All day long we sped through a mountainous country whose peaks were bright
with sunshine, whose hillsides were dotted with pretty villas sitting in
the midst of gardens and shrubbery, and whose deep ravines were cool and
shady and looked ever so inviting from where we and the birds were winging
our flight through the sultry upper air.
We had plenty of chilly tunnels wherein to check our perspiration, though.
We timed one of them. We were twenty minutes passing through it, going at
the rate of thirty to thirty-five miles an hour.
Beyond Alessandria we passed the battle-field of Marengo.
Toward dusk we drew near Milan and caught glimpses of the city and the
blue mountain peaks beyond. But we were not caring for these things—they
did not interest us in the least. We were in a fever of impatience; we
were dying to see the renowned cathedral! We watched—in this
direction and that—all around—everywhere. We needed no one to
point it out—we did not wish any one to point it out—we would
recognize it even in the desert of the great Sahara.
At last, a forest of graceful needles, shimmering in the amber sunlight,
rose slowly above the pygmy housetops, as one sometimes sees, in the far
horizon, a gilded and pinnacled mass of cloud lift itself above the waste
of waves, at sea,—the Cathedral! We knew it in a moment.
Half of that night, and all of the next day, this architectural autocrat
was our sole object of interest.
What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so
airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems in the
soft moonlight only a fairy delusion of frost-work that might vanish with
a breath! How sharply its pinnacled angles and its wilderness of spires
were cut against the sky, and how richly their shadows fell upon its snowy
roof! It was a vision!—a miracle!—an anthem sung in stone, a
poem wrought in marble!
Howsoever you look at the great cathedral, it is noble, it is beautiful!
Wherever you stand in Milan or within seven miles of Milan, it is visible
and when it is visible, no other object can chain your whole attention.
Leave your eyes unfettered by your will but a single instant and they will
surely turn to seek it. It is the first thing you look for when you rise
in the morning, and the last your lingering gaze rests upon at night.
Surely it must be the princeliest creation that ever brain of man
At nine o'clock in the morning we went and stood before this marble
colossus. The central one of its five great doors is bordered with a
bas-relief of birds and fruits and beasts and insects, which have been so
ingeniously carved out of the marble that they seem like living creatures—and
the figures are so numerous and the design so complex that one might study
it a week without exhausting its interest. On the great steeple—surmounting
the myriad of spires—inside of the spires—over the doors, the
windows—in nooks and corners—every where that a niche or a
perch can be found about the enormous building, from summit to base, there
is a marble statue, and every statue is a study in itself! Raphael,
Angelo, Canova—giants like these gave birth to the designs, and
their own pupils carved them. Every face is eloquent with expression, and
every attitude is full of grace. Away above, on the lofty roof, rank on
rank of carved and fretted spires spring high in the air, and through
their rich tracery one sees the sky beyond. In their midst the central
steeple towers proudly up like the mainmast of some great Indiaman among a
fleet of coasters.
We wished to go aloft. The sacristan showed us a marble stairway (of
course it was marble, and of the purest and whitest—there is no
other stone, no brick, no wood, among its building materials) and told us
to go up one hundred and eighty-two steps and stop till he came. It was
not necessary to say stop—we should have done that any how. We were
tired by the time we got there. This was the roof. Here, springing from
its broad marble flagstones, were the long files of spires, looking very
tall close at hand, but diminishing in the distance like the pipes of an
organ. We could see now that the statue on the top of each was the size of
a large man, though they all looked like dolls from the street. We could
see, also, that from the inside of each and every one of these hollow
spires, from sixteen to thirty-one beautiful marble statues looked out
upon the world below.
From the eaves to the comb of the roof stretched in endless succession
great curved marble beams, like the fore-and-aft braces of a steamboat,
and along each beam from end to end stood up a row of richly carved
flowers and fruits—each separate and distinct in kind, and over
15,000 species represented. At a little distance these rows seem to close
together like the ties of a railroad track, and then the mingling together
of the buds and blossoms of this marble garden forms a picture that is
very charming to the eye.
We descended and entered. Within the church, long rows of fluted columns,
like huge monuments, divided the building into broad aisles, and on the
figured pavement fell many a soft blush from the painted windows above. I
knew the church was very large, but I could not fully appreciate its great
size until I noticed that the men standing far down by the altar looked
like boys, and seemed to glide, rather than walk. We loitered about gazing
aloft at the monster windows all aglow with brilliantly colored scenes in
the lives of the Saviour and his followers. Some of these pictures are
mosaics, and so artistically are their thousand particles of tinted glass
or stone put together that the work has all the smoothness and finish of a
painting. We counted sixty panes of glass in one window, and each pane was
adorned with one of these master achievements of genius and patience.
