The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Frank Stearns

Chapter 14


Hawthorne went to Italy as naturally as the salmon ascends the rivers in spring. His artistic instinct drew him thither as the original home of modern art and literature, and perhaps also his interest in the Latin language, the single study which he cared for in boyhood. Does not romance come originally from Roma — as well as Romulus? He wished to stand where Cæsar stood, to behold the snowy Soracte of Horace, and to read Virgil’s description of an Italian night on Italian ground. It is noticeable that he cared little or nothing for the splendors of Paris, the glittering peaks of Switzerland, medical-musical Vienna, or the grand scholarship and homely sweetness of old Germany.

Of all the Anglo–Saxon writers who have celebrated Italy, Byron, Shelley, Rogers, Ruskin and the two Brownings, none were more admirably equipped for it than Hawthorne. We cannot read “The Romance of Monte Beni” without recognizing a decidedly Italian element in his composition — not the light-hearted, subtle, elastic, fiery Italian, such as we are accustomed to think them, but the tenderly feeling, terribly earnest Tuscan, like Dante and Savonarola. The myrtle and the cypress are both emblematic of Italian character, and there was more of the latter than the former, though something of either, in Hawthorne’s own make-up.

The Hawthornes left London on January 6, and, reaching Paris the following day, they made themselves comfortable at the Hotel du Louvre. However, they only remained there one week, during which it was so cold that they saw little and enjoyed little. They went to Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Madeleine, and the Champs Elysees, but without being greatly impressed by what they beheld. Hawthorne does not mention a single painting or statue among the art treasures of the Louvre, which if rivalled elsewhere are certainly unsurpassed; but Hawthorne began his studies in this line by an examination of the drawings of the old masters, and confesses that he was afterward too much fatigued to appreciate their finished paintings.

On January 19 they reached Marseilles, and two days later they embarked on that dreary winter voyage, so pleasant at an earlier season, for Civita Vecchia; and on the 20th they rolled into the Eternal City, with such sensations as one may imagine. On the 24th they located themselves for the season in the Palazzo Larazani, Via Porta Pinciana. 101

Nemo similis Homeri. — There is nothing like the charm of a first visit to Rome. The first sight of the Forum, with its single pathetic column, brings us back to our school-days, to the study of Cæsar and the reading of Plutarch; and the intervening period drops out of our lives, taking all our care and anxiety with it. In England, France, Germany, we feel the weight of the present, but in Rome the present is like a glass window through which we view the grand procession of past events. What is, becomes of less importance than what was, and for the first time we feel the true sense of our indebtedness to the ages that have gone before. We bathe deep in the spirit of classical antiquity, and we come out refreshed, enlarged and purified. We return to the actualities of today with a clearer understanding, and better prepared to act our part in them.

Hawthorne did not feel this at first. He arrived in inclement weather, and it was some weeks before he became accustomed to the climatic conditions — so different from any northern atmosphere. He hated the filth of the much-neglected city, the squalor of its lower classes, the narrowness of its streets, and the peculiar pavement, which, as he says makes walking in Rome a penitential pilgrimage. He goes to the carnival, and his penetrating glance proves it to be a sham entertainment.

But in due course he emerges from this mood; he rejoices in the atmospheric immensity of St. Peter’s; he looks out from the Pincian hill, and sees Nivea Soracte as Horace beheld it; and he is overawed (if Hawthorne could be) by the Forum of Trajan and the Column of Antoninus. He makes a great discovery, or rediscovery, that Phidias’s colossal statues of Castor and Pollux on the Monte Cavallo are the finest figures in Rome. They are late Roman copies, but probably from Phidias — not by Lysippus or Praxiteles; and he felt the presence of Michel Angelo in the Baths of Diocletian. It is not long before he goes to the Pincian in the afternoon to play at jack-stones with his youngest daughter.

William W. Story, the American sculptor, would seem to have been a former acquaintance. His father, the famous law lecturer, lived in Salem during Hawthorne’s youth, but afterward removed to Cambridge, where the younger Story was educated, and there married an intimate friend of Mrs. James Russell Lowell. This brought him into close relations with Lowell, Longfellow, and their most intimate friends. He was something of a poet, and more of a sculptor, but, inheriting an independent fortune and living in the Barberini Palace, he soon became more of an Englishman than an American, a tendency which was visibly increased by a patent of nobility bestowed on him by the King of Naples.

