Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky.

The forerunner : a novel online

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3 1822 01105




. SAi'v! OrEGO

3 1822 01105 2461



This Romance is the Second of the historical
Trilogy, of which the first volume, dealing with
the times of the Emperor Julian, was the Death
of the Gods. The present story of the Italian
Renaissance has been published in Russia as
The Resurrection of the Gods ; in France under
the title, 77;^? Romance of Leonardo da Vinci.
This translation is direct from the Russian, and
is the only one in the English language which
is or will be authorised by the Author.







I Q02

Edinburgh : T. and A, Constable, (late) Printers to Her Majesty


' Sentio rediit ab inferis Julianus.'

(I feel that Julian has risen again.) — Petrarch.

' We see the encounter of vast contraries : Man-god against God-
man — Apollo Belvedere against Christ.' — Dostoievsky.



' At Siena was discovered another statue of Venus, to the huge joy of
the inhabitants. A great concourse, with much feasting and honour, set
it up over the fountain called " II Fonte Gaja," as an adornment. . , .

' But great tribulation having come upon the land by reason of the
Florentines, there arose one of the council, a citizen, and spake in this
wise : " Fellow-citizens, since the finding of this figure we have had much
evil hap, and if we consider how strictly idolatry is prohibited by our
faith, what shall we think but that God hath sent us this adversity by
reason of sin ? I advise that we remove this image from the public square
of the city, deface it, break it in pieces, and send it to be buried in the
territory of the Florentines." ^

'AH agreeing with this opinion, they confirmed it by a decree; and the
thing was put into execution, and the statue was buried within our con-
fines. ' [Notes of the Florentine sculptor, Lorenzo Ghiberti, XVth. century. )


In Florence the guild of dyers had their shops hard by the
Canonica of Orsanmichele. The houses were disfigured by
every sort of shed, outhouse, and projection on crooked
wooden supports ; tiled roofs leaned so close to each other
as almost to shut out the sky, and the street was dark
even in the glare of noon. In the doorways below, samples
of foreign woollen-stuffs were suspended, sent to Florence
to be dyed with litmus-lichen, with madder, or with woad
steeped in a corrosive of Tuscan alum. The street was
paved roughly, and in the kennel flowed many-coloured
streams, oozings from the dye vats. Shields over the portals
of the principal shops, or Fondachi, were blazoned with the
arms of the Calimala (so the guild of dyers was named), ' on
a field gules, an eagle or, upon a ball of wool argent.'

Within one of these Fondachi, among huge account-books
and piles of commercial documents, sat Messer Cipriano


Buonaccorsi, a worthy Florentine merchant, and Master of
the Noble Guild of the Calimala.

It was a cold March evening, and damp exhaled from the
choked and cumbered cellars ; the old man was a-cold, and
he drew his worn squirrel-mantle tightly round him. A goose-
quill was stuck behind his ear, and with omniscient, though
weak and myopic eyes, that seemed at once careless and
attentive, he conned the parchment leaves of his ponderous
ledger; debit to the left, credit to the right; divided by
rectangular lines, and annotated in a round, even hand,
unadorned by stops, or capitals, or Arabic numerals, which
were considered frivolous innovations, impertinent in business-
books. On the first page was inscribed in imposing
characters : ' In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the
most blessed Virgin Mary, this book is begun in the year of
the Lord mcccclxxxxiv.'

Having corrected an error in the number of bales received
in pledge, and satisfied himself as to the latest entries of
podded pepper, Mecca ginger, and bundles of cinnamon,
Messer Cipriano leaned wearily against the back of his chair,
closed his eyes, and meditated upon an epistle he must indite
for his emissary at the Wool Fair in Montpellier of France.
Just then some one entered, and the old man raising his
glance saw his ionfadi?w, Grillo, who rented from him certain
vineyards and fields belonging to his mountain-villa of San
Gervaso in the valley of the Mugnone. Grillo did obsequious
reverence, tendering a basket of brown eggs, carefully packed,
while at his belt clucked two fat chickens, their feet tied and
their heads hanging.

'Ah, Grillo!' exclaimed Buonaccorsi, with his customary
urbanity, 'has the Lord been gracious to you? Meseems,
we have the spring season at last.'

'Messer Cipriano, to us old men even the spring brings no
delight. Our old bones ache worse than before and cry
louder for the grave. I have brought your worship eggs and
young cockerels for Easter.' And he screwed up his greenish
eyes, revealing innumerable small creases all round them, the
effect of rude acquaintance with wind and sun. Buonaccorsi,
having thanked him for the gift, turned to business.