The guide showed us a coffee-colored piece of sculpture which he said was
considered to have come from the hand of Phidias, since it was not
possible that any other artist, of any epoch, could have copied nature
with such faultless accuracy. The figure was that of a man without a skin;
with every vein, artery, muscle, every fiber and tendon and tissue of the
human frame represented in minute detail. It looked natural, because
somehow it looked as if it were in pain. A skinned man would be likely to
look that way unless his attention were occupied with some other matter.
It was a hideous thing, and yet there was a fascination about it some
where. I am very sorry I saw it, because I shall always see it now. I
shall dream of it sometimes. I shall dream that it is resting its corded
arms on the bed's head and looking down on me with its dead eyes; I shall
dream that it is stretched between the sheets with me and touching me with
its exposed muscles and its stringy cold legs.
It is hard to forget repulsive things. I remember yet how I ran off from
school once, when I was a boy, and then, pretty late at night, concluded
to climb into the window of my father's office and sleep on a lounge,
because I had a delicacy about going home and getting thrashed. As I lay
on the lounge and my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I fancied I
could see a long, dusky, shapeless thing stretched upon the floor. A cold
shiver went through me. I turned my face to the wall. That did not answer.
I was afraid that that thing would creep over and seize me in the dark. I
turned back and stared at it for minutes and minutes—they seemed
hours. It appeared to me that the lagging moonlight never, never would get
to it. I turned to the wall and counted twenty, to pass the feverish time
away. I looked—the pale square was nearer. I turned again and
counted fifty—it was almost touching it. With desperate will I
turned again and counted one hundred, and faced about, all in a tremble. A
white human hand lay in the moonlight! Such an awful sinking at the heart—such
a sudden gasp for breath! I felt—I cannot tell what I felt. When I
recovered strength enough, I faced the wall again. But no boy could have
remained so with that mysterious hand behind him. I counted again and
looked—the most of a naked arm was exposed. I put my hands over my
eyes and counted till I could stand it no longer, and then—the
pallid face of a man was there, with the corners of the mouth drawn down,
and the eyes fixed and glassy in death! I raised to a sitting posture and
glowered on that corpse till the light crept down the bare breastline by
line—inch by inch—past the nipple—and then it disclosed
a ghastly stab!
I went away from there. I do not say that I went away in any sort of a
hurry, but I simply went—that is sufficient. I went out at the
window, and I carried the sash along with me. I did not need the sash, but
it was handier to take it than it was to leave it, and so I took it.—I
was not scared, but I was considerably agitated.
When I reached home, they whipped me, but I enjoyed it. It seemed
perfectly delightful. That man had been stabbed near the office that
afternoon, and they carried him in there to doctor him, but he only lived
an hour. I have slept in the same room with him often since then—in
Now we will descend into the crypt, under the grand altar of Milan
Cathedral, and receive an impressive sermon from lips that have been
silent and hands that have been gestureless for three hundred years.
The priest stopped in a small dungeon and held up his candle. This was the
last resting-place of a good man, a warm-hearted, unselfish man; a man
whose whole life was given to succoring the poor, encouraging the
faint-hearted, visiting the sick; in relieving distress, whenever and
wherever he found it. His heart, his hand, and his purse were always open.
With his story in one's mind he can almost see his benignant countenance
moving calmly among the haggard faces of Milan in the days when the plague
swept the city, brave where all others were cowards, full of compassion
where pity had been crushed out of all other breasts by the instinct of
self-preservation gone mad with terror, cheering all, praying with all,
helping all, with hand and brain and purse, at a time when parents forsook
their children, the friend deserted the friend, and the brother turned
away from the sister while her pleadings were still wailing in his ears.
This was good St. Charles Borromeo, Bishop of Milan. The people idolized
him; princes lavished uncounted treasures upon him. We stood in his tomb.
