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Pordenone


  I.


  Hard by the Church of Saint Stephen, in sole and beautiful Venice,
  Under the colonnade of the Augustinian Convent,
  Every day, as I passed, I paused to look at the frescos
  Painted upon the ancient walls of the court of the Convent
  By a great master of old, who wore his sword and his dagger
  While he wrought the figures of patriarchs, martyrs, and virgins
  Into the sacred and famous scenes of Scriptural story.


  II.


  Long ago the monks from their snug self-devotion were driven,
  Wistful and fat and slow: looking backward, I fancied them going
  Out through the sculptured doorway, and down the Ponte de'Frati,
  Cowled and sandalled and beaded, a plump and pensive procession;
  And in my day their cells were barracks for Austrian soldiers,
  Who in their turn have followed the Augustinian Friars.
  As to the frescos, little remained of work once so perfect.
  Summer and winter weather of some three cycles had wasted;
  Plaster had fallen, and left unsightly blotches of ruin;
  Wanton and stupid neglect had done its worst to the pictures:
  Yet to the sympathetic and reverent eye was apparent--
  Where the careless glance but found, in expanses of plaster,
  Touches of incoherent color and lines interrupted--
  Somewhat still of the life of surpassing splendor and glory
  Filling the frescos once; and here and there was a figure,
  Standing apart, and out from the common decay and confusion,
  Flushed with immortal youth and ineffaceable beauty,
  Such as that figure of Eve in pathetic expulsion from Eden,
  Taking--the tourist remembers--the wrath of Heaven al fresco,
  As is her well-known custom in thousands of acres of canvas.


  III.


  I could make out the much-bepainted Biblical subjects,
  When I had patience enough: The Temptation, of course, and
        Expulsion;
  Cain killing Abel, his Brother--the merest fragment of murder;
  Noah's Debauch--the trunk of the sea-faring patriarch naked,
  And the garment, borne backward to cover it, fearfully tattered;
  Abraham offering Isaac--no visible Isaac, and only
  Abraham's lifted knife held back by the hovering angel;
  Martyrdom of Saint Stephen--a part of the figure of Stephen;
  And the Conversion of Paul--the greaves on the leg of a soldier
  Held across the back of a prostrate horse by the stirrup;
  But when I looked at the face of that tearful and beauteous
        figure,--
  Eve in the fresco there, and, in Venice of old, Violante,
  As I must fain believe (the lovely daughter of Palma,
  Who was her father's Saint Barbara, and was the Bella of Titian),--
  Such a meaning and life shone forth from its animate presence
  As could restore those vague and ineffectual pictures,
  With their pristine colors, and fill them with light and with
        movement.
  Nay, sometimes it could blind me to all the present about me,
  Till I beheld no more the sausage-legged Austrian soldiers,
  Where they stood on guard beside one door of the Convent,
  Nor the sentinel beggars that watched the approach to the other;
  Neither the bigolanti, the broad-backed Friulan maidens,
  Drawing the water with clatter and splashing, and laughter and
        gossip,
  Out of the carven well in the midst of the court of the Convent--
  No, not even the one with the mole on her cheek and the sidelong
  Look, as she ambled forth with her buckets of bronze at her
        shoulder,
  Swinging upon the yoke to and fro, a-drip and a-glimmer.
  All in an instant was changed, and once more the cloister was
        peopled
  By the serene monks of old, and against walls of the cloisters,
  High on his scaffolding raised, Pordenone[5] wrought at his
        frescos.
  Armed with dagger and sword, as the legend tells, against Titian,
  Who was his rival in art and in love.


  IV.


