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VIII MONNA VITTORIA SENDS ME A MESSAGE
Monna Vittoria dwelt in the pleasantest part of the country outside the city, in a quarter where there were many gardens and much thickness of trees and greenness of grass and coloring of bright flowers—all pleasing things, that made an agreeable background to her beauty when she went abroad in her litter. For, indeed, she was a comely creature, and one that painters would pause to look at and to praise, as well as others that eyed her more carnally minded. Now I myself had but a slight acquaintance, albeit a pleasant one, with Vittoria. This was partly because my purse was but leanly provided, and partly because I had ever in mind with regard to such creatures the wise saying of the Athenian concerning the girl Lais, that it was not worth while to spend a fortune to gain a regret. Moreover, I was too much occupied with my own very agreeable love-affairs, that were blended with poetry and dreams and such like sweetnesses, as well as with reality, to make me feel any wish for more extravagant alliances. But I [Pg 109]had it in my mind now that it might be a good thing for me, in the interests of my poem in praise of fair Florentines, to pay this lady a visit, and I hoped, being a poet, though I trust not over puffed up with my own pride of importance, and knowing that she was always fain to be regarded as a patroness of the arts, that I might, without much difficulty, gain access to her.

So I spent a careless morning on a hillside beyond the city in the excellent company of a flask of wine and a handful of bread and cheese, and there I sprawled upon my back among the daisies and munched and sipped, and listened to the bees, and looked upon the brown roofs of beautiful Florence, and was very well content. And when I had stayed my stomach and flung the crumbs to the birds, and had emptied the better part of my flagon, I stretched myself under a tree like a man in a doze. I was not dozing, however, for the flowers and the verdure about me, and the birds that piped overhead, and the booming bees, and the strong sunlight on the grass, and the glimpses of blue sky through the branches, were all busying themselves for me in weaving the web of the poem I wanted to carry home with me.

As I shot the bright verses this way and that way, and caught with a childish pleasure at the shining rhymes as a child will catch at some glittering toy, I had perforce to smile as I reflected on what a [Pg 110]different business mine was to that of the unknown singer of those days. For those poems of his that he had sent to Guido and to others were exceeding beautiful, and full of a very noble and golden exaltation. I think if the angels in heaven were ever to make love to one another they would choose for their purpose some such perfection of speech as Dante—for I knew the singer to be Dante a little later—found for his sonnets and canzone. For myself, I frankly admit, being an honest man, that I could not write such sonnets even if I had my Dante's command of speech, to which Heaven forbid that I should ever pretend. Those rhymes of his, for all their loveliness—and when I say that they were lovely enough to be worthy of the lady to whom they were addressed, I give them the highest praise and the praise that Dante would most have cared to accept—were too ethereal for my work-a-day humors. I liked better to write verses to the laughing, facile lasses with whom my way of life was cast—jolly girls who would kiss to-day and sigh to-morrow, and forget all about you the third day if needs were, and whom it was as easy for their lover to forget, so far as any sense of pain lay in the recollection of their graces. And I would even rather have the jolly job I was engaged on at that moment of some ripe, rich-colored verses for Vittoria, for I could, in writing them, be as human as I pleased and frankly of the earth earthly, and I [Pg 111]needed to approach my quarry with no tributes pilfered from the armory of heaven. I could praise her beauty with the tongue of men, and leave the tongue of angels out of the question; and if my muse were pleased here and there to take a wanton flutter, I knew I could give decorum the go-by with a light heart.

So I wallowed at my ease in the grasses and tossed verses as a juggler tosses his balls, and watched them glitter and wink as they rose and fell, and at last I shaped to my own satisfaction what I believed to be an exceedingly pleasant set of verses that needed no more than to be engrossed on a fair piece of sheepskin and tied with a bright ribbon and sent to the exquisite frailty. And all these things I did in due course, after the proper period of polishing and amending and straightening out, until, as I think, there never was a set of rhymes more carefully fathered and mothered into the world. And here is the sonnet:
"There is a lady living in this place That wears the radiant name of Victory; And we that love would bid her wingless be, Like the Athenian image, lest her grace, Lifting a siren's-tinted pinions, trace Its glittering course across the Tyrrhene sea To some more favored Cyprian sanctuary, Leaving us lonely, longing for her face. [Pg 112]O daughter of the gods, though lovelier lands, If such there be, entreat you, do not hear Their whispering voices, heed their beckoning hands; Have only eye for Florence, only ear For Florentine adorers, while their cheer Between your fingers spills its golden sands."

Now this sonnet may be divided into four parts. In the first part, I make my statement that there is a lady dwelling in Florence whose name is Vittoria. In the second part, I allow my fancy to play lightly with the suggestions this name arouses in me, and I make allusion very felicitously to the famous statue of the Wingless Victory, which the Athenians honored in Athens so very specially in that, being wingless, it could not fly away from the city. In the third part, I express my alarm lest her loveliness should spread its vans in flight and leave us lonely. In the fourth, I entreat her to pay no heed to the solicitations of others, but to remain always loyal to her Florentine lovers so long as they can give her gifts. The second part begins here: "And we that love." The third begins, "Lest her grace." The fourth part begins, "O daughter of the gods."

That simile of the Wingless Victory tickled me so mightily that I was in a very good conceit with myself, and if I read over my precious sonnet once, I suppose I read it over a score of times; and even now, at this distance of days, I am inclined to pat [Pg 113]myself upon the back and to call myself ear-pleasing names for the sake of my handiwork. Of course I am ready to admit quite frankly that most, if not all, of Dante's sonnets are better, taking them all round, than my modest enterprises. But there is room, as I hope, for many kinds of music-makers in the fields about Parnassus. I know Messer Guido spoke very pleasantly of my sonnets, and so I make no doubt would Dante have, but somehow or other I never showed them to him.

Now, when I had scrolled my rhymes precisely, I had them dispatched to Monna Vittoria by a sure hand, and, as is my way, having done what I had to do, thought no more about the matter for the time being. It was ever a habit of mine not merely to let the dead day bury its dead, but to let the dead hour, and, if possible, the dead minute and dead second bury their dead, and to think no more upon any matter than is essential. I think the sum of all wise living is to be merry as often as one can, and sad as seldom as one can, and never to fret over what is unavoidable, or to be pensive over what is past, but to be wise for the time. So I remember that days not a few drifted by after I had sent my rhymes and my request to Monna Vittoria, and I was very busy just then paying my court to three of the prettiest girls I had ever known, and I almost forgot my poem and Monna Vittoria altogether.

[Pg 114]

But I recall a grayish morning along Arno and a meeting with Messer Guido, and his taking me on one side and standing under an archway while he read me a sonnet that the unknown poet had composed in illustration of his passion for his nameless lady, and had sent to Messer Guido. It was a very beautiful sonnet, as I remember, and I recall very keenly wishing for an instant that I could write such words and, above all, that I could think such thoughts. I think I have already set it down that love has always been a very practical business with me. If one girl is not at hand, another will serve, and the moon-flower, sunflower manner of worship was never my way. But if one must love like that, making love rather a candle on God's altar than a torch in Venus her temple, there is no man ever since the world began, nor will, I think, ever be till the world shall end, to do so better than Messer Dante. When I had done reading the sonnet, and had parted from friend Guido, I found myself in the mood that this then unknown poet's verses always swung me into, of wonder and trouble, as of one who, having drunk over-much of a heady and insidious wine, finds himself thinking unfamiliar thoughts and seeing familiar things unfamiliarly. While I was thus mazed and arguing with myself as to whether I were right and this poet wrong or this poet right and I wrong in our view of love and women. I was accosted in the plain [Pg 115]highway by a dapper little brat of a page that wore a very flamboyant livery, and that carried a letter in his hand. And the page questioned me with a grin and asked me if I were Messer Lappo Lappi, and I, being so bewildered with the burden of my warring thoughts, was half of a mind to answer that I was no such man, but luckily recalled myself and walked the sober earth again soberly. I assured him that I was none other than poor Lappo Lappi, and I pinched a silver coin from my pocket and gave it to him, and he handed me the missive and grinned again, and whistled and slipped away from me along the street, a diminished imp of twinkling gilt. And I opened the letter then and there, and read in it that Monna Vittoria very gracefully gave me her duty, and in all humility thanked me for my verses—Lord, as if that ample baggage could ever be humble!—and would be flattered beyond praise if my dignity would honor her with my presence on such a day at such an hour. And I was very well pleased with this missive, and was very careful to obey its commands.

