Two Italian Gardens

A GARDEN is the attempt of Man and Nature to materialize their dreams of the original Paradise. Man is its father and Nature its mother, so that all gardens which deserve the name are half-human, and appeal to us with a personality of their own.

Of the two gardens which are the subject of this reminiscence, one stands eleven hundred feet above the Tyrrhenian Sea, looking across the Gulf of Salerno toward the blue plain of Pæstum; the other adorns a lonely promontory in the Lake of Garda, where its grove of spiring cypresses and walls of black yew throw a fringe of dark, broken reflections into the deep water under its rocky banks. It is essentially a cultured garden in the human and literary sense of the word. It must have been imagined and made by a scholar who loved and absorbed the Classics so thoroughly that he lived in their dead poetries rather than in the world in which he found himself; and so in his chosen corner he made himself this private paradise out of a dead ideal, where he could pace among his statues and cypresses and marble tablets with their neo-classic inscriptions, or look across the lake at the distant promontory of Sirmione, where the Roman Catullus once lived and wrote.

In the middle of the garden stands a wide circle of cypress trees, and between each two trees a stucco shrine containing an antique marble bust, whose silent presence gives a hush and secrecy to the shady space. At the margins of the straight walks which intersect the square grass-plots, a marble well or a quaint garden statue breaks the monotony of the lines. Except for two long hedges of rose-flowered oleanders, the garden has few flowers: its restrained, classic charm springs from the alternation of light and shade on grass-plots and on the cool, dead white of stuccoed walls; the contrast between the weathered marble of its statues and inscribed tablets and the heavy green and sables of its yews and cypresses.

A long flight of steps leads down into a smaller garden—a high-walled square, green and damp like an empty well — in a corner of which stands an old lemon-house. Tall white columns support a skeleton timber roof, and amongst the curdy white of their stucco shafts the great lemon trees receive the sunlight among their leaves, sifting it into a hundred soft tones of shade and transparence. The waxy, primrosecolored fruit shows coolly amid the dark, glazed foliage, and the pale blossom fills the air with its exotic sweet - ness. Against the wall a marble well is set, still full and clear, though its whiteness has been stained and weathered to orange and greened with moss. A neoLatin stanza is carved upon it, — a ‘quaint conceit’ packed into four lines, — and above it, in an alcove in the wall, stands a broken baroque statue, seeming by its wistful pose and slow gesture to be listening to some far-vanishing sound.

Toward the lake, where the square white villa stands with its cool loggia, terraces of clipped yew descend in steps to the water; the three blues of lake and sky and distant mountains shine through the window-like openings in their dark walls.

Such is the lake garden. In it one feels the presence of, and seems to converse with, a sympathetic and cultured mind. Its pathos lies not in its ruin, or in the suggestion of a society passed away, but in the absence of the ardent scholar who loved its exquisite false classicism, and who composed, for his memorial tablet to Catullus, an elegy whose tender artificiality commemorates also himself and his garden: —

Luxere his Veneres Cupidinesque
Amissam lepidi lyram Catulli
Hoc Musae statuere Gratiaeque
Et Nymphae lachrymis piis sacellum.

Like the garden of the Villa d’ Este it is one of the many false and beautiful growths which an epicurean romanticism has grafted upon a dead classicism.

Art is the result of two very different attitudes toward life. It may synthesize and articulate the artist ’s zest for life — life viewed and accepted as a whole in all its manifold forms, and seen, as God saw the created world, to be very good. Such an artist voices, more or less fully and accurately, the ideals of the society in which he lives, and in a similar degree his art represents in a purified and ennobled form the history of contemporary life and thought. This type of art may for convenience be labeled Social Art. Its ideal is based on the classic ideal of reason, science, and the perfect society of which art forms an integral part; but it is the classic ideal widened and ennobled by long influence of the romantic spirit . Such an ideal tends always toward monism, for it regards the material and the spiritual as essentially one, and that one is life.

