AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Fesole Papers

by W.G. Collingwood
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 680-

Fesole, also spelled Fiesole, is a hill town near Florence, in Italy.

IX.—A Chip and a Coal.

Old writers on art used to say that beauty means "variety in unity." Without variety, no beauty; without unity, no beauty. This is indeed one of the laws by which beauty consists, though not the only one: and if, in this paper, we dwell upon it, according to our custom, exclusively, we must remember when all is said and done that this law, too, is only one of many.

When I began these Fesole Papers, I hardly expected to continue them so soon within view of Fesole itself. But there, as I look up, are the white houses among the trees, deep grey-green this winter day, and clear at last above the morning mist; there is the monastery rising on the higher summit of the hills, while all the valley is iridescent with shifting vapour, that coils among ranks of leafless vines and sparse trees, brown-leaved like the background of an early painter.

It is wonderful, the vitality of this country; the thickly clustered houses, the crowded populations; villas and villages all along the valley "continuous as the stars that shine," and on either hand cast up like foam on the slopes that mark the shore of this broad land-lake. And with all the chance and change of history, throughout decay and renewal, always the same place—the same Italy. Last night I walked round the Cathedral of Florence, and the shadows fell, as they did of old, on the strange, polygonal, cyclopean pavement; the moon in a stormy sky blazing and flashing on the marbles of Giotto's tower; and, do what the century will, triumphing over the bottled lightning-stuff with which modern Florence illuminates her streets. But it is not only the moon that is the same; in Italy everywhere you are in the old world. The thing that interests you so much is the unity of its history throughout such variety. We have historic ground in England; Roman remains under any busy street of London city, but not in evidence. At Hardknot or Silchester we have relics, but antediluvian as it were; a gulf between them and us; no continuity, no unity, to bind them to our own days and doings. Here you can hardly disentangle the stages; from that column, first reared for an Etruscan temple, to the advertisement posted beside it yesterday; from the antique form of the language to its latest adaptation of scientific or social slang; from the features that look out of golden aureoles to their counterparts under silk hats and cotton kerchiefs; you find here an all-embracing unity in which every phase of variety finds its place and is reconciled to it.

As in the history, so it is in the aspects of the place. At home, we are content, and rightly content, with fewer elements of variety, and we can make our picture of a grey cottage or that green field whose sight "makes us pardon the absence of a more sublime construction." But here there is the more sublime construction! A dozen Skiddaws, clouds on every head, drifting into an ampler sky and tossing like spray from every ravine; and half way up the mountain-slopes multitudinous sparkling of white houses, among forests of chestnuts; maize and olive and vine massed and mingled together on terraces of every slope and slant; terraces tumbling like spellicans [spellicans are like pick-up sticks] down the hill sides, hanging over edges, nestling under brows, curling round breasts; and all dashed through and through with deep chasmy ghyllis and torrents smothered under the richness of foliage; rock and sward interchanged; rough walls with the remnants of noble architecture; trim villas with rambling farms; and roads and paths of every kind and size, twining and climbing, lost and found again among the branches and the by-ways of the Apennines.

Then as you go back to the city,—and there are many walled cities scattered about the valleys, each such as you see in old pictures, like a group of gems with a bracelet thrown round them, standing aloof from the country side, but not alien to it, as are the Malebolge [evil ditches"] of smoke and slime we call towns in these parts,—as you enter the city the variety of the place redoubles itself. Variety! But that has been better told than I can tell it in the street scenes of many a painter and in passages of word-painting such as Ruskin's 'Approach to St. Mark's' in Stones in Venice (vol. Ii., chap 4). The great feature of Italian scenery, the thing that excites one so much, the thing that we cannot parallel elsewhere, is the unlimited variety of material, form, colour, suggestion, appeal, light and shade, texture, origin, story. And the wonder of it all is that nothing jars; it does not seem like a dislocated world, or a ragbag; but it is all bound together by the life that pervades it, the vivacity of local character, the real "Italian Unity," in the spirit that accepts all, the light that bathes all, the air that breathes through all, and leaves no room, when once you are in broad sympathy with the scene, for antiquarian regrets and retrospective criticism.

There is unity (as the word is often used) in the monotony of an English town; but that is as different from the bustling harmony of Italian street life as a frog-pond from the glittering repose of a sunlit sea. The variety of a new country, of jarring elements unblended, is not beautiful as Italy is, because it is not harmonised into unity. We are expressing one great principle of beauty when we say that the charm of Italy over other lands north and south of it, east and west of it, lies in its balance of variety with unity.

But we can apply our principle to anything we find beautiful. Take, for instance, a mountain or a hill; and ask yourself why you find it more beautiful than a pyramid, or an artificial mound or rockery. In the pyramid there is unity, if anywhere; but what variety in the millions of its monotonous bricks? And in a rockery; does it not gradually reveal itself to you, as you regard it thoughtfully, as a monster, misshapen and chaotic, fit only, if a little one, for earwigs; and if ambitious in its building, like one I have seen in Derbyshire, for dragons and owls? In the real hill, it is the sense of structural unity, the ordainment of its parts by natural forces and natural laws, the parallelism of its cleavage, the radiation of its sweeping curves of debris, or the soft harmony of its glaciation, that compel the infinite various detail into beauty.

