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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Marble Faun - Volume II - Chapter XXXVII - THE EMPTINESS OF PICTURE GALLERIES
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The Marble Faun - Volume II - Chapter XXXVII - THE EMPTINESS OF PICTURE GALLERIES Post by :Mike_Russell Category :Long Stories Author :Nathaniel Hawthorne Date :April 2011 Read :3514

Click below to download : The Marble Faun - Volume II - Chapter XXXVII - THE EMPTINESS OF PICTURE GALLERIES (Format : PDF)

The Marble Faun - Volume II - Chapter XXXVII - THE EMPTINESS OF PICTURE GALLERIES

Hilda descended, day by day, from her dove-cote, and went to one or
another of the great old palaces,--the Pamfili Doria, the Corsini, the
Sciarra, the Borghese, the Colonna,--where the doorkeepers knew her
well, and offered her a kindly greeting. But they shook their heads
and sighed, on observing the languid step with which the poor girl
toiled up the grand marble staircases. There was no more of that
cheery alacrity with which she used to flit upward, as if her doves
had lent her their wings, nor of that glow of happy spirits which had
been wont to set the tarnished gilding of the picture frames and the
shabby splendor of the furniture all a-glimmer, as she hastened to her
congenial and delightful toil.

An old German artist, whom she often met in the galleries, once laid a
paternal hand on Hilda's head, and bade her go back to her own country.


"Go back soon," he said, with kindly freedom and directness, "or you
will go never more. And, if you go not, why, at least, do you spend
the whole summer-time in Rome? The air has been breathed too often,
in so many thousand years, and is not wholesome for a little foreign
flower like you, my child, a delicate wood-anemone from the western
forest-land."

"I have no task nor duty anywhere but here," replied Hilda. "The old
masters will not set me free!"

"Ah, those old masters!" cried the veteran artist, shaking his head.
"They are a tyrannous race! You will find them of too mighty a spirit
to be dealt with, for long together, by the slender hand, the fragile
mind, and the delicate heart, of a young girl. Remember that
Raphael's genius wore out that divinest painter before half his life
was lived. Since you feel his influence powerfully enough to
reproduce his miracles so well, it will assuredly consume you like a
flame."

"That might have been my peril once," answered Hilda. "It is not so
now."

"Yes, fair maiden, you stand in that peril now!" insisted the kind old
man; and he added, smiling, yet in a melancholy vein, and with a
German grotesqueness of idea, "Some fine morning, I shall come to the
Pinacotheca of the Vatican, with my palette and my brushes, and shall
look for my little American artist that sees into the very heart of
the grand pictures! And what shall I behold? A heap of white ashes
on the marble floor, just in front of the divine Raphael's picture of
the Madonna da Foligno! Nothing more, upon my word! The fire, which
the poor child feels so fervently, will have gone into her innermost,
and burnt her quite up!"

"It would be a happy martyrdom!" said Hilda, faintly smiling. "But I
am far from being worthy of it. What troubles me much, among other
troubles, is quite the reverse of what you think. The old masters
hold me here, it is true, but they no longer warm me with their
influence. It is not flame consuming, but torpor chilling me, that
helps to make me wretched."

"Perchance, then," said the German, looking keenly at her, "Raphael
has a rival in your heart? He was your first love; but young maidens
are not always constant, and one flame is sometimes extinguished by
another!" Hilda shook her head, and turned away. She had spoken the
truth, however, in alleging that torpor, rather than fire, was what
she had to dread. In those gloomy days that had befallen her, it was
a great additional calamity that she felt conscious of the present
dimness of an insight which she once possessed in more than ordinary
measure. She had lost--and she trembled lest it should have departed
forever--the faculty of appreciating those great works of art, which
heretofore had made so large a portion of her happiness. It was no
wonder.

A picture, however admirable the painter's art, and wonderful his
power, requires of the spectator a surrender of himself, in due
proportion with the miracle which has been wrought. Let the canvas
glow as it may, you must look with the eye of faith, or its highest
excellence escapes you. There is always the necessity of helping out
the painter's art with your own resources of sensibility and
imagination. Not that these qualities shall really add anything to
what the master has effected; but they must be put so entirely under
his control, and work along with him to such an extent, that, in a
different mood, when you are cold and critical, instead of sympathetic,
you will be apt to fancy that the loftier merits of the picture were
of your own dreaming, not of his creating.

