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Siena Early and Late

I


Florence being oppressively hot and delivered over to the
mosquitoes, the occasion seemed to favour that visit to Siena
which I had more than once planned and missed. I arrived late in
the evening, by the light of a magnificent moon, and while a
couple of benignantly-mumbling old crones were making up my bed
at the inn strolled forth in quest of a first impression. Five
minutes brought me to where I might gather it unhindered as it
bloomed in the white moonshine. The great Piazza of Siena is
famous, and though in this day of multiplied photographs and
blunted surprises and profaned revelations none of the world's
wonders can pretend, like Wordsworth's phantom of delight, really
to "startle and waylay," yet as I stepped upon the waiting scene
from under a dark archway I was conscious of no loss of the edge
of a precious presented sensibility. The waiting scene, as I have
called it, was in the shape of a shallow horse-shoe--as the
untravelled reader who has turned over his travelled friends'
portfolios will respectfully remember; or, better, of a bow in
which the high wide face of the Palazzo Pubblico forms the cord
and everything else the arc. It was void of any human presence
that could figure to me the current year; so that, the moonshine
assisting, I had half-an-hour's infinite vision of mediæval
Italy. The Piazza being built on the side of a hill--or rather,
as I believe science affirms, in the cup of a volcanic crater--
the vast pavement converges downwards in slanting radiations of
stone, the spokes of a great wheel, to a point directly before
the Palazzo, which may mark the hub, though it is nothing more
ornamental than the mouth of a drain. The great monument stands
on the lower side and might seem, in spite of its goodly mass and
its embattled cornice, to be rather defiantly out-countenanced by
vast private constructions occupying the opposite eminence. This
might be, without the extraordinary dignity of the architectural
gesture with which the huge high-shouldered pile asserts itself.

On the firm edge of the palace, from bracketed base to grey-
capped summit against the sky, where grows a tall slim tower
which soars and soars till it has given notice of the city's
greatness over the blue mountains that mark the horizon. It rises
as slender and straight as a pennoned lance planted on the steel-
shod toe of a mounted knight, and keeps all to itself in the blue
air, far above the changing fashions of the market, the proud
consciousness or rare arrogance once built into it. This
beautiful tower, the finest thing in Siena and, in its rigid
fashion, as permanently fine thus as a really handsome nose on a
face of no matter what accumulated age, figures there still as a
Declaration of Independence beside which such an affair as ours,
thrown off at Philadelphia, appears to have scarce done more than
helplessly give way to time. Our Independence has become a
dependence on a thousand such dreadful things as the incorrupt
declaration of Siena strikes us as looking for ever straight over
the level of. As it stood silvered by the moonlight, while my
greeting lasted, it seemed to speak, all as from soul to soul,
very much indeed as some ancient worthy of a lower order,
buttonholing one on the coveted chance and at the quiet hour,
might have done, of a state of things long and vulgarly
superseded, but to the pride and power, the once prodigious
vitality, of which who could expect any one effect to testify
more incomparably, more indestructibly, quite, as it were, more
immortally? The gigantic houses enclosing the rest of the Piazza
took up the tale and mingled with it their burden. "We are very
old and a trifle weary, but we were built strong and piled high,
and we shall last for many an age. The present is cold and
heedless, but we keep ourselves in heart by brooding over our
store of memories and traditions. We are haunted houses in every
creaking timber and aching stone." Such were the gossiping
connections I established with Siena before I went to bed.

Since that night I have had a week's daylight knowledge of the
surface of the subject at least, and don't know how I can better
present it than simply as another and a vivider page of the
lesson that the ever-hungry artist has only to trust old
Italy for her to feed him at every single step from her hand--and
if not with one sort of sweetly-stale grain from that wondrous
mill of history which during so many ages ground finer than any
other on earth, why then always with something else. Siena has at
any rate "preserved appearances"--kept the greatest number of
them, that is, unaltered for the eye--about as consistently as
one can imagine the thing done. Other places perhaps may treat
you to as drowsy an odour of antiquity, but few exhale it from so
large an area. Lying massed within her walls on a dozen clustered
hill-tops, she shows you at every turn in how much greater a way
she once lived; and if so much of the grand manner is extinct,
the receptacle of the ashes still solidly rounds itself. This
heavy general stress of all her emphasis on the past is what she
constantly keeps in your eyes and your ears, and if you be but a
casual observer and admirer the generalised response is mainly
what you give her. The casual observer, however beguiled, is
mostly not very learned, not over-equipped in advance with data;
he hasn't specialised, his notions are necessarily vague, the
chords of his imagination, for all his good-will, are inevitably
muffled and weak. But such as it is, his received, his welcome
impression serves his turn so far as the life of sensibility
goes, and reminds him from time to time that even the lore of
German doctors is but the shadow of satisfied curiosity. I have
been living at the inn, walking about the streets, sitting in the
Piazza; these are the simple terms of my experience. But streets
and inns in Italy are the vehicles of half one's knowledge; if
one has no fancy for their lessons one may burn one's note-book.
In Siena everything is Sienese. The inn has an English sign over
the door--a little battered plate with a rusty representation of
the lion and the unicorn; but advance hopefully into the mouldy
stone alley which serves as vestibule and you will find local
colour enough. The landlord, I was told, had been servant in an
English family, and I was curious to see how he met the probable
argument of the casual Anglo-Saxon after the latter's first
twelve hours in his establishment. As he failed to appear I asked
the waiter if he, weren't at home. "Oh," said the latter, "he's a
piccolo grasso vecchiotto who doesn't like to move." I'm
afraid this little fat old man has simply a bad conscience. It's
no small burden for one who likes the Italians--as who doesn't,
under this restriction?--to have so much indifference even to
rudimentary purifying processes to dispose of. What is the real
philosophy of dirty habits, and are foul surfaces merely
superficial? If unclean manners have in truth the moral meaning
which I suspect in them we must love Italy better than
consistency. This a number of us are prepared to do, but while we
are making the sacrifice it is as well we should be aware.

