ONE of my greatest joys in Rome has been my window. Not that my room boasts fair casement or bright stained glass through which light filters across floor in patterns or in pictures. My window does not shut me in with beauty but leads me out to life. It is a high casement window, for though this study in the Pensione Girardet by strange Italian calculation is said to be on the third floor of the old Palazzo, it is reached by six long, turning flights of stairs and when in the morning I fling open my shutters, I stand face to face with the saints on the roof of Santa Maria Maggiore’s choir. Greeting them, I lean out and look eastward to see if Monte Cavo’s crested height shows clear against the sky, omen of fair day, and then turning westward I salute the statue of Garibaldi on the Janiculum. So my day starts with all Italy from the Alban Mount to the War of Independence spread out before me.
I would never live anywhere in Rome but on the Piazza dell’ Esquilino. Of all those gentle elevations which were once the seven hills of the Eternal City, the Esquiline seems to stand the highest now and the Campanile of Santa Maria Maggiore towers to the stars as once Maecenas’ palace on the Esquiline did.
Still from here a Nero could watch Rome burn, and I from my window watch Rome live. This beautiful square, sloping down from the great flight of steps be-low the choir of the church to the two rows of green trees that line the street of Agostino de Pretis opposite, is an epitome of Rome of the centuries and Rome of today.
Here, as in all Italy, the background of the modern drama is the magnificent past. The Piazza takes my eyes and thoughts not only to the early settlement of Aeneas’s son on the distant Alban hill and to Garibaldi, mounted guard forever on the Janiculum in the name of liberty. Thoughts of Roman Empire and of Christian church fly about me as rapidly as the swallows circle overhead. For on the green grass oval in the center of the Piazza stands an obelisk which with its twin, now on the Quirinal, once adorned the en-trance to the Mausoleum of Augustus, the emperor of reconstruction who in an after-war period of factional struggles such as Italy is experiencing today, established a peace that endured for centuries. A cross tops the obelisk now and all day long gay little Italian children, the wealth of Italy, tumble over its sunny base, but the strength of its shaft is a symbol of the Roman genius for empire-building, and makes me recall the message of Augustus’ laureate-poet, Vergil :
“Remember, O Roman, to rule the people with thy power (this shall be thy art) and to establish the laws of peace.”
The Roman laws last as the basis of our jurisprudence though the peace of the world is often broken in a universe where equity has to depend not solely on statutes but on the varying virtues of human beings.
The view from my window makes me think not only of the wise Augustus but of the wanton Nero, for there is the tower which bears the great egoist’s name, that distant, massive, square, brick Torre delle Milizie which popular tradition threw back from its thirteenth century origin and made the height where Nero fiddled while Rome flamed. The corruption of such rulers, the effeminate fashions they set for the populace they enslaved gave to the church her chance and she sought to save the souls of Italy before she attempted to govern her.
That delicate square Campanile above the trees marks one of the earliest meeting-places of the Christians in Rome, for the church of Santa Pudenziana stands (all evidence goes to show) over the house of Pudens, father of Pudenziana and Prassede, where St. Peter is supposed to have lived, the Pudens whom St. Paul mentioned just before his death in his second letter to Timothy. You can prowl down under the church and see where the walls and the bath of a little old Roman house have been excavated. Then you can look at St. Peter and St. Paul done in the fourth century mosaics in the church above and find the quaint figures of Santa Pudenziana and her father over the doorway. No church in Rome takes me nearer to pure apostolic times and the beginnings of the faith. Santa Maria Maggiore to be sure in its interior preserves the fourth century basilica plan, but even the cool magnificence of its gray columns of Hymettus marble suggests the splendor of the church, and the whole edifice, built and rebuilt down to the seventeenth century, is a monument to the development of papal power rather than to early faith. Yet Santa Maria Maggiore is my church from dear familiarity and I have heard angelic music there on Christmas and on Easter, and on August fifth I have watched the repetition of the miracle of the snow which, falling here on one hot summer day, revealed to two of the faithful the place where a church must be built to our Lady of the Snowflakes. To me all religion being one aspiration towards the divine, though often I give my ear only to sermons in stones, again “I like a church, I like a cowl” and I can understand how here in Italy the beauty of the services gave and gives the church her hold.
My window in Rome encourages many musings but not long ones, for its kaleidoscope shifts too rapidly. Really only in the early morning are my eyes allowed to notice the fixed background of the square, its distant views, the great church with its two domes and pointed tower, the Palazzo opposite, the little oval shrine to the Madonna above the Strega sign over the corner shop, the flower-stand bright with roses and carnations, the cabmen waiting contentedly in their carriages under the trees. Soon the “Bar Esquilino” at the corner has its tables and chairs out on the sidewalk and the coffee-sippers gather. In the Piazza, the babies arrive with their Sabine nurse-girls, picturesque in their full gay skirts, lace-edged aprons, white kerchiefs crossed on deep bosoms, bright turbans; coral necklaces and ear-rings. Beggars, halt, blind, ragged, amble past with outstretched hands. Peasant women walk by, carrying on their heads long, flat baskets piled high with vegetables. An aeroplane circles overhead. Crowded street-cars squeak painfully up the hill. And always on the steps of S. Maria Maggiore people are passing or loitering.
