Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 50

CHAPTER L [Titian Bad and Titian Good]

I wonder why some things are? For instance, Art is allowed as much
indecent license today as in earlier times--but the privileges of
Literature in this respect have been sharply curtailed within the
past eighty or ninety years. Fielding and Smollett could portray the
beastliness of their day in the beastliest language; we have plenty
of foul subjects to deal with in our day, but we are not allowed to
approach them very near, even with nice and guarded forms of speech.
But not so with Art. The brush may still deal freely with any subject,
however revolting or indelicate. It makes a body ooze sarcasm at every
pore, to go about Rome and Florence and see what this last generation
has been doing with the statues. These works, which had stood in
innocent nakedness for ages, are all fig-leaved now. Yes, every one of
them. Nobody noticed their nakedness before, perhaps; nobody can help
noticing it now, the fig-leaf makes it so conspicuous. But the comical
thing about it all, is, that the fig-leaf is confined to cold and pallid
marble, which would be still cold and unsuggestive without this sham and
ostentatious symbol of modesty, whereas warm-blood paintings which do
really need it have in no case been furnished with it.

At the door of the Uffizzi, in Florence, one is confronted by statues
of a man and a woman, noseless, battered, black with accumulated
grime--they hardly suggest human beings--yet these ridiculous creatures
have been thoughtfully and conscientiously fig-leaved by this fastidious
generation. You enter, and proceed to that most-visited little gallery
that exists in the world--the Tribune--and there, against the wall,
without obstructing rag or leaf, you may look your fill upon the
foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses--Titian's
Venus. It isn't that she is naked and stretched out on a bed--no, it is
the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe
that attitude, there would be a fine howl--but there the Venus lies, for
anybody to gloat over that wants to--and there she has a right to lie,
for she is a work of art, and Art has its privileges. I saw young
girls stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gaze long and
absorbedly at her; I saw aged, infirm men hang upon her charms with a
pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her--just to see what
a holy indignation I could stir up in the world--just to hear the
unreflecting average man deliver himself about my grossness and
coarseness, and all that. The world says that no worded description of
a moving spectacle is a hundredth part as moving as the same spectacle
seen with one's own eyes--yet the world is willing to let its son
and its daughter and itself look at Titian's beast, but won't stand
a description of it in words. Which shows that the world is not as
consistent as it might be.

There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought--I
am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to
emphasize is the fact that Titian's Venus is very far from being one of
that sort. Without any question it was painted for a bagnio and it was
probably refused because it was a trifle too strong. In truth, it is too
strong for any place but a public Art Gallery. Titian has two Venuses in
the Tribune; persons who have seen them will easily remember which one I
am referring to.

In every gallery in Europe there are hideous pictures of blood,
carnage, oozing brains, putrefaction--pictures portraying intolerable
suffering--pictures alive with every conceivable horror, wrought out in
dreadful detail--and similar pictures are being put on the canvas every
day and publicly exhibited--without a growl from anybody--for they
are innocent, they are inoffensive, being works of art. But suppose
a literary artist ventured to go into a painstaking and elaborate
description of one of these grisly things--the critics would skin him
alive. Well, let it go, it cannot be helped; Art retains her privileges,
Literature has lost hers. Somebody else may cipher out the whys and the
wherefores and the consistencies of it--I haven't got time.

Titian's Venus defiles and disgraces the Tribune, there is no softening
that fact, but his "Moses" glorifies it. The simple truthfulness of
its noble work wins the heart and the applause of every visitor, be he
learned or ignorant. After wearying one's self with the acres of stuffy,
sappy, expressionless babies that populate the canvases of the Old
Masters of Italy, it is refreshing to stand before this peerless child
and feel that thrill which tells you you are at last in the presence of
the real thing. This is a human child, this is genuine. You have seen
him a thousand times--you have seen him just as he is here--and you
confess, without reserve, that Titian WAS a Master. The doll-faces of
other painted babes may mean one thing, they may mean another, but
with the "Moses" the case is different. The most famous of all the
art-critics has said, "There is no room for doubt, here--plainly this
child is in trouble."

I consider that the "Moses" has no equal among the works of the Old
Masters, except it be the divine Hair Trunk of Bassano. I feel sure that
if all the other Old Masters were lost and only these two preserved, the
world would be the gainer by it.

My sole purpose in going to Florence was to see this immortal "Moses,"
and by good fortune I was just in time, for they were already preparing
to remove it to a more private and better-protected place because a
fashion of robbing the great galleries was prevailing in Europe at the

I got a capable artist to copy the picture; Pannemaker, the engraver of
Dor'e's books, engraved it for me, and I have the pleasure of laying it
before the reader in this volume.

We took a turn to Rome and some other Italian cities--then to Munich,
and thence to Paris--partly for exercise, but mainly because these
things were in our projected program, and it was only right that we
should be faithful to it.

From Paris I branched out and walked through Holland and Belgium,
procuring an occasional lift by rail or canal when tired, and I had
a tolerably good time of it "by and large." I worked Spain and other
regions through agents to save time and shoe-leather.

We crossed to England, and then made the homeward passage in the
Cunarder GALLIA, a very fine ship. I was glad to get home--immeasurably
glad; so glad, in fact, that it did not seem possible that anything
could ever get me out of the country again. I had not enjoyed a pleasure
abroad which seemed to me to compare with the pleasure I felt in seeing
New York harbor again. Europe has many advantages which we have not, but
they do not compensate for a good many still more valuable ones which
exist nowhere but in our own country. Then we are such a homeless lot
when we are over there! So are Europeans themselves, for the matter.
They live in dark and chilly vast tombs--costly enough, maybe, but
without conveniences. To be condemned to live as the average European
family lives would make life a pretty heavy burden to the average
American family.

On the whole, I think that short visits to Europe are better for us than
long ones. The former preserve us from becoming Europeanized; they keep
our pride of country intact, and at the same time they intensify our
affection for our country and our people; whereas long visits have the
effect of dulling those feelings--at least in the majority of cases. I
think that one who mixes much with Americans long resident abroad must
arrive at this conclusion.

Mark Twain