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

A Few Other Roman Neighbourhoods

If I find my old notes, in all these Roman connections,
inevitably bristle with the spirit of the postscript, so I give
way to this prompting to the extent of my scant space and with
the sense of other occasions awaiting me on which I shall have to
do no less. The impression of Rome was repeatedly to renew itself
for the author of these now rather antique and artless accents;
was to overlay itself again and again with almost heavy
thicknesses of experience, the last of which is, as I write,
quite fresh to memory; and he has thus felt almost ashamed to
drop his subject (though it be one that tends so easily to turn
to the infinite) as if the law of change had in all the years had
nothing to say to his case. It's of course but of his case alone
that he speaks--wondering little what he may make of it for the
profit of others by an attempt, however brief, to point the moral
of the matter, or in other words compare the musing mature
visitor's "feeling about Rome" with that of the extremely
agitated, even if though extremely inexpert, consciousness
reflected in the previous pages. The actual, the current Rome
affects him as a world governed by new conditions altogether and
ruefully pleading that sorry fact in the ear of the antique
wanderer wherever he may yet mournfully turn for some re-capture
of what he misses. The city of his first unpremeditated rapture
shines to memory, on the other hand, in the manner of a lost
paradise the rustle of whose gardens is still just audible enough
in the air to make him wonder if some sudden turn, some recovered
vista, mayn't lead him back to the thing itself. My genial, my
helpful tag, at this point, would doubtless properly resolve
itself, for the reader, into a clue toward some such successful
ingenuity of quest; a remark I make, I may add, even while
reflecting that the Paradise isn't apparently at all "lost" to
visitors not of my generation. It is the seekers of that
remote and romantic tradition who have seen it, from one period
of ten, or even of five, years to another, systematically and
remorselessly built out from their view. Their helpless plaint,
their sense of the generally irrecoverable and unspeakable, is
not, however, what I desire here most to express; I should like,
on the contrary, with ampler opportunity, positively to enumerate
the cases, the cases of contact, impression, experience, in which
the cold ashes of a long-chilled passion may fairly feel
themselves made to glow again. No one who has ever loved Rome as
Rome could be loved in youth and before her poised basketful of
the finer appeals to fond fancy was actually upset, wants to stop
loving her; so that our bleeding and wounded, though perhaps not
wholly moribund, loyalty attends us as a hovering admonitory,
anticipatory ghost, one of those magnanimous life-companions who
before complete extinction designate to the other member of the
union their approved successor. So it is at any rate that I
conceive the pilgrim old enough to have become aware in all these
later years of what he misses to be counselled and pacified in
the interest of recognitions that shall a little make up for it.

It was this wisdom I was putting into practice, no doubt, for
instance, when I lately resigned myself to motoring of a splendid
June day "out to" Subiaco; as a substitute for a resignation that
had anciently taken, alas, but the form of my never getting there
at all. Everything that day, moreover, seemed right, surely;
everything on certain other days that were like it through their
large indebtedness, at this, that and the other point, to the
last new thing, seemed so right that they come back to me now,
after a moderate interval, in the full light of that unchallenged
felicity. I couldn't at all gloriously recall, for instance, as I
floated to Subiaco on vast brave wings, how on the occasion of my
first visit to Rome, thirty-eight years before, I had devoted
certain evenings, evenings of artless "preparation" in my room at
the inn, to the perusal of Alphonse Dantier's admirable
Monastères Bénédictins d'ltalie, taking piously for
granted that I should get myself somehow conveyed to Monte
Cassino and to Subiaco at least: such an affront to the passion
of curiosity, the generally infatuated state then kindled, would
any suspicion of my foredoomed, my all but interminable,
privation during visits to come have seemed to me. Fortune, in
the event, had never favoured my going, but I was to give myself
up at last to the sense of her quite taking me by the hand, and
that is how I now think of our splendid June day at Subiaco. The
note of the wondrous place itself is conventional "wild" Italy
raised to the highest intensity, the ideally, the sublimely
conventional and wild, complete and supreme in itself, without a
disparity or a flaw; which character of perfect picturesque
orthodoxy seemed more particularly to begin for me, I remember,
as we passed, on our way, through that indescribable and
indestructible Tivoli, where the jumble of the elements of the
familiarly and exploitedly, the all too notoriously fair and
queer, was more violent and vociferous than ever--so the whole
spectacle there seemed at once to rejoice in cockneyfication and
to resist it. There at least I had old memories to renew--
including that in especial, from a few years back, of one of the
longest, hottest, dustiest return-drives to Rome that the
Campagna on a sirocco day was ever to have treated me to.

