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Title: Euphorion - Being Studies of the Antique and the Mediaeval in the - Renaissance - Vol. I
Author: Lee, Vernon, 1856-1935
Language: English
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_Author of "Studies of the 18th Century in Italy," "Belcaro" etc._


                WALTER PATER,


The Sacrifice
The Italy of the Elizabethan Dramatists
The Out-Door Poetry
Symmetria Prisca


     _Faustus is therefore a parable of the impotent yearnings of the
     Middle Ages--its passionate aspiration, its conscience-stricken
     desire, its fettered curiosity amid the tramping limits of
     imperfect knowledge and irrational dogmatism. The indestructible
     beauty of Greek art,--whereof Helen was an emblem, became, through
     the discovery of classic poetry and sculpture, the possession of
     the modern world. Mediævalism took this Helen to wife, and their
     offspring, the Euphorion of Goethe's drama, is the spirit of the
     modern world._--J.A. Symonds, "Renaissance In Italy," vol. ii. p.

Euphorion is the name given by Goethe to the marvellous child born of
the mystic marriage of Faust and Helena. Who Faust is, and who Helena,
we all know. Faust, of whom no man can remember the youth or childhood,
seems to have come into the world by some evil spell, already old and
with the faintness of body and of mind which are the heritage of age;
and every additional year of mysterious study and abortive effort has
made him more vacillating of step and uncertain of sight, but only more
hungry of soul. Postponed and repressed by reclusion from the world, and
desperate tension over insoluble problems; diverted into the channels of
mere thought and vision; there boils within him the energy, the passion,
of retarded youth: its appetites and curiosities, which, cramped by the
intolerant will, and foiled by many a sudden palsy of limb and mind,
torment him with mad visions of unreal worlds, mock him with dreams of
superhuman powers, from which he awakes in impotent and apathetic
anguish. But these often-withstood and often-baffled cravings are not
those merely of scholar or wizard, they are those of soldier and poet
and monk, of the mere man: lawless desires which he seeks to divert, but
fails, from the things of the flesh and of the world to the things of
the reason; supersensuous desires for the beautiful and intangible,
which he strives to crush, but in vain, with the cynical scepticism of
science, which derides the things it cannot grasp. In this strange
Faustus, made up of so many and conflicting instincts; in this old man
with ever-budding and ever-nipped feelings of youthfulness, muddling the
hard-won secrets of nature in search after impossibilities; in him so
all-sided, and yet so wilfully narrowed, so restlessly active, yet so
often palsied and apathetic; in this Faustus, who has laboured so much
and succeeded in so little, feeling himself at the end, when he has
summed up all his studies, as foolish as before--which of us has not
learned to recognize the impersonated Middle Ages? And Helena, we know
her also, she is the spirit of Antiquity. Personified, but we dare
scarcely say, embodied; for she is a ghost raised by the spells of
Faustus, a simulacrum of a thing long dead; yet with such continuing
semblance of life, nay, with all life's real powers, that she seems the
real, vital, living one, and Faustus yonder, thing as he is of the
present, little better than a spectre. Yet Helena has been ages before
Faust ever was; nay, by an awful mystery like those which involve the
birth of Pagan gods, she whom he has evoked to be the mother of his only
son has given, centuries before, somewhat of her life to make this
self-same Faust. A strange mystery of Fate's necromancy this, and with
strange anomalies. For opposite this living, decrepit Faust, Helena, the
long dead, is young; and she is all that which Faust is not. Knowing
much less than he, who has plunged his thoughts like his scalpel into
all the mysteries of life and death, she yet knows much more, can tell
him of the objects and aims of men and things; nay, with little more
than the unconscious faithfulness to instinct of the clean-limbed,
placid brute, she can give peace to his tormented conscience; and, while
he has suffered and struggled and lashed himself for every seeming
baseness of desire, and loathed himself for every imagined microscopic
soiling, she has walked through good and evil, letting the vileness of
sin trickle off her unhidden soul, so quietly and majestically that all
thought of evil vanishes; and the self-tormenting wretch, with macerated
flesh hidden beneath the heavy garments of mysticism and philosophy,
suddenly feels, in the presence of her unabashed nakedness, that he,
like herself, is chaste.

Such are the parents, Faustus and Helena; we know them; but who is this
son Euphorion? To me it seems as if there could be but one answer--the
Renaissance. Goethe indeed has told us (though, with his rejuvenation of
Faustus, unknown to the old German legend and to our Marlowe, in how
bungling a manner!) the tale of that mystic marriage; but Goethe could
not tell us rightly, even had he attempted, the real name of its
offspring. For even so short a time ago, the Middle Ages were only
beginning to be more than a mere historical expression, Antiquity was
being only then critically discovered; and the Renaissance, but vaguely
seen and quite unformulated by the first men, Gibbon and Roscoe, who
perceived it at all, was still virtually unknown. To Goethe, therefore,
it might easily have seemed as if the antique Helena had only just been
evoked, and as if of her union with the worn-out century of his birth, a
real Euphorion, the age in which ourselves are living, might have been
born. But, at the distance of additional time, and from the undreamed-of
height upon which recent historical science has enabled us to stand, we
can easily see that in this he would have been mistaken. Not only is our
modern culture no child of Faustus and Helena, but it is the complex
descendant, strangely featured by atavism from various sides, of many
and various civilizations; and the eighteenth century, so far from being
a Faustus evoking as his bride the long dead Helen of Antiquity, was in
itself a curiously varied grandchild or great-grandchild of such a
marriage, its every moral feature, its every intellectual movement
proclaiming how much of its being was inherited from Antiquity. No
allegory, I well know, and least of all no historical allegory, can ever
be strained to fit quite tight--the lives of individuals and those of
centuries, their modes of intermixture, genesis, and inheritance are far
different; but if an allegory is to possess any meaning at all, we must
surely apply it wherever it will fit most easily and completely; and the
beautiful allegory prepared by the tradition of the sixteenth century
for the elaborating genius of Goethe, can have a real meaning only if we
explain Faust as representing the Middle Ages, Helena as Antiquity, and
Euphorion as that child of the Middle Ages, taking life and reality from
them, but born of and curiously nurtured by the spirit of Antiquity, to
which significant accident has given the name of Renaissance.

After Euphorion I have therefore christened this book; and this not from
any irrational conceit of knowing more (when I am fully aware that I
know infinitely less) than other writers about the life and character of
this wonderful child of Helena and Faustus, but merely because it is
more particularly as the offspring of this miraculous marriage, and with
reference to the harmonies and anomalies which therefrom resulted, that
Euphorion has exercised my thoughts.

The Renaissance has interested and interests me, not merely for what it
is, but even more for what it sprang from, and for the manner in which
the many things inherited from both Middle Ages and Renaissance, the
tendencies and necessities inherent in every special civilization, acted
and reacted upon each other, united in concord or antagonism; forming,
like the gases of the chemist, new things, sometimes like and sometimes
unlike themselves and each other; producing now some unknown substance
of excellence and utility, at other times some baneful element, known
but too well elsewhere, but unexpected here. But not the watching of the
often tragic meeting of these great fatalities of inherited spirit and
habit only: for equally fascinating almost has been the watching of the
elaboration by this double-natured period of things of little weight,
mere trifles of artistic material bequeathed to it by one or by the
other of its spiritual parents. The charm for me--a charm sometimes
pleasurable, but sometimes also painful, like the imperious necessity
which we sometimes feel to see again and examine, seemingly uselessly,
some horrible evil--the charm, I mean the involuntary compulsion of
attention, has often been as great in following the vicissitudes of a
mere artistic item, like the Carolingian stories or the bucolic element,
as it has been in looking on at the dissolution of moral and social
elements. And in this, that I have tried to understand only where my
curiosity was awakened, tried to reconstruct only where my fancy was
taken; in short, studied of this Renaissance civilization only as much
or as little as I cared, depends all the incompleteness and irrelevancy
and unsatisfactoriness of this book, and depends also whatever addition
to knowledge or pleasure it may afford; Were I desirous of giving a
complete, clear notion of the very complex civilization of the
Renaissance, a kind of encyclopædic atlas of that period, where (by a
double power which history alone possesses) you could see at once the
whole extent and shape of this historical territory, and at the same
time, with all its bosses of mountain and furrows of valley, the exact
composition of all its various earths and waters, the exact actual
colour and shape of all its different vegetations, not to speak of its
big towns and dotting villages;--were I desirous of doing this, I should
not merely be attempting a work completely beyond my faculties, but a
work moreover already carried out with all the perfection due to
specially adapted gifts, to infinite patience and ingenuity,
occasionally amounting almost to genius. Such is not at all within my
wishes, as it assuredly would be totally without my powers.

But besides such marvels of historic mapping as I have described, where
every one can find at a glance whatever he may be looking for, and get
the whole topography, geological and botanical, of an historic tract at
his fingers' ends, there are yet other kinds of work which may be done.
For a period in history is like a more or less extended real landscape:
it has, if you will, actual, chemically defined colours in this and
that, if you consider this and that separate and unaffected by any kind
of visual medium; and measurable distances also between this point and
the other, if you look down upon it as from a balloon. But, like a real
landscape, it may also be seen from different points of view, and under
different lights; then, according as you stand, the features of the
scene will group themselves--this ridge will disappear behind that, this
valley will open out before you, that other will be closed. Similarly,
according to the light wherein the landscape is seen, the relative scale
of colours and tints of objects, due to pervading light and to
distances--what painters call the values--will alter: the scene will
possess one or two predominant effects, it will produce also one or, at
most, two or three (in which case co-ordinated) impressions. The art
which deals with impressions, which tries to seize the real relative
values of colours and tints at a given moment, is what you call
new-fangled: its doctrines and works are still subject to the reproach
of charlatanry. Yet it is the only truly realistic art, and it only, by
giving you a thing as it appears at a given moment, gives it you as it
really ever is; all the rest is the result of cunning abstraction, and
representing the scene as it is always, represents it (by striking an
average) as it never is at all. I do not pretend that in questions of
history we can proceed upon the principles of modern landscape painting:
we do not know what were the elevations which made perspective, what
were the effects of light which created scales of tints, in that far
distant country of the past; and it is safer certainly, and doubtless
much more useful, to strike an average, and represent the past as seen
neither from here nor from there, neither in this light nor that, and
let each man imagine his historical perspective and colour value to the
best of his powers. Yet it is nevertheless certain that the past, to the
people who were in it, was not a miraculous map or other marvellous
diagram constructed on the principle of getting at the actual qualities
of things by analysis; that it must have been, to its inhabitants, but a
series of constantly varied perspectives and constantly varied schemes
of colour, according to the position of each individual, and the light
in which that individual viewed it. To attempt to reconstruct those
various perspective-making heights, to rearrange those various
value-determining lights, would be to the last degree disastrous; we
should have valleys where there existed mountains, and brilliant warm
schemes of colour where there may have been all harmonies of pale and
neutral tints. Still the perspective and colour valuation of individual
minds there must have been; and since it is not given to us to reproduce
those of the near spectator in a region which we can never enter, we may
yet sometimes console ourselves for the too melancholy abstractness and
averageness of scientific representations, by painting that distant
historic country as distant indeed, but as its far-off hill ranges and
shimmering plains really appear in their combination of form and colour,
from the height of an individual interest of our own, and beneath the
light of our individual character. We see only very little at a time,
and that little is not what it appeared to the men of the past; but we
see at least, if not the same things, yet in the same manner in which
they saw, as we see from the standpoints of personal interest and in the
light of personal temper. Scientifically we doubtless lose; but is the
past to be treated only scientifically? and can it not give us, and do
we not owe it, something more than a mere understanding of why and how?
Is it a thing so utterly dead as to be fit only for the scalpel and the

Surely not so. The past can give us, and should give us, not merely
ideas, but emotions: healthy pleasure which may make us more light of
spirit, and pain which may make us more earnest of mind; the one, it
seems to me, as necessary for our individual worthiness as is the other.
For to each of us, as we watch the past, as we lie passive and let it
slowly circulate around us, there must come sights which, in their
reality or in their train of associations, and to the mind of each
differently, must gladden as with a sense of beauty, or put us all into
a sullen moral ache. I should hate to be misunderstood in this more,
perhaps, than in anything else in the world. I speak not of any dramatic
emotion, of such egotistic, half-artistic pleasure as some may get from
the alternation of cheerfulness and terror, from the excitement caused
by evil from which we are as safely separated as are those who look on
from the enfuriate bulls in an arena. To such, history, and the history
especially of the Renaissance, has been made to pander up but too much.
The pain I speak of is the pain which must come to every morally
sentient creature with the contemplation of some one of the horrible
tangles of evil, of the still fouler intermeshing of evil with good,
which history brings up ever and anon. Evil which is past, it is true,
but of which the worst evil almost of all, the fact of its having been,
can never be past, must ever remain present; and our trouble and
indignation at which is holy, our pain is healthy: holy and healthy,
because every vibration of such pain as that makes our moral fibre more
sensitive; because every immunity from such sensation deadens our higher
nature: holy and healthy also because, just as no image of pleasurable
things can pass before us without gathering about it other images of
some beauty which have long lain by in each individual mind, so also no
thought of great injustice of man or of accident, of signal whitewashing
of evil or befouling of good, but must, in striking into our soul, put
in motion there the salutary thought of some injustice or lying
legitimation or insidious pollution, smaller indeed perhaps, but perhaps
also nearer to ourselves.

Be not therefore too hard upon me if in what I have written of the
Renaissance, there is too little attempt to make matters scientifically
complete, and too much giving way to personal and perhaps sometimes
irrelevant impressions of pleasure and of pain; if I have followed up
those pleasurable and painful impressions rather more than sought to
discover the exact geography of the historical tract which gave them.
Consider, moreover, that this very cause of deficiency may have been
also the cause of my having succeeded in achieving anything at all.
Personal impression has led me, perhaps, sometimes away from the direct
road; but had it not beckoned me to follow, I should most likely have
simply not stirred. Pleasant impression and painful, as I have said; and
sometimes the painful has been more efficacious than the other. I do not
know whether the interest which I have always taken in the old squabble
of real and ideal has enabled me to make at all clearer the different
characteristics of painting and sculpture in Renaissance portraiture,
the relation of the art of Raphael to the art of Velasquez and the art
of Whistler. I can scarcely judge whether the pleasure which I owe to
the crowding together, the moving about in my fancy, of the heroes and
wizards and hippogriffs of the old tales of Oberon and Ogier; the
association with the knights and ladies of Boiardo and Ariosto, of this
or that figure out of a fresco of Pinturicchio, or a picture by Dosso,
has made it easier or more difficult for me to sum up the history of
mediæval romance in Renaissance Italy; nor whether the recollection of
certain Tuscan farms, the well-known scent of the sun-dried fennel and
mint under the vine-trellis, the droning song of the contadino ploughing
or pruning unseen in the valley, the snatches of peasants' rhymes, the
outlines of peasants' faces--things all these of this our own time, of
yesterday or to-day; whether all this, running in my mind like so many
scribbly illustrations and annotations along the margin of Lorenzo dei
Medici's poems, has made my studies of rustic poetry more clear or more
confused. But this much I know as a certainty, that never should I have
tried to unravel the causes of the Renaissance's horrible anomaly of
improvement and degradation, had not that anomaly returned and returned
to make me wretched with its loathsome mixture of good and evil; its
detestable alternative of endurance of vile solidarities in the souls of
our intellectual forefathers, or of unjust turning away from the men and
the times whose moral degradation paid the price of our moral dignity. I
also have the further certainty of its having been this long-endured
moral sickening at the sight of this moral anomaly, which enabled me to
realize the feelings of such of our nobler Elizabethan playwrights as
sought to epitomize in single tales of horror the strange impressions
left by the accomplished and infamous Italy of their day; and which made
it possible for me to express perhaps some of the trouble which filled
the mind of Webster and of Tourneur merely by expressing the trouble
which filled my own.

The following studies are not samples, fragments at which one tries
one's hand, of some large and methodical scheme of work. They are mere
impressions developed by means of study: not merely currents of thought
and feeling which I have singled out from the multifold life of the
Renaissance; but currents of thought and feeling in myself, which have
found and swept along with them certain items of Renaissance lore. For
the Renaissance has been to me, in the small measure in which it has
been anything, not so much a series of studies as a series of
impressions. I have not mastered the history and literature of the
Renaissance (first-hand or second-hand, perfectly or imperfectly),
abstract and exact, and then sought out the places and things which
could make that abstraction somewhat more concrete in my mind; I have
seen the concrete things, and what I might call the concrete realities
of thought and feeling left behind by the Renaissance, and then tried to
obtain from books some notion of the original shape and manner of
wearing these relics, rags and tatters of a past civilization.

For Italy, beggared and maimed (by her own unthrift, by the rapacity of
others, by the order of Fate) at the beginning of the sixteenth century,
was never able to weave for herself a new, a modern civilization, as did
the nations who had shattered her looms on which such woofs are made,
and carried off her earnings with which such things may be bought; and
she had, accordingly, to go through life in the old garments, still half
mediæval in shape, which had been fashioned for her during the
Renaissance: apparel of the best that could then be made, beautiful and
strong in many ways, so beautiful and strong indeed as to impose on
people for a good long time, and make French, and Germans, and
Spaniards, and English believe (comparing these brilliant tissues with
the homespun they were providing for themselves) that it must be all
brand new, and of the very latest fashion. But the garments left to
Italy by those latest Middle Ages which we call Renaissance, were not
eternal: wear and tear, new occupations, and the rough usage of other
nations, rent them most sorely; their utter neglect by the long
seventeenth century, their hasty patchings up (with bits of odd stuff
and all manner of coloured thread and string, so that a harlequin's
jacket could not look queerer) by the happy-go-lucky practicalness of
the eighteenth century and the Revolution, reduced them thoroughly to
rags; and with these rags of Renaissance civilization, Italy may still
be seen to drape herself. Not perhaps in the great centres, where the
garments of modern civilization, economical, unpicturesque, intended to
be worn but a short time, have been imported from other countries; but
yet in many places. Yes, you may still see those rags of the Renaissance
as plainly as you see the tattered linen fluttering from the twisted
iron hooks (made for the display of precious brocades and carpets on
pageant days) which still remain in the stained whitewash, the seams of
battered bricks of the solid old escutcheoned palaces; see them
sometimes displayed like the worm-eaten squares of discoloured
embroidery which the curiosity dealers take out of their musty oak
presses; and sometimes dragging about mere useless and befouled odds and
ends, like the torn shreds which lie among the decaying kitchen refuse,
the broken tiles and plaster, the nameless filth and ooze which attracts
the flies under every black archway, in every steep bricked lane
descending precipitously between the high old houses. Old palaces,
almost strongholds, and which are still inhabited by those too poor to
pull them down and build some plastered bandbox instead; poems and prose
tales written or told five hundred years ago, edited and re-edited by
printers to whom there come no modern poems or prose tales worth editing
instead; half-pagan, mediæval priest lore, believed in by men and women
who have not been given anything to believe instead; easy-going,
all-permitting fifteenth century scepticism, not yet replaced by the
scientific and socialistic disbelief which is puritanic and
iconoclastic; sly and savage habits of vengeance still doing service
among the lower classes instead of the orderly chicanery of modern
justice;--these are the things, and a hundred others besides, concrete
and spiritual, things too magnificent, too sordid, too irregular, too
nauseous, too beautiful, and, above all, too utterly unpractical and
old-fashioned for our times, which I call the rags of the Renaissance,
and with which Italy still ekes out her scanty apparel of modern
thoughts and things.

It is living among such things, turn by turn delighted by their beauty
and offended by their foulness, that one acquires the habit of spending
a part only of one's intellectual and moral life in the present, and the
rest in the past. Impressions are not derived from description, and
thoughts are not suggested by books. The juxtaposition of concrete
objects invites the making of a theory as the jutting out of two
branches invites the spinning of a spider's web. You find everywhere
your facts without opening a book. The explanation which I have tried to
give of the exact manner in which mediæval art was influenced by the
remains of antiquity, came like a flash during a rainy morning in the
Pisan Campo Santo; the working out and testing of that explanation in
its details was a matter of going from one church or gallery to the
other, a reference or two to Vasari for some date or fact being the only
necessary reading; and should any one at this moment ask me for
substantiation of that theory, instead of opening books I would take
that person to this Sienese Cathedral, and there bid him compare the
griffins and arabesques, the delicate figure and foliage ornaments
carved in wood and marble by the latter Middle Ages, with the griffins
and arabesques, the boldly bossed horsemen, the exquisite fruit garlands
of a certain antique altar stone which the builders of the church used
as a base to a pillar, and which must have been a never-ceasing-object
of study to every draughtsman and stoneworker in Siena.

Nor are such everywhere-scattered facts ready for working into theoretic
shape, the most which Italy still affords to make the study of the
Renaissance an almost involuntary habit. In certain places where only
decay has altered things from what they were four centuries ago,
Perugia, Orvieto, S. Gimignano, in the older quarters of Florence,
Venice, and Verona, but nowhere I think so much as in this city of Siena
(as purely mediæval as the suits of rusted armour which its townsfolk
patch up and bury themselves in during their August pageants), we are
subjected to receive impressions of the past so startlingly lifelike as
to get quite interwoven with our impressions of the present; and from
that moment the past must share, in a measure, some of the everyday
thoughts which we give to the present. In such a city as this, the
sudden withdrawal, by sacristan or beggar-crone, of the curtain from
before an altar-piece is many a time much more than the mere displaying
of a picture: it is the sudden bringing us face to face with the real
life of the Renaissance. We have ourselves, perhaps not an hour before,
sauntered through squares and dawdled beneath porticos like those which
we see filled with the red-robed and plumed citizens and patricians, the
Jews and ruffians whom Pinturicchio's parti-coloured men-at-arms are
dispersing to make room for the followers of Æneas Sylvius; or clambered
up rough lanes, hedged in between oak woods and oliveyards, which we
might almost swear were the very ones through which are winding Sodoma's
cavalcades of gallantly dressed gentlemen, with their hawks and hounds,
and negro jesters and apes and beautiful pages, cantering along on
shortnecked little horses with silver bits and scarlet trappings, on the
pretence of being the Kings from the East, carrying gold and myrrh to
the infant Christ. It seems as if all were astoundingly real, as if, by
some magic, we were actually going to mix in the life of the past. But
it is in reality but a mere delusion, a deceit like those dioramas which
we have all been into as children, and where, by paying your shilling,
you were suddenly introduced into an oasis of the desert, or into a
recent battle-field: things which surprised us, real palm trunks and
Arabian water jars, or real fascines and cannon balls, lying about for
us to touch; roads opening on all sides into this simulated desert,
through this simulated battle-field. So also with these seeming
realities of Renaissance life. We can touch the things scattered on the
foreground, can handle the weapons, the furniture, the books and musical
instruments; we can see, or think we see, most plainly the streets and
paths, the faces and movements of that Renaissance world; but when we
try to penetrate into it, we shall find that there is but a slip of
solid ground beneath us, that all around us is but canvas and painted
wall, perspectived and lit up by our fancy; and that when we try to
approach to touch one of those seemingly so real men and women, our eyes
find only daubs of paint, our hands meet only flat and chilly stucco.
Turn we to our books, and seek therein the spell whereby to make this
simulacrum real; and I think the plaster will still remain plaster, the
stones still remain stone. Out of the Renaissance, out of the Middle
Ages, we must never hope to evoke any spectres which can talk with us
and we with them; nothing of the kind of those dim but familiar ghosts,
often grotesque rather than heroic, who come to us from out of the
books, the daubed portraits of times nearer our own, and sit opposite
us, making us laugh, and also cry, with humdrum stories and humdrum woes
so very like our own. No; such ghosts the Renaissance has not left
behind it. From out of it there come to us no familiars. They are all
faces--those which meet us in the pages of chronicles and in the frames
of pictures: they are painted records of the past--we may understand
them by scanning well their features, but they cannot understand, they
cannot perceive us. Such, when all is said, are my impressions of the
Renaissance. The moral atmosphere of those days is as impossible for us
to breathe as would be the physical atmosphere of the moon: could we,
for a moment, penetrate into it, we should die of asphyxia. Say what we
may against both Protestant reformation and Catholic reaction, these two
began to make an atmosphere (pure or foul) different from that of the
Middle Ages and the Renaissance, an atmosphere in which lived creatures
like ourselves, into which ourselves might penetrate.

A crotchet this, perhaps, of my own; but it is my feeling, nevertheless.
The Renaissance is, I say again, no period out of which we must try and
evoke ghostly companions. Let us not waste our strength in seeking to do
so; but be satisfied if it teaches us strange truths, scientific and
practical; if its brilliant and solemn personalities, its bright and
majestic art can give us pleasure; if its evils and wrongs, its
inevitable degradation, can move us to pity and to indignation.

Siena, _September_, 1882.


     Ihr führt ins Leben uns hinein;
     Ihr lässt den armen schuldig werden;
     Dann übergiebt Ihr ihm der Pein,
     Denn alle Schuld rächt sich auf Erden.

At the end of the fifteenth century, Italy was the centre of European
civilization: while the other nations were still plunged in a feudal
barbarism which seems almost as far removed from all our sympathies as
is the condition of some American or Polynesian savages, the Italians
appear to us as possessing habits of thought, a mode of life, political,
social, and literary institutions, not unlike those of to-day; as men
whom we can thoroughly understand, whose ideas and aims, whose general
views, resemble our own in that main, indefinable characteristic of
being modern. They had shaken off the morbid monastic ways of feeling,
they had thrown aside the crooked scholastic modes of thinking, they had
trampled under foot the feudal institutions of the Middle Ages; no
symbolical mists made them see things vague, strange, and distorted;
their intellectual atmosphere was as clear as our own, and, if they saw
less than we do, what they did see appeared to them in its true shape
and proportions. Almost for the first time since the ruin of antique
civilization, they could show well-organized, well-defined States;
artistically disciplined armies; rationally devised laws; scientifically
conducted agriculture; and widely extended, intelligently undertaken
commerce. For the first time, also, they showed regularly built,
healthy, and commodious towns; well-drained fields; and, more important
than all, hundreds of miles of country owned not by feudal lords, but by
citizens; cultivated not by serfs, but by free peasants. While in the
rest of Europe men were floundering among the stagnant ideas and
crumbling institutions of the effete Middle Ages, with but a vague
half-consciousness of their own nature, the Italians walked calmly
through a life as well arranged as their great towns, bold, inquisitive,
and sceptical: modern administrators, modern soldiers, modern
politicians, modern financiers, scholars, and thinkers. Towards the end
of the fifteenth century, Italy seemed to have obtained the philosophic,
literary, and artistic inheritance of Greece; the administrative, legal,
and military inheritance of Rome, increased threefold by her own strong,
original, essentially modern activities.

Yet, at that very time, and almost in proportion as all these advantages
developed, the moral vitality of the Italians was rapidly decreasing,
and a horrible moral gangrene beginning to spread: liberty was
extinguished; public good faith seemed to be dying out; even private
morality flickered ominously; every free State became subject to a
despot, always unscrupulous and often infamous; warfare became a mere
pretext for the rapine and extortions of mercenaries; diplomacy grew to
be a mere swindle; the humanists inoculated literature with the
filthiest refuse cast up by antiquity; nay, even civic and family ties
were loosened; assassinations and fratricides began to abound, and all
law, human and divine, to be set at defiance.

The nations who came into contact with the Italians opened their eyes
with astonishment, with mingled admiration and terror; and we, people of
the nineteenth century, are filled with the same feeling, only much
stronger and more defined, as we watch the strange ebullition of the
Renaissance, seething with good and evil, as we contemplate the
enigmatic picture drawn by the puzzled historian, the picture of a
people moving on towards civilization and towards chaos. Our first
feeling is perplexity; our second feeling, anger; we do not at first
know whether we ought to believe in such an anomaly; when once we do
believe in it, we are indignant at its existence. We accuse these
Italians of the Renaissance of having wilfully and shamefully perverted
their own powers, of having wantonly corrupted their own civilization,
of having cynically destroyed their own national existence, of having
boldly called down the vengeance of Heaven; we lament and we accuse,
naturally enough, but perhaps not justly.

Let us ask ourselves what the Renaissance really was, and what was its
use; how it was produced, and how it necessarily ended. Let us try to
understand its inherent nature, and the nature of what surrounded it,
which, taken together, constitute its inevitable fate; let us seek the
explanation of that strange, anomalous civilization, of that life in
death, and death in life. The Renaissance, inasmuch as it is something
which we can define, and not a mere vague name for a certain epoch, is
not a period, but a condition; and if we apply the word to any period in
particular, it is because in it that condition was peculiarly marked.

The Renaissance may be defined as being that phase in mediæval history
in which the double influence, feudal and ecclesiastic, which had
gradually crushed the spontaneous life of the early mediæval revival,
and reduced all to a dead, sterile mass, was neutralized by the
existence of democratic and secular communities; that phase in which,
while there existed not yet any large nations, or any definite national
feeling, there existed free towns and civic democracies. In this sense
the Renaissance began to exist with the earliest mediæval revival, but
its peculiar mission could be carried out only when that general revival
had come to an end. In this sense, also, the Renaissance did not exist
all over Italy, and it existed outside Italy; but in Italy it was far
more universal than elsewhere: there it was the rule, elsewhere the
exception. There was no Renaissance in Savoy, nor in Naples, nor even in
Rome; but north of the Alps there was Renaissance only in individual
towns like Nürnberg, Augsburg, Bruges, Ghent, &c. In the North the
Renaissance is dotted about amidst the stagnant Middle Ages; in Italy
the Middle Ages intersect and interrupt the Renaissance here and there:
the consequence was that in the North the Renaissance was crushed by the
Middle Ages, whereas in Italy the Middle Ages were crushed by the
Renaissance. Wherever there was a free town, without direct dependence
on feudal or ecclesiastical institutions, governed by its own citizens,
subsisting by its own industry and commerce; wherever the burghers built
walls, slung chains across their streets, and raised their own
cathedral; wherever, be it in Germany, in Flanders, or in England, there
was a suspension of the deadly influences of the later Middle Ages;
there, to greater or less extent, was the Renaissance.

But in the North this rudimentary Renaissance was never suffered to
spread beyond the walls of single towns; it was hemmed in on all sides
by feudal and ecclesiastical institutions, which restrained it within
definite limits. The free towns of Germany were mostly dependent upon
their bishops or archbishops; the more politically important cities of
Flanders were under the suzerainty of a feudal family; they were subject
to constant vexations from their suzerains, and their very existence was
endangered by an attempt at independence; Liege was well-nigh destroyed
by the supporters of her bishop, and Ghent was ruined by the revenge of
the Duke of Burgundy. In these northern cities, therefore, the
commonwealth was restricted to a sort of mercantile
corporation--powerful within the town, but powerless without it; while
outside the town reigned feudalism, with its robber nobles, free
companies, and bands of outlawed peasants, from whom the merchant
princes of Bruges and Nürnberg could scarcely protect their wares. To
this political feebleness and narrowness corresponded an intellectual
weakness and pettiness: the burghers were mere self-ruling tradesfolk;
their interests did not extend far beyond their shops and their houses;
literature was cramped in guilds, and reflection and imagination were
confined within the narrow limits of town life. Everything was on a
small scale; the Renaissance was moderate and inefficient, running no
great dangers and achieving no great conquests. There was not enough
action to produce reaction; and, while the Italian free States were
ground down by foreign tyrannies, the German and Flemish cities
insensibly merged into the vast empire of the House of Austria. While
also the Italians of the sixteenth century rushed into moral and
religious confusion, which only Jesuitism could discipline, the Germans
of the same time quietly and comfortably adopted the Reformation.

