Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIX, 2

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XXIX, 1 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIX, 3


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXIX, chapter 2
The Rome Embassy - Three kinds of material – My Travel Journal



What I have just written in 1839 of Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier is linked to this book concerning my Embassy in Rome written in 1828 and 1829, ten years ago. I have introduced the reader to a little circuitous by-way of the Empire, while that Empire continued its common progress; I now find myself led on to my Rome Embassy. There is abundant material for this book. It is of three kinds:

The first contains the history of my intimate feelings and my private life as related in letters addressed to Madame Récamier.

The second reveals my public life; in my despatches.

The third is a mixture of historical details on the Papacy, the ancient society of Rome, the changes in that society from century to century, etc.

Among these investigations are thoughts and descriptions, the fruit of my walks. It was all written in the space of seven months, during the period of my Embassy, in the midst of celebrations and serious affairs (in re-reading these manuscripts I have only added a few passages from works published after the date of my Rome Embassy). However, my health had altered: I could not raise my eyes without experiencing dizziness; to admire the sky, I was forced to place it on my own level, by ascending the heights of a Palace or a hillside. But I countered weariness of the body by applying the spirit: exercising my mind renewed my physical strength; what might have killed another man gave me life.

In seeing it all again, one thing struck me: on my arrival in the Eternal City, I felt a certain displeasure, and I thought for a while that everything had changed; little by little the fever for ruins gripped me, and I ended, like a thousand other travellers, by adoring what had at first left me cold. Nostalgia is regret for one’s native land: on the banks of the Tiber one also feels home sickness, but it produces an opposite effect to its customary one: you are seized with a love for solitude and disgust with your homeland. I had already experienced that sickness during my first journey, and could have said:

‘Agnosco veteris vestigial flammae:
I recognise the traces of the ancient flame.’

You know that on the formation of Martignac’s government the name of Italy alone had rid me of my remaining objections; but I am never sure of my moods in matters of pleasure: I had no sooner parted from Madame de Chateaubriand than my innate melancholy met me on the road. You can persuade yourself of that from my travel journal.

TRAVEL JOURNAL

‘Lausanne, 22nd September 1828.

I left Paris on the 14th of this month; I spent the 15th at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne; what memories! Joubert is gone; the deserted Château of Passy has changed ownership; it has been said: ‘Be the cicada in the night. Esto cicada noctium’.

Arona, 27th of September.

Arriving at Lausanne on the 20th, I have followed the route along which two other women who wished me well have vanished, and who, in the order of things should have survived me: the one, Madame la Marquise de Custine, has recently died at Bex, the other, Madame la Duchesse de Duras, not a year ago, hastened to Simplon, fleeing the death which came to her at Nice.

“Noble Clara, worthy, constant friend,
Your memory here’s no more alive:
From this grave they turn their eyes:
The world forgets, and your name has end!”

The last letter I received from Madame de Duras is full of the bitterness of that last taste of life which is bound to weary us all:

“Nice, 14th November 1827.
I have sent you an asclepias carnata: it is a ‘laurel’ growing on open ground which tolerates cold and has a red flower like a camellia, with an excellent scent; place it beneath the Benedictine’s library window.
I will give you a little of my news: it is always the same; I languish on my sofa all day, that is to say whenever I am not in my carriage or walking out; which I can’t do for more than a half-hour. I dream of the past; my life has been so restless, so varied, that I cannot say I experience any great boredom: if I could only sew or work on my tapestry, I would not consider myself unfortunate. My present existence is so remote from my past existence, that it seems to me as if I were reading my memoirs or watching a play.”

Thus, I have returned to Italy, deprived of means, just as I left it twenty-five years ago. But in those days I could repair my losses, now who would wish to associate with old age? No one cares to inhabit a ruin.

In that very town of Simplon I saw the first smile of a happy dawn. The rocks, whose blackened base stretched to my feet, shone rose-red to the summits of the mountains, struck by the sun’s rays. To leave the shadows it is enough to raise oneself towards the Heavens.

If Italy had lost its lustre for me since my trip to Verona in 1822, in this year of 1828 it seemed even more faded; I was measuring the passage of time. Leaning on the balcony of an inn at Arona, I gazed at the shores of Lake Maggiore, painted with gold by the setting sun and rimmed with azure waves. Nothing could be as lovely as that landscape edged with the castle’s crenellations. The spectacle invoked in me neither pleasure nor sentiment. Our younger years are mingled with glimpses of hope; a young man wanders with what he loves, or with memories of absent happiness. If he has no close ties, he seeks them; he convinces himself he has found something at every step; joyful thoughts pursue him: the disposition of his soul is reflected in the objects around him.

