Rome – the Eternal City, from the dome of St. Peter’s

What a magnificent prospect! Half of Rome is lying at our feet. There, four hundred feet below us, is the great Piazza of St. Peter’s, on which men, horses and carriages look like mere dots on the pavement. We shall not stop to describe that Piazza now except to call attention to that splendid colonnade almost surrounding it, which can be viewed to better advantage here than in any place where we shall be later. All must admit that this colonnade enfolding the Piazza is imposing, almost sublime. There is nothing equal to it in any temple in the world. There are four rows of columns,- we can see those of one of the outer rows down on our right,- each column forty-eight feet high, while the space beneath the curving roof which rests upon them is fifty-five feet wide. Along the parapets that crown the inner rows of columns are one hundred and sixty-two statues of saints, each ten feet high.

But there is a multitude of things demanding our attention here. There in the middle distance, directly beyond the center of the Piazza, is the Tiber, making at that place, as we know by the map, its first bend to the west. The buildings to the right hide from view its curve back toward the south and east. That ponderous circular structure on the upper bank of the Tiber, this side of the farther bridge, is the Castle of St. Angelo, or Tomb of Hadrian. The map gives a good idea of the plan of the structure. As we are to go near it later we need only call attention to its location now. The large white structure beyond and slightly to the left of the castle is the Palace of Justice. In the distance beyond the Castle and the Tiber we look to the very limits of the city, where buildings fade gradually into the haze of the broad Campagna. Sometimes the snow-covered summits of the Apennine mountains can be seen from here. The map shows that there is but a small part of the city lying to the north of us, or beyond our vision limit on the left. We are soon to look in that direction, however, and see for ourselves. But the greater part of the city, which we do not see now, lies, we know, around to our right, or the south. The point on the Janiculum Hill from which we looked out over the Aventine Hill (Position 3) and again over the Forum and its surroundings (Position 2) is somewhat over a mile away to the south.

It is easy for us to surmise that the part of the city we now see in the distance over to the right must have been seen on our left when we were looking toward the Forum from the Janiculum (Position 2). The red lines on the map, which mark out our field of vision then and now, show definitely what section we are looking over for the second time. One prominent structure which we noticed in our former position was the Church of S. Maria Maggiore, with its prominent domes. Suppose we try to find the church from this new standpoint. Let our starting point be the beautiful fountain to the right of the obelisk down there on the Piazza. Then direct your gaze over the fountain and colonnade, and a short distance away to that building with five windows showing in the side toward us. That is one of the great halls of the immense hospital of San Spirito which, as we can see by the map, extends down to the Tiber and for some distance along its bank. We might as well stop for a few minutes to consider that vast institution since we have our eyes upon it. The old brick tower riddled with windows and somber with age which you see just back of the hall belongs to the ancient chapel or church of S. Spirito. The hospital itself was founded in 1201 by Innocent III on the site of a Hospice which the King of the West Anglians established there away back in 717. The buildings were burned down and rebuilt several times, and became very richly endowed. It contains one thousand, six hundred and eighty beds, about five hundred and sixty permanent patients and two hundred servants. All diseases are admitted there and five thousand surgical cases are treated each year. Down there also is a Foundling Asylum beside whose gate is a rete or grille, which is simply a revolving wheel or drum with a small opening through which many thousands of infants are passed annually by those who for any reason wish to get rid of them. When the babe is placed in the drum, a card appears on which is a number by means of which the child may be identified in the future. Within they are cared for by nuns until some charitable provision can be made for them or until they are able to care for themselves. Upwards of two thousand foundlings are constantly being provided for in this way.

I was talking with a bright young Italian physician in regard to that great institution and learned from him that all the medical students in Rome attend clinical instruction in that hospital, and many and interesting were the incidents he related of the student days he spent there.

