Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIX, 16

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XXIX, 15 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIX, 17

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIX, chapter 16
Letters to Madame Récamier

‘Rome, Tuesday the 13th of January 1829.
Yesterday evening at eight o’clock I wrote you a letter which Monsieur de Viviers is bringing you; this morning, on waking, I am writing to you again by the ordinary courier who leaves at midday. You know the poor ladies of Saint Denis: they feel quite deserted since the arrival of the great ladies of Santissima Trinità dei Monti; without being an enemy of the latter I am ranged with Madame de Chateaubriand on the side of the weak. For a month now the ladies of Saint-Denis had wanted to give an entertainment for Monsieur the Ambassador and Madame the Ambassadress: it took place yesterday afternoon. Imagine a theatre set up in a kind of sacristy with a gallery over the church; for actresses a dozen little girls, between eight and fourteen years old, playing the Maccabees. They had made their own helmets and cloaks. They declaimed their French verse with verve and in Italian accents the most amusing in the world; they stamped their feet at moments of intensity: they included a niece of Pius VII, a daughter of Thorwaldsen, and another, the daughter of Chauvin the painter. They were indescribably pretty in their paper finery. The one who played the High Priest sported a large black beard which delighted her, but tickled her, and which she was obliged to keep adjusting with a little white thirteen year old hand. As audience there were ourselves, a few of their mothers, the nuns, Madame Salvage, two or three Abbés, and another twenty or so little pupils, all in white with veils. We had to transport the cakes and ices from the Embassy. Someone played the piano between the acts. Judge the hope and joy which must have preceded this convent performance, and the memories which will follow it! The whole thing ended with a Vivat in aeternum, sung by three nuns in the church.’
‘Rome, the 15th of January 1829.
Once more, for you! Tonight we have experienced wind and rain like that in France: I imagined it beating on your little window; I found myself transported to your little room, I saw your harp, your piano, your birds; you played my favourite air or that derived from Shakespeare: and I am in Rome, far from you! Eight hundred miles and the Alps separate us!
I have received a letter from that spiritual lady who sometimes came to visit me at the Ministry: judge how she pays court to me: she is mad for the Turks; Mahmud is a great man who has advanced his nation!
This Rome, in whose midst I am, should teach me contempt for politics. Here freedom and tyranny perished equally; I see the ruins of the Republic and Tiberius’ Empire jumbled together; what is today but all of that mingled in the same dust! Does the Capuchin who sweeps this dust with his robe in passing not seem to render more vivid the vanity of vanities? Yet I return despite myself to the destiny of my poor country. I desire for it, religion, glory and freedom without considering my powerlessness to adorn it with that threefold crown.’
‘Rome, Thursday the 5th of February 1829.
Torre Vergata is a monastic property situated about three miles from Nero’s tomb, on the left coming from Rome, in a most beautiful and deserted place: there are a vast number of ruins flowering from land covered with grass and thistles. I commenced an excavation there the day before yesterday, Tuesday, after writing to you. I was accompanied only by Hyacinthe and Visconti who is directing the excavation. We have the loveliest weather in the world. The dozen men, armed with picks and shovels, who dig up the tombs and the ruins of houses and palaces in profound solitude, offer a spectacle worthy of you. I had only one wish that you might be there. I would willingly consent to live with you in a tent in the midst of the ruins.
I have set to with my own hands; I discovered some marble fragments: the indications are excellent and I hope to find something which will compensate me for the money spent in this lottery of the dead; I already have a block of Greek marble large enough to use for the Poussin bust. This excavating will put a stop to my walks; I go and sit every day in the midst of the debris. To what century, and what people did they belong? We are shifting famous dust perhaps without knowing. Perhaps some inscription will illuminate a historical fact, erase some error, or establish some truth. And then, when I have departed with my twelve half-naked peasants, all with fall again into silence and oblivion. Can you imagine all the passions, and interests which once stirred in these deserted places? There were masters and slaves, happiness and sorrow, lovely ones who were loved and ambitious ones who wanted to be rulers. What remains are a few birds, and I, for a very short while longer: we will soon vanish. Tell me, do you think it is worth the trouble of my being one of the council members of a petty King of the Gauls, I, a barbarian from Armorica, traveller among savages in a world unknown to the Romans, and Ambassador to the priests they threw to the lions? When I summoned Leonidas in Lacedemonia, he did not respond: the sound of my steps at Torre Vergata will have woken no one. And when I in turn am in my grave, I will not even hear the sound of your voice. So I must hasten to return to you and put an end to all these chimeras of human existence. There is no good except in retirement, and no truth except in an attachment like yours.’
‘Rome, this 7th of February 1829.
I have received a long letter from General Guilleminot; he tells me a tale of woe regarding what he has endured in his travels round the coasts of Greece; and yet Guilleminot was the Ambassador; he had large ships and an army under his command. To go, after our soldiers have departed, to a country where there is not a house or a field of corn left intact, among a scattered population forced to become brigands through poverty, is not a viable project for a woman (Madame Lenormant).
I am going to my dig this morning: yesterday we found the skeleton of a Goth, a soldier, and an arm from the statue of a woman. It was an encounter with the destroyer in the ruins he had made; we have high hopes of retrieving the statue this morning! If the architectural remains I have discovered are worth the effort, I will not have them demolished in order to sell the stones as is usually done; I will leave them standing, and they can bear my name: they are from the time of Domitian. We have an inscription indicating that: it was a fine age of Roman art.’