Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Roman Neighbourhoods

I made a note after my first stroll at Albano to the effect that
I had been talking of the "picturesque" all my life, but that now
for a change I beheld it. I had been looking all winter across
the Campagna at the free-flowing outline of the Alban Mount, with
its half-dozen towns shining on its purple side even as vague
sun-spots in the shadow of a cloud, and thinking it simply an
agreeable incident in the varied background of Rome. But now that
during the last few days I have been treating it as a foreground,
have been suffering St. Peter's to play the part of a small
mountain on the horizon, with the Campagna swimming mistily
through the ambiguous lights and shadows of the interval, I find
the interest as great as in the best of the by-play of Rome. The
walk I speak of was just out of the village, to the south, toward
the neighbouring town of L'Ariccia, neighbouring these twenty
years, since the Pope (the late Pope, I was on the point of
calling him) threw his superb viaduct across the deep ravine
which divides it from Albano. At the risk of seeming to
fantasticate I confess that the Pope's having built the viaduct--
in this very recent antiquity--made me linger there in a pensive
posture and marvel at the march of history and at Pius the
Ninth's beginning already to profit by the sentimental allowances
we make to vanished powers. An ardent nero then would have
had his own way with me and obtained a frank admission that the
Pope was indeed a father to his people. Far down into the
charming valley which slopes out of the ancestral woods of the
Chigis into the level Campagna winds the steep stone-paved road
at the bottom of which, in the good old days, tourists in no
great hurry saw the mules and oxen tackled to their carriage for
the opposite ascent. And indeed even an impatient tourist might
have been content to lounge back in his jolting chaise and look
out at the mouldy foundations of the little city plunging into
the verdurous flank of the gorge. Questioned, as a cherisher of
quaintness, as to the best "bit" hereabouts, I should certainly
name the way in which the crumbling black houses of these
ponderous villages plant their weary feet on the flowery edges of
all the steepest chasms. Before you enter one of them you
invariably find yourself lingering outside its pretentious old
gateway to see it clutched and stitched to the stony hillside by
this rank embroidery of the wildest and bravest things that grow.
Just at this moment nothing is prettier than the contrast between
their dusky ruggedness and the tender, the yellow and pink and
violet fringe of that mantle. All this you may observe from the
viaduct at the Ariccia; but you must wander below to feel the
full force of the eloquence of our imaginary papalino. The
pillars and arches of pale grey peperino arise in huge tiers with
a magnificent spring and solidity. The older Romans built no
better; and the work has a deceptive air of being one of their
sturdy bequests which help one to drop another sigh over the
antecedents the Italians of to-day are so eager to repudiate.
Will those they give their descendants be as good?

At the Ariccia, in any case, I found a little square with a
couple of mossy fountains, occupied on one side by a vast dusky-
faced Palazzo Chigi and on the other by a goodly church with an
imposing dome. The dome, within, covers the whole edifice and is
adorned with some extremely elegant stucco-work of the
seventeenth century. It gave a great value to this fine old
decoration that preparations were going forward for a local
festival and that the village carpenter was hanging certain
mouldy strips of crimson damask against the piers of the vaults.
The damask might have been of the seventeenth century too, and a
group of peasant-women were seeing it unfurled with evident awe.
I regarded it myself with interest--it seemed so the tattered
remnant of a fashion that had gone out for ever. I thought again
of the poor disinherited Pope, wondering whether, when such
venerable frippery will no longer bear the carpenter's nails, any
more will be provided. It was hard to fancy anything but shreds
and patches in that musty tabernacle. Wherever you go in Italy
you receive some such intimation as this of the shrunken
proportions of Catholicism, and every church I have glanced into
on my walks hereabouts has given me an almost pitying sense of
it. One finds one's self at last--without fatuity, I hope--
feeling sorry for the solitude of the remaining faithful. It's as
if the churches had been made so for the world, in its social
sense, and the world had so irrevocably moved away. They are in
size out of all modern proportion to the local needs, and the
only thing at all alive in the melancholy waste they collectively
form is the smell of stale incense. There are pictures on all the
altars by respectable third-rate painters; pictures which I
suppose once were ordered and paid for and criticised by
worshippers who united taste with piety. At Genzano, beyond the
Ariccia, rises on the grey village street a pompous Renaissance
temple whose imposing nave and aisles would contain the
population of a capital. But where is the taste of the
Ariccia and Genzano? Where are the choice spirits for whom
Antonio Raggi modelled the garlands of his dome and a hundred
clever craftsmen imitated Guido and Caravaggio? Here and there,
from the pavement, as you pass, a dusky crone interlards her
devotions with more profane importunities, or a grizzled peasant
on rusty-jointed knees, tilted forward with his elbows on a
bench, reveals the dimensions of the patch in his blue breeches.
