1839-1908 Ouida.

Wisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida online

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tain force of hewn stone piled against the sky, and
the luxuriant, dreamlike, poetic delicacy of stone carven
and shaped into leafage and loveliness more perfectly
blended and made one than where Or San Michele rises
out of the dim, many-coloured, twisting streets, in its
mass of ebon darkness and of silvery light.

Well, the other day, under the walls of it I stood,
and looked at its Saint George where he leans upon his
shield, so calm, so young, with his bared head and his
quiet eyes.

" That is our Donatello's," said a Florentine beside
me a man of the people, who drove a horse for hire
in the public ways, and who paused, cracking his whip,
to tell this tale to me. " Donatello did that, and it
killed him. Do you not know ? When he had done
that Saint George, he showed it to his master. And
the master said, ' It wants one thing only.' Now this
saying our Donatello took gravely to heart, chiefly of
all because his master would never explain where the
fault lay ; and so much did it hurt him, that he fell ill
of it, and came nigh to death. Then he called his
master to him. ' Dear and great one, do tell me be-
fore I die,' he said, 'what is the one thing my statue
lacks.' The master smiled, and said, ' Only speech.'
' Then I die happy,' said our Donatello. And he died
indeed, that hour."


" Now, I cannot say that the pretty story is true ; it
is not in the least true ; Donato died when he was
eighty-three, in the Street of the Melon ; and it was he
himself who cried, ' Speak then speak ! ' to his statue,
as it was carried through the city. But whether true
or false the tale, this fact is surely true, that it is well
nobly and purely well with a people when the men
amongst it who ply for hire on its public ways think
caressingly of a sculptor dead five hundred years ago,
and tell such a tale standing idly in the noon-day sun,
feeling the beauty and the pathos of it all.

'"Our Donatello' still to the people of Florence.
' Our own little Donato ' still, our pet and pride, even
as though he were living and working in their midst
to-day, here in the shadows of the Stocking-maker's
Street, where his Saint George keeps watch and ward.

(i ' Our little Donato ' still, though dead so many
hundred years ago.

" That is glory, if you will. And something more
beautiful than any glory Love."

He was silent a long while, gathering lazily with his
left hand the arum lilies to bind them together for me.

Perhaps the wish for the moment passed over him
that he had chosen to set his life up in stone, like to
Donato's, in the face of Florence, rather than to weave
its light and tangled skein out from the breaths of
the wandering winds and the sands of the shifting

out here in the young months of summer,
-^ and leave, as we left, the highways that grim walls
fence in, and stray, as we strayed, through the field-
paths and the bridle-roads in the steps of the contadini,
and you will find this green world about your feet


touched with the May-day suns to tenderest and most
lavish wealth of nature.

The green corn uncurling underneath the blossoming
vines. The vine foliage that tosses and climbs and
coils in league on league of verdure. The breast-high
grasses full of gold and red and purple from the counb-
less flowers growing with it.

The millet filled with crimson gladioli and great
scarlet poppies. The hill-sides that look a sheet of
rose-colour where the lupinelli are in bloom. The tall
plumes of the canes, new-born, by the side of every
stream and rivulet.

The sheaves of arum leaves that thrust themselves
out from every joint of masonry or spout of broken
fountain. The flame of roses that burns on every
handbreadth of untilled ground and springs like a rain-
bow above the cloud of every darkling roof or wall.
The ocean spray of arbutus and acacia shedding its
snow against the cypress darkness. The sea-green
of the young ilex leaves scattered like light over the
bronze and purple of the older growth. The dreamy
blue of the iris lilies rising underneath the olives and
along the edges of the fields.

A LL greatest gifts that have enriched the modern
** world have come from Italy. Take those gifts
from the world, and it would lie in darkness, a dumb,
barbaric, joyless thing.

Leave Rome alone, or question as you will whether
she were the mightiest mother, or the blackest curse
that ever came on earth. I do not speak of Rome,
imperial or republican, I speak of Italy.

Of Italy, after the -greatness of Rome dropped as
the Labarum was raised on high, and the Fisher of
Galilee came to fill the desolate place of the Caesars.


