Italian Hours
Henry James

Part 7 out of 7

of your faith, but that doubtless is an extreme case. Is
civilisation really measured by the number of things people do
respect? There would seem to be much evidence against it. The
oldest societies, the societies with most traditions, are
naturally not the least ironic, the least blasees, and the
African tribes who take so many things into account that they
fear to quit their huts at night are not the fine flower.


Where, on the other hand, it was impossible not to feel to the
full all the charming riguardi--to use their own good
word--in which our friends could abound, was, that
afternoon, in the extraordinary temple of art and hospitality
that had been benignantly opened to me. Hither, from three
o'clock to seven, all the world, from the small in particular to
the smaller and the smallest, might freely flock, and here, from
the first hour to the last, the huge straw-bellied flasks of
purple wine were tilted for all the thirsty. They were many, the
thirsty, they were three hundred, they were unending; but the
draughts they drank were neither countable nor counted. This boon
was dispensed in a long, pillared portico, where everything was
white and light save the blue of the great bay as it played up
from far below or as you took it in, between shining columns,
with your elbows on the parapet. Sorrento and Vesuvius were over
against you; Naples furthest off, melted, in the middle of the
picture, into shimmering vagueness and innocence; and the long
arm of Posilippo and the presence of the other islands, Procida,
the stricken Ischia, made themselves felt to the left. The grand
air of it all was in one's very nostrils and seemed to come from
sources too numerous and too complex to name. It was antiquity in
solution, with every brown, mild figure, every note of the old
speech, every tilt of the great flask, every shadow cast by every
classic fragment, adding its touch to the impression. What was
the secret of the surprising amenity?--to the essence of which
one got no nearer than simply by feeling afresh the old story of
the deep interfusion of the present with the past. You had felt
that often before, and all that could, at the most, help you now
was that, more than ever yet, the present appeared to become
again really classic, to sigh with strange elusive sounds of
Virgil and Theocritus. Heaven only knows how little they would in
truth have had to say to it, but we yield to these visions as we
must, and when the imagination fairly turns in its pain almost
any soft name is good enough to soothe it.

It threw such difficulties but a step back to say that the secret
of the amenity was "style"; for what in the world was the secret
of style, which you might have followed up and down the abysmal
old Italy for so many a year only to be still vainly calling for
it? Everything, at any rate, that happy afternoon, in that place
of poetry, was bathed and blessed with it. The castle of
Barbarossa had been on the height behind; the villa of black
Tiberius had overhung the immensity from the right; the white
arcades and the cool chambers offered to every step some sweet
old "piece" of the past, some rounded porphyry pillar supporting
a bust, some shaft of pale alabaster upholding a trellis, some
mutilated marble image, some bronze that had roughly resisted.
Our host, if we came to that, had the secret; but he could only
express it in grand practical ways. One of them was precisely
this wonderful "afternoon tea," in which tea only--that,
good as it is, has never the note of style--was not to be found.
The beauty and the poetry, at all events, were clear enough, and
the extraordinary uplifted distinction; but where, in all this,
it may be asked, was the element of "horror" that I have spoken
of as sensible?--what obsession that was not charming could find
a place in that splendid light, out of which the long summer
squeezes every secret and shadow? I'm afraid I'm driven to plead
that these evils were exactly in one's imagination, a predestined
victim always of the cruel, the fatal historic sense. To make so
much distinction, how much history had been needed!--so that the
whole air still throbbed and ached with it, as with an
accumulation of ghosts to whom the very climate was pitiless,
condemning them to blanch for ever in the general glare and
grandeur, offering them no dusky northern nook, no place at the
friendly fireside, no shelter of legend or song.


