EARTHWORK OUT OF TUSCANY
Being Impressions and Translations of Maurice Hewlett
"For as it is hurtful to drink wine or water alone; and as wine mingled with water is pleasant and delighteth the taste: even so speech, finely framed, delighteth the ears of them that read the story."—3 MACCABEES xv. 39.
THIS LITTLE BOOK
NOT AS BEING WORTHY BUT AS ALL I HAVE
I cannot add one tendril to your bays, Worn quietly where who love you sing your praise; But I may stand Among the household throng with lifted hand, Upholding for sweet honour of the land Your crown of days.
PREFACE TO THE THIRD EDITION
I cannot be for ever explaining what I intended when I wrote this book. Upon this, its third appearance, even though it is to rank in that good company which wears the crimson of Eversley, it must take its chance, undefended by its conscious parent. He feels, indeed, with all the anxieties, something of the pride of the hen, who conducts her brood of ducklings to the water, sees them embark upon the flood, and must leave them to their buoyant performances, dreadful, but aware also that they are doing a finer thing than her own merits could have hoped to win them. So it is here. I did not at the outset expect a third edition in any livery; I may still fear a wreck for this cockboat of my early invention; but I hope I am too respectful of myself to try throwing oil upon the waters.
I leave the former prefaces as they stand. I felt them when I made them, and feel them still; but I shall make no more. If Earthwork has the confidence, at this time of day, to carry a red coat, it shall carry it alone.
PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION
Mr. Critics—to whom, kind or unkind, I confess obligations—and the Public between them have produced, it appears, some sort of demand for this Second Edition. While I do not think it either polite or politic to enquire too deeply into reasons, I am not the man to disoblige them. It is sufficient for me that in a world indifferent well peopled five hundred souls have bought or acquired my book, and that other hundreds have signified their desire to do likewise. Nevertheless—the vanity of authors being notoriously hard-rooted—I must own to my mortification in the discovery that not more than two in every hundred who have read me have known what I was at. I have been told it is a good average, but, with deference, I don't think so. No man has any right to take beautiful and simple things out of their places, wrap them up in a tissue of his own conceits, and hand them about the universe for gods and men to wonder upon. If he must convey simple things let him convey them simply. If I, for instance, must steal a loaf of bread, would it not be better to walk out of the shop with it under my coat than to call for it in a hansom and hoodwink the baker with a forged cheque on Coutts's bank? Surely. If, then, I go to Italy, and convey the hawthor-scent of Della Robbia, the straining of Botticelli to express the ineffable, the mellow autumn tones of the life of Florence; if I do this, and make a parade of my magnanimity in permitting the household to divide the spoil, how on earth should I mar all my bravery by giving people what they don't want, or turn double knave by fobbing them off with an empty box?
I had hoped to have done better than this. I tried to express in the title of my book what I thought I had done; more, I was bold enough to assume that, having weathered the title, my readers would find a smooth channel with leading-lights enough to bring them sound to port. Mea culpa! I believe that I was wrong. The book has been read as a collection of essays and stories and dialogues only pulled together by the binder's tapes; as otherwise disjointed, fragmentary, decousue, a "piebald monstrous book," a sort of kous-kous, made out of the odds and ends of a scribbler's note-book. Some have liked some morsels, others other morsels: it has been a matter of the luck of the fork. Very few, one only to my knowledge, can have seen the thing as it presented itself to my flattering eye—not as a pudding, not as a case of confectionery even, but as a little sanctuary of images such as a pious heathen might make of his earthenware gods. Let us be serious: listen. The thing is Criticism; but some of it is criticism by trope and figure. I hope that is plain enough.
When the first man heard his first thunderstorm he said (or Human Nature has bettered itself), "Certainly a God is angry." When after a night of doubt and heaviness the sun rose out of the sea, the sea kindled, and all its waves laughed innumerably, again he said, "God is stirring. Joy cometh in the morning." Even in saying so much he was making images, poor man, for one's soul is as dumb as a fish and can only talk by signs. But by degrees, as his hand grew obedient to his heart, he set to work to make more lasting images of these gods—Thunder Gods, Gods of the Sun and the Morning. And as these gods were the sum of the best feelings he had, so the images of them were the best things he made. And that goes on now whenever a young man sees something new or strange or beautiful. He wonders, he falls on his face, he would say his prayers; he rises up, he would sing a paean. But he is dumb, the wretch! He must make images. This he does because Necessity drives him: this I have done. And part of the world calls the result Criticism, and another part says, It may be Art. But I know that it is the struggling of a dumb man to find an outlet, and I call it Religion.
"God first made man, and straightway man made God; No wonder if a tang of that same sod, Whereout we issued at a breath, should cling To all we fashion. We can only plod Lit by a starveling candle; and we sing Of what we can remember of the road."
The vague informed, the lovely indefinite defined: that is Art. As a sort of pate sur pate comes Criticism, to do for Art what Art does for life. I have tried in this book to be the artist at second-hand, to make pictures of pictures, images of images, poems of poems. You may call it Criticism, you may call it Art: I call it Religion. It is making the best thing I can out of the best things I feel.
ADVERTISEMENT TO THE FIRST EDITION
Polite reader, you who have travelled Italy, it will not be unknown to you that the humbler sort in that country have ever believed certain spots and recesses of their land—as wells, mountain-paths, farmsteads, groves of ilex or olive, quiet pine-woods, creeks or bays of the sea, and such like hidden ways—to be the chosen resort of familiar spirits, baleful or beneficent, fate-ridden or amenable to prayer, half divine, wholly out of rule or ordering; which rustic deities and genii locorum, if it was not needful to propitiate, it was fascination to observe. It is believed of them in the hill-country round about Perugia and in the quieter parts of Tuscany, that they are still present, tolerated of God by reason of their origin (which is, indeed, that of the very soil whose effluence they are), chastened, circumscribed and, as it were, combed or pared of evil desire and import. To them or their avatars (it matters little which) the rude people still bow down; they still humour them with gifts of flowers, songs, or artless customs (as of Mayday, or the Giorno de' Grilli); you may still see wayside shrines, votive tablets, humble offerings, set in a farm-wall or country hedge, starry and fresh as a patch of yellow flowers in a rye-field. If you say that they have made gods in their own image, you do not convince them of Sin, for they do as their betters. If you say their gods are earthy, they reply by asking, "What then are we?" For they will admit, and you cannot deny, earthiness to have at least a part in all of us. And you are forbidden to call this unhappy, since God made all. Out of the drenched earth whence these worshippers arose, they made their rough-cast gods; out of the same earth they still mould images to speak the presentment of them which they have. Out of that earth, I, a northern image-maker, have set up my conceits of their informing spirits, of the spirits of themselves, their soil, and the fair works they have accomplished. So I have called this book Earthwork out of Tuscany. Qui habet aures ad audiendum audiat.
PROEM: APOLOGIA PRO LIBELLO
1. EYE OF ITALY
2. LITTLE FLOWERS
3. A SACRIFICE AT PRATO
4. OF POETS AND NEEDLEWORK
5. OF BOILS AND THE IDEAL
6. THE SOUL OF A FACT
8. THE BURDEN OF NEW TYRE
9. ILARIA, MARIOTA, BETTINA
11. THE SOUL OF A CITY
12. WITH THE BROWN BEAR
13. DEAD CHURCHES AT FOLIGNO
ENVOY: TO ALL YOU LADIES
APOLOGIA PRO LIBELLO: IN A LETTER TO A FRIEND
Although you know your Italy well, you ask me, who see her now for the first time, to tell you how I find her; how she sinks into me; wherein she fulfils, and wherein fails to fulfil, certain dreams and fancies of mine (old amusements of yours) about her. Here, truly, you show yourself the diligent collector of human documents your friends have always believed you; for I think it can only be appetite for acquisition, to see how a man recognisant of the claims of modernity in Art bears the first brunt of the Old Masters' assault, that tempts you to risk a rechauffee of Paul Bourget and Walter Pater, with ana lightly culled from Symonds, and, perchance, the questionable support of ponderous references out of Burckhardt. In spite of my waiver of the title, you relish the notion of a Modern face to face with Botticelli and Mantegna and Perugino (to say nothing of that Giotto who had so much to say!), artists in whom, you think and I agree, certain impressions strangely positive of many vanished aspects of life remain to be accounted for, and (it may be) reconciled with modern visions of Art and Beauty. Well! I am flattered and touched by such confidence in my powers of expression and your own of endurance. I look upon you as a late-in-time Maecenas, generously resolved to defray the uttermost charge of weariness that a young writer may be encouraged to unfold himself and splash in the pellucid Tuscan air. I cannot assert that you are performing an act of charity to mankind, but I can at least assure you that you are doing more for me than if you had settled my accounts with Messr. Cook and Sons, or Signora Vedova Paolini, my esteemed landlady. A writer who is worth anything accumulates more than he gives off, and never lives up to his income. His difficulty is the old one of digestion, Italian Art being as crucial for the modern as Italian cookery. Crucial indeed! for diverse are the ways of the Hyperboreans cheek by jowl with asciutta and Tuscan tablewine, as any osteria will convince you. To one man the oil is a delight: he will soak himself in it till his thought swims viscid in his pate. To another it is abhorrent: straightway he calls for his German vinegar and drowns the native flavour in floods as bitter as polemics. Your wine too! Overweak for water, says one, who consumes a stout fiaschone and spends a stertorous afternoon in headache and cursing at the generous home-grown. Frizzante! cries your next to all his gods; and flushes the poison with infected water. Crucial enough. So with art. Goethe went to Assisi. "I left on my left," says he, "the vast mass of churches, piled Babel-wise one over another, in one of which rest the remains of the Holy Saint Francis of Assisi—with aversion, for I thought to myself that the people who assembled in them were mostly of the same stamp with my captain and travelling companion."
