Morton: A Traveller in Rome

November 5, 2017

A Traveller in Rome
H.V. Morton
(Methuen & Co., 1957)
432 p. Second reading.

I first read this book shortly after my first visit to Rome, in 2001. Having returned to the city four times in the intervening years, and having come to know it much better in consequence, I decided to revisit the book, both in order to return to the Eternal City in my imagination once more, and also to see how the book stands up. I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

H.V. Morton was a British travel writer who wrote a shelf-full of books over the course of several decades, finding his first success in the 1920s and continuing to publish until his death in the late 1970s. I have a half-dozen of his books on my shelves, but as yet this is the only one I’ve read. My tardiness in this regard has to be attributed to culpable neglect or honest incapacity, because, on the basis of the evidence I have, he’s a fine and judicious guide, generous in judgement, discerning and articulate, and I’ve every reason to believe that those other books of his would be rewarding.

But the theme for today is Rome, a city that one walks, as Gibbon said, “with a lofty step”, surrounded on all sides by beauty and history, a great clamour in one’s ears and a great fullness in one’s heart. It was Garibaldi who called her “a dethroned queen”, adding that “from her ruins, immense, sublime, gigantic, there emerges a luminous spectre — the memory of all that was great in the past…”; and this is quite true. She is sublime, and she is gigantic. I’ll not forget the morning, a few years ago, when I entered the Borghese Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore for the early morning Mass, having flown to Rome late the night before for a weekend’s sojourn, and I stared, stupefied, at the thick marble columns, gilded angels, and hovering frescoes, and knew that I could be nowhere but Rome, sublime and gigantic.

Morton takes the reader through the city, exploring the famous monuments and some lesser-known sites as well, filling in the history with genial exactitude, giving us some notion of how the city has changed over the centuries, relating tales of memorable events and people, and also giving us a portrait of modern Rome — Rome of the 1950s, that is — and its citizens. I laughed in recognition at his account of a taxi ride through the city streets:

The driver of this car was a mild looking Italian until he settled himself behind the wheel, when he became aggressive, if not actually homicidal. We shot round the Piazza Barberini, weaving our way in and out at great speed, missing by an inch or so a man on a bicycle loaded with carnations, braking violently to avoid another car, shooting ahead to overtake it, for he was one of those drivers who consider it dishonourable to be passed, and darting up narrow Renaissance streets hooting insanely until the passers-by dashed for shelter.

‘In one year,’ he said, turning to me and accelerating, ‘I have nine accidents…’

As if this had not sunk into my mind, he took both hands off the wheel and shouted, ‘Nine!’

I will not try to summarize the contents of the book; if there’s something about Rome that particularly interests you, the probability is high that it is mentioned somewhere. He visits the Forum, the major basilicas and many minor churches, the Vatican, the principal fountains, the gardens; he makes side-trips to the catacombs and even to Castel Gandalfo (where I, alas, still have not been!).

Let me highlight a few my favourite passages.

On the overall plan of the city:

Rome has no centre. There is no part of the city which you can say at once is definitely the one and only heart of Rome… Instead of one great forum, Rome has innumerable piazze scattered all over the city, and the stranger cannot decide which is the most important. There seems little to choose between the Piazza Colonna, the Piazza Barberini, the Piazza di Spagna, the Piazza dell’Esedra, and all the other piazze; and even the famous Piazza Venezia, with its adjacent monument to Victor Emanuel, is more a landmark and a beacon to the stranger than a civic centre.

On the characteristic architecture of Rome:

The landscape of Rome is itself declamatory. Upon the roofline stand hundreds of gesticulating saints, their garments tossed about in a baroque breeze, their fingers admonishing, pointing and blessing. The undulating architecture with which the Church in the seventeenth century expressed its satisfaction with the Counter Reformation is itself a gay, inspiring background for gesticulation. It is a stage upon which a Puritan with modest, downcast eyes would be an impossibility: it is the Church flamboyant, the Church resurgent, the Church so sure of itself that it can be quite humorous at times.

On the sense of discovery one feels:

It is the singular charm of Rome that, turning a corner, one comes suddenly face to face with something beautiful and unexpected which was placed there centuries ago, apparently in the most casual fashion. Rome is a city of magic round the corner, of masterpieces dumped, as it were, by the wayside, which lends to the shortest walk the excitement of a treasure hunt.

**

Insofar as I can tell, Morton was not a Catholic, but he seems to have appreciated the Church, and he writes with knowledge and understanding about her prominent place in Roman history. Of the many religious pilgrims who visit the city every day, whom he calls “the original visitors to Rome”, he writes that “they may be strangers, but they are at home”, and this, too, captures something of the uniqueness of the city.

Most interesting to me was what he had to say about Pope Pius XII, who was pontiff at the time. For the past several decades, since the production of Rolf Hochhuth’s play “The Deputy” in 1963, Pius XII has been criticized from various quarters for, at best, inaction in the face of the Nazi’s final solution, and, at worst, collaboration in its aims. Naturally the question of what Pius did or did not do to help the Jews in their darkest hour is a valid and valuable one, but Hochhuth’s charges owed more to imagination than any historical discovery — if they were not actually engineered by the KGB — and the least subtle of Pius’ detractors seem to have gone down to defeat.

In any case, Morton was writing before the controversy arose, and so the book gives us a window into what an informed non-Catholic thought of the Pope at the time. He says that “There probably has never been a Pope who is more certain to be canonized than Pius XII”, and then proceeds to tell how he first saw him during the praying of the Angelus at St Peter’s:

It may be a strange thing to say of a small figure in white on a distant balcony, but I was aware that this man was radiating to us all an extraordinary sense of peace and tranquillity; of holiness, for there is no other word.

Later he was granted a brief personal audience, about which he wrote:

When my turn came, I made my reverence and found myself looking with interest at the most beautifully made red velvet shoes I have ever seen. There was a small gold cross embroidered on the toe. The shoes looked comfortable, and the Pope’s foot was small, narrow, and aristocratic. I rose and found myself gazing into a pair of dark eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses. I felt I was in the presence of a beautifully dressed hermit… Everything about him was fastidious. He had spoken French to the Arab, now he spoke in English with a strong accent, and when I answered his questions, he drew a beautiful cross in the air and passed on. And I knew that I had spoken to a holy man.

The interest in the shoes is consistent with Morton’s slightly aristocratic temperament, but it is clear that he admired the Pope greatly, and this, I believe, was a fairly common judgment at the time.

**

A book about Rome could never be a substitute for the real thing, but, as books go, this is a worthy one. I would recommend it most highly to readers who have already been to the city at least once; someone reading it sight-unseen would not, I think, reap so great a reward. This makes it rather peculiar as a guide book, but then again it is not really a guide book in that sense, but rather a memoir of one man’s experience of the city, and a testimony that

To seek out good thoughts and to reverence them is the privilege of those who have lived for no matter how brief a time in the mother city of the western world.

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