Letter XX.

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


Rome.—Bad Weather.—St. Cecelia.—The People’s Processions.—Taking the Veil.—Festivities.—Political Agitation.—Nobles.—Maria Louisa.—Guiccioli.—Parma.—Address to the new Sovereign.—The New York Meeting for Italy.—Address to the Pope.

Rome, December 30, 1847.

  I COULD not, in my last, content myself with praising the glorious weather. I wrote in the last day of it. Since, we have had a fortnight of rain falling incessantly, and whole days and nights in torrents such as are peculiar to the “clearing-up” shower in our country.

  Under these circumstances, I have found my lodging in the Corso not only has its dark side, but is all dark, and that one in the Piazza di Spagne would have been better for me in this respect,—that on those days, the only ones when I wish to stay at home and write and study, I should have had the light. Now, if I consulted the good of my eyes, I should have the lamp lit when I first rising in the morning.

  “Every sweet must have its bitter,” and the exchange from the brilliance of the Italian heaven to weeks and months of rain and such black cloud, is unspeakably dejecting. For myself, at the end of this fortnight without exercise or light, and in such a damp atmosphere, I find myself without strength, without appetite, almost without spirits. The life of the German scholar who studies fifteen hours out of the twenty-four, or that of the Spielberg prisoner who could live through ten, fifteen, twenty years of dark prison with only half an hour’s exercise in the day, is to me a mystery. How can the brain, the nerves ever support it? We are made to keep in motion, to drink the air and light; to me these alone make life supportable, the physical state is so difficult and full of pains at any rate.

  I am sorry for those who have arrived just at this time, hoping to enjoy the Christmas festivities. Everything was spoiled by the weather. I went at half-past ten to San Luigi Francese, a church adorned with some of Domenichino’s finest frescos on the life and death of St. Cecilia.

  This name leads me to a little digression. In a letter to Mr. Phillips, the dear friend of our revered Dr. Channing, I asked him if he remembered what recumbent statue it was of which Dr. Channing was wont to speak as of a sight that impressed him more than anything else in Rome. He said, indeed, his mood, and the unexpectedness in seeing this gentle, saintly figure lying there as if death had just struck her down, had no doubt much influence upon him; but he still believed the work had a peculiar holiness in its expression. I recognized at once the theme of his description (the name he himself had forgotten) as I entered the other evening the lonely church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere. As in his case, it was twilight: one or two nuns were at their devotions, and there lay the figure in its grave-clothes, with an air so gentle, so holy, as if she had only ceased to pray as the hand of the murderer struck her down. Her gentle limbs seemed instinct still with soft, sweet life; the expression was not of the heroine, the martyr, so much as of the tender angelic, woman. I could well understand the deep impression made upon his mind. The expression of the frescos of Domenichino is not inharmonious with the suggestions of this statue.

  Finding the Mass was not to begin for some time, I set out for the Quirinal to see the Pope return from that noble church, Santa Maria Maggiore, where he officiated this night. I reached the mount just as he was returning. A few torches gleamed before his door; perhaps a hundred people were gathered together round the fountain. Last year an immense multitude waited for him there to express their affection in one grand good-night; the change was occasioned partly by the weather, partly by other causes of which I shall speak by and by. Just as he returned, the moon looked palely out from amid the wet clouds, and shone upon the fountain, and the noble figures above it, and the long white cloaks of the Guadria Nobile who followed his carriage on horseback; darker objects could scarcely be seen, except by the flickering light of the torches, much blown by the wind. I then returned to San Luigi. The effect of the night service there was very fine; those details which often have such a glaring, mean look by day are lost sight of in the night, and the unity of impression from the service much more undisturbed. The music, too, descriptive of that era which promised peace on earth, good-will to men, was very sweet, and the pastorale particularly soothed the heart amid the crowd and pompous ceremonial. But here, too, the sweet had its bitter, in the vulgar vanity of the leader of the orchestra, a trait too common to such, who, not content with marking the time for the musicians, made his stick heard in the remotest nook of the church; so that what would have been sweet music, and flowed in upon the soul, was vulgarized to make you remember the performers and their machines.

  On Monday the leaders of the Guardia Civica paid their respects to the Pope, who, in receiving them, expressed his constantly increasing satisfaction in having given this institution to his people. The same evening there was a procession with torches to the Quirinal to pay the homage due to the day (Feast of St. John and name-day of the Pope, Giovanni Maria Mastai); but all the way the rain continually threatened to extinguish the torches, and the Pope could give but a hasty salute under an umbrella, when the heavens were again opened, and such a cataract of water descended, as drove both man and beast to seek the nearest shelter.

