Letter XXIII.

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


Unpleasantness of a Roman Winter.—Progress of Events in Europe, and their Effect upon Italy.—The Carnival.—Rain interrupts the Gayety.—Rejoicings for the Revolutions of France and Austria.—Transports of the People.—Oblations to the Cause of Liberty.—Castle Fusano.— The Weather, Gladsomeness of Nature, and the Pleasure of Thought.

Rome, March 29, 1848.

  IT is long since I have written. My health entirely gave way beneath the Roman Winter. The rain was constant, commonly falling in torrents from the 16th of December to the 19th of March. Nothing could surpass the dirt, the gloom, the desolation, of Rome. Let no one fancy he has seen her who comes here only in the winter. It is an immense mistake to do so. I cannot sufficiently rejoice that I did not first see Italy in the winter.

  The climate of Rome at this time of extreme damp I have found equally exasperating and weakening. I have had constant nervous headache without strength to bear it, nightly fever, want of appetite. Some constitutions bear it better, but the complaint of weakness and extreme dejection of spirits is general among foreigners in the wet season. The English say they become acclimated in two or three years, and cease to suffer, though never so strong as at home.

  Now this long dark dream—to me the most idle and most suffering season of my life—seems past. The Italian heavens wear again their deep blue; the sun shines gloriously; the melancholy lustres are stealing again over the Campagna, and hundreds of larks sing unwearied above its ruins.

  Nature seems in sympathy with the great events that are transpiring,—with the emotions which are swelling in the hearts of men. The morning sun is greeted by the trumpets of the Roman legions marching out once more, but now not to oppress but to defend. The stars look down on their jubilees over the good news which nightly reaches them from their brothers of Lombardy. This week has been one of nobler, sweeter feeling, of a better hope and faith, than Rome in her greatest days ever knew. How much has happened since I wrote! First, the victorious resistance of Sicily and the revolution of Naples. This has led us yet only to half-measures, but even these have been of great use to the progress of Italy. The Neapolitans will probably have to get rid at last of the stupid crowned head who is at present their puppet; but their bearing with him has led to the wiser sovereigns granting these constitutions, which, if eventually inadequate to the wants of Italy, will be so useful, are so needed, to educate her to seek better, completer forms of administration.

  In the midst of all this serious work came the play of Carnival, in which there was much less interest felt than usual, but enough to dazzle and captivate a stranger. One thing, however, had been omitted in the description of the Roman Carnival; i.e. that it rains every day. Almost every day came on violent rain, just as the tide of gay masks was fairly engaged in the Corso. This would have been well worth bearing once or twice, for the sake of seeing the admirable good humor of this people. Those who had laid out all their savings in the gayest, thinnest dresses, on carriages and chairs for the Corso, found themselves suddenly drenched, their finery spoiled, and obliged to ride and sit shivering all the afternoon. But they never murmured, never scolded, never stopped throwing their flowers. Their strength of constitution is wonderful. While I, in my shawl and boa, was coughing at the open window from the moment I inhaled the wet sepulchral air, the servant-girls of the house had taken off their woollen gowns, and arrayed in white muslins and roses, sat in the drenched street beneath the drenching rain, quite happy, and have suffered nothing in consequence.

  The Romans renounced the Moccaletti, ostensibly as an expression of sympathy for the sufferings of the Milanese, but really because, at that time, there was great disturbance about the Jesuits, and the Government feared that difficulties would arise in the excitement of the evening. But, since, we have had this entertainment in honor of the Revolutions of France and Austria, and nothing could be more beautiful. The fun usually consists in all the people blowing one another’s lights out. We had not this; all the little tapers were left to blaze, and the long Corse swarmed with tall fire-flies. Lights crept out over the surface of all the houses, and such merry little twinkling lights, laughing and flickering with each slightest movement of those who held them. Up and down the Corso, they twinkled, they swarmed, they streamed, while a surge of gay triumphant sound ebbed and flowed beneath that glittering surface. Here and there danced men carrying aloft moccoli, and clanking chains, emblem of the tyrannic power now vanquished by the people;—the people, sweet and noble, who, in the intoxication of their joy, were guilty of no rude or unkindly word or act, and who, no signal being given as usual for the termination of their diversion, closed, of their own accord and with one consent, singing the hymns for Pio, by nine o’clock, and retired peacefully to their homes, to dream of hopes they yet scarce understand.