My friend had, among many original relics, in one of his white
galleries--and how he understood the effect and the "value" of
whiteness!--two or three reproductions of the finest bronzes of
the Naples museum, the work of a small band of brothers whom he
had found himself justified in trusting to deal with their
problem honourably and to bring forth something as different as
possible from the usual compromise of commerce. They had brought
forth, in especial, for him, a copy of the young resting,
slightly-panting Mercury which it was a pure delight to live
with, and they had come over from Naples on St. Antony's eve, as
they had done the year before, to report themselves to their
patron, to keep up good relations, to drink Capri wine and to
join in the tarantella. They arrived late, while we were at
supper; they received their welcome and their billet, and I am
not sure it was not the conversation and the beautiful manners of
these obscure young men that most fixed in my mind for the time
the sense of the side of life that, all around, was to come out
strongest. It would be artless, no doubt, to represent them as
high types of innocence or even of energy--at the same time that,
weighing them against some ruder folk of our own race, we
might perhaps have made bold to place their share even of these
qualities in the scale. It was an impression indeed never
infrequent in Italy, of which I might, in these days, first have
felt the force during a stay, just earlier, with a friend at
Sorrento--a friend who had good-naturedly "had in," on his
wondrous terrace, after dinner, for the pleasure of the gaping
alien, the usual local quartette, violins, guitar and flute, the
musical barber, the musical tailor, sadler, joiner, humblest sons
of the people and exponents of Neapolitan song. Neapolitan song,
as we know, has been blown well about the world, and it is late
in the day to arrive with a ravished ear for it. That, however,
was scarcely at all, for me, the question: the question, on the
Sorrento terrace, so high up in the cool Capri night, was of the
present outlook, in the world, for the races with whom it has
been a tradition, in intercourse, positively to please.

The personal civilisation, for intercourse, of the musical barber
and tailor, of the pleasant young craftsmen of my other friend's
company, was something that could be trusted to make. the
brooding tourist brood afresh--to say more to him in fact, all
the rest of the second occasion, than everything else put
together. The happy address, the charming expression, the
indistinctive discretion, the complete eclipse, in short, of
vulgarity and brutality--these things easily became among these
people the supremely suggestive note, begetting a hundred hopes
and fears as to the place that, with the present general turn of
affairs about the globe, is being kept for them. They are perhaps
what the races politically feeble have still most to contribute--
but what appears to be the happy prospect for the races
politically feeble? And so the afternoon waned, among the mellow
marbles and the pleasant folk---the purple wine flowed, the
golden light faded, song and dance grew free and circulation
slightly embarrassed. But the great impression remained and
finally was exquisite. It was all purple wine, all art and song,
and nobody a grain the worse. It was fireworks and conversation--
the former, in the piazzetta, were to come later; it was
civilisation and amenity. I took in the greater picture, but I
lost nothing else; and I talked with the contadini about antique
sculpture. No, nobody was a grain the worse; and I had plenty to
think of. So it was I was quickened to remember that we others,
we of my own country, as a race politically not weak, had
--by what I had somewhere just heard--opened "three hundred
'saloons'" at Manila.


The "other" afternoons I here pass on to--and I may include in
them, for that matter, various mornings scarce less charmingly
sacred to memory--were occasions of another and a later year; a
brief but all felicitous impression of Naples itself, and of the
approach to it from Rome, as well as of the return to Rome by a
different wonderful way, which I feel I shall be wise never to
attempt to "improve on." Let me muster assurance to confess that
this comparatively recent and superlatively rich reminiscence
gives me for its first train of ineffable images those of a
motor-run that, beginning betimes of a splendid June day, and
seeing me, with my genial companions, blissfully out of Porta San
Paolo, hung over us thus its benediction till the splendour had
faded in the lamplit rest of the Chiaja. "We'll go by the
mountains," my friend, of the chariot of fire, had said, "and
we'll come back, after three days, by the sea"; which handsome
promise flowered into such flawless performance that I could but
feel it to have closed and rounded for me, beyond any further
rehandling, the long-drawn rather indeed than thick-studded
chaplet of my visitations of Naples--from the first, seasoned
with the highest sensibility of youth, forty years ago, to this
last the other day. I find myself noting with interest--and just
to be able to emphasise it is what inspires me with these remarks
--that, in spite of the milder and smoother and perhaps,
pictorially speaking, considerably emptier, Neapolitan face of
things, things in general, of our later time, I recognised in my
final impression a grateful, a beguiling serenity. The place is
at the best wild and weird and sinister, and yet seemed on this
occasion to be seated more at her ease in her immense natural
dignity. My disposition to feel that, I hasten to add, was
doubtless my own secret; my three beautiful days, at any rate,
filled themselves with the splendid harmony, several of the minor
notes of which ask for a place, such as it may be, just here.

