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Speaking Surfaces in James’s Siena

Gert Buelens


Cet article s’intéresse à l’anthropomorphisme auquel James a recours dans l’essai “Siena Early and Late” pour évoquer les lieux et les bâtiments, leur conférant un aspect spectral qui se manifeste malgré l’apparente résistance des surfaces. Loin de déplorer l’obstacle opposé à la pénétration de l’objet, James, éludant les possibilités d’analyse en profondeur, trouve avantage à se laisser submerger par la force du sens historique et de la révélation esthétique relayés par la construction rhétorique du discours et l’excès figural qui caractérise ce récit de voyage.

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Sienese Spaces

1This essay will examine James’s account of Siena, particularly in the 1909 Italian Hours revision and extension, “Siena Early and Late,” of his 1874 Atlantic Monthly letter “Siena.” It will zoom in on the Sienese spaces and places that speak to James’s imagination, or that his imagination endows with the faculty of speech. I will argue that this anthropomorphism interacts with James’s privileging of performative surface over constative depth: what his traveller-narrator engages with is the prosopopoeic face, manner, and mood of the scene, what he refuses is penetration below a surface made up of spectral manifestations. What should not be ignored is the fraught position of the narrator, who at once distances himself from the cultural commodification that tourism brings and is himself implicated as a tourist taking his profit from the encountered and created scene—conducting a commercial transaction with the Italian scene. James does not resolve this tension.

2Right from the opening paragraph of the piece, we are introduced to one significant space: the Piazza. When James first visits Siena, arriving late at night, he manages to look up the impressive space, “unhindered as it bloomed in the white moonshine” (1993a 513). This “waiting scene”—an anthropomorphism that is no sooner introduced than repeated—“was void of any human presence that could figure to me the current year; so that, the moonshine assisting, I had half-an-hour’s infinite vision of mediaeval Italy.” Although James is interested in establishing a relation with the real, laying actual eyes on a space that he has often seen in “multiplied photographs,” it is the very absence of the real that he seeks out in choosing to visit the Piazza late at night, when all the people have gone. It is the scene that must be waiting for him; not any actual human beings. The real that he wants to be in relation with is not the real of 1874 but that of at least five centuries earlier. It is in other words the Piazza of his imagination that he is keen to see come to life in his bodily presence, and his sketch of the scene suggests that moonlight helps create the spectral conditions in which such a wished-for transaction with the past can be the more easily achieved.

3Another facilitating factor proves to be the “tall slim tower” of the Palazzo Pubblico, “which soars and soars till it has given notice of the city’s greatness over the blue mountains that mark the horizon” (514). It is worth quoting the detail of James’s description, which was heavily revised and expanded upon for the 1909 book:

This beautiful tower, the finest thing in Siena ... figures there still as a Declaration of Independence beside which such an affair as ours, thrown off at Philadelphia, appears to have scarce done more than helplessly give way to time. Our Independence has become a dependence on a thousand such dreadful things as the incorrupt declaration of Siena strikes us as looking for ever straight over the level of. As it stood silvered by the moonlight, while my greeting lasted, it seemed to speak, all as from soul to soul, very much indeed as some ancient worthy of a lower order, buttonholing one on the coveted chance and at the quiet hour, might have done, of a state of things long and vulgarly superseded, but to the pride and power, the once prodigious vitality, of which who could expect any one effect to testify more incomparably, more indestructibly, quite, as it were, more immortally?

4Again there is a striking prosopopoeia, one which is here developed by means of a typical late-Jamesian extended simile (added in the 1909 version) whereby the tower speaks in the staged voice of “some ancient worthy of a lower order.” That speech is said to take place “all as from soul to soul,” a simile that seemingly suggests the Pauline “face to face,” yet I would argue that the very intricateness of the figural construction of the scene actually points firmly in the direction of the “glass darkly” that occupies the other end of this particular figural scheme.

5There is, for one thing, something strange going on with the nature of the (imagined) “ancient worthy”’s interpellation of the narrator: he is said to be “buttonholing one”—hardly an expression that marks a desired form of interaction, especially when this happens “on the coveted chance and at the quiet hour.” The first phrase attributes to the imagined interlocutor one of the cardinal sins, covetousness, while the second suggests the narrator had rather be undisturbed in his enjoyment of his silent communion with the scene. One may also wonder why it is specified that the ancient worthy belongs to “a lower order”: how does social stratification factor into the experience? It is suggestively introduced but not addressed. And yet what is being communicated in the course of this interpellation, as I have called it in Althusserian fashion, appears to be valued by the narrator as the sharing of precious recollections of a superior “state of things long and vulgarly superseded.” Indeed, in the next moment, James’s imagination has the “gigantic houses enclosing the rest of the Piazza [take] up the tale and mingle […] with it their burden. ‘We are very old and a trifle weary, but we were built strong and piled high, and we shall last for many an age. The present is cold and heedless, but we keep ourselves in heart by brooding over our store of memories and traditions. We are haunted houses in every creaking timber and aching stone.’” “Such,” James concludes, “were the gossiping connections I established with Siena before I went to bed” (514). Here, as in much of his fiction, James cultivates the spectral, the haunted, as the atmospheric condition that allows “our store of memories and traditions” to assert themselves, giving access to a performative type of knowledge about the encountered reality.

  • 1 See my “Pleasurable ‘Presences’” and “Henry James’s Oblique Possession.”

Key to “Siena Early and Late” is the simultaneous presence of a desire to remain at the surface of the Sienese scene—to submit to it (in psychoanalytical terms, the masochist impulse, as I have identified it elsewhere)—and a desire to penetrate and control it (the sadist impulse).1 This double movement is linked to the many instances of prosopopoeia in the essay: James experiences the streets and houses as speaking to him, yet he also registers frustration at the dumbness of the stones and mortar and then turns with relief to the conversation offered by his server at dinner in the hotel (519). This doubleness also manifests itself in the use of the word “shadow” in the striking phrase “even the lore of German doctors is but the shadow of satisfied curiosity” (515). Here, “but the shadow” implies a falling short of the jouissance of truly “satisfied curiosity.” But when James goes into the “shabbiness” of Siena, “shadow” becomes part of the pleasurable sense. Siena offers to its young people a world battered and befouled with long use. [...] Siena was long ago mellowed to the pictorial tone; the operation of time is now to deposit shabbiness upon shabbiness. But it’s for the most part a patient, sturdy, sympathetic shabbiness, which soothes rather than irritates the nerves [...]. It projects [...] a deeper shadow into the constant twilight of the narrow streets—that vague historic dusk, as I may call it, in which one walks and wonders. (516)

