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What Henry James Saw
Henry James visited Italy several times
between 1869 and 1909. In 1873 he spent considerable time in Rome and he published in American magazines
extensive accounts of his stay. In 1909 these accounts, together with other Italian travel accounts were collected
in Italian Hours. In 1873 Rome was undergoing drastic changes due to its new role as capital of the Kingdom of Italy,
and Henry James, while being strongly supportive of the new government, nevertheless pointed out that the foreign traveller
was going to miss some of the most picturesque aspects of papal Rome.
This page contains excerpts of that book related to 1873 Rome.
..I walked by the back streets to the steps mounting to the Capitol -
that long inclined plane, rather, broken at every two paces, which is the unfailing
disappointment, I believe, of tourists primed for retrospective raptures. Certainly the Capitol
seen from this side is n't commanding. The hill is so low, the ascent so narrow, Michael Angelo's
architecture in the quadrangle at the top so meagre, the whole place somehow so much more of a
mole-hill than a mountain, that for the first ten minutes of your standing there Roman history
seems suddenly to have sunk through a trap-door.
above, in the piazzetta before the stuccoed palace which rises so jauntily on a basement of
thrice its magnitude, are more loungers and knitters in the sun, seated round the massively inscribed
base of the statue of Marcus Aurelius. Hawthorne has perfectly expressed the attitude
of this admirable figure in saying that it extends its arm with "a command which is in itself
a benediction". I doubt if any statue of king or captain in the public places of the world has
more to commend it to the general heart. Irrecoverable simplicity - residing so in irrecoverable Style -
has no sturdier representative. Here is an impression that the sculptors of the last three
hundred years have been laboriously trying to reproduce; but contrasted with this mild monarch
their prancing horsemen suggest a succession of riding-masters, taking out young ladies' schools. The
admirably human character of the figure survives the rusty decomposition of the bronze and
the slight "debasement" of the art; and one may call it singular that in the capital of
Christendom the portrait most suggestive of a Christian conscience is that of a pagan emperor.
One of course never passes the Colosseum without paying it one's
respects - without going in under one of the hundred portals and crossing the long oval and
sitting down a while, generally at the foot of the cross in the centre. I always feel, as I do so,
as if I were seated in the depths of some Alpine valley. The upper portions of the side toward
the Esquiline look as remote and lonely as an Alpine ridge, and you raise your eyes to their
rugged sky-line, drinking in the sun and silvered by the blue air, with much the same feeling,
with which you would take in a grey cliff on which an eagle might lodge. This roughly mountainous
quality of the great ruin is its chief interest; beauty of detail has pretty well vanished,
especially since the high-growing wild-flowers have been plucked away by the new government,
whose functionaries, surely, at certain points of their task, must have felt as if they shared
the dreadful trade of those who gather samphire (Note: a reference to Shakespeare's King Lear:
"Half-way down Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade".
Samphire or sea fennel or sea asparagus grows on sea-cliffs. James had in mind the children plucking samphire off the Dover cliffs.).
|SS. Giovanni e Paolo
Even if you are on your way to the Lateran you won't grudge
the twenty minutes it will take you, on leaving the Colosseum,
to turn away under the Arch of Constantine .. toward the piazzetta of the church of
San Giovanni e Paolo, on the slope of Caelian. No spot in Rome
can show a cluster of more charming accidents. The ancient brick apse of the church peeps
down into the trees of the little wooded walk before the neighbouring church of
San Gregorio, intensely venerable beneath its excessive modernisation;
and a series of heavy brick buttresses, flying across to an opposite wall,
overarches the short, steep, paved passage which leads into the small square. This is flanked
on one side by the long mediaeval portico of the church of the two saints, sustained by eight
time-blackened columns of granite and marble. On another rise the great scarce-windowed walls
of a Passionist convent, and on the third the portals of a grand villa, whose tall porter,
with his cockade and silver-topped staff, standing sublime behind his grating, seems a kind
of mundane St. Peter, I suppose, to the beggars who sit at the church door or lie in the sun
along the farther slope which leads to the gate of the convent. The place always seem to me
the perfection of an out-of-the-way corner - a place you would think twice before telling
people about, lest you should find them there the next time you were to go. It is such a group
of objects, singly and in their happy combination, as one must come to Rome to find at one's house door;
but what makes it peculiarly a picture is the beautiful dark red campanile of the church, which
stands embedded in the mass of the convent. It begins, as so many things in Rome begin, with a
stout foundation of antique travertine, and rises high, in delicately quaint mediaeval
brickwork - little tiers and apertures sustained on miniature columns and adorned with small
cracked slabs of green and yellow marble, inserted almost at random.
