visited Italy in 1844-45. He travelled with his family and he stayed in Rome during
the Roman Carnival and again during the Holy Week.
Italy and in particular the State of the Church had come out of the Napoleonic wars very impoverished. Pope Gregory XVI, then aged 80, was afraid of novelties and considered the railway an invention of the Devil. According to the French poet Lamartine, Italy was the "Land of the Dead" and for the Austrian Chancellor Metternich it was "a mere geographic expression".
Dickens published in 1846 "Pictures from Italy", an account of his journey, where he focused on the description of events and ceremonies, rather than palaces and churches.
This page contains excerpts of that book related to Rome.
..immediately on going out next day, we hurried off to St. Peter's. It
looked immense in the distance, but distinctly and decidedly small, by comparison, on a near approach.
The beauty of the Piazza, on which it stands, with its clusters of exquisite columns
and its gushing fountains - so fresh, so broad, and free, and beautiful - nothing can exaggerate. The first burst of the interior,
in all its expansive majesty and glory: and, most of all, the looking up into the Dome: is a sensation
never to be forgotten. But, there were preparations for a Festa; the pillars of stately marble were swathed
in some impertinent frippery of red and yellow; the altar, and entrance to the subterranean chapel: which is before it:
in the centre of the church: were like a goldsmith's shop, or one of the opening scenes in a very lavish pantomime.
And though I had as high a sense of the beauty of the building (I hope) as it is possible to entertain, I felt
no very strong emotion. I have been infinitely more affected in many English cathedrals when the organ has been
playing, and in many English country churches when the congregation have been singing. I had a much greater
sense of mystery and wonder, in the Cathedral of San Mark at Venice.
Coliseum: first impression
When we came out of the church ... we said to the coachman, "Go to the Coliseum." In a quarter of an hour
or so, he stopped at the gate, and we went in.
Here was Rome indeed at last; and such a Rome as no one can imagine in
its full and awful grandeur. We wandered out upon the Appian Way, and then went on,
through miles of ruined tombs and broken walls, with here and there a desolate
and uninhabited house: past the Circus of Romulus, where the course of the chariots,
the station of the judges, competitors, and spectators, are yet as plainly to be seen as in old time:
past the tomb of Cecilia Metella: past all inclosure, hedge,
or stake, wall or fence: away upon the open Campagna, where on that side of Rome, nothing is to be beheld but Ruin. Except
where the distant Apennines bound the view upon the left, the whole wide prospect is one field of ruin. Broken aqueducts, left in the most
picturesque and beautiful clusters of arches; broken temples; broken tombs. A desert of decay,
sombre and desolate beyond all expressions; and with a history in every stone that strews the ground.
The Roman Carnival
.. we had looked forward, with some impatience and curiosity, to the beginning of the new week: Monday
and Tuesday being the two last and best days of the Carnival.
Mr. and Mrs. Davis
We often encountered a company of English Tourists, with whom I had an ardent, but ungratified longing, to establish a speaking acquaintance. They were one Mr. Davis, and a small circle of friends. It was impossible not to know Mrs. Davis's name, from her being always in great request among her party, and her party being everywhere. During the Holy Week, they were in every part of every scene of every ceremony. For a fortnight or three weeks before it, they were in every tomb, and every church, and every ruin, and every Picture Gallery; and I hardly ever observed Mrs. Davis to be silent for a moment. Deep underground, high up in St. Peter's, out on the Campagna, and stifling in the Jews' quarter, Mrs. Davis turned up, all the same. I don't think she ever saw anything, or ever looked at anything; and she had always lost something out of a straw hand-basket, and was trying to find it, with all her might and main, among an immense quantity of English halfpence, which lay, like sands upon the sea-shore, at the bottom of it. There was a professional Cicerone always attached to the party (which had been brought over from London, fifteen or twenty strong, by contract), and if he so much as looked at Mrs. Davis, she invariably cut him short by saying, "There, God bless the man, don't worrit me! I don't understand a word you say, and shouldn't if you was to talk till you was black in the face!" Mr. Davis always had a snuff-coloured great-coat on, and carried a great green umbrella in his hand, and had a slow curiosity constantly devouring him, which prompted him to do extraordinary things, such as taking the covers off the urns in tombs, and looking in at the ashes as if they were pickles - and tracing out inscriptions with the ferrule of his umbrella, and saying, with intense thoughtfulness, "Here's a B you see, and there's a R, and this is the way we goes on in; is it?" His antiquarian habits occasioned his being frequently in the rear of the rest; and one of the agonies of Mrs. Davis, and the party in general, was an ever-present fear that Davis would be lost. This caused them to scream for him, in the strangest places, and at the most improper seasons. And when he came, slowly emerging out of some sepulchre or other, like a peaceful Ghoul, saying "Here I am!" Mrs. Davis invariably replied, "You'll be buried alive in a foreign country, Davis, and it's no use trying to prevent you!".
