The Marble Faun Volume 1 (Chapter 6)

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Chapter 6

After Donatello had left the studio, Miriam herself came forth, and
taking her way through some of the intricacies of the city, entered what
might be called either a widening of a street, or a small piazza. The
neighborhood comprised a baker's oven, emitting the usual fragrance of
sour bread; a shoe shop; a linen-draper's shop; a pipe and cigar shop; a
lottery office; a station for French soldiers, with a sentinel pacing in
front; and a fruit-stand, at which a Roman matron was selling the
dried kernels of chestnuts, wretched little figs, and some bouquets of
yesterday. A church, of course, was near at hand, the facade of which
ascended into lofty pinnacles, whereon were perched two or three winged
figures of stone, either angelic or allegorical, blowing stone trumpets
in close vicinity to the upper windows of an old and shabby palace.
This palace was distinguished by a feature not very common in the
architecture of Roman edifices; that is to say, a mediaeval tower,
square, massive, lofty, and battlemented and machicolated at the summit.

At one of the angles of the battlements stood a shrine of the Virgin,
such as we see everywhere at the street corners of Rome, but seldom or
never, except in this solitary, instance, at a height above the ordinary
level of men's views and aspirations. Connected with this old tower and
its lofty shrine, there is a legend which we cannot here pause to tell;
but for centuries a lamp has been burning before the Virgin's image, at
noon, at midnight, and at all hours of the twenty-four, and must be kept
burning forever, as long as the tower shall stand; or else the tower
itself, the palace, and whatever estate belongs to it, shall pass from
its hereditary possessor, in accordance with an ancient vow, and become
the property of the Church.

As Miriam approached, she looked upward, and saw,--not, indeed, the
flame of the never-dying lamp, which was swallowed up in the broad
sunlight that brightened the shrine, but a flock of white doves,
skimming, fluttering, and wheeling about the topmost height of the
tower, their silver wings flashing in the pure transparency of the
air. Several of them sat on the ledge of the upper window, pushing one
another off by their eager struggle for this favorite station, and all
tapping their beaks and flapping their wings tumultuously against the
panes; some had alighted in the street, far below, but flew hastily
upward, at the sound of the window being thrust ajar, and opening in the
middle, on rusty hinges, as Roman windows do.

A fair young girl, dressed in white, showed herself at the aperture for
a single instant, and threw forth as much as her two small hands could
hold of some kind of food, for the flock of eleemosynary doves. It
seemed greatly to the taste of the feathered people; for they tried to
snatch beakfuls of it from her grasp, caught it in the air, and rushed
downward after it upon the pavement.

"What a pretty scene this is," thought Miriam, with a kindly smile, "and
how like a dove she is herself, the fair, pure creature! The other doves
know her for a sister, I am sure."

Miriam passed beneath the deep portal of the palace, and turning to the
left, began to mount flight after flight of a staircase, which, for the
loftiness of its aspiration, was worthy to be Jacob's ladder, or, at all
events, the staircase of the Tower of Babel. The city bustle, which
is heard even in Rome, the rumble of wheels over the uncomfortable
paving-stones, the hard harsh cries reechoing in the high and narrow
streets, grew faint and died away; as the turmoil of the world will
always die, if we set our faces to climb heavenward. Higher, and higher
still; and now, glancing through the successive windows that threw in
their narrow light upon the stairs, her view stretched across the roofs
of the city, unimpeded even by the stateliest palaces. Only the domes of
churches ascend into this airy region, and hold up their golden crosses
on a level with her eye; except that, out of the very heart of Rome,
the column of Antoninus thrusts itself upward, with St. Paul upon its
summit, the sole human form that seems to have kept her company.

Finally, the staircase came to an end; save that, on one side of the
little entry where it terminated, a flight of a dozen steps gave access
to the roof of the tower and the legendary shrine. On the other side was
a door, at which Miriam knocked, but rather as a friendly announcement
of her presence than with any doubt of hospitable welcome; for, awaiting
no response, she lifted the latch and entered.