We may plead moreover for these impecunious heirs of the past
that even if it were easy to be clean in the midst of their
mouldering heritage it would be difficult to appear so. At the
risk of seeming to flaunt the silly superstition of restless
renovation for the sake of renovation, which is but the challenge
of the infinitely precious principle of duration, one is still
moved to say that the prime result of one's contemplative strolls
in the dusky alleys of such a place is an ineffable sense of
disrepair. Everything is cracking, peeling, fading, crumbling,
rotting. No young Sienese eyes rest upon anything youthful; they
open into a world battered and befouled with long use. Everything
has passed its meridian except the brilliant façade of the
cathedral, which is being diligently retouched and restored, and
a few private palaces whose broad fronts seem to have been lately
furbished and polished. Siena was long ago mellowed to the
pictorial tone; the operation of time is now to deposit
shabbiness upon shabbiness. But it's for the most part a patient,
sturdy, sympathetic shabbiness, which soothes rather than
irritates the nerves, and has in many cases doubtless as long a
career to run as most of our pert and shallow freshnesses. It
projects at all events a deeper shadow into the constant twilight
of the narrow streets--that vague historic dusk, as I may call
it, in which one walks and wonders. These streets are hardly more
than sinuous flagged alleys, into which the huge black houses,
between their almost meeting cornices, suffer a meagre light to
filter down over rough-hewn stone, past windows often of
graceful Gothic form, and great pendent iron rings and twisted
sockets for torches. Scattered over their many-headed hill, they
suffer the roadway often to incline to the perpendicular,
becoming so impracticable for vehicles that the sound of wheels
is only a trifle less anomalous than it would be in Venice. But
all day long there comes up to my window an incessant shuffling
of feet and clangour of voices. The weather is very warm for the
season, all the world is out of doors, and the Tuscan tongue
(which in Siena is reputed to have a classic purity) wags in
every imaginable key. It doesn't rest even at night, and I am
often an uninvited guest at concerts and conversazioni at
two o'clock in the morning. The concerts are sometimes charming.
I not only don't curse my wakefulness, but go to my window to
listen. Three men come carolling by, trolling and quavering with
voices of delightful sweetness, or a lonely troubadour in his
shirt-sleeves draws such artful love-notes from his clear, fresh
tenor, that I seem for the moment to be behind the scenes at the
opera, watching some Rubini or Mario go "on" and waiting for the
round of applause. In the intervals a couple of friends or
enemies stop--Italians always make their points in conversation
by pulling up, letting you walk on a few paces, to turn and find
them standing with finger on nose and engaging your interrogative
eye--they pause, by a happy instinct, directly under my window,
and dispute their point or tell their story or make their
confidence. One scarce is sure which it may be; everything has
such an explosive promptness, such a redundancy of inflection and
action. But everything for that matter takes on such dramatic
life as our lame colloquies never know--so that almost any
uttered communications here become an acted play, improvised,
mimicked, proportioned and rounded, carried bravely to its
dénoûment. The speaker seems actually to establish his
stage and face his foot-lights, to create by a gesture a little
scenic circumscription about him; he rushes to and fro and shouts
and stamps and postures, he ranges through every phase of his
inspiration. I noted the other evening a striking instance of the
spontaneity of the Italian gesture, in the person of a small
Sienese of I hardly know what exact age--the age of inarticulate
sounds and the experimental use of a spoon. It was a Sunday
evening, and this little man had accompanied his parents to the
café. The Caffè Greco at Siena is a most delightful institution;
you get a capital demi-tasse for three sous, and an
excellent ice for eight, and while you consume these easy
luxuries you may buy from a little hunchback the local weekly
periodical, the Vita Nuova, for three centimes (the two
centimes left from your sou, if you are under the spell of this
magical frugality, will do to give the waiter). My young friend
was sitting on his father's knee and helping himself to the half
of a strawberry-ice with which his mamma had presented him. He
had so many misadventures with his spoon that this lady at length
confiscated it, there being nothing left of the ice but a little
crimson liquid which he might dispose of by the common instinct
of childhood. But he was no friend, it appeared, to such
freedoms; he was a perfect little gentleman and he resented it
being expected of him that he should drink down his remnant. He
protested therefore, and it was the manner of his protest that
struck me. He didn't cry audibly, though he made a very wry face.
It was no stupid squall, and yet he was too young to speak. It
was a penetrating concord of inarticulately pleading, accusing
sounds, accompanied by gestures of the most exquisite propriety.
These were perfectly mature; he did everything that a man of
forty would have done if he had been pouring out a flood of
sonorous eloquence. He shrugged his shoulders and wrinkled his
eyebrows, tossed out his hands and folded his arms, obtruded his
chin and bobbed about his head--and at last, I am happy to say,
recovered his spoon. If I had had a solid little silver one I
would have presented it to him as a testimonial to a perfect,
though as yet unconscious, artist.

