To Lady Wilde
24 and 25 June 1875, Milan
I believe you left me last looking at the moon from the Piazza San Marco. With difficulty we tore ourselves away to the hotel. Next morning we went up the Grand Canal in a gondola. Great palaces on each side with huge steps leading down to the water, and all round big posts to moor the gondolas to, coloured with the arms of the family. Wonderful colour everywhere - windows hung with striped yellow awnings, domes and churches of white marble, campaniles of red brick, great gondolas filled with fruit and vegetables going to the Rialto where the market is. Stopped to see the picture gallery which, as usual, was in a suppressed monastery. Titian and Tintoretto in great force. Titian's Assumption certainly the best picture in Italy. Went to a lot of churches, all however in extravagant "baroque" style - very rich in worked metal and polished marble and mosaic but as a rule inartistic. In the picture gallery besides the Titians there are two great pictures; one a beautiful Madonna by Bellini, the other a picture of Dives and Lazarus by Bonifazio containing the only lovely woman's face I have seen in Italy.
Spent the day in gondolas and markets; in the evening a great band and promenade of all the swells of Venice in the Piazza San Marco. Every woman, nearly, over thirty powdered the front of her hair; most wore veils but I see that bonnets are now made with very high crowns and two wreaths, one under the diadem and one round the crown.
After marriage the Italian women degenerate awfully, but the boys and girls are beautiful. Amongst married women the general types are "Titiens" and an ugly sallow likeness of "Trebelli Bettini." (1)
In the morning breakfasted on board the P. & O. steamer Baroda. I was asked by the doctor, a young Dublin fellow called Fraser. Left for Padua at twelve o'clock. Believe me, Venice in beauty of architecture and colour is beyond description. It is the meeting-place of the Byzantine and Italian art - a city belonging to the East as much as to the West.
Arrived at Padua at two o'clock. In the middle of a rich vineyard stands the Baptistery, the great work of Giotto; the walls covered entirely with frescoes by him; one wall the life of Mary, the other the life of Christ; the ceiling blue with gold stars and medallion pictures; the west wall a great picture of Heaven and Hell suggested to him by Dante who, weary of trudging up the steep stairs, as he says, of the Scaligeri when in exile at Verona, came to stay at Padua with Giotto in a house still to be seen there. (2) Of the beauty and purity of sentiment, the clear transparent colour, bright as the day it was painted, and the harmony of the whole building, I am unable to tell you. He is the first of all painters. We stayed over an hour in the Baptistery filled with wonder and reverence and above all love for the scenes he has painted.
Padua is a quaint town with good colonnades along each street, a university like a barracks, one charming church (Sant' Anastasia) and a lot of bad ones, and the best restaurant in Italy, where we dined.
Arrived at Milan in a shower of rain; went in the evening to the theatre and saw a good ballet.
This morning the Cathedral. Outside most elaborate in pinnacles and statues awfully out of proportion with the rest of the building. Inside most impressive through its huge size and giant pillars supporting the roof; some good old stained glass and a lot of hideous modern windows. These modems don't see that the use of a window in a church is to show a beautiful massing together and blending of colour; a good old window has the rich pattern of a Turkey carpet. The figures are quite subordinate and only serve to show the sentiment of the designer. The modern fresco style of window has suâ naturâ to compete with painting and of course looks monstrous and theatrical.
The Cathedral is an awful failure. Outside the design is monstrous and inartistic. The over-elaborated details stuck high up where no one can see them; everything is vile in it; it is, however, imposing and gigantic as a failure, through its great size and elaborate execution.
From Padua I forgot to tell you we went to Verona at six o'clock, and in the old Roman amphitheatre (as perfect inside as it was in the old Roman times) saw the play of Hamlet performed - and certainly indifferently - but you can imagine how romantic it was to sit in the old amphitheatre on a lovely moonlight night. In the morning went to see the tombs of the Scaligeri - good examples of rich florid Gothic work and ironwork; a good m arket-place filled with the most gigantic umbrellas I ever saw - like young palm trees -under which sat the fruit-sellers. Of our arrival at Milan I have told you.
Yesterday (Thursday) went first to the Ambrosian Library where we saw some great manuscripts and two very good palimpsests, and a bible with Irish glosses of the sixth or seventh century which has been collated by "Todd and Whitley Stokes and others; (3) a good collection of pictures besides, particularly a set of drawings and sketches in chalk by Raffaelli - much more interesting I think than his pictures - good Holbeins and Albrecht Dürers.
Then to the picture gallery. Some good Correggios and Peruginos; the gem of the whole collection is a lovely Madonna by Bernardino standing among a lot of trellised roses that Morris and Rossetti would love; another by him we saw in the library with a background of lilies.
Milan is a second Paris. Wonderful arcades and galleries; all the town white stone and gilding. Dined excellently at the Biffi Restaurant and had some good wine of Asti, like good cider or sweet champagne. In the evening went to see a new opera, Dolores, by a young maestro called Auteri; a good imitation of Bellini in some parts, some pretty rondos; but its general character was inharmonious shouting. (4) However, the frantic enthusiasm of the people knew no bounds. Every five minutes a terrible furore and yelling of Bravas from every part of the house, followed by a frantic rush of all the actors for the composer, who was posted at the side-scenes ready to rush out on the slightest symptom of approval. A weak-looking creature who placed his grimy hand on a shady-looking shirt to show his emotion, fell on the prima donna's neck in ecstasy, and blew kisses to us all. He came out no less than nineteen times, and finally three crowns were brought out, one of which, a green laurel one with green ribbons, was clapped on his head, and as his head was very narrow it rested partly on a very large angular nose and partly on his grimy shirt-collar. Such an absurd scene as the whole thing was I never saw. The opera except in two places is absolutely devoid of merit. The Princess Margherita was there, very high-bred and pales. (5)
I write this at Arona on the Lago Maggiore, a beautiful spot. Mahaffy and young Goulding (6) I left at Milan and they will go on to Genoa. As I had no money I was obliged to leave them and feel very lonely. We have had a delightful tour.
Tonight at twelve o'clock the diligence starts. We go over the Simplon Pass till near Lausanne; eighteen hours en diligence. Tomorrow night (Saturday) I get to Lausanne.
1) Thérèse Tietjens or Titiens (1831-77) and Zélie Trebelli (1838-92), who married Alexander Bettini, an Italian tenor, were prima donnas of ample proportions who had regularly sung in Dublin with J. H. Mapleson's Italian Opera Company in the 1860's and 1870's.
2) Cf. Dante, Paradiso, xvii, 59-60:
com' è duro calle
Lo scendere e il salir per l'altrui scale
and the opening of Wilde's sonnet "At Verona," published in Poems (1881):
How steep the stairs within Kings' houses are
For exile-wearied feet as mine to tread.
He had already used the first line in his Ravenna (1878).
3) This document is not a bible and has no Irish glosses. It is a service-book, known as the Antiphonary of Bangor, and is perhaps the oldest known Irish manuscript. James Henthorn Todd (1805-69) and Whitley Stokes (1830-1909), both of Trinity College, Dublin, were two of the ablest Irish antiquarian scholars of their time.
4) Dolores by Salvatore Auteri-Manzocchi (1845-1924) was performed first in Florence earlier in 1875, and on 24 June at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan. It was revived at the Scala in 1878.
5) Margherita Teresa Giovanna, Princess of Savoy-Genoa (1851-1926), married (1868) her cousin, the Prince of Piedmont, who became the second King of Italy as Humbert I (1878). Her only son became King Victor Emmanuel III.
6) Probably William Joshua Goulding (1856-1925), later director of many Irish companies, Baronet 1904, Privy Councillor 1917. He was certainly a friend of Mahaffy, but his descendants have no record of their travelling abroad together.