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St Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century

William Godwin


The following passage from a work, said to be written by the late Dr John Campbel, and entitled Hermippus Redivivus, suggested the first hint of the present performance:

'There happened in the year 1687, an odd accident at Venice, that made a very great stir then, and which I think deserves to be rescued from oblivion. The great freedom and ease with which all persons, who make a good appearance, live in that city, is known sufficiently to all who are acquainted with it; such will not therefore be surprised, that a stranger, who went by the name of signor Gualdi, and who made a considerable figure there, was admitted into the best company, though nobody knew who or what he was. He remained at Venice for some months; and three things were remarked in his conduct. The first was, that he had a small collection of fine pictures, which he readily showed to any body that desired it; the next, that he was perfectly versed in all arts and sciences, and spoke on every subject with such readiness and sagacity, as astonished all who heard him; and it was, in the third place, observed, that he never wrote or received any letter, never desired any credit, or made use of bills of exchange, but paid for every thing in ready money, and lived decently, though not in splendour.

'This gentleman met one day at the coffee-house with a Venetian nobleman, who was an extraordinary good judge of pictures: he had heard of signor Gualdi's collection, and in a very polite manner desired to see them, to which the other very readily consented. After the Venetian had {viii} viewed signor Gualdi's collection, and expressed his satisfaction, by telling him that he had never seen a finer, considering the number of pieces of which it consisted; he cast his eye by chance over the chamber-door, where hung a picture of this stranger. The Venetian looked upon it, and then upon him. "This picture was drawn for you, sir," says he to signor Gualdi, to which the other made no answer, but by a low bow. "You look," continued the Venetian, "like a man of fifty, and yet I know this picture to be of the hand of Titian, who has been dead one hundred and thirty years, how is this possible?" -- "It is not easy," said signor Gualdi, gravely, "to know all things that are possible; but there is certainly no crime in my being like a picture drawn by Titian." The Venetian easily perceived, by his manner of speaking, that he had given the stranger offence, and therefore took his leave.

'He could not forbear speaking of this in the evening to some of his friends, who resolved to satisfy themselves by looking upon the picture the next day. In order to have an opportunity of doing so, they went to the coffee-house about the time that signor Gualdi was wont to come thither; and not meeting with him, one of them, who had often conversed with him, went to his lodgings to enquire after him, where he heard, that he had set out an hour before for Vienna. This affair made a great noise, and found a place in all the newspapers of that time.' *

It is well known that the philosopher's stone, the art of transmuting metals into gold, and the elixir vitae, which was to restore youth, and make him that possessed it immortal, formed a principal object of the studies of the {ix} curious for centuries. Many stories, beside this of signor Gualdi, have been told, of persons who were supposed to be in possession of those wonderful secrets, in search of which hundreds of unfortunate adventurers wasted their fortunes and their lives.

It has been said of Shakespear, that he

Exhausted worlds, and then imagined new°:
but the burthen sustained by Shakespear was too heavy for the shoulders of any other individual. I leave the first part of the task above mentioned to be divided among those celebrated novelists, living and dead, who have attempted to delineate the scenes of real life. In this little work I have endeavoured to gain footing in one neglected track of the latter province. The hearts and the curiosity of readers have been assailed in so many ways, that we, writers who bring up the rear of our illustrious predecessors, must be contented to arrive at novelty in whatever mode we are able. The foundation of the following tale is such as, it is not to be supposed, ever existed. But, if I have mixed human feelings and passions with incredible situations, and thus rendered them impressive and interesting, I shall entertain some hope to be pardoned the boldness and irregularity of my design.

Some readers of my graver productions will perhaps, in perusing these little volumes, accuse me of inconsistency; the affections and charities of private life being every where in this publication a topic of the warmest eulogium, while in the Enquiry concerning Political Justice they seemed to be treated with no great degree of indulgence and favour. In answer to this objection, all I think it necessary to say on the present occasion is, that, for more than four years, I have been anxious for opportunity and leisure to modify {x} some of the earlier chapters of that work in conformity to the sentiments inculcated in this. Not that I see cause to make any change respecting the principle of justice, or any thing else fundamental to the system there delivered; but that I apprehend domestic and private affections inseparable from the nature of man, and from what may be styled the culture of the heart, and am fully persuaded that they are not incompatible with a profound and active sense of justice in the mind of him that cherishes them. The way in which these seemingly jarring principles may be reconciled, is in part pointed out in a little book which I gave to the public in the year 1798, and which I will therefore take the liberty to quote. 'A sound morality requires that "nothing human should be regarded by us as indifferent"; but it is impossible we should not feel the strongest interest for those persons whom we know most intimately, and whose welfare and sympathies are united to our own. True wisdom will recommend to us individual attachments; for with them our minds are more thoroughly maintained in activity and life than they can be under the privation of them; and it is better that man should be a living being, than a stock or a stone. True virtue will sanction this recommendation; since it is the object of virtue to produce happiness, and since the man who lives in the midst of domestic relations will have many opportunities of conferring pleasure, minute in the detail, yet not trivial in the amount, without interfering with the purposes of general benevolence. Nay, by kindling his sensibility, and harmonising his soul, they may be expected, if he is endowed with a liberal and manly spirit, to render him more prompt in the service of strangers and the public.' 'Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ch. VI, p. 90. IId Edition'

November 26, 1799

° Johnson's "Occasional Prologue on Garrick's assuming the management of Drury-lane Theatre."

* To this story, in the book from which I have quoted it, is subjoined the following reference: 'Mémoires Historiques, 1687, tom. i. p. 365.' Being desirous of giving my extract from the oldest authority, I caused the British Museum, and the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge, to be searched for this publication, but in vain. The story and the reference are, not improbably, both of them the fictions of the English writer.