Travel and Art
MR. HOWELLS, in his character of Italian traveler, figures in our mind not unlike the gentlemen of some romantic drama, who age seven or a score of years between the acts. Since his entrance, time has touched him lightly ; and now our traveler fills no part more gracefully than that of his début, in which all the admirable qualities of his art, more ripe and rich and full with long observation and culture, still blend in a congenial impersonation.1
Florence, however, is not Venice, and not even the literary craft, for whose sake Mr. Howells has so zealously improved the years since he “ swam in a gondola,” can give to the City of the Flower the fascination which his youthful pen stole from her sister by the Adriatic. But one of the wonders of Italy is the marvelous difference in the character of the cities which island the plains and turret the steeps of that changeful land, so that, on entering each, one seems to have disembarked in a strange country; and thus it comes about quite naturally that in Florence one forgets he is not in Venice, and in the home of Dante and Cosimo there is some compensation for the loss of the eye’s delight on those silent canals where tragedy and heroism sink back and melt away into the shadows. Venice is the city of a vanished past, but the past of Florence is still real; the affairs of the turbulent democracy touch us moderns more nearly, the names of its leaders live in our books, and the events of its fiery life standout vividly in the memory of the world. It happens easily, therefore, to a traveler of Mr. Howells’s sureness of instinct that the historical and literary tradition of Florence is the central fact, about which the girdling hills and sweeping river, the broad driveways of the short-lived capital of Italy, the gray-walled streets and cook-shop markets, and the cloisters, with their placid faded frescos and green grass, are only clustering details, tones of local color, means of relief and facilities for pleasant setting, prologues and sketches by the way and tail-pieces at the end of the chapter. Amid all this his eyes are searching the faces of the shadows that jostle him in the old quarters, and he follows them, like a novelist eavesdropping on his characters, to win back the look of that dead Florence, now so spectral, but over gay and vital when the thing was earnest.
It must be conceded that, except the poets, who do everything best, the novelists write the most entertaining history, and Mr. Howells has not been denied the common distinction. He does not, of course, give us any elaborate study, but deals with the episodes of the chroniclers, and recounts their more famous anecdotes of feud and romance. The manner in which they narrate facts, or what went for facts in those confiding days, has, perhaps, a special attraction for a writer who likes to see things just as they were in those rude times; for the scenes and incidents are given with that reality which modern sensibility would no longer suffer in refined literature. One can see very plainly in the old books, if he cares to turn their leaves, what Florentine passion and action were, and Mr. Howells uses these sources to give, if not a great canvas like Romola, painter effects, rapid, intense, and indelible. He, however, is not inured to these inhumanities of old Florence as the chroniclers were, and must relieve the tension of his story by bringing out the minor characters, the infinite dramatic play of motive and gesture in the conduct of the participants, and blend something of the novel and the drama with the bald history; and he can do this with no sacrifice of truthfulness, for it is not in passion so much as in its violent expression in pitiless deeds that life has changed since the Medicean age. Even this is not enough to soften down the iron lines of the old records, but from time to time the modern adapter of the tales must emerge upon the comedy of the contemporary life that is now going on, or the beauty of nature which has continued through all; and thus he continually lights up the dark course of murder and treachery by some gleam of the humor, never far distant, in Italian life, or of the sentiment which always invests the Italian landscape, and he thoughtfully reminds us at frequent intervals that we live in a much more comfortable century. Taken altogether, the successive irregular blocks of text do make the mosaic, which he set out to blend, of Florence past and present; and the effect is a very pleasing one, and within its close limits is wonderfully complete.
But Florence is a large subject, and is really so various that it becomes perplexing even in Mr. Howells’s skillful rendering of it by the help of his novelist’s imagination and treatment; and, privately, we find in his briefer and simpler impressions of the other Tuscan cities more of the pleasurableness of our old Venetian Days. Siena, in particular, is a delightful study of a town which, by its open garden spaces and its wooded road to Belcaro, seems to be more hospitable to the spring than any other of the northern cities. It has its legends and traditions, too, and its art, and civic and religious memorials, as none needs to be told, and the whole, treated in the same way as in the case of Florence, is turned into the panforte of the country. In Siena, Mr. Howells is more of a traveler than when he was settled for the winter in Florence ; and though he is in all places an indefatigable sightseer, he inspected this city with extraordinary thoroughness. His eyes were less upon his books; and, under the temptation of the Italian charm to which he often yields, he seems to give the rein to his fancy, and to allow more scope, both of perception and feeling, to that imaginative element in his nature which was, possibly, more noticeable in his early work, but is still the secret of his success in writing of things Italian. The presence of this spirit is most marked in the Sienese sketch, but it comes upon one again in the ride to Lucca and in the wanderings there. The last of the cities, the group of Pistoia, Prato, and Fiesole, are more perfunctorily treated, but they are of very minor importance in a description of historic or contemporary Tuscany, and the justice that is done them will not be thought scanty. The volume as a whole is well proportioned, and it has, perhaps, the greatest freshness of topic that was possible in so bewritten a field. Its vividness is not much, if any, increased by the illustrations, nor do these add to the value of the book what might have been expected in other ways, not even as an accurate and suggestive help to the eye in the mere effort to imagine buildings, walls, and streets. They are, like the cover, neither the best nor the worst of their kind.