Truly an odd ground of aversion to a painted church that there might be a confessional-box in the nave! But he had no eyes for Gothic, being set on the Temple of Minerva. The Right Honourable Joseph Addison's views of Siena will be familiar to you; but an earlier still was our excellent Mr. John Evelyn doing the grand tour; going to Pisa, but seeing no frescos in the Campo Santo; going to Florence, but seeing neither Santa Croce nor Santa Maria Novella; in his whole journey he would seem to have found no earlier name than Perugino's affixed to a picture. Goethe was urbane to Francia, "a very respectable artist"; he was astonished at Mantegna, "one of the older painters," but accepted him as leading up to Titian: and so— "thus was art developed after the barbarous period." But Goethe had the sweeping sublimity of youth with him. "I have now seen but two Italian cities, and for the first time; and I have spoken with but few persons; and yet I know my Italians pretty well!" Seriously, where in criticism do you learn of an earlier painter than Perugino, until you come to our day? And where now do you get the raptures over the Carracci and Domenichino and Guercino and the rest of them which the last century expended upon their unthrifty soil? Ruskin found Botticelli; yes, and Giotto. Roscoe never so much as mentions either. Why should he, honest man? They couldn't draw! Cookery is very like Art, as Socrates told Gorgias. Unfortunately, it is far easier to verify your impressions in the former case than in the latter. Yet that is the first and obvious duty of the critic—that is, the writer whomsoever. In my degree it has been mine. Wherefore, if I unfold anything at all, it shall not be the Cicerone nor the veiled "Anonymous," nor the Wiederbelebung, nor (I hope) the Mornings in Florence, but that thing in which you place such touching reliance —myself and my poor sensations, Ecco! I have nothing else. You take a boy out of school; you set him to book-reading, give him Shakespere and a Bible, set him sailing in the air with the poets; drench him with painter's dreams, via, Titian's carmine and orange, Veronese's rippling brocades, Umbrian morning skies, and Tuscan hues wrought of moonbeams and flowing water—anon you turn him adrift in Italy, a country where all poets' souls seem to be caged in crystal and set in the sun, and say—"Here, dreamer of dreams, what of the day?" Madonna! You ask and you shall obtain. I proceed to expand under your benevolent eye.
To me, Italy is not so much a place where pictures have been painted (some of which remain to testify), as a place where pictures have been lived and built; I fail to see how Perugia is not a picture by, say, Astorre Baglione. Perhaps I should be nearer the mark if I said it was a frozen epic. What I mean is, that in Italy it is still impossible to separate the soul and body of the soil, to say, as you may say in London or Paris,— here behind this sordid grey mask of warehouses and suburban villas lurks the soul that once was Shakespere or once was Villon. You will not say that of Florence; you will hardly say it (though the time is at hand) of Milan and Rome. Do the gondoliers still sing snatches of Ariosto? I don't know Venice. M. Bourget assures me his vetturino quoted Dante to him between Monte Pulciano and Siena; and I believe him. At any rate, in Italy as I have found it, the inner secret of Italian life can be read, not in painting alone, nor poem alone, but in the swift sun, in the streets and shrouded lanes, in the golden pastures, in the plains and blue mountains; in flowery cloisters and carved church porches—out of doors as well as in. The story of Troy is immortal—why not because the Trojans themselves live immortal in their fabled sons? That being so, I by no means promise you my sensations to be of the ear-measuring, nose-rubbing sort now so popular. I am bad at dates and soon tire of symbols. My theology may be to seek; you may catch me as much for the world as for Athanase. With world and doctor I shall, indeed, have little enough to do, for wherever I go I shall be only on the look-out for the soul of this bright-eyed people, whom, being no Goethe, I do not profess to understand or approve. Must the lover do more than love his mistress, and weave his sonnets about her white brows? I may see my mistress Italy embowered in a belfry, a fresco, the scope of a Piazza, the lilt of a Stornello, the fragrance of a legend. If I don't find a legend to hand I may, as lief as not, invent one. It shall be a legend fitted close to the soul of a fact, if I succeed: and if I fail, put me behind you and take down your four volumes of Rio, or your four-and-twenty of Rosini. Go to Crowe and Cavalcaselle and be wise. Parables!—I like the word—to go round about the thing, whose heart I cannot hit with my small-arm, marking the goodly masses and unobtrusive meek beauties of it, and longing for them in vain. No amount of dissecting shall reveal the core of Sandro's Venus. For after you have pared off the husk of the restorer, or bled in your alembic the very juices the craftsman conjured withal, you come down to the seamy wood, and Art is gone. Nay, but your Morelli, your Crowe, ciphering as they went for want of thought, what did they do but screw Art into test- tubes, and serve you up the fruit of their litmus-paper assay with vivacity, may be,—but with what kinship to the picture? I maintain that the peeling and gutting of fact must be done in the kitchen: the king's guests are not to know how many times the cook's finger went from cate to mouth before the seasoning was proper to the table. The king is the artist, you are the guest, I am the abstractor of quintessences, the cook. Remember, the cook had not the ordering of the feast: that was the king's business—mine is to mingle the flavours to the liking of the guest that the dish be worthy the conception and the king's honour.
Nor will I promise you that I shall not break into a more tripping stave than our prose can afford, here and there. The pilgrim, if he is young and his shoes or his belly pinch him not, sings as he goes, the very stones at his heels (so music-steeped is this land) setting him the key. Jog the foot-path way through Tuscany in my company, it's Lombard Street to my hat I charm you out of your lassitude by my open humour. Things I say will have been said before, and better; my tunes may be stale and my phrasing rough: I may be irrelevant, irreverent, what you please. Eh, well! I am in Italy,—the land of shrugs and laughing. Shrug me (or my book) away; but, pray Heaven, laugh! And, as the young are always very wise when they find their voice and have their confidence well put out to usury, laugh (but in your cloak) when I am sententious or apt to tears. I have found lacrimae rerum in Italy as elsewhere; and sometimes Life has seemed to me to sail as near to tragedy as Art can do. I suppose I must be a very bad Christian, for I remain sturdily an optimist, still convinced that it is good for us to be here, while the sun is up. Men and pictures, poems, cities, churches, comely deeds, grow like cabbages: they are of the soil, spring from it to the sun, glow open-hearted while he is there; and when he goes, they go. So grew Florence, and Shakespere, and Greek myth—the three most lovely flowers of Nature's seeding I know of. And with the flowers grow the weeds. My first weed shall sprout by Arno, in a cranny of the Ponte Vecchio, or cling like a Dryad of the wood to some gnarly old olive on the hill-side of Arcetri. If it bear no little gold-seeded flower, or if its pert leaves don't blush under the sun's caress, it shan't be my fault or the sun's.
Take, then, my watered wine in the name of the Second Maccabaean, for here, as he says, "will I make an end. And if I have done well, and as is fitting the story, it is that which I desired: but if slenderly and meanly, it is that which I could attain unto."
I have killed you at the first cast. I feel it. Has any city, save, perhaps, Cairo, been so written out as Florence? I hear you querulous; you raise your eyebrows; you sigh as you watch the tottering ash of your second cigar. Mrs. Brown comes to tell you it is late. I agree with you quickly. Florence has often been sketched before—putting Browning aside with his astounding fresco-music—by Ruskin and George Eliot and Mr. Henry James, to name only masters. But that is no reason why I should not try my prentice hand. Florence alters not at all. Men do. My picture, poor as you like, shall be my own. It is not their Florence or yours—and, remember, I would strike at Tuscany through Florence, and throughout Tuscany keep my eye in her beam,—but my own mellow kingcup of a town, the glowing heart of the whole Arno basin, whose suave and weather-warmed grace I shall try to catch and distil. But Mrs. Brown is right; it Is late: the huntsmen are up in America, as your good kinsman has it, and I would never have you act your own Antipodes. Addio.
EYE OF ITALY
[Footnote: My thanks are due to the Editor of Black and White for permission to reprint the substance of this essay.]
I have been here a few days only—perhaps a week: if it's impressionism you're after, the time is now or a year hence. For, in these things of three stages, two may be tolerable, the first clouding of the water with the wine's red fire, or the final resolution of the two into one humane consistence: the intermediate course is, like all times of process, brumous and hesitant. After a dinner in the white piazza, shrinking slowly to blue under the keen young moon's eye, watched over jealously by the frowning bulk of Brunelleschi's globe—after a dinner of pasta con brodo, veal cutlets, olives, and a bottle of right Barbera, let me give you a pastel (this is the medium for such evanescences) of Florence herself. At present I only feel. No one should think—few people can—after dinner. Be patient therefore; suffer me thus far.
I would spare you, if I might, the horrors of my night-long journey from Milan. There is little romance in a railway: the novelists have worked it dry. That is, however, a part of my sum of perceptions which began, you may put it, at the dawn which saw Florence and me face to face. So I must in no wise omit it.
I find, then, that Italian railway-carriages are constructed for the convenience of luggage, and that passengers are an afterthought, as dogs or grooms are with us, to be suffered only if there be room and on condition they look after the luggage. In my case we had our full complement of the staple; nevertheless every passenger assumed the god, keeping watch on his traps, and thinking to shake the spheres at every fresh arrival. Thoughtless behaviour! for there were thus twelve people packed into a rocky landscape of cardboard portmanteaus and umbrella- peaks; twenty-four legs, and urgent need of stretching-room as the night wore on. There was jostling, there was asperity from those who could sleep and from those who would; there was more when two shock-head drovers—like First and Second Murderers in a tragedy—insisted on taking off their boots. It was not that there was little room for boots; indeed I think they nursed them on their thin knees. It was at any rate too much even for an Italian passenger; for—well, well! their way had been a hot and a dusty one, poor fellows. So the guard was summoned, and came with all the implicit powers of an uniform and, I believe, a sword. The boots were strained on sufficiently to preserve the amenities of the way: they could not, of course, be what they had been; the carriage was by this a forcing- house. And through the long night we ached away an intolerable span of time with, for under-current, for sinister accompaniment to the pitiful strain, the muffled interminable plodding of the engine, and the rack of the wheels pulsing through space to the rhythm of some music-hall jingle heard in snatches at home. At intervals came shocks of contrast when we were brought suddenly face to face with a gaunt and bleached world. Then we stirred from our stupor, and sat looking at each other's stale faces. We had shrieked and clanked our way into some great naked station, shivering raw and cold under the electric lights, streaked with black shadows on its whitewash and patched with coarse advertisements. The porters' voices echoed in the void, shouting "Piacensa," "Parma," "Reggio," "Modena," "Bologna," with infinite relish for the varied hues of a final a. One or two cowed travellers slippered up responsive to the call, and we, the veterans who endured, set our teeth, shuddered, and smoked feverish cigarettes on the platform among the carriage-wheels and points; or, if we were new hands, watched awfully the advent of another sleeping train, as dingy as our own—yet a hero of romance! For it bore the hieratic and tremendous words "Roma, Firenze, Milano" It was privileged then; it ministered in the sanctuary. We glowed in our sordid skins, and could have kissed the foot-boards that bore the dust of Rome. I will swear I shall never see those three words printed on a carriage without a thrill, Roma, Firenze, Milano,— Lord! what a traverse.
