The sport went on. The girl, as I considered her, was of slight, almost mean figure; her good looks, which as yet lay rather in promise, resolved themselves into a small compass, for they ended at her shoulders. Below them she was slender to stooping, and with no shape to speak of. Allow her a fine little head, the timid freshness natural to her age, a blush-rose skin, slim neck, and that glorious weight of hair: there is Perugino's wife! Add that she was vested in a milky green robe which was cut square and low at the neck and fitted her close, and I have no more to say on her score than she had on any. As for the Maestro himself, I got to know him better. On mere sight I could guess something of him. A master evidently, unhappy when not ordering something; fidgety by the same token; yet a fellow of humours, and fertile of inventions whereon to feed them. The more I considered him the more subtle ministry to his pleasures did I find this morning's work to be. A man, finally, happiest in dreams. I looked at him now in that vein. In and out, elbow-deep sometimes, went his hands and arms, plunging, swimming in that luxurious mesh of hair. He sprayed it out in a shower for Danae; he clutched it hard and drew it into thick burnished ropes of fine gold. Anon, as the whim caught him, he would pile it up and hedge it with great silver pins, fan-shape, such as country girls use, till it took the semblance, now of a tower, now of a wheel, now of some winged beast—sphinx or basilisk—couching on the girl's head. Then, stepping back a little, he would clasp his hands over his eyes, and with head in air sing some snatch of triumph, or laugh aloud for the very wildness of his power; and so the game went on, that seemed a feast of delight to the man—a feast? an orgy of sense. But the woman might have been cut in stone. Had she not breathed, or had not her fingers faintly stirred now and again, you would have sworn her a wax doll.
I know not how long the two might have stayed at their affairs, for here I grew wearied and, coughing discreetly, slid my foot on the flags. The man looked up, stopped his play at once; the spell was broken. The girl, I noticed, stirred not at all, but sat on as she was with her hair about her clasping her shoulders and flooding her with gold. But Master Peter was a little disconcerted, I am pretty sure; certainly he was redder than usual about the gills and gullet. He cleared his throat once or twice with an attempt at pomposity which he vainly tried to sustain as he came out to meet me. When I handed him the Prothonotary's letter, and he saw the broad seal, he bowed quite low; the letter read, he took me by the hand and led me to the loggia of his house. We had to pass Madam on the way thither; but by this Master Peter carried off the affair as coolly as you choose. "Imola, child," he said as we passed, "I have company. Put up thy hair and fetch me out a fiaschone of Orvieto—that of the year before last. Be sure thou makest no mistake; and break no bottles, girl, for the wine is good. And hard enough to come by," he added with a sigh. The girl obeyed. Without raising her eyes she rose; without raising them she put her hands to her head and deftly braided and coiled her hair into a single twist; still looking down to earth she passed into the house.
Pietro began to talk briskly enough so soon as we were set. The air was mild for mid-March; between the ridged tiles of the cortile, which ran up to a great height, I could see a square of pale blue sky; gnats were busy in the beam of dusty light which slanted across the shade; I heard the bees about the lemon-bush droning of a quiet and opulent summer hovering near-by. It was a very peaceful and well-disposed world just then. Pietro, much at his ease, was apt to take life as he found it—nor do I wonder. "Yes," he said, "the work goes; the work goes. I have much to do; you may call me just now quite a man of affairs. This very morning, now, I received a little deputation from Citta di Castello—quite a company! The Prior, the Sub-Prior, two Vicars-Choral, two Wardens of Guilds, and other gentlemen, craving a piece by my own hand for the altar of Saint Roch. I thank our Lord I can pick and choose in these days. I told them I would think of it, whereat they seemed to know relief, but I added, How did they wish the boil treated, on the Saint's left thigh? For I told them, and I was very firm, that though Holy Church might aver the boil to have been a grievous boil, a boil indeed, yet my art could have little to say to boils, as boils. The boil must be a great boil, and a red, said they; for the populace love best what they know best, and cannot worship, as you might say, with maimed rites. Moreover, Poggibonsi had a Saint Roch done by that luxurious Sienese Bazzi (a man of scandalous living, as I daresay you know), where the boil was fiery to behold and as big as a man's ankle- bone. This was a cause of new great devotion among the impious by reason of its plain relationship to our frail flesh. Citta was a poor city; in fine, there must be a handsome boil, I said. Let me refine upon the boil, and Saint Roch is yours, with Madonna, in addition, caught up in clouds of pure light, and two fiddling angels, one at either hand. Finally, with the petition that Madonna should be rarely adorned with pearls Flemish- fashion, they let me have my way upon the boil. So the work goes on!"
"But, good Master Peter," I exclaimed here, "I could find some discrepancy in this. On the one hand you boggle at boils, on the other you suffer pearls to be thrust upon you. Why, if you cleave to the one, should you despise the other? For, for aught I see, your thesis should exclude either."
"And so it does," he said, smiling, "But for one man in Citta that knows a pearl there will be a hundred who can judge of a boil. My Madonna will be a pearl-faced Umbrian maid, and her other pearls just as Flemish as I choose. But I hear our glasses clinking."
I, too, heard Imola's footfall on the flags, and ventured to say, "And I know where your Madonna is, Master Peter," But he affected not to hear.
She served us our amber cup with the same persistent, almost sullen, self- continence. But, I thought, I must see your eyes, Mistress, for once; so called to mind my encounter with the wild young Baglione of the morning. Smiling as easily as I could, I accosted her with "Madonna, I am the bearer of compliments to you, if you choose to hear them." Then she looked me full for a second of time. I saw by her dilating eyes, wide as a hare's (though of a sea-grey colour), that she was not always queen of herself, and pitied her. For it is ill to think of broken-in hearts, or souls set in bars, and I could fancy Master Peter's hand not so light upon her as upon church-walls. But I went on, "Yes, Madonna, even as I rode up hither, I met a young knight-at-arms who wished you as well as you were fair, and kissed your hands as best he might, considering the distance, before he rode off." Imola blushed, but said nothing.
"Who was this youth, sir?" asked Master Peter, in a hurry.
"It was plainly some young noble of your State," said I, "but for his name I know nothing, for he told me nothing." I added this quickly, because I could see our friend was keen enough for all his coat of unconcern, and I feared the whip by-and-bye for Imola's thin shoulders. But I knew quite well who the boy was. Imola went lightly away without any sign of twitter. I turned to Master Peter again.
"In this matter of boils and pearls," I began, "I would not deny but you are in the right, and yet there is this to be said. The Greeks of whose painting, truly, we have next to nothing. In all the work of theirs known to us did what lay before them as well as ever they could. They stayed not to theorise over this axiom and that, that formula and this. They said rather, 'You wish for the presentment of a man with a boil on his leg? Well.' And they produced both man and boil."
"Why yes, yes," broke in my friend, "that is plain enough. But apart from this, that you are talking of sculpture to me who do but paint, you should know very well that your Greek copied no single boil, no, nor no probable boil, but, as it were, the summary and perfect conclusion of ail possible boils."
"To Pithanon? Yes; I admit it. For Aristotle says as much."
"Right so do I, in my degree and by my art," said Perugino; "and without knowing anything of Aristotle save that he was wise."
"Your pardon, my brave Vannucci," I said, "but you have admitted the opposite of this. Did you not hint to the deputation that you would give Saint Roch no boils? And have you ever let creep into your pieces the semblance of so much as a pimple? Remember, I know your Sebastian; and know also Il Sodoma's, which he made as a banner for the Confraternity of that famous Saint In Camollia."
"I seek the essence of fact," he replied; "which, believe me, never lay in the displacement of an arrow-point; no, nor in the head of a boil. Bazzi is a sensualist: as his palate grows stale he whets it by stronger meat; thinks to provoke appetite by disgust; would draw you on by a nasty inference, as a dog by his hankering after faecal odours. What nearness to Art in his plumpy boy stuck with arrows like a skewered capon? Causes nuns to weep, hey? and to dream dreams, hey? Nature would do that cleanlier; and waxwork more powerfully! Form, my good sir, Form is your safeguard. Lay hold on Form; you are as near to Essence as may be here below. Art works for the rational enlargement of the fancy, not the titillation of sense. And Invention is the more sacred the closer it apes the scope of the divine plan. And this much, at least, of the Grecian work I have learned, that it will never lick vulgar shoes, nor fawn to beastly eyes. It is a stately order, a high pageant, a solemn gradual, wherein the beholder will behold just so much as he is prepared, by litany and fasting and long vigil, to receive. No more and no less."
"Aristotle again," said I, "with his 'continual slight novelty.' No fits and starts."
"I have told you before I know nothing of the man," said Perugino, vexed, it appeared, at such wounding of his vanity to be new; "let me tell you this. There are fellows abroad who dub me dunce and dull-head. The young Buonarroti, forsooth, who mistakes the large for the great, quantity for quality; who in the indetermined pretends to see the mysterious. Mystery, quotha! Mystery may be in an astrologer's horoscope, in a diagram. Mystery needs no puckered virago, nor bully in the sulks. There is mystery in the morning calms, mystery in a girl's melting mood, mystery in the irresolution of a growing boy full of dreams. But behold! it is there, not here. If you see it not, the fault is your own. It may be broad as day, cut clean as with a knife, displayed at large before a brawling world too busy lapping or grudging to heed it. The many shall pass it by as they run huddling to the dark. Yet the few shall adore therein the excellency of the mystery, even as the few (the very few) may discern in the flake of wafer-bread the shining wholeness of the Divine Nature——"
"'The few remain, the many change and pass,'" I interpolated in a murmur. But Perugino never heeded me. He went on.
"The Greek, young sir, took the fact and let it alone to breed. His act lay in the taking and setting. Just so much import as it had borne it bore still; just so much weight as separation from its fellows lent it was to his credit who first cut it free. But nowadays glamour suits only with serried muscles, frowns, and writhen lips; where darkness is we shudder, saying, Behold a great mystery! Let a painter declare his incompetence to utter, it shall be enough to assure you he has walked with God; for if he stammers, look you, that testifies he is overwhelmed. Amen, I would answer. Let his head swim and be welcome; but let him not set to painting till he can stand straight again. For in one thing I am no Greek, in that I cannot hold drunkenness divine." Here the good man stopped for want of breath and I whipped in.