From this digression we will now return to our quest for S. Maria Maggiore. Look far away over the left end of this Hall of S. Spirito and you will see two domes near the confines of the city, outlined against the hazy plain beyond. That is the church of S. Maria Maggiore. Start again with the fountain to the right of the obelisk in the Piazza below us, then let your eye fall upon the old brick tower or campanile of the church of S. Spirito. Then look beyond it to the white marble building seen over the summit of the tower. Over the extreme right-hand corner of the roof of this structure you will see the lofty church of S. Agnese. Directly beyond lie the Capitoline Hill and the Forum.

Now let us give our attention to the most important objects and places in this inspiring outlook before us, and then we can think briefly of this part of the city in each of the great epochs of Roman history.

A short distance to the left of the church of S. Agnese is the famous dome of the Pantheon – an oval patch of light against the darker buildings. An-other means of getting its location is by looking above the brick tower of the S. Spirito church to the white building back of it, and then straight on over that building until the eye rests upon the broad majestic dome. The original building erected by M. Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus, B. C. 27, was destroyed, and the present structure is the work of the Emperor Hadrian. More than one thousand eight hundred years have passed over it and we do not seem, with all our science, to be able to rear another like it. We shall have more to say about it when we go to see it near at hand.

Look now directly over and beyond the lower embankment of the Tiber and you will see a huge rectangular building, the whole having the appearance of a citadel. Though we can hardly notice it at this distance, there is considerable space that separates this seemingly solid mass of buildings into two parts. That on the left hand comprises the royal stables, that on the right is the Quirinal Palace – since 1871 the residence of the King of Italy. Back of the Palace are the Quirinal Gardens. Consulting the map, we see that this royal palace stands on the main portion of the Quirinal Hill. That, then, is the northernmost of the far-famed seven hills, the one we did not see from any of our former positions. That enormous palace was begun in 1574, under Gregory XIII, and the prolongation of his labors by his successors has made it one of the largest and ugliest buildings extant. Until 1848 it was frequently occupied in summer by different popes because of its elevated and healthful situation. It was the favorite residence of Pope Pius VII, and it was there he was taken prisoner by the French. In 1871 the palace was forcibly seized by Victor Emmanuel, who lived there until his death, January 9, 1878.

The Quirinal Gardens, which are now closed to the public, are cold and formal, and apart from numerous fountains and an organ played by a waterfall, there is little of interest to be seen. From the balustrade, you can look in this direction and get a view of the whole city, including S. Peter’s and the Janiculum.

If now we look over the northern limit of the Quirinal grounds we can see dark masses which represent the massive walls of the Baths of Diocletian. Their location is given on the map nearly a half-mile beyond the Quirinal. These baths are said to have contained three thousand marble basins, besides a swimming tank (piscina), with an area of twenty-five thousand square feet. The entire structure, which was erected by Diocletian in A. D. 306, covered a space of one hundred and fifty thousand square yards.

It is stated by some authorities that forty thousand Christians were engaged in carrying on the work of its construction. Michelangelo, acting under the commands of Pope Pius IV, that prodigious builder, converted the great oblong hall of the Baths-i. e., the tepidarium-into the nave of a church. The result was one of the handsomest and most stately edifices in Rome, the gigantic columns, still remaining, being worthy to support the noble span and ample rotundity of the enormous vault above. It was called S. Maria degli Angeli (the Church of St. Mary of the Angels). The church is now owned by the municipality of Rome, and it was there that the present King of Italy, when still Prince of Naples, was married.

In that church, St. Mary of the Angels, there is a remarkable meridian line laid down on the mosaic pavement. Standing in the transept of the building, one sees a beam of sunshine creeping over the shadowy floor, but precisely at noon a golden thread of light shoots through a small hole in the roof and falls upon a particular line that crosses the polished floor, and then slowly, silently glides away as the sun is westering, until it is lost among the deepening shadows which flank the gigantic walls built by a heathen emperor, long centuries since.

