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Italy Revisited

I

I waited in Paris until after the elections for the new Chamber
(they took place on the 14th of October); as only after one had
learned that the famous attempt of Marshal MacMahon and his
ministers to drive the French nation to the polls like a flock of
huddling sheep, each with the white ticket of an official
candidate round his neck, had not achieved the success which the
energy of the process might have promised--only then it was
possible to draw a long breath and deprive the republican party
of such support as might have been conveyed in one's sympathetic
presence. Seriously speaking too, the weather had been
enchanting--there were Italian fancies to be gathered without
leaving the banks of the Seine. Day after day the air was filled
with golden light, and even those chalkish vistas of the Parisian
beaux quartiers assumed the iridescent tints of autumn.
Autumn weather in Europe is often such a very sorry affair that a
fair-minded American will have it on his conscience to call
attention to a rainless and radiant October.

The echoes of the electoral strife kept me company for a while
after starting upon that abbreviated journey to Turin which, as
you leave Paris at night, in a train unprovided with
encouragements to slumber, is a singular mixture of the odious
and the charming. The charming indeed I think prevails; for the
dark half of the journey is the least interesting. The morning
light ushers you into the romantic gorges of the Jura, and after
a big bowl of cafe au lait at Culoz you may compose
yourself comfortably for the climax of your spectacle. The day
before leaving Paris I met a French friend who had just returned
from a visit to a Tuscan country-seat where he had been watching
the vintage. "Italy," he said, "is more lovely than words can
tell, and France, steeped in this electoral turmoil, seems no
better than a bear-garden." The part of the bear-garden through
which you travel as you approach the Mont Cenis seemed to me that
day very beautiful. The autumn colouring, thanks to the absence
of rain, had been vivid and crisp, and the vines that swung their
low garlands between the mulberries round about Chambery looked
like long festoons of coral and amber. The frontier station of
Modane, on the further side of the Mont Cenis Tunnel, is a very
ill-regulated place; but even the most irritable of tourists,
meeting it on his way southward, will be disposed to consider it
good-naturedly. There is far too much bustling and scrambling,
and the facilities afforded you for the obligatory process of
ripping open your luggage before the officers of the Italian
custom-house are much scantier than should be; but for myself
there is something that deprecates irritation in the shabby green
and grey uniforms of all the Italian officials who stand loafing
about and watching the northern invaders scramble back into
marching order. Wearing an administrative uniform doesn't
necessarily spoil a man's temper, as in France one is sometimes
led to believe; for these excellent under-paid Italians carry
theirs as lightly as possible, and their answers to your
inquiries don't in the least bristle with rapiers, buttons and
cockades. After leaving Modane you slide straight downhill into
the Italy of your desire; from which point the road edges, after the
grand manner, along those It precipices that stand shoulder to
shoulder, in a prodigious perpendicular file, till they finally
admit you to a distant glimpse he ancient capital of Piedmont.

Turin is no city of a name to conjure with, and I pay an
extravagant tribute to subjective emotion in speaking of it as
ancient. if the place is less bravely peninsular than Florence
and Rome, at least it is more in the scenic tradition than New
York Paris; and while I paced the great arcades and looked at the
fourth-rate shop windows I didn't scruple to cultivate a
shameless optimism. Relatively speaking, Turin touches a chord;
but there is after all no reason in a large collection of
shabbily-stuccoed houses, disposed in a rigidly rectangular
manner, for passing a day of deep, still gaiety. The only reason,
I am afraid, is the old superstition of Italy--that property in
the very look of the written word, the evocation of a myriad
images, that makes any lover of the arts take Italian
satisfactions on easier terms than any others. The written word
stands for something that eternally tricks us; we juggle to our
credulity even with such inferior apparatus as is offered to our
hand at Turin. I roamed all the morning under the tall porticoes,
thinking it sufficient joy to take note of the soft, warm air, of
that local colour of things that is at once so broken and so
harmonious, and of the comings and goings, the physiognomy and
manners, of the excellent Turinese. I had opened the old book
again; the old charm was in the style; I was in a more delightful
world. I saw nothing surpassingly beautiful or curious; but your
true taster of the most seasoned of dishes finds well-nigh the
whole mixture in any mouthful. Above all on the threshold of
Italy he knows again the solid and perfectly definable pleasure
of finding himself among the traditions of the grand style in
architecture. It must be said that we have still to go there to
recover the sense of the domiciliary mass. In northern cities
there are beautiful houses, picturesque and curious houses;
sculptured gables that hang over the street, charming bay-
windows, hooded doorways, elegant proportions, a profusion of
delicate ornament; but a good specimen of an old Italian palazzo
has a nobleness that is all its own. We laugh at Italian
"palaces," at their peeling paint, their nudity, their
dreariness; but they have the great palatial quality--elevation
and extent. They make of smaller things the apparent abode of
pigmies; they round their great arches and interspace their huge
windows with a proud indifference to the cost of materials. These
grand proportions--the colossal basements, the doorways that seem
meant for cathedrals, the far away cornices--impart by contrast
a humble and bourgeois expression to interiors founded on
the sacrifice of the whole to the part, and in which the air of
grandeur depends largely on the help of the upholsterer. At Turin
my first feeling was really one of renewed shame for our meaner
architectural manners. If the Italians at bottom despise the rest
of mankind and regard them as barbarians, disinherited of the
tradition of form, the idea proceeds largely, no doubt, from our
living in comparative mole-hills. They alone were really to build
their civilisation.

[Illustration: UNDER THE ARCADES, TURIN.]

