Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

Doerr: Four Seasons in Rome

May 29, 2017

Four Seasons in Rome
On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World
Anthony Doerr
(Scribner, 2007)
211 p.

I love Rome: I love its pomp and grandeur, its crumbling antiquity, its bustle, its beauty, its cobblestones, its quiet corners, its saints and relics, its fountains and its parks. When I walk the streets of Rome I feel eight feet tall. As such, it is always a delight to me to find a good book about Rome, and this book is one such.

Anthony Doerr, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of whom I confess I had no previous knowledge, was offered a year’s residence, with his family, at the American Academy in Rome. The offer arrived in the mail on the morning that he and his wife returned home from the hospital with newborn twin boys. Consequently they arrived in Rome, a few months later, with two bouncing bambini, the barest smattering of Italian, and no idea what they were getting into. The book recounts their experiences of Rome, yes, but also the challenges and joys of fatherhood, and, as a minor theme, the difficulties of writing a book (his ostensible purpose during his year in residence) in the midst of so many distractions and delights.

Doerr hailed from Boise, Idaho, and had not been to Rome before. Part of the fun of the book comes from his observations of the things that first strike a North American when he arrives in the city: the noise, the rows of parked vespas on the street (which he is tempted to push over, to see if they’ll all fall like dominoes), the tendency of Italians to cluster rather than queue, the inadequacy one feels when trying to speak a halting and insecure Italian to a busy merchant. In one amusing passage he describes entering a hardware store and, realizing he doesn’t know the name for anything he wants, asks for the only thing he can think of — a night light, a luce del notte — and retreats in shame. In another he enters a shop to get tomato sauce, but a request for sugo di pompelmo sets off a storm of confusion, the store-keeper offering him everything under the sun except tomato sauce; only afterwards did he realize he’d asked for “grapefruit sauce”. Anyone who has travelled has had similar experiences, and although I personally feel less embarrassed about my bad Italian in Rome than I do, say, about my bad French in Paris, this has much to do with the geniality of Romans, which one learns of only by experience.

Having infant twins at home meant that he and his wife didn’t get out much, at least at first, but as the year turned, as sleep schedules were slowly re-established, and after they found a good nanny, they were able to snatch a few hours here and there to explore the city. Essentially everything was new to them, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the city again for the first time through their eyes. Like many visitors from the New World, they were most impressed by the sheer antiquity of Rome, its (literal) layers of history, all compressed into such a small area. Rome is “an iceberg floating below our terrace, all its ballast hidden beneath the surface”. Rome is also, considering the density of the important monuments and works or art it boasts, rather large; it is “a Metropolitan Museum of Art the size of Manhattan”. It is a city that no man can fully fathom.

Discoveries awaited not only in the streets of Rome, but also at home, in their apartment atop the Janiculum Hill, as their boys grew. Doerr is good at describing the sleeplessness (exacerbated in his case by insomnia), the difficulty of getting from point A to point B with infants, the joy of seeing one’s child learning to walk, the amazement a parent feels when the child speaks (as when one of his twins greets a stranger in the hall with a “Ciao”). Even if one had no interest in Rome (were this possible), the book would retain interest as a memoir of a first-time parent.

And the book is interesting from another angle too, for the year that Doerr spent in Rome was 2004-5, and so coincided with the death of Pope St John Paul II, his funeral (viz. the book’s subtitle), the conclave, and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Doerr is not a Catholic, and so not himself intensely concerned with these events, but, living just to the south of the Vatican, he cannot help but take an outsider’s interest. He observed John Paul II’s gradual decline, the prayer vigils that attended his final days, the astounding avalanche of mourners who filled the city for the funeral, the descent of the world’s press onto Vatican City, and, finally, the white smoke and the ringing of all the church bells of Rome upon the election of the new pontiff, whereupon Doerr found himself, somewhat to his own amusement, running through the streets, stroller and all, to reach St Peter’s in time to see Benedict XVI emerge onto the balcony for the first time. “Is it Ratzinburger?” he asked a neighbour, only to be rudely corrected. Ah, well.

My principal reservation about the book is that Doerr decided to write it in the present tense; I always find this off-putting in a narrative. He also sometimes indulges in vices peculiar to contemporary novelists: sentences bereft of verbs, or missing subjects, or even stranded adjectives. On the other hand, he has encouraged me to add a few items to my “wish list” for my next visit, especially to visit Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, and, were it ever possible, to climb the spiral staircase which winds up through the interior of Trajan’s Column. Alas, I know that this last will never happen.