  On Sunday, I went to see a nun take the veil. She was a person of high family; a princess gave her away, and the Cardinal Ferreti, Secretary of State, officiated. It was a much less effective ceremony than I expected from the descriptions of travellers and romance-writers. There was no moment of throwing on the black veil; no peal of music; no salute of cannon. The nun, an elegantly dressed woman of five or six and twenty,—pretty enough, but whose quite worldly air gave the idea that it was one of those arrangements made because no suitable establishment could otherwise be given her,— came forward, knelt and prayed; her confessor, in that strained, unnatural whine too common among preachers of all churches and all countries, praised himself for having induced her to enter on a path which would lead her fettered steps “from palm to palm, from triumph to triumph.” Poor thing! she looked as if the domestic olives and poppies were all she wanted; and lacking these, tares and wormwood must be her portion. She was then taken behind a grating, her hair cut, and her clothes exchanged for the nun’s vestments; the black-robed sisters who worked upon her, looking like crows or ravens at their ominous feasts. All the while, the music played, first sweet and thoughtful, then triumphant strains. The effect on my mind was revolting and painful to the last degree. Were monastic seclusion always voluntary, and could it be ended whenever the mind required a change back from seclusion to common life, I should have nothing to say against it; there are positions of the mind which it suits exactly, and even characters that might choose it all through life; certainly to the broken-hearted it presents a shelter that Protestant communities do not provide. But where it is enforced or repented of, no hell could be worse; nor can a more terrible responsibility be incurred than by him who has persuaded a novice that the snares of the world are less dangerous than the demons of solitude.

  Festivities in Italy have been of great importance, since, for a century or two back, the thought, the feeling, the genius of the people have had more chance to expand, to express themselves, there than anywhere else. Now, if the march of reform goes forward, this will not be so; there will be also speeches, made freely on public occasions, without having the life pressed out of them by the censorship. Now we hover betwixt the old and the new; when the many reasons of the new prevail, I hope what is poetical in the old will not be lost. The ceremonies of New Year are before me; but as I shall have to send this letter on New-Year’s day, I cannot describe them.

  The Romans begin now to talk of the mad gayeties of Carnival, and the Opera is open. They have begun with “Atilla,” as, indeed, there is little hope of hearing in Italy other music than Verdi’s. Great applause waited on the following words:—

“E gittata la mia sorte,
Pronto sono ad agri Guerra,
S’io cadre da forte,
E il mio nome restora,

“Non vedro l’amata terra
Svener lenta e farri a brano
Sopra l’ultimo Romano
Tutta Italia piangerà.”

  “My lot is fixed and I stand ready for every conflict. If I must fall, I shall fall as a brave man, and my fame will survive. I shall not see my beloved country fall to pieces and slowly perish, and over the last Roman all Italy will weep.”

  And at lines of which the following is a translation:—

  “O brave man, whose supreme power can raise thy country from such dire distress; from the immortal hills, radiant with glory, let the shades of our ancestors arise; oh! only one day, one instant arise to look upon us!”

  It was an Italian who sang this strain, though, singularly enough, here in the heart of Italy, so long reputed the home of music, three principal parts were filled by persons bearing the foreign names of Ivanoff, Mitrovich, and Nissren.

  Naples continues in a state of great excitement, which now pervades the upper classes, as several young men of noble families have been arrested; among them, one young man much beloved, son of Prince Terella, and who, it is said, was certainly not present on the occasion for which he was arrested, and that the measure was taken because he is known to sympathize strongly with the liberal movement. The nobility very generally have not feared to go to the house of his father to express their displeasure at the arrest and interest in the young man. The ministry, it is said, are now persuaded of the necessity of a change of measures. The king alone remains inflexible in his stupidity.

  The stars of Bonaparte and Byron show again a conjunction, by the almost simultaneous announcement of changes in the lot of women with whom they were so intimately connected;—the Archduchess of Parma, Maria Louisa, is dead; the Countess Guiccioli is married. The Countess I have seen several times; she still looks young, and retains the charms which by the contemporaries of Byron she is reputed to have had; they never were of a very high order; her best expression is that of a good heart. I always supposed that Byron, weary and sick of the world such as he had known it, became attached to her for her good disposition and sincere, warm tenderness for him; the sight of her, and the testimony of a near relative, confirmed this impression. This friend of hers added, that she had tried very hard to remain devoted to the memory of Byron, but was quite unequal to the part, being one of those affectionate natures that must have some one near with whom to be occupied; and now, it seems, she has resigned herself publicly to abandon her romance. However, I fancy the manes of Byron remain undisturbed.

  We all know the worthless character of Maria Louisa, the indifference she showed to a husband who, if he was not her own choice, yet would have been endeared to almost any woman, as one fallen from an immense height into immense misfortune, and the father of her child. No voice from her penetrated to cheer his exile; the unhappiness of Josephine was well avenged. And that child, the poor Duke of Reichstadt, of a character so interesting and with obvious elements of greatness, withering beneath the mean, cold influenced of his grandfather,—what did Maria Louisa do for him,—she, appointed by Nature to be his inspiring genius, his protecting angel? I felt for her a most sad and profound contempt last summer, as I passed through her oppressed dominion, a little sphere, in which, if she could not save it from the usual effects of the Austrian rule, she might have done so much private, womanly good,—might have been a genial heart to warm it,—and where she had let so much ill be done. A journal announces her death in these words: “The Archduchess is dead; a woman who might have occupied one of the noblest positions in the history of the age”;—and there makes expressive pause.

  Parma, passing from bad to worse, falls into the hands of the Duke of Modena; and the people and magistracy have made an address to their new ruler. The address has received many thousand signatures, and seems quite sincere, except in the assumption of good-will in the Duke of Modena; and this is merely an insincerity of etiquette.

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