The Betrothed CHAPTER 22

Soon afterwards the bravo came back to report. The day before, Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan, had arrived at —, and would be staying there for the whole of the day which had just begun. The news of his coming had spread through the villages the night before, and everyone wanted to see him. The bell-ringing was not so much to inform people of the occasion as to express the general happiness.

When the master of the castle was left alone again, he continued to stare down into the valley, more gloomily than ever.

‘So it’s all on account of one man!’ he thought. ‘They’re all hurrying happily off to see just one man. And yet every one of those fellows down there must have his own devil to torture him … But none of them has a devil like mine; none of them has just passed a night like I have. What is it about that man which makes them all so happy? He’ll dish out a bit of money, no doubt, quite haphazard … But they’re certainly not all beggars looking for alms. Why, then it must be for a wave of his finger in front of their noses, a word from his mouth … If he knew the word of consolation for me, now! And why shouldn’t I go too? Why shouldn’t I? I’ll go, and I’ll talk to him; I’ll have a private talk to him … What shall I say, though? I’ll tell him that … that … Anyway, I’ll hear what he’s got to say for himself!’

Having made his decision in this rather confused manner, he quickly put on the rest of his clothes, including a jacket of military cut. He took up the pistol, which was still lying on the bed, and thrust it into his belt on one side, balanced by a second pistol on the other, which he took down from the wall. His dagger was stuck into the same belt, and finally he lifted down a carbine from the wall which was almost as famous as its master, and slung it from his shoulder. He picked up his hat, and went out. He made his way straight to the room where he had left Lucia. He stood his carbine in a corner outside the door, and knocked, calling out at the same time to let Lucia know who it was. The old woman got out of bed with a single jump, and scurried over to open the door. The Unnamed went in, looked round the room, and saw Lucia huddled motionless in the corner.

‘Is she asleep, then?’ he whispered to the old woman. ‘Asleep on the floor? Are these the orders I gave you, you old wretch?’

‘I did all I could,’ she replied. ‘But she refused to eat anything, she refused to come to bed …’

‘Let her sleep in peace, then; mind you don’t disturb her. And when she wakes up … Marta will have to stay in the next room, and you can send her to get anything the girl asks you for. When she wakes up, tell her that I … that the master has gone out for a short time, that he’ll be back … and that he’ll do whatever she asks him to do.’

The old woman was astounded by his words. ‘Is the girl a princess, or something?’ she thought. Her master went out, picked up his carbine, and sent Marta to take up her post in the next room. He sent the first bravo he met to act as sentry, and make sure that no one but Marta entered the room. Then he left the castle, and hurried down the slope.

Our manuscript does not tell us the distance from the castle to the village where the Archbishop was staying; but from the facts which we are now about to report it does not seem to have been more than a moderately long walk. This could not however be deduced from the mere fact that the inhabitants of the valley, and of the territory beyond it, went to see him; for contemporary memoirs speak of crowds of people assembling from a distance of twenty miles and more, to see Federigo Borromeo.

The bravoes the Unnamed met on the slope halted respectfully as he went by. They stood there expectantly waiting to see what orders he had for them, and whether he wanted to take them with him on some expedition. They did not know what to make of his bearing, or of the way he scowled at them in reply to their bows.

The thing that amazed the passers-by, when he reached the main road, was to see him without an escort. But they all made way for him, leaving him room enough to have accommodated an escort too, if he had had one; and they all respectfully raised their hats. When he reached the village, there was a big throng in the street; but his name passed quickly from mouth to mouth, and the crowd opened to let him through. He went up to a bystander and asked him where the Cardinal was. ‘In the parish priest’s house,’ replied the man with a bow, and showed him where it was. The Unnamed walked on to the house, and went into a small courtyard, full of priests, who looked at him with astonished and suspicious attention. Before him he saw an open door, which led into a small sitting-room, also full of priests. He unslung his carbine and stood it in the corner of the courtyard. He went into the room, and there too met with dark looks, whispers, and the repetition of his name, followed by silence. He turned to one of the priests and asked him where the Cardinal was, saying that he wished to speak to him.

‘I’m a stranger here,’ replied the priest. He glanced around, and called out to the episcopal chaplain, who at that moment was standing in the corner of the parlour, whispering to a colleague: ‘What? Is that the famous outlaw? Heaven forbid!’

