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Region VIII Sant' Eustacio

The Eighth region is almost symmetrical in shape, extending nearly north and south with a tolerably even breadth from the haunted palace of the Santacroce, where the marble statue of the dead Cardinal comes down from its pedestal to pace the shadowy halls all night, to Santa Maria in Campo Marzo, and cutting off, as it were, the three Regions so long held by the Orsini from the rest of the city. Taking Rome as a whole, it was a very central quarter until the development of the newly inhabited portions. It was here, near the churches of Saint Eustace and Saint Ives, that the English who came to Rome for business established themselves, like other foreigners, in a distinct colony during the Renascence. Upon the chapel of Saint Ives, unconsecrated now and turned into a lecture room of the University, a strange spiral tower shows the talents of Borromini, Bernini's rival, at their lowest ebb. So far as one can judge, the architect intended to represent realistically the arduous path of learning; but whatever he meant, the result is as bad a piece of Barocco as is to be found in Rome.

As for the Church of Saint Eustace, it commemorates a vision which tradition attributes alike to Saint Julian the Hospitaller, to Saint Felix, and to Saint Hubert. The genius of Flaubert, who was certainly one of the greatest prose writers of this century, has told the story of the first of these in very beautiful language, and the legend of Saint Hubert is familiar to every one. Saint Eustace is perhaps less known, for he was a Roman saint of early days, a soldier and a lover of the chase, as many Romans were. We do not commonly associate with them the idea of boar hunting or deer stalking, but they were enthusiastic sportsmen. Virgil's short and brilliant description of Æneas shooting the seven stags on the Carthaginian shore is the work of a man who had seen what he described, and Pliny's letters are full of allusions to hunting. Saint Eustace was a contemporary of the latter, and perhaps outlived him, for he is said to have been martyred under Hadrian, when a long career of arms had raised him to the rank of a general. It is an often-told story—how he was stalking the deer in the Ciminian forest one day, alone and on foot, when a royal stag, milk-white and without blemish, crashed through the meeting boughs before him; how he followed the glorious creature fast and far, and shot and missed and shot again, and how at last the stag sprang up a steep and jutting rock and faced him, and he saw Christ's cross between the branching antlers, and upon the Cross the Crucified, and heard a still far voice that bade him be Christian and suffer and be saved; and so, alone in the greenwood, he knelt down and bowed himself to the world's Redeemer, and rose up again, and the vision had departed. And having converted his wife and his two sons, they suffered together with him; for they were thrust into the great brazen bull by the Colosseum, and it was made red hot, and they perished, praising God. But their ashes lie under the high altar in the church to this day.

The small square of Saint Eustace is not far from Piazza Navona, communicating with it by gloomy little streets, and on the great night of the Befana, the fair spreads through the narrow ways and overflows with more booths, more toys, more screaming whistles, into the space between the University and the church. And here at the southeast corner used to stand the famous Falcone, the ancient eating-house which to the last kept up the Roman traditions, and where in old days, many a famous artist and man of letters supped on dishes now as extinct as the dodo. The house has been torn down to make way for a modern building. Famous it was for wild boar, in the winter, dressed with sweet sauce and pine nuts, and for baked porcupine and strange messes of tomatoes and cheese, and famous, too, for its good old wines in the days when wine was not mixed with chemicals and sold as 'Chianti,' though grown about Olevano, Paliano and Segni. It was a strange place, occupying the whole of two houses which must have been built in the sixteenth century, after the sack of Rome. It was full of small rooms of unexpected shapes, scrupulously neat and clean, with little white and red curtains, tiled floors, and rush bottomed chairs, and the regular guests had their own places, corners in which they had made themselves comfortable for life, as it were, and were to be found without fail at dinner and at supper time. It was one of those genial bits of old Rome which survived till a few years ago, and was more deeply regretted than many better things when it disappeared.

Behind the Church of Saint Eustace runs a narrow street straight up from the Square of the Pantheon to the Via della Dogana Vecchia. It used to be chiefly occupied at the lower end by poulterers' shops, but towards its upper extremity—for the land rises a little—it has always had a peculiarly dismal and gloomy look. It bears a name about which are associated some of the darkest deeds in Rome's darkest age; it is called the Via de' Crescenzi, the street and the abode of that great and evil house which filled the end of the tenth century with its bloody deeds.

