Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Literary Residences.

Men of genius have usually been condemned to compose their finest works, which are usually their earliest ones, under the roof of a garret; and few literary characters have lived, like Pliny and Voltaire, in a villa or château of their own. It has not therefore often happened that a man of genius could raise local emotions by his own intellectual suggestions. Ariosto, who built a palace in his verse, lodged himself in a small house, and found that stanzas and stones were not put together at the same rate: old Montaigne has left a description of his library; “over the entrance of my house, where I view my court-yards, and garden, and at once survey all the operations of my family!”

There is, however, a feeling among literary men of building up their own elegant fancies, and giving a permanency to their own tastes; we dwell on their favourite scenes as a sort of portraits, and we eagerly collect those few prints, which are their only vestiges. A collection might be formed of such literary residences chosen for their amenity and their retirement, and adorned by the objects of their studies; from that of the younger Pliny, who called his villa of literary leisure by the endearing term of villula, to that of Cassiodorus, the prime minister of Theodoric, who has left so magnificent a description of his literary retreat, where all the elegancies of life were at hand; where the gardeners and the agriculturists laboured on scientific principles; and where, amidst gardens and parks, stood his extensive library, with scribes to multiply his manuscripts:— from Tycho Brahe’s, who built a magnificent astronomical house on an island, which he named after the sole objects of his musings Uranienburgh, or the Castle of the Heavens; — to that of Evelyn, who first began to adorn Wotton, by building “a little study,” till many years after he dedicated the ancient house to contemplation, among the “delicious streams and venerable woods, the gardens, the fountains, and the groves, most tempting for a great person and a wanton purse; and indeed gave one of the first examples to that elegancy since so much in vogue.”— From Pope, whose little garden seemed to multiply its scenes by a glorious union of nobility and literary men conversing in groups; — down to lonely Shenstone, whose “rural elegance,” as he entitles one of his odes, compelled him to mourn over his hard fate, when

————

Expense

Had lavish’d thousand ornaments, and taught

Convenience

to perplex him,

Art

to pall,

Pomp

to deject, and

Beauty

to displease.

We have all by heart the true and delightful reflection of Johnson on local associations, when the scene we tread suggests to us the men or the deeds, which have left their celebrity to the spot. We are in the presence of their fame, and feel its influence!

A literary friend, whom a hint of mine had induced to visit the old tower in the garden of Buffon, where the sage retired every morning to compose, passed so long a time in that lonely apartment as to have raised some solicitude among the honest folks of Montbard, who having seen the “Englishman” enter, but not return, during a heavy thunder-storm which had occurred in the interval, informed the good mayor, who came in due form, to notify the ambiguous state of the stranger. My friend is, as is well known, a genius of that cast who could pass two hours in the Tower of Buffon, without being aware that he had been all that time occupied by suggestions of ideas and reveries, which in some minds such a locality may excite. He was also busied with his pencil; for he has favoured me with two drawings of the interior and the exterior of this old tower in the garden: the nakedness within can only be compared to the solitude without. Such was the studying-room of Buffon, where his eye, resting on no object, never interrupted the unity of his meditations on nature.

In return for my friend’s kindness, it has cost me, I think, two hours in attempting to translate the beautiful picture of this literary retreat, which Vicq d’Azyr has finished with all the warmth of a votary. “At Montbard, in the midst of an ornamented garden, is seen an antique tower; it was there that Buffon wrote the History of Nature, and from that spot his fame spread through the universe. There he came at sunrise, and no one, however importunate, was suffered to trouble him. The calm of the morning hour, the first warbling of the birds, the varied aspect of the country, all at that moment which touched the senses, recalled him to his model. Free, independent, he wandered in his walks; there was he seen with quickened or with slow steps, or standing wrapped in thought, sometimes with his eyes fixed on the heavens in the moment of inspiration, as if satisfied with the thought that so profoundly occupied his soul; sometimes, collected within himself, he sought what would not always be found; or at the moments of producing, he wrote, he effaced, and rewrote, to efface once more; thus he harmonised, in silence, all the parts of his composition, which he frequently repeated to himself, till, satisfied with his corrections, he seemed to repay himself for the pains of his beautiful prose, by the pleasure he found in declaiming it aloud. Thus he engraved it in his memory, and would recite it to his friends, or induce some to read it to him. At those moments he was himself a severe judge, and would again re-compose it, desirous of attaining to that perfection which is denied to the impatient writer.”