' Well, have you the men ready at the farm ? Can we get
all done before day-break ? '

Grillo sighed prodigiously, and meditated, leaning heavily


on his staff. ' All is ready, and there are men enough. But
I ask you, Messer Cipriano, were it not better we waited a

' Nay, old man, you have said yourself that we must not
wait, lest the matter become known.'

'True. Yet the thing is terrible. It is sin. And the
days now are holy-days, days of fasting ; and our work is of
another sort.'

' Well, I will take the sin on my own soul. Fear naught ;
I will not betray you. Only tell me — shall we find what
we seek ? '

' Why should we not ? We have signs to guide us. Did
not our fathers know of the hill behind the mill at the Humid
Hollow? And at night there's the Jack o' Lantern over
San Giovanni. That means lots of this rubbish all round.
I have heard tell that not long ago, when they were digging
in the vineyard at Marignola, they drew a Vhole devil from
out the clay.'

' A devil ? What manner of devil ? '

' A bronze one with horns. He had hairy legs — goat's
legs — with hoofs. And a face which laughs. And he dances
on one leg and snaps his fingers. 'Twas very old ; all green
and crumbled.'

' What did they do with it ? '

' They made it into a bell for the new chapel of San

Messer Cipriano was beside himself. ' Grillo, you should
have told me of this before ! '

' Your worship had gone to Siena.'

' You should have sent after me. I would have despatched
some one — I would have come myself — I would have grudged
no expense — I would have cast ten bells for them in its
place. The idiots ! To make a Dancing Faun— perhaps a
real Scopas — into a bell ! '

' Ay, they showed their folly. But, Messer Cipriano, be
not wroth. They are punished : for since they hung that new
bell the worms have eaten the apples, and the olives have
failed. And the tone of the bell is bad.'

' How so?'

'That's not for me to say. It hasn't the proper note.
It brings no joy to the Christian heart. Somehow it sounds
unmeaning, 'Tis what one might expect : one can't get a


Christian bell out of a dumb devil. Be it not spoke to anger
your worship, but, Messer Cipriano, the good Father is right ;
of all this filth they dig up, no good is going to come. We
must go to work with prudence and defend ourselves with
the cross and with prayers ; for the Devil is subtle and
powerful and the son of a dog, and he creeps in at one ear
and out at the other. We were led into temptation even by
that stone arm which Zaccheo found at the Hill of the Mill.
'Twas the Evil One tempted us, and we came to harm by it.
Lord defend us ! 'Tis dreadful even to remember ! '

' How got you it, Grillo?'

' The thing happened last autumn on the Eve of Martin-
mas. We were sitting us down to sup, and the good woman
had put the porridge on the table, when my nephew Zaccheo
came bursting in from his digging in the field on the Hill
of the Mill. " Master 1 O master ! " he cried, and his face
was all drawn and changed, and his teeth chattered. "The
Lord be with you, my son!" says I, and he went on: "O
Lord, master ! there 's a corpse creeping out from under the
pots ! Go yourself, master, and see." So we crossed our-
selves and we went. By this time 'twas dark, and the moon
was getting up behind the trees. There was the old olive-
stump, and beside it where the earth was dug was some
shining thing. I stooped, and saw 'twas an arm, very white,
and with round dainty fingers, like those of the city ladies.
"Good Lord," thinks I, ''what sort of de\-ilment is this?"
I let down the lantern into the hole, and that arm moved
and signalled to me with its finger ! That was more than I
could bear, and I cried out, and my knees bent under me.
But Monna Bonda, my grandame, whom they call a wise
woman, and who has all her life in her though she be so old,
chided me, saying, "Fool, what is it you fear? Do not your
eyes tell you yon thing is neither of the living nor of the
dead, but is a stone ? " And she snatched at it and pulled
it forth out of the earth. " Nay, grandame,"' I bade her,
"let it be; touch it not: rather let me bury it lest mischief
befall us." " Not so," quoth she ; " but take we it to the
church, and let the Father exorcise it." But she deceived me,
for she brought it not to the priest, but hid it in the chimney-
corner, where in her cot she keeps gear of all sorts — rags,
unguents, and herbals, and spells. And when I made
insistence, she insisted too and kept it. And from that


