The International Magazine/Volume 1/Issue 1/International Weekly Miscellany/Richard Henry Wilde and Dante
It appears that our accomplished and lamented oountryman, Richard Henry Wilde, whose "Researches and Considerations concerning the Love and Imprisonment of Tasso" have been made use of with so discreditable a freedom by a recent English biographer of that poet, is — if another pretender prove not less successful — to be deprived also of the fame he earned by his discoveries in regard to Dante. A correspondent of The Spectator, under the signature of G. Aubrey Bezzi, writes as follows:—
"The questions are, what share Mr. Kirkup had in the recovery of the fresco of Giotto in the chapel of the Palazzo del Podestà at Florence, and whether directly or indirectly I have been the means of depriving him, or any of the coöperators in that good work, of the merit due to their labors. I shall best enable those who take an interest in this matter to arrive at a fair conclusion, by giving a short history of the recovery of that beautiful fresco. It was Mr. Wilde, and not Mr. Kirkup, who first spoke to me of this buried treasure. Mr. Wilde, an American gentleman respected by all that knew him, was then in Florence, engaged in a work on Dante and his times, which unfortunately he did not live to complete. Among the materials he had collected for this purpose, there were some papers of the antiquarian Moreni, which he was examining when I called one day, (I had then been three or four months in Florence,) to read what he had already written, as I was in the habit of doing from time to time. It was then that a foot-note of Moreni's met his eye, in which the writer lamented that he had spent two years of his life in unceasing and unavailing efforts to recover the portrait of Dante, and the other portions of the fresco of Giotto in the Bargello, mentioned by Vasari; that others before him had been equally anxious and equally unsuccessful; and that he hoped that better times would come, (verranno tempi migliori,) and that the painting, so interesting both in an artistic and historical point of view, would be again sought for, and at last recovered. I did not then understand how the efforts of Moreni and others could have been thus unsuccessful; and I thought that with common energy and diligence they might have ascertained whether the painting, so clearly pointed out by Yasari, was or was not in existence: several months, however, of wearisome labors in the same pursuit taught me to judge more leniently of the failures of my predecessors. Mr. Wilde put Moreni's note before me, and suggested and urged, that being an Italian by birth, though not a Florentine, and having lived many years in England and among the English, I had it in my power to bring two modes of influence to bear upon the research; and that such being the case I ought to undertake it. My thoughts immediately turned to Mr. Kirkup, an artist who had abandoned his art to devote himself entirely to antiquarian pursuits, with whom I was well acquainted, and who, having lived many years in Florence, (I believe fifteen,) would weigh the value of Moreni's testimony on this matter, and effectually assist me in every way, if I took it in hand. So I called upon him, either that same day or the next, and I found that he, like most other people, had read the passage in Vasari's life of Giotto, in which it is explicitly said that the portrait of Dante had been painted with others in the Palazzo del Podestà, and was to be seen at the time the historian was writing; but that he had not read, or had not put any confidence in, the note of the Florence edition of Vasari published in 1832–1838, in which it is stated, that the Palazzo del Podestà had now become a prison — the Bargello; that the Chapel had been turned into a dispensa, (it was more like a coal-hole where the rags and much of the filth of the prison was deposited); that the walls of this dispensa exhibited nothing but a dirty coating, and that Moreni speaks of the painting in some published work; the annotator concluding thus — 'It is hoped that some day or other we shall be able to see what there is under the coating of the walls.' So everybody hoped that some day or other the thing would be done, but nobody set about heartily to do it; and it is inconceivable to me that Mr. Kirkup, who shows in this letter, if it be his, such jealousy for the credit of the recovery, should have lived so many years in Florence either entirely ignorant of that which every shop-boy knew, or knowing there were chances of bringing such a treasure to light, that he should have never moved one step for that purpose. That Mr. Kirkup took no active part in this matter at any time, is quite proved by two admissions I find in the letter of your correspondent. He first says, 'I remember that the first time I passed to the Bargello to see it, I found Marini on a scaffold, &c. The fact is, that several months had elapsed between the first presentation of the memorial and the erection of the scaffold during which Mr. Kirkup admits that he never thought of visiting the place, while I had spent hours and hours there, under not very pleasant circumstances, and had detected raised aureolas and other evidences of old fresco. But he continues — 'Marini was permitted to return to the work on account of the government; and at that point Bezzi returned to England. It was some months afterwards that I heard that Marini had found certain figures, and soon afterwards the discovery of Dante himself' (sic.) These two passages sufficiently show the nature of