There is no more unfathomable mystery in the history of mediæval Rome than the origin and power of Theodora, whose name first appears in the year 914, as Lady Senatress and absolute mistress of the city. The chronicler Luitprand, who is almost the only authority for this period, heaps abuse upon Theodora and her eldest daughter, hints that they were of low origin, and brands them with a disgrace more foul than their crimes. No one can read their history and believe that they were anything but patrician women, of execrable character but of high descent. From Theodora, in little more than a hundred years, descended five Popes and a line of sovereign Counts, ending in Peter, the first ancestor of the Colonna who took the name; and, from her also, by the marriage of her second daughter, called Theodora like herself, the Crescenzi traced their descent. Yet no historian can say who that first Theodora was, nor whence she came, nor how she rose to power, nor can any one name the father of her children. Her terrible eldest child, Marozia, married three sovereigns, the Lord of Tusculum, the Lord of Tuscany, and at last Hugh, King of Burgundy, and left a history that is an evil dream of terror and bloodshed. But the story of those fearful women belongs to their stronghold, the great castle of Sant' Angelo. To the Region of Saint Eustace belongs the history of Crescenzio, consul, tribune and despot of Rome. In the street that bears the name of his family, the huge walls of Severus Alexander's bath afforded the materials for a fortress, and there Crescenzio dwelt when his kinswoman Marozia held Hadrian's tomb, and after she was dead. Those were the times when the Emperors defended the Popes against the Roman people. Not many years had passed since Otto the First had done justice upon Peter the Prefect, far away at the Lateran palace; Otto the Second reigned in his stead, and Benedict the Sixth was Pope. The race of Theodora hated the domination of the Emperor, and despised a youthful sovereign whom they had never seen. They dreamed of restoring Rome to the Eastern Empire, and of renewing the ancient office of Exarch for themselves. Benedict stood in their way and was doomed. They chose their antipope, a Roman Cardinal, one Boniface, a man with neither scruple nor conscience, and set him up in the Pontificate; and, when they had done that, Crescenzio seized Benedict and dragged him through the low black entrance of Sant' Angelo, and presently strangled him in his dungeon. But neither did Boniface please those who had made him Pope; and, within the month, lest he should die like him he had supplanted, he stealthily escaped from Rome to the sea, and it is recorded that he stole and carried away the sacred vessels and treasures of the Vatican, and took them to Constantinople.

So Crescenzio first appears in the wild and confused history of that century of dread, when men looked forward with certainty and horror to the ending of the world in the year one thousand. And during a dozen years after Benedict was murdered, the cauldron of faction boiled and seethed in Rome. Then, in the year 987, when Hugh Capet took France for himself and for his descendants through eight centuries, and when John the Fifteenth was Pope in Rome, 'a new tyrant arose in the city which had hitherto been trampled down and held under by the violence of the race of Alberic,'—that is, the race of Theodora,—'and that tyrant was Crescentius.' And Crescenzio was the kinsman of Alberic's children.

The second Otto was dead, and Otto the Third was a mere boy, when Crescenzio, fortified in Sant' Angelo, suddenly declared himself Consul, seized all power, and drove the Pope from Rome. This time he had no antipope; he would have no Pope at all, and there was no Emperor either, since the young Otto had not yet been crowned. So Crescenzio reigned alone for awhile, with what he called a Senate at his back, and the terror of his name to awe the Roman people. But Pope John was wiser than the unfortunate Benedict, and a better man than Boniface, the antipope and thief; and having escaped to the north, he won the graces of Crescenzio's distant kinsman by marriage and hereditary foe, Duke Hugh of Tuscany, grandson of Hugh of Burgundy the usurper; and from that strong situation he proceeded to offer the boy Otto inducements for coming to be crowned in Rome.

He wisely judged from what he had seen during his lifetime that the most effectual means of opposing the boundless license of the Roman patricians was to make an Emperor, even of a child, and he knew that the name of Otto the Great was not forgotten, and that the terrible execution of Peter the Prefect was remembered with a lively dread. Crescenzio was not ready to oppose the force of the Empire; he was surrounded by jealous factions at home, which any sudden revolution might turn against himself, he weighed his strength against the danger and he resolved to yield. The 'Senate,' which consisted of patricians as greedy as himself, but less daring or less strong, had altogether recovered the temporal power in Rome, and Crescenzio easily persuaded them that it would be both futile and dangerous to quarrel with the Emperor about spiritual matters. The 'Consul' and the 'Senate'—which meant a tyrant and his courtiers—accordingly requested the Pope to return in peace and exercise his episcopal functions in the Holy See. Pope John must have been as bold as he was wise, for he did not hesitate, but came back at once. He reaped the fruit of his wisdom and his courage. Crescenzio and the nobles met him with reverence and implored his forgiveness for their ill-considered deeds; the Pope granted them a free pardon, wisely abstaining from any assertion of temporal power, and sometimes apparently submitting with patience to the Consul's tyranny. For it is recorded that some years later, when the Bishops of France sent certain ambassadors to the Pope, they were not received, but were treated with indignity, kept waiting outside the palace three days, and finally sent home without audience or answer because they had omitted to bribe Crescenzio.


