And now we begin to have the usual experience of Roman mendicancy. Truly, there is no beggar like your Roman beggar. He has raised his profession to both an art and a nuisance. Appeals to charity take every form and phase. Evidences of anatomical disaster are utilized to excite pity at so much per sigh. Tales of misery and misfortune ring all the changes of fervency and fancy. Their whines are both groveling and dramatic. ” Niente ! ” they moan, as with woe-begone faces and pathetic twists of their necks they sidle up with stiff gestures of weary and hopeless expressiveness; ” Illustrissimo ! Eccellenza ! Per amor di Dio ! ” You could not bluff them, though you were armored in all the calloused nonchalance of the average ambulance surgeon; and your doom is sealed if you undertake to bandy repartee, for their invective is as searching as a satire of Juvenal. Whether you give or not, their volubility and frankness continue unabated; for you are savagely cursed if you decline, and if you acquiesce are blessed strictly in proportion to the gratuity. Indubitably, in the social scheme of the beggar we be brethren all and should each aid the other – after the philosophy of the Italian, saying, “One hand washes the other, and both the face.” The Roman, understanding them, passes coolly by; but the foreigner, who is their special prey, gives up in desperation, on the principle of the local proverb, “We are in the ballroom and we must dance.”
Parenthetically, again, they say the authorities are helpless to curb this universal Roman nuisance. It is an institution. These beggars come of all classes – from the Capuchin and Franciscan lay brothers who go about in brown robes, rope girdles, and sandals and present a basket for food, to the dirty urchins of the Appian Way who stop your carriage with their acrobatic proficiency and then howl for soldi in the name of all the saints. Many a beggar here is a bank depositor; and any of them who can retain the monopoly of the door of a popular church may confidently look forward to affluence. Very likely they are better business men, in their way, than many who drop coins into their pathetic, swindling hands. A chacun son metier.
It would extend a Brooklynite to negotiate the crossing of the Piazza di Venezia. It is the grand gatheringplace of tramcars, busses, cabs, carts, bicycles, and every other form of conveyance. You will certainly find a “Seeing Rome” automobile, with the lecturer pointing out the castellated old Palazzo di Venezia and telling his people that it was built of stone from the Colosseum, and has been the seat of the Austrian embassy to the Curia for over a hundred years. So far as traffic is concerned, this is the heart of Rome. Nothing less than a whirlpool could be expected in a spot that is the confluence of such full streams of life as the Corso and the Via Nazionale. One admires its broad, busy sweep, and the dignity of the solid old gray buildings that rim it. No mid-afternoon heat lessens the bustle and activity that rages here; even the experienced natives can be found in large numbers, jostling their way across it, and visitors pass through in droves to reach the Cenci Palace or to see the spot where Paul dwelt for two years “in his own hired house.”
If you stopped, as I did, at one of the hotels near the Baths of Diocletian, the Via Nazionale will have a friendly suggestion of the nearest way home. With thoughts of that temporary home the recollection often comes to me of the mildly stimulating delight I once found in getting lost by night in this city of superior chance encounters. It seemed, on the first occasion, as though I had scarcely turned the corner into the Via Cavour before a delicious conviction of unfamiliarity with my surroundings assured me I was pursuing a course that was certain, sooner or later, to lead-to artistic discovery or adventure. Nothing was easier than getting lost, for I was newly arrived; and yet localities and objects of consequence were not without significance, for, like every one else, I had a vivid idea of the landmarks of the famous city. And first of all, I discovered I was passing the infamous spot where “the impious Tullia” drove her chariot across the bleeding body of her royal father; whence I hastened on, with furtive glances. Next, after some speculation I identified an enormous church to be none other than the famous Santa Maria Maggiore, whose ceilings, I had read, were crusted with the first gold brought from the New World, and to whose high altar the popes used to come by torchlight for New Year’s mass. I thrilled at the incredible reflection that the street cars crossing that corner would be passing, a moment later, the site of the gardens of Maecenas where Horace and Virgil had mused and read their verses. A few blocks farther on I came to a halt before the house of Lucrezia Borgia; and I tried to fancy the circumstances of the night of their quiet family supper there, before the children took leave of their mother with false words of affection and Caesar hurried to gather his bravos and overtook Francesco, and, muffled in a cloak, sat his horse in easy unconcern while his brother was done to death and thrown into the Tiber. For relief I turned across the street to the church of St. Peter-in-Chains, and imagined how Michael Angelo’s vigorous Moses might be appearing in the dark of the side aisle, and thought of the master striking the completed work with his mallet and crying out, “Now, speak!” On I rambled, through a block or two of darkened shops and gloomy houses, and suddenly a great open space yawned before me and I was staring at rows of column stumps, mellowed and battered, and among them a tall, ghostly shaft of marble with a spiral band of half-mutilated reliefs winding away up to the summit, where was the dusky outline of a sculptured form. It was the old schoolgeography picture come to life! There was I in the heart of an unfamiliar city, alone, by night, with this vast relic of the ancients. It was like Stanley finding Livingstone in Africa. I felt I had honestly discovered it and that it ought to be mine. It was the Forum of Trajan !