My actual tribute to him, however, has diverted me from what I
had in mind--a much weightier matter--the great private palaces
which are the massive majestic syllables, sentences, periods, of
the strange message the place addresses to us. They are
extraordinarily spacious and numerous, and one wonders what part
they can play in the meagre economy of the actual city. The Siena
of to-day is a mere shrunken semblance of the rabid little
republic which in the thirteenth century waged triumphant war
with Florence, cultivated the arts with splendour, planned a
cathedral (though it had ultimately to curtail the design) of
proportions almost unequalled, and contained a population of two
hundred thousand souls. Many of these dusky piles still bear the
names of the old mediaeval magnates the vague mild occupancy of
whose descendants has the effect of armour of proof worn over
"pot" hats and tweed jackets and trousers. Half-a-dozen of them
are as high as the Strozzi and Riccardi palaces in Florence; they
couldn't well be higher. The very essence of the romantic and the
scenic is in the way these colossal dwellings are packed together
in their steep streets, in the depths of their little enclosed,
agglomerated city. When we, in our day and country, raise a
structure of half the mass and dignity, we leave a great space
about it in the manner of a pause after a showy speech. But when
a Sienese countess, as things are here, is doing her hair near
the window, she is a wonderfully near neighbour to the cavalier
opposite, who is being shaved by his valet. Possibly the countess
doesn't object to a certain chosen publicity at her toilet; what
does an Italian gentleman assure me but that the aristocracy make
very free with each other? Some of the palaces are shown, but
only when the occupants are at home, and now they are in
villeggiatura. Their villeggiatura lasts eight months of
the year, the waiter at the inn informs me, and they spend little
more than the carnival in the city. The gossip of an inn-waiter
ought perhaps to be beneath the dignity of even such thin history
as this; but I confess that when, as a story-seeker always and
ever, I have come in from my strolls with an irritated sense of
the dumbness of stones and mortar, it has been to listen with
avidity, over my dinner, to the proffered confidences of the
worthy man who stands by with a napkin. His talk is really very
fine, and he prides himself greatly on his cultivated tone, to
which he calls my attention. He has very little good to say about
the Sienese nobility. They are "proprio d'origine egoista"--
whatever that may be--and there are many who can't write their
names. This may be calumny; but I doubt whether the most
blameless of them all could have spoken more delicately of a lady
of peculiar personal appearance who had been dining near me.
"She's too fat," I grossly said on her leaving the room. The
waiter shook his head with a little sniff: "È troppo materiale."
This lady and her companion were the party whom, thinking I might
relish a little company--I had been dining alone for a week--he
gleefully announced to me as newly arrived Americans. They were
Americans, I found, who wore, pinned to their heads in
permanence, the black lace veil or mantilla, conveyed their beans
to their mouth with a knife, and spoke a strange raucous
Spanish. They were in fine compatriots from Montevideo.

[Illustration: THE RED PALACE, SIENA.]

