Ariadne Florentina Part 13

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8. Entrance on His Ministry by Christ.

9. Peter and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee.

10. Sermon on Mount.

11. Giving Keys to St. Peter.

12. Last Supper.

Of these pictures, Sandro painted three himself, Perugino three, and the a.s.sumption; Ghirlandajo one, Signorelli one, and Rosselli four.[BA] I believe that Sandro intended to take the roof also, and had sketched out the main succession of its design; and that the prophets and sibyls which he meant to paint, he drew first small, and engraved his drawings afterwards, that some part of the work might be, at all events, thus communicable to the world outside of the Vatican.

210. It is not often that I tell you my beliefs; but I am forced here, for there are no dates to found more on. Is it not wonderful that among all the infinite ma.s.s of fools' thoughts about the "majestic works of Michael Angelo" in the Sistine Chapel, no slightly more rational person has ever asked what the chapel was first meant to be like, and how it was to be roofed?

Nor can I a.s.sume myself, still less you, that all these prophets and sibyls are Botticelli's. Of many there are two engravings, with variations: some are inferior in parts, many altogether. He signed none; never put grand tablets with 'S. B.' into his skies; had other letters than those to engrave, and no time to spare. I have chosen out of the series three of the sibyls, which have, I think, clear internal evidence of being his; and these you shall compare with Michael Angelo's. But first I must put you in mind what the sibyls were.

211. As the prophets represent the voice of G.o.d in man, the sibyls represent the voice of G.o.d in nature. They are properly all forms of one sibyl, [Greek: Dios Boule], the counsel of G.o.d; and the chief one, at least in the Roman mind, was the Sibyl of c.u.mae. From the traditions of her, the Romans, and we through them, received whatever lessons the myth, or fact, of sibyl power has given to mortals.

How much have you received, or may you yet receive, think you, of that teaching? I call it the myth, or fact; but remember that, _as_ a myth, it _is_ a fact. This story has concentrated whatever good there is in the imagination or visionary powers in women, inspired by nature only.

The traditions of witch and gypsy are partly its offshoots. You despise both, perhaps. But can you, though in utmost pride of your supreme modern wisdom, suppose that the character--say, even of so poor and far-fallen a sibyl as Meg Merrilies--is only the coinage of Scott's brain; or that, even being no more, it is valueless? Admit the figure of the c.u.maean Sibyl, in like manner, to be the coinage only of Virgil's brain. As such, it, and the words it speaks, are yet facts in which we may find use, if we are reverent to them.

To me, personally, (I must take your indulgence for a moment to speak wholly of myself,) they have been of the truest service--quite material and indisputable.

I am writing on St. John's Day, in the monastery of a.s.sisi; and I had no idea whatever, when I sat down to my work this morning, of saying any word of what I am now going to tell you. I meant only to expand and explain a little what I said in my lecture about the Florentine engraving. But it seems to me now that I had better tell you what the c.u.maean Sibyl has actually done for me.

212. In 1871, partly in consequence of chagrin at the Revolution in Paris, and partly in great personal sorrow, I was struck by acute inflammatory illness at Matlock, and reduced to a state of extreme weakness; lying at one time unconscious for some hours, those about me having no hope of my life. I have no doubt that the immediate cause of the illness was simply, eating when I was not hungry; so that modern science would acknowledge nothing in the whole business but an extreme and very dangerous form of indigestion; and entirely deny any interference of the c.u.maean Sibyl in the matter.

I once heard a sermon by Dr. Guthrie, in Edinburgh, upon the wickedness of fasting. It was very eloquent and ingenious, and finely explained the superiority of the Scotch Free Church to the benighted Catholic Church, in that the Free Church saw no merit in fasting. And there was no mention, from beginning to end of the sermon, of even the existence of such texts as Daniel i. 12, or Matthew vi. 16.

