Two Books About Italy

OF making many books about Italy there will never be an end, so long as men are captivated by beauty and curious concerning the past. The siren country whom age cannot wither still smiles her enslaving smile and weaves her irresistible spell, as she has been doing since the dawn of authentic history; and every new convert to her mysterious cult believes his ecstatic experience to be quite solitary, and cannot rest until he has at least tried to tell the world what Italy has “ done for his soul.”

The prevailing fashion, of late, has been for impressionist books about Italy. Paul Bourget frankly gave the world for just what they were worth his Impressions d’Italie; and we have had the pictured page and finespun theories of Vernon Lee, the pleasant reveries of the gentleman who assumes the curiously polyglot style of the Chevalier di Pensieri-Vani, and the lime-lighted visions of Maurice Hewlett. Even Symonds, the historian of the Renaissance, always abandoned himself as to a kind of intoxication, forgot the critic and lapsed into the dreamer’s mood, when he wrote of the external aspects of Italy ; and he has been followed by the daughter who was the constant companion of his travels and studies, in her charming little monograph on Perugia.

Mr. Marion Crawford’s books about the country where he was born and bred are of a different and somewhat more solid order. He writes neither for the epicure in emotions, nor for that remote and joyless being the scientific investigator, but for the vast and ever increasing company of the demi-learned. In his Ave Roma he attempted, with considerable success, the very difficult task of combining into a consistent and shapely whole the crowding and overlapping histories which even he who runs after a personal conductor may partly read in the huddled remains of the regal, the republican, the imperial and papal capitals. Now he has turned aside into a neighboring field, less extensive than the other and very much less trodden, and in two handsome volumes, entitled The Rulers of the South,1 he has taken a comprehensive survey of the history of that fairest of terrestrial regions, which was long known to European history as the kingdom of the two Sicilies.

The romantic story of the Trinacrian island and the southernmost Italian mainland, from which it is divided at Messina by so narrow a frith, falls naturally into epochs which are distinctly marked in Mr. Crawford’s flowing narrative. A millennium — roughly speaking — of Greek colonization and culture, another of Roman, Byzantine, and barbarian rule, two hundred years to the Saracen, and as many more to the descendants of the chivalrous Norman adventurer, Tancred of Hauteville, bring us down to the end of the thirteenth century A. D., and the memorable hour of the Sicilian vespers. The insulted sons of the soil rose as if by a common impulse on that soft spring evening in 1282, and furiously expelled the Frenchman from their coasts ; but only to receive, before the end of the same year, a Spanish king who had married a Norman wife, and to remain, except for a few unimportant intervals, until the middle of the nineteenth century, subject to Spain and the Spanish Bourbons.

Mr. Crawford’s treatment of his theme is, above everything, picturesque. He never misses a thrilling situation, or fails to set an heroic figure in a brilliant and becoming light. He calls, in sonorous tones, the almost unending roll of widely famous names which are intimately associated with the fortunes of the island and mainland: Pythagoras and the Hieros, Æschylus and Euripides, Timoleon and Theocritus, Cicero and the two foremost Cæsars, Alaric the Goth and Gregory the Great, and the fanatical captains of the Mohammedan hosts, Tancred, and the crusading kings, and the greatest of the Holy Roman Emperors. He shows us a dazzling succession of dissolving views, all mounted in the most effective manner : the first great Harailcar sacrificing human victims for the success of the Carthaginian arms all day in the sight of two hosts, until the battle was lost at nightfall, and he flung himself upon the flames; Vettius in his Campanian villa listening to the pleadings of his beautiful Greek handmaid, and finally heading an insurrection of the oppressed Greeks in southern Italy against the iron rule of his own countrymen ; Cicero dancing with true antiquarian glee, when he found the tomb of Archimedes, long overgrown by brambles ; Richard Cœur de Lion doing public penance, before he departed on his ill-starred crusade, for the crimes he had committed on his disorderly passage through Sicily ; Constance of Hauteville, the empress of Henry VI., bringing forth the son who was to be Frederick II. under a pavilion in the Cathedral of Palermo, that no one might question the child’s parentage on the score of her own mature age; brave young Conradin kissing the severed head of his boyish companion-in-arms, the Duke of Asturia, before he laid his own bright curls upon the block at the bidding of the infamous Charles II. of Anjou.

