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The Faun of Rome: A Romance

by Oscar Wilde, edited by Nate Maturin

Nate Maturin, Author

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Chapter 1: Four Friends

Friendship is a charming and compelling quality, which draws the eye of even the most casual observer. On a peaceful day in June, four friends, immediately identifiable by their gentle proximity to one another, heads gently inclined towards each another and intimate gazes passing unnoticed, happened to be standing in one of the saloons of the sculpture-gallery in the Capitol at Rome. They occupied the first room after ascending the staircase, in the centre of which reclined—and, God willing, shall recline still a thousand years more—the noble, pathetic figure of the Dying Gladiator, sinking deeply into a death-swoon. Around the walls were ranged the Antinous, the Lycian Apollo, the Juno and the Amazon, famous productions of ancient sculpture that continue to shine in the undiminished majesty and beauty of their ideal lives, the yellowing of time on the marble that embodies them a mere diaphanous veil, the corrosion by the damp earth in which those relics lay buried for centuries adding pathos to the forms in which they now reach us. A symbol of the Soul completes the scene around our four friends, apt as it first was two thousand years ago: a pretty figure of a child contends with the symbols of Evil and Innocence, assaulted by a snake, but clasping a dove to her bosom.

From the far window of this saloon, one sees a flight of stone steps, broad and long, following the antique and massive foundation of the Capitol down towards the arch of Septimius Severus, battered but still triumphal, standing immediately below. The eye might travel farther afield, along the edge of the emptied Forum, where Roman washerwomen now hang their linen out to greet the sun; it might pick its way delicately over the shapeless confusion of modern edifices, rudely adjoining ancient brick and stone, and linger on the domes of Christian churches that occupy the old pavements of heathen temples, supported by the selfsame ancient pillars and props. Farther still, at a distance but yet only a little way, considering the tumult of history piled and crumpled into the intervening space, rises the Coliseum, arcing in a profound sweeping gesture across the blue sky that peeps through the upper tier of arches; and, at the farthest reaches of one’s view, the grey-blue Alban Mountains rise as when Romulus gazed first over his half-finished wall and conceived of what Rome might be.

A fleeting glimpse through that far window, at the bright sky, those distant mountains, the ruins of threefold provenance, the ruinous tumble of fresh buildings taking root wherever they might hope to stand, and the peripheral sight of the sculpted marvels in the saloon itself, would put even the dullest viewer into that state of feeling experienced oftenest in ancient cities: a vague sense of ponderous remembrance. One cannot help but perceive of the weight and density of bygone lives, the spot where one stands serving as the very centre of them, such that one’s present moment is compressed or crowded out. Our individual affairs and interests become but half as real as when we are elsewhere. When viewed in this light, the events that follow, into which are woven some airy and unsubstantial threads, and some others formed out of the commonest stuff of human existence, may seem to share the same texture of our own lives. Beside the massive Roman Past, all matters that we or our four friends might handle or dream of are but  evanescent or visionary, at any moment free to float across the threshold of that far window.

The four friends to whom we are, in a roundabout fashion, making an introduction, felt too their present take on a dreamy character in contrast with the durable granite blocks with which the Romans built their lives. That air contributed to the fanciful merriment which was, just then, their mood. When our cares and hopes fade into shadows and unrealities, it seems hardly worthwhile to be sad or hopeful, but rather we resolve to laugh as gayly as we may, and ask little reason wherefore.

Of these four new friends of ours, three were artists, and their mutual sympathies were such that they had been simultaneously struck by a resemblance between a well-known masterpiece of Grecian origin and the young Italian who made up the fourth of their party. 

“Cunning a bust-maker as you think yourself, Kenyon,” the tall, dark-eyed young woman of the company said, “you must needs confess that you never freed from marble, nor wrought in clay, a more vivid likeness. The portraiture is perfect in pure feature, as well as character and sentiment. Were it a picture, the resemblance might be half illusive and imaginary; but in this Pentelic marble, it may be tested by measurement and absolute touch, and is rendered a substantial fact. The Faun of Praxiteles is our very friend Donatello. Do you not think so, Hilda?”

The slender, brown-haired girl paused. “Not quite. Almost. Yes, I really think so,” she replied. Her perceptions of forms and sentiment were wonderfully clear and delicate, developed in that most certain of environments, New England. “If there is any difference between the two faces, which perchance there may be in the mere shadows, I suppose the reason to be that the Faun dwelt always in woods and fields, and consorted with his own kind; whereas Donatello has known cities, and such people as ourselves, and such experiences have wrought themselves on his face in a subtle fashion. But the resemblance is very close and strange.”

“Not so strange, Hilda,” Miriam whispered mischievously, “as no Faun in Arcadia was ever simpler than our Donatello. It is a pity there are no longer any of his congenial race of rustic creatures for our friend to consort with! He has hardly a man’s share of wit, small as that may be.”

“Hush, naughty one!” Hilda returned. “You are very ungrateful, for you well know he has wit enough to worship you.”

“Quite so. And that is how I know how little wit he possesses,” said Miriam so bitterly that Hilda’s placid smile was somewhat tested.

“Donatello, my dear friend,” said Kenyon in learned Italian, “while my dear Hilda and Miriam are quite persuaded, I require further proofs. Pray gratify us all by taking the exact attitude of this statute.”

That young man, who had remained contentedly silent while his face, form and wit were debated, laughed now and obligingly threw himself into the position in which the statue had so long stood. Allowing for the difference of costume, Donatello might indeed have figured perfectly as the marble Faun miraculously softened into flesh and blood by his artist friends’ Pygmalionesque desire.

Kenyon passed a sculptor’s eye over the marble and the man, comprehensive and yet careful not to disturb his object. “Yes, Hilda is quite right. The resemblance is wonderful strange. Although on two points, our friend Donatello’s abundant curls prevent us from verifying whether the likeness carries into minuter detail.” With a gentle gesture, the sculptor directed the attention of the party to the ears of the Faun which they were contemplating.

This marble Faun, running contrary to the mythic blending of man and beast, takes the pure image of a young man. Leaning his right elbow on the stump of a tree, one hand hangs freely at his side; in the other he holds the fragment of a sylvan instrument of music. His only garment—a draped lion’s pelt, after Hercules, the claws upon his right shoulder—falls halfway down his back. The limbs and front of the figure are left entirely nude. In its carefree attitude, the form offers a marvellous grace, but the whole yields a more rounded outline, more flesh and less heroic muscle, than the sculptors of old assigned to their types of masculine beauty. The character of the face corresponds with the figure to yield a most pleasant whole. The ears, delicately pointed, and curved close to the head amongst the curls, are the only mark upon the Faun’s flesh to indicate decisively his sylvan nature. Agreeable in outline and feature, the rounded face is somewhat voluptuously developed around the throat and chin; the nose is near straight, but curves very slightly inward, granting the face an expression of geniality and humour. The mouth offers full yet delicate lips on the verge of smiling outright, and the curve calls forth a responsive smile from the sympathetic viewer. The whole—like few other forms wrought in severe marble—conveys the idea of an easy and amiable creature, mirthful, apt for jollity, yet not incapable of being touched by pathos. One cannot gaze long at such an image without conceiving a kindly sentiment towards it, as if its substance were warm to the touch and imbued with actual life.

The living being thus represented is endowed with no principle of virtue, and would be incapable of comprehending such; but he would be true and honest by dint of his simplicity. The very lack of any high, heroic or moralising quality in that softened marble renders it delightful to the human eye and to the fluttering beat of the human heart. We might expect from him no sacrifice or effort for an abstract cause; but the chin and nose suggest his capacity for strong and warm attachment, and that he might act devotedly through the impulse of such attachment, and even die for it. But he is not altogether without wit. Sensual and free of feeling, the Faun might be educated through the medium of emotion and experience, and the coarser animal portion of his nature might eventually form only the foundation of a subtler character. Notwithstanding the physical form of a gentle youth, the animal is and must always be a most essential part of the Faun’s nature. The pair of leaf-shaped, pointed ears that drew Kenyon’s attention are the clearest sign of the animal mystery subtly diffused throughout Praxiteles’s conception of the Faun, and show the sculptor to be of the finest imagination, the most delicate taste, and the sweetest feeling—in short, he is a poet too, as well as possessing the rarest artistic skill with marble. Having succeeded in imprisoning the frisky creature in marble, he makes it seem contented, too, ignorant of his own restraints. The union of man’s art and sylvan delight, of youth and animal, human skill and natural beauty, is a friendly one, and trapped within that discoloured marble surface uncovered by Praxiteles.

“Kenyon is quite right, as he always is on such questions of form and symmetry. Donatello,” Miriam cried playfully, “do not leave us to wrestle with this perplexity! Shake aside those brown curls, and let your friends see whether your marvellous resemblance to this Faun extends from the tips of your toes to the tips of your ears, as I feel sure it must. For if it does, we shall like you all the better!”

“No, no,” Donatello demured. “Dearest signorina, I entreat you to take the tips of my ears for granted,” he continued, laughing, but with a certain earnestness that made the question a grave one. As he spoke, as if to avoid one of his friends taking liberties with his person, the young Italian made a short skip and a jump, nimble enough to be those of a veritable Faun. “I shall be like a wolf of the Apennines,” he warned, takin his stand on the other side of the Dying Gladiator, “if you touch my ears even ever so softly. None of my race could endure it. It has always been a tender point with my forefathers and with me.”

Donatello spoke in Italian with languid utterances and a rusticity of accent that is particular to the Tuscan region; although it no longer drew note from his friends, his intonation suggested that he had heretofore been conversant with rural people, chiefly, if not fellow fauns.

“Well,” said Miriam, whose hand remained outstretched towards the space that he had so recently occupied, “your two tender points—if you have them—shall remain safe from me, as I should fear to render you lupine after having recognised your nature as a Faun.”

“But how strange this likeness is, after all, Donatello, if it really includes the pointed ears!” Hilda followed. 

“Oh, it is impossible, of course,” Kenyon continued, in English, “with a real and commonplace gentleman such as Donatello. You might as well suggest that I had claws upon my toes like a hawk.”

Miriam laughed freely. “Kenyon, you are far too good-natured and light-hearted to be a hawk. But you see how the peculiarity of the pointed ears defines the Faun, and renders his otherwise human face distinct. While putting him where he cannot quite assert his brotherhood with us, the feature still disposes us kindly towards him as a kindred creature. The Faun, this Faun of Rome,” she allowed her outstretched hand to fall upon the statue now, Donatello remaining out of her reach, “is not supernatural, but stands on the very edge of Nature, with both feet in it but his toes straining at the circle that bounds him. How to describe the nameless charm of this feature, Hilda? You can feel such things more delicately than I.”

“I understand quite what you mean, Miriam, but I confess that it perplexes me also,” she said, shrinking a little from the statue; “neither do I quite like to think about it. It seems to me that it is not so able to sit well with delicate feelings of sympathy.”

“But surely,” said Kenyon, “you agree with Miriam and with me that there is something very touching and impressive in this Faun. Once, in a long-past age, he must really have existed, perhaps in the very region occupied by Donatello’s forefathers. Nature needed, and I dare say still needs, such a creature betwixt man and animal, sympathetic with each, comprehending the speech of either, and interpreting the existence of one to the other. What a pity that such a peacemaker has forever vanished from the arduous paths of life,—unless,” the sculptor added in a whispered jest, “Donatello be actually he!”

Sharing both Kenyon’s sense of jest and Hilda’s sentiment of earnestness, Miriam whispered, “You cannot conceive how this fantasy takes hold of me, Hilda. Imagine, now, a real being, similar to this mythic Faun; happy, genial, satisfactory would be his life; he would enjoy the warm, sensuous, earthy side of nature, revelling in the merriment of woods and streams, living as our four-footed kindred do,—as mankind did in its innocent childhood, before sin, sorrow or morality had ever been thought of! Kenyon, if Hilda and you and I—if I, at least—had pointed ears, what would life be? I suppose the Faun had no conscience, no remorse, no burden to ever lie upon his heart, no troublesome recollections of any sort to follow his dreams; and no dark future, either, I would warrant.”

“Miriam, what a strange, tragic tone was that last!” said the sculptor; looking into her face, to his surprise, he found it pale and tear-stained. “How suddenly such an earnest and melancholy mood has overcome you.” His hand joined hers on the sculpture before carefully freeing them both from its attractive force.

“Well, let it go as it came,” she replied, “like a thunder-shower in the deep blue Roman sky. All is sunshine for us again now, you see!”

Donatello now sprang close to Miriam’s side, gazed at her with an appealing air, and seemed to solicit her forgiveness, as though his stubbornness as regarded his ears might be to blame for the thunder-shower that had briefly enveloped his friends. The mute, helpless entreat had a pathos to it but might just as well have excited a laugh, so like it was to the aspect of a beloved dog when he feels himself to be in fault or, worse, disgrace. Donatello, so full of animal life, so jovial in his comportment, but also so handsome, physically well-developed and without any impression of incompleteness or a stilted nature, was of a character at once legible and unfathomable. Instinctively, as for a child or a beloved dog, indeed, these familiar friends exacted no strict obedience to their own conventional rules, and made as to hardly notice his eccentricities enough to pardon them. An indefinable characteristic set Donatello outside of rules, and his sensitive friends recognised his unique character and forgave him for it.

His tilted head having gained no remark, he took up Miriam’s hand, kissed it on the knuckle, and gazed at her without a word. She smiled and bestowed upon him a careless caress, singularly like what one would give to a pet cat when he puts himself in the way to receive it, having avoided one at an earlier point. The caress was not nearly so decided as the term suggest. It was, in truth, the merest of touches, lying somewhere between a pat and a tap with a single finger; it might have been a mark of fondness, or a playful pretence of punishment, or a gentle rebuff at his free physicality. At all events, it appeared to afford Donatello exquisite pleasure, insofar as he danced quite away from her again and round the wooden railing that fences in the Dying Gladiator.

“It is the very step of the Dancing Faun,” said Miriam, apart, to Kenyon. “What a child, or what a simpleton, he is! I continually find myself treating Donatello as though he were the merest unfledged chick; yet he can claim no such privilege in the light of his tender age, for he is at least—how old should you think him, Hilda?” she asked more aloud.

“Oh, twenty years, perhaps,” replied Hilda, who had attended closely, glancing at Donatello; “but, indeed, I cannot tell; hardly so old, on second thoughts, or possibly older. He has nothing to do with time, but has a look of eternal youth in his face.”

“Eternal youth like his statue form?” Miriam jested. “Although all underwitted people have that look,” she added scornfully in a low tone.

“Donatello possesses certainly the gift of eternal youthfulness, as Hilda suggests,” Kenyon observed, “and judging by the date of this statue, which I am more and more convinced was carved by Praxiteles precisely for him, he must be at least twenty-five centuries old, and looks as young as ever he was. I suspect he was simply made this age.”

“What age have you, Donatello?” Miriam asked in Italian.

“Signorina, I do not know,” he replied from across the Dying Gladiator. “I have only lived since I met you, so no great age.”

“Now, I ask you, what old man of society could have turned such a silly compliment more smartly than he?” Miriam exclaimed. 

“Nature and art at one sometimes,” Kenyon agreed.

“Ah,” Miriam continued, barely having heard him, “what happy ignorance is Donatello’s. Not to know his own age! It is equivalent to being immortal on earth, as the craft of rendering one immortal through art was known to Praxiteles only, it appears. If I could only forget my own age!”

“It is too soon to wish that, Miriam,” Hilda observed; “you are scarcely older than Donatello appears.”

“I should be content, then,” she rejoindered, “to forget one day of all my life.” Then, as quickly as she had spoken it, she seemed to repent of the allusion, and added hastily, “A woman’s days are so tedious that it is a boon to leave even one of them out of the account, is it not so, Hilda?”

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