A delightful little automatum:


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Fascinating to see that so many figure models from 19th century English painters would be lounging in the same spot.

…the great flight of steps that lead from the Piazza di Spagna, to the church of Trinita del Monte. In plainer words, these steps are the great place of resort for the artists ‘Models,’ and there they are constantly waiting to be hired.

The first time I went up there, I could not conceive why the faces seemed familiar to me; why they appeared to have beset me, for years, in every possible variety of action and costume; and how it came to pass that they started up before me, in Rome, in the broad day, like so many saddled and bridled nightmares. I soon found that we had made acquaintance, and improved it, for several years, on the walls of various Exhibition Galleries.

There is one old gentleman, with long white hair and an immense beard, who, to my knowledge, has gone half through the catalogue of the Royal Academy. This is the venerable, or patriarchal model. He carries a long staff; and every knot and twist in that staff I have seen, faithfully delineated, innumerable times. There is another man in a blue cloak, who always pretends to be asleep in the sun (when there is any), and who, I need not say, is always very wide awake, and very attentive to the disposition of his legs. This is the dolce far’niente model. There is another man in a brown cloak, who leans against a wall, with his arms folded in his mantle, and looks out of the corners of his eyes: which are just visible beneath his broad slouched hat. This is the assassin model. There is another man, who constantly looks over his own shoulder, and is always going away, but never does. This is the haughty, or scornful model. As to Domestic Happiness, and Holy Families, they should come very cheap, for there are lumps of them, all up the steps; and the cream of the thing is, that they are all the falsest vagabonds in the world, especially made up for the purpose, and having no counterparts in Rome or any other part of the habitable globe.

– Dickens, Pictures from Italy


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Dickens tries to make the modern scholar’s task easier. Hence his sketch of the ‘ideal beholder’:

This book is made as accessible as possible, because it would be a great pleasure to me if I could hope, through its means, to compare impressions with some among the multitudes who will hereafter visit the scenes described with interest and delight.

And I have only now, in passport wise, to sketch my reader’s portrait, which I hope may be thus supposititiously traced for either sex:

Complexion:  Fair.
Eyes:  Very cheerful.
Nose:  Not supercilious.
Mouth:  Smiling.
Visage:  Beaming.
General Expression:  Extremely agreeable.

-Pictures from Italy

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An interesting essay against electronic writing. (in a digital journal, of course – link here)

…The significance of the tactility of reading could begin with St. Augustine. In the eighth book of his Confessions, Augustine describes the moment of his conversion to becoming a Christian:

In my misery I kept crying, “How long shall I go on saying, ‘tomorrow, tomorrow?’ ” Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this very moment? I was asking myself these questions when all at once I heard the singing voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain, “Take it and read, take it read.”

Augustine is sitting beneath a fig tree in his garden, and upon hearing the voice he takes up the Bible lying near him and opens a passage at random and begins reading (Romans 13:13-14). At this moment, he tells us, “I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” Augustine closes the book, marking his place with his finger, and goes to tell his friend Alypius about his experience. His conversion is complete.

No other passage has more profoundly captured the meaning of the book than this one….

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“If only Petrarch had stopped by my office hours a couple of times, I’d have sorted his life out.” – Zygmunt Baranski

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(from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, 1533)

A number of odd things came about that caused me to strike up a friendship with a certain Siclian priest, who had a very fine mind and a very good knowledge of Latin and Greek. Once, in the course of discussing something, we happened to speak of the art of necromancy, and I said on this subject: ‘For my whole life I’ve had a great desire to see or hear something concerning this art.’ To these words the priest answered: ‘The man who sets about such an enterprise must have a strong and firm nature.’ I responded that I would exhibit an overabundance of strength and resolve, provided I could find the means to undertake such a thing. Then the priest replied: ‘If you have the courage for this, I shall give you your fill of all the rest.’

So we agreed to begin this undertaking. This priest got everything in order one evening and told me to find a companion or, at the maximum, two. I called Vincenzio Romoli, my very good friend, and he brought with him a man from Pistoia who understood necromancy. We went off to the Colosseum, where the priest, dressed up like a necromancer, began to sketch out the circles on the ground with the most beautiful ceremonies imaginable in this world, and he had had precious perfumes brought there and fire and even some evil smelling perfumes.

When everything was in order he created an entrance into the circle, and taking us by the hand, one by one he placed us inside the circle; then he assigned us our tasks: he handed over the pentacle to a necromancer friend of his; to the others he assigned the care of the fire and the perfumes; then he put his mind to his incantations. These lasted for more than an hour and a half; several legions of devils appeared, until the Colosseum was completely filled.

