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Finding Of A Foppa

( Originally Published 1914 )



I HEADED each of the preceding chapters in turn, "How I Found a Foppa," and have had to change it, for still the actual adventure eludes my pen ; but I vow this time that the story shall be gotten rid of before this third chapter closes, even if I have to stretch it out to a hundred pages. Of course, the simple fact, which might have been told in two lines, is that in Milan I found no Foppa at all. Hunt high, hunt low as I might, starting early and returning late, no Foppa was discoverable be-cause none was in the market then, nor, I believe, has any turned up since in the Lombard capital. My twenty-franc piece was beginning to lie more than lightly in my pocket, and looked like taking flight. But this was not the worst. To my horror, I now discovered that my own domestic prestige was in peril. A bet taken in the presence of one's wife, it seems, has got to be won, or she will be shamed by her husband's humiliation. Perish the thought! Frizzoni had found a Foppa, then why not also I? If there were none in Milan, one must be sought elsewhere. Foppa did not only live in Milan ; where else did he live? Brescia? Well, then, off with me by the first train next day to Brescia, and "don't come back without a Foppa"! Here was a pretty kettle of fish ! There was no doubt what had to be done, so off I went next morning by an eight-thirty train to Brescia.

Arrived there, I left my bag at the station, and wandered forth on foot into the town. The apparent hopelessness of my quest came upon me, and I determined to commit my fate to chance. The whole town seemed to resound with the hammering of copper. In the front of one little open workshop after another sat a workman beating out some copper vessel, and behind and around him were piles and heaps of the finished product. Who on earth could want so many copper vessels? I watched the copper workers, and then the people passing me on the pavement. I don't know what I expected to find in their faces. Presently, a kindly looking, intelligent person attracted my attention, and I made bold to address him.

" I want to buy some old pictures," I said. " Can you tell me how to set to work to find them? "

"Certainly," he replied. "Go to the Italia Inn and ask for Luigi. He will be there, or not far off. He makes it his business to know who has pictures to sell, and he takes strangers about and makes his living that way. They call him Luigi dell' Italia."

I thanked the gentleman and took his advice. At the Italia I found Luigi, an energetic and apparently honest person, as such touts go. He has been dead long years now. I afterward learnt that he had been serviceable to many collectors in his day. Mr. Henry Willett acquired through him that remarkable set of decorative portrait heads from the Castle of San Martino, which are now scattered through various museums—the Victoria and AIbert, the New York Metropolitan, and others—whereof more anon.

Luigi at once took me in hand. I was careful not to tell him anything about Foppa, though it would not have mattered if I had told him, for he had never heard of Foppa, nor could he tell the work of one artist from another's. " I will take you first," he said, "to a house. full of old pictures. It belongs to Nobile Angelo Mignani. He is an old fellow who paints, and he gives small sums for any old pictures that people bring him. These he is almost always willing to sell."

The house was at no great distance, and we were at once admitted. It was a tall and spacious dwelling, in a rather narrow street. Internally, it was much out of repair, and the great staircase was dark. We found the noble Angelo at home, and delighted with the chance of a bargain. He and Luigi greeted one another as old conspirators, and I felt like a chicken about to be plucked in their hands. They played up to one another, and echoed each other's praises of this and that. The storeys of the house seemed as interminable as those of a sky-scraper, but that was because they were so full of things. On the first floor the rooms contained framed pictures, carved chests, heavy furniture, hangings, and church draperies. I wish I had the chance of choosing amongst them now, for then I understood only pictures, and not many styles of them. However, all the pictures I saw were bad. Some worse than others, but none in the least attractive to me. So we went up to the next storey, where things were more dilapidated, frames incomplete, panels cracked, canvases torn. The pictures down below had all been fairly complete, and were, at least, gay with bright and often new colours. Noble Angelo now told me that he had restored them himself, while these pictures were waiting their turn. He took them as he felt inclined. I believe him to have been the worst restorer that ever lived. He painted on an old altar-piece as a child paints in a pattern-book, using only three or four shrill colours, and laying them on thickly within uncertain outlines.