                    It seemed to be summer,
  In the forenoon of the day; and the master's diligent pencil
  Laid its last light touches on Eve driven forth out of Eden,
  Otherwise Violante, and while his pupils about him
  Wrought and chattered, in silence ran the thought of the painter:
  "She, and forever she! Is it come to be my perdition?
  Shall I, then, never more make the face of a beautiful woman
  But it must take her divine, accursèd beauty upon it,
  And, when I finish my work, stand forth her visible presence?
  Ah! I could take this sword and strike it into her bosom!
  Though I believe my own heart's blood would stream from the
        painting,
  So much I love her! Yes, that look is marvellous like you,
  Wandering, tender--such as I'd give my salvation to win you
  Once to bend upon me! But I knew myself better than make you,
  Lest I should play the fool about you here before people,
  Helpless to turn away from your violet eyes, Violante,
  That have turned all my life to a vision of madness." The painter
  Here unto speech betraying the thoughts he had silently pondered,
  "Visions, visions, my son?" said a gray old friar who listened,
  Seated there in the sun, with his eye on the work of the painter
  Fishily fixed, while the master blasphemed behind his mustaches.
  "Much have I envied your Art, who vouchsafeth to those who adore
        her
  Visions of heavenly splendor denied to fastings and vigils.
  I have spent days and nights of faint and painful devotion,
  Scourged myself almost to death, without one glimpse of the glory
  Which your touch has revealed in the face of that heavenly maiden.
  Pleasure me to repeat what it was you were saying of visions:
  Fain would I know how they come to you, though _I_ never see them,
  And in my thickness of hearing I fear some words have escaped me."
  Then, while the painter glared on the lifted face of the friar,
  Baleful, breathless, bewildered, fiercer than noon in the dog-days,
  Round the circle of pupils there ran a tittering murmur;
  From the lips to the ears of those nameless Beppis and Gigis
  Buzzed the stinging whisper: "Let's hear Pordenone's confession."
  Well they knew the master's luckless love, and whose portrait
  He had unconsciously painted there, and guessed that his visions
  Scarcely were those conceived by the friar, who constantly
        blundered
  Round the painter at work, mistaking every subject--
  Noah's drunken Debauch for the Stoning of Stephen the Martyr,
  And the Conversion of Paul for the Flight into Egypt; forever
  Putting his hand to his ear and shouting, "Speak louder, I pray
        you!"
  So they waited now, in silent, amused expectation,
  Till Pordenone's angry scorn should gather to bursting.
  Long the painter gazed in furious silence, then slowly
  Uttered a kind of moan, and turned again to his labor.
  Tears gathered into his eyes, of mortification and pathos,
  And when the dull old monk, who forgot, while he waited the answer,
  Visions and painter, and all, had maundered away in his error,
  Pordenone half envied the imbecile peace of his bosom;
  "For in my own," he mused, "is such a combat of devils,
  That I believe torpid age or stupid youth would be better
  Than this manhood of mine that has climbed aloft to discover
  Heights which I never can reach, and bright on the pinnacle
        standing
  In the unfading light, my rival crowned victor above me.
  If I could hint what I feel, what forever escapes from my pencil,
  All after-time should know my will was not less than my failure,
  Nor should any one dare remember me merely in pity.
  All should read my sorrows and do my discomfiture homage,
  Saying: 'Not meanly at any time this painter meant or endeavored;
  His was the anguish of one who falls short of the highest
        achievement,
  Conscious of doing his utmost, and knowing how vast his defeat is.
  Life, if he would, might have had some second guerdon to give him,
  But he would only the first; and behold! Let us honor
  Grief such as his must have been; no other sorrow can match it!
  There are certainly some things here that are nobly imagined:
  Look! here is masterly power in this play of light, and these
        shadows
  Boldly are massed; and what color! One can well understand
        Buonarotti
  Saying the sight of his Curtius was worth the whole journey from
        Florence.
  Here is a man at least never less than his work; you can feel it
  As you can feel in Titian's the painter's inferior spirit.
  He and this Pordenone, you know, were rivals; and Titian
  Knew how to paint to the popular humor, and spared not
  Foul means or fair (his way with rivals) to crush Pordenone,
  Who with an equal chance'--
                    "Alas, if the whole world should tell me
  I was his equal in art, and the lie could save me from torment,
  So must I be lost, for my soul could never believe it!
  Nay, let my envy snarl as fierce as it will at his glory,
  Still, when I look on his work, my soul makes obeisance within me,
  Humbling itself before the touch that shall never be equalled."


  He who sleeps in continual noise is wakened by silence,
  And Pordenone was roused from these thoughts anon by the sudden
  Hush that had fallen upon the garrulous group of his pupils;
  And ere he turned half-way with instinctive looks of inquiry,
  He was already warned, with a shock at the heart, of a presence
  Long attended, not feared; and he laid one hand on his sword-hilt,
  Seizing the sheath with the other hand, that the pallet had dropped
        from.
  Then he fronted Titian, who stood with his arms lightly folded,
  And with a curious smile, half of sarcasm, half of compassion,
  Bent on th' embattled painter, cried: "Your slave, Messere Antonio!
  What good friend has played this bitter jest with your humor?
  As I beheld you just now full-armed with your pencil and palette,
  I was half awed by your might; but these sorry trappings of bravo
  Make me believe you less fit to be the rival of Titian,
  Here in the peaceful calm of our well-ordered city of Venice,
  Than to take service under some Spanish lordling at Naples,
  Needy in blades for work that can not wait for the poison."


