Rome – St. Peter’s and the Vatican

Here at the very threshold of the most renowned church and most spacious palace on earth, the first object that strikes our gaze is that of a girl hanging out clothes ! I never visited a place where the inhabitants seem so bent on washing clothes as they do here, and they seem to prefer to hang them out to dry in the most historical and most conspicuous places, as if to show their contempt for worldly pride and bygone greatness. I have seen the banners and bannerets of the laundry kingdom floating around the Pantheon and the Roman Forum, and almost flopping against Trajan’s Column and the Castle of St. Angelo. We are glad, however, to see this sun-blackened young Roman laundress, a very type of the land, in her striking and picturesque costume.

But what of our position here? We are standing on a fairly high house-top, as can be seen by comparing our elevation with those five-story houses to the left of us. Just beyond those houses we catch a glimpse of the southern row of the colonnade, but only that part of it which is straight. On our right we see most of the northern colonnade with three of the four columns at the end. That tallest building bathed in sunlight beyond the colonnade to the extreme right contains the personal apartments of the Pope and his cabinet of cardinals. The tall building just to the left of this and in the shadow forms the west side of the Court of Damasus, seen on our map, and contains on the second floor the famous Loggia of Raphael. Between this building containing the Loggia and St. Peter’s, can be seen the roof of the Sistine Chapel outlined against the sky. The greater portion of the Vatican Palace we know must extend directly off to the north or to the right behind the buildings.

Only by careful observation and comparison will we be able to gain any proper estimate of the mammoth proportions of the structures before us. Strange to say, these near-by houses on our left are not so much higher than Bernini’s splendid colonnades, and, in truth, the four-story houses on the right of the square below us are not so high, and serve admirably to bring out the noble proportions of the massive columns. Notice how the residence of the Pope looms up above the colonnade, and then how the wonderful dome of St. Peter’s lifts itself so grandly over them all. This near-by square directly in front and below us and extending to the ends of the colonnade is called the Piazza Rusticucci, and the house in which Raphael lived, and where he died, stood on the spot where the right colonnade ends. This house of the great artist was removed in order to make room for the colonnade, and while we regret its departure, perhaps it does not matter much since, near by, in that more enduring house of the Vatican, are treasured his brilliant and immortal achievements. When Raphael died, he gave his house to the church and requested that his tomb in the Pantheon be kept perpetually in repair.

To me those rows of gigantic pillars have always seemed like giant soldiers marching and countermarching on that grandest of parade grounds, the Piazza of St. Peter’s. To see them as we have done and are doing, is vastly better than being told that they number two hundred and eighty-four, that they are forty-eight feet high, and that the rows are sixty-one feet wide, forming three covered passageways, the one in the center having space for two carriages to drive through abreast. The effect of this great church is wonderfully enhanced by these peerless colonnades.

The pavement of the Piazza alone cost nearly one hundred thousand dollars, equal in purchasing power in America to double that amount and two hundred thousand soldiers, infantry, cavalry and artillery, can stand upon it.

One cannot look upon this wide space, adorned as it is with all the elements of architectural grandeur, without recalling the great religious ceremonies which have taken place here, especially at Easter time, but which, since the Italian occupation, have been discontinued. Shall we try and recall one of these great ceremonies with an eye witness?

“Out over the great balcony stretches a wide awning, where priests and attendants are collected, and where the Pope will soon be seen. Below, the Piazza is alive with moving masses. In the center are drawn up long lines of soldiery, with yellow and red pompons, and glittering helmets and bayonets. These are surrounded by crowds on foot, and and at the outer rim are packed carriages filled and overrun with people, mounted on the seats and boxes. What a sight is this ! – above us the great dome of St. Peter’s, and below, the grand embracing colonnade, and the vast space, in the center of which rises the silent obelisk, thronged with masses of living beings. Peasants from the Campagna and the mountains are moving about everywhere. Pilgrims in oil-cloth capes and with iron staffs demand charity. On the steps are rows of purple, blue and brown umbrellas, for there the sun blazes fiercely. Everywhere crop forth the white hoods of Sisters of Charity, collected in groups, and showing, among the parti-colored dresses, like beds of chrysanthemums in a garden. One side of the massive colonnade casts a grateful shadow over the crowd beneath that fills up the intervals of its columns ; but elsewhere the sun burns and flashes everywhere. Mounted on the colonnade are crowds of people leaning over beside the colossal statues. Through all the heat is heard the constant plash of the sunlit fountains, that wave to and fro their veils of white spray. At last the clock strikes. In the far balcony are seen the two great showy peacock fans, and between them a figure clad in white, that rises from a golden chair, and spreads his great sleeves like wings as he raises his arms in benediction. That is the Pope, Pius the Ninth. All is dead silence, and a musical voice, sweet and penetrating, is heard chanting from the balcony; – the people bend and kneel; with a cold gray flash all the bayonets gleam as the soldiers drop to their knees, and rise to salute as the voice dies away, and the two white wings are again waved;-then thunder the cannon,-the bells clash and peal joyously, a few white papers, like huge snowflakes, drop wavering from the balcony;-these are indulgences, and there is an eager struggle for them below; – then the Pope again rises, again gives his benediction, waving to and fro his right hand, three fingers open, and making the sign of the cross,- and the peacock fans retire and he between them is borne away,- and Lent is over.”-Roba di Roma.

