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Region VI Parione

The principal point of this Region is Piazza Navona, which exactly coincides with Domitian's race-course, and the Region consists of an irregular triangle of which the huge square is at the northern angle, the western one being the Piazza della Chiesa Nuova and the southern extremity the theatre of Pompey, so often referred to in these pages as one of the Orsini's strongholds and containing the little church in which Paolo Giordano married Vittoria Accoramboni, close to the Campo dei Fiori which was the place of public executions by fire. The name Parione is said to be derived from the Latin 'Paries,' a wall, applied to a massive remnant of ancient masonry which once stood somewhere in the Via di Parione. It matters little; nor can we find any satisfactory explanation of the gryphon which serves as a device for the whole quarter, included during the Middle Age, with Ponte and Regola, in the large portion of the city dominated by the Orsini.

The Befana, which is a corruption of Epifania, the Feast of the Epiphany, is and always has been the season of giving presents in Rome, corresponding with our Christmas; and the Befana is personated as a gruff old woman who brings gifts to little children after the manner of our Saint Nicholas. But in the minds of Romans, from earliest childhood, the name is associated with the night fair, opened on the eve of the Epiphany in Piazza Navona, and which was certainly one of the most extraordinary popular festivals ever invented to amuse children and make children of grown people, a sort of foreshadowing of Carnival, but having at the same time a flavour and a colour of its own, unlike anything else in the world.

During the days after Christmas a regular line of booths is erected, encircling the whole circus-shaped space. It is a peculiarity of Roman festivals that all the material for adornment is kept together from year to year, ready for use at a moment's notice, and when one sees the enormous amount of lumber required for the Carnival, for the fireworks on the Pincio, or for the Befana, one cannot help wondering where it is all kept. From year to year it lies somewhere, in those vast subterranean places and great empty houses used for that especial purpose, of which only Romans guess the extent. When needed, it is suddenly produced without confusion, marked and numbered, ready to be put together and regilt or repainted, or hung with the acres of draperies which Latins know so well how to display in everything approaching to public pageantry.

At dark, on the Eve of the Epiphany, the Befana begins. The hundreds of booths are choked with toys and gleam with thousands of little lights, the open spaces are thronged by a moving crowd, the air splits with the infernal din of ten thousand whistles and tin trumpets. Noise is the first consideration for a successful befana, noise of any kind, shrill, gruff, high, low—any sort of noise; and the first purchase of everyone who comes must be a tin horn, a pipe, or one of those grotesque little figures of painted earthenware, representing some characteristic type of Roman life and having a whistle attached to it, so cleverly modelled in the clay as to produce the most hideous noises without even the addition of a wooden plug. But anything will do. On a memorable night nearly thirty years ago, the whole cornopean stop of an organ was sold in the fair, amounting to seventy or eighty pipes with their reeds. The instrument in the old English Protestant Church outside of Porta del Popolo had been improved, and the organist, who was a practical Anglo-Saxon, conceived the original and economical idea of selling the useless pipes at the night fair for the benefit of the church. The braying of the high, cracked reeds was frightful and never to be forgotten.

Round and round the square, three generations of families, children, parents and even grandparents, move in a regular stream, closer and closer towards midnight and supper-time; nor is the place deserted till three o'clock in the morning. Toys everywhere, original with an attractive ugliness, nine-tenths of them made of earthenware dashed with a kind of bright and harmless paint of which every Roman child remembers the taste for life; and old and young and middle-aged all blow their whistles and horns with solemnly ridiculous pertinacity, pausing only to make some little purchase at the booths, or to exchange a greeting with passing friends, followed by an especially vigorous burst of noise as the whistles are brought close to each other's ears, and the party that can make the more atrocious din drives the other half deafened from the field. And the old women who help to keep the booths sit warming their skinny hands over earthen pots of coals and looking on without a smile on their Sibylline faces, while their sons and daughters sell clay hunchbacks and little old women of clay, the counterparts of their mothers, to the passing customers. Thousands upon thousands of people throng the place, and it is warm with the presence of so much humanity, even under the clear winter sky. And there is no confusion, no accident, no trouble, there are no drunken men and no pickpockets. But Romans are not like other people.