[Illustration: VILLA D'ESTE, TIVOLI]

That was to be more than made up on this later occasion by an
hour of early evening, snatched on the run back to Rome, that
remains with me as one of those felicities we are wise to leave
for ever, just as they are, just, that is, where they fell, never
attempting to renew or improve them. So happy a chance was it
that ensured me at the afternoon's end a solitary stroll through
the Villa d' Este, where the day's invasion, whatever it might
have been, had left no traces and where I met nobody in the great
rococo passages and chambers, and in the prodigious alleys and on
the repeated flights of tortuous steps, but the haunting Genius
of Style, into whose noble battered old face, as if it had come
out clearer in the golden twilight and on recognition of response
so deeply moved, I seemed to exhale my sympathy. This was truly,
amid a conception and order of things all mossed over from
disuse, but still without a form abandoned or a principle
disowned, one of the hours that one doesn't forget. The ruined
fountains seemed strangely to wait, in the stillness and
under cover of the approaching dusk, not to begin ever again to
play, also, but just only to be tenderly imagined to do so; quite
as everything held its breath, at the mystic moment, for the drop
of the cruel and garish exposure, for the Spirit of the place to
steal forth and go his round. The vistas of the innumerable
mighty cypresses ranged themselves, in their files and companies,
like beaten heroes for their captain's, review; the great
artificial "works" of every description, cascades, hemicycles,
all graded and grassed and stone-seated as for floral games,
mazes and bowers and alcoves and grottos, brave indissoluble
unions of the planted and the builded symmetry, with the terraces
and staircases that overhang and the arcades and cloisters that
underspread, made common cause together as for one's taking up a
little, in kindly lingering wonder, the "feeling" out of which
they have sprung. One didn't see it, under the actual influence,
one wouldn't for the world have seen it, as that they longed to
be justified, during a few minutes in the twenty-four hours, of
their absurdity of pomp and circumstance--but only that they
asked for company, once in a way, as they were so splendidly
formed to give it, and that the best company, in a changed world,
at the end of time, what could they hope it to be but just the
lone, the dawdling person of taste, the visitor with a flicker of
fancy, not to speak of a pang of pity, to spare for them? It was
in the flicker of fancy, no doubt, that as I hung about the great
top-most terrace in especial, and then again took my way through
the high gaunt corridors and the square and bare alcoved and
recessed saloons, all overscored with such a dim waste of those
painted, those delicate and capricious decorations which the
loggie of the Vatican promptly borrowed from the ruins of the
Palatine, or from whatever other revealed and inspiring
ancientries, and which make ghostly confession here of that
descent, I gave the rein to my sense of the sinister too, of that
vague after-taste as of evil things that lurks so often, for a
suspicious sensibility, wherever the terrible game of the life of
the Renaissance was played as the Italians played it; wherever
the huge tessellated chessboard seems to stretch about us; swept
bare, almost always violently swept bare, of its chiselled and
shifting figures, of every value and degree, but with this
echoing desolation itself representing the long gasp, as it were,
of overstrained time, the great after-hush that follows on things
too wonderful or dreadful.