I was attending to the precious perfumes, and when the priest saw that there were a great many devils he turned to me and said: ‘Benvenuto, ask them something.’ I said that they should make it possible for me to be together with my Angelica, the Sicilian girl. That night we received no reply whatsoever, but I was very satisfied with having been able to make such a request. The necromancer said that we had to go back another time and that I would receive satisfaction for everything I asked, but he wanted me to bring with us a young boy who was a virgin. I took my shop-boy, who was about twelve years of age, with me, and I once again asked Vincenzio Romoli and, as our companion, we also took a certain Agnolino Gaddi to this affair.

When we arrived once again at the designated spot the necromancer made his same preparations, with the same and even more astonishing arrangements; he placed us into the circle which be had once again created with more wonderful skills and more wonderful ceremonies; he gave my Vincenzio the task of looking after the perfumes and the fire; Agnolino Gaddi joined him in this task; then he placed the pentacle in my hand, ordering me to tum it in the direction of the places be pointed out to me, and under the pentacle I held that young shop-boy of mine.

The necromancer began to make those truly terrifying invocations and called up by name a great number of those demons who were leaders of their legions, ordering them by the virtue and power of Immortal God, living and eternal, with words in Hebrew and even more in Greek and Latin, so that in a brief space of time the entire Colosseum was filled up with a hundred times more demons than had materialized on the first occasion. Vincenzio Romoli was attending to the fire and a great quantity of precious perfumes, along with that Agnolino.

At the necromancer’s suggestion. I once again asked to be united with Angelica. Turning to me, the necromancer said: ‘Did you hear what they said? That in the space of one month you’ll be with her.’ Once again he added that be begged me to hold fast, since there were a thousand times more legions than be bad invoked and they were the most dangerous, and since they had done what I had asked of them, it was necessary to treat them kindly and to dismiss them very patiently. On the other side, the young boy under the pentacle was terrified and said there were a million fierce-looking men in that place, all of whom were threatening us: moreover, he declared that four enormous giants had appeared to him, who were armed and showed signs of wanting to enter the magic circle with us. Meanwhile the necromancer, who was trembling with fear, was trying as best he could to dismiss them in a sweet and gentle manner.

Vincenzio Romoli, who was trembling like a leaf, was looking after the perfumes. While I was just as afraid as the others, I tried to show it less and emboldened them all wonderfully; but J truly considered myself a dead man when I saw the necromancer’s terror. The young boy had stuck his head between his legs, saying: ‘l want to die this way, we are all dead men!’ Once again l said to the young boy: ‘These creatures are all under our power and what you see is· smoke and shadow; so lift up your eyes!’ When he raised his eyes, once again he said: ‘The entire Colosseum is burning, and the fire is coming toward us!’ And, putting his hands to his face, he again declared that he was a dead man and that he did not want to see any more.

The necromancer implored me, begging me to hold fast and to make some asafoetida fumes, and so, turning to Vincenzio Romoli, l ordered him to light .some asafoetida quickly. While l did this, Agnolino, who was looking on, was so frightened that his eyes were popping out of his head and he was half dead, so I said to him: Agnolo, you can’t be afraid in these places, you need to get to work and help us; quickly throw some asafoetida on the fire.’ This Agnolo; as soon as he turned to move, let out such a blast of farts accompanied by such an abundance of shit that it produced a far more overpowering smell than the asafoetida. The young boy, as a result of the great stink and the noise, lifted his head up a bit, and when he heard me laughing a bit of his courage returned and he said that the demons were beginning to run away in a great hurry.

Thus, we stayed there until they began to ring matins. Once again the young boy told us that only a few devils remained and were some distance away. After the necromancer had completed the rest of his ceremonies, he took off his robes and made a large pile of books which he had carried there, and as in unison with him we left the circle, staying very close to each other, especially the young boy, who had placed himself in our midst and had taken the necromancer by the robe and me by the cloak, and while we were going toward our homes in Via dei Banchi he kept on saying that two of those demons he had seen in the Colosseum were jumping along in front of us or running along on the rooftops and on the ground. The necromancer said that, as many times as he had entered the magic circle, he had never before experienced such an event…

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Most of the items mentioned in this shop are replicas of ancient artifacts, but they give the impression that the Etruscan vases for sale are real. I wonder if that’s so?

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Biblioteca Ambrosiana reading room

needs comfy chairs

This is a week to celebrate, for two related reasons. One – a good friend is spending the week in Milan, supposedly to study at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. His reports range from personal tours of the great pinacoteca from Milanese art history faculty, to examining Petrarch’s copy of Virgil, with forty years of his marginal notes. It sounds like a fine trip. Second – I’m soon leaving for an American university where they, among other things, possess a complete microfilm collection of that great Milanese library’s drawings and manuscripts.