To read De Amicis’s Spain 2 directly afterwards would suggest to the reader an entirely new standpoint of criticism. The country, as the author remarks, is not unlike Italy in its general atmosphere, and there is a cousinly relationship between the two great branches of the Latin race. The mode of approach which De Amicis uses is very different from that of the Northerner. It is, for one thing, far more sensuous. To Mr. Howells, except in those rare paragraphs where he confesses his temptation to stay in some sunny retreat, and there “ loaf and invite his soul ” for the rest of his days, Italy is a mental fact, to be come at intellectually, after the Saxon way ; but to the kindred-blooded Italian Spain is very often only a sensation. We do not refer to the emotional susceptibility, the readiness for “ roses and raptures,” the theatrical (though quite natural) attitudinizing, the tears, carnival of gayety, and pensive regrets, of the exuberantly expressive Southern nature ; but there seems to be in it a real knowledge, which is sympathetically arrived at otherwise than by the brain — intimations such as an impressionable traveler in these parts must sometimes have caught from popular song or dance, or any of a score of chance unfathomed things, and which rouse in him at once the conviction that in these alien races there is a mystery he can never understand. The sharp contrasts of sun and shadow in those dark-walled streets, the repose that pervades the mountain-perched towns, have their analogue in the people’s nature, and to the Northerner it is a sealed secret, as inaccessible as the impulses of a gypsy heart. To this sense of impassable barriers in humanity De Amicis himself confesses, when he comes upon the strange gypsy quarters in the suburbs of Granada, of which he gives a picturesque and powerful account, though his stay was brief, and his departure from among them a hasty and ignominious flight. These denizens of the rocks are beyond his faculties of apprehension ; but in the case of the Spaniards themselves he succeeds in an affiliation which is felt rather than expressed in his pages, and he seems to reach it by instinct rather than observation. The readiness with which he appropriates their civilization reminds one of Grant White in England, but the method is not the same ; it is not by consanguinity of mind, but of sense, of which the ways are as subtle as Brahma’s.
This quality of De Amicis underlies the surprise and glamour which make reading his book much more like a real excursion amid the scenes he describes than is usually the case, even with the most excellent literary travelers. The mere abandon of the author, which in a man of our own breeding would be offensive, does of itself transport one to a foreign clime, and the impression of Spanish gravity suffers nothing by the contrast, while the passion that lurks behind that haughty reserve is felt more vitally. The consequence is that one enters into Spain at once, and, escaping all tedious detentions, begins to enjoy the land immediately in De Amicis’s own spirit. It is curious to observe how similar his mood is to that of a transatlantic tourist; he is as eager to see the walls and streets of a Spanish capital, or the historic sites of some timeforgotten town, as if the lanes of his own Genoa were as broad as the avenues of Cleveland and as destitute of Dorias as Omaha. He runs to a cathedral, where he is as arrant an unbeliever as any country parson, and views little boxes of bones and horrible wooden crucifixions as if such things were never heard of in Italy. He climbs towers, loses himself in alleys, delights in peasant costumes, hurries to the fêtes, strays into promising cafés, adores the old masters, and is always as ready for an adventure or a note as the most tireless of American correspondents, while he suffers from traveler’s trials as sorely as Mr. Howells, and sets them aside as gracefully. He is homesick, too, and has a panic or two in his solitude until he finds some companion of the country to talk to ; for that is his national necessity. Sometimes one thinks that the Italian is more curious than the widestawake American, and enjoys more in anticipation, and expects stranger winders and novelties, than the most sentimental of the readers of The Last Days of Pompeii. With all this ardor for the revelations of romance, art, and life in a new land, so like his own in many of its showy interests, there is a sense of its remoteness from himself which is an instructive matter for reflection. The American expects to find Spain remote, but so is Italy to him ; and the extent of the living modern element in Italy, its share in European civilization, cannot be more forcibly brought home than by the marked and wide difference which the Italian traveler notices and defines between Spain and his own country. This isolation of Spain in the modern world is aptly typi fed by the city of Granada as he found it, solitary and apart like an island. But, for all that, he understood the Spaniards as very few foreigners have done at any time; he sets forth their good qualities, and for their peculiarities he has the kindness of a humorist of the Cervantes order. The literature of the country had taught him many a lesson beside that, before he took his voyage, and his delight in it was the common ground on which he met the cultivated men who became his friends, young or old. Poetry in Spain has still something of the true popular character, and is on the tongues of men as well as in the books. Indeed, from this volume one would judge that it shared with politics the distinction of being still alive in that death-ridden land.