An impression which on coming back to Italy I find even stronger
than when it was first received is that of the contrast between
the fecundity of the great artistic period and the vulgarity
there of the genius of to-day. The first few hours spent on
Italian soil are sufficient to renew it, and the question I
allude to is, historically speaking, one of the oddest. That the
people who but three hundred years ago had the best taste in the
world should now have the worst; that having produced the
noblest, loveliest, costliest works, they should now be given up
to the manufacture of objects at once ugly and paltry; that the
race of which Michael Angelo and Raphael, Leonardo and Titian
were characteristic should have no other title to distinction
than third-rate genre pictures and catchpenny statues--
all this is a frequent perplexity to the observer of actual
Italian life. The flower of "great" art in these latter years
ceased to bloom very powerfully anywhere; but nowhere does it
seem so drooping and withered as in the shadow of the immortal
embodiments of the old Italian genius. You go into a church or a
gallery and feast your fancy upon a splendid picture or an
exquisite piece of sculpture, and on issuing from the door that
has admitted you to the beautiful past are confronted with
something that has the effect of a very bad joke. The aspect of
your lodging--the carpets, the curtains, the upholstery in
general, with their crude and violent colouring and their vulgar
material--the trumpery things in the shops, the extreme bad taste
of the dress of the women, the cheapness and baseness of every
attempt at decoration in the cafes and railway-stations, the
hopeless frivolity of everything that pretends to be a work of
art--all this modern crudity runs riot over the relics of the
great period.

We can do a thing for the first time but once; it is but once for
all that we can have a pleasure in its freshness. This is a law
not on the whole, I think, to be regretted, for we sometimes
learn to know things better by not enjoying them too much. It is
certain, however, at the same time, that a visitor who has worked
off the immediate ferment for this inexhaustibly interesting
country has by no means entirely drained the cup. After thinking
of Italy as historical and artistic it will do him no great harm
to think of her for a while as panting both for a future and for
a balance at the bank; aspirations supposedly much at variance
with the Byronic, the Ruskinian, the artistic, poetic, aesthetic
manner of considering our eternally attaching peninsula. He may
grant--I don't say it is absolutely necessary--that its actual
aspects and economics are ugly, prosaic, provokingly out of
relation to the diary and the album; it is nevertheless true
that, at the point things have come to, modern Italy in a manner
imposes herself. I hadn't been many hours in the country before
that truth assailed me; and I may add that, the first irritation
past, I found myself able to accept it. For, if we think, nothing
is more easy to understand than an honest ire on the part of the
young Italy of to-day at being looked at by all the world as a
kind of soluble pigment. Young Italy, preoccupied with its
economical and political future, must be heartily tired of being
admired for its eyelashes and its pose. In one of Thackeray's
novels occurs a mention of a young artist who sent to the Royal
Academy a picture representing "A Contadino dancing with a
Trasteverina at the door of a Locanda, to the music of a
Pifferaro." It is in this attitude and with these conventional
accessories that the world has hitherto seen fit to represent
young Italy, and one doesn't wonder that if the youth has any
spirit he should at last begin to resent our insufferable
aesthetic patronage. He has established a line of tram-cars in
Rome, from the Porta del Popolo to the Ponte Molle, and it is on
one of these democratic vehicles that I seem to see him taking
his triumphant course down the vista of the future. I won't
pretend to rejoice with him any more than I really do; I won't
pretend, as the sentimental tourists say about it all, as if it
were the setting of an intaglio or the border of a Roman scarf,
to "like" it. Like it or not, as we may, it is evidently destined
to be; I see a new Italy in the future which in many important
respects will equal, if not surpass, the most enterprising
sections of our native land. Perhaps by that time Chicago and San
Francisco will have acquired a pose, and their sons and daughters
will dance at the doors of locande.

However this may be, the accomplished schism between the old
order and the new is the promptest moral of a fresh visit to this
ever-suggestive part of the world. The old has become more and
more a museum, preserved and perpetuated in the midst of the new,
but without any further relation to it--it must be admitted
indeed that such a relation is considerable--than that of the
stock on his shelves to the shopkeeper, or of the Siren of the
South to the showman who stands before his booth. More than once,
as we move about nowadays in the Italian cities, there seems to
pass before our eyes a vision of the coming years. It represents
to our satisfaction an Italy united and prosperous, but
altogether scientific and commercial. The Italy indeed that we
sentimentalise and romance about was an ardently mercantile
country; though I suppose it loved not its ledgers less, but its
frescoes and altar-pieces more. Scattered through this paradise
regained of trade--this country of a thousand ports--we see a
large number of beautiful buildings in which an endless series of
dusky pictures are darkening, dampening, fading, failing, through
the years. By the doors of the beautiful buildings are little
turnstiles at which there sit a great many uniformed men to whom
the visitor pays a tenpenny fee. Inside, in the vaulted and
frescoed chambers, the art of Italy. lies buried as in a thousand
mausoleums. It is well taken care of; it is constantly copied;
sometimes it is "restored"--as in the case of that beautiful
boy-figure of Andrea del Sarto at Florence, which may be seen at
the gallery of the Uffizi with its honourable duskiness quite
peeled off and heaven knows what raw, bleeding cuticle laid bare.
One evening lately, near the same Florence, in the soft twilight,
I took a stroll among those encircling hills on which the massive
villas are mingled with the vaporous olives. Presently I arrived
where three roads met at a wayside shrine, in which, before some
pious daub of an old-time Madonna, a little votive lamp glimmered
through the evening air. The hour, the atmosphere, the place, the
twinkling taper, the sentiment of the observer, the thought that
some one had been rescued here from an assassin or from some
other peril and had set up a little grateful altar in
consequence, against the yellow-plastered wall of a tangled
podere; all this led me to approach the shrine with a
reverent, an emotional step. I drew near it, but after a few
steps I paused. I became aware of an incongruous odour; it seemed
to me that the evening air was charged with a perfume which,
although to a certain extent familiar, had not hitherto
associated itself with rustic frescoes and wayside altars. I
wondered, I gently sniffed, and the question so put left me no
doubt. The odour was that of petroleum; the votive taper was
nourished with the essence of Pennsylvania. I confess that I
burst out laughing, and a picturesque contadino, wending his
homeward way in the dusk, stared at me as if I were an
iconoclast. He noticed the petroleum only, I imagine, to snuff it
fondly up; but to me the thing served as a symbol of the Italy of
the future. There is a horse-car from the Porta del Popolo to the
Ponte Molle, and the Tuscan shrines are fed with kerosene.