When there are three of four brown-breasted contadini sleeping in the sun before the convent
doors, and a departing monk leading his shadow down over them, I think you will not find
anything in Rome more sketchable.
|St. John Lateran
.. as to the great front of the
church overlooking the Porta S. Giovanni,
you are not admitted behind the scenes; the term is quite in keeping, for the architecture
has a vastly theatrical air. It is extremely imposing - that of St. Peter's alone is more so;
and when from far off on the Campagna you see the colossal images of the mitred saints
along the top standing distinct against the sky, you forget their coarse construction and
their inflated draperies. The view from the great space which stretches from the church
steps to the city wall is the very prince of the views. Just beside you, beyond the great alcove
of mosaic, is the Scala Santa, the marble staircase which (says the
legend) Christ descended under the weight of Pilate's judgement, and which all Christians
must for ever ascend on their knees; before you is the city gate which open upon the Via Appia
Nuova, the long gaunt file of arches of the Claudian aqueduct, their jagged ridge
stretching away like the vertebral column of some monstrous mouldering skeleton, and upon the
blooming brown and purple flats and dells of the Campagna and the glowing blue of the
Alban Mountains, spotted with their white, high-nestling towns; while to your left is the
great grassy space, lined with dwarfish mulberry-trees, which stretches across to the damp
little sister-basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.
|Santa Maria Maggiore
The first day of my stay in Rome under the old dispensation I spent in wandering
at random through the city, with accident for my valet-de-place. It served me to
perfection and introduced me to the best things; among others to an immediate happy relation
with Santa Maria Maggiore.
First impressions, memorable impressions, are generally irrecoverable; they often
leave one the wiser, but they rarely return in the same form. I remember, of my coming
uninformed and unprepared into the place of worship and of curiosity that I have named,
only that I sat for half an hour on the edge of the base of one of the marble columns
of the beautiful nave and enjoyed a perfect revel of - what shall I call it? - taste,
intelligence, fancy, perceptive emotion? The place proved so endlessly suggestive that
perception became a throbbing confusion of images, and I departed with a sense
of knowing a good deal that it is not set down in Murray. I have seated myself more than
once again at the base of the same column; but you live your life only once, the parts as
well as the whole. The obvious charm of the church is the elegant grandeur of the nave - its
perfect shapeliness and its rich simplicity, its long double row of white marble columns
and its high flat roof, embossed with intricate gildings and mouldings. It opens into
a choir of an extraordinary splendour of effect, which I recommend you to look out for of
a fine afternoon. At such a time the glowing western light, entering the high windows of the
tribune, kindles the scattered masses of colour into sombre brightness, scintillates on the
great solemn mosaic of the vault, touches the porphyry columns of the superb baldachino
with ruby lights, and buries its shining shafts in the deep-toned shadows that hang about
frescoes and sculptures and mouldings.
The deeper charm even than in such things, however, is the social or historic note or tone or atmosphere
of the church - I fumble, you see, for my right expression; the sense it gives you, in
common with most of the Roman churches, and more than any of them, of having been prayed
in for several centuries by an endlessly curious and complex society. It takes no great attention
to let it come to you that the authority of Italian Catholicism has lapsed not a little in these
days; not less also perhaps than to feel that, as they stand, these deserted temples were the fruit
of a society leavened through and through by ecclesiastical manners, and that they formed
for ages the constant background of the human drama. They are, as one may say, the churchiest
churches in Europe - the fullest of gathered memories, of the experience of their office. There's
not a figure one has read of in old-world annals that is n't to be imagined on proper occasion
kneeling before the lamp-decked Confession beneath the altar of Santa Maria Maggiore. One sees after
all, however, even among the most palpable realities, very much what the play of one's
imagination projects there; and I present my remarks simply as a reminder that one's constant excursions
into these places are not the least interesting episodes of one's walks in Rome.
Taken as a walk not less than a church, St. Peter's of course reigns alone.
Even for the profane"constitutional" it serves where the Boulevards, where Piccadilly and
Broadway, fall short, and if it did n't offer to our use the grandest area in the world it would still offer the most
diverting. Few great works of art last longer to the curiosity, to the perpetually transcended
attention. You think you have taken the whole thing in, but it expands, it rises sublime again, and leaves
your measure itself poor. You never let the ponderous leather curtain bang down behind you - your weak lift of a scant edge
of whose padded vastness resembles the liberty taken in folding back the parchment corner of some
mighty folio page - without feeling all former visits to have been but missed attempts at apprehension
and the actual to achieve your first real possession. The conventional question is ever as to whether
one has n't been "disappointed in the size", but a few honest folk here and there, I hope, will never cease
to say no. The place struck me from the first as the hugest thing conceivable - a real exaltation of one's idea
of space; so that one's entrance, even from the great empty square which either glares beneath the deep
blue sky or makes of the cool far-cast shadow of the immense front something that resembles a
big slate-coloured country on a map, seems not so much a going in somewhere as a going out.