The house where Monna Vittoria dwelt was a marvel of beauty, like its mistress—a fair frame for a fair portrait. It seemed to have laid all the kingdoms of earth under tribute, for, indeed, the lady's friends were mainly men of wealth, cardinals and princes and great captains, that were ever ready to give her the best they had to give for the [Pg 116]honor of her acquaintance. Her rooms were rich with statues of marble and statues of bronze, and figures in ivory and figures in silver, and with gold vessels, and cabinets of ebony and other costly woods; and pictures by Byzantine painters hung upon her walls, and her rooms were rich with all manner of costly stuffs and furs. He that was favored to have audience with Monna Vittoria went to her as through a dream of loveliness, marvelling at the many splendid things that surrounded her: at the fountain in her court-yard, where the goldfish gambolled, and where a Triton that came from an old Roman villa spouted; at her corridors, lined with delicately tinted majolica that seemed cool and clean as ice in those summer heats; at her antechambers, that glowed with color and swooned with sweet odors; and, finally, at her own apartments, where she that was lady of all this beauty seemed so much more beautiful than it all.

Madonna Vittoria would have looked queenly in a cottage; in the midst of her gorgeous surroundings she showed more than imperial, and she knew the value of such trappings and made the most of them to dazzle her admirers, for her admirers, as I have said, were all great lords that were used to handsome dwellings and sumptuous appointments and costly adornings, but there was never one of them that seemed to dwell so splendidly as Monna Vittoria.

[Pg 117]

Now I, that came to her with nothing save such credit as I might hope to have for the sake of my verses, could look at all this magnificence with an indifferent eye. Yet I will confess that as I moved through so much sumptuousness, and breathed such strangely scented air, I was stirred all of a sudden with strange and base envy of those great personages for whom this brave show was spread, and found myself wishing unwittingly that I were some great prince of the Church or adventurous free-companion who might not, indeed, command—for there were none who could do that—but hope for the lady's kindness. Although I assured myself lustily that a poet was as good as a prince, in my heart, and in the presence of all this luxury, I knew very dismally that it was not so, and that Monna Vittoria would never be persuaded to think so. As I have already said, I had no great yearning for these magnificent mercenaries of the hosts of Love, for these bejewelled amazons that seemed made merely to prove to man that he is no better than an unutterable ass. My pulses never thrilled tumultuously after her kind, and in the free air of the fields I would not have changed one of my pretty sweethearts against Monna Vittoria. But somehow in that fantastic palace of hers, with its enchanted atmosphere and its opulent surroundings, my cool reason of the meadows and the open air seemed at a loss, and I found myself ready, as it [Pg 118]were, to surrender to Circe like any hog pig of them all.

If this were the time and the place, I should like to try to find out, by the light of a dry logic, and with the aid of a cold process of analysis, why these Timandras and Phrynes have so much power over men. Perhaps, as I am speaking of Monna Vittoria, I should add the Aspasias to my short catalogue of she-gallants, for Vittoria was a woman well accomplished in the arts, well-lettered, speaking several tongues with ease, well-read, too, and one that could talk to her lovers, when they had the time or the inclination for talking, of the ancient authors of Rome, and of Greece, too, for that matter—did I not say her mother was a Greek?—and could say you or sing you the stanzas of mellifluous poets, most ravishingly to the ear. She knew all the verses of Guido Guinicelli by root of heart, and to hear her repeat that poem of his beginning,
"Love ever dwells within the gentle heart,"

what time she touched a lute to soft notes of complaining and praise and patience and desire, was to make, for the moment, even the most obdurate understand her charm. But if I at all seem to disfavor her, it may be because she was too costly a toy for such as I, save, indeed, when she condescended to do a grace, for kindness' sake, to one [Pg 119]whose revenues were of small estate. It is plain that such ladies have their fascination, and in a measure I admit it, but, day in and day out, I prefer my jolly dollimops. This has ever been my opinion and always will be, and I think those are the likelier to go happy that think like me.


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