"Your great Crucifixion in Santa Maria Maddalena," I began.
"Look you, sir," he took me up, "I know what you would be at. Take that piece (which is of my very best) or another equally good, I mean the Charge to Peter in Pope Sixtus his new Chapel, and listen to me. The first thing your painter must seek to do is to fill his wall. Let there be no mistake about this. He is at first no prophet or man of God; he is no juggler nor mountebank who shall be rewarded according to the enormity of his grins; his calling, maybe, is humbler, for all he stands for is to wash a wall so that no eye be set smarting because of it. Now that seems a very simple matter; it is just as simple as the eye itself— so you may judge the validity of the arguments against me, that a wholesome green or goodly red wash would suffice. It would suffice indifferent well for a kennel of dogs. But mark this. Although your painter may drop hints for the soul, let him not strain above his pitch lest he crack his larynx. To his colour he may add form in the flat; but he cannot escape the flat, however he may wriggle, any more than the sculptor can escape the round, scrape he never so wisely. Buonarroti will scrape and shift; the Fleming has scraped and shifted all his days to as little purpose. His seed-pearls invite your touch. Touch them, my friend, you will smear your fingers. Ne sutor ultra crepidam. Leave miracles, O painter, to the Saint, and stick to your brush-work. Colour and form in the flat; there is his armour to win the citadel of a man's soul."
"They call you mawkish," I dared to say.
"I am in good company," said the little man with much pomposity.
"You say boldly, then, if I catch the chain of your argument"—thus I pursued him—"that you present (as by some formula which you have elaborated) the facts of religion in colour and design? For I suppose you will allow that your Art is concerned at least as much with religion as with the washing of walls?"
"Religion! Religion!" cried he. "What are you at? Concerned with religion! Man alive, it is concerned with itself; it is religion. I see you are very far indeed from the truth, and as you have spoken of my Crucifixion in Florence, now you shall suffer me to speak of it. I testify what I know, not that which I have not seen. And as mine eyes have never filled with blood from Golgotha, so I do not conjure with tools I have not learned to handle. But I will tell you what I have seen. The Mass: whereof my piece is, as it were, the transfiguration or a parable. For it grew out of a Mass I once heard, stately-ordered, solemnly and punctiliously served in a great church. Mayhap, I dreamed of it; we shall not quarrel over terms. It was a strange Mass, shorn of much ornament and circumstance; I thought, as I knelt and wondered: Here are no lamentations, no bruised breasts, no outpoured hearts, nor souls on flames. The day for tears is past, the fires are red, not flaming; this is a day for steadfast regard, for service, patience, and good hope; this is a day for Art to chant what the soul hath endured. For Art is a fruit sown in action and watered to utterance by tears. Two priests only, clothed in fine linen, served the Mass: ornaments of candles, incense, prostration, genuflection, there were none. Yet, step by step, and with every step pondered reverently ere another was laid to Its fellow's foundation; with full knowledge of the end ere yet was the beginning accomplished; In every gesture, every pause, intonation, invocation, stave of song, phrase of prayer; by painful degrees wrought in the soul's sweat and tears, unadorned, cold as fine stone, yet glittering none the less like fair marble set in the sun—was that solemn Mass sung through in the bare Church to the glory of God and His angels, who must ever rejoice in a work done so that the master-mind is straining and on watch over heart and voice. And I said, Calvary is done and the woe of it turned to triumph. Love is the fulfilling of the Law. Henceforth, for me Law shall be the fulfilment of my Love.
"Therefore I paint no terrors of death, no flesh torn by iron, no passion of an anguish greater than we can ever conceive, no bittersweet ecstasy of Self abandoned or Love inflaming; but instead, serenity, a morning sky, a meek victim, Love fulfilling Law. Shorn of accidents, for the essence is enough; not passionate, for that were as gross an affront in face of such awful death as to be trivial. Nothing too much; Law fulfilling Love; reasonable service.
"And because we are of the earth earthy, and because what I work you must behold with bodily eyes, I limn you angels and gods in your own image; not of greater stature nor of more excellent beauty than many among you; not of finer essence, maybe, than yourselves. But as the priests about that naked altar, so stand they, that the love which transfigures them be absorbed in the fulfilling of law; and the law they exquisitely follow be at once the pattern and glass of their love."
Master Peter drained a beaker of his Orvieto. I admired; for indeed the little man spoke well.
"Now the Lord be good to you, Master Peter," I said; "men do you a great wrong. For there are some who aver that you doubt."
"Who does not doubt?" replied my host. "We doubt whenever we cannot see."
"I believe you are right," said I. "Your great Saint is, after all, your great Seer. For you, then, to question the soul's immortality is but to admit that you do not yet see your own life to come."
"Leave it so," said Perugino. "Let us talk reasonably."
"Did all men love the law as you do," I resumed after a painful pause—for I felt the force of the Master's rebuke to my impertinence (and could hope others will feel it also)—"did all love the law as you do, the world would be a cooler place and passion at a discount. But I cannot conceive Art without passion."
"Nor I," said the painter, "and for the excellent reason that there is no such thing. But remember this: passion is like the Alpheus. Hedge it about with dams, you drive it deeper. Out of sight is not out of being. And the issue must needs be the fairer."
"Happy the passion," I said, "which hath an issue. There is passion of the vexed sort, where the tears are frozen to ice as they start. Of the tortured thus, remember—
"Lo pianto stesso li planger non lascia, E il duol, che trova in su gli occhi rintoppo, Si volve in entro a far crescer l' ambascia."
"You know our Dante?" said Master Peter blandly (though I swear he knew what I was at). "There may be such people; doubtless there are such people. For me, I find a perpetual outlet in my art." I could not forbear——
"Master Peter, Master Peter," I cried out, "how can I believe you when I know that your Madonna's eyes are brimming; when I know why she turns them to a misty heaven or an earth seen blotted by reason of tears? Do these tears ever fall, Master Peter? or who freezes them as they start?"
For I wondered where his patient Imola found her outlet, and whether young Simone has shown her a way. Master Peter drummed on the table and nursed one fat leg.
Before I took leave of the urbane little painter, in fact while I stood in the act of handshaking, I saw her white face at an upper window, looming behind rigid bars. On a sudden impulse I concluded my farewells rapidly and made to go. Vannucci turned back into the house and closed the door; but I stayed in the cortile pretending a trouble with my spurs. Sure enough, in a short time I heard a light footfall. Imola stood beside me.
"Wish me a safe journey," I said smiling, "and no more bare-headed cavaliers on the road." Her lips hardly moved, so still her voice was. "Was he bare-headed?" she asked, as if in awe.
"Love-locks floating free," I answered her gaily enough. "Shall I thank him for his courtesies to you, Madonna, if we meet?"
"You will not meet: he is gone to Spello," she began, and then stopped, blushing painfully.
"But I may stay in Spello this night and could seek him out."
She was mistress of her lips, and could now look steadily at me. "I wish him very well," said Imola.
THE SOUL OF A FACT
In the days when it was verging on a question whether a man could be at the same time a good Christian and an artist, the chosen subjects of painting were significant of the approaching crisis—those glaring moral contrasts in history which, for want of a happier term, we call dramatic. Why this was so, whether Art took a hint from Politics, or had withdrawn her more intimate manifestations to await likelier times, is a question it were long to answer. The subjects, at any rate, were such as the Greeks, with their surer instincts and saving grace of sanity in matters of this kind, either forbore to meddle with or treated as decoratively as they treated acanthus-wreaths. Today we call them "effective" subjects; we find they produce shocks and tremors; we think it braces us to shudder, and we think that Art is a kind of emotional pill; we measure it quantitatively, and say that we "know what we like." And doubtless there is something piquant in the quivering produced, for example, by the sight of white innocence fluttering helpless in a grey shadow of lust. So long as the Bible remained a god that piquancy was found in a Massacre of the Innocents; in our own time we find it in a Faust and Gretchen, in the Dore Gallery, or in the Royal Academy. It was a like appreciation of the certain effect of vivid contrasts as powerful didactic agents (coupled with, or drowning, a something purer and more devout) which had inspired those most beautiful and distinctive of all the symbols of Catholicism, the Adoration of the Kings, the Christ-child cycle, and which raised the Holy Child and Maid-Mother to their place above the mystic tapers and the Cross. Naturally the Old Testament, that garner of grim tales, proved a rich mine: David and Golias, Susanna and the Elders, the Sacrifice of Isaac, Jethro's daughter. But the story of Judith did not come to be painted in Tuscan sanctuaries until Donatello of Florence had first cast her in bronze at the prayer of Cosimo pater patria. Her entry was dramatic enough at least: Dame Fortune may well have sniggered as she spun round the city on her ball. Cosimo the patriot and his splendid grandson were no sooner dead and their brood sent flying, than Donatello's Judith was set up in the Piazza as a fit emblem of rescue from tyranny, with the vigorous motto, to make assurance double, "EXEMPLVM SALVTIS PVBLICAE CIVES POSVERE." Savonarola, who knew his Bible, saw here a keener application of Judith's pious sin. A few years later that same Judith saw him burn. Thus, as an incarnate cynicism, she will pass; as a work of art she is admittedly one of her great creator's failures. Her neighbour Perseus of the Loggia makes this only too plain! For Cellini has seized the right moment in a deed of horror, and Donatello, with all his downrightness and grip of the fact, has hit upon the wrong. It is fatal to freeze a moment of time into an eternity of waiting. His Judith will never strike: her arm is palsied where it swings. The Damoclean sword is a fine incident for poetry; but Holofernes was no Damocles, and, if he had been, it were intolerable to cast his experience in bronze. Donatello has essayed that thing impossible for sculpture, to arrest a moment instead of denote a permanent attribute. Art is adjectival, is it not, O Donatello? Her business is to qualify facts, to say what things are, not to state them, to affirm that they are. A sculptured Judith was done not long afterwards, carved, as we shall see, with a burin on a plate; and the man who so carved her was a painter.
