Friday, June 2, 2017

Following Helen Douglass Following Nathaniel Hawthorne

After visiting Egypt in spring 1887, the Douglasses returned to Rome in April. Helen had become friends with Eleanor Lewis (who, I confess, I misidentified as Edmonia Lewis in my book), the niece of watercolorist Adelia Gates, both of whom lived in the Eternal City at the time. 

"We went together to the Capitoline Museum," Helen wrote to her sister, Jennie, "in which is the room described by Hawthorne in the Marble Faun. The dying Gladiator, the original, occupies the middle of the room."

Here is the description from Hawthorne that she references:
It was in that room (the first after ascending the staircase) in the centre of which reclines the noble and most pathetic figure of the Dying Gladiator, just sinking into his death-swoon.

Around the walls stand the Antinous,
the Amazon,
the Lycian Apollo,
the Juno;
all famous productions of antique sculpture, and still shining in the undiminished majesty and beauty of their ideal life, although the marble that embodies them is yellow with time, and perhaps corroded by the damp earth in which thy lay buried for centuries.
Helen thought "the Faun and an Antinous are most lovely." The faun no longer stands in that room, if it did when she visited, but lies in the next room over.

You can tell it is a faun by its tail.:

I wish she had described what she thought was so lovely about each. The Antinous strikes me as bland, but the red of this faun, his muscular definition, and  his devilish joy make me think, "oh, Helen, you minx!" She likely did not think that way, but her attraction to these two male forms suggests a heterosexual appreciation for a powerful physique. Of course, we already knew that about her given that her husband was renowned for his own, and kept himself physically fit well to his last days.

(My own husband, by the way, thought that the griffin was taken aback by the damage done to Apollo's manhood. The griffin does look as if he is saying, "whoa! Dude! What happened?")

Hawthorne, too, described a statue that was no longer in that room.
Here, likewise, is seen a symbol (as apt at this moment as it was two thousand years ago) of the Human Soul, with its choice of Innocence or Evil close at hand, in the pretty figure of a child, clasping a dove to her bosom, but assaulted by a snake.
It took me a while to find that sculpture, and I passed more than one of a child playing with a snake, but no dove.

I began to wonder if Hawthorne had invented the piece for art's sake. (I also wondered about Roman parents and the pets that they allowed their children. Perhaps this had something to do with high rates of infant mortality? Or maybe this just taught kids to be tough?)

Finally, in the last room that I entered, across from the Gladiator's room, I found her. She wasn't called "Human Soul," but "Child with Bird and Snake" or something similarly banal. 

You would hardly know she had a snake coiling about her because its head has broken off, but here she is.

After the "Dying Gladiator," Helen and Eleanor wandered through the faun's room, down a long gallery of busts and statues, and further on. "Two rooms of busts there, are most interesting ones," she told Jennie, "containing busts, all ancient, and supposable from life, of philosophers and renowned intellectual men and one of the Emperors. The first is my room...

...and the second is Miss Lewis' room."

The day that I was there, the staff were cleaning the busts in Miss Lewis' room.

In Helen's day, they probably used a feather duster. 

Her attraction to the room of philosophers makes sense, given that her attraction to her husband was also intellectual. Political power seemed to hold little interest for her, but moral and mental force along with the physical charisma captured her attention enough to enter into a daring marriage.

Both Hawthorne and Helen Douglass commented on the view from the room of the "Dying Gladiator," but that is a post for another time.

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