Borgo, the 'Suburb,' is the last of the fourteen Regions, and is one of the largest and most important of all, for within its limits stand Saint Peter's, the Vatican, and the Mausoleum of Hadrian—the biggest church, the biggest palace and the biggest tomb in the whole world.
To those who know something of Rome's great drama, the Castle of Sant' Angelo is the most impressive of all her monuments. Like the Colosseum, it stands out in its round strength alone, sun-gilt and shadowy brown against the profound sky. Like the great Amphitheatre, it has been buffeted in the storms of ages and is war-worn without, to the highest reach of a mounted man, and dinted above that by every missile invented in twelve hundred years, from the slinger's pebble or leaden bullet to the cannon ball of the French artillery. Like the Colosseum, it is the crestless trunk of its former self. But it has life in it still, whereas the Colosseum died to a ruin when Urban the Eighth showed his successor how to tear down the outer wall and build a vast palace with a hundredth part of the great theatre.
Sant' Angelo is a living fortress yet, and nearly a thousand years have passed, to the certain knowledge of history, since it was ever a single day unguarded by armed men. Thirty generations of men at arms have stood sentry within its gates since Theodora Senatrix, the strong and sinful, flashed upon history out of impenetrable darkness, seized the fortress and made and unmade popes at her will, till, dying, she bequeathed the domination to her only daughter, and her name to the tale of Roman tyranny.
The Castle has been too often mentioned in these pages to warrant long description of it here, even if any man who has not lived for years among its labyrinthine passages could describe it accurately. The great descending corridor leads in a wide spiral downwards to the central spot where Hadrian lay, and in the vast thickness of the surrounding foundations there is but stone, again stone and more stone. From the main entrance upwards the fortress is utterly irregular within, full of gloomy chambers, short, turning staircases, dark prisons, endless corridors; and above are terraces and rooms where much noble blood has been shed, and where many limbs have been racked and tortured, and battlements from which men good and bad, guilty and innocent, have been dropped a rope's length by the neck to feed the crows.
Here died Stephen Porcari, the brave and spotless; here died Cardinal Carafa for a thousand crimes; and here Lorenzo Colonna, caught and crushed in the iron hands of Sixtus the Fourth, laid his bruised head, still stately, on the block—'a new block,' says Infessura, who loved him and buried him, and could not forget the little detail. The story is worth telling, less for its historical value than for the strange exactness with which it is all set down.
Pope Sixtus, backed by the Orsini, was at war with the Colonna to the end of his reign; but once, on a day when there was truce, he seems to have said in anger that he cared not whom the Colonna served nor with whom they allied themselves. And Lorenzo Colonna, Protonotary Apostolic, with his brothers, took the Pope at his word, and they joined forces with the King of Naples, fortifying themselves in their stronghold of Marino, whence the eldest son of the family still takes his title. The Pope, seeing them in earnest and fearing King Ferdinand, sent an embassy of two cardinals to them, entreating them to be reconciled with the Church. But they answered that they would not, for his Holiness had given them permission to ally themselves with whom they pleased, and refused them money for service, and they said that they could not live without pay—a somewhat ironical statement for such men as the Colonna, who lived rather by taking than by giving an equivalent for anything received.
Then the Pope made war upon King Ferdinand, and when there had been much bloodshed, and plundering and burning on both sides, Prospero Colonna quarrelled with the Duke of Calabria, who was on Ferdinand's side and for whom he had been fighting, and came over to the Church, and so the Colonna were restored to favour, and the Pope made a treaty with the King against Venice, and so another year passed.
