Blanched Bones or Human Life?

The interior of the Colosseum, painted by Thomas Cole, 1832.

Snippets 211. When visiting a country such as Italy, with so much to take in of historical interest, it is perhaps all too easy to only have eyes for the ancient ruins and ignore everything else. The following inspirational quote is from Canadian author Lady Harriet Julia Jephson’s Notes of a Nomad, published in 1918, in which she describes her travels around the world with her husband. She came to Italy with very different views to her husband, and initially fell into the trap of letting guide books make up her mind for her instead of forming her own opinions:

I was very young when I first went to Italy. The world seemed then to me “mine oyster,” which I, with the help of Baedeker and other dry-as-dust guide-books, meant to open. I had read all Ruskin’s books, and knew what to admire and what to abhor, before I went there. Later I felt sometimes a guilty pleasure in admiring what he ordered me to abhor, and in abhorring what he called upon me to admire. But at first I was his most docile and obedient pupil. When I heard ribald talk, profane enough to doubt his judgements, I never swerved from my allegiance. Was he not my master and teacher, Mr. Godly Man, assailed by the demons, Prejudice and Ill-Will! My husband, being of more virile mind than I, and much older, proclaimed his independence of thought, and had the temerity to prefer Ghirlandaio to Giotto. I admired his lion-hearted bravery in daring to differ from Ruskin, but then he knew nothing of art! Afterwards, I modified this judgement, since he knew enough about it to avoid perpetuating the Leaning Tower of Pisa in crudely sculptured white marble models, and he did not buy a bad copy of the Cenci. Like many neophytes, Italy in those days meant pictures and sculpture and architecture to me, whereas, to my husband’s wider range of vision, it was full of warm, human interest. He was quick to appreciate the gifted, poetic, artistic, beautiful race, with their passionate temperaments and complex characters. The glory of sunrise and sunset, the beauty of mouldy, mellow walls, the sharp contrasts of light and shade in the landscape and of poverty and riches in the people, were not lost upon him. The flowers and trees and shrubs, the mountain ranges, the market-places, the lively, teeming streets, all were of intensest interest. I, meanwhile, chose to dwell amid the blanched bones of skeletons in museums and art galleries, and he with the throbbing human life outside them.

Baedeker was a publisher that pioneered travel guides, founded by Karl Baedeker in 1827. John Ruskin was the most famous art critic of the Victorian age, and believed strongly that “truth in nature” was the utmost importance to art. It’s not difficult to see how an independent thinker such as Jephson could rebel against that very traditional view of the value of art. Domenico Ghirlandaio was a Renaissance painter whose apprentices included Michelangelo. The Cenci was an 1819 play written by Shelley.

The interior of the Colosseum, painted by Thomas Cole, 1832.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 20th Century, Autobiographies, Books, History, Inspiration, Memoirs, Snippets, Travel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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