But where is the connecting link between Guido and Caravaggio and
those poor souls for whom an undoubted original is only a
something behind a row of candlesticks, of no very clear meaning
save that you must bow to it? You find a vague memory of it at
best in the useless grandeurs about you, and you seem to be
looking at a structure of which the stubborn earth-scented
foundations alone remain, with the carved and painted shell that
bends above them, while the central substance has utterly
crumbled away.

I shall seem to have adopted a more meditative pace than befits a
brisk constitutional if I say that I also fell a-thinking before
the shabby fašade of the old Chigi Palace. But it seemed somehow
in its grey forlornness to respond to the sadly superannuated
expression of the opposite church; and indeed in any condition
what self-respecting cherisher of quaintness can forbear to do a
little romancing in the shadow of a provincial palazzo? On the
face of the matter, I know, there is often no very salient peg to
hang a romance on. A sort of dusky blankness invests the
establishment, which has often a rather imbecile old age. But a
hundred brooding secrets lurk in this inexpressive mask, and the
Chigi Palace did duty for me in the suggestive twilight as the
most haunted of houses. Its basement walls sloped outward like
the beginning of a pyramid, and its lower windows were covered
with massive iron cages. Within the doorway, across the court, I
saw the pale glimmer of flowers on a terrace, and I made much,
for the effect of the roof, of a great covered loggia or
belvedere with a dozen window-panes missing or mended with paper.
Nothing gives one a stronger impression of old manners than an
ancestral palace towering in this haughty fashion over a shabby
little town; you hardly stretch a point when you call it an
impression of feudalism. The scene may pass for feudal to
American eyes, for which a hundred windows on a facade mean
nothing more exclusive than a hotel kept (at the most invidious)
on the European plan. The mouldy grey houses on the steep crooked
street, with their black cavernous archways pervaded by bad
smells, by the braying of asses and by human intonations hardly
more musical, the haggard and tattered peasantry staring at you
with hungry-heavy eyes, the brutish-looking monks (there are
still enough to point a moral), the soldiers, the mounted
constables, the dirt, the dreariness, the misery, and the dark
over-grown palace frowning over it all from barred window and
guarded gateway--what more than all this do we dimly descry in a
mental image of the dark ages? For all his desire to keep the
peace with the vivid image of things if it be only vivid enough,
the votary of this ideal may well occasionally turn over such
values with the wonder of what one takes them as paying for. They
pay sometimes for such sorry "facts of life." At Genzano, out of
the very midst of the village squalor, rises the Palazzo
Cesarini, separated from its gardens by a dirty lane. Between
peasant and prince the, contact is unbroken, and one would
suppose Italian good-nature sorely taxed by their mutual
allowances; that the prince in especial must cultivate a firm
impervious shell. There are no comfortable townsfolk about him to
remind him of the blessings of a happy mediocrity of fortune.
When he looks out of his window he sees a battered old peasant
against a sunny wall sawing off his dinner from a hunch of black
bread.

I must confess, however, that "feudal" as it amused me to find
the little piazza of the Ariccia, it appeared to threaten in no
manner an exasperated rising. On the contrary, the afternoon
being cool, many of the villagers were contentedly muffled in
those ancient cloaks, lined with green baize, which, when tossed
over the shoulder and surmounted with a peaked hat, form one of
the few lingering remnants of "costume" in Italy; others were
tossing wooden balls light-heartedly enough on the grass outside
the town. The egress on this side is under a great stone archway
thrown out from the palace and surmounted with the family arms.