In a few days all is cleared away again, and Bernini's great fountain faces Borromini's big Church of Saint Agnes, in the silence; and the officious guide tells the credulous foreigner how the figure of the Nile in the group is veiling his head to hide the sight of the hideous architecture, and how the face of the Danube expresses the River God's terror lest the tower should fall upon him; and how the architect retorted upon the sculptor by placing Saint Agnes on the summit of the church, in the act of reassuring the Romans as to the safety of her shrine; and again, how Bernini's enemies said that the obelisk of the fountain was tottering, till he came alone on foot and tied four lengths of twine to the four corners of the pedestal, and fastened the strings to the nearest houses, in derision, and went away laughing. It was at that time that he modelled four grinning masks for the corners of his sedan-chair, so that they seemed to be making scornful grimaces at his detractors as he was carried along. He could afford to laugh. He had been the favourite of Urban the Eighth who, when Cardinal Barberini, had actually held the looking-glass by the aid of which the handsome young sculptor modelled his own portrait in the figure of David with the sling, now in the Museum of Villa Borghese. After a brief period of disgrace under the next reign, brought about by the sharpness of his Neapolitan tongue, Bernini was restored to the favour of Innocent the Tenth, the Pamfili Pope, to please whose economical tastes he executed the fountain in Piazza Navona, after a design greatly reduced in extent as well as in beauty, compared with the first he had sketched. But an account of Bernini would lead far and profit little; the catalogue of his works would fill a small volume; and after all, he was successful only in an age when art had fallen low. In place of Michelangelo's universal genius, Bernini possessed a born Neapolitan's universal facility. He could do something of everything, circumstances gave him enormous opportunities, and there were few things which he did not attempt, from classic sculpture to the final architecture of Saint Peter's and the fortifications of Sant' Angelo. He was afflicted by the hereditary giantism of the Latins, and was often moved by motives of petty spite against his inferior rival, Borromini. His best work is the statue of Saint Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria, a figure which has recently excited the ecstatic admiration of a French critic, expressed in language that betrays at once the fault of the conception, the taste of the age in which Bernini lived, and the unhealthy nature of the sculptor's prolific talent. Only the seventeenth century could have represented such a disquieting fusion of the sensuous and the spiritual, and it was reserved for the decadence of our own days to find words that could describe it. Bernini has been praised as the Michelangelo of his day, but no one has yet been bold enough, or foolish enough, to call Michelangelo the Bernini of the sixteenth century. Barely sixty years elapsed between the death of the one and birth of the other, and the space of a single lifetime separates the zenith of the Renascence from the nadir of Barocco art.


The names of Bernini and of Piazza Navona recall Innocent the Tenth, who built the palace beside the Church of Saint Agnes, his meannesses, his nepotism, his weakness, and his miserable end; how his relatives stripped him of all they could lay hands on, and how at the last, when he died in the only shirt he possessed, covered by a single ragged blanket, his sister-in-law, Olimpia Maldachini, dragged from beneath his pallet bed the two small chests of money which he had succeeded in concealing to the end. A brass candlestick with a single burning taper stood beside him in his last moments, and before he was quite dead, a servant stole it and put a wooden one in its place. When he was dead at the Quirinal, his body was carried to Saint Peter's in a bier so short that the poor Pope's feet stuck out over the end, and three days later, no one could be found to pay for the burial. Olimpia declared that she was a starving widow and could do nothing; the corpse was thrust into a place where the masons of the Vatican kept their tools, and one of the workmen, out of charity or superstition, lit a tallow candle beside it. In the end, the maggiordomo paid for a deal coffin, and Monsignor Segni gave five scudi—an English pound—to have the body taken away and buried. It was slung between two mules and taken by night to the Church of Saint Agnes, where in the changing course of human and domestic events, it ultimately got an expensive monument in the worst possible taste. The learned and sometimes witty Baracconi, who has set down the story, notes the fact that Leo the Tenth, Pius the Fourth and Gregory the Sixteenth fared little better in their obsequies, and he comments upon the democratic spirit of a city in which such things can happen.