The ideal audience for this book would seem to consist of North American Catholics who are parents of young children and love Rome. Paint a bull’s-eye on my forehead.

*

My thanks to Janet for recommending this book to me.

Livy I: The Rise of Rome

May 14, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri I-V
The Rise of Rome
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by T.J. Luce
(Oxford, 2008) [c.25 BC]
xxxiii + 372 p.

The Ab Urbe Condita (From the Foundations of the City) is one of the epic authorial feats in world history. This history of Rome occupied Livy throughout his life and in the end consisted of 142 books covering the period from Rome’s legendary founding (traditionally dated to 753 BC) down to Livy’s own time (9 BC). Although only 35 of these books have survived, they alone require about 2500 pages of text in a modern edition. Pliny the Younger tells us of a young man from Spain “who was so impressed by the name and reputation of Titus Livius that he journeyed from the end of the inhabited world just to see him, looked, turned about and went back home”, and it’s little wonder.

These first five books of Livy’s history cover the mythical foundation of Rome, the history of the seven kings, and then the course of republican Rome down to 390 BC, when the city suffered its first major military defeat, at the hands of a Gallic army. How much of this is real history and how much legendary embellishment is hard to say. Livy, who did not pretend to be an original historian and who is open about his reliance on pre-existing sources, notes that few written records survived from this period owing to the calamitous burning of the city that accompanied this same military defeat. Probably we are dealing with an admixture of legend and history, with the proportion of legend greater the more distant the past, roughly speaking.

Livy’s is an annalistic history: he narrates events year by year, rather than following story arcs one at a time and back-tracking. This has its advantages and disadvantages, of course, but I appreciated that I always knew where I was on the timeline.

Everyone knows the two founding stories of Rome — that Aeneas founded the city after fleeing Troy in the aftermath of the Trojan War, and that the twin brothers Romulus and Remus were suckled by a wolf and somehow founded the city too — but not everyone, I think, knows how the two stories are related. Aeneas was indeed taken to be the remote founder of Rome for having established what was to become Roman stock on Italian soil, but it was many generations before the city itself was formed, and Romulus and Remus were the proximate founders of the city. They argued over which of the seven hills of Rome should be the initial foundation — Palatine or Aventine, respectively — and Romulus (or one of his followers) killed Remus, and went on to become the city’s first king. The Romans dated these events to (what we now call) 753 BC.

Romulus was credited with establishing the basic political structure of Rome, dividing the people into patricians and plebs, and founding the senate. He formed an army and led it into battle against Rome’s neighbours. (One of these outings was the famous rape of the Sabine women.) The subsequent king, Numa Pompilius, was said to have founded the principal religious rites of the Romans. In later centuries Romans looked back at the actions of these first two kings as having established the Roman character as that of a fighting people who honour the gods (as opposed, say, to seeing themselves as a pious people who fight when necessary — an important difference of emphasis).

As time went on, succession of the kingship became gradually more contested, and with the seventh king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, who took the throne by murdering his predecessor and those who stood to receive the crown before him, Rome had a genuine tyrant on its hands. He was eventually overthrown and, in 509 BC, the Romans re-founded their government as a republic, maintaining a horror of kingship thereafter.

(It is interesting that the date assigned to the founding of republican Rome might be an instance of the Romans trying to upstage the Athenians, who established their democracy in 508 BC.)

In place of a king, the Romans established the office of consul. Consuls were elected by the senate, two at a time, and governed for a period of one year. The plebs, however, protesting that the consuls, drawn from the patrician class, governed with only their own class’ interests in mind, pressured their leaders to establish a second office, that of tribune, to be elected by the plebs and granted certain powers.

From this point, with the principal pieces of Roman government in place, there are two main threads to the history. On one hand, there are the military and political conflicts with regional powers, and, on the other, persistent internal conflict between the patricians and plebs.

The principal regional powers with whom Rome came into conflict in this period were the Veii, Volsci, and Aequi. It is worth emphasizing just how small Rome’s reach was at this time: their most threatening neighbour was Veii, located just a dozen miles from Rome; so these “wars” are really local skirmishes. Many wonderful stories are woven into this military history — Horatius at the bridge, the courage of Mucius, the vengeful fury of Coriolanus, the reckless lust of Appius Claudius, and the splendid civic virtue of Cincinnatus. It was farmer-general Cincinnatus who led the Romans to one of their first great military victories, against the Volsci and Aequi, around the year 450 BC.