Hawthorne soon renewed William Story’s acquaintance, and found him modelling the statue of Cleopatra, of which Hawthorne has given a somewhat idealized description in “The Marble Faun.” This may have interested him the more from the fact that he witnessed its development under the sculptor’s hands, and saw that distinguished historical person emerge as it were out of the clay, like a second Eve; but he makes a mental reservation that it would be better if English and American sculptors would make a freer use of their chisels — of which more hereafter. Story was a light-hearted, discursive person, with a large amount of bric-à-brac information, who could appreciate Hawthorne either as a genius or as a celebrity. He soon became Hawthorne’s chief companion and social mainstay in Rome, literally a vade mecum, and we may believe that he exercised more or less influence over Hawthorne’s judgment in matters of art.

Hawthorne listened to Story, and read Mrs. Jameson, although Edward Silsbee had warned him against her as an uncertain authority; but Hawthorne depended chiefly on his own investigations. He and his wife declined an invitation to Mrs. Story’s masquerade, and lived very quietly during this first winter in Rome, making few acquaintances, but seeing a good deal of the city. They went together to all the principal churches and the princely galleries; and beside this Hawthorne traversed Rome from one end to the other, and across in every direction, sometimes alone, or in company with Julian, investigating everything from the Mamartine prison, in which Jugurtha was starved, to the catacombs of St. Calixtus and the buffaloes on the Campagna. The impression which Conway gives, that he went about sight-seeing and drinking sour wine with Story and Lothrop Motley, is not quite correct, for Motley did not come to Rome until the following December, and then only met Hawthorne a few times, according to his own confession. 102 We must not forget, however, that excellent lady and skilful astronomer, Miss Maria Mitchell, who joined the Hawthorne party in Paris, and became an indispensable accompaniment to them the rest of the winter.

Hawthorne also became acquainted with Buchanan Read, who afterward painted that stirring picture of General Sheridan galloping to the battle of Cedar Run; and on March 12 Mr. Read gave a party, at his Roman dwelling, of painters and sculptors, which Hawthorne attended, and has entered in full, with the moonlight excursion afterward, in “The Marble Faun.” There Hawthorne met Gibson, to whom he refers as the most distinguished sculptor of the time. So he was, in England, but there were much better sculptors in France and in Germany. Gibson’s personality interested Hawthorne, as it well might, but he saw clearly that Gibson was merely a skilful imitator of the antique, or, as he calls him, a pagan idealist. He also made acquaintance with two American sculptors, a Yankee and a girlish young woman, whose names are prudently withheld; for he afterward visited their studios, and readily discovered that they had no real talent for their profession.

If we feel inclined to quarrel with Hawthorne anywhere, it is in his disparagement of Crawford. There might be two opinions in regard to the slavery question, but there never has been but one as to the greatest of American artists. It was a pity that his friend Hillard could not have been with Hawthorne at this time to counteract the jealous influences to which he was exposed. He writes no word of regret at the untimely death of Crawford, but goes into his studio after that sad event and condemns his work. Only the genre figure of a boy playing marbles, gives him any satisfaction there; although a plea of extenuation might be entered in Hawthorne’s favor, for statues of heroic size could not be seen to greater disadvantage than when packed together in a studio. The immense buttons on the waistcoats of our revolutionary heroes seem to have startled him on his first entrance, and this may be accepted as an indication of the rest. Yet the tone of his criticism, both in the “Note-book” and in “The Marble Faun,” is far from friendly to Crawford. He does not refer to the statue of Beethoven, which was Crawford’s masterpiece, nor to the statue of Liberty, which now poses on the lantern of the Capitol at Washington — much too beautiful, as Hartmann says, for its elevated position, and superior in every respect to the French statue of Liberty in New York harbor.

