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Florentine Notes

I


Yesterday that languid organism known as the Florentine Carnival
put on a momentary semblance of vigour, and decreed a general
corso through the town. The spectacle was not brilliant,
but it suggested some natural reflections. I encountered the line
of carriages in the square before Santa Croce, of which they were
making the circuit. They rolled solemnly by, with their inmates
frowning forth at each other in apparent wrath at not finding
each other more worth while. There were no masks, no costumes, no
decorations, no throwing of flowers or sweetmeats. It was as if
each carriageful had privately and not very heroically resolved
not to be at costs, and was rather discomfited at finding that it
was getting no better entertainment than it gave. The middle of
the piazza was filled with little tables, with shouting
mountebanks, mostly disguised in battered bonnets and crinolines,
offering chances in raffles for plucked fowls and kerosene lamps.
I have never thought the huge marble statue of Dante, which
overlooks the scene, a work of the last refinement; but, as it
stood there on its high pedestal, chin in hand, frowning down on
all this cheap foolery, it seemed to have a great moral
intention. The carriages followed a prescribed course--through
Via Ghibellina, Via del Proconsolo, past the Badia and the
Bargello, beneath the great tessellated cliffs of the Cathedral,
through Via Tornabuoni and out into ten minutes' sunshine beside
the Arno. Much of all this is the gravest and stateliest part of
Florence, a quarter of supreme dignity, and there was an almost
ludicrous incongruity in seeing Pleasure leading her train
through these dusky historic streets. It was most uncomfortably
cold, and in the absence of masks many a fair nose was
fantastically tipped with purple. But as the carriages crept
solemnly along they seemed to keep a funeral march--to follow an
antique custom, an exploded faith, to its tomb. The Carnival is
dead, and these good people who had come abroad to make merry
were funeral mutes and grave-diggers. Last winter in Rome it
showed but a galvanised life, yet compared with this humble
exhibition it was operatic. At Rome indeed it was too operatic.
The knights on horseback there were a bevy of circus-riders, and
I'm sure half the mad revellers repaired every night to the
Capitol for their twelve sous a day.

I have just been reading over the Letters of the President de
Brosses. A hundred years ago, in Venice, the Carnival lasted six
months; and at Rome for many weeks each year one was free, under
cover of a mask, to perpetrate the most fantastic follies and
cultivate the most remunerative vices. It's very well to read the
President's notes, which have indeed a singular interest; but
they make us ask ourselves why we should expect the Italians to
persist in manners and practices which we ourselves, if we had
responsibilities in the matter, should find intolerable. The
Florentines at any rate spend no more money nor faith on the
carnivalesque. And yet this truth has a qualification; for what
struck me in the whole spectacle yesterday, and prompted these
observations, was not at all the more or less of costume of the
occupants of the carriages, but the obstinate survival of the
merrymaking instinct in the people at large. There could be no
better example of it than that so dim a shadow of entertainment
should keep all Florence standing and strolling, densely packed
for hours, in the cold streets. There was nothing to see that
mightn't be seen on the Cascine any fine day in the year--nothing
but a name, a tradition, a pretext for sweet staring idleness.
The faculty of making much of common things and converting small
occasions into great pleasures is, to a son of communities
strenuous as ours are strenuous, the most salient characteristic
of the so-called Latin civilisations. It charms him and vexes
him, according to his mood; and for the most part it represents a
moral gulf between his own temperamental and indeed spiritual
sense of race, and that of Frenchmen and Italians, far wider than
the watery leagues that a steamer may annihilate. But I think his
mood is wisest when he accepts the "foreign" easy surrender to
all the senses as the sign of an unconscious philosophy of
life, instilled by the experience of centuries--the philosophy
of people who have lived long and much, who have discovered no
short cuts to happiness and no effective circumvention of effort,
and so have come to regard the average lot as a ponderous fact
that absolutely calls for a certain amount of sitting on the
lighter tray of the scales. Florence yesterday then took its
holiday in a natural, placid fashion that seemed to make its own
temper an affair quite independent of the splendour of the
compensation decreed on a higher line to the weariness of its
legs. That the corso was stupid or lively was the shame or
the glory of the powers "above"--the fates, the gods, the
forestieri, the town-councilmen, the rich or the stingy.
Common Florence, on the narrow footways, pressed against the
houses, obeyed a natural need in looking about complacently,
patiently, gently, and never pushing, nor trampling, nor
swearing, nor staggering. This liberal margin for festivals in
Italy gives the masses a more than man-of-the-world urbanity in
taking their pleasure.

Meanwhile it occurs to me that by a remote New England fireside
an unsophisticated young person of either sex is reading in an
old volume of travels or an old romantic tale some account of
these anniversaries and appointed revels as old Catholic lands
offer them to view. Across the page swims a vision of sculptured
palace-fronts draped in crimson and gold and shining in a
southern sun; of a motley train of maskers sweeping on in
voluptuous confusion and pelting each other with nosegays and
love-letters. Into the quiet room, quenching the rhythm of the
Connecticut clock, floats an uproar of delighted voices, a medley
of stirring foreign sounds, an echo of far-heard music of a
strangely alien cadence. But the dusk is falling, and the
unsophisticated young person closes the book wearily and wanders
to the window. The dusk is falling on the beaten snow. Down the
road is a white wooden meeting-house, looking grey among the
drifts. The young person surveys the prospect a while, and then
wanders back and stares at the fire. The Carnival of Venice, of
Florence, of Rome; colour and costume, romance and rapture! The
young person gazes in the firelight at the flickering chiaroscuro
of the future, discerns at last the glowing phantasm of
opportunity, and determines with a wild heart-beat to go and see
it all--twenty years hence!


II


A couple of days since, driving to Fiesole, we came back by the
castle of Vincigliata. The afternoon was lovely; and, though
there is as yet (February 10th) no visible revival of vegetation,
the air was full of a vague vernal perfume, and the warm colours
of the hills and the yellow western sunlight flooding the plain
seemed to contain the promise of Nature's return to grace. It's
true that above the distant pale blue gorge of Vallombrosa the
mountain-line was tipped with snow; but the liberated soul of
Spring was nevertheless at large. The view from Fiesole seems
vaster and richer with each visit. The hollow in which Florence
lies, and which from below seems deep and contracted, opens out
into an immense and generous valley and leads away the eye into a
hundred gradations of distance. The place itself showed, amid its
chequered fields and gardens, with as many towers and spires as a
chess-board half cleared. The domes and towers were washed over
with a faint blue mist. The scattered columns of smoke,
interfused with the sinking sunlight, hung over them like
streamers and pennons of silver gauze; and the Arno, twisting and
curling and glittering here and there, was a serpent cross-
striped with silver.