Close to the Piazza Navona stands the famous mutilated group, known as Pasquino, of which the mere name conveys a better idea of the Roman character than volumes of description, for it was here that the pasquinades were published, by affixing them to a pedestal at the corner of the Palazzo Braschi. And one of Pasquino's bitterest jests was directed against Olimpia Maldachini. Her name was cut in two, to make a good Latin pun: 'Olim pia, nunc impia,' 'once pious, now impious,' or 'Olimpia, now impious,' as one chose to join or separate the syllables. Whole books have been filled with the short and pithy imaginary conversations between Marforio, the statue of a river god which used to stand in the Monti, and Pasquino, beneath whom the Roman children used to be told that the book of all wisdom was buried for ever.

In the Region of Parione stands the famous Cancelleria, a masterpiece of Bramante's architecture, celebrated for many events in the later history of Rome, and successively the princely residence of several cardinals, chief of whom was that strong Pompeo Colonna, the ally of the Emperor Charles the Fifth, who was responsible for the sacking of Rome by the Constable of Bourbon, who ultimately ruined the Holy League, and imposed his terrible terms of peace upon Clement the Seventh, a prisoner in Sant' Angelo. Considering the devastation and the horrors which were the result of that contest, and its importance in Rome's history, it is worth while to tell the story again. Connected with it was the last great struggle between Orsini and Colonna, Orsini, as usual, siding for the Pope, and therefore for the Holy League, and Colonna for the Emperor.

Charles the Fifth had vanquished Francis the First at Pavia, in the year 1525, and had taken the French King prisoner. A year later the Holy League was formed, between Pope Clement the Seventh, the King of France, the Republics of Venice and Florence, and Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan. Its object was to fight the Emperor, to sustain Sforza, and to seize the Kingdom of Naples by force. Immediately upon the proclamation of the League, the Emperor's ambassadors left Rome, the Colonna retired to their strongholds, and the Emperor made preparations to send Charles, Duke of Bourbon, the disgraced relative of King Francis, to storm Rome and reduce the imprisoned Pope to submission. The latter's first and nearest source of fear lay in the Colonna, who held the fortresses and passes between Rome and the Neapolitan frontier, and his first instinct was to attack them with the help of the Orsini. But neither side was ready for the fight, and the timid Pontiff eagerly accepted the promise of peace made by the Colonna in order to gain time, and he dismissed the forces he had hastily raised against them.


