The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 59

Happy the man who has two chain-cables: Merit, and Women.

Oh, that I, like Gerard, had a ‘chaine des dames’ to pull up by.

I would be prose laureat, or professor of the spasmodic, or something, in no time. En attendant, I will sketch the Fra Colonna.

The true revivers of ancient learning and philosophy were two writers of fiction — Petrarch and Boccaccio.

Their labours were not crowned with great, public, and immediate success; but they sowed the good seed; and it never perished, but quickened in the soil, awaiting sunshine.

From their day Italy was never without a native scholar or two, versed in Greek; and each learned Greek who landed there was received fraternally. The fourteenth century, ere its close, saw the birth of Poggio, Valla, and the elder Guarino; and early in the fifteenth Florence under Cosmo de Medici was a nest of Platonists. These, headed by Gemistus Pletho, a born Greek, began about A.D. 1440 to write down Aristotle. For few minds are big enough to be just to great A without being unjust to capital B.

Theodore Gaza defended that great man with moderation; George of Trebizond with acerbity, and retorted on Plato. Then Cardinal Bessarion, another born Greek, resisted the said George, and his idol, in a tract “Adversus calumniatorem Platonis.”

Pugnacity, whether wise or not, is a form of vitality. Born without controversial bile in so zealous an epoch, Francesco Colonna, a young nobleman of Florence, lived for the arts. At twenty he turned Dominican friar. His object was quiet study. He retired from idle company, and faction fights, the humming and the stinging of the human hive, to St. Dominic and the Nine Muses.

An eager student of languages, pictures, statues, chronology, coins, and monumental inscriptions. These last loosened his faith in popular histories.

He travelled many years in the East, and returned laden with spoils; master of several choice MSS., and versed in Greek and Latin, Hebrew and Syriac. He found his country had not stood still. Other lettered princes besides Cosmo had sprung up. Alfonso King of Naples, Nicolas d’Este, Lionel d’Este, etc. Above all, his old friend Thomas of Sarzana had been made Pope, and had lent a mighty impulse to letters; had accumulated 5000 MSS. in the library of the Vatican, and had set Poggio to translate Diodorus Siculus and Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, Laurentius Valla to translate Herodotus and Thucydides, Theodore Gaza, Theophrastus; George of Trebizond, Eusebius, and certain treatises of Plato, etc. etc.

The monk found Plato and Aristotle under armistice, but Poggio and Valla at loggerheads over verbs and nouns, and on fire with odium philologicum. All this was heaven; and he settled down in his native land, his life a rosy dream. None so happy as the versatile, provided they have not their bread to make by it. And Fra Colonna was Versatility. He knew seven or eight languages, and a little mathematics; could write a bit, paint a bit, model a bit, sing a bit, strum a bit; and could relish superior excellence in all these branches. For this last trait he deserved to be as happy as he was. For, gauge the intellects of your acquaintances, and you will find but few whose minds are neither deaf, nor blind, nor dead to some great art or science —

“And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.”

And such of them as are conceited as well as stupid shall even parade instead of blushing for the holes in their intellects.

A zealot in art, the friar was a sceptic in religion.

In every age there are a few men who hold the opinions of another age, past or future. Being a lump of simplicity, his sceptism was as naif as his enthusiasm. He affected to look on the religious ceremonies of his day as his models, the heathen philosophers, regarded the worship of gods and departed heroes: mummeries good for the populace. But here his mind drew unconsciously a droll distinction. Whatever Christian ceremony his learning taught him was of purely pagan origin, that he respected, out of respect for antiquity; though had he, with his turn of mind, been a pagan and its contemporary, he would have scorned it from his philosophic heights.

Fra Colonna was charmed with his new artist, and having the run of half the palaces in Rome, sounded his praises so, that he was soon called upon to resign him. He told Gerard what great princes wanted him. “But I am so happy with you, father,” objected Gerard. “Fiddlestick about being happy with me,” said Fra Colonna; “you must not be happy; you must be a man of the world; the grand lesson I impress on the young is, be a man of the world. Now these Montesini can pay you three times as much as I can, and they shall too-by Jupiter.”

And the friar clapped a terrific price on Gerard’s pen. It was acceded to without a murmur. Much higher prices were going for copying than authorship ever obtained for centuries under the printing press.

Gerard had three hundred crowns for Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric.

The great are mighty sweet upon all their pets, while the fancy lasts; and in the rage for Greek MSS. the handsome writer soon became a pet, and nobles of both sexes caressed him like a lap dog.

It would have turned a vain fellow’s head; but the canny Dutchman saw the steel hand beneath the velvet glove, and did not presume. Nevertheless it was a proud day for him when he found himself seated with Fra Colonna at the table of his present employer, Cardinal Bessarion. They were about a mile from the top of that table; but never mind, there they were and Gerard had the advantage of seeing roast pheasants dished up with all their feathers as if they had just flown out of a coppice instead of off the spit: also chickens cooked in bottles, and tender as peaches. But the grand novelty was the napkins, surpassingly fine, and folded into cocked hats, and birds’ wings, and fans, etc., instead of lying flat. This electrified Gerard; though my readers have seen the dazzling phenomenon without tumbling backwards chair and all.

