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It happened one day, somewhere about the year 1485, that he was called to examine a group of Bacchus and a Faun, recently brought from Naples by the banker Neri Altoviti, of the family which once owned a charming house, recently destroyed, whose triple row of pillared balconies used to put an odd Florentine note into the Papal Rome, turning the swirl of the Tiber opposite Saint Angelo's into a reach of the Arno. The houses of the Altovitis in Florence were in that portion of the town most favoured by the fifteenth century, already a little way from the market: the lion on the tower of the Podesta, and the Badia steeple printing the sky close by; while not far off was the shop where the good bookseller Vespasiano received orders for ma.n.u.scripts, and conversed with the humanists whose lives he was to write. The Albizis and Pandolfinis, ill.u.s.trious and numerous families, struck in so many of their members by the vindictiveness of the Medicis, had their houses in the same quarter, and at the corner of the narrow street hung the carved escutcheon--two fishes rampant--of the Pazzis: their house shut up and avoided by the citizens, who had so recently seen the conspirators dangling in hood and cape from the windows of the public palace. The house of the Altovitis was occupied on the ground floor by great warehouses, whose narrow, grated windows were attainable only by a steep flight of steps. The court was surrounded on three sides by a cloister or portico, which repeated itself on the first and second floors, with the difference that the lowest arches were supported by rude square pillars, ornamented with only a carved marigold, while the uppermost weighed on stout oaken shafts, between which ropes were stretched for the drying of linen; and the middle colonnade consisted of charming Tuscan columns, where Sirens and Cupids and heraldic devices replaced the acanthus or rams' horns of the capitals. It was to this middle portion of the house that Domenico ascended up a n.o.ble steep-stepped staircase, protected from the rain by a vaulted and rosetted roof, for it was external and occupied the side of the yard left free from cloisters. The great banker had bidden Domenico to his midday meal, which was served with a frugality now fast disappearing, but once habitual even among the richest Florentines. But though the food was simple and almost scanty, nearly forty persons sat down to meat together, for Neri Altoviti held to the old plan, commended by Alberti in his dialogue on the governing of a household, that the clerks and princ.i.p.al servants of a merchant were best chosen among his own kinsfolk, living under his roof, and learning obedience from the example of his children. Despite this frugality, the dining-room was, though bare, magnificent. There were none of those carpets and Eastern stuffs which surprised strangers from the North in the voluptuous little palaces of contemporary Venetians, and the benches were hard and narrow.
But the ceiling overhead was magnificently arranged in carved compartments, great gold sunflowers and cherubs projecting from a dark blue ground among the brown raftering; in the middle of the stencilled wall was one of those high sideboards so frequently shown in old paintings, covered with gold and silver dishes and platters embossed by the most skilful craftsmen; and at one end a great washing trough and fountain, such as still exist in sacristies, ornamented with groups of dancing children by Benedetto da Maiano; while behind the high seat of the father of the family a great group of saints, emerging from blooming lilies and surrounded by a glory of angels, was hanging in a frame divided into carved compartments: the work, panel and frame, of the late Brother Filippo Lippi. At one end of the board sat all the men, arranged hierarchically, from the father in his black loose robe to lads in short plaited tunic and striped hose; the womankind were seated together, and the daughters, even the mother of the house, modest and almost nunlike in apparel and head-dress, would rise and help to wait on the men, with that silent and grave courtesy which, according to Vespasiano, had disappeared from Florence with Alessandra dei Bardi. There was little speech, and only in undertones; a Franciscan said a long grace, and afterwards, and in the middle of the meal, a young student, educated by the frequent munificence of the Altovitis, read out loud a chapter of Cicero's "De Senectute;" for Neri, although a busy banker, with but little time for study, was not behind his generation in the love of letters and philosophy.
After meat Messer Neri dismissed the rest of the company to their various avocations; the ladies silently retired to superintend the ironing and mending of the house linen, and Domenico was escorted by his host to see the newly arrived piece of statuary. It had been placed already in the banker's closet, where he could feast his eyes on its perfection while attending to his business or improving his mind by study. This closet, compared to the rest of the house, was small and low-roofed. At its end, as we see in the pictures of Van Eyck and Memling, opened out the conjugal chamber, reflecting its vast, red-covered bed, raised several steps, its crucifix and praying-stool, and its latticed window in a circular mirror framed in cut facets, which hung opposite on the wall of the closet. The latter was dark, a single trefoiled window admitting on either side of its column and through its greenish bottle-gla.s.s but little light from the narrow street. The chief furniture consisted of shelves carrying books, small antique bronzes, some globes, a sand-gla.s.s, and panel cupboards, ornamented with pictures of similar objects, and with ingenious perspectives of inlaid wood. An elaborate iron safe, painted blue and studded with beautiful metal roses, stood in a corner.
