Fair Woman, by William Sharp Part II
When I opened my eyes again I had no idea where I was. What an absurd dream! was my first thoughts on recollecting all that has just been described. The dream, however, was soon forgotten in the bewilderment of a more immediate problem.
No one who has slept in the uncomfortable grandeur of an Italian palace will fail to understand me when I say that I felt convinced I had awaked in Italy. Anyone who has slept in a palace of this kind, and opened his eyes for the first time to a Venetian morning, will understand me when I say I knew at once that I was in Venice.
That rippling sound, more like the stealthy feel of a sleeper's slow-moving hand than the motion of water, was unmistakable; or, if there were room for doubt, there could be no mistake when Stali! and Premé! those familiar gondolier cries, were heard.
Then it was as though dark veils were suddenly withdrawn. The inrush of sudden sunlight would no doubt have dazzled me, but, as it happened, I was not in Venice after all; and the forenoon light of London, however much it may cheer gas companies and electricians, could never be alluded to as bewildering.
And yet, where was I? At the time, certainly, I believed myself to be in that loveliest of all cities of the world. Though the apartment before me was a glorified duplicate of the Octagon Room at the Grafton Gallery, the palace that contained the room was in Venice, and among the company I could see many beautiful women of the great days of Italy, and with them famous painters whom it was easy to recognise as Titian, Paris Bordone, Giovanni Pordenone, Jacopo Palma, Bacchiacca, Bernardino Luini, Sandro Botticelli, and others of Venice, Milan, Florence, and elsewhere.
By far the most beautiful woman in the room came slowly forward. I saw that she glanced at every man with a curious, wistful gaze. Surely, I thought, such beauty should be recognisable; but I could not recall the features, though they were unmistakably of the finest Venetian type. Certainly, she had no counterpart among the portraits on the walls.
But before she reached me she turned aside to return the greetings of Titian and his friend Sansovino, "the courteous and gentle." Instead, there came forward a handsome man and woman, whom I recognised from a set of portraits of Italian celebrities of the sixteenth century which I possess. They were Varchi, the Florentine poet and an exile, and Lucrezia Gonzaga, the illustrious pupil of Bandella and Pico delta Mirandola. With real courtesy, both, seeing that I was a stranger, stopped and spoke to me. They moved on as the beautiful woman approached, but not until Lucrezia had whispered that the fairest of fair women was Gaspara Stampa.
As she came near I bowed reverently.
"You cannot know me, sir," she said, in a voice of great beauty and sweetness, "and yet I seem to see recognition in your eyes."
"I have read the sonnets of the Italian Sappho; and whenever I think of Vittoria Colonna or Veronica Gambara, I remember the greatest of the three women poets of Italy, Gaspara Stampa."
"Sir, I thank you for your courtesy. But can it be that at this remote date you know the story of the most unhappy woman of her time?"
"The Lady Gaspara Stampa would not wish me to say anything against the Lord of Collalto; otherwise I should speak bitterly of one who caused such sorrow to the beautiful Anasilla."
"Ah, by your mention of that love-name, I see you do indeed know. It would be a pleasure to me to hear many things from you, and to exchange similar courtesies on my part, but unfortunately I must go hence immediately. I am here only for one end. I wish to see face to face that famous---or infamous-woman who---but no, let me use no hard names: are not all we women dry wood before the flame?---that famous lady of France, Diane de Poitiers, who seduced my fair love from me. if you can direct me towards her, I am yours in a true debt. I could not ask Titian or Sansovino or the Lady Luerezia Ganibara, or still less Aretino---not even my dear friends Cornelia or Violetta,¹ for one and all know my story, and are of my own time,"²
¹ Cornelia, sister of Titian; Violetta, daughter of Jacopo Palma.
² This story has been admirably told by the American painter, Mr. Eugene Benson, to whose little book I acknowledge my indebtedness.
I scarce knew what to do. The lady for whom Gaspara Stampa had inquired was present. Unfortunately she was to be seen just as she is in her picture by a French painter who may, but more likely may not, have been Franyois Clouet (Janet). Visitors to the Grafton Gallery will remember the strange portrait of Diane de Poitiers on the right side of the Octagon Room. The celebrated favourite of FranCois I. and Henri II. is there represented in a halfcovered bath, eating fruit, and looking vaguely about her, while other members of a very Flemish household conduct themselves indifferently. Diane here is certainly beautiful in her kind, but how poor a creature she seemed to have won the love of a Venetian noble of the rarest distinction who had loved and been loved by the most beautiful and brilliant woman of the age!
However, there was nothing for it but to be frank.
"There, madam, is Diane, Duchesse de Valentinois---there, near that corridor. You will observe that she has not yet finished her toilette."
For more than a minute Gaspara Stampa looked steadily at Diane de Poitiers. Then she turned, and her beautiful eyes were like the yellow flames of a black panther.