6The streets’ twilight is produced not just by the deposition of layer upon layer of shabbiness on the buildings but also by their hulking mass, which subjugates the streets: “These streets are hardly more than sinuous flagged alleys, into which the huge black houses, between their almost meeting cornices, suffer a meagre light to filter down over rough-hewn stone” (516). The prosopopoeia in “suffer,” used in the sense of “permit,” is repeated, strikingly, in the next sentence, but now the anthropomorphism seems to be attached to the streets themselves: “Scattered over their many-headed hill, they [presumably “These streets,” the grammatical subject of the previous sentence] suffer the roadway often to incline to the perpendicular, becoming so impracticable for vehicles that the sound of wheels is only a trifle less anomalous than it would be in Venice” (516). “Suffer to + verb x” is a fascinating collocation, which draws particular attention when the expression is used twice in such close proximity. On the one hand, it assigns to its grammatical subject a controlling power: the ability to permit (or refuse) whatever action is expressed in verb x. Yet, the submissive dimension of suffering, that is to say of undergoing that action x, is surely also in play. And the duality that is operational is clear in the fact that the streets which were the beneficiaries of the act of suffering, at the hands of the buildings, in the first sentence, become, in the second sentence, the enablers of the roadway’s inclination to the perpendicular. Or, to look at it from the other perspective, in the second sentence it is the streets that suffer (x to happen to the roadway), while in the first sentence it is the houses that suffer (y to happen to the streets).

  • 2 Commenting on a different moment in Italian Hours, Salter concludes in a very similar spirit: “The (...)

7There is a similarly intricate interplay between subject and object in another intriguing reflection on Sienese “palaces” and their inhabitants past and present. “The Siena of to-day,” James writes, “is a mere shrunken semblance of the rabid little republic which in the thirteenth century waged triumphant war with Florence [...]. Many of these dusky piles still bear the names of the old mediaeval magnates the vague mild occupancy of whose descendants has the effect of armour of proof worn over ‘pot’ hats and tweed jackets and trousers” (518). The houses are the grammatical subject of the main clause, and “the names” is the direct object (actually: “the names [...] trousers”); but semantically, to “bear” is similar to “to suffer”—it is to carry, to be subject to something, in this case “the names” of the powerful people that occupied them in the Middle Ages: semantically, the houses are subjected to the “magnates.” That word next becomes the head of a noun phrase that extends over the rest of the sentence. The dependent of the head is a relative clause (“the vague mild occupancy of whose [...] trousers”), the grammatical link between head and dependent consisting in the relative pronoun “whose.” To unpack this dense sentence: the palaces carry the names of the mighty magnates that waged triumphant war in the Middle Ages; they are currently occupied vaguely, mildly, by their descendants, so that the effect of the latter’s occupancy of such palaces is as if they wore armour of proof on top of the modish hats and soft suits in which they go about. The challenge of the sentence lies in the precise ordering of the words, with for instance “occupancy of” making it possible for readers to expect that what will come next is the object that is occupied, whereas what does come next is the subject of occupying—the people who occupy. And once the “occupancy of” has been completed with the (present-day) occupants, it is potentially confusing that “the effect” of this occupancy is said to be that “of armour of proof worn over” the “vague mild” garb of today because one might expect the reverse; to expect the effect of this type of descendant occupying those palaces to be experienced as the imposition of the (current) pot hats and tweeds on the (erstwhile) armour of proof. James’s opposite and arguably less logical choice is testimony to how intricately interwoven are for him subject and object, observer and scene, imagination and reality, buildings and people, the past and the present.2

8A further dimension of the interpenetration of buildings and people is signalled by the anthropomorphism whereby the palaces are endowed with the faculty of speech. They are, James notes, “the massive majestic syllables, sentences, periods, of the strange message the place addresses to us” (518). It is the palaces that populate “the surface of the subject” of Siena (514)—that surface to which the Jamesian traveller restricts his account both of necessity and by choice. The traveller is not admitted into the actual buildings and certainly not into the presence of their aristocratic inhabitants: “Some of the palaces are shown, but only when the occupants are at home, and now they are in villeggiatura. Their villeggiatura lasts eight months of the year,” James drily adds (519). In his capacity of “story-seeker,” he experiences “an irritated sense of the dumbness of stones and mortar” (519): “as a lover of the preserved social specimen, of type at almost any price,” he wishes that he were not

reduced simply to staring at black stones and peeping up stately staircases; and that when one had examined the street-face of the palace, Murray in hand, one might walk up to the great drawing-room, make one’s bow to the master and mistress, the old abbé and the young count, and invite them to favour one with a sketch of their social philosophy or a few first-hand family anecdotes. (520)

9James travelled at a time of cultural commodification and at moments such as these he briefly reveals himself to be very much a part of the thronging crowd of tourists that are descending upon the sites of interest and just as desirous of ascending their staircases. It is not simply that he, too, travels “Murray in hand” and would be prepared to pay “almost any price” for a chance to meet “the preserved social specimen,” the “type,” at “first-hand”; it is quite as much that his own account, in his travel essays, serves a similar purpose as does a Murray, witness the moment in the previous long paragraph, say, when he recommends the Caffè Greco on account of the fact that you can there obtain “a capital demi-tasse for three sous, and an excellent ice for eight, and while you consume these easy luxuries you may buy from a little hunchback the local weekly periodical, the Vita Nuova, for three centimes (the two centimes left from your sou, if you are under the spell of this magical frugality, will do to give to the waiter)” (517).

  • 3 See Buelens and Aijmer.

10But surface is also what the Jamesian traveller restricts his account to by choice. In the second Siena essay, written specifically for Italian Hours (1909) but mainly reflecting back on much earlier visits, he recalls his younger self as “the incurable student of loose meanings and stray relics and odd references and dim analogies in an Italian hill-city bronzed and seasoned by the ages” (528) and he wonders whether he “ought perhaps, for justification of the right to talk, to have plunged into the Siena archives of which, on one occasion, a kindly custodian gave [him], in rather dusty and stuffy conditions [...] a glimpse that was like a moment’s stand at the mouth of a deep, dark mine” (528). James recoiled from this invitation to probe beneath the surface of Sienese impressions: “I didn’t descend into the pit” (528). Instead, he went “for a musing stroll upon the Lizza—the Lizza which had its own unpretentious but quite insidious art of meeting the lover of old stories half-way” (528). To delve into the archives is dismissed as the activity of the “strenuous specialist” (528); instead what must be recognised, James insists, is that “places of a heavily charged historic consciousness” offer to the artist a “great and subtle thing”: an ability “to profit by the sense of that consciousness—or in other words to cultivate a relation with the oracle—after the fashion that suits yourself” (528). That fashion involves pursuing “what is most to your purpose”: “the general after-taste of experience, experience at large, the fine distilled essence of the matter, [which] seems to breathe [...] from the very stones and to make a thick strong liquor of the very air” (528). This “after-taste of experience,” this looking at the Italian scene through a glass darkly rather than face to face, through a filter that renders “the fine distilled essence of the matter,” is for James to be brought closer to “the indestructible mixture of lived things, with its concentrated lingering odour, than any interminable list of numbered chapters and verses” (528). The imagination must be given the free rein it needs to arrive at “the sense of that consciousness” of history that dominates James’s transactions with the Sienese scene. The ultimate effect of the ghostly presences of the past may be to stir a vivid sense of life, as I have argued elsewhere with regard to the sense of the past in James.3

