Samuel Butler.

Selections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal online

. (page 21 of 23)
Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 21 of 23)
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industrious in my limited area; but the standing drinks and inquiring was
being as industrious as the circumstances would allow.

To return, universities and academies are an obstacle to the finding of
doors in later life; partly because they push their young men too fast
through doorways that the universities have provided, and so discourage
the habit of being on the look-out for others; and partly because they do
not take pains enough to make sure that their doors are _bona fide_ ones.
If, to change the metaphor, an academy has taken a bad shilling, it is
seldom very scrupulous about trying to pass it on. It will stick to it
that the shilling is a good one as long as the police will let it. I was
very happy at Cambridge; when I left it I thought I never again could be
so happy anywhere else; I shall ever retain a most kindly recollection
both of Cambridge and of the school where I passed my boyhood; but I
feel, as I think most others must in middle life, that I have spent as
much of my maturer years in unlearning as in learning.

The proper course is for a boy to begin the practical business of life
many years earlier than he now commonly does. He should begin at the
very bottom of a profession; if possible of one which his family has
pursued before him - for the professions will assuredly one day become
hereditary. The ideal railway director will have begun at fourteen as a
railway porter. He need not be a porter for more than a week or ten
days, any more than he need have been a tadpole more than a short time;
but he should take a turn in practice, though briefly, at each of the
lower branches in the profession. The painter should do just the same.
He should begin by setting his employer's palette and cleaning his
brushes. As for the good side of universities, the proper preservative
of this is to be found in the club.

If, then, we are to have a renaissance of art, there must be a complete
standing aloof from the academic system. That system has had time
enough. Where and who are its men? Can it point to one painter who can
hold his own with the men of, say, from 1450 to 1550? Academies will
bring out men who can paint hair very like hair, and eyes very like eyes,
but this is not enough. This is grammar and deportment; we want wit and
a kindly nature, and these cannot be got from academies. As far as mere
_technique_ is concerned, almost every one now can paint as well as is in
the least desirable. The same _mutatis mutandis_ holds good with writing
as with painting. We want less word-painting and fine phrases, and more
observation at first-hand. Let us have a periodical illustrated by
people who cannot draw, and written by people who cannot write (perhaps,
however, after all, we have some), but who look and think for themselves,
and express themselves just as they please, - and this we certainly have
not. Every contributor should be at once turned out if he or she is
generally believed to have tried to do something which he or she did not
care about trying to do, and anything should be admitted which is the
outcome of a genuine liking. People are always good company when they
are doing what they really enjoy. A cat is good company when it is
purring, or a dog when it is wagging its tail.

The sketching-clubs up and down the country might form the nucleus of
such a society, provided all professional men were rigorously excluded.
As for the old masters, the better plan would be never even to look at
one of them, and to consign Raffaelle, along with Plato, Marcus Aurelius
Antoninus, Dante, Goethe, and two others, neither of them Englishmen, to
limbo, as the Seven Humbugs of Christendom.

While we are about it, let us leave off talking about "art for art's
sake." Who is art, that it should have a sake? A work of art should be
produced for the pleasure it gives the producer, and the pleasure he
thinks it will give to a few of whom he is fond; but neither money nor
people whom he does not know personally should be thought of. Of course
such a society as I have proposed would not remain incorrupt long.
"Everything that grows, holds in perfection but a little moment." The
members would try to imitate professional men in spite of their rules,
or, if they escaped this and after a while got to paint well, they would
become dogmatic, and a rebellion against their authority would be as
necessary ere long as it was against that of their predecessors: but the
balance on the whole would be to the good.

Professional men should be excluded, if for no other reason yet for this,
that they know too much for the beginner to be _en rapport_ with them. It
is the beginner who can help the beginner, as it is the child who is the
most instructive companion for another child. The beginner can
understand the beginner, but the cross between him and the proficient
performer is too wide for fertility. It savours of impatience, and is in
flat contradiction to the first principles of biology. It does a
beginner positive harm to look at the masterpieces of the great
executionists, such as Rembrandt or Turner.

