An interesting note on the possible themes and direction the story might have taken can be extrapolated from the original title of the unpublished version ("The St. Agnes at Perugia. An Autopsychology") and the use of an alternative 'Motto' from Shelley's Prometheus Unbound:
Ere it shall be told.
Ere Babylon was dust,
the Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image Walking in the garden.
That apparition, sole of men, he saw.
(notes on original version: http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/nb0004.duke.rad.html#p9 )
...the 1911 collected works text of "st. agnes" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
SAINT AGNES OF INTERCESSION"In all my life," said my uncle in his customary voice, made up of goodness and trusting simplicity, and a spice of piety withal, which, an’t pleased your worship, made it sound the sweeter,-- "In all my life," quoth my uncle Toby, "I have never heard a stranger story than one which was told me by a sergeant in Maclure’s regiment, and which, with your permission, Doctor, I will relate."
"No stranger, brother Toby," said my father testily, "than a certain tale to be found in Slawkenbergius (being the eighth of his third Decad), and called by him the History of an Icelandish Nose."
"Nor than the golden legend of Saint Anschankus of Lithuania," added Dr. Slop, "who, being troubled digestively while delivering his discourse ‘de sanctis sanctorum,’ was tempted by the Devil in imagine vasis in contumeliam,-- which is to say,-- in the form of a vessel unto dishonour.
Now Excentrio, as one mocking, sayeth, etc., etc.--TRISTRAM SHANDY.
AMONG my earliest recollections, none is stronger than that of my father standing before the fire when he came home in the London winter evenings, and singing to us in his sweet, generous tones: sometimes ancient English ditties,-- such songs as one might translate from the birds, and the brooks might set to music; sometimes those with which foreign travel had familiarized his youth,-- among them the great tunes which have rung the world’s changes since ‘89. I used to sit on the hearth-rug, listening to him, and look between his knees into the fire till it burned my face, while the sights swarming up in it seemed changed and changed with the music: till the music and the fire and my heart burned together, and I would take paper and pencil, and try in some childish way to fix the shapes that rose within me. For my hope, even then, was to be a painter.
The first book I remember to have read, of my own accord, was an old-fashioned work on Art, which my mother had,-- Hamilton’s "English Conoscente". It was a kind of continental tour,-- sufficiently Della-Cruscan, from what I can recall of it,-- and contained notices of pictures which the author had seen abroad, with engravings after some of them. These were in the English fashion of that day, executed in stipple and printed with red ink; tasteless enough, no doubt, but I yearned towards them and would toil over them for days. One especially possessed for me a strong and indefinable charm: it was a Saint Agnes in glory, by Bucciolo d’Orli Angiolieri. This plate I could copy from the first with much more success than I could any of the others; indeed, it was mainly my love of the figure, and a desire to obtain some knowledge regarding it, which impelled me by one magnanimous effort upon the "Conoscente," to master in a few days more of the difficult art of reading than my mother’s laborious inculcations had accomplished till then. However, what I managed to spell and puzzle out related chiefly to the executive qualities of the picture, which could be little understood by a mere child; of the artist himself, or the meaning of his work, the author of the book appeared to know scarcely anything.
As I became older, my boyish impulse towards art grew into a vital passion; till at last my father took me from school and permitted me my own bent of study. There is no need that I should dwell much upon the next few years of my life. The beginnings of Art, entered on at all seriously, present an alternation of extremes:-- on the one hand, the most bewildering phases of mental endeavour, on the other, a toil rigidly exact and dealing often with trifles. What was then the precise shape of the cloud within my tabernacle, I could scarcely say now; or whether through so thick a veil I could be sure of its presence there at all. And as to which statue at the Museum I drew most or learned least from,-- or which Professor at the Academy "set" the model in the worst taste,-- these are things which no one need care to know. I may say, briefly, that I was wayward enough in the pursuit, if not in the purpose; that I cared even too little for what could be taught me by others; and that my original designs greatly outnumbered my school-drawings.
In most cases where study (such study, at least, as involves any practical elements) has benumbed that subtle transition which brings youth out of boyhood, there comes a point, after some time, when the mind loses its suppleness and is riveted merely by the continuance of the mechanical effort. It is then that the constrained senses gradually assume their utmost tension, and any urgent impression from without will suffice to scatter the charm. The student looks up: the film of their own fixedness drops at once from before his eyes, and for the first time he sees his life in the face.
In my nineteenth year, I might say that, between one path of Art and another, I worked hard. One afternoon I was returning, after an unprofitable morning, from a class which I attended. The day was one of those oppressive lulls in autumn, when application, unless under sustained excitement, is all but impossible,-- when the perceptions seem curdled and the brain full of sand. On ascending the stairs to my room, I heard voices there, and when I entered, found my sister Catharine, with another young lady, busily turning over my sketches and papers, as if in search of something. Catharine laughed, and introduced her companion as Miss Mary Arden. There might have been a little malice in the laugh, for I remembered to have heard the lady’s name before, and to have then made in fun some teasing inquiries about her, as one will of one’s sisters’ friends. I bowed for the introduction, and stood rebuked. She had her back to the window, and I could not well see her features at the moment; but I made sure she was very beautiful, from her tranquil body and the way that she held her hands. Catharine told me they had been looking together for a book of hers which I had had by me for some time, and which she had promised to Miss Arden. I joined in the search, the book was found, and soon after they left my room. I had come in utterly spiritless; but now I fell to and worked well for several hours. In the evening, Miss Arden remained with our family circle till rather late: till she left I did not return to my room, nor, when there, was my work resumed that night. I had thought her more beautiful than at first.
