An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration: From Pompeii to Art Nouveau
by Mario Praz, translated by William Weaver
Thames and Hudson, 396 pp., $75.00
Il mondo che ho visto
by Mario Praz
Adelphi Edizioni (Milan), 547 pp., 18,000 lire
Long before he died in Rome last March at the age of eighty-six, Mario Praz already seemed a figure apart. He stood alone among his contemporaries, and younger men as well, with a detachment that was ironical rather than defiant or disdainful. Although too urbane to be described as a maverick, a misfit, or a loner, he could never quite bring himself to “fit in” and it was always from an idiosyncratic external viewpoint that he observed literature, art, and, indeed, life. His preoccupation with decadence and perversion, the deviant and the macabre, was that of a sophisticated but disinterested spectator.
An explorer of the darker byways of nineteenth-century life and letters (English, French, German, and Italian), Praz mapped out territory into which no academic had previously ventured. As an amateur of the visual arts he sought out the bizarre, the grotesque, or what were still, to other eyes, forbidding if not forbidden subjects. The Neoclassical marbles and Empire furniture and bibelots that were unfashionable when he began to collect and write about them appealed to him precisely because they put the spectator at a distance, discouraging intimacy or—per carità—any hint of coziness.
Until late in his career Praz was better known and more highly regarded in England and America than in Italy, though always as a foreigner uniquely placed to illuminate English literature from unfamiliar angles and set it in a European perspective. English translations of his books include Machiavelli and the Elizabethans, The Romantic Agony, Studies in Seventeenth-Century Imagery (an account of emblem books), The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction, The Flaming Heart (studies in Anglo-Italian literary relations from Chaucer to T.S. Eliot), On Neoclassicism, his autobiographical The House of Life, and An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration. Few if any other twentieth-century Italian writers of non-fiction have had their works as widely diffused in the English-reading world. By the early 1950s he had become, to use a nineteenth-century term of the kind he savored, one of the “lions” of Rome sought out by foreigners—almost on a par with Michelangelo’s flawed Pietà, which the persevering could then visit in a nondescript house in the suburbs after ringing a doorbell marked “Rondanini.”
The lair in which Praz had gone to ground was, however, in the very heart of vecchia Roma itself. I well remember going to see him there some thirty years ago, in the large apartment in the Via Giulia where he lived alone. The atmosphere was slightly northern, reminiscent of the Gedenkstatte of some early nineteenth-century German writer, despite the aged and Caravaggesque Perpetua (another now vanished species) who unbolted the enormous creaking front door and ushered one through several shuttered rooms into a great high-ceilinged salone. There one was received by a shabbily dressed man with courteous formality as if by a rarely disturbed custodian. But Praz soon surprised me by producing a set of photographs of Fuseli’s erotic drawings—”That is I think what Byron liked, two ladies …