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On the Via San Basilio by Earl Marble

In Rome, 1851; a cold, dreary day in December—one of those days in which a man's ambition seems to desert him entirely, leaving only its grinning skeleton to mock him. Depressing as was the weather to a man who had cheerfulness as a companion by which to repel its blustering attacks, and raise his mind above the despondency it was calculated to produce, how much more so to one whose hope had gone out as a flickering lamp in a sudden gust of wind, and the sharp steel of whose ambition had turned to pierce his own heart!

Such a man, on the day mentioned, was walking along the Via San Basilio. He was small in stature, poorly clad, and so thin, and even cadaverous, that the casual observer might have been under apprehension lest a gust of wind a little stronger than the average might blow him entirely away; yet his air and manner were proud and haughty, and what little evidences of feeling peered through the signs of dissipation too apparent on his naturally attractive face were those of genuine refinement. He was accompanied by a cicerone, or servant, as villainous-looking a fellow as one often meets, even in Italy, where an evil expression is so often seen stamped on handsome features.

Along the Via San Basilio the two men walked until they stood opposite the door of No. 51. Sacred ground this, and historical as well. Art had her votaries here, as the tourist of to-day will find she still has, at whose shrines pilgrims from afar and from near worshiped, and grew better and stronger for their ministrations. Crawford, then at the acme of his fame, had his constantly-thronged studio in the immediate vicinity, while those at No. 51 embraced, among others, that of Tenerani, the famous Italian sculptor, whose work is always in such fine dramatic taste, although he never sacrifices his love and deep feeling of reverence for Nature, combining that with the most delightful charms of Greek art. Among this artist's most noted works will be remembered his "Descent from the Cross," which tourists visiting the Torlonia chapel in the Lateran never gaze upon without a thrill. The house was owned and also occupied by Bienaimé, a French sculptor who afterward became famous.

In the immediate vicinity stands the famous Palazzo Barberini, begun by Urban VIII. (Maffeo Barberini), who sat in the pontifical chair from 1623 to 1644, and finished by Bernini in 1640. This palace contains many paintings of historical interest by Raphael, Titian, Guido, Claude and others. The one by the first-mentioned artist is a Fornarina, and bears the autograph of the painter on the armlet. But the picture that attracts the most attention here is one of world-wide reputation, copies, engravings and photographs of which are everywhere to be met with—Guido's Beatrice Cenci. A great divergence of opinion, as is well known, exists in regard to the portrait. It bears the pillar and crown of the Colonnas, to which family it probably belonged. According to the family tradition, it was taken on the night before her execution. Other accounts state that it was painted by Guido from memory after he had seen her on the scaffold. Judging from the position in which the poor girl's head is represented, one would more readily give credence to the latter story, and think the artist's memory had preserved her look and position as she turned her head for a last look at the brutal, bellowing crowd behind.

In the piazza of the palace is a very beautiful fountain, utilized by one of the oldest Roman statues, representing a faun blowing water from a conch-shell.

But we must return to the Via San Basilio, and the two wayfarers we left standing in front of No. 51. After gazing a moment at the number to assure themselves that they were right, they entered, and knocked at the first door, which was opened by the occupant of the apartment. He was an artist and a man of very marked characteristics. Seven years later Hawthorne wrote as follows of him: "He is a plain, homely Yankee, quite unpolished by his many years' residence in Italy. He talks ungrammatically; walks with a strange, awkward gait and stooping shoulders; is altogether unpicturesque, but wins one's confidence by his very lack of grace. It is not often that we see an artist so entirely free from affectation in his aspect and deportment. His pictures were views of Swiss and Italian scenery, and were most beautiful and true. One of them, a moonlight picture, was really magical—the moon shining so brightly that it seemed to throw a light even beyond the limits of the picture; and yet his sunrises and sunsets, and noontides too, were nowise inferior to this, although their excellence required somewhat longer study to be fully appreciated."