Hawthorne had already come to the conclusion that there was a certain degree of poison in the Roman atmosphere, and in April he found the climate decidedly languid, but he had fallen in love with this pagan capital and he hated to leave it. Mrs. Anna Jameson arrived late in April; a sturdy, warm-hearted Englishwoman greatly devoted to art, for which her books served as elementary treatises and pioneers to the English and Americans of those days. She was so anxious to meet Hawthorne that she persuaded William Story to bring him and his wife to her lodgings when she was too ill to go forth. They had read each other’s writings and could compliment each other in all sincerity, for Mrs. Jameson had also an excellent narrative style; but Hawthorne found her rather didactic, and although she professed to be able “to read a picture like a book,” her conversation was by no means brilliant. She had contracted an unhappy marriage early in life, and found an escape from her sorrows and regrets in this elevated interest.

It was just before leaving Rome that Hawthorne conceived the idea of a romance in which the “Faun” of Praxiteles should come to life, and play a characteristic part in the modern world; the catastrophe naturally resulting from his coming into conflict with a social organization for which he was unfitted. This portion of Hawthorne’s diary is intensely interesting to those who have walked on classic ground.

On May 24 Hawthorne commenced his journey to Florence with a vetturino by easy stages, and one can cordially envy him this portion of his Italian sojourn; with his devoted wife and three happy children; travelling through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world — nearly if not quite equal to the Rhineland — without even the smallest cloud of care and anxiety upon his sky, his mind stored with mighty memories, and looking forward with equal expectations to the prospect before him — bella Firenze, the treasure-house of Italian cities; through sunny valleys, with their streams and hill-sides winding seaward; up the precipitous spurs of the Apennines, with their old baronial castles perched like vultures’ nests on inaccessible crags; passing through gloomy, tortuous defiles, guarded by Roman strongholds; and then drawn up by white bullocks over Monte Somma, and to the mountain cities of Assisi and Perugia, older than Rome itself; by Lake Trasimenus, still ominous of the name of Hannibal; over hill-sides silver-gray with olive orchards; always a fresh view and a new panorama, bounded by the purple peaks on the horizon; and over all, the tender blue of the Italian sky. Hawthorne may have felt that his whole previous life, all he had struggled, lived and suffered for, was but a preparation for this one week of perfectly harmonious existence. Such vacations from earthly troubles come but rarely in the most fortunate lives, and are never of long duration.

When they reached Florence, they found it, as Rose Hawthorne says, very hot — much too hot to enjoy the city as it should be enjoyed. Her reminiscences of their life at Florence, and especially of the Villa Manteüto, have a charming freshness and virginal simplicity, although written in a somewhat high-flown manner. She succeeds, in spite of her peculiar style, in giving a distinct impression of the old chateau, its surroundings, the life her family led there, and of the wonderful view from Bellosguardo. One feels that beneath the disguise of a fashionable dress there is an innocent, sympathetic, and pure-spirited nature.

The Hawthornes arrived in Florence on the afternoon of June 3, and spent the first night at the Albergo della Fontano, and the next day obtained apartments in the Casa del Bello, opposite Hiram Powers’ studio, and just outside of the Porta Romana. Hawthorne made Mr. Powers’ acquaintance even before he entered the city, and Powers soon became to him what Story had been in Rome. The Brownings were already at Casa Guidi — still noted in the annals of English poesy — and called upon the Hawthornes at the first notice of their arrival. Alacrity or readiness would seem to have been one of Robert Browning’s prominent characteristics. Elizabeth Browning’s mind was as much occupied with spiritism as when Hawthorne met her two years previously at Monckton Milnes’s breakfast; an unfortunate proclivity for a person of frail physique and delicate nerves. Neither did she live very long after this. Her husband and Hawthorne both cordially disapproved of these mesmeric practices; but Mrs. Browning could not be prevented from talking on the subject, and this evidently produced an ecstatic and febrile condition of mind in her, very wearing to a poetic temperament. Hawthorne heartily liked Browning himself, and always speaks well of him; but there must also have been an undercurrent of disagreement between him and so ardent an admirer of Louis Napoleon, and he recalls little or nothing of what Browning said to him. This continued till the last of June, when Robert and Elizabeth left Florence for cooler regions.

