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Earthwork Out Of Tuscany by Maurice Hewlett

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Siena, in Gubbio and Orvieto, the great revivalists Bernardine, Catherine,
Fra Roberto, held absolute rule over body and soul. For the moment
Baglione and Oddi kissed each other; all feuds were stayed; a man might
climb the black alleys of a night without any fear of a knife to yerk him
(the Ancient's word) under the ribs or noose round his neck to swing him
up to the archway withal. So Catherine brought back Boniface (and much
trouble) from Avignon, and Da Lecce wrote out a new constitution for some
rock-bound hive of the hills, whose crowd wailing in the market-place knew
the ecstasy of repentance, and ran riot in religious orgies very much
after the fashion of the Greater Dionysia or, say, the Salvation Army. And
how Niccolo Alunno would have painted the Salvation Army!

So it does seem that the two great passions of Umbria burnt themselves out
together. They were, indeed, the two ends of the candle. When the Baglioni
fell in the black work of two August nights, only one escaped. And with
them died the love of the old lawless life and the infinite relish there
was for some positive foretaste of the life of the world to come. Both
lives had been lived too fast: from that day Perugia fell into a torpor,
as Perugino, the glass of his time and place, also fell. Perugino, we
know, had his doubts concerning the immortality of the soul, but painted
on his beautiful cloister-dreams, and knocked down his saints to the
highest bidder.[1] Vasari assures me that the chief solace of the old
prodigal in his end of days was to dress his young wife's hair in
fantastic coils and braids. A prodigal he was--true Peruginese in that--
prodigal of the delicate meats his soul afforded. His end may have been
unedifying; it must at least have been very pitiful. Nowadays his name
stands upon the Corso Vannucci of the town he uttered, and in the court
wall of a little recessed and colonnaded house in the Via Deliziosa.
Meantime his frescos drop mildewed from chapel walls or are borne away to
a pauper funeral in the Palazzo Communale.

[Footnote 1: See, however, what he has to say for himself in Chapter V.

In his finely studied _Sensations_ M. Paul Bourget, it seems to me,
flogs the air and fails to climb it when he struggles to lay open the
causes of poor Vannucci's embittering. If ever painting took up the office
of literature it was in the fifteenth century. The _quattrocentisti_
stand to Italy for our Elizabethan dramatists. This may have produced bad
painting: Mr. George Moore will tell you that it did. I am not sure that
it very greatly matters, for, failing a literature which was really
dramatic, really poetical, really in any sense representative, it was as
well that there led an outlet somewhere. At any rate Lippi and Botticelli,
to those who know them, are expressive of the Florentine temper when Pulci
and Politian are distorted echoes of another; Perugino leads us into the
recesses of Perugia while Graziani keeps us fumbling at the lock. And
Perugino's languorous boys and maids are the figments of a riotous erotic,
of a sensuous fancy without imagination or intelligence or humour. His
Alcibiades, or Michael Archangel, seems green-sick with a love mainly
physical; his Socrates has the combed resignation of his Jeromes and
Romualds--smoothly ordered old men set in the milky light of Umbrian
mornings and dreaming out placid lives by the side of a moonfaced Umbrian
beauty, who is now Mary and now Luna as chance motions his hand. How
penetrating, how distinctive by the side of them seems Sandro's slim and
tearful Anima Mundi shivering in the chill dawn! With what a strange magic
does Filippino usher in the pale apparition of the Mater Dolorosa to his
Bernard, or flush her up again to a heaven of blue-green and a glory of
burning cherubim! This he does, you remember, with rocket-like effect, in
a chapel of the Minerva in Rome. But it is the unquenchable thirst of the
Umbrians for some spiritual nutriment, some outlet for their passion to be
found only in bloodshed or fainting below the Cross, some fierce and
untameable animal quality such as you see to-day in the torn gables, the
towers and bastions of Perugia, it is the spirit which informed and made
these things you get in Perugino's pictures--in the hot sensualism of
their colour-scheme, the ripeness and bloom of physical beauty encasing
the vague longing of a too-rapid adolescence. The desire could never be
fed and the bloom wore off. Look at Duccio's work on the facade of San
Bernardino, Duccio was a Florentine, but where in Florence would you see
his like? What a revel of disproportion in these long-legged nymphs, full-
lipped and narrow-eyed as any of Rossetti's curious imaginings. Take the
Poverta, a weedy girl with the shrinking paps of a child. Here again
(exquisite as she is in modelling and intensity of expression) you get the
enticement of a malformation which is absolutely un-Greek--unless you are
to count Phrygia within the magic ring-fence--and only to be equalled by
the luxury of Beccadelli. You get that in Sodoma too, the handy Lombard;
you have it in Perugino and all the Umbrians (in some form or other); but
never, I think, in the genuine Tuscan--not even in Botticelli--and never,
of course, in the Venetians, Duccio modelled these things while the Delia
Robbia were at their Hellenics; and a few years after he did them came the
end of the Baglioai and all such gear. The end of real Umbrian art was not
long. Perugino awoke to have his doubts of the soul's immortality. No
great wonder there, perhaps, given he acknowledged a merciful heaven....