  Pordenone flushed with anger and shame to be taken
  At an unguarded point; but he answered with scornful defiance:
  "Oh, you are come, I see, with the favorite weapon of Titian,
  And you would make a battle of words. If you care for my counsel,
  Listen to me: I say you are skilfuller far in my absence,
  And your tongue can inflict a keener and deadlier mischief
  When it is dipped in poisonous lies, and wielded in secret."
  "Nay, then," Titian responded, "methinks that our friend Aretino[6]
  Makes a much better effect than either of us in that tongue-play.
  But since Messer Robusti has measured our wit for his portrait,
  Even _he_ has grown shyer of using his tongue than he once was.
  Have you not heard the tale? Tintoretto was told Aretino
  Meant to make him the subject of one of his merry effusions;
  And with his naked dirk he went carefully over his person,
  Promising, if the poet made free with him in his verses,
  He would immortalize my satirical friend with that pencil.
  Doubtless the tale is not true. Aretino says nothing about it;
  Always speaks, in fact, with the highest respect of Robusti.
  True or not, 'tis well found." Then looking around on the frescos:
  "Good, very good indeed! Your breadth and richness and softness
  No man living surpasses; those heads are truly majestic.
  Yes, Buonarotti was right, when he said that to look at your
        Curtius
  Richly repaid him the trouble and cost of a journey from Florence.
  Surely the world shall know you the first of painters in fresco!
  Well? You will not strike me unarmed? This was hardly expected
  By the good people that taught you to think our rivalry blood-red.
  Let us be friends, Pordenone!"
                    "Be patron and patronized, rather;
  Nay, if you spoke your whole mind out, be assassin and victim.
  Could the life beat again in the broken heart of Giorgione,
  He might tell us, I think, something pleasant of friendship with
        Titian."
  Suddenly over the shoulder of Titian peered an ironical visage,
  Smiling, malignly intent--the leer of the scurrilous poet:
  "You know--all the world knows--who dug the grave of Giorgione.[7]
  Titian and he were no friends--our Lady of Sorrows forgive 'em!
  But for all hurt that Titian did him he might have been living,
  Greater than any living, and lord of renown and such glory
  As would have left you both dull as yon withered moon in the
        sunshine."
  Loud laughed the listening group at the insolent gibe of the poet,
  Stirring the gall to its depths in the bitter soul of their master,
  Who with his tremulous fingers tapped the hilt of his poniard,
  Answering naught as yet. Anon the glance of the ribald,
  Carelessly ranging from Pordenone's face to the picture,
  Dwelt with an absent light on its marvellous beauty, and kindled
  Into a slow recognition, with "Ha! Violante!" Then, erring
  Wilfully as to the subject, he cackled his filthy derision:
  "What have we here! More Magdalens yet of the painter's acquaintance?
  Ah--!"
        The words had scarce left his lips, when the painter
  Rushed upon him, and clutching his throat, thrust him backward and
        held him
  Over the scaffolding's edge in air, and straightway had flung him
  Crashing down on the pave of the cloister below, but for Titian,
  Who around painter and poet alike wound his strong arms and stayed
        them
  Solely, until the bewildered pupils could come to the rescue.
  Then, as the foes relaxed that embrace of frenzy and murder--
  White, one with rage and the other with terror, and either with
        hatred--
  Grimly the great master smiled: "You were much nearer paradise,
        Piero,
  Than you have been for some time. Be ruled now by me and get
        homeward
  Fast as you may, and be thankful." And then, as the poet,
  Looking neither to right nor to left, amid the smiles of the pupils
  Tottered along the platform, and trembling descended the ladder
  Down to the cloister pave, and, still without upward or backward
  Glance, disappeared beneath the outer door of the Convent,
  Titian turned again to the painter: "Farewell, Pordenone!
  Learn more fairly to know me. I envy you not; and no rival
  Now, or at any time, have I held you, or ever shall hold you.
  Prosper and triumph still, for all me: you shall but do me honor,
  Seeing that I too serve the art that your triumphs illustrate.
  I for my part find life too short for work and for pleasure;
  If it should touch a century's bound, I should think it too
        precious
  Even to spare a moment for rage at another's good fortune.
  Do not be fooled by the purblind flatterers who would persuade you
  Either of us shall have greater fame through the fall of the other.
  We can thrive only in common. The tardily blossoming cycles,
  Flowering at last in this glorious age of our art, had not waited,
  Folded calyxes still, for Pordenone or Titian.
  Think you if we had not been, our pictures had never been painted?
  Others had done them, or better, the same. We are only
  Pencils God paints with. And think you that He had wanted for
        pencils
  But for our being at hand? And yet--for some virtue creative
  Dwells and divinely exists in the being of every creature,
  So that the thing done through him is dear as if he had done it--
  If I should see your power, a tint of this great efflorescence,
  Fading, methinks I should feel myself beginning to wither.
  They have abused your hate who told you that Titian was jealous.
  Once, in my youth that is passed, I too had my hates and my envies.
  'Sdeath! how it used to gall me--that power and depth of Giorgione!
  I could have turned my knife in his heart when I looked at his
        portraits.
  Ah! we learn somewhat still as the years go. Now, when I see you
  Doing this good work here, I am glad in my soul of its beauty.
  Art is not ours, O friend! but if we are not hers, we are nothing.
  Look at the face you painted last year--or yesterday, even:
  Far, so far, it seems from you, so utterly, finally, parted,
  Nothing is stranger to you than this child of your soul; and you
        wonder--
  'Did I indeed then do it?' No thrill of the rapture of doing
  Stirs in your breast at the sight. Nay, then, not even the beauty
  Which we had seemed to create is our own: the frame universal
  Is as much ours. And shall I hate you because you are doing
  That which when done you cannot feel yours more than I mine can feel
        it?
  It shall belong hereafter to all who perceive and enjoy it,
  Rather than him who made it; he, least of all, shall enjoy it.
  They of the Church conjure us to look on death and be humble;
  I say, look upon life and keep your pride if you can, then:
  See how to-day's achievement is only to-morrow's confusion;
  See how possession always cheapens the thing that was precious
  To our endeavor; how losses and gains are equally losses;
  How in ourselves we are nothing, and how we are anything only
  As indifferent parts of the whole, that still, on our ceasing,
  Whole remains as before, no less without us than with us.
  Were it not for the delight of doing, the wonderful instant
  Ere the thing done is done and dead, life scarce were worth living.
  Ah, but that makes life divine! We are gods, for that instant
        immortal,
  Mortal for evermore, with a few days' rumor--or ages'--
  What does it matter? We, too, have our share of eating and
        drinking,
  Love, and the liking of friends--mankind's common portion and
        pleasure.
  Come, Pordenone, with me; I would fain have you see my Assumption
  While it is still unfinished, and stay with me for the evening:
  You shall send home for your lute, and I'll ask Sansovino to
        supper.[8]
  After what happened just now I scarcely could ask Aretino;
  Though, for the matter of that, the dog is not one to bear malice.
  Will you not come?"


