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Here And There In Italy

( Originally Published 1914 )



A FEW years passed before another opportunity came for devoting any considerable time to the hunt for works of art in Italy. I had been enjoying an unusually successful mountaineering season, which was suddenly terminated by storms and snowfalls of exceptional ferocity. All the high peaks became inaccessible, and climbers were driven away home in crowds before their appointed dates. I spent a week walking up hills in the neighbourhood of the Italian Lakes, and it was while seated on the summit of one of them that a sudden and irresistible desire came upon me to turn my back on the snow-laden Alps, and take up again in the cities of North Italy the old hunt which had been so successful in 1887.

I had observed that the great dealers in London, Paris, and elsewhere obtained much of their stock from smaller but still important dealers who were themselves, respectively, the most important in such cities as Milan, Venice, Florence, and the like. These dealers in turn gathered what they had for sale by going the rounds of the yet smaller men, beneath whom again were the scouts who visited the villages and attended the country sales. As at each step up this scale prices were at least doubled, it was evident that whoso would buy cheap must go as near the fountain-head as possible. My former campaign had been amongst the smaller dealers, but it occurred to me that if I pursued my search into the villages themselves I might be yet more fortunate. It was a pretty plan, but there were a good many villages and country villas in Italy, and it had not occurred to me that to ransack them would be work for several lifetimes, rather than for a few autumnal weeks, which were all I had to spare.

There was, however, a district famed for its beauty which I had long wished to visit. It was actually at my feet on the hill where I was at the moment sitting when my determination was formed. It was the Brianza—that region of chaotic little hills and lakes, with villas and villages patched about, which lies between Como and Lecco, and stretches out somewhat southward, having been shaped and fashioned out of the terminal moraines of the vast Alpine glaciers of the Ice Age, reaching out at their furthest toward the great Lombard Plain. I decided to traverse this region on foot, combining the enjoyment of its beautiful landscapes with a hunt for works of art in its villages, farmhouses, and villas. I started early one morning a few days later from Bellaggio, with Burton's story of his journey to Mecca in one pocket, and some light provisions in another. How well I still remember the beauty of the way as I mounted along the backbone of the ridge dividing the two arms of Como Lake, with a fine disregard of roads and even footpaths, and no kind of idea whither I was going or what I was going to do.

Presently I passed over a col, and began the descent of the Val Assina. I lunched by the roadside near a village, and instituted casual enquiries as to whether anyone about had any old things to sell. It soon became apparent that everything not new was alike " antica" in these parts.

Before long I thought I was hot on the scent of something really precious ; exactly what it was I could not learn. It was to be very beautiful, very old, I gathered, and I should find it in that farm away off up a long hillside on which the sun was shining hotly. I toiled exceedingly in the ascent, and arrived gasping at the door. My enquiries elicited an immediate response. I was taken into a room, and the thing proved to be a much damaged spinet of London make ! It was not exactly what I had expected, and I went on my way rather crestfallen. I need not describe other the like adventures and disappointments in detail. One day was as little fruitful as another. I pursued false scents and found nothing ; or what I found was absurdly different from what I wanted.

The hunt, however, was very amusing. There was talk with all sorts and conditions of men and women—farmers, priests, road-menders, labourers, carriers, and what not. I slept in curious places ; the scenery everywhere was lovely. Most beautiful of all was an evening spent at Erba, where I dined on a terrace commanding a most glorious view over all the Brianza, flooded with the blue shadows that drown it at sunset, when the hilltops are golden and all the sky aflame.

At last, however, I met with a very intelligent person, who seemed to understand exactly what I was after. "Would you like to find an old sculptured figure? " he asked, "because I think I can tell you where to look for one which is really very precious and beautiful. It belongs to some people at the village of Barni, whom you will easily find if you care to walk there."

I had been at Barni and found nothing, but then, no doubt, I had missed these people. I did not want to go back on a wild-goose chase ; so I made very careful enquiries. "What kind of a figure was it ? " I enquired. "Male or female? And how big? "

"Oh, it was the figure of a man about one metre high and finely made. It was very old, very, very old ; as old as the figures you can see all over the Cathedral at Milan, and as fine as any of them."