But after that the quarrel was renewed between Pope Sixtus and Lorenzo Colonna, on pretext that a certain part of the agreement to which they had come had not been executed by the Protonotary; and while the matter was under discussion, the Cardinal of Saint George, nephew of the great Count Jerome Riario, sent word privately to the Protonotary Colonna, warning him either to escape from Rome or to be on his guard if he remained, 'because some one was plotting against him, and hated him.' Wherefore Lorenzo shut himself up in the dwelling of Cardinal Colonna, between the Colonna palace and Monte Cavallo on the Quirinal hill, and many young men, attached to the great house, began to watch in arms, day and night, turn and turn about. And when this became known, the Orsini also began to arm themselves and keep watch at Monte Giordano. Scenting a struggle, a Savelli, siding with Colonna, struck the first blow by seizing forty horses and mules of the Orsini in a farm building on the Tivoli road; and immediately half a dozen robber Barons joined Savelli, and they plundered right and left, and one of them wrote a long and courteous letter of justification to the Pope. But Orsini retorted swiftly, 'lifting' horses and cattle that belonged to his enemies and making prisoners of their retainers. Among others he took two men who belonged to the Protonotary. And the latter, unable to leave Rome in safety, began to fortify himself in the Cardinal's house with many fighting men, and with many strange weapons, 'bombardelle, cerobottane,' and guns and catapults. Whereupon the Pope sent for Orsini, and commanded him, as the faithful adherent of the Church, to go and take the Protonotary prisoner to his house. But while Orsini was marshalling his troops with those of Jerome Riario, at Monte Giordano and in Campo de' Fiori, the Pope sent for the municipal officers of the city and explained that he meant to pardon the Protonotary if the latter would come to the Vatican humbly and of his own free will; and certain of these officers went to the Protonotary as ambassadors, to explain this. To them he answered, in the presence of Stephen Infessura, the chronicler who tells the story, that he had not fortified himself against the Church, but against private and dangerous enemies, against whom he had been warned, and that he had actually found that his house was spied upon by night; but that he was ready to carry out the terms of the old agreement, and finally, that he was ready to go freely to the Pope, trusting himself wholly to His Holiness, without any earnest or pledge for his safety, but that he begged the Pope not to deliver him into the hands of the Orsini. Yet even before he had spoken, the Orsini were moving up their men, by way of Saint Augustine's Church, which is near Piazza Navona. Nevertheless Colonna, the Protonotary, mounted his horse to ride over to the Vatican.
But John Philip Savelli stood in the way, and demanded of the officers what surety they would give for Colonna; and they promised him safety upon their own lives. Then Savelli answered them that they should remember their bond, for if Colonna did not come back, or if he should be hurt, he, Savelli, would be avenged upon their bodies. And Colonna rode out, meaning to go to the Pope, but his retainers mounted their horses and rode swiftly by another way and met him, and forced him back. For they told him that if he went, his end would be near, and that they themselves would be outlawed; and some said that before they would let him go, they would cut him to pieces themselves rather than let his enemies do it. And furiously they forced him back, him and his horse, through the winding streets, and brought him again into the stronghold, and bade the officers depart in peace.
And the second time two of the officers returned and told the Protonotary to come, for he should be safe. And again he mounted his horse, and struck with the flat of his blade a man who hindered him, and leaped the barrier raised for defence before the palace and rode away. And again his own men mounted and followed him, and overtook him at the cross of Trevi, near by. And one, a giant, seized his bridle and forced him back, saying, 'My Lord, we will not let you go! Rather will we cut you in quarters ourselves; for you go to ruin yourself and us also.'
But when they had him safe within the walls, he wrung his hands, and cried out that it was they who, by hindering him, were destroying themselves and him. But many answered, 'If you had gone, you would never have come back.' And it was then the twenty-first hour of the day, and there were left three hours before dark.
But the Pope, seeing that Colonna did not come, commanded the Orsini to bring him by force, as they might, even by slaying the people, if the people should defend him; and he ordered them to burn and pillage the regions of Monti, Trevi and Colonna. And with Orsini there were some of those fierce Crescenzi, who still lived in Rome. And they all marched through the city, bearing the standard of the Church, and they passed by Trevi and surrounded the house on Monte Cavallo, and proclaimed the ban against all men who should help the Protonotary; wherefore many of the people departed in fear. Then Orsini first leapt the barrier, and his horse was killed under him by a bombard that slew two men also; and immediately all the Colonna's men discharged their firearms and catapults and killed sixteen of their enemies. But the Orsini advanced upon the house.
Then, about the twenty-third hour, the Colonna were weary of fighting against so many, and their powder was not good, so that they fell back from the main gateway, and the Orsini rushed in and filled the arched ways around the courtyard, and set fire to the hay and straw in the stables, and fought their way up the stairs, sacking the house.
