HotFreeBooks.com
Euphorion - Being Studies of the Antique and the Mediaeval in the - Renaissance - Vol. I
by Vernon Lee
1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

EUPHORION:

BEING STUDIES OF THE ANTIQUE AND THE MEDIAEVAL IN THE RENAISSANCE

BY

VERNON LEE

Author of "Studies of the 18th Century in Italy," "Belcaro" etc.

VOL. I.

WALTER PATER, IN APPRECIATION OF THAT WHICH, IN EXPOUNDING THE BEAUTIFUL THINGS OF THE PAST, HE HAS ADDED TO THE BEAUTIFUL THINGS OF THE PRESENT.



TABLE OF CONTENTS.

Introduction The Sacrifice The Italy of the Elizabethan Dramatists The Out-Door Poetry Symmetria Prisca



INTRODUCTION.

Faustus is therefore a parable of the impotent yearnings of the Middle Ages—its passionate aspiration, its conscience-stricken desire, its fettered curiosity amid the tramping limits of imperfect knowledge and irrational dogmatism. The indestructible beauty of Greek art,—whereof Helen was an emblem, became, through the discovery of classic poetry and sculpture, the possession of the modern world. Mediaevalism took this Helen to wife, and their offspring, the Euphorion of Goethe's drama, is the spirit of the modern world.—J.A. Symonds, "Renaissance In Italy," vol. ii. p. 54.

Euphorion is the name given by Goethe to the marvellous child born of the mystic marriage of Faust and Helena. Who Faust is, and who Helena, we all know. Faust, of whom no man can remember the youth or childhood, seems to have come into the world by some evil spell, already old and with the faintness of body and of mind which are the heritage of age; and every additional year of mysterious study and abortive effort has made him more vacillating of step and uncertain of sight, but only more hungry of soul. Postponed and repressed by reclusion from the world, and desperate tension over insoluble problems; diverted into the channels of mere thought and vision; there boils within him the energy, the passion, of retarded youth: its appetites and curiosities, which, cramped by the intolerant will, and foiled by many a sudden palsy of limb and mind, torment him with mad visions of unreal worlds, mock him with dreams of superhuman powers, from which he awakes in impotent and apathetic anguish. But these often-withstood and often-baffled cravings are not those merely of scholar or wizard, they are those of soldier and poet and monk, of the mere man: lawless desires which he seeks to divert, but fails, from the things of the flesh and of the world to the things of the reason; supersensuous desires for the beautiful and intangible, which he strives to crush, but in vain, with the cynical scepticism of science, which derides the things it cannot grasp. In this strange Faustus, made up of so many and conflicting instincts; in this old man with ever-budding and ever-nipped feelings of youthfulness, muddling the hard-won secrets of nature in search after impossibilities; in him so all-sided, and yet so wilfully narrowed, so restlessly active, yet so often palsied and apathetic; in this Faustus, who has laboured so much and succeeded in so little, feeling himself at the end, when he has summed up all his studies, as foolish as before—which of us has not learned to recognize the impersonated Middle Ages? And Helena, we know her also, she is the spirit of Antiquity. Personified, but we dare scarcely say, embodied; for she is a ghost raised by the spells of Faustus, a simulacrum of a thing long dead; yet with such continuing semblance of life, nay, with all life's real powers, that she seems the real, vital, living one, and Faustus yonder, thing as he is of the present, little better than a spectre. Yet Helena has been ages before Faust ever was; nay, by an awful mystery like those which involve the birth of Pagan gods, she whom he has evoked to be the mother of his only son has given, centuries before, somewhat of her life to make this self-same Faust. A strange mystery of Fate's necromancy this, and with strange anomalies. For opposite this living, decrepit Faust, Helena, the long dead, is young; and she is all that which Faust is not. Knowing much less than he, who has plunged his thoughts like his scalpel into all the mysteries of life and death, she yet knows much more, can tell him of the objects and aims of men and things; nay, with little more than the unconscious faithfulness to instinct of the clean-limbed, placid brute, she can give peace to his tormented conscience; and, while he has suffered and struggled and lashed himself for every seeming baseness of desire, and loathed himself for every imagined microscopic soiling, she has walked through good and evil, letting the vileness of sin trickle off her unhidden soul, so quietly and majestically that all thought of evil vanishes; and the self-tormenting wretch, with macerated flesh hidden beneath the heavy garments of mysticism and philosophy, suddenly feels, in the presence of her unabashed nakedness, that he, like herself, is chaste.

Such are the parents, Faustus and Helena; we know them; but who is this son Euphorion? To me it seems as if there could be but one answer—the Renaissance. Goethe indeed has told us (though, with his rejuvenation of Faustus, unknown to the old German legend and to our Marlowe, in how bungling a manner!) the tale of that mystic marriage; but Goethe could not tell us rightly, even had he attempted, the real name of its offspring. For even so short a time ago, the Middle Ages were only beginning to be more than a mere historical expression, Antiquity was being only then critically discovered; and the Renaissance, but vaguely seen and quite unformulated by the first men, Gibbon and Roscoe, who perceived it at all, was still virtually unknown. To Goethe, therefore, it might easily have seemed as if the antique Helena had only just been evoked, and as if of her union with the worn-out century of his birth, a real Euphorion, the age in which ourselves are living, might have been born. But, at the distance of additional time, and from the undreamed-of height upon which recent historical science has enabled us to stand, we can easily see that in this he would have been mistaken. Not only is our modern culture no child of Faustus and Helena, but it is the complex descendant, strangely featured by atavism from various sides, of many and various civilizations; and the eighteenth century, so far from being a Faustus evoking as his bride the long dead Helen of Antiquity, was in itself a curiously varied grandchild or great-grandchild of such a marriage, its every moral feature, its every intellectual movement proclaiming how much of its being was inherited from Antiquity. No allegory, I well know, and least of all no historical allegory, can ever be strained to fit quite tight—the lives of individuals and those of centuries, their modes of intermixture, genesis, and inheritance are far different; but if an allegory is to possess any meaning at all, we must surely apply it wherever it will fit most easily and completely; and the beautiful allegory prepared by the tradition of the sixteenth century for the elaborating genius of Goethe, can have a real meaning only if we explain Faust as representing the Middle Ages, Helena as Antiquity, and Euphorion as that child of the Middle Ages, taking life and reality from them, but born of and curiously nurtured by the spirit of Antiquity, to which significant accident has given the name of Renaissance.

After Euphorion I have therefore christened this book; and this not from any irrational conceit of knowing more (when I am fully aware that I know infinitely less) than other writers about the life and character of this wonderful child of Helena and Faustus, but merely because it is more particularly as the offspring of this miraculous marriage, and with reference to the harmonies and anomalies which therefrom resulted, that Euphorion has exercised my thoughts.

The Renaissance has interested and interests me, not merely for what it is, but even more for what it sprang from, and for the manner in which the many things inherited from both Middle Ages and Renaissance, the tendencies and necessities inherent in every special civilization, acted and reacted upon each other, united in concord or antagonism; forming, like the gases of the chemist, new things, sometimes like and sometimes unlike themselves and each other; producing now some unknown substance of excellence and utility, at other times some baneful element, known but too well elsewhere, but unexpected here. But not the watching of the often tragic meeting of these great fatalities of inherited spirit and habit only: for equally fascinating almost has been the watching of the elaboration by this double-natured period of things of little weight, mere trifles of artistic material bequeathed to it by one or by the other of its spiritual parents. The charm for me—a charm sometimes pleasurable, but sometimes also painful, like the imperious necessity which we sometimes feel to see again and examine, seemingly uselessly, some horrible evil—the charm, I mean the involuntary compulsion of attention, has often been as great in following the vicissitudes of a mere artistic item, like the Carolingian stories or the bucolic element, as it has been in looking on at the dissolution of moral and social elements. And in this, that I have tried to understand only where my curiosity was awakened, tried to reconstruct only where my fancy was taken; in short, studied of this Renaissance civilization only as much or as little as I cared, depends all the incompleteness and irrelevancy and unsatisfactoriness of this book, and depends also whatever addition to knowledge or pleasure it may afford; Were I desirous of giving a complete, clear notion of the very complex civilization of the Renaissance, a kind of encyclopaedic atlas of that period, where (by a double power which history alone possesses) you could see at once the whole extent and shape of this historical territory, and at the same time, with all its bosses of mountain and furrows of valley, the exact composition of all its various earths and waters, the exact actual colour and shape of all its different vegetations, not to speak of its big towns and dotting villages;—were I desirous of doing this, I should not merely be attempting a work completely beyond my faculties, but a work moreover already carried out with all the perfection due to specially adapted gifts, to infinite patience and ingenuity, occasionally amounting almost to genius. Such is not at all within my wishes, as it assuredly would be totally without my powers.