There were two or three arm chairs of carved oak for visitors. The master sat upon a bench behind an oaken counter or desk, very much like St. Jerome in his study. On the wall behind, and above his head, hung a precious Flemish painting (Flemish paintings were esteemed for their superior devoutness) representing the Virgin at the foot of the Cross, with a Nativity and a Circ.u.mcision on either of the opened shutters. It made a glowing patch of vivid geranium and wine colour, of warm yellow glazing on the oak of the wall. On the counter or writing-table stood a majolica pot with three lilies in it, a pile of ma.n.u.script and ledgers, and a human skull alongside of a crucifix, beautifully wrought of bronze by Desiderio da Settignano. A Latin translation of Plato's "Phaedo" was spread open on the desk, together with one of the earliest printed copies of the "Divine Comedy."
Messer Neri did not take his seat at the counter, but, after a pause, and with some solemnity, drew a curtain of dark brocade which had been spread across one end of the closet, and displayed his new purchase.
"I have it from the king, for the settling of a debt of a thousand crowns contracted with my father, when he was Duke of Calabria," said the banker, with due appreciation of the sum. "'Tis said they found it among the ruins of that famous palace of the Emperor Tiberius of which Tacitus has told us."
The two marble figures, to which time and a long sojourn underground had given a brownish yellow colour, reddish in places with rust stains, stood out against a background of Flemish tapestry, whose emaciated heads of kings and thin bodies of warrior saints made a confused pattern on the general dusky blue and green. The group was in wonderful preservation: the figure of Bacchus intact, that of the young faun lacking only the arm, which had evidently been freely extended.
It exists in many repet.i.tions and variations in most of our museums; a work originally of the school of Praxiteles, but in none of the copies handed to us of excellence sufficient to display the hand of the original sculptor. Besides, we have been spoilt by familiarity with an older and more powerful school, by knowledge of a few great masterpieces, for complete appreciation of such a work. But it was different four hundred years ago; and Domenico Neroni stood long and entranced before the group. The princ.i.p.al figure embodied all those beauties which he had been striving so hard to understand: it was, in the most triumphant manner, the absolute reverse of the figures of Donatello.
The young G.o.d was represented walking with leisurely but vigorous step, supporting himself upon the shoulder of the little satyr as the vine supports itself, with tendrils trailed about branches and trunk, on the propping tree from which the child Ampelos took his name. Like the head with its elaborately dressed curls, the beautiful body had an ampleness and tenderness that gave an impression almost womanly till you noticed the cuira.s.s-like sit of the chest on the loins, and the compressed strength of the long light thighs. The creature, as you looked at him, seemed to reveal more and more, beneath the roundness and fairness of surface, the elasticity and strength of an athlete in training. But when the eye was not exploring the delicate, hard, and yet supple depressions and swellings of the muscles, the slender shapeliness of the long legs and springy feet, the back bulging with strong muscles above, and going in, tight, with a magnificent dip at the waist; all impressions were merged in a sense of ease, of suavity, of full-blown harmony. Here was no pomp of anatomical lore, of cunning handicraft, but the life seemed to circulate strong and gentle in this exquisite effortless body. And the creature was not merely alive with a life more harmonious than that of living men or carved marbles, but beautiful, equally in simple outline if you chose that, and in subtle detail when that came under your notice, with a beauty that seemed to multiply itself, existing in all manners, as it can only in things that have life, in perfect flowers and fruits, or high-bred Oriental horses. Of such things did the under-strata of consciousness consist in Neroni--vague impressions of certain bunches of grapes with their great rounded leaves hanging against the blue sky, of the flame-like tapered petals of wild tulips in the fields, of the golden brown flanks of certain horses, and the broad white foreheads of the Umbrian bullocks; forming as it were a background for the perception of this G.o.d, for no man or woman had ever been like unto him.
Domenico remained silent, his arms folded on his breast; it was not a case for talking.
But the young man who had read Cicero aloud at table had come up behind him, and thought it more seemly to praise his patron's new toy, while at the same time displaying his learning; so he cleared his throat, and said in a pompous manner:--
"It is stated in the fifth chapter of the Geography of Strabo that the painter Parrhasius, having been summoned by the inhabitants of Lindos to make them an image of their tutelary hero Hercules, obtained from the son of Jupiter that he should appear to him in a dream, and thus enable him worthily to portray the perfections of a demiG.o.d. Might we not be tempted to believe that the divine son of Semele had vouchsafed a similar boon to the happy sculptor of this marble?"
But Domenico only bit his thumb and sighed very heavily.