II

If it's very well meanwhile to come to Turin first it's better
still to go to Genoa afterwards. Genoa is the tightest
topographic tangle in the world, which even a second visit helps
you little to straighten out. In the wonderful crooked, twisting,
climbing, soaring, burrowing Genoese alleys the traveller is
really up to his neck in the old Italian sketchability. The pride
of the place, I believe, is a port of great capacity, and the
bequest of the late Duke of Galliera, who left four millions of
dollars for the purpose of improving and enlarging it, will
doubtless do much toward converting it into one of the great
commercial stations of Europe. But as, after leaving my hotel the
afternoon I arrived, I wandered for a long time at hazard through
the tortuous by-ways of the city, I said to myself, not without
an accent of private triumph, that here at last was something it
would be almost impossible to modernise. I had found my hotel, in
the first place, extremely entertaining--the Croce di Malta, as
it is called, established in a gigantic palace on the edge of the
swarming and not over-clean harbour. It was the biggest house I
had ever entered--the basement alone would have contained a
dozen American caravansaries. I met an American gentleman in the
vestibule who (as he had indeed a perfect right to be) was
annoyed by its troublesome dimensions--one was a quarter of an
hour ascending out of the basement--and desired to know if it
were a "fair sample" of the Genoese inns. It appeared an
excellent specimen of Genoese architecture generally; so far as I
observed there were few houses perceptibly smaller than this
Titanic tavern. I lunched in a dusky ballroom whose ceiling was
vaulted, frescoed and gilded with the fatal facility of a couple
of centuries ago, and which looked out upon another ancient
housefront, equally huge and equally battered, separated from it
only by a little wedge of dusky space--one of the principal
streets, I believe, of Genoa--whence out of dim abysses the
population sent up to the windows (I had to crane out very far
to see it) a perpetual clattering, shuffling, chaffering sound.
Issuing forth presently into this crevice of a street I found
myself up to my neck in that element of the rich and strange--as
to visible and reproducible "effect," I mean--for the love of
which one revisits Italy. It offered itself indeed in a variety
of colours, some of which were not remarkable for their freshness
or purity. But their combined charm was not to be resisted, and
the picture glowed with the rankly human side of southern
lowlife.

Genoa, as I have hinted, is the crookedest and most incoherent of
cities; tossed about on the sides and crests of a dozen hills, it
is seamed with gullies and ravines that bristle with those
innumerable palaces for which we have heard from our earliest
years that the place is celebrated. These great structures, with
their mottled and faded complexions, lift their big ornamental
cornices to a tremendous height in the air, where, in a certain
indescribably forlorn and desolate fashion, overtopping each
other, they seem to reflect the twinkle and glitter of the warm
Mediterranean. Down about the basements, in the close crepuscular
alleys, the people are for ever moving to and fro or standing in
their cavernous doorways and their dusky, crowded shops, calling,
chattering, laughing, lamenting, living their lives in the
conversational Italian fashion. I had for a long time had no such
vision of possible social pressure. I hadn't for a long time seen
people elbowing each other so closely or swarming so thickly out
of populous hives. A traveller is often moved to ask himself
whether it has been worth while to leave his home--whatever his
home may have been--only to encounter new forms of human
suffering, only to be reminded that toil and privation, hunger
and sorrow and sordid effort, are the portion of the mass of
mankind. To travel is, as it were, to go to the play, to attend a
spectacle; and there is something heartless in stepping forth
into foreign streets to feast on "character" when character
consists simply of the slightly different costume in which labour
and want present themselves. These reflections were forced upon
me as I strolled as through a twilight patched with colour and
charged with stale smells; but after a time they ceased to bear
me company. The reason of this, I think, is because--at least to
foreign eyes--the sum of Italian misery is, on the whole, less
than the sum of the Italian knowledge of life. That people should
thank you, with a smile of striking sweetness, for the gift of
twopence, is a proof, certainly, of extreme and constant
destitution; but (keeping in mind the sweetness) it also attests
an enviable ability not to be depressed by circumstances. I know
that this may possibly be great nonsense; that half the time we
are acclaiming the fine quality of the Italian smile the creature
so constituted for physiognomic radiance may be in a sullen
frenzy of impatience and pain. Our observation in any foreign
land is extremely superficial, and our remarks are happily not
addressed to the inhabitants themselves, who would be sure to
exclaim upon the impudence of the fancy-picture.

The other day I visited a very picturesque old city upon a
mountain-top, where, in the course of my wanderings, I arrived at
an old disused gate in the ancient town-wall. The gate hadn't
been absolutely forfeited; but the recent completion of a modern
road down the mountain led most vehicles away to another egress.
The grass-grown pavement, which wound into the plain by a hundred
graceful twists and plunges, was now given up to ragged contadini
and their donkeys, and to such wayfarers as were not alarmed at
the disrepair into which it had fallen. I stood in the shadow of
the tall old gateway admiring the scene, looking to right and
left at the wonderful walls of the little town, perched on the
edge of a shaggy precipice; at the circling mountains over
against them; at the road dipping downward among the chestnuts
and olives. There was no one within sight but a young man who
slowly trudged upward with his coat slung over his shoulder and
his hat upon his ear in the manner of a cavalier in an opera.
Like an operatic performer too he sang as he came; the spectacle,
generally, was operatic, and as his vocal flourishes reached my
ear I said to myself that in Italy accident was always romantic
and that such a figure had been exactly what was wanted to set
off the landscape. It suggested in a high degree that knowledge
of life for which I just now commended the Italians. I was
turning back under the old gateway when the young man overtook me
and, suspending his song, asked me if I could favour him with a
match to light the hoarded remnant of a cigar. This request led,
as I took my way again to the inn, to my falling into talk with
him. He was a native of the ancient city, and answered freely all
my inquiries as to its manners and customs and its note of public
opinion. But the point of my anecdote is that he presently
acknowledged himself a brooding young radical and communist,
filled with hatred of the present Italian government, raging with
discontent and crude political passion, professing a ridiculous
hope that Italy would soon have, as France had had, her "'89,"
and declaring that he for his part would willingly lend a hand to
chop off the heads of the king and the royal family. He was an
unhappy, underfed, unemployed young man, who took a hard, grim
view of everything and was operatic only quite in spite of
himself. This made it very absurd of me to have looked at him
simply as a graceful ornament to the prospect, an harmonious
little figure in the middle distance. "Damn the prospect, damn
the middle distance!" would have been all his philosophy.
Yet but for the accident of my having gossipped with him I should
have made him do service, in memory, as an example of sensuous
optimism!

