At this languorous hour of the afternoon the broad, sunny piazzas with their many fountains afford incomparably lovely loitering-places on the way to the Pincio. The one of the Quirinal is a near neighbor to the Colonna Gardens, and there you may shelter under eucalyptus trees and dream over the brown old obelisk and the vigorous fountain sculptures of the “horsetamers” that once graced the Baths of Constantine, and philosophize over the irony of fate that converted a papal summer residence into a royal palace. Or you can thread your way through narrow streets of the Middle Ages that are lined by ochre-colored houses with sun-shades, where artists have their studios and transients their hotels garnis, and down which a belated winecart may jangle or a gayly painted Campagna wagon creak, with its oxen festive in bells and crimson tassels and its rugged driver clad in blue. Were you to follow these typical byways of mediaeval Rome until you came to the embankment of the Sant’ Angelo Bridge, you would pass by where Benvenuto Cellini lived among his goldsmiths, and could identify the Gothic window of the old Inn of the Bear where Montaigne stopped, centuries ago.
At this hour the Trevi Fountain is doubly appealing and refreshing, rejoicing the whole side of its roomy square with sparkling waters that dash merrily about Neptune and his allies in the wall niches. Devoted as one may be to the venerable tomb of Cecilia Metella, on the Appian Way, he will fervently commend Pope Clement for having pillaged some of its stone to supply this cheery fountain with its dramatic setting. Were this our last day in the city we should certainly toss a copper coin over our left shoulder into these boiling waters, to insure a return to Rome. Of course, one is pretty sure to come again anyhow; but that makes it a certainty. Besides, it is much less trouble than going away out to Tivoli to ask the same thing of the Sibyl in the Grotto.
Were you to yield to the fountain habit, you would go bird-hopping all over town, for no city has so many or such beautiful ones as Rome, thanks to its huge aqueducts. It is a never-failing delight to turn a corner and come across one of these sun-deluged pleasaunces with its crowds of picturesque loungers; its tritons, “rivers,” and sea gods disporting themselves in attitudes of aqueous grace and gayety; its flower-girls banked behind fragrant barriers of roses and violets; and the slender columns of water streaming sideways like tattered flags in a breeze.
Mid-afternoon is an admirable time to drop in at the most popular of all the piazzas, the Spanish Square. One wonders how the jewelers of the Via Condotti manage to make both ends meet, with such a superior attraction at hand. It is certainly one of the most charming nooks in Rome. A heavy golden sunshine glorifies, at this hour, the broad reach of the Spanish Steps, themselves quite as wide as the square, that sweep between picturesque parapets like a yellow cascade from the terraces of the church at S. Trinita de’ Monte to the boat-shaped fountain in the piazza below. About them, drowsy, dusty, Old-World houses supply a pleasant background of soft color, and the crystal-clear Italian sky spreads above like a cathedral dome. The flower market is the crowning touch, with a flood of fragrant blooms welling over the lower steps and rimming the fountain edge in brilliant hues of purple Roman anemones, orange wallflowers, white narcissus, golden daffodils, snowy gardenias, violets, camelias, hyacinths, mignonettes, and every fair and odorous blossom. A lovely, sunny, fragrant spot-this Piazza di Spagna; a place to dream whole days away in; a well-beloved corner of fascinating Rome, where one may realize to its fullness the beautiful, consoling reflection of Don Quixote, “But still there’s sunshine on the wall.”
Literature has had its chosen seat in the Piazza di Spagna. Half the traveled world of letters has lived or visited there. It invests the spot with a fresh and human interest to know that it has been the musing-place of such rare spirits as Byron, Smollett, Madame de Stae1,
Cooper, Andersen, Thorwaldsen, Hawthorne, Goethe, Chateaubriand, Dickens, Scott, Macaulay, George Eliot, Lowell, and Longfellow. One thinks of the Brownings entertaining Thackeray, Lockhart, and Fanny Kemble. But, of course, the closest memories are of Keats and Shelley, who lived in either corner house – those radiant friends whose ashes repose under myrtles and violets in the cypress-shaded cemetery beyond the Au relian Wall. The works of all these authors, as also of the others who may or may not have seen the Piazza di Spagna, – along with the idealism of Fogazzaro, the sensuality of D’ Annunzio, the realism of Verga, and the grace of De Amicis, – are to be had at the celebrated shops of Piale or Spithover, in the square; where, also, you may at little expense become a momentary part of Rome’s bohemia over toast and muffins in the adjoining tea-rooms.
Chacun a son gout. If you are cold to tea there may be something else to interest in the numerous cafes of the neighborhood that begin to hum with activity as the hour approaches four. And, indeed, they may be angels in disguise for such as have tried pension life and grown sadly familiar with puddings as mysterious as Scotch haggis, meat that suggested travertine, and pies constructed of something like silex and tufa. Besides, in the cafes you can regale yourself with vermouth, syrups, or ices, and at the same time observe the Roman at his afternoon ease – thus realizing in yourself the acute ness of the Italian proverb, “One blow at the hoop and one at the cask.” It is quite worth the cost to see how quickly the chairs and little marble-topped tables, out on the sidewalk, are taken by leisurely habitues bent on gossip; by precise old gentlemen in lavender gloves who drop in for a tumbler of black coffee and a hand at dominoes; or by foppish young men in duck trousers, who clatter on the tables for the cameriere to bring copies of the “Tribuna” so they may sup on frivolities and horrors along with coffee and tobacco.