Moreover, I feel the diminishment of present society less when I am alone. Left to the solitude in which Bonaparte has left the world, I scarcely hear the feeble generations who pass by wailing at the edge of the wilderness.

Bologna, 28th of September 1828.

At Milan, in less than a quarter of an hour, I counted seventeen hunchbacks passing beneath the window of my inn. German punishments have deformed young Italy.

I saw St Charles Borromeo in his tomb whose cradle I had touched at Arona. He had been dead for two hundred and forty four years. He was not lovely to look on.

At Borgo San Donnino, Madame de Chateaubriand rushed into my room in the middle of the night; she had seen her clothes and her straw hat fall from the chairs from which they were hanging. She was convinced we were in an inn haunted by ghosts or inhabited by thieves. I had not experienced any disturbance in bed: yet it is true that an earthquake was felt in the Apennines: what overthrows cities could certainly make a woman’s clothes fall to the floor. That’s what I told Madame de Chateaubriand; I also told her that in Spain, in the Vega of the Xenil, I had passed through a village demolished the previous day by a subterranean shock. These noble attempts at consolation had little success, and we hastened to leave that assassins’ cave.

The remainder of my journey everywhere revealed the transience of men and the inconstancy of fortune. At Parma, I found a portrait of Napoleon’s widow; that daughter of the Caesars is now the wife of Count von Neipperg; mother of the conqueror’s son, she has given that son brothers; she guaranteed the heavy debts she had incurred by means of a little Bourbon who was given Lucca, and who if it came to it would inherit the Duchy of Parma.

Bologna seemed less deserted to me than at the time of my first trip. I was received there with the honours with which one astounds Ambassadors. I visited a fine cemetery: I never forget the dead; they are family.

I have never admired Carrachi so much as in the new gallery in Bologna. I thought I was seeing Raphael’s St Cecilia for the first time she was so much more divine than in the Louvre, under our soot-daubed sky.’

‘Ravenna, 1st October 1828.

In the Romagna, a countryside which I did not know, a multitude of towns, their houses coated with whitewash, are perched on the heights of little hills like flocks of white pigeons. Each of these towns offers you masterpieces of modern art or ancient monuments. This region of Italy contains all Roman history; you need to travel it with Livy, Tacitus and Suetonius in hand.

I passed through Imola, the diocese of Pius VII, and Faenza. At Forlì I made a detour to visit Dante’s tomb in Ravenna. Approaching the monument, I was seized by that thrill of admiration a great name inspires, when the owner of that name was subject to misfortune. Alfieri, who betrayed on his brow the pallor of death and its hope, prostrated himself on the marble floor and addressed a sonnet to him: “O gran padre Alighier!” Before the tomb I considered the appropriateness of these lines from the Purgatorio:

“Frate,
Lo mondo è cieco, e tu vien ben da lui.
Brother,
The world is blind, and truly you come from there.”

Beatrice appeared to me; I saw here as she was when she inspired in her poet the desire to sigh and die of weeping: di sospare, e di morir di pinato.

“My sorrowful canzone,” says the father of the modern Muse, “now go weeping: and find the ladies, and young ladies, to whom your sisters used to bring delight: and you, who are the daughter of my sadness, go, disconsolate, to be with them.”

And yet the creator of a new world of poetry forgot Beatrice when she had left the earth; he did not find her again, to adore her with the power of his genius, until he was disillusioned. Beatrice reproached him, as she prepared to show her lover the Heavens: “For a while I supported him,” she told the angels of Paradise, “with my face: showing him my young eyes… but, as soon as I was on the threshold of my second age, and changed existences, he left me and gave himself to others.”

Dante refused to return to his city at the cost of an apology. He replied to one of his relatives: “If in order to return to Florence there is no other road open to me than that, I will not return. I can contemplate the sun and stars anywhere.” Dante denied himself to the Florentines, and Ravenna has denied them his ashes, even though Michelangelo, the risen spirit of the poet, promised to adorn for Florence the funeral monument of one who had learnt how man makes himself eternal.

The painter of the Last Judgement, the sculptor of Moses, the architect of the Dome of St Peter’s, the engineer of the old bastion of Florence, the poet of the Sonnets addressed to Dante, joined with his compatriots and supported the request he presented to Leo X with these words: “Io, Michel Angolo, scultore, il medesimo a Vostra Santità supplico, offerendomi al divin poeta fare la sepoltura sua condecente e in loco onorevole in questa citta.”

Michelangelo, whose chisel was deceived in its expectations, had recourse to his crayon to raise a different mausoleum to the author himself. He drew the principal subjects of the Divine Comedy on the margins of a folio copy of the great poet’s works; a ship, which was carrying this doubly-precious monument from Livorno to Civita-Vecchia, was wrecked.