A curious circumstance, connected with local associations, occurred to that extraordinary oriental student, Fourmont. Originally he belonged to a religious community, and never failed in performing his offices: but he was expelled by the superior for an irregularity of conduct not likely to have become contagious through the brotherhood — he frequently prolonged his studies far into the night, and it was possible that the house might be burnt by such superfluity of learning. Fourmont retreated to the college of Montaign, where he occupied the very chambers which had formerly been those of Erasmus; a circumstance which contributed to excite his emulation, and to hasten his studies. He who smiles at the force of such emotions, only proves that he has not experienced what are real and substantial as the scene itself — for those who are concerned in them. Pope, who had far more enthusiasm in his poetical disposition than is generally understood, was extremely susceptible of the literary associations with localities: one of the volumes of his Homer was begun and finished in an old tower over the chapel of Stanton Harcourt;1 and he has perpetuated the event, if not consecrated the place, by scratching with a diamond on a pane of stained glass this inscription:—

In the year 1718,

Alexander Pope

Finished here the f. . . .

fifth volume of

Homer

.2

It was the same feeling which induced him one day, when taking his usual walk with Harte in the Haymarket, to desire Harte to enter a little shop, where going up three pair of stairs into a small room, Pope said, “In this garret Addison wrote his Campaign!” Nothing less than a strong feeling impelled the poet to ascend this garret — it was a consecrated spot to his eye; and certainly a curious instance of the power of genius contrasted with its miserable locality! Addison, whose mind had fought through “a campaign!” in a garret, could he have called about him “the pleasures of imagination,” had probably planned a house of literary repose, where all parts would have been in harmony with his mind.

Such residences of men of genius have been enjoyed by some; and the vivid descriptions which they have left us convey something of the delightfulness which charmed their studious repose.

The Italian, Paul Jovius, has composed more than three hundred concise eulogies of statesmen, warriors, and literary men, of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries; but the occasion which induced him to compose them is perhaps more interesting than the compositions.

Jovius had a villa, situated on a peninsula, bordered by the Lake of Como. It was built on the ruins of the villa of Pliny, and in his time the foundations were still visible. When the surrounding lake was calm, the sculptured marbles, the trunks of columns, and the fragments of those pyramids which had once adorned the residence of the friend of Trajan, were still viewed in its lucid bosom. Jovius was the enthusiast of literature, and the leisure which it loves. He was an historian, with the imagination of a poet, and though a Christian prelate, almost a worshipper of the sweet fictions of pagan mythology; and when his pen was kept pure from satire or adulation, to which it was too much accustomed, it became a pencil. He paints with rapture his gardens bathed by the waters of the lake; the shade and freshness of his woods; his green slopes; his sparkling fountains, the deep silence and calm of his solitude! A statue was raised in his gardens to Nature! In his hall stood a fine statue of Apollo, and the Muses around, with their attributes. His library was guarded by a Mercury, and there was an apartment adorned with Doric columns, and with pictures of the most pleasing subjects dedicated to the Graces! Such was the interior! Without, the transparent lake here spread its broad mirror, and there was seen luminously winding by banks covered with olives and laurels; in the distance, towns, promontories, hills rising in an amphitheatre, blushing with vines, and the first elevation of the Alps, covered with woods and pasture, and sprinkled with herds and flocks.

