Italy, Rome, and Naples: From the French of Henri Taine

By JOHN DURAND. New York: Leypoldt & Holt.
M. TAINE has very clear eyes; he sees what is before him, — a rare and wonderful faculty in a traveller. At Naples he finds more in the life, the air, and the scenery to remind of the classic period than at Rome, which externally is hardly Greek or feudal, but Renaissance to a degree that does not permit M. Taine, looking upon her churches and palaces, to think of anything but the sixteenth century. Only among the antiques of the Roman galleries, and before the vague and broken monuments of the past, does he find the spirit which walks the noonday streets of Naples, and which he recognizes with such exquisite grace in this picture of the Villa Reale : —
“ Evening was coming on, and in watching the fading tints it seemed as if I were in the Elysian fields of the ancient poets. Elegant forms of trees defined themselves dearly on the transparent azure. Leafless sycamores and naked oaks seemed to be smiling, the exquisite serenity of the sky, crossed with their web of light branches, apparently communicating itself to them. They did not appear to be dead or torpid as with us, but seemed to be dozing, and, at the touch of the balmy breeze, ready to open their buds and confide their blossoms to the coming spring. Here and there shone a glimmering star, and the moon began to diffuse its white light. Statues still whiter seemed in this mysterious gloom to be alive ; groups of young maidens, in light flowing robes, advanced noiselessly, like beautiful spirits of gladness. I seemed to be gazing on ancient Greek life, to comprehend the delicacy of their sensations, to find a never-ending study in the harmony of these slender forms and faded tints ; color and luminousness no longer seemed requisite. I was listening to the verses of Aristophanes, and beheld his youthful athlete with crowned brow, chaste and beautiful, walking pleasantly with a sage companion of his own years amongst poplars and the flowering smilax. Naples is a Greek colony, and the more one sees the more does he recognize that the taste and spirit of a people assume the characteristics of its landscape and climate.”
The truth here presented had already been felt and expressed, and throughout his book, the novelty of M. Taine’s discovery is less than the accuracy of his study.
But this accuracy delights you so much that vou are inclined to believe him first, where he is at best, perhaps, only original; and it is on review of his book that you find he has taken you through a country not undiscovered, but not before so thoroughly explored.
He understands Italy exceedingly well, however, and for Rome of the Renaissance it seems to us that there is no guide to compare with him. Here, even his want of sympathy becomes a virtue ; for the Renaissance is a period to be entirely appreciated by the intellect alone, as it was a purely intellectual effort which produced it. M. Taine studies its art from its history, and not its history from its art, as Mr. Ruskin does, for example; and we think he has by far the clearer idea of the time, its people, and its works. The tastes and customs of an artist’s contemporaries shape, if they do not inspire him; and it is better to argue from Julius II. to Buonarotti than from Buonarotti to Julius II., though it is not altogether false to do the latter. In his cold way of loving nothing, hating nothing, judging everything, M. Taine never affronts common-sense, nor attempts impostures upon his readers. You see everything that he points out in pictures, because, though the characteristic traits he sees are subtile enough, they exist ; while he does not dwell upon the perfectly obvious, he does not riot upon the supposed intention of the painter. “Always,” says M. Taine, with that peculiar clearness and directness which make him appear the first discoverer of truth, - “ always when an art predominates, the contemporary mind contains its essential elements ; whether, as in the arts of poetry and music these consist of ideas or sentiments ; or, as in sculpture and painting, they consist of colors or of forms. Everywhere art and intelligence encounter each other, and this is why the first expresses the second and the second the first. Hence if we find in the Italy of that period [the Renaissance] a revival of pagan art it is because there was a revival of pagan manners and morals. . . . . With the sentiment of the rude, with the exercise of the muscles and the expansion of physical activity, the love of and worship of the human form appeared a second time. All Italian art turns upon this idea, namely, the resuscitation of the naked figure ; the rest is simply preparation, development, variety, alteration, or decline. Some, like the Venetians, display its grandeur and freedom of movement, its magnificence and voluptuousness ; others, like Correggio, its exquisite sweetness and grace; others, like the Bolognese, its dramatic interest; others, like Caravaggio, its coarse striking reality, — all, in short, caring for nothing beyond the truthfulness, grace, action, voluptuousness and magnificence of a fine form, naked or draped, raising an arm or a leg. If groups exist, it is to complete this idea, to oppose one form to another, to balance one sensation by a similar one. When landscape comes it simply serves as a background and accessory, and is as subordinate as moral expression on the countenance or historical accuracy in the subject. The question is, Do you feel interested in expanded muscles moving a shoulder and throwing back the body bowlike on the opposite thigh ? It is within this limited circle that the imagination of the great artists of that day wrought, and in the centre of it you find Raphael. That which interests the moderns in a head, the expression of some rare profound sentiment, elegance, and whatever denotes finesse and native superiority, is never apparent with them, save in that precocious investigator, that refined, saddened thinker, that universal feminine genius, Leonardo da Vinci. Domenichino’s ‘ Judith ’ is a fine, healthy, innocent, peasant-girl, well painted and well proportioned. If you seek the exalted, complicated sentiments of a virtuous, pious, and patriotic woman who has just converted herself into a courtesan and an assassin, who comes in with bloody hands, feeling perhaps, under her girdle, the motions of the child of the man whom she has just murdered, you must seek for them elsewhere ; you must read the drama of Hebbel, the ‘ Cenci ’ of Shelley, or propose the subject to a Delacroix, or to an Ary Scheffer.”
There is, as we have indicated, a prevailing motive of generalization in this book, to which it is more safe to yield in considering the past than the present, though we do not find that it often leads M. Taine astray in his study of modern Italians. Much in his sketches of Rome reminds the reader of About’s Rome Contemporaine, but one is all the time sensible that Taine is an honester man than About, and that he does not generalize beyond his facts. He is not so lively as About; but, though very firm and solid in his thought, he is far from heavy. His book is singularly untouristic, and the reader remembers no trace of M. Taine in anything but its opinions and decisions; there are no traveller’s adventures, and few traveller’s anecdotes; the stories told are generally from other people, and are given merely to illustrate some topic in hand.