The mere man of pleasure in quest of new sensations might well not know where to better his encounter
there of the sublime shock that brings him, within the threshold, to an immediate gasping pause. There are
days when the vast nave looks mysteriously vaster than on others and the gorgeous baldachino a longer journey
beyond the far-spreading tessellated plain of the pavement, and when the light has yet a quality which lets
things loom their largest, while the scattered figures - I mean the human, for there are plenty of others - mark happily
the scale of items and parts. Then you have only to stroll and stroll and gaze and gaze; to watch the
glorious altar-canopy lift its bronze architecture, its colossal embroidered contortions, like a temple
within a temple, and feel yourself, at the bottom of the abysmal shaft of the dome, dwindle to a crawling dot.
Much of the constituted beauty resides in the fact that it is all general beauty, that you are appealed to by
no specific details, or that these at least, practically never importunate, are as taken for granted as the
lieutenants and captains are taken for granted in a great standing army - among whom indeed individual aspects
may figure here the rather shifting range of decorative dignity in which details, when observed, often prove
poor (though never not massive and substantially precious) and sometimes prove ridiculous. The sculptures,
with the sole exception of Michael Angelo's ineffable "Pietà", which lurks obscurely in a side-chapel - this indeed
to my sense the rarest artistic combination of the greatest things the hand of man has produced -
are either bad or indifferent; and the universal incrustation of marble, though sumptuous enough, has a
less brilliant effect than much later work of the same sort, that for instance of St. Paul's without the Walls.
The supreme beauty is the splendidly sustained simplicity of the whole. The thing represents a prodigious imagination extraordinarily
strained, yet strained; at its happiest pitch, without breaking. Its happiest pitch I say, because this is the only
creation of its strenuous author in presence of which you are in presence of serenity. You may invoke the idea of ease at St. Peter's
without a sense of sacrilege - which you can hardly do, if you are at all spiritually
nervous, in Westminster Abbey or Notre Dame. The vast enclosed clearness has much to do with the idea.
There are no shadows to speak of, no marked effects of shade; only effects of light innumerable - points at
which this element seems to mass itself in air density and scatter itself in enchanting gradations and cadences. It
performs the office of gloom or of mystery in Gothic churches; hangs like a rolling mist along the gilded vault of
the nave, melts into bright interfusion the mosaic scintillations of the dome, clings and clusters and lingers,
animates the whole huge and otherwise empty shell. A good Catholic, I suppose, is the same Catholic anywhere,
before the grandest as well as the humblest altars; but to a visitor not formally enrolled St. Peter's speaks
less of aspiration than of full and convenient assurance. The soul infinitely expands there, if one will,
but all on its quite human level. It marvels at the reach of our dream and the immensity of our resources.
To be so impressed and put in our place, we say, is to be sufficiently "saved"; we can't be more than that
in heaven itself; and what specifically celestial beauty such a show or such a substitute may lack it makes up
for in certainty and tangibility. And yet if one's hours on the scene are not actually spent in praying,
the spirit seeks it again for the finer comfort, for the blessing, exactly, of its example, its protection and its exclusion.
.. at Villa Borghese the walkers have the best of it; for they are free of those adorable outlying corners and
bosky byways which the rumble of barouches never reaches. In March the place becomes a perfect
epitome of the spring. You cease to care much for the melancholy greenness of the disfeatured statues
which has been your chief winter's intimation of verdure: and before you are quite conscious of the tender
streaks and patches in the great quaint grassy arena round which the Propaganda students, in their long skirts,
wander slowly, like dusky seraphs revolving the gossip of Paradise, you spy the brave little violets uncapping
their azure brows beneath the high-stemmed pines. One's walks here would take us too far, and one's pauses detain
us too long, when in the quiet parts under the wall one comes across a group of charming small school-boys
in full-dress suits and white cravats, shouting over their play in clear Italian, while a grave young priest,
beneath a tree, watches them over the top of his book. It sounds like nothing, but the force behind it and the frame
round it, the setting, the air, the chord struck, make it a hundred wonderful things.
Villa Ludovisi has been all winter the residence of the lady familiarly known
in Roman society as "Rosina", Victor Emmanuel's morganatic wife, the only familiarity, it would seem,
that she allows, for the ground were rigidly closed, to the inconsolable regret of old Roman sojourners.
Just as the nightingales began to sing, however, the quasi-august padrona departed, and the public,
with certain restrictions, have been admitted to hear them. The place takes, where it lies, a princely ease,
and there could be no better example of the expansive tendencies of ancient privilege than the fact that its whole
vast extent is contained by the city walls. It has in this respect very much the same enviable air of having got up early that marks the
great intramural demesne of Magdalen College at Oxford. The stern old ramparts of Rome form the outer
enclosure of the villa, and hence a series of "striking scenic effects" which it would be unscrupulous flattery to say
you can imagine. The grounds are laid out in the formal last-century manner; but nowhere do the straight black
cypresses lead off the gaze into vistas of a melancholy more charged with associations - poetic, romantic, historic;
nowhere are there grander, smoother walls of laurel and myrtle.
...A morning with L. B. at Villa Ludovisi, which we
agreed that we should n't soon forget. The villa now belongs to the King, who has lodged his morganatic wife there.
