When I paint my masterpiece.....
Rome does not need introduction – it is one
of the most visited places on the planet.
But everyone sees it differently, depending on many variables. Some visitors are studious. Some come for the dolce vita. Accounts of what it was like to live in the
city in ancient times are relatively uncommon (Satyricon, by Petronius,
being a rare exception), but one extraordinary character left us several
impressions of what it was like in the sixteenth century….
Rome, Naples and , Stendhal (Henri Beyle), 1817 Florence
Where I've got me a date with Botticelli's niece
Oh, the streets of
are filled with rubble Rome
Ancient footprints are everywhere
Wandering around the remains of ancient
a luxurious, stimulating, activity, which takes a lot of beating: Nobel
Laureate Bob Dylan, however, got it right - the streets are filled with
rubble..... In some places the
actual street level has risen by ten metres in the last two thousand years,
which is why you tend to look down on the excavations of the various fori
and rediscovered temples.....
Though there is looking down..... and there is looking down.....
You can almost think that you're seein' double....
As we rode into
, the darkness was
extreme; and when we came near the Banchi and our own house, my little horse
was going in an amble at a furious speed. Now that day they had thrown a
heap of plaster and broken tiles in the middle of the road, which neither my
horse nor myself perceived. In his fiery pace the beast ran up it;
but on coming down upon the other side he turned a complete somersault.
He had his head between his legs , and it was only through the power of
God himself that I escaped unhurt.... (Life of Benvenuto Cellini,
Then, after it became part of The Grand Tour, literature has been littered with descriptions of the ruins, though they are not all alike. James Boswell was impressed:
Tuesday, 26 March, 1765:
We viewed the celebrated Forum. I experienced sublime and melancholy emotions as I thought of all the great affairs which had taken place there, and saw the place now all in ruins, with the wretched huts of carpenters and other artisans occupying the site of that rostrum from which Cicero had flung forth his stunning eloquence….. We entered the famous Colosseum, which certainly presents a vast and sublime idea of the grandeur of the ancient Romans. It is hard to tell whether the astonishing massiveness or the exquisite taste of this superb building should be more admired.
Thursday, 28 March, 1765:
We climbed to the Palace again, where the cypresses seem to mourn for the ruin of the grandeur of the Roman emperors. The view from here is magnificent…..
James Boswell on the Grand Tour
Principal Domes L-R, Chiesa Nuova, S Andrea della Valle, S Carlo ai Catinari,
then the Pantheon and the Synagogue
(you can also see S Ivo, in scaffolding,
and, 35 miles to the north west, the Monti Cimini around Lago di Vico.)
The following year, Tobias Smollett was less so:
From the Capitol to the Coliseo, including the Forum Romanum and Boarium, there is nothing intire but one or two churches, built with fragments of ancient edifices. You descend from the Capitol between the remaining pillars of two temples, the pedestals and parts of the shafts sunk in the rubbish.....
(Tobias Smollett, Travels through
Then a couple of years later, Goethe, in self-imposed exile among German Romantics, found much to interest him:
I study the layout of Ancient
look at ruins and buildings and visit this villa or that. The most important
monuments I take very slowly; I do nothing except look, go away, and come back
and look again. Only in Rome Rome can one educate
oneself for . Rome
(Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Italian Journey, 1768).
In about 1810 Byron waxed lyrical:
Cypress and ivy, weed and wallflower grown
Matted and massed together, hillocks heaped
On what were chambers, arch crushed, column strown
In fragments, choked up vaults, and frescos steeped
In subterranean damps, where the owl peeped,
Deeming it midnight: - temples, baths, or halls?
Pronounce who can; for all that learning reaped
From her research hath been, that these are walls –
Behold the Imperial Mount! ‘tis thus the mighty falls.
Lord Byron, Childe Harold, Canto IV, stanza 107
A little later Stendhal (Henri Beyle) was less complimentary:
21st September 1817:
I have now spent fifty days in mingled awe and indignation. Why, what a thing of splendour were this site of Ancient Rome, had not her fatal star decreed, as crowning outrage, that the priests should build their new metropolis upon the very ruins of the old! What glory might our eyes not still behold, were all those ancient stones – the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Antonine Basilica, together with that fabulous wealth of monuments, now rased to the ground that churches might be built instead – still proudly standing within their ring of deserted hills, the Aventine, the
Quirinal, the Mons Palatinus. O fortunate city of ! Palmyra
But then, just two years later, Byron’s friend, Shelley, was star struck:
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Letters:
. It is a scene by which expression is
overpowered; which words cannot convey….. The ruins of the ancient Forum are so
far fortunate that they have not been walled up in the modern city…. I walk forth in the purple and golden light
of an Italian evening, and return by star of moonlight, through this scene….. Rome
What shall I say of the modern city?
yet the capital of the world. It is a
city of palaces and temples, more glorious than those which any other city
contains, and of ruins more glorious than they.