If one is climbing a very high mountain which will tax all one's
strength, nothing fatigues so much as casting upward glances to the top;
nothing encourages so much as casting downward glances. The top seems
never to draw nearer; the parts that we have passed retreat rapidly. Let
a water-colour student go and see the drawing by Turner in the basement
of our National Gallery, dated 1787. This is the sort of thing for him,
not to copy, but to look at for a minute or two now and again. It will
show him nothing about painting, but it may serve to teach him not to
overtax his strength, and will prove to him that the greatest masters in
painting, as in everything else, begin by doing work which is no way
superior to that of their neighbours. A collection of the earliest known
works of the greatest men would be much more useful to the student than
any number of their maturer works, for it would show him that he need not
worry himself because his work does not look clever, or as silly people
say, "show power."

The secrets of success are affection for the pursuit chosen, a flat
refusal to be hurried or to pass anything as understood which is not
understood, and an obstinacy of character which shall make the student's
friends find it less trouble to let him have his own way than to bend him
into theirs. Our schools and academies or universities are covertly but
essentially radical institutions, and abhorrent to the genius of
Conservatism. Their sin is the true radical sin of being in too great a
hurry, and the natural result has followed, they waste far more time than
they save. But it must be remembered that this proposition like every
other wants tempering with a slight infusion of its direct opposite.

I said in an early part of this book that the best test to know whether
or no one likes a picture is to ask oneself whether one would like to
look at it if one was quite sure one was alone. The best test for a
painter as to whether he likes painting his picture is to ask himself
whether he should like to paint it if he was quite sure that no one
except himself, and the few of whom he was very fond, would ever see it.
If he can answer this question in the affirmative, he is all right; if he
cannot, he is all wrong.

I must reserve other remarks upon this subject for another occasion.


The morning after our arrival at Biella, we took the daily diligence for
Oropa, leaving Biella at eight o'clock. Before we were clear of the town
we could see the long line of the hospice, and the chapels dotted about
near it, high up in a valley at some distance off; presently we were
shown another fine building some eight or nine miles away, which we were
told was the sanctuary of Graglia. About this time the pictures and
statuettes of the Madonna began to change their hue and to become
black - for the sacred image of Oropa being black, all the Madonnas in her
immediate neighbourhood are of the same complexion. Underneath some of
them is written, "Nigra sum sed sum formosa," which, as a rule, was more
true as regards the first epithet than the second.

It was not market-day, but streams of people were coming to the town.
Many of them were pilgrims returning from the sanctuary, but more were
bringing the produce of their farms or the work of their hands for sale.
We had to face a steady stream of chairs, which were coming to town in
baskets upon women's heads. Each basket contained twelve chairs, though
whether it is correct to say that the basket contained the chairs - when
the chairs were all, so to say, froth running over the top of the
basket - is a point I cannot settle. Certainly we had never seen anything
like so many chairs before, and felt almost as though we had surprised
nature in the laboratory wherefrom she turns out the chair-supply of the
world. The road continued through a succession of villages almost
running into one another for a long way after Biella was passed, but
everywhere we noticed the same air of busy thriving industry which we had
seen in Biella itself. We noted also that a preponderance of the people
had light hair, while that of the children was frequently nearly white,
as though the infusion of German blood was here stronger even than usual.
Though so thickly peopled, the country was of great beauty. Near at hand
were the most exquisite pastures close shaven after their second mowing,
gay with autumnal crocuses, and shaded with stately chestnuts; beyond
were rugged mountains, in a combe on one of which we saw Oropa itself now
gradually nearing; behind, and below, many villages, with vineyards and
terraces cultivated to the highest perfection; farther on, Biella already
distant, and beyond this a "big stare," as an American might say, over
the plains of Lombardy from Turin to Milan, with the Apennines from Genoa
to Bologna hemming the horizon. On the road immediately before us, we
still faced the same steady stream of chairs flowing ever Biella-ward.

