Divinities of Tuscan Summer Fields, by Vernon Lee

« Divinities of Tuscan Summer Fields”

From The Tower of the Mirrors, John Lane, MCMXIV, ch XXXIV, pp. 231-236.

231 The first incident in the Tuscan summer is the transformation, or, rather transfiguration, of the small children. Speaking prosaically and with regard to mere facts,  what happens is that they are divested of all upper garments and, what is more to the point, of shoes and stockings. But for the eye and fascinated heart and fancy, a brand-new race appears miraculously from nowhere: tiny boys and girls in that succinct garment, waistcoat and breeches in one, fastened in the back with missing buttons, which reduces sex to a matter of a ribboned top-knot more or less; Gesu Bambinos and San Giovanninos and Santi Innocenti for Donatello and the Della Robbias; cupids, putti, baby fauns for the more pagan Raphaelesques and followers of Coreggio, all suddenly there, like the flowers which appear after a day of showers and sunshine; little moving flowers themselves, flexible, tender, fluffy, rosy, pearly, golden-brown, with indescribable loveliness of brilliant, weather-stained rags, suddenly arising (by that magic rite of diminishing raiment) out of the cobbles of //232 slums and the dust and litter of roadside hamlets.

The marvel is greatest in such squalid surroundings; but the right place for these creatures is, of course, the fields. Several times of late I have met in the grass lanes between the spalierred vines, infant processions mimicking the Corpus Christi magnificences of their elders: tiny children, dressed out in garlands, carrying banners of leaves and trailing wreaths and streamers and discarded tins and pipkins, drumming and fifing on imaginary instruments and hymning in shrill, sweet tones to rustic divinities, immanent in blossoming grapes and wheat-in-the-ear and in budding baby souls.

Speaking of Corpus Christi has brought me, of course, to the second episode in the Italian summer’s enchantment. It is, so to speak, the sanctification of evening. Suddenly, after the first hot days, you become aware of a new blessedness of the world; and the hour after sunset becomes holy in the fields, in the rustling valleys, like the summer duskiness of Italian churches, when the glow of the square is filtered through the black door velarium bellied with the draught like a great sail, and the cool air is fresh with the flowers stacked up on the altars. But the sudden coolness of the fields, the twilight beryl of the sky, the revelation of the taste and the nostrils of all the green, wet lushness hidden by day, of all the grasses which blossom in unseen trickling places, the dusk of the fields is not merely // 233 holy, like that of the churches; it is something more, divine, with the strange solemnity of the pagan gods of the soil.

And once, I remember, the dusk took loving shape, the divinities stood revealed. It was at the close of a burning day which had brought fever to me, and that languor which will make relief into happiness, and happiness into rapture. The sun had dipped behind the hills, leaving the distant valley of Florence luminous, when we got with our cart to the first flanks of Morello, its peaks dim, distant. Among the little cypress-woods in the ineffable freshness we met some big white calves browsing up-hill. Then they came down, following their mothers along a stream-bed, and stopped upon the soft turf to bite at the white acacia-blossoms, which they resembled; a sort of emanation of the pale, green coolness, with their quiet, gentle movements and almost diaphanous whiteness. We tied up the cart and walked a little way up the ravine, across the grass; and there we found more white calves and heifers on the steep hillside, feeding among the flowering broom above the stream, where the nightingales whistled. One quite understood mythology, the stories of Europa and Io: these creatures might so well have been gods.

About two months after that undressing of the children of which I have spoken as suddenly peopling Italy with cupids and baby St Johns, there comes the disrobing of the ground and its transfiguration through the wheat-harvest. How //234 often has it come upon me with surprise, this sense of relief, of a new world following on the steps of the reapers! The tree-trunks and roots, the vine-branches become suddenly visible, and the earth reveals itself, dry, pale, and almost disembodied in the sheen of stubble. And then all that much space, air, view, gained! One misses, indeed, the sweetness rising from the cornfields at evening. But how far greater the deliciousness of their being open to breeze and light, of their long gleams and shadows, their rosiness on which the light lies golden, the shadows cut sharp and cool. And then the freedom of walking over the stubble, of seeing the other crops, young maize and beans and sorghum, noting for the first time the little green apples on the trees that bend over, and the grapes, still minute, but quite shapely. One watches the oxen ploughing once more between the vine-garlands in the wonderfully sweet twilights, when the sawing of the cicalas meets for a moment the far gentler, but shriller, note of the crickets: the two voices of the Italian summer, so oddly suited, one to the blazing, relentless day, the other to the gentle and friendly night.

With all these sounds and sights are connected my earliest impressions of Bagazzano, a half-dismantled little villa, perhaps one a Medicean shooting-box or fowling-house, among the thin ilexes and cypresses of a solitary ridge looking down on the Arno. It was mainly the im-//235 pression, so unexpected in that high, remote place, of some wonderfully beautiful stuccoes on the outer wall of the tiny villa’s tiny chapel: great candelabra and baskets of flowers in delicate film-like relief on a ground of worn-out vermilion, half-effaced in parts, with the exquisitely modelled limbs, the still more fascinating mere shadowy outlinings, of two crouching Michelangelesque nudes, a youth and a sylvan goddess, their slender thighs and strong bent backs doubled and twisting like tree-trunks and flower-stems; figures which seemed to come and go on that weather-beaten wall with the moving shadows and gleams and one’s own delighted imagination. The chapel among the ilexes has no vestige of Christian emblems; nothing but those pagan candelabra, masks, birds, and flowers and Michelangelesque supporters; and, instead of a cross, two little stone obelisks, which time or some hidden symbolical intention has curved  towards one another into something like horns, such as are supposed to ward off the evil eye.

One fancies that this must have been the retreat of some paganizing philosopher of the late Renaissance. He would have built that chapel in the ilex-grove, at a stone’s throw from the villa portico, as a resting-place for all that he knew and all that he cared should remain of him,

Nobis, quum semel occidit brevis lux,

Nox est perpetua una dormienda—

with what goes before and follows symbolized in// 236 those flowers and masks and fruits, and the pair of sylvans outlined on the worn-off vivid vermilion.

Be this as it may, and whether there was ever at that villa such a person and whether such were his opinions or not, we walked down from Bagazzano with things better than fancies and verses, even by Catullus, filling our hushed and delighted minds: the ineffable sweetness of hour, season, and place, the blessedness of the past heat of day and coming cool of night, the ripeness of air among herb-grown rocks, its freshness in the deep green of the trickling watercourses.

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