Near by was the sarcophagus, lighted by the dripping candles. The walls
were faced with bas-reliefs representing scenes in his life done in
massive silver. The priest put on a short white lace garment over his
black robe, crossed himself, bowed reverently, and began to turn a
windlass slowly. The sarcophagus separated in two parts, lengthwise, and
the lower part sank down and disclosed a coffin of rock crystal as clear
as the atmosphere. Within lay the body, robed in costly habiliments
covered with gold embroidery and starred with scintillating gems. The
decaying head was black with age, the dry skin was drawn tight to the
bones, the eyes were gone, there was a hole in the temple and another in
the cheek, and the skinny lips were parted as in a ghastly smile! Over
this dreadful face, its dust and decay and its mocking grin, hung a crown
sown thick with flashing brilliants; and upon the breast lay crosses and
croziers of solid gold that were splendid with emeralds and diamonds.
How poor, and cheap, and trivial these gew-gaws seemed in presence of the
solemnity, the grandeur, the awful majesty of Death! Think of Milton,
Shakespeare, Washington, standing before a reverent world tricked out in
the glass beads, the brass ear-rings and tin trumpery of the savages of
Dead Bartolomeo preached his pregnant sermon, and its burden was: You that
worship the vanities of earth—you that long for worldly honor,
worldly wealth, worldly fame—behold their worth!
To us it seemed that so good a man, so kind a heart, so simple a nature,
deserved rest and peace in a grave sacred from the intrusion of prying
eyes, and believed that he himself would have preferred to have it so, but
peradventure our wisdom was at fault in this regard.
As we came out upon the floor of the church again, another priest
volunteered to show us the treasures of the church.
What, more? The furniture of the narrow chamber of death we had just
visited weighed six millions of francs in ounces and carats alone, without
a penny thrown into the account for the costly workmanship bestowed upon
them! But we followed into a large room filled with tall wooden presses
like wardrobes. He threw them open, and behold, the cargoes of "crude
bullion" of the assay offices of Nevada faded out of my memory. There were
Virgins and bishops there, above their natural size, made of solid silver,
each worth, by weight, from eight hundred thousand to two millions of
francs, and bearing gemmed books in their hands worth eighty thousand;
there were bas-reliefs that weighed six hundred pounds, carved in solid
silver; croziers and crosses, and candlesticks six and eight feet high,
all of virgin gold, and brilliant with precious stones; and beside these
were all manner of cups and vases, and such things, rich in proportion. It
was an Aladdin's palace. The treasures here, by simple weight, without
counting workmanship, were valued at fifty millions of francs! If I could
get the custody of them for a while, I fear me the market price of silver
bishops would advance shortly, on account of their exceeding scarcity in
the Cathedral of Milan.
The priests showed us two of St. Paul's fingers, and one of St. Peter's; a
bone of Judas Iscariot, (it was black,) and also bones of all the other
disciples; a handkerchief in which the Saviour had left the impression of
his face. Among the most precious of the relics were a stone from the Holy
Sepulchre, part of the crown of thorns, (they have a whole one at Notre
Dame,) a fragment of the purple robe worn by the Saviour, a nail from the
Cross, and a picture of the Virgin and Child painted by the veritable hand
of St. Luke. This is the second of St. Luke's Virgins we have seen. Once a
year all these holy relics are carried in procession through the streets
I like to revel in the dryest details of the great cathedral. The building
is five hundred feet long by one hundred and eighty wide, and the
principal steeple is in the neighborhood of four hundred feet high. It has
7,148 marble statues, and will have upwards of three thousand more when it
is finished. In addition it has one thousand five hundred bas-reliefs. It
has one hundred and thirty-six spires—twenty-one more are to be
added. Each spire is surmounted by a statue six and a half feet high.
Every thing about the church is marble, and all from the same quarry; it
was bequeathed to the Archbishopric for this purpose centuries ago. So
nothing but the mere workmanship costs; still that is expensive—the
bill foots up six hundred and eighty-four millions of francs thus far
(considerably over a hundred millions of dollars,) and it is estimated
that it will take a hundred and twenty years yet to finish the cathedral.
It looks complete, but is far from being so. We saw a new statue put in
its niche yesterday, alongside of one which had been standing these four
hundred years, they said. There are four staircases leading up to the main
steeple, each of which cost a hundred thousand dollars, with the four
hundred and eight statues which adorn them. Marco Compioni was the
architect who designed the wonderful structure more than five hundred
years ago, and it took him forty-six years to work out the plan and get it
ready to hand over to the builders. He is dead now. The building was begun
a little less than five hundred years ago, and the third generation hence
will not see it completed.
