the thirteen months),
because as it turned out their destiny willed that this return to
stupidity should endure for thirteen months only, until Marengo.
Everyone who was old, bigoted, morose, reappeared at the head of
affairs, and resumed the leadership of society; presently the people
who had remained faithful to the sound doctrines published a report
in the villages that Napoleon had been hanged by the Mamelukes in
Egypt, as he so richly deserved.

Among these men who had retired to sulk on their estates and came back
now athirst for vengeance, the Marchese del Dongo distinguished
himself by his rabidity; the extravagance of his sentiments carried
him naturally to the head of his party. These gentlemen, quite worthy
people when they were not in a state of panic, but who were always
trembling, succeeded in getting round the Austrian General: a good
enough man at heart, he let himself be persuaded that severity was the
best policy, and ordered the arrest of one hundred and fifty patriots:
quite the best man to be found in Italy at the time.

They were speedily deported to the Bocche di Cattaro, and, flung into
subterranean caves, the moisture and above all the want of bread did
prompt justice to each and all of these rascals.

The Marchese del Dongo had an exalted position, and, as he combined
with a host of other fine qualities a sordid avarice, he would boast
publicly that he never sent a scudo to his sister, the Contessa
Pietranera: still madly in love, she refused to leave her husband,
and was starving by his side in France. The good Marchesa was in
despair; finally she managed to abstract a few small diamonds from
her jewel case, which her husband took from her every evening to stow
away under his bed, in an iron coffer: the Marchesa had brought him a
dowry of 800,000 francs, and received 80 francs monthly for her
personal expenses. During the thirteen months in which the French were
absent from Milan, this most timid of women found various pretexts and
never went out of mourning.

We must confess that, following the example of many grave authors, we
have begun the history of our hero a year before his birth. This
essential personage is none other than Fabrizio Valserra, Marchesino
del Dongo, as the style is at Milan. [Footnote: By the local custom,
borrowed from Germany, this title is given to every son of a Marchese;
_Contino_ to the son of a Conte, _Contessina_ to the daughter of a
Conte, etc.]

He had taken the trouble to be born just when the French were driven
out, and found himself, by the accident of birth, the second son of
that Marchese del Dongo who was so great a gentleman, and with whose
fat, pasty face, false smile and unbounded hatred for the new ideas
the reader is already acquainted. The whole of the family fortune was
already settled upon the elder son, Ascanio del Dongo, the worthy
image of his father. He was eight years old and Fabrizio two when all
of a sudden that General Bonaparte, whom everyone of good family
understood to have been hanged long ago, came down from the Mont
Saint-Bernard. He entered Milan: that moment is still unique in
history; imagine a whole populace madly in love. A few days later,
Napoleon won the battle of Marengo. The rest needs no telling. The
frenzy of the Milanese reached its climax; but this time it was
mingled with ideas of vengeance: these good people had been taught to
hate. Presently they saw arrive in their midst all that remained of
the patriots deported to the Bocche di Cattaro; their return was
celebrated with a national festa. Their pale faces, their great
startled eyes, their shrunken limbs were in strange contrast to the
joy that broke out on every side. Their arrival was the signal for
departure for the families most deeply compromised. The Marchese del
Dongo was one of the first to flee to his castle of Grianta. The heads
of the great families were filled with hatred and fear; but their
wives, their daughters, remembered the joys of the former French
occupation, and thought with regret of Milan and those gay balls,
which, immediately after Marengo, were organised afresh at the _casa
Tanzi_. A few days after the victory, the French General responsible
for maintaining order in Lombardy discovered that all the farmers on
the noblemen’s estates, all the old wives in the villages, so far from
still thinking of this astonishing victory at Marengo, which had
altered the destinies of Italy and recaptured thirteen fortified
positions in a single day, had their minds occupied only by a prophecy
of San Giovila, the principal Patron Saint of Brescia. According to
this inspired utterance, the prosperity of France and of Napoleon was
to cease just thirteen weeks after Marengo. What does to some extent
excuse the Marchese del Dongo and all the nobles sulking on their
estates is that literally and without any affectation they believed in
the prophecy. Not one of these gentlemen had read as many as four
volumes in his life; quite openly they were making their preparations
to return to Milan at the end of the thirteen weeks; but time, as it
went on, recorded fresh successes for the cause of France. Returning
to Paris, Napoleon, by wise decrees, saved the country from revolution
at home as he had saved it from its foreign enemies at Marengo. Then
the Lombard nobles, in the safe shelter of their castles, discovered
that at first they had misinterpreted the prophecy of the holy
patron of Brescia; it was a question not of thirteen weeks, but of
thirteen months. The thirteen months went by, and the prosperity of
France seemed to increase daily.

