Recollections of the Vatican

  No recollections of my Roman life are more satisfactory than those of hours spent at the Vatican. True, I never appropriated, even by a glance, the millionth part of the treasures hoarded there; hardly began on any subject, the studies invariably suggested by these visits, and necessary to turn them to high profit. Still, the fact that I never strained for anything, did not abuse my power of attention, but patiently contented myself with what I would carry away, as the bird does with his two or three seeds picked up from the full field, leaves all I do retain free from alloy. Some thoughts were granted,—some refinement of the powers of observation was inevitable; some divine images remain to exhilarate and bless all my after life. Exhilarate is the word that most naturally occurs in thinking of the Vatican. Some may be saddened at the sight of so many magnificent wrecks: thinking how much more has been lost than saved; but the destiny of man seems to me grander, seeing that it could afford to let such wonders perish, and only leave enough for us to guess at them by.

  I shall not speak here of St. Peter’s and its Piazza, for the briefest narrative of all that throngs upon my memory in connection with these would fill a volume; but confine myself to the Vatican and its gardens. Gardens are nowhere so delightful as in Rome, where they so highly and tenderly relieve the solemnity, and often oppressive sense of the past. I like the vineyard, and great vegetable gardens which stray and lap so negligently over the great heroic rites, or dress the tombs of imperial monsters with associations of pains-taking, gentle, domestic life. And I like the little garden behind the sculptor’s studio, where fresh roses and myrtles relieve your eye, after the cold white marbles. And I liked the gardens of the. Orsini Palace, with broken, half-dried fountains, and walks wild as those left here and there for the girls and boys in our New England villages, and tall nodding cypresses. I liked these till they were watered with the blood of the brave; but now, if one climbs the Janiculine, ‘tis in another world. I like those of the Colonna Palace, with their rich hedges of box, and terrace, strewn with huge fragments of the Temple of the Sun, from which you see Rome lying asleep so grand and calm,—sweet, too, in the high thoughtful sense, like Michael Angelo’s Night, one who has been so rich in life, she needs not be always full of it. And there are three other gardens I would like to speak of, but now there is not time. I shall content myself with those of the Vatican.

  I first saw them in May, 1847, a lovely May day even for Italy, where the fairest month of the year combines tenderness of hue with luxuriance of growth in her garlands, in a still higher perfection than elsewhere. I ascended to the roof of St. Peter’s; beside me frowned the Vatican, its mass of buildings, the growth of ages in their way more impressive than the most splendid aud harmonious pile produced at any one time by the impulse of any one mind. Many epochs, myriad minds, whispered from these walls. Below, lay the garden; its high, evergreen hedges, truly walls of verdure exquisitely fresh; and at that moment all its fountains were playing. Descending then, I saw for the first time white peacocks, of whose plumes are made the fans carried before the Pope’s chair in the processions of Easter week. The white peacock seemed even fitter for Juno than the purple and gold; the stars of the tail were like golden ripples, as it strutted up and down; the scarlet poppies and pinks seemed impressed; the roses not to care; they were taken up with the May breeze. The gardener gave me orange blossoms. My recollection of that day is all splendor, perfume, refreshment, keen and sweet sensations.