Higher up, we came to rooms filled with broken altar-pieces, unframed panels, and piles of canvases. They stood in rows, leaning against one another, twenty or thirty deep. I worked steadily through them hour after hour, and all were bad. Thus in some almost abandoned house in Belgravia, perhaps, in the twenty-third century, the sweepings of the rejected pictures of nineteenth-century Academy exhibitions may drift together, still begging for a purchaser, and a collector may turn the wrecks over and wonder how such pictures came to be painted, and, even more, by what mischance they have survived. With less and less hope, I mounted higher and higher, and we all became dejected—they, because nothing they showed could tempt me to buy, and I because I found no Foppa nor any even moderately desirable picture.

At long last we reached the very highest attic, and in it a room called the studio, into which we climbed by a ladder. Here it was that the noble Angelo did his work of refreshment to the wrecks that came into his hands. As the door opened, I saw the floor wholly heaped up with panel pictures over all the area displayed. But yonder, what was that? My heart almost ceased to beat. There at the far end, leaning against the wall, with a number of smaller predella panels leaning against it, I beheld the top half of a small Madonna picture, and the face of the Virgin was the face of a Foppa and no other, I said nothing. I hardly dared to look that way; in fact, I turned my back on the disgraced treasure and began examining a village altar-piece mounted on a large easel, and in the process of undergoing final destruction at Mignani's hands. It had never been anything but a third-rate work, and evil had been the days through which it had passed ; but the candles that had fallen against and burnt it had not left such abominable traces as those of noble Angelo's brush. Far other was his opinion, as he pointed out his work with pride. I had to say that the picture was too big for me. Then he began on the predella panels. There must have been a hundred of them on the floor, poor, wretched things, dishonoured in their making, their life, and their fate. He saw it was no use, and evidently did not think the Foppa Madonna likely to be any more attractive to me than the rest. So we looked out of the window and admired the really wonderful view over the roofs of the town and away to the foothills of the Alps. The sun was shining ; the noise of distant copper beating, wafted by a soft breeze, mingled with the hum of the nearer streets. " Well," I said, " I must be going ; but I want something by which to remember this visit. How much do you ask for that Madonna there against the wall? He named a moderate price, and I accepted it. The thing was wrapped up in an old newspaper. Luigi hitched it under his arm, and noble Angelo conducted us down the ladder and all the dark stairs, and so out into the street. " I will now go and lunch," I said, " but first show me the way to the telegraph office." It was not far off. " I have bought the Foppa," I wired. What happened during the remainder of the day I do not remember. But that night a mysterious thing occurred, for which I have never been able to account, except upon the assumption that some evil spirit was

enraged with me and wanted to pay me out for having out-witted him in the matter of the Foppa.

In my bedroom in the hotel there were some hooks fastened in the underside of a beam, and so placed that clothes suspended from them hung clear out away from any wall. Even if you were to have swung them to and fro, they would not have reached any wall or come in contact with any other solid object short of the ceiling. Before going to bed, I wound up my watch, and then put it into the pocket of my waistcoat hanging upon one of the said hooks. I carefully locked the door of my room, jumped into bed, and, with pleasant thoughts of the Foppa and a triumphant home-going, was soon sound asleep. Bright sunlight awoke me early next morning, and I leapt out of bed. Reaching up for my watch to know the time, my fingers encountered broken glass in the pocket. This was surprising to begin with, but it was much more surprising to find, not merely the glass, but the dial of the watch broken, and presently to realise that the works also were smashed—smashed as though the whole thing had been pounded in a mortar with a heavy iron pestle. In that way the devil tried to get even with me. But I was glad that he had selected the watch instead of the picture on which to wreak his rage. One would have thought that if he had been angry about the picture he would have smashed it ; but he didn't. I have always wondered why.