Or we held long purposeless rests at small wayside places where no station could be known, and the shrouded land stretched away on either side, not to be seen, but rather felt, in the cool airs that blew in, and the rustling of secret trees near by. No further sound was, save the muttered talking of the guards without and the simmering of the engine, on somewhere in front. And then "Partenza!" rang out in the night, and "Pronti!" came as a faint echo on before. We laboured on, and the dreams began where they had broken off. For we dreamed in these times, fitful and lurid, coloured dreams; flashes of horrible crises in one's life; Interminable precipices; a river skiff engulfed in a swirl of green sea-water; agonies of repentance; shameful failure, defeat, memories—and then the steady pulsing of the engine, and thick, impermeable darkness choking up the windows again. How I ached for the dawn!
I awoke from what I believe to have been a panic of snoring to hear the train clattering over the sleepers and points, and to see—oh, human, brotherly sight!—the broad level light of morning stream out of the east. We were stealing into a city asleep. Tall flat houses rose in the chill mist to our left and stared blankly down upon us with close-barred green eyelids. Gas-lamps in swept streets flickered dirty yellow in the garish light. A great purple dome lay ahead, flanked by the ruddy roofs and gables of a long church. My heart leapt for Florence. Pistoja!
And then, at Prato, a nut-brown old woman with a placid face got into our carriage with a basket of green figs and some bottles of milk for the Florentine market. So we were nearing. And soon we ran in between lines of white and pink villas edged with rows of planes drenched still with dews and the night mists, among bullock-carts and queer shabby little vetture, everything looking light and elfin in the brisk sunshine and autumn bite—into the barrel-like station, and I into the arms, say rather the arm-chair, of Signora Vedova Paolini, chattiest and most motherly of landladies.
Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Florence, form the five elements of our planet according to the testimony of Boniface VIII. of clamant and not very Catholic memory. That is true if you take it this way. You cannot resolve an element; but you cannot resolve Florence; therefore Florence is an element. Ecco! She is like nothing else In Nature, or (which is much the same thing) Art. You can have olives elsewhere, and Gothic elsewhere; you can have both at Aries, for instance. You can have Campanili printed white (but not rose-and white, not rose-and-gold- and-white) on blue anywhere along the Mediterranean from Tripoli to Tangier: you will find Giotto at Padua, and statues growing in the open air at Naples. But for the silvery magic of olives and blue; for a Gothic which has the supernatural and always restless eagerness of the North, held in check, reduced to our level by the blessedly human sanity of Romanesque; for sculpture which sprouts from the crumbling church-sides like some frankly happy stone-crop, or wall-flower, just as wholesomely coloured and tenderly shaped, you must come to Florence. Come for choice in this golden afternoon of the year. Green figs are twelve-a-penny; you can get peaches for the asking, and grapes and melons without it; brown men are treading the wine-fat in every little white hill-town, and in Florence itself you may stumble upon them, as I once did, plying their mystery in a battered old church—sight only to be seen in Italy, where religions have been many, but religionists substantially the same. That is the Italian way; there was the practical evidence. Imagine the sight. A gaunt and empty old basilica, the beams of the Rood still left, the dye of fresco still round the walls and tribune—here the dim figure of Sebastian roped to his tree, there the cloudy forms of Apostles or the Heavenly Host shadowed in masses of crimson or green—and, down below, a slippery purple sea, frothed sanguine at the edges, and wild, half-naked creatures treading out the juice, dancing in the oozy stuff rhythmically, to the music of some wailing air of their own. Saturnia regna indeed, and in the haunt of Sant' Ambrogio, or under the hungry eye of San Bernardino, or other lean ascetic of the Middle Age. But that, after all, is Italian, not necessarily Florentine or Tuscan. I must needs abstract the unique quintessential humours of this my Eye of Italy. Stendhal, do you remember? didn't like one of these. He said that in Florence people talked about "huesta hasa" when they would say "questa casa," and thus turned Italian into a mad Arabic. So they do, especially the women: why not? The poor Stendhal loved Milan, wrote himself down "Arrigo Milanese"—and what can you expect from a Milanese?
They tell me, who know Florence well, that she is growing unwieldy. Like a bulky old concierge they say, she sits in the passage of her Arno, swollen, fat, and featureless, a kind of Chicago, a city of tame conveniences ungraced by arts. That means that there are suburbs and tramways; it means that the gates will not hold her in; it has a furtive stab at the Railway Station and the omnibus in the Piazza del Duorno: it is Mornings in Florence. The suggestion is that Art is some pale remote virgin who must needs shiver and withdraw at the touch of actual life: the art-lover must maunder over his mistress's wrongs instead of manfully insisting upon her rights, her everlasting triumphant justifications. Why this watery talk of an Art that was and may not be again, because we go to bed by electricity and have our hair brushed by machinery? Pray, has Nature ceased? or Life? Art will endure with these fine things, which in Florence, let me say, are very fine indeed. But there's a practical answer to the indictment. As a city she is a mere cupful. You can walk from Cantagalli's, at the Roman Gate, to the Porta San Gallo, at the end of the Via Cavour, in half the time it would take you to go from Newgate to Kensington Gardens. Yet whereas in London such a walk would lead you through a slice of a section, in Florence you would cut through the whole city from hill to hill. You are never away from the velvet flanks of the Tuscan hills. Every street-end smiles an enchanting vista upon you. Houses frowning, machicolated and sombre, or gay and golden-white with cool green jalousies and spreading eaves, stretch before you through mellow air to a distance where they melt into hills, and hills into sky; into sky so clear and rarely blue, so virgin pale at the horizon, that the hills sleep brown upon it under the sun, and the cypresses, nodding a-row, seem funeral weeds beside that radiant purity. Some such adorable stretch of tilth and pasture, sky and cloud, hangs like a god's crown beyond the city and her towers. In the long autumn twilight Fiesole and the hills lie soft and purple below a pale green sky. There is a pause at this time when the air seems washed for sleep-every shrub, every feature of the landscape is cut clean as with a blade. The light dies, the air deepens to wet violet, and the glimpses of the hill-town gleam like snow. At such times Samminiato looms ghostly upon you and fades slowly out. The flush in the East faints and fails and the evening star shines like a gem. It is hot and still in the broad Piazza Santa Maria; they are lighting the lamps; the swarm grows of the eager, shabby, spendthrift crowd of young Italians, so light-hearted and fluent, and so prodigal of this old Italy of theirs—and ours. All this I have been watching as I might. Nature clings to the city, playing her rhythmic dance at the end of every street.
Nature clings. Yes; but she is within as well as without. What is that sentimental platitude of somebody's (the worst kind of platitude, is it not?) about the sun being to flowers what Art is to Life? It has the further distinction of being untrue. In Florence you learn that what he is to flowers, that he is to Art. For I soberly believe that under his rays Florence has grown open like some rare white water-lily; that sun and sky have set the conditions, struck, as it were, the chord. I have wandered through and through her recessed ways the length of this bright and breezy October week; and have marked where I walked the sun's great hand laid upon palace and cloister and bell-tower. He has summoned up these flat-topped houses, these precipitous walls beneath which winds the darkened causeway. One seems to be travelling in a mountain gorge with, above, a thin ribbon of sky, fluid blue, flawless of cloud, like the sea. He, that so masterful sun, has given Florence the apathetic, beaten aspect of a southern town; he and the temperate sky have fixed the tone for ever; and the nimble air—"nimbly and sweetly" recommending itself— has given the quaintness and the freaksomeness of the North. This bursts out, young and irresponsible, in pinnacle, crocket, and gable, in towers like spears, and in the eager lancet windows which peer upwards out of Orsammichele and the Dominican Church. This mixture is Florence and has made her art. The blue of the sky gives the key to her palette, the breath of the west wind, the salt wind from our own Atlantic, tingles in her campanili; and the Italian sun washes over all with his lazy gold. Habit and inclination both speak. She rejects no wise thing and accepts every lovely thing. Nature and Art have worked hand in hand, as they will when, we let them. For what is an art so inimitable, so innocent, so intimate as this of Tuscany, after all, but a high effort of creative Nature—Natura naturans, as Spinosa calls her? Here, on the weather-fretted walls, a Delia Robbia blossoms out in natural colours— blue and white and green. They are Spring's colours. You need not go into the Bargello to understand Luca and Andrea at their happy task; as well go to a botanical museum to read the secret of April. See them on the dusty wall of Orsammichele. They have wrought the blossom of the stone—clusters of bright-eyed flowers with the throats and eyes of angels, singing, you might say, a children's hymn to Our Lady, throned and pure in the midst of the bevy. See the Spedale degli Innocenti, where a score of little flowery white children grow, open-armed, out of their sky-blue medallions. Really, are they lilies, or children, or the embodied strophes of a psalter? you ask. I mix my metaphors like an Irishman, but you will see my meaning. All the arts blend in art: "rien ne fait mieux entendre combien un faux sonnet est ridicule que de s'imaginer une femme ou une maison faite sur ce modele-la." Pascal knew; and so did Philip Sidney, "Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done"; and the nearer truth seems to be that Art is Nature made articulate, Nature's soul inflamed with love and voicing her secrets through one man to many. So there may be no difference between me and a cabbage-rose but this, that I can consider my own flower, how it grows, or rather, when it is grown.
