St. Maria Maggiore – Rome, Italy

We followed the street which ascends and descends, bordered with palaces and old hedges of thorn, as far as Santa Maria Maggiore. This basilica, standing upon a large eminence, surmounted with its domes, rises nobly upward, at once simple and complete, and when you enter it, it affords still greater pleasure. It belongs to the fifth century; on being rebuilt at a later period, the general plan, its antique idea, was pre-served. An ample nave, with a horizontal roof, is sustained by two rows of white Ionic columns. You are rejoiced to see so fine an effect obtained by such simple means; you might almost imagine yourself in a Greek temple.

It is said that a temple of Juno was robbed of these columns. Each of them bare and polished, with no other ornament than the delicate curves of its small capital, is of healthful and charming beauty. You appreciate here the good sense, and all that is agreeable in genuine natural construction, the file of trunks of trees which bear the beams, resting flat and providing a long walk. All that has since been added is barbarous, and first, the two chapels of Sixtus V. and Paul V., with their paintings by Guido, Josepin, and Cigoli, and the sculptures of Bernini, and the architecture of Fontana and Flaminio. These are celebrated names, and money has been prodigally spent, but instead of the slight means with which the ancients produced a great effect, the mod-erns produce a petty effect with great means.

When the bewildered eye is satiated with the elaborate sweep of these arches and domes, with the splendors of polychromatic marbles, with friezes and pedestals of agate, with columns of oriental jasper, with angels hanging by their feet, and with all these bas-reliefs of bronze and gold, the visitor hastens to get’ away from it as he would to escape from a confectioner’s shop. It seems as if this grand, glittering box, gilded and labored from pavement to lantern, caught up and tore at every point of its finery the delicate web of poetic reverie; the slender profile of the least of the columns impresses one far more than any of this display of the art of upholsterers and parvenus. Similarly to this the facade, loaded with balustrades, and round and angular pediments, and statues roosting on its stones, is a “hotel-de-ville” frontage.

The campanile, belonging to the fourteenth century, alone presents an agreeable object; at that time it was one of the towers of the city, a distinctive sign which marked it on the old plans so black and sharp, and stamped it forever on the still corporeal imaginations of monks and wayfarers. There are traces of every age in these old basilicas; you see the diverse states of Christianity, at first enshrined in pagan forms, and then traversing the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to muffle itself up finally, and bedeck itself with modern finery. The Byzantine epoch has left its imprint in the mosaics of the great nave and the apsis, and in its bloodless and life-less Christs and Virgins, so many staring specters motionless on their gold backgrounds and red panels, the fantoms of an extinct art and a vanished society.