Of course, I was back in Milan double-quick, with the old panel under my arm and glory on my head. The very next morning we called on Dr. Frizzoni, who rejoiced with us, and took us immediately to Morelli. There was, of course, no shadow of a doubt about the Foppa, for all its plastering with repaints. The face was untouched, and it told its story beyond possibility of mistake. So there were congratulations all round, and much discussion as to the relation of the new picture to others already known. But the one obvious necessity was to have the thing cleaned and its real surface and nature exposed. This meant that it had to be taken, and forthwith, to our good friend, then and ever since, Professor Luigi Cavenaghi, than whom no better physician for old Italian paintings has ever lived. Even in those days, he had accumulated an unrivalled experience, and possessed unexampled skill in this difficult art ; whilst since then an almost countless number of the greatest masterpieces in the world have passed through his hands.

All four of us accordingly made a rendezvous for the next day in Cavenaghi's studio, and duly kept it. The Foppa was placed on an easel and work at once began. Our hearts were in our throats with unutterable excitement, because it was still possible, nay, almost probable, that under the repaints we might find irreparable damage. Off from the child's head came his golden curls, and a red cap took their place. Other no less remarkable changes followed. The most extraordinary was with the landscape. Four successive landscapes there were, one on the top of another. Three came off without resistance, and disclosed the original beneath in perfect preservation. One wonders what kind of mania possessed people to deal thus with a picture. In this case, not an inch of the panel, except the Virgin's face, had escaped some botcher's hand, yet for all this over-painting there was no excuse. The picture underneath was in sound condition, except for one or two small injuries in unimportant places, each of them no larger than a threepenny piece. Foppa's own paint was as hard as enamel, and was quite unaffected by the solvents that swept away the later disfigurements. But when all of them had vanished that could be dissolved, there still remained on the Virgin's hood some very ancient and unnecessary repainting, which Professor Cavenaghi skilfully chipped off with the sharp edge of a knife gently tapped like a chisel. The sight of work so skilfully done was a joy to see. These last hard and opaque layers came away like the peelings of an onion, and finally the original painting was before us, almost as fresh as when it left the hand of the fifteenth-century artist. The crown of our satisfaction was thus complete, and we hugged ourselves with joy.

This, however, was not the end of our adventures with Foppa. Having found one picture by him after these exciting adventures and repeated disappointments, another fell into my hands like a mere gift from the gods a few days later. Brescia, of course, was to us, after this, a place of golden delight ; so we went there again very soon to spend a few days, during which time I made a careful study of the pictures of my period in the gallery, besides having further adventures with Luigi, then and in later years, of which more anon. I was particularly struck by a little picture of the Crucifixion by Foppa, which seemed then to me, and still remains, one of the most pathetic representations of that subject ever painted. With that well in my memory, it was impossible for me to fail in recognising a similar work by the same master if it happened to come my way.

A few days later I was in Bergamo, now more than ever on the hunt. Everyone who has been there will remember the rope railway by which one ascends to the upper town. I cannot now recall by what chance I was led that morning. It was, I know, the first jubilee day of Queen Victoria, and it brought me uncommon luck. The rope-train's upper terminus is in the ground floor of a house that commands a wonderful view over the Lombard Plain, then steaming and glimmering in mid-day splendour. Some luck took me further into that same house. I mounted its stone staircase to an upper floor and knocked at the door of an artist, who not only painted pictures, but added to his income by dealing in Old Masters. I bought an unimportant picture from him by way of setting the ball rolling, and then he recommended me to visit the school-master Gabezzeni, whom I had much difficulty in finding. The innkeeper in the house where once Colleoni lived helped me to run him fo earth, but not till he had tried to sell me some frescoed portraits of the Colleoni family still remaining on the walls of one of the rooms. I told him he ought to be ashamed of himself, and went off in dudgeon. The little schoolmaster had all the arts of a fisherman, and treated me as though I were a shy trout, to whom he offered his pictures like various flies. He would not approach the question of price till I had seen all his store, and he thought he had formed some idea of which I liked best. Of course, I correspondingly tried to mystify him, and so we played the game for an hour or two, both thoroughly enjoying ourselves. A number of neighbours formed, alternately, audience and chorus, and prevented the altercation from dropping or growing dull.