Of Italy, when she was no more a vast dominion,
ruling over half the races of the globe, from the Persian
to the Pict, but a narrow slip bounded by Adriatic and
Mediterranean, divided into hostile sections, racked by
foreign foes, and torn by internecine feud.

Of Italy, ravaged by the Longobardo, plundered by
the French, scourged by the Popes, tortured by the
Kaisers ; of Italy, with her cities at war with each
other, her dukedoms against her free towns, her tyrants
in conflict with her municipalities ; of Italy, in a word,
as she has been from the days of Theodoric and Theo-
dolinda to the days of Napoleon and Francis Joseph.
It is this Italy our Italy which through all the centu-
ries of bloodshed and of suffering never ceased to bear
aloft and unharmed its divining-rod of inspiration as S.
Christopher bore the young Christ above the swell of
the torrent and the rage of the tempest.

All over Italy from north to south men arose in the
darkness of those ages who became the guides and the
torchbearers of a humanity that had gone astray in the
carnage and gloom.

The faith of Columbus of Genoa gave to mankind
a new world. The insight of Galileo of Pisa revealed
to it the truth of its laws of being. Guido Monacco of
Arezzo bestowed on it the most spiritual of all earthly
joys by finding a visible record for the fugitive creations
of harmony ere then impalpable and evanescent as the
passing glories of the clouds. Dante Alighieri taught
to it the might of that vulgar tongue in which the child
babbles at its mother's knee, and the orator leads a
breathless multitude at his will to death or triumph.
Teofilo of Empoli discovered for it the mysteries of
colour that lie in the mere earths of the rocks and the
shores, and the mere oils of the roots and the poppies.
Arnoldo of Breccia lit for it the first flame of free
opinion, and Amatus of Breccia perfected for it the


most delicate and exquisite of all instruments of sound,
which men of Cremona, or of Bologna, had first created.
Maestro Giorgio, and scores of earnest workers whose
names are lost in Pesaro and in Gubbio, bestowed on
it those homelier treasures of the graver's and the
potter's labours which have carried the alphabet of art
into the lowliest home. Brunelleschi of Florence left
it in legacy the secret of lifting a mound of marble to
the upper air as easily as a child can blow a bubble ;
and Giordano Bruno of Nola found for it those elements
of philosophic thought, which have been perfected into
the clear and prismatic crystals of the metaphysics of
the Teuton and the Scot.

From south and north, from east and west, they rose,
the ministers and teachers of mankind.

From mountain and from valley, from fortress
smoking under battle, and from hamlet laughing under
vines ; from her great wasted cities, from her small
fierce walled towns, from her lone sea-shores ravaged
by the galleys of the Turks, from her villages on hill
and plain that struggled into life through the invaders'
fires, and pushed their vineshoots over the tombs of kings,
everywhere all over her peaceful soil, such men arose.

Not men alone who were great in a known art,
thought or science, of these the name was legion ; but
men in whose brains, art, thought, or science took new
forms, was born into new life, spoke with new voice,
and sprang full armed a new Athene.

Leave Rome aside, I say, and think of Italy ; measure
her gifts, which with the lavish waste of genius she has
flung broadcast in grand and heedless sacrifice, and
tell me if the face of earth would not be dark and drear
as any Scythian desert without these ?

She was the rose of the world, aye so they bruised
and trampled her, and yet the breath of heaven was
ever in her.


She was the world's nightingale, aye so they
burned her eyes out and sheared her wings, and yet
she sang.

But she was yet more than these : she was the light
of the world : a light set on a hill, a light unquenchable.
A light which through the darkness of the darkest night
has been a Pharos to the drowning faiths and dying
hopes of man.

"TT must have been such a good life a painter's in
* those days ; those early days of art. Fancy the
gladness of it then modern painters can know nothing
of it.

"When all the delicate delights of distance were only
half perceived ; when the treatment of light and shadow
was barely dreamed of ; when aerial perspective was just
breaking on the mind in all its wonder and power; when
it was still regarded as a marvellous boldness to draw
from the natural form in a natural fashion ; in those
early days only fancy the delights of a painter !

" Something fresh to be won at each step ; something
new to be penetrated at each moment ; something beau-
tiful and rash to be ventured on with each touch of
colour, the painter in those days had all the breathless
pleasure of an explorer ; without leaving his birthplace
he knew the joys of Columbus.

