From the sanguinary sports of the Holy Inquisition; the slaughter of the
Coliseum; and the dismal tombs of the Catacombs, I naturally pass to the
picturesque horrors of the Capuchin Convent. We stopped a moment in a
small chapel in the church to admire a picture of St. Michael vanquishing
Satan--a picture which is so beautiful that I can not but think it
belongs to the reviled "Renaissance," notwithstanding I believe they told
us one of the ancient old masters painted it--and then we descended into
the vast vault underneath.
Here was a spectacle for sensitive nerves! Evidently the old masters had
been at work in this place. There were six divisions in the apartment,
and each division was ornamented with a style of decoration peculiar to
itself--and these decorations were in every instance formed of human
bones! There were shapely arches, built wholly of thigh bones; there
were startling pyramids, built wholly of grinning skulls; there were
quaint architectural structures of various kinds, built of shin bones and
the bones of the arm; on the wall were elaborate frescoes, whose curving
vines were made of knotted human vertebrae; whose delicate tendrils were
made of sinews and tendons; whose flowers were formed of knee-caps and
toe-nails. Every lasting portion of the human frame was represented in
these intricate designs (they were by Michael Angelo, I think,) and there
was a careful finish about the work, and an attention to details that
betrayed the artist's love of his labors as well as his schooled ability.
I asked the good-natured monk who accompanied us, who did this? And he
said, "We did it"--meaning himself and his brethren up stairs. I could
see that the old friar took a high pride in his curious show. We made
him talkative by exhibiting an interest we never betrayed to guides.
"Who were these people?"
"We--up stairs--Monks of the Capuchin order--my brethren."
"How many departed monks were required to upholster these six parlors?"
"These are the bones of four thousand."
"It took a long time to get enough?"
"Many, many centuries."
"Their different parts are well separated--skulls in one room, legs in
another, ribs in another--there would be stirring times here for a while
if the last trump should blow. Some of the brethren might get hold of
the wrong leg, in the confusion, and the wrong skull, and find themselves
limping, and looking through eyes that were wider apart or closer
together than they were used to. You can not tell any of these parties
apart, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes, I know many of them."
He put his finger on a skull. "This was Brother Anselmo--dead three
hundred years--a good man."
He touched another. "This was Brother Alexander--dead two hundred and
eighty years. This was Brother Carlo--dead about as long."
Then he took a skull and held it in his hand, and looked reflectively
upon it, after the manner of the grave-digger when he discourses of
"This," he said, "was Brother Thomas. He was a young prince, the scion
of a proud house that traced its lineage back to the grand old days of
Rome well nigh two thousand years ago. He loved beneath his estate. His
family persecuted him; persecuted the girl, as well. They drove her from
Rome; he followed; he sought her far and wide; he found no trace of her.
He came back and offered his broken heart at our altar and his weary life
to the service of God. But look you. Shortly his father died, and
likewise his mother. The girl returned, rejoicing. She sought every
where for him whose eyes had used to look tenderly into hers out of this
poor skull, but she could not find him. At last, in this coarse garb we
wear, she recognized him in the street. He knew her. It was too late.
He fell where he stood. They took him up and brought him here. He never
spoke afterward. Within the week he died. You can see the color of his
hair--faded, somewhat--by this thin shred that clings still to the
temple. This, [taking up a thigh bone,] was his. The veins of this
leaf in the decorations over your head, were his finger-joints, a hundred
and fifty years ago."
This business-like way of illustrating a touching story of the heart by
laying the several fragments of the lover before us and naming them, was
as grotesque a performance, and as ghastly, as any I ever witnessed. I
hardly knew whether to smile or shudder. There are nerves and muscles in
our frames whose functions and whose methods of working it seems a sort
of sacrilege to describe by cold physiological names and surgical
technicalities, and the monk's talk suggested to me something of this
kind. Fancy a surgeon, with his nippers lifting tendons, muscles and
such things into view, out of the complex machinery of a corpse, and
observing, "Now this little nerve quivers--the vibration is imparted to
this muscle--from here it is passed to this fibrous substance; here its
ingredients are separated by the chemical action of the blood--one part
goes to the heart and thrills it with what is popularly termed emotion,
another part follows this nerve to the brain and communicates
intelligence of a startling character--the third part glides along this
passage and touches the spring connected with the fluid receptacles that
lie in the rear of the eye. Thus, by this simple and beautiful process,
the party is informed that his mother is dead, and he weeps." Horrible!
I asked the monk if all the brethren up stairs expected to be put in this
place when they died. He answered quietly:
"We must all lie here at last."
See what one can accustom himself to.--The reflection that he must some
day be taken apart like an engine or a clock, or like a house whose owner
is gone, and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes, did
not distress this monk in the least. I thought he even looked as if he
were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well
on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which
possibly they lacked at present.