Seen from any of the eminences that surround it, it exhibits domes
beyond domes, and palaces, and colonnades interminably, even to the
(March 23rd, 1819, to Thomas Love Peacock)
This is holy-week, and
is quite full…. Great festas and
magnificent funzioni here – we cannot get tickets to all. There are five thousand strangers in Rome , and only room for
five hundred….. Rome
’s there are
about three hundred fettered criminals at work, hoeing out the weeds that grow
between the stones of the pavement. Their legs are heavily ironed, and some are
chained two by two. They sit in long
rows, hoeing out the weeds, dressed in parti-coloured clothes. Near them sit or saunter groups of soldiers,
armed with loaded muskets. The iron
discord of those innumerable chains clanks up into the sonorous air, and
produces, contrasted with the musical dashing of the fountains, and the deep
azure beauty of the sky, and the magnificence of the architecture around, a conflict of sensations allied to madness.
It is the emblem of Square
of St Peter
– moral degradation contrasted with the glory of nature and the arts. Italy
(April 6th, 1819, to Thomas Love Peacock)
Twenty-seven years later Charles Dickens was imaginatively sceptical:
It is no fiction, but plain, sober, honest Truth, to say: so suggestive and distinct is it (The Colosseum) at this hour: that, for a moment - actually in passing in – they who will, may have the whole great pile before them, as it used to be, with thousands of eager faces staring down into the arena, and such a whirl of strife, and blood, and dust, going on there, as no language can describe. Its solitude, its awful beauty, and its utter desolation, strike upon the stranger, the next moment, like a softened sorrow; and never in his life, will he be so moved and overcome by any sight, not immediately connected with his own affections and afflictions.
To see it crumbling there, an inch a year; its walls and arches overgrown with green; its corridors open to the day; the long grass growing in its porches; young trees of yesterday, springing up on its ragged parapets, and bearing fruit…. To climb into its upper halls, and look down on ruin, ruin, ruin, all about it; the triumphal arches of Constantine, Septimus Severus, and Titus; the Roman Forum; the Palace of the Caesars; the temples of the old religion, fallen down and gone; is to see the ghost of old Rome, wicked and wonderful old city, haunting the very ground on which its people trod. It is the most impressive, the most stately, the most solemn, grand, majestic, mournful sight, conceivable. Never, in its bloodiest prime, can the sight of the gigantic Coliseum, full and running over with the lustiest life, have moved one heart, as it must move all who look upon it now, a ruin. God be thanked: a ruin!
Charles Dickens, Pictures From
In fiction, after another thirty-two years, Henry James, retouched the romantic fantasy:
A few days after his brief interview with her mother, he encountered her in that beautiful abode of flowering desolation known as the Palace of the Caesars. The early Roman spring had filled the air with bloom and perfume, and the rugged surface of the
Palatine was muffled with tender verdure. Daisy was strolling along the top of one of
those great mounds of ruin that are embanked with mossy marble and paved with
monumental inscriptions. It seemed to
had never been so lovely as just then….. Rome
Then he passed in among the cavernous shadows of the great structure, and emerged upon the clear and silent arena. The place had never seemed to him more impressive. One half of the gigantic circus was in deep shade; the other was sleeping in the luminous dusk. As he stood there he began to murmur Byron’s famous lines, out of Manfred; but before he had finished his quotation he remembered that if nocturnal meditations in the Colosseum are recommended by the poets, they are deprecated by the doctors….
Henry James, Daisy Miller, 1878
Oh, the hours I've spent inside the Coliseum
Dodging lions and wastin' time
Oh, those mighty kings of the jungle, I could hardly stand to see 'em
Yes, it sure has been a long, hard climb
1902 and Hilaire Belloc arrived, to publish The Path to Rome, which ends with a discussion between the author and the reader:
So, passing an Egyptian obelisk which the great Augustus had nobly dedicated to the Sun, I entered…..
