Domenico remained silent, his arms folded on his breast; it was not a case for talking.
But the young man who had read Cicero aloud at table had come up behind him, and thought it more seemly to praise his patron's new toy, while at the same time displaying his learning; so he cleared his throat, and said in a pompous manner:—
"It is stated in the fifth chapter of the Geography of Strabo that the painter Parrhasius, having been summoned by the inhabitants of Lindos to make them an image of their tutelary hero Hercules, obtained from the son of Jupiter that he should appear to him in a dream, and thus enable him worthily to portray the perfections of a demigod. Might we not be tempted to believe that the divine son of Semele had vouchsafed a similar boon to the happy sculptor of this marble?"
But Domenico only bit his thumb and sighed very heavily.
To the men of those days, which have taken their name from the revival of classical studies, Antiquity, although studied and aped till its phrases, feelings, and thoughts had entered familiarly into all life, remained, nevertheless, a period of permanent miracle. It was natural, therefore, to the contemporaries of Poggius and AEneas Sylvius, of Ficinus and Politian, that the art of the Romans and Greeks should, like their poetry, philosophy, and even their virtues, be of transcendent and unqualified splendour. Why it should be thus they asked as little as why the sun shines, mediaeval men as they really were, and accepting quite simply certain phenomena as the result of inscrutable virtues. Even later, when Machiavelli began to examine why the ancients had been more valorous and patriotic than his contemporaries, nay, when Montaigne expounded with sceptical cynicism the superior sanity and wisdom of Pagan days, people were satisfied to think—when they thought at all—that antique art was excellent because it belonged to antiquity. And it was not till the middle of the eighteenth century that the genius of Winkelmann brought into fruitful contact the study of ancient works of art, and that of the manners and notions of antiquity, showing the influence of a civilisation which cultivated bodily beauty as an almost divine quality, and making us see behind that beautiful nation of marble the generations of living athletes, among whom the sculptor had found his critics and his models.
To a man like Domenico Neroni, devoid of classical learning and accustomed to struggling with anatomy and perspective, the problem of ancient art was not settled by the fact of its antiquity. He had gone once more to Rome on purpose to see as many old marbles as possible, and he brought to their study the feverish curiosity with which in former years he had flayed and cut up corpses and spent his nights in calculations of perspective. To such a mind, where modern scientific methods were arising among mediaeval habits of allegory and mysticism, the statues and reliefs which he was perpetually analysing became a sort of subsidiary nature, whose riddles might be read by other means than mere investigation; for do not the forces of Nature, its elemental spirits, give obedience to wonderful words and potent combinations of numbers?
Certain significant facts had flashed across his mind in his studies of that almost abstract, nay, almost cabalistic thing, the science of bodily proportions. It was plain that the mystery of antique beauty—the ancient symmetry, symmetria prisca as a humanist designs it in his epitaph for Leonardo da Vinci—was but a matter of numbers. For a man's length, if he stand with outstretched arms, is the same from finger tip to finger tip as his length when erect from head to feet, namely, eight times the length of his head. Now eight heads, if divided into halves, give four as the measure of throat and thorax; and four heads to the length of the leg from the acetabulum to the heel, divided themselves into two heads going to the thigh and two heads to the shank; while in the cross measurement two heads equal the breadth of the chest, and three measure the length from the shoulder to the middle finger. These measures—a mere rough rule of thumb in our eyes—contained to this mediaeval mind the promise of some great mystery. To him, accustomed to hear all the occurrences of Nature, and all human concerns referred to astrological calculations, and conceiving the universe as governed by spirits—in shape, perhaps, like the Primum Mobile, the Mercurius and Jupiter of Mantegna's playing cards, crowned with stars and poised upon globes—it was as if the divining rod were turning pertinaciously to one spot in the earth, where, had he but the necessary tools, he must strike upon veins of the purest gold, or cause water to spirt high in the air. This number eight, and the pertinacity of its recurrence, puzzled him intensely. It seemed to point so clearly, much as in music the sensitive seventh points to the tonic, to a sort of resolution on the number nine. And if only nine could be established, it would seem to explain so much.... For five being man's numeral in creation (and is not the measurement of his face also five eyes?), it makes, when added to four, the number of the material elements over which he dominates, nine, which would thus represent the supremacy or perfection of man. Man's power of reproduction being represented by three, its multiple nine would be still more obviously important. How to turn this eight into nine became Domenico's study, and he took measurement after measurement for this purpose. At length he remembered that man's body is a unity, therefore represented by the number one, and that will, judgment, and supremacy are also comprised in the unit. Now one and eight make nine beyond all possibility of doubt, and the formula—"man's body is a unity—or one"—composed of harmonies of eight, would give the formula nine meaning man's supremacy is expressed in his body. The importance of working round to this famous nine will be clear when we reflect that, according to the Kabbala and the lost sacred book of Hermes Trismegistus—the Pimandra, doubtless, which he is represented, on the floor of Siena Cathedral, as offering to a Jew and a Gentile—nine represents the sun and all beautiful bright things that draw their influence from it, as the gleam of beaten gold, the rustle of silken stuffs, the smell of the flower heliotrope, and all such men as delineate human beings with colours, or make their effigy in stone or metal; moreover, Phoebus Apollo, whom the poets describe as the most beautiful of the gods, as indeed he is represented in all statues and reliefs.
Domenico would often discuss these matters with a learned man who greatly frequented his company. This was the humanist Niccolo Feo, known as Filarete. Filarete was a native of Southern Apulia, a bastard of the house of the Counts of Sulmona, who, in order to prevent any plots against the legitimate branch, had handsomely provided for him in an abbey of which they enjoyed the patronage. But his restless spirit drove him from the cloister, and impelled him to long and adventurous journeys. He had travelled in India and the East, and in Greece, returning to Italy only when Constantinople fell before the Turks. During these years he had acquired immense learning, considerable wealth, and a vaguely sinister reputation. He had been persecuted by Paul II. for taking part in the famous banquets, savouring oddly of Paganism, of Pomponius Laetus; but the late Pontiff Sixtus IV. had taken him into his favour together with Platina, one of his fellow-sufferers in the castle of Saint Angelo. He was now old, and, after a life of study, adventure, and possibly of sin, was living in affluence in a house given him by the illustrious Cardinal at St. Peter ad Vincula, who had also obtained him a canonry of St. John Lateran. He was busying his last year in a great work of fancy and erudition, for which he required the assistance of a skilful draughtsman and connoisseur of antiquities, than whom none could suit him so well as Domenico Neroni.
The book of Filarete, of which the rare copies are among the most precious relics of the Renaissance, was a strange mixture of romance, allegory, and encyclopaedic knowledge, such as had been common in the Middle Ages, and was still fashionable during the revival of letters, which merely added the element of classical learning. Like the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of Francesco Colonna, of which it was doubtless the prototype, the Alcandros of Filarete, though never carried beyond the first volume, is an amazing and wearisome display of the author's archaeological learning. It contains exact descriptions of all the rarities of ancient art, and of things Oriental which he had seen, and pages of transcripts from obscure Latin and Greek authors, descriptive of religious ceremonies; varied with Platonic philosophy, Decameronian obscenities, in laboured pseudo-Florentine style, and Dantesque visions, all held together by the confused narrative of an allegorical journey performed by the author. It is profusely ornamented with woodcuts, representing architectural designs of a fantastic, rather Oriental description, restorations of ancient buildings, reproductions of antique inscriptions and designs, and last, but far from least, a certain number of small compositions, of Mantegnesque quality, but Botticellian charm, showing the various adventures of the hero in terrible woods, delicious gardens, and in the company of nymphs, demigods, and allegorical personages. These latter are undoubtedly from the hand of Domenico Neroni; and it was while discussing these delightful damsels seated with lutes and psalteries under vine-trellises, these scholars in cap and gown, weeping in quaint chambers with canopied beds and carnations growing on the window, these processions—suggesting Mantegna's Triumph of Julius Caesar—of priests and priestesses with victories and trophies, that the painter from Volterra and the Apulian humanist would discuss the secret of antique beauty—discuss it for hours, surrounded by the precious manuscripts and inscriptions, the fragments of sculpture, the Eastern rarities, of Filarete's little house on the Quirinal hill, or among the box-hedges, clipped cypresses, and fountains of his garden; while the riots and massacres, the fanatical processions and feudal wars, of mediaeval Rome raged unnoticed below. For Pope Sixtus and his Riarios, and Pope Innocent and his Cybos, thirsting for power and gold, drunken with lust and bloodshed, were benign and courteous patrons of all art and all learning.
