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

Chapter 14


Our unpalatial palace--"Cephas Giovanni"--She and George Combe turned
out to be right--A rousing temper--Bright Titian hair--"All that's
left of him"--The pyramidal man of destiny--The thoughts of a boy are
long, long thoughts--Clausilia Bubigunia--Jabez Hogg and the
microscope--A stupendous surprise--A lifetime in fourteen months--My
father's jeremiades--"Thank Heaven, there is such a thing as
whitewash!"--"Terrible lack of variety in the old masters"--"The
brazen trollop that she is!"--Several distinct phases of
feeling--Springs of creative imagination roused--The Roman fever--A
sad book--Effects of the death-blow--The rest is silence.

--

We arrived in Rome on the 17th of January, 1858, at eleven o'clock at
night. After a day or two at Spillman's Hotel, we moved into lodgings
in the Via Porta Pinciana, the Palazzo Larazani. The street extended
just below the ridge of the Pincian Hill, and was not far from the
broad flight of steps mounting upward from the Piazza d' Espagna, on
the left as you go up. In spite of its resounding name, our new
dwelling had not a palatial aspect. It was of no commanding height or
architectural pretensions; a stuccoed edifice, attached on both sides
to other edifices. The street, like other Roman streets, was narrow;
it was dirty like them, and, like them, was paved with cobble-stones.
The place had been secured for us by (I think) our friends the
Thompsons; Mr. Thompson--the same man who had painted my father's
portrait in 1853--had a studio hard by. The Thompsons had been living
in Rome for five years or more, and knew the Roman ropes. They were
very comfortable people to know; indeed, Rome to me would have been a
very different and less delightful place without them, as will
hereafter appear. The family consisted of Cephas Giovanni Thompson,
the father and artist; his wife and his two sons and one daughter.
"Cephas Giovanni," being interpreted, means plain Peter John; and it
was said (though, I believe, unjustifiably) that Peter John had been
the names originally given to Thompson by his parents at the
baptismal-font, but that his wife, who was a notable little woman, a
sister of Anna Cora Mowatt, the actress, well known in America and
England seventy years ago, had persuaded him to translate them into
Greek and Italian, as more suitable to the romantic career of an
artist of the beautiful. I fancy the story arose from the fact that
Mrs. Thompson was a woman who, it was felt, might imaginably conceive
so ambitious a project. She was small, active, entertaining, clever,
and "spunky," as the New-Englanders would have said; indeed, she had a
rousing temper, on occasion. Her husband, on the other hand, had the
mildest, wisely smiling, philosophic air, with a low, slow voice, and
a beard of patriarchal fashion and size, though as yet it was a rich
brown, with scarcely a thread of silver in it. Brown and abundant,
also, was his hair; he had steady, bright, brown eyes, and was rather
under the average height of Anglo-Saxon man. But for all this
mild-shining aspect of his, his dark eyebrows were sharply arched, or
gabled rather; and my mother, who had absorbed from her former friend,
George Combe, a faith in the betrayals of phrenology, expressed her
private persuasion that good Mr. Thompson had a temper, too. She and
George Combe turned out to be right in this instance, though I am not
going to tell the tale of how we happened to be made acquainted with
the fact. Little thunder-storms once in a while occur in human skies
as well as in the meteorological ones; and the atmosphere is
afterwards all the sweeter and softer. No people could be more good,
honest, and kind than the Thompsons.

There was no other artist in Rome who could paint as well as Mr.
Thompson. That portrait of my father, to which reference has been
made, which now hangs in my house, looks even better, as a painting,
to-day than it did when it was fresh from his easel. Rubens could not
have laid on the colors with more solidity and with truer feeling for
the hues of life. But the trouble with Thompson was that he had never
learned how to draw correctly; and this defect appeared to some extent
in his portraits as well as in his figures. The latter were graceful,
significant, full of feeling and character; but they betrayed a
weakness of anatomical knowledge and of perspective. They had not the
conventional incorrectness of the old masters preceding Raphael, but
an incorrectness belonging personally to Thompson; it was not
excessive or conspicuous to any one, and certainly not to Thompson
himself. But his color redeemed all and made his pictures permanently
valuable. He was at this time painting a picture of Saint Peter being
visited by an angel, which was rich and beautiful; and he had some
sketches of a series based on Shakespeare's Tempest; and standing on
one side in the studio was a glowing figure of a woman in Oriental
costume, an odalisque, or some such matter, which showed that his
sympathy with life was not a restricted one. Later in our acquaintance
he fell in love with the bright Titian hair of my sister Rose, and
made a little portrait of her, which was one of his best likenesses,
apart from its admirable color; it even showed the tears in the
child's eyes, gathering there by reason of her antipathy to posing.

