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Chapter 48


CHAPTER XLVIII [Beauty of Women--and of Old Masters]

In Milan we spent most of our time in the vast and beautiful Arcade or
Gallery, or whatever it is called. Blocks of tall new buildings of the
most sumptuous sort, rich with decoration and graced with statues, the
streets between these blocks roofed over with glass at a great height,
the pavements all of smooth and variegated marble, arranged in tasteful
patterns--little tables all over these marble streets, people sitting
at them, eating, drinking, or smoking--crowds of other people strolling
by--such is the Arcade. I should like to live in it all the time. The
windows of the sumptuous restaurants stand open, and one breakfasts
there and enjoys the passing show.

We wandered all over the town, enjoying whatever was going on in the
streets. We took one omnibus ride, and as I did not speak Italian and
could not ask the price, I held out some copper coins to the conductor,
and he took two. Then he went and got his tariff card and showed me
that he had taken only the right sum. So I made a note--Italian omnibus
conductors do not cheat.

Near the Cathedral I saw another instance of probity. An old man was
peddling dolls and toy fans. Two small American children and one gave
the old man a franc and three copper coins, and both started away;
but they were called back, and the franc and one of the coppers were
restored to them. Hence it is plain that in Italy, parties connected
with the drama and the omnibus and the toy interests do not cheat.

The stocks of goods in the shops were not extensive, generally. In the
vestibule of what seemed to be a clothing store, we saw eight or ten
wooden dummies grouped together, clothed in woolen business suits and
each marked with its price. One suit was marked forty-five francs--nine
dollars. Harris stepped in and said he wanted a suit like that. Nothing
easier: the old merchant dragged in the dummy, brushed him off with a
broom, stripped him, and shipped the clothes to the hotel. He said he
did not keep two suits of the same kind in stock, but manufactured a
second when it was needed to reclothe the dummy.

In another quarter we found six Italians engaged in a violent quarrel.
They danced fiercely about, gesticulating with their heads, their arms,
their legs, their whole bodies; they would rush forward occasionally
with a sudden access of passion and shake their fists in each other's
very faces. We lost half an hour there, waiting to help cord up the
dead, but they finally embraced each other affectionately, and the
trouble was over. The episode was interesting, but we could not have
afforded all the time to it if we had known nothing was going to come of
it but a reconciliation. Note made--in Italy, people who quarrel cheat
the spectator.

We had another disappointment afterward. We approached a deeply
interested crowd, and in the midst of it found a fellow wildly
chattering and gesticulating over a box on the ground which was covered
with a piece of old blanket. Every little while he would bend down
and take hold of the edge of the blanket with the extreme tips of his
fingertips, as if to show there was no deception--chattering away all
the while--but always, just as I was expecting to see a wonder feat of
legerdemain, he would let go the blanket and rise to explain further.
However, at last he uncovered the box and got out a spoon with a liquid
in it, and held it fair and frankly around, for people to see that it
was all right and he was taking no advantage--his chatter became more
excited than ever. I supposed he was going to set fire to the liquid
and swallow it, so I was greatly wrought up and interested. I got a cent
ready in one hand and a florin in the other, intending to give him the
former if he survived and the latter if he killed himself--for his loss
would be my gain in a literary way, and I was willing to pay a fair
price for the item--but this impostor ended his intensely moving
performance by simply adding some powder to the liquid and polishing
the spoon! Then he held it aloft, and he could not have shown a wilder
exultation if he had achieved an immortal miracle. The crowd applauded
in a gratified way, and it seemed to me that history speaks the truth
when it says these children of the south are easily entertained.

We spent an impressive hour in the noble cathedral, where long shafts
of tinted light were cleaving through the solemn dimness from the lofty
windows and falling on a pillar here, a picture there, and a kneeling
worshiper yonder. The organ was muttering, censers were swinging,
candles were glinting on the distant altar and robed priests were filing
silently past them; the scene was one to sweep all frivolous thoughts
away and steep the soul in a holy calm. A trim young American lady
paused a yard or two from me, fixed her eyes on the mellow sparks
flecking the far-off altar, bent her head reverently a moment, then
straightened up, kicked her train into the air with her heel, caught it
deftly in her hand, and marched briskly out.