Like all revelations of the better life, the adequate perception of a
great work of art demands a gifted simplicity of vision. In this, and
in her self-surrender, and the depth and tenderness of her sympathy,
had lain Hilda's remarkable power as a copyist of the old masters.
And now that her capacity of emotion was choked up with a horrible
experience, it inevitably followed that she should seek in vain, among
those friends so venerated and beloved, for the marvels which they had
heretofore shown her. In spite of a reverence that lingered longer
than her recognition, their poor worshipper became almost an infidel,
and sometimes doubted whether the pictorial art be not altogether a
delusion.

For the first time in her life, Hilda now grew acquainted with that
icy demon of weariness, who haunts great picture galleries. He is a
plausible Mephistopheles, and possesses the magic that is the
destruction of all other magic. He annihilates color, warmth, and,
more especially, sentiment and passion, at a touch. If he spare
anything, it will be some such matter as an earthen pipkin, or a bunch
of herrings by Teniers; a brass kettle, in which you can see your rice,
by Gerard Douw; a furred robe, or the silken texture of a mantle, or
a straw hat, by Van Mieris; or a long-stalked wineglass, transparent
and full of shifting reflection, or a bit of bread and cheese, or an
over-ripe peach with a fly upon it, truer than reality itself, by the
school of Dutch conjurers. These men, and a few Flemings, whispers
the wicked demon, were the only painters. The mighty Italian masters,
as you deem them, were not human, nor addressed their work to human
sympathies, but to a false intellectual taste, which they themselves
were the first to create. Well might they call their doings "art,"
for they substituted art instead of nature. Their fashion is past,
and ought, indeed, to have died and been buried along with them.

Then there is such a terrible lack of variety in their subjects. The
churchmen, their great patrons, suggested most of their themes, and a
dead mythology the rest. A quarter part, probably, of any large
collection of pictures consists of Virgins and infant Christs,
repeated over and over again in pretty much an identical spirit, and
generally with no more mixture of the Divine than just enough to spoil
them as representations of maternity and childhood, with which
everybody's heart might have something to do. Half of the other
pictures are Magdalens, Flights into Egypt, Crucifixions, Depositions
from the Cross, Pietas, Noli-me-tangeres, or the Sacrifice of Abraham,
or martyrdoms of saints, originally painted as altar-pieces, or for
the shrines of chapels, and woefully lacking the accompaniments which
the artist haft in view.

The remainder of the gallery comprises mythological subjects, such as
nude Venuses, Ledas, Graces, and, in short, a general apotheosis of
nudity, once fresh and rosy perhaps, but yellow and dingy in our day,
and retaining only a traditionary charm. These impure pictures are
from the same illustrious and impious hands that adventured to call
before us the august forms of Apostles and Saints, the Blessed Mother
of the Redeemer, and her Son, at his death, and in his glory, and even
the awfulness of Him, to whom the martyrs, dead a thousand years ago,
have not yet dared to raise their eyes. They seem to take up one task
or the other w the disrobed woman whom they call Venus, or the type of
highest and tenderest womanhood in the mother of their Saviour with
equal readiness, but to achieve the former with far more satisfactory
success. If an artist sometimes produced a picture of the Virgin,
possessing warmth enough to excite devotional feelings, it was
probably the object of his earthly love to whom he thus paid the
stupendous and fearful homage of setting up her portrait to be
worshipped, not figuratively as a mortal, but by religious souls in
their earnest aspirations towards Divinity. And who can trust the
religious sentiment of Raphael, or receive any of his Virgins as
heaven-descended likenesses, after seeing, for example, the Fornarina
of the Barberini Palace, and feeling how sensual the artist must have
been to paint such a brazen trollop of his own accord, and lovingly?
Would the Blessed Mary reveal herself to his spiritual vision, and
favor him with sittings alternately with that type of glowing
earthliness, the Fornarina?

But no sooner have we given expression to this irreverent criticism,
than a throng of spiritual faces look reproachfully upon us. We see
cherubs by Raphael, whose baby innocence could only have been nursed
in paradise; angels by Raphael as innocent as they, but whose serene
intelligence embraces both earthly and celestial things; madonnas by
Raphael, on whose lips he has impressed a holy and delicate reserve,
implying sanctity on earth, and into whose soft eyes he has thrown a
light which he never could have imagined except by raising his own
eyes with a pure aspiration heavenward. We remember, too, that
divinest countenance in the Transfiguration, and withdraw all that we
have said.

