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|Table of Contents|
|Start of eBook||1|
|SKETCHES AND STUDIES IN ITALY AND GREECE||1|
|SIGISMONDO PANDOLFO MALATESTA AND LEO BATTISTA ALBERTI||9|
|FROM ROME TO TERNI||20|
|THE CASCADES OF TERNI||21|
|EASTER MORNING AT ASSISI||27|
|FROM GUBBIO TO FANO||34|
|AND THE TRAGEDY OF WEBSTER||54|
|II.—OVER THE APENNINES||80|
|BOOK I. STANZAS 17-21.||202|
|ON THE PAPAL COURT AT AVIGNON||217|
|WRITTEN FROM VAUCLUSE||218|
|ON LEAVING AVIGNON||218|
|THOUGHTS IN ABSENCE||218|
|IN MORTE DI MADONNA LAURA. XXIV||219|
|IN MORTE DI MADONNA LAURA. LXXIV||219|
The Emperor Augustus chose Ravenna for one of his two naval stations, and in course of time a new city arose by the sea-shore, which received the name of Portus Classis. Between this harbour and the mother city a third town sprang up, and was called Caesarea. Time and neglect, the ravages of war, and the encroaching powers of Nature have destroyed these settlements, and nothing now remains of the three cities but Ravenna. It would seem that in classical times Ravenna stood, like modern Venice, in the centre of a huge lagune, the fresh waters of the Ronco and the Po mixing with the salt waves of the Adriatic round its very walls. The houses of the city were built on piles; canals instead of streets formed the means of communication, and these were always filled with water artificially conducted from the southern estuary of the Po. Round Ravenna extended a vast morass, for the most part under shallow water, but rising at intervals into low islands like the Lido or Murano or Torcello which surround Venice. These islands were celebrated for their fertility: the vines and fig-trees and pomegranates, springing from a fat and fruitful soil, watered with constant moisture, and fostered by a mild sea-wind and liberal sunshine, yielded crops that for luxuriance and quality surpassed the harvests of any orchards on the mainland. All the conditions of life in old Ravenna seem to have resembled those of modern Venice; the people went about in gondolas, and in the early morning barges laden with fresh fruit or meat and vegetables flocked from all quarters to the city of the sea. Water also had to be procured from the neighbouring shore, for, as Martial says, a well at Ravenna was more valuable than a vineyard. Again, between the city and the mainland ran a long low causeway all across the lagune like that on which the trains now glide into Venice. Strange to say, the air of Ravenna was remarkably salubrious: this fact, and the ease of life that prevailed there, and the security afforded by the situation of the town, rendered it a most desirable retreat for the monarchs of Italy during those troublous times in which the empire nodded to its fall. Honorius retired to its lagunes for safety; Odoacer, who dethroned the last Caesar of the West, succeeded him; and was in turn, supplanted by Theodoric the Ostrogoth. Ravenna, as we see it now, recalls the peaceful and half-Roman rule of the great Gothic king. His palace, his churches, and the mausoleums in which his daughter Amalasuntha laid the hero’s bones, have survived the sieges of Belisarius and Astolphus, the conquest of Pepin, the bloody quarrels of Iconoclasts with the children of the Roman Church, the mediaeval wars of Italy, the victory of Gaston de Foix, and still stand gorgeous with marbles and mosaics in spite of time and the decay of all around them.
As early as the sixth century, the sea had already retreated to such a distance from Ravenna that orchards and gardens were cultivated on the spot where once the galleys of the Caesars rode at anchor. Groves of pines sprang up along the shore, and in their lofty tops the music of the wind moved like the ghost of waves and breakers plunging upon distant sands. This Pinetum stretches along the shore of the Adriatic for about forty miles, forming a belt of variable width between the great marsh and the tumbling sea. From a distance the bare stems and velvet crowns of the pine-trees stand up like palms that cover an oasis on Arabian sands; but at a nearer view the trunks detach themselves from an inferior forest-growth of juniper and thorn and ash and oak, the tall roofs of the stately firs shooting their breadth of sheltering greenery above the lower and less sturdy brushwood. It is hardly possible to imagine a more beautiful and impressive scene than that presented by these long alleys of imperial pines. They grow so thickly one behind another, that we might compare them to the pipes of a great organ, or the pillars of a Gothic church, or the basaltic columns of the Giant’s Causeway. Their tops are evergreen and laden with the heavy cones, from which Ravenna draws considerable wealth. Scores of peasants are quartered on the outskirts of the forest, whose business it is to scale the pines and rob them of their fruit at certain seasons of the year. Afterwards they dry the fir-cones in the sun, until the nuts which they contain fall out. The empty husks are sold for firewood, and the kernels in their stony shells reserved for exportation. You may see the peasants, men, women, and boys, sorting them by millions, drying and sifting them upon the open spaces of the wood, and packing them in sacks to send abroad through Italy. The pinocchi or kernels of the stone-pine are largely used in cookery, and those of Ravenna are prized for their good quality and aromatic flavour. When roasted or pounded, they taste like a softer and more mealy kind of almonds. The task of gathering this harvest is not a little dangerous. Men have to cut notches in the straight shafts, and having climbed, often to the height of eighty feet, to lean upon the branches, and detach the fir-cones with a pole—and this for every tree. Some lives, they say, are yearly lost in the business.
As may be imagined, the spaces of this great forest form the haunt of innumerable living creatures. Lizards run about by myriads in the grass. Doves coo among the branches of the pines, and nightingales pour their full-throated music all day and night from thickets of white-thorn and acacia. The air is sweet with aromatic scents: the resin of the pine and juniper, the mayflowers and acacia-blossoms, the violets that spring by thousands in the moss, the wild roses and faint honeysuckles which throw fragrant arms from bough to bough of ash or maple, join to make one most delicious perfume. And though
You may ride or drive for miles along green aisles between the pines in perfect solitude; and yet the creatures of the wood, the sunlight and the birds, the flowers and tall majestic columns at your side, prevent all sense of loneliness or fear. Huge oxen haunt the wilderness—grey creatures, with mild eyes and spreading horns and stealthy tread. Some are patriarchs of the forest, the fathers and the mothers of many generations who have been carried from their sides to serve in ploughs or waggons on the Lombard plain. Others are yearling calves, intractable and ignorant of labour. In order to subdue them to the yoke, it is requisite to take them very early from their native glades, or else they chafe and pine away with weariness. Then there is a sullen canal, which flows through the forest from the marshes to the sea; it is alive with frogs and newts and snakes. You may see these serpents basking on the surface among thickets of the flowering rush, or coiled about the lily leaves and flowers—lithe monsters, slippery and speckled, the tyrants of the fen.
It is said that when Dante was living at Ravenna he would spend whole days alone among the forest glades, thinking of Florence and her civil wars, and meditating cantos of his poem. Nor have the influences of the pine-wood failed to leave their trace upon his verse. The charm of its summer solitude seems to have sunk into his soul; for when he describes the whispering of winds and singing birds among the boughs of his terrestrial paradise, he says:—
Non pero dal lor esser dritto sparte
Tanto, che gli augelletti per le cime
Lasciasser d’ operare ogni lor arte:
Ma con piena letizia l’ aure prime,
Cantando, ricevano intra le foglie,
Che tenevan bordone alle sue rime
Tal, qual di ramo in ramo si raccoglie
Per la pineta in sul lito di Chiassi
Quand’ Eolo Scirocco fuor discioglie.
With these verses in our minds, while wandering down the grassy aisles, beside the waters of the solitary place, we seem to meet that lady singing as she went, and plucking flower by flower, ’like Proserpine when Ceres lost a daughter, and she lost her spring.’ There, too, the vision of the griffin and the car, of singing maidens, and of Beatrice descending to the sound of Benedictus and of falling flowers, her flaming robe and mantle green as grass, and veil of white, and olive crown, all flashed upon the poet’s inner eye, and he remembered how he bowed before her when a boy. There is yet another passage in which it is difficult to believe that Dante had not the pine-forest in his mind. When Virgil and the poet were waiting in anxiety before the gates of Dis, when the Furies on the wall were tearing their breasts and crying, ’Venga Medusa, e si ’l farem di smalto,’ suddenly across the hideous river came a sound like that which whirlwinds make among the shattered branches and bruised stems of forest-trees; and Dante, looking out with fear upon the foam and spray and vapour of the flood, saw thousands of the damned flying before the face of one who forded Styx with feet unwet. ‘Like frogs,’ he says, ’they fled, who scurry through the water at the sight of their foe, the serpent, till each squats and hides himself close to the ground.’ The picture of the storm among the trees might well have occurred to Dante’s mind beneath the roof of pine-boughs. Nor is there any place in which the simile of the frogs and water-snake attains such dignity and grandeur. I must confess that till I saw the ponds and marshes of Ravenna, I used to fancy that the comparison was somewhat below the greatness of the subject; but there so grave a note of solemnity and desolation is struck, the scale of Nature is so large, and the serpents coiling in and out among the lily leaves and flowers are so much in their right place, that they suggest a scene by no means unworthy of Dante’s conception.
Nor is Dante the only singer who has invested this wood with poetical associations. It is well known that Boccaccio laid his story of ‘Honoria’ in the pine-forest, and every student of English literature must be familiar with the noble tale in verse which Dryden has founded on this part of the ‘Decameron.’ We all of us have followed Theodore, and watched with him the tempest swelling in the grove, and seen the hapless ghost pursued by demon hounds and hunter down the glades. This story should be read while storms are gathering upon the distant sea, or thunderclouds descending from the Apennines, and when the pines begin to rock and surge beneath the stress of labouring winds. Then runs the sudden flash of lightning like a rapier through the boughs, the rain streams hissing down, and the thunder ’breaks like a whole sea overhead.’
With the Pinetum the name of Byron will be for ever associated. During his two years’ residence in Ravenna he used to haunt its wilderness, riding alone or in the company of friends. The inscription placed above the entrance to the house he occupied alludes to it as one of the objects which principally attracted the poet to the neighbourhood of Ravenna: ‘Impaziente di visitare l’ antica selva, che inspiro gia il Divino e Giovanni Boccaccio.’ We know, however, that a more powerful attraction, in the person of the Countess Guiccioli, maintained his fidelity to ’that place of old renown, once in the Adrian Sea, Ravenna.’
Between the Bosco, as the people of Ravenna call this pine-wood, and the city, the marsh stretches for a distance of about three miles. It is a plain intersected by dykes and ditches, and mapped out into innumerable rice-fields. For more than half a year it lies under water, and during the other months exhales a pestilential vapour, which renders it as uninhabitable as the Roman Campagna; yet in springtime this dreary flat is even beautiful. The young blades of the rice shoot up above the water, delicately green and tender. The ditches are lined with flowering rush and golden flags, while white and yellow lilies sleep in myriads upon the silent pools. Tamarisks wave their pink and silver tresses by the road, and wherever a plot of mossy earth emerges from the marsh, it gleams with purple orchises and flaming marigolds; but the soil beneath is so treacherous and spongy, that these splendid blossoms grow like flowers in dreams or fairy stories. You try in vain to pick them; they elude your grasp, and flourish in security beyond the reach of arm or stick.
Such is the sight of the old town of Classis. Not a vestige of the Roman city remains, not a dwelling or a ruined tower, nothing but the ancient church of S. Apollinare in Classe. Of all desolate buildings this is the most desolate. Not even the deserted grandeur of S. Paolo beyond the walls of Rome can equal it. Its bare round campanile gazes at the sky, which here vaults only sea and plain—a perfect dome, star-spangled like the roof of Galla Placidia’s tomb. Ravenna lies low to west, the pine-wood stretches away in long monotony to east. There is nothing else to be seen except the spreading marsh, bounded by dim snowy Alps and purple Apennines, so very far away that the level rack of summer clouds seem more attainable and real. What sunsets and sunrises that tower must see; what glaring lurid afterglows in August, when the red light scowls upon the pestilential fen; what sheets of sullen vapour rolling over it in autumn; what breathless heats, and rainclouds big with thunder; what silences; what unimpeded blasts of winter winds! One old monk tends this deserted spot. He has the huge church, with its echoing aisles and marble columns and giddy bell-tower and cloistered corridors, all to himself. At rare intervals, priests from Ravenna come to sing some special
Another monument upon the plain is worthy of a visit. It is the so-called Colonna dei Francesi, a cinquecento pillar of Ionic design, erected on the spot where Gaston de Foix expired victorious after one of the bloodiest battles ever fought. The Ronco, a straight sluggish stream, flows by the lonely spot; mason bees have covered with laborious stucco-work the scrolls and leafage of its ornaments, confounding epitaphs and trophies under their mud houses. A few cypress-trees stand round it, and the dogs and chickens of a neighbouring farmyard make it their rendezvous. Those mason bees are like posterity, which settles down upon the ruins of a Baalbec or a Luxor, setting up its tents, and filling the fair spaces of Hellenic or Egyptian temples with clay hovels. Nothing differs but the scale; and while the bees content themselves with filling up and covering, man destroys the silent places of the past which he appropriates.
In Ravenna itself, perhaps what strikes us most is the abrupt transition everywhere discernible from monuments of vast antiquity to buildings of quite modern date. There seems to be no interval between the marbles and mosaics of Justinian or Theodoric and the insignificant frippery of the last century. The churches of Ravenna—S. Vitale, S. Apollinare, and the rest—are too well known, and have been too often described by enthusiastic antiquaries, to need a detailed notice in this place. Every one is aware that the ecclesiastical customs and architecture of the early Church can be studied in greater perfection here than elsewhere. Not even the basilicas and mosaics of Rome, nor those of Palermo and Monreale, are equal for historical interest to those of Ravenna. Yet there is not one single church which remains entirely unaltered and unspoiled. The imagination has to supply the atrium or outer portico from one building, the vaulted baptistery with its marble font from another, the pulpits and ambones from a third the tribune from a fourth, the round brick bell-tower from a fifth, and then to cover all the concave roofs and chapel walls with grave and glittering mosaics.
There is nothing more beautiful in decorative art than the mosaics of such tiny buildings as the tomb of Galla Placidia or the chapel of the Bishop’s Palace. They are like jewelled and enamelled cases; not an inch of wall can be seen which is not covered with elaborate patterns of the brightest colours. Tall date-palms spring from the floor with fruit and birds among their branches, and between them stand the pillars and apostles of the Church. In the spandrels and lunettes above the arches and the windows angels fly with white extended wings. On every vacant place are scrolls and arabesques of foliage,—birds and beasts, doves drinking from the vase, and peacocks spreading gorgeous plumes—a maze of green and gold and blue. Overhead, the vault is powdered with stars gleaming upon the deepest azure, and in the midst is set an aureole embracing the majestic head of Christ, or else the symbol of the sacred fish, or the hand of the Creator pointing from a cloud. In Galla Placidia’s tomb these storied vaults spring above the sarcophagi of empresses and emperors, each lying in the place where he was laid more than twelve centuries ago. The light which struggles through the narrow windows serves to harmonise the brilliant hues and make a gorgeous gloom.
Besides these more general and decorative subjects, many of the churches are adorned with historical mosaics, setting forth the Bible narrative or incidents from the life of Christian emperors and kings. In S. Apollinare Nuovo there is a most interesting treble series of such mosaics extending over both walls of the nave. On the left hand, as we enter, we see the town of Classis; on the right the palace of Theodoric, its doors and loggie rich with curtains, and its friezes blazing with coloured ornaments. From the city
Generally speaking, one is struck with the dignity of these designs, and especially with the combined majesty and sweetness of the face of Christ. The sense for harmony of hue displayed in their composition is marvellous. It would be curious to trace in detail the remnants of classical treatment which may be discerned—Jordan, for instance, pours his water from an urn like a river-god crowned with sedge—or to show what points of ecclesiastical tradition are established these ancient monuments. We find Mariolatry already imminent, the names of the three kings, Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, the four evangelists as we now recognise them, and many of the rites and vestments which Ritualists of all denominations regard with superstitious reverence.
There are two sepulchral monuments in Ravenna which cannot be passed over unnoticed. The one is that of Theodoric the Goth, crowned by its semisphere of solid stone, a mighty tomb, well worthy of the conqueror and king. It stands in a green field, surrounded by acacias, where the nightingales sing ceaselessly in May. The mason bees have covered it, and the water has invaded its sepulchral vaults. In spite of many trials, it seems that human art is unable to pump out the pond and clear the frogs and efts from the chamber where the great Goth was laid by Amalasuntha.
The other is Dante’s temple, with its basrelief and withered garlands. The story of his burial, and of the discovery of his real tomb, is fresh in the memory of every one. But the ’little cupola, more neat than solemn,’ of which Lord Byron speaks, will continue to be the goal of many a pilgrimage. For myself—though I remember Chateaubriand’s bareheaded genuflection on its threshold, Alfieri’s passionate prostration at the altar-tomb, and Byron’s offering of poems on the poet’s shrine—I confess that a single canto of the ‘Inferno,’ a single passage of the ‘Vita Nuova,’ seems more full of soul-stirring associations than the place where, centuries ago, the mighty dust was laid. It is the spirit that lives and makes alive. And Dante’s spirit seems more present with us under the pine-branches of the Bosco than beside his real or fancied tomb. ’He is risen,’—’Lo, I am with you alway’—these are the words that ought to haunt us in a burying-ground. There is something affected and self-conscious in overpowering grief or enthusiasm or humiliation at a tomb.
* * * * *
Rimini is a city of about 18,000 souls, famous for its Stabilmento de’ Bagni and its antiquities, seated upon the coast of the Adriatic, a little to the south-east of the world-historical Rubicon. It is our duty to mention the baths first among its claims to distinction, since the prosperity and cheerfulness of the little town depend on them in a great measure. But visitors from the north will fly from these, to marvel at the bridge which Augustus built and Tiberius completed, and which still spans the Marecchia with five gigantic arches of white Istrian limestone, as solidly as if it had not borne the tramplings of at least three conquests. The triumphal arch, too, erected in honour of Augustus, is a notable monument of Roman architecture. Broad, ponderous, substantial, tufted here and there with flowering weeds, and surmounted with mediaeval machicolations, proving it to have sometimes stood for city gate or fortress, it contrasts most favourably with the slight and somewhat gimcrack arch of Trajan in the sister city of Ancona. Yet these remains of the imperial pontifices, mighty and interesting as they are, sink into comparative insignificance beside the one great wonder of Rimini, the cathedral remodelled for Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta by Leo Battista Alberti in 1450. This strange church, one of the earliest extant buildings in which the Neopaganism of the Renaissance showed itself in full force, brings together before our memory two men who might be chosen as typical in their contrasted characters of the transitional age which gave them birth.
No one with any tincture of literary knowledge is ignorant of the fame at least of the great Malatesta family—the house of the Wrongheads, as they were rightly called by some prevision of their future part in Lombard history. The readers of the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth cantos of the ‘Inferno’ have all heard of
E il mastin vecchio e il nuovo da Verucchio
Che fecer di Montagna il mal governo,
while the story of Francesca da Polenta, who was wedded to the hunchback Giovanni Malatesta and murdered by him with her lover Paolo, is known not merely to students of Dante, but to readers of Byron and Leigh Hunt, to admirers of Flaxman, Ary Scheffer, Dore—to all, in fact, who have of art and letters any love.
The history of these Malatesti, from their first establishment under Otho III. as lieutenants for the Empire in the Marches of Ancona, down to their final subjugation by the Papacy in the age of the Renaissance, is made up of all the vicissitudes which could befall a mediaeval Italian despotism. Acquiring an unlawful right over the towns of Rimini, Cesena, Sogliano, Ghiacciuolo, they ruled their petty principalities like tyrants by the help of the Guelf and Ghibelline factions, inclining to the one or the other as it suited their humour or their interest, wrangling among themselves, transmitting the succession of their dynasty through bastards and by deeds of force, quarrelling with their neighbours the Counts of Urbino, alternately defying and submitting to the Papal legates in Romagna, serving as condottieri in the wars of the Visconti and the state of Venice, and by their restlessness and genius for military intrigues contributing in no slight measure to the general disturbance of Italy. The Malatesti were a race of strongly marked character: more, perhaps, than any other house of Italian tyrants, they combined for generations those qualities of the fox and the lion, which Machiavelli thought indispensable to a successful despot. Son after son, brother with brother, they continued to be fierce and valiant soldiers, cruel in peace, hardy in war, but treasonable and suspicious in all transactions that could not be settled by the sword. Want of union, with them as with the Baglioni and many other of the minor noble families in Italy, prevented their founding a substantial dynasty. Their power, based on force, was maintained by craft and crime, and transmitted through tortuous channels by intrigue. While false in their dealings with the world at large, they were diabolical in the perfidy with which they treated one another. No feudal custom, no standard of hereditary right, ruled the succession in their family. Therefore the ablest Malatesta for the moment clutched what he could of the domains that owned his house for masters. Partitions among sons or brothers, mutually hostile and suspicious, weakened the whole stock. Yet they were great enough to hold their own for centuries among the many tyrants who infested Lombardy. That the other princely families of Romagna, Emilia, and the March were in the same state of internal discord and dismemberment, was probably one reason why the Malatesti stood their ground so firmly as they did.
So far as Rimini is concerned, the house of Malatesta culminated in Sigismondo Pandolfo, son of Gian Galeazzo Visconti’s general, the perfidious Pandolfo. It was he who built the Rocca, or castle of the despots, which stands a little way outside the town, commanding a fair view of Apennine tossed hill-tops and broad Lombard plain, and who remodelled the Cathedral of S. Francis on a plan suggested by the greatest genius of the age. Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta was one of the strangest products of the earlier Renaissance. To enumerate the crimes which he committed within the sphere of his own family, mysterious and inhuman outrages which render the tale of the Cenci credible, would violate the decencies of literature. A thoroughly bestial nature gains thus much with posterity that its worst qualities must be passed by in silence. It is enough to mention that he murdered three wives in succession, Bussoni di Carmagnuola, Guinipera d’Este, and Polissena Sforza, on various pretexts of infidelity, and carved horns upon his own tomb with this fantastic legend underneath:—
Porto le corna ch’ ognuno le vede,
E tal le porta che non se lo crede.
He died in wedlock with the beautiful and learned Isotta degli Atti, who had for some time been his mistress. But, like most of the Malatesti, he left no legitimate offspring. Throughout his life he was distinguished for bravery and cunning, for endurance of fatigue and rapidity of action, for an almost fretful rashness in the execution of his schemes, and for a character terrible in its violence. He was acknowledged as a great general; yet nothing succeeded with him. The long warfare which he carried on against the Duke of Montefeltro ended in his discomfiture. Having begun by defying the Holy See, he was impeached at Rome for heresy, parricide, incest, adultery, rape, and sacrilege, burned in effigy by Pope Pius II., and finally restored to the bosom of the Church, after suffering the despoliation of almost all his territories, in 1463. The occasion on which this fierce and turbulent despiser of laws human and divine was forced to kneel as a penitent before the Papal legate in the gorgeous temple dedicated to his own pride, in order that the ban of excommunication might be removed from Rimini, was one of those petty triumphs, interesting chiefly for their picturesqueness, by which the Popes confirmed their questionable rights over the cities of Romagna. Sigismondo, shorn of his sovereignty, took the command of the Venetian troops against the Turks in the Morea, and returned in 1465, crowned with laurels, to die at Rimini in the scene of his old splendour.
A very characteristic incident belongs to this last act of his life. Dissolute, treacherous, and inhuman as he was, the tyrant of Rimini had always encouraged literature, and delighted in the society of artists. He who could brook no contradiction from a prince or soldier, allowed the pedantic scholars of the sixteenth century to dictate to him in matters of taste, and sat with exemplary humility at the feet of Latinists like Porcellio, Basinio, and Trebanio. Valturio, the engineer, and Alberti, the architect, were his familiar friends; and the best hours of his life were spent in conversation with these men. Now that he found himself upon the sacred soil of Greece, he was determined not to return to Italy empty-handed. Should he bring manuscripts or marbles, precious vases or inscriptions in half-legible Greek character? These relics were greedily sought for by the potentates of Italian cities; and no doubt Sigismondo enriched his library with some such treasures. But he obtained a nobler prize—nothing less than the body of a saint of scholarship, the authentic bones of the great Platonist, Gemisthus Pletho. These he exhumed from their Greek grave and caused them to be deposited in a stone sarcophagus outside the cathedral of his building in Rimini. The Venetians, when they stole the body of S. Mark from Alexandria, were scarcely more pleased than was Sigismondo with the acquisition of this Father of the Neopagan faith. Upon the tomb we still may read this legend: ’Jemisthii Bizantii philosopher sua temp principis reliquum Sig. Pan. Mal. Pan. F. belli Pelop adversus Turcor regem Imp ob ingentem eruditorum quo flagrat amorem huc afferendum introque mittendum curavit MCCCCLXVI.’ Of the Latinity of the inscription much cannot be said; but it means that ’Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, having served as general against the Turks in the Morea, induced by the great love with which he burns for all learned men, brought and placed here the remains of Gemisthus of Byzantium, the prince of the philosophers of his day.’
Sigismondo’s portrait, engraved on medals, and sculptured upon every frieze and point of vantage in the Cathedral of Rimini, well denotes the man. His face is seen in profile. The head, which is low and flat above the forehead, rising swiftly backward from the crown, carries a thick bushy shock of hair curling at the ends, such as the Italians call a zazzera. The eye is deeply sunk, with long venomous flat eyelids, like those which Leonardo gives to his most wicked faces. The nose is long and crooked, curved like a vulture’s over a petulant mouth, with lips deliberately pressed together, as though it were necessary to control some nervous twitching. The cheek is broad, and its bone is strongly marked. Looking at these features in repose, we cannot but picture to our fancy what expression they might assume under a sudden fit of fury, when the sinews of the face were contracted with quivering spasms, and the lips writhed in sympathy with knit forehead and wrinkled eyelids.
Allusion has been made to the Cathedral of S. Francis at Rimini, as the great ornament of the town, and the chief monument of Sigismondo’s fame. It is here that all the Malatesti lie. Here too is the chapel consecrated to Isotta, ‘Divae Isottae Sacrum;’ and the tombs of the Malatesta ladies, ‘Malatestorum domus heroidum sepulchrum;’ and Sigismondo’s own grave with the cuckold’s horns and scornful epitaph. Nothing but the fact that the church is duly dedicated to S. Francis, and that its outer shell of classic marble encases an old Gothic edifice, remains to remind us that it is a Christian place of worship. It has no sanctity, no spirit of piety. The pride of the tyrant whose legend—’Sigismundus Pandulphus Malatesta Pan. F. Fecit Anno Gratiae MCCCCL’—occupies every arch and stringcourse of the architecture, and whose coat-of-arms and portrait in medallion, with his cipher and his emblems of an elephant and a rose, are wrought in every piece of sculptured work throughout the building, seems so to fill this house of prayer that there is no room left for God. Yet the Cathedral of Rimini remains a monument of first-rate importance for all students who seek to penetrate the revived Paganism of the fifteenth century. It serves also to bring a far more interesting Italian of that period than the tyrant of Rimini himself, before our notice.
In the execution of his design, Sigismondo received the assistance of one of the most remarkable men of this or any other age. Leo Battista Alberti, a scion of the noble Florentine house of that name, born during the exile of his parents, and educated in the Venetian territory, was endowed by nature with aptitudes, faculties, and sensibilities so varied, as to deserve the name of universal genius. Italy in the Renaissance period was rich in natures of this sort, to whom nothing that is strange or beautiful seemed unfamiliar, and who, gifted with a kind of divination, penetrated the secrets of the world by sympathy. To Pico della Mirandola, Lionardo da Vinci, and Michel Agnolo Buonarroti may be added Leo Battista Alberti. That he achieved less than his great compeers, and that he now exists as the shadow of a mighty name, was the effect of circumstances. He came half a century too early into the world, and worked as a pioneer rather than a settler of the realm which Lionardo ruled as his demesne. Very early in his boyhood Alberti showed the versatility of his talents. The use of arms, the management of horses, music, painting, modelling for sculpture, mathematics, classical and modern literature, physical science as then comprehended, and all the bodily exercises proper to the estate of a young nobleman, were at his command. His biographer asserts that he was never idle, never subject to ennui or fatigue. He used to say that books at times gave him the same pleasure as brilliant jewels or perfumed flowers: hunger and sleep could not keep him from them then. At other times the letters on the page appeared to
In this, as in many other of his instincts, Alberti was before his age. To care for the beauties of landscape unadorned by art, and to sympathise with sublime or rugged scenery, was not in the spirit of the Renaissance. Humanity occupied the attention of poets and painters; and the age was yet far distant when the pantheistic feeling for the world should produce the art of Wordsworth and of Turner. Yet a few great natures even then began to comprehend the charm and mystery which the Greeks had imaged in their Pan, the sense of an all-pervasive spirit in wild places, the feeling of a hidden want, the invisible tie which makes man a part of rocks and woods and streams around him. Petrarch had already ascended the summit of Mont Ventoux, to meditate, with an exaltation of the soul he scarcely understood, upon the scene spread at his feet and above his head. AEneas Sylvius Piccolomini delighted in wild places for no mere pleasure of the chase, but for the joy he took in communing with nature. How S. Francis found God in the sun and the air, the water and the stars, we know by his celebrated hymn; and of Dante’s acute observation, every canto of the ‘Divine Comedy’ is witness.
Leo Alberti was touched in spirit by even a deeper and a stranger pathos than any of these men: ’In the early spring, when he beheld the meadows and hills covered with flowers, and saw the trees and plants of all kinds bearing promise of fruit, his heart became exceeding sorrowful; and when in autumn he looked on fields heavy with harvest and orchards apple-laden, he felt such grief that many even saw him weep for the sadness of his soul.’ It would seem that he scarcely understood the source of this sweet trouble: for at such times he compared the sloth and inutility of men with the industry and fertility of nature; as though this were the secret of his melancholy. A poet of our century has noted the same stirring of the spirit, and has striven to account for it:—
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
Both Alberti and Tennyson have connected the mal du pays of the human soul for that ancient country of its birth, the mild Saturnian earth from which we sprang, with a sense of loss. It is the waste of human energy that affects Alberti; the waste of human life touches the modern poet. Yet both perhaps have scarcely interpreted their own spirit; for is not the true source of tears deeper and more secret? Man is a child of nature in the simplest sense; and the stirrings of the secular breasts that gave him suck, and on which he even now must hang, have potent influences over his emotions.
Of Alberti’s extraordinary sensitiveness to all such impressions many curious tales are told. The sight of refulgent jewels, of flowers, and of fair landscapes, had the same effect upon his nerves as the sound of the Dorian mood upon the youths whom Pythagoras cured of passion by music. He found in them an anodyne for pain, a restoration from sickness. Like Walt Whitman, who adheres to nature by closer and more vital sympathy than any other poet of the modern world, Alberti felt the charm of excellent old age no less than that of florid youth. ’On old men gifted with a noble presence and hale and vigorous, he gazed again and again, and said that he revered in them the delights of nature (naturae delitias).’ Beasts and birds and all living creatures moved him to admiration for the grace with which they had been gifted, each in his own kind. It is even said that he composed a funeral oration for a dog which he had loved and which died.
To this sensibility for all fair things in nature, Alberti added the charm of a singularly sweet temper and graceful conversation. The activity of his mind, which was always being exercised on subjects of grave speculation, removed him from the noise and bustle of commonplace society. He was somewhat silent, inclined to solitude, and of a pensive countenance; yet no man found him difficult of access: his courtesy was exquisite, and among familiar friends he was noted for the flashes of a delicate and subtle wit. Collections were made of his apophthegms by friends, and some are recorded by his anonymous biographer. Their finer perfume, as almost always happens with good sayings which do not certain the full pith of a proverb, but owe their force, in part at least, to the personality of their author, and to the happy moment of their production, has evanesced. Here, however, is one which seems still to bear the impress of Alberti’s genius: ’Gold is the soul of labour, and labour the slave of pleasure.’ Of women he used to say that their inconstancy was an antidote to their falseness; for if a woman could but persevere in what she undertook, all the fair works of men would be ruined. One of his strongest
After the first period of youth was over, Leo Battista Alberti devoted his great faculties and all his wealth of genius to the study of the law—then, as now, the quicksand of the noblest natures. The industry with which he applied himself to the civil and ecclesiastical codes broke his health. For recreation he composed a Latin comedy called ‘Philodoxeos,’ which imposed upon the judgment of scholars, and was ascribed as a genuine antique to Lepidus, the comic poet. Feeling stronger, Alberti returned at the age of twenty to his law studies, and pursued them in the teeth of disadvantages. His health was still uncertain, and the fortune of an exile reduced him to the utmost want. It was no wonder that under these untoward circumstances even his Herculean strength gave way. Emaciated and exhausted, he lost the clearness of his eyesight, and became subject to arterial disturbances, which filled his ears with painful sounds. This nervous illness is not dissimilar to that which Rousseau describes in the confessions of his youth. In vain, however, his physicians warned Alberti of impending peril. A man of so much stanchness, accustomed to control his nature with an iron will, is not ready to accept advice. Alberti persevered in his studies, until at last the very seat of intellect was invaded. His memory began to fail him for names, while he still retained with wonderful accuracy whatever he had seen with his eyes. It was now impossible to think of law as a profession. Yet since he could not live without severe mental exercise, he had recourse to studies which tax the verbal memory less than the intuitive faculties of the reason. Physics and mathematics became his chief resource; and he devoted his energies to literature. His ‘Treatise on the Family’ may be numbered among the best of those compositions on social and speculative subjects in which the Italians of the Renaissance sought to rival Cicero. His essays on the arts are mentioned by Vasari with sincere approbation. Comedies, interludes, orations, dialogues, and poems flowed with abundance from his facile pen. Some were written in Latin, which he commanded more than fairly; some in the Tuscan tongue, of which owing to the long exile of his family in Lombardy, he is said to have been less a master. It was owing to this youthful illness, from which apparently his constitution never wholly recovered, that Alberti’s genius was directed to architecture.
Through his friendship with Flavio Biondo, the famous Roman antiquary, Alberti received an introduction to Nicholas V. at the time when this, the first great Pope of the Renaissance, was engaged in rebuilding the palaces and fortifications of Rome. Nicholas discerned the genius of the man, and employed him as his chief counsellor in all matters of architecture. When the Pope died, he was able, while reciting his long Latin will upon his deathbed, to boast that he had restored the Holy See to its due dignity, and the Eternal City to the splendour worthy of the seat of Christendom. The accomplishment of the second part of his work he owed to the genius of Alberti. After doing thus much for Rome under Thomas of Sarzana, and before beginning to beautify Florence at the instance of the Rucellai family, Alberti entered the service of the Malatesta, and undertook to remodel the Cathedral of S. Francis at Rimini. He found it a plain Gothic structure with apse and side chapels. Such churches are common enough in Italy, where pointed architecture never developed its true character of complexity and richness, but was doomed to the vast vacuity exemplified in S. Petronio of Bologna. He left it a strange medley of mediaeval and Renaissance work, a symbol of that dissolving scene in the world’s pantomime, when the spirit of classic art, as yet but little comprehended, was encroaching on the early Christian taste. Perhaps the mixture of styles so startling in S. Francesco ought not to be laid to the charge of Alberti, who had to execute the task of turning a Gothic into a classic building. All that he could do was to alter the whole exterior of the church, by affixing a screen-work of Roman arches and Corinthian pilasters, so as to hide the old design and yet to leave the main features of the fabric, the windows and doors especially, in statu quo. With the interior he dealt upon the same general principle, by not disturbing its structure, while he covered every available square inch of surface with decorations alien to the Gothic manner. Externally, S. Francesco is perhaps the most original and graceful of the many attempts made by Italian builders to fuse the mediaeval and the classic styles. For Alberti attempted nothing less. A century elapsed before Palladio, approaching the problem from a different point of view, restored the antique in its purity, and erected in the Palazzo della Ragione of Vicenza an almost unique specimen of resuscitated Roman art.
Internally, the beauty of the church is wholly due to its exquisite wall-ornaments. These consist for the most part of low reliefs in a soft white stone, many of them thrown out upon a blue ground in the style of Della Robbia. Allegorical figures designed with the purity of outline we admire in Botticelli, draperies that Burne-Jones might copy, troops of singing boys in the manner of Donatello, great angels traced upon the stone so delicately that they seem to be rather drawn than sculptured, statuettes in niches, personifications
Whatever be the merit of these reliefs, there is no doubt that they fairly represent one of the most interesting moments in the history of modern art. Gothic inspiration had failed; the early Tuscan style of the Pisani had been worked out; Michelangelo was yet far distant, and the abundance of classic models had not overwhelmed originality. The sculptors of the school of Ghiberti and Donatello, who are represented in this church, were essentially pictorial, preferring low to high relief, and relief in general to detached figures. Their style, like the style of Boiardo in poetry, of Botticelli in painting, is specific to Italy in the middle of the fifteenth century. Mediaeval standards of taste were giving way to classical, Christian sentiment to Pagan; yet the imitation of the antique had not been carried so far as to efface the spontaneity of the artist, and enough remained of Christian feeling to tinge the fancy with a grave and sweet romance. The sculptor had the skill and mastery to express his slightest shade of thought with freedom, spirit, and precision. Yet his work showed no sign of conventionality, no adherence to prescribed rules. Every outline, every fold of drapery, every attitude was pregnant, to the artist’s own mind at any rate, with meaning. In spite of its symbolism, what he wrought was never mechanically figurative, but gifted with the independence of its own beauty, vital with an inbreathed spirit of life. It was a happy moment, when art had reached consciousness, and the artist had not yet become self-conscious. The hand and the brain then really worked together for the procreation of new forms of grace, not for the repetition of old models, or for the invention of the strange and startling. ’Delicate, sweet, and captivating,’ are good adjectives to express the effect produced upon the mind by the contemplation even of the average work of this period.
To study the flowing lines of the great angels traced upon the walls of the Chapel of S. Sigismund in the Cathedral of Rimini, to follow the undulations of their drapery that seems to float, to feel the dignified urbanity of all their gestures, is like listening to one of those clear early Italian compositions for the voice, which surpasses in suavity of tone and grace of movement all that Music in her full-grown vigour has produced. There is indeed something infinitely charming in the crepuscular moments of the human mind. Whether it be the rathe loveliness of an art still immature, or the beauty of art upon the wane—whether, in fact, the twilight be of morning or of evening, we find in the masterpieces of such periods a placid calm and chastened pathos, as of a spirit self-withdrawn from vulgar cares, which in the full light of meridian splendour is lacking. In the Church of S. Francesco at Rimini the tempered clearness of the dawn is just about to broaden into day.
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MAY IN UMBRIA
We left Rome in clear sunset light. The Alban Hills defined themselves like a cameo of amethyst upon a pale blue distance; and over the Sabine Mountains soared immeasurable moulded domes of alabaster thunderclouds, casting deep shadows, purple and violet, across the slopes of Tivoli. To westward the whole sky was lucid, like some half-transparent topaz, flooded with slowly yellowing sunbeams. The Campagna has often been called a garden of wild-flowers. Just now poppy and aster, gladiolus and thistle, embroider it with patterns infinite and intricate beyond the power of art. They have already mown the hay in part; and the billowy tracts of greyish green, where no flowers are now in bloom, supply a restful groundwork to those brilliant patches of diapered fioriture. These are like praying-carpets spread for devotees upon the pavement of a mosque whose roof is heaven. In the level light the scythes of the mowers flash as we move past. From their bronzed foreheads the men toss masses of dark curls. Their muscular flanks and shoulders sway sideways from firm yet pliant reins. On one hill, fronting the sunset, there stands a herd of some thirty huge grey oxen, feeding and raising their heads to look at us, with just a flush of crimson on their horns and dewlaps. This is the scale of Mason’s and of Costa’s colouring. This is the breadth and magnitude of Rome.
Thus, through dells of ilex and oak, yielding now a glimpse of Tiber and S. Peter’s, now opening on a purple section of the distant Sabine Hills, we came to Monte Rotondo. The sun sank; and from the flames where he had perished, Hesper and the thin moon, very white and keen, grew slowly into sight. Now we follow the Tiber, a swollen, hurrying, turbid river, in which the mellowing Western sky reflects itself. This changeful mirror of swift waters
Through these celestial changes we glide into a landscape fit for Francia and the early Umbrian painters. Low hills to right and left; suavely modelled heights in the far distance; a very quiet width of plain, with slender trees ascending into the pellucid air; and down in the mystery of the middle distance a glimpse of heaven-reflecting water. The magic of the moon and stars lends enchantment to this scene. No painting could convey their influences. Sometimes both luminaries tremble, all dispersed and broken, on the swirling river. Sometimes they sleep above the calm cool reaches of a rush-grown mere. And here and there a ruined turret, with a broken window and a tuft of shrubs upon the rifted battlement, gives value to the fading pallor of the West. The last phase in the sunset is a change to blue-grey monochrome, faintly silvered with starlight; hills, Tiber, fields and woods, all floating in aerial twilight. There is no definition of outline now. The daffodil of the horizon has faded into scarcely perceptible pale greenish yellow.
We have passed Stimigliano. Through the mystery of darkness we hurry past the bridges of Augustus and the lights of Narni.
The Velino is a river of considerable volume which rises in the highest region of the Abruzzi, threads the upland valley of Rieti, and precipitates itself by an artificial channel over cliffs about seven hundred feet in height into the Nera. The water is densely charged with particles of lime. This calcareous matter not only tends continually to choke its bed, but clothes the precipices over which the torrent thunders with fantastic drapery of stalactite; and, carried on the wind in foam, incrusts the forests that surround the falls with fine white dust. These famous cascades are undoubtedly the most sublime and beautiful which Europe boasts; and their situation is worthy of so great a natural wonder. We reach them through a noble mid-Italian landscape, where the mountain forms are austere and boldly modelled, but the vegetation, both wild and cultivated, has something of the South-Italian richness. The hillsides are a labyrinth of box and arbutus, with coronilla in golden bloom. The turf is starred with cyclamens and orchises. Climbing the staircase paths beside the falls in morning sunlight, or stationed on the points of vantage that command their successive cataracts, we enjoyed a spectacle which might be compared in
The rich land of the Clitumnus is divided into meadows by transparent watercourses, gliding with a glassy current over swaying reeds. Through this we pass, and leave Bevagna to the right, and ascend one of those long gradual roads which climb the hills where all the cities of the Umbrians perch. The view expands, revealing Spello, Assisi, Perugia on its mountain buttress, and the far reaches northward of the Tiber valley. Then Trevi and Spoleto came into sight, and the severe hill-country above Gubbio in part disclosed itself. Over Spoleto the fierce witch-haunted heights of Norcia rose forbidding. This is the kind of panorama that dilates the soul. It is so large, so dignified, so beautiful in tranquil form. The opulent abundance of the plain contrasts with the severity of mountain ranges desolately grand; and the name of each of all those cities thrills the heart with memories.
The main object of a visit to Montefalco is to inspect its many excellent frescoes; painted histories of S. Francis and S. Jerome, by Benozzo Gozzoli; saints, angels, and Scripture episodes by the gentle Tiberio d’Assisi. Full justice had been done to these, when a little boy, seeing us lingering outside the church of S. Chiara, asked whether we should not like to view the body of the saint. This privilege could be purchased at the price of a small fee. It was only necessary to call the guardian of her shrine at the high altar. Indolent, and in compliant mood, with languid curiosity and half an hour to spare, we assented. A handsome young man appeared, who conducted us with decent gravity into a little darkened chamber behind the altar. There he lighted wax tapers, opened sliding doors in what looked like a long coffin, and drew curtains. Before us in the dim light there lay a woman covered with a black nun’s dress. Only her hands, and the exquisitely beautiful pale contour of her face (forehead, nose, mouth, and chin, modelled in purest outline, as though the injury of death had never touched her) were visible. Her closed eyes seemed to sleep. She had the perfect peace of Luini’s S. Catherine borne by the angels to her grave on Sinai. I have rarely
In the landscape of Raphael’s votive picture, known as the Madonna di Foligno, there is a town with a few towers, placed upon a broad plain at the edge of some blue hills. Allowing for that license as to details which imaginative masters permitted themselves in matters of subordinate importance, Raphael’s sketch is still true to Foligno. The place has not materially changed since the beginning of the sixteenth century. Indeed, relatively to the state of Italy at large, it is still the same as in the days of ancient Rome. Foligno forms a station of commanding interest between Rome and the Adriatic upon the great Flaminian Way. At Foligno the passes of the Apennines debouch into the Umbrian plain, which slopes gradually toward the valley of the Tiber, and from it the valley of the Nera is reached by an easy ascent beneath the walls of Spoleto. An army advancing from the north by the Metaurus and the Furlo Pass must find itself at Foligno; and the level champaign round the city is well adapted to the maintenance and exercises of a garrison. In the days of the Republic and the Empire, the value of this position was well understood; but Foligno’s importance, as the key to the Flaminian Way, was eclipsed by two flourishing cities in its immediate vicinity, Hispellum and Mevania, the modern Spello and Bevagna. We might hazard a conjecture that the Lombards, when they ruled the
My window in the city wall looks southward across the plain to Spoleto, with Montefalco perched aloft upon the right, and Trevi on its mountain-bracket to the left. From the topmost peaks of the Sabine Apennines, gradual tender sloping lines descend to find their quiet in the valley of Clitumnus. The space between me and that distance is infinitely rich with every sort of greenery, dotted here and there with towers and relics of baronial houses. The little town is in commotion; for the working men of Foligno and its neighbourhood have resolved to spend their earnings on a splendid festa—horse-races, and two nights of fireworks. The acacias and paulownias on the ramparts are in full bloom of creamy white and lilac. In the glare of Bengal lights these trees, with all their pendulous blossoms, surpassed the most fantastic of artificial decorations. The rockets sent aloft into the sky amid that solemn Umbrian landscape were nowise out of harmony with nature. I never sympathised with critics who resent the intrusion of fireworks upon scenes of natural beauty. The Giessbach, lighted up at so much per head on stated evenings, with a band playing and a crowd of cockneys staring, presents perhaps an incongruous spectacle. But where, as here at Foligno, a whole city has made itself a festival, where there are multitudes of citizens and soldiers and country-people slowly moving and gravely admiring, with the decency and order characteristic of an Italian crowd, I have nothing but a sense of satisfaction.
It is sometimes the traveller’s good fortune in some remote place to meet with an inhabitant who incarnates and interprets for him the genius loci as he has conceived it. Though his own subjectivity will assuredly play a considerable part in such an encounter, transferring to his chance acquaintance qualities he may not possess, and connecting this personality in some purely imaginative manner with thoughts derived from study, or impressions made by nature; yet the stranger will henceforth become the meeting-point of many memories, the central figure in a composition which derives from him its vividness. Unconsciously and innocently he has lent himself to the creation of a picture, and round him, as around the hero of a myth, have gathered thoughts and sentiments of which he had himself no knowledge. On one of these nights I had been threading the aisles of acacia-trees, now glaring red, now azure, as the Bengal lights kept changing. My mind instinctively went back to scenes of treachery and bloodshed in the olden time, when Gorrado Trinci paraded the mangled remnants of three hundred of his victims, heaped on mule-back, through Foligno, for a warning to the citizens. As the procession moved along the ramparts, I found myself in contest with a young man, who readily fell into conversation. He was very tall, with enormous breadth of shoulders, and long sinewy arms, like Michelangelo’s favourite models. His head was small, curled over with crisp black hair. Low forehead, and thick level eyebrows absolutely meeting over intensely bright fierce eyes. The nose descending straight from the brows, as in a statue of Hadrian’s age. The mouth full-lipped, petulant, and passionate above a firm round chin. He was dressed in the shirt, white trousers, and loose white jacket of a contadino; but he did not move with a peasant’s slouch, rather with the elasticity and alertness of an untamed panther. He told me that he was just about to join a cavalry regiment; and I could well imagine, when military dignity was added to that gait, how grandly he would go. This young man, of whom I heard nothing more after our half-hour’s conversation among the crackling fireworks and roaring cannon, left upon my mind an indescribable impression of dangerousness—of ’something fierce and terrible, eligible to burst forth.’ Of men like this, then, were formed the Companies of Adventure who flooded Italy with villany, ambition, and lawlessness in the fifteenth century. Gattamelata, who began life as a baker’s boy at Narni and ended it with a bronze statue by Donatello on the public square in Padua, was of this breed. Like this were the Trinci and their bands of murderers. Like this were the bravi who hunted Lorenzaccio to death at Venice. Like this was Pietro Paolo Baglioni, whose fault, in the eyes of Machiavelli, was that he could not succeed in being ‘perfettamente tristo.’ Beautiful, but inhuman; passionate, but cold; powerful, but rendered impotent for firm and lofty deeds by immorality and
Spello contains some not inconsiderable antiquities—the remains of a Roman theatre, a Roman gate with the heads of two men and a woman leaning over it, and some fragments of Roman sculpture scattered through its buildings. The churches, especially those of S.M. Maggiore and S. Francesco, are worth a visit for the sake of Pinturicchio. Nowhere, except in the Piccolomini Library at Siena, can that master’s work in fresco be better studied than here. The satisfaction with which he executed the wall paintings in S. Maria Maggiore is testified by his own portrait introduced upon a panel in the decoration of the Virgin’s chamber. The scrupulously rendered details of books, chairs, window seats, &c., which he here has copied, remind one of Carpaccio’s study of S. Benedict at Venice. It is all sweet, tender, delicate, and carefully finished; but without depth, not even the depth of Perugino’s feeling. In S. Francesco, Pinturicchio, with the same meticulous refinement, painted a letter addressed to him by Gentile Baglioni. It lies on a stool before Madonna and her court of saints. Nicety of execution, technical mastery of fresco as a medium for Dutch detail-painting, prettiness of composition, and cheerfulness of colouring, are noticeable throughout his work here rather than either thought or sentiment. S. Maria Maggiore can boast a fresco of Madonna between a young episcopal saint and Catherine of Alexandria from the hand of Perugino. The rich yellow harmony of its tones, and the graceful dignity of its emotion, conveyed no less by a certain Raphaelesque pose and outline than by suavity of facial expression, enable us to measure the distance between this painter and his quasi-pupil Pinturicchio.
We did not, however, drive to Spello to inspect either Roman antiquities or frescoes, but to see an inscription on the city walls about Orlando. It is a rude Latin elegiac couplet, saying that, ’from the sign below, men may conjecture the mighty members of Roland, nephew of Charles; his deeds are written in history.’ Three agreeable old gentlemen of Spello, who attended us with much politeness, and were greatly interested in my researches, pointed out a mark waist-high upon the wall, where Orlando’s knee is reported to have reached. But I could not learn anything about a phallic monolith, which is said by Guerin or Panizzi to have been identified with the Roland myth at Spello. Such a column either never existed here, or had been removed before the memory of the present generation.
We are in the lower church of S. Francesco. High mass is being sung, with orchestra and organ and a choir of many voices. Candles are lighted on the altar, over-canopied with Giotto’s allegories. From the low southern windows slants the sun, in narrow bands, upon the many-coloured gloom and embrowned glory of these painted aisles. Women in bright kerchiefs kneel upon the stones, and shaggy men from the mountains stand or lean against the wooden benches. There is no moving from point to point. Where we have taken our station, at the north-western angle of the transept, there we stay till mass be over. The whole low-vaulted building glows duskily; the frescoed roof, the stained windows, the figure-crowded pavements blending their rich but subdued colours, like hues upon some marvellous moth’s wings, or like a deep-toned rainbow mist discerned in twilight dreams, or like such tapestry as Eastern queens, in ancient days, wrought for the pavilion of an empress. Forth from this maze of mingling tints, indefinite in shade and sunbeams, lean earnest, saintly faces—ineffably pure—adoring, pitying, pleading; raising their eyes in ecstasy to heaven, or turning them in ruth toward earth. Men and women of whom the world was not worthy—at the hands of those old painters they have received the divine grace, the dovelike simplicity, whereof Italians in the fourteenth century possessed the irrecoverable secret. Each face is a poem; the counterpart in painting to a chapter from the Fioretti di San Francesco. Over the whole scene—in the architecture, in the frescoes, in the coloured windows, in the gloom, on the people, in the incense, from the chiming bells, through the music—broods one spirit: the spirit of him who was ’the co-espoused, co-transforate with Christ;’ the ardent, the radiant, the beautiful in soul; the suffering, the strong, the simple, the victorious over self and sin; the celestial who trampled upon earth and rose on wings of ecstasy to heaven; the Christ-inebriated saint of visions supersensual and life beyond the grave. Far down below the feet of those who worship God through him, S. Francis sleeps; but his soul, the incorruptible part of him, the message he gave the world, is in the spaces round us. This is his temple. He fills it like an unseen god. Not as Phoebus or Athene, from their marble pedestals; but as an abiding spirit, felt everywhere, nowhere seized, absorbing in itself all mysteries, all myths, all burning exaltations, all abasements, all love, self-sacrifice, pain, yearning, which the thought of Christ, sweeping the centuries, hath wrought for men. Let, therefore, choir and congregation raise their voices on the tide of prayers and praises; for this is Easter morning—Christ is risen! Our sister, Death of the Body, for whom S. Francis thanked God in his hymn, is reconciled to us this day, and takes us by the hand, and leads us to the gate whence floods of heavenly glory issue from the faces of a multitude of saints. Pray, ye poor people; chant and pray. If all be but a dream, to wake from this were loss for you indeed!
