Related Sites & images
Villa d’Este

Related Texts
James, "Roman Rides"
James, "Roman Notebook "
James, "Roman Neighborhoods"
James, "The After-Season in Rome"

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Henry James, “Other Roman Neighborhoods” (1909)

So happy a chance was it that ensured me at the afternoon’s end a solitary stroll through the Villa d’Este, where the day’s invasion, whatever it might have been, had left no traces and where I met nobody in the great rococo passages and chambers, and in the prodigious alleys and on the repeated flights of tortuous steps, but the haunting Genius of Style, into whose noble battered old face, as if it had come out clearer in the golden twilight and on recognition of response so deeply moved, I seemed to exhale my sympathy. This was truly, amid a conception and order of things all mossed over from disuse, but still without a form abandoned or principle disowned, one of the hours that one doesn’t forget. The ruined fountains seemed strangely to wait, in the stillness and under cover of the approaching dusk, not to begin ever again to play, also, but just only to be tenderly imagined to do so; quite as everything held its breath, at the mystic moment, for the drop of the cruel and garish exposure, for the Spirit of the place to steal forth and go his round. The vistas of the innumerable mighty cypresses ranged themselves, in their files and companies, like beaten heroes for their captain’s review; the great artificial “works” of every description, cascades, hemicycles, all graded and grassed and stone-seated as for floral games, mazes and bowers and alcoves and grottos, brave indissoluble unions of the planted and the builded symmetry, with the terraces and staircases that overhang, and the arcades and cloisters that underspread, made common cause together as for one’s taking up a little, in kindly lingering wonder, the “feeling” out of which they have sprung. One didn’t see it, under the actual influence, one wouldn’t for the world have seen it, as that they longed to be justified, during a few minutes in the twenty-four hours, of the absurdity of pomp and circumstance-but only that they asked for company, once in a way, as they were so splendidly formed to give it, and that the best company, in a hanged world, at the end of time, what could they hope it to be but just the lone, the dawdling person of taste, the visitor with a flicker of fancy, not to speak of a pang of pity, to spare for them? It was in the flicker of fancy, no doubt, that as I hung about the great top-most terrace in especial, and then again took my way through the high gaunt corridors and the square and bare alcoved and recessed saloons, all overscored with such a dim waste of those painted, those delicate and capricious decorations which the loggie of the Vatican promptly borrowed from the ruins of the Palatine, or from whatever other revealed and inspiring ancientries, and which make ghostly confession here of that descent, I gave the rein to my sense of the sinister too, of that vague after-taste as of evil things that lurks so often, for a suspicious sensibility, wherever the terrible game of the life of the Renaissance was played as the Italians played it; wherever the huge tessellated chessboard seems to stretch about us, swept bare, almost always violently swept bare, of its chiseled and shifting figures, of every value and degree, but with this echoing desolation itself representing the long gasp, as it were, of overstrained time, the great after-hush that follows on things too wonderful or dreadful. I am putting here, however my cart before my horse, for the hour just glanced at was but a final tag to a day of much brighter curiosity, and which seemed to take its baptism, as we passed through prodigious perched and huddled, adorably scattered and animated and even crowded Tivoli, from the universal happy spray of the drumming Anio waterfalls, all set in their permanent rainbows and Sibylline temples and classic allusions and Byronic quotations; a wondrous romantic jumble of such things and quite others-heterogeneous inns and clamorous guinguettes and factories grabbing at the torrent, to say nothing of innumerable guides and donkeys and white-tied, swallow-tailed waiters dashing out of grottos, and from under cataracts, and of the air, on the part of the whole population, of standing about, in the most characteristic contadino manner, to pounce on you and take you somewhere, snatch you from somebody else, shout something at you, the aqueous and other uproar permitting, and then charge you for it, your innocence aiding, I’m afraid our run the rest of the way to Subiaco remains with me but as an after-sense of that exhilaration, in spite of our rising admirably higher, all the while, and plunging constantly deeper into splendid solitary gravities, supreme romantic solemnities and sublimities, of landscape. The Benedictine convent, which clings to certain more or less vertiginous ledges and slopes of a vast precipitous gorge, constitutes, with the whole perfection of its setting, the very ideal of the tradition of that extraordinary in the romantic handed down to us, as the most attaching and inviting spell of Italy, by all the old academic literature of travel and art of the Salvator Rosas and Claudes. This is the main tribute I may pay in a few words to an impression of which a sort of divine rightness of oddity, a pictorial felicity that was almost not of this world, but of a higher degree of distinction altogether, affected me as the leading note; yet about the whole exquisite complexity of which I can’t pretend to be informing.

James, Henry. Italian Hours, ed. John Auchard. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, pp. 196–198.

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