Rome: Spell of the Eternal City

Like the lizards in the dusty Forum ruins, emerging from dusky retreats to warm and blink in the sun and then flash back into some sheltered refuge, so visitors at Rome issue from dim closing museums at three o’clock in the afternoon and gaze around in a stupid, dazed fashion on a sky of cloudless deep blue and on placid streets and squares that seem fairly to quiver in a golden haze of strong sunshine. After the cool interiors the sultry heat seems doubly oppressive, and there is something of the nature of a mild struggle before reality succeeds in summoning them back from that vague state of disassociation, that condition of all-mind-and-no-body, produced by an intense and protracted study of all those wonderful things that great museums contain. To this confused condition of mind there is generally added a further disquieting element in the shape of a blank misgiving as to how the intervening hour can be tolerably passed before joining the four o’clock promenaders in the Pincian Gardens to see Roman Fashion at its ante-prandial rites. And yet were strangers merely to remain receptive and allow their extraordinary surroundings to assert themselves and supply the diversion with which they are dynamically charged, this is an hour that might well prove to be one of the most delightful of the whole twenty-four in Rome.

For the masterful spell of the Eternal City is still world-conquering; it only asks the chance. Protract your stay as you will, there remains at last a sense of awe, almost of incredulity, at being, in the actual flesh, in precincts so ultra-venerated – in dread, historic Rome. It is only a somewhat milder form of the feeling that overpowered you the very first morning of your visit when, after the night’s sleep of forgetfulness, you read with amazed, half-awake eyes the printed slip on the bedroom door that affirmed your hotel to be on no less august an eminence than one of the seven hills of Rome. Even when you had rushed to the window for corroboration and stared out in excited astonishment on a vast shoulder of dusty, reddish brown ruins with pert vines greening in its loftiest recesses, and a guidebook insisted that they were the Baths of Diocletian, a reluctant fear remained that you might only be, after all, in the pleasant toils of the old, recurrent dream from which you might shortly and miserably awake.

But if, at three o’clock of a summer afternoon, the particular museum whose doors are remorselessly closing upon your final, lingering look chances to be that fortunate one on the Capitoline Hill that houses, among its array of mellow antiques, the pointed-ear original of Hawthorne’s “Marble Faun,” you could not do better than make use of the remainder of the admission ticket and have a survey of Rome from the airy summit of the campanile in the rear. To effect this, one picks his way among the imposing remains of the ancient recordhouse of the tabularium, mounts the long flight of iron steps in a corner of its colonnade, and soon reaches the top of the tower of the Capitol, with Rome as utterly at his feet as ever it appeared to the eyes of Alaric and his Goths.

In tones of soft yellow, gray, and dull orange the roofmasses sweep northward, eastward, and westward, while to the southward and at your feet lies heaped the earthy, dusty chaos of ruins that crown the imperial Palatine, the popular Coelian, and the luckless Aventine Hills. Parks and villa gardens are blotches of dark foliage; and, within its white embankment walls, the sacred Tiber, in a twisting yellow band, rushes swiftly down the face of the city in its mad rush for Ostia and the sea. Beyond the most distant suburbs extend the rolling plains of the Campagna like an all-embracing sea, until they seem to wash in a gentle surf about the Sabine foothills, away to the north, and brim southward to the verge of the Alban Hills beyond the farthest glimpse of the Aqueduct’s long line of broken arches or the dimming perspective of that taut thread, the Appian Way. From this vantage-point the city may hide no surface secrets. It lies below us like an enormous fan, whose converging point is the round Piazza del Popolo, a good mile to the north. Like three great fingers, there extend from that focus the Via Ripetta, the Via Babuino, and, in the centre and running toward us as straight as a ruler, the popular Corso carrying the old Flaminian Way right through the heart of modern Rome. By degrees we come to distinguish familiar churches among the hundreds of spires, towers, and domes; to pick out, here and there, a mediaeval watchtower; to locate well-known squares; to name an occasional obelisk; to identify a column; and even to particularize some of the scores of fountains that give latter-day Rome a pleasant distinction among modern cities. The ribbed, blue-gray dome of St. Peter’s looms impressively from out the deep green of the Papal Gardens of the yellow Vatican; the circular bulk of the Castle of Sant’ Angelo and the columned Pantheon look as familiar as old friends to us – though they may not be friends to each other, with the latter, under papal stress, forced in other days to yield its beautiful bronze tiles to make saints’ ornaments and cannon for the former; the yellow walls of the Sant’ Onofrio monastery mark where died Tasso, “King of Bards,” and where they still show his crucifix and inkstand; and yonder is the great gray church where Beatrice Cenci lies in her nameless grave. If we turn and look southward we see strange sun-tricks among the bleak and shadowy corridors of the vast, half-demolished Colosseum, and crumbling arches of the emperors warm into a venerable dotage. The sun-baked wreckage of the Forum expands at our feet in rows of column stumps, shattered arches, isolated shafts with clinging fragments of cornice and entablature, yawning earthen doorways and dusty heaps of cluttered brick and tufa, – like a gigantic honeycomb, – while all about it birds are singing divinely in the shade of the laurels. The famed Tarpeian Rock, just at hand, has little suggestion of a short shrift for traitors, with rookeries nestling snugly to its base and a rose-trellised garden on its commodious summit.