"What a hermitage you have found for yourself, dear Hilda!" she,
exclaimed. "You breathe sweet air, above all the evil scents of Rome;
and even so, in your maiden elevation, you dwell above our vanities and
passions, our moral dust and mud, with the doves and the angels for your
nearest neighbors. I should not wonder if the Catholics were to make a
saint of you, like your namesake of old; especially as you have almost
avowed yourself of their religion, by undertaking to keep the lamp
alight before the Virgin's shrine."

"No, no, Miriam!" said Hilda, who had come joyfully forward to greet
her friend. "You must not call me a Catholic. A Christian girl--even
a daughter of the Puritans--may surely pay honor to the idea of divine
Womanhood, without giving up the faith of her forefathers. But how kind
you are to climb into my dove-cote!"

"It is no trifling proof of friendship, indeed," answered Miriam; "I
should think there were three hundred stairs at least."

"But it will do you good," continued Hilda. "A height of some fifty feet
above the roofs of Rome gives me all the advantages that I could get
from fifty miles of distance. The air so exhilarates my spirits, that
sometimes I feel half inclined to attempt a flight from the top of my
tower, in the faith that I should float upward."

"O, pray don't try it!" said Miriam, laughing; "If it should turn out
that you are less than an angel, you would find the stones of the Roman
pavement very hard; and if an angel, indeed, I am afraid you would never
come down among us again."

This young American girl was an example of the freedom of life which
it is possible for a female artist to enjoy at Rome. She dwelt in her
tower, as free to descend into the corrupted atmosphere of the city
beneath, as one of her companion doves to fly downward into the
street;--all alone, perfectly independent, under her own sole
guardianship, unless watched over by the Virgin, whose shrine she
tended; doing what she liked without a suspicion or a shadow upon the
snowy whiteness of her fame. The customs of artist life bestow such
liberty upon the sex, which is elsewhere restricted within so much
narrower limits; and it is perhaps an indication that, whenever we admit
women to a wider scope of pursuits and professions, we must also remove
the shackles of our present conventional rules, which would then become
an insufferable restraint on either maid or wife. The system seems to
work unexceptionably in Rome; and in many other cases, as in Hilda's,
purity of heart and life are allowed to assert themselves, and to be
their own proof and security, to a degree unknown in the society of
other cities.

Hilda, in her native land, had early shown what was pronounced by
connoisseurs a decided genius for the pictorial art. Even in her
schooldays--still not so very distant--she had produced sketches that
were seized upon by men of taste, and hoarded as among the choicest
treasures of their portfolios; scenes delicately imagined, lacking,
perhaps, the reality which comes only from a close acquaintance with
life, but so softly touched with feeling and fancy that you seemed to
be looking at humanity with angels' eyes. With years and experience
she might be expected to attain a darker and more forcible touch, which
would impart to her designs the relief they needed. Had Hilda remained
in her own country, it is not improbable that she might have produced
original works worthy to hang in that gallery of native art which,
we hope, is destined to extend its rich length through many future
centuries. An orphan, however, without near relatives, and possessed of
a little property, she had found it within her possibilities to come
to Italy; that central clime, whither the eyes and the heart of every
artist turn, as if pictures could not be made to glow in any other
atmosphere, as if statues could not assume grace and expression, save in
that land of whitest marble.

Hilda's gentle courage had brought her safely over land and sea; her
mild, unflagging perseverance had made a place for her in the famous
city, even like a flower that finds a chink for itself, and a little
earth to grow in, on whatever ancient wall its slender roots may fasten.
Here she dwelt, in her tower, possessing a friend or two in Rome, but
no home companion except the flock of doves, whose cote was in a ruinous
chamber contiguous to her own. They soon became as familiar with the
fair-haired Saxon girl as if she were a born sister of their brood; and
her customary white robe bore such an analogy to their snowy plumage
that the confraternity of artists called Hilda the Dove, and recognized
her aerial apartment as the Dovecote. And while the other doves flew far
and wide in quest of what was good for them, Hilda likewise spread
her wings, and sought such ethereal and imaginative sustenance as God
ordains for creatures of her kind.

