Cruel Love, Cruel Death: Vernon Lee's "Amour Dure"

commentary by Jim Rockhill & John "rbadac" Eatman

   

Love — the word love — bears a terrific burden. It is universally acknowledged to be essential, yet no one can say with any certainty what it is. The word is expected to embrace the gamut of meanings from selfless devotion to selfish lust without qualifiers, & to absorb endless praise, calumny, & speculation. It is a thing at which we are unbelievably clumsy, & the only thing we do well. We persist in our search for love, for the alternative is unthinkable. The verdict has been in for millennia: we must have Love, whatever the hell it is, or we cease to have any meaningful existence, & that of course plainly will not do. Such blind faith is inexorable in creation-besides producing literally everything of any worth, it also produces its share of monsters from sheer momentum. Anyone who has ever been "in love" knows of what this momentum is capable, & how little it has to do with anything realistic. It is a bicycle built for two with no handlebars, at best; at worst, the Thing that shares one's seat bears no resemblance to what the lover proclaims to love.

Like many of Vernon Lee's best tales, "Amour Dure" is filled with the sights, sounds, secrets, tactile sensations — only the sense of taste has been excluded — & emotions of another time & place. It is this very sensuousness that lends the tale its verisimilitude & makes the intrusion of the ghost not only possible, but inevitable. According to Peter Gunn, the novella "was planned as a novel of the Renaissance, with the title MEDEA DA CARPI, the name of its heroine; but on her not being able to place it with a publisher (Blackwood objected to the mingling of fact & fiction), she pruned it down to its present shape."(1) No less an authority than Henry James, often critical of later work — a topic that deserves separate attention — wrote Vernon Lee shortly after the tale's first appearance in HAUNTINGS (Heinemann, 1890), to praise "the bold, aggressive speculative fancy" of the book & its evocation "of the air of Italian things". (2)

The tale begins in August 1885, narrated by an expatriate Pole become German history professor named Spiridion Trepka. He begins his diary lamenting the contrast between how he imagined Italy based on its history & its present debased state. (3) He equates even his own profession with a form of "modern scientific vandalism", dilating on his predicament thus:

"Dost thou imagine, thou miserable Spiridion, thou Pole grown into the semblance of a German pedant, doctor of philosophy, professor even, author of a prize essay on the despots of the fifteenth century, dost thou imagine that thou, with thy ministerial letters & proof-sheets, in thy black professorial coat- pocket, canst ever come in spirit into the presence of the Past?"
But as he travels towards Urbania from Rome amid scenes of great natural beauty, it starts to become clear that the spirit of the past is so powerful in the region, that like a solution saturated past the point of stability, something must precipitate.

Inside Urbania itself, past & present merge in myriad bastard forms. Spiridion describes the locals in terms of such past masters as Signorelli or Raphael, (4) & such subjects as not only the Madonna & St Elizabeth, but the Three Fates. Nevertheless, he avoids meaningful communication with them to protect his rather precious illusions, & deliberately isolates himself from reality in so doing. Beauty & the past are evident, but cheapened or obscured: "At the corner of the street, opposite Francesco di Giorgio's beautiful little portico, is a great blue & red advertisement, representing an angel descending to crown Elias Howe, on account of his sewing machines", (5) & the arrogantly Classicist Spiridion is repelled by encroaching modernity & the trivial concerns of Urbania's inhabitants. No one speaks of anything outside politics, machines, the lottery, & sexual dalliance. Faith & superstition intermingle indiscriminately, as witness the antique dealer's bizarre, elaborate recipe for winning the lottery by the use of necromancy, through the intercession of San Pasquale Baylon, unsuccessful primarily due to the scarcity of dead man's fat & the difficulty of slapping the saint before he disappears. (6) The locals deem petty affairsflirtations the height of romance, but Spiridion seeks more than this: "When I came to Italy first, I looked out for romance; I sighed, like Goethe in Rome, for a window to opena wondrous creature to appear." It will be Spiridion who opens that window, both figurativelyliterally, thus allowing some wondrous creature to appear.