So, to celebrate: Manzoni’s famous description of Federico Borromeo and his scholarly pursuits that provided the core of that collection when it was founded in 1609:

At this period of our history we cannot do otherwise than rest a while, as the traveller worn out and weary with a long journey through a sterile and savage land, refreshes himself for a season under the shade of a tree, near a fountain of living water.

We are about to introduce a person whose name and memory cause an emotion of respect and sympathy; and this emotion is the more grateful from our previous contemplation of wickedness and crime. We trust our readers will excuse our devoting a few moments to this great and good man. Frederick Borromeo, born in the year 1564, was one of those rare characters who have employed a fine genius, the resources of great wealth, the advantages of privileged rank, and unceasing industry, for the discovery and practice of that which was for the good of mankind. His life was like a stream, which, issuing limpid from its native rock, moves on undefiled over various lands; and, clear and limpid still, unites itself with the ocean.

In the midst of the pomps and pleasures of the world, he applied himself from his earliest youth to study and obey the precepts of religion; and this application produced in his heart its legitimate fruits. He took truth for the rule of his thoughts and actions. He was taught by it not to look upon this life as a burthen to the many, and a pleasure to the few; but as a scene of activity for all, and of which all must render their account; and the chief aim of his thoughts had ever been to render his life useful and holy.

In 1580, he declared his resolution to devote himself to the ministry of the church, and he took the habit from the hands of his cousin Carlos, whom the public voice, even to the present day, has uniformly acknowledged as a saint. He entered a short time after into the college at Pavia, founded by that holy man, and which still bears the name of the family. There, whilst applying himself with assiduity to the occupations prescribed by its rules, he voluntarily imposed on himself, in addition, the task of instructing the poor and ignorant in the principles of the Christian religion, and of visiting, consoling, and aiding the sick. He made use of the authority which was conceded to him by all, to induce his companions to second him in these deeds of benevolence; he steadily refused all worldly advantages, and led a life of self-denial and devotion to the cause of religion and virtue.

The complaints of his kindred, who thought the dignity of the house degraded by his plain and simple habits of life, were unavailing. He had another conflict to sustain with the ecclesiastical authorities, who wished to impel him forward to distinction, and make him appear as the prince of the place. From all this, however, he carefully withdrew himself, although at the time but a youth. It would not have been astonishing that, during the life of his cousin Carlos, Frederick should have imitated the example and followed the counsel of so good a man; but it was surprising, that after his death no one could perceive that Frederick, although only twenty years of age, had lost his guardian and guide. The increasing splendour of his talents, his piety, the support of many powerful cardinals, the authority of his family, the name itself, to which Carlos had caused to be associated an idea of sanctity and sacerdotal superiority, all concurred to point him out as a proper subject for ecclesiastical dignity. But he, persuaded in the depth of his soul of that which no true Christian can deny, that a man has no real superiority over others, but in devotion to their good, dreaded distinction, and sought to avoid it. He did not wish to escape from the obligation to serve his neighbour; his life was but one scene of such services; but he did not esteem himself worthy of so high and responsible an office.

Governed by such feelings, in 1595, when Clement VIII. offered him the archbishopric of Milan, he refused it without hesitation, but was finally obliged to yield to the express command of the pope. Such demonstrations are neither difficult nor rare; it is no greater effort for hypocrisy to assume them, than for raillery to deride them. But are they not also the natural expression of wise and virtuous feeling? The life is the test of sincerity; and though all the hypocrites in the world had assumed the expression of virtuous sentiments, yet the sentiments themselves will always command our respect and veneration, when their genuineness is evinced by a life of disinterestedness and self-sacrifice.

Frederick, as archbishop, was careful to reserve for himself only that which was barely necessary, of his time and his wealth: he said, as all the world says, that the ecclesiastical revenues are the patrimony of the poor; and we shall see how he put this maxim in practice. He caused an estimate to be made of the sum necessary for his expenses, and for those employed in his service: finding it to be 600 sequins, he ordered that amount to be taken from his patrimonial revenues for the supply of his table. He exercised such minute economy with regard to himself, that he did not relinquish any article of dress until it was entirely worn out; but he joined to these habits of extreme simplicity, an exquisite neatness, which was remarkable in this age of luxury and uncleanliness. He did more: in order that nothing should be lost from the fragments of his frugal table, he assigned them to a hospital for the poor, and a servant came every day to gather the remnants for that purpose.