To the men of those days, which have taken their name from the revival of cla.s.sical studies, Antiquity, although studied and aped till its phrases, feelings, and thoughts had entered familiarly into all life, remained, nevertheless, a period of permanent miracle. It was natural, therefore, to the contemporaries of Poggius and aeneas Sylvius, of Ficinus and Politian, that the art of the Romans and Greeks should, like their poetry, philosophy, and even their virtues, be of transcendent and unqualified splendour. Why it should be thus they asked as little as why the sun shines, mediaeval men as they really were, and accepting quite simply certain phenomena as the result of inscrutable virtues. Even later, when Machiavelli began to examine why the ancients had been more valorous and patriotic than his contemporaries, nay, when Montaigne expounded with sceptical cynicism the superior sanity and wisdom of Pagan days, people were satisfied to think--when they thought at all--that antique art was excellent because it belonged to antiquity. And it was not till the middle of the eighteenth century that the genius of Winkelmann brought into fruitful contact the study of ancient works of art, and that of the manners and notions of antiquity, showing the influence of a civilisation which cultivated bodily beauty as an almost divine quality, and making us see behind that beautiful nation of marble the generations of living athletes, among whom the sculptor had found his critics and his models.
To a man like Domenico Neroni, devoid of cla.s.sical learning and accustomed to struggling with anatomy and perspective, the problem of ancient art was not settled by the fact of its antiquity. He had gone once more to Rome on purpose to see as many old marbles as possible, and he brought to their study the feverish curiosity with which in former years he had flayed and cut up corpses and spent his nights in calculations of perspective. To such a mind, where modern scientific methods were arising among mediaeval habits of allegory and mysticism, the statues and reliefs which he was perpetually a.n.a.lysing became a sort of subsidiary nature, whose riddles might be read by other means than mere investigation; for do not the forces of Nature, its elemental spirits, give obedience to wonderful words and potent combinations of numbers?
Certain significant facts had flashed across his mind in his studies of that almost abstract, nay, almost cabalistic thing, the science of bodily proportions. It was plain that the mystery of antique beauty--the ancient symmetry, _symmetria prisca_ as a humanist designs it in his epitaph for Leonardo da Vinci--was but a matter of numbers. For a man's length, if he stand with outstretched arms, is the same from finger tip to finger tip as his length when erect from head to feet, namely, eight times the length of his head. Now eight heads, if divided into halves, give four as the measure of throat and thorax; and four heads to the length of the leg from the acetabulum to the heel, divided themselves into two heads going to the thigh and two heads to the shank; while in the cross measurement two heads equal the breadth of the chest, and three measure the length from the shoulder to the middle finger. These measures--a mere rough rule of thumb in our eyes--contained to this mediaeval mind the promise of some great mystery. To him, accustomed to hear all the occurrences of Nature, and all human concerns referred to astrological calculations, and conceiving the universe as governed by spirits--in shape, perhaps, like the Primum Mobile, the Mercurius and Jupiter of Mantegna's playing cards, crowned with stars and poised upon globes--it was as if the divining rod were turning pertinaciously to one spot in the earth, where, had he but the necessary tools, he must strike upon veins of the purest gold, or cause water to spirt high in the air.
This number _eight_, and the pertinacity of its recurrence, puzzled him intensely. It seemed to point so clearly, much as in music the sensitive seventh points to the tonic, to a sort of resolution on the number nine.
And if only nine could be established, it would seem to explain so much.... For five being man's numeral in creation (and is not the measurement of his face also _five eyes_?), it makes, when added to four, the number of the material elements over which he dominates, _nine_, which would thus represent the supremacy or perfection of man.
Man's power of reproduction being represented by three, its multiple nine would be still more obviously important. How to turn this eight into nine became Domenico's study, and he took measurement after measurement for this purpose. At length he remembered that man's body is a unity, therefore represented by the number one, and that will, judgment, and supremacy are also comprised in the unit. Now one and eight make nine beyond all possibility of doubt, and the formula--"man's body is a unity--or one"--composed of harmonies of eight, would give the formula _nine_ meaning _man's supremacy is expressed in his body_.
The importance of working round to this famous nine will be clear when we reflect that, according to the Kabbala and the lost sacred book of Hermes Trismegistus--the Pimandra, doubtless, which he is represented, on the floor of Siena Cathedral, as offering to a Jew and a Gentile--nine represents the sun and all beautiful bright things that draw their influence from it, as the gleam of beaten gold, the rustle of silken stuffs, the smell of the flower heliotrope, and all such men as delineate human beings with colours, or make their effigy in stone or metal; moreover, Phoebus Apollo, whom the poets describe as the most beautiful of the G.o.ds, as indeed he is represented in all statues and reliefs.
Domenico would often discuss these matters with a learned man who greatly frequented his company. This was the humanist Niccol Feo, known as Filarete. Filarete was a native of Southern Apulia, a b.a.s.t.a.r.d of the house of the Counts of Sulmona, who, in order to prevent any plots against the legitimate branch, had handsomely provided for him in an abbey of which they enjoyed the patronage. But his restless spirit drove him from the cloister, and impelled him to long and adventurous journeys. He had travelled in India and the East, and in Greece, returning to Italy only when Constantinople fell before the Turks.