Once housed by the amiable, superstitious antique dealergiven an opportunity to peruse the documents detailing the history of the area, Spiridion begins to realize that romance — in both its senses of ardent emotional attachmenthigh adventure — are present in Urbania. Even before coming to the region, he had become acquainted — through otherwise dry local histories — with a certain woman, born in 1556slain in 1582, by name Medea, descendantascendant to a number of elite bloodlines: " . . . daughter of Galeazzo IV, Malatesta, Lord of Carpi, wife first of Pierluigi Orsini, Duke of Stimigliano,subsequently of Guidalfonso II, Duke of Urbania, predecessor of the great Duke Robert II."

Surrounded by the places that viewed her actions, felt her touch, heard her voice,sometimes even retained her scent, Spiridion becomes fascinated by this woman. The histories are informative, after a fashion. The character of Medea seems clear enough, though it appears to have been distorted by chroniclers partial to her enemy, Duke Robert II, Duke of Urbania,local superstitions. One anonymous &, we can assume, impartial source portrays her as "most lovelyof most cheerfulamiable manner". She is nonetheless utterly ruthless, destroying, either directly or indirectly, every man outside her immediate family who has contact with her, marrying ever upward on the social scale until she attains the station of Duchess-Regent over Urbania. Her motto, worn on a medallion that allows the narrator to identify her portraits, is "Amour Dure, Dure Amour" — "Love that lasts, cruel love". Spiridion comments, "The woman's historycharacter remind one of that of Bianca Cappello, (7) at the same time of Lucrezia Borgia." (8)

Scouring the area, Spiridion locates three portraits of her, thereby finding it a simple task to reconstruct for his increasingly fevered imagination the conquering beauty of Medea:

"The type is that most admired by the late Renaissance, & , in some measure, immortalized by Jean Goujon (9)the French. The face is a perfect oval, the forehead somewhat over-round, with minute curls, like a fleece, of bright auburn hair; the nose a trifle over-aquiline,the cheekbones a trifle too low; the eyes grey, large, prominent, beneath exquisitely curved browslids just a little too tight at the corners; the mouth also, brilliantly redmost delicately designed, is a little too tight, the lips strained a little over the teeth. Tight eyelidstight lips give a strange air of refinement,at the same time, an air of mystery, a somewhat sinister seductiveness; they seem to take, but not to give. The mouth with a kind of childish pout, looks as if it could bite or suck like a leech. The complexion is dazzlingly fair, the perfect transparent roset lily of a red-haired beauty; the head, with hair elaborately curledplaited close to it,adorned with pearls, sits like that of the antique Arethusa on a long, supple swan-like neck." (10)
She is a coldly voluptuous, troubling figure, simultaneously enticingrepellent, innocentlethal. The locals fear her, relating folk tales of her flying about on her black he-goatswooping down to capture naughty youngsters. When Spiridion assists a group of children building a snow-woman,names their creation "Medea", the children build a fire round it as if burning a witch.

And what of her nemesis in lifedeath, Robert II? Although his historiographers attempt to portray him as an honorable, merciful, God-fearing man, Lee subtly undermines this portrait, even before Spiridion begins acting directly against him, by implying more than the chroniclers are willing to convey. Cardinal Robert does not become interested in the affairs of Medea da Carpi until she threatens his claim to secular power by declaring her son the heir: "(T)his investiture of the Duchy of Urbania on to a strangera bastard was at the expense of the obvious rights of the Cardinal Robert, Guidalfonso's younger brother."

The word "obvious" is instructive. The sources Spiridion cites for his information on Medea are Duke Robert's historiographeran eighteenth century biography of the Duke. One is reminded of Sir Thomas More, usually portrayed as the soul of integrity, making history out of innuendo in his life of Richard III in order to lend legitimacy to his Tudor employer's claim to the throne of England.

Once his brother is dead, Robert wastes little time flinging aside his priest's garbvows so that he can pursue the secular power he feels is his due. He also has no qualms about seeking assistance that may be harmful to his native land, going to other Italian city-states, the Emperor,even the hated King of Spain, actual ruler of large portions of Italycontroller of many of its ports at this time, to plead his case.

The Pope duly dissolves the child's investiture, declaring Robert the legitimate Duke,Robert is assured the assistance of powerful allies once he is "able to assert his rights by main force". (11) There immediately follows a euphemism for Robert attackinglaying waste to his own land: "Little by little, one town after the other of the Duchy went over to Robert,Medea da Carpi found herself surrounded in the mountain citadel of Urbania like a scorpion surrounded by flames."