From the attention which he paid to such minutiæ, we might form a contracted idea of his mind, as being incapable of elevating itself to more extensive designs, were it not for the Ambrosian library, which remains a monument of his liberality and magnificence. To furnish it with books and manuscripts, besides those which he had already collected, he sent eight of the most skilful and learned men to make purchases of them in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Flanders, Greece, Lebanon, and Jerusalem. He succeeded in collecting 30,000 printed volumes, and 14,000 manuscripts. He joined to the library a college of doctors: these doctors were nine in number, and supported by him as long as he lived; after his death, the ordinary revenues not being sufficient for the expense, they were reduced to two. Their duty consisted in the cultivation of the various branches of human knowledge, theology, history, belles lettres, ecclesiastical antiquities, and Oriental languages. Each one was obliged to publish some work on the subject to which he had particularly applied himself.

He added to this a college, which he called Trilingue, for the study of the Greek, Latin, and Italian languages; and a college of pupils, who were instructed in these languages to become professors in their turn. He united to these also a printing establishment for the Oriental languages, for Hebrew, Chaldee, Arabic, Persian, and Armenian; a gallery of pictures, and another of statues; and a school for the three principal arts of design. For the latter, he was at no loss to find professors; but this was not the case with regard to the Eastern languages, which were at this time but little cultivated in Europe.

In the orders which he left for the government and regulations of the library, we perceive a perpetual attention to utility, admirable in itself, and much in advance of the ordinary ideas of his time. He prescribed to the librarian the cultivation of a regular correspondence with the learned men of Europe, to keep himself acquainted with the state of science, and to procure every new and important work; he also charged him to point out to young students the books necessary for them, and, whether natives or foreigners, to afford them every possible facility in making use of those of the library. There is a history of the Ambrosian library by one Pierpaolo Bosca, who was librarian after the death of Frederick, in which all the excellent regulations are minutely detailed.

Other libraries existed in Italy, but with little benefit to the studious: the books were carefully concealed from view in their cases, and inaccessible to all, except on rare occasions, and with the utmost difficulty. A book might then be seen, but not studied. It is useless to enquire what were the fruits of these establishments of Borromeo, but we must admire the generosity, judgment, and benevolence of the man who could undertake and execute such things, in the midst of the ignorance, inertness, and general indifference which surrounded him.

And in attention to public, he was not unmindful of private benevolence; indeed, his whole life was a perpetual almsgiving; on the occasion of the famine of which our history has spoken, we may have to relate more than one instance of his wisdom and generosity. The inexhaustible charity of the man shone as much in his private charities, as in his splendid and magnificent public establishments already recorded. On one occasion he saved a young lady from being immured in a convent against her wish. Her selfish father pretended he could not marry her suitably without a portion of 4000 crowns. The bishop advanced the money.

Easy of access, he made it a principle to receive the poor who applied to him, with kindness and affection. And on this point he was obliged to dispute with the nobility, who wished to keep him to their standard of action. One day, whilst visiting among the mountaineers, and instructing some poor children, Frederick bestowed caresses on them. A nobleman who was present, warned him to be careful, as the children were dirty and disgusting. The good bishop, not without indignation, replied, “These souls are committed to my care; these children may never see me again; and are you not willing that I should embrace them?” He, however, seldom felt indignation or anger: he was admired for a placability, a sweetness of manner nearly imperturbable; which, however, was not natural to him, but the effect of continual combat against a quick and hasty disposition. If ever he appeared harsh, it was to those subordinate pastors, whom he found guilty of avarice, or negligence, or any other vice opposed to the spirit of their high calling.

With regard to his own interests or temporal glory, he exhibited no emotion, either of joy or regret; admirable indeed, if his spirit was in reality not affected by these emotions; but more admirable still, if viewed as the result of continued and unremitted effort to subdue them. And amidst all the important cares with which he was occupied, he did not neglect the cultivation of his mind; he devoted himself to literature with so much ardour, that he became one of the most learned men of his time. We must not, however, conceal that he adopted with firm persuasion, and maintained with constancy, certain opinions, which at this day would appear singular and ill-founded; these, however, were the errors of his time, and not his own.

Our readers may perhaps enquire, if so learned and studious a man has left no monument of his labours and studies? His works, great and small, Latin and Italian, printed as well as manuscript, amount to more than a hundred; they are preserved with care in the library which he founded. They are composed of moral treatises, sermons, historical dissertations, sacred and profane antiquities, literature, the fine arts, &c. And what is the reason that they are so little known, so little sought for? We cannot enter into the causes of this phenomenon, as our explanation might not be satisfactory to our readers. So that we had better resume the course of our history, in relating facts concerning this extraordinary man.