Meantime, pari passu, almost, a painter who was a poet was trying his hand; a man who knew his Bible and his mythology and was equally at home with either. Perhaps it is not extravagant to say that you cannot be an artist unless you are at home with mythology, unless mythology is the swiftest and most direct expression of your being, so that you can be measured by it as a man is known by his books, or a woman by her clothes, her way of bowing, her amusements, or her charities. For mythopoeia is just this, the incarnating the spirit of natural fact; and the generic name of that power is Art. A kind of creation, a clothing of essence in matter, an hypostatising (if you will have it) of an object of intuition within the folds of an object of sense. Lessing did not dig so deep as his Greek Voltaire (whose "dazzling antithesis," after all, touches the root of the matter) for he did not see that rhythmic extension in time or space, as the case may be, with all that that implies—colour, value, proportion, all the convincing incidents of form—is simply the mode of all arts, the thing with which Art's substance must be interpenetrated, until the two form a whole, lovely, golden, irresistible, and inevitable as Nature's pieces are. This substance, I have said, is the spirit of natural fact. And so mythology is Art at its simplest and barest (where the bodily medium is neither word, nor texture of stone, nor dye), the parent art from which all the others were, so to speak, begotten by man's need. Thus much of explanation, I am sorry to say, is necessary, before we turn to our mytho-poet of Florence, to see what he made out of the story of Judith.
First of all, though, what has the story of Judith to do with mythology? It is a legend, one of the finest of Semitic legends; and between legend and myth there is as great a gulf as between Jew and Greek. I believe there are no myths proper to Israel—I do not see how such magnificent egoists could contract to the necessary state of awe—and I do not know that there are any legends proper to Greece which are divorced from real myths. For where a myth is the incarnation of the spirit of natural fact, a legend is the embellishment of an historical event: a very different thing. A natural fact is permanent and elemental, an historical event is transient and superficial. Take one instance out of a score. The rainbow links heaven and earth. Iris then, to the myth-making Greek, was Jove's messenger, intermediary between God and Man. That is to incarnate a constant, natural fact. Plato afterwards, making her daughter of Thaumas, incarnated a fact, psychological, but none the less constant, none the less natural. But to say, as the legend-loving Jew said, that Noah floated his ark over a drowning world and secured for his posterity a standing covenant with God, Who then and once for all set His bow in the heavens; that is to indicate, somewhere, in the dim backward and abysm of time, an historical event. The rainbow is suffered as the skirt of the robe of Noah, who was an ancestor of Israel. So the Judith poem may be a decorated event, or it may be the barest history in a splendid epical setting: the point to remember is that it cannot be, as legend, a subject for creative art. The artist, in the language of Neo-Platonism, is a demiurge; he only of men can convert dead things into life. And now we will go into the Uffizi.
Mr. Ruskin, in his petulant-playful way, has touched upon the feeling of amaze most people have who look for the first time at Botticelli's Judith tripping smoothly and lightly over the hill-country, her steadfast maid dogging with intent patient eyes every step she takes. You say it is flippant, affected, pedantic. For answer, I refer you to the sage himself, who, from his point of view—that painting may fairly deal with a chapter of history—is perfectly right. The prevailing strain of the story is the strength of weakness—ex dulci fortitude, to invert the old enigma. "O God, O my God, hear me also, a widow. Break down their stateliness by the hand of a woman!" It is the refrain that runs through the whole history of Israel, that reasonable complacency of a little people in their God-fraught destiny. And, withal, a streak of savage spite: that the audacious oppressor shall be done scornfully to death. There is the motive of Jael and Sisera too. So "she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him, and tumbled his body down from the bed." Ho! what a fate for the emissary of the Great King. Wherefore, once more, the jubilant paradox, "The Lord hath smitten him by the hand of a woman!" That is it: the amazing, thrilling antithesis insisted on over and over again by the old Hebrew bard. "Her sandals ravished his eyes, her beauty took his mind prisoner, and the fauchion passed through his neck." That is the leit-motif: Sandro the poet knew it perfectly well and taught it, to the no small comfort of Mr. Ruskin and his men. Giuditta, dainty, blue-eyed, a girl still and three years a widow, flits homeward through a spring landscape of grey and green and the smile of a milky sky, being herself the dominant of the chord, with her bough of slipt olive and her jagged scimitar, with her pretty blue fal-lals smocked and puffed, and her yellow curls floating over her shoulders. On her slim feet are the sandals that ravished his eyes; all her maiden bravery is dancing and fluttering like harebells in the wind. Behind her plods the slave-girl folded in an orange scarf, bearing that shapeless, nameless burden of hers, the head of the grim Lord Holofernes. Oh, for that, it is the legend itself! For look at the girl's eyes. What does their dreamy solemnity mean if not, "the Lord hath smitten him by the hand of a woman"? One other delicate bit of symbolising he has allowed himself, which I may not omit. You are to see by whom this deed was done: by a woman who has unsexed herself. Judith is absorbed in her awful service; her robe trails on the ground and clings about her knees; she is unconscious of the hindrance. The gates of Bethulia are in sight, the Chaldean horsemen are abroad, but she has no anxiety to escape. She is swift because her life just now courses swiftly; but there is no haste. The maid, you shall mark, picks up her skirts with careful hand, and steps out the more lustily for it.
So far Botticelli the poet, and so far also Mr. Ruskin, reader of pictures. What says Botticelli the painter? Had he no instincts to tell him that his art could have little to say to a legend? Or that a legend might be the subject of an epic (here, indeed, was an epic ready made), might, under conditions, be the subject of a drama; but could not, under any conditions, be alone the subject of a picture? I don't for a moment suggest that he had, or that any artist ever goes to work in this double- entry, methodical way; but are we entitled to say that he was not influenced by his predilections, his determinations as a draughtsman, when he squared himself to illustrate the Bible? We say that the subject of a picture is the spirit of natural fact. If Botticelli was a painter, that is what he must have looked for, and must have found, in every picture he painted. Where, then, was he to get his natural facts in the story of Judith? What is, in that story, the natural, essential (as opposed to the historical, fleeting) fact? It is murder. Judith's deed was what the old Scots law incisively calls slauchter. It may be glossed over as assassination or even execution—in fact, in Florence, where Giuliano was soon to be taken off, it did not fail to be so called: it remains, however, just murder. Botticelli, not shirking the position at all, judged murder to be a natural fact, and its spirit or essence swiftness and stealth. Chaucer, let us note, had been of the same mind:
"The smyler with the kayf under his cloke,"
and so on, in lines not to be matched for hasty and dreadful suggestion. Swiftness and stealth, the ambush, the averted face and the sudden stab, are the standing elements of murder: pare off all the rest, you come down to that. Your staring looks, your blood, your "chirking," are accidentals. They may be there (for each of us carries a carcase), but the horror of sudden death is above them: a man may strangle with his thoughts cleaner than with his pair of hands. And as "matter" is but the stuff wherewith Nature works, and she is only insulted, not defied, when we flout or mangle it, so it is against the high dignity of Art to insist upon the carrion she must use. She will press, here the terror, there the radiance, of essential fact; she will leave to us, seeing it in her face, to add mentally the poor stage properties we have grown to trust. No blood, if you please. Therefore, in Botticelli's Judith, nothing but the essentials are insisted on; the rest we instantly imagine, but it is not there to be sensed. The panel is in a tremor. So swift and secret is Judith, so furtive the maid, we need no hurrying horsemen to remind us of her oath,—"Hear me, and I will do a thing which shall go throughout all generations to the children of our nation." Sudden death is in the air; nature has been outraged. But there is no drop of blood—the thin scarlet line along the sword-edge is a symbol if you will—the pale head in the cloth is a mere "thing": yet we all know what has been done. Mr. Ruskin is wrong to dwell here upon the heroism of the heroine, the beneficence of the crime, the exhilaration of the patriot; he is traducing the painter by so praising the poet All those things may be there; and why should they not? But it is a pity to insist upon them until you have no space for the pictorial something which is there too, and makes the picture.
Other Judiths there are; two here, one next door in the Pitti, any number scattered over the galleries of Europe. There are Jacopo Palma of Venice and Allori of Florence who used the old story, the one to perpetuate a fat blonde, the other a handsome actress in a "strong" situation; there is Sodoma; there are Horace Vernet and the moderns, the Wests and Haydons of our grandfathers. It is a pet subject of the Salon. These men have vulgarised an epic, and smirched poetry and painting alike for the sake of a tawdry sensation. But enough: let us look at one more. Mantegna's is worth looking at. It is a pen drawing, often repeated, best known by the fine engraving he finally made of it. I think it Is the best murder picture in the world. To begin with, the literary interest of the story is practically gone. This wild, terrible, beautiful woman may be Judith if you choose: she might be Medea or Agave, or Salome, or the Lucrezia Borgia of popular fancy and Donizetti. The fact is she is part of a scheme whose object is the aesthetic aspect of murder—murder considered by one of the fine arts. Andrea was able, and I know not that anybody else of his day could have been able, to contemplate murder purely objectively, with no thought of its ethical relations. Botticelli had been fired by the heroism and the moral grandeur of the special circumstances of a given case: down they went into his picture with what rightly belonged to it. There is none of that here. And Mantegna makes other distinctions in the field common to both of them. Murder, for him, did not essentially subsist in its shocking suddenness; it held something more specific, a witchery of its own, a macabre fascination, a mystery. Lionardo felt it when he drew his Medusa; Shelley wrote it down "the tempestuous loveliness of terror." Thus it had, for Mantegna, an unique emotional habit which set it off from other vice and gave it a positive, appreciable, aesthetic value of its own. With even more unerrancy than Botticelli, he gripped the adjectival and qualifying function of his art. He saw that crime, too, had its pictorial side. When Keats, writing of the Lamia sloughing her snake- folds, tells us how—
"She writhed about, convulsed—with scarlet pain";
or when, of organ music, he says—
"Up aloft The silver, snarling trumpets 'gan to chide,"
he is simply, in his own art and with his proper methods, getting precisely the same kind of effect; he is incarnating the soul of a fact. And so Mantegna, with his Roman kindness for whatever had breath and vigour and boldness of design, carved his Judith on the lines of a Vestal Virgin, and gave her the rapt, daemonic features of the Tragic Muse. And, with his full share of that unhealthy craving for the mere nastiness of crime, that Aminatrait which distinguished the later Empire and its correlate the Renaissance, he drew together the elements of his picture to express an eminently characteristic conception of curious murder. What amplitude of outline; what severe grace of drapery! And what mad affectation of attention to the ghastly baggage she is preparing for her flight! I can only instance for a parallel the pitiful case of the young Ophelia, decked with flowers and weeds, and faltering in her pretty treble songs about lechery and dead bodies. It needs strong men to do these things; men who have lived out all that the world can offer them of heaven and hell, and, with the tolerance of maturity, are in the mind to see something worth a thought in either. There is in murder something more horrible than blood,—the spirit that breeds blood and plays with it. M. Jan van Beers and his kindred of the dissecting-room and accidents'-ward are passed by Mantegna, who gives no vulgar illusion of gaping wounds and jetting blood; but, instead, holds up to us a beautiful woman daintily fingering a corpse.