If you will look aver the middle arch of that bridge which crosses the Tiber beyond the Castle of St. Angelo, you will see the white roof of a church, S. Andrea delle Fratte. It is found on the map about an inch above the Quirinal. In the street which runs along the north side of this church, the Via di Capo le Case, lived the celebrated sculptor, William Story, whose Cleopatra forms so interesting a work of art in Hawthorne’s Transformation or Marble Faun, and right out there on that same street, the eminent writer and ambassador, James Russell Lowell, also an American, had apartments; and a few steps away, Mrs. Oliphant, the gifted English authoress, lived for some time.

Crossing the Via di Capo le Case, two or three streets beyond the church, is the Via Sistina, on which Robert Browning and his wife had their home, and there also for many years the Danish sculptor, Thorwaldsen, had his studio. When Sir Walter Scott was in Rome he was very desirous of meeting the great sculptor. An appointment was made for the meeting in the artist’s studio. Thorwaldsen did not understand English, and Scott could not speak Danish or Italian. So when they were presented, they shook hands and looked at one another with great interest ; neither spoke a word, but, nevertheless, each seemed to understand and appreciate what was in the other’s mind. Thorwaldsen showed the Briton the works of art contained in his studio, making explanations through an interpreter. The author expressed his great appreciation of what he saw, and highly complimented the man who breathed life into cold marble.

In that part of the city there is scarcely a house that has not a painter’s studio near its roof or a sculptor’s studio in its basement; and one frequently meets girls, in their quaint mountain costume, climbing to the topmost floor to sit as models for the painters, or again, a sunburnt shepherd, in his sheepskin jacket and gaily-colored blouse, leading his wolf-dog thither for the same purpose; and it is not an unheard of thing for even a donkey to be led up the stairs.

Immediately north of the Royal Stables is the Piazza Barberini. Thirty years and more ago, not far from this Piazza, was an obscure osteria where Peppo, a famous Italian cook, gave excellent dinners, with wonderful macaroni and capital wine. Story, the sculptor, tells of a visit that he made to this restaurant with a little party of artists and poets. It brings out some striking characteristics of the common people of Italy. While they ate and drank, a mandolin “tingled and quivered” and a guitar made a low accompaniment to their talk. They went in their worst clothes and most crumpled hats so as to attract as little attention as possible, for laborers and artisans were the frequenters of the place. In speaking of the visit afterwards, the sculptor says:

” So being in the humor, we called for some improvisations, and the mandolin and guitar began an air and accompaniment in `ottava rima'; after a minute or two one of the men at the head of the table opposite broke out in a low voice and sang or rather chanted a strophe; and scarcely had the instruments finished the little ritornello, when another answered him in a second strophe; to this he responded, and so alternately, for some time, the improvisation went on without a break. Then suddenly there rose from the opposite end a third person, a carter, who poured out two or three strophes without stopping, and after him still another carter broke in, so that we had four persons improvising in alternations. This lasted a full half hour, and during the whole time there was not a pause or hesitation. The language used was uncommonly good, and the ideas were of a character you would little have anticipated from such a company. The themes were art, love, poetry and music, and some of the recitations were original and spirited. Out of Italy, could anything like this be seen?”

Now if we look to the extreme left we see to the north of the Quirinal Palace a dark open space. That is the Pincian Hill. That spacious marble building resting on the hillside is the famous Villa Medici, built in 1560 for Cardinal Ricci da Montepuleiano. It came into the possession of Cardinal Alessandro de Medici about 1600, later it belonged to the grand dukes of Tuscany. Finally it was presented by Napoleon I in 1800 to the French Academy of Art. Since that time it has been used as an Art School of France. It can be seen from all parts of the city and is distinguished by the two pavilions rising over a broad and clear façade. From the side of the city, the villa has a cold and barrack-like look, with windows of stern regularity. This monotony is relieved, at close observation, by a collection of bas-reliefs, the precious fragments of antique sculpture. The opposite side of the villa, the one facing the Pincian Hill and Gardens, is most beautiful ; its façade, with a spacious portico sustained on noble columns, is guarded by couchant lions and the whole dominated by two stunted, balconied towers. The rear view which we see is in striking contrast with the side which faces the city. The garden side of the villa is said to be the work of Michelangelo. To one wandering about the charming gardens which surround this mansion it is interesting to recall the legend which says that frequently, at sunset, there rises at the window of this villa the face of a man who lived there for a while and who, for the truth he advanced, was condemned and imprisoned, Galileo Galilei.

