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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 11: The Church of the Capuchins

The Church at which our young friends were to meet stands modestly to the side of Piazza Barberini. That square had lost, not so very long ago, its antique obelisk, now accommodated by the Medicis, but retains still its Bernini. It was at the lip of that statue that Miriam, directing her steps towards the church rather earlier than the appointed time, met with Kenyon, who held his hands beneath the water, as though to refresh himself. They exchanged morning greetings as Miriam jointed him at the fountain’s edge and sunk her own hands into the cooling waters.

“We may have some wait, this morning, for our dear Hilda. It was late when we concluded our midnight ramble, but she promised us a sketch, and I have never known her not fulfil a promise,” Miriam remarked as she withdrew her hands from the pool and dried them gently with a handkerchief. “I have remembered mine, and it may be that those sketches will dissuade you of your conviction that Reni saw a face not unlike one that haunts some of us in these times.”

“Haunts more of us than perhaps you may imagine,” Kenyon replied, withdrawing his hands also and turning his back upon the fountain.

“Oh, poor Donatello! I did not wish for him to be troubled by my supplicant, and sought to keep that spectre’s dark murmurings as my own burden. You must forgive me for allowing the two to meet again, Kenyon. I would not have had it so, for the world.” Miriam’s passionate outburst moved the sculptor, and he placed a gentle hand on her arm.

“Of course, Miriam. You could not know that that man would continue to follow you, or Donatello meet him then. Show me the sketches, and let me test my memory.”

Miriam and Kenyon were disputing some general feature of the model’s face when they were joined by Hilda, dressed in a fresh white that gleamed in the open sunshine of the piazza. “I see you have not forgotten the dispute that led to our morning visit,” she remarked cheerfully. “I have brought a pencil sketch, but fear that it may have become blurred in my memory, and cannot attest to its accuracy.”

“Hilda, your skill is unparalleled. I am sure you have captured the piece exactly,” Miriam replied generously, but with a glance at the sketch, Kenyon recognised the cause of Hilda’s uncertainty and turned away his face towards the church. “Kenyon, do you not think so?”

Kenyon took a few paces towards the church, avoiding both women’s gaze. “It is a very moving drawing. I should like to compare it with the painted original inside. I wonder where Donatello is!”

“I’m sure he will be here soon, Kenyon. Hilda, may I keep this drawing with my own?” Miriam asked.

Hilda frowned. “I am not sure it is my best work, Miriam. I should rather try again this afternoon, and let you have that. May I?”

“Well, of course. You alone know the true perfection of which you are capable!” Miriam replied gaily. There was a sense of lightness about her that morning, and although she had slept little and awoken early, she felt refreshed, as though the crisis of the moonlit walk had purged her of some ailment.

“Ah, there is Donatello. Friend!” Kenyon called out and strode away across the piazza towards the church, which Donatello was just then approaching. “You seem out of spirits, dear Donatello,” Kenyon said in a low voice as he came upon Donatello and they stopped at the corner of the piazza, awaiting Hilda and Miriam. He looked attentively at the young Italian, and was struck by the rapidity at which the vibrancy of animal spirit had drained from his face and form. No longer did the young man seem always upon the point of a gentle gambol, but stood quite perfectly still, like a sculpture poorly executed, and so conscious of its own ponderous weight. “I hope that the ailment that took you home prematurely yesterday evening is not serious,” Kenyon said seriously.

“It is nothing, Kenyon,” Donatello said quietly. “Miriam, Hilda, ciao.”

“Good morning, Donatello. I hope that you feel well again?”

“Do not suggest illness where none is present, Hilda, Kenyon! Dear Donatello looks as sweet today as ever he did, and if he finds himself drawing melancholy breaths such as we ordinary folk, then it will be our duty to remove him swiftly from Rome,” Miriam said brightly, taking Donatello’s arm.

“Yes, I am well again, thank you, Hilda.” Donatello made a little bow with his head. “I would not have missed this rendezvous. Shall we go in?”

The four moved swiftly up the stairs and pushed aside the curtain that obscured the doorway. The dusky chapels were more dimly lit than usual, but hallowed tapers flickered at each altar. That church had the especial stillness that seems to pervade all true Italian churches, be they ever so well used. There were a certain number of worshippers now, arrayed in various postures across the benches, or knelt in chapels with particular prayers at hand. In the centre of the nave stood an elevated bier, upon which lay what seemed to be a figure of a dead monk, with a cunningly wrought waxen face, or perhaps an actual body. Three tall candles burnt on each side, with one at the head and one at the foot of the bier, and their illumination both drew the eye and prevented greater scrutiny from the dimness of the church’s surrounds.

“I must look more closely at that figure before we leave,” Kenyon remarked. “In death, the human form has a certain solidity that can teach a sculptor much about enlivening stone.”

“I can well image,” Hilda replied. “As morbid as it is, observing the dead is an honourable artistic pastime, and has taught our greatest artists more than observing the living.”

“Let us look at Guido’s picture first,” Miriam said. The object of their trip had become one of fascination for her, and she wished to place Hilda’s copy against Guido’s painting and observe each variation as she reassured herself that she was not haunted by the Devil that great artist had imagined, but merely flesh and blood and bone. They turned into the first chapel to the right, and found the youthful Archangel with his foot upon the head of his defeated adversary. “What an expression of heavenly severity in the Archangel’s face!” Hilda sighed. She had sat before the picture many times, but had never made her own copy. She regretted now that she had not. It might have guided her hand in the production of that impromptu sketch which threatened to betray her and Kenyon both.

“It is an expression both of pain and trouble, and of disgust at being brought into contact with sin, and yet Michael is a tranquil as a celestial being might be,” Miriam remarked. “Donatello, see here the sketch that Hilda has made, copying out the Guido that we saw last night. Do you not think it captures the essence of that drawing completely? And it shows, I think, that there is no great resemblance between the slain demon and the model of my own sketches.”

After such an introduction, Hilda could not but hand over the sketch to Donatello for him to see. Free of the overmarkings of the original, the lines of the intended forms were clear. Hilda had indeed captured the distinctions of Guido’s sketch, the different angle of the demon’s face, the altered grip of the Archangel upon the sword. And it was not Miriam’s ghost whose face that demon bore; it was his own.

Donatello started a little and lifted his eyes to the American copyist, who kept her gaze fixed upwards at the painting. After a moment, Hilda spoke, eyes still lifted. “It is, of course, the work of a moment, Donatello. It was a struggle to capture the outline of the intended picture when it was so heavily obscured. I will destroy this one and try again.”

“Signorina, it is most true in its message. Do not destroy it,” Donatello warned, holding the page tightly. “And that disgust which is upon the angel’s face is very proper!” Donatello said, dropping Miriam’s arm abruptly as he moved a step towards the painting. He seemed to scrutinise the demon’s face for a moment, and then said quietly, in Italian, “It is not the model,” shaking his head.

“The face is more obscure than in the sketch we saw last night,” Kenyon said, “but it bears the same peaked chin.”

“I think perhaps the sketch was rather more obscure than we saw,” Hilda remarked. She held her own drawing closer to her as she spoke. “And spoke rather more of the struggle in the Archangel’s figure than this painting does. It is far superior, I think, to the sketch we saw last night, or my own.”

“Hilda, let me compare the two,” Miriam asked, holding out her hand. Reluctantly, unable to refuse, Hilda passed her that piece and stepped back to view the Guido as a whole.

Miriam held Hilda’s sketch up to the light of the tapers and looked back and forth between pencil and oil. After a moment, she said, “Yes, the figure of your sketch, which captures the drawing of the master so completely, is not my model, and the painting is even less alike to him.” She knelt down to remove a piece from her own portfolio. “See here, the shape of the face and rounding of the skull differs entirely. But the sketch has one advantage, as you say, Hilda. It speaks of the struggle of the Archangel to defeat his foe, with feathers askew and his robes rent.”

“You are quite right, Miriam,” Kenyon said. “Here, let me see that drawing once more.” He took from her Hilda’s sketch and made a show of inspecting it closely. “What the original sketch has in authenticity of struggle, this final representation has in glorious serenity. That unreality is a comfort. A picture of real conflict might too easily be resolved the other way, with that fiery demon stood tall and the young angel beneath his cloven hoof.”

All this while, Donatello had been ill at ease, shifting from one foot to another, and now he announced his intention to peruse the sights of the other chapels, and perhaps to pray at one, St Raphael, if he could be found.

“Yes, let us seek out those other archangels, if we may, Donatello,” Miriam said enthusiastically, retaking his arm. As she and Donatello passed back out into the nave, Hilda put out a hand to Kenyon.

“It is true, is it not, Kenyon? You see it too?”

“I do, Hilda. I do,” he replied in hushed tones. He had not been sure whether or not she had herself recognised the resemblance between the demon and their friend the Faun, as she had brought that sketch with her to show them with apparent innocence.

Hilda took back the drawing from him with a grimace. “It is Donatello’s own face that I have drawn! And crushed it into the ground beneath an angel’s foot!” she cried.

“Hush, Hilda,” he warned. “That likeness has escaped Miriam’s sight, and I would that it remain so concealed. The blame is not yours. Products of imagination draw unconsciously upon the images and impressions that we gather during our waking hours, and Donatello’s grappling with the spectre from the catacombs is an impression that would remain in the uppermost of a pure mind such as your own for many days afterwards.”

“Kenyon, I know not what I saw upon the crest of that dark hill, except that it has led me to produce such a picture of a dear young friend whose innocence and generous spirit I had never yet questioned.” Hilda buried her face in her hands, letting the picture fall to the floor.

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