The piazza in front of the Prefettura is my favourite resort on these nights of full moon. The evening twilight is made up partly of sunset fading over Thrasymene and Tuscany; partly of moonrise from the mountains of Gubbio and the passes toward Ancona. The hills are capped with snow, although the season is so forward. Below our parapets the bulk of S. Domenico, with its gaunt perforated tower, and the finer group of S. Pietro, flaunting the arrowy ‘Pennacchio di Perugia,’ jut out upon the spine of hill which dominates the valley of the Tiber. As the night gloom deepens, and the moon ascends the sky, these buildings seem to form the sombre foreground to some French etching. Beyond them spreads the misty moon-irradiated plain of Umbria. Over all rise shadowy Apennines, with dim suggestions of Assisi, Spello, Foligno, Montefalco, and Spoleto on their basements. Little thin whiffs of breezes, very slight and searching, flit across, and shiver as they pass from Apennine to plain. The slowly moving population—women in veils, men winter-mantled—pass to and fro between the buildings and the grey immensity of sky. Bells ring. The bugles of the soldiers blow retreat in convents turned to barracks. Young men roam the streets beneath, singing May songs. Far, far away upon the plain, red through the vitreous moonlight ringed with thundery gauze, fires of unnamed castelli smoulder. As we lean from ledges eighty feet in height, gas vies with moon in chequering illuminations on the ancient walls; Etruscan mouldings, Roman letters, high-piled hovels, suburban world-old dwellings plastered like martins’ nests against the masonry.
Sunlight adds more of detail to this scene. To the right of Subasio, where the passes go from Foligno towards Urbino and Ancona, heavy masses of thundercloud hang every day; but the plain and hill-buttresses are clear in transparent blueness. First comes Assisi, with S.M. degli Angeli below; then Spello; then Foligno; then Trevi; and, far away, Spoleto; with, reared against those misty battlements, the village height of Montefalco—the ‘ringhiera dell’ Umbria,’ as they call it in this country. By daylight, the snow on yonder peaks is clearly visible, where the Monti della Sibilla tower up above the sources of the Nera and Velino from frigid wastes of Norcia. The lower ranges seem as though painted, in films of airiest and palest azure, upon china; and then comes the broad green champaign, flecked with villages and farms. Just at the basement of Perugia winds Tiber, through sallows and grey poplar-trees, spanned by ancient arches of red brick, and guarded here and there by castellated towers. The mills beneath their dams and weirs are just as Raphael drew them; and the feeling of air and space reminds one, on each coign of vantage, of some Umbrian picture. Every hedgerow is hoary with May-bloom and honeysuckle. The oaks hang out their golden-dusted tassels. Wayside shrines
On the road from Perugia to Cortona, the first stage ends at La Magione, a high hill-village commanding the passage from the Umbrian champaign to the lake of Thrasymene.
It has a grim square fortalice above it, now in ruins, and a stately castle to the south-east, built about the time of Braccio. Here took place that famous diet of Cesare Borgia’s enemies, when the son of Alexander VI. was threatening Bologna with his arms, and bidding fair to make himself supreme tyrant of Italy in 1502. It was the policy of Cesare to fortify himself by reducing the fiefs of the Church to submission, and by rooting out the dynasties which had acquired a sort of tyranny in Papal cities. The Varani of Camerino and the Manfredi of Faenza had been already extirpated. There was only too good reason to believe that the turn of the Vitelli at Citta di Castello, of the Baglioni at Perugia, and of the Bentivogli at Bologna would come next. Pandolfo Petrucci at Siena, surrounded on all sides by Cesare’s conquests, and specially menaced by the fortification of Piombino, felt himself in danger. The great house of the Orsini, who swayed a large part of the Patrimony of S. Peter’s, and were closely allied to the Vitelli, had even graver cause for anxiety. But such was the system of Italian warfare, that nearly all these noble families lived by the profession of arms, and most of them were in the pay of Cesare. When, therefore, the conspirators met at La Magione, they were plotting against a man whose money they had taken, and whom they had hitherto aided in his career of fraud and spoliation.
The diet consisted of the Cardinal Orsini, an avowed antagonist of Alexander VI.; his brother Paolo, the chieftain of the clan; Vitellozzo Vitelli, lord of Citta di Castello; Gian-Paolo Baglioni, made undisputed master of Perugia by the recent failure of his cousin Grifonetto’s treason; Oliverotto, who had just acquired the March of Fermo by the murder of his uncle Giovanni da Fogliani; Ermes Bentivoglio, the heir of Bologna; and Antonio da Venafro, the secretary of Pandolfo Petrueci. These men vowed hostility on the basis of common injuries and common fear against the Borgia. But they were for the most part stained themselves with crime, and dared not trust each other, and could not gain the confidence of any respectable power in Italy except the exiled Duke of Urbino.
After leaving La Magione, the road descends upon the lake of Thrasymene through oak-woods full of nightingales. The lake lay basking, leaden-coloured, smooth and waveless, under a misty, rain-charged, sun-irradiated sky. At Passignano, close beside its shore, we stopped for mid-day. This is a little fishing village of very poor people, who live entirely by labour on the waters. They showed us huge eels coiled in tanks, and some fine specimens of the silver carp—Reina del Lago. It was off one of the eels that we made our lunch; and taken, as he was, alive from his cool lodging, he furnished a series of dishes fit for a king.
Climbing the hill of Cortona seemed a quite interminable business. It poured a deluge. Our horses were tired, and one lean donkey, who, after much trouble, was produced from a farmhouse and yoked in front of them, rendered but little assistance.
Next day we duly saw the Muse and Lamp in the Museo, the Fra Angelicos, and all the Signorellis. One cannot help thinking that too much fuss is made nowadays about works of art—running after them for their own sakes, exaggerating their importance, and detaching them as objects of study, instead of taking them with sympathy and carelessness as pleasant or instructive adjuncts to our actual life. Artists, historians of art, and critics are forced to isolate pictures; and it is of profit to their souls to do so. But simple folk, who have no aesthetic vocation, whether creative or critical, suffer more than is good for them by compliance with mere fashion. Sooner or later we shall return to the spirit of the ages which produced these pictures, and which regarded them with less of an industrious bewilderment than they evoke at present.
I am far indeed from wishing to decry art, the study of art, or the benefits to be derived from its intelligent enjoyment. I only mean to suggest that we go the wrong way to work at present in this matter. Picture and sculpture galleries accustom us to the separation of art from life. Our methods of studying art, making a beginning of art-study while traveling, tend to perpetuate this separation. It is only on reflection, after long experience, that we come to perceive that the most fruitful moments in our art education have been casual and unsought, in quaint nooks and unexpected places, where nature, art, and life are happily blent.
The Palace of the Commune at Cortona is interesting because of the shields of Florentine governors, sculptured on blocks of grey stone, and inserted in its outer walls—Peruzzi, Albizzi, Strozzi, Salviati, among the more ancient—de’ Medici at a later epoch. The revolutions in the Republic of Florence may be read by a herald from these coats-of-arms and the dates beneath them.
The landscape of this Tuscan highland satisfies me more and more with sense of breadth and beauty. From S. Margherita above the town the prospect is immense and wonderful and wild—up into those brown, forbidding mountains; down to the vast plain; and over to the cities of Chiusi, Montepulciano, and Foiano. The jewel of the view is Trasimeno, a silvery shield encased with serried hills, and set upon one corner of the scene, like a precious thing apart and meant for separate contemplation. There is something in the singularity and circumscribed completeness of the mountain-girded lake, diminished by distance, which would have attracted Lionardo da Vinci’s pencil, had he seen it.
Cortona seems desperately poor, and the beggars are intolerable. One little blind boy, led by his brother, both frightfully ugly and ragged urchins, pursued us all over the city, incessantly whining ’Signore Padrone!’ It was only on the threshold of the inn that I ventured to give them a few coppers, for I knew well that any public beneficence would raise the whole swarm of the begging population round us. Sitting later in the day upon the piazza of S. Domenico, I saw the same blind boy taken by his brother to play. The game consists, in the little creature throwing his arms about the trunk of a big tree, and running round and round it, clasping it. This seemed to make him quite inexpressibly happy. His face lit up and beamed with that inner beatitude blind people show—a kind of rapture shining over it, as though nothing could be more altogether delightful. This little boy had the smallpox at eight months, and has never been able to see since. He looks sturdy, and may live to be of any age—doomed always, is that possible, to beg?
What more enjoyable dinner can be imagined than a flask of excellent Montepulciano, a well-cooked steak, and a little goat’s cheese in the inn of the Leone d’Oro at Chiusi? The windows are open, and the sun is setting. Monte Cetona bounds the view to the right, and the wooded hills of Citta della Pieve to the left. The deep green dimpled valley goes stretching away toward Orvieto; and at its end a purple mountain mass, distinct and solitary, which may peradventure be Soracte! The near country is broken into undulating hills, forested with fine olives and oaks; and the composition of the landscape, with its crowning villages, is worthy of a background to an Umbrian picture. The breadth and depth and quiet which those painters loved, the space of lucid sky, the suggestion of winding waters in verdant fields, all are here. The evening is beautiful—golden light streaming softly from behind us on this prospect, and gradually mellowing to violet and blue with stars above.
At Chiusi we visited several Etruscan tombs, and saw their red and black scrawled pictures. One of the sepulchres was a well-jointed vault of stone with no wall-paintings. The rest had been scooped out of the living tufa. This was the excuse for some pleasant hours spent in walking and driving through the country. Chiusi means for me the mingling of grey olives and green oaks in limpid sunlight; deep leafy lanes; warm sandstone banks; copses with nightingales and cyclamens and cuckoos; glimpses of a silvery lake; blue shadowy distances; the bristling ridge of Monte Cetona; the conical towers, Becca di Questo and Becca di Quello, over against each other on the borders; ways winding among hedgerows like some bit of England in June, but not so full of flowers. It means all this, I fear, for me far more than theories about Lars Porsenna and Etruscan ethnology.
Gubbio ranks among the most ancient of Italian hill-towns. With its back set firm against the spine of central Apennines, and piled, house over house, upon the rising slope, it commands a rich tract of upland champaign, bounded southward toward Perugia and Foligno by peaked and rolling ridges. This amphitheatre, which forms its source of wealth and independence, is admirably protected by a chain of natural defences; and Gubbio wears a singularly old-world aspect of antiquity and isolation. Houses climb right to the crests of gaunt bare peaks; and the brown mediaeval walls with square towers which protected them upon the mountain side, following the inequalities of the ground, are still a marked feature in the landscape. It is a town of steep streets and staircases, with quaintly framed prospects, and solemn vistas opening at every turn across the lowland. One of these views might be selected for especial notice. In front, irregular buildings losing themselves in country as they straggle by the roadside; then the open post-road with a cypress to the right; afterwards, the rich green fields, and on a bit of rising ground an ancient farmhouse with its brown dependencies; lastly, the blue hills above Fossato, and far away a wrack of tumbling clouds. All this enclosed by the heavy archway of the Porta Romana, where sunlight and shadow chequer the mellow tones of a dim fresco, indistinct with age, but beautiful.
Gubbio has not greatly altered since the middle ages. But poor people are now living in the palaces of noblemen and merchants. These new inhabitants have walled up the fair arched windows and slender portals of the ancient dwellers, spoiling the beauty of the streets without materially changing the architectural masses. In that witching hour when the Italian sunset has faded, and a solemn grey replaces the glowing tones of daffodil and rose, it is not difficult, here dreaming by oneself alone, to picture the old noble life—the ladies moving along those open loggias, the young men in plumed caps and curling hair with one foot
The names of the chief buildings in Gubbio are strongly suggestive of the middle ages. They abut upon a Piazza de’ Signori. One of them, the Palazzo del Municipio, is a shapeless unfinished block of masonry. It is here that the Eugubine tables, plates of brass with Umbrian and Roman incised characters, are shown. The Palazzo de’ Consoli has higher architectural qualities, and is indeed unique among Italian palaces for the combination of massiveness with lightness in a situation of unprecedented boldness. Rising from enormous substructures mortised into the solid hillside, it rears its vast rectangular bulk to a giddy height above the town; airy loggias imposed on great forbidding masses of brown stone, shooting aloft into a light aerial tower. The empty halls inside are of fair proportions and a noble size, and the views from the open colonnades in all directions fascinate. But the final impression made by the building is one of square, tranquil, massive strength—perpetuity embodied in masonry—force suggesting facility by daring and successful addition of elegance to hugeness. Vast as it is, this pile is not forbidding, as a similarly weighty structure in the North would be. The fine quality of the stone and the delicate though simple mouldings of the windows give it an Italian grace.
These public palaces belong to the age of the Communes, when Gubbio was a free town, with a policy of its own, and an important part to play in the internecine struggles of Pope and Empire, Guelf and Ghibelline. The ruined, deserted, degraded Palazzo Ducale reminds us of the advent of the despots. It has been stripped of all its tarsia-work and sculpture. Only here and there a Fe.D., with the cupping-glass of Federigo di Montefeltro, remains to show that Gubbio once became the fairest fief of the Urbino duchy. S. Ubaldo, who gave his name to this duke’s son, was the patron of Gubbio, and to him the cathedral is dedicated—one low enormous vault, like a cellar or feudal banqueting hall, roofed with a succession of solid Gothic arches. This strange old church, and the House of Canons, buttressed on the hill beside it, have suffered less from modernisation than most buildings in Gubbio. The latter, in particular, helps one to understand what this city of grave palazzi must have been, and how the mere opening of old doors and windows would restore it to its primitive appearance. The House of the Canons has, in fact, not yet been given over to the use of middle-class and proletariate.
At the end of a day in Gubbio, it is pleasant to take our ease in the primitive hostelry, at the back of which foams a mountain-torrent, rushing downward from the Apennines. The Gubbio wine is very fragrant, and of a rich ruby colour. Those to whom the tints of wine and jewels give a pleasure not entirely childish, will take delight in its specific blending of tawny hues with rose. They serve the table still, at Gubbio, after the antique Italian fashion, covering it with a cream-coloured linen cloth bordered with coarse lace—the creases of the press, the scent of old herbs from the wardrobe, are still upon it—and the board is set with shallow dishes of warm, white earthenware, basket-worked in open lattice at the edge, which contain little separate messes of meat, vegetables, cheese, and comfits. The wine stands in strange, slender phials of smooth glass, with stoppers; and the amber-coloured bread lies in fair round loaves upon the cloth. Dining thus is like sitting down to the supper at Emmaus, in some picture of Gian Bellini or of Masolino. The very bareness of the room—its open rafters, plastered walls, primitive settees, and red-brick floor, on which a dog sits waiting for a bone—enhances the impression of artistic delicacy in the table.
The road from Gubbio, immediately after leaving the city, enters a narrow Alpine ravine, where a thin stream dashes over dark, red rocks, and pendent saxifrages wave to the winds. The carriage in which we travelled at the end of May, one morning, had two horses, which our driver soon supplemented with a couple of white oxen. Slowly and toilsomely we ascended between the flanks of barren hills—gaunt masses of crimson and grey crag, clothed at their summits with short turf and scanty pasture. The pass leads first to the little town of Scheggia, and is called the Monte Calvo, or bald mountain. At Scheggia, it joins the great Flaminian Way, or North road of the Roman armies. At the top there is a fine view over the conical hills that dominate Gubbio, and, far away, to noble mountains above the Furlo and the Foligno line of railway to Ancona. Range rises over range, crossing at unexpected angles, breaking into sudden precipices, and stretching out long, exquisitely modelled outlines, as only Apennines can do, in silvery sobriety of colours toned by clearest air. Every square piece of this austere, wild landscape forms a varied picture, whereof the composition is due to subtle arrangements of lines always delicate; and these lines seem somehow to have been determined in their beauty by the vast antiquity of the mountain system, as though they all had taken time to choose their place and wear down into harmony. The effect of tempered sadness was heightened for us by stormy lights and dun clouds, high in air, rolling vapours and flying shadows, over all the prospect, tinted in ethereal grisaille.
After Scheggia, one enters a land of meadow and oak-trees. This is the sacred central tract of Jupiter Apenninus, whose fane—
Jovis saxoque minantes
Apenninigenis cultae pastoribus arae
—once rose behind us on the bald Iguvian summits. A second little pass leads from this region to the Adriatic side of the Italian watershed, and the road now follows the Barano downward toward the sea. The valley is fairly green with woods, where mistletoe may here and there be seen on boughs of oak, and rich with cornfields. Cagli is the chief town of the district, and here they show one of the best pictures left to us by Raphael’s father, Giovanni Santi. It is a Madonna, attended by S. Peter, S. Francis, S. Dominic, S. John, and two angels. One of the angels is traditionally supposed to have been painted from the boy Raphael, and the face has something which reminds us of his portraits. The whole composition, excellent in modelling, harmonious in grouping, soberly but strongly coloured, with a peculiar blending of dignity and sweetness, grace and vigour, makes one wonder why Santi thought it necessary to send his son from his own workshop to study under Perugino. He was himself a master of his art, and this, perhaps the most agreeable of his paintings, has a masculine sincerity which is absent from at least the later works of Perugino.
Some miles beyond Cagli, the real pass of the Furlo begins. It owes its name to a narrow tunnel bored by Vespasian in the solid rock, where limestone crags descend on the Barano. The Romans called this gallery Petra Pertusa, or Intercisa, or more familiarly Forulus, whence comes the modern name. Indeed, the stations on the old Flaminian Way are still well marked by Latin designations; for Cagli is the ancient Calles, and Fossombrone is Forum Sempronii, and Fano the Fanum Fortunae. Vespasian commemorated this early achievement in engineering by an inscription carved on the living stone, which still remains; and Claudian, when he sang the journey of his Emperor Honorius from Rimini to Rome, speaks thus of what was even then an object of astonishment to travellers:—
Laetior hinc fano recipit fortuna vetusto,
Despiciturque vagus praerupta valle Metaurus,
Qua mons arte patens vivo se perforat arcu
Admittitque viam sectae per viscera rupis.
The Forulus itself may now be matched, on any Alpine pass, by several tunnels of far mightier dimensions; for it is narrow, and does not extend more than 126 feet in length. But it occupies a fine position at the end of a really imposing ravine. The whole Furlo Pass might, without too much exaggeration, be described as a kind of Cheddar on the scale of the Via Mala. The limestone rocks, which rise on either hand above the gorge to an enormous height, are noble in form and solemn, like a succession of gigantic portals, with stupendous flanking obelisks and pyramids. Some of these crag-masses rival the fantastic cliffs
The Furlo breaks out into a richer land of mighty oaks and waving cornfields, a fat pastoral country, not unlike Devonshire in detail, with green uplands, and wild-rose tangled hedgerows, and much running water, and abundance of summer flowers. At a point above Fossombrone, the Barano joins the Metauro, and here one has a glimpse of faraway Urbino, high upon its mountain eyrie. It is so rare, in spite of immemorial belief, to find in Italy a wilderness of wild flowers, that I feel inclined to make a list of those I saw from our carriage windows as we rolled down lazily along the road to Fossombrone. Broom, and cytisus, and hawthorn mingled with roses, gladiolus, and sainfoin. There were orchises, and clematis, and privet, and wild-vine, vetches of all hues, red poppies, sky-blue cornflowers, and lilac pimpernel. In the rougher hedges, dogwood, honeysuckle, pyracanth, and acacia made a network of white bloom and blushes. Milk-worts of all bright and tender tints combined with borage, iris, hawkweeds, harebells, crimson clover, thyme, red snap-dragon, golden asters, and dreamy love-in-a-mist, to weave a marvellous carpet such as the looms of Shiraz or of Cashmere never spread. Rarely have I gazed on Flora in such riot, such luxuriance, such self-abandonment to joy. The air was filled with fragrances. Songs of cuckoos and nightingales echoed from the copses on the hillsides. The sun was out, and dancing over all the landscape.
After all this, Fano was very restful in the quiet sunset. It has a sandy stretch of shore, on which the long, green-yellow rollers of the Adriatic broke into creamy foam, beneath the waning saffron light over Pesaro and the rosy rising of a full moon. This Adriatic sea carries an English mind home to many a little watering-place upon our coast. In colour and the shape of waves it resembles our Channel.
The sea-shore is Fano’s great attraction; but the town has many churches, and some creditable pictures, as well as Roman antiquities. Giovanni Santi may here be seen almost as well as at Cagli; and of Perugino there is one truly magnificent altar-piece—lunette, great centre panel, and predella—dusty in its present condition, but splendidly painted, and happily not yet restored or cleaned. It is worth journeying to Fano to see this. Still better would the journey be worth the traveller’s while
Fano still remembers that it is the Fane of Fortune. On the fountain in the market-place stands a bronze Fortuna, slim and airy, offering her veil to catch the wind. May she long shower health and prosperity upon the modern watering-place of which she is the patron saint!
* * * * *
THE PALACE OF URBINO
At Rimini, one spring, the impulse came upon my wife and me to make our way across San Marino to Urbino. In the Piazza, called apocryphally after Julius Caesar, I found a proper vetturino, with a good carriage and two indefatigable horses. He was a splendid fellow, and bore a great historic name, as I discovered when our bargain was completed. ‘What are you called?’ I asked him. ’Filippo Visconti, per servirla!’ was the prompt reply. Brimming over with the darkest memories of the Italian Renaissance, I hesitated when I heard this answer. The associations seemed too ominous. And yet the man himself was so attractive—tall, stalwart, and well looking—no feature of his face or limb of his athletic form recalling the gross tyrant who concealed worse than Caligula’s ugliness from sight in secret chambers—that I shook this preconception from my mind. As it turned out, Filippo Visconti had nothing in common with his infamous namesake but the name. On a long and trying journey, he showed neither sullen nor yet ferocious tempers; nor, at the end of it, did he attempt by any master-stroke of craft to wheedle from me more than his fair pay; but took the meerschaum pipe I gave him for a keepsake, with the frank goodwill of an accomplished gentleman. The only exhibition of his hot Italian blood which I remember did his humanity credit.
While we were ascending a steep hillside, he jumped from his box to thrash a ruffian by the roadside for brutal treatment to a little boy. He broke his whip, it is true, in this encounter; risked a dangerous quarrel; and left his carriage, with myself and wife inside it, to the mercy of his horses in a somewhat perilous position. But when he came back, hot and glowing, from this deed of justice, I could only applaud his zeal.
An Italian of this type, handsome as an antique statue, with the refinement of a modern gentleman and that intelligence which is innate in a race of immemorial culture, is a fascinating being. He may be absolutely ignorant in all book-learning. He may be as ignorant as a Bersagliere from Montalcino with whom I once conversed at Rimini, who gravely said that he could walk in three months to North America, and thought of doing it when his term of service was accomplished. But he will display, as this young soldier did, a grace and ease of address which are rare in London drawing-rooms; and by his shrewd remarks upon the cities he has visited, will show that he possesses a fine natural taste for things of beauty. The speech of such men, drawn from the common stock of the Italian people, is seasoned with proverbial sayings, the wisdom of centuries condensed in a few nervous words. When emotion fires their brain, they break into spontaneous eloquence, or suggest the motive of a poem by phrases pregnant with imagery.
For the first stage of the journey out of Rimini, Filippo’s two horses sufficed. The road led almost straight across the level between quickset hedges in white bloom. But when we reached the long steep hill which ascends to San Marino, the inevitable oxen were called out, and we toiled upwards leisurely through cornfields bright with red anemones and sweet narcissus. At this point pomegranate hedges replaced the May-thorns of the plain. In course of time our bovi brought us to the Borgo, or lower town, whence there is a further ascent of seven hundred feet to the topmost hawk’s-nest or acropolis of the republic. These we climbed on foot, watching the view expand around us and beneath. Crags of limestone here break down abruptly to the rolling hills, which go to lose themselves in field and shore. Misty reaches of the Adriatic close the world to eastward. Cesena, Rimini, Verucchio, and countless hill-set villages, each isolated on its tract of verdure conquered from the stern grey soil, define the points where Montefeltri wrestled with Malatestas in long bygone years. Around are marly mountain-flanks in wrinkles and gnarled convolutions like some giant’s brain, furrowed by rivers crawling through dry wasteful beds of shingle. Interminable ranges of gaunt Apennines stretch, tier by tier, beyond; and over all this landscape, a grey-green mist of rising crops and new-fledged oak-trees lies like a veil upon the nakedness of Nature’s ruins.
Nothing in Europe conveys a more striking sense of geological antiquity than such a prospect. The denudation and abrasion of innumerable ages, wrought by slow persistent action of weather and water on an upheaved mountain mass, are here made visible. Every wave in that vast sea of hills, every furrow in their worn flanks, tells its tale of a continuous corrosion still in progress. The dominant impression is one of melancholy. We forget how Romans, countermarching Carthaginians, trod the land beneath us. The marvel of San Marino, retaining independence through the drums and tramplings of the last seven centuries, is swallowed in a deeper sense of wonder. We turn instinctively in thought to Leopardi’s musings on man’s destiny at war with unknown nature-forces and malignant rulers of the universe.
Te, la natura, il brutto
Poter che, ascoso, a comun danno impera,
E l’ infinita vanita del tutto.
And then, straining our eyes southward, we sweep the dim blue distance for Recanati, and remember that the poet of modern despair and discouragement was reared in even such a scene as this.
The town of San Marino is grey, narrow-streeted, simple; with a great, new, decent, Greek-porticoed cathedral, dedicated to the eponymous saint. A certain austerity defines it from more picturesque hill-cities with a less uniform history. There is a marble statue of S. Marino in the choir of his church; and in his cell is shown the stone bed and pillow on which he took austere repose. One narrow window near the saint’s abode commands a proud but melancholy landscape of distant hills and seaboard. To this, the great absorbing charm of San Marino, our eyes instinctively, recurrently, take flight. It is a landscape which by variety and beauty thralls attention, but which by its interminable sameness might grow almost overpowering. There is no relief. The gladness shed upon far humbler Northern lands in May is ever absent here. The German word Gemuethlichkeit, the English phrase ‘a home of ancient peace,’ are here alike by art and nature untranslated into visibilities. And yet (as we who gaze upon it thus are fain to think) if peradventure the intolerable ennui of this panorama should drive a citizen of San Marino into out-lands, the same view would haunt him whithersoever he went—the swallows of his native eyrie would shrill through his sleep—he would yearn to breathe its fine keen air in winter, and to watch its iris-hedges deck themselves with blue in spring;—like Virgil’s hero, dying, he would think of San Marino: Aspicit, et dulces moriens reminiscitur Argos. Even a passing stranger may feel the mingled fascination and oppression of this prospect—the monotony which maddens, the charm which at a distance grows upon the mind, environing it with memories.
Descending to the Borgo, we found that Filippo Visconti had ordered a luncheon of excellent white bread, pigeons, and omelette, with the best red muscat wine I ever drank, unless the sharp air of the hills deceived my appetite. An Italian history of San Marino, including its statutes, in three volumes, furnished intellectual food. But I confess to having learned from these pages little else than this: first, that the survival of the Commonwealth through all phases of European politics had been semi-miraculous; secondly, that the most eminent San Marinesi had been lawyers. It is possible on a hasty deduction from these two propositions (to which, however, I am far from wishing to commit myself), that the latter is a sufficient explanation of the former.
From San Marino the road plunges at a break-neck pace. We are now in the true Feltrian highlands, whence the Counts of Montefeltro issued in the twelfth century. Yonder eyrie is San Leo, which formed the key of entrance to the duchy of Urbino in campaigns fought many hundred years ago. Perched on the crest of a precipitous rock, this fortress looks as though it might defy all enemies but famine. And yet San Leo was taken and re-taken by strategy and fraud, when Montefeltro, Borgia, Malatesta, Rovere, contended for dominion in these valleys. Yonder is Sta. Agata, the village to which Guidobaldo fled by night when Valentino drove him from his dukedom. A little farther towers Carpegna, where one branch of the Montefeltro house maintained a countship through seven centuries, and only sold their fief to Rome in 1815. Monte Coppiolo lies behind, Pietra Rubia in front: two other eagles’ nests of the same brood. What a road it is!
It beats the tracks on Exmoor. The uphill and downhill of Devonshire scorns compromise or mitigation by detour and zigzag. But here geography is on a scale so far more vast, and the roadway is so far worse metalled than with us in England—knotty masses of talc and nodes of sandstone cropping up at dangerous turnings—that only Dante’s words describe the journey:—
Vassi in Sanleo, e discendesi in Noli,
Montasi su Bismantova in cacume
Con esso i pie; ma qui convien ch’ uom voli.
Of a truth, our horses seemed rather to fly than scramble up and down these rugged precipices; Visconti cheerily animating them with the brave spirit that was in him, and lending them his wary driver’s help of hand and voice at need.
We were soon upon a cornice-road between the mountains and the Adriatic: following the curves of gulch and cleft ravine; winding round ruined castles set on points of vantage; the sea-line high above their grass-grown battlements, the shadow-dappled champaign girdling their bastions mortised on the naked rock. Except for the blue lights across the distance, and the ever-present sea, these earthy Apennines would be too grim. Infinite air and this spare veil of spring-tide greenery on field and forest soothe their sternness. Two rivers, swollen by late rains, had to be forded. Through one of these, the Foglia, bare-legged peasants led the way. The horses waded to their bellies in the tawny water. Then more hills and vales; green nooks with rippling corn-crops; secular oaks attired in golden leafage. The clear afternoon air rang with the voices of a thousand larks overhead. The whole world seemed quivering with light and delicate ethereal sound. And yet my mind turned irresistibly to thoughts of war, violence, and pillage. How often has this intermediate land been fought over by Montefeltro and Brancaleoni, by Borgia and Malatesta, by Medici and Della Rovere! Its contadini are robust men, almost statuesque in build, and beautiful of feature. No wonder
The sunset was almost spent, and a four days’ moon hung above the western Apennines, when we took our first view of the palace. It is a fancy-thralling work of wonder seen in that dim twilight; like some castle reared by Atlante’s magic for imprisonment of Ruggiero, or palace sought in fairyland by Astolf winding his enchanted horn. Where shall we find its like, combining, as it does, the buttressed battlemented bulk of mediaeval strongholds with the airy balconies, suspended gardens, and fantastic turrets of Italian pleasure-houses? This unique blending of the feudal past with the Renaissance spirit of the time when it was built, connects it with the art of Ariosto—or more exactly with Boiardo’s epic. Duke Federigo planned his palace at Urbino just at the moment when the Count of Scandiano had began to chaunt his lays of Roland in the Castle of Ferrara. Chivalry, transmuted by the Italian genius into something fanciful and quaint, survived as a frail work of art. The men-at-arms of the Condottieri still glittered in gilded hauberks. Their helmets waved with plumes and bizarre crests. Their surcoats blazed with heraldries; their velvet caps with medals bearing legendary emblems. The pomp and circumstance of feudal war had not yet yielded to the cannon of the Gascon or the Switzer’s pike. The fatal age of foreign invasions had not begun for Italy. Within a few years Charles VIII.’s holiday excursion would reveal the internal rottenness and weakness of her rival states, and the peninsula for half a century to come would be drenched in the blood of Frenchmen, Germans, Spaniards, fighting for her cities as their prey. But now Lorenzo de’ Medici was still alive. The famous policy which bears his name held Italy suspended for a golden time in false tranquillity and independence. The princes who shared his culture and his love of art were gradually passing into modern noblemen, abandoning the savage feuds and passions of more virile centuries, yielding to luxury and scholarly enjoyments. The castles were becoming courts, and despotisms won by force were settling into dynasties.
It was just at this epoch that Duke Federigo built his castle at Urbino. One of the ablest and wealthiest Condottieri of his time, one of the best instructed and humanest of Italian princes, he combined in himself the qualities which mark that period of transition. And these he impressed upon his dwelling-house, which looks backward to the mediaeval fortalice and forward to the modern palace. This makes it the just embodiment in architecture of Italian romance, the perfect analogue of the ‘Orlando Innamorato.’ By comparing it with the castle of the Estes at Ferrara and the Palazzo del Te of the Gonzagas at Mantua, we place it in its right position between mediaeval and Renaissance Italy, between the age when principalities arose upon the ruins of commercial independence and the age when they became dynastic under Spain.
The exigencies of the ground at his disposal forced Federigo to give the building an irregular outline. The fine facade, with its embayed loggie and flanking turrets, is placed too close upon the city ramparts for its due effect. We are obliged to cross the deep ravine which separates it from a lower quarter of the town, and take our station near the Oratory of S. Giovanni Battista, before we can appreciate the beauty of its design, or the boldness of the group it forms with the cathedral dome and tower and the square masses of numerous out-buildings. Yet this peculiar position of the palace, though baffling to a close observer of its details, is one of singular advantage to the inhabitants. Set on the verge of Urbino’s towering eminence, it fronts a wave-tossed sea of vales and mountain summits toward the rising and the setting sun. There is nothing but illimitable air between the terraces and loggias of the Duchess’s apartments and the spreading pyramid of Monte Catria.
A nobler scene is nowhere swept from palace windows than this, which Castiglione touched in a memorable passage at the end of his ‘Cortegiano.’ To one who in our day visits Urbino, it is singular how the slight indications of this sketch, as in some silhouette, bring back the antique life, and link the present with the past—a hint, perhaps, for reticence in our descriptions. The gentlemen and ladies of the court had spent a summer night in long debate on love, rising to the height of mystical Platonic rapture on the lips of Bembo, when one of them exclaimed, ‘The day has broken!’ ’He pointed to the light which was beginning to enter by the fissures of the windows. Whereupon we flung the casements wide upon that side of the palace which looks toward the high peak of Monte Catria, and saw that a fair dawn of rosy hue was born already in the eastern skies, and all the stars had vanished except the sweet regent of the heaven of Venus, who holds the borderlands of day and night; and from her sphere it seemed as though a gentle wind were breathing, filling the air with eager freshness, and waking among the numerous woods upon the neighbouring hills the sweet-toned symphonies of joyous birds.’
The House of Montefeltro rose into importance early in the twelfth century. Frederick Barbarossa erected their fief into a county in 1160. Supported by imperial favour, they began to exercise an undefined authority over the district, which they afterwards converted into a duchy. But, though Ghibelline for several generations, the Montefeltri were too near neighbours of the Papal power to free themselves from ecclesiastical vassalage. Therefore in 1216 they sought and obtained the title of Vicars of the Church. Urbino acknowledged them as semi-despots in their double capacity of Imperial and Papal deputies. Cagli and Gubbio followed in the fourteenth century. In the fifteenth, Castel Durante was acquired from the Brancaleoni by warfare, and Fossombrone from the Malatestas by purchase. Numerous fiefs and villages fell into their hands upon the borders of Rimini in the course of a continued struggle with the House of Malatesta: and when Fano and Pesaro were added at the opening of the sixteenth century, the domain over which they ruled was a compact territory, some forty miles square, between the Adriatic and the Apennines. From the close of the thirteenth century they bore the title of Counts of Urbino. The famous Conte Guido, whom Dante placed among the fraudulent in hell, supported the honours of the house and increased its power by his political action, at this epoch. But it was not until the year 1443 that the Montefeltri acquired their ducal title. This was conferred by Eugenius IV. upon Oddantonio, over whose alleged crimes and indubitable assassination a veil of mystery still hangs. He was the son of Count Guidantonio, and at his death the Montefeltri of Urbino were extinct in the legitimate line. A natural son of Guidantonio had been, however, recognised in his father’s lifetime, and married to Gentile, heiress of Mercatello. This was Federigo, a youth of great promise, who succeeded his half-brother in 1444 as Count of Urbino. It was not until 1474 that the ducal title was revived for him.
Duke Frederick was a prince remarkable among Italian despots for private virtues and sober use of his hereditary power. He spent his youth at Mantua, in that famous school of Vittorino da Feltre, where the sons and daughters of the first Italian nobility received a model education in humanities, good manners, and gentle physical accomplishments. More than any of his fellow-students Frederick profited by this rare scholar’s discipline. On leaving school he adopted the profession of arms, as it was then practised, and joined the troop of the Condottiere Niccolo Piccinino. Young men of his own rank, especially the younger sons and bastards of ruling families, sought military service under captains of adventure. If they succeeded they were sure to make money. The coffers of the Church and the republics lay open to their not too scrupulous hands; the wealth of Milan and Naples was squandered on them
It is not needful to follow Duke Frederick in his military career. We may briefly remark that when he succeeded to Urbino by his brother’s death in 1444, he undertook generalship on a grand scale. His own dominions supplied him with some of the best troops in Italy. He was careful to secure the goodwill of his subjects by attending personally to their interests, relieving them of imposts, and executing equal justice. He gained the then unique reputation of an honest prince, paternally disposed toward his dependents. Men flocked to his standards willingly, and he was able to bring an important contingent into any army. These advantages secured for him alliances with Francesco Sforza, and brought him successively into connection with Milan, Venice, Florence, the Church of Naples. As a tactician in the field he held high rank among the generals of the age, and so considerable were his engagements that he acquired great wealth in the exercise of his profession. We find him at one time receiving 8000 ducats a month as war-pay from Naples, with a peace pension of 6000. While Captain-General of the League, he drew for his own use in war 45,000 ducats of annual pay. Retaining-fees and pensions in the name of past services swelled his income, the exact extent of which has not, so far as I am aware, been estimated, but which must have made him one of the richest of Italian princes. All this wealth he spent upon his duchy, fortifying and beautifying its cities, drawing youths of promise to his court, maintaining a great train of life, and keeping his vassals in good-humour by the lightness of a rule which contrasted favourably with the exactions of needier despots.
While fighting for the masters who offered him condotta in the complicated wars of Italy, Duke Frederick used his arms, when occasion served, in his own quarrels. Many years of his life were spent in a prolonged struggle with his neighbour Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, the bizarre and brilliant tyrant of Rimini, who committed the fatal error of embroiling himself beyond all hope of pardon with the Church, and who died discomfited in the duel with his warier antagonist. Urbino profited by each mistake of Sigismondo, and the history of this long desultory strife with Rimini is a history of gradual aggrandisement and consolidation for the Montefeltrian duchy.
In 1459 Duke Frederick married his second wife, Battista, daughter of Alessandro Sforza, Lord of Pesaro. Their portraits, painted by Piero della Francesca, are to be seen in the Uffizzi at Florence. Some years earlier, Frederick lost his right eye and had the bridge of his nose broken in a jousting match outside the town-gate of Urbino. After this accident, he preferred to be represented in profile—the profile so well known to students of Italian art on medals and basreliefs. It was not without medical aid and vows fulfilled by a mother’s self-sacrifice to death, if we may trust the diarists of Urbino, that the ducal couple got an heir. In 1472, however, a son was born to them, whom they christened Guido Paolo Ubaldo. He proved a youth of excellent parts and noble nature—apt at study, perfect in all chivalrous accomplishments. But he inherited some fatal physical debility, and his life was marred with a constitutional disease, which then received the name of gout, and which deprived him of the free use of his limbs. After his father’s death in 1482, Naples, Florence, and Milan continued Frederick’s war engagements to Guidobaldo. The prince was but a boy of ten. Therefore these important condotte must be regarded as compliments and pledges for the future. They prove to what a pitch Duke Frederick had raised the credit of his state and war establishment. Seven years later, Guidobaldo married Elisabetta, daughter of Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. This union, though a happy one, was never blessed with children; and in the certainty of barrenness, the young Duke thought it prudent to adopt a nephew as heir to his dominions. He had several sisters, one of whom, Giovanna, had been married to a nephew of Sixtus IV., Giovanni della Rovere, Lord of Sinigaglia and Prefect of Rome. They had a son, Francesco Maria, who, after his adoption by Guidobaldo, spent his boyhood at Urbino.
The last years of the fifteenth century were marked by the sudden rise of Cesare Borgia to a power which threatened the liberties of Italy. Acting as General for the Church, he carried his arms against the petty tyrants of Romagna, whom he dispossessed and extirpated. His next move was upon Camerino and Urbino. He first acquired Camerino, having lulled Guidobaldo into false security by treacherous
The sudden death of Alexander VI. and the election of a Della Rovere to the Papacy in 1503 changed Guidobaldo’s prospects. Julius II. was the sworn foe of the Borgias and the close kinsman of Urbino’s heir. It was therefore easy for the Duke to walk into his empty palace on the hill, and to reinstate himself in the domains from which he had so recently been ousted. The rest of his life was spent in the retirement of his court, surrounded with the finest scholars and the noblest gentlemen of Italy. The ill-health which debarred him from the active pleasures and employments of his station, was borne with uniform sweetness of temper and philosophy.
When he died, in 1508, his nephew, Francesco Maria della Rovere, succeeded to the duchy, and once more made the palace of Urbino the resort of men-at-arms and captains. He was a prince of very violent temper: of its extravagance history has recorded three remarkable examples. He murdered the Cardinal of Pavia with his own hand in the streets of Ravenna; stabbed a lover of his sister to death at Urbino; and in a council of war knocked Francesco Guicciardini down with a blow of his fist. When the history of Italy came to be written, Guicciardini was probably mindful of that insult, for he painted Francesco Maria’s character and conduct in dark colours. At the same time this Duke of Urbino passed for one of the first generals of the age. The greatest stain upon his memory is his behaviour in the year 1527, when, by dilatory conduct of the campaign in Lombardy, he suffered the passage of Frundsberg’s army unopposed, and afterwards hesitated to relieve Rome from the horrors of the sack. He was the last Italian Condottiere of the antique type; and the vices which Machiavelli exposed in that bad system of mercenary warfare were illustrated on these occasions. During his lifetime, the conditions of Italy were so changed by Charles V.’s imperial settlement in 1530, that the occupation of Condottiere ceased to have any meaning. Strozzi and Farnesi, who afterwards followed this profession, enlisted in the ranks of France or Spain, and won their laurels in Northern Europe.
While Leo X. held the Papal chair, the duchy of Urbino was for a while wrested from the house of Della Rovere, and conferred upon Lorenzo de’ Medici. Francesco Maria made a better fight for his heritage than Guidobaldo had done. Yet he could not successfully resist the power of Rome. The Pope was ready to spend enormous sums of money on this petty war; the Duke’s purse was shorter, and the mercenary troops he was obliged to use, proved worthless in the field. Spaniards, for the most part, pitted against Spaniards, they suffered the campaigns to degenerate into a guerilla warfare of pillage and reprisals. In 1517 the duchy was formally ceded to Lorenzo. But this Medici did not live long to enjoy it, and his only child Catherine, the future Queen of France, never exercised the rights which had devolved upon her by inheritance. The shifting scene of Italy beheld Francesco Maria reinstated in Urbino after Leo’s death in 1522.
This Duke married Leonora Gonzaga, a princess of the House of Mantua. Their portraits, painted by Titian, adorn the Venetian room of the Uffizzi. Of their son, Guidobaldo II., little need be said. He was twice married, first to Giulia Varano, Duchess by inheritance of Camerino; secondly, to Vittoria Farnese, daughter of the Duke of Parma. Guidobaldo spent a lifetime in petty quarrels with his subjects, whom he treated badly, attempting to draw from their pockets the wealth which his father and the Montefeltri had won in military service. He intervened at an awkward period of Italian politics. The old Italy of despots, commonwealths, and Condottieri, in which his predecessors played substantial parts, was at an end. The new Italy of Popes and Austro-Spanish dynasties had hardly settled into shape. Between these epochs, Guidobaldo II., of whom we have a dim and hazy presentation on the page of history, seems somehow to have fallen flat. As a sign of altered circumstances, he removed his court to Pesaro, and built the great palace of the Della Roveres upon the public square.
Guidobaldaccio, as he was called, died in 1574, leaving an only son, Francesco Maria II., whose life and character illustrate the new age which had begun for Italy. He was educated in Spain at the court of Philip II., where he spent more than two years. When he returned, his Spanish haughtiness, punctilious attention to etiquette, and superstitious piety attracted observation. The violent temper of the Della Roveres, which Francesco Maria I. displayed in acts of homicide, and which had helped to win his bad name for Guidobaldaccio, took the form of sullenness in the last Duke. The finest episode in his life was the part he played in the battle of Lepanto, under his old comrade, Don John of Austria. His father forced him to an uncongenial marriage with Lucrezia d’Este, Princess of Ferrara. She left him, and took refuge in her native city, then honoured by the presence of Tasso and Guarini. He bore her departure with
This happened in 1623. Francesco Maria was stunned by the blow. His withdrawal from the duties of the sovereignty in favour of such a son had proved a constitutional unfitness for the duties of his station. The life he loved was one of seclusion in a round of pious exercises, petty studies, peddling economies, and mechanical amusements. A powerful and grasping Pope was on the throne of Rome. Urban at this juncture pressed Francesco Maria hard; and in 1624 the last Duke of Urbino devolved his lordships to the Holy See. He survived the formal act of abdication seven years; when he died, the Pontiff added his duchy to the Papal States, which thenceforth stretched from Naples to the bounds of Venice on the Po.
Duke Frederick began the palace at Urbino in 1454, when he was still only Count. The architect was Luziano of Lauranna, a Dalmatian; and the beautiful white limestone, hard as marble, used in the construction, was brought from the Dalmatian coast. This stone, like the Istrian stone of Venetian buildings, takes and retains the chisel mark with wonderful precision. It looks as though, when fresh, it must have had the pliancy of clay, so delicately are the finest curves in scroll or foliage scooped from its substance. And yet it preserves each cusp and angle of the most elaborate pattern with the crispness and the sharpness of a crystal.
When wrought by a clever craftsman, its surface has neither the waxiness of Parian, nor the brittle edge of Carrara marble; and it resists weather better than marble of the choicest quality. This may be observed in many monuments of Venice, where the stone has been long exposed to sea-air. These qualities of the Dalmatian limestone, no less than its agreeable creamy hue and smooth dull polish, adapt it to decoration in low relief. The most attractive details in the palace at Urbino are friezes carved of this material in choice designs of early Renaissance dignity and grace. One chimney-piece in the Sala degli Angeli deserves especial comment. A frieze of dancing Cupids, with gilt hair and wings, their naked bodies left white on a ground of ultramarine, is supported by broad flat pilasters. These are engraved with children holding pots of flowers; roses on one side, carnations on the other. Above the frieze another pair of angels, one at each end, hold lighted torches; and the pyramidal cap of the chimney is carved with two more, flying, and supporting the eagle of the Montefeltri on a raised medallion. Throughout the palace we notice emblems appropriate to the Houses of Montefeltro and Della Rovere: their arms, three golden bends upon a field of azure: the Imperial eagle, granted when Montefeltro was made a fief of the Empire: the Garter of England, worn by the Dukes Federigo and Guidobaldo: the ermine of Naples: the ventosa, or cupping-glass, adopted for a private badge by Frederick: the golden oak-tree on an azure field of Della Rovere: the palm-tree, bent beneath a block of stone, with its accompanying motto, Inclinata Resurgam: the cipher, FE DX. Profile medallions of Federigo and Guidobaldo, wrought in the lowest possible relief, adorn the staircases. Round the great courtyard runs a frieze of military engines and ensigns, trophies, machines, and implements of war, alluding to Duke Frederick’s profession of Condottiere. The doorways are enriched with scrolls of heavy-headed flowers, acanthus foliage, honeysuckles, ivy-berries, birds and boys and sphinxes, in all the riot of Renaissance fancy.
This profusion of sculptured rilievo is nearly all that remains to show how rich the palace was in things of beauty. Castiglione, writing in the reign of Guidobaldo, says that ’in the opinion of many it is the fairest to be found in Italy; and the Duke filled it so well with all things fitting its magnificence, that it seemed less like a palace than a city. Not only did he collect articles of common use, vessels of silver, and trappings for chambers of rare cloths of gold and silk, and suchlike furniture, but he added multitudes of bronze and marble statues, exquisite pictures, and instruments of music of all sorts. There was nothing but was of the finest and most excellent quality to be seen there. Moreover, he gathered together at a vast cost a large number of the best and rarest books in Greek, Latin,
Exception must be made in favour of two apartments between the towers upon the southern facade. These were apparently the private rooms of the Duke and Duchess, and they are still approached by a great winding staircase in one of the torricini. Adorned in indestructible or irremovable materials, they retain some traces of their ancient splendour. On the first floor, opening on the vaulted loggia, we find a little chapel encrusted with lovely work in stucco and marble; friezes of bulls, sphinxes, sea-horses, and foliage; with a low relief of Madonna and Child in the manner of Mino da Fiesole. Close by is a small study with inscriptions to the Muses and Apollo. The cabinet connecting these two cells has a Latin legend, to say that Religion here dwells near the temple of the liberal arts:
Bina vides parvo discrimine juncta sacella,
Altera pars Musis altera sacra Deo est.
On the floor above, corresponding in position to this apartment, is a second, of even greater interest, since it was arranged by the Duke Frederick for his own retreat. The study is panelled in tarsia of beautiful design and execution. Three of the larger compartments show Faith, Hope, and Charity; figures not unworthy of a Botticelli or a Filippino Lippi. The occupations of the Duke are represented on a smaller scale by armour, batons of command, scientific instruments, lutes, viols, and books, some open and some shut. The Bible, Homer, Virgil, Seneca, Tacitus, and Cicero, are lettered; apparently to indicate his favourite authors. The Duke himself, arrayed in his state robes, occupies a fourth great panel; and the whole of this elaborate composition is harmonised by emblems, badges, and occasional devices of birds, articles of furniture, and so forth. The tarsia, or inlaid wood of different kinds and colours, is among the best in this kind of art to be found in Italy, though perhaps it hardly deserves to rank with the celebrated choir-stalls of Bergamo and Monte Oliveto. Hard by is a chapel, adorned, like the lower one, with excellent reliefs. The loggia to which these rooms have access looks across the Apennines, and down on what was once a private garden. It is now enclosed and paved for the exercise of prisoners who are confined in one part of the desecrated palace!
A portion of the pile is devoted to more worthy purposes; for the Academy of Raphael here holds its sittings, and preserves a collection of curiosities and books illustrative of the great painter’s life and works. They have recently placed in a tiny oratory, scooped by Guidobaldo II. from the thickness of the wall, a cast of Raphael’s skull, which will be studied with interest and veneration. It has the fineness of modelling combined with shapeliness of form and smallness of scale which is said to have characterised Mozart and Shelley.
The impression left upon the mind after traversing this palace in its length and breadth is one of weariness and disappointment. How shall we reconstruct the long-past life which filled its rooms with sound, the splendour of its pageants, the thrill of tragedies enacted here? It is not difficult to crowd its doors and vacant spaces with liveried servants, slim pages in tight hose, whose well-combed hair escapes from tiny caps upon their silken shoulders. We may even replace the tapestries of Troy which hung one hall, and build again the sideboards with their embossed gilded plate. But are these chambers really those where Emilia Pia held debate on love with Bembo and Castiglione; where Bibbiena’s witticisms and Fra Serafino’s pranks raised smiles on courtly lips; where Bernardo Accolti, ‘the Unique,’ declaimed his verses to applauding crowds? Is it possible that into yonder hall, where now the lion of S. Mark looks down alone on staring desolation, strode the Borgia in all his panoply of war, a gilded glittering dragon, and from the dais tore the Montefeltri’s throne, and from the arras stripped their ensigns, replacing these with his own Bull and Valentinus Dux? Here Tasso tuned his lyre for Francesco Maria’s wedding-feast, and read ‘Aminta’ to Lucrezia d’Este. Here Guidobaldo listened to the jests and whispered scandals of the Aretine. Here Titian set his easel up to paint; here the boy Raphael, cap in hand, took signed and sealed credentials from his Duchess to the Gonfalonier of Florence. Somewhere in these huge chambers, the courtiers sat before a torch-lit stage, when Bibbiena’s ‘Calandria’ and Caetiglione’s ‘Tirsi,’ with their miracles of masques and mummers, whiled the night away. Somewhere, we know not where, Giuliano de’ Medici made love in these bare rooms to that mysterious mother of ill-fated Cardinal Ippolito; somewhere, in some darker nook, the bastard Alessandro sprang to his strange-fortuned life of tyranny and license, which Brutus-Lorenzino cut short with a traitor’s poignard-thrust in Via Larga. How many men, illustrious for arts and letters, memorable by their virtues or their crimes, have trod these silent corridors, from the great Pope Julius down to James III., self-titled King of England, who tarried here with Clementina Sobieski through some twelve months of his ex-royal exile! The memories of all this folk, flown guests and masters of the still-abiding palace-chambers, haunt us as we hurry through. They are but filmy shadows. We cannot grasp them, localise them, people surrounding emptiness with more than withering cobweb forms.
Death takes a stronger hold on us than bygone life. Therefore, returning to the vast Throne-room, we animate it with one scene it witnessed on an April night in 1508. Duke Guidobaldo had died at Fossombrone, repeating to his friends around his bed these lines of Virgil:
Me circum limus niger
et deformis arundo Cocyti tardaque
palus inamabilis unda Alligat, et novies Styx interfusa
His body had been carried on the shoulders of servants through those mountain ways at night, amid the lamentations of gathering multitudes and the baying of dogs from hill-set farms alarmed by flaring flambeaux. Now it is laid in state in the great hall. The dais and the throne are draped in black. The arms and batons of his father hang about the doorways. His own ensigns are displayed in groups and trophies, with the banners of S. Mark, the Montefeltrian eagle, and the cross keys of S. Peter. The hall itself is vacant, save for the high-reared catafalque of sable velvet and gold damask, surrounded with wax candles burning steadily. Round it passes a ceaseless stream of people, coming and going, gazing at their Duke. He is attired in crimson hose and doublet of black damask. Black velvet slippers are on his feet, and his ducal cap is of black velvet. The mantle of the Garter, made of dark-blue Alexandrine velvet, hooded with crimson, lined with white silk damask, and embroidered with the badge, drapes the stiff sleeping form.
It is easier to conjure up the past of this great palace, strolling round it in free air and twilight; perhaps because the landscape and the life still moving on the city streets bring its exterior into harmony with real existence. The southern facade, with its vaulted balconies and flanking towers, takes the fancy, fascinates the eye, and lends itself as a fit stage for puppets of the musing mind. Once more imagination plants trim orange-trees in giant jars of Gubbio ware upon the pavement where the garden of the Duchess lay—the pavement paced in these bad days by convicts in grey canvas jackets—that pavement where Monsignor Bombo courted ‘dear dead women’ with Platonic phrase, smothering the Menta of his natural man in lettuce culled from Academe and thyme of Mount Hymettus. In yonder loggia, lifted above the garden and the court, two lovers are in earnest converse. They lean beneath the coffered arch, against the marble of the balustrade, he fingering his dagger under the dark velvet doublet, she playing with a clove carnation, deep as her own shame. The man is Giannandrea, broad-shouldered bravo of Verona, Duke Guidobaldo’s favourite and carpet-count. The lady is Madonna Maria, daughter of Rome’s Prefect, widow of Venanzio Varano, whom the Borgia strangled. On their discourse a tale will hang of woman’s frailty and man’s boldness—Camerino’s Duchess yielding to a low-born suitor’s stalwart charms. And more will follow, when that lady’s brother, furious Francesco Maria della Rovere, shall stab the
A farewell to these memories of Urbino’s dukedom should be taken in the crypt of the cathedral, where Francesco Maria II., the last Duke, buried his only son and all his temporal hopes. The place is scarcely solemn. Its dreary barocco emblems mar the dignity of death. A bulky Pieta by Gian Bologna, with Madonna’s face unfinished, towers up and crowds the narrow cell. Religion has evanished from this late Renaissance art, nor has the afterglow of Guido Reni’s hectic piety yet overflushed it. Chilled by the stifling humid sense of an extinct race here entombed in its last representative, we gladly emerge from the sepulchral vault into the air of day.