The main cause of this difference, the main explanation of the fact that
while in the North the Renaissance was cramped and enfeebled, in Italy
it carried everything before it, lies in the circumstance that feudalism
never took deep root in Italy. The conquered Latin race was enfeebled,
it is true, but it was far more civilized than the conquering Teutonic
peoples; the Barbarians came down, not on to a previous layer of
Barbarians, but on to a deep layer of civilized men; the nomads of the
North found in Italy a people weakened and corrupt, but with a long and
inextinguishable habit of independence, of order, of industry. The
country had been cultivated for centuries, the Barbarians could not turn
it into a desert; the inhabitants had been organized as citizens for a
thousand years, the Barbarians could not reorganize them feudally. The
Barbarians who settled in Italy, especially the latest of them, the
Lombards, were not only in a minority, but at an immense disadvantage.
They founded kingdoms and dukedoms, where German was spoken and German
laws were enacted; but whenever they tried to communicate with their
Italian subjects, they found themselves forced to adopt the Latin
language, manners, and laws; their domination became real only in
proportion as it ceased to be Teutonic, and the Barbarian element was
swallowed up by what remained of Roman civilization. Little by little
these Lombard monarchies, without roots in the soil, and surrounded by
hostile influences, died out, and there remained of the invaders only a
certain number of nobles, those whose descendants were to bear the
originally German names of Gherardesca, Rolandinghi, Soffredinghi,
Lambertazzi, Guidi, and whose suzerains were the Bavarian and Swabian
dukes and marquises of Tuscan. Meanwhile the Latin element revived;
towns were rebuilt; a new Latin language was formed; and the burghers of
these young communities gradually wrested franchises and privileges from
the weak Teutonic rulers, who required Italian agriculture, industry,
and commerce, without which they and their feudal retainers would have
starved. Feudalism became speedily limited to the hilly country; the
plain became the property of the cities which it surrounded; the nobles
turned into mere robber chieftains, then into mercenary soldiers, and
finally, as the towns gained importance, they gradually descended into
the cities and begged admission into the guilds of artizans and
tradesfolk. Thus they grew into citizens and Italians; but for a long
time they kept hankering after feudalism, and looking towards the German
emperors who claimed the inheritance of the Lombard kings. The struggle
between Guelphs and Ghibellines, between the German feudal element and
the Latin civic one, ended in the complete annihilation of the former in
all the north and centre of Italy. The nobles sank definitely into
merchants, and those who persisted in keeping their castles were
speedily ousted by the commissaries of the free towns. Such is the
history of feudalism in Italy--the history of Barbarian minority
engulphed in Latin civilization; of Teutonic counts and dukes turned
into robber nobles, hunted into the hills by the townsfolk, and finally
seeking admission into the guilds of wool-spinners or money-changers;
and in it is the main explanation of the fact that the Italian
republics, instead of remaining restricted within their city walls like
those of the North, spread over whole provinces, and became real
politically organized States. And in such States having a free
political, military, and commercial life, uncramped by ecclesiastic or
feudal influence, in them alone could the great revival of human
intelligence and character thoroughly succeed. The commune was the only
species of free government possible during the Middle Ages, the only
form which could resist that utterly prostrating action of later
mediævalism. Feudalism stamped out civilization; monasticism warped it;
in the open country it was burnt, trampled on, and uprooted; in the
cloister it withered and shrank and perished; only within the walls of a
city, protected from the storm without, and yet in the fresh atmosphere
of life, could it develope, flourish, and bear fruit.

But this system of the free town contained in itself, as does every
other institution, the seed of death--contained it in that expanding
element which developes, ripens, rots, and finally dissolves all living
organisms. A little town is formed in the midst of some feudal state, as
Pisa, Florence, Lucca, and Bologna were formed in the dominions of the
lords of Tuscany; the _elders_ govern it; it is protected from without;
it obtains privileges from its suzerain, always glad to oppose anything
to his vassals, and who, unlike them, is too far removed in the feudal
scale to injure the commune, which is under his supreme jurisdiction but
not in his land. The town can thus develope regularly, governing itself,
taxing itself, defending itself against encroaching neighbours; it
gradually extends beyond its own walls, liberates its peasantry, extends
its commerce, extinguishes feudalism, beats back its suzerain or buys
privileges from him; in short, lives the vigorous young life of the
early Italian commonwealths. But now the danger begins. The original
system of government, where every head of a family is a power in the
State, where every man helps to govern, without representation or
substitution, could exist only as long as the commune remained small
enough for the individual to be in proportion with it; as long as the
State remained small enough for all its citizens to assemble in the
market-place and vote, for every man to know every detail of the
administration, every inch of the land. When the limits were extended,
the burgher had to deal with towns and villages and men and things which
he did not know, and which he probably hated, as every small community
hated its neighbour; witness the horrible war, lasting centuries,
between the two little towns of Dinant and Bouvines on the Meuse. Still
more was this the case with an important city: the subjugated town was
hated all the more for being a rival centre; the burghers of Florence,
inspired only by their narrow town interest, treated Pisa according to
its dictates, that is, tried to stamp it out. Thence the victorious
communes came to be surrounded by conquered communes, which they dared
not trust with any degree of power; and which, instead of being so many
allies in case of invasion, were merely focuses of revolt, or at best
inert impediments. Similarly, when the communes enlarged, and found it
indispensable to delegate special men, who could attend to political
matters more thoroughly than the other citizens, they were constantly
falling under the tyranny of their _captains of the people_, of their
_gonfalonieri_, and of all other heads of the State; or else, as in
Florence, they were frightened by this continual danger into a system of
perpetual interference with the executive, which was thus rendered
well-nigh helpless. To this rule Venice forms the only exception, on
account of her exceptional position and history: the earliest burghers
turning into an intensely conservative and civic aristocracy, while
everywhere else the feudal nobles turned into petty burghers, entirely
subversive of communal interests. Venice had the yet greater safeguard
of being protected both from her victorious enemies and her own
victorious generals; who, however powerful on the mainland, could not
seriously endanger the city itself, which thus remained a centre of
reorganization in time of disaster. In this Venice was entirely unique,
as she was unique in the duration of her institutions and independence.
In the other towns of Italy, where there existed no naturally governing
family or class, where every citizen had an equal share in government,
and there existed no distinction save that of wealth and influence,
there was a constant tendency to the illegitimate preponderance of every
man or every family that rose above the average; and in a democratic,
mercantile State, not a day passed without some such elevation. In a
systematic, consolidated State, where the power is in the hands of a
hereditary sovereign or aristocracy, a rich merchant remains a rich
merchant, a victorious general remains a victorious general, an eloquent
orator remains an eloquent orator; but in a shapeless, flunctuating
democracy like those of Italy, the man who has influence over his
fellow-citizens, whether by his money, his soldiers, or his eloquence,
necessarily becomes the head of the State; everything is free and
unoccupied, only a little superior strength is required to push into it.
Cosimo de' Medici has many clients, many correspondents, many debtors;
he can bind people by pecuniary obligations: he becomes prince. Sforza
has a victorious army, whom he can either hound on to the city or
restrain into a protection of its interests: he becomes prince.
Savonarola has eloquence that makes the virtuous start up and the wicked
tremble: he becomes prince. The history of the Italian commonwealths
shows us but one thing: the people, the only legal possessors of
political power, giving it over to their bankers (Medici, Pepoli); to
their generals (Della Torre, Visconti, Scaligeri); to their monkish
reformers (Fra Bussolaro, Fra Giovanni da Vincenza, Savonarola). Here
then we have the occasional but inevitable usurpers, who either
momentarily or finally disorganize the State. But this is not all. In
such a State every family hate, every mercantile hostility, means a
corresponding political division. The guilds are sure to be rivals, the
larger wishing to exclude the smaller from government: the lower working
classes (the _ciompi_ of Florence) wish to upset the guilds completely;
the once feudal nobles wish to get back military power; the burghers
wish entirely to extirpate the feudal nobles; the older families wish to
limit the Government, the newer prefer democracy and Cæsarism. Add to
this the complications of private interests, the personal jealousies and
aversions, the private warfare, inevitable in a town where legal justice
is not always to be had, while forcible retaliation is always within
reach; and the result is constant party spirit, insults, scuffles,
conspiracies: the feudal nobles build towers in the streets, the
burghers pull them down; the lower artizans set fire to the warehouses
of the guilds, the magistrates take part in the contest; blood is spilt,
magistrates are beheaded or thrown out of windows, a foreign State is
entreated to interfere, and a number of citizens are banished by the
victorious party. This latter result creates a new and terrible danger
for the State, in the persons of so many exiles, ready to do anything,
to join with any one, in order to return to the city and drive out their
enemies in their turn. The end of such constant upheavings is that the
whole population is disarmed, no party suffering its rival to have any
means of offence or defence. Moreover, as industry and commerce
develope, the citizens become unwilling to fight, while on the other
hand the invention of firearms, subverting the whole system of warfare,
renders special military training more and more necessary. In the days
of the Lombard League, of Campaldino and Montaperti, the citizens could
fight, hand to hand, round their _carroccio_ or banner, without much
discipline being required; but when it came to fortifying towns against
cannon, to drilling bodies of heavily armed cavalry, acting by the mere
dexterity of their movements; when war became a science and an art, then
the citizen had necessarily to be left out, and adventurers and poor
nobles had to form armies of mercenaries, making warfare their sole
profession. This system of mercenary troops, so bitterly inveighed
against by Machiavelli (who, of course, entirely overlooked its
inevitable origin and viewed it as a voluntarily incurred pest), added
yet another and, perhaps, the very worst danger to civil liberty. It
gave enormous, irresistible power to adventurers unscrupulous by nature
and lawless by education, the sole object of whose career it became to
obtain possession of States; by no means a difficult enterprise,
considering that they and their fellows were the sole possessors of
military force in the country. At the same time, this system of
mercenaries perfected the condition of utter defencelessness in which
the gradual subjection of rival cities, the violent party spirit, and
the general disarming of the burghers, had placed the great Italian
cities. For these troops, being wholly indifferent as to the cause for
which they were fighting, turned war into the merest game of
dodges--half-a-dozen men being killed at a great battle like that of
Anghiari--and they at the same time protracted campaigns beyond every
limit, without any decisive action taking place. The result of all these
inevitable causes of ruin, was that most of the commonwealths fell into
the hands of despots; while those that did not were paralyzed by
interior factions, by a number of rebellious subject towns, and by
generals who, even if they did not absolutely betray their employers,
never efficiently served them.

Such a condition of civic disorder lasted throughout the Middle Ages,
until the end of the fifteenth century, without any further evils
arising from it. The Italians made endless wars with each other,
conquered each other, changed their government without end, fell into
the power of tyrants; but throughout these changes their civilization
developed unimpeded; because, although one of the centres of national
life might be momentarily crushed, the others remained in activity, and
infused vitality even into the feeble one, which would otherwise have
perished. All these ups and downs seemed but to stir the life in the
country: and no vital danger appeared to threaten it; nor did any, so
long as the surrounding countries--France, Germany, and Spain--remained
mere vast feudal nebulae, formless, weightless, immovable. The Italians
feared nothing from them; they would call down the King of France or the
Emperor of Germany without a moment's hesitation, because they knew that
the king could not bring France, nor the emperor bring Germany, but only
a few miserable, hungry retainers with him; but Florence would watch the
growth of the petty State of the Scaligers, and Venice look with terror
at the Duke of Milan, because they knew that _there_ there was
concentrated life, and an organization which could be wielded as'
perfectly as a sword by the head of the State. In the last decade of the
fifteenth century the Italians called in the French to put down their
private enemies: Lodovico of Milan called down Charles VIII. to rid him
of his nephew and of the Venetians; the Venetians to rid them of
Lodovico: the Medici to establish them firmly in Florence; the party of
freedom to drive out the Medici. Each State intended to use the French
to serve their purpose, and then to send back Charles VIII. with a
little money and a great deal of derision, as they had done with kings
and emperors of earlier days. But Italian politicians suddenly
discovered that they had made a fatal mistake; that they had reckoned in
ignorance, and that instead of an army they had called down a nation:
for during the interval since their last appeal to foreign interference,
that great movement had taken place which had consolidated the
heterogeneous feudal nebulae into homogeneous and compact kingdoms.

Single small States, relying upon mercenary troops, could not for a
moment resist the shock of such an agglomeration of soldiery as that of
the French, and of their successors the Spaniards and Germans. Sismondi
asks indignantly, Why did the Italians not form a federation as soon as
the strangers appeared? He might as well ask, Why did the commonwealths
not turn into a modern monarchy? The habit of security from abroad and
of jealousy within; the essential nature of a number of rival trading
centres, made such a thing not only impossible of execution, but for a
while impossible of conception; confederacies had become possible only
when Burlamacchi was decapitated by the imperialists; popular resistance
had become a reality only when Feruccio was massacred by the Spaniards;
a change of national institutions was feasible only when all national
institutions had been destroyed; when the Italians, having recognized
the irresistible force of their adversaries, had ceased to form
independent States and larger and smaller guilds; when all the
characteristics of Italian civilization had been destroyed; when, in
short, it was too late to do anything save theorize with Machiavelli and
Guicciardini as to what ought to have been done. We must not hastily
accuse the volition of the Italians of the Renaissance; they may have
been egotistic and timid, but had they been (as some most certainly
were) heroic and self-sacrificing to the utmost degree, they could not
have averted the catastrophe. The nature of their civilization prevented
not only their averting the peril, but even their conceiving its
existence; the very nature of their political forms necessitated such a
dissolution of them. The commune grows from within; it is a little speck
which gradually extends its circumference, and the further this may be
from the original centre, the less do its parts coalesce. The modern
monarchy grows from external pressure, and towards the centre; it is a
huge mass consolidating into a hard, distinct shape. Thence it follows
that the more the commonwealth developes, the weaker it grows, because
its tendency is to spread and fall to pieces; whereas the more the
monarchy developes, the stronger it becomes, because it fills up towards
the centre, and becomes more vigorously knit together. The city ceases
to be a city when extended over hundreds of miles; the nation becomes
all the more a nation for being compressed towards a central point.

The entire political collapse of Italy in the sixteenth century was not
only inevitable, from the essential nature of the civilization of the
Renaissance, but it was also indispensable in order that this
civilization might fulfil its mission. Civilization cannot spread so
long as it is contained within a national mould, and only a vanquished
nation can civilize its victors. The Greece of Pericles could not
Hellenize Rome, but the Greece of the weak successors of Alexander
could; the Rome of Cæsar did not Romanize the Teutonic races as did the
Rome of Theodosius; no amount of colonizing among the vanquished can
ever produce the effect of a victorious army, of a whole nation,
suddenly finding itself in the midst of the superior civilization of a
conquered people. Michelet may well call the campaign of Charles VIII.
the discovery of Italy. His imaginative mind seized at once the vast
importance of this descent of the French into Italy, which other
historians have been too prone to view in the same light as any other
invasion. It is from this moment that dates the _modernisation_, if we
may so express ourselves, of the North. The barbarous soldiers of Gaston
de Foix, of Frundsberg, and of Gonsalvo, were the unconscious bearers of
the seeds of the ages of Elizabeth, of Louis XIV., and of Goethe. These
stupid and rapacious ruffians, while they wantonly destroyed the works
of Italian civilization, rendered possible the existence of a Montaigne,
a Shakespeare, and a Cervantes.

Italy was as a vast store-house, sheltered from all the dangers of
mediæval destruction; in which, while all other nations were blindly and
fiercely working out their national existence, the inheritance of
Antiquity and the produce of the earliest modern civilization had been
peaceably garnered up. When the store-house was full, its gates had to
be torn open and its riches plundered and disseminated by the
intellectual starvelings of the North; thus only could the rest of
mankind feed on these riches, regain and develope their mental life.

What were those intellectual riches of the Renaissance? What was that
strong intellectual food which revived the energies and enriched the
blood of the Barbarians of the sixteenth century? The Renaissance
possessed the germs of every modern thing, and much that was far more
than a mere germ: it possessed the habit of equality before the law, of
civic organization, of industry and commerce developed to immense and
superb proportions. It possessed science, literature, and art; above
all, that which at once produced and was produced by all these--thorough
perception of what exists, thorough consciousness of our own freedom and
powers: self-cognizance. In Italy there was intellectual light, enabling
men to see and judge all around them, enabling them to act wittingly and
deliberately. In this lies the immense greatness of the Renaissance; to
this are due all its achievements in literature and science, and, above
all, in art: that, for the first time since the dissolution of antique
civilization, men were free agents, both in thought and in deed; that
there was an end of that palsying slavery of the Middle Ages, slavery of
body and of mind, slavery to stultified ideas and effete forms, which
made men endure every degree of evil and believe every degree of
absurdity. For the first time since Antiquity, man walks free of all
political and intellectual trammels, erect, conscious of his own
thoughts, master of his own actions; ready to seek for truth across the
ocean like Columbus, or across the heavens like Copernicus; to seek it
in criticism and analysis like Machiavelli or Guicciardini, boldly to
reproduce it in its highest, widest sense like Michael Angelo and

The men of the Renaissance had to pay a heavy price for this
intellectual freedom and self-cognizance which they not only enjoyed
themselves, but transmitted to the rest of the world; the price was the
loss of all moral standard, of all fixed public feeling. They had thrown
aside all accepted rules and criteria, they had cast away all faith in
traditional institutions, they had destroyed, and could not yet rebuild.
In their instinctive and universal disbelief in all that had been taught
them, they lost all respect for opinion, for rule, for what had been
called right and wrong. Could it be otherwise? Had they not discovered
that what had been called right had often been unnatural, and what had
been called wrong often natural? Moral teachings, remonstrances, and
judgments belonged to that dogmatism from which they had broken loose;
to those schools and churches where the foolish and the unnatural had
been taught and worshipped; to those priests and monks who themselves
most shamefully violated their teachings. To profess morality was to be
a hypocrite; to reprobate others was to be narrow-minded. There was so
much error mixed up with truth that truth had to share the discredit of
error; so many innocent things had been denounced as sins that sinful
ones at length ceased to be reprobated; people had so often found
themselves sympathizing with supposed criminals, that they soon lost
their horror of real ones. Damnation came to be disassociated from moral
indignation: it was the retribution, not of the unnatural and immoral,
but of the unlawful; and unlawful with respect to a law made without
reference to reason and instinct. As reason and instinct were thus set
at defiance, but could not be silenced, the law was soon acquiesced in
without being morally supported; thus, little by little, moral feeling
became warped. This was already the case in Dante's day. Farinata is
condemned to the most horrible punishment, which to Dante seems just,
because in accordance with an accepted code; yet Dante cannot but admire
him and cannot really hate him, for there is nothing in him to hate; he
is a criminal and yet respected--fatal combination! Dante punishes
Francesca, Pier delle Vigne, and Brunetto Latini, but he shows no
personal horror of them; in the one case his moral instinct refrains
from censuring the comparatively innocent, in the other it has ceased to
revolt from the really infamous. Where Dante does feel real indignation,
is most often in cases unprovided for by the religious codes, as with
those low, grovelling, timid natures (the very same with whom
Machiavelli, the admirer of great villains, fairly loses patience),
those creatures whom Dante personally despises, whom he punishes with
filthy devices of his own, whom he passes by with words such as he never
addresses to Semiramis, Brutus, or Capaneus. This toleration of vice,
while acquiescing in its legal punishment, increased in proportion to
the development of individual judgment, and did not cease till all the
theories of the lawful and unlawful had been so completely demolished as
to permit of their being rebuilt on solid bases.

This work of demolition had not yet ceased in the beginning of the
sixteenth century; and the moral confusion due to it was increased by
various causes dependent on political and other circumstances. The
despots in whose hands it was the inevitable fate of the various
commonwealths to fall, were by their very position immoral in all their
dealings: violent, fraudulent, suspicious, and, from their life of
constant unnatural tension of the feelings, prone to every species of
depravity; while, on the other hand, in the feudal parts of Italy--which
had merely received a superficial Renaissance varnish imported from
other places with painters and humanists--in Naples, Rome, and the
greater part of Umbria and the Marches, the upper classes had got into
that monstrous condition which seems to have been the inevitable final
product of feudalism, and which, while it gave France her Armagnacs, her
Foix, and her Retz, gave Italy their counterparts in her hideously
depraved princelets, the Malatestas, Varanos, Vitelli, and Baglioni.
Both these classes of men, despots and feudal nobles, had a wide field
for their ambition among the necessarily dissolved civic institutions;
and their easy success contributed to confirm the general tendency of
the day to say with Commines, "Qui a le succès a l'honneur," and to
confound these two words and ideas. Nor was this yet all: the men of the
Renaissance discovered the antique world, and in their wild, blind
enthusiasm, in their ardent, insatiable thirst for its literature,
swallowed it eagerly, dregs and all, till they were drunk and poisoned.

These are the main causes of the immorality of the Renaissance: first,
the general disbelief in all accepted doctrines, due to the falseness
and unnaturalness of those hitherto prevalent; secondly, the success of
unscrupulous talent in a condition of political disorder; thirdly, the
wholesale and unjudging enthusiasm for all that remained of Antiquity,
good or bad. These three great causes, united in a general intellectual
ebullition, are the explanation of the worst feature of the Renaissance:
not the wickedness of numberless single individuals, but the universal
toleration of it by the people at large. Men like Sigismondo Malatesta,
Sixtus IV., Alexander VI., and Cæsar Borgia might be passed over as
exceptions, as monstrous aberrations which cannot affect our judgment of
their time and nation; but the general indifference towards their vices
shown by their contemporaries and countrymen is a conclusive and
terrible proof of the moral chaos of the Renaissance. It is just the
presence of so much instinctive simplicity and virtue, of childlike
devotion to great objects, of patriarchal simplicity of manners, of all
that is loveable in the books of men like Vespasiano da Bisticci and
Leon Battista Albert; of so much that seems like the realization of the
idyllic home and merchant life of Schiller's "Song of the Bell," by the
side of all the hideous lawlessness and vice of the despots and
humanists; that makes the Renaissance so drearily painful a spectacle.
The presence of the good does not console us for that of the evil,
because it neither mitigates nor even shrinks from it; we merely lose
our pleasure in the good nature and simplicity of Æneas Sylvius when we
see his cool admiration for a man of fraud and violence like Sforza; we
begin to mistrust the purity and integrity of the upright Guarino da
Verona when we hear his lenient judgment of the infamous Beccadelli; we
require of the virtuous that they should not only be incapable of vice,
but abhorrent of it; and this is what even the best men of the
Renaissance rarely were.

Such a state of moral chaos there has constantly been when an old effete
mode of thought required to be destroyed. Such work is always attended,
in greater or less degree, by this subversion of all recognized
authority, this indifference to evil, this bold tasting of the
forbidden. In the eighteenth century France plays the same part that was
played in the fifteenth by Italy: again we meet the rebellion against
all that has been consecrated by time and belief, the toleration of
evil, the praise of the abominable, in the midst of the search for the
good. These two have been the great fever epochs of modern history;
fever necessary for a subsequent steady growth. Both gave back truth to
man, and man to nature, at the expense of temporary moral uncertainty
and ruthless destruction. The Renaissance reinstated the individual in
his human dignity, as a thinking, feeling, and acting being; the
Eighteenth Century reconstructed society as a homogeneous free
existence; both at the expense of individual degradation and social
disorder. Both were moments of ebullition in which horrible things rose
to the surface, but after which what remained was purer than it had ever
been before.

This is no plea for the immorality of the Renaissance: evil is none the
less evil for being inevitable and necessary; but it is nevertheless
well that we should understand its necessity. It certainly is a terrible
admission, but one which must be made, that evil is part of the
mechanism for producing good; and had the arrangement of the universe
been entrusted to us, benevolent and equitable people of an enlightened
age, there would doubtless have been invented some system of evolution
and progression differing from the one which includes such machinery as
hurricanes and pestilences, carnage and misery, superstition and
license, Renaissance and Eighteenth Century. But unfortunately Nature
was organized in a less charitable and intelligent fashion; and, among
other evils required for the final attainment of good, we find that of
whole generations of men being condemned to moral uncertainty and error
in order that other generations may enjoy knowledge peacefully and
guiltlessly. Let us remember this, and let us be more generous towards
the men who were wicked that we might be enlightened. Above all, let us
bear in mind, in judging the Renaissance, that the sacrifice which it
represents could be useful only in so far as it was complete and
irretrievable. Let us remember that the communal system of government,
on whose development the Renaissance mainly depended, inevitably
perished in proportion as it developed; that the absolute subjugation of
Italy by Barbarous nations was requisite to the dissemination of the
civilization thus obtained; that the Italians were politically
annihilated before they had time to recover a normal condition, and were
given up crushed and broken spirited, to be taught righteousness by
Spaniards and Jesuits. That, in short, while the morality of the
Italians was sacrificed to obtain the knowledge on which modern society
depends, the political existence of Italy was sacrificed to the
diffusion of that knowledge, and that the nation was not only doomed to
immorality, but doomed also to the inability to reform. Perhaps, if we
think of all this, and weigh the tremendous sacrifice to which we owe
our present intellectual advantages, we may still feel sad, but sad
rather with remorse than with indignation, in contemplating the
condition of Italy in the first years of the sixteenth century; in
looking down from our calm, safe, scientific position, on the murder of
the Italian Renaissance: great and noble at heart, cut off pitilessly at
its prime; denied even an hour to repent and amend; hurried off before
the tribunal of posterity, suddenly, unexpectedly, and still bearing its
weight of unexpiated, unrecognized guilt.



The chroniclers of the last years of the fifteenth century have recorded
how the soldiery of Charles VIII. of France amused the tedious leisure
of their sullen and suspicious occupation of Rome, by erecting in the
camp a stage of planks, and performing thereon a rude mystery-play. The
play thus improvised by a handful of troopers before this motley
invading army: before the feudal cavalry of Burgundy, strange steel
monsters, half bird, half reptile, with steel beaked and winged helmets
and claw-like steel shoes, and jointed steel corselet and rustling steel
mail coat; before the infantry of Gascony, rapid and rapacious with
their tattered doublets and rag-bound feet; before the over-fed,
immensely plumed, and slashed and furbelowed giants of Switzerland, and
the starved, half-naked savages of Brittany and the Marches--before this
multifaced, many-speeched army, gathered from the rich cities of the
North and the devastated fields of the South, and the wilds and rocks of
the West and the East, alike in nothing save in its wonder and dread and
delight and horror at this strange invaded Italy--the play performed for
the entertainment of this encamped army was no ordinary play. No clerkly
allegorical morality; no mouthing and capering market-place farce; no
history of Joseph and his brethren, of the birth of the Saviour, or of
the temptations of St. Anthony. It was the half-allegorical,
half-dramatic representation of the reigning Borgia pope and his
children; it was the rude and hesitating moulding into dramatic shape of
those terrible rumours of simony and poison, of lust and of violence, of
mysterious death and abominable love, which had met the invaders as they
had first set their feet in Italy; which had become louder and clearer
with every onward step through the peninsula, and now circulated around
them, with frightful distinctness, in the very capital of Christ's vicar
on earth. This blundering mystery-play of the French troopers is the
earliest imaginative fruit of that first terrified and fascinated
glimpse of the men of the barbarous North at the strange Italy of the
Renaissance; it is the first manifestation of that strong tragic impulse
due to the sudden sight, by rude and imaginative young nations, of the
splendid and triumphant wickedness of Italy.