After gaining control of Urbania, the history goes on to say that Robert's accession "was marked by moderationclemency". Only a lover of Medea who attempts to assassinate him is slain. Medea's son, "(t)he little Bartolommeo was sent to Rome to the Orsinis; the Duchess, respectfully confined to the left wing of the palace". What kind of moderationclemency tears a child of only eight or nine years from his mothersends him to his enemies? We must remember that although named Orsini, as the supposed child of her husband Pierluigi Orsini, the Orsinis refuse to acknowledge him as such, declaring he is the issue of Medea's abductionrape by Giovanfrancesco Pico, "to whom Medea had been married by proxy,whom, in defense, as she had said, of her honour, she had assassinated". We can only imagine what became of the child Duke Robert treated with such clemency; but again, it is this lack of the "obvious" that characterizes his actions.

Robert keeps Medea imprisoned for three years, moving her to a convent after an attempt is made on his life, never quite finding the nerve in himself — or sufficient proof from others, even under torture — to warrant her assassination. He will not visit her, going so far as to flee when she enters a room, pusillanimously, if wisely, considering that he might not be capable of honoring notions of chastity any more than the other priestly vows he discarded. Again, mentioning his clemency in other particulars, the eighteenth century biographer relates how, still lacking proof of her complicity in the latest plot against his life, Robert has Medea strangled at the convent by two women, infanticides whose sentences he has commuted, forbidding her even a monk or priest for confession. Coward, hypocrite,superstitious wretch that Robert is, he lives in fear of meeting Medea's unshriven soul, finally contriving to anchor his own soul to the earth until the general Resurrection through the device of a small silver idol, consecrated not by priests, but astrologers,hidden within an equestrian statue of himself created by "Antonio Tassi, Gianbologna's pupil". (12)

As it transpires, Robert has ample reasons for his cowardicesuperstition. His dispensation of Medea is as necessary as it is ultimately unsuccessful. The employment of strangulation, as opposed to any other of the many ways of dealing out death available in this bloodthirsty historical period, is interesting in its possible ethic. It seems to exhibit a certain delicacy by doing less violence to the bodily form than, say, a blade, a bolt, a stone, or other missile; it is considerably less of an imposture than hanging,not as severe as the garrote; it is more forthright than poison,avoids the indignity of drowning; less ostentatious than burning at the stake, more final than being buried alive. Duke Robert naturally would not have wanted it to be a public spectacle; to have the assassination carried out by women at once precludes the possibility of Medea exerting her influence over any men performing the task,also serves to have her betrayed by her own sex; murderesses effectively forgiven one heinous crime on condition that they perform another.

Like many descriptions of the struggle for power during the Renaissance, it is a violentsordid tale, but in the figure of Medea, dead "just two hundredninety-seven years ago, December 1582 at the age of barely seven-and-twenty,having in the course of her short life, brought to a violent end five of her lovers", Spiridion finds at last the romancecontact with the past he has sought so long. Now begins the slow, gradual process towards consummation.

"I am wedded to history, to the Past, to women like Lucrezia Borgia, Vittoria Accoramboni, (13) or that Medea da Carpi . . . Few things strike me so much as the degeneracy of Italian women . . . Where discover nowadays (I confess she haunts me) another Medea da Carpi? Were it possible to meet a woman of that extreme distinction of beauty, of that terribleness of nature, even if only potential, I do believe I could love her even to the Day of Judgment."
At this point the reader must wonder: is this Love speaking? In other passages Spiridion hastens to justify the evil of his beloved, saying that her nature puts her above conventional notions of rightwrong, especially in the framework of her violenttreacherous milieu; he is as much as saying that Medea has carte blanche to be as vicious as she feels it necessary to be. Yet he adores her all the same, neither for nor in spite of these qualities, but in concert with them. What precisely does he love? It is less the considered affection of one human for another (insofar as these matters are considered),more the awe of a worshipper for a terrible Goddess, a worshipper who seeks a communion he cannot possibly survive. Though this devotion reflects the same character as that of Medea's other lovers, it may not be Love at all, but a kind of demonic possession.