It is very pleasant sometimes to think that wistful guess of Plato's true in spite of everything—that the state is the man grown great, as the universe is the state grown Infinite. It explains that Florence has a soul, the broader image of her sons', and that this soul speaks in Art, utters itself in flower of stone and starry stretches of fresco (like that serene blue and grey band in the Sistine chapel which redeems so many of Rome's waste places), sings colour-songs (there are such affairs) on church and cloister walls. Seeing these good things, we should rather hear the town's voice crying out her fancy to friendly hearts. Thus—let me run the figure to death—if Luca's blue-eyed medallions are the crop of the wall, they are also the soul of Florence, singing a blithe secular song about gods whose abiding charm is the art that made them live. And if the towers and domes are the statelier flowers of the garden, lily, hollyhock, tulip of the red globe, so they are Florence again as she strains forward and up, sternly defiant in the Palazzo Vecchio, bright and curious at Santa Croce, pure, chaste as a seraph, when, thrilling with the touch of Giotto, she gazes in the clarity of her golden and rosy marbles, tinted like a pearl and shaped like an archangel, towards the blue vault whose eye she is.
Wandering, therefore, through this high city; loitering on the bridge whereunder turbid Arno glitters like brass; standing by the yellow Baptistery; or seeing in Santa Croce cloister—where I write these lines— seven centuries of enthusiasm mellowed down by sun and wind into a comely dotage of grey and green, one is disposed to wonder whether we are only just beginning to understand Art, or to misunderstand it? Has the world slept for two thousand years? Is Degas the first artist? Was Aristotle the first critic, and is Mr. George Moore the second? As a white pigeon cuts the blue, and every opinion of him shines as burnished agate in the live air, things shape themselves somewhat. I begin to see that Art is, and that men have been, and shall be, but never are. Facts are an integral part of life, but they are not life. I heard a metaphysician say once that matter was the adjective of life, and thought it a mighty pretty saying. In a true sense, it would seem, Art is that adjective. For so surely as there are honest men to insist how true things are or how proper to moralising, there will be Art to sing how lovely they are, and what amiable dwellings for us. Thus fortified, I think I can understand Magister Joctus Florentiae. He lies behind these crumbling walls. Traces of his crimson and blue still stain the cloister-walk. What was he telling us in crimson and blue? How dumb Zacharias spelt out the name of his son John in the roll of a book? Hardly that, I think.
The Via del Monte alle Croce is a leafy way cut between hedgerows, in the morning time heavy with dew and the smell of wet flowers. Where it strays out of the Giro al Monte there is a crumbly brick wall, a well, and a little earthen shrine to Madonna—a daub, it is true, of glaring chromes and blues, thick in glaze and tawdry devices of stout cupids and roses, but somehow, on this suggestive Autumn morning, innocent and blue of eye as the carolling throngs of Luca which it travesties. And a pious inscription cut below testifieth how Saint Francis, "in friendly talk with the Blessed Mariano di Lugo," paused here before it, and then vanished. It is not necessary to believe in ghosts; but I'll go bail that story is true. We are but two stones' throw from the gaunt hulk of a Franciscan Church; a file of dusty cypresses marks the ruins of a painful Calvary cut in the waste and shale of the hill-side. Below, as in a green pasture, Florence shines like a dove's egg in her nest of hills; I can pick out among the sheaf of spears which hedge her about the daintiest of them all, the crocketed pinnacle of Santa Croce, grey on blue; and then the lean ridge of a shrine the barest, simplest and most honest in all Tuscany. Certainly Saint Francis, "familiarmente discorrendo," appeared in this place. I need no reference to the Annals of the Seraphic Order—part, book and page—to convince me. My stone gives them. "Ann. Ord. Min. Tom. cclii. fasc. 3.," and so on. That is but a sorry concession to our short- sightedness. For if we believe not the shrine which we have seen, how shall we believe Giotto? What of Giotto? That is my point.
Something too much, it may be, of modern art-criticism, which is ashamed of thinking, snuffeth at pictures which tell you things, at literature in books or music or church ornament. Is literature not good anywhere? Have we exhausted the Arabian Nights or the Acta Sanctorum? At any rate, if we must choose between Giotto and the prophet of the Yellow Book, my heart is fixed. I am for the teller of tales. Story-telling it is, glorification of one whom Mr. George Moore would call (has, indeed, called) a "squint-eyed Italian Saint"—and whether he objected to malformity, nationality or calling, I never could learn—this too it may be; it may tend to edification and I know not what beside. I will grant all that. And though it is hard to prophesy what might have happened five hundred years ago; though there might have been a Giotto without a Francis of whom to speak; yet I never knew a case where a painter (call him poet if you will; he will be none the worse for that) fell so directly into the gap awaiting him. The Gospel living and tangible again! Spirits, apparitions, as of three mysterious sisters, met you in the open country, and crying "Hail! Lady Poverty," straightly vanished. A legend was a-making round about the strange life not fifty years closed, a life which seems, extravagance apart, to have been a lyrical outburst, a strophe in the hymn of praise which certain happy people were singing just then. It was a Gloria in Excelsis for a second time in Christian Annals which did not end in a wail of "Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata, miserere." Why should it? Should the children of the bride-chamber fast when the bridegroom was with them? And of all the "wreath'd singers at the marriage-door," blithest and sanest was Master Joctus of Florence. This being so, I hope I shall not be accused of any mischief if I say that in Giotto I see one of the select company of immortals whose work can never be surpassed because it is entirely adequate to the facts and atmosphere he selected. The standard of a work of art must always be—Is it well done? rather than—Is it well intentioned? Wherefore, if Giotto or anybody else choose to spend himself upon a sermon or an essay or an article of the Creed, and do well thereby, I may not blame him, nor call him back to study the play of light across a marsh or the flight of pigeons in the westering sun. Ma, basta, basta cosi, you may say with the Cavaliere of Goldoni.
Santa Croce church is of the barrack-room stamp, dim and enormous, grey with years and seamed with work. Its impressiveness (for with Orvieto and a fleet of churches at Ravenna it stands above all Italy in that) consists mainly, I believe, in its being built of exactly the moral bones of the religion it was intended to embody. An Italian religion, namely; perfectly sane, at bottom practical, with a base of plain, everyday, ten-commandment morality. That was the base of Saint Francis' good brown life: therefore Santa Croce is admirably built, squared, mortised and compacted by skilled workmen to whom brick-laying was a fine art. But, withal, this religion had its lyric raptures, its "In fuoco Amor mi mise," or its sobbing at the feet of the Crucified, its Corotto and Seven Sorrowful Mysteries: accordingly Santa Croce, like a pollarded lime, reserves its buds, harbours and garners them, throws out no suckers or lateral adornments the length of its trunk, but bursts into a flowery crown of them at the top—a whole row of chapels along the cross-beam of the tau; and in the place of honour a shallow apse pierced with red lancets and aglow like an opal. Never a chapel of them but is worth study and a stiff neck. After the Rule came the Fioretti; after Francis and Bonaventure came Celano and Jacopone da Todi; after Arnolfo del Lapo and his attention to business came the hours of ease when he planned the airy plume on which the Church leaps skyward; and came also Giotto to weave the crown of Santa Croce.
I take the Tuscan nature to be so constituted that it will play with any given subject of speculation in much the same way. With one or two mighty exceptions to be sure—Dante, of course, Buonarroti, of course, and, for all his secularities. Boccace—it is not imagination you find in Tuscany. Rather, it is a sweet and delicate, a wholesome, home-grown fancy, wantoning with thought which may be unpleasant, unhealthy, grave, frivolous—what you will; yet playing in such a way, and with such intuitive taste and breeding that no harm ensues nor any nausea. They realise for me a fairy country; I can think no evil of a Tuscan. So I can read Boccace the infidel, Poggio the gross, where Voltaire makes me a bigot and Catulle Mendes ashamed. The fresh breeze blowing through the Decameron keeps the air sweet. Even Lorenzo is a child for me, and Macchiavel, "the man without a soul," I decline to take seriously. Consider, then, all Tuscan art from this point of view, the weaving of innocent fancies round some chance-caught theme, Christianity may have been the point d'appui. No doubt it generally was. What then? Have you never heard two children dreaming aloud of the ways of God, or the troubles of Christ? How they humanise, how they realise the Mystery! Just such a pretty babble I find in the Spanish Chapel, which to take in any other spirit would work a madness in the brain. You remember the North wall, apotheosis of Saint Thomas and what-not, for all the world like a paradigm of the irregular verb "Aquinizo." What are we to suppose Lippo Memmi (or whoever else it was) to have been about when he hung in mid-air on his swinging bridge and stained the wet square red and green? To read Ruskin you would think he was fulminating urbi et orbi with the Summa or Cur Deus homo at his fingers' ends. Depend upon it he was doing quite other, or the artistic temper (phrase rendered loathsome by the halfpenny newspapers) suffered a relapse between the days of King David and the days of his brother Lippo Lippi. Are we to suppose that a man who could live in intimate commerce with fourteen such gracious ladies as he has set there, ranged on their carved sedilia—his Britomart trim and debonnair; his willowy Carita; his wimpled matron in clean white who masquerades as I know not what branch of theology; his pretty girlish Geometry of coiled and braided hair and the yet unloosed girdle of demure virginity; his maid Musica crowned with roses, and Logica, the bold-eyed and open-throated wench, hand to hip—is this the man for sententiousness? Out, out! Could any one save a humourist of high order have given Moses such a pair of horns, or set, under Music, such a shagged Tubal to belabour an anvil? The wall sings like an anthology,—a Gothic anthology where "Bele Aliz matin leva" is versicle, and "In un boschetto trovai pastorella" antiphon. You might as well talk of Christian Mathematics as of Christian Art, or bind the sweet influences of Pleiades as the volant sallies of a poet's wit.