Vincigliata is a product of the millions, the leisure and the
eccentricity, I suppose people say, of an English gentleman--Mr.
Temple Leader, whose name should be commemorated. You reach the
castle from Fiesole by a narrow road, returning toward Florence
by a romantic twist through the hills and passing nothing on its
way save thin plantations of cypress and cedar. Upward of twenty
years ago, I believe, this gentleman took a fancy to the
crumbling shell of a mediæval fortress on a breezy hill-top
overlooking the Val d' Arno and forthwith bought it and began to
"restore" it. I know nothing of what the original ruin may have
cost; but in the dusky courts and chambers of the present
elaborate structure this impassioned archæologist must have
buried a fortune. He has, however, the compensation of feeling
that he has erected a monument which, if it is never to stand a
feudal siege, may encounter at least some critical over-hauling.
It is a disinterested work of art and really a triumph of
æsthetic culture. The author has reproduced with minute accuracy
a sturdy home-fortress of the fourteenth century, and has kept
throughout such rigid terms with his model that the result is
literally uninhabitable to degenerate moderns. It is simply a
massive facsimile, an elegant museum of archaic images, mainly
but most amusingly counterfeit, perched on a spur of the
Apennines. The place is most politely shown. There is a charming
cloister, painted with extremely clever "quaint" frescoes,
celebrating the deeds of the founders of the castle--a cloister
that is everything delightful a cloister should be except truly
venerable and employable. There is a beautiful castle court, with
the embattled tower climbing into the blue far above it, and a
spacious loggia with rugged medallions and mild-hued Luca della
Robbias fastened unevenly into the walls. But the apartments are
the great success, and each of them as good a "reconstruction" as
a tale of Walter Scott; or, to speak frankly, a much better one.
They are all low-beamed and vaulted, stone-paved, decorated in
grave colours and lighted, from narrow, deeply recessed windows,
through small leaden-ringed plates of opaque glass.

The details are infinitely ingenious and elaborately grim, and
the indoor atmosphere of mediaevalism most forcibly revived. No
compromising fact of domiciliary darkness and cold is spared us,
no producing condition of mediaeval manners not glanced at. There
are oaken benches round the room, of about six inches in depth,
and gaunt fauteuils of wrought leather, illustrating the
suppressed transitions which, as George Eliot says, unite all
contrasts--offering a visible link between the modern conceptions
of torture and of luxury. There are fireplaces nowhere but in the
kitchen, where a couple of sentry-boxes are inserted on either
side of the great hooded chimney-piece, into which people might
creep and take their turn at being toasted and smoked. One may
doubt whether this dearth of the hearthstone could have raged on
such a scale, but it's a happy stroke in the representation of an
Italian dwelling of any period. It shows how the graceful fiction
that Italy is all "meridional" flourished for some time before
being refuted by grumbling tourists. And yet amid this cold
comfort you feel the incongruous presence of a constant intuitive
regard for beauty. The shapely spring of the vaulted ceilings;
the richly figured walls, coarse and hard in substance as they
are; the charming shapes of the great platters and flagons in the
deep recesses of the quaintly carved black dressers; the
wandering hand of ornament, as it were, playing here and there
for its own diversion in unlighted corners--such things redress,
to our fond credulity, with all sorts of grace, the balance of
the picture.

And yet, somehow, with what dim, unillumined vision one fancies
even such inmates as those conscious of finer needs than the mere
supply of blows and beef and beer would meet passing their heavy
eyes over such slender household beguilements! These crepuscular
chambers at Vincigliata are a mystery and a challenge; they seem
the mere propounding of an answerless riddle. You long, as you
wander through them, turning up your coat-collar and wondering
whether ghosts can catch bronchitis, to answer it with some
positive notion of what people so encaged and situated "did," how
they looked and talked and carried themselves, how they took
their pains and pleasures, how they counted off the hours. Deadly
ennui seems to ooze out of the stones and hang in clouds in the
brown corners. No wonder men relished a fight and panted for a
fray. "Skull-smashers" were sweet, ears ringing with pain and
ribs cracking in a tussle were soothing music, compared with the
cruel quietude of the dim-windowed castle. When they came back
they could only have slept a good deal and eased their dislocated
bones on those meagre oaken ledges. Then they woke up and turned
about to the table and ate their portion of roasted sheep. They
shouted at each other across the board and flung the wooden
plates at the servingmen. They jostled and hustled and hooted and
bragged; and then, after gorging and boozing and easing their
doublets, they squared their elbows one by one on the greasy
table and buried their scarred foreheads and dreamed of a good
gallop after flying foes. And the women? They must have been
strangely simple--simpler far than any moral archraeologist can
show us in a learned restoration. Of course, their simplicity had
its graces and devices; but one thinks with a sigh that, as the
poor things turned away with patient looks from the viewless
windows to the same, same looming figures on the dusky walls,
they hadn't even the consolation of knowing that just this
attitude and movement, set off by their peaked coifs, their
falling sleeves and heavily-twisted trains, would sow the seed of
yearning envy--of sorts--on the part of later generations.

There are moods in which one feels the impulse to enter a tacit
protest against too gross an appetite for pure aesthetics in this
starving and sinning world. One turns half away, musingly, from
certain beautiful useless things. But the healthier state of mind
surely is to lay no tax on any really intelligent manifestation
of the curious, and exquisite. Intelligence hangs together
essentially, all along the line; it only needs time to make, as
we say, its connections. The massive pastiche of
Vincigliata has no superficial use; but, even if it were less
complete, less successful, less brilliant, I should feel a
reflective kindness for it. So disinterested and expensive a toy
is its own justification; it belongs to the heroics of
dilettantism.