The building looks best by moonlight, because the older portions of it,
being stained with age, contrast unpleasantly with the newer and whiter
portions. It seems somewhat too broad for its height, but may be
familiarity with it might dissipate this impression.
They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter's at
Rome. I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human
We bid it good-bye, now—possibly for all time. How surely, in some
future day, when the memory of it shall have lost its vividness, shall we
half believe we have seen it in a wonderful dream, but never with waking
"Do you wis zo haut can be?"
That was what the guide asked when we were looking up at the bronze horses
on the Arch of Peace. It meant, do you wish to go up there? I give it as a
specimen of guide-English. These are the people that make life a burthen
to the tourist. Their tongues are never still. They talk forever and
forever, and that is the kind of billingsgate they use. Inspiration itself
could hardly comprehend them. If they would only show you a masterpiece of
art, or a venerable tomb, or a prison-house, or a battle-field, hallowed
by touching memories or historical reminiscences, or grand traditions, and
then step aside and hold still for ten minutes and let you think, it would
not be so bad. But they interrupt every dream, every pleasant train of
thought, with their tiresome cackling. Sometimes when I have been standing
before some cherished old idol of mine that I remembered years and years
ago in pictures in the geography at school, I have thought I would give a
whole world if the human parrot at my side would suddenly perish where he
stood and leave me to gaze, and ponder, and worship.
No, we did not "wis zo haut can be." We wished to go to La Scala, the
largest theater in the world, I think they call it. We did so. It was a
large place. Seven separate and distinct masses of humanity—six
great circles and a monster parquette.
We wished to go to the Ambrosian Library, and we did that also. We saw a
manuscript of Virgil, with annotations in the handwriting of Petrarch, the
gentleman who loved another man's Laura, and lavished upon her all through
life a love which was a clear waste of the raw material. It was sound
sentiment, but bad judgment. It brought both parties fame, and created a
fountain of commiseration for them in sentimental breasts that is running
yet. But who says a word in behalf of poor Mr. Laura? (I do not know his
other name.) Who glorifies him? Who bedews him with tears? Who writes
poetry about him? Nobody. How do you suppose he liked the state of things
that has given the world so much pleasure? How did he enjoy having another
man following his wife every where and making her name a familiar word in
every garlic-exterminating mouth in Italy with his sonnets to her
pre-empted eyebrows? They got fame and sympathy—he got neither. This
is a peculiarly felicitous instance of what is called poetical justice. It
is all very fine; but it does not chime with my notions of right. It is
too one-sided—too ungenerous.
Let the world go on fretting about Laura and Petrarch if it will; but as
for me, my tears and my lamentations shall be lavished upon the unsung
We saw also an autograph letter of Lucrezia Borgia, a lady for whom I have
always entertained the highest respect, on account of her rare histrionic
capabilities, her opulence in solid gold goblets made of gilded wood, her
high distinction as an operatic screamer, and the facility with which she
could order a sextuple funeral and get the corpses ready for it. We saw
one single coarse yellow hair from Lucrezia's head, likewise. It awoke
emotions, but we still live. In this same library we saw some drawings by
Michael Angelo (these Italians call him Mickel Angelo,) and Leonardo da
Vinci. (They spell it Vinci and pronounce it Vinchy; foreigners always
spell better than they pronounce.) We reserve our opinion of these
In another building they showed us a fresco representing some lions and
other beasts drawing chariots; and they seemed to project so far from the
wall that we took them to be sculptures. The artist had shrewdly
heightened the delusion by painting dust on the creatures' backs, as if it
had fallen there naturally and properly. Smart fellow—if it be smart
to deceive strangers.
Elsewhere we saw a huge Roman amphitheatre, with its stone seats still in
good preservation. Modernized, it is now the scene of more peaceful
recreations than the exhibition of a party of wild beasts with Christians
for dinner. Part of the time, the Milanese use it for a race track, and at
other seasons they flood it with water and have spirited yachting regattas
there. The guide told us these things, and he would hardly try so
hazardous an experiment as the telling of a falsehood, when it is all he
can do to speak the truth in English without getting the lock-jaw.
In another place we were shown a sort of summer arbor, with a fence before
it. We said that was nothing. We looked again, and saw, through the arbor,
an endless stretch of garden, and shrubbery, and grassy lawn. We were
perfectly willing to go in there and rest, but it could not be done. It
was only another delusion—a painting by some ingenious artist with
little charity in his heart for tired folk. The deception was perfect. No
one could have imagined the park was not real. We even thought we smelled
the flowers at first.
