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- Italian Hours - 20/63 -


and extent. They make of smaller things the apparent abode of pigmies; they round their great arches and interspace their huge windows with a proud indifference to the cost of materials. These grand proportions--the colossal basements, the doorways that seem meant for cathedrals, the far away cornices--impart by contrast a humble and bourgeois expression to interiors founded on the sacrifice of the whole to the part, and in which the air of grandeur depends largely on the help of the upholsterer. At Turin my first feeling was really one of renewed shame for our meaner architectural manners. If the Italians at bottom despise the rest of mankind and regard them as barbarians, disinherited of the tradition of form, the idea proceeds largely, no doubt, from our living in comparative mole-hills. They alone were really to build their civilisation.

[Illustration: UNDER THE ARCADES, TURIN.]

An impression which on coming back to Italy I find even stronger than when it was first received is that of the contrast between the fecundity of the great artistic period and the vulgarity there of the genius of to-day. The first few hours spent on Italian soil are sufficient to renew it, and the question I allude to is, historically speaking, one of the oddest. That the people who but three hundred years ago had the best taste in the world should now have the worst; that having produced the noblest, loveliest, costliest works, they should now be given up to the manufacture of objects at once ugly and paltry; that the race of which Michael Angelo and Raphael, Leonardo and Titian were characteristic should have no other title to distinction than third-rate genre pictures and catchpenny statues-- all this is a frequent perplexity to the observer of actual Italian life. The flower of "great" art in these latter years ceased to bloom very powerfully anywhere; but nowhere does it seem so drooping and withered as in the shadow of the immortal embodiments of the old Italian genius. You go into a church or a gallery and feast your fancy upon a splendid picture or an exquisite piece of sculpture, and on issuing from the door that has admitted you to the beautiful past are confronted with something that has the effect of a very bad joke. The aspect of your lodging--the carpets, the curtains, the upholstery in general, with their crude and violent colouring and their vulgar material--the trumpery things in the shops, the extreme bad taste of the dress of the women, the cheapness and baseness of every attempt at decoration in the cafes and railway-stations, the hopeless frivolity of everything that pretends to be a work of art--all this modern crudity runs riot over the relics of the great period.

We can do a thing for the first time but once; it is but once for all that we can have a pleasure in its freshness. This is a law not on the whole, I think, to be regretted, for we sometimes learn to know things better by not enjoying them too much. It is certain, however, at the same time, that a visitor who has worked off the immediate ferment for this inexhaustibly interesting country has by no means entirely drained the cup. After thinking of Italy as historical and artistic it will do him no great harm to think of her for a while as panting both for a future and for a balance at the bank; aspirations supposedly much at variance with the Byronic, the Ruskinian, the artistic, poetic, aesthetic manner of considering our eternally attaching peninsula. He may grant--I don't say it is absolutely necessary--that its actual aspects and economics are ugly, prosaic, provokingly out of relation to the diary and the album; it is nevertheless true that, at the point things have come to, modern Italy in a manner imposes herself. I hadn't been many hours in the country before that truth assailed me; and I may add that, the first irritation past, I found myself able to accept it. For, if we think, nothing is more easy to understand than an honest ire on the part of the young Italy of to-day at being looked at by all the world as a kind of soluble pigment. Young Italy, preoccupied with its economical and political future, must be heartily tired of being admired for its eyelashes and its pose. In one of Thackeray's novels occurs a mention of a young artist who sent to the Royal Academy a picture representing "A Contadino dancing with a Trasteverina at the door of a Locanda, to the music of a Pifferaro." It is in this attitude and with these conventional accessories that the world has hitherto seen fit to represent young Italy, and one doesn't wonder that if the youth has any spirit he should at last begin to resent our insufferable aesthetic patronage. He has established a line of tram-cars in Rome, from the Porta del Popolo to the Ponte Molle, and it is on one of these democratic vehicles that I seem to see him taking his triumphant course down the vista of the future. I won't pretend to rejoice with him any more than I really do; I won't pretend, as the sentimental tourists say about it all, as if it were the setting of an intaglio or the border of a Roman scarf, to "like" it. Like it or not, as we may, it is evidently destined to be; I see a new Italy in the future which in many important respects will equal, if not surpass, the most enterprising sections of our native land. Perhaps by that time Chicago and San Francisco will have acquired a pose, and their sons and daughters will dance at the doors of locande.

