Notes of Travel and Study in Italy

By CHARLES ELIOT NORTON. Boston : Ticknor & Fields. 1860. pp. x., 320.
THERE is, perhaps, no country with which we are so intimate as with Italy,— none of which we are always so willing to hear more. Poets and prosers have alike compared her to a beautiful woman; and while one finds nothing but loveliness in her, another shudders at her fatal fascination. She is the very Witch-Venus of the Middle Ages. Roger Ascham says, “I was once in Italy myself, but I thank God my abode there was but nine days ; and yet I saw in that little time, in one city, more liberty to sin than ever I heard tell of in our noble city of London in nine years.” He quotes triumphantly the proverb,—Inglese italianato, diavolo incarnato. A century later, the entertaining “ Richard Lassels, Gent., who Travelled through Italy Five times as Tutor to several of the English Nobility and Gentry,” and who is open to new engagements in that kind, declares, that, “For the Country itself, it seemed to me to be Nature's Darling, and the Eldest Sister of all other Countries ; carrying away from them all the greatest blessings and favours, and receiving such gracious looks from the Sun and Heaven, that, if there be any fault in Italy, it is, that her Mother Nature hath cockered her too much, even to make her become Wanton.” Plainly, our Tannhauser is but too ready to go back to the Venus-berg!
A new book on Italy seems a dangerous experiment. Has not all been told and told and told again ? Is it not one chief charm of the land, that it is changeless without being Chinese? Did not Abbot Samson, in 1159, Scotti habitum induens, (which must have shown his massive calves to great advantage,) probably see much the same popular characteristics that Hawthorne saw seven hundred years later ? Shall a man try to be entertaining after Montaigne, æsthetic after Winckelmann, wise after Goethe, or trenchant alter Forsyth ? Can he hope to bring back anything so useful as the fork, which honest Tom Coryate made prize of two centuries and a half ago, and put into the greasy fingers of Northern barbarians ? Is not the “ Descrittione ” of Leandro Alberti still a competent itinerary ? And can one hope to pick up a fresh Latin quotation, WHEN Addison and Eustace have been before him with their scrap-baskets ?
If there be anything which a person of even moderate accomplishments may be presumed to know, it is Italy. The only open question left seems to be, whether Shakspeare were the Only man that could write his name who had never been there. We have read our share of Italian travels, both in prose and verse, but, as the nicely discriminating Dutchman found that “too moch brahndee was too moch, but too moch lager-beer was jost hright,” so we are inclined to say that too much Italy is just what we want. After Des Brosses, we are ready for Henri Beyle, and Ampere, and Hillard, and About, and Gallenga, and Julia Kavanagh; “ Corinne ” only makes us hungry for George Sand. That no one can tell us anything new is as undeniable as the compensating fact that no one can tell us anything too old.
There are two kinds of travellers,— those who tell us what they went to see, and those who tell us what they SAW. The latter class are the only ones whose journals are worth the sifting; and the value of their eyes depends on the amount of individual character they took with them, and of the previous culture that had sharpened and tutored the faculty of observation. In our conscious age the frankness and naïveté of the elder voyagers is impossible, and we are weary of those humorous confidences on the subject of fleas with which WE are favored by some modern travellers, whose motto should be (slightly altered) from Horace,—Flea-bit,et toto cantabitur orbe. A naturalist selfsacrificing enough may have this experience more cheaply at home.
