« PreviousContinue »
clared was the work of Caravaggio, and extolled highly; though, if he ever did it, he must have been either in love or liquor, as it has entirely too happy and smiling a color for the ordinary character of that gentleman. There was also a Holy Family, which the sexton debated for some time whether to father on Raphael or Giuleo Romano; but having probably heard the proverb, “ in for a penny in for a pound," finally laid on the first.
There are perhaps few things that will strike a traveler of some little conversance with works of art, more forcibly than the discrepancy between the ages, at death, of the most famous painters, and the amount of labor they are said to have performed. He sees painting after painting all attributed to one master, and all besides having the sanction of connoiseurs for their legitimacy, exhibiting a similarity which, to his partially practiced eye, gives great plausibility to the statement; and yet, if he will number these paintings, he will find that the unremitted toil of a century would be unable to complete, in some cases, half of what is laid at the door of one man. Moreover, when he considers that many of these painters died quite young, and that there were idlers as well as hard-working men among even these, the inconsiste ency is still more apparent. The truth is, that all the allowance which can be made, if a man trusts his own judgment and has no regard to the “ipse dixit” of a virtuoso, is, that the original sketch, or the design, or the coloring, or the touching up, or the restoration, was possibly, one or other of them, by the hand of the master; the bulk of the productions was the work of his scholars, or of other men. Rubens, more particularly, is loaded with productions, which there is a strong probability that he saw only when finished ; and in no other way can truth and the value of galleries be preserved, than by accepting such a compromise. Genius disregards time and space, perhaps ; but the mixing of colors, and their application by the brush-to say nothing of the necessary drying, which in the studio is by no means so rapid a process as in a London wash-house-demands minutes of sixty seconds, and hours of sixty minutes.
As soon as we had laughed at the exhibitor, in our sleeves, but paid him in good carlini, which produced from John the single expression, “ done by Jove,” we hastened to a couple more churches, one of which contained a copy of a painting by Raphael, and the other a work by a Sicilian artist usually called Monrealese, from the town of his birth, both of merit, and then adjourned to the street, to settle a dispute which had arisen between the Englishman and my countryman, whom henceforward I shall call D- The former was urging an immediate descent upon the “ dried men,” to which a certain practical turn of mind impelled him, in preference to the inspection of temples and works of arts, while D-, like a provident man, was, from, it may be the same feelings, for reserving them to the last. “ When Greek meets Greek” we know what follows, generally; but in this case, what followed was, that I tossed up the nearest approach to a copper that the Sicilian coinage allowed-heads entitling the “ dried men” to priority, tails settling their consequence. A shrill and impatient cry, cochiere
cochiere, answered by a subito eccelenza, and an application of Solomon's rule, “spare the rod," &c. to horse-flesh, sufficiently indicated that heads had it; and after suffering our driver to go through the solemn farce of shaking the cushions, we re-entered, composed ourselves, and gave the order “to the Cappuchin convent" where these individuals were “put up.”
Reader, have you ever seen a small scow lying at the dock when the steamboat arrives? You have noticed its motion ? Well, just such a peculiar movement did we experience in going to the convent—up, down, now this side, now the other, crack, snap, bounce, jolt, slide; there we went, we in turn talking to, pummeling, consoling each other, driver swearing, whipping, and taking snuff from a match-box, not any of which occupations prevented his ogling the pretty peasant girls, who tripped by in their scarlet bodices and glossy black hair, evidently tickled to death at our novel appearance. We reached the convent, and driving through an arched gateway, entered a long passage, at the end of which was the door of entrance to the Catacombs. The only tenants of this alley were a mule laden with vegetables, and a curly-headed boy, who appeared to have had a misunderstanding, by the way in which they mutually kicked at each other, and two or three priests dressed in their brown gowns, barefooted, and with their cowls thrown back. They were all fat, all eating, and all dirty ; but one had the most superb beard that I ever saw on any body short of an Armenian. It was snow-white, thick and glossy, and reached to his girdle. Doubtless it was his cherished vanity, so complacently did he pass his hand over it-certainly, it was a beard to excuse a great deal of pride. I entered into conversation with its owner, and found him a kindly disposed, and by no means for the place, ignorant man; he inquired of my country without disbelieving my answer, as many others had done, on the ground that I was not black, which goes for something ; besides, he talked in a fatherly way, seemed complimented by our visit, and dispatched a boy for the key