I am bound to say however that I believe a great deal of the
sensuous optimism observable in the Genoese alleys and beneath
the low, crowded arcades along the port was very real. Here every
one was magnificently sunburnt, and there were plenty of those
queer types, mahogany-coloured, bare-chested mariners with
earrings and crimson girdles, that seem to people a southern
seaport with the chorus of "Masaniello." But it is not fair to
speak as if at Genoa there were nothing but low-life to be seen,
for the place is the residence of some of the grandest people in
the world. Nor are all the palaces ranged upon dusky alleys; the
handsomest and most impressive form a splendid series on each
side of a couple of very proper streets, in which there is plenty
of room for a coach-and-four to approach the big doorways. Many
of these doorways are open, revealing great marble staircases
with couchant lions for balustrades and ceremonious courts
surrounded by walls of sun-softened yellow. One of the great
piles in the array is coloured a goodly red and contains in
particular the grand people I just now spoke of. They live indeed
on the third floor; but here they have suites of wonderful
painted and gilded chambers, in which foreshortened frescoes
also cover the vaulted ceilings and florid mouldings emboss the
ample walls. These distinguished tenants bear the name of
Vandyck, though they are members of the noble family of Brignole-
Sale, one of whose children--the Duchess of Galliera--has lately
given proof of nobleness in presenting the gallery of the red
palace to the city of Genoa.


III

On leaving Genoa I repaired to Spezia, chiefly with a view of .
accomplishing a sentimental pilgrimage, which I in fact achieved
in the most agreeable conditions. The Gulf of Spezia is now the
headquarters of the Italian fleet, and there were several big
iron-plated frigates riding at anchor in front of the town. The
streets were filled with lads in blue flannel, who were receiving
instruction at a schoolship in the harbour, and in the evening--
there was a brilliant moon--the little breakwater which stretched
out into the Mediterranean offered a scene of recreation to
innumerable such persons. But this fact is from the point of view
of the cherisher of quaintness of little account, for since it
has become prosperous Spezia has grown ugly. The place is filled
with long, dull stretches of dead wall and great raw expanses of
artificial land. It wears that look of monstrous, of more than
far-western newness which distinguishes all the creations of the
young Italian State. Nor did I find any great compensation in an
immense inn of recent birth, an establishment seated on the edge
of the sea in anticipation of a passeggiata which is to
come that way some five years hence, the region being in the
meantime of the most primitive formation. The inn was filled with
grave English people who looked respectable and bored, and there
was of course a Church of England service in the gaudily-frescoed
parlour. Neither was it the drive to Porto Venere that chiefly
pleased me--a drive among vines and olives, over the hills and
beside the Mediterranean, to a queer little crumbling village on
a headland, as sweetly desolate and superannuated as the name it
bears. There is a ruined church near the village, which occupies
the site according to tradition) of an ancient temple of Venus;
and if Venus ever revisits her desecrated shrines she must
sometimes pause a moment in that sunny stillness and listen to
the murmur of the tideless sea at the base of the narrow
promontory. If Venus sometimes comes there Apollo surely does as
much; for close to the temple is a gateway surmounted by an
inscription in Italian and English, which admits you to a
curious, and it must be confessed rather cockneyfied, cave among
the rocks. It was here, says the inscription, that the great
Byron, swimmer and poet, "defied the waves of the Ligurian sea."
The fact is interesting, though not supremely so; for Byron was
always defying something, and if a slab had been put up wherever
this performance came off these commemorative tablets would be in
many parts of Europe as thick as milestones.

No; the great merit of Spezia, to my eye, is that I engaged a
boat there of a lovely October afternoon and had myself rowed
across the gulf--it took about an hour and a half--to the little
bay of Lerici, which opens out of it. This bay of Lerici is
charming; the bosky grey-green hills close it in, and on either
side of the entrance, perched on a bold headland, a wonderful old
crumbling castle keeps ineffectual guard. The place is classic to
all English travellers, for in the middle of the curving shore is
the now desolate little villa in which Shelley spent the last
months of his short life. He was living at Lerici when he started
on that short southern cruise from which he never returned. The
house he occupied is strangely shabby and as sad as you may
choose to find it. It stands directly upon the beach, with
scarred and battered walls and a loggia of several arches
opening to a little terrace with a rugged parapet, which, when
the wind blows, must be drenched with the salt spray. The place
is very lonely--all overwearied with sun and breeze and brine--
very close to nature, as it was Shelley's passion to be. I can
fancy a great lyric poet sitting on the terrace of a warm evening
and feeling very far from England in the early years of the
century. In that place, and with his genius, he would as a matter
of course have heard in the voice of nature a sweetness which
only the lyric movement could translate. It is a place where an
English-speaking pilgrim himself may very honestly think thoughts
and feel moved to lyric utterance. But I must content myself with
saying in halting prose that I remember few episodes of Italian
travel more sympathetic, as they have it here, than that perfect
autumn afternoon; the half-hour's station on the little battered
terrace of the villa; the climb to the singularly felicitous old
castle that hangs above Lerici; the meditative lounge, in the
fading light, on the vine-decked platform that looked out toward
the sunset and the darkening mountains and, far below, upon the
quiet sea, beyond which the pale-faced tragic villa stared up at
the brightening moon.