As for Rome’s internal politics, it was a slow-boiling conflict that occasionally spilled over into violence. Around the middle of the 5th century the plebs began to push for the introduction of written law, so as to be less vulnerable to the whim of the consuls. Rome sent a delegation to Athens to study Solon’s reforms, and finally committed to the production of ten (later twelve) large, public tablets outlining Roman law. To produce these Twelve Tables, the Romans temporarily replaced the two consuls with a new form of government by a group of ten men called (sensibly enough) decemvirs, but the power of this office was so badly abused that it lasted only a few years, reverting to the trusted consulship. The Romans also created the office of dictator, a temporary position to be granted to one man in times of emergency, and the office of censor, originally intended to be responsible for taking a periodic census but later destined to become one of the most powerful positions in Roman government.

In Book V Livy narrates two episodes of great importance. The first is the war with Veii. The Romans and the Veii had long been in conflict with one another over land and access to precious resources (like salt). Veii was a strongly fortified city, and a formidable opponent. As matters came to a head, the patrician Camillus, one of the most honoured figures in Roman history, was named dictator and took charge of the army. He directed that a great tunnel be secretly made that burrowed under the walls of Veii and into its sewer system. This was successfully done, and, in an echo of the story of the Trojan Horse, a group of Roman soldiers was able to surprise the citizens of Veii by appearing inside their walls, throwing open the gates and allowing the whole army to enter. The victory was decisive, and the survivors were sold as slaves, leaving the city empty.

It was, to that point, Rome’s greatest victory, but the celebrations were short-lived, for a new enemy appeared on the scene: the Gauls. Livy doesn’t go into great detail about where they came from, but I understand that they were a tribe from north of the Alps who descended into Italy and proved too strong for most to resist. Exactly how they came into conflict with Rome is unclear — Livy gives a few different versions of how and why — but somehow the Romans found them approaching the city walls. Although they mustered an army, the Gallic forces were intimidating and the Roman defenders buckled and fled. The gates were not even secured, and the Gauls entered the city to loot and burn it. Only the Capitol remained defended, and the Gauls began a siege. As the Roman summer wore on, however, the Gauls fell ill as the Romans starved, and eventually the two sides agreed to terms: the Romans would pay and the Gauls would depart. Yet, so the story goes, as the payment was being prepared the contempt of the Gauls so angered the Romans that Camillus, rallying his weakened troops, ordered a sudden attack, and the Gauls were driven out.

Rome was so thoroughly devastated that the people made plans to relocate to the now-empty city of Veii, abandoning Rome for good, but Camillus, in a stirring speech re-imagined by Livy, convinced them to stay and rebuild. For this reason, he was later honoured as the “second founder” of Rome. But though they did rebuild, the memory of this first sack of Rome remained in the Roman imagination as a great horror, and they resolved that it should never happen again. (And, indeed, their resolve was strong, for it would be 850 years before another enemy force breached the walls.)

**

So ends this first volume in Livy’s history. My knowledge of Roman history is middling to weak, so most of this has been new to me, and all of it has been enjoyable to read. I am looking forward to the next volume.

**

“Whatever activity is rewarded in a state invariably thrives the most.” (Book IV, ii)

Byron: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

January 26, 2017

childeChilde Harold’s Pilgrimage
George Gordon Lord Byron
(Oxford, 2008) [1812-18]
188 p.

She walks in beauty, like the night, and my ignorance of the life and poetry of Lord Byron is rather like the night too: dark and comprehensive. Nonetheless I took up this long poem with considerable interest. I’d come across excerpts from it here and there in my readings about Rome, and I thought I’d take a closer look to see what else, if anything, the poem has to say about the Eternal City.

That’s a narrow keyhole through which to approach a fairly wide-ranging poem, which recounts the travels of one Harold, a young and dissolute Englishman, as he rambles across the European continent. He lands first in Spain, makes his way east, stopping in Albania, and Greece, and eventually comes to Italy, where he visits, among other cities, Venice, Florence, and, yes, Rome.

The poem is allegedly based on Byron’s own European travels, which he undertook in the years 1809-11.

