The Child of Pleasure/Book I/Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II

The gray deluge of democratic mud, which swallows up so many beautiful and rare things, is likewise gradually engulfing that particular class of the old Italian nobility in which from generation to generation were kept alive certain family traditions of eminent culture, refinement and art.

To this class, which I should be inclined to denominate Arcadian because it shone with greatest splendour in the charming atmosphere of the eighteenth century life, belonged the Sperelli. Urbanity, hellenism, love of all that was exquisite, a predilection for out-of-the-way studies, an aesthetic curiosity, a passion for archaeology, and an epicurean taste in gallantry were hereditary qualities of the house of Sperelli. An Alessandro Sperelli brought in 1466 to Frederic of Aragon, son of Ferdinand King of Naples, and brother to Alfonso Duke of Calabria, a manuscript in folio containing the 'less rude' poems of the old Tuscan writers which Lorenzo de Medici had promised him at Pisa in 1465; and in concert with the most erudite scholars of his time, that same Alessandro wrote a Latin elegy on the death of the divine Simonetta—sad and melting numbers after the manner of Tibullus. Another Sperelli—Stefano,—was during the same century in Flanders, in the midst of all the pomp, the extravagant elegance, the almost fabulous magnificence of the court of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, where he remained, having allied himself with a Flemish family. A son of his, named Giusto, learned painting under the direction of Gossaert, in whose company he came to Italy in the suite of Philip of Burgundy, the ambassador of the Emperor Maximilian to Pope Julius II. in 1508. He settled in Florence, where the chief branch of his family continued to flourish, and had for his second master Piero di Cosimo, that jocund and facile painter and vivid and harmonious colourist, under whose brush the pagan deities came to life again. This Giusto was by no means a mediocre artist, but he consumed all his forces in the vain effort to reconcile his primary Gothic education with the newly awakened spirit of the Renaissance. Towards the middle of the seventeenth century the Sperelli family migrated to Naples. There a Bartolomeo Sperelli published in 1679 an astrological treatise: De Nativitatibus; in 1720 a Giovanni Sperelli wrote for the theatre an opera bouffe entitled La Faustina and also a lyrical tragedy entitled Progne; 1756 a Carlo Sperelli brought out a book of amatory verses in which much licentious persiflage was expressed with the Horatian elegance so much affected at that period. A better poet, and moreover a man of exquisite gallantry, was Luigi Sperelli, attached to the court of the lazzaroni king of Naples and his queen Caroline. His Muse was very charming, and affected a certain epicurean melancholy. He loved much and with a fine discrimination, and had innumerable adventures—some of them famous—as, for instance, that with the Marchesa di Bugnano who poisoned herself out of jealousy, and with the Countess of Chesterfield who died of consumption, and whom he mourned in a series of odes, sonnets and elegies—very moving, if perhaps somewhat overladen with metaphor.

Count Andrea Sperelli-Fieschi d'Ugenta, sole heir to the family, carried on its traditions. He was, in truth, the ideal type of the young Italian nobleman of the nineteenth century, a true representative of a race of chivalrous gentlemen and graceful artists, the last scion of an intellectual line.

He was, so to speak, thoroughly impregnated with art. His early youth, nourished as it was by the most varied and profound studies, promised wonders. Up to his twentieth year, he alternated between severe study and long journeys, in company with his father, and could thus complete his extraordinary aesthetic education under paternal direction, without the restrictions and constraints imposed by tutors. And it was to his father that he owed his taste for everything pertaining to art, his passionate cult of the Beautiful, his paradoxical disdain of prejudice, and his keen appetite for the sensuous.

That father, who had grown up in the midst of the last expiring splendours of the Bourbon court of Naples, understood life on a large scale, was profoundly initiated into all the arts of the voluptuary, combined with a certain Byronic leaning towards fantastic romanticism. His marriage had occurred under quasi tragic circumstances, the finale of a mad passion; then, after disturbing and undermining the conjugal peace in every possible fashion, he had separated from his wife, and, keeping his son always with him, had travelled about the whole of Europe.

Andrea's education had thus been a living one; that is to say, derived less from books than from the study of life as he had seen it. His mind was corrupted not only by over-refined culture, but also by actual experiments, and in him curiosity grew keener in proportion as his knowledge grew wider. From the beginning, he had ever been prodigal of his powers, for the great nervous force with which nature had endowed him was inexhaustible in providing him with the treasures he dispensed so lavishly. But the expansion of that energy caused in him the destruction of another force: the moral one, which his own father had not scrupled to repress in him. And he never perceived that his whole life was a steady retrogression of all his faculties, of his hopes, his joys—a species of gradual renunciation—and that the circle was slowly but inexorably narrowing round him.

Among other fundamental maxims his father had given him the following: You must make your own life as you would any other work of art. The life of a man of intellect should be of his own designing. Herein lies the only true superiority.

Again: Never, let it cost what it may, lose the mastery over yourself even in the most intoxicating rapture of the senses. Habere non haberi is the rule from which the man of intellect should never swerve.

And again—Regret is the idle pastime of an unoccupied mind. The best method, therefore, to avoid regret is to keep the mind constantly occupied with new fancies, fresh sensations.

Unfortunately, however, these voluntary axioms, which from their ambiguity might just as easily be interpreted as lofty moral rules, fell upon an involuntary nature; that is to say, one in which the will power was extremely feeble.