Filippo Visconti, with a smile on his handsome face, is waiting for us at the inn. His horses, sleek, well fed, and rested, toss their heads impatiently. We take our seats in the carriage, open wide beneath a sparkling sky, whirl past the palace and its ghost-like recollections, and are halfway on the road to Fossombrone in a cloud of dust and whirr of wheels before we think of looking back to greet Urbino. There is just time. The last decisive turning lies in front. We stand bareheaded to salute the grey mass of buildings ridged along the sky. Then the open road invites us with its varied scenery and movement. From the shadowy past we drive into the world of human things, for ever changefully unchanged, unrestfully the same. This interchange between dead memories and present life is the delight of travel.
* * * * *
During the pontificate of Gregory XIII. (1572-85), Papal authority in Rome reached its lowest point of weakness, and the ancient splendour of the Papal court was well-nigh eclipsed. Art and learning had died out. The traditions of the days of Leo, Julius, and Paul III. were forgotten. It seemed as though the genius of the Renaissance had migrated across the Alps. All the powers of the Papacy were directed to the suppression of heresies and to the re-establishment of spiritual supremacy over the intellect of Europe. Meanwhile society in Rome returned to mediaeval barbarism. The veneer of classical refinement and humanistic urbanity, which for a time had hidden the natural savagery of the Roman nobles, wore away. The Holy City became a den of bandits; the territory of the Church supplied a battle-ground for senseless party strife, which the weak old man who wore the triple crown was quite unable to control. It is related how a robber chieftain, Marianazzo, refused the offer of a general pardon from the Pope, alleging that the profession of brigand was far more lucrative, and offered greater security of life, than any trade within the walls of Rome. The Campagna, the ruined citadels about the basements of the Sabine and Ciminian hills, the quarters of the aristocracy within the city, swarmed with bravos, who were protected by great nobles and fed by decent citizens for the advantages to be derived from the assistance of abandoned and courageous ruffians. Life, indeed, had become impossible without fixed compact with the powers of lawlessness. There was hardly a family in Rome which did not number some notorious criminal among the outlaws. Murder, sacrilege, the love of adventure, thirst for plunder, poverty, hostility to the ascendant faction of the moment, were common causes of voluntary or involuntary outlawry; nor did public opinion regard a bandit’s calling as other than honourable.
It may readily be imagined that in such a state of society the grisliest tragedies were common enough in Rome. The history of some of these has been preserved to us in documents digested from public trials and personal observation by contemporary writers. That of the Cenci, in which a notorious act of parricide furnished the plot of a popular novella, is well known. And such a tragedy, even more rife in characteristic incidents, and more distinguished by the quality of its dramatis personae, is that of Vittoria Accoramboni.
Vittoria was born in 1557, of a noble but impoverished family, at Gubbio, among the hills of Umbria. Her biographers are rapturous in their praises of her beauty, grace, and exceeding charm of manner. Not only was her person most lovely, but her mind shone at first with all the amiable lustre of a modest, innocent, and winning youth. Her father, Claudio Accoramboni, removed to Rome, where his numerous children were brought up under the care of their mother, Tarquinia, an ambitious and unscrupulous woman, bent on rehabilitating the decayed honours of their house. Here Vittoria in early girlhood soon became the fashion. She exercised an irresistible influence over all who saw her, and many were the offers of marriage she refused. At length a suitor appeared whose condition and connection with the Roman ecclesiastical nobility rendered him acceptable in the eyes of the Accoramboni. Francesco Peretti was welcomed as the successful candidate for Vittoria’s hand. His mother, Camilla, was sister to Felice, Cardinal of Montalto; and her son, Francesco Mignucci, had changed his surname in compliment to this illustrious relative. The Peretti were of humble origin. The cardinal himself had tended swine in his native village; but, supported by an invincible belief in his own destinies, and gifted with a powerful intellect and determined character, he passed through all grades of the Franciscan Order to its generalship, received the bishoprics of Fermo and S. Agata, and lastly, in the year 1570, assumed the scarlet with the title of Cardinal Montalto. He was now upon the high way to the Papacy, amassing money by incessant care, studying the humours of surrounding factions, effacing his own personality, and by mixing but little in the intrigues of the court, winning the reputation of a prudent, inoffensive old man. These were his tactics for securing the Papal throne; nor were his expectations frustrated; for in 1585 he was chosen Pope, the parties of the Medici and the Farnesi agreeing to accept him as a compromise. When Sixtus V. was once firmly seated on S. Peter’s chair, he showed himself in his true colours. An implacable administrator of severest justice, a rigorous economist, an iconoclastic foe to paganism, the first act of his reign was to declare a war of extirpation against the bandits who had reduced Rome in his predecessor’s rule to anarchy.
It was the nephew, then, of this man, whom historians have judged the greatest personage of his own times, that Vittoria Accoramboni married on the 28th of June 1573. For a short while the young couple lived happily together. According to some accounts of their married life, the bride secured the favour of her powerful uncle-in-law, who indulged her costly fancies to the full. It is, however, more probable that the Cardinal Montalto treated her follies with a grudging parsimony; for we soon find the Peretti household hopelessly involved in debt. Discord, too, arose between Vittoria and her husband on the
Paolo Giordano Orsini, born about the year 1537, was reigning Duke of Bracciano. Among Italian princes he ranked at least upon a par with the Dukes of Urbino, and his family, by its alliances, was more illustrious than any of that time in Italy. He was a man of gigantic stature, prodigious corpulence, and marked personal daring; agreeable in manners, but subject to uncontrollable fits of passion, and incapable of self-restraint when crossed in any whim or fancy. Upon the habit of his body it is needful to insist,
It appears that in the year 1581, four years after Vittoria’s marriage, the Duke of Bracciano had satisfied Marcello of his intention to make her his wife, and of his willingness to countenance Francesco Peretti’s murder. Marcello, feeling sure of his game, introduced the Duke in private to his sister, and induced her to overcome any natural repugnance she may have felt for the unwieldy and gross lover. Having reached this point, it was imperative to push matters quickly on toward matrimony.
But how should the unfortunate Francesco be entrapped? They caught him in a snare of peculiar atrocity, by working on the kindly feelings which his love for Vittoria had caused him to extend to all the Acooramboni. Marcello, the outlaw, was her favourite brother, and Marcello at that time lay in hiding, under the suspicion of more than ordinary crime, beyond the walls of Rome. Late in the evening of the 18th of April, while the Peretti family were retiring to bed, a messenger from Marcello arrived, entreating Francesco to repair at once to Monte Cavallo. Marcello had affairs of the utmost importance to communicate, and begged his brother-in-law not to fail him at a grievous pinch. The letter containing this request was borne by one Dominico d’Aquaviva, alias Il Mancino, a confederate of Vittoria’s waiting-maid. This fellow, like Marcello, was an outlaw; but when he ventured into Rome he frequented Peretti’s house, and had made himself familiar with its master
A cardinal’s nephew, even in those troublous times, was not killed without some noise being made about the matter. Accordingly Pope Gregory XIII. began to take measures for discovering the authors of the crime. Strange to say, however, the Cardinal Montalto, notwithstanding the great love he was known to bear his nephew, begged that the investigation might be dropped. The coolness with which he first received the news of Francesco Peretti’s death, the dissimulation with which he met the Pope’s expression of sympathy in a full consistory, his reserve in greeting friends on ceremonial visits of condolence, and, more than all, the self-restraint he showed in the presence of the Duke of Bracciano, impressed the society of Rome with the belief that he was of a singularly moderate and patient temper. It was thought that the man who could so tamely submit to his nephew’s murder, and suspend the arm of justice when already raised for vengeance, must prove a mild and indulgent ruler. When, therefore, in the fifth year after this event, Montalto was elected Pope, men ascribed his elevation in no small measure to his conduct at the present crisis. Some, indeed, attributed his extraordinary moderation and self-control to the right cause. ’Veramente costui e un gran frate!’ was Gregory’s remark at the close of the consistory when Montalto begged him to let the matter of Peretti’s murder rest. ’Of a truth, that fellow is a consummate hypocrite!’
Francesco Peretti had been murdered on the 16th of April 1581. Sixtus V. was proclaimed on the 24th of April 1585. In this interval Vittoria underwent a series of extraordinary perils and adventures. First of all, she had been secretly married to the Duke in his gardens of Magnanapoli at the end of April 1581. That is to say, Marcello and she secured their prize, as well as they were able, the moment after Francesco had been removed by murder. But no sooner had the marriage become known, than the Pope, moved by the scandal it created, no less than by the urgent instance of the Orsini and Medici, declared it void. After some while spent in vain resistance, Bracciano submitted, and sent Vittoria back to her father’s house. By an order issued under Gregory’s own hand, she was next removed to the prison of Corte Savella, thence to the monastery of S. Cecilia in Trastevere, and finally to the Castle of S. Angelo. Here, at the end of December 1581, she was put on trial for the murder of her first husband. In prison she seems to have borne herself bravely, arraying her beautiful person in delicate attire, entertaining visitors, exacting from her friends the honours due to a duchess, and sustaining the frequent examinations to which she was submitted with a bold, proud front. In the middle of the month of July her constancy was sorely tried by the receipt of a letter in the Duke’s own handwriting, formally renouncing his marriage. It was only by a lucky accident that she was prevented on this occasion from committing suicide. The Papal court meanwhile kept urging her either to retire to a monastery or to accept another husband. She firmly refused to embrace the religious life, and declared that she was already lawfully united to a living husband, the Duke of Bracciano. It seemed impossible to deal with her; and at last, on the 8th of November, she was released from prison under the condition of retirement to Gubbio. The Duke had lulled his enemies to rest by the pretence of yielding to their wishes. But Marcello was continually beside him at Bracciano, where we read of a mysterious Greek enchantress whom he hired to brew love-philters for the furtherance of his ambitious plots. Whether Bracciano was stimulated by the brother’s arguments or by the witch’s potions need not be too curiously questioned. But it seems in any case certain that absence inflamed his passion instead of cooling it.
Accordingly, in September 1583, under the excuse of a pilgrimage to Loreto, he contrived to meet Vittoria at Trevi, whence he carried her in triumph to Bracciano. Here he openly acknowledged her as his wife, installing her with all the splendour due to a sovereign duchess. On the 10th of October following, he once more performed the marriage ceremony in the principal church of his fief; and in the January of 1584 he brought her openly to Rome. This act of contumacy to the Pope, both as feudal superior and as supreme Pontiff, roused all the former opposition to his marriage. Once more it was declared invalid. Once more the Duke pretended to give way. But at this juncture Gregory died; and while the conclave was sitting for the election of the new Pope, he resolved to take the law into his own hands, and to ratify his union with Vittoria by a third and public marriage in Rome. On the morning of the 24th of April 1585, their nuptials were accordingly once more solemnised in the Orsini palace. Just one hour after the ceremony, as appears from the marriage register, the news arrived of Cardinal Montalto’s election to the Papacy, Vittoria lost no time in paying her respects to Camilla, sister of the new Pope, her former mother-in-law. The Duke visited Sixtus V. in state to compliment him on his elevation. But the reception which both received proved that Rome was no safe place for them to live in. They consequently made up their minds for flight.
A chronic illness from which Bracciano had lately suffered furnished a sufficient pretext. This seems to have been something of the nature of a cancerous ulcer, which had to be treated by the application of raw meat to open sores. Such details are only excusable in the present narrative on the ground that Bracciano’s disease considerably affects our moral judgment of the woman who could marry a man thus physically tainted, and with her husband’s blood upon his hands. At any rate, the Duke’s lupa justified his trying what change of air, together with the sulphur waters of Abano, would do for him.
The Duke and Duchess arrived in safety at Venice, where they had engaged the Dandolo palace on the Zuecca. There they only stayed a few days, removing to Padua, where they had hired palaces of the Foscari in the Arena and a house called De’ Cavalli. At Salo, also, on the Lake of Garda, they provided themselves with fit dwellings for their princely state and their large retinues, intending to divide their time between the pleasures which the capital of luxury afforded and the simpler enjoyments of the most beautiful of the Italian lakes. But la gioia dei profani e un fumo passaggier. Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, died suddenly at Salo on the 10th of November 1585, leaving the young and beautiful Vittoria helpless among enemies. What was the cause of his death? It is not possible to give a clear and certain answer. We have seen that he suffered from a horrible and voracious disease,
Vittoria, accompanied by her brother, Marcello, and the whole court of Bracciano, repaired at once to Padua, where she was soon after joined by Flaminio, and by the Prince Lodovico Orsini. Lodovico Orsini assumed the duty of settling Vittoria’s affairs under her dead husband’s will. In life he had been the Duke’s ally as well as relative. His family pride was deeply wounded by what seemed to him an ignoble, as it was certainly an unequal, marriage. He now showed himself the relentless enemy of the Duchess. Disputes arose between them as to certain details, which seem to have been legally decided in the widow’s favour. On the night of the 22nd of December, however, forty men disguised in black and fantastically tricked out to elude detection, surrounded her palace. Through the long galleries and chambers hung with arras, eight of them went, bearing torches, in search of Vittoria and her brothers. Marcello escaped, having fled the house under suspicion of the murder of one of his own followers. Flaminio, the innocent and young, was playing on his lute and singing Miserere in the great hall of the palace. The murderers surprised him with a shot from one of their harquebuses. He ran, wounded in the shoulder, to his sister’s room. She, it is said, was telling her beads before retiring for the night. When three of the assassins entered, she knelt before the crucifix, and there they stabbed her in the left breast, turning the poignard in the wound, and asking her with savage insults if her heart was pierced. Her last words were, ’Jesus, I pardon you.’ Then they turned to Flaminio, and left him pierced with seventy-four stiletto wounds.
The authorities of Padua identified the bodies of Vittoria and Flaminio, and sent at once for further instructions to Venice. Meanwhile it appears that both corpses were laid out in one open coffin for the people to contemplate. The palace and the church of the Eremitani, to which they had been removed, were crowded all through the following day with a vast concourse of the Paduans. Vittoria’s wonderful dead body, pale yet sweet to look upon, the golden hair flowing around her marble shoulders, the red wound in her breast uncovered, the stately limbs arrayed in satin as she died, maddened the populace with its surpassing loveliness. ‘Dentibus fremebant,’ says the chronicler, when they beheld that gracious lady stiff in death. And of a truth, if her corpse was actually exposed in the
The Prince was arrested and interrogated before the court of Padua. He entered their hall attended by forty armed men, responded haughtily to their questions, and demanded free passage for his courier to Virginio Orsini, then at Florence. To this demand the court acceded; but the precaution of way-laying the courier and searching his person was very wisely taken. Besides some formal dispatches which announced Vittoria’s assassination, they found in this man’s boot a compromising letter, declaring Virginio a party to the crime, and asserting that Lodovico had with his own poignard killed their victim. Padua placed itself in a state of defence, and prepared to besiege the palace of Prince Lodovico, who also got himself in readiness for battle. Engines, culverins, and firebrands were directed against the barricades which he had raised. The militia was called out and the Brenta was strongly guarded. Meanwhile the Senate of S. Mark had dispatched the Avogadore, Aloisio Bragadin, with full power to the scene of action. Lodovico Orsini, it may be mentioned, was in their service; and had not this affair intervened, he would in a few weeks have entered on his duties as Governor for Venice of Corfu.
The bombardment of Orsini’s palace began on Christmas Day. Three of the Prince’s men were killed in the first assault; and since the artillery brought to bear upon him threatened speedy ruin to the house and its inhabitants, he made up his mind to surrender. ’The Prince Luigi,’ writes one-chronicler of these events, ’walked attired in brown, his poignard at his side, and his cloak slung elegantly under his arm. The weapon being taken from him, he leaned upon a balustrade, and began to trim his nails with a little pair of scissors he happened to find there.’ On the 27th he was strangled in prison by order of the Venetian Republic. His body was carried to be buried, according to his own will, in the church of S. Maria dell’ Orto at Venice. Two of his followers were hung next day. Fifteen were executed on the following Monday; two of these were quartered alive; one of them, the Conte Paganello, who confessed to having slain Vittoria, had his left side probed with his own cruel dagger. Eight were condemned to the galleys, six to prison, and eleven were acquitted. Thus ended this terrible affair, which brought, it is said, good credit and renown to the lords of Venice through all nations of the civilised world. It only remains to be added that Marcello Accoramboni was surrendered to the Pope’s vengeance and beheaded at Ancona, where also his mysterious accomplice, the Greek sorceress, perished.
This story of Vittoria Accoramboni’s life and tragic ending is drawn, in its main details, from a narrative published by Henri Beyle in his ’Chroniques et Novelles.’ He professes to have translated it literally from a manuscript communicated to him by a nobleman of Mantua; and there are strong internal evidences of the truth of this assertion. Such compositions are frequent in Italian libraries, nor is it rare for one of them to pass into the common market—as Mr. Browning’s famous purchase of the tale on which he based his ’Ring and the Book’ sufficiently proves. These pamphlets were produced, in the first instance, to gratify the curiosity of the educated public in an age which had no newspapers, and also to preserve the memory of famous trials. How far the strict truth was represented, or whether, as in the case of Beatrice Cenci, the pathetic aspect of the tragedy was unduly dwelt on, depended, of course, upon the mental bias of the scribe, upon his opportunities of obtaining exact information, and upon the taste of the audience for whom he wrote. Therefore, in treating such documents as historical data, we must be upon our guard. Professor Gnoli, who has recently investigated the whole of Vittoria’s eventful story by the light of contemporary documents, informs us that several narratives exist in manuscript, all dealing more or less accurately with the details of the tragedy. One of these was published in Italian at Brescia in 1586. A Frenchman, De Rosset, printed the same story in its main outlines at Lyons in 1621. Our own dramatist, John Webster, made it the subject of a tragedy, which he gave to the press in 1612. What were his sources of information we do not know for certain. But it is clear that he was well acquainted with the history. He has changed some of the names and redistributed some of the chief parts. Vittoria’s first husband, for example, becomes Camillo; her mother, named Cornelia instead of Tarquinia, is so far from abetting Peretti’s murder and countenancing her daughter’s shame, that she acts the role of a domestic Cassandra. Flaminio and not Marcello is made the main instrument of Vittoria’s crime and elevation. The Cardinal Montalto is called Monticelso, and his papal title is Paul IV. instead of Sixtus V. These are details of comparative indifference, in which a playwright may fairly use his liberty of art. On the other hand, Webster shows a curious knowledge of the picturesque circumstances of the tale. The garden in which Vittoria meets Bracciano is the villa of Magnanapoli; Zanche, the Moorish slave, combines Vittoria’s waiting-woman, Caterina, and the Greek sorceress who so mysteriously dogged Marcello’s footsteps to the death. The suspicion of Bracciano’s murder is used to introduce a quaint episode of Italian poisoning.
Webster exercised the dramatist’s privilege of connecting various threads of action in one plot, disregarding chronology, and hazarding an ethical solution of motives which mere fidelity to fact hardly warrants. He shows us Vittoria married to Camillo, a low-born and witless fool, whose only merit consists in being nephew to the Cardinal Monticelso, afterwards Pope Paul IV. Paulo Giordano Ursini, Duke of Brachiano, loves Vittoria, and she suggests to him that, for the furtherance of their amours, his wife, the Duchess Isabella, sister to Francesco de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Florence, should be murdered at the same time as her own husband, Camillo. Brachiano is struck by this plan, and with the help of Vittoria’s brother, Flamineo, he puts it at once into execution. Flamineo hires a doctor who poisons Brachiano’s portrait, so that Isabella dies after kissing it. He also with his own hands twists Camillo’s neck during a vaulting-match, making it appear that he came by his death accidentally. Suspicion of the murder attaches, however, to Vittoria. She is tried for her life before Monticelso and De’ Medici; acquitted, and relegated to a house of Convertites or female reformatory. Brachiano, on the accession of Monticelso to the Papal throne, resolves to leave Rome with Vittoria. They escape, together with her mother Cornelia, and her brothers Flamineo and Marcello, to Padua; and it is here that the last scenes of the tragedy are laid.
The use Webster made of Lodovico Orsini deserves particular attention. He introduces this personage in the very first scene as a spendthrift, who, having run through his fortune, has been outlawed. Count Lodovico, as he is always called, has no relationship with the Orsini, but is attached to the service of Francesco de’ Medici, and is an old lover of the Duchess Isabella. When, therefore, the Grand Duke meditates vengeance on Brachiano, he finds a fitting instrument in the desperate Lodovico. Together, in disguise, they repair to Padua. Lodovico poisons the Duke of Brachiano’s helmet, and has the satisfaction of ending his last struggles by the halter. Afterwards, with companions, habited as a masquer, he enters Vittoria’s palace and puts her to death together with her brother Flamineo. Just when the deed of vengeance has been completed, young Giovanni Orsini, heir of Brachiano, enters and orders the summary execution of Lodovico for this deed of violence. Webster’s invention in this plot is confined to the fantastic incidents attending on the deaths of Isabella, Camillo, and Brachiano, and to the murder of Marcello by his brother Flamineo, with the further consequence of Cornelia’s madness and death. He has heightened our interest in Isabella, at the expense of Brachiano’s character, by making her an innocent and loving wife instead of an adulteress. He has ascribed different motives from the real ones to Lodovico in order to bring this personage into rank with the chief actors, though
The character of the ‘White Devil, or Vittoria Corombona,’ is perhaps the most masterly creation of Webster’s genius. Though her history is a true one in its leading incidents, the poet, while portraying a real personage, has conceived an original individuality. It is impossible to know for certain how far the actual Vittoria was guilty of her first husband’s murder. Her personality fails to detach itself from the romance of her biography by any salient qualities. But Webster, with true playwright’s instinct, casts aside historical doubts, and delineates in his heroine a woman of a very marked and terrible nature. Hard as adamant, uncompromising, ruthless, Vittoria follows ambition as the loadstar of her life. It is the ambition to reign as Duchess, far more than any passion for a paramour, which makes her plot Camillo’s and Isabella’s murders, and throws her before marriage into Brachiano’s arms. Added to this ambition, she is possessed with the cold demon of her own imperial and victorious beauty. She has the courage of her criminality in the fullest sense; and much of the fascination with which Webster has invested her, depends upon her dreadful daring. Her portrait is drawn with full and firm touches. Although she appears but five times on the scene, she fills it from the first line of the drama to the last. Each appearance adds effectively to the total impression. We see her first during a criminal interview with Brachiano, contrived by her brother Flamineo. The plot of the tragedy is developed in this scene; Vittoria suggesting, under the metaphor of a dream, that her lover should compass the deaths of his duchess and her husband. The dream is told with deadly energy and ghastly picturesqueness. The cruel sneer at its conclusion, murmured by a voluptuous woman in the ears of an impassioned paramour, chills us with the sense of concentrated vice. Her next
You my death’s-man!
Methinks thou dost not look horrid enough,
Thou hast too good a face to be a hangman:
If thou be, do thy office in right form;
Fall down upon thy knees, and ask forgiveness!
* * * * *
I will be waited on in death; my
Shall never go before me.
* * * * *
Yes, I shall welcome
As princes do some great ambassadors:
I’ll meet thy weapon half-way.
* * * * *
’Twas a manly
The next thou giv’st, murder some sucking infant;
And then thou wilt be famous.
So firmly has Webster wrought the character of this white devil, that we seem to see her before us as in a picture. ’Beautiful as the leprosy, dazzling as the lightning,’ to use a phrase of her enthusiastic admirer Hazlitt, she takes her station like a lady in some portrait by Paris Bordone, with gleaming golden hair twisted into snakelike braids about her temples, with skin white as cream, bright cheeks, dark dauntless eyes, and on her bosom, where it has been chafed by jewelled chains, a flush of rose. She is luxurious, but not so abandoned to the pleasures of the sense as to forget the purpose of her will and brain. Crime and peril add zest to her enjoyment. When arraigned in open court before the judgment-seat of deadly and unscrupulous foes, she conceals the consciousness of guilt, and stands erect, with fierce front, unabashed, relying on the splendour of her irresistible beauty and the subtlety of her piercing wit. Chafing with rage, the blood mounts and adds a lustre to her cheek. It is no flush of modesty, but of rebellious indignation. The Cardinal, who hates her, brands her emotion with the name of shame. She rebukes him, hurling a jibe at his own mother. And when they point with spiteful eagerness to the jewels blazing on her breast, to the silks and satins that she rustles in, her husband lying murdered, she retorts:
Had I foreknown his
death, as you suggest, I would have
bespoke my mourning.
She is condemned, but not vanquished, and leaves the court with a stinging sarcasm. They send her to a house of Convertites:
V.C. A house of Convertites! what’s that?
M. A house of penitent whores.
the noblemen of Rome Erect it for their wives,
that I am sent To lodge there?
Charles Lamb was certainly in error? when he described Vittoria’s attitude as one of ‘innocence-resembling boldness.’ In the trial scene, no less than in the scenes of altercation with Brachiano and Flamineo, Webster clearly intended her to pass for a magnificent vixen, a beautiful and queenly termagant. Her boldness is the audacity of impudence, which does not condescend to entertain the thought of guilt. Her egotism is so hard and so profound that the very victims whom she sacrifices to ambition seem in her sight justly punished. Of Camillo and Isabella, her husband and his wife, she says to Brachiano:
And both were struck
dead by that sacred yew, In that base
shallow grave that was their due.
It is tempting to pass from this analysis of Vittoria’s life to a consideration of Webster’s drama as a whole, especially in a book dedicated to Italian byways. For that mysterious man of genius had explored the dark and devious paths of Renaissance vice, and had penetrated the secrets of Italian wickedness with truly appalling lucidity. His tragedies, though worthless as historical documents, have singular value as commentaries upon history, as revelations to us of the spirit of the sixteenth century in its deepest gloom.
Webster’s plays, owing to the condensation of their thought and the compression of their style, are not easy to read for the first time. He crowds so many fantastic incidents into one action, and burdens his discourse with so much profoundly studied matter, that we rise from the perusal of his works with a blurred impression of the fables, a deep sense of the poet’s power and personality, and an ineffaceable recollection of one or two resplendent scenes. His Roman history-play of ‘Appius and Virginia’ proves that he understood the value of a simple plot, and that he was able, when he chose, to work one out with conscientious calmness. But the two Italian dramas upon which his fame is justly founded, by right of which he stands alone among the playwrights of all literatures, are marked by a peculiar and wayward mannerism. Each part is etched with equal effort after luminous effect upon a back-ground of lurid darkness; and the whole play is made up of these parts, without due concentration on a master-motive. The characters are definite in outline, but, taken together in the conduct of a single plot, they seem to stand apart, like figures in a tableau vivant; nor do they act and react each upon the other in the play of interpenetrative passions. That this mannerism was deliberately chosen, we have a right to believe. ’Willingly, and not ignorantly, in this kind have I faulted,’ is the answer Webster gives to such as may object that he has not constructed his plays upon the classic model. He seems to have had a certain sombre richness of tone and intricacy of design in view, combining sensational effect and sententious pregnancy of diction in works of laboured art, which, when adequately represented to the ear and eye upon the stage, might at a touch obtain the animation they now lack for chamber-students.
When familiarity has brought us acquainted with his style, when we have disentangled the main characters and circumstances from their adjuncts, we perceive that he treats poignant and tremendous situations with a concentrated vigour special to his genius; that he has studied each word and trait of character, and that he has prepared by gradual approaches and degrees of horror for the culmination of his tragedies. The sentences which seem at first sight copied from a commonplace book, are found to be appropriate. Brief lightning flashes of acute perception illuminate the midnight darkness of his all but unimaginably depraved characters. Sharp unexpected touches evoke humanity in the fantoccini of his wayward art. No dramatist has shown more consummate ability in heightening terrific effects, in laying bare the innermost mysteries of crime, remorse, and pain, combined to make men miserable. It has been said of Webster that, feeling himself deficient in the first poetic qualities, he concentrated his powers upon one point, and achieved success by sheer force of self-cultivation. There is perhaps some truth in this. At any rate, his genius was of a narrow and peculiar order, and he knew well how to make the most of its limitations. Yet we must not forget that he felt a natural bias toward the dreadful stuff with which he deals. The mystery of iniquity had an irresistible attraction for his mind. He was drawn to comprehend and reproduce abnormal elements of spiritual anguish. The materials with which he builds his tragedies are sought for in the ruined places of lost souls, in the agonies of madness and despair, in the sarcasms of criminal and reckless atheism, in slow tortures, griefs beyond endurance, the tempests of remorseful death, the spasms of fratricidal bloodshed. He is often melodramatic in the means employed to bring these psychological conditions home to us. He makes too free use of poisoned engines, daggers, pistols, disguised murderers, and so forth. Yet his firm grasp upon the essential qualities of diseased and guilty human nature saves him, even at his wildest, from the unrealities and extravagances into which less potent artists of the drame sanglant—Marston, for example—blundered.
With Webster, the tendency to brood on horrors was no result of calculation. It belonged to his idiosyncrasy. He seems to have been suckled from birth at the breast of that Mater Tenebrarum, our Lady of Darkness, whom De Quincey in one of his ‘Suspiria de Profundis’ describes among the Semnai Theai, the august goddesses, the mysterious foster-nurses of suffering humanity. He cannot say the simplest thing without giving it a ghastly or sinister turn. If one of his characters draws a metaphor from pie-crust, he must needs use language of the churchyard:
speak as if a man
Should know what fowl is coffined in a baked meat
Afore you cut it open.
Hideous similes are heaped together in illustration of the commonest circumstances:
Places at court are
but like beds in the hospital, where
this man’s head lies at that man’s foot, and so lower and
When knaves come to
preferment, they rise as gallowses are
raised in the Low Countries, one upon another’s shoulders.
I would sooner eat a
dead pigeon taken from the soles of the
feet of one sick of the plague than kiss one of you fasting.
A soldier is twitted with serving his master:
As witches do their serviceable spirits,
Even with thy prodigal blood.
An adulterous couple get this curse:
Like mistletoe on sear elms spent by weather,
Let him cleave to her, and both rot together.
A bravo is asked:
Dost thou imagine thou canst slide on
And not be tainted with a shameful fall?
Or, like the black and melancholic yew-tree,
Dost think to root thyself in dead men’s graves,
And yet to prosper?
It is dangerous to extract philosophy of life from any dramatist. Yet Webster so often returns to dark and doleful meditations, that we may fairly class him among constitutional pessimists. Men, according to the grimness of his melancholy, are:
Only like dead walls or
That, ruined, yield no echo.
O this gloomy world!
In what a shadow or deep pit of darkness
Doth womanish and fearful mankind live!
* * * * *
We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls,
struck and banded
Which way please them.
* * * * *
Pleasure of life! what is’t? only the good hours of an ague.
A Duchess is ‘brought to mortification,’ before her strangling by the executioner, in this high fantastical oration:
Thou art a box of worm-seed, at
best but a salvatory of
green mummy. What’s this flesh? A little crudded milk,
fantastical puff-paste, &c. &c.
Man’s life in its totality is summed up with monastic cynicism in these lyric verses:
Of what is’t fools make such vain
Sin their conception, their birth weeping,
Their life a general mist of error,
Their death a hideous storm of terror.
The greatness of the world passes by with all its glory:
Vain the ambition of kings,
Who seek by trophies and dead things
To leave a living name behind,
And weave but nets to catch the wind.
It would be easy to surfeit criticism with similar examples; where Webster is writing in sarcastic, meditative, or deliberately terror-stirring moods. The same dark dye of his imagination shows itself even more significantly in circumstances where, in the work of any other artist, it would inevitably mar the harmony of the picture. A lady, to select one instance, encourages her lover to embrace her at the moment of his happiness. She cries:
What is’t distracts you? This is flesh and blood, sir;
’Tis not the figure cut in alabaster,
Kneels at my husband’s tomb.
Yet so sustained is Webster’s symphony of sombre tints, that we do not feel this sepulchral language, this ‘talk fit for a charnel’ (to use one of his own phrases), to be out of keeping. It sounds like a presentiment of coming woes, which, as the drama grows to its conclusion, gather and darken on the wretched victims of his bloody plot.
It was with profound sagacity, or led by some deep-rooted instinct, that Webster sought the fables of his two great tragedies, ’The White Devil’ and ‘The Duchess of Malfi,’ in Italian annals. Whether he had visited Italy in his youth, we cannot say; for next to nothing is known about Webster’s life. But that he had gazed long and earnestly into the mirror held up by that enchantress of the nations in his age, is certain. Aghast and fascinated by the sins he saw there flaunting in the light of day—sins on whose pernicious glamour Ascham, Greene, and Howell have insisted with impressive vehemence—Webster discerned in them the stuff he needed for philosophy and art. Withdrawing from that contemplation, he was like a spirit ’loosed out of hell to speak of horrors.’ Deeper than any poet of the time, deeper than any even of the Italians, he read the riddle of the sphinx of crime. He found there something akin to his own imaginative mood, something which he alone could fully comprehend and interpret. From the superficial narratives of writers like Bandello he extracted a spiritual essence which was, if not the literal, at least the ideal, truth involved in them.
The enormous and unnatural vices, the domestic crimes of cruelty, adultery, and bloodshed, the political scheming and the subtle arts of vengeance, the ecclesiastical tyranny and craft, the cynical scepticism and lustre of luxurious godlessness, which made Italy in the midst of her refinement blaze like ‘a bright and ominous star’ before the nations; these were the very elements in which the genius of Webster—salamander-like in flame—could live and flourish. Only the incidents of Italian history, or of French history in its Italianated epoch, were capable of supplying him with the proper type of plot. It was in Italy alone, or in an Italianated country, such as England for a brief space in the reign of the first Stuart threatened to become, that the well-nigh diabolical wickedness of his characters might have been realised. An audience familiar with Italian novels through Belleforest and Painter, inflamed by the long struggle of the Reformation against the scarlet abominations of the Papal See, outraged in their moral sense by the political paradoxes of Machiavelli, horror-stricken at the still recent misdoings of Borgias and Medici and Farnesi, alarmed by that Italian policy which had conceived the massacre of S. Bartholomew in France, and infuriated
Thus passion and reflection, superstition and profanity, deliberate atrocity and fear of judgment, are united in the same nature; and to make the complex still more strange, the play-wright has gifted these tremendous personalities with his own wild humour and imaginative irony. The result is almost monstrous, such an ideal of character as makes earth hell. And yet it is not without justification. To the Italian text has been added the Teutonic commentary, and both are fused by a dramatic genius into one living whole.
One of these men is Flamineo, the brother of Vittoria Corombona, upon whose part the action of the ‘White Devil’ depends. He has been bred in arts and letters at the university of Padua; but being poor and of luxurious appetites, he chooses the path of crime in courts for his advancement. A duke adopts him for his minion, and Flamineo acts the pander to this great man’s lust. He contrives the death of his brother-in-law, suborns a doctor to poison the Duke’s wife, and arranges secret meetings between his sister and the paramour who is to make her fortune and his own. His mother appears like a warning Ate to prevent her daughter’s crime. In his rage he cries:
What fury raised thee up? Away, away!
And when she pleads the honour of their house he answers:
Having a path so open and so free
To my preferment, still retain your milk
In my pale forehead?
Later on, when it is necessary to remove another victim, he runs his own brother through the body and drives his mother to madness. Yet, in the midst of these crimes, we are unable to regard him as a simple cut-throat. His irony and reckless courting of damnation open-eyed to get his gust of life in this world, make him no common villain. He can be brave as well as fierce. When the Duke insults him he bandies taunt for taunt:
Brach. No, you pander?
me, my lord?
Am I your dog?
B. A bloodhound; do you brave, do you stand me?
you! let those that have diseases run;
I need no plasters.
B. Would you be kicked?
you have your neck broke?
I tell you, duke, I am not in Russia;
My shins must be kept whole.
B. Do you know me?
F. Oh, my lord, methodically: As in this world there are degrees of evils, So in this world there are degrees of devils. You’re a great duke, I your poor secretary.
When the Duke dies and his prey escapes him, the rage of disappointment breaks into this fierce apostrophe:
I cannot conjure; but if prayers or oaths. Will get the speech of him, though forty devils Wait on him in his livery of flames, I’ll speak to him and shake him by the hand, Though I be blasted.
As crimes thicken round him, and he still despairs of the reward for which he sold himself, conscience awakes:
Riotously ill, like some that live in court,
And sometimes when my face was full of smiles Have felt the
maze of conscience in my breast.
The scholar’s scepticism, which lies at the root of his perversity, finds utterance in this meditation upon death:
Whither shall I go now?
O Lucian, thy ridiculous purgatory!
to find Alexander the Great cobbling shoes, Pompey tagging
points, and Julius Caesar making hair-buttons!
Whether I resolve to
fire, earth, water, air, or all the
elements by scruples, I know not, nor greatly care.
At the last moment he yet can say:
We cease to grieve,
cease to be Fortune’s slaves, Nay, cease
to die, by dying.
And again, with the very yielding of his spirit:
My life was a black charnel.
It will be seen that in no sense does Flamineo resemble Iago. He is not a traitor working by craft and calculating ability to well-considered ends. He is the desperado frantically clutching at an uncertain and impossible satisfaction. Webster conceives him as a self-abandoned atheist, who, maddened by poverty and tainted by vicious living, takes a fury to his heart, and, because the goodness of the world has been for ever lost to him, recklessly seeks the bad.
Bosola, in the ‘Duchess of Malfi,’ is of the same stamp. He too has been a scholar. He is sent to the galleys ‘for a notorious murder,’ and on his release he enters the service of two brothers, the Duke of Calabria and the Cardinal of Aragon, who place him as their intelligencer at the court of their sister.
seems you would create me
One of your familiars.
Ferd. Familiar! what’s that?
a very quaint invisible devil in flesh,
a kind of thriving thing
I would wish thee; and ere long thou may’st arrive
At a higher place by it.
Lured by hope of preferment, Bosola undertakes the office of spy, tormentor, and at last of executioner. For:
Discontent and want
Is the best clay to mould a villain of.
But his true self, though subdued to be what he quaintly styles ’the devil’s quilted anvil,’ on which ’all sins are fashioned and the blows never heard,’ continually rebels against this destiny. Compared with Flamineo, he is less unnaturally criminal. His melancholy is more fantastic, his despair more noble. Throughout the course of craft and cruelty on which he is goaded by a relentless taskmaster, his nature, hardened as it is, revolts.
At the end, when Bosola presents the body of the murdered Duchess to her brother, Webster has wrought a scene of tragic savagery that surpasses almost any other that the English stage can show. The sight, of his dead sister maddens Ferdinand, who, feeling the eclipse of reason gradually absorb his faculties, turns round with frenzied hatred on the accomplice of his fratricide. Bosola demands the price of guilt. Ferdinand spurns him with the concentrated eloquence of despair and the extravagance of approaching insanity. The murderer taunts his master coldly and laconically, like a man whose life is wrecked, who has waded through blood to his reward, and who at the last moment discovers the sacrifice of his conscience and masculine freedom to be fruitless. Remorse, frustrated hopes, and thirst for vengeance convert Bosola from this hour forward into an instrument of retribution. The Duke and his brother the Cardinal are both brought to bloody deaths by the hand which they had used to assassinate their sister.
It is fitting that something should be said about Webster’s conception of the Italian despot. Brachiano and Ferdinand, the employers of Flamineo and Bosola, are tyrants such as Savonarola described, and as we read of in the chronicles of petty Southern cities. Nothing is suffered to stand between their lust and its accomplishment. They override the law by violence, or pervert its action to their own advantage:
The law to him
Is like a foul black cobweb to a spider;
He makes it his dwelling and a prison
To entangle those shall feed him.
They are eaten up with parasites, accomplices, and all the creatures of their crimes:
He and his brother are like plum-trees that grow crooked over standing pools; they are rich and over-laden with fruit, but none but crows, pies, and caterpillars feed on them.
In their lives they are without a friend; for society in guilt brings nought of comfort, and honours are but emptiness:
Glories, like glow-worms,
afar off shine bright;
But looked to near, have neither heat nor light.
Their plots and counterplots drive repose far from them:
There’s but three furies
found in spacious hell;
But in a great man’s breast three thousand dwell.
Fearful shapes afflict their fancy; shadows of ancestral crime or ghosts of their own raising:
these many years
None of our family dies, but there is seen
The shape of an old woman; which is given
By tradition to us to have been murdered
By her nephews for her riches.
Apparitions haunt them:
How tedious is a guilty conscience!
When I look into the fish-ponds in my garden,
Methinks I see a thing armed with a rake
That seems to strike at me.
Continually scheming against the objects of their avarice and hatred, preparing poisons or suborning bravoes, they know that these same arts will be employed against them. The wine-cup hides arsenic; the headpiece is smeared with antimony; there is a dagger behind every arras, and each shadow is a murderer’s. When death comes, they meet it trembling. What irony Webster has condensed in Brachiano’s outcry:
On pain of death, let no man name death
It is a word infinitely horrible.
And how solemn are the following reflections on the death of princes:
O thou soft natural death, that art joint-twin
To sweetest slumber! no rough-bearded comet
Stares on thy mild departure; the dull owl
Beats not against thy casement, the hoarse wolf
Scents not thy carrion: pity winds thy corse,
Whilst horror waits on princes.
After their death, this is their epitaph:
wretched eminent things
Leave no more fame behind’em than should one
Fall in a frost and leave his print in snow.
Of Webster’s despots, the finest in conception and the firmest in execution is Ferdinand of Aragon. Jealousy of his sister and avarice take possession of him and torment him like furies. The flash of repentance over her strangled body is also the first flash of insanity. He survives to present the spectacle of a crazed lunatic, and to be run through the body by his paid assassin. In the Cardinal of Aragon, Webster paints a profligate Churchman, no less voluptuous, blood-guilty, and the rest of it, than his brother the Duke of Calabria. It seems to have been the poet’s purpose in each of his Italian tragedies to unmask Rome as the Papal city really was. In the lawless desperado, the intemperate tyrant, and the godless ecclesiastic, he portrayed the three curses from which Italian society was actually suffering.
It has been needful to dwell upon the gloomy and fantastic side of Webster’s genius. But it must not be thought that he could touch no finer chord. Indeed, it might be said that in the domain of pathos he is even more powerful than in that of horror. His mastery in this region is displayed in the creation of that dignified and beautiful woman, the Duchess of Malfi, who, with nothing in her nature, had she but lived prosperously, to divide her from the sisterhood of gentle ladies, walks, shrined in love and purity and conscious rectitude, amid the snares and pitfalls of her persecutors, to die at last the victim of a brother’s fevered avarice and a desperado’s egotistical ambition. The apparatus of infernal cruelty, the dead man’s hand, the semblances of murdered sons and husband, the masque of madmen, the dirge and doleful emblems of the tomb with which she is environed in her prison by the torturers who seek to goad her into lunacy, are insufficient to disturb the tranquillity and tenderness of her nature. When the rope is being fastened to her throat, she does not spend her breath in recriminations, but turns to the waiting-woman and says:
I pray thee look thou givest my little boy
Some syrup for his cold, and let the girl
Say her prayers ere she sleep.
In the preceding scenes we have had enough, nay, over-much, of madness, despair, and wrestling with doom. This is the calm that comes when death is present, when the tortured soul lays down its burden of the flesh with gladness. But Webster has not spared another touch of thrilling pathos.
The death-struggle is over; the fratricide has rushed away, a maddened man; the murderer is gazing with remorse upon the beautiful dead body of his lady, wishing he had the world wherewith to buy her back to life again; when suddenly she murmurs ‘Mercy!’ Our interest, already overstrained, revives with momentary hope. But the guardians of the grave will not be exorcised; and ‘Mercy!’ is the last groan of the injured Duchess.
Webster showed great skill in his delineation of the Duchess. He had to paint a woman in a hazardous situation: a sovereign stooping in her widowhood to wed a servant; a lady living with the mystery of this unequal marriage round her like a veil. He dowered her with no salient qualities of intellect or heart or will; but he sustained our sympathy with her, and made us comprehend her. To the last she is a Duchess; and when she has divested state and bowed her head to enter the low gate of heaven—too low for coronets—her poet shows us, in the lines already quoted, that the woman still survives.
The same pathos surrounds the melancholy portrait of Isabella in ‘Vittoria Corombona.’ But Isabella, in that play, serves chiefly to enhance the tyranny of her triumphant rival. The main difficulty under which these scenes of rarest pathos would labour, were they brought upon the stage, is their simplicity in contrast with the ghastly and contorted horrors that envelop them. A dialogue abounding in the passages I have already quoted—a dialogue which bandies ’O you screech-owl!’ and ’Thou foul black cloud!’—in which a sister’s admonition to her brother to think twice of suicide assumes a form so weird as this:
prithee, yet remember,
Millions are now in graves, which at last day
Like mandrakes shall rise shrieking.—
such a dialogue could not be rendered save by actors strung up to a pitch of almost frenzied tension. To do full justice to what in Webster’s style would be spasmodic were it not so weighty, and at the same time to maintain the purity of outline and melodious rhythm of such characters as Isabella, demands no common histrionic power.
In attempting to define Webster’s touch upon Italian tragic story, I have been led perforce to concentrate attention on what is painful and shocking to our sense of harmony in art. He was a vigorous and profoundly imaginative playwright. But his most enthusiastic admirers will hardly contend that good taste or moderation determined the movement of his genius. Nor, though his insight into the essential dreadfulness of Italian tragedy was so deep, is it possible to maintain that his portraiture of Italian life was true to its more superficial aspects. What place would there be for a Correggio or a Raphael in such a world as Webster’s? Yet we know that the art of Raphael and Correggio is in exact harmony with the Italian temperament of the same epoch which gave birth to Cesare Borgia and Bianca Gapello. The comparatively slighter sketch of Iachimo in ‘Cymbeline’ represents the Italian as he felt and lived, better than the laboured portrait of Flamineo. Webster’s Italian tragedies are consequently true, not so much to the actual conditions of Italy, as to the moral impression made by those conditions on a Northern imagination.
* * * * *
Italiam Petimus! We left our upland home before daybreak on a clear October morning. There had been a hard frost, spangling the meadows with rime-crystals, which twinkled where the sun’s rays touched them. Men and women were mowing the frozen grass with thin short Alpine scythes; and as the swathes fell, they gave a crisp, an almost tinkling sound. Down into the gorge, surnamed of Avalanche, our horses plunged; and there we lost the sunshine till we reached the Bear’s Walk, opening upon the vales of Albula, and Julier, and Schyn. But up above, shone morning light upon fresh snow, and steep torrent-cloven slopes reddening with a hundred fading plants; now and then it caught the grey-green icicles that hung from cliffs where summer streams had dripped. There is no colour lovelier than the blue of an autumn sky in the high Alps, defining ridges powdered with light snow, and melting imperceptibly downward into the warm yellow of the larches and the crimson of the bilberry. Wiesen was radiantly beautiful: those aerial ranges of the hills that separate Albula from Julier soared crystal-clear above their forests; and for a foreground, on the green fields starred with lilac crocuses, careered a group of children on their sledges. Then came the row of giant peaks—Pitz d’Aela, Tinzenhorn, and Michelhorn, above the deep ravine of Albula—all seen across wide undulating golden swards, close-shaven and awaiting winter. Carnations hung from cottage windows in full bloom, casting sharp angular black shadows on white walls.
Italiam petimus! We have climbed the valley of the Julier, following its green, transparent torrent. A night has come and gone at Muehlen. The stream still leads us up, diminishing in volume as we rise, up through the fleecy mists that roll asunder for the sun, disclosing far-off snowy ridges and blocks of granite mountains. The lifeless, soundless waste of rock, where only thin winds whistle out of silence and fade suddenly into still air, is passed. Then comes the descent, with its forests of larch and cembra, golden and dark green upon a ground of grey, and in front the serried shafts of the Bernina, and here and there a glimpse of emerald lake at turnings of the road. Autumn is the season for this landscape. Through the fading of innumerable leaflets, the yellowing of larches, and something vaporous in the low sun, it gains a colour not unlike that of the lands we seek. By the side of the lake at Silvaplana the light was strong and warm, but mellow. Pearly clouds hung over the Maloja, and floating overhead cast shadows on the opaque water, which may literally be compared to chrysoprase. The breadth of golden, brown, and russet tints upon the valley at this moment adds softness to its lines of level strength. Devotees of the Engadine contend that it possesses an austere charm beyond the common beauty of Swiss landscape; but this charm is only perfected in autumn. The fresh snow on the heights that guard it helps. And then there are the forests of dark pines upon those many knolls and undulating mountain-flanks beside the lakes. Sitting and dreaming there in noonday sun, I kept repeating to myself Italiam petimus!
A hurricane blew upward from the pass as we left Silvaplana, ruffling the lake with gusts of the Italian wind. By Silz Maria we came in sight of a dozen Italian workmen, arm linked in arm in two rows, tramping in rhythmic stride, and singing as they went. Two of them were such nobly built young men, that for a moment the beauty of the landscape faded from my sight, and I was saddened. They moved to their singing, like some of Mason’s or Frederick Walker’s figures, with the free grace of living statues, and laughed as we drove by. And yet, with all their beauty, industry, sobriety, intelligence, these Italians of the northern valleys serve the sterner people of the Grisons like negroes, doing their roughest work at scanty wages.
So we came to the vast Alpine wall, and stood on a bare granite slab, and looked over into Italy, as men might lean from the battlements of a fortress. Behind lies the Alpine valley, grim, declining slowly northward, with wind-lashed lakes and glaciers sprawling from storm-broken pyramids of gneiss. Below spread the unfathomable depths that lead to Lombardy, flooded with sunlight, filled with swirling vapour, but never wholly hidden from our sight. For the blast kept shifting the cloud-masses, and the sun streamed through in spears and bands of sheeny rays. Over the
It is sad that words can do even less than painting could to bring this window-scene at Promontogno before another eye. The casement just frames it. In the foreground are meadow slopes, thinly, capriciously planted with chestnut trees and walnuts, each standing with its shadow cast upon the sward. A little farther falls the torrent, foaming down between black jaws of rain-stained granite, with the wooden buildings of a rustic mill set on a ledge of rock. Suddenly above this landscape soars the valley, clothing its steep sides on either hand with pines; and there are emerald isles of pasture on the wooded flanks; and then cliffs, where the red-stemmed larches glow; and at the summit, shooting into ether with a swathe of mist around their basement, soar the double peaks, the one a pyramid, the other a bold broken crystal not unlike the Finsteraarhorn seen from Furka. These are connected by a snowy saddle, and snow is lying on their inaccessible crags in powdery drifts. Sunlight pours between them into the ravine. The green and golden forests now join from either side, and now recede, according as the sinuous valley brings their lines together or disparts them. There is a sound of cow-bells on the meadows; and the roar of the stream is dulled or quickened as the gusts of this October wind sweep by or slacken. Italiam petimus!
Tangimus Italiam! Chiavenna is a worthy key to this great gate Italian. We walked at night in the open galleries of the cathedral cloister—white, smoothly curving, well-proportioned loggie, enclosing a green space, whence soars the campanile to the stars. The moon had sunk, but her light still silvered the mountains that stand at watch round Chiavenna; and the castle rock was flat and black against that dreamy background. Jupiter, who walked so lately for us on the long ridge of the Jacobshorn above our pines, had now an ample space of sky over Lombardy to light his lamp in. Why is it, we asked each other, as we smoked our pipes and strolled, my friend and I;—why is it that Italian beauty does not leave the spirit so untroubled as an Alpine scene? Why do we here desire the flower of some emergent feeling to grow from the air, or from the soil, or from humanity to greet us? This sense of want evoked by Southern beauty is perhaps the antique mythopoeic yearning. But in our perplexed life it takes another form, and seems the longing for emotion, ever fleeting, ever new, unrealised, unreal, insatiable.
At Parma we slept in the Albergo della Croce Bianca, which is more a bric-a-brac shop than an inn; and slept but badly, for the good folk of Parma twanged guitars and exercised their hoarse male voices all night in the street below. We were glad when Christian called us, at 5 A.M., for an early start across the Apennines. This was the day of a right Roman journey. In thirteen and a half hours, leaving Parma at 6, and arriving in Sarzana at 7.30, we flung ourselves across the spine of Italy, from the plains of Eridanus to the seashore of Etruscan Luna. I had secured a carriage and extra post-horses the night before; therefore we found no obstacles upon the road, but eager drivers, quick relays, obsequious postmasters, change, speed, perpetual movement. The road itself is a noble one, and nobly entertained in all things but accommodation for travellers. At Berceto, near the summit of the pass, we stopped just half an hour, to lunch off a mouldy hen and six eggs; but that was all the halt we made.
As we drove out of Parma, striking across the plain to the ghiara of the Taro, the sun rose over the austere autumnal landscape, with its withered vines and crimson haws. Christian, the mountaineer, who at home had never seen the sun rise from a flat horizon, stooped from the box to call attention to this daily recurring miracle, which on the plain of Lombardy is no less wonderful than on a rolling sea. From the village of Fornovo, where the Italian League was camped awaiting Charles VIII. upon that memorable July morn in 1495, the road strikes suddenly aside, gains a spur of the descending Apennines, and keeps this vantage till the pass of La Cisa is reached. Many windings are occasioned by thus adhering to aretes, but the total result is a gradual ascent with free prospect over plain and mountain. The Apennines, built up upon a smaller scale than the Alps, perplexed in detail and entangled with cross sections and convergent systems, lend themselves to this plan of carrying highroads along their ridges instead of following the valley.