But though Mr. Crawford writes history like a novelist, primarily for dramatic effect, he never willingly sacrifices to effect the truth as he sees it. He goes regularly to original and contemporary sources of information, where such are available, and he has so steeped himself in the ancient chronicles, from which he professed almost to have compiled his book about Rome, that his own style has become affected, not to say infected, by their garrulity; and he gives us more than enough, at times, of that artificially simplified and condescending kind of relation which is supposed to be especially adapted to the nursery and the girls’ boarding school: “ He set sail, therefore, with a good heart and dreaming of great spoil. But immediately a great storm arose,” etc.

Mr. Crawford is, however, equally master of a very much more virile manner than this, and he can discuss a perplexed historical question, if he will, with independence, impartiality, and keen discrimination. His analysis of the methods and machinery of Roman government in Sicily is very able ; and his reflections upon colonial rule generally, as illustrated by the dealings of Rome with her dependencies and the policy of Great Britain in India, are striking and full of timely suggestion for ourselves. His account of the origin of the Pope’s temporal power may also be noted as lucid and fair-minded, as well as admirably succinct. Very ingenious and original, too, is the comparison he draws between the influence of Greek and of Roman tradition over the modern mind. He says, and I think truly, that the Roman memories hold the majority of men with a more human and lasting grip through the influence of that inbred Romanticism which betrays its lineage by its name, and is utterly alien to the glad detachment of the genuine Greek spirit. Mr. Crawford’s own clever epigram — “ The poetic sense is the fourth dimension of the historic understanding” —might undoubtedly stand as an appropriate motto for the greater part of his work. He seldom cites an authority, or consents to deface his fair page with a footnote. But his book is thoroughly indexed, beside having a full and very helpful chronological table at the end of each volume ; and he is rarely so forgetful, or so careless, of the results of recent discovery as in the passage on the poets most identified with Sicily, where he says that “ nothing has come down to us ” of the work of Bacchylides.

Mr. Crawford labors under the disadvantage, common to all who attempt brief summaries of long historic periods, that his task becomes increasingly difficult as he advances in time, and has a more vast and bewildering mass of material from which to make selection.

He will be thought, by some, to have given a disproportionate amount of space to the Greek and Roman periods ; but he also grapples firmly and to good purpose with the wild confusion of mediæval dynasties in Sicily, and the rapid changes of Norman, German, Angevine, and Spanish succession. The condensed and informal genealogy of the Norman line which he gives us on page 268 of his second volume is really a model of compact statement, shedding light on some of the most puzzling facts of royal consanguinity in later times; and, knowing our author’s Black proclivities, we feel it to be rather handsome in him to call attention, as he does, to the distinct lineal right of the ancient house of Savoy to the headship of Sicily. He believes, however, that the present dynasty is especially menaced by the Mafia, to which curious organization he devotes, at the end of his book, a very interesting and somewhat apologetic chapter.

A word must be said for the extraordinary beauty of the illustrations to The Rulers of the South. Sicilian photographs are proverbially good, and there are a few of these finely reproduced in photogravure. But they are entirely eclipsed in charm by the prints from the drawings of Henry Brokman, to whom the book is fitly dedicated. The distinction of some of these delicate little sketches is wonderful. They suggest within the space of a few inches, and seemingly by the simplest means, all the visionary bloom of the Mediterranean atmosphere, the classic elegance of southEuropean plant forms, and the grace that clothes as with a royal mantle even ruin and beggary in the south. Inserted irregularly, sometimes very appositely to the text which they interrupt, and sometimes otherwise, the drawings of Mr. Brokman form an integral and by no means the least eloquent part of the language of a book which will be a helpful practical guide to the actual traveler in Sicily and Calabria, as well as a bel divertimento to him who merely imagines the aspect of the shining shore, by the carefully sustained glow of a northern fireside.