In ancient days where this villa stands, including also the site of the present Pincian Gardens, was the magnificent villa of Lucullus, one of the wealthiest Romans in the last days of the Republic. Once when Pompey the Great was sick he longed for a thrush, and ordered some for his dinner. None could be procured in the market, and he was told that Lucullus had some in his aviary, out there on the Pincian Hill. But Lucullus was, of all men, the one to whom he did not wish to be obligated, and he refused to ask for one of the birds, exclaiming: “What! is my life to hang on the luxury of Lucullus? No; I would rather die. Cook me something else.” It is recorded that Cicero was more than once entertained by Lucullus in this villa, and there its owner planted the first cherry tree brought from Asia to Europe.

Memorable spots are so numerous in this place before us, so many wonderful deeds have been done here for good or bad, that we might go on almost indefinitely. The more objects of interest we pick out, the more the events that have transpired here in the past crowd upon us. Thousands of books would not give the history of this city. Every part of it is eloquent with its own peculiar story. We can only hope in this short time to become so tolerably familiar with this section of the earth’s surface that hereafter when-ever we read of things that have transpired in this place, we shall be able to carry ourselves in thought to their location just as we think of the scene of any important event in our own native city. How our interest in uncovering the great past grows, how much more intensely real the old stories become because we can look out here and see the very building or place, in its natural surroundings, where each famous deed was done ! No one can appreciate this who has not studied such a place until he begins to feel intimately familiar with the exact location of its scores of domes and housetops and streets.

Before we turn in a new direction, let us think of this place briefly as it appeared in the five great epochs of its history. During the period of the Kings, 753–509 B. C., we know that at first the level tract of land from the Tiber to the Quirinal and from the Pincian Hill to the Pantheon and beyond, was only farm land. Under the Tarquin kings we remember it was covered with broad corn fields, a sea of plenty, swept by long, golden billows, as the grain bent beneath the balmy breeze of a bright summer day. Then came the expulsion of the Tarquins and the mad impulsive harvesting when the grain was flung into the river ; and then, amid weird chant and smoking sacrifice, the whole broad space was dedicated to Mars, the god of war, becoming thus the Campus Martius, the training ground for Rome’s armies. Later on in the Republic, 509–31 B. C., it became the meeting place of the people in their assembly known as Comitia Centuriata, in which free citizens voted for the various magistrates, such as consuls, praetors, and quaestors. The temple of Apollo was built there and dedicated in 439 B. C.; the Via Flaminia, the great northern road from Rome, was built across it in 220 B. C. Many public buildings and temples were erected in this section in the direction of the Tiber. Out there Pompey reared his senate-house and the temple-crowned theater, together with a sumptuous dwelling for himself. He still further embellished the plain by erecting vast marble porticoes so that it was possible to pass beneath them from one end of the plain to the other and not be exposed to the rays of the sun. Lovely gardens and shady groves were scattered through them all. During the Empire, 31 B. C.- 476 A. D., many buildings were erected. We can see what were the main structures by consulting our map, ” Ancient Rome in the Time of the Emperors.” Augustus began his Mausoleum, the remains of which can be seen just over the Castle of S. Angelo, in 29 B. C. Then Agrippa built his great temple on the ruins of which Hadrian reared the Pantheon, and this was followed by the construction of race courses and triumphal arches and in 273 A. D. the great ” Temple of the Sun.” And yet, ever in the midst of all these architectural monuments, as grand as any ever seen, there was always reserved space for the training and exercise of soldiers.