  This happened last week. The news of the dethronement of Louis Philippe reached us just after the close of the Carnival. It was just a year from my leaving Paris. I did not think, as I looked with such disgust on the empire of sham he had established in France, and saw the soul of the people imprisoned and held fast as in an iron vice, that it would burst its chains so soon. Whatever be the result, France has done gloriously; she has declared that she will not be satisfied with pretexts while there are facts in the world,—that to stop her march is a vain attempt, though the onward path be dangerous and difficult. It is vain to cry Peace! Peace! when there is no peace. The news from France, in these days, sounds ominous, though still vague. It would appear that the political is being merged in the social struggle; it is well. Whatever blood is to be shed, whatever altars cast down, these tremendous problems MUST be solved, whatever be the cost! That cost cannot fail to break many a bank, many a heart, in Europe, before the good can bud again out of a mighty corruption. To you, people of America, it may perhaps be given to look on and learn in time for a preventative wisdom. You may learn the real meaning of the words FRATERNITY, EQUALITY: you may, despite the apes of the past,who strive to tutor you, learn the needs of a true Democracy. You may in time learn to reverence, learn to guard, the true aristocracy of a nation, the only really nobles,—the LABORING CLASSES.

  And Metternich, too, is crushed; the seed of the woman has had his foot on the serpent. I have seen the Austrian arms dragged through the streets of Rome and burned in the Piazza del Popolo. The Italians embraced one another and cried Miracolo! Providenza! the modern Tribune Ciceronacchio fed the flame with faggots; Adam Mickiewicz, the great poet of Poland, long exiled from his country or the hopes of a country, looked on, while Polish women, exiled too, or who perhaps, like one nun who is here, had been daily scourged by the orders or a tyrant, brought little pieces that had been scattered in the street and threw into the flames,—an offering received by the Italians with loud plaudits. It was a transport of the people, who found no way to vent their joy, but the symbol, the poesy, natural to the Italian mind. The ever-too-wise “upper classes” regret it, and the Germans choose to resent as an insult to Germany; but it was nothing of the kind; the insult was to the prisons of Spielberg, to those who commanded the massacres of Milan,—a base tyranny little congenial to the native German heart, as the true Germans of Germany are at this moment showing by their resolves, by their struggles.

  When the double-headed eagle was pulled down from above the lofty portal of the Palazzo di Venezia, the people placed there in its stead one of white and gold, inscribed with the name ALTA ITALIA, and quick upon the emblem followed the news that Milan was fighting against her tyrants,—that Venice had driven them out and freed from their prisons the courageous Protestants in favor of truth, Tommaso and Manin,—that Manin, descendant of the last Doge, had raised the republican banner on the Place St. Mark,—and that Modena, that Parma, were driving out the unfeeling and imbecile creatures who had mocked Heaven and Man by the pretence of government there.