The French saw, wondered, shuddered, and played upon their camp stage
the tragedy of the Borgias. But the French remained in Italy, became
familiar with its ways, and soon merely shrugged their shoulders and
smiled where they had once stared in horror. They served under the flags
of Sforzas, Borgias, Baglionis, and Vitellis, by the side of the bravos
of Naples and Umbria; they saw their princes wed the daughters of
evil-famed Italian sovereigns, and their princes' children, their own
Valois and Guises, develope into puny, ambiguous, and ominous Medicis
and Gonzagas, surrounded by Italian minions and poison distillers, and
buffoons and money-lenders. The French of the sixteenth century, during
their long Neapolitan and Lombard wars and negotiations, and time to
learn all that Italy could teach; to become refined, subtle,
indifferent, and cynical: bastard Italians, with the bastard Italian art
of Goujon and Philibert Delorme, and the bastard Italian poetry of Du
Bellay and Ronsard. The French of the sixteenth century therefore
translated Machiavel and Ariosto and Bandello; but they never again
attempted such another play as that which they had improvised while
listening to the tales of Alexander VI. and Cæsar and Lucrezia, in their
camp in the meadows behind Sant' Angelo. The Spaniards then came to
Italy, and the Germans: strong mediæval nations, like the French, with
the creative power of the Middle Ages still in them, refreshed by the
long rest of the dull fifteenth century. But Spaniards and Germans came
as mere greedy and besotten and savage mercenaries: the scum of their
countries, careless of Italian sights and deeds, thinking only of
torturing for hidden treasure, or swilling southern wines; and they
returned to Spain and to Germany, to persecutions of Moriscos and
plundering of abbeys, as savage and as dull as they had arrived. A
smattering of Italian literature, art, and manners was carried back to
Spain and Germany by Spanish and German princes and governors, to be
transmitted to a few courtiers and humanists; but the imagination of the
lower classes of Spain and of Germany, absorbed in the Quixotic
Catholicism of Loyola and the biblical contemplation of Luther, never
came into fertilizing contact with the decaying Italy of the

The mystery-play of the soldiers of Charles VIII. seemed destined to
remain an isolated and abortive attempt. But it was not so. The
invasions had exhausted themselves; the political organization of Italy
was definitely broken up; its material wealth was exhausted; the French,
Germans, and Spaniards had come and gone, and returned and gone again;
they had left nothing to annex or to pillage; when, about the middle of
the sixteenth century, the country began to be overrun by a new horde of
barbarians: the English. The English came neither as invaders nor as
marauders; they were peaceable students and rich noblemen, who, so far
from trying to extort money or annex territory, rather profited the
ruined Italians by the work which they did and the money which they
squandered. Yet these quiet and profitable travellers, before whom the
Italians might safely display their remaining wealth, were in reality as
covetous of the possessions of Italy and as resolute to return home
enriched as any tattered Gascon men-at-arms or gluttonous Swiss or
grinding Spaniards. They were, one and all, consciously and
unconsciously, dragged to Italy by the irresistible instinct that Italy
possessed that which they required; by the greed of intellectual gain.
That which they thus instinctively knew that Italy possessed, that which
they must obtain, was a mode of thought, a habit of form; philosophy,
art, civilization: all the materials for intellectual manipulation. For,
in the sixteenth century, on awakening from its long evil sleep, haunted
by the nightmare of civil war, of the fifteenth century, the English
mind had started up in the vigour of well-nigh mature youth, fed up and
rested by the long inactivity in which it had slept through its period
of assimilation and growth. It had awakened at the first touch of
foreign influence, and had grown with every fresh contact with the outer
world: with the first glance at Plato and Xenophon suddenly opened by
Erasmus and Colet, at the Bible suddenly opened by Cranmer; it had grown
with its sob of indignation at the sight of the burning faggots
surrounding the martyrs, with its joyous heart-throbs at the sight of
the seas and islands of the New World; it had grown with the sudden
passionate strain of every nerve and every muscle when the galleys of
Philip had been sighted in the Channel. And when it had paused, taken
breath, and looked calmly around it, after the tumult of all these
sights and sounds and actions, the English mind, in the time of
Elizabeth, had found itself of a sudden full-grown and blossomed out
into superb manhood, with burning activities and indefatigable powers.
But it had found itself without materials for work. Of the scholastic
philosophy and the chivalric poetry of the Middle Ages there remained
but little that could be utilized: the few bungled formulæ, the few
half-obsolete rhymes still remaining, were as unintelligible, in their
spirit of feudalism and monasticism and mysticism, as were the Angevin
English and the monkish Latin in which they were written to these men of
the sixteenth century. All the intellectual wealth of England remained
to be created; but it could not be created out of nothing. Spenser,
Shakespeare, and Bacon could not be produced out of the half-effete
and scattered fragments of Chaucer, of Scotus, and of Wycliffe. The
materials on which English genius was to work must be sought abroad, and
abroad they could be found only in Italy. For in the demolished Italy of
the sixteenth century lay the whole intellectual wealth of the world:
the great legacy of Antiquity, the great work of the Middle Ages had
been stored up, and had been increased threefold, and sorted and
classified by the Renaissance; and now that the national edifice had
been dismantled and dilapidated, and the national activity was
languishing, it all lay in confusion, awaiting only the hand of those
who would carry it away and use it once more. To Italy therefore
Englishmen of thought and fancy were dragged by an impulse of adventure
and greed as irresistible as that which dragged to Antwerp and the Hanse
ports, to India and America, the seekers for gold and for soil. To Italy
they flocked and through Italy they rambled, prying greedily into each
cranny and mound of the half-broken civilization, upturning with avid
curiosity all the rubbish and filth; seeking with aching eyes and
itching fingers for the precious fragments of intellectual splendour;
lingering with fascinated glance over the broken remnants and deep,
mysterious gulfs of a crumbling and devastated civilization. And then,
impatient of their intoxicating and tantalizing search, suddenly grown
desperate, they clutched and stored away everything, and returned home
tattered, soiled, bedecked with gold and with tinsel, laden with an
immense uncouth burden of jewels, and broken wealth, and refuse and
ordure, with pseudo-antique philosophy, with half-mediæval Dantesque and
Petrarchesque poetry, with Renaissance science, with humanistic pedantry
and obscenity, with euphuistic conceits and casuistic quibble, with art,
politics, metaphysics--civilization embedded in all manner of rubbish
and abomination, soiled with all manner of ominous stains. All this did
they carry home and throw helter-skelter into the new-kindled fire of
English intellectual life, mingling with it many a humble-seeming
Northern alloy; cleaning and compounding, casting into shapes, mediæval
and English, this strange Corinthian brass made of all these
heterogeneous remnants, classical, Italian, Saxon, and Christian. A
strange Corinthian brass indeed; and as various in tint, in weight, and
in tone, in manifold varieties of mixture, as were the moulds into which
it was cast: the white and delicate silver settling down in the gracious
poetic moulds of Sidney and Spenser; the glittering gold, which can buy
and increase, in the splendid, heavy mould of Bacon's prose; and the
copper, the iron, the silver and gold in wondrous mixture, with wondrous
iridescences of colour and wondrous scale of tone, all poured into the
manifold moulds, fantastic and beautiful and grand, of Shakespeare. And
as long as all this dross and ore and filth brought from the ruins of
Italy was thus mingling in the heat of English genius, while it was yet
but imperfectly fused, while already its purest and best compounded
portion was being poured in Shakespeare's mould, and when already there
remained only a seething residue; as long as there remained aught of the
glowing fire and the molten mass, some of it all, of the pure metal
bubbling up, of the scum frothing round, nay, of the very used-up dregs,
was ever and anon being ladled out--gold, dross, filth, all
indiscriminately--and cast into shapes severe, graceful, or uncouth. And
this somewhat, thus pilfered from what was to make, or was making, or
had made, the works of Shakespeare; this base and noble, still unfused
or already exhausted alloy, became the strange heterogeneous works of
the Elizabethan dramatists: of Webster, of Ford, of Tourneur, of Ben
Jonson, of Beaumont and Fletcher, and of their minor brethren; from the
splendid ore of Marlowe, only half molten and half freed from dross,
down to the shining metal, smooth and silvery as only tinsel can be, of

In all the works of our Elizabethans, we see not only the assimilated
intellectual wealth of Italy, but we see the deep impression, the
indelible picture in the memory, of Italy itself; the positive,
unallegorical, essentially secular mode of thought; the unascetic,
æsthetic, eminently human mode of feeling; the artistic desire of clear
and harmonious form; the innumerable tendencies and habits which sever
the Elizabethans so completely from the Middle Ages, and bring them so
near at once to ourselves and to the ancients, making them at once
antique and modern, in opposition to mediæval; these essential
characters and the vast bulk of absolute scientific fact and formula, of
philosophic opinion, of artistic shape, of humanistic learning, are only
one-half of the debt of our sixteenth century to the Italy of the
Renaissance. The delicate form of the Italian sonnet, as copied by
Sidney from Bembo and Molza and Costanzo, contained within it the exotic
and exquisite ideal passion of the "Vita Nuova" and Petrarch. With the
bright, undulating stanza Spenser received from Ariosto and Tasso the
richly coloured spirit of the Italian descriptive epic. With the
splendid involutions of Machiavelli's and Guicciardini's prose Bacon
learned their cool and disimpassioned philosophy. From the reading of
Politian and Lorenzo dei Medici, from the sight of the Psyche of
Raphael, the Europa of Veronese, the Ariadne of Tintoret, men like
Greene and Dorset learned that revival of a more luscious and pictorial
antique which was brought to perfection in Shakespeare's "Venus and
Adonis" and Marlowe's "Sestiad." From the Platonists and Epicureans of
Renaissance Italy our greatest dramatists learned that cheerful and
serious love of life, that solemn and manly facing of death, that sense
of the finiteness of man, the inexhaustibleness of nature, which shines
out in such grand, paganism, with such Olympian serenity, as of the bent
brows and smiling lips of an antique Zeus, in Shakespeare, in Marlowe,
in Beaumont and Fletcher, even in the sad and savage Webster. But with
the abstract, with the imbibed modes of thought and feeling, with the
imitated forms, the Elizabethans brought back from Italy the concrete,
the individual, the personal. They filled their works with Italian
things: from the whole plot of a play borrowed from an Italian novel, to
the mere passing allusion to an Italian habit, or the mere quotation of
an Italian word; from the full-length picture of the actions of Italian
men and women, down to the mere sketch, in two or three words, of a bit
of Italian garden or a group of Italian figures; nay, to the innumerable
scraps of tiny detail, grotesque, graceful, or richly coloured, which
they stuffed into all their works: allusions to the buffoons of the mask
comedy, to the high-voiced singers, to the dress of the Venetian
merchants, to the step of a dance; to the pomegranate in the garden or
the cypress on the hillside; mere names of Italian things: the _lavolta_
and _corranto_ dances, the _Traglietto_ ferry, the Rialto bridge;
countless little touches, trifling to us, but which brought home to the
audience at the Globe or at Blackfriars that wonderful Italy which every
man of the day had travelled through at least in spirit, and had loved
at least in imagination. And of this wonderful Italy the Englishmen of
the days of Elizabeth and of James knew yet another side; were familiar,
whether travelled or untravelled, with yet other things besides the
buffoons and singers and dancers, the scholars and learned ladies, the
pomegranates, and cypresses and roses and nightingales; were fascinated
by something besides the green lagoons, the clear summer nights, the
soft spring evenings of which we feel as it were the fascination in the
words of Jessica and Portia and Juliet. The English knew and were
haunted by the crimes of Italy: the terrible and brilliant, the
mysterious and shadowy crimes of lust and of blood which, in their most
gigantic union and monstrous enthronement on the throne of the vicar of
Christ, had in the first terrified glimpse awakened the tragic impulse
in the soldiers of Charles VIII.

We can imagine the innumerable English travellers who went to Italy
greedy for life and knowledge or merely obeying a fashion of the
day--travellers forced into far closer contact with the natives than the
men of the time of Walpole and of Beckford, who were met by
French-speaking hosts and lacqueys and officials--travellers also
thirsting to imbibe the very spirit of the country as the travellers of
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries never thirsted; we can imagine
these Englishmen possessed by the morbid passion for the stories of
abominable and unpunished crime--crime of the learned, the refined, the
splendid parts of society--with which the Italy of the deeply corrupted
sixteenth century was permeated. We can imagine how the prosaic
merchants' clerks from London; the perfumed dandies, trying on Italian
clothes, rehearsing Italian steps and collecting Italian oaths, the
Faulcon-bridges of Shakespeare and Mr. Gingleboys of Beaumont and
Fletcher, sent to Italy to be able gracefully to

         Kiss the hand and cry, "sweet lady!"
     Say they had been at Rome and seen the relics,
     Drunk your Verdea wine, and rid at Naples--

how all these privileged creatures ferreted about for monstrous crimes
with which to horrify their stay-at-home countrymen; how the rich young
lords, returning home with mincing steps and high-pitched lisp,
surrounded by a train of parti-coloured, dialect-jabbering Venetian
clowns, deft and sinister Neapolitan fencing masters, silver-voiced
singing boys decoyed from some church, and cynical humanists escaped
from the faggot or the gallows, were expected to bring home, together
with the newest pastoral dramas, lewd novels, Platonic philosophy and
madrigals set in complicated counterpoint; stories of hideous
wickedness, of the murders and rapes and poisonings committed by the
dukes and duchesses, the nobles and senators, in whose palaces they had
so lately supped and danced. The crimes of Italy fascinated Englishmen
of genius with a fascination even more potent than that which they
exercised over the vulgar imagination of mere foppish and swashbuckler
lovers of the scandalous and the sensational: they fascinated with the
attraction of tragic grandeur, of psychological strangeness, of moral
monstrosity, a generation in whom the passionate imagination of the
playwright was curiously blent with the metaphysical analysis of the
philosopher and the ethical judgment of the Puritan. To these men, ardent
and serious even in their profligacy; imaginative and passionate even in
their Puritanism, all sucking avidly at this newly found Italian
civilization; the wickedness of Italy was more than morbidly attractive
or morbidly appalling: it was imaginatively and psychologically
fascinating. Whether they were as part of the action or as allusions, as
in Webster's two great plays, in which there occurs poisoning by means
of the leaves of a book, poisoning by the poisoned lips of a picture,
poisoning by a helmet, poisoning by the pommel of a saddle; crimes were
multiplied by means of subordinate plots and unnecessary incidents, like
the double vengeance of Richardetto and of Hippolita in Ford's "Giovanni
and Annabella," where both characters are absolutely unnecessary to the
main story of the horrible love of the hero and heroine; like the
murders of Levidulcia and Sebastian in Tourneur's "Atheist's Tragedy,"
and the completely unnecessary though extremely pathetic death of young
Marcello in Webster's "White Devil;" until the plays were brought to a
close by the gradual extermination of all the principal performers, and
only a few confidants and dummies remained to bury the corpses which
strewed the stage. Imaginary monsters were fashioned out of half-a-dozen
Neapolitan and Milanese princes, by Ford, by Beaumont and Fletcher, by
Middleton, by Marston, even by the light and graceful Philip Massinger:
mythical villains, Ferdinands, Lodowicks, and Fernezes, who yet fell
short of the frightful realities of men like Sigismondo Malatesta,
Alexander VI., and Pier Luigi Farnese; nay, more typical monsters, with
no name save their vices, Lussuriosos, Gelosos, Ambitiosos, and
Vindicis, like those drawn by the strong and savage hand of Cyril

Nothing which the English stage could display seemed to the minds of
English playwrights and the public to give an adequate picture of the
abominations of Italy; much as they heaped up horrors and combined them
with artistic skill, much as they forced into sight, there yet remained
an abyss of evil which the English tongue refused to mention, but which
weighed upon the English mind; and which, unspoken, nay (and it is the
glory of the Elizabethan dramatists excepting Ford), unhinted, yet
remained as an incubus in the consciousness of the playwrights and the
public, was in their thoughts when they wrote and heard such savage
misanthropic outbursts as those of Tourneur and of Marston. The sense of
the rottenness of the country whence they were obtaining their
intellectual nourishment, haunted with a sort of sickening fascination
the imaginative and psychological minds of the late sixteenth century,
of the men who had had time to outgrow the first cynical plunge of the
rebellious immature intellects of the contemporaries of Greene, Peele,
and Marlowe into that dissolved civilization. And of the great men who
were thus enthralled by Italy and Italian evil, only Shakespeare and
Massinger maintain or regain their serenity and hopefulness of spirit,
resist the incubus of horror: Shakespeare from the immense scope of his
vision, which permitted him to pass over the base and frightful parts of
human nature and see its purer and higher sides; Massinger from the very
superficiality of his insight and the narrowness of his sympathies,
which prevented his ever thoroughly realizing the very horrors he had
himself invented. But on the minds less elastic than that of
Shakespeare, and less superficial than that of Massinger, the Italian
evil weighed like a nightmare. With an infinitely powerful and
passionate imagination, and an exquisitely subtle faculty of mental
analysis; only lately freed from the dogma of the Middle Ages; unsettled
in their philosophy; inclined by wholesale classical reading to a sort
of negative atheism, a fatalistic and half-melancholy mixture of
epicurism and stoicism; yet keenly alive, from study of the Bible and of
religious controversies, to all questions of right and wrong; thus
highly wrought and deeply perplexed, the minds of the Elizabethan poets
were impressed by the wickedness of Italy as by the horrible deeds of
one whom we are accustomed to venerate as our guide, whom we cannot but
love as our benefactor, whom we cannot but admire as our superior: it
was a sense of frightful anomaly, of putrescence in beauty and
splendour, of death in life and life in death, which made the English
psychologist-poets savage and sombre, cynical and wrathful and hopeless.
The influence is the same on all, and the difference of attitude is
slight, and due to individual characters; but the gloom is the same in
each of them. In Webster--no mere grisly inventor of Radcliffian
horrors, as we are apt to think of the greatest of our dramatists--after
Shakespeare--in the noble and tender nature of Webster the sense is one
of ineffable sadness, unmarred by cynicism, but unbrightened by hope.
The villains, even if successful till death overtake them, are mere
hideous phantoms--

                       these wretched eminent things
     Leave no more fame behind 'em, than should one
     Fall in a frost, and leave his print in snow--

the victims of tortured conscience, or, worse still, the owners of
petrified hearts; there is nothing to envy in them. But none the better
is it for the good: if Ferdinands, Bosolas, Brachianos, and Flaminios
perish miserably, it is only after having done to death the tender and
brave Duchess, the gentle Antonio, the chivalric Marcello; there is
virtue on earth, but there is no justice in heaven. The half-pagan,
half-puritanic feeling of Webster bursts out in the dying speech of the
villain Bosola--

                    O, this gloomy world!
     In what a shadow, or deep pit of darkness,
     Doth womanish and fearful mankind live!
     Let worthy minds ne'er stagger in distrust
     To suffer death or shame for what is just.

Of real justice in this life or compensation in another, there is no
thought: Webster, though a Puritan in spirit, is no Christian in faith.
On Ford the influence is different; although equal, perhaps, in genius
to Webster, surpassing him even in intense tragic passion, he was far
below Webster, and, indeed, far below all his generation, in moral
fibre. The sight of evil fascinates him; his conscience staggers, his
sympathies are bedraggled in foulness; in the chaos of good and evil he
loses his reckoning, and recognizes the superiority only of strength of
passion, of passion for good or evil: the incestuous Giovanni, daring
his enemies like a wild beast at bay and cheating them of their revenge
by himself murdering the object of his horrible passion, is as heroic in
the eyes of Ford as the magnanimous Princess of Sparta, bearing with
unflinching spirit the succession of misfortunes poured down upon her,
and leading off the dance while messenger succeeds messenger of evil;
till, free from her duties as a queen, she sinks down dead. Cyril
Tourneur and John Marston are far more incomplete in genius than either
Webster or Ford, although Tourneur sometimes obtains a lurid and ghastly
tragic intensity which more than equals Ford when at his best; and
Marston, in the midst of crabbedness and dulness, sometimes has touches
of pathos and Michelangelesque foreshortenings of metaphor worthy of
Webster. But Tourneur and Marston have neither the constant sympathy
with oppressed virtue of the author of the "Duchess of Malfy," nor the
blind fury of passion of the poet of "Giovanni and Annabella;" they look
on grim and hopeless spectators at the world of fatalistic and insane
wickedness which they have created, in which their heroes and heroines
and villains are slowly entangled in inextricable evil. The men and
women of Tourneur and Marston are scarcely men and women at all: they
are mere vague spectres, showing their grisly wounds and moaning out
their miserable fate. There is around them a thick and clammy moral
darkness, dispelled only by the ghastly flashes of lurid virtue of
maniacs like Tourneur's Vindici and Hippolito; a crypt-like moral
stillness, haunted by strange evil murmurs, broken only by the
hysterical sobs and laughs of Marston's Antonios and Pandulphos. At the
most there issues out of the blood-reeking depth a mighty yell of pain,
a tremendous imprecation not only at sinful man but at unsympathizing
nature, like that of Marston's old Doge, dethroned, hunted down, crying
aloud into the grey dawn-mists of the desolate marsh by the lagoon--

                         O thou all-bearing earth
     Which men do gape for till thou cram'st their mouths
     And choak'st their throats for dust: O charme thy breast
     And let me sinke into thee.  Look who knocks;
     Andrugio calls. But O, she's deafe and blinde.
     A wretch but leane relief on earth can finde.

The tragic sense, the sense of utter blank evil, is stronger in all
these Elizabethan painters of Italian crime than perhaps in any other
tragic writers. There is, in the great and sinister pictures of Webster,
of Ford, of Tourneur, and of Marston, no spot of light, no distant
bright horizon. There is no loving suffering, resigned to suffer and to
pardon, like that of Desdemona, whose dying lips forgive the beloved who
kills from too great love; no consoling affection like Cordelia's, in
whose gentle embrace the poor bruised soul may sink into rest; no
passionate union in death with the beloved, like the union of Romeo and
Juliet; nothing but implacable cruelty, violent death received with
agonized protest, or at best as the only release from unmitigated misery
with which the wretch has become familiar,

     As the tann'd galley slave is with his oar.

Neither is there in these plays that solemn sense of heavenly justice,
of the fatality hanging over a house which will be broken when guilt
shall have been expiated, which lends a sort of serene background of
eternal justice to the terrible tales of Thebes and Argos. There is for
these men no fatality save the evil nature of man, no justice save the
doubling of crime, no compensation save revenge: there is for Webster
and Ford and Tourneur and Marston no heaven above, wrathful but
placable; there are no Gods revengeful but just: there is nothing but
this blood-stained and corpse-strewn earth, defiled by lust-burnt and
death-hungering men, felling each other down and trampling on one
another blindly in the eternal darkness which surrounds them. The world
of these great poets is not the open world with its light and its air,
its purifying storms and lightnings: it is the darkened Italian palace,
with its wrought-iron bars preventing escape; its embroidered carpets
muffling the foot steps; its hidden, suddenly yawning trapdoors; its
arras-hangings concealing masked ruffians; its garlands of poisoned
flowers; its long suites of untenanted darkened rooms, through which the
wretch is pursued by the half-crazed murderer; while below, in the
cloistered court, the clanking armour and stamping horses, and above, in
the carved and gilded hall, the viols and lutes and cornets make a
cheery triumphant concert, and drown the cries of the victim.


Such is the Italy of the Renaissance as we see it in the works of our
tragic playwrights: a country of mysterious horror, the sinister
reputation of which lasted two hundred years; lasted triumphantly
throughout the light and finikin eighteenth century, and found its
latest expression in the grim and ghastly romances of the school of Ann
Radcliff, romances which are but the last puny and grotesque descendants
of the great stock of Italian tragedies, born of the first
terror-stricken meeting of the England of Elizabeth with the Italy of
the late Renaissance. Is the impression received by the Elizabethan
playwrights a correct impression? Was Italy in the sixteenth century
that land of horrors? Reviewing in our memory the literature and art of
the Italian Renaissance, remembering the innumerable impressions of
joyous and healthy life with which it has filled us; recalling the
bright and thoughtless rhymes of Lorenzo dei Medici, of Politian, of
Bern!, and of Ariosto; the sweet and tender poetry of Bembo and Vittoria
Colonna and Tasso; the bluff sensuality of novelists like Bandello and
Masuccio, the Aristophanesque laughter of the comedy of Bibbiena and of
Beolco; seeing in our mind's eye the stately sweet matrons and noble
senators of Titian, the virginal saints and madonnas of Raphael, the
joyous angels of Correggio;--recapitulating rapidly all our impressions
of this splendid time of exuberant vitality, of this strong and serene
Renaissance, we answer without hesitation, and with only a smile of
contempt at our credulous ancestors--no. The Italy of the Renaissance
was, of all things that have ever existed or ever could exist, the most
utterly unlike the nightmare visions of men such as Webster and Ford,
Marston and Tourneur. The only Elizabethan drama which really represents
the Italy of the Renaissance is the comedy of Shakespeare, of Beaumont
and Fletcher, and of Ben Jonson and Massinger: to the Renaissance belong
those clear and sunny figures, the Portias, Antonios, Gratianos, Violas,
Petruchios, Bellarios, and Almiras; their faces do we see on the
canvases of Titian and the frescoes of Raphael; they are the real
children of the Italian Renaissance. These frightful Brachianos and
Annabellas and Ferdinands and Corombonas and Vindicis and Pieros of the
"White Devil," of the "Duchess of Malfy," of the "Revenger's Tragedy,"
and of "Antonio and Mellida," are mere fantastic horrors, as false as
the Counts Udolpho, the Spalatros, the Zastrozzis, and all their
grotesquely ghastly pseudo-Italian brethren of eighty years ago.

And, indeed, the Italy of the Renaissance, as represented in its
literature and its art, is the very negation of Elizabethan horrors. Of
all the mystery, the colossal horror and terror of our dramatists, there
is not the faintest trace in the intellectual productions of the Italian
Renaissance. The art is absolutely stainless: no scenes of horror, no
frightful martyrdoms, as with the Germans under Albrecht Dürer; no
abominable butcheries, as with the Bolognese of the seventeenth century;
no macerated saints and tattered assassins, as with the Spaniards; no
mystery, no contortion, no horrors: vigorous and serene beauty, pure and
cheerful life, real or ideal, on wall or canvas, in bronze or in marble.
The literature is analogous to the art, only less perfect, more tainted
with the weakness of humanity, less ideal, more real. It is essentially
human, in the largest sense of the word; or if it cease, in creatures
like Aretine, to be humanly clean, it becomes merely satyr-like,
swinish, hircose. But it is never savage in lust or violence; it is
quite free from the element of ferocity. It is essentially light and
quiet and well regulated, sane and reasonable, never staggering or
blinded by excess: it is full of intelligent discrimination, of
intelligent leniency, of well-bred reserved sympathy; it is civilized as
are the wide well-paved streets of Ferrara compared with the tortuous
black alleys of mediæval Paris; as are the well-lit, clean, spacious
palaces of Michelozzo or Bramante compared with the squalid, unhealthy,
uncomfortable mediæval castles of Dürer's etchings. It is indeed a
trifle too civilized; too civilized to produce every kind of artistic
fruit; it is--and here comes the crushing difference between the Italian
Renaissance and our Elizabethans' pictures of it--it is, this beautiful
rich literature of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, completely
deficient in every tragic element; it has intuition neither for tragic
event nor for tragic character; it affords not a single tragic page in
its poems and novels; it is incapable, after the most laborious and
conscientious study of Euripides and Seneca, utterly and miserably
incapable of producing a single real tragedy, anything which is not a
sugary pastoral or a pompous rhetorical exercise. The epic poets of the
Italian Renaissance, Pulci, Boiardo, Berni, and Ariosto, even the
stately and sentimental Tasso, are no epic poets at all. They are mere
light and amusing gossips, some of them absolute buffoons. Their
adventures over hill and dale are mere riding parties; their fights mere
festival tournaments, their enchantments mere pageant wonders. Events
like the death of Hector, the slaughter of Penelope's suitors, the
festive massacre of Chriemhilt, the horrible deceit of Alfonso the
Chaste sending Bernardo del Carpio his father's corpse on horseback--
things like these never enter their minds. When tragic events do by some
accident come into their narration, they cease to be tragic; they are
frittered away into mere pretty conceits like the death of Isabella and
the sacrifice of Olympia in the "Orlando Furioso;" or melted down into
vague pathos, like the burning of Olindo and Sofronia, and the death of
Clorinda by the sentimental Tasso. Neither poet, the one with his
cheerfulness, the other with his mild melancholy, brings home, conceives
the horror of the situation; the one treats the tragic in the spirit
almost of burlesque, the other entirely in the spirit of elegy. So,
again, with the novel writers: these professional retailers of anecdotes
will pick up any subject to fill their volumes. In default of pleasant
stories of filthy intrigue or lewd jest, men like Cinthio and Bandello
will gabble off occasionally some tragic story, picked out of a history
book or recently heard from a gossip: the stories of Harmodius and
Aristogeiton, of Disdémona and the Moorish Captain, of Roméo Montecchio
and Giulietta Cappelletti, of the Cardinal d'Aragona and the Duchess of
Amalfi, of unknown grotesque Persian Sophis and Turkish Bassas--stories
of murder, massacre, rape, incest, anything and everything, prattled
off, with a few words of vapid compassion and stale moralizing, in the
serene, cheerful, chatty manner in which they recount their Decameronian
escapades or Rabelaisian repartees. As it is with tragic action, so is
it with tragic character. The literature of the country which suggested
to our Elizabethans their colossal villains, can display only a few
conventional monsters, fire-eating, swashbuckler Rodomonts and Sultan
Malechs, strutting and puffing like the grotesque villains of
puppet-shows; Aladins and Ismenos, enchanters and ogres fit to be put
into Don Quixote's library: mere conventional rag puppets, doubtless
valued as such and no more by the shrewd contemporaries of Ariosto and
Tasso. The inhabitants of Tasso's world of romance are pale chivalric
unrealities, lifeless as Spenser's half-allegoric knights and ladies;
those of Pulci's Ardenne forests and Cathay deserts are buffoons such as
Florentine shopmen may have trapped out for their amusement in rusty
armour and garlands of sausages. The only lifelike heroes and heroines
are those of Ariosto. And they are most untragic, unromantic. The men
are occasionally small scoundrels, but unintentionally on the part of
the author. They show no deep moral cancers or plague-spots; they
display cheerfully all the petty dishonour and small lusts which the
Renaissance regarded as mere flesh and blood characteristics. So also
Ariosto's ladies: the charming, bright women, coquettish or Amazonian,
are frail and fickle to the degree which was permissible to a court
lady, who should be neither prudish nor coquettish; doing unchaste
things and listening to unchaste words simply, gracefully, without
prurience or horror; perfectly well-bred, _gentili_, as Ariosto calls
them; prudent also, according to the notions of the day, in limiting
their imprudence. The adventure of Fiordispina with Ricciardetto would
have branded an English serving-wench as a harlot; the behaviour of
Roger towards the lady he has just rescued from the sea-monster would
have blushingly been attributed by Spenser to one of his satyrs; but
these were escapades quite within Ariosto's notions of what was
permitted to a _gentil cavaliero_ and a _nobil donzella_; and if
Fiordispina and Roger are not like Florimell and Sir Calidore, still
less do they in the faintest degree resemble Tourneur and Marston's
Levidulcias and Isabellas and Lussuriosos. And with the exception
perhaps, of this heroine and this hero, we cannot find any very great
harm in Ariosto's ladies and gentlemen: we may, indeed, feel indignant
when we think that they replace the chaste and noble impossibilities of
earlier romance, the Rolands and Percivals, the Beatrices and Lauras of
the past; when we consider that they represent for Ariosto, not the
bespattered but the spotless, not the real but the ideal. All this may
awaken in us contempt and disgust; but if we consider these figures in
themselves as realities, and compare them with the evil figures of our
drama, we find that they are mere venial sinners--light, fickle,
amorous, fibbing--very human in their faults; human, trifling, mild, not
at all monstrous, like all the art products of the Renaissance.[1]

[1] The "Orlando Innamorato" of Boiardo contains, part i, canto 8, a
story too horrible and grotesque for me to narrate, of a monster born of
Marchino and his murdered sister-in-law, which forms a strange exception
to my rule, even as does, for instance, Matteo di Giovanni's massacre of
the Innocents. Can this story have been suggested, a ghastly nightmare,
by the frightful tale of Sigismondo Malatesta and the beautiful Borbona,
which was current in Boiardo's day?

A serene and spotless art, a literature often impure but always
cheerful, rational, civilized--this is what the Italian Renaissance
displays when we seek in it for spirits at all akin to Webster or Lope
de Vega, to Holbein or Ribera. To find the tragic we must wait for the
Bolognese painters of the seventeenth century, for Metastasio and
Alfieri in the eighteenth; it is useless seeking it in this serene and
joyous Renaissance. Where, then, in the midst of these spotless virgins,
these noble saints, these brilliant pseudo-chivalric joustings and
revels, these sweet and sonneteering pastorals, these scurrilous
adventures and loose buffooneries; where in this Italian Renaissance are
the horrors which fascinated so strangely our English playwrights: the
fratricides and incests, the frightful crimes of lust and blood which
haunted and half crazed the genius of Tourneur and Marston? Where in
this brilliant and courteous and humane and civilized nation are the
gigantic villains whose terrible features were drawn with such superb
awfulness of touch by Webster and Ford? Where in this Renaissance of
Italian literature, so cheerful and light of conscience, is the foul and
savage Renaissance of English tragedy? Does the art of Italy tell an
impossible, universal lie? or is the art of England the victim of an
impossible, universal hallucination?