The tale becomes not merely a ghost story with a historical background, but a ghost story about history itself, about how the past is re-created for the present. The process whereby the 'spirit of the Past' is gradually made manifest resembles this description, only slightly abridged, of how the writer conveys meaning to the reader in Lee's essay The Handling of Words:

"The intellectual movement . . . depends mainly upon the complexity of different tenses with reference to one another, by which the Reader, passing from present to future, from more remote to less remote past . . . is forced at once to realize very definitely the exact import of each . . . formto connect them swiftly with one another, thus establishing a kind of intellectual space . . .a series of planes of action, more central (i.e. present) or more back (i.e. past),in various positions of mutual dependence, along which the Reader's attention shifts . . .thus grasps the exact meaning." (14)
An idea gains three dimensions via its progress through the fourth. The implication will not be lost upon the reader of "Amour Dure". The Past itself relies upon its enduring effect upon the Present, upon how it is recorded, upon how it is remembered,finally upon how it is interpreted through these channels to create an idealized Memory. History assumes this mantle; the love object too is seen in a light of admiration often coloured by what the lover desires,the love object's assertion of identity re-informs or reinforces his idealized image.

Words become Meaning through their individual meanings relative in Time; like separate portraits or multiple accounts, they are all subject to the interpretive imagination of the audience, or the desire of a lover, or perhaps the enduring effect/assertion of identity of a Meaning which has a life of its own.

Spiridion livesacts within the present, but becomes so obsessed with the past that, like H. P. Lovecraft's Charles Dexter Ward, he becomes increasingly able to interact withbe manipulated by it. The narrative undergoes a gradual shift as sensestenses supply increasing evidence of Medea's presence. The landscape itself, the chronicles — both explicitlyimplicitly — the local superstitions, the portraits,the letters he finds written in Medea's own hand — tactile evidence of her past existence, to which he imagines the scent of her hair still clings — all add to this shift from the present into the pastback again. He is enraged when, in trying to discuss his obsession, a Bavarian colleague dismisses what he tells him about Medea as "the usual tales due to the mythopoeic tendency of the Renaissance; that research would disprove the stories current about the Borgias, &c.; that, moreover, such a woman as [he] made out was psychologicallyphysiologically impossible". Spiridion knows what he feels to be true, then fears for his own sanity (given that he has suspicions of insanity in his own family).

This episode is, alas, the final burst of true sanity we are to receive from Spiridion. Shortly thereafter, in a scene that blurs one image into anotherhints at the uneasy distinction between fleshspirit, Medea makes her first doubtful, evanescent appearance in a mirror, opposite which hangs a hitherto undiscovered portrait of her:

"Behind my own image stood another, a figure close to my shoulder, a face close to mine;that figure, that face, hers! Medea da Carpi's! I turned sharp round, as white, I think, as the ghost I expected to see."
Temporarily disconcerted by this appearancehis reaction to it, Spiridion senses dangeraccepts an invitation to leave his spiritually oppressive surroundingsvisit a villa on the coast. His perceptions, however, remain little changed, for he describes the process of pressing oil from olives as if witnessing a scene from the Inquisition or one of the dungeons of Piranesi. The ordeal of the press, indeed, was reserved for accused persons who refused to plead one way or the other; Spiridion in a subconscious sense is demanding answers to the mystery of Medea which consumes his life,these are about to be granted him.

Soon the undemonstrative, melancholy Spiridion is composing doggerel about Medea to be sung to the prevalent street tune. His landlady tells him that his singing has attracted an admirer, &, in a reversal of the image from Goethe, Spiridion opens the window to see Medea looking up at him from below, as if his song had been an invocation.

He now begins to receive letters from Medea; no longer artifacts of a past life, but evidence of present existence. In these letters she expresses a wish to meet him at the Church of San Giovanni Decollato. It seems odd to associate her presence with a church,when he arrives he finds the building lockeddark; but just as he is on the verge of abandoning the venture as a hoax, he notes lightmusic within,finds that the door yields. Entering, he sees a throng of people in antique dress,standing apart from them a figure he recognizes as Medea. He pushes through the crowd, seeming to pass through impalpable bodies as he pursues Medea; but when he thinks she is within reach he finds himself outside the church, which is darksilent as before, the door locked behind him. Later he discovers from his landlord that the church "has not been made use of within the memory of man". The Church of St John the Decapitated, with its painting on the altar of Salome dancing lasciviously, turns out to have been a delightfully grimprofanely appropriate place for Spiridion to have met his femme fatale; for it is here that he loses his own head for goodall.

