Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Of a Biography Painted.

There are objects connected with literary curiosity, whose very history, though they may never gratify our sight, is literary; and the originality of their invention, should they excite imitation, may serve to constitute a class. I notice a book-curiosity of this nature.

This extraordinary volume may be said to have contained the travels and adventures of Charles Magius, a noble Venetian; and this volume, so precious, consisted only of eighteen pages, composed of a series of highly-finished miniature paintings on vellum, some executed by the hand of Paul Veronese. Each page, however, may be said to contain many chapters; for, generally, it is composed of a large centre-piece, surrounded by ten small ones, with many apt inscriptions, allegories, and allusions; the whole exhibiting romantic incidents in the life of this Venetian nobleman. But it is not merely as a beautiful production of art that we are to consider it; it becomes associated with a more elevated feeling in the occasion which produced it. The author, who is himself the hero, after having been long calumniated, resolved to set before the eyes of his accusers the sufferings and adventures he could perhaps have but indifferently described: and instead of composing a tedious volume for his justification, invented this new species of pictorial biography. The author minutely described the remarkable situations in which fortune had placed him; and the artists, in embellishing the facts he furnished them with to record, emulated each other in giving life to their truth, and putting into action, before the spectator, incidents which the pen had less impressively exhibited. This unique production may be considered as a model to represent the actions of those who may succeed more fortunately by this new mode of perpetuating their history; discovering, by the aid of the pencil, rather than by their pen, the forms and colours of an extraordinary life.

It was when the Ottomans (about 1571) attacked the Isle of Cyprus, that this Venetian nobleman was charged by his republic to review and repair the fortifications. He was afterwards sent to the pope to negociate an alliance: he returned to the senate to give an account of his commission. Invested with the chief command, at the head of his troops, Magius threw himself into the island of Cyprus, and after a skilful defence, which could not prevent its fall, at Famagusta he was taken prisoner by the Turks, and made a slave. His age and infirmities induced his master, at length, to sell him to some Christian merchants; and after an absence of several years from his beloved Venice, he suddenly appeared, to the astonishment and mortification of a party who had never ceased to calumniate him; while his own noble family were compelled to preserve an indignant silence, having had no communications with their lost and enslaved relative. Magius now returned to vindicate his honour, to reinstate himself in the favour of the senate, and to be restored to a venerable parent amidst his family; to whom he introduced a fresh branch, in a youth of seven years old, the child of his misfortunes, who, born in trouble, and a stranger to domestic endearments, was at one moment united to a beloved circle of relations.

I shall give a rapid view of some of the pictures of this Venetian nobleman’s life. The whole series has been elaborately drawn up by the Duke de la Vallière, the celebrated book-collector, who dwells on the detail with the curiosity of an amateur.1

In a rich frontispiece, a Christ is expiring on the cross; Religion, leaning on a column, contemplates the Divinity, and Hope is not distant from her. The genealogical tree of the house of Magius, with an allegorical representation of Venice, its nobility, power, and riches: the arms of Magius, in which is inserted a view of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, of which he was made a knight; his portrait, with a Latin inscription: “I have passed through arms and the enemy, amidst fire and water, and the Lord conducted me to a safe asylum, in the year of grace 1571.” The portrait of his son, aged seven years, finished with the greatest beauty, and supposed to have come from the hand of Paul Veronese; it bears this inscription: “Overcome by violence and artifice, almost dead before his birth, his mother was at length delivered of him, full of life, with all the loveliness of infancy; under the divine protection, his birth was happy, and his life with greater happiness shall be closed with good fortune.”

A plan of the Isle of Cyprus, where Magius commanded, and his first misfortune happened, his slavery by the Turks. — The painter has expressed this by an emblem of a tree shaken by the winds and scathed by the lightning; but from the trunk issues a beautiful green branch shining in a brilliant sun, with this device —“From this fallen trunk springs a branch full of vigour.”

The missions of Magius to raise troops in the province of La Puglia. — In one of these Magius is seen returning to Venice; his final departure — a thunderbolt is viewed falling on his vessel — his passage by Corfu and Zante, and his arrival at Candia.

His travels to Egypt. — The centre figure represents this province raising its right hand extended towards a palm-tree, and the left leaning on a pyramid, inscribed “Celebrated throughout the world for her wonders.” The smaller pictures are the entrance of Magius into the port of Alexandria; Rosetta, with a caravan of Turks and different nations; the city of Grand Cairo, exterior and interior, with views of other places; and finally, his return to Venice.

His journey to Rome. — The centre figure an armed Pallas seated on trophies, the Tyber beneath her feet, a globe in her hands, inscribed Quod rerum victrix ac domina, —“Because she is the Conqueress and Mistress of the World.” The ten small pictures are views of the cities in the pope’s dominion. His first audience at the conclave forms a pleasing and fine composition.

His travels into Syria. — The principal figure is a female, emblematical of that fine country; she is seated in the midst of a gay orchard, and embraces a bundle of roses, inscribed Mundi deliciæ —“The delight of the universe.” The small compartments are views of towns and ports, and the spot where Magius collected his fleet.

His pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he was made a knight of the Holy Sepulchre. — The principal figure represents Devotion, inscribed Ducit —“It is she who conducts me.” The compartments exhibit a variety of objects, with a correctness of drawing which is described as belonging to the class, and partaking of the charms of the pencil of Claude Lorraine. His vessel is first viewed in the roadstead at Venice beat by a storm; arrives at Zante to refresh; enters the port of Simiso; there having landed, he and his companions are proceeding to the town on asses, for Christians were not permitted to travel in Turkey on horses. In the church at Jerusalem the bishop, in his pontifical habit, receives him as a knight of the Holy Sepulchre, arraying him in the armour of Godfrey of Bouillon, and placing his sword in the hands of Magius. His arrival at Bethlehem, to see the cradle of the Lord — and his return by Jaffa with his companions, in the dress of pilgrims; the groups are finely contrasted with the Turks mingling amongst them.

The taking of the city of Famagusta, and his slavery. — The middle figure, with a dog at its feet, represents Fidelity, the character of Magius, who ever preferred it to his life or his freedom, inscribed Captivat —“She has reduced me to slavery.” Six smaller pictures exhibit the different points of the island of Cyprus where the Turks effected their descents. Magius retreating to Famagusta, which he long defended, and where his cousin, a skilful engineer, was killed. The Turks compelled to raise the siege, but return with greater forces — the sacking of the town and the palace, where Magius was taken. — One picture exhibits him brought before a bashaw, who has him stripped, to judge of his strength and fix his price, when, after examination, he is sent among other slaves. He is seen bound and tied up among his companions in misfortune — again he is forced to labour, and carries a cask of water on his shoulders. — In another picture, his master, finding him weak of body, conducts him to a slave-merchant to sell him. In another we see him leading an ass loaded with packages; his new master, finding him loitering on his way, showers his blows on him, while a soldier is seen purloining one of the packages from the ass. Another exhibits Magius sinking with fatigue on the sands, while his master would raise him up by an unsparing use of the bastinado. The varied details of these little paintings are pleasingly executed.

The close of his slavery. — The middle figure kneeling to Heaven, and a light breaking from it, inscribed, “He breaks my chains,” to express the confidence of Magius. The Turks are seen landing with their pillage and their slaves. — In one of the pictures are seen two ships on fire; a young lady of Cyprus preferring death to the loss of her honour and the miseries of slavery, determined to set fire to the vessel in which she was carried; she succeeded, and the flames communicated to another.

His return to Venice. — The painter for his principal figure has chosen a Pallas, with a helmet on her head, the ægis on one arm, and her lance in the other, to describe the courage with which Magius had supported his misfortunes, inscribed Reducit —“She brings me back.” In the last of the compartments he is seen at the custom-house at Venice; he enters the house of his father; the old man hastens to meet him, and embraces him.

One page is filled by a single picture, which represents the senate of Venice, with the Doge on his throne; Magius presents an account of his different employments, and holds in his hand a scroll, on which is written, Quod commisisti perfeci; quod restat agendum, pare fide complectar —“I have done what you committed to my care; and I will perform with the same fidelity what remains to be done.” He is received by the senate with the most distinguished honours, and is not only justified, but praised and honoured.

The most magnificent of these paintings is the one attributed to Paul Veronese. It is described by the Duke de la Vallière as almost unparalleled for its richness, its elegance, and its brilliancy. It is inscribed Pater meus et fratres mei dereliquerunt me; Dominus autem assumpsit me! —“My father and my brothers abandoned me; but the Lord took me under his protection.” This is an allusion to the accusation raised against him in the open senate when the Turks took the Isle of Cyprus, and his family wanted either the confidence or the courage to defend Magius. In the front of this large picture, Magius leading his son by the hand, conducts him to be reconciled with his brothers and sisters-in-law, who are on the opposite side; his hand holds this scroll, Vos cogitastis de me malum; sed Deus convertit illud in bonum —”You thought ill of me; but the Lord has turned it to good.” In this he alludes to the satisfaction he had given the senate, and to the honours they had decreed him. Another scene is introduced, where Magius appears in a magnificent hall at a table in the midst of all his family, with whom a general reconciliation has taken place: on his left hand are gardens opening with an enchanting effect, and magnificently ornamented, with the villa of his father, on which flowers and wreaths seem dropping on the roof, as if from heaven. In the perspective, the landscape probably represents the rural neighbourhood of Magius’s early days.

Such are the most interesting incidents which I have selected from the copious description of the Duke de la Vallière. The idea of this production is new: an autobiography in a series of remarkable scenes, painted under the eye of the describer of them, in which, too, he has preserved all the fulness of his feelings and his minutest recollections; but the novelty becomes interesting from the character of the noble Magius, and the romantic fancy which inspired this elaborate and costly curiosity. It was not, indeed, without some trouble that I have drawn up this little account; but while thus employed, I seemed to be composing a very uncommon romance.

1 The Duke’s description is not to be found, as might be expected, in his own valued catalogue, but was a contribution to Gaignat’s, ii. 16, where it occupies fourteen pages. This singular work sold at Gaignat’s sale for 902 livres. It was then the golden age of literary curiosity, when the rarest things were not ruinous; and that price was even then considered extraordinary, though the work was an unique. It must consist of about 180 subjects, by Italian artists.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53