But that number nine, attained with so much difficulty, although it put the human proportion into visible connection with the sun, with beaten gold, the smell of the heliotrope, and the god Apollo, and opened a vista of complicated astral influences, did not in reality bring Domenico one step nearer the object of his desires. It had enabled those ancient men to make statues that were perfectly beautiful, that was obvious; but it did not make his own figures one tittle less hideous, for he felt them now to be absolutely hideous. One wintry day, as he was roaming amongst the fallen pillars and arches, thickly covered with myrtle and ilex, of the desolate region beyond what had once been the Forum and was now the cattle-market, there came across Domenico's mind, while he watched a snake twisting in the grass, the remembrance of a certain anecdote about a Greek painter, to whom Hercules had shown himself in a vision. He had heard it, without taking any notice, two years before, from the young scholar who read Cicero at table for Messer Neri Altoviti; and although he had thought of it several times, it had never struck him except as one of the usual impudent displays of learning of the parasitic tribe of humanists.
But at this moment the remembrance of this fact came as a great light into Domenico's soul. For what were these statues save the idols of the heathens; and what wonder they should be divinely beautiful, when those who made them might see the gods in visions?
This explanation, which to us must sound far-fetched and fantastic, knowing, as we do, the real reason that made a people of athletes into a people of sculptors, savoured of no strangeness to a man of the Middle Ages. Visions of superhuman creatures were among the most undisputed articles of his belief, and among the commonest subjects of his art. Had not the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Bernard, the Saviour among His cherubim to St. Francis—the very stones shown at La Vernia where it had happened—the Divine Bridegroom to Catherine of Siena? Had not St. Anthony of Padua held the Divine Child in his arms? And all not so long ago? Besides, every year there was some nun or monk claiming to have conversed with Christ and His court; and the heavens were opening quite frequently in the walls of cells and the clefts of hermitages. And did not Dante relate a journey into Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise? It was perfectly natural that what was constantly happening to holy men and women nowadays should have happened in Pagan times also; and what men could so well have deserved a visit from gods as those who spent their lives faithfully portraying them? The story of Parrhasius and his vision was familiar ground to a man accustomed to see, in all corners of Italy, portraits of the Saviour painted by St. Luke, or finished, like the famous Holy Face of Lucca, by angels. For an absolute contempt for the artistic value of such miraculous images did not, in the mind of Neroni, throw any doubt on their authenticity; in the same way that the passion for antiquity, the hankering after Pagan beliefs, did not probably interfere with the orthodoxy of so many of the humanists. Domenico, besides, remembered that Virgil and Ovid, whom he had not read, but whose fables he had sometimes been asked to illustrate, were constantly talking of visions of gods and goddesses, nay, of their descending upon earth to unite themselves with mortals in love or friendship, for he had had to furnish designs for woodcuts representing Diana and Endymion, Jupiter and Ganymede, the gods coming to Philemon and Baucis, and Apollo tending the herds of Admetus. Neither did it occur to Domenico's mind that the existence of the old gods might be a mere invention, or a mere delusion of the heathen. For all their classic culture, the men of the fifteenth century, as the men of the thirteenth for all their scholasticism, were in an intellectual condition such as we rarely meet with nowadays among educated persons; and Domenico, a mere handicraftsman, had not learned from the study of Cicero and Plato to examine and understand the difference between reality and fiction. To him a scene which was frequently painted, an adventure which was written down and could be read, was necessarily a reality. Dante had spoken of the gods, and what Dante said was evidently true, the allegorical meaning, the metaphor, entirely escaping this simple mind; and Virgil, Homer, Ovid told the most minute details about gods and goddesses, and they themselves were grave and learned men. Domenico did not even think that the ancient gods were dead. Of course heaven was now occupied by Christ and His saints, those heavenly hosts of whom he would think, when he thought of them at all, as seated stepwise on a great stand, blue and pink and green in dress, golden discs about their heads, and an atmosphere of fretted gold, of swirling stencilled golden angels' wings all round them, and God the Father, a great triangle blazing with Alpha and Omega, above Jesus enthroned, and His mother; and it was they who ruled things here, and to them he said his prayers night and morning, and knelt in church. But here, somehow did not cover the whole universe, nor did that pink and blue and gold miniature painter's heaven extend everywhere, although, of course, somehow or other it did. Anyhow, it was certain that not so very far off there were Saracens and Turks—why he had seen some of the Duke of Calabria's Turkish garrison—who believed in Macomet, Trevigant, and Apollinis; these to be sure were false gods (the word false carried no clear meaning to his mind, or if any, one rather equivalent to wrong, objectionable rather than to non-existent), but they certainly worked wonderful miracles for their people. And indeed—here Domenico's placid contemplation of the kingdom of Macomet, Trevigant, and Apollinis was exchanged for a vague horror, shot with gleams of curiosity—the devil also had his place in the world, a place much nearer and universal, and did marvellous things, pointing out treasures, teaching the future, lending invulnerable strength to the men and women who worshipped him, of whom some might be pointed out to you in every town—yes, grave and respectable men, priests and monks among them, and even Cardinals of Holy Church, as every one knew quite well.... So that, in a confused manner, rather negative than positive, Domenico considered that the Pagan gods must be somewhere or other, the past and present not very clearly separated in his mind, or rather the past existing in a peculiar simultaneous manner with the present, as a sort of St. Brandan's isle, in distant, unattainable seas; or as Dante's mountain of Purgatory, a very solid mountain indeed, yet which, for some mysterious and unquestioned reason, people never stumbled upon except after death. All this was scarcely an actual series of arguments; it was rather the arguments which, with much effort, Domenico might have fished out of his obscure consciousness had you summoned him to explain how the ancient gods could possibly be immortal. As to him, he had always heard of them as immortal, and although he had not been taught any respect or love for them as for Christ, the Madonna, and the saints, they must be existing somewhere since immortal means that which cannot die.
But now he began to feel a certain shyness about immortal gods, for they had begun to occupy his thoughts, and it was with much cunning that he put questions to his friend Filarete, desirous to gain information on certain points without actually seeming to ask it. The humanist, summoned to explain what the Fathers of the Church—those worthies crowned with mitres and offering rolls of manuscript, whom Domenico had occasionally to portray for his customers—said about the ancient gods, answered with much glibness but considerable contempt, for the Greek and Latin of these saintly philosophers inspired the learned man with a feeling of nausea. He got out of a chest several volumes covered with dust, and began to quote the "Apology" of Justin Martyr, the "Legation" of Athenagoras, the "Apology" of Tertullian and Lactantius, whose very name caused him to writhe with philological loathing. And he told Domenico that it was the opinion of these holy but ill-educated persons that daemons assumed the name and attributes of Jupiter, of Venus, of Apollo and Bacchus, lurking in temples, instituting festivals and sacrifices, and were often allowed by Heaven to distract the faithful by a display of miracles.
"Then they are devils?" asked Domenico, trying to follow.
A smile passed over the beautifully cut mouth, the noble, wrinkled face—like that of the marble Seneca—of the old humanist.
"Talk of devils to the barefoot friar who preaches in the midst of the market-place," he said, "not to Filarete. The whole world, air, fire, earth, water, the entire universe is governed by daemons, and they inspire our noblest thoughts. Hast never heard of the familiar daemon of Socrates, whispering to him superhuman wisdom? Yes, indeed, Venus, Apollo, AEsculapius, Jove, the stars and planets, the winds and tides are daemons. But thou canst not understand such matters, my poor Domenico. So get thee to Brother Baldassare of Palermo, and ask him questions."
