It often comes as some surprise to those who learn how much time I have spent studying Latin literature that I have never been to Italy. I can provide no reason for this which would not sound either wistfully romanticized or pathetic, but I leave for Rome tomorrow, and will never again have to content myself with the idle conjuring of my imagination. Earlier this week, I happened (and it was purely fortuitous) on a copy of Henry James’ Italian Hours, a collection of essays from his time spent touring Italy. They are all suitably romantic and backward-looking in tone for one of my ruefully anachronistic temperament, and the luxuriant pace of James’ prose serves to put one in the perfect state simply to experience.
From the moment, of course, that you go into any Italian church for any purpose but to say your prayers or look at the ladies, you rank yourself among the trooping barbarians I just spoke of; you treat the place as an orifice in the peep-show. Still, it is almost a spiritual function–or, at the worst, an amorous one–to feed one’s eyes on the molten colour that drops from the hollow vaults and thickens the air with its richness. It is all so quiet and sad and faded and yet all so brilliant and living.
It is poor work, however, talking about the colour of things in Venice. The fond spectator is perpetually looking at it from his window, when he is not floating about with that delightful sense of being for the moment a part of it, which any gentleman in a gondola is free to entertain. Venetian windows and balconies are a dreadful lure, and while you rest your elbows on these cushioned ledges the precious hours fly away. But in truth Venice isn’t in fair weather a place for concentration of mind. The effort required for sitting down to a writing-table is heroic, and the brightest page of MS. looks dull beside the brilliancy of your milieu. All nature beckons you forth and murmurs to you sophistically that such hours should be devoted to collecting impressions. Afterwards, in ugly places, at unprivileged times, you can convert your impressions into prose.
But it is hard, as I say, to express all this, and it is painful as well to attempt it–painful because in the memory of vanished hours so filled with beauty the consciousness of present loss oppresses. Exquisite hours, enveloped in light and silence, to have known them once is to have always a terrible standard of enjoyment. Certain lovely mornings of May and June come back with an ineffaceable fairness. Venice isn’t smothered in flowers at this season, in the manner of Florence and Rome; but the sea and sky themselves seem to blossom and rustle.