Then in the last rough and brutal centuries of the Empire, and the long period of the history of Rome up to the end of the Holy Roman Empire (476–1806 A. D.), this part of Rome passed through many disasters of earthquakes and inundations and was the scene of fierce strife. Nearly all this plain, thickly covered with palaces and churches and towers, intersected by a labyrinth of crooked streets, flanked, for the most part, by miserable dwellings, became the battle ground of the Colonna and the Corsini, champions respectively of the Emperors and the Popes. This condition of things was destined to be succeeded, as we know, by the coming of Victor Emmanuel to the Quirinal in 187o and the preservation of this plain much as we see it today.

But in considering what is more distant from us we are not to forget that we are standing in mid-air with the vast dome of the greatest church the Christian religion has produced beneath us. Now for a time we are going to direct our attention to this part of the city which is immediately about us and especially to this great church and the immense palace of the Vatican which lies to our left farther than we can now see. All of Rome, on this the west side of the Tiber, is divided into two distinct quarters : that to the south, in the midst of which we stood when on the Janiculum, is the Trastevere ; this quarter in which we now are, is the Borgo, or quarter of the Vatican. During the period of the Kings and the Republic there was nothing of importance in this section. During the Empire it was covered with gardens of the emperors and in the time of Nero a circus was built on the very spot beneath us upon which this church of St. Peter’s now stands. Here it was Nero subjected the early Christians to such revolting cruelties in 65 A. D. So this greatest of Christian churches was built over the spot that witnessed the first shameful martyrdoms in Rome. In the second century Hadrian built his tomb which we have noticed before over half a mile from us on the upper bank of the Tiber. Later it was made into a fortress and since the sixth century, when it was called the Castle of St. Angelo, it has been in a sense the citadel of Rome. Whoever possessed it was master of the city. In letting your eyes wander over these nearer housetops, you cannot have failed, I imagine, to light upon that covered way which runs from the Vatican Palace, down on our left, though we have not yet seen it, along by the outer pillars of the left hand colonnade and bending in and out among the forest of dwellings until, finally, it is lost at the terrace and outer wall of the Castle of St. Angelo. That passage-way was constructed in 1410 by John XXIII in order to afford greater security to the pontiffs who could thus, in times of danger, leave the Vatican unobserved and find refuge in the formidable castle. Along that gloomy corridor many a high church dignitary has fled for his life in the struggles of the middle ages.

After the founding of St. Peter’s foreign pilgrims began to start settlements near by. As this whole region was not enclosed by the city walls, it was especially exposed to all invasions and hence Leo IV surrounded it (848–852) with a wall. It was then called the Leonine city in honor of Leo IV. The walls were many times destroyed, but after the return of the Popes from France in 1377 this section enjoyed an era of prosperity and growth, reaching its height in the sixteenth century. Since then the papal court has been unable to draw the business of the city on this side of the river. For the most part a rather poor population, engaged in the humbler kinds of trade, live beneath the house-roofs we see. An architect here in the city told me that a house down there on that corner near the end of the left colonnade could in all probability be bought for six thousand dollars. Until Sixtus V in the sixteenth century, the Borgo belonged to the Popes ; at that time it was incorporated with the city. But by a decree of May 17th, 1871, the Vatican, the Lateran, the Church of S. M. Maggiore and three other places, the Castle Gandolfo near the Alban Lake, the Cancelleria, and the Dataria Palace were placed by the Italian Government under the absolute jurisdiction of the Pope, thereby being considered as forming no part of the political kingdom of Italy.

Soon we are going down to the roof of that house which stands at the end of the colonnade on our right. From that roof we shall look back to this dome and church upon which we are standing. First, however, keeping our position on the dome, we are to turn al-most directly to our left and look down upon the greatest palace in the world. Consulting the general map of Rome again, we find two red lines which ex-tend from the black outline of St. Peter’s in a northerly direction to the upper map margin, having there the figure 5 at the end of each. Thus we know precisely what part of the city we are to look upon. These lines are found also on the special map of ” St. Peter’s and the Vatican.” From now on, while we are around those buildings, this smaller map is to be used continually.