Romola, by George Eliot

Chapter 3 — The Barber’s Shop

‘To tell you the truth,’ said the young stranger to Nello, as they got a little clearer of the entangled vehicles and mules, ‘I am not sorry to be handed over by that patron of mine to one who has a less barbarous accent, and a less enigmatical business. Is it a common thing among you Florentines for an itinerant trafficker in broken glass and rags to talk of a shop where he sells lutes and swords?’

‘Common? No: our Bratti is not a common man. He has a theory, and lives up to it, which is more than I can say for any philosopher I have the honour of shaving,’ answered Nello, whose loquacity, like an over-full bottle, could never pour forth a small dose. ‘Bratti means to extract the utmost possible amount of pleasure, that is to say, of hard bargaining, out of this life; winding it up with a bargain for the easiest possible passage through purgatory, by giving Holy Church his winnings when the game is over. He has had his will made to that effect on the cheapest terms a notary could be got for. But I have often said to him, “Bratti, thy bargain is a limping one, and thou art on the lame side of it. Does it not make thee a little sad to look at the pictures of the Paradiso? Thou wilt never be able there to chaffer for rags and rusty nails: the saints and angels want neither pins nor tinder; and except with San Bartolommeo, who carries his skin about in an inconvenient manner, I see no chance of thy making a bargain for second-hand clothing.” But God pardon me,’ added Nello, changing his tone, and crossing himself, ‘this light talk ill beseems a morning when Lorenzo lies dead, and the Muses are tearing their hair — always a painful thought to a barber; and you yourself, Messere, are probably under a cloud, for when a man of your speech and presence takes up with so sorry a night’s lodging, it argues some misfortune to have befallen him.’

‘What Lorenzo is that whose death you speak of?’ said the stranger, appearing to have dwelt with too anxious an interest on this point to have noticed the indirect inquiry that followed it.

‘What Lorenzo? There is but one Lorenzo, I imagine, whose death could throw the Mercato into an uproar, set the lantern of the Duomo leaping in desperation, and cause the lions of the Republic to feel under an immediate necessity to devour one another. I mean Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Pericles of our Athens — if I may make such a comparison in the ear of a Greek.’

‘Why not?’ said the other, laughingly; ‘for I doubt whether Athens, even in the days of Pericles, could have produced so learned a barber.’

‘Yes, yes; I thought I could not be mistaken,’ said the rapid Nello, ‘else I have shaved the venerable Demetrio Calcondila to little purpose; but pardon me, I am lost in wonder: your Italian is better than his, though he has been in Italy forty years — better even than that of the accomplished Marullo, who may be said to have married the Italic Muse in more senses than one, since he has married our learned and lovely Alessandra Scala.’

‘It will lighten your wonder to know that I come of a Greek stock planted in Italian soil much longer than the mulberry-trees which have taken so kindly to it. I was born at Bari, and my — I mean, I was brought up by an Italian — and, in fact, I am a Greek, very much as your peaches are Persian. The Greek dye was subdued in me, I suppose, till I had been dipped over again by long abode and much travel in the land of gods and heroes. And, to confess something of my private affairs to you, this same Greek dye, with a few ancient gems I have about me, is the only fortune shipwreck has left me. But — when the towers fall, you know it is an ill business for the small nest-builders — the death of your Pericles makes me wish I had rather turned my steps towards Rome, as I should have done but for a fallacious Minerva in the shape of an Augustinian monk. “At Rome,” he said, “you will be lost in a crowd of hungry scholars; but at Florence, every corner is penetrated by the sunshine of Lorenzo’s patronage: Florence is the best market in Italy for such commodities as yours.” ’

‘Gnaffe, and so it will remain, I hope,’ said Nello. ‘Lorenzo was not the only patron and judge of learning in our city — heaven forbid! Because he was a large melon, every other Florentine is not a pumpkin, I suppose. Have we not Bernardo Rucellai, and Alamanno Rinuccini, and plenty more? And if you want to be informed on such matters, I, Nello, am your man. It seems to me a thousand years till I can be of service to a bel erudito like yourself. And, first of all, in the matter of your hair. That beard, my fine young man, must be parted with, were it as dear to you as the nymph of your dreams. Here at Florence, we love not to see a man with his nose projecting over a cascade of hair. But, remember, you will have passed the Rubicon, when once you have been shaven: if you repent, and let your beard grow after it has acquired stoutness by a struggle with the razor, your mouth will by-and-by show no longer what Messer Angelo calls the divine prerogative of lips, but will appear like a dark cavern fringed with horrent brambles.’