After a couple of hours the houses became more rare; we got above the
sources of the chair-stream; bits of rough rock began to jut out from the
pasture; here and there the rhododendron began to shew itself by the
roadside; the chestnuts left off along a line as level as though cut with
a knife; stone-roofed _cascine_ began to abound, with goats and cattle
feeding near them; the booths of the religious trinket-mongers increased;
the blind, halt, and maimed became more importunate, and the
foot-passengers were more entirely composed of those whose object was, or
had been, a visit to the sanctuary itself. The numbers of these
pilgrims - generally in their Sunday's best, and often comprising the
greater part of a family - were so great, though there was no special
festa, as to testify to the popularity of the institution. They
generally walked barefoot, and carried their shoes and stockings; their
baggage consisted of a few spare clothes, a little food, and a pot or pan
or two to cook with. Many of them looked very tired, and had evidently
tramped from long distances - indeed, we saw costumes belonging to valleys
which could not be less than two or three days distant. They were almost
invariably quiet, respectable, and decently clad, sometimes a little
merry, but never noisy, and none of them tipsy. As we travelled along
the road, we must have fallen in with several hundreds of these pilgrims
coming and going; nor is this likely to be an extravagant estimate,
seeing that the hospice can make up more than five thousand beds. By
eleven we were at the sanctuary itself.

Fancy a quiet upland valley, the floor of which is about the same height
as the top of Snowdon, shut in by lofty mountains upon three sides, while
on the fourth the eye wanders at will over the plains below. Fancy
finding a level space in such a valley watered by a beautiful mountain
stream, and nearly filled by a pile of collegiate buildings, not less
important than those, we will say, of Trinity College, Cambridge. True,
Oropa is not in the least like Trinity, except that one of its courts is
large, grassy, has a chapel and a fountain in it, and rooms all round it;
but I do not know how better to give a rough description of Oropa than by
comparing it with one of our largest English colleges.

The buildings consist of two main courts. The first comprises a couple
of modern wings, connected by the magnificent facade of what is now the
second or inner court. This facade dates from about the middle of the
seventeenth century; its lowest storey is formed by an open colonnade,
and the whole stands upon a raised terrace from which a noble flight of
steps descends into the outer court.

Ascending the steps and passing under the colonnade, we find ourselves in
the second or inner court, which is a complete quadrangle, and is, so at
least we were told, of rather older date than the facade. This is the
quadrangle which gives its collegiate character to Oropa. It is
surrounded by cloisters on three sides, on to which the rooms in which
the pilgrims are lodged open - those at least that are on the
ground-floor, but there are three storeys. The chapel, which was
dedicated in the year 1600, juts out into the court upon the north-east
side. On the north-west and south-west sides are entrances through which
one may pass to the open country. The grass at the time of our visit was
for the most part covered with sheets spread out to dry. They looked
very nice, and, dried on such grass, and in such an air, they must be
delicious to sleep on. There is, indeed, rather an appearance as though
it were a perpetual washing-day at Oropa, but this is not to be wondered
at considering the numbers of comers and goers; besides, people in Italy
do not make so much fuss about trifles as we do. If they want to wash
their sheets and dry them, they do not send them to Ealing, but lay them
out in the first place that comes handy, and nobody's bones are broken.

On the east side of the main block of buildings there is a grassy slope
adorned with chapels that contain figures illustrating scenes in the
history of the Virgin. These figures are of terra-cotta, for the most
part life-size, and painted up to nature. In some cases, if I remember
rightly, they have hemp or flax for hair, as at Varallo, and throughout
realism is aimed at as far as possible, not only in the figures, but in
the accessories. We have very little of the same kind in England. In
the Tower of London there is an effigy of Queen Elizabeth going to the
city to give thanks for the defeat of the Spanish Armada. This looks as
if it might have been the work of some one of the Valsesian sculptors.
There are also the figures that strike the quarters of Sir John Bennett's
city clock in Cheapside. The automatic movements of these last-named
figures would have struck the originators of the Varallo chapels with
envy. They aimed at realism so closely that they would assuredly have
had recourse to clockwork in some one or two of their chapels; I cannot
doubt, for example, that they would have eagerly welcomed the idea of
making the cock crow to Peter by a cuckoo-clock arrangement, if it had
been presented to them. This opens up the whole question of realism
_versus_ conventionalism in art - a subject much too large to be treated