On the other hand, art may result from the artist’s conviction that the road to the ultimate Reality does not necessarily lie through a perfected human society: his conception of life is, in fact, dualistic. For him the material life and the spiritual life are two separate existences, of which the spiritual is alone the true one. It is the romantic ideal carried to its logical conclusion, and lacking the leaven of the classic spirit to curb and rationalize it. It is the ideal which produced the monastic system and formed so large an element in the Crusades. Such an artist is a hermit, who either from despair at the ugliness and cruelty of the life he sees round him, or from the conviction that he has something better, turns his back upon society and builds himself a hermitage out of his creative imagination.

Various periods of history have left us beautiful types of this hermit art. We see it in the garden statuary of the seventeenth-century villas and châteaux of Italy and France: beautiful, wistful creations that try to recall the ancient gods and sylvan beings long since discredited, investing them with a delicate mystery and pathos unknown to their classic prototypes — the mystery and pathos of the romantic spirit.

We see it again in the art of Watteau, who depicted the charming artificiality of the society of his time, a society which played at embarking for Cythera, and elaborately acted the pastoral ideals in which it would fain believe. He shows it to us, at the psychological moment when its artificiality has ceased to suffice it, trying only half successfully to close its eyes to the grim, strenuous realities of life as it exists outside the magic circle of the fête champêtre. His art does not concern itself with reality; at most it suggests it, vaguely distant; but it is these suggestions that throw its artificiality into such poignant relief, humanizing and giving a pathos to those men and women, refined, prettily attractive, and almost ingenuous in their artificiality, playing so near the brink of the inexorable néant. At its least, it is an art of garden tableaux, dainty dressingtables, and Arcadian shepherdesses. Looking at it, we feel that we cannot judge as men and women of the world these children who have never known the realities of life. We feel, with the preacher, that all is vanity; yet how charming the vanity!

At its best, it is the fool with his motley and his secret tragedy — Pierrot with a face blanched partly by powder, partly by the tragedy of disillusionment.

Nowadays the hermit spirit manifests itself in many forms. The delicate art of W. B. Yeats finds its inspiration in the mystic lore of times for him nobler and more spiritual than ours. Francis Thompson, that spiritual voluptuary, turns his face from modern life to contemplate his mystical conception of Christianity.

I that no part have in the time’s bragged way,
And its loud bruit,

he sings, and follows his steep path to salvation alone.

Indeed, any art which concentrates its vision exclusively upon spiritual mystery must be lonely; for the spiritual, as conceived by the dualist, can be approached only by shutting out the world in solitary meditation. Such spiritual experience cannot be shared by a crowd as by one consciousness; it is the separate and private concern of each single individual. Thus it is that the soul dramas of Maeterlinck, and the music of Debussy and his school, are so lonely. Debussy deals not with the forms and details which constitute an event, but with the total impression — the soul, if you will — evolved from those forms and details. And it is this spiritualizing, this banishing of the accidents of detail and form, together with the subtlety and restraint of his emotional and color schemes, which produces that effect of lonely purity which haunts his music.

Take, for example, his ‘Soirée dans Grenade.’ It is a vivid picture of a night carnival in Spain. Here, if anywhere, was a chance for the portrayal of strongly human and material elements. One can imagine how Richard Strauss would have done it. We should have had a noisy crowd, full of character and broad humor; loud laughter and whistlings; coarse jibes from the hunch-back at the street corner — a vivid genre representation. Debussy attains to a vividness at least as strong, by the exact antitheses of these elements. There is no humor, no human character; we are unconscious of the presence of human beings, except in so far as their passage provides movement, sound, and color. The colors, though full-toned, are blurred and mistily interfused. There are no solid forms, only lines — tall, perpendicular lines and great sweeping curves, a sense of tense rhythm and élan, and a sense, too, of the tragic regret which always underlies such scenes of vivid, momentary joy. A passing mandolin is the only hint we get of a separate human presence. It is, in fact, an intense spiritual impression. You can no more imagine Debussy writing national, crowdstirring music than you can think of Yeats as poet-laureate.