Virgil certainly mistook when he said, “ facilis descensus averni," for the regions to which, under the guidance of our monk, we groped our way, were any thing but easy of approach ; unequal steps, stray bones and other refuse, cats mi'awling, vile smells, all reminding one of certain scenes in the “ Faery Queen.” These were a few of the elements of our “ facilis descensus," and brought us at length into a vast cellar, somewhat in the shape of a cross, and provided from floor to ceiling with shelves at intervals of a foot. On these shelves were ranged, in tiers one upon another, and stretching on either hand as far as the eye could penetrate the surrounding gloom, the embalmed bodies of those who had once been monks, as he who stood before us. There they lay, their dry and snuff-colored skulls grinning down from the shelves, and the black robe of serge covered with dust, or eaten by the moth, hanging loosely around their fleshless shanks and collapsed chests. At intervals of about twelve feet were also bodies similarly prepared, placed in an upright position, and these, as having held superior office during life, were represented in death with some badge of their earthly distinction still in their hands; while the skulls of those bodies which had proved failures, and which could not be preserved in full, were ranged around on brackets in an order truly mathematical. Certainly the coup d'ail was striking, and our guide took snuff while we enjoyed it. At length, after a proper sacrifice of time to sentiment, he advanced and we followed. Then commenced a series of prelly little biographies, which I listened to at the time, but have since most culpably forgotten; a sort of moral lecture, with dried specimens, which was interrupted from time to time by the scampering of a cat, which would leave its perch on a monk's breast, scared at our approach, or set up a melancholy yawl, which was repeated with a sort of damp echo from the dark recesses around us, as we disturbed its repose.
Leaving this silent charnel-house, we entered another apartment, similar in arrangement, but smaller than the first, appropriated to the bodies of females, who were either benefactresses of the Convent, or in some other way entitled to a grave within its walls. Glass cases were provided for the ladies-a luxury dispensed with by the maleswithin which they were placed in all the paraphernalia of holiday costume. One there was who had been a princess in the island, young and beautiful, surpassingly so, if I believed the monk; she had been swept away by a plague at the age of sixteen. There she stood, in full ball attire, her brown and withered face enclosed in a quilling of the finest lace; her skeleton hands cased in white kid gloves; her feet in white satin slippers, and an embroidered satin dress hanging round her shapeless figure like the mainsail of a wood sloop in a calm--and yet she had been beautiful. I thought of Lucian's dialogues, and the scene with “the grave-digger,” and took snuff with the monk who was smiling at me. There was also an apartment for children, and one supplementary to No. 1, to which the bodies were removed from the laboratory, where they were embalmed; but I think a sufficient idea can be gathered of the Catacombs of Palermo from what I have already said, to dispense with further description.
The process of preparing the mummies—for a species of mummy they cetainly are—I do not perfectly understand, though from our guide I gathered that it was somewhat as follows :-As soon as the corpse has remained a sufficient time above ground to prove that life is extinct, it is removed to a room rendered nearly air-tight. It is then suspended over a dense smoke of certain woods and gums, renewed from time to time, and passes in this condition about three months. The flesh has by this time become dry and shrunken, and the odor has to a great extent left it. It is taken thence to another room, where it is straightened, examined, and any imperfection discovered, and if practicable, remedied, or if satisfactory, is clothed in its robes, and exposed to the action of another fumigation, less penetrating, but drying and hardening; 'after a long continuance in which it is in condition to be shelved.
The oldest monk there was, if I mistake not, upwards of five hundred years old, and so well was he preserved, that our white-bearded conductor rattled his tongue against the jaws as one shakes a bean in its dried pod, with the simple eccolo! and smiled, though sadly. After satisfying our curiosity, we spent some minutes in conversation with our attendant, and never did I put a piece of money into a man's hand so cheerfully as into his. He bid us addio, as we mounted our carriage, and I was almost sad at parting with him-so sad that I was silent. If I was in this condition, however, by no means were my companions like me; and it was entertaining enough to listen to their remarks, a general comparison of notes ensuing among the rest of the party, on emerging into outer air. One was decidedly in favor of the men's department; D-, as an American, stood up for the ladies; John Bull told us, in the confidence of his heart, that he had all along thought that “tongue dodge” was a humbug, parchment, or something of that sort, but now he was convinced of his mistake, for while the monk was not looking, he had tried it with his penknife. Alas! alas ! for our nature.
Urged by the sight of a carlino, held artistically between the thumb and fore-finger, our driver was fairly standing up to his work, and blows “ like wintry hail” descended on the doomed beasts.