There is nothing so blissfully right in Rome, nothing more consummately consecrated to style. The grounds and gardens
are immense, and the great rusty-red city wall stretches away behind them and makes the burden of the seven hills seem vast
without making them seem small. There is everything - dusky avenues trimmed by the clipping of centuries, groves and
dells and glades and glowing pastures and reedy fountains and great flowering meadows studded with enormous slanting pines.
The day was delicious, the trees all one melody, the whole place a revelation of what Italy and hereditary pomp can do together.
Nothing could be more in the grand manner than this garden view of the city ramparts, lifting their fantastic battlements above the
trees and flowers. They are all tapestried with vines and made to serve as sunny fruit-walls - grim old defence as they once were; now giving nothing
but a splendid buttressed privacy. The sculptures in the little Casino are few, but there are two great ones - the beautiful sitting Mars
and the head of the great Juno, the latter thrust into a corner behind a shutter. These things it's almost impossible to praise; we can
only mark them well and keep them clear, as we insist on silence to hear great music...If I don't praise Guercino's Aurora in the
greater Casino, it's for another reason; this is certainly a very muddy masterpiece. It figures on the ceiling of a small low hall;
the painting is coarse and the ceiling too near. Besides, it's unfair to pass straight from the Greek mythology to the Bolognese.
We were left to roam at will through the house; the custode shut us in and went to walk in the park. The apartments were all open,
and I had an opportunity to reconstruct, from its milieu at least, the character of a morganatic queen. I saw nothing to
indicate that it was not amiable; but I should have thought more highly of the lady's discrimination if she had had the Juno removed
from behind her shutter. In such a house, girdled about with such a park, methinks I could be amiable - and perhaps discriminating too.
The Ludovisi Casino is small, but the perfection of the life of ease might surely be led there. There are English houses enough in wondrous
parks, but they expose you to too many small needs and observances, to say nothing of a red-faced butler dropping his h's. You are
oppressed with the detail of accommodation. Here the billiard-table is old-fashioned, perhaps a trifle-crooked; but you have Guercino
above your head, and Guercino, after all, is almost as good as Guido.The rooms, I noticed, all pleased by their shape, by a lovely proportion,
by a mass of delicate ornamentation on the high concave ceilings. One might live over again in them some deliciously benighted life of
a forgotten type - with graceful old sale, and immensely thick walls, and a winding stone staircase, and a view from the loggia at
the top; a view of twisted parasol-pines balanced, high above a wooden horizon, against a sky of faded sapphire.
|The Protestant cemetery
I recently spent an afternoon hour at the little Protestant cemetery close to
St. Paul's Gate, where the ancient and the modern world are insidiously contrasted. They make between them one of the solemn places
of Rome - although indeed when funereal things are so interfused it seems ungrateful to call them sad.
Here is a mixture of tears and smiles, of stones and flowers, of mourning cypresses and radiant sky, which gives us the
impression of our looking back at death from the brighter side of the grave. The cemetery nestles in an angle
of the city wall, and the older graves are sheltered by a mass of ancient brickwork, through whose narrow
loopholes you peep at the wide purple of the Campagna. Shelley's grave is here, buried in roses - a happy grave
every way for the very type and figure of the Poet. Nothing could be more impenetrably tranquil than this
little corner in the bend of the protecting rampart, where a cluster of modern ashes is held tenderly in the
rugged hand of the Past. The past is tremendously embodied in the hoary pyramid of Caius Cestius, which rises hard by,
half within the wall and half without, cutting solidly into the solid blue of the sky and casting its pagan
shadow upon the grass of English graves - that of Keats, among them - with an effect of poetic justice.
It is a wonderful confusion of mortality and a grim enough admonition of our helpless promiscuity in the crucible
of time. But the most touching element of all is the appeal of the pious English inscriptions among all these Roman
memories; touching because of their universal expression of that trouble within trouble, misfortune in a foreign land.
Something special stirs the heart through the fine Scriptural language in which everything is recorded. The echoes
of massive Latinity with which the atmosphere is charged suggest nothing more majestic and monumental.
I may seem unduly to refine, but the injunction to the reader in the monument to Miss Bathurst, drowned in
the Tiber in1824, "If thou art young and lovely, build not thereon, for she who lies beneath thy feet in death
was the loveliest flower ever cropt in its bloom", affects us irresistibly as a case for tears on the spot.
The whole elaborate inscription indeed says something over and beyond all it does say. The English have the reputation
of being the most reticent people in the world, and as there is no smoke without fire I suppose they have
done something to deserve it; yet who can say that one does n't constantly meet the most startling examples
of the insular faculty to "gush"? In this instance the mother of the deceased takes the public into her
confidence with surprising frankness and omits no detail, seizing the opportunity to mention by the way
that she had already lost her husband by a most mysterious visitation. The appeal to one's attention and the confidence
in it are withal most moving. The whole record has an old-fashioned gentility that makes its frankness tragic.
You seem to hear the garrulity of passionate grief.