(How Sandro Botticelli saw Simonetta in the Spring)
Up at Fiesole, among the olives and chestnuts which cloud the steeps, the magnificent Lorenzo was entertaining his guests on a morning in April. The olives were just whitening to silver; they stretched in a trembling sea down the slope. Beyond lay Florence, misty and golden; and round about were the mossy hills, cut sharp and definite against a grey-blue sky, printed with starry buildings and sober ranks of cypress. The sun catching the mosaics of San Miniato and the brazen cross on the fagade, made them shine like sword-blades in the quiver of the heat between. For the valley was just a lake of hot air, hot and murky—"fever weather," said the people in the streets—with a glaring summer sun let in between two long spells of fog. 'Twas unnatural at that season, via; but the blessed Saints sent the weather and one could only be careful what one was about at sundown.
Up at the villa, with brisk morning airs rustling overhead, in the cool shades of trees and lawns, it was pleasant to lie still, watching these things, while a silky young exquisite sang to his lute a not too audacious ballad about Selvaggia, or Becchina and the saucy Prior of Sant' Onofrio. He sang well too, that dark-eyed boy; the girl at whose feet he was crouched was laughing and blushing at once; and, being very fair, she blushed hotly. She dared not raise her eyes to look into his, and he knew it and was quietly measuring his strength—it was quite a comedy! At each wanton refrain he lowered his voice to a whisper and bent a little forward. And the girl's laughter became hysterical; she was shaking with the effort to control herself. At last she looked up with a sort of sob in her breath and saw his mocking smile and the gleam of the wild beast in his eyes. She grew white, rose hastily and turned away to join a group of ladies sitting apart. A man with a heavy, rather sullen face and a bush of yellow hair falling over his forehead in a wave, was standing aside watching all this. He folded his arms and scowled under his big brows; and when the girl moved away his eyes followed her.
The lad ended his song in a broad sarcasm amid bursts of laughter and applause. The Magnificent, sitting in his carved chair, nursed his sallow face and smiled approval, "My brother boasts his invulnerability," he said, turning to his neighbour, "let him look to it, Messer Cupido will have him yet. Already, we can see, he has been let into some of the secrets of the bower," The man bowed and smiled deferentially, "Signer Giuliano has all the qualities to win the love of ladies, and to retain it. Doubtless he awaits his destiny. The Wise Man has said that Beauty..." The young poet enlarged on his text with some fire in his thin cheeks, while the company kept very silent. It was much to their liking; even Giuliano was absorbed; he sat on the ground clasping one knee between his hands, smiling upwards into vacancy, as a man does whose imagination is touched. Lorenzo nursed his sallow face and beat time to the orator's cadences with his foot; he, too, was abstracted and smiling. At the end he spoke: "Our Marsilio himself had never said nobler words, my Agnolo. The mantle of the Attic prophet has descended indeed upon this Florence. And Beauty, as thon sayest, is from heaven. But where shall it be found here below, and how discerned?" The man of the heavy jowl was standing with folded arms, looking from under his brows at the group of girls. Lorenzo saw everything; he noticed him. "Our Sandro will tell us it is yonder. The Star of Genoa shines over Florence and our poor little constellations are gone out. Ecco, my Sandro, gravest and hardiest of painters, go summon Madonna Simonetta and her handmaidens to our Symposium. Agnolo will speak further to us of this sovereignty of Beauty."
The painter bowed his head and moved away.
A green alley vaulted with thick ilex and myrtle formed a tapering vista where the shadows lay misty blue and pale shafts of light pierced through fitfully. At the far end it ran out into an open space and a splash of sunshine. A marble Ganymede with lifted arms rose in the middle like a white flame. The girls were there, intent upon some commerce of their own, flashing hither and thither over the grass in a flutter of saffron and green and crimson. Simonetta—Sandro could see—was a little apart, a very tall, isolated figure, clear and cold in a recess of shade, standing easily, resting on one hip with her hands behind her. A soft, straight robe of white clipped her close from shoulder to heel; the lines of her figure were thrust forward by her poise. His eye followed the swell of her bosom, very gentle and girlish, and the long folds of her dress falling thence to her knee. While she stood there, proud and remote, a chance beam of the sun shone on her head so that it seemed to burn. "Heaven salutes the Queen of Heaven,—Venus Urania!" With an odd impulse he stopped, crossed himself, and then hurried on.
He told his errand to her, having no eyes for the others.
"Signorina—I am to acquaint her Serenity that the divine poet Messer Agnolo is to speak of the sovereign power of beauty; of the Heavenly Beauty whereof Plato taught, as it is believed."
Simonetta arched a slim neck and looked down at the obsequious speaker, or at least he thought so. And he saw how fair she was, a creature how delicate and gracious, with grey eyes frank and wide, and full red lips where a smile (nervous and a little wistful, he judged, rather than defiant) seemed always to hover. Such clear-cut, high beauty made him ashamed; but her colouring (for he was a painter) made his heart beat. She was no ice-bound shadow of deity then! but flesh and blood; a girl—a child, of timid, soft contours, of warm roses and blue veins laced in a pearly skin. And she was crowned with a heavy wealth of red-gold hair, twisted in great coils, bound about with pearls, and smouldering like molten metal where it fell rippling along her neck. She dazzled him, so that he could not face her or look further. His eyes dropped. He stood before her moody, disconcerted.
The girls, who had dissolved their company at his approach, listened to what he had to say linked in knots of twos and threes. They needed no excuses to return; some were philosophers in their way, philosophers and poetesses; some had left their lovers in the ring round Lorenzo. So they went down the green alley still locked by the arms, by the waist or shoulders. They did not wait for Simonetta. She was a Genoese, and proud as the snow. Why did Giuliano love her? Did he love her, indeed? He was bewitched then, for she was cold, and a brazen creature in spite of it. How dare she bare her neck so! Oh! 'twas Genoese. "Uomini senza fede e donne senza vergogna," they quoted as they ran.
And Simonetta walked alone down the way with her head high; but Sandro stepped behind, at the edge of her trailing white robe....
... The poet was leaning against an ancient alabaster vase, soil-stained, yellow with age and its long sojourn in the loam, but with traces of its carved garlands clinging to it still. He fingered it lovingly as he talked. His oration was concluding, and his voice rose high and tremulous; there were sparks in his hollow eyes.... "And as this sovereign Beauty is queen of herself, so she is subject to none other, owns to no constraining custom, fears no reproach of man. What she wills, that has the force of a law. Being Beauty, her deeds are lovely and worshipful. Therefore Phryne, whom men, groping in darkness and the dull ways of earth, dubbed courtesan, shone in a Court of Law before the assembled nobles of Athens, naked and undismayed in the blaze of her fairness. And Athens discerned the goddess and trembled. Yes, and more; even as Aphrodite, whose darling she was, arose pure from the foam, so she too came up out of the sea in the presence of a host, and the Athenians, seeing no shame, thought none, but, rather, reverenced her the more. For what shame is it that the body of one so radiant in clear perfections should be revealed? Is then the garment of the soul, her very mould and image, so shameful? Shall we seek to know her essence by the garment of a garment, or hope to behold that which really is in the shadows we cast upon shadows? Shame is of the brute dullard who thinks shame. The evil ever sees Evil glaring at him, Plato, the golden-moutheds with the soul of pure fire, has said the truth of this matter in his De Republica the fifth book, where he speaks of young maids sharing the exercise of the Palaestra, yea, and the Olympic contests even! For he says, 'Let the wives of our wardens bare themselves, for their virtue will be a robe; and let them share the toils of war and defend their country. And for the man who laughs at naked women exercising their bodies for high reasons, his laughter is a fruit of unripe wisdom, and he himself knows not what he is about; for that is ever the best of sayings that the useful is the noble and the hurtful the base'...."