III


One grows to feel the collection of pictures at the Pitti Palace
splendid rather than interesting. After walking through it once
or twice you catch the key in which it is pitched--you know what
you are likely not to find on closer examination; none of the
works of the uncompromising period, nothing from the half-groping
geniuses of the early time, those whose colouring was sometimes
harsh and their outlines sometimes angular. Vague to me the
principle on which the pictures were originally gathered and of
the aesthetic creed of the princes who chiefly selected them. A
princely creed I should roughly call it--the creed of people who
believed in things presenting a fine face to society; who
esteemed showy results rather than curious processes, and would
have hardly cared more to admit into their collection a work by
one of the laborious precursors of the full efflorescence than to
see a bucket and broom left standing in a state saloon. The
gallery contains in literal fact some eight or ten paintings of
the early Tuscan School--notably two admirable specimens of
Filippo Lippi and one of the frequent circular pictures of the
great Botticelli--a Madonna, chilled with tragic prescience,
laying a pale cheek against that of a blighted Infant. Such a
melancholy mother as this of Botticelli would have strangled her
baby in its cradle to rescue it from the future. But of
Botticelli there is much to say. One of the Filippo Lippis is
perhaps his masterpiece--a Madonna in a small rose-garden (such a
"flowery close" as Mr. William Morris loves to haunt), leaning
over an Infant who kicks his little human heels on the grass
while half-a-dozen curly-pated angels gather about him, looking
back over their shoulders with the candour of children in
tableaux vivants, and one of them drops an armful of
gathered roses one by one upon the baby. The delightful earthly
innocence of these winged youngsters is quite inexpressible.
Their heads are twisted about toward the spectator as if they
were playing at leap-frog and were expecting a companion to come
and take a jump. Never did "young" art, never did subjective
freshness, attempt with greater success to represent those
phases. But these three fine works are hung over the tops of
doors in a dark back room--the bucket and broom are thrust behind
a curtain. It seems to me, nevertheless, that a fine Filippo
Lippi is good enough company for an Allori or a Cigoli, and that
that too deeply sentient Virgin of Botticelli might happily
balance the flower-like irresponsibility of Raphael's "Madonna of
the Chair."

Taking the Pitti collection, however, simply for what it pretends
to be, it gives us the very flower of the sumptuous, the courtly,
the grand-ducal. It is chiefly official art, as one may say, but
it presents the fine side of the type--the brilliancy, the
facility, the amplitude, the sovereignty of good taste. I agree
on the whole with a nameless companion and with what he lately
remarked about his own humour on these matters; that, having
been on his first acquaintance with pictures nothing if not
critical, and held the lesson incomplete and the opportunity
slighted if he left a gallery without a headache, he had come, as
he grew older, to regard them more as the grandest of all
pleasantries and less as the most strenuous of all lessons, and
to remind himself that, after all, it is the privilege of art to
make us friendly to the human mind and not to make us suspicious
of it. We do in fact as we grow older unstring the critical bow a
little and strike a truce with invidious comparisons. We work off
the juvenile impulse to heated partisanship and discover that one
spontaneous producer isn't different enough from another to keep
the all-knowing Fates from smiling over our loves and our
aversions. We perceive a certain human solidarity in all
cultivated effort, and are conscious of a growing accommodation
of judgment--an easier disposition, the fruit of experience, to
take the joke for what it is worth as it passes. We have in short
less of a quarrel with the masters we don't delight in, and less
of an impulse to pin all our faith on those in whom, in more
zealous days, we fancied that we made our peculiar meanings. The
meanings no longer seem quite so peculiar. Since then we have
arrived at a few in the depths of our own genius that are not
sensibly less striking.

And yet it must be added that all this depends vastly on one's
mood--as a traveller's impressions do, generally, to a degree
which those who give them to the world would do well more
explicitly to declare. We have our hours of expansion and those
of contraction, and yet while we follow the traveller's trade we
go about gazing and judging with unadjusted confidence. We can't
suspend judgment; we must take our notes, and the notes are
florid or crabbed, as the case may be. A short time ago I spent a
week in an ancient city on a hill-top, in the humour, for which I
was not to blame, which produces crabbed notes. I knew it at the
time, but couldn't help it. I went through all the motions of
liberal appreciation; I uncapped in all the churches and on the
massive ramparts stared all the views fairly out of countenance;
but my imagination, which I suppose at bottom had very good
reasons of its own and knew perfectly what it was about, refused
to project into the dark old town and upon the yellow hills that
sympathetic glow which forms half the substance of our genial
impressions. So it is that in museums and palaces we are
alternate radicals and conservatives. On some days we ask but to
be somewhat sensibly affected; on others, Ruskin-haunted, to be
spiritually steadied. After a long absence from the Pitti Palace
I went back there the other morning and transferred myself from
chair to chair in the great golden-roofed saloons--the chairs are
all gilded and covered with faded silk--in the humour to be
diverted at any price. I needn't mention the things that diverted
me; I yawn now when I think of some of them. But an artist, for
instance, to whom my kindlier judgment has made permanent
concessions is that charming Andrea del Sarto. When I first knew
him, in my cold youth, I used to say without mincing that I
didn't like him. Cet âge est sans pitié. The fine
sympathetic, melancholy, pleasing painter! He has a dozen faults,
and if you insist pedantically on your rights the conclusive word
you use about him will be the word weak. But if you are a
generous soul you will utter it low--low as the mild grave tone
of his own sought harmonies. He is monotonous, narrow,
incomplete; he has but a dozen different figures and but two or
three ways of distributing them; he seems able to utter but half
his thought, and his canvases lack apparently some final return
on the whole matter--some process which his impulse failed him
before he could bestow. And yet in spite of these limitations his
genius is both itself of the great pattern and lighted by the air
of a great period. Three gifts he had largely: an instinctive,
unaffected, unerring grace; a large and rich, and yet a sort of
withdrawn and indifferent sobriety; and best of all, as well as
rarest of all, an indescribable property of relatedness as to the
moral world. Whether he was aware of the connection or not, or in
what measure, I cannot say; but he gives, so to speak, the taste
of it. Before his handsome vague-browed Madonnas; the mild,
robust young saints who kneel in his foregrounds and look round
at you with a conscious anxiety which seems to say that, though
in the picture, they are not of it, but of your own sentient life
of commingled love and weariness; the stately apostles, with
comely heads and harmonious draperies, who gaze up at the high-
seated Virgin like early astronomers at a newly seen star--there
comes to you the brush of the dark wing of an inward life. A
shadow falls for the moment, and in it you feel the chill of
moral suffering. Did the Lippis suffer, father or son? Did
Raphael suffer? Did Titian? Did Rubens suffer? Perish the
thought--it wouldn't be fair to us that they should have
had everything. And I note in our poor second-rate Andrea an
element of interest lacking to a number of stronger talents.

