It is said that painting is now but little cultivated among them; Rome will however be the place for such enquiries. Angelica Kauffman being settled there, seems a proof of their taste for living merit; and if one thing more than another evinces Italian candour and true good-nature, it is perhaps their generous willingness to be ever happy in acknowledging foreign excellence, and their delight in bringing forward the eminent qualities of every other nation; never insolently vaunting or bragging of their own. Unlike to this is the national spirit and confined ideas of perfection inherent in a Gallic mind, whose sole politeness is an applique stuck upon the coat, but never embroidered into it.
The observation made here last night by a Parisian lady, gave me a proof of this I little wanted. We met at the Casino of the Senator Angelo Quirini, where a sort of literary coterie assemble every evening, and form a society so instructive and amusing, so sure to be filled with the first company in Venice, and so hospitably open to all travellers of character, that nothing can now be to me a higher intellectual gratification than my admittance among them; as in future no place will ever be recollected with more pleasure, no hours with more gratitude, than those passed most delightfully by me in that most agreeable apartment.
I expressed to the French lady my admiration of St. Mark’s Place. “C’est que vous n’avez jamais vue la foire St. Ovide,” said she; “je vous assure que cela surpasse beaucoup ces trifles palais qu’on vantetant[Q].” And this could only have been arrogance, for she was a very sensible and a very accomplished woman; and when talked to about the literary merits of her own countrymen, spoke with great acuteness and judgment.
[Footnote Q: You admire it, says she, only because you never saw the fair at St. Ovid’s in Paris; I assure you there is no comparison between those gay illuminations and these dismal palaces the Venetians are so fond of.]
General knowledge, however, it must be confessed (meaning that general stock that every one recurs to for the common intercourse of conversation), will be found more frequently in France, than even in England; where, though all cultivate the arts of table eloquence and assembly-room rhetoric, few, from mere shyness, venture to gather in the profits of their plentiful harvest; but rather cloud their countenances with mock importance, while their hearts feel no hope beat higher in them, than the humble one of escaping without being ridiculed; or than in Italy, where nobody dreams of cultivating conversation at all—as an art; or studies for any other than the natural reason, of informing or diverting themselves, without the most distant idea of gaining admiration, or shining in company, by the quantity of science they have accumulated in solitude. Here no man lies awake in the night for vexation that he missed recollecting the last line of a Latin epigram till the moment of application was lost; nor any lady changes colour with trepidation at the severity visible in her husband’s countenance when the chickens are over-roasted, or the ice-creams melt with the room’s excessive heat.