Letter XIV.

From: At Home and Abroad, or Things and Thoughts in Europe (1856)
Author: Margaret Fuller Ossoli
Published: and Company 1856 Boston


Italy.—Misfortune of Travellers.—English Travellers.—Cockneyism.—Macdonald the Sculptor.— British Aristocracy.—Tenerani.— Wolff’s Diana and Seasons.—Gott.— Crawford.—Overbeck the Painter.—American Painters in Rome.—Terry.— Cranch.—Hicks.—Remains of the Antique.—Italian Painters.—Domenichino and Titian.—Frescoes of Raphael.—Michel Angelo.—The Colosseum.—Holy Week.—St. Peter’s.—Pius IX. and his Measures.—Popular Enthusiasm.—Public Dinner at the Baths of Titus.— Austrian Jealousy.—The “Contemporaneo.”

Rome, May, 1847.

  THERE is very little that I can like to write about Italy. Italy is beautiful, worthy to be loved and embraced, not talked about. Yet I remember well that, when afar, I liked to read what was written about her; now all thought of it is very tedious.

  The traveller passing along the beaten track, vetturinoed from inn to inn, ciceroned from gallery to gallery, thrown, through indolence, want of tact, or ignorance of the language, too much into the society of his compatriots, sees the least possible of the country; fortunately, it is impossible to avoid seeing a great deal. The great features of the part pursue and fill the eye.

  Yet I find that it is quite out of the question to know Italy; to say anything of her that is full and sweet, so as to convey any idea of her spirit, without long residence, and residence in the districts untouched by the scorch and dust of foreign invasion (the invasion of the dilettanti I mean), and without an intimacy of feeling, an abandonment to the spirit of the place, impossible to most Americans. They retain too much of their English blood; and the travelling English, as a class, seem to me the most unseeing of all possible animals. There are exceptions; for instance, the perceptions and pictures of Browning seem as delicate and just here on the spot as they did at a distance; but, take them as a class, they have the vulgar familiarity of Mrs. Trollope without her vivacity, the cockneyism of Dickens without his graphic power and love of the odd corners of human nature. I admired the English at home in their island; I admired their honor, truth, practical intelligence, persistent power. But they do not look well in Italy; they are not the figures for this landscape. I am indignant at the contempt they have presumed to express for the faults of our semi-barbarous state. What is the vulgarity expressed in our tobacco-chewing, and way of eating eggs, compared to that which elbows the Greek marbles, guide-book in hand,—chatters and sneers through the Miserere of the Sistine Chapel, beneath the very glance of Michel Angelo’s Sibyls,—praises St. Peter’s as “nice,”—talks of “managing” the Colosseum by moonlight,—and snatches “bits” for a “sketch” from the sublime silence of the Campagna.

  Yet I was again reconciled with them, the other day in visiting the studio of Macdonald. There I found a complete gallery of the aristocracy of England; for each lord and lady who visited Rome has considered it a part of the ceremony to sit to him for a bust. And what a fine race! how worthy the marble! what heads of orators, statesmen, gentlemen! of women chaste, grave, resolute, and tender! Unfortunately they do not look as well in flesh and blood; then they show the habitual coldness of their temperament, the habitual subservience to frivolous conventionalities. They need some great occasion, some exciting crisis, to make them look as free and dignified as these busts; yet is the beauty there, though imprisoned and clouded, and such a crisis would show us move then one Boadicca, more than one Alfred. Tenerani has just completed a statue which is highly spoken of; it is called the Angel of the Resurrection. I was not so fortunate as to find it in his studio. In that of Wolff I saw a Diana, ordered by the Emperor of Russia. It is modern and sentimental; as different from the antique Diana as the trance of a novel-read young lady of our day from the thrill with which the ancient shepherds deprecated the magic pervasions of Hecate, hut very beautiful and exquisitely wrought. He has also lately finished the Four Seasons, represented as children. Of these Winter is graceful and charming.

  Among the sculptors I delayed longest in the work-rooms of Gott. I found his groups of young figures connected with animals very refreshing after the grander attempts of the present time. They seem real growths of his habitual mind,—fruits of Nature, full of joy and freedom. His spaniels and other frisky poppets would please Apollo far better than most of the marble nymphs and muses of the present day.

  Our Crawford has just finished a bust of Mrs. Crawford, which is extremely beautiful, full of grace and innocent sweetness. All its accessaries are charming,—the wreaths, the arrangement of drapery, the stuff of which the robe is made. I hope it will be much seen on its arrival in New York. He has also a Herodias in the clay, which is individual in expression, and the figure of distinguished elegance. I liked the designs of Crawford better than those of Gibson, who is estimated as highest in the profession now.