  V.


        I listen with Titian, and wait for the answer.
  But, whatever the answer that comes to Titian, I hear none.
  Nay, while I linger, all those presences fade into nothing,
  In the dead air of the past; and the old Augustinian Convent
  Lapses to picturesque profanation again as a barrack;
  Lapses and changes once more, and this time vanishes wholly,
  Leaving me at the end with the broken, shadowy legend,
  Broken and shadowy still, as in the beginning. I linger,
  Teased with its vague unfathomed suggestion, and wonder,
  As at first I wondered, what happened about Violante,
  And am but ill content with those metaphysical phrases
  Touching the strictly impersonal nature of personal effort,
  Wherewithal Titian had fain avoided the matter at issue.



FOOTNOTES:


  [5] Giovanni Antonio Licinio, called _Pordenone_ from his birth-place
      in the Friuli, was a contemporary of Titian's, whom he equalled
      in many qualities, and was one of the most eminent Venetian
      painters in fresco.


  [6] Pietro Aretino, the satirical poet, was a friend of Titian, whose
      house he frequented. The story of Tintoretto's measuring him for
      a portrait with his dagger is well known.


  [7] Giorgione (Giorgio Barbarelli) was Titian's fellow-pupil and rival
      in the school of Bellini. He died at thirty-four, after a life
      of great triumphs and excesses.


  [8] Sansovino, the architect, was a familiar guest at Titian's table,
      in his house near the Fondamenta Nuove.


 

William Dean Howells