An Englishman and an American in Rome

June 25, 2015

Attentive readers will have noted that things have been rather quiet around here of late. This is due, mostly, to the fact that the duties of fatherhood have finally completed their encroachment upon what I used to call my “free time,” and occasions for reading and writing (and, for that matter, arithmetic) have become harder to find. I am actually enjoying at present a few months of paternity leave from the office, and I had thought that I would be able to arrange matters so as to open up some time for writing, but thus far it has not proved so.

But we did find time, last month, to holiday for a few weeks in Italy, spending our time mostly in the Eternal City (with one side jaunt to the hill country and Assisi). While there, I was reading (in addition to a wonderful guide book first published in 1903) a few Roman travel memoirs, especially those of Charles Dickens (in Pictures from Italy) and Henry James (in Italian Hours).

Now Dickens, for all his merits, seems to have been tone deaf to Catholicism, and although he has many approving things to say about Rome and the Romans, he can find little kind to say about the Catholic side of Rome. Of his first visit to St. Peter’s, for instance, he says:

Immediately on going out next day, we hurried off to St. Peter’s. It looked immense in the distance, but distinctly and decidedly small, by comparison, on a near approach. The beauty of the Piazza, on which it stands, with its clusters of exquisite columns, and its gushing fountains—so fresh, so broad, and free, and beautiful—nothing can exaggerate. The first burst of the interior, in all its expansive majesty and glory: and, most of all, the looking up into the Dome: is a sensation never to be forgotten. But, there were preparations for a Festa; the pillars of stately marble were swathed in some impertinent frippery of red and yellow; the altar, and entrance to the subterranean chapel: which is before it: in the centre of the church: were like a goldsmith’s shop, or one of the opening scenes in a very lavish pantomime. And though I had as high a sense of the beauty of the building (I hope) as it is possible to entertain, I felt no very strong emotion. I have been infinitely more affected in many English cathedrals when the organ has been playing, and in many English country churches when the congregation have been singing. I had a much greater sense of mystery and wonder, in the Cathedral of San Mark at Venice.

If you read carefully, you’ll have noted that Dickens describes the church as “distinctly and decidedly small,” which can only be stubbornness on his part, for it is the obvious opposite of the truth, and the impression of the entrance to the subterranean tomb of St. Peter as being “a very lavish pantomime” sound to me like a Protestant gentleman’s determination not to like the place. And his opinion failed to improve on further acquaintance:

The effect of the Cathedral on my mind, on that second visit, was exactly what it was at first, and what it remains after many visits. It is not religiously impressive or affecting. It is an immense edifice, with no one point for the mind to rest upon; and it tires itself with wandering round and round. The very purpose of the place, is not expressed in anything you see there, unless you examine its details—and all examination of details is incompatible with the place itself. It might be a Pantheon, or a Senate House, or a great architectural trophy, having no other object than an architectural triumph. There is a black statue of St. Peter, to be sure, under a red canopy; which is larger than life and which is constantly having its great toe kissed by good Catholics. You cannot help seeing that: it is so very prominent and popular. But it does not heighten the effect of the temple, as a work of art; and it is not expressive—to me at least—of its high purpose.

Never mind the technical detail that St. Peter’s is not a cathedral. The “one point for the mind to rest upon” at St. Peter’s is hard to miss: it is the tomb of St. Peter under the altar under the splendid baldacchino of Bernini. It is hard to believe that he visited the church twice and didn’t notice it. Especially in a space which is so distinctly and decidedly small.

But his point about the impression of the church being a somewhat diffuse one has an element of truth in it. One can wander up and down inside it without constantly having the focal point in view. Henry James picks up on this quality, but in a more approving mood than Dickens, when he writes:

You think you have taken the whole thing in, but it expands, it rises sublime again, and leaves your measure itself poor. You never let the ponderous leather curtain bang down behind you—your weak lift of a scant edge of whose padded vastness resembles the liberty taken in folding back the parchment corner of some mighty folio page—without feeling all former visits to have been but missed attempts at apprehension and the actual to achieve your first real possession.