As I have said, the founders of these Italian chapels aimed at realism.
Each chapel was intended as an illustration, and the desire was to bring
the whole scene more vividly before the faithful by combining the
picture, the statue, and the effect of a scene upon the stage in a single
work of art. The attempt would be an ambitious one though made once only
in a neighbourhood, but in most of the places in North Italy where
anything of the kind has been done, the people have not been content with
a single illustration; it has been their scheme to take a mountain as
though it had been a book or wall and cover it with illustrations. In
some cases - as at Orta, whose Sacro Monte is perhaps the most beautiful
of all as regards the site itself - the failure is complete, but in some
of the chapels at Varese and in many of those at Varallo, great works
have been produced which have not yet attracted as much attention as they
deserve. It may be doubted, indeed, whether there is a more remarkable
work of art in North Italy than the crucifixion chapel at Varallo, where
the twenty-five statues, as well as the frescoes behind them, are (with
the exception of the figure of Christ, which has been removed) by
Gaudenzio Ferrari. It is to be wished that some one of these
chapels - both chapel and sculptures - were reproduced at South Kensington.

Varallo, which is undoubtedly the most interesting sanctuary in North
Italy, has forty-four of these illustrative chapels; Varese, fifteen;
Orta, eighteen; and Oropa, seventeen. No one is allowed to enter them,
except when repairs are needed; but when these are going on, as is
constantly the case, it is curious to look through the grating into the
somewhat darkened interior, and to see a living figure or two among the
statues; a little motion on the part of a single figure seems to
communicate itself to the rest and make them all more animated. If the
living figure does not move much, it is easy at first to mistake it for a
terra-cotta one. At Orta, some years since, looking one evening into a
chapel when the light was fading, I was surprised to see a saint whom I
had not seen before; he had no glory except what shone from a very red
nose; he was smoking a short pipe, and was painting the Virgin Mary's
face. The touch was a finishing one, put on with deliberation, slowly,
so that it was two or three seconds before I discovered that the
interloper was no saint.

The figures in the chapels at Oropa are not as good as the best of those
at Varallo, but some of them are very nice notwithstanding. We liked the
seventh chapel the best - the one which illustrates the sojourn of the
Virgin Mary in the Temple. It contains forty-four figures, and
represents the Virgin on the point of completing her education as head
girl at a high-toned academy for young gentlewomen. All the young ladies
are at work making mitres for the bishop, or working slippers in Berlin
wool for the new curate, but the Virgin sits on a dais above the others
on the same platform with the venerable lady-principal, who is having
passages read out to her from some standard Hebrew writer. The statues
are the work of a local sculptor, named Aureggio, who lived at the end of
the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century.

The highest chapel must be a couple of hundred feet above the main
buildings, and from near it there is an excellent bird's-eye view of the
sanctuary and the small plain behind; descending on to this last, we
entered the quadrangle from the north-west side, and visited the chapel
in which the sacred image of the Madonna is contained. We did not see
the image itself, which is only exposed to public view on great
occasions. It is believed to have been carved by St. Luke the
Evangelist. It is said that at one time there was actually an
inscription on the image in Greek characters, of which the translation
is, "Eusebius. A token of respect and affection from his sincere friend,
Luke;" but this being written in chalk or pencil only, has been worn off,
and is known by tradition only. I must ask the reader to content himself
with the following account of it which I take from Marocco's work upon
Oropa: -

"That this statue of the Virgin is indeed by St. Luke is attested by
St. Eusebius, a man of eminent piety, and no less enlightened than
truthful, and the store which he set by it is proved by his shrinking
from no discomforts in his carriage of it from a distant country, and
by his anxiety to put it in a place of great security. His desire,
indeed, was to keep it in the spot which was most near and dear to
him, so that he might extract from it the higher incitement to
devotion, and more sensible comfort in the midst of his austerities
and apostolic labours.

