Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIV, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XIV- Chapter 7
From Mont Cenis to Rome – Milan and Rome



I had begun my travels in the opposite direction to other voyagers: the ancient forests of America were revealed to me before the ancient cities of Europe. I arrived in the midst of the latter at the moment when they were dying and being reborn simultaneously in a fresh revolution. Milan was occupied by our troops; they had finished demolishing the castle, a witness to the wars of the Middle Ages.

The French Army had established itself, like a military colony, in the Lombardy plains. Guarded here and there by their comrades, acting as sentinels, these foreigners from Gaul, wearing policemen’s caps, carrying a sabre instead of a sickle strapped to their tight jackets, had the air of attentive and joyful reapers. They moved stones, rolled cannons, drove wagons; and erected sheds and huts made of branches. Horses leapt, pranced and reared among the throng like dogs fondled by their masters. Italian girls sold fruit from stalls in the marketplace of this military fairground: our soldiers made them presents of pipes and matches, saying to them, as their fore-fathers, barbarians of old, had said to their sweethearts: ‘I, Fotrad, son of Eupert, of the race of Franks, give to you, Helgine, my dear wife, in honour of your beauty (in honore pulchritudinis tuae), my house in the district of Pins.’

We were a singular enemy: they found us somewhat insolent at first, a little too cheerful, too restless, instead of our turning on our heels and walking away so they might regret us. Lively, witty, intelligent, French soldiers involve themselves in the occupations of the inhabitants with whom they lodge; they draw water from the well, as Moses did for the daughters of Midian, follow the shepherds, drive lambs to the sheep-dip, chop wood, lay fires, watch the cooking-pot, carry an infant in their arms or put it to bed in its cot. Their good humour and activity gives life to everything; it is customary to regard them as adjuncts to the family. The drum beats? The lodger runs for his musket, leaves his host’s daughters weeping at the door, and quits the cottage, which he thinks no more of until he reaches the Invalides.

On my journey to Milan, a great people awakened, and opened their eyes for a moment. Italy roused herself from slumber, and remembered her genius, like a divine dream: aiding our own renaissance, she brought grandeur of a transalpine nature to the meanness of our poverty, nurtured as she was, that Ausonia, with artistic masterpieces and the noble tales of a famous country. Austria came and spread her cloak of lead over the Italians; she forced them to step back into their coffin. Rome has returned to ruins, Venice to the sea. Venice is subsiding while embellishing the heaven of its last smile; she has settled charmingly into the waves, like a star which ought no longer to rise.

General Murat was in command of Milan. I had a letter for him from Madame Bacciochi. I spent the day with his aides-de-camp: they were not as poor as my comrades at Thionville. French chivalry had reappeared in the army; it was determined to prove itself forever of the age of Lautrec.

I dined at a grand official reception, on the 23rd of June, at Monsieur de Melzi’s, on the occasion of the baptism of General Murat’s child. Monsieur de Melzi had known my brother: the Vice-President of the CisalpineRepublic had excellent manners: his house resembled that of one who had always been a prince: he treated me politely but coldly; he found me exactly akin in disposition to himself.

I reached my destination on the 27th of June in the evening, two days before the feast of Saint Peter: the Prince of the Apostles was waiting for me, as my patron saint has received me since in Jerusalem. I had followed the route from Florence, through Siena and Radicofani. I hastened to make my visit to Monsieur Cacault, whom Cardinal Fesch was succeeding, while I was replacing Monsieur Artaud.

On the 28th of June, I rushed about all day: I took a first look at the Coliseum, the Pantheon, Trajan’s Column, and Castel Sant’Angelo. In the evening Monsieur Artaud took me to a ball in a house near Saint-Peter’s Square. One could see revolving fireworks on Michelangelo’s dome, between the whirling waltzes that skimmed past the open windows; the rockets sent up from Hadrian’s Mound blossomed over Saint Onofrio, and the tomb of Tasso: silence, abandonment, and night filled the Roman Campagna.

Next day, I attended the service at Saint Peter’s. Pius VII, pale, sad and religious, was a true Pontiff of tribulations. Two days afterwards, I was presented to His Holiness: he made me sit near him. A volume of Le Génie du Christianisme lay obligingly open on his desk. Cardinal Consalvi, flexible but firm, his resistance gentle and polite, was a living example of the ancient Roman politician, representing less the faith of the times and more the tolerance of the century.

Traversing the Vatican, I stopped to contemplate the stairs which one could climb on mule’s back, those ascending galleries echoing one another, adorned with masterpieces, along which the Popes once passed in all their pomp, those Loggias which so many immortal artists decorated, so many illustrious writers admired, Petrarch, Tasso, Ariosto, Montaigne, Milton, Montesquieu, and then the kings and queens, in power or out, and finally a race of pilgrims come from the four corners of the earth: all that now silent and without movement; a theatre in which the deserted terraces, exposed to solitude, are scarcely visited by a ray of sunlight.

I was advised to walk in the moonlight: from the heights of Trinita dei Monti, the distant edifices seemed like an artist’s sketches or like misted shores seen from the sea, on board ship. The moon, that globe that one takes for a complete world, slid its pale deserts over the deserts of Rome; it lit streets without people, enclosures, squares, gardens where no one stirred, monasteries where one no longer heard the voices of the coenobites, cloisters as dumb and unpopulated as the porticos of the Coliseum.

What was happening eighteen centuries ago, at this very hour in this very place? Who traversed the shadows of the obelisks here, after these shadows had ceased to fall over the sands of Egypt? Not only is ancient Italy no more, but the Italy of the Middle Ages has vanished also. Yet, the traces of those two Italy’s are still present in the Eternal City: if modern Rome displays its Saint-Peter’s and its masterpieces, ancient Rome counters with its Pantheon and its ruins; if the one is descended from the Capitol of the consuls, the other reveals the Vatican of the pontiffs. The Tiber separates the twin glories: founded on the same dust, pagan Rome is sinking further and further into its tombs, while Christian Rome returns little by little to its catacombs.