First Days In The Eternal City – Rome, Italy

At last I am arrived in this great capital of the world. If fifteen years ago I could have seen it in good company, with a well-informed guide, I should have thought myself very fortunate. But as it was to be that I should thus see it alone, and with my own eyes, it is well that this joy has fallen to my lot so late in life.

Over the mountains of the Tyrol I have as good as flown. Verona, Vicenza, Padua, and Venice I have carefully looked at; hastily glanced at Ferrara, Cento, Bologna, and scarcely seen Florence at all. My anxiety to reach Rome was so great, and it so grew with me every moment, that to think of stopping anywhere was quite out of the question; even in Florence, I only stayed three hours. Now I am here at my ease, and as it would seem, shall be tranquilized for my whole life; for we may almost say that a new life begins when a man once sees with his own eyes all that before he has but partially heard or read of.

All the dreams of my youth I now behold realized before me; the subjects of the first engravings I ever remembered seeing (several views of Rome were hung up in an anteroom of my father’s house) stand bodily before my sight, and all that I had long been acquainted with through paintings or drawings, engravings, or wood-cuts, plaster-casts, and cork models are here collectively presented to my eye. Wherever I go I find some old acquaintance in this new world; it is all just as I had thought it, and yet all is new; and just the same might I remark of my own observations and my own ideas. I have not gained any new thoughts, but. the older ones have become so defined, so vivid, and so coherent, that they may almost pass for new ones.

I have now been here seven days, and by degrees have formed in my mind a general idea of the city. We go diligently backward and forward. While I am thus making myself acquainted with the plan of old and new Rome, viewing the ruins and the buildings, visiting this and that villa, the grandest and most remarkable objects are slowly and leisurely contemplated. I do but keep my eyes open and see, and then go and come again, for it is only in Rome one can duly prepare oneself for Rome. It must, in truth, be confest, that it is a sad and melancholy business to prick and track out ancient Rome in new Rome; however, it must be done, and we may hope at least for an incalculable gratification. We meet with traces both of majesty and of ruin, which alike surpass all conception; what the barbarians spared, the builders of new Rome made havoc of.

When one thus beholds an object two thousand years old and more, but so manifoldly and thoroughly altered by the changes of time, but, sees nevertheless, the same soil, the same mountains, and often indeed the same walls and columns, one becomes, as it were, a contemporary of the great counsels of Fortune, and thus it becomes difficult for the observer to trace from the beginning Rome following Rome, and not only new Rome succeeding to the old, but also the several epochs of both old and new in succession. I endeavor, first of all, to grope my way alone through the obscurer parts, for this is the only plan by which one can hope fully and completely to perfect by the excellent introductory works which have been written from the fifteenth century to the present day. The first artists and scholars have occupied their whole Iives with these objects.

And this vastness has a strangely tranquilizing effect upon you in Rome, while you pass from place to place, in order to visit the most remark-able objects. In other places one has to search for what is important; here one is opprest, and borne down with numberless phenomena. Wherever one goes and casts a look around, the eye is at once struck with some landscape—forms of every kind and style; palaces and ruins, gardens and statuary, distant views of villas, cottages and stables, triumphal arches and columns, often crowding so close together, that they might all be sketched on a single sheet of paper. He ought to have a hundred hands to write, for what can a single pen do here; and, besides, by the evening one is quite weary and. exhausted with the day’s seeing and admiring.

My strange, and perhaps whimsical, incognito proves useful to me in many ways that I never should have thought of. As every one thinks himself in duty bound to ignore who I am, and consequently never ventures to speak to me of myself and my works,* they have no alternative left them but to speak of themselves, or of the matters in which they are most interested, and in this way I become circumstantially informed of the occupations of each, and of everything remarkable that is either taken in hand or produced. Hofrath Reiffenstein good-naturedly humors this whim of mine; as, however, for special reasons, he could not bear the name which I had assumed, he immediately made a Baron of me, and I am now called the “Baron gegen Rondanini uber (the Baron who lives opposite to the Palace Rondanini). This designation is sufficiently precise, especially as the Italians are accustomed to speak of people either by their Christian names, or else by some nickname. Enough; I have gained my object; and I escape the dreadful annoyance of having to give to everybody an account of myself and my works.

In Rome, the Rotunda,’ both by its exterior and interior, has moved me to offer a willing homage to its magnificence. In St. Peter’s I learned to understand how art, no less than nature, annihilates the artificial measures and dimensions of man. And in the same way the Apollo Belvidere also has again drawn me out of reality. For as even the most correct engravings furnish no adequate idea of these buildings, so the case is the same with respect to the marble original of this statue, as compared with the plaster models of it, which, however, I formerly used to look upon as beautiful.

Here I am now living with a calmness and tranquility to which I have for a long while been a stranger. My practise to see and take all things as they are, my fidelity in letting the eye be my light, my perfect renunciation of all pretension, have again come to my aid, and make me calmly, but most intensely, happy. Every day has its fresh remarkable object—every day its new grand unequaled paintings, and a whole which a man may long think of, and dream of, but which with all his power of imagination he can never reach.

