Chapter 6: The Dovecote
Kenyon’s violent reaction to the model’s appearance was matched only by the model’s own displeasure. With a bow of his head, the man muttered, “Signorina, Signore,” and pulled his Capuchin habit more closely around him, turning from them and moving towards the Via del Corso with a grimace.
Kenyon stood for a moment on the threshold, glaring and tugging impatiently at his gloves, as though he wished to remove them but would not. “You really might think of reporting his persistent hounding of you, Miriam,” he said in a peevish tone as they took to the street together and turned in the opposite direction, towards the river.
“I am not so sure that to do so would produce much good, Kenyon.” Miriam’s face began to regain its cover as the walked. “There are many monks, and beggars, and models throughout the city, with their own persistent habits.”
Together, in silence, Kenyon and Miriam made their way through the intricate inner workings of the city, past the grand Augustine mausoleum, and through a small piazza that was scarcely more than a widening of a street. They passed a station for French soldiers, with a sentinel pacing his short beat at the front, and Kenyon glanced behind to ascertain whether the model had sought to fool them and acquired their trail without them noticing. The street seemed free of that shadow, and the two passed on and entered a larger square, where they fell into step with other pedestrians moving towards the grand length of Piazza Navona.
Passing Poseidon in a moment of triumph, Miriam said, “Your pearl-diver is just as well-shaped to his watery environs as the God himself.” Kenyon gave a short laugh and directed them both through the crowd, avoiding Fiumi on that visit and pressing on towards Hilda’s studio. The mansion in which she had her apartment was distinguished by a feature uncommon to the architecture of Rome’s edifices, a medieval tower, square and watchful, upon which stood at some height a shrine of the Virgin, such as otherwise occupy the street corners of Rome. That shrine was lit from above by a lamp that was kept burning at all hours, perhaps to assist the soldiers who once occupied that tower’s heights, or to guide home the young maidens who lived within the mansion’s walls, just as Hilda now did.
As they came to the foot of the tower and paused, instinctively, to admire its height and odd adornments, a window above was thrust ajar, opening in the middle, on loud hinges. A fair arm, clothed in white, showed itself at the aperture for a moment, pulling back the white curtain that fluttered into the air as though a dove wishing to be free. Miriam and Kenyon passed beneath the deep portal of the palace, and turning began to mount the many flights of stairs that led into the tower that they had just been admiring. The low hum and sharp intercessions grew faint within its walls. Miriam and Kenyon reached the top in friendly silence, and came up into a little entry with a single doorway. Kenyon knocked, but rather as an announcement of their arrival than as an inquiry into whether the studio’s occupant was receiving visitors. He lifted the latch and allowed Miriam over the threshold.
“We have come to share your sweet, high air, Hilda,” Kenyon called out.
“There is plenty to share, dear Kenyon, Miriam. The air exhilarates my spirits.” Hilda was an example of the freedom of life which a female artist might enjoy in Rome, dwelling alone in her tower and doing as she liked without a suspicion or shadow upon her. An orphan, without near relatives, and possessed of little by way of property or prospects, she employed to its best advantage what had been pronounced by connoisseurs in her own country as a decided genius for pictorial art. In her schooldays, she had produced sketches that were seized upon by men of taste, scenes of a delicate nature, lacking the precision of one more acquainted with life, but softly traced with deep feeling and fancy. Years of training and experience of life in her native America might have given Hilda a darker and more forceful touch, but Hilda’s gentle courage had brought her instead to Italy. Across the civilised world, the customs of artistic life bestow a certain liberty upon the female sex, but nowhere with less exception than in Rome, where purity of heart and life assert themselves and are their own proof, if any were needed. It was here that Hilda felt, with a certain childlike innocence, that pictures might glow most brightly, and statues attain their highest grace, and it was here that she chose to ply her art. She possessed now a good number of friends in Rome, and in the coterie of artists was known as Hilda the Dove, for her fair hair and bravery in wearing always white, no matter the deep colours with which she worked.
“I have always wondered whether it falls to you to tend the dear little shrine that shines out its light no matter the strength of the sun or depth of the darkness, Hilda. Do you?” Kenyon asked.
Hilda laughed. “No, Kenyon. What a fancy. The clavigera lives below, and comes up to the window at the top of the staircase every morning to trim the wick and refill the oil. I think she has lived here and tended it since before any of us were on this earth.”
“Rome is full of such eternal creatures. If you remain here, Hilda, perhaps the job will one day fall to you as an inheritance,” Miriam teased her friend gently. “On what have you been working, dear Hilda, while I detained your day’s companion talking of pearls and divers?”
“You have been at Kenyon’s studio. Is not the pearl-diver the most dear of all his pieces? The tragic death in search of beauty moves me so,” Hilda owned, as she moved aside to let Miriam peruse her worktable.
Since her arrival in Rome, Hilda seemed to have slowly lost the impulse of original design. She had abandoned, without any clear moment of decision, the possibility of transmitting forms and hues outwith her own mind and had become instead, as Kenyon described her, a copyist. She attended to the galleries of the Borghese, Corsini, and Sciarra, the Pinacotheca of the Vatican, and set her easel up before many a picture by Raphael, Guido, and the devout painters of those who preceded them. As she had grown familiar with the many miracles of art that lurk in the galleries of Rome, she had fallen worshipfully in love with the forms and hues of old. Her deep and sensitive faculty of appreciation was too great, her gift of discernment of an unusual degree; she felt through the pictures that she found, not by any intellectual exertion, but by her strength of spirit, and she followed when her sympathy led her to the masters and their works. The work of the painter is to paint things as they seem to be, not as they are; but the work of the copyist, having set upon a painter worthy of the name, may achieve both. Worshipping those artists’ past achievements too deeply, she was too loyal and humble in their presence to think of enrolling herself in their society, but instead sought to recreate the miracles that they had once achieved, to diffuse those beauties wider than they had yet been seen. While others became skilled in the art of one master, Guido machines or Raphaelites, Hilda absorbed herself in each, mastering genius wheresoever she found it.
“I am pleased you both like it so, although I have higher hopes for my newest work, once she is completed,” Kenyon replied.
“Yes, your Cleopatra will be very fine, Kenyon, although perhaps less pathetic. What is this, Hilda?” Miriam inquired, gesturing to a picture that remained on the easel.
“Ah! I wanted both your opinions of it. I hope you might tell me what it is.”
Kenyon joined Miriam before the easel. The picture represented simply a female head. The face was youthful, girlish, and beautiful, draped in white, beneath which covering showed a lock or two of rich auburn hair, suggestive of a hidden luxuriance. The eyes were warm and brown, and met those of the spectator, although there was a little redness about them to suggest an overflow of emotion only recently past.
“I recognise it immediately, Hilda, and if you succeed in finishing it as beautifully as you have begun it, it will be the greatest miracle you have yet achieved,” Miriam observed, having indeed recognised the picture at first glance.
“Yes, Hilda, Miriam is quite right. You have done nothing else so wonderful as this. The whole face is beautifully quiet, without a hint of disturbance in any of the features, as perfectly reposed as in a block of marble. The picture conveys its sense of a lack of cheer completely, as a whole, without any one component drawing attention to itself from exaggerated misery.” Kenyon moved closer to the picture to examine its brushwork, the means by which Hilda had created the solid luminescence of marble without that material’s assistance.
“It is the saddest picture ever conceived,” Miriam exclaimed. “And yet it fills me with wonder and cheer at your accomplishments. But tell us, by what secret interest or connection have you obtained leave to copy Guido’s Beatrice Cenci? The impossibility of getting a genuine copy has long filled picture shops with gay, coquettish, or aggrieved Beatrices, without a true one amongst them, but thanks to this unexampled favour you may show them all their errors!”
“There is no great favour from the Prince Barberini. I, like all our fellow artists, am forbidden to set up an easel before it, but I have sat before the picture, day after day, and absorb its colours and form into my very heart, where I believe it is now photographed and will remain for life. It is a sad face, perhaps, to keep so close to one’s heart, but what is so very beautiful can never be quite a pain.”
“Quite right, Hilda,” Miriam replied with a sad smile, knowing too well the sort of beautiful pain that Hilda described. She contemplated Hilda’s work with great interest.
“Congratulations on producing a photograph so true to life,” Kenyon repeated, holding his hand out to shake Hilda’s in a gesture that was only half teasing. “Everywhere we see cartoons, cameos, engravings, even oils, pretending to be a Beatrice, but you have avoided all the modes of fantastic mistake and struck upon the very form that can echo Guido’s gracious image. She has slept in her dungeon and, awoken, prepares to ascend the scaffold.”
This praise of the life-like qualities of her art, Hilda received with pleasured equanimity. The praise was her own, but also of the master whose work she too adored, and so it neither stimulated her pride nor piqued her humility. “And yet I still cannot interpret into words what the sensation is that gives the picture its mysterious force. I am deeply sensible of the influence, but cannot lay my hands upon it. Can you, Miriam?”
“It eludes me too, Hilda, and so it should. I have spent far less time with her than you, with your dedication to this painting.”
“While I was painting her, I fancied that she were trying to escape my gaze, to keep herself solitary forever. Even when our eyes meet hers, there is such a distance between us, and we cannot take a single step to help or comfort her.”
“Nor does she ask us to,” Kenyon remarked. “She is the perfect model of the knowing indifference that figures in art who have suffered greatly seem to bear. They know they are beyond both our reach and our aid.”
Hilda laughed. “You are a little cynical, Kenyon. She does not rise above her suffering, but sinless, acknowledges the hopelessness of her case.”
“You deem her sinless?” Miriam asked. “It is not so plain to me that she is so. Does not Beatrice’s own conscience seem to charge her with some evil doing, and her strange and sad gaze convey her knowledge of forgiveness that will forever be withheld?”
“It is her black sorrow, rather than her black sin, which I see oppressing her so,” Hilda replied.
“But do you feel that there was really no sin in the deed for which she suffered?” Kenyon interposed.
At this reminder of the history of Beatrice, Hilda gave a shudder. “Yes, yes. I was thinking only of her as the picture seems to reveal her personality.” She shook her head as though to clear an image from it. “It was a terrible crime, but she feels it to be so. Her doom is just, and yet all the more sorrowful for it.”
“Hilda, Kenyon, your judgments are too severe, although the seem all made of gentle mercy. Beatrice’s sin may have been no sin at all, but the best virtue possible in the circumstances. Must the sins of the father, Francesco, be forced upon his children thus? If she viewed that sin as her own, it may have been only because her nature was too feeble to reject the fate imposed upon her. Ah, if I could only sit and absorb her personality as you have done, Hilda, or could clasp Beatrice’s ghost upon the bridge and draw it into myself! I would give anything to know whether she thought herself innocent.”
As Miriam spoke, passionately, both to her friends and to the picture on its easel, Hilda looked from the picture to her face and observed the sympathy between their two expressions, as though Miriam’s wish had, with a struggle, penetrated poor Beatrice’s mystery, and in doing so had forgotten its own purpose.
“Oh, Miriam, do not wonder so. Leave Beatrice to me in future!” Hilda kissed her friend gently and drew her friend away from the easel. “Kenyon was to accompany me to see the Guido once again, but perhaps you ought not to join us if it will worry you so, Miriam!” It was Hilda’s usual practice to haunt the galleries till dusk, unaware of the passage of time, always with the light of the Virgin’s shrine to follow homewards, but happy were those whom she chose to be her companions on such voyages, as they saw the art treasures of Rome in a new light in her company, her silent sympathy with pictures endowing one with a second-sight that revealed the depth and delicacy of one’s own perceptions, unachievable outside her presence. Such visions were a blessing, but also a danger, as Miriam felt now.
“Ah, Hilda,” Miriam replied, squeezing her friend’s hand in hers. “You are quite right, and I must attend to a prior engagement with our other dear friend, the Faun, whose pleasure it is to be out of doors than in Rome’s galleries and darkened halls.”
“Let us walk with you a little way, then, Miriam, on your way.”
“I would like that, Hilda.”
A few moments later, the two women made their way arm in arm down the many stairs, with Kenyon following close behind. He was relieved to find that, when they reached the street, Miriam’s model had not reappeared to follow her.
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