During these years he had acquired immense learning, considerable wealth, and a vaguely sinister reputation. He had been persecuted by Paul II. for taking part in the famous banquets, savouring oddly of Paganism, of Pomponius Laetus; but the late Pontiff Sixtus IV. had taken him into his favour together with Platina, one of his fellow-sufferers in the castle of Saint Angelo. He was now old, and, after a life of study, adventure, and possibly of sin, was living in affluence in a house given him by the ill.u.s.trious Cardinal at St. Peter ad Vincula, who had also obtained him a canonry of St. John Lateran. He was busying his last year in a great work of fancy and erudition, for which he required the a.s.sistance of a skilful draughtsman and connoisseur of antiquities, than whom none could suit him so well as Domenico Neroni.
The book of Filarete, of which the rare copies are among the most precious relics of the Renaissance, was a strange mixture of romance, allegory, and encyclopaedic knowledge, such as had been common in the Middle Ages, and was still fashionable during the revival of letters, which merely added the element of cla.s.sical learning. Like the _Hypnerotomachia Poliphili_ of Francesco Colonna, of which it was doubtless the prototype, the _Alcandros_ of Filarete, though never carried beyond the first volume, is an amazing and wearisome display of the author's archaeological learning. It contains exact descriptions of all the rarities of ancient art, and of things Oriental which he had seen, and pages of transcripts from obscure Latin and Greek authors, descriptive of religious ceremonies; varied with Platonic philosophy, Decameronian obscenities, in laboured pseudo-Florentine style, and Dantesque visions, all held together by the confused narrative of an allegorical journey performed by the author. It is profusely ornamented with woodcuts, representing architectural designs of a fantastic, rather Oriental description, restorations of ancient buildings, reproductions of antique inscriptions and designs, and last, but far from least, a certain number of small compositions, of Mantegnesque quality, but Botticellian charm, showing the various adventures of the hero in terrible woods, delicious gardens, and in the company of nymphs, demiG.o.ds, and allegorical personages. These latter are undoubtedly from the hand of Domenico Neroni; and it was while discussing these delightful damsels seated with lutes and psalteries under vine-trellises, these scholars in cap and gown, weeping in quaint chambers with canopied beds and carnations growing on the window, these processions--suggesting Mantegna's Triumph of Julius Caesar--of priests and priestesses with victories and trophies, that the painter from Volterra and the Apulian humanist would discuss the secret of antique beauty--discuss it for hours, surrounded by the precious ma.n.u.scripts and inscriptions, the fragments of sculpture, the Eastern rarities, of Filarete's little house on the Quirinal hill, or among the box-hedges, clipped cypresses, and fountains of his garden; while the riots and ma.s.sacres, the fanatical processions and feudal wars, of mediaeval Rome raged unnoticed below. For Pope Sixtus and his Riarios, and Pope Innocent and his Cybos, thirsting for power and gold, drunken with l.u.s.t and bloodshed, were benign and courteous patrons of all art and all learning.
But that number nine, attained with so much difficulty, although it put the human proportion into visible connection with the sun, with beaten gold, the smell of the heliotrope, and the G.o.d Apollo, and opened a vista of complicated astral influences, did not in reality bring Domenico one step nearer the object of his desires. It had enabled those ancient men to make statues that were perfectly beautiful, that was obvious; but it did not make his own figures one t.i.ttle less hideous, for he felt them now to be absolutely hideous. One wintry day, as he was roaming amongst the fallen pillars and arches, thickly covered with myrtle and ilex, of the desolate region beyond what had once been the Forum and was now the cattle-market, there came across Domenico's mind, while he watched a snake twisting in the gra.s.s, the remembrance of a certain anecdote about a Greek painter, to whom Hercules had shown himself in a vision. He had heard it, without taking any notice, two years before, from the young scholar who read Cicero at table for Messer Neri Altoviti; and although he had thought of it several times, it had never struck him except as one of the usual impudent displays of learning of the parasitic tribe of humanists.
But at this moment the remembrance of this fact came as a great light into Domenico's soul. For what were these statues save the idols of the heathens; and what wonder they should be divinely beautiful, when those who made them might see the G.o.ds in visions?
This explanation, which to us must sound far-fetched and fantastic, knowing, as we do, the real reason that made a people of athletes into a people of sculptors, savoured of no strangeness to a man of the Middle Ages. Visions of superhuman creatures were among the most undisputed articles of his belief, and among the commonest subjects of his art. Had not the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Bernard, the Saviour among His cherubim to St. Francis--the very stones shown at La Vernia where it had happened--the Divine Bridegroom to Catherine of Siena? Had not St.