The book before us is the record of a second residence in Italy, of about two years. This in itself is an advantage; since a renewed experience, after an interval of absence and distraction, enables us to distinguish what had merely interested us by its strangeness from what is permanently worthy of study and remembrance. In a second visit we know at least what we do not wish to see, and our first impressions have so defined themselves that they afford us a safer standard ot comparison. To most travellers Italy is a land of pure vacation, a lotus-eating region, “ in which it seemeth always afternoon.” But Mr. Norton, whose book shows how Well his time had been employed at home, could not but spend it to good purpose abroad. The word “study ” has a right to its place on his title-page, and his volume is worthy of a student, He shows himself to be one who, like Wordsworth, “does not much or oft delight in personal talk ” ; there is no gossip between the covers of his book, no impertinent Self-obtrusion. Familiar with what has been written about Italy by others, he has known how to avoid the trite highways, and by going back to what was old has found topics that are really fresh and delightful. The Italy of the ancient Romans is a foreign country to us, and must always continue so; but the Italy of the Middle Ages is nearer, not so much in time, as because there is no impassable rift of religious faith, and consequently of ideas and motives, between us and it. Far enough away in the centuries to be picturesque, it is near enough in the sympathy of belief and thought to be thoroughly intelligible. The chapter on the Brotherhood of the Misericordia at Florence is remarkably interesting, and the coincidence which Mr. Norton points out in a note between the circumstances which led to its foundation and those in which a somewhat similar society originated in California so lately as 1859 is not only curious, but pleasant, as showing that there is a natural piety proper to man in all ages alike. In his account of the building of the Cathedral of Orvieto, and his notices of Rome as it was when Dante and Petrarch saw it, Mr. Norton has struck a rich vein, which we hope he will find time to work more thoroughly hereafter. By the essential fairness of his mind, his patience in investigation, and his sympathy with what is noble in character and morally influential in events, he seems to us peculiarly fitted for that middle ground occupied by the historical essayist, to whom literature is something coördinate with politics, and who finds a great book more eventful than a small battle.
But if, as a scholar and lover of Art, Mr. Norton naturally turns to the past, he does not fail to tell us whatever he finds worth knowing in the present. His tone of mind and habitual subjects of thought may be inferred from the character of the topics that interest him. The glimpses he gives us of the actual condition of the people of Italy, as indicated by their practical conception of the religious dogmas of their Church, by the quality of the cheap literature that is popular among them, of the tracts provided for their spiritual aliment by ecclesiastical authority, and of the caricatures produced in 1848-9, (as in his notice of “ Don Pirlone,”) are of special value, and show that he knows where to look for signs of what lies beneath the surface. His appreciation of the beautiful in Art has not been cultivated at the expense of his interest in the moral, political, and physical wellbeing of man. His touching sketch of the life of Letterato, the founder of Ragged Schools, shows that moral loveliness attracts his sympathy as much when embodied in a life of obscure usefulness as when it gleams in the saints and angels of Fra Angelico. A conscientious Protestant, he exposes the corruptions of the Established Church in Italy, not as an antiRomanist, but because he sees that they are practically operative in the social and political degradation of the people. What good there is never escapes his attention, and we learn from him much that is new and interesting concerning public charities and private efforts for the elevation of the lower orders. The miles of statuary in the Vatican do not weary him so much that he cannot at night make the round of evening schools for the poor.
We have not read a pleasanter or more instructive book of Italian travel than this. Mr. Norton’s range of interest is so wide that we are refreshed with continual variety of topic; and his style is pure, clear, and chaste, without any sacrifice of warmth or richness. It is always especially agreeable to us to encounter an American who is a scholar in the true sense of the word, in which sense it is never dissociated from gentleman. When, as in the present instance, scholarship is united with a deep and active interest in whatever concerns the practical well-being of men, we have one of the best results of our modern civilization. We are no lovers of dilettantism, but we see in these scholarly tastes and habits which do not seclude a man from the duties of real life and useful citizenship the only safeguard against the evils which the rapid heaping-up of wealth is sure to bring with it.
We do not always agree with Mr. Norton in his estimate of the comparative merit of different artists. We think he sometimes makes Mr. Ruskin’s mistake of attributing to positive religious sentiment what is rather to be ascribed to the negative influence of circumstances and date. We cannot help thinking that the mere arrangement of their figures by such painters as Cima da Conegliano and Francesco Francia, the architectural regularity of their disposition, the sculpturesque dignity of their attitudes, and the consequent impression of simplicity and repose which they convey, have much to do with the religious effect they produce on the mind, as contrasted with the more dramatic and picturesque conceptions of later artists. When we look at John Bellino’s “ Gods come down to taste the Fruits of the Earth,” we cannot think him essentially a more religious man than his great pupil who painted that truly divine countenance of Christ in “ The Tribute-Money.” At the same time we go along with Mr. Norton heartily, where, in the concluding pages of his book, with equal learning and eloquence, he points out the causes and traces the progress of the moral and artistic decline which came over Italy in the sixteenth century, and whose effect made the seventeenth almost a desert, This is one of the most striking passages in the volume, and the lesson of it is brought home to us with a force and fervor worthy of the theme. It also affords a good type of the quiet vigor of thought and the high moral purpose which are characteristic of the author.