On Beauty

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The word “beautiful” comes rarely to English lips. It is too long, too serious, a little foreign-sounding for our native taste. Uttering those three syllables we seem to be committing ourselves too irrevocably to a serious opinion; and we are chary of that, much too chary. “Beautiful”it sounds high-brow, it suggests long hair; we are almost ashamed of saying it. It is only on solemn and rather tremendous occasionson Sundays, so to speak, and not on common daysthat an Englishman permits himself topronounce so dangerous a word. Our ancestors’ safer and more English monosyllable, “fair,” has sadly come down in the world. The only beautiful thing that we still call fair is the weather. For the rest, it is now all but a term of denigration; it damns with faint praise. Restore to “fair” its original meaning, and Englishmen would no longer be chary of calling beauty by its name. It is only the formidable high-brow word, with its philosophical associations, that we are afraid of. Today the national epithet of approbation is “nice” shrilling up in more emotional moments to “lovely.” The fair maid of Perth is now a lovely Scotch girl, and many men so beautiful, a nice looking lot.

More fortunate in this respect than we are, the Italians, when they talk of beauty, suffer from no inhibitions. Their word for “beautiful” is ancient and thoroughly native. “Bello” is as little highbrow as was our “fair.” It suggests nothing philosophical or religious. The ghosts of Good and True march dimly behind our Beautiful. But bello is a peasant’s word of which nobody need be ashamed, even if it does also happen to be Dante’s word. Belloit is the favorite national adjective; no word is oftener uttered. Bello bellothey love to double it, to put both barrels, bang! bang! left and right, into the same bird. Bello bello and then bellissimo, the coup de grâce with the butt-end while the bird is still struggling on the ground.

Bello, bellissimo, bellezza: the words beset Italian conversation. From a cornice by Michelangelo to a bel paese cheese or the most horrible dribbling baby, everything is beautiful. Is it in England that a political party would select as its battle-cry, “Youth, youth, spring-time of beauty?” But the Fascisti marched on Romeor mostly, rather, went by trainto the tune of “Giovinezza, giovinezza, primavera di belle-e-e-ez-za!” And it would certainly have been difficult to find a set of young men less high-brow than the Fascists, less long-hairedspiritually long-haired, I mean; for physically long-haired the Black Shirts mostly were at that time, though the fashion has changed since; then, with frizzy locks rising, perpendicular and stiff, six or seven inches into the air, for the sake, it was said, of looking piu terribili. Not since Trafalgar has beauty figured in an English patriotic song, and even here the third person in the trinity, “England, Home and Beauty,” seems to have got there more by accident, and because England expected every man to do his duty, than by deliberate design. The exigencies of rhyme are forever incongruously coupling the Lady Beauty with the stern Daughter of the Voice of God. But in Italian, where every word rhymes with almost every other, the poet’s hand is rarely forced, and if the Fascists sing of beauty when they march, it is because they like to, not because there are no other rhymes to youth.

Since bello, then, is the favorite Italian adjective, it would be natural to suppose that beauty was a quality in their surroundings to which the Italians attached great value. That they did so is sufficiently obvious; but that they do now is not, alas! quite so clear. Signor Ugo Ojetti, indeed, has roundly declared that the Italians today have as a people, the worst taste of any in Europe. And certainly, when one looks at the modern villini on the outskirts of Italian towns, when one sees the furniture, the fabrics, the pictures and statuary they contain, one can believe that Signor Ojetti may perhaps be right.

For if bello is the Italian’s favorite adjective, there is another that runs it very close in popularity: moderno. The Italians only ecstatically say bello; but moderno they really mean. And it appears to be impossible for a thing to possess both these qualities, in Italy at any rate, at the same time. Italy, the brand-new country that has only existed since 1870, is still too busy developing her material resources to be practically concerned with the reconciliation of bello (as the old Italians understood bello) with moderno. There are still too many waterfalls to be harnessed, too many powerstations and factories to be built, for the Italians to do much but talk about the bello. The people with the oldest and most splendid civilization in Europe are now in some ways younger than the Americans of a generation ago. They have grown into a kind of second boyhood when nothing matters but engines and motor cars. The vitality, intelligence, and energy of which in the past so much went into the creation of those works of art which, with the hotels, now constitute the necessary plant of the tourist industry, are still there; but they seem to have been deflected into other channels. But perhaps when the country has been made sufficiently moderno, its people will find the leisure to think of a new bellezza.

It is interesting, meanwhile, to see what does pass for artistically beautiful among the modernities. Signor Ojetto has complained that Italian bad taste is worse than the bad taste of other countries because it is less consistent and systematic. It is a bad taste of shreds and patches. But it seems to me that all contemporary manifestations of the bello in Italy, however different the conventions in terms of which they are executed, have always one thing in common: they are all fundamentally baroque. The model may be Bernini or Mestrovic, the convention may be one of extreme realism or geometrical simplification; it does not matter. In every work one sees that same baroque violence which defeats its own object, the emotionalism which does not move, the straining after effect which achieves nothing, the gesticulating sublime which is ridiculous. Bello in the twentieth century is a throaty music, is pages of d’Annunzio’s clotted and feverish verbiage. Bello-cum-moderno manifests itself in the Victor Emanuel monument in Rome (not half bad, after all, if you leave the statues out, in the theatrical seventeenth-century manner); in the Centro della Città in Florence; on projects for war memorials conceived in the most powerful Munich style. By some strange and malignant fate the Italians, whose bello was once so sober and intellectual in its moving passion, seem to have got permanently bogged among the facile emotionalisms and violences of the seventeenth century. Palestrina was once a representative Italian artist; today it is Puccini.

There is no reason to suppose that the Italian character has fundamentally changed in recent centuries. The qualities which, in baroque art, reveal themselves as violence and emotionalism, were always there, but kept down, but tempered and severely moulded by the intellect. The most moving works of art are always those in which passion is confined within a severe formal scheme. The artists of the seventeenth century hoped, by throwing off formal restraint, by exploiting technical resources to their utmost limit, to make their works more moving and passionate. They achieved the exact opposite; and, compared with the works of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, theirs are uninteresting and even, positively, unexciting. The bello of today, being still further from the great tradition, is still less interesting.

Why the great tradition, the remains of which persisted, after all, till the end of the eighteenth century, should so miserably have perished in Italy, even as it did in our comparatively benighted England, is a great mystery. Mysterious, too, is the modern Italian tendency to prefer the worst foreign conventions to their own best. The Italian craftsman has all the skill he ever possessed; but if you ask a house-painter to decorate your house for you, his first instinct will be to cover your walls with all the horrible decorative shapes invented in Munich or Vienna during the last five-and-twenty years. But in this the Italian is not unique. The Chinese, it is said, are now ashamed of their ancient art, and prefer a colored supplement by Mr. Barribal to the finest work of painters ignorant of chiaroscuro and the laws of perspective. That we needs must love the highest when we see it is not, alas! invariably true. When a great tradition fails and grows tired through lack of great men to continue and develop it, when there are only second-rate artists repeating competently what has been done before, then a new and strikingly bad stylethe important thing is that it should be strikingwill come as a revelation, and we rush, in a delirious Gadarene descent, headlong towards the lowest. It is unlikely that Art Nouveau would have had much success in Rome during the lifetimes of Raphael and Michelangelo. And, conversely, bello-moderno will begin to mean something different from baroque emotionalism as soon as a few more artists of genius make their appearance upon the Italian scene.

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