Harold is melancholy, undisciplined, and a rake:

Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.
(1, II)

In other words, we have here a Byronic hero, such as he is, and the poem, which was the first to bring Byron wide fame, is a notable example of English Romanticism in full flower. (Note that it was published just a few decades after the famous volume by which Wordsworth and Coleridge are said to have inaugurated Romanticism in England.) We find, for instance, the characteristic Romantic sense of the sublimity of Nature:

All heaven and earth are still—though not in sleep,
But breathless, as we grow when feeling most;
And silent, as we stand in thoughts too deep: —
All heaven and earth are still: from the high host
Of stars, to the lulled lake and mountain-coast,
All is concentered in a life intense,
Where not a beam, nor air, nor leaf is lost,
But hath a part of being, and a sense
Of that which is of all Creator and defence.
(3, LXXXIX)

I was surprised to find that the anti-hero of the poem, whose brooding self-consciousness and jaundiced eye are supposed to seduce and repel us at once, was not so brooding, and especially not so jaundiced, as I had expected. When he comes to Greece, for instance, he is overwhelmed by the solemnity and glory of what once was, and says:

Where’er we tread, ’tis haunted, holy ground;
No earth of thine is lost in vulgar mould,
But one vast realm of wonder spreads around,
And all the Muse’s tales seem truly told,
Till the sense aches with gazing to behold
The scenes our earliest dreams have dwelt upon:
Each hill and dale, each deepening glen and wold,
Defies the power which crushed thy temples gone:
Age shakes Athena’s tower, but spares gray Marathon.
(2, LXXXVIII)

and then cries out with sincere admiration:

Yet to the remnants of thy splendour past
Shall pilgrims, pensive, but unwearied, throng:
Long shall the voyager, with th’ Ionian blast,
Hail the bright clime of battle and of song;
Long shall thine annals and immortal tongue
Fill with thy fame the youth of many a shore:
Boast of the aged! lesson of the young!
Which sages venerate and bards adore,
As Pallas and the Muse unveil their awful lore.
(2, XCI)

One has the distinct impression that Harold counts himself among the youth filled with Greece’s fame, himself a pensive pilgrim honouring the remnants of its splendid past.

In fact throughout the poem Harold shows a real desire to admire the great monuments, and to commune with the great tradition on which he has been nurtured. He is no mere tourist, no cynic in such matters. In comparison to twenty-somethings whom I have known, he comes across as positively effusive in his earnest praise:

Italia! too, Italia! looking on thee
Full flashes on the soul the light of ages,
Since the fierce Carthaginian almost won thee,
To the last halo of the chiefs and sages
Who glorify thy consecrated pages;
Thou wert the throne and grave of empires; still,
The fount at which the panting mind assuages
Her thirst of knowledge, quaffing there her fill,
Flows from the eternal source of Rome’s imperial hill.
(3, CX)

I hear in such verse more humility and sincerity than ironic sophistication. I may even say that I found in Harold, at least at such moments, an echo of my own feelings towards the European past, which is my cultural inheritance, and which I have laboured, here and elsewhere, to appropriate. This has been rather gratifying, not only inasmuch as Harold provides me with an eloquent — an, if anything, too eloquent — expression of my own feelings, but also inasmuch as it allows me to imagine myself a Byronic hero, a wholly unlooked-for denouement!

***

As to Harold’s sojourn in Rome, it was indeed the highlight of the poem for me (“O Rome! my country! city of the soul!”), and I cannot resist quoting some of my favourite stanzas. There may be no better image of the spirit of Romanticism than that of Byron — sorry, I meant Harold — standing in the moonlight gazing at the ruins of the Colosseum:

But when the rising moon begins to climb
Its topmost arch, and gently pauses there;
When the stars twinkle through the loops of time,
And the low night-breeze waves along the air,
The garland-forest, which the grey walls wear,
Like laurels on the bald first Caesar’s head;
When the light shines serene, but doth not glare,
Then in this magic circle raise the dead:
Heroes have trod this spot—’tis on their dust ye tread.
(4, CXLIV)

Here he wanders a bit north, into the warren of cobble-stoned streets of Old Rome, emerging into the piazza before the Pantheon:

Simple, erect, severe, austere, sublime—
Shrine of all saints and temple of all gods,
From Jove to Jesus—spared and blest by time;
Looking tranquillity, while falls or nods
Arch, empire, each thing round thee, and man plods
His way through thorns to ashes—glorious dome!
Shalt thou not last?—Time’s scythe and tyrants’ rods
Shiver upon thee—sanctuary and home
Of art and piety—Pantheon!—pride of Rome!