If Pope John had persuaded Otto to be crowned at once, such things might not have taken place. It was many years before the young Emperor came to Rome at last, and he had not reached the city when he was met by the news that Pope John was dead. He lost no time, designated his private chaplain, the son of the Duke of Franconia, 'a young man of letters, but somewhat fiery on account of his youth,' to be Pope, and sent him forward to Rome at once with a train of bishops, to be installed in the Holy See. In so youthful a sovereign, such action lacked neither energy nor wisdom. The young Pontiff assumed the name of Gregory the Fifth, espoused the cause of the poor citizens against the tyranny of the nobles, crowned his late master Emperor, and forthwith made a determined effort to crush Crescenzio and regain the temporal power.

But he had met his match at the outset. The blood of Theodora was not easily put down. The Consul laughed to scorn the pretensions of the young Pope; the nobles were in arms, the city was his, and in the second year of his Pontificate, Gregory the Fifth was driven ignominiously from the gates in a state of absolute destitution. He was the third Pope whom Crescenzio had driven out. Gregory made his way to Pavia, summoned a council of Bishops, and launched the Major Excommunication at his adversary. But the Consul, secure in Sant' Angelo, laughed again, more grimly, and did as he pleased.

At this time Basil and Constantine, joint Emperors in Constantinople, sent ambassadors to Rome to Otto the Third, and with them came a certain John, a Calabrian of Greek race, a man of pliant conscience, tortuous mind, and extraordinary astuteness, at that time Archbishop of Piacenza, and formerly employed by Otto upon a mission to Constantinople. Crescenzio, as though to show that his enmity was altogether against the Pope, and not in the least against the Emperor, received these envoys with great honour, and during their stay persuaded them to enter into a scheme which had suddenly presented itself to his ambitious intelligence. The old dream of restoring Rome to the Eastern Empire was revived, the conspirators resolved to bring it to realization, and John of Calabria was a convenient tool for their hands. He was to be Pope; Crescenzio was to be despot, under the nominal protection and sovereignty of the Greek Emperors, and the ambassadors were to conclude the treaty with the latter. Otto was on the German frontier waging war against the Slavs, and Gregory was definitely exiled from Rome. Nothing stood in the way of the plot, and it was forthwith put into execution. Certain ambassadors of Otto's were passing through Rome on their return from the East and on their way to the Emperor's presence; they were promptly seized and thrown into prison, in order to interrupt communication between the two Empires. John of Calabria was consecrated Pope, or rather antipope, Crescenzio took possession of all power, and certain legates of Pope Gregory having ventured to enter Rome were at once imprisoned with the Emperor's ambassadors. It was a daring stroke, and if it had succeeded, the history of Europe would have been different from that time forward. Crescenzio was bold, unscrupulous, pertinacious and keen. He had the Roman nobles at his back and he controlled such scanty revenues as could still be collected. He had violently expelled three Popes, he had created two antipopes, and his name was terror in the ears of the Church. Yet it would have taken more than all that to overset the Catholic Church at a time when the world was ripe for the first crusade; and though the Empire had fallen low since the days of Charles the Great, it was fast climbing again to the supremacy of power in which it culminated under Barbarossa and whence it fell with Frederick the Second. A handful of high-born murderers and marauders might work havoc in Rome for a time, but they could neither destroy that deep-rooted belief nor check the growth of that imperial law by which Europe emerged from the confusion of the dark age—to lose both law and belief again amid the intellectual excitements of the Renascence.

Otto the Third was young, brave and determined, and before the treaty with the Eastern Emperors was concluded, he was well informed of the outrageous deeds of the Roman patricians. No sooner had he brought the war on the Saxon frontier to a successful conclusion than he descended again into Italy 'to purge the Roman bilge,' in the chronicler's strong words. On his way, he found time to visit Venice secretly, with only six companions, and we are told how the Doge entertained him in private as Emperor, with sumptuous suppers, and allowed him to wander about Venice all day as a simple unknown traveller, with his companions, 'visiting the churches and the other rare things of the City,' whereby it is clear that in the year 998, when Rome was a half-deserted, half-ruined city, ruled by a handful of brigands living in the tomb of the Cæsars, Venice, under the good Doge Orseolo the Second, was already one of the beautiful cities of the world, as well as mistress of the Adriatic, of all Dalmatia, and of many lovely islands.