What is beautiful in the landscape of that northern watershed is the subtlety, delicacy, variety, and intricacy of the mountain outlines. There is drawing wherever the eye falls. Each section of the vast expanse is a picture of tossed crests and complicated undulations. And over the whole sea of stationary billows, light is shed like an ethereal raiment, with spare colour—blue and grey, and parsimonious green—in the near foreground. The detail is somewhat dry and monotonous; for these so finely moulded hills are made up of washed earth, the immemorial wrecks of earlier mountain ranges. Brown villages, not unlike those of Midland England, low houses built of stone and tiled with stone, and square-towered churches, occur at rare intervals in cultivated hollows, where there are fields and fruit trees. Water is nowhere visible except in the
From La Cisa the road descends suddenly; for the southern escarpment of the Apennine, as of the Alpine, barrier is pitched at a far steeper angle than the northern. Yet there is no view of the sea. That is excluded by the lower hills which hem the Magra. The upper valley is beautiful, with verdant lawns and purple hillsides breaking down into thick chestnut woods, through which we wound at a rapid pace for nearly an hour. The leaves were still green, mellowing to golden; but the fruit was ripe and heavy, ready at all points to fall. In the still October air the husks above our heads would loosen, and the brown nuts rustle through the foliage, and with a dull short thud, like drops of thunder-rain, break down upon the sod. At the foot of this rich forest, wedged in between huge buttresses, we found Pontremoli, and changed our horses here for the last time. It was Sunday, and the little town was alive with country-folk; tall stalwart fellows wearing peacock’s feathers in their black slouched hats, and nut-brown maids.
From this point the valley of the Magra is exceeding rich with fruit trees, vines, and olives. The tendrils of the vine are yellow now, and in some places hued like generous wine; through their thick leaves the sun shot crimson. In one cool garden, as the day grew dusk, I noticed quince trees laden with pale fruit entangled with pomegranates—green spheres and ruddy amid burnished leaves. By the roadside too were many berries of bright hues; the glowing red of haws and hips, the amber of the pyracanthus, the rose tints of the spindle-wood. These make autumn even lovelier than spring. And then there was a wood of chestnuts carpeted with pale pinkling, a place to dream of in the twilight. But the main motive of this landscape was the indescribable Carrara range, an island of pure form and shooting peaks, solid marble, crystalline in shape and texture, faintly blue against the blue sky, from which they were but scarce divided. These mountains close the valley to south-east, and seem as though they belonged to another and more celestial region.
Soon the sunlight was gone, and moonrise came to close the day, as we rolled onward to Sarzana, through arundo donax and vine-girdled olive trees and villages, where contadini lounged upon the bridges. There was a stream of sound in our ears, and in my brain a rhythmic dance of beauties caught through the long-drawn glorious golden autumn-day.
The hamlet and the castle of Fosdinovo stand upon a mountain-spur above Sarzana, commanding the valley of the Magra and the plains of Luni. This is an ancient fief of the Malaspina House, and is still in the possession of the Marquis of that name.
The road to Fosdinovo strikes across the level through an avenue of plane trees, shedding their discoloured leaves. It then takes to the open fields, bordered with tall reeds waving from the foss on either hand, where grapes are hanging to the vines. The country-folk allow their vines to climb into the olives, and these golden festoons are a great ornament to the grey branches. The berries on the trees are still quite green, and it is a good olive season. Leaving the main road, we pass a villa of the Malaspini, shrouded in immense thickets of sweet bay and ilex, forming a grove for the Nymphs or Pan. Here may you see just such clean stems and lucid foliage as Gian Bellini painted, inch by inch, in his Peter Martyr picture. The place is neglected now; the semicircular seats of white Carrara marble are stained with green mosses, the altars chipped, the fountains choked with bay leaves; and the rose trees, escaped from what were once trim garden alleys, have gone wandering a-riot into country hedges. There is no demarcation between the great man’s villa and the neighbouring farms. From this point the path rises, and the barren hillside is a-bloom with late-flowering myrtles. Why did the Greeks consecrate these myrtle-rods to Death as well as Love? Electra complained that her father’s tomb had not received the honour of the myrtle branch; and the Athenians wreathed their swords with myrtle in memory of Harmodius. Thinking of these matters, I cannot but remember lines of Greek, which have themselves the rectitude and elasticity of myrtle wands:
kai prospeson eklaus’ eremias tuchon
spondas te lusas askon hon phero xenois
espeisa tumbo d’amphetheka mursinas.
As we approach Fosdinovo, the hills above us gain sublimity; the prospect over plain and sea—the fields where Luna was, the widening bay of Spezzia—grows ever grander. The castle is a ruin, still capable of partial habitation, and now undergoing repair—the state in which a ruin looks most sordid and forlorn. How strange it is, too, that, to enforce this sense of desolation, sad dishevelled weeds cling ever to such antique masonry! Here are the henbane, the sow-thistle, the wild cucumber. At Avignon, at Orvieto, at Dolce Acqua, at Les Baux, we never missed them. And they have the dusty courtyards, the massive portals, where portcullises still threaten, of Fosdinovo to themselves. Over the gate, and here and there on corbels, are carved the arms of Malaspina—a barren thorn-tree, gnarled with the geometrical precision of heraldic irony.
Leaning from the narrow windows of this castle, with the spacious view to westward, I thought of Dante. For Dante in this castle was the guest of Moroello Malaspina, what time he was yet finishing the ‘Inferno.’ There is a little old neglected garden, full to south, enclosed upon a rampart which commands the Borgo, where we found frail canker-roses and yellow amaryllis. Here, perhaps, he may have sat with ladies—for this was the Marchesa’s pleasaunce; or may have watched through a short summer’s night, until he saw that tremolar della marina, portending dawn, which afterwards he painted in the ‘Purgatory.’
From Fosdinovo one can trace the Magra work its way out seaward, not into the plain where once the candentia moenia Lunae flashed sunrise from their battlements, but close beside the little hills which back the southern arm of the Spezzian gulf. At the extreme end of that promontory, called Del Corvo, stood the Benedictine convent of S. Croce; and it was here in 1309, if we may trust to tradition, that Dante, before his projected journey into France, appeared and left the first part of his poem with the Prior. Fra Ilario, such was the good father’s name, received commission to transmit the ‘Inferno’ to Uguccione della Faggiuola; and he subsequently recorded the fact of Dante’s visit in a letter which, though its genuineness has been called in question, is far too interesting to be left without allusion. The writer says that on occasion of a journey into lands beyond the Riviera, Dante visited this convent, appearing silent and unknown among the monks. To the Prior’s question what he wanted, he gazed upon the brotherhood, and only answered, ‘Peace!’ Afterwards, in private conversation, he communicated his name and spoke about his poem. A portion of the ‘Divine Comedy’ composed in the Italian tongue aroused Ilario’s wonder, and led him to inquire why his guest had not followed the usual course of learned poets by committing his thoughts to Latin. Dante replied that he had first intended to write in that language, and that he had gone so far as to begin the poem in Virgilian hexameters. Reflection upon the altered conditions of society in that age led him, however, to reconsider the matter; and he was resolved to tune another lyre, ’suited to the sense of modern men.’ ‘For,’ said he, ’it is idle to set solid food before the lips of sucklings.’
If we can trust Fra Ilario’s letter as a genuine record, which is unhappily a matter of some doubt, we have in this narration not only a picturesque, almost a melodramatically picturesque glimpse of the poet’s apparition to those quiet monks in their seagirt house of peace, but also an interesting record of the destiny which presided over the first great work of literary art in a distinctly modern language.
While we were at Fosdinovo the sky filmed over, and there came a halo round the sun. This portended change; and by evening, after we had reached La Spezzia, earth, sea, and air were conscious of a coming tempest. At night I went down to the shore, and paced the sea-wall they have lately built along the Rada. The moon was up, but overdriven with dry smoky clouds, now thickening to blackness over the whole bay, now leaving intervals through which the light poured fitfully and fretfully upon the wrinkled waves; and ever and anon they shuddered with electric gleams which were not actual lightning. Heaven seemed to be descending on the sea; one might have fancied that some powerful charms were drawing down the moon with influence malign upon those still resisting billows. For not as yet the gulf was troubled to its depth, and not as yet the breakers dashed in foam against the moonlight-smitten promontories. There was but an uneasy murmuring of wave to wave; a whispering of wind, that stooped its wing and hissed along the surface, and withdrew into the mystery of clouds again; a momentary chafing of churned water round the harbour piers, subsiding into silence petulant and sullen. I leaned against an iron stanchion and longed for the sea’s message. But nothing came to me, and the drowned secret of Shelley’s death those waves which were his grave revealed not.
Howler and scooper of storms! capricious and dainty sea!
Meanwhile the incantation swelled in shrillness, the electric shudders deepened. Alone in this elemental overture to tempest I took no note of time, but felt, through self-abandonment to the symphonic influence, how sea and air, and clouds akin to both, were dealing with each other complainingly, and in compliance to some maker of unrest within them. A touch upon my shoulder broke this trance; I turned and saw a boy beside me in a coastguard’s uniform. Francesco was on patrol that night; but my English accent soon assured him that I was no contrabbandiere, and he too leaned against the stanchion and told me his short story. He was in his nineteenth year, and came from Florence, where his people live in the Borgo Ognissanti. He had all the brightness of the Tuscan folk, a sort of innocent malice mixed with espieglerie. It was diverting to see the airs he gave himself on the strength of his new military dignity, his gun, and uniform, and night duty on the shore. I could not help humming to myself Non piu andrai; for Francesco was a sort of Tuscan Cherubino. We talked about picture galleries and libraries in Florence, and I had to hear his favourite passages from the Italian poets. And then there came the plots of Jules Verne’s stories and marvellous narrations about l’ uomo cavallo, l’ uomo volante, l’ uomo pesce. The last of these personages turned out to be Paolo Boynton (so pronounced), who had swam the Arno in his diving dress, passing the several bridges, and when he came to the great weir ‘allora tutti
A furious blast swept the whole sky for a moment almost clear. The moonlight fell, with racing cloud-shadows, upon sea and hills, the lights of Lerici, the great fanali at the entrance of the gulf, and Francesco’s upturned handsome face. Then all again was whirled in mist and foam; one breaker smote the sea wall in a surge of froth, another plunged upon its heels; with inconceivable swiftness came rain; lightning deluged the expanse of surf, and showed the windy trees bent landward by the squall. It was long past midnight now, and the storm was on us for the space of three days.
For the next three days the wind went worrying on, and a line of surf leapt on the sea-wall always to the same height. The hills all around were inky black and weary.
At night the wild libeccio still rose, with floods of rain and lightning poured upon the waste. I thought of the Florentine patrol. Is he out in it, and where?
At last there came a lull. When we rose on the fourth morning, the sky was sulky, spent and sleepy after storm—the air as soft and tepid as boiled milk or steaming flannel. We drove along the shore to Porto Venere, passing the arsenals and dockyards, which have changed the face of Spezzia since Shelley knew it. This side of the gulf is not so rich in vegetation as the other, probably because it lies open to the winds from the Carrara mountains. The chestnuts come down to the shore in many places, bringing with them the wild mountain-side. To make up for this lack of luxuriance, the coast is furrowed with a succession of tiny harbours, where the fishing-boats rest at anchor. There are many villages upon the spurs of hills, and on the headlands naval stations, hospitals, lazzaretti, and prisons. A prickly bindweed (the Smilax Sarsaparilla) forms a feature in the near landscape, with its creamy odoriferous blossoms, coral berries, and glossy thorned leaves.
A turn of the road brought Porto Venere in sight, and on its grey walls flashed a gleam of watery sunlight. The village consists of one long narrow street, the houses on the left side hanging sheer above the sea. Their doors at the back open on to cliffs which drop about fifty feet upon the water. A line of ancient walls, with mediaeval battlements and shells of chambers suspended midway between earth and sky, runs up the rock behind the town; and this wall is pierced with a deep gateway above which the inn is piled. We had our lunch in a room opening upon the town-gate, adorned with a deep-cut Pisan arch enclosing images and frescoes—a curious episode in a place devoted to the jollity of smugglers and seafaring folk. The whole house was such as Tintoretto loved to paint—huge wooden rafters; open chimneys with pent-house canopies of stone, where the cauldrons hung above logs of chestnut; rude low tables spread with coarse linen embroidered at the edges, and laden with plates of fishes, fruit, quaint glass, big-bellied jugs of earthenware, and flasks of yellow wine. The people of the place were lounging round in lazy attitudes. There were odd nooks and corners everywhere; unexpected staircases with windows slanting through the thickness of the town-wall; pictures of saints; high-zoned serving women, on whose broad shoulders lay big coral beads; smoke-blackened roofs, and balconies that opened on the sea. The house was inexhaustible in motives for pictures.
We walked up the street, attended by a rabble rout of boys—diavoli scatenati—clean, grinning, white-teethed, who kept incessantly shouting, ‘Soldo, soldo!’ I do not know why these sea-urchins are so far more irrepressible than their land brethren. But it is always thus in Italy. They take an imperturbable delight in noise and mere annoyance. I shall never forget the sea-roar of Porto Venere, with that shrill obligate, ‘Soldo, soldo, soldo!’ rattling like a dropping fire from lungs of brass.
At the end of Porto Venere is a withered and abandoned city, climbing the cliffs of S. Pietro; and on the headland stands the ruined church, built by Pisans with alternate rows of white and black marble, upon the site of an old temple of Venus. This is a modest and pure piece of Gothic architecture, fair in desolation, refined and dignified, and not unworthy in its grace of the dead Cyprian goddess. Through its broken lancets the sea-wind whistles and the vast reaches of the Tyrrhene gulf are seen. Samphire sprouts between the blocks of marble, and in sheltered nooks the caper hangs her beautiful purpureal snowy bloom.
The headland is a bold block of white limestone stained with red. It has the pitch of Exmoor stooping to the sea near Lynton. To north, as one looks along the coast, the line is broken by Porto Fino’s amethystine promontory; and in the vaporous distance we could trace the Riviera mountains, shadowy and blue. The sea came roaring, rolling in with tawny breakers; but, far out, it sparkled in pure azure, and the cloud-shadows over it were violet. Where Corsica should have been seen, soared banks of fleecy, broad-domed alabaster clouds.
This point, once dedicated to Venus, now to Peter—both, be it remembered, fishers of men—is one of the most singular in Europe. The island of Palmaria, rich in veined marbles, shelters the port; so that outside the sea rages, while underneath the town, reached by a narrow strait, there is a windless calm. It was not without reason that our Lady of Beauty took this fair gulf to herself; and now that she has long been dispossessed, her memory lingers yet in names. For Porto Venere remembers her, and Lerici is only Eryx. There is a grotto here, where an inscription tells us that Byron once ’tempted the Ligurian waves.’ It is just such a natural sea-cave as might have inspired Euripides when he described the refuge of Orestes in ‘Iphigenia.’
Libeccio at last had swept the sky clear. The gulf was ridged with foam-fleeced breakers, and the water churned into green, tawny wastes. But overhead there flew the softest clouds, all silvery, dispersed in flocks. It is the day for pilgrimage to what was Shelley’s home.
After following the shore a little way, the road to Lerici breaks into the low hills which part La Spezzia from Sarzana. The soil is red, and overgrown with arbutus and pinaster, like the country around Cannes. Through the scattered trees it winds gently upwards, with frequent views across the gulf, and then descends into a land rich with olives—a genuine Riviera landscape, where the mountain-slopes are hoary, and spikelets of innumerable light-flashing leaves twinkle against a blue sea, misty-deep. The walls here are not unfrequently adorned with basreliefs of Carrara marble—saints and madonnas very delicately wrought, as though they were love-labours of sculptors who had passed a summer on this shore. San Terenzio is soon discovered low upon the sands to the right, nestling under little cliffs; and then the high-built castle of Lerici comes in sight, looking across, the bay to Porto Venere—one Aphrodite calling to the other, with the foam between. The village is piled around its cove with tall and picturesquely coloured houses; the molo and the fishing-boats lie just beneath the castle. There is one point of the descending carriage road where all this gracefulness is seen, framed by the boughs of olive branches, swaying, wind-ruffled, laughing the many-twinkling smiles of ocean back from their grey leaves. Here Erycina ridens is at home. And, as we stayed to dwell upon the beauty of the scene, came women from the bay below—barefooted, straight as willow wands, with burnished copper bowls upon their heads. These women have the port of goddesses, deep-bosomed, with the length of thigh and springing ankles that betoken strength no less than elasticity and grace. The hair of some of them was golden, rippling in little curls around brown brows and glowing eyes. Pale lilac blent with orange on their dress, and coral beads hung from their ears.
At Lerici we took a boat and pushed into the rolling breakers. Christian now felt the movement of the sea for the first time. This was rather a rude trial, for the grey-maned monsters played, as it seemed, at will with our cockle-shell, tumbling in dolphin curves to reach the shore. Our boatmen knew all about Shelley and the Casa Magni. It is not at Lerici, but close to San Terenzio, upon the south side of the village. Looking across the bay from the molo, one could clearly see its square white mass, tiled roof, and terrace built on rude arcades with a broad orange awning. Trelawny’s description hardly prepares one for so considerable a place. I think the English exiles of that period must have been exacting if the Casa Magni seemed to them no better than a bathing-house.
We left our boat at the jetty, and walked through some gardens to the villa. There we were kindly entertained by the present occupiers, who, when I asked them whether such visits as ours were not a great annoyance, gently but feelingly replied: ’It is not so bad now as it used to be.’ The English gentleman who rents the Casa Magni has known it uninterruptedly since Shelley’s death, and has used it for villeggiatura during the last thirty years. We found him in the central sitting-room, which readers of Trelawny’s ‘Recollections’ have so often pictured to themselves. The large oval table, the settees round the walls, and some of the pictures are still unchanged. As we sat talking, I laughed to think of that luncheon party, when Shelley lost his clothes, and came naked, dripping with sea-water, into the room, protected by the skirts of the sympathising waiting-maid. And then I wondered where they found him on the night when he stood screaming in his sleep, after the vision of his veiled self, with its question, ‘Siete soddisfatto?’
There were great ilexes behind the house in Shelley’s time, which have been cut down, and near these he is said to have sat and written the ‘Triumph of Life.’ Some new houses, too, have been built between the villa and the town; otherwise the place is unaltered. Only an awning has been added to protect the terrace from the sun. I walked out on this terrace, where Shelley used to listen to Jane’s singing. The sea was fretting at its base, just as Mrs. Shelley says it did when the Don Juan disappeared.
From San Terenzio we walked back to Lerici through olive woods, attended by a memory which toned the almost overpowering beauty of the place to sadness.
The same memory drew us, a few days later, to the spot where Shelley’s body was burned. Viareggio is fast becoming a fashionable watering-place for the people of Florence and Lucca, who seek fresher air and simpler living than Livorno offers. It has the usual new inns and improvised lodging-houses of such places, built on the outskirts of a little fishing village, with a boundless stretch of noble sands. There is a wooden pier on which we walked, watching the long roll of waves, foam-flaked, and quivering with moonlight. The Apennines faded into the grey sky beyond, and the sea-wind was good to breathe. There is a feeling of ‘immensity, liberty, action’ here, which is not common in Italy. It reminds us of England; and to-night the Mediterranean had the rough force of a tidal sea.
Morning revealed beauty enough in Viareggio to surprise even one who expects from Italy all forms of loveliness. The sand-dunes stretch for miles between the sea and a low wood of stone pines, with the Carrara hills descending from their glittering pinnacles by long lines to the headlands of the Spezzian Gulf. The immeasurable distance was all painted in sky-blue and amethyst; then came the golden green of the dwarf firs; and then dry yellow in the grasses of the dunes; and then the many-tinted sea, with surf tossed up against the furthest cliffs. It is a wonderful and tragic view, to which no painter but the Roman Costa has done justice; and he, it may be said, has made this landscape of the Carrarese his own. The space between sand and pine-wood was covered with faint, yellow, evening primroses. They flickered like little harmless flames in sun and shadow, and the spires of the Carrara range were giant flames transformed to marble. The memory of that day described by Trelawny in a passage of immortal English prose, when he and Byron and Leigh Hunt stood beside the funeral pyre, and libations were poured, and the ‘Cor Cordium’ was found inviolate among the ashes, turned all my thoughts to flame beneath the gentle autumn sky.
Still haunted by these memories, we took the carriage road to Pisa, over which Shelley’s friends had hurried to and fro through those last days. It passes an immense forest of stone-pines—aisles and avenues; undergrowth of ilex, laurustinus, gorse, and myrtle; the crowded cyclamens, the solemn silence of the trees; the winds hushed in their velvet roof and stationary domes of verdure.
* * * * *
Parma is perhaps the brightest Residenzstadt of the second class in Italy. Built on a sunny and fertile tract of the Lombard plain, within view of the Alps, and close beneath the shelter of the Apennines, it shines like a well-set gem with stately towers and cheerful squares in the midst of verdure. The cities of Lombardy are all like large country houses: walking out of their gates, you seem to be stepping from a door or window that opens on a trim and beautiful garden, where mulberry-tree is married to mulberry by festoons of vines, and where the maize and sunflower stand together in rows between patches of flax and hemp. But it is not in order to survey the union of well-ordered husbandry with the civilities of ancient city-life that we break the journey at Parma between Milan and Bologna. We are attracted rather by the fame of one great painter, whose work, though it may be studied piecemeal in many galleries of Europe, in Parma has a fulness, largeness, and mastery that can nowhere else be found. In Parma alone Correggio challenges comparison with Raphael, with Tintoret, with all the supreme decorative painters who have deigned to make their art the handmaid of architecture. Yet even in the cathedral and the church of S. Giovanni, where Correggio’s
Our debt to Paolo Toschi is such that it would be ungrateful not to seek some details of his life. The few that can be gathered even at Parma are brief and bald enough. The newspaper articles and funeral panegyrics which refer to him are as barren as all such occasional notices in Italy have always been; the panegyrist seeming more anxious about his own style than eager to communicate information. Yet a bare outline of Toschi’s biography may be supplied. He was born at Parma in 1788. His father was cashier of the post-office, and his mother’s name was Anna Maria Brest. Early in his youth he studied painting at Parma under Biagio Martini; and in 1809 he went to Paris, where he learned the art of engraving from Bervic and of etching from Oortman. In Paris he contracted an intimate friendship with the painter Gerard. But after ten years he returned to Parma, where he established a company and school of engravers in concert with his friend Antonio Isac. Maria Louisa, the then Duchess, under whose patronage the arts flourished at Parma (witness Bodoni’s exquisite typography), soon recognised his merit, and appointed him Director of the Ducal Academy. He then formed the project of engraving a series of the whole of Correggio’s frescoes. The undertaking was a vast one. Both the cupolas of S. John and the cathedral, together with the vault of the apse of S. Giovanni and various portions of the side aisles, and the so-called Camera di S. Paolo, are covered by frescoes of Correggio and his pupil Parmegiano. These frescoes have suffered so much from neglect and time, and from unintelligent restoration, that it is difficult in many cases to determine their true character. Yet Toschi did not content himself with selections, or shrink from the task of deciphering and engraving the whole. He formed a school of disciples, among whom were Carlo Raimondi of Milan, Antonio Costa of Venice, Edward Eichens of Berlin, Aloisio Juvara of Naples, Antonio Dalco, Giuseppe Magnani, and Lodovico Bisola of Parma, and employed them as assistants in his work. Death overtook him in 1854, before it was finished, and now the water-colour drawings which are exhibited in the Gallery of Parma prove to what extent the achievement fell short of his design. Enough, however, was accomplished to place the chief masterpieces of Correggio beyond the possibility of utter oblivion.
To the piety of his pupil Carlo Raimondi, the bearer of a name illustrious in the annals of engraving, we owe a striking portrait of Toschi. The master is represented on his seat upon the scaffold in the dizzy half-light of the dome. The shadowy forms of saints and angels are around him. He has raised his eyes from his cartoon to study one of these. In his right hand is the opera-glass with which he scrutinises the details of distant groups. The upturned face, with its expression of contemplative intelligence, is like that of an astronomer accustomed to commerce with things above the sphere of common
What, then, is the Correggiosity of Correggio? In other words, what is the characteristic which, proceeding from the personality of the artist, is impressed on all his work? The answer to this question, though by no means simple, may perhaps be won by a process of gradual analysis. The first thing that strikes us in the art of Correggio is, that he has aimed at the realistic representation of pure unrealities. His saints and angels are beings the like of whom we have hardly seen upon the earth. Yet they are displayed before us with all the movement and the vivid truth of nature. Next we feel that what constitutes the superhuman, visionary quality of these creatures, is their uniform beauty of a merely sensuous type. They are all created for pleasure, not for thought or passion or activity or heroism. The uses of their brains, their limbs, their every feature, end in enjoyment; innocent and radiant wantonness is the condition of their whole existence. Correggio conceived the universe under the one mood of sensuous joy: his world was bathed in luxurious light; its inhabitants were capable of little beyond a soft voluptuousness. Over the domain of tragedy he had no sway, and very rarely did he attempt to enter on it: nothing, for example, can be feebler than his endeavour to express anguish in the distorted features of Madonna, S. John, and the Magdalen, who are bending over the dead body of a Christ extended in the attitude of languid repose. In like manner he could not deal with subjects which demand a pregnancy of intellectual meaning. He paints the three Fates like young and joyous Bacchantes, places rose-garlands and thyrsi in their hands instead of the distaff and the thread of human destinies, and they might figure appropriately upon the panels of a banquet-chamber in Pompeii. In this respect Correggio might be termed the Rossini of painting. The melodies of the ’Stabat Mater’—Fac ut portem or Quis est homo—are the exact analogues in music of Correggio’s voluptuous renderings of grave or mysterious motives. Nor, again, did he possess that severe and lofty art of composition which subordinates the fancy to the reason, and which seeks for the highest intellectual beauty in a kind of architectural harmony supreme above the melodies of gracefulness in detail. The Florentines and those who shared their spirit—Michelangelo
As a consequence of this predilection for sensuous and voluptuous forms, Correggio had no power of imagining grandly or severely. Satisfied with material realism in his treatment even of sublime mysteries, he converts the hosts of heaven into a ’fricassee of frogs,’ according to the old epigram. His apostles, gazing after the Virgin who has left the earth, are thrown into attitudes so violent and so dramatically foreshortened, that seen from below upon the pavement of the cathedral, little of their
Correggio’s sensibility to light and colour was exactly on a par with his feeling for form. He belongs to the poets of chiaroscuro and the poets of colouring; but in both regions he maintains the individuality so strongly expressed in his choice of purely sensuous beauty. Tintoretto makes use of light and shade for investing his great compositions with dramatic intensity. Rembrandt interprets sombre and fantastic moods of the mind by golden gloom and silvery irradiation, translating thought into the language of penumbral mystery. Lionardo studies the laws of light scientifically, so that the proper roundness and effect of distance should be accurately rendered, and all the subtleties of nature’s smiles be mimicked. Correggio is content with fixing on his canvas the [Greek: anerithmon gelasma], the many-twinkling laughter of light in motion, rained down through fleecy clouds or trembling foliage, melting into half-shadows, bathing and illuminating every object with a soft caress. There are no tragic contrasts of splendour sharply defined on blackness, no mysteries of half-felt and pervasive twilight, no studied accuracies of noonday clearness in his work. Light and shadow are woven together on his figures like an impalpable Coan gauze, aerial and transparent, enhancing the palpitations of voluptuous movement which he loved. His colouring, in like manner, has none of the superb and mundane pomp which the Venetians affected; it does not glow or burn or beat the fire of gems into our brain; joyous and wanton, it seems to be exactly such a beauty-bloom as sense requires for its satiety. There is nothing in his hues to provoke deep passion or to stimulate the yearnings of the soul: the pure blushes of the dawn and the crimson pyres of sunset are nowhere in the world that he has painted. But that chord of jocund colour which may fitly be married to the smiles of
It follows from this analysis that the Correggiosity of Correggio, that which sharply distinguished him from all previous artists, was the faculty of painting a purely voluptuous dream of beautiful beings in perpetual movement, beneath the laughter of morning light, in a world of never-failing April hues. When he attempts to depart from the fairyland of which he was the Prospero, and to match himself with the masters of sublime thought or earnest passion, he proves his weakness. But within his own magic circle he reigns supreme, no other artist having blended the witcheries of colouring, chiaroscuro,and faunlike loveliness of form into a harmony so perfect in its sensuous charm. Bewitched by the strains of the siren, we pardon affectations of expression, emptiness of meaning, feebleness of composition, exaggerated and melodramatic attitudes. There is what Goethe called a demonic influence in the art of Correggio: ‘In poetry,’ said Goethe to Eckermann, ’especially in that which is unconscious, before which reason and understanding fall short, and which therefore produces effects so far surpassing all conception, there is always something demonic.’ It is not to be wondered that Correggio, possessed of this demonic power in the highest degree, and working to a purely sensuous end, should have exercised a fatal influence over art. His successors, attracted by an intoxicating loveliness which they could not analyse, which had nothing in common with the reason or the understanding, but was like a glamour cast upon the soul in its most secret sensibilities, threw themselves blindly into the imitation of Correggio’s faults. His affectation, his want of earnest thought, his neglect of composition, his sensuous realism, his all-pervading sweetness, his infantine prettiness, his substitution of thaumaturgical effects for conscientious labour, admitted only too easy imitation, and were but too congenial with the spirit of the late Renaissance. Cupolas through the length and breadth of Italy began to be covered with clouds and simpering cherubs in
It is a sad law of progress in art, that when the aesthetic impulse is on the wane, artists should perforce select to follow the weakness rather than the vigour, of their predecessors. While painting was in the ascendant, Raphael could take the best of Perugino and discard the worst; in its decadence Parmigiano reproduces the affectations of Correggio, and Bernini carries the exaggerations of Michelangelo to absurdity. All arts describe a parabola. The force which produces them causes them to rise throughout their growth up to a certain point, and then to descend more gradually in a long and slanting line of regular declension. There is no real break of continuity. The end is the result of simple exhaustion. Thus the last of our Elizabethan dramatists, Shirley and Crowne and Killigrew, pushed to its ultimate conclusion the principle inherent in Marlowe, not attempting to break new ground, nor imitating the excellences so much as the defects of their forerunners. Thus too the Pointed style of architecture in England gave birth first to what is called the Decorated, next to the Perpendicular, and finally expired in the Tudor. Each step was a step of progress—at first for the better—at last for the worse—but logical, continuous, necessitated.
It is difficult to leave Correggio without at least posing the question of the difference between moralised and merely sensual art. Is all art excellent in itself and good in its effect that is beautiful and earnest? There is no doubt that Correggio’s work is in a way most beautiful; and it bears unmistakable signs of the master having given himself with single-hearted devotion to the expression of that phase of loveliness which he could apprehend. In so far we must admit that his art is both excellent and solid. Yet we are unable to conceive that any human being could be made better—stronger for endurance,
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Italy is less the land of what is venerable in antiquity, than of beauty, by divine right young eternally in spite of age. This is due partly to her history and art and literature, partly to the temper of the races who have made her what she is, and partly to her natural advantages. Her oldest architectural remains, the temples of Paestum and Girgenti, or the gates of Perugia and Volterra, are so adapted to Italian landscape and so graceful in their massive strength, that we forget the centuries which have passed over them. We leap as by a single bound from the times of Roman greatness to the new birth of humanity in the fourteenth century, forgetting the many years during which Italy, like the rest of Europe, was buried in what our ancestors called Gothic barbarism. The illumination cast upon the classic period by the literature of Rome and by the memory of her great men is so vivid, that we feel the days of the Republic and the Empire to be near us; while the Italian Renaissance is so truly a revival of that former splendour, a resumption of the music interrupted for a season, that it is extremely difficult to form any conception of the five long centuries which elapsed between the Lombard invasion in 568 and the accession of Hildebrand to the Pontificate in 1073. So true is it that nothing lives and has reality for us but what is spiritual, intellectual, self-possessed in personality and consciousness. When the Egyptian priest said to Solon, ‘You Greeks are always children,’ he intended a gentle sarcasm, but he implied a compliment; for the quality of imperishable youth belonged to the Hellenic spirit, and has become the heritage of every race which partook of it. And this spirit in no common degree has been shared by the Italians of the earlier and the later classic epoch. The land is full of monuments pertaining to those two brilliant periods; and whenever the voice of poet has spoken or the hand of artist has been at work, that spirit, as distinguished from the spirit of mediaevalism, has found expression.
Yet it must be remembered that during the five centuries above mentioned Italy was given over to Lombards, Franks, and Germans. Feudal institutions, alien to the social and political ideals of the classic world, took a tolerably firm hold on the country. The Latin element remained silent, passive, in abeyance, undergoing an important transformation. It was in the course of those five hundred years that the Italians as a modern people, separable from their Roman ancestors, were formed. At the close of this obscure passage in Italian history, their communes, the foundation of Italy’s future independence, and the source of her peculiar national development, appeared in all the vigour and audacity of youth. At its close the Italian genius presented Europe with its greatest triumph of constructive ability, the Papacy. At its close again the series of supreme artistic achievements, starting with the architecture of churches and public palaces, passing on to sculpture and painting, and culminating in music, which only ended with the temporary extinction of national vitality in the seventeenth century, was simultaneously begun in all the provinces of the peninsula.
So important were these five centuries of incubation for Italy, and so little is there left of them to arrest the attention of the student, dazzled as he is by the ever-living glories of Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance, that a visit to the ruins of Canossa is almost a duty. There, in spite of himself, by the very isolation and forlorn abandonment of what was once so formidable a seat of feudal despotism and ecclesiastical tyranny, he is forced to confront the obscure but mighty spirit of the middle ages. There, if anywhere, the men of those iron-hearted times anterior to the Crusades will acquire distinctness for his imagination, when he recalls the three main actors in the drama enacted on the summit of Canossa’s rock in the bitter winter of 1077.
Canossa lies almost due south of Reggio d’Emilia, upon the slopes of the Apennines. Starting from Reggio, the carriage-road keeps to the plain for some while in a westerly direction, and then bends away towards the mountains. As we approach their spurs, the ground begins to rise. The rich Lombard tilth of maize and vine gives place to English-looking hedgerows, lined with oaks, and studded with handsome dark tufts of green hellebore. The hills descend in melancholy earth-heaps on the plain, crowned here and there with ruined castles. Four of these mediaeval strongholds, called Bianello, Montevetro, Monteluzzo, and Montezano, give the name of Quattro Castelli to the commune. The most important of them, Bianello, which, next to Canossa, was the strongest fortress possessed by the Countess Matilda and her ancestors, still presents a considerable mass of masonry, roofed and habitable. The group formed a kind of advance-guard for Canossa against attack from Lombardy. After passing Quattro Castelli we enter the hills, climbing gently upwards
There is still a journey of two hours before the castle can be reached: and this may be performed on foot or horseback. The path winds upward over broken ground; following the arete of curiously jumbled and thwarted hill-slopes; passing beneath the battlements of Rossena, whence the unfortunate Everelina threw herself in order to escape the savage love of her lord and jailor; and then skirting those horrid earthen balze which are so common and so unattractive a feature of Apennine scenery. The most hideous balze to be found in the length and breadth of Italy are probably those of Volterra, from which the citizens themselves recoil with a kind of terror, and which lure melancholy men by intolerable fascination on to suicide. For ever crumbling, altering with frost and rain, discharging gloomy glaciers of slow-crawling mud, and scarring the hillside with tracts of barrenness, these earth-precipices are among the most ruinous and discomfortable failures of nature. They have not even so much of wildness or grandeur as forms, the saving merit of nearly all wasteful things in the world, and can only be classed with the desolate ghiare of Italian river-beds.
Such as they are, these balze form an appropriate preface to the gloomy and repellent isolation of Canossa. The rock towers from a narrow platform to the height of rather more than 160 feet from its base. The top is fairly level, forming an irregular triangle, of which the greatest length is about 260 feet, and the width about 100 feet. Scarcely a vestige of any building can be traced either upon the platform
There has been plenty of time since the year 1255, when the people of Reggio sacked and destroyed Canossa, for Nature to resume her undisputed sway by obliterating the handiwork of men; and at present Nature forms the chief charm of Canossa. Lying one afternoon of May on the crisp short grass at the edge of a precipice purple with iris in full blossom, I surveyed, from what were once the battlements of Matilda’s castle, a prospect than which there is none more spirit-stirring by reason of its beauty and its manifold associations in Europe. The lower castle-crowded hills have sunk. Reggio lies at our feet, shut in between the crests of Monte Carboniano and Monte delle Celle. Beyond Reggio stretches Lombardy—the fairest and most memorable battlefield of nations, the richest and most highly cultivated garden of civilised industry. Nearly all the Lombard cities may be seen, some of them faint like bluish films of vapour, some clear with dome and spire. There is Modena and her Ghirlandina. Carpi, Parma, Mirandola, Verona, Mantua, lie well defined and russet on the flat green map; and there flashes a bend of lordly Po; and there the Euganeans rise like islands, telling us where Padua and Ferrara nestle in the amethystine haze Beyond and above all to the northward sweep the Alps, tossing their silvery crests up into the cloudless sky from the violet mist that girds their flanks and drowns their basements. Monte Adamello and the Ortler, the cleft of the Brenner, and the sharp peaks of the Venetian Alps are all distinctly visible. An eagle flying straight from our eyrie might traverse Lombardy and light among the snow-fields of the Valtelline between sunrise and sundown. Nor is the prospect tame to southward. Here the Apennines roll, billow above billow, in majestic desolation, soaring to snow summits in the Pellegrino region. As our eye attempts to thread that labyrinth of hill and vale, we tell ourselves that those roads wind to Tuscany, and yonder stretches Garfagnana, where Ariosto lived and mused in honourable exile from the world he loved.
It was by one of the mountain passes that lead from Lucca northward that the first founder of Canossa is said to have travelled early in the tenth century. Sigifredo, if the tradition may be trusted, was very wealthy; and with his money he bought lands and signorial rights at Reggio, bequeathing to his children, when he died about 945, a patrimony which they developed into a petty kingdom. Azzo, his second son, fortified Canossa, and made it his principal place of residence. When Lothair, King of Italy, died in 950, leaving his beautiful widow to the ill-treatment of his successor, Berenger, Adelaide found a protector in this Azzo. She had been imprisoned on the Lake of Garda; but managing to escape in man’s clothes to Mantua, she thence sent news of her misfortunes to Canossa. Azzo lost no time in riding with his knights to her relief, and brought her back in safety to his mountain fastness. It is related that Azzo was afterwards instrumental in calling Otho into Italy and procuring his marriage with Adelaide, in consequence of which events Italy became a fief of the Empire. Owing to the part he played at this time, the Lord of Canossa was recognised as one of the most powerful vassals of the German Emperor in Lombardy. Honours were heaped upon him; and he grew so rich and formidable that Berenger, the titular King of Italy, laid siege to his fortress of Canossa. The memory of this siege, which lasted for three years and a half, is said still to linger in the popular traditions of the place. When Azzo died at the end of the tenth century, he left to his son Tedaldo the title of Count of Reggio and Modena; and this title was soon after raised to that of Marquis. The Marches governed as Vicar of the Empire by Tedaldo included Reggio, Modena, Ferrara, Brescia, and probably Mantua. They stretched, in fact, across the north of Italy, forming a quadrilateral between the Alps and Apennines. Like his father, Tedaldo adhered consistently to the Imperial party; and when he died and was buried at Canossa, he in his turn bequeathed to his son Bonifazio a power and jurisdiction increased by his own abilities. Bonifazio held the state of a sovereign at Canossa, adding the duchy of Tuscany to his father’s fiefs, and meeting the allied forces of the Lombard barons in the field of Coviolo like an independent potentate. His power and splendour were great enough to rouse the jealousy of the Emperor; but Henry III. seems to have thought it more prudent to propitiate this proud vassal, and to secure his kindness, than to attempt his humiliation. Bonifazio married Beatrice, daughter of Frederick, Duke of Lorraine—her whose marble sarcophagus in the Campo Santo at Pisa is said to have inspired Niccola Pisano with his new style of sculpture. Their only child, Matilda, was born, probably at Lucca, in 1046; and six years after her birth, Bonifazio, who had swayed his subjects like an iron-handed tyrant, was murdered. To the great House of Canossa, the rulers of one-third of
By this rapid enumeration of events it will be seen how the power and honours of the House of Canossa, including Tuscany, Spoleto, and the fairest portions of Lombardy, had devolved upon a single woman of the age of thirty at the moment when the fierce quarrel between Pope and Emperor began in the year 1076. Matilda was destined to play a great, a striking, and a tragic part in the opening drama of Italian history. Her decided character and uncompromising course of action have won for her the name of ‘la gran donna d’Italia,’ and have caused her memory to be blessed or execrated, according as the temporal pretensions and spiritual tyranny of the Papacy may have found supporters or opponents in posterity. She was reared from childhood in habits of austerity and unquestioning piety. Submission to the Church became for her not merely a rule of conduct, but a passionate enthusiasm. She identified herself with the cause of four successive Popes, protected her idol, the terrible and iron-hearted Hildebrand, in the time of his adversity; remained faithful to his principles after his death; and having served the Holy See with all her force and all that she possessed through all her lifetime, she bequeathed her vast dominions to it on her deathbed. Like some of the greatest mediaeval characters—like Hildebrand himself—Matilda was so thoroughly of one piece, that she towers above the mists of ages with the massive grandeur of an incarnated idea. She is for us the living statue of a single thought, an undivided impulse, the more than woman born to represent her age. Nor was it without reason that Dante symbolised in her the love of Holy Church; though students of the ‘Purgatory’ will hardly recognise the lovely maiden, singing and plucking flowers beside the stream of Lethe, in the stern and warlike chatelaine of Canossa. Unfortunately we know but little of Matilda’s personal appearance. Her health was not strong; and it is said to have been weakened, especially in her last illness, by ascetic observances. Yet she headed her own troops, armed with sword and cuirass, avoiding neither peril nor fatigue in the quarrels of her master Gregory. Up to the year 1622 two strong suits of mail were preserved at Quattro Castelli, which were said to have been worn by her in battle, and which were afterwards sold on the market-place at Reggio. This habit of donning armour does not, however, prove that Matilda was exceptionally vigorous; for in those savage times she could hardly have played the part of heroine without participating personally in the dangers of warfare.
No less monumental in the plastic unity of his character was the monk Hildebrand, who for twenty years before his elevation to the Papacy had been the maker of Popes and the creator of the policy of Rome. When he was himself elected in the year 1073, and had assumed the name of Gregory VII., he immediately began to put in practice the plans for Church aggrandisement he had slowly matured during the previous quarter of a century. To free the Church from its subservience to the Empire, to assert the Pope’s right to ratify the election of the Emperor and to exercise the right of jurisdiction over him, to place ecclesiastical appointments in the sole power of the Roman See, and to render the celibacy of the clergy obligatory, were the points he had resolved to carry. Taken singly and together, these chief aims of Hildebrand’s policy had but one object—the magnification of the Church at the expense both of the people and of secular authorities, and the further separation of the Church from the ties and sympathies of common life that bound it to humanity. To accuse Hildebrand of personal ambition would be but shallow criticism, though it is clear that his inflexible and puissant nature found a savage selfish pleasure in trampling upon power and humbling pride at warfare with his own. Yet his was in no sense an egotistic purpose like that which moved the Popes of the Renaissance to dismember Italy for their bastards. Hildebrand, like Matilda, was himself the creature of a great idea. These two potent personalities completely understood each other, and worked towards a single end. Tho mythopoeic fancy might conceive of them as the male and female manifestations of one dominant faculty, the spirit of ecclesiastical dominion incarnate in a man and woman of almost super-human mould.
Opposed to them, as the third actor in the drama of Canossa, was a man of feebler mould. Henry IV., King of Italy, but not yet crowned Emperor, had none of his opponents’ unity of purpose or monumental dignity of character. At war with his German feudatories, browbeaten by rebellious sons, unfaithful and cruel to his wife, vacillating in the measures he adopted to meet his divers difficulties, at one time tormented by his conscience into cowardly submission, and at another treasonably neglectful of the most solemn obligations, Henry was no match for the stern wills against which he was destined to break in unavailing passion. Early disagreements with Gregory had culminated in his excommunication. The German nobles abandoned his cause; and Henry found it expedient to summon a council in Augsburg for the settlement of matters in dispute between the Empire and the Papacy. Gregory expressed his willingness to attend this council, and set forth from Rome accompanied by the Countess Matilda in December 1076. He did not, however, travel further than Vercelli, for news here reached him that Henry was about to enter Italy at the head of a powerful army. Matilda hereupon persuaded
No sooner had Henry reached Turin, than he set forward again in the direction of Canossa. The fame of his arrival had preceded him, and he found that his party was far stronger in Italy than he had ventured to expect. Proximity to the Church of Rome divests its fulminations of half their terrors. The Italian bishops and barons, less superstitious than the Germans, and with greater reason to resent the domineering graspingness of Gregory, were ready to espouse the Emperor’s cause. Henry gathered a formidable force as he marched onward across Lombardy; and some of the most illustrious prelates and nobles of the South were in his suite. A more determined leader than Henry proved himself to be, might possibly have forced Gregory to some accommodation, in spite of the strength of Canossa and the Pope’s invincible obstinacy, by proper use of these supporters. Meanwhile the adherents of the Church were mustered in Matilda’s fortress; among whom may be mentioned Azzo, the progenitor of Este and Brunswick; Hugh, Abbot of Clugny; and the princely family of Piedmont. ’I am become a second Rome,’ exclaims Canossa, in the language of Matilda’s rhyming
It is probable that, while Henry’s penance was performed in the castle courts beneath the rock, his reception by the Pope, and all that subsequently happened, took place in the citadel itself. But of this we have no positive information. Indeed the silence of the chronicles as to the topography of Canossa is peculiarly unfortunate for lovers of the picturesque in historic detail, now that there is no possibility of tracing the outlines of the ancient building. Had the author of the ‘Vita Mathildis’ (Muratori, vol. v.) foreseen that his beloved Canossa would one day be nothing but a mass of native rock, he would undoubtedly have been more explicit on these points; and much that is vague about an event only paralleled by our Henry II.’s penance before Becket’s shrine at Canterbury, might now be clear.
Very little remains to be told about Canossa. During the same year, 1077, Matilda made the celebrated donation of her fiefs to Holy Church. This was accepted by Gregory in the name of S. Peter, and it was confirmed by a second deed during the pontificate of Urban IV. in 1102. Though Matilda subsequently married Guelfo d’Este, son of the Duke of Bavaria, she was speedily divorced from him; nor was there any heir to a marriage ridiculous by reason of disparity of age, the bridegroom being but eighteen, while the bride was forty-three in the year of her second nuptials. During one of Henry’s descents into Italy, he made an unsuccessful attack upon Canossa, assailing it at the head of a considerable force one October morning in 1092. Matilda’s biographer informs us that the mists of autumn veiled his beloved fortress from the eyes of the beleaguerers. They had not even the satisfaction of beholding the unvanquished citadel; and, what was more, the banner of the Emperor was seized and dedicated as a trophy in the Church of S. Apollonio. In the following year the Countess opened her gates of Canossa to an illustrious fugitive, Adelaide, the wife of her old foeman, Henry, who had escaped with difficulty from the insults and the cruelty of her husband. After Henry’s death, his son, the Emperor Henry V., paid Matilda a visit in her castle of Bianello, addressed her by the name of mother, and conferred upon her the vice-regency of Liguria. At the age of sixty-nine she died, in 1115, at Bondeno de’ Roncori, and was buried, not among her kinsmen at Canossa, but in an abbey of S. Benedict near Mantua. With her expired the main line of the noble house she represented; though Canossa, now made a fief of the Empire in spite of Matilda’s donation, was given to a family which claimed descent from Bonifazio’s brother Conrad—a young man killed in the battle of Coviolo. This family, in its turn, was extinguished in the year 1570; but a junior branch still exists at Verona. It will be remembered that Michelangelo Buonarroti claimed kinship with the Count of Canossa; and a letter from the Count is extant acknowledging the validity of his pretension.
As far back as 1255 the people of Reggio destroyed the castle; nor did the nobles of Canossa distinguish themselves in subsequent history among those families who based their despotisms on the debris of the Imperial power in Lombardy. It seemed destined that Canossa and all belonging to it should remain as a mere name and memory of the outgrown middle ages. Estensi, Carraresi, Visconti, Bentivogli, and Gonzaghi belong to a later period of Lombard history, and mark the dawn of the Renaissance.
As I lay and mused that afternoon of May upon the short grass, cropped by two grey goats, whom a little boy was tending, it occurred to me to ask the woman who had served me as guide, whether any legend remained in the country concerning the Countess Matilda. She had often, probably, been asked this question by other travellers. Therefore she was more than usually ready with an answer, which, as far as I could understand her dialect, was this. Matilda was a great and potent witch, whose summons the devil was bound to obey. One day she aspired, alone of all her sex, to say mass; but when the moment came for sacring the elements, a thunderbolt fell from the clear sky, and reduced her to ashes. That the most single-hearted handmaid of the Holy Church, whose life was one long devotion to its ordinances, should survive in this grotesque myth, might serve to point a satire upon the vanity of earthly fame. The legend in its very extravagance is a fanciful distortion of the truth.
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In the town of Parma there is one surpassingly strange relic of the past. The palace of the Farnesi, like many a haunt of upstart tyranny and beggared pride on these Italian plains, rises misshapen and disconsolate above the stream that bears the city’s name. The squalor of this grey-brown edifice of formless brick, left naked like the palace of the same Farnesi at Piacenza, has something even horrid in it now that only vague memory survives of its former uses. The princely sprezzatura of its ancient occupants, careless of these unfinished courts and unroofed galleries amid the splendour of their purfled silks and the glitter of their torchlight pageantry, has yielded to sullen cynicism—the cynicism of arrested ruin and unreverend age. All that was satisfying to the senses and distracting to the eyesight in their transitory pomp has passed away, leaving a sinister and naked shell. Remembrance can but summon up the crimes, the madness, the trivialities of those dead palace-builders. An atmosphere of evil clings to the dilapidated walls, as though the tainted spirit of the infamous Pier Luigi still possessed the spot, on which his toadstool brood of princelings sprouted in the mud of their misdeeds. Enclosed in this huge labyrinth of brickwork is the relic of which I spoke. It is the once world-famous Teatro Farnese, raised in the year 1618 by Ranunzio Farnese for the marriage of Odoardo Farnese with Margaret
In this theatre I mused one morning after visiting Fornovo; and the thoughts suggested by the battlefield found their proper atmosphere in the dilapidated place. What, indeed, is the Teatro Farnese but a symbol of those hollow principalities which the despot and the stranger built in Italy after the fatal date of 1494, when national enthusiasm and political energy were expiring in a blaze of art, and when the Italians as a people had ceased to be; but when the phantom of their former life, surviving in high works of beauty, was still superb by reason of imperishable style! How much in Italy of the Renaissance was, like this plank-built plastered theatre, a glorious sham! The sham was seen through then; and now it stands unmasked: and yet, strange to say, so perfect is its form that we respect the sham and yield our spirits to the incantation of its music.
The battle of Fornovo, as modern battles go, was a paltry affair; and even at the time it seemed sufficiently without result. Yet the trumpets which rang on July 6, 1495, for the onset, sounded the reveil of the modern world; and in the inconclusive termination of the struggle of that day, the Italians were already judged and sentenced as a nation. The armies who met that morning represented Italy and France,—Italy, the Sibyl of Renaissance; France, the Sibyl of Revolution. At the fall of evening Europe was already looking northward; and the last years of the fifteenth century were opening an act which closed in blood at Paris on the ending of the eighteenth.
If it were not for thoughts like these, no one, I suppose, would take the trouble to drive for two hours out of Parma to the little village of Fornovo—a score of bare grey hovels on the margin of a pebbly river-bed beneath the Apennines. The fields on either side, as far as eye can see, are beautiful indeed in May sunlight, painted here with flax, like shallow sheets of water reflecting a pale sky, and there with clover red as blood. Scarce unfolded leaves sparkle like flamelets of bright green upon the knotted vines, and the young corn is bending all one way beneath a western breeze. But not less beautiful than this is the whole broad plain of Lombardy; nor are the nightingales louder here than in the acacia trees around Pavia. As we drive, the fields become less fertile, and the hills encroach upon the level, sending down their spurs upon that waveless plain like blunt rocks jutting out into a tranquil sea. When we reach the bed of the Taro, these hills begin to narrow on either hand, and the road rises. Soon they open out again with gradual curving lines, forming a kind of amphitheatre filled up from flank to flank with the ghiara or pebbly bottom of the Taro. The Taro is not less wasteful than any other of the brotherhood of streams that pour from Alp or Apennine to swell the Po. It wanders, an impatient rivulet, through a wilderness of boulders, uncertain of its aim, shifting its course with the season of the year, unless the jaws of some deep-cloven gully hold it tight and show how insignificant it is. As we advance, the hills approach again; between their skirts there is nothing but the river-bed; and now on rising ground above the stream, at the point of juncture between the Ceno and the Taro, we find Fornovo. Beyond the village the valley broadens out once more, disclosing Apennines capped with winter snow. To the right descends the Ceno. To the left foams the Taro, following whose rocky channel we should come at last to Pontremoli and the Tyrrhenian sea beside Sarzana. On a May-day of sunshine like the present, the Taro is a gentle stream. A waggon drawn by two white oxen has just entered its channel, guided by a contadino with goat-skin leggings, wielding a long goad. The patient creatures stem the water, which rises to the peasant’s thighs and ripples round the creaking wheels. Swaying to and fro, as the shingles shift upon the river-bed, they make their way across; and now they have emerged upon the stones; and now we lose them in a flood of sunlight.