‘That is a terrible prophecy,’ said the Greek, ‘especially if your Florentine maidens are many of them as pretty as the little Tessa I stole a kiss from this morning.’

‘Tessa? she is a rough-handed contadina: you will rise into the favour of dames who bring no scent of the mule-stables with them. But to that end, you must not have the air of a sgherro, or a man of evil repute: you must look like a courtier, and a scholar of the more polished sort, such as our Pietro Crinito — like one who sins among well-bred, well-fed people, and not one who sucks down vile vino di sotto in a chance tavern.’

‘With all my heart,’ said the stranger. ‘If the Florentine Graces demand it, I am willing to give up this small matter of my beard, but —’

‘Yes, yes,’ interrupted Nello. ‘I know what you would say. It is the bella zazzera — the hyacinthine locks, you do not choose to part with; and there is no need. Just a little pruning — ecco! — and you will not look unlike the illustrious prince Pico di Mirandola in his prime. And here we are in good time in the Piazza San Giovanni, and at the door of my shop. But you are pausing, I see: naturally, you want to look at our wonder of the world, our Duomo, our Santa Maria del Fiore. Well, well, a mere glance; but I beseech you to leave a closer survey till you have been shaved: I am quivering with the inspiration of my art even to the very edge of my razor. Ah, then, come round this way.’

The mercurial barber seized the arm of the stranger, and led him to a point, on the south side of the piazza, from which he could see at once the huge dark shell of the cupola, the slender soaring grace of Giotto’s campanile, and the quaint octagon of San Giovanni in front of them, showing its unique gates of storied bronze, which still bore the somewhat dimmed glory of their original gilding. The inlaid marbles were then fresher in their pink, and white, and purple, than they are now, when the winters of four centuries have turned their white to the rich ochre of well-mellowed meerschaum; the facade of the cathedral did not stand ignominious in faded stucco, but had upon it the magnificent promise of the half-completed marble inlaying and statued niches, which Giotto had devised a hundred and fifty years before; and as the campanile in all its harmonious variety of colour and form led the eyes upward, high into the clear air of this April morning, it seemed a prophetic symbol, telling that human life must somehow and some time shape itself into accord with that pure aspiring beauty.

But this was not the impression it appeared to produce on the Greek. His eyes were irresistibly led upward, but as he stood with his arms folded and his curls falling backward, there was a slight touch of scorn on his lip, and when his eyes fell again they glanced round with a scanning coolness which was rather piquing to Nello’s Florentine spirit.

‘Well, my fine young man,’ he said, with some impatience, ‘you seem to make as little of our Cathedral as if you were the Angel Gabriel come straight from Paradise. I should like to know if you have ever seen finer work than our Giotto’s tower, or any cupola that would not look a mere mushroom by the side of Brunelleschi’s there, or any marbles finer or more cunningly wrought than these that our Signoria got from far-off quarries, at a price that would buy a dukedom. Come, now, have you ever seen anything to equal them? ’

‘If you asked me that question with a scimitar at my throat, after the Turkish fashion, or even your own razor,’ said the young Greek, smiling gaily, and moving on towards the gates of the Baptistery, ‘I daresay you might get a confession of the true faith from me. But with my throat free from peril, I venture to tell you that your buildings smack too much of Christian barbarism for my taste. I have a shuddering sense of what there is inside — hideous smoked Madonnas; fleshless saints in mosaic, staring down idiotic astonishment and rebuke from the apse; skin-clad skeletons hanging on crosses, or stuck all over with arrows, or stretched on gridirons; women and monks with heads aside in perpetual lamentation. I have seen enough of those wry-necked favourites of heaven at Constantinople. But what is this bronze door rough with imagery? These women’s figures seem moulded in a different spirit from those starved and staring saints I spoke of: these heads in high relief speak of a human mind within them, instead of looking like an index to perpetual spasms and colic.’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Nello, with some triumph. ‘I think we shall show you by-and-by that our Florentine art is not in a state of barbarism. These gates, my fine young man, were moulded half a century ago, by our Lorenzo Ghiberti, when he counted hardly so many years as you do.’

‘Ah, I remember,’ said the stranger, turning away, like one whose appetite for contemplation was soon satisfied. ‘I have heard that your Tuscan sculptors and painters have been studying the antique a little. But with monks for models, and the legends of mad hermits and martyrs for subjects, the vision of Olympus itself would be of small use to them.’