~ Alessandro Manzoni, I Promessi Sposi


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From an author we ordinarily know as a translator of Tasso: a fascinating look at the dual assaults on the family by the State and Mass Entertainment

Mass entertainment, that drivel that trickles from the jowls of leviathan while it snores, has the same end in mind: to render us less human, by separating us from family and faith.  After all, just as a strong family is a bulwark against the predations of the State, so too, as the entertainers have finally learned, is it a bulwark against the predations of the media.  At least it can be a bulwark; its members can turn aside from the glaring screen and, rubbing their eyes, glance at one another.  Its members can ask, after a long muddle, why they should attend to idols so stupid and ugly and impotent, and not to the God who made heaven and earth.

More here

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When rule is not united in one man
whose verdicts deal reward and punishment,
who delegates responsibilities,
you have a fickle and wandering government:
Oh, make one body of members in accord,
one head, to give direction and restraint;
the power and the scepter, then to one man bring—
and let him be acknowledged as a king.

~ Tasso, Jerusalem Delivered, I:31 (tr. Esolen)

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What is not mastered in the school of Love?
For she, who cleaved unto her man’s dear side,
the ardent lady, learned to fight there too.
Their lives are one, and so together ride
their fates: there never falls a blow that hurts
but one of them, nor can the pain divide –
wound him, and on his wife it takes its toll,
and if her blood is spilled, he spills his soul.

~Tasso, Jerusalem Delivered, I:57 (tr. Esolen)

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Evelyn Waugh describing a visit to Belloc:

Two civil and pretty grandsons received us. Sherry in the hall. Then a long wait for Belloc. Shuffling and stumping. Then an awful smell like the wolves at the zoo, then entry. A tramp, covered in garbage. A sweet, wise, mad face. An awful black growth like a truffle under one eye. First words: ‘Old age is a curious thing. It leaves a man crawling like a beetle when his mind is as strong and young as ever.’ Second words (rather disconcerting because I have met him twenty times or more..): ‘It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir.’

from Waugh’s letters to Lady Diana Cooper

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True love sometimes begins with Plutarch: with a Roman baby on each knee named Claudius or Brute

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From the evidence offered in his novels, it’s hard to think of Anthony Trollope as a man prone to fits of indignation. His emotions are subtle. He’ll give you a slow quiet smile. Or you’ll find him shaking his head, disappointed. He’s almost always interesting. But he never drives fast. If I could draw, I might have Dickens and Trollope at the circus. Dickens bent over, pleading with his friend to run off onto a roller coaster, and Trollope with his arms crossed, eyes closed, standing instead before an exhibit of exotic curios.

It’s interesting, as an aside, that both men wrote autobiographies: Trollope’s a perfectly readable, straightforward account of his life, and Dickens’ fictionalized not only in Copperfield, but squeezed into countless anxieties and scenes in his every story.

In Trollope’s autobiography there is a small episode that is interesting for two reasons. First, it’s an instance of Trollope actually getting disgusted. You don’t expect this. It’s not really done with a perfectly straight face. But still.

So, the year is 1868. Trollope has just finished his Vicar of Bullhampton, and sent it to publishers. Then, an unwelcome delay.

…so far my mind was at rest. The date fixed was the first of July, which date had been named in accordance with the exigencies of the editor of the periodical. An author who writes for these publications is bound to suit himself to these exigencies, and can generally do so without personal loss or inconvenience, if he will only take time by the forelock. With all the pages that I have written for magazines I have never been a day late, nor have I ever caused inconvenience by sending less or more matter than I had stipulated to supply. But I have sometimes found myself compelled to suffer by the irregularity of others.

I have endeavoured to console myself by reflecting that such must ever be the fate of virtue. The industrious must feed the idle. The honest and simple will always be the prey of the cunning and fraudulent. The punctual, who keep none waiting for them, are doomed to wait perpetually for the unpunctual. But these earthly sufferers know that they are making their way heavenwards,–and their oppressors their way elsewards. If the former reflection does not suffice for consolation, the deficiency is made up by the second. I was terribly aggrieved on the matter of the publication of my new Vicar, and had to think very much of the ultimate rewards of punctuality and its opposite.

About the end of March, 1869, I got a dolorous letter from the editor. All the Once a Week people were in a terrible trouble. They had bought the right of translating one of Victor Hugo’s modern novels, L’Homme Qui Rit; they had fixed a date, relying on positive pledges from the French publishers; and now the great French author had postponed his work from week to week and from month to month, and it had so come to pass that the Frenchman’s grinning hero would have to appear exactly at the same time as my clergyman. Was it not quite apparent to me, the editor asked, that Once a Week could not hold the two? Would I allow my clergyman to make his appearance in the Gentleman’s Magazine instead?

