Friday, February 21, 2014
Campo Alegre, Scholar and Man of the World
How well I remember the sitting-room in his apartment on the Fontanka canal! It looked out upon the sluggish and discoloured water, and the furniture and other inanimate objects scattered about, their nature and disposition, gave you a hint of the uncommon personality of their owner. Campo Alegre, scholar and man of the world, impressed his character on all he possessed and all he said. Or so it seemed to me. I reckon him among the best friends I have had. He belonged to an almost forgotten race, the humanist; the man of boundless curiosity and boundless tolerance—of that tolerance which derives from satisfied curiosity, and can derive from nothing else. Humani nihil alienum....
Here were books, abundance of them, which he carried from one end of the world to another—the great writers of all ages, the real writers; for Campo Alegre had no sympathy for the commonplace, the mediocre, in literature or in anything else. Life was too short, he used to say, for anything but the best. On the other hand, he would add, he had enjoyed life; he had taken it by the throat and made it yield every pleasure, legitimate or otherwise, which it had to offer. The civilized attitude! Your vulgarian cannot achieve this point of view. For all his effrontery he is a slave—a slave to his own poor soul, to a thousand prejudices and taboos.
I went to see him for a farewell visit on that gloomy November afternoon in 1896, the day before I left Russia for good. As I rose to depart he said:
'Perhaps you'll accept this as a keepsake?' and he gave me a ring, a cabochon sapphire which he always wore. 'And—ah! I should like you to have one of my books as well. It may remind you of this room. Here is a small one. It will go into your pocket; it has often gone into mine: Petrarca's de remediis utriusque Fortunae—a worthless Rotterdam edition, you see, of 1649....Those who judge Petrarca by his sonnets—how little they know about him! To explore, like he did, a trackless world and rediscover the old landmarks...to make oneself lord of all the buried past....I don't think we realise in what a state of rapture those men must have lived....You'll glance into it sometimes?'
Ian Jackson writes:
The "worthless Rotterdam edition" of Petrarch that Count Campo Alegre gave him in 1896 re-surfaces in the Unprofessional Tales (1901) that Douglas published in collaboration with his wife as "Normyx". One of the short stories in that collection quotes two passages from Petrarch's de remediis utriusque Fortunae as an epigraph — an unusual choice, we may agree, and with an obvious source.