After that, every time I saw her, her beauty seemed to grow on my sight by gazing, as the stars do in water. It was some time before I ceased to think of her beauty alone; and even then it was still of her that I thought. For about a year my studies somewhat lost their hold upon me, and when that year was upon its close, she and I were promised in marriage.
Miss Arden’s station in life, though not lofty, was one of more ease than my own, but the earnestness of her attachment to me had deterred her parents from placing any obstacles in the way of our union. All the more, therefore, did I now long to obtain at once such a position as should secure me from reproaching myself with any sacrifice made by her for my sake: and I now set to work with all the energy of which I was capable, upon a picture of some labour, involving various aspects of study. The subject was a modern one, and indeed it has often seemed to me that all work, to be truly worthy, should be wrought out of the age itself, as well as out of the soul of its producer, which must needs be a soul of the age. At this picture I laboured constantly and unweariedly, my days and my nights; and Mary sat to me for the principal female figure. The exhibition to which I sent it opened a few weeks before the completion of my twenty-first year.
Naturally enough, I was there on the opening day. My picture, I knew, had been accepted, but I was ignorant of a matter perhaps still more important,-- its situation on the walls. On that now depended its success; on its success the fulfilment of my most cherished hopes might almost be said to depend. That is not the least curious feature of life as evolved in society which,-- where the average strength and the average mind are equal, as in this world, becomes to each life another name for destiny,-- when a man, having endured labour, gives its fruits into the hands of other men, that they may do their work between him and mankind: confiding it to them, unknown, without seeking knowledge of them; to them, who have probably done in likewise before him, without appeal to the sympathy of kindred experience: submitting to them his naked soul, himself, blind and unseen: and with no thought of retaliation, when, it may be, by their judgment, more than one year, from his dubious threescore and ten, drops alongside, unprofitable, leaving its baffled labour for its successors to recommence. There is perhaps no proof more complete how sluggish and little arrogant, in aggregate life, is the sense of individuality.
I dare say something like this may have been passing in my mind as I entered the lobby of the exhibition, though the principle, with me as with others, was subservient to its application; my thoughts, in fact, starting from and tending towards myself and my own picture. The kind of uncertainty in which I then was is rather a nervous affair; and when, as I shouldered my way through the press, I heard my name spoken close behind me, I believe that I could have wished the speaker further off without being particular as to distance. I could not well, however, do otherwise than look round, and on doing so, recognised in him who had addressed me a gentleman to whom I had been introduced overnight at the house of a friend, and to whose remarks on the Corn question and the National Debt I had listened with a wish for deliverance somewhat akin to that which I now felt; the more so, perhaps, that my distaste was coupled with surprise; his name having been for some time familiar to me as that of a writer of poetry.
As soon as we were rid of the crush, we spoke and shook hands; and I said, to conceal my chagrin, some platitudes as to Poetry being present to support her sister Art in the hour of trial.
"Oh just so, thank you, ; said he; "have you anything here?"
While he spoke, it suddenly struck me that my friend, the night before, had informed me this gentleman was a critic as well as a poet. And indeed, for the hippopotamus-fronted man, with his splay limbs and wading gait, it seemed the more congenial vocation of the two. In a moment, the instinctive antagonism wedged itself between the artist and the reviewer, and I avoided his question.
He had taken my arm, and we were now in the gallery together. My companion’s scrutiny was limited almost entirely to the "line," but my own glance wandered furtively among the suburbs and outskirts of the ceiling, as a misgiving possessed me that I might have a personal interest in those unenviable "high places" of art. Works, which at another time would have absorbed my whole attention, could now obtain from me but a restless and hurried examination: still I dared not institute an open search for my own, lest thereby I should reveal to my companion its presence in some dismal condemned corner which might otherwise escape his notice. Had I procured my catalogue, I might at least have known in which room to look; but I had omitted to do so, thinking thereby to know my fate the sooner, and never anticipating so vexatious an obstacle to my search. Meanwhile I must answer his questions, listen to his criticism, observe and discuss. After nearly an hour of this work, we were not through the first room. My thoughts were already bewildered, and my face burning with excitement.
By the time we reached the second room, the crowd was more dense than ever, and the heat more and more oppressive. A glance round the walls could reveal but little of the consecrated "line," before all parts of which the backs were clustered more or less thickly; except, perhaps, where at intervals hung the work of some venerable member, whose glory was departed from him. The seats in the middle of the room were, for the most part, empty as yet: here and there only an unenthusiastic lady had been left by her party, and sat in stately unruffled toilet, her eye ranging apathetically over the upper portion of the walls, where the gilt frames were packed together in desolate parade. Over these my gaze also passed uneasily, but without encountering the object of its solicitude.
In this room my friend the critic came upon a picture, conspicuously hung, which interested him prodigiously, and on which he seemed determined to have my opinion. It was one of those tender and tearful works, those "labours of love," since familiar to all print-shop flaneurs,-- in which the wax doll is made to occupy a position in Art which it can never have contemplated in the days of its humble origin. The silks heaved and swayed in front of this picture the whole day long.