There was a pause. The name of Plato had had a strange effect upon the company. You would have said they had suddenly entered a church and had felt all lighter interests sink under the weight of the dim, echoing nave. After a few moments the poet spoke again in a quieter tone, but his voice had lost none of the unction which had enriched it.... "Beauty is queen: by the virtue of Deity, whose image she is, she reigns, lifts up, fires. Let us beware how we tempt Deity lest we perish ourselves. Actseon died when he gazed unbidden upon the pure body of Artemis; but Artemis herself rayed her splendour upon Endymion, and Endymion is among the immortals. We fall when we rashly confront Beauty, but that Beauty who comes unawares may nerve our souls to wing to heaven." He ended on a resonant note, and then, still looking out over the valley, sank into his seat. Lorenzo, with a fine humility, got up and kissed his thin hand. Giuliano looked at Simonetta, trying to recall her gaze, but she remained standing in her place, seeing nothing of her companions. She was thinking of something, frowning a little and biting her lip, her hands were before her; her slim fingers twisted and locked themselves nervously, like a tangle of snakes. Then she tossed her head, as a young horse might, and looked at Giuliano suddenly, full in the eyes. He rose to meet her with a deprecating smile, cap in hand—but she walked past him, almost brushing him with her gown, but never flinching her full gaze, threaded her way through the group to the back, behind the poet, where Sandro was. He had seen her coming, indeed he had watched her furtively throughout the oration, but her near presence disconcerted him again—and he looked down. She was strongly excited with her quick resolution; her colour had risen and her voice faltered when she began to speak. She spoke eagerly, running her words together.
"Ecco, Messer Sandro," she whispered blushing. "You have heard these sayings.... Who is there in Florence like me?"
"There is no one," said Sandro simply.
"I will be your Lady Venus," she went on breathlessly. "You shall paint me, rising from the sea-foam.... The Genoese love the sea." She was still eager and defiant; her bosom rose and fell unchecked.
"The Signorina is mocking me; it is impossible; the Signorina knows it."
"Eh, Madonna! is it so shameful to be fair—Star of the Sea as your poets sing at evening? Do you mean that I dare not do it? Listen then, Signer Pittore; to-morrow morning at mass-time you will come to the Villa Vespucci with your brushes and pans and you will ask for Monna Simonetta. Then you will see. Leave it now; it is settled." And she walked away with her head high and the same superb smile on her red lips. Mockery! She was in dead earnest; all her child's feelings were in hot revolt. These women who had whispered to each other, sniggered at her dress, her white neck and her free carriage; Giuliano who had presumed so upon her candour— these prying, censorious Florentines—-she would strike them dumb with her amazing loveliness. They sang her a goddess that she might be flattered and suffer their company: she would show herself a goddess indeed—the star of her shining Genoa, where men were brave and silent and maidens frank like the sea. Yes, and then she would withdraw herself suddenly and leave them forlorn and dismayed.
As for Sandro, he stood where she had left him, peering after her with a mist in his eyes. He seemed to be looking over the hill-side, over the city glowing afar off gold and purple in the hot air, to Mont' Oliveto and the heights, where a line of black cypresses stood about a low white building. At one angle of the building was a little turret with a belvedere of round arches. The tallest cypress just topped the windows, There his eyes seemed to rest.
At mass-time Sandro, folded in his shabby green cloak, stepped into the sun on the Ponte Vecchio. The morning mists were rolling back under the heat; you began to see the yellow line of houses stretching along the turbid river on the far side, and frowning down upon it with blank, mud- stained faces. Above, through streaming air, the sky showed faintly blue, and a campanile to the right loomed pale and uncertain like a ghost. The sound of innumerable bells floated over the still city. Hardly a soul was abroad; here and there a couple of dusty peasants were trudging in with baskets of eggs and jars of milk and oil; a boat passed down to the fishing, and the oar knocked sleepily in the rowlock as she cleared the bridge. And above, on the heights of Mont' Oliveto, the tapering forms of cypresses were faintly outlined—straight bars of shadow—and the level ridge of a roof ran lightly back into the soft shroud.
Sandro could mark these things as he stepped resolutely on to the bridge, crossed it, and went up a narrow street among the sleeping houses. The day held golden promise; it was the day of his life! Meantime the mist clung to him and nipped him; what had fate in store? What was to be the issue? In the Piazza Santo Spirito, grey and hollow-sounding in the chilly silences, his own footsteps echoed solemnly as he passed by the door of the great ragged church. Through the heavy darkness within lights flickered faintly and went; service was not begun. A drab crew of cripples lounged on the steps yawning and shivering, and two country girls were strolling to mass with brown arms round each other's waists. When Sandro's footfall clattered on the stones they stopped by the door looking after him and laughed to see his dull face and muffled figure. In the street beyond he heard a bell jingling, hasty, incessant; soon a white-robed procession swept by him, fluttering vestments, tapers, and the Host under a canopy, silk and gold. Sandro snatched at his cap and dropped on his knees in the road, crouching low and muttering under his breath as the vision went past. He remained kneeling for a moment after it had gone, then crossed himself—forehead, breast, lip—and hurried forward.... He stepped under the archway into the Court. There was a youth with a cropped head and swarthy neck lounging there teasing a spaniel. As the steps sounded on the flags he looked up; the old green cloak and clumsy shoes of the visitor did not interest him; he turned his back and went on with his game. Sandro accosted him—Was the Signorina at the house? The boy went on with his game. "Eh, Diavolo! I know nothing at all," he said.
Sandro raised his voice till it rang round the courtyard. "You will go at once and inquire. You will say to the Signorina that Sandro di Mariano Filipepi the Florentine painter is here by her orders; that he waits her pleasure below."
The boy had got up; he and Sandro eyed each other for a little space. Sandro was the taller and had the glance of a hawk. So the porter went....
... Presently with throbbing brows he stood on the threshold of Simonetta's chamber. It was the turret room of the villa and its four arched windows looked through a leafy tracery over towards Florence. Sandro could see down below him in the haze the glitter of the Arno and the dusky dome of Brunelleschi cleave the sward of the hills like a great burnished bowl. In the room itself there was tapestry, the Clemency of Scipio, with courtiers in golden cuirasses and tall plumes, and peacocks and huge Flemish horses—a rich profusion of crimson and blue drapery and stout-limbed soldiery. On a bracket, above a green silk curtain, was a silver statuette of Madonna and the Bambino Gesu, with a red lamp flickering feebly before. By the windows a low divan heaped with velvet cushions and skins. But for a coffer and a prayer-desk and a curtained recess which enshrined Simonetta's bed, the room looked wind-swept and bare.
When he entered, Simonetta was standing by the window leaning her hand against the ledge for support. She was draped from top to toe in a rose- coloured mantle which shrouded her head like a nun's wimple and then fell in heavy folds to the ground. She flushed as he came in, but saluted him with a grave inclination. Neither spoke. The silent greeting, the full consciousness in each of their parts, gave a curious religious solemnity to the scene—like some familiar but stately Church mystery. Sandro busied himself mechanically with his preparations-he was a lover and his pulse chaotic, but he had come to paint—and when these were done, on tip-toe, as it were, he looked timidly about him round the room, seeking where to pose her. Then he motioned her with the same reverential, preoccupied air, silent still, to a place under the silver Madonna....
... There was a momentary quiver of withdrawal. Simonetta blushed vividly and drooped her eyes down to her little bare foot peeping out below the lines of the rosy cloak. The cloak's warmth shone on her smooth skin and rayed over her cheeks. In her flowery loveliness she looked diaphanous, ethereal; and yet you could see what a child she was, with her bright audacity, her ardour and her wilfulness flushing and paling about her like the dawn. There she stood trembling on the brink....
Suddenly all her waywardness shot into her eyes; she lifted her arms and the cloak fell back like the shard of a young flower; then, delicate and palpitating as a silver reed, she stood up in the soft light of the morning, and the sun, slanting in between the golden leaves and tendrils, kissed her neck and shrinking shoulder.
Sandro stood facing her, moody and troubled, fingering his brushes and bits of charcoal; his shaggy brows were knit, he seemed to be breathing hard. He collected himself with an effort and looked up at her as she stood before him shrinking, awe-struck, panting at the thing she had done. Their eyes met, and the girl's distress increased; she raised her hand to cover her bosom; her breath came in short gasps from parted lips, but her wide eyes still looked fixedly into his, with such blank panic that a sudden movement might really have killed her. He saw it all; she! there at his mercy. Tears swam and he trembled. Ah! the gracious lady! what divine condescension! what ineffable courtesy! But the artist in him was awakened almost at the same moment; his looks wandered in spite of her piteous candour and his own nothingness. Sandro the poet would have fallen on his face with an "Exi a me, nam peccator sum." Sandro the painter was different—no mercy there. He made a snatch at a carbon and raised his other hand with a kind of command—"Holy Virgin! what a line! Stay as you are, I implore you: swerve not one hair's breadth and I have you for ever!" There was conquest in his voice.
So Simonetta stood very still, hiding her bosom with her hand, but never took her watch off the enemy. As he ran blindly about doing a hundred urgent indispensable things—noting the lights, the line she made, how her arm cut across the folds of the curtain—she dogged him with staring, fascinated eyes, just as a hare, crouching in her form, watches a terrier hunting round her and waits for the end.
But the enemy was disarmed. Sandro the passionate, the lover, the brooding devotee, was gone; so was la bella Simonetta the beloved, the be- hymned. Instead, here was a fretful painter, dashing lines and broad smudges of shade on his paper, while before him rose an exquisite, slender, swaying form, glistening carnation and silver, and, over all, the maddening glow of red-gold hair. Could he but catch those velvet shadows, those delicate, glossy, reflected-lights! Body of Bacchus! How could he put them in! What a picture she was! Look at the sun on her shoulder! and her hair—Christ! how it burned! It was a curious moment. The girl who had never understood or cared to understand this humble lover, guessed now that he was lost in the artist. She felt that she was simply an effect and she resented it as a crowning insult. Her colour rose again, her red lips gathered into a pout. If Sandro had but known, she was his at that instant. He had but to drop the painter, throw down his brushes, set his heart and hot eyes bare—to open his arms and she would have fled into them and nestled there; so fierce was her instinct just then to be loved, she, who had always been loved! But Sandro knew nothing and cared nothing. He was absorbed in the gracious lines of her body, the lithe long neck, the drooping shoulder, the tenderness of her youth; and then the grand open curve of the hip and thigh on which she was poised. He drew them in with a free hand in great sweeping lines, eagerly, almost angrily; once or twice he broke his carbon and—body of a dog!—he snatched at another.