My disgust at this proposition was, I think, chiefly due to Victor Hugo’s latter novels, which I regard as pretentious and untrue to nature. To this perhaps was added some feeling of indignation that I should be asked to give way to a Frenchman. The Frenchman had broken his engagement. He had failed to have his work finished by the stipulated time. From week to week and from month to month he had put off the fulfilment of his duty. And because of these laches on his part,–on the part of this sententious French Radical,–I was to be thrown over! Virtue sometimes finds it difficult to console herself even with the double comfort. I would not come out in the Gentleman’s Magazine, and as the Grinning Man could not be got out of the way, by novel was published in separate numbers.

Hugo Man who Laughs

Hugo considers his ending

Now, his criticism of “this sententious French Radical” is delicious enough, and his “pretentious and untrue to nature” hits the mark. But also: a couple of years ago I was unfortunate enough to have made it through that Hugo novel – The Laughing Man. It wasn’t good. But worse, it had the most appalling ending I’ve seen. It’s as if some rival stole Hugo’s manuscript, ripped out the last chapter, and added one as a prank.

Trollope’s account brings sense to the novel’s ending: Hugo couldn’t make his deadline.  So he abruptly ended the tale by [spoiler!! (like you’ll read this crap)] quite literally heaving the two principals out of a boat.

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From Martin Chuzzlewit, this is surely the best description of a cramped apartment put to paper:

MRS. GAMP’S APARTMENT IN KINGSGATE STREET, High Holborn, wore, metaphorically speaking, a robe of state. It was swept and garnished for the reception of a visitor. That visitor was Betsey Prig: Mrs. Prig, of Bartlemy’s: or as some said Barklemy’s, or as some said Bardlemy’s; for by all these endearing and familiar appellations, had the hospital of Saint Bartholomew become a household word among the sisterhood which Betsey Prig adorned.

Mrs. Gamp’s apartment was not a spacious one, but, to a contented mind, a closet is a palace; and the first-floor front at Mr. Sweedlepipe’s may have been, in the imagination of Mrs. Gamp, a stately pile. If it were not exactly that, to restless intellects, it at least comprised as much accommodation as any person, not sanguine to insanity, could have looked for in a room of its dimensions. For only keep the bedstead always in your mind; and you were safe. That was the grand secret. Remembering the bedstead, you might even stoop to look under the little round table for anything you had dropped, without hurting yourself much against the chest of drawers, or qualifying as a patient of Saint Bartholomew, by falling into the fire.

Visitors were much assisted in their cautious efforts to preserve an unflagging recollection of this piece of furniture, by its size: which was great. It was not a turn-up bedstead, nor yet a French bedstead nor yet a four-post bedstead, but what is poetically called a tent: the sacking whereof was low and bulgy, insomuch that Mrs. Gamp’s box would not go under it, but stopped half-way, in a manner which while it did violence to the reason, likewise endangered the legs of a stranger. The frame too, which would have supported the canopy and hangings if there had been any, was ornamented with divers pippins carved in timber, which on the slightest provocation, and frequently on none at all, came tumbling down; harassing the peaceful guest with inexplicable terrors.

The bed itself was decorated with a patchwork quilt of great antiquity; and at the upper end, upon the side nearest to the door, hung a scanty curtain of blue check, which prevented the Zephyrs that were abroad in Kingsgate Street, from visiting Mrs. Gamp’s head too roughly. Some rusty gowns and other articles of that lady’s wardrobe depended from the posts; and these had so adapted themselves by long usage to her figure, that more than one impatient husband coming in precipitately, at about the time of twilight, had been for an instant stricken dumb by the supposed discovery that Mrs. Gamp had hanged herself. One gentleman, coming on the usual hasty errand, had said indeed, that they looked like guardian angels `watching of her in her sleep.’ But that, as Mrs. Gamp said, `was his first;’ and he never repeated the sentiment, though he often repeated his visit.

The chairs in Mrs. Gamp’s apartment were extremely large and broad-backed, which was more than a sufficient reason for there being but two in number. They were both elbow-chairs, of ancient mahogany; and were chiefly valuable for the slippery nature of their seats, which had been originally horsehair, but were now covered with a shiny substance of a bluish tint, from which the visitor began to slide away with a dismayed countenance, immediately after sitting down.

What Mrs. Gamp wanted in chairs she made up in bandboxes; of which she had a great collection, devoted to the reception of various miscellaneous valuables, which were not, however, as well protected as the good woman, by a pleasant fiction, seemed to think: for, though every bandbox had a carefully closed lid, not one among them had a bottom: owing to which cause the property within was merely, as it were extinguished. The chest of drawers having been originally made to stand upon the top of another chest, had a dwarfish, elfin look, alone; but in regard of its security it had a great advantage over the bandboxes, for as all the handles had been long ago pulled off, it was very difficult to get at its contents. This indeed was only to be done by one or two devices; either by tilting the whole structure forward until all the drawers fell out together, or by opening them singly with knives, like oysters.

