A Passage in the Life of Perugino Potts

Wilkie Collins

A Passage in the Life of Perugino Potts Page 02

I have nothing great about me but my mustachios and my intellect; I am of the light-complexioned order of handsome fellows, and have hitherto discovered nothing that I can conscientiously blame in my temper and general disposition. The fire of artistic ambition that burns within me, shoots upward with a lambent glow -- in a word, I am a good-humoured man of genius. This is much to say, but I could add yet more; were I not unhappily writing with an Italian pen on Italian paper: the pen splutters inveterately; the paper absorbs my watery ink like a blotting-book -- human patience can stand it no longer: I give up for the day, in despair!

8th -- Intended to proceed with my interesting autobiographical particulars, but was suddenly stopped at the very outset by an idea for a new picture. Subject: The primitive Father Polycarp, writing his Epistles; to be treated in the sublime style of Michael Angelo's Prophets, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Polycarp to be several sizes larger than life, and well developed about the beard and muscles.

9th -- Made inquiries for a good model, and found the very man I wanted. When I entered his humble abode, he was preparing his breakfast; the meal was characterised by a primitive simplicity and a strong smell. He first pulled out his stiletto knife, and cut off a large crust of bread: the outside of this crust he rubbed with garlic till it shone like a walnut-wood table in an English farm-house; the inside he saturated with oil and vinegar. By the time he had done that, the whole crust looked like a cold poultice in a polished calf-leather saucer. He ate this remarkable compound with voracious enjoyment, while I looked at him. I found him a rather difficult man to estimate in a physiognomical point of view; nothing was to be seen of his face but two goggle eyes and a hook nose, peering out of a forest of hair -- such hair! just the iron-grey sort of thing I wanted. Such a beard! the most devotional I ever saw. I engaged him on the spot, and jocosely christened him Polycarp the Second, in allusion to the character he was to represent on my canvas.

10th -- Polycarp the Second came to sit; he was polite, talkative, and apparently somewhat infested by fleas. I had an explanation with him on the last-mentioned of his personal characteristics. He asserted consolingly, that the fleas were not likely to leave him to go to me -- they patriotically preferred Italian to English pasturage. Trusting he was right, I changed the subject and asked about his history. His answer tended to show that he had been ill-used and misunderstood by everybody from his cradle. His father, his mother, his relations, the priests, the police, the high populace and the low populace, throughout every degree -- they had all maltreated, persecuted, falsely accused, and unrelentingly pursued Polycarp the Second. He attributed this miserable state of things partly to the invincible piety and honesty of his character, which, of course, exposed him to the malice of the world; and partly to his strong and disinterested attachment to the English nation, which lowered him in the eyes of his prejudiced countrymen. He wept as he said this -- his beard became a disconsolate beard with the tears that trickled down it. Excellent-hearted Polycarp! I sympathise with him already in spite of the fleas.

11th -- Another sitting from my worthy model. The colossal figure is, by this time (so rapid a workman am I) entirely sketched in. My physical exertions are tremendous. My canvas is fourteen feet high; and Polycarp reaches from top to bottom. I can only pursue my labour by incessantly getting up and down a pair of steps; by condemning myself heroically to a sort of pictorial treadmill. Already, however, I have tasted the compensating sweets of triumph. My model is in raptures with my design -- he was so profoundly affected that he cried over it, just as he cried over his own history. What taste these Italians naturally possess! What impressibility! What untaught sympathies with genius! How delightfully different their disposition from the matter-of-fact English character! How stolid is a British Royal Academician, compared to Polycarp the Second!

12th -- Model again. Crying again. Previous history again. Raptures again. I wish he would not smell quite so strong of garlic. At present he repels my nose as powerfully as he attracts my heart. Sent him on an errand, to buy me lamp-black and flake-white: I mean to lay it on rather thick when I come to Polycarp's beard. Gave him the money to pay for the paint -- about fourpence English. The honest creature showed himself worthy of my confidence, by bringing me back one halfpenny of change with the colours. Poor Polycarp! Poor persecuted, lost sheep! the malicious world has singed the wool off your innocent back: be it mine to see it grow again under the British artist's fostering care!

13th, 14th, 15th, 16th -- Too much occupied to make regular entries in my journal. I must have been up and down several miles of steps, during my four days' labour on my fourteen feet of canvas. The quantity of paint I am obliged to use is so enormous that it quite overpowers all Polycarp's garlic, and will, I imagine, in process of time poison all Polycarp's fleas.

Wilkie Collins

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