Interspersed with him at the Pitti hang the stronger and the
weaker in splendid abundance. Raphael is there, strong in
portraiture--easy, various, bountiful genius that he was--and
(strong here isn't the word, but) happy beyond the common dream
in his beautiful "Madonna of the Chair." The general instinct of
posterity seems to have been to treat this lovely picture as a
semi-sacred, an almost miraculous, manifestation. People stand in
a worshipful silence before it, as they would before a taper-
studded shrine. If we suspend in imagination on the right of it
the solid, realistic, unidealised portrait of Leo the Tenth
(which hangs in another room) and transport to the left the
fresco of the School of Athens from the Vatican, and then reflect
that these were three separate fancies of a single youthful,
amiable genius we recognise that such a producing consciousness
must have been a "treat." My companion already quoted has a
phrase that he "doesn't care for Raphael," but confesses, when
pressed, that he was a most remarkable young man. Titian has a
dozen portraits of unequal interest. I never particularly noticed
till lately--it is very ill hung--that portentous image of the
Emperor Charles the Fifth. He was a burlier, more imposing
personage than his usual legend figures, and in his great puffed
sleeves and gold chains and full-skirted over-dress he seems to
tell of a tread that might sometimes have been inconveniently
resonant. But the purpose to have his way and work his
will is there--the great stomach for divine right, the old
monarchical temperament. The great Titian, in portraiture, however,
remains that formidable young man in black, with the small
compact head, the delicate nose and the irascible blue eye. Who
was he? What was he? "Ritratto virile" is all the
catalogue is able to call the picture. "Virile! " Rather! you
vulgarly exclaim. You may weave what romance you please about it,
but a romance your dream must be. Handsome, clever, defiant,
passionate, dangerous, it was not his own fault if he hadn't
adventures and to spare. He was a gentleman and a warrior, and
his adventures balanced between camp and court. I imagine him the
young orphan of a noble house, about to come into mortgaged
estates. One wouldn't have cared to be his guardian, bound to
paternal admonitions once a month over his precocious
transactions with the Jews or his scandalous abduction from her
convent of such and such a noble maiden.

The Pitti Gallery contains none of Titian's golden-toned groups;
but it boasts a lovely composition by Paul Veronese, the dealer
in silver hues--a Baptism of Christ. W---- named it to me the
other day as the picture he most enjoyed, and surely painting
seems here to have proposed to itself to discredit and
annihilate--and even on the occasion of such a subject--
everything but the loveliness of life. The picture bedims and
enfeebles its neighbours. We ask ourselves whether painting as
such can go further. It is simply that here at last the art
stands complete. The early Tuscans, as well as Leonardo, as
Raphael, as Michael, saw the great spectacle that surrounded them
in beautiful sharp-edged elements and parts. The great Venetians
felt its indissoluble unity and recognised that form and colour
and earth and air were equal members of every possible subject;
and beneath their magical touch the hard outlines melted together
and the blank intervals bloomed with meaning. In this beautiful
Paul Veronese of the Pitti everything is part of the charm--the
atmosphere as well as the figures, the look of radiant morning in
the white-streaked sky as well as the living human limbs, the
cloth of Venetian purple about the loins of the Christ as well as
the noble humility of his attitude. The relation to Nature of
the other Italian schools differs from that of the Venetian as
courtship--even ardent courtship--differs from marriage.


IV


I went the other day to the secularised Convent of San Marco,
paid my franc at the profane little wicket which creaks away at
the door--no less than six custodians, apparently, are needed to
turn it, as if it may have a recusant conscience--passed along
the bright, still cloister and paid my respects to Fra Angelico's
Crucifixion, in that dusky chamber in the basement. I looked
long; one can hardly do otherwise. The fresco deals with the
pathetic on the grand scale, and after taking in its beauty you
feel as little at liberty to go away abruptly as you would to
leave church during the sermon. You may be as little of a formal
Christian as Fra Angelico was much of one; you yet feel
admonished by spiritual decency to let so yearning a view of the
Christian story work its utmost will on you. The three crosses
rise high against a strange completely crimson sky, which deepens
mysteriously the tragic expression of the scene, though I remain
perforce vague as to whether this lurid background be a fine
intended piece of symbolism or an effective accident of time. In
the first case the extravagance quite triumphs. Between the
crosses, under no great rigour of composition, are scattered the
most exemplary saints--kneeling, praying, weeping, pitying,
worshipping. The swoon of the Madonna is depicted at the left,
and this gives the holy presences, in respect to the case, the
strangest historical or actual air. Everything is so real that
you feel a vague impatience and almost ask yourself how it was
that amid the army of his consecrated servants our Lord was
permitted to suffer. On reflection you see that the painter's
design, so far as coherent, has been simply to offer an immense
representation of Pity, and all with such concentrated truth that
his colours here seem dissolved in tears that drop and drop,
however softly, through all time. Of this single yearning
consciousness the figures are admirably expressive. No later
painter learned to render with deeper force than Fra Angelico the
one state of the spirit he could conceive--a passionate pious
tenderness. Immured in his quiet convent, he apparently never
received an intelligible impression of evil; and his conception
of human life was a perpetual sense of sacredly loving and being
loved. But how, immured in his quiet convent, away from the
streets and the studios, did he become that genuine, finished,
perfectly professional painter? No one is less of a mere mawkish
amateur. His range was broad, from this really heroic fresco to
the little trumpeting seraphs, in their opaline robes, enamelled,
as it were, on the gold margins of his pictures.