Mrs. Gamp stored all her household matters in a little cupboard by the fire-place; beginning below the surface (as in nature) with the coals, and mounting gradually upwards to the spirits, which, from motives of delicacy, she kept in a teapot. The chimney-piece was ornamented with a small almanack, marked here and there in Mrs. Gamp’s own hand with a memorandum of the date at which some lady was expected to fall due. It was also embellished with three profiles: one, in colours, of Mrs. Gamp herself in early life; one, in bronze, of a lady in feathers, supposed to be Mrs. Harris, as she appeared when dressed for a ball; and one, in black, of Mr. Gamp, deceased. The last was a full length, in order that the likeness might be rendered more obvious and forcible by the introduction of the wooden leg.

A pair of bellows, a pair of pattens, a toasting-fork, a kettle, a papboat, a spoon for the administration of medicine to the refractory, and lastly, Mrs. Gamp’s umbrella, which as something of great price and rarity, was displayed with particular ostentation, completed the decorations of the chimney-piece and adjacent wall. Towards these objects Mrs. Gamp raised her eyes in satisfaction when she had arranged the tea-board, and had concluded her arrangements for the reception of Betsey Prig, even unto the setting forth of two pounds of Newcastle salmon, intensely pickled.

This is the setting for a merry visit between Sairey Gamp and Betsy Prig – a visit that quickly turns awful.

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Dickens is in the news this week on account of what would be his 200th birthday. That’s as good a cause for celebration as any. Dickens was once the most-read author in English, and there was a point in the late 19th century where David Copperfield could be found more than any novel on American bookshelves. This might be surprising to anybody who’s read his American Notes, or followed Tapley and Chuzzlewit to their miserable “Eden”. Dickens was far less impressed with the States than we were with his novels, especially Copperfield.

I’m no longer convinced this is his best, but it’s an extraordinary work. What we remember from Dickens are scenes, and characters. His sense of structure was weak. It’s easy to blame this on serial form, but the weakness is just as great in his unserialized works. Chesterton said he was the weakest of plotters, comparing him unfavorably to Simon Tappertit, the pathetic revolutionary locksmith’s apprentice in Rudge.

Scenes, characters, and priceless descriptions are what we get from Dickens. He’s accused of being maudlin. There is the famous quote from Oscar Wilde mocking the death of Little Nell.  While Dickens is sometimes guilty of building his moral cases on sentiment, his scenes of death (there are quite a few) have always struck me as very touching. The death of Paul Dombey – where he brings his old dismissed nurse, Walter, and his sister Florence, and commends them all to his father before dying – all those his father had wronged, but upon whom he would come to depend after his own fall. Life mattered to Dickens, and death and loss were never far from his thoughts. There was no modern separation from the dying in Victorian England, and death often came to those in the bloom of life.

Anyway, I don’t want to talk about death, only to bring up something different about Dickens: reminiscence. How sometimes he relates how the cherished memory will fix later in a character’s mind. There is a surprising passage in Copperfield, appearing long before David’s mother remarries, and before he leaves for school. At a playful moment, he writes of his mother:

Can I say of her face–altered as I have reason to remember it, perished as I know it is–that it is gone, when here it comes before me at this instant, as distinct as any face that I may choose to look on in a crowded street? Can I say of her innocent and girlish beauty, that it faded, and was no more, when its breath falls on my cheek now, as it fell that night? Can I say she ever changed, when my remembrance brings her back to life, thus only; and, truer to its loving youth than I have been, or man ever is, still holds fast what it cherished then?

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I was speaking to a colleague about the Laocoön restoration. I thought of this Tom Weller cartoon. How do you describe this to somebody when they ask why you’re smirking?

Laocoön restored

Of course, its restoration was a serious issue: the group was uncovered incomplete in 1506, and brought with great acclaim to prominent display at the Vatican. How often do you happen to find a statue right out of Pliny beneath your garden?

Michelangelo (only a sculptor in 1506, already famous for his Pieta and David, but yet to tackle the Sistine) was among those who advised Julius II on its assembly. One of the problems was with the right arm of Laocoön – it was missing. So (trying to be helpful) they made him a new one – (a prosthetic?). But which way did it go? They made it stretch directly out.

Four hundred years later the real arm was found in a construction yard. It was returned to Laocoön (no longer an amputee). Interesting that Michelangelo had guessed correctly – the right arm was turned backwards, not stretched out.