Wondrously, it was a clean and cool and, as who should say, quiet
and amply interspaced Naples--in tune with itself, no harsh
jangle of forestieri vulgarising the concert. I seemed in
fact, under the blaze of summer, the only stranger--though the
blaze of summer itself was, for that matter, everywhere but a
higher pitch of light and colour and tradition, and a lower pitch
of everything else; even, it struck me, of sound and fury. The
appeal in short was genial, and, faring out to Pompeii of a
Sunday afternoon, I enjoyed there, for the only time I can
recall, the sweet chance of a late hour or two, the hour of the
lengthening shadows, absolutely alone. The impression remains
ineffaceable--it was to supersede half-a-dozen other mixed
memories, the sense that had remained with me, from far back, of
a pilgrimage always here beset with traps and shocks and vulgar
importunities, achieved under fatal discouragements. Even
Pompeii, in fine, haunt of all the cockneys of creation,
burned itself, in the warm still eventide, as clear as glass, or
as the glow of a pale topaz, and the particular cockney who
roamed without a plan and at his ease, but with his feet on Roman
slabs, his hands on Roman stones, his eyes on the Roman void, his
consciousness really at last of some good to him, could open
himself as never before to the fond luxurious fallacy of a close
communion, a direct revelation. With which there were other
moments for him not less the fruit of the slow unfolding of time;
the clearest of these again being those enjoyed on the terrace of
a small island-villa--the island a rock and the villa a wondrous
little rock-garden, unless a better term would be perhaps rock-
salon, just off the extreme point of Posilippo and where, thanks
to a friendliest hospitality, he was to hang ecstatic, through
another sublime afternoon, on the wave of a magical wand. Here,
as happened, were charming wise, original people even down to
delightful amphibious American children, enamelled by the sun of
the Bay as for figures of miniature Tritons and Nereids on a
Renaissance plaque; and above all, on the part of the general
prospect, a demonstration of the grand style of composition and
effect that one was never to wish to see bettered. The way in
which the Italian scene on such occasions as this seems to purify
itself to the transcendent and perfect idea alone--idea of
beauty, of dignity, of comprehensive grace, with all accidents
merged, all defects disowned, all experience outlived, and to
gather itself up into the mere mute eloquence of what has just
incalculably been, remains for ever the secret and the
lesson of the subtlest daughter of History. All one could do, at
the heart of the overarching crystal, and in presence of the
relegated City, the far-trailing Mount, the grand Sorrentine
headland, the islands incomparably stationed and related, was to
wonder what may well become of the so many other elements of any
poor human and social complexus, what might become of any
successfully working or only struggling and floundering
civilisation at all, when high Natural Elegance proceeds to take
such exclusive charge and recklessly assume, as it were,
all the responsibilities.


