Read Romola Page 1

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England




  More than three centuries and a half ago, in the mid spring-time of1492, we are sure that the angel of the dawn, as he travelled with broadslow wing from the Levant to the Pillars of Hercules, and from thesummits of the Caucasus across all the snowy Alpine ridges to the darknakedness of the Western isles, saw nearly the same outline of firm landand unstable sea--saw the same great mountain shadows on the samevalleys as he has seen to-day--saw olive mounts, and pine forests, andthe broad plains green with young corn or rain-freshened grass--saw thedomes and spires of cities rising by the river-sides or mingled with thesedge-like masts on the many-curved sea-coast, in the same spots wherethey rise to-day. And as the faint light of his course pierced into thedwellings of men, it fell, as now, on the rosy warmth of nestlingchildren; on the haggard waking of sorrow and sickness; on the hastyuprising of the hard-handed labourer; and on the late sleep of thenight-student, who had been questioning the stars or the sages, or hisown soul, for that hidden knowledge which would break through thebarrier of man's brief life, and show its dark path, that seemed to bendno whither, to be an arc in an immeasurable circle of light and glory.The great river-courses which have shaped the lives of men have hardlychanged; and those other streams, the life-currents that ebb and flow inhuman hearts, pulsate to the same great needs, the same great loves andterrors. As our thought follows close in the slow wake of the dawn, weare impressed with the broad sameness of the human lot, which neveralters in the main headings of its history--hunger and labour, seed-timeand harvest, love and death.

  Even if, instead of following the dim daybreak, our imagination pauseson a certain historical spot and awaits the fuller morning, we may see aworld-famous city, which has hardly changed its outline since the daysof Columbus, seeming to stand as an almost unviolated symbol, amidst theflux of human things, to remind us that we still resemble the men of thepast more than we differ from them, as the great mechanical principleson which those domes and towers were raised must make a likeness inhuman building that will be broader and deeper than all possible change.And doubtless, if the spirit of a Florentine citizen, whose eyes wereclosed for the last time while Columbus was still waiting and arguingfor the three poor vessels with which he was to set sail from the portof Palos, could return from the shades and pause where our thought ispausing, he would believe that there must still be fellowship andunderstanding for him among the inheritors of his birthplace.

  Let us suppose that such a Shade has been permitted to revisit theglimpses of the golden morning, and is standing once more on the famoushill of San Miniato, which overlooks Florence from the south.

  The Spirit is clothed in his habit as he lived: the folds of hiswell-lined black silk garment or _lucco_ hang in grave unbroken linesfrom neck to ankle; his plain cloth cap, with its _becchetto_, or longhanging strip of drapery, to serve as a scarf in case of need, surmountsa penetrating face, not, perhaps, very handsome, but with a firm,well-cut mouth, kept distinctly human by a close-shaven lip and chin.It is a face charged with memories of a keen and various life passedbelow there on the banks of the gleaming river; and as he looks at thescene before him, the sense of familiarity is so much stronger than theperception of change, that he thinks it might be possible to descendonce more amongst the streets, and take up that busy life where he leftit. For it is not only the mountains and the westward-bending riverthat he recognises; not only the dark sides of Mount Morello opposite tohim, and the long valley of the Arno that seems to stretch its greylow-tufted luxuriance to the far-off ridges of Carrara; and the steepheight of Fiesole, with its crown of monastic walls and cypresses; andall the green and grey slopes sprinkled with villas which he can name ashe looks at them. He sees other familiar objects much closer to hisdaily walks. For though he misses the seventy or more towers that oncesurmounted the walls, and encircled the city as with a regal diadem, hiseyes will not dwell on that blank; they are drawn irresistibly to theunique tower springing, like a tall flower-stem drawn towards the sun,from the square turreted mass of the Old Palace in the very heart of thecity--the tower that looks none the worse for the four centuries thathave passed since he used to walk under it. The great dome, too,greatest in the world, which, in his early boyhood, had been only adaring thought in the mind of a small, quick-eyed man--there it raisesits large curves still, eclipsing the hills. And the well-knownbell-towers--Giotto's, with its distant hint of rich colour, and thegraceful-spired Badia, and the rest--he looked at them all from theshoulder of his nurse.

  "Surely," he thinks, "Florence can still ring her bells with the solemnhammer-sound that used to beat on the hearts of her citizens and strikeout the fire there. And here, on the right, stands the long dark massof Santa Croce, where we buried our famous dead, laying the laurel ontheir cold brows and fanning them with the breath of praise and ofbanners. But Santa Croce had no spire then: we Florentines were toofull of great building projects to carry them all out in stone andmarble; we had our frescoes and our shrines to pay for, not to speak ofrapacious condottieri, bribed royalty, and purchased territories, andour facades and spires must needs wait. But what architect can theFrati Minori [the Franciscans] have employed to build that spire forthem? If it had been built in my day, Filippo Brunelleschi orMichelozzo would have devised something of another fashion than that--something worthy to crown the church of Arnolfo."