Two nights later he meets Medea again; this time, though still not able to touch her directly, he can see her clearly, hear the rustle of her skirts, smell the scent of her hair,feel the motion of the curtain she has agitated with her touch. Also, when he tries to follow her, he comes into contact with the clay-like flesh of the throng within the church. The rose Medea leaves behind for him to shower with kisses turns brittle, as if it has been pressed within a book for centuries. Had she been present in his time, or had he been present in hers?

The next letter Spiridion receives instructs him to open the equestrian statue of Duke Robert II so that he can destroy the effigy which protects him from Medea. He has long realized that ". . . no man must survive long who conceives himself to have a right over her; it is a kind of sacrilege. . . . This is the meaning of her device — 'Amour Dure-Dure Amour'. The love of Medea da Carpi cannot fade, but the lover can die; it is a constanta cruel love."

But he accepts this with joy: "So it is true! I was reserved for something wonderful in this world." Planning his task, he is reminded of how, as a child, he eagerly looked forward to what awaited him beneath the tree on Christmas morning. Medea has become for him everything he ever wished for she is not only a beautiful woman, but an incarnation of the Past.

"Those pedants say that the dead are dead, the past is past. For them, yes; but why for me? ... Why should there not be ghosts to such as can see them? Why should she not return to the earth, if she knows that it contains a man who thinks of, desires, only her?"
On his way to the statue on Christmas Eve, Spiridion is momentarily swayed towards the protection of the Church, but something restrains him,he continues on his way. Then, one after another, Medea's lovers emerge to hinder him in all their piteousness, but to no avail. The stabbed Pico follows himcautions him not to go to the Square; the tortured Frangipani displays his face streaming with bloodimportunes him not to obey Medea's commands; the flayedquartered Ordelaffi, his face still bound up in Medea's kerchief, which she threw to him before he died, lays an ice-cold hand upon himdemands that he relinquish his claim to Medea. All are rebuffed by Spiridion, who is too far gone to heed these warnings from beyond the grave. He hastens to his task, saws open the statue of Duke Robert, finds the spirit-reliquary within,hacks it to pieces, thereby putting Medea within reach of the soul of her hated enemy. Spiridion returns to his lodging,at midnight a step on the stair signals the appearance of Medea, bringing him full, fatal consummation. He has at last "come in spirit into the presence of the Past", being now one with historythe walking dead who follow in Medea's wake.

   