This indeed had been quite the thing I was asking myself all the
wondrous way down from Rome, and was to ask myself afresh, on the
return, largely within sight of the sea, as our earlier course
had kept to the ineffably romantic inland valleys, the great
decorated blue vistas in which the breasts of the mountains
shine vaguely with strange high-lying city and castle and church
and convent, even as shoulders of no diviner line might be hung
about with dim old jewels. It was odd, at the end of time, long
after those initiations, of comparative youth, that had then
struck one as extending the very field itself of felt charm, as
exhausting the possibilities of fond surrender, it was odd to
have positively a new basis of enjoyment, a new gate of
triumphant passage, thrust into one's consciousness and opening
to one's use; just as I confess I have to brace myself a little
to call by such fine names our latest, our ugliest and most
monstrous aid to motion. It is true of the monster, as we have
known him up to now, that one can neither quite praise him nor
quite blame him without a blush--he reflects so the nature of
the company he's condemned to keep. His splendid easy power
addressed to noble aims makes him assuredly on occasion a purely
beneficent creature. I parenthesise at any rate that I know him
in no other light--counting out of course the acquaintance that
consists of a dismayed arrest in the road, with back flattened
against wall or hedge, for the dusty, smoky, stenchy shock of his
passage. To no end is his easy power more blest than to that of
ministering to the ramifications, as it were, of curiosity, or to
that, in other words, of achieving for us, among the kingdoms of
the earth, the grander and more genial, the comprehensive and
complete introduction. Much as was ever to be said for our
old forms of pilgrimage--and I am convinced that they are far
from wholly superseded--they left, they had to leave, dreadful
gaps in our yearning, dreadful lapses in our knowledge, dreadful
failures in our energy; there were always things off and beyond,
goals of delight and dreams of desire, that dropped as a matter
of course into the unattainable, and over to which our wonder-
working agent now flings the firm straight bridge. Curiosity has
lost, under this amazing extension, its salutary renouncements
perhaps; contemplation has become one with action and
satisfaction one with desire--speaking always in the spirit of
the inordinate lover of an enlightened use of our eyes. That may
represent, for all I know, an insolence of advantage on which
there will be eventual heavy charges, as yet obscure and
incalculable, to pay, and I glance at the possibility only to
avoid all thought of the lesson of the long run, and to insist
that I utter this dithyramb but in the immediate flush and fever
of the short. For such a beat of time as our fine courteous and
contemplative advance upon Naples, and for such another as our
retreat northward under the same fine law of observation and
homage, the bribed consciousness could only decline to question
its security. The sword of Damocles suspended over that
presumption, the skeleton at the banquet of extravagant ease,
would have been that even at our actual inordinate rate--leaving
quite apart "improvements" to come--such savings of trouble
begin to use up the world; some hard grain of difficulty being
always a necessary part of the composition of pleasure. The hard
grain in our old comparatively pedestrian mixture, before this
business of our learning not so much even to fly (which might
indeed involve trouble) as to be mechanically and prodigiously
flown, quite another matter, was the element of uncertainty,
effort and patience; the handful of silver nails which, I admit,
drove many an impression home. The seated motorist misses the
silver nails, I fully acknowledge, save in so far as his
aesthetic (let alone his moral) conscience may supply him with
some artful subjective substitute; in which case the thing
becomes a precious secret of his own.

However, I wander wild--by which I mean I look too far ahead; my
intention having been only to let my sense of the merciless June
beauty of Naples Bay at the sunset hour and on the island terrace
associate itself with the whole inexpressible taste of our two
motor-days' feast of scenery. That queer question of the
exquisite grand manner as the most emphasised all of
things--of what it may, seated so predominant in nature,
insidiously, through the centuries, let generations and
populations "in for," hadn't in the least waited for the special
emphasis I speak of to hang about me. I must have found myself
more or less consciously entertaining it by the way--since how
couldn't it be of the very essence of the truth, constantly and
intensely before us, that Italy is really so much the most
beautiful country in the world, taking all things together, that
others must stand off and be hushed while she speaks? Seen thus
in great comprehensive iridescent stretches, it is the
incomparable wrought fusion, fusion of human history and
mortal passion with the elements of earth and air, of colour,
composition and form, that constitutes her appeal and gives it
the supreme heroic grace. The chariot of fire favours fusion
rather than promotes analysis, and leaves much of that first June
picture for me, doubtless, a great accepted blur of violet and
silver. The various hours and successive aspects, the different
strong passages of our reverse process, on the other hand, still
figure for me even as some series of sublime landscape-frescoes--
if the great Claude, say, had ever used that medium--in the
immense gallery of a palace; the homeward run by Capua,
Terracina, Gaeta and its storied headland fortress, across the
deep, strong, indescribable Pontine Marshes, white-cattled,
strangely pastoral, sleeping in the afternoon glow, yet stirred
by the near sea-breath. Thick somehow to the imagination as some
full-bodied sweetness of syrup is thick to the palate the
atmosphere of that region--thick with the sense of history and
the very taste of time; as if the haunt and home (which indeed it
is) of some great fair bovine aristocracy attended and guarded by
halberdiers in the form of the mounted and long-lanced herdsmen,
admirably congruous with the whole picture at every point, and
never more so than in their manner of gaily taking up, as with
bell-voices of golden bronze, the offered wayside greeting.