I went yesterday to the Colonna gardens - an adventure that would have
reconverted me to Rome if the thing were n't already done. It's a rare old place - rising in mouldy bosky terraces and
mossy stairways and winding walks from the back of the palace to the top of the Quirinal.
It's the grand style of gardening, and resembles the present natural manner as a chapter of Johnsonian
rhetoric resembles a piece of clever contemporary journalism. But it's a better style in horticulture
than in literature; I prefer one of the long-drawn blue-green Colonna vistas, with a maimed
and mossy-coated garden goddess at the end, to the finest possible quotation from a last-century classic.
Perhaps the best thing there is the old orangery with its trees in fantastic terra-cotta tubs. The late afternoon
light was gilding the monstrous jars and suspending golden chequers among the golden-fruited
leaves. Or perhaps the best thing is the broad terrace with its mossy balustrade and its benches;
also its view of the great naked Torre di Nerone (I think), which might look
stupid if the rosy brickwork did n't take
such a colour in the blue air. Delightful, at any rate, to stroll and talk there in the afternoon
|St. Paul's without the Walls
The restored Basilica is incredibly splendid. It seems a last pompous effort
of formal Catholicism, and there are few more striking emblems of later Rome - the Rome foredoomed
to see Victor Emmanuel in the Quirinal, the Rome of abortive councils and unheeded anathemas.
It rises there, gorgeous and useless, on its miasmatic site, with an air of conscious bravado - a florid
advertisement of the superabundance of faith. Within it's magnificent, and its magnificence
has no shabby spots - a rare thing in Rome. Marble and mosaic, alabaster and malachite, lapis
and porphyry, incrust it from pavement to cornice and flash back their polished lights at each other
with such a splendour of effect that you seem to stand at the heart of some immense prismatic
crystal. One has to come to Italy to know marbles and love them.
The best is Santa Sabina, a very fine old structure of the fifth century, mouldering
in its dusky solitude and consuming its own antiquity. What a massive heritage Christianity and Catholicism are
leaving here! What a substantial fact, in all its decay, this memorial Christian temple outliving its uses
among the sunny gardens and vineyards! It has a noble nave, filled with a stale smell which (like that of the onion)
brought tears to my eyes, and bordered with twenty-four fluted marble columns of Pagan origin. The crudely
primitive little mosaics along the entablature are extremely curious. A Dominican monk, still young,
who showed us the church, seemed a creature generated from its musty shadows and odours. His physiognomy
was wonderfully de l'emploi, and his voice, most agreeable, had the strangest jaded humility. His lugubrious salute
and sanctimonious impersonal appropriation of my departing franc would have been a master-touch on the stage.
While we were still in the church a bell rang that he had to go and answer, and as he came back and approached
us along the nave he made with his white gown and hood and his cadaverous face, against the dark church
background, one of those pictures which, thank the Muses, have not yet been reformed out of Italy. It was the
exact illustration, for insertion in a text, of heaven knows how many old romantic and
conventional literary Italianisms - plays, poems, mysteries of Udolpho.
On the 31st we went to the musical vesper-service at the Gesù - hitherto
done so splendidly before the Pope and the cardinals. The manner of it was eloquent of change - no Pope,
no cardinals, and indifferent music, but a great mise-en-scène nevertheless. The church is gorgeous;
late Renaissance, of great proportions, and full, like so many others, but in a pre-eminent
degree, of seventeenth and eighteenth century Romanism. It does n't impress the imagination,
but richly feeds the curiosity, by which I mean one's sense of the curious; suggests no legends, but
innumerable anecdotes à la Stendhal. There is a vast dome, filled with a florid concave fresco of tumbling
foreshortened angels, and all over the ceilings and cornices a wonderful outlay of dusky gildings
and mouldings. There are various Bernini saints and seraphs in stucco-sculpture, astride of the tablets and
door-tops, backing against their rusty machinery of coppery nimbi and egg-shaped cloudlets.
Marble, damask and tapers in gorgeous profusion. The high altar a great screen of twinkling chandeliers. The choir
perched in a little loft high up in the right transept, like a balcony in a side-scene at the opera, and indulging
in surprising roulades and flourishes... Near me sat a handsome, opulent-looking nun - possibly
an abbess or prioress of noble lineage. Can a holy woman of such a complexion listen to a fine
operatic barytone in a sumptuous temple and receive none but ascetic impressions? What a cross-fire
of influences does Catholicism provide!
A delightful walk last Sunday to Monte Mario. We drove to Porta Angelica, the little gate hidden
behind the right wing of Bernini's colonnade, and strolled thence up the winding road to the Villa Mellini,
where one of the greasy peasants huddled under the wall in the sun admits you for half a franc into the finest old ilex-walk in Italy.