Cora Thompson, the daughter, was the most good-natured and
sunny-tempered of girls; she may have been fifteen at this time; she
inherited neither the handsomeness of her father nor the sharp-edged
cleverness of her mother; but she was lovable. Of the two boys, the
younger was named Hubert; he was about ten years old, small of his
age, and not robust in make or constitution. He was, however, a smart,
rather witty youth, a little precocious, perhaps, and able to take
care of himself. Some five and twenty years after the date of which I
am now writing I was at a large political dinner in New York and was
there introduced to a Mr. Thompson, who was the commissioner of public
works, and a party boss of no small caliber and power. He was an
immense personage, physically likewise, weighing fully three hundred
pounds, and, though not apparently advanced in years, a thorough man
of the world and of municipal politics. After we had conversed for a
few minutes, I was struck by a certain expression about my
interlocutor's eyebrows that recalled long-forgotten days and things.
I remembered that his name was Thompson, and had an impression that
his initials were H. O. "Are you little Hubert Thompson?" I suddenly
demanded. "Why, of course I am--all that's left of him!" he replied,
with a laugh. So this was the boy whom, a quarter of a century before,
I could have held out at arm's-length. We talked over the old days
when we played together about the Roman streets and ruins. Nothing
more reveals the essential strangeness of human life than this meeting
after many years with persons we have formerly known intimately, who
are now so much changed in outward guise. We feel the changes to be
unreal, and yet, there they are! Grover Cleveland was being groomed
for his first Presidential term then; Hubert was one of his supporters
in New York, and he presented me to the pyramidal man of destiny.
Poor Hubert died, lamentably, not long after. He was a good and
affectionate son. He was perhaps too kind-hearted and loyal for the
political role which he enacted.

The elder Thompson boy was called Edmund, or, in my vernacular, Eddy.
There were in his nature a gravity, depth, and sweetness which won my
heart and respect, and we became friends in that intimate and complete
way that seems possible only to boys in their early teens. For that
matter, neither of us was yet over twelve; I think Eddy was part of a
year my junior. But you must search the annals of antiquity to find
anything so solid and unalterable as was our friendship. He was the
most absolutely good boy I ever knew, but by no means goody-goody; he
had high principles, noble ambitions, strong affections, the sweetest
of tempers; his seriousness formed a healthy foil to my own more
impetuous and hazardous character. "The thoughts of a boy are long,
long thoughts"; and not in many long lifetimes could a tithe of the
splendid projects we resolved upon have been carried out. We were
together from morning till night, month after month; we walked
interminably about Rome and frequented its ruins, and wandered far out
over the Campagna and along the shores of famous Tiber. We picked up
precious antique marbles, coins, and ancient curiosities of all sorts;
we hunted for shells and butterflies and lizards; our hearts were
uplifted by the martial music of the French army bands, which were
continually resounding throughout Rome; and we admired the gleaming
swords of the officers and the sharp, punctual drill and marching of
the red-legged rank and file. We haunted the lovely Villa Borghese,
the Pincian Hill, the Villa Pamphili Doria; we knew every nook and
cranny of the Palace of the Csesars, the Baths of Caracalla, the Roman
Forum, the Coliseum, the Egerian Grove; we were familiar with every
gate that entered Rome; we drank at every fountain; we lingered
through the galleries of the Vatican and of the Capitol; we made St.
Peter's Church our refuge in inclement weather; we threaded every
street and by-way of the city; we were on friendly and confidential
terms with the custode of every treasure. And all the time we talked
about what we thought, what we felt, what we would do; there is no
looking backward in boys' confidences; they live in the instant
present and in the infinite future. Eddy and I arranged to spend one
lifetime in Central Africa, in emulation of the exploits of David
Livingstone; there, freed from all civilized burdens, we would live,
and we would run, catch the wild goat by the hair, and hurl our lances
in the sun. At another epoch of our endless lives we would enter the
army and distinguish ourselves in heroic war; we would have swords
like sunbeams and ride steeds like Bucephalus. Then, and interleaved
with all this, as it were, there was an immense life of natural
history; we would have a private museum to rival the famous ones of
nations. Eddy was especially drawn towards insects, while my own
predilection was still for conchology; and both of us spent hours
every week in classifying and arranging our respective collections,
not to speak of the time we devoted to hunting for specimens. Eddy
had a green net at the end of a stick, and became very skilful in
making his captures; and how we triumphed over a "swallow-tail," so
difficult to catch, or an unfamiliar species! Eddy had his pins and
his strips of cork, and paper boxes; and his collections certainly
were fairer to look upon, to the ordinary view, than mine; moreover,
his was the more scientific mind and the nicer sense of order. For the
display of my snail-shells I used bits of card-board and plenty of
gum-arabic; and I was affluent in "duplicates," my plan being to get a
large card and then cover it with specimens of the shell, in serried
ranks. I also called literature to my aid, and produced several little
books containing labored descriptions of my collection, couched, so
far as possible, in the stilted and formal phraseology of the
conchological works to which I had access, but with occasional
outbursts after a style of my own. Here is a chapter from one of them;
a pen-and-ink portrait of the shell is prefixed to the original essay:

"CLAUSILIA BUBIGUNIA

"This handsome and elegant little shell is found in mossy places, or
in old ruins, such as the Coliseum--where it is found in immense
numbers--or the Palace of the Caesars. But in Italy it is common in
any mossy ruin, in the small, moss-covered holes, where it is seen at
the farthest extremity. After a rain they always crawl out of their
places of concealment in such numbers that one would think it had been
raining clausilias. The shell, in large and fine specimens, is
five-eighths of an inch in length. The young are very small and look
like the top part of the spire of the adults. This shell is also
largest in the middle, shaped something like a grain of wheat. It has
nine whorls, marked by small white lines, which look like fine white
threads of sewing-cotton; and just below them are marks which look
like very fine and very small stitches of white cotton. The color of
the shell, down to next to the last whorl, is a brown color, but the
very last whorl is a little lighter. The shell is covered all over
with fine lines, but they need to be looked at through a
magnifying-glass, they are so fine. The lip is turning out, and very
thin; inside there are three ridges, two on the top part of the mouth,
and the other, which is very small, is below. The shell, when the
animal is out of it, is semi-transparent, and the little colomella, or
pillar, can be indistinctly seen through."

There follows a detailed and loving description of the animal
inhabiting the shell, which I must reserve for a future edition. Of
another species of snail, Helix strigata, our learned author observes
that "This shell is, when dead, one of those which is found on the
banks of the Tiber. It is a strange circumstance that, although it is
a land shell, it should be found more on the banks of a river than
anywhere else, and also only on the banks of the Tiber, for it is not
found on the banks of any other river. Any one would think that dead
shells were gifted with the power of walking about, for certainly it
is an inexplicable wonder how they got there." Of Helix muralis we are
informed that "The Romans eat these snails, not the whole of them, but
only their feet. In ancient times the most wealthy people used to eat
snails, and perhaps they ate the very ones which the poorest people
eat nowadays. It is most probable, for there are a great many
different kinds of snails round Rome, and the Romans would probably
select the best." I may perhaps be permitted to remark that the correct
orthography of this writer fills me with astonishment, inasmuch as in
later life I have reason to know that he often went astray in this
respect. Of the uniform maturity of the literary style, I have no need
to speak.