This lasted a few minutes only: even Simonetta, with all her maiden tremors still feverishly acute, hardly noticed the flight of time; she was so hot with the feeling of her wrongs, the slight upon her victorious fairness. Did she not know how fair she was? She was getting very angry; she had been made a fool of. All Florence would come and gape at the picture and mock her in the streets with bad names and coarse gestures as she rode by. She looked at Sandro. Santa Maria! how hot he was! His hair was drooping over his eyes! He tossed it back every second! And his mouth was open, one could see his tongue working! Why had she not noticed that great mouth before? 'Twas the biggest in all Florence. O! why had he come? She was frightened, remorseful, a child again, with a trembling pathetic mouth and shrinking limbs. And then her heart began to beat under her slim fingers. She pressed them down into her flesh to stay those great masterful throbs. A tear gathered in her eye; larger and larger it grew, and then fell. A shining drop rested on the round of her cheek and rolled slowly down her chin to her protecting hand, and lay there half hidden, shining like a rain-drop between two curving petals of a rose.
It was just at that moment the painter looked up from his work and shook his bush of hair back. Something in his sketch had displeased him; he looked up frowning, with a brush between his teeth. When he saw the tear- stained, distressful, beautiful face it had a strange effect upon him. He dropped nerveless, like a wounded man, to his knees, and covered his eyes with his hands. "Ah Madonna! for the pity of heaven forgive me! forgive me! I have sinned, I have done thee fearful wrong; I, who still dare to love thee." He uncovered his face and looked up radiant: his own words had inspired him, "Yes," he went on, with a steadfast smile, "I, Sandro, the painter, the poor devil of a painter, have seen thee and I dare to love!" His triumph was short-lived. Simonetta had grown deadly white, her eyes burned, she had forgotten herself. She was tall and slender as a lily, and she rose, shaking, to her height.
"Thou presumest strangely," she said, in a slow still voice, "Go! Go in peace!"
She was conqueror. In her calm scorn she was like a young immortal, some cold victorious Cynthia whose chastity had been flouted. Sandro was pale too: he said nothing and did not look at her again. She stood quivering with excitement, watching him with the same intent alertness as he rolled up his paper and crammed his brushes and pencils into the breast of his jacket. She watched him still as he backed out of the room and disappeared through the curtains of the archway. She listened to his footsteps along the corridor, down the stair. She was alone in the silence of the sunny room. Her first thought was for her cloak; she snatched it up and veiled herself shivering as she looked fearfully round the walls. And then she flung herself on the piled cushions before the window and sobbed piteously, like an abandoned child.
The sun slanted in between the golden leaves and tendrils and played in the tangle of her hair....
At ten o'clock on the morning of April the twenty-sixth, a great bell began to toll: two beats heavy and slow, and then silence, while the air echoed the reverberation, moaning. Sandro, in shirt and breeches, with bare feet spread broad, was at work in his garret on the old bridge. He stayed his hand as the strong tone struck, bent his head and said a prayer: "Miserere ei, Domine; requiem eternam dona, Domine"; the words came out of due order as if he was very conscious of their import. Then he went on. And the great bell went on; two beats together, and then silence. It seemed to gather solemnity and a heavier message as he painted. Through the open window a keen draught of air blew in with dust and a scrap of shaving from the Lung' Arno down below; it circled round his workshop, fluttering the sketches and rags pinned to the walls. He looked out on a bleak landscape—San Miniato in heavy shade, and the white houses by the river staring like dead faces. A strong breeze was abroad; it whipped the brown water and raised little curling billows, ragged and white at the edges, and tossed about snaps of surf. It was cold. Sandro shivered as he shut to his casement; and the stiffening gale rattled at it fitfully. Once again it thrust it open, bringing wild work among the litter in the room. He made fast with the rain driving In his face. And above the howling of the squall he heard the sound of the great bell, steady and unmoved as if too full of its message to be put aside. Yet it was coming to him athwart the wind.
Sandro stood at his casement and looked at the weather-beating rain and yeasty water. He counted, rather nervously, the pulses between each pair of the bell's deep tones. He was impressionable to circumstances, and the coincidence of storm and passing-bell awed him.... "Either the God of Nature suffers or the fabric of the world is breaking";—he remembered a scrap of talk wafted towards him (as he stood in attendance) from some humanist at Lorenzo's table only yesterday, above the light laughter and snatches of song. That breakfast party at the Camaldoli yesterday! What a contrast—the even spring weather with the sun in a cloudless sky, and now this icy dead morning with its battle of wind and bell, fighting, he thought,—over the failing breath of some strong man. Man! God, more like. "The God of Nature suffers," he murmured as he turned to his work....
Simonetta had not been there yesterday. He had not seen her, indeed, since that nameless day when she had first transported him with the radiance of her bare beauty and then struck him down with a level gaze from steel-cold eyes. And he had deserved it, he had—she had said—"presumed strangely." Three more words only had she uttered and he had slunk out from her presence like a dog. What a Goddess! Venus Urania! So she, too, might have ravished a worshipper as he prayed, and, after, slain him for a careless word. Cruel? No, but a Goddess. Beauty had no laws; she was above them, Agnolo himself had said it, from Plato.... Holy Michael! What a blast! Black and desperate weather.... "Either the God of Nature suffers."... God shield all Christian souls on such a day!....
One came and told him Simonetta Vespucci was dead. Some fever had torn at her and raced through all her limbs, licking up her life as it passed. No one had known of it—it was so swift! But there had just been time to fetch a priest; Fra Matteo, they said, from the Carmine, had shrived her (it was a bootless task, God knew, for the child had babbled so, her wits wandered, look you), and then he had performed the last office. One had fled to tell the Medici. Giuliano was wild with grief; 'twas as if he had killed her instead of the Spring-ague—but then, people said he loved her well! And our Lorenzo had bid them swing the great bell of the Duomo—Sandro had heard it perhaps?—and there was to be a public procession, and a Requiem sung at Santa Croce before they took her back to Genoa to lie with her fathers. Eh! Bacchus! She was fair and Giuliano had loved her well. It was natural enough then. So the gossip ran out to tell his news to more attentive ears, and Sandro stood in his place, intoning softly "Te Deum Laudamus."
He understood it all. There had been a dark and awful strife—earth shuddering as the black shadow of death swept by. Through tears now the sun beamed broad over the gentle city where she lay lapped in her mossy hills. "Lux eterna lucet ei," he said with a steady smile; "atque lucebit," he added after a pause. He had been painting that day an agonising Christ, red and languid, crowned with thorns. Some of his own torment seems to have entered it, for, looking at it now, we see, first of all, wild eyeballs staring with the mad earnestness, the purposeless intensity of one seized or "possessed." He put the panel away and looked about for something else, the sketch he had made of Simonetta on that last day. When he had found it, he rolled it straight and set it on his easel. It was not the first charcoal study he had made from life, but a brush drawing on dark paper, done in sepia-wash and the lights in white lead. He stood looking into it with his hands clasped. About half a braccia high, faint and shadowy in the pale tint he had used, he saw her there victim rather than Goddess. Standing timidly and wistfully, shrinking rather, veiling herself, maiden-like, with her hands and hair, with lips trembling and dewy eyes, she seemed to him now an immortal who must needs suffer for some great end; live and suffer and die; live again, and suffer and die. It was a doom perpetual like Demeter's, to bear, to nurture, to lose and to find her Persephone. She had stood there immaculate and apprehensive, a wistful victim. Three days before he had seen her thus; and now she was dead. He would see her no more.
Ah, yes! Once more he would see her....
* * * * *
They carried dead Simonetta through the streets of Florence with her pale face uncovered and a crown of myrtle in her hair. People thronging there held their breath, or wept to see such still loveliness; and her poor parted lips wore a patient little smile, and her eyelids were pale violet and lay heavy to her cheek. White, like a bride, with a nosegay of orange- blossom and syringa at her throat, she lay there on her bed with lightly folded hands and the strange aloofness and preoccupation all the dead have. Only her hair burned about her like a molten copper; and the wreath of myrtle leaves ran forward to her brows and leapt beyond them into a tongue.
The great procession swept forward; black brothers of Misericordia, shrouded and awful, bore the bed or stalked before it with torches that guttered and flared sootily in the dancing light of day. They held the pick of Florence, those scowling shrouds—Giuliano and Lorenzo, Pazzi, Tornabuoni, Soderini or Pulci; and behind, old Cattaneo, battered with storms, walked heavily, swinging his long arms and looking into the day's face as if he would try another fall with Death yet. Priests and acolytes, tapers, banners, vestments and a great silver Crucifix, they drifted by, chanting the dirge for Simonetta; and she, as if for a sacrifice, lifted up on her silken bed, lay couched like a white flower edged colour of flame....
... Santa Croce, the great church, stretched forward beyond her into the distances of grey mist and cold spaces of light. Its bare vastness was damp like a vault. And she lay in the midst listless, heavy-lidded, apart, with the half-smile, as it seemed, of some secret mirth. Round her the great candles smoked and flickered, and mass was sung at the High Altar for her soul's repose. Sandro stood alone facing the shining altar but looking fixedly at Simonetta on her couch. He was white and dry—parched lips and eyes that ached and smarted. Was this the end? Was it possible, my God! that the transparent, unearthly thing lying there so prone and pale was dead? Had such loveliness aught to do with life or death? Ah! sweet lady, dear heart, how tired she was, how deadly tired! From where he stood he could see with intolerable anguish the sombre rings round her eyes and the violet shadows on the lids, her folded hands and the straight, meek line to her feet. And her poor wan face with its wistful, pitiful little smile was turned half aside on the delicate throat, as if in a last appeal:—"Leave me now, O Florentines, to my rest, I have given you all I had: ask no more. I was a young girl, a child; too young for your eager strivings. You have killed me with your play; let me be now, let me sleep!" Poor child! Poor child! Sandro was on his knees with his face pressed against the pulpit and tears running through his fingers as he prayed....
