Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter lvi.

From Florence. — Remarks on the road between Bologna and Florence — visit to the monastery of La Trappe, with reflections on the monastic life — occasion of the institution of the order of La Trappe — the burning mountains near Fierenzuola — general description of Florence — the grand gallery — the statues of Antinous and Venus de Medicis — the first sketches of Raphael’s cartoons — envious behaviour of modern painters, in defacing the productions of the ancients — digressions to some reports raised by Mr P. concerning the writer.

To The Countess of ——.

[As this letter is the supplement to a preceding one, which is not come to the hands of the editor, it was probably, on that account, sent without a date. It seems evidently to have been written after Lady M. W. M. had fixed her residence in Italy.]

Saturday–Florence.

I SET out from Bologne the moment I had finished the letter I wrote you on Monday last, and shall now continue to inform you of the things that have struck me most in this excursion. Sad roads — hilly and rocky — between Bologna and Fierenzuola. Between this latter place and Florence, I went out of my road to visit the monastery of La Trappe, which is of French origin, and one of the most austere and self-denying orders I have met with. In this gloomy retreat, it gave me pain to observe the infatuation of men, who have devoutly reduced themselves to a much worse condition than that of the beasts. Folly, you see, is the lot of humanity, whether it arises in the flowery paths of pleasure, or the thorny ones of an ill-judged devotion. But of the two sorts of fools, I shall always think that the merry one has the most eligible fate; and I cannot well form a notion of that spiritual and ecstatic joy, that is mixed with sighs, groans, hunger and thirst, and the other complicated miseries of monastic discipline. It is a strange way of going to work for happiness, to excite an enmity between soul and body, which nature and providence have designed to live together in an union and friendship, and which we cannot separate like man and wife, when they happen to disagree. The profound silence that is enjoined upon the monks of La Trappe, is a singular circumstance of their unsociable and unnatural discipline; and were this injunction never to be dispensed with, it would be needless to visit them in any other character than as a collection of statues; but the superior of the convent suspended, in our favour, that rigorous law, and allowed one of the mutes to converse with me, and answer a few discreet questions. He told me, that the monks of this order in France are still more austere than those of Italy, as they never taste wine, flesh, fish, or eggs; but live entirely upon vegetables. The story that is told of the institution of this order is remarkable, and is well attested, if my information be good. Its founder was a French nobleman, whose name was Bouthillier da Rance, a man of pleasure and gallantry, which were converted into the deepest gloom of devotion, by the following incident. His affairs obliged him to absent himself for some time, from a lady with whom he had lived in the most intimate and tender connections of successful love. At his return to Paris, he proposed to surprise her agreeably; and, at the same time, to satisfy his own impatient desire of seeing her, by going directly, and without ceremony, to her apartment by a back stair, which he was well acquainted with. — But think of the spectacle that presented itself to him at his entrance into the chamber that had so often been the scene of love’s highest raptures! His mistress dead — dead of the small-pox — disfigured beyond expression — a loathsome mass of putrified matter — and the surgeon separating the head from the body, because the coffin had been made too short! He stood for a moment motionless in amazement, and filled with horror — and then retired from the world, shut himself up in the convent of La Trappe, where he passed the remainder of his days in the most cruel and disconsolate devotion. — Let us quit this sad subject.

I MUST not forget to tell you, that before I came to this monastery, I went to see the burning mountains near Fierenzuola, of which the naturalists speak as a great curiosity. The flame it sends forth is without smoke, and resembles brandy set on fire. The ground about it is well cultivated, and the fire appears only in one spot where there is a cavity, whose circumference is small, but in it are several crevices whose depths are unknown. It is remarkable, that when a piece of wood is thrown into this cavity, though it cannot pass through the crevices, yet it is consumed in a moment; and that though the ground about it be perfectly cold, yet if a stick be rubbed with any force against it, it emits a flame, which, however, is neither hot nor durable like that of the volcano. If you desire a more circumstantial account of this phenomenon, and have made a sufficient progress in Italian, to read father Carazzi’s description of it, you need not be at a loss, for I have sent this description to Mr F—— and you have only to ask it of him. After observing the volcano, I Scrambled up all the neighbouring hills, partly on horse-back, partly on foot, but could find no vestige of fire in any of them; though common report would make one believe that they all contain volcanos.