IV

I had never known Florence more herself, or in other words more
attaching, than I found her for a week in that brilliant October.
She sat in the sunshine beside her yellow river like the little
treasure-city she has always seemed, without commerce, without
other industry than the manufacture of mosaic paper-weights and
alabaster Cupids, without actuality or energy or earnestness or
any of those rugged virtues which in most cases are deemed
indispensable for civic cohesion; with nothing but the little
unaugmented stock of her mediaeval memories, her tender-coloured
mountains, her churches and palaces, pictures and statues. There
were very few strangers; one's detested fellow-pilgrim was
infrequent; the native population itself seemed scanty; the sound
of wheels in the streets was but occasional; by eight o'clock at
night, apparently, every one had gone to bed, and the musing
wanderer, still wandering and still musing, had the place to
himself--had the thick shadow-masses of the great palaces, and
the shafts of moonlight striking the polygonal paving-stones, and
the empty bridges, and the silvered yellow of the Arno, and the
stillness broken only by a homeward step, a step accompanied by a
snatch of song from a warm Italian voice. My room at the inn
looked out on the river and was flooded all day with sunshine.
There was an absurd orange-coloured paper on the walls; the Arno,
of a hue not altogether different, flowed beneath; and on the
other side of it rose a line of sallow houses, of extreme
antiquity, crumbling and mouldering, bulging and protruding over
the stream. (I seem to speak of their fronts; but what I saw was
their shabby backs, which were exposed to the cheerful flicker of
the river, while the fronts stood for ever in the deep damp
shadow of a narrow mediaeval street.) All this brightness and
yellowness was a perpetual delight; it was a part of that
indefinably charming colour which Florence always seems to wear
as you look up and down at it from the river, and from the
bridges and quays. This is a kind of grave radiance--a harmony of
high tints--which I scarce know how to describe. There are yellow
walls and green blinds and red roofs, there are intervals of
brilliant brown and natural-looking blue; but the picture is not
spotty nor gaudy, thanks to the distribution of the colours in
large and comfortable masses, and to the washing-over of the
scene by some happy softness of sunshine. The river-front of
Florence is in short a delightful composition. Part of its charm
comes of course from the generous aspect of those high-based
Tuscan palaces which a renewal of acquaintance with them has
again commended to me as the most dignified dwellings in the
world. Nothing can be finer than that look of giving up the whole
immense ground-floor to simple purposes of vestibule and
staircase, of court and high-arched entrance; as if this were all
but a massive pedestal for the real habitation and people weren't
properly housed unless, to begin with, they should be lifted
fifty feet above the pavement. The great blocks of the basement;
the great intervals, horizontally and vertically, from window to
window (telling of the height and breadth of the rooms within);
the armorial shield hung forward at one of the angles; the wide-
brimmed roof, overshadowing the narrow street; the rich old
browns and yellows of the walls: these definite elements put
themselves together with admirable art.

[Illustration: ROMAN GATEWAY, RIMINI.]

Take a Tuscan pile of this type out of its oblique situation in
the town; call it no longer a palace, but a villa; set it down by
a terrace on one of the hills that encircle Florence, place a row
of high-waisted cypresses beside it, give it a grassy court-yard
and a view of the Florentine towers and the valley of the Arno,
and you will think it perhaps even more worthy of your esteem. It
was a Sunday noon, and brilliantly warm, when I again arrived;
and after I had looked from my windows a while at that quietly-
basking river-front I have spoken of I took my way across one of
the bridges and then out of one of the gates--that immensely
tall Roman Gate in which the space from the top of the arch to
the cornice (except that there is scarcely a cornice, it is all a
plain massive piece of wall) is as great, or seems to be, as that
from the ground to the former point. Then I climbed a steep and
winding way--much of it a little dull if one likes, being bounded
by mottled, mossy garden-walls--to a villa on a hill-top, where
I found various things that touched me with almost too fine a
point. Seeing them again, often, for a week, both by sunlight and
moonshine, I never quite learned not to covet them; not to feel
that not being a part of them was somehow to miss an exquisite
chance. What a tranquil, contented life it seemed, with romantic
beauty as a part of its daily texture!--the sunny terrace, with
its tangled podere beneath it; the bright grey olives
against the bright blue sky; the long, serene, horizontal lines
of other villas, flanked by their upward cypresses, disposed upon
the neighbouring hills; the richest little city in the world in a
softly-scooped hollow at one's feet, and beyond it the most
appealing of views, the most majestic, yet the most familiar.
Within the villa was a great love of art and a painting-room full
of felicitous work, so that if human life there confessed to
quietness, the quietness was mostly but that of the intent act. A
beautiful occupation in that beautiful position, what could
possibly be better? That is what I spoke just now of envying--a
way of life that doesn't wince at such refinements of peace and
ease. When labour self-charmed presents itself in a dull or an
ugly place we esteem it, we admire it, but we scarce feel it to
be the ideal of good fortune. When, however, its votaries move as
figures in an ancient, noble landscape, and their walks and
contemplations are like a turning of the leaves of history, we
seem to have before us an admirable case of virtue made easy;
meaning here by virtue contentment and concentration, a real
appreciation of the rare, the exquisite though composite, medium
of life. You needn't want a rush or a crush when the scene
itself, the mere scene, shares with you such a wealth of
consciousness.

It is true indeed that I might after a certain time grow weary of
a regular afternoon stroll among the Florentine lanes; of sitting
on low parapets, in intervals of flower-topped wall, and looking
across at Fiesole or down the rich-hued valley of the Arno; of
pausing at the open gates of villas and wondering at the height
of cypresses and the depth of loggias; of walking home in the
fading light and noting on a dozen westward-looking surfaces the
glow of the opposite sunset. But for a week or so all this was
delightful. The villas are innumerable, and if you're an aching
alien half the talk is about villas. This one has a story; that
one has another; they all look as if they had stories--none in
truth predominantly gay. Most of them are offered to rent (many
of them for sale) at prices unnaturally low; you may have a tower
and a garden, a chapel and an expanse of thirty windows, for five
hundred dollars a year. In imagination you hire three or four;
you take possession and settle and stay. Your sense of the
fineness of the finest is of something very grave and stately;
your sense of the bravery of two or three of the best something
quite tragic and sinister. From what does this latter impression
come? You gather it as you stand there in the early dusk, with
your eyes on the long, pale-brown facade, the enormous windows,
the iron cages fastened to the lower ones. Part of the brooding
expression of these great houses comes, even when they have not
fallen into decay, from their look of having outlived their
original use. Their extraordinary largeness and massiveness are
a satire on their present fate. They weren't built with such a
thickness of wall and depth of embrasure, such a solidity of
staircase and superfluity of stone, simply to afford an
economical winter residence to English and American families. I
don't know whether it was the appearance of these stony old
villas, which seemed so dumbly conscious of a change of manners,
that threw a tinge of melancholy over the general prospect;
certain it is that, having always found this note as of a myriad
old sadnesses in solution in the view of Florence, it seemed to
me now particularly strong. "Lovely, lovely, but it makes me
'blue,'" the sensitive stranger couldn't but murmur to himself
as, in the late afternoon, he looked at the landscape from over
one of the low parapets, and then, with his hands in his pockets,
turned away indoors to candles and dinner.