Here and there, in ornamental alcoves, stretched upon beds of bones, lay
dead and dried-up monks, with lank frames dressed in the black robes one
sees ordinarily upon priests. We examined one closely. The skinny hands
were clasped upon the breast; two lustreless tufts of hair stuck to the
skull; the skin was brown and sunken; it stretched tightly over the cheek
bones and made them stand out sharply; the crisp dead eyes were deep in
the sockets; the nostrils were painfully prominent, the end of the nose
being gone; the lips had shriveled away from the yellow teeth: and
brought down to us through the circling years, and petrified there, was a
weird laugh a full century old!
It was the jolliest laugh, but yet the most dreadful, that one can
imagine. Surely, I thought, it must have been a most extraordinary joke
this veteran produced with his latest breath, that he has not got done
laughing at it yet. At this moment I saw that the old instinct was
strong upon the boys, and I said we had better hurry to St. Peter's.
They were trying to keep from asking, "Is--is he dead?"
It makes me dizzy, to think of the Vatican--of its wilderness of statues,
paintings, and curiosities of every description and every age. The "old
masters" (especially in sculpture,) fairly swarm, there. I can not write
about the Vatican. I think I shall never remember any thing I saw there
distinctly but the mummies, and the Transfiguration, by Raphael, and some
other things it is not necessary to mention now. I shall remember the
Transfiguration partly because it was placed in a room almost by itself;
partly because it is acknowledged by all to be the first oil painting in
the world; and partly because it was wonderfully beautiful. The colors
are fresh and rich, the "expression," I am told, is fine, the "feeling"
is lively, the "tone" is good, the "depth" is profound, and the width is
about four and a half feet, I should judge. It is a picture that really
holds one's attention; its beauty is fascinating. It is fine enough to
be a Renaissance. A remark I made a while ago suggests a thought--and a
hope. Is it not possible that the reason I find such charms in this
picture is because it is out of the crazy chaos of the galleries? If
some of the others were set apart, might not they be beautiful? If this
were set in the midst of the tempest of pictures one finds in the vast
galleries of the Roman palaces, would I think it so handsome? If, up to
this time, I had seen only one "old master" in each palace, instead of
acres and acres of walls and ceilings fairly papered with them, might I
not have a more civilized opinion of the old masters than I have now? I
think so. When I was a school-boy and was to have a new knife, I could
not make up my mind as to which was the prettiest in the show-case, and I
did not think any of them were particularly pretty; and so I chose with a
heavy heart. But when I looked at my purchase, at home, where no
glittering blades came into competition with it, I was astonished to see
how handsome it was. To this day my new hats look better out of the shop
than they did in it with other new hats. It begins to dawn upon me, now,
that possibly, what I have been taking for uniform ugliness in the
galleries may be uniform beauty after all. I honestly hope it is, to
others, but certainly it is not to me. Perhaps the reason I used to
enjoy going to the Academy of Fine Arts in New York was because there
were but a few hundred paintings in it, and it did not surfeit me to go
through the list. I suppose the Academy was bacon and beans in the
Forty-Mile Desert, and a European gallery is a state dinner of thirteen
courses. One leaves no sign after him of the one dish, but the thirteen
frighten away his appetite and give him no satisfaction.
There is one thing I am certain of, though. With all the Michael
Angelos, the Raphaels, the Guidos and the other old masters, the sublime
history of Rome remains unpainted! They painted Virgins enough, and
popes enough and saintly scarecrows enough, to people Paradise, almost,
and these things are all they did paint. "Nero fiddling o'er burning
Rome," the assassination of Caesar, the stirring spectacle of a hundred
thousand people bending forward with rapt interest, in the coliseum, to
see two skillful gladiators hacking away each others' lives, a tiger
springing upon a kneeling martyr--these and a thousand other matters
which we read of with a living interest, must be sought for only in
books--not among the rubbish left by the old masters--who are no more, I
have the satisfaction of informing the public.
They did paint, and they did carve in marble, one historical scene, and
one only, (of any great historical consequence.) And what was it and why
did they choose it, particularly? It was the Rape of the Sabines, and
they chose it for the legs and busts.
I like to look at statues, however, and I like to look at pictures, also
--even of monks looking up in sacred ecstacy, and monks looking down in
meditation, and monks skirmishing for something to eat--and therefore I
drop ill nature to thank the papal government for so jealously guarding
and so industriously gathering up these things; and for permitting me, a
stranger and not an entirely friendly one, to roam at will and unmolested
among them, charging me nothing, and only requiring that I shall behave
myself simply as well as I ought to behave in any other man's house. I
thank the Holy Father right heartily, and I wish him long life and plenty
The Popes have long been the patrons and preservers of art, just as our
new, practical Republic is the encourager and upholder of mechanics. In
their Vatican is stored up all that is curious and beautiful in art; in
our Patent Office is hoarded all that is curious or useful in mechanics.