That obelisk, rising in the center there like a stately sentinel we shall see to better advantage later, and will speak of it then; but just now let us observe the details of St. Peter’s impressive façade, which with its dome forms an impressive and glorious climax to this city of architecture. This façade is one hundred and sixty-five feet high, and is supported by eight grand pillars and surmounted by a balustrade with nineteen statues, among others that of the Virgin Mary, of the Saviour, and of the twelve apostles. The inscription over the columns tells us that the façade was erected in 1612 by Paul V (Borghese) in honorem Principis Apostolorum. At either end of the façade, near the beginning of the colonnade, are ponderous doors opening to a drive that encircles the church, and by which access can be had to the Vatican Gardens. The door at the left stands open and we can see the wall of the church beyond.

Even though you may have done so before, will you now take a careful look at that dome; just such an-other there is not in all the world. It was an intensely hot June day when I climbed up into that copper ball on the very top beneath the cross, which from where we stand seems so small, although it will hold sixteen persons.

From the pavement of the church to the summit of that lantern is four hundred and three feet, and to the top of the cross is four hundred and thirty-five feet, about the height of the great pyramid of Cheops. The diameter of the dome is one hundred and thirty-eight feet, five feet less than that of the Pantheon, but St, Peter’s is much higher. Some few years ago it was discovered that the dome was cracking at its base, crushing itself with its own enormous weight, and in order to preserve it a huge, tight-fitting band of steel was placed about it (a little above the drum on which the dome rests), and this band may be seen from here.

Repairs are always needed on that mountainous structure, and it costs about thirty-five thousand dollars every year to keep it in its present condition.

This great Piazza of St. Peter’s will always have a peculiar personal and local coloring for me, because the first morning I entered it I encountered one of those swindlers, the photo-graph venders of Rome. Photograph venders abound throughout the city, and especially here in front of St. Peter’s. The strip of photographs this enterprising individual tried to sell to me and my three companions, all Americans, were worthless things with no tone, life or perspective, pasted in a red covered book, slandering, by their hideous imitations, every object they were supposed to represent. If there is a difference in anything it is in photographs, and there is no greater difference anywhere than between the best photo-graphs and a fine stereoscopic view that gives one the impression and the emotion of that mysterious reality of life and place, arresting motion in the very act, and which be-cause of its entrancing vividness, beguiles us into the notion that things will presently move on again.

Well, we stood down there near the obelisk, under the shadow of the stately candelabra nearest the Vatican Pal-ace, looking with eyes wide with wonder upon our strange and superb surroundings, when the fellow approached us and, as he could speak a little English, he started in, addressing the biggest man in the party, who happened to be a physician, weighing nearly two hundred pounds. As to size and general appearance there was a decided contrast between this “lean and slippered pantaloon,” and the portly and dignified American; but, nothing daunted, the Italian began:

“Gude morning, genteelman, I zell you zome excelenta photographs of Roma. I zell you tewenty photographs fer twelve franca; cheapa, verra cheapa; buy zome?”

Turning to me the doctor remarked : “I don’t care for them for myself, but I have a daughter at home who re-quested me to bring her some photographs in book form, so perhaps these will do, and if so, I will be saved the trouble of hunting them up. I think ten francs enough for them, how-ever, don’t you?”

” Personally, I would not care for such miserable caricatures at any price,” I replied. “But,” I added, “ten francs are certainly enough for them.”

Turning to the vender, whose arms were full of books, the doctor said, “I will give you ten francs for one.”

With a grave and injured air, that could not have been more pronounced had the doctor wiped his feet upon him or struck him in the face, he protested : “No, no, your excellency, I canna. I looza, costa tenna franca.” And then with a look of infinite sadness in his dark eyes, and an indefinable pathos in his voice, he said deliberately, as he shook his head slowly, “I canna, I canna.”

” All right,” said the doctor brusquely, “I don’t want the stuff.”

“Here, taka ! ” shouted the fellow, leaping forward and holding out the book; ” tenna franca.”

The physician took the book and paid for it. But we were not rid of him by any means.

” You taka booka, tenna franca?” he asked, addressing the doctor’s pastor, who accompanied him on the trip.

” I’ll give you eight francs for one,” was the answer.

“Here, taka ! ” was the lightning-like reply. This book was also paid for, but while the transaction was being concluded, the doctor glared at the Italian. I noticed the displeasure of my medical companion, and I whispered to the third member of the party, “Offer six francs for one, and watch the doctor.”

“You taka vonna?” continued the citizen of Rome, turning to my friend.