  I visited those gardens again in May of 1839—the walls of green showed their polished leaves, just as full and fresh; the rose-hedges were as full of roses and of buds; but the Pope had fled, and his splendid white peacocks no longer paraded the walks. They were full of armed men—Roman men—their beautifully formed brows and eyes lit up; the indolent or sensual look almost effaced by a new expression. On the green bank boiled their broth; the pretty little fires hardly seemed as if they would leave a black spot. We pushed aside the flowers to see the cannon; we climbed the wall to look out on the rich fields; the contalini—were coming up with little white flags of peace; figures with black flags were still searching for dead bodies in the gully, and amid the tall canes. Beside me was a long red streak where a man’s life-blood had run down. In the tower, where charts and models had been kept, a few officers slept upon straw. I went up to look through the windows, each of which presented a view of distinct beauty, a calm Roman landscape, calmest in the world. How can men feel little envies—petty hatreds—when they look on them. These things are but for a season; their frightful abuses, the blood on that wall, indeed, is not the saddest stain—it was shed in hope and faith; it is all the blood that has been corrupted here; the long arrear of iniquity, the most sacred names, the purest love defiled and profaned, to mark what is most antagonistic to them that one might mourn. Yet to-day I could not mourn, nature is seen so rich. God is the God of love so surely, that an atonement must, will be found for our distress—a season manifested for the seeming cruel doom of so many good hearts, in these as yet dark ages. And so, from the fresh lovely nature, and suffering injured human nature, into those cold walls, so still—so still even when hundreds are present—for men are almost lost in the Vatican galleries—they were very commonly, as late as May and June, such as one liked to see, peasants, nursemaids with little children, priests, who lavished the love they should have given to life on these mere representations of it; however, here they are really at home, and one sees by the entranced and glistening eye how such a man is enjoying the object near which he lingers. I never liked to go to the Vatican when Rome is full of foreigners, because then the smaller rooms are so crowded with cockneys that one cannot pass. I have seen them standing three deep, with Murray sticking out of each pocket, listening to a gentleman with a high cravat proving that Apollo was so ill-mended, it was painful to look at it. One don’t like to communicate with such a person as that even at the elbows, and all such Martin Chuzzlewits are sure to be throwing out their porcupine quills, while the Forsyths and Bells glide softly by, too fully engaged by the ideal presence before them to manifest themselves on the spot: so I always waited till the splendor of spring drives away the birds of passage, and fortunately a great portion of them have the infatuation to think that a beautiful day is always dangerous in Rome, and fly just as the true splendor of being there begins. So in those days when the heavens were really blue, such as they are not anywhere else, (and Italian blue sky is not to be had on cold or rainy days even in Italy,) and the solemnest old ruins had wreathed themselves like brides, and even the mournful cypress and calm pine were shaking their locks in the soft breeze, I used to evade the dirtiest, longest, gloomiest street in the world, by crossing in the ferry-boat the beautiful muddy Tiber, enter the fair plantations, and take the quiet walk by Villa Salvage, alas! all in ruins now, and pass by Castle St. Angelo, in whose great sward Spartan children were playing on the fresh turf, and enter by Porto Angelica, where the Transtevesine girls were singing—

“Come in, come in, Petruchio,
When mamma is away,”

and into the corridor betwixt whose columns the most beautiful as the most simple fountains in the world are singing so loud and laughing in the sun, and up the great stairs where the little fountain is singing softly in the shade, and has made the greyhound stop to drink. For in Rome you never forget the fountains, many as they are, they are all and each dearest friends; I knew all their voices, and dream them all over again when I dream of Rome, as, thank heaven, I often do. Should I never see her again, and (thrice foolish amid all the fountains, I forgot to drink of Trevi when I came away) I trow they will outsound Niagara at times, even across the big water.

  Up this staircase, and then others and others, till you enter the Hall of Inscriptions. What can be more grand than the effect of this vast vestibule full of such interesting things, that you never, never, can have time to stop and study, because pressing on to others so far more interesting. So rich seems life, so precious is felt in Rome the possession of a day, an hour, to one who has the least vivacity of fancy or love of any kind of study, for inducements in all kinds to study hourly present themselves.

  Yet I often passed through all the halls of marbles, passed the tapestries, the Transfiguration, the Frescoes of Raphael, without stopping at all. I walked at a slow pace, but I saw nothing except what casually caught my eye, as one does when straying in wood-paths; for here the mind of man presented its germs luxuriant, abundant, majestic as nature in the woods, with her flowers, mosses, trees, and these were the days I received the highest impression, and I think the most lasting benefit. I seemed to receive the real soul of what was there when I let objects act upon me without working myself. I used to go out expanded, exalted; many distinct impressions were remembered afterwards, but the general mood the swelling of the heart, the bathing of the soul in its native fonts, was the great thing of the time. O! souls of fire! lovers of gods, of heroes, of woman! when divine servants of God, counselors of men, artists seen no longer in the littleness of studios and dinner-parties, but in your works how I blessed you—angels’ peace and good-will go shed amid the crowds of struggling, heart-struck men.

  I bless you now, but at the time I did not think of you, for all that was great and good seemed the varying emanation of one spirit, and I myself all melted in it.

