The architecture of the aristocratic palaces is incomparable. Aristocrats aspire to distinguish themselves by the luxury & beauty of their buildings, as well to add suggestions of immortality, superhuman power, & the freedom of those unbound by necessity, viz. poverty. Their palaces defy the human scale & seem unending in space as well as across time. Whatever the necessity of climate wreaks upon the many who are poor, the few who are wealthy are amply protected. The strength & durability of the stone constructions is concealed somewhat by the beauty of the embellishments: Frescoes on walls & ceilings, the family crest, paintings & exquisite furniture. The aristocrats appreciate these things, of which they have intimate knowledge, & at the same time take them for granted, for they acquired by inheriting. A birthright is as much a curse, it emerges, in the political revolution, as it is a blessing in ordinary times. The upstarts, the bourgeois, the middle class – they look upon this luxury as something greatly exotic, & it is doubtful that they share the aristocratic taste, but it is certain that they take nothing for granted, being so busy to take everything they can.
The bourgeois manners are all shyness, unpunctual, badly dressed, & they try to shake hands. The aristocrats are much more restrained & therefore bow. Martial habits both. They have not merely confidence & a commanding air, but are also splendid. The ones obey, the others condescend to command without humiliating. Perhaps embellishment describes the aristocrats even more than utility describes the bourgeois. The lower classes hear stories of war & sex without blushing, but with excitement & humor. – When a splendid young woman from a lower-class family is introduced at the dinner party, her laughter sounds terrible in the otherwise quiet palace dining room: The vulgar have a vitality foreign to these late nobles.
Aristocratic men share these passions, but their only interlocutors are the ubiquitous father-confessors, who double as go-betweens, butlers, & chides: Typical masculine criticisms of feminine habits. Were the Church a woman, she would be rather ugly & moralistic. She neither knows nor cares to learn how to persuade men…
The ball which serves to introduce Tancredi & his betrothed, Angelica, & the new alliance between aristocrats & bourgeois, shows the last splendor of aristocracy. The beauty & the riches on exhibition astound & may even be said to cloy the discerning onlooker, but they also foreshadow the end of the aristocracy, because the wealth has ended up dominating men, who cannot preserve because they cannot acquire. The past is no more present for them, who are acquainted with their history & their state, than it is to the bourgeois, who are complete foreigners. The future seems to belong rather to the latter than to the former, but it is unlovely… The old prince, who had shown such disgust & apprehension in dealing with the new ways of modernization, now contemplates his death. From the deference he now feels he has to show the emerging middle class, which robs him of his prestige, which depended on aloofness & inspiring fear; to the ugliness of the manners & naked rapacity of these people, who will never be able to foster great art & who cannot appreciate beauty because they are too greedy; everywhere he sees that the new order has nothing to offer him & will take everything away, unless he clings to what he has left.
He contemplates Greuze’s painting, The death of the just man, the old man dying in his bed, women & children surrounding the deathbed, crying, despondent, already mourning, & the young man, the prodigal son, returning home, properly chastised for his desertion, punished as it were by losing that which he had abandoned, his father; the prince believes that his death will probably look like that too, except the women should be dressed more modestly & the sheets will be dirty. Beauty conceals terror only very imperfectly. Illusions are no use to him who does not love life. The moral exhortation is lost on him. The silent suggestion is that injustice might be preferable.