V

Below, in the city, through all frequentation of streets and
churches and museums, it was impossible not to have a good deal
of the same feeling; but here the impression was more easy to
analyse. It came from a sense of the perfect separateness of all
the great productions of the Renaissance from the present and the
future of the place, from the actual life and manners, the native
ideal. I have already spoken of the way in which the vast
aggregation of beautiful works of art in the Italian cities
strikes the visitor nowadays--so far as present Italy is
concerned--as the mere stock-in-trade of an impecunious but
thrifty people. It is this spiritual solitude, this conscious
disconnection of the great works of architecture and sculpture
that deposits a certain weight upon the heart; when we see a
great tradition broken we feel something of the pain with which
we hear a stifled cry. But regret is one thing and resentment is
another. Seeing one morning, in a shop-window, the series of
Mornings in Florence published a few years since by Mr.
Ruskin, I made haste to enter and purchase these amusing little
books, some passages of which I remembered formerly to have read.
I couldn't turn over many pages without observing that the
"separateness" of the new and old which I just mentioned had
produced in their author the liveliest irritation. With the more
acute phases of this condition it was difficult to sympathise,
for the simple reason, it seems to me, that it savours of
arrogance to demand of any people, as a right of one's own, that
they shall be artistic. "Be artistic yourselves!" is the very
natural reply that young Italy has at hand for English critics
and censors. When a people produces beautiful statues and
pictures it gives us something more than is set down in the bond,
and we must thank it for its generosity; and when it stops
producing them or caring for them we may cease thanking, but we
hardly have a right to begin and rail. The wreck of Florence,
says Mr. Ruskin, "is now too ghastly and heart-breaking to any
human soul that remembers the days of old"; and these desperate
words are an allusion to the fact that the little square in front
of the cathedral, at the foot of Giotto's Tower, with the grand
Baptistery on the other side, is now the resort of a number of
hackney-coaches and omnibuses. This fact is doubtless lamentable,
and it would be a hundred times more agreeable to see among
people who have been made the heirs of so priceless a work of art
as the sublime campanile some such feeling about it as would keep
it free even from the danger of defilement. A cab-stand is a very
ugly and dirty thing, and Giotto's Tower should have nothing in
common with such conveniences. But there is more than one way of
taking such things, and the sensitive stranger who has been
walking about for a week with his mind full of the sweetness and
suggestiveness of a hundred Florentine places may feel at last in
looking into Mr. Ruskin's little tracts that, discord for
discord, there isn't much to choose between the importunity of
the author's personal ill-humour and the incongruity of horse-
pails and bundles of hay. And one may say this without being at
all a partisan of the doctrine of the inevitableness of new
desecrations. For my own part, I believe there are few things in
this line that the new Italian spirit isn't capable of, and not
many indeed that we aren't destined to see. Pictures and
buildings won't be completely destroyed, because in that case the
forestieri, scatterers of cash, would cease to arrive and
the turn-stiles at the doors of the old palaces and convents,
with the little patented slit for absorbing your half-franc,
would grow quite rusty, would stiffen with disuse. But it's safe
to say that the new Italy growing into an old Italy again will
continue to take her elbow-room wherever she may find it.

[Illustration: SANTA MARIA NOVELLA, FLORENCE]

I am almost ashamed to say what I did with Mr. Ruskin's little
books. I put them into my pocket and betook myself to Santa Maria
Novella. There I sat down and, after I had looked about for a
while at the beautiful church, drew them forth one by one and
read the greater part of them. Occupying one's self with light
literature in a great religious edifice is perhaps as bad a piece
of profanation as any of those rude dealings which Mr. Ruskin
justly deplores; but a traveller has to make the most of odd
moments, and I was waiting for a friend in whose company I was
to go and look at Giotto's beautiful frescoes in the cloister of
the church. My friend was a long time coming, so that I had an
hour with Mr. Ruskin, whom I called just now a light
littérateur because in these little Mornings in Florence
he is for ever making his readers laugh. I remembered of course
where I was, and in spite of my latent hilarity felt I had rarely
got such a snubbing. I had really been enjoying the good old city
of Florence, but I now learned from Mr. Ruskin that this was a
scandalous waste of charity. I should have gone about with an
imprecation on my lips, I should have worn a face three yards
long. I had taken great pleasure in certain frescoes by
Ghirlandaio in the choir of that very church; but it appeared
from one of the little books that these frescoes were as naught.
I had much admired Santa Croce and had thought the Duomo a very
noble affair; but I had now the most positive assurance I knew
nothing about them. After a while, if it was only ill-humour that
was needed for doing honour to the city of the Medici, I felt
that I had risen to a proper level; only now it was Mr. Ruskin
himself I had lost patience with, not the stupid Brunelleschi,
not the vulgar Ghirlandaio. Indeed I lost patience altogether,
and asked myself by what right this informal votary of form
pretended to run riot through a poor charmed flaneur's
quiet contemplations, his attachment to the noblest of pleasures,
his enjoyment of the loveliest of cities. The little books seemed
invidious and insane, and it was only when I remembered that I
had been under no obligation to buy them that I checked myself
in repenting of having done so.