Italian Scenes

11Elsewhere in Italian Hours, we can observe a similar dynamic. In “The Saint’s Afternoon,” for example, James recalls a visit to Pompeii, where he “enjoyed [...], for the only time I can recall, the sweet chance of a late hour or two, the hour of the lengthening shadows, absolutely alone” (1993a 613). Just as in the opening moments of the Siena essay, solitude is singled out as the precondition for a genuine sense of connection to the true quality of the site. “The impression remains ineffaceable—it was to supersede half-a-dozen other mixed memories, the sense that had remained with me, from far back, of a pilgrim age always here beset with traps and shocks and vulgar importunities, achieved under fatal discouragements.” The discouragements are formed by the tourists with whom James has to share the precious sites; Pompeii is, alas, “haunt of all the cockneys of creation,” yet James immediately proceeds to refer to himself as “the particular cockney who roamed without a plan and at his ease” (note, too, the Whitmanesque resonance here—“I lean and loafe at my ease”—echoing a poem that is fundamentally democratic in its orientation) (613). There is a clear tension between, on one hand, a recognition that there is little difference between James and other tourists, on the other, that some form of separation from the throng is necessary to obtain the type of knowledge of Italian history that James seeks. “Even Pompeii [...] burned itself, in the warm still eventide, as clear as glass, or as the glow of a pale topaz” (613); once more, we encounter the idea of the Pauline face-to-face facilitated by conditions “as clear as glass”: “his consciousness really at last of some good to him, [the particular cockney] could open himself as never before to the fond luxurious fallacy of a close communion, a direct revelation” (613-614). But it is important to register that here, too, the Pauline ideal of “close communion” and “direct revelation” remains distanced by the Jamesian imagination. This is a “fond luxurious fallacy,” that is to say, it is only available to a “consciousness” that actively allows the scene to do its initimate work. Such a consciousness, the sequel to this passage suggests, is a properly aesthetic vessel that borrows its receptiveness (“could open himself as never before”) from the moulds provided by the art of the past. James goes on to evoke a joyful moment when he observed, from a hilly distance at Posillipo, “where, thanks to a friendliest hospitality, [I] was to hang ecstatic, through another sublime afternoon, on the wave of a magical wand,” a group of people, including tourists, filling the beach of the Bay of Naples (614):

Here, as happened, were charming wise, original people even down to delightful amphibious American children, enamelled by the sun of the Bay as for figures of miniature Tritons and Nereids on a Renaissance plaque; and above all, on the part of the general prospect, a demonstration of the grand style of composition and effect that one was never to wish to see bettered. The way in which the Italian scene on such occasions as this seems to purify itself to the transcendent and perfect idea alone—idea of beauty, of dignity, of comprehensive grace, with all accidents merged, all defects disowned, all experience outlived, and to gather itself up into the mere mute eloquence of what has just incalculably been, remains for ever the secret and the lesson of the subtlest daughter of History. (614; James’s italics)

  • 4 Collister notes à propos of the “Venice” essay with which Italian Hours opens that the work “recor (...)

12The enthusiasm with which this observation is pervaded is enabled by the fact that the people in the scene can be transmuted—they, too, can be subjected to “the wave of a magical wand” as it were—by the aesthetic frame that the viewer brings to the perception.4 Even the offspring of American tourists, taking to the water, can be integrated as “miniature Tritons and Nereids on a Renaissance plaque.” A keyword is “charming”: a spell is cast just as a wand has been waved, and the Jamesian viewer can submit to the power of the scene, a power that emanates from “the transcendent and perfect idea” of Italy—an idea stripped of all distracting particulars or befuddling disturbances that the present might bring, and pared down instead to the core of what the past has brought (“what has just incalculably been”). The “Italian scene” is “the subtlest daughter of History.” How this (aesthetic) “composition and effect” is achieved is a “secret” that James refrains from investigating further.

  • 5 The alternative reading would be to regard “one’s self” as an emphatic reflexive pronoun, as in “I (...)
  • 6 Cf. also “They are extraordinarily numerous, and one wonders what part they can play in the meagre (...)
  • 7 The writer’s payment is reimbursed by the subject (he already has inside of him) and thus induces (...)

13There are strong continuities between the “Siena Early and Late” essay, published in 1909, and James’s Preface to “The Aspern Papers,” published in 1908, where he recalls the germ of that tale as “invest[ed]” with “[t]he air of the old-time Italy [...], a mixture that on the faintest invitation I rejoice again to inhale—and this in spite of the mere cold renewal, ever, of the infirm tide of that felicity, the sense, in the whole element, of things too numerous, too deep, too obscure, too strange, or even simply too beautiful, for any ease of intellectual relation” (1984 1173). The challenge that Italy poses is here, too, indicated in terms of, first, overabundant quantity, and, next, depth of penetration required. A constant between the two essays is James’s choice to remain at the implicitly easy surface of (performative) apprehension and aesthetic relation, rather than enter into the difficulty of a (constative) “intellectual relation.” In an intriguing wording, which follows on directly from what I have just quoted, James suggests a way of dealing with this challenge: “One must pay one’s self largely with words, I think, one must induce almost any ‘Italian subject’ to make believe it gives up its secret, in order to keep at all on working—or call them perhaps rather playing—terms with the general impression” (1173). It is not possible to uncover a secret, to penetrate a social mystery; all one can do is persuade an (anthropomorphised) “‘Italian subject’” to pretend it surrenders its secret—to performatively stage a truth. And the way to persuasion lies through a generous remuneration in language. To make the complexity even more astounding, it is possible to read “One must pay one’s self largely with words” (emphasis added) as assigning the reflexive construction “one’s self” a direct object function in the clause, where the writer himself would be the beneficiary of the act of payment (a reading based in part on the fact that no other beneficiary of the commercial transaction is indicated),5 but of course it is also that writer (“One”) who is making the payment. So, the writer, in that reading, can only maintain a “working—or [...] perhaps rather playing” relationship with “the general impression” of the scene by expending a lavish number of words on himself. Furthermore, this monetary act is said to be able to “induce almost any ‘Italian subject’” to pretend to disclosure, where one thing the scare quotes around “Italian subject” appear to communicate is the suggestion that such a subject only comes into existence once it has been created through the rhetorical enactment that is formed by the writer’s words—the Italian scene only becomes an Italian subject in the writer’s actions. Yet, it is that Italian subject that must still be coaxed into revealing its secret (or pretending to do so). The writer goes to considerable expenditure (“pay [...] largely”)6 in creating a subject “with words” that belong to him, yet at the same time that subject possesses a life of its own: it can “make believe it gives up its secret.”7