Anthony of Padua held the Divine Child in his arms? And all not so long ago? Besides, every year there was some nun or monk claiming to have conversed with Christ and His court; and the heavens were opening quite frequently in the walls of cells and the clefts of hermitages. And did not Dante relate a journey into h.e.l.l, Purgatory, and Paradise? It was perfectly natural that what was constantly happening to holy men and women nowadays should have happened in Pagan times also; and what men could so well have deserved a visit from G.o.ds as those who spent their lives faithfully portraying them? The story of Parrhasius and his vision was familiar ground to a man accustomed to see, in all corners of Italy, portraits of the Saviour painted by St. Luke, or finished, like the famous Holy Face of Lucca, by angels. For an absolute contempt for the artistic value of such miraculous images did not, in the mind of Neroni, throw any doubt on their authenticity; in the same way that the pa.s.sion for antiquity, the hankering after Pagan beliefs, did not probably interfere with the orthodoxy of so many of the humanists. Domenico, besides, remembered that Virgil and Ovid, whom he had not read, but whose fables he had sometimes been asked to ill.u.s.trate, were constantly talking of visions of G.o.ds and G.o.ddesses, nay, of their descending upon earth to unite themselves with mortals in love or friendship, for he had had to furnish designs for woodcuts representing Diana and Endymion, Jupiter and Ganymede, the G.o.ds coming to Philemon and Baucis, and Apollo tending the herds of Admetus. Neither did it occur to Domenico's mind that the existence of the old G.o.ds might be a mere invention, or a mere delusion of the heathen. For all their cla.s.sic culture, the men of the fifteenth century, as the men of the thirteenth for all their scholasticism, were in an intellectual condition such as we rarely meet with nowadays among educated persons; and Domenico, a mere handicraftsman, had not learned from the study of Cicero and Plato to examine and understand the difference between reality and fiction.
To him a scene which was frequently painted, an adventure which was written down and could be read, was necessarily a reality. Dante had spoken of the G.o.ds, and what Dante said was evidently true, the allegorical meaning, the metaphor, entirely escaping this simple mind; and Virgil, Homer, Ovid told the most minute details about G.o.ds and G.o.ddesses, and they themselves were grave and learned men. Domenico did not even think that the ancient G.o.ds were dead. Of course heaven was now occupied by Christ and His saints, those heavenly hosts of whom he would think, when he thought of them at all, as seated stepwise on a great stand, blue and pink and green in dress, golden discs about their heads, and an atmosphere of fretted gold, of swirling stencilled golden angels'
wings all round them, and G.o.d the Father, a great triangle blazing with Alpha and Omega, above Jesus enthroned, and His mother; and it was they who ruled things here, and to them he said his prayers night and morning, and knelt in church. But _here_, somehow did not cover the whole universe, nor did that pink and blue and gold miniature painter's heaven extend everywhere, although, of course, somehow or other it did.
Anyhow, it was certain that not so very far off there were Saracens and Turks--why he had seen some of the Duke of Calabria's Turkish garrison--who believed in Macomet, Trevigant, and Apollinis; these to be sure were false G.o.ds (the word _false_ carried no clear meaning to his mind, or if any, one rather equivalent to _wrong, objectionable_ rather than to non-existent), but they certainly worked wonderful miracles for their people. And indeed--here Domenico's placid contemplation of the kingdom of Macomet, Trevigant, and Apollinis was exchanged for a vague horror, shot with gleams of curiosity--the devil also had his place in the world, a place much nearer and universal, and did marvellous things, pointing out treasures, teaching the future, lending invulnerable strength to the men and women who worshipped him, of whom some might be pointed out to you in every town--yes, grave and respectable men, priests and monks among them, and even Cardinals of Holy Church, as every one knew quite well.... So that, in a confused manner, rather negative than positive, Domenico considered that the Pagan G.o.ds must be somewhere or other, the past and present not very clearly separated in his mind, or rather the past existing in a peculiar simultaneous manner with the present, as a sort of St. Brandan's isle, in distant, unattainable seas; or as Dante's mountain of Purgatory, a very solid mountain indeed, yet which, for some mysterious and unquestioned reason, people never stumbled upon except after death. All this was scarcely an actual series of arguments; it was rather the arguments which, with much effort, Domenico might have fished out of his obscure consciousness had you summoned him to explain how the ancient G.o.ds could possibly be immortal. As to him, he had always heard of them as immortal, and although he had not been taught any respect or love for them as for Christ, the Madonna, and the saints, they must be existing somewhere since _immortal_ means that which cannot die.
But now he began to feel a certain shyness about immortal G.o.ds, for they had begun to occupy his thoughts, and it was with much cunning that he put questions to his friend Filarete, desirous to gain information on certain points without actually seeming to ask it. The humanist, summoned to explain what the Fathers of the Church--those worthies crowned with mitres and offering rolls of ma.n.u.script, whom Domenico had occasionally to portray for his customers--said about the ancient G.o.ds, answered with much glibness but considerable contempt, for the Greek and Latin of these saintly philosophers inspired the learned man with a feeling of nausea. He got out of a chest several volumes covered with dust, and began to quote the "Apology" of Justin Martyr, the "Legation" of Athenagoras, the "Apology" of Tertullian and Lactantius, whose very name caused him to writhe with philological loathing. And he told Domenico that it was the opinion of these holy but ill-educated persons that daemons a.s.sumed the name and attributes of Jupiter, of Venus, of Apollo and Bacchus, lurking in temples, inst.i.tuting festivals and sacrifices, and were often allowed by Heaven to distract the faithful by a display of miracles.