"This truth is further confirmed by the quality of the wood from which
the statue is carved, which is commonly believed to be cedar; by the
Eastern character of the work; by the resemblance both of the
lineament and the colour to those of other statues by St. Luke; by the
tradition of the neighbourhood, which extends in an unbroken and well-
assured line to the time of St. Eusebius himself; by the miracles that
have been worked here by its presence, and elsewhere by its
invocation, or even by indirect contact with it; by the miracles,
lastly, which are inherent in the image itself, {311} and which endure
to this day, such as is its immunity from all worm and from the decay
which would naturally have occurred in it through time and damp - more
especially in the feet, through the rubbing of religious objects
against them.

* * * * *

"The authenticity of this image is so certainly and clearly
established, that all supposition to the contrary becomes inexplicable
and absurd. Such, for example, is a hypothesis that it should not be
attributed to the Evangelist, but to another Luke, also called
'Saint,' and a Florentine by birth. This painter lived in the
eleventh century - that is to say, about seven centuries after the
image of Oropa had been known and venerated! This is indeed an

"Other difficulties drawn either from the ancient discipline of the
Church or from St. Luke the Evangelist's profession, which was that of
a physician, vanish at once when it is borne in mind - firstly, that
the cult of holy images, and especially of that of the most blessed
Virgin, is of extreme antiquity in the Church, and of apostolic
origin, as is proved by ecclesiastical writers and monuments found in
the catacombs which date, as far back as the first century (see among
other authorities, Nicolas, La Vergine vivente nella Chiesa, lib. iii.
cap. iii. section 2); secondly, that as the medical profession does
not exclude that of artists, St. Luke may have been both artist and
physician; that he did actually handle both the brush and the scalpel
is established by respectable and very old traditions, to say nothing
of other arguments which can be found in impartial and learned writers
upon such matters."

I will only give one more extract. It runs: -

"In 1855 a celebrated Roman portrait-painter, after having carefully
inspected the image of the Virgin Mary at Oropa, declared it to be
certainly a work of the first century of our era." {313}

I once saw a common cheap china copy of this Madonna announced as to be
given away with two pounds of tea, in a shop near Hatton Garden.

The church in which the sacred image is kept is interesting from the
pilgrims who at all times frequent it, and from the collection of votive
pictures which adorn its walls. Except the votive pictures and the
pilgrims the church contains little of interest, and I will pass on to
the constitution and objects of the establishment.

The objects are - 1. Gratuitous lodging to all comers for a space of from
three to nine days as the rector may think fit. 2. A school. 3. Help to
the sick and poor. It is governed by a president and six members, who
form a committee. Four members are chosen by the communal council, and
two by the cathedral chapter of Biella. At the hospice itself there
reside a director, with his assistant, a surveyor to keep the fabric in
repair, a rector or dean with six priests, called _cappellani_, and a
medical man. "The government of the laundry," so runs the statute on
this head, "and analogous domestic services are entrusted to a competent
number of ladies of sound constitution and good conduct, who live
together in the hospice under the direction of an inspectress, and are
called daughters of Oropa."

The bye-laws of the establishment are conceived in a kindly, genial
spirit, which in great measure accounts for its unmistakable popularity.
We understood that the poorer visitors, as a general rule, avail
themselves of the gratuitous lodging, without making any present when
they leave, but in spite of this it is quite clear that they are wanted
to come, and come they accordingly do. It is sometimes difficult to lay
one's hands upon the exact passages which convey an impression, but as we

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 21 of 23)