Nothing could better confirm your theory that the townsfolk are
groaning serfs. The road leads away through the woods, like many
of the roads hereabouts, among trees less remarkable for their
size than for their picturesque contortions and posturings. The
woods, at the moment at which I write, are full of the raw green
light of early spring, a jour vastly becoming to the
various complexions of the wild flowers that cover the waysides.
I have never seen these untended parterres in such lovely
exuberance; the sturdiest pedestrian becomes a lingering idler if
he allows them to catch his eye. The pale purple cyclamen, with
its hood thrown back, stands up in masses as dense as tulip-beds;
and here and there in the duskier places great sheets of forget-
me-not seem to exhale a faint blue mist. These are the commonest
plants; there are dozens more I know no name for--a rich
profusion in especial of a beautiful five-petalled flower whose
white texture is pencilled with hair-strokes certain fair
copyists I know of would have to hold their breath to imitate. An
Italian oak has neither the girth nor the height of its English
brothers, but it contrives in proportion to be perhaps even more
effective. It crooks its back and twists its arms and clinches
its hundred fists with the queerest extravagance, and wrinkles
its bark into strange rugosities from which its first scattered
sprouts of yellow green seem to break out like a morbid fungus.
But the tree which has the greatest charm to northern eyes is the
cold grey-green ilex, whose clear crepuscular shade drops against
a Roman sun a veil impenetrable, yet not oppressive. The ilex has
even less colour than the cypress, but it is much less funereal,
and a landscape in which it is frequent may still be said to
smile faintly, though by no means to laugh. It abounds in old
Italian gardens, where the boughs are trimmed and interlocked
into vaulted corridors in which, from point to point, as in the
niches of some dimly frescoed hall, you see mildewed busts stare
at you with a solemnity which the even grey light makes strangely
intense. A humbler relative of the ilex, though it does better
things than help broken-nosed emperors to look dignified, is the
olive, which covers many of the neighbouring hillsides with its
little smoky puffs of foliage. A stroke of composition I never
weary of is that long blue stretch of the Campagna which makes a
high horizon and rests on this vaporous base of olive-tops. A
reporter intent upon a simile might liken it to the ocean seen
above the smoke of watch-fires kindled on the strand.

To do perfect justice to the wood-walk away from the Ariccia I
ought to touch upon the birds that were singing vespers as I
passed. But the reader would find my rhapsody as poor
entertainment as the programme of a concert he had been unable to
attend. I have no more learning about bird-music than would help
me to guess that a dull dissyllabic refrain in the heart of the
wood came from the cuckoo; and when at moments I heard a twitter
of fuller tone, with a more suggestive modulation, I could only
hope it was the nightingale. I have listened for the
nightingale more than once in places so charming that his song
would have seemed but the articulate expression of their beauty,
and have never heard much beyond a provoking snatch or two--a
prelude that came to nothing. In spite of a natural grudge,
however, I generously believe him a great artist or at least a
great genius--a creature who despises any prompting short of
absolute inspiration. For the rich, the multitudinous melody
around me seemed but the offering to my ear of the prodigal
spirit of tradition. The wood was ringing with sound because it
was twilight, spring and Italy. It was also because of these good
things and various others besides that I relished so keenly my
visit to the Capuchin convent upon which I emerged after half-an-
hour in the wood. It stands above the town on the slope of the
Alban Mount, and its wild garden climbs away behind it and
extends its melancholy influence. Before it is a small stiff
avenue of trimmed live-oaks which conducts you to a grotesque
little shrine beneath the staircase ascending to the church. Just
here, if you are apt to grow timorous at twilight, you may take a
very pretty fright; for as you draw near you catch behind the
grating of the shrine the startling semblance of a gaunt and
livid monk. A sickly lamplight plays down upon his face, and he
stares at you from cavernous eyes with a dreadful air of death in
life. Horror of horrors, you murmur, is this a Capuchin penance?