We visited the picture-galleries and the other regulation "sights" of
Milan--not because I wanted to write about them again, but to see if
I had learned anything in twelve years. I afterward visited the great
galleries of Rome and Florence for the same purpose. I found I had
learned one thing. When I wrote about the Old Masters before, I said
the copies were better than the originals. That was a mistake of large
dimensions. The Old Masters were still unpleasing to me, but they were
truly divine contrasted with the copies. The copy is to the original as
the pallid, smart, inane new wax-work group is to the vigorous, earnest,
dignified group of living men and women whom it professes to duplicate.
There is a mellow richness, a subdued color, in the old pictures, which
is to the eye what muffled and mellowed sound is to the ear. That is the
merit which is most loudly praised in the old picture, and is the one
which the copy most conspicuously lacks, and which the copyist must not
hope to compass. It was generally conceded by the artists with whom I
talked, that that subdued splendor, that mellow richness, is imparted
to the picture by AGE. Then why should we worship the Old Master for it,
who didn't impart it, instead of worshiping Old Time, who did? Perhaps
the picture was a clanging bell, until Time muffled it and sweetened it.

In conversation with an artist in Venice, I asked: "What is it that
people see in the Old Masters? I have been in the Doge's palace and I
saw several acres of very bad drawing, very bad perspective, and very
incorrect proportions. Paul Veronese's dogs to not resemble dogs; all
the horses look like bladders on legs; one man had a RIGHT leg on
the left side of his body; in the large picture where the Emperor
(Barbarossa?) is prostrate before the Pope, there are three men in the
foreground who are over thirty feet high, if one may judge by the size
of a kneeling little boy in the center of the foreground; and according
to the same scale, the Pope is seven feet high and the Doge is a
shriveled dwarf of four feet."

The artist said:

"Yes, the Old Masters often drew badly; they did not care much for truth
and exactness in minor details; but after all, in spite of bad drawing,
bad perspective, bad proportions, and a choice of subjects which no
longer appeal to people as strongly as they did three hundred years ago,
there is a SOMETHING about their pictures which is divine--a something
which is above and beyond the art of any epoch since--a something which
would be the despair of artists but that they never hope or expect to
attain it, and therefore do not worry about it."

That is what he said--and he said what he believed; and not only
believed, but felt.

Reasoning--especially reasoning, without technical knowledge--must be
put aside, in cases of this kind. It cannot assist the inquirer. It
will lead him, in the most logical progression, to what, in the eyes of
artists, would be a most illogical conclusion. Thus: bad drawing, bad
proportion, bad perspective, indifference to truthful detail, color
which gets its merit from time, and not from the artist--these things
constitute the Old Master; conclusion, the Old Master was a bad painter,
the Old Master was not an Old Master at all, but an Old Apprentice. Your
friend the artist will grant your premises, but deny your conclusion;
he will maintain that notwithstanding this formidable list of confessed
defects, there is still a something that is divine and unapproachable
about the Old Master, and that there is no arguing the fact away by any
system of reasoning whatsoever.

I can believe that. There are women who have an indefinable charm in
their faces which makes them beautiful to their intimates, but a cold
stranger who tried to reason the matter out and find this beauty would
fail. He would say to one of these women: This chin is too short, this
nose is too long, this forehead is too high, this hair is too red, this
complexion is too pallid, the perspective of the entire composition
is incorrect; conclusion, the woman is not beautiful. But her nearest
friend might say, and say truly, "Your premises are right, your logic
is faultless, but your conclusion is wrong, nevertheless; she is an Old
Master--she is beautiful, but only to such as know her; it is a beauty
which cannot be formulated, but it is there, just the same."