"Then they are devils?" asked Domenico, trying to follow.
A smile pa.s.sed over the beautifully cut mouth, the n.o.ble, wrinkled face--like that of the marble Seneca--of the old humanist.
"Talk of devils to the barefoot friar who preaches in the midst of the market-place," he said, "not to Filarete. The whole world, air, fire, earth, water, the entire universe is governed by daemons, and they inspire our n.o.blest thoughts. Hast never heard of the familiar daemon of Socrates, whispering to him superhuman wisdom? Yes, indeed, Venus, Apollo, aesculapius, Jove, the stars and planets, the winds and tides are daemons. But thou canst not understand such matters, my poor Domenico.
So get thee to Brother Balda.s.sare of Palermo, and ask him questions."
But Filarete's expression was very different when, one day, Domenico shyly inquired concerning the truth of that story of Parrhasius and the Hercules of Lindos. Strange rumours were current in Rome of unholy festivities in which Filarete and other learned men--some of those whom Paul II. had thrown into prison--had once taken part. They had not merely laid their tables and spread their couches according to descriptions contained in ancient authors; but, crowned with roses, laurel, myrtle, or parsley, had sung hymns to the heathen G.o.ds, and, it was whispered, poured out libations and burned incense in their honour.
Their friends, indeed, had answered scornfully that these were but amus.e.m.e.nts of learned men; not to be taken more seriously than the invocations to the G.o.ds and muses in their poems, than the mythological subjects which the Popes themselves selected to adorn their dwellings.
And doubtless this explanation was correct. Yet the pleasure of these little pedantic and artistic mummeries, which took place in suburban gardens, while the townsfolk streamed in the hot June nights, decked with bunches of cloves and of lavender, to make bonfires in the empty places near the Lateran, little guessing that their ancestors had once done the same in honour of the neighbouring Venus--the innocent childishness of these learned men was perhaps spiced, for some individuals at least, by a momentary belief in the G.o.ds of the old poets, by a sudden forbidden fervour for the exiled divinities of Virgil and Ovid, under whose reign the world had been young, men had been free to love and think, and Rome, now the object of the world's horror and contempt, had been the world's triumphant mistress. But these had been mere mummeries, mere child's play, and the soul of Filarete had thirsted for a reality. He could not have answered had you asked whether he believed in the absolute existence and power of the old G.o.ds, any more than whether he disbelieved in the power of Christ and His avenging angels; his cultivated and sceptical mind was, after all, in a state of disorder similar to that of Domenico's ignorance. All that he knew with certainty was that Christ and His worship represented to him all that was unnatural, cruel, foolish, and hypocritical; while the G.o.ds were a.s.sociated with every thought of liberty, of beauty, and of glory. And so, one evening, after working up still further the enthusiasm, the pa.s.sionate desire of his friend, he told Domenico that, if he chose, he too perhaps might see a G.o.d.
In his antiquarian rambles Filarete had discovered, a mile or two outside the southern gates of Rome, a subterranean chamber, richly adorned with stuccoes--known nowadays as the tomb of certain members of the Flavian family, but which, thanks to the defective knowledge of his day and the habit of seeing people buried in churches, the humanist had mistaken for a temple--intact, and scarcely desecrated, of the Eleusinian Bacchus. Above its vaults, barely indicated by a higher mound in the waving ground of the pasture land, had once stood a Christian church, as ancient almost as the supposed temple below, whose Byzantine columns lay half hidden by the high gra.s.s, and the walls of whose apse had become overgrown by ivy and weeds, the nest of lazy snakes. The Gothic soldiers, Arians or heathens, who had burned down, in some drunken bout, the little church above-ground, had penetrated at the same time into the tomb beneath in search of treasure, and finding none, dispersed the bones in the sarcophagi they had opened. They had left open the aperture leading downward, which had been matted over by a thick growth of ivy and wild clematis. One day, while surveying the remains of the Christian church, always in hopes of discovering in it a former temple of the Pagans, Filarete had walked into that tuft of solid green, and found himself, buried and half stunned, in the mouth of the tomb below. It was through this that he bade Domenico follow him, bearing a certain mysterious package in his cloak, one January day of the year fourteen hundred and eighty-eight.