The genius of old Siena, however, would make little of any stress
of such distinctions; one representative of a far-off social
platitude being about as much in order as another as he stands
before the great loggia of the Casino di Nobili, the club of the
best society. The nobility, which is very numerous and very rich,
is still, says the apparently competent native I began by
quoting, perfectly feudal and uplifted and separate. Morally and
intellectually, behind the walls of its palaces, the fourteenth
century, it's thrilling to think, hasn't ceased to hang on. There
is no bourgeoisie to speak of; immediately after the aristocracy
come the poor people, who are very poor indeed. My friend's
account of these matters made me wish more than ever, as a lover
of the preserved social specimen, of type at almost any price,
that one weren't, a helpless victim of the historic sense,
reduced simply to staring at black stones and peeping up stately
staircases; and that when one had examined the street-face of the
palace, Murray in hand, one might walk up to the great drawing-
room, make one's bow to the master and mistress, the old abbe and
the young count, and invite them to favour one with a sketch of
their social philosophy or a few first-hand family anecdotes.

The dusky labyrinth of the streets, we must in default of such
initiations content ourselves with noting, is interrupted by two
great candid spaces: the fan-shaped piazza, of which I just now
said a word, and the smaller square in which the cathedral erects
its walls of many-coloured marble. Of course since paying the
great piazza my compliments by moonlight I have strolled through
it often at sunnier and shadier hours. The market is held there,
and wherever Italians buy and sell, wherever they count and
chaffer--as indeed you. hear them do right and left, at almost
any moment, as you take your way among them--the pulse of life
beats fast. It has been doing so on the spot just named, I
suppose, for the last five hundred years, and during that time
the cost of eggs and earthen pots has been gradually but
inexorably increasing. The buyers nevertheless wrestle over their
purchases as lustily as so many fourteenth-century burghers
suddenly waking up in horror to current prices. You have but to
walk aside, however, into the Palazzo Pubblico really to feel
yourself a thrifty old medievalist. The state affairs of the
Republic were formerly transacted here, but it now gives shelter
to modern law-courts and other prosy business. I was marched
through a number of vaulted halls and chambers, which, in the
intervals of the administrative sessions held in them, are
peopled only by the great mouldering archaic frescoes--anything
but inanimate these even in their present ruin--that cover the
walls and ceiling. The chief painters of the Sienese school lent
a hand in producing the works I name, and you may complete there
the connoisseurship in which, possibly, you will have embarked at
the Academy. I say "possibly" to be very judicial, my own
observation having led me no great length. I have rather than
otherwise cherished the thought that the Sienese school suffers
one's eagerness peacefully to slumber--benignantly abstains in
fact from whipping up a languid curiosity and a tepid faith. "A
formidable rival to the Florentine," says some book--I forget
which--into which I recently glanced. Not a bit of it thereupon
boldly say I; the Florentines may rest on their laurels and the
lounger on his lounge. The early painters of the two groups have
indeed much in common; but the Florentines had the good fortune
to see their efforts gathered up and applied by a few pre-eminent
spirits, such as never came to the rescue of the groping Sienese.
Fra Angelico and Ghirlandaio said all their feebler
confrères dreamt of and a great deal more beside, but the
inspiration of Simone Memmi and Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Sano di
Pietro has a painful air of never efflorescing into a maximum.
Sodoma and Beccafumi are to my taste a rather abortive maximum.
But one should speak of them all gently--and I do, from my soul;
for their labour, by their lights, has wrought a precious
heritage of still-living colour and rich figure-peopled shadow
for the echoing chambers of their old civic fortress. The faded
frescoes cover the walls like quaintly-storied tapestries; in one
way or another they cast their spell. If one owes a large debt of
pleasure to pictorial art one comes to think tenderly and easily
of its whole evolution, as of the conscious experience of a
single mysterious, striving spirit, and one shrinks from saying
rude things about any particular phase of it, just as one would
from referring without precautions to some error or lapse in the
life of a person one esteemed. You don't care to remind a
grizzled veteran of his defeats, and why should we linger in
Siena to talk about Beccafumi? I by no means go so far as to say,
with an amateur with whom I have just been discussing the matter,
that "Sodoma is a precious poor painter and Beccafumi no painter
at all"; but, opportunity being limited, I am willing to let the
remark about Beccafumi pass for true. With regard to Sodoma, I
remember seeing four years ago in the choir of the Cathedral of
Pisa a certain small dusky specimen of the painter--an Abraham
and Isaac, if I am not mistaken--which was charged with a gloomy
grace. One rarely meets him in general collections, and I had
never done so till the other day. He was not prolific,
apparently; he had however his own elegance, and his rarity is a
part of it.

Here in Siena are a couple of dozen scattered frescoes and three
or four canvases; his masterpiece, among others, an harmonious
Descent from the Cross. I wouldn't give a fig for the equilibrium
of the figures or the ladders; but while it lasts the scene is
all intensely solemn and graceful and sweet--too sweet for so
bitter a subject. Sodoma's women are strangely sweet; an
imaginative sense of morbid appealing attitude--as notably in the
sentimental, the pathetic, but the none the less pleasant,
"Swooning of St. Catherine," the great Sienese heroine, at San
Domenico--seems to me the author's finest accomplishment. His
frescoes have all the same almost appealing evasion of
difficulty, and a kind of mild melancholy which I am inclined to
think the sincerest part of them, for it strikes me as
practically the artist's depressed suspicion of his own want of
force. Once he determined, however, that if he couldn't be strong
he would make capital of his weakness, and painted the Christ
bound to the Column, of the Academy. Here he got much nearer and
I have no doubt mixed his colours with his tears; but the result
can't be better described than by saying that it is, pictorially,
the first of the modern Christs. Unfortunately it hasn't been the
last.