A ruder jocundity also, at this time, is making its start for high tide in poorer sections, where in arbored osteries, Tuscan wine-shops, and spacci da vino strawcovered fi ascos of chianti are passing, along with glasses of local wines whose prices will be found conspicuously chalked up on the outsides of the taverns at so many soldi per half-litre.
As we follow the Corso toward the Pincian Gardens we find the congestion increasing, with a decided addition of carriages all bound in our direction. It is now the hour of the afternoon passeggiata; and one marvels that the ancient campus Martius should still be the heart of Rome, and wonders how this narrow street could have held its crowds when the mad, brilliant scenes of Carnival riot and revelry were enacted before these old Renaissance palaces. Every restaurant of the tumultuous Piazza Colonna is working to capacity, and groups of gay army officers swagger about the corners and over by the marble basin beside the Column of Marcus Aurelius where the taxi-cabs have their chief stand. No red-and-white street car dares venture in this favorite square, but busses and cabs supplant them to distraction. And who, indeed, does not prefer an omnibus to a street car! It may want the latter’s businesslike directness, but what a holiday air it has of cozy, informal deliberateness! It is coaching in town. You may not arrive so soon, but what a lark you had! And if you mock at the faithful bus, there are the impertinent Roman cabs. Here is speed, seclusion, and economy. You cannot fail to be suited both financially and aesthetically, for you may pick between the latest varnished output of the factory and venerable, decrepit ramshackles that look to have been contemporary with the Colosseum. The Roman cabmen are an inconsequent lot; they wear green felt hats and greasy coats, and dash at one with a reckless scorn of human life that strengthens a suspicion that they are really banditti of the Campagna, transparently disguised. The famous Column of the philosophic Emperor never lacks its groupings of adaptable “rubber-necks,” who are twisting themselves into suicide graves trying to read the spiral band of reliefs that winds away up to the statue of St. Paul.
The Corso Passeggiata is an interesting affair. Toward four o’clock it quite fills the street. Young girls are out, with their inevitable chaperons, kittenish and alert eyed; Bergamasque nurses, with scarlet ribbons and extraordinary silver ornaments falling below their snowy muslin caps; clerks in sober black; Douane men, in short capes and shining hats with yellow rosettes; hatless women, with light mantillas over their blue-black hair; the stolid country-folk, – the contadini, – with the men in brown velvet jackets and goatskin breeches, and the women in faded blue skirts and with red stays stitched outside their bodices; the despised forestieri, with guidebooks; carabinieri, in pairs, resplendent in braided uniforms and cocked hats; the nervous Bersaglieri, with shining round hats and glossy cocks’feather plumes; army officers in cloaks or bright blue guard-coats, fresh from vermouth at Aragni’s; Savoyards in steel helmets and gold crests; diplomats in silk hats and Prince Albert coats; and clericals by the hundreds. The clericals, indeed, may always be relied upon to supply an effective color-touch anywhere in Rome. They come along in fluttering groups of every hue: English and French seminarists in cassocks of black, Germans in scarlet, Scotch in purple, and Roumanians in orange and blue; it is diverting to see them raise their black beavers to one another with the quietest and most serious air imaginable. Solemn lay brethren shuffle past in sombre brown of Franciscan and Capuchin, or white of the cowled and tonsured Dominicans. Occasionally, along a side street, one passes slowly, absorbed in his breviary, like Don Abbondio in “I Promessi Sposi.” Rome abounds in shovel-hats, shaven heads, sandals, and hempen girdles. But you must not expect to see them all in a Corso passeggiata.