I am putting here, however, my cart before my horse, for the hour
just glanced at was but a final tag to a day of much brighter
curiosity, and which seemed to take its baptism, as we passed
through prodigious perched and huddled, adorably scattered and
animated and even crowded Tivoli, from the universal happy spray
of the drumming Anio waterfalls, all set in their permanent
rainbows and Sibylline temples and classic allusions and Byronic
quotations; a wondrous romantic jumble of such things and quite
others--heterogeneous inns and clamorous guingettes and
factories grabbing at the torrent, to say nothing of innumerable
guides and donkeys and white-tied, swallow-tailed waiters dashing
out of grottos and from under cataracts, and of the air, on the
part of the whole population, of standing about, in the most
characteristic contadino manner, to pounce on you and take
you somewhere, snatch you from somebody else, shout something at
you, the aqueous and other uproar permitting, and then charge you
for it, your innocence aiding. I'm afraid our run the rest of the
way to Subiaco remains with me but as an after-sense of that
exhilaration, in spite of our rising admirably higher, all the
while, and plunging constantly deeper into splendid solitary
gravities, supreme romantic solemnities and sublimities, of
landscape. The Benedictine convent, which clings to certain more
or less vertiginous ledges and slopes of a vast precipitous
gorge, constitutes, with the whole perfection of its setting, the
very ideal of the tradition of that extraordinary in the
romantic
handed down to us, as the most attaching and
inviting spell of Italy, by all the old academic literature of
travel and art of the Salvator Rosas and Claudes. This is the
main tribute I may pay in a few words to an impression of which a
sort of divine rightness of oddity, a pictorial felicity that was
almost not of this world, but of a higher degree of distinction
altogether, affected me as the leading note; yet about the whole
exquisite complexity of which I can't pretend to be informing.

All the elements of the scene melted for me together; even from
the pause for luncheon on a grassy wayside knoll, over heaven
knows what admirable preparatory headlong slopes and ravines and
iridescent distances, under spreading chestnuts and in the high
air that was cool and sweet, to the final pedestrian climb of
sinuous mountain-paths that the shining limestone and the strong
green of shrub and herbage made as white as silver. There the
miraculous home of St. Benedict awaited us in the form of a
builded and pictured-over maze of chapels and shrines, cells and
corridors, stupefying rock-chambers and caves, places all at an
extraordinary variety of different levels and with labyrinthine
intercommunications; there the spirit of the centuries sat like
some invisible icy presence that only permits you to stare and
wonder. I stared, I wondered, I went up and down and in and out
and lost myself in the fantastic fable of the innumerable hard
facts themselves; and whenever I could, above all, I peeped out
of small windows and hung over chance terraces for the love of
the general outer picture, the splendid fashion in which the
fretted mountains of marble, as they might have been, round
about, seemed to inlay themselves, for the effect of the
"distinction" I speak of, with vegetations of dark emerald. There
above all--or at least in what such aspects did further for the
prodigy of the Convent, whatever that prodigy might for do
them--was, to a life-long victim of Italy, almost verily
as never before, the operation of the old love-philtre; there
were the inexhaustible sources of interest and charm.

[Illustration: SUBIACO]

These mystic fountains broke out for me elsewhere, again and
again, I rejoice to say--and perhaps more particularly, to be
frank about it, where the ground about them was pressed with due
emphasis of appeal by the firm wheels of the great winged car. I
motored, under invitation and protection, repeatedly back into
the sense of the other years, that sense of the "old" and
comparatively idle Rome of my particular infatuated prime which I
was living to see superseded, and this even when the fond vista
bristled with innumerable "signs of the times," unmistakable
features of the new era, that, by I scarce know what perverse
law, succeeded in ministering to a happy effect. Some of these
false notes proceed simply from the immense growth of every sort
of facilitation--so that people are much more free than of old to
come and go and do, to inquire and explore, to pervade and
generally "infest"; with a consequent loss, for the fastidious
individual, of his blest earlier sense, not infrequent, of having
the occasion and the impression, as he used complacently to say,
all to himself. We none of us had anything quite all to ourselves
during an afternoon at Ostia, on a beautiful June Sunday; it was
a different affair, rather, from the long, the comparatively slow
and quite unpeopled drive that I was to remember having last
taken early in the autumn thirty years before, and which occupied
the day--with the aid of a hamper from once supreme old Spillman,
the provider for picnics to a vanished world (since I suspect the
antique ideal of "a picnic in the Campagna," the fondest
conception of a happy day, has lost generally much of its
glamour). Our idyllic afternoon, at any rate, left no chord of
sensibility that could possibly have been in question untouched-
-not even that of tea on the shore at Fiumincino, after we had
spent an hour among the ruins of Ostia and seen our car ferried
across the Tiber, almost saffron-coloured here and swirling
towards its mouth, on a boat that was little more than a big
rustic raft and that yet bravely resisted the prodigious weight.
What shall I say, in the way of the particular, of the general
felicity before me, for the sweetness of the hour to which the
incident just named, with its strange and amusing juxtapositions
of the patriarchally primitive and the insolently supersubtle,
the earliest and the latest efforts of restless science, were
almost immediately to succeed?