But the chaplain’s name rang out across the room in the general silence, and he had to answer the call. He went over, bowed to the Unnamed, and listened to his request. He looked up into the noble’s face with uneasy curiosity, and looked down again quickly. He stood there silently for a moment, and finally said, or rather stammered:

‘I’m not sure whether His Grace … at the moment … is able — is in a position … is free to … well, anyway, I’ll go and see.’

He went off uncomfortably with the message into the neighbouring room, where the Cardinal was.

At this point in our story, we cannot help pausing for a little; just as a traveller, tired and depressed after a long journey through a wild and arid landscape, will stop and spend a little time sitting on the grass by a fountain of living water, under the shade of a beautiful tree. Our story has now brought us into the presence of a man the mention of whose name, the memory of whose character, can never at any time fail to refresh the mind with the calm emotion of reverence, with a happy feeling of affection. How much more so at this particular moment, after so many scenes of sorrow, after contemplating such manifold and distasteful wickedness. We cannot possibly refrain from saying a few words about this man; anyone who does not care to listen to them, but wants to go on with the main story, can turn on to the next chapter.

Federigo Borromeo was born in 1564. He was one of those few men – rare in any age – who devote the resources of an exceptional intellect, of vast wealth and of a privileged position in society in an unbroken effort to seek out and practice the means of making the world a better place. His life is a stream which springs cleanly out of the rock, flows in a long course across varied country without ever growing stagnant or muddy, and finally flows on unsullied into the river. Born amid luxury and splendour, he paid due heed from his earliest childhood to those words of abnegation and humility, those maxims regarding the vanities of pleasure, the injustices of pride, and the nature of true dignity and true values, which are handed down from one generation to another (whether any notice is taken of them or not) in the most elementary religious instruction. Federigo Borromeo, as we were saying, did take heed of those words and those maxims; he took them seriously, tested them, and found that they were true. He realized that certain other words and maxims which contradicted them could consequently only be false, although they had been passed down from generation to generation with equal assurance, and often by the same lips. He decided to use those which were true as the standard for his own actions and thoughts. Convinced that this life is not meant to provide a treadmill for the majority and unending holidays for the few, but rather to furnish every one of us with a task to perform, of which an account must one day be rendered, he began at an early age to consider how to make his own life holy and useful.

In 1580 he declared his intention of dedicating himself to the ministry of the Church, and was ordained by his own cousin Carlo, who was generally regarded as a saint by a prevalent opinion which was of long standing even then. Soon afterwards he entered the college which Carlo had founded at Pavia, and which still bears the name of their family. While there, he applied himself assiduously to the tasks prescribed to him, and took on two extra ones of his own free will, which were to teach the doctrine of Christianity to the roughest and most derelict of the people, and to visit, serve, console and succour the sick. He made use of the authority which everyone in that place conceded him to induce his fellows to help him in works of that kind. In every good and meritorious activity, he exercised a sort of leadership by example – a leadership which his personal gifts would probably have won him, even if he had been of the lowliest birth.

But as for the other advantages which his family connections could have given him, far from demanding them, he did everything in his power to ensure that they did not come his way. He insisted on a diet which was not merely frugal, but parsimonious, and on clothes which were not merely simple, but austere; and all his behaviour, his whole way of life, was in keeping with his dress. He would never agree to changing his ways, though various relations cried out that he was lowering the dignity of the family.

He had further trouble with his own superiors, who tried, in furtive, unexpected ways, to introduce something more befitting his birth into his quarters, his dress, his surroundings – something which would distinguish him from the others, and make him appear as the outstanding figure in the establishment – we cannot say why. Perhaps they thought that this policy would in the long run gain them his good will; perhaps they were moved by the servile baseness which draws pride and pleasure from the glory of others. Perhaps they were of that prudent sort who are equally alarmed by virtues and vices, and always preach the doctrine that perfection lies in the golden mean; they fix the golden mean at the point which they themselves happen to have reached, and settle down there very comfortably. Far from yielding to those who attempted to deflect him from his path, he reproved them for it, though he was still hardly more than a boy.

His cousin Carlo Borromeo, now a cardinal, was his senior by twenty-six years. The Cardinal’s grave and solemn bearing vividly expressed the idea of saintliness, and reminded the onlooker of the works of saintliness he had performed. If a further source of authority had been needed, it was there all the time in the obvious and spontaneous respect in which the Cardinal was held by all around him, whatever their rank. So it was not surprising that Federigo, in his boyhood and early youth, tried to model his behaviour and his thoughts on those of so eminent a superior. What is remarkable is that when the Cardinal died there were no signs that Federigo, still only twenty years old, was disorientated by the loss of his guide and mentor. The growing reputation of his intellectual powers, his learning and his piety, the support he would naturally receive from several influential cardinals to whom he was related, the credit of his family, the fact that he bore a name which his cousin Carlo had already enriched with the associations of sanctity and pre-eminence – in short, all the factors which would lead to preferment and all the factors that commonly do so – combined together to assure high office in the Church for Federigo.