14This curious relation between writer and subject—that the writer at once creates his subject and discovers it—is confirmed by the opening image of the Preface, where James goes to some length to link the way he “found” the “idea” for “The Aspern Papers” with the “discoveries [...] of the navigator, the chemist, the biologist” as “scarce more than alert recognitions” (1173). The writer, too,

comes upon the interesting thing as Columbus came upon the isle of San Salvador, because he had moved in the right direction for it [...]. Nature had so placed it, to profit—if as profit we may measure the matter!—by his fine unrest, just as history, “literary history” we in this connexion call it, had in an out-of-the-way corner of the great garden of life thrown off a curious flower that I was to feel worth gathering as soon as I saw it. I got wind of my positive fact, I followed the scent. (1173; James’s italics)

15The isle of San Salvador “profit[ed]” by Columbus’ discovery of it: the island became a part of the Western interest-yielding economic system—a consequence that James realises was not necessarily beneficial to the island. Columbus’ “mov[ing] in the right direction for it,” even if he did not know he would be discovering this part of the world, having set out in search of a very different continent, was all that was required for “Nature” to be able to place it in his way. So, too, the germ or idea for “The Aspern Papers,” here figured as a flower, was placed in the writer’s way by “literary history.” Yet, if what happens to the flower is just as ambiguous in terms of benefit as what happened to the West Indies, James does not make this ambiguity as explicit, merely noting that the flower was “worth gathering.” Is it only a twenty-first-century sensibility that questions the value to the flower in being “gather[ed],” i.e. plucked, and sees purely the value to the gatherer? It seems fair to observe, whatever the answer to this rhetorical question, that the opening paragraph of this Preface activates the idea of profit and payment in ambiguous terms, including the phrase I initially quoted from it: “[t]he air of the old-time Italy invests it [the idea of “The Aspern Papers”], a mixture that on the faintest invitation I rejoice again to inhale” (1173, emphasis added).

16The Preface continues its reflection on the character of the “Italian subject” by noting that the ability to “entertain” “the general impression” of it requires “the aid of a merciful convention which resembles the fashion of our intercourse with Iberians or Orientals whose form of courtesy places everything they have at our disposal” (1173). The simile is explicated as follows:

We thank them and call upon them, but without acting on their professions. The offer has been too large and our assurance is too small; we peep at most into two or three of the chambers of their hospitality, with the rest of the case stretching beyond our ken and escaping our penetration. The pious fiction suffices; we have entered, we have seen, we are charmed. (1173-1174)

17This part of the Preface has been little commented upon (unlike its continuation, where James expresses his “delight in a palpable imaginable visitable past” [James’s italics]), some notable exceptions being Susan Manning, who focuses on the transatlantic literary hauntings in it, including the obvious echo of Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (193), Salter, and Herford, with both of whose comments I will engage below. But no one has engaged with the fascinating variation on Julius Caesar’s “veni, vidi, vici” that is formed by the tricolon with which my quotation ends. James, too, has come (has “entered”—that is to say, has “peep[ed] at most into two or three chambers” belonging to the object of his quest); James, too, has “seen”—has seen like stout Cortez how much is still “stretching beyond our ken”; but for James, characteristically, to overcome is to be overcome: the victory to which the crescendo of the tricolon builds does not reside in vulgar military submission of the object but rather exquisite aesthetic submission to it—the sense of being “charmed” by it.

So, right and left, in Italy—before the great historic complexity at least—penetration fails; we scratch at the extensive surface, we meet the perfunctory smile, we hang about in the golden air. But we exaggerate our gathered values only if we are eminently witless. It is fortunately the exhibition in all the world before which, as admirers, we can most remain superficial without feeling silly. (1174)

18The mastery of the Italian scene that James seeks amounts to an acceptance that (constative) “penetration fails”; what succeeds is (performative) submission to the superficial charm of that scene, to the spell its “extensive surface” casts, to the spectral quality that emanates from its “golden air” and communicates a sense of history:

the working convention, as I have called it—the convention of the real revelations and surrenders on one side and the real immersions and appreciations on the other—has not only nothing to keep it down, but every glimpse of contrast, every pang of exile and every nostalgic twinge to keep it up. These latter haunting presences in fact, let me note, almost reduce at first to a mere blurred, sad, scarcely consolable vision this present revisiting, re-appropriating impulse. (1174)

  • 8 Collister comments in similar terms on James’s rhapsodic evocation of the Venetian gondoliers, who (...)

19It is indeed no more than a “working convention” that “the real revelations and surrenders” are all on the side of the Italian subject and “the real immersions and appreciations” on the side of the visitor—no true immersion ever takes place, and such appreciation as the Jamesian visitor certainly achieves is dependent more on surrender to the Italian subject than on any Caesar-like vanquishing of it.8

20In “Scratching at the Surface: Understanding History through Style in James’s Italy,” Sarah Salter works James’s admission that “before the great historic complexity [...] penetration fails” and that one can do no more than “scratch at the extensive surface” to argue, persuasively, “that an emphasis on stylistic surface illustrates how contemplations of Italy dramatized a distinct struggle of James’s writing career: how to balance the perceived necessity of plot, which I read as an historical impulse, with the rich surface of style, understood to represent an embrace of extra-temporal spectacle” (241). “Style,” Salter continues, “here refers to writing that is ornamental or wrought, calling attention to itself through complexity or idiosyncrasy” (241): “Drawing attention to the immediate beauty of language and the distracting superficiality of ornate expression, James offers style as a means for representing and contemplating Italy. In part, style can offer reprieve from history through its ability to resist mimetic or instrumental representation” (242). Such resistance, for Salter, is to be located in the notions of the “fillip” and the “glimpse.” In the opening page of Italian Hours, James asserts: “I do not pretend to enlighten the reader; I pretend only to give a fillip to his memory” (1993a 287). Salter demurs: “Despite this provocation, my argument invests James’s fillips with an ability to convey knowledge; it is not the case, after all, that Venice has ‘no information whatever to offer’” (240). “The fillip,” for Salter, is “a useful figure for imagining this overlap [between stylistic and historical representations] because of its minor and contingent status. Like the operations of history represented through style, the fillip resists totalized determinacy in favor of the momentary glimpse, association, or excitation” (241). “James’s theory of the glimpse or impression suggests another way to understand history or temporal order: in place of totalized, narrativizable plot, stylistic history presents ‘a system of relations,’ a swath of details to be attended to or discarded. This system is not so much neutrally mimetic as it is exhibitionary and performative” (242). As I do in the current essay, Salter picks up on the difference between constative and performative types of knowledge, resisting James’s bifurcation between registering mere surfaces and probing genuine depths.