PONTE SISTO From a print of the last century

They, in the mean time, treated with Moncada, Regent of Naples for the Emperor, and at once seized Anagni, put several thousand men in the field, marched upon Rome with incredible speed, seized three gates in the night, and entered the city in triumph on the following morning. The Pope and the Orsini, completely taken by surprise, offered little or no resistance. According to some writers, it was Pompeo Colonna's daring plan to murder the Pope, force his own election to the Pontificate by arms, destroy the Orsini, and open Rome to Charles the Fifth; and when the Colonna advanced on the same day, by Ponte Sisto, to Trastevere, and threatened to attack Saint Peter's and the Vatican, Clement the Seventh, remembering Sciarra and Pope Boniface, was on the point of imitating the latter and arraying himself in his Pontifical robes to await his enemy with such dignity as he could command. But the remonstrances of the more prudent cardinals prevailed, and about noon they conveyed him safely to Sant' Angelo by the secret covered passage, leaving the Colonna to sack Trastevere and even Saint Peter's itself, though they dared not come too near to Sant' Angelo for fear of its cannons. The tumult over at last, Don Ugo de Moncada, in the Emperor's name, took possession of the Pope's two nephews as hostages for his own safety, entered Sant' Angelo under a truce, and stated the Emperor's conditions of peace. These were, to all intents and purposes, that the Pope should withdraw his troops, wherever he had any, and that the Emperor should be free to advance wherever he pleased, except through the Papal States, that the Pope should give hostages for his good faith, and that he should grant a free pardon to all the Colonna, who vaguely agreed to withdraw their forces into the Kingdom of Naples. To this humiliating peace, or armistice, for it was nothing more, the Pope was forced by the prospect of starvation, and he would even have agreed to sail to Barcelona in order to confer with the Emperor; but from this he was ultimately dissuaded by Henry the Eighth of England and the King of France, 'who sent him certain sums of money and promised him their support.' The consequence was that he broke the truce as soon as he dared, deprived the Cardinal of his hat, and, with the help of the Orsini, attacked the Colonna by surprise on their estates, giving orders to burn their castles and raze their fortresses to the ground. Four villages were burned before the surprised party could recover itself; but with some assistance from the imperial troops they were soon able to face their enemies on equal terms, and the little war raged fiercely during several months, with varying success and all possible cruelty on both sides.

Meanwhile Charles, Duke of Bourbon, known as the Constable, and more or less in the pay of the Emperor, had gathered an army in Lombardy. His force consisted of the most atrocious ruffians of the time,—Lutheran Germans, superstitious Spaniards, revolutionary Italians, and such other nondescripts as would join his standard,—all fellows who had in reality neither country nor conscience, and were ready to serve any soldier of fortune who promised them plunder and license. The predominating element was Spanish, but there was not much to choose among them all so far as their instincts were concerned. Charles was penniless, as usual; he offered his horde of cutthroats the rich spoils of Tuscany and Rome, they swore to follow him to death and perdition, and he began his southward march. The Emperor looked on with an approving eye, and the Pope was overcome by abject terror. In the vain hope of saving himself and the city he concluded a truce with the Viceroy of Naples, agreeing to pay sixty thousand ducats, to give back everything taken from the Colonna, and to restore Pompeo to the honours of the cardinalate. The conditions of the armistice were forthwith carried out, by the disbanding of the Pope's hired soldiers and the payment of the indemnity, and Clement the Seventh enjoyed during a few weeks the pleasant illusion of fancied safety.

He awoke from the dream, in horror and fear, to find that the Constable considered himself in no way bound by a peace concluded with the Emperor's Viceroy, and was advancing rapidly upon Rome, ravaging and burning everything in his way. Hasty preparations for defence were made; a certain Renzo da Ceri armed such men as he could enlist with such weapons as he could find, and sent out a little force of grooms and artificers to face the Constable's ruthless Spaniards and the fierce Germans of his companion freebooter, George of Fransperg, or Franzberg, who carried about a silken cord by which he swore to strangle the Pope with his own hands. The enemy reached the walls of Rome on the night of the fifth of May; devastation and famine lay behind them in their track, the plunder of the Church was behind the walls, and far from northward came rumours of the army of the League on its way to cut off their retreat. They resolved to win the spoil or die, and at dawn the Constable, clad in a white cloak, led the assault and set up the first scaling ladder, close to the Porta San Spirito. In the very act a bullet struck him in a vital part and he fell headlong to the earth. Benvenuto Cellini claimed the credit of the shot, but it is more than probable that it sped from another hand, that of Bernardino Passeri; it matters little now, it mattered less then, as the infuriated Spaniards stormed the walls in the face of Camillo Orsini's desperate and hopeless resistance, yelling 'Blood and the Bourbon,' for a war-cry.