The life that goes on upon the steps of the church! Here a woman is selling cherries where in the fall one roasted chestnuts over tiny charcoal fire. One- group of boys is busy with a game of cards. Two urchins are playing mora, shouting numbers and waving lively hands. Soldiers take their siestas stretched full length on back or face. Men eat their lunches, spreading eggs, cheese, bread out on the steps before them. In a corner, a shrivelled old rag-picker sorts her motley collections. Even in the evening under the street-light at the corner men sit reading their paper. One rainy day five cold little boys tried to make a bonfire of news-papers in the sheltered doorway. Every day in- and out among the priests and the laymen going up the steps to their devotions, the children weave their games.
Then the steps make an excellent rostra for political meetings, the orator standing at the top, the crowd in rows on the steps below. One such comizio I attended at the time of the municipal elections in October when a representative of the Partito Popolare appealed. for votes. It was a time when all the other parties had united to defeat the clericals and the Socialists and the Partito Populare (the clerical) had a difficult task to make a strong appeal for votes against the united force of the nationalist block. I was interested to see how first this orator claimed for his party the alliance with law and order for which his opponents stood, by disavowing any affiliation with the Russian Socialism which, he said, had become a new tyranny with a new god, Lenin. The speaker stated frankly that his Party asked votes on no platform, but against revolution and civil war in Italy; that they believed in a future syndicalism which would better the living conditions of the laborer, but that now the people must show that those who worked with their hands had a cherished idealism; so in its name he appealed to them and in the name of liberty and democracy. There were a few ardent youths on the steps behind the orator who occasionally cried “Viva la Russia,” “Viva Lenin,” but they were promptly hissed down by the crowd. Off at one side of the church in the Via Manin I suddenly saw two long lines of mounted guards, so perhaps their presence helped maintain decorum, but as I listened, I felt that free speech was the order of the hour and that the speaker was voicing the real ideas of his party.
It was perhaps in answer to that meeting that after dark two or three nights later some sacrilegious person painted on the base of the church wall at the top of the steps in black letters a foot high : “Qui regna it falso,” “here reigns the false.” When I looked out the next morning, two priests were trying to scrape off the words, but the shadow of them is still there, indelible sign of the political clashes of today in which the church still has its part.
Not only at election times is the Piazza occupied with politics. I called it, indeed, my political barometer, for the security or insecurity of the government has been indicated by the number of guards about the residence of the Minister of the Interior. Giolitti lives at the corner of the Via Cavour and under his windows have occurred demonstrations for all sorts of causes from the price of bread to the independence of Fiume. The royal guard about the Piazza was tripled or quadrupled at times of crises, the discussion of the Treaty of Rapallo, the obstructionism of the Socialists against the promised increase in the price of bread, the resignation of the President of the Camera, the “white strike” of the postal and telegraph employees. At such a time, when I came back to the Piazza late in the afternoon, I found pairs of resplendent carabinieri on every corner, the royal guard patrolling the Via Cavour, and in front of this Palazzo a long line of horsemen wearing their steel helmets. In the midst of such a handsome cavalcade, I felt that we were living in epic days. I knew that his Excellency, the Minister of the Interior, be-hind his curtained windows, was quietly oblivious, for nothing had disturbed his superhuman calm. I pictured him as I saw him once. In the Chamber of Deputies a heated discussion with many interpellations was raging, accompanied by the violent ringing of the president’s bell, when at the door facing the house appeared Italy’s grand old man. Very tall, very large, very erect and proud, the white-haired minister of seventy-eight moved so quietly that in the mêlée of that excited Socialistic House he seemed a superman. I thought of an old Greek story: “O Iole, when you saw Hercules, how did you know that he was a god?” “I knew because whether he walked or sat or whatever thing he did, he conquered.” That is the personal impression that Giolitti makes and explains in part his renewed grip on Italian politics. The Minister of the Interior not only knew his people and their needs, but in the midst of mercurial and ebullient politicians he kept his calm and won his victories. Little demonstrations might go on in the Piazza dell’ Esquilino against one unpopular measure or another, but eventually the crowd dispersed, the episode was over, and for a little while quiet settled on the political life of Italy as it does on the Piazza at night.
I sometimes think l love my Piazza best under the stars. The pigeons curl under the cornice of Santa Maria Maggiore. Songs float up from peasants in their wine-carts driving their donkeys home. A gay band of University students gathers on the church steps and in mock Saturnalia invokes pagan gods: “O Bacco, O Vino, O Venere.” A battalion of soldiers marches off from the caserma near to the invigorating strains of the hymn of Mameli. Again the unbelievable sound of tinkling sheep-bells calls me from bed to window and there, crossing the Piazza, is a great, huddling brown flock that seems to creep across the square. The sheep are being driven back from winter pastures in warm Calabria to cool mountain heights, just as they were in Horace’s time. I picture the shepherds with their flocks at the end of their journey by some cool brook in the Sabine hills and I know half the strength of Italy lies beyond Rome in her sturdy peasant stock.
I stand at the window as the sound of the sheep-bells grows fainter and once more the Piazza sends up to me thoughts of Alban Kings and Roman emperors, of popes and of liberators, of priests and of soldiers, of parties and of politicians, of children and of contadini. I say to myself : The depth of a tree’s roots guarantees its life. Or I reflect in Horace’s more Roman figure: This ship of state will weather all storms. Then suddenly I see a gleam from the light-house on the Janiculum, the Faro that was given by the Italians of Argentina on September 20, 1921, the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of United Italy, and the flashing of the red, the white and the green brings to me the same message that it carries to the sailors at sea, the glad, abiding certainty “There is Rome.