We know not whether the result of her Italian studies, so far as it
could yet be seen, will be accepted as a good or desirable one. Certain
it is, that since her arrival in the pictorial land, Hilda seemed to
have entirely lost the impulse of original design, which brought her
thither. No doubt the girl's early dreams had been of sending forms and
hues of beauty into the visible world out of her own mind; of compelling
scenes of poetry and history to live before men's eyes, through
conceptions and by methods individual to herself. But more and more, as
she grew familiar with the miracles of art that enrich so many galleries
in Rome, Hilda had ceased to consider herself as an original artist. No,
wonder that this change should have befallen her. She was endowed with
a deep and sensitive faculty of appreciation; she had the gift of
discerning and worshipping excellence in a most unusual measure. No
other person, it is probable, recognized so adequately, and enjoyed with
such deep delight, the pictorial wonders that were here displayed. She
saw no, not saw, but felt through and through a picture; she bestowed
upon it all the warmth and richness of a woman's sympathy; not by any
intellectual effort, but by this strength of heart, and this guiding
light of sympathy, she went straight to the central point, in which the
master had conceived his work. Thus she viewed it, as it were, with his
own eyes, and hence her comprehension of any picture that interested her
was perfect.

This power and depth of appreciation depended partly upon Hilda's
physical organization, which was at once healthful and exquisitely
delicate; and, connected with this advantage, she had a command of
hand, a nicety and force of touch, which is an endowment separate from
pictorial genius, though indispensable to its exercise.

It has probably happened in many other instances, as it did in Hilda's
case, that she ceased to aim at original achievement in consequence of
the very gifts which so exquisitely fitted her to profit by familiarity
with the works of the mighty old masters. Reverencing these wonderful
men so deeply, she was too grateful for all they bestowed upon her,
too loyal, too humble, in their awful presence, to think of enrolling
herself in their society. Beholding the miracles of beauty which they
had achieved, the world seemed already rich enough in original designs,
and nothing more was so desirable as to diffuse those self-same beauties
more widely among mankind. All the youthful hopes and ambitions, the
fanciful ideas which she had brought from home, of great pictures to be
conceived in her feminine mind, were flung aside, and, so far as those
most intimate with her could discern, relinquished without a sigh. All
that she would henceforth attempt and that most reverently, not to say
religiously was to catch and reflect some of the glory which had been
shed upon canvas from the immortal pencils of old.

So Hilda became a copyist: in the Pinacotheca of the Vatican, in the
galleries of the Pam-fili-Doria palace, the Borghese, the Corsini, the
Sciarra, her easel was set up before many a famous picture by Guido,
Domenichino, Raphael, and the devout painters of earlier schools than
these. Other artists and visitors from foreign lands beheld the slender,
girlish figure in front of some world-known work, absorbed, unconscious
of everything around her, seeming to live only in what she sought to do.
They smiled, no doubt, at the audacity which led her to dream of
copying those mighty achievements. But, if they paused to look over her
shoulder, and had sensibility enough to understand what was before their
eyes, they soon felt inclined to believe that the spirits of the old
masters were hovering over Hilda, and guiding her delicate white hand.
In truth, from whatever realm of bliss and many colored beauty those
spirits might descend, it would have been no unworthy errand to help so
gentle and pure a worshipper of their genius in giving the last divine
touch to her repetitions of their works.

Her copies were indeed marvellous. Accuracy was not the phrase for them;
a Chinese copy is accurate. Hilda's had that evanescent and ethereal
life--that flitting fragrance, as it were, of the originals--which it
is as difficult to catch and retain as it would be for a sculptor to
get the very movement and varying color of a living man into his marble
bust. Only by watching the efforts of the most skilful copyists--men who
spend a lifetime, as some of them do, in multiplying copies of a
single picture--and observing how invariably they leave out just the
indefinable charm that involves the last, inestimable value, can we
understand the difficulties of the task which they undertake.