You discover of course in a moment that it is only a Capuchin
joke, that the monk is a pious dummy and his spectral visage a
matter of the paint-brush. You resent his intrusion on the
surrounding loveliness; and as you proceed to demand
entertainment at their convent you pronounce the Capuchins very
foolish fellows. This declaration, as I made it, was supported by
the conduct of the simple brother who opened the door of the
cloister in obedience to my knock and, on learning my errand,
demurred about admitting me at so late an hour. If I would return
on the morrow morning he'd be most happy. He broke into a blank
grin when I assured him that this was the very hour of my desire
and that the garish morning light would do no justice to the
view. These were mysteries beyond his ken, and it was only his
good-nature (of which he had plenty) and not his imagination that
was moved. So that when, passing through the narrow cloister and
out upon the grassy terrace, I saw another cowled brother
standing with folded hands profiled against the sky, in admirable
harmony with the scene, I questioned his knowing the uses for
which he is still most precious. This, however, was surely too
much to ask of him, and it was cause enough for gratitude that,
though he was there before me, he was not a fellow-tourist with
an opera-glass slung over his shoulder. There was support to my
idea of the convent in the expiring light, for the scene was in
its way unsurpassable. Directly below the terrace lay the deep-
set circle of the Alban Lake, shining softly through the light
mists of evening. This beautiful pool--it is hardly more--
occupies the crater of a prehistoric volcano, a perfect cup,
shaped and smelted by furnace-fires. The rim of the cup, rising
high and densely wooded round the placid stone-blue water, has a
sort of natural artificiality. The sweep and contour of the long
circle are admirable; never was a lake so charmingly lodged. It
is said to be of extraordinary depth; and though stone-blue water
seems at first a very innocent substitute for boiling lava, it
has a sinister look which betrays its dangerous antecedents. The
winds never reach it and its surface is never ruffled; but its
deep-bosomed placidity seems to cover guilty secrets, and you
fancy it in communication with the capricious and treacherous
forces of nature. Its very colour is of a joyless beauty, a blue
as cold and opaque as a solidified sheet of lava. Streaked and
wrinkled by a mysterious motion of its own, it affects the very
type of a legendary pool, and I could easily have believed that I
had only to sit long enough into the evening to see the ghosts of
classic nymphs and naiads cleave its sullen flood and beckon me
with irresistible arms. Is it because its shores are haunted with
these vague Pagan influences that two convents have risen there
to purge the atmosphere? From the Capuchin terrace you look
across at the grey Franciscan monastery of Palazzuola, which is
not less romantic certainly than the most obstinate myth it may
have exorcised. The Capuchin garden is a wild tangle of great
trees and shrubs and clinging, trembling vines which in these
hard days are left to take care of themselves; a weedy garden, if
there ever was one, but none the less charming for that, in the
deepening dusk, with its steep grassy vistas struggling away into
impenetrable shadow. I braved the shadow for the sake of climbing
upon certain little flat-roofed crumbling pavilions that rise
from the corners of the further wall and give you a wider and
lovelier view of lake and hills and sky.

I have perhaps justified to the reader the mild proposition with
which I started--convinced him, that is, that Albano is worth a
walk. It may be a different walk each day, moreover, and not
resemble its predecessors save by its keeping in the shade.
"Galleries" the roads are prettily called, and with the justice
that they are vaulted and draped overhead and hung with an
immense succession of pictures. As you follow the few miles from
Genzano to Frascati you have perpetual views of the Campagna
framed by clusters of trees; the vast iridescent expanse of which
completes the charm and comfort of your verdurous dusk. I
compared it just now to the sea, and with a good deal of truth,
for it has the same incalculable lights and shades, the same
confusion of glitter and gloom. But I have seen it at moments--
chiefly in the misty twilight--when it resembled less the waste
of waters than something more portentous, the land itself in
fatal dissolution. I could believe the fields to be dimly surging
and tossing and melting away into quicksands, and that one's very
last chance of an impression was taking place. A view, however,
which has the merit of being really as interesting as it seems,
is that of the Lake of Nemi; which the enterprising traveller
hastens to compare with its sister sheet of Albano. Comparison in
this case is particularly odious, for in order to prefer one lake
to the other you have to discover faults where there are none.