Neither; for art can neither tell lies nor be the victim of
hallucination. The horror exists, and the light-heartedness exists; the
unhealthiness and the healthiness. For as, in that weird story by
Nathaniel Hawthorne, the daughter of the Paduan wizard is nurtured on
the sap and fruit and the emanations of poisonous plants, till they
become her natural sustenance, and she thrives and is strong and lovely;
while the youth, bred in the ordinary pure air and nourished on ordinary
wholesome food, faints and staggers as soon as he breathes the fatal
odours of the poison garden, and sinks down convulsed and crazed at the
first touch of his mistress' blooming but death-breathing lips; so also
the Italians, steeped in the sin of their country, seeing it daily and
hourly, remained intellectually healthy and serene; while the English,
coming from a purer moral atmosphere, were seized with strange moral
sickness of horror at what they had seen and could not forget. And the
nation which was chaste and true wrote tales of incest and treachery,
while the nation which was foul and false wrote poetry of shepherds and

The monstrous immorality of the Italian Renaissance, as I have elsewhere
shown in greater detail, was, like the immorality of any other
historical period, not a formal rebellion against God, but a natural
result of the evolution of the modern world. The Italy of the
Renaissance was one of the many victims which inevitable moral sequence
dooms to be evil in order that others may learn to be good: it was a
sacrifice which consisted in a sin, a sacrifice requiring frightful
expiation on the part of the victim. For Italy was subjected, during
well-nigh two centuries, to a slow process of moral destruction; a
process whose various factors--political disorganization, religious
indifference, scientific scepticism, wholesale enthusiasm for the
antique, breaking-up of mediæval standards and excessive growth of
industry, commerce, and speculative thought at the expense of warlike
and religious habits--were at the same time factors in the great advent
of modern civilization, of which Italy was the pioneer and the victim; a
process whose result was, in Italy, insensibly and inevitably to reduce
to chaos the moral and political organization of the nation; at once
rendering men completely unable to discriminate between good and evil,
and enabling a certain proportion of them to sin with complete impunity:
creating on the one hand moral indifference, and on the other social
irresponsibility. Civilization had kept pace with demoralization; the
faculty of reasoning over cause and effect had developed at the expense
of the faculty of judging of actions. The Italians of the Renaissance,
little by little, could judge only of the adaptation of means to given
ends; whether means or ends were legitimate or illegitimate they soon
became unable to perceive and even unable to ask. Success was the
criterion of all action, and power was its limits. Active and furious
national wickedness there was not: there was mere moral inertia on the
part of the people. The Italians of the Renaissance neither resisted
evil nor rebelled against virtue; they were indifferent to both, and a
little pressure sufficed to determine them to either. In the governed
classes, where the law was equal between men, and industry and commerce
kept up healthy activity, the pressure was towards good. The artizans
and merchants lived decent lives, endowed hospitals, listened to
edifying sermons, and were even moved (for a few moments) by men like
San Bernardino or Savonarola. In the governing classes, where all right
lay in force, where the necessity of self-defence induced treachery and
violence, and irresponsibility produced excess, the pressure was towards
evil. The princelets and prelates and mercenery generals indulged in
every sensuality, turned treachery into a science and violence into an
instrument; and sometimes let themselves be intoxicated into mad lust
and ferocity, as their subjects were occasionally intoxicated with mad
austerity and mysticism; but the excesses of mad vice, like the excesses
of mad virtue, lasted only a short time, or lasted only in individual
saints or blood-maniacs; and the men of the Renaissance speedily
regained their level of indifferent righteousness and of indifferent
sinfulness. Righteousness and sinfulness both passive, without power of
aggression or resistance, and consequently in strange and dreadful peace
with each other. The wicked men did not dislike virtue, nor the good men
vice: the villain could admire a saint, and the saint could condone a
villain. The prudery of righteousness was as unknown as the cynicism of
evil; the good man, like Guarino da Verona, would not shrink from the
foul man; the foul man, like Beccadelli, would not despise the pure man.
The ideally righteous citizen of Agnolo Pandolfini does not interfere
with the ideally unrighteous prince of Machiavelli: each has his own
position and conduct; and who can say whether, if the positions were
exchanged, the conduct might not be exchanged also? In such a condition
of things as this, evil ceases to appear monstrous; it is explained,
endured, condoned. The stately philosophical historians, so stoically
grand, and the prattling local chroniclers, so highly coloured and so
gentle and graceful; Guicciardini and Machiavelli and Valori and Segni,
on the one hand--Corio, Allegretti, Matarazzo, Infessura, on the other;
all these, from whom we learn the real existence of immorality far more
universal and abominable than our dramatists venture to show, relate
quietly, calmly, with analytical frigidness or gossiping levity, the
things which we often shrink from repeating, and sometimes recoil from
believing. Great statesmanlike historians and humble chattering
chroniclers are alike unaffected by what goes on around them: they
collect anecdotes and generalize events without the fumes of evil, among
which they seek for materials in the dark places of national or local
history, ever going to their imagination, ever making their heart sicken
and faint, and their fancy stagger and reel. The life of these
righteous, or at least, not actively sinning men, may be hampered,
worried, embittered, or even broken by the villainy of their fellow-men;
but, except in some visionary monk, life can never be poisoned by the
mere knowledge of evil. Their town maybe betrayed to the enemy, their
daughters may be dishonoured or poisoned, their sons massacred; they
may, in their old age, be cast starving on the world, or imprisoned or
broken by torture; and they will complain and be fierce in diatribe: the
fiercest diatribe written against any Pope of the Renaissance being,
perhaps, that of Platina against Paul II., who was a saint compared with
his successors Sixtus and Alexander, because the writer of the diatribe
and his friends were maltreated by this pope. When personally touched,
the Italians of the Renaissance will brook no villainy--the poniard
quickly despatches sovereigns like Galeazzo Maria Sforza; but when the
villainy remains abstract, injures neither themselves nor their
immediate surroundings, it awakens no horror, and the man who commits it
is by no means regarded as a fiend. The great criminals of the
Renaissance--traitors and murderers like Lodovico Sforza, incestuous
parricides like Gianpaolo Baglioni, committers of every iniquity under
heaven like Cæsar Borgia--move through the scene of Renaissance history,
as shown by its writers great and small, quietly, serenely,
triumphantly; with gracious and magnanimous bearing; applauded, admired,
or at least endured. On their passage no man, historian or chronicler,
unless the agent of a hostile political faction, rises up, confronts
them and says, "This man is a devil."

And devils these men were not: the judgment of their contemporaries,
morally completely perverted, was probably psychologically correct; they
misjudged the deeds, but rarely, perhaps, misjudged the man. To us
moderns, as to our English ancestors of the sixteenth century, this is
scarcely conceivable. A man who does devilish deeds is necessarily a
devil; and the evil Italian princes of the Renaissance, the Borgias,
Sforzas, Baglionis, Malatestas, and Riarios appear, through the mist of
horrified imagination, so many uncouth and gigantic monsters, nightmare
shapes, less like human beings than like the grand and frightful angels
of evil who gather round Milton's Satan in the infernal council. Such
they appear to us. But if we once succeed in calmly looking at them,
seeing them not in the lurid lights and shadows of our fancy, but in the
daylight of contemporary reality, we shall little by little be forced to
confess (and the confession is horrible) that most of these men are
neither abnormal nor gigantic. Their times were monstrous, not they.
They were not, that is clear, at variance with the moral atmosphere
which surrounded them; and they were the direct result of the social and
political condition. This may seem no answer; for although we know the
causes of monster births, they are monstrous none the less. What we mean
is not that the existence of men capable of committing such actions was
normal; we mean that the men who committed them, the conditions being
what they were, were not necessarily men of exceptional character. The
level of immorality was so high that a man need be no giant to reach up
into the very seventh heaven of iniquity. When to massacre at a banquet
a number of enemies enticed by overtures of peace was considered in
Cæsar Borgia merely a rather audacious and not very holy action,
indicative of very brilliant powers of diplomacy, then Cæsar Borgia
required, to commit such an action, little more than a brilliant
diplomatic endowment, unhampered by scruples and timidity; when a brave,
and gracious prince like Gianpaolo Baglioni could murder his kinsmen and
commit incest with his sister without being considered less gracious and
magnanimous, then Gianpaolo Baglioni might indeed be but an indifferent
villain; when treachery, lust, and bloodshed, although objected to in
theory, were condoned In practice, and were regarded as venial sins,
those who indulged in them might be in fact scarcely more than venial
sinners. In short, where a fiendish action might be committed without
the perpetrator being considered a fiend, there was no need of his being
one. And, indeed, the great villains of the Renaissance never take up
the attitude of fiends; one or two, like certain Visconti or Aragonese,
were madmen, but the others were more or less normal human beings. There
was no barrier between them and evil; they slipped into it, remained in
it, became accustomed to it; but a vicious determination to be wicked, a
feeling of the fiend within one, like that of Shakespeare's Richard, or
a gradual, conscious irresistible absorption into recognized iniquity
like Macbeth's, there was not. The mere sense of absolute power and
impunity, together with the complete silence of the conscience of the
public at large, can make a man do strange things. If Cæsar Borgia be
free to practise his archery upon hares and deer, why should he not
practise it upon these prisoners? Who will blame him? Who can prevent
him? If he had for his mistress every woman he might single out from
among his captives, why not his sister? If he have the force to carry
out a plan, why should a man stand in his way? The complete facility in
the commission of all actions quickly brings such a man to the limits of
the legitimate: there is no universal cry to tell him where those limits
are, no universal arm to pull him back. He pooh-poohs, pushes them a
little further, and does the iniquity. Nothing prevents his gratifying
his ambition, his avarice, and his lust, so he gratifies them. Soon,
seeking for further gratification, he has to cut new paths in villainy:
he has not been restrained by man, who is silent; he is soon restrained
no longer by nature, whose only voice is in man's conscience. Pleasure
in wanton cruelty takes the same course: he prefers to throw javelins at
men and women to throwing javelins at bulls or bears, even as he prefers
throwing javelins at bulls or bears rather than at targets; the
excitement is greater; the instinct is that of the soldiers of Spain and
of France, who invariably preferred shooting at a valuable fresco like
Sodoma's Christ, at Siena, or Lo Spagna's Madonna, at Spoleto, to
practising against a mere worthless piece of wood. Such a man as Cæsar
Borgia is the _nec plus ultra_ of a Renaissance villain; he takes, as
all do not, absolute pleasure in evil as such. Yet Cæsar Borgia is not a
fiend nor a maniac. He can restrain himself whenever circumstances or
policy require it; he can be a wise administrator, a just judge. His
portraits show no degraded criminal; he is, indeed, a criminal in
action, but not necessarily a criminal in constitution, this fiendish
man who did not seem a fiend to Machiavel. We are astonished at the
strange anomaly in the tastes and deeds of these Renaissance villains;
we are amazed before their portraits. These men, who, in the frightful
light of their own misdeeds, appear to us as complete demons or complete
madmen, have yet much that is amiable and much that is sane; they
stickle at no abominable lust, yet they are no bestial sybarites; they
are brave, sober, frugal, enduring like any puritan; they are
treacherous, rapacious, cruel, utterly indifferent to the sufferings of
their enemies, yet they are gentle in manner, passionately fond of
letters and art, superb in their works of public utility, and not
incapable of genuinely admiring men of pure life like Bernardino or
Savonarola: they are often, strange to say, like the frightful Baglionis
of Perugia, passionately admired and loved by their countrymen. The
bodily portraits of these men, painted by the sternly realistic art of
the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, are even more confusing to
our ideas than their moral portraits drawn by historians and
chroniclers. Cæsar Borgia, with his long fine features and noble head,
is a gracious and refined prince; there is, perhaps, a certain duplicity
in the well-cut lips; the beard, worn full and peaked in Spanish
fashion, forms a sort of mask to the lower part of the face, but what we
see is noble and intellectual. Sigismondo Malatesta has on his medals a
head whose scowl has afforded opportunity for various fine descriptions
of a blood maniac; but the head, thus found so expressive, of this
monster, is infinitely more human than the head on the medals of
Lionello d'Este, one of the most mild and cultivated of the decently
behaved Ferrarese princes. The very flower of precocious iniquity, the
young Baglionis, Vitellis, and Orsinis, grouped round Signorelli's
preaching Antichrist at Orvieto, are, in their gallantly trimmed jerkins
and jewelled caps, the veriest assemblage of harmless young dandies,
pretty and insipid; we can scarcely believe that these mild beardless
striplings, tight-waisted and well-curled like girls of sixteen, are the
terrible Umbrian brigand condottieri--Gianpaolos, Simonettos,
Vitellozzos, and Astorres--whose abominable deeds fill the pages of the
chronicles of Matarazzo, of Frolliere, of Monaldeschi. Nowhere among the
portraits of Renaissance monsters do we meet with anything like those
Roman emperors, whose frightful effigies, tumid, toad-like Vitelliuses
or rage-convulsed Caracallas, fill all our museums in marble or bronze
or loathsome purple porphyry; such types as these are as foreign to the
reality of the Italian Renaissance as are the Brachianos and
Lussuriosos, the Pieros and Corombonas, to the Italian fiction of the
sixteenth century.

Nor must such anomalies between the type of the men and their deeds,
between their abominable crimes and their high qualities, be merely made
a subject for grandiloquent disquisition. The man of the Renaissance, as
we have said, had no need to be a monster to do monstrous things; a
crime did not necessitate such a moral rebellion as requires complete
unity of nature, unmixed wickedness; it did not precipitate a man for
ever into a moral abyss where no good could ever enter. Seeing no
barrier between the legitimate and the illegitimate, he could alternate
almost unconsciously between them. He was never shut out from evil, and
never shut out from good; the judgment of men did not dress him in a
convict's jacket which made evil his only companion; it did not lock him
up in a moral dungeon where no ray of righteousness could enter; he was
not condemned, like the branded harlot, to hopeless infamy. He need be
bad only as much and as long as he chose. Hence, on the part of the
evil-doer of the Renaissance, no necessity either for violent rebellion
or for sincere repentance; hence the absence of all characters such as
the tragic writer seeks, developed by moral struggle, warped by the
triumph of vice, or consciously soiled in virtue. What a "Revenger's
Tragedy" might not Cyril Tourneur have made, had he known all the
details, of the story of Alessandro de' Medici's death! What a Vindici
he would have made of the murderer Lorenzino; with what a strange lurid
grandeur he would have surrounded the plottings of the pander Brutus.
But Lorenzino de' Medici had none of the feeling of Tourneur's Vindici;
there was in him none of the ghastly spirit of self-immolation of the
hero of Tourneur in his attendance upon the foul creature whom he leads
to his death. Lorenzino had the usual Brutus mania of his day, but
unmixed with horror. To be the pander and jester of the Duke was no pain
to his nature; there was probably no sense of debasement in the
knowledge either of his employer or of his employment. To fasten on
Alexander, to pretend to be his devoted slave and server of his lust,
this piece of loathsome acting, merely enhanced, by the ingenuity it
required, the attraction of what to Lorenzino was an act of heroism. His
ambition was to be a Brutus; that he had bespattered the part probably
never occurred to him. The indifference to good and evil permitted the
men of the Renaissance to mix the two without any moral sickness, as it
permitted them to alternate them without a moral struggle. Such is the
wickedness of the Renaissance: not a superhuman fury of lust and
cruelty, like Victor Hugo's Lucrezia Borgia; but an indifferent, a
characterless creature like the Lucrezia Borgia of history: passive to
surrounding influences, blind to good and evil, infamous in the infamous
Rome, among her father and brother's courtesans and cut-throats; grave
and gracious! in the grave and gracious Ferrara, among the Platonic
poets and pacific courtiers of the court of the Estensi. Thus, in the
complete prose and colourlessness of reality, has the evil of the
Renaissance been understood and represented only by one man, and
transmitted to us in one pale and delicate psychological masterpiece far
more loathsome than any elaborately hideous monster painting by Marston
or Tourneur. The man who thus conceived the horrors of the Italian
Renaissance in the spirit in which they were committed is Ford. In his
great play he has caught the very tone of the Italian Renaissance: the
abominableness of the play consisting not in the coarse slaughter scenes
added merely to please the cockpit of an English theatre, but in the
superficial innocence of tone; in its making evil lose its appearance of
evil, even as it did to the men of the Renaissance. Giovanni and
Annabella make love as if they were Romeo and Juliet: there is scarcely
any struggle, and no remorse; they weep and pay compliments and sigh and
melt in true Aminta style. There is in the love of the brother and
sister neither the ferocious heat of tragic lust, nor the awful shudder
of unnatural evil; they are lukewarm, neither good nor bad. Their
abominable love is in their own eyes a mere weakness of the flesh; there
is no sense of revolt against man and nature and God; they are neither
dragged on by irresistible demoniac force nor held back by the grip of
conscience; they slip and slide, even like Francesca and Paolo. They pay
each other sweet and mawkish compliments. The ferocious lust of
Francesco Cenci is moral compared with the way in which the "trim youth"
Giovanni praises Annabella's beauty; the blushing, bride-like way in
which Annabella, "white in her soul," acknowledges her long love. The
atrociousness of all this is, that if you strike out a word or two the
scene may be read with perfect moral satisfaction, with the impression
that this is really "sacred love." For in these scenes Ford wrote with a
sweetness and innocence truly diabolical, not a shiver of horror passing
through him--serene, unconscious; handling the filthy without sense of
its being unclean, to the extent, the incredible extent, of making
Giovanni and Annabella swear on their mother's ashes eternal fidelity in
incest: horror of horrors, to which no Walpurgis Night abomination could
ever approach, this taking as witness of the unutterable, not an obscene
Beelzebub with abominable words and rites, but the very holiest of
holies. If ever Englishman approached the temper of the Italian
Renaissance, it was not Tourneur, nor Shelley with his cleansing hell
fires of tragic horror, but this sweet and gentle Ford. If ever an
artistic picture approached the reality of such a man as Gianpaolo
Baglioni, the incestuous murderer whom the Frolliere chronicler,
enthusiastic like Matarazzo, admires, for "his most beautiful person,
his benign and amiable manner and lordly bearing," it is certainly not
the elaborately villainous Francesco Cenci of Shelley, boasting like
another Satan of his enormous wickedness, exhausting in his picture of
himself the rhetoric of horror, committing his final enormity merely to
complete the crown of atrocities in which he glories; it is no such
tragic impossibility of moral hideousness as this; it is the Giovanni of
Ford, the pearl of virtuous and studious youths, the spotless, the
brave, who, after a moment's reasoning, tramples on a vulgar
prejudice--"Shall a peevish sound, a customary form from man to man, of
brother and of sister, be a bar 'twixt my eternal happiness and me?" who
sins with a clear conscience, defies the world, and dies, bravely,
proudly, the "sacred name" of Annabella on his lips, like a chivalrous
hero. The pious, pure Germany of Luther will give the world the tragic
type of the science-damned Faustus; the devout and savage Spain of
Cervantes will give the tragic type of Don Juan, damned for mockery of
man and of death and of heaven; the Puritan England of Milton will give
the most sublimely tragic type of all, the awful figure of him who says,
"Evil, be thou my good." What tragic type can this evil Italy of
Renaissance give to the world? None: or at most this miserable, morbid,
compassionated Giovanni: whom Ford would have us admire, and whom we can
only despise.

The blindness to evil which constitutes the criminality of the
Renaissance is so great as to give a certain air of innocence. For the
men of that time were wicked solely from a complete sophistication of
ideas, a complete melting away (owing to slowly operating political and
intellectual tendencies) of all moral barriers. They walked through the
paths of wickedness with the serenity with which they would have trod
the ways of righteousness; seeing no boundary, exercising their psychic
limbs equally in the open and permitted spaces and in the forbidden.
They plucked the fruit of evil without a glance behind them, without a
desperate setting of their teeth; plucked it openly, calmly, as they
would have plucked the blackberries in the hedge; bit into it, ate it,
with perfect ease and serenity, saying their prayers before and after,
as if it were their natural daily bread mentioned in the Lord's Prayer;
no grimace or unseemly leer the while; no moral indigestion or nightmare
(except very rarely) in consequence. Hence the serenity of their
literature and art. These men and women of the Italian Renaissance have,
in their portraits, a very pleasing nobility of aspect: serene,
thoughtful, healthy, benign. Titian's courtesans are our archetypes of
dignified womanhood; we might fancy Portia or Isabella with such calm,
florid beauty, so wholly unmeretricious and uncankered. The humanists
and priests who lie outstretched on the acanthus-leaved and
flower-garlanded sarcophagi by Desiderio and Rossellino are the very
flowers of refined and gentle men of study; the youths in Botticelli's
"Adoration of The Magi," for instance, are the ideal of Boiardo's
chivalry, Rinaldos and Orlandos every one; the corseleted generals of
the Renaissance, so calm and stern and frank, the Bartolomeo Colleoni of
Verrocchio, the Gattamelata by Giorgione (or Giorgione's pupil), look
fit to take up the banner of the crusade: that Gattamelata in the Uffizi
gallery especially looks like a sort of military Milton: give him a pair
of wings and he becomes at once Signorelli's archangel, clothed in
heavenly steel and unsheathing the flaming sword of God. Compare with
these types Holbein's courtiers of Henry VIII.; what scrofulous hogs!
Compare Sanchez Coello's Philip II. and Don Carlos; what monomaniacs.
Compare even Dürer's magnificent head of Willibald Pirkheimer: how the
swine nature is blended with the thinker. And the swine will be subdued,
the thinker will triumph. Why? Just because there is a contest--because
the thinker-Willibald is conscious of the swine-Willibald. In this
coarse, brutal, deeply stained Germany of the time of Luther, affording
Dürer and Holbein, alas! how many besotten and bestial types, there will
arise a great conflict: the obscene leering Death--Death-in-Life as he
really is--will skulk everywhere, even as in the prints of the day,
hideous and powerful, trying, with hog's snout, to drive Christ Himself
out of limbo; but he is known, seen, dreaded. The armed knight of Dürer
turns away from his grimacings, and urges on his steel-covered horse. He
visits even the best, even Luther in the Wartburg; but the good men open
their Bibles, cry "Vade retro!" and throw their inkstands at him,
showing themselves terrified and ruffled after the combat. And these
Germans of Luther's are disgustingly fond of blood and horrors: they
like to see the blood spirt from the decapitated trunk, to watch its
last contortions; they hammer with a will (in Dürer's "Passion") the
nails of the cross, they peel off strips of skin in the flagellation.
But then they can master all that; they can be pure, charitable; they
have gentleness for the hare and the rabbit, like Luther; they kneel
piously before the cross-bearing stag, like Saint Hubert. Not so the
Italians. They rarely or never paint horrors, or death, or abominations.
Their flagellated Christ, their arrow-riddled Sebastian, never writhe or
howl with pain; indeed, they suffer none. Judith, in Mantegna's print,
puts the head of Holophernes into her bag with the serenity of a muse;
and the head is quite clean, without loathsome drippings or torn
depending strings of muscle; unconvulsed, a sort of plaster cast. The
tragedy of Christ, the tragedy of Judith; the physical agency shadowing
the moral agony; the awfulness of victim and criminal--the whole tragic
meaning was unknown to the light and cheerful contemporaries of Ariosto,
the cold and cynical contemporaries of Machiavelli.

The tragic passion and imagination which, in the noble and grotesque
immaturity of the Middle Ages, had murmured confusedly in the popular
legends which gave to Ezzelin the Fiend as a father, and Death and Sin
as adversaries at dice; which had stammered awkwardly but grandly in the
school Latin of Mussato's tragedy of "Eccerinis;" which had wept and
stormed and imprecated and laughed for horror in the infinite
tragedy--pathetic, grand, and grotesque, like all great tragedy--of
Dante; this tragic passion and imagination, this sense of the horrible
and the terrible, had been forfeited by the Italy of the Renaissance,
lost with its sense of right and wrong. The Italian Renaissance, supreme
in the arts which require a subtle and strong perception of the
excellence of mere lines and colours and lights and shadows, which
demand unflinching judgment of material qualities; was condemned to
inferiority in the art which requires subtle and strong perception of
the excellence of human emotion and action; in the art which demands
unflinching judgment of moral motives. The tragic spirit is the
offspring of the conscience of a people. The sense of the imaginative
grandeur of evil may perhaps be a forerunner of demoralization; but such
a sense of wonder and awe, such an imaginative fascination of the
grandly, superhumanly wicked such a necessity to magnify a villain into
a demon with archangelic splendour of power of evil, can exist only in
minds pure and strong, braced up to virtue, virgin of evil, with a
certain childlike power of wonder; minds to whom it appears that to be
wicked requires a powerful rebellion; minds accustomed to nature and
nature's plainness, to whom the unnatural can be no subject of
sophistication and cynicism, but only of wonder. While, in Italy,
Giraldi Cinthio prattles off to a gay party of ladies and gentlemen
stories of murder and lust as frightful as those of "Titus' Andronicus,"
of "Giovanni and Annabella," and of the "Revenger's Tragedy," in the
intelligent, bantering tone in which he tells his Decameronian tales; in
England, Marston, in his superb prologue to the second part of "Antonio
and Mellida," doubts whether all his audience can rise to the conception
of the terrible passions he wishes to display:

     If any spirit breathes within this round
     Uncapable of weighty passion,
     Who winks and shuts his apprehension up
     From common sense of what men were and are,
     Who would not know what men must be: let such
     Hurry amain from our black visaged shows;
     We shall affright their eyes.

The great criminals of Italy were unconscious of being criminals; the
nation was unconscious of being sinful. Bembo's sonnets were the fit
reading for Lucrezia Borgia; pastorals by Guarini the dramatic
amusements of Rannuccio Farnesi; if Vittoria Accoramboni and Francesco
Cenci read anything besides their prayerbook or ribald novels, it was
some sugary "Aminta" or "Pastor Fido:" their own tragedies by Webster
and Shelley they could never have understood.

And thus the Italians of the Renaissance walked placidly through the
evil which surrounded them; for them, artists and poets, the sky was
always blue and the sun always bright, and their art and their poetry
were serene. But the Englishmen of the sixteenth century were astonished
and fascinated by the evil of Italy: the dark pools of horror, the dabs
of infamy which had met them ever and anon in the brilliant southern
cities, haunted them like nightmare, bespattered for them the clear blue
sky, and danced, black and horrible spots, before the face of the sun.
The remembrance of Italian wickedness weighed on them like an incubus,
clung to them with a frightful fascination. While the foulest criminals
of Italy discussed the platonic vapidnesses of Bembo's sonnets, and wept
at the sweet and languid lamentations of Guarini's shepherds and nymphs;
the strong Englishmen of the time of Shakespeare, the men whose children
were to unsheathe under Cromwell the sword of righteousness, listened
awe-stricken and fascinated with horror to the gloomy and convulsed, the
grand and frightful plays of Webster and of Tourneur. And the sin of the
Renaissance, which the art of Italy could neither pourtray nor perceive;
appeared on the stage decked in superb and awful garb by the tragic
imagination of Elizabethan England.


The thought of winter is bleak and barren to our mind; the late year is
chary of æsthetic as of all other food. In the country it does not bring
ugliness; but it terribly reduces and simplifies things, depriving them
of two-thirds of their beauty. In sweeping away the last yellow leaves,
the last crimson clouds, and in bleaching the last green grass, it
effaces a whole wealth of colour. It deprives us still more by actually
diminishing the number of forms: for what summer had left rich, various,
complex, winter reduces to blank uniformity. There is a whole world of
lovely things, shapes and tints, effects of light, colour, and
perspective in a wood, as long as it is capriciously divided into a
thousand nooks and crannies by projecting boughs, bushes, hedges, and
hanging leaves; and this winter clears away and reduces to a
Haussmanized simplicity of plan. There is a smaller world, yet one quite
big enough for a summer's day, in any hay field, among the barren oats,
the moon-daisies, the seeded grasses, the sorrel, the buttercups, all
making at a distance a wonderful blent effect of luminous brown and
lilac and russet foamed with white; and forming, when you look close
into it, an unlimited forest of delicately separate stems and bloom and
seed; every plant detaching itself daintily from an undefinable
background of things like itself. This winter turns into a rusty brown
and green expanse, or into a bog, or a field of frozen upturned clods.
The very trees, stripped of their leaves, look as if prepared for
diagrams of the abstraction tree. Everything, in short, is reduced most
philosophically to its absolutely ultimate elements; and beauty is got
rid of almost as completely as by a metaphysical definition. This
æsthetic barrenness of winter is most of all felt in southern climates,
to which it brings none of the harsh glitter and glamour of snow and
ice; but leaves the frozen earth and leafless trees merely bare, without
the crisp sheen of snow, the glint and glimmer of frost and icicles,
forming for the denuded rigging of branches a fantastic system of ropes
and folded sails. In the South, therefore, unless you go where winter
never comes, and autumn merely merges into a lengthened spring, winter
is more than ever negative, dreary, barren to our fancy. Yet even this
southern winter gives one things, very lovely things: things which one
scarcely notices perhaps, yet which would baffle the most skilled
painter to imitate, the most skilled poet to describe. Thus, for
instance, there is a peculiar kind of morning by no means uncommon in
Tuscany in what is completely winter, not a remnant of autumn or a
beginning of spring. It is cold, but windless; the sky full of sun, the
earth full of mist. Sun and mist uniting into a pale luminousness in
which all things lose body, become mere outline; bodiless hills taking
shape where they touch the sky with their curve; clear line of irregular
houses, of projecting ilex roundings and pointed cypresses marking the
separation between hill and sky, the one scarcely more solid, corporeal
than the other; the hill almost as blue as the sky, the sky almost as
vaporous as the hill; the tangible often more ghostlike than the
intangible. But the sun has smitten the higher hills, and the vapours
have partially rolled down, in a scarcely visible fold, to their feet;
and the high hill, not yet rock or earth, swells up into the sky as
something real, but fluid and of infinite elasticity. All in front the
plain is white with mist; or pinkish grey with the unseen agglomeration
of bare tree boughs and trunks, of sere field; till, nearer us, the
trees become more visible, the short vinebearing elms in the fields,
interlacing their branches compressed by distance, the clumps of
poplars, so scant and far between from nearly, so serried and compact
from afar; and between them an occasional flush, a tawny vapour of the
orange twigged osiers; and then, still nearer, the expanse of sere
field, of mottled, crushed-together, yellowed grass and grey brown
leaves; things of the summer which winter is burying to make room for
spring. Along the reaches of the river the clumps of leafless poplars
are grey against the pale, palest blue sky; grey but with a warmth of
delicate brown, almost of rosiness. Grey also the shingle in the river
bed; the river itself either (if after rain) pale brown, streaked with
pale blue sky reflections; or (after a drought), low, grey, luminous
throughout its surface, you might think, were it not that the metallic
sheen, the vacillating sparkles of where the sun, smiting down, frets it
into a shifting mass of scintillating facets, gives you the impression
that this other luminousness of silvery water must be dull and dead.
And, looking up the river, it gradually disappears, its place marked
only, against the all-pervading pale blue haze, by the brownish grey
spectre of the furthest poplar clumps.