But we are delayed too long by the charm of a book not now printed for the first time. The Guadalquivir edition of it is a very beautiful example of typography and the bookbinder’s art. The paper is a delight to the fingers, and the text lies on the page artistically. The illustrations are either inserted prints on Japanese paper, or etchings, or photogravures, and are usually suggested by the references in the text to wellknown places or pictures, so that there is an agreeable variety of architectural and figure pieces. In the copy before us the printing of the etchings is not remarkably successful ; in fact, the beauty of the whole owes less than the usual proportion to the illustrations, but results from the excellent workmanship of the volume as a mere book. It is in this respect luxurious, in the sense in which that word has nothing of excess in it; and is fully equal to the works of a similar kind from the same press, which have been previously warmly welcomed and praised in these columns.
The last publication 3 upon our list is rather a portfolio than a book, for the text is merely explanatory, and its parts have no connection with one another. The twenty etchings which are bound up in it, by their great variety and freedom, are a speaking proof of the ease with which the art lends itself to the individuality of its students, to their peculiarities of both taste and of technical education ; and to this fact something of its favor is to be ascribed. But, as One turns over the prints, the consideration is forced upon him that they represent rather an experimental than a settled state of the art. The range is from most careful and painstaking methods derived from formal traditions to the most sketchy efforts of modern impressionism ; and success is not to be affirmed of all the attempts indiscriminately. The future of the art is to be looked for in that field in which it has original and exclusive powers, undoubtedly; in the production of those bold and fresh effects which are at once a surprise and a felicity. Academic or pre-Raphaelite work in this art fails of the distinction and richness of a more free and broad style ; and we say this, although it seems to us that the most pleasing of these etchings are those in which there is the most finished detail and the firmest handling, such as Moonlight on the Androscoggin, the Devil’s Way, Old Pockets at New Bedford, and Mrs. Merritt’s admirable portrait of Sir Gilbert Scott. This fact, however, does not disturb us; for it is to be noticed that the editor’s text, in commenting upon the various characteristics of the series, frequently insists on the point that success in the more vigorous and novel manner is not to be obtained except when a man holds his powers well in hand, and has a thorough knowledge of the dangerous temptations which attend the absence of all restraint. No one but the master can safely trust his free hand and obey an impulse without question, in any art. Others will fall into some rudeness, some error of taste or truth, some indifference to one or another element in the whole, which mars the pleasure of the work and often spoils it. The drawing must not be impossible, nor the main lines of an interior like a crushed hat, nor the masses utterly indistinguishable as to substance, as sometimes happens ; and defects of this nature are not obscured, though not unkindly dwelt upon, in the frank criticism of the editor. American etchers are, generally speaking, young at their art, and its laws clearly are still matters of discussion among them. The present collection exhibits the state of their practice and opinion with great catholicity, and is a fair example of the quality of the work that is being done. It is to be noted, however, that, by a curious error, one of our better etchers, Parrish, whose name appears on the title-page, has no place elsewhere.
- 4Tuscan Cities. By WILLIAM D. HOWELLS. With illustrations from drawings and etchings by JOSEPH PENNELL and Others. Boston : Ticknor & Co. 1886.↩
- 5Spain and the Spaniards. By EDMONDO DE AMICIS. The Guadalquivir Edition. New York and London : G. P. Putnam’s Sons. The Knickerbocker Press. 1885.↩
- 6American Etchings. A Collection of Twenty Original Etchings, by MORAN, PARRISH, FERRIS, SMILLIE, and Others; with descriptive text and biographical matter, by S. K. KOEHLER and Others. Boston : Estes & Lauriat. 1886.↩