Victor Emmanuel II, in the regal cool of bronze, gazes over his colossal charger in the gigantic monument on the Capitoline slopes below us and beholds the hills studded with the pretty white villas of his grandson’s prosperous subjects, and the Quarter of the Fields carpeted with the neat stucco homes of the poor that used to languish in the vile slums of the old Ghetto. Had he read Zola’s “Rome” he might even be justified in frowning at so defamatory a description of so pleasant a section. But apparently he prefers to watch the afternoon glow on the gleaming domes and towers and myrtleset villas of the Trastevere, where the powerful and violent descendants of the ancient Romans still dwell; and to take amused note of Garibaldi over there twisting around on his big bronze horse to keep a wary eye on St. Peter’s.

It taxes the credulity of the visitor to comprehend that yonder is the renowned Janiculum, down whose slopes Lars Porsena led his troops to contend with Horatius Cocles and his intrepid companions as they “held the bridge” – only a hundred yards from where we are standing. And, indeed, imagination is quite unequal to the tasks set it on all this historic ground. Even if we succeed in carrying ourselves back through the periods of the popes, the emperors, the republic, the kings, and possibly the shepherds, what is to become of us when confronted with the statement of Ampere that there were really “nine Romes before Rome.” It is quite enough to undertake the reconstruction of ancient Rome to the mind’s eye, such as authentic history describes it, considering how repeatedly its conquerers sacked it, and how both Nero and Robert Guiscard burned it; and that the Romans themselves, as Lanciani insists, have done more harm to it than all invading hosts put together. “What the Barbarians did not do,” ran the famous pasquinade, “the Barberini did.” It is, really, asking too much of the man who is risking “a touch of sun” to see the city from the sweltering top of the Capitol Tower, to expect him to be communing with himself in terms of travertine and peperino and reassembling antiquities as an agreeable pastime. He will probably content himself with a hasty glance around, and a little irreverent levity over the task of Ascanius, son of “the pious AEneas,” in building a city on the scraggy ridge of distant Alba Longa, or the scramble the Roman bachelors must have had when they scampered down the neighboring Quirinal Hill with their arms full of their Sabine allies’ wives. As he trudges down the tower steps and catches periodic glimpses of that ancient Latium that is now the Campagna, he ought to devote a moment to self-congratulation that the pestilence no longer stalks there by night and noonday, or that the evil campagnards of Andersen’s “Improvisatore” no more terrorize with impunity, or wild beasts imperil the wayfarer; but rather that these latter themselves flee, especially the foxes, what time the redcoated gentlemen of the English Hunt round on them among the shattered tombs of the Appian Way.

And yet, if the visitor is a sentimentalist, no Italian sun is going to rob him of his reverie: he will be hearing the cries of the Christian martyrs at a Colosseum matinee, and beholding the pride and beauty of ancient Rome loitering along the palace-lined streets on their way to the afternoon diversions at the Baths of Caracalla. And the Forum will bustle with the state business of the world, Cicero will mount the rostrum, and a train of Vestal Virgins pass demurely along the Sacra Via. He will attend the mournful wails of priests at worship in the temples of Jupiter and Saturn, and thrill to see a detachment of the Praetorian Guard dash into the Forum and acclaim some new military hero as emperor. But this should be sufficient to startle him back to the Rome of today, and as he looks anxiously over to the northwestern walls, beyond which once stood that infamous camp, he will doubtless rejoice devoutly that the sober and law-abiding soldiery that drills there now is something so very different from the uncontrollable ” Frankenstein” that the Caesars devised to their own undoing. It is, in consequence, with hearty complacence that he will turn his back on even the aristocratic treasure-heap of the lordly Palatine, conscious that if the cry were raised today, “Why is the Forum crowded, what means this stir in Rome?” the reply would be forthcoming, “Tourists and picture-card sellers and peddlers of cameo pins.”