It was not Hilda's general practice to attempt reproducing the whole of
a great picture, but to select some high, noble, and delicate portion
of it, in which the spirit and essence of the picture culminated: the
Virgin's celestial sorrow, for example, or a hovering angel, imbued
with immortal light, or a saint with the glow of heaven in his dying
face,--and these would be rendered with her whole soul. If a picture had
darkened into an indistinct shadow through time and neglect, or had been
injured by cleaning, or retouched by some profane hand, she seemed to
possess the faculty of seeing it in its pristine glory. The copy would
come from her hands with what the beholder felt must be the light which
the old master had left upon the original in bestowing his final and
most ethereal touch. In some instances even (at least, so those believed
who best appreciated Hilda's power and sensibility) she had been enabled
to execute what the great master had conceived in his imagination, but
had not so perfectly succeeded in putting upon canvas; a result surely
not impossible when such depth of sympathy as she possessed was assisted
by the delicate skill and accuracy of her slender hand. In such cases
the girl was but a finer instrument, a more exquisitely effective piece
of mechanism, by the help of which the spirit of some great departed
painter now first achieved his ideal, centuries after his own earthly
hand, that other tool, had turned to dust.

Not to describe her as too much a wonder, however, Hilda, or the Dove,
as her well-wishers half laughingly delighted to call her, had been
pronounced by good judges incomparably the best copyist in Rome. After
minute examination of her works, the most skilful artists declared that
she had been led to her results by following precisely the same process
step by step through which the original painter had trodden to the
development of his idea. Other copyists--if such they are worthy to be
called--attempt only a superficial imitation. Copies of the old masters
in this sense are produced by thousands; there are artists, as we have
said, who spend their lives in painting the works, or perhaps one single
work, of one illustrious painter over and over again: thus they
convert themselves into Guido machines, or Raphaelic machines. Their
performances, it is true, are often wonderfully deceptive to a careless
eye; but working entirely from the outside, and seeking only to
reproduce the surface, these men are sure to leave out that indefinable
nothing, that inestimable something, that constitutes the life and
soul through which the picture gets its immortality. Hilda was no
such machine as this; she wrought religiously, and therefore wrought a

It strikes us that there is something far higher and nobler in all this,
in her thus sacrificing herself to the devout recognition of the highest
excellence in art, than there would have been in cultivating her not
inconsiderable share of talent for the production of works from her own
ideas. She might have set up for herself, and won no ignoble name; she
might have helped to fill the already crowded and cumbered world with
pictures, not destitute of merit, but falling short, if by ever so
little, of the best that has been done; she might thus have gratified
some tastes that were incapable of appreciating Raphael. But this could
be done only by lowering the standard of art to the comprehension of
the spectator. She chose the better and loftier and more unselfish
part, laying her individual hopes, her fame, her prospects of enduring
remembrance, at the feet of those great departed ones whom she so loved
and venerated; and therefore the world was the richer for this feeble

Since the beauty and glory of a great picture are confined within
itself, she won out that glory by patient faith and self-devotion,
and multiplied it for mankind. From the dark, chill corner of a
gallery,--from some curtained chapel in a church, where the light came
seldom and aslant,--from the prince's carefully guarded cabinet, where
not one eye in thousands was permitted to behold it, she brought the
wondrous picture into daylight, and gave all its magic splendor for the
enjoyment of the world. Hilda's faculty of genuine admiration is one of
the rarest to be found in human nature; and let us try to recompense her
in kind by admiring her generous self-surrender, and her brave, humble
magnanimity in choosing to be the handmaid of those old magicians,
instead of a minor enchantress within a circle of her own.

The handmaid of Raphael, whom she loved with a virgin's love! Would it
have been worth Hilda's while to relinquish this office for the sake of
giving the world a picture or two which it would call original; pretty
fancies of snow and moonlight; the counterpart in picture of so many
feminine achievements in literature!

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Rate This Book

Current Rating: 2.5/5 (191 votes cast)

Review This Book or Post a Comment