[Illustration: SAN DOMINICO, SIENA]

The main strength of Sienese art went possibly into the erection
of the Cathedral, and yet even here the strength is not of the
greatest strain. If, however, there are more interesting temples
in Italy, there are few more richly and variously scenic and
splendid, the comparative meagreness of the architectural idea
being overlaid by a marvellous wealth of ingenious detail.
Opposite the church--with the dull old archbishop's palace on one
side and a dismantled residence of the late Grand Duke of Tuscany
on the other--is an ancient hospital with a big stone bench
running all along its front. Here I have sat a while every
morning for a week, like a philosophic convalescent, watching the
florid façade of the cathedral glitter against the deep blue sky.
It has been lavishly restored of late years, and the fresh white
marble of the densely clustered pinnacles and statues and beasts
and flowers flashes in the sunshine like a mosaic of jewels.
There is more of this goldsmith's work in stone than I can
remember or describe; it is piled up over three great doors with
immense margins of exquisite decorative sculpture--still in the
ancient cream-coloured marble--and beneath three sharp pediments
embossed with images relieved against red marble and tipped with
golden mosaics. It is in the highest degree fantastic and
luxuriant--it is on the whole very lovely. As a triumph of the
many-hued it prepares you for the interior, where the same parti-
coloured splendour is endlessly at play--a confident complication
of harmonies and contrasts and of the minor structural
refinements and braveries. The internal surface is mainly wrought
in alternate courses of black and white marble; but as the latter
has been dimmed by the centuries to a fine mild brown the place
is all a concert of relieved and dispersed glooms. Save for
Pinturicchio's brilliant frescoes in the Sacristy there are no
pictures to speak of; but the pavement is covered with many
elaborate designs in black and white mosaic after cartoons by
Beccafumi. The patient skill of these compositions makes them a
rare piece of decoration; yet even here the friend whom I lately
quoted rejects this over-ripe fruit of the Sienese school. The
designs are nonsensical, he declares, and all his admiration is
for the cunning artisans who have imitated the hatchings and
shadings and hair-strokes of the pencil by the finest curves of
inserted black stone. But the true romance of handiwork at Siena
is to be seen in the wondrous stalls of the choir, under the
coloured light of the great wheel-window. Wood-carving has ever
been a cherished craft of the place, and the best masters of the
art during the fifteenth century lavished themselves on this
prodigious task. It is the frost-work on one's window-panes
interpreted in polished oak. It would be hard to find, doubtless,
a more moving illustration of the peculiar patience, the sacred
candour, of the great time. Into such artistry as this the author
seems to put more of his personal substance than into any other;
he has to wrestle not only with his subject, but with his
material. He is richly fortunate when his subject is charming--
when his devices, inventions and fantasies spring lightly to his
hand; for in the material itself, after age and use have ripened
and polished and darkened it to the richness of ebony and to a
greater warmth there is something surpassingly delectable and
venerable. Wander behind the altar at Siena when the chanting is
over and the incense has faded, and look well at the stalls of
the Barili.

1873.


II


I leave the impression noted in the foregoing pages to tell its
own small story, but have it on my conscience to wonder, in this
connection, quite candidly and publicly and by way of due
penance, at the scantness of such first-fruits of my sensibility.
I was to see Siena repeatedly in the years to follow, I was to
know her better, and I would say that I was to do her an ampler
justice didn't that remark seem to reflect a little on my earlier
poor judgment. This judgment strikes me to-day as having fallen
short--true as it may be that I find ever a value, or at least an
interest, even in the moods and humours and lapses of any
brooding, musing or fantasticating observer to whom the finer
sense of things is on the whole not closed. If he has on a
given occasion nodded or stumbled or strayed, this fact by itself
speaks to me of him--speaks to me, that is, of his faculty and
his idiosyncrasies, and I care nothing for the application of his
faculty unless it be, first of all, in itself interesting. Which
may serve as my reply to any objection here breaking out--on the
ground that if a spectator's languors are evidence, of a sort,
about that personage, they are scarce evident about the case
before him, at least if the case be important. I let my perhaps
rather weak expression of the sense of Siena stand, at any rate--
for the sake of what I myself read into it; but I should like to
amplify it by other memories, and would do so eagerly if I might
here enjoy the space. The difficulty for these rectifications is
that if the early vision has failed of competence or of full
felicity, if initiation has thus been slow, so, with renewals and
extensions, so, with the larger experience, one hindrance is
exchanged for another. There is quite such a possibility as
having lived into a relation too much to be able to make a
statement of it.