We fairly skipped over the road, our horses doing their best, and their merciless tormentor still exacting more, and intimating that he was in earnest, not more by his whip, full six inches shorter in the lash than when we started, than by a certain short rabid shriek which from time to time escaped him, and distinctly told all listeners that the perpetrator was wide awake. Under such auspices we made great time, and arrived at our hotel in capital humor, to hear that we had fifteen minutes to dress before dinner, and would probably meet some agreeable company at that meal-a duplicate greeting, of course more pleasant when served by a landlord than a sheriff's officer. We accordingly paid coachey, who bowed till I thought he would break in two pieces, then mounted his box, gave utterance to the fatal “ E-u-g-h," and when I last saw him, was applying the lash vigorously, getting headway on, preparatory to a turn round the corner.
The dinner at which we met again was a meal whose very smell would have crazed a Grahamite, and spoke volumes for either the natural productions of the island or the ingenuity of the cook, producing causes that are often confounded abroad by the young traveler, who knows “all is not gold that glitters,” but has not yet learnt that all is not pheasant that has the head, legs, wings, and tail of that bird, nor doth all “divide the hoof” that is paid for as beef. It realized our anticipations, as well by what surrounded as what was upon the board. Our Germans of the breakfast were clustered in a group at one end, but with the added sobriety of dress-coats and a fast since morning; next to them (for remember that the table d'hote system prevailed at the “ Trinacria”) came some Italians, who, being at home, appeared to deem that a sufficient apology for not making themselves so, and were polite and well bred; then some Englishmen, and finally one of my countrymen and his wife. Thanks to their conversation and reminis. cences of home, the eating hour passed rapidly and agreeably away. The decanters were refilled, the ladies (there was but one, but non m'importa quello,) retired ; cigars began to glow between lips as well beardless as moustached, and our Anglo-Saxon party settled down to hobnobhing, and a discussion of the Italian opera.
The styles of Bellini, Rosini, Donizetti, and Verdi, the new compusers, whose productions were at that time creating quite a sensation throughout Italy, had all their peculiar champions, and snatches from the works of each one were sung from memory. Anecdotes of the composers were told, and a range of conversation introduced, which brought out the information, the wit, the memory, of each one. Honest, good-natured merriment, was at its height, when our host interrupted us by the information that a prima donna of considerable reputation was that evening to perform at il teatro Cecilia, and should by all means be heard. We, of course, jumped at the proposal en masse, and calling our valet de place—for these gentlemen are as indispensable to the proper seeing of a town, as currant-jelly to the proper eating of a shoulder of South Down-made all speed towards the opera-house. To obtain a box was out of the question ; so we modestly took seats in the pit—a very different place though from the shilling Hades of the Bowery or Walnut street, -and, until the curtain rose, amused ourselves by gazing at the occupants of what we were unable to procure, priority being of course given to what some one has ungallantly styled "the softer sex.” The ladies of Palermo have, I doubt not, had their Frauenlob, or if they have not, it must have been for the reason that the rose finds no painter; and while I admit that the women of the lower classes, not only here but throughout the island, are, on the whole, not very handsome, with, however, some notable exceptions; still, to me, the expression of some dozen faces in the opera-house that night, would atone for a nation of frights. Veni, Vidi—the crash of some hundred instruments in the opening overture of “ la Somnambula,” was all that prevents my writing victus fui. Throughout the house all was in a moment silent, till the appearance of the star drowned even the music with applause. She was a fine, a very fine singer, a good actress, and a pretty woman, and went through her part with much effect, though she scarcely merited the rank of a first rate prima. I saw her again, on the following night, and liked her better, though the second time only in selections.
With her final bow we made our exit, and then discovered, for the first time, on leaving the door, that our valet was nowhere to be found. We called till we were hoarse, shouting every name that we thought a Palermitan father could decently give his son, but all in vain. We accordingly had nothing for it but to lock arms, bear in mind the old truism, vacuus viator," &c., light a cigar, and follow our noses. The mere sensation of being lost in a strange town, more especially if it happens to have a reputation none the best, and streets none the widest or best lighted, is a disagreeable one at first, but it becomes from frequency the very opposite. I had lost my way in Marseilles in the day time ; in Genoa at night, in a snow-storm; in Rome at least twice a day during the first week; at Leghorn the first morning, and at Naples the first afternoon ; so that losing any thing but property or reputa