We got a carriage at twilight and drove in the shaded avenues with the
other nobility, and after dinner we took wine and ices in a fine garden
with the great public. The music was excellent, the flowers and shrubbery
were pleasant to the eye, the scene was vivacious, everybody was genteel
and well-behaved, and the ladies were slightly moustached, and handsomely
dressed, but very homely.
We adjourned to a cafe and played billiards an hour, and I made six or
seven points by the doctor pocketing his ball, and he made as many by my
pocketing my ball. We came near making a carom sometimes, but not the one
we were trying to make. The table was of the usual European style—cushions
dead and twice as high as the balls; the cues in bad repair. The natives
play only a sort of pool on them. We have never seen any body playing the
French three-ball game yet, and I doubt if there is any such game known in
France, or that there lives any man mad enough to try to play it on one of
these European tables. We had to stop playing finally because Dan got to
sleeping fifteen minutes between the counts and paying no attention to his
Afterward we walked up and down one of the most popular streets for some
time, enjoying other people's comfort and wishing we could export some of
it to our restless, driving, vitality-consuming marts at home. Just in
this one matter lies the main charm of life in Europe—comfort. In
America, we hurry—which is well; but when the day's work is done, we
go on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for the morrow, we even carry
our business cares to bed with us, and toss and worry over them when we
ought to be restoring our racked bodies and brains with sleep. We burn up
our energies with these excitements, and either die early or drop into a
lean and mean old age at a time of life which they call a man's prime in
Europe. When an acre of ground has produced long and well, we let it lie
fallow and rest for a season; we take no man clear across the continent in
the same coach he started in—the coach is stabled somewhere on the
plains and its heated machinery allowed to cool for a few days; when a
razor has seen long service and refuses to hold an edge, the barber lays
it away for a few weeks, and the edge comes back of its own accord. We
bestow thoughtful care upon inanimate objects, but none upon ourselves.
What a robust people, what a nation of thinkers we might be, if we would
only lay ourselves on the shelf occasionally and renew our edges!
I do envy these Europeans the comfort they take. When the work of the day
is done, they forget it. Some of them go, with wife and children, to a
beer hall and sit quietly and genteelly drinking a mug or two of ale and
listening to music; others walk the streets, others drive in the avenues;
others assemble in the great ornamental squares in the early evening to
enjoy the sight and the fragrance of flowers and to hear the military
bands play—no European city being without its fine military music at
eventide; and yet others of the populace sit in the open air in front of
the refreshment houses and eat ices and drink mild beverages that could
not harm a child. They go to bed moderately early, and sleep well. They
are always quiet, always orderly, always cheerful, comfortable, and
appreciative of life and its manifold blessings. One never sees a drunken
man among them. The change that has come over our little party is
surprising. Day by day we lose some of our restlessness and absorb some of
the spirit of quietude and ease that is in the tranquil atmosphere about
us and in the demeanor of the people. We grow wise apace. We begin to
comprehend what life is for.
We have had a bath in Milan, in a public bath-house. They were going to
put all three of us in one bath-tub, but we objected. Each of us had an
Italian farm on his back. We could have felt affluent if we had been
officially surveyed and fenced in. We chose to have three bathtubs, and
large ones—tubs suited to the dignity of aristocrats who had real
estate, and brought it with them. After we were stripped and had taken the
first chilly dash, we discovered that haunting atrocity that has
embittered our lives in so many cities and villages of Italy and France—there
was no soap. I called. A woman answered, and I barely had time to throw
myself against the door—she would have been in, in another second. I
"Beware, woman! Go away from here—go away, now, or it will be the
worse for you. I am an unprotected male, but I will preserve my honor at
the peril of my life!"
These words must have frightened her, for she skurried away very fast.
Dan's voice rose on the air:
"Oh, bring some soap, why don't you!"
The reply was Italian. Dan resumed:
"Soap, you know—soap. That is what I want—soap. S-o-a-p, soap;
s-o-p-e, soap; s-o-u-p, soap. Hurry up! I don't know how you Irish spell
it, but I want it. Spell it to suit yourself, but fetch it. I'm freezing."