  At this the Spirit, with a sigh, lets his eyes travel on to the citywalls, and now he dwells on the change there with wonder at these moderntimes. Why have five out of the eleven convenient gates been closed?And why, above all, should the towers have been levelled that were oncea glory and defence? Is the world become so peaceful, then, and doFlorentines dwell in such harmony, that there are no longer conspiraciesto bring ambitious exiles home again with armed bands at their back?These are difficult questions: it is easier and pleasanter to recognisethe old than to account for the new. And there flows Arno, with itsbridges just where they used to be--the Ponte Vecchio, least like otherbridges in the world, laden with the same quaint shops where our Spiritremembers lingering a little on his way perhaps to look at the progressof that great palace which Messer Luca Pitti had set a-building withhuge stones got from the Hill of Bogoli [now Boboli] close behind, orperhaps to transact a little business with the cloth-dressers inOltrarno. The exorbitant line of the Pitti roof is hidden from SanMiniato; but the yearning of the old Florentine is not to see MesserLuca's too ambitious palace which he built unto himself; it is to bedown among those narrow streets and busy humming Piazze where heinherited the eager life of his fathers. Is not the anxious voting withblack and white beans still going on down there? Who are the Priori inthese months, eating soberly--regulated official dinners in the PalazzoVecchio, with removes of tripe and boiled partridges, seasoned bypractical jokes against the ill-fated butt among those potent signors?Are not the significant banners still hung from the windows--stilldistributed with decent pomp under Orcagna's Loggia every two months?

  Life had its zest for the old Florentine when he, too, trod the marblesteps and shared in those dignities. His politics had an area as wideas his trade, which stretched from Syria to Britain, but they had alsothe passionate intensity, and the detailed practical interest, whichcould belong only to a narrow scene of corporate action; only to themembers of a community shut in close by the hills and by walls of sixmiles' circuit, where men knew each other as they passed in the street,set their eyes every day on the memorials of their commonwealth, andwere conscious of having not simply the right to vote, but the chance ofbeing voted for. He loved his honours and his gains, the business ofhis counting-house, of his guild, of the public council-chamber; heloved his enmities too, and fingered t
he white bean which was to keep ahated name out of the _borsa_ with more complacency than if it had beena golden florin. He loved to strengthen his family by a good alliance,and went home with a triumphant light in his eyes after concluding asatisfactory marriage for his son or daughter under his favourite loggiain the evening cool; he loved his game at chess under that same loggia,and his biting jest, and even his coarse joke, as not beneath thedignity of a man eligible for the highest magistracy. He had gained aninsight into all sorts of affairs at home and abroad: he had been of the"Ten" who managed the war department, of the "Eight" who attended tohome discipline, of the Priori or Signori who were the heads of theexecutive government; he had even risen to the supreme office ofGonfaloniere; he had made one in embassies to the Pope and to theVenetians; and he had been commissary to the hired army of the Republic,directing the inglorious bloodless battles in which no man died of bravebreast wounds--_virtuosi colpi_--but only of casual falls andtramplings. And in this way he had learned to distrust men withoutbitterness; looking on life mainly as a game of skill, but not dead totraditions of heroism and clean-handed honour. For the human soul ishospitable, and will entertain conflicting sentiments and contradictoryopinions with much impartiality. It was his pride besides, that he wasduly tinctured with the learning of his age, and judged not altogetherwith the vulgar, but in harmony with the ancients: he, too, in hisprime, had been eager for the most correct manuscripts, and had paidmany florins for antique vases and for disinterred busts of the ancientimmortals--some, perhaps, _truncis naribus_, wanting as to the nose, butnot the less authentic; and in his old age he had made haste to look atthe first sheets of that fine Homer which was among the early glories ofthe Florentine press. But he had not, for all that, neglected to hangup a waxen image or double of himself under the protection of theMadonna Annunziata, or to do penance for his sins in large gifts to theshrines of saints whose lives had not been modelled on the study of theclassics; he had not even neglected making liberal bequests towardsbuildings for the Frati, against whom he had levelled many a jest.

  For the Unseen Powers were mighty. Who knew--who was sure--that therewas _any_ name given to them behind which there was no angry force to beappeased, no intercessory pity to be won? Were not gems medicinal,though they only pressed the finger? Were not all things charged withoccult virtues? Lucretius might be right--he was an ancient, and agreat poet; Luigi Pulci, too, who was suspected of not believinganything from the roof upward (_dal tetto in su_), had very much the airof being right over the supper-table, when the wine and jests werecirculating fast, though he was only a poet in the vulgar tongue. Therewere even learned personages who maintained that Aristotle, wisest ofmen (unless, indeed, Plato were wiser?) was a thoroughly irreligiousphilosopher; and a liberal scholar must entertain all speculations. Butthe negatives might, after all, prove false; nay, seemed manifestlyfalse, as the circling hours swept past him, and turned round withgraver faces. For had not the world become Christian? Had he not beenbaptised in San Giovanni, where the dome is awful with symbols ofcoming judgment, and where the altar bears a crucified Image disturbingto perfect complacency in one's self and the world? Our resuscitatedSpirit was not a pagan philosopher, nor a philosophising pagan poet, buta man of the fifteenth century, inheriting its strange web of belief andunbelief; of Epicurean levity and fetichistic dread; of pedanticimpossible ethics uttered by rote, and crude passions acted out withchildish impulsiveness; of inclination towards a self-indulgentpaganism, and inevitable subjection to that human conscience which, inthe unrest of a new growth, was rilling the air with strange propheciesand presentiments.