day 'tis very certain the old beldame hath done cures of
great marvel. Is it a toothache? she doth but touch the
cheek with the idol and the swelling is gone. She salves
fevers, colics, falling sickness. If a cow is in labour and
cannot bring forth, Monna Bonda touches her with that same
stone hand, and the cow lows, and there 's the calf, kicking
in the straw. Tho noise of these wonders has gone abroad,
and the old woman has swelled her money-chest. But no
good has come of it, for Don Faustino has not allowed me
one day's peace. He speaks against me in his preaching,
in church before them all. He calls me the son of perdition
and the child of the Devil, and he declares he will tell of it to
the bishop, and will deny me the Communion. The boys run
after me in the street, and point and say, '• There goes Grille,
the sorcerer, and his grandame is a witch, and they have
sold themselves to the Evil One." Even in the night I get
no rest. Meseems that stone hand rises up and lies softly
on my neck, and then of a sudden takes me by the throat
and would strangle me, till I essay to cry out, and cannot.
" Bad jesting, this," I think to myself. So at last one morn-
ing, ere it was light, the old woman having gone forth to
pick her herbs, I got up and broke open her cot, and found
the thing, and brought it to you. Lotto, the rag-picker,
would have given me ten soldi for it, and of you I only had
eight ; but I am ready to sacrifice not only two soldi, but even
my life for your worship. May the Lord give you His holy
benediction, and to Madonna Angelica, and to your sons
and your grandsons ! '

' It seems, then, by what you tell me, Grillo,' said Messer
Cipriano thoughtfully, ' that we shall have findings on that
HiU of the Mill ? '

' We are like enough to find,' said the old man with a pro-
found sigh ; ' only we may not tell Don Faustino. If he hear
of it he will dress my head without a comb ; and he can do
your worship a mischief, too, for he can raise the people and
not let you finish your work. Well, well — we must pray the
Lord to show us mercy ! But in the meanwhile, my honoured
benefactor, do not abandon me, but say a word for me to the

'What? anent the strip of land the miller would take
from you ? '

'That is it, master. The miller is a cunning rascal, and he


knows how to catch the devil by the tail. I, you see, gave a
heifer to the judge ; but the miller gave him a lined cow. I
fear me the judge will decide for the miller, because the suit
is not yet concluded, and already the cow has a fine bull-calf.
I pr'ythee, speak for me— father that you are to me. This
which we do on the Hill of the Mill, I do only for your
kindness. There is no other I would have let bring such a
sin upon my conscience.'

' Be at ease, Grillo. I will speak for you ; the judge is my
friend. Now take your steps to the kitchen, and eat and
drink. To-night we will go together to San Gervaso.'

The old man, with many reverences, went out, and Messer
Cipriano betook himself to his little chamber near the store-
house. It was a museum of marbles and bronzes, hung on
walls, arranged on benches. Medals and old coins were
assorted on cloth-covered benches ; and fragments of statues,
not yet pieced together, were waiting in huge cases. Through
his trade-agents in many countries he procured antiquities
from all classic grounds ; from Athens, Smyrna, Halicarnassus,
Cyprus, Leucosia, Rhodes, from the remoter Egypt, from the
heart of the Levant. The Master of the Guild of the Calimala
glanced over his treasures, and then sank into profound con-
sideration of customs-dues on the import of fleeces ; and
finally composed the letter to his factor at the Wool Fair in


Meantime, in the hinder-part of the warehouse, heaped
with bales, and lighted only by the glimmer of a lamp before
the image of the Madonna, three lads, Dolfo, Antonio, and
Giovanni were gossiping together. Dolfo, Messer Buonac-
corsi's clerk, a red-haired, snub-nosed, good-natured youth,
was entering the number of ells of cloth which Antonio da
Vinci, old for his years, with glassy eyes and thin, rough,
black locks, was rapidly measuring with the Florentine
measure, called a canna : Giovanni Boltrafifio, a student of
painting from Milan, a big boy of nineteen, but shy and
awkward, with innocent, sad, grey eyes, and an irresolute
expression, was sitting cross-legged on a made-up bale, and
listening with all his ears.

'This is what we have come to,' cried Antonio excitedly ;


' digging heathen gods out of the ground ! ' Then he added,
dictating to Dolfo, 'of brown Scotch faced-cloth. 32 braccia^
6 fingers, 8 nails.' Then, having folded the measured piece,
he threw it into its place, and raising his finger with the
gesture of a menacing prophet, in imitation of Fra Giro-
lamo Savonarola, he cried, ' Gladius Dei super terram cito
et velociter ! In the island of Patmos San Giovanni had
a vision : he saw the angel lay hold on the dragon, that old
serpent, which is the Devil, and bind him a thousand years,
and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and
set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no
more till the thousand years should be fulfilled. To-day
Satan has been released from his prison ; to-day the thousand
years are at an end ; the false gods, forerunners and followers
of Antichrist, are creeping forth from under the seal of the
angel back into the world for the temptation of men ! Woe
to those who live on the earth or on the sea ! — Of thin, yellow,
Brabant cloth, 17 braccia, 4 fingers, 9 nails !'