  Among the studios of the European painters I have visited only that of Overbeck. It is well known in the United States what his pictures are. I have much to say at a more favorable time of what they represented to me. He himself looks as if he had just stepped out of one of them,—a lay monk, with a pious eye and habitual morality of thought which limits every gesture.

  Painting is not largely represented here by American artists at present. Terry has two pleasing pictures on the easel: one is a costume picture of Italian life, such as I saw it myself, enchanted beyond my hopes, on coming to Naples on a day of grand festival in honor of Santa Agatha. Cranch sends soon to America a picture of the Campagna, such as I saw it on my first entrance into Rome, all light and calmness; Hicks, a charming half-length of an Italian girl, holding a mandolin: it will be sure to please. His pictures are full of life, and give the promise of some real achievement in Art.

  Of the fragments of the great time, I have now seen nearly all that are treasured up here: I have, however, as yet nothing of consequence to say of them. I find that others have often given good hints as to how they look; and as to what they are, it can only be known by approximating to the state of soul out of which they grew. They should not be described, but reproduced. They are many and precious, yet is there not so much of high excellence as I had expected: they will not float the heart on a boundless sea of feeling, like the starry night on our Western prairies. Yet I love much to see the galleries of marbles, even when there are not many separately admirable, amid the cypresses and ilexes of Roman villas; and a picture that is good at all looks very good in one of these old palaces.

  The Italian painters whom I have learned most to appreciate, since I came abroad, are Domenichino and Titian. Of others one may learn something by copies and engravings: but not of these. The portraits of Titian look upon me from the walls things new and strange. They are portraits of men such as I have not known. In his picture, absurdly called Sacred and Profane Love, in the Borghese Palace, one of the figures has developed my powers of gazing to an extent unknown before.

  Domenichino seems very unequal in his pictures; but when he is grand and free, the energy of his genius perfectly satisfies. The frescoes of Caracci and his scholars in the Farnese Palace have been to me a source of the purest pleasure, and I do not remember to have heard of them. I loved Guercino much before I came here, but I have looked too much at his pictures and begin to grow sick of them; he is a very limited genius. Leonardo I cannot yet like at all, but I suppose the pictures are good for some people to look at; they show a wonderful deal of study and thought. That is not what I can best appreciate in a work of art. I hate to see the marks of them. I want a simple and direct expression of soul. For the rest the ordinary cant of connoisseurship on these matters seems in Italy even more detestable than elsewhere.

  I have not yet so sufficiently recovered from my pain at finding the frescoes of Raphael in such a state, as to be able to look at them happily. I had heard of their condition, but could not realize it. However, I have gained nothing by seeing his pictures in oil, which are well preserved. I find I had before the full impression of his genius. Michel Angelo’s frescos, in like manner, I seem to have seen as far as I can. But it is not the same with the sculptures: my thought had not risen to the height of the Moses. It is the only thing in Europe, so far, which has entirely outgone my hopes. Michel Angelo was my demigod before; but I find no offering worthy to cast at the feet of the Moses. I like much, too, his Christ. It is a refreshing contrast with all the other representations of the same subject. I like it even as contrasted with Raphael’s Christ of the Transfiguration, or that of the cartoon of Feed my Lambs.

  I have heard owls hoot in the Colosseum by moonlight, and they spoke more to the purpose than I ever heard any other voice upon that subject. I have seen all the pomps and shows of Holy Week in the church of St. Peter, and found them less imposing than an habitual acquaintance with the place, with processions of monks and nuns stealing in now and then, or the swell of vespers from some side chapel. I have ascended the dome, and seen thence Rome and its Campagna, its villas with their cypresses and pines serenely sad as is nothing else in the world, and the fountains of the Vatican garden gushing hard by. I have been in the Subterranean to see a poor little boy introduced, much to his surprise, to the bosom of the Church; and then I have seen by torch-light the stone popes where they lie on their tombs, and the old mosaics, and virgins with gilt caps. It is all rich and full,—very impressive in its way. St. Peter’s must be to each one a separate poem.

  The ceremonies of the Church have been numerous and splendid during our stay here; and they borrow unusual interest from the love and expectation inspired by the present Pontiff. He is a man of noble and good aspect, who, it is easy to see, has set his heart upon doing something solid for the benefit of man. But pensively, too, most one feel how hampered and inadequate are the means at his command to accomplish these ends. The Italians do not feel it, but deliver themselves, with all the vivacity of their temperament, to perpetual hurras, vivas, rockets, and torch-light processions. I often think how grave and sad must the Pope feel, as he sits alone and hears all this noise of expectation.