We pass lightly over ten years of progress and happiness, from 1800 to
1810. Fabrizio spent the first part of this decade at the castle of
Grianta, giving and receiving an abundance of fisticuffs among the
little _contadini_ of the village, and learning nothing, not even how
to read. Later on, he was sent to the Jesuit College at Milan. The
Marchese, his father, insisted on his being shewn the Latin tongue,
not on any account in the works of those ancient writers who are
always talking about Republics, but in a magnificent volume adorned
with more than a hundred engravings, a masterpiece of
seventeenth-century art; this was the Lathi genealogy of the Valserra,
Marchesi del Dongo, published in 1650 by Fabrizio del Dongo,
Archbishop of Parma. The fortunes of the Valserra being pre-eminently
military, the engravings represented any number of battles, and
everywhere one saw some hero of the name dealing mighty blows with his
sword. This book greatly delighted the young Fabrizio. His mother,
who adored him, obtained permission, from time to time, to pay him a
visit at Milan; but as her husband never offered her any money for
these journeys, it was her sister-in-law, the charming Contessa
Pietranera, who lent her what she required. After the return of the
French, the Contessa had become one of the most brilliant ladies at
the court of Prince Eugène, the Viceroy of Italy.

When Fabrizio had made his First Communion, she obtained leave from
the Marchese, still in voluntary exile, to invite him out, now and
again, from his college. She found him unusual, thoughtful, very
serious, but a nice-looking boy and not at all out of place in the
drawing-room of a lady of fashion; otherwise, as ignorant as one could
wish, and barely able to write. The Contessa, who carried her
impulsive character into everything, promised her protection to the
head of the establishment provided that her nephew Fabrizio made
astounding progress and carried off a number of prizes at the end of
the year. So that he should be in a position to deserve them, she used
to send for bun every Saturday evening, and often did not restore him
to his masters until the following Wednesday or Thursday. The Jesuits,
although tenderly cherished by the Prince Viceroy, were expelled
from Italy by the laws of the Kingdom, and the Superior of the
College, an able man, was conscious of all that might be made out of
his relations with a woman all-powerful at court. He never thought of
complaining of the absences of Fabrizio, who, more ignorant than ever,
at the end of the year was awarded five first prizes. This being so,
the Contessa, escorted by her husband, now the General commanding one
of the Divisions of the Guard, and by five or six of the most
important personages at the viceregal court, came to attend the
prize-giving at the Jesuit College. The Superior was complimented by
his chiefs.

The Contessa took her nephew with her to all those brilliant
festivities which marked the too brief reign of the sociable Prince
Eugène. She had on her own authority created him an officer of
hussars, and Fabrizio, now twelve years old, wore that uniform. One
day the Contessa, enchanted by his handsome figure, besought the
Prince to give him a post as page, a request which implied that the
del Dongo family was coming round. Next day she had need of all her
credit to secure the Viceroy’s kind consent not to remember this
request, which lacked only the consent of the prospective page’s
father, and this consent would have been emphatically refused. After
this act of folly, which made the sullen Marchese shudder, he found
an excuse to recall young Fabrizio to Grianta. The Contessa had a
supreme contempt for her brother, she regarded him as a melancholy
fool, and one who would be troublesome if ever it lay in his power.
But she was madly fond of Fabrizio, and, after ten years of silence,
wrote to the Marchese reclaiming her nephew; her letter was left

On his return to this formidable palace, built by the most bellicose
of his ancestors, Fabrizio knew nothing in the world except how to
drill and how to sit on a horse. Conte Pietranera, as fond of the boy
as was his wife, used often to put him on a horse and take him with
him on parade.

On reaching the castle of Grianta, Fabrizio, his eyes still red with
the tears that he had shed on leaving his aunt’s fine rooms, found
only the passionate caresses of his mother and sisters. The Marchese
was closeted in his study with his elder son, the Marchesino Ascanio;
there they composed letters in cipher which had the honour to be
forwarded to Vienna; father and son appeared in public only at
meal-times. The Marchese used ostentatiously to repeat that he was
teaching his natural successor to keep, by double entry, the accounts
of the produce of each of his estates. As a matter of fact, the
Marchese was too jealous of his own power ever to speak of these
matters to a son, the necessary inheritor of all these entailed
properties. He employed him to cipher despatches of fifteen or twenty
pages which two or throe times weekly he had conveyed into
Switzerland, where they were put on the road for Vienna. The Marchese
claimed to inform his rightful Sovereign of the internal condition of
the Kingdom of Italy, of which he himself knew nothing, and his
letters were invariably most successful, for the following reason: the
Marchese would have a count taken on the high road, by some trusted
agent, of the number of men in a certain French or Italian regiment
that was changing its station, and in reporting the fact to the court
of Vienna would take care to reduce by at least a quarter the number
of the troops on the march. These letters, in other respects absurd,
had the merit of contradicting others of greater accuracy, and gave
pleasure. And so, a short time before Fabrizio’s arrival at the
castle, the Marchese had received the star of a famous order: it was
the fifth to adorn his Chamberlain’s coat. As a matter of fact, he
suffered from the chagrin of not daring to sport this garment outside
his study; but he never allowed himself to dictate a despatch without
first putting on the gold-laced coat, studded with all his orders. He
would have felt himself to be wanting in respect had he acted