Then at last my friend arrived and we passed together out of the
church, and, through the first cloister beside it, into a smaller
enclosure where we stood a while to look at the tomb of the
Marchesa Strozzi-Ridolfi, upon which the great Giotto has painted
four superb little pictures. It was easy to see the pictures were
superb; but I drew forth one of my little books again, for I had
observed that Mr. Ruskin spoke of them. Hereupon I recovered my
tolerance; for what could be better in this case, I asked
myself, than Mr. Ruskin's remarks? They are in fact excellent and
charming--full of appreciation of the deep and simple beauty of
the great painter's work. I read them aloud to my companion; but
my companion was rather, as the phrase is, "put off" by them. One
of the frescoes--it is a picture of the birth of the Virgin--
contains a figure coming through a door. "Of ornament," I quote,
"there is only the entirely simple outline of the vase which the
servant carries; of colour two or three masses of sober red and
pure white, with brown and grey. That is all," Mr. Ruskin
continues. "And if you are pleased with this you can see
Florence. But if not, by all means amuse yourself there, if you
find it amusing, as long as you like; you can never see it."
You can never see it. This seemed to my friend
insufferable, and I had to shuffle away the book again, so that
we might look at the fresco with the unruffled geniality it
deserves. We agreed afterwards, when in a more convenient place I
read aloud a good many more passages from the precious tracts,
that there are a great many ways of seeing Florence, as there are
of seeing most beautiful and interesting things, and that it is
very dry and pedantic to say that the happy vision depends upon
our squaring our toes with a certain particular chalk-mark. We
see Florence wherever and whenever we enjoy it, and for enjoying
it we find a great many more pretexts than Mr. Ruskin seems
inclined to allow. My friend and I convinced ourselves also,
however, that the little books were an excellent purchase, on
account of the great charm and felicity of much of their
incidental criticism; to say nothing, as I hinted just now, of
their being extremely amusing. Nothing in fact is more comical
than the familiar asperity of the author's style and the
pedagogic fashion in which he pushes and pulls his unhappy pupils
about, jerking their heads toward this, rapping their knuckles
for that, sending them to stand in corners and giving them
Scripture texts to copy. But it is neither the felicities nor the
aberrations of detail, in Mr. Ruskin's writings, that are the
main affair for most readers; it is the general tone that, as I
have said, puts them off or draws them on. For many persons he
will never bear the test of being read in this rich old Italy,
where art, so long as it really lived at all, was spontaneous,
joyous, irresponsible. If the reader is in daily contact with
those beautiful Florentine works which do still, in away, force
themselves into notice through the vulgarity and cruelty of
modern profanation, it will seem to him that this commentator's
comment is pitched in the strangest falsetto key. "One may read a
hundred pages of this sort of thing," said my friend, "without
ever dreaming that he is talking about art. You can say
nothing worse about him than that." Which is perfectly true. Art
is the one corner of human life in which we may take our ease. To
justify our presence there the only thing demanded of us is that
we shall have felt the representational impulse. In other
connections our impulses are conditioned and embarrassed; we are
allowed to have only so many as are consistent with those of our
neighbours; with their convenience and well-being, with their
convictions and prejudices, their rules and regulations. Art
means an escape from all this. Wherever her shining standard
floats the need for apology and compromise is over; there it is
enough simply that we please or are pleased. There the tree is
judged only by its fruits. If these are sweet the tree is
justified--and not less so the consumer.

One may read a great many pages of Mr. Ruskin without getting a
hint of this delightful truth; a hint of the not unimportant fact
that art after all is made for us and not we for art. This idea
that the value of a work is in the amount of illusion it yields
is conspicuous by its absence. And as for Mr. Ruskin's world's
being a place--his world of art--where we may take life easily,
woe to the luckless mortal who enters it with any such
disposition. Instead of a garden of delight, he finds a sort of
assize court in perpetual session. Instead of a place in which
human responsibilities are lightened and suspended, he finds a
region governed by a kind of Draconic legislation. His
responsibilities indeed are tenfold increased; the gulf between
truth and error is for ever yawning at his feet; the pains and
penalties of this same error are advertised, in apocalyptic
terminology, upon a thousand sign-posts; and the rash intruder
soon begins to look back with infinite longing to the lost
paradise of the artless. There can be no greater want of tact in
dealing with those things with which men attempt to ornament life
than to be perpetually talking about "error." A truce to all
rigidities is the law of the place; the only thing absolute there
is that some force and some charm have worked. The grim old
bearer of the scales excuses herself; she feels this not to be
her province. Differences here are not iniquity and
righteousness; they are simply variations of temperament, kinds
of curiosity. We are not under theological government.