Without the smallest merit, I admit, in fasting, I was nevertheless reduced at Matlock to a state very near starvation; and could not rise from my pillow, without being lifted, for some days. And in the first clearly p.r.o.nounced stage of recovery, when the perfect powers of spirit had returned, while the body was still as weak as it well could be, I had three dreams, which made a great impression on me; for in ordinary health my dreams are supremely ridiculous, if not unpleasant; and in ordinary conditions of illness, very ugly, and always without the slightest meaning. But these dreams were all distinct and impressive, and had much meaning, if I chose to take it.

213. The first[BB] was of a Venetian fisherman, who wanted me to follow him down into some water which I thought was too deep; but he called me on, saying he had something to show me; so I followed him; and presently, through an opening, as if in the a.r.s.enal wall, he showed me the bronze horses of St. Mark's, and said, 'See, the horses are putting on their harness.'

The second was of a preparation at Rome, in St. Peter's, (or a vast hall as large as St. Peter's,) for the exhibition of a religious drama. Part of the play was to be a scene in which demons were to appear in the sky; and the stage servants were arranging gray fict.i.tious clouds, and painted fiends, for it, under the direction of the priests. There was a woman dressed in black, standing at the corner of the stage watching them, having a likeness in her face to one of my own dead friends; and I knew somehow that she was not that friend, but a spirit; and she made me understand, without speaking, that I was to watch, for the play would turn out other than the priests expected. And I waited; and when the scene came on, the clouds became real clouds, and the fiends real fiends, agitating them in slow quivering, wild and terrible, over the heads of the people and priests. I recollected distinctly, however, when I woke, only the figure of the black woman mocking the people, and of one priest in an agony of terror, with the sweat pouring from his brow, but violently scolding one of the stage servants for having failed in some ceremony, the omission of which, he thought, had given the devils their power.

The third dream was the most interesting and personal. Some one came to me to ask me to help in the deliverance of a company of Italian prisoners who were to be ransomed for money. I said I had no money. They answered, Yes, I had some that belonged to me as a brother of St.

Francis, if I would give it up. I said I did not know even that I _was_ a brother of St. Francis; but I thought to myself, that perhaps the Franciscans of Fesole, whom I had helped to make hay in their field in 1845, had adopted me for one; only I didn't see how the consequence of that would be my having any money. However, I said they were welcome to whatever I had; and then I heard the voice of an Italian woman singing; and I have never heard such divine singing before nor since;--the sounds absolutely strong and real, and the melody altogether lovely. If I could have written it! But I could not even remember it when I woke,--only how beautiful it was.

214. Now these three dreams have, every one of them, been of much use to me since; or so far as they have failed to be useful, it has been my own fault, and not theirs; but the chief use of them at the time was to give me courage and confidence in myself, both in bodily distress, of which I had still not a little to bear; and worse, much mental anxiety about matters supremely interesting to me, which were turning out ill. And through all such trouble--which came upon me as I was recovering, as if it meant to throw me back into the grave,--I held out and recovered, repeating always to myself, or rather having always murmured in my ears, at every new trial, one Latin line,

Tu ne cede malis, sed contra fortior ito.

Now I had got this line out of the tablet in the engraving of Raphael's vision, and had forgotten where it came from. And I thought I knew my sixth book of Virgil so well, that I never looked at it again while I was giving these lectures at Oxford, and it was only here at a.s.sisi, the other day, wanting to look more accurately at the first scene by the lake Avernus, that I found I had been saved by the words of the c.u.maean Sibyl.

215. "Quam tua te Fortuna sinet," the completion of the sentence, has yet more and continual teaching in it for me now; as it has for all men.