Was it a marble figure," I asked, " or one of commoner stone, or, perhaps, terra-cotta ? "

"It was surely marble, very beautiful marble, and there was some colour on it, but not much. Perhaps it was once coloured all over, but now there is only colour on some parts—the hair, I think, and, perhaps, the clothes, but that I don't rightly remember."

"How did the owners of it get it? Did it come from a church or did it belong to their house? "

"I don't know how they got it. I only know that they and their forefathers have owned it as long as anyone remembers. People have wanted to buy it, but they would not part with it. But now the old man is dead, and the children sell it so as to divide the price between them."

Accordingly I set off and walked back to the village of Barni, and the people sought were soon found. Yes! They had a beautiful figure for sale, very old, and sculptured in stone, a thing of great value. Sad were they to have to part with it, but there was no help for it. People had offered good prices for it, but not what it was worth, and I might have it if I paid what they were asking.

Could I see the figure? Alas, no! It was no longer in their house. Up till yesterday it had been, but then they had sent it away to their relative at Bellaggio. He was a man of influence and position, sacristan and bell-ringer at the parish church there. He would have no difficulty in getting a good price for it from the foreign visitors there. Perhaps he had already sold it.

This talk took place beside a fountain where the water gushed out from a pipe protruding from a roughly carved sandstone head intended to represent Victor Emmanuel—a type of fountain-head common in these parts. The evening was coming on, and the shadows were creeping down the hills ; the water plashed musically into the great stone trough where the village girls had been washing their linen, which was now spread to dry. By this time I was fairly determined to run the elusive sculpture to earth, so I decided, without hesitation, to go back to Bellaggio, and hunt up the " man of influence and position."

It was the following day before I reached Bellaggio Church and enquired for the sacristan. He was not forth coming. He had gone away for the day on business of importance. My heart sank within me. What other business could he have but to dispose of the statue? Did they know whether he had a statue to sell, or whether he had taken it away with him? Oh, yes, he had a statue to sell, a fine old statue ! It was brought to him from the country only the day before. But he had not taken it away with him. He had caused it to be carried up into a chamber in the church tower, and there he had locked it in. When he went away he took the key with him, and till he re-turned no one could enter. But he would be back tomorrow and then I could see it. Till to-morrow I should have to wait. I asked what the statue was like, but no one could describe it. All they knew was that it was very old, very beautiful, and very precious, worth perhaps hundreds of francs. If I chose to wait I should see it, and could judge for myself.

Next day I was early on hand in a regular fever of impatience, which I did my best to hide. The sacristan was forthcoming, and the key. We entered the tower and mounted what seemed interminable steps. The old fellow was very garrulous, and full of praise of his treasure, but I paid little attention to him, as in a moment I should be able to see for myself. We came to the door of the bell-chamber, and the lock would not open. The key was tried one way and another. Much kicking and banging followed. They were just going to send for a locksmith when the door gave way, and we entered a pitch-dark place. I could dimly discern something standing upright in the far corner. As I was making my way toward it, the shutters opened, and a burst of sunlight illumined the vast moustache of another figure of Victor Emmanuel, if anything worse than the fountain-head of Barni ! " Is this your wonderful statue? " I cried. " Certainly, that is it. Is it not beautiful ? It is very, very old ! " That was the end of my attempts to go behind the little dealers and discover Old Masters for myself in North Italian villages.

With much humility I made my way by boat over to Cadenabbia, and comforted myself by purchasing on the quay a quantity of excellent wrought-iron work, and a delightful sculptured and painted wooden group of St. Anne with the Virgin and Child, by an Augsburg artist, all for 150 francs. The iron candelabra would be worth more than that now. The dealer had a ton or so of good old wrought-iron strewn about him, but it seemed then so common that it was impossible to believe how soon such stuff would become difficult to find, and I had little use for it. The train carried me off to Brescia, and into the arms of Luigi Felisina once more. Whither he led me I no longer remember, save that we paid an early visit to Nobile Mignani. By some obscure route word had reached him that the picture he formerly sold me was a good one, and that he might have asked for it a larger price than I had paid. In consequence, all his prices had gone up to absurd figures, but as he had nothing I would have carried away if he had given it to me, this was not of any consequence. One thing was evident enough, however, all over Brescia, the general run of prices for everything old had everywhere increased. There were no more ten-franc Old Masters, however bad. Still, I was able to make one or two acquisitions, and to see interesting works which were on sale, but beyond my range. There was a whole collection of paintings, some of them valuable, in the Casa Carlini, and I greatly coveted a brilliant fragment of Romanino fresco which they would only part with if I purchased also some more costly work.