‘I understand,’ said Nello, with a significant shrug, as they walked along. ‘You are of the same mind as Michele Marullo, ay, and as Angelo Poliziano himself, in spite of his canonicate, when he relaxes himself a little in my shop after his lectures, and talks of the gods awaking from their long sleep and making the woods and streams vital once more. But he rails against the Roman scholars who want to make us all talk Latin again: “My ears,” he says, “are sufficiently flayed by the barbarisms of the learned, and if the vulgar are to talk Latin I would as soon have been in Florence the day they took to beating all the kettles in the city because the bells were not enough to stay the wrath of the saints.” Ah, Messer Greco, if you want to know the flavour of our scholarship, you must frequent my shop: it is the focus of Florentine intellect, and in that sense the navel of the earth — as my great predecessor, Burchiello, said of his shop, on the more frivolous pretension that his street of the Calimara was the centre of our city. And here we are at the sign of “Apollo and the Razor.” Apollo, you see, is bestowing the razor on the Triptolemus of our craft, the first reaper of beards, the sublime Anonimo, whose mysterious identity is indicated by a shadowy hand.’

‘I see thou hast had custom already, Sandro,’ continued Nello, addressing a solemn-looking dark-eyed youth, who made way for them on the threshold. ‘And now make all clear for this signor to sit down. And prepare the finest-scented lather, for he has a learned and a handsome chin.’

‘You have a pleasant little adytum there, I see,’ said the stranger, looking through a latticed screen which divided the shop from a room of about equal size, opening into a still smaller walled enclosure, where a few bays and laurels surrounded a stone Hermes. ‘I suppose your conclave of eruditi meets there?’

‘ There, and not less in my shop,’ said Nello, leading the way into the inner room, in which were some benches, a table, with one book in manuscript and one printed in capitals lying open upon it, a lute, a few oil-sketches, and a model or two of hands and ancient masks. ‘For my shop is a no less fitting haunt of the Muses, as you will acknowledge when you feel the sudden illumination of understanding and the serene vigour of inspiration that will come to you with a clear chin. Ah! you can make that lute discourse, I perceive. I, too, have some skill that way, though the serenata is useless when daylight discloses a visage like mine, looking no fresher than an apple that has stood the winter. But look at that sketch: it is a fancy of Piero di Cosimo’s, a strange freakish painter, who says he saw it by long looking at a mouldy wall.’

The sketch Nello pointed to represented three masks — one a drunken laughing Satyr, another a sorrowing Magdalen, and the third, which lay between them, the rigid, cold face of a Stoic: the masks rested obliquely on the lap of a little child, whose cherub features rose above them with something of the supernal promise in the gaze which painters had by that time learned to give to the Divine Infant.

‘A symbolical picture, I see,’ said the young Greek, touching the lute while he spoke, so as to bring out a slight musical murmur. ‘The child, perhaps, is the Golden Age, wanting neither worship nor philosophy. And the Golden Age can always come back as long as men are born in the form of babies, and don’t come into the world in cassock or furred mantle. Or, the child may mean the wise philosophy of Epicurus, removed alike from the gross, the sad, and the severe.’

‘Ah! everybody has his own interpretation for that picture,’ said Nello; ‘and if you ask Piero himself what he meant by it, he says his pictures are an appendix which Messer Domeneddio has been pleased to make to the universe, and if any man is in doubt what they mean, he had better inquire of Holy Church. He has been asked to paint a picture after the sketch, but he puts his fingers to his ears and shakes his head at that; the fancy is past, he says — a strange animal, our Piero. But now all is ready for your initiation into the mysteries of the razor.’

‘Mysteries they may well be called,’ continued the barber, with rising spirits at the prospect of a long monologue, as he imprisoned the young Greek in the shroud-like shaving-cloth; ‘mysteries of Minerva and the Graces. I get the flower of men’s thoughts, because I seize them in the first moment after shaving. (Ah! you wince a little at the lather: it tickles the outlying limits of the nose, I admit.) And that is what makes the peculiar fitness of a barber’s shop to become a resort of wit and learning. For, look now at a druggist’s shop: there is a dull conclave at the sign of “The Moor,” that pretends to rival mine; but what sort of inspiration, I beseech you, can be got from the scent of nauseous vegetable decoctions? — to say nothing of the fact that you no sooner pass the threshold than you see a doctor of physic, like a gigantic spider disguised in fur and scarlet, waiting for his prey; or even see him blocking up the doorway seated on a bony hack, inspecting saliva. (Your chin a little elevated, if it please you: contemplate that angel who is blowing the trumpet at you from the ceiling. I had it painted expressly for the regulation of my clients’ chins.) Besides, your druggist, who herborises and decocts, is a man of prejudices: he has poisoned people according to a system, and is obliged to stand up for his system to justify the consequences. Now a barber can be dispassionate; the only thing he necessarily stands by is the razor, always providing he is not an author. That was the flaw in my great predecessor Burchiello: he was a poet, and had consequently a prejudice about his own poetry. I have escaped that; I saw very early that authorship is a narrowing business, in conflict with the liberal art of the razor, which demands an impartial affection for all men’s chins. Ecco, Messer! the outline of your chin and lip is as clear as a maiden’s; and now fix your mind on a knotty question — ask yourself whether you are bound to spell Virgil with an i or an e, and say if you do not feel an unwonted clearness on the point. Only, if you decide for the i, keep it to yourself till your fortune is made, for the e hath the stronger following in Florence. Ah! I think I see a gleam of still quicker wit in your eye. I have it on the authority of our young Niccolo Macchiavelli, himself keen enough to discern il pelo nell’ uovo, as we say, and a great lover of delicate shaving, though his beard is hardly of two years’ date, that no sooner do the hairs begin to push themselves, than he perceives a certain grossness of apprehension creeping over him.’