I HOPE you have not taken it in your head to expect from me a description of the famous gallery, here, where I arrived on Thursday at noon; this would be requiring a volume instead of a letter; besides I have as yet seen but a part of this immense treasure, and I propose employing some weeks more to survey the whole. You cannot imagine any situation more agreeable than Florence. It lies in a fertile and smiling valley watered by the Arno, which runs through the city; and nothing can surpass the beauty and magnificence of its public buildings, particularly the cathedral, whose grandeur filled me with astonishment. The palaces, squares, fountains, statues, bridges, do not only carry an aspect full of elegance and greatness, but discover a taste quite different, in kind, from that which reigns in the public edifices in other countries. The more I see of Italy, the more I am persuaded that the Italians have a style (if I may use that expression) in every thing, which distinguishes them almost essentially from all other Europeans. Where they have got it — whether from natural genius or ancient imitation and inheritance, I shall not examine; but the fact is certain. I have been but one day in the gallery, that amazing repository of the most precious remains of antiquity, and which alone is sufficient to immortalize the illustrious house of Medicis, by whom it was built, and enriched as we now see it. I was so impatient to see the famous Venus of Medicis, that I went hastily through six apartments, in order to get a sight of this divine figure; purposing, when I had satisfied this ardent curiosity, to return and view the rest at my leisure. As I, indeed, passed through the great room which contains the ancient statues, I was stopped short at viewing the Antinous, which they have placed near that of Adrian, to revive the remembrance of their preposterous loves; which, I suppose, the Florentines rather look upon as an object of envy, than of horror and disgust. This statue, like that of the Venus de Medicis, spurns description: such figures my eyes never beheld. — I can now understand that Ovid’s comparing a fine woman to a statue, which I formerly thought a very disobliging similitude, was the nicest and highest piece of flattery. The Antinous is entirely naked, all its parts are bigger than nature; but the whole, taken together, and the fine attitude of the figure, carry such an expression of ease, elegance and grace, as no words can describe. When I saw the Venus I was rapt in wonder — and I could not help casting a thought back upon Antinous. They ought to be placed together; they are worthy of each other. — If marble could see and feel, the separation might be prudent — if it could only see, it would certainly lose its coldness, and learn to feel; and, in such a case, the charms of these two figures would produce an effect quite opposite to that of the Gorgon’s head, which turned flesh into stone. Did I pretend to describe to you the Venus, it would only set your imagination at work to form ideas of her figure; and your ideas would no more resemble that figure, than the Portuguese face of Miss — — who has enchanted our knights, resembles the sweet and graceful countenance of lady —— his former flame. The description of a face or figure, is a needless thing, as it never conveys a true idea; it only gratifies the imagination with a fantastic one, until the real one is seen. So, my dear, if you have a mind to form a true notion of the divine forms and features of the Venus and Antinous, come to Florence.

I WOULD be glad to oblige you and your friend Vertue, by executing your commission with respect to the sketches of Raphael’s cartoons at Hampton-court; but I cannot do it to my satisfaction. I have, indeed, seen, in the grand duke’s collection, four pieces, in which that wonderful artist had thrown freely from his pencil the first thoughts and rude lines of some of these compositions; and as the first thoughts of a great genius are precious, these pieces attracted my curiosity in a particular manner; but when I went to examine them closely, I found them so damaged and effaced, that they did not at all answer my expectation. Whether this be owing to negligence or envy, I cannot say; I mention the latter, because it is notorious, that many of the modern painters have discovered ignoble marks of envy at a view of the inimitable productions Of the ancients. Instead of employing their art to preserve the master-pieces of antiquity, they have endeavoured to destroy and efface many of them. I have seen with my own eyes an evident proof of this at Bologna, where the greatest part of the paintings in fresco on the walls of the convent of St Michael in Bosco, done by the Carracci, and Guido Rheni, have been ruined by the painters, who, after having copied some of the finest heads, scraped them almost entirely out with nails. Thus, you see, nothing is exempt from human malignity.

THE word malignity, and a passage in your letter, call to my mind the wicked wasp of Twickenham; his lies affect me now no more; they will be all as much despised as the story of the seraglio and the handkerchief, of which I am persuaded he was the only inventor. That man has a malignant and ungenerous heart; and he is base enough to assume the mark of a moralist in order to decry human nature, and to give a decent vent to his hatred to man and woman kind. — But I must quit this contemptible subject, on which a just indignation would render my pen so fertile, that, after having fatigued you with a long letter, I would surfeit you with a supplement twice as long. Besides, a violent head-ach advertises me that it is time to lay down my pen and get me to bed. I shall say some things to you in my next, that I would have you to impart to the strange man, as from yourself. My mind is at present tolerably quiet; if it were as dead to sin, as it is to certain connections, I should be a great saint. Adieu, my dear madam.

Yours very affectionately, &c.

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