Meanwhile Hawthorne occupied himself seriously with seeing Florence and studying art, like a man who intends to get at the root of the matter. Florence afforded better advantages than Rome for the study of art, not only from the superiority of its collections, but because there the development of mediaeval art can be traced to its fountain-source. He had no textbooks to guide him — at least he does not refer to any — and his investigations were consequently of rather an irregular kind, but it was evidently the subject which interested him most deeply at this time. His Note-book is full of it, and also of discussions on sculpture with Hiram Powers, in which Hawthorne has frequently the best of the argument.

In fact Powers looked upon his art from much too literal a stand-point. He agreed with Hawthorne as to the fine expression of the face of Michel Angelo’s “Giuliano dé Medici,” 103 but affirmed that it was owing to a trick of overshadowing the face by the projecting visor of Giuliano’s helmet. Hawthorne did not see why such a device did not come within the range of legitimate art, the truth of the matter being that Michel Angelo left the face unfinished; but the expression of the statue is not in its face, but in the inclination of the head, the position of the arms, the heavy droop of the armor, and in fact in the whole figure. Powers’ “Greek Slave,” on the contrary, though finely modelled and sufficiently modern in type, has no definite expression whatever.

Hawthorne found an exceptional interest in the “Venus dé Medici,” now supposed to have been the work of one of the sons of Praxiteles, and its wonderful symmetry gives it a radiance like that of the sun behind a summer cloud; but Powers cooled down his enthusiasm by objecting to the position of the ears, the vacancy of the face, the misrepresentation of the inner surface of the lips, and by condemning particularly the structure of the eyes, which he declared were such as no human being could see with. 104 Hawthorne was somewhat puzzled by these subtleties of criticism, which he did not know very well how to answer, but he still held fast to the opinion that he was fundamentally right, and retaliated by criticising Powers’ own statues in his diary.

The Greeks, in the best period of their favorite art, never attempted a literal reproduction of the human figure. Certain features, like the nostrils, were merely indicated; others, like the eyelashes, often so expressive in woman, were omitted altogether; hair and drapery were treated in a schematic manner. In order to give an expression to the eyes, various devices were resorted to. The eyelids of the bust of Pericles on the Acropolis had bevelled edges, and the eyeballs of the “Apollo Belvedere” are exceptionally convex, to produce the effect of looking to a distance, although the human eye when gazing afar off becomes slightly contracted. The head of the “Venus dé Medici” is finely shaped, but small, and her features are pretty, rather than beautiful; but her eyes are exceptional among all feminine statues for their tenderness of expression — swimming, as it were, with love; and it is the manner in which this effect is produced that Powers mistook for bad sculpture. Hiram Powers’ most exceptional proposition was to the effect that the busts of the Roman emperors were not characteristic portraits. Hawthorne strongly dissented from this; and he was in the right, for if the character of a man can be read from marble, it is from those old blocks. Hawthorne has some admirable remarks on this point.

Such was Hawthorne’s internal life during his first month at Florence. He was full of admiration for the cathedral, the equestrian statue of Cosmo dé Medici, the “David” of Michel Angelo, the Loggia dé Lanzi, Raphael’s portrait of Julius II., the “Fates” of Michel Angelo, and many others; yet he confesses that the Dutch, French, and English paintings gave him a more simple, natural pleasure — probably because their subjects came closer to his own experience.

A strange figure of an old man, with “a Palmer-like beard,” continually crossed Hawthorne’s path, both in Rome and in Florence, where he dines with him at the Brownings’. His name is withheld, but Hawthorne informs us that he is an American editor, a poet; that he voted for Buchanan, and was rejoicing in the defeat of the Free-soilers — “a man to whom the world lacks substance because he has not sufficiently cultivated his emotional nature;” and “his personal intercourse, though kindly, does not stir one’s blood in the least.” Yet Hawthorne finds him to be good-hearted, intelligent, and sensible. This can be no other than William Cullen Bryant. 105

In the evening of June 27 the Hawthornes went to call on a Miss Blagden, who occupied a villa on Bellosguardo, and where they met the Brownings, and a Mr. Trollope, a brother of the novelist. It could not have been the Villa Manteüto, which Miss Blagden rented, for we hear of her at Bellosguardo again in August, when Hawthorne was living there himself; and after this we do not hear of the Brownings again.

Hawthorne’s remark on Browning’s poetry is one of the rare instances in which he criticises a contemporary author:

“I am rather surprised that Browning’s conversation should be so clear, and so much to the purpose at the moment, since his poetry can seldom proceed far, without running into the high grass of latent meanings and obscure allusions.”