Her opening words, which have become hackneyed, and lost all present power through vulgar use of them, contain yet one of the most immortal truths ever yet spoken for mankind; and they will never lose their power of help for n.o.ble persons. But observe, both in that lesson, "Facilis descensus Averni," etc.; and in the still more precious, because universal, one on which the strength of Rome was founded,--the burning of the books,--the Sibyl speaks only as the voice of Nature, and of her laws;--not as a divine helper, prevailing over death; but as a mortal teacher warning us against it, and strengthening us for our mortal time; but not for eternity. Of which lesson her own history is a part, and her habitation by the Avernus lake. She desires immortality, fondly and vainly, as we do ourselves. She receives, from the love of her _refused_ lover, Apollo, not immortality, but length of life;--her years to be as the grains of dust in her hand. And even this she finds was a false desire; and her wise and holy desire at last is--to die. She wastes away; becomes a shade only, and a voice. The Nations ask her, What wouldst thou? She answers, Peace; only let my last words be true.

"L'ultimo mie parlar sie verace."

[Ill.u.s.tration: VII.

For a time, and times.]

216. Therefore, if anything is to be conceived, rightly, and chiefly, in the form of the c.u.maean Sibyl, it must be of fading virginal beauty, of enduring patience, of far-looking into futurity. "For after my death there shall yet return," she says, "another virgin."

Jam redit et virgo;--redeunt Saturnia regna, Ultima c.u.maei venit jam carminis aetas.

Here then is Botticelli's c.u.maean Sibyl. She is armed, for she is the prophetess of Roman fort.i.tude;--but her faded breast scarcely raises the corselet; her hair floats, not falls, in waves like the currents of a river,--the sign of enduring life; the light is full on her forehead: she looks into the distance as in a dream. It is impossible for art to gather together more beautifully or intensely every image which can express her true power, or lead us to understand her lesson.

[Ill.u.s.tration: VIII.

The Nymph beloved of Apollo.

(MICHAEL ANGELO.)]

217. Now you do not, I am well a.s.sured, know one of Michael Angelo's sibyls from another: unless perhaps the Delphian, whom of course he makes as beautiful as he can. But of this especially Italian prophetess, one would have thought he might, at least in some way, have shown that he knew the history, even if he did not understand it. She might have had more than one book, at all events, to burn. She might have had a stray leaf or two fallen at her feet. He could not indeed have painted her only as a voice; but his anatomical knowledge need not have hindered him from painting her virginal youth, or her wasting and watching age, or her inspired hope of a holier future.

218. Opposite,--fortunately, photograph from the figure itself, so that you can suspect me of no exaggeration,--is Michael Angelo's c.u.maean Sibyl, wasting away. It is by a grotesque and most strange chance that he should have made the figure of this Sibyl, of all others in the chapel, the most fleshly and gross, even proceeding to the monstrous license of showing the nipples of the breast as if the dress were molded over them like plaster. Thus he paints the poor nymph beloved of Apollo,--the clearest and queenliest in prophecy and command of all the sibyls,--as an ugly crone, with the arms of Goliath, poring down upon a single book.

219. There is one point of fine detail, however, in Botticelli's c.u.maean Sibyl, and in the next I am going to show you, to explain which I must go back for a little while to the question of the direct relation of the Italian painters to the Greek. I don't like repeating in one lecture what I have said in another; but to save you the trouble of reference, must remind you of what I stated in my fourth lecture on Greek birds, when we were examining the adoption of the plume crests in armor, that the crest signifies command; but the diadem, _obedience_; and that every crown is primarily a diadem. It is the thing that binds, before it is the thing that honors.

Now all the great schools dwell on this symbolism. The long flowing hair is the symbol of life, and the [Greek: diadema] of the law restraining it. Royalty, or kingliness, over life, restraining and glorifying. In the extremity of restraint--in death, whether n.o.ble, as of death to Earth, or ign.o.ble, as of death to Heaven, the [Greek: diadema] is fastened with the mort-cloth: "Bound hand and foot with grave-clothes, and the face bound about with the napkin."