I remember on one occasion arriving very late of a summer night,
after an almost unbroken run from London, and the note of that
approach--I was the only person alighting at the station below
the great hill of the little fortress city, under whose at once
frowning and gaping gate I must have passed, in the warm darkness
and the absolute stillness, very much after the felt fashion of a
person of importance about to be enormously incarcerated--gives
me, for preservation thus belated, the pitch, as I may call it,
at various times, though always at one season, of an almost
systematised esthetic use of the place. It wasn't to be denied
that the immensely better "accommodations" instituted by the
multiplying, though alas more bustling, years had to be
recognised as supplying a basis, comparatively prosaic if one
would, to that luxury. No sooner have I written which words,
however, than I find myself adding that one "wouldn't," that one
doesn't--doesn't, that is, consent now to regard the then "new"
hotel (pretty old indeed by this time) as anything but an aid to
a free play of perception. The strong and rank old Arme
d'Inghilterra, in the darker street, has passed away; but its
ancient rival the Aquila Nera put forth claims to modernisation,
and the Grand Hotel, the still fresher flower of modernity near
the gate by which you enter from the station, takes on to my
present remembrance a mellowness as of all sorts of comfort,
cleanliness and kindness. The particular facts, those of the
visit I began here by alluding to and those of still others, at
all events, inveterately made in June or early in July, enter
together in a fusion as of hot golden-brown objects seen through
the practicable crevices of shutters drawn upon high, cool,
darkened rooms where the scheme of the scene involved longish
days of quiet work, with late afternoon emergence and
contemplation waiting on the better or the worse conscience. I
thus associate the compact world of the admirable hill-top, the
world of a predominant golden-brown, with a general invocation of
sensibility and fancy, and think of myself as going forth into
the lingering light of summer evenings all attuned to intensity
of the idea of compositional beauty, or in other words, freely
speaking, to the question of colour, to intensity of picture. To
communicate with Siena in this charming way was thus, I admit, to
have no great margin for the prosecution of inquiries, but I am
not sure that it wasn't, little by little, to feel the whole
combination of elements better than by a more exemplary method,
and this from beginning to end of the scale.

More of the elements indeed, for memory, hang about the days that
were ushered in by that straight flight from the north than about
any other series--if partly, doubtless, but because of my having
then stayed longest. I specify it at all events for fond
reminiscence as the year, the only year, at which I was present
at the Palio, the earlier one, the series of furious horse-races
between elected representatives of different quarters of the town
taking place toward the end of June, as the second and still more
characteristic exhibition of the same sort is appointed to the
month of August; a spectacle that I am far from speaking of as
the finest flower of my old and perhaps even a little faded
cluster of impressions, but which smudges that special sojourn as
with the big thumb--mark of a slightly soiled and decidedly
ensanguined hand. For really, after all, the great loud gaudy
romp or heated frolic, simulating ferocity if not achieving it,
that is the annual pride of the town, was not intrinsically, to
my-view, extraordinarily impressive--in spite of its bristling
with all due testimony to the passionate Italian clutch of any
pretext for costume and attitude and utterance, for mumming and
masquerading and raucously representing; the vast cheap vividness
rather somehow refines itself, and the swarm and hubbub of the
immense square melt, to the uplifted sense of a very high-placed
balcony of the overhanging Chigi palace, where everything was
superseded but the intenser passage, across the ages, of the
great Renaissance tradition of architecture and the infinite
sweetness of the waning golden day. The Palio, indubitably, was
criard--and the more so for quite monopolising, at Siena,
the note of crudity; and much of it demanded doubtless of one's
patience a due respect for the long local continuity of such
things; it drops into its humoured position, however, in any
retrospective command of the many brave aspects of the prodigious
place. Not that I am pretending here, even for rectification, to
take these at all in turn; I only go on a little with my rueful
glance at the marked gaps left in my original report of
sympathies entertained.