It is precisely this which has prevented Browning from achieving the reputation that his genius deserves. We wish that Hawthorne could have favored us with as much literary criticism as he has given us of art criticism, and we almost lose patience with him for his repeated canonization of General Jackson — St. Hickory — united with a disparagement of Washington and Sumner; but although Hawthorne’s insight into human nature was wonderful in its way, it would seem to have been confined within narrow boundaries. At least he seems to have possessed little insight into grand characters and magnanimous natures. He wishes now that Raphael could have painted Jackson’s portrait. So, conversely, Shakespeare belittles Cæsar in order to suit the purpose of his play. Which of Shakespeare’s male characters can be measured beside George Washington? There is not one of them, unless Kent in “King Lear.” Strong, resolute natures, like Washington, Hamilton, Sumner, are not adapted to dramatic fiction, either in prose or in verse.

A Florentine summer is about equal to one in South Carolina, and now, when Switzerland can be reached by rail in twenty-four hours, no American or Englishman thinks of spending July and August there; but in Hawthorne’s time it was a long and expensive journey over the Pennine Alps; Hawthorne’s physique was as well attempered to heat as to cold; and he continued to frequent the picture-galleries and museums after all others had ceased to do so; although he complains in his diary that he had never known it so hot before, and that the flagstones in the street reflect the sun’s rays upon him like the open doors of a furnace.

At length, in an entry of July 27, he says:

“I seldom go out nowadays, having already seen Florence tolerably well, and the streets being very hot, and myself having been engaged in sketching out a romance, 106 which whether it will ever come to anything is a point yet to be decided. At any rate, it leaves me little heart for journalizing, and describing new things; and six months of uninterrupted monotony would be more valuable to me just now, than the most brilliant succession of novelties.”

This is the second instance in which we hear of a romance based on the “Faun” of Praxiteles, and now at last he appears to be in earnest.

It may be suspected that his entertaining friend, Hiram Powers, was the chief obstacle to the progress of his new plot, and it is rather amusing to believe that it was through the agency of Mr. Powers, who cared for nothing so much as Hawthorne’s welfare, that this impediment was removed. Five days later, Hawthorne and his household gods, which were chiefly his wife and children, left the Casa del Bello for the Villa Manteüto where they remained in peaceful retirement until the first of October.

On the tower of the Villa he could enjoy whatever enlivening breezes came across to Florence from the mountains to the north and east. When the tramontana blew, he was comfortable enough. Thunder-storms also came frequently, with the roar of heaven’s artillery reverberating from peak to peak, and enveloping Bellosguardo in a dense vapor, like the smoke from Napoleon’s cannon; after which they would career down the valley of the Arno to Pisa, flashing and cannonading like a victorious army in pursuit of the enemy.

The beauty of the summer nights at Florence amply compensates for the sultriness of the days — especially if they be moonlight nights — and the bright starlight of the Mediterranean is little less beautiful. Travellers who only see Italy in winter, know not what they miss. Hawthorne noticed that the Italian sky had a softer blue than that of England and America, and that there was a peculiar luminous quality in the atmosphere, as well as a more decided difference between sunshine and shadow, than in countries north of the Alps. The atmosphere of Italy, Spain, and Greece is not like any American air that I am acquainted with. During the summer season, all Italians whose occupation will permit them, sleep at noon — the laborers in the shadows of the walls — and sit up late at night, enjoying the fine air and the pleasant conversation which it inspires. Hawthorne found the atmosphere of Tuscany favorable for literary work, even in August.

On the 4th of that month he looked out from his castle wall late at night and noticed the brilliancy of the stars — also that the Great Dipper exactly overhung the valley of the Arno. At that same hour the astronomer Donati was sweeping the heavens with his telescope at the Florentine observatory, and it may have been ten days later that he discovered in the handle of the Dipper the great comet which will always bear his name — the most magnificent comet of modern times, only excepting that of 1680, which could be seen at noonday. It first became visible to the naked eye during the last week of August, as a small star with a smaller tail, near the second star from the end of the handle of the Dipper; after which it grew apace until it extended nearly from the horizon to the zenith, with a tail millions of miles in length. This, however, did not take place until near the time of Hawthorne’s departure from Florence. In his case it proved sorrowfully enough a harbinger of calamity.