"I have forgiven the Lord of Collalto for what no man should be forgiven; but now I can no longer bear him in reverence. If the woman had been more beautiful than I, I would have been content; but she is not even sweet and fair--not decent even. Surely she might have been content with the folly of two kings without dragging down the fair ideal and fair manhood of the noblest of Venetians?"
I could not bear to witness the pain of the beautiful speaker. Yet, glancing again at Diane de Poitiers, my indignation rose and I could look at her no more. When I turned, Gaspara Stampa had vanished.
"Ah, la bell' Saffo de' nostri tempi alta Gaspara!" This, sighed rather than spoken, attracted my attention to a person who stood beside me.
"I am the Venetian poet, Parabosco, the organist of San Marco," he resumed, without further preamble. "Perhaps you have read what I wrote of the lovely Gaspara---of her surpassing beauty, her surpassing sweetness and nobility, her surpassing genius? I would you and all who admire her could hear the funeral chant of six voices which I composed, and caused to be rendered publicly, on the occasion of her death---death not from her own hand, as commonly said, but from the extremity of thwarted love, of unrequited passion. This Requiem is still preserved, I may add, in the library of San Marco."
"When next I go to Venice, Signor Parabosco, I will have it sought out and copied."
"Grazie! And now, can I be of any service to you before I leave? Our present span of life goes by minutes, you must know."
"Tell me, then, who are some of those Fair Women whom we see around us."
That lady who passed just now is, I should say was, very famous in the middle of the sixteenth century. You would not know her name, however, as Il Bacchiacca did not paint it on the back of his canvas, and as, I have reason to know, she has had no other chronicler. She was famous only for her beauty, and for the mystery attending her. Francisco Ubertini himself knew nothing of her, when one day she appeared in his house, and asked him to paint her. At that time Il Bacchiacca was young and unknown, and he welcomed the opportunity.
When he had painted the portrait, that which you now see before you, he asked the lady in what way he could show his gratitude. 'By bequeathing the picture to the City of Florence.' 'To what end ?' he inquired. 'Because I wish to be remembered by the males of my time, and of all time to come,' was the strange answer.¹ The rumour of her beauty spread abroad; many strange things were told of her; and about her scores of novelle were written. But to this day no one knows anything authentic of her."
¹ This is an authentic anecdote, but for Il Baccbiacca substitute the name of Fé1icien Rops, the living Belgian painter and etcher.
"And these two beautiful women who are walking together?"
"The one nearer to us is Violetta Palma. Do you admire her? In my youth she was looked upon as a beautiful woman of the true Venetian type, though many of my fellow-citizens preferred the still more sensuous beauty of her present companion, who was, well, not her mother, but the informal wife of her father, Jacopo Palma."
As a matter of fact I had already recognised the two Fair Women painted by Paris Bordone and Palma Vecehio, but only to exchange the admiration I felt for them for a greater admiration of two ladies near them, grandes dames beyond question. A glance at the pictures on the wall told me who they were: the younger, that Isabella d'Este whom Pordenone (and not Giorgione) painted, the Lady Gonzaga herself, of whom many have forgotten that she was daughter to Ercolo, Duke of Ferrara and Modena, and wife of Francesco Gonzaga, last Lord of Mantua, but none that she was a poet and scholar worthy to be named after that Marchese di Pescara whom Michael Angelo loved, or that Gaspara whom all honoured as a new Sappho; the elder, the superb Lucrezia Borgia by whom Lorenzo Lotto won so much fame. This great lady still carried in her hand the drawing wherein is foreoutlined her own death at her own hand. She was the most impressive woman among all three, of a stern but potent beauty.
"For myself," broke in Messer Parabosco, "I prefer the less magnificent but more mysterious and seductive Milanese lady yonder, whom Luini painted a short time before she poisoned her lover for becoming over-bold in her presence, and thereafter poisoned her husband because he laughed at his rival's ignominious death. The beautiful Milanese is of the type of women who are not content with winning the bodies of men, but must enslave their very souls also. Ah, Luini and the Milan painters knew what beauty was!"
"That is strange from a Venetian! But doubtless you were a scholar, Signor Parabosco, and so loved only what was remote. Ah! forgive that past tense: it was a slip of the tongue! Yet surely the very type you admire is not, at its highest, Milanese, but Florentine? The very quintessence, the crown, the aloe-bloom of this kind of art, is it not Leonardo's Monna Lisa del Giocondo? Why, in your own Accademia delle belle Arti in Venice there is a drawing by Leonardo, a beautiful girl with sidelong rippling hair, delicately crowned with vine-leaves, with that enigmatical smile on her face and still more enigmatical smile in her eyes, which is finer than this Milanese beauty! It is a type that does not appeal to many men, but where its appeal is felt at all it is irresistible. There is all the seduction of nameless peril in these mysterious faces, which apparently tell nothing, and yet are so full of subtle meaning and repressed intensity."²
² Very remarkable, also, for this mysterious charm is the famous Wax Bust of a Girl in the Lille Museum, till recently always spoken of as by Raphael, but now recognised as a Florentine work of the fifteenth century. An extraordinarily skilful reproduction of it on canvas was made by Mr. Sargent.