I bow my head for instance to the mystery of my not having
mentioned that the coolest and freshest flower of the day was
ever that of one's constant renewal of a charmed homage to
Pinturicchio, coolest and freshest and signally youngest and most
matutinal (as distinguished from merely primitive or crepuscular)
of painters, in the library or sacristy of the Cathedral. Did I
always find time before work to spend half-an-hour of
immersion, under that splendid roof, in the clearest and
tenderest, the very cleanest and "straightest," as it masters our
envious credulity, of all storied fresco-worlds? This wondrous
apartment, a monument in itself to the ancient pride and power of
the Church, and which contains an unsurpassed treasure of
gloriously illuminated missals, psalters and other vast parchment
folios, almost each of whose successive leaves gives the
impression of rubies, sapphires and emeralds set in gold and
practically embedded in the page, offers thus to view, after a
fashion splendidly sustained, a pictorial record of the career of
Pope Pius II, Aeneas Sylvius of the Siena Piccolomini (who gave
him for an immediate successor a second of their name), most
profanely literary of Pontiffs and last of would-be Crusaders,
whose adventures and achievements under Pinturicchio's brush
smooth themselves out for us very much to the tune of the
"stories" told by some fine old man of the world, at the restful
end of his life, to the cluster of his grandchildren. The end of
AEneas Sylvius was not restful; he died at Ancona in troublous
times, preaching war, and attempting to make it, against the then
terrific Turk; but over no great worldly personal legend, among
those of men of arduous affairs, arches a fairer, lighter or more
pacific memorial vault than the shining Libreria of Siena. I seem
to remember having it and its unfrequented enclosing precinct so
often all to myself that I must indeed mostly have resorted to it
for a prompt benediction on the day. Like no other strong
solicitation, among artistic appeals to which one may compare it
up and down the whole wonderful country, is the felt neighbouring
presence of the overwrought Cathedral in its little proud
possessive town: you may so often feel by the week at a time that
it stands there really for your own personal enjoyment, your
romantic convenience, your small wanton aesthetic use. In such a
light shines for me, at all events, under such an accumulation
and complication of tone flushes and darkens and richly recedes
for me, across the years, the treasure-house of many-coloured
marbles in the untrodden, the drowsy, empty Sienese square. One
could positively do, in the free exercise of any responsible
fancy or luxurious taste, what one would with it.

But that proposition holds true, after all, for almost any mild
pastime of the incurable student of loose meanings and stray
relics and odd references and dim analogies in an Italian hill-
city bronzed and seasoned by the ages. I ought perhaps, for
justification of the right to talk, to have plunged into the
Siena archives of which, on one occasion, a kindly custodian gave
me, in rather dusty and stuffy conditions, as the incident
vaguely comes back to me, a glimpse that was like a moment's
stand at the mouth of a deep, dark mine. I didn't descend into
the pit; I did, instead of this, a much idler and easier thing: I
simply went every afternoon, my stint of work over, I like to
recall, for a musing stroll upon the Lizza--the Lizza which had
its own unpretentious but quite insidious art of meeting the
lover of old stories halfway. The great and subtle thing, if you
are not a strenuous specialist, in places of a heavily charged
historic consciousness, is to profit by the sense of that
consciousness--or in other words to cultivate a relation with the
oracle--after the fashion that suits yourself; so that if the
general after-taste of experience, experience at large, the fine
distilled essence of the matter, seems to breathe, in such a
case, from the very stones and to make a thick strong liquor of
the very air, you may thus gather as you pass what is most to
your purpose; which is more the indestructible mixture of lived
things, with its concentrated lingering odour, than any
interminable list of numbered chapters and verses. Chapters and
verses, literally scanned, refuse coincidence, mostly, with the
divisional proprieties of your own pile of manuscript--which is
but another way of saying, in short, that if the Lizza is a mere
fortified promontory of the great Sienese hill, serving at once
as a stronghold for the present military garrison and as a
planted and benched and band-standed walk and recreation-ground
for the citizens, so I could never, toward close of day, either
have enough of it or yet feel the vaguest saunterings there to be
vain. They were vague with the qualification always of that finer
massing, as one wandered off, of the bronzed and seasoned
element, the huge rock pedestal, the bravery of walls and gates
and towers and palaces and loudly asserted dominion; and then of
that pervaded or mildly infested air in which one feels the
experience of the ages, of which I just spoke, to be exquisitely
in solution; and lastly of the wide, strange, sad, beautiful
horizon, a rim of far mountains that always pictured, for the
leaner on old rubbed and smoothed parapets at the sunset hour, a
country not exactly blighted or deserted, but that had had its
life, on an immense scale, and had gone, with all its memories
and relics, into rather austere, in fact into almost grim and
misanthropic, retirement. This was a manner and a mood, at any
rate, in all the land, that favoured in the late afternoons the
divinest landscape blues and purples--not to speak of its
favouring still more my practical contention that the whole
guarded headland in question, with the immense ramparts of golden
brown and red that dropped into vineyards and orchards and
cornfields and all the rustic elegance of the Tuscan
podere, was knitting for me a chain of unforgettable
hours; to the justice of which claim let these divagations
testify.