This, I have said, is an effect which winter produces, nay, even a
southern winter, with those comparatively few and slight elements at its
disposal. We see it, notice it, and enjoy its delicate loveliness; but
while so doing we do not think, or we forget, that the habit of
noticing, nay, the power of perceiving such effects as this, is one of
those habits and powers which we possess, so to speak, only since
yesterday. The possibility of reproducing in painting effects like this
one; or, more truthfully, the wish to reproduce them, is scarcely as old
as our own century; it is, perhaps, the latest born of all our artistic
wishes and possibilities. But the possibility of any visible effect
being perceived and reproduced by the painter, usually precedes--at
least where any kind of pictorial art already exists--the perception of
such effects by those who are not painters, and the attempt to reproduce
them by means of words. We do not care to admit that our grandfathers
were too unlike ourselves, lest ourselves should be found too unlike our
grandchildren. We hold to the metaphysic fiction of man having always
been the same, and only his circumstances having changed; not admitting
that the very change of circumstances implies something new in the man
who altered them; and similarly we shrink from the thought of the many
things which we used never to notice, and which it has required a class
of men endowed with special powers of vision to find out, copy, and
teach us to see and appreciate. Yet there is scarcely one of us who has
not a debt towards some painter or writer for first directing his
attention to objects or effects which may have abounded around him, but
unnoticed or confused with others. The painters, as I have said, the men
who see more keenly and who study what they have seen, naturally come
first; nor does the poet usually describe what his contemporary painter
attempts not to paint. An exception might, perhaps, require to be made
for Dante, who would seem to have seen and described many things left
quite untouched by Giotto, and even by Raphael; but in estimating Dante
we must be careful to distinguish the few touches which really belong to
him, from the great mass of colour and detail which we have
unconsciously added thereto, borrowing from our own experience and from
innumerable pictures and poems which, at the moment, we may not in the
least remember; and having done so, we shall be led to believe that
those words which suggest to us so clear and coloured a vision of scenes
often complex and uncommon, presented to his own mind only a
comparatively simple and incomplete idea: the atmospheric effects,
requiring a more modern painter than Turner, which we read between the
lines of the "Inferno" and the "Purgatorio," most probably existed as
little for Dante as they did for Giotto; the poet seeing and describing
in reality only salient forms of earth and rock, monotonous in tint and
deficient in air, like those in the backgrounds of mediæval Tuscan
frescoes and panels. Be this as it may, the fact grows daily on me that
men have not at all times seen in the same degree the nature which has
always equally surrounded them; and that during some periods they have,
for explicable reasons, seen less not only than their successors, but
also than their predecessors; and seen that little in a manner
conventional in proportion to its monotony. There are things about which
certain historic epochs are strangely silent; so much so, indeed, that
the breaking of the silence impresses us almost as the more than human
breaking of a spell; and that silence Is the result of a grievous wrong,
of a moral disease which half closes the eyes of the fancy, or of a
moral poison which presents to those sorely aching eyes only a glimmer
amid darkness. And it is as the most singular instance of such
conditions that I should wish to study, in themselves, their causes and
effects, the great differences existing between the ancients and
ourselves on the one hand, and the men of the genuine Middle Ages on the
other, in the degree of interest taken respectively by each in external
nature, the seasons and that rural life which seems to bring us into
closest contact with them both.

There is, of course, a considerable difference between the manner in
which the country, its aspects and occupations, are treated by the poets
of Antiquity and by those of our own day; in the mode of enjoying them
of an ancient who had read Theocritus and Virgil and Tibullus, and a
modern whose mind is unconsciously full of the influence of Wordsworth
or Shelley or Ruskin. But it is a mere difference of mode; and is not
greater, I think, than the difference between the descriptions in the
"Allegro," and the descriptions in "Men and Women;" than the difference
between the love of our Elizabethans for the minuter details of the
country, the flowers by the stream, the birds in the bushes, the
ferrets, frogs, lizards, and similar small creatures; and the pleasure
of our own contemporaries in the larger, more shifting, and perplexing
forms and colours of cloud, sunlight, earth, and rock. The description
of effects such as these latter ones, nay, the attention and
appreciation given to them, are things of our own century, even as is
the power and desire of painting them. Landscape, in the sense of our
artists of to-day, is a very recent thing; so recent that even in the
works of Turner, who was perhaps the earliest landscape painter in the
modern sense, we are forced to separate from the real rendering of real
effects, a great deal in which the tints of sky and sea are arranged and
distributed as a mere vast conventional piece of decoration. Nor could
it be otherwise. For, in poetry as in painting, landscape could become a
separate and substantive art only when the interest in the mere ins and
outs of human adventure, in the mere structure and movement of human
limbs, had considerably diminished. There is room, in epic or drama,
only for such little scraps of description as will make clearer, without
checking, the human action; as there is place, in a fresco of a miracle,
or a little picture of carousing and singing bacchantes and Venetian
dandies, only for such little bits of laurel grove, or dim plain, or
blue alpine crags, as can be introduced in the gaps between head and
head, or figure and figure.

Thus, therefore, a great difference must exist between what would be
felt and written about the country and the seasons by an ancient, by a
man of the sixteenth century, or by a contemporary of our own: a
difference, however, solely of mode; for we feel sure that of the three
men each would find something to delight himself and wherewith to
delight others among the elm-bounded English meadows, the fiat
cornfields of central France, the vine and olive yards of Italy--
wherever, in short, he might find himself face to face and, so to
speak, hand in hand with Nature. But about the man of the Middle Ages
(unless, perhaps, in Italy, where the whole Middle Ages were merely an
earlier Renaissance) we could have no such assurance; nay, we might be
persuaded that, however great his genius, be he even a Gottfried von
Strassburg, or a Walther von der Vogelweide, or the unknown Frenchman
who has left us "Aucassin et Nicolette," he would bring back impressions
only of two things, authorized and consecrated by the poetic routine of
his contemporaries--of spring and of the woods.

There is nothing more characteristic of mediæval poetry than this
limitation. Of autumn, of winter; of the standing corn, the ripening
fruit of summer; of all these things so dear to the ancients and to all
men of modern times, the Middle Ages seem to know nothing. The autumn
harvests, the mists and wondrous autumnal transfiguration of the
humblest tree, or bracken, or bush; the white and glittering splendour
of winter, and its cosy life by hearth or stove; the drowsiness of
summer, its suddenly inspired wish for shade and dew and water, all this
left them stolid. To move them was required the feeling of spring, the
strongest, most complete and stirring impression which, in our temperate
climates, can be given by Nature. The whole pleasurableness of warm air,
clear moist sky, the surprise of the shimmer of pale green, of the
yellowing blossom on tree tops, the first flicker of faint shadow where
all has been uniform, colourless, shadeless; the replacing of the long
silence by the endless twitter and trill of birds, endless in its way as
is the sea, twitter and trill on every side, depths and depths of it, of
every degree of distance and faintness, a sea of bird song; and along
with this the sense of infinite renovation to all the earth and to man's
own heart. Of all Nature's effects this one alone goes sparkling to the
head; and it alone finds a response in mediæval poetry. Spring, spring,
endless spring--for three long centuries throughout the world a dreary
green monotony of spring all over France, Provence, Italy, Spain,
Germany, England; spring, spring, nothing but spring even in the
mysterious countries governed by the Grail King, by the Fairy Morgana,
by Queen Proserpine, by Prester John; nay, in the new Jerusalem, in the
kingdom of Heaven itself, nothing but spring; till one longs for a bare
twig, for a yellow leaf, for a frozen gutter, as for a draught of water
in the desert. The green fields and meadows enamelled with painted
flowers, how one detests them! how one would rejoice to see them well
sprinkled with frost or burnt up to brown in the dry days! the birds,
the birds which warble through every sonnet, canzone, sirventes, glosa,
dance lay, roundelay, virelay, rondel, ballade, and whatsoever else it
may be called,--how one wishes them silent for ever, or their twitter,
the tarantarantandei of the eternal German nightingale especially,
drowned by a good howling wind J After any persistent study of mediæval
poetry, one's feeling towards spring is just similar to that of the
morbid creature in Schubert's "Müllerin," who would not stir from home
for the dreadful, dreadful greenness, which he would fain bleach with
tears, all around:

     Ich möchte ziehn in die Welt hinaus, hinaus in die weite
     Wenn's nur so grün, so grün nicht war da draussen in
         Wald und Feld.

Moreover this mediæval spring is the spring neither of the shepherd, nor
of the farmer, nor of any man to whom spring brings work and anxiety and
hope of gain; it is a mere vague spring of gentle-folk, or at all events
of well-to-do burgesses, taking their pleasure on the lawns of castle
parks, or the green holiday places close to the city, much as we see
them in the first part of "Faust;" a sweet but monotonous charm of
grass, beneath green lime tree, or in the South the elm or plane; under
which are seated the poet and the fiddler, playing and singing for the
young women, their hair woven with chaplets of fresh flowers, dancing
upon the sward. And poet after poet, Provençal, Italian, and German,
Nithart and Ulrich, and even the austere singer of the Holy Grail,
Wolfram, pouring out verse after verse of the songs in praise of spring,
which they make even as girls wind their garlands: songs of quaint and
graceful ever-changing rythm, now slowly circling, now bounding along,
now stamping out the measure like the feet of the dancers, now winding
and turning as wind and twine their arms in the long-linked mazes; while
the few and ever-repeated ideas, the old, stale platitudes of praise of
woman, love pains, joys of dancing, pleasure of spring (spring, always
spring, eternal, everlasting spring) seem languidly to follow the life
and movement of the mere metre. Poets, these German, Provençal, French,
and early Italian lyrists, essentially (if we venture to speak heresy)
not of ideas or emotions, but of metre, of rythm and rhyme; with just
the minimum of necessary thought, perpetually presented afresh just as
the words, often and often repeated and broken up and new combined, of a
piece of music--poetry which is in truth a sort of music, dance or dirge
or hymn music as the case may be, more than anything else.

As it is in mediæval poetry with the seasons, so it is likewise with the
country and its occupations: as there is only spring, so there is only
the forest. Of the forest, mediæval poetry has indeed much to say; more
perhaps, and more familiar with its pleasures, than Antiquity. There is
the memorable forest where the heroes of the Nibelungen go to hunt,
followed by their waggons of provisions and wine; where Siegfried
overpowers the bear, and returns to his laughing comrades with the huge
thing chained to his saddle; where, in that clear space which we see so
distinctly, a lawn on to which the blue black firs are encroaching,
Siegfried stoops to drink of the spring beneath the lime tree, and Hagen
drives his boarspear straight through the Nibelung's back. There is the
thick wood, all a golden haze through the young green, and with an
atmosphere of birds' song, where King Mark discovers Tristram and Iseult
in the cave, the deceitful sword between them, as Gottfried von
Strassburg relates with wonderful luscious charm. The forest, also, more
bleak and austere, where the four outlawed sons of Aymon live upon roots
and wild animals, where they build their castle by the Meuse. Further,
and most lovely of all, the forest in which Nicolette makes herself a
hut of branches, bracken, and flowers, through which the stars peep down
on her whiteness as she dreams of her Lord Aucassin. The forest where
Huon meets Oberon; and Guy de Lusignan, the good snake-lady; and
Parzival finds on the snow the feathers and the drops of blood which
throw him into his long day-dream; and Owen discovers the tomb of
Merlin; the forest, in short, which extends its interminable glades and
serried masses of trunks and arches of green from one end to the other
of mediæval poetry. It is very beautiful, this forest of the Middle
Ages; but it is monotonous, melancholy; and has a terrible eeriness in
its endlessness. For there is nothing else. There are no meadows where
the cows lie lazily, no fields where the red and purple kerchiefs of the
reapers overtop the high corn; no orchards, no hayfields; nothing like
those hill slopes where the wild herbs encroach upon the vines, and the
goats of Corydon and Damoetas require to be kept from mischief; where, a
little lower down, the Athenian shopkeeper of Aristophanes goes daily to
look whether yesterday's hard figs may not have ripened, or the vine
wreaths pruned last week grown too lushly. Nor anything of the sort of
those Umbrian meadows, where Virgil himself will stop and watch the
white bullocks splashing slowly into the shallow, sedgy Clitumnus; still
less like those hamlets in the cornfields through which Propertius would
stroll, following the jolting osier waggon, or the procession with
garlands and lights to Pales or to the ochre-stained garden god. Nothing
of all this: there are no cultivated spots in mediæval poetry; the city
only, and the castle, and the endless, all-encompassing forest.

And to this narrowness of mediæval notions of outdoor life, inherited
together with mediæval subjects by the poets even of the sixteenth
century, must be referred the curious difference existing between the
romance poets of antiquity, like Homer in the Odyssey, and the romance
poets--Boiardo, Ariosto, Tasso, Spenser, Camoens--of modern times, in
the matter of--how shall I express it?--the ideal life, the fortunate
realms, the "Kennaqwhere." In Homer, in all the ancients, the ideal
country is merely a more delightful reality; and its inhabitants happier
everyday men and women; in the poetry sprung from the Middle Ages it is
always a fairy-land constructed by mechanicians and architects. For, as
we have seen, the Middle Ages could bequeath to the sixteenth century no
ideal of peaceful outdoor enjoyment. Hence, in the poetry of the
sixteenth century, still permeated by mediæval traditions, an appalling
artificiality of delightfulness. Fallerina, Alcina, Armida, Acrasia, all
imitated from the original Calypso, are not strong and splendid
god-women, living among the fields and orchards, but dainty ladies
hidden in elaborate gardens, all bedizened with fashionable
architecture: regular palaces, pleasaunces, with uncomfortable edifices,
artificial waterfalls, labyrinths, rare and monstrous plants, parrots,
apes, giraffes; childish splendours of gardening and engineering and
menageries, which we meet already in "Ogier the Dane" and "Huon of
Bordeaux," and which later poets epitomized out of the endless
descriptions of Colonna's "Hypnerotomachia Poliphili," the still more
frightful inventories of the Amadis romances. They are, each of them, a
kind of anticipated Marly, Versailles, Prince Elector's Friedrichsruhe
or Nymphenburg, with clipped cypresses and yews, doubtless, and (O Pales
and Pan!) flower-beds filled with coloured plaster and spas, and
cascades spirting out (thanks to fifty invisible pumps) under your feet
and over your head. All the vineyards and cornfields have been swept
away to make these solemn terraces and water-works; all the cottages
which, with their little wooden shrine, their humble enclosure of
sunflowers and rosemary and fruit trees, their buzzing hives and barking
dogs, were loved and sung even by town rakes like Catullus and smart
coffeehouse wits like Horace; all these have been swept away to be
replaced by the carefully constructed (? wire) bowers, the aviaries, the
porticoes, the frightful circular edifice (_tondo è il ricco edificio_),
a masterpiece of Palladian stucco work, in which Armida and Rinaldo,
Acrasia and her Knight, drearily disport themselves. What has become of
Calypso's island? of the orchards of Alcinous? What would the noble
knights and ladies of Ariosto and Spenser think of them? What would they
say, these romantic, dainty creatures, were they to meet Nausicaa with
the washed linen piled on her waggon? Alas! they would take her for a
laundress. For it is the terrible aristocratic idleness of the Middle
Ages, their dreary delicacy, which hampers Boiardo, Ariosto, Tasso,
Spenser, even in the midst of their most unblushing plagiarisms from
Antiquity: their heroes and heroines have been brought up, surrounded by
equerries and duennas, elegant, useless things, or at best (the knights
at least) good only for aristocratic warfare. Plough or prune! defile
the knightly hands! wash or cook, ply the loom like Nausicaa, Calypso,
or Penelope! The mere thought sends them very nearly into a faint. No:
the ladies of mediæval romance must sit quiet, idle; at most they may
sing to the lute; and if they work with their hands, it must be some
dreary, strictly useless, piece of fancy work; they are hot-house
plants, all these dainty folk.

Had they no eyes, then, these poets of the Middle Ages, that they could
see, among all the things of Nature, only those few which had been seen
by their predecessors? At first one feels tempted to think so, till the
recollection of many vivid touches in spring and forest descriptions
persuades one that, enormous as was the sway of tradition among these
men, they were not all of them, nor always, repeating mere conventional
platitudes. This singular limitation in the mediæval perceptions of
Nature--a limitation so important as almost to make it appear as if the
Middle Ages had not perceived Nature at all--is most frequently
attributed to the prevalence of asceticism, which, according to some
critics, made all mediæval men into so many repetitions of Bernard of
Clairvaux, of whom it is written that, being asked his opinion of Lake
Leman, he answered with surprise that, during his journey from Geneva to
the Rhone Valley, he had remarked no lake whatever, so absorbed had he
been in spiritual meditations. But the predominance of asceticism has
been grossly exaggerated. It was a state of moral tension which could
not exist uninterruptedly, and could exist only in the classes for whom
poetry was not written. The mischief done by asceticism was the warping
of the moral nature of men, not of their æsthetic feelings; it had no
influence upon the vast numbers, the men and women who relished the
profane and obscene fleshliness and buffoonery of stage plays and
fabliaux, and those who favoured the delicate and exquisite immoralities
of Courtly poetry. Indeed, the presence of whole classes of writings, of
which such things as Boccaccio's Tales, "The Wife of Bath," and Villon's
"Ballades," on the one hand, and the songs of the troubadours, the poem
of Gottfried, and the romance or rather novel of "Flamenca," are
respectively but the most conspicuous examples, ought to prove only too
clearly that the Middle Ages, for all their asceticism, were both as
gross and as æsthetic in sensualism as antiquity had been before them.
We must, therefore, seek elsewhere than in asceticism, necessarily
limited, and excluding the poetry-reading public, for an explanation of
this peculiarity of mediæval poetry. And we shall find it, I think, in
that which during the Middle Ages could, because it was an
all-regulating social condition, really create universal habits of
thought and feeling, namely, feudalism. A moral condition like
asceticism must leave unbiassed all such minds as are incapable of
feeling it; but a social institution like feudalism walls in the life of
every individual, and forces his intellectual movements into given
paths; nor is there any escape, excepting in places where, as in Italy
and in the free towns of the North, the feudal conditions are wholly or
partially unknown. To feudalism, therefore, would I ascribe this, which
appears at first so purely æsthetic, as opposed to social, a
characteristic of the Middle Ages. Ever since Schiller, in his "Gods of
Greece," spoke for the first time of undivinized Nature (_die
entgötterte Natur_), it has been the fashion among certain critics to
fall foul of Christianity for having robbed the fields and woods of
their gods, and reduced to mere manured clods the things which had been
held sacred by antiquity. Desecrated in those long mediæval centuries
Nature may truly have been, but not by the holy water of Christian
priests. Desecrated because out of the fields and meadows was driven a
divinity greater than Pales or Vertumnus or mighty Pan, the divinity
called _Man_. For in the terrible times when civilization was at its
lowest, the things of the world had been newly allotted; and by this new
allotment, man--the man who thinks and loves and hopes and strives, man
who fights and sings--was shut out from the fields and meadows,
forbidden the labour, nay, almost the sight, of the earth; and to the
tending of kine, and sowing of crops, to all those occupations which
antiquity had associated with piety and righteousness, had deemed worthy
of the gods themselves, was assigned, or rather condemned, a creature
whom every advancing year untaught to think or love, or hope, or fight,
or strive; but taught most utterly to suffer and to despair. For a man
it is difficult to call him, this mediæval serf, this lump of earth
detached from the field and wrought into a semblance of manhood, merely
that the soil of which it is part should be delved and sown, and then
manured with its carcass or its blood; nor as a man did the Middle Ages
conceive it. The serf was not even allowed human progenitors: his foul
breed had originated in an obscene miracle; his stupidity and ferocity
were as those of the beasts; his cunning was demoniac; he was born under
God's curse; no words could paint his wickedness, no persecutions could
exceed his deserts; the whole world turned pale at his crime, for he it
was, he and not any human creature, who had nailed Christ upon the
cross. Like the hunger and sores of a fox or a wolf, his hunger and his
sores are forgotten, never noticed. Were it not that legal and
ecclesiastical narratives of trials (not of feudal lords for crushing
and contaminating their peasants, but of peasants for spitting out and
trampling on the consecrated wafer) give us a large amount of
pedantically stated detail; tell us how misery begat vice, and filth and
starvation united families in complicated meshes of incest, taught them
depopulation as a virtue and a necessity; and how the despair of any joy
in nature, of any mercy from God, hounded men and women into the
unspeakable orgies, the obscene parodies, of devil worship; were it not
for these horrible shreds of judicial evidence (as of tatters of clothes
or blood-clotted hairs on the shoes of a murderer) we should know little
or nothing of the life of the men and women who, in mediæval France and
Germany, did the work which had been taught by Hesiod and Virgil. About
all these tragedies the literature of the Middle Ages, ready to show us
town vice and town horror, dens of prostitution and creaking,
overweighted gibbets, as in Villon's poems, utters not a word. All that
we can hear is the many-throated yell of mediæval poets, noble and
plebeian, French, Provençal, and German, against the brutishness, the
cunning, the cruelty, the hideousness, the heresy of the serf, whose
name becomes synonymous with every baseness; which, in mock grammatical
style, is declined into every epithet of wickedness; whose punishment is
prayed for from the God whom he outrages by his very existence; a
hideous clamour of indecent jibe, of brutal vituperation, of senseless
accusation, of every form of words which furious hatred can assume,
whose echoes reached even countries like Tuscany, where serfdom was well
nigh unknown, and have reached even to us in the scraps of epigram still
bandied about by the townsfolk against the peasants, nay, by the
peasants against themselves.[1] A monstrous rag doll, dressed up in
shreds of many-coloured villainy without a recognizable human feature,
dragged in mud, pilloried with unspeakable ordure, paraded in mock
triumph like a King of Fools, and burnt in the market-place like
Antichrist, such is the image which mediæval poetry has left us of the
creature who was once the pious rustic, the innocent god-beloved
husbandman, on whose threshold justice stopped a while when she fled
from the towns of Antiquity.

[1] The reader may oppose to my views the existence of the--class of
poems, French, Latin, and German, of which the Provençal Pastourela is
the original type, and which represent the courting, by the poet, who
is, of course, a knight, of a beautiful country-girl, who is shown us as
feeding her sheep or spinning with her distaff. But these poems are, to
the best of my knowledge, all of a single pattern, and extremely
insincere and artificial in tone, that I feel inclined to class them
with the pastorals--Dresden china idylls by men who had never looked a
live peasant in the face--of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
--as distant descendants from the pastoral poetry of antiquity, of which
the chivalric poets may have got some indirect notions as they did of
the antique epics. It is moreover extremely the likely that these love
poems, in which, successfully or unsuccessfully, the poet usually offers
a bribe to the woman of low degree, conceal beneath the conventional
pastoral trappings the intrigues of minnesingers and troubadours with
women of the small artizan or village proprietor class. The real peasant
woman--the female of the villain--could scarcely have been above the
notice of the noblemen's servants; and, in countries where the
seigneurial rights were in vigour, would scarcely have been offered
presents and fine words. As regards the innumerable poems against the
peasantry, I may refer the reader to an extremely curious publication of
"Carmina Medii Ævi," recently made by Sig. Francesco Novati, and which
contains, besides a selection of specimens, a list of references on the
subject of poems "De Natura Rusticorum." One of the satirical
declensions runs as follows:

Singulariter.                         Pluraliter.
Nom.   Hic villanus.                  Nom.   Hi maledicti.
Gen.   Huius rustici.                 Gen.   Horum tristium.
Dat.   Huic tferfero (_sic_).           Dat.   His mendacibus.
Acc.   Hunc furem.                    Acc.   Hos nequissimos.
Voc.   O latro.                       Voc.   O pessimi.
Abl.   Ab hoc depredatore.            Abl.   Ab his infidelibus.

The accusation of heresy and of crucifying Christ is evidently
due to the devil-worship prevalent among the serfs, and is thus,
alluded to in a north Italian poem, probably borrowed from the

    Christo fo da villan crucifiò,
    E stagom sempre in pioza, in vento, e in neve,
    Perchè havom fato cosi gran peccà.

This feeling is exactly analogous to that existing nowadays in
semi-barbarous countries against the Jews. The idle hated the
industrious, and hated them all the more when their industry brought
them any profit.]

Yet not so; I can recall one, though only one, occasion in which
mediæval literature shows us the serf. The place is surely the most
unexpected, the charming thirteenth century tale of "Aucassin et
Nicolette." In his beautiful essay upon that story, Mr. Pater has
deliberately omitted this episode, which is indeed like a spot of
blood-stained mud upon some perfect tissue of silver flowers on silver
ground. It is a piece of cruellest realism, because quite quiet and
unforced, in the midst of a kind of fairy-land idyl of almost childish
love, the love of the beautiful son of the lord of Beaucaire for a
beautiful Saracen slave girl. For, although Aucassin and Nicolette are
often separated, and always disconsolate--she in her wonderfully
frescoed vaulted room, he in his town prison--there is always
surrounding them a sort of fairy land of trees and flowers, a constant
song of birds; although they wander through the woods and tear their
delicate skin, and catch their hair in brambles and briars, we have
always the sense of the daisies bending beneath their tread, of the
green leaves rustling aside from their heads covered with hair--"blond
et menu crespelé." Their very hardships are lovely, like the hut of
flowering branches and grapes, which Nicolette builds for herself, and
through whose fissures the moonlight shines and the little stars
twinkle: so much so, that when they weep, these two beautiful and dainty
creatures, we listen as if to singing, and with no more sense of grief
than at some pathetic little snatch of melody. And in the midst of this
idyl of lovely things; in the midst of all these delicate patternings,
whose minuteness and faint tint merge into one vague pleasurable
impression; stands out, unintentionally placed there by the author,
little aware of its terrible tragic realism, the episode which I am
going to translate.

     "Thus Aucassin wandered all day through the forest, without hearing
     any news of his sweet love; and when he saw that dusk was
     spreading, he began bitterly to weep. As he was riding along an old
     road, where weeds and grass grew thick and high, he suddenly saw
     before him, in the middle of this road, a man such as I am going to
     describe to you. He was tall, ugly; nay, hideous quite
     marvellously. His face was blacker than smoked meat, and so wide,
     that there was a good palm's distance between his eyes; his cheeks
     were huge, his nostrils also, with a very big flat nose; thick lips
     as red as embers, and long teeth yellow and smoke colour. He wore
     leathern shoes and gaiters, kept up with string at the knees; on
     his back was a parti-coloured coat. He was leaning upon a stout
     bludgeon. Aucassin was startled and fearful, and said:

     "'Fair brother ("beau frère"--a greeting corresponding to the
     modern "bon homme")! God be with thee!'

     "'God bless you!' answered the man.

     "'What dost thou here?' asked Aucassin.

     "'What is that to you?' answered the man.

     "'I ask thee from no evil motive.'

     "'Then tell me why,' said the man, 'you yourself are weeping with
     such grief? Truly, were I a rich man like you, nothing in the world
     should make me weep.'

     "'And how dost thou know me?'

     "'I know you to be Aucassin, the son of the Count; and if you will
     tell me why you weep, I will tell you why I am here.'

     "'I will tell thee willingly,' answered Aucassin. 'This morning I
     came to hunt in the forest; I had a white leveret, the fairest in
     the world; I have lost him--that is why I am weeping.'

     "'What!' cried the man;' it is for a stinking hound that you waste
     the tears of your body? Woe to those who shall pity you; you, the
     richest man of this country. If your father wanted fifteen or
     twenty white leverets, he could get them. I am weeping and mourning
     for more serious matters.'

     "'And what are these?'

     "'I will tell you. I was hired to a rich farmer to drive his
     plough, dragged by four bullocks. Three days ago, I lost a red
     bullock, the best of the four. I left the plough, and sought the
     red bullock on all sides, but could not find him. For three days I
     have neither eaten nor drunk, and have been wandering thus. I have
     been afraid of going to the town, where they would put me in jail,
     because I have not wherewith to pay for the bullock. All I possess
     are the clothes on my back. I have a mother; and the poor woman had
     nothing more valuable than me; since she had only an old smock
     wherewith to cover her poor old limbs. They have torn the smock off
     her back, and now she has to lie on the straw. It is about her that
     I am afflicted more than about myself, because, as to me, I may get
     some money some day or other, and as to the red bullock, he may be
     paid for when he may. And I should never weep for such a trifle as
     that. Ah! woe betide those who shall make sorrow with you!'"

Inserted merely to give occasion to show Aucassin's good heart in paying
the twenty _sols_ for the man's red bullock; perhaps for no reason at
all, but certainly with no idea of making the lover's misery seem by
comparison trifling--there are, nevertheless, few things in literature
more striking than the meeting in the wood of the daintily nurtured boy,
weeping over the girl whom he loves with almost childish love of the
fancy; and of that ragged, tattered, hideous serf, at whose very aspect
the Bel Aucassin stops in awe and terror. And the attitude is grand of
this unfortunate creature, who neither begs nor threatens, scarcely
complains, and not at all for himself; but merely tells his sordid
misfortune with calm resignation, as if used to such everyday miseries,
roused to indignation only at the sight of the tears which the fine-bred
youth is shedding. We feel the dreadful solemnity of the man's words; of
the reproach thus thrown by the long-suffering serf, accustomed to
misfortunes as the lean ox is to blows, to that delicate thing weeping
for his lady love, for the lady of his fancy. It is the one occasion
upon which that delicate and fantastic mediæval love poetry, that
fanciful, wistful stripling King Love of the Middle Ages, in which he
keeps high court, and through which he rides in triumphal procession;
that King Love laughing and fainting by turns with all his dapper
artificiality of woes; is confronted with the sordid reality, the tragic
impersonation of all the dumb miseries, the lives and loves, crushed and
defiled unnoticed, of the peasantry of those days. Yes, while they
sing--Provençals, minnesingers, Sicilians, sing of their earthly lady
and of their paramour in heaven--the hideous peasant, whose naked granny
is starving on the straw, looks on with dull and tearless eyes; crying
out to posterity, as the serf cries to Aucassin: "Woe to those who shall
sorrow at the tears of such as these."