However this may be, the accomplished schism between the old order and the new is the promptest moral of a fresh visit to this ever-suggestive part of the world. The old has become more and more a museum, preserved and perpetuated in the midst of the new, but without any further relation to it--it must be admitted indeed that such a relation is considerable--than that of the stock on his shelves to the shopkeeper, or of the Siren of the South to the showman who stands before his booth. More than once, as we move about nowadays in the Italian cities, there seems to pass before our eyes a vision of the coming years. It represents to our satisfaction an Italy united and prosperous, but altogether scientific and commercial. The Italy indeed that we sentimentalise and romance about was an ardently mercantile country; though I suppose it loved not its ledgers less, but its frescoes and altar-pieces more. Scattered through this paradise regained of trade--this country of a thousand ports--we see a large number of beautiful buildings in which an endless series of dusky pictures are darkening, dampening, fading, failing, through the years. By the doors of the beautiful buildings are little turnstiles at which there sit a great many uniformed men to whom the visitor pays a tenpenny fee. Inside, in the vaulted and frescoed chambers, the art of Italy. lies buried as in a thousand mausoleums. It is well taken care of; it is constantly copied; sometimes it is "restored"--as in the case of that beautiful boy-figure of Andrea del Sarto at Florence, which may be seen at the gallery of the Uffizi with its honourable duskiness quite peeled off and heaven knows what raw, bleeding cuticle laid bare. One evening lately, near the same Florence, in the soft twilight, I took a stroll among those encircling hills on which the massive villas are mingled with the vaporous olives. Presently I arrived where three roads met at a wayside shrine, in which, before some pious daub of an old-time Madonna, a little votive lamp glimmered through the evening air. The hour, the atmosphere, the place, the twinkling taper, the sentiment of the observer, the thought that some one had been rescued here from an assassin or from some other peril and had set up a little grateful altar in consequence, against the yellow-plastered wall of a tangled podere; all this led me to approach the shrine with a reverent, an emotional step. I drew near it, but after a few steps I paused. I became aware of an incongruous odour; it seemed to me that the evening air was charged with a perfume which, although to a certain extent familiar, had not hitherto associated itself with rustic frescoes and wayside altars. I wondered, I gently sniffed, and the question so put left me no doubt. The odour was that of petroleum; the votive taper was nourished with the essence of Pennsylvania. I confess that I burst out laughing, and a picturesque contadino, wending his homeward way in the dusk, stared at me as if I were an iconoclast. He noticed the petroleum only, I imagine, to snuff it fondly up; but to me the thing served as a symbol of the Italy of the future. There is a horse-car from the Porta del Popolo to the Ponte Molle, and the Tuscan shrines are fed with kerosene.

II

If it's very well meanwhile to come to Turin first it's better still to go to Genoa afterwards. Genoa is the tightest topographic tangle in the world, which even a second visit helps you little to straighten out. In the wonderful crooked, twisting, climbing, soaring, burrowing Genoese alleys the traveller is really up to his neck in the old Italian sketchability. The pride of the place, I believe, is a port of great capacity, and the bequest of the late Duke of Galliera, who left four millions of dollars for the purpose of improving and enlarging it, will doubtless do much toward converting it into one of the great commercial stations of Europe. But as, after leaving my hotel the afternoon I arrived, I wandered for a long time at hazard through the tortuous by-ways of the city, I said to myself, not without an accent of private triumph, that here at last was something it would be almost impossible to modernise. I had found my hotel, in the first place, extremely entertaining--the Croce di Malta, as it is called, established in a gigantic palace on the edge of the swarming and not over-clean harbour. It was the biggest house I had ever entered--the basement alone would have contained a dozen American caravansaries. I met an American gentleman in the vestibule who (as he had indeed a perfect right to be) was annoyed by its troublesome dimensions--one was a quarter of an hour ascending out of the basement--and desired to know if it were a "fair sample" of the Genoese inns. It appeared an excellent specimen of Genoese architecture generally; so far as I observed there were few houses perceptibly smaller than this Titanic tavern. I lunched in a dusky ballroom whose ceiling was vaulted, frescoed and gilded with the fatal facility of a couple of centuries ago, and which looked out upon another ancient housefront, equally huge and equally battered, separated from it only by a little wedge of dusky space--one of the principal streets, I believe, of Genoa--whence out of dim abysses the population sent up to the windows (I had to crane out very far to see it) a perpetual clattering, shuffling, chaffering sound. Issuing forth presently into this crevice of a street I found myself up to my neck in that element of the rich and strange--as to visible and reproducible "effect," I mean--for the love of which one revisits Italy. It offered itself indeed in a variety of colours, some of which were not remarkable for their freshness or purity. But their combined charm was not to be resisted, and the picture glowed with the rankly human side of southern lowlife.

Genoa, as I have hinted, is the crookedest and most incoherent of cities; tossed about on the sides and crests of a dozen hills, it is seamed with gullies and ravines that bristle with those innumerable palaces for which we have heard from our earliest years that the place is celebrated. These great structures, with their mottled and faded complexions, lift their big ornamental cornices to a tremendous height in the air, where, in a certain indescribably forlorn and desolate fashion, overtopping each


Italian Hours - 20/63

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