Above-ground it had frozen in the night; here below, when they had descended the rugged sepulchral stairs, the air had a damp warmth, an odd feel of inhabitation. Above-ground, also, everything lay in ruins, while here all was intact. As the light of the torches moved slowly along the vaulted and stuccoed ceilings, it showed the delicate lines of a profusion of little reliefs and ornaments, fresh as if cast and coloured yesterday. Slender garlands of leaves, and long knotted ribbons and veils in lowest relief part.i.tioned the s.p.a.ce; and framed by them, now round, now oval, now oblong, were medallions of naked G.o.ds banqueting and playing games, of satyrs and nymphs dancing, nereids swinging on the backs of hippocamps, tritons curling their tails and blowing their horns, Cupids fluttering among griffins and chimaeras; a life of laughter and love, which mocked the eye, starting into vividness in one place, dying away in a mere film where the torchlight pressed on too closely in others. All along the walls, below the line of the stuccoes, were excavated shelves, on which stood numbers of small cinerary boxes, each bearing a name. In the middle of the vaulted chamber was a huge stone coffin, carved with revelling Bacchantes, and grim tragic masks at its corners; and all round the coffin, broken in one of its flanks by the tools of the treasure-seeker, lay bones and skulls, dispersed on the damp ground even as the Goths had left them.
It was this sarcophagus which, with its Dionysiac revels, and the name of one Dionysius carved on it, a freedman of the Flavians, had led Filarete to consider the tomb as a kind of temple consecrated to Bacchus.
Filarete bade Domenico stick the pointed end of his torch into the mouth of an amphora standing erect in a corner, and began to unpack the load they had brought on a mule. It looked like the preparation for a feast: there were loaves of bread, fruit, a flask of choice wine; and Domenico, for a moment, thought the old man mad. But his feelings changed when Filarete produced a set of silver lamps, and bade him trim and light them, placing them on the ledges alongside of the cinerary urns; and when he lit some strange incense and filled the place with its smoke.
Despite the many descriptions of ancient sacrifices with which the humanist had entertained him, Domenico had brought a vague notion of a raising of devils, and felt relieved at the absence of brimstone fumes, and of the magic books that accompanied them.
Although more pa.s.sionately longing--he knew not, he dared not tell himself for what--Domenico did not come with the curious exaltation of spirits of his companion, all whose antiquarian lore had gone to his head, and who really imagined himself to be a genuine Pagan engaged in Pagan rites. For Filarete the ceremony was everything; for Domenico it was merely a means, a sort of sacrilegious juggling, into which he had not inquired more particularly, which was to give him the object of his wishes at the price of great peril to his soul. But when the subterranean chamber was filled with a cloud of incense, through which, in the dim yellow light of the lamp, the naked G.o.ds and G.o.ddesses on the vault, the satyrs and nymphs, the Tritons and Bacchantes seemed to float in and out of sight, a feeling of awe, of an unknown kind of reverence and rapture, began to fill his soul, and his eyes became fixed on the lid of the carved sarcophagus--vague images of Christian resurrections mingling with his hopes--Would the G.o.d appear?
Filarete, meanwhile, had enveloped his head in a long linen veil, and, after washing his hands thrice in a golden basin brought for the purpose, he placed some f.a.ggots on the sarcophagus, lit them, and throwing grains of incense and of salt alternately into the flames, began to chant in an unknown tongue, which Domenico guessed to be Greek.
Then beckoning to the painter, who was kneeling, as at church, in a corner, he bade him unpack a basket matted over with leaves, whose movements and sounds had puzzled Domenico as he carried it down. In great surprise, and with a vague sense of he knew not what, he handed its contents to Filarete. It was a miserable little lamb, newly born, its long, soft legs tied together, its almost sightless, pale eyes half-started from its sockets. As the humanist took it, it bleated with sudden shrill strength, and Domenico could not help thinking of certain images he had seen on monastery walls of the Good Shepherd carrying the lame lamb on his shoulders. This was very different. For, with an odd ferocity, Filarete placed the miserable young creature on the stone before the fire, and slit its throat and chest with a long knife.
The G.o.d did not appear. They extinguished the lamps, left the carcase of the lamb half charred in a pool of blood on the stone, and slowly reascended into the daylight, leaving behind them, in the vaulted chamber, a stifling fume of incense, of burnt flesh, and mingled damp.
Up above, among the ruins of the Christian church, where they had left their mules, it was cold and sunny, and the light seemed curiously blue, almost grey and dusty, after the yellow illumination below. Before them, interrupted here and there by a ma.s.s of ruined masonry, or a few arches of aqueduct, waved the grey-green, billowy plain, where the wind, which rolled the great winter cloud-b.a.l.l.s overhead, danced and sang with the tall, dry hemlocks and sere white thistles, shining and rattling like skeletons. And on to it seemed to descend cloud-mountains, vague blueness and darkness--cloud or hill, you could not tell which--out of whose flank, ever and anon, a sunbeam conjured up a visionary white resplendent city.
The short winter day was beginning to draw in when they approached silently the city walls, solemn with their towers and gates, endless as it seemed, and enclosing, one felt vaguely, an endless, distant, invisible city.