It is all vaulted grey-green shade with blue Campagna stretches in the interstices. The day was perfect; the still sunshine, as we sat
at the twisted base of the old trees, seemed to have the drowsy hum of midsummer - with that charm of Italian vegetation that comes to us
as its confession of having scenically served, to weariness at last, for some pastoral these many centuries a classic. In a
certain cheapness and thinness of substance - as compared with the English stoutness, never left athirst - it reminds me of our own,
and it is relatively dry enough and pale enough to explain the contempt of many unimaginative Britons. But it has an idle abundance
and wantonness, a romantic shabbiness and dishevelment. At the Villa Mellini is the famous lonely pine which "tells" so in the landscape
from other points, bought off from the axe by (I believe) Sir George Beaumont, commemorated in a like connection in Wordsworth's
great sonnet. He at least was not an unimaginative Briton. As you stand under it, its far-away shallow dome, supported on a single column
almost white enough to be marble, seems to dwell in the dizziest depths of the blue. Its pale grey-blue boughs and its silvery stem
make a wonderful harmony with the ambient air. The Villa Mellini is full of the elder Italy of one's imagination - the Italy of Boccaccio and Ariosto.
There are twenty places where the Florentine story-tellers might have sat round on the grass. Outside the villa walls, beneath the
overcrowding orange-boughs, straggled old Italy as well - but not in Boccaccio's velvet: a row of ragged and livid contadini, some
simply stupid in their squalor, but some downright brigands of romance, or of reality, with matted locks and terribly sullen eyes.
The last three of four days I have regularly spent a couple of hours from noon baking myself in the sun of the Pincio
to get rid of a cold. The weather perfect and the crowd (especially to-day) amazing. Such a staring, longing, dandified, amiable crowd!
Who does the vulgar stay-at-home work of Rome? All the grandees and half the foreigners are there in their carriages, the bourgeoisie
on foot staring at them and the beggars lining all their approaches. The great difference between public places in America and Europe is
in the number of unoccupied people of every age and condition sitting about early and late on benches and gazing at you, from your hat to your
boots, as you pass. Europe is certainly the continent of the practised stare. The ladies on the Pincio have to run the gauntlet; but they seem to
do so complacently enough. The European woman is brought up to the sense of having a definite part in the way of manners or manner
to play in public. To lie back in a barouche alone, balancing a parasol and seeming to ignore the extremely immediate gaze of two serried
ranks of male creatures on each side of her path, save here and there to recognise one of them with an imperceptible nod, is one of her
daily duties. ...Yesterday Prince Humbert's little primogenito was on the Pincio in an open landau with his governess. He's a sturdy
blond little man and the image of the King. They had stopped to listen to the music, and the crowd was planted about the carriage-wheels,
staring and criticising under the child's snub little nose. It appeared bold cynical curiosity, without the slightest manifestation of "loyalty",
and it gave me a singular sense of the vulgarisation of Rome under the new régime. When the Pope drove abroad it was a solemn
spectacle; even if you neither kneeled nor uncovered you were irresistibly impressed. But the Pope never stopped to listen to opera tunes,
and he had no little popelings, under the charge of superior nurse-maids, whom you might take liberties with. The family at the Quirinal
make something of a merit, I believe, of their modest and inexpensive way of life. The merit is great; yet, representationally, what a change
for the worse from an order which proclaimed stateliness a part of its essence! The divinity that doth hedge a king must be pretty well on the
wane. But how many more fine old traditions will the extremely sentimental traveller miss in the Italians over whom that little jostled
prince in the landau will have come into his kinghood?... The Pincio continues to beguile; it's a great resource. I am for ever being
reminded of the "aestethic luxury", as I called it above, of living in Rome. To be able to choose of an afternoon for a lounge (respectfully speaking)
between St. Peter's and the high precinct you approach by the gate just beyond Villa Medici - counting nothing else - is a proof that if in Rome
you may suffer from ennui, at least your ennui has a throbbing soul in it. It is something to say for the Pincio that you don't always
choose St. Peter's. Sometimes I lose patience with its parade of eternal idleness, but at others this very idleness is balm to one's
conscience. Life on just these terms seems so easy, so monotonously sweet, that you feel it would be unwise, would be really unsafe, to change.
The Roman air is charged with an elixir, the Roman cup seasoned with some insidious drop, of which the action is fatally, yet none the less
With S. to the Villa Medici - perhaps on the
whole the most enchanting place in Rome. The part of the garden called the Boschetto
has an incredible, impossible charm; an upper terrace, behind locked gates,
covered with a little dusky forest of evergreen oaks. Such a dim light as of a fabled,
haunted place, such a soft suffusion of tender grey-green tones, such a company of
gnarled and twisted little miniature trunks - dwarfs playing with each other at being giants -
and such a shower of golden sparkles drifting in from the vivid west!
At the end of the wood is a steep, circular mound, up which the short trees
scramble amain, with a long mossy staircase climbing up to a belvedere.
