Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XXVIII

Nice, February 5, 1765.

DEAR SIR — Your entertaining letter of the fifth of last month, was a very charitable and a very agreeable donation: but your suspicion is groundless. I assure you, upon my honour, I have no share whatever in any of the disputes which agitate the public: nor do I know any thing of your political transactions, except what I casually see in one of your newspapers, with the perusal of which I am sometimes favoured by our consul at Villefranche. You insist upon my being more particular in my remarks on what I saw at Florence, and I shall obey the injunction. The famous gallery which contains the antiquities, is the third story of a noble stone-edifice, built in the form of the Greek Pi, the upper part fronting the river Arno, and one of the legs adjoining to the ducal-palace, where the courts of justice are held. As the house of Medici had for some centuries resided in the palace of Pitti, situated on the other side of the river, a full mile from these tribunals, the architect Vasari, who planned the new edifice, at the same time contrived a corridore, or covered passage, extending from the palace of Pitti along one of the bridges, to the gallery of curiosities, through which the grand-duke passed unseen, when he was disposed either to amuse himself with his antiquities, or to assist at his courts of judicature: but there is nothing very extraordinary either in the contrivance or execution of this corridore.

If I resided in Florence I would give something extraordinary for permission to walk every day in the gallery, which I should much prefer to the Lycaeum, the groves of Academus, or any porch or philosophical alley in Athens or in Rome. Here by viewing the statues and busts ranged on each side, I should become acquainted with the faces of all the remarkable personages, male and female, of antiquity, and even be able to trace their different characters from the expression of their features. This collection is a most excellent commentary upon the Roman historians, particularly Suetonius and Dion Cassius. There was one circumstance that struck me in viewing the busts of Caracalla, both here and in the Capitol at Rome; there was a certain ferocity in the eyes, which seemed to contradict the sweetness of the other features, and remarkably justified the epithet Caracuyl, by which he was distinguished by the antient inhabitants of North-Britain. In the language of the Highlanders caracuyl signifies cruel eye, as we are given to understand by the ingenious editor of Fingal, who seems to think that Caracalla is no other than the Celtic word, adapted to the pronunciation of the Romans: but the truth is, Caracalla was the name of a Gaulish vestment, which this prince affected to wear; and hence he derived that surname. The Caracuyl of the Britons, is the same as the upodra idon of the Greeks, which Homer has so often applied to his Scolding Heroes. I like the Bacchanalian, chiefly for the fine drapery. The wind, occasioned by her motion, seems to have swelled and raised it from the parts of the body which it covers. There is another gay Bacchanalian, in the attitude of dancing, crowned with ivy, holding in her right hand a bunch of grapes, and in her left the thyrsus. The head of the celebrated Flora is very beautiful: the groupe of Cupid and Psyche, however, did not give me all the pleasure I expected from it.

Of all the marbles that appear in the open gallery, the following are those I most admire. Leda with the Swan; as for Jupiter, in this transformation, he has much the appearance of a goose. I have not seen any thing tamer; but the sculptor has admirably shewn his art in representing Leda’s hand partly hid among the feathers, which are so lightly touched off, that the very shape of the fingers are seen underneath. The statue of a youth, supposed to be Ganymede, is compared by the connoisseurs to the celebrated Venus, and as far as I can judge, not without reason: it is however, rather agreeable than striking, and will please a connoisseur much more than a common spectator. I know not whether it is my regard to the faculty that inhances the value of the noted Esculapius, who appears with a venerable beard of delicate workmanship. He is larger than the life, cloathed in a magnificent pallium, his left arm resting on a knotted staff, round which the snake is twined according to Ovid.

Hunc modo serpentem baculum qui nexibus ambit Perspice —

Behold the snake his mystic Rod intwine.

He has in his hand the fascia herbarum, and the crepidae on his feet. There is a wild-boar represented lying on one side, which I admire as a master-piece. The savageness of his appearance is finely contrasted with the case and indolence of the attitude. Were I to meet with a living boar lying with the same expression, I should be tempted to stroke his bristles. Here is an elegant bust of Antinous, the favourite of Adrian; and a beautiful head of Alexander the Great, turned on one side, with an expression of languishment and anxiety in his countenance. The virtuosi are not agreed about the circumstance in which he is represented; whether fainting with the loss of blood which he suffered in his adventure at Oxydrace; or languishing with the fever contracted by bathing in the Cydnus; or finally complaining to his father Jove, that there were no other worlds for him to conquer. The kneeling Narcissus is a striking figure, and the expression admirable. The two Bacchi are perfectly well executed; but (to my shame be it spoken) I prefer to the antique that which is the work of Michael Angelo Buonaroti, concerning which the story is told which you well know. The artist having been blamed by some pretended connoisseurs, for not imitating the manner of the ancients, is said to have privately finished this Bacchus, and buried it, after having broke off an arm, which he kept as a voucher. The statue, being dug up by accident, was allowed by the best judges, to be a perfect antique; upon which Buonaroti produced the arm, and claimed his own work. Bianchi looks upon this as a fable; but owns that Vasari tells such another of a child cut in marble by the same artist, which being carried to Rome, and kept for some time under ground, was dug up as an antique, and sold for a great deal of money. I was likewise attracted by the Morpheus in touchstone, which is described by Addison, who, by the bye, notwithstanding all his taste, has been convicted by Bianchi of several gross blunders in his account of this gallery.