All that we could do was to stand behind, and catch a glimpse of it now and then, through the whispering bonnets, whose "curtains" brushed our faces continually. I hardly knew what to say, but my companion was lavish of his admiration, and began to give symptoms of the gushing of the poet-soul. It appeared that he had already seen the picture in the studio, and being but little satisfied with my monosyllables, was at great pains to convince me. While he chattered, I trembled with rage and impatience.
"You must be tired," said he at last; "so am I; let us rest a little." He led the way to a seat. I was his slave, bound hand and foot: I followed him.
The crisis now proceeded rapidly. When seated, he took from his pocket some papers, one of which he handed to me. Who does not know the dainty action of a poet fingering MS.? The knowledge forms a portion of those wondrous instincts implanted in us for self-preservation. I was past resistance, however, and took the paper submissively.
"They are some verses,"he said, "suggested by the picture you have just seen. I mean to print them in our next number, as being the only species of criticism adequate to such a work."
I read the poem twice over, for after the first reading I found I had not attended to a word of it, and was ashamed to give it him back. The repetition was not, however, much more successful, as regarded comprehension,-- a fact which I have since believed (having seen it again) may have been dependent upon other causes besides my distracted thoughts. The poem, now included among the works of its author, runs as follows:--
"O thou who art not as I am,
Yet knowest all that I must be,--
O thou who livest certainly
Full of deep meekness like a lamb
Close laid for warmth under its dam,
On pastures bare towards the sea:--
"Look on me, for my soul is bleak,
Nor owns its labour in the years,
Because of the deep pain of tears:
It hath not found and will not seek,
Lest that indeed remain to speak
Which, passing, it believes it hears.
"Like ranks in calm unipotence
Swayed past, compact and regular,
Time’s purposes and portents are:
Yet the soul sleeps, while in the sense
The graven brows of Consequence
Lie sunk, as in blind wells the star.
"O gaze along the wind-strewn path
That curves distinct upon the road
To the dim purple-hushed abode.
Lo! autumntide and aftermath!
Remember that the year has wrath
If the ungarnered wheat corrode.
"It is not that the fears are sore
Or that the evil pride repels:
But there where the heart’s knowledge dwells
The heart is gnawed within the core,
Nor loves the perfume from that shore
Faint with bloom-pulvered asphodels."
Having atoned for non-attention by a second perusal, whose only result was non-comprehension, I thought I had done my duty towards this performance, which I accordingly folded up and returned to its author. He asked, in so many words, my opinion of it.
"I think," replied I coolly, "that when a poet strikes out for himself a new path in style, he should first be quite convinced that it possesses sufficient advantages to counterbalance the contempt which the swarm of his imitators will bring upon poetry."
My ambiguity was successful. I could see him take the compliment to himself, and inhale it like a scent, while a slow broad smile covered his face. It was much as if, at some meeting, on a speech being made complimentary to the chairman, one of the waiters should elbow that personage aside, plant his knuckles on the table, and proceed to return thanks.
And indeed, I believe my gentleman was about to do so in due form, but my thoughts, which had been unable to resist some enjoyment of his conceit, now suddenly reverted to their one dominant theme; and rising at once, in an indignant spleen at being thus harassed and beset, I declared that I must leave him, and hurry through the rest of the gallery by myself, for that I had an impending appointment. He rose also. As we were shaking hands, a part of the "line" opposite to where we stood was left bare by a lapse in the crowd. "There seems to be an odd-looking picture," said my companion. I looked in the same direction: the press was closing again; I caught only a glimpse of the canvas, but that sufficed: it was my own picture, on the line! For a moment my head swam with me.
He walked towards the place, and I followed him. I did not at first hear well what he said of the picture; but when I did, I found he was abusing it. He called it quaint, crude, even grotesque; and certainly the uncompromising adherence to nature as then present before me, which I had attempted throughout, gave it, in the exhibition, a more curious and unique appearance than I could have anticipated. Of course only a very few minutes elapsed before my companion turned to the catalogue for the artist’s name.
"They thought the thing good," he drawled as he ran his eye down the pages, "or it wouldn’t be on the line. 605, 606 -- or else the fellow has interest somewhere. 630, what the deuce am I thinking of? -- 613, 613, 613 -- Here it is -- Why," he exclaimed, short of breath with astonishment, "the picture is yours!"
"Well, it seems so," said I, looking over his shoulder; "I suppose they’re likely to know."
"And so you wanted to get away before we came to it. And so the picture is yours!"
"Likely to remain so too," I replied laughing, "if every one thinks as well of it as you do."
"Oh! mind you," he exclaimed, "you must not be offended: one always finds fault first: I am sure to congratulate you."
The surprise he was in made him speak rather loud, so that people were beginning to nudge each other, and whisper that I was the painter. I therefore repeated hurriedly that I really must go, or I should miss my appointment.
"Stay a minute," ejaculated my friend the critic; "I am trying to think what the style of your picture is like. It is like the works of a very early man that I saw in Italy. Angioloni, Angellini, Angiolieri,-- that was the name, -- Bucciuolo Angiolieri. He always turned the toes in. The head of your woman there"(and he pointed to the figure painted from Mary) "is exactly like a St. Agnes of his at Bologna."