Yesterday I was at the Pyramid of Cestius, and in the evening on the Palatine, on the top of which are the ruins of the palace of the Caesars, which stand there like walls of rock. Of all this, however, no idea can be conveyed! In truth, there is nothing little here; altho, indeed, occasionally something to find fault with —something more or less absurd in taste, and yet even this partakes of the universal grandeur of all around.

Yesterday I visited the nymph Egeria, and then the Hippodrome of Caraealla, the ruined tombs along the Via Appia, and the tomb of Metella, which is the first to give one a true idea of what solid masonry really is. These men worked for eternity—all causes of decay were calculated, except the rage of the spoiler, which nothing can resist. The remains of the principal aqueduct are highly venerable. How beautiful and grand. a design, to supply a whole people with water by so vast a structure ! In the evening we came upon the Coliseum, when it was already twilight. When one looks at it, all else seems little; the edifice is so vast, that one can not hold the image of it in one’s soul—in memory we think it smaller, and then return to it again to find it every time greater than before.

We entered the Sistine Chapel, which we found bright and cheerful, and with a good light for the pictures. “The Last Judgment” divided our admiration with the paintings on the roof by Michael Angelo. I could only see and wonder. The mental confidence and boldness of the master, and his grandeur of conception, are beyond all expression. After we had looked at all of them over and over again, we left this sacred building, and went to St. Peter’s, which received from the bright heavens the loveliest light possible, and every part of it was clearly lit up. As men willing to be pleased, we were delighted with its vastness and splendor, and did not allow an over-nice or hypercritical taste to mar our pleasure. We supprest every harsher judgment; we enjoyed the enjoyable.

Lastly we ascended the roof of the church, where one finds in little the plan of a well-built city. Houses and magazines, springs (in appearance at least), churches, and a great temple all in the air, and beautiful walks between. We mounted the dome, and saw glistening be-fore us the regions of the Apennines, Soracte, and toward Tivoli the volcanic hills. Frascati, Castelgandolfo, and the plains, and beyond all the sea. Close at our feet lay the whole city of Rome in its length and breadth, with its mountain palaces, domes, etc. Not a breath of air was moving, and in the upper dome it was (as they say) like being in a hot-house. When we had looked enough at these things, we went down, and they opened for us the doors in the cornices of the dome, the tympanum, and the nave. There is a passage all round, and from above you can take a view of the whole church, and of its several parts. As we stood on the cornices of the tympanum, we saw beneath us the pope passing to his midday devotions. Nothing, therefore, was wanting to make our view of St. Peter’s perfect. We at last descended to the piazza, and took in a neighboring hotel a cheerful but frugal meal, and then set off for St. Cecilia’s.

It would take many words to describe the decorations of this church, which was crammed full of people ; not a stone of the edifice was to be seen. The pillars were covered with red velvet wound round with gold lace; the capitals were overlaid with embroidered velvet, so as to retain somewhat of the appearance of capitals, and all the cornices and pillars were in like manner covered with hangings. All the entablatures of the walls were also covered with life-like paintings, so that the whole church seemed to be laid out in mosaic. Around the church, and on the high altar more than two hundred wax tapers were burning. It looked like a wall of lights, and the whole nave was perfectly lit up. The aisles and side altars were equally adorned and illuminated. Right opposite the high altar, and under the organ, two scaffolds were erected, which also were covered with velvet, on one of which were placed the singers, and on the other the instruments, which kept up one unbroken strain of music.

And yet these glorious objects are even still like new acquaintances to me. One has not yet lived with them, nor got familiar with their peculiarities. Some of them attract us with irresistible power, so that for a time one feels indifferent, if not unjust, toward all others. Thus, for instance, the Pantheon, the Apollo Belvedere, some colossal heads, and very recently the Sistine Chapel, have by turns so won my whole heart, that I scarcely saw any thing besides them. But, in truth, can man, little as man always is, and accustomed to littleness, ever make himself equal to all that here surrounds him of the noble, the vast, and the refined? Even tho he should in any degree adapt himself to it, then how vast is the multitude of objects that immediately press upon him from all sides, and meet him at every turn, of which each demands for itself the tribute of his whole attention. How is one to get out of the difficulty? No other way assuredly than by patiently allowing it to work, becoming industrious, and attending the while to all that others have accomplished for our benefit.

Of the beauty of a walk through Rome by moonlight it is impossible to form a conception, without having witnessed it. All single objects are swallowed up by the great masses of light and shade, and nothing but grand and general outlines present themselves to the eye. For three several days we have enjoyed to the full the brightest and most glorious of nights. Peculiarly beautiful at such a time is the Coliseum. At night it is always closed; a hermit dwells in a little shrine within its range, and beggars of all kinds nestle beneath its crumbling arches; the latter had lit a fire on the arena, and a gentle wind bore down the smoke to the ground, so that the lower portion of the ruins was quite hid by it, while above the vast walls stood out in deeper darkness before the eye. As we stopt at the gate to contemplate the scene through the iron gratings, the moon shone brightly in the heavens above. Presently the smoke found its way up the sides, and through every chink and opening, while the moon lit it up like a cloud. The sight was exceedingly glorious. In such a light one ought also to see the Pantheon, the Capitol, the Portico of St. Peter’s, and the other grand streets and squares—and thus sun and moon, like the human mind, have quite a different work to do here from elsewhere, where the vastest and yet the most elegant of masses present them-selves to their rays.