I chanced to meet an old woman the other day in a country omnibus. We
journeyed together from Prato to Florence and became very friendly. Your
dry old woman, who hath had losses, who has become, in fact, world-worn
and very wise, or like one of Shakespeare's veterans--the Grave-digger, or
the Countryman in _Antony and Cleopatra_--has probed the ball and
found it hollow; such a battered and fortified soul in petticoats is
peculiar to Italy, and countries where the women work and the men,
pocketing their hands, keep sleek looks. We had just passed a pleasant
little procession. It was Sunday, the hour Benediction. A staid nun was
convoying a party of school-girls to church; whereupon I remarked to my
neighbour on their pretty bearing, a sort of artless piety and of
attention for unknown but not impossible blessings which they had about
them. But my old woman took small comfort from it. She knew those cattle,
she said: Capuchins, Jacobins, Black, White and Grey,--knew them all.
Well! Everybody had his way of making a living: hers was knitting
stockings. A hard life, _via_, but an honest. Here it became me to
urge that the religious life might have its compensations, without which
it would perhaps be harder than knitting stockings; that one needed
relaxation and would do well to be sure that it was at least innocent.
Relaxation of a kind, said she, a man must have. Snuff now! She was
inveterate at the sport. The view was very dry; but I think its reasoned
limitations also very Tuscan, and by no means exclusive of a tolerable
amount of piety and honest dealing. Foligno, by mere contrast reminds me
of it--busy Foligno huddled between the mighty knees of a chalk down, city
of fallen churches and handsome girls, just now parading the streets with
their fans a-flutter and a pretty turn to each veiled head of them.

As I write the light dies down, the wind drops, huge inky clouds hang over
the west; the sun, as he falls behind them, sets them kindling at the
edge. The worn old bleached domes, the bell-towers and turrets looming in
the blue dusk, seem to sigh that the century moves so slowly forward. How
many more must they endure of these?

It is the hour of Ave Maria. But only two cracked bells ring it in.


Lovely and honourable ladies, it is, as I hold, no mean favour you have
accorded me, to sit still and smiling while I have sung to your very faces
a stave verging here and there on the familiar. You have sat thus enduring
me, because, being wrought for the most part out of stone or painter's
stuff, your necessities have indeed forbidden retirement. Yet my
obligations should not on that account be lighter. He would be a thin
spirit who should gain a lady's friendly regard, and then vilipend because
she knew no better, or could not choose. I hope indeed that I have done
you no wrong, _gentildonne_, I protest that I have meant none; but
have loved you all as a man may, who has, at most, but a bowing
acquaintance with your ladyships. As I recall your starry names, no blush
hinting unmannerliness suspect and unconfessed hits me on the cheek:--
Simonetta, Ilaria, Nenciozza, Bettina; you too, candid Mariota of Prato;
you, flinching little Imola; and you, snuff-taking, wool-carding ancient
lady of the omnibus--scorner of monks, I have kissed your hands, I have at
least given our whole commerce frankly to the world; and I know not how
any shall say we have been closer acquainted than we should. You, tall
Ligurian Simonetta, loved of Sandro, mourned by Giuliano and, for a
seasons by his twisted brother and lord, have done well to utter but one
side of your wild humour? The side a man would take, struck, as your
Sandro was, by a nympholepsy, or, as Lorenzo was, by the rhymer's appetite
for wherewithal to sonnetteer? If I understand you, it was never pique or
a young girl's petulance drove you to Phryne's one justifiable act of
self-assertion. It was honesty. Madonna, or I have read your grey eyes in
vain; it was enthusiasm--that flame of our fire so sacred that though it
play the incendiary there shall be no crime--or where would be now the
"Vas d'elezione"?--nor though it reveal a bystander's grin, any shame at
all. I shall live to tell that story of thine, Lady Simonetta, to thy
honour and my own respect; for, as a poet says,

"There is no holier flame
Than flatters torchwise in a stripling heart,
... a fire from Heaven
To ash the clay of us, and wing the God."

I have seen all memorials of you left behind to be pondered by him who
played Dante to your Beatrice, Sandro the painting poet,--the proud
clearness of you as at the marriage feast of Nastagio degli Onesti; the
melting of the sorrow that wells from you in a tide, where you hold the
book of your overmastering honour and read _Magnificat Anima Mea_
with a sob in your throat; your acquaintance, too, with that grief which
was your own hardening; your sojourn, wan and woebegone as would become
the wife of Moses (maker of jealous gods); all these guises of you, as
well as the presentments of your innocent youth, I have seen and adored.
But I have ever loved you most where you stand a wistful Venus Anadyomene--
"Una donzella non con uman volto," as Politian confessed; for I know your
heart, Madonna, and see on the sharp edge of your threatened life, Ardour
look back to maiden Reclusion, and on (with a pang of foreboding) to
mockery and evil judgment. Never fear but I brave your story out to the
world ere many days. And if any, with profane leer and tongue in the
cheek, take your sorrow for reproach or your pitifulness for a shame, let
them receive the lash of the whip from one who will trouble to wield it:
_non ragioniam di lor_. For your honourable women I give you Ilaria,
the slim Lucchesan, and my little Bettincina, a child yet with none of the
vaguer surmises of adolescence when it flushes and dawns, but likely
enough, if all prosper, to be no shame to your company. As yet she is
aptest to Donatello's fancy: she will grow to be of a statelier bevy. I
see her in Ghirlandajo's garden, pacing, still-eyed, calm and cold, with
Ginevra de' Benci and Giovanna of the Albizzi, those quiet streets on a
visit to the mother of John Baptist.

Mariota, the hardy wife of the metal-smith, is not for one of your
quality, though the wench is well enough now with her baby on her arm and
the best of her seen by a poet and made enduring. He, like our Bernardo,
had motherhood in such esteem that he held it would ransom a sin. A sin? I
am no casuist to discuss rewards and punishments; but if Socrates were
rightly informed and sin indeed ignorance, I have no whips for Mariota's
square shoulders. Her baby, I warrant, plucked her from the burning. I am
not so sure but you might find in that girl a responsive spirit, and--is
the saying too hard?--a teacher. Contentment with a few things was never
one of your virtues, madam.

There is a lady whose name has been whispered through my pages, a lady
with whom I must make peace if I can. Had I known her, as Dante did, in
the time of her nine-year excellence and followed her (with an interlude,
to be sure, for Gentucca) through the slippery ways of two lives with much
eating of salt bread, I might have grown into her favour. But I never did
know Monna Beatrice Portinari; and when I met her afterwards as my Lady
Theologia I thought her something imperious and case-hardened. Now here
and there some words of mine (for she has a high stomach) may have given
offence. I have hinted that her court is a slender one in Italy, the
service paid her lip-service; the lowered eyes and bated breath reserved
for her; but for Fede her sister, tears and long kisses and the clinging.
Well! the Casa Cattolica is a broad foundation: I find Francis of Umbria
at the same board with Sicilian Thomas. If I cleave to the one must I
despise the other? Lady Fede has my heart and Lady Dottrina must put aside
the birch if she would share that little kingdom. _Religio habet_,
said Pico; _theologia autem invenit_. Let her find. But she must be
speedy, for I promise her the mood grows on me as I become
_italianato_; and I cannot predict when the other term of the
proposition may be accomplished. For one thing, Lady Theologia, I praise
you not. Sympathy seems to me of the essence, the healing touch an
excellent thing in woman. But you told Virgil,

"Io son fatta da Dio, sua merce, tale,
Che la vostra miseria non mi tange."

Sympathy, Madonna? And Virgil hopeless! On these terms I had rather gloom
with the good poet (whose fault in your eyes was that he knew in what he
had believed) than freeze with you and Aquinas on your peak of hyaline.
And as I have found you, Donna Beatrice, so in the main have they of whom
I pitch my pipe. Here and there a man of them got exercise for his fingers
in your web; here and there one, as Pico the young Doctor of yellow hair
and nine hundred heresies, touched upon the back of your ivory dais that
he might jump from thence to the poets out beyond you in the Sun. Your
great Dante, too, loved you through all. But, Madonna, he had loved you
before when you were--

Donna pietosa e di novella etade,

and, as became his lordly soul, might never depart from the faith he had
in you. For me, I protest I love Religion your warm-bosomed mate too well
to turn from her; yet I would not on that account grieve her (who treats
you well out of the cup of her abounding charity) by aspersing you. And if
I may not kiss your foot as you would desire, I may bow when I am in the
way with you; not thanking God I am not as you are, but, withal, wishing
you that degree of interest in a really excellent world with which He has
blessed me and my like, the humble fry.

Lastly, to the Spirits which are in the shrines of the cities of Tuscany,
I lift up my hands with the offering of my thin book. To Lucca dove-like
and demure, to Prato, the brown country-girl, to Pisa, winsome maid-of-
honour to the lady of the land, to Pistoja, the ruddy-haired and ample,
and to Siena, the lovely wretch, black-eyed and keen as a hawk; even to
Perugia, the termagant, with a scar on her throat; but chiefest to the
Lady Firenze, the pale Queen crowned with olive--to all of you, adored and
adorable sisters, I offer homage as becomes a postulant, the repentance of
him who has not earned his reward, thanksgiving, and the praise I have not
been able to utter. And I send you, Book, out to those ladies with the
supplication of good Master Cino, schoolman and poet, saying,

E se tu troverai donne gentile,
Ivi girai; che la ti vo mandare;
E dono a lor d' audienza chiedi.

Poi di a costor: Gittatevi a lor piedi,
E dite, chi vi manda e per che fare,
Udite donne, esti valletti umili.

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