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The After-Season in Rome

One may at the blest end of May say without injustice to anybody
that the state of mind of many a forestiero in Rome is one
of intense impatience for the moment when all other
forestieri shall have taken themselves off. One may
confess to this state of mind and be no misanthrope. The place
has passed so completely for the winter months into the hands of
the barbarians that that estimable character the passionate
pilgrim finds it constantly harder to keep his passion clear. He
has a rueful sense of impressions perverted and adulterated; the
all-venerable visage disconcerts us by a vain eagerness to see
itself mirrored in English, American, German eyes. It isn't
simply that you are never first or never alone at the classic or
historic spots where you have dreamt of persuading the shy
genius loci into confidential utterance; it isn't simply
that St. Peter's, the Vatican, the Palatine, are for ever ringing
with the false note of the languages without style: it is the
general oppressive feeling that the city of the soul has become
for the time a monstrous mixture of watering-place and curiosity-
shop and that its most ardent life is that of the tourists who
haggle over false intaglios and yawn through palaces and temples.
But you are told of a happy time when these abuses begin to pass
away, when Rome becomes Rome again and you may have her all to
yourself. "You may like her more or less now," I was assured at
the height of the season; "but you must wait till the month of
May, when she'll give you all she has, to love her. Then
the foreigners, or the excess of them, are gone; the galleries
and ruins are empty, and the place," said my informant, who was a
happy Frenchman of the Académie de France, "renait a
ellememe."
Indeed I was haunted all winter by an irresistible
prevision of what Rome must be in declared spring. Certain
charming places seemed to murmur: "Ah, this is nothing! Come back
at the right weeks and see the sky above us almost black with its
excess of blue, and the new grass already deep, but still vivid,
and the white roses tumble in odorous spray and the warm radiant
air distil gold for the smelting-pot that the genius loci
then dips his brush into before making play with it, in his
inimitable way, for the general effect of complexion."

A month ago I spent a week in the country, and on my return, the
first time I approached the Corso, became conscious of a change.
Something delightful had happened, to which at first I couldn't
give a name, but which presently shone out as the fact that there
were but half as many people present and that these were chiefly
the natural or the naturalised. We had been docked of half our
irrelevance, our motley excess, and now physically, morally,
ćesthetically there was elbow-room. In the afternoon I went to
the Pincio, and the Pincio was almost dull. The band was playing
to a dozen ladies who lay in landaus poising their lace-fringed
parasols; but they had scarce more than a light-gloved dandy
apiece hanging over their carriage doors. By the parapet to the
great terrace that sweeps the city stood but three or four
interlopers looking at the sunset and with their Baedekers only
just showing in their pockets--the sunsets not being down among
the tariffed articles in these precious volumes. I went so far as
to hope for them that, like myself, they were, under every
precaution, taking some amorous intellectual liberty with the
scene.

Practically I violate thus the instinct of monopoly, since it's a
shame not to publish that Rome in May is indeed exquisitely worth
your patience. I have just been so gratified at finding myself in
undisturbed possession for a couple of hours of the Museum of the
Lateran that I can afford to be magnanimous. It's almost as if
the old all-papal paradise had come back. The weather for a month
has been perfect, the sky an extravagance of blue, the air lively
enough, the nights cool, nippingly cool. and the whole ancient
greyness lighted with an irresistible smile. Rome, which in some
moods, especially to new-comers, seems a place of almost sinister
gloom, has an occasional art, as one knows her better, of
brushing away care by the grand gesture with which some splendid
impatient mourning matron--just the Niobe of Nations, surviving,
emerging and looking about her again--might pull off and cast
aside an oppression of muffling crape. This admirable power still
temperamentally to react and take notice lurks in all her
darkness and dirt and decay--a something more careless and
hopeless than our thrifty northern cheer, and yet more genial and
urbane than the Parisian spirit of blague. The collective
Roman nature is a healthy and hearty one, and you feel it abroad
in the streets even when the sirocco blows and the medium of life
seems to proceed more or less from the mouth of a furnace. But
who shall analyse even the simplest Roman impression? It is
compounded of so many things, it says so much, it involves so
much, it so quickens the intelligence and so flatters the heart,
that before we fairly grasp the case the imagination has marked
it for her own and exposed us to a perilous likelihood of talking
nonsense about it.