I was returning, deeply moved, and feeling something of that confusion mixed with divine terror that I experienced in Jerusalem, when my cicerone proposed to take me to Lord Byron’s house. Ah! What did Childe Harold and Signora Guiccioli matter to me in the presence of Dante and Beatrice! Childe-Harold still lacks misfortune and the centuries; let him wait on the future. Byron was poorly inspired in his Prophecy of Dante.

I found Constantinople again in San Vitale and Sant’ Apollinaire. Honorius and his chicken did not impress me; I preferred Placidia and her adventures, the memory of which returned to me in the Basilica of St John the Evangelist; it is a Roman amongst the Barbarians. Theodoric is still great, though he had Boetius killed. Those Goths were of a superior race; Amalasuntha, banished to an island in Lake Bolsena, with her minister Cassiodorus tried to conserve what remained of Roman civilisation. The Exarchs brought Ravenna the decadence of their Empire. Ravenna was Lombard under Aistulf; the Carolingians returned it to Rome. It became subject to its Archbishop then changed finally into a Republic under a tyrant, having been Guelph and Ghibilline by turns; after leaving the Venetian States, it returned to the Church under Julius II, and is only known today because of Dante.

This city, that Rome gave birth to in its old age, inherited something of its mother’s antiquity. All in all, I would like living there; I would enjoy visiting the French Column, erected in memory of the Battle of Ravenna. Cardinal de Medici (Leo X) was present, with Ariosto, Bayard and Lautrec, the brother of the Comtesse de Chateaubriand. There at the age of twenty-four died the handsome Gaston de Foix: “Notwithstanding the weight of Spanish artillery fire, the French continued to advance,” says the Loyal Serviteur; “since God created Heaven and Earth, there was never a harsher or crueller encounter between the French and the Spanish. They rested opposite each other to recover their breath; then, lowering their visors they recommenced more fiercely, shouting out for France and Spain!” Only a handful of knights remained of so many warriors, who, stamped with the mark of glory, then took Holy Orders.

In some cottage there you might have seen a young girl turning her spindle, her delicate fingers entangled in the hemp; she was not accustomed to such a life; she was a Trivulce. When through her half-open door she saw two waves meet in the flood’s expanse, she felt her sadness grow: the woman had been loved by a great King. She continued to wander sadly, through her isolated island, from her cottage to an abandoned church and from that church to her cottage.

The ancient forest I travelled through was composed of forlorn-looking pine-trees; they resembled the masts of galleys beached on the sand. The sun was near to setting when I left Ravenna; I heard the distant sound of a bell ringing: it was summoning the faithful to prayer.’

‘Ancona, 3rd and 4th of October.

Returning to Forlì, I have left it again without having seen the place on the crumbling ramparts where the Duchess Caterina Sforza declared to her enemies, who were ready to cut the throat of her only son, that she could yet be a mother. Pius VII, born at Cesena, was a monk in the fine monastery of Santa Maria del Monte.

Near Savignano I traversed a little torrent in a ravine: when I was told that I had crossed the Rubicon, it was as though a veil had lifted and I saw the world in Caesar’s time. My Rubicon is life: a long time ago I left its shore behind.

At Rimini I found neither Francesca, nor the other shade her companion, who seemed so light upon the wind:

“E paion sì al vento esser leggieri”

Rimini, Pesaro, Fano and Sinigaglia led me to Ancona over bridges and roads left to us by Augustus. In Ancona today they are celebrating the Pope’s crowning; I can hear music being played near the triumphal arch of Trajan: double sovereignty of the EternalCity.’

‘Loreto, 5th and 6th October.

We arrived to spend the night in Loreto. The place offers a perfectly preserved specimen of a Roman colony. The peasant farmers of Notre-Dame are affluent and appear happy; the peasant women are pretty and lively, wearing a flower in their hair. The Governing-Prelate has offered us hospitality. From the tops of the bell-towers and the summits of various heights in the town, there are sunlit views of the countryside, Ancona and the sea. In the evening we had a storm. I enjoyed seeing the valentia muralis and the goats’ fumitory bowing to the wind on the old walls. I walked beneath the second floor galleries, erected after designs by Bramante. These pavements will be drenched by autumn rain; these blades of grass will quiver in the Adriatic breeze, long after I have passed.