Otto took with him Pope Gregory, and with a very splendid army of Germans and Italians marched down to Rome. Neither Crescenzio nor his followers had believed that the young Emperor was in earnest; but when it was clear that he meant to do justice, Antipope John was afraid, and fled secretly by night, in disguise. Crescenzio, of sterner stuff, heaped up a vast provision of food in Sant' Angelo, and resolved to abide a siege. The stronghold was impregnable, so far as any one could know, for it had never been stormed in war or riot, and on its possession had depended the long impunity of Theodora's race. The Emperor might lay siege to it, encamp before it, and hem it in for months; in the end he must be called away by the more urgent wars of the Empire in the north, and Crescenzio, secure in his stronghold, would hold the power still. But when the Roman people knew that Otto was at hand and that the antipope had fled, their courage rose against the nobles, and they went out after John, and scoured the country till they caught him in his disguise, for his face was known to many. Because the Emperor was known to be kind of heart, and because it was remembered also that this John of Calabria, who went by many names, had by strange chance baptized both Otto and Pope Gregory, the Duke of Franconia's son, therefore the Romans feared lest justice should be too gentle; and having got the antipope into their hands, they dealt with him savagely, put out his eyes, cut out his tongue and sliced off his nose, and drove him to prison through the city, seated face backwards on an ass. And when the Emperor and the Pope came, they left him in his dungeon.

Now at Gaeta there lived a very holy man, who was Saint Nilus, and who afterwards founded the monastery of Grottaferrata, where there are beautiful wall paintings to this day. He was a Greek, like John of Calabria, and though he detested the antipope he had pity on the man and felt compassion for his countryman. So he journeyed to Rome and came before Otto and Gregory, who received him with perfect devotion, as a saint, and he asked of them that they should give him the wretched John, 'who,' he said, 'held both of you in his arms at the Font of Baptism,' though he was grievously fallen since that day by his great hypocrisy. Then the Emperor was filled with pity, and answered that the saint might have the antipope alive, if he himself would then remain in Rome and direct the monastery of Saint Anastasia of the Greeks. The holy man was willing to sacrifice his life of solitary meditation for the sake of his wretched countryman, and he would have obtained the fulfilment of his request from Otto; but Pope Gregory remembered how he himself had been driven out penniless and scantily clothed, to make way for John of Calabria, and his heart was hardened, and he would not let the prisoner go. Wherefore Saint Nilus foretold that because neither the Pope nor the Emperor would have mercy, the wrath of God should overtake them both. And indeed they were both cut off in the flower of their youth—Gregory within one year, and Otto not long afterwards.

Meanwhile they sent Nilus away and laid siege to the Castle of Sant' Angelo, where Crescenzio and his men had shut themselves up with a good store of food and arms. No one had ever taken that fortress, nor did any one believe that it could be stormed. But Pope and Emperor were young and brave and angry, and they had a great army, and the people of Rome were with them, every man. They used such engines as they had,—catapults, and battering-rams, and ladders; and yet Crescenzio laughed, for the stone walls were harder than the stone missiles, and higher than the tallest ladders, and so thick that fire could not heat them from without, nor battering-ram loosen a single block in a single course; and many assaults were repelled, and many a brave soldier fell writhing and broken into the deep ditch with his ladder upon him.

When the time of fate was fulfilled, the end came on a fair April morning; one ladder held its place till desperate armed hands had reached the rampart, and swift feet had sprung upon the edge, and one brave arm beat back the twenty that were there to defend; and then there were two, and three, and ten, and a score, and a hundred, and the great castle was taken at last. Nor do we know surely that it was ever taken again by force, even long afterwards in the days of artillery. But Crescenzio's hour had come, and the Emperor took him and the twelve chief nobles who were with him, and cut off their heads, one by one, in quick justice and without torture, and the heads were set up on spikes, and the headless bodies were hung out from the high crenellations of the ramparts. Thus ended Crescenzio, but not his house, nor the line of Theodora, nor died he unavenged.