‘Suppose you let me look at myself,’ said the stranger, laughing. ‘The happy effect on my intellect is perhaps obstructed by a little doubt as to the effect on my appearance.’

‘Behold yourself in this mirror, then; it is a Venetian mirror from Murano, the true nosce teipsum, as I have named it, compared with which the finest mirror of steel or silver is mere darkness. See now, how by diligent shaving, the nether region of your face may preserve its human outline, instead of presenting no distinction from the physiognomy of a bearded owl or a Barbary ape. I have seen men whose beards have so invaded their cheeks, that one might have pitied them as the victims of a sad, brutalising chastisement befitting our Dante’s Inferno, if they had not seemed to strut with a strange triumph in their extravagant hairiness.’

‘It seems to me,’ said the Greek, still looking into the mirror, ‘that you have taken away some of my capital with your razor — I mean a year or two of age, which might have won me more ready credit for my learning. Under the inspection of a patron whose vision has grown somewhat dim, I shall have a perilous resemblance to a maiden of eighteen in the disguise of hose and jerkin.’

‘Not at all,’ said Nello, proceeding to clip the too extravagant curls; ‘your proportions are not those of a maiden. And for your age, I myself remember seeing Angelo Poliziano begin his lectures on the Latin language when he had a younger beard than yours; and between ourselves, his juvenile ugliness was not less signal than his precocious scholarship. Whereas you — no, no, your age is not against you; but between ourselves, let me hint to you that your being a Greek, though it be only an Apulian Greek, is not in your favour. Certain of our scholars hold that your Greek learning is but a wayside degenerate plant until it has been transplanted into Italian brains, and that now there is such a plentiful crop of the superior quality, your native teachers are mere propagators of degeneracy. Ecco! your curls are now of the right proportion to neck and shoulders; rise, Messer, and I will free you from the encumbrance of this cloth. Gnaffe! I almost advise you to retain the faded jerkin and hose a little longer; they give you the air of a fallen prince.’

‘But the question is,’ said the young Greek, leaning against the high back of a chair, and returning Nello’s contemplative admiration with a look of inquiring anxiety; ‘the question is, in what quarter I am to carry my princely air, so as to rise from the said fallen condition. If your Florentine patrons of learning share this scholarly hostility to the Greeks, I see not how your city can be a hospitable refuge for me, as you seemed to say just now.’

‘Pian piano — not so fast,’ said Nello, sticking his thumbs into his belt and nodding to Sandro to restore order. ‘I will not conceal from you that there is a prejudice against Greeks among us; and though, as a barber unsnared by authorship, I share no prejudices, I must admit that the Greeks are not always such pretty youngsters as yourself: their erudition is often of an uncombed, unmannerly aspect and encrusted with a barbarous utterance of Italian, that makes their converse hardly more euphonious than that of a Tedesco in a state of vinous loquacity. And then again, excuse me — we Florentines have liberal ideas about speech, and consider that an instrument which can flatter and promise so cleverly as the tongue, must have been partly made for those purposes; and that truth is a riddle for eyes and wit to discover, which it were a mere spoiling of sport for the tongue to betray. Still we have our limits beyond which we call dissimulation treachery. But it is said of the Greeks that their honesty begins at what is the hanging point with us, and that since the old Furies went to sleep, your Christian Greek is of so easy a conscience that he would make a stepping-stone of his father’s corpse.’

The flush on the stranger’s face indicated what seemed so natural a movement of resentment, that the good-natured Nello hastened to atone for his want of reticence.