It was by this pass that Charles VIII. in 1495 returned from Tuscany, when the army of the League was drawn up waiting to intercept and crush him in the mousetrap of Fornovo. No road remained for Charles and his troops but the rocky bed of the Taro, running, as I have described it, between the spurs of steep hills. It is true that the valley of the Baganza leads, from a little higher up among the mountains, into Lombardy. But this pass runs straight to
In order to comprehend the battle of Fornovo in its bearings on Italian history, we must go back to the year 1492, and understand the conditions of the various States of Italy at that date. On April 8 in that year, Lorenzo de’ Medici, who had succeeded in maintaining a political equilibrium in the peninsula, expired, and was succeeded by his son Piero, a vain and foolhardy young man, from whom no guidance could be expected. On July 25, Innocent VIII. died, and was succeeded by the very worst Pope who has ever occupied S. Peter’s chair, Roderigo Borgia, Alexander VI. It was felt at once that the old order of things had somehow ended, and that a new era, the destinies of which as yet remained incalculable, was opening for Italy. The chief Italian powers, hitherto kept in equipoise by the diplomacy of Lorenzo de’ Medici, were these—the Duchy of Milan, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Florence, the Papacy, and the kingdom of Naples. Minor States, such as the Republics of Genoa and Siena, the Duchies of Urbino and Ferrara, the Marquisate of Mantua, the petty tyrannies of Romagna, and the wealthy city of Bologna, were sufficiently important to affect the balance of power, and to produce new combinations. For the present purpose it is, however, enough to consider the five great Powers.
After the peace of Constance, which freed the Lombard Communes from Imperial interference in the year 1183, Milan, by her geographical position, rose rapidly to be the first city of North Italy. Without narrating the changes by which she lost her freedom as a Commune, it is enough to state that, earliest of all Italian cities, Milan passed into the hands of a single family. The Visconti managed to convert this flourishing commonwealth, with all its dependencies, into their private property, ruling it exclusively for their own profit, using its municipal institutions as the machinery of administration, and employing
Venice, the neighbour and constant foe of Milan, had become a close oligarchy by a process of gradual constitutional development, which threw her government into the hands of a few nobles. She was practically ruled by the hereditary members of the Grand Council. Ever since the year 1453, when Constantinople fell beneath the Turk, the Venetians had been more and more straitened in their Oriental commerce, and were thrown back upon the policy of territorial aggrandisement in Italy, from which they had hitherto refrained as alien to the temperament of the Republic. At the end of the fifteenth century Venice therefore became an object of envy and terror to the Italian States. They envied her because she alone was tranquil, wealthy, powerful, and free. They feared her because they had good reason to suspect her of encroachment; and it was foreseen that if she got the upper hand in Italy, all Italy would be the property of the families inscribed upon the Golden Book. It was thus alone that the Italians comprehended government. The principle of representation being utterly unknown, and the privileged burghers in each city being regarded as absolute and lawful owners of the city and of everything belonging to it, the conquest of a town by a republic implied the political extinction of that town and the disfranchisement of its inhabitants in favour of the conquerors.
Florence at this epoch still called itself a Republic; and of all Italian commonwealths it was by far the most democratic. Its history, unlike that of Venice, had been the history of continual and brusque changes, resulting in the destruction of the old nobility, in the equalisation of the burghers, and in the formation of a new aristocracy of wealth. Prom this class of bourgeois nobles sprang the Medici, who, by careful manipulation of the State machinery, by the creation of a powerful party devoted to their interests, by flattery of the people, by corruption, by taxation, and by constant scheming, raised themselves to the first place in the commonwealth, and became its virtual masters. In the year 1492 Lorenzo de’ Medici, the most remarkable chief of this despotic family, died, bequeathing his supremacy in the Republic to a son of marked incompetence.
Since the Pontificate of Nicholas V. the See of Rome had entered upon a new period of existence. The Popes no longer dreaded to reside in Rome, but were bent upon making the metropolis of Christendom both splendid as a seat of art and learning, and also potent as the capital of a secular kingdom. Though their fiefs in Romagna and the March were still held but loosely, though their provinces swarmed with petty despots who defied the Papal authority, and though the princely Roman houses of Colonna and Orsini were still strong enough to terrorise the Holy Father in the Vatican, it was now clear that the Papal See must in the end get the better of its adversaries, and consolidate itself into a first-rate Power. The internal spirit of the Papacy at this time corresponded to its external policy. It was thoroughly secularised by a series of worldly and vicious pontiffs, who had clean forgotten what their title, Vicar of Christ, implied. They consistently used their religious prestige to enforce their secular authority, while by their temporal power they caused their religious claims to be respected. Corrupt and shameless, they indulged themselves in every vice, openly acknowledged their children, and turned Italy upside down in order to establish favourites and bastards in the principalities they seized as spoils of war.
The kingdom of Naples differed from any other state of Italy. Subject continually to foreign rulers since the decay of the Greek Empire, governed in succession by the Normans, the Hohenstauffens, and the House of Anjou, it had never enjoyed the real independence, or the free institutions, of the northern provinces; nor had it been Italianised in the same sense as the rest of the peninsula. Despotism, which assumed so many forms in Italy, was here neither the tyranny of a noble house, nor the masked autocracy of a burgher, nor yet the forceful sway of a condottiere. It had a dynastic character, resembling the monarchy of one of the great European nations, but modified by the peculiar conditions of Italian statecraft. Owing to this dynastic and monarchical complexion
Such were the component parts of the Italian body politic, with the addition of numerous petty principalities and powers, adhering more or less consistently to one or other of the greater States. The whole complex machine was bound together by no sense of common interest, animated by no common purpose, amenable to no central authority. Even such community of feeling as one spoken language gives, was lacking. And yet Italy distinguished herself clearly from the rest of Europe, not merely as a geographical fact, but also as a people intellectually and spiritually one. The rapid rise of humanism had aided in producing this national self-consciousness. Every State
The storm which began to gather over Italy in the year 1492 had its first beginning in the North. Lodovico Sforza’s position in the Duchy of Milan was becoming every day more difficult, when a slight and to all appearances insignificant incident converted his apprehension of danger into panic. It was customary for the States of Italy to congratulate a new Pope on his election by their ambassadors; and this ceremony had now to be performed for Roderigo Borgia. Lodovico proposed that his envoys should go to Rome together with those of Venice, Naples, and Florence; but Piero de’ Medici, whose vanity made him wish to send an embassy in his own name, contrived that Lodovico’s proposal should be rejected both by Florence and the King of Naples. So strained was the situation of Italian affairs that Lodovico saw in this repulse a menace to his own usurped authority. Feeling himself isolated among the princes of his country, rebuffed by the Medici, and
Charles VIII. was young, light-brained, romantic, and ruled by parvenus, who had an interest in disturbing the old order of the monarchy. He lent a willing ear to Lodovico’s invitation, backed as this was by the eloquence and passion of numerous Italian refugees and exiles. Against the advice of his more prudent counsellors, he taxed all the resources of his kingdom, and concluded treaties on disadvantageous terms with England, Germany, and Spain, in order that he might be able to concentrate all his attention upon the Italian expedition. At the end of the year 1493, it was known that the invasion was resolved upon. Gentile Becchi, the Florentine envoy at the Court of France, wrote to Piero de’ Medici: ’If the King succeeds, it is all over with Italy—tutta a bordello.’ The extraordinary selfishness of the several Italian States at this critical moment deserves to be noticed. The Venetians, as Paolo Antonio Soderini described them to Piero de’ Medici, ’are of opinion that to keep quiet, and to see other potentates of Italy spending and suffering, cannot but be to their advantage. They trust no one, and feel sure they have enough money to be able at any moment to raise sufficient troops, and so to guide events according to their inclinations.’ As the invasion was directed against Naples, Ferdinand of Aragon displayed the acutest sense of the situation. ‘Frenchmen,’ he exclaimed, in what appears like a prophetic passion when contrasted with the cold indifference of others no less really menaced, ’have never come into Italy without inflicting ruin; and this invasion, if rightly considered, cannot but bring universal ruin, although it seems to menace us alone.’ In his agony Ferdinand applied to Alexander VI. But the Pope looked coldly upon him, because the King of Naples, with rare perspicacity, had predicted that his elevation to the Papacy would prove disastrous to Christendom. Alexander preferred to ally himself with Venice and Milan. Upon this Ferdinand wrote as follows: ’It seems fated that the Popes
Terribly verified as these words were destined to be,—and they were no less prophetic in their political sagacity than Savonarola’s prediction of the Sword and bloody Scourge,—it was now too late to avert the coming ruin. On March 1, 1494, Charles was with his army at Lyons. Early in September he had crossed the pass of Mont Genevre and taken up his quarters in the town of Asti. There is no need to describe in detail the holiday march of the French troops through Lombardy, Tuscany, and Rome, until, without having struck a blow of consequence, the gates of Naples opened to receive the conqueror upon February 22, 1495. Philippe de Comines, who parted from the King at Asti and passed the winter as his envoy at Venice, has more than once recorded his belief that nothing but the direct interposition of Providence could have brought so mad an expedition to so successful a conclusion. ‘Dieu monstroit conduire l’entreprise,’ No sooner, however, was Charles installed in Naples than the States of Italy began to combine against him. Lodovico Sforza had availed himself of the general confusion consequent upon the first appearance of the French, to poison his nephew. He was, therefore, now the titular, as well as virtual, Lord of Milan. So far, he had achieved what he desired, and had no further need of Charles. The overtures he now made to the Venetians and the Pope terminated in a League between these Powers for the expulsion of the French from Italy. Germany and Spain entered into the same alliance; and De Comines, finding himself treated with marked coldness by the Signory of Venice, despatched a courier to warn Charles in Naples of the coming danger. After a stay of only fifty days in his new capital, the French King hurried northward. Moving quickly through the Papal States and Tuscany, he engaged his troops in the passes of the Apennines near Pontremoli, and on July 5, 1495, took up his quarters in the village of Fornovo. De Comines reckons that his whole fighting force at this time did not exceed 9,000 men, with fourteen pieces of artillery. Against him at the opening of the valley was the army of the League, numbering some 35,000 men, of whom three-fourths were supplied by Venice, the rest by Lodovico Sforza and the German Emperor. Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, was the general of the Venetian forces; and on him, therefore, fell the real responsibility of the battle.
De Comines remarks on the imprudence of the allies, who allowed Charles to advance as far as Fornovo, when it was their obvious policy to have established themselves in the village and so have caught the French troops in a trap. It was a Sunday when the French marched down upon Fornovo. Before them spread the plain of Lombardy, and beyond it the white crests of the Alps. ‘We were,’ says De Comines, ’in a valley between two little mountain flanks, and in that valley ran a river which could easily be forded on foot, except when it is swelled with sudden rains. The whole valley was a bed of gravel and big stones, very difficult for horses, about a quarter of a league in breadth, and on the right bank lodged our enemies.’ Any one who has visited Fornovo can understand the situation of the two armies. Charles occupied the village on the right bank of the Taro. On the same bank, extending downward toward the plain, lay the host of the allies; and in order that Charles should escape them, it was necessary that he should cross the Taro, just below its junction with the Ceno, and reach Lombardy by marching in a parallel line with his foes.
All through the night of Sunday it thundered and rained incessantly; so that on the Monday morning the Taro was considerably swollen. At seven o’clock the King sent for De Comines, who found him already armed and mounted on the finest horse he had ever seen. The name of this charger was Savoy. He was black, one-eyed, and of middling height; and to his great courage, as we shall see, Charles owed life upon that day. The French army, ready for the march, now took to the gravelly bed of the Taro, passing the river at a distance of about a quarter of a league from the allies. As the French left Fornovo, the light cavalry of their enemies entered the village and began to attack the baggage. At the same time the Marquis of Mantua, with the flower of his men-at-arms, crossed the Taro and harassed the rear of the French host; while raids from the right bank to the left were constantly being made by sharpshooters and flying squadrons. ’At this moment,’ says De Comines, ’not a single man of us could have escaped if our ranks had once been broken.’ The French army was divided into three main bodies. The vanguard consisted of some 350 men-at-arms, 3000 Switzers, 300 archers of the Guard, a few mounted crossbow-men, and the artillery. Next came the Battle, and after this the rearguard. At the time when the Marquis of Mantua made his attack, the French rearguard had not yet crossed the river. Charles quitted the van, put himself at the head of his chivalry, and charged the Italian horsemen, driving them back, some to the village and others to their camp. De Comines observes, that had the Italian knights been supported in this passage of arms by the light cavalry of the Venetian force, called Stradiots, the French must have been outnumbered, thrown into confusion, and defeated. As it was, these Stradiots were engaged
It is incredible, considering the nature of the ground and the number of the troops engaged, that the allies should not have returned to the attack and have made the passage of the French into the plain impossible. De Comines, however, assures us that the actual engagement only lasted a quarter of an hour, and the pursuit of the Italians three quarters of an hour. After they had once resolved to fly, they threw away their lances and betook themselves to Reggio and Parma. So complete was their discomfiture, that De Comines gravely blames the want of military genius and adventure in the French host. If, instead of advancing along the left bank of the Taro and there taking up his quarters for the night, Charles had recrossed the stream and pursued the army of the allies, he would have had the whole of Lombardy at his discretion. As it was, the French army encamped not far from the scene of the action in great discomfort and anxiety. De Comines had to bivouac in a vineyard, without even a mantle to wrap round him, having lent his cloak to the King in the morning; and as it had been pouring all day, the ground could not have afforded very luxurious quarters. The same extraordinary luck which had attended the French in their whole expedition, now favoured their retreat; and the same pusillanimity which the allies had shown at Fornovo, prevented them from re-forming and engaging with the army of Charles upon the plain. One hour before daybreak on Tuesday morning, the French broke up their camp and succeeded in clearing the valley. That night they lodged at Fiorenzuola, the next at Piacenza, and so on; till on the eighth day they arrived at Asti without having been so much as incommoded by the army of the allies in their rear.
Although the field of Fornovo was in reality so disgraceful to the Italians, they reckoned it a victory upon the technical pretence that the camp and baggage of the French had been seized. Illuminations and rejoicings made the piazza of S. Mark in Venice gay, and Francesco da Gonzaga had the glorious Madonna della Vittoria painted for him by Mantegna, in commemoration of what ought only to have been remembered with shame.
A fitting conclusion to this sketch, connecting its close with the commencement, may be found in some remarks upon the manner of warfare to which the Italians of the Renaissance had become accustomed, and which proved so futile on the field of Fornovo. During the middle ages, and in the days of the Communes, the whole male population of Italy had fought light-armed on foot. Merchant and artisan left the counting-house and the workshop, took shield and pike, and sallied forth to attack the barons in their castles, or to meet the Emperor’s troops upon the field. It was with this national militia that the citizens of Florence freed their Contado of the nobles, and the burghers of Lombardy gained the battle of Legnano. In course of time, by a process of change which it is not very easy to trace, heavily armed cavalry began to take the place of infantry in mediaeval warfare. Men-at-arms, as they were called, encased from head to foot in iron, and mounted upon chargers no less solidly caparisoned, drove the foot-soldiers before them at the points of their long lances. Nowhere in Italy do they seem to have met with the fierce resistance which the bears of the Swiss Oberland and the bulls of Uri offered to the knights of Burgundy. No Tuscan Arnold von Winkelried clasped a dozen lances to his bosom that the foeman’s ranks might thus be broken at the cost of his own life; nor did it occur to the Italian burghers to meet the charge of the horsemen with squares protected by bristling spears. They seem, on the contrary, to have abandoned military service with the readiness of men whose energies were already absorbed in the affairs of peace. To become a practised and efficient man-at-arms required long training and a life’s devotion. So much time the burghers of the free towns could not spare to military service, while the petty nobles were only too glad to devote themselves to so honourable a calling. Thus it came to pass that a class of professional fighting-men was gradually formed in Italy, whose services the burghers and the princes bought, and by whom the wars of the peninsula were regularly farmed by contract. Wealth and luxury in the great cities continued to increase; and as the burghers grew more comfortable, they were less inclined to take the field in their own persons, and more disposed to vote large sums of money for the purchase of necessary aid. At the same time this system suited the despots, since it spared them the peril of arming their own subjects, while they taxed them to pay the services of foreign captains. War thus became a commerce. Romagna, the Marches of Ancona, and other parts of the Papal dominions, supplied a number of petty nobles whose whole business in life it was to form companies of trained horsemen, and with these bands to hire themselves out to the republics and the despots. Gain was the sole purpose of these captains. They sold their service to the highest bidder, fighting irrespectively of principle or patriotism, and passing
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FLORENCE AND THE MEDICI
Di Firenze in prima si divisono intra loro i nobili, dipoi i nobili e il popolo, e in ultimo il popolo e la plebe; e molte volte occorse che una di queste parti rimasa superiore, si divise in due.—MACHIAVELLI.
Florence, like all Italian cities, owed her independence to the duel of the Papacy and Empire. The transference of the imperial authority beyond the Alps had enabled the burghs of Lombardy and Tuscany to establish a form of self-government. This government was based upon the old municipal organisation of duumvirs and decemvirs. It was, in fact, nothing more or less than a survival from the ancient Roman system. The proof of this was, that while vindicating their rights as towns, the free cities never questioned the validity of the imperial title. Even after the peace of Constance in 1183, when Frederick Barbarossa acknowledged their autonomy, they received within their walls a supreme magistrate, with power of life and death and ultimate appeal in all decisive questions, whose title of Potesta indicated that he represented the imperial power—Potestas. It was not by the assertion of any right, so much as by the growth of custom, and by the weakness of the Emperors, that in course of time each city became a sovereign State. The theoretical supremacy of the Empire prevented any other authority from taking the first place in Italy. On the other hand, the practical inefficiency of the Emperors to play their part encouraged the establishment of numerous minor powers amenable to no controlling discipline.
The free cities derived their strength from industry, and had nothing in common with the nobles of the surrounding country. Broadly speaking, the population of the towns included what remained in Italy of the old Roman people. This Roman stock was nowhere stronger than in Florence and Venice—Florence defended from barbarian incursions by her mountains and marshes, Venice by the isolation of her lagoons. The nobles, on the contrary, were mostly of foreign origin—Germans, Franks, and Lombards, who had established themselves as feudal lords in castles apart from the cities. The force which the burghs acquired as industrial communities was soon turned against these nobles. The larger cities, like Milan and Florence, began to make war upon the lords of castles, and to absorb into their own territory the small towns and villages around them. Thus in the social economy of the Italians there were two antagonistic elements ready to range themselves beneath any banners that should give the form of legitimate warfare to their mutual hostility. It was the policy of the Church in the twelfth century to support the cause of the cities, using them as a weapon against the Empire, and stimulating the growing ambition of the burghers. In this way Italy came to be divided into the two world-famous factions known as Guelf and Ghibelline. The struggle between Guelf and Ghibelline was the struggle of the Papacy for the depression of the Empire, the struggle of the great burghs face to face with feudalism, the struggle of the old Italie stock enclosed in cities with the foreign nobles established in fortresses. When the Church had finally triumphed by the extirpation of the House of Hohenstaufen, this conflict of Guelf and Ghibelline was really ended. Until the reign of Charles V. no Emperor interfered to any purpose in Italian affairs. At the same time the Popes ceased to wield a formidable power. Having won the battle by calling in the French, they suffered the consequences of this policy by losing their hold on Italy during the long period of their exile at Avignon. The Italians, left without either Pope or Emperor, were free to pursue their course of internal development, and to prosecute their quarrels among themselves. But though the names of Guelf and Ghibelline lost their old significance after the year 1266 (the date of King Manfred’s death), these two factions had so divided Italy that they continued to play a prominent part in her annals. Guelf still meant constitutional autonomy, meant the burgher as against the noble, meant industry as opposed to feudal lordship. Ghibelline meant the rule of the few over the many, meant tyranny, meant the interest of the noble as against the merchant and the citizen. These broad distinctions must be borne in mind, if we seek to understand how it was that a city like Florence continued to be governed by parties, the European force of which had passed away.
Florence first rose into importance during the papacy of Innocent III. Up to this date she had been a town of second-rate distinction even in Tuscany. Pisa was more powerful by arms and commerce. Lucca was the old seat of the dukes and marquises of Tuscany. But between the years 1200 and 1250 Florence assumed the place she was to hold thenceforward, by heading the league of Tuscan cities formed to support the Guelf party against the Ghibellines. Formally adopting the Guelf cause, the Florentines made themselves the champions of municipal liberty in Central Italy; and while they declared war against the Ghibelline cities, they endeavoured to stamp out the very name of noble in their State. It is not needful to describe the varying fortunes of the Guelfs and Ghibellines, the burghers and the nobles, during the thirteenth and the first half of the fourteenth centuries. Suffice it to say that through all the vicissitudes of that stormy period the name Guelf became more and more associated with republican freedom in Florence. At last, after the final triumph of that party in 1253, the Guelfs remained victors in the city. Associating the glory of their independence with Guelf principles, the citizens of Florence perpetuated within their State a faction that, in its turn, was destined to prove perilous to liberty.
When it became clear that the republic was to rule itself henceforth untrammelled by imperial interference, the people divided themselves into six districts, and chose for each district two Ancients, who administered the government in concert with the Potesta and the Captain of the People. The Ancients were a relic of the old Roman municipal organisation. The Potesta who was invariably a noble foreigner selected by the people, represented the extinct imperial right, and exercised the power of life and death within the city. The Captain of the People, who was also a foreigner, headed the burghers in their military capacity, for at that period the troops were levied from the citizens themselves in twenty companies. The body of the citizens, or the popolo, were ultimately sovereigns in the State. Assembled under the banners of their several companies, they formed a parlamento for delegating their own power to each successive government. Their representatives, again, arranged in two councils, called the Council of the People and the Council of the Commune, under the presidency of the Captain of the People and the Potesta, ratified the measures which had previously been proposed and carried by the executive authority or Signoria. Under this simple State system the Florentines placed themselves at the head of the Tuscan League, fought the battles of the Church, asserted their sovereignty by issuing the golden florin of the republic, and flourished until 1266.
In that year an important change was effected in the Constitution. The whole population of Florence consisted, on the one hand, of nobles or Grandi, as they were called in Tuscany, and on the other hand of working people. The latter, divided into traders and handicraftsmen, were distributed in guilds called Arti; and at that time there were seven Greater and five Lesser Arti, the most influential of all being the Guild of the Wool Merchants. These guilds had their halls for meeting, their colleges of chief officers, their heads, called Consoli or Priors, and their flags. In 1266 it was decided that the administration of the commonwealth should be placed simply and wholly in the hands of the Arti, and the Priors of these industrial companies became the lords or Signory of Florence. No inhabitant of the city who had not enrolled himself as a craftsman in one of the guilds could exercise any function of burghership. To be scioperato, or without industry, was to be without power, without rank or place of honour in the State. The revolution which placed the Arts at the head of the republic had the practical effect of excluding the Grandi altogether from the government. Violent efforts were made by these noble families, potent through their territorial possessions and foreign connections, and trained from boyhood in the use of arms, to recover the place from which the new laws thrust them: but their menacing attitude, instead of intimidating the burghers, roused their anger and drove them to the passing of still more stringent laws. In 1293, after the Ghibellines had been defeated in the great battle of Campaldino, a series of severe enactments, called the Ordinances of Justice, were decreed against the unruly Grandi. All civic rights were taken from them; the severest penalties were attached to their slightest infringement of municipal law; their titles to land were limited; the privilege of living within the city walls was allowed them only under galling restrictions; and, last not least, a supreme magistrate, named the Gonfalonier of Justice, was created for the special purpose of watching them and carrying out the penal code against them. Henceforward Florence was governed exclusively by merchants and artisans. The Grandi hastened to enrol themselves in the guilds, exchanging their former titles and dignities for the solid privilege of burghership. The exact parallel to this industrial constitution for a commonwealth, carrying on wars with emperors and princes, holding haughty captains in its pay, and dictating laws to subject cities, cannot, I think, be elsewhere found in history. It is as unique as the Florence of Dante and Giotto is unique. While the people was guarding itself thus stringently against the Grandi, a separate body was created for the special purpose of extirpating the Ghibellines. A permanent committee of vigilance, called the College or the Captains of the Guelf Party, was established. It was their function to administer
There is no need to dwell in detail on the internal difficulties of Florence during the first half of the fourteenth century. Two main circumstances, however, require to be briefly noticed. These are (i) the contest of the Blacks and Whites, so famous through the part played in it by Dante; and (ii) the tyranny of the Duke of Athens, Walter de Brienne. The feuds of the Blacks and Whites broke up the city into factions, and produced such anarchy that at last it was found necessary to place the republic under the protection of foreign potentates. Charles of Valois was first chosen, and after him the Duke of Athens, who took up his residence in the city. Entrusted with dictatorial authority, he used his power to form a military despotism. Though his reign of violence lasted rather less than a year, it bore important fruits; for the tyrant, seeking to support himself upon the favour of the common people, gave political power to the Lesser Arts at the expense of the Greater, and confused the old State-system by enlarging the democracy. The net result of these events for Florence was, first, that the city became habituated to rancorous party-strife, involving exiles and proscriptions; and, secondly, that it lost its primitive social hierarchy of classes.
After the Guelfs had conquered the Ghibellines, and the people had absorbed the Grandi in their guilds, the next chapter in the troubled history of Florence was the division of the Popolo against itself. Civil strife now declared itself as a conflict between labour and capital. The members of the Lesser Arts, craftsmen who plied trades subordinate to those of the Greater Arts, rose up against their social and political superiors, demanding a larger share in the government, a more equal distribution of profits, higher wages, and privileges that should place them on an absolute equality with the wealthy merchants. It was in the year 1378 that the proletariate broke out into rebellion. Previous events had prepared the way for this revolt. First of all, the republic had been democratised through the destruction of the Grandi and through the popular policy pursued to gain his own ends by the Duke of Athens. Secondly, society had been shaken to its very foundation by the great plague of 1348. Both Boccaccio and Matteo Villani draw lively pictures of the relaxed morality
The Constitution of Florence offered many points of weakness to the attacks of such intriguers. In the first place it was in its origin not a political but an industrial organisation—a simple group of guilds invested with the sovereign authority. Its two most powerful engines, the Gonfalonier of Justice and the Guelf College, had been formed, not with a view to the preservation of the government, but with the purpose of quelling the nobles and excluding a detested faction. It had no permanent head, like the Doge of Venice; no fixed senate like the Venetian Grand Council; its chief magistrates, the Signory, were elected for short periods of two months, and their mode of election was open to the gravest criticism. Supposed to be chosen by lot, they were really selected from lists drawn up by the factions in power from time to time. These factions contrived to exclude the names of all but their adherents from the bags, or borse, in which the burghers eligible for election had to be inscribed. Furthermore, it was not possible for this shifting Signory to conduct affairs requiring sustained effort and secret deliberation; therefore recourse was being continually had to dictatorial Commissions. The people, summoned in parliament upon the Great Square, were asked to confer plenipotentiary authority upon a committee called Balia, who proceeded to do what they chose in the State, and who retained power after the emergency for which they were created passed away. The same instability in the supreme magistracy led to the appointment of special commissioners for war, and special councils, or Pratiche, for the management of each department. Such supplementary commissions not only proved the weakness of the central authority, but they were always liable to be made the instruments of party warfare. The Guelf College was another and a different source of danger to the State. Not acting under the control of the Signory, but using its own initiative, this powerful body could proscribe and punish burghers on the mere suspicion of Ghibellinism. Though the Ghibelline faction had become an empty name, the Guelf College excluded from the franchise all and every whom they chose on any pretext to admonish. Under this mild phrase, to admonish, was concealed a cruel exercise of tyranny—it meant to warn a man that he was suspected of treason, and that he had better relinquish the exercise of his burghership. By free use of this engine of Admonition, the Guelf College rendered their enemies voiceless in the State, and were able to pack the Signory and the councils with their own creatures. Another important defect in the Florentine Constitution was the method of imposing taxes. This was done by no regular system. The party in power made what estimate it chose of a man’s capacity to bear taxation, and called upon him for extraordinary loans. In this way citizens were frequently driven into bankruptcy and exile; and since to be a debtor to the State deprived a burgher of his civic rights, severe taxation was one of the best ways of silencing and neutralising a dissentient.
I have enumerated these several causes of weakness in the Florentine State-system, partly because they show how irregularly the Constitution had been formed by the patching and extension of a simple industrial machine to suit the needs of a great commonwealth; partly because it was through these defects that the democracy merged gradually into a despotism. The art of the Medici consisted in a scientific comprehension of these very imperfections, a methodic use of them for their own purposes, and a steady opposition to any attempts made to substitute a stricter system. The Florentines had determined to be an industrial community, governing themselves on the co-operative principle, dividing profits, sharing losses, and exposing their magistrates to rigid scrutiny. All this in theory was excellent. Had they remained an unambitious and peaceful commonwealth, engaged in the wool and silk trade, it might have answered. Modern Europe might have admired the model of a communistic and commercial democracy. But when they engaged in aggressive wars, and sought to enslave sister-cities like Pisa and Lucca, it was soon found that their simple trading constitution would not serve. They had to piece it out with subordinate machinery, cumbrous, difficult to manage, ill-adapted to the original structure. Each limb of this subordinate machinery, moreover, was a point d’appui for insidious and self-seeking party leaders.
Florence, in the middle of the fourteenth century, was a vast beehive of industry. Distinctions of rank among burghers, qualified to vote and hold office, were theoretically unknown. Highly educated men, of more than princely wealth, spent their time in shops and counting-houses, and trained their sons to follow trades. Military service at this period was abandoned by the citizens; they preferred to pay mercenary troops for the conduct of their wars. Nor was there, as in Venice, any outlet for their energies upon the seas. Florence had no navy, no great port—she only kept a small fleet for the protection of her commerce. Thus the vigour of the commonwealth was concentrated on itself; while the influence of the citizens, through their affiliated trading-houses, correspondents, and agents, extended like a network over Europe. In a community of this kind it was natural that wealth—rank and titles being absent—should alone confer distinction. Accordingly we find that out of the very bosom of the people a new plutocratic aristocracy begins to rise. The Grandi are no more; but certain families achieve distinction by their riches, their numbers, their high spirit, and their ancient place of honour in the State. These nobles of the purse obtained the name of Popolani Nobili; and it was they who now began to play at high stakes for the supreme power. In all the subsequent vicissitudes of Florence every change takes place by intrigue and by clever manipulation of the political machine. Recourse is rarely had to violence of any kind, and the leaders of revolutions are men of the yard-measure, never of the sword. The despotism to which the republic eventually succumbed was no less commercial than the democracy had been. Florence in the days of her slavery remained a Popolo.
The opening of the second half of the fourteenth century had been signalised by the feuds of two great houses, both risen from the people. These were the Albizzi and the Ricci. At this epoch there had been a formal closing of the lists of burghers;—henceforth no new families who might settle in the city could claim the franchise, vote in the assemblies, or hold magistracies. The Guelf College used their old engine of admonition to persecute novi homines, whom they dreaded as opponents. At the head of this formidable organisation the Albizzi placed themselves, and worked it with such skill that they succeeded in driving the Ricci out of all participation in the government. The tumult of the Ciompi formed but an episode in their career toward oligarchy; indeed, that revolution only rendered the political material of the Florentine republic more plastic in the hands of intriguers, by removing the last vestiges of class distinctions and by confusing the old parties of the State.
When the Florentines in 1387 engaged in their long duel with Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the difficulty of conducting this war without some permanent central authority still further confirmed the power of the rising oligarchs. The Albizzi became daily more autocratic, until in 1393 their chief, Maso degli Albizzi, a man of strong will and prudent policy, was chosen Gonfalonier of Justice. Assuming the sway of a dictator he revised the list of burghers capable of holding office, struck out the private opponents of his house, and excluded all names but those of powerful families who were well affected towards an aristocratic government. The great house of the Alberti were exiled in a body, declared rebels, and deprived of their possessions, for no reason except that they seemed dangerous to the Albizzi. It was in vain that the people murmured against these arbitrary acts. The new rulers were omnipotent in the Signory, which they packed with their own men, in the great guilds, and in the Guelf College. All the machinery invented by the industrial community for its self-management and self-defence was controlled and manipulated by a close body of aristocrats, with the Albizzi at their head. It seemed as though Florence, without any visible alteration in her forms of government, was rapidly becoming an oligarchy even less open than the Venetian republic. Meanwhile the affairs of the State were most flourishing. The strong-handed masters of the city not only held the Duke of Milan in check, and prevented him from turning Italy into a kingdom; they furthermore acquired the cities of Pisa, Livorno, Arezzo, Montepulciano, and Cortona, for Florence, making her the mistress of all Tuscany, with the exception of Siena, Lucca, and Volterra. Maso degli Albizzi was the ruling spirit of the commonwealth, spending the enormous sum of 11,500,000 golden florins on war, raising sumptuous edifices, protecting the arts, and acting in general like a powerful and irresponsible prince.
In spite of public prosperity there were signs, however, that this rule of a few families could not last. Their government was only maintained by continual revision of the lists of burghers, by elimination of the disaffected, and by unremitting personal industry. They introduced no new machinery into the Constitution whereby the people might be deprived of its titular sovereignty, or their own dictatorship might be continued with a semblance of legality. Again, they neglected to win over the new nobles (nobili popolani) in a body to their cause; and thus they were surrounded by rivals ready to spring upon them when a false step should be made. The Albizzi oligarchy was a masterpiece of art, without any force to sustain it but the craft and energy of its constructors. It had not grown up, like the Venetian oligarchy, by the gradual assimilation to itself of all the vigour in the State. It was bound, sooner or later, to yield to the renascent impulse of democracy inherent in Florentine institutions.
Maso degli Albizzi died in 1417. He was succeeded in the government by his old friend, Niccolo da Uzzano, a man of great eloquence and wisdom, whose single word swayed the councils of the people as he listed. Together with him acted Maso’s son, Rinaldo, a youth of even more brilliant talents than his father, frank, noble, and high-spirited, but far less cautious.
The oligarchy, which these two men undertook to manage, had accumulated against itself the discontent of overtaxed, disfranchised, jealous burghers. The times, too, were bad. Pursuing the policy of Maso, the Albizzi engaged the city in a tedious and unsuccessful war with Filippo Maria Visconti, which cost 350,000 golden florins, and brought no credit. In order to meet extraordinary expenses they raised new public loans, thereby depreciating the value of the old Florentine funds. “What was worse, they imposed forced subsidies with grievous inequality upon the burghers, passing over their friends and adherents, and burdening their opponents with more than could be borne. This imprudent financial policy began the ruin of the Albizzi. It caused a clamour in the city for a new system of more just taxation, which was too powerful to be resisted. The voice of the people made itself loudly heard; and with the people on this occasion sided Giovanni de’ Medici. This was in 1427.
It is here that the Medici appear upon that memorable scene where in the future they are to play the first part. Giovanni de’ Medici did not belong to the same branch of his family as the Salvestro who favoured the people at the time of the Ciompi Tumult. But he adopted the same popular policy. To his sons Cosimo and Lorenzo he bequeathed on his deathbed the rule that they should invariably adhere to the cause of the multitude, found their influence on that, and avoid the arts of factious and ambitious leaders.
Cosimo de’ Medici was thirty years old when his father Giovanni died, in 1429. During his youth he had devoted all his time and energy to business, mastering the complicated affairs of Giovanni’s banking-house, and travelling far and wide through Europe to extend its connections. This education made him a consummate financier; and those who knew him best were convinced that his ambition was set on great things. However quietly he might begin, it was clear that he intended to match himself, as a leader of the plebeians, against the Albizzi. The foundations he prepared for future action were equally characteristic of the man, of Florence, and of the age. Commanding the enormous capital of the Medicean bank he contrived, at any sacrifice of temporary convenience, to lend money to the State for war expenses, engrossing in his own hands a large portion of the public debt of Florence. At the same time his agencies in various European capitals enabled him to keep his own wealth floating far beyond the reach of foes within the city. A few years of this system ended in so complete a confusion between Cosimo’s trade and the finances of Florence that the bankruptcy of the Medici, however caused, would have compromised the credit of the State and the fortunes of the fund-holders. Cosimo, in a word, made himself necessary to Florence by the wise use of his riches. Furthermore, he kept his eye upon the list of burghers, lending money to needy citizens, putting good things in the way of struggling traders, building up the fortunes of men who were disposed to favour his party in the State, ruining his opponents by the legitimate process of commercial competition, and, when occasion offered, introducing new voters into the Florentine Council by paying off the debts of those who were disqualified by poverty from using the franchise. While his capital was continually increasing he lived frugally, and employed his wealth solely for the consolidation of his political influence. By these arts Cosimo became formidable to the oligarchs and beloved by the people. His supporters were numerous, and held together by the bonds of immediate necessity or personal cupidity. The plebeians and the merchants were all on his side. The Grandi and the Ammoniti, excluded from the State by the practices of the Albizzi, had more to hope from the Medicean party than from the few families who still contrived to hold the reins of government. It was clear that a conflict to the death must soon commence between the oligarchy and this new faction.
At last, in 1433, war was declared. The first blow was struck by Rinaldo degli Albizzi, who put himself in the wrong by attacking a citizen indispensable to the people at large, and guilty of no unconstitutional act. On September 7th of that year, a year decisive for the future destinies of Florence, he summoned Cosimo to the Public Palace, which he had previously occupied with troops at his command. There he declared him a rebel to the State, and had him imprisoned in a little square room in the central tower. The tocsin was sounded; the people were assembled in parliament upon the piazza. The Albizzi held the main streets with armed men, and forced the Florentines to place plenipotentiary power for the administration of the commonwealth at this crisis in the hands of a Balia, or committee selected by themselves. It was always thus that acts of high tyranny were effected in Florence. A show of legality was secured by gaining the compulsory sanction of the people, driven by soldiery into the public square, and hastily ordered to recognise the authority of their oppressors.
The bill of indictment against the Medici accused them of sedition in the year 1378—that is, in the year of the Ciompi Tumult—and of treasonable practice during the whole course of the Albizzi administration. It also strove to fix upon them the odium of the unsuccessful war against the town of Lucca. As soon as the Albizzi had unmasked their batteries, Lorenzo de’ Medici managed to escape from the city, and took with him his brother Cosimo’s children to Venice. Cosimo remained shut up within the little room called Barberia in Arnolfo’s tower. From that high eagle’s nest the sight can range Valdarno far and wide. Florence with her towers and domes lies below; and the blue peaks of Carrara close a prospect westward than which, with its villa-jewelled slopes and fertile gardens, there is nought more beautiful upon the face of earth. The prisoner can have paid but little heed to this fair landscape. He heard the frequent ringing of the great bell that called the Florentines to council, the tramp of armed men on the piazza, the coming and going of the burghers in the palace halls beneath. On all sides lurked anxiety and fear of death. Each mouthful he tasted might be poisoned. For many days he partook of only bread and water, till his gaoler restored his confidence by sharing all his meals. In this peril he abode twenty-four days. The Albizzi, in concert with the Balia they had formed, were consulting what they might venture to do with him. Some voted for his execution. Others feared the popular favour, and thought that if they killed Cosimo this act would ruin their own power. The nobler natures among them determined to proceed by constitutional measures. At last, upon September 29th, it was settled that Cosimo should be exiled to Padua for ten years. The Medici were declared Grandi, by way of excluding them from political rights. But their property remained untouched; and on October 3rd, Cosimo was released.
On the same day Cosimo took his departure. His journey northward resembled a triumphant progress. He left Florence a simple burgher; he entered Venice a powerful prince. Though the Albizzi seemed to have gained the day, they had really cut away the ground beneath their feet. They committed the fatal mistake of doing both too much and too little—too much because they declared war against an innocent man, and roused the sympathies of the whole people in his behalf; too little, because they had not the nerve to complete their act by killing him outright and extirpating his party. Machiavelli, in one of his profoundest and most cynical critiques, remarks that few men know how to be thoroughly bad with honour to themselves. Their will is evil; but the grain of good in them—some fear of public opinion, some repugnance to committing a signal crime—paralyses their arm at the moment when it ought to have been raised to strike. He instances Gian Paolo Baglioni’s omission to murder Julius II., when that Pope placed himself within his clutches at Perugia. He might also have instanced Rinaldo degli Albizzi’s refusal to push things to extremities by murdering Cosimo. It was the combination of despotic violence in the exile of Cosimo with constitutional moderation in the preservation of his life, that betrayed the weakness of the oligarchs and restored confidence to the Medicean party.
In the course of the year 1434 this party began to hold up its head. Powerful as the Albizzi were, they only retained the government by artifice; and now they had done a deed which put at nought their former arts and intrigues. A Signory favourable to the Medici came into office, and on September 26th, 1434, Rinaldo in his turn was summoned to the palace and declared a rebel. He strove to raise the forces of his party, and entered the piazza at the head of eight hundred men. The menacing attitude of the people, however, made resistance perilous. Rinaldo disbanded his troops, and placed himself under the protection of Pope Eugenius IV., who was then resident in Florence. This act of submission proved that Rinaldo had not the courage or the cruelty to try the chance of civil war. Whatever his motives may have been, he lost his hold upon the State beyond recovery. On September 29th, a new parliament was summoned; on October 2nd, Cosimo was recalled from exile and the Albizzi were banished. The intercession of the Pope procured for them nothing but the liberty to leave Florence unmolested. Einaldo turned his back upon the city he had governed, never to set foot in it again. On October 6th, Cosimo, having passed through Padua, Ferrara, and Modena like a conqueror, reentered the town amid the plaudits of the people, and took up his dwelling as an honoured guest in the Palace of the Republic. The subsequent history of Florence is the history of his family. In after years the Medici loved to remember this return of Cosimo. His triumphal reception was painted in fresco on the walls of their villa at Cajano under the transparent allegory of Cicero’s entrance into Rome.
By their brief exile the Medici had gained the credit of injured innocence, the fame of martyrdom in the popular cause. Their foes had struck the first blow, and in striking at them had seemed to aim against the liberties of the republic. The mere failure of their adversaries to hold the power they had acquired, handed over this power to the Medici; and the reprisals which the Medici began to take had the show of justice, not of personal hatred, or petty vengeance. Cosimo was a true Florentine. He disliked violence, because he knew that blood spilt cries for blood. His passions, too, were cool and temperate. No gust of anger, no intoxication of success, destroyed his balance. His one object, the consolidation of power for his family on the basis of popular favour, was kept steadily in view; and he would do nothing that might compromise that end. Yet he was neither generous nor merciful. We therefore find that from the first moment of his return to Florence he instituted a system of pitiless and unforgiving persecution against his old opponents. The Albizzi were banished, root and branch, with all their followers, consigned to lonely and often to unwholesome stations through the length and breadth of Italy. If they broke the bonds assigned them, they were forthwith declared traitors and their property was confiscated. After a long series of years, by merely keeping in force the first sentence pronounced upon them, Cosimo had the cruel satisfaction of seeing the whole of that proud oligarchy die out by slow degrees in the insufferable tedium of solitude and exile. Even the high-souled Palla degli Strozzi, who had striven to remain neutral, and whose wealth and talents were devoted to the revival of classical studies, was proscribed because to Cosimo he seemed too powerful. Separated from his children, he died in banishment at Padua. In this way the return of the Medici involved the loss to Florence of some noble citizens, who might perchance have checked the Medicean tyranny if they had stayed to guide the State. The plebeians, raised to wealth and influence by Cosimo before his exile, now took the lead in the republic. He used these men as catspaws, rarely putting himself forward or allowing his own name to appear, but pulling the wires of government in privacy by means of intermediate agents. The Medicean party was called at first Puccini from a certain Puccio, whose name was better known in caucus or committee than that of his real master.
To rule through these creatures of his own making taxed all the ingenuity of Cosimo; but his profound and subtle intellect was suited to the task, and he found unlimited pleasure in the exercise of his consummate craft. We have already seen to what extent he used his riches for the acquisition of political influence. Now that he had come to power, he continued the same method, packing the Signory and the Councils with
The more patriotic members of his party looked with dread and loathing on this system of corruption and exclusion. To their remonstrances Cosimo replied in four memorable sayings: ’Better the State spoiled than the State not ours.’ ’Governments cannot be carried on with paternosters.’ ‘An ell of scarlet makes a burgher.’ ’I aim at finite ends.’ These maxims represent the whole man,—first, in his egotism, eager to gain Florence for his family, at any risk of her ruin; secondly, in his cynical acceptance of base means to selfish ends; thirdly, in his bourgeois belief that money makes a man, and fine clothes suffice for a citizen; fourthly, in his worldly ambition bent on positive success. It was, in fact, his policy to reduce Florence to the condition of a rotten borough: nor did this policy fail. One notable sign of the influence he exercised was the change which now came over the foreign relations of the republic. Up to the date of his dictatorship Florence had uniformly fought the battle of freedom in Italy. It was the chief merit of the Albizzi oligarchy that they continued the traditions of the mediaeval State, and by their vigorous action checked the growth of the Visconti. Though they engrossed the government they never forgot that they were first of all things Florentines, and only in the second place men who owed their power and influence to office. In a word, they acted like patriotic Tories, like republican patricians. Therefore they would not ally themselves with tyrants or countenance the enslavement of free cities by armed despots. Their subjugation of the Tuscan burghs to Florence was itself part of a grand republican policy. Cosimo changed all this. When the Visconti dynasty ended by the death of Filippo Maria in 1447, there was a chance of restoring the independence of Lombardy. Milan in effect declared
By the arts I have attempted to describe, Cosimo in the course of his long life absorbed the forces of the republic into himself. While he shunned the external signs of despotic power he made himself the master of the State. His complexion was of a pale olive; his stature short; abstemious and simple in his habits, affable in conversation, sparing of speech, he knew how to combine that burgher-like civility for which the Romans praised Augustus, with the reality of a despotism all the more difficult to combat because it seemed nowhere and was everywhere. When he died, at the age of seventy-five, in 1464, the people whom he had enslaved, but whom he had neither injured nor insulted, honoured him with the title of Pater Patriae. This was inscribed upon his tomb in S. Lorenzo. He left to posterity the fame of a great and generous patron, the infamy of a cynical, self-seeking, bourgeois tyrant. Such combinations of contradictory qualities were common enough at the time of the Renaissance. Did not Machiavelli spend his days in tavern-brawls and low amours, his nights among the mighty spirits of the dead, with whom, when he had changed his country suit of homespun for the habit of the Court, he found himself an honoured equal?
Cosimo had shown consummate skill by governing Florence through a party created and raised to influence by himself. The jealousy of these adherents formed the chief difficulty with which his son Piero had to contend. Unless the Medici could manage to kick down the ladder whereby they had risen, they ran the risk of losing all. As on a former occasion, so now they profited by the mistakes of their antagonists. Three chief men of their own party, Diotisalvi Neroni, Agnolo Acciaiuoli, and Luca Pitti, determined to shake off the yoke of their masters, and to repay the Medici for what they owed by leading them to ruin. Niccolo
The congratulations addressed on this occasion to Piero and Lorenzo by the ruling powers of Italy show that the Medici were already regarded as princes outside Florence. Lorenzo and Giuliano, the two sons of Piero, travelled abroad to the Courts of Milan and Ferrara with the style and state of more than simple citizens. At home they occupied the first place on all occasions of public ceremony, receiving royal visitors on terms of equality, and performing the hospitalities of the republic like men who had been born to represent its dignities. Lorenzo’s marriage to Clarice Orsini, of the noble Roman house, was another sign that the Medici were advancing on the way toward despotism. Cosimo had avoided foreign alliances for his children. His descendants now judged themselves firmly planted enough to risk the odium of a princely match for the sake of the support outside the city they might win.
Piero de’ Medici died in December 1469. His son Lorenzo was then barely twenty-two years of age. The chiefs of the Medicean party, all-powerful in the State, held a council, in which they resolved to place him in the same position as his father and grandfather. This resolve seems to have been formed after mature deliberation, on the ground that the existing conditions of Italian politics rendered it impossible to conduct the government without a presidential head. Florence, though still a democracy, required a permanent chief to treat on an equality with the princes of the leading cities. Here we may note the prudence of Cosimo’s foreign policy. When he helped to establish despots in Milan and Bologna he was rendering the presidency of his own family in Florence necessary.
Lorenzo, having received this invitation, called attention to his youth and inexperience. Yet he did not refuse it; and, after a graceful display of diffidence, he accepted the charge, entering thus upon that famous political career, in the course of which he not only established and maintained a balance of power in Italy, with Florence for the central city, but also contrived to remodel the government of the republic in the interest of his own family and to strengthen the Medici by relations with the Papal See.
The extraordinary versatility of this man’s intellectual and social gifts, his participation in all the literary and philosophical interests of his century, his large and liberal patronage of art, and the gaiety with which he joined the people of Florence in their pastimes—Mayday games and Carnival festivities—strengthened his hold upon the city in an age devoted to culture and refined pleasure. Whatever was most brilliant in the spirit of the Italian Benaissance seemed to be incarnate in Lorenzo. Not merely as a patron and a dilettante, but as a poet and a critic, a philosopher and scholar, he proved himself adequate to the varied intellectual ambitions of his country. Penetrated with the passion for erudition which distinguished Florence in the fifteenth century, familiar with her painters and her sculptors, deeply read in the works of her great poets, he conceived the ideal of infusing the spirit of antique civility into modern life, and of effecting for society what the artists were performing in their own sphere. To preserve the native character of the Florentine genius, while he added the grace of classic form, was the aim to which his tastes and instincts led him. At the same time, while he made himself the master of Florentine revels and the Augustus of Renaissance literature, he took care that beneath his carnival masks and ball-dress should be concealed the chains which he was forging for the republic.
What he lacked, with so much mental brilliancy, was moral greatness. The age he lived in was an age of selfish despots, treacherous generals, godless priests. It was an age of intellectual vigour and artistic creativeness; but it was also an age of mean ambition, sordid policy, and vitiated principles. Lorenzo remained true in all respects to the genius of this age: true to its enthusiasm for antique culture, true to its passion for art, true to its refined love of pleasure; but true also to its petty political intrigues, to its cynical selfishness, to its lack of heroism. For Florence he looked no higher and saw no further than Cosimo had done. If culture was his pastime, the enslavement of the city by bribery and corruption was the hard work of his manhood. As is the case with much Renaissance art, his life was worth more for its decorative detail than for its constructive design. In richness, versatility, variety, and exquisiteness of execution, it left little to be desired; yet, viewed at a distance, and as a whole, it does not inspire us with a sense of architectonic majesty.
Lorenzo’s chief difficulties arose from the necessity under which, like Cosimo, he laboured of governing the city through its old institutions by means of a party. To keep the members of this party in good temper, and to gain their approval for the alterations he effected in the State machinery of Florence, was the problem of his life. The successful solution of this problem was easier now,
While tracing the salient points of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s administration I have omitted to mention the important events which followed shortly after his accession to power in 1469. What happened between that date and 1480 was not only decisive for the future fortunes of the Casa Medici, but it was also eminently characteristic of the perils and the difficulties which beset Italian despots. The year 1471 was signalised by a visit by the Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan, and his wife Bona of Savoy, to the Medici in Florence. They came attended by their whole Court—body guards on horse and foot, ushers, pages, falconers, grooms, kennel-varlets, and huntsmen. Omitting the mere baggage service, their train counted two thousand horses. To mention this incident would be superfluous, had not so acute an observer as Machiavelli marked it out as a turning-point in Florentine history. Now, for the first time, the democratic commonwealth saw its streets filled with a mob of courtiers. Masques, balls, and tournaments succeeded each other with magnificent variety;
In the same year, 1471, Volterra was reconquered for the Florentines by Frederick of Urbino. The honours of this victory, disgraced by a brutal sack of the conquered city, in violation of its articles of capitulation, were reserved for Lorenzo, who returned in triumph to Florence. More than ever he assumed the prince, and in his person undertook to represent the State.
In the same year, 1471, Francesco della Rovere was raised to the Papacy with the memorable name of Sixtus IV. Sixtus was a man of violent temper and fierce passions, restless and impatiently ambitious, bent on the aggrandisement of the beautiful and wanton youths, his nephews. Of these the most aspiring was Girolamo Riario, for whom Sixtus bought the town of Imola from Taddeo Manfredi, in order that he might possess the title of count and the nucleus of a tyranny in the Romagna. This purchase thwarted the plans of Lorenzo, who wished to secure the same advantages for Florence. Smarting with the sense of disappointment, he forbade the Roman banker, Francesco Pazzi, to guarantee the purchase-money. By this act Lorenzo made two mortal foes—the Pope and Francesco Pazzi. Francesco was a thin, pale, atrabilious fanatic, all nerve and passion, with a monomaniac intensity of purpose, and a will inflamed and guided by imagination—a man formed by nature for conspiracy, such a man, in fact, as Shakspere drew in Cassius. Maddened by Lorenzo’s prohibition, he conceived the notion of overthrowing the Medici in Florence by a violent blow. Girolamo Riario entered into his views. So did Francesco Salviati, Archbishop of Pisa, who had private reasons for hostility. These men found no difficulty in winning over Sixtus to their plot; nor is it possible to purge the Pope of participation in what followed. I need not describe by what means Francesco drew the other members of his family into the scheme, and how he secured the assistance of armed cut-throats. Suffice it to say that the chief conspirators, with the exception of the Count Girolamo, betook themselves to Florence, and there, after the failure of other attempts, decided to murder Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano in the cathedral on Sunday, April 26th, 1478. The moment when the priest at the high altar finished the mass, was fixed for the assassination. Everything was ready. The conspirators, by Judas kisses and embracements, had discovered that the young men wore
As is usual when such plots miss their mark, the passions excited redounded to the profit of the injured party. The commonwealth felt that the blow struck at Lorenzo had been aimed at their majesty. Sixtus, on the other hand, could not contain his rage at the failure of so ably planned a coup de main. Ignoring that he had sanctioned the treason, that a priest had put his hand to the dagger, that the impious deed had been attempted in a church before the very Sacrament of Christ, whose vicar on earth he was, the Pope now excommunicated the republic. The reason he alleged was, that the Florentines had dared to hang an archbishop.
