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An essay by Israel Zangwill

Fiesole And Florence

Title:     Fiesole And Florence
Author: Israel Zangwill [More Titles by Zangwill]

At Fiesole I just missed a sensation. Two friends of mine were climbing at midnight the steep hill to the village, when from beneath a dark arch there dashed down towards them two breathless _carabinieri_, their cloaks flapping in the moonlight like the wings of the demon-bats of pantomime. "Is it your way that the murdered man lies?" they panted. "Murdered man!" At once a hundred shadowy reminiscences stirred in my friends' minds: Prosper Merimee's novels, stories of vendettas, plots of plays, _morceaux d'operas_, even of comic operas; and it was with a feeling in which the latter element predominated that they answered that they had come across no corpse. The police-officers thanked them and hurried off, so my friends soon understood, as far as possible from the scene of the event; for, passing through the arch, the _Inglesi_ came upon a track of blood, black and clotted in the moonlight. But it did not seem real to them--they still had a consciousness of comic opera, a consciousness which was intensified rather than lessened when they emerged upon a group of excited villagers discussing the crime, and learnt its cause. Two rival bands, one from a neighbouring village, had been performing at a local _concerto_, and the two rival trumpeters had continued to blow their own trumpets after business hours. "Fancy blowing with that little mouth!" said one. "I'm glad I haven't your maw (_boccone_)!" retorted the other.

From words it came to knives, and ere you could say Jacopo Robinson a trumpeter lay weltering in his blood, or rather in his gore, and the murderer was flying into the arms of the police, who incontinently turned and fled the other way. When my friends passed by the house of the victim, the midnight air was ringing with the horrible curses of his bereaved sister, whose spasmodic face was visible at a window. But the cold-blooded artistic English felt no answering throb of sympathy--it was still a scene in a play to them, still a _coup de theatre_--they had lost the primary human instincts, corrupted by a long course of melodrama and comic opera. To-day I myself saw a carnival procession in the village piazza--a veritable survival of the Middle Ages; a triumphal car wreathed in flowers, driven by masquerading mummers and surrounded by Pierrots and peasant buffoons, a thoroughly naive and primitive bit of religion. But it needed a perceptible effort to shake off the sense of the operatic, to accept the thing as genuine. Ruskin contended (in that _olla podrida_ called "Modern Painters") that the Swiss peasants do not really dance and sing happily in the market-place; and hence he argued--comically enough--that the money spent on the stage reproduction of their happiness should be spent in really promoting their happiness. With my Italian peasants I feel the opposite: that such excellent picturesque effects should not be wasted on mere reality, but should be turned to real use upon the stage. So, too, it is difficult to take a roadside beggar seriously; he seems to ask, not for alms, but for a frame. Happy the unlettered and the inartistic, to whom even the picturesque person is a person, who can think of olive oil when he sees the olive-trees weaving their graceful patterns above the stone walls, and can watch the sun set in lurid splendour behind the purple mountains with never a thought of Turner or Childe Harold!

For modern civilised beings, in incessant relations with the reflections of life through literature and art, it is difficult to receive any impressions which do not re-reflect what lies in the mirror of art. And here is an amusing side-issue. We are presented in plays and books, with numerous situations in which the ignorance of one of the parties is a necessary factor in the particular dramatic situation which it is sought to evolve. But as this person, _ex hypothesi_, belongs to the class of society which is familiar with this particular plot _ad nauseam_, is it possible that he or she should go on betraying the same ignorance on which the plot originally was based? Even Marguerite has seen "Faust" nowadays!

This suggests an objection to old plots quite apart from their oldness, for that which started by being probable becomes improbable by age. Even if it were ever possible for a man to be jealous of a woman because he saw her kissing a man whom, after long and weary years of superfluous separation, he discovered to be her brother, it should surely be impossible to-day. If I saw any man kissing my _fiancee_ I should know at once it was my future brother-in-law--or at any rate I should inquire--which the old hero never seemed to do. And yet I will wager that in the course of this year at least a dozen novels and plays will be built up upon this theme. It is, by the way, a noticeable characteristic of people in plays never to have read nor to be interested in any but the petty dramatic matter which is interesting them--and let us hope the audience--at the moment. It may be replied that the economy of the stage demands that everything that is not strictly essential should be eliminated; but yet it ought to be possible, by a few words, to give the idea that the figures upon the boards are doing more than moving to the strings of the playwright. Just so the painter of the gulf should suggest the ocean beyond; the painter of the landscape, the infinity of space and atmosphere in which it is enisled. What the _plein air_ school contended for in painting is no less requisite in literature.

This consideration seems to account for the uneasy sense of unreality which we feel in the modern machine-made Sardou play, in which the characters have the air of existing entirely to themselves, and for the sake of the particular play, and do not give that large sense of being part of the civilised humanity we know that reads and thinks. The men make love or profess hate, repudiate their wives, or cut off their sons with shillings, all with the air of its happening for the first time, and wholly devoid of that sense of the ridiculous which they could not help feeling if they had been accustomed themselves to read novels and sit in stalls.