I was reminded of my friend Moberley Bell's story about the Cairo carpet-seller. A certain Anglo-Egyptian official saw and coveted a carpet in his shop. He inquired the price. " Thirty pounds," said the dealer. " Nonsense," said the official ; "I'll give you fifteen." The dealer tried to bargain, and suggested twenty-eight pounds, but the official stuck to his price and went his way. Next day he looked in again, offered his fifteen pounds, was refused, and went away. The process was repeated at intervals for some time, and always with the same result. One day the official saw this same carpet on the floor of a friend's room. " Hullo," he said, " you bought that carpet at Abdullah's ! How much did you pay for it ? " " Twelve pounds" was the reply.

" Twelve pounds ! Why, I've offered him fifteen pounds over and over again, and he always refused. How did you manage to get it for twelve ? " Off went the disgusted official to Abdullah and complained.

"You've sold for twelve pounds to Colonel the carpet which you have always refused to sell to me for fifteen. Why did you do that? "

"Sir," said he, " you came to my shop and asked the price of the carpet, and I told you thirty pounds. You said fifteen, which was all right so far ; and then I said twenty-eight. It was then your turn to raise your offer a little, and we should have talked together, and I would have sent out for coffee, and we would have bargained together in a kindly fashion, and by degrees, you going up a little and I coming down a good deal, we should have come to terms, and you would have bought the carpet. But you always rushed into my shop and said, ` I'll give you fifteen pounds,' and off you went. In that fashion, I would not have sold you the carpet till the end of my days. But what did Colonel do? He came to my shop and asked the price of the carpet, and I said ` Thirty pounds.' He in turn offered me five pounds. But he came in and sat down and we talked and bargained together, and by degrees, he raising his offers and I lowering my price, we came together, and I sold him the carpet for twelve pounds, which I would not sell to you for fifteen. To buy and sell as you would do may be all right for your people, but it is not our way. You had better go to the European stores if you want to buy like that."

The Italian dealers at the time I am writing of retained, and in out-of-the-way places they still retain, something of this Oriental attitude of mind. Buying and selling to them is not a mere matter of exchange of a thing against money ; it is a pleasant way of spending time and an opportunity for cultivating conversation. A bargain is not so much a matter of science as of art, in which each party has to display his human qualities, and not merely effect a deal, but obtain some insight into the character and quality of the other. Thus the schoolmaster and I wrestled together for an hour or two. I forget what the pictures were that he had for sale. One, I know, was a rather large canvas painted by Moroni, which had been partly burned in a church fire. The fragment remaining had been cut into pieces, with a single figure or mere head on each, and I began by buying a cherub for a few francs as a sort of entrée. The real pièce de resistance was the Foppa, which finally passed into my possession, and was duly removed to Milan when I returned there on the following day.

The picture represents a half-figure of the dead Christ, as it were, standing in the tomb, with the cross and other instruments of the Passion behind. It probably once farmed the top panel of a composite altar-piece, and perhaps the other dismembered panels are scattered in different museums. The Christ is of astonishing dignity and beauty, and the whole treatment of the subject, which is emblematic of the flesh and blood of the Eucharist, is very fine. The delicate light and shade of it, throwing the head into high relief and dissembling the accessories as merely decorative adjuncts, which do not attract the eye, but only serve to frame the figure, is unobtrusively clever in a high degree. The Brescia Virgin and Child was a brighter and more attractive picture, a decorative rendering of a traditional group. The Bergamo C. C. is an imaginative work of high originality, the like of which Foppa seldom if ever again produced.



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