Thus began a war to the death between Sixtus and Florence. The Pope inflamed the whole of Italy, and carried on a ruinous campaign in Tuscany. It seemed as though the republic might lose her subject cities, always ready to revolt when danger threatened the sovereign State. Lorenzo’s position became critical. Sixtus made no secret of the hatred he bore him personally, declaring that he fought less with Florence than with the Medici. To support the odium of this long war and this heavy interdict alone, was more than he could do. His allies forsook him. Naples was enlisted on the Pope’s side. Milan and the other States of Lombardy were occupied with their own affairs, and held aloof. In this extremity he saw that nothing but a bold step could save him. The league formed by Sixtus must be broken up at any risk, and, if possible, by his own ability. On December 6th, 1479, Lorenzo left Florence, unarmed and unattended, took ship at Leghorn, and proceeded to the court of the enemy, King Ferdinand, at Naples. Ferdinand was a cruel and treacherous sovereign, who had murdered his guest, Jacopo Piccinino, at a banquet given in his honour. But Ferdinand was the son of Alfonso, who, by address and eloquence, had gained a kingdom from his foe and jailor, Filippo Maria Visconti. Lorenzo calculated that he too, following Alfonso’s policy, might prove to Ferdinand how little there was to gain from an alliance with Rome, how much Naples and Florence, firmly united together for offence and defence, might effect in Italy.
Only a student of those perilous times can appreciate the courage and the genius, the audacity combined with diplomatic penetration, displayed by Lorenzo at this crisis. He calmly walked into the lion’s den, trusting he could tame the lion and teach it, and all in a few days. Nor did his expectation fail. Though Lorenzo was rather ugly than handsome, with a dark skin, heavy brows, powerful jaws, and nose sharp in the bridge and broad at the nostrils, without grace of carriage or melody of voice, he possessed what makes up for personal defects—the winning charm of eloquence in conversation, a subtle wit, profound knowledge of men, and tact allied to sympathy, which placed him always at the centre of the situation. Ferdinand received him kindly. The Neapolitan nobles admired his courage and were fascinated by his social talents. On March 1st, 1480, he left Naples again, having won over the King by his arguments. When he reached Florence he was able to declare that he brought home a treaty of peace and alliance signed by the most powerful foe of the republic. The success of this bold enterprise endeared Lorenzo more than ever to his countrymen. In the same year they concluded a treaty with Sixtus, who was forced against his will to lay down arms by the capture of Otranto and the extreme peril of Turkish invasion. After the year 1480 Lorenzo remained sole master in Florence, the arbiter and peacemaker of the rest of Italy.
The conjuration of the Pazzi was only one in a long series of similar conspiracies. Italian despots gained their power by violence and wielded it with craft. Violence and craft were therefore used against them. When the study of the classics had penetrated the nation with antique ideas of heroism, tyrannicide became a virtue. Princes were murdered with frightful frequency. Thus Gian Maria Visconti was put to death at Milan in 1412; Galeazzo Maria Sforza in 1484; the Chiarelli of Fabriano were massacred in 1435; the Baglioni of Perugia in 1500; Girolamo Gentile planned the assassination of Galeazzo Sforza at Genoa in 1476; Niccolo d’Este conspired against his uncle Ercole in 1476; Stefano Porcari attempted the life of Nicholas V. at Rome in 1453; Lodovico Sforza narrowly escaped a violent death in 1453. I might multiply these instances beyond satiety. As it is, I have selected but a few examples falling, all but one, within the second half of the fifteenth century. Nearly all these attempts upon the lives of princes were made in church during the celebration of sacred offices. There was no superfluity of naughtiness, no wilful sacrilege, in this choice of an occasion. It only testified to the continual suspicion and guarded watchfulness maintained by tyrants. To strike at them except in church was almost impossible. Meanwhile the fate of the tyrannicides was uniform. Successful or not, they perished. Yet so grievous was the pressure of Italian despotism, so glorious was the ideal of Greek and Roman heroism, so passionate the temper of the people, that to kill a prince at any cost to self appeared the crown of manliness. This bloodshed exercised a delirious fascination: pure and base, personal and patriotic motives combined to add intensity of fixed and fiery purpose to the murderous impulse. Those then who, like the Medici, aspired to tyranny and sought to found a dynasty of princes, entered the arena against a host of unknown and unseen gladiators.
On his deathbed, in 1492, Lorenzo lay between two men—Angelo Poliziano and Girolamo Savonarola. Poliziano incarnated the genial, radiant, godless spirit of fifteenth-century humanism. Savonarola represented the conscience of Italy, self-convicted, amid all her greatness, of crimes that called for punishment. It is said that when Lorenzo asked the monk for absolution, Savonarola bade him first restore freedom to Florence. Lorenzo, turned his face to the wall and was silent. How indeed could he make this city in a moment free, after sixty years of slow and systematic corruption? Savonarola left him, and he died unshriven. This legend is doubtful, though it rests on excellent if somewhat partial authority. It has, at any rate, the value of a mythus, since it epitomises the attitude assumed by the great preacher to the prince. Florence enslaved, the soul of Lorenzo cannot lay its burden down, but must go with all its sins upon it to the throne of God.
The year 1492 was a memorable year for Italy. In this year Lorenzo’s death removed the keystone of the arch that had sustained the fabric of Italian federation. In this year Roderigo Borgia was elected Pope. In this year Columbus discovered America; Vasco de Gama soon after opened a new way to the Indies, and thus the commerce of the world passed from Italy to other nations. In this year the conquest of Granada gave unity to the Spanish nation. In this year France, through the lifelong craft of Louis XI., was for the first time united under a young hot-headed sovereign. On every side of the political horizon storms threatened. It was clear that a new chapter of European history had been opened. Then Savonarola raised his voice, and cried that the crimes of Italy, the abominations of the Church, would speedily be punished. Events led rapidly to the fulfilment of this prophecy. Lorenzo’s successor, Piero de’ Medici, was a vain, irresolute, and hasty princeling, fond of display, proud of his skill in fencing and football-playing, with too much of the Orsini blood in his hot veins, with too little of the Medicean craft in his weak head. The Italian despots felt they could not trust Piero, and this want of confidence was probably the first motive that impelled Lodovico Sforza to call Charles VIII. into Italy in 1494.
It will not be necessary to dwell upon this invasion of the French, except in so far as it affected Florence. Charles passed rapidly through Lombardy, engaged his army in the passes of the Apennines, and debouched upon the coast where the Magra divided Tuscany from Liguria. Here the fortresses of Sarzana and Pietra Santa, between the marble bulwark of Carrara and the Tuscan sea, stopped his further progress. The keys were held by the Florentines. To force these strong positions and to pass beyond them seemed impossible. It might have been impossible if Piero de’ Medici had possessed a firmer will. As it was, he rode off to the French camp, delivered up the forts to Charles, bound the King by no engagements, and returned not otherwise than proud of his folly to Florence. A terrible reception awaited him. The Florentines, in their fury, had risen and sacked the Medicean palace. It was as much as Piero, with his brothers, could do to escape beyond the hills to Venice. The despotism of the Medici, so carefully built up, so artfully sustained and strengthened, was overthrown in a single day.
Before considering what happened in Florence after the expulsion of the Medici, it will be well to pause a moment and review the state in which Lorenzo had left his family. Piero, his eldest son, recognised as chief of the republic after his father’s death, was married to Alfonsina Orsini, and was in his twenty-second year. Giovanni, his second son, a youth of seventeen, had just been made cardinal. This honour, of vast importance for the Casa Medici in the future,
Florence, left without the Medici, deprived of Pisa and other subject cities by the passage of the French army, with no leader but the monk Savonarola, now sought to reconstitute her liberties. During the domination of the Albizzi and the Medici the old order of the commonwealth had been completely broken up. The Arti had lost their primitive importance. The distinctions between the Grandi and the Popolani had practically passed away. In a democracy that has submitted to a lengthened course of tyranny, such extinction of its old life is inevitable. Yet the passion for liberty was still powerful; and the busy brains of the Florentines were stored with experience gained from their previous vicissitudes, from \ the study of antique history, and from the observation of existing constitutions in the towns of Italy. They now determined to reorganise the State upon the model of the Venetian republic. The Signory was to remain, with its old institution of Priors, Gonfalonier, and College, elected for brief periods. These magistrates were to take the initiative in debate, to propose measures, and to consider plans of action. The real power of the State, for voting supplies and ratifying the measures of the Signory, was vested in a senate of one thousand members, called the Grand Council, from whom a smaller body of forty, acting as intermediates between the Council and the Signory, were elected. It is said that the plan of this constitution originated with Savonarola; nor is there any doubt that he used all his influence in the pulpit of the Duomo to render it acceptable to the people. Whoever may have been responsible for its formation, the new government was carried in 1495, and a large hall for the assembly of the Grand Council was opened in the Public Palace.
Savonarola, meanwhile, had become the ruling spirit of Florence. He gained his great power as a preacher: he used it like a monk. The motive principle of his action was the passion for reform. To bring the Church back to its pristine state of purity, without altering its doctrine or suggesting any new form of creed; to purge Italy of ungodly customs; to overthrow the tyrants who encouraged evil living, and to place the power of the State in the hands of sober citizens: these were his objects. Though he set himself
Great stress has been laid upon this reaction of the monk-led populace against the vices of the past. Yet the historian is bound to pronounce that the reform effected by Savonarola was rather picturesque than vital. Like all violent revivals of pietism, it produced a no less violent reaction. The parties within the city who resented the interference of a preaching friar, joined with the Pope in Rome, who hated a contumacious schismatic in Savonarola. Assailed by these two forces at the same moment, and driven upon perilous ground by his own febrile enthusiasm, Savonarola succumbed. He was imprisoned, tortured, and burned upon the public square in 1498.
What Savonarola really achieved for Florence was not a permanent reform of morality, but a resuscitation of the spirit of freedom. His followers, called in contempt I Piagnoni, or the Weepers, formed the path of the commonwealth in future; and the memory of their martyr served as a common bond of sympathy to unite them in times of trial. It was a necessary consequence of the peculiar part he played that the city was henceforth divided into factions representing mutually antagonistic principles. These factions were not created by Savonarola; but his extraordinary influence accentuated, as it were, the humours that lay dormant in the State. Families favourable to the Medici took the name of Palleschi. Men who chafed against puritanical reform, and who were eager for any government that should secure them their old licence, were known as Compagnacci. Meanwhile the oligarchs, who disliked a democratic Constitution, and thought it possible to found an aristocracy without the intervention of the Medici, came to be known as Gli Ottimati. Florence held within itself, from this epoch forward to the
During the short period of Savonarola’s ascendency, Florence was in form at least a Theocracy, without any titular head but Christ; and as long as the enthusiasm inspired by the monk lasted, as long as his personal influence endured, the Constitution of the Grand Council worked well. After his death it was found that the machinery was too cumbrous. While adopting the Venetian form of government, the Florentines had omitted one essential element—the Doge. By referring measures of immediate necessity to the Grand Council, the republic lost precious time. Dangerous publicity, moreover, was incurred; and so large a body often came to no firm resolution. There was no permanent authority in the State; no security that what had been deliberated would be carried out with energy; no titular chief, who could transact affairs with foreign potentates and their ambassadors. Accordingly, in 1502, it was decreed that the Gonfalonier should hold office for life—should be in fact a Doge. To this important post of permanent president Piero Soderini was appointed; and in his hands were placed the chief affairs of the republic.
At this point Florence, after all her vicissitudes, had won her way to something really similar to the Venetian Constitution. Yet the similarity existed more in form than in fact. The government of burghers in a Grand Council, with a Senate of forty, and a Gonfalonier for life, had not grown up gradually and absorbed into itself the vital forces of the commonwealth. It was a creation of inventive intelligence, not of national development, in Florence. It had against it the jealousy of the Ottimati, who felt themselves overshadowed by the Gonfalonier; the hatred of the Palleschi, who yearned for the Medici; the discontent of the working classes, who thought the presence of a Court in Florence would improve trade; last, but not least, the disaffection of the Compagnacci, who felt they could not flourish to their heart’s content in a free commonwealth. Moreover, though the name of liberty was on every lip, though the Florentines talked, wrote, and speculated more about constitutional independence than they had ever done, the true energy of free institutions had passed from the city. The corrupt government of Cosimo and Lorenzo bore its natural fruit now. Egotistic ambition and avarice supplanted patriotism and industry. It is necessary to comprehend these circumstances, in order that the next revolution may be clearly understood.
During the ten years which elapsed between 1502 and 1512, Piero Soderini administered Florence with an outward show of great prosperity. He regained Pisa, and maintained an honourable foreign policy in the midst of the wars stirred up by the League of Cambray. Meanwhile the young princes of the House of Medici had grown to manhood in exile. The Cardinal Giovanni was thirty-seven in 1512. His brother Giuliano was thirty-three. Both of these men were better fitted than their brother Piero to fight the battles of the family. Giovanni, in particular, had inherited no small portion of the Medicean craft. During the troubled reign of Julius II. he kept very quiet, cementing his connections with powerful men in Rome, but making no effort to regain his hold on Florence. Now the moment for striking a decisive blow had come. After the battle of Ravenna in 1512, the French were driven out of Italy, and the Sforzas returned to Milan; the Spanish troops, under the Viceroy Cardona, remained masters of the country. Following the camp of these Spaniards, Giovanni de’ Medici entered Tuscany in August, and caused the restoration of the Medici to be announced in Florence. The people, assembled by Soderini, resolved to resist to the uttermost. No foreign army should force them to receive the masters whom they had expelled. Yet their courage failed on August 29th, when news reached them of the capture and the sack of Prato. Prato is a sunny little city a few miles distant from the walls of Florence, famous for the beauty of its women, the richness of its gardens, and the grace of its buildings. Into this gem of cities the savage soldiery of Spain marched in the bright autumnal weather, and turned the paradise into a hell. It is even now impossible to read of what they did in Prato without shuddering. Cruelty and lust, sordid greed for gold, and cold delight in bloodshed, could go no further. Giovanni de’ Medici, by nature mild and voluptuous, averse to violence of all kinds, had to smile approval, while the Spanish Viceroy knocked thus with mailed hand for him at the door of Florence. The Florentines were paralysed with terror. They deposed Soderini and received the Medici. Giovanni and Giuliano entered their devastated palace in the Via Larga, abolished the Grand Council, and dealt with the republic as they listed.
There was no longer any medium in Florence possible between either tyranny or some such government as the Medici had now destroyed. The State was too rotten to recover even the modified despotism of Lorenzo’s days. Each transformation had impaired some portion of its framework, broken down some of its traditions, and sowed new seeds of egotism in citizens who saw all things round them change but self-advantage. Therefore Giovanni and Giuliano felt themselves secure in flattering the popular vanity by an empty parade
The creation of Leo X. spread satisfaction throughout Italy. Politicians trusted that he would display some portion of his father’s ability, and restore peace to the nation. Men of arts and letters expected everything from a Medicean Pope, who had already acquired the reputation of polite culture and open-handed generosity. They at any rate were not deceived. Leo’s first words on taking his place in the Vatican were addressed to his brother Giuliano: ’Let us enjoy the Papacy, now that God has given it to us;’ and his notion of enjoyment was to surround himself with court-poets, jesters, and musicians, to adorn his Roman palaces with frescoes, to collect statues and inscriptions, to listen to Latin speeches, and to pass judgment upon scholarly compositions. Any one and every one who gave him sensual or intellectual pleasure, found his purse always open. He lived in the utmost magnificence, and made Rome the Paris of the Renaissance for brilliance, immorality, and self-indulgent ease. The politicians had less reason to be satisfied. Instead of uniting the Italians and keeping the great Powers of Europe in check, Leo carried on a series of disastrous petty wars, chiefly with the purpose of establishing the Medici as princes. He squandered the revenues of the Church, and left enormous debts behind him—an exchequer ruined and a foreign policy so confused that peace for Italy could only be obtained by servitude.
Florence shared in the general rejoicing which greeted Leo’s accession to the Papacy. He was the first Florentine citizen who had received the tiara, and the popular vanity was flattered by this honour to the republic. Political theorists, meanwhile, began to speculate what greatness Florence, in combination with Rome, might rise to. The Pope was young; he ruled a large territory, reduced to order by his warlike predecessors. It seemed as though the republic, swayed by him, might make herself the first city in Italy, and restore the glories of her Guelf ascendency upon the platform of Renaissance statecraft.
To Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, the titular head of the family, was committed the government of Florence. During their exile, wandering from court to court in Italy, the Medici had forgotten what it was to be burghers, and had acquired the manners of princes. Leo alone retained enough of caution to warn his nephew that the Florentines must still be treated as free people. He confirmed the constitution of the Signory and the Privy Council of seventy established by his father, bidding Lorenzo, while he ruled this sham republic, to avoid the outer signs of tyranny. The young duke at first behaved with moderation, but he could not cast aside his habits of a great lord. Florence now for the first time saw a regular court established in her midst, with a prince, who, though he bore a foreign title, was in fact her master. The joyous days of Lorenzo the Magnificent returned. Masquerades and triumphs filled the public squares. Two clubs of pleasure, called the Diamond and the Branch—badges adopted by the Medici to signify their firmness in disaster and their power of self-recovery—were formed to lead the revels. The best sculptors and painters devoted their genius to the invention of costumes and cars. The city affected to believe that the age of gold had come again.
Fortune had been very favourable to the Medici. They had returned as princes to Florence. Giovanni was Pope. Giuliano was Gonfalonier of the Church. Giulio was Cardinal and Archbishop of Florence. Lorenzo ruled the city like a sovereign. But this prosperity was no less brief than it was brilliant. A few years sufficed to sweep off all the chiefs of the great house. Giuliano died in 1516, leaving only a bastard son Ippolito. Lorenzo died in 1519, leaving a bastard son Alessandro, and a daughter, six days old, who lived to be the Queen of France. Leo died in 1521. There remained now no legitimate male descendants from the stock of Cosimo. The honours and pretensions of the Medici devolved upon three bastards—on the Cardinal Giulio, and
Giulio de’ Medici was left in 1521 to administer the State of Florence single-handed. He was archbishop, and he resided in the city, holding it with the grasp of an absolute ruler. Yet he felt his position insecure. The republic had no longer any forms of self-government; nor was there a magistracy to whom the despot could delegate his power in his absence. Giulio’s ambition was fixed upon the Papal crown. The bastards he was rearing were but children. Florence had therefore to be furnished with some political machinery that should work of itself. The Cardinal did not wish to give freedom to the city, but clockwork. He was in the perilous situation of having to rule a commonwealth without life, without elasticity, without capacity of self-movement, yet full of such material as, left alone, might ferment, and breed a revolution. In this perplexity, he had recourse to advisers. The most experienced politicians, philosophical theorists, practical diplomatists, and students of antique history were requested to furnish him with plans for a new constitution, just as you ask an architect to give you the plan of a new house. This was the field-day of the doctrinaires. Now was seen how much political sagacity the Florentines had gained while they were losing liberty. We possess these several drafts of constitutions. Some recommend tyranny; some incline to aristocracy, or what Italians called Governo Stretto; some to democracy, or Governo Largo; some to an eclectic compound of the other forms, or Governo Misto. More consummate masterpieces of constructive ingenuity can hardly be imagined. What is omitted in all, is just what no doctrinaire, no nostrum can communicate—the breath of life, the principle of organic growth. Things had come, indeed, to a melancholy pass for Florence when her tyrant, in order to confirm his hold upon her, had to devise these springs and irons to support her tottering limbs.
While the archbishop and the doctors were debating, a plot was hatching in the Rucellai Gardens. It was here that the Florentine Academy now held their meetings. For this society Machiavelli wrote his ‘Treatise on the Art of War,’ and his ‘Discourses upon Livy.’ The former was an exposition of Machiavelli’s scheme for creating a national militia, as the only safeguard for Italy, exposed at this period to the invasions of great foreign armies. The latter is one of the three or four masterpieces produced by the Florentine school of critical historians. Stimulated by the daring speculations of Machiavelli, and fired to enthusiasm by their study of antiquity, the younger academicians formed a conspiracy for murdering Giulio de’ Medici, and restoring the republic on a Roman model. An intercepted letter betrayed their plans. Two of the conspirators were taken and beheaded. Others escaped. But the discovery of this conjuration put a stop to Giulio’s scheme of reforming the State. Henceforth he ruled Florence like a despot, mild in manners, cautious in the exercise of arbitrary power, but firm in his autocracy. The Condottiere. Alessandro Vitelli, with a company of soldiers, was taken into service for the protection of his person and the intimidation of the citizens.
In 1523, the Pope, Adrian VI., expired after a short papacy, from which he gained no honour and Italy no profit. Giulio hurried to Rome, and, by the clever use of his large influence, caused himself to be elected with the title of Clement VII. In Florence he left Silvio Passerini, Cardinal of Cortona, as his vicegerent and the guardian of the two boys Alessandro and Ippolito. The discipline of many years had accustomed the Florentines to a government of priests. Still the burghers, mindful of their ancient liberties, were galled by the yoke of a Cortonese, sprung up from one of their subject cities; nor could they bear the bastards who were being reared to rule them. Foreigners threw it in their teeth that Florence, the city glorious of art and freedom, was become a stable for mules—stalla da muli, in the expressive language of popular sarcasm. Bastardy, it may be said in passing, carried with it small dishonour among the Italians. The Estensi were all illegitimate; the Aragonese house in Naples sprang from Alfonso’s natural son; and children of Popes ranked among the princes. Yet the uncertainty of Alessandro’s birth and the base condition of his mother made the prospect of this tyrant peculiarly odious; while the primacy of a foreign cardinal in the midst of citizens whose spirit was still unbroken, embittered the cup of humiliation. The Casa Medici held its authority by a slender thread, and depended more upon the disunion of the burghers than on any power of its own. It could always reckon on the favour of the lower populace, who gained profit and amusement from the presence of a court. The Ottimati again hoped more from a weak despotism than from a
Clement assumed the tiara at a moment of great difficulty. Leo had ruined the finance of Rome. France and Spain were still contending for the possession of Italy. While acting as Vice-Chancellor, Giulio de’ Medici had seemed to hold the reins with a firm grasp, and men expected that he would prove a powerful Pope; but in those days he had Leo to help him; and Leo, though indolent, was an abler man than his cousin. He planned, and Giulio executed. Obliged to act now for himself, Clement revealed the weakness of his nature. That weakness was irresolution, craft without wisdom, diplomacy without knowledge of men. He raised the storm, and showed himself incapable of guiding it. This is not the place to tell by what a series of crooked schemes and cross purposes he brought upon himself the ruin of the Church and Rome, to relate his disagreement with the Emperor, or to describe again the sack of the Eternal City by the rabble of the Constable de Bourbon’s army. That wreck of Rome in 1527 was the closing scene of the Italian Renaissance—the last of the Apocalyptic tragedies foretold by Savonarola—the death of the old age.
When the Florentines knew what was happening in Rome, they rose and forced the Cardinal Passerini to depart with the Medicean bastards from the city. The youth demanded arms for the defence of the town, and they received them. The whole male population was enrolled in a militia. The Grand Council was reformed, and the republic was restored upon the basis of 1495. Niccolo Capponi was elected Gonfalonier. The name of Christ was again registered as chief of the commonwealth—to such an extent did the memory of Savonarola still sway the popular imagination. The new State hastened to form an alliance with France, and Malatesta Baglioni was chosen as military Commander-in-Chief. Meanwhile the city armed itself for siege—Michel Angelo Buonarroti and Francesco da San Gallo undertaking the construction of new forts and ramparts. These measures were adopted with sudden decision, because it was soon known that Clement had made peace with the Emperor, and that the army which had sacked Rome was going to be marched on Florence.
In the month of August 1529 the Prince of Orange assembled his forces at Terni, and thence advanced by easy stages into Tuscany. As he approached, the Florentines laid waste their suburbs, and threw down their wreath of towers, in order that the enemy might have no harbourage or points of vantage for attack. Their troops were concentrated within the city, where a new Gonfalonier, Francesco Carducci, furiously opposed to the Medici, and attached to the Piagnoni party, now ruled. On September 4th the Prince of Orange appeared before the walls, and opened the memorable siege. It lasted eight months, at the end of which time, betrayed by their generals, divided among themselves, and worn out with delays, the Florentines capitulated. Florence was paid as compensation for the insult offered to the pontiff in the sack of Rome.
The long yoke of the Medici had undermined the character of the Florentines. This, their last glorious struggle for liberty, was but a flash in the pan—a final flare-up of the dying lamp. The city was not satisfied with slavery; but it had no capacity for united action. The Ottimati were egotistic and jealous of the people. The Palleschi desired to restore the Medici at any price—some of them frankly wishing for a principality, others trusting that the old quasi-republican government might still be reinstated. The Red Republicans, styled Libertini and Arrabbiati, clung together in blind hatred of the Medicean party; but they had no further policy to guide them. The Piagnoni, or Frateschi, stuck to the memory of Savonarola, and believed that angels would descend to guard the battlements when human help had failed. These enthusiasts still formed the true nerve of the nation—the class that might have saved the State, if salvation had been possible. Even as it was, the energy of their fanaticism prolonged the siege until resistance seemed no longer physically possible. The hero developed by the crisis was Francesco Ferrucci, a plebeian who had passed his youth in manual labour, and who now displayed rare military genius. He fell fighting outside the walls of Florence. Had he commanded the troops from the beginning, and remained inside the city, it is just possible that the fate of the war might have been less disastrous. As it was, Malatesta Baglioni, the Commander-in-Chief, turned out an arrant scoundrel. He held secret correspondence with Clement and the Prince of Orange. It was he who finally sold Florence to her foes, ‘putting on his head,’ as the Doge of Venice said before the Senate, ’the cap of the biggest traitor upon record.’
What remains of Florentine history may be briefly told. Clement, now the undisputed arbiter of power and honour in the city, chose Alessandro de’ Medici to be prince. Alessandro was created Duke of Civita di Penna, and married to a natural daughter of Charles V. Ippolito was made a cardinal. Ippolito would have preferred a secular to a priestly kingdom; nor did he conceal his jealousy for his cousin. Therefore Alessandro had him poisoned. Alessandro in his turn was murdered by his kinsman, Lorenzino de’ Medici. Lorenzino paid the usual penalty of tyrannicide some years later. When Alessandro was killed in 1539, Clement had himself been dead five years. Thus the whole posterity of Cosimo de’ Medici, with the exception of Catherine, Queen of France, was utterly extinguished. But the Medici had struck root so firmly in the State, and had so remodelled it upon the type of tyranny, that the Florentines were no longer able to do without them. The chiefs of the Ottimati selected Cosimo, the representative of Giovanni the Invincible, for their prince, and thus the line of the elder Lorenzo came at last to power. This Cosimo was a boy of eighteen, fond of field-sports, and unused to party intrigues. When Francesco Guicciardini offered him a privy purse of one hundred and twenty thousand ducats annually, together with the presidency of Florence, this wily politician hoped that he would rule the State through Cosimo, and realise at last that dream of the Ottimati, a Governo Stretto or di Pochi. He was notably mistaken in his calculations. The first days of Cosimo’s administration showed that he possessed the craft of his family and the vigour of his immediate progenitors, and that he meant to be sole master in Florence. He it was who obtained the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany from the Pope—a title confirmed by the Emperor, fortified by Austrian alliances, and transmitted through his heirs to the present century.
In this sketch of Florentine history, I have purposely omitted all details that did not bear upon the constitutional history of the republic, or on the growth of the Medici as despots; because I wanted to present a picture of the process whereby that family contrived to fasten itself upon the freest and most cultivated State in Italy. This success the Medici owed mainly to their own obstinacy, and to the weakness of republican institutions in Florence. Their power was founded upon wealth in the first instance, and upon the ingenuity with which they turned the favour of the proletariate to use. It was confirmed by the mistakes and failures of their enemies, by Rinaldo degli Albizzi’s attack on Cosimo, by the conspiracy of Neroni and Pitti against Piero, and by Francesco de’ Pazzi’s attempt to assassinate Lorenzo. It was still further strengthened by the Medicean sympathy for arts and letters—a sympathy which placed both Cosimo and Lorenzo at the head of the Renaissance
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THE DEBT OF ENGLISH TO ITALIAN LITERATURE
To an Englishman one of the chief interests of the study of Italian literature is derived from the fact that, between England and Italy, an almost uninterrupted current of intellectual intercourse has been maintained throughout the last five centuries. The English have never, indeed, at any time been slavish imitators of the Italians; but Italy has formed the dreamland of the English fancy, inspiring poets with their most delightful thoughts, supplying them with subjects, and implanting in their minds that sentiment of Southern beauty which, engrafted on our more passionately imaginative Northern nature, has borne rich fruit in the works of Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe, Shakspere, Milton, and the poets of this century.
It is not strange that Italy should thus in matters of culture have been the guide and mistress of England. Italy, of all the European nations, was the first to produce high art and literature in the dawn of modern civilisation. Italy was the first to display refinement in domestic life, polish of manners, civilities of intercourse. In Italy the commerce of courts first developed a society of men and women, educated by the same traditions of humanistic culture. In Italy the principles of government were first discussed
The importance of this service, rendered by Italians to the rest of Europe, cannot be exaggerated. By exploring, digesting, and reproducing the classics, Italy made the labour of scholarship comparatively light for the Northern nations, and extended to us the privilege of culture without the peril of losing originality in the enthusiasm for erudition. Our great poets could handle lightly, and yet profitably, those masterpieces of Greece and Rome, beneath the weight of which, when first discovered, the genius of the Italians had wavered. To the originality of Shakspere an accession of wealth without weakness was brought by the perusal of Italian works, in which the spirit of the antique was seen as in a modern mirror. Then, in addition to this benefit of instruction, Italy gave to England a gift of pure beauty, the influence of which, in refining our national taste, harmonising the roughness of our manners and our language, and stimulating our imagination, has been incalculable. It was a not unfrequent custom for young men of ability to study at the Italian universities, or at least to undertake a journey to the principal Italian cities. From their sojourn in that land of loveliness and intellectual life they returned with their Northern brains most powerfully stimulated. To produce, by masterpieces of the imagination, some work of style that should remain as a memento of that glorious country, and should vie on English soil with the art of Italy, was their generous ambition. Consequently the substance of the stories versified by our poets, the forms of our metres, and the cadences of our prose periods reveal a close attention to Italian originals.
This debt of England to Italy in the matter of our literature began with Chaucer. Truly original and national as was the framework of the ‘Canterbury Tales,’ we can hardly doubt but that Chaucer was determined in the form adopted for his poem by the example of Boccaccio. The subject-matter, also, of many of his tales was taken from Boccaccio’s prose or verse. For example, the story of Patient Grizzel is founded upon one of the legends of the ‘Decameron,’ while the Knight’s Tale is almost translated from the ‘Teseide’ of Boccaccio, and Troilus and Creseide is derived from the ‘Filostrato’ of the same author. The Franklin’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale are also based either on stories of Boccaccio or else on French ‘Fabliaux,’ to which Chaucer, as well as Boccaccio, had access. I do not wish to lay too much stress upon Chaucer’s direct obligations to Boccaccio, because it is incontestable that the French ‘Fabliaux,’ which supplied them both with subjects, were the common property of the mediaeval nations. But his indirect debt in all that concerns elegant handling of material, and in the fusion of the romantic with the classic spirit, which forms the chief charm of such tales as the Palamon and Arcite, can hardly be exaggerated. Lastly, the seven-lined stanza, called rime royal, which Chaucer used with so much effect in narrative poetry, was probably borrowed from the earlier Florentine ‘Ballata,’ the last line rhyming with its predecessor being substituted for the recurrent refrain. Indeed, the stanza itself, as used by our earliest poets, may be found in Guido Cavalcanti’s ‘Ballatetta,’ beginning, Posso degli occhi miei.
Between Chaucer and Surrey the Muse of England fell asleep; but when in the latter half of the reign of Henry VIII. she awoke again, it was as a conscious pupil of the Italian that she attempted new strains and essayed fresh metres. ‘In the latter end of Henry VIII.’s reign,’ says Puttenham, ’sprang up a new company of courtly makers, of whom Sir T. Wyatt the elder, and Henry Earl of Surrey, were the two chieftains, who, having travelled into Italy, and there tasted the sweet and stately measures and style of the Italian poesy, as novices newly crept out of the schools of Dante, Ariosto, and Petrarch, they greatly polished our rude and homely manner of vulgar poesy, from that it had been before, and for that cause may justly be said the first reformers of our English metre and style.’ The chief point in which Surrey imitated his ‘master, Francis Petrarcha,’ was in the use of the sonnet. He introduced this elaborate form of poetry into our literature; and how it has thriven with us, the masterpieces of Spenser, Shakspere, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Rossetti attest. As practised by Dante and Petrarch, the sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines, divided into two quatrains and two triplets, so arranged that the two quatrains repeat one pair of rhymes, while the two triplets repeat another pair. Thus an Italian sonnet of the strictest form is composed upon four rhymes, interlaced with great art. But much divergence from this rigid scheme of rhyming was admitted even by Petrarch, who not unfrequently divided the six final lines of the sonnet into three couplets, interwoven in such a way that the two last lines never rhymed.
It has been necessary to say thus much about the structure of the Italian sonnet, in order to make clear the task which lay before Surrey and Wyatt, when they sought to transplant it into English. Surrey did not adhere to the strict fashion of Petrarch: his sonnets consist either of three regular quatrains concluded with a couplet, or else of twelve lines rhyming alternately and concluded with a couplet. Wyatt attempted to follow the order and interlacement of the Italian rhymes more closely, but he too concluded his sonnet with a couplet. This introduction of the final couplet was a violation of the Italian rule, which may be fairly considered as prejudicial to the harmony of the whole structure, and which has insensibly caused the English sonnet to terminate in an epigram. The famous sonnet of Surrey on his love, Geraldine, is an excellent example of the metrical structure as adapted to the supposed necessities of English rhyming, and as afterwards adhered to by Shakspere in his long series of love-poems. Surrey, while adopting the form of the sonnet, kept quite clear of the Petrarchist’s mannerism. His language is simple and direct: there is no subtilising upon far-fetched conceits, no wire-drawing of exquisite sentimentalism, although he celebrates in this, as in his other sonnets, a lady for whom he appears to have entertained no more than a Platonic or imaginary passion. Surrey was a great experimentalist in metre. Besides the sonnet, he introduced into England blank verse, which he borrowed from the Italian versi sciolti, fixing that decasyllable iambic rhythm for English versification in which our greatest poetical triumphs have been achieved.
Before quitting the subject of the sonnet it would, however, be well to mention the changes which were wrought in its structure by early poets desirous of emulating the Italians. Shakspere, as already hinted, adhered to the simple form introduced by Surrey: his stanzas invariably consist of three separate quatrains followed by a couplet. But Sir Philip Sidney, whose familiarity with Italian literature was intimate, and who had resided long in Italy, perceived that without a greater complexity and interweaving of rhymes the beauty of the poem was considerably impaired. He therefore combined the rhymes of the two quatrains, as the Italians had done, leaving himself free to follow the Italian fashion in the conclusion, or else to wind up after English usage with a couplet. Spenser and Drummond follow the rule of Sidney; Drayton and Daniel, that of Surrey and Shakspere. It was not until Milton that an English poet preserved the form of the Italian sonnet in its strictness; but, after Milton, the greatest sonnet-writers—Wordsworth, Keats, and Rossetti—have aimed at producing stanzas as regular as those of Petrarch.
The great age of our literature—the age of Elizabeth—was essentially one of Italian influence. In Italy the Renaissance had reached its height: England, feeling the new life which had been infused into arts and letters, turned instinctively to Italy, and adopted her canons of taste. ‘Euphues’ has a distinct connection with the Italian discourses of polite culture. Sidney’s ‘Arcadia’ is a copy of what Boccaccio had attempted in his classical romances, and Sanazzaro in his pastorals. Spenser approached the subject of the ‘Faery Queen’ with his head full of Ariosto and the romantic poets of Italy. His sonnets are Italian; his odes embody the Platonic philosophy of the Italians. The extent of Spenser’s deference to the Italians in matters of poetic art may be gathered from this passage in the dedication to Sir Walter Raleigh of the ‘Faery Queen:’
I have followed all the antique poets historical: first Homer, who in the persons of Agamemnon and Ulysses hath ensampled a good governor and a virtuous man, the one in his Ilias, the other in his Odysseis; then Virgil, whose like intention was to do in the person of AEneas; after him Ariosto comprised them both in his Orlando; and lately Tasso dissevered them again, and formed both parts in two persons, namely, that part which they in Philosophy call Ethice, or virtues of a private man, coloured in his Rinaldo, the other named Politico in his Goffredo.
From this it is clear that, to the mind of Spenser, both Ariosto and Tasso were authorities of hardly less gravity than Homer and Virgil. Raleigh, in the splendid sonnet with which he responds to this dedication, enhances the fame of Spenser by affecting to believe that the great Italian, Petrarch, will be jealous of him in the grave. To such an extent were the thoughts of the English poets occupied with their Italian masters in the art of song.
It was at this time, again, that English literature was enriched by translations of Ariosto and Tasso—the one from the pen of Sir John Harrington, the other from that of Fairfax. Both were produced in the metre of the original—the octave stanza, which, however, did not at that period take root in England. At the same period the works of many of the Italian novelists, especially Bandello and Cinthio and Boccaccio, were translated into English; Painter’s ’Palace of Pleasure’ being a treasure-house of Italian works of fiction. Thomas Hoby translated Castiglione’s ‘Courtier’ in 1561. As a proof of the extent to which Italian books were read in England at the end of the sixteenth century, we may take a stray sentence from a letter of Harvey, in which he disparages the works of Robert Greene:—’Even Guicciardine’s silver histories and Ariosto’s golden cantos grow out of request: and the Countess of Pembroke’s “Arcadia” is not green enough for queasy stomachs; but they must have seen Greene’s “Arcadia,” and I believe most eagerly longed for Greene’s “Faery Queen."’
Still more may be gathered on the same topic from the indignant protest uttered by Roger Ascham in his ‘Schoolmaster’ (pp. 78-91, date 1570) against the prevalence of Italian customs, the habit of Italian travel, and the reading of Italian books translated into English. Selections of Italian stories rendered into English were extremely popular; and Greene’s tales, which had such vogue that Nash says of them, ’glad was that printer that might be so blest to pay him dear for the very dregs of his wit,’ were all modelled on the Italian. The education of a young man of good family was not thought complete unless he had spent some time in Italy, studied its literature, admired its arts, and caught at least some tincture of its manners. Our rude ancestors brought back with them from these journeys many Southern vices, together with the culture they had gone to seek. The contrast between the plain dealing of the North and the refined Machiavellism of the South, between Protestant earnestness in religion and Popish scepticism, between the homely virtues of England and the courtly libertinism of Venice or Florence, blunted the moral sense, while it stimulated the intellectual activity of the English travellers, and too often communicated a fatal shock to their principles. Inglese Italianato e un diavolo incarnato passed into a proverb: we find it on the lips of Parker, of Howell, of Sidney, of Greene, and of Ascham; while Italy itself was styled by severe moralists the court of Circe. In James Howell’s ’Instructions for forreine travell’ we find this pregnant sentence: ’And being now in Italy, that great limbique of working braines, he must be very circumspect in his carriage, for she is able to turne a Saint into a devill, and deprave the best natures, if one will abandon himselfe, and become a prey to dissolut courses and wantonesse.’ Italy, in truth, had already become corrupt, and the fruit of her contact with the nations of the North was seen in the lives of such scholars as Robert Greene, who confessed that he returned from his travels instructed ‘in all the villanies under the sun.’ Many of the scandals of the Court of James might be ascribed to this aping of Southern manners.
Yet, together with the evil of depraved morality, the advantage of improved culture was imported from Italy into England; and the constitution of the English genius was young and healthy enough to purge off the mischief, while it assimilated what was beneficial. This is very manifest in the history of our drama, which, taking it altogether, is at the same time the purest and the most varied that exists in literature; while it may be affirmed without exaggeration that one of the main impulses to free dramatic composition in England was communicated by the attraction everything Italian possessed for the English fancy. It was in the drama that the English displayed the richness and the splendour of the Renaissance, which had blazed so gorgeously and at times so balefully below the
The Elizabethan period of our literature was, in fact, the period during which we derived most from the Italian nation.
The study of the Italian language went hand in hand with the study of Greek and Latin, so that the three together contributed to form the English taste. Between us and the ancient world stood the genius of Italy as an interpreter. Nor was this connection broken until far on into the reign of Charles II. What Milton owed to Italy is clear not only from his Italian sonnets, but also from the frequent mention of Dante and Petrarch in his prose works, from his allusions to Boiardo and Ariosto in the ‘Paradise Lost,’ and from the hints which he probably derived from Pulci, Tasso and Andreini. It would, indeed, be easy throughout his works to trace a continuous vein of Italian influence in detail. But, more than this, Milton’s poetical taste in general seems to have been formed and ripened by familiarity with the harmonies of the Italian language. In his Tractate on Education addressed to Mr. Hartlib, he recommends that boys should be instructed in the Italian pronunciation of vowel sounds, in order to give sonorousness and dignity to elocution. This slight indication supplies us with a key to the method of melodious structure employed by Milton in his blank verse. Those who have carefully studied the harmonies of the ‘Paradise Lost,’ know how all-important are the assonances of the vowel sounds of o and a in its most musical passages. It is just this attention to the liquid and sonorous recurrences of open vowels that we should expect from a poet who proposed to assimilate his diction to that of the Italians.
After the age of Milton the connection between Italy and England is interrupted. In the seventeenth century Italy herself had sunk into comparative stupor, and her literature was trivial. France not only swayed the political destinies of Europe, but also took the lead in intellectual culture. Consequently, our poets turned from Italy to France, and the French spirit pervaded English literature throughout the period of the Restoration and the reigns of William and Queen Anne. Yet during this prolonged reaction against the earlier movement of English literature, as manifested in Elizabethanism, the influence of Italy was not wholly extinct. Dryden’s ‘Tales from Boccaccio’ are no insignificant contribution to our poetry, and his ’Palamon and Arcite,’ through Chaucer, returns to the same source. But when, at the beginning of this century, the Elizabethan tradition was revived, then the Italian influence reappeared more vigorous than ever. The metre of ‘Don Juan,’ first practised by Frere and then adopted by Lord Byron, is Pulci’s octave stanza; the manner is that of Berni, Folengo, and the Abbe Casti, fused and heightened by the brilliance of Byron’s genius into a new form. The subject of Shelley’s strongest work of art is Beatrice Cenci. Rogers’s poem is styled ‘Italy.’ Byron’s dramas are
What has hitherto been said about the debt of the English poets to Italy, may seem to imply that our literature can be regarded as to some extent a parasite on that of the Italians. Against such a conclusion no protest too energetic could be uttered. What we have derived directly from the Italian poets are, first, some metres—especially the sonnet and the octave stanza, though the latter has never taken firm root in England. ‘Terza rima,’ attempted by Shelley, Byron, Morris, and Mrs. Browning, has not yet become acclimatised. Blank verse, although originally remodelled by Surrey upon the versi sciolti of the Italians, has departed widely from Italian precedent, first by its decasyllabic structure, whereas Italian verse consists of hendecasyllables; and, secondly, by its greater force, plasticity, and freedom. The Spenserian stanza, again, is a new and original metre peculiar to our literature; though it is possible that but for the complex structures of Italian lyric verse, it might not have been fashioned for the ‘Faery Queen.’ Lastly, the so-called heroic couplet is native to England; at any rate, it is in no way related to Italian metre. Therefore the only true Italian exotic adopted without modification into our literature is the sonnet.
In the next place, we owe to the Italians the subject-matter of many of our most famous dramas and our most delightful tales in verse. But the English treatment of these histories and fables has been uniformly independent and original. Comparing Shakspere’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with Bandello’s tale, Webster’s ‘Duchess of Malfy’ with the version given from the Italian in Painter’s ‘Palace of Pleasure,’ and Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale with the ‘Teseide’ of Boccaccio, we perceive at once that the English poets have used their Italian models merely as outlines to be filled in with freedom, as the canvas to be embroidered with a tapestry of vivid groups. Nothing is more manifest than the superiority of the English genius over the Italian in all dramatic qualities of intense passion, profound analysis, and living portrayal of character in action. The mere rough detail of Shakspere’s ‘Othello’ is to be found in Cinthio’s Collection of Novelle; but let an unprejudiced reader peruse the original, and he will be no more deeply affected by it than by any touching story of treachery, jealousy, and hapless innocence. The wily subtleties of Iago, the soldierly frankness of Cassio, the turbulent and volcanic passions of Othello, the charm of Desdemona, and the whole tissue of vivid incidents which make ‘Othello’ one of the most tremendous extant tragedies of characters in combat, are Shakspere’s, and only Shakspere’s. This instance, indeed, enables us exactly to indicate what the English owed to Italy and what was essentially their own. From that Southern land of Circe about which they dreamed, and which now and then they visited, came to their imaginations a spirit-stirring breath of inspiration. It was to them the country of marvels, of mysterious crimes, of luxurious gardens and splendid skies, where love was more passionate and life more picturesque, and hate more bloody and treachery more black, than in our Northern climes. Italy was a spacious grove of wizardry, which mighty poets, on the quest of fanciful adventure, trod with fascinated senses and quickened pulses. But the strong brain which converted what they heard and read and saw of that charmed land into the stuff of golden romance or sable tragedy, was their own.
English literature has been defined a literature of genius.
Our greatest work in art has been achieved not so much by inspiration, subordinate to sentiments of exquisite good taste or guided by observance of classical models, as by audacious sallies of pure inventive power. This is true as a judgment of that constellation which we call our drama, of the meteor Byron, of Milton and Dryden, who are the Jupiter and Mars of our poetic system, and of the stars which stud our literary firmament under the names of Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Chatterton, Scott, Coleridge, Clough, Blake, Browning, Swinburne, Tennyson. There are only a very few of the English poets, Pope and Gray, for example, in whom the free instincts of genius are kept systematically in check
Another point of view may be gained by noticing the pre-dominant tone of the two literatures. Whenever English poetry is really great, it approximates to the tragic and the stately; whereas the Italians are peculiarly felicitous in the smooth and pleasant style, which combines pathos with amusement, and which does not trespass beyond the region of beauty into the domain of sublimity or terror. Italian poetry is analogous to Italian painting and Italian music: it bathes the soul in a plenitude of charms, investing even the most solemn subjects with loveliness. Rembrandt and Albert Duerer depict the tragedies of the Sacred History with a serious and awful reality: Italian painters, with a few rare but illustrious exceptions, shrink from approaching them from any point of view but that of harmonious melancholy. Even so the English poets stir the soul to its very depths by their profound and earnest delineations of the stern and bitter truths of the world: Italian poets environ all things with the golden haze of an artistic harmony; so that the soul is agitated by no pain at strife with the persuasions of pure beauty.
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POPULAR SONGS OF TUSCANY
It is a noticeable fact about the popular songs of Tuscany that they are almost exclusively devoted to love. The Italians in general have no ballad literature resembling that of our Border or that of Spain. The tragic histories of their noble families, the great deeds of their national heroes, and the sufferings of their country during centuries of warfare, have left but few traces in their rustic poetry. It is true that some districts are less utterly barren than others in these records of the past. The Sicilian people’s poetry, for example, preserves a memory of the famous Vespers; and one or two terrible stories of domestic tragedy, like the tale of Rosmunda in ’La Donna Lombarda,’ the romance of the Baronessa di Carini, and the so-called Caso di Sciacca, may still be heard upon the lips of the people. But these exceptions are insignificant in comparison with the vast mass of songs which deal with love; and I cannot find that Tuscany, where the language of this minstrelsy is purest, and where the artistic instincts of the race are strongest, has anything at all approaching to our ballads. Though the Tuscan contadini are always singing, it rarely happens that
The plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago.
On the contrary, we may be sure, when we hear their voices ringing through the olive-groves or macchi, that they are chanting
Some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day,—
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again;
or else, since their melodies are by no means uniformly sad, some ditty of the joyousness of springtime or the ecstasy of love.
This defect of anything corresponding to our ballads of ‘Chevy Chase,’ or ‘Sir Patrick Spens,’ or ‘Gil Morrice,’ in a poetry which is still so vital with the life of past centuries, is all the more remarkable because Italian history is distinguished above that of other nations by tragic episodes peculiarly suited to poetic treatment. Many of these received commemoration in the fourteenth century from Dante; others were embodied in the novelle of Boccaccio and Cinthio and Bandello, whence they passed into the dramas of Shakspere, Webster, Ford, and their contemporaries. But scarcely an echo can be traced through all the volumes of the recently collected popular songs. We must seek for an explanation of this fact partly in the conditions of Italian life, and partly in the nature of the Italian imagination. Nowhere in Italy do we observe that intimate connection between the people at large and the great nobles which generates the sympathy of clanship. Politics in most parts of the peninsula fell at a very early period into the hands either of irresponsible princes, who ruled like despots, or else of burghers, who administered the state within the walls of their Palazzo Pubblico. The people remained passive spectators of contemporary history. The loyalty of subjects to their sovereign which animates the Spanish ballads, the loyalty of retainers to their chief which gives life to the tragic ballads of the Border, did not exist in Italy. Country-folk felt no interest in the doings of Visconti or Medici or Malatesti sufficient to arouse the enthusiasm of local bards or to call forth the celebration of their princely tragedies in verse. Amid the miseries of foreign wars and home oppression, it seemed better to demand from verse and song some mitigation of the woes of life, some expression of personal emotion, than to record the disasters which to us at a distance appear poetic in their grandeur.
These conditions of popular life, although unfavourable to the production of ballad poetry, would not, however, have been sufficient by themselves to check its growth, if the Italians had been strongly impelled to literature of this type by their nature. The real reason why their Volkslieder are amorous and personal is to be found in the quality of their imagination. The Italian genius is not creatively imaginative in the highest sense. The Italians have never, either in the ancient or the modern age, produced a great drama or a national epic, the ‘AEneid’ and the ‘Divine Comedy’ being obviously of different species from the ‘Iliad’ or the ‘Nibelungen Lied.’ Modern Italians, again, are distinguished from the French, the Germans, and the English in being the conscious inheritors of an older, august, and strictly classical civilisation. The great memories of Rome weigh down their faculties of invention. It would also seem as though they shrank in their poetry from the representation of what is tragic and spirit-stirring. They incline
The truth is that the Italians as a race are distinguished as much by a firm grasp upon the practical realities of existence as by powerful emotions. They have but little of that dreamy Schwaermerei with which the people of the North are largely gifted. The true sphere of their genius is painting. What appeals to the imagination through the eyes, they have expressed far better than any other modern nation. But their poetry, like their music, is deficient in tragic sublimity and in the higher qualities of imaginative creation.
It may seem paradoxical to say this of the nation which produced Dante. But we must remember not to judge races by single and exceptional men of genius. Petrarch, the Troubadour of exquisite emotions, Boccaccio, who touches all the keys of life so lightly, Ariosto, with the smile of everlasting April on his lips, and Tasso, excellent alone when he confines himself to pathos or the picturesque, are no exceptions to what I have just said. Yet these poets pursued their art with conscious purpose. The tragic splendour of Greece, the majesty of Rome, were not unknown to them. Far more is it true that popular poetry in Italy, proceeding from the hearts of uncultivated peasants and expressing the national character in its simplicity, displays none of the stuff from which the greatest works of art in verse, epics and dramas, can be wrought. But within its own sphere of personal emotion, this popular poetry is exquisitely melodious, inexhaustibly rich, unique in modern literature for the direct expression which it has given to every shade of passion.
Signor Tigri’s collection, to which I shall confine my attention in this paper, consists of eleven hundred and eighty-five rispetti, with the addition of four hundred and sixty-one stornelli. Rispetto, it may be said in passing, is the name commonly given throughout Italy to short poems, varying from six to twelve lines, constructed on the principle of the octave stanza. That is to say, the first part of the rispetto consists of four or six lines with alternate rhymes, while one or more couplets, called the ripresa, complete the poem. The stornello, or ritournelle, never exceeds three lines, and owes its name to the return which it makes at the end of the last line to the rhyme given by the emphatic word of the first. Browning, in his poem of ‘Fra Lippo Lippi,’ has accustomed English ears to one common species of the stornello, which sets out with the name of a flower, and rhymes with it, as thus:
Fior di narciso.
Prigionero d’amore mi son reso,
Nel rimirare il tuo leggiadro viso.
The divisions of those two sorts of songs, to which Tigri gives names like The Beauty of Women, The Beauty of Men, Falling in Love, Serenades, Happy Love, Unhappy Love, Parting, Absence, Letters, Return to Home, Anger and Jealousy, Promises, Entreaties and Reproaches, Indifference, Treachery and Abandonment, prove with what fulness the various phases of the tender passion are treated. Through the whole fifteen hundred the one theme of Love is never relinquished. Only two persons, ‘I’ and ‘thou,’ appear upon the scene; yet so fresh and so various are the moods of feeling, that one can read them from first to last without too much satiety.
To seek for the authors of these ditties would be useless. Some of them may be as old as the fourteenth century; others may have been made yesterday. Some are the native product of the Tuscan mountain villages, especially of the regions round Pistoja and Siena, where on the spurs of the Apennines the purest Italian is vernacular. Some, again, are importations from other provinces, especially from Sicily and Naples, caught up by the peasants of Tuscany and adapted to their taste and style; for nothing travels faster than a Volkslied. Born some morning in a noisy street of Naples, or on the solitary slopes of Radicofani, before the week is out, a hundred voices are repeating it. Waggoners and pedlars carry it across the hills to distant towns. It floats with the fishermen from bay to bay, and marches with the conscript to his barrack in a far-off province. Who was the first to give it shape and form? No one asks, and no one cares. A student well acquainted with the habits of the people in these matters says, ’If they knew the author of a ditty, they would not learn it, far less if they discovered that it was a scholar’s.’ If the cadence takes their ear, they consecrate the song at once by placing it upon the honoured list of ‘ancient
Salutatemi, bella, lo scrivano;
Non lo conosco e non so chi si sia.