But Filarete's expression was very different when, one day, Domenico shyly inquired concerning the truth of that story of Parrhasius and the Hercules of Lindos. Strange rumours were current in Rome of unholy festivities in which Filarete and other learned men—some of those whom Paul II. had thrown into prison—had once taken part. They had not merely laid their tables and spread their couches according to descriptions contained in ancient authors; but, crowned with roses, laurel, myrtle, or parsley, had sung hymns to the heathen gods, and, it was whispered, poured out libations and burned incense in their honour. Their friends, indeed, had answered scornfully that these were but amusements of learned men; not to be taken more seriously than the invocations to the gods and muses in their poems, than the mythological subjects which the Popes themselves selected to adorn their dwellings. And doubtless this explanation was correct. Yet the pleasure of these little pedantic and artistic mummeries, which took place in suburban gardens, while the townsfolk streamed in the hot June nights, decked with bunches of cloves and of lavender, to make bonfires in the empty places near the Lateran, little guessing that their ancestors had once done the same in honour of the neighbouring Venus—the innocent childishness of these learned men was perhaps spiced, for some individuals at least, by a momentary belief in the gods of the old poets, by a sudden forbidden fervour for the exiled divinities of Virgil and Ovid, under whose reign the world had been young, men had been free to love and think, and Rome, now the object of the world's horror and contempt, had been the world's triumphant mistress. But these had been mere mummeries, mere child's play, and the soul of Filarete had thirsted for a reality. He could not have answered had you asked whether he believed in the absolute existence and power of the old gods, any more than whether he disbelieved in the power of Christ and His avenging angels; his cultivated and sceptical mind was, after all, in a state of disorder similar to that of Domenico's ignorance. All that he knew with certainty was that Christ and His worship represented to him all that was unnatural, cruel, foolish, and hypocritical; while the gods were associated with every thought of liberty, of beauty, and of glory. And so, one evening, after working up still further the enthusiasm, the passionate desire of his friend, he told Domenico that, if he chose, he too perhaps might see a god.
In his antiquarian rambles Filarete had discovered, a mile or two outside the southern gates of Rome, a subterranean chamber, richly adorned with stuccoes—known nowadays as the tomb of certain members of the Flavian family, but which, thanks to the defective knowledge of his day and the habit of seeing people buried in churches, the humanist had mistaken for a temple—intact, and scarcely desecrated, of the Eleusinian Bacchus. Above its vaults, barely indicated by a higher mound in the waving ground of the pasture land, had once stood a Christian church, as ancient almost as the supposed temple below, whose Byzantine columns lay half hidden by the high grass, and the walls of whose apse had become overgrown by ivy and weeds, the nest of lazy snakes. The Gothic soldiers, Arians or heathens, who had burned down, in some drunken bout, the little church above-ground, had penetrated at the same time into the tomb beneath in search of treasure, and finding none, dispersed the bones in the sarcophagi they had opened. They had left open the aperture leading downward, which had been matted over by a thick growth of ivy and wild clematis. One day, while surveying the remains of the Christian church, always in hopes of discovering in it a former temple of the Pagans, Filarete had walked into that tuft of solid green, and found himself, buried and half stunned, in the mouth of the tomb below. It was through this that he bade Domenico follow him, bearing a certain mysterious package in his cloak, one January day of the year fourteen hundred and eighty-eight.
Above-ground it had frozen in the night; here below, when they had descended the rugged sepulchral stairs, the air had a damp warmth, an odd feel of inhabitation. Above-ground, also, everything lay in ruins, while here all was intact. As the light of the torches moved slowly along the vaulted and stuccoed ceilings, it showed the delicate lines of a profusion of little reliefs and ornaments, fresh as if cast and coloured yesterday. Slender garlands of leaves, and long knotted ribbons and veils in lowest relief partitioned the space; and framed by them, now round, now oval, now oblong, were medallions of naked gods banqueting and playing games, of satyrs and nymphs dancing, nereids swinging on the backs of hippocamps, tritons curling their tails and blowing their horns, Cupids fluttering among griffins and chimaeras; a life of laughter and love, which mocked the eye, starting into vividness in one place, dying away in a mere film where the torchlight pressed on too closely in others. All along the walls, below the line of the stuccoes, were excavated shelves, on which stood numbers of small cinerary boxes, each bearing a name. In the middle of the vaulted chamber was a huge stone coffin, carved with revelling Bacchantes, and grim tragic masks at its corners; and all round the coffin, broken in one of its flanks by the tools of the treasure-seeker, lay bones and skulls, dispersed on the damp ground even as the Goths had left them.
It was this sarcophagus which, with its Dionysiac revels, and the name of one Dionysius carved on it, a freedman of the Flavians, had led Filarete to consider the tomb as a kind of temple consecrated to Bacchus.
Filarete bade Domenico stick the pointed end of his torch into the mouth of an amphora standing erect in a corner, and began to unpack the load they had brought on a mule. It looked like the preparation for a feast: there were loaves of bread, fruit, a flask of choice wine; and Domenico, for a moment, thought the old man mad. But his feelings changed when Filarete produced a set of silver lamps, and bade him trim and light them, placing them on the ledges alongside of the cinerary urns; and when he lit some strange incense and filled the place with its smoke. Despite the many descriptions of ancient sacrifices with which the humanist had entertained him, Domenico had brought a vague notion of a raising of devils, and felt relieved at the absence of brimstone fumes, and of the magic books that accompanied them.
Although more passionately longing—he knew not, he dared not tell himself for what—Domenico did not come with the curious exaltation of spirits of his companion, all whose antiquarian lore had gone to his head, and who really imagined himself to be a genuine Pagan engaged in Pagan rites. For Filarete the ceremony was everything; for Domenico it was merely a means, a sort of sacrilegious juggling, into which he had not inquired more particularly, which was to give him the object of his wishes at the price of great peril to his soul. But when the subterranean chamber was filled with a cloud of incense, through which, in the dim yellow light of the lamp, the naked gods and goddesses on the vault, the satyrs and nymphs, the Tritons and Bacchantes seemed to float in and out of sight, a feeling of awe, of an unknown kind of reverence and rapture, began to fill his soul, and his eyes became fixed on the lid of the carved sarcophagus—vague images of Christian resurrections mingling with his hopes—Would the god appear?
Filarete, meanwhile, had enveloped his head in a long linen veil, and, after washing his hands thrice in a golden basin brought for the purpose, he placed some faggots on the sarcophagus, lit them, and throwing grains of incense and of salt alternately into the flames, began to chant in an unknown tongue, which Domenico guessed to be Greek. Then beckoning to the painter, who was kneeling, as at church, in a corner, he bade him unpack a basket matted over with leaves, whose movements and sounds had puzzled Domenico as he carried it down. In great surprise, and with a vague sense of he knew not what, he handed its contents to Filarete. It was a miserable little lamb, newly born, its long, soft legs tied together, its almost sightless, pale eyes half-started from its sockets. As the humanist took it, it bleated with sudden shrill strength, and Domenico could not help thinking of certain images he had seen on monastery walls of the Good Shepherd carrying the lame lamb on his shoulders. This was very different. For, with an odd ferocity, Filarete placed the miserable young creature on the stone before the fire, and slit its throat and chest with a long knife.
The god did not appear. They extinguished the lamps, left the carcase of the lamb half charred in a pool of blood on the stone, and slowly reascended into the daylight, leaving behind them, in the vaulted chamber, a stifling fume of incense, of burnt flesh, and mingled damp.
Up above, among the ruins of the Christian church, where they had left their mules, it was cold and sunny, and the light seemed curiously blue, almost grey and dusty, after the yellow illumination below. Before them, interrupted here and there by a mass of ruined masonry, or a few arches of aqueduct, waved the grey-green, billowy plain, where the wind, which rolled the great winter cloud-balls overhead, danced and sang with the tall, dry hemlocks and sere white thistles, shining and rattling like skeletons. And on to it seemed to descend cloud-mountains, vague blueness and darkness—cloud or hill, you could not tell which—out of whose flank, ever and anon, a sunbeam conjured up a visionary white resplendent city.
The short winter day was beginning to draw in when they approached silently the city walls, solemn with their towers and gates, endless as it seemed, and enclosing, one felt vaguely, an endless, distant, invisible city.
The sound of its bells came as from afar to meet the sacrilegious men.