A flash seemed to strike before my eyes as he spoke. The name mentioned was a part of my first recollections; and the picture he spoke of... Yes, indeed, there in the face of my betrothed bride, I beheld the once familiar features of the St. Agnes, forgotten since childhood! I gazed fixedly on the work of my own hands; and thought turned in my brain like a wheel.
When I looked again toward my companion, I could see that he was wondering at my evident abstraction. I did not explain, but abruptly bidding him good-bye, hastened out of the exhibition.
As I walked homewards, the cloud was still about me, and the street seemed to pass me like a shadow. My life had been, as it were, drawn by, and the child and the man brought together. How had I not at once recognized, in her I loved, the dream of my childhood? Yet, doubtless, the sympathy of relation, though unconscious, must have had its influence. The fact of the likeness was a mere casualty, however singular; but that which had cast the shadow of a man’s love in the path of the child, and left the seed at his heart to work its growth blindly in darkness, was surely much more than chance.
Immediately on reaching home, I made inquiries of my mother concerning my old friend the "English Conoscente"; but learned, to my disappointment, that she had long since missed the book, and had never recovered it. I felt vexed in the extreme.
The joy with which the news of my picture was hailed at home may readily be imagined. There was one, however, to whom it may have been more welcome even than to my own household: to her, as to myself, it was hope seen nearer. I could scarcely have assigned a reason why I refrained from mentioning to her, or to any one, the strange point of resemblance which I had been led to perceive; but from some unaccountable reluctance I kept it to myself at the time. The matter was detailed in the journal of the worthy poet-critic who had made the discovery; such scraps of research being much too scarce not to be worked to their utmost; it may be too that my precipitate retreat had left him in the belief of my being a convicted plagiarist. I do not think, however, that either Mary’s family or my own saw the paper; and indeed it was much too aesthetic to permit itself many readers.
Meanwhile, my picture was obtaining that amount of notice, favourable with unfavourable, which constitutes success, and was not long in finding a purchaser. My way seemed clearing before me. Still, I could not prevent my mind from dwelling on the curious incident connected with the painting, and which, by constant brooding upon it, had begun to assume, in my idea, almost the character of a mystery. The coincidence was the more singular that my work, being in subject, costume, and accessories, English, and of the present period, could scarcely have been expected to suggest so striking an affinity in style to the productions of one of the earliest Italian painters.
The gentleman who purchased my picture had commissioned me at the same time for another. I had always entertained a great wish to visit Italy, but now a still stronger impulse than before drew me thither. All substantial record having been lost, I could hardly persuade myself that the idol of my childhood, and the worship I had rendered it, was not all an unreal dream; and every day the longing possessed me more strongly to look with my own eyes upon the veritable St. Agnes. Not holding myself free to marry as yet, I therefore determined (having it now within my power) that I would seek Italy at once, and remain there while I painted my next picture. Nor could even the thought of leaving Mary deter me from this resolution.
On the day I quitted England, Mary’s father again placed her hand in mine, and renewed his promise; but our own hearts were a covenant between us.
From this point, my narrative will proceed more rapidly to its issue. Some lives of men are as the sea is, continually vexed and trampled with winds. Others are, as it were, left on the beach. There the wave is long in reaching its tide-mark, where it abides but a moment; afterwards, for the rest of that day, the water is shifted back more or less slowly; the sand it has filled hardens; and hourly the wind drives lower till nightfall.
To dwell here on my travels any further than in so much as they concern the thread of my story, would be superfluous. The first place where I established myself, on arriving in the Papal States, was Bologna, since it was there, as I well remembered, that the St. Agnes of Bucciuolo Angiolieri was said to be. I soon became convinced, however, after ransacking the galleries and private collections, that I had been misinformed. The great Clementine is for the most part a dismal wilderness of Bolognese Art, "where nothing is that hath life," being rendered only the more ghastly by the "life-in-death" of Guido and the Caracci; and the private collectors seem to emulate the Clementine.
From Bologna I removed to Rome, where I stayed only for a month, and proceeded thence into Tuscany. Here, in the painter’s native province, after all, I thought the picture was most likely to be found; as is generally the case with artists who have produced comparatively few works, and whose fame is not of the highest order of all. Having visited Siena and Arezzo, I took up my abode in Florence. Here, however, seeing the necessity of getting to work at once, I commenced my next picture, devoting to it a certain number of hours each day; the rest of my time being chiefly spent among the galleries, where I continued my search. The St. Agnes still eluded me; but in the Pitti and elsewhere, I met with several works of Bucciuolo; in all of which I thought, in fact, that I could myself recognize, despite the wide difference both of subject and occasional treatment, a certain mental approximation, not easily defined, to the style of my own productions. The peculiarities of feeling and manner which had attracted my boyish admiration had evidently sunk deep, and maintained, though hitherto unperceived, their influence over me.
