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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 9: The Demon

The following evening, there was a gathering of artists in the faded but palatial apartments of an eminent member of the English aesthetic body, with a number of their American brethren and a sprinkling of those intrepid tourists who lingered in Rome past Holy Week. Kenyon, Miriam and Hilda were all three present, and with them Donatello, whose life was so far turned from its natural bent that he followed his beloved painter wherever he could gain admittance, as at such weekly receptions at which the foreign residents of Rome encounter one another with little ceremony and occasional disinterest. In Rome, as in few other places, artists find themselves in force, and so create a congenial atmosphere for one another when they might.

The company included several men and women of whom the world has heard, and others whom, beyond all question, it ought to know. One sculptor, an Irishman and a Pagan idealist, possessed the capability of doing beautiful things, had spent his life in making Venuses, Cupids, and a swathe of other marble progeny. A painter, an Englishwoman, whose delicacy of touch produced scenes from the Campagna that exceeded the beauty of Nature herself. And yet, amongst the throng, were sculptors and painters of equal skill and lesser renown, awaiting a benefactor or patron who might reveal to the world their specific capability or delicacy. Yet they spoke of their business, very much as other men talk of politics, cotton or sugar, with a practical sensibility that denied such distinctions, and illuminated their conversation with something akin to the ideal, and a cheerful and airy gossip filled such affairs. This good effect was much assisted by the host’s curious little treasures of art, arranged with care upon the tables and in the cabinets that filled the saloon. Bits of antiquity that had been yielded up by the soil of Rome, seals, gems, small figures of bronze, marble, or turquoise, were arrayed as though in the museum of a virtuoso. These pieces drew the careful attention of Donatello, who when not at Miriam’s side moved around the room, innocently intrigued. As one of the few in attendance whose life was not given over to the arts, his enjoyment of these and the host’s large portfolio of old drawings was a simple one, untouched by intellectual questions of technique or provenance. In the judgment of several connoisseurs, Raphael’s own hand had communicated its magnetism to not a few of those sketches, but to Donatello they were merely charming forms and pleasant scenes on which to gaze.

“I am glad that Donatello does not find these gatherings too tedious,” Kenyon said as an aside to Miriam, watching Donatello at the other side of one of the broad tables on which were lain the host’s many treasures. “If I were not a sculptor, I am not sure I would find so much pleasure in the affair.”

“You are so unpoetical, Kenyon. Would you not be capable of appreciating these sketches if you were unable to make any of your own?”

“I most certainly should, but not each and every week.”

“You have learnt nothing from your lesson today with kind Hilda, then?” Miriam asked, laughing.

“I fear he did not, Miriam!” Hilda replied, joining her two friends. She had been admiring a sketch that, if genuine, was in the hand of Leonardo. “It is not in the sculptor’s nature to observe too closely that which is before him. His task instead is to free that which already exists. It is in its way both more visionary and more concrete.”

“I hope that I shall never be reduced to working in concrete, Hilda! But I did learn much from your lesson today.”

“I am glad, Kenyon.”

“What is it that Donatello admires so, do you think?” Miriam enquired, tilting her head so as to see around the tall and effusive display of flowers that served as a centre piece on this and all of the other tables. The carnations were still but opening to their full spread, but the greenery arrayed around them served well enough to partition guests from one another while sharing a table.

“Donatello!” Kenyon called out, moving around the table. “What have you here?”

“A puzzle. I know less about these things than you, my friends, and cannot quite make it out, but there is something in it that strikes me as unpleasantly familiar.” He drew their attention to a blurred scrawl in which pencil-marks seemed to move over one another, dancing before one’s eyes in a way that it was almost hopeless to decipher. Miriam and Hilda furrowed their brows, tilting their heads closer to the sketch and inwardly cursing the light. Kenyon, with his sculptor’s skill for discerning that which waits to emerge, saw immediately what eluded the others.

“It is a very slight drawing, but one can make out distinctly here and here the wings of a figure, and with those points fixed in one’s eye, a drawn sword and a dragon beneath, prostrate at this winged figure’s feet.”

“Quite so, Kenyon!” Hilda praised his acuity generously. “I see it now. Ah yes. It may even be Guido’s original sketch for the Archangel in the Church of the Cappuccini.”

“Yes, the composition is at one with that picture,” Kenyon agreed. “Your extensive knowledge of the art of Rome does not deceive you, Hilda.”

“I sometimes fancy that Rome may crowd everything else out of my heart!” she remarked with a laugh. It was true that she struggled sometimes to recall the aesthetic environs of her upbringing, so full was her memory of the paintings, architecture, and sculpture of Italy.

“But it is not quite the same. Here that demon has an upturned face,” Miriam said bitterly, pointing to the page before them. “His vindictive scowl disgusts the Archangel, who turns away, and no wonder, with the daintiness of his character as Guido represents him.”

Hilda leant down to look more closely at the picture. “Yes, the faces differ from the finished picture. Here, in the face of the dragon, is confirmation that, as Guido affirmed, the resemblance to Cardinal Pamphili was but casual. This is the face as first conceived, more energetic and spirited.”

“It strikes me that I have seen it somewhere before!” Kenyon suddenly muttered. He took the sketch up in his hand.

“It is the face of your follower, Miriam!” Donatello exclaimed with a frown full of disgust and bitterness now that he had identified the cause of the unpleasant impression that the indecipherable sketch had made upon him. He took a step back from the table.

“I do not acknowledge the resemblance. I have drawn the face twenty times, and I think that you will own that I may be the best judge,” Miriam interjected.

“But that familiarity may cloud your impression of this imperfect sketch, as your own so completely capture the man,” Kenyon reasoned.

“I am not sure that I own that confusion which you attribute to me, Kenyon,” she replied coolly.

“It seems to me,” Hilda began, taking a different tack, “that there are many other little changes made by Guido—if indeed this is his hand—during the final act of painting. I shall tonight make a quick sketch of this decayed piece, and tomorrow I shall take it to the Church and critically examine the picture itself.”

“I should like to join you, Hilda.”

“And I too,” Miriam replied. “Be sure to do full justice to the faces in this sketch, to better help settle our disagreements. I shall bring a collection of my sketches too, and we may settle the superstition that Donatello and Kenyon have.”

It was now a little past ten o’clock. Those of the company who had been stood in the balcony returned to the saloon to propose a walk through the streets, as the moonlight was so vivid as to give a luminescent splendour to the city’s most imposing ruins. The scheme spoke to Kenyon’s imagination, and with a little urging, Donatello was encouraged to go with the other three, although nighttime walks across the city were by no means a pleasure of his. They set forth with a few others of the younger portion of the company. The sky was full of light, which bore a delicate scarlet lustre, as it seemed to some, or at least a richer tinge than the cool pale moonlight of other skies, as the other part of the company was willing to admit.

The party arranged itself according to natural affinities. Donatello offered his arm to Miriam with a sceptical look at the sky above him, and she accepted with a wry smile. “What a melancholy was in that look, Donatello. You are becoming dreary here in Rome and would be wise to return to your Tuscan vineyards before that change is made permanent!”

“I shall remain in Rome and brave its dreariness so long as you choose, kind lady,” that sad Faun replied with a little bow, while remaining arm-locked-in-arm with Miriam.

“You may despair of that resolution before too long, Donatello. The city and my company do not do justice to your Sylvan nature.”

Kenyon offered his arm to Hilda as they listened to their friends’ glum little talk, and so they set forth. The group had travelled but a few paces when the narrow street widened into a piazza, followed by another, on the side of which was the Trevi whose murmur so drew the crowds during the hot day.

“How pleasant it is at night,” Hilda murmured. She disliked the bustle of Rome when the number of travellers was at its peak, but took pleasure in the streets and their hidden treasures during the cool evenings when others had repaired to dine and drink. The water sported alone in the moonshine, and the party descended the steps to meet it. Some took sips of water from the hollows of their hands. There was a still quiet as they each admired a certain corner of the fountain’s expansive façade. Here a sculptor admired the mouths or nostrils of stone monsters, from which streams spouted. There, a watercolour painter admired the curlicues of silver and grey that the moonlight left upon the ripples of the pool that lay below the rivulets, jets and streams, absorbing all.

“What would be done with this water power,” asked a painter, “if we had it in one of our American cities?” Immediately, the group was alive with theories. The pessimists saw the powerful machinery of a cotton mill taking the place of the cool marble; the optimists saw the marble returned to artists whose works, although smaller in scale, might be larger in number, thus fulfilling the promise of a grand reservoir rendering each individual prosperous.

Disdaining that speculation, Miriam said instead, “Pray, Donatello, stand behind me a moment. It was here that the interview between Corinne and Lord Nelvil took place. I would try whether the face can be recognised in the water,” she urged. She put her back to him and peered into the fountain. “Come, come!”

After a moment’s pause, the water settling between an ebb and flow, Miriam saw that her shadow indeed settled upon the base of the fountain, and two more shadows besides, one on either side.

“Three shadows! And none of Donatello. I should know him by his curls, but these two shadows lie upon the marble as shapeless masses. Which of you can it be?”

She turned around and saw to her right Kenyon, a smile fading on his lips. He had thought the jest, to replace Donatello, an excellent test of the theory, but had not anticipated the doubling of his shadow. There, on Miriam’s left, was the satyr whose face he had seen in Guido’s sketch.

The whole company of artists burst into a shared ripple of laughter as the model, as a mendicant, leant towards Miriam, as though seeking a coin, and she shrank from him.

“Be gone, shadow!” Kenyon cried, scarcely realising that he spoke so loudly.

With a glance upwards, Miriam’s follower stepped backwards, almost crushing Donatello’s delicate hooves, before turning and pushing his way from the group and ascending the stairs. Miriam looked after him, in a convulsion of real terror, but then the moment passed away, as the spectre slipped into his fellow shadows, and the group began to talk again of the uses to which the fountain might be put in other nations, as they picked their way around that perfect lake and up the stairs at its opposite side.

Threading through narrow streets, they soon came to Trajan’s Forum, a hollow space surrounding the pillars, broken and unequal, that sketch a vanished temple, while the modern edifice, built from the spoil of that temple’s magnificence, looked down upon it with a sceptical aspect. Moving onwards, they passed the temple of Mars Ultot and the portico of a temple of Minerva. It was at this archway, now given over to the quotidian needs of the modern Roman citizen in the form of a bakery, that Donatello spied a pilgrim whom, with a flash on the moonlight upon his face, he recognised as Miriam’s persecutor, still not deterred. Donatello shuddered at the sight and stared for a moment at the space that the spectre had occupied, now empty except for the shadows of the arch’s reliefs and adornments.

The group then turning into the Via Alessandria and approaching the Temple of Peace, as they passed beneath it, Hilda speculated, “What other stately streets may lay beneath this rusticated path? See how we skirt these heaps of formless rock? What may they have been?”

Kenyon tendered an answer as Miriam picked her way along the remainder of the grassy lane that led to the edge of an abrupt descent towards the Coliseum, its curving wall blossoming forth from the observer, pocked with arches that winked with flashes of moonlight as one moved. Several carriages stood at the entrance of that famous ruin, almost as popular in the moonlight as many London carriage drives during the spring, and Miriam observed as the French sentinel at the principal archway paced first one way and then the other.

“How delightful this is!” said Hilda, coming alongside her friend.

“Yes, it is far more picturesque as a ruin, dim and mysterious, than when eighty thousands persons sat together to see lions and tigers set upon their fellow men. It has come to its best use two thousand years after it was finished!”

“You bring a Gothic horror to the scene, Miriam,” Hilda chastised.

“And yet, what a promise for all of art, which may flourish long after its own time,” Kenyon corrected her. “I believe that much of Rome has reached a more perfect state in its half-begun decay than when it was newly made.”

“Shall we go down?” called one of the painters.

There was a ripple of assent, and the group moved as one, like a flock of birds with a new destination. “One moment, Hilda,” Miriam said quietly as her friends moved forwards, and so she was left alone at the top of that abrupt pathway.

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