    END NOTES
  1. Gunn, Peter, VERNON LEE (Oxford University Press, 1964), p.129.
  2. Gale, Robert L. A HENRY JAMES ENCYCLOPEDIA (Greenwood Press, 1989), pp.491-2.
  3. Compare Henry Fern's similar disillusionmentultimate fate at the hands of a mysterious woman embodying his dreams in Robert Aickman's 'Never Visit Venice'.
  4. Luca Signorelli (c.1450-1523), pupil of Piero della Francescaknown equally for his paintingsfrescoes on religious subjects,Raphael (1483-1520), also rendered Raffaello Sanzio, one of the most celebrated painters of the Italian Renaissance.
  5. Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1502) was a Sienese artist, sculptor, architect, engineer,author of the Treatise on Civil & Military Architecture.
  6. San Pasquale Baylon (1540-1592), Franciscan monkformer shepherd who brought with him from Spain to Turin a 'miraculous' recipe that restored vigor to languid husbands. He was popular among shepherdsconsidered "Saint Protector of Cooks".
  7. Bianca Cappello (1548-1587), also rendered as Capello, is another woman renowned for her beautymachinations. Unlike Lucrezia, however, there seems to be no question of Bianca being a mere tool of anyone. She eloped with one Florentine nobleman only to become the mistress of another, Francesco I de Medici. Her husband conveniently turned up dead,Bianca, finding herself without a hope of legitimizing her now public affair with Francesco, tricked him into marrying her by presenting him with another woman's childclaiming it as their own. Nine years later, having earned the enmity of the Medici family, she died within a day of Francesco, supposedly of malaria. She is the central character in Thomas Middleton's (1580-1627) tragedy Women Beware Women.
  8. Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519), illegitimate daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI,sister of Cesare Borgia. She is, perhaps unjustly, portrayed as the quintessential femme fatale after Salome, though she seems not to have been intelligent enough to have been much more than a pawn in the hands of her fatherbrother. One contemporary commented that "her whole being exudes good humorgaiety" (cf. the similar description of Medea da Carpi above). Among scores of websites devoted to her, that of the Crime Library (as part of a series of articles devoted to the Borgia family) is a solidly factual account of her life, with minimal attention paid to the worst of the rumors (www.crimelibrary.com/borgia/borgialucrezia.html).
  9. Jean Goujon (c.1510-c.1556), French sculptor famed equally for his three-dimensional workhis bas-reliefs. His work "Dianathe Stag" is commonly held to represent Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566), another famous beauty of the Renaissance, mistress of Henry II of France. She makes an appearance not unlike Medea da Carpi's in D. K. Broster's tale "The Pestering".
  10. Arethusa was a nymph transformed into an underground stream by the goddess Diana to prevent her capture by the river god Alpheus.
  11. Writing of the Papal States during this period, WillAriel Durant write, 'The old aristocratic clans-Orsinis, Colonna, Savelli, Gaetani, Chigi-had declined in incomepower, though not in claimspride' (The Age of Reason Begins, (SimonSchuster 1961), p.228). The Pope at this time, Gregory XIII, though not one of the Popes "glorified" in E. R. Chamberlin's fascinating book The Bad Popes,not the former Grand Inquisitorzealous persecutor of heretics his predecessor Pius V had been, had foibles of his own. He continued Pius V's campaign against Elizabeth I of Englandcelebrated a Mass of Thanskgiving for the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre of the Huguenots in 1572. More relevant to this tale, he was also a diligentruthless pursuer of rentsforfeitures due the Church. This was so resented that certain noblemen, among whom was Roberto Malatesta (a presumed relative of the fictional "Medea, daughter of Galeazzo IV, Malatesta, Lord of Carpi"), retaliated by hiring armies of ruffians to protect their landsdisrupt the Church's collection of monies. He died in 1585, with the Church in disarraynearly bankrupt, three years after Medea.
  12. Gianbologna (1529-1608), Mannerist sculptor. Originally Flemish, he was the most celebrated Italian sculptor between Michelangelo (1475-1564)Bernini (1598-1680). His name is usually rendered Giambologna; other variants include Giovanni di BolognaJean de Bologne.
  13. Vittoria Accorambomi (1557-1585) is an archetypal figure in Jacobean drama, almost equal parts villainessvictim, thanks to John Webster's (c.1580-c.1635) portrayal of "the famous Venetian courtesan" in his tragedy The White Devil, or Vittoria Corombona. A woman of great beautyaccomplishments, Vittoria was married to the nephew of the man who, it was believed, would be the next Pope in order to improve the station of her family. Not satisfied with this embroilment alone, however, her brother returned the favour his new brother-in-law had done him in securing his appointment at court by borrowing a page from Cesare Borgiamurdering him, thus freeing his sister for an even more powerful nobleman (who had, incidentally, already murdered his first wife). The sequellae to this marriage-annulment of the marriage by one Pope, imprisonment, remarriage, flight from the next Pope, betrayal, murder,a spectacular trial-are even more dramatic than the decades of staged blood-letting they inspired. Both Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853)Marie Henry Beyle, a.k.a. Stendahl (1783-1843) also wrote versions of this story.
  14. Lee, Vernon. The Handling of Words (John Lane, The Bodley Head Ltd., 1923), p.235.

   

copyright 2002 by Jim Rockhill, all rights reserved

   

See also Jim Rockhill's commentary on
Vernon Lee's "Sister Benvenuta & the Christ Child"
& see Johnny "rbadac's" commentary on
Vernon Lee's "Dionea"

Classic & antiquarian supernatural tales,
including now & then editions of Vernon Lee's great works,
can be purchased from the
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