In the picture-gallery at Modena there is a masterpiece of Dosso Dossi. The frame is old and richly carved; and the painting, bordered by its beautiful dull gold, shines with the lustre of an emerald. In his happy moods Dosso set color upon canvas as no other painter out of Venice ever did; and here he is at his happiest. The picture is the portrait of a jester, dressed in courtly clothes and with a feathered cap upon his head. He holds a lamb in his arms, and carries the legend, Sic Genius. Behind him is a landscape of exquisite brilliancy and depth. His face is young and handsome. Dosso has made it one most wonderful laugh. Even so perhaps laughed Yorick. Nowhere else have I seen a laugh thus painted : not violent, not loud, although the lips are opened to show teeth of dazzling whiteness; but fine and delicate, playing over the whole face like a ripple sent up from the depths of the soul within. Who was he ? What does the lamb mean? How should the legend be interpreted? We cannot answer these questions. He may have been the court fool of Ferrara; and his genius, the spiritual essence of the man, may have inclined him to laugh at all things. That at least is the value he now has for us. He is the portrait of perpetual irony, the spirit of the golden sixteenth century which delicately laughed at the whole world of thoughts and things, the quintessence of the poetry of Ariosto, the wit of Berni, all condensed into one incarnation and immortalized by truthfullest art. With the Gaul, the Spaniard, and the German at her gates, and in her cities, and encamped upon her fields, Italy still laughed ; and when the voice of conscience sounding through Savonarola asked her why, she only smiledSic Genius.
One evening in May we rowed from Venice to Torcello, and at sunset broke bread and drank wine together among the rank grasses just outside that ancient church. It was pleasant to sit in the so-called chair of Attila and feel the placid stillness of the place. Then there came lounging by a sturdy young fellow in brown country clothes, with a marvellous old wide-awake upon his head, and across his shoulders a bunch of massive church-keys. In strange contrast to his uncouth garb he flirted a pink Japanese fan, gracefully disposing it to cool his sun-burned olive cheeks. This made us look at him. He was not ugly. Nay, there was something of attractive in his facethe smooth-curved chin, the shrewd yet sleepy eyes, and finely-cut thin lipsa curious mixture of audacity and meekness blended upon his features. Yet this impression was but the prelude to his smile. When that first dawned, some breath of humor seeming to stir in him unbidden, the true meaning was given to his face. Each feature helped to make a smile that was the very soul’s life of the man expressed. It broadened, showing brilliant teeth, and grew into a noiseless laugh; and then I saw before me Dosso’s jester, the type of Shakespeare’s fools, the life of that wild irony, now rude, now fine, which once delighted courts. The laughter of the whole world and of all the centuries was silent in his face. What he said need not be repeated. The charm was less in his words than in his personality; for Momus-philosophy lay deep in every look and gesture of the man. The place lent itself to irony ; parties of Americans and English parsons, the former agape for any rubbishy old things, the latter learned in the lore of obsolete church-furniture, had thronged Torcello ; and now they were all gone, and the sun had set behind the Alps, while an irreverent stranger drank his wine in Attila’s chair, and nature’s jester smiledSic Genius.
When I slept that night I dreamed of an altar-piece in the Temple of Folly. The goddess sat enthroned beneath a cauopy hung with bells and corals. On her lap was a beautiful winged smiling genius, who flourished two bright torches. On her left hand stood the man of Modena with his white lamb, a new St. John. On her right stood the man of Torcello with his keys, a new St. Peter. Both were laughing after their all-absorbent, di-vine, noiseless fashion; and under both was written, Sic Genius. Are not all things, even profanity, permissible in dreams ?