We had but skirted the old gold-and-brown walls of Castel Fusano,
where the massive Chigi tower and the immemorial stone-pines and
the afternoon sky and the desolate sweetness and concentrated
rarity of the picture all kept their appointment, to fond memory,
with that especial form of Roman faith, the fine aesthetic
conscience in things, that is never, never broken. We had wound
through tangled lanes and met handsome sallow country-folk
lounging at leisure, as became the Sunday, and ever so pleasantly
and garishly clothed, if not quite consistently costumed, as just
on purpose to feed our wanton optimism; and then we had addressed
ourselves with a soft superficiality to the open, the exquisite
little Ostian reliquary, an exhibition of stony vaguenesses half
straightened out. The ruins of the ancient port of Rome, the
still recoverable identity of streets and habitations and other
forms of civil life, are a not inconsiderable handful, though
making of the place at best a very small sister to Pompeii; but a
soft superficiality is ever the refuge of my shy sense before any
ghost of informed reconstitution, and I plead my surrender to it
with the less shame that I believe I "enjoy" such scenes even on
such futile pretexts as much as it can be appointed them by the
invidious spirit of History to be enjoyed. It may be said,
of course, that enjoyment, question-begging term at best, isn't
in these austere connections designated--but rather some
principle of appreciation that can at least give a coherent
account of itself. On that basis then--as I could, I profess,
but revel in the looseness of my apprehension, so wide it
seemed to fling the gates of vision and divination--I won't
pretend to dot, as it were, too many of the i's of my
incompetence. I was competent only to have been abjectly
interested. On reflection, moreover, I see that no impression of
over-much company invaded the picture till the point was exactly
reached for its contributing thoroughly to character and
amusement; across at Fiumincino, which the age of the bicycle has
made, in a small way, the handy Gravesend or Coney Island of
Rome, the cafés and birrerie were at high pressure, and
the bustle all motley and friendly beside the melancholy river,
where the water-side life itself had twenty quaint and vivid
notes and where a few upstanding objects, ancient or modern,
looked eminent and interesting against the delicate Roman sky
that dropped down and down to the far-spreading marshes of
malaria. Besides which "company" is ever intensely gregarious,
hanging heavily together and easily outwitted; so that we had but
to proceed a scant distance further and meet the tideless
Mediterranean, where it tumbled in a trifle breezily on the
sands, to be all to ourselves with our tea-basket, quite as in
the good old fashion--only in truth with the advantage that the
contemporary tea-basket is so much improved.