After one or two more false starts, Luigi took me to a studio where, to my astonishment, I saw what looked like three of the finest heads from Mr. Henry Willett's series of decorative portraits, and indeed it immediately appeared that they actually did belong to the same series. They were originally painted as a frieze, and used to decorate a room in the Gonzaga Castle of San Martino di Gusnaja between Mantua and Brescia. The panels purchased by Mr. Willett were forty-four in number, and they " formed a frieze on two opposite walls, and on each side of the deep beam which cuts across the centre of the room parallel with the other panels." All these " were entirely concealed by the numerous coats of paint applied over them by successive tenants of the building." It was only by an accident that the existence of paintings in that position was discovered. The panels were taken down, and Mr. Willett had the enterprise to buy them uncleaned, with nothing but a little paint showing through here and there. They were skilfully cleaned by Prof. Church, and immediately attracted much attention. Again, to quote Mr. A. J. Koop, writing in the Burlington Magazine, " By common consent the painter to whom the portraits are, ultimately at least, assigned is Bramantino." The whole series was evidently designed and the best heads painted by a first-fate master influenced by Foppa, but several of the panels betray the hand of assistants.

It was supposed that the forty-four thus found completed the set, but two or three years later it was noticed that there were some more panels, whose existence had not been suspected, at the principal end of the room, I believe over a fireplace. Three panels were thus added to the series, and one of these proved to be in faultless preservation, and I had the luck to capture it. The other two required considerable repainting, and ultimately went, I believe, to Germany. Mr. Koop is in error in supposing that my panel was one of the original forty-four ; neither was he aware of the other two. The total number now existing is forty-seven, and they are widely scattered. Mine occupied the central position at the most important end of the room, and appears to me, and to others who carefully studied the rest when they were all together, to be the best of the whole set.

" Mr. P. G. Konody," continues Mr. Koop in the article referred to, " has recently put forward* an ingenious theory, which, if proved true, would greatly enhance the value of these paintings, at any rate, in the eyes of those to whom a great name, attached with more or less justification to an art object, is a fetish. It is to the effect that, though owing their origin to a set of paintings in fresco by Bramantino, our panels are not by his hand, but are the actual copies mentioned by Vasari t (in the Life of Piero della Francesca) as having been prepared just before the destruction of the original pictures. These copies, says Vasari, were made for Raphael by one of his pupils " to the end that he might possess the likeness of the persons represented ; for these were all great personages." Curiously enough, these original portraits, which are thus en passant referred to in Vasari's Life of Piero della Francesca, are completely ignored by the author in his short but comprehensive sketch of Bramantino, while of the copies, which after Raphael's death were presented by his heir, Giulio Romano, to Paolo Giovio, no further trace has hitherto been found. Now, seeing that Giovio stood for many years in the position of friend and adviser to that insatiable art collector, Isabella d'Este, what more probable than that the copies were transferred to the Duchess's collection, and are in actual fact these very panels from the Gonzaga Castle ? The probability is further strengthened, as Mr. Konody points out, by the absence of any Gonzaga portrait among the series, and by the fact that these are in tempera on wood, as might be expected in copies from what were doubt-less frescoes. Whatever conclusion may be finally arrived at as regards the artist responsible for the portraits, or the persons represented, all will agree as to the super-excellent merits of the paintings per se. Such grace and refinement, such delicately restrained characterisation, are found only in the great masters of the period."

It presently appeared, after we had left the studio with the newly acquired picture, that Luigi had kept what he considered to be his bonne bouche till the last. This proved to be a panel painting of " Christ Crowned with Thorns," by Solario--a picture brilliant in colour, and perfect in preservation, besides being an important example of a rather rare artist. I would, of course, have preferred to drop upon a portrait by him, but hunters cannot often be choosers ; they have to follow whatever scent they happen to strike, hoping always that it may lead them to some record trophy. The subject of my picture was painted by Solario more than once. There is the well-known and highly finished example in the Poldi Pezzoli collection at Milan, an early work, in which, as likewise in his landscape backgrounds, he comes closer to the effect aimed at by fifteenth-century Flemish artists than he does in his later pictures. The central figure from my picture was several times repeated, either by the artist himself or in his studio. Such repetitions are in the Lützschena Gallery, and in the collection of Mr. J. G. Johnson at Philadelphia. Another example was for sale in London about 1891. Besides these there are versions in the Crespi Gallery at Milan, and one with-out arms in the Bergamo Gallery. A good copy was sold in the de Somzée sale, and there is one signed by Simon de Chalons, and dated 1543 in the Borghese Gallery.