After this introduction by our sweet and quaint romancer, the reader will hardly need be told that the two strangers stood in the presence of America's now illustrious artist, George L. Brown. But one seeing him then, as he stood almost scowling at the two strangers, would hardly have idealized him into the artist whose pencil has done so much of late years to give American art a distinctive name through his poetical delineations of the rare, sun-tinted atmosphere that hovers over Italian landscapes. However, our apology for him must be that the day was raw and blustering, and that he had no sooner caught sight of the men through his window, as they hesitatingly entered the door, than his suspicions were aroused.

The Italian acted as spokesman, and inquired if there were any rooms to let in the building. Brown, thinking this the easiest way of ridding himself of the visitors, went in search of the landlord, who came, and after a moment's conversation the whole party entered the studio, much to its owner's displeasure.

The cicerone did most of the talking, though now and then the other made a remark or two in broken Italian. But this was only for the first few moments. He soon became oblivious of all save art, of which one could see at a glance he was passionately fond. One of Mr. Brown's pictures—a large one he was then engaged on—particularly attracted his attention. He drew closer and closer to the canvas, examining it with a minuteness that showed the connoisseur, and finally remarked: "It is very fine in color, sir, and the atmosphere is delicious. Why have I not heard of you before?" examining the corner of the canvas for the artist's name, but speaking in a tone and with an air that gave Brown the impression he was indulging in the random flattery so current in studios. So, ignoring the question, he asked with a slight shrug of the shoulders, "Are you an artist?"

"I paint a little," was the reply, with an air of modesty which Brown mistook for the bashful half-assertion of some daubing amateur.

Just then the cicerone came forward and announced that the bargain was completed and the room ready for occupancy.

"I shall be happy—no, happy is not a good word for me—I shall be glad to see you in my studio when I have moved in, and perhaps you may see some things to please you."

So saying, the stranger departed, leaving Brown not a whit better impressed with him than at first.

The next morning the two called again, when the gentleman made an examination of the room selected the day before, having met Mr. Brown in the hall-way and invited him in. On entering, the new occupant took from his pocket a piece of chalk and a compass and made a number of circles and figures on the floor to determine when the sun would shine in the room. Brown watched him with a certain degree of curiosity and amusement, and finally, concluding he was half crazy, returned to his own studio.

The next day the cicerone called alone to see about some repairs, when Brown hailed him: "Buono giorno. Che è questo?" ("Good-day. Who is that?")

"Non sapete?" ("Don't you know?"), was the Italian's response. "Why, that is the celebrated Brullof."

Brown started as though shot. First there flashed through his brain the remembrance of how cavalierly he had treated the distinguished artist, and then a quick panorama of his recent history, which had been the gossip of studios and art-circles for some time back. "I must go to him," he said, "and apologize for not treating him with more deference."

"Non, signore," was the cicerone's response. "Never mind: let it rest. He is a man of the world, and pays little heed to such things. Besides, he is so overwhelmed with his private griefs that he has probably noticed no slight."

However, when the great Russian artist took possession of his studio his American brother of the pencil made his apology, and received this response; "Don't waste words on so trivial a matter. Do I not court the contempt of a world that I despise to my heart's core? Say no more about it. Run in and see me when agreeable; and if you have no better callers than such a plaything of fate as I, maybe you will not refuse me occasional admittance."

The Russian artist now shunned notoriety as he had formerly courted it. Little is known of his history beyond mere rumor, and that only in artistic circles. He was born at St. Petersburg in 1799 or 1800, and gave himself to the study of art at an early age, becoming an especial proficient in color and composition. One of his most widely-known works is "The Last Days of Pompeii," which created great enthusiasm a quarter of a century ago. This, however, was painted during his career of dissipation, and its vivid coloring seemed to have been drawn from a soul morbid with secret woes and craving a nepenthe which never came.

The young artist was petted and idolized by the wealth and nobility of St. Petersburg, where he married a beautiful woman, and became court-painter to the czar Nicholas about the year 1830. For some years no couple lived more happily, and no artist swayed a greater multitude of fashion and wealth than he; but scandal began to whisper that the czar was as fond of the handsome, brilliant wife of the young court-painter as the cultivated people of St. Petersburg were of the husband's marvelously colored works; and when at last the fact became known to Brullof that the monarch who had honored him through an intelligent appreciation of art had dishonored him through a guilty passion for his wife, he left St. Petersburg, swore never again to set foot on Russian soil or be recognized as a Russian subject, and, plunging headlong into a wild career of dissipation, was thenceforth a wanderer up and down the continent of Europe.

It was when this career had borne its inevitable fruit, and he was but a mere wreck of the polished gentleman of a few years previous, that Brullof came to the Via San Basilio, where, as soon as the fact became known, visitors began to call. Among the first were the Russian ambassador and suite, who were driven up in a splendid carriage, with liveried attendants; but after the burly Italian had announced to his master who was in waiting, the door was closed, and with no message in return the representatives of the mightiest empire on the globe were left to withdraw with the best grace they could muster for the occasion. Similar scenes were repeated often during the entire Roman season. He saw but few of his callers—Russians, never.

The Russian and the American artists became quite intimate during the few months they were thrown together, and Mr. Brown has acknowledged that he owes much of the success of his later efforts to hints received from the self-exiled, dying Russian.

"Mr. Brown," he said on one occasion, while examining the picture on the artist's easel, "no one since Claude has painted atmosphere as you do. But you must follow Calamé's example, and make drawing more of a study. Draw from Nature, and do it faithfully, and with your atmosphere I will back you against the world. That is bad," pointing to the huge limb of a tree in the foreground: "it bulges both ways, you see. Now, Nature is never so. Look at my arm," speaking with increased animation, and suddenly throwing off his coat and rolling up his shirt-sleeve. "When you see a convexity, you will see concavity opposite. Just so in Nature, especially in the trunks and limbs of trees."

This criticism made such an impression on Brown that it decided him to go into more laborious work, and was the foundation of his habit of getting up at daybreak and going out to sketch rocks, trees and cattle, until he stands where he now does as a draughtsman.

The painting which Brullof had first admired, and which had induced him to compare Brown to Claude in atmospheric effects, was a view of the Pontine Marshes, painted for Crawford the sculptor, and now in possession, of his widow, Mrs. Terry, at Rome.

During this entire season the penuriousness exhibited by Brullof is one of the hardest phases of his character to explain. Though he was worth at least half a million of dollars, his meals were generally of the scantiest kind, purchased by the Italian cicerone, and cooked and eaten in his room. Yet a kindness would touch the hidden springs of his generosity as the staff of Moses did the rock of Horeb.

Toward the close of the Roman season, Brullof, growing more and more moody, and becoming still more of a recluse, painted his last picture, which showed how diseased and morbid his mind had become. He called it "The End of All Things," and made it sensational to the verge of that flexible characteristic. It represented popes and emperors tumbling headlong into a terrible abyss, while the world's benefactors were ascending in a sort of theatrical transformation-scene. A representation of Christ holding a cross aloft was given, and winged angels were hovering here and there, much in the same manner as coryphées and lesser auxiliaries of the ballet. A capital portrait of George Washington was painted in the mass of rubbish, perhaps as a compliment to Brown. In contradistinction to the portrait of Washington were seen prominently those of the czar Nicholas and the emperor Napoleon; the former put in on account of the artist's own private wrong, and the latter because at that time, just after the coup d'ètat, he was the execration of the liberty-loving world.

In the spring the Russian artist gave up his studio, and went down to some baths possessing a local reputation situated on the road to Florence, where he died very suddenly. Much mystery overhangs his last days, and absolutely no knowledge exists as to what became of his vast property. His cicerone robbed him of his gold watch and all his personal effects and disappeared. His remains lie buried in the Protestant burying-ground outside the walls of Rome, near the Porto di Sebastiano. His tomb is near that of Shelley and Keats, and the monument erected to his memory is very simple, his head being sculptured upon it in alto relievo, and on the opposite side an artist's palette and brushes.