" And then the reverence that waited on him.

" He was a man who glorified God amongst a people
that believed in God.

'' What he did was a reality to himself and those around
him. Spinello fainted before the Satanas he portrayed,
and Angelico deemed it blasphemy to alter a feature of
the angels who visited him that they might live visibly
for men in his colours in the cloister.


" Of all men the artist was nearest to heaven, therefore
of all men was he held most blessed.

"When Francis Valois stooped for the brush he only
represented the spirit of the age he lived in. It is what
all wise kings do. It is their only form of genius.

" Now-a-days what can men do in the Arts ! Nothing.

"All has been painted all sung all said.

" All is twice told in verse, in stone, in colour. There
is no untraversed ocean to tempt the Columbus of any Art.

" It is dreary very dreary- that. All had been said
and done so much better than we can ever say or do
it again. One envies those men who gathered all the
paradise flowers half opened, and could watch ,thein

"Art can only live by Faith : and what faith have we?

"Instead of Art we have indeed Science ; but Science
is very sad, for she doubts all things and would prove
all things, and doubt is endless, and proof is a quagmire
that looks like solid earth, and is but shifting waters."

His voice was sad as it fell on the stillness of Arezzo
Arezzo who had seen the dead gods come and go, and
the old faiths rise and fall, there where the mule trod its
patient way and the cicala sang its summer song above
the place where the temple of the Bona Dea and the
Church of Christ had alike passed away, so that no man
could tell their place.

It was all quiet around.

" I would rather have been Spinello than Petrarca,"
he pursued, after a while. " Yes ; though the sonnets
will live as long as men love : and the old man's work
has almost every line of it crumbled away.

" But one can fancy nothing better than a life such
as Spinello led for nigh a century up on the hill here,
painting, because he loved it, till death took him. Of
all lives, perhaps, that this world has ever seen, the lives
of painters, I say, in those days were the most perfect.


" Not only the magnificent pageants of Leonardo's, of
Raffaelle's, of Giorgone's : but the lowlier lives the
lives of men such as Santi, and Ridolfi, and Benozzo,
and Francia, and Timoteo, and many lesser men than
they, painters in fresco and grisaille, painters of minia-
tures, painters of majolica and montelupo, painters who
were never great, but who attained infinite peacefulness
and beauty in their native towns and cities all over the
face of Italy.

"In quiet places, such as Arezzo and Volterra, and
Modena and Urbino, and Cortona and Perugia, there
would grow up a gentle lad who from infancy most loved
to stand and gaze at the missal paintings in his mother's
house, and the ccena in the monk's refectory, and when
he had fulfilled some twelve or fifteen years, his people
would give in to his wish and send him to some bottega
to learn the management of colours. ;

"Then he would grow to be a man ; and his town
would be proud of him, and find him the choicest of all
work in its churches and its convents, so that all his days
were filled without his ever wandering out of reach of his
native vesper bells.

" He would make his dwelling in the heart of his birth-
place, close under its cathedral, with the tender sadness
of the olive hills stretching above and around; in the
basiliche or the monasteries his labour would daily lie ;
he would have a docile band of hopeful boyish pupils
with innocent eyes of wonder for all he did or said ; he
would paint his wife's face for the Madonna's, and his
little son's for the child Angel's; he would go out into
the fields and gather the olive bough, and the feathery
corn, and the golden fruits, and paint them tenderly on
ground of gold or blue, in symbol of those heavenly,
things of which the bells were for ever telling all those
who chose to hear ; he would sit in the lustrous nights-
in the shade of his own vines and pity those who were


not as he was ; now and then horsemen would come
spurring in across the hills and bring news with them of
battles fought, of cities lost and won ; and he would
listen with the rest in the market-place, and go home
through the moonlight thinking that it was well to create
the holy things before which the fiercest reiter and the
rudest free-lance would drop the point of the sword and
make the sign of the cross.

" It must have been a good life good to its close in
the cathedral crypt and so common too ; there were
scores such lived out in these little towns of Italy, half
monastery and half fortress, that were scattered over hill
and plain, by sea and river, on marsh and mountain,
from the daydawn of Cimabue to the afterglow of the

"And their work lives after them ; the little towns are
all grey and still and half peopled now ; the iris grows
on the ramparts, the canes wave in the moats, the
shadows sleep in the silent market-place, the great
convents shelter half-a-dozen monks, the dim majestic
churches are damp and desolate, and have the scent of
the sepulchre.