Poor Hilda, however, in her gloomiest moments, was never guilty of the
high treason suggested in the above remarks against her beloved and
honored Raphael. She had a faculty (which, fortunately for themselves,
pure women often have) of ignoring all moral blotches in a character
that won her admiration. She purified the objects; of her regard by
the mere act of turning such spotless eyes upon them.

Hilda's despondency, nevertheless, while it dulled her perceptions in
one respect, had deepened them in another; she saw beauty less vividly,
but felt truth, or the lack of it, more profoundly. She began to
suspect that some, at least, of her venerated painters, had left an
inevitable hollowness in their works, because, in the most renowned of
them, they essayed to express to the world what they had not in their
own souls. They deified their light and Wandering affections, and
were continually playing off the tremendous jest, alluded to above, of
offering the features of some venal beauty to be enshrined in the
holiest places. A deficiency of earnestness and absolute truth is
generally discoverable in Italian pictures, after the art had become
consummate. When you demand what is deepest, these painters have not
wherewithal to respond. They substituted a keen intellectual
perception, and a marvellous knack of external arrangement, instead of
the live sympathy and sentiment which should have been their
inspiration. And hence it happens, that shallow and worldly men are
among the best critics of their works; a taste for pictorial art is
often no more than a polish upon the hard enamel of an artificial
character. Hilda had lavished her whole heart upon it, and found
(just as if she had lavished it upon a human idol) that the greater
part was thrown away.

For some of the earlier painters, however, she still retained much of
her former reverence. Fra Angelico, she felt, must have breathed a
humble aspiration between every two touches of his brush, in order to
have made the finished picture such a visible prayer as we behold it,
in the guise of a prim angel, or a saint without the human nature.
Through all these dusky centuries, his works may still help a
struggling heart to pray. Perugino was evidently a devout man; and
the Virgin, therefore, revealed herself to him in loftier and sweeter
faces of celestial womanhood, and yet with a kind of homeliness in
their human mould, than even the genius of Raphael could imagine.
Sodoma, beyond a question, both prayed and wept, while painting his
fresco, at Siena, of Christ bound to a pillar.

In her present need and hunger for a spiritual revelation, Hilda felt
a vast and weary longing to see this last-mentioned picture once again.
It is inexpressibly touching. So weary is the Saviour and utterly
worn out with agony, that his lips have fallen apart from mere
exhaustion; his eyes seem to be set; he tries to lean his head against
the pillar, but is kept from sinking down upon the ground only by the
cords that bind him. One of the most striking effects produced is the
sense of loneliness. You behold Christ deserted both in heaven and
earth; that despair is in him which wrung forth the saddest utterance
man ever made, "Why hast Thou forsaken me?" Even in this extremity,
however, he is still divine. The great and reverent painter has not
suffered the Son of God to be merely an object of pity, though
depicting him in a state so profoundly pitiful. He is rescued from it,
we know not how,--by nothing less than miracle,--by a celestial
majesty and beauty, and some quality of which these are the outward
garniture. He is as much, and as visibly, our Redeemer, there bound,
there fainting, and bleeding from the scourge, with the cross in view,
as if he sat on his throne of glory in the heavens! Sodoma, in this
matchless picture, has done more towards reconciling the incongruity
of Divine Omnipotence and outraged, suffering Humanity, combined in
one person, than the theologians ever did.

This hallowed work of genius shows what pictorial art, devoutly
exercised, might effect in behalf of religious truth; involving, as it
does, deeper mysteries of revelation, and bringing them closer to
man's heart, and making him tenderer to be impressed by them, than the
most eloquent words of preacher or prophet)

It is not of pictures like the above that galleries, in Rome or
elsewhere, are made up, but of productions immeasurably below them,
and requiring to be appreciated by a very different frame of mind.
Few amateurs are endowed with a tender susceptibility to the sentiment
of a picture; they are not won from an evil life, nor anywise morally
improved by it. The love of art, therefore, differs widely in its
influence from the love of nature; whereas, if art had not strayed
away from its legitimate paths and aims, it ought to soften and
sweeten the lives of its worshippers, in even a more exquisite degree
than the contemplation of natural objects. But, of its own potency,
it has no such effect; and it fails, likewise, in that other test of
its moral value which poor Hilda was now involuntarily trying upon it.
It cannot comfort the heart in affliction; it grows dim when the
shadow is upon us.