The culminating sacrilege was yet to come. The place that witnessed it remains unchanged—a half-deserted church among the silent grass-grown lanes, the crumbling convent walls, and ill-tended vineyards of the Aventine; a hill that has retained in Christian times a look of its sinister fame in Pagan ones. Among the cypresses, which seem to wander up the hillside, rises the square belfry, among whose brickwork, flushed in the sunset, are inlaid discs of porphyry torn from some temple pavement, and plates of green majolica brought from the East, it is said, by pilgrims or Crusaders. The arum-fringed lane widens before the outer wall of the church, overtopped by its triangular gable. Behind this wall is a yard or atrium, the pavement grass-grown, the walls stained with great patches of mildew, and showing here and there in their dilapidation the shaft and capital of a bricked-up Ionic pillar. The place tells of centuries of neglect, of the gradual invasion of resistless fever; and it was fitly chosen, some fifty years ago, for the abode of a community of Trappists. In the reign of Innocent VIII. it was still nominally in the hands of certain Cistercians; but the fever had long driven these monks to the more wholesome end of the hill, where they had erected a smaller church; and the convent had served for years as a fortress of the turbulent family of the Capranicas, one of whose members was always the nominal abbot, with the Cardinal's hat, and title Jervase and Protasius. And now, at the end of the fifteenth century, a Cardinal Ascanio Capranica, famous for his struggle in magnificence and sinfulness with the magnificent and sinful young nephews of Pope Sixtus, had determined to restore the fortified monastery, to combat the fever by abundant plantations, and to make the church a monument of his splendour. And, in order to secure some benefit by his own munificence, he had begun by commissioning Domenico Neroni to design and execute a sepulchre three storeys high, full of carvings, and covered with statues, so that his soul, if sent untimely to heaven, might not be dishonoured by the unworthy resting-place of its trusty companion, the Cardinal's handsome and well-tended body.
This church of SS. Jervase and Protasius, which imitated, like most churches of the early Christian period, the form of a basilica or court of law, was constructed out of fragments of Pagan edifices, and occupied the site of a Pagan edifice, whose columns had been employed to carry the roof of the church, or, when of porphyry or serpentine, had been sawed into discs for the pavement. On the slant of the hill, supporting the apse, encircled by pillarets, is a round mass of masonry, overgrown with ivy and ilex scrub, the remains of some antique bath or grotto; and under the battlemented walls, the cloistered courts of the convent, there stretches, it is said, a network of subterranean passages running down to the Tiber. Four hundred years ago they were not to be discovered if looked for, being completely hidden by the fallen masonry and the cypress roots and growths of poisonous plants—nightshade, and hemlock, and green-flowered hellebore; but wicked monks had sometimes been sucked into them while digging the ground, or decoyed into their labyrinths by devils. Was it possible that there had lingered on through the ages a vague and horrified remembrance of those rites, the discovery of whose mysterious and wide-spread abominations had frozen Rome with horror in her most high and palmy days; and was there a connection between those neophytes, wandering with blood-stained limbs and dishevelled locks among the groves of the Aventine, then rushing to quench their burning torches in the Tiber, two centuries before Christ, and the devils who troubled the Benedictines of SS. Jervase and Protasius? These evil spirits would appear, it had been said, in the cloisters of the convent, processions carrying lights and garlands; and on certain nights, when the monks were in prayer in their cells, strange sounds would issue from the church itself, of flutes and timbrels, and demon laughter, and demon voices chanting some unknown litany, and clearly aping the mass; and Cardinal Capranica was blamed by many pious persons for his rash intention of filling once more the deserted convent, and exposing holy men to the wrath of such very pertinacious devils. Meanwhile mass upon mass was said to clear the place of this demoniac infection. It was in this church that the sacrilege of Domenico and Filarete rose to its highest, and that an event took place which the men of the fifteenth century could scarce find words to designate.
Domenico had grown tired of his friend's archaeological impieties. It gave him no satisfaction to pour out wine, burn incense, arrange garlands, and even cut the throats of animals according to a correct Pagan ritual. It was nothing to him that Horace and Ovid and Tibullus should have done alike. He was a good Christian, never doubting for a moment the power of the Blessed Virgin, the saints, and even the smallest and meanest priest, nor the heat of hell-fire. But he wanted to have the secret of antique proportions, and he was convinced that this secret could be communicated only by a Pagan divinity, just as certain theological mysteries, such as the use of the rosary, had been revealed to the saints by Christ or the Virgin. The Pagan gods were devils, and to hold communication with devils was mortal sin and sure damnation. But lots of people communicated with devils for much more paltry motives, for greed of gold or love of woman, and were yet saved by the intercession of some heavenly patron, or found it worth while not to be saved at all. Domenico, like them, put the question of salvation behind him. He might think of that afterwards, when he had possessed himself of the proportion of the ancients. At all events, at present he was willing to risk everything in order to attain that. He was determined to see that god of the heathens, not as he had seen him once in the house of Messer Neri Altoviti, cut out of marble, but alive, moving, speaking; for that was the god.
The god was a devil. Now it is well known that there is a way of compelling every devil to show himself, providing you use sufficiently strong spells. They had sacrificed goats and lambs enough, also doves, and had burned perfumes, and spilt wine sufficient for one of Cardinal Riario's suppers. It was evidently not that sort of sacrifice which would rejoice the god or compel him to show himself. For weeks and weeks Domenico ruminated over the subject. And little by little the logical, inevitable answer dawned upon his horrified but determined mind. For what was the sacrifice which witches and warlocks notoriously offered their Master?
The place could not be better chosen. This church was full, every one knew, of demons, who were certainly none other than the gods of the heathen, as Tertullian, Lactantius, Athenagoras, Justin Martyr, and all those other holy doctors had written. It was deserted, its keys in the hands of Cardinal Capranica's confidential architect and decorator; and there were masses being said every holiday to scare the evil spirits. The sacrament was frequently left on the altar.
All this Domenico expounded frequently to Filarete. But Filarete's classic taste did not approve of Domenico's methods, which savoured of vulgar witchcraft; perhaps also the learned man, who did not want the secret of antique proportion, recoiled from a degree of profanity and of danger, both to body and soul, which his companion willingly incurred in such a quest as his. So Filarete demurred for a time, until at length his feebler nature took fire at Domenico's determination, and the guilty pair fixed upon the day and place for this unspeakable sacrilege.
The Church of SS. Jervase and Protasius has undergone no change since the feast of Corpus Christi of the year 1488. The damp that lies in the atrium outside, making the grass and poppies sprout round the Byzantine pillar which carries a cross over a pine-cone, has invaded the flat-roofed nave and the wide aisles, separated from it by a single colonnade. A greenish mildew marks the fissures in the walls, rent here and there by landslips and earthquakes. The cipolline columns carrying the round arches on their square capitals are lustreless, and their green-veined marble looks like long-buried wood. The mosaic pavement stretches its discs and volutes of porphyry and serpentine or yellowed Parian marble, a tarnished and uneven carpet, to the greenish-white marble steps of the chancel. The mosaics have long fallen out of the circle of the apse; and the frescoes, painted by some obscure follower of Giotto, have left only a green vague stain over the arches of the aisle. Pictures or statues there are none, and no conspicuous sepulchre. Only, over the low entrance, a colossal wooden crucifix of the thirteenth century hangs at an angle from the wall, a painted Christ, stretching his writhing livid limbs in agony opposite the high altar. It was in this stately and desolate church, under the misty light that pours in through the wide windows of grey coarse glass, and on the marble altar, facing that effigy of the dying Saviour, that, in derision as it were of the miracle which the church commemorates on that feast-day, Domenico and Filarete were about to offer up to the demons Apollo, Bacchus, and Jove the freshly consecrated wafer, the very body and blood of Christ.
But an accomplice of theirs, a certain monk well versed in magic, whom they employed in sundry details of devil-raising, on the score that they were seeking treasure hidden in the church, had suddenly been seized with qualms of conscience. Instead of appearing at the appointed time alone, and bearing certain necessaries of his art, he kept them waiting a full hour, until they began their proceedings without his assistance. And even as Domenico was reaching his companion the ostensorium, which had remained on the altar after the morning's mass, the church was surrounded by the officers of the Podesta, on horseback, and by a crowd of monks and priests, and rabble who had followed them. Of these persons, not a few affirmed in after years, that, as they arrived at the church door, they had heard sounds of flutes and timbrels, and mocking songs filling the place; and that the devil, dressed in skins and garlands like a wild man of the woods, had cleft the roof with his head, and disappeared with many blasphemous yells as they entered.