But meanwhile, during those centuries which lie between the dark ages
and modern times, the Middle Ages (inasmuch as they mean not a mere
chronological period, but a definite social and mental condition)
fortunately did not exist everywhere. Had they existed, it is almost
impossible to understand how they would ever throughout Europe have come
to an end; for as the favourite proverb of Catharine of Siena has it,
one dead man cannot bury another dead man; and the Middle Ages, after
this tedious dying of the fifteenth century, required to be shovelled
into the tomb, nay, rather, given the final stroke, by the Renaissance.
This that we foolishly call--giving a quite incorrect notion of sudden
and miraculous birth--the Renaissance, and limit to the time of the
revival of Greek humanities, really existed, as I have repeatedly
suggested wherever, during the mediæval centuries, the civilization of
which the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were big was not, by the
pressure of feudalism and monasticism, made to be abortive or stillborn.
Low as was Italy at the very close of the dark ages, and much as she
borrowed for a long while from the more precocious northern nations,
especially France and Provence; Italy had, nevertheless, an enormous
advantage in the fact that her populations were not divided into victor
and vanquished, and that the old Latin institutions of town and country
were never replaced, except in certain northern and southern districts,
by feudal arrangements. The very first thing which strikes us in the
obscure Italian commonwealths of early times, is that in these
resuscitated relics of Roman or Etruscan towns there is no feeling of
feudal superiority and inferiority; that there is no lord, and
consequently no serf. Nor is this the case merely within the city walls.
The never sufficiently appreciated difference between the Italian free
burghs and those of Germany, Flanders, and Provence, is that the
citizens depend only in the remotest and most purely fictitious way upon
any kind of suzerain; and moreover that the country, instead of
belonging to feudal nobles, belong every day more and more completely to
the burghers. The peasant is not a serf, but one of three things--a
hired labourer, a possessor of property, or a farmer, liable to no
taxes, paying no rent, and only sharing with the proprietor the produce
of the land. By this latter system, existing, then as now, throughout
Tuscany, the peasantry was an independent and well-to-do class. The land
owned by one man (who, in the commonwealths, was usually a shopkeeper or
manufacturer in the town) was divided into farms small enough to be
cultivated--vines, olives, corn, and fruit--by one family of peasants,
helped perhaps by a paid labourer. The thriftier and less scrupulous
peasants could, in good seasons, put by sufficient profit from their
share of the produce to suffice after some years, and with the addition
of what the women might make by washing, spinning, weaving, plaiting
straw hats (an accomplishment greatly insisted upon by Lorenzo dei
Medici), and so forth, to purchase some small strip of land of their
own. Hence, a class of farmers at once living on another man's land and
sharing its produce with him, and cultivating and paying taxes upon land
belonging to themselves.

Of these Tuscan peasants we get occasional glimpses in the mediæval
Italian novelists--a well-to-do set of people, in constant communication
with the town where they sell their corn, oil, vegetables, and wine, and
easily getting confused with the lower class of artizans with whom they
doubtless largely intermarried. These peasants whom we see in tidy
kilted tunics and leathern gaiters, driving their barrel-laden bullock
carts, or riding their mules up to the red city gates in many a
Florentine and Sienese painting of the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries, were in many respects better off than the small artizans of
the city, heaped up in squalid houses, and oppressed by the greater and
smaller guilds. Agnolo Pandolfini, teaching thrift to his sons in
Alberti's charming treatise on "The Government of the Family,"
frequently groans over the insolence, the astuteness of the peasantry;
and indeed seems to consider that it is impossible to cope with them--a
conclusion which would have greatly astounded the bailiffs of the feudal
proprietors in the Two Sicilies and beyond the Alps. Indeed it is
impossible to conceive a stranger contrast than that between the
northern peasant, the starved and stunted serf, whom Holbein drew,
driving his lean horses across the hard furrow, with compassionate Death
helping along the plough, and the Tuscan farmer, as shown us by Lorenzo
dei Medici--the young fellow who, while not above minding his cows or
hoeing up his field, goes into Florence once a week, offers his
sweetheart presents of coral necklaces, silk staylaces, and paint for
her cheeks and eyelashes; who promises, to please her, to have his hair
frizzled (as only the youths of the Renaissance knew how to be frizzled
and fuzzed) by the barber, and even dimly hints that some day he may
appear in silken jerkin and tight hose, like a well-to-do burgess. No
greater contrast perhaps, unless indeed we should compare his
sweetheart, Lorenzo's beautiful Nenciozza, with her box full of jewels,
her Sunday garb of damask kirtle and gold-worked bodice, her almost
queenly ways towards her adorers, with the wretched creature, not a
woman, but a mere female animal, cowering among her starving children in
her mud cottage, and looking forward, in dull lethargy, after the
morning full of outrages at the castle, to the night, the night on the
heath, lit with mysterious flickers, to the horrible joys of the
sacrifice which the oppressed brings to the dethroned, the serf to
Satan; when, in short, we compare the peasant woman described by Lorenzo
with the female serf resuscitated by the genius of Michelet; nay, more
poignant still, with that mother in the "Dance of Death," seated on the
mud flood of the broken-roofed, dismantled hovel, stewing something on a
fire of twigs, and stretching out vain arms to her poor tattered
baby-boy, whom, with the good-humoured tripping step of an old nurse,
the kindly skeleton is leading away out of this cruel world.

Such were the conditions of the peasantry of the great Italian
commonwealths. They were, as much as the northern serfs were the
reverse, creatures pleasant to deal with, pleasant to watch.

The upper classes, on the other hand, differed quite as much from the
upper classes of feudal countries. They were, be it remembered, men of
business, constantly in contact with the working classes; Albizis,
Strozzis, Pandolfinis, Guinigis, Tolomeis, no matter what their name,
these men who built palaces and churches which outdid the magnificence
of northern princes, and who might, at any moment, be sent ambassadors
from Florence, Lucca, or Siena, to the French or English kings, to the
Emperor or the Pope, spent a large portion of their days at their office
desk, among the bales of their warehouses, behind the counter of their
shops; they wore the same dress, had the same habits, spoke the same
dialect, as the weavers and dyers, the carriers and porters whom they
employed, and whose sons might, by talent and industry, amass a fortune,
build palaces, and go ambassadors to kings in their turn. When,
therefore, these merchant nobles turned to the country for rest and
relief from their cares, it was not to the country as it existed for the
feudal noble of the North. Boar and stag hunts had no attraction for
quiet men of business; forests stocked with wild beasts where vineyard
and cornfield might have extended, would have seemed to them the very
height of wastefulness, discomfort, and ugliness. Pacific and
businesslike, they merely transferred to the country the habits of
thought and of life which had arisen in the city. Not for them any
imitation of the feudal castle, turreted and moated, cut up into dark
irregular rooms and yards, filled with noisy retainers and stinking
hounds. On some gentle hillside a well-planned palace, its rooms
spacious and lofty, and sparely windowed for coolness in summer; with a
neat cloistered court in the centre, ventilating the whole house, and
affording a cool place, full of scent of flowers and sound of fountains
for the burning afternoons; a belvedere tower also, on which to seek a
breeze on stifling nights, when the very stars seem faint for heat, and
the dim plumy heads of cypress and poplar are motionless against the
misty blue sky. In front a broad terrace, whence to look down towards
the beloved city, a vague fog of roofs in the distance; on the side and
behind, elaborate garden walks walled with high walls of box and oak and
laurel, in which stand statues in green niches; gardens with little
channels to bring water, even during droughts, to the myrtles, the
roses, the stocks and clove pinks, over which bend with blossoms
brilliant against the pale blue sky the rose-flowered oleander, the
scarlet-flowered pomegranate; also aviaries and cages full of odd and
harmless creatures, ferrets, guinea pigs, porcupines, squirrels, and
monkeys; arbours where wife, daughters, and daughters-in-law may sew and
make music; and neat lawns where the young men may play at quoits,
football, or swordsticks and bucklers; and then, sweeping all round the
house and gardens and terraces an undulating expanse of field and
orchard, smoke-tinted with olive, bright green in spring with budding
crops, russet in autumn with sere vines; and from which, in the burning
noon, rises the incessant sawing noise of the cicalas, and ever and anon
the high, nasal, melancholy chant of the peasant, lying in the shade of
barn door or fig tree till the sun shall sink and he can return to his
labour. If the house in town, with its spacious store-rooms, its carved
chapel, and painted banqueting hall, large enough to hold sons' children
and brothers' wives and grandchildren, and a whole host of poor
relatives, whom the wise father (as Pandolfini teaches) employs rather
than strangers for his clerks and overseers--if this town house was the
pride of the Italian burgess; the villa, with its farms and orchards,
was the real joy, the holiday paradise of the over-worked man. To read
in the cool house, with cicala's buzz and fountain plash all round, the
Greek and Latin authors; to discuss them with learned men; to watch the
games of the youths and the children, this was the reward for years of
labour and intelligence; but sweeter than all this (how we feel it in
Agnolo Pandolfini's speeches!) were those occupations which the city
could not give: the buying and selling of plants, grain, and kine, the
meddling with new grafted trees, the mending of spaliers, the
straightening of fences, the going round (with the self-importance and
impatience of a cockney) to see what flowers had opened, what fruit had
ripened over-night; to walk through the oliveyards, among the vines; to
pry into stable, pig-stye, and roosting-place, taking up handfuls of
drying grain, breaking twigs of olives, to see how things were doing;
and to have long conversations with the peasants, shrewd enough to
affect earnest attention when the master was pleased to vent his
town-acquired knowledge of agriculture and gardening. Sweet also,
doubtless, for younger folk, or such perhaps as were fonder of teaching
new lute tunes to the girls than of examining into cabbages, and who
read Dante and Boccaccio more frequently than Cicero or Sallust; though
sweet perhaps only as a vague concomitant of their lazy pleasures, to
listen to those songs of the peasantry rising from the fields below,
while lying perhaps on one's back in the shaded grass, watching the
pigeons whirring about the belvedere tower. Vaguely pleasant this also,
doubtless; but for a long while only vaguely. For, during more than two
centuries, the burgesses of Italy were held enthralled by the Courtly
poets of other countries; listening to, and reading, at first, only
Provençals and Sicilians, or Italians, like Sordello, pretending to be
of Provence or Sicily; and even later, enduring in their own poets,
their own Guittones, Cavalcantis, Cinos, Guinicellis, nay even in Dante
and Petrarch's lyrics, only the repetition (however vivified by genius)
of the old common-places of Courtly love, and artificial spring, of the
poetry of feudal nations. But the time came when not only Provençal and
Sicilian, but even Tuscan, poetry was neglected, when the revival of
Greek and Latin letters made it impossible to rewrite the threadbare
mediæval prettinesses, or even to write in earnest in the modern tongue,
so stiff and thin (as it seemed) and like some grotesque painted saint,
when compared with the splendidly fleshed antique languages, turning and
twining in graceful or solemn involutions, as of a Pyrrhic or a maidens'
dance. And it was during this period, from Petrarch to Politian, that,
as philologists have now proved beyond dispute, the once fashionable
chivalric romance, and the poetry of Provençal and Sicilian school, cast
off by the upper classes, was gradually picked up by the lower and
especially by the rural classes. Vagabond ballad-singers and
story-tellers--creatures who wander from house to house, mending broken
pottery, collecting rags or selling small pedlar's wares--were the old
clothesmen who carried about these bits of tarnished poetic finery. The
people of the town, constantly in presence of the upper classes, and
therefore sooner or later aware of what was or was not in fashion, did
not care long for the sentimental daintiness of mediæval poetry;
besides, satire and scurrility are as inevitable in a town as are dogs
in gutters and cats on roofs; and the townsfolk soon set their own
buffoonish or satirical ideas to whatever remained of the music of
mediæval poetry: already early in the fifteenth century the sonnet had
become for the Florentine artizans a mere scurrilous epigram. It was
different in the country. The peasant, at least the Tuscan peasant, is
eminently idealistic and romantic in his literary tastes; it may be that
he has not the intellectual life required for any utterances or forms of
his own, and that he consequently accepts poetry as a ready-made
ornament, something pretty and exotic, which is valued in proportion to
its prettiness and rarity. Be the reason whatever it may, certain it is
that nothing can be too artificial or high-flown to please the Italian
peasantry: its tales are all of kings; princesses, fairies, knights,
winged horses, marvellous jewels, and so forth; its songs are almost
without exception about love, constancy, moon, stars, flowers. Such
things have not been degraded by familiarity and parody as in the town;
they retain for the country folk the vague charm (like that of music,
automatic and independent of thorough comprehension) of belonging to a
sphere of the marvellous; hence they are repeated and repeated with
almost religious servility, as any one may observe who will listen to
the stories and verses told and sung even nowadays in the Tuscan
country, or who will glance over the splendid collections of folklore
made in the last twenty years. Such things, must suffer alteration from
people who can neither read nor write, and who cannot be expected to
remember very clearly details which, in many cases, must have for them
only the vaguest meaning. The stories split in process of telling and
re-telling, and are completed with bits of other stories; details are
forgotten and have to be replaced; the same happens with poetry: songs
easily get jumbled together, their meaning is partially obliterated, and
has to be restored or, again, an attempt is made by bold men to adapt
some seemingly adaptable old song to a new occasion an old love ditty
seems fit to sing to a new sweetheart.--names, circumstances, and
details require arranging for this purpose; and hence more alterations.
Now, however much a peasant may enjoy the confused splendours of Court
life and of Courtly love, he cannot, with the best will in the world,
restore their details or colouring if they happen to become obliterated.
If he chance to forget that when the princess first met the wizard she
was riding forth on a snow-white jennet with a falcon on her glove,
there is nothing to prevent his describing her as walking through the
meadow in charge of a flock of geese; and similarly, should he happen to
forget that the Courtly lover compares the skin of his mistress to ivory
and her eyes to Cupid's torches, he is quite capable of filling up the
gap by saying that the girl is as white as a turnip and as bright-eyed
as a ferret. As with details of description and metaphors, so also with
the emotional and social parts of the business. The peasant has not been
brought up in the idea that the way to gain a woman's affection is to
stick her glove on a helmet and perform deeds of prowess closely
resembling those of Don Quixote in the Sierra Morena; so he attempts to
ingratiate himself by offering her presents of strawberries, figs,
buttons, hooks-and-eyes, and similar desirable things. Again, were the
peasant to pay attentions to a married woman, he would merely get (what
noble husbands were too well bred to dream of) a sound horsewhipping, or
perhaps even a sharp knife thrust in his stomach; so that he takes good
care to address his love songs only to marriageable young women. In this
way, without any deliberate attempt .at originality, the old Courtly
poetry becomes, when once removed to the country, thoroughly patched and
seamed with rustic ideas, feelings, and images; while never ceasing to
be, in its general stuff and shape, of a kind such as only professional
poets of the upper classes can produce. The Sicilian lyrics collected by
Signor Pitre, still more the Tuscan poems of Tigri's charming volume,
are, therefore, a curious mixture of high-flown sentiment, dainty
imagery, and most artistic arrangements of metre and diction (especially
in the rispetto, where metrical involution is accompanied by logical
involution of the most refined mediæval sort), with hopes and complaints
such as only a farmer could frame, with similes and descriptions such as
only the business of the field, vineyard, and dairy could suggest. A
mixture, but not a jumble. For as in this slow process of assimilation
and alteration only that was remembered by the peasant which the peasant
could understand and sympathize with; and only that was welded into the
once Courtly poetry which was sufficiently refined to please the people
who delighted in the exotic refinement--as, in short, everything came
about perfectly simply and unconsciously, there resulted what in good
sooth may be considered as a perfectly substantive and independent form
of art, with beauties and refinements of its own. And, indeed, it
appears to me that one might say, without too much paradox, that in
these peasant songs only does the poetry of minnesingers and
troubadours, become thoroughly enjoyable; that only when the
conventionality of feeling and imagery is corrected by the freshness,
the straightforwardness, nay, even the grotesqueness of rural likings,
dislikings, and comparisons, can the dainty beauty of mediæval Courtly
poetry ever really satisfy our wishes. Comparing together Tigri's
collection of Tuscan folk poetry with any similar anthology that might
be made of middle-high German and Provençal, and early Italian lyrics, I
feel that the adoption of Courtly mediæval poetry by the Italian
peasantry of the Renaissance can be compared more significantly than at
first seemed with the adoption of a once fashionable garb by country
folk. The peasant pulled about this Courtly lyrism, oppressively tight
in its conventional fit and starched with elaborate rhetorical
embroideries; turned it inside out, twisted a bit here, a bit there,
ripped open seam after seam, patched and repatched with stuffs and
stitches of its own; and then wore the whole thing as it had never been
intended to be worn; until this cast-off poetic apparel, stretched on
the freer moral limbs of natural folk, faded and stained by weather and
earth into new and richer tints, had lost all its original fashionable
stiffness, and crudeness of colour, and niminy-piminy fit, and had
acquired instead I know not what grace of unexpectedness,
picturesqueness, and ease.[1]

[1] Any one who is sceptical of the Courtly derivation of the Italian
popular song may, besides consulting the admirable book of Prof.
d'Ancona, compare with the contents of Tigri's famous "Canti popolari
Toscani," the following scraps of Sicilian and early Italian lyrics:--

The Emperor Frederick II. writes: "Rosa di maggio--Colorita e
fresca--Occhi hai fini--E non rifini--Di gioie dare--Lo tuo parlare--La
gente innamora--Castella ed altura."

Jacopo Pugliesi says of his lady: "Chiarita in viso più che
argento--Donami allegrezze--Ben eo son morto--E mal colto--Se non mi dai
conforto--_Fior dell' orto_."

Inghilfredi Siciliano: "Gesù Cristo ideolla in paradiso--E poi la fece
angelo incarnando--Gioia aggio preso di giglio novello--E vago, che
sormonta ogni ricchezza--Sua dottrina m' affrezza--Cosi mi coglie e
olezza--Come pantera le bestie selvagge."

Jacopo da Lentino: "E di virtute tutte l' altre avanza--E somigliante a
stella è di splendore--Colla sua conta (_cf_. Provençal _coindeta_,
gentille) e gaia innamoranza--E più bella è che rosa e che fiore--Cristo
le doni vita ed allegranza--E sì la cresca in gran pregio ed onore."

I must finish off what might be a much longer collection with a charming
little scrap, quite in rispetto tone, by Guinicelli: "Vedut 'ho la
lucente stella diana--Ch' appare anzi che 'l giorno renda albore--Ch' a
preso forma di figura umana--Sovr' ogni altra mi par che dia
splendore--Viso di neve colorato in grana--Occhi lucenti, gai e pien
d'amore--Non credo che nel mondo sia cristiana--Si piena di beltate e di

Well; for many a year did the song of the peasants rise up from the
fields and oliveyards unnoticed by the good townsfolk taking their
holiday at the Tuscan villa; but one day, somewhere in the third quarter
of the fifteenth century, the long-drawn chant of the rispetto, telling
perhaps how the singer's sweetheart was beautiful as the star Diana, so
beautiful as a baby that the Pope christened her with his own hands; the
quavering nasal cadence of the stornello saying by chance--

     Flower of the Palm, &c.,

did at last waken the attention of one lettered man, a man of curious
and somewhat misshapen body and mind, of features satyr-like in
ugliness, yet moody and mystical in their very earthiness; a man
essentially of the senses, yet imperfect in them, without taste or
smell, and, over and above, with a marvellously supple intellect; weak
and coarse and idealistic; and at once feebly the slave of his times,
and so boldly, spontaneously innovating as to be quite unconscious of
innovation: the mixed nature, or rather the nature in many heterogeneous
bits, of the man of letters who is artistic almost to the point of being
an actor, natural in every style because morally connected with no style
at all. The man was Lorenzo di Piero dei Medici, for whom posterity has
exclusively reserved the civic title of all his family and similar town
despots, calling him the Magnificent. It is the fashion at present to
give Lorenzo only the leavings, as it were, of our admiration for the
weaker, less original, nay, considerably enervate, humanistic exquisite
Politian; and this absurd injustice appears to me to show that the very
essence and excellence of Lorenzo is not nowadays perceived. The
Renaissance produced several versatile and charming poets; and, in the
midst of classic imitation, one or two, of whom one is certainly
Boiardo, of real freshness and raciness. But of this new element in the
Renaissance, this element which is neither imitation of antiquity nor
revival of mediæval, which is original, vital, fruitful, in short,
modern, Lorenzo is the most versatile example. He is new, Renaissance,
modern; not merely in this or that quality, he is so all round. And this
in the first place because he is so completely the man of impressions;
the man not uttering wonderful things, nor elaborating exquisite ones,
but artistically embodying with marvellous versatility whatever strikes
his fancy and feeling--fancy and feeling which are as new as the
untouched sculptor's clay. And this extraordinary temper of art for
art's sake, or rather effect for effect and form's sake, was possible in
that day only in a man equally without strong passions, and without
strong convictions. He is naturally attracted most by what is most
opposed to the academic, Virgilian, Horatian, or Petrarchesque
æstheticism of his contemporaries; he is essentially a realist, and all
the effects, which he produces, all the beauty, charm, or beastliness of
his work, corresponds to beauty, charm, or beastliness in the reality of
things. If Lorenzo writes at one moment carnival songs of ribald
dirtiness, at the next hymns full of holy solemnity; it is, I think,
merely because this versatile artist takes pleasure in trying whether
his face may not be painted into grinning drunkenness, and then
elongated and whitened into ascetic gentleness. Instead of seeking, like
most of his contemporaries, to be Greek, Roman, or mediæval by turns, he
preferred trying on all the various tricks of thought and feeling which
he remarked among his unlettered townsfolk. His realism naturally drew
him towards the classes where realism can deal with the real; and not
the affected, the self-conscious, the deliberately attempted. Hence
those wonderful little poems, the carnival songs of the gold-thread
spinners, of the pastry-cooks, of the shoemakers, which give us so
completely, so gracefully, the whole appearance, work, manner, gesture
of the people; give them to us with ease and rapidity so perfect, that
we scarcely know how they are given; that we almost forget verses and
song, and actually see the pulling, twisting, and cutting of the
gold-threads; that we see and hear the shoemaker's hands smoothing down
the leather of the shoe in his hand, to convince his customers of its
pliability; that we see and smell the dear little pale yellow pasties
nestling in the neat white baskets, after having stood by and watched
the dough being kneaded, chopped, and floured over, the iron plates
heated in the oven, the soft, half-baked paste twisted and bent; nay, we
feel almost as if we had eaten of them, those excellent things which
seem such big mouthfuls but are squeezed and crunched at one go like
nothing at all. Hence, I mean from this love of watching effects and
reproducing them, originated also the masterpiece of Lorenzo dei Medici,
the "Nencia da Barberino."

This poem, of some fifty octaves, is the result of those Tuscan peasant
songs, of which I have told you the curious Courtly descent, at last
having struck the fancy of a real poet. It is, what Lorenzo's
masterpiece necessarily must be, in the highest degree a modern
performance; as modern as a picture by Bastien Lepage; as an opera,
founded upon local music, by Bizet. For it is not by any manner of means
a pastoral, a piece of conventional poetic decoration, with just a
little realistic detail, more of the mere conventional or more of the
realistic dominating according as it is a pastoral by Theocritus, or a
pastoral by Quinault or Metastasio. It is the very reverse of this: it
is the attempt to obtain a large and complete, detailed and balanced
impression by the cunning arrangement of a number of small effects which
the artist has watched in reality; it is the making into a kind of
little idyl, something half narrative, half drama, with distinct figures
and accessories and background, of a whole lot of little fragments
imitated from the peasant poetry, and set in thin, delicate rims of
imitation no longer of the peasant's songs, but of the peasant's
thoughts and speech; a perfect piece of impressionist art, marred only
in rare places by an attempt (inevitable in those days) to force the
drawing and colour into caricature. The construction, which appears to
be nowhere, is in reality a masterpiece; for, without knowing it, you
are shown the actors, the background, the ups and downs of temper, the
variation of the seasons; above all you are shown the heroine through
the medium of the praises, the complaints, the narratives of the past,
the imaginings of the future, of the hero, whose incoherent rhapsodizing
constitutes the whole poem. He, Valléra, is a well-to-do young farmer;
she, Nencia, is the daughter of peasant folk of the castellated village
of Barberino in the Mugello; he is madly in love, but shy, and (to all
appearance) awkward, so that we feel convinced that of all these
speeches in praise of his Nenciozza, in blame of his indifference,
highly poetic flights and most practical adjurations to see all the
advantages of a good match, the young woman hears few or none; Valléra
is talking not to her, but at her, or rather, he is rehearsing to
himself all the things which he cannot squeeze out in her presence. It
is the long day-dream, poetic, prosaic, practical, and imaginative, of a
love-sick Italian peasant lad, to whom his sweetheart is at once an
ideal thing of beauty, a goddess at whose shrine songs must be sung and
wreaths twined; and a very substantial lass, who cannot be indifferent
to sixpenny presents, and whom he cannot conceive as not ultimately
becoming the sharer of his cottage, the cooker of his soup, the mender
of his linen, the mother of his brats--a dream in which image is effaced
by image, and one thought is expelled, unfinished, by another. She is to
him like the Fairy Morgana, the fairy who kept so much of chivalry in
her enchanted island; she is like the evening star when above his
cottage it slowly pierces the soft blue sky with its white brilliancy;
she is purer than the water in the well, and sweeter than the malmsey
wine, and whiter than the miller's flour; but her heart is as hard as a
pebble, and she loves driving to distraction a whole lot of youths who
dangle behind her, captives of those heart-thievish eyes of hers. But
she is also a most excellent housewife, can stand any amount of hard
field labour, and makes lots of money by weaving beautiful woollen
stuff. To see her going, to church of a morning, she is a little pearl!
her bodice is of damask, and her petticoat of bright, colour, and she
kneels down carefully where she may be seen, being so smart. And then,
when she dances!--a born dancer, bouncing like a little goat, and
twirling more than a mill-wheel; and when she has finished she makes you
such a curtsey; no citizen's wife in Florence can curtsey as she does.
It was in April that he first fell in love. She was picking salad in the
garden; he begged her for a little, and she sent him about his business;
las, alas! ever since then his peace has been gone; he cannot sleep, he
can only think of her, and follow her about; he has become quite
good-for-nothing as to his field work,--yet he hears all the people
around laughing and saying, "Of course Valléra will get her." Only _she_
will pay no heed to him. She is finer to look at than the Pope, whiter
than the whitest wood core: she is more delectable than are the young
figs to the earwigs, more beautiful than the turnip flower, sweeter than
honey. He is more in love with her than the moth is in love with the
lamp; she loves to see him perishing for her. If he could cut himself in
two without too much pain, he would, just to let her see that he carries
her in his heart. No; he would cut out his heart, and when she has
touched it with that slender hand of hers, it would cry out, "Nencia,
Nencia bella." But, after all, he is not to be despised: he is an
excellent labourer, most learned in buying--and selling pigs, he can
play the bagpipe beautifully; he is rich, is willing to go to any
expense to please her, nay, even to pay the barber double that his hair
may be nice and fuzzy from the crimping irons; and if only he were to
get himself tight hose and a silk jerkin, he would be as good as any
Florentine burgess. But she will not listen; or, rather, she listens and
laughs. Yes, she sits up in bed at night and laughs herself to death at
the mere thought of him, that is all he gets. But he knows what it is!
There is a fellow who will keep sneaking about her; if Valléra only
catch him near his cottage, won't he give him a taste of his long new
knife! nay, rip him up and throw his bowels, like those of a pig, to dry
on a roof! He is sorry--perhaps he bores her--God bless you, Nencia!--he
had better go and look after his sheep.

All this is not the poetry of the Renaissance peasant; it is the poem
made out of his reality; the songs which Valléra sang in the fields
about his Nencia we must seek in the volume of Tigri; those rispetti and
stornelli of to-day are the rispetti and stornelli of four centuries
ago; they are much more beautiful and poetic than any of Lorenzo's work;
but Lorenzo has given us not merely a peasant's love-song; he has given
us a peasant's thoughts, actions, hopes, fears; he has given us the
peasant himself, his house, his fields, and his sweetheart, as they
exist even now. For Lorenzo is gone, and, greater than he, the paladins
and ladies of Boiardo and Ariosto, have followed the saints and virgins
of Dante into the limbo of fair unrealities; and the very Greek and
Roman heroes of a hundred years ago, the very knights and covenanters of
forty years since, have joined them; but Valléra exists still, and still in
the flesh exists his Nenciozza. Everything changes, except the country
and the peasant. For, in the long farms of Southern Tuscany, with double
row of blackened balcony all tapestried with heavy ingots of Indian
corn, and spread out among the olives of the hillside, up which twists
the rough bullock road protected by its vine trellis; and in the little
farms, with queer hood-shaped double roofs (as if to pull over the face
of the house when it blows hard), and pigeon towers which show that some
day they must have been fortified, all about Florence; farms which I
pass every day, with their sere trees all round, their rough gardens of
bright dahlias and chrysanthemums draggled by the autumn rains--in these
there are, do not doubt it, still Nencias: magnificent creatures, fit
models for Amazons, only just a trifle too full-blown and matronly; but
with real Amazonian limbs, firm and delicate, under their red and purple
striped print frocks; creatures with heads set on necks like towers or
columns, necks firm in broad, well-fleshed chest as branches in a tree's
trunk; great penthouses of reddish yellow or lustreless black crimped
hair over the forehead; the forehead, like the cheeks, furrowed a good
deal--perhaps we dainty people might say, faded and wrinkled by work in
the burning sun and the wind; women whom you see shovelling bread into
the heated ovens, or plashing in winter with bare arms in half-frozen
streams, or digging up a turnip field in the drizzle; or on a Sunday,
standing listless by their door, surrounded by rolling and squalling
brats, and who, when they slowly look up at the passer-by, show us, on
those monumental faces of theirs, a strange smile, a light of bright
eyes and white teeth; a smile which to us sophisticated townspeople is
as puzzling as certain sudden looks in some comely animal, but which yet
makes us understand instinctively that we have before us a Nencia; and
that the husband yonder, though he now swears at his wife, and perhaps
occasionally beats her, has nevertheless, in his day, dreamed, argued,
raged, and sung to himself just like Lorenzo's Valléra.