'How think you, then, Antonio?' asked Giovanni, with
alarmed and eager interest ; ' all these signs bear witness '

' Ay, ay ! You see, the hour has come. Not alone are
they digging up the old gods, but they are creating new ones
in their likeness. Painters and sculptors alike weary them-
selves in the service of Moloch — that is, the Devil. They
turn the House of God into the temple of Satan ; in the
sacred pictures, under the guise of martyrs and saints, they
paint the gods of uncleanness, and to these the people pray ;
in place of John the Baptist they give us Bacchus ; for the
holy Mother of God we get the shameless Venus. The
pictures should be burned with fire, and their ashes strewn
upon the wind ! '

Suppressed fire flashed from the dull, dark eyes of the
zealous clerk ; and Giovanni, not daring a retort, held his
peace. His delicate, childlike eyebrows contracted under
the stress of thought. At last, however, he said : ' Antonio,
they tell me Messer Leonardo, your kinsman, takes scholars
into his painting-room. I have long wished '

Antonio frowned and interrupted him. ' If you would lose
your soul, Giovanni, then go to Messer Leonardo ! '

' What ? Why ? '

1 Braccio, a measure considerably less than a metre, still in use in Florence.


'Though he be my near kinsman, and though he have
lived twenty years longer than I, nevertheless in the Scripture
it is written : " From an heretic, after the first and second
admonition, turn thou away." Leonardo is a heretic and an
infidel. His mind is darkened by Satanic pride; he seeks
to penetrate into the mysteries of nature by steeping himself
in mathematics and black magic' Then, raising his eyes
to heaven, he repeated from Savonarola's latest discourse :
' " The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. We
know them, these learned men ; they all go to the house of
the devil."'

'And have you heard, Antonio,' persisted Giovanni, still
shyly, ' that Messer Leonardo is here in Florence ? He has
even now arrived from Milan.'

' For what purpose ? '

' The duke has sent him to buy, if possible, pictures from
the galleries of the late Lorenzo the Magnificent.'

' Well, if he be here, then here he is. 'Tis of no moment
to me,' said Antonio, turning away ; and he proceeded to
measure a length of green cloth with his canna.

From the church, bells rang out the call to vespers, and
Dolfo stretched himself and clapped-to the ledger with an
air of relief; for this day work was over, and the shops and
the warehouses were shutting.

Giovanni stepped into the street. A narrow strip of grey
sky, faintly tinged with the roseate of evening, showed
between the humid roofs : a fine rain fell through the
windless air. Suddenly from a window in a neighbouring
alley was wafted a song : —

' O vaghe montanine pastorelle
Donde venite si leggiadre e belle ? '

(O shepherd-girls so fair,
Say from what mountain air
Light-footed have ye strayed?)

The voice was resonant and young : from the measured beat
of the treadle Giovanni guessed at a loom, and at a girl
singing as she threw the shuttle. He listened with vague
enjoyment, and remembered that the spring had come, and
felt his heart swelling with strange emotions of tenderness
and melancholy.

'Nanna! Nanna ! Where hast thou got to, thou little
devil ? What hath happened to thine ears ? Haste thee !


The vermicelli grows cold.' After which there was a swift
clapping of wooden pattens across the floor, and then silence.
Giovanni stood long, his eyes on the window, the gay
song echoing in his ears like the far-off beatings of some
shepherd's pipe —

' O vaghe montanine pastorelle '

Then sighing softly to himself he entered the house of the
Master of the Calimala, and mounting the winding stair, with
its worm-eaten banisters, he presented himself in the great
room, which served as a library, and in which, bending over
a desk, was Giorgio Merula, the historiographer of the Court
of the Duke of Milan.


Merula had come to Florence on a mission from his lord,
to purchase rare books from the library of the great Lorenzo.
He was lodged in the house of Buonaccorsi, as great an
enthusiast as himself for the learning and the arts of the
ancients. Journeying to Florence he had fallen into an
acquaintance with Giovanni Boltrafifio at a road-side inn, and
under the pretext that he required an amanuensis, he had
brought him in his company to Messer Cipriano's house.

