Before Charles Eliot Norton had become Harvard’s first professor of that discipline, art history had, in general, been considered, not a field of study, but a matter of craft and technique to be taught by painters to other painters.
Scholarship about art, and especially about Italian art, entered a new era as the German universities began developing large-scale historical studies like those of Swiss scholar Jacob Burckhardt, whose Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy was published in English in 1878.
In Great Britain, tastes were influenced by the work of Norton’s close friend Ruskin in books like The Stones of Venice (1851–1853) and The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849).
Following Ruskin, Norton loved best in Italy the powerful moral uplift of Dante and of Italy’s medieval Gothic architecture. In Norton’s art history courses, the Renaissance was the unhappy termination of the Middle Ages, which had been the last great era of spiritual unity and well-being.
There was a joke current among Harvard undergraduates that Norton had died and was just being admitted to Heaven, but at his first glimpse staggered backward exclaiming, “Oh! Oh! Oh! So Overdone! So garish! So Renaissance!”
“Norton,” Bernard Berenson commented drily years later, had done what he could at Harvard to restrain “all efforts toward art itself.”
Rachel,Cohen. Bernard Berenson (Jewish Lives) (p. 45). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Cudjo Lewis was getting old, and Zora Neale Hurston had something to prove.
Hurston, pictured above, was the prolific African American author best known for “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” She was just starting her career in 1928 when she traveled down to Plateau, Ala., to meet with Lewis. The man was in his 80s. He was widely believed to be the last African man alive who had been kidnapped from his village, shackled in the cargo of a ship and forced into slavery in America. Hurston, competing with other anthropologists of the day, set out to document his life more thoroughly than the rest.
Italy was a place where art was part of daily routine. It was in the fabric and facades of the buildings and in the way towns and villages. Aestheticism was instinctive, a common trait, as if it were one of the senses. Artfulness was ubiquitous, from the wrapping of one’s purchases in a shop to the arrangement of food on a plate.
The most common word in the language appeared to be bella, which prefixed everything from the morning espresso to the design of a dress. Great effort – and great importance – was placed on how things looked. Tuscany’s landscape was the ultimate expression of this. It was the view that travellers dreamt of, composed who knew how by diverse hands over centuries.
It even smelled wonderful, of clean air and woodsmoke, of rosemary and new leather, of frying garlic and pungent parmigiano.
Taylor, Alan F.. Appointment in Arezzo: My Life with Muriel Spark (Kindle Locations 859-865). Birlinn Ltd. Kindle Edition.
The Casa Guidi, as we see it today, has the same number of rooms and the same plan as it was when the Robert and Elizabeth Barret Browningrented it in 1847. The Brownings lived here happily for many years, and Elizabeth died there in 1861.
The Brownings took two years to furnish the apartment, buying at high cost one or two precious pieces such as the golden mirror of the living room, while most of the paintings and other furniture was found in small Florentine shops.
In restoring the property, the Landmark Trust and Eton College tried to maintain the original atmosphere, preventing the apartment from looking like a museum.
There are currently some paintings and furniture that belonged to both the Barrett family and the Browning family and that have been generously donated to Casa Guidi, but overall the furnishings remain similar to those of the 19th century. The walls and ceilings in the living room and main bedroom and the ceiling of the poet's studio have been restored with the original colors of the period. All doors and fireplaces are original.
After the poet's death, the Commune commemorated her life placed an inscription on the door (composed by Niccolò Tommaseo) according to which her poetry had created a golden ring that binds Italy and England.
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882) was an American poet and educator whose works include “Paul Revere’s Ride“, The Song of Hiawatha, and Evangeline. He was also the first American to translate Dante Alighieri‘s Divine Comedy.
Longfellow spent several years translating Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. To aid him in perfecting the translation and reviewing proofs, he invited friends to weekly meetings every Wednesday starting in 1864. The “Dante Club”, as it was called, regularly included William Dean Howells, James Russell Lowell, Charles Eliot Norton and other occasional guests. The full 3-volume translation was published in the spring of 1867, though Longfellow would continue to revise it, and went through four printings in its first year.
He was also important as a translator; his translation of Dante became a required possession for those who wanted to be a part of high culture. He also encouraged and supported other translators.
Is Longfellow’s translation of Dante the best?
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation finds a new champion in Joseph Luzzi, in “How to Read Dante in the 21st Century” in the online edition of The American Scholar:
… one of the few truly successful English translations comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a professor of Italian at Harvard and an acclaimed poet. He produced one of the first complete, and in many respects still the best, English translations of The Divine Comedy in 1867. It did not hurt that Longfellow had also experienced the kind of traumatic loss—the death of his young wife after her dress caught fire—that brought him closer to the melancholy spirit of Dante’s writing, shaped by the lacerating exile from his beloved Florence in 1302. Longfellow succeeded in capturing the original brilliance of Dante’s lines with a close, sometimes awkwardly literal translation that allows the Tuscan to shine through the English, as though this “foreign” veneer were merely a protective layer added over the still-visible source. The critic Walter Benjamin wrote that a great translation calls our attention to a work’s original language even when we don’t speak that foreign tongue. Such extreme faithfulness can make the language of the translation feel unnatural—as though the source were shaping the translation into its own alien image.
Longfellow’s English indeed comes across as Italianate: in surrendering to the letter and spirit of Dante’s Tuscan, he loses the quirks and perks of his mother tongue. For example, he translates Dante’s beautifully compact Paradiso 2.7
L’acqua ch’io prendo già mai non si corse;
with an equally concise and evocative
The sea I sail has never yet been passed:
Emulating Dante’s talent for internal rhymes laced with hypnotic sonic patterns, Longfellow expertly repeats the s’s to give his line a sinuous, propulsive feel, which is exactly what Dante aims for in his line, as he gestures toward the originality and joy of embarking on the final leg of a divinely sanctioned journey. Thus, Longfellow demonstrates the scholarly chops necessary to convey Dante’s encyclopedic learning, and the poetic talent needed to reproduce the sound and spirit—the respiro, breath—of the original Tuscan.
Read the whole essay here – it’s fairly short and very interesting.
One of Florence’s many many charms is the habit of posting poetry along man streets. So charming!
“There was [and is] nothing unremarkable about Florence.” I could not agree more!
Taylor, Alan F.. Appointment in Arezzo: My Life with Muriel Spark (Kindle Locations 273-274). Birlinn Ltd. Kindle Edition.