Once we get it into our heads that the Tuscans were fanciful children, always, and the discrepancy of critics, of Ruskin and Mr. George Moore, of Rio and Mr. Addington Symonds, may vanish. For another thing, we shall understand and allow for the standard of Santa Croce and the Fioretti. From the latter nosegay! take this:
"It happened one day as Brother Peter was standing to his prayer, thinking earnestly about the Passion of Christ, how the blessed Mother of him, and John Evangelist his best-beloved, and Saint Francis too, were painted at the foot of the Cross, crucified indeed with him through anguish of the mind, that there came upon him the longing to know which of these three had endured the bitterest pains of that anguish, the Mother who bore our Lord, or the Disciple familiar to his bosom, or Saint Francis crucified also even as he was. And as he stood thinking on these things, lo! there appeared before him the Virgin Mary with Saint John Evangelist and Saint Francis, robed in splendid apparel and of glory wonderful; but Saint Francis' robe was more cunningly wrought than Saint John's. Now Peter stood quite scared at the sight; but Saint John bade him take comfort, saying, 'Be not afraid, dearest brother, for we are come hither to dispel thy doubt. You are to knows then, that above all creatures the Mother of Christ and I grieved over the Passion of our Lord. But since that day Saint Francis has felt more anguish than any other. Therefore, as you see, he is in glory now.' Then Brother Peter asked him, and said, 'Most holy Apostle of Christ, wherefore cometh it that the vesture of Saint Francis is more glorious than thine?' Answered him Saint John, 'The reason is this, for that when he was in the world he wore a viler than ever I did.' So then Saint John gave him a vestment which he carried on his arm, and the holy company vanished."
This, be sure, is true; and I have its English parallel ready to hand. For I once heard a father and his child talking of the goodness of God. "God," says the father, "gives thee the milk to thy porridge"; and the child thought it a good saying, yet puzzled over it, doubting, as it afterwards appeared, the part to be assigned to a friend of his, the daily milkman. And so he solved it. "God makes the milk and the milkman brings it," he said. The Fioretti, if you must needs break a butterfly on your dissecting-board, was written, as I judge, by a bare-foot Minorite of forty; compiled, that is, from the wonderings, the pretty adjustments and naive disquisitions of any such weatherworn brown men as you may see to- day toiling up the Calvary to their Convent. And in this same story- telling Giotto is an adept. He loves to gather his fellows round him and speak of Saints and Archangels, where our youngsters talk of fairy godmothers and white rabbits. To say this is not Art, as the critics profanely teach, is monstrous. Is not the Fioretti literature, or the Gospel according to Saint Luke literature? And is not Religion the highest art of all, the large elementary poetry in the core of the heart of man? Just so was the craft which disposed the rings of that wonderful ornament round about the Bardi chapel, rings of clean arabesque wrought in line upon pale blue and pink and brown, and which in so doing fitted the Franciscan thaumaturgy with an exact garment tenderly adjusted to every wave of its abandonment—even so was this a great art indeed. For you ask of an art no more than this, that it shall be adequately representative: there are no comparative degrees.
So when I learn from the works of Ruskin that he can "read a picture to you as, if Mr. Spurgeon knew anything about art, Mr. Spurgeon would read it,—that is to say, from the plain, common-sense Protestant side"; or when I learn from the works of Mr. George Moore that Sir Frederick Burton made of the National Gallery a Museum; or when one complains of a picture that it is not didactic, and another that it holds a thought, I make haste to laugh lest I should do wrong to Tuscany, that looked upon the world to love it: for she saw that it was very good.
A SACRIFICE AT PRATO
(An Old-fashioned Narrative)
[Footnote: Perhaps I may be allowed to explain that this article was written from the standpoint of a cultivated Pagan of the Empire, who should have journeyed in Time as well as Space.]
The rim of the sun was burning the hill tops, and already the vanguard of his strength stemming the morning mists, when I and my companion first trod the dust of a small town which stood in our path. It still lay very hard and white, however, and sharply edged to its girdle of olives and mulberry trees drenched in dews, a compactly folded town, well fortified by strong walls and many towers, with the mist upon it and softly over it like a veil. For it lay well under the shade of the hills awaiting the sun's coming. In the streets, though they were by no means asleep, but, contrariwise, busy with the traffic of men and pack-mules, there was a shrewd bite as of night air; looking up we could perceive how faint the blue of the sky was, and the cloud-flaw how rosy yet with the flush of Aurora's beauty-sleep. Therefore we were glad to get into the market- place, filled with people and set round with goodly brick buildings, and to feel the light and warmth steal about our limbs.
"It would seem fitting," said I, "seeing that day is at hand and already we enjoy the first-fruits of his largess, that we should seek some neighbouring shrine where we might praise the gods. For never yet was land that had not, as its fairest work, gods: and in a land so fair as this there must needs be gods yet fairer, and shrines to case them in." This I said, having observed pious offerings laid upon the shrines of divers gods by the road. At the which, looking curiously, it seemed to me that the inhabitants of this country were favoured above the common with devout thoughts and the objects of them—gods and goddesses. You might not pass a farm without its tutelary altar to the genius of the place, some holy shade, or—as she was figured as a matron—some great land-goddess, perhaps Cybele, or the Bona Dea; and pleasant it was to me to see that the tufts of common flowers set before her were for the most part smiling and fresh with the dew that assured an early gathering. In the streets of the city, moreover, I had seen many more such, slight affairs (it is true) of painted earthenware, some gaudily adorned with green and yellow colour and of workmanship as raw, some painted flat on the wall of a recess (in which was more skill, though the device was often gross enough—to dwell upon death and despair), and some again of choice beauty, both of form and colour, and a most rare blitheness, as it might be the spirit of the contrivers breaking through the hard stone. And all of these I knew to be gods, but the devices upon them were hard to be read, or approved. There was a naked youth pierced with arrows, wherein the texture of smooth flesh accorded not well with the bitterness of his hurt; a young man also, bearded, of spare and mournful habit and girt with a rope round his middle; in his hands were wounds, as again of arrows, and there was a rent in his garment where a javelin had torn a way into his side. Such suffering of wounds and broken flesh stared sharply up against the young flowers and grasses which spoke of healthy wind and rain and a sun-kissed earth. Goddesses also I saw—a virgin of comely red and white visage; yellow-haired she was, crowned like a king's daughter; at her side a wheel, cruelly spiked on the outer edge and not easily to be related to so heart-some a maid. But before them all (with one grim exception, to be sure) I saw the Earth-Mother who had been upon the farm and homestead- walls, of the same high perfection of form, and in raiment stately and adorned, yet (it would seem) something sorrowful as she might mourn the loss of lover or young child. Now the darkest sight I saw was that exception before rehearsed; and it was this. A black cross stood In the most joyful places of the city, and one suffered upon it to very death. Whereat I marvelled greatly, saying, "Who Is the man thus tormented whom the people worship as a god?" And my companion answered,
"A great god he is, if the country report lie not, and has many names, which amount to this, that he has freed this nation from bondage and died that he may live again, and they too. And of the truth of what they say I cannot speak; but I think he is Bacchus the Redeemer, who, as you, Balbus, know, was no wanton reveller in lasciviousness, but a very god of great benevolence and of wisdom truly dark and awful. Who also took our mortal nature upon him and suffered in the shades: rising whence (for he was god and man) like the dawn from the night's bosom, or the flooding of spring weather from the iron gates of winter, he sped over land and sea, touching earth and the dwellers upon it. And to those he touched tongues were given and soothsaying, and to many the transports of inspiration and divine madness, as of poets and rhapsodists. And tragedy and choral odes are his, and the furious splendour of dances. But of the worship of Dionysus you know something, having been at Eleusis and beheld the holy mysteries.
"Now the god of this people has the same gift of tongues and madness of possession. To him are also sacred priests of the oracle, and high tragedies, and the wailing of music, and streaming processions of virgins and young boys. He too agonised and arose stronger and more shining than before, dying, indeed, and rising at the very vernal equinox we have mentioned. He too is worshipped in certain Mysteries whereat the confession of iniquity and the cleansing of hearts come first: and the sacrifice is just that wheaten cake and fruit of the vine whereof, at Eleusis, you have praised to me the simplicity and ethic beauty. And he can inspire his devotees with frenzy. For I have heard that certain men of the country, on a day, and urged by his daemon, run naked from place to place in honour of him, lashing their bare backs with ox-goads; and will fast by the week together, they and the women alike; and that pious virgins, under stress of these things, swoon and are floated betwixt earth and heaven, and afterwards relate their blissful encounters and prophesy strange matters; receiving also dolorous wounds (which nevertheless are very sweet to them) like to the wounds which he himself received unto death; and all these things they endure because they are mystically fraught with the wisdom and efficacy of the god. Nay, I have been told that in the parts over sea, towards the North and West, he is worshipped, just as at Eleusis, with pipes and timbrels and brazen cymbals and all excess of music; and there they dance in his service and suffer the ecstasies of the Maenads and Corybants in the Dionysiac revel. But this I find quaint to be believed."