I sat out the sermon and departed, I hope, with the gentle
preacher's blessing. I went into the smaller refectory, near by,
to refresh my memory of the beautiful Last Supper of Domenico
Ghirlandaio. It would be putting things coarsely to say that I
adjourned thus from a sernlon to a comedy, though Ghirlandaio's
theme, as contrasted with the blessed Angelico's, was the
dramatic spectacular side of human life. How keenly he observed
it and how richly he rendered it, the world about him of colour
and costume, of handsome heads and pictorial groupings! In his
admirable school there is no painter one enjoys--pace
Ruskin--more sociably and irresponsibly. Lippo Lippi is simpler,
quainter, more frankly expressive; but we retain before him a
remnant of the sympathetic discomfort provoked by the masters
whose conceptions were still a trifle too large for their means.
The pictorial vision in their minds seems to stretch and strain
their undeveloped skill almost to a sense of pain. In Ghirlandaio
the skill and the imagination are equal, and he gives us a
delightful impression of enjoying his own resources. Of all the
painters of his time he affects us least as positively not of
ours. He enjoyed a crimson mantle spreading and tumbling in
curious folds and embroidered with needlework of gold, just as he
enjoyed a handsome well-rounded head, with vigorous dusky locks,
profiled in courteous adoration. He enjoyed in short the various
reality of things, and had the good fortune to live in an age
when reality flowered into a thousand amusing graces--to speak
only of those. He was not especially addicted to giving spiritual
hints; and yet how hard and meagre they seem, the professed and
finished realists of our own day, with the spiritual
bonhomie or candour that makes half Ghirlandaio's richness
left out! The Last Supper at San Marco is an excellent example of
the natural reverence of an artist of that time with whom
reverence was not, as one may say, a specialty. The main idea
with him has been the variety, the material bravery and
positively social charm of the scene, which finds expression,
with irrepressible generosity, in the accessories of the
background. Instinctively he imagines an opulent garden--imagines
it with a good faith which quite tides him over the reflection
that Christ and his disciples were poor men and unused to sit at
meat in palaces. Great full-fruited orange-trees peep over the
wall before which the table is spread, strange birds fly through
the air, while a peacock perches on the edge of the partition and
looks down on the sacred repast. It is striking that, without any
at all intense religious purpose, the figures, in their varied
naturalness, have a dignity and sweetness of attitude that admits
of numberless reverential constructions. I should call all this
the happy tact of a robust faith.

On the staircase leading up to the little painted cells of the
Beato Angelico, however, I suddenly faltered and paused. Somehow
I had grown averse to the intenser zeal of the Monk of Fiesole. I
wanted no more of him that day. I wanted no more macerated friars
and spear-gashed sides. Ghirlandaio's elegant way of telling his
story had put me in the humour for something more largely
intelligent, more profanely pleasing. I departed, walked across
the square, and found it in the Academy, standing in a particular
spot and looking up at a particular high-hung picture. It is
difficult to speak adequately, perhaps even intelligibly, of
Sandro Botticelli. An accomplished critic--Mr. Pater, in his
Studies on the History of the Renaissance--has lately paid
him the tribute of an exquisite, a supreme, curiosity. He was
rarity and distinction incarnate, and of all the multitudinous
masters of his group incomparably the most interesting, the one
who detains and perplexes and fascinates us most. Exquisitely
fine his imagination--infinitely audacious and adventurous his
fancy. Alone among the painters of his time he strikes us as
having invention. The glow and thrill of expanding observation--
this was the feeling that sent his comrades to their easels; but
Botticelli's moved him to reactions and emotions of which they
knew nothing, caused his faculty to sport and wander and explore
on its own account. These impulses have fruits often so ingenious
and so lovely that it would be easy to talk nonsense about them.
I hope it is not nonsense, however, to say that the picture to
which I just alluded (the "Coronation of the Virgin," with a
group of life-sized saints below and a garland of miniature
angels above) is one of the supremely beautiful productions of
the human mind. It is hung so high that you need a good glass to
see it; to say nothing of the unprecedented delicacy of the work.
The lower half is of moderate interest; but the dance of hand-
clasped angels round the heavenly couple above has a beauty newly
exhaled from the deepest sources of inspiration. Their perfect
little hands are locked with ineffable elegance; their blowing
robes are tossed into folds of which each line is a study; their
charming feet have the relief of the most delicate sculpture.
But, as I have already noted, of Botticelli there is much, too
much to say--besides which Mr. Pater has said all. Only add thus
to his inimitable grace of design that the exquisite pictorial
force driving him goes a-Maying not on wanton errands of its own,
but on those of some mystic superstition which trembles for ever
in his heart.

[Illustration: THE GREAT EAVES, FLORENCE]


V


The more I look at the old Florentine domestic architecture the
more I like it--that of the great examples at least; and if I
ever am able to build myself a lordly pleasure-house I don't see
how in conscience I can build it different from these. They are
sombre and frowning, and look a trifle more as if they were meant
to keep people out than to let them in; but what equally
"important" type--if there be an equally important--is more
expressive of domiciliary dignity and security and yet attests
them with a finer æesthetic economy? They are impressively
"handsome," and yet contrive to be so by the simplest means. I
don't say at the smallest pecuniary cost--that's another matter.
There is money buried in the thick walls and diffused through the
echoing excess of space. The merchant nobles of the fifteenth
century had deep and full pockets, I suppose, though the present
bearers of their names are glad to let out their palaces in
suites of apartments which are occupied by the commercial
aristocracy of another republic. One is told of fine old
mouldering chambers of which possession is to be enjoyed for a
sum not worth mentioning. I am afraid that behind these so
gravely harmonious fronts there is a good deal of dusky
discomfort, and I speak now simply of the large serious faces
themselves as you can see them from the street; see them ranged
cheek to cheek, in the grey historic light of Via dei Bardi, Via
Maggio, Via degli Albizzi. The force of character, the familiar
severity and majesty, depend on a few simple features: on the
great iron-caged windows of the rough-hewn basement; on the noble
stretch of space between the summit of one high, round-topped
window and the bottom of that above; on the high-hung sculptured
shield at the angle of the house; on the flat far-projecting
roof; and, finally, on the magnificent tallness of the whole
building, which so dwarfs our modern attempts at size. The finest
of these Florentine palaces are, I imagine, the tallest
habitations in Europe that are frankly and amply habitations--not
mere shafts for machinery of the American grain-elevator pattern.
Some of the creations of M. Haussmann in Paris may climb very
nearly as high; but there is all the difference in the world
between the impressiveness of a building which takes breath, as
it were, some six or seven times, from storey to storey, and of
one that erects itself to an equal height in three long-drawn
pulsations. When a house is ten windows wide and the drawing-room
floor is as high as a chapel it can afford but three floors.
The spaciousness of some of those ancient drawing-rooms is that
of a Russian steppe. The "family circle," gathered anywhere
within speaking distance, must resemble a group of pilgrims
encamped in the desert on a little oasis of carpet. Madame
Gryzanowska, living at the top of a house in that dusky, tortuous
old Borgo Pinti, initiated me the other evening most good-
naturedly, lamp in hand, into the far-spreading mysteries of her
apartment. Such quarters seem a translation into space of the
old-fashioned idea of leisure. Leisure and "room" have been
passing out of our manners together, but here and there, being of
stouter structure, the latter lingers and survives.