220. Now look back to the first Greek head I ever showed you, used as the type of archaic sculpture in Aratra Pentelici, and then look at the crown in Botticelli's Astrologia. It is absolutely the Greek form,--even to the peculiar oval of the forehead; while the diadem--the governing law--is set with appointed stars--to rule the destiny and thought. Then return to the c.u.maean Sibyl. She, as we have seen, is the symbol of enduring life--almost immortal. The diadem is withdrawn from the forehead--reduced to a narrow fillet--here, and the hair thrown free.

[Ill.u.s.tration: IX.

In the woods of Ida.]

221. From the c.u.maean Sibyl's diadem, traced only by points, turn to that of the h.e.l.lespontic, (Plate 9, opposite). I do not know why Botticelli chose her for the spirit of prophecy in old age; but he has made this the most interesting plate of the series in the definiteness of its connection with the work from Dante, which becomes his own prophecy in old age. The fantastic yet solemn treatment of the gnarled wood occurs, as far as I know, in no other engravings but this, and the ill.u.s.trations to Dante; and I am content to leave it, with little comment, for the reader's quiet study, as showing the exuberance of imagination which other men at this time in Italy allowed to waste itself in idle arabesque, restrained by Botticelli to his most earnest purposes; and giving the withered tree-trunks, hewn for the rude throne of the aged prophetess, the same harmony with her fading spirit which the rose has with youth, or the laurel with victory. Also in its weird characters, you have the best example I can show you of the orders of decorative design which are especially expressible by engraving, and which belong to a group of art instincts scarcely now to be understood, much less recovered, (the influence of modern naturalistic imitation being too strong to be conquered)--the instincts, namely, for the arrangement of pure line, in labyrinthine intricacy, through which the grace of order may give continual clue. The entire body of ornamental design, connected with writing, in the Middle Ages seems as if it were a sensible symbol, to the eye and brain, of the methods of error and recovery, the minglings of crooked with straight, and perverse with progressive, which const.i.tute the great problem of human morals and fate; and when I chose the t.i.tle for the collected series of these lectures, I hoped to have justified it by careful a.n.a.lysis of the methods of labyrinthine ornament, which, made sacred by Theseian traditions,[BC] and beginning, in imitation of physical truth, with the spiral waves of the waters of Babylon as the a.s.syrian carved them, entangled in their returns the eyes of men, on Greek vase and Christian ma.n.u.script--till they closed in the arabesques which sprang round the last luxury of Venice and Rome.

But the labyrinth of life itself, and its more and more interwoven occupation, become too manifold, and too difficult for me; and of the time wasted in the blind lanes of it, perhaps that spent in a.n.a.lysis or recommendation of the art to which men's present conduct makes them insensible, has been chiefly cast away. On the walls of the little room where I finally revise this lecture,[BD] hangs an old silken sampler of great-grandame's work: representing the domestic life of Abraham: chiefly the stories of Isaac and Ishmael. Sarah at her tent-door, watching, with folded arms, the dismissal of Hagar: above, in a wilderness full of fruit trees, birds, and b.u.t.terflies, little Ishmael lying at the root of a tree, and the spent bottle under another; Hagar in prayer, and the angel appearing to her out of a wreathed line of gloomily undulating clouds, which, with a dark-rayed sun in the midst, surmount the entire composition in two arches, out of which descend shafts of (I suppose) beneficent rain; leaving, however, room, in the corner opposite to Ishmael's angel, for Isaac's, who stays Abraham in the sacrifice; the ram in the thicket, the squirrel in the plum tree above him, and the grapes, pears, apples, roses, and daisies of the foreground, being all wrought with involution of such ingenious needlework as may well rank, in the patience, the natural skill, and the innocent pleasure of it, with the truest works of Florentine engraving.

Nay; the actual tradition of many of the forms of ancient art is in many places evident,--as, for instance, in the spiral summits of the flames of the wood on the altar, which are like a group of first-springing fern. On the wall opposite is a smaller composition, representing Justice with her balance and sword, standing between the sun and moon, with a background of pinks, borage, and corn-c.o.c.kle: a third is only a cl.u.s.ter of tulips and iris, with two Byzantine peac.o.c.ks; but the spirits of Penelope and Ariadne reign vivid in all the work--and the richness of pleasurable fancy is as great still, in these silken labors, as in the marble arches and golden roof of the cathedral of Monreale.