But he was persuaded in his heart of a truth which no professed Christian can deny with his lips – namely, that no man can rightly claim superiority over his fellows, except in their service. So he feared the dignities that were offered to him and tried to avoid them. It was not that he wished to shun the opportunities of serving others, for few lives have ever been so devoted to that goal; but that he did not think himself either worthy or capable of such high and perilous service. In 1595, when Pope Clement VIII offered him the archbishopric of Milan, he was deeply perturbed, and refused without hesitation. Later he accepted office at the express command of the Pope.

Demonstrations of this sort are not all that difficult nor all that uncommon, as everyone knows. A hypocrite can imitate them without straining his ingenuity very far; and a cheap humorist can make fun of them with equal ease, whenever they occur. But does that mean that they can no longer be the natural expression of a wise and virtuous feeling? The touchstone of a man’s words is his life; and the words that expressed that feeling may have passed the lips of every impostor and scoffer in the world without losing the beauty they have when spoken by a man whose previous and subsequent life are filled with unselfishness and sacrifice.

The new Archbishop showed a singular, sustained determination not to spend on himself any more of his wealth, his time, his thoughts and all that was his than was strictly necessary. He would often say – as all priests say – that the income of the Church is the patrimony of the poor. The practical meaning which he attached to these words can be seen from the following example. He ordered an estimate to be prepared of the total cost of his own personal expenditure and that of his servants. He was told that it came to six hundred scudi. (‘Scudo’ was the name then given to the gold coin which later, without any change in its weight or value, came to be known as a sequin.) He then ordered that the full corresponding sum should be transferred every year from his private account to that of his household. For he did not think it right that he, with his great wealth, should live on the patrimony of the poor.

Towards himself, he was a most frugal and precise administrator of his own resources. For he never threw away a garment until it was really worn out; though his passion for simplicity was accompanied by the most exquisite personal cleanliness, as various contemporary writers remark. These were indeed two most unusual habits in that age of dirty bodies and splendid clothes. To ensure that nothing should be lost of what was left over from his frugal table, he allotted the remnant to a hostel for the destitute, one of whose inmates came every day into his dining room, by his order, to collect what remained uneaten. Such concerns might give an impression of a narrow, mean, miserable sort of virtue, a mind enmeshed in petty detail and incapable of any noble project – were that splendid Ambrosian Library not still there to prove the contrary, which Federigo Borromeo conceived in a spirit of such brilliant splendour, and built up at such expense from its first foundations.

To furnish it with books and manuscripts, he not only donated the private collection which he had built up himself at the cost of much time and money, but he sent out eight men, of the most expert and learned scholars he could find, to buy books for it throughout Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Flanders and Greece, in the Lebanon and at Jerusalem. In this way he got together about thirty thousand printed volumes and fourteen thousand manuscripts. To the library he attached a college of learned doctors. There were nine of them, salaried at his expense during his lifetime; but after his death it proved impossible to maintain so many out of ordinary funds, and the number was cut down to two. The task he set them was to cultivate various fields of study, such as theology, history, literature, research into the early history of the church, and oriental languages, each of them being under an obligation to produce published work on his subject. The archbishop added a school to which he gave the name of ‘Trilingual’, for the study of Greek, Latin and Italian; a college of pupils, who were to learn the various subjects and languages in order to teach them later on; a printing press for oriental languages (Hebrew, Chaldean, Arabic, Persian and Armenian); a picture gallery, a gallery for sculpture and a school for the three principal branches of draughtsmanship.

For those last few items, he could find ready-trained teachers. For the others … we have already seen the trouble he had to obtain the relevant books and manuscripts, and there can be no doubt that the typefaces for those languages, which were much less studied then than now in Europe, must have been even harder to obtain; and men to teach them, hardest of all. It is enough to say that of his nine learned doctors he chose eight among the young students of the seminary. This shows what a judgement he had formed of the completed studies and the established reputations of the day in those fields – a judgement confirmed by posterity, which seems to have committed both to oblivion.