  With indescribable rapture these tidings were received in Rome. Men were seen dancing, women weeping with joy along the street. The youth rushed to enroll themselves in regiments to go to the frontier. In the Colosseum their names were received. Father Gavazzi, a truly patriotic monk, gave them the cross to carry on a new, a better, because defensive, crusade. Sterbini, long exiled, addressed them. He said, “Romans, do you wish to go; do you wish to go with all your hearts? If so, you may, and those who do not wish to go themselves may give money. To those who will go, the government gives bread and fifteen baiocchi a day.” The people cried: “We too wish to go, but we do not wish so much; the government is very poor; we can live on a paul a day.” The princes answered by giving, one sixty thousand, others twenty, fifteen, ten thousand dollars. The people answered by giving at the benches which are opened in the piazzas literally everything; street-pedlers gave the gains of each day; women gave every ornament,—from the splendid necklace and bracelet down to the poorest bit of coral; servant-girls gave five pauls, two pauls, even half a paul, if they had no more; a man all in rags gave two pauls. “It is,” said he, “all I have.” “Then,” said Torlonia,”take from me this dollar.” The man of rags thanked him warmly, and handed that also to the bench which refused to receive it. “No! that must stay with you,” shouted all present. These are the people whom the traveler accuses of being unable to rise above selfish considerations;—a nation rich and glorious by nature, capable, like all nations, all men, of being degraded by slavery, capable as are few nations, few men, of kindling into pure flame at the touch of a ray from the Sun of Truth, of Life.

  The two or three days that followed, the troops were marching about by detachments, followed always by the people, to Ponte Molle, often farther. The women wept; for the habits of the Romans are so domestic, that it seemed a great thing to have their sons and lovers gone even for a few months. The English—or, at least, those of the illiberal, bristling nature too often met here, which casts out its porcupine quills against everything like enthusiasm (of the more generous Saxon blood I know some noble examples)—laughed at all this. They have said that this people would not fight; when the Sicilians, men and women, did so nobly they said: “O, the Sicilians are quite unlike the Italians; you will see when the struggle comes on in Lombardy, they cannot resist the Austrian force a moment.” I said: “That force is only physical; do not you think a sentiment can sustain them?” They replied: “All stuff and poetry; it will fade the moment their blood flows.” When news came that the Milanese, men and women, fight as the Sicilians did, they said: “Well, the Lombards are a better race, but these Romans are good for nothing. It is a farce for a Roman to try to walk even; they never walk a mile; they will not be able to support the first day’s march of thirty miles, and not to have their usual minéstra to eat either.” Now the troops were not willing to wait for the government to make the necessary arrangements for their march, so at the first night’s station—Monterosi—they did not find food or bedding, yet the second night, at Civita Castellana, they were so well alive as to remain dancing and vivaing Pio Nono in the piazza till after midnight. No, Gentlemen, soul is not quite nothing, if matter be a clog upon its transports.

  The Americans show a better, warmer feeling than they did; the meeting in New York was of use in instructing the Americans abroad! The dinner given here on Washington’s birthday was marked by fine expressions of sentiment, and a display of talent unusual on such occasions. There was a poem from Mr. Story of Boston, which gave great pleasure; a speech by Mr. Hilliard, said to be very good, and one by Rev. Mr. Hedge of Bangor, exceedingly admired for the felicity of thought and image, and the finished beauty of style.

  Next week we shall have more news, and I shall try to write and mention also some interesting things want of time obliges me to omit in this letter.

April 1.

  Yesterday I passed at Ostia and Castle Fusano. A million birds sang; the woods teemed with blossoms; the sod grew green hourly over the graves of the mighty Past; the surf rushed in on a fair shore; the Tiber majestically retreated to carry inland her share from the treasures of the deep; the sea-breezes burnt my face, but revived my heart. I felt the calm of thought, the sublime hopes of the future, nature, man,—so great, though so little,—so dear, though incomplete. Returning to Rome, I find the news pronounced official, that the viceroy Ranieri has capitulated at Verona; that Italy is free, independent, and one. I trust this will prove no April-foolery, no premature news; it seems too good, too speedy a realization of hope, to have come on earth, and can only be answered in the words of the proclamation made yesterday by Pius IX.:—

  “The events which these two months past have seen rush one after another in rapid succession, are no human work. Woe to him who, in this wind, which shakes and tears up alike the lofty cedars and humble shrubs, hears not the voice of God! Woe to human pride, if to the fault or merit of any man whatsoever it refer these wonderful changes, instead of adoring the mysterious designs of Providence.”

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