I found more pleasure in contemplating the Old Masters this time than
I did when I was in Europe in former years, but still it was a calm
pleasure; there was nothing overheated about it. When I was in Venice
before, I think I found no picture which stirred me much, but this time
there were two which enticed me to the Doge's palace day after day, and
kept me there hours at a time. One of these was Tintoretto's three-acre
picture in the Great Council Chamber. When I saw it twelve years ago
I was not strongly attracted to it--the guide told me it was an
insurrection in heaven--but this was an error.

The movement of this great work is very fine. There are ten thousand
figures, and they are all doing something. There is a wonderful "go"
to the whole composition. Some of the figures are driving headlong
downward, with clasped hands, others are swimming through the
cloud-shoals--some on their faces, some on their backs--great
processions of bishops, martyrs, and angels are pouring swiftly
centerward from various outlying directions--everywhere is enthusiastic
joy, there is rushing movement everywhere. There are fifteen or twenty
figures scattered here and there, with books, but they cannot keep their
attention on their reading--they offer the books to others, but no one
wishes to read, now. The Lion of St. Mark is there with his book; St.
Mark is there with his pen uplifted; he and the Lion are looking
each other earnestly in the face, disputing about the way to spell a
word--the Lion looks up in rapt admiration while St. Mark spells. This
is wonderfully interpreted by the artist. It is the master-stroke of
this imcomparable painting. [Figure 10]

I visited the place daily, and never grew tired of looking at that
grand picture. As I have intimated, the movement is almost unimaginable
vigorous; the figures are singing, hosannahing, and many are blowing
trumpets. So vividly is noise suggested, that spectators who become
absorbed in the picture almost always fall to shouting comments in each
other's ears, making ear-trumpets of their curved hands, fearing they
may not otherwise be heard. One often sees a tourist, with the eloquent
tears pouring down his cheeks, funnel his hands at his wife's ear, and
hears him roar through them, "OH, TO BE THERE AND AT REST!"

None but the supremely great in art can produce effects like these with
the silent brush.

Twelve years ago I could not have appreciated this picture. One year ago
I could not have appreciated it. My study of Art in Heidelberg has been
a noble education to me. All that I am today in Art, I owe to that.

The other great work which fascinated me was Bassano's immortal Hair
Trunk. This is in the Chamber of the Council of Ten. It is in one of
the three forty-foot pictures which decorate the walls of the room.
The composition of this picture is beyond praise. The Hair Trunk is not
hurled at the stranger's head--so to speak--as the chief feature of an
immortal work so often is; no, it is carefully guarded from prominence,
it is subordinated, it is restrained, it is most deftly and cleverly
held in reserve, it is most cautiously and ingeniously led up to, by the
master, and consequently when the spectator reaches it at last, he
is taken unawares, he is unprepared, and it bursts upon him with a
stupefying surprise.

One is lost in wonder at all the thought and care which this elaborate
planning must have cost. A general glance at the picture could never
suggest that there was a hair trunk in it; the Hair Trunk is not
mentioned in the title even--which is, "Pope Alexander III. and the Doge
Ziani, the Conqueror of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa"; you see,
the title is actually utilized to help divert attention from the Trunk;
thus, as I say, nothing suggests the presence of the Trunk, by any hint,
yet everything studiedly leads up to it, step by step. Let us examine
into this, and observe the exquisitely artful artlessness of the plan.