Hawthorne blocked out his sketch of “The Romance of Monte Beni” in a single month, and then returned to the churches and picture-galleries. He could not expect to revisit Italy in this life, and prudently concluded to make the most of it while the opportunity lasted. He notices the peculiar fatigue which sight-seeing causes in deep natures, and becomes unspeakably weary of it, yet returns to it again next day with an interest as fresh as before.

Neither did he lack for society. William Story came over to see him from Siena, where he was spending the summer, exactly as Hawthorne describes the visit of Kenyon to Donatello in his romance. Mr. and Mrs. Powers came frequently up the hill in the cool of the evening, and Miss Blagden also proved an excellent neighbor. Early in September the “spirits” appeared again in great force. Mrs. Hawthorne discovered a medium in her English governess; table-rappings and table-tippings were the order of the evening; and some rather surprising results were obtained through Miss Shepard’s fingers. 107 Powers related a still more surprising performance 108 that he had witnessed, which was conducted by D. D. Home, an American mountebank, who hoaxed more crowned heads, princes, princesses, and especially English duchesses than Cagliostro himself. Hawthorne felt the repugnance of the true artist to this uncanny business, and his thorough detestation of the subject commends itself to every sensible reader. He came to the conclusion that the supposed revelations of spirits were nothing more than the mental vagaries of persons in the same room, conveyed in some occult manner to the brain of the medium. The governess, Miss Shepard, agreed with him in this, but she could give no explanation as to the manner in which the response came to her. Twenty years of scientific investigations have added little or nothing to this diagnosis of Hawthorne’s, nor are we any nearer to an explanation of the simple fact; which is wonderful enough in its way. Hawthorne compares the revelations of mediums to dreams, but they are not exactly like them, for they are at the same time more rational and less original or spontaneous than dreams. In my dreams my old friends often come back to me and speak in their characteristic manner — more characteristic perhaps than I could represent them when awake — but the responses of mediums are either evasive or too highly generalized to be of any particular value. The story of Mary Runnel, or Rondel, which Julian Hawthorne narrates, is an excellent case in point. Hawthorne had probably heard of that flirtation of his grandfather some time in his youth, and the fact was unconsciously latent in his mind; but nothing that Mary divulged at Bellosguardo was of real interest to him or to the others concerned. The practice of spiritism, hypnotism, or Christian Science opens a wide door for superstition and imposture to walk in and seat themselves by our firesides.

About a year before this, Congress had given Hiram Powers a commission to model a colossal statue of America for the Capitol at Washington. This he had done, and the committee in charge accepted his design — Hawthorne also writes admiringly of it — but it was also necessary to receive the approval of the President, and this Buchanan with his peculiar obstinacy refused to give. Powers was left without compensation for a whole year of arduous labor, and Hawthorne for once was thoroughly indignant. He wrote in his diary:

“I wish our great Republic had the spirit to do as much, according to its vast means, as Florence did for sculpture and architecture when it was a republic. . . . And yet the less we attempt to do for art the better, if our future attempts are to have no better result than such brazen troopers as the equestrian statue of General Jackson, or even such naked respectabilities as Greeneough’s Washington.”

Perhaps Powers’ “America” was a fortunate escape, and yet it does not seem right that any enlightened government should set such a pitfall for honest men to stumble into. There certainly ought to be some compensation in such cases. The experience of history hitherto has been that, whereas painting and literature have nourished under all forms of government, sculpture has only attained its highest excellence in republics like Athens, Rhodes, Florence, and Nuremberg; so that upon this line of argument there is good hope for America in the future.

101 Italian Note-book.

102 Mrs. Lathrop, 406.

103 As Hawthorne did not prepare his diary for publication, it would not be fair to hold him responsible for the many instances of bad Italian in the Note-book, which ought to have been edited by some one who knew the language.

104 Italian Note-book, June 13, 1858.

105 Italian Note-book, ii. 15.

106 “The Marble Faun.”

107 J. Hawthorne, i. 31.

108 Italian Note-book.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55