" But there, above the altars, the wife lives in the
Madonna and the child smiles in the Angel, and the
olive and the wheat are fadeless on their ground of gold
and blue; and by the tomb in the crypt the sacristan will
shade his lantern and murmur with a sacred tenderness :

" ' Here he sleeps.'

" ' He,' even now, so long, long after, to the people of
his birthplace. Who can want more of life or death ? "

So he talked on in that dreamy, wistful manner that
was as natural with him in some moments as his buoyant
and ironical gaiety at others.

Then he rose as the shadows grew longer and pulled
down a knot of pomegranate blossom for me, and we
went together under the old walls, across the maize fields,


down the slope of the hills to the olive orchard, where a
peasant, digging deep his trenches against the autumn
rains, had struck his mattock on the sepulchre of the
Etruscan king.

There was only a little heap of fine dust when we reach
the spot.

'"ITHERE was so much more colour in those days," he
* had said, rolling a big green papone before him with
his foot. " If, indeed, it were laid on sometimes too roughly.
And then there was so much more play for character.
Now-a-days, if a man dare go out of the common ways to
seek a manner of life suited to him, and unlike others, he
is voted a vagabond, or, at least, a lunatic, supposing he
is rich enough to get the sentence so softened. In those
days the impossible was possible a paradox? oh, of
course. The perfection of those days was, that they were
full of paradoxes. No democracy will ever compass the
immensity of Hope, the vastness of Possibility, with which
the Church of those ages filled the lives of the poorest poor.
Not hope spiritual only, but hope terrestrial, hope material
and substantial. A swineherd, glad to gnaw the husks
that his pigs left, might become the Viceregent of Christ,
and spurn emperors prostrate before his throne. The
most famished student who girt his lean loins to pass the
gates of Pavia or Ravenna, knew that if he bowed his
head for the tonsure he might live to lift it in a pontiff's
arrogance in the mighty reality and the yet mightier
metaphor of a Canosa. The abuses of the mediaeval
Church have been gibbeted in every language ; but I
doubt if the wonderful absolute equality which that Church
actually contained and caused has ever been sufficiently
remembered. Then only think how great it was to be
great in those years, when men were fresh enough of
heart to feel emotion and not ashamed to show it. Think
of Petrarca's entry into Rome ; think of the superb life


of Raffael ; think of the crowds that hung on the lips of
the Improvisator! : think of the influence of S. Bruno, of
S. Bernard, of S. Francis ; think of the enormous power
on his generation of Fra Girolamo ! And if one were
not great at all, but only a sort of brute with stronger
sinews than most men, what a fearless and happy brute
one might be, riding with Hawkwood's Lances, or fighting
with the Black Bands ! Whilst, if one were a peaceable,
gentle soul, with a turn for art and grace, what a calm,
tender life one might lead in little, old, quiet cities,
painting praying saints on their tiptoes, or moulding
marriage-plates in majolica ! It must have been such a
great thing to live when the world was still all open-eyed
with wonder at itself, like a child on its sixth birthday.
Now-a-days, science makes a great discovery ; the tired
world yawns, feels its pockets, and only asks, "Will it
pay?" Galileo ran the risk of the stake, and Giordano
Bruno suffered at it ; but I think that chance of the
faggots must have been better to bear than the languid
apathy and the absorbed avarice of the present age, which
is chiefly tolerant because it has no interest except in new
invented ways for getting money and for spending it."


