Italy – The Campagna

IN the midst of this appalling catastrophe, when in the evening of the day I turn, as it were for consolation, to all I have known and loved in Europe, and above all to Italy, of all those beloved landscapes from which I am an exile, it is the Campagna which most often comes back into my mind, the Campagna in which Rome lies like a ship in the midst of the sea.

That immense and universal thing alone seems able to face what has befallen us. You may find there always all that is in your heart. It has, too, the indefinite beauty of all supernatural things ; and if you speak of it you must speak of it in images, with vague words of beauty and mystery and love, as of a place seen in a vision, as the English speak of the sea. For as the sea is the secret of England, so the Campagna is the secret of Rome ; it haunts the City, and the mystery and largeness of its silence are the springs of her immortality. All the great ways lead to it at last, and it surges against every gate.

All unaware of this world of inviolate silence, which guards the Eternal City as no other city was ever guarded, you catch sight of it first, perhaps at evening from the Pincio, or in the early morning from the Janiculum, or at noonday from the bizarre portals of S. Giovanni in Laterano, or at sunset from the quietness of the Aventine. From wherever you first see it, it calls you instantly in its solemn immensity, its vast indwelling strength, its ruined splendour, across which the broken arches of the aqueducts stagger still, and the vague white roads lined with empty and rifled tombs wander aimlessly, losing themselves in the silence and vastness that only the mountains may contain. And it is the mountains which hem in the Campagna, the most beautiful mountains in the world.

Though it were without history or renown and man had given it no name, this unbroken wilderness would yet hold us by reason of the splendour of its form, its vastness and silence, the breadth of its undulations, the transparency of its light, the beauty of its colour, the nobility of the mountains which contain it. But seeing that it is the cradle of our history, and that its name is Latium to look upon it rouses within us much the same emotion as that with which, after long absence, we look upon our home. Nothing that man has dared to do or to think, no sorrow he has suffered, nor passion he has endured or conquered, his profoundest desires, his most tenacious hate, his most splendid domination, his most marvellous love, nothing that is his, is a stranger here. Of all those forces and energies, it is a monument, the grandest and the most terrible, the monument of man a vast graveyard.

It is this we come to realise at last, as day after day, week after week, we pass along that ancient Appian Way, between the crumbling tombs. Here and there we may find them still, the likeness of our brother carved in relief, some thought of his about it all, a few Latin words, part of an inscription, half hidden with the grass and the flowers. And as night overtakes us on that marvellous road, when the splendour of sunset is faded, and the stars one by one have scattered the heavens with hope, our thoughts turn almost in self-defence in that solemn stillness, from death to resurrection. In the immense silence that nothing may break the imagination sinks beneath the lonely majesty of that desert, littered with the monsters of old for-gotten religions, full of the dead things of Paganism and Christianity, the bones of saints, the mighty trunks of forgotten gods.

What more is there to come out of that vast grave, that marvellous solitude ?