Eddy's father was in the habit of giving him an income of two or three
pauls a week, dependent on his good behavior and punctual preparation
of his lessons; and since Eddy was always well behaved and faithful in
his studies, the income came in pretty regularly. Eddy saved up this
revenue with a view to buying himself a microscope, for the better
prosecution of his zoological labors; being, also, stimulated thereto
by the fact that I already possessed one of these instruments, given
me by my father a year or two before. Mine cost ten shillings, but
Eddy meant to get one even more expensive. I had, too, a large volume
of six hundred pages on The Microscope, Its History, Construction, and
Uses, by Jabez Hogg, the contents of which I had long since learned by
heart, and which I gladly communicated to my friend. At length Eddy's
economies had proceeded so far that he was able to calculate that on
his twelfth birthday he would possess a fortune of five scudi, and he
decided that he would buy a microscope at that figure; it is needless
to add that the microscope had long since been selected in the shop,
and was decidedly superior to mine. We could hardly contain our
impatience to enter upon the marvellous world whereof this instrument
was the key; that twelfth birthday seemed long in coming, but at last
it came.

I was to go with my friend to the shop to see him make the purchase;
and I was at his house betimes in the morning. But what a stupendous
surprise awaited me! Eddy was too much excited to say anything; with a
face beaming with emotion, he led me into the sitting-room, and there,
upon the table, was a microscope. But such a microscope! It was of
such unheard-of magnificence and elaborateness that it took my breath
away, and we both stood gazing at it in voiceless rapture. It was tall
and elegant, shining with its polished brass and mirrors, and its
magnifying powers were such as to disclose to us the very heart of
nature's mystery. It was quiet Mr. Thompson's birthday present to his
son. That gentleman sat smiling in his armchair by the window, and
presently he said, with a delightful archness, "Well, Eddy, I suppose
you are ready to give me back all that money you've been collecting?"
Eddy grinned radiantly. He spent his savings for microscope-slides
and other appurtenances, and for weeks thereafter he could hardly take
his eye away from the object-lens. He was luminous with happiness, and
I reflected his splendor from my sympathetic heart. Dear old Eddy! In
after years he entered West Point and became a soldier, and he died
early; I never saw him after parting from him in Italy in 1859. But he
is still my first friend, and there has been no other more dear.

I am not aware that Rome has ever been described from the point of
view of a twelve-year-old boy, and it might be worth doing; but I have
delayed attempting it somewhat too long; the moving pictures in my
mind have become too faded and confused. And yet I am surprised at the
minuteness of some of my recollections; they have, no doubt, been kept
alive by the numerous photographs of Rome which one carries about, and
also by the occasional perusal of The Marble Faun and other Roman
literature. But much is also due to the wonderful separateness which
Rome retains in the mind. It is like nothing else, and the spirit of
it is immortal. It seems as if I must have lived a lifetime there; and
yet I cannot make out that our total residence in the city extended
over fourteen months. Certainly no other passage of my boyhood time
looms so large or is rooted so deep.

But the passion for Rome (unless one be a Byron) is not a plant of
sudden growth, and I dare say that, during those first frigid weeks, I
may have shared my father's whimsical aversion to the city. He has
described, in his journals, how all things seemed to be what they
should not; and he was terribly disgusted with the filth that defiled
the ruins and the street corners. He was impressed by the ruins, but
deplored their nakedness. "The marble of them grows black or brown, it
is true," says he, "and shows its age in that way; but it remains hard
and sharp, and does not become again a part of nature, as stone walls
do in England; some dry and dusty grass sprouts along the ledges of a
ruin, as in the Coliseum; but there is no green mantle of ivy
spreading itself over the gray dilapidation." We stumbled upon the
Fountain of Trevi in one of our early rambles, not knowing what it
was. "One of these fountains," writes my father, referring to it,
"occupies the whole side of a great edifice, and represents Neptune
and his steeds, who seem to be sliding down with a cataract that
tumbles over a ledge of rocks into a marble-bordered lake, the
whole--except the fall of water itself--making up an exceedingly
cumbrous and ridiculous affair." He goes to St. Peter's, and "it
disappointed me terribly by its want of effect, and the little justice
it does to its real magnitude externally; as to the interior, I am not
sure that it would not be even more grand and majestic if it were less
magnificent, though I should be sorry to see the experiment tried. I
had expected something dim and vast, like the great English
cathedrals, only more vast and dim and gray; but there is as much
difference as between noonday and twilight." The pictures, too, were
apt in these first days to go against the grain with him.
Contemplating a fresco representing scenes in purgatory, he broke
forth: "I cannot speak as to the truth of the representation, but, at
all events, it was purgatory to look at this poor, faded rubbish.
Thank Heaven, there is such a thing as whitewash; and I shall always
be glad to hear of its application to old frescoes, even at the
sacrifice of remnants of real excellence!" Such growlings torture the
soul of the connoisseur; but the unregenerate man, hearing them, leaps
up and shouts for joy. He found the old masters, in their sacred
subjects, lacking in originality and initiative; and when they would
represent mythology, they engendered an apotheosis of nakedness. His
conclusion was that "there is something forced, if not feigned, in our
taste for pictures of the old Italian school." Of the profane
subjects, he instances the Fornarina, "with a deep bright glow on her
face, naked below the waist, and well pleased to be so, for the sake
of your admiration--ready for any extent of nudity, for love or
money--the brazen trollop that she is! Raphael must have been capable
of great sensuality to have painted this picture of his own accord,
and lovingly." These are the iconoclasms of the Goth and Vandal at
their first advent to Rome. They remained to alter their mood, and
extol what they had before assaulted; and so did my father, as we
shall see presently. But at first he was sick and cold and
uncomfortable; and he consoled himself by hitting out at everything,
in the secret privacy of his diary, since opened to the world. With
warmer weather came equanimity and kinder judgments; but there is a
refreshing touch of truth and justice even in these mutterings of
exasperation.