From a print of the last century

It is said and believed that Pope Gregory perished by the hands of the Crescenzi, who lived in the little street behind the Church of Saint Eustace. As for Otto, he came to a worse end, though he was of a pious house, and laboured for the peace of his soul against the temptations of this evil world. For he was young, and the wife of Crescenzio was wonderfully fair, and her name was Stefania. She came weeping before him and mourning her lord, and was beautiful in her grief, and knew it, as many women do. And the young Emperor saw her, and pitied her, and loved her, and took her to his heart in sin, and though he repented daily, he daily fell again, while the woman offered up her body and her soul to be revenged for the fierce man she had loved. So it came to pass, at last, that she found her opportunity against him, and poured poison into his cup, and kissed him, and gave it to him with a very loving word. And he drank it and died, and the prophecy of the holy man, Nilus, was fulfilled upon him.

The story is told in many ways, but that is the main truth of it, according to Muratori, whom Gibbon calls his guide and master in the history of Italy, but whom he did not follow altogether in his brief sketch of Crescenzio's life and death, and their consequences. The Crescenzi lived on, in power and great state. They buried the terrible tribune in Santa Sabina, on the Aventine, where his epitaph may be read today, but whither he did not retire in life, as some guide-books say, to end his days in prayer and meditation. And for some reason, perhaps because they no longer held the great Castle, they seem to have left the Region of Saint Eustace; for Nicholas, the tribune's son, built the small palace by the Tiber, over against the Temple of Hercules, though it has often been called the house of Rienzi, whose name was also Nicholas, which caused the confusion. And later they built themselves other fortresses, but the end of their history is not known.

In the troubles which succeeded the death of Crescentius, a curious point arises in the chronicle, with regard to the titles of the bishops depending from the Holy See. It is certainly not generally known that, as late as the tenth century, the bishops of the great cities called themselves Popes—the 'Pope of Milan,' the 'Pope of Naples,' and the like—and that Gregory the Seventh, the famous Hildebrand, was the first to decree that the title should be confined to the Roman Pontiffs, with that of 'Servus Servorum Dei'—'servant of the servants of God.' And indeed, in those changing times such a confusion of titles must have caused trouble, as it did when Gregory the Fifth, driven out by Crescentius, and taking refuge in Pavia, found himself, the Pope of Rome, confronted with Arnulf, the 'Pope' of Milan, and complained of his position to the council he had summoned.

The making and unmaking of Popes, and the election of successors to those that died, brings up memories of what Rome was during the vacancy of the See, and of the general delight at the death of any reigning Pontiff, good or bad. A certain monk is reported to have answered Paul the Third, that the finest festival in Rome took place while one Pope lay dead and another was being elected. During that period, not always brief, law and order were suspended. According to the testimony of Dionigi Atanagi, quoted by Baracconi, the first thing that happened was that the prisons were broken open and all condemned persons set free, while all men in authority hid themselves in their homes, and the officers of justice fled in terror from the dangerous humour of the people. For every man who could lay hands on a weapon seized it, and carried it about with him. It was the time for settling private quarrels of long standing, in short and decisive fights, without fear of disturbance or interference from the frightened Bargello and the terrorized watchmen of the city. And as soon as the accumulated private spite of years had spent itself in a certain amount of free fighting, the city became perfectly safe again, and gave itself up to laying wagers on the election of the next Pope. The betting was high, and there were regular bookmakers, especially in all the Regions from Saint Eustace to the Ponte Sant' Angelo, where the banks had established themselves under the protection of the Pope and the Guelph Orsini, and where the most reliable and latest news was sure to be obtained fresh from the Vatican. Instead of the Piazza di Spagna and the Villa Medici, the narrow streets and gloomy squares of Ponte, Parione and Sant' Eustachio became the gathering-place of society, high, low and indiscriminate; and far from exhibiting the slightest signs of mourning for its late ruler, the city gave itself up to a sort of Carnival season, all the more delightful, because it was necessarily unexpected.

Moreover, the poor people had the delight of speculating upon the wealth of the cardinal who might be elected; for, as soon as the choice of the Conclave was announced, and the cry, 'A pope, a pope!' rang through the streets, it was the time-honoured privilege of the rabble to sack and plunder the late residence of the chosen cardinal, till, literally, nothing was left but the bare walls and floors. This was so much a matter of course, that the election of a poor Pope was a source of the bitterest disappointment to the people, and was one of their principal causes of discontent when Sixtus the Fifth was raised to the Pontificate, it having been given out as certain, but a few hours earlier, that the rich Farnese was to be the fortunate man.

F. Marion Crawford