Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIX, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIX, chapter 7
Past visitors to Rome

If I pictured the society of Rome a quarter of a century ago, in the same way I have pictured the Roman countryside, I would be obliged to retouch my portrait; there would no longer be a resemblance. Each generation can be counted as thirty-three years, the life of Christ (Christ is the type for all); the form of each generation in our western world alters. Man is placed in a picture whose framework never changes, but whose figures alter. Rabelais was in this City in 1536 with Cardinal du Bellay; he occupied the position of butler to His Eminence; he sliced and served.

Rabelais, changed into Brother Jean des Entommeures, did not share Montaigne’s opinion, who heard scarcely any bells in Rome and far fewer than in a French village, Rabelais on the contrary, heard plenty in the Echoing Isle (Rome) doubting if it were not Dodona with its sounding cauldrons.

Forty-four years after Rabelais, Montaigne found the banks of the Tiber cultivated, and remarked that on the 16th March there were roses and artichokes in Rome. The churches were bare, without statues of saints, without paintings, less ornate and less beautiful than the churches of France. Montaigne was accustomed to the sombre vastness of our Gothic cathedrals; he speaks of St Peter’s several times without describing it, insensitive or indifferent to the arts as he seems to be. In the presence of so many masterpieces, no name offers itself to Montaigne’s memory; his remembrances tell him nothing of Raphael, or Michelangelo, not yet dead sixteen years.

Moreover ideas about the arts, about the philosophical influence of the geniuses who developed and protected them, were not yet born. Time is for men what space is for monuments; neither can be judged well except from a distance and the viewpoint of perspective; too near and they cannot be seen, too far and they are no longer visible.

The author of the Essais only sought ancient Rome in Rome: ‘The buildings of that illegitimate Rome:’ he says, ‘one sees at this time, attaching their hovels to whatever they still possess of what delights the admiration of our present centuries, makes me recall those nests that the sparrows and crows build on the vaults and walls of churches in France that the Huguenots have recently demolished.’

What idea did Montaigne have of ancient Rome, if he regarded St Peter’s as a sparrow’s nest attached to the Coliseum’s wall?

Newly made a citizen of Rome, by an authentic Bull of 1581, he remarked that the Roman women did not carry dominos or masks like the French: they appeared in public covered with pearls and precious stones, but their belts were too loose and they looked pregnant. The men wore black, ‘and though they were Dukes, Counts and Marquises they had quite a lowly appearance.’

Is it not singular that Saint Jerome remarks on the gait of Roman women who make themselves look pregnant: ‘solutis geniubus fractus incesse: their feeble gait with swaying knees’?

Almost every day, when I go out through the Porto Angelica, I see a humble house, quite near the Tiber, with a smoke-blackened French sign representing a bear: it is there that Michel, the Lord of Montaigne, stayed on his arrival in Rome, not far from the hospital which served as a refuge for that poor madman, formed of pure and ancient poetry whom Montaigne visited in his lodge in Ferrara, and who invoked in him more frustration than compassion even.

It was a memorable event, when the 17th Century sent its greatest Protestant poet and most profound genius to visit the mighty Catholic Rome in 1638. With her back to the Cross, holding the Testaments in her hands, the guilty generations cast out of Eden behind here, and the redeemed generations descended from the Mount of Olives before her, she said to the heretic born yesterday: ‘What do you wish of your ancient mother?’

Leonora, the Roman girl, enchanted Milton. Has it ever been remarked that Leonora appears at Cardinal Mazarin’s concerts in the Memoirs of Madame de Motteville?

The passage of time led Abbé Arnauld to Rome after Milton. This Abbé, who had borne arms, recounts an anecdote interesting because of the name of one of the people involved, at the same time as it recalls the manner of courtiers then. The hero of the story, the Duc de Guise, grandson of Le Balafré, going in search of his Neapolitan adventure, passed through Rome in 1647: there he met Nina Barcarola. Maison-Blanche, secretary to Monsieur Deshayes, the Ambassador to Constantinople, took it into his head to become a rival to the Duc de Guise. Evil overtook him: they substituted (it was at night in an unlit room) a hideous old woman for Nina. ‘If the laughter was great on the one side, the confusion on the other can only be imagined’, says Arnauld. ‘Adonis, untangling himself with difficulty from the embraces of his goddess, fled naked from the house as if had the devil at his heels.’

Cardinal Retz says nothing about Roman manners. I prefer le petit Coulanges and his two trips in 1656 and 1689: he celebrates the vineyards and gardens whose names cast a spell.

In my walks to the Porta Pia I found almost all the people described by Coulanges: the people? No, their grand-sons and grand-daughters!

Madame de Sévigné received poems from Coulanges; she replied from her Château des Rochers in my humble Brittany, thirty miles from Combourg: ