I n the town of Florence, not far from the Piazza del Granduca, runs a little cross street, I think it is called Porta Rossa. In front of a kind of market in this street, where green stuff is sold, stands a skilfully worked bronze boar. A stream of fresh clear water gushes out of its mouth; it has turned dark green from age, only its snout shines as if it had been polished; and so it has by the many hundreds of children and poor people who take hold of it with their hands and put their mouths to its mouth to drink the water. It is a picture in itself to see the well-formed animal embraced by a handsome half-naked boy putting his fresh lips to its snout.
Most people who go to Florence find the place; one only has to ask the first beggar one sees about the bronze boar and he will find it.
It was late on a winter evening; the mountains were covered with snow, but it was moonlight, and the moon in Italy gives a light which is as good as that of a dark winter's day in the north. Nay, it is better, for the clear air seems to raise us above the earth, while in the north the cold, grey, leaden clouds press us to the ground—the cold, wet ground which one day will press upon our coffins.
Along in the ducal gardens, under the shelter of the stone pines, where thousands of roses bloom in the winter, a little ragged boy had been sitting all day. A boy who might have stood for typical Italy; he was so handsome, so merry, and yet so suffering. He was hungry and thirsty, but no one gave him a copper, and when it got dark and the gardens were to be closed the porter drove him away. He stood for a long time dreaming on the bridge over the Arno, looking at the glittering stars reflected in the water beneath the stately marble bridge. He took the road to the bronze boar, knelt before it, threw his arms round its neck, put his little mouth to its shining snout and drank great draughts of the fresh water. Close by lay a few salad leaves and some chestnuts, and these were his supper. There was not a creature in the street; he was quite alone, he got on to the boar's back, leant forward so that his little curly head rested on the animal's head, and before he knew what he was about he fell fast asleep.
It was midnight, the bronze boar moved. He heard it say quite plainly, "Hold tight, for I am going to run off, you little boy!" Then off it ran with him. What an odd ride that was First they came to the Piazza del Granduca, and the bronze horse which carried the duke's statue, neighed aloud. The many-coloured coats of arms on the old Town Hall shone like transparent pictures, and Michael Angelo's David slung his sling; it was a curious mixture of life! The bronze groups of Perseus, and of the Rape oft the Sabines, were only too the alive; a death shriek from them resounded through the stately, solitary Piazza. The bronze boar stopped by the Uffizi palace, under the colonnade where the nobles assemble during Lent for the carnival.
"Hold tight," said the animal, "hold tight, for now I am going up the stairs."
The little fellow had not yet said a word, he was half frightened, half delighted. They stepped into a long gallery, he knew it well, he had been there before. The walls were crowded with pictures, and the statues and busts were all in as bright a light as if it were day; but the most splendid sight of all, was when the door to one of the adjoining rooms was opened. The little boy remembered the splendours here, but to-night everything was positively magnificent.
Here stood the statue of a woman, as beautiful as only the costliest marble and the master hand of the sculptor could make her; she moved her lovely limbs, dolphins sprang at her feet, and immortality shone from her eyes. She is known to the world as the Venus de Medici. Marble statues of splendid men were grouped around her; one of them was whetting his sword, he is called the Grinder. The next group was the Wrestling Gladiators; the sword was whetted, and the giants struggled for the goddess of beauty.
The boy was dazzled by the glitter; the walls were radiant with colour, and everything there was full of life and move. went. The picture of Venus, the earthly Venus with her rounded limbs and glowing with life as Titian saw her, shone out in redoubled splendour. Near her the portraits of two beautiful women, stretched upon soft cushions, with heaving bosoms and luxuriant locks falling over their rounded shoulders, while their dark eyes betrayed their burning thoughts; but none of all these pictures ventured quite out of their frames. The goddess of beauty herself; the Gladiators and the Grinder remained in their places, subdued by the halo round the Madonna, with the infant Jesus and St John. The sacred pictures were no longer pictures, they were the saints themselves.
What brilliance and what beauty as they passed from gallery to gallery! the little boy saw them all; the bronze boar went slowly through all the glories. One sight crowded out the previous one; one picture only really took hold of his thoughts, and that chiefly because of the happy children in it; once by daylight the little boy had nodded to them.