With respect to the famous Venus Pontia, commonly called de Medicis, which was found at Tivoli, and is kept in a separate apartment called the Tribuna, I believe I ought to be intirely silent, or at least conceal my real sentiments, which will otherwise appear equally absurd and presumptuous. It must be want of taste that prevents my feeling that enthusiastic admiration with which others are inspired at sight of this statue: a statue which in reputation equals that of Cupid by Praxiteles, which brought such a concourse of strangers of old to the little town of Thespiae. I cannot help thinking that there is no beauty in the features of Venus; and that the attitude is aukward and out of character. It is a bad plea to urge that the antients and we differ in the ideas of beauty. We know the contrary, from their medals, busts, and historians. Without all doubt, the limbs and proportions of this statue are elegantly formed, and accurately designed, according to the nicest rules of symmetry and proportion; and the back parts especially are executed so happily, as to excite the admiration of the most indifferent spectator. One cannot help thinking it is the very Venus of Cnidos by Praxiteles, which Lucian describes. “Hercle quanta dorsi concinnitas! ut exuberantes lumbi amplexantes manus implent! quam scite circumductae clunium pulpae in se rotundantur, neque tenues nimis ipsis ossibus adstrictae, neque in immensam effusae Pinguedinem!” That the statue thus described was not the Venus de Medicis, would appear from the Greek inscription on the base, KLEOMENIS APPOLLODOROI ATHINAIOS EPOESEI. Cleomenes filius Apollodori fecit; did we not know that this inscription is counted spurious, and that instead of EPOESEI, it should be EPOIESE. This, however, is but a frivolous objection, as we have seen many inscriptions undoubtedly antique, in which the orthography is false, either from the ignorance or carelessness of the sculptor. Others suppose, not without reason, that this statue is a representation of the famous Phryne, the courtesan of Athens, who at the celebration of the Eleusinian games, exhibited herself coming out of the bath, naked, to the eyes of the whole Athenian people. I was much pleased with the dancing faun; and still better with the Lotti, or wrestlers, the attitudes of which are beautifully contrived to shew the different turns of the limbs, and the swelling of the muscles: but, what pleased me best of all the statues in the Tribuna was the Arrotino, commonly called the Whetter, and generally supposed to represent a slave, who in the act of whetting a knife, overhears the conspiracy of Catiline. You know he is represented on one knee; and certain it is, I never saw such an expression of anxious attention, as appears in his countenance. But it is not mingled with any marks of surprise, such as could not fail to lay hold on a man who overhears by accident a conspiracy against the state. The marquis de Maffei has justly observed that Sallust, in his very circumstantial detail of that conspiracy, makes no mention of any such discovery. Neither does it appear that the figure is in the act of whetting, the stone which he holds in one hand being rough and unequal no ways resembling a whetstone. Others alledge it represents Milico, the freedman of Scaevinus, who conspired against the life of Nero, and gave his poignard to be whetted to Milico, who presented it to the emperor, with an account of the conspiracy: but the attitude and expression will by no means admit of this interpretation. Bianchi, [This antiquarian is now imprisoned for Life, for having robbed the Gallery and then set it on fire.] who shows the gallery, thinks the statue represents the augur Attius Navius, who cut a stone with a knife, at the command of Tarquinius Priscus. This conjecture seems to be confirmed by a medallion of Antoninus Pius, inserted by Vaillant among his Numismata Prestantiora, on which is delineated nearly such a figure as this in question, with the following legend. “Attius Navius genuflexus ante Tarquinium Priscum cotem cultro discidit.” He owns indeed that in the statue, the augur is not distinguished either by his habit or emblems; and he might have added, neither is the stone a cotes. For my own part, I think neither of these three opinions is satisfactory, though the last is very ingenious. Perhaps the figure allude to a private incident, which never was recorded in any history. Among the great number of pictures in this Tribuna, I was most charmed with the Venus by Titian, which has a sweetness of expression and tenderness of colouring, not to be described. In this apartment, they reckon three hundred pieces, the greatest part by the best masters, particularly by Raphael, in the three manners by which he distinguished himself at different periods of his life. As for the celebrated statue of the hermaphrodite, which we find in another room, I give the sculptor credit for his ingenuity in mingling the sexes in the composition; but it is, at best, no other than a monster in nature, which I never had any pleasure in viewing: nor, indeed, do I think there was much talent required in representing a figure with the head and breasts of a woman, and all the other parts of the body masculine. There is such a profusion of curiosities in this celebrated musaeum; statues, busts, pictures, medals, tables inlaid in the way of marquetry, cabinets adorned with precious stones, jewels of all sorts, mathematical instruments, antient arms and military machines, that the imagination is bewildered, and a stranger of a visionary turn, would be apt to fancy himself in a palace of the fairies, raised and adorned by the power of inchantment.