As he had seen her, so he painted. As at the beginning of life in a cold world, passively meeting the long trouble of it, he painted her a rapt Presence floating evenly to our earth. A grey, translucent sea laps silently upon a little creek, and in the hush of a still dawn the myrtles and sedges on the water's brim are quiet. It is a dream in half tones that he gives us, grey and green and steely blue; and just that, and some homely magic of his own, hint the commerce of another world with man's discarded domain. Men and women are asleep, and as in an early walk you may startle the hares at their play, or see the creatures of the darkness— owls and night hawks and heavy moths—flit with fantastic purpose over the familiar scene, so here it comes upon you suddenly that you have surprised Nature's self at her mysteries; you are let into the secret; you have caught the spirit of the April woodland as she glides over the pasture to the copse. And that, indeed, was Sandro's fortune. He caught her in just such a propitious hour. He saw the sweet wild thing, pure and undefiled by touch of earth; caught her in that pregnant pause of time ere she had lighted. Another moment and a buxom nymph of the grove would fold her in a rosy mantle, coloured as the earliest wood-anemones are. She would vanish, we know, into the daffodils or a bank of violets. And you might tell her presence there, or in the rustle of the myrtles, or coo of doves mating in the pines; you might feel her genius in the scent of the earth or the kiss of the West wind; but you could only see her in mid- April, and you should look for her over the sea. She always comes with the first warmth of the year.
But daily, before he painted, Sandro knelt in a dark chapel in Santa Croce, while a blue-chinned priest said mass for the repose of Simonetta's soul.
THE BURDEN OF NEW TYRE
For a short time in her motley history, an old-clothesman, one Domenico— he and his "Compagnia del Bruco," his Company of the Worm— reigned over Siena and gave to her people a taste for blood. It was bloodshed on easy terms they had; for surely no small nation (except that tiger-cat Perugia) has achieved so much massacre with so little fighting. Massacre considered as one of the Fine Arts? No indeed; but massacre as a viaticum, as "title clear to mansions in the skies"; for, with more complacency than discrimination, these sated citizens chose to dedicate their most fantastic blood-orgies by a Missa de Spiritu Sancto in the Cathedral Church. The old-clothesman, who by some strange oversight died in his bed, was floated up on the incense of this devout service to show his hands, and—marvel!—Saint Catherine, the "amorosa sposa" of Heaven, reigned in his stead. Certainly, for unction spiced with ferocity, for a madness which alternately kissed the Crucifix and trampled on it, for mandragora and fleurs de lys, saints and succubi, churches and lupanars—commend me to Siena the red.
[Footnote 1: This was one of the Contrade into which the City was divided, and of which each had its totem-sign.]
You are not to suppose that she has not paid for all this, the red Siena. None of it is absolved; it is there floating vaguely in the atmosphere. It chokes the gully-trap streets in August when the air is like a hot bath; it wails round the corners on stormy nights and you hear it battling among the towers overhead, buffeting the stained walls of criminal old palaces and churches grown hoary in iniquity—so many half-embodied centuries of deadly sin gnawing their spleens or shrieking their infamous carouse over again. So at least I found it. Without baring myself to the charge of any sneaking kindness for bloodshedding, I may own to the fascination of the precipitous fortress-town huddled red and grey on its three red crags, and of its suggestion of all the old crimes of Italy from Ezzelino's to Borgia's, of all unhappy deaths from Pia de' Tolomei's to Vittoria's, the White Devil of Italy. Its air seemed "blood-boltered" (like the shade of the hunted Banquho), its stones, curiously slippery for such dry weather, cried "Haro!" or "Out! Havoc!" And above it all shone a marble church, white as a bride; while now and again on a favourable waft of wind came the fragrant memory of Saint Catherine. It is the peak of earth most charged with wayward emotions—pity and terror blent together into a poignant beauty, a sorcery. Imagine yourself one of those old Popes—Linus or Anaclete or Damasius—whose heads spike the clerestory of the Duomo, you would look down upon a sea of pictures (by the best pavement-artists in the world)—the Massacre of the Innocents like a patch of dry blood by the altar-steps, a winking Madonna in the Capella del Voto thronged with worshippers, Hermes Trismegistus, a freaksome wizard, by the West door, and a gilded array of the great world smiling and debonnair in the sacristy. Not far off is Sodoma's lovely Catherine fainting under the sweet dolour of her spousals. Are you for the White or the Black Mass? Cybele or the Holy Ghost? Catherine or Hermes Trismegistus? Siena will give you any and yet more cunning confections. It is very strange.
The approach to her three hills, if you are not flattened by the intolerable pilgrimage from Florence, is fine. Hints of what is to come greet you in the frittered shale of the grey country-side broken abruptly by little threatening hill-towns. The scar juts out of the earth's crust, rising sheer, and there on a fretted peak hovers a fortress-village, steep red roofs, an ancient bell-tower or two with a lean barrel of a church beyond; all the lines cut sharp to the clean sky; a bullock-cart creaking up homewards; the shiver and dust of olives round the walls. You could swear you caught the glint of a long gun over the machicolations; but it is only a casement fired by the westering sun. Such are San Miniato, Castel Fiorentino, Poggibonsi (where stayed Lorenzo's Nencia—his Nancy, we should call her), San Gimignano and its Fina, a little girl-saint of fifteen springs; such, too, is Siena when you get there, but redder, her grey stones blushing for her sins. And the country blushes for her as you draw near, for all the vineyards are dotted with burning willows in the autumn—osier-bushes flaming at the heart. Let it be night when you arrive—the dead vast and middle of a still night. Then suffer yourself to be whirled through the inky streets, over the flags, from one hill to another. It is deathly quiet: no soul stirs. The palaces rise on either hand like the ghosts of old reproaches; a flickering lamp reveals a gully as black as a grave, and shines on the edge of a lane which falls you know not whither. You turn corners which should complicate a maze, you scrape and clatter down steeps, you groan up mountain-sides. All in the dark, mind. And the great white houses slide down upon you to the very flags you are beating; you could near touch either wall with a hand. So you swerve round a column, under a votive lamp, and have left the stars and their violet bed. You are in a cortile: men say there is an inn here with reasonable entertainment. If it is the Aquila Nera, it will serve. There is no sound beyond the labouring of our horses' wind and of some outland dog in the far distance baying for a moon. This is Siena at her black magic.
I maintain that the impression you thus receive holds you. Next morning there is a blare of sun. It will blind you at first, blister you. Rayed out from plaster-walls which have been soaking in it for five centuries, driven up in palpable waves of heat from the flags, lying like a lake of white metal in the Piazza, however recklessly this truly royal sun may beam, in Siena you will feel furtive and astare for sudden death.
There is nothing frank and open about Siena; none of your robust, red- lunged, open-air Paganism. Theophile Gautier, Baudelaire, Poe—such supersensitive plants should have known it, instead of the ingenuous M. Bourget and the deliberate Mr. Henry James. M. Bourget looked at the Sodomas and Mr. James admired the view: what a romance we should have had from Gautier of illicit joys and their requital by a knife, what a strophe from Baudelaire half-obscene, half-mournful, wholly melodious. But Theophile Gautier tarried in Venice, and, as for M. Charles, the man of pronounced tastes and keen nose, stuck in the main to Paris. Failing them as guides, go you first to the Piazza del Campo where horses race in August—all roads lead thither. Contraries again! A square? It is a cup. A field? It is a Gabbatha: a place of burning pavements. Were red brick and Gothic ever so superbly compounded before, to be so strong and yet so lithe? That is the Palazzo Publico, the shrine of Aristotle's Politics and the Miracles of the Virgin. What is that long spear which seems to shake as it glances skywards? It isn't a spear; it's the Torre del Mangia—the loveliest tower in Tuscany, the filia pulchrior of a beautiful mother, the Torre della Vacca of Florence. That tower rises from the bottom of the cup and shoots straight upwards, nor stays till it has out-topped the proudest belfry on the hills about it. But what a square this is! The backs of the houses (whose front doors are high above on the hill-top) stand like bald cliffs on every side. You cannot see any outlets: most of them are winding stairways cut between the houses. The lounging, shabby men and girls seem handsomer and lazier than you found them in Florence. They seem to have room to stretch their fine limbs against these naked walls. Their maturity is almost tropical. The girls wear flopping straw hats: wide, sorrowful eyes stare at you from the shady recesses, and the rounding of their chins and beautiful proud necks are marked by glossy lights. "Morbida e bianca," sang Lorenzo. I suppose they think of little more than the market price of spring onions: but then, why do their eyes speak like that? And what do they speak of? Dio mio, I am an honest man! So was not Lorenzo; listen to him:—
"Two eyes hath she so roguish and demure That, lit they on a rock, they'd make it feel; How shall poor melting man meet such a lure?"
How indeed? Ah, Nenciozza mia!
"My little Nancy shows nor fleck nor pimple; Pliant and firm, is she, a reed for grace: In her smooth chin there's just one pretty dimple; That rounds the perfect measure of her face:"
That dimple has been the destruction of many a heart:—
"So wise, withal, above us other simple Plain folk—sure, Nature set her in this place To bloom her tender whiteness all about us, And break our hearts—and then bloom on without us."
Yes indeed, my Lorenzo. But enough! Let us take shelter in the Duomo.
Barred like a tiger, glistening snow and rose and gold, topped by a flaunting angel, her door flanked by the lean Roman wolf; paved with pictures, hemmed with the Popes from Peter to Pius, encrusted with marbles and gemmy frescoes, it is a casket of delights this church, and the quintessence of Siena—molles Senae as Beccadelli, himself of this Tyre, dubbed his native town. Voluptuous as she was, tigerish Siena was more consistent than you would think. True, Saints Catherine and Bernardine consort oddly with the old-clothesman saying mass with wet hands, and Beccadelli the soft singer of abominations, just as the "Madones aux longs regards" of the Primitives—pious creatures of slim idle fingers and desirous eyes, pining in brocade and jewels—seem in a different sphere (as indeed they are) from Pinturricchio's well-found Popes and Princesses, and Sodoma's languishing boys or half-ripe Catherines dying of love. Have I not said this was once a city of pleasure? And whether the pleasure was a blood-feast or an Agape, or a Platonic banquet where the flute-players and wine-cups and crowns crushed out the high disquisition and philosophic undercurrent—it was all one to soft Siena drowsing the days out on her hills. Her pleasures were fierce, and beautiful as fierce. But the burden of Tyre is always the same. And so the memories of a thousand ancient wrongs unpurged howl over the red city, as once howled the ships of Tarshish.