It was not so much, I suppose, that Rome was cold as that my father
had expected it to be otherwise. When one is in a place where
tradition and association invite the soul forth to be warmed and
soothed and rejoiced, and the body, venturing out, finds nothing but
chill winds and frigid temperature and discomfort, the shock is much
greater and more disagreeable than if one had been in some northern
Canada or Spitzbergen, where such conditions are normal. Ice in the
arctic circle is all right and exhilarating, but in the Piazza of St.
Peter's it is an outrage, and affects the mind and heart even more
than the flesh.

Circumstances caused my father to pass through several distinct phases
of feeling while he was in Rome. First, his own indisposition and the
inclement weather depressed and exasperated him.

Time, in due course, brought relief in these respects, and he began to
enjoy himself and his surroundings. Anon, the springs of creative
imagination, long dormant in him, were roused to activity by thoughts
connected with the Faun of Praxiteles in the Capitol. He now became
happy in the way of his genius and immediately took a new interest in
all things, looking at them from the point of view of possible
backgrounds or incidents for the romance which had begun to take form
in his mind. He describes what he saw con amore, and all manner of
harmonious ideas bloom through his thoughts, like anemones and other
flowers in the Villa Pamphili and the Borghese. This desirable mood
continued until, after our return to Rome from the Florentine visit,
my sister caught the Roman fever. She lay for weeks in danger of
death; and her father's anxiety about her not only destroyed in him
all thoughts of literary production and care for it, but made even
keeping his journal no longer possible for him. That strain, so long
continued, broke him down, and he never recovered from it so as to be
what he had been before. Nevertheless, when she became convalescent,
the reaction from his dark misgivings made him, for a time, as
light-hearted as a boy; and, the carnival happening to be coincident
with her recovery, he entered into the fun of it with a zest and
enjoyment that surprised himself. But, again, it presently became
evident that her recovery was not complete, and probably never would
be so; the injury to her health was permanent, and she was liable to
recurrences of disease. His spirits sank again, not so low as before,
but, on the other hand, they never again rose to their normal level.
It was in this saddened mood that he once more took up the Roman
romance and finished it; it is a sad book, and when there is a ray of
sunshine across the page, it has a melancholy gleam. After we
returned to Concord, his apprehensions concerning Una's unsound
condition were confirmed; and, in addition, the bitter cleavage
between North and South inspired in him the gloomiest forebodings. A
wasting away of his whole physical substance ensued; and he died,
almost suddenly, while in years he might be considered hardly past the
prime of his life. A sensitive eye can trace the effects of the
death-blow all through The Marble Faun, and still more in Septimius
and Grimshawe, published after his death. In The Dolliver Romance
fragment, which was the last thing he wrote, there is visible once
more some reminiscence of the old sunshine of humor that was so often
apparent in his time of youth and vigor; but it, too, has a sad touch
in it, such as belongs to the last rays of the star of day before it
sinks below the horizon forever. Night follows, and the rest is
silence.


Julian Hawthorne

Sorry, no summary available yet.