An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration: From Pompeii to Art Nouveau
Il mondo che ho visto
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 both together at the same time”—and then a list of words he had come across in recent English novels, asking for exact definitions which I was either too prudish or too ignorant to provide.
His spoken English was idiomatically rich with only a very slight, indefinable foreign accent. He was quite unlike upper-class Anglicized Romans or Florentines who could then be distinguished from Englishmen only by their more immaculate Savile Row tweeds, gleaming Jermyn Street shoes, and sprucer St. James’s hats. The very antithesis of the Italianized Englishmen—“devils incarnate” according to an old Tuscan saying—they were, in one of the phrases they themselves still happily preserve, “jolly good sports.” Praz was not so much Anglicized as cosmopolitan, or rather stateless: he seemed to travel through all the realms of European culture on a Nansen passport.
For nearly half a century he was professor of English literature at the University of Rome, and no one did more to keep Italians abreast of current developments on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as introducing them to the literature of the past (he wrote the standard Italian school textbook on the subject). But his writing was by no means confined to his professed subject and latterly he came to be widely known in Italy as a diverse and stylish saggista—a term which has none of the overtones acquired by the English equivalent “essayist” or the nowadays entirely opprobrious “bellettrist.” To Anglo-Saxon ears the word “essay” conjures up painful memories of school exercises in the manner of the sentimental and sententious effusions of Elia. But the genre is still very much alive in Italy. Day in day out, each of the numerous Italian newspapers publishes on its third page what is called an elzeviro (from Elzevir’s italic type in which it was formerly printed)—an essay on some, not necessarily topical, subject that has struck a writer’s fancy. With his fastidious sensitivity to the niceties of Italian prose and his wide-ranging though always deeply personal interests, Praz became the acknowledged master of the elzeviro. He wrote more than two thousand, many of which he republished in volumes with such enticing titles as Bellezza e Bizzarria, Lettrice notturna, Il Giardino dei sensi.
Only a month before his death he signed the preface to a final selection of such essays, Il mondo che ho visto—some eighty impressions of travel in various parts of the world. The account of Boston, Massachusetts, first published in 1952, is characteristic. It begins with him visiting the Widener Library in Cambridge and going straight to the catalogue to see how many of his own books were listed, only to find on the card a volume of popular Dalmatian songs by “Praz, Stanko.” The idea of a tired (stanco in Italian) Praz appealed to his sardonic sense of humor. Then he sets out hopefully on a vain search for the Boston of Henry James, finding, instead, a corner of southern Italy. He notes particularly a hearse inscribed “Ciro Cincotti Funeral Service” and in Sun Court Street—“O sole mio,” he exclaims—the Church of the Sacred Heart, rank with the smell of wax from candles flickering in red glasses before Italianate statues of saints. Gazing up at skyscrapers he thinks of death by falling from their windows and finds his way to the Hotel Manger where a former friend, F.O. Matthiessen, had, in fact, committed suicide in “a sinister scenario of metallic anonymity”—elevated tramway, iron bridge and cranes, grimy houses with metal fire-escape staircases crossing their façades. Details are in sharp focus but the view is recorded—like so many others in the book—through a somberly tinted lens.
The potentialities and limitations of the essay suited Praz well, as the earliest of his many English friends, Violet Paget, alias “Vernon Lee,” had the prescience to recognize in the 1920s. He was at his best when working on a small scale, and his longer books seem to have been—and often were—made up of brief well-constructed essays loosely connected. They are, according to taste, engagingly, or irritatingly, discursive, giving the impression of an insatiable appetite for red herrings.
An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration, which has recently been reprinted in William Weaver’s excellent translation, is no exception. A systematic history of the subject would have to take account of what can be deduced from inventories and other sources about the interiors of medieval castles, it would have to describe the use of wood paneling, of tapestries and wall painting. One would expect it to trace the development of the most richly decorated types of interior, the origins and diffusion of the style created for Louis XIV at Versailles, Palladianism in England, the emergence of the Rococo in boiseries, and so on. Praz’s interest in such topics was very limited. Versailles, which revolutionized the palatial interior, is mentioned only twice in his book—on both occasions, characteristically, with reference to “that carillon of the impassive clock…which went on playing after Marie Antoinette had appeared to the populace for the last time on the scaffold of the guillotine.”
The original Italian title of the book was La filosofia dell’arredamento, derived from Edgar Allan Poe’s brief essay “Philosophy of Furniture.” But this, as Praz himself remarked, was not entirely satisfactory. He made no claim to be a philosopher and had little taste for aesthetic theory. It was the psychological aspect of interior decoration and furnishing that intrigued him. “The ultimate meaning of a harmoniously decorated house is,” he wrote, “to mirror man, but to mirror him in his ideal being; it is an exaltation of the self.” In the cult of fine furnishing, of which he was himself a priest, there is a strong element of narcissism. The surroundings of a devotee
become something more than a mirror of the soul. They are, indeed, a reinforcement of the soul, or to return to the mirror-image, they are a play of many mirrors which open infinite perspectives, depths of identical, multiplied reflections. “Cette pièce où des glaces se faisaient écho et se renvoyaient à perte de vue, dans les murs, des enfilades de boudoir roses….”
The quotation is, significantly, from Huysmans’s A Rebours. And Praz pursued this line of thought in occasional asides—on the navel-like buttons of nineteenth-century upholstery, for instance, or on a room of the same period where the red of the textiles
almost speaks, suggesting—like the red flannel underclothes that ladies wore at that time—an ardent, repressed passionate nature. In such rooms, the roundness of the bulb and the globe of the kerosene lamp can easily be given psychoanalytical meanings. Like the exaggerated curves of the female form imposed by the fashion magazines of the last thirty-five years of the 19th century, these lamps can seem a true if unconscious parody of sex, so deliberately ignored and repressed was it by the conventions of the time.
In fact, the true subject of An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration is not interior decoration but the ruminations and memories, the visions and fancies, prompted by paintings of interiors. It consists of a fifty-page introduction followed by a commentary on 400 illustrations, many of them in color and all exceptionally well reproduced. The commentary is conversationally discursive: Praz chats as he lays his visual material before us, and those who knew him will catch the tone of his rather dry, world-weary, yet strangely compelling voice. A thirteenth-century fresco prompts remarks on the ceremony of the public bath of a betrothed couple, “a custom still practiced in Albania.” A sixteenth-century painting of Lord Darnley and his brother standing in a remarkably bare room leads him to comment on the influence Elizabethan manors might possibly have had on the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe and to give a description of Darnley’s death, concluding, “For those who wish to know more, there is the beautiful, if prolix trilogy on Mary Stuart by Swinburne or the biography by Stefan Zweig.”