The "Nencia da Barberino" is certainly Lorenzo dei Medici's masterpiece:
it is completely and satisfactorily worked out. Yet we may strain
possibilities to the point of supposing (which, however, I cannot for a
moment suppose) that this "Nencia" is a kind of fluke; that by an
accident a beautiful and seemingly appreciative poem has resulted where
the author, a mediæval realist of a superior Villon sort, had intended
only a piece of utter grotesqueness. But important as is the "Nencia,"
Lorenzo has left behind him another poem, greatly inferior in
completeness, but which settles beyond power of doubt that in him the
Renaissance was not merely no longer mediæval, but most intensely
modern. This poem is the "Ambra." It is simply an allegorical narrative
of the inundation, by the river Ombrone, of a portion, called Ambra, of
the great Medicean villa of Poggio a Caiano. Lorenzo's object was
evidently to write a semi-Ovidian poem, of a kind common in his day, and
common almost up to our own: a river-god, bearded, crown of reeds, urn,
general dampness and uproariousness of temper, all quite correct; and a
nymph, whom he pursues, who prays to the Virgin huntress to save her
from his love, and who, just in the nick of time, is metamorphosed into
a mossy stone, dimly showing her former woman's shape; the style of
thing, charming, graceful, insipid, of which every one can remember a
dozen instances, and which immediately brings up to the mind a vision of
grand-ducal gardens, where, among the clipped ilexes and the cypress
trunks, great lumbering water-gods and long-limbed nymphs splash,
petrified and covered with melancholy ooze and yellow lichen, among the
stagnant grotto waters. In some respects, therefore, there is in the
"Ambra" somewhat more artificial, more _barrocco_ than that early
Renaissance of Politian and Pontano would warrant. There also several
bits, half graceful, half awkward, pedantic, constrained, childish,
delightful, like the sedge-crowned rivers telling each other anecdotes
of the ways and customs of their respective countries, and especially
the charming dance of zephyr with the flowers on the lawns of Cyprus,
which must immediately suggest pictures by Piero di Cosimo and by
Botticelli. So far, therefore, there is plenty to enjoy, but nothing to
astonish, in the "Ambra." But the Magnificent Lorenzo has had the
extraordinary whim of beginning his allegory with a description,
twenty-one stanzas long, of the season of floods. A description, full of
infinitely delicate minute detail: of the plants which have kept their
foliage while the others are bare--the prickly juniper, the myrtle and
bay; of the flocks of cranes printing the sky with their queer shapes,
of the fish under the ice, and the eagle circling slowly round the
ponds--little things which affect us mixed up as they are with all
manner of stiff classic allusions, very much as do the carefully painted
daisies and clover among the embossed and gilded unrealities of certain
old pictures. From these rather finikin details, Lorenzo passes,
however, to details which are a good deal more than details, things
little noticed until almost recently: the varying effect of the olives
on the hillside--a grey, green mass, a silver ripple, according as the
wind stirs them; the golden appearance of the serene summer air, and so
forth; details no longer, in short, but essentially, however minute,
effects. And then, suddenly leaving such things behind, he rushes into
the midst of a real picture, a picture which you might call almost
impressionistic, of the growth of rivers and the floods. The floods are
a grand sight; more than a sight--a grand performance, a drama;
sometimes, God knows, a tragedy. Last night, under a warm, hazy sky,
through whose buff-tinted clouds the big moon crept in and out, the
mountain stream was vaguely visible--a dark riband in its wide shingly
bed, when the moon was hidden; a narrow, shallow, broken stream, sheets
of brilliant metallic sheen, and showers of sparkling facets, when the
moon was out; a mere drowsy murmur mixing with the creaking and rustling
of dry reeds in the warm, wet wind. Thus in the evening. Look down from
your window next morning. A tremendous rushing mass of waters, thick,
turbid, reddish, with ominous steel-like lustre where its coppery
surface reflects the moist blue sky, now fills the whole bed, shaking
its short fringe of foam, tossing the spray as it swirls round each
still projecting stone, angrily tugging at the reeds and alders which
flop their draggled green upon its surface; eddying faster and faster,
encircling each higher rock or sandbank, covering it at last with its
foaming red mass. Meanwhile, the sky is covered in with vaporous grey
clouds, which enshroud the hills; the clear runnels, dash over the green
banks, spirt through the walls, break their way across the roads; the
little mountain torrents, dry all summer, descend, raging rivers, red
with the hill soil; and with every gust of warm wind the river rises
higher and rushes along tremendously impetuous. Down in the plain it
eats angrily at the soft banks, and breaks its muddy waters, fringed on
the surface with a sort of ominous grime of broken wood and earth,
higher and higher against the pierheads of the bridges; shaking them to
split their masonry, while crowds of men and women look on, staring at
the rising water, at the planks, tables, beams, cottage thatches, nay,
whole trees, which it hurls at the bridge piers. And then, perhaps, the
terrible, soft, balmy flood-wind persisting, there comes suddenly the
catastrophe; the embankment, shaken by the resistless current, cracks,
fissures gives way; and the river rushes into the city, as it has
already rushed into the fields, to spread in constantly rising,
melancholy livid pools, throughout the streets and squares.

This Lorenzo saw, and, wonderful to say, in this soiled and seething
river, in these torn and crumbling banks, in all the dreadfulness of
these things, he saw a beauty and a grandeur. But he saw not merely the
struggle of the waters and of the land; he--the heartless man who laid
his hand even upon the saved-up money of orphan girls in order to keep
up the splendour of his house and of his bank--saw the misfortunes of
the peasantry; the mill, the cottage by the riverside, invaded by the
flood; the doors burst open by the tremendous rushing stream, the
stables and garners filled with the thick and oozy waters; the poor
creatures, yesterday prosperous, clinging to the roof, watching their
sheep and cows, their hay, and straw, and flour, the hemp bleached in
the summer, the linen spun and woven in the long winter, their furniture
and chattels, their labour and their hope whirled along by the foaming

Thus by this versatile Lorenzo dei Medici, this flippant, egotistic
artist and despot, has at last been broken the long spell of the Middle
Ages. The Renaissance has sung no longer of knights and of spring, but
of peasants and of autumn. An immoral and humanistic time, an immoral
and humanistic man, have had at length a heart for the simpler, ruder
less favoured classes of mankind; an eye for the bolder, grander, more
solemn sights of Nature: modern times have begun, modern sympathies,
modern art are in full swing.


    Mirator veterum, discipulusque memor,
    Defuit mini symmetria prisca. Peregi
    Quod potui; Veniam da mihi, posteritas.
          --_Lionardo da Vinci's epitaph by Platino Piatto_.

Into the holy enclosure which had received the precious shiploads of
earth from Calvary, the Pisans of the thirteenth century carried the
fragments of ancient sculpture brought from Rome and from Greece; and in
the Gothic cloister enclosing the green sward and dark cypresses of the
graveyard of Pisa, the art of the Middle Ages came for the first time
face to face with the art of Antiquity. There, among pagan sarcophagi
turned into Christian tombs, with heraldic devices chiselled on their
arabesques and vizored helmets surmounting their garlands, the great
unsigned artist of the fourteenth century, Orcagna of Florence, or
Lorenzetti of Siena, painted the typical masterpiece of mediæval art,
the great fresco of the Triumph of Death. With wonderful realization of
character and situation he painted the prosperous of the world, the
dapper youths and damsels seated with dogs and falcons beneath the
orchard trees, amusing themselves with Decameronian tales and sound of
lute and psaltery, unconscious of the colossal scythe wielded by the
gigantic dishevelled Death, and which, in a second, will descend and mow
them to the ground; while the crowd of beggars, ragged, maimed,
paralyzed, leprous, grovelling on their withered limbs, see and implore
Death, and cry stretching forth their arms, their stumps, and their
crutches. Further on, three kings in long embroidered robes and
gold-trimmed shovel caps, Lewis the Emperor, Uguccione of Pisa, and
Castruccio of Lucca, with their retinue of ladies and squires, and
hounds and hawks, are riding quietly through a wood. Suddenly their
horses stop, draw back; the Emperor's bay stretches out his long neck
sniffing the air; the kings strain forward to see, one holding his nose
for the stench of death which meets him; and before them are three open
coffins, in which lie, in three loathsome stages of corruption, from blue
and bloated putrescence to well-nigh fleshless decay, three crowned
corpses. This is the triumph of Death; the grim and horrible jest of the
Middle Ages: equality in decay; kings, emperors, ladies, knights,
beggars, and cripples, this is what we all come to be, stinking corpses;
Death, our lord, our only just and lasting sovereign, reigns impartially
over all.

But opposite, all along the sides of the painted cloister, the Amazons
are wrestling with the youths on the stone of the sarcophagi; the
chariots are dashing forward, the Tritons are splashing in the marble
waves; the Bacchantæ are striking their timbrels in their dance with the
satyrs; the birds are pecking at the grapes, the goats are nibbling at
the vines; all is life, strong and splendid in its marble eternity. And
the mutilated Venus smiles towards the broken Hermes; the stalwart
Hercules, resting against his club, looks on quietly, a smile beneath
his beard; and the gods murmur to each other, as they stand in the
cloister filled with earth from Calvary, where hundreds of men lie
rotting beneath the cypresses, "Death will not triumph for ever; our day
will come."

We have all seen them opposite to each other, these two arts, the art
born of Antiquity and the art born of the Middle Ages; but whether this
meeting was friendly or hostile or merely indifferent, is a question of
constant dispute. To some, mediæval art has appeared being led,
Dante-like, by a magician Virgil through the mysteries of nature up to a
Christian Beatrice, who alone can guide it to the kingdom of heaven;
others have seen mediæval art, like some strong, chaste Sir Guyon
turning away resolutely from the treacherous sorceress of Antiquity, and
pursuing solitarily the road to the true and the good; for some the
antique has been an impure goddess Venus, seducing and corrupting the
Christian artist; the antique has been for others a glorious Helen, an
unattainable perfection, ever pursued by the mediæval craftsman, but
seized by him only as a phantom. Magician or witch, voluptuous,
destroying Venus or cold and ungrasped Helen, what was the antique to
the art born of the Middle Ages and developed during the Renaissance?
Was the relation between them that of tuition, cool and abstract; or of
fruitful love; or of deluding and damning example?

The art which came to maturity in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth
centuries was generated in the early mediæval revival. The seeds may,
indeed, have come down from Antiquity, but they remained for nearly a
thousand years hidden in the withered, rotting remains of former
vegetation; and it was not till that vegetation had completely
decomposed and become part of the soil, it was not till putrefaction had
turned into germination, that artistic organism timidly reappeared. The
new art-germ developed with the new civilization which surrounded it.
Manufacture and commerce reappeared: the artizans and merchants formed
into communities; the communities grew into towns, the towns into
cities; in the city arose the cathedral; the Lombard or Byzantine
mouldings and traceries of the cathedral gave birth to figure-sculpture;
its mosaics gave birth to painting; every forward movement of the
civilization unfolded as it were a new form or detail of the art, until,
when mediæval civilization was reaching its moment of consolidation,
when the cathedrals of Lucca and Pisa stood completed, when Niccolò and
Giovanni Pisano had sculptured their pulpits and sepulchres; painting,
in the hands of Cimabue and Duccio, of Giotto and of Guido da Siena,
freed itself from the tradition of the mosaicists as sculpture had freed
itself from the practice of the stone-masons, and stood forth an
independent and organic art.

Thus painting was born of a new civilization, and grew by its own vital
force; a thing of the Middle Ages, original and spontaneous. But
contemporaneous with the mediæval revival was the resuscitation of
Antiquity; in proportion as the new civilization developed, the old
civilization was exhumed; real Latin began to be studied only when real
Italian began to be written; Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio were at once
the founders of modern literature and the exponents of the literature of
antiquity; the strong young present was to profit by the experience of
the past.

As it was with literature, so likewise was it with art. The most purely
mediæval sculpture, the sculpture which has, as it were, just detached
itself from the capitals and porches of the cathedral, is the direct
pupil of the antique; and the three great Gothic sculptors, Niccolò,
Giovanni, and Andrea of Pisa, learn from fragments of Greek and Roman
sculpture how to model the figure of the Redeemer and how to chisel the
robe of the Virgin. This spontaneous mediæval sculpture, aided by the
antique, preceded by a full half-century the appearance of mediæval
painting; and it was from the study of the works of the Pisan sculptors
that Cimabue and Giotto learned to depart from the mummified
monstrosities of the hieratic, Byzantine and Roman style of Giunta and
Berlinghieri. Thus, through the sculpture of the Pisans the painting of
the school of Giotto received at second-hand the teachings of Antiquity.
Sculpture had created painting; painting now belonged to the painters.
In the hands of Giotto it developed within a few years into an art which
seemed almost mature, an art dealing victoriously with its materials,
triumphantly solving its problems, executing as if by miracle all that
was demanded of it. But Giottesque art appeared perfect merely because
it was limited; it did all that was required of it, because that which
was required was little; it was not asked to reproduce the real nor to
represent the beautiful; it was asked merely to suggest a character, a
situation, a story.

The artistic development of a nation has its exact parallel in the
artistic development of an individual. The child uses his pencil to tell
a story, satisfied with balls and sticks as body, head, and legs;
provided he and his friends can associate with them the ideas in their
minds. The youth sets himself to copy what he sees, to reproduce forms
and effects, without any aim beyond the mere pleasure of copying. The
mature artist strives to obtain forms and effects of which he approves,
he seeks for beauty. In the life of Italian painting the generation of
men who flourished at the beginning of the sixteenth century are the
mature artists; the men of the fifteenth century are the inexperienced
youths; the Giottesques are the children--children Titanic and
seraph-like, but children nevertheless; and, like all children, learning
more perhaps in their few years than can the youth and the man learn in
a lifetime.

Like the child, the Giottesque painter wished to show a situation or
express a story, and for this purpose the absolute realization of
objects was unnecessary. Giottesque art is not incorrect art, it is
generalized art; it is an art of mere outline. The Giottesques could
draw with great accuracy the hand: the form of the fingers, the bend of
the limb, they could give to perfection its whole gesture and movement,
they could produce a correct and spirited outline, but within this
correct outline marked off in dark paint there is but a vague, uniform
mass of pale colour; the body of the hand is missing, and there remains
only its ghost, visible indeed, but unsubstantial, without weight or
warmth, eluding the grasp. The difference between this spectre hand of
the Giottesques, and the sinewy, muscular hand which can shake and crush
of Masaccio and Signorelli; or the soft hand with throbbing pulse and
warm pressure of Perugino and Bellini,--this difference is typical of
the difference between the art of the fourteenth century and the art of
the fifteenth century: the first suggests, the second realizes; the one
gives impalpable outlines, the other gives tangible bodies. The
Giottesque cares for the figure only inasmuch as it displays an action;
he reduces it to a semblance, a phantom, to the mere exponent of an
idea; the man of the Renaissance cares for the figure inasmuch as it is
a living organism, he gives it substance and weight, he makes it stand
out as an animate reality. Thence, despite its early triumphs, the
Giottesque style, by its inherent nature, forbade any progress; it
reached its limits at once, and the followers of Giotto look almost as
if they were his predecessors, for the simple reason that, being unable
to advance, they were forced to retrograde. The limited amount of
artistic realization required to present to the mind of the spectator a
situation or an allegory, had been obtained by Giotto himself, and
bequeathed by him to his followers; who, finding it more than sufficient
for their purposes, and having no incentive to further acquisition in
the love of form and reality for their own sake, worked on with their
master's materials, composing and recomposing, but adding nothing of
their own. Giotto had observed Nature with passionate interest, because,
although its representation was only a means to an end, it was a means
which required to be mastered; and as such became in itself a sort of
secondary aim; but the followers of Giotto merely utilized his
observations--of Nature, and in so doing gradually conventionalized and
debased these second-hand observations. Giotto's forms are wilfully
incomplete, because they aim at mere suggestion, but they are not
conventional: they are diagrams, not symbols, and thence it is that
Giotto seems nearer to the Renaissance than do his latest followers, not
excepting even Orcagna. Painting, which had made the most prodigious
strides from Giunta to Cimabue, and from Cimabue to Giotto, had got
enclosed within a vicious circle, in which it moved for nearly a century
neither backwards nor forwards: painters were satisfied with suggestion;
and as long as they were satisfied, no progress was possible.

From this Giottesque treadmill, painting was released by the
intervention of another art. The painters were hopelessly mediocre;
their art was snatched from them by the sculptors. Orcagna himself,
perhaps the only Giottesque who gave painting an onward push, had
modelled and cast one of the bronze gates of the Florence baptistery;
the generation of artists who arose at the beginning of the fifteenth
century, and who opened the period of the Renaissance, were sculptors or
pupils of sculptors. When we see these vigorous lovers of nature, these
heroic searchers after truth, suddenly pushing aside the decrepit
Giottesque allegory-mongers, we ask ourselves in astonishment whence
they have arisen, and how those broken-down artists of effete art could
have begotten such a generation of giants. Whence do they come?
Certainly not from the studios of the Giottesques. No, they issue out of
the workshops of the stone-mason, of the goldsmith, of the worker in
bronze, of the sculptor. Vasari has preserved the tradition that
Masolino and Paolo Uccello were apprentices of Ghiberti; he has remarked
that their greatest contemporary, Masaccio, "trod in the steps of
Brunelleschi and of Donatello." Pollaiolo and Verrocchio we know to have
been equally excellent as painters and as workers in bronze. Sculpture,
at once more naturalistic and more constantly under the influence of the
antique, had for the second time laboured for painting. Itself a
subordinate art, without much vitality, without deep roots in the
civilization, sculpture was destined to remain the unsuccessful pupil of
the antique, and the unsuccessful rival of painting; but sculpture had
for its mission to prepare the road for painting and to prepare painting
for antique influence; and the noblest work of Ghiberti and Donatello
was Masaccio, as the most lasting glory to the Pisani had been Giotto.

With Masaccio began the study of nature for its own sake, the desire of
reproducing external objects, without any regard to their significance
as symbols, or as parts of a story; the passionate wish to arrive at
absolute realization. The merely suggestive outline art of the
Giottesques had come to an end; the suggestion became a matter of
indifference, the realization became a paramount interest; the story was
forgotten in the telling, the religious thought was lost in the search
for the artistic form. The Giottesques had used debased conventionalism
to represent action with wonderful narrative and logical power; the
artists of the early Renaissance became unskilful narrators and foolish
allegorists almost in proportion as they became skilful draughtsmen and
colourists; the saints had become to Masaccio merely so many lay figures
on to which to cast drapery; for Fra Filippo the Madonna was a mere
peasant model; for Filippino Lippi and for Ghirlandajo, a miracle meant
merely an opportunity of congregating a number of admirable portrait
figures in the dress of the day; the Baptism for Verrocchio had
significance only as a study of muscular legs and arms; and the
sacrifice of Noah had no importance for Uccello save as a grand
opportunity for foreshortenings. In the hands of the Giottesques,
interested in the subject and indifferent to the representation,
painting had remained stationary for eighty years; for eighty years did
it develope in the hands of the men of the fifteenth century,
indifferent to the subject and passionately interested in the
representation. The unity, the appearance of comparative perfection of
the art had disappeared with the limits within which the Giottesques had
been satisfied to move; instead of the intelligible and solemn
conventionalism of the Giottesques, we see only disorder,
half-understood ideas and abortive attempts, confusion which reminds us
of those enigmatic sheets on which Leonardo or Michael Angelo scrawled
out their ideas--drawings within drawings, plans of buildings scratched
over Madonna heads, single flowers upside down next to flayed arms,
calculations, monsters, sonnets; a very chaos of thoughts and of shapes,
in which the plan of the artist is inextricably lost, which mean
everything and nothing, but out of whose unintelligible network of lines
and curves have issued masterpieces, and which only the foolish or the
would-be philosophical would exchange for some intelligible, hopelessly
finished and finite illustration out of a Bible or a book of travels.

Anatomy, perspective, colour, drapery, effects of light, of water, of
shadow, forms of trees and flowers, converging lines of architecture,
all this at once absorbed and distracted the attention of the artists of
the early Renaissance; and while they studied, copied, and calculated,
another thought began to haunt them, another eager desire began to
pursue them: by the side of Nature, the manifold, the baffling, the
bewildering, there rose up before them another divinity, another sphinx,
mysterious in its very simplicity and serenity--the Antique.

The exhumation of the antique had, as we have seen, been contemporaneous
with the birth of painting; nay, the study of the remains of antique
sculpture had, in contributing to form Niccolò Pisano, indirectly helped
to form Giotto; the very painter of the Triumph of Death had inserted
into his terrible fresco two-winged genii, upholding a scroll, copied
without any alteration from some coarse Roman sarcophagus, in which they
may have sustained the usual _Dis Manibus Sacrum_. There had been, on
the part of both sculptors and painters, a constant study of the
antique; but during the Giottesque period this study had been limited to
technicalities, and had in no way affected the conception of art. The
mediæval artists, surrounded by physical deformities, and seeing
sanctity in sickness and dirt, little accustomed to observe the human
figure, were incapable, both as men and as artists, of at all entering
into the spirit of antique art. They could not perceive the superior
beauty of the antique; they could recognize only its superior science
and its superior handicraft, and these alone they studied to obtain.

Giovanni Pisano sculpturing the unfleshed, caried carcases of the devils
who leer, writhe, crunch, and tear on the outside of Orvieto Cathedral;
and the Giottesques painting those terrible green, macerated Christs,
hanging livid and broken from the cross, which abound in Tuscany and
Umbria; the artists who produced these loathsome and lugubrious works
were indubitably students of the antique; but they had learned from it
not a love for beautiful form and noble drapery, but merely the general
shape of the limbs and the general fall of the garments: the anatomical
science and technical processes of Antiquity were being used to produce
the most intensely un-antique, the most intensely mediæval works. Thus
matters stood in the time of Giotto. His followers, who studied only
arrangement, probably consulted the antique as little as they consulted
nature; but the contemporary sculptors were brought by the very
constitution of their art into close contact both with Nature and with
the antique; they studied both with determination, and handed over the
results of their labours to the sculptor-taught painters of the
fifteenth century.

Here, then, were the two great factors in the art of the
Renaissance--the study of nature, and the study of the Antique: both
understand slowly, imperfectly; the one counteracting the effect of the
other; the study of nature now scaring away all antique influence, the
study of the antique now distorting all imitation of nature; rival
forces confusing the artist and marring the work, until, when each could
receive its due, the one corrected the other, and they combined,
producing by this marriage of the living reality with the dead but
immortal beauty, the great art of Michael Angelo, of Raphael, and of
Titian: double, like its origin, antique and modern, real and ideal.

The study of the antique is thus placed opposite to the study of nature,
the comprehension of the works of Antiquity is the momentary antagonist
of the comprehension of the works of nature. And this may seem strange,
when we consider that antique art was itself due to perfect
comprehension of nature. But the contradiction is easily explained. The
study of nature, as it was carried on in the Renaissance, comprised the
study of effects which had remained unnoticed by Antiquity; and the
study of the statue,--colourless, without light, shade, or perspective,
hampered, and was hampered by, the study of colour, of light and shade,
of perspective, and of all that a generation of painters would seek to
learn from nature. Nor was this all; the influence of the civilization
of the Renaissance, of a civilization directly issued from the Middle
Ages, was entirely at variance with the influence of antique
civilization through the medium of ancient art; the Middle Ages and
Antiquity, Christianity and Paganism, were even more opposed to each
other than could be the statue and the easel picture, the fresco and the

First, then, we have the hostility between painting--and sculpture,
between the _modus operandi_ of the modern and the _modus operandi_ of
the ancient art. Antique art is, in the first place, purely linear art,
colourless, tintless, without light and shade; next, it is essentially
the art of the isolated figure, without background, grouping, or
perspective. As linear art it could directly affect only that branch of
painting which was itself linear; and as art of the isolated figure it
was ever being contradicted by the constantly developing arts of
perspective and landscape. The antique never' directly influenced the
Venetians, not from reasons of geography and culture, but from the fact
that Venetian painting, founded from the earliest times upon a system of
colour, could not be affected by antique sculpture, based upon a system
of modelled, colourless form; the men who saw form only through the
medium of colour could not learn much from purely linear form; hence it
is that even after a certain amount of antique imitation had passed into
Venetian painting, through the medium of Mantegna, the Venetian painters
display comparatively little antique influence. In Bellini, Carpaccio,
Cima, and other early masters, the features, forms, and dress are mainly
modern and Venetian; and Giorgione, Titian, and even the eclectic
Tintoret, were more interested in the bright lights of a steel
breastplate than in the shape of a limb; and preferred in their hearts a
shot brocade of the sixteenth century to the finest drapery ever
modelled by an ancient.

The antique influence was naturally strongest among the Tuscan schools;
because the Tuscan schools were essentially schools of drawing, and the
draughtsman recognized in antique sculpture the highest perfection of
that linear form which was his own domain. Yet while the antique
appealed most to the linear schools, even in these it could strongly
influence only the purely linear part; it is strong in the drawings and
weak in the paintings. As long as the artists had only the pencil or
pen, they could reproduce much of the linear perfection of the antique;
they were, so to speak, alone with it; but as soon as they brought in
colour, perspective, and scenery, the linear perfection was lost in
attempts at something new; the antique was put to flight by the modern.
Botticelli's crayon study for his Venus is almost antique; his tempera
picture of Venus, with the pale blue scaly sea, the laurel grove, the
flower-embroidered garments, the wisps of tawny hair, is comparatively
mediæval; Pinturicchio's sketch of Pans and satyrs contrasts strangely
with his frescoes in the library of Siena; Mantegna himself,
supernaturally antique in his engravings, becomes comparatively trivial
and modern in his oil-paintings. Do what they might, draw from the
antique and calculate its proportions, the artists of the Renaissance
found themselves baffled as soon as they attempted to apply the result
of then linear studies to coloured pictures; as soon as they tried to
make the antique unite with the modern, one of the two elements was sure
to succumb. In Botticelli, draughtsman and student though he was, the
modern, the mediæval, that part of the art which had arisen in the
Middle Ages, invariably had the upper hand; his Venus, despite her forms
studied from the antique and her gesture imitated from some earlier
discovered copy of the Medicean Venus, has the woe-begone prudery of a
Madonna or of an abbess; she shivers physically and morally in her
unaccustomed nakedness, and the goddess of Spring, who comes skipping up
from beneath the laurel copse, does well to prepare her a mantle, for in
the pallid tempera colour, against the dismal background of rippled sea,
this mediæval Venus, at once indecent and prudish, is no very pleasing
sight. In the Allegory of Spring in the Academy of Florence, we again
have the antique; goddesses and nymphs whose clinging garments the
gentle Sandro Botticelli has assuredly studied from some old statue of
Agrippina or Faustina; but what strange livid tints are there beneath
those draperies, what eccentric gestures are those of the nymphs, what a
green, ghostlike light illumines this garden of Venus Are these
goddesses and nymphs immortal women such as the ancients conceived, or
are they not rather fantastic fairies or nixen, Titanias and Undines,
incorporeal daughters of dew and gossamer and mist?

In Sandro Botticelli the teachings of the statue are forgotten or
distorted when the artist takes up his palette and brushes; in his
greater contemporary, Andrea Mantegna, the ever-present antique chills
and arrests the vitality of the modern. Mantegna, the pupil of the
ancient marbles of Squarcione's workshop even more than the pupil of
Donatello, studies for his paintings not from nature, but from
sculpture; his figures are seen in strange projection and
foreshortening, like figures in a high relief seen from below; despite
his mastery of perspective, they seem hewn out of the background;
despite the rich colours which he displays in his Veronese altar-piece,
they look like painted marbles, with their hard clots of stonelike hair
and beard, with their vacant glance and their wonderful draperies,
clinging and weighty like the wet draperies of ancient sculpture. They
are beautiful petrifactions, or vivified statues; Mantegna's
masterpiece, the sepia "Judith" in Florence, is like an exquisite,
pathetically lovely Eurydice, who has stepped unconscious and lifeless
out of a Praxitelian bas-relief. And there are stranger works than even
the Judith; strange statuesque fancies, like the fight of Marine
Monsters and the Bacchanal among Mantegna's engravings. The group of
three wondrous creatures, at once men, fish, and gods, is as grand and
even more fantastic than Leonardo's Battle of the Standard: a Triton,
sturdy and muscular, with sea-weed beard and hair, wheels round his
finned horse, preparing to strike his adversary with a bunch of fish
which he brandishes above him; on him is rushing, careering on an
osseous sea-horse, a strange, lank, sinewy being, fury stretching every
tendon, his long-clawed feet striking into the flanks of his steed, his
sharp, reed-crowned head turned fiercely, with clenched teeth, on his
opponent, and stretching forth a truncheon, ready to run down his enemy
as a ship runs down another; and further off a young Triton, with
clotted hair and heavy eyes, seems ready to sink wounded below the
rippling wavelets, with the massive head and marble agony of the dying
Alexander; enigmatic figures, grand and grotesque, lean, haggard,
vehement, and yet, in the midst of violence and monstrosity,
unaccountably antique. The other print, called the Bacchanal, has no
background: half a dozen male figures stand separate and naked as in a
bas-relief. Some are leaning against a vine-wreathed tub; a satyr, with
acanthus-leaves growing wondrously out of him, half man, half plant, is
emptying a cup; a heavy Silenus is prone upon the ground; a faun, seated
upon the vat, is supporting in his arms a beautiful sinking youth;
another youth, grand, muscular, and grave as a statue, stands on the
further side. Is this really a bacchanal? Yes, for there is the paunchy
Silenus, there are the fauns, there the vat and vine-wreaths and
drinking-horns. And yet it cannot be a bacchanal. Compare with it one of
Rubens's orgies, where the overgrown, rubicund men and women and fauns
tumble about in tumultuous, riotous intoxication: that is a bacchanal;
they have been drinking, those magnificent brutes, there is wine firing
their blood and weighing down their heads. But here all is different, in
this so-called Bacchanal of Mantegna. This heavy Silenus is supine like
a mass of marble; these fauns are shy and mute; these youths are grave
and sombre; there is no wine in the cups, there are no lees in the vat,
there is no life in these magnificent colossal forms; there is no blood
in their grandly bent lips, no light in their wide-opened eyes; it is
not the drowsiness of intoxication which is weighing down the youth
sustained by the faun; it is no grapejuice which gives that strange,
vague glance. No; they have drunk, but not of any mortal drink; the
grapes are grown in Persephone's garden, the vat contains no fruits that
have ripened beneath our sun. These strange, mute, solemn revellers have
drunk of Lethe, and they are growing cold with the cold of death and of
marble; they are the ghosts of the dead ones of antiquity, revisiting
the artist of the Renaissance, who paints them, thinking he is painting
life, while that which he paints is in reality death.

This anomaly, this unsatisfactory character of the works of both
Botticelli and Mantegna, is mainly technical; the antique is frustrated
in Botticelli, not so much by the Christian, the mediæval, the modern
mode of feeling, as by the new methods and aims of the new art which
disconcert the methods and aims of the old art; and that which arrests
Mantegna in his development as a painter is not the spirit of Paganism
deadening the spirit of Christianity, but the laws of sculpture
hampering painting. But this technical contest between two arts, the one
not yet fully developed, the other not yet fully understood, is as
nothing compared with the contest between the two civilizations, the
antique and the modern; between the habits and tendencies of the
contemporaries of the artists of the Renaissance and of the artists
themselves, and the habits and tendencies of the antique artists and
their contemporaries. We are apt to think of the Renaissance as of a
period closely resembling antiquity, misled by the inevitable similarity
between southern and democratic countries of whatever age; misled still
less pardonably by the Ciceronian pedantries and pseudo-antique
obscenities of a few humanists, and by the pseudo-Corinthian arabesques
and capitals of a few learned architects. But all this was mere
archaeological finery borrowed by a civilization in itself entirely
unlike that of ancient Greece.

