Among many churches which I visited on Christmas eve, I chanced, at a late hour in the night, to enter the grand and ancient edifice of the Aracali. Perfect stillness prevailed, and all was dark, except the great altar. There, thousands of wax tapers burnt bright and vivid, sending forth a flood of light which poured along the great nave, and athwart the massive columns, shooting into the deep obscurity, which seemed more profound as the distant objects receded from its last rays. Before the altar were numerous figures, kneeling in silent prayer, composed almost exclusively of old and sickly-looking females of the poorest and most wretched classes of Rome, their pale and haggard countenances but too forcibly bespeaking the extreme of poverty. The light beaming across, touched with partial gleams their lowly bending forms, now enveloped in a deeper shade, now displayed with more vivid glare as it played around the sunken cheek and thinned hair, growing scanty on the cold uncovered head, the shrivelled hands meekly folded, or the glistening eye raised in fervour to heaven. The whole effect of this scene was singularly picturesque and touching; the brightly illuminated altar, shining with redoubled power in the midst of profound darkness; the stillness that reigned throughout, the silent meditation of these lonely women, seemed like life and hope awaiting the opening dawn of moral light.
Although I had been much struck with the noble aspect of this ancient church, and altogether impressed by the recollections left on my mind at my first entrance within its venerable walls, I did not again revisit the Aracali till at a much later period, when, passing along the Piazzo di Campidoglio, my attention was accident-ally attracted by perceiving a number of people assembled at the gates of the church, some of whom, seemingly, were loitering and stationary, while the greater portion passed in. In the season of Lent, it is very usual among the priests and brothers of the monastic orders to pronounce discourses in the different churches, which being always poured forth at the inspiration of the moment, and delivered with that powerful energy so peculiarly characterizing the manner of the Improvvisatore, may not improperly be classed as appertaining to this style of composition. In the belief that an occasion was perhaps now offered me of indulging a desire I had long entertained of hearing such a discourse, I went in and found my conjectures well founded. A sandal-footed, bare-armed, unclothed-looking monk, young, with a pale visage and negligent aspect, stood leaning against a pillar at the upper end of the middle nave; his grey coarse habit, girded by various folds of thickly knotted cords, seemed scarcely to cover his person; his almost naked arms hanging down by his side, while his cowl, which had fallen back, discovered a wild pallid countenance, and a long, lean, bony throat. He stood silent and motionless, like an image or statue, as if lost in meditation, or exhausted by the vehemence of his own over-wrought feelings poured out upon his auditors. These were composed of various classes, but more especially of such as are daily seen, forming little groups in every quarter of Rome; thin slight-made figures, their cloaks, with an effect not unpicturesque, carelessly thrown over one shoulder, playing at the game of Mora; beings, whose means of existence seem as inexplicable as their mode of life. The orator had evidently reached to an elevated strain before my entrance, leaving, as he had suddenly paused, vivid traces of the force of his arguments on the countenances of those he addressed. Among these might be seen the varied effect of his eloquence. Here the spread hands, the half-opened mouth, the strained eye, spoke an earnest, yet amazed attention, while perhaps near him stood, with silvered hair and meek aspect, the pale anchorite, trembling, while he listened, lest perchance even he might not be secure against the punishments of the evil doer. While beyond him might be seen the dark, gloomy, steady gaze of the brooding fanatic, whose flashing eye seemed to kindle with the orator, and keep pace with his denunciationsperhaps contrasted by the quiet, unthinking air of contented stupidity, looking as if the sense of hearing alone were roused, or by the speaking eye, beaming with zealous. fire, as if ready to challenge or answer each new proposition. Some stood with downcast looks, serious and reflecting,others walked softly along, now seen, now lost among the pillars; while the larger portion, who had been as it were surprised by their emotion into a momentary taciturnity, were hastily forming into groups, and beginning, in whispered accents, to converse with that eagerness and vivacity which so peculiarly characterize their nation. But soon, above these murmuring sounds, the full, deep-toned voice of the preacher struck the ear, when suddenly all was again hushed to silence. Slow and solemn he opened his discourse; but, as he proceeded, his features became gradually more animated; his dark, deep, eloquent eye kindling as he spoke, and throwing momentary radiance over his wan and haggard countenance, while the round mellow tones of the Italian language gave the finest energy to his expressions. With frequent pauses, but with increasing power, he continued his discourse; his voice now low and solemn, now grand and forcible, but still with moderated and ever varied accents, which worked on the feelings, at one moment producing the chill of strong emotion, and then, as he changed his tone, melting the heart to tenderness. The object of his sermon and self-imposed mission, was to gain votaries, and win them to a monastic life, by pourtraying the dangers, the turbulence, and the sorrows of the worldly, (i Mondani,) contrasted with the peaceful serenity of the heaven-devoted mind. Occasionally, as if warmed by a prophetic spirit, with an air now imploring and plaintive, now wild and triumphant. with animated gesture, and tossing of the arms, alternately pointing to heaven, and to the shades below, he seemed as if he would seduce, persuade, or tear his victim from the world. The powers of his voice and action gave an indescribable force to his language, carrying away the minds of his auditors with a rapidity that left no pause for reflection. The sombre chastened light of day bringing forward some objects in strong relief, and leaving others in shade, the peculiar aspect of the monk, the magic influence which seemed to hang on his words, and lend force to his eloquence, gave to the whole scene a character at once singular and striking.
The effect produced on the mind by music is various in its degree, and often most powerful; if, then, the tones of an instrument so much move us, can the organs of speech be without effect? The inflections of voice, possessed by an Italian, must act forcibly, although perhaps insensibly, on the nervous system, and to this influence, no small portion of the charm of the Improvvisatore may be ascribed. The construction of the language is also singularly propitious to this style of composition; not only as possessing in itself a power so singular over the affections and sensibilities of the heart, but as being indued with characteristic properties, which increase the wonderful rapidity by which the most striking and changing imagery is suddenly presented to the mind, while accents so sweet and flexible easily fall into numbers, giving a grandeur to the strains at once pleasing and impressive. To form a learned and accomplished Improvvisatore, long study and training we know to be necessary; but the first principles and foundation on which to establish his acquirements must be found in natural propensity; and, as I have already noticed, this is undoubtedly possessed in a peculiar manner in this country.
I witnessed one morning on my journey a trifling, yet not uninteresting proof, of this faculty natural to the Italian. While we were passing the mid-day hour of repose in a small inn, other travellers, as they successively chanced to arrive, were all shown into the same apartment with us. Among them entered a woman and her son, a boy of eleven or twelve years of age. A lady, whose deep mourning and pale countenance spoke her to be in affliction, made one of the previous guests. On her, as if influenced by some charm, the youth’s eye instantly fell, and hastily, but yet not ungracefully, stepping forward, he addressed her in a measured cadence of great elegance. The suddenness of the action, and the deep pathos of his tones, produced a general surprise and admiration; and having offered this little tribute to feeling, he quietly retired, resuming the simplicity of his natural manner, which for the moment had given way to the animation appropriate to the Improvvisatore. The peculiar temperament and distinctive national characteristic of the Italian, are likewise in alliance with this mode of composition; the vivacity, the ardour, the passionate feelings that animate and impel them to sudden bursts of excitation and enthusiasm, being most propitious to its production. We may at the same time observe, how much peculiar habit, prevailing in different parts of Italy, directs these feelings. We have seen the sculptor or painter in Florence followed with an extravagance of admiration, which in our colder clime would seem delirium, a whole street bearing a name in memory of the rejoicings occasioned by the success of a painter, and the contention between rival artists becoming a national concern.