At midnight I retired to a bed eight foot square, consecrated by Napoleon; a night light barely illuminated the gloom of my chamber; suddenly a little door opened, and I witnessed the mysterious entry of a man leading a veiled woman. I raised myself on my elbows and looked at him; he approached my bed and hastened, while bowing to the ground, to offer a thousand excuses for thus disturbing the Ambassador’s repose: but he is a widower; he is a poor steward; he desires to marry off his ragazza (daughter), she is here: unfortunately he lacks means to provide a dowry. He raised the orphan’s veil: she was pale, very pretty, and kept her eyes lowered in appropriate modesty. This father of the family had the air of one wishing to depart, leaving the intended to complete the story. In this pressing danger, I did not ask the obliging unfortunate, as the good knight asked the mother of the young girl at Grenoble, if she was a virgin; quite ruffled I took a few pieces of gold from my bedside table and gave them, in honour of the King my master, to the zitella (maid) whose eyes were not swollen with weeping. She kissed my hand in infinite gratitude. I said not a word, and as I lay down again on my immense couch, as if I wished to sleep, the vision of St Anthony vanished. I thanked my patron saint Francis whose day it was; I dozed in the gloom half-smiling, half-regretful, and with profound admiration for my restraint.

It was thus that I scattered gold once more, as the Ambassador, lodged in style in the residence of the Governor of Loreto, in that same town where Tasso stayed in a foul hovel and where, for lack of cash, he could not continue his journey. He paid his debt to Our Lady of Loreto with his canzone:

Ecco fra le tempeste e i fieri venti: Here in the storm and wild winds

Madame de Chateaubriand made amends for my passing fortune, by mounting the steps of Santa Chiesa on her knees. After my night-time victory, I would have had a greater right than the King of Saxony to deposit my wedding suit in the Loreto treasury; but I can never forgive myself, I a feeble child of the Muses, for having been so powerful and so happy, there where the singer of Jerusalem Delivered had been so weak and wretched! Torquato, do not consider me in this unusual moment of prosperity; wealth is not natural to me; consider me on my journey to Namur, in my garret in London, in my Paris Infirmary, in order to discover some distant resemblance between us.

I did not, as Montaigne did, leave my portrait in silver in Our Lady of Loreto, nor that of my daughter, Leonora Montana, filia unica: Léonore de Montaigne, our only child; I have never desired to perpetuate myself: and yet a daughter, and one bearing the name Léonore!’

‘Spoleto.

After leaving Loreto, passing through Macerata, and leaving Tolentino behind which marked Bonaparte’s track and recalled a treaty, I climbed the last salient of the Apennines. The mountain plateau is moist and cultivated like a hop-field. On the left were Greek waters, on the right those of Spain; the breath of wind which blew against me might be one I had breathed in Athens or Granada. We descended towards Umbria, spiralling down through gorges stripped of leaves where the descendants of those mountaineers who furnished soldiers for Rome after the battle of Lake Trasimene are suspended among the thickets.

Foligno possessed a Madonna by Raphael which is now in the Vatican. Vene, in a delightful position, is at the source of the Clitumnus. Poussin has painted the site tenderly and warmly; Byron has sung it coldly.

Spoleto is where the current Pope saw the light. According to my courier Giorgini, Leo XII had settled convicts in this town to honour his birthplace. Spoleto dared to resist Hannibal. She displays several works by Filippo Lippi, who, nurtured in the cloister, a Barbary slave, a kind of Cervantes among painters, died at sixty of poison given him by the relatives of Lucrezia Buti, who was seduced by him, they say.’

‘Civita Castellana.

At Monte-Luco, Count Potocki buried himself among delightful laurels; but did not thoughts of Rome follow him there? Did he not think himself transported into the midst of choirs of young girls? And I too, like St Jerome, “I have spent the day and the night uttering cries, striking my breast until the moment God gave me peace.” I regret no longer being what I was, plango me non esse quod fuerim.

Having passed the hermitages of Monte Luco, we began to skirt Somma. I had already taken this road on my first trip from Florence to Rome via Perugia, accompanying a dying woman…

From the nature of the light and a sort of freshness in the landscape, I might have thought I was one on of those rounded tops of the Alleghanies, it was merely a lofty aqueduct, surmounted by a narrow bridge, that recalled a Roman construction, to which the Lombards of Spoleto had set their hand: the Americans have not yet created those monuments which follow the achievement of liberty. I climbed to Somma on foot, with the oxen of Clitumnus which were leading Madame the Ambassadress to her triumph. A lean young goat-girl, as light and nimble as her nanny-goat, followed me, with her little brother, asking for carita (charity) in that opulent landscape: I gave her alms in memory of Madame de Beaumont whom these places no longer remembered.

“Alas, regardless of their doom,
The little victims play!
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond to-day.

I found Terni again and its waterfalls. A countryside planted with olive-trees led me to Narni; then, passing through Otricoli, we came to a halt at mournful Civita Castellana. I would have preferred to go to Santa Maria di Falleri to see a town which is no more than the shell of its walls: it is a void within: wretched humanity brought to God. My moment of grandeur past, I will return to find the city of the Falisci. From Nero’s tomb, I was soon pointing out the cross on St Peter’s, to my wife, which dominates the city of the Caesars.’