Nemi is a smaller circle, but lies in a deeper cup, and if with
no grey Franciscan pile to guard its woody shores, at least, in
the same position, the little high-perched black town to which it
gives its name and which looks across at Genzano on the opposite
shore as Palazzuola regards Castel Gandolfo. The walk from the
Ariccia to Genzano is charming, most of all when it reaches a
certain grassy piazza from which three public avenues stretch
away under a double row of stunted and twisted elms. The Duke
Cesarini has a villa at Genzano--I mentioned it just now--whose
gardens overhang the lake; but he has also a porter in a faded
rakish-looking livery who shakes his head at your proffered franc
unless you can reinforce it with a permit countersigned at Rome.
For this annoying complication of dignities he is justly to be
denounced; but I forgive him for the sake of that ancestor who in
the seventeenth century planted this shady walk. Never was a
prettier approach to a town than by these low-roofed light-
chequered corridors. Their only defect is that they prepare you
for a town of rather more rustic coquetry than Genzano exhibits.
It has quite the usual allowance, the common cynicism, of
accepted decay, and looks dismally as if its best families had
all fallen into penury together and lost the means of keeping
anything better than donkeys in their great dark, vaulted
basements and mending their broken window-panes with anything
better than paper. It was on the occasion of this drear Genzano
that I had a difference of opinion with a friend who maintained
that there was nothing in the same line so pretty in Europe as a
pretty New England village. The proposition seemed to a cherisher
of quaintness on the face of it inacceptable; but calmly
considered it has a measure of truth. I am not fond of chalk-
white painted planks, certainly; I vastly prefer the dusky tones
of ancient stucco and peperino; but I succumb on occasion to the
charms of a vine-shaded porch, of tulips and dahlias glowing in
the shade of high-arching elms, of heavy-scented lilacs bending
over a white paling to brush your cheek.

"I prefer Siena to Lowell," said my friend; "but I prefer
Farmington to such a thing as this." In fact an Italian village
is simply a miniature Italian city, and its various parts imply a
town of fifty times the size. At Genzano are neither dahlias nor
lilacs, and no odours but foul ones. Flowers and other graces are
all confined to the high-walled precincts of Duke Cesarini, to
which you must obtain admission twenty miles away. The houses on
the other hand would generally lodge a New England cottage,
porch and garden and high-arching elms included, in one of their
cavernous basements. These vast grey dwellings are all of a
fashion denoting more generous social needs than any they serve
nowadays. They speak of better days and of a fabulous time when
Italy was either not shabby or could at least "carry off" her
shabbiness. For what follies are they doing penance? Through what
melancholy stages have their fortunes ebbed? You ask these
questions as you choose the shady side of the long blank street
and watch the hot sun glare upon the dust-coloured walls and
pause before the fetid gloom of open doors.

I should like to spare a word for mouldy little Nemi, perched
upon a cliff high above the lake, at the opposite side; but after
all, when I had climbed up into it from the water-side, passing
beneath a great arch which I suppose once topped a gateway, and
counted its twenty or thirty apparent inhabitants peeping at me
from black doorways, and looked at the old round tower at whose
base the village clusters, and declared that it was all queer,
queer, desperately queer, I had said all that is worth saying
about it. Nemi has a much better appreciation of its lovely
position than Genzano, where your only view of the lake is from a
dunghill behind one of the houses. At the foot of the round tower
is an overhanging terrace, from which you may feast your eyes on
the only freshness they find in these dusky human hives--the
blooming seam, as one may call it, of strong wild flowers which
binds the crumbling walls to the face of the cliff. Of Rocca di
Papa I must say as little, It consorted generally with the
bravery of its name; but the only object I made a note of as I
passed through it on my way to Monte Cavo, which rises directly
above it, was a little black house with a tablet in its face