Now when I had heard so much, I was the more desirous to find some temple where I could observe the cult of this wounded gods and so sought counsel of my friend versed in the people's learning. To my questioning he replied that it would be easy. We were (said he) in the market-place among the buyers and chafferers of fruit, vegetables, earthenware, milk, eggs, and such country produce; which honest folk, it being the hour of the morning sacrifice and the temple facing us, would soon abandon their brisk toil for religion's sake; whereupon we too would go. So I looked across the square and saw a very fair building, lofty and many windowed, all of clean white marble, banded over with bars of a smooth black stone, curiously carved, moreover, in sculptured work of gods and men and of flowers and fruits—all cut in the pure marble. At one side was a noble rostrum, of the like fine stone, whereon young boys and girls, as it were fauns and dryads and other woodland creatures, capered as they list: and above the midmost door a semicircle of pale blue enamel, whereon was the image of the Great Goddess in gleaming white. She was of smiling debonnair countenance and in the full pride of her blossom-time—being as a young woman whose girdle is new loosed to the will of her lord—and in her arms was a naked child, finely wrought to the size of life. On either side of her a beautiful youth (in whom I must needs admire the smoothness of their chins and the bravery of their vesture shining in the clear light) did reverence to the Goddess and the child: and there were beings, winged like birds, with the faces of strong boys, but no bodies at all that I could see, who flew above them all. This was brave work, very wonderful to me in a people who, thus excellently inspired and having such comely smiling divinities and so clear a vision of them before their eyes, could yet be curious after suffering heroes and stabbed virgins and gods with mangled limbs. But we went into the temple with the good people of the country- side to the sound of bells from a high tower hard by. And I was something surprised that they brought no beasts with them for the sacrifice, nor any of the fruits which were so abundant in the land; but my companion reminded me again that the sacrifice was ready prepared within, and was, as it were, emblematical of all fruits and every sort of meat, being that wine and bread into which you may comprehend all bodily and (by a figure) ghostly sustenance. By this we were within the temple, which I now perceived was a pantheon, having altars to all the gods, some only of whose shrines I had remarked on the way thither. Dark and lofty it was, with piered arches that soared into the mist, and jewelled windows painfully worked in histories and fables of old time:—all as far apart as conceivably might be from the holy places of my own country; for whereas, with us, the level gaze of the sun is never absent, and through the colonnades you would see stretches of the far blue country, or, perchance, the shimmer of the restless sea, here no light of day could penetrate, and all the senses might apprehend must be of solemn darkness, longing thoughts to cleave it, and, afar off and dim, some flutter of even light as of blest abodes. A strange people! to despise the sure and fair, for the taunting shadows of desire. But, growing more familiar in the middle of newness and the awe that comes of it, I was again amazed at the number of the gods, their nature and sort. I saw again the arrow-stricken youth, whom we call Asclepius (but never knew thus tormented—as with his father's arrows!) and again the Maid of the Wheel, Fortune as I suppose: but with us the wheel is not so manifestly bitter. Then also the wounded hero, cowled and corded, ragged exceedingly, the like of whom we have not, unless it be some stripling loved by an immortal and wounded to death by grudging Fate, as Atys or Adonis. And if, indeed, this were one of them, the image-maker did surely err in making him of so vile a presence—a thing against all likelihood that the gods, being themselves of super- excellent shapeliness, should stoop to anything of less favour. Yet he was of singular sweetness in his pains, and high fortitude: and he was much loved of the people, as I afterwards learned. And one was a young knight, winged and with a sword in his hand; at his feet a grievous worm of many folds. This I must take for Perseus but that his radiancy did rather point him for Phoebus, the lord of days and the red sun. But in the centre of the whole temple was an altar, high and broad, fenced about with steps and a rail, which I took to be made unto the god of gods or perhaps the king of that country, until I saw the black cross and the Agonist hanging from it as one dead. Then I knew that the chief god of this people was Dionysus the Redeemer, if it were really he. But I had reason to alter my opinion on that matter as you shall hear.
By this the temple was filled with the country folk who flocked In with the very reek of their toil upon them and hardly so much as their implements and marketable wares left behind. They were of all ages and conditions, both youths and maids, arrowy, tall and open-eyed; and aged ones there were, bowed by labour and seamed with the stress of weather or the assaults of unstaying Fate: whereof, for the most part, the women sat down against the wall and plied dextrously their fans; but the men stood leaning against the pillars which held the timbers of the roof. And they conversed easily together, and some were merry, and others, as I could perceive, beset with affairs of government or business—for they talked more vehemently of these matters than of others, as men will, even beneath the very eyelids of the god. And so I could understand that this sacrifice was not the yearly celebrating of high mysteries, but the common piety of every day with which it is rather seemly than essential we should begin our labouring. There were, indeed, signs in the apparelling of the temple that more solemn festivals were sometimes held, as the delivery of oracles, the calculation of auspices and such like: that, at least, I took to be the intention of small recesses along the walls, that, through a grating of fine brass, a priest of the sanctuary uttered the wisdom of the god in sentences which the meaner sort should fit with what ease they might to their circumstances. For, I suppose, it is still found good that the dark saying of the Oracle shall be illumined by the subtlety of the initiate and not by the necessities of the simple. And while I was thus musing I found the ministrants in shining white about the great altar, busied with the preparation for the rite, lighting the torches (very inconsiderable for so large a building, but, mayhap, proportionate to the condition of the people): and they placed a great book upon the altar, and bowed themselves ere they left. And soon afterwards, to the ringing of a bell, came the priest's boy carrying the offering of the altar, and the priest himself in stiff garments of white and yellow.
Now, for the sacrifice, I could not well understand it, save that it was very shortly done and with a light heart accepted by the people, who (I thought) held it as of the number of those services whose bare performance is efficacious and wholesome—on account, partly of reverent antiquity and long usage, and partly as having some hidden virtue best known to the god in whose honour it is done. For in my own country, I know well there were many such rites, whose commission edified the people more than their omission would have dishonoured the god: wise men, therefore (as priests and philosophers), who would live in peace, bow their bodies by rule, knowing surely that their souls may be bolt upright notwithstanding. So here were many solemn acts which, doubtless, once had some now unfathomable design and purport, diligently rehearsed, while the worshippers gazed about with dull unconcern, or being young, cast eyes of longing upon the country wenches set laughing and rosy by the wall, or, old, nursed their infirmities. And, on a sudden, a bell rang; and again rang; and the packed body of men and women fell upon their faces, and so remained in a horrific silence for a space where a man might count a score. Thereafter another bell, as of release. So the assembly rose to their feet and, as I saw, swept from their foreheads and breasts the dust of the temple floor. But as soon as it was over, a very old priest came through the press and offered the same sacrifice in a little guarded shrine at the lower end, amid many lamps and wax torches and glittering ornaments. Here was more devotion among the people, indeed a great struggling and elbowing just so as to touch the altar, or the steps of it, or the priest's hem, or even the rails which fenced the shrine. And with some show of good reason was this hubbub, as I learned. For here was indeed treasured the Girdle of Venus (this being her very sanctuary) and as much desired as ever it was by women great with child or wanting to conceive. And I looked very curiously upon it, but the Girdle I could never see; only there was a painted image over the altar of the great queen-mother, Venus Genetrix herself, depicted as a broad-browed, placid matron giving of the fruits of her bounteous breasts to a male child. Then I knew that this was that same Goddess who stood over the outer door of the place, and was well pleased to find that the people, howsoever ignorantly, adored the power that enwombs the world—Venus, the life- bringer and quickener of things that breathe,—and could, in this matter, touch hearts with the wise. So with this thought, that truly God was one and men divers, I came out of the temple well pleased, into the level light of the day's beam.
In the tavern doorway, under a bush of green ilex, we sat down in company to eat bread and peaches sopped in the wine of the country, and talked very briskly of all the things we had seen and heard. And soon into the current of our discourse was drawn a dark-faced youth, who had been observing us earnestly for some time from under his hanging brows, and who, growing mighty curious (as I find the way of them is), must know who and whence we were and of what belief and condition in the world. So when I had satisfied him, "Turn for turn," said I, "my honest friend: being strangers, as you have learned, we have seen many things which touch us nearly, and some which are hard of reading. But this very reading is to us of high concernment, for these matters relate to religion, and religion, of what sort soever it may be, no man can venture to despise. For certain I am, that, as a man hath never seen the gods, so he may never be sure that he hath ever conceived them, even darkly, as in a mirror. For we are dwellers in a cave, my friend, with our backs to the light, and may not tell of a truth whether the shadows that flit and fade be indeed gods or no. Tell me, therefore (for I am puzzled by it), is the goddess whose presentment I yet see over your temple-porch, that Mother of gods and men, yea, even Mother of life itself, to whom we also bend the knee?"
"She is, sir, as we believe, Mother of God; and therefore, God being author of life. Mother of life and all things living."
"It is as I had believed," said I, "and you, young sir, and I, may bow together in that temple of hers without offence. For the temple is to her honour as I conceive?"
"Why, yes," he answered, "it is raised to her most holy name and to that of our Lord."
"And your Lord, who is this? and which altar is his? For there were many."
"The great altar is His, and indeed He is to be worshipped in all," said the young man.
"He is then the tortured god, whose semblance hangs upon the black cross?"
Then I begged him to tell me why these mournful images were scattered over his goodly earth, these maimed gods, this blood and weeping; but I may not set down all that he told me, seeing that much of it was dark, and much, as I thought, not pertinent to the issue. Much again was said with his hands, which I cannot interpret here. Suffice it that I learned this concerning the Agonist, that he was the son of the goddess and greater than she, though in a sense less. Mortal he was, and immortal, abject to look upon, being indeed accounted a malefactor and crucified like a thief; and yet a king of men, speaking wisdom whereof the like hath hardly been heard. For of two things he taught there would seem to be no bottom to them, so profound and unsearchable they are. And one of them was this,— "The kingdom is within you" (or some such words); and the other was, "Who will lose his life shall save it." Whereof, methinks, the first comprehends all the teaching of the Academy and the second that of the Porch. So this man must needs have been a god, and whether the son or no of the Soul of the World, greater than she. For what she did, as it were by necessity and her blind inhering power, he knew. Therefore he must have been Wisdom itself. And thus I knew that he could not be Dionysus the Saviour, though he might have many of his attributes; nor simply that son of Venus whom Ausonius alone of our poets saw fastened to a cross. So at last, "I will tell you," said I, "who this god really is, as it seems to me. Being of vile estate and yet greatest of all; being mortal and yet immortal, god and man; being at once most wise and most simple, and (as such his condition imports) intermediate between Earth and Heaven, he must needs be the Divine Eros, concerning whom Plato's words are yet with us. So I can understand why he is so wise, why he suffers always, and yet cannot be driven by torment nor persuaded by sophisms to cease loving. For the necessity of love is to crave ever; and he is Love himself. Wherefore I am very sure he can lead men, if they will, from the fair things of the world to those infinitely fairer things in themselves whereby what we now have are so very fair to see. And he may well be son of this goddess and nourished by her milk; for it behoves us that a god should stand between Earth and Heaven and be compact of the elements of either, so that he should condescend the wisdom of his head to instruct the clemency of his heart. And we know, you and I, that the gods are but attributes of God, whose intellect (as I say) may well be in Heaven, but His heart is in the Earth, and is the core of it. For so we say of the poet that his heart is ever in his fair work."