A me mi pare un poeta sovrano,
Tanto gli e sperto nella poesia.
While I am writing thus about the production and dissemination of these love-songs, I cannot help remembering three days and nights which I once spent at sea between Genoa and Palermo, in the company of some conscripts who were going to join their regiment in Sicily. They were lads from the Milanese and Liguria, and they spent a great portion of their time in composing and singing poetry. One of them had a fine baritone voice; and when the sun had set, his comrades gathered round him and begged him to sing to them ’Con quella patetica tua voce.’ Then followed hours of singing, the low monotonous melodies of his ditties harmonising wonderfully with the tranquillity of night, so clear and calm that the sky and all its stars were mirrored on the sea, through which we moved as if in a dream. Sometimes the songs provoked conversation, which, as is usual in Italy, turned mostly upon ‘le bellezze delle donne.’ I remember that once an animated discussion about the relative merits of blondes and brunettes nearly ended in a quarrel, when the youngest of the whole band, a boy of about seventeen, put a stop to the dispute by theatrically raising his eyes and arms to heaven and crying, ‘Tu sei innamorato d’ una grande Diana cacciatrice nera, ed io d’ una bella Venere bionda.’ Though they were but village lads, they supported their several opinions with arguments not unworthy of Firenzuola, and showed the greatest delicacy of feeling in the treatment of a subject which could scarcely have failed to reveal any latent coarseness.
The purity of all the Italian love-songs collected by Tigri is very remarkable. Although the passion expressed in them is Oriental in its vehemence, not a word falls which could offend a virgin’s ear. The one desire of lovers is lifelong union in marriage. The damo—for so a sweetheart is termed in Tuscany—trembles until he has gained the approval of his future mother-in-law, and forbids the girl he is courting to leave her house to talk to him at night:—
Dice che tu ti affacci alia finestra;
Ma non ti dice che tu vada fuora,
Perche, la notte, e cosa disonesta.
All the language of his love is respectful. Signore, or master of my soul, madonna, anima mia, dolce mio ben, nobil persona, are the terms of adoration with which he approaches his mistress. The elevation of feeling and perfect breeding which Manzoni has so well delineated in the loves of Renzo and Lucia are traditional among Italian country-folk. They are conscious that true gentleness is no matter of birth or fortune:—
E tu non mi lasciar per poverezza,
Che poverta non guasta gentilezza.
This in itself constitutes an important element of culture, and explains to some extent the high romantic qualities of their impassioned poetry. The beauty of their land reveals still more. ’O fortunatos nimium sua si bona norint!’ Virgil’s exclamation is as true now as it was when he sang the labours of Italian country-folk some nineteen centuries ago. To a traveller from the north there is a pathos even in the contrast between the country in which these children of a happier climate toil, and those bleak, winter-beaten fields where our own peasants pass their lives. The cold nights and warm days of Tuscan springtime are like a Swiss summer. They make rich pasture and a hardy race of men. Tracts of corn and oats and rye alternate with patches of flax in full flower, with meadows yellow with buttercups or pink with ragged robin; the young vines, running from bough to bough of elm and mulberry, are just coming into leaf. The poplars are fresh with bright green foliage. On the verge of this blooming plain stand ancient cities ringed with hills, some rising to snowy Apennines, some covered with white convents and sparkling with villas. Cypresses shoot, black and spirelike, amid grey clouds of olive-boughs upon the slopes; and above, where vegetation borders on the barren rock, are masses of ilex and arbutus interspersed with chestnut-trees not yet in leaf. Men and women are everywhere at work, ploughing with great white oxen, or tilling the soil with spades six feet in length—Sabellian ligones. The songs of nightingales among acacia-trees, and the sharp scream of swallows wheeling in air, mingle with the monotonous chant that always rises from the country-people at their toil. Here and there on points of vantage, where the hill-slopes sink into the plain, cluster white villages with flower-like campanili. It
A translator of these Volkslieder has to contend with difficulties of no ordinary kind. The freshness of their phrases, the spontaneity of their sentiments, and the melody of their unstudied cadences, are inimitable. So again is the peculiar effect of their frequent transitions from the most fanciful imagery to the language of prose. No mere student can hope to rival, far less to reproduce, in a foreign tongue, the charm of verse which sprang untaught from the hearts of simple folk, which lives unwritten on the lips of lovers, and which should never be dissociated from singing. There are, besides, peculiarities in the very structure of the popular rispetto. The constant repetition of the same phrase with slight variations, especially in the closing lines of the ripresa of the Tuscan rispetto, gives an antique force and flavour to these ditties, like that which we appreciate in our own ballads, but which may easily, in the translation, degenerate into weakness and insipidity. The Tuscan rhymester, again, allows himself the utmost licence. It is usual to find mere assonances like bene and piacere, oro and volo, ala and alata, in the place of rhymes; while such remote resemblances of sound as colli and poggi, lascia and piazza, are far from uncommon. To match these rhymes by joining ‘home’ and ‘alone,’ ‘time’ and ‘shine,’ &c, would of course be a matter of no difficulty; but it has seemed to me on the whole best to preserve, with some exceptions, such accuracy as the English ear requires. I fear, however, that, after all, these wild-flowers of song, transplanted to another climate and placed in a hothouse, will appear but pale and hectic by the side of their robuster brethren of the Tuscan hills.
In the following serenade many of the peculiarities which I have just noticed occur. I have also adhered to the irregularity of rhyme which may be usually observed about the middle of the poem (p. 103):—
Sleeping or waking, thou sweet face,
Lift up thy fair and tender brow:
List to thy love in this still place;
He calls thee to thy window now:
But bids thee not the house to quit,
Since in the night this were not meet.
Come to thy window, stay within;
I stand without, and sing and sing:
Come to thy window, stay at home;
I stand without, and make my moan.
Here is a serenade of a more impassioned character (p. 99):—
I come to visit thee, my beauteous queen,
Thee and the house where thou art harboured:
All the long way upon my knees, my queen,
I kiss the earth where’er thy footsteps tread.
I kiss the earth, and gaze upon the wall,
Whereby thou goest, maid imperial!
I kiss the earth, and gaze upon the house,
Whereby thou farest, queen most beauteous!
In the next the lover, who has passed the whole night beneath his sweetheart’s window, takes leave at the break of day. The feeling of the half-hour before dawn, when the sound of bells rises to meet the growing light, and both form a prelude to the glare and noise of day, is expressed with much unconscious poetry (p. 105):—
I see the dawn e’en now begin to
Therefore I take my leave, and cease to sing,
See how the windows open far and near,
And hear the bells of morning, how they ring!
Through heaven and earth the sounds of ringing swell;
Therefore, bright jasmine flower, sweet maid, farewell!
Through heaven and Rome the sound of ringing goes;
Farewell, bright jasmine flower, sweet maiden rose!
The next is more quaint (p. 99):—
I come by night, I come, my soul aflame;
I come in this fair hour of your sweet sleep;
And should I wake you up, it were a shame.
I cannot sleep, and lo! I break your sleep.
To wake you were a shame from your deep rest;
Love never sleeps, nor they whom Love hath blest.
A very great many rispetti are simple panegyrics of the beloved, to find similitude for whose beauty heaven and earth are ransacked. The compliment of the first line in the following song is perfect (p. 23):—
Beauty was born with you, fair maid:
The sun and moon inclined to you;
On you the snow her whiteness laid
The rose her rich and radiant hue:
Saint Magdalen her hair unbound,
And Cupid taught you how to wound—
How to wound hearts Dan Cupid taught:
Your beauty drives me love-distraught.
The lady in the next was December’s child (p. 25):—
O beauty, born in winter’s night,
Born in the month of spotless snow:
Your face is like a rose so bright;
Your mother may be proud of you!
She may be proud, lady of love,
Such sunlight shines her house above:
She may be proud, lady of heaven,
Such sunlight to her home is given.
The sea wind is the source of beauty to another (p. 16):—
Nay, marvel not you are so fair;
For you beside the sea were born:
The sea-waves keep you fresh and fair,
Like roses on their leafy thorn.
If roses grow on the rose-bush,
Your roses through midwinter blush;
If roses bloom on the rose-bed,
Your face can show both white and red.
The eyes of a fourth are compared, after quite a new and original fashion, to stars (p. 210):—
The moon hath risen her plaint to lay
Before the face of Love Divine.
Saying in heaven she will not stay,
Since you have stolen what made her shine:
Aloud she wails with sorrow wan,—
She told her stars and two are gone:
They are not there; you have them now;
They are the eyes in your bright brow.
Nor are girls less ready to praise their lovers, but that they do not dwell so much on physical perfection. Here is a pleasant greeting (p. 124):—
O welcome, welcome, lily white,
Thou fairest youth of all the valley!
When I’m with you, my soul is light;
I chase away dull melancholy.
I chase all sadness from my heart:
Then welcome, dearest that thou art!
I chase all sadness from my side:
Then welcome, O my love, my pride!
I chase all sadness far away:
Then welcome, welcome, love, to-day!
The image of a lily is very prettily treated in the next (p 79):—
I planted a lily yestreen at my window;
I set it yestreen, and to-day it sprang up:
When I opened the latch and leaned out of my window,
It shadowed my face with its beautiful cup.
O lily, my lily, how tall you are grown!
Remember how dearly I loved you, my own.
O lily, my lily, you’ll grow to the sky!
Remember I love you for ever and aye.
The same thought of love growing like a flower receives another turn (p. 69):—
On yonder hill I saw a flower;
And, could it thence be hither borne,
I’d plant it here within my bower,
And water it both eve and morn.
Small water wants the stem so straight;
’Tis a love-lily stout as fate.
Small water wants the root so strong:
’Tis a love-lily lasting long.
Small water wants the flower so sheen:
’Tis a love-lily ever green.
Envious tongues have told a girl that her complexion is not good. She replies, with imagery like that of Virgil’s ’Alba ligustra cadunt, vaccinia nigra leguntur’ (p. 31):—
Think it no grief that I am brown,
For all brunettes are born to reign:
White is the snow, yet trodden down;
Black pepper kings need not disdain:
White snow lies mounded on the vales
Black pepper’s weighed in brazen scales.
Another song runs on the same subject (p. 38):—
The whole world tells me that I’m
The brown earth gives us goodly corn:
The clove-pink too, however brown,
Yet proudly in the hand ’tis borne.
They say my love is black, but he
Shines like an angel-form to me:
They say my love is dark as night;
To me he seems a shape of light.
The freshness of the following spring song recalls
the ballads of the
Val de Vire in Normandy (p. 85):—
It was the morning of the first of May,
Into the close I went to pluck a flower;
And there I found a bird of woodland gay,
Who whiled with songs of love the silent hour.
O bird, who fliest from fair Florence, how
Dear love begins, I prithee teach me now!—
Love it begins with music and with song,
And ends with sorrow and with sighs ere long.
Love at first sight is described (p. 79):—
The very moment that we met,
That moment love began to beat:
One glance of love we gave, and swore
Never to part for evermore;
We swore together, sighing deep,
Never to part till Death’s long sleep.
Here too is a memory of the first days of love (p. 79):—
If I remember, it was May
When love began between us two:
The roses in the close were gay,
The cherries blackened on the bough.
O cherries black and pears so green!
Of maidens fair you are the queen.
Fruit of black cherry and sweet pear!
Of sweethearts you’re the queen, I swear.
The troth is plighted with such promises as these (p. 230):—
Or ere I leave you, love divine,
Dead tongues shall stir and utter speech,
And running rivers flow with wine,
And fishes swim upon the beach;
Or ere I leave or shun you, these
Lemons shall grow on orange-trees.
The girl confesses her love after this fashion (p. 86):—
Passing across the billowy sea,
I let, alas, my poor heart fall;
I bade the sailors bring it me;
They said they had not seen it fall.
I asked the sailors, one and two;
They said that I had given it you.
I asked the sailors, two and three;
They said that I had given it thee.
It is not uncommon to speak of love as a sea. Here is a curious play upon this image (p. 227):—
Ho, Cupid! Sailor Cupid, ho!
Lend me awhile that bark of thine;
For on the billows I will go,
To find my love who once was mine:
And if I find her, she shall wear
A chain around her neck so fair,
Around her neck a glittering bond,
Four stars, a lily, a diamond.
It is also possible that the same thought may occur in the second line of the next ditty (p. 120):—
Beneath the earth I’ll make a way
To pass the sea and come to you.
People will think I’m gone away;
But, dear, I shall be seeing you.
People will say that I am dead;
But we’ll pluck roses white and red:
People will think I’m lost for aye;
But we’ll pluck roses, you and I.
All the little daily incidents are beautified by love. Here is a lover who thanks the mason for making his window so close upon the road that he can see his sweetheart as she passes (p. 118):—
Blest be the mason’s hand who built
This house of mine by the roadside,
And made my window low and wide
For me to watch my love go by.
And if I knew when she went by,
My window should be fairly gilt;
And if I knew what time she went,
My window should be flower-besprent.
Here is a conceit which reminds one of the pretty epistle of Philostratus, in which the footsteps of the beloved are called [Greek: erereismena philempta] (p. 117):—
What time I see you passing by;
I sit and count the steps you take:
You take the steps; I sit and sigh:
Step after step, my sighs awake.
Tell me, dear love, which more abound,
My sighs or your steps on the ground?
Tell me, dear love, which are the most,
Your light steps or the sighs they cost?
A girl complains that she cannot see her lover’s house (p. 117):-
I lean upon the lattice, and look forth
To see the house where my lover dwells.
There grows an envious tree that spoils my mirth:
Cursed be the man who set it on these hills!
But when those jealous boughs are all unclad,
I then shall see the cottage of my lad:
When once that tree is rooted from the hills,
I’ll see the house wherein my lover dwells.
In the same mood a girl who has just parted from her sweetheart is angry with the hill beyond which he is travelling (p. 167):—
I see and see, yet see not what I would:
I see the leaves atremble on the tree:
I saw my love where on the hill he stood,
Yet see him not drop downward to the lea.
O traitor hill, what will you do?
I ask him, live or dead, from you.
O traitor hill, what shall it be?
I ask him, live or dead, from thee.
All the songs of love in absence are very quaint. Here is one which calls our nursery rhymes to mind (p. 119):—
I would I were a bird so free,
That I had wings to fly away:
Unto that window I would flee,
Where stands my love and grinds all day.
Grind, miller, grind; the water’s deep!
I cannot grind; love makes me weep.
Grind, miller, grind; the waters flow!
I cannot grind; love wastes me so.
The next begins after the same fashion, but breaks into a very shower of benedictions (p. 118):—
Would God I were a swallow free,
That I had wings to fly away:
Upon the miller’s door I’d be,
Where stands my love and grinds all day:
Upon the door, upon the sill,
Where stays my love;—God bless him still!
God bless my love, and blessed be
His house, and bless my house for me;
Yea, blest be both, and ever blest
My lover’s house, and all the rest!
The girl alone at home in her garden sees a wood-dove flying by and calls to it (p. 179):—
O dove, who fliest far to yonder hill,
Dear dove, who in the rock hast made thy nest,
Let me a feather from thy pinion pull,
For I will write to him who loves me best.
And when I’ve written it and made it clear,
I’ll give thee back thy feather, dove so dear:
And when I’ve written it and sealed it, then
I’ll give thee back thy feather love-laden.
A swallow is asked to lend the same kind service (p. 179):—
O swallow, swallow, flying through the air,
Turn, turn, I prithee, from thy flight above!
Give me one feather from thy wing so fair,
For I will write a letter to my love.
When I have written it and made it clear,
I’ll give thee back thy feather, swallow dear;
When I have written it on paper white,
I’ll make, I swear, thy missing feather right;
When once ’tis written on fair leaves of gold,
I’ll give thee back thy wing and flight so bold.
Long before Tennyson’s song in the ‘Princess,’ it would seem that swallows were favourite messengers of love. In the next song which I translate, the repetition of one thought with delicate variation is full of character (p. 178):—
O swallow, flying over hill and plain,
If thou shouldst find my love, oh bid him come!
And tell him, on these mountains I remain
Even as a lamb who cannot find her home:
And tell him, I am left all, all alone,
Even as a tree whose flowers are overblown:
And tell him, I am left without a mate
Even as a tree whose boughs are desolate:
And tell him, I am left uncomforted
Even as the grass upon the meadows dead.
The following is spoken by a girl who has been watching the lads of the village returning from their autumn service in the plain, and whose damo comes the last of all (p. 240):—
O dear my love, you come too late!
What found you by the way to do?
I saw your comrades pass the gate,
But yet not you, dear heart, not you!
If but a little more you’d stayed,
With sighs you would have found me dead;
If but a while you’d keep me crying,
With sighs you would have found me dying.
The amantium irae find a place too in these rustic ditties. A girl explains to her sweetheart (p. 240):—
’Twas told me and vouchsafed for
Your kin are wroth as wroth can be;
For loving me they swear at you,
They swear at you because of me;
Your father, mother, all your folk,
Because you love me, chafe and choke!
Then set your kith and kin at ease;
Set them at ease and let me die:
Set the whole clan of them at ease;
Set them at ease and see me die!
Another suspects that her damo has paid his suit to a rival (p. 200):—
On Sunday morning well I knew
Where gaily dressed you turned your feet;
And there were many saw it too,
And came to tell me through the street:
And when they spoke, I smiled, ah me!
But in my room wept privately;
And when they spoke, I sang for pride,
But in my room alone I sighed.
Then come reconciliations (p. 223):—
Let us make peace, my love, my bliss!
For cruel strife can last no more.
If you say nay, yet I say yes:
’Twixt me and you there is no war.
Princes and mighty lords make peace;
And so may lovers twain, I wis:
Princes and soldiers sign a truce;
And so may two sweethearts like us:
Princes and potentates agree;
And so may friends like you and me.
There is much character about the following, which is spoken by the damo (p. 223):—
As yonder mountain height I trod,
I chanced to think of your dear name;
I knelt with clasped hands on the sod,
And thought of my neglect with shame:
I knelt upon the stone, and swore
Our love should bloom as heretofore.
Sometimes the language of affection takes a more imaginative tone, as in the following (p. 232):—
Dearest, what time you mount to heaven
I’ll meet you holding in my hand my heart:
You to your breast shall clasp me full of love,
And I will lead you to our Lord apart.
Our Lord, when he our love so true hath
Shall make of our two hearts one heart alone;
One heart shall make of our two hearts, to rest
In heaven amid the splendours of the blest.
This was the woman’s. Here is the man’s (p. 113):—
If I were master of all loveliness,
I’d make thee still more lovely than thou art:
If I were master of all wealthiness,
Much gold and silver should be thine, sweetheart:
If I were master of the house of hell,
I’d bar the brazen gates in thy sweet face;
Or ruled the place where purging spirits dwell,
I’d free thee from that punishment apace.
Were I in paradise and thou shouldst come,
I’d stand aside, my love, to make thee room;
Were I in paradise, well seated there,
I’d quit my place to give it thee, my fair!
Sometimes, but very rarely, weird images are sought to clothe passion, as in the following (p. 136):—
Down into hell I went and thence returned:
Ah me! alas! the people that were there!
I found a room where many candles burned,
And saw within my love that languished there.
When as she saw me, she was glad of cheer,
And at the last she said: Sweet soul of mine;
Dost thou recall the time long past, so dear,
When thou didst say to me, Sweet soul of mine?
Now kiss me on the mouth, my dearest, here;
Kiss me that I for once may cease to pine!
So sweet, ah me, is thy dear mouth, so dear,
That of thy mercy prithee sweeten mine!
Now, love, that thou hast kissed me, now, I say,
Look not to leave this place again for aye.
Or again in this (p. 232):—
Methinks I hear, I hear a voice that cries:
Beyond the hill it floats upon the air.
It is my lover come to bid me rise,
If I am fain forthwith toward heaven to fare.
But I have answered him, and said him No!
I’ve given my paradise, my heaven, for you:
Till we together go to paradise,
I’ll stay on earth and love your beauteous eyes.
But it is not with such remote and eerie thoughts that the rustic muse of Italy can deal successfully. Far better is the following half-playful description of love-sadness (p. 71):—
Ah me, alas! who know not how to sigh!
Of sighs I now full well have learned the art:
Sighing at table when to eat I try,
Sighing within my little room apart,
Sighing when jests and laughter round me fly,
Sighing with her and her who know my heart:
I sigh at first, and then I go on sighing;
’Tis for your eyes that I am ever sighing:
I sigh at first, and sigh the whole year through;
And ’tis your eyes that keep me sighing so.
The next two rispetti, delicious in their naivete, might seem to have been extracted from the libretto of an opera, but that they lack the sympathising chorus, who should have stood at hand, ready to chime in with ‘he,’ ‘she,’ and ‘they,’ to the ‘I,’ ‘you,’ and ‘we’ of the lovers (p. 123):—
Ah, when will dawn that glorious day
When you will softly mount my stair?
My kin shall bring you on the way;
I shall be first to greet you there.
Ah, when will dawn that day of bliss
When we before the priest say Yes?
Ah, when will dawn that blissful day
When I shall softly mount your stair,
Your brothers meet me on the way,
And one by one I greet them there?
When comes the day, my staff, my strength,
To call your mother mine at length?
When will the day come, love of mine,
I shall be yours and you be mine?
Hitherto the songs have told only of happy love, or of love returned. Some of the best, however, are unhappy. Here is one, for instance, steeped in gloom (p. 142):—
They have this custom in fair Naples town;
They never mourn a man when he is dead:
The mother weeps when she has reared a son
To be a serf and slave by love misled;
The mother weeps when she a son hath born
To be the serf and slave of galley scorn;
The mother weeps when she a son gives suck
To be the serf and slave of city luck.
The following contains a fine wild image, wrought out with strange passion in detail (p. 300):—
I’ll spread a table brave for revelry,
And to the feast will bid sad lovers all.
For meat I’ll give them my heart’s misery;
For drink I’ll give these briny tears that fall.
Sorrows and sighs shall be the varletry,
To serve the lovers at this festival:
The table shall be death, black death profound;
Weep, stones, and utter sighs, ye walls around!
The table shall be death, yea, sacred death;
Weep, stones, and sigh as one that sorroweth!
Nor is the next a whit less in the vein of mad Jeronimo (p. 304):—
High up, high up, a house I’ll rear,
High up, high up, on yonder height;
At every window set a snare,
With treason, to betray the night;
With treason, to betray the stars,
Since I’m betrayed by my false feres;
With treason, to betray the day,
Since Love betrayed me, well away!
The vengeance of an Italian reveals itself in the
energetic song which
I quote next (p. 303):—
I have a sword; ’twould cut a brazen
Tough steel ’twould cut, if there were any need:
I’ve had it tempered in the streams of hell
By masters mighty in the mystic rede:
I’ve had it tempered by the light of stars;
Then let him come whose skin is stout as Mars;
I’ve had it tempered to a trenchant blade;
Then let him come who stole from me my maid.
More mild, but brimful of the bitterness of a soul to whom the whole world has become but ashes in the death of love, is the following lament (p. 143):—
Call me the lovely Golden Locks no more,
But call me Sad Maid of the golden hair.
If there be wretched women, sure I think
I too may rank among the most forlorn.
I fling a palm into the sea; ’twill sink:
Others throw lead, and it is lightly borne.
What have I done, dear Lord, the world to cross?
Gold in my hand forthwith is turned to dross.
How have I made, dear Lord, dame Fortune wroth?
Gold in my hand forthwith is turned to froth.
What have I done, dear Lord, to fret the folk?
Gold in my hand forthwith is turned to smoke.
Here is pathos (p. 172):—
The wood-dove who hath lost her mate,
She lives a dolorous life, I ween;
She seeks a stream and bathes in it,
And drinks that water foul and green:
With other birds she will not mate,
Nor haunt, I wis, the flowery treen;
She bathes her wings and strikes her breast;
Her mate is lost: oh, sore unrest!
And here is fanciful despair (p. 168):—
I’ll build a house of sobs and sighs,
With tears the lime I’ll slack;
And there I’ll dwell with weeping eyes
Until my love come back:
And there I’ll stay with eyes that burn
Until I see my love return.
The house of love has been deserted, and the lover comes to moan beneath its silent eaves (p. 171):—
Dark house and window desolate!
Where is the sun which shone so fair?
’Twas here we danced and laughed at fate:
Now the stones weep; I see them there.
They weep, and feel a grievous chill:
Dark house and widowed window-sill!
And what can be more piteous than this prayer? (p. 809):—
Love, if you love me, delve a tomb,
And lay me there the earth beneath;
After a year, come see my bones,
And make them dice to play therewith.
But when you’re tired of that game,
Then throw those dice into the flame;
But when you’re tired of gaming free,
Then throw those dice into the sea.
The simpler expression of sorrow to the death is, as usual, more impressive. A girl speaks thus within sight of the grave (p. 808):—
Yes, I shall die: what wilt thou
The cross before my bier will go;
And thou wilt hear the bells complain,
The Misereres loud and low.
Midmost the church thou’lt see me lie
With folded hands and frozen eye;
Then say at last, I do repent!—
Nought else remains when fires are spent.
Here is a rustic Oenone (p. 307):—
Fell death, that fliest fraught with woe!
Thy gloomy snares the world ensphere:
Where no man calls, thou lov’st to go;
But when we call, thou wilt not hear.
Fell death, false death of treachery,
Thou makest all content but me.
Another is less reproachful, but scarcely less sad (p. 308):—
Strew me with blossoms when I die,
Nor lay me ’neath the earth below;
Beyond those walls, there let me lie,
Where oftentimes we used to go.
There lay me to the wind and rain;
Dying for you, I feel no pain:
There lay me to the sun above;
Dying for you, I die of love.
Yet another of these pitiful love-wailings displays much poetry of expression (p. 271):—
I dug the sea, and delved the barren sand:
I wrote with dust and gave it to the wind:
Of melting snow, false Love, was made thy band,
Which suddenly the day’s bright beams unbind.
Now am I ware, and know my own mistake—
How false are all the promises you make;
Now am I ware, and know the fact, ah me!
That who confides in you, deceived will be.
It would scarcely be well to pause upon these very doleful ditties. Take, then, the following little serenade, in which the lover on his way to visit his mistress has unconsciously fallen on the same thought as Bion (p. 85):—
Yestreen I went my love
By yonder village path below:
Night in a coppice found my feet;
I called the moon her light to show—
O moon, who needs no flame to fire thy face,
Look forth and lend me light a little space!
Enough has been quoted to illustrate the character of the Tuscan popular poetry. These village rispetti bear the same relation to the canzoniere of Petrarch as the ‘savage drupe’ to the ‘suave plum.’ They are, as it were, the wild stock of that highly artificial flower of art. Herein lies, perhaps, their chief importance. As in our ballad literature we may discern the stuff of the Elizabethan drama undeveloped, so in the Tuscan people’s songs we can trace the crude form of that poetic instinct which produced the sonnets to Laura. It is also very probable that some such rustic minstrelsy preceded the Idylls of Theocritus and the Bucolics of Virgil; for coincidences of thought and imagery, which can scarcely be referred to any conscious study of the ancients, are not a few. Popular poetry has this great value for the student of literature: it enables him to trace those forms of fancy and of feeling which are native to the people, and which must ultimately determine the character of national art, however much that may be modified by culture.
* * * * *
POPULAR ITALIAN POETRY OF THE RENAISSANCE
The semi-popular poetry of the Italians in the fifteenth century formed an important branch of their national literature, and flourished independently of the courtly and scholastic studies which gave a special character to the golden age of the revival. While the latter tended to separate the people from the cultivated classes, the former established a new link of connection between them, different indeed from that which existed when smiths and carters repeated the Canzoni of Dante by heart in the fourteenth century, but still sufficiently real to exercise a weighty influence over the national development. Scholars like Angelo Poliziano, princes like Lorenzo de’ Medici, men of letters like Feo Belcari and Benivieni, borrowed from the people forms of poetry, which they handled with refined taste, and appropriated to the uses of polite literature. The most important of these forms, native to the people but assimilated by the learned classes, were the Miracle Play or ‘Sacra Rappresentazione;’ the ‘Ballata’ or lyric to be sung while dancing; the ’Canto Carnascialesco’ or Carnival Chorus; the ‘Rispetto’ or short love-ditty; the ‘Lauda’ or hymn; the ‘Maggio’ or May-song; and the ‘Madrigale’ or little part-song.
At Florence, where even under the despotism of the Medici a show of republican life still lingered, all classes joined in the amusements of carnival and spring time; and this poetry of the dance, the pageant, and the villa flourished side by side with the more serious efforts of the humanistic muse. It is not my purpose in this place to inquire into the origins of each lyrical type, to discuss the alterations they may have undergone at the hands of educated versifiers, or to define their several characteristics; but only to offer translations of such as seem to me best suited to represent the genius of the people and the age.
In the composition of the poetry in question, Angelo Poliziano was indubitably the most successful. This giant of learning, who filled the lecture-rooms of Florence with students of all nations, and whose critical and rhetorical labours marked an epoch in the history of scholarship, was by temperament a poet, and a poet of the people. Nothing was easier for him than to throw aside his professor’s mantle, and to improvise ‘Ballate’ for the girls to sing as they danced their ‘Carola’ upon the Piazza di Santa Trinita in summer evenings. The peculiarity of this lyric is that it starts with a couplet, which also serves as refrain, supplying the rhyme to each successive stanza. The stanza itself is identical with our rime royal, if we count the couplet in the place of the seventh line. The form is in itself so graceful and is so beautifully treated by Poliziano that I cannot content myself with fewer than four of his Ballate. The first is written on the world-old theme of ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.’
I went a roaming, maidens, one bright
In a green garden in mid month of May.
Violets and lilies grew on every side
Mid the green grass, and young flowers wonderful,
Golden and white and red and azure-eyed;
Toward which I stretched my hands, eager to pull
Plenty to make my fair curls beautiful,
To crown my rippling curls with garlands gay.
I went a roaming, maidens, one bright
In a green garden in mid month of May.
But when my lap was full of flowers I
Roses at last, roses of every hue;
Therefore I ran to pluck their ruddy pride,
Because their perfume was so sweet and true
That all my soul went forth with pleasure new,
With yearning and desire too soft to say.
I went a roaming, maidens, one bright
In a green garden in mid month of May.
I gazed and gazed. Hard task it were
How lovely were the roses in that hour:
One was but peeping from her verdant shell,
And some were faded, some were scarce in flower:
Then Love said: Go, pluck from the blooming bower
Those that thou seest ripe upon the spray.
I went a roaming, maidens, one bright
In a green garden in mid month of May.
For when the full rose quits her tender
When she is sweetest and most fair to see,
Then is the time to place her in thy wreath,
Before her beauty and her freshness flee.
Gather ye therefore roses with great glee,
Sweet girls, or ere their perfume pass away.
I went a roaming, maidens, one bright
In a green garden in mid month of May.
The next Ballata is less simple, but is composed with the same intention. It may here be parenthetically mentioned that the courtly poet, when he applied himself to this species of composition, invented a certain rusticity of incident, scarcely in keeping with the spirit of his art. It was in fact a conventional feature of this species of verse that the scene should be laid in the country, where the burgher, on a visit to his villa, is supposed to meet with a rustic beauty who captivates his eyes and heart. Guido Cavalcanti, in his celebrated Ballata, ‘In un boschetto trovai pastorella,’ struck the keynote of this music, which, it may be reasonably conjectured, was imported into Italy through Provencal literature from the pastorals of Northern France. The lady so quaintly imaged by a bird in the following Ballata of Poliziano is supposed to have been Monna Ippolita Leoncina of Prato, white-throated, golden-haired, and dressed in crimson silk.
I found myself one day all, all alone,
For pastime in a field with blossoms strewn.
I do not think the world a field could
With herbs of perfume so surpassing rare;
But when I passed beyond the green hedge-row,
A thousand flowers around me flourished fair,
White, pied and crimson, in the summer air;
Among the which I heard a sweet bird’s tone.
I found myself one day all, all alone,
For pastime in a field with blossoms strewn.
Her song it was so tender and so clear
That all the world listened with love; then I
With stealthy feet a-tiptoe drawing near,
Her golden head and golden wings could spy,
Her plumes that flashed like rubies ’neath the sky,
Her crystal beak and throat and bosom’s zone.
I found myself one day all, all alone,
For pastime in a field with blossoms strewn.
Fain would I snare her, smit with mighty
But arrow-like she soared, and through the air
Fled to her nest upon the boughs above;
Wherefore to follow her is all my care,
For haply I might lure her by some snare
Forth from the woodland wild where she is flown.
I found myself one day all, all alone,
For pastime in a field with blossoms strewn.
Yea, I might spread some net or woven
But since of singing she doth take such pleasure,
Without or other art or other guile
I seek to win her with a tuneful measure;
Therefore in singing spend I all my leisure,
To make by singing this sweet bird my own.
I found myself one day all, all alone,
For pastime in a field with blossoms strewn.
The same lady is more directly celebrated in the next Ballata, where Poliziano calls her by her name, Ippolita. I have taken the liberty of substituting Myrrha for this somewhat unmanageable word.
He who knows not what thing is Paradise,
Let him look fixedly on Myrrha’s eyes.
From Myrrha’s eyes there flieth,
girt with fire,
An angel of our lord, a laughing boy,
Who lights in frozen hearts a flaming pyre,
And with such sweetness doth the soul destroy,
That while it dies, it murmurs forth its joy;
Oh blessed am I to dwell in Paradise!
He who knows not what thing is Paradise,
Let him look fixedly on Myrrha’s eyes.
From Myrrha’s eyes a virtue still
So swift and with so fierce and strong a flight,
That it is like the lightning of high Jove,
Riving of iron and adamant the might;
Nathless the wound doth carry such delight
That he who suffers dwells in Paradise.
He who knows not what thing is Paradise,
Let him look fixedly on Myrrha’s eyes.
From Myrrha’s eyes a lovely messenger
Of joy so grave, so virtuous, doth flee,
That all proud souls are bound to bend to her;
So sweet her countenance, it turns the key
Of hard hearts locked in cold security:
Forth flies the prisoned soul to Paradise.
He who knows not what thing is Paradise,
Let him look fixedly on Myrrha’s eyes.
In Myrrha’s eyes beauty doth make
And sweetly smile and sweetly speak her mind:
Such grace in her fair eyes a man hath known
As in the whole wide world he scarce may find:
Yet if she slay him with a glance too kind,
He lives again beneath her gazing eyes.
He who knows not what thing is Paradise,
Let him look fixedly on Myrrha’s eyes.
The fourth Ballata sets forth the fifteenth-century Italian code of love, the code of the Novelle, very different in its avowed laxity from the high ideal of the trecentisti poets.
I ask no pardon if I follow Love;
Since every gentle heart is thrall thereof.
From those who feel the fire I feel, what
Is there in asking pardon? These are so
Gentle, kind-hearted, tender, piteous,
That they will have compassion, well I know.
From such as never felt that honeyed woe,
I seek no pardon: nought they know of Love.
I ask no pardon if I follow Love;
Since every gentle heart is thrall thereof.
Honour, pure love, and perfect gentleness,
Weighed in the scales of equity refined,
Are but one thing: beauty is nought or less,
Placed in a dame of proud and scornful mind.
Who can rebuke me then if I am kind
So far as honesty comports and Love?
I ask no pardon if I follow Love;
Since every gentle heart is thrall thereof.
Let him rebuke me whose hard heart of
Ne’er felt of Love the summer in his vein!
I pray to Love that who hath never known
Love’s power, may ne’er be blessed with Love’s great gain;
But he who serves our lord with might and main,
May dwell for ever in the fire of Love!
I ask no pardon if I follow Love;
Since every gentle heart is thrall thereof.
Let him rebuke me without cause who will;
For if he be not gentle, I fear nought:
My heart obedient to the same love still
Hath little heed of light words envy-fraught:
So long as life remains, it is my thought
To keep the laws of this so gentle Love.
I ask no pardon if I follow Love;
Since every gentle heart is thrall thereof.
This Ballata is put into a woman’s mouth. Another, ascribed to Lorenzo de’ Medici, expresses the sadness of a man who has lost the favour of his lady. It illustrates the well-known use of the word Signore for mistress in Florentine poetry.
How can I sing light-souled and fancy-free,
When my loved lord no longer smiles on me?
Dances and songs and merry wakes I leave
To lovers fair, more fortunate and gay;
Since to my heart so many sorrows cleave
That only doleful tears are mine for aye:
Who hath heart’s ease, may carol, dance, and play
While I am fain to weep continually.
How can I sing light-souled and fancy-free,
When my loved lord no longer smiles on me?
I too had heart’s ease once, for
so Love willed,
When my lord loved me with love strong and great:
But envious fortune my life’s music stilled,
And turned to sadness all my gleeful state.
Ah me! Death surely were less desolate
Than thus to live and love-neglected be!
How can I sing light-souled and fancy-free,
When my loved lord no longer smiles on me?
One only comfort soothes my heart’s
And mid this sorrow lends my soul some cheer;
Unto my lord I ever yielded fair
Service of faith untainted pure and clear;
If then I die thus guiltless, on my bier
It may be she will shed one tear for me.
How can I sing light-souled and fancy-free,
When my loved lord no longer smiles on me?
The Florentine Rispetto was written for the most part in octave stanzas, detached or continuous. The octave stanza in Italian literature was an emphatically popular form; and it is still largely used in many parts of the peninsula for the lyrical expression of emotion. Poliziano did no more than treat it with his own facility, sacrificing the unstudied raciness of his popular models to literary elegance.
Here are a few of these detached stanzas or Rispetti Spicciolati:—
Upon that day when first I saw thy face,
I vowed with loyal love to worship thee.
Move, and I move; stay, and I keep my place:
Whate’er thou dost, will I do equally.
In joy of thine I find most perfect grace,
And in thy sadness dwells my misery:
Laugh, and I laugh; weep, and I too will weep.
Thus Love commands, whose laws I loving keep.
Nay, be not over-proud of thy great grace,
Lady! for brief time is thy thief and mine.
White will he turn those golden curls, that lace
Thy forehead and thy neck so marble-fine.
Lo! while the flower still flourisheth apace,
Pluck it: for beauty but awhile doth shine.
Fair is the rose at dawn; but long ere night
Her freshness fades, her pride hath vanished quite.
Fire, fire! Ho, water! for my heart’s
Ho, neighbours! help me, or by God I die!
See, with his standard, that great lord, Desire!
He sets my heart aflame: in vain I cry.
Too late, alas! The flames mount high and higher.
Alack, good friends! I faint, I fail, I die.
Ho! water, neighbours mine! no more delay I
My heart’s a cinder if you do but stay.
Lo, may I prove to Christ a renegade,
And, dog-like, die in pagan Barbary;
Nor may God’s mercy on my soul be laid,
If ere for aught I shall abandon thee:
Before all-seeing God this prayer be made—
When I desert thee, may death feed on me:
Now if thy hard heart scorn these vows, be sure
That without faith none may abide secure.
I ask not, Love, for any other pain
To make thy cruel foe and mine repent,
Only that thou shouldst yield her to the strain
Of these my arms, alone, for chastisement;
Then would I clasp her so with might and main,
That she should learn to pity and relent,
And, in revenge for scorn and proud despite,
A thousand times I’d kiss her forehead white.
Not always do fierce tempests vex the
Nor always clinging clouds offend the sky;
Cold snows before the sunbeams haste to flee,
Disclosing flowers that ’neath their whiteness lie;
The saints each one doth wait his day to see,
And time makes all things change; so, therefore, I
Ween that ’tis wise to wait my turn, and say,
That who subdues himself, deserves to sway.
It will be observed that the tone of these poems is not passionate nor elevated. Love, as understood in Florence of the fifteenth century, was neither; nor was Poliziano the man to have revived Platonic mysteries or chivalrous enthusiasms. When the octave stanzas, written with this amorous intention, were strung together into a continuous poem, this form of verse took the title of Rispetto Gontinuato. In the collection of Poliziano’s poems there are several examples of the long Rispetto, carelessly enough composed, as may be gathered from the recurrence of the same stanzas in several poems. All repeat the old arguments, the old enticements to a less than lawful love. The one which I have chosen for translation, styled Serenata ovvero Lettera in Istrambotti, might be selected as an epitome of Florentine convention in the matter of love-making.
O thou of fairest fairs the first and
Most courteous, kind, and honourable dame,
Thine ear unto thy servant’s singing lean,
Who loves thee more than health, or wealth, or fame;
For thou his shining planet still hast been,
And day and night he calls on thy fair name:
First wishing thee all good the world can give,
Next praying in thy gentle thoughts to live.
He humbly prayeth that thou shouldst be
To think upon his pure and perfect faith,
And that such mercy in thy heart and mind
Should reign, as so much beauty argueth:
A thousand, thousand hints, or he were blind,
Of thy great courtesy he reckoneth:
Wherefore thy loyal subject now doth sue
Such guerdon only as shall prove them true.
He knows himself unmeet for love from
Unmeet for merely gazing on thine eyes;
Seeing thy comely squires so plenteous be,
That there is none but ’neath thy beauty sighs:
Yet since thou seekest fame and bravery,
Nor carest aught for gauds that others prize,
And since he strives to honour thee alway,
He still hath hope to gain thy heart one day.
Virtue that dwells untold, unknown, unseen,
Still findeth none to love or value it;
Wherefore his faith, that hath so perfect been,
Not being known, can profit him no whit:
He would find pity in thine eyes, I ween,
If thou shouldst deign to make some proof of it;
The rest may flatter, gape, and stand agaze;
Him only faith above the crowd doth raise.
Suppose that he might meet thee once alone,
Face unto face, without or jealousy,
Or doubt or fear from false misgiving grown,
And tell his tale of grievous pain to thee,
Sure from thy breast he’d draw full many a moan.
And make thy fair eyes weep right plenteously:
Yea, if he had but skill his heart to show,
He scarce could fail to win thee by its woe.
Now art thou in thy beauty’s blooming
Thy youth is yet in pure perfection’s prime:
Make it thy pride to yield thy fragile flower,
Or look to find it paled by envious time:
For none to stay the flight of years hath power,
And who culls roses caught by frosty rime?
Give therefore to thy lover, give, for they
Too late repent who act not while they may.
Time flies: and lo! thou let’st
it idly fly:
There is not in the world a thing more dear;
And if thou wait to see sweet May pass by,
Where find’st thou roses in the later year?
He never can, who lets occasion die:
Now that thou canst, stay not for doubt or fear;
But by the forelock take the flying hour,
Ere change begins, and clouds above thee lower.
Too long ’twixt yea and nay he hath
Whether he sleep or wake he little knows,
Or free or in the bands of bondage strung:
Nay, lady, strike, and let thy lover loose!
What joy hast thou to keep a captive hung?
Kill him at once, or cut the cruel noose:
No more, I prithee, stay; but take thy part:
Either relax the bow, or speed the dart.
Thou feedest him on words and windiness,
On smiles, and signs, and bladders light as air;
Saying, thou fain wouldst comfort his distress,
But dar’st not, canst not: nay, dear lady fair,
All things are possible beneath the stress
Of will, that flames above the soul’s despair!
Dally no longer: up, set to thy hand;
Or see his love unclothed and naked stand.
For he hath sworn, and by this oath will
E’en though his life be lost in the endeavour,
To leave no way, nor art, nor wile untried,
Until he pluck the fruit he sighs for ever:
And, though he still would spare thy honest pride,
The knot that binds him he must loose or sever;
Thou too, O lady, shouldst make sharp thy knife,
If thou art fain to end this amorous strife.
Lo! if thou lingerest still in dubious
Lest thou shouldst lose fair fame of honesty,
Here hast thou need of wile and warihead,
To test thy lover’s strength in screening thee;
Indulge him, if thou find him well bestead,
Knowing that smothered love flames outwardly:
Therefore, seek means, search out some privy way;
Keep not the steed too long at idle play.
Or if thou heedest what those friars teach,
I cannot fail, lady, to call thee fool:
Well may they blame our private sins and preach;
But ill their acts match with their spoken rule;
The same pitch clings to all men, one and each.
There, I have spoken: set the world to school
With this true proverb, too, be well acquainted
The devil’s ne’er so black as he is painted.
Nor did our good Lord give such grace
That thou shouldst keep it buried in thy breast,
But to reward thy servant’s constancy,
Whose love and loyal faith thou hast repressed:
Think it no sin to be some trifle free,
Because thou livest at a lord’s behest;
For if he take enough to feed his fill,
To cast the rest away were surely ill.
They find most favour in the sight of
Who to the poor and hungry are most kind;
A hundred-fold shall thus to thee be given
By God, who loves the free and generous mind;
Thrice strike thy breast, with pure contrition riven,
Crying: I sinned; my sin hath made me blind!—
He wants not much: enough if he be able
To pick up crumbs that fall beneath thy table.
Wherefore, O lady, break the ice at length;
Make thou, too, trial of love’s fruits and flowers:
When in thine arms thou feel’st thy lover’s strength,
Thou wilt repent of all these wasted hours;
Husbands, they know not love, its breadth and length,
Seeing their hearts are not on fire like ours:
Things longed for give most pleasure; this I tell thee:
If still thou doubtest let the proof compel thee.
What I have spoken is pure gospel sooth;
I have told all my mind, withholding nought:
And well, I ween, thou canst unhusk the truth,
And through the riddle read the hidden thought:
Perchance if heaven still smile upon my youth,
Some good effect for me may yet be wrought:
Then fare thee well; too many words offend:
She who is wise is quick to comprehend.
The levity of these love-declarations and the fluency of their vows show them to be ‘false as dicers’ oaths,’ mere verses of the moment, made to please a facile mistress. One long poem, which cannot be styled a Rispetto, but is rather a Canzone of the legitimate type, stands out with distinctness from the rest of Poliziano’s love-verses. It was written by him for Giuliano de’ Medici, in praise of the fair Simonetta. The following version attempts to repeat its metrical effects in some measure:—
My task it is, since thus Love wills,
And forces all the world beneath his sway,
In lowly verse to say
The great delight that in my bosom reigns.
For if perchance I took but little pains
To tell some part of all the joy I find,
I might be deem’d unkind
By one who knew my heart’s deep
With much that is frigid, artificial, and tedious in this old-fashioned love-song, there is a curious monotony of sweetness which commends it to our ears; and he who reads it may remember the profile portrait of Simonetta from the hand of Piero della Francesca in the Pitti Palace at Florence.
It is worth comparing Poliziano’s treatment of popular or semi-popular verse-forms with his imitations of Petrarch’s manner. For this purpose I have chosen a Canzone, clearly written in competition with the celebrated ‘Chiare, fresche e dolci acque,’ of Laura’s lover. While closely modelled upon Petrarch’s form and similar in motive, this Canzone preserves Poliziano’s special qualities of fluency and emptiness of content.
Hills, valleys, caves and fells,
With flowers and leaves and herbage spread;
Green meadows; shadowy groves where light is low;
Lawns watered with the rills
That cruel Love hath made me shed,
Cast from these cloudy eyes so dark with woe;
Thou stream that still dost know
What fell pangs pierce my heart,
So dost thou murmur back my moan;
Lone bird that chauntest tone for tone,
While in our descant drear Love sings his part:
Nymphs, woodland wanderers, wind and air;
List to the sound out-poured from my despair!
Seven times and once more seven
The roseate dawn her beauteous brow
Enwreathed with orient jewels hath displayed;
Cynthia once more in heaven
Hath orbed her horns with silver now;
While in sea waves her brother’s light was laid;
Since this high mountain glade
Felt the white footsteps fall
Of that proud lady, who to spring
Converts whatever woodland thing
She may o’ershadow, touch, or heed at all.
Here bloom the flowers, the grasses spring
From her bright eyes, and drink what mine must bring.
Yea, nourished with my tears
Is every little leaf I see,
And the stream rolls therewith a prouder wave.
Ah me! through what long years
Will she withhold her face from me,
Which stills the stormy skies howe’er they rave?
Speak! or in grove or cave
If one hath seen her stray,
Plucking amid those grasses green
Wreaths for her royal brows serene,
Flowers white and blue and red and golden gay!
Nay, prithee, speak, if pity dwell
Among these woods, within this leafy dell!
O Love! ’twas here we saw,
Beneath the new-fledged leaves
Poliziano’s refrain is always: ’Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. It is spring-time now and youth. Winter and old age are coming!’ A Maggio, or May-day song, describing the games, dances, and jousting matches of the Florentine lads upon the morning of the first of May, expresses this facile philosophy of life with a quaintness that recalls Herrick. It will be noticed that the Maggio is built, so far as rhymes go, on the same system as Poliziano’s Ballata. It has considerable historical interest, for the opening couplet is said to be Guido Cavalcanti’s, while the whole poem is claimed by Roscoe for Lorenzo de’ Medici, and by Carducci with better reason for Poliziano.
Welcome in the May
And the woodland garland gay!
Welcome in the jocund spring
Which bids all men lovers be!
Maidens, up with carolling,
With your sweethearts stout and free,
With roses and with blossoms ye
Who deck yourselves this first of May!
Up, and forth into the pure
Meadows, mid the trees and flowers!
Every beauty is secure
With so many bachelors:
Beasts and birds amid the bowers
Burn with love this first of May.
Maidens, who are young and fair,
Be not harsh, I counsel you;
For your youth cannot repair
Her prime of spring, as meadows do:
None be proud, but all be true
To men who love, this first of May.
Dance and carol every one
Of our band so bright and gay!
See your sweethearts how they run
Through the jousts for you to-day!
She who saith her lover nay,
Will deflower the sweets of May,
Lads in love take sword and shield
To make pretty girls their prize:
Yield ye, merry maidens, yield
To your lovers’ vows and sighs:
Give his heart back ere it dies:
Wage not war this first of May.
He who steals another’s heart,
Let him give his own heart too:
Who’s the robber? ’Tis the smart
Little cherub Cupid, who
Homage comes to pay with you,
Damsels, to the first of May.
Love comes smiling; round his head
Lilies white and roses meet:
’Tis for you his flight is sped.
Fair one, haste our king to greet:
Who will fling him blossoms sweet
Soonest on this first of May?
Welcome, stranger! welcome, king!
Love, what hast thou to command?
That each girl with wreaths should ring
Her lover’s hair with loving hand,
That girls small and great should band
In Love’s ranks this first of May.
The Canto Carnascialesco, for the final development if not for the invention of which all credit must be given to Lorenzo de’ Medici, does not greatly differ from the Maggio in structure. It admitted, however, of great varieties, and was generally more complex in its interweaving of rhymes. Yet the essential principle of an exordium which should also serve for a refrain, was rarely, if ever, departed from. Two specimens of the Carnival Song will serve to bring into close contrast two very different aspects of Florentine history. The earlier was composed by Lorenzo de’ Medici at the height of his power and in the summer of Italian independence. It was sung by masquers attired in classical costume, to represent Bacchus and his crew.
Fair is youth and void of sorrow;
But it hourly flies away.—
Youths and maids, enjoy to-day;
Nought ye know about to-morrow.
This is Bacchus and the bright
Ariadne, lovers true!
They, in flying time’s despite,
Each with each find pleasure new;
These their Nymphs, and all their crew
Keep perpetual holiday.—
Youths and maids, enjoy to-day;
Nought ye know about to-morrow.
These blithe Satyrs, wanton-eyed,
Of the Nymphs are paramours:
Through the caves and forests wide
They have snared them mid the flowers;
Warmed with Bacchus, in his bowers,
Now they dance and leap alway.—
Youths and maids, enjoy to-day;
Nought ye know about to-morrow.
These fair Nymphs, they are not loth
To entice their lovers’ wiles.
None but thankless folk and rough
Can resist when Love beguiles.
Now enlaced, with wreathed smiles,
All together dance and play.—
Youths and maids, enjoy to-day;
Nought ye know about to-morrow.
See this load behind them plodding
On the ass! Silenus he,
Old and drunken, merry, nodding,
Full of years and jollity;
Though he goes so swayingly,
Yet he laughs and quaffs alway.—
Youths and maids, enjoy to-day;
Nought ye know about to-morrow.
Midas treads a wearier measure:
All he touches turns to gold:
If there be no taste of pleasure,
What’s the use of wealth untold?
What’s the joy his fingers hold,
When he’s forced to thirst for aye?—
Youths and maids, enjoy to-day;
Nought ye know about to-morrow.
Listen well to what we’re saying;
Of to-morrow have no care!
Young and old together playing,
Boys and girls, be blithe as air!
Every sorry thought forswear!
Keep perpetual holiday.—–
Youths and maids, enjoy to-day;
Nought ye know about to-morrow.
Ladies and gay lovers young!
Long live Bacchus, live Desire!
Dance and play; let songs be sung;
Let sweet love your bosoms fire;
In the future come what may!—–
Youths and maids, enjoy to-day!
Nought ye know about to-morrow.
Fair is youth and void of sorrow;
But it hourly flies away.
The next, composed by Antonio Alamanni, after Lorenzo’s death and the ominous passage of Charles VIII., was sung by masquers habited as skeletons. The car they rode on, was a Car of Death designed by Piero di Cosimo, and their music was purposely gloomy. If in the jovial days of the Medici the streets of Florence had rung to the thoughtless refrain, ‘Nought ye know about to-morrow,’ they now re-echoed with a cry of ‘Penitence;’ for times had strangely altered, and the heedless past had brought forth a doleful present. The last stanza of Alamanni’s chorus is a somewhat clumsy attempt to adapt the too real moral of his subject to the customary mood of the Carnival.
Sorrow, tears, and penitence
Are our doom of pain for aye;
This dead concourse riding by
Hath no cry but penitence!
E’en as you are, once were we:
You shall be as now we are:
We are dead men, as you see:
We shall see you dead men, where
Nought avails to take great care,
After sins, of penitence.
We too in the Carnival
Sang our love-songs through the town;
Thus from sin to sin we all
Headlong, heedless, tumbled down:—
Now we cry, the world around,
Penitence! oh, Penitence!
Senseless, blind, and stubborn fools!