When a man invents a new style of horse-collar or discovers a new and
superior method of telegraphing, our government issues a patent to him
that is worth a fortune; when a man digs up an ancient statue in the
Campagna, the Pope gives him a fortune in gold coin. We can make
something of a guess at a man's character by the style of nose he carries
on his face. The Vatican and the Patent Office are governmental noses,
and they bear a deal of character about them.
The guide showed us a colossal statue of Jupiter, in the Vatican, which
he said looked so damaged and rusty--so like the God of the Vagabonds
--because it had but recently been dug up in the Campagna. He asked how
much we supposed this Jupiter was worth? I replied, with intelligent
promptness, that he was probably worth about four dollars--may be four
and a half. "A hundred thousand dollars!" Ferguson said. Ferguson
said, further, that the Pope permits no ancient work of this kind to
leave his dominions. He appoints a commission to examine discoveries
like this and report upon the value; then the Pope pays the discoverer
one-half of that assessed value and takes the statue. He said this
Jupiter was dug from a field which had just been bought for thirty-six
thousand dollars, so the first crop was a good one for the new farmer.
I do not know whether Ferguson always tells the truth or not, but I
suppose he does. I know that an exorbitant export duty is exacted upon
all pictures painted by the old masters, in order to discourage the sale
of those in the private collections. I am satisfied, also, that genuine
old masters hardly exist at all, in America, because the cheapest and
most insignificant of them are valued at the price of a fine farm. I
proposed to buy a small trifle of a Raphael, myself, but the price of it
was eighty thousand dollars, the export duty would have made it
considerably over a hundred, and so I studied on it awhile and concluded
not to take it.
I wish here to mention an inscription I have seen, before I forget it:
"Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth TO MEN OF GOOD WILL!" It is
not good scripture, but it is sound Catholic and human nature.
This is in letters of gold around the apsis of a mosaic group at the side
of the 'scala santa', church of St. John Lateran, the Mother and Mistress
of all the Catholic churches of the world. The group represents the
Saviour, St. Peter, Pope Leo, St. Silvester, Constantine and Charlemagne.
Peter is giving the pallium to the Pope, and a standard to Charlemagne.
The Saviour is giving the keys to St. Silvester, and a standard to
Constantine. No prayer is offered to the Saviour, who seems to be of
little importance any where in Rome; but an inscription below says,
"Blessed Peter, give life to Pope Leo and victory to king Charles." It
does not say, "Intercede for us, through the Saviour, with the Father,
for this boon," but "Blessed Peter, give it us."
In all seriousness--without meaning to be frivolous--without meaning to
be irreverent, and more than all, without meaning to be blasphemous,--I
state as my simple deduction from the things I have seen and the things I
have heard, that the Holy Personages rank thus in Rome:
First--"The Mother of God"--otherwise the Virgin Mary.
Fourth--Some twelve or fifteen canonized Popes and martyrs.
Fifth--Jesus Christ the Saviour--(but always as an infant in arms.)
I may be wrong in this--my judgment errs often, just as is the case with
other men's--but it is my judgment, be it good or bad.
Just here I will mention something that seems curious to me. There are
no "Christ's Churches" in Rome, and no "Churches of the Holy Ghost," that
I can discover. There are some four hundred churches, but about a fourth
of them seem to be named for the Madonna and St. Peter. There are so
many named for Mary that they have to be distinguished by all sorts of
affixes, if I understand the matter rightly. Then we have churches of
St. Louis; St. Augustine; St. Agnes; St. Calixtus; St. Lorenzo in Lucina;
St. Lorenzo in Damaso; St. Cecilia; St. Athanasius; St. Philip Neri; St.
Catherine, St. Dominico, and a multitude of lesser saints whose names are
not familiar in the world--and away down, clear out of the list of the
churches, comes a couple of hospitals: one of them is named for the
Saviour and the other for the Holy Ghost!
Day after day and night after night we have wandered among the crumbling
wonders of Rome; day after day and night after night we have fed upon the
dust and decay of five-and-twenty centuries--have brooded over them by
day and dreampt of them by night till sometimes we seemed moldering away
ourselves, and growing defaced and cornerless, and liable at any moment
to fall a prey to some antiquary and be patched in the legs, and
"restored" with an unseemly nose, and labeled wrong and dated wrong, and
set up in the Vatican for poets to drivel about and vandals to scribble
their names on forever and forevermore.
But the surest way to stop writing about Rome is to stop. I wished to
write a real "guide-book" chapter on this fascinating city, but I could
not do it, because I have felt all the time like a boy in a candy-shop
--there was every thing to choose from, and yet no choice. I have drifted
along hopelessly for a hundred pages of manuscript without knowing where
to commence. I will not commence at all. Our passports have been
examined. We will go to Naples.
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