Here and there, indeed, in this blessed Italy, reluctantly modern
in spite alike of boasts and lamentations, it seems to have been
preserved for curiosity's and fancy's sake, with a vague, sweet
odour of the embalmer's spices about it. I went the other morning
to the Corsini Palace. The proprietors obviously are great
people. One of the ornaments of Rome is their great white-faced
palace in the dark Trastevere and its voluminous gallery, none
the less delectable for the poorness of the pictures. Here they
have a palace on the Arno, with another large, handsome,
respectable and mainly uninteresting collection. It contains
indeed three or four fine examples of early Florentines. It was
not especially for the pictures that I went, however; and
certainly not for the pictures that I stayed. I was under the
same spell as the inveterate companion with whom I walked the
other day through the beautiful private apartments of the Pitti
Palace and who said: "I suppose I care for nature, and I know
there have been times when I have thought it the greatest
pleasure in life to lie under a tree and gaze away at blue hills.
But just now I had rather lie on that faded sea-green satin sofa
and gaze down through the open door at that retreating vista of
gilded, deserted, haunted chambers. In other words I prefer a
good 'interior' to a good landscape. The impression has a greater
intensity--the thing itself a more complex animation. I like fine
old rooms that have been occupied in a fine old way. I like the
musty upholstery, the antiquated knick-knacks, the view out of
the tall deep-embrasured windows at garden cypresses rocking
against a grey sky. If you don't know why, I'm afraid I can't
tell you." It seemed to me at the Palazzo Corsini that I did know
why. In places that have been lived in so long and so much and in
such a fine old way, as my friend said--that is under social
conditions so multifold and to a comparatively starved and
democratic sense so curious--the past seems to have left a
sensible deposit, an aroma, an atmosphere. This ghostly presence
tells you no secrets, but it prompts you to try and guess a few.
What has been done and said here through so many years, what has
been ventured or suffered, what has been dreamed or despaired of?
Guess the riddle if you can, or if you think it worth your
ingenuity. The rooms at Palazzo Corsini suggest indeed, and seem
to recall, but a monotony of peace and plenty. One of them imaged
such a noble perfection of a home-scene that I dawdled there
until the old custodian came shuffling back to see whether
possibly I was trying to conceal a Caravaggio about my person: a
great crimson-draped drawing-room of the amplest and yet most
charming proportions; walls hung with large dark pictures, a
great concave ceiling frescoed and moulded with dusky richness,
and half-a-dozen south windows looking out on the Arno, whose
swift yellow tide sends up the light in a cheerful flicker. I
fear that in my appreciation of the particular effect so achieved
I uttered a monstrous folly--some momentary willingness to be
maimed or crippled all my days if I might pass them in such a
place. In fact half the pleasure of inhabiting this spacious
saloon would be that of using one's legs, of strolling up and
down past the windows, one by one, and making desultory journeys
from station to station and corner to corner. Near by is a
colossal ball-room, domed and pilastered like a Renaissance
cathedral, and super-abundantly decorated with marble effigies,
all yellow and grey with the years.


VI


In the Carthusian Monastery outside the Roman Gate, mutilated
and profaned though it is, one may still snuff up a strong if
stale redolence of old Catholicism and old Italy. The road to it
is ugly, being encumbered with vulgar waggons and fringed with
tenements suggestive of an Irish-American suburb. Your interest
begins as you come in sight of the convent perched on its little
mountain and lifting against the sky, around the bell-tower of
its gorgeous chapel, a coronet of clustered cells. You make your
way into the lower gate, through a clamouring press of deformed
beggars who thrust at you their stumps of limbs, and you climb
the steep hillside through a shabby plantation which it is proper
to fancy was better tended in the monkish time. The monks are not
totally abolished, the government having the grace to await the
natural extinction of the half-dozen old brothers who remain, and
who shuffle doggedly about the cloisters, looking, with their
white robes and their pale blank old faces, quite anticipatory
ghosts of their future selves. A prosaic, profane old man in a
coat and trousers serves you, however, as custodian. The
melancholy friars have not even the privilege of doing you the
honours of their dishonour. One must imagine the pathetic effect
of their former silent pointings to this and that conventual
treasure under stress of the feeling that such pointings were
narrowly numbered. The convent is vast and irregular--it bristles
with those picture-making arts and accidents which one notes as
one lingers and passes, but which in Italy the overburdened
memory learns to resolve into broadly general images. I rather
deplore its position at the gates of a bustling city--it ought
rather to be lodged in some lonely fold of the Apennines. And yet
to look out from the shady porch of one of the quiet cells upon
the teeming vale of the Arno and the clustered towers of Florence
must have deepened the sense of monastic quietude.

The chapel, or rather the church, which is of great proportions
and designed by Andrea Orcagna, the primitive painter, refines
upon the consecrated type or even quite glorifies it. The massive
cincture of black sculptured stalls, the dusky Gothic roof, the
high-hung, deep-toned pictures and the superb pavement of verd-
antique and dark red marble, polished into glassy lights, must
throw the white-robed figures of the gathered friars into the
highest romantic relief. All this luxury of worship has nowhere
such value as in the chapels of monasteries, where we find it
contrasted with the otherwise so ascetic economy of the
worshippers. The paintings and gildings of their church, the
gem-bright marbles and fantastic carvings, are really but the
monastic tribute to sensuous delight--an imperious need for which
the fond imagination of Rome has officiously opened the door. One
smiles when one thinks how largely a fine starved sense for the
forbidden things of earth, if it makes the most of its
opportunities, may gratify this need under cover of devotion.
Nothing is too base, too hard, too sordid for real humility, but
nothing too elegant, too amiable, too caressing, caressed,
caressable, for the exaltation of faith. The meaner the convent
cell the richer the convent chapel. Out of poverty and solitude,
inanition and cold, your honest friar may rise at his will into a
Mahomet's Paradise of luxurious analogies.