  A week or two ago the Cardinal Secretary published a circular inviting the departments to measures which would give the people a sort of representative council. Nothing could seem more limited than this improvement, but it was a great measure for Rome. At night the Corso in which we live, was illuminated, and many thousands passed through it in a torch-bearing procession. I saw them first assembled in the Piazza del Popolo, forming around its fountain a great circle of fire. Then, as a river of fire, they streamed slowly through the Corso, on their way to the Quirinal to thank the Pope, upbearing a banner on which the edict was printed. The stream of fire advanced slowly, with a perpetual surge-like sound of voices; the torches flashed on the animated Italian faces. I have never seen anything finer. Ascending the Quirinal they made it a mount of light. Bengal fires were thrown up, which cast their red and white light on the noble Greek figures of men and horses that reign over it. The Pope appeared on his balcony: the crowd shouted three vivas; he extended his arms: the crowd fell on their knees and received his benediction; he retired, and the torches were extinguished, and the multitude dispersed in an instant.

  The same week came the natal day of Rome. A great dinner was given at the Baths of Titus, in the open air. The company was on the grass in the area; the music at one end; boxes filled with the handsome Roman women occupied the other sides. It was a new thing here, this popular dinner, and the Romans greeted it in an intoxication of hope and pleasure. Sterbini, author of “The Vestal,” presided: many others, like him long time exiled and restored to their country by the present Pope, were at the tables. The Colosseum and triumphal arches were in sight; an effigy of the Roman wolf with her royal nursling was erected on high; the guests, with shouts and music, congratulated themselves on the possession in Pius IX., of a new and nobler founder for another state. Among the speeches that of the Marquis d’Azeglio, a man of literary note in Italy, and son-in-law of Manzoni, contained this passage, (he was sketching the past history of Italy):—

  “The crown passed to the head of a German monarch; but he wore it not to the benefit, but the injury, of Christianity,—of the world. The Emperor Henry was a tyrant who wearied out the patience of God. God said to Rome, ‘I give you the Emperor Henry;’ and from these hills that surround us, Hildebrand, Pope Gregory VII., raised his austere and potent voice to say to the Emperor, ‘God did not give you Italy that you might destroy her,’ and Italy, Germany, Europe, saw her butcher prostrated at the feet of Gregory in penitence. Italy, Germany, Europe, had then kindled in the heart the first spark of liberty.”

  The narrative of the dinner passed the censor, and was published: the Ambassador of Austria read it, and found, with a modesty and candor truly admirable, that this passage was meant to allude to his Emperor. He must take his passports, if such home thrusts are to be made. And so the paper was seized, and the account of the dinner only told from mouth to mouth, from those who had already read it. Also the idea of a dinner for the Pope’s fête-day is abandoned, lest something too frank should again be said; and they tell me here, with a laugh, “I fancy you have assisted at the first and last popular dinner.” Thus we may see that the liberty of Rome does not yet advance with seven-leagued boots; and the new Romulus will need to be prepared for deeds at least as bold as his predecessor, if he is to open a new order of things.

  I cannot well wind up my gossip on this subject better than by translating the programme of the Contemporaneo, which represents the hope of Rome at this moment. It is conducted by men of well-known talent.

  “The Contemporaneo (Contemporary) is a journal of progress, but tempered, as the good and wise think best, in conformity with the will of our best princes, and the wants and expectations of the public. . . . . .

  “Through discussion it desires to prepare minds to receive reforms so soon and far as they are favored by the law of opportunity.

  “Every attempt which is made contrary to this social law must fail. It is vain to hope fruits from a tree out of season, and equally in vain to introduce the best measures into a country not prepared to receive them.”

  And so on. I intended to have translated in full the programme, but time fails, and the law of opportunity does not favor, as my “opportunity” leaves for London this afternoon. I have given enough to mark the purport of the whole. It will easily be seen that it was not from the platform assumed by the Contemporaneo that Lycurgus legislated, and Socrates taught,—that the Christian religion was propagated, or the Church was reformed by Luther The opportunity that the martyrs found here in the Colosseum, from whose blood grew up this great tree of Papacy, was not of the kind waited for by these moderate progressists. Nevertheless, they may be good schoolmasters for Italy, and are not to be disdained in these piping times of peace.

  More anon, of old and new, from Tuscany.

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