It was in a central spot of this enchanting habitation that a cabinet or gallery was erected, where Jovius had collected with prodigal cost the portraits of celebrated men; and it was to explain and to describe the characteristics of these illustrious names that he had composed his eulogies. This collection became so remarkable, that the great men his contemporaries presented our literary collector with their own portraits, among whom the renowned Fernandez Cortes sent Jovius his before he died, and probably others who were less entitled to enlarge the collection; but it is equally probable that our caustic Jovius would throw them aside. Our historian had often to describe men more famous than virtuous; sovereigns, politicians, poets, and philosophers, men of all ranks, countries, and ages, formed a crowded scene of men of genius or of celebrity; sometimes a few lines compress their character, and sometimes a few pages excite his fondness. If he sometimes adulates the living, we may pardon the illusions of a contemporary; but he has the honour of satirising some by the honest freedom of a pen which occasionally broke out into premature truths.

Such was the inspiration of literature and leisure which had embellished the abode of Jovius, and had raised in the midst of the Lake of Como a cabinet of portraits; a noble tribute to those who are “the salt of the earth.”

We possess prints of Rubens’s house at Antwerp. That princely artist perhaps first contrived for his studio the circular apartment with a dome, like the rotunda of the Pantheon, where the light descending from an aperture or window at the top, sent down a single equal light — that perfection of light which distributes its magical effects on the objects beneath.3 Bellori describes it una stanza rotonda con un solo occhio in cima; the solo occhio is what the French term œil de bœuf; we ourselves want this single eye in our technical language of art. This was his precious museum, where he had collected a vast number of books, which were intermixed with his marbles, statues, cameos, intaglios, and all that variety of the riches of art which he had drawn from Rome:4 but the walls did not yield in value; for they were covered by pictures of his own composition, or copies by his own hand, made at Venice and Madrid, of Titian and Paul Veronese. No foreigners, men of letters, or lovers of the arts, or even princes, would pass through Antwerp without visiting the house of Rubens, to witness the animated residence of genius, and the great man who had conceived the idea. Yet, great as was his mind, and splendid as were the habits of his life, he could not resist the entreaties of the hundred thousand florins of our Duke of Buckingham, to dispose of this studio. The great artist could not, however, abandon for ever the delightful contemplations he was depriving himself of; and as substitutes for the miracles of art he had lost, he solicited and obtained leave to replace them by casts which were scrupulously deposited in the places where the originals had stood.

Of this feeling of the local residences of genius, the Italians appear to have been not perhaps more susceptible than other people, but more energetic in their enthusiasm. Florence exhibits many monuments of this sort. In the neighbourhood of Santa Maria Novella, Zimmerman has noticed a house of the celebrated Viviani, which is a singular monument of gratitude to his illustrious master, Galileo. The front is adorned with the bust of this father of science, and between the windows are engraven accounts of the discoveries of Galileo; it is the most beautiful biography of genius! Yet another still more eloquently excites our emotions — the house of Michael Angelo: his pupils, in perpetual testimony of their admiration and gratitude, have ornamented it with all the leading features of his life; the very soul of this vast genius put in action: this is more than biography! — it is living as with a contemporary!

1 The room is a small wainscoted apartment in the second floor, commanding a pleasant view.

2 The above inscription is a fac-simile of that upon the glass. The word fifth in the third line has been erased by Pope for want of room to complete it properly. It is scratched on a small pane of red glass, and has been removed to Nuneham Courtney, the seat of the Harcourt family, on the banks of the Thames, a few miles from Oxford.

3 Harrewyns published, in 1684, a series of interesting views of the house, and some of the apartments, including this domed one. The series are upon one folio sheet, now very rare.

4 Rubens was an ardent collector, and lost no chance of increasing his stores; in the appendix to Carpenter’s “Pictorial Notices of Vandyke” is printed the correspondence between himself and Sir D. Carleton, offering to exchange some of his own pictures for antiques in possession of the latter, who was ambassador from England to Holland, and who collected also for the Earl of Arundel.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/disraeli/isaac/curiosities/chapter264.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37