After dinner the tables were split in pieces, and carried away, and lo, under each was another table spread with sweetmeats. The signoras and signorinas fell upon them and gormandized; but the signors eyed them with reasonable suspicion.

“But, dear father,” objected Gerard, “I see not the bifurcal daggers, with which men say his excellency armeth the left hand of a man.”

“Nay, ’tis the Cardinal Orsini which hath invented yon peevish instrument for his guests to fumble their meat withal. One, being in haste, did skewer his tongue to his palate with it, I hear; O tempora, O mores! The ancients, reclining godlike at their feasts, how had they spurned such pedantries.”

As soon as the ladies had disported themselves among the sugar-plums, the tables were suddenly removed, and the guests sat in a row against the wall. Then came in, ducking and scraping, two ecclesiastics with lutes, and kneeled at the cardinal’s feet and there sang the service of the day; then retired with a deep obeisance: In answer to which the cardinal fingered his skull cap as our late Iron Duke his hat: the company dispersed, and Gerard had dined with a cardinal and one that had thrice just missed being pope.

But greater honour was in store.

One day the cardinal sent for him, and after praising the beauty of his work took him in his coach to the Vatican; and up a private stair to a luxurious little room, with a great oriel window. Here were inkstands, sloping frames for writing on, and all the instruments of art. The cardinal whispered a courtier, and presently the Pope’s private secretary appeared with a glorious grimy old MS. of Plutarch’s Lives. And soon Gerard was seated alone copying it, awe-struck, yet half delighted at the thought that his holiness would handle his work and read it.

The papal inkstands were all glorious externally; but within the ink was vile. But Gerard carried ever good ink, home-made, in a dirty little inkhorn: he prayed on his knees for a firm and skilful hand, and set to work.

One side of his room was nearly occupied by a massive curtain divided in the centre; but its ample folds overlapped. After a while Gerard felt drawn to peep through that curtain. He resisted the impulse. It returned. It overpowered him. He left Plutarch; stole across the matted floor; took the folds of the curtain, and gently gathered them up with his fingers, and putting his nose through the chink ran it against a cold steel halbert. Two soldiers, armed cap-a-pie, were holding their glittering weapons crossed in a triangle. Gerard drew swiftly back; but in that instant he heard the soft murmur of voices, and saw a group of persons cringing before some hidden figure.

He never repeated his attempt to pry through the guarded curtain; but often eyed it. Every hour or so an ecclesiastic peeped in, eyed him, chilled him, and exit. All this was gloomy, and mechanical. But the next day a gentleman, richly armed, bounced in, and glared at him. “What is toward here?” said he.

Gerard told him he was writing out Plutarch, with the help of the saints. The spark said he did not know the signor in question. Gerard explained the circumstances of time and space that had deprived the Signor Plutarch of the advantage of the spark’s conversation.

“Oh! one of those old dead Greeks they keep such a coil about.”

“Ay, signor, one of them, who, being dead, yet live.”

“I understand you not, young man,” said the noble, with all the dignity of ignorance. “What did the old fellow write? Love stories?” and his eyes sparkled: “merry tales, like Boccaccio.”

“Nay, lives of heroes and sages.”

“Soldiers and popes?”

“Soldiers and princes.”

“Wilt read me of them some day?”

“And willingly, signor. But what would they say who employ me, were I to break off work?”

“Oh, never heed that; know you not who I am? I am Jacques Bonaventura, nephew to his holiness the Pope, and captain of his guards. And I came here to look after my fellows. I trow they have turned them out of their room for you.” Signor Bonaventura then hurried away. This lively companion, however, having acquired a habit of running into that little room, and finding Gerard good company, often looked in on him, and chattered ephemeralities while Gerard wrote the immortal lives.

One day he came a changed and moody man, and threw himself into chair, crying, “Ah, traitress! traitress!” Gerard inquired what was his ill? “Traitress! traitress!” was the reply. Whereupon Gerard wrote Plutarch. Then says Bonaventura, “I am melancholy; and for our Lady’s sake read me a story out of Ser Plutarcho, to soothe my bile: in all that Greek is there nought about lovers betrayed?”

Gerard read him the life of Alexander. He got excited, marched about the room, and embracing the reader, vowed to shun “soft delights,” that bed of nettles, and follow glory.

Who so happy now as Gerard? His art was honoured, and fabulous prices paid for it; in a year or two he should return by sea to Holland, with good store of money, and set up with his beloved Margaret in Bruges, or Antwerp, or dear Augsburg, and end their days in peace, and love, and healthy, happy labour. His heart never strayed an instant from her.

In his prosperity he did not forget poor Pietro. He took the Fra Colonna to see his picture. The friar inspected it severely and closely, fell on the artist’s neck, and carried the picture to one of the Colonnas, who gave a noble price for it.

Pietro descended to the first floor; and lived like a gentleman.

But Gerard remained in his garret. To increase his expenses would have been to postpone his return to Margaret. Luxury had no charms for the single-hearted one, when opposed to love.

Jacques Bonaventura made him acquainted with other gay young fellows. They loved him, and sought to entice him into vice, and other expenses. But he begged humbly to be excused. So he escaped that temptation. But a greater was behind.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33