Parenthetically, it may be observed that, although pathos and bathos rub elbows in the foregoing reflections, still incongruities come very near to being the rule in latter-day Rome. What is to be said of obelisks of the Pharaohs with Christian crosses on their tops? Of the column of Trajan with St. Peter at its summit, and at its base those twentieth-century cats that visitors feed with fish bought from stands at hand for the purpose? Of St. Paul on the column of Marcus Aurelius, and the sign of an American life insurance company across the street? Of a modern playhouse in the mausoleum of Augustus where the emperors were buried? Of the present use of King Tarquin’s great sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, just as good as it was twenty-five hundred years ago? Of electric lights where Cincinnatus had his cabbage-farm? Of a Jewish cemetery above the circus of Tarquin? Of steam-heated flats in the gardens of Sallust? Of modern houses at the Tarpeian Rock, and the Baths of Agrippa? Of street cars with the name of Diocletian? Of automobiles on the Flaminian Way? Of tennis courts beside the burialplace of a Caesar? Of motor-cycles around the tomb of the Scipios? Of an annual Derby down the Appian Way? Of railroad trains beside the old Servian Wall? Of telephone booths on the banks of Father Tiber? Modernism is, indeed, with us, as his Holiness laments!

The sultry, torrid hour that lies between three o’clock and four of a summer afternoon usually sees Rome rubbing her eyes, fresh from her siesta, that ancient midday nap that Varro declared he could not live without; and you may be sure the final rub would be one of vast amusement if she were to see you walking on the sunny side of the street, where, by the terms of her immemorial observation, only dogs and foreigners go. The heat is intense on these lava pavements; one keeps religiously to the shade. But Roman society is not rubbing its eyes, – at least, not in town, – for tout le monde is passing the annual villeggiatura at its villa in the hills or by the sea, economizing for the fashionable expenditure of the winter, and, incidentally, obliging the people who stay in town with that much more of elbow room on the Corso and other popular promenades. All of which helps a little in making the stroll from the Capitoline Hill to the Pincian Gardens rather more comfortable than moving around the hot-room of a Turkish bath. As we pick our way down the Capitoline slope, pass Marcus Aurelius on his fat bronze steed, and “bend our steps,” as the old novels used to say, toward the tramway-haunted uproar of the Piazza di Venezia, the rabble rout of the slum district on the left affords a lively conception of the element that goes farthest to make Rome howl. Having been told that this old Ghetto had been swept and garnished, one is properly indignant at finding the air redolent of garlic and everybody under conviction that the chief end of man is to amass macaroni and enjoy it forever. You gaze askance on a universal costume of filth and rags, and hurry along through it, protesting that, while you would not invoke the precedent of Pope Paul IV’s sixteenth-century method of putting gates across the streets, and locking the people in and making the men wear yellow hats and the women yellow veils, as he did with the Jews, still some expedient ought to be hit upon for making the district look a little less like a camp of Falstaff recruits. “A frowzyheaded laborer,” say you, “shouldering a basket of charcoal, may seem attractive in Mr. Storey’s `Roba di Roma,’ but in real life one likes to think men can afford shirts, and not have to wear rags over their shoulders after the manner of a herald’s tabard.” You pause a moment to watch the disappearance of a yard of macaroni down some red gullet, and George Augustus Sala’s description of the banquet of the seven wagoners rushes to mind: “Upon this vast mess they fell tooth and nail. The simile is, perchance, not strictly correct. Teeth may be de trop. You should never bite or chew macaroni, but swallow each pipe whole, grease and all, as though it were so much flattery. But their nails they did use, seeing that they ate the macaroni with their fingers. What wondrous twistings and turnings-back of their heads, what play of the muscles of their throats, what straining of their eyeballs and vasty openings of their jaws, did I study as they swallowed their food.”