Friday, August 19, 2016

Rome, Naples et Florence: October 1816, Part II

We pick up on page 34. This bout I found a bit rough in the going.

[20 octobre]

It's always worth remembering, as Stendhal indicates, that Italian is much more dialectally diverse than we usually remember; this is more true the farther back you go. As I've mentioned before, when Dante or Petrarch or Manzoni write in Italian, they have to brew up the version of Italian they think is appropriate to their task, and tend to draw on more than one dialect.

It's interesting that Stendhal is so acidic on the English class system, comparing it to Indian castes. I actually wonder if Stendhal's bite here is deliberately playing on English self-image and turning it upside-down -- the English, particularly in the nineteenth century, regarded candor as an essential part of their national character, so to contrast them unfavorably with the Milanese on precisely that point seems less than accidental.

Pierre Jean de Béranger was a poet who became famous as a songwriter, and in this period was writing pieces critical of the establishment. Jean François de Saint-Lambert, who wrote The Seasons, was in Voltaire's circle; his mistress was Emilie de Châum;telet -- she would become pregnant with his child and die from complications a few days afterward.

[25 octobre]

I confess that I was not expecting an account of the game of Tarot; but, as Stendhal says, apparently it was very fashionable in Milan at the time. Stendhal's description seems quite careful: a game of not less than fifty-two cards, three times the size of a standard playing-card, with a score or more cards with the function of an ace or trump, beautifully illustrated. The trumps he notes -- the Pope, the Papess Joan, the Fool, the Hanged Man, the Lovers, Fortune, Death -- are all recognizable, as are the suits of bastoni (staves), danari (coins), spade (swords), and coppe (cups). According to Daniel Muller's notes, Francesco Reina was a notable bibliophile of the time, although one could perhaps gather that from Stendhal's comment about the library. Stendhal's repeating of Reina's claim is the first I've heard of the idea that Michelangelo invented the game of tarocco itself, and as far as I know or have been able to discover, nobody else suggests it.

Regardless, the picture of Milanese Tarot players swearing at each other at the top of their lungs while playing, and yet not actually taking any offense, is priceless. And I think the better of Stendhal for being charmed by it, and his comment is worth quoting in full:

Dans ce siècle menteur et comédien (this age of cant, dit Lord Byron), cet excès de franchise et de bonhomie entre gens de plus riches et de plus nobles de Milan me frappe si fort, qu'il me donne l'idée de me fixer en ce pays. Le bonheur est contagieux.

And I also think the better of him for his rejection of the notion that this frankness and goodwill is unsophisticated or unrefined. Stendhal comes off as a bit of a pretentious snob sometimes; it's good to know he has another side.

[27 octobre]

The Milanese like a beautiful house; and, indeed, it does seem likely that architecture, at least in Milan, was a more thriving art than painting or sculpture. I did find the notion of architectural style as that physiognomy that «inspire un sentiment d'accord avec sa destination», as well as the idea that it is often connected with respect.

[28 octobre, á 5 heures du matin, en sortant du bal]

And here we have the statement that called my attention to this work in the first place: «La beauté n'est jamais, me semble, qu'une promesse du bonheur». And, of course, it turns out that Stendhal is talking about pretty girls at a dance; whenever you hear a profound statement from Stendhal and look it up, you always find that he said it in the most superficial way possible. I confess that I just skimmed some of the ballroom gossip.

[30 octobre]

John Scott was the editor who revived The London Magazine in 1820; the revival was an astounding success, and put the magazine at the heart of English literary life, as its contributors included the major Romantics and 'Cockney School' poets of the day -- Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and the like. The magazine's major rival was the powerhouse of literary critics, Blackwood's Magazine, and a literary feud developed between the two when John Gibson Lockhart began publishing articles critical of Keats and the rest for their working-class diction -- Gibson famously calling Keats a "vulgar cockney poetaster". Scott began an extended assault on Blackwood's and on Gibson; Gibson called Scott a liar and a scoundrel; Gibson's agent, Jonathan Henry Christie, insulted Scott to his face; and a duel was scheduled. It took place on February 16, 1821, and Scott died in the second round of the duel. Christie was tried for murder and acquitted. Those were the heroic days of literary criticism, of course, the days in which a man set to page criticism for which he was willing, if necessary, to put his life on the line.

And that is October of 1816. As I said above, I found this installment rough going, but the tarocco in Milan was worth it. We pick up in about two weeks or so on page 54, and finally with November Stendhal actually starts showing us around Milan, beginning with the Piazzo Reale and the Duomo.

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