‘Be not offended, bel giovane; I am but repeating what I hear in my shop; as you may perceive, my eloquence is simply the cream which I skim off my clients’ talk. Heaven forbid I should fetter my impartiality by entertaining an opinion. And for that same scholarly objection to the Greeks,’ added Nello, in a more mocking tone, and with a significant grimace, ‘the fact is, you are heretics, Messer — jealousy has nothing to do with it: if you would just change your opinion about leaven, and alter your Doxology a little, our Italian scholars would think it a thousand years till they could give up their chairs to you. Yes, yes; it is chiefly religious scruple, and partly also the authority of a great classic, — Juvenal, is it not? He, I gather, had his bile as much stirred by the swarm of Greeks as our Messer Angelo, who is fond of quoting some passage about their incorrigible impudence — audacia perdita.’

‘Pooh! the passage is a compliment,’ said the Greek, who had recovered himself, and seemed wise enough to take the matter gaily —

‘“Ingenium velox, audacia perdita, sermo
Promptus, et Isaeo torrentior.”

A rapid intellect and ready eloquence may carry off a little impudence.’

‘Assuredly,’ said Nello. ‘And since, as I see, you know Latin literature as well as Greek, you will not fall into the mistake of Giovanni Argiropulo, who ran full tilt against Cicero, and pronounced him all but a pumpkin-head. For, let me give you one bit of advice, young man — trust a barber who has shaved the best chins, and kept his eyes and ears open for twenty years — oil your tongue well when you talk of the ancient Latin writers, and give it an extra dip when you talk of the modern. A wise Greek may win favour among us; witness our excellent Demetrio, who is loved by many, and not hated immoderately even by the most renowned scholars.’

‘I discern the wisdom of your advice so clearly,’ said the Greek, with the bright smile which was continually lighting up the fine form and colour of his young face, ‘that I will ask you for a little more. Who now, for example, would be the most likely patron for me? Is there a son of Lorenzo who inherits his tastes? Or is there any other wealthy Florentine specially addicted to purchasing antique gems? I have a fine Cleopatra cut in sardonyx, and one or two other intaglios and cameos, both curious and beautiful, worthy of being added to the cabinet of a prince. Happily, I had taken the precaution of fastening them within the lining of my doublet before I set out on my voyage. Moreover, I should like to raise a small sum for my present need on this ring of mine’ (here he took out the ring and replaced it on his finger), ‘if you could recommend me to any honest trafficker.’

‘Let us see, let us see,’ said Nello, perusing the floor, and walking up and down the length of his shop. ‘This is no time to apply to Piero de’ Medici, though he has the will to make such purchases if he could always spare the money; but I think it is another sort of Cleopatra that he covets most . .. Yes, yes, I have it. What you want is a man of wealth, and influence, and scholarly tastes — not one of your learned porcupines, bristling all over with critical tests, but one whose Greek and Latin are of a comfortable laxity. And that man is Bartolommeo Scala, the secretary of our Republic. He came to Florence as a poor adventurer himself — a miller’s son — a “branny monster,” as he has been nicknamed by our honey-lipped Poliziano, who agrees with him as well as my teeth agree with lemon-juice. And, by the by, that may be a reason why the secretary may be the more ready to do a good turn to a strange scholar. For, between you and me, bel giovane — trust a barber who has shaved the best scholars — friendliness is much such a steed as Ser Benghi’s: it will hardly show much alacrity unless it has got the thistle of hatred under its tail. However, the secretary is a man who’ll keep his word to you, even to the halving of a fennel-seed; and he is not unlikely to buy some of your gems.’

‘But how am I to get at this great man?’ said the Greek, rather impatiently.

‘I was coming to that,’ said Nello. ‘Just now everybody of any public importance will be full of Lorenzo’s death, and a stranger may find it difficult to get any notice. But in the meantime, I could take you to a man who, if he has a mind, can help you to a chance of a favourable interview with Scala sooner than anybody else in Florence — worth seeing for his own sake too, to say nothing of his collections, or of his daughter Romola, who is as fair as the Florentine lily before it got quarrelsome and turned red.’

‘But if this father of the beautiful Romola makes collections, why should he not like to buy some of my gems himself?’

Nello shrugged his shoulders. ‘For two good reasons — want of sight to look at the gems, and want of money to pay for them. Our old Bardo de’ Bardi is so blind that he can see no more of his daughter than, as he says, a glimmering of something bright when she comes very near him: doubtless her golden hair, which, as Messer Luigi Pulci says of his Meridiana’s, “raggia come stella per sereno.” Ah! here come some clients of mine, and I shouldn’t wonder if one of them could serve your turn about that ring.’

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54