ILARIA, MARIOTA, BETTINA
(Studies in Translation from Stone)
Greatest of great ladies is Ilaria, potens Luccae, sleeping easily, with chin firmly rounded to the vault, where she has slept for five hundred years, and still a power in Lucca of the silver planes. It was a white-hot September day I went to pay my devotions to her shrine. Lucca drowsed in a haze, her bleached arcades of trees lifeless in the glare of high noon; all the valley was winking, the very bells had no strength to chime: and then I saw Ilaria lie in the deep shade waiting for the judgment. Ilaria was a tall Tuscan—the girls of Lucca are out of the common tall, and straight as larches—of fine birth and a life of minstrels and gardens. Pompous processions, trapped horses, emblazonings, were hers, and all refinements of High Masses and Cardinals. So she lived once a life as stately-ordered as old dance-music, in the airy corridors of a great marble palace, swept hourly by the thin, clear air of the Lucchesan plain; and her lord, went out to war with Pisa or Pescia, or even further afield, following Emperor or Pope to that Monteaperti which made Arbia run colour of wine, or shrill Benevento, or Altopasdo which cost the Florentines so dear. But Ilaria stayed at home to trifle with lap-dogs and jongleurs under the orange trees: heard boys make stammering love, and laughed lightly at their Decameron travesty, being too proud to be ashamed or angered; and sometimes (for she was not too proud but that love should be of the party), she pulled a ring from one lithe finger, and looked down while the lad kissed it for a holy relic and put it in his bosom reverently,—pretending not to see. But, Ilaria, you knew well what gave colour to the faint and worn old words about Fior di spin giallo, or O Dea fatale, or
"O Dio de' Dei! La piu bellina mi parete voi; O quanto sete cara agli occhi miei!"
[Footnote 1: Historically he could have done none of these things, except, perhaps, fight at Altopascio.]
And so the days passed in your square corner palace, until the plague came down with the North wind, and you bowed your proud neck before it like a mountain pine. Young to die, young to die and leave the pleasant ways of Lucca, the green ramparts, the grassy walks in the pastures where the hawks fly and the shadows fleet over the green and gold of early May. Young enough, Ilaria. Scorner of love, now Death is at hand, with the bats' wings and wet scythe they give him in the Piazza, when your lord comes triumphing or God's Body takes the air: what of him, Madonna? Let him come, says Ilaria, with raised eyebrows and a wintry smile. Yet she fought: her thin hands held off the scythe at arms' length; she set her teeth and battled with the winged beast. Whenas she knew it must be, suddenly she relaxed her hold, and Death had his way with her.
Then her women came about her and robed her in a long robe, colour of olive leaves, and soft to the touch. And they covered soberly her feet and placed them on a crouching dog, which was Lucca. But her fine hands they folded peace-wise below her bosom, to rest quietly there like the clasps of a girdle. Her gentle hair (bright brown it was, like a yearling chestnut) they crowned also, and closed down her ringed eyes. So they let her lie till judgment come. And when I saw her the close robe still folded her about and ran up her throat lovingly to her chin, till her head seemed to thrust from it as a flower from its calyx. It would seem, too, as if her bosom rose and fell, that her nostrils quivered when the wind blew in and touched them; and the hem of her garment being near me, I was fain to kiss it and say a prayer to the divinity haunting that place. So I left the presence well disposed in my heart to glorify God for so fair a sight.
Whereafter I took the way to Florence among the vineyards and tangled hill-sides; and, anon, in the broad plain I stayed at Prato to honour the lady of the town. Madonna della Cintola she is called now, and one Luca, a worker in clay, knew her mind most intimately and did all her will. Quiet days she had lived at Prato, being wife to a decent metal-worker there and keeper of his house and stuff. Mariota she was then called for all her name, but as to her parentage none knew it, save that Marco's Vanna had been both frail and fair, and when she had been in flower the great Lord Ottoboni had flowered likewise—and often in her company. Giovanna I had never known; she died before her lord married the lady Adhelidis of Verona and the seven days' tilting were held in her honour in a field below the city wall. But when Luca first knew Mariota and saw how her mother's pride beaconed from her smooth brow, the girl was standing in the Piazza in a tattered green kirtle and bodice that gaped at the hooks, played upon by sun, and fallow wind, and longing looks driven at her eyes in vain. The wench carried her head and light fardel of years like a Princess; would laugh to show her fine teeth if your jest pleased her; and then she would look straightly upon you and be glad of you. If you pleased her not, she would look through you to the mountains or the church-tower. She had as squarely a modelled chin as ever I saw, and her lips firmly set and redder than strawberries in a wet May. None taught her anything; none, that Luca could learn, gave her sup or bed. He was a boy then and would have given her both. I think she knew he favoured her—what girl does not? Everybody favoured Mariota, stayed as she passed, and followed her stealthily with troubled eyes. But he was a moody boy then, at the mercy of dreams, and stammered when he was near her, blushing. When he came back she was seventeen years old, and the metal-worker's wife. It was then Luca saw her, in the street called of the Eye, where climbing plants top the convent wall and from the garden comes the scent of wall-flowers and sweet marjoram.
At her man's door she was standing, barefooted, fray-kirtled as of old; but riper, of more assured and triumphant beauty. In her arms a boy-child, lusty and half-naked, struggled to be fed, seeking with both fat hands to forage for himself. Turning her grey eyes, where pride slumbered and shame had never been, she knew Luca again, made him welcome at the door, with, superb assurance set wine and olives and bread before him; and so stood at the table while he ate, gravely recovering one by one the features of his face, smiling, preoccupied with her pleasure and unconscious of the cooing child. For with matronly composure she had eased my gentleman as soon as she had provided for her guest.
In comes the metal-worker, Sor Matteo, burly but watchful in a greasy apron, eyes the lad up and down with much burdensome pondering of hand to scrubby chin, as to say to Mariota "I'm no fool." With never a blush, nor a quailing of the eyes' level beam, Mariota begs cousin Luca to become conscious of her master.
There were the makings of a piece of right Boccacesque in all this, and the padrone showed manifest disinclination for his accustomed part: but Luca's candid face disclaimed all dark-entry work. Mariota hurried to her task. A modeller in clay, a statuary, via, an admirer of the choicer contrivings of Mother Nature! What and if he should find his cousin, his scarce-remembered gossip Mariota, worth an artist's half- closed eye! And the bambinaccio (with a side-look and face averted as she spoke)—ecco!—many a Gesulino showed a leaner thigh and cheeks less peachy than he. Had Papa seen the new dimple in Beppino's chin? And more soft piping to the same tune. Master Matteo was appeased; but Luca was far adrift with other matters. Love, for him, lay not in flesh and blood alone; rather, in what flesh and blood signified in another clay, not Messer Domeneddio's, but his own chosen task-stuff. He had come hither to Prato on the commission of the Opera, to work a Madonna col Bambino for the great door of the Duomo. Well! he had his Madonna to hand, it would seem:—Mariota at the door of the smith's house, confident, lissom and fresh, and the lusty child groping for his breakfast. The light had been upon her, gleamed upon her skin, her brimming eyes, her glossy brown hair. What a bravery was hers! What a glorified presentment of young life, new-budded, was here! The town gaped, the husband admired; but Mariota, with her square chin and high carriage, looked as straightly before her, when in pale blue and silver-white, Madonna with the Babe and the holy deacons Stephen and Laurence stood, four months afterwards, within the shadow of the great church, and shone out to the day.
I pay silent respect to strapping Mariota and her baby-boy In the country of Boccace. Then, when I am in Florence again, under the spell of the city life, I lounge in the Borg' Ognissanti, or across Arno in the quartiere San Niccolo, or out by San Frediano where Botticelli in his green old age pruned his vines, or in the pent streets between the Via della Pergola and Santa Croce, and watch the townsfolk lead their lives of patchwork and easy laughter, I fear I have a taste for such company. I am fond of verdure; I like trees as well as men: every oak for me has its hamadryad informing it, I like flowers better than men; and the most beautiful flower I know is a girl, I have a sweetheart in the Bargello, as you shall hear. I believe she is one of Donatello's sowing; but the critics are divided, I cannot trace Verocchio's bluntened lineaments in her, nor Mino's peaksomeness, nor anything of Desiderio. She's not very pretty, but she's like a summer flower, say, a campanula; and that is why I love to watch her and talk to her in this grandfatherly fashion. Bettina, I say to her, are you, I wonder, twelve years old yet? You cannot be much more I think, for you have let your bodice-strap slip off one of your shoulders and betray you to the sun. You are but a round rose-bud now and no one thinks any harm; but some day the sun will look at you in an odd way, and then, suddenly, you will be ashamed, and draw your frock right up to your neck.
And your hair strays where it likes at present. I know you have a golden fillet of box-leaves round your brow: that is because you are only a little girl still, not more than twelve. And you have tied the ends up in a sort of knot. But you romp so much and laugh so—I know you have two bright rows of little teeth—that you can never expect to keep tidy. Why, even now, while I am scolding you, you are itching to laugh and run away. I see a wavy lock trailing down your neck, ragazza, and those heavy tresses on your temples, instead of being drawn meekly back, droop down over your temples, and cover up your little ears. Don't you know that Florentine, ladies are proud of their foreheads, and when they have pretty ears, always show them? Some day, my dear, you will go out into the world; and your hair will be twisted up into coils with gold braid; perhaps you will have on it a flowery garland of Messer Domenico's making, and a string of Venice beads round your throat. And when that time comes, you won't let the sun play with your neck any more; he won't know his romp when he sees her in stiff velvet of Genoa and a high collar edged with seed-pearls.