Of Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper

Robert Browning

QUERY: was ever a quainter
Crotchet than this of the painter
Giacomo Pacchiarotto
Who took “Reform” for his motto?

    He, pupil of old Fungaio,
Is always confounded (heigho!)
With Pacchia, contemporaneous
No question, but how extraneous
In the grace of soul, the power
Of hand,—undoubted dower
Of Pacchia who decked (as we know,
My Kirkup!) San Bernardino,
Turning the small dark Oratory
To Siena’s Art-laboratory,
As he made its straitness roomy
And glorified its gloomy,
With Bazzi and Beccafumi.
(Another heigho for Bazzi:
How people miscall him Razzi!)

    This Painter was of opinion
Our earth should be his dominion
Whose Art could correct to pattern
What Nature had slurred—the slattern!
And since, beneath the heavens,
Things lay now at sixes and sevens,
Or, as he said, sopra-sotto
Thought the painter Pacchiarotto
Things wanted reforming, therefore.
“Wanted it”—ay, but wherefore?
When earth held one so ready
As he to step forth, stand steady
In the middle of God’s creation
And prove to demonstration
What the dark is, what the light is,
What the wrong is, what the right is,
What the ugly, what the beautiful,
What the restive, what the dutiful,
In Mankind profuse around him?
Man, devil as now he found him,
Would presently soar up angel
At the summons of such evangel,
And owe—what would Man not owe
To the painter Pacchiarotto?
Ay, look to thy laurels, Giotto!

    But Man, he perceived, was stubborn,
Grew regular brute, once cub born;
And it struck him as expedient—
Ere he tried to make obedient;
The wolf, fox, bear, and monkey
By piping advice in one key,—
That his pipe should play a prelude
To something heaven-tinged not hell-hued,
Something not harsh but docile,
Man-liquid, not Man-fossil—
Not fact, in short, but fancy.
By a laudable necromancy
He would conjure up ghosts—a circle
Deprived of the means to work ill
Should his music prove distasteful
And pearls to the swine go wasteful.
To be rent of swine—that was hard!
With fancy he ran no hazard:
Fact might knock him o’er the mazard.

    So, the painter Pacchiarotto
Constructed himself a grotto
In the quarter of Stalloreggi—
As authors of note allege ye.
And on each of the whitewashed sides of it
He painted—(none far and wide so fit
As he to perform in fresco)—
He painted nor cried quiesco
Till he peopled its every square foot
With Man—from the Beggar barefoot
To the Noble in cap and feather;
All sorts and conditions together.
The Soldier in breastplate and helmet
Stood frowningly—hail fellow well met—
By the Priest armed with bell, book, and candle.
Nor did he omit to handle
The Fair Sex, our brave distemperer:
Not merely King, Clown, Pope, Emperor—
He diversified too his Hades
Of all forms, pinched Labor and paid Ease,
With as mixed an assemblage of Ladies.

    Which work done, dry,—he rested him,
Cleaned palette, washed brush, divested him
Of the apron that suits frescanti,
And, bonnet on ear stuck jaunty,
This hand upon hip well planted,
That, free to wave as it wanted,
He addressed in a choice oration
His folk of each name and nation,
Taught its duty to every station.
The Pope was declared an arrant
Impostor at once, I warrant.
The Emperor—truth might tax him
With ignorance of the maxim
“Shear sheep but nowise flay them!”
And the Vulgar that obey them,
The Ruled, well-matched with the Ruling,
They failed not of wholesome schooling
On their knavery and their fooling.
As for Art—where’s decorum? Pooh-poohed it is
By Poets that plague us with lewd ditties,
And Painters that pester with nudities!

    Now, your rater and debater
Is balked by a mere spectator
Who simply stares and listens
Tongue-tied, while eye nor glistens
Nor brow grows hot and twitchy,
Nor mouth, for a combat itchy,
Quivers with some convincing
Reply—that sets him wincing?
Nay, rather—reply that furnishes
Your debater with just what burnishes
The crest of him, all one triumph,
As you see him rise, hear him cry “Humph!
Convinced am I? This confutes me?
Receive the rejoinder that suits me!
Confutation of vassal for prince meet—
Wherein all the powers that convince meet,
And mash my opponent to mincemeat!”

    So, off from his head flies the bonnet,
His hip loses hand planted on it,
While t’ other hand, frequent in gesture,
Slinks modestly back beneath vesture,
As—hop, skip and jump,—he’s along with
Those weak ones he late proved so strong with!
Pope, Emperor, lo, he’s beside them,
Friendly now, who late could not abide them,
King, Clown, Soldier, Priest, Noble, Burgess;
And his voice, that out-roared Boanerges,
How minikin-mildly it urges
In accents how gentled and gingered
Its word in defence of the injured!
“Oh, call him not culprit, this Pontiff!
Be hard on this Kaiser ye won’t if
Ye take into con-si-der-ation
What dangers attend elevation!
The Priest—who expects him to descant
On duty with more zeal and less cant?
He preaches but rubbish he’s reared in.
The Soldier, grown deaf (by the mere din
Of battle) to mercy, learned tippling
And what not of vice while a stripling.
The Lawyer—his lies are conventional.
And as for the Poor Sort—why mention all
Obstructions that leave barred and bolted
Access to the brains of each dolt-head?”

    He ended, you wager? Not half! A bet?
Precedence to males in the alphabet!
Still, disposed of Man’s A B C, there’s X
Y Z want assistance,—the Fair Sex I
How much may be said in excuse of
Those vanities—males see no use of—
From silk shoe on heel to laced poll’s-hood!
What’s their frailty beside our own falsehood?
The boldest, most brazen of . . . trumpets,
How kind can they be to their dumb pets!
Of their charms—how are most frank, how few venal!
While as for those charges of Juvenal—
Quœ nemo dixisset in toto
Nisi (œdepol) ore illoto

He dismissed every charge with an “A page!

    Then, cocking (in Scotch phrase) his cap a-gee,
Right hand disengaged from the doublet
—Like landlord, in house he had sublet
Resuming of guardianship gestion,
To call tenants’ conduct in question—
Hop, skip, jump, to inside from outside
Of chamber, he lords, ladies, louts eyed
With such transformation of visage
As fitted the censor of this age.
No longer an advocate tepid
Of frailty, but champion intrepid
Of strength,—not of falsehood but verity,—
He, one after one, with asperity
Stripped bare all the cant-clothed abuses,
Disposed of sophistic excuses,
Forced folly each shift to abandon,
And left vice with no leg to stand on.
So crushing the force he exerted,
That Man at his foot lay converted!

True—Man bred of paint-pot and mortar!
But why suppose folks of this sort are
More likely to hear and be tractable
Than folks all alive and, in fact, able
To testify promptly by action
Their ardor, and make satisfaction
For misdeeds non verbis sed factis?
“With folks all alive be my practice
Henceforward! O mortar, paint-pot O,
Farewell to ye I” cried Pacchiarotto,
“Let only occasion intérpose!”

    It did so: for, pat to the purpose
Through causes I need not examine,
There fell upon Siena a famine.
In vain did the magistrates busily
Seek succor, fetch grain out of Sicily,
Nay, throw mill and bakehouse wide open—
Such misery followed as no pen
Of mine shall depict ye. Faint, fainter
Waxed hope of relief: so, our painter,
Emboldened by triumph of recency,
How could he do other with decency
Than rush in this strait to the rescue,
Play schoolmaster, point as with fescue
To each and all slips in Man’s spelling
The law of the land?—slips now telling
With monstrous effect on the city,
Whose magistrates moved him to pity
As, bound to read law to the letter,
They minded their hornbook no better.

    I ought to have told you, at starting,
How certain, who itched to be carting
Abuses away clean and thorough
From Siena, both province and borough,
Had formed themselves into a company
Whose swallow could bolt in a lump any
Obstruction of scruple, provoking
The nicer throat’s coughing and choking:
Fit Club, by as fit a name dignified
Of “Freed Ones”—“Bardotti”—which signified
“Spare-Horses” that walk by the wagon
The team has to drudge for and drag on.
This notable Club Pacchiarotto
Had joined long since, paid scot and lot to,
As free and accepted “Bardotto.”
The Bailiwick watched with no quiet eye
The outrage thus done to society,
And noted the advent especially
Of Pacchiarotto their fresh ally.

    These Spare-Horses forthwith assembled:
Neighed words whereat citizens trembled
As oft as the chiefs, in the Square by
The Duomo, proposed a way whereby
The city were cured of disaster.
“Just substitute servant for master,
Make Poverty Wealth and Wealth Poverty,
Unloose Man from overt and covert tie,
And straight out of social confusion
True Order would spring!” Brave illusion—
Aims heavenly attained by means earthly!

Off to these at full speed rushed our worthy,—
Brain practised and tongue no less tutored,
In argument’s armor accoutred,—
Sprang forth, mounted rostrum, and essayed
Proposals like those to which “Yes” said
So glibly each personage painted
O’ the wall-side wherewith you’re acquainted.
He harangued on the faults of the Bailiwick:
“Red soon were our State-candle’s paly wick,
If wealth would become but interfluous;
Fill voids up with just the superfluous;
If ignorance gave way to knowledge
—Not pedantry picked up at college
From Doctors, Professors et cætera
(They say: ‘kai to loipa’—like better a
Long Greek string of kappas, taus, lambdas,
Tacked on to the tail of each damned ass)—
No knowledge we want of this quality,
But knowledge indeed—practicality
Through insight’s fine universality!
If you shout ‘Bailiffs, out on ye all! Fie,
Thou Chief of our forces, Amalfi,
Who shieldest the rogue and the clot poll!

If you pounce on and poke out, with what pole
I leave ye to fancy, our Siena’s
Beast-litter of sloths and hyenas—”
(Whoever to scan this is ill able
Forgets the town’s name’s a disyllable)—
“If, this done, ye did—as ye might—place
For once the right man in the right place,
If you listened to me” . . . 

                                        At which last “I.”
There flew at his throat like a mastiff
One Spare-Horse—another and another!
Such outbreak of tumult and pother,
Horse-faces a-laughing and fleering,
Horse-voices a-mocking and jeering,
Horse-hands raised to collar the caitiff
Whose impudence ventured the late “If”—
That, had not fear sent Pacchiarotto
Off tramping, as fast as could trot toe,
Away from the scene of discomfiture—
Had he stood there stock-still in a dumbfit—sure
Am I he had paid in his peison
Till his mother might fail to know her son,
Though she gazed on him never so wistful,
do the figure so tattered and tristful.
Each mouth full of curses, each fist full
Of cuffings—behold, Pacchiarotto,
The pass which thy project has got to,
Of trusting, nigh ashes still hot—tow!
(The paraphrase—which I much need—is
From Horace “per ignes incedis.”)

    Right and left did he dash helter-skelter
In agonized search of a shelter.
No purlieu so blocked and no alley
So blind as allowed him to rally
His spirits and see—nothing hampered
His steps if he trudged and not scampered
Up here and down there in a city
That’s all ups and downs, more the pity
For folks who would outrun the constable.
At last he stopped short at the one stable
And sure place of refuge that’s offered
Humanity. Lately was coffered
A corpse in its sepulchre, situate
By St. John’s Observance. “Habituate
Thyself to the strangest of bedfellows,
And, kicked by the live, kiss the dead fellows!”
So Misery counselled the craven.
At once he crept safely to haven
Through a hole left unbricked in the structure.
Ay, Misery, in have you tucked your
Poor client and left him conterminous
With—pah!—the thing fetid and verminous!
(I gladly would spare you the detail,
But History writes what I retail.)

    Two days did he groan in his domicile:
“Good Saints, set me free and I promise I’ll
Adjure all ambition of preaching
Change, whether to minds touched by teaching
—The smooth folk of fancy, mere figments
Created by plaster and pigments,—
Or to minds that receive with such rudeness
Dissuasion from pride, greed and lewdness,
—The rough folk of fact, life’s true specimens
Of mind—‘haud in posse sed esse mens
As it was, is, and shall be forever
Despite of my utmost endeavor.
O live foes I thought to illumine,
Henceforth lie untroubled your gloom in!
I need my own light, every spark, as
I couch with this sole friend—a carcase!”

    Two days thus he maundered and rambled;
Then, starved back to sanity, scrambled
From out his receptacle loathsome.
“A spectre!”—declared upon oath some
Who saw him emerge and (appalling
To mention) his garments a-crawling
With plagues far beyond the Egyptian.
He gained, in a state past description,
A convent of months, the Observancy.

Thus far is a fact: I reserve fancy
For Fancy’s more proper employment:
And now she waves wing with enjoyment,
To tell ye how preached the Superior,
When somewhat our painter’s exterior
Was sweetened. He needed (no mincing
The matter) much soaking and rinsing,
Nay, rubbing with drugs odoriferous,
Till, rid of his garments pestiferous,
And, robed by the help of the Brotherhood
In odds and ends,—this gown and t’ other hood,—
His empty inside first well-garnished,—
He delivered a tale round, unvarnished.

    “Ah, Youth!” ran the Abbot’s admonishment,
“Thine error scarce moves my astonishment.
For—why shall I shrink from asserting?—
Myself have had hopes of converting
The foolish to wisdom, till, sober,
My life found its May grow October.
I talked and I wrote, but, one morning,
Life’s Autumn bore fruit in this warning:
Let tongue rest, and quiet thy quill be!
Earth is earth and not heaven, and ne’er will be.

Man’s work is to labor and leaven—
As best he may—earth here with heaven;
’Tis work for work’s sake that he’s needing:
Let him work on and on as if speeding
Work’s end, but not dream of succeeding!
Because if success were intended,
Why, heaven would begin ere earth ended.
A Spare-Horse? Be rather a thill-horse,
Or—what’s the plain truth—just a mill-horse!
Earth’s a mill where we grind and wear mufflers:
A whip awaits shirkers and shufflers
Who slacken their pace, sick of lugging
At what don’t advance for their tugging.
Though round goes the mill, we must still post
On and on as if moving the mill-post.
So, grind away, mouth-wise and pen-wise,
Do all that we can to make men wise!
And if men prefer to be foolish,
Ourselves have proved horse-like not mulish:
Sent grist, a good sackful, to hopper,
And worked as the Master thought proper.
Tongue I wag, pen I ply, who am Abbot;
Stick, thou, Son, to daub-brush and dab-pot!
But, soft! I scratch hard on the scab hot?
Though cured of thy plague, there may linger
A pimple I fray with rough finger?
So soon could my homily transmute
Thy brass into gold? Why, the man’s mute!”

    “Ay, Father, I’m mute with admiring
How Nature’s indulgence untiring
Still bids us turn deaf ear to Reason’s
Best rhetoric—clutch at all seasons
And hold fast to what’s proved untenable!
Thy maxim is—Man’s not amenable
To argument: whereof by consequence—
Thine arguments reach me: a non-sequence!
Yet blush not discouraged, O Father!
I stand unconverted, the rather
That nowise I need a conversion.
No live man (I cap thy assertion)
By argument ever could take hold
Of me. ’Twas the dead thing, the clay-cold,
Which grinned ‘Art thou so in a hurry
That out of warm light thou must scurry
And join me down here in the dungeon
Because, above, one’s Jack and one—John,
One’s swift in the race, one—a hobbler,
One’s a crowned king and one—a capped cobbler,
Rich and poor, sage and fool, virtuous, vicious?
Why complain? Art thou so unsuspicious
That all’s for an hour of essaying
Who’s fit and who’s unfit for playing
His part in the after-construction
—Heaven’s Piece whereof Earth’s the Induction?
Things rarely go smooth at Rehearsal.
Wait patient the change universal,
And act, and let act, in existence!
For, as thou art clapped hence or hissed hence,
Thou host thy promotion or otherwise.
And why must wise thou have thy brother wise
Because in rehearsal thy cue be
To shine by the side of a booby?
No polishing garnet to ruby!
All’s well that ends well—through Art’s magic.
Some end, whether comic or tragic,
The Artist has purposed, be certain!
Explained at the fall of the curtain—
In showing thy wisdom at odds with
That folly: he tries men and gods with
No problem for weak wits to solve meant,
But one worth such Author’s evolvement.
So, back nor disturb play’s production
By giving thy brother instruction
To throw up his fool’s-part allotted!
Lest haply thyself prove besotted
When stript, for thy pains, of that costume
Of sage, which has bred the imposthume
I prick to relieve thee of,—Vanity!

    “So, Father, behold me in sanity!
I’m back to the palette and mahlstick:
And as for Man—let each and all stick
To what was prescribed them at starting!
Once planted as fools—no departing
From folly one inch, sæculorum
In sæcula! Pass me the jorum,
And push me the platter—my stomach
Retains, through its fasting, still some ache—
And then, with your kind Benedicite.

                I have told with simplicity
My tale, dropped those harsh analytics,
And tried to content you, my critics,
Who greeted my early uprising!
I knew you through all the disguising,
Droll dogs, as I jumped up, cried, “Heyday!
This Monday is—what else but May-day?
And these in the drabs, blues, and yellows.
Are surely the privileged fellows.
So, saltbox and bones, tongs and bellows!”
(I threw up the window) “Your pleasure?”


Then he who directed the measure—
An old friend—put leg forward nimbly,
“We critics as sweeps out your chimbly!
Much soot to remove from your flue, sir!
Who spares coal in kitchen an’t you, sir!
And neighbors complain it’s no joke, sir,
—You ought to consume your own smoke, sir!”

    Ah, rogues, but my housemaid suspects you—
Is confident oft she detects you
In bringing more filth into my house
Than ever you found there! I’m pious,
However: ’twas God made you dingy
And me—with no need to be stingy
Of soap, when ’tis sixpence the packet.
So, dance away, boys, dust my jacket,
Bang drum and blow fife—ay, and rattle
Your brushes, for that’s half the battle!
Don’t trample the grass,—hocus-pocus
With grime my Spring snowdrop and crocus,—
And, what with your rattling and tinkling,
Who knows but you give me an inkling
How music sounds, thanks to the jangle
Of regular drum and triangle?
Whereby, tap-tap, chink-chink, ’tis proven
I break rule as bad as Beethoven.
“That chord now—a groan or a grunt is ’t?
Schumann’s self was no worse contrapuntist.
No ear! or if ear, so tough-gristled—
He thought that he sung while he whistled!”

    So, this time I whistle, not sing at all,
My story, the largess I fling at all
And every the rough there whose aubade
Did its best to amuse me,—nor so bad!
Take my thanks, pick up largess, and scamper
Off free, ere your mirth gets a damper!
You’ve Monday, your one day, your fun-day,
While mine is a year that’s all Sunday.
I’ve seen you, times—who knows how many?—
Dance in here, strike up, play the zany,
Make mouths at the Tenant, hoot warning
You’ll find him decamped next May-morning;
Then scuttle away, glad to ’scape hence
With—kicks? no, but laughter and ha’pence!
Mine’s freehold, by grace of the grand Lord
Who lets out the ground here,—my landlord:
To him I pay quit-rent—devotion;
Nor hence shall I budge, I’ve a notion,
Nay, here shall my whistling and singing
Set all his street’s echoes a-ringing
Long after the last of your number
Has ceased my front-court to encumber
While, treading down rose and ranunculus,
You Tommy-make-room-for-your-Uncle us!
Troop, all of you—man or homunculus,
Quick march! for Xanthippe, my house-maid,
If once on your pates she a souse made
With what, pan or pot, bowl or skoramis,
First comes to her hand—things were more amiss!
I would not for worlds be your place in—
Recipient of slops from the basin!
You, jack-in-the-Green, leaf-and-twiggishness
Won’t save a dry thread on your priggishness!
While as for Quilp-Hop-o’-my-thumb there,
Banjo-Byron that twangs the strum-strum there—
He’ll think as the pickle he curses,
I’ve discharged on his pate his own verses!
“Dwarfs are saucy,” says Dickens: so, sauced in
Your own sauce,1 . . . 

    But, back to my Knight of the Pencil,
Dismissed to his fresco and stencil!
Whose story—begun with a chuckle,
And throughout timed by raps of the knuckle,—
To small enough purpose were studied
If it ends with crown cracked or nose bloodied.
Come, critics,—not shake hands, excuse me!
But—say have you grudged to amuse me
This once in the forty-and-over
Long years since you trampled my clover
And scared from my house-eaves each sparrow
I never once harmed by that arrow
Of song, karterotaton belos,
(Which Pindar declares the true melos,)
I was forging and filing and finishing,
And no whit my labors diminishing
Because, though high up in a chamber
Where none of your kidney may clamber
Your hullabaloo would approach me?
Was it “grammar” wherein you would “coach” me—
You,—pacing in even that paddock
Of language allotted you ad hoc,
With a clog at your fetlocks,—you—scorners
Of me free of all its four corners?
Was it “clearness of words which convey thought”?
Ay, if words never needed enswathe aught
But ignorance, impudence, envy
And malice—what word-swathe would then vie
With yours for a clearness crystalline?
But had you to put in one small line
Some thought big and bouncing—as noddle
Of goose, born to cackle and waddle
And bite at man’s heel as goose-wont is,
Never felt plague its puny os frontis
You’d know, as you hissed, spat and sputtered,
Clear cackle is easily uttered!

    Lo, I’ve laughed out my laugh on this mirth-day!
Beside, at week’s end, dawns my birthday,
That hebdome, hieron emar
(More things in a day than you deem are!)
Tei gar Apollona chrusaora
Egeinato Leto
. So, gray or ray
Betide me, six days hence, I’m vexed here
By no sweep, that’s certain, till next year!
“Vexed?”—roused from what else were insipid ease!
Leave snoring abed to Pheidippides!
We’ll up and work! won’t we, Euripides?

1.    No. please! For
            “Who would be satirical
             On a thing so very small?”—Printer’s Devil,    [back]

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