So again in trees, of which we have talked enough in a former paper; so in flowers and leaves, and in the detail of vegetation. For the wonder of nature is that every part of her work is a whole in itself; and her laws are "as full, as perfect, in a hair as heart" [from Pope's Essay on Man]. A mountain is her most beautiful work in what they used to call the mineral kingdom; a tree, in the vegetable; and these between them make up all possibilities of our landscape-painting, for we cannot bid the skies stand to be studied; and the painting of living creatures is beyond us as yet. Even in the study of mountains and trees, many of the secrets of their beauty may be learnt from a bit of each; a stone—and a stick.

A Stone exemplifies the normal structure of stones, and, through them, of mountains. Not the squared or carved stone of the builder; nor even the broken stone in the roadway, or the pebble rounded on the shore; for these only dimly bear the marks of their origin. These marks are, first, their deposition in successive layers, or strata; next, their breaking up by joints—nobody quite knows how or why. To see and study these, a clean bit of coal is as good a specimen as any; for though coal is not mineral in substance, it is mineral in form. The ease with which it may be split into thin leaves is due, they say, to the "bedding"; that is, to the fact that it is made up of many thin successive layers of frail rotted vegetable material. I have read in a magazine for young ladies that coal splits so easily because it was once wood; and wood always splits like that, don't you know? Whether this bit of scientific information was irony or ignorance does not now matter; it seemed serious; but the interest in our lump of coal is in this,—that it is an epitome of a great rock, of a mountain. In drawing it you will notice the two kinds of splitting that it has already undergone, and might still undergo; the bedding or foliation, and the joining which crosses the bedding in various directions. This is the unity of structure, to which is opposed the rough and apparently accidental fracture of the surface. So far as a piece of coal is pretty (and, when you look at it carefully, you will see that it is not without prettiness) it is because throughout its rugged broken bulk there run lines, and planes, making constant angles, emerging here and there from the mass which at first you thought shapeless, and repeating over and over again their appeal to the law of mineral structure, recalling the principles of creation, and acknowledging the unity of the whole in the midst of its apparent accidentality and variety. You will find that to be a great secret in mountain-drawing.

For illustration of the vegetable world, take a piece of split—not sawn—firewood, and follow out its structure in the same way. You will trace the grain of the wood, its springing curvature restrained by the bark-ring; its radiation to the junction of branches, and its writhe—the struggling line of life so different from the crushed helplessness of the layers of the coal. And, in this example, the variety is to be sought in the continual change of direction in all these lines; curves indeed, but not curves that can be struck with a compass; restraint, but not rigidity, for every inch up the stem the section of the bark varies both in shape and in size; and writhe, suggesting a spiral ascent, but how different from a Jacobean chair-leg. If you learn to look for these characters in a chip, you will find them also in the tree.

By-and-by, as you draw, you will see for yourself things that are indescribable in words in the way of beauties, and learn laws that cannot be formulated, secrets inconceivable to people who only read and talk about nature. You have noticed an artist's delight over something that seemed to you of little significance? You asked him to explain himself, and he could not? You will find a whole new realm of sensation and enjoyment opened out by this power of careful and patient drawing; it is like a new sense—untranslatable into any terms but its own. And it can be gained, more or less. "Among the blind the one-eyed is king," though he cannot make them see what he sees.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

From this paper I have cut some preliminary talk about generalities, which seemed to me rather vaporous, in order to make room for this little story which may have an interest for the sketcher of mountain-scenery. I was trying to draw a ravine, wild and savage, with ragged trees clinging to the steep walls of broken rock, and big boulders tumbled in confusion into the foaming gulf; you know how the impression of such a place is that it can't be too mixed-up and chaotic. After several days' work I took the picture home, and couldn't think why it looked unreal. At first I supposed it was too detailed, for I had tried to put everything in, and the place where I had posted myself allowed no "walk back" to see the general effect while I was painting. So I tried to broaden the lights and darks, but it seemed no better. Then I thought I hadn't enough force, and tried to get the nearer parts to stand out with sharper lights and darks; which made it look coarse and vulgar. At last it occurred to me that I had missed the parallel lines of cleavage; I had drawn the cracks and edges which express the cross-cutting of the rocks, but I had not drawn them quite truly parallel. So next time I looked out for them, and found the picture jump into reality at once; for even in this scene of wild variety, there was still the unity of structure underneath it all.

But supposing I drew only the parallel cleavages, expressing only the unity of the subject, that would be by no means beautiful. It would make a mere geological diagram, not a landscape picture. The studies of chips and coals tended to overdoing the unity part of the business, except when they were painted by the more artistic and skilful to show how unity and variety, in beautiful nature and good art, are combined to form "infinity."

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, September 2008