Many probably pass this picture lightly, and yet it contains a treasury of poetry; it is a Christ descending to the nether regions, but He is not surrounded by souls in torment, no, these are the heathen. The picture is by the Florentine Angiolo Bronzino; most beautiful is the expression of the children's faces in their certainty that they are going to heaven. Two little creatures are already embracing each other, one little one stretches out a hand to a companion below, pointing to himself as much as to say, "I am going to heaven!" All the older people stand round doubting, or hoping, or bending humbly before the Saviour. The boy looked longer at this picture than at any of the others; the bronze boar stood still before it, a gentle sigh was heard. Did it come from the picture, or from the animal's breast? The boy held out his hand towards the smiling children; then the animal tore off with him, tore away through the open gallery.
"Thank you, thank you, you beautiful animal!" said the little boy patting the boar, which went bump, bump, down the stairs with him.
"Thank you!" said the bronze boar. "I have helped you, and you have helped me, because I only get strength to run when I have an innocent child on my back! Nay, I dare even step under the rays of the lamp before the Madonna. I can carry you anywhere except into a church, but when you are with me I can stand outside and look in at the open door! Don't get down off my back, if you do that I shall be dead, just as you see me in the daytime in the Porta Rossa!"
"I will stay with you, my beloved creature," said the little boy, and then they rushed at a furious pace through the streets of Florence to the Piazza before the church of Santa Croce. The folding doors flew open, and the lights on the altar streamed through the church, and out into the solitary Piazza.
There was a wonderful blaze of light from a sculptured tomb in the left aisle; thousands of twinkling stars formed a kind of halo round it. The tomb was surmounted by a coat of arms, a red ladder gleaming like a flame of fire on a blue field. It was the grave of Galileo. It is a simple monument; the red ladder might be emblematic of Art, signifying that the way to fame is always upwards on a flaming ladder. All genius soars to heaven like Elias of old.
In the right aisle of the church, every statue on the costly sarcophagi seemed endowed with life. Here stood Michael Angelo, there Dante, with a wreath of laurel round his brows; Alfieri, Machiavelli, these great men rest side by side—the pride of Italy. It is a very beautiful church, far more beautiful, if not so large as the marble Cathedral of Florence.
The marble garments appeared to move, as if their great wearers once again raised their heads, and looked towards the glowing altar with its many lights, where the white robed boys swung their golden censers, amid song and music, while the fragrance of the incense filled the church, and streamed out into the Piazza.
The boy stretched out his hands towards the light, but at the same moment the bronze boar rushed on again, and he had to clutch it tightly. The wind whistled in his ears, he heard the church doors creak on their hinges as they were shut, he seemed to lose consciousness, and felt a rush of icy air—and then he opened his eyes.
It was morning; he had half slipped off the bronze boar, which stood in its usual place in the Porta Rossa. Fear and trembling seized the lad as he thought of the woman he called his mother. She had sent him out yesterday to get money, and he had got none. He was hungry and thirsty, and again he flung his arms round the boar's neck, kissed its snout, nodded to it, and walked off to one of the narrowest streets, only wide enough for a well-laden ass. A big iron-studded door stood half open; he went in here, and up some stone steps by a dirty wall with a greasy rope for a hand-rail, till he reached an open gallery hung with rags. A flight of steps led into a courtyard where there was a fountain; the water was drawn up from the fountain to the different floors by means of a thick iron wire, where the buckets hung side by side. Sometimes the pulley jerked the buckets and splashed the water all over the court. Another broken-down staircase led still higher up, and two Russian sailors running down almost upset the boy. They were coming from their nightly carousals. A strongly-built woman, no longer young, with thick black hair, followed them.
"What have you brought home?" she asked the boy.
"Don't be angry!" he pleaded, taking hold of her dress as if to kiss it. "I've got nothing, nothing at all."
They passed on into a little room. I need not describe it, but only say that in it stood an earthen pot with handles for holding fire, called a "marito." She hung this on her arm, warmed her fingers, and pushed the boy with her elbow.
"You must have got some money," she said.
The boy began to cry, and then she kicked him, making him cry out loud.
"Will you be quiet? or I'll break your screaming head!" and she swung the pot at him. The boy ducked his head and shrieked.
Then a neighbour came in, and she also had her marito on her arm.
"What are you doing to the child, Felicita?" she said.
"The child is my own," answered Felicita, "and I can murder him if I like, and you too, Gianina!"
Then she swung the fire-pot again. The other woman raised hers to parry it, and the two pots clashed together, smashing them to atoms and scattering fire and ash all over the room.
The boy seized the opportunity to escape; he rushed across the courtyard and out of the gate. The poor child ran till he had no breath left. At last he stopped by the church of Santa Croce, whose great doors had opened to him last night. He went in; everything here was bright, He knelt down by the first tomb. It was Michael Angelo's, and very soon he sobbed as if his heart would break. People came and went, mass was celebrated, nobody took any notice of him, but an old citizen, who stopped and . looked at him for a moment, and then passed on like the rest. The poor child was quite overpowered by hunger and thirst; he became faint and ill. After a time he crept into a corner behind the monuments and fell asleep. Towards evening he was awakened by someone shaking him. He started up, and saw the same old citizen standing before him.
"Are you ill? Where is your home? Have you been here all day?" were some of the questions asked by the old man.
After hearing what he had to say, the old man took him with him to a little house in a side street near. It was a glovemaker's, and a woman was sitting busily at work when they entered. A little white poodle, so closely clipped that the pink skin shone through, jumped upon the table and sprang towards the little boy.
"The innocents soon make friends with each other!" said the woman, patting both the dog and the boy.
The good people fed him, and said he should stay the night. Next day old Father Giuseppe would go and speak to his mother. He only had a homely little bed, but it was regal to him, who so often slept upon the hard stones, and he slept sweetly and dreamt about the pictures and the bronze boar.
Father Giuseppe went out early next morning, and the poor boy was not glad to see him go, for he knew that he had gone to his mother, and that he might have to go back. He cried at the thought, and kissed the lively little dog; the woman nodded to them both.
What did Father Giuseppe say when he came back? He talked to his wife for a long time, and she nodded and patted the boy.
"He's a beautiful child!" she said; "what a clever glovemaker he will be, just like you; see what fingers he has, they're so delicate and flexible I Madonna intended him to be a glovemaker!" So the little boy stayed in the house, and the woman taught him to sew; he had plenty to eat, and got plenty of sleep. He grew quite merry and at last began to tease Bellissima, as the little dog was called. This made the woman angry, she scolded him and shook her finger at him, so he went sadly to his own room. It faced the street, and the skins were hung up in it to dry; there were thick iron bars across the windows. That night he could not sleep, his head was full of the bronze boar. Suddenly he heard "scramble, scramble," outside, could it be the boar? He rushed to the window, but there was nothing to be seen.
"Help the Signor to carry his box of colours," said his mistress in the morning, as their neighbour, a young artist, came down carrying his colour box as well as a huge roll of canvas. The child took the box, and followed the painter. They took the road to the picture gallery and mounted the same stairs which he remembered so well, from the night when he rode the bronze boar. He remembered all the statues and the pictures, the beautiful marble Venus, and the painted ones too. Again he looked at the Madonna, with the infant Jesus, and St John. They stopped before the picture by Bronzino, where Christ is represented as standing in the under world, with the children smiling around Him, in their certainty of entering heaven. The poor boy smiled too, for he was in his heaven.
"Now you may go home," said the painter to him, when he had put up his easel.
"Might I stay to see the Signor paint?" said the boy; "might I see you put the picture on this canvas?"
"I'm not painting yet," said the artist, taking out a piece of charcoal. His hand moved quickly and his eye rapidly took the measures of the great picture; though he only made a few light strokes, there stood the figure of the Saviour, as in the painting.
"Why don't you go!" said the painter.
Then the boy wandered dreamily home again, sat down on the table—and learnt to make gloves.
His thoughts were all day in the gallery, and therefore he was clumsy and pricked his fingers but he did not tease Bellissima. In the evening when he found the house door open, he crept out; it was cold, bright starlight, and very clear. He wandered away through the quiet streets, and soon found himself before the bronze boar; he bent over it, kissed its shining snout, and then seated himself upon its back.
"You beloved creature!" he said, "how I have been longing for you! we must have another ride to-night! But the boar remained motionless. The little boy still sat astride of it, when he felt something pull his clothes. He looked down and saw the little naked, clipped Bellissima. The little dog had followed him, without having been noticed by anyone. Bellissima barked, as much as to say "do you see I am here? what are you sitting up there for?"
A fiery dragon could not have frightened the boy more than the little dog at that place. "Bellissima in the street and not dressed I "as the old lady called it, "what would be the end of it?"
The dog never went out in the winter without a little sheepskin coat, which had been made for it. It was fastened round the neck and body with a red ribbon, and decorated with little red bows and jingling bells. It almost looked like a little kid when it went out in the winter, tripping after its mistress. Now here was Bellissima in the cold without her coat; what would be the consequences? All his fancies were quickly put to flight, yet he stopped to kiss the boar before getting down, and then he took the shivering little dog in his arms. Oh how cold she was, the boy ran off with her as fast as he could.
"What are you running off with there?" shouted two policemen he met, and Bellissima barked. "Where did you steal that pretty dog?" they asked, and took it away from him.
"Oh, give it back to me!" cried the boy.
"If you didn't steal it, you can tell them at home that it can be fetched from the police station," and off they walked with Bellissima.
This was a terrible business. He did not know whether he had better jump into the river or go home and confess everything. They would certainly kill him, he thought. "But I would gladly be killed; then I should go to heaven." So he hurried home almost hoping to be killed.
The door was fastened, and he could not reach the knocker. There was no one in the street, so he took a stone and hammered at the door with it.
"Who is there?" said someone inside.
"It is I," he said. "Bellissima is lost; let me in and kill me!"
Then, indeed, there was an uproar, his mistress was so very fond of Bellissima; she looked at the wall where his coat ought to hang, and there it was, in its proper place.
"Bellissima at the police station!" she cried; "you bad child! Why did you take him out! he will die of cold! That delicate little animal among all those rough men!"
Father Giuseppe had to go off at once, his wife scolded, and the boy cried; everybody in the house came to see what was the matter, among them the painter. He took the boy on his knee and questioned him; bit by bit he got out the whole story about the bronze boar and the picture gallery. It was rather difficult to understand; but the painter comforted the child and talked over the woman, but she would not be happy till Giuseppe came back with Bellissima, who had been in the hands of the police. Then there was great rejoicing, and the painter patted the boy on the head, and gave him a few pictures.
Oh, what splendid pictures they were! comical heads; and above all the bronze boar himself. Oh, nothing could be more delightful. It was sketched in a few strokes, and even the house behind it appeared too.
"Oh, if one could only draw and paint! one would have the whole world before one."
Next day, in his first quiet moment, the little fellow got a pencil and tried to copy the drawing of the bronze boar, and he succeeded too! it was a little crooked, a little on one side, one leg thick and another leg thin, still it was like the copy, and he was delighted. Only the pencil would not go as straight as he meant it to go. The next day another boar stood beside the first one, and this one was a hundred times better; the third one was so good that anyone could see what it was meant for.
But the glovemaking went on badly; he did the errands very slowly; he had learnt from the bronze boar that any picture might be put on paper, and the town of Florence is a complete picture-book, if you only turn over the leaves.
On the Piazza della Trinity stands a slender column, and upon it stands Justice blindfolded with the scales in her hand. She was also soon put upon paper by the glovemaker's little apprentice. His collection grew, but as yet they were only copies of inanimate objects, when one day Bellissima came hopping towards him. "Stand still!" he said. "I will make a beautiful portrait of you to put among my pictures!" But Bellissima would not stand still, so be had to tie her up. He tied her by the head and tail, and she did not like it, and barked and jumped about and strained at the cord; just then her mistress came in.
"You wicked boy! the poor animal!" was all she had time to say. She pushed the boy aside, kicked him, and turned him out of the house; and called him an ungrateful, good-for-nothing, wicked boy. She almost smothered Bellissima with her kisses and tears.
At this moment the painter came up the stairs, and—this is the turning point of the story.
In 1834 there was an exhibition in the Academy of Arts at Florence. Two pictures hung side by side attracted much attention from the spectators. In the s'maller of the two a merry little boy sat at a table drawing; his model was a closely clipped, little white poodle; as the animal would not stand, it was tied up by the head and tail with string. The whole picture was so full of life and truth to nature that it could not fail to interest all who looked at it. The story went that the painter was a young Florentine, who had been found in the streets and brought up by an old glovemaker; and that he had taught himself to draw. A now celebrated artist discovered his talent at a time when he was about to be turned out of the glovemaker's house for having tied up his mistress's favourite, the little poodle, when he wanted a model. The glovemaker's apprentice had become a great painter, as the picture plainly proved. The larger picture was an even greater proof of his talent. There was only a single figure in it, that of a handsome ragged boy, fast asleep, leaning against the bronze boar of the Via Porta Rossa. All the spectators knew the spot well. The child's arm rested on the boar's head, and he slept sweetly; the lamp in front of the Madonna near threw a strong light on the child's pale, beautiful face. It was indeed a beautiful picture. A handsome gilt frame surrounded it, and a wreath of laurel was hung on one corner of it; but a black ribbon was entwined among the leaves, and long black streamers hung down from it. The young painter was just—dead!