LECTOR. But do you intend to tell us nothing of
AUCTOR: Nothing, dear Lector.
LECTOR. Tell me at least one thing; did you see the Coliseum?
AUCTOR…. I entered a café at the right hand of a very long, straight street, called for bread, coffee, and brandy, and contemplating my boots and worshipping my staff that had been friends of mine so long, and friends like all true friends inanimate, I spent the few minutes remaining to my happy, common, unshriven, exterior, and natural life, in writing down this
EPITHALAMIUM or THRENODY
In these boots, and with this staff
Two hundred leaguers and a half –
Nor ever turned my face to home
Till I had slaked my heart at
LECTOR. Bu this is dogg - -
AUCTOR. Not a word!
So, then, James Joyce, resident in Rome from 1906 to 1907, thought the ancient city was like a cemetery…The exquisite panorama he said, was made up of flowers of death, ruins, piles of bones, and skeletons. On August 7th, 1906, he wrote to his brother, Stanislaus, that the area around the Colosseum was like an old cemetery with broken columns of temples and slabs. And on September 25th he declared that
reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting
to travellers his grandmother’s corpse. Rome
Indeed, in jaundiced characteristic, Joyce reached back to Byron to express his distrust of the magnificence of the
, when he described a
visit to the Colosseum with his family in 1907: Imperial
Looking at it all round gravely from a sense of duty, I heard a voice from
one of the lowest galleries say: London
The Colisseum –
Almost at once two young men in serge suits and straw hats appeared in an embrasure. They leaned on the parapet and then a second voice from the same city clove the calm evening, saying:
Whowail stands the Colisseum Rawhm shall stand
When falls the Colisseum Rawhm s’ll fall
And when Rawhm falls the world sh’ll fall –
But adding cheerfully:
-Kemlong, ‘ere’s the way aht-
James Joyce: letter to his brother Stanislaus Joyce, August 7th, 1906
Seventy years later, and I was in
Rome. A much changed Rome. But,
despite all changes, there were still touches that reached back across the
centuries. Every day I crossed the Ponte
Sisto from Trastevere toward the Campo Marzio, to catch the bus to work. I used to pass a mournful fountain at the
beginning of the Via Giulia, with its wide mouth (the ugliest fountain in
according to Augustus Hare) dribbling slow streams of water (though on one
occasion at least it was made to spout wine). Rome
In the Campo de’ Fiori, a few paces further on, the Norcineria Viola
- an outlet for the many products from the pig-heaven town of Norcia, now sadly, reduced to rubble (again) by the October earthquake) – still survives, though prettified, and without the model for that fountain, who graced the first floor window when I took this photo in the late seventies.
In those days the market was strong with Roman dialect under the shadow of the statue of Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake here on February 17th, 1600.
Giordano still stands here, unperturbed by his immolation, but the majority of stall holders now herald from the outlying fields of the Roman Empire, such as the Indian subcontinent, or
It’s always been a rough area: Benvenuto Cellini stabbed a man to death near here; I drew a little dagger with a sharpened edge, and breaking the line of his defenders, laid my hands upon his breast so quickly and coolly, that none of them were able to prevent me. Then I aimed to strike him in the face; but fright made him turn his head round; and I stabbed him just beneath the ear. I only gave two blows, for he fell stone dead at the second. I had not meant to kill him; but as the saying goes, knocks are not dealt by measure….
On July 26th, 1977, another death occurred here, when the brother of film actor Gian Maria Volontè, known as Claudio Camaso, stabbed a man who tried to intervene between Claudio and his wife. Claudio made his escape, but gave himself up after ten days on the run, but then committed suicide in prison a few days later…..
I wander down the Via dei Banchi Vecchi, little changed since the days of Cellini or Camaso, and stop for refreshment in one of the few remaining Vino Olio shops in
Enoteca Il Goccetto.
Such locali used to be where you could fill your bottles with wine from the Colli Albani and oil from anywhere. In this case, I settle for a plate of mixed cheeses and salami and a glass of Pecorino DOC…..
Aaah. And I rest, for a moment, from the turbulence of the Streets of Rome, the rubble and the rumour…..
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I've got me a date with Botticelli's niece
Actually Raffaello Sanzio's girlfriend, 'La Fornarina'
(but don't tell)
She promised that she'd be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece