“Capo Serpente”, by Vernon Lee

Capo Serpente
A legend of the Roman Campagna [1]

Vernon Lee

In the scorched Campagna, by the ruined tomb, dwells the Serpent King, the terrible Capo Serpente. The Peasant dreads him, and avoids the tall, dry grass by the pool of stagnant water.
But the artist,[2] the stranger from the land where there are neither green trees nor gay flowers,[3] sits down by the ruined tomb, and paints, unconscious of his danger.
When the sun sheds upon the broken arches of the aqueduct a rosy tint, when the Alban hills are purple, when the dome of St Peters rises black upon a golden sky, a huge green serpent glides from beneath the tall grass.
His body is covered with scales, his head is that of a beautiful youth, and on it he wears a golden crown. He steals along and rises up before the eyes of the painter.
The artist wishes to fly, he is rooted to the ground ; he cannot take his eyes off that beautiful but terrible face ; again he makes an effort to escape ; in vain, the serpent exerts a fascination over his mind.
His friends seek him. They find him lying in the high grass, by the stagnant pool near the ruined tomb. « He has had a fit, » say his artist friends. The old peasant in the goatskin dress and leather thongs knows better. He shakes his head, and mutters, crossing himself : « He has seen the Capo Serpente. »

Editor’s note

« Capo Serpente » is here published for the first time. See Vernon Lee’s correspondence :

« I have heard nothing of the paper I sent in October to Mrs Dodge. In the second week of December I wrote again saying that if I received no answer shortly, I should conclude that my paper was rejected. I shall wait another fortnight, and if no answer turns up, I shall send it to Mr Dallas, of the Once a Week whose address Mr Livayne gave me.[4] I take the liberty of sending you a copy of this little paper. The legend of the Serpent King, which I heard from a painter here, struck me as pretty and fantastic. »

(Vernon Lee. Extract from a letter to « My dear Mrs Jenkin », dated « 8 Via San Sebastianello, Rome, Feb. 15 1871 ». Colby College, Miller Library. Quoted in Gagel, Mandy. Selected Letters of Vernon Lee (1856-1935). Dissertation. Boston University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 2008, p. 91.)

* 1. « No version of this story was ever published, but it is similar in subject to some of VL’s supernatural tales that draw from medieval and eighteenth-centuty legends. » Mandy Gagel. Selected Letters of Vernon Lee (1856-1935). Dissertation. Boston University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 2008, p. 91, note 11, page 91.
* 2. stranger
* 3. « The land where there are neither green trees nor gay flowers » ; the Roman peasantry think that in England, America and Germany there is no sun. See Roba di Roma by Mr W. W. Story.
* 4. Eneas Sweetland Dallas (1828-1879), editor of Once a Week. Mandy Gagel, op. cit., note 9, page 91.

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