This staircase, rising suddenly out of the leafy dusk to you don't see where, is delightfully
fantastic. You expect to see an old woman in a crimson petticoat and with a distaff come
hobbling down and turn into a fairy and offer you three wishes. I should name for
my own first wish that one did n't have to be a Frenchman to come and live and dream
and work at the Académie de France. Can there be for a while a happier
destiny than that of a young artist conscious of talent and of no errand but to educate, polish
and perfect it, transplanted to these sacred shades? One has fancied Plato's Academy -
his gleaming colonnades, his blooming gardens and Athenian sky; but was it as good as this one,
where Monsieur Hébert does the Platonic? The blessing in Rome is not that this or that
or the other isolated object is so very unsurpassable; but that the general air so contributes
to interest, to impressions that are not as any other impressions anywhere in the world.
And from this general air the Villa Medici has distilled an essence of its own - walled it
in and made it delightfully private. The great façade on the gardens is like an
enormous rococo clock-face all incrusted with images and arabesques and tablets.
What mornings and afternoons one might spend there, brush in hand, unpreoccupied,
untormented, pensioned, satisfied - either persuading one's self that one would be "doing something"
in consequence or not caring if one should n't be.
A drive the other day with a friend to Villa Madama, on the side of Monte Mario;
a place like a page out of one of Browning's richest evocations of this clime and civilisation. Wondrous in its
haunting melancholy, it might have inspired half "The Ring and the Book" at a stroke. What a grim commentary on history
such a scene - what an irony of the past! The road up to it through the outer enclosure is almost impassable
with mud and stones. At the end, on a terrace, rises the once elegant Casino, with hardly a whole pane of glass in its façade,
reduced to its sallow stucco and degraded ornaments. The front away from Rome has in the basement a great loggia, now walled
in from the weather, preceded by a grassy belittered platform with an immense sweeping view of the
Campagna; the sad-looking, more than sad-looking, evil-looking, Tiber beneath (the colour of gold, the
sentimentalists say, the colour of mustard, the realists); a great vague stretch beyond, of various complexions and uses:
and on the horizon the ever-iridescent mountains. The place has become the shabbiest farmhouse, with muddy water
in the old pièces d'eau and dunghills on the old parterres. The "feature" is the contents of the loggia:
a vaulted roof decorated by Giulio Romano; exquisite stucco-work and still brilliant frescoes; arabesques and figurini,
nymphs and fauns, animals and flowers - gracefully lavish designs of every sort. Much of the colour - especially the blues - still almost vivid,
and all the work wonderfully ingenious, elegant and charming. Apartments so decorated can have been meant only for the recreation
of people greater than any we know, people for whom life was impudent ease and success. Margaret Farnese
was the lady of the house, but where she trailed her cloth of gold the chickens now scamper between
your legs over rotten straw. It is all inexpressibly dreary. A stupid peasant scratching his head, a couple
of critical Americans picking their steps, the walls tattered and befouled breast-high, dampness and decay
striking in on your heart, and the scene overbowed by these heavenly frescoes, mouldering there
in their airy artistry! It's poignant; it provokes tears; it tells so of the waste of effort. Something human
seems to pant beneath the grey pall of time and to implore to rescue it, to pity it, to stand by it somehow.
But you leave it to its lingering death without compunction, almost with pleasure; for the place seems
vaguely crime-haunted - paying at least the penalty of some hard immorality. The end of a Renaissance pleasure-house.
Endless for the didactic observer the moral, abysmal for the story-seeker the tale.
Yesterday to the Villa Albani. Over-formal and (as my companion says)
too much like a tea-garden; but with beautiful stairs and splendid geometrical lines of immense box-hedge,
intersected with high pedestals supporting little antique busts. The light to-day magnificent; the Alban
Hills of an intenser broken purple than I had yet seen them - their white towns blooming upon it like vague
projected lights. It was like a piece of very modern painting, and a good example of how Nature has at
times a sort of mannerism which ought to make us careful how we condemn out of hand the more refined
and affected artists. The collection of marbles in the Casino (Winckelmann's) admirable and to be seen again.
The famous Antinous crowned with lotus a strangely beautiful and impressive thing. The "Greek manner",
on the showing of something now and again encountered here, moves one to feel that even for purely romantic
and imaginative effects it surpasses any since invented. If there be not imagination, even in our comparatively
modern sense of the word, in the baleful beauty of that perfect young profile there is none in "Hamlet" or in
"Lycidas". There is five hundred times as much as in "The Transfiguration". With this at any rate to point to
it's not for sculpture not professedly to produce any emotion producible by painting. There are numbers
of small and delicate fragments of bas-reliefs of exquisite grace, and a huge piece (two combatants - one on
horseback, beating down another - murder made eternal and beautiful) attributed to the Parthenon and
certainly as grandly impressive as anything in the Elgin marbles. S. W. suggested again the Roman villas as a
"subject". Excellent if one could find a feast of facts à la Stendhal. A lot of vague ecstatic descriptions and
anecdotes would n't at all pay. There have been too many already. Enough facts are recorded, I suppose; one
should discover them and soak in them for a twelvemonth. And yet a Roman villa, in spite of
statues, ideas and atmosphere, affects me as of a scanter human and social portée, a shorter, thinner
reverberation, than an old English country-house, round which experience seems piled so thick. But this perhaps
is either hair-splitting or "racial" prejudice.
