Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 4

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Look at Mendelssohn again about this same Tribune on which Mr Pontifex felt so safe in staking his reputation as a man of taste and culture.  He feels no less safe and writes, “I then went to the Tribune.  This room is so delightfully small you can traverse it in fifteen paces, yet it contains a world of art.  I again sought out my favourite arm chair which stands under the statue of the ‘Slave whetting his knife’ (L’Arrotino), and taking possession of it I enjoyed myself for a couple of hours; for here at one glance I had the ‘Madonna del Cardellino,’ Pope Julius II., a female portrait by Raphael, and above it a lovely Holy Family by Perugino; and so close to me that I could have touched it with my hand the Venus de’ Medici; beyond, that of Titian . . . The space between is occupied by other pictures of Raphael’s, a portrait by Titian, a Domenichino, etc., etc., all these within the circumference of a small semi-circle no larger than one of your own rooms.  This is a spot where a man feels his own insignificance and may well learn to be humble.”  The Tribune is a slippery place for people like Mendelssohn to study humility in.  They generally take two steps away from it for one they take towards it.  I wonder how many chalks Mendelssohn gave himself for having sat two hours on that chair.  I wonder how often he looked at his watch to see if his two hours were up.  I wonder how often he told himself that he was quite as big a gun, if the truth were known, as any of the men whose works he saw before him, how often he wondered whether any of the visitors were recognizing him and admiring him for sitting such a long time in the same chair, and how often he was vexed at seeing them pass him by and take no notice of him.  But perhaps if the truth were known his two hours was not quite two hours.

Returning to Mr Pontifex, whether he liked what he believed to be the masterpieces of Greek and Italian art or no he brought back some copies by Italian artists, which I have no doubt he satisfied himself would bear the strictest examination with the originals.  Two of these copies fell to Theobald’s share on the division of his father’s furniture, and I have often seen them at Battersby on my visits to Theobald and his wife.  The one was a Madonna by Sassoferrato with a blue hood over her head which threw it half into shadow.  The other was a Magdalen by Carlo Dolci with a very fine head of hair and a marble vase in her hands.  When I was a young man I used to think these pictures were beautiful, but with each successive visit to Battersby I got to dislike them more and more and to see “George Pontifex” written all over both of them.  In the end I ventured after a tentative fashion to blow on them a little, but Theobald and his wife were up in arms at once.  They did not like their father and father-in-law, but there could be no question about his power and general ability, nor about his having been a man of consummate taste both in literature and art—indeed the diary he kept during his foreign tour was enough to prove this.  With one more short extract I will leave this diary and proceed with my story.  During his stay in Florence Mr Pontifex wrote: “I have just seen the Grand Duke and his family pass by in two carriages and six, but little more notice is taken of them than if I, who am utterly unknown here, were to pass by.”  I don’t think that he half believed in his being utterly unknown in Florence or anywhere else!