To many people these hermit arts, with their very specialized atmospheres, untroubled by the salt breeze of life, seem decadent and morbid — a luxury rather than a glorious necessity. They seem to be the coward creations of shrinking, sensitive souls, children of the world’s weariness and discouragement, who have not the courage to face, and the strength to transfigure, the cruelty and ugliness of life, as it has been faced and transfigured by the universal power of such geniuses as Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and Beethoven, children of the world’s eternal energy.

There is much to be said on either side. The upholder of the social ideal might argue on the following lines. To the observer of modern life, the most striking phenomenon is the social revolution which is slowly growing up all over Europe. The ultimate corollary of Socialism is a confident optimism, a belief in the perfectibility of society, the monistic belief that spiritual perfection is attainable only through the perfection of the race, that,

Not forfeiting the beast with which they are crossed
To stature of the gods will they attain.

In such a society the only art which can have any ultimate reason for existence is the art which sums up and interprets existing life, leading it forward to higher ideals; for when life is purged of wrong and ugliness no one will seek escape from it in a beautiful dream, because life itself will be the most beautiful of all dreams.

He would point, in support of his argument, to Ancient Greece, where this ideal state of things was, for a brief period, partially realized; when art (poetry, drama, sculpture, music, and the dance) was an integral part of life, reflecting and articulating the Hellenic ideal — the ideal based on reason, intellect, and the beauty of a harmonious life. In it there was no place for hermit arts; they were in fact inconceivable under conditions in which, as Mr. Lowes Dickinson says, ’the ideal ...was organically related to the real.’ The noblest art, he would say, is collective, socially creative; hermit art is essentially disintegrative.

This does not mean that art will ultimately cease to be spiritual; far from it. It means that material and spirit are the constituents of life and that art can achieve true spirituality only through the material and the human, as the art of Michelangelo and Titian has done, by showing us human gods and goddesses, creatures like ourselves, but nobler, more beautiful, and more powerful than ourselves. Such art stimulates both body and soul; it stimulates even when, as in Michelangelo, it depicts a great despair; because so immense a despair postulates an immeasurably great and noble nature; and to despair with Michelangelo is a nobler and fuller experience than to rejoice with a china shepherdess.

On the other hand, the advocate of hermit art might take up the same parable of Ancient Greece where his opponent dropped it, and ask where, as a matter of fact, this ideal led. He might point out that the very conditions necessary to its realization were fatal to it; that, to quote Mr. Lowes Dickinson again, ’the harmony of the Greeks contained in itself the factors of its own destruction,’ and that the fact that art happened to express contemporary life for a brief period shows not that such is the office of art, but that life at that time reached so high a level that it became a worthy and inspiring theme for art. Art, he would say, is sacred — a goddess. She cannot demean herself by stooping to the level of life. Life, if it be wise, may approach her and implore her aid; if not, then so much the worse for life.

For the hermit artist the material is an illusion in which man blindly gropes, seeking to escape into the true, spiritual world which surrounds him, but which, not knowing the infallible key, he only sees in fitful glimpses in moments of divine ecstasy. He sees it in art, which is the poet’s attempt to materialize this ecstasy, debased and fragmentary, because no poet has achieved the power of expressing perfect beauty, but still flashing out in dazzling fragments in— -

Many a verse from so strange influence
That he must ever wonder how and whence It came.

Art is the pursuit of the beauty that is truth and the truth that is beauty, and so long as it achieves these it does not matter in what form it expresses itself, for it is outside of time and space, and date and locality are only accidents of the artist’s choice. It has no connection with society or with the material world, except in so far as it is compelled to express itself in terms of them, using them as the veils and symbols of spiritual loveliness. All who approach art are inevitably stimulated by it, because it is the expression of beauty, and beauty is the food of the soul.

Art, according to such a theory, is a shrine secluded from the dusty highway of existence, in which the devout soul finds strength and repose in the contemplation of the mystery of beauty.

We shall know which of the two theories is the true one when we know the answer to the everlasting question,

’What is life? ’ Meanwhile, in the dust and turmoil of life as it now is, we can gladly accept both an art which urges forward the march and one which offers a temporary respite from the wrongs and discouragements which harass an imperfect world. We can also remember that the wells and cypresses of the lake garden will rejoice the hearts of men for whom the strange beauty of the hermit idealism which created it can mean nothing.