VI

It was very charming, in the bright, warm days, to wander from
one corner of Florence to another, paying one's respects again to
remembered masterpieces. It was pleasant also to find that memory
had played no tricks and that the rarest things of an earlier
year were as rare as ever. To enumerate ,these felicities would
take a great deal of space; for I never had been more struck with
the mere quantity of brilliant Florentine work. Even giving up
the Duomo and Santa Croce to Mr. Ruskin as very ill-arranged
edifices, the list of the Florentine treasures is almost
inexhaustible. Those long outer galleries of the Uffizi had never
beguiled me more; sometimes there were not more than two or three
figures standing there, Baedeker in hand, to break the charming
perspective. One side of this upstairs portico, it will be
remembered, is entirely composed of glass; a continuity of old-
fashioned windows, draped with white curtains of rather primitive
fashion, which hang there till they acquire a perceptible tone.
The light, passing through them, is softly filtered and diffused;
it rests mildly upon the old marbles--chiefly antique Roman
busts--which stand in the narrow intervals of the casements. It
is projected upon the numerous pictures that cover the opposite
wall and that are not by any means, as a general thing, the gems
of the great collection; it imparts a faded brightness to the old
ornamental arabesques upon the painted wooden ceiling, and it
makes a great soft shining upon the marble floor, in which, as
you look up and down, you see the strolling tourists and the
motionless copyists almost reflected. I don't know why I should
find all this very pleasant, but in fact, I have seldom gone into
the Uffizi without walking the length of this third-story
cloister, between the (for the most part) third-rate canvases and
panels and the faded cotton curtains. Why is it that in Italy we
see a charm in things in regard to which in other countries we
always take vulgarity for granted? If in the city of New York a
great museum of the arts were to be provided, by way of
decoration, with a species of verandah enclosed on one side by a
series of small-paned windows draped in dirty linen, and
furnished on the other with an array of pictorial feebleness, the
place being surmounted by a thinly-painted wooden roof, strongly
suggestive of summer heat, of winter cold, of frequent leakage,
those amateurs who had had the advantage of foreign travel would
be at small pains to conceal their contempt. Contemptible or
respectable, to the judicial mind, this quaint old loggia of the
Uffizi admitted me into twenty chambers where I found as great a
number of ancient favourites. I don't know that I had a warmer
greeting for any old friend than for Andrea del Sarto, that most
touching of painters who is not one of the first. But it was on
the other side of the Arno that I found him in force, in those
dusky drawing-rooms of the Pitti Palace to which you take your
way along the tortuous tunnel that wanders through the houses of
Florence and is supported by the little goldsmiths' booths on the
Ponte Vecchio. In the rich insufficient light of these beautiful
rooms, where, to look at the pictures, you sit in damask chairs
and rest your elbows on tables of malachite, the elegant Andrea
becomes deeply effective. Before long he has drawn you close. But
the great pleasure, after all, was to revisit the earlier
masters, in those specimens of them chiefly that bloom so
unfadingly on the big plain walls of the Academy. Fra Angelico
and Filippo Lippi, Botticelli and Lorenzo di Credi are the
clearest, the sweetest and best of all painters; as I sat for an
hour in their company, in the cold great hall of the institution
I have mentioned--there are shabby rafters above and an immense
expanse of brick tiles below, and many bad pictures as well as
good--it seemed to me more than ever that if one really had to
choose one couldn't do better than choose here. You may rest at
your ease at the Academy, in this big first room--at the upper
end especially, on the left--because more than many other places
it savours of old Florence. More for instance, in reality, than
the Bargello, though the Bargello makes great pretensions.
Beautiful and masterful though the Bargello is, it smells too
strongly of restoration, and, much of old Italy as still lurks in
its furbished and renovated chambers, it speaks even more
distinctly of the ill-mannered young kingdom that has--as
"unavoidably" as you please--lifted down a hundred delicate works
of sculpture from the convent-walls where their pious authors
placed them. If the early Tuscan painters are exquisite I can
think of no praise pure enough for the sculptors of the same
period, Donatello and Luca della Robbia, Matteo Civitale and Mina
da Fiesole, who, as I refreshed my memory of them, seemed to me
to leave absolutely nothing to be desired in the way of
straightness of inspiration and grace of invention. The Bargello
is full of early Tuscan sculpture, most of the pieces of which
have come from suppressed religious houses; and even if the
visitor be an ardent liberal he is uncomfortably conscious of the
rather brutal process by which it has been collected. One can
hardly envy young Italy the number of odious things she has had
to do.

The railway journey from Florence to Rome has been altered both
for the better and for the worse; for the better in that it has
been shortened by a couple of hours; for the worse inasmuch as
when about half the distance has been traversed the train
deflects to the west and leaves the beautiful old cities of
Assisi, Perugia, Terni, Narni, unvisited. Of old it was possible
to call at these places, in a manner, from the window of the
train; even if you didn't stop, as you probably couldn't, every
time you passed, the immensely interesting way in which, like a
loosened belt on an aged and shrunken person, their ample walls
held them easily together was something well worth noting. Now,
however, for compensation, the express train to Rome stops at
Orvieto, and in consequence... In consequence what? What is the
result of the stop of an express train at Orvieto? As I glibly
wrote that sentence I suddenly paused, aware of the queer stuff I
was uttering. That an express train would graze the base of the
horrid purple mountain from the apex of which this dark old
Catholic city uplifts the glittering front of its cathedral--
that might have been foretold by a keen observer of contemporary
manners. But that it would really have the grossness to hang
about is a fact over which, as he records it, an inveterate, a
perverse cherisher of the sense of the past order, the order
still largely prevailing at the time of his first visit to Italy,
may well make what is vulgarly called an ado. The train does stop
at Orvieto, not very long, it is true, but long enough to let you
out. The same phenomenon takes place on the following day, when,
having visited the city, you get in again. I availed myself
without scruple of both of these occasions, having formerly
neglected to drive to the place in a post-chaise. But frankly,
the railway-station being in the plain and the town on the summit
of an extraordinary hill, you have time to forget the puffing
indiscretion while you wind upwards to the city-gate. The
position of Orvieto is superb--worthy of the "middle distance"
of an eighteenth-century landscape. But, as every one knows, the
splendid Cathedral is the proper attraction of the spot, which,
indeed, save for this fine monument and for its craggy and
crumbling ramparts, is a meanly arranged and, as Italian cities
go, not particularly impressive little town. I spent a beautiful
Sunday there and took in the charming church. I gave it my best
attention, though on the whole I fear I found it inferior to its
fame. A high concert of colour, however, is the densely carved
front, richly covered with radiant mosaics. The old white marble
of the sculptured portions is as softly yellow as ancient ivory;
the large exceedingly bright pictures above them flashed and
twinkled in the glorious weather. Very striking and interesting
the theological frescoes of Luca Signorelli, though I have seen
compositions of this general order that appealed to me more.
Characteristically fresh, finally, the clear-faced saints and
seraphs, in robes of pink and azure, whom Fra Angelico has
painted upon the ceiling of the great chapel, along with a noble
sitting figure--more expressive of movement than most of the
creations of this pictorial peace-maker--of Christ in judgment.
Yet the interest of the cathedral of Orvieto is mainly not the
visible result, but the historical process that lies behind it;
those three hundred years of the applied devotion of a people of
which an American scholar has written an admirable account.[1]

1877.

[1] Charles Eliot Norton, Notes of Travel and Study in
Italy
.]

Henry James