In the rules he set up for the use and administration of the library, we can detect an intention to ensure its permanent utility, which is not only a fine aim in itself, but shows a wisdom and kindness which in many respects go far beyond the common ideas and habits of the day. The librarian was instructed to maintain a correspondence with the most learned men in Europe, and obtain from them news of the state of every science, and advice of the best books that were published in every category, so that he could obtain copies of them; he was instructed to draw the attention of students to works which they did not know and which might be useful to them. The Archbishop laid it down that everyone, whether a citizen or a foreigner, should be allowed opportunity and time to use the library, according to his need. This may now strike everybody as the most natural thing in the world, and as inherent in the idea of founding a library. But then things were very different. In a history of the Ambrosian library, written with the elaborate elegance of the time by one Pierpaolo Bosca, who held the post of librarian there after the death of Federigo Borromeo, there is special mention of the strange fact that the books in this library, which had been built by a private citizen and almost entirely at his expense, were exposed to the view of the public and given out to anyone who asked for them; and that visitors were actually given somewhere to sit, and writing materials, so that they could make any notes they needed; whereas in every other famous public library of Italy, the books were not even on view, but shut up in cupboards, from which they could only be extracted by special favour of the librarians, when they happened to feel like giving someone a glimpse of them for a moment. The idea of giving rival scholars convenient conditions for study never crossed their minds. To give books to those libraries was in fact to take them right out of use. It was one of those systems of cultivation, of which there were many examples then, and still are today, which convert fertile land into desert.

There is no point in going into the effects which Federigo Borromeo’s foundation had on the general state of culture. It would be easy enough to prove in a couple of lines, as things are commonly proved nowadays, that its effects were quite miraculous, or that it had no effects at all. We could search out and demonstrate, within certain limits, what they really were; but that would be most laborious, not very useful, and quite out of place here. But we can at least consider how generous, judicious, benevolent and persevering a lover of mankind and of human improvement the man must have been who conceived such an idea, who desired it so earnestly, and who carried it through to completion in the midst of general ignorance, general inertia and general antipathy to any form of studious effort – which means in the midst of cries of ‘What’s the use of it?’ and ‘Aren’t there more urgent things to be done?’ and ‘What an extraordinary idea!’ and ‘This is really the limit!’, and so on; cries which must have outnumbered the scudi he spent on the project, which came to one hundred and five thousand, mostly out of his own pocket.

It might be thought that, for such a man to be regarded as an outstandingly generous benefactor, we do not even need to know whether he spent further large sums on the immediate relief of the poor. There may even be some who think that expenditure of the kind just mentioned, or perhaps even expenditure in general, is the best and most effective form of charity. But Federigo regarded the giving of alms in the strict sense as a most important duty; and in this, as in everything else, his actions were in keeping with his principles. Throughout his life he poured out his wealth for the direct benefit of the poor. The famine which has already played a part in our story gave him occasion to show what special kindness and wisdom he could put into these acts of generosity, as we shall see later.

Out of the many examples of his liberality which his biographers have recorded, we shall mention a single instance here. He had heard that a certain nobleman was using undue pressure and underhand means to persuade his daughter to become a nun, although she wanted to get married. He sent for the father, and extracted from him an admission that the real reason for his persecution of his daughter was that he did not possess the sum of four thousand scudi which he regarded as necessary to marry his daughter honourably. Federigo himself gave her a dowry of four thousand scudi. Some people may think this act of generosity excessive, or ill-considered, or too great a concession to the views of an arrogant fool. They may think that four thousand scudi could have been better spent in any one of a dozen other ways. To this we have nothing to reply, except that we would like to see more examples of a virtue so free from influence by the reigning opinions of the day – for every period has its own – as this case of a man giving four thousand scudi, at that time, to keep a girl out of a nunnery.

The inexhaustible charity of Federigo Borromeo showed in everything else he did no less than in his giving. He was easily accessible to everybody, but it was towards those of so-called low degree that he felt he owed a special duty to show them a cheerful countenance and a friendly courtesy. The lower they were in the social scale the more strongly he felt this duty. This was another point over which he had trouble with the respectable advocates of ne quid nimis,1 who would have liked to make him draw a line – their line – in everything he did. On one occasion, during a visit to a rough mountain village, Federigo was giving instruction to certain poor children; and as he was asking them questions and teaching them the truth he put his arms affectionately around them. At this one of his respectable companions warned him that he ought to be more careful about caressing those boys, because they were disgustingly dirty – as if the worthy man supposed that Federigo was too unobservant to notice the fact, or too stupid to think of a way of avoiding them. For there are times and circumstances where men who have achieved a high position suffer a strange misfortune – they find very few people who will ever tell them when they do wrong, but plenty of brave souls who will reprove them for doing right. But the good bishop replied, with some anger: ‘They are souls in my care, who will probably never see my face again; and will you tell me not to embrace them?’

