Italy And The German Professors
( Originally Published 1916 )
J. G. FRAZER
BISMARCK is said to have observed that Italy was only a geographical expression. If he did, the remark is merely interesting as proving that even the most practical German is only a pedant. That is, he is a person radically and incurably incompetent to grasp the real truth about anything. He is, indeed, a person all of whose expressions are merely geographical expressions. To him the atlas is more actual than the earth. Bismarck was much more of a failure than a success ; and even that in which he succeeded has now come near to destruction in forty years. With everything else he failed, and failed in a peculiar way ; not merely by under-rating his enemy, but by ignoring him. He would not see that the Pope was the Pope, or that the Poles were the Poles. In such cases he did not fall on his enemy like an enemy ; he fell over him —like a hassock. And his careful and brutal intelligence would certainly be quite bewildered if he saw the mountains of dead upon the Carso and the assaults in the cracks of the Alps, in which his geographical expression is now expressing itself.
In a highly helpless publication called The Continental Times, written by Germans for Americans, or rather (to speak more strictly) written by idiots for idiots, there was a passage threatening St. Mark's and the other monuments of Italian art and piety with destruction out of the sky. It attempted to justify the course of action by a curious argument drawn from the fact that the Italians had already taken certain precautions to protect them. The argument would seem to be that a man is not to blame for being a burglar, so long as somebody else entertained a strong suspicion that he was a burglar. Such subtleties, however, need not detain us ; for I only mention The Continental Times because it further decorated its defence with a fine flourish of contempt for " tourists "—who were apparently the only people who were interested in the existence of Italy. It is true that travellers are sometimes to be found beside the grave of Dante or the monument of the Medici ; and that these are often Teutons. It is true that Italy provides the tombs, while Germany provides the tourists ; but it has been alleged by some that the tombs do not look at the tourists, while the tourists do look at the tombs. There will be a good many graves in Germany before this business is over ; but none of us will go to see them.
The attitude of the German towards the history of Italy is suitable to the simple mind from which it sprang. It consists in saying that all great Italians were not legitimate Italians, but illegitimate Germans. Anonymous German mercenaries of unprecedented profligacy and omnipresent industry are conceived as having provided families for Italians of every status and social type. It is quite gravely asserted that the irresistible charms of some beery captain from the camps of Westphalia or the Rhineland must afford the true explanation of the subtlety of the Monna Lisa or the silvery sketches of Raphael. The supporters of such a theory are not disturbed by the reflection that it would be just as easy to sing the glory of Africa, by alleging that an escaped negro must have been the father of Dickens or Tennyson ; and that the incident would be infinitely more probable in the case of Emerson or Poe. They are not easily disturbed. The absence of evidence is to the dry and deductive Latin an obstacle, but to the creative Teuton an opportunity. Besides, the German professors do not wholly disdain to offer evidence, like gods condescending to work an occasional miracle fitted for the frailty of men. Need-less to say, their evidence, when they do give it, is as crushing as any miracle. Thus, Herr Woltmann actually saw the photograph of a picture of a crowd which contains a head which is said to have been meant for Benvenuto Cellini. And " to judge from the photograph, the eyes are light in colour, presumably blue, as blue eyes alone are wont to give in photography so light a reflex." There is a piece of patient German research for you ! There is nothing like going to the original authorities. And if some-body thought somebody had painted Cellini's eyes as blue, then they were blue ; and if they were blue his father was a German and his mother an undesirable person. Or again, Herr Woltmann found out, by similarly close and laborious researches, that Michael Angelo's name was Buonarotti. And he says, " Corresponding names are Macarodt, Ostereth, Leonard." If you or I had a son called Leonard, we should not perhaps fully realise that we had called him Macarodt ; or if we had been so misguided as to call our dog Ostereth, we should scarcely be surprised if he did not answer to the name of Buonarotti. But when we have added to this the fact that Michael Angelo was " of well-built body, sinewy and bony rather than fleshy and fat, sound, more than anything else, both by nature, by bodily exercise, and by abstinence, though as a child he was weakly and subject to fits," we feel somehow led on, we know not how, to a soul-moving and mysterious conviction that Michael Angelo was a German. The same principle is applied to Leonardo da Vinci, whose mother was " a robust and sound stamp of humanity," and therefore of German humanity ; and to Raphael, who " in his youth had light blond hair and bluish eyes, but with advancing age hair and eyes assumed a somewhat darker shading ; " a transition quite unknown outside the Germanies.
I have given some examples of this singular style in Italian history, because it is very largely upon towers of such trash that the whole huge edifice of Prussian scholarly prestige is erected. But it is still worth asking why it is that Italy has been so specially the playground of German pedants, as of German pleasure-seekers. After all, even such a lunatic as Woltmann would be a little bit staggered by the task of appropriating all the great men of a more settled and less varied nation. It is true that Mr. Houston Chamberlain calls Pascal " the true Germanic Lorrainer," and that Pascal was no more German than Houston Chamberlain himself. It is true that the German critics seem to treat Shakespeare as a German poet that is, as something very like a madman. But a faint sense of the comic might creep even into the German mind if, let us say, all the dramatists of the Elizabethan age, or all the orators of the French Revolution, were similarly proved to have been Germans. When we have reflected upon what is the reality behind this fantastic difference of treatment, we shall have partially discovered the great romance of modern Italy.
So far from its being the fact that wandering Germans have founded all the greatness of Italy, the truth is that wandering Italians have very largely founded the greatness that is to be discovered everywhere else. An Italian carried the French Revolution to its triumph over all the tyrannies of the world. An Italian carried the first ship of Spain to the new worlds which were to become the Spanish Empire. Again and again, in every corner of Europe, you will find the laying out of a garden or the erection of an observatory, a type of lyric, or a use of electricity ; and if you ask for the name to which it is owing, you will be answered in the Italian tongue. That flaming figure who was to our own immediate English fathers something almost dearer and more national than their own country, that figure in the red romantic shirt which. filled with shouting the London streets, was typical of the country he recreated in a manner that extended beyond its borders. Garibaldi was not only Italian in his valour, his swiftness, his strong loves, and his impetuous and unconscious dignity. He was, as it were, Italian in his omnipresence ; in that restless ubiquity which sent him, now to fight under the suns of South America, now to plead in London for the plundered fields of Denmark, now to take his station under the last tricolour of France that floated in the Terrible Year. And the meaning of modern Italy, of United Italy, of Italy a Nation, is this : It means that all these torrid streams of brain and blood that have everywhere turned so many mills, and borne so many ships of mankind, will now flow together to one end, and that their own. The Napoleon of the future will lead Italian armies. The Columbus of the future will lead Italian ships. And the world will see again the volcano and the harvest of the Italian soul, and the reinvigoration of that ancient and universal vine whose root is in Rome.