Thus we took our wine and were well content to sit in the sunshine.
OF POETS AND NEEDLEWORK
The man of our time to class poetry as a thing very pleasant and useful shall hardly be found. At most the saying will suffer reprint as a quaintness, a freak, or a paradox; and so it has proved. From Prato, dusty little city of mid-Tuscany, and with the impress of its Reale Orfanotrofio (nourisher, it would thus appear, of more Humanities than one) comes an "Opera Nova, nella quale si contengono bellissime historie, contrasti, lamenti et frottole, con alcune canzoni a ballo, strambotti, geloghe, farse, capitoli e bazellette di piu eccellenti autori. Aggiuntevi assai tramutationi, villanelle alla napolitana, sonetti alla bergamasca et mariazi alla povana, indovinelli, ritoboli e passerotti"; cosa, this legend goes on to say, molto piacevole et utile. This is, no doubt, rococo, and at best a pitiful, catchfarthing bit of ancientry: yet it looks back to a time when it was indeed the fact that no choice work could be but useful, and when eyes and ears, as conduits to the soul, had that full of consideration we reserve for mouth and nose, purveyors to the belly.
Vasari, Giorgio, he too, bourgeois though he were, and in so far the best of testimony, knew it when he found Luca's blue and white to be "molto utile per la state." We should say that of a white umbrella or suit of flannels; why of earthenware or an adroit strambotto? That marks the cleft, the incurable gulf of difference between a people like the Tuscans with art in their marrow, and our present selves with our touching reliance upon a most unseemly hunger after facts. I suppose I should be stretching a point if I said that Samson Agonistes was cosa molto piacevole ed utile. And yet I name there a great poem and a weighty, whence the general public suck, or claim to suck, no small advantage. Is it more useful to them than Bradshaw? I doubt. But here, in this Opera Nova so furthered, are sixty-three little snatches of Luigi Pulci's, eight lines to the stave, about the idlest of make-believe love affairs, full of such Petrarchisms as "Gl' occhi tuoi belli son li crudel dardi," or
"Tu m' ai trafitto il cor! donde io moro, Se tu, iddea, non mi dai aiutoro."—
the merest commonplaces of gallantry: called on what account by their contrivers molto utile?
I have urged in my Second Essay that the Tuscans were inveterate weavers of fancy, choosing what came easiest to hand to weave withal. I dared to see such airy spinning in that Spanish Chapel from which Mr. Ruskin has nearly frightened the lovers of Art; I said that the Summa was to the painters there as good vantage ground as any novel of Sacchetti's. I now say that Luigi Pulci and his kindred so treated the love-lore which was solemn mystery to Guinicelli and Lapo and Fazio, or the young Dante shuddering before his lord of terrible aspect. I would add Petrarch's name to this honourable roll if I believed it fitting such a niche; but I find him the greatest equivocator of them all, and owe him a grudge for making a fifteenth-century Dante impossible. It is true, had there been such a poet we should never have had our Milton; but that may not serve the Swan of Vaucluse as justification for being miserable before a looking-glass, that he starved his grandsons to serve ours. Take him then as a poser: give him, for the argument's sake, Boccace to his company, Cino; give him our Pulci, give him Ariosto, give him Lorenzo, Politian; give him Tasso for aught I care; you have no one left but the sugar-cured Guarino. Dante stands alone upon the skyey peaks of his great argument, steadied there and holding his breath, as for the hush that precedes weighty endeavour; and Bojardo (no Tuscan by birth) stands squarely to the plains, holding out one hand to Rabelais over-Alps and another to Boccace grinning in his grave. The fellow is such a sturdy pagan we must e'en forgive him some of his quirks. Italian poesy, poor lady, stript to the smock, can still look honestly out if she have but two such vestments whole and unclouted as the Commedia and the Orlando. Let us look at some of her spoiled bravery. Take up my Opera Nova and pick over Pulci in his lightest mood. I am minded to try my hand for your amusement.
"Let him rejoice who can; for me, I'd grieve. Peace be with all; for me yet shall be war. Let him that hugs delight, hug on, and leave To me sweet pain, lest day my night shall mar. I am struck hard; the world, you may believe, Laughs out;—rejoice, my world! I'll pet my scar. Rogue love, that puttest me to such a pass, They cry thee, 'It is well!' I sing, 'Alas!'"
Vers de societe? No; too rhetorical: your antithesis gives headaches to fine ladies. Euphuist? Not in the applied sense: read Shakespere's sonnets in that manner; or, if you object that Shakespere is too high for such comparisons, read Drummond of Hawthornden. Poetry, which has a soul, we cannot call it. Verse it assuredly is, and of the most excellent. Just receive a quatrain of the pure spring, and judge for yourself:
"Chi gode goda, che pur io stento; Chi e in pace si sia, ch' io son in guerra; Chi ha diletto l' habbi, ch' io ho tormento; Chi vive lieto, in me dolor afferra."
Balance is there. Vocalisation, adjustment of sound, discriminate use of long syllables and short, of subjunctive and indicative moods. Unpremeditated art it is not: indeed it is craft rather than art; for Art demands a larger share of soul-expenditure than Pulci could afford. And of such is the delicate ware which Tuscany, nothing doubting, took for lavoro molto utile. For, believe it or not, of that kind were Delia Robbia's enrichments, Ghirlandajo's frescos, Raphael's Madonnas, and Alberti's broad marble churches: of that kind and of no other; on a level with the painted lady smiling out of a painted window at Airolo, whose frozen lips assure the traverser of the Saint Gothard that he has passed the ridge and may soon smell the olives.
[Footnote 1: More than that: the piece is an excellent example of the skilful use of redundant syllables. It is certain that a study of Italian poetry would help our, too often, tame blank verse to be (however bad otherwise) at least not dull. It might bring it nearer to Milton, as Dante brought Keats. Witness his revision of Hyperion. If the Tuscans overrated the craft in Poetry, we assuredly underrate it.]
Wherein, then, is the use? Why, it is in the art of it. I will convict you out of Alberti's own mouth, or his biographer's, for he spake it truly. "For he was wont to say," thus runs the passage, "that whatever might be accomplished by the wit of man with a certain choiceness, that indeed was next to the divine." To image the divine, you see, you must accomplish somewhat, scrupulously weigh, select and refuse; in short adapt exquisitely your means until they are adequate to your ends. And, keeping the eye steadily on that, you might grow to discard solemn ends, or momentous, altogether, until poetry and painting ceased to be arts at all, and must be classed, at best, with needlework. So indeed it proved in the case of poetry. After Politian (who really did catch some echo of other times, and of manners more primal than his own, and did instil something of it in his Orfeo) no poet of Italy had anything serious to say. I doubt it even of Tasso, though Tasso, I know, has a vogue. I except, of course, Michael Angelo, as I have already said; and I except Boccace and Bojardo. Painting was drawn out of the pit laid privily for her by the sheer necessity of an outlet; and painting, having much to say, became the representative Italian art. Poetry, the most ancient of them all, as she is the most majestic; the art which refuses to be taught, and alone of her sisters must be acquired by self-spenditure (so that before you can learn to string your words in music you must be shaken with a thought which, to your torturing, you must spoil); poetry, at once music and soothsay, knitted to us as touching her common speech, and to the spheres as touching on the same immortal harmonies; poetry such as Dante's was, was gone from Tuscany, and painting, to her own ruining, reigned instead, drawing in sculpture and architecture to share her kingdom and attributes. Which indeed they did, to their equal detriment and our discouragement that read.
When I want to see Death in small-clothes bowing in the drawing-room I turn to my Petrarch and open at Sonnet cclxxxii., where it is written how:—
"It lies with Death to take the beauty of Laura but not the gracious memory of her";
"Now hast them touch'd thy stretch of power, O Death; Thy brigandage hath beggar'd Love's demesne And quench'd the lamp that lit it, and the queen Of all the flowers snapped with thy ragged teeth. Hollow and meagre stares our life beneath The querulous moon, robb'd of its sovereign: Yet the report of her, her deathless mien— Not thine, O churl! Not thine, thou greedy Death! They are with her in Heaven, the which her grace, Like some brave light, gladdens exceedingly And shoots chance beams to this our dwelling-place; So art thou swallowed in her victory. Yet on me, beauty-whelmed in very sooth, On me that last-born angel shall have ruth."
Look in vain for the deep heart-cry that voiced Dante's passion in the tremendous statements of this:—
"Beatrice is gone up into high Heaven, The kingdom where the angels are at peace; And lives with them: and to her friends is dead. Not by the frost of winter was she driven Away, like others; nor by summer heats; But through a perfect gentleness instead. For from the lamp of her meek lowlihead Such an exceeding glory went up hence That it woke wonder in the Eternal Sire, Until a sweet desire Entered Him for that lovely excellence, So that He bade her to Himself aspire; Counting this weary and most evil place Unworthy of a thing so full of grace."
[Footnote: This translation is Rossetti's.]
Now and again it may happen that a poet, ridden by the images of his thought, can "state the facts" and leave the rhyme to chance. The Greeks, to whom facts were rarer and of more significance, one supposes, than they are to us, did it habitually. That is what gives such irresistible import to Homer and to Sophocles. They knew that the adjective is the natural enemy of the verb. The naked act, the bare thought, a sequence of stately- balanced rhythm and that ensuing harmony of sentences, gave their poetry its distinction. They did not wilfully colour their verse, if they did, as I suppose we must admit, their statues. "Now," says Sir Thomas, "there is a musick wherever there is a harmony, order or proportion; and thus far we may maintain the musick of the spheres; for those well-ordered motions, and regular paces, though they give no sound unto the ear, yet to the understanding they strike a note most full of harmony." After the Greeks, Dante, who may have drawn lo bello stile from Virgil, but hardly his great notes, as of a bell, carried on the tradition of directness and naked strength. But Petrarch, and after him all Tuscany, dallied with light thinking, and beat all the images of Love's treasury into thin conventions.