I had been at Florence for about three months, and my picture was progressing, though slowly enough; moreover, the other idea which engrossed me was losing its energy, by the recurrence of defeat, so that I now determined on leaving the thing mainly to chance, and went here and there, during the hours when I was not at work, seeing what was to see. One day, however, being in a bookseller’s shop, I came upon some numbers of a new Dictionary of Works of Art, then in course of publication, where it was stated that a painting of St. Agnes, by Bucciuolo Angiolieri, was in the possession of the Academy of Perugia. This then, doubtless, was the work I wished to see; and when in the Roman States, I must already have passed upon my search through the town which contained it. In how many books had I rummaged for the information which chance had at length thrown in my way! I was almost inclined to be provoked with so inglorious a success. All my interest in the pursuit, however, revived at once, and I immediately commenced taking measures for retracing my steps to Perugia. Before doing so I despatched a long letter to Mary, with whom I kept up a correspondence, telling her where to direct her next missive, but without informing her as to the motive of my abrupt removal, although in my letter I dwelt at some length, among other topics, on those works of Bucciuolo which I had met with at Florence.
I arrived at Perugia late in the evening, and to see the gallery before the next morning was out of the question. I passed a most restless night. The same one thought had been more or less with me during the whole of my journey, and would not leave me now until my wish was satisfied. The next day proved to be one on which the pictures were not visible; so that on hastening to the Academy in the morning, I was again disappointed. Upon the second day, had they refused me admittance, I believe I should have resorted to desperate measures. The doors however were at last wide open. Having put the swarm of guides to rout, I set my feet on the threshold; and such is the power of one absorbing idea, long suffered to dwell on the mind, that as I entered I felt my heart choke me as if with some vague apprehension.
This portion of my story which the reader has already gone through is so unromantic and easy of belief, that I fear the startling circumstances which remain to be told will jar upon him all the more by contrast as a clumsy fabrication. My course, however, must be to speak on, relating to the best of my memory things in which the memory is not likely to have failed; and reserving at least my own inward knowledge that all the events of this narrative (however unequal the measure of credit they may obtain) have been equally, with myself, matters of personal experience.
The Academy of Perugia is, in its little sphere, one of the high places of privilege; and the first room, the Council Chamber, full of rickety arm chairs, is hung with the presentation pictures of the members, a collection of indigenous grandeurs of the school of David. I purchased a catalogue of an old woman who was knitting in one corner, and proceeded to turn the leaves with nervous anxiety. Having found that the Florentine pictures were in the last room, I commenced hurrying across the rest of the gallery as fast as the polish of the waxed boards would permit. There was no visitor besides myself in the rooms, which were full of Roman, Bolognese, and Perugian handiwork: one or two students only, who had set up their easels before some masterpiece of the "advanced" style, stared round in wonder at my irreverent haste. As I walked, I continued my search in the catalogue; so that, by the time I reached the Florentine room, I had found the number, and walked, with a beating heart, straight up to the picture.
The picture is about half the size of life: it represents a beautiful woman, seated, in the costume of the painter’s time, richly adorned with jewels; she holds a palm branch, and a lamb nestles to her feet. The glory round her head is a device pricked without colour on the gold background, which is full of the faces of angels. The countenance was the one known to me, by a feeble reflex, in childhood; it was also the exact portrait of Mary, feature by feature. I had been absent from her for more than five months, and it was like seeing her again.
As I looked, my whole life seemed to crowd about me, and to stun me like a pulse in my head. For some time I stood lost in astonishment, admiration, perplexity, helpless of conjecture, and an almost painful sense of love.
I had seen that in the catalogue there was some account of the picture; and now, after a long while, I removed my eyes, dizzy with gazing and with thought, from the face, and read in Italian as follows:
"No. 212. St. Agnes, with a glory of angels. By Bucciuolo Angiolieri."
"Bertuccio, Buccio, or Bucciuolo d’Orli Angiolieri, a native of Cignana in the Florentine territory, was born in 1405 and died in 1460. He was the friend, and has been described as the pupil, of Benozzo Gozzoli; which latter statement is not likely to be correct, since their ages were nearly the same, as are also the dates of their earliest known pictures.
"He is said by some to have been the first to introduce a perfectly nude figure in a devotional subject (the St. Sebastian now at Florence); an opinion which Professor Ehrenhaupt has called in question, by fixing the date of the five anonymous frescoes in the Church of Sant’ Andrea d’Oltr’ arno, which contain several nude figures, at a period antecedent to that in which he flourished. His works are to be met with at Florence, at Lucca, and in one or two cities of Germany. The present picture, though ostensibly representing St. Agnes, is the portrait of Blanzifiore dal l’Ambra, a lady to whom the painter was deeply attached, and who died early. The circumstances connected by tradition with the painting of this picture are of a peculiarly melancholy nature.
"It appears that, in the vicissitudes of faction, the lady’s family were exiled from Florence, and took refuge at Lucca; where some of them were delivered by treachery to their enemies and put to death. These accumulated misfortunes (not the least among which was the separation from her lover, who, on account of his own ties and connections, could not quit Florence), preyed fatally on the mind and health of Blanzifiore; and before many months had passed, she was declared to be beyond medicinal aid. No sooner did she learn this, than her first thought was of the misery which her death would occasion her lover; and she insisted on his being summoned immediately from Florence, that they might at least see each other once again upon earth. When, on his arrival, she witnessed his anguish at thus losing her for ever, Blanzifiore declared that she would rise at once from her bed, and that Bucciuolo should paint her portrait before she died; for so, she said, there should still remain something to him whereby to have her in memory. In this will she persisted against all remonstrance occasioned by the fears of her friends; and for two days, though in a dying state, she sat with wonderful energy to her lover: clad in her most sumptuous attire, and arrayed with all her jewels: her two sisters remaining constantly at her side, to sustain her and supply restoratives. On the third day, while Bucciuolo was still at work, she died without moving.
"After her death, Bucciuolo finished the portrait, and added to it the attributes of St. Agnes, in honour of her purity. He kept it always near him during his lifetime; and, in dying, bequeathed it to the Church of Santa Agnese dei Lavoranti, where he was buried at her side. During all the years of his life, after the death of Blanzifiore, he remained at Lucca: where some of his works are still to be found.
"The present picture has been copied many times, but never competently engraved; and was among those conveyed to Paris by Bonaparte, in the days of his omnipotence."
The feeling of wonder which attained bewilderment, as I proceeded with this notice, was yet less strong than an intense penetrating sympathy excited in me by the unhappy narrative, which I could not easily have accounted for, but which so overcame me that, as I finished, the tears stung my eyes. I remained for some time leaning upon the bar which separated me from the picture, till at last my mind settled to more definite thought. But thought here only served to confound. A woman had then lived four hundred years since, of whom that picture was the portrait; and my own eyes bore me witness that it was also the surpassingly perfect resemblance of a woman now living and breathing, of my own affianced bride! While I stood, these things grew and grew upon my mind, till my thoughts seemed to hustle about me like pent-up air.
The catalogue was still open in my hand; and now, as my eyes wandered, in aimless distraction, over the page, they were arrested by these words: "No. 231. Portrait of Bucciuolo Angiolieri painted by himself." At first my bewildered perceptions scarcely attached a meaning to the words; yet, owing no doubt to the direction of my thoughts, my eye dwelt upon them, and continued to peruse them over and over, until at last their purport flashed upon me. At the same instant that it did so, I turned round and glanced rapidly over the walls for the number: it was at the other end of the room. A trembling suspense, with something almost of involuntary awe, was upon me as I ran towards the spot; the picture was hung low; I stooped over the rail to look closely at it, and was face to face with myself! I can recall my feeling at that moment, only as one of the most lively and exquisite fear.
It was myself, of nearly the same age as mine was then, but perhaps a little older. The hair and beard were of my colour, trimmed in an antique fashion; and the dress belonged to the early part of the fifteenth century. In the background was a portion of the city of Florence. One of the upper corners contained this inscription:--
>ALBERTUS* ORLITIS ANGELERIUS
AETAT. SUAE XXIVThat it was my portrait,-- that the St. Agnes was the portrait of Mary,-- and that both had been painted by myself four hundred years ago,-- this now rose up distinctly before me as the one and only solution of so startling a mystery, and as being, in fact, that result round which, or some portion of which, my soul had been blindly hovering, uncertain of itself. The tremendous experience of that moment, the like of which has never, perhaps, been known to any other man, must remain undescribed; since the description, read calmly at common leisure, could seem but fantastic raving. I was as one who, coming after a wilderness to some city dead since the first world, should find among the tombs a human body in his own exact image, embalmed; having the blackened coin still within its lips, and the jars still at its side, in honour of gods whose very names are abolished.
After the first incapable pause, during which I stood rooted to the spot, I could no longer endure to look on the picture, and turning away, fled back through the rooms and into the street. I reached it with the sweat springing on my forehead, and my face felt pale and cold in the sun.
As I hurried homewards, amid all the chaos of my ideas, I had clearly resolved on one thing, namely, that I would leave Perugia that night on my return to England. I had passports which would carry me as far as the confines of Italy; and when there I counted on somehow getting them signed at once by the requisite authorities, so as to pursue my journey without delay.
On entering my room in the hotel where I had put up, I found a letter from Mary lying on the table. I was too much agitated with conflicting thoughts to open it at once; and therefore allowed it to remain till my perturbation should in some measure have subsided. I drew the blinds before my windows, and covered my face to think; my forehead was still damp between my hands. At least an hour must have elapsed in that tumult of the spirit which leaves no impression behind, before I opened the letter.
It was an answer to the one which I had posted before leaving Florence. After many questions and much news of home, there was a paragraph which ran thus:--
"The account you give me of the works of Bucciuolo Angiolieri interested me greatly. I am surprised never to have heard you mention him before, as he appears to find so much favour with you. But perhaps he was unknown to you till now. How I wish I could stand by your side before his pictures, to enjoy them with you and hear you interpret their beauties! I assure you that what you say about them is so vivid, and shows so much insight into all the meanings of the painter, that, while reading, I could scarcely divest myself of the impression that you were describing some of your own works."
As I finished the last sentence, the paper fell from my hands. A solemn passage of Scripture had been running in my mind; and as I again lay back and hid my now burning and fevered face, I repeated it aloud:-- "How unsearchable are Thy judgments, and Thy ways past finding out!"
As I have said, my intention was to set out from Perugia that same night; but on making inquiry, I found that it would be impossible to do so before the morning, as there was no conveyance till then. Post-horses, indeed, I might have had, but of this my resources would not permit me to think. That was a troubled and gloomy evening for me. I wrote, as well as my disturbed state would allow me, a short letter to my mother, and one to Mary, to apprise them of my return; after which, I went early to bed, and, contrary to my expectations, was soon asleep.