The sound of its bells came as from afar to meet the sacrilegious men.
The culminating sacrilege was yet to come. The place that witnessed it remains unchanged--a half-deserted church among the silent gra.s.s-grown lanes, the crumbling convent walls, and ill-tended vineyards of the Aventine; a hill that has retained in Christian times a look of its sinister fame in Pagan ones. Among the cypresses, which seem to wander up the hillside, rises the square belfry, among whose brickwork, flushed in the sunset, are inlaid discs of porphyry torn from some temple pavement, and plates of green majolica brought from the East, it is said, by pilgrims or Crusaders. The arum-fringed lane widens before the outer wall of the church, overtopped by its triangular gable. Behind this wall is a yard or atrium, the pavement gra.s.s-grown, the walls stained with great patches of mildew, and showing here and there in their dilapidation the shaft and capital of a bricked-up Ionic pillar.
The place tells of centuries of neglect, of the gradual invasion of resistless fever; and it was fitly chosen, some fifty years ago, for the abode of a community of Trappists. In the reign of Innocent VIII. it was still nominally in the hands of certain Cistercians; but the fever had long driven these monks to the more wholesome end of the hill, where they had erected a smaller church; and the convent had served for years as a fortress of the turbulent family of the Capranicas, one of whose members was always the nominal abbot, with the Cardinal's hat, and t.i.tle Jervase and Protasius. And now, at the end of the fifteenth century, a Cardinal Ascanio Capranica, famous for his struggle in magnificence and sinfulness with the magnificent and sinful young nephews of Pope Sixtus, had determined to restore the fortified monastery, to combat the fever by abundant plantations, and to make the church a monument of his splendour. And, in order to secure some benefit by his own munificence, he had begun by commissioning Domenico Neroni to design and execute a sepulchre three storeys high, full of carvings, and covered with statues, so that his soul, if sent untimely to heaven, might not be dishonoured by the unworthy resting-place of its trusty companion, the Cardinal's handsome and well-tended body.
This church of SS. Jervase and Protasius, which imitated, like most churches of the early Christian period, the form of a basilica or court of law, was constructed out of fragments of Pagan edifices, and occupied the site of a Pagan edifice, whose columns had been employed to carry the roof of the church, or, when of porphyry or serpentine, had been sawed into discs for the pavement. On the slant of the hill, supporting the apse, encircled by pillarets, is a round ma.s.s of masonry, overgrown with ivy and ilex scrub, the remains of some antique bath or grotto; and under the battlemented walls, the cloistered courts of the convent, there stretches, it is said, a network of subterranean pa.s.sages running down to the Tiber. Four hundred years ago they were not to be discovered if looked for, being completely hidden by the fallen masonry and the cypress roots and growths of poisonous plants--nightshade, and hemlock, and green-flowered h.e.l.lebore; but wicked monks had sometimes been sucked into them while digging the ground, or decoyed into their labyrinths by devils. Was it possible that there had lingered on through the ages a vague and horrified remembrance of those rites, the discovery of whose mysterious and wide-spread abominations had frozen Rome with horror in her most high and palmy days; and was there a connection between those neophytes, wandering with blood-stained limbs and dishevelled locks among the groves of the Aventine, then rushing to quench their burning torches in the Tiber, two centuries before Christ, and the devils who troubled the Benedictines of SS. Jervase and Protasius? These evil spirits would appear, it had been said, in the cloisters of the convent, processions carrying lights and garlands; and on certain nights, when the monks were in prayer in their cells, strange sounds would issue from the church itself, of flutes and timbrels, and demon laughter, and demon voices chanting some unknown litany, and clearly aping the ma.s.s; and Cardinal Capranica was blamed by many pious persons for his rash intention of filling once more the deserted convent, and exposing holy men to the wrath of such very pertinacious devils. Meanwhile ma.s.s upon ma.s.s was said to clear the place of this demoniac infection. It was in this church that the sacrilege of Domenico and Filarete rose to its highest, and that an event took place which the men of the fifteenth century could scarce find words to designate.
Domenico had grown tired of his friend's archaeological impieties.
It gave him no satisfaction to pour out wine, burn incense, arrange garlands, and even cut the throats of animals according to a correct Pagan ritual. It was nothing to him that Horace and Ovid and Tibullus should have done alike. He was a good Christian, never doubting for a moment the power of the Blessed Virgin, the saints, and even the smallest and meanest priest, nor the heat of h.e.l.l-fire. But he wanted to have the secret of antique proportions, and he was convinced that this secret could be communicated only by a Pagan divinity, just as certain theological mysteries, such as the use of the rosary, had been revealed to the saints by Christ or the Virgin. The Pagan G.o.ds were devils, and to hold communication with devils was mortal sin and sure d.a.m.nation. But lots of people communicated with devils for much more paltry motives, for greed of gold or love of woman, and were yet saved by the intercession of some heavenly patron, or found it worth while not to be saved at all.