Another seed sown by the paternal hand had borne evil fruit in Andrea's spirit—the seed of sophistry. Sophistry, said this imprudent teacher, is at the bottom of all human pleasure or pain. Therefore, quicken and multiply your sophisms and you quicken and multiply your own pleasure or your own pain. It is possible that the whole science of life consists in obscuring the truth. The word is a very profound matter in which inexhaustible treasure is concealed for the man who knows how to use it. The Greeks, who were artists in words, were the most refined voluptuaries of antiquity. The sophists flourished in the greatest number during the age of Pericles, the Golden Age of pleasure.

This germ had found a favourable soil in the unhealthy culture of the young man's mind. By degrees, insincerity—rather towards himself than towards others—became such a habit of Andrea's mind, that finally he was incapable of being wholly sincere or of regaining dominion over himself.

The death of his father left him alone at the age of twenty, master of a considerable fortune, separated from his mother, and at the mercy of his passions and his tastes. He spent fifteen months in England. His mother married again, and he returned to Rome from choice.

Rome was his passion—not the Rome of the Caesars, but the Rome of the Popes—not the Rome of the Triumphal Arches, the Forums, the Baths, but the Rome of the Villas, the Fountains, the Churches. He would have given all the Colosseums in the world for the Villa Medici, the Campo Vaccino for the Piazza di Spagna, the Arch of Titus for the Fountain of the Tortoises. The princely magnificence of the Colonnas, the Dorias, the Barberinis, attracted him far more than the ruins of imperial grandeur. It was his dream to possess a palace crowned by a cornice of Michael Angelo's, and with frescos by the Carracci like the Farnese palace—a gallery of Raphaels, Titians and Domenichini like the Borghese; a villa like that of Alessandro Albani, where deep shadowy groves, red granite of the East, white marble from Luni, Greek statues and Renaissance pictures should weave an enchantment round some sumptuous amour of his. In an album of 'Confessions' at his cousin's, the Marchesa d'Ateleta, against the question—'What would you most like to be?' he had written, 'A Roman prince.'

Arriving in Rome about the end of September, he set up his 'home' in the Palazzo Zuccari, near the Trinita de' Monti, where the obelisk of Pius VI. marks with its shadow the passing hours. The whole of October was devoted to furnishing them. When the rooms were all finished and decorated to his taste, he passed some days of invincible melancholy and loneliness in his new abode. It was a St. Martin's summer, a 'Springtime of the Dead,' calmly sad and sweet, in which Rome lay all golden, like a city of the Far East, under a milk-white sky, diaphanous as the firmament reflected in Southern seas.

All this languor of atmosphere and light, in which things seemed to lose their substance and reality, oppressed the young man with an infinite weariness, an inexpressible sense of discontent, of discomfort, of solitude, emptiness and home-sickness, mostly, no doubt, the result of the change of climate and customs.

It was just this, that he was entering upon a new phase of life. Would he find therein the woman and the work capable of dominating his heart and becoming an object in life to him? Within himself he felt neither the conviction of power nor the presage of fame or happiness. Though penetrated, impregnated with art, as yet he had not produced anything remarkable. Eager in the pursuit of pleasure and of love, he had never yet really loved or really enjoyed whole-heartedly. Tortured by aspirations after an Ideal, and abhorring pain both by nature and education, he was vulnerable on every side, accessible to pain at every point.

In the tumult of his conflicting inclinations, he had lost all guiding will-power and moral perception. Will, in abdicating had yielded the sceptre to instinct and the aesthetic sense was substituted for the moral. But, it was nevertheless precisely to his aesthetic sense—in him most subtle and powerful—that he owed a certain strength and equilibrium of mind, so that one might say his existence was a perpetual struggle between contrary forces, enclosed within the limits of that equilibrium. Men of intellect, educated in the cult of the beautiful, preserve a certain sense of order even in their worst depravities. The conception of the beautiful is, so to speak, the axis of their being, round which all their passions revolve.

Over this sadness, the recollection of Constance Landbrooke still floated like a faded perfume. His love for Conny had been a very delicate affair, for she was a very sweet little creature. She was like one of Lawrence's creations, with all the dainty feminine graces so dear to that painter of furbelows and laces and velvets, of lustrous eyes and pouting lips, a very re-incarnation of the little Countess of Shaftesbury. Lively, chattering, never still, lavish of infantile diminutives and silvery peals of laughter, easily moved to sudden caresses and as sudden melancholies and quick bursts of anger, she contributed to her share of love a vast amount of movement, much variety and many caprices. But Conny Landbrooke's melodious twitterings had left no more mark on Andrea's heart than the light musical echo left in one's ear for a time by some gay ritornella. More than once in some pensive hour of twilight melancholy, she had said to him with a mist of tears before her eyes—'I know you do not love me.' And in truth he did not love her, she did not by any means satisfy his longings. His ideal was less northern in character. Ideally he felt himself attracted by those courtesans of the sixteenth century, over whose faces there would appear to be drawn some indefinable veil of sorcery, some transparent mask of enchantment, some divine nocturnal spell.

The moment Andrea set eyes on the Duchess of Scerni, he said to himself—‘This is my Ideal Woman!’ and his whole soul went out to her in a transport of joy, in the presentiment of the future.