  He had smiled, perhaps, and shaken his head dubiously, as he heardsimple folk talk of a Pope Angelico, who was to come by-and-by and bringin a new order of things, to purify the Church from simony, and thelives of the clergy from scandal--a state of affairs too different fromwhat existed under Innocent the Eighth for a shrewd merchant andpolitician to regard the prospect as worthy of entering into hiscalculations. But he felt the evils of the time, nevertheless; for hewas a man of public spirit, and public spirit can never be whollyimmoral, since its essence is care for a common good. That veryQuaresima or Lent of 1492 in which he died, still in his erect old age,he had listened in San Lorenzo, not without a mixture of satisfaction,to the preaching of a Dominican Friar, named Girolamo Savonarola, whodenounced with a rare boldness the worldliness and vicious habits of theclergy, and insisted on the duty of Christian men not to live for theirown ease when wrong was triumphing in high places, and not to spendtheir wealth in outward pomp even in the churches, when theirfellow-citizens were suffering from want and sickness. The Fratecarried his doctrine rather too far for elderly ears; yet it was amemorable thing to see a preacher move his audience to such a pitch thatthe women even took off their ornaments, and delivered them up to besold for the benefit of the needy.

  "He was a noteworthy man, that Prior of San Marco," thinks our Spirit;"somewhat arrogant and extreme, perhaps, especially in his denunciationsof speedy vengeance. Ah, _Iddio non paga il Sabatol_ [`God does not payon a Saturday']--the wages of men's sins often linger in their payment,and I myself saw much established wickedness of long-standingprosperity. But a Frate Predicatore who wanted to move the people--howcould he be moderate? He might have been a little less defiant andcurt, though, to Lorenzo de' Medici, whose family had been the verymakers of San Marco: was that quarrel ever made up? And our Lorenzohimself, with the dim outward eyes and the subtle inward vision, did heget over that illness at Careggi? It was but a sad, uneasy-looking facethat he would carry out of the world which had given him so much, andthere were strong suspicions that his handsome son would play the partof Rehoboam. How has it all turned out? Which party is likely to bebanished and have its houses sacked just now? Is there any successor ofthe incomparable Lorenzo, to whom the great Turk is so gracious as tosend over presents of rare animals, rare relics, rare manuscripts, orfugitive enemies, suited to the tastes of a Christian Magnifico who isat once lettered and devout--and also slightly vindictive? And whatfamous scholar is dictating the Latin letters of the Republic--whatfiery philosopher is lecturing on Dante in the Duomo, and going home towrite bitter invectives against the father and mother of the bad criticwho may have found fault with his classical spelling? Are our wiserheads leaning towards alliance with the Pope and the Regno [The namegiven to Naples by way of distinction among the Italian States], or arethey rather inclining their ears to the orators of France and of Milan?

  "There is knowledge of these things to be had in the streets below, onthe beloved _marmi_ in front of the churches, and under the shelteringLoggie, where surely our citizens have still their gossip and debates,their bitter and merry jests as of old. For are not the well-rememberedbuildings all there? The changes have not been so great in thoseuncounted years. I will go down and hear--I will tread the familiarpavement, and hear once again the speech of Florentines."

  Go not down, good Spirit! for the changes are great and the speech ofFlorentines would sound as a riddle in your ears. Or, if you go, minglewith no politicians on the _marmi_, or elsewhere; ask no questions abouttrade in the Calimara; confuse yourself with no inquiries intoscholarship, official or monastic. Only look at the sunlight andshadows on the grand walls that were built solidly, and have endured intheir grandeur; look at the faces of the little children, making anothersunlight amid the shadows of age; look, if you will, into the churches,and hear the same chants, see the same images as of old--the images ofwilling anguish for a great end, of beneficent love and ascending glory;see upturned living faces, and lips moving to the old prayers for help.These things have not changed. The sunlight and shadows bring their oldbeauty and waken the old heart-strains at morning, noon, and eventide;the little children are still the symbol of the eternal marriage betweenlove and duty; and men still yearn for the reign of peace andrighteousness--still own _that_ life to be the highest which is aconscious voluntary sacrifice. For the Pope Angelico is not come yet.