When Boltraffio entered, Merula was in the act of examining
with reverent attention a much-worn volume, which had the
appearance of a Missal or a Psaltery. He gingerly passed a
damp sponge over the parchment — parchment of the most
delicate kind, made from the skin of a still-born lamb ; here
and there he rubbed it with pumice-stone, smoothed it with
the blade of a knife and with a polisher; then holding it up
to the light, studied it afresh.

' Dainty darlings ! ' he murmured, sucking in his lips with
delight ; ' come forth to the light of heaven ! Ah, how many
and how beautiful ye are ! '

He raised his bald head from his work and showed a
bloated, red-nosed countenance, mobile brows, and eyes
small and colourless, but brimming with vivacity ; poured
wine into a cup beside him on the window-sill, drank it,
coughed, and was returning to his work when he caught sight
of Giovanni.

' Ha, little monk ! ' he called out merrily. ' You have been
lacking to me : " Where can my little monk be gone? " quoth


I. " Fallen in love, of a surety, with one of the fair maids of
Florence." Fair enough, I warrant you, and falling in love
is no sin. Nor have I been wasting my time neither. You
never have seen such a pretty piece in your life. Will you
have me show her to you ? Not I ; for you'll be whispering
the thing to the four winds ! And to think I bought her for
a song from a Hebrew rag-vendor ! Well, well, I suppose I
must show you ; you only ! ' And beckoning mysteriously
he whispered, ' Come here with you — closer — here ! '

And he pointed to a page closely covered with the angular
characters of ecclesiastical writing : praises of the Virgin,
psalms, prayers, interspersed with huge musical notation.
Then he opened the book at another page, and raised it to
the light on a level with Giovanni's eyes ; the boy noticed
that where Merula had scraped away the ecclesiastical
writing there emerged other characters — barely distinguish-
able — not letters, but the ghosts of letters, pallid, attenuated,
faint, still lingering impressed upon the parchment.

' See you ? See you ? ' cried Merula, triumphantly ; " is it
not a darling? Did I not tell you, little brother, 'twas a
pretty piece ! '

' But what is it?' asked Giovanni, astounded.

' That 's what I can't yet tell you. Fragments of an antique
anthology ; new riches it may be of the Hellenic muse. And,
perchance, but for me they would never have come out into
God's light — would have been entombed to the end of time
under antiphons and psalms of penitence ! ' And Merula
explained to his pupil how some Middle Age, monkish copyist,
wishing to use the precious parchment, had expunged, as he
thought, the old Pagan writing, and scrawled his pieties over
it. As the old man spoke, the sun filled the room with its
slowly dying, evening red ; in this last radiance the shade of
the antique letters, the ghost of the ancient writing, showed
itself with redoubled clearness.

' You see ! you see ! ' cried Merula in an ecstasy, ' The
dead are rising from their age-long sepulchres ! It is a hymn
to the Olympian gods ! Already you can decipher the first
lines ! '

And translating from the Greek, he read : —

' Glory to the gentle, the richly-crowned Dionysus,
Glory to thee, far-darting Phoebus, silver-bowed, terrible,
God of the flowing curls, slayer of the sons of Niobe- — '


And here is a hymn to that Venus, of whom you, Uttle monk,
have such a mighty dread : —

' Glory to thee, golden-limbed mother, Aphrodite,
Delight of the gods and of mortals.'

But here the verses broke off, hidden under the pious over-
writing. Giovanni lowered the book, and at once the traces
of the old Greek letters grew faint and confused, sinking into
the yellow smoothness of the parchment. Nothing was visible
but the clear, black, greasy characters of the monkish scribe,
the penitential psalm, and the huge square notes for the
chant : —

' Give ear to my prayer, O God, and hide not thyself from my suppli-
cation. My heart is sore pained within me, and the terrors of death are
fallen upon me.'

The roseate reflection faded away, and darkness filled the
room. Merula poured wine from the earthen pitcher, drank,
and offered it to his companion.

' To my health, boy. Vlmwi super omnia boniwi dili-
gamus! You refuse? Well, well ! as you will. I will drink
for you. But what is ill with you, little monk? You are as
green as if you were drowning. Has that bigot of an Antonio
been scaring you with his prophesyings? Spit on them,
Giovanni, spit on them ! A pox upon all these croakings
of ill-voiced ravens ! Confess now, you have been with

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