Monday, November 04, 2013

In Montaigne’s footsteps

The house where Montaigne stayed in Bagni di Lucca

When I was in Tuscany some years ago, I suddenly realized that Montaigne had been there, too, on his trip to Germany and from there to Italy. But where exactly had he been? I seemed to remember only vaguely that he must have stayed some time in Bagni di Lucca, but I wasn’t sure of it. I had a book on Montaigne with me, but it didn’t talk about Montaigne’s tour. It was purely philosophical. I had no Internet connection at my disposal (smartphones did not yet exist, for instance), so how to find out where Montaigne had been in Tuscany? In the end, I skipped the idea to visit the places where he had stayed, although I was a bit disappointed, also because I was so stupid not to think of it, when I prepared my trip.
But now, I had a second chance. My wife and I had planned to visit the region again and this time I was well prepared. I had reread the relevant passages of Montaigne’s travel journal and I had previewed the places where he stayed on the Internet.
Our hotel was just north of Lucca and after our arrival our first trip was to Bagni di Lucca. We followed the same road Montaigne had taken in 1581 on the right bank of the River Serchio, stream up. The typical high bridge just north of Borgo a Mozzano described by Montaigne was still there. Today only pedestrians are allowed to use it. Had it really been possible to ride over the bridge with a cart 400 years ago? For the bridge was very steep and rather narrow. But Montaigne and his company had only horses with them.
We crossed the Serchio via a modern bridge and soon we were in Bagni. First we walked a bit through the little town. Then we went to the tourist office. They had a book with names of all famous and less famous people who had stayed in Bagni. Montaigne was certainly not the only person who had got the idea to cure there, in his case because he suffered from kidney stones. The healing power of the springs was already known in Roman times and Montaigne tells us that many people from the surrounding area used to spend the summer there. Especially in the 19th century it was a popular health resort, but today the bloom days of the spa seem to have gone.
Montaigne had rented rooms in a house in La Villa, a residential quarter a bit separate from the actual town, mainly existing of mansions and villas. The road leading to it is rather steep but from here you have a view on the roofs of the houses of Bagni. Where the road enters La Villa, there is a little square. To the left I see the stately mansion where Montaigne had passed many weeks in the late spring and early summer of 1581 and then again in August and September. The house is not open to the public but a plaquette tells us that Montaigne has stayed here 74 days all together. In front of the building, where once coaches were parked, now modern cars take their places. The mansion has been built against a slope. A staircase on the right side brings us to a garden on the level of the top floor of the house. Actually it’s not more than a lawn. A mountain wall closes the garden on the backside. A basin with a tap has been built in it. Was it already there in the days of Montaigne and has he used the tap then? As such it’s a bit a strange idea for me to imagine that the man must have gone there where I am now stepping in his footprints so to speak.
We walked a bit around the house and I absorbed the scene as well as I could. Then we went down again to the centre of Bagni. Later on our trip we met Montaigne yet a few times more. In Siena, for instance. According to Montaigne, its square is the most beautiful to be found anywhere. The square is beautiful, indeed, but it is clear that Montaigne hasn’t been in Brussels (or was the “Grand Place” not so beautiful in his days, as it is today? Anyway, Montaigne hasn’t been there). In the spa of Bagno Vignoni we saw the large basin with hot water, which has also been described by Montaigne. What surprises me is that he hasn’t visited the battle field near Lake Trasimene, where Hannibal defeated the Roman army in one of the most famous ambushes in military history. Montaigne needed only to make a little detour in order to go there. It’s true; there are no medicinal springs nearby. But isn’t it so that his interest was usually much wider than that, also when travelling? We can learn a lot of his openness for new experiences and his receptivity to new customs and habits, also on his travels abroad.

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