"True. But I am myself foolishly prejudiced against everything Florentine. As for the early Florentine ideal of female beauty, it seems to me grotesque. Look at that lady there, famous in her own day for her looks and celebrated for ever by Angelo Politian and Pulei and other Florentine poets. Yes, she is 'la bella Simonetta,' as you say. There is no fictitious flattery here. Giuliano de' Medici was not the man to make her his mistress unless she were considered pre-eminently beautiful. Have you seen her before, may I ask?"
"I think so. Did not Piero di Cosimo paint her? Among the pictures belonging to a great French lord, the Duc d'Aumale, at Chantilly, there is a Cleopatra which is supposed to be this very Simonetta."
"Do you admire her greatly?"
"Frankly, no. But see, who is that strange man to whom she is speaking, and why does he turn away from her and everyone else with so weary and distraught a look? Can that be Piero?"
"No; it is Alessandro Filipepi, who painted her---the great artist whom doubtless you know better as Sandro Botticelli. You may not be aware that the divine Sandro became melancholy in his latter years, and would have nothing to do with Art, or Fair Women, or any of the shows and vanities of the world. La bella Simonetta can only remind him of a past he would fain forget. But see! Here is a letter. I may as well give it to you, so that it may be made known to men at last."
As Parabosco spoke, he drew from his pocket an antique leathern case o'erfretted with thin silver traceries, and extracted from it a yellow sheet of paper, worn to the extreme of thinness. It was like the last leaf of a poplar against the last sunset of autumn.
"What is this that you entrust to me?" I asked eagerly.
"It is a letter that was written by the Florentine painter, Cosimo Rosselli. Its companion has been lost to eternal fame because of a moth. But this which I give you has been seen of no man since myself, not even by that Vasari of whom we have heard so much. At Botticelli's death, in 1510, it came into the possession of Aretino, and was by him given to me in exchange for a little ivory group of Leda and the Swan. It is addressed to Cosimo's pupil and disciple (and, in time, surpassing master) Piero. It will reveal to you something of that sadness which came upon the great Botticelli"
"He would be sadder still, my friend," I could not help saying, " if he knew how many fifth-rate pictures were now attributed to him, and how many pseudo-æsthetic puerilities have been solemnly uttered over his (or most often some one else's) work."
But I had cause to lamenit my malappropriate remark as soon as it was made. With a look of anger and astonishment Parabosco faded. To my great joy the letter was not in his hand, and so did not fade also. I regret that I have no longer the original; it in was too transparent, and the chemic action of the light caused it to crumble into dust. But I remembered it word for word, and have elsewhere given a literal translation.³
³ Vide The Scottish Art Review for January and March, 1890 ("The Lost Journal of Piero di Cosimo"). Let me take this late opportunity of thanking the conscientious London critic who adjudged my "translation" as inadequate and poor, he having compared it throughout with the original! Thus doth the Lord sometimes deliver one's enemies into one's hand!
At this moment I was about to make my obeisance to a stately coif'd dame who passed by---the Queen of Cyprus, that Catarina Cornaro whom Titian has represented with art so consummate; but even as I looked my eyes grew dim.
In a confused array, no longer Venetian or even Italian, I saw all that company disappear; an emaciated Fair Woman, who is said to have inspired the famous Ferrara painter, Piero della Francesca; Saskia, the comely wife of Rembrandt; the Countess of Pembroke, whom Gheeraedts painted, known to fame as "Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother," from her zealous care for the Arcadia after her brother's death; that other great lady, the Countess of Suffolk, so ably painted by D. Mytens; a repentant Magdalen, who to my astonishment passed as the Lady Jane Grey, and as the daughter-in-art of Lucas de Heere---two strange mistakes, surely!---and others whom I need not mention or have already spoken of. The two latest, whom I saw just before all became obscure, were not the least noteworthy. One was the noble and splendid lady, whom Sir Antonio rejoiced to paint with all his skill, that Elizabeth de Valois, daughter of Henri II. of France, and wife of Philip II. of Spain, who is memorable to us rather as the heroine of Schiller's mastertragedy, Don Carlos. The other was that heroic but, alas! somewhat malodorous princess, Isabella the Infanta, who, on her marriage with the Archduke of Austria, received the sovereignity of the Netherlands as a dowry; the same who, at the beginning of the famous siege of Ostend in 1601, vowed that she would not change her linen until the town was taken. Unfortunately, Ostend did not succumb till three years had elapsed! This is the origin of the colour known as Couleur Isabelle; so peculiarly had time and its allies dealt with the once snowy hue of the Archduchess's linen.
Perhaps it was the approach of this brave but too conscientious Archduchess---or "the rush of my emotions," as the novelists say but at that moment I swooned.