There are further various dusky subterranean oratories where a
number of bad pictures contend faintly with the friendly gloom.
Two or three of these funereal vaults, however, deserve mention.
In one of them, side by side, sculptured by Donatello in low
relief, lie the white marble effigies of the three members of
the Accaiuoli family who founded the convent in the thirteenth
century. In another, on his back, on the pavement, rests a grim
old bishop of the same stout race by the same honest craftsman.
Terribly grim he is, and scowling as if in his stony sleep he
still dreamed of his hates and his hard ambitions. Last and best,
in another low chapel, with the trodden pavement for its bed,
shines dimly a grand image of a later bishop--Leonardo
Buonafede, who, dying in 1545, owes his monument to Francesco di
San Gallo. I have seen little from this artist's hand, but it was
clearly of the cunningest. His model here was a very sturdy old
prelate, though I should say a very genial old man. The sculptor
has respected his monumental ugliness, but has suffused it with a
singular homely charm--a look of confessed physical comfort in
the privilege of paradise. All these figures have an inimitable
reality, and their lifelike marble seems such an incorruptible
incarnation of the genius of the place that you begin to think of
it as even more reckless than cruel on the part of the present
public powers to have begun to pull the establishment down,
morally speaking, about their ears. They are lying quiet yet a
while; but when the last old friar dies and the convent formally
lapses, won't they rise on their stiff old legs and hobble out to
the gates and thunder forth anathemas before which even a future
and more enterprising régime may be disposed to pause?

Out of the great central cloister open the snug little detached
dwellings of the absent fathers. When I said just now that the
Certosa in Val d'Ema gives you a glimpse of old Italy I was
thinking of this great pillared quadrangle, lying half in sun and
half in shade, of its tangled garden-growth in the centre,
surrounding the ancient customary well, and of the intense blue
sky bending above it, to say nothing of the indispensable old
white-robed monk who pokes about among the lettuce and parsley.
We have seen such places before; we have visited them in that
divinatory glance which strays away into space for a moment over
the top of a suggestive book. I don't quite know whether it's
more or less as one's fancy would have it that the monkish cells
are no cells at all, but very tidy little appartements
complets
, consisting of a couple of chambers, a sitting-room
and a spacious loggia, projecting out into space from the cliff-
like wall of the monastery and sweeping from pole to pole the
loveliest view in the world. It's poor work, however, taking
notes on views, and I will let this one pass. The little chambers
are terribly cold and musty now. Their odour and atmosphere are
such as one used, as a child, to imagine those of the school-room
during Saturday and Sunday.


VII


In the Roman streets, wherever you turn, the facade of a church
in more or less degenerate flamboyance is the principal feature
of the scene; and if, in the absence of purer motives, you are
weary of aesthetic trudging over the corrugated surface of the
Seven Hills, a system of pavement in which small cobble-stones
anomalously endowed with angles and edges are alone employed, you
may turn aside at your pleasure and take a reviving sniff at the
pungency of incense. In Florence, one soon observes, the churches
are relatively few and the dusky house-fronts more rarely
interrupted by specimens of that extraordinary architecture which
in Rome passes for sacred. In Florence, in other words,
ecclesiasticism is less cheap a commodity and not dispensed in
the same abundance at the street-corners. Heaven forbid, at the
same time, that I should undervalue the Roman churches, which are
for the most part treasure-houses of history, of curiosity, of
promiscuous and associational interest. It is a fact,
nevertheless, that, after St. Peter's, I know but one really
beautiful church by the Tiber, the enchanting basilica of St.
Mary Major. Many have structural character, some a great
allure, but as a rule they all lack the dignity of the
best of the Florentine temples. Here, the list being immeasurably
shorter and the seed less scattered, the principal churches are
all beautiful. And yet I went into the Annunziata the other day
and sat there for half-an-hour because, forsooth, the gildings
and the marbles and the frescoed dome and the great rococo shrine
near the door, with its little black jewelled fetish, reminded me
so poignantly of Rome. Such is the city properly styled eternal--
since it is eternal, at least, as regards the consciousness of
the individual. One loves it in its sophistications--though for
that matter isn't it all rich and precious sophistication?--
better than other places in their purity.

Coming out of the Annunziata you look past the bronze statue of
the Grand Duke Ferdinand I (whom Mr. Browning's heroine used to
watch for--in the poem of "The Statue and the Bust"--from the red
palace near by), and down a street vista of enchanting
picturesqueness. The street is narrow and dusky and filled with
misty shadows, and at its opposite end rises the vast bright-
coloured side of the Cathedral. It stands up in very much the
same mountainous fashion as the far-shining mass of the bigger
prodigy at Milan, of which your first glimpse as you leave your
hotel is generally through another such dark avenue; only that,
if we talk of mountains, the white walls of Milan must be likened
to snow and ice from their base, while those of the Duomo of
Florence may be the image of some mighty hillside enamelled with
blooming flowers. The big bleak interior here has a naked majesty
which, though it may fail of its effect at first, becomes after a
while extraordinarily touching. Originally disconcerting, it soon
inspired me with a passion. Externally, at any rate, it is one of
the loveliest works of man's hands, and an overwhelming proof
into the bargain that when elegance belittles grandeur you have
simply had a bungling artist.

