The narrator observes that during the time in which the book is set, “the world in general was more ignorant of good and evil by forty years than it is at present.” At the Vatican, two men observe a woman daydreaming while starting at the floor. One of the men, a German, notices that his friend, Ladislaw, is fixated on the woman. Ladislaw explains that she is married to Casaubon, which shocks his friend, who replies: “Mrs. Second-Cousin [is] the most perfect young Madonna I ever saw.” Ladislaw explains that he has only met Dorothea once and didn’t know she and Casaubon would be in Rome.
This passage subtly explores tension between past and future. The book is set in 1829-1832, forty years before it was published in 1871-1872. The narrator here expresses the clear opinion that the world has become better during the intervening years. At the same time, the setting of the Vatican, which has existed since the Roman times, symbolizes ancient wisdom, which Casaubon is seeking in conducting research there.
Will’s friend is a painter named Adolf Naumann. To Will’s dismay, he is determined to paint a picture of Dorothea. Naumann keeps referring to Dorothea as Will’s aunt, which greatly annoys him. Naumann says that if Will doesn’t want to introduce them, he can approach Dorothea himself and ask if she wants to be painted. Will tries to change the subject, annoyed with himself for getting upset.
Will’s irritation with Naumann suggests that his feelings for Dorothea may be more complicated than the simple dislike he felt when they first met at Lowick. He, like Naumann, may feel enchanted by Dorothea’s beauty.