21Oliver Herford also cites parts of the Preface to “The Aspern Papers” within a chapter that is much concerned with James’s revisions of earlier essays for Italian Hours (for instance, removing most instances of the word “picturesque,” but retaining “the picturesque convention ... and according it a value confirmed by his mature experience” (150; italics in source)). In Herford’s analysis, James disclaims any “informational value” for his travel writing, and opens himself up to “the charge of lightness—the superficiality of resting content with ‘aspects and appearances’” (157). In Italian Hours, James “plays up this imputation,” Herford argues, “but also challenges its validity, by placing an animating emphasis on the foreign surfaces he has chosen to dwell on in the past, and also on the surface of the text under revision. In both cases he finds it natural to speak in terms of prosopopoeia” (157). Herford sums up pithily: “Rather than address himself in frustration to what lies behind the surface of Italy, he will cause that surface to flush and betray its latent values” (157). Similarly, in a “superficial” reading of James’s fiction, Otten has argued that the objects that seem to be at the centre of Jamesian texts like The Golden Bowl are more often or not destroyed or dematerialised. But “even a negated possibility must appear within a text in order to be negated, and so it makes its presence felt. Effaced objects in James’s fictions leave behind a residue of shards and fragments; they remain present as a sort of afterthought [or] ghostly quality” (xvi-xvii).


  • 9 Collister explains the phenomenon as due in part to “courtesy (between guest and host, for instanc (...)

22I have claimed earlier in this piece, à propos of James’s opening sketch of the piazza at Siena, that he is more interested in the Italian scene than in any actual human beings.9 Let me close by taking a nearer look at a handful of encounters with people in “Siena Early and Late,” and see whether that claim can stand and to what extent the argument I have been developing about surface and depth, imagination and reality, control and submission, may be useful there. The first instance that must be examined concerns the “incessant shuffling of feet and clangour of voices” that comes up to the narrator’s window at his inn: “The weather is very warm for the season, all the world is out of doors, and the Tuscan tongue (which in Siena is reputed to have a classic purity) wags in every imaginable key” (516-517). Once more, what James appreciates is a medieval or even ancient quality: the “classic purity” of the language spoken at Siena—the past shining through the surface of the present “clangour of voices.” James does not mind being kept up at night when he is “often an uninvited guest at concerts and conversazioni at two o’clock in the morning” (517); rather, he goes to his window to listen and look:

a couple of friends or enemies stop—Italians always make their points in conversation by pulling up, letting you walk on a few paces, to turn and find them standing with finger on nose and engaging your interrogative eye—they pause, by a happy instinct, directly under my window, and dispute their point or tell their story or make their confidence. One scarce is sure which it may be; everything has such an explosive promptness, such a redundancy of inflection and action. (517)

  • 10 Brown explores the manifestations of a Barthesian jouissance (an erotic “plaisir du texte”) in Ita (...)

23“One scarce is sure which it may be”: James, whose Italian was certainly serviceable, lightly passes over the fact that the classical pureness of the Tuscan tongue presents him with a closed book, a rich surface of sounds, certainly, but not a vessel of communication that would enable him to understand whether the speaker is engaged in a verbal quarrel, merely sharing an anecdote, or divulging a secret. Rather than register frustration over this lack of access to what lies underneath the vocal stream, James sings the praises of the Italian “dramatic life” that is in evidence even in such exchanges at such hours, “so that almost any uttered communications here become an acted play, improvised, mimicked, proportioned and rounded, carried bravely to its dénoûment” (517). James is not particularly concerned by his inability to derive (constative) meaning from the vocal stream; he experiences enough jouissance from the (performative) sense of the scene enacted in his virtual presence.10

24The following encounter with an actual person is effectively reduced to a vivid sketch of “a striking instance of the Italian gesture, in the person of a small Sienese of ... the age of inarticulate sounds and the experimental use of the spoon” (517). It is when his mother deprives him of the latter, because his ice-cream has reached the liquid stage and may more efficiently be drunk than ladled, that the boy puts on the dramatic show that James has found so memorable—without any access to words (not even ones in the Tuscan tongue) but purely by means of cries and expressive body language:

He didn’t cry audibly, though he made a very wry face. It was no stupid squall, and yet he was too young to speak. It was a penetrating concord of inarticulately pleading, accusing sounds, accompanied by gestures of the most exquisite propriety. These were perfectly mature; he did everything that a man of forty would have done if he had been pouring out a flood of sonorous eloquence. He shrugged his shoulders and wrinkled his eyebrows, tossed out his hands and folded his arms, obtruded his chin and bobbed about his head—and at last, I am happy to say, recovered his spoon. If I had had a solid little silver one I would have presented it to him as a testimonial to a perfect, though as yet unconscious, artist. (518)

25James is clearly immensely charmed by the boy’s superb performance, which presents him with a (performative) surface that is so richly textured that he may experience a sense of gratified aesthetic submission to it. No speech is involved in the scene, and what the boy so perfectly stages is (the historic sense of) a social type rather than a (constatively definable) individual identity. As at Naples, it is “the mere mute eloquence of what has just incalculably been” that forms the essence of the communicative act between scene and observer (614).

  • 11 Auchard glosses the Italian phrase as “[d]ecidedly of a selfish nature” (225).