Unless we have yielded too much to the blandishments along the way, we should be crossing the sunny, somnolent circle of the Piazza del Popolo and climbing the fountained and statue-set terraces of the Pincian Gardens as the first strains of the promenade concert usher in the hour of four. The spectacle that confronts us on the low, broad brow of the old hill is animated and brilliant. Hundreds of motor-cars, private carriages and hired cabs roll in a long, gay procession around the driveways, their occupants arrayed in the last word of Italian fashion, and a multitude of happy loiterers stroll leisurely in the mild afternoon sunshine along sylvan paths hedged with box or bordered with flowers, where long lines of marble portrait-busts of Italy’s dead immortals extend into the pleasant shade of groves of myrtles and fragrant acacias. What a contrast in occupation to the scenes that in olden days were enacted here – the luxury and splendor of the golden suppers that the war-worn Lucullus gave to Rome’s poets and artists; or the vicious and voluptuous orgies with which the vile Messalina indulged the depraved favorites of the Claudian court! Young Rome, this afternoon, has decked itself in its gayest raiment, and youth vies with youth in gallantries to the fashionable beauties who prefer the fascinating town, even in summer, to the listless diversions of the country. “Visiting” goes on between carriage-parties, which is said to answer the social requirements of calls at the house. Mild refreshments are being served in a lively little cafe to which many repair when weary with lounging among the brilliant flowers and lovely foliaged paths; and groups ramble across the new viaduct and stroll among the sycamores and stone-pines of the neighboring Villa Borghese. The Pincian Gardens seem very formal and compact and precisely ornate as compared with our parks at home, but there is much more of sociability and comfort than is to be found Sunday afternoons in New York’s Central Park, for instance. That is probably because New York’s pedestrians are centred in the Mall to hear the band, or around the lakes to watch the boating, and all her carriage-folk are by themselves in the East Side Drive. The Pincian promenade mingles both classes into a great family party. It is a brilliant scene, but it must have been much more so in other days when the popes joined the company in the great glass coach drawn by six black horses in crimson trappings, and outriders and footmen flocked about them.
One wonders whether Pius X does not sometimes think with a sigh of regret of the liberties of his early predecessors, as he paces the flowered garden paths of his voluntary prison and lifts his gentle, shining face toward these pleasant Pincian heights. How often will the memory recur to me of that mild and friendly man, as once I saw him in the Vatican’s Court of the Pine, in his snowy robes and the little cap scarce whiter than his hair. I remember his only ornaments to have been the famous Fisherman’s ring, and a long gold chain about his neck from which a great crucifix was pendent. It was the occasion, of a calisthenic drill given by a local orphan asylum for his Holiness’s special benefit. Each little athlete in gray was burning to do his very best in so notable a presence, and was, indeed, succeeding, with the glaring exception of the smallest of the band, whose eager efforts had resulted only in an uninterrupted series of comical mischances, to the infinite chagrin of himself and associates and the increasing amusement of the Pope. In due time the performance came to an end, and the boys were drawn up facing each other in a double line through which, attended by cardinals, chamberlains, and members of the Papal Guard, his Holiness passed extending his hand to be kissed. When he reached the diminutive and blushing blunderer, he halted his imposing train and laid his hand on the boy’s head and smoothed his hair and patted his cheek with affectionate tenderness, whispering the while an intimate message of good cheer, as though it were something strictly confidential between himself and that fatherless little waif whose face was shining with reverence and awe and whose eyes were full of happy tears. I am, I trust, as confirmed a Protestant as the next, but I confess that my heart was bowed as well as my head as that white-robed figure turned, as it disappeared through a door of the Vatican, and raised a hand toward us in the sign of the cross.
The marble parapet of the Pincio is, at this hour, a prime favorite among Roman loafing-places. As from an upper theatre box, one looks precipitously down into the great, peaceful, siesta-drugged circle of the Piazza del Popolo, the scene in other days of so much cruelty and often of so much happiness. The stone lions of the fountain spout patiently to the delighted observation of scores of playing children, and drowsy cabmen nod on the boxes of the long rank of waiting victorias. One may indulge to his fullest in moral reflections over the slender obelisk from the Heliopolis Temple to the Sun, upon which Moses himself may have gazed in days before Rome was thought of, and when the celestial consorts, Isis and Osiris, still waved their lotus sceptres and ruled the quick and the dead. Nineteen hundred years ago Nero, who should have begun blood-letting with himself instead of ending it there, was buried in this ground, and you are told how the evil spirits that haunted the accursed spot were not finally exorcised until yonder church of Santa Maria had been reared above his tomb. One will find it more agreeable to look across the piazza at the portal of the Flaminian Way and re-create the scenes of the triumphant entrance of the noble, hardy Trajan walking by the side of his fair and amiable wife.
The elm-tops are rustling in the deep groves of the Villa Borghese, and the yellow Tiber, “too large to be harmless and too small to be useful,” slips swiftly between the yellow walls of its quays. To the mind’s eye, in the azure distance Mons Sacer is clear, and Tivoli and the Sabine Farm of Horace. Like the Archangel Michael on the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, the sun, too, begins to sheathe his sword, and its glitter throws a warm mantle over the shoulders of the marble angels on the bridge. Most conspicuously, as is proper, it lingers on the pale dome of St. Peter’s, touches into life the sculptured saints of the portico, and floods obelisk, fountains, and all that vast elliptical piazza toward which are extended the sheltering arms of Bernini’s colonnade. How fair, beneath that roof, are the dazzling marbles, shining tombs, sculptured effigies, and glowing mosaics! But fairer far is this prospect from the hill, of Rome in her soft coat of many colors, the velvety ruins of the Palatine, the stone-pines in sentinel stiffness down the distant Appian Way, the sunny piazzas, the sparkling fountains, and the verdure and bloom of the slopes of the Janiculum, under the cloudless blue of a soft Italian sky. Ave, Roma eternal