Santa Croce within not only triumphs here, but would triumph
anywhere. "A trifle naked if you like," said my irrepressible
companion, "but that's what I call architecture, just as I don't
call bronze or marble clothes (save under urgent stress of
portraiture) statuary." And indeed we are far enough away from
the clustering odds and ends borrowed from every art and every
province without which the ritually builded thing doesn't trust
its spell to work in Rome. The vastness, the lightness, the open
spring of the arches at Santa Croce, the beautiful shape of the
high and narrow choir, the impression made as of mass without
weight and the gravity yet reigning without gloom--these are my
frequent delight, and the interest grows with acquaintance. The
place is the great Florentine Valhalla, the final home or
memorial harbour of the native illustrious dead, but that
consideration of it would take me far. It must be confessed
moreover that, between his coarsely-imagined statue out in front
and his horrible monument in one of the aisles, the author of
The Divine Comedy, for instance, is just hereabouts rather
an extravagant figure. "Ungrateful Florence," declaims Byron.
Ungrateful indeed--would she were more so! the susceptible spirit
of the great exile may be still aware enough to exclaim; in
common, that is, with most of the other immortals sacrificed on
so very large a scale to current Florentine "plastic" facility.
In explanation of which remark, however, I must confine myself to
noting that, as almost all the old monuments at Santa Croce are
small, comparatively small, and interesting and exquisite, so the
modern, well nigh without exception, are disproportionately vast
and pompous, or in other words distressingly vague and vain. The
aptitude of hand, the compositional assurance, with which such
things are nevertheless turned out, constitutes an anomaly
replete with suggestion for an observer of the present state of
the arts on the soil and in the air that once befriended them,
taking them all together, as even the soil and the air of Greece
scarce availed to do. But on this head, I repeat, there would be
too much to say; and I find myself checked by the same warning at
the threshold of the church in Florence really interesting beyond
Santa Croce, beyond all others. Such, of course, easily, is Santa
Maria Novella, where the chapels are lined and plated with
wonderful figured and peopled fresco-work even as most of those
in Rome with precious inanimate substances. These overscored
retreats of devotion, as dusky, some of them, as eremitic caves
swarming with importunate visions, have kept me divided all
winter between the love of Ghirlandaio and the fear of those
seeds of catarrh to which their mortal chill seems propitious
till far on into the spring. So I pause here just on the praise
of that delightful painter--as to the spirit of whose work the
reflections I have already made are but confirmed by these
examples. In the choir at Santa Maria Novella, where the incense
swings and the great chants resound, between the gorgeous
coloured window and the florid grand altar, he still "goes in,"
with all his might, for the wicked, the amusing world, the world
of faces and forms and characters, of every sort of curious human
and rare material thing.

[Illustration: BOBOLI GARDEN, FLORENCE.]


VIII


I had always felt the Boboli Gardens charming enough for me to
"haunt" them; and yet such is the interest of Florence in every
quarter that it took another corso of the same cheap
pattern as the last to cause me yesterday to flee the crowded
streets, passing under that archway of the Pitti Palace which
might almost be the gate of an Etruscan city, so that I might
spend the afternoon among the mouldy statues that compose with
their screens of cypress, looking down at our clustered towers
and our background of pale blue hills vaguely freckled with white
villas. These pleasure-grounds of the austere Pitti pile, with
its inconsequent charm of being so rough-hewn and yet somehow so
elegantly balanced, plead with a voice all their own the general
cause of the ample enclosed, planted, cultivated private
preserve--preserve of tranquillity and beauty and immunity--in
the heart of a city; a cause, I allow, for that matter, easy to
plead anywhere, once the pretext is found, the large, quiet,
distributed town-garden, with the vague hum of big grudging
boundaries all about it, but with everything worse excluded,
being of course the most insolently-pleasant thing in the world.
In addition to which, when the garden is in the Italian manner,
with flowers rather remarkably omitted, as too flimsy and easy
and cheap, and without lawns that are too smart, paths that are
too often swept and shrubs that are too closely trimmed, though
with a fanciful formalism giving style to its shabbiness, and
here and there a dusky ilex-walk, and here and there a dried-up
fountain, and everywhere a piece of mildewed sculpture staring at
you from a green alcove, and just in the right place, above all,
a grassy amphitheatre curtained behind with black cypresses and
sloping downward in mossy marble steps--when, I say, the place
possesses these attractions, and you lounge there of a soft
Sunday afternoon, the racier spectacle of the streets having made
your fellow-loungers few and left you to the deep stillness and
the shady vistas that lead you wonder where, left you to the
insidious irresistible mixture of nature and art, nothing too
much of either, only a supreme happy resultant, a divine
tertium quid: under these conditions, it need scarce be
said the revelation invoked descends upon you.

The Boboli Gardens are not large--you wonder how compact little
Florence finds room for them within her walls. But they are
scattered, to their extreme, their all-romantic advantage and
felicity, over a group of steep undulations between the rugged
and terraced palace and a still-surviving stretch of city wall,
where the unevenness of the ground much adds to their apparent
size. You may cultivate in them the fancy of their solemn and
haunted character, of something faint and dim and even, if you
like, tragic, in their prescribed, their functional smile; as if
they borrowed from the huge monument that overhangs them certain
of its ponderous memories and regrets. This course is open to
you, I mention, but it isn't enjoined, and will doubtless indeed
not come up for you at all if it isn't your habit, cherished
beyond any other, to spin your impressions to the last tenuity of
fineness. Now that I bethink myself I must always have happened
to wander here on grey and melancholy days. It remains none the
less true that the place contains, thank goodness--or at least
thank the grave, the infinitely-distinguished traditional
taste of Florence--no cheerful, trivial object, neither
parterres, nor pagodas, nor peacocks, nor swans. They have their
famous amphitheatre already referred to, with its degrees or
stone benches of a thoroughly aged and mottled complexion and its
circular wall of evergreens behind, in which small cracked images
and vases, things that, according to association, and with the
law of the same quite indefinable, may make as much on one
occasion for exquisite dignity as they may make on another for
(to express it kindly) nothing at all. Something was once done in
this charmed and forsaken circle--done or meant to be done; what
was it, dumb statues, who saw it with your blank eyes? Opposite
stands the huge flat-roofed palace, putting forward two great
rectangular arms and looking, with its closed windows and its
foundations of almost unreduced rock, like some ghost of a sample
of a ruder Babylon. In the wide court-like space between the
wings is a fine old white marble fountain that never plays. Its
dusty idleness completes the general air of abandonment.
Chancing on such a cluster of objects in Italy--glancing at them
in a certain light and a certain mood--I get (perhaps on too easy
terms, you may think) a sense of history that takes away
my breath. Generations of Medici have stood at these closed
windows, embroidered and brocaded according to their period, and
held fetes champetres and floral games on the greensward,
beneath the mouldering hemicycle. And the Medici were great
people! But what remains of it all now is a mere tone in the air,
a faint sigh in the breeze, a vague expression in things, a
passive--or call it rather, perhaps, to be fair, a shyly,
pathetically responsive--accessibility to the yearning guess.
Call it much or call it little, the ineffaceability of this deep
stain of experience, it is the interest of old places and the
bribe to the brooding analyst. Time has devoured the doers and
their doings, but there still hangs about some effect of their
passage. We can "layout" parks on virgin soil, and cause them to
bristle with the most expensive importations, but we
unfortunately can't scatter abroad again this seed of the
eventual human soul of a place--that comes but in its time and
takes too long to grow. There is nothing like it when it
has come.

Henry James