  Passing out from the Stango of Raphael, I walked through his Loggio. One cannot look in detail at these lovely designs; it strains the neck too much; yet the harmony and beautiful balance in composition gives great delight as you glance upward. From here I usually went to the highest gallery, to a little window at the end that commanded a limited view, but one of the fairest in Rome; yet it is a sadder aspect than the others. I think precisely, because that expression of thoughtful calm amid the wreck of an immense past is not seen amid fields so wide, nor the eye lured on to a possible hope in the horizon. It was a scene for sunset, the mellow Roman sunlight lingers with most love when it is sad.

  For these walks through the Vatican I always went alone. When I was in company with others, I naturally looked at objects more in detail. I very seldom did go with others, except to look at the marbles by torchlight. Then a party of thirteen or fifteen is to be formed, in order to get permission, as well as to divide the expense—this for each person of a party of thirteen is trifling; and, if it were otherwise, nothing in Rome is better worth doing; yet I believe many persons leave Rome without enjoying one of its highest pleasures. By day, the whiteness of so vast an assemblage of marbles, almost wholly unenlivened by color, wearies the eye; while at night, mild and grand shadows fall round you at every step. If it be a moonlight-night, the occasional glimpses through the windows are very grand; then the holy silence of these halls are only broken by the echo of your own steps and of those who move with you, or the soft fall of waters from the court-yard of the Belvidere. Beside, many of these statues were made in places only lit by lamps or torches, and cannot be seen, according to the intention of the artist, by any other light. As the same have been shown every time I have visited the Vatican, except at a request from me, the guide has turned the light on three or four others. I suppose the same are always shown, and some brief notice of them may be interesting to persons who are looking forward to visit Rome.

  On entering the long vestibule, the torches are lit, and the guide, followed by the men who carry them, precedes you into the Novo Boaccia; the lights are lifted, so as to give a view of the construction of this beautiful room. The effect of the immortal company who await you is greater here than anywhere. They are so arranged that at a glance each is seen with some degree of distinctness; and, as many are full length statues of the most imposing character, you feel awed, entering a coarse, crude mortal, still encumbered with the weeds and soil of common life, into what seems a true Valhalla of full and purified lives.

  The first statue shown is one of those which gain most from the lights and shadows of evening. It represents Silenus holding the infant Bacchus, and the natural grotesqueness of the satyr-form seems sublimely tender through the expression of manly fondness and reverent protection with which he looks down upon the child. This expression is much lost in the glare of day; but as seen by the torch-light, I know nothing that more happily exemplifies the true antique greatness, where the artist has a simple thought clear in his mind—where the dignity of natural feelings is never weakened by straining after effect, nor the attention divided by subtleties of any kind.

  There is shown the statue called Modesty, but which appears a portrait statue of some woman of infinite grace, dignity, the modesty of strength, the purity of wisdom.

  On the same side, at the extremity, is the Demosthenes, a work unrivalled by modern art, in what modern art more peculiarly essays. Never was more nobly presented the force of expression in marked individual character, as concentrated on one great and glorious moment, when the fires that had long been working under ground found adequate expression, and all opposition sunk cowering before the flash.

  It must have been of this Demosthenes, that Lander was thinking, when he makes him say, “While I remember what I have been, I never can be less. External power affects only those who have none intrinsically. I have seen the day, Eubalides, when the most august of cities had but one voice within her walls; and when the stranger on entering them stopped at, the silence of the gateway, and said, ‘ Demosthenes is speaking in the assembly of the people. This is an ambition which no other can supplant or reach. The image of it stands eternally between me and kings, and separates me by an immeasurable interval from their courts and rattraps.’ “Every atom of superfluous flesh seems to have been consumed by the ardors of the intellectual life; the figure is extremely meager, yet that meagerness is not more sickly than that of the swift Bedouin. The robe lies in folds rather fine and clinging, yet which borrow a peculiar grace, from the incomparable dignity, the active command of the figure. Other effigies of men of genius are dignified from amplitude of form and of drapery, this in sharpness, prominence and concentration. I know of no image so fitted to kindle princely hopes in the heart of the obscure youth conscious of yet undeveloped power, nor more sternly to rebuke the sloth, frivolity, or weak yielding to temptation that may have left it to perish. As for the vulgar pomps of rank and wealth, or the vanities of petty talents or petty achievements, I should think all conscious of such would have to creep away like reptiles from before that aspect.

