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The stars his tire of light, and rings, obtained,
And when they asked what he would wear,
"He had new clothes a-making, here, below."
I write from memory; the lines have been my lesson, ever since 1845, of the noblesse of thought which makes the simplest word best.
And the Campo Santo of Pisa is absolutely the same in painting as these lines in word. Straight to its purpose, in the clearest and most eager way; the purpose, highest that can be; the expression, the best possible to the workman according to his knowledge. The several parts of the gospel of the Campo Santo are written by different persons; but all the original frescoes are by men of honest genius. No matter for their names; the contents of this wallscripture are these.
First, the Triumph of Death, as Homer, Virgil, and Horace thought of death. Having been within sight of it myself, since Oxford days; and looking back already over a little Campo Santo of my own people, I was ready for that part of the lesson.
Secondly, the story of the Patriarchs, and of their guidance by the ministries of visible angels; that is to say, the ideal of the life of man in its blessedness, before the coming of Christ.
Thirdly, the story of Job, in direct converse with God himself, the God of nature, and without any reference to the work of Christ except in its final surety, "Yet in my flesh I shall see God."
Fourthly, the life of St. Ranier of Pisa, and of the desert saints, showing the ideal of human life in its blessedness after the coming of Christ.
Lastly, the return of Christ in glory, and the Last Judgment.
Now this code of teaching is absolutely general for the whole Christian world. There is no papal doctrine, nor antipapal; nor any question of sect or schism whatsoever. Kings, bishops, knights, hermits, are there, because the painters saw them, and painted them, naturally, as we paint the nineteenth century product of common councilmen and engineers. But they did not conceive that a man must be entirely happy in this world and the
next because he wore a mitre or helmet, as we do because he has made a fortune or a tunnel.
Not only was I prepared at this time for the teaching of the Campo Santo, but it was precisely what at that time I needed.
It realized for me the patriarchal life, showed me what the earlier Bible meant to say; and put into direct and inevitable light the questions I had to deal with, alike in my thoughts and ways, under existing Christian tradition.
Questions clearly not to be all settled in that fortnight. Some, respecting the Last Judgment, such as would have occurred to Professor Huxley, as for instance, that if Christ came to judgment in St. James's Street, the people couldn't see him from Piccadilly, ― had been dealt with by me before now; but there is one fact, and no question at all, concerning the Judgment, which was only at this time beginning to dawn on me, that men had been curiously judging themselves by always calling the day they expected, "Dies Iræ," instead of "Dies Amoris."
Meantime, my own first business was evidently to read what these Pisans had said of it, and take some record of the sayings; for at that time the old-fashioned ravages were going on, honestly and innocently. Nobody cared for the old plaster, and nobody pretended to. When any dignitary of Pisa was to be buried, they peeled off some Benozzo Gozzoli, or whatever else was in the way, and put up a nice new tablet to the new defunct; but what was left was still all Benozzo, (or repainting of old time, not last year's restoration). I cajoled the Abbé Rosini into letting me put up a scaffold level with the frescoes; set steadily to work with what faculty in outline I had; and being by this time practised in delicate curves, by having drawn trees and grass rightly, got far better results than I had hoped, and had an extremely happy fortnight of it! For as the Triumph of Death was no new thought to me, the life of hermits was no temptation; but the stories of Abraham, Job, and St. Ranier, well told, were like three newScott's novels, I was going to say, and will say, for I don't see my way to anything nearer the fact, and the work on them was pure delight. I got an outline of Abraham's parting with the last of the three angels; of the sacrifice of Job; of the three beggars, and a
fiend or two, out of the Triumph of Death; and of the conversion of St. Ranier, for which I greatly pitied him.
For he is playing, evidently with happiest skill, on a kind of zithern-harp, held upright as he stands, to the dance of four sweet Pisan maids, in a round, holding each other only by the bent little fingers of each hand. And one with graver face, and wearing a purple robe, approaches him, saying I knew once what she said, but forget now; only it meant that his joyful life in that kind was to be ended. And he obeys her, and follows, into a nobler life.
I do not know if ever there was a real St. Ranier; but the story of him remained for truth in the heart of Pisa as long as Pisa herself lived.
I got more than outline of this scene: a colored sketch of the whole group, which I destroyed afterward, in shame of its faults, all but the purple-robed warning figure; and that is lost, and the fresco itself now lost also, all mouldering and ruined by what must indeed be a cyclical change in the Italian climate: the frescoes exposed to it of which I made note before 1850, seem to me to have suffered more in the twenty years since, than they had since they were painted: those at Verona alone excepted, where the art of fresco seems to have been practised in the fifteenth century in absolute perfection, and the color to have been injured only by violence, not by time.