Once more the wretched Pope fled along the secret corridor with his cardinals, his prelates and his servants; for although he might yet have escaped from the doomed city, messengers had brought word that Cardinal Pompeo Colonna had ten thousand men-at-arms in the Campagna, ready to cut off his flight, and he was condemned to be a terrified spectator of Rome's destruction from the summit of a fortress which he dared not surrender and could hardly hope to defend. Seven thousand Romans were slaughtered in the storming of the walls; the enemy gained all Trastevere at a blow and the sack began; the torrent of fury poured across Ponte Sisto into Rome itself, thousands upon thousands of steel-clad madmen, drunk with blood and mad with the glitter of gold, a storm of unimaginable terror. Cardinals, Princes and Ambassadors were dragged from their palaces, and when greedy hands had gathered up all that could be taken away, fire consumed the rest, and the miserable captives were tortured into promising fabulous ransoms for life and limb. Abbots, priors and heads of religious orders were treated with like barbarity, and the few who escaped the clutches of the bloodthirsty Spanish soldiers fell into the reeking hands of the brutal German adventurers. The enormous sum of six million ducats was gathered together in value of gold and silver bullion and of precious things, and as much more was extorted as promised ransom from the gentlemen and churchmen and merchants of Rome by the savage tortures of the lash, the iron boot and the rack. The churches were stripped of all consecrated vessels, the Sacred Wafers were scattered abroad by the Catholic Spaniards and trampled in the bloody ooze that filled the ways, the convents were stormed by a rabble in arms and the nuns were distributed as booty among their fiendish captors, mothers and children were slaughtered in the streets and drunken Spaniards played dice for the daughters of honourable citizens.

From the surrounding Campagna the Colonna entered the city in arms, orderly, silent and sober, and from their well-guarded fortresses they contemplated the ruin they had brought upon Rome. Cardinal Pompeo installed himself in his palace of the Cancelleria in the Region of Parione, and gave shelter to such of his friends as might be useful to him thereafter. In revenge upon John de' Medici, the Captain of the Black Bands, whose assistance the Pope had invoked, the Cardinal caused the Villa Medici on Monte Mario to be burned to the ground, and Clement the Seventh watched the flames from the ramparts of Sant' Angelo. One good action is recorded of the savage churchman. He ransomed and protected in his house the wife and the daughter of that Giorgio Santacroce who had murdered the Cardinal's father by night, when the Cardinal himself was an infant in arms, more than forty years earlier; and he helped some of his friends to escape by a chimney from the room in which they had been confined and tortured into promising a ransom they could not pay. But beyond those few acts he did little to mitigate the horrors of the month-long sack, and nothing to relieve the city from the yoke of its terrible captors. The Holy League sent a small force to the Pope's assistance and it reached the gates of Rome; but the Spaniards were in possession of immense stores of ammunition and provisions, they had more horses than they needed and more arms than they could bear; the forces of the League had traversed a country in which not a blade of grass had been left undevoured nor a measure of corn uneaten; and the avengers of the dead Constable, securely fortified within the walls, looked down with contempt upon an army already decimated by sickness and starvation.

At this juncture, Clement the Seventh resolved to abandon further resistance and sue for peace. The guns of Sant' Angelo had all but fired their last shot, and the supply of food was nearly exhausted, when the Pope sent for Cardinal Colonna; the churchman consented to a parley, and the man who had suffered confiscation and disgrace entered the castle as the arbiter of destiny. He was received as the mediator of peace and a benefactor of humanity, and when he stated his terms they were not refused. The Pope and the thirteen Cardinals who were with him were to remain prisoners until the payment of four hundred thousand ducats of gold, after which they were to be conducted to Naples to await the further pleasure of the Emperor; the Colonna were to be absolutely and freely pardoned for all they had done; in the hope of some subsequent assistance the Pope promised to make Cardinal Colonna the Legate of the Marches. As a hostage for the performance of these and other conditions, Cardinal Orsini was delivered over to his enemy, who conducted him as his prisoner to the Castle of Grottaferrata, and the Colonna secretly agreed to allow the Pope to go free from Sant' Angelo. On the night of December the ninth, seven months after the storming of the city, the head of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church fled from the castle in the humble garb of a market gardener, and made good his escape to Orvieto and to the protection of the Holy League.