26James’s next encounter with an actual human being (rather than an anthro­po­morphised building or space) is the one with the waiter at his inn that I have already touched upon. The attendant’s talk is described as “the proffered confidences of the worthy man who stands by with a napkin” (519). There is a remarkable echo here of the prosopo­poeic description of the tower of the Palazzo Pubblico: “some ancient worthy of a lower order” (514). In both cases, the “worthy” is used with reference to a person (real or imagined) who is low in the social hierarchy. The anthropomorphised tower attempts to waylay the observer and force upon him a melancholy tale “of a state of things long and vulgarly superseded” (514). One might speculate that the social classification James reaches for in this case makes the “ancient worthy” at once elevated above the vulgar present and sufficiently accessible from James’s outsider position, which he will go on to deplore in relation to the actual nobility secluded in their majestic palaces. Similarly, the inn-waiter is the closest James gets to the living nobility, who form the object of the man’s “gossip,” to which James listens “with avidity”: “He has very little good to say about the Sienese nobility. They are ‘proprio d’origine egoista’—whatever that may be—and there are many who can’t write their names” (519).11 The nobility may occupy palaces that speak “syllables, sentences, periods” (518), but they themselves cannot even write their names—or so goes the “calumny” that this may be (519). If the waiter mistakenly, in James’s eyes, announces newly arrived guests as “Americans” (“They were Americans, I found, who wore, pinned to their heads in permanence, the black lace veil or mantilla, conveyed their beans to their mouth with a knife, and spoke a strange raucous Spanish. They were in fine compatriots from Montevideo.”), the man is readily forgiven: “The genius of old Siena, however, would make little of any stress of such distinctions; one representative of a far-off social platitude being about as much in order as another as he stands before the great loggia of the Casino di Nobili, the club of the best society” (519-520). Even if the waiter is labelled somewhat ironically as “the worthy man who stands by with a napkin,” nonetheless he is elevated by this point in the account to a status that allows him to performatively embody the “genius of old Siena” and to act as a gatekeeper to the club of the best Sienese society.

  • 12 The Italian state secularised abbeys in 1867 (Bourget 57); cf. “1867 when the laws of the new King (...)

27The final time we see James meet a person, he comes up with intricate reasons to explain why he refrains from offering an actual sketch of the man, culminating in the alleged fact that no true relation with him would have been possible. This is at the convent of Monte Oliveto, a long summer day’s drive away from Siena by horsedrawn carriage (James’s only companion being the driver), in an isolated location in the mountains—“lonely, bleak and stricken”—stricken because all that remains of the once busy community is “the vast, cold, empty shell, out of which the Benedictine brotherhood ... had lately been turned by the strong arm of a secular State” (530).12

There was but one good brother left, a very lean and tough survivor, a dusky, elderly, friendly Abbate, of an indescribable type and a perfect manner, of whom I think I felt immediately thereafter that I should have liked to say much, but as to whom I must have yielded to the fact that ingenious and vivid commemoration was even then in store for him. Literary portraiture had marked him for its own, and in the short story of Un Saint, one of the most finished of contemporary French nouvelles, the art and the sympathy of Monsieur Paul Bourget preserve his interesting image. He figures in the beautiful tale, the Abbate of the desolate cloister and of those comparatively quiet years, as a clean, clear type of sainthood (530).

  • 13 Auchard 237, footnote commenting on “frescoes of Luca Signorelli and Sodoma.”

28This extract comes from the second part of “Siena Early and Late,” the part that is largely concerned with James coming to terms with the gaps his initial account of the place had left. In order to explain why he did not originally go into the figure of the sole permanent occupant of the (huge) monastery of Monte Oliveto, James invokes the fact that Paul Bourget was to devote a novella to this character. This novella was only to appear in 1894; it bears as its date of completion November 1890 (Bourget 141). According to John Auchard, “[i]n 1892 James met the Bourgets in Siena for a tour of Tuscany and Umbria” (234). Both the fact that Un Saint was completed earlier and the fact that James recalls his visit to Monte Oliveto as a solitary one make it unlikely that James visited the convent together with Bourget; in fact, Auchard implies the visit took place in 1873.13 More damningly for James’s reasoning, Un Saint is not, in fact, devoted to the abbot of Monte Oliveto, but to the one who is taking care of Monte Chiaro, which is merely compared to Monte Oliveto, both being Benedictine monasteries in similarly dire straits (59, 136-137). Note, too, that James begins by stating that the abbot was “of an indescribable type,” thus already preempting the possibility of description that he then claims was not undertaken only because he “must have yielded to the fact” that a fellow writer was to “preserve his interesting image,” the adjective here courting the qualification faint praise.

29James continues his excuses for failing to sketch the character of the Abbate in his earlier reflections on things Sienese by arguing that only Bourget could do justice to the abbot because someone like James is merely “a fond analyst of other than ‘Latin’ race,” whereas the Abbate and Bourget, “model and painter,” in the case of Un Saint have the distinct advantage of “having their Latinism so strongly in common” (530). And James exclaims on the depth of the differences between the “races”:

Oh, the unutterable differences in any scheme or estimate of physiognomic values, in any range of sensibility to expressional association, among observers of different, of inevitably more or less opposed, traditional and “racial” points of view! One had heard convinced Latins—or at least I had!—speak of situations of trust and intimacy in which they couldn’t have endured near them a Protestant or, as who should say for instance, an Anglo-Saxon; but I was to remember my own private attempt to measure such a change of sensibility as might have permitted the prolonged close approach of the dear dingy, half-starved, very possibly all heroic, and quite ideally urbane Abbate. The depth upon depth of things, the cloud upon cloud of associations, on one side and the other, that would have had to change first! (530-531)

  • 14 In the course of Italian Hours, there are 59 uses of the word “dusky,” the vast majority of which (...)
  • 15 A significant revision in James’s travel writing in this regard is that of the essay on “Lichfield (...)