It is, in fact, impossible for us moderns, educated in a long literary tradition, to live our lives as naturally and naively as the unlettered of to-day, or the people of the preliterary geological epoch. This is brought out "ostensively," as Bacon would say, in "Don Quixote," or in the Russian novel "A Simple Story"--apparently so called because it is so complex--in which Gontcharov's hero lives in what Alice might call "behind the looking-glass" of literature. He is a country boy who comes up to St. Petersburg, and after a course of Russian novels is transformed into a series of imitations of their heroes. He does nothing, feels nothing, thinks nothing except after the pattern of these creatures of the quill.

Well! we are all like that, more or less. Though we may not be as chivalrously inspired as the Knight of La Mancha, nor run to the extremes of the simple Russian, we are all to some extent remoulded in imitation of the Booklanders, and this is the truth in the "decadent" paradox that nature copies art. There is a drop of ink in the blood of the most natural of us; we are all hybrids, crossed with literature, and Shakespeare is as much the author of our being as either of our parents. The effect of the stage in regulating the poses and costumes of susceptible souls has not escaped notice; but the effect of novels and poetry is more insidious. Who ever shuddered with bitter alliterative kisses before Swinburne, and who has failed to do so since? What poor little cockney clerk in his first spasms of poetry but has felt, sitting by his girl in the music hall, that if she walked over the grave in which he was planted, his "dust would hear her and beat, had he lain for a century dead" (though how Maud could survive her lover for a century, Tennyson failed to explain)? _Per contra_, the ingenuous spinster taking her notions of love from Maupassant's "Bel-Ami," or Gabriele d'Annunzio's "Trionfo della Morte," becomes a man-hater. Yes, I fear that the artistic treatment of life has a good deal to answer for. People do not yet understand that the mirror of art does not reflect life unrefracted. The great eternal theme of art is love-making; but even artists have to give up some time to art-making.

But to wind up anent our murderer. He is still at large. The police have given up the chase in despair. But he has never left the village, and we villagers all wink at one another as we discuss his whereabouts; and when we meet him driving his cart or come across him cutting wood in the forest and he genially gives us _Buon' giorno_ we salute him with answering politeness. Only in the village band there is a temporary trumpeter, for even the police might hear of him if he performed in public loudly enough. But Italian justice, though it does really savour of comic opera, is not so farcical as it appears on the surface. It is an unwritten law that the police shall not _pigliare_ him till the sessions are nigh. He is on parole, so to speak, to come up when called upon; if he were really to take flight, he would be declared an outlaw, and the only reason the police cannot find him is that they know where he is. How sensible! Why board and lodge him gratis for weeks? He has outraged the community: shall the community reward him with free meals? Even when he is caught he will be treated with the same economy. Capital punishment there is none in Italy. Why waste a citizen and a tax-payer? Especially when one has already been destroyed! No, he will be sentenced to a term of imprisonment. But he will not serve it. He will escape, or it will be commuted. And while he is in gaol he will have a good time. He will smoke and play cards, or, leaning out of his dungeon casement, hold a levee of his friends. Recently the soldiers at Bergamo mutinied because they were supplied with worse bread than the denizens of the gaol. I trust the ringleaders were sent to prison so as to remedy this dietary injustice.

Please do _me_ the justice to remark that I have been in Italy for several paragraphs without once referring to the Old Masters. But the fact is that I have not been much at the Masked Balls. Does this saying seem cryptic? All it means is that the confusion into which our scientific century has thrown us is worse confounded than usual in the universe of pictures; that the Galleries appear to be made up of pictures masquerading under wrong names. Time was when one might go about comfortably with a Baedeker and a stock of admiration and distribute it as per instructions. But these good old times are over. The Old Masters of yesterday are the young apprentices of to-day. It is pitiable to think how many well-meaning enthusiasts have fallen victims to the careless or crafty curator. Sometimes it scarcely needs a connoisseur to suspect the good faith of catalogues. I, myself, a mere babe and suckling, came to the conclusion, after a visit to the Velasquez Exhibition in London, that Velasquez must have been very versatile. It is too bad that artists should be hanged for crimes they never committed. 'T is to be hoped their ghosts carefully avoid the Galleries. But beshrew your paintings! My eyes make pictures--not like Coleridge's when they're shut, but when they 're open. Who would not rather lie with me in the _podere_ in the shade of the cypress trees, under the blue, blue sky, and behold through a tangle of olive-boughs the marvellous Dome of Florence, as satisfying as the sea, or under a starry heaven the loveliest of cities glittering like a rival firmament with answering constellations? And yet I recant. For if there is one piece of art which is better than nature, 't is Botticelli's so-called "Spring," which, long misprised and now worm-riddled, adds the last magic to the wonderful flower-city. To her that hath shall be given.

[The end]
Israel Zangwill's essay: Fiesole And Florence