They found the Protonotary in his room, wounded in the hand and sitting on a chest, and Orsini told him that he was a prisoner and must come. 'Slay me, rather,' he answered. But Orsini bade him surrender and have no fear. And he yielded himself up, and they took him away through the smoking house, slippery with blood. They found also John Philip Savelli, and they stripped him of the cuirass he wore, and setting their swords to him, bade him cry, 'Long live Orsini!' And he answered, 'I will not say it.' Then they wounded him deep in the forehead and smote off both his hands, and gave him many wounds in face and body, and left him dead. And they plundered all the goods of Cardinal Colonna, his plate, his robes, his tapestries, his chests of linen, and they even carried off his cardinal's hat.
So the Protonotary, on the faith of Orsini, was led away to the Pope in his doublet, but some one lent him a black cloak on the way. And as they went, Jerome Riario rode beside him and jeered at him, crying out, 'Ha, ha! thou traitor, I shall hang thee by the neck this night!' But Orsini answered Jerome, and said, 'Sir, you shall hang me first!' for he had given his word. And more than once on the way, Riario, drunk with blood, drew his dagger to thrust it into Colonna, but Orsini drove him off, and brought his prisoner safely to the Pope. And his men sacked the quarter of the Colonna; and among other houses of the Colonna's retainers which were rifled they plundered that of Paul Mancino, near by, whose descendant was to marry the sister of Mazarin; and also, among the number, the house of Pomponius Letus, the historian, from whom they took all his books and belongings and clothes, and he went away in his doublet and buskins, with his stick in his hand, to make complaint before the municipality.
Then for a whole month all that part of Rome which was dominated by the Colonna was given over to be pillaged and burned by their enemies, while in still Sant' Angelo, the tormentors slowly tore Lorenzo Colonna to pieces, so that the Jewish doctor who was called in to prolong his life said that nothing could save him, for his limbs were swollen and pierced through and through, and many of his bones were broken, and he was full of many deep wounds. Yet in the end, lest he should die a natural death, they prepared the new block and the axe to cut off his head.
'Moreover,' says Infessura, in his own language, 'on the last day of June, when the people were celebrating in Rome the festivity of the most happy decapitation of Saint Paul the Apostle, whose head was cut off by the most cruel Nero—on that very day, about an hour and a half after sunrise, the aforesaid Holiness of our Sovereign Lord caused the Protonotary Colonna to be beheaded in the Castle; and there were present the Senator and the Judge of the crime. And when the Protonotary was led out of prison early in the morning to the grating above the Castle, he turned to the soldiers who were there and told them that he had been grievously tormented, wherefore he had said certain things not true. And immediately afterwards, when he was in the closed place below, where he was beheaded, the Senator and Judge sat down as a Tribunal, and caused to be read the sentence which they passed against him, although no manner of criminal procedure had been observed, since all the confessions were extorted under torture, and he had no opportunity of defending himself.' Therefore, when this sentence had been read, the Protonotary addressed those present and said: 'I wish no one to be inculpated through me. I say this in conscience of my soul, and if I lie, may the devil take me, now that I am about to go out of this life; and so thou, Notary who hast read the sentence, art witness of this, and ye all are witnesses, and I leave the matter to your conscience, that you should also proclaim it in Rome,—that those things written in this sentence are not true, and that what I have said I have said under great torture, as ye may see by my condition.' He would not let them bind his hands, but knelt down at the block, and forgave the executioner, who asked his pardon. And then he said in Latin, 'Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit,' and called thrice upon Christ the Saviour, and at the third time, the word and his head were severed together from his body.
Then they placed the body in a wooden coffin and took it to Santa Maria Transpontina, the first church on the right, going from the Castle toward Saint Peter's, and when none came to take it away, they sent word to his mother. And she, white-haired and tearless, with burning eyes, came; and she took her son's head from the coffin and held it up to the people, saying, 'Behold the justice of Sixtus,' and she laid it in its place tenderly; and with torches, and the Confraternities, and many priests, the body was taken to the Church of the Holy Apostles, and buried in the Colonna Chapel near the altar.