I heard the doctor say impressively:
"Dan, how often have we told you that these foreigners cannot understand
English? Why will you not depend upon us? Why will you not tell us what
you want, and let us ask for it in the language of the country? It would
save us a great deal of the humiliation your reprehensible ignorance
causes us. I will address this person in his mother tongue: 'Here,
cospetto! corpo di Bacco! Sacramento! Solferino!—Soap, you son of a
gun!' Dan, if you would let us talk for you, you would never expose your
Even this fluent discharge of Italian did not bring the soap at once, but
there was a good reason for it. There was not such an article about the
establishment. It is my belief that there never had been. They had to send
far up town, and to several different places before they finally got it,
so they said. We had to wait twenty or thirty minutes. The same thing had
occurred the evening before, at the hotel. I think I have divined the
reason for this state of things at last. The English know how to travel
comfortably, and they carry soap with them; other foreigners do not use
At every hotel we stop at we always have to send out for soap, at the last
moment, when we are grooming ourselves for dinner, and they put it in the
bill along with the candles and other nonsense. In Marseilles they make
half the fancy toilet soap we consume in America, but the Marseillaise
only have a vague theoretical idea of its use, which they have obtained
from books of travel, just as they have acquired an uncertain notion of
clean shirts, and the peculiarities of the gorilla, and other curious
matters. This reminds me of poor Blucher's note to the landlord in Paris:
PARIS, le 7 Juillet. Monsieur le Landlord—Sir: Pourquoi don't you
mettez some savon in your bed-chambers? Est-ce que vous pensez I will
steal it? La nuit passee you charged me pour deux chandelles when I only
had one; hier vous avez charged me avec glace when I had none at all;
tout les jours you are coming some fresh game or other on me, mais vous
ne pouvez pas play this savon dodge on me twice. Savon is a necessary de
la vie to any body but a Frenchman, et je l'aurai hors de cet hotel or
make trouble. You hear me. Allons. BLUCHER.
I remonstrated against the sending of this note, because it was so mixed
up that the landlord would never be able to make head or tail of it; but
Blucher said he guessed the old man could read the French of it and
average the rest.
Blucher's French is bad enough, but it is not much worse than the English
one finds in advertisements all over Italy every day. For instance,
observe the printed card of the hotel we shall probably stop at on the
shores of Lake Como:
"This hotel which the best it is in Italy and most superb, is handsome
locate on the best situation of the lake, with the most splendid view
near the Villas Melzy, to the King of Belgian, and Serbelloni. This
hotel have recently enlarge, do offer all commodities on moderate price,
at the strangers gentlemen who whish spend the seasons on the Lake
How is that, for a specimen? In the hotel is a handsome little chapel
where an English clergyman is employed to preach to such of the guests of
the house as hail from England and America, and this fact is also set
forth in barbarous English in the same advertisement. Wouldn't you have
supposed that the adventurous linguist who framed the card would have
known enough to submit it to that clergyman before he sent it to the
Here in Milan, in an ancient tumble-down ruin of a church, is the mournful
wreck of the most celebrated painting in the world—"The Last
Supper," by Leonardo da Vinci. We are not infallible judges of pictures,
but of course we went there to see this wonderful painting, once so
beautiful, always so worshipped by masters in art, and forever to be
famous in song and story. And the first thing that occurred was the
infliction on us of a placard fairly reeking with wretched English. Take a
morsel of it:
"Bartholomew (that is the first figure on the left hand side at
the spectator,) uncertain and doubtful about what he thinks to have
heard, and upon which he wants to be assured by himself at Christ and by
Good, isn't it? And then Peter is described as "argumenting in a
threatening and angrily condition at Judas Iscariot."
This paragraph recalls the picture. "The Last Supper" is painted on the
dilapidated wall of what was a little chapel attached to the main church
in ancient times, I suppose. It is battered and scarred in every
direction, and stained and discolored by time, and Napoleon's horses
kicked the legs off most the disciples when they (the horses, not the
disciples,) were stabled there more than half a century ago.