Pero, what gentlemen they were, these "ingegni fiorentini," these Tuscan wits! What innate breeding and reticence! What punctilious loyalty to the little observances of literature, of wall-decoration, call it, in the most licentiously minded of them! Lorenzo Magnifico was a rake and could write lewdly enough, as we all know. Yet, when he chose, that is when Art bade him, how unerringly he chose the right momentum. His too was "la mente che non erra." I found this of his the other day, and must needs close up my notes with it. The very notion of it was, in his time, a convention; a series of sonnets bound together by an argument; a Vita nova without its overmastering occasion. Simonetta was dead; whereupon "tutti i fiorentini ingegni, come si conviene in si pubblica jattura, diversamente ed avversamente si dolsono, chi in versi, chi in prosa." The poor dead lady was, in fact, a butt for these sharpshooters. Yet hear Lorenzo.
"Died, as we have declared, in our city a certain lady, whereby all people alike in Florence were moved to compassion. And this is no marvel, seeing that with all earthly beauty and courtesy she was adorned as, before her day, no other under heaven could have been. Among her other excellent parts, she had a carriage so sweet and winsome that whosoever should have any commerce or friendly dealing with her, straightway fell to believe himself enamoured of her. Ladies also, and all youth of her degree, not only suffered no harbourage to unkindly thought upon this her eminence over all the rest, nor grudged it her at all, but stoutly upheld and took pleasure in her loveliness and gracious bearing; and this so honestly that you would have found it hard to be believed so many men without jealousy could have loved her, or so many ladies without envy give her place. So, the more her life by its comely ordering had endeared her to mankind, pity also for her death, for the flower of her youth, and for a beauteousness which in death, it may be, showed the more resplendently than in life, did breed in the heart the smarting of great desire. Therefore she was carried uncovered on the bier from her dwelling to the place of burial, and moved all men, thronging there to see her, to abundant shedding of tears. And in some, who before had not been aware of her, after pity grew great marvel for that she, in death, had overcome that loveliness which had seemed insuperable while she yet lived. Among which people, who before had not known her, there grew a bitterness and, as it were, ground of reproach, that they had not been acquainted with so fair a thing before that hour when they must be shut off from it for ever; to know her thus and have perpetual grief of her. But truly in her was made manifest that which our Petrarch had spoken when he said,
'Death showed him lovely in her lovely face.'"
This is to write like a gentleman and an artist, with ear attuned to the subtlest fall and cadence, with scrupulous weighing of words that their true outline shall hold clear and sharp. It is intarsiatura, skilful and clean at the edges. He goes on to play with his hammered thought, always as delicately and precisely as before.
"Falling, therefore, such an one to death, all the wits of Florence, as is seemly in so public a calamity, lamented severally and mutually, some in rhyme, some in prose, the ruefulness of it; and bound themselves to exalt her excellence each after the contriving of his mind: in which company I, too, must needs be; I, too, mingle rhymes with tears. So I did in the sonnets below rehearsed; whereof the first began thus:
'O limpid shining star that to thy beam.'
"Night had fallen: together we walked, a dear friend and I, together talking of our common sorrow: and so speaking, the night being wondrous clear, I lifted my eyes to a star of exceeding brilliancy, which appeared in the West, of such assured splendour as not alone to excel other stars, but so eagerly to shine that it threw in shadow all the lights of heaven about it. Whereof having great marvel, I turned to my friend, saying—'We ought not to wonder at this sight, seeing that the soul of that most gentle lady is of a truth either re-informed in this, a new star, or conjoined to shine with it. Wherefore there is no marvel in such exceeding brightness; and we who took comfort in her living delights, may even now be appeased by her appearance in a limpid star. And if our vision for such a light is tender and fragile, we should beseech her shade, that is the god in her, to make us bolder by withholding some part of her beam that we may sometimes look upon her, nor sear our eyes. But, to say sooth, this is no over-boldness in her, endowed as she was with all the power of her beauty, that she should strive to shine more excellently than all the other stars, or even yet more proudly with Phoebus himself, asking of him his very chariot, that she, rather, may rule our day. Which thing, if you allow it without presumption in our star, how vilely shows the impertinence of Death to have laid hands upon such loveliness and authority as hers.' And since these my reasonings seemed of the stuff proper for a sonnet, I took leave of my friend and composed that one which follows; speaking in it of the above-mentioned star."
The sonnet is in the right Petrarchian vein, adroit and shallow as you please. With such a preface it could hardly be otherwise—the invocation of the lady's shade, the twitting of Death (making his Mastership jig to suit their occasions who had of late been in his presence) and the naive acceptance of all gifts as "buona materia a an sonetto," In the end he spins four to her memory; then finds another lady and doubles all his superlatives for her. For the star, he remembers, may have been Lucifer; and Lucifer is but herald of the day. To it then! with all the buona materia a un sonetto the dawn can give you. Thus flourished poetry in the Tuscan quattrocento; for Politian was but little more poet than Lorenzo, while he was no less dextrous as a rhymer and fashioner of conceits. Not serious, but piacevole, with an elegantia quaedam prope divinum; therefore molto utile. Pen-work in fact, and kin to needlework. Because Tuscany saw choicely-wrought things pleasing, and pleasant things useful, we of to-day can see Florence as an open-air Museum. But we wrap our own Poets in heavy bindings and let them lie on drawing-room tables in company of Whitaker's Almanack and an album of photographs. Well, well! We must teach them to say, Philistia, be thou glad of me, I suppose.
OF BOILS AND THE IDEAL
[Footnote: This appeared in the New Review for December 1896, and is reproduced by leave of the Publisher.]
(A Colloquy with Perugino)
"There," said my Roman escort, as we forded the Tiber near Torglano, "the haze is lifting: behold august Perugia," I looked out over the misty plain, and saw the spiked ridge of a hill, serried with towers and belfries as a port with ships' masts; then the grey stone walls and escarpments warm in the sun; finally a mouth to the city, which seemed to engulph both the white road and the citizens walking to and fro upon it like flies. But it was some time yet before I could decipher the image on the gonfalon streaming in the breeze above the Signiory. It was actually, on a field vert, a griffin rampant sable, langued gules. "So ho!" said the guide when! had described it, "So ho! the Mountain Cat is at home again.... And here comes scouring one of the whelps," he added in alarm. A young man, black-avised, bare-headed, pressing a lathered horse, bore down upon us. He seemed to gain exultation with every new pulse of his strength: the Genius of Brute Force, handsome as he was evil. And yet not evil, unless a wild beast is evil; which it probably is not. He soon reached us, pulled up short with a clatter of hoofs, and hailed me in a raw dialect, asking what I did, whence and who I was, whither I went, what I would? As he spake—looking at me with fierce eyes in which pride, suspicion, and the shyness of youth struggled and rent each other—he fooled with a straight sword, and seemed to put his demands rather to provoke a quarrel than to get an answer. I wished no quarrel with a boy, so, as my custom is, I answered deliberately that I travelled, and from Rome; that my name was Hewlett, at his service; that I was going to Perugia; that I would be rid of him. I saw him grow loutish before my adroit impassivity; his fencing was not with such tools. He sulked, and must know next what I wanted at Perugia. I told him I had business with Pietro Vannucci, called Il Perugino by those who admired him from a distance; and he seemed relieved, withal a something of contempt for my person fluttered on his pretty lip. At any rate, he left fingering his steel toy. "Peter the Pious!" he scoffed, "Are you of his litter? Pots and Pans? Off with you; you'll find him hoarding his money or his wife. To the wife you may send these from Semonetto." Whereat my young gentleman fell to kissing his hand in the air. I rose in my stirrups and bowed elaborately, and, taking off my hat in the act, put him to some shame, for he was without that equipment. He pulled a wry face at me, like any schoolboy, and cantered off on his spent horse, arms akimbo, and his irons rattling about him. My guide marked a furtive cross on his breast and vowed, I am pretty sure, a score candles to Santa Maria in Cosmedin if ever he reached home. "God is good," he said, "God is very good. That was Simon Baglione."
"He seemed a very unlicked cub," was all my reply. So we climbed the dusty steep, winding twice or thrice round about the hill in a brown plain set with stubbed trees, and entered the armed city by the Porta Eburnea. Inside the walls, threading our way up a spiral lane among bullock-carts, cloaked cavaliers, monks, fair-haired girls carrying pitchers and baskets, bullies, bravoes, and well-to-do burgesses, we passed from one ambush to another, by dark gullies, stinking traps, and twisted stairways, to the Via Deliziosa, without ever a hint of the broad sunshine or whiff of the balmy air which we had left outside on the plain. In a little mildewed court, where one patch of light did indeed slope upon a lemon-tree loaded with fruit and flowers, I found my man in a droll pass with his young wife. He was, in fact, tiring her hair in the open: nothing more; nevertheless there was that air of mystery in the performance which made me at once squeamish of going further, and afraid to withdraw. I stood, therefore, in confusion while the sport went on. It was of his seeking I could see, for the poor girl looked shamefaced and weary enough. She was a winsome child (no more), broad in the brows, full in the eye, yellow- haired, like most of the women in this place, with a fine-shaped mouth, rather voluptuously underlipped, and, as I then saw her, sitting in a carven chair with her hands at a listless droop over the arms of it. Her hair, which was loose about her and of great length and softness, lay at the mercy of her master. He, a short, pursy man, well over middle age— "past the Grand Climacteric," as Bulwer Lytton used to say—red and anxiously lined, stood behind her, barber fashion, and ran her hair through his fingers, all the while talking to himself very fast. His eyes were half-shut: he seemed ravished by the sight of so much gold (if common reports belie him not) or the feel of so much silk (the likelier opinion), I know not which. Assuredly so odd a beginning to my adventure, a hardier man would have stumbled!