The Madonna of the Future by Henry James


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The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Madonna of the Future, by Henry James

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with
almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or
re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included
with this eBook or online at

Title: The Madonna of the Future

Author: Henry James

Release Date: May 8, 2005 [eBook #2460]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ISO-646-US (US-ASCII)


Transcribed from the 1887 Macmillan and Co. edition by David Price, email, proofed by Jennifer Austin.

by Henry James

We had been talking about the masters who had achieved but a single
masterpiece--the artists and poets who but once in their lives had known
the divine afflatus and touched the high level of perfection. Our host
had been showing us a charming little cabinet picture by a painter whose
name we had never heard, and who, after this single spasmodic bid for
fame, had apparently relapsed into obscurity and mediocrity. There was
some discussion as to the frequency of this phenomenon; during which, I
observed, H--- sat silent, finishing his cigar with a meditative air, and
looking at the picture which was being handed round the table. "I don't
know how common a case it is," he said at last, "but I have seen it. I
have known a poor fellow who painted his one masterpiece, and"--he added
with a smile--"he didn't even paint that. He made his bid for fame and
missed it." We all knew H--- for a clever man who had seen much of men
and manners, and had a great stock of reminiscences. Some one
immediately questioned him further, and while I was engrossed with the
raptures of my neighbour over the little picture, he was induced to tell
his tale. If I were to doubt whether it would bear repeating, I should
only have to remember how that charming woman, our hostess, who had left
the table, ventured back in rustling rose-colour to pronounce our
lingering a want of gallantry, and, finding us a listening circle, sank
into her chair in spite of our cigars, and heard the story out so
graciously that, when the catastrophe was reached, she glanced across at
me and showed me a tear in each of her beautiful eyes.

* * * * *

It relates to my youth, and to Italy: two fine things! (H--- began). I
had arrived late in the evening at Florence, and while I finished my
bottle of wine at supper, had fancied that, tired traveller though I was,
I might pay the city a finer compliment than by going vulgarly to bed. A
narrow passage wandered darkly away out of the little square before my
hotel, and looked as if it bored into the heart of Florence. I followed
it, and at the end of ten minutes emerged upon a great piazza, filled
only with the mild autumn moonlight. Opposite rose the Palazzo Vecchio,
like some huge civic fortress, with the great bell-tower springing from
its embattled verge as a mountain-pine from the edge of a cliff. At its
base, in its projected shadow, gleamed certain dim sculptures which I
wonderingly approached. One of the images, on the left of the palace
door, was a magnificent colossus, shining through the dusky air like a
sentinel who has taken the alarm. In a moment I recognised him as
Michael Angelo's _David_. I turned with a certain relief from his
sinister strength to a slender figure in bronze, stationed beneath the
high light loggia, which opposes the free and elegant span of its arches
to the dead masonry of the palace; a figure supremely shapely and
graceful; gentle, almost, in spite of his holding out with his light
nervous arm the snaky head of the slaughtered Gorgon. His name is
Perseus, and you may read his story, not in the Greek mythology, but in
the memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini. Glancing from one of these fine
fellows to the other, I probably uttered some irrepressible commonplace
of praise, for, as if provoked by my voice, a man rose from the steps of
the loggia, where he had been sitting in the shadow, and addressed me in
good English--a small, slim personage, clad in a sort of black velvet
tunic (as it seemed), and with a mass of auburn hair, which gleamed in
the moonlight, escaping from a little mediaeval birretta. In a tone of
the most insinuating deference he asked me for my "impressions." He
seemed picturesque, fantastic, slightly unreal. Hovering there in this
consecrated neighbourhood, he might have passed for the genius of
aesthetic hospitality--if the genius of aesthetic hospitality were not
commonly some shabby little custode, flourishing a calico
pocket-handkerchief and openly resentful of the divided franc. This
analogy was made none the less complete by the brilliant tirade with
which he greeted my embarrassed silence.

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