There was another lovely cloister in Pisa, without fresco, but exquisite in its arched perspective and central garden, and noble in its unbuttressed height of belfry tower; the cloister of San Francesco: in these, and in the meadow round the baptistery, the routine of my Italian university life was now fixed for a good many years in main material points.
In summer I have always been at work, or out walking, by six o'clock, usually awake by half-past four; but I keep to Pisa for the present, where my monkish discipline arranged itself thus. Out, any how, by six, quick walk to the field, and as much done as I could, and back to breakfast at half-past eight. Study bit of Sismondi over bread and butter, then back to Campo Santo, draw till twelve; quick walk to look about me and stretch my legs, in shade if it might be, before lunch, on anything I chanced
to see nice in a fruit shop, and a bit of bread. Back to lighter work, or merely looking and thinking, for another hour and a half, and to hotel for dinner at four. Three courses and a flask of Aleatico (a sweet, yet rather astringent, red, rich for Italian, wine - provincial, and with lovely basketwork round the bottle). Then out for saunter with Couttet; he having leave to say anything he had a mind to, but not generally communicative of his feelings; he carried my sketch-book, but in the evening there was too much always to be hunted out, of city; or watched, of hills, or sunset; and I rarely drew, to my sorrow, now. I wish I knew
less, and had drawn more.
Homewards, from wherever we had got to, the moment the sun was down, and the last clouds had lost their color. I avoided marshy places, if I could, at all times of the day, because I didn't like them; but I feared neither sun nor moon, dawn nor twilight, malaria, nor anything else malefic, in the course of work, except only draughts and ugly people. I never would sit in a draught for half a minute, and fled from some sorts of beggars; but a crowd of the common people round me only made me proud, and try to draw as well as I could; mere rags or dirt I did not care an atom for.
As early as 1835, and as late as 1841, I had been accustomed, both in France and Italy, to feel that the crowd behind me was interested in my choice of subjects, and pleasantly applausive of the swift progress under my hand of street perspectives, and richness of surface decoration, such as might be symbolized by dextrous zigzags, emphatic dots, or graceful flourishes. I had the better pleasure, now, of feeling that my really watchful delineation, while still rapid enough to interest any stray student of drawing who might stop by me on his way to the Academy, had a quite unusual power of directing the attention of the general crowd to points of beauty, or subjects of sculpture, in the buildings I was at work on, to which they had never before lifted eyes, and which I had the double pride of first discovering for them, and then imitating
not to their
And well might I be proud; but how much more ought I to have been pitiful, in feeling the swift and perfect sympathy which the "common people"— companion-people I should have said, for in Italy there is no commonness - gave me, in Lucca, or Florence, or
Venice, for every touch of true work that I laid in their sight.1 How much more, I say, should it have been pitiful to me, to recognize their eager intellect, and delicate senses, open to every lesson and every joy of their ancestral art, far more deeply and vividly than in the days when every spring kindled them into battle, and every autumn was red with their blood: yet left now, alike by the laws and lords set over them, less happy in aimless life than of old in sudden death; never one effort made to teach them, to comfort them, to economize their industries, animate their pleasures, or guard their simplest rights from the continually more fatal oppression of unprincipled avarice, and unmerciful wealth.
But all this I have felt and learned, like so much else, too late. The extreme seclusion of my early training left me long careless of sympathy for myself; and that which I gave to others never led me into any hope of being useful to them, till my strength of active life was past. Also, my mind was not yet catholic enough to feel that the Campo Santo belonged to its own people more than to me; and indeed, I had to read its lessons before I could interpret them. The world has for the most part been of opinion that I entered on the task of philanthropy too soon rather than too late: at all events, my conscience remained at rest during all those first times at Pisa, in mere delight in the glory of the past, and in hope for the future of Italy, without need of my becoming one of her demagogues. And the days that began in the cloister of the Campo Santo usually ended by my getting upon the roof of Santa Maria della Spina, and sitting in the sunlight that transfused the warm marble of its pinnacles, till the unabated brightness went down beyond the arches of the Ponte-a-Mare, -the few footsteps and voices of the twilight fell silent in the streets, and the city and her mountains stood mute as a dream, beyond the soft eddying of Arno.
1 A letter, received from Miss Alexander as I correct this proof, gives a singular instance of this power in the Italian peasant. She says: -"I have just been drawing a magnificent Lombard shepherd, who sits to me in a waistcoat made from the skin of a yellow cow with the hairy side out, a shirt of homespun linen as coarse as sailcloth, a scarlet sash, and trousers woven (I should think) from the wool of the black sheep. He astonishes me all the time by the great amount of good advice which he gives me about my work; and always right! Whenever he looks at my unfinished picture, he can always tell me exactly what it wants."