  To me the noblest cordial for entangled days, full of oppositions, and loaded by material obstacles, would be the daily sight of this statue. It would indeed preach “ action, action, action,” but in its own high sense, action backed by vast and condensed power, incited by few, but dear and constant motives.

  Beside this statue may be seen (it is not usually shown by the torchlight guide) a bust most interesting to study in comparison. The Demosthenes presents the exhilarating type of active, conquering genius. It represents a man in whom great intellect and a refined nervous temperament were impelled and sustained by a powerful will. The bust represents a man of finer genius, more delicate organization, a far greater range of faculties, but in whom all these gifts and powers only lead to suffering. The skin, the hair, the suffering brow, all tell of a man by whom every part of life is appreciated, but on whom it acts instead of being acted on by him. He carries away treasures of knowledge, myriads of exquisite images, experiences which Demosthenes only knows as the eagle, the lakes and forest he has glanced down upon as he seized a prey fit to feed his eyrie. But power he of the past could not duly use for himself or others, for want of one or two qualities which nerved the orator. Lower in aim, he had cared more for himself, and his own work in life had been followed out more singly; more wilful, he had scattered his powers of resistance less, and affrighted easily the gnomes and elves that undermined his path. To some he was infinitely precious, but they could not’ confirm his victories nor heal his wounds. Demosthenes sustained himself and ruled the world.

  On the other side of the room you are shown the Nile, and entirely a different mood is introduced by this rich symbol of an operation in external nature. You understand what a compliment it was, to be called “my serpent of old Nile,” as you look upon this grand, hearty figure, with his children sporting archly over him. Some say these children represent the sixteen cubits to which the Nile must rise to make a fertile season for his valleys, others, the sixteen springs that feed the Nile. I never counted them, but to the sense they most happily indicate fertility and the joyous rippling of water in the run.

  The Minerva Medica was found in one of the most uninjured and beautiful ruins of Remi: the temple looks very imposing from a distance; going there, I found it full of sticks and hay; it is in the midst of a great vineyard and cabbage garden. Beautiful views of the Roman landscape are caught through some ivy-wreathed apertures. All there looks calm as this image of the goddess, which has no strong characteristic expression, but bears the mark of an epoch when the waters of thought rose high and sunk deep. Memories of forms that bear that stamp console us like the sight of the stars, when we come out of those circles where we have sought in vain from face to face some pure glance or generous human smile, and it has seemed that all assembled there

“Had filled their minds and thus themselves subdued.”

  Passing into the Ring Gallery, you are shown an exquisite fragment of a figure, with drapery blown back by the wind, the young Augustus known and idolized everywhere (strange, that peculiar charm of boyhood, that exquisite dawn incapable of leading to a noon of equal beauty, so finely touched by the ancients in the fables of Adonis and Hyacinthus, is so rarely reproduced by art,) and the grand melancholy statue of Tiberius.

  You then enter the first of the little rooms, where the Torso is shown, but it may be seen just as well as by day. Words from me are not needed as to the architectural beauty of this fragment; though it cannot escape even eyes like mine more in love with another kind of excellence.

  There is the Meleagee, but to me this is nothing; it may be a good statue as compared with others in point of workmanship, but leaves me quite cold, and I am confident embodies nothing precious in thought and life.
Of the Laocoon none should speak, unless they have some new word of value to say, and I have never really looked at it. To me, a work in which the impression of anguish predominates, does not bring the benefit I seek in a work of art. I have that in life, I do not want it in art. To connoisseurs and artists who have other notions in their survey, the beauties and defects of this work are invaluable; both are studied to great advantage by the torch-light.

  One suffers in passing round here by sight of the Perseus of Canova. It seemed placed here as if to put in the strongest relief what is theatrical and weak in modern art, to make us ashamed in presence of our simpler and stronger ancestors. As it was not by the wish of Canova that it’ suffers this comparison, it seems ungentle and wrong to feel the inevitable disgust.

  Now comes the Antinoas, most lovely flower, like product of genius. Humanly, we see only its youthful fullness of beauty, its soft devotion and singleness of expression, otherwise one thinks of lilies in June, and all beautiful things cognate with these. This statue gains a great deal by waning light.