In those last years of the fifteenth century, Rome was a city of the Middle Ages. The cupola of the Pantheon, the circular hulk of the Colosseum, and the twin columns of Trajan and Antoninus projected, like the fantastic antiquities of some fresco of Benozzo Gozzoli, above domeless church roofs, battlemented palace walls, and innumerable Gothic belfries and feudal towers. In the theatre of Marcellus rose the fortress of the Orsinis; against the tower whence Nero, as the legend ran, had watched the city burning, were clustered the fortifications of the Colonnas; and in every quarter the stern palaces of their respective partisans frowned with their rough-hewn fronts, their holes for barricade beams, and hooks for chains. The bridge of St. Angelo was covered with the shops of armourers, as the old bridge of more peaceful Florence with those of silversmiths. Walls and towers encircled the Leonine City where the Pope sat unquietly in the big battlemented donjon by the Sixtine Chapel; and in its midst was still old St. Peter's, half Lombard, half Byzantine. In Rome there was no industry, no order, no safety. Through its gates rushed raids of Colonnas and Orsinis, sold to or betrayed by the Popes, from their castles of Umbria or the Campagna to their castles in town; and their feuds meant battles also between the citizens who obeyed or thwarted them. Houses were sacked and burnt, and occasionally razed to the ground, for the ploughshare and the salt-sower to go over their site. A few years later, when Pope Borgia dredged the Tiber for the body of his son, the boatmen of Ripetta reported that so many bodies were thrown over every night that they no longer heeded such occurrences. And when, two centuries later, the Corsinis dug the foundations of their house on the Longara, there were discovered quantities of human bones in what had been the palace of Pope della Rovere's nephew. Meanwhile Ghirlandaio and Perugino were painting the walls of the Sixtine; Pinturicchio was designing the blue and gold allegorical ceilings of the library; Bramante building the Chancellor's palace, and the Pollaiolas and Mino da Fiesole carving the tombs in St. Peter's, while learned men translated Plato and imitated Horace.
Of this Rome there remains nowadays nothing, or next to nothing. Sometimes, indeed, looking up the green lichened sides of some mediaeval tower, with its hooks for chains, and its holes for beams, a vague vision thereof rises in our mind. And in the presence of certain groups by Signorelli, representing murderous scuffles or supernatural destruction, we feel as if we had come in contact with the other reality of those times, the thing which serene art and literature and the love of antiquity have driven into the background. But the complete vision of the time and place, the certain knowledge of that Rome of Sixtus IV. and Innocent VIII., we can now no longer grasp, a dreadful phantom passing too rapidly across the centuries.
It is with this feeling of impotence in my attempt to follow the thoughts of an illiterate artist of the Renaissance, that I prefer to conclude this strange story of the quest after antique beauty and antique gods by quoting a page from one of the barbarous chroniclers of mediaeval Rome. The entry in the continuation of Infessura's diary is headed "Pictor Sacrilegus":—
"On the 20th July of the year of salvation fourteen hundred and eighty-eight, there were placed for three days in a cage on high in the Campo dei Fiori, Messer Niccolo Filarete, Canon of Sancto Joanne; also Domenico, the Volterran, painter and architect to the magnificent Cardinal Ascanio, and Frate Garofalo of Valmontone, they having been discovered in the act of desecrating the Church of SS. Jervase and Protasius, and stealing for magic purposes the ostensorium and many gold chalices and reliquaries with precious stones; and it was Frate Garofalo who, being versed in witchcraft and treasure finding, was the accomplice of the above, and denounced them on the feast of Corpus Domini. And the twenty-third of the said month of July they were justiced, and in this manner. Videlicet, Filarete and Domenico, having been removed from the cage, were dragged on hurdles as far as the square of San Joanni, and Frate Garofalo went on an ass, all of them crowned with paper mitres. Frate Garofalo was hanged to the elm-tree of the square. Of Filarete and Domenico, the right hand was chopped off, after which they were burned in the said square. And their chopped off right hands were taken to the Capitol and nailed up above the gate, alongside of the She-wolf of metal. Laus Deo."
While gathering together the foregoing pages, written at different periods and in different phases of thought, the knowledge has grown on me that I was saying farewell to some of the ambitions and to most of the plans of my youth.
All writers start with the hope of solving a problem or establishing a formula, however fragmentary or humble; and many, the most fortunate, and probably the most useful, continue to work out their program, or at least to think that they do so. Life to them is but the framework for work; and that is why they manage to leave a fair amount of work behind them,—work for other workers to employ or to undo. But with some persons, life somehow gets the better of work, becomes, whether in the form of circumstance or of new problems, infinitely the stronger; and scatters work, tossing about such fragments as itself, in its irregular, irresistible fashion, has torn into insignificance, or (once in a blue moon!) shaped into more complete meaning.
As regards my own case, I began by believing I should be an historian and a philosopher, as most young people have done before me; then, coming in contact with the concrete miseries of others, called social and similar problems, I sought to apply some of my historical or philosophic lore (such as it was) to their removal; and finally, life having manifested itself as offering problems (unexpected occurrence!) not merely concerning the Past, nor even the abstract Present, but respecting my own comfort and discomfort, I have found myself at last wondering in what manner thoughts and impressions could make the world, the Past and Present, the near and the remote, more satisfying and useful to myself. Circumstances of various kinds, and particularly ill-health, have thus put me, although a writer, into the position of a reader; and have made me ask myself, as I collected these fragments of my former studies, what can the study of history, particularly of the history of art and of other manifestations of past conditions of soul, do for us in the present?
All knowledge is bound to be useful. Apart from this truism, I believe that all study of past conditions and activities will eventually result, if not in the better management of present conditions and activities (as all partisan historians have hoped, from Machiavelli to Macaulay), at all events in a greater familiarity with the various kinds of character expressed in historical events and in the way of looking at them; for even if we cannot learn to guide and employ such multifold forces as make, for instance, a French revolution, we may learn to use for the best the individual minds and temperaments of those who describe them: a Carlyle, a Michelet, a Taine, are natural forces also, which may serve or may damage us.
Moreover, I hold by the belief, expressed years ago, in my previous volume of Renaissance studies, to wit, that historical reading (and in historical I include the history of thoughts and feelings as much as of events and persons) is a useful exercise for our sympathies, bringing us wider and more wholesome notions of justice and charity. And I feel sure that other uses for historical studies could be pointed out by other persons, apart from the satisfaction they afford to those who pursue them, which, considered merely as so much spiritual gymnastics, or cricket, or football, or alpineering, is surely not to be despised.
But now, having dropped long since out of the ranks of those who study in order to benefit others, or even to benefit only themselves, I would say a few words about the advantage which mere readers, as distinguished from writers, may get from familiarity with the Past.
This advantage is that they may find in the Past not merely a fine field for solitary and useless delusions (though that also seems necessary), but an additional world for real companionship and congenial activity. Our individual activities and needs of this kind are innumerable, and of infinite delicate variety; and there is reason to suppose that the place in which our lot is cast does not necessarily fit them to perfection. For things in this world are very roughly averaged; and although averaging is a useful, rapid way of despatching business, it does undoubtedly waste a great deal which is too good for wasting. Hence, it seems to me, the need which many of us feel, which most of us would feel, if secured of food and shelter, of spending a portion of their life of the spirit in places and climates beyond that River Oceanus which bounds the land of the living.
As I write these words, I am conscious that this will strike many readers as the expression of a superfine and selfish dilettantism, arising no doubt from morbid lack of sympathy with the world into which Heaven has put us. What! become absentees from the poor, much troubled Present; turn your backs to Realities, become idle strollers in the Past? And why not, dear friends? why not recognise the need for a holiday? why not admit, just because work has to be done and loads to be borne, that we cannot grind and pant on without interruption? Nay, that the bearing of the load, the grinding of the work, is useless save to diminish the total grinding and panting on this earth. Moreover, I maintain that we have but a narrow conception of life if we confine it to the functions which are obviously practical, and a narrow conception of reality if we exclude from it the Past. And not because the Past has been, has actually existed outside some one, but because it may, and often does, actually exist within ourselves. The things in our mind, due to the mind's constitution and its relation with the universe, are, after all, realities; and realities to count with, as much as the tables and chairs, and hats and coats, and other things subject to gravitation outside it. It would seem, indeed, as if the chief outcome of the spiritualising philosophy which maintains the immaterial and independent quality of mind had been to make mind, the contents of our consciousness, ideas, images, and feelings, into something quite separate from this real material universe, and hence unworthy of practical consideration. But granted that mind is not a sort of independent and foreign entity, we must admit that what exists in it has a place in reality, and requires, like the rest of reality, to be dealt with. But to return to my thesis: that we require occasionally to live in the Past (and I shall go on to state that it may be a Past of our own making); Do we not require to travel in foreign parts which know us not, to sojourn for our welfare in cities where we can neither elect members nor exercise professions, but whence we bring back, not merely wider views, but sounder nerves, tempers more serene and elastic? Nor is this all. We think poorly of a man or woman who, besides practical cases for self or others, does not require to come in contact also with the tangible, breathable, visible, audible universe for its own sake; require to wander in fields and on moors, to steep in sunshine or be battered by winds, for the sake of a certain specific emotion of participation in, of closer union with, the universal. Now the Past—the joys and sufferings of the men long dead, their efforts, ideals, emotions, nay, their very sensations and temperaments as registered in words or expressed in art, are but another side of the universe, of that universal life, to participate ever deeper in which is the condition of our strength and serenity, the imperious necessity of our ever giving, ever taking soul.
And so, for our greater nobility and happiness, we require, all of us, to live to some extent in the Past, as to live to some extent in what we significantly call nature. We require, as we require mountain air or sea scents, hayfields or wintry fallows, sun, storm, or rain, each individual according to individual subtle affinities, certain emotions, ideals, persons, or works of art from out of the Past. For one it will be Socrates; for another St. Francis; for every one something somewhat different, or at all events something differently conceived and differently felt: some portion of the universe in time, as of the universe in space, which answers in closest and most intimate way to the complexion and habits of that individual soul.
The satisfaction which it can bring to every individual soul: this is, therefore, one of the uses of the Past to the Present, and surely not one of the smallest. It is, I venture to insist, the special, the essential use of all art and all poetry; any additional knowledge of Nature's proceedings, any additional discipline of thought and observation which may accrue in the study of art as an historic or psychological phenomenon being, after all, valuable eventually for the amount of such mere satisfaction of the spirit as that additional knowledge or additional discipline can conduce towards. Scientific results are important for the maintenance of life, doubtless; but the sense of satisfaction, whether simple or complex, high or low, is the sign that the processes we call life are being fulfilled and not thwarted; so, since satisfaction is no such contemptible thing, why not allow art to furnish it unmixed?
I am sure to be misunderstood. I do not in the least mean to imply that art can best be appreciated with the least trouble. The mere fact that the pleasure of a faculty is proportioned to its activity negatives that; and the fact that the richness, fulness, and hence also the durability, of all artistic pleasure answers to the amount of our attention: the mine, the ore, will yield, other things equal, according as we dig, and wash, and smelt, and separate to the last possibility of separation what we want from what we do not want.
The historic or psychological study of art does thus undoubtedly increase our familiarity, and hence our enjoyment. The mere scientific inquiry into the difference between originals and copies, into the connection between master and pupil, makes us alive to the special qualities which can delight us. As long as we looked in a manner so slovenly that a spurious Botticelli could pass for a genuine one, we could evidently never benefit by the special quality, the additional excellence of Botticelli's own work. And similarly in the case of archaeology. Indeed, in the few cases where I have myself hazarded an hypothesis on some point of artistic history, as, for instance, regarding the respective origin of antique and mediaeval sculpture, I am inclined to think that the chief use (if any at all) of my work, will be to make my readers more sensitive to the specific pleasure they may get from Praxiteles or from Mino da Fiesole, than they could have been when the works of both were so little understood as to be judged by one another's standards.
But to return. It seems as if at present the development, the contagion, so to speak, of scientific methods applied to art were making people forget a little that art, besides being, like everything else, the passive object of scientific treatment, is (what most other things are not) an active, positive, special factor of pleasure; and that, therefore, save to special students, the greater, more efficacious form of art should occupy an immensely larger share of attention than the lesser and more inefficient. We are made, nowadays, to look at too much mediocre art on the score of its historical value; we are kept too long in contemplation of pictures and statues which cannot give much pleasure, on the score that they led to or proceeded from other pictures or statues which can.
As regards Greek sculpture, the insistance on archaic forms is becoming, if I may express my own feelings, a perfect bore. Why should we be kept in the kitchen tasting half-cooked stuff out of ladles, when most of us have barely time to eat our fully cooked dinner, which we like and thrive on, in peace? Similarly with such painters as are mainly precursors. They are taking up too much of our attention; and one might sometimes be tempted to think that the only use of great artists, like the only functions of those patriarchs who kept begetting one another, was to produce other great artists: Giotto to produce eventually Masaccio, Masaccio through various generations Michelangelo and Raphael, and Michelangelo and Raphael, through even more, Manet and Degas, who in their turn doubtless dutifully.... Meanwhile why should art have gone on evolving, artists gone on making filiations of schools, if art, if artists, if schools of artists had not answered an imperious, undying wish for the special pleasures which painting can give?
Therefore it seems to me that, desirable for all reasons as may be the study of art, the knowledge of filiations and influences, it is still more desirable that each of us should find out some painter whom he can care for individually; and that all of us should find out certain painters who can, almost infallibly, give immense pleasure to all of us; painters who, had they been produced out of nothingness and been followed by nobody, would yet stand in the most important relation in which an artist can be: the relation of being beloved by the whole world, or even by a few solitary individuals.
For this reason let not the mere reader, who comes to art not for work, but for refreshment, let not the mere reader (I call him reader, to note his passive, leisurely character) be vexed with too much study of Florentine and Paduan precursors, but go straight to the masters, whom those useful and dreary persons rendered possible by their grinding. Our ancestors, or rather those cardinals and superb lords with whom we have neither spiritual nor temporal relationship, who made the great collections of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, placing statues under delicate colonnades and green ilex hedges, and hanging pictures in oak-panelled corridors and tapestried guard-rooms, were occasionally mistaken in thinking that a Roman emperor much restored, or a chalky, sprawling Guido Reni, could afford lasting aesthetic pleasure; but, bating such errors, were they not nearer good sense than we moderns, who arrange pictures and statues as we might minerals or herbs in a museum, and who, for instance, insist that poor tired people, longing for a little beauty, should carefully examine the works of Castagno, of Rosselli, and of that artist, so interesting as a specimen of the minimum of talent, Neri di Bicci? They were unscientific, those lords and cardinals, and desperately pleasure-seeking; but surely, surely they were more sensible than we.
Connected with this fact, and to be borne in mind by those not called upon to elucidate art scientifically, is the further fact, which I have analogically pointed out, when I said that every individual has in the Past affinities, possibilities of spiritual satisfaction differing somewhat from those of every other. It is well that we should try to enlarge those possibilities; and we must never make up our mind that a picture, statue, piece of music or poetry, says little to us until we have listened to its say. But although we strive to make new friends, let us waste no further time on such persons as we have vainly tried to make friends of; and let each of us, in heaven's name, cherish to the utmost his natural affinities. There are persons to whom, for instance, Botticelli can never be what he truly is to some of their neighbours: the very quality which gives such marvellous poignancy of pleasure to certain temperaments causing almost discomfort to others; and similarly about many other artists, representing very special conditions of being, and appealing to special conditions in consequence. High Alpine air, sea-water, Roman melting westerly winds, so vitalising, so soothing to some folk, are mere worry, or fever, or lassitude to others, without its being correct to say that one set of persons is healthy and the other morbid: each being, in truth, healthy or morbid just in proportion as it realises its necessities of existence, fitting equally into the universe providing it be fitted each into the proper piece thereof.
On the other hand (and this, rather than filiations of schools and influences of artistic milieus, it were well we should know), it becomes daily more empirically certain, and will some day doubtless become scientifically obvious, that there are works of art which awaken such emotion that they can be delectable only to creatures with instincts out of gear and perception upside down; while there are others, infinitely more plentiful, which, in greater or lesser degree, must delight all persons who are sane, as all such are delighted by fine weather, normal exercise, and kindly sympathy; and, vice versa, that as these wholesome works of art merely bore or actually distress the poor morbid exceptions, so the unwholesome ones sicken or harrow the sound generality; the world of art, moreover, like every other world, being best employed in keeping alive its sound, not its unsound, clients.