30The “scheme [...] of physiognomic values” echoes the “scheme of profit” that James had obtained looking out from Siena upon the “wide, strange, sad, beautiful horizon” of the surrounding landscape—the “chain of unforgettable hours” that was there “knit[ted]” for him and to which he did not want to show “disloyalty” when “seek[ing] impressions further afield,” at Monte Oliveto (529). No such disloyalty to the essential quality of his Sienese experience—“a manner and a mood”—is perpetrated by James’s visit to the monastery: “I may best say [...] that it but played on the same fine chords as the overhanging, the far-gazing Lizza. What it came to was that one simply put to the friendly test, as it were, the mood and manner of the country” (529). Monte Oliveto presents James with an exquisite chance to talk with a Benedictine monk, living in austere isolation—someone who is likely to carry inside of him the values of the past, perhaps stretching as far back as the Middle Ages, someone like “the old abbé” in “the great drawing-room” at the end of the “stately staircase” James had earlier found himself so sorely excluded from, someone who might have “favour[ed] one with a sketch of their social philosophy or a few first-hand [...] anecdotes” (520). James, however, unequivocally refuses this opportunity to gain in-depth access to ancient opinions and traditional lives and instead opts to present the abbate as part and parcel of “the mood and manner of the country” (529). He can do so by stressing the yawning gap that separates “convinced Latins” from “a Protestant or [...] an Anglo-Saxon,” “[t]he depth upon depth of things, the cloud upon cloud of associations.” James steers clear of probing any depths, as elsewhere in the piece, or of reaching high up into distant clouds, preferring instead to stay at the surface level of immediate aesthetic experience—“the lust, the landscape lust, of the eyes” (530)—even singling out in the adjective “dusky” a quality of the abbot (“a dusky, elderly, friendly Abbate” [530]) that he reserves, in the rest of the essay, for places (“the dusky alleys” [516], “ these dusky piles” [518)], “The dusky labyrinth of the streets” [520]) and a work of art (“a certain small dusky specimen of the painter” [522]).14 This aesthetic experience constitutes “the charm and intimacy of the whole impression—the impression that culminated [...] in the almost aching vision [...] of the uncalculated waste of a myriad forms of piety, forces of labour, beautiful fruits of genius” (530). Such a vision is profitable, in the Jamesian scheme, when it remains just that: a vision that overpowers, to whose “charm” the speaker can submit, which he can be overcome by and almost experience pain from, a pain that, in the sado-masochistic scheme, will be no less pleasurable.15

  • 16 The Library of America Collected Travel Writings has “sun flares” but Auchard and the Project Gute (...)

I remember the frigid prowl through all the rest of the bareness, including that of the big dishonoured church and that even of the Abbate’s abysmally resigned testimony to his mere human and personal situation; and then, with such a force of contrast and effect of relief, the great sheltered sun-flares and colour-patches of scenic composition and design where a couple of hands centuries ago turned to dust had so wrought the defiant miracle of life and beauty that the effect is of a garden blooming among ruins. Discredited somehow, since they all would, the destroyers themselves, the ancient piety, the general spirit and intention, but still bright and assured and sublime—practically, enviably immortal—the other, the still subtler, the all aesthetic good faith. (531-532)16

  • 17 There is a similar reliance on the verb “discredit” in another Italian Hours essay, and again the (...)

31The Abbate’s words are here subsumed under the overall “bareness” of the abandoned monastery, “the desecrated temple” (531). The “immemorial cold of the enormous monastic interior” is made even starker by the fact that the abbot has no food to offer (a dimension that Bourget also develops in his 1894 recollection of the abbot at Monte Chiaro, who is cross with Bourget’s driver for not having sent word of the visit ahead of arrival), so that James would have gone without sustenance that evening if he had not brought a scant provision with him from Siena (531). The only warmth and true nourishment that is to be found at the monastery is offered by the “extraordinarily strong and brave frescoes of Luca Signorelli and Sodoma that adorn, in admirable condition, several stretches of cloister wall. These creations in a manner took care of themselves; aided by the blue of the sky above the cloister-court they glowed, they insistently lived” (531). It is the frescoes that bring “the great sheltered sun-flares and colour-patches of scenic composition and design”; it is they, “wrought” by “hands centuries ago turned to dust,” that form “the defiant miracle of life and beauty” in the midst of the “desecrated,” “dishonoured” vast spaces of the convent. “Discredited” picks up on this sense of desecration and dishonouring of the old religious buildings, now secularised: what has been discredited is “the ancient piety, the general spirit and intention” of religiosity in honour of which the convent had been built.17 It has also “discredited somehow, since they all would [be discredited], the destroyers themselves.” But what their act of destruction, of discrediting, could not hurt—what is “still bright and assured and sublime—practically, enviably immortal—[is] the other, the still subtler, the all aesthetic good faith.” The extent to which the frescoes testify to the “defiant miracle of life and beauty” has been wholly unaffected by the secularisation of the great convent. The destroyers may have been able to turn the once vibrant monastery into a “vast, cold, empty shell”; they have been utterly unsuccessful in dimming the light of the great artistic treasures that are still on view in it.

32In this essay, I have developed a close reading of “Siena Early and Late” that zooms in on the sites and buildings that the Jamesian narrator anthropomorphises. I have focused on the extent to which such spaces are endowed with the faculty of speech and what that speech communicates: a spectral quality, an echoing of a past that shines through apparently resistant surfaces. Yet, such challenge to penetration as those surfaces present is welcomed more than deplored by James, that is to say, while he may express frustration at his lack of access to the Sienese inner life, especially its historic values, he actively side-steps opportunities for in-depth probing, for information-gathering. Such avoidance is particularly clear when we consider the instances of actual speech being produced by Sienese people, none of which leads to verbal communication, because James quite actively steers clear of linguistic interaction. In this way, we might speculate, he manages to maximise the profit he gathers from the Sienese scene, a profit that, in the Jamesian economy, requires luxuriant submission to something overpowering, a sensation that is stronger insofar as understanding remains seemingly superficial, and historical sense and aesthetic meaning shimmer darkly through the glass of actual reality in a spectral manner enabled by the imagination and the rhetorical power of the linguistic composition that takes place in James’s vibrantly alive, figurally excessive, travel-writing itself.

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AUCHARD, John, ed. Italian Hours, by Henry James. Penguin, 1992.

BOURGET, Paul. Un Saint. Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1894.

BROWN, Angus. “Wait for It: The Pleasures of Jamesian Style in The Wings of the Dove and Italian Hours.” Henry James Review, vol. 35, no. 1, 2014, p. 60-67.

BUELENS, Gert. “Pleasurable ‘Presences’: Sites, Buildings and ‘Aliens’ in James’s American Scene.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 42, no. 4, 2000, p. 408-430.

BUELENS, Gert. “Henry James’s Oblique Possession: Plottings of Desire and Mastery in The American Scene.” PMLA, vol. 116, no. 2, 2001, p. 300-314,

BUELENS, Gert, and Celia AIJMER. “The Sense of the Past: History and Historical Criticism.” Palgrave Advances in Henry James Studies, edited by Peter Rawlings, Palgrave, 2007, p. 192-211.

COLLISTER, Peter. “Levels of Disclosure: Voices and People in Henry James’s ‘Italian Hours.’” The Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 34, 2004, p. 194–213. JSTOR,

GUTOROW, Jacek. “Figures of Fulfillment: James and ‘a Sense of Italy.’” Henry James’s Europe: Heritage and Transfer, edited by Dennis Tredy, Annick Duperray, and Adrian Harding. Open Book, 2011, p. 93-102.

HERFORD, Oliver. Henry James’s Style of Retrospect: Late Personal Writings, 1890-1915. Oxford UP, 2016.

JAMES, Henry. Collected Travel Writings: The Continent: A Little Tour in France, Italian Hours, Other Travels. Library of America, 1993.