Our picture had a wretched gaudy frame, but fate was keeping a real beauty in reserve for it. We only found that, however, a good many years later, when motoring about in France. It happened that we stopped for a night in Avignon. Though the hour was late and twilight already coming on, I plunged into the dark recesses of an antiquity shop, kept by a merry old lady, who followed me about with a candle. I was not long in noticing the frame, and its excellent carving. A rococo addition had been fixed on the top, and a mirror had replaced the picture it originally contained. I said, " That will just fit our Solario." It was a lucky guess, because, when we had brought it home we found it to fit with the most perfect accuracy. In the same shop was one of those large leather-covered, brass-nail-studded, round-topped trunks, so popular with wealthy travellers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We had recently been at Grignan, and had mentioned our visit to the old lady. Then you must certainly buy Madame de Sevigné's trunk," said she, and buy it we did ; not that I have any reason to suppose that it had anything to do with Madame de Sevigné, beyond existing in her lifetime, but because it was a fine example of its kind, in good condition, and the nail-heads are arranged in a pretty pattern of lilies and stars.

Here will, perhaps, be the best place to include a very beautiful little panel which I picked up at Lausanne one year on my way back to England from the Alps. It has often been exhibited, and has caused the critics more than enough trouble, whilst no two of them, so far as I know, have yet agreed upon a name for the painter of it. Venturi assigned it to Gian Francesco de Maineri, painter and miniaturist of Parma. Others have suggested some unknown Romagna artist in the neighbourhood of Cotignola. To me (though no one agrees with me) it seems the kind of work that Lorenzo Costa might have painted in his youth. Whoever the artist may have been, he certainly produced a very charming little picture, in which I can find no trace of the feeling of a miniaturist, but rather of a man who designed as though he were accustomed to paint large altar-pieces with life-size figures. The Virgin is seated on an elevated and elaborate marble throne, sculptured and inlaid, the kind of throne beloved by Ferrarese and Bologna painters. The child stands erect upon her knee. A beautiful carpet with a gold ground is under her feet, the kind of carpet that would make a sensation in a New York auction-room if it could now be forthcoming ; but the like of it, I believe, nowhere exists. On either hand in front stands one of the brother physician saints, Cosmas and Damian, in rich red robes. There is a fine dais overhead, and a pair of floating cherubs, and in the lacustrine landscape back-ground, before queer-shaped hills, are St. Eustace and the magic stag on one side, and St. George overcoming the. dragon on the other. Nor must I forget to mention the two peacocks that stand on the shoulders of the Virgin's throne. The composition retains much of the architectural symmetry of an earlier day, and combines it with the reserve and plain good faith of those religious painters of the fifteenth century, whom their religion served and fitted as his armour a knight. But there is superadded to all this a charm of colour, a grace of design, and a sense of decoration which endow the whole with a singular power to please, so that almost everyone that looks at it takes pleasure in it, whether they already possess a liking for Old Masters or not.

And yet, when we look at this picture, there is a drop of bitter in our cup of sweetness ; for along with it in the same house there hung a small profile portrait of a man, painted, as I then believed, by the same artist It was really a charming little panel, and we wanted it sorely. We thought, however, that we were extravagant in buying the Madonna, and contented ourselves with that, feeling comfortably virtuous in the sense of abnegation wherewith we left the other. It was a foolish and costly economy, because the portrait would be invaluable now, not merely as a precious thing in itself, but as throwing light on the authorship of both. I have never been able to discover what happened to it. It has not found its way into any collection known to me, nor has it appeared in the sale-room. Perhaps it still lingers unregarded in some Lausanne house. When it re-appears, it will be far too costly for us to buy, Five hundred francs was all they then asked for it. Alas, for the neglected opportunities of the old days !



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