It wasn't, however, that one mightn't without disloyalty to that
scheme of profit seek impressions further afield--though indeed I
may best say of such a matter as the long pilgrimage to the
pictured convent of Monte Oliveto that it but played on the same
fine chords as the overhanging, the far-gazing Lizza. What it
came to was that one simply put to the friendly test, as it were,
the mood and manner of the country. This remembrance is precious,
but the demonstration of that sense as of a great heaving region
stilled by some final shock and returning thoughtfully, in fact
tragically, on itself, couldn't have been more pointed. The long-
drawn rural road I refer to, stretching over hill and dale and to
which I devoted the whole of the longest day of the year--I was
in a small single-horse conveyance, of which I had already made
appreciative use, and with a driver as disposed as myself ever to
sacrifice speed to contemplation--is doubtless familiar now with
the rush of the motor-car; the thought of whose free dealings
with the solitude of Monte Oliveto makes me a little ruefully
reconsider, I confess, the spirit in which I have elsewhere in
these pages, on behalf of the lust, the landscape lust, of the
eyes, acknowledged our general increasing debt to that vehicle.
For that we met nothing whatever, as I seem at this distance of
time to recall, while we gently trotted and trotted through the
splendid summer hours and a dry desolation that yet somehow
smiled and smiled, was part of the charm and the intimacy of the
whole impression--the impression that culminated at last, before
the great cloistered square, lonely, bleak and stricken, in the
almost aching vision, more frequent in the Italy of to-day than
anywhere in the world, of the uncalculated waste of a myriad
forms of piety, forces of labour, beautiful fruits of genius.
However, one gaped above all things for the impression, and what
one mainly asked was that it should be strong of its kind. That
was the case, I think I couldn't but feel, at every moment of the
couple of hours I spent in the vast, cold, empty shell, out of
which the Benedictine brotherhood sheltered there for ages had
lately been turned by the strong arm of a secular State. There
was but one good brother left, a very lean and tough survivor, a
dusky, elderly, friendly Abbate, of an indescribable type and a
perfect manner, of whom I think I felt immediately thereafter
that I should have liked to say much, but as to whom I must have
yielded to the fact that ingenious and vivid commemoration was
even then in store for him. Literary portraiture had marked him
for its own, and in the short story of Un Saint, one of
the most finished of contemporary French nouvelles, the
art and the sympathy of Monsieur Paul Bourget preserve his
interesting image. He figures in the beautiful tale, the Abbate
of the desolate cloister and of those comparatively quiet years,
as a clean, clear type of sainthood; a circumstance this in
itself to cause a fond analyst of other than "Latin" race (model
and painter in this case having their Latinism so strongly in
common) almost endlessly to meditate. Oh, the unutterable
differences in any scheme or estimate of physiognomic values, in
any range of sensibility to expressional association, among
observers of different, of inevitably more or less opposed,
traditional and "racial" points of view! One had heard convinced
Latins--or at least I had!--speak of situations of trust and
intimacy in which they couldn't have endured near them a
Protestant or, as who should say for instance, an Anglo-Saxon;
but I was to remember my own private attempt to measure such a
change of sensibility as might have permitted the prolonged close
approach of the dear dingy, half-starved, very possibly all
heroic, and quite ideally urbane Abbate. The depth upon depth of
things, the cloud upon cloud of associations, on one side and the
other, that would have had to change first!

To which I may add nevertheless that since one ever supremely
invoked intensity of impression and abundance of character, I
feasted my fill of it at Monte Oliveto, and that for that matter
this would have constituted my sole refreshment in the vast icy
void of the blighted refectory if I hadn't bethought myself of
bringing with me a scrap of food, too scantly apportioned, I
recollect--very scantly indeed, since my cocchiere was to
share with me--by my purveyor at Siena. Our tragic--even if so
tenderly tragic--entertainer had nothing to give us; but the
immemorial cold of the enormous monastic interior in which we
smilingly fasted would doubtless not have had for me without that
such a wealth of reference. I was to have "liked" the whole
adventure, so I must somehow have liked that; by which remark I
am recalled to the special treasure of the desecrated temple,
those extraordinarily strong and brave frescoes of Luca
Signorelli and Sodoma that adorn, in admirable condition, several
stretches of cloister wall. These creations in a manner took care
of themselves; aided by the blue of the sky above the cloister-
court they glowed, they insistently lived; I remember the frigid
prowl through all the rest of the bareness, including that of the
big dishonoured church and that even of the Abbate's abysmally
resigned testimony to his mere human and personal situation; and
then, with such a force of contrast and effect of relief, the
great sheltered sun-flares and colour-patches of scenic
composition and design where a couple of hands centuries ago
turned to dust had so wrought the defiant miracle of life and
beauty that the effect is of a garden blooming among ruins.
Discredited somehow, since they all would, the destroyers
themselves, the ancient piety, the general spirit and intention,
but still bright and assured and sublime--practically, enviably
immortal--the other, the still subtler, the all aesthetic good
faith.

1909.

Henry James