He was very rarely moved to anger, however, being admired for the gentleness of his ways, and for an imperturbable calmness of manner, which might have been attributed to an extraordinary equanimity of temperament, but was really a triumph of constant self-discipline over a lively and indeed fiery nature. If he sometimes appeared severe, or even hasty, it was with his subordinate priests, when he found them guilty of avarice, of negligence, or any other sins especially contrary to the spirit of their noble calling. In any matter which involved his own interests, or his temporal glory, he never gave any sign of joy, or resentment, or enthusiasm or agitation. His conduct was admirable if he did not feel any of those passions, and still more admirable if he did.

He attended many conclaves,2 from which he brought away the reputation of never having aspired to that dignity the thought of which is so fascinating to the ambitious and so terrifying to the truly pious. In fact on one occasion, when a very influential colleague came to offer him the support of his ‘faction’ (an ugly word, but the one then in use), Federigo refused it in such terms that the other gave up the idea, and turned to another possible candidate. The same modesty, the same unwillingness to predominate, appear no less clearly in the common events of his life. Though he gave his full attention and all his efforts to the arts of planning and administration wherever he considered it to be his duty, he always avoided interfering in other people’s affairs; in fact he made every effort not to become involved in them even on request. Such discretion and restraint, as we all know, are not common among men who are zealous for the good, as Federigo was.

If we were to allow ourselves the luxury of compiling a complete account of all his notable characteristics, the result would certainly be a strange mixture of apparently incompatible virtues – virtues which undoubtedly very seldom occur together. But we must record one other feature of that admirable life. Full as it was of activity – administrative duties, religious ceremonies, teaching, audiences, diocesan visitations, journeys and controversy – study still played a part in it, and a large enough part at that to have made the reputation of a professional scholar. And in fact Federigo Borromeo, among all his other claims to renown, did enjoy among his contemporaries the reputation of a very learned man.

We must however admit that among the opinions which he held with great conviction, and practised with long perseverance, were some which most people nowadays would regard as not merely wrong, but eccentric; even those of us who might be most anxious to find good in them. Anyone who wanted to defend him on those points could use the common and acceptable excuse that the mistakes were those of his time rather than his own personal errors. In certain cases, where a really careful examination of the relevant facts has been made, that excuse may have some validity – may even have a great deal of force – though it is often applied in so ill-considered and haphazard a manner that it means nothing at all. Since we do not wish to put forward an over-simplified answer to a complex question, nor to give too much space to a single episode in our story, we will not labour the point. It is enough for us to have hinted, in passing, that we do not wish to claim that this man, admirable as he was in so many respects, was admirable in everything. For we do not want to give the impression of having composed a funeral oration for him.

Without any offence to our readers, we may perhaps imagine that at this point one of them asks us whether a man of such intellect and such learning has not left any monuments of his scholarship to posterity? Monuments of his scholarship, indeed! He left about a hundred separate works behind him, some long and some short, some in Latin and some in Italian, some printed and some in manuscript. They are preserved in the library he founded – moral treatises, orations, historical dissertations, studies of antiquity both sacred and profane, studies of literature, the arts, and of other subjects.

‘And how on earth has it happened,’ the same reader may inquire, ‘that all these works are forgotten, or at least so little known, so seldom sought after? With all that intellectual force, all that scholarship, all that practical experience of men and affairs, all that meditation, all that passion for the good and the beautiful, all that honesty of spirit, all those other qualities that go to make up a great writer, how is it that Federigo Borromeo, the author of a hundred works, has not left behind him a single book of the sort that are acknowledged as outstanding even by those who do not agree with them, and known by name even to those who have not read them? How is it that those works of his, by their sheer number if nothing else, have not won him literary fame among the members of the present generation?’

This is undoubtedly a reasonable question about a matter of interest. For the causes of this phenomenon could certainly be discovered by an adequate study of general principles; and, once discovered, they would help us to explain other similar phenomena. But it would be a long-winded business; and would you really enjoy it, or would you wrinkle up your nose at it? I think it would be better to take up the main thread of our story again, to abstain from further gossip about this man, and to see (with the help of our anonymous author) how he acquits himself in the world of action.