Meanwhile a pestilence had broken out in Rome, and the spectre of a mysterious and mortal sickness distracted those who had survived the terrors of sword and flame. The Spanish and German soldiery either fell victims to the plague or deserted in haste and fear; and though Cardinal Pompeo's peace contained no promise that the city should be evacuated, it was afterwards stated upon credible authority that, within two years from their coming, not one of the barbarous horde was left alive within the walls. When all was over the city was little more than a heap of ruins, but the Colonna had been victorious, and were sated with revenge. This, in brief, is the history of the storming and sacking of Rome which took place in the year 1527, at the highest development of the Renascence, in the youth of Benvenuto Cellini, when Michelangelo had not yet painted the Last Judgment, when Titian was just fifty years old, and when Raphael and Lionardo da Vinci were but lately dead; and the contrast between the sublimity of art and the barbarity of human nature in that day is only paralleled in the annals of our own century, at once the bloodiest and the most civilized in the history of the world.

The Cancelleria, wherein Pompeo Colonna sheltered the wife and daughter of his father's murderer, is remembered for some modern political events: for the opening of the first representative parliament under Pius the Ninth, in 1848, for the assassination of the Pope's minister, Pellegrino Rossi, on the steps of the entrance in the same year, and as the place where the so-called Roman Republic was proclaimed in 1849. But it is most of all interesting for the nobility of its proportions and the simplicity of its architecture. It is undeniably, and almost undeniedly, the best building in Rome today, though that may not be saying much in a city which has been more exclusively the prey of the Barocco than any other.

From a print of the last century

The Palace of the Massimo, once built to follow the curve of a narrow winding street, but now facing the same great thoroughfare as the Cancelleria, has something of the same quality, with a wholly different character. It is smaller and more gloomy, and its columns are almost black with age; it was here, in 1455, that Pannartz and Schweinheim, two of those nomadic German scholars who have not yet forgotten the road to Italy, established their printing-press in the house of Pietro de' Massimi, and here took place one of those many romantic tragedies which darkened the end of the sixteenth century. For a certain Signore Massimo, in the year 1585, had been married and had eight sons, mostly grown men, when he fell in love with a light-hearted lady of more wit than virtue, and announced that he would make her his wife, though his sons warned him that they would not bear the slight upon their mother's memory. The old man, infatuated and beside himself with love, would not listen to them, but published the banns, married the woman, and brought her home for his wife.

One of the sons, the youngest, was too timid to join the rest; but on the next morning the seven others went to the bridal apartment, and killed their step-mother when their father was away. But he came back before she was quite dead, and he took the Crucifix from the wall by the bed and cursed his children. And the curse was fulfilled upon them.

Parione is the heart of Mediæval Rome, the very centre of that black cloud of mystery which hangs over the city of the Middle Age. A history might be composed out of Pasquin's sayings, volumes have been written about Cardinal Pompeo Colonna and the ruin he wrought, whole books have been filled with the life and teachings and miracles of Saint Philip Neri, who belonged to this quarter, erected here his great oratory, and is believed to have recalled from the dead a youth of the house of Massimo in that same gloomy palace.

The story of Rome is a tale of murder and sudden death, varied, changing, never repeated in the same way; there is blood on every threshold; a tragedy lies buried in every church and chapel; and again we ask in vain wherein lies the magic of the city that has fed on terror and grown old in carnage, the charm that draws men to her, the power that holds, the magic that enthralls men soul and body, as Lady Venus cast her spells upon Tannhäuser in her mountain of old. Yet none deny it, and as centuries roll on, the poets, the men of letters, the musicians, the artists of all ages, have come to her from far countries and have dwelt here while they might, some for long years, some for the few months they could spare; and all of them have left something, a verse, a line, a sketch, a song that breathes the threefold mystery of love, eternity and death.

F. Marion Crawford