That night I had a dream, which has remained as clear and whole in my memory as the events of the day: and so strange were those events -- so apart from the rest of my life till then,-- that I could sometimes almost persuade myself that my dream of that night also was not without a mystic reality.
I dreamt that I was in London, at the exhibition where my picture had been; but in the place of my picture, which I could not see, there hung the St. Agnes of Perugia. A crowd was before it; and I heard several say that it was against the rules to hang that picture, for that the painter (naming me) was dead. At this, a woman who was there began to weep: I looked at her and perceived it to be Mary. She had her arm in that of a man who appeared to wear a masquerade dress; his back was towards me, and he was busily writing on some tablets; but on peering over his shoulder, I saw that his pencil left no mark where it passed, which he did not seem to perceive, however, going on as before. I spoke to Mary, but she continued crying and did not look up. I then touched her companion on the shoulder; but finding that he paid no attention, I shook him and told him to resign that lady’s arm to me, as she was my bride. He then turned round suddenly, and showed me my own face with the hair and beard quaintly cut, as in the portrait of Bucciuolo. After looking mournfully at me, he said, "Not mine, friend, but neither thine:" and while he spoke, his face fell in like a dead face. Meantime, every one seemed pale and uneasy, and they began to whisper in knots; and all at once I found opposite me the critic I met at the gallery, who was saying something I could not understand, but so fast that he panted and kept wiping his forehead. Then my dream changed. I was going upstairs to my room at home, where I thought Mary was waiting to sit for her portrait. The staircase was quite dark; and as I went up, the voices of several persons I knew passed by me, as if they were descending; and sometimes my own among them. I had reached the top, and was feeling for the handle of the door, when it was opened suddenly by an angel; and looking in, I saw, not Mary, but a woman whose face was hidden with white light, and who had a lamb beside her that was bleating aloud. She knelt in the middle of the room, and I heard her say several times: "O Lord, it is more than he can bear. Spare him, O Lord, for her sake whom he consecrated to me." After this, music came out of heaven, and I thought to have heard speech; but instead, there was silence that woke me.
This dream must have occurred repeatedly in the course of the night, for I remember waking up in perfect darkness, overpowered with fear, and crying out in the words which I had heard spoken by the woman; and when I woke in the morning, it was from the same dream, and the same words were on my lips.
During the two days passed at Perugia, I had not had time to think of the picture I was engaged upon, which had therefore remained in its packing-case, as had also the rest of my baggage. I was thus in readiness to start without further preliminaries. My mind was so confused and disturbed that I have but a faint recollection of that morning; to the agitating events of the previous day, my dream had now added, in spite of myself, a vague foreboding of calamity.
No obstacle occurred throughout the course of my journey, which was, even at that recent date, a longer one than it is now. The whole time, with me, was occupied by one haunting and despotic idea: it accompanied me all day on the road; and if we paused at night it either held me awake or drove all rest from my sleep. It is owing to this, I suppose, that the wretched mode of conveyance, the evil roads, the evil weather, the evil inns, the harassings of petty authorities, and all those annoyances which are set as close as milestones all over the Continent, remain in my memory only with a general sense of discomfort. Moreover, on the day when I left Perugia I had felt the seeds of fever already in my veins; and during the journey this oppression kept constantly on the increase. I was obliged, however, carefully to conceal it, since the panic of the cholera was again in Europe, and any sign of illness would have caused me to be left at once on the road.
By the night of my arrival in London, I felt that I was truly and seriously ill; and, indeed during the last part of the journey, physical suffering had for the first time succeeded in partially distracting my thought from the thing which possessed it. The first inquiries I made of my family were regarding Mary. I learned that she at least was still in good health, and anxiously looking for my arrival; that she would have been there, indeed, but that I had not been expected till a day later. This was a weight taken from my heart. After scarcel more than an hour passed among my family, I repaired to my bed; both body and mind had at length a perfect craving for rest. My mother, immediately on my arrival, had noticed my flushed and haggard appearance; but when questioned by her I attributed this to the fatigues of travelling.
In spite of my extreme need of sleep, and the wish I felt for it, I believe that I slept but little that night. I am not certain, however, for I can only remember that as soon as I lay down my head began to whirl till I seemed to be lifted out of my bed; but whether this were in waking or a part of some distempered dream, I cannot determine. This, however, is the last thing I can recall. The next morning I was in a raging fever, which lasted for five weeks.
Health and consciousness came back to me by degrees, as light and air towards the outlet of a long vault. At length, one day, I sat up in bed for the first time. My head felt light in the pillows; and the sunshine that warmed the room made my blood creep refreshingly. My father and mother were both with me.
As sense had deserted my mind, so had it returned, in the form of one constant thought. But this was now grown peremptory, absolute, uncompromising, and seemed to cry within me for speech, till silence became a torment. To-day, therefore, feeling for the first time, since my gradual recovery, enough of strength for the effort, I resolved that I would at last tell the whole to my parents. Having first warned them of the extraordinary nature of the disclosure I was about to make, I accordingly began. Before I had gone far with my story, however, my mother fell back in her seat, sobbing violently; then rose, and running up to me, kissed me many times, still sobbing and calling me her poor boy. She then left the room. I looked towards my father, and saw that he had turned away his face. In a few moments he rose also without looking at me, and went out as my mother had done.