The southern garden, endlessly contemplating the changing face of the sea from its lofty station, has a much more complex appeal. It tells of no single human mind, but is rich in scattered hints of vanished arts and vanished centuries. The ancient family who in the eleventh century built the Saracenic palace which it surrounds, is far too remote to suggest to the mind anything more individual than a vision of vague, impressionistic pageantry. The beautiful, florid fragment of a cloistered court tells of a fantastic love of decoration as branching and luxuriant as the garden itself.

The exuberant growth and the rich bloom of the South have transformed the whole place into a bower of hanging color and perfume, in which great shrubs of scarlet salvia, tree peonies, thickly flowering camellia trees, and high-climbing roses with great knotted trunks, glow richly under dark cypresses, gray eucalyptus trees, cedars, palms, and great umbrella pines in which, even on the stillest days, the air makes a sound of rushing water. Through the tangle of exotic growth the rugged tops of the Monte del Demonio show brown and violet.

Fronting the sea, a long terrace walk extends between a double row of tall oleander shrubs, spaced at equal distances, with an octagonal white-stuccoed pillar stationed between each two, Midway of its length the terrace projects in a platform with a marble balustrade. Standing upon it, as on the figure-head of a titanic ship, one seems to be stationed immeasurably above the whole earth. The exquisite, complex sensations of height, clarity, and color, exhilarate one to ecstasy. The purity and transparency of the air seem almost tangible; one is conscious of its sweet, subtle presence filling, in boundless volume, the height, depth, and breadth of the immense purview. The sea, laid like a map far below, expands pure and limpid into the horizon. On cloudless days its full sapphire-blue shines like a great, lustrous iris-petal; but when the sky is changing, its surface is the scene of exquisite gradual color-transformations, now violet and purple shot with green and dusted with gold, now fading to subtle hues of topaz, amethyst, and aquamarine, and delicate tones that change before they can be defined. Once, during a lull in a day of stormy rain, a ragged pillar of burning opal rose out of the midst of the bay — a marvel wrought by the alchemy of sun, rain, and stormcloud.

From this small platform, two steep flights of steps, diverging from either side, lead down to another broad terrace. This terrace has stone vases overflowing with geraniums along its low parapet wall, and is laid out as a formal garden; but the irrepressible wealth of nature breaks forth magnificently over the bounds of its formality. Below the terrace wall, two little churches with plastered Moorish domes stand under a group of lofty stone-pines, and hundreds of feet beneath sweeps the great curve of the bay, and the shining spaces of the sea stretch endlessly toward the horizon.

The garden is full of marble fragments of various epochs. Pillars ruthlessly stolen from the Greek temples of Pæstum, some of them over-wrought with exquisite spiral flutings, are set as terminals to the walks, or pierced and mutilated and laid horizontally as handrails upon others set up to form balustrades. Here and there an old column with a Romanesque capital serves as a prop for a climbing rose. At one end of the terrace a statuette of a fierce old Gothic saint, long-bearded, and grasping the sword of his faith, has come, by the whimsical irony of Fate, to be set up as the tutelary deity of a well, whose water drips through a mossy cushion of primroses and violets into a rustic trough full of arum lilies. Elsewhere, in a secret, mossy angle of the wall, a grotto thickly tufted with hanging maiden-hair conceals a drip-well among whose ferns and rock-work stands another misused saint — a pathetic little marble figure with mutilated arms, and face on which a smile half-piteous, half-sly, still lingers; which makes him, in his fallen state, appear half-martyr and half-satyr.

Whereas the garden on the lake was essentially scholarly, this garden is essentially lordly, almost feudal, by reason of its opulence, its riotous color and its superb position above a sea whose coasts have known the coming of Greeks, Romans, Ostrogoths, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, and many more than these. It is lordly in spite of its ruined palace and its fragments of perished art, the pathos of whose ruin is heightened by the pathetic and whimsical beauty of their misuse.