But before it was buried it was seen in the coffin, and taken out, and laid in it again, and all saw the torments which the man had suffered in his feet, which were swollen and bound up with rags; and also the fingers of his hands had been twisted, so that the inside was turned clean outwards, and on the top of his head was a wound, where priests make the tonsure, as though the scalp had been raised by a knife; and he was dressed in a cotton doublet, yet his own had been of fine black silk. Also they had put on him a miserable pair of hose, torn from the half of the leg downwards; and a red cap with a trencher was upon his head, and it was rather a long cap, and the narrator believed that the gaolers had dressed him thus as an insult. 'And I Stephen, the scribe, saw it with my eyes, and with my hands I buried him, with Prosper of Cicigliano, who had been his vassal; and no other retainers of the Colonna would have anything to do with the matter, out of fear, as I think.'
Five hundred years had passed since Theodora's day, four hundred more are gone since Lorenzo the Protonotary laid his head upon the block, and still the tradition of terror and suffering clings to Sant' Angelo, and furnishes the subject of an all but modern drama. Such endurance in the character of a building is without parallel in the history of strongholds, and could be possible only in Rome, where the centuries pass as decades, and time is reckoned by the thousand years.
The main and most important memories in the Region of Borgo, apart from the Castle, and Saint Peter's and the Vatican, are those connected with the Holy Office, the hospital and insane asylum of Santo Spirito, and with the Serristori barracks. In Rome, to go to Santo Spirito means to go mad. It is the Roman Bedlam. But there is another association with the name, and a still sadder one. There, by the gate of the long, low hospital, is still to be seen the Rota—the 'wheel'—the revolving wooden drum, with its small aperture, corresponding to an opening in the grating, through which many thousand infants have been passed by starving women to the mystery within, to a nameless death, or to grow up to a life almost as nameless and obscure. The mother, indeed, received a ticket as a sort of receipt by which she could recognize her child if she wished, but the children claimed were very few. Within, they were received by nursing Sisters, and cared for, not always wisely, but always kindly, and some of them grew up to happy lives. Modern charity, in its philistinism and well-regulated activity, condemns such wholesale readiness to take burdens which might sometimes be borne by those who lay them down. But modern charity, in such condemnation, does not take just account of a mother's love, and believes that to receive nameless children in such a way would 'encourage irresponsibility,' if not vice. And yet in Rome, where half the population could neither read nor write, infanticide was unknown, and fewer children were passed in through the Rota yearly than are murdered in many a modern city. For the last thing the worst mother will do is to kill her child; last only before that will she part with it. Which was more moral, the unrestricted charity of the Rota, or the unrestricted, legal infanticide of the old-fashioned 'baby-farm,' where superfluous children were systematically starved to death by professional harpies?
On by the Borgo Santo Spirito, opposite the old church of the Penitentiaries, stands the Palazzo Serristori, memorable in the revolutionary movement of 1867. It was then the barracks of the Papal Zouaves—the brave foreign legion enlisted under Pius the Ninth, in which men of all nations were enrolled under officers of the best blood in Europe, hated more especially by the revolutionaries because they were foreigners, and because their existence, therefore, showed a foreign sympathy with the temporal power, which was a denial of the revolutionary theory which asserted the Papacy to be without friends in Europe. Wholesale murder by explosives was in its infancy then as a fine art; but the spirit was willing, and a plot was formed to blow up the castle of Sant' Angelo and the barracks of the Zouaves. The castle escaped because one of the conspirators lost heart and revealed the treachery; but the Palazzo Serristori was partially destroyed. The explosion shattered one corner of the building. It was said that the fuse burned faster than had been intended, so that the catastrophe came too soon. At all events, when it happened, about dark, only the musicians of the band were destroyed, and few of the regiment were in the building at all, so that about thirty lives were sacrificed, where the intention had been to destroy many hundreds. In the more sane condition of Europe today, it seems to us amazing that Pius the Ninth should have been generally blamed for signing the death warrant of the two atrocious villains who did the deed, and for allowing them to be executed. The fact that he was blamed, and very bitterly, gives some idea of the stupid and senseless prejudice against the popes which was the result of Antonelli's narrow and reactionary policy.
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