But besides such marvels of historic mapping as I have described, where every one can find at a glance whatever he may be looking for, and get the whole topography, geological and botanical, of an historic tract at his fingers' ends, there are yet other kinds of work which may be done. For a period in history is like a more or less extended real landscape: it has, if you will, actual, chemically defined colours in this and that, if you consider this and that separate and unaffected by any kind of visual medium; and measurable distances also between this point and the other, if you look down upon it as from a balloon. But, like a real landscape, it may also be seen from different points of view, and under different lights; then, according as you stand, the features of the scene will group themselves—this ridge will disappear behind that, this valley will open out before you, that other will be closed. Similarly, according to the light wherein the landscape is seen, the relative scale of colours and tints of objects, due to pervading light and to distances—what painters call the values—will alter: the scene will possess one or two predominant effects, it will produce also one or, at most, two or three (in which case co-ordinated) impressions. The art which deals with impressions, which tries to seize the real relative values of colours and tints at a given moment, is what you call new-fangled: its doctrines and works are still subject to the reproach of charlatanry. Yet it is the only truly realistic art, and it only, by giving you a thing as it appears at a given moment, gives it you as it really ever is; all the rest is the result of cunning abstraction, and representing the scene as it is always, represents it (by striking an average) as it never is at all. I do not pretend that in questions of history we can proceed upon the principles of modern landscape painting: we do not know what were the elevations which made perspective, what were the effects of light which created scales of tints, in that far distant country of the past; and it is safer certainly, and doubtless much more useful, to strike an average, and represent the past as seen neither from here nor from there, neither in this light nor that, and let each man imagine his historical perspective and colour value to the best of his powers. Yet it is nevertheless certain that the past, to the people who were in it, was not a miraculous map or other marvellous diagram constructed on the principle of getting at the actual qualities of things by analysis; that it must have been, to its inhabitants, but a series of constantly varied perspectives and constantly varied schemes of colour, according to the position of each individual, and the light in which that individual viewed it. To attempt to reconstruct those various perspective-making heights, to rearrange those various value-determining lights, would be to the last degree disastrous; we should have valleys where there existed mountains, and brilliant warm schemes of colour where there may have been all harmonies of pale and neutral tints. Still the perspective and colour valuation of individual minds there must have been; and since it is not given to us to reproduce those of the near spectator in a region which we can never enter, we may yet sometimes console ourselves for the too melancholy abstractness and averageness of scientific representations, by painting that distant historic country as distant indeed, but as its far-off hill ranges and shimmering plains really appear in their combination of form and colour, from the height of an individual interest of our own, and beneath the light of our individual character. We see only very little at a time, and that little is not what it appeared to the men of the past; but we see at least, if not the same things, yet in the same manner in which they saw, as we see from the standpoints of personal interest and in the light of personal temper. Scientifically we doubtless lose; but is the past to be treated only scientifically? and can it not give us, and do we not owe it, something more than a mere understanding of why and how? Is it a thing so utterly dead as to be fit only for the scalpel and the microscope?

Surely not so. The past can give us, and should give us, not merely ideas, but emotions: healthy pleasure which may make us more light of spirit, and pain which may make us more earnest of mind; the one, it seems to me, as necessary for our individual worthiness as is the other. For to each of us, as we watch the past, as we lie passive and let it slowly circulate around us, there must come sights which, in their reality or in their train of associations, and to the mind of each differently, must gladden as with a sense of beauty, or put us all into a sullen moral ache. I should hate to be misunderstood in this more, perhaps, than in anything else in the world. I speak not of any dramatic emotion, of such egotistic, half-artistic pleasure as some may get from the alternation of cheerfulness and terror, from the excitement caused by evil from which we are as safely separated as are those who look on from the enfuriate bulls in an arena. To such, history, and the history especially of the Renaissance, has been made to pander up but too much. The pain I speak of is the pain which must come to every morally sentient creature with the contemplation of some one of the horrible tangles of evil, of the still fouler intermeshing of evil with good, which history brings up ever and anon. Evil which is past, it is true, but of which the worst evil almost of all, the fact of its having been, can never be past, must ever remain present; and our trouble and indignation at which is holy, our pain is healthy: holy and healthy, because every vibration of such pain as that makes our moral fibre more sensitive; because every immunity from such sensation deadens our higher nature: holy and healthy also because, just as no image of pleasurable things can pass before us without gathering about it other images of some beauty which have long lain by in each individual mind, so also no thought of great injustice of man or of accident, of signal whitewashing of evil or befouling of good, but must, in striking into our soul, put in motion there the salutary thought of some injustice or lying legitimation or insidious pollution, smaller indeed perhaps, but perhaps also nearer to ourselves.

Be not therefore too hard upon me if in what I have written of the Renaissance, there is too little attempt to make matters scientifically complete, and too much giving way to personal and perhaps sometimes irrelevant impressions of pleasure and of pain; if I have followed up those pleasurable and painful impressions rather more than sought to discover the exact geography of the historical tract which gave them. Consider, moreover, that this very cause of deficiency may have been also the cause of my having succeeded in achieving anything at all. Personal impression has led me, perhaps, sometimes away from the direct road; but had it not beckoned me to follow, I should most likely have simply not stirred. Pleasant impression and painful, as I have said; and sometimes the painful has been more efficacious than the other. I do not know whether the interest which I have always taken in the old squabble of real and ideal has enabled me to make at all clearer the different characteristics of painting and sculpture in Renaissance portraiture, the relation of the art of Raphael to the art of Velasquez and the art of Whistler. I can scarcely judge whether the pleasure which I owe to the crowding together, the moving about in my fancy, of the heroes and wizards and hippogriffs of the old tales of Oberon and Ogier; the association with the knights and ladies of Boiardo and Ariosto, of this or that figure out of a fresco of Pinturicchio, or a picture by Dosso, has made it easier or more difficult for me to sum up the history of mediaeval romance in Renaissance Italy; nor whether the recollection of certain Tuscan farms, the well-known scent of the sun-dried fennel and mint under the vine-trellis, the droning song of the contadino ploughing or pruning unseen in the valley, the snatches of peasants' rhymes, the outlines of peasants' faces—things all these of this our own time, of yesterday or to-day; whether all this, running in my mind like so many scribbly illustrations and annotations along the margin of Lorenzo dei Medici's poems, has made my studies of rustic poetry more clear or more confused. But this much I know as a certainty, that never should I have tried to unravel the causes of the Renaissance's horrible anomaly of improvement and degradation, had not that anomaly returned and returned to make me wretched with its loathsome mixture of good and evil; its detestable alternative of endurance of vile solidarities in the souls of our intellectual forefathers, or of unjust turning away from the men and the times whose moral degradation paid the price of our moral dignity. I also have the further certainty of its having been this long-endured moral sickening at the sight of this moral anomaly, which enabled me to realize the feelings of such of our nobler Elizabethan playwrights as sought to epitomize in single tales of horror the strange impressions left by the accomplished and infamous Italy of their day; and which made it possible for me to express perhaps some of the trouble which filled the mind of Webster and of Tourneur merely by expressing the trouble which filled my own.

The following studies are not samples, fragments at which one tries one's hand, of some large and methodical scheme of work. They are mere impressions developed by means of study: not merely currents of thought and feeling which I have singled out from the multifold life of the Renaissance; but currents of thought and feeling in myself, which have found and swept along with them certain items of Renaissance lore. For the Renaissance has been to me, in the small measure in which it has been anything, not so much a series of studies as a series of impressions. I have not mastered the history and literature of the Renaissance (first-hand or second-hand, perfectly or imperfectly), abstract and exact, and then sought out the places and things which could make that abstraction somewhat more concrete in my mind; I have seen the concrete things, and what I might call the concrete realities of thought and feeling left behind by the Renaissance, and then tried to obtain from books some notion of the original shape and manner of wearing these relics, rags and tatters of a past civilization.