I recognized the old picture in a moment—the Saviour with bowed head
seated at the centre of a long, rough table with scattering fruits and
dishes upon it, and six disciples on either side in their long robes,
talking to each other—the picture from which all engravings and all
copies have been made for three centuries. Perhaps no living man has ever
known an attempt to paint the Lord's Supper differently. The world seems
to have become settled in the belief, long ago, that it is not possible
for human genius to outdo this creation of da Vinci's. I suppose painters
will go on copying it as long as any of the original is left visible to
the eye. There were a dozen easels in the room, and as many artists
transferring the great picture to their canvases. Fifty proofs of steel
engravings and lithographs were scattered around, too. And as usual, I
could not help noticing how superior the copies were to the original, that
is, to my inexperienced eye. Wherever you find a Raphael, a Rubens, a
Michelangelo, a Carracci, or a da Vinci (and we see them every day,) you
find artists copying them, and the copies are always the handsomest. Maybe
the originals were handsome when they were new, but they are not now.
The colors are dimmed with age; the countenances are scaled and marred,
and nearly all expression is gone from them; the hair is a dead blur upon
the wall, and there is no life in the eyes. Only the attitudes are
People come here from all parts of the world, and glorify this
masterpiece. They stand entranced before it with bated breath and parted
lips, and when they speak, it is only in the catchy ejaculations of
"Such grace of attitude!"
"Such faultless drawing!"
"Such matchless coloring!"
"What delicacy of touch!"
"What sublimity of conception!"
"A vision! A vision!"
I only envy these people; I envy them their honest admiration, if it be
honest—their delight, if they feel delight. I harbor no animosity
toward any of them. But at the same time the thought will intrude itself
upon me, How can they see what is not visible? What would you think of a
man who looked at some decayed, blind, toothless, pock-marked Cleopatra,
and said: "What matchless beauty! What soul! What expression!" What would
you think of a man who gazed upon a dingy, foggy sunset, and said: "What
sublimity! What feeling! What richness of coloring!" What would you think
of a man who stared in ecstasy upon a desert of stumps and said: "Oh, my
soul, my beating heart, what a noble forest is here!"
You would think that those men had an astonishing talent for seeing things
that had already passed away. It was what I thought when I stood before
"The Last Supper" and heard men apostrophizing wonders, and beauties and
perfections which had faded out of the picture and gone, a hundred years
before they were born. We can imagine the beauty that was once in an aged
face; we can imagine the forest if we see the stumps; but we can not
absolutely see these things when they are not there. I am willing to
believe that the eye of the practiced artist can rest upon the Last Supper
and renew a lustre where only a hint of it is left, supply a tint that has
faded away, restore an expression that is gone; patch, and color, and add,
to the dull canvas until at last its figures shall stand before him aglow
with the life, the feeling, the freshness, yea, with all the noble beauty
that was theirs when first they came from the hand of the master. But I
can not work this miracle. Can those other uninspired visitors do it, or
do they only happily imagine they do?
After reading so much about it, I am satisfied that the Last Supper was a
very miracle of art once. But it was three hundred years ago.
It vexes me to hear people talk so glibly of "feeling," "expression,"
"tone," and those other easily acquired and inexpensive technicalities of
art that make such a fine show in conversations concerning pictures. There
is not one man in seventy-five hundred that can tell what a pictured face
is intended to express. There is not one man in five hundred that can go
into a court-room and be sure that he will not mistake some harmless
innocent of a juryman for the black-hearted assassin on trial. Yet such
people talk of "character" and presume to interpret "expression" in
pictures. There is an old story that Matthews, the actor, was once lauding
the ability of the human face to express the passions and emotions hidden
in the breast. He said the countenance could disclose what was passing in
the heart plainer than the tongue could.
"Now," he said, "observe my face—what does it express?"
"Bah, it expresses peaceful resignation! What does this express?"
"Stuff! It means terror! This!"
"Fool! It is smothered ferocity! Now this!"
"Oh, perdition! Any ass can see it means insanity!"
Expression! People coolly pretend to read it who would think themselves
presumptuous if they pretended to interpret the hieroglyphics on the
obelisks of Luxor—yet they are fully as competent to do the one
thing as the other. I have heard two very intelligent critics speak of
Murillo's Immaculate Conception (now in the museum at Seville,) within the
past few days. One said:
"Oh, the Virgin's face is full of the ecstasy of a joy that is complete—that
leaves nothing more to be desired on earth!"
The other said:
"Ah, that wonderful face is so humble, so pleading—it says as
plainly as words could say it: 'I fear; I tremble; I am unworthy. But Thy
will be done; sustain Thou Thy servant!'"
