MARGINAL COMMENT By HAROLD NICOLSON
THE word " serendipity," as coined by Horace Walpole, is defined as " the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident." It is in this sense that the word is often used. But in writing to Mann in January, 1754, Walpole explained that he had founded the word upon the fairy tale of The Three Princes of Serendip, who, according to him, were "always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of." I regret that this word " serendipity " has been by now so thumbed in the market-place that it has lost its ancient image and superscription. I agree that it means, and ought to mean, the discovery of something unexpected ; but I do not agree that this discovery must always be due to accident ; the word " sagacity " in Walpole's definition appears to me fully as operative as the word " accidents." It is interesting of course when some ploughman turns up a Roman planer with his share, or when a Greek shephera boy tumbles through a hole upon the Venus of Milo. But it is much more interesting when the element of knowledge or " sagacity " is introduced ; the most exciting of all accidental discoveries, as the most dramatic, are those which are made by people who at once recognise the significance and value of the object which they have discovered. Only a few days ago two of our younger art-experts were watching a picture-restorer clean an old wooden panel which had been brought into his shop. The surface of the panel was brown with age, but through the patina of centuries there could be observed dim figures of men and women moving from left to right. As the picture-restorer daubed this opaque rectangle with
• cotton wool, alcohol and turpentine, bright colours of sky and people emerged from the dim surface. " Umbrian School", they murmured to each other, as the area of enlightenment .increased: and then suddenly, and at the same moment, they each realised that here was a version of the Raphael predella in the National Gallery. The exact origins and authorship of this painting are still to be determined ; but it must be fun for two experts to watch an Umbrian painting swim suddenly into their ken. That, to my mind, is the true mean- ing and beauty of the word " serendipity." * * * * I can give other instances. There is the curious story, related in the Early Life of Clement Burlison of the discovery in Rome of the Entombment by Michelangelo, now in the National Gallery. A certain Mr. Macpherson, wandering alone in one of the open-air markets of the city, observed a curious panel, covered in dim painting, being used as a board or table in a market-stall. Upon this board were spread such miscellaneous objects as fish, frogs, old pans, gridirons, locks and horseshoes. Macpherson, realising at once that the panel might be a painting of considerable value, pretended to be drunk and offered to buy the whole stall with its contents for the sum of six scudi. " He put," the narrator records, " a few more trifles in his pockets by way of giving the man no clue to his main object ; then taking hold of the stall, turning it on edge, and all the rubbish on the ground, he asked two of the men to carry it to his lodgings, saying he would come back for the remainder. This was mere talk, simply to keep up the appearance of his wish to possess all or most of the articles, tfle table or picture being a secondary matter." This ruse succeeded ; Macpherson was subsequently able to smuggle the picture out of Rome by bribing a customs official; and he thereafter sold it to Sir William Boxall for £2,000. All this happened in the year 1845, and although the story does not throw much glamour upon Mr. Macpherson's truthfulness or generosity, it does provide us with one of the 'purest instances of serendipity which have yet been recorded.
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A remarkable gift of serendipity appears to have been among the many qualities possessed by Cardinal Fesch, the astute cousin of Laetitia Bonaparte. When Angelica Kauffmann died in 1807 she was buried in the church of S. Andrea delle Fratte-in Rome and her funeral procession was graced, not merely by the presence of several cardinals and aesthetes, but by two of her own pictures which were carried behind the bier. Yet shortly after her funeral it was
found that the St. Jerome of Leonardo da Vinci, which had been among her most cherished possessions, had completely disappeared. Gazing one day into the windows of an antiquity shop Cardinal Fesch recognised one half of this picture, which was being used as a cover for an iron strong-box. It depicted. only the torso of the Saint, and it was evident that the picture had been cut in half. A few months later, the Cardinal happened to be calling on his own boot-maker and to his contentment and surprise found there the other half of the Leonardo, which in its turn contained the head of the Saint and was being used as the seat of a stool. The two halves were reunited and the picture acquired by Pius IX for the Pinacoteca. To find one half of a Leonardo requires both sagacity and good fortune ; but to discover the other half at one's own-boot-maker's seems to me to indicate a degree of serendipity of which Cardinal Fesch had every reason to be proud. A less perfect exercise of this rare quality is illustrated by the behaviour of Queen Caroline in 1727. Rummaging one afternoon in the rooms of Kensington Palace, she opened the drawer of a bureau and found therein a whole volume of Holbein drawings, which at that date were bound together. In the seventeenth century it had been known that these famous draw- ings had once formed part of the Royal collection, but by the first quarter of the eighteenth century all trace of them had been lost. Yet the serendipity of Queen Caroline is marred and diminished by the fact that if she had examined the bureau a little more. carefully she would have found the Leonardo drawings as well. For this reason she obtains lower marks than Cardinal Fesch.
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Archaeology also has had its moments of entrancing surprise. There was that amazing afternoon in August, 1876, when Heinricn Schliemann, after many doubts and disappointments, broke into the tomb of Agamemnon. The drama of that moment has furnished D'Annunzio with the supreme climax of his Citta Mona. There was the discovery by the late Mr. J. L. Starkey of the eighteen ostraka known as " The Lachish Letters." These potsherds, when deciphered, proved to be the explanatory memoranda written to his superior officer by the Hittite Hosha'yahu, who was being tried by court- martial for the surrender of his post. One of these .letters refers .to the murder of the Prophet Uriah in about 600 B.C., another account of which occurs in Jeremiah XXVI. An even more startling instance of true serendipity is provided by the discovery of the Piltdown man (Eoanthropus Ddwscmii). Mr. Charles Dawson, walking one after- noon along a farm track near Fletching, in Sussex, noticed that the gravel at his feet contained flints of an unusual nature. He traced this gravel to a small pit on Piltdown Common, and he requested the workmen engaged upon removing the gravel to keep for him any bones which they might find. On his next visit to the pit one of the men handed him a fragment which seemed to be part of the parietal bone of a human skull. He pursued his investigations, and in 191r he himself discovered another portion of the same skull ; by the next year was brought to light, and reunited, one of the most important skulls known to anthropologists. If Mr. Dawson had not been exceptionally observant he would never have noticed the odd -composition of the gravel on which he walked ; if he had not possessed " sagacity " he would not have drawn such profitable conclusions ; and if he had not been fortunate he would not have found a workman ready to respond to his strange requests. He deserves to share top marks with Cardinal Fesch.
* * * * I am convinced, moreover, that serendipity is not confined to 'fie discovery of unexpected objects. We all know people who are more gifted than we are ourselves in discovering small hotels, cheap restaurants, amiable characters, odd situations, and striking coinci- dences. They are not always very truthful people, but they are always alert. There are other people who seem invariably to arrive at places when something unusual is about to happen. I do not possess this faculty. I am not sure, however, tilat I regret this deficiency : since serendipity, honourable though it sometimes is, contains an element of cunning, or at least of astuteness, which has about it a faint whiff of the black market.