At the extreme left end of the picture are a couple of women, one of
them with a child looking over her shoulder at a wounded man sitting
with bandaged head on the ground. These people seem needless, but no,
they are there for a purpose; one cannot look at them without seeing
the gorgeous procession of grandees, bishops, halberdiers, and
banner-bearers which is passing along behind them; one cannot see the
procession without feeling the curiosity to follow it and learn whither
it is going; it leads him to the Pope, in the center of the picture, who
is talking with the bonnetless Doge--talking tranquilly, too, although
within twelve feet of them a man is beating a drum, and not far from the
drummer two persons are blowing horns, and many horsemen are plunging
and rioting about--indeed, twenty-two feet of this great work is all a
deep and happy holiday serenity and Sunday-school procession, and then
we come suddenly upon eleven and one-half feet of turmoil and racket and
insubordination. This latter state of things is not an accident, it has
its purpose. But for it, one would linger upon the Pope and the Doge,
thinking them to be the motive and supreme feature of the picture;
whereas one is drawn along, almost unconsciously, to see what the
trouble is about. Now at the very END of this riot, within four feet of
the end of the picture, and full thirty-six feet from the beginning
of it, the Hair Trunk bursts with an electrifying suddenness upon the
spectator, in all its matchless perfection, and the great master's
triumph is sweeping and complete. From that moment no other thing in
those forty feet of canvas has any charm; one sees the Hair Trunk, and
the Hair Trunk only--and to see it is to worship it. Bassano even placed
objects in the immediate vicinity of the Supreme Feature whose pretended
purpose was to divert attention from it yet a little longer and thus
delay and augment the surprise; for instance, to the right of it he has
placed a stooping man with a cap so red that it is sure to hold the eye
for a moment--to the left of it, some six feet away, he has placed a
red-coated man on an inflated horse, and that coat plucks your eye
to that locality the next moment--then, between the Trunk and the red
horseman he has intruded a man, naked to his waist, who is carrying
a fancy flour-sack on the middle of his back instead of on his
shoulder--this admirable feat interests you, of course--keeps you at
bay a little longer, like a sock or a jacket thrown to the pursuing
wolf--but at last, in spite of all distractions and detentions, the eye
of even the most dull and heedless spectator is sure to fall upon the
World's Masterpiece, and in that moment he totters to his chair or leans
upon his guide for support.

Descriptions of such a work as this must necessarily be imperfect, yet
they are of value. The top of the Trunk is arched; the arch is a perfect
half-circle, in the Roman style of architecture, for in the then
rapid decadence of Greek art, the rising influence of Rome was already
beginning to be felt in the art of the Republic. The Trunk is bound or
bordered with leather all around where the lid joins the main body. Many
critics consider this leather too cold in tone; but I consider this its
highest merit, since it was evidently made so to emphasize by contrast
the impassioned fervor of the hasp. The highlights in this part of the
work are cleverly managed, the MOTIF is admirably subordinated to the
ground tints, and the technique is very fine. The brass nail-heads are
in the purest style of the early Renaissance. The strokes, here, are
very firm and bold--every nail-head is a portrait. The handle on the
end of the Trunk has evidently been retouched--I think, with a piece of
chalk--but one can still see the inspiration of the Old Master in the
tranquil, almost too tranquil, hang of it. The hair of this Trunk is
REAL hair--so to speak--white in patched, brown in patches. The details
are finely worked out; the repose proper to hair in a recumbent and
inactive attitude is charmingly expressed. There is a feeling about this
part of the work which lifts it to the highest altitudes of art; the
sense of sordid realism vanishes away--one recognizes that there is SOUL
here.

View this Trunk as you will, it is a gem, it is a marvel, it is a
miracle. Some of the effects are very daring, approaching even to
the boldest flights of the rococo, the sirocco, and the Byzantine
schools--yet the master's hand never falters--it moves on, calm,
majestic, confident--and, with that art which conceals art, it finally
casts over the TOUT ENSEMBLE, by mysterious methods of its own, a subtle
something which refines, subdues, etherealizes the arid components and
endures them with the deep charm and gracious witchery of poesy.

Among the art-treasures of Europe there are pictures which approach the
Hair Trunk--there are two which may be said to equal it, possibly--but
there is none that surpasses it. So perfect is the Hair Trunk that it
moves even persons who ordinarily have no feeling for art. When an Erie
baggagemaster saw it two years ago, he could hardly keep from checking
it; and once when a customs inspector was brought into its presence,
he gazed upon it in silent rapture for some moments, then slowly and
unconsciously placed one hand behind him with the palm uppermost, and
got out his chalk with the other. These facts speak for themselves.

Mark Twain