  I do not know that this is the case with the Apollo, though you win a great many various aspects from it by moving the lights about, still the predominant impression is always the same, and that to my mind is adequately expressed by the words “beautiful disdain.” While great part of the description of Childe Harold seemed in presence of the statue but words put hi to eke out the stanza, these returned to satisfy beyond any other that occurred. Like the sunbeam, that look reproves all that is base and foul, that firm steps, and stands full of Ithurial power. In divinity, in fullness and purity of life, it is higher than anything that remains to us; and let critics patter about their yeas and nays as they will, will continue to command worship and administer instruction, till man soars into a region where purity and truth are too constantly lived to be thought about.

  The portico is full of rich sarcophagi, and other works in relief, but these you do not look at in the evening. You pass, through the Hall of Animals; by day it is a great relief to linger there and see what fun and enjoyment of the sports and charities of life the animals had once, for none of them seem tame; but it is night, and you will only pass through now.

  You enter to see the Ariadne; all remarks on that would be hackneyed, but you look at it long by this more mellow light; then the fragment called now Genius of the Vatican, would it were so, but there is no other such there nor in the world. I said of the Demosthenes, how far it outwent modern art in what modern art peculiarly aims at; I say of this that it combines what is most excellent in ancient and modern art. It has all the Olympian simplicity of the antique, and yet its look drops the fathom into deeps that seemed first ventured by our latter sail. Iphigenia combines with Ophelia and Hamlet. O, statue! why art thou not mine. Ten thousand popes may trail the white and gold before thee, ten thousand connoisseurs mummify their hearts by criticism on each hair’s breadth of thy stone form—nay, poets and lovers may come and bow the heart before thee, yet none will ever worship thee as I have done, do still, nor wish thee the fate of Galatea, cold, broken, drooping. I wish thee ever thus, for only so should such pathetic beauty be seen.

  Now are you shown the Apollino—sweet pretty thing—half-red apple, on the Eden tree. Menander and Posiclippus, who sit better than even Michael Angelo’s Prophets—they were the medium between the day long repose of the cross-legged Oriental, as we, perhaps, flippant in mahogany chairs, between them and the tea-drinking Chinese on their light cane supporters.

  Passing now into the Hall of the Muses, you see many figures of an average merit—the common furniture of an antique life—dignified and substantial in style, but which, probably, no one ever stopped to look at in the great day. But there a noble Jupiter, and one whose beauty and majesty cannot be appreciated in the day, and a Pladrian, strong, manly, full of resource, or what we call in America “capable,” indeed much like in its style to the heads of our best American men; for we, too have a grand range of heads, and I appreciate them far better now I have lived so long abroad. Our ideal forms come not yet, but they will, such as the world knew not before, when the national mind is in a higher phase but this is not the time to talk of that. Besides, I have now been more than three hours walking in the Vatican—I am tired—my feet are very cold on these stone floors. To visiters, even in May, I would recommend aired shoes. I ran to the Hall of the Biga, because it is last, and we are always tired; it is never seen well, though many objects are there worthy great regard. The Sardanapalus is a very fine statue for its pose. Mr. Diseobolus, the artist, looks at much, but I go to one of those which cannot be clearly seen by daylight—somebody’s preceptor—he looks worthy to be Alexander’s, or Cæsar’s, or Napoleon’s—so sage is he, so calm in fullness of knowledge, so poised in wisdom, so capable to appreciate genius. Looking at him, one begins to believe that a teacher may really be available for a great man; and that all minds may enjoy that bliss of natural piety, which we experience on receiving benefits from them we would wish to revere, and at the same time when we can use them.

  I have penned some brief momento of these glorious evenings, scanty hints, but precious to me, as recalling their delights, and which may be of use to others, as indicating, previous to a visit, the position and character of the statues that will be shown. Here, in Florence, I formerly made an effort to see the works of Michael Angelo, at San Lorenzo, at torchlight—the application was refused; but, as merely on account of its novelty. I hope the remembrance of it may lead to success the second time trying. If I succeed, I shall announce it for the benefit of others. Giulian and Lorenzo night and day should not be left in the gloom these long nights, when there are so many souls near that need, and some that would duly prize the chance to look upon them. I doubt they cannot look grander by one light than another; but I hope to try. *

“Recollections of the Vatican.” United States Magazine & Democratic Review. 1 July 1850, pp. 64—71.