The smile of Rome, as I have called it, and its insidious message
to those who incline to ramble irresponsibly and take things as
they come, is ushered in with the first breath of spring, and
then grows and grows with the advancing season till it wraps the
whole place in its tenfold charm. As the process develops you can
do few better things than go often to Villa Borghese and sit on
the grass--on a stout bit of drapery--and watch its exquisite
stages. It has a frankness and a sweetness beyond any relenting
of our clumsy climates even when ours leave off their
damnable faces and begin. Nature departs from every reserve with
a confidence that leaves one at a loss where, as it were, to
look--leaves one, as I say, nothing to do but to lay one's head
among the anemones at the base of a high-stemmed pine and gaze up
crestward and sky-ward along its slanting silvery column. You
may watch the whole business from a dozen of these choice
standpoints and have a different villa for it every day in the
week. The Doria, the Ludovisi, the Medici, the Albani, the
Wolkonski, the Chigi, the Mellini, the Massimo--there are more of
them, with all their sights and sounds and odours and memories,
than you have senses for. But I prefer none of them to the
Borghese, which is free to all the world at all times and yet
never crowded; for when the whirl of carriages is great in the
middle regions you may find a hundred untrodden spots and silent
corners, tenanted at the worst by a group of those long-skirted
young Propagandists who stalk about with solemn angularity, each
with a book under his arm, like silhouettes from a medieval
missal, and "compose" so extremely well with the still more
processional cypresses and with stretches of golden-russet wall
overtopped by ultramarine. And yet if the Borghese is good the
Medici is strangely charming, and you may stand in the little
belvedere which rises with such surpassing oddity out of the
dusky heart of the Boschetto at the latter establishment--a
miniature presentation of the wood of the Sleeping Beauty--and
look across at the Ludovisi pines lifting their crooked parasols
into a sky of what a painter would call the most morbid blue, and
declare that the place where they grow is the most
delightful in the world. Villa Ludovisi has been all winter the
residence of the lady familiarly known in Roman society as
"Rosina," Victor Emmanuel's morganatic wife, the only familiarity
it would seem, that she allows, for the grounds were rigidly
closed, to the inconsolable regret of old Roman sojourners. Just
as the nightingales began to sing, however, the quasi-august
padrona departed, and the public, with certain
restrictions, have been admitted to hear them. The place takes,
where it lies, a princely ease, and there could be no better
example of the expansive tendencies of ancient privilege than
the fact that its whole vast extent is contained by the city
walls. It has in this respect very much the same enviable air of
having got up early that marks the great intramural demesne of
Magdalen College at Oxford. The stern old ramparts of Rome form
the outer enclosure of the villa, and hence a series of "striking
scenic effects" which it would be unscrupulous flattery to say
you can imagine. The grounds are laid out in the formal last-
century manner; but nowhere do the straight black cypresses lead
off the gaze into vistas of a melancholy more charged with
associations--poetic, romantic, historic; nowhere are there
grander, smoother walls of laurel and myrtle.

I recently spent an afternoon hour at the little Protestant
cemetery close to St. Paul's Gate, where the ancient and the
modern world are insidiously contrasted. They make between them
one of the solemn places of Rome--although indeed when funereal
things are so interfused it seems ungrateful to call them sad.
Here is a mixture of tears and smiles, of stones and flowers, of
mourning cypresses and radiant sky, which gives us the impression
of our looking back at death from the brighter side of the grave.
The cemetery nestles in an angle of the city wall, and the older
graves are sheltered by a mass of ancient brickwork, through
whose narrow loopholes you peep at the wide purple of the
Campagna. Shelley's grave is here, buried in roses--a happy grave
every way for the very type and figure of the Poet. Nothing could
be more impenetrably tranquil than this little corner in the bend
of the protecting rampart, where a cluster of modern ashes is
held tenderly in the rugged hand of the Past. The past is
tremendously embodied in the hoary pyramid of Caius Cestius,
which rises hard by, half within the wall and half without,
cutting solidly into the solid blue of the sky and casting its
pagan shadow upon the grass of English graves--that of Keats,
among them--with an effect of poetic justice. It is a wonderful
confusion of mortality and a grim enough admonition of our
helpless promiscuity in the crucible of time. But the most
touching element of all is the appeal of the pious English
inscriptions among all these Roman memories; touching because of
their universal expression of that trouble within trouble,
misfortune in a foreign land. Something special stirs the heart
through the fine Scriptural language in which everything is
recorded. The echoes of massive Latinity with which the
atmosphere is charged suggest nothing more majestic and
monumental. I may seem unduly to refine, but the injunction to
the reader in the monument to Miss Bathurst, drowned in the Tiber
in 1824, "If thou art young and lovely, build not thereon, for
she who lies beneath thy feet in death was the loveliest flower
ever cropt in its bloom," affects us irresistibly as a case for
tears on the spot. The whole elaborate inscription indeed says
something over and beyond all it does say. The English have the
reputation of being the most reticent people in the world, and
as there is no smoke without fire I suppose they have done
something to deserve it; yet who can say that one doesn't
constantly meet the most startling examples of the insular
faculty to "gush"? In this instance the mother of the deceased
takes the public into her confidence with surprising frankness
and omits no detail, seizing the opportunity to mention by the
way that she had already lost her husband by a most mysterious
visitation. The appeal to one's attention and the confidence in
it are withal most moving. The whole record has an old-fashioned
gentility that makes its frankness tragic. You seem to hear the
garrulity of passionate grief.

To be choosing these positive commonplaces of the Roman tone for
a theme when there are matters of modern moment going on may seem
none the less to require an apology. But I make no claim to your
special correspondent's faculty for getting an "inside" view of
things, and I have hardly more than a pictorial impression of the
Pope's illness and of the discussion of the Law of the Convents.
Indeed I am afraid to speak of the Pope's illness at all, lest I
should say something egregiously heartless about it, recalling
too forcibly that unnatural husband who was heard to wish that
his wife would "either" get well--! He had his reasons, and Roman
tourists have theirs in the shape of a vague longing for
something spectacular at St. Peter's. If it takes the sacrifice
of somebody to produce it let somebody then be sacrificed.
Meanwhile we have been having a glimpse of the spectacular side
of the Religious Corporations Bill. Hearing one morning a great
hubbub in the Corso I stepped forth upon my balcony. A couple of
hundred men were strolling slowly down the street with their
hands in their pockets, shouting in unison "Abbasso il
ministero!" and huzzaing in chorus. Just beneath my window they
stopped and began to murmur "Al Quirinale, al Quirinale!" The
crowd surged a moment gently and then drifted to the Quirinal,
where it scuffled harmlessly with half-a-dozen of the king's
soldiers. It ought to have been impressive, for what was it,
strictly, unless the seeds of revolution? But its carriage was
too gentle and its cries too musical to send the most timorous
tourist to packing his trunk. As I began with saying: in Rome, in
May, everything has an amiable side, even popular uprisings.

Henry James