Time steals all things as he rides:
Honours, glories, states, and schools,
Pass away, and nought abides;
Till the tomb our carcase hides,
And compels this penitence.
This sharp scythe you see us bear,
Brings the world at length to woe:
But from life to life we fare;
And that life is joy or woe:
All heaven’s bliss on him doth flow
Who on earth does penitence.
Living here, we all must die;
Dying, every soul shall live:
For the King of kings on high
This fixed ordinance doth give:
Lo, you all are fugitive!
Penitence! Cry Penitence!
Torment great and grievous dole
Hath the thankless heart mid you;
But the man of piteous soul
Finds much honour in our crew:
Love for loving is the due
That prevents this penitence.
Sorrow, tears, and penitence
Are our doom of pain for aye:
This dead concourse riding by
Hath no cry but Penitence!
One song for dancing, composed less upon the type of the Ballata than on that of the Carnival Song, may here be introduced, not only in illustration of the varied forms assumed by this style of poetry, but also because it is highly characteristic of Tuscan town-life. This poem in the vulgar style has been ascribed to Lorenzo de’ Medici, but probably without due reason. It describes the manners and customs of female street gossips.
Since you beg with such a grace,
How can I refuse a song,
Wholesome, honest, void of wrong,
On the follies of the place?
Courteously on you I call;
Listen well to what I sing:
For my roundelay to all
May perchance instruction bring,
And of life good lessoning.—
When in company you meet,
Or sit spinning, all the street
Clamours like a market-place.
Thirty of you there may be;
Twenty-nine are sure to buzz,
And the single silent she
Racks her brains about her coz:—
Mrs. Buzz and Mrs. Huzz,
Mind your work, my ditty saith;
Do not gossip till your breath
Fails and leaves you black of face!
Governments go out and in:—
You the truth must needs discover.
Is a girl about to win
A brave husband in her lover?—
Straight you set to talk him over:
‘Is he wealthy?’ ’Does his coat
Fit?’ ‘And has he got a vote?’
‘Who’s his father?’ ‘What’s his race?’
Out of window one head pokes;
Twenty others do the same:—
Chatter, clatter!—creaks and croaks
All the year the same old game!—
‘See my spinning!’ cries one dame,
‘Five long ells of cloth, I trow!’
Cries another, ’Mine must go,
Drat it, to the bleaching base!’
‘Devil take the fowl!’ says
’Mine are all bewitched, I guess;
Cocks and hens with vermin run,
Mangy, filthy, featherless.’
Says another: ’I confess
Every hair I drop, I keep—
Plague upon it, in a heap
Falling off to my disgrace!’
If you see a fellow walk
Up or down the street and back,
How you nod and wink and talk,
Hurry-skurry, cluck and clack!—
’What, I wonder, does he lack
Here about?’—’There’s something wrong!’
Till the poor man’s made a song
For the female populace.
It were well you gave no thought
To such idle company;
Shun these gossips, care for nought
But the business that you ply.
You who chatter, you who cry,
Heed my words; be wise, I pray:
Fewer, shorter stories say:
Bide at home, and mind your place.
Since you beg with such a grace,
How can I refuse a song,
Wholesome, honest, void of wrong,
On the follies of the place?
The Madrigale, intended to be sung in parts, was another species of popular poetry cultivated by the greatest of Italian writers. Without seeking examples from such men as Petrarch, Michelangelo, or Tasso, who used it as a purely literary form, I will content myself with a few Madrigals by anonymous composers, more truly popular in style, and more immediately intended for music. The similarity both of manner and matter, between these little poems and the Ballate, is obvious. There is the same affectation of rusticity in both.
Cogliendo per un prato.
Plucking white lilies in a field I saw
Fair women, laden with young Love’s delight:
Some sang, some danced; but all were fresh and bright.
Then by the margin of a fount they leaned,
And of those flowers made garlands for their hair—
Wreaths for their golden tresses quaint and rare.
Forth from the field I passed, and gazed upon
Their loveliness, and lost my heart to one.
Togliendo l’ una all’ altra.
One from the other borrowing leaves and
I saw fair maidens ’neath the summer trees,
Weaving bright garlands with low love-ditties.
Mid that sweet sisterhood the loveliest
Turned her soft eyes to me, and whispered, ‘Take!’
Love-lost I stood, and not a word I spake.
My heart she read, and her fair garland gave:
Therefore I am her servant to the grave.
Appress’ un fiume chiaro.
Hard by a crystal stream
Girls and maids were dancing round
A lilac with fair blossoms crowned.
Mid these I spied out one
So tender-sweet, so love-laden,
She stole my heart with singing then:
Love in her face so lovely-kind
And eyes and hands my soul did bind.
Di riva in riva.
From lawn to lea Love led me down the
Seeking my hawk, where ’neath a pleasant hill
I spied fair maidens bathing in a rill.
Lina was there all loveliness excelling;
The pleasure of her beauty made me sad,
And yet at sight of her my soul was glad.
Downward I cast mine eyes with modest seeming,
And all a tremble from the fountain fled:
For each was naked as her maidenhead.
Thence singing fared I through a flowery plain,
Where bye and bye I found my hawk again!
Nel chiaro fiume.
Down a fair streamlet crystal-clear and
I went a fishing all alone one day,
And spied three maidens bathing there at play.
Of love they told each other honeyed stories,
While with white hands they smote the stream, to wet
Their sunbright hair in the pure rivulet.
Gazing I crouched among thick flowering leafage,
Till one who spied a rustling branch on high,
Turned to her comrades with a sudden cry,
And ‘Go! Nay, prithee go!’ she called to me:
‘To stay were surely but scant courtesy.’
Quel sole che nutrica.
The sun which makes a lily bloom,
Leans down at times on her to gaze—
Fairer, he deems, than his fair rays:
Then, having looked a little while,
He turns and tells the saints in bliss
How marvellous her beauty is.
Thus up in heaven with flute and string
Thy loveliness the angels sing.
Di novo e giunt’.
Lo: here hath come an errant knight
On a barbed charger clothed in mail:
His archers scatter iron hail.
At brow and breast his mace he aims;
Who therefore hath not arms of proof,
Let him live locked by door and roof;
Until Dame Summer on a day
That grisly knight return to slay.
Poliziano’s treatment of the octave stanza for Rispetti was comparatively popular. But in his poem of ‘La Giostra,’ written to commemorate the victory of Giuliano de’ Medici in a tournament and to celebrate his mistress, he gave a new and richer form to the metre which Boccaccio had already used for epic verse. The slight and uninteresting framework of this poem, which opened a new sphere for Italian literature, and prepared the way for Ariosto’s golden cantos, might be compared to one of those wire baskets which children steep in alum water, and incrust with crystals, sparkling, artificial, beautiful with colours not their own. The mind of Poliziano held,
White is the maid, and white the robe
With buds and roses and thin grasses pied;
Enwreathed folds of golden tresses crowned her,
Shadowing her forehead fair with modest pride:
The wild wood smiled; the thicket where
he found her,
To ease his anguish, bloomed on every side:
Serene she sits, with gesture queenly mild,
And with her brow tempers the tempests wild.
After three stanzas of this sort, in which the poet’s style is more apparent than the object he describes, occurs this charming picture:—
Reclined he found her on the swarded grass
In jocund mood; and garlands she had made
Of every flower that in the meadow was,
Or on her robe of many hues displayed;
But when she saw the youth before her pass,
Raising her timid head awhile she stayed;
Then with her white hand gathered up her dress,
And stood, lap-full of flowers, in loveliness.
Then through the dewy field with footstep
The lingering maid began to take her way,
Leaving her lover in great fear and woe,
For now he longs for nought but her alway:
The wretch, who cannot bear that she should go,
Strives with a whispered prayer her feet to stay;
And thus at last, all trembling, all afire,
In humble wise he breathes his soul’s desire:
’Whoe’er thou art, maid among
Goddess, or nymph—nay, goddess seems most clear—
If goddess, sure my Dian I have seen;
If mortal, let thy proper self appear!
Beyond terrestrial beauty is thy mien;
I have no merit that I should be here!
What grace of heaven, what lucky star benign
Yields me the sight of beauty so divine?’
A conversation ensues, after which Giuliano departs utterly lovesick, and Cupid takes wing exultingly for Cyprus, where his mother’s palace stands. In the following picture of the house of Venus, who shall say how much of Ariosto’s Alcina and Tasso’s Armida is contained? Cupid arrives, and the family of Love is filled with joy at Giuliano’s conquest. From the plan of the poem it is clear that its beauties are chiefly those of detail. They are, however, very great. How perfect, for example, is the richness combined with delicacy of the following description of a country life:—
How far more safe it is, how far more
To chase the flying deer along the lea;
Through ancient woods to track their hidden lair,
Far from the town, with long-drawn subtlety:
To scan the vales, the hills, the limpid air,
The grass and flowers, clear ice, and streams so free;
To hear the birds wake from their winter trance,
The wind-stirred leaves and murmuring waters dance.
How sweet it were to watch the young goats
From toppling crags, cropping the tender shoot,
While in thick pleached shade the shepherd sung
His uncouth rural lay and woke his flute;
To mark, mid dewy grass, red apples flung,
And every bough thick set with ripening fruit,
The butting rams, kine lowing o’er the lea,
And cornfields waving like the windy sea.
Lo! how the rugged master of the herd
Before his flock unbars the wattled cote;
Then with his rod and many a rustic word
He rules their going: or ’tis sweet to note
The delver, when his toothed rake hath stirred
The stubborn clod, his hoe the glebe hath smote;
Barefoot the country girl, with loosened zone,
Spins, while she keeps her geese ’neath yonder stone.
After such happy wise, in ancient years,
Dwelt the old nations in the age of gold;
Nor had the fount been stirred of mothers’ tears
For sons in war’s fell labour stark and cold;
Nor trusted they to ships the wild wind steers,
Nor yet had oxen groaning ploughed the wold;
Their houses were huge oaks, whose trunks had store
Of honey, and whose boughs thick acorns bore.
Nor yet, in that glad time, the accursed
Of cruel gold had fallen on this fair earth:
Joyous in liberty they lived at first;
Unploughed the fields sent forth their teeming birth;
Till fortune, envious of such concord, burst
The bond of law, and pity banned and worth;
Within their breasts sprang luxury and that rage
Which men call love in our degenerate age.
We need not be reminded that these stanzas are almost a cento from Virgil, Hesiod, and Ovid. The merits of the translator, adapter, and combiner, who knew so well how to cull their beauties and adorn them with a perfect dress of modern diction, are so eminent that we cannot deny him the title of a great poet. It is always in picture-painting more than in dramatic presentation that Poliziano excels. Here is a basrelief of Venus rising from the Ocean foam:—
In Thetis’ lap, upon the vexed Egean,
The seed deific from Olympus sown,
Beneath dim stars and cycling empyrean
Drifts like white foam across the salt waves blown;
Thence, born at last by movements hymenean,
Rises a maid more fair than man hath known;
Upon her shell the wanton breezes waft her;
She nears the shore, while heaven looks down with laughter
Seeing the carved work you would cry that
Were shell and sea, and real the winds that blow;
The lightning of the goddess’ eyes you feel,
The smiling heavens, the elemental glow:
White-vested Hours across the smooth sands steal,
With loosened curls that to the breezes flow;
Like, yet unlike, are all their beauteous faces,
E’en as befits a choir of sister Graces.
Well might you swear that on those waves
The goddess with her right hand on her hair,
And with the other the sweet apple hiding;
And that beneath her feet, divinely fair,
Fresh flowers sprang forth, the barren sands dividing;
Then that, with glad smiles and enticements rare,
The three nymphs round their queen, embosoming her,
Threw the starred mantle soft as gossamer.
The one, with hands above her head upraised,
Upon her dewy tresses fits a wreath,
With ruddy gold and orient gems emblazed;
The second hangs pure pearls her ears beneath;
The third round shoulders white and breast hath placed
Such wealth of gleaming carcanets as sheathe
Their own fair bosoms, when the Graces sing
Among the gods with dance and carolling.
Thence might you see them rising toward
Seated upon a cloud of silvery white;
The trembling of the cloven air appears
Wrought in the stone, and heaven serenely bright;
The gods drink in with open eyes and ears
Her beauty, and desire her bed’s delight;
Each seems to marvel with a mute amaze—
Their brows and foreheads wrinkle as they gaze.
The next quotation shows Venus in the lap of Mars,
and Visited by
Stretched on a couch, outside the coverlid,
Love found her, scarce unloosed from Mars’ embrace;
He, lying back within her bosom, fed
His eager eyes on nought but her fair face;
Roses above them like a cloud were shed,
To reinforce them in the amorous chace;
While Venus, quick with longings unsuppressed,
A thousand times his eyes and forehead kissed.
Above, around, young Loves on every side
Played naked, darting birdlike to and fro;
And one, whose plumes a thousand colours dyed,
Fanned the shed roses as they lay arow;
One filled his quiver with fresh flowers, and hied
To pour them on the couch that lay below;
Another, poised upon his pinions, through
The falling shower soared shaking rosy dew:
For, as he quivered with his tremulous
The wandering roses in their drift were stayed;—
Thus none was weary of glad gambolling;
Till Cupid came, with dazzling plumes displayed,
Breathless; and round his mother’s neck did fling
His languid arms, and with his winnowing made
Her heart burn:—very glad and bright of face,
But, with his flight, too tired to speak apace.
These pictures have in them the very glow of Italian painting. Sometimes we seem to see a quaint design of Piero di Cosimo, with bright tints and multitudinous small figures in a spacious landscape. Sometimes it is the languid grace of Botticelli, whose soul became possessed of classic inspiration as it were in dreams, and who has painted the birth of Venus almost exactly as Poliziano imagined it. Again, we seize the broader beauties of the Venetian masters, or the vehemence of Giulio Romano’s pencil. To the last class belong the two next extracts:—
In the last square the great artificer
Had wrought himself crowned with Love’s perfect palm;
Black from his forge and rough, he runs to her,
Leaving all labour for her bosom’s calm:
Lips joined to lips with deep love-longing stir,
Fire in his heart, and in his spirit balm;
Far fiercer flames through breast and marrow fly
Than those which heat his forge in Sicily.
Jove, on the other side, becomes a bull,
Goodly and white, at Love’s behest, and rears
His neck beneath his rich freight beautiful:
She turns toward the shore that disappears,
With frightened gesture; and the wonderful
Gold curls about her bosom and her ears
Float in the wind; her veil waves, backward borne;
This hand still clasps his back, and that his horn.
With naked feet close-tucked beneath her
She seems to fear the sea that dares not rise:
So, imaged in a shape of drear distress,
In vain unto her comrades sweet she cries;
They left amid the meadow-flowers, no less
For lost Europa wail with weeping eyes:
Europa, sounds the shore, bring back our bliss
But the bull swims and turns her feet to kiss.
Here Jove is made a swan, a golden shower,
Or seems a serpent, or a shepherd-swain,
To work his amorous will in secret hour;
Here, like an eagle, soars he o’er the plain,
Love-led, and bears his Ganymede, the flower
Of beauty, mid celestial peers to reign;
The boy with cypress hath his fair locks crowned,
Naked, with ivy wreathed his waist around.
Lo! here again fair Ariadne lies,
And to the deaf winds of false Theseus plains.
And of the air and slumber’s treacheries;
Trembling with fear even as a reed that strain.
And quivers by the mere ’neath breezy skies:
Her very speechless attitude complains—
No beast there is so cruel as thou art,
No beast less loyal to my broken heart.
Throned on a car, with ivy crowned and
Rides Bacchus, by two champing tigers driven:
Around him on the sand deep-soaked with brine
Satyrs and Bacchantes rush; the skies are riven
With shouts and laughter; Fauns quaff bubbling wine
From horns and cymbals; Nymphs, to madness driven,
Trip, skip, and stumble; mixed in wild enlacements,
Laughing they roll or meet for glad embracements.
Upon his ass Silenus, never sated,
With thick, black veins, wherethrough the must is soaking,
Nods his dull forehead with deep sleep belated;
His eyes are wine-inflamed, and red, and smoking:
Bold Maenads goad the ass so sorely weighted,
With stinging thyrsi; he sways feebly poking
The mane with bloated fingers; Fauns behind him,
E’en as he falls, upon the crupper bind him.
We almost seem to be looking at the frescoes in some Trasteverine palace, or at the canvas of one of the sensual Genoese painters. The description of the garden of Venus has the charm of somewhat artificial elegance, the exotic grace of style, which attracts us in the earlier Renaissance work:—
The leafy tresses of that timeless garden
Nor fragile brine nor fresh snow dares to whiten;
Frore winter never comes the rills to harden,
Nor winds the tender shrubs and herbs to frighten;
Glad Spring is always here, a laughing warden;
Nor do the seasons wane, but ever brighten;
Here to the breeze young May, her curls unbinding,
With thousand flowers her wreath is ever winding.
Indeed it may be said with truth that Poliziano’s most eminent faculty as a descriptive poet corresponded exactly to the genius of the painters of his day. To produce pictures radiant with Renaissance colouring, and vigorous with Renaissance passion, was the function of his art, not to express profound thought or dramatic situations. This remark might be extended with justice to Ariosto, and Tasso, and Boiardo. The great narrative poets of the Renaissance in Italy were not dramatists; nor were their poems epics: their forte lay in the inexhaustible variety and beauty of their pictures.
Of Poliziano’s plagiarism—if this be the right word to apply to the process of assimilation and selection, by means of which the poet-scholar of Florence taught the Italians how to use the riches of the ancient languages and their own literature—here are some specimens. In stanza 42 of the ‘Giostra’ he says of Simonetta:—
E ’n lei discerne un non so che divino.
Dante has the line:—
Vostri risplende un non so che divino.
In the 44th he speaks about the birds:—
E canta ogni augelletto in suo latino.
This comes from Cavalcanti’s:—
E cantinne gli augelli.
Ciascuno in suo latino.
Stanza 45 is taken bodily from Claudian, Dante, and Cavalcanti. It would seem as though Poliziano wished to show that the classic and medieval literature of Italy was all one, and that a poet of the Renaissance could carry on the continuous tradition in his own style. A, line in stanza 54 seems perfectly original:—
E gia dall’alte ville il fumo esala.
It comes straight from Virgil:—
Et jam summa pocul villarum culmina fumant.
In the next stanza the line—
Tal che ’l ciel tutto rassereno d’intorno,
is Petrarch’s. So in the 56th, is the phrase ’il dolce andar celeste.’ In stanza 57—
Par che ’l cor del petto se gli schianti,
belongs to Boccaccio. In stanza 60 the first line:—
La notte che le cose ci nasconde,
together with its rhyme, ‘sotto le amate fronde,’ is borrowed from the 23rd canto of the ‘Paradiso.’ In the second line, ‘Stellato ammanto’ is Claudian’s ‘stellantes sinus’ applied to the heaven. When we reach the garden of Venus we find whole passages translated from Claudian’s ‘Marriage of Honorius,’ and from the ‘Metamorphoses’ of Ovid.
Poliziano’s second poem of importance, which indeed may historically be said to take precedence of ‘La Giostra,’ was the so-called tragedy of ‘Orfeo.’ The English version of this lyrical drama must be reserved for a separate study: yet it belongs to the subject of this, inasmuch as the ‘Orfeo’ is a classical legend treated in a form already familiar to the Italian people. Nearly all the popular kinds of poetry of which specimens have been translated in this chapter, will be found combined in its six short scenes.
* * * * *
The ‘Orfeo’ of Messer Angelo Poliziano ranks amongst the most important poems of the fifteenth century. It was composed at Mantua in the short space of two days, on the occasion of Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga’s visit to his native town in 1472. But, though so hastily put together, the ‘Orfeo’ marks an epoch in the evolution of Italian poetry. It is the earliest example of a secular drama, containing within the compass of its brief scenes the germ of the opera, the tragedy, and the pastoral play.
THE FABLE OF ORPHEUS
MERCURY announces the show.
Ho, silence! Listen! There was
once a hind,
Son of Apollo, Aristaeus hight,
Who loved with so untamed and fierce a mind
Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus wight,
That chasing her one day with will unkind
He wrought her cruel death in love’s despite;
For, as she fled toward the mere hard by,
A serpent stung her, and she had to die.
Now Orpheus, singing, brought her back
But could not keep the law the fates ordain:
Poor wretch, he backward turned and broke the spell;
So that once more from him his love was ta’en.
Therefore he would no more with women dwell,
And in the end by women he was slain.
Enter A SHEPHERD, who says—
Nay, listen, friends! Fair auspices
Since Mercury to earth hath come from heaven.
MOPSUS, an old shepherd.
Say, hast thou seen a calf of mine, all
Save for a spot of black upon her front,
Two feet, one flank, and one knee ruddy-bright?
ARISTAEUS, a young shepherd.
Friend Mopsus, to the margin of this
No herds have come to drink since break of day;
Yet may’st thou hear them low on yonder mount.
Go, Thyrsis, search the upland lawn, I pray!
Thou Mopsus shalt with me the while abide;
For I would have thee listen to my lay.
’Twas yester morn where trees
yon cavern hide,
I saw a nymph more fair than Dian, who
Had a young lusty lover at her side:
But when that more than woman met my view,
The heart within my bosom leapt outright,
And straight the madness of wild Love I knew.
Since then, dear Mopsus, I have no delight;
But weep and weep: of food and drink I tire,
And without slumber pass the weary night.
Friend Aristaeus, if this amorous fire
Thou dost not seek to quench as best may be,
Thy peace of soul will vanish in desire.
Thou know’st that love is no new thing to me:
I’ve proved how love grown old brings bitter pain:
Cure it at once, or hope no remedy;
For if thou find thee in Love’s cruel chain,
Thy bees, thy blossoms will be out of mind,
Thy fields, thy vines, thy flocks, thy cotes, thy grain
Mopsus, thou speakest to the deaf and
Waste not on me these winged words, I pray,
Lest they be scattered to the inconstant wind,
I love, and cannot wish to say love nay;
Nor seek to cure so charming a disease:
They praise Love best who most against him say.
Yet if thou fain wouldst give my heart some ease,
Forth from thy wallet take thy pipe, and we
Will sing awhile beneath the leafy trees;
For well my nymph is pleased with melody.
Listen, ye wild woods, to my roundelay;
Since the fair nymph will hear not, though I pray.
The lovely nymph is deaf to my lament,
Nor heeds the music of this rustic reed;
Wherefore my flocks and herds are ill content,
Nor bathe their hoof where grows the water weed,
Nor touch the tender herbage on the mead;
So sad, because their shepherd grieves, are they.
Listen, ye wild woods, to my roundelay;
Since the fair nymph will hear not, though I pray.
The herds are sorry for their master’s
The nymph heeds not her lover though he die,
The lovely nymph, whose heart is made of stone—
Nay steel, nay adamant! She still doth fly
Far, far before me, when she sees me nigh,
Even as a lamb flies fern the wolf away.
Listen, ye wild woods, to my roundelay;
Since the fair nymph will hear not, though I pray.
Nay, tell her, pipe of mine, how swift
Beauty together with our years amain;
Tell her how time destroys all rarity,
Nor youth once lost can be renewed again;
Tell her to use the gifts that yet remain:
Roses and violets blossom not alway.
Listen, ye wild woods, to my roundelay;
Since the fair nymph will hear not, though I pray.
Carry, ye winds, these sweet words to
Unto the ears of my loved nymph, and tell
How many tears I shed, what bitter tears!
Beg her to pity one who loves so well:
Say that my life is frail and mutable,
And melts like rime before the rising day.
Listen, ye wild woods, to my roundelay;
Since the fair nymph will hear not, though I pray.
Less sweet, methinks the voice of waters
From cliffs that echo back their murmurous song;
Less sweet the summer sound of breezes calling
Through pine-tree tops sonorous all day long;
Than are thy rhymes, the soul of grief enthralling,
Thy rhymes o’er field and forest borne along:
If she but hear them, at thy feet she’ll fawn.—
Lo, Thyrsis, hurrying homeward from the lawn!
What of the calf? Say, hast thou seen her now?
THYRSIS, the cowherd.
I have, and I’d as lief her throat
She almost ripped my bowels up, I vow,
Running amuck with horns well set to butt:
Nathless I’ve locked her in the stall below:
She’s blown with grass, I tell you, saucy slut!
Now, prithee, let me hear what made you
So long upon the upland lawns away?
Walking, I spied a gentle maiden there,
Who plucked wild flowers upon the mountain side:
I scarcely think that Venus is more fair,
Of sweeter grace, most modest in her pride:
She speaks, she sings, with voice so soft and rare,
That listening streams would backward roll their tide:
Her face is snow and roses; gold her head;
All, all alone she goes, white-raimented,
Stay, Mopsus! I must follow:
for ’tis she
Of whom I lately spoke. So, friend, farewell!
Hold, Aristaeus, lest for her or thee
Thy boldness be the cause of mischief fell!
Nay, death this day must be my destiny,
Unless I try my fate and break the spell.
Stay therefore, Mopsus, by the fountain stay!
I’ll follow her, meanwhile, yon mountain way.
Thyrsis, what thinkest thou of thy loved
See’st thou that all his senses are distraught?
Couldst thou not speak some seasonable word,
Tell him what shame this idle love hath wrought?
Free speech and servitude but ill accord,
Friend Mopsus, and the hind is folly-fraught
Who rates his lord! He’s wiser far than I.
To tend these kine is all my mastery.
ARISTAEUS, in pursuit of EURYDICE.
Flee not from me, maiden!
Lo, I am thy friend!
Dearer far than life I hold thee.
List, thou beauty-laden,
To these prayers attend:
Flee not, let my arms enfold thee!
Neither wolf nor bear will grasp thee:
That I am thy friend I’ve told thee:
Stay thy course then; let me clasp thee!—
Since thou’rt deaf and wilt not heed me,
Since thou’rt still before me flying,
While I follow panting, dying,
Lend me wings, Love, wings to speed me!
[Exit ARISTAEUS, pursuing EURYDICE.
Sad news of lamentation and of pain,
Dear sisters, hath my voice to bear to you:
I scarcely dare to raise the dolorous strain.
Eurydice by yonder stream lies low;
The flowers are fading round her stricken head,
And the complaining waters weep their woe.
The stranger soul from that fair house hath fled;
And she, like privet pale, or white May-bloom
Untimely plucked, lies on the meadow, dead.
Hear then the cause of her disastrous doom!
A snake stole forth and stung her suddenly.
I am so burdened with this weight of gloom
That, lo, I bid you all come weep with me!
CHORUS OF DRYADS.
Let the wide air with our complaint resound!
For all heaven’s light is spent.
Let rivers break their bound,
Swollen with tears outpoured from our lament!
Fell death hath ta’en their splendour
from the skies:
The stars are sunk in gloom.
Stern death hath plucked the bloom
Of nymphs:—Eurydice down-trodden lies.
Weep, Love! The woodland cries.
Weep, groves and founts;
Ye craggy mounts; you leafy dell,
Beneath whose boughs she fell,
Bend every branch in time with this sad sound.
Let the wide air with our complaint resound!
Ah, fortune pitiless! Ah, cruel snake!
Ah, luckless doom of woes!
Like a cropped summer rose,
Or lily cut, she withers on the brake.
Her face, which once did make
Our age so bright
With beauty’s light, is faint and pale;
And the clear lamp doth fail,
Which shed pure splendour all the world around
Let the wide air with our complaint resound!
Who e’er will sing so sweetly, now
Her gentle voice to hear,
The wild winds dared not stir;
And now they breathe but sorrow, moan for moan:
So many joys are flown,
Such jocund days
Doth Death erase with her sweet eyes!
Bid earth’s lament arise,
And make our dirge through heaven and sea rebound!
Let the wide air with our complaint resound!
’Tis surely Orpheus, who hath reached
With harp in hand, glad-eyed and light of heart!
He thinks that his dear love is living still.
My news will stab him with a sudden smart:
An unforeseen and unexpected blow
Wounds worst and stings the bosom’s tenderest part.
Death hath disjoined the truest love, I know,
That nature yet to this low world revealed,
And quenched the flame in its most charming glow.
Go, sisters, hasten ye to yonder field,
Where on the sward lies slain Eurydice;
Strew her with flowers and grasses! I must yield
This man the measure of his misery.
[Exeunt DRYADS. Enter ORPHEUS, singing.
Musa, triumphales titulos et gesta
Herculis, et forti monstra subacta manu;
Ut timidae malri pressos ostenderit angues,
Intrepidusque fero riserit ore puer.
Orpheus, I bring thee bitter news.
Thy nymph who was so beautiful, is slain!
flying from Aristaeus o’er the grass,
What time she reached yon stream that threads the plain,
A snake which lurked mid flowers
where she did pass,
Pierced her fair foot with his envenomed bane:
So fierce, so potent was the sting, that she
Died in mid course. Ah, woe that this should be!
[ORPHEUS turns to go in silence.
MNESILLUS, the satyr.
Mark ye how sunk in woe
The poor wretch forth doth pass,
And may not answer, for his grief, one word?
On some lone shore, unheard,
Far, far away, he’ll go,
And pour his heart forth to the winds, alas!
I’ll follow and observe if he
Moves with his moan the hills to sympathy.
Let us lament, O lyre disconsolate!
Our wonted music is in tune no more.
Lament we while the heavens revolve, and let
The nightingale be conquered on Love’s shore!
O heaven, O earth, O sea, O cruel fate!
How shall I bear a pang so passing sore?
Eurydice, my love! O life of mine!
On earth I will no more without thee pine!
I will go down unto the doors of Hell,
And see if mercy may be found below:
Perchance we shall reverse fate’s spoken spell
With tearful songs and words of honeyed woe:
Perchance will Death be pitiful; for well
With singing have we turned the streams that flow;
Moved stones, together hind and tiger drawn,
And made trees dance upon the forest lawn.
[Passes from sight on his way to Hades.
The staff of Fate is strong
And will not lightly bend,
Nor yet the stubborn gates of steely Hell.
Nay, I can see full well
His life will not be long:
Those downward feet no more will earthward wend.
What marvel if they lose the light,
Who make blind Love their guide by day and night!
ORPHEUS, at the gate of Hell.
Pity, nay pity for a lover’s moan!
Ye Powers of Hell, let pity reign in you!
To your dark regions led me Love alone:
Downward upon his wings of light I flew.
Hush, Cerberus! Howl not by Pluto’s throne!
For when you hear my tale of misery, you,
Nor you alone, but all who here abide
In this blind world, will weep by Lethe’s tide.
There is no need, ye Furies, thus to rage;
To dart those snakes that in your tresses twine:
Knew ye the cause of this my pilgrimage,
Ye would lie down and join your moans with mine.
Let this poor wretch but pass, who war doth wage
With heaven, the elements, the powers divine!
I beg for pity or for death. No more!
But open, ope Hell’s adamantine door!
[ORPHEUS enters Hell.
What man is he who with his golden lyre
Hath moved the gates that never move,
While the dead folk repeat his dirge of love?
The rolling stone no more doth tire
Swart Sisyphus on yonder hill;
And Tantalus with water slakes his fire;
The groans of mangled Tityos are still;
Ixion’s wheel forgets to fly;
The Danaids their urns can fill:
I hear no more the tortured spirits cry;
But all find rest in that sweet harmony.
Dear consort, since, compelled by love
I left the light of heaven serene,
And came to reign in hell, a sombre queen;
The charm of tenderest sympathy
Hath never yet had power to turn
My stubborn heart, or draw forth tears from me.
Now with desire for yon sweet voice I yearn;
Nor is there aught so dear
As that delight. Nay, be not stern
To this one prayer! Relax thy brows severe,
And rest awhile with me that song to hear!
[ORPHEUS stands before the throne.
Ye rulers of the people lost in gloom,
Who see no more the jocund light of day!
Ye who inherit all things that the womb
Of Nature and the elements display!
Hear ye the grief that draws me to the tomb!
Love, cruel Love, hath led me on this way:
Not to chain Cerberus I hither come,
But to bring back my mistress to her home.
A serpent hidden among flowers and leaves
Stole my fair mistress—nay, my heart—from me:
Wherefore my wounded life for ever grieves,
Husband, I never guessed
That in our realm oppressed
Pity could find a home to dwell:
But now I know that mercy teems in Hell.
I see Death weep; her breast
Is shaken by those tears that faultless fell.
Let then thy laws severe for him be swayed
By love, by song, by the just prayers he prayed!
She’s thine, but at this price:
Bend not on her thine eyes,
Till mid the souls that live she stay.
See that thou turn not back upon the way!
Check all fond thoughts that rise!
Else will thy love be torn from thee away.
I am well pleased that song so rare as thine
The might of my dread sceptre should incline.
Ite tritumphales circum mea tempora
Vicimus Eurydicen: reddita vita mihi est,
Haec mea praecipue victoria digna corona.
Oredimus? an lateri juncta puella meo?
All me! Thy love too great
Hath lost not thee alone!
I am torn from thee by strong Fate.
No more I am thine own.
In vain I stretch these arms. Back, back to Hell
I’m drawn, I’m drawn. My Orpheus, fare thee well!
Who hath laid laws on Love?
Will pity not be given
For one short look so full thereof?
Since I am robbed of heaven,
Since all my joy so great is turned to pain,
I will go back and plead with Death again!
[TISIPHONE blocks his way.
Nay, seek not back to turn!
Vain is thy weeping, all thy words are vain.
Eurydice may not complain
Of aught but thee—albeit her grief is great.
Vain are thy verses ’gainst the voice of Fate!
How vain thy song! For Death is stern!
Try not the backward path: thy feet refrain!
The laws of the abyss are fixed and firm remain.
What sorrow-laden song shall e’er
To match the burden of my matchless woe?
How shall I make the fount of tears abound,
To weep apace with grief’s unmeasured flow?
Salt tears I’ll waste upon the barren ground,
So long as life delays me here below;
And since my fate hath wrought me wrong so sore,
I swear I’ll never love a woman more!
Henceforth I’ll pluck the buds of opening spring,
The bloom of youth when life is loveliest,
Ere years have spoiled the beauty which they bring:
This love, I swear, is sweetest, softest, best!
Of female charms let no one speak or sing;
Since she is slain who ruled within my breast.
He who would seek my converse, let him see
That ne’er he talk of woman’s love to me!
How pitiful is he who changes mind
For woman! for her love laments or grieves!
Who suffers her in chains his will to bind,
Or trusts her words lighter than withered leaves,
Her loving looks more treacherous than the wind!
A thousand times she veers; to nothing cleaves:
Follows who flies; from him who follows, flees;
And comes and goes like waves on stormy seas!
High Jove confirms the truth of what I said,
Who, caught and bound in love’s delightful snare,
Enjoys in heaven his own bright Ganymed:
Phoebus on earth had Hyacinth the fair:
Hercules, conqueror of the world, was led
Captive to Hylas by this love so rare.—
Advice for husbands! Seek divorce, and fly
Far, far away from female company!
[Enter a MAENAD leading a train of BACCHANTES.
Ho! Sisters! Up! Alive!
See him who doth our sex deride!
Hunt him to death, the slave!
Thou snatch the thyrsus! Thou this oak-tree rive!
Cast down this doeskin and that hide!
We’ll wreak our fury on the knave!
Yea, he shall feel our wrath, the knave!
He shall yield up his hide
Riven as woodmen fir-trees rive!
No power his life can save;
Since women he hath dared deride!
Ho! To him, sisters! Ho! Alive!
[ORPHEUS is chased off the scene and
slain: the MAENADS
Ho! Bacchus! Ho! I yield
thee thanks for this!
Through all the woodland we the wretch have borne:
So that each root is slaked with blood of his:
Yea, limb from limb his body have we torn
Through the wild forest with a fearful bliss:
His gore hath bathed the earth by ash and thorn!—
Go then! thy blame on lawful wedlock fling!
Ho! Bacchus! take the victim that we bring!
CHORUS OF MAENADS.
Bacchus! we all must follow
Bacchus! Bacchus! Ohe! Ohe!
With ivy coronals, bunch and berry,
Crown we our heads to worship thee!
Thou hast bidden us to make merry
Day and night with jollity!
Drink then! Bacchus is here! Drink free,
And hand ye the drinking-cup to me!
Bacchus! we all must follow thee!
Bacchus! Bacchus! Ohe! Ohe!
See, I have emptied my horn already:
Stretch hither your beaker to me, I pray:
Are the hills and the lawns where we roam unsteady?
Or is it my brain that reels away?
Let every one run to and fro through the hay,
As ye see me run! Ho! after me!
Bacchus! we all must follow thee!
Bacchus! Bacchus! Ohe! Ohe!
Methinks I am dropping in swoon or slumber:
Am I drunken or sober, yes or no?
What are these weights my feet encumber?
You too are tipsy, well I know!
Let every one do as ye see me do,
Let every one drink and quaff like me!
Bacchus! we all must follow thee!
Bacchus! Bacchus! Ohe! Ohe!
Cry Bacchus! Cry Bacchus! Be
blithe and merry,
Tossing wine down your throats away!
Let sleep then come and our gladness bury:
Drink you, and you, and you, while ye may!
Dancing is over for me to-day.
Let every one cry aloud Evohe!
Bacchus! we all must follow thee!
Bacchus! Bacchus! Ohe! Ohe!
Though an English translation can do little toward rendering the facile graces of Poliziano’s style, that ‘roseate fluency’ for which it has been praised by his Italian admirers, the main qualities of the ‘Orfeo’ as a composition may be traced in this rough copy. Of dramatic power, of that mastery over the deeper springs of human nature which distinguished the first effort of the English muse in Marlowe’s plays, there is but little. A certain adaptation of the language to the characters, as in the rudeness of Thyrsis when contrasted with the rustic elegance of Aristaeus, a touch of simple feeling in Eurydice’s lyrical outcry of farewell, a discrimination between the tender sympathy of Proserpine and Pluto’s stern relenting, a spirited presentation of the Bacchanalian furore in the Maenads, an attempt to model the Satyr Mnesillus as apart from human nature and yet sympathetic to its anguish, these points constitute the chief dramatic features of the
If the whole of the ‘Orfeo’ had been conceived and executed with the same artistic feeling as the chief act, it would have been a really fine poem independently of its historical interest. But we have only to turn the page and read the lament uttered for the loss of Eurydice, in order to perceive Poliziano’s incapacity for dealing with his hero in a situation of greater difficulty. The pathos which might have made us sympathise with Orpheus in his misery, the passion, approaching to madness, which might have justified his misogyny, are absent. It is difficult not to feel that in this climax of his anguish he was a poor creature, and that the Maenads served him right. Nothing illustrates the defect of real dramatic imagination better than this failure to dignify the catastrophe. Gifted with a fine lyrical inspiration, Poliziano seems to have already felt the Bacchic chorus which forms so brilliant a termination to his play, and to have forgotten his duty to the unfortunate Orpheus, whose sorrow for Eurydice is stultified and made unmeaning by the prosaic expression of a base resolve. It may indeed be said in general that the ‘Orfeo’ is a good poem only where the situation is not so much dramatic as lyrical, and that its finest passage—the scene in Hades—was fortunately for its author one in which the dramatic motive had to be lyrically expressed. In this respect, as in many others, the ‘Orfeo’ combines the faults and merits of the Italian attempts at melo-tragedy. To break a butterfly upon the wheel is, however, no fit function of criticism: and probably no one would have smiled more than the author of this improvisation, at the thought of its being gravely dissected just four hundred years after the occasion it was meant to serve had long been given over to oblivion.
Poliziano’s ‘Orfeo’ was dedicated to Messer Carlo Canale, the husband of that famous Vannozza who bore Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia to Alexander VI. As first published in 1494, and as republished from time to time up to the year 1776, it carried the title of ’La Favola di Orfeo,’ and was not divided into acts. Frequent stage-directions sufficed, as in the case of Florentine ‘Sacre Rappresentazioni,’ for the indication of the scenes. In this earliest redaction of the ‘Orfeo’ the chorus of the Dryads, the part of Mnesillus, the lyrical speeches of Proserpine and Pluto, and the first lyric of the Maenads are either omitted or represented by passages in ottava rima. In the year 1776 the Padre Ireneo Affo printed at Venice a new version of ‘Orfeo, Tragedia di Messer Angelo Poliziano,’ collated by him from two MSS. This play is divided into five acts, severally entitled ‘Pastoricus,’ ‘Nymphas Habet,’ ‘Heroicus,’ ‘Necromanticus,’ and ‘Bacchanalis.’ The stage-directions are given partly in Latin, partly in Italian; and instead of the ‘Announcement of the Feast’ by Mercury, a prologue consisting of two octave stanzas is appended. A Latin Sapphic ode in praise of the Cardinal Gonzaga, which was interpolated in the first version, is omitted, and certain changes are made in the last soliloquy of Orpheus. There is little doubt, I think, that the second version, first given to the press by the Padre Affo, was Poliziano’s own recension of his earlier composition. I have therefore followed it in the main, except that I have not thought it necessary to observe the somewhat pedantic division into acts, and have preferred to use the original ‘Announcement of the Feast,’ which proves the integral connection between this ancient secular play and the Florentine Mystery or ‘Sacra Rappresentazione.’ The last soliloquy of Orpheus, again, has been freely translated by me from both versions for reasons which will be obvious to students of the original. I have yet to make a remark upon one detail of my translation. In line 390 (part of the first lyric of the Maenads) the Italian gives us:—
Spezzata come il fabbro il cribro spezza.
This means literally: ’Riven as a blacksmith rives a sieve or boulter.’ Now sieves are made in Tuscany of a plate of iron, pierced with holes; and the image would therefore be familiar to an Italian. I have, however, preferred to translate thus:—
Riven as woodmen fir-trees rive,
instead of giving:—
Riven as blacksmiths boulters rive,
because I thought that the second and faithful version would be unintelligible as well as unpoetical for English readers.
* * * * *
EIGHT SONNETS OF PETRARCH
Fountain of woe! Harbour of endless
Thou school of errors, haunt of heresies!
Once Rome, now Babylon, the world’s disease,
That maddenest men with fears and fell desire!
O forge of fraud! O prison dark and dire,
Where dies the good, where evil breeds increase!
Thou living Hell! Wonders will never cease
If Christ rise not to purge thy sins with fire.
Founded in chaste and humble poverty,
Against thy founders thou dost raise thy horn,
Thou shameless harlot! And whence flows this pride?
Even from foul and loathed adultery,
The wage of lewdness. Constantine, return!
Not so: the felon world its fate must bide.
* * * * *
TO STEFANO COLONNA
Glorius Colonna, thou on whose high head
Rest all our hopes and the great Latin name,
Whom from the narrow path of truth and fame
The wrath of Jove turned not with stormful dread:
Here are no palace-courts, no stage to tread;
But pines and oaks the shadowy valleys fill
Between the green fields and the neighbouring hill,
Where musing oft I climb by fancy led.
These lift from earth to heaven our soaring soul,
While the sweet nightingale, that in thick bowers
Through darkness pours her wail of tuneful woe,
Doth bend our charmed breast to love’s control;
But thou alone hast marred this bliss of ours,
Since from our side, dear lord, thou needs must go.
IN VITA DI MADONNA LAURA. XI
Backward at every weary step and slow
These limbs I turn which with great pain I bear;
Then take I comfort from the fragrant air
That breathes from thee, and sighing onward go.
But when I think how joy is turned to woe,
Remembering my short life and whence I fare,
I stay my feet for anguish and despair,
And cast my tearful eyes on earth below.
At times amid the storm of misery
This doubt assails me: how frail limbs and poor
Can severed from their spirit hope to live.
Then answers Love: Hast thou no memory
How I to lovers this great guerdon give,
Free from all human bondage to endure?
* * * * *
IN VITA DI MADONNA LAURA. XII
The wrinkled sire with hair like winter
Leaves the beloved spot where he hath passed his years,
Leaves wife and children, dumb with bitter tears,
To see their father’s tottering steps and slow.
Dragging his aged limbs with weary woe,
In these last days of life he nothing fears,
IN VITA DI MADONNA LAURA. LII
OH THAT I HAD WINGS LIKE A DOVE!
I am so tired beneath the ancient load
Of my misdeeds and custom’s tyranny,
That much I fear to fail upon the road
And yield my soul unto mine enemy.
’Tis true a friend from whom all splendour flowed,
To save me came with matchless courtesy:
Then flew far up from sight to heaven’s abode,
So that I strive in vain his face to see.
Yet still his voice reverberates here below:
Oh ye who labour, lo! the path is here;
Come unto me if none your going stay!
What grace, what love, what fate surpassing fear
Shall give me wings like dove’s wings soft as snow,
That I may rest and raise me from the clay?
* * * * *
The eyes whereof I sang my fervid song,
The arms, the hands, the feet, the face benign,
Which severed me from what was rightly mine,
And made me sole and strange amid the throng,
The crisped curls of pure gold beautiful,
And those angelic smiles which once did shine
Imparadising earth with joy divine,
Are now a little dust—dumb, deaf, and dull.
And yet I live! wherefore I weep and wail,
Left alone without the light I loved so long,
Storm-tossed upon a bark that hath no sail.
Then let me here give o’er my amorous song;
The fountains of old inspiration fail,
And nought but woe my dolorous chords prolong.
IN MORTE DI MADONNA LAURA. XXXIV
In thought I raised me to the place where
Whom still on earth I seek and find not, shines;
There ’mid the souls whom the third sphere confines,
More fair I found her and less proud to me.
She took my hand and said: Here shalt thou be
With me ensphered, unless desires mislead;
Lo! I am she who made thy bosom bleed,
Whose day ere eve was ended utterly:
My bliss no mortal heart can understand;
Thee only do I lack, and that which thou
So loved, now left on earth, my beauteous veil.
Ah! wherefore did she cease and loose my hand?
For at the sound of that celestial tale
I all but stayed in paradise till now.
* * * * *
The flower of angels and the spirits blest,
Burghers of heaven, on that first day when she
Who is my lady died, around her pressed
Fulfilled with wonder and with piety.
What light is this? What beauty manifest?
Marvelling they cried: for such supremacy
Of splendour in this age to our high rest
Hath never soared from earth’s obscurity.
She, glad to have exchanged her spirit’s place,
Consorts with those whose virtues most exceed;
At times the while she backward turns her face
To see me follow—seems to wait and plead:
Therefore toward heaven my will and soul I raise,
Because I hear her praying me to speed.
* * * * *
[Footnote 1: We
may compare with Venice what is known about
the ancient Hellenic city of Sybaris. Sybaris and Ravenna
were the Greek and Roman Venice of antiquity.]
[Footnote 2: His first wife was a daughter of the great general of the Venetians against Francesco Sforza. Whether Sigismondo murdered her, as Sansovino seems to imply in his Famiglie Illustri, or whether he only repudiated her after her father’s execution on the Piazza di San Marco, admits of doubt. About the question of Sigismondo’s marriage with Isotta there is also some uncertainty. At any rate she had been some time his mistress before she became his wife.]
[Footnote 3: For
the place occupied in the evolution of
Italian scholarship by this Greek sage, see my ’Revival of
Learning,’ Renaissance in Italy, part 2.]
[Footnote 4: The account of this church given by AEneas Sylvius Piccolomini (Pii Secondi, Comment., ii. 92) deserves quotation: ’AEdificavit tamen nobile templum Arimini in honorem divi Francisci, verum ita gentilibus operibus implevit, ut non tam Christianorum quam infidelium daemones adorantium templum esse videatur.’]
[Footnote 5: Almost all the facts of Alberti’s life are to be found in the Latin biography included in Muratori. It has been conjectured, and not without plausibility, by the last editor of Alberti’s complete works, Bonucci, that this Latin life was penned by Alberti himself.]
[Footnote 6: There is in reality no doubt or problem about this Saint Clair. She was born in 1275, and joined the Augustinian Sisterhood, dying young, in 1308, as Abbess of her convent. Continual and impassioned meditation on the Passion of our Lord impressed her heart with the signs of His suffering which have been described above. I owe this note to the kindness of an anonymous correspondent, whom I here thank.]
[Footnote 7: The balance of probability leans against Isabella in this affair. At the licentious court of the Medici she lived with unpardonable freedom. Troilo Orsini was
Page 221himself assassinated in Paris by Bracciano’s orders a few years afterwards.]
[Footnote 8: I
have amplified and corrected this chronicle
by the light of Professor Gnoli’s monograph, Vittoria
Accoramboni, published by Le Monnier at Florence in 1870.]
[Footnote 9: In
dealing with Webster’s tragedy, I have
adhered to his use and spelling of names.]
[Footnote 10: The fresco of the Coronation of the Virgin upon the semi-dome of S. Giovanni is the work of a copyist, Cesare Aretusi. But part of the original fresco, which was removed in 1684, exists in a good state of preservation at the end of the long gallery of the library.]
[Footnote 11: See
the chapter on Euripides in my Studies of
Greek Poets, First Series, for a further development of
this view of artistic evolution.]
[Footnote 12: I find that this story is common in the country round Canossa. It is mentioned by Professor A. Ferretti in his monograph entitled Canossa, Studi e Ricerche, Reggio, 1876, a work to which I am indebted, and which will repay careful study.]
[Footnote 13: Charles
claimed under the will of Rene of
Anjou, who in turn claimed under the will of Joan II.]
[Footnote 14: For an estimate of Cosimo’s services to art and literature, his collection of libraries, his great buildings, his generosity to scholars, and his promotion of Greek studies, I may refer to my Renaissance in Italy: ‘The Revival of Learning,’ chap. iv.]
[Footnote 15: Giottino
had painted the Duke of Athens, in
like manner, on the same walls.]
[Footnote 16: See Archivio Storico.]
[Footnote 17: The
order of rhymes runs thus: a, b, b, a, a,
b, b, a, c, d, c, d, c, d; or in the terzets, c, d, e, c,
d, e, or c, d, e, d, c, e, and so forth.]
[Footnote 18: It has extraordinary interest for the student of our literary development, inasmuch as it is full of experiments in metres, which have never thriven on English soil. Not to mention the attempt to write in asclepiads and other classical rhythms, we might point to Sidney’s terza rima, poems with sdrucciolo or treble rhymes. This peculiar and painful form he borrowed from Ariosto and Sanazzaro; but even in Italian it cannot be handled without sacrifice of variety, without impeding the metrical movement and marring the sense.]
[Footnote 19: The stately structure of the Prothalamion and Epithalamion is a rebuilding of the Italian Canzone. His Eclogues, with their allegories, repeat the manner of Petrarch’s minor Latin poems.]
[Footnote 20: Marlowe makes Gaveston talk of ’Italian masques.’ At the same time, in the prologue to Tamburlaine,
Page 222he shows that he was conscious of the new and nobler direction followed by the drama in England.]
[Footnote 21: This sentence requires some qualification. In his Poesia Popolare Italiana, 1878, Professor d’Ancona prints a Pisan, a Venetian, and two Lombard versions of our Border ballad ‘Where hae ye been, Lord Randal, my son,’ so close in general type and minor details to the English, German, Swedish, and Finnish versions of this Volkslied as to suggest a very ancient community of origin. It remains as yet, however, an isolated fact in the history of Italian popular poetry.]
[Footnote 22: Canti
Popolari Toscani, raccolti e annotati
da Giuseppe Tigri. Volume unico. Firenze: G. Barbera, 1869.]
[Footnote 23: This is a description of the Tuscan rispetto. In Sicily the stanza generally consists of eight lines rhyming alternately throughout, while in the North of Italy it is normally a simple quatrain. The same poetical material assumes in Northern, Central, and Southern Italy these diverge but associated forms.]
[Footnote 24: This song, called Ciure (Sicilian for fiore) in Sicily, is said by Signor Pitre to be in disrepute there. He once asked an old dame of Palermo to repeat him some of these ditties. Her answer was, ’You must get them from light women; I do not know any. They sing them in bad houses and prisons, where, God be praised, I have never been.’ In Tuscany there does not appear to be so marked a distinction between the flower song and the rispetto.]
[Footnote 25: Much light has lately been thrown on the popular poetry of Italy; and it appears that contemporary improvisatori trust more to their richly stocked memories and to their power of recombination than to original or novel inspiration. It is in Sicily that the vein of truly creative lyric utterance is said to flow most freely and most copiously at the present time.]
[Footnote 26: ’Remember
me, fair one, to the scrivener. I do
not know him or who he is, but he seems to me a sovereign
poet, so cunning is he in his use of verse.’]
[Footnote 27: It must be remarked that Tigri draws a strong contrast in this respect between the songs of the mountain districts which he has printed and those of the towns, and that Pitre, in his edition of Sicilian Volkslieder, expressly alludes to the coarseness of a whole class which he had omitted. The MSS. of Sicilian and Tuscan songs, dating from the fifteenth century and earlier, yield a fair proportion of decidedly obscene compositions. Yet the fact stated above is integrally correct. When acclimatised in the large towns, the rustic Muse not unfrequently assumes a garb of grossness. At home, among the fields and on the mountains, she remains chaste and romantic.]
[Footnote 28: In
a rispetto, of which I subjoin a
translation, sung by a poor lad to a mistress of higher
rank, love itself is pleaded as the sign of a gentle soul:—
My state is poor: I am not meet
To court so nobly born a love;
For poverty hath tied my feet,
Trying to climb too far above.
Yet am I gentle, loving thee;
Nor need thou shun my poverty.
[Footnote 29: When the Cherubina, of whom mention has been made above, was asked by Signor Tigri to dictate some of her rispetti, she answered, ’O signore! ne dico tanti quando li canto! . . . ma ora . . . bisognerebbe averli tutti in visione; se no, proprio non vengono.’]
[Footnote 30: I
need hardly guard myself against being
supposed to mean that the form of Ballata in question was
the only one of its kind in Italy.]
[Footnote 31: See
my Sketches in Italy and Greece, p.
[Footnote 32: The
originals will be found in Carducci’s
Studi Letterari, p. 273 et seq. I have preserved their
[Footnote 33: Stanza XLIII. All references are made to Carducci’s excellent edition, Le Stanze, l’Orfeo e le Rime di Messer Angelo Ambrogini Poliziano. Firenze: G. Barbera. 1863.]