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Description of a Villa

Jeffrey Eugenides on The Portrait of a Lady: “The book never exhausts itself; it exhausts me.” He means exhausts in a good way, and that’s how I felt when this morning I read the following paragraph:

On one of the first days of May, some six months after old Mr. Touchett’s death, a small group that might have been described by a painter as composing well was gathered in one of the many rooms of an ancient villa crowning an olive-muffled hill outside of the Roman gate of Florence. The villa was a long, rather blank-looking structure, with the far-projecting roof which Tuscany loves and which, on the hills that encircle Florence, when considered from a distance, make so harmonious a rectangle with the straight, dark, definite cypresses that usually rise in groups of three or four beside it. The house had a front upon a little grassy, empty, rural piazza which occupied a part of the hill-top; and this front, pierced with a few windows in irregular relations and furnished with a stone bench lengthily adjusted to the base of the structure and useful as a lounging-place to one or two persons wearing more or less of that air of undervalued merit which in Italy, for some reason or other, always gracefully invests any one who confidently assumes a perfectly passive attitude—this antique, solid, weather-worn, yet imposing front had a somewhat incommunicative character. It was the mask, not the face of the house. It had heavy lids, but no eyes; the house in reality looked another way—looked off behind, into splendid openness and the range of the afternoon light. In that quarter the villa overhung the slope of its hill and the long valley of the Arno, hazy with Italian colour. It had a narrow garden, in the manner of a terrace, productive chiefly of tangles of wild roses and other old stone benches, mossy and sun-warmed. The parapet of the terrace was just the height to lean upon, and beneath it the ground declined into the vagueness of olive-crops and vineyards. It is not, however, with the outside of the place that we are concerned; on this bright morning of ripened spring its tenants had reason to prefer the shady side of the wall. The windows of the ground-floor, as you saw them from the piazza, were, in their noble proportions, extremely architectural; but their function seemed less to offer communication with the world than to defy the world to look in. They were massively cross-barred, and placed at such a height that curiosity, even on tiptoe, expired before it reached them. In an apartment lighted by a row of three of these jealous apertures—one of the several distinct apartments into which the villa was divided and which were mainly occupied by foreigners of random race long resident in Florence—a gentleman was seated in company with a young girl and two good sisters from a religious house. The room was, however, less sombre than our indications may have represented, for it had a wide, high door, which now stood open into the tangled garden behind; and the tall iron lattices admitted on occasion more than enough of the Italian sunshine. It was moreover a seat of ease, indeed of luxury, telling of arrangements subtly studied and refinements frankly proclaimed, and containing a variety of those faded hangings of damask and tapestry, those chests and cabinets of carved and time-polished oak, those angular specimens of pictorial art in frames as pedantically primitive, those perverse-looking relics of mediaeval brass and pottery, of which Italy has long been the not quite exhausted storehouse. These things kept terms with articles of modern furniture in which large allowance had been made for a lounging generation; it was to be noticed that all the chairs were deep and well padded and that much space was occupied by a writing-table of which the ingenious perfection bore the stamp of London and the nineteenth century. There were books in profusion and magazines and newspapers, and a few small, odd, elaborate pictures, chiefly in water-colour. One of these productions stood on a drawing-room easel before which, at the moment we begin to be concerned with her, the young girl I have mentioned had placed herself. She was looking at the picture in silence.

I read it three times just to savor it. Although in the first sentence the narrator (a curious character in the book—generally omniscient, but not without a personal pronoun) introduces the persons gathered, it moves away from them quickly to peer at the house, to set it via that neoclassic view of Italy: bathed in golden light, langorous, a little torpid.1 Seeing the house from one angle, he describes its features, universalizing it (“The parapet of the terrace was just the height to lean upon” is a wonderful image, general enough to allow anyone of any height to imagine herself leaning there), delineating its walls clearly on an indistinguishable background, describing it from two directions—one guesses from the piazza (its mask) and from the river (its true face). The narrator moves in, closer and closer, from outside on the piazza, to the garden, to the parapet just mentioned, to the windows. Through the windows now the narrator scans the room, describes the group again, more succinctly this time, and remarks how the room is warmer than it seemed from out. Look at the furniture! Look at the art on the walls! But neither the furniture nor the art matters—the narrator moves on, looks down at a table, sees the books, sees a watercolor—sees a girl seeing the watercolor too. Finally, the narrator describes her, with the shortest sentence in the paragraph: “She was looking at the picture in silence.”

What focus!

1 In spite of the fact that European tours were more affordable by the early twentieth century—the very existence of Twain’s The Innocents Abroad is a testament to that fact—the rhetoric of Italian travel had been decided 150 years prior by well-to-do middle- and upper-class travelers “on tour.”

 

Comments

“What focus” isn’t quite right; “what zoom” is better. Very Ruskin.

i have been enjoying the pieces, though i’ve done so silently…