Among what may be called the Cubs or minor Lions of Rome, there was one that amused me mightily. It is always to be found there; and its den is on the great flight of steps that lead from the Piazza di Spagna, to the church of Trinita del Monte. In plainer words, these steps are the great place of resort for the artists' "Models," and there they are constantly waiting to be hired. The first time I went up there, I could not conceive why the faces seemed familiar to me; why they appeared to have beset me, for years, in every possible variety of action and costume; and how it came to pass that they started up before me, in Rome, in the broad day, like so many saddled and bridled nightmares. I soon found that we had made acquaintance, and improved it, for several years, on the walls of various Exhibition Galleries. There is one old gentleman, with long white hair and an immense beard, who, to my knowledge, has gone half enough through the catalogue of the Royal Academy. This is the venerable, or patriarchal model. He carries a long staff; and every knot and twist in that staff I have seen faithfully delineated, innumerable times. There is another man in a blue cloak, who always pretends to be asleep in the sun (when there is any), and who, I need but say, is always very wide awake, and very attentive to the disposition of his legs. This is the dolce far' niente model. There is another man in a brown cloak, who leans against a wall, with his arms folded in his mantle, and looks out of the corners of his eyes; which are just visible beneath his broad slouched hat. This is the assassin model. There is another man, who constantly looks over his own shoulder, and is always going away, but never does. This is the haughty, or scornful model. As to Domestic Happiness and Holy Families, they should come very cheap, for there are lumps of them, all up the steps; and the cream of the thing is, that they are all the falsest vagabonds in the world, especially made up for the purpose, and having no counterparts in Rome or any other parts of the habitable globe.
Some Roman altars of peculiar sanctity, bear the inscription, "Every Mass performed at this altar frees a soul from Purgatory." I have never been able to find out the charge for one of these services, but they should needs be expensive. There are several Crosses in Rome too, the kissing of which, confers indulgences for varying terms. That in the centre of the Coliseum, is worth a hundred days; and people may be seen kissing it from morning to night. It is curious that some of these crosses seem to acquire an arbitrary popularity: this very one among them. In another part of the Coliseum there is a cross upon a marble slab, with the inscription, "Who kisses this cross shall be entitled to Two hundred and forty days' indulgence." But I saw no one kiss it, though, day after day, I sat in the arena, and saw scores upon scores of peasants pass it, on their way to kiss the other.
S. Stefano Rotondo
To single out details from the great dream of Roman churches, would be the wildest occupation in the world. But S. Stefano Rotondo, a damp, mildewed vault of an old church in the outskirts of Rome, will always struggle uppermost in my mind, by reason of the hideous paintings with which its walls are covered. These represent the martyrdoms of saints and early Christians; and such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses, chopped up small with hatchets: women having their breasts torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears screwed off, their jaws broken, their bodies stretched upon the rack, or skinned upon the stake, or crackled up and melted in the fire: these are among the mildest subjects. So insisted on, and laboured at, besides, that every sufferer gives you the same occasion for wonder as poor old Duncan awoke, in Lady Macbeth, when she marvelled at his having so much blood in him.
An Execution near S. Giovanni Decollato
On one Saturday morning (the eighth of March), a man was beheaded here. Nine or ten months before,
he had waylaid a Bavarian countess, travelling as a pilgrim to Rome - alone and on foot, of course -
and performing, it is said, that act of piety for the fourth time. He saw her change a piece of gold at Viterbo,
where he lived; followed her; bore her company on her journey for some forty miles or more, on the
treacherous pretext of protecting her; attacked her, in the fulfilment of his unrelenting purpose, on the
Campagna, within a very short distance of Rome, near to what is called (but what is not)
the Tomb of Nero; robbed her; and beat her to death with her own pilgrim's
staff. He was newly married, and gave some of her apparel to his wife: saying that he had bought it at a fair.
