Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIX, 6

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XXIX, 5 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIX, 7

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIX, chapter 6
Artists ancient and modern

As Ambassador to England in 1822, I searched for the men and places I had formerly known in London in 1793; as Ambassador to the Holy See in 1828, I hurried off to tour the palaces and ruins, and to ask after the people I had seen in Rome in 1803; I found plenty of palaces and ruins; but few of the people.

The Palazzo Lancellotti, previously rented to Cardinal Fesch, is now occupied by its true owners, Prince Lancellotti and Princess Lancellotti, the daughter of Prince Massimo. The house where Madame de Beaumont lived in the Piazza di Spagna, has vanished. As for Madame de Beaumont, she is immured in her last rest, and I have prayed at her grave with Pope Leo XII.

Canova equally has taken leave of the world. I visited him twice in his studio in 1803; he received me mallet in hand. He showed me, in the simplest and kindest of manners, his enormous statue of Bonaparte and his ‘Hercules hurling Lycas into the waves’: he aimed to convince you that he could reach the spirit within the form; but then even his chisel refused to search anatomy deeply enough; despite him, his nymphs remained of the flesh, and Hebe was revealed beneath the wrinkles of his old women. On my wanderings I had met the foremost sculptor of my time; he has fallen from his scaffolding, as Goujon did from the scaffolding of the Louvre; Death is always there to continue his endless Saint Bartholomew’s Day, and strike us down with his arrows.

But someone still alive, to my great joy, is my old friend Boguet, doyen of the French painters in Rome. Twice he tried to leave his beloved landscapes; he got as far as Genoa; his heart failed him and he returned to his adopted hearth. I pampered him at the Embassy, as I did his son for whom he showed a mother’s tenderness. I started our former walks with him once more; I only perceive his age from the slowness of his steps; I experience a sort of tenderness in pretending to be young, and adjusting my pace to his. Neither of us have long to watch the Tiber flow.

The great artists, in the great eras, led a life quite different to that which artists lead today: attached to the vaults of the Vatican, the sides of St Peter’s, the walls of the Villa Farnesina, they worked on their masterpieces suspended in the air alongside them. Raphael walked surrounded by pupils, escorted by Cardinals and Princes, like a senator of ancient Rome preceded and followed by his clients. Charles V posed on three occasions for Titian. He picked up his brush for him, and yielded him right of precedence, just as Francis I attended Leonardo da Vinci on his deathbed. Titian went to Rome in triumph; the great Buonarotti received him: at ninety, Titian, the conqueror of the centuries still held his century-old Venetian paintbrush in a steady hand.

The Grand-Duke of Tuscany had Michelangelo, who had died in Rome after having designed the lantern for the dome of St Peter’s, secretly disinterred. Florence, in its magnificent obsequies, expiated over the ashes of its great painter the neglect with which it treated the ashes of Dante, its great poet.

Velasquez visited Italy twice, and Italy twice rose to salute him: the precursor of Murillo took the road back to Spain laden with fruit, picked with her own hands by that Ausonian Hesperia: he brought away a painting by each of the twelve most celebrated painters of his age.

Those famous artists spent their days in celebrations and affairs; they built defences for towns and castles; they erected churches, places and battlements; they gave and received sword-thrusts, seduced women, took refuge in cloisters, were absolved by Popes and protected by Princes. In an orgy spoken of by Benvenuto Cellini, some other Michelangelo appears, along with Giulio Romano.

Today the scene has altered completely; Artists in Rome live in quiet poverty. Perhaps there is poetry in such a life that is worth more. A confraternity of German painters has set out to take painting back to Perugino, to renew its Christian inspiration. These young neophytes of St Luke claim that Raphael, in his later manner, became a pagan, and that his talent degenerated. Let it be so; let us be pagans like Raphael’s virgins; let our talent degenerate and diminish as in his painting of The Transfiguration! This honourable error of the new sacred school is no less an error; it would follow from it that rigidity and poor formal design were proof of intuitive vision, yet that expression of faith, notable in the work of pre-Renaissance painters, is not because the figures are posed stiffly, as motionless as the Sphinx, but because the painter believed as his century did. It is his thought not his art that was religious; a thing so true, that the Spanish school is eminently pious in its expressions, even though it reveals the grace and movement of painting since the Renaissance. Why so: because the Spanish are Christians. I go to see the various artists: the trainee sculptor lives in a grotto, under the green oaks of the Villa Medici, where he is finishing his ‘child with a snake drinking from a shell’, in marble. The painter lives in a dilapidated house in a deserted location; I find him alone, capturing a view of the Roman countryside through his open window. Monsieur Schnetz’s La Brigande has become a mother asking the Madonna for her son’s recovery. Léopold Robert, returning from Naples, passed through Rome in the last few days, bringing with him the enchanted landscapes of that lovely clime, which he has done only so as to transfer them to canvas.

Guérin has retired, like a sick dove, to the heights of a pavilion in the Villa Medici. He listens, his head on his shoulder, to the sound of the breeze off the Tiber; when he wakes up he sketches the death of Priam with his pen.

Horace Vernet is trying hard to change styles; will he succeed? The snake he drapes round his neck, the costume he affects, the cigar he smokes, the fencing masks and foils with which he is surrounded, are over-reminiscent of a temporary encampment.

Who has ever heard of my friend Monsieur Quecq, a successor to Julius III in the casina created by Michelangelo, Vignola and Taddeo Zuccari? And yet he has painted, in its sequestrated Nympheum, a rather fine ‘Death of Vitellius’. The uncultivated flower beds are haunted by a cunning creature which Monsieur Quecq is busy pursuing: it is a fox, great grandson of Goupil-Renart, the first of that name and nephew of Isengrin the Wolf.

Pinelli, between two bouts of drunkenness, has promised me twelve scenes, of dancing, gaming and thieves. It is a shame he allows the large dog at his door to die of hunger. Thorwaldsen and Camuccini are the two Princes of the poor artists of Rome.

Occasionally these scattered artists meet, and go together on foot to Subiaco. On the way, they daub grotesques on the walls of the inn at Tivoli. Perhaps one day some Michelangelo will be recognised by his tracings of charcoal over a work by Raphael.

I would like to have been born an artist; solitude, independence, sunlight among the ruins and masterpieces, would have suited me. I have no needs; a piece of bread, a jug of water from the Acqua Felice, would suffice me. My life has been wretchedly snagged by branches along the way; better to have been a bird free to sing and nest among those branches!

Nicholas Poussin bought a house on Monte Pincio with his wife’s dowry, facing another villa which belonged to Claude Gelée, called Lorrain.

My latter compatriot Claude also died at the feet of the Queen of the World. While Poussin depicts the Roman countryside even when the scenes of his landscapes are set elsewhere, Lorrain depicts the skies of Rome even when he paints sailing ships and the sun setting over the sea.

If only I had been a contemporary of those privileged creatures in diverse centuries for whom I feel an attraction! But I would have needed to rise from the dead far too often. Poussin and Claude Lorrain have passed to the Capitoline; kings appeared there who were not worthy of them. De Brosses met the English Pretender there; there, in 1803, I saw the King of Sardinia, who had abdicated, and now, in 1828, here I find Napoleon’s brother, the King of Westphalia. Rome, deposed, offers a sanctuary to fallen power; its ruins are a place of freedom for persecuted glory and unfortunate talent.