It will seem a violent transition to jump from midnight to mid-afternoon, but the plunge must be taken. The normal state of the Corso at three-thirty of a summer afternoon is one of leisurely activity. The crowds are lethargic, slow-moving, inclined to curiosity. An interesting social comedy is proceeding, with foreign ladies playing sight-seeing roles, clutching their red Baedekers and Hare’s “Walks in Rome.” Jostling groups of them gather before the beguiling shop windows, and occasionally one enters and possesses herself of a Roman pearl or cameo, or perhaps a mosaic or copy of an antique bronze. Business people pass along in their habitually distrait manner, and priests beyond number brighten the scene with habits of every hue. There is little enough of room in the middle of the street and scarcely any on the sidewalks. Like all Roman thoroughfares, the Corso is clean and distinguished. Long perspectives of gayly awninged shops extend toward the Piazza del Popolo, agreeably broken here and there by the interposition of mellow old palace fronts and richly sculptured baroque facades; and there is frequent opportunity for passing glimpses into cool courtyards attractive with foliage and fountains.
Visitors keep forsaking the Corso at every turning to make inspiring discoveries in the tangled mesh of side streets. We are at liberty to suspect those who go to the west, of sentimental designs on the star under the dome of a neighboring church that marks the spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated in Pompey’s Senate House; or, perhaps, of an intention to visit the sombre statue of Giordano Bruno in the Field of Flowers, and reflect upon what a constant rebuke it must be to the church that burned him there, three centuries ago, for persisting in his “modernism” to the outrageous extremity of defending the astronomical discoveries of Copernicus and like heresies of the hour.
Afternoon walks in Rome should be frequently interrupted, not only to escape the floods of sunshine, but to find out occasionally what is behind the mellow garden walls over whose tops glistening, green foliage droops enticingly down with hints of cool and restful retreats. Such an opportunity presents itself here in the rare Colonna Gardens, just around the corner of the great Colonna Palace where earlier in the day the Titians and Tintorettos ravish the artistic. Spacious, elegant Rome has nothing more charming and exquisite than such gardens as these. Art and antiquity are everywhere in restful profusion – “storied urn and animated bust.” It is even said that sculptures are to be found almost anywhere underground for the mere pains of exhuming. One rests with infinite satisfaction in the deep shade of eucalyptus, cypress, ilex, and laurel., to the sweet singing of multitudes of birds. There are roses and oranges in bloom, and tall hedges of clipped box, and musical little cascades tumble down from terrace to terrace and drip over mossy marble steps. In this particular garden come thoughts of Michael Angelo and Vittoria Colonna, who so often strolled along these very paths and communed in their serene and beautiful friendship. Theirs was a faith that brought its own reward.
And what, pray, without its amazing faith, would this Catholic Rome be, anyway? A chaque saint sa chandelle. Otherwise, what would become of that marble block from the floor of the Appian Way- which the stubborn archaeologists will insist was really paved with silex – that is preserved with so much reverence in the church of Domine Quo Vadis, as showing the impressions of the feet of Our Lord and St. Peter when they faced each other there on the occasion of the memorable rebuke of the latter for his proposed flight from Rome? And how about the scala santa – the worn and venerated marble steps in the shrine near the church of St. John Lateran, which were brought from Jerusalem and up which we are told Christ passed on his way to the judgment seat of Pilate? The faithful thank God for the privilege of ascending them on their knees, praying, and receiving the indulgence of a thousand years of purgatory; and they were worn thin with kisses long before the day when Martin Luther got halfway up and suddenly quit and came tramping down with a voice crying in his ears, “The just shall live by faith.” And without faith, where would be the use of the miraculous Bambino, the adored and bejeweled little wooden image that a Franciscan pilgrim carved from a tree of the Mount of Olives and which is imposingly domiciled in a glass case in the church of Ara Coeli? They say there is no disease that the Bambino cannot cure; and when his keepers accompany him through the streets on his errands of mercy, conveyed in his magnificent buff coach, people kneel by hundreds and beseech a blessing. Such blessing may be secured, though possibly of a diminished efficacy, by buying one of his legended cards at the church and having the priest rub it across the glass top of the case. Who would eschew faith and forfeit such advantages? Would we not still have Life’s puzzle, and without this key? Might we not even be reduced to a plane as confused and desperate as that of the famous Sultan of Turkey, who knew so little of music that, when his new Italian band had finished tuning-up, he shouted in delight to the leader, “Marshallah! Let the dogs play that tune again!”