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The Child In The Vatican
by [?]

There were a lot of children in the Vatican this morning: small barbarians scarce out of the nursery, who should have been at home, at their lessons, or reading fairy books, or carpentering, or doll-educating, or boat-sailing, or amusing themselves in the hundred nondescript ways which we seem to forget (remembering only ready-made toys and ready-made stories) when we grow up. Some were left to their own devices, and scampered, chattering and laughing, through the gallery; jumping up three steps at a time, clambering up to windows, running round isolated statues, feretting into all the little nook and corner rooms, peeping into the lidless sarcophagi and the great porphyry baths, with the rough-hewn rings and lions’ heads. The others were being led by their elders: talking in whispers, or silent: demure, weary, vacant, staring about with dreary, vague little faces; these, who were not permitted to rush about like the others, seemed chilled, numbed by a sort of wonder unaccompanied by curiosity, oppressed by a sense of indefineable desolation. And, indeed, it is a desolate place, this Vatican, with its long, bleak, glaring corridors; its half-lit, chill, resounding halls; its damp little Belvedere Court, where green lichen fills up the fissured pavement; a dreary labyrinth of brick and mortar, a sort of over-ground catacomb of stones, constructed in our art-studying, rather than art-loving times where once–when Michael Angelo was stretched painting on the creaking scaffolding slung from the roof of the Sixtine–the poppies waved scarlet among the trailing vines of the pope’s orchard, and the white butterflies, like wind-blown blossoms, swarmed in the tall grass beneath the bending apple trees, and the fire-flies danced in luminous spirals among the wild rose-hedges. A dismal scientific piece of ostentation, like all galleries; a place where art is arranged and ticketed and made dingy and lifeless even as are the plants in a botanic collection. Eminently a place of exile; or worse, of captivity, for all this people of marble: these athletes and nymphs and satyrs, and warriors and poets and gods, who once stood, each in happy independence, against a screen of laurel or ilex branches, or on the sun-heated gable of a temple, where the grass waved in the fissures and the swallows nested, or in a cresset-lit, incense-dim chapel, or high against the blue sky above the bustle of the market place; poor stone captives cloistered in monastic halls and cells, or arranged, like the skeletons of Capuchins, in endless rows of niche, shelf, and bracket. Galleries are necessary things, to save pictures and statues (or the little remaining of them) from candle smoke, sacristans’ ladders, damp, worms, and street boys, but they are evil necessities; and the sense of a sort of negative vandalism always clings to them, specially to the galleries of statues, so uninhabited, so utterly sepulchral. Going to a gallery of sculpture, we must be prepared to isolate what we wish to enjoy, to make for it a fitting habitation in our fancy: it is like going to read a page of Homer, or the Georgics, or Shelley, in some great musty, dusty library, redolent of crumbling parchment and forgotten rubbish. Such is this Vatican, even for us accustomed to it and knowing what we do and do not want: for us grown-up creatures, familiar with such matters, and with powers of impression quite deadened by culture. What, therefore, must not this Vatican be for a child: a quite small, ignorant barbarian such as has never before set its feet in a gallery, to whom art and antiquity have been mere names, to whom all this world of tintless stone can give but a confused, huge, overpowering impression of dreariness and vacuity. An impression composed of negative things: of silence and absence of colour, of lifelessness, of not knowing what it all is or all means; a sense of void and of unattractive mystery which chills, numbs the little soul into a sort of emotionless, inactive discomfort. What we were, how we felt, how we understood and vaguely guessed things, as children, we can none of us know. The recollection of ourselves when we were so different from ourselves, this tradition handed down from a dim, far-off creature of whom we know, without feeling it, that he, was our ego, this mysterious tradition remains to us only in fragments, has been printed into our memory only by desultory patches: at one point we can read, at another the ink has not taken; we know as distinctly as the sensation and impressions of this very morning this or that sensation or impression of so many, many years ago; and we ask ourselves at the same time–“how did such another thing affect our mind?”–with the utter hopelessness of answer with which we should try to look into the soul of a dog or a cat. Thus it is with our small barbarian child in the Vatican: how did it feel? Alas, we should, in order to know, first have to find that little obscure, puzzled soul again; and where is it gone? this thing which may once have been ourselves, whither has it disappeared, when has it been extinguished? So we can only speculate and reconstruct on a general basis. Certain it is that to this child, to any child, this Vatican must have been the most desolate, the most unintelligible of places. For, strange as it may seem, this clear and simple art of sculpture, born when the world was young and had not yet learned to think and talk in symbolical riddles, this apparently so outspoken art is, to the childish soul of our days, the most silent art of any. To the child, the modern child, it is speechless; it knows not a word of the language understood by the child’s fancy. For this fancy language of our modern child is the language of colour, of movement, of sound, of suggestion, of all the broken words of modern thought and feeling: and the statue has none of these. The child does not recognise in it anything familiar: these naked, or half-naked, limbs are things which the child has never seen, at least, never observed; they do not, in their unfamiliarity, their vagueness, constitute an individual character; the dress, the furrowed face, the coloured hair, the beard, these are the things which the child knows, and by which it recognises; but in these vague, white things, with their rounded white cheek, and clotted white hair, with their fold of white drapery about them, the child recognises nothing: men? women? it does not ask: for it, they are mere things, figures cut out of stone. And thus, in their vagueness, their unfamiliarity, they seem also to be all alike, even as, on first acquaintance, we sometimes ask ourselves whether those sisters or brothers we know are four or only three; for in the unknown there is no diversity. Mysterious things, therefore, these statues for the child; but theirs is a mystery of mere vacuity, one which does not haunt, does not seek a solution. For they are dull things, in their dirty whiteness: they are doing nothing, these creatures, merely standing or sitting or leaning, they are looking at nothing with their pupilless white eyes, they have no story to tell, no name to be asked. The child does not say to them, as to the people in pictures, the splendid people in strange colours, and holding strange things, “Who are you? why are you doing that?” It does not even ask or answer itself whether these white things, who seem to be all the same, are dead or alive: they are not ghosts, they are things which, for aught the child knows or cares, have never been born and never will die. A negation, oppressive and depressing, that is all; and in the infinite multitude of statues in such a place as this Vatican, their sense must become actively painful to the child. Hence, the children we meet either rush headlong through corridor and hall, looking neither to the right nor to the left, or let themselves be passively led through, listless, depressed, glancing vaguely about, looking wistfully at the little glimpses of sunlit garden outside, at the clipped box hedges and trim orange trees in the court of the Pine Cone. For there, outside, is life, movement, green; little hedged be
ds to run round; fountains to be made to spirt aside by sticking fingers into their pipes; walls on which to walk balanced, and benches to jump over: there is field and food for the child’s fancy, and here, within, among all these cut stones, there is none.