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James Murray in his Man-Cave

James Murray in his Man Cave

A history professor once explained to me that applications to their graduate program that lacked evidence of relevant languages went straight into the circular file. It simply takes too long for a student to possess a language with sufficient fluency to be productive for research. This has caused me much anxiety.

I don’t know that there was any sort of golden age of language learning, but when struggling with Latin I find myself a little jealous of the previous generations who enjoyed the tradition of learning it very young and very thoroughly.

But then you have the Victorian over-achievers. Witness the application of James Murray for a position with the British Museum Library, back in the 1860’s:

I have to state that Philology, both Comparative and special, has been my favourite pursuit during the whole of my life, and that I possess a general acquaintance with the languages and literature of the Aryan and Syro-Arabic classes – not indeed to say that I am familiar with all or nearly all of these, but that I possess the general lexical & structural knowledge which makes the intimate knowledge only a matter of a little application.With several I have a more intimate acquaintance as with the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a less degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal, & various dialects.

In the Teutonic branch, I am tolerably familiar with Dutch (having at my place of business to read in Dutch, German, French & occasionally other languages), Flemish, German, and Danish. In Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic my studies have been much closer, I having prepared some works for publication upon these languages. I know a little of the Celtic, and am at present engaged with the Sclavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of Russian. In the Persian, Achaemenian Cunieform, & Sanscrit branches, I know for the purposes of Comparative Philology, I have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew & Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito; to a lesser degree I know Aramaic, Arabic, Coptic, and Phenician to the point where is was left by Gesenius.

The interesting thing is that Murray didn’t get the British Museum job. But in the 1870’s he was placed in charge of the Oxford English Dictionary, a role he held for more than thirty years. Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything has a good account of the dictionary (it’s also the source of the above letter).
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One curious feature of Victorian literature is not so much the scraps of classical languages, but their rather poor quality. By way of context, we have to remind ourselves that in 19th century England, a man could rise to the heights of responsibility based on a mastery of Latin and Greek. A long immersion in antique literature was considered an appropriate preparation for positions of leadership. Memorize Virgil and Xenophon, and next month you might be running a province of India.

So you have to wonder about the poor novelists and their weak Latin. Dickens had a reasonable excuse, being an autodidact by necessity like his young Copperfield. But then there is Trollope. Though his family often skirted poverty, his background and education was much more privileged than that of Dickens. In spite of this, he betrays a sort of sarcastic antipathy to classical languages.

In his autobiography, one finds an explanation:

And my father, though he would try, as it were by a side wind, to get a useful spurt of work out of me, either in the garden or in the hay-field, had constantly an eye to my scholastic improvement. From my very babyhood, before those first days at Harrow, I had to take my place alongside of him as he shaved at six o’clock in the morning, and say my early rules from the Latin Grammar, or repeat the Greek alphabet; and was obliged at these early lessons to hold my head inclined towards him, so that in the event of guilty fault, he might be able to pull my hair without stopping his razor or dropping his shaving-brush. No father was ever more anxious for the education of his children, though I think none ever knew less how to go about the work.

Of amusement, as far as I can remember, he never recognised the need. He allowed himself no distraction, and did not seem to think it was necessary to a child. I cannot bethink me of aught that he ever did for my gratification; but for my welfare,–for the welfare of us all,–he was willing to make any sacrifice. At this time, in the farmhouse at Harrow Weald, he could not give his time to teach me, for every hour that he was not in the fields was devoted to his monks and nuns; but he would require me to sit at a table with Lexicon and Gradus before me. As I look back on my resolute idleness and fixed determination to make no use whatever of the books thus thrust upon me, or of the hours, and as I bear in mind the consciousness of great energy in after-life, I am in doubt whether my nature is wholly altered, or whether his plan was wholly bad.

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Retronaut just posted images from a home improvement catalog, circa 1970.

So, you look at pictures like these, and you try to imagine living in them. Of course, people managed it. But rooms like this seem as culturally distant as, say, medieval Japan.

Look at a couple of examples below. I’m not sure there’s even an aesthetic vocabulary robust enough to describe such designs.

retronaut's 1970's living room, with birds

Imagine waking up to this scene. Nightmares of being trapped in a nest… flocks of one-eyed creatures glaring, just glaring with those enormous black eyes. Later that day you sit down to read a book and POOSSSSSSSSSHHHH! that pen deep in your pocket jammed into your lovely inflatable sofa. Will you ever find one again in ‘Bone’?


retronaut's 1970's kitchen room

The walls and ceiling here are done in a lovely sort of lunatic baroque. But look at the carpet. Is there any doubt that it sustains itself on human flesh?

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