I could not quite account for this, but was so weary of doubt and conjecture, that I was content to attribute it to the feelings excited by my narration and the pity for all those troubles which the events I spoke of had brought upon me. It may appear strange, but I believe it to have been the fact, that the startling and portentous reality which those events had for me, while it left me fully prepared for wonder and perturbation on the part of my hearers, prevented the idea from even occurring to me that, as far as belief went, there could be more hesitation in another’s than in my own.
It was not long before my father returned. On my questioning him as to the cause of my mother’s excitement, he made no explicit answer, but begged to hear the remainder of what I had to disclose. I went on, therefore, and told my tale to the end. When I had finished, my father again appeared deeply affected; but soon recovering himself, endeavoured, by reasoning, to persuade me either that the circumstances I had described had no foundation save in my own diseased fancy, or else that at the time of their occurrence incipient illness had caused me to magnify very ordinary events into marvels and omens.
Finding that I still persisted in my conviction of their actuality, he then informed me that the matters I had related were already known to himself and to my mother through the disjointed ravings of my long delirium, in which I had dwelt on the same theme incessantly; and that their grief, which I had remarked, was occasioned by hearing me discourse thus connectedly on the same wild and unreal subject, after they had hoped me to be on the road to recovery. To convince me that this could merely be the effect of prolonged illness, he led me to remark that I had never till then alluded to the topic, either by word or in any of my letters, although, by my account, the chain of coincidences had already begun before I left England. Lastly, he implored me most earnestly at once to resist and dispel this fantastic brain sickness, lest the same idea, allowed to retain possession of my mind, might end,-- as he dreaded to think that it indeed might,-- by endangering my reason.
My father’s last words struck me like a stone in the mouth; there was no longer any answer that I could make. I was very weak at the time, and I believe I lay down in my bed and sobbed. I remember it was on that day that it seemed to me of no use to see Mary again, or, indeed, to strive again after any aim I had had, and that for the first time I wished to die; and then it was that there came distinctly, such as it may never have come to any other man, the unutterable suspicion of the vanity of death.
From that day until I was able to leave my bed, I never in any way alluded to the same terrible subject; but I feared my father’s eye as though I had been indeed a madman. It is a wonder that I did not really lose my senses. I lived in a continual panic lest I should again speak of that matter unconsciously, and used to repeat inwardly, for hours together, words enjoining myself to silence. Several friends of the family, who had made constant inquiries during my illness, now wished to see me; but this I strictly refused, being in fear that my incubus might get the better of me, and that I might suddenly implore them to say if they had any recollection of a former existence. Even a voice or a whistle from the street would set me wondering whether that man also had lived before, and if so, why I alone should be cursed with this awful knowledge. It was useless even to seek relief in books; for the name of any historical character occurring at once disturbed my fevered mind with conjectures as to what name its possessor now bore, who he was, and in what country his lot was cast.
For another week after that day I was confined to my room, and then at last I might go forth. Latterly, I had scarcely spoken to any one, but I do not think that either my father or my mother imagined I had forgotten. It was on a Sunday that I left the house for the first time. Some person must have been buried at the neighbouring church very early that morning, for I recollect that the first thing I heard upon waking was the funeral bell. I had had, during the night, but a restless throbbing kind of sleep; and I suppose it was my excited nerves which made me wait with a feeling of ominous dread through the long pauses of the tolling, unbroken as they were by any sound from the silent Sunday streets, except the twitter of birds about the housetops. The last knell had long ceased, and I had been lying for some time in bitter reverie, when the bells began to ring for church. I cannot express the sudden refreshing joy which filled me at that moment. I rose from my bed, and kneeling down, prayed while the sound lasted.
On joining my parents at breakfast, I made my mother repeat to me once more how many times Mary had called during my illness, and all that she had said and done. They told me that she would probably be there that morning; but my impatience would not permit me to wait; I must go and seek her myself at once. Often already, said my parents, she had wished and begged to see me, but they had feared for my strength. This was in my thoughts as I left the house; and when, shutting the door behind me, I stood once again in the living sunshine, it seemed as if her love burst around me like music.
I set out hastily in the well-known direction of Mary’s house. While I walked through the crowded streets, the sense of reality grew upon me at every step, and for the first time during some months I felt a man among men. Any artist or thoughtful man whatsoever, whose life has passed in a large city, can scarcely fail, in course of time, to have some association connecting each spot continually passed and repassed with the labours of his own mind. In the woods and fields every place has its proper spell and mystery, and needs no consecration from thought; but wherever in the daily walk through the thronged and jarring city, the soul has read some knowledge from life, or laboured that hour, and the cloud rests there before an unseen tabernacle. And thus now, with myself, old trains of thought and the conceptions of former years came back as I passed from one swarming resort to another, and seemed, by contrast, to wake my spirit from its wild and fantastic broodings to a consciousness of something like actual existence; as the mere reflections of objects, sunk in the vague pathless water, appear almost to strengthen it into substance.
(end: text unfinished)
Alberto, Alberuccio, Bertuccio, Buccio, BucciuoloSpecial thanks to Jerome McGann for this text.