Chapter 20: The Sculptor's Art
Months now wore away, and Rome received back that large portion of its life-blood which runs in the veins of its foreign and temporary population. English visitors established themselves in the hotels, and in all the sunny suites of apartments, in the streets convenient to the Piazza di Spagna; the English tongue was heard familiarly along the Corso, and English children sported in the Pincian Gardens. The native Romans, on the other hand, like the butterflies and grasshoppers, resigned themselves to the short, sharp misery which winter brings to a people whose arrangements are made almost exclusively with a view to summer. Keeping no fire within-doors, except possibly a spark or two in the kitchen, they crept out of their cheerless houses into the narrow, sunless, sepulchral streets, bringing their firesides along with them, in the shape of little earthen pots, vases, or pipkins, full of lighted charcoal and warm ashes, over which they held their tingling finger-ends. Even in this half-torpid wretchedness, they still seemed to dread a pestilence in the sunshine, and kept on the shady side of the piazzas, as scrupulously as in summer.
The summer had given way almost entirely to the autumn before Miriam and Hilda returned to Rome. Hilda had written to Kenyon of their date when they expected to return, and had promised to visit his studio on the following day. On that appointed day, Kenyon awaited her visit with some anxiety, and his chief assistant on that morning kept him occupied with some sketches and approving some commissions, so as not to allow his anxiety to carve a permanent stroke upon a piece of marble.
It was gone eleven when Hilda arrived. “Hello, Kenyon!” Her natural cheerfulness and her bright voice lit the room, and he bounded across the studio to greet her.
“I see that nothing has changed here in your studio. You are hard at work.”
“I have little else to spend my days on but my work, Hilda. But now that you have returned to Rome, perhaps there shall be also some recreation to go alongside my toil. Come, join me. I hope you are not too fatigued from your journey back?”
“Oh, not at all,” Hilda replied, joining Kenyon in the small sitting room that separated the studio and his sleeping quarters. “We travelled slowly enough, and saw a good deal besides that we had missed on our way north.”
“And Miriam returned with you?” he asked eagerly. There had been some hesitation on that point, and when last she had wrote, Hilda had not been sure whether she might return to the city alone.
“She did. There is nowhere for a young artist of her skill to settle besides Rome, and she is her old, brave self. Our time at the coast worked upon her like a refreshing breeze, until the dust and weight of the last few months had all been blown away.”
“I am glad, Hilda. I am glad. “And there was no word from Donatello after his departure from Florence?” he asked in surprise.
Hilda shifted in her seat. “Well, Kenyon, I suppose there is no harm in telling you, as loathe as I am to introduce another secret between us. He wrote, of course, although I know not what he said. I intercepted the messages while in Florence, with the assistance of the front desk. My friend was ill, you see, and much disturbed by a man with whom she had broken her engagement. Or so I invited them to believe.”
Kenyon nodded. “And when you went on to the coast, you left no forwarding address, and went not to Livorno, as you had first thought. And so the trail was lost!” He added in admiration. “Hilda, you are a marvel. Miriam is lucky to have found such a true friend.”
“She has more than one of those, Kenyon,” Hilda said with some feeling. “I think in a few days, she may be willing to sustain a visit to the Capitol in company, if you wish?”
“Oh, no. Not the Capitol!” Kenyon cried. “Perhaps Villa Borghese? The gardens still have some charm at this time of year, and the view down upon the streets is rather pleasant when one is still getting reacquainted with Rome’s bustle.”
“Quite right, Kenyon. Perhaps the Villa Borghese would be a better choice. You must come and visit me tomorrow, and we will see how things are getting on. But now, what new marvels have you produced over these summer months?”
“My Cleopatra progresses but slowly,” Kenyon confessed, “but I have some other pieces that are coming along rather more smoothly.”
He led Hilda back into the studio and showed her first a small statue of a maiden, stooping to pluck a snowdrop from a grassy verge. “It is too pathetic, I think, to be wholly innocent,” Kenyon remarked, a member of the school of self-criticism.
“No, Kenyon, there is something fine in the figure,” Hilda corrected him. “Maidenhood has a certain power that resists what might otherwise be mere sentiment.” She admired the statue a moment longer and then straightened up. “And what of the new bust, which I think I spy in the corner?”
“Ah. Yes. Come, you must tell me what you make of it,” Kenyon answered hesitantly. Kenyon had, in Monte Beni, begun a clay model of Donatello, which had been sent on after him from Florence. For more than a week, he had left the model concealed in its wooden crate, at which time one of his assistants, perhaps becoming impatient with his master’s hesitance, perhaps simply curious, uncovered it. For a few more days, the bust had been hidden beneath a cloth, as with all Kenyon’s clay models, but finally Kenyon’s own curiosity overcame him. The bust itself kept the sculptor’s thoughts brooding upon his former friend’s personal characteristics and family history a good deal longer, until at least he started anew, seeking to bring the truth of that personality out from its depths and to interpret it, for himself and for all men.
Kenyon had never undertaken a portrait-bust which gave him so much trouble as Donatello’s. There was no especial difficulty in hitting the likeness, at least in the general shape and proportions, and yet the grace and harmony of the features seemed inconsistent with the prominent expression of individuality which Kenyon could not help but apply to them. Working from memory, he had not the advantage of examining carefully the motion of his subject’s muscles, or the characteristic fine detail of his face; and yet, in his mind’s eye there was something more precise and piercing in the expression which he sought to convey. His efforts earned him the admiration of his assistants, and of those few of his fellow artists who visited his studio socially. Arthur had declared it a ‘perfect likeness’, and yet Kenyon did not satisfy himself until he gave up all preconceptions about the character of his subject and allowed himself to work with the clay only in response to that which he immediately recalled. In that way, the expression was perfected, and although when he had concluded he felt it was not so very flattering to his former friend, he felt also that it did justice to the intangible attributes of his soul, and the story of his personal and family histories.
That clay model having been worked into marble by his assistants and perfected after days of careful work by himself, Kenyon now showed it to Hilda without introduction. She looked at it a long while before she turned away from it and met his gaze. “Well, Kenyon. What is there for me to say? It is a masterpiece, you know, and yet not one which I would wish to gaze upon again.”
“You recognise it, then, dear Hilda,” he replied with some over-welling of emotion, sorrowful at having exposed her to an image that could only wound her sensibilities.
“I do, of course. Although a different medium, and a far more complete representation of its subject, it resembles in every vital way my own sketch of the Count of Monte Beni, beneath the Archangel’s foot, which I have long carried with me as a token of the bewilderment and horror that art can yield, that dark shadow of its healing, elevating power!” Hilda spoke with passion, and Kenyon felt that he his sorrow was but a matter of personal ego, and that she herself had a better understanding of that bust’s true message than he himself did.
“So it was that sketch which you bore with you to Florence?” He could not restrain himself from asking the question, and the warm colour of her face answered it for him.
“Well, Kenyon,” Hilda said in a more restrained tone, gathering herself. “You have spent your summer to good effect, I think. I hope that when next I come to visit you, your Cleopatra is nearer to completion.”
“I will work on it all afternoon, Hilda,” Kenyon promised as he followed her to the door. Just then, his eyes alighted upon the envelope that had been long atop the marble mantelpiece, and he exclaimed, “Ah, but wait!”
“Yes, Kenyon?” she answered in surprise, her hand almost on the handle of the door.
“I had almost forgotten it. Perhaps it would be best to entrust this letter now to you, who retains still Miriam’s confidence and warm affections?” He lifted the envelope and held it out to her.
“It is the letter from the priest at the church of Santa Maria de Montserrat?” she asked, turning the envelope about in her hand and confirming her own suspicion with the careful note on its face. “No, Kenyon. I cannot be your intermediary in this regard. It was placed into your hands by Miriam’s correspondent, and you must put it into her hands yourself, I think,” Hilda replied, handing the letter back to him. “I have a feeling that it may repair what remains of the breach between you.”
“You have such a wonderful trust in fate, Hilda.”
“Only a trust in the fair friendship between we three, Kenyon, which I cannot believe set at its end just yet.”
“Then I shall keep my promise and visit you tomorrow, Hilda.”
“Perhaps we shall both come with news of Cleopatra,” she replied with a smile, slipping from the studio with her quiet, careful step.
With a laugh, Kenyon replaced the envelope upon the mantel and returned to his studio. So she had seen that resemblance which the model herself had missed. And so, unveiling that model, he set to work using that same method of holding true in his mind’s eye an image of the person whose essence he wished to capture, and it was not so many days before that clay figure was completed, and his assistants had before them both the figure and its model, should they need further inspiration as they worked their craft.
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