So the melancholy girl wandered through those long galleries, and over
the mosaic pavements of vast, solitary saloons, wondering what had
become of the splendor that used to beam upon her from the walls. She
grew sadly critical, and condemned almost everything that she was wont
to admire. Heretofore, her sympathy went deeply into a picture, yet
seemed to leave a depth which it was inadequate to sound; now, on the
contrary, her perceptive faculty penetrated the canvas like a steel
probe, and found but a crust of paint over an emptiness. Not that she
gave up all art as worthless; only it had lost its consecration. One
picture in ten thousand, perhaps, ought to live in the applause of
mankind, from generation to generation, until the colors fade and
blacken out of sight, or the canvas rot entirely away. For the rest,
let them be piled in garrets, just as the tolerable poets are shelved,
when their little day is over. Is a painter more sacred than a poet?

And as for these galleries of Roman palaces, they were to Hilda,
--though she still trod them with the forlorn hope of getting back her
sympathies,--they were drearier than the whitewashed walls of a prison
corridor. If a magnificent palace were founded, as was generally the
case, on hardened guilt and a stony conscience,--if the prince or
cardinal who stole the marble of his vast mansion from the Coliseum,
or some Roman temple, had perpetrated still deadlier crimes, as
probably he did,--there could be no fitter punishment for his ghost
than to wander, perpetually through these long suites of rooms, over
the cold marble or mosaic of the floors, growing chiller at every
eternal footstep. Fancy the progenitor of the Dorias thus haunting
those heavy halls where his posterity reside! Nor would it assuage
his monotonous misery, but increase it manifold, to be compelled to
scrutinize those masterpieces of art, which he collected with so much
cost and care, and gazing at them unintelligently, still leave a
further portion of his vital warmth at every one.

Such, or of a similar kind, is the torment of those who seek to enjoy
pictures in an uncongenial mood. Every haunter of picture galleries,
we should imagine, must have experienced it, in greater or less degree;
Hilda never till now, but now most bitterly.

And now, for the first time in her lengthened absence, comprising so
many years of her young life, she began to be acquainted with the
exile's pain. Her pictorial imagination brought up vivid scenes of
her native village, with its great old elm-trees; and the neat,
comfortable houses, scattered along the wide, grassy margin of its
street, and the white meeting-house, and her mother's very door, and
the stream of gold brown water, which her taste for color had kept
flowing, all this while, through her remembrance. O dreary streets,
palaces, churches, and imperial sepulchres of hot and dusty Rome, with
the muddy Tiber eddying through the midst, instead of the gold-brown
rivulet! How she pined under this crumbly magnificence, as if it were
piled all upon her human heart! How she yearned for that native
homeliness, those familiar sights, those faces which she had known
always, those days that never brought any strange event; that life of
sober week-days, and a solemn sabbath at the close! The peculiar
fragrance of a flower-bed, which Hilda used to cultivate, came freshly
to her memory, across the windy sea, and through the long years since
the flowers had withered. Her heart grew faint at the hundred
reminiscences that were awakened by that remembered smell of dead
blossoms; it was like opening a drawer, where many things were laid
away, and every one of them scented with lavender and dried
rose-leaves.

We ought not to betray Hilda's secret; but it is the truth, that being
so sad, and so utterly alone, and in such great need of sympathy, her
thoughts sometimes recurred to the sculptor. Had she met him now, her
heart, indeed, might not have been won, but her confidence would have
flown to him like a bird to its nest. One summer afternoon,
especially, Hilda leaned upon the battlements of her tower, and looked
over Rome towards the distant mountains, whither Kenyon had told her
that he was going.

"O that he were here!" she sighed; "I perish under this terrible
secret; and he might help me to endure it. O that he were here!"

That very afternoon, as the reader may remember, Kenyon felt Hilda's
hand pulling at the silken cord that was connected with his
heart-strings, as he stood looking towards Rome from the battlements
of Monte Beni.

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When we have once known Rome, and left her where she lies, like along-decaying corpse, retaining a trace of the noble shape it was, butwith accumulated dust and a fungous growth overspreading all its moreadmirable features, left her in utter weariness, no doubt, of hernarrow, crooked, intricate streets, so uncomfortably paved with littlesquares of lava that to tread over them is a penitential pilgrimage,so indescribably ugly, moreover, so cold, so alley-like, into whichthe sun never falls, and where a chill wind forces its deadly breathinto our lungs,--left her, tired of the sight of those immenseseven-storied, yellow-washed hovels, or call them palaces
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