Mr. Kirkup's labors, and how far he was really eager in the pursuit of this object, both during the time when I was most deeply engaged in it, and also for 'some months' after I had quitted Florence. But to resume: Mr. Kirkup, however ignorant, or culpably negligent, or a little of both, he might previously have been on the subject, yet when I brought it before him, he at once admitted its importance, and made a liberal offer of money, if any should be required, to carry out the experiment. Thus encouraged by Mr. Wilde and by Mr. Kirkup, I sought and found among English, American, and Italian friends and acquaintances, many that were ready to assist the plan. Then it was that I drew up a memorial to the Grand Duke; not because I am an 'advocate,' as your correspondent is pleased to call me, for that is not the case, but simply because, having taken pains to organize the means of working out the common object, the coöperators thought that I could best represent what this common object was. In the memorial, I stated that, according to what Vasari, Moreni, and others had written, it was just possible that a treasure was lying hidden under the dirty coatings of the walls of the dispensa in the Bargello; that a society was already formed for the purpose of seeking with all care for this treasure; that all expenses would be gladly borne by the society; that should anything be found, we would either leave the paintings untouched, or have them removed at our expense to the gallery of the Uffizi, and that we begged of the Grand Duke the necessary sanction to begin our operations. The answer was favorable, and I was referred to Marchese Nerli, and to the Director of the Academy, to make the necessary arrangements. Then the real difficulties began: first, I was put off on account of the precautions that were to be taken in working in a prison; then, the Director was ill, or unavoidably engaged, or absent; I found, in short, that the object was to tire me out, and that I had to contend with the same power that had defeated Moreni and my other predecessors in the attempt. This battle continued many months. I have already spoken too much of my share in the pursuit of this object, and I will not enter into further details — some of them ludicrous — of this contention; but I will say explicitly, that, besides his encouragement, and his repeated offers of money, (which were not accepted because money was not wanted, at least not to any amount, and what was wanted I furnished myself;) Mr. Kirkup did not afford me any assistance. At this stage of the business, I met indeed with a most valuable ally, without whom I believe I should have been beaten; and that was Paolo Feroni, a Florentine nobleman and artist to whom I have before expressed and now repeat my best acknowledgments. At the end of this long contention against obstacles which often eluded my grasp, the Grand Duke, in consequence of a second memorial I presented to him, issued a decree appointing a commission to carry out the proposed experiments. This commission was composed of two members I had myself proposed, viz, the sculptor Bartolini, and the Marchese Feroni, of myself, of the Direttore of the Edifizi Pubblici Machese Nerli, and of the Direttore of the Accademia delle Arti, the two latter ex-officio: further, the decree declines the proposed voluntary subscriptions, and places at the disposal of the Commissioners a sum of money which proved more than sufficient to cover all the expenses of the restoration of the fresco. The Commissioners employed the painter Marini, and the happy result of his carefulness and ability is now before the world.
"I will now conclude by asserting, that I had nothing to do with what has been said or written at Florence of this recovery, either in the Strenna, or at the meeting of the Scienziati, which was held in 1841, I believe, and at which the fresco of Giotto was naturally a great object of interest. I left Florence in May 1840, before the portrait of Dante was actually uncovered, so that I only saw a portion of the fresco. I have never heard, or read, or said, or written, anything tending to disparage the real coöperation of Mr. Kirkup, or of my late lamented friend Mr. Wilde, or of anybody else in this matter, — nay, that it was at my request that the editor of the English translation of Kugler's Handbook of the History of Painting, published in 1842, has in the preface of that book entioned Mr. Kirkup as having assisted materially in the recovery. Besides the Marchese Feroni and the artist Signor Marini, there are an many disinterested witnesses who have stated, and if called upon will repeat again, all the material points of my narrative; but, better than all, there is now in London an English gentleman, the world, whom I am happy to be allowed to call my friend, who was in Florence part of the time, and saw with his own eyes the share I had in this laborious undertaking, which ought not to have brought this bitter contention upon me: he was an intimate friend of Mr. Wilde, with whom he had long correspondence on this very subject after Mr. Wilde's return to America."
We believe Mr. Bezzi is in error as to the incompleteness of Mr. Wilde's Life of Dante. Mr. Wilde, more than a year before his death, informed us that his work was nearly ready for the printer; and at the same time he confided to us for perusal his admirable translations of specimens of Italian Lyric Poets. We hope the descendants of our learned and ingenious friend will place these works, so creditable to his temper, scholarship, and genius, before the world.