Such works of art, such artists of widest wholesome appealingness, there are in all periods of artistic development; more in certain fortunate moments, say the Periklean age and the early sixteenth century, than in others; and most perhaps in certain specially favoured regions—in Attica during Antiquity, and during painting times, in the happy Venetian country. These we all know of; but by the grace of Nature, which creates men occasionally so fortunately balanced that their work, learned or unlearned, must needs be fortunately balanced also, they arise sometimes in the midst of mere artistic worry and vexation of spirit, or of artist bleakness, perfect like the almond and peach trees, which blossom, white and pink, on the frost-bitten green among the sapless vines of wintry Tuscan hills; and to some natures, doubtless, these are more pleasant and health-giving than more mature or mellow summer or autumnal loveliness. But, as I have said, each must find his own closest affinities in art and history as in friendship.
There are some more things, and more important, still to be said, from the reader's standpoint rather than the writer's, about the influence on our lives of the Past and of its art, and more particularly of the vague period called the Renaissance.
When the Renaissance began to attract attention, some twenty or twenty-five years ago, there happened among English historians and writers on art, and among their readers, something very similar to what had happened, apparently, when the Englishmen of the sixteenth century first came in contact with the Italian Renaissance itself, or whatever remained of it. Their conscience was sickened, their imagination hag-ridden, by the discovery of so much beauty united to so much corruption; and, among our latter-day students of the Renaissance, there became manifest the same morbid pre-occupation, the same exaggerated repulsion, which is but inverted attraction, which were rife among the playwrights who wrote of Avengers and Atheists, Giovannis and Annabellas, Brachianos and Corombonas, and other White Devils, as old Webster picturesquely put it, of Italy. Indeed, the second discovery of the Renaissance by Englishmen had spiritual consequences so similar to those of the first, that in an essay written fifteen years ago I analysed the feelings of the Elizabethan playwrights towards Italian things in order to vent the intense discomfort of spirit which I shared assuredly with students older and more competent than myself.
This kind of feeling has passed away among writers, together with much of the fascination of the Renaissance itself. But it has left, I see, vague traces in the mind of readers, rendering the Renaissance a little distasteful (and no wonder) to the majority; or worse, a little too congenial to an unsound minority; worst of all, tarnishing a little the fair fame of Art; and as a writer now turned reader, I am anxious to deliver, to the best of my powers, other readers from this perhaps inevitable but false and unprofitable view of such matters.
The conscience of writers on history and art has long become quite comfortable about the Renaissance; and the Websterian or (in some cases John Fordian) phenomenon of twenty years ago been forgotten as a piece of childish morbidness. Does this mean that the conscience has become hardened, that evil has ceased to repel us, or that beauty has been accepted calmly as a pleasant and necessary, but somewhat immoral thing? Very far from it. Our conscience has become quieter, not because it has grown more callous, but because it has become more healthily sensitive, more perceptive of many sides, instead of only one side of life. For with experience and maturity there surely comes, to every one of us in his own walk of life, a growing, at length an intuitive sense that evil is a thing incidentally to fight, but not to think very much about, because if it is evil, it is in so far sporadic, deciduous, and eminently barren; while good, that is to say, soundness, harmony of feeling, thought, and action with themselves, with others' feeling, thought, and action, and with the great eternities, is organic, fruitful and useful, as well as delightful to contemplate. Hence that the evil of past ages should not concern us, save in so far as the understanding thereof may teach us to diminish the evil of the Present. In any case, that evil must be handled not with terror, which enervates and subjects to contagion, but with the busy serenity of the physician, who studies disease for the sake of health, and eats his wholesome food after washing his hands, confident in the ultimate wholesomeness of nature.
And in such frame of mind the corruption of the Renaissance leaves us calm, and we know we had better turn our backs on it, and get from the Renaissance only what was good. Only, if we are physicians, or more correctly (since in a private capacity we all are) only when we are physicians, must we handle the unwholesome. Meanwhile, if we wish to be sound, let us fill our soul with images and emotions of good; we shall tackle evil, when need be, only the better. And here, by the way, let me open a parenthesis to say that, of the good we moderns may get from occasional journeys into the Past, there is a fine example in our imaginary and emotional commerce with St. Francis and his joyous theology. For while other times, our own among them, have given us loftier morality and severer good sense, no period save that of St. Francis could have given us a blitheness of soul so vivifying and so cleansing. For the essence of his teaching, or rather the essence of his personality, was the trust that serenity and joyfulness must be incompatible with evil; that simple, spontaneous happiness is, even like the air and the sunshine in which his beloved brethren the birds flew about and sang, the most infallible antidote to evil, and the most sovereign disinfectant. And because we require such doctrine, such personal conviction, for the better living of our lives, we must, even as to better climates, journey forth occasionally into that distant Past of mediaeval Italy; and as to the Ezzelinos, Borgias, and Riarios, and the foul-mouthed humanists, good heavens! why should we sicken ourselves with the thought of this long dead and done for abomination?
So much for the history of the Renaissance and the good it can be to us. Now as to the art. That more organic mode of feeling and thinking which results in active maturity, from the ever-increasing connections between our individual soul and the surrounding world; that same intuition which told us that historic evil was no subject for contemplation, does also admonish us never to be suspicious of true beauty, of thoroughly delightful art. Nay, beauty and art in any case; for though beauty may be adulterated, and art enslaved to something not itself, be sure that the element of beauty, the activity of art, so far as they are themselves specific, are far above suspicion even in the most suspicious company. For even if beauty is united to perverse fashions, and art (as with Baudelaire and the decadents) employed to adorn the sentiments of maniacs and gaol-birds, the beauty and the art remain sound; and if we must needs put them behind us, on account of too inextricable a fusion, we should remember it is as we sometimes throw away noble ore, for lack of skill to separate it from a base alloy. As regards the nightmare anomaly of perfect art arisen in times of moral corruption, those unconscious analogies I have spoken of, and which perhaps are our most cogent reasons, have taught us that such anomalies are but nightmares and horrid delusions. For, taking the phenomenon historically, we shall see that although art has arisen in periods of stress and change, and therefore of moral anarchy, it has never arisen among the immoral classes nor to serve any immoral use: the apparent anomaly in the Renaissance, for instance, was not an anomaly, but a coincidence of contrary movements: a materially prosperous, intellectually innovating epoch, producing on the one hand moral anarchy, on the other artistic perfection, connected not as cause and effect, but as coincidence, the one being the drawback, the other the advantage, of that particular phase of being. The Malatestas and Borgias, of whom we have heard too much, did not employ Alberti and Pier della Francesca, Pinturicchio and Bramante, to satisfy their convict wickedness, but to satisfy their artistic taste, which, in so far, was perfectly sound, as various others among their faculties, their eye and ear, and sense of cause and effect, were apparently sound also. And the architecture of Alberti, the decorations of Pinturicchio, remain as spotless of all contact with their evil instincts as the hills they may have looked at, the sea they may have listened to, the eternal verity that two and two make four, which had doubtless passed through their otherwise badly inhabited minds. And, moreover, the sea is still sonorous, the mountains are still hyacinth blue, and the buildings and frescoes still noble, while the rest of those disagreeable mortals' cravings and strivings are gone, and on the whole were best forgotten.
But there is another side of this same question, and of it we are admonished, as it seems to me, still louder by our growing intellectual instincts—those instincts, let us remember, which do but represent whatever has been congruous and uniform in repeated experience. Art is a much greater and more cosmic thing than the mere expression of man's thoughts or opinions on any one subject, of man's attitude towards his neighbour or towards his country, much as all this concerns us. Art is the expression of man's life, of his mode of being, of his relations with the universe, since it is, in fact, man's inarticulate answer to the universe's unspoken message. Hence it represents not the details of his existence, which, more's the pity, are rarely what they should be, whether in thought or action, but the bulk of his existence, when that bulk is unusually sound. This clause contains the whole philosophy of art. For art is the outcome of a surplus of human energy, the expression of a state of vital harmony, striving for and partly realising a yet greater energy, a more complete harmony in one sphere or another of man's relations with the universe. Now if evil is a non-vital, deciduous, and sterile phenomenon par excellence, art must be necessarily opposed to it, and opposed in proportion to art's vigour. While, on the other hand, the seeking, the realisation of greater harmony, whether harmony visible, audible, thinkable, and livable, is as necessarily opposed to anomaly and perversity as the great healthinesses of air and sunshine are opposed to bodily disease. Hence, in whatever company we find art, even as in whatever company we find bodily health and vigour, let us understand that in so far as truly art, it is good and a source of good. Let us never waver in our faith in art, for in so doing we should be losing (what, alas! Puritan contemners of art, and decadent defilers thereof, are equally doing) much of our faith in nature and much of our faith in man. For art is the expression of the harmonies of nature, conceived and incubated by the harmonious instincts of man.
