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Artists Models in Rome by T. A. T.


Some visitors to the Eternal City leave it without having found time to see this one of its wonders, while others are driven by the sad inelasticity of the hours to leave a different class of objects for "another time." But it may be safely asserted that none who have been at Rome for even twenty-four hours ever left it without having had their attention forcibly arrested by the groups of painters' and sculptors' models—the former mainly—who haunt the upper part of the great steps that lead up from the Piazza di Spagna to the Trinità di Monti, and perhaps even more specially the corner where the Via Sistina falls into the Piazza Barberini. But very few probably have asked for, and fewer still obtained, information as to who and what these people are, and whence they come. Yet to an attentive observer many points about the appearance of these groups must suggest that a curious interest might attach itself to the reply to such questions. There are sights in Rome of grander and greater interest, but there is nothing in all the famous centre of the Catholic world more distinctively, essentially and exclusively Roman, more unlike anything that is seen elsewhere, more instinct with couleur locale, than these singularly picturesque groups of nomads.

Let us, then, take a stroll among them, starting from that bright centre of the foreigners' quarter of Rome, the Piazza di Spagna. It is a brilliant January day, and, we will say, ten o'clock in the morning. In the Via Babuino and the neighboring streets, which the sun has not yet visited, the morning cold is a little sharp. Matutina parum cautos jam frigora mordent. But the magnificent flight of the great stair—there are properly eleven flights, divided by as many spacious and handsomely balustraded landing-places, each flight consisting of twelve steps, and all of white marble—with its southern exposure has almost the temperature of a hothouse. There are two or three beggars basking in the sunshine near the bottom of the steps. But our models do not consort with these. Not only are they not beggars, but they belong to a different caste and a different race. We leisurely saunter up the huge stair, pausing at each landing-place to turn and enjoy the view over the city, and the gradually rising luminous haze around the cupola of St. Peter's, and the heights of Monte Mario clear against the brilliant blue sky. It is not till we are at the topmost flight that we come upon the objects of our ramble. There we fall in with a group of them, consisting perhaps of three or four girls, as many children, a man in the prime of life, and an aged patriarch. There is not the smallest possibility that we should pass them unobserved. They are far too remarkable and too unlike anything else around us. Even those who have no eye for the specialties of type which characterize the human countenance will not fail to be struck by the peculiarities of the costume of the group of figures before us. At the first glance the eye is caught by the quantity of bright color in their dresses. The older women wear the picturesque white, flatly-folded linen cloth on their heads which is the usual dress of the contadine women in the neighborhood of Rome. The younger have their hair ornamented with some huge filagree pin or other device of a fashion which proclaims itself to the most unskilled eye as that of some two or three hundred years ago. All have light bodices of bright blue or red stuff laced in front, and short petticoats of some equally bright color, not falling below the ankle. But the most singular portion of the costume is the universally-worn apron. It consists of a piece of very stout and coarsely-woven wool of the brightest blue, green or yellow, about twenty inches broad by thirty-three in length, across which, near the top and near the bottom, run two stripes, each about eight inches wide, of hand-worked embroidery of the strangest, old-world-looking patterns and the most brilliant colors. These things are manufactured by the peasantry of the hill-country in the neighborhood of San Germano, who grow, shear, spin, weave, dye and embroider the wool themselves. And being barbarously unsophisticated by any adulteration of cotton, and in no wise stinted in the quantity of material, they are wonderfully strong and enduring. The most remarkable thing about them, however, is the unerring instinct with which these uneducated manufacturers harmonize the most audaciously violent contrasts of brilliant color. It is not too much to assert that they are never at fault in this respect. So much is this the case, and so truly artistic is this homely peasant manufacture, that there is hardly a painter's studio in Rome in which two or three of these richly colored apron-cloths may not be seen covering a sofa or thrown over the back of a chair. A great part of the singularly picturesque and striking appearance of the group of figures we are speaking of is due to the universal use of these aprons by the women. The men also affect an unusually large amount of bright color in their costume. The waistcoat is almost always scarlet; the velveteen jacket or short coat generally blue; the breeches sometimes the same, but often of bright yellow leather, and the stockings a lighter blue. The men often wear a long cloak reaching to the heels, always hanging open in front, and generally lined with bright green baize. They generally, too, have some bright-colored ribbons around their high-peaked, conical felt hats. But I must not forget to mention the costume of the children. It consists of an exact copy in miniature of that of their elders; and the inconceivable quaintness and queer old-world look produced is not to be imagined by those who have never witnessed it. Fancy a little imp of six or seven years old dressed in little blue jacket, bright-yellow leather breeches, blue stockings, sheepskin sandals on his little bits of feet, and long bright flaxen curls streaming down from under a gayly-ribboned brigand's hat!

But if the first glance is given to this singularity of costume, the second will not fail to take cognizance of the remarkable beauty of feature to be observed in almost every individual of this race of models. The men are well grown, almost invariably wear their black hair streaming over their shoulders, and have generally fine eyes and picturesquely colored, swarthy red faces. But the beauty of the girls is in almost every case something quite extraordinary; and the same may be said of the children. The next thing which the closeness of observation this unusual degree of beauty is calculated to attract will reveal to the observer is that all these singularly lovely faces are remarkably like each other, and at the same time remarkably unlike any of the faces around them. There is often much beauty among the Roman women of the lower classes, but it is of an essentially different type. The Roman beauty is generally large in stature and ample in development, with features whose tendency to heaviness needs the majestic and Juno-like style of beauty which the Roman women so frequently have to redeem them. But the countenances of the women of whom we have been speaking have nothing at all of this. The features are small, delicately cut, the form of face generally short, rather than tending to oval, being in this respect also in marked contrast with the ordinary Roman type. There is a type of face well known to most English eyes, though less so, I take it, to those on the western side of the Atlantic, which is strangely recalled to the memory by these model-girls; and that is the gypsy type. There is the same Oriental look about them, the same brilliancy of dark eyes under dark low brows, the same delicately-cut noses and full yet finely-chiseled lips. They have also almost invariably the same wondrous wealth of long raven black tresses, glossy but not fine. The complexions are fresher, more delicate, and with more of bloom, than is often seen among the gypsies; and this is the principal difference between the two types. There is also another [Pg 509]point of similarity, which, if the accounts of Eastern travelers may be accepted, seems also to point to an Oriental origin. I allude to the singular gracefulness of "pose" which is observable in these people, among the men and women alike. There they stand and lounge, or sit propped, half recumbent, against a balustrade in the sun, in all sorts of attitudes, but in all they are graceful. There is that indefinable simplicity and ease in the natural movement and disposition of their limbs which tuition can never, and birth in the purple can so rarely, enable a European to assume. It may perhaps be supposed that the exigencies of their profession have not been without influence in producing the effect I am speaking of. But I do not think that such is the case. In the young and the old, in the children even, the same thing is observable; and the exceeding difficulty of teaching it may be accepted, I think, as a guarantee that it has not been taught in the case of creatures so unteachable as these half-wild sons and daughters of Nature.

Now, if these people, who for generations past have exercised the profession of artists' models in Rome, do really belong to a race apart from the inhabitants of the district around Rome, as I think cannot be doubted by any one who has carefully observed them, the question suggests itself, Who and what are they, and whence do they come? Fortunately, we are not unprovided with an answer, and the answer is rather a curious one. If the excursionist from Rome to Tivoli will extend his ramble a little way among the Sabine Mountains which lie behind it, up the valley through which the Teverone—the præceps Anio of Horace—runs down into the Campagna, he will see on his right hand, when he has left Tivoli about ten miles behind him, a most romantically situated little town on the summit of a conically shaped mountain. The name of it is Saracinesco, and its story is as curious as its situation. It is said—and the tradition has every appearance of truth—that the town was founded by a body of Saracens after their defeat by Berengarius in the ninth century. The spot is just such as might have been selected for such a purpose. It is difficult of access to an extraordinary degree, and it is said to be no less than two thousand five hundred feet above the stream which flows at the base of the rocky hill on which it is built. Tradition, however, is not the only testimony to the truth of this account of the origin of the strangely placed little town, for in many cases the inhabitants have preserved their old Arabic names. It is from this strange eyrie of Saracinesco that our picturesque and handsome friends of the Piazzi di Spagna descend to seek a living at Rome from the profession which they have followed for generations of artists' models. And this is the explanation of the singular sameness of beautiful feature, the utterly un-Roman type, the sharply-cut features, and the admirable grace of movement and of attitude which characterize these denizens of the steps—if of the steppes no longer.

What a life they lead! From early morn to dewy eve there they lounge, in every sort of restful attitude, basking in the sun, with nothing on earth to occupy mind or body save an eternal clatter. On what subjects, who shall say or attempt to guess? Every now and then one of the tribe is hired by an artist to go and pose for a Judith, a Lucretia, a Venus, as the case may be. Some are wanted for an arm, some for a hand, some for a brow, some for a leg, some for a bust. Some one may have a special gift for personating an ancient Roman, and another exactly assume the saintly look of a Madonna or the smile and expression of a Venus. Their several and special gifts and capacities are all well known in the world of their patrons, and special reputations are made in the art-world accordingly. It is a strange life: not probably conducive to a high development of intellectual and moral excellence, but very much so to the picturesque peopling of the most magnificent flight of stairs in Christendom.

T. A. T.