But what is the use of explaining or a.n.a.lyzing it? Such work as this means the patience and simplicity of all feminine life; and can be produced, among _us_ at least, no more. Gothic tracery itself, another of the instinctive labyrinthine intricacies of old, though a.n.a.lyzed to its last section, has become now the symbol only of a foolish ecclesiastical sect, retained for their s.h.i.+bboleth, joyless and powerless for all good. The very labyrinth of the gra.s.s and flowers of our fields, though dissected to its last leaf, is yet bitten bare, or trampled to slime, by the Minotaur of our l.u.s.t; and for the traceried spire of the poplar by the brook, we possess but the four-square furnace tower, to mingle its smoke with heaven's thunder-clouds.[BE]

We will look yet at one sampler more of the engraved work, done in the happy time when flowers were pure, youth simple, and imagination gay,--Botticelli's Libyan Sibyl.

Glance back first to the h.e.l.lespontic, noting the close fillet, and the cloth bound below the face, and then you will be prepared to understand the last I shall show you, and the loveliest of the southern Pythonesses.

[Ill.u.s.tration: X.

Gra.s.s of the Desert.]

222. A less deep thinker than Botticelli would have made her parched with thirst, and burnt with heat. But the voice of G.o.d, through nature, to the Arab or the Moor, is not in the thirst, but in the fountain--not in the desert, but in the gra.s.s of it. And this Libyan Sibyl is the spirit of wild gra.s.s and flowers, springing in desolate places.

You see, her diadem is a wreath of them; but the blossoms of it are not fastening enough for her hair, though it is not long yet--(she is only in reality a Florentine girl of fourteen or fifteen)--so the little darling knots it under her ears, and then makes herself a necklace of it. But though flowing hair and flowers are wild and pretty, Botticelli had not, in these only, got the power of Spring marked to his mind. Any girl might wear flowers; but few, for ornament, would be likely to wear gra.s.s. So the Sibyl shall have gra.s.s in her diadem; not merely interwoven and bending, but springing and strong. You thought it ugly and grotesque at first, did not you? It was made so, because precisely what Botticelli wanted you to look at.

But that's not all. This conical cap of hers, with one bead at the top,--considering how fond the Florentines are of graceful head-dresses, this seems a strange one for a young girl. But, exactly as I know the angel of Victory to be Greek, at his Mount of Pity, so I know this head-dress to be taken from a Greek coin, and to be meant for a Greek symbol. It is the Petasus of Hermes--the mist of morning over the dew.

Lastly, what will the Libyan Sibyl say to you? The letters are large on her tablet. Her message is the oracle from the temple of the Dew: "The dew of thy birth is as the womb of the morning."--"Ecce venientem diem, et latentia aperientem, tenebit gremio gentium regina."

223. Why the daybreak came not then, nor yet has come, but only a deeper darkness; and why there is now neither queen nor king of nations, but every man doing that which is right in his own eyes, I would fain go on, partly to tell you, and partly to meditate with you: but it is not our work for to-day. The issue of the Reformation which these great painters, the scholars of Dante, began, we may follow, farther, in the study to which I propose to lead you, of the lives of Cimabue and Giotto, and the relation of their work at a.s.sisi to the chapel and chambers of the Vatican.

224. To-day let me finish what I have to tell you of the style of southern engraving. What sudden bathos in the sentence, you think! So contemptible the question of style, then, in painting, though not in literature? You study the 'style' of Homer; the style, perhaps, of Isaiah; the style of Horace, and of Ma.s.sillon. Is it so vain to study the style of Botticelli?

Ariadne Florentina Part 13

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