I have given the influence of St. Francis as an example of what added strength our modern soul may get by a sojourn in the Past. What our soul may get of similar but more sober joy may be shown by another example from that wonderful Umbrian district, one of the earth's oases of spiritual rest and refreshment. Among all the sane and satisfying art of the Renaissance, Umbria, on the whole, has surely grown for us the highest and the holiest. I am not speaking of the fact that Perugino painted saints in devout contemplation, nor of their type of face and expression. Whatever his people might be doing, or if they were not people at all, but variations only of his little slender trees or distant domes and steeples, his art would have been equally high and holy. And this because of its effect, direct, unreasoning, on our spirit, making us, while we look, live with a deeper, more devoutly joyful life. What the man Perugino was, in his finite dealings with his clients and neighbours, has mattered nothing in the painting of these pictures and frescoes; still less what samples of conduct he was shown by the ephemeral magnificos who bought his works.
The tenderness and strength of the mediaeval Italian temper (as shown in Dante when he is human, but above all in Francis of Assisi) has been working through generations toward these paintings, interpreting in its spirit, selecting and emphasising for its meaning the country in all the world most naturally fit to express it; and thus in these paintings we have the incomparable visible manifestation of a perfect mood: that wide pale shimmering valley, circular like a temple, and domed by the circular vault of sky, really turned, for our feelings, into a spiritual church, wherein not merely saints meditate and Madonnas kneel, but ourselves in deepest devout happiness.
Thoughts such as these bring with them the memory of the master we have recently lost, of the master who, in the midst of aesthetical anarchy, taught us once more, and with subtle and solemn efficacy, the old Platonic and Goethian doctrine of the affinity between artistic beauty and human worthiness.
The spiritual evolution of the late Walter Pater—with whose name I am proud to conclude my second, as with it I began my first book on Renaissance matters—had been significantly similar to that of his own Marius. He began as an aesthete, and ended as a moralist. By faithful and self-restraining cultivation of the sense of harmony, he appears to have risen from the perception of visible beauty to the knowledge of beauty of the spiritual kind, both being expressions of the same perfect fittingness to an ever more intense and various and congruous life.
Such an evolution, which is, in the highest meaning, an aesthetic phenomenon in itself, required a wonderful spiritual endowment and an unflinchingly discriminating habit. For Walter Pater started by being above all a writer, and an aesthete in the very narrow sense of twenty years ago: an aesthete of the school of Mr. Swinburne's Essays, and of the type still common on the Continent. The cultivation of sensations, vivid sensations, no matter whether healthful or unhealthful, which that school commended, was, after all, but a theoretic and probably unconscious disguise for the cultivation of something to be said in a new way, which is the danger of all persons who regard literature as an end, and not as a means, feeling in order that they may write, instead of writing because they feel. And of this Mr. Pater's first and famous book was a very clear proof. Exquisite in technical quality, in rare perception and subtle suggestion, it left, like all similar books, a sense of caducity and barrenness, due to the intuition of all sane persons that only an active synthesis of preferences and repulsions, what we imply in the terms character and moral, can have real importance in life, affinity with life—be, in short, vital; and that the yielding to, nay, the seeking for, variety and poignancy of experience, must result in a crumbling away of all such possible unity and efficiency of living. But even as we find in the earliest works of a painter, despite the predominance of his master's style, indications already of what will expand into a totally different personality, so even in this earliest book, examined retrospectively, it is easy to find the characteristic germs of what will develop, extrude all foreign admixture, knit together congruous qualities, and give us presently the highly personal synthesis of Marius and the Studies on Plato.
These characteristic germs may be defined, I think, as the recurrence of impressions and images connected with physical sanity and daintiness; of aspiration after orderliness, congruity, and one might almost say hierarchy; moreover, a certain exclusiveness, which is not the contempt of the craftsman for the bourgeois, but the aversion of the priest for the profane uninitiated. Some day, perhaps, a more scientific study of aesthetic phenomena will explain the connection which we all feel between physical sanity and purity and the moral qualities called by the same names; but even nowadays it might have been prophesied that the man who harped upon the clearness and livingness of water, upon the delicate bracingness of air, who experienced so passionate a preference for the whole gamut, the whole palette, of spring, of temperate climates and of youth and childhood; a person who felt existence in the terms of its delicate vigour and its restorative austerity, was bound to become, like Plato, a teacher of self-discipline and self-harmony. Indeed, who can tell whether the teachings of Mr. Pater's maturity—the insistance on scrupulously disciplined activity, on cleanness and clearness of thought and feeling, on the harmony attainable only through moderation, the intensity attainable only through effort—who can tell whether this abstract part of his doctrine would affect, as it does, all kindred spirits if the mood had not been prepared by some of those descriptions of visible scenes—the spring morning above the Catacombs, the Valley of Sparta, the paternal house of Marius, and that temple of AEsculapius with its shining rhythmical waters—which attune our whole being, like the music of the Lady in Comus, to modes of sober certainty of waking bliss?
This inborn affinity for refined wholesomeness made Mr. Pater the natural exponent of the highest aesthetic doctrine—the search for harmony throughout all orders of existence. It gave the nucleus of what was his soul's synthesis, his system (as Emerson puts it) of rejection and acceptance. Supreme craftsman as he was, it protected him from the craftsman's delusion—rife under the inappropriate name of "art for art's sake" in these uninstinctive, over-dextrous days—that subtle treatment can dignify all subjects equally, and that expression, irrespective of the foregoing impression in the artist and the subsequent impression in the audience, is the aim of art. Standing as he did, as all the greatest artists and thinkers (and he was both) do, in a definite, inevitable relation to the universe—the equation between himself and it—he was utterly unable to turn his powers of perception and expression to idle and irresponsible exercises; and his conception of art, being the outcome of his whole personal mode of existence, was inevitably one of art, not for art's sake, but of art for the sake of life—art as one of the harmonious functions of existence.
Harmonious, and in a sense harmonising. For, as I have said, he rose from the conception of physical health and congruity to the conception of health and congruity in matters of the spirit; the very thirst for healthiness, which means congruity, and congruity which implies health, forming the vital and ever-expanding connection between the two orders of phenomena. Two orders, did I say? Surely to the intuition of this artist and thinker, the fundamental unity—the unity between man's relations with external nature, with his own thoughts and with others' feelings—stood revealed as the secret of the highest aesthetics.
This which we guess at as the completion of Walter Pater's message, alas! must remain for ever a matter of surmise. The completion, the rounding of his doctrine, can take place only in the grateful appreciation of his readers. We have been left with unfinished systems, fragmentary, sometimes enigmatic, utterances. Let us meditate their wisdom and vibrate with their beauty; and, in the words of the prayer of Socrates to the Nymphs and to Pan, ask for beauty in the inward soul, and congruity between the inner and the outer man; and reflect in such manner the gifts of great art and of great thought in our soul's depths. For art and thought arise from life; and to life, as principle of harmony, they must return.
Many years ago, in the fulness of youth and ambition, I was allowed, by him whom I already reverenced as a master, to write the name of Walter Pater on the flyleaf of a book which embodied my beliefs and hopes as a writer. And now, seeing books from the point of view of the reader, I can find no fitter ending to this present volume than to express what all we readers have gained, and lost, alas! in this great master.
Printed by BALLANTYNE, HANSON & CO. Edinburgh and London
The following changes have been made to the text:
and will bare (...) new and will bear (...) new spiritual wonders spiritual wonders
per speculum et aenigmata per speculum in aenigmate
In was in this church that It was in this church that