The Renaissance, let us remember, was merely the flowering time of that
great mediæval movement which had germinated early in the twelfth
century; it was merely a more advanced stage of the civilization which
had produced Dante and Giotto, of the civilization which was destined to
produce Luther and Rabelais. The fifteenth century was merely the
continuation of the fourteenth century, as the fourteenth had been of
the thirteenth; there had been growth and improvement; development of
the more modern, diminishing of the more mediæval elements; but, despite
growth and the changes due to growth, the Renaissance was part and
parcel of the Middle Ages. The life, thought, aspirations, and habits
were mediæval; opposed to the open-air life, the physical training and
the materialistic religion of Antiquity. The surroundings of Masaccio
and of Signorelli, nay, even of Raphael, were very different from those
of Phidias or Praxiteles. Let us think what were the daily and hourly
impressions given by the Renaissance to its artists. Large towns, in
which thousands of human beings were crowded together, in narrow, gloomy
streets, with but a strip of blue visible between the projecting roofs;
and in these cities an incessant commercial activity, with no relief
save festivals at the churches, brawls at the taverns, and carnival
buffooneries. Men and women pale and meagre for want of air, and light,
and movement; undeveloped, untrained bodies, warped by constant work at
the loom or at the desk, at best with the lumpish freedom of the soldier
and the vulgar nimbleness of the prentice. And these men and women
dressed in the dress of the Middle Ages, gorgeous perhaps in colour, but
heavy, miserable, grotesque, nay, sometimes ludicrous in form; citizens
in lumpish robes and long-tailed caps; ladies in stiff and foldless
brocade hoops and stomachers; artizans in striped and close-adhering
hose and egg-shaped padded jerkin; soldiers in lumbering armour-plates,
ill-fitted over ill-fitting leather, a shapeless shell of iron, bulging
out and angular, in which the body was buried as successfully as in the
robes of the magistrates. Thus we see the men and women of the
Renaissance in the works of all its painters: heavy in Ghirlandajo,
vulgarly jaunty in Filippino, preposterously starched and prim in
Mantegna, ludicrously undignified in Signorelli; while mediæval
stiffness, awkwardness, and absurdity reach their acme perhaps in the
little boys, companions of the Medici children, introduced into Benozzo
Gozzoli's Building of Babel. These are the prosperous townsfolk, among
whom the Renaissance artist is but too glad to seek for models; but
besides these there are lamentable sights, mediæval beyond words, at
every street corner: dwarfs and cripples, maimed and diseased beggars of
all degrees of loathsomeness, lepers and epileptics, and infinite
numbers of monks, brown, grey, and black, in sack-shaped frocks and
pointed hoods, with shaven crown and cropped beard, emaciated with
penance or bloated with gluttony. And all this the painter sees, daily,
hourly; it is his standard of humanity, and as such finds its way into
every picture. It is the living; but opposite it arises the dead. Let us
turn aside from the crowd of the mediæval city, and look at what the
workmen have just laid bare, or what the merchant has just brought from
Rome or from Greece. Look at this: it is corroded by oxides, battered by
ill-usage, stained with earth: it is not a group, not even a whole
statue, it has neither head nor arms remaining; it is a mere broken
fragment of antique sculpture,--a naked body with a fold or two of
drapery; it is not by Phidias nor by Praxiteles, it may not even be
Greek; it may be some cheap copy, made for a garden or a bath, in the
days of Hadrian. But to the artist of the fifteenth century it is the
revelation of a whole world, a world in itself. We can scarcely realize
all this; but let us look and reflect, and even we may feel as must have
felt the man of the Renaissance in the presence of that mutilated,
stained, battered torso. He sees in that broken stump a grandeur of
outline, a magnificence of osseous structure, a breadth of muscle and
sinew, a smooth, firm covering of flesh, such as he would vainly seek in
any of his living models; he sees a delicate and infinite variety of
indentures, of projections, of creases following the bend of every limb;
he sees, where the surface still exists intact, an elasticity of skin, a
buoyancy of hidden life such as all the colours of his palette are
unable to imitate; and in this piece of drapery, negligently gathered
over the hips or rolled upon the arm, he sees a magnificent alternation
of large folds and small plaits, of straight lines, and broken lines,
and curves. He sees all this; but he sees more: the broken torso is, as
we have said, not merely a world in itself, but the revelation of a
world. It is the revelation of antique civilization, of the palaestra
and the stadium, of the sanctification of the body, of the apotheosis of
man, of the religion of life and nature and joy; revealed to the man of
the Middle Ages, who has hitherto seen in the untrained, diseased,
despised body but a deformed piece of baseness, which his priests tell
him belongs to the worms and to Satan; who has been taught that the monk
living in solitude and celibacy, filthy, sick, worn out with fastings
and bleeding with flagellation, is the nearest approach to divinity; who
has seen Divinity itself, pale, emaciated, joyless, hanging bleeding
from the cross; and who is for ever reminded that the kingdom of this
Godhead is not of this world.

What passes in the mind of that artist? What surprise, what dawning
doubts, what sickening fears, what longings and what remorse are not the
fruit of this sight of Antiquity? Is he to yield or to resist? Is he to
forget the saints and Christ, and give himself over to Satan and to
Antiquity? Only one man boldly answered, Yes. Mantegna abjured his
faith, abjured the Middle Ages, abjured all that belonged to his time;
and in so doing cast away from him the living art and became the lover,
the worshipper of shadows. And only one man turned completely aside from
the antique as from the demon, and that man was a saint, Fra Angelico da
Fiesole. And with the antique, Fra Angelico rejected all the other
artistic influences and aims of his time, the time not of Giotto or of
Orcagna, but of Masaccio and Uccello, of Pollaiolo and Donatello. For the
mild, meek, angelic monk dreaded the life of his days; dreaded to leave
the cloister where the sunshine was tempered and the noise reduced to a
mere faint hum, and where the flower-beds were tidy and prim; dreaded to
soil or rumple his spotless white robe and his shining black cowl; a
spiritual sybarite, shrinking from the sight of the crowd seething in
the streets, shrinking from the idea of stripping the rags off the
beggar in order to see his tanned and gnarled limbs; shuddering at the
thought of seeking for muscles in the dead, cut-open body; fearful of
every whiff of life that might mingle with the incense atmosphere of his
chapel, of every cry of human passion which might break through the
well-ordered sweetness of his chants. No; the Renaissance did not exist
for him who lived in a world of diaphanous form, colour and character,
unsubstantial and unruffled; dreaming feebly and sweetly of
transparent-cheeked Madonnas with no limbs beneath their robes; of
smooth-faced saints with well-combed beard and placid, vacant gaze,
seated in well-ordered masses, holy with the purity of inanity; of
divine dolls with pallid flaxen locks, floating between heaven and
earth, playing upon lute and viol and psaltery; raised to faint visions
of angels and blessed, moving noiseless, feelingless, meaningless,
across the flowerets of Paradise; of assemblies of saints seated,
arrayed in pure pink, and blue and lilac, in an atmosphere of liquid
gold, in glory. And thus Fra Angelico worked on, content with the dearly
purchased science of his masters, placid, beatic, effeminate, in an
æsthetical paradise of his own, a paradise of sloth and sweetness, a
paradise for weak souls, weak hearts, and weak eyes; patiently repeating
the same fleshless angels, the same boneless saints, the same bloodless
virgins; happy in smoothing the unmixed, unshaded tints of the sky, and
earth, and dresses; laying on the gold of the fretted skies, and of the
iridescent wings, embroidering robes, instruments of music, halos,
flowers, with threads of gold.... Sweet, simple artist saint, reducing
art to--something akin to the delicate pearl and silk embroidery of
pious nuns, to the exquisite sweetmeat cookery of pious monks; a
something too delicately gorgeous, too deliciously insipid for human
wear or human food; no, the Renaissance does not exist for thee, either
in its study of the existing reality, or in its study of antique beauty.

Mantegna, the learned, the archæological, the pagan, who renounces his
times and his faith; and Angelico, the monk, the saint, who shuts and
bolts his monastery doors and sprinkles holy water in the face of the
antique; the two extremes, are both exceptions. The innumerable artists
of the Renaissance remained in hesitation; tried to court both the
antique and the modern, to unite the Pagan and the Christian--some, like
Ghirlandajo, in cold indifference to all but mere artistic science,
encrusting marble bacchanals into the walls of the Virgin's paternal
house, bringing together, unthinkingly, antique-draped women carrying
baskets, and noble Strozzi and Ruccellai ladies with gloved hands folded
over their gold brocaded skirts; others, with cheerful and childlike
pleasure in both antique and modern, like Benozzo, crowding together
half-naked youths and nymphs treading the grapes and scaling the
trellise with Florentine magnificos in plaited skirts and starched
collars, among the pines, and porticos, the sprawling children, barking
dogs, peacocks sunning themselves, and partridges picking up grain, of
his Pisan frescoes; yet others using the antique as mere pageant shows,
allegorical mummeries, destined to amuse some Duke of Ferrara or Marquis
of Mantua, together with the hurdle races of Jews, hags, and riderless

Thus little by little the antique amalgamates with the modern; the art
born of the Middle Ages absorbs the art born of Paganism; but how
slowly, and with what fantastic and ludicrous results at first; as when
the anatomical sculptor Pollaiolo gives scenes of naked Roman
prize-fighters as martyrdoms of St. Sebastian; or when the pious
Perugino (pious at least with his brush) dresses up his sleek, hectic,
beardless archangels as Roman warriors, and makes them stand, straddling
beatically on thin little dapper legs, wistfully gazing from beneath
their wondrously ornamented helmets on the walls of the Cambio at
Perugia; when he masquerades meditative fathers of the Church as
Socrates and haggard anchorites as Numa Pompilius; most ludicrous of
all, when he attires in scantiest of--clinging antique drapery his mild
and pensive Madonnas, and, with daintily pointed toes, places them to
throne bashfully on allegorical chariots as Venus or Diana.

Long is the period of amalgamation, and small are the results throughout
that long early Renaissance. Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Melozzo,
Ghirlandajo, Filippino, Botticelli, Verrocchio, have none of them shown
us the perfect fusion of the two elements whose union is to give us
Michael Angelo, Raphael, and all the great perfect artists of the early
sixteenth century; the two elements are for ever ill-combined and
hostile to each other; the modern vulgarizes the antique, the antique
paralyzes the modern. And meanwhile the fifteenth century, the century
of study, of conflict, and of confusion, is rapidly drawing to a close;
eight or ten more years, and it will be gone. Is the new century to find
the antique still dead and the modern still mediæval?

The antique and the modern had met for the first time and as
irreconcilable enemies in the cloisters of Pisa; and the modern had
triumphed in the great mediæval fresco of the Triumph of Death. By a
strange coincidence, by a sublime jest of accident, the antique and the
modern were destined to meet again, and this time indissolubly united,
in a painting representing the Resurrection. Yes, Signorelli's fresco in
Orvieto Cathedral is indeed a resurrection, the resurrection of human
beauty after the long death-slumber of the Middle Ages. And the artist
would seem to have been dimly conscious of the great allegory he was
painting. Here and there are strewn skulls; skeletons stand leering by,
as if in remembrance of the ghastly past, and as a token of former
death; but magnificent youths are breaking through the crust of the
earth, emerging, taking shape and flesh; arising, strong and proud,
ready to go forth at the bidding of the Titanic angels who announce from
on high with trumpet blast and waving banners, that the death of the
world has come to an end, and that humanity has arisen once more in the
youth and beauty of Antiquity.


Signorelli's frescoes at Orvieto, at once the latest works of the
fifteenth century, and the latest works of an old man nurtured in the
traditions of Benozzo Gozzoli and of Piero della Francesca, mark the
beginning of the maturity and perfection of Italian art. From them
Michael Angelo learns what he could not be taught even by his master
Ghirlandajo, the grand and cold realist. He learns; and what he has
learned at Orvieto he teaches with doubled force in Rome; and the
ceiling of the Sixtine Chapel, the superb and heroic nudities, the
majestic draperies, the reappearance in the modern art of painting of
the spirit and hand of Phidias, give a new impulse and hasten on
perfection. When the doors of the chapel are at length opened, Raphael
forgets Perugino; Fra Bartolomeo forgets Botticelli; Sodoma forgets
Leonardo; the narrower hesitating styles of the fifteenth century are
abandoned, as the great example is disseminated throughout Italy; and
even the tumult of angels in glory which the Lombard Correggio is to
paint in far-off Parma, and the daringly simple Bacchus and Ariadne with
which Tintoret will decorate the Ducal Palace more than fifty years
later--all that is great and bold, all that is a re-incarnation of the
spirit of Antiquity, all that marks the culmination of Renaissance art,
seems due to the impulse of Michael Angelo, and, through him, to the
example of Signorelli. From the celestial horseman and bounding avenging
angels of Raphael's Heliodorus, to the St. Sebastian of Sodoma, with
exquisite limbs and head, rich with tendril-like locks, delicate against
the brown Umbrian sunset; from the Madonna of Andrea del Sarto seated,
with the head and drapery of a Niobe, by the sack of flour in the
Annunziata cloister, to the voluptuous goddess, with purple mantle half
concealing her body of golden white, who leans against the sculptured
fountain in Titian's Sacred and Profane Love, with the greenish blue sky
and hazy light of evening behind her; from the most extreme examples of
the most extreme schools of Lombardy and Venetia, to the most intense
examples of the remotest schools of Tuscany and Umbria; throughout the
art of the early sixteenth century, of those thirty years which were the
years of perfection, we see, more or less marked, but always distinct,
the union of the living art born of the Middle Ages with the dead art
left by Antiquity, a union producing life and perfection, producing the
great art of the Renaissance.

This much is clear and easy of definition; but what is neither clearly
understood nor easily defined is the nature of this union, the manner in
which the antique and the modern did thus amalgamate. It is easy to
speak of a vague union of spirit, of the antique idea having permeated
the modern; but all this explains but little: art is not a metaphysical
figment, and all its phases and revolutions are concrete, and, so to
speak, physically explicable and definable. The union of the antique
with the modern meant simply the absorption by the art of the
Renaissance of elements of civilization necessary for its perfection,
but not existing in the medieval civilization of the fifteenth century;
of elements of civilization which gave what the civilization of the
fifteenth century--which could give colour, perspective, grouping, and
landscape--could never have afforded: the nude, drapery, and gesture.

The naked human body, which the Greeks had trained, studied, and
idolized, did not exist in the fifteenth century; in its stead there was
only the undressed body, ill-developed, untrained, pinched, and
distorted by the garments only just cast off; cramped and bent by
sedentary occupations, livid with the plague-spots of the Middle Ages,
scarred by the whipmarks of asceticism. This stripped body, unseen and
unfit to be seen, unaccustomed to the air and to the eyes of others,
shivered and cowered for cold and for shame. The Giottesques ignored its
very existence, conceiving humanity as a bodiless creature, with face
and hands to express emotion, and just enough malformed legs and feet to
be either standing or moving; further, beneath the garments, there was
nothing. The realists of the fifteenth century tore off the clothes and
drew the ugly thing beneath; and bought the corpses from the
lazar-houses, and stole them from the gallows; in order to see how bone
fitted into bone, and muscle was stretched over muscle. They learned to
perfection the anatomy of the human frame, but they could not learn its
beauty; they became even reconciled to the ugliness they were accustomed
to see; and, with their minds full of antique examples, Verrocchio,
Donatello, Pollaiolo, and Ghirlandajo, the greatest anatomists of the
fifteenth century, imitated their coarse and ill-made living models when
they imagined that they were imitating antique marbles.

So much for the nude. Drapery, as the ancients understood it in the
delicate plaits of Greek chiton and tunic, in the grand folds of Roman
toga, the fifteenth century could not show; it knew only the stiff,
scanty raiment of the active classes; the shapeless masses of lined
cloth of the merchants and magistrates; the prudish and ostentatious
starched dress of the women; and the coarse, lumpish garb of the monks.

The artist of the fifteenth century knew drapery only as an exotic, an
exotic with whose representation the habit of seeing mediæval costume
was for ever interfering; on the stripped, unseemly, indecent body he
places, with the stiffness of artificiality, drapery such as he has
never seen upon any living creature; the result is awkwardness and
rigidity. And what attitude, what gesture, can he expect from this
stripped and artificially draped model? None, for the model scarce knows
how to stand in so unaccustomed a condition of body. The artist must
seek for attitude and gesture among his townsfolk, and among them he can
find only trivial, awkward, often vulgar movement. They have never been
taught how to stand or to move with grace and dignity; the artist must
study attitude and gesture in the market-place or the bull-baiting
ground, where Ghirlandajo found his jauntily strutting idlers, and
Verrocchio his brutally staggering prize-fighters. Between the
constrained attitudinizing of Byzantine and Giottesque tradition, and
the imitation of the movements of clodhoppers and ragamuffins, the
realist of the fifteenth century would wander hopelessly were it not for
the antique. Genius and science are of no avail; the position of Christ
in baptism in the paintings of Verrocchio and Ghirlandajo is mean and
servile; the movements of the "Thunder-stricken" in Signorelli's
lunettes is an inconceivable mixture of the brutish, the melodramatic,
and the comic; the magnificently drawn youth at the door of the prison
in Filippino's Liberation of St. Peter is gradually going to sleep and
collapsing in a fashion which is truly ignoble.

And the same applies to sculptured figures or to figures standing
isolated like statues; no Greek would have ventured upon the swaggering
position, with legs apart and elbows out, of Donatello's St. George, or
Perugino's St. Michael; and a young Athenian who should have assumed the
attitude of Verrocchio's David, with tripping legs and hand clapped on
his hip, would have been sent to sit in a corner as a saucy little

Coarse nude, stiff drapery, vulgar attitude, was all that the fifteenth
century could offer to its artists; but Antiquity could offer more and
very different things: the naked body developed by the most artistic
training, drapery the most natural and refined, and attitude and gesture
regulated by an education the most careful and artistic; and all these
things Antiquity did give to the artists of the Renaissance. They did
not copy antique statues as living naked men and women, but they
corrected the faults of their living models by the example of the
statues; they did not copy antique stone draperies in coloured pictures,
but they arranged the robes on their models with the antique folds well
in their memory; they did not give the gestures of statues to living
figures, but they made the living figures move in accordance with those
principles of harmony which they had found exemplified in the statues.

They did not imitate the antique, they studied it; they obtained through
the fragments of antique sculpture a glimpse into the life of antiquity,
and that glimpse served to correct the vulgarism and distortion of the
mediæval life of the fifteenth century. In the perfection of Italian
painting, the union of antique and modern being consummated, it is
perhaps difficult to disentangle what really is antique from what is
modern; but in the earlier times, when the two elements were still
separate, we can see them opposite each other and compare them in the
works of the greatest artists. Wherever, in the paintings of the early
Renaissance, there is realism, marked by the costume of the times, there
is ugliness of form and vulgarity of movement; where there is idealism,
marked by imitation of the antique, the nude, and drapery, there is
beauty and dignity. We need only compare Filippino's Scene before the
Proconsul with his Raising of the King's Son in the Brancacci Chapel;
the grand attitude and draperies of Ghirlandajo's Zachariah with the
vulgar dress and movements of the Florentine citizens surrounding him;
Benozzo Gozzoli's noble naked figure of Noah with his ungainly,
hideously dressed figure of Cosimo de' Medici; Mantegna's exquisite
Judith with his preposterous Marquis of Mantua; in short, all the purely
realistic with all the purely idealistic painting of the fifteenth
century. We may give one last instance. In Signorelli's Orvieto frescoes
there is a figure of a young man, with aquiline features, long crisp
hair and strongly developed throat, which reappears unmistakably in all
the compositions, and in some of them twice and thrice in various
positions. His naked figure is magnificent, his attitudes splendid, his
thrown-back head superb, whether he be slowly and painfully emerging
from the earth, staggered and gasping with his newly infused life, or
sinking oppressed on the ground, broken and crushed by the sound of the
trumpet of judgment; or whether he be moving forward with ineffable
longing towards the angel about to award him the crown of the blessed;
in all these positions he is heroically beautiful. We meet him again,
unmistakable, but how different, in the realistic group of the
"Thunder-stricken "--the long, lank youth, with spindle-shanks and
egg-shaped body, bounding forward, with most grotesque strides, over the
uncouth heap of dead bodies, ungainly masses with soles and nostrils
uppermost, lying in beast-like confusion. This youth, with something of
a harlequin in his jumps and his ridiculous thin legs and preposterous
round body, is evidently the model for the naked demi-gods of the
Resurrection and the Paradise: he is the handsome boy as the fifteenth
century gave him to Signorelli; opposite, he is the living youth of the
fifteenth century idealized by the study of ancient sculpture; just as
the "Thunder-stricken" may be some scene of street massacre such as
Signorelli might have witnessed at Cortona or Perugia; while the agonies
of the "Hell" are the grouped and superb agonies taught by the antique;
just as the two archangels of the "Hell," in their armour of Baglioni's
heavy cavalry, may represent the modern element, and the same
archangels, naked, with magnificent flying draperies, blowing the
trumpets of the Resurrection, may show the antique element in
Renaissance art.

The antique influence was not, indeed, equally strong throughout Italy;
it was strongest in the Tuscan school, which, seeking for perfection of
linear form, found that perfection in the antique; it was weakest in the
Lombard and Venetian schools, which sought for what the antique could
not give, light and shade and colour; the antique was most efficacious
where it was most indispensable, and it was more necessary to a Tuscan,
strong only with his charcoal or pencil, than to Leonardo da Vinci, who
could make an imperfect figure, beckoning mysteriously from out of the
gloom, more fascinating than the finest drawn Florentine Madonna, and
could surround an insignificant childish head with the wondrous sheen
and ripple of hair, as with an aureole of poetry; it was also less
necessary to Giorgione and Titian, who could hide coarse limbs beneath
their draperies of precious ruby, and transfigure, by the liquid gold of
their palettes, a peasant woman into a goddess. But even the Lombards,
even the Venetians, required the antique influence. They could not
perhaps have obtained it direct like the Tuscans: the colourists and
masters of light and shade might never have understood the blank lines
and faint shadows of the marble; but they received the antique
influence, strong but modified by the medium through which it had
passed, from Mantegna; and the relentless self-sacrifice to Antiquity,
the self-paralyzation of the great artist, was not without its use: from
Venetian Padua, Mantegna influenced the Bellini and Giorgione; from
Lombard Mantua, he influenced Leonardo; and Mantegna's influence was
that of the antique.

What would have been the art of the Renaissance without the antique? The
speculation is vain, for the antique had influenced it, had been goading
it on ever since the earliest times; it had been present at its birth,
it had affected Giotto through Niccolò Pisano, and Masaccio through
Ghiberti; the antique influence cannot be conceived as absent in the
history of Italian painting. So far, as a study of the impossible, the
speculation respecting the fate of Renaissance art had it not been
influenced by the antique would be childishly useless. But lest we
forget that this antique influence did exist, lest, grown ungrateful and
blind, we refuse it its immense share in producing Michael Angelo,
Raphael, and Titian, we may do well to turn to an art born and bred like
Italian art, in the Middle Ages; like it, full of strength and power of
self-development, but which, unlike Italian art, was not influenced by
the antique. This art is the great German art of the early sixteenth
century; the art of Martin Schongauer, of Aldegrever, of Altdorfer, of
Wohlgemuth, of Kranach, of Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein, whom they
resemble as Pinturicchio and Lo Spagna resemble Perugino, as Palma and
Paris Bordone resemble Titian. This is an art born in a civilization
less perfect indeed than that of Italy, narrower, as Nürnberg or Basle
is narrower than Florence; but resembling it in habits, dress, religion,
above all, the main characteristic of being mediæval; and its masters,
as great as their Italian contemporaries in all the technicalities of
the art, and In absolute honesty of endeavour, may show what the Italian
art of the sixteenth century might have been without the antique. Let us
therefore open a portfolio of those wonderful minute yet grand
engravings of the old Germans. They are for the most part Scriptural
scenes or allegories, quite analogous to those of the Italians, but
purely realistic, conscious of no world beyond that of an Imperial City
of the year 1520. Here we have the whole turn-out, male and female, of a
German free-town, in the shape of scenes from the lives of the Virgin
and saints; here are short fat burghers, with enormous blotchy, bloated
faces and little eyes set in fat, their huge stomachs protruding from
under their jackets; here are blear-eyed ladies, tall, thin, wrinkled
though not old, with figures like hungry harpies, stalking about in high
headgears and stiff gowns, or sitting by the side of lean and stunted
pages, singing (with dolorous voice) to lutes; or promenading under
trees with long-shanked, high-shouldered gentlemen, with vacant sickly
face and long scraggy hair and beard, their bony elbows sticking out of
their slashed doublets. These courtly figures culminate in Dürer's
magnificent plate of the wild man of the woods kissing the hideous,
leering Jezebel in her brocade and jewels. These aristocratic women are
terrible; prudish, malicious, licentious, never modest because they are
always ugly. Even the poor Madonnas, seated in front of village hovels
or windmills, smile the smile of starved, sickly sempstresses. It is a
stunted, poverty-stricken, plague-sick society, this mediæval society of
burghers and burghers' wives; the air seems bad and heavy, and the light
wanting physically and morally, in these old free-towns; there is
intellectual sickness as well as bodily in those musty gabled houses;
the mediæval spirit blights what revival of healthiness may exist in
these commonwealths. And feudalism is outside the gates. There are the
brutal, leering men-at-arms, in slashed, puffed doublets and heavy
armour, face and dress as unhuman as possible, standing grimacing at the
blood spirting from John the Baptist's decapitated trunk, as in
Kranach's horrible print, while gaping spectators fill the castle-yard;
there are the castles high on rocks amidst woods, with miserable
villages below, where the Prodigal Son wallows among the swine, and the
tattered boors tumble about in drunkenness, or rest wearied on their
spades. There are the Middle Ages in full force. But had these Germans
of the days of Luther really no thought beyond their own times and their
own country? Had they really no knowledge of the antique? Not so; they
had heard from their learned men, from Willibald Pirkheimer and Ulrich
von Hutten, that the world had once been peopled with naked gods and
goddesses. Nay, the very year perhaps that Raphael handed to his
engraver, Marc Antonio, his magnificent drawing of the Judgment of
Paris, Lukas Kranach bethought him to represent the story of the good
Knight Paris giving the apple to the Lady Venus. So Kranach took up his
steady pencil and sharp chisel, and in strong, clear, minute lines of
black and white showed us the scene. There, on Mount Ida, with a
castellated rock in the distance, the charger of Paris browses beneath
some stunted larches; the Trojan knight's helmet, with its monstrous
beak and plume, lies on the ground; and near it reclines Paris himself,
lazy, in complete armour, with frizzled fashionable beard. To him, all
wrinkled and grinning with brutal lust, comes another bearded knight,
with wings to his vizored helmet, Sir Mercury, leading the three
goddesses, short, fat-cheeked German wenches, housemaids stripped of
their clothes, stupid, brazen, indifferent. And Paris is evidently
prepared with his choice: he awards the apple to the fattest, for among
a half-starved, plague-stricken people like this, the chosen of gods and
men must needs be the fattest.

No, such pagan scenes are mere burlesques, coarse mummeries, such as may
have amused Nürnberg and Augsburg during Shrovetide, when drunken louts
figured as Bacchus and sang drinking songs by Hans Sachs. There is no
reality in all this; there is no belief in pagan gods. If we would see
the haunting divinity of the German Renaissance, we shall find him
prying and prowling in nearly every scene of real life; him, the ever
present, the king of the Middle Ages, whose triumph we have seen on the
cloister wall at Pisa, the Lord Death. His fleshless face peers from
behind a bush at Zatzinger's stunted, fever-stricken lady and imbecile
gentleman; he sits grinning on a tree in Orso Grafs allegory, while the
cynical knights, with haggard, sensual faces, crack dirty jokes with the
fat, brutish woman squatted below; he puts his hand into the basket of
Dürer's tattered pedlar; he leers hideously at the stirrup of Dürer's
armed and stalwart knight. No gods of youth and nature, no Hercules, no
Hermes, no Venus, have invaded his German territories, as they invaded
even his own palace, the burial-ground at Pisa; the antique has not
perverted Dürer and his fellows, as it perverted Masaccio and Signorelli
and Mantegna, from the mediæval worship of Death.

The Italians had seen the antique and had let themselves be seduced by
it, despite their civilization and their religion. Let us only rejoice
thereat. There are indeed some, and among them the great English critic
who is irrefutable when he is a poet, and irrational when he becomes a
philosopher;--there are some who tell us that in its union with antique
art, the art of the followers of Giotto embraced death, and rotted away
ever after. There are others, more moderate but less logical, who would
teach us that in uniting with the antique, the mediæval art of the
fifteenth century purified and sanctified the beautiful but evil child
of Paganism; that the goddess of Scopas and the athlete of Polyclete
were raised to a higher sphere when Raphael changed the one into a
Madonna, and Michael Angelo metamorphosed the other into a prophet. But
both schools of criticism are wrong. Every civilization has its inherent
evil; Antiquity had its inherent evils, as the Middle Ages had theirs;
Antiquity may have bequeathed to the Renaissance the bad with the good,
as the Middle Ages had bequeathed to the Renaissance the good with the
bad. But the art of Antiquity was not the evil, it was the good of
Antiquity; it was born of its strength and its purity only, and it was
the incarnation of its noblest qualities. It could not be purified,
because it was spotless; it could not be sanctified, because it was
holy. It could gain nothing from the art of the Middle Ages, alternately
strong in brutal reality, and languid in mystic inanity; the men of the
Renaissance could, if they influenced it at all, influence the antique
only for evil; they belonged to an inferior artistic civilization, and
if we conscientiously seek for the spiritual improvements brought by
them into antique types, we shall see that they consist in spoiling
their perfect proportions; in making necks longer and muscles more
prominent; in rendering more or less flaccid, or meagre or coarse, the
grand and delicate forms of antique art. And when we have examined into
this purified art of the Renaissance, when we have compared coolly and
equitably, we may perhaps confess that, while the Renaissance added
immense wealth of beauty in colour, perspective, and grouping, it took
away something of the perfection of simple lines and modest light and
shade of the antique; we may admit to ourselves that the grandest saint
by Raphael is meagre and stunted; and the noblest Virgin by Titian is
overblown and sensual by the side of the demi-gods and amazons of
antique sculpture.

The antique perfected the art of the Renaissance, it did not corrupt it.
The art of the Renaissance fell indeed into shameful degradation soon
after the period of its triumphant union with the antique; and Raphael's
grand gods and goddesses, his exquisite Eros and radiant Psyche of the
Farnesina, are indeed succeeded but too soon by the Olympus of Giulio
Romano, an Olympus of harlots and acrobats, who smirk and mouth and
wriggle and sprawl ignobly on the walls and ceilings of the dismantled
palace which crumbles away among the stunted willows, the stagnant
pools, and rank grass of the marshes of Mantua. But this is no more the
fault of Antiquity than it is the fault of the Middle Ages; it is the
fault of that great principle of life and of change which makes all
things organic, be they physical or intellectual, germinate, grow,
attain maturity, and then fade, wither, and rot. The dead art of
Antiquity could never have brought the art of the Renaissance to an
untimely end; the art of the Renaissance decayed because it was mature,
and died because it had lived.

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Euphorion - Being Studies of the Antique and the Mediaeval in the - Renaissance - Vol. I" ***

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