I jumble my memories as a tribute to the whole idyll--I give the
golden light in which they come back to me for what it is worth;
worth, I mean, as allowing that the possibilities of charm of the
Witch of the Seven Hills, as we used to call her in magazines,
haven't all been vulgarised away. It was precisely there, on such
an occasion and in such a place, that this might seem signally to
have happened; whereas in fact the mild suburban riot, in which
the so gay but so light potations before the array of little
houses of entertainment were what struck one as really making
most for mildness, was brushed over with a fabled grace, was
harmonious, felicitous, distinguished, quite after the fashion of
some thoroughly trained chorus or phalanx of opera or ballet.
Bicycles were stacked up by the hundred; the youth of Rome are
ardent cyclists, with a great taste for flashing about in more or
less denuded or costumed athletic and romantic bands and guilds,
and on our return cityward, toward evening, along the right bank
of the river, the road swarmed with the patient wheels and bent
backs of these budding cives Romani quite to the effect of
its finer interest. Such at least, I felt, could only be one's
acceptance of almost any feature of a scene bathed in that
extraordinarily august air that the waning Roman day is so
insidiously capable of taking on when any other element of style
happens at all to contribute. Weren't they present, these other
elements, in the great classic lines and folds, the fine academic
or historic attitudes of the darkening land itself as it hung
about the old highway, varying its vague accidents, but achieving
always perfect "composition"? I shamelessly add that cockneyfied
impression, at all events, to what I have called my jumble; Rome,
to which we all swept on together in the wondrous glowing medium,
saved everything, spreading afar her wide wing and
applying after all but her supposed grand gift of the secret of
salvation. We kept on and on into the great dim rather sordidly
papal streets that approach the quarter of St. Peter's; to the
accompaniment, finally, of that markedly felt provocation of fond
wonder which had never failed to lie in wait for me under any
question of a renewed glimpse of the huge unvisited rear of the
basilica. There was no renewed glimpse just then, in the
gloaming; but the region I speak of had been for me, in fact,
during the previous weeks, less unvisited than ever before, so
that I had come to count an occasional walk round and about it as
quite of the essence of the convenient small change with which
the heterogeneous City may still keep paying you. These
frequentations in the company of a sculptor friend had been
incidental to our reaching a small artistic foundry of fine
metal, an odd and interesting little establishment placed, as who
should say in the case of such a mere left-over scrap of a large
loose margin, nowhere: it lurked so unsuspectedly, that is, among
the various queer things that Rome comprehensively refers to as
"behind St. Peter's."

We had passed then, on the occasion of our several pilgrimages,
in beneath the great flying, or at least straddling buttresses to
the left of the mighty façade, where you enter that great idle
precinct of fine dense pavement and averted and sacrificed
grandeur, the reverse of the monstrous medal of the front. Here
the architectural monster rears its back and shoulders on an
equal scale and this whole unregarded world of colossal
consistent symmetry and hidden high finish gives you the measure
of the vast total treasure of items and features. The outward
face of all sorts of inward majesties of utility and ornament
here above all correspondingly reproduces itself; the expanses of
golden travertine--the freshness of tone, the cleanness of
surface, in the sunny air, being extraordinary--climb and soar
and spread under the crushing weight of a scheme carried out in
every ponderous particular. Never was such a show of
wasted art, of pomp for pomp's sake, as where all the
chapels bulge and all the windows, each one a separate
constructional masterpiece, tower above almost grassgrown
vacancy; with the full and immediate effect, of course, of
reading us a lesson on the value of lawful pride. The pride is
the pride of indifference as to whether a greatness so founded be
gaped at in all its features or not. My friend and I were alone
to gape at them most often while, for the unfailing impression of
them, on our way to watch the casting of our figure, we extended
our circuit of the place. To which I may add, as another example
of that tentative, that appealing twitch of the garment of Roman
association of which one kept renewing one's consciousness, the
half-hour at the little foundry itself was all charming--with
its quite shabby and belittered and ramshackle recall of the old
Roman "art-life" of one's early dreams. Everything was somehow in
the picture, the rickety sheds, the loose paraphernalia, the
sunny, grassy yard where a goat was browsing; then the queer
interior gloom of the pits, frilled with little overlooking
scaffoldings and bridges, for the sinking fireward of the image
that was to take on hardness; and all the pleasantness and
quickness, the beguiling refinement, of the three or four light
fine "hands" of whom the staff consisted and into whose type and
tone one liked to read, with whatever harmless extravagance, so
many signs that a lively sense of stiff processes, even in humble
life, could still leave untouched the traditional rare feeling
for the artistic. How delightful such an occupation in such a
general setting--those of my friend, I at such moments
irrepressibly moralised; and how one might after such a fashion
endlessly go and come and ask nothing better; or if better, only
so to the extent of another impression I was to owe to him: that
of an evening meal spread, in the warm still darkness that made
no candle flicker, on the wide high space of an old loggia that
overhung, in one quarter, the great obelisked Square preceding
one of the Gates, and in the other the Tiber and the far
Trastevere and more things than I can say--above all, as it were,
the whole backward past, the mild confused romance of the Rome
one had loved and of which one was exactly taking leave under
protection of the friendly lanterned and garlanded feast and the
commanding, all-embracing roof-garden. It was indeed a
reconciling, it was an altogether penetrating, last hour.

1909.


Henry James