Grotta Ferrata is a very dirty little village, with a number of raw new houses baking
on the hot hillside and nothing to charm the fond gazer but its situation and its old fortified abbey.
I was glad to retire to a comparatively uninvaded corner of the abbey and divert myself with the view. This grey
eclesiastical stronghold is a thoroughly scenic affair, hanging over the hillside on plunging
foundations which bury themselves among the dense olives. It has massive round towers at the corners and a
grass-grown moat, enclosing a church and a monastery.
I was careful to visit the famous frescoes of Domenichino in the adjoining church. It sounds rather brutal
perhaps to say that, when I came back into the clamorous little piazza, the sight of the peasants swilling down their sour
wine appealed to me more than the masterpieces - Murray calls them so - of the famous Bolognese.
..after coming out of the church
I found a delightful nook - a queer little terrace before a more retired and tranquil drinking-shop -where I called for a bottle of wine to help me to guess why I "drew the line" at Domenichino.
This little terrace was a capricious excrescence at the end of the piazza, itself simply a greater terrace;
and one reached it, picturesquely, by ascending a short inclined plane of grass-grown cobble-stones and passing
across a dusty kitchen through whose narrow windows the light of the mighty landscape beyond touched
up old earthen pots. The terrace was oblong and so narrow that it held but a single small table, placed lengthwise;
yet nothing could be pleasanter than to place one's bottle on the polished parapet. Here you seemed by the time
you had emptied it to be swinging forward into immensity - hanging poised over the Campagna. A beautiful gorge
with a twinkling stream wandered down the hill far below you, beyond which Marino and Castel Gandolfo
peeped above the trees. In front you could count the towers of Rome and the tombs of the Appian Way. I don't know
that I came to any very distinct conclusion about Domenichino; but it was perhaps because the view
was perfection that he struck me as more than ever mediocrity.
|Tivoli - Villa d'Este
...it ensured me me at the afternoon's end a solitary stroll through the Villa d'Este, where the day's invasion,
whatever it might have been, had left no traces and where I met nobody in the great rococo passages
and chambers, and in the prodigious alleys and on the repeated flights of torturous steps, but the haunting
Genius of Style, into whose noble battered old face, as if it had come out clearer in the golden twilight and on recognition
of response so deeply moved, I seemed to exhale my sympathy. This was truly, amid a conception and order of things
all mossed over from disuse, but still without a form abandoned or a principle disowned, one of the
hours that one does n't forget. The ruined fountains seemed strangely to wait, in the stillness and under cover
of the approaching dusk, not to begin ever again to play, also, but just only to be tenderly imagined to do so;
quite as everything held its breath, at the mystic moment, for the drop of the cruel and garish exposure,
for the Spirit of the place to steal forth and go his round. The vistas of the innumerable mighty cypresses ranged themselves,
in their files and companies, like beaten heroes for their captain's review; the great artificial "works" of every description,
cascades, hemicycles, all graded and grassed and stone-seated as for floral games, mazes and bowers and alcoves and grottos,
brave indissoluble unions of the planted and builded symmetry, with the terraces and staircases that overhang and
and the arcades and the cloisters that underspread, made common cause together as for one's taking up a little,
in kindly lingering wonder, the "feeling" out of which they have sprung. One did n't see it, under the actual
influence, one would n't for the world have seen it, as that they longed to be justified, during a few minutes
in the twenty-four hours, of their absurdity of pomp and circumstance - but only that they asked for company,
once in a way, as they were splendidly formed to give it, and that the best company, in a changed world,
at the end of time, what could they hope it to be but just the lone, the dawdling person of taste, the visitor with a flicker of fancy, not to speak
of a pang of pity, to spare for them? It was in the flicker of fancy, no doubt, that as I hung about the great top-most terrace
in especial, and then again took my way through the high gaunt corridors and the square and bare alcoved
and recessed saloons, all overscored with such a dim waste of those painted, those delicate and capricious
decorations which the loggie of the Vatican promptly borrowed from the ruins of the Palatine, or from whatever
other revealed and inspiring ancientries, and which make ghostly confession here of that descent, I gave the rein
to my sense of the sinister too, of that vague after-taste as of evil things that lurks so often, for a suspicious
sensibility, wherever the terrible game of the life of the Renaissance was played as the Italians played it;
wherever the huge tessellated chessboard seems to stretch about us, swept bare, almost always violently
swept-bare, of its chiselled and shifting figures, of every value and degree, but with this echoing desolation
itself representing the long gasp, as it were, of overstrained time, the great after-hush that follows on things too wonderful
Read What Dante Saw.
Read What Goethe Saw.
Read What Lord Byron Saw.
Read What Charles Dickens Saw.
Read What Mark Twain Saw.
Read What William Dean Howells Saw.
Read Dan Brown's Spaghetti Bolognaise (excerpts from Angels and Demons)