I note with interest, and some envy, that in James’ day (writing in 1873) one could enter St. Peter’s by mounting the steps and pulling aside a leather curtain. It is a long way from the interminable lines and security checks that a modern visitor must bear. (The old paradox of tourism: I’m so pleased to be here, but what’s with all these other people also being here?) But James continues, elaborating on the same theme:

Much of the constituted beauty resides in the fact that it is all general beauty, that you are appealed to by no specific details, or that these at least, practically never importunate, are as taken for granted as the lieutenants and captains are taken for granted in a great standing army—among whom indeed individual aspects may figure here the rather shifting range of decorative dignity in which details, when observed, often prove poor (though never not massive and substantially precious) and sometimes prove ridiculous. The sculptures, with the sole exception of Michael Angelo’s ineffable “Pieta,” which lurks obscurely in a side-chapel—this indeed to my sense the rarest artistic combination of the greatest things the hand of man has produced—are either bad or indifferent; and the universal incrustation of marble, though sumptuous enough, has a less brilliant effect than much later work of the same sort, that for instance of St. Paul’s without the Walls. The supreme beauty is the splendidly sustained simplicity of the whole. The thing represents a prodigious imagination extraordinarily strained, yet strained, at its happiest pitch, without breaking. Its happiest pitch I say, because this is the only creation of its strenuous author in presence of which you are in presence of serenity.

That note of serenity is a true one: James may have been largely deaf to the specifically religious side of Catholicism, but his ear (as it were) for sensibility and aesthetics was exquisite, and he hits just the right note, I think, when he later writes that “St. Peter’s speaks less of aspiration than of full and convenient assurance.”

Anyway, it was a great trip, a many splendoured thing, full of glories. I’ll be living off it, I am sure, for years to come.

4 Responses to “An Englishman and an American in Rome”

  1. Matthew Says:

    I’ve been to St. Peter’s many times and I’ve never felt a religious or spiritual stirring from it. Being an atheist (or a “lapsed Catholic” as one here has called me), it may be that my mind is particularly closed to that sentiment, but that would only be true if it hadn’t happened elsewhere. I found the tour my wife and I did of the 7 churches in Verona to be very moving. The churches ranged widely in age, but all were beautiful in their own way, intimate, and gave a sense of continuing community (one, San Zeno Maggiore, had graffiti dating back a millennium). The same holds true for many of the churches we visited in Bologna, especially Santo Stefano. I think that’s where St. Peter’s falls down for me. It is big and beautiful, but I get no sense of intimacy, no sense of community. There’s no patina. Everything is immaculate. It comes across to me as something more akin to an art gallery and tourist attraction. It would have had much more patina in Dickens’ or James’ day, but it would have still been so massive as to be impersonal on a human scale.

    I wish I’d known you were off to Rome again. My wife and I compiled a map of good places to eat (many near basiliche). Drop me a line if you’d like it.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Matthew, it is really great to hear from you. Thanks for commenting. I hope that all is well with you.

    I get what you’re saying. St Peter’s does have a somewhat impersonal air about it, and the effect is due in large part, I think, to its size. Apart from the obvious interest of the central altar and the dome that covers it, I usually find myself attracted to the more intimate side chapels. (On this visit I found the tomb of Palestrina in one of them.) I can understand that a visitor not in tune with the religious significance of the building could come away cool. Even for me, St Peter’s is probably not in my favourite half-dozen churches of Rome, considered specifically on its aesthetic merits. But Henry James’ remarks about the church (which are more extensive than those I have quoted) seemed to me very fitting, and helped me to appreciate it more than I had before.

    Were I to serve as guide to the food of Rome, nobody would be pleased. On my first visits I was on a shoestring budget and ate mostly, well, shoestrings. We did a little better this time, asking for and exploring recommendations, but we were limited by the need to fit our baby stroller somewhere, and our wish not to destroy anyone else’s dinner with Joseph’s caterwauling. Nonetheless I’m sure we could have benefitted from your suggestions, and I’m sorry that we didn’t have the chance. I’d be very happy to see a list.


  3. I used to write all the time. I have a 2-year old now, and another on the way, and I can just never find the time any more. Not sure if that will ever change again or what. So any future thoughts on managing time/routines to include creative space would be welcome. Been a reader/RSS subscriber for years now…keep it up!

  4. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Joel, for the encouraging words. Our kids are now 6 years, 4 years, and 8 months. They are wonderful, and obviously I do better to spend my time with and for them than I would here, but all the same I do miss writing (and reading!).

    When I figure out how to manage my time I’ll be sure to write about it!


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