setting forth that Massimo d' Azeglio had dwelt there. The story
of his sojourn is not the least attaching episode in his
delightful Ricordi. From the summit of Monte Cavo is a
prodigious view, which you may enjoy with whatever good-nature is
left you by the reflection that the modern Passionist convent
occupying this admirable site was erected by the Cardinal of York
(grandson of James II) on the demolished ruins of an immemorial
temple of Jupiter: the last foolish act of a foolish race. For me
I confess this folly spoiled the convent, and the convent all but
spoiled the view; for I kept thinking how fine it would have been
to emerge upon the old pillars and sculptures from the lava
pavement of the Via Triumphalis, which wanders grass-grown and
untrodden through the woods. A convent, however, which nothing
spoils is that of Palazzuola, to which I paid my respects on this
same occasion. It rises on a lower spur of Monte Cavo, on the
edge, as we have seen, of the Alban Lake, and though it occupies
a classic site, that of early Alba Longa, it displaced nothing
more precious than memories and legends so dim that the
antiquarians are still quarrelling about them. It has a meagre
little church and the usual sham Perugino with a couple of tinsel
crowns for the Madonna and the Infant inserted into the canvas;
and it has also a musty old room hung about with faded portraits
and charts and queer ecclesiastical knick-knacks, which borrowed
a mysterious interest from the sudden assurance of the simple
Franciscan brother who accompanied me that it was the room of the
Son of the King of Portugal. But my peculiar pleasure was the
little thick-shaded garden which adjoins the convent and commands
from its massive artificial foundations an enchanting view of the
lake. Part of it is laid out in cabbages and lettuce, over which
a rubicund brother, with his frock tucked up, was bending with a
solicitude which he interrupted to remove his skullcap and greet
me with the unsophisticated sweet-humoured smile that every now
and then in Italy does so much to make you forget the ambiguities
of monachism. The rest is occupied by cypresses and other
funereal umbrage, making a dank circle round an old cracked
fountain black with water-moss. The parapet of the terrace is
furnished with good stone seats where you may lean on your elbows
to gaze away a sunny half-hour and, feeling the general charm of
the scene, declare that the best mission of such a country in the
world has been simply to produce, in the way of prospect and
picture, these masterpieces of mildness. Mild here as a dream the
whole attained effect, mild as resignation, mild as one's
thoughts of another life. Such a session wasn't surely an
experience of the irritable flesh; it was the deep degustation,
on a summer's day, of something immortally expressed by a man of
genius.

[Illustration: CASTEL GANDOLFO.]

From Albano you may take your way through several ancient little
cities to Frascati, a rival centre of villeggiatura, the
road following the hillside for a long morning's walk and
passing through alternations of denser and clearer shade--the
dark vaulted alleys of ilex and the brilliant corridors of fresh-
sprouting oak. The Campagna is beneath you continually, with the
sea beyond Ostia receiving the silver arrows of the sun upon its
chased and burnished shield, and mighty Rome, to the north, lying
at no great length in the idle immensity around it. The highway
passes below Castel Gandolfo, which stands perched on an eminence
behind a couple of gateways surmounted with the Papal tiara and
twisted cordon; and I have more than once chosen the roundabout
road for the sake of passing beneath these pompous insignia.
Castel Gandolfo is indeed an ecclesiastical village and under the
peculiar protection of the Popes, whose huge summer-palace rises
in the midst of it like a rural Vatican. In speaking of the road
to Frascati I necessarily revert to my first impressions,
gathered on the occasion of the feast of the Annunziata, which
falls on the 25th of March and is celebrated by a peasants' fair.
As Murray strongly recommends you to visit this spectacle, at
which you are promised a brilliant exhibition of all the costumes
of modern Latium, I took an early train to Frascati and measured,
in company with a prodigious stream of humble pedestrians, the
half-hour's interval to Grotta Ferrata, where the fair is held.
The road winds along the hillside, among the silver-sprinkled
olives and through a charming wood where the ivy seemed tacked
upon the oaks by women's fingers and the birds were singing to
the late anemones. It was covered with a very jolly crowd of
vulgar pleasure-takers, and the only creatures not in a state of
manifest hilarity were the pitiful little overladen, overbeaten
donkeys (who surely deserve a chapter to themselves in any
description of these neighbourhoods) and the horrible beggars who
were thrusting their sores and stumps at you from under every
tree. Every one was shouting, singing, scrambling, making light
of dust and distance and filling the air with that childlike
jollity which the blessed Italian temperament never goes
roundabout to conceal. There is no crowd surely at once so jovial
and so gentle as an Italian crowd, and I doubt if in any other
country the tightly packed third-class car in which I went out
from Rome would have introduced me to so much smiling and so
little swearing. Grotta Ferrata is a very dirty little village,
with a number of raw new houses baking on the hot hillside and
nothing to charm the fond gazer but its situation and its old
fortified abbey. After pushing about among the shabby little
booths and declining a number of fabulous bargains in tinware,
shoes and pork, I was glad to retire to a comparatively uninvaded
corner of the abbey and divert myself with the view. This grey
ecclesiastical stronghold is a thoroughly scenic affair, hanging
over the hillside on plunging foundations which bury themselves
among the dense olives. It has massive round towers at the
corners and a grass-grown moat, enclosing a church and a
monastery. The fore-court, within the abbatial gateway, now
serves as the public square of the village and in fair-time of
course witnesses the best of the fun. The best of the fun was to
be found in certain great vaults and cellars of the abbey, where
wine was in free flow from gigantic hogsheads. At the exit of
these trickling grottos shady trellises of bamboo and gathered
twigs had been improvised, and under them a grand guzzling
proceeded. All of which was so in the fine old style that I was
roughly reminded of the wedding-feast of Gamacho. The banquet
was far less substantial of course, but it had a note as of
immemorial manners that couldn't fail to suggest romantic
analogies to a pilgrim from the land of no cooks. There was a
feast of reason close at hand, however, and I was careful to
visit the famous frescoes of Domenichino in the adjoining
church. It sounds rather brutal perhaps to say that, when I came
back into the clamorous little piazza, the sight of the peasants
swilling down their sour wine appealed to me more than the
masterpieces--Murray calls them so--of the famous Bolognese. It
amounts after all to saying that I prefer Teniers to Domenichino;
which I am willing to let pass for the truth. The scene under the
rickety trellises was the more suggestive of Teniers that there
were no costumes to make it too Italian. Murray's attractive
statement on this point was, like many of his statements, much
truer twenty years ago than to-day. Costume is gone or fast
going; I saw among the women not a single crimson bodice and not
a couple of classic head-cloths. The poorer sort, dressed in
vulgar rags of no fashion and colour, and the smarter ones in
calico gowns and printed shawls of the vilest modern fabric, had
honoured their dusky tresses but with rich applications of
grease. The men are still in jackets and breeches, and, with
their slouched and pointed hats and open-breasted shirts and
rattling leather leggings, may remind one sufficiently of the
Italian peasant as he figured in the woodcuts familiar to our
infancy. After coming out of the church I found a delightful
nook--a queer little terrace before a more retired and tranquil
drinking-shop--where I called for a bottle of wine to help me to
guess why I "drew the line" at Domenichino.

This little terrace was a capricious excrescence at the end of
the piazza, itself simply a greater terrace; and one reached it,
picturesquely, by ascending a short inclined plane of grass-grown
cobble-stones and passing across a little dusky kitchen through
whose narrow windows the light of the mighty landscape beyond
touched up old earthen pots. The terrace was oblong and so narrow
that it held but a single small table, placed lengthwise; yet
nothing could be pleasanter than to place one's bottle on the
polished parapet. Here you seemed by the time you had emptied it
to be swinging forward into immensity--hanging poised above the
Campagna. A beautiful gorge with a twinkling stream wandered down
the hill far below you, beyond which Marino and Castel Gandolfo
peeped above the trees. In front you could count the towers of
Rome and the tombs of the Appian Way. I don't know that I came to
any very distinct conclusion about Domenichino; but it was
perhaps because the view was perfection that he struck me as more
than ever mediocrity. And yet I don't think it was one's bottle
of wine, either, that made one after all maudlin about him; it
was the sense of the foolishly usurped in his tenure of fame, of
the derisive in his ever having been put forward. To say so
indeed savours of flogging a dead horse, but it is surely an
unkind stroke of fate for him that Murray assures ten thousand
Britons every winter in the most emphatic manner that his
Communion of St. Jerome is the "second finest picture in the
world. If this were so one would certainly here in Rome, where
such institutions are convenient, retire into the very nearest
convent; with such a world one would have a standing quarrel. And
yet this sport of destiny is an interesting case, in default of
being an interesting painter, and I would take a moderate walk,
in most moods, to see one of his pictures. He is so supremely
good an example of effort detached from inspiration and school-
merit divorced from spontaneity, that one of his fine frigid
performances ought to hang in a conspicuous place in every
academy of design. Few things of the sort contain more urgent
lessons or point a more precious moral; and I would have the
head-master in the drawing-school take each ingenuous pupil by
the hand and lead him up to the Triumph of David or the Chase of
Diana or the red-nosed Persian Sibyl and make him some such
little speech as the following: "This great picture, my son, was
hung here to show you how you must never paint; to give
you a perfect specimen of what in its boundless generosity the
providence of nature created for our fuller knowledge--an artist
whose development was a negation. The great thing in art is
charm, and the great thing in charm is spontaneity. Domenichino,
having talent, is here and there an excellent model--he was
devoted, conscientious, observant, industrious; but now that
we've seen pretty well what can simply be learned do its best,
these things help him little with us, because his imagination was
cold. It loved nothing, it lost itself in nothing, its efforts
never gave it the heartache. It went about trying this and that,
concocting cold pictures after cold receipts, dealing in the
second-hand, in the ready-made, and putting into its performances
a little of everything but itself. When you see so many things in
a composition you might suppose that among them all some charm
might be born; yet they're really but the hundred mouths through
which you may hear the unhappy thing murmur 'I'm dead!' It's by
the simplest thing it has that a picture lives--by its temper.
Look at all the great talents, Domenichino as well as at Titian;
but think less of dogma than of plain nature, and I can almost
promise you that yours will remain true." This is very little to
what the aesthetic sage I have imagined might say; and we
are after all unwilling to let our last verdict be an unkind one
on any great bequest of human effort. The faded frescoes in the
chapel at Grotta Ferrata leave us a memory the more of man's
effort to dream beautifully; and they thus mingle harmoniously
enough with our multifold impressions of Italy, where dreams and
realities have both kept such pace and so strangely diverged. It
was absurd--that was the truth--to be critical at all among the
appealing old Italianisms round me and to treat the poor exploded
Bolognese more harshly than, when I walked back to Frascati, I
treated the charming old water-works of the Villa Aldobrandini.
I confound these various products of antiquated art in a genial
absolution, and should like especially to tell how fine it was to
watch this prodigious fountain come tumbling down its channel of
mouldy rock-work, through its magnificent vista of ilex, to the
fantastic old hemicycle where a dozen tritons and naiads sit
posturing to receive it. The sky above the ilexes was incredibly
blue and the ilexes themselves incredibly black; and to see the
young white moon peeping above the trees you could easily have
fancied it was midnight. I should like furthermore to expatiate
on Villa Mondragone, the most grandly impressive hereabouts, of
all such domestic monuments. The Casino in the midst is as big as
the Vatican, which it strikingly resembles, and it stands perched
on a terrace as vast as the parvise of St. Peter's, looking
straight away over black cypress-tops into the shining vastness
of the Campagna. Everything somehow seemed immense and solemn;
there was nothing small but certain little nestling blue shadows
on the Sabine Mountains, to which the terrace seems to carry you
wonderfully near. The place been for some time lost to private
uses, since it figures fantastically in a novel of George Sand--
La Daniella--and now, in quite another way, as a Jesuit
college for boys. The afternoon was perfect, and as it waned it
filled the dark alleys with a wonderful golden haze. Into this
came leaping and shouting a herd of little collegians with a
couple of long-skirted Jesuits striding at their heels. We all
know--I make the point for my antithesis--the monstrous practices
of these people; yet as I watched the group I verily believe I
declared that if I had a little son he should go to Mondragone
and receive their crooked teachings for the sake of the other
memories, the avenues of cypress and ilex, the view of the
Campagna, the atmosphere of antiquity. But doubtless when a sense
of "mere character," shameless incomparable character, has
brought one to this it is time one should pause.

Henry James