In one of the detached apartments, I saw the antependium of the altar, designed for the famous chapel of St. Lorenzo. It is a curious piece of architecture, inlaid with coloured marble and precious stones, so as to represent an infinite variety of natural objects. It is adorned with some crystal pillars, with capitals of beaten gold. The second story of the building is occupied by a great number of artists employed in this very curious work of marquetry, representing figures with gems and different kinds of coloured marble, for the use of the emperor. The Italians call it pietre commesse, a sort of inlaying with stones, analogous to the fineering of cabinets in wood. It is peculiar to Florence, and seems to be still more curious than the Mosaic work, which the Romans have brought to great perfection.

The cathedral of Florence is a great Gothic building, encrusted on the outside with marble; it is remarkable for nothing but its cupola, which is said to have been copied by the architect of St. Peter’s at Rome, and for its size, which is much greater than that of any other church in Christendom. [In this cathedral is the Tomb of Johannes Acutus Anglus, which a man would naturally interpret as John Sharp; but his name was really Hawkwood, which the Italians have corrupted into Acut. He was a celebrated General or Condottiere who arrived in Italy at the head of four thousand soldiers of fortune, mostly Englishmen who had served with him in the army of King Edward III., and were dismissed at the Peace of Bontigny. Hawkwood greatly distinguished himself in Italy by his valour and conduct, and died a very old man in the Florentine service. He was the son of a Tanner in Essex, and had been put apprentice to a Taylor.] The baptistery, which stands by it, was an antient temple, said to be dedicated to Mars. There are some good statues of marble within; and one or two of bronze on the outside of the doors; but it is chiefly celebrated for the embossed work of its brass gates, by Lorenzo Ghiberti, which Buonaroti used to say, deserved to be made the gates of Paradise. I viewed them with pleasure: but still I retained a greater veneration for those of Pisa, which I had first admired: a preference which either arises from want of taste, or from the charm of novelty, by which the former were recommended to my attention. Those who would have a particular detail of every thing worth seeing at Florence, comprehending churches, libraries, palaces, tombs, statues, pictures, fountains, bridge, etc. may consult Keysler, who is so laboriously circumstantial in his descriptions, that I never could peruse them, without suffering the headache, and recollecting the old observation, that the German genius lies more in the back than in the brain.

I was much disappointed in the chapel of St. Lorenzo. Notwithstanding the great profusion of granite, porphyry, jasper, verde antico, lapis-lazuli, and other precious stones, representing figures in the way of marquetry, I think the whole has a gloomy effect. These pietre commesse are better calculated for cabinets, than for ornaments to great buildings, which ought to be large masses proportioned to the greatness of the edifice. The compartments are so small, that they produce no effect in giving the first impression when one enters the place; except to give an air of littleness to the whole, just as if a grand saloon was covered with pictures painted in miniature. If they have as little regard to proportion and perspective, when they paint the dome, which is not yet finished, this chapel will, in my opinion, remain a monument of ill taste and extravagance.

The court of the palace of Pitti is formed by three sides of an elegant square, with arcades all round, like the palace of Holyrood house at Edinburgh; and the rustic work, which constitutes the lower part of the building, gives it an air of strength and magnificence. In this court, there is a fine fountain, in which the water trickles down from above; and here is also an admirable antique statue of Hercules, inscribed LUSIPPOI ERGON, the work of Lysippus.

The apartments of this palace are generally small, and many of them dark. Among the paintings the most remarkable is the Madonna de la Seggiola, by Raphael, counted one of the best coloured pieces of that great master. If I was allowed to find fault with the performance, I should pronounce it defective in dignity and sentiment. It is the expression of a peasant rather than of the mother of God. She exhibits the fondness and joy of a young woman towards her firstborn son, without that rapture of admiration which we expect to find in the Virgin Mary, while she contemplates, in the fruit of her own womb, the Saviour of mankind. In other respects, it is a fine figure, gay, agreeable, and very expressive of maternal tenderness; and the bambino is extremely beautiful. There was an English painter employed in copying this picture, and what he had done was executed with great success. I am one of those who think it very possible to imitate the best pieces in such a manner, that even the connoisseurs shall not be able to distinguish the original from the copy. After all, I do not set up for a judge in these matters, and very likely I may incur the ridicule of the virtuosi for the remarks I have made: but I am used to speak my mind freely on all subjects that fall under the cognizance of my senses; though I must as freely own, there is something more than common sense required to discover and distinguish the more delicate beauties of painting. I can safely say, however, that without any daubing at all, I am, very sincerely — Your affectionate humble servant.

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