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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 4: Miriam's Studio

The courtyard and staircase of a palace built three hundred years ago are a peculiar feature of modern Rome. Such features hold the interest of the visiting stranger more than many things of which he has heard loftier descriptions, and this was true of those new residents of Rome who turned to Miriam for their small wall decorations as part of the business of occupying their apartments and palazzos. In the common experience, one passes through the grand breadth and height of a squalid entrance-way, and perhaps sees a range of dusky pillars, forming a sort of cloister round the court. In the intervals, from pillar to pillar, lie fragments of antique statues, headless and legless torsos, and busts, pieces of marble and granite that have invariably lost one or two or more of their constituent parts, but that continue to suggest the beauty of the whole and so are look upon kindly in the positions in which they find themselves. Bas-reliefs, the spoil of some far older palace, are set in the surrounding walls, every stone of which has been ravished from the Coliseum, or any other imperial ruin which earlier barbarism had not already levelled with the earth.

In the centre of the court, under the blue Italian sky, with a hundred windows gazing down upon it from all sides, flows a fountain, brimming over from one stone basin to another, at the top a Naiad’s urn, freckled with the faces and mouths of nameless monsters, grotesque and artificial from the very first, when Bernini produced them. The patches of moss, tufts of grass, trailing maiden-hair, and all sorts of verdant weeds that thrive in the cracks and crevices of moist marble speak to us of Nature’s subtle overtaking of that fixture, cherishing it as kindly as if it were a woodland spring, its  pleasant murmur and gurgles akin to those tinkling sounds from any tiny waterfall in the forest, but here gaining a delicious pathos from the stately echoes that reverberate their natural language. So the fountain is not altogether glad, after its three centuries of song!

In an angle of that quiet, secluded courtyard, a pillared doorway yields access to the staircase, with its spacious breadth of low marble steps, up which, in former times, have gone the princes and cardinals of the great Roman family who built this palace. Or they have come down, with still grander and loftier mien, on their way to the Vatican or the Quirinal, there to put off their scarlet hats in exchange for the triple crown. But, all those illustrious personages have since gone down their hereditary staircase for the last time, leaving it to as a thoroughfare for ambassadors, English noblemen, American millionnaires, artists—all of whom find such gilded and marble-panelled saloons as their pomp and luxury demand, or such homely garrets as their necessity can pay for, within this one multifarious abode. Only, in not a single nook of the palace (built for splendour, and the accommodation of a vast retinue, but with no vision of a happy fireside or any mode of domestic enjoyment) does the humblest or the haughtiest occupant find comfort.

Up such a staircase, on the morning after the scene at the sculpture gallery, trod the quiet but measured footsteps of that sculptor who never failed to admire the bas-reliefs and relics in the courtyard below. In his native town in England there were too such admirable ruins, repurposed for new centuries, and in Rome he felt at home amongst its relics. He ascended from story to story, past doorways set in rich frames of finely—or sometimes commonly—sculptured marble. Unwearied, he continued until the glories of the first piano and the elegance of the middle heights were left behind for an Alpine region, stark and cold in aspect, although so close to the Italian sun. He paused before an oaken door, on which was pinned a card, bearing the name of Miriam Schaefer, artist in oils. 

Here, Kenyon knocked, and the door immediately fell ajar, as though it anticipated him. Stepping through the studio’s small anteroom, he found himself in Miriam’s workroom, a long room with large windows at both ends. The room had the customary aspect of a painter’s studio, a delightful spot that seemed hardly to belong to the real world, but rather to be the outward type of a poet’s haunted imagination. Glimpses, sketches, and half-developed hints of beings and objects ranged the walls and one of the two work tables, overlapping with one another in a manner reminiscent of the tapestries of the great British galleries. The windows were half-closed with shutters, leaving the far side of the room with a surfeit of light that could not seem to breach an invisible divide along the length of the room.

The artist was not just then at her easel, but was busied with the work of preparing a canvas. There was something extremely pleasant in the preparation of the painter’s materials that always soothed Kenyon, so gentle and careful as it was. The process differed greatly from the acquisition of a piece of marble, first from the ground, and then from a large segment, through brute mechanical means. The painter’s attention to her canvas kept her in contact with the small, familiar, gentle interests of life, the continually operating influences of which do so much for the health of one’s character and the nurturing of human sympathy. 

Miriam’s hands fell still. “Come in, Kenyon. I am just in the middle of this, but you won’t mind if I work while we talk, will you?”

“Not at all, Miriam. It does me good to watch the artistic procedures of another! Although it seems rather a challenge today. Why have you made your studio so shadowy?”

“Ah, there is little need for good strong light for work such as this, Kenyon. And I am experimenting with a set of lighting arrangements that might serve for the final touches to my portrait of our friend of that cheerfuller race, Donatello.”

Kenyon had by now found a seat—the chair in front of Miriam’s easel where portrait subjects say—and withdrew his hands from his velvet gloves, green as the dense forests of the north of Italy, folding them in his lap. He said nothing for a moment. “Your species of artists make very pretty pictures sometimes with artfully arranged lights and shadows. Will you be rendering Donatello in the posture of his marble ancestor?”

“Look for yourself, Kenyon. The painting is almost finished and stands on the easel!” Miriam spoke with a casual but mocking laughter in her voice. She stood toward the end of the room at her work-table, and the unobscured light that came through the window, on the easel side of the room, left her features darkened and her hair illuminated with a soft halo of rustic orange, the warm, rich colour produced by dark hair when subjected to close examination under the light.

The painter left his gloves in the seat behind him and stepped around the room, into that lighted portion, positioning himself a metre or so away from the mounted canvas, the better to appreciate its full form. Approximately three feet high tall, the portrait showed at half-size the figure of Donatello, dressed in the rustic costume of an Italian peasant of the previous century, seated at a wooden table, surrounded by the usual accoutrements and scenery of such a figure. The fine details of the figure’s features were still to be completed, but the form was suggestive of a fascinating character.

“Dear lady, why do you make it so shadowy?” 

Donatello had entered through the still-ajar door and stood on the threshold of the studio’s antechamber with a look of hesitation. 

“Hullo, Donatello,” Kenyon exclaimed, stepping aside from the easel. 

“It is an experiment, Donatello, for the final moments of preparing your image. I will be only a minute or two more with this canvas, and then we can begin again.”

“Dear Kenyon, hello.” Donatello stepped forward towards the lighted portion of the room and met Kenyon in the intermediate region of dusk or dawn with a quick shake of the hand.

“The portrait is an impressive likeness, Donatello. Miriam has captured your gentle spirit as well as your good looks.”

Donatello, reminded of the purpose of his visit, moved towards the model’s chair, still occupied by Kenyon’s green gloves. He took them up and settled himself in the position of the painted figure, Kenyon’s gloves momentarily in his lap.  

“Kenyon, if you would stay, you must take your gloves. They are far too fashionable for my eighteenth-century peasant. You may liberate the divan that is currently doing service as a prop for some of my unframed trifles,” Miriam said loftily, gesturing towards a corner of the studio.

“Let me help you.” Donatello sprang up from his chair again with a cheerful eagerness to prove of use. “It is but the work of a moment, Miriam,” he added before his painter could object to his dereliction of the model’s first duty. He laid hold of a tall, thin canvas, which presented its back to him, and placed it to the side. It half-revealed, in the shadows, a woman with long dark hair, who threw up her arms with a wild gesture of tragic despair and appeared to beckon the spectator into the darkness behind her. 

Donatello stared for a moment at this new revelation. “Do not be afraid,” said Kenyon, smiling to see him peering doubtfully at this abandoned work. “She means you no mischief.” 

“Indeed, She is a lady of exceedingly pliable disposition; now a figure of some classical myth, now a charming object of some romantic quest; yet all for show. That is the true end of her being, although she pretends to assume the most varied duties and perform many parts in life. Really the poor puppet has nothing on earth to do.”

“How it changes her aspect,” exclaimed Donatello, “to know that she is but a jointed figure! When my eyes first fell upon her, I thought her arms moved, as if beckoning me to help her in some direful peril.”

“Are you often troubled with such sinister freaks of fancy?” asked Miriam, gesturing Donatello gently back towards the model’s chair. 

“I should not have supposed it of you, Donatello,” Kenyon remarked, retreating to the excavated divan. 

“To tell you the truth, dearest friends, I am apt to be fearful in old, gloomy houses, and in the dark,” answered the young Italian. “I love no dusky corners, except those of the grotto or among the thick, green leaves of an arbor, or in some nook of the woods. I know many in the neighbourhood of my home, and even there, if a stray sunbeam steal in, the shadow is all the better for its cheerful gleam.”

“Yes; you are a Faun, indeed,” said the sculptor, laughing at the remembrance of the scene of a few weeks before. 

“Ah, but the world is sadly changed nowadays; grievously changed, poor Donatello, since those happy times when your race used to dwell in the Arcadian woods, playing hide and seek with the nymphs in your grottos and nooks. You have reappeared on earth some centuries too late,” Miriam remarked warningly.

“Signorina, I am glad to have my lifetime while you live, and where you are; be it in cities or fields, I would fain be there too.”

Miriam was silent a moment, scrutinising her canvas for the place to make the first of the day’s marks. “I wonder whether I ought to allow you to speak in this way,” she said, after choosing her place carefully.

“Many young women would think it behooved them to be offended by such talk, Donatello,” Kenyon remarked from his position at the side of the room. “Hilda would never let you speak so, I dare say.”

“But he is a mere boy,” Miriam added, aside, her eyes fixed upon her work.

“A simply boy, putting your boyish heart to the proof of the first woman whom he has chanced to meet. Is that you, Donatello?” Kenyon asked with a gentle smile that was lost on Donatello, obscured in the gloom of the room’s darker side. “If yonder lay-figure had had the luck to meet you first,” he added, gesturing to the portrait at the side against the wall, “she would have smitten you as deeply, perhaps?”

“Kenyon, you tease me, and Miriam as well,” Donatello replied earnestly. 

“Not in the least!” Kenyon answered. “I am quite serious, Donatello.”

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