A book less attractive, perhaps, to the rapid traveler and the general reader, but more profoundly studied and permanently valuable, is the Italian Cities of Edwin and Evangeline Blashfield,1 the accomplished editors of Vasari’s Lives of the Painters. The twin volumes are smaller by a third than Mr. Crawford’s, but they contain some of the sanest, most catholic, and most conclusive art criticism of recent times. It is criticism based on a full technical knowledge, especially of painting, but expressed with great literary urbanity and an almost entire absence of strictly technical phraseology. The authors know their northern Italy almost as well as Mr. Crawford knows the south, and the region for which they offer themselves as guides to the reader is very nearly the exact complement of the one covered by the scenes of his narrative. Five of the great Tuscan and Umbrian cities — Ravenna, Siena, Parma, Perugia, and Assisi — are made the subjects of elaborate monographs. In each of these art centres the authors have lived long enough to imbibe the sentiment and slowly assimilate the history of the place, grasp the full measure and meaning of its artistic development, and learn by heart all the varying expressions of that physiognomy, physical and spiritual, whereby each one of them is distinguished from every other Italian town.

The opening essay on Ravenna and its mosaics is the most searching, and in many respects the most excellent of all. To read it at an uninterrupted sitting is to be carried back to the gray old city by the Adriatic, so marvelously preserved from decay; to be brought face to face, once more, with the quaint and solemn childhood of Christianity ; and to assist at the tardy evolution of Christian out of pagan art. Not a note is dropped here, not a shade slurred. It is as nearly as possible a perfect piece of work.

The chapters on Siena and Perugia are a mine of information concerning the masters of the early Sienese and Umbrian schools, whose work is reviewed minutely and in a spirit both temperate and sympathetic, though with frank dissent from the indiscriminate veneration and exclusive sentimentalism of Rio and Lindsay. The estimate of the work of Pinturicchio and Sodoma (Antonio Bazzi) is peculiarly brilliant ; yet one misses something out of the general view of both these memorable places which it is so natural to associate together. There is just one haunting element in the complex impression produced upon the receptive mind by the old mid-Italian towns, to which our authors appear imperfectly sensible, and that is the preclassic or Etruscan element. It underlies the insistent mediævalism of Siena, like the mysterious labyrinth which ramifies under her narrow streets. It is importunate at Perugia, and simply overpowering at Cortona, where the wanderers never met at all, as it would seem, the dark and tongue-tied genius of the place, but amused themselves quite simply by discovering living copies of the meek angels and ingenuous nuns of Perugino in the hill convent of Santa Margherita.

At Assisi, St. Francis is yet more to them than Giotto, although the frescoes of the great church are both learnedly seen and luminously described, as one short quotation out of half a dozen pregnant pages will be enough to show: —

“ When we say enthusiastically of Giotto, ‘ There was a decorator for you! There was a muralist far more purely decorative than some later and even greater men,’ we are thinking, not of the superiority of his drawing and composition, but of the simple flatness of his masses, free from any elaborate modeling, the lightness and purity of his color, so suited to gloomy interiors, the excellence of his silhouette and his pattern. The layman may not deliberately reason to this effect; but he instinctively thinks of these qualities, because they are what impress him as decorative before he has time to go further in his mental appreciation to the qualities of draughtsmanship and dramatic composition. But the essentially decorative qualities did not belong especially to Giotto; he had no proprietary rights in them ; they belonged to the history and development of mural painting, to the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, who had learned centuries before St. Francis, centuries even before the Master whom St. Francis served came into the world, — had learned, we say, that dimly lighted interiors require flat, pure colors with little modeling.”

This is the kind of writing about art which not merely stimulates or vaguely excites the unprofessional observer, but clears his mind of cant, and, if he be in any sense teachable, shows him how to see.

The shorter chapters, devoted to Correggio in Parma, and Mantegna in Mantua, may be cited as illustrating the singular catholicity of the writers’ tastes, and their equal appreciation of two widely differing orders of beauty, neither of which is in the least spiritual. The Lombard and Venetian schools do not come within the scope of these volumes. A few pages are devoted to a tiny but admirable vignette of the seldom visited Spoleto; a few of the myriad aspects of Florentine art are touched upon in a couple of comparatively light chapters ; and a full and very nobly worded appreciation of Raphael’s work in the Vatican closes an exceedingly beautiful and instructive work, which, though it deals largely with pictorial themes, is without pictorial illustrations, and does not need them.

Harriet Waters Preston.

  1. The Rulers of the South : Sicily, Calabria, and Malta. By F. MARION CRAWFORD. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1900.
  2. Italian Cities. By E. H. and E. W. BLASHFIELD. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1900.