The reader can see the picture in any drawing-room; it can be easily
recognized: the Virgin (the only young and really beautiful Virgin that
was ever painted by one of the old masters, some of us think,) stands in
the crescent of the new moon, with a multitude of cherubs hovering about
her, and more coming; her hands are crossed upon her breast, and upon her
uplifted countenance falls a glory out of the heavens. The reader may
amuse himself, if he chooses, in trying to determine which of these
gentlemen read the Virgin's "expression" aright, or if either of them did
Any one who is acquainted with the old masters will comprehend how much
"The Last Supper" is damaged when I say that the spectator can not really
tell, now, whether the disciples are Hebrews or Italians. These ancient
painters never succeeded in denationalizing themselves. The Italian
artists painted Italian Virgins, the Dutch painted Dutch Virgins, the
Virgins of the French painters were Frenchwomen—none of them ever
put into the face of the Madonna that indescribable something which
proclaims the Jewess, whether you find her in New York, in Constantinople,
in Paris, Jerusalem, or in the empire of Morocco. I saw in the Sandwich
Islands, once, a picture copied by a talented German artist from an
engraving in one of the American illustrated papers. It was an allegory,
representing Mr. Davis in the act of signing a secession act or some such
document. Over him hovered the ghost of Washington in warning attitude,
and in the background a troop of shadowy soldiers in Continental uniform
were limping with shoeless, bandaged feet through a driving snow-storm.
Valley Forge was suggested, of course. The copy seemed accurate, and yet
there was a discrepancy somewhere. After a long examination I discovered
what it was—the shadowy soldiers were all Germans! Jeff Davis was a
German! even the hovering ghost was a German ghost! The artist had
unconsciously worked his nationality into the picture. To tell the truth,
I am getting a little perplexed about John the Baptist and his portraits.
In France I finally grew reconciled to him as a Frenchman; here he is
unquestionably an Italian. What next? Can it be possible that the painters
make John the Baptist a Spaniard in Madrid and an Irishman in Dublin?
We took an open barouche and drove two miles out of Milan to "see ze
echo," as the guide expressed it. The road was smooth, it was bordered by
trees, fields, and grassy meadows, and the soft air was filled with the
odor of flowers. Troops of picturesque peasant girls, coming from work,
hooted at us, shouted at us, made all manner of game of us, and entirely
delighted me. My long-cherished judgment was confirmed. I always did think
those frowsy, romantic, unwashed peasant girls I had read so much about in
poetry were a glaring fraud.
We enjoyed our jaunt. It was an exhilarating relief from tiresome
We distressed ourselves very little about the astonishing echo the guide
talked so much about. We were growing accustomed to encomiums on wonders
that too often proved no wonders at all. And so we were most happily
disappointed to find in the sequel that the guide had even failed to rise
to the magnitude of his subject.
We arrived at a tumble-down old rookery called the Palazzo Simonetti—a
massive hewn-stone affair occupied by a family of ragged Italians. A
good-looking young girl conducted us to a window on the second floor which
looked out on a court walled on three sides by tall buildings. She put her
head out at the window and shouted. The echo answered more times than we
could count. She took a speaking trumpet and through it she shouted, sharp
and quick, a single "Ha!" The echo answered:
"Ha!—ha!——ha!—ha!—ha!-ha! ha! h-a-a-a-a-a!"
and finally went off into a rollicking convulsion of the jolliest laughter
that could be imagined. It was so joyful—so long continued—so
perfectly cordial and hearty, that every body was forced to join in. There
was no resisting it.
Then the girl took a gun and fired it. We stood ready to count the
astonishing clatter of reverberations. We could not say one, two, three,
fast enough, but we could dot our notebooks with our pencil points almost
rapidly enough to take down a sort of short-hand report of the result. My
page revealed the following account. I could not keep up, but I did as
well as I could.
I set down fifty-two distinct repetitions, and then the echo got the
advantage of me. The doctor set down sixty-four, and thenceforth the echo
moved too fast for him, also. After the separate concussions could no
longer be noted, the reverberations dwindled to a wild, long-sustained
clatter of sounds such as a watchman's rattle produces. It is likely that
this is the most remarkable echo in the world.
The doctor, in jest, offered to kiss the young girl, and was taken a
little aback when she said he might for a franc! The commonest gallantry
compelled him to stand by his offer, and so he paid the franc and took the
kiss. She was a philosopher. She said a franc was a good thing to have,
and she did not care any thing for one paltry kiss, because she had a
million left. Then our comrade, always a shrewd businessman, offered to
take the whole cargo at thirty days, but that little financial scheme was