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.”
Each of the illustrations gives a shake to what Praz once called “the kaleidoscope of memory.” His choice of them was personal. Two sufficed for the ancient world, one for the early Christian period, a score for the Middle Ages, a dozen for the sixteenth century. The pace slackens and his interest quickens when he reaches the eighteenth century—he is good on Zoffany: “It is as if a game of robots, when the mechanism had run down, had been caught forever in essential gestures, as the music which marked its rhythm continued to hum in our ears.” But some three-quarters of the total number of illustrations are nineteenth century—with no more than a token handful for the early twentieth century at the end.
When the English edition of this work first came out in 1964 it provoked such comments as: “Gorgeous is the only word for this book” (Sir Hugh Casson), “a most wondrous treasure trove” (House and Garden). It is of much greater interest than these banalities might suggest. If less than a “history” of interior decoration, it is a good deal more than an attractive picture book. The nineteenth-century views of interiors, to which so much of the space is given—by little-known and often amateur, if not anonymous, artists—constitute a distinct genre of painting which Praz virtually discovered. A passage in which he describes their appeal deserves to be quoted in full:
Those great halls, those rooms, depicted just as they were when they were inhabited by the people whose taste they reflect, seem to me vibrant with expectation, still animated by human warmth, like a bed only recently abandoned by the man who slept in it. The flights of rooms and corridors, glimpsed through the doors, and the walls thick with paintings, the knick-knacks, the busts, the statuettes and porcelains, the flowers under glass bells, breathe an intimacy that you never find in the rooms which serve as the backgrounds for official portraits. It is the absence of the human form, or its presence only as a mere figure or mannikin or as a framed painting on a wall which turns the furniture and the objects into the true dramatis personae. The patterns of the carpets, the stuffs, the wall-papers, the grain of the woods (the watercolorists are so scrupulous), the embroidery of the firescreens and the footstools, the framed petit-point, the overweening majolica stoves, each item freely makes its voice heard. If the view of a lake or a mountain’s wooded slope is seen amid the heavily-draped curtains at the windows, the atmosphere of the rooms becomes more hushed; if one could stretch out a hand into the strip of light that falls on the floor, one could feel its warmth. These watercolors so accurately preserve the taste of that age that you would almost say the doors and windows depicted in them have never been opened since then, and that we breathe the spirit still enclosed there like—the comparison is perhaps overworked, but it is certainly appropriate here—the scent of perfume that lingers in an ancient phial.
In such little images of secure enclosure, as in his own densely furnished rooms which seemed to have been arranged to be depicted in the same way, Praz found a retreat from contemporary realities. Many represent what Byron called “the earthly paradise of ormolu.” But they do not invite the spectator to enter, settle on a canapé, and take up one of the books left lying about. They are keyhole views studied carefully from a hiding place, the visions of a solitary voyeur, and for this reason, perhaps, they had a special appeal for the lonely man who loved them and wrote about them so well.
Praz was congenitally set apart from others. To be born with a malformed foot and a squint is a misfortune anywhere, but was much more so in late nineteenth-century Italy, where physical deformity still provokes a combination of mirth and disgust (the ugly word handicappati has now been adopted to describe the disabled). At a period when large families were the rule, he was an only child, the son of a Piedmontese whose name sounded foreign in Florence where the young Mario was educated. It was often to be misspelled; on his first, long-delayed literary prize, a medal, not even of gold he tells us, was inscribed “Braz.” The sense of being an outsider may perhaps have attracted him to the English expatriates then living around Florence. He bicycled past their villas “set apart among the trees like temples in sacred groves and inhabited by a race of lordly people who descended from time to time in mortal guise to the elegant shops in the Via Tornabuoni, and then went up again to where their existences might be imagined as resembling those of the gods described in Tennyson’s Lotus Eaters.”
As a young student of English literature he was later introduced into this expatriate villa society by Vernon Lee, who seems to have taken an immediate liking to him. This fascinating, though nowadays neglected, writer was one of the brightest luminaries of the English colony, a member of that glistening circle of Sapphists presided over by the redoubtable Princess Ghika and Miss Blood at the Villa Gamberaia, Settignano. Already a link with the past, Vernon Lee had known Browning, who named her in a poem, and Walter Pater, who had reviewed one of her books. Through her Praz met the last survivors of the Pre-Raphaelite group when he first went to England. She also arranged for him to contribute essays to J.C. Squire’s London Mercury. And he never forgot his indebtedness to her. In The House of Life he printed several letters of avuncular advice which he received gratefully, though they correspond all too well with Max Beerbohm’s cruel caricature of her as “always having a crow to pick, ever so coyly with Nietzsche, or a wee lance to break with Mr. Carlyle, or a sweet but sharp little warning to whisper in the ear of Mr. H.G. Wells, or Strindberg, or Darwin or D’Annunzio.” Praz described her seated at the tea table “in a faultless grey tailor-made and a gleaming white piqué cravat fixed with a cameo brooch” among vases of bay and myrtle, casts of Greek sculpture “and everywhere the look of a temple ‘swept and garnished.”‘
For ten years from 1924 he was a lecturer in Italian in English universities, with very few pupils, a lonely southerner struggling through the fog first of Liverpool, then of Manchester. As professor of English literature in Rome from 1934 he was still something of an academic outsider. English studies were not then those most encouraged by the regime. He identified himself neither with the Fascists (whom he thought ridiculous) nor with the more ardent anti-Fascists. But during the war he helped to protect Jewish refugees while his English wife became dangerously involved in the resistance movement. She left him shortly afterward, taking their only child, a daughter, with her. For the rest of his life he lived alone.
Partly because of his physical deformity, Praz became a victim of one of the most ancient and cruelest of Mediterranean superstitions. According to his own account, he acquired the reputation of a jettatore or bringer of bad luck in his childhood. One day he was talking to a friend whose watch mysteriously fell from his wrist. This casual incident must have made a deep impression for he could still remember the name of the other boy when he recorded it in an interview given over sixty years later, a month before he died.1
In the course of his long life a net of legend was woven round him and the mere mention of his name—or, for safety, his initials—provoked among Italians an outburst of stories of chandeliers crashing to the ground as he entered a room, of cows mysteriously sickening on his arrival at a country villa, of any kind of accident that could be connected with his presence even by dislocating the arm of coincidence. How seriously educated Italians believe in jettatura is difficult to assess. That great philosopher Benedetto Croce declared that he did not, while making the apotropaic gesture with extended index and little finger, just to be on the safe side. And it is said that he refused to have any book by Praz in his library. Many other Italians tended to be wary of him, though perhaps not always or only for superstitious reasons. His critical acerbity and formal manner discouraged intimacy.
His notoriety as a jettatore was not, however, unconnected with his fame as a student of the sinister, the perverse, the decadent, the morbid and the bizarre, established by La carne, la morte e il diavolo nella letteratura romantica published in 1930 and translated three years later as The Romantic Agony (a title which soon became a catch phrase). Croce was shocked by this minute prying into the nineteenth-century erotic sensibility, with special reference to sadism and masochism, homosexuality, necrophilia, and incest, from which, he claimed, “the attention of healthy-minded men is quickly averted.” Praz was reproved for saying nothing about the more elevating religious, philosophical, and moral aspects of Romanticism. But that was, of course, the whole point of the book. Shelley, for instance, appeared in it not as a “beautiful and ineffectual angel” but as a discoverer of “a new sense of beauty, a beauty imperilled and contaminated, a new thrill.” Romantic writers were shown to have been much more interestingly complex—one might now say “tied up”—than had previously been supposed.
Attention was concentrated, however, less on the Romantic period, as usually defined, than on the mid- and late nineteenth century. Coleridge and Scott, the Schlegels, Novalis, and E.T.A. Hoffmann are barely mentioned, Wordsworth and Alfred de Vigny not at all. Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” provides no more than the title for a chapter on the fatal woman. Apart from Sade, whose influence had never before been so expertly traced, the main figures in the book are Baudelaire, Flaubert, Huysmans, Swinburne, Pater, Wilde, and D’Annunzio. Praz had, in fact, worked backward by seeking first to unravel the sources of D’Annunzio’s tangled ideas and rhetoric.
Decadence had a positive appeal for Praz, who was always more interested in ends than beginnings and was attracted to works of art and literature that repelled his more conventional contemporaries. As a student in Rome during the First World War he “discovered” Baroque art and architecture, which led him on to a study of the erotico-religious imagery of the poems of John Donne and Richard Crashaw, which he introduced to his compatriots. Here he was, of course, swimming on the crest of a new wave. But as enthusiasm for the Baroque became general he turned his attention to the anti-Baroque style of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, developing a taste which soon became a possessive passion for the art and especially the furniture of the Empire period. The group of essays first published in 1940 as Gusto neoclassico, augmented in subsequent editions of 1959 and 1974—translated as On Neoclassicism—is a statement of personal preferences rather than an investigation of aesthetic theories or an account of the Neoclassical movement. But it is none the worse for that.
“I cannot deny that my favourite style, the Empire, can easily be caricatured,” he wrote. “It is commonly judged to be cold, rigid and somewhat monotonously funereal with its eternal sphinxes, its swans, its goat- and lion-feet.” He could count no fewer than seventy animal legs supporting the furnishings in his own apartment—cloven hooves having perhaps a special attraction for a student of satanism. In the figurative arts of the period his keen and loving eye detected suppressed sensuality, and the English version of his essay on Canova was called The Erotic Frigidaire (a catch phrase devised for him by Thomas B. Hess).
“La carne, la morte e il diavolo” were all present in his vision of Neoclassicism. But as in his study of Romantic literature, he tended to overlook other aspects of this art. Not for him the nobility and austerity of The Oath of the Horatii and Brutus: the paintings by Jacques-Louis David he selected for illustration were the portrait of Mme. Récamier and the arrestingly erotic late Cupid and Psyche in the Cleveland Museum of Art (the former being replaced by the latter in the final edition). He saw in the Empire style the fine flowering rather than the death and transformation of Neoclassicism. But even to those who reject this view his writings on the subject remain stimulating.
For Praz could write about Empire furnishings as a collector. Nowadays anyone with a large enough bank account can build up a collection of chairs and cabinets and beds by the more notable Empire ébénistes and menuisiers, of silver by Odiot and late Sèvres porcelain. But when he began such things were so unfashionable and inexpensive that few dealers cared to stock them. And this, paradoxically, made them eminently collectable because difficult to find, providing the pleasure of the chase as well as the satisfaction of the kill. In The House of Life2 references to flirtations with rather indistinctly sketched women and an unhappy marriage alternate with stories of meticulously and lovingly described pieces of furniture sighted and procured—sometimes to be case aside later to make room for new objects of love. Cyril Connolly declared it to be “one of the dullest books I have ever read; it has a bravura of boredom, an audacity of ennui that makes one hardly believe one’s eyes.” (It was characteristic of Praz that he should quote this in the second, expanded edition of the book, relishing perhaps an echo of Swinburnian invective.)
There are, indeed, longueurs in this record of an uneventful life and a collection that included few items of importance by museum standards. Many of the names dropped throughout its pages are, to the bewilderment of the reader, of long-forgotten antique dealers—the procuresses, as it were, who supplied objects for the author’s goûts particuliers. Yet it is perhaps the fullest and most penetrating account any collector has given of his ruling passion, the confessions of a cultural roué which transcend their ostensible theme. For unlike earlier writers who published books about their possessions—Horace Walpole in the eighteenth century and Edmond de Goncourt in the nineteenth—Praz sought to explain not merely how he had obtained each of his pictures, furnishings, wax portraits, and so on but why he had bought them and what they meant to him. His book seems to be indebted less to Edmond de Goncourt’s Maison d’un artiste than to Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre, which is similarly conceived, each object giving rise to reminiscences and reflections and self-revelations, sometimes of an intimate kind despite the outward formality. “I do not know how it has come about,” Maistre wrote, “but my chapters have always ended on a sinister note,” and Praz could have said the same.
A collection took the place of a heroine in Balzac’s Cousin Pons, a novel that cuts so close to the bone that few collectors can read it without wincing. That described in The House of Life acquires the character of a jealously dominating nineteenth-century femme fatale. Praz wrote with curious equanimity of the seduction of his wife by a Vatican official but his account of a break-in and attempted theft from his apartment reads like that of a lurid abduction and rape. Although he developed a discriminating eye for the objects of his predilection, especially their craftsmanship, his devotion to them was strongly colored by sentimental associations. His attitude was far removed from that of a museum curator building up a representative collection and still farther from that of an investor buying works of art as a hedge against inflation. Indeed, the sharp rise in the commercial value of his possessions brought him nothing but sadness for it prevented him from adding to them in his later years. It was the final tragedy of his life that the unloved objects on which he had fastened his affections returned to fashion.
The House of Life ends with the author gazing at the reflection of one of his rooms in a convex mirror and seeing himself as “an object and an image, a museum piece among museum pieces, already detached and remote…no bigger than a handful of dust.” (The echo from The Waste Land can hardly have been inadvertent.) This is the prevailing tone of all his writings. He is always there as the sardonic observer of the scene he reveals in an unfamiliar perspective. And it is seldom a very lively or a very happy scene. He was a connoisseur not only of the anomalous and perverse but also of what Wordsworth called “visionary dreariness.” Sadness was always creeping in. Recalling a visit to Cambridge in the 1920s when bright young things seemed to most people to be at their brightest, he described how he walked to Grantchester
under a low grey sky which made the whole world appear restricted and enclosed in a narrow, intimate circle of green grass and birdsong, and I saw for the first time rows of punts on the river on whose banks the colleges stand: in almost all these boats there was a gramophone playing, with a thin, remote voice like the trilling of crickets, and, as though fascinated by these sounds, young men and girls (some of the latter with cigarettes in their mouths and signs of make-up on their faces) lay listening in idle, languid attitudes, like a crowd from beyond the grave enjoying the distant songs they had heard in their lifetime.
In the History of Interior Decoration he casually asks, “Why, among the apartments I once visited, do I recall the most sequestered and funereal? Is it perhaps because they seem most in key with the ruin that has menaced or engulfed them?” The note he struck with melancholy precision in all his writings sounded, when they were first published, willfully out of tune and out of date. But now, with the passage of time, his work has acquired an unsuspected depth, both of insight and of feeling. Was this strange man, this lonely scholar who often seemed a figure of the past immured in his house of life—the term used by ancient Egyptians to designate a tomb—perhaps more truly in key with his own time than many of his contemporaries who struggled so hard to be “with it”? The mirror he held up to literature and art and life may have caught not a distorted view but an accurate reflection of something in and behind us all.
March 3, 1983