Relic of nobler days, and noblest arts!
Despoiled yet perfect, with thy circle spreads
A holiness appealing to all hearts—
To art a model; and to him who treads
Rome for the sake of ages, Glory sheds
Her light through thy sole aperture; to those
Who worship, here are altars for their beads;
And they who feel for genius may repose
Their eyes on honoured forms, whose busts around them close.
(4, CXLVI-CXLVII)

Does your heart beat high? Do you feel nobler, even taller? Later he goes across the Tiber to St. Peter’s. Earlier in the poem he had let drop the casual anti-Catholic sentiments of an ordinary Englishman:

But here the Babylonian whore had built
A dome, where flaunts she in such glorious sheen,
That men forget the blood which she hath spilt,
And bow the knee to Pomp that loves to garnish guilt.
(1, XXIX)

but confronted with the glory of San Pietro he seems to forget himself:

But thou, of temples old, or altars new,
Standest alone—with nothing like to thee—
Worthiest of God, the holy and the true,
Since Zion’s desolation, when that he
Forsook his former city, what could be,
Of earthly structures, in his honour piled,
Of a sublimer aspect? Majesty,
Power, Glory, Strength, and Beauty, all are aisled
In this eternal ark of worship undefiled.
(4, CLIV)

As he ponders it, walking beneath its sublime canopy, he senses the challenge it poses to his own soul, and he struggles to rise to it:

Not by its fault—but thine: Our outward sense
Is but of gradual grasp—and as it is
That what we have of feeling most intense
Outstrips our faint expression; e’en so this
Outshining and o’erwhelming edifice
Fools our fond gaze, and greatest of the great
Defies at first our nature’s littleness,
Till, growing with its growth, we thus dilate
Our spirits to the size of that they contemplate.
(4, CLVIII)

Who among us, confronted by a great work of art, has not experienced, or at least wanted to experience, such a thing? Even granting that an aesthetic experience is not the highest experience one might hope to have in a holy site, it’s nothing to sneer at.

I suppose I risk giving a lopsided view of the poem. It’s not all Rome, not all Italy. He doesn’t like Spain so much. And much of the poem is brooding, especially on the personal wreckage he left behind in England. But I came to the poem with something particular in mind, and I departed well-satisfied.

**

A word about the technical aspects of the poem. As is evident from the sections I’ve quoted, it is composed in Spenserian stanzas: ababbcbcc in iambic metre. It is a long poem, with nearly 500 such stanzas, split into four cantos of uneven length, and a few interpolations of verse in other metres and rhyme schemes. The poetry is astoundingly accomplished, technically. I haven’t actually tried it, but I imagine I’d have a horrendous time trying to produce even one such stanza of non-doggeral verse. To have the facility to write stanza after stanza, expressing and developing thought along the way, is a remarkable gift.

***

For my own benefit, I here append some other of the stanzas I appreciated most:

[Lament over Greece]
When riseth Lacedaemon’s hardihood,
When Thebes Epaminondas rears again,
When Athens’ children are with hearts endued,
When Grecian mothers shall give birth to men,
Then mayst thou be restored; but not till then.
A thousand years scarce serve to form a state;
An hour may lay it in the dust: and when
Can man its shattered splendour renovate,
Recall its virtues back, and vanquish Time and Fate?
(2, LXXXIV)

[The natural beauty of Greece]
Yet are thy skies as blue, thy crags as wild:
Sweet are thy groves, and verdant are thy fields,
Thine olives ripe as when Minerva smiled,
And still his honeyed wealth Hymettus yields;
There the blithe bee his fragrant fortress builds,
The freeborn wanderer of thy mountain air;
Apollo still thy long, long summer gilds,
Still in his beam Mendeli’s marbles glare;
Art, Glory, Freedom fail, but Nature still is fair.
(2,LXXXVII)

[Rome and Italy]
The commonwealth of kings, the men of Rome!
And even since, and now, fair Italy!
Thou art the garden of the world, the home
Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree;
Even in thy desert, what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste
More rich than other climes’ fertility;
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.
(4, XXVI)

[Praise of Tasso]
Peace to Torquato’s injured shade! ’twas his
In life and death to be the mark where Wrong
Aimed with their poisoned arrows—but to miss.
Oh, victor unsurpassed in modern song!
Each year brings forth its millions; but how long
The tide of generations shall roll on,
And not the whole combined and countless throng
Compose a mind like thine? Though all in one
Condensed their scattered rays, they would not form a sun.
(4, XXXIX)

[Laocoon]
Or, turning to the Vatican, go see
Laocoon’s torture dignifying pain—
A father’s love and mortal’s agony
With an immortal’s patience blending:—Vain
The struggle; vain, against the coiling strain
And gripe, and deepening of the dragon’s grasp,
The old man’s clench; the long envenomed chain
Rivets the living links,—the enormous asp
Enforces pang on pang, and stifles gasp on gasp.
(4, CLX)

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.