JAMES, Henry. Collected Travel Writings: Great Britain and America: English Hours, The American Scene, Other Travels. Library of America, 1993.

JAMES, Henry. Literary Criticism: French Writers, Other European Writers, The Prefaces to the New York Edition. Library of America, 1984.

JAMES, Henry. Transatlantic Sketches. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1875.

MANNING, Susan. Poetics of Character: Transatlantic Encounters 1700-1900. Cambridge UP, 2013.

OLIVA, Gianni. “Chapter 5: Pescara and the Abruzzo in the Imagination of Gabriele D’Annunzio.” Biographies and Autobiographies in Modern Italy: A Festschrift for John Woodhouse, edited by Martin McLaughlin, Routledge, 2017, p. 55-78.

OTTEN, Thomas J. A Superficial Reading of Henry James: Preoccupations with the Material World. Ohio State UP, 2006.

QUIRK, Randolph, et al. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman, 1985.

SALTER, Sarah. “Scratching at the Surface: Understanding History through Style in James’s Italy.” Henry James Review, vol. 35, no. 3, 2014, p. 240-247.

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1 See my “Pleasurable ‘Presences’” and “Henry James’s Oblique Possession.”

2 Commenting on a different moment in Italian Hours, Salter concludes in a very similar spirit: “The grammar of these sentences seems intentionally to obscure who is acting and what is being evoked, eschewing situating pronouns or interpretive information that might help the reader place herself in the scene” (246).

3 See Buelens and Aijmer.

4 Collister notes à propos of the “Venice” essay with which Italian Hours opens that the work “records a continuing excitement at the crowded scenes as vividly pictured as the art-objects and their history” (205). I would suggest that the crowded scenes generate excitement to the extent that they can be pictured as art-objects. Gutorow concludes his fine reading of “Figures of Fulfillment” in James’s Italy with an account of the Naples moments that stresses instead how “James could not put his Neapolitan experiences into rhetorical frames as he had done with Venice and Rome. Naples seemed too elemental and vehement, too unrestrained and uncontrollable to be mediated and articulated. But perhaps that was what James really wanted it to be: down-to-earth, physical, opaque, and immediate. What the writer discovered in Naples was a silent appeal to integrate one’s self and do so through liberating the repressed [sexual] contents of one’s consciousness” (101).

5 The alternative reading would be to regard “one’s self” as an emphatic reflexive pronoun, as in “I couldn’t be there myself, but I sent my representative” (example based on Quirk 356).

6 Cf. also “They are extraordinarily numerous, and one wonders what part they can play in the meagre economy of the actual city” (James, 1993a 518) vs. “the uncalculated waste of a myriad forms of piety, forces of labour, beautiful fruits of geninus” (530).

7 The writer’s payment is reimbursed by the subject (he already has inside of him) and thus induces to pretend to make itself known.

8 Collister comments in similar terms on James’s rhapsodic evocation of the Venetian gondoliers, who “undergo some intricate figurative effects: ‘Nothing can be finer than the large, firm way in which, from their point of vantage, they throw themselves over their tremendous oar. It has the boldness of a plunging bird and the regularity of a pendulum’ (p. 18 [in the Auchard edition]). His delight in their dominating strength, evident in the syntax, the prenominal shift to ‘you’ and low-angled perspective adopted, is founded on surrender and willing domination: ’Sometimes, as you see this movement in profile, in a gondola that passes you—see, as you recline on your own low cushions, the arching body of the gondolier lifted up against the sky—it has a kind of nobleness which suggests an image on a Greek frieze.’” (205)

9 Collister explains the phenomenon as due in part to “courtesy (between guest and host, for instance)”: James chooses to conceal the identity of individuals (198).

10 Brown explores the manifestations of a Barthesian jouissance (an erotic “plaisir du texte”) in Italian Hours, quoting for instance from the “Venice” essay: “I write these lines with the full consciousness of having no information whatever to offer” (7 in the Auchard edition), and commenting that James here is “absolving himself of any responsibility toward plot, or narrative, or even content. In Italy, and in essays, the erotics of Jamesian style can emerge and flourish without the distractions or the expectations of fiction, and so the language of love permeates ‘Venice’” (63).

11 Auchard glosses the Italian phrase as “[d]ecidedly of a selfish nature” (225).

12 The Italian state secularised abbeys in 1867 (Bourget 57); cf. “1867 when the laws of the new Kingdom of Italy led to the dissolution of many relgious communities” (Oliva 69). In “Florentine Notes,” James visits “the secularised Convent of San Marco, paid my franc at the profane little wicket which creaks away at the door” (1993a 553)

13 Auchard 237, footnote commenting on “frescoes of Luca Signorelli and Sodoma.”

14 In the course of Italian Hours, there are 59 uses of the word “dusky,” the vast majority of which are used to qualify aspects of spaces (“a dusky cavern,” “dusky spaciousness,” “dusky cypresses”), and works of art (“the poor dusky Tintoret”). When the adjective refers to people, they are poor and regarded as part of the picturesque scenery: “a dusky crone,” “these dusky human hives,” “The poorer sort [...] their dusky tresses,” “A ‘Femme Sauvage,’ a naked dusky girl in a wood.”

15 A significant revision in James’s travel writing in this regard is that of the essay on “Lichfield and Warwick.” In Transatlantic Sketches (1875), James writes that, at Haddon Hall, he came upon the “ghost” of the past: “I felt the incommunicable spirit of the scene with almost painful intensity. The old life, the old manners, the old figures seemed present again” (26). For English Hours (1905), James keeps the second sentence, but revises the first to: “I felt the incommunicable spirit of the scene with the last, the right intensity” (1993b 74). My thanks to Richard Anker for drawing attention to this revision.

16 The Library of America Collected Travel Writings has “sun flares” but Auchard and the Project Gutenberg e-version both have “sun-flares,” which makes better sense.

17 There is a similar reliance on the verb “discredit” in another Italian Hours essay, and again the notion is brought together with the idea of destruction on the one hand and an essential affirmation of life on the other. In “Florentine Notes,” this is how James waxes lyrical about Veronese’s Baptism of Jesus at the Pitti Gallery: “surely painting seems here to have proposed to itself to discredit and annihilate—and even on the occasion of such a subject—everything but the loveliness of life. The picture bedims and enfeebles its neighbours. We ask ourselves whether painting as such can go further” (1993a 553).

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Gert Buelens, « Speaking Surfaces in James’s Siena »Viatica [En ligne], HS 3 | 2020, mis en ligne le 20 janvier 2020, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Gert Buelens

University of Ghent

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