[Illustration: TERRACINA]

There had been this morning among the impressions of our first
hour an unforgettable specimen of that general type--the image
of one of those human figures on which our perception of the
romantic so often pounces in Italy as on the genius of the scene
personified; with this advantage, that as the scene there has, at
its best, an unsurpassable distinction, so the physiognomic
representative, standing for it all, and with an animation, a
complexion, an expression, a fineness and fulness of humanity
that appear to have gathered it in and to sum it up, becomes
beautiful by the same simple process, very much, that makes the
heir to a great capitalist rich. Our early start, our roundabout
descent from Posilippo by shining Baire for avoidance of the
city, had been an hour of enchantment beyond any notation I can
here recover; all lustre and azure, yet all composition and
classicism, the prospect developed and spread, till after
extraordinary upper reaches pf radiance and horizons of pearl we
came at the turn of a descent upon a stalwart young gamekeeper,
or perhaps substantial young farmer, who, well-appointed and
blooming, had unslung his gun and, resting on it beside a hedge,
just lived for us, in the rare felicity of his whole look, during
that moment and while, in recognition, or almost, as we felt, in
homage, we instinctively checked our speed. He pointed, as it
were, the lesson, giving the supreme right accent or final
exquisite turn to the immense magnificent phrase; which from
those moments on, and on and on, resembled doubtless nothing so
much as a page written, by a consummate verbal economist and
master of style, in the noblest of all tongues. Our splendid
human plant by the wayside had flowered thus into style--and
there wasn't to be, all day, a lapse of eloquence, a wasted word
or a cadence missed.

These things are personal memories, however, with the logic of
certain insistences of that sort often difficult to seize. Why
should I have kept so sacredly uneffaced, for instance, our small
afternoon wait at tea-time or, as we made it, coffee-time, in the
little brown piazzetta of Velletri, just short of the final push
on through the flushed Castelli Romani and the drop and home-
stretch across the darkening Campagna? We had been dropped into
the very lap of the ancient civic family, after the inveterate
fashion of one's sense of such stations in small Italian towns.
There was a narrow raised terrace, with steps, in front of the
best of the two or three local cafes, and in the soft enclosed,
the warm waning light of June various benign contemplative
worthies sat at disburdened tables and, while they smoked long
black weeds, enjoyed us under those probable workings of subtlety
with which we invest so many quite unimaginably blank (I dare
say) Italian simplicities. The charm was, as always in Italy, in
the tone and the air and the happy hazard of things, which made
any positive pretension or claimed importance a comparatively
trifling question. We slid, in the steep little place, more or
less down hill; we wished, stomachically, we had rather addressed
ourselves to a tea-basket; we suffered importunity from unchidden
infants who swarmed about our chairs and romped about our feet;
we stayed no long time, and "went to see" nothing; yet we
communicated to intensity, we lay at our ease in the bosom of the
past, we practised intimacy, in short, an intimacy so much
greater than the mere accidental and ostensible: the difficulty
for the right and grateful expression of which makes the old, the
familiar tax on the luxury of loving Italy.



Back to Full Books