For Italy, beggared and maimed (by her own unthrift, by the rapacity of others, by the order of Fate) at the beginning of the sixteenth century, was never able to weave for herself a new, a modern civilization, as did the nations who had shattered her looms on which such woofs are made, and carried off her earnings with which such things may be bought; and she had, accordingly, to go through life in the old garments, still half mediaeval in shape, which had been fashioned for her during the Renaissance: apparel of the best that could then be made, beautiful and strong in many ways, so beautiful and strong indeed as to impose on people for a good long time, and make French, and Germans, and Spaniards, and English believe (comparing these brilliant tissues with the homespun they were providing for themselves) that it must be all brand new, and of the very latest fashion. But the garments left to Italy by those latest Middle Ages which we call Renaissance, were not eternal: wear and tear, new occupations, and the rough usage of other nations, rent them most sorely; their utter neglect by the long seventeenth century, their hasty patchings up (with bits of odd stuff and all manner of coloured thread and string, so that a harlequin's jacket could not look queerer) by the happy-go-lucky practicalness of the eighteenth century and the Revolution, reduced them thoroughly to rags; and with these rags of Renaissance civilization, Italy may still be seen to drape herself. Not perhaps in the great centres, where the garments of modern civilization, economical, unpicturesque, intended to be worn but a short time, have been imported from other countries; but yet in many places. Yes, you may still see those rags of the Renaissance as plainly as you see the tattered linen fluttering from the twisted iron hooks (made for the display of precious brocades and carpets on pageant days) which still remain in the stained whitewash, the seams of battered bricks of the solid old escutcheoned palaces; see them sometimes displayed like the worm-eaten squares of discoloured embroidery which the curiosity dealers take out of their musty oak presses; and sometimes dragging about mere useless and befouled odds and ends, like the torn shreds which lie among the decaying kitchen refuse, the broken tiles and plaster, the nameless filth and ooze which attracts the flies under every black archway, in every steep bricked lane descending precipitously between the high old houses. Old palaces, almost strongholds, and which are still inhabited by those too poor to pull them down and build some plastered bandbox instead; poems and prose tales written or told five hundred years ago, edited and re-edited by printers to whom there come no modern poems or prose tales worth editing instead; half-pagan, mediaeval priest lore, believed in by men and women who have not been given anything to believe instead; easy-going, all-permitting fifteenth century scepticism, not yet replaced by the scientific and socialistic disbelief which is puritanic and iconoclastic; sly and savage habits of vengeance still doing service among the lower classes instead of the orderly chicanery of modern justice;—these are the things, and a hundred others besides, concrete and spiritual, things too magnificent, too sordid, too irregular, too nauseous, too beautiful, and, above all, too utterly unpractical and old-fashioned for our times, which I call the rags of the Renaissance, and with which Italy still ekes out her scanty apparel of modern thoughts and things.

It is living among such things, turn by turn delighted by their beauty and offended by their foulness, that one acquires the habit of spending a part only of one's intellectual and moral life in the present, and the rest in the past. Impressions are not derived from description, and thoughts are not suggested by books. The juxtaposition of concrete objects invites the making of a theory as the jutting out of two branches invites the spinning of a spider's web. You find everywhere your facts without opening a book. The explanation which I have tried to give of the exact manner in which mediaeval art was influenced by the remains of antiquity, came like a flash during a rainy morning in the Pisan Campo Santo; the working out and testing of that explanation in its details was a matter of going from one church or gallery to the other, a reference or two to Vasari for some date or fact being the only necessary reading; and should any one at this moment ask me for substantiation of that theory, instead of opening books I would take that person to this Sienese Cathedral, and there bid him compare the griffins and arabesques, the delicate figure and foliage ornaments carved in wood and marble by the latter Middle Ages, with the griffins and arabesques, the boldly bossed horsemen, the exquisite fruit garlands of a certain antique altar stone which the builders of the church used as a base to a pillar, and which must have been a never-ceasing-object of study to every draughtsman and stoneworker in Siena.

Nor are such everywhere-scattered facts ready for working into theoretic shape, the most which Italy still affords to make the study of the Renaissance an almost involuntary habit. In certain places where only decay has altered things from what they were four centuries ago, Perugia, Orvieto, S. Gimignano, in the older quarters of Florence, Venice, and Verona, but nowhere I think so much as in this city of Siena (as purely mediaeval as the suits of rusted armour which its townsfolk patch up and bury themselves in during their August pageants), we are subjected to receive impressions of the past so startlingly lifelike as to get quite interwoven with our impressions of the present; and from that moment the past must share, in a measure, some of the everyday thoughts which we give to the present. In such a city as this, the sudden withdrawal, by sacristan or beggar-crone, of the curtain from before an altar-piece is many a time much more than the mere displaying of a picture: it is the sudden bringing us face to face with the real life of the Renaissance. We have ourselves, perhaps not an hour before, sauntered through squares and dawdled beneath porticos like those which we see filled with the red-robed and plumed citizens and patricians, the Jews and ruffians whom Pinturicchio's parti-coloured men-at-arms are dispersing to make room for the followers of AEneas Sylvius; or clambered up rough lanes, hedged in between oak woods and oliveyards, which we might almost swear were the very ones through which are winding Sodoma's cavalcades of gallantly dressed gentlemen, with their hawks and hounds, and negro jesters and apes and beautiful pages, cantering along on shortnecked little horses with silver bits and scarlet trappings, on the pretence of being the Kings from the East, carrying gold and myrrh to the infant Christ. It seems as if all were astoundingly real, as if, by some magic, we were actually going to mix in the life of the past. But it is in reality but a mere delusion, a deceit like those dioramas which we have all been into as children, and where, by paying your shilling, you were suddenly introduced into an oasis of the desert, or into a recent battle-field: things which surprised us, real palm trunks and Arabian water jars, or real fascines and cannon balls, lying about for us to touch; roads opening on all sides into this simulated desert, through this simulated battle-field. So also with these seeming realities of Renaissance life. We can touch the things scattered on the foreground, can handle the weapons, the furniture, the books and musical instruments; we can see, or think we see, most plainly the streets and paths, the faces and movements of that Renaissance world; but when we try to penetrate into it, we shall find that there is but a slip of solid ground beneath us, that all around us is but canvas and painted wall, perspectived and lit up by our fancy; and that when we try to approach to touch one of those seemingly so real men and women, our eyes find only daubs of paint, our hands meet only flat and chilly stucco. Turn we to our books, and seek therein the spell whereby to make this simulacrum real; and I think the plaster will still remain plaster, the stones still remain stone. Out of the Renaissance, out of the Middle Ages, we must never hope to evoke any spectres which can talk with us and we with them; nothing of the kind of those dim but familiar ghosts, often grotesque rather than heroic, who come to us from out of the books, the daubed portraits of times nearer our own, and sit opposite us, making us laugh, and also cry, with humdrum stories and humdrum woes so very like our own. No; such ghosts the Renaissance has not left behind it. From out of it there come to us no familiars. They are all faces—those which meet us in the pages of chronicles and in the frames of pictures: they are painted records of the past—we may understand them by scanning well their features, but they cannot understand, they cannot perceive us. Such, when all is said, are my impressions of the Renaissance. The moral atmosphere of those days is as impossible for us to breathe as would be the physical atmosphere of the moon: could we, for a moment, penetrate into it, we should die of asphyxia. Say what we may against both Protestant reformation and Catholic reaction, these two began to make an atmosphere (pure or foul) different from that of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, an atmosphere in which lived creatures like ourselves, into which ourselves might penetrate.

A crotchet this, perhaps, of my own; but it is my feeling, nevertheless. The Renaissance is, I say again, no period out of which we must try and evoke ghostly companions. Let us not waste our strength in seeking to do so; but be satisfied if it teaches us strange truths, scientific and practical; if its brilliant and solemn personalities, its bright and majestic art can give us pleasure; if its evils and wrongs, its inevitable degradation, can move us to pity and to indignation.

Siena, September, 1882.



THE SACRIFICE.

Ihr fuehrt ins Leben uns hinein; Ihr laesst den armen schuldig werden; Dann uebergiebt Ihr ihm der Pein, Denn alle Schuld raecht sich auf Erden.