“I will give you six francs for it,” was the reply. “Hera, taka,” came the words quicker than thought.

I looked at the doctor who seemed ready to foam at the mouth, but he said nothing. I was confident, however, that I could draw him out, and I did.

“Hera, taka you; lasta vonna,” he said, appealing to me. ” No, I don’t care for any,” I said.

” Yezza, taka sixa franca.”

“I will give you four francs, and not a centime more,” I answered firmly.

“Hera, taka; foura franca!” cried the fellow; but hardly had the words fallen from his lips when the doctor’s heavy hand fell on his shoulder with the grip of a Hercules and his deep voice thundered out: “You black rascal, what do you mean by swindling me before my very eyes in this way? I’ll shake the very life out of you ! ”

” Santa Maria!” cried the trembling wretch, his books falling to the pavement in all directions, as he raised his hands imploringly, “Dona killa me; I dinna sheet you; I looza moany; costa tenna franca.”

Seeing the doctor hesitate, I ventured to say, “Better let him go, doctor. I am confident he would not survive one of your shakes and you might get us all into trouble.

“I’ll let him go,” he answered grimly, tightening his grasp on the man’s shoulder, which caused him to roll his eyes and utter a cry of pain. “I don’t mind being swindled, but to stand by and see myself swindled three times over is more than I can stand. However,” he added in a gentler tone, “if you will point out to us the room in the Vatican occupied by the Pope, I’ll let you off for this time,” and the giant removed his hand.

A gleam of joy broke over the fellow’s pale face, and for-getting in his eagerness the scattered books, he stepped back a few paces as if to get a better view of the Vatican, but in reality in order to get beyond the reach of the doctor’s long arm. When he felt assured of his safety he pointed his hand toward the papal apartments and said,-but I will not at-tempt to imitate his broken speech.

“Look over the circular part of the colonnade to the left of the fountain, and you will see three stories of a building rising above it; that is the pontifical residence. The private apartments of the Pope occupy the entire second floor from the top, and his favorite sitting room is on the side toward St. Peter’s.”

Then hastily gathering up his stock, he bowed to each of us with a grave and silent dignity and withdrew to the other side of the piazza. However, judge our surprise, when the next day we encountered the same fellow in front of the Pantheon, and found him selling the identical red books for one and one-half francs each. This time I felt quite as indignant as the doctor, but the peddler espied us in the midst of his sales and vanished before we could remonstrate with him ; but, to this day, if you want to get the doctor mad, mention the ten francs he paid beneath the shadow of the ancient obelisk and the Roman who cheated him three times before his very eyes. Having been so outrageously cheated by the Roman peddler, we were not altogether satisfied that we could rely upon the accuracy of his information in regard to the apartments of the Pope. Especially was this the case with the doctor ; but to do the lad justice, I am glad to say that we found his statements as to the Vatican reliable in every particular.

Try as we will, we cannot keep our eyes from that aerial and majestic dome. You have doubtless noticed the fact – if not, you will, now that I call your attention to it – that the dome is pierced with loop-holes, and it was one of these we saw close down on our left, from our position in the summit of the dome (Position 5). Because of the concussion which the wind makes against the inner iron dome, the latter is constantly musical. When the city is swept by hurricanes from the Mediterranean, which lash themselves against this mountainous mass, then the low murmur swells out into a thunderous roar which seems to gather up into itself the angry cries of all the demons of the storm.

Before leaving our housetop to enter the gorgeous interior of St. Peter’s, take a glance over this rough parapet near us at that tiled roof just below. The tiled roofs of Rome have always been to me a pleasant memory: old, gray, often jumbled together, frequently moss-covered and lichen-coated, they appeal to every lover of the picturesque. Moreover, they have always seemed to possess almost human sympathy and emotion when, as ” a stranger in a strange land,” I have looked upon them, in sunlight and in starlight, and watched their changing hues, red in the morning sunburst, silver at noon and purple in the tender light of the setting sun.

One long look at the Vatican, the church and the piazza, with its stony finger and marching columns, and we will descend : and, as we go I call to mind an old guide-book, in the margin of which, over against the page which briefly described the glorious scene we have just been contemplating, a three days’ tourist in Rome wrote long years ago, ” I have seen better.” I doubt it – nay, I deny, it. For where on this round globe can man see as grand a church, as noble a palace, and as extraordinary a piazza suggesting in its fringe of columns and its figured pavement a rich and elaborate pattern of Persian embroidery ; and where can such a church and palace and piazza be found in company?

We shall now go beyond the piazza, beyond even the broad marble steps, and stand back of the quilted curtain which closes the doorway of this church, the vast, resplendent, incomparable St. Peter’s, which is as Hawthorne expresses it, ” an embodiment of whatever the imagination could conceive, as a magnificent, comprehensive, majestic symbol of religious faith.” Never, while memory lasts, can I forget the sight of that seemingly limitless pavement, that stupendous interior, the glory of which, although a tenth of a mile away, was the Great Altar, rising in solemn majesty from the polished floor.