She, however, who had seen the pilgrim-countess passing through her town, recognised some trifle
as having belonged to her. Her husband then told her what he had done. She, in confession, told a
priest; and the man was taken, within four days after the commission of the murder.
The Pope washing the feet of Thirteen men
I think the most popular and most crowded sight (excepting those of Easter Sunday and Monday, which
are open to all classes of people) was the Pope washing the feet of Thirteen men, representing the
twelve apostles, and Judas Iscariot. The place in which this pious office is performed, is one of the chapel's
of St. Peter's, which is gaily decorated for the occasion; the thirteen
sitting, "all of a row", on a very high bench, and looking particularly uncomfortable, with the eyes
of Heaven knows how many English, French, Americans, Swiss, Germans, Russians, Swedes, Norwegians,
and other foreigners, nailed to their faces all the time. They are robed in white; and on their heads they wear a
stiff white cap like a large English porter-pot, without a handle. Each carries in his hand, a nosegey, of the size
of a fine cauliflower; and two of them, on this occasion, wore spectacles; which remembering the characters
they sustained, I thought a droll appendage to the costume. There was a great eye to character. St. John was represented
by a good-looking young man. St. Peter, by a grave-looking old gentleman, with a flowing brown beard;
and Judas Iscariot by such an enormous hypocrite (I could not make out, though, whether the expression
of his face was real or assumed) that if he had acted the part to the death and had gone away and hanged
himself, he would have left nothing to be desired.
Of all the many spectacles of dangerous reliance on outward observances, in themselves mere
empty forms, none struck me half so much as the Scala Santa, or Holy
Staircase, which I saw several times, but to the greatest advantage, or disadvantage, on Good
Easter Sunday in St. Peter's square
On Easter Sunday, as well as on the preceding Thursday, the Pope bestows his benediction on the
people, from the balcony in front of St. Peter's. This Easter Sunday was a day so bright and blue:
so cloudless, balmy, wonderfully bright: that all the previous bad weather vanished from the
recollection in a moment. I had seen the Thursday's Benediction dropping damply on some hundreds
of umbrellas, but there was not a sparkle then, in all the hundred fountains of Rome - such
fountains as they are! - and on this Sunday morning they were running diamonds. The miles of
miserable streets through which we drove (compelled to a certain course by the Pope's dragoons:
the Roman police on such occasions) were so full of colour, that nothing in them was
capable of wearing a faded aspect. The common people came in their best dresses; the richer
people in their smartest vehicles; Cardinals rattled to the church of the Poor Fishermen in
their state carriages; shabby magnificence flaunted its thread-bare liveries and tarnished
cocked hats, in the sun; and every coach in Rome was put in requisition for the
Great Piazza of St. Peter's.
Fireworks at Castel S. Angelo
On Easter Monday there was a great display of fireworks from the Castle of St. Angelo.
We hired a room in an opposite house, and made our way, to our places, in good time,
through a dense mob of people choking up the square in front, and all the avenues leading to it;
and so loading the bridge by which the castle is approached, that it seemed ready to sink into
the rapid Tiber below. There are statues on this bridge (execrable works), and, among them,
great vessels full of burning tow were placed: glaring strangely on the faces of the crowd,
and not less strangely on the stone counterfeits above them.
The Coliseum by moonlight
We rode out into old ruined Rome, after all this firing and booming, to take our leave of the Coliseum. I had seen it by moonlight before (I could never get through a day without going back to it), but its tremendous solitude that night is past all telling. The ghostly pillars in the Forum; the Triumphal Arches of Old Emperors; these enormous masses of ruins which were once their palaces; the grass-grown mounds that mark the graves of ruined temples; the stones of the Via Sacra, smooth with the tread of feet in ancient Rome; even these were dimmed, in their transcendent melancholy, by the dark ghost of its bloody holidays, erect and grim; haunting the old scene; despoiled by pillaging Popes and fighting Princes, but not laid; wringing wild hands of weed, and grass, and bramble; and lamenting to the night in every gap and broken arch - the shadow of its awful self, immovable!
Read What Dante Saw.
Read What Goethe Saw.
Read What Lord Byron Saw.
Read What Henry James Saw.
Read What Mark Twain Saw.
Read What William Dean Howells Saw.
Read Dan Brown's Spaghetti Bolognaise (excerpts from Angels and Demons)