LJ E remembered two years before, when he had passed
* through Italy on his way eastward, pausing in Fer-
rara, and Brescia, and Mantua, and staying longer in the
latter city on account of a trial then in course of hearing
in the court of justice, which had interested him by its
passionate and romantic history ; it had been the trial of
the young Count d'Este, accused of the assassination of
his mistress. Sanctis had gone with the rest of the town
to the hearing of the long and tedious examination of
the witnesses and of accused. It had been a warm day in
early autumn, three months after the night of the murder ;
Mantua had looked beautiful in her golden mantle of
sunshine and silver veil of mist ; there was a white, light
fog on the water meadows and the lakes, and under it
the willows waved and the tall reeds rustled ; whilst the
dark towers, the forked battlements, the vast Lombard
walls, seemed to float on it like sombre vessels on a foamy

He remembered the country people flocking in over
the bridge, the bells ringing, the red sails drifting by, the
townsfolk gathering together in the covered arcades and
talking with angry rancour against the dead woman's
lord. He remembered sitting in the hush and gloom of
the judgment-hall and furtively sketching the head of the
prisoner because of its extreme and typical beauty. He
remembered how at the time he had thought this accused
lover guiltless, and wondered that the tribunal did not


sooner suspect the miserly, malicious, and subtle meaning
of the husband's face. He remembered listening to the
tragic tale that seemed so 'well to suit those sombre,
feudal streets, those melancholy waters, seeing the three-
edged dagger passed from hand to hand, hearing how the
woman had been found dead in her beauty on her old
golden and crimson bed with the lilies on her breast, and
looking at the attitude of the prisoner in which the
judges saw remorse and guilt, and he could only see the
unutterable horror of a bereaved lover to whom the
world was stripped and naked.

He had stayed but two days in Mantua, but those two
days had left an impression on him like that left by the
reading at the fall of night of some ghastly poem of the
middle ages. He had thought that they had condemned
an innocent man, as the judge gave his sentence of the
galleys for life : and the scene had often come back to
his thoughts.

The vaulted audience chamber ; the strong light pour-
ing in through high grated windows ; the pillars of many-
coloured marbles, the frescoed roof ; the country people
massed together in the public place, with faces that were
like paintings of Mantegna or Masaccio ; the slender
supple form of the accused drooping like a bruised lily
between the upright figures of two carabineers ; the judge
leaning down over his high desk in black robes and
black square cap, like some Venetian lawgiver of Veronese
or of Titian ; and beyond, through an open casement, the
silvery, watery, sun-swept landscape that was still the
same as when Romeo came, banished, to Mantua. All
these had remained impressed upon his mind by the
tragedy which there came to its close as a lover, passion-
ate as Romeo and yet more unfortunate, was condemned
to the galleys for his life. " They have ill judged a guilt-
less man," he had said to himself as he had left the court
with a sense of pain before injustice done, and went with


heart saddened by a stranger's fate into the misty air,
along the shining water where the Mills of the Twelve
Apostles were churning the great dam into froth, as they
had done through seven centuries, since first, with reve-
rent care, the builder had set the sacred statues there
that they might bless the grinding of the corn.

Sitting now in the silence of the tomb, Sanctis recalled
that day, when, towards the setting of the sun, he had
strolled there by the water-wheels of the twelve disciples,
and allowed the fate of an unknown man, declared a
criminal by impartial judges, to cloud over for him the
radiance of evening on the willowy Serraglio and chase
away his peaceful thoughts of Virgil. He remembered
how the country people had come out by the bridge and
glided away in their boats, and talked of the murder of
Donna Aloysia ; and how they had, one and all of them,
said, going back over the lake water or along the reed-
fringed roads, to their farmhouses, that there could be
no manner of doubt about it the lover had been moon-
struck and mad with jealousy, and his dagger had found
its way to her breast. They had not blamed him much,
but they had never doubted his guilt ; and the foreigner
alone, standing by the mill gateway, and seeing the golden
sun go down beyond the furthermost fields of reeds that
grew blood-red as the waters grew, had thought to himself
and said half aloud :

"Poor Romeo ! he is guiltless, even though the dagger
were his "

And a prior, black- robed, with broad looped- up black
hat, who was also watching the sunset, breviary in hand,
had smiled and said, " Nay, Romeo, banished to us, had
no blood on his hand ; but this Romeo, native of our
city, has. Mantua will be not ill rid of Luitbrand d'Este."

Then he again, in obstinacy and against all the priest's
better knowledge as a Manttian, had insisted and said,
" The man is innocent."



And the sun had gone down as he had spoken, and the
priest had smiled a smile cold as a dagger's blade
perhaps recalling sins confessed to him of love that had
changed to hate, of fierce delight ending in as fierce a
death-blow. Mantua in her day had seen so much alike

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 23 of 39)