At the end of the fifteenth century, Italy was the centre of European civilization: while the other nations were still plunged in a feudal barbarism which seems almost as far removed from all our sympathies as is the condition of some American or Polynesian savages, the Italians appear to us as possessing habits of thought, a mode of life, political, social, and literary institutions, not unlike those of to-day; as men whom we can thoroughly understand, whose ideas and aims, whose general views, resemble our own in that main, indefinable characteristic of being modern. They had shaken off the morbid monastic ways of feeling, they had thrown aside the crooked scholastic modes of thinking, they had trampled under foot the feudal institutions of the Middle Ages; no symbolical mists made them see things vague, strange, and distorted; their intellectual atmosphere was as clear as our own, and, if they saw less than we do, what they did see appeared to them in its true shape and proportions. Almost for the first time since the ruin of antique civilization, they could show well-organized, well-defined States; artistically disciplined armies; rationally devised laws; scientifically conducted agriculture; and widely extended, intelligently undertaken commerce. For the first time, also, they showed regularly built, healthy, and commodious towns; well-drained fields; and, more important than all, hundreds of miles of country owned not by feudal lords, but by citizens; cultivated not by serfs, but by free peasants. While in the rest of Europe men were floundering among the stagnant ideas and crumbling institutions of the effete Middle Ages, with but a vague half-consciousness of their own nature, the Italians walked calmly through a life as well arranged as their great towns, bold, inquisitive, and sceptical: modern administrators, modern soldiers, modern politicians, modern financiers, scholars, and thinkers. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, Italy seemed to have obtained the philosophic, literary, and artistic inheritance of Greece; the administrative, legal, and military inheritance of Rome, increased threefold by her own strong, original, essentially modern activities.

Yet, at that very time, and almost in proportion as all these advantages developed, the moral vitality of the Italians was rapidly decreasing, and a horrible moral gangrene beginning to spread: liberty was extinguished; public good faith seemed to be dying out; even private morality flickered ominously; every free State became subject to a despot, always unscrupulous and often infamous; warfare became a mere pretext for the rapine and extortions of mercenaries; diplomacy grew to be a mere swindle; the humanists inoculated literature with the filthiest refuse cast up by antiquity; nay, even civic and family ties were loosened; assassinations and fratricides began to abound, and all law, human and divine, to be set at defiance.

The nations who came into contact with the Italians opened their eyes with astonishment, with mingled admiration and terror; and we, people of the nineteenth century, are filled with the same feeling, only much stronger and more defined, as we watch the strange ebullition of the Renaissance, seething with good and evil, as we contemplate the enigmatic picture drawn by the puzzled historian, the picture of a people moving on towards civilization and towards chaos. Our first feeling is perplexity; our second feeling, anger; we do not at first know whether we ought to believe in such an anomaly; when once we do believe in it, we are indignant at its existence. We accuse these Italians of the Renaissance of having wilfully and shamefully perverted their own powers, of having wantonly corrupted their own civilization, of having cynically destroyed their own national existence, of having boldly called down the vengeance of Heaven; we lament and we accuse, naturally enough, but perhaps not justly.

Let us ask ourselves what the Renaissance really was, and what was its use; how it was produced, and how it necessarily ended. Let us try to understand its inherent nature, and the nature of what surrounded it, which, taken together, constitute its inevitable fate; let us seek the explanation of that strange, anomalous civilization, of that life in death, and death in life. The Renaissance, inasmuch as it is something which we can define, and not a mere vague name for a certain epoch, is not a period, but a condition; and if we apply the word to any period in particular, it is because in it that condition was peculiarly marked.

The Renaissance may be defined as being that phase in mediaeval history in which the double influence, feudal and ecclesiastic, which had gradually crushed the spontaneous life of the early mediaeval revival, and reduced all to a dead, sterile mass, was neutralized by the existence of democratic and secular communities; that phase in which, while there existed not yet any large nations, or any definite national feeling, there existed free towns and civic democracies. In this sense the Renaissance began to exist with the earliest mediaeval revival, but its peculiar mission could be carried out only when that general revival had come to an end. In this sense, also, the Renaissance did not exist all over Italy, and it existed outside Italy; but in Italy it was far more universal than elsewhere: there it was the rule, elsewhere the exception. There was no Renaissance in Savoy, nor in Naples, nor even in Rome; but north of the Alps there was Renaissance only in individual towns like Nuernberg, Augsburg, Bruges, Ghent, &c. In the North the Renaissance is dotted about amidst the stagnant Middle Ages; in Italy the Middle Ages intersect and interrupt the Renaissance here and there: the consequence was that in the North the Renaissance was crushed by the Middle Ages, whereas in Italy the Middle Ages were crushed by the Renaissance. Wherever there was a free town, without direct dependence on feudal or ecclesiastical institutions, governed by its own citizens, subsisting by its own industry and commerce; wherever the burghers built walls, slung chains across their streets, and raised their own cathedral; wherever, be it in Germany, in Flanders, or in England, there was a suspension of the deadly influences of the later Middle Ages; there, to greater or less extent, was the Renaissance.

But in the North this rudimentary Renaissance was never suffered to spread beyond the walls of single towns; it was hemmed in on all sides by feudal and ecclesiastical institutions, which restrained it within definite limits. The free towns of Germany were mostly dependent upon their bishops or archbishops; the more politically important cities of Flanders were under the suzerainty of a feudal family; they were subject to constant vexations from their suzerains, and their very existence was endangered by an attempt at independence; Liege was well-nigh destroyed by the supporters of her bishop, and Ghent was ruined by the revenge of the Duke of Burgundy. In these northern cities, therefore, the commonwealth was restricted to a sort of mercantile corporation—powerful within the town, but powerless without it; while outside the town reigned feudalism, with its robber nobles, free companies, and bands of outlawed peasants, from whom the merchant princes of Bruges and Nuernberg could scarcely protect their wares. To this political feebleness and narrowness corresponded an intellectual weakness and pettiness: the burghers were mere self-ruling tradesfolk; their interests did not extend far beyond their shops and their houses; literature was cramped in guilds, and reflection and imagination were confined within the narrow limits of town life. Everything was on a small scale; the Renaissance was moderate and inefficient, running no great dangers and achieving no great conquests. There was not enough action to produce reaction; and, while the Italian free States were ground down by foreign tyrannies, the German and Flemish cities insensibly merged into the vast empire of the House of Austria. While also the Italians of the sixteenth century rushed into moral and religious confusion, which only Jesuitism could discipline, the Germans of the same time quietly and comfortably adopted the Reformation.

The main cause of this difference, the main explanation of the fact that while in the North the Renaissance was cramped and enfeebled, in Italy it carried everything before it, lies in the circumstance that feudalism never took deep root in Italy. The conquered Latin race was enfeebled, it is true, but it was far more civilized than the conquering Teutonic peoples; the Barbarians came down, not on to a previous layer of Barbarians, but on to a deep layer of civilized men; the nomads of the North found in Italy a people weakened and corrupt, but with a long and inextinguishable habit of independence, of order, of industry. The country had been cultivated for centuries, the Barbarians could not turn it into a desert; the inhabitants had been organized as citizens for a thousand years, the Barbarians could not reorganize them feudally. The Barbarians who settled in Italy, especially the latest of them, the Lombards, were not only in a minority, but at an immense disadvantage. They founded kingdoms and dukedoms, where German was spoken and German laws were enacted; but whenever they tried to communicate with their Italian subjects, they found themselves forced to adopt the Latin language, manners, and laws; their domination became real only in proportion as it ceased to be Teutonic, and the Barbarian element was swallowed up by what remained of Roman civilization. Little by little these Lombard monarchies, without roots in the soil, and surrounded by hostile influences, died out, and there remained of the invaders only a certain number of nobles, those whose descendants were to bear the originally German names of Gherardesca, Rolandinghi, Soffredinghi, Lambertazzi, Guidi, and whose suzerains were the Bavarian and Swabian dukes and marquises of Tuscan. Meanwhile the Latin element revived; towns were rebuilt; a new Latin language was formed; and the burghers of these young communities gradually wrested franchises and privileges from the weak Teutonic rulers, who required Italian agriculture, industry, and commerce, without which they and their feudal retainers would have starved. Feudalism became speedily limited to the hilly country; the plain became the property of the cities which it surrounded; the nobles turned into mere robber chieftains, then into mercenary soldiers, and finally, as the towns gained importance, they gradually descended into the cities and begged admission into the guilds of artizans and tradesfolk. Thus they grew into citizens and Italians; but for a long time they kept hankering after feudalism, and looking towards the German emperors who claimed the inheritance of the Lombard kings. The struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines, between the German feudal element and the Latin civic one, ended in the complete annihilation of the former in all the north and centre of Italy. The nobles sank definitely into merchants, and those who persisted in keeping their castles were speedily ousted by the commissaries of the free towns. Such is the history of feudalism in Italy—the history of Barbarian minority engulphed in Latin civilization; of Teutonic counts and dukes turned into robber nobles, hunted into the hills by the townsfolk, and finally seeking admission into the guilds of wool-spinners or money-changers; and in it is the main explanation of the fact that the Italian republics, instead of remaining restricted within their city walls like those of the North, spread over whole provinces, and became real politically organized States. And in such States having a free political, military, and commercial life, uncramped by ecclesiastic or feudal influence, in them alone could the great revival of human intelligence and character thoroughly succeed. The commune was the only species of free government possible during the Middle Ages, the only form which could resist that utterly prostrating action of later mediaevalism. Feudalism stamped out civilization; monasticism warped it; in the open country it was burnt, trampled on, and uprooted; in the cloister it withered and shrank and perished; only within the walls of a city, protected from the storm without, and yet in the fresh atmosphere of life, could it develope, flourish, and bear fruit.

But this system of the free town contained in itself, as does every other institution, the seed of death—contained it in that expanding element which developes, ripens, rots, and finally dissolves all living organisms. A little town is formed in the midst of some feudal state, as Pisa, Florence, Lucca, and Bologna were formed in the dominions of the lords of Tuscany; the elders govern it; it is protected from without; it obtains privileges from its suzerain, always glad to oppose anything to his vassals, and who, unlike them, is too far removed in the feudal scale to injure the commune, which is under his supreme jurisdiction but not in his land. The town can thus develope regularly, governing itself, taxing itself, defending itself against encroaching neighbours; it gradually extends beyond its own walls, liberates its peasantry, extends its commerce, extinguishes feudalism, beats back its suzerain or buys privileges from him; in short, lives the vigorous young life of the early Italian commonwealths. But now the danger begins. The original system of government, where every head of a family is a power in the State, where every man helps to govern, without representation or substitution, could exist only as long as the commune remained small enough for the individual to be in proportion with it; as long as the State remained small enough for all its citizens to assemble in the market-place and vote, for every man to know every detail of the administration, every inch of the land. When the limits were extended, the burgher had to deal with towns and villages and men and things which he did not know, and which he probably hated, as every small community hated its neighbour; witness the horrible war, lasting centuries, between the two little towns of Dinant and Bouvines on the Meuse. Still more was this the case with an important city: the subjugated town was hated all the more for being a rival centre; the burghers of Florence, inspired only by their narrow town interest, treated Pisa according to its dictates, that is, tried to stamp it out. Thence the victorious communes came to be surrounded by conquered communes, which they dared not trust with any degree of power; and which, instead of being so many allies in case of invasion, were merely focuses of revolt, or at best inert impediments. Similarly, when the communes enlarged, and found it indispensable to delegate special men, who could attend to political matters more thoroughly than the other citizens, they were constantly falling under the tyranny of their captains of the people, of their gonfalonieri, and of all other heads of the State; or else, as in Florence, they were frightened by this continual danger into a system of perpetual interference with the executive, which was thus rendered well-nigh helpless. To this rule Venice forms the only exception, on account of her exceptional position and history: the earliest burghers turning into an intensely conservative and civic aristocracy, while everywhere else the feudal nobles turned into petty burghers, entirely subversive of communal interests. Venice had the yet greater safeguard of being protected both from her victorious enemies and her own victorious generals; who, however powerful on the mainland, could not seriously endanger the city itself, which thus remained a centre of reorganization in time of disaster. In this Venice was entirely unique, as she was unique in the duration of her institutions and independence. In the other towns of Italy, where there existed no naturally governing family or class, where every citizen had an equal share in government, and there existed no distinction save that of wealth and influence, there was a constant tendency to the illegitimate preponderance of every man or every family that rose above the average; and in a democratic, mercantile State, not a day passed without some such elevation. In a systematic, consolidated State, where the power is in the hands of a hereditary sovereign or aristocracy, a rich merchant remains a rich merchant, a victorious general remains a victorious general, an eloquent orator remains an eloquent orator; but in a shapeless, flunctuating democracy like those of Italy, the man who has influence over his fellow-citizens, whether by his money, his soldiers, or his eloquence, necessarily becomes the head of the State; everything is free and unoccupied, only a little superior strength is required to push into it. Cosimo de' Medici has many clients, many correspondents, many debtors; he can bind people by pecuniary obligations: he becomes prince. Sforza has a victorious army, whom he can either hound on to the city or restrain into a protection of its interests: he becomes prince. Savonarola has eloquence that makes the virtuous start up and the wicked tremble: he becomes prince. The history of the Italian commonwealths shows us but one thing: the people, the only legal possessors of political power, giving it over to their bankers (Medici, Pepoli); to their generals (Della Torre, Visconti, Scaligeri); to their monkish reformers (Fra Bussolaro, Fra Giovanni da Vincenza, Savonarola). Here then we have the occasional but inevitable usurpers, who either momentarily or finally disorganize the State. But this is not all. In such a State every family hate, every mercantile hostility, means a corresponding political division. The guilds are sure to be rivals, the larger wishing to exclude the smaller from government: the lower working classes (the ciompi of Florence) wish to upset the guilds completely; the once feudal nobles wish to get back military power; the burghers wish entirely to extirpate the feudal nobles; the older families wish to limit the Government, the newer prefer democracy and Caesarism. Add to this the complications of private interests, the personal jealousies and aversions, the private warfare, inevitable in a town where legal justice is not always to be had, while forcible retaliation is always within reach; and the result is constant party spirit, insults, scuffles, conspiracies: the feudal nobles build towers in the streets, the burghers pull them down; the lower artizans set fire to the warehouses of the guilds, the magistrates take part in the contest; blood is spilt, magistrates are beheaded or thrown out of windows, a foreign State is entreated to interfere, and a number of citizens are banished by the victorious party. This latter result creates a new and terrible danger for the State, in the persons of so many exiles, ready to do anything, to join with any one, in order to return to the city and drive out their enemies in their turn. The end of such constant upheavings is that the whole population is disarmed, no party suffering its rival to have any means of offence or defence. Moreover, as industry and commerce develope, the citizens become unwilling to fight, while on the other hand the invention of firearms, subverting the whole system of warfare, renders special military training more and more necessary. In the days of the Lombard League, of Campaldino and Montaperti, the citizens could fight, hand to hand, round their carroccio or banner, without much discipline being required; but when it came to fortifying towns against cannon, to drilling bodies of heavily armed cavalry, acting by the mere dexterity of their movements; when war became a science and an art, then the citizen had necessarily to be left out, and adventurers and poor nobles had to form armies of mercenaries, making warfare their sole profession. This system of mercenary troops, so bitterly inveighed against by Machiavelli (who, of course, entirely overlooked its inevitable origin and viewed it as a voluntarily incurred pest), added yet another and, perhaps, the very worst danger to civil liberty. It gave enormous, irresistible power to adventurers unscrupulous by nature and lawless by education, the sole object of whose career it became to obtain possession of States; by no means a difficult enterprise, considering that they and their fellows were the sole possessors of military force in the country. At the same time, this system of mercenaries perfected the condition of utter defencelessness in which the gradual subjection of rival cities, the violent party spirit, and the general disarming of the burghers, had placed the great Italian cities. For these troops, being wholly indifferent as to the cause for which they were fighting, turned war into the merest game of dodges—half-a-dozen men being killed at a great battle like that of Anghiari—and they at the same time protracted campaigns beyond every limit, without any decisive action taking place. The result of all these inevitable causes of ruin, was that most of the commonwealths fell into the hands of despots; while those that did not were paralyzed by interior factions, by a number of rebellious subject towns, and by generals who, even if they did not absolutely betray their employers, never efficiently served them.

Such a condition of civic disorder lasted throughout the Middle Ages, until the end of the fifteenth century, without any further evils arising from it. The Italians made endless wars with each other, conquered each other, changed their government without end, fell into the power of tyrants; but throughout these changes their civilization developed unimpeded; because, although one of the centres of national life might be momentarily crushed, the others remained in activity, and infused vitality even into the feeble one, which would otherwise have perished. All these ups and downs seemed but to stir the life in the country: and no vital danger appeared to threaten it; nor did any, so long as the surrounding countries—France, Germany, and Spain—remained mere vast feudal nebulae, formless, weightless, immovable. The Italians feared nothing from them; they would call down the King of France or the Emperor of Germany without a moment's hesitation, because they knew that the king could not bring France, nor the emperor bring Germany, but only a few miserable, hungry retainers with him; but Florence would watch the growth of the petty State of the Scaligers, and Venice look with terror at the Duke of Milan, because they knew that there there was concentrated life, and an organization which could be wielded as' perfectly as a sword by the head of the State. In the last decade of the fifteenth century the Italians called in the French to put down their private enemies: Lodovico of Milan called down Charles VIII. to rid him of his nephew and of the Venetians; the Venetians to rid them of Lodovico: the Medici to establish them firmly in Florence; the party of freedom to drive out the Medici. Each State intended to use the French to serve their purpose, and then to send back Charles VIII. with a little money and a great deal of derision, as they had done with kings and emperors of earlier days. But Italian politicians suddenly discovered that they had made a fatal mistake; that they had reckoned in ignorance, and that instead of an army they had called down a nation: for during the interval since their last appeal to foreign interference, that great movement had taken place which had consolidated the heterogeneous feudal nebulae into homogeneous and compact kingdoms.

Single small States, relying upon mercenary troops, could not for a moment resist the shock of such an agglomeration of soldiery as that of the French, and of their successors the Spaniards and Germans. Sismondi asks indignantly, Why did the Italians not form a federation as soon as the strangers appeared? He might as well ask, Why did the commonwealths not turn into a modern monarchy? The habit of security from abroad and of jealousy within; the essential nature of a number of rival trading centres, made such a thing not only impossible of execution, but for a while impossible of conception; confederacies had become possible only when Burlamacchi was decapitated by the imperialists; popular resistance had become a reality only when Feruccio was massacred by the Spaniards; a change of national institutions was feasible only when all national institutions had been destroyed; when the Italians, having recognized the irresistible force of their adversaries, had ceased to form independent States and larger and smaller guilds; when all the characteristics of Italian civilization had been destroyed; when, in short, it was too late to do anything save theorize with Machiavelli and Guicciardini as to what ought to have been done. We must not hastily accuse the volition of the Italians of the Renaissance; they may have been egotistic and timid, but had they been (as some most certainly were) heroic and self-sacrificing to the utmost degree, they could not have averted the catastrophe. The nature of their civilization prevented not only their averting the peril, but even their conceiving its existence; the very nature of their political forms necessitated such a dissolution of them. The commune grows from within; it is a little speck which gradually extends its circumference, and the further this may be from the original centre, the less do its parts coalesce. The modern monarchy grows from external pressure, and towards the centre; it is a huge mass consolidating into a hard, distinct shape. Thence it follows that the more the commonwealth developes, the weaker it grows, because its tendency is to spread and fall to pieces; whereas the more the monarchy developes, the stronger it becomes, because it fills up towards the centre, and becomes more vigorously knit together. The city ceases to be a city when extended over hundreds of miles; the nation becomes all the more a nation for being compressed towards a central point.

The entire political collapse of Italy in the sixteenth century was not only inevitable, from the essential nature of the civilization of the Renaissance, but it was also indispensable in order that this civilization might fulfil its mission. Civilization cannot spread so long as it is contained within a national mould, and only a vanquished nation can civilize its victors. The Greece of Pericles could not Hellenize Rome, but the Greece of the weak successors of Alexander could; the Rome of Caesar did not Romanize the Teutonic races as did the Rome of Theodosius; no amount of colonizing among the vanquished can ever produce the effect of a victorious army, of a whole nation, suddenly finding itself in the midst of the superior civilization of a conquered people. Michelet may well call the campaign of Charles VIII. the discovery of Italy. His imaginative mind seized at once the vast importance of this descent of the French into Italy, which other historians have been too prone to view in the same light as any other invasion. It is from this moment that dates the modernisation, if we may so express ourselves, of the North. The barbarous soldiers of Gaston de Foix, of Frundsberg, and of Gonsalvo, were the unconscious bearers of the seeds of the ages of Elizabeth, of Louis XIV., and of Goethe. These stupid and rapacious ruffians, while they wantonly destroyed the works of Italian civilization, rendered possible the existence of a Montaigne, a Shakespeare, and a Cervantes.

Italy was as a vast store-house, sheltered from all the dangers of mediaeval destruction; in which, while all other nations were blindly and fiercely working out their national existence, the inheritance of Antiquity and the produce of the earliest modern civilization had been peaceably garnered up. When the store-house was full, its gates had to be torn open and its riches plundered and disseminated by the intellectual starvelings of the North; thus only could the rest of mankind feed on these riches, regain and develope their mental life.

What were those intellectual riches of the Renaissance? What was that strong intellectual food which revived the energies and enriched the blood of the Barbarians of the sixteenth century? The Renaissance possessed the germs of every modern thing, and much that was far more than a mere germ: it possessed the habit of equality before the law, of civic organization, of industry and commerce developed to immense and superb proportions. It possessed science, literature, and art; above all, that which at once produced and was produced by all these—thorough perception of what exists, thorough consciousness of our own freedom and powers: self-cognizance. In Italy there was intellectual light, enabling men to see and judge all around them, enabling them to act wittingly and deliberately. In this lies the immense greatness of the Renaissance; to this are due all its achievements in literature and science, and, above all, in art: that, for the first time since the dissolution of antique civilization, men were free agents, both in thought and in deed; that there was an end of that palsying slavery of the Middle Ages, slavery of body and of mind, slavery to stultified ideas and effete forms, which made men endure every degree of evil and believe every degree of absurdity. For the first time since Antiquity, man walks free of all political and intellectual trammels, erect, conscious of his own thoughts, master of his own actions; ready to seek for truth across the ocean like Columbus, or across the heavens like Copernicus; to seek it in criticism and analysis like Machiavelli or Guicciardini, boldly to reproduce it in its highest, widest sense like Michael Angelo and Raphael.

The men of the Renaissance had to pay a heavy price for this intellectual freedom and self-cognizance which they not only enjoyed themselves, but transmitted to the rest of the world; the price was the loss of all moral standard, of all fixed public feeling. They had thrown aside all accepted rules and criteria, they had cast away all faith in traditional institutions, they had destroyed, and could not yet rebuild. In their instinctive and universal disbelief in all that had been taught them, they lost all respect for opinion, for rule, for what had been called right and wrong. Could it be otherwise? Had they not discovered that what had been called right had often been unnatural, and what had been called wrong often natural? Moral teachings, remonstrances, and judgments belonged to that dogmatism from which they had broken loose; to those schools and churches where the foolish and the unnatural had been taught and worshipped; to those priests and monks who themselves most shamefully violated their teachings. To profess morality was to be a hypocrite; to reprobate others was to be narrow-minded. There was so much error mixed up with truth that truth had to share the discredit of error; so many innocent things had been denounced as sins that sinful ones at length ceased to be reprobated; people had so often found themselves sympathizing with supposed criminals, that they soon lost their horror of real ones. Damnation came to be disassociated from moral indignation: it was the retribution, not of the unnatural and immoral, but of the unlawful; and unlawful with respect to a law made without reference to reason and instinct. As reason and instinct were thus set at defiance, but could not be silenced, the law was soon acquiesced in without being morally supported; thus, little by little, moral feeling became warped. This was already the case in Dante's day. Farinata is condemned to the most horrible punishment, which to Dante seems just, because in accordance with an accepted code; yet Dante cannot but admire him and cannot really hate him, for there is nothing in him to hate; he is a criminal and yet respected—fatal combination! Dante punishes Francesca, Pier delle Vigne, and Brunetto Latini, but he shows no personal horror of them; in the one case his moral instinct refrains from censuring the comparatively innocent, in the other it has ceased to revolt from the really infamous. Where Dante does feel real indignation, is most often in cases unprovided for by the religious codes, as with those low, grovelling, timid natures (the very same with whom Machiavelli, the admirer of great villains, fairly loses patience), those creatures whom Dante personally despises, whom he punishes with filthy devices of his own, whom he passes by with words such as he never addresses to Semiramis, Brutus, or Capaneus. This toleration of vice, while acquiescing in its legal punishment, increased in proportion to the development of individual judgment, and did not cease till all the theories of the lawful and unlawful had been so completely demolished as to permit of their being rebuilt on solid bases.

This work of demolition had not yet ceased in the beginning of the sixteenth century; and the moral confusion due to it was increased by various causes dependent on political and other circumstances. The despots in whose hands it was the inevitable fate of the various commonwealths to fall, were by their very position immoral in all their dealings: violent, fraudulent, suspicious, and, from their life of constant unnatural tension of the feelings, prone to every species of depravity; while, on the other hand, in the feudal parts of Italy—which had merely received a superficial Renaissance varnish imported from other places with painters and humanists—in Naples, Rome, and the greater part of Umbria and the Marches, the upper classes had got into that monstrous condition which seems to have been the inevitable final product of feudalism, and which, while it gave France her Armagnacs, her Foix, and her Retz, gave Italy their counterparts in her hideously depraved princelets, the Malatestas, Varanos, Vitelli, and Baglioni. Both these classes of men, despots and feudal nobles, had a wide field for their ambition among the necessarily dissolved civic institutions; and their easy success contributed to confirm the general tendency of the day to say with Commines, "Qui a le succes a l'honneur," and to confound these two words and ideas. Nor was this yet all: the men of the Renaissance discovered the antique world, and in their wild, blind enthusiasm, in their ardent, insatiable thirst for its literature, swallowed it eagerly, dregs and all, till they were drunk and poisoned.

These are the main causes of the immorality of the Renaissance: first, the general disbelief in all accepted doctrines, due to the falseness and unnaturalness of those hitherto prevalent; secondly, the success of unscrupulous talent in a condition of political disorder; thirdly, the wholesale and unjudging enthusiasm for all that remained of Antiquity, good or bad. These three great causes, united in a general intellectual ebullition, are the explanation of the worst feature of the Renaissance: not the wickedness of numberless single individuals, but the universal toleration of it by the people at large. Men like Sigismondo Malatesta, Sixtus IV., Alexander VI., and Caesar Borgia might be passed over as exceptions, as monstrous aberrations which cannot affect our judgment of their time and nation; but the general indifference towards their vices shown by their contemporaries and countrymen is a conclusive and terrible proof of the moral chaos of the Renaissance. It is just the presence of so much instinctive simplicity and virtue, of childlike devotion to great objects, of patriarchal simplicity of manners, of all that is loveable in the books of men like Vespasiano da Bisticci and Leon Battista Albert; of so much that seems like the realization of the idyllic home and merchant life of Schiller's "Song of the Bell," by the side of all the hideous lawlessness and vice of the despots and humanists; that makes the Renaissance so drearily painful a spectacle. The presence of the good does not console us for that of the evil, because it neither mitigates nor even shrinks from it; we merely lose our pleasure in the good nature and simplicity of AEneas Sylvius when we see his cool admiration for a man of fraud and violence like Sforza; we begin to mistrust the purity and integrity of the upright Guarino da Verona when we hear his lenient judgment of the infamous Beccadelli; we require of the virtuous that they should not only be incapable of vice, but abhorrent of it; and this is what even the best men of the Renaissance rarely were.

Such a state of moral chaos there has constantly been when an old effete mode of thought required to be destroyed. Such work is always attended, in greater or less degree, by this subversion of all recognized authority, this indifference to evil, this bold tasting of the forbidden. In the eighteenth century France plays the same part that was played in the fifteenth by Italy: again we meet the rebellion against all that has been consecrated by time and belief, the toleration of evil, the praise of the abominable, in the midst of the search for the good. These two have been the great fever epochs of modern history; fever necessary for a subsequent steady growth. Both gave back truth to man, and man to nature, at the expense of temporary moral uncertainty and ruthless destruction. The Renaissance reinstated the individual in his human dignity, as a thinking, feeling, and acting being; the Eighteenth Century reconstructed society as a homogeneous free existence; both at the expense of individual degradation and social disorder. Both were moments of ebullition in which horrible things rose to the surface, but after which what remained was purer than it had ever been before.

This is no plea for the immorality of the Renaissance: evil is none the less evil for being inevitable and necessary; but it is nevertheless well that we should understand its necessity. It certainly is a terrible admission, but one which must be made, that evil is part of the mechanism for producing good; and had the arrangement of the universe been entrusted to us, benevolent and equitable people of an enlightened age, there would doubtless have been invented some system of evolution and progression differing from the one which includes such machinery as hurricanes and pestilences, carnage and misery, superstition and license, Renaissance and Eighteenth Century. But unfortunately Nature was organized in a less charitable and intelligent fashion; and, among other evils required for the final attainment of good, we find that of whole generations of men being condemned to moral uncertainty and error in order that other generations may enjoy knowledge peacefully and guiltlessly. Let us remember this, and let us be more generous towards the men who were wicked that we might be enlightened. Above all, let us bear in mind, in judging the Renaissance, that the sacrifice which it represents could be useful only in so far as it was complete and irretrievable. Let us remember that the communal system of government, on whose development the Renaissance mainly depended, inevitably perished in proportion as it developed; that the absolute subjugation of Italy by Barbarous nations was requisite to the dissemination of the civilization thus obtained; that the Italians were politically annihilated before they had time to recover a normal condition, and were given up crushed and broken spirited, to be taught righteousness by Spaniards and Jesuits. That, in short, while the morality of the Italians was sacrificed to obtain the knowledge on which modern society depends, the political existence of Italy was sacrificed to the diffusion of that knowledge, and that the nation was not only doomed to immorality, but doomed also to the inability to reform. Perhaps, if we think of all this, and weigh the tremendous sacrifice to which we owe our present intellectual advantages, we may still feel sad, but sad rather with remorse than with indignation, in contemplating the condition of Italy in the first years of the sixteenth century; in looking down from our calm, safe, scientific position, on the murder of the Italian Renaissance: great and noble at heart, cut off pitilessly at its prime; denied even an hour to repent and amend; hurried off before the tribunal of posterity, suddenly, unexpectedly, and still bearing its weight of unexpiated, unrecognized guilt.



THE ITALY OF THE ELIZABETHAN DRAMATISTS.

I.

The chroniclers of the last years of the fifteenth century have recorded how the soldiery of Charles VIII. of France amused the tedious leisure of their sullen and suspicious occupation of Rome, by erecting in the camp a stage of planks, and performing thereon a rude mystery-play. The play thus improvised by a handful of troopers before this motley invading army: before the feudal cavalry of Burgundy, strange steel monsters, half bird, half reptile, with steel beaked and winged helmets and claw-like steel shoes, and jointed steel corselet and rustling steel mail coat; before the infantry of Gascony, rapid and rapacious with their tattered doublets and rag-bound feet; before the over-fed, immensely plumed, and slashed and furbelowed giants of Switzerland, and the starved, half-naked savages of Brittany and the Marches—before this multifaced, many-speeched army, gathered from the rich cities of the North and the devastated fields of the South, and the wilds and rocks of the West and the East, alike in nothing save in its wonder and dread and delight and horror at this strange invaded Italy—the play performed for the entertainment of this encamped army was no ordinary play. No clerkly allegorical morality; no mouthing and capering market-place farce; no history of Joseph and his brethren, of the birth of the Saviour, or of the temptations of St. Anthony. It was the half-allegorical, half-dramatic representation of the reigning Borgia pope and his children; it was the rude and hesitating moulding into dramatic shape of those terrible rumours of simony and poison, of lust and of violence, of mysterious death and abominable love, which had met the invaders as they had first set their feet in Italy; which had become louder and clearer with every onward step through the peninsula, and now circulated around them, with frightful distinctness, in the very capital of Christ's vicar on earth. This blundering mystery-play of the French troopers is the earliest imaginative fruit of that first terrified and fascinated glimpse of the men of the barbarous North at the strange Italy of the Renaissance; it is the first manifestation of that strong tragic impulse due to the sudden sight, by rude and imaginative young nations, of the splendid and triumphant wickedness of Italy.

The French saw, wondered, shuddered, and played upon their camp stage the tragedy of the Borgias. But the French remained in Italy, became familiar with its ways, and soon merely shrugged their shoulders and smiled where they had once stared in horror. They served under the flags of Sforzas, Borgias, Baglionis, and Vitellis, by the side of the bravos of Naples and Umbria; they saw their princes wed the daughters of evil-famed Italian sovereigns, and their princes' children, their own Valois and Guises, develope into puny, ambiguous, and ominous Medicis and Gonzagas, surrounded by Italian minions and poison distillers, and buffoons and money-lenders. The French of the sixteenth century, during their long Neapolitan and Lombard wars and negotiations, and time to learn all that Italy could teach; to become refined, subtle, indifferent, and cynical: bastard Italians, with the bastard Italian art of Goujon and Philibert Delorme, and the bastard Italian poetry of Du Bellay and Ronsard. The French of the sixteenth century therefore translated Machiavel and Ariosto and Bandello; but they never again attempted such another play as that which they had improvised while listening to the tales of Alexander VI. and Caesar and Lucrezia, in their camp in the meadows behind Sant' Angelo. The Spaniards then came to Italy, and the Germans: strong mediaeval nations, like the French, with the creative power of the Middle Ages still in them, refreshed by the long rest of the dull fifteenth century. But Spaniards and Germans came as mere greedy and besotten and savage mercenaries: the scum of their countries, careless of Italian sights and deeds, thinking only of torturing for hidden treasure, or swilling southern wines; and they returned to Spain and to Germany, to persecutions of Moriscos and plundering of abbeys, as savage and as dull as they had arrived. A smattering of Italian literature, art, and manners was carried back to Spain and Germany by Spanish and German princes and governors, to be transmitted to a few courtiers and humanists; but the imagination of the lower classes of Spain and of Germany, absorbed in the Quixotic Catholicism of Loyola and the biblical contemplation of Luther, never came into fertilizing contact with the decaying Italy of the Renaissance.

The mystery-play of the soldiers of Charles VIII. seemed destined to remain an isolated and abortive attempt. But it was not so. The invasions had exhausted themselves; the political organization of Italy was definitely broken up; its material wealth was exhausted; the French, Germans, and Spaniards had come and gone, and returned and gone again; they had left nothing to annex or to pillage; when, about the middle of the sixteenth century, the country began to be overrun by a new horde of barbarians: the English. The English came neither as invaders nor as marauders; they were peaceable students and rich noblemen, who, so far from trying to extort money or annex territory, rather profited the ruined Italians by the work which they did and the money which they squandered. Yet these quiet and profitable travellers, before whom the Italians might safely display their remaining wealth, were in reality as covetous of the possessions of Italy and as resolute to return home enriched as any tattered Gascon men-at-arms or gluttonous Swiss or grinding Spaniards. They were, one and all, consciously and unconsciously, dragged to Italy by the irresistible instinct that Italy possessed that which they required; by the greed of intellectual gain. That which they thus instinctively knew that Italy possessed, that which they must obtain, was a mode of thought, a habit of form; philosophy, art, civilization: all the materials for intellectual manipulation. For, in the sixteenth century, on awakening from its long evil sleep, haunted by the nightmare of civil war, of the fifteenth century, the English mind had started up in the vigour of well-nigh mature youth, fed up and rested by the long inactivity in which it had slept through its period of assimilation and growth. It had awakened at the first touch of foreign influence, and had grown with every fresh contact with the outer world: with the first glance at Plato and Xenophon suddenly opened by Erasmus and Colet, at the Bible suddenly opened by Cranmer; it had grown with its sob of indignation at the sight of the burning faggots surrounding the martyrs, with its joyous heart-throbs at the sight of the seas and islands of the New World; it had grown with the sudden passionate strain of every nerve and every muscle when the galleys of Philip had been sighted in the Channel. And when it had paused, taken breath, and looked calmly around it, after the tumult of all these sights and sounds and actions, the English mind, in the time of Elizabeth, had found itself of a sudden full-grown and blossomed out into superb manhood, with burning activities and indefatigable powers. But it had found itself without materials for work. Of the scholastic philosophy and the chivalric poetry of the Middle Ages there remained but little that could be utilized: the few bungled formulae, the few half-obsolete rhymes still remaining, were as unintelligible, in their spirit of feudalism and monasticism and mysticism, as were the Angevin English and the monkish Latin in which they were written to these men of the sixteenth century. All the intellectual wealth of England remained to be created; but it could not be created out of nothing. Spenser, Shakespeare, and Bacon could not be produced out of the half-effete and scattered fragments of Chaucer, of Scotus, and of Wycliffe. The materials on which English genius was to work must be sought abroad, and abroad they could be found only in Italy. For in the demolished Italy of the sixteenth century lay the whole intellectual wealth of the world: the great legacy of Antiquity, the great work of the Middle Ages had been stored up, and had been increased threefold, and sorted and classified by the Renaissance; and now that the national edifice had been dismantled and dilapidated, and the national activity was languishing, it all lay in confusion, awaiting only the hand of those who would carry it away and use it once more. To Italy therefore Englishmen of thought and fancy were dragged by an impulse of adventure and greed as irresistible as that which dragged to Antwerp and the Hanse ports, to India and America, the seekers for gold and for soil. To Italy they flocked and through Italy they rambled, prying greedily into each cranny and mound of the half-broken civilization, upturning with avid curiosity all the rubbish and filth; seeking with aching eyes and itching fingers for the precious fragments of intellectual splendour; lingering with fascinated glance over the broken remnants and deep, mysterious gulfs of a crumbling and devastated civilization. And then, impatient of their intoxicating and tantalizing search, suddenly grown desperate, they clutched and stored away everything, and returned home tattered, soiled, bedecked with gold and with tinsel, laden with an immense uncouth burden of jewels, and broken wealth, and refuse and ordure, with pseudo-antique philosophy, with half-mediaeval Dantesque and Petrarchesque poetry, with Renaissance science, with humanistic pedantry and obscenity, with euphuistic conceits and casuistic quibble, with art, politics, metaphysics—civilization embedded in all manner of rubbish and abomination, soiled with all manner of ominous stains. All this did they carry home and throw helter-skelter into the new-kindled fire of English intellectual life, mingling with it many a humble-seeming Northern alloy; cleaning and compounding, casting into shapes, mediaeval and English, this strange Corinthian brass made of all these heterogeneous remnants, classical, Italian, Saxon, and Christian. A strange Corinthian brass indeed; and as various in tint, in weight, and in tone, in manifold varieties of mixture, as were the moulds into which it was cast: the white and delicate silver settling down in the gracious poetic moulds of Sidney and Spenser; the glittering gold, which can buy and increase, in the splendid, heavy mould of Bacon's prose; and the copper, the iron, the silver and gold in wondrous mixture, with wondrous iridescences of colour and wondrous scale of tone, all poured into the manifold moulds, fantastic and beautiful and grand, of Shakespeare. And as long as all this dross and ore and filth brought from the ruins of Italy was thus mingling in the heat of English genius, while it was yet but imperfectly fused, while already its purest and best compounded portion was being poured in Shakespeare's mould, and when already there remained only a seething residue; as long as there remained aught of the glowing fire and the molten mass, some of it all, of the pure metal bubbling up, of the scum frothing round, nay, of the very used-up dregs, was ever and anon being ladled out—gold, dross, filth, all indiscriminately—and cast into shapes severe, graceful, or uncouth. And this somewhat, thus pilfered from what was to make, or was making, or had made, the works of Shakespeare; this base and noble, still unfused or already exhausted alloy, became the strange heterogeneous works of the Elizabethan dramatists: of Webster, of Ford, of Tourneur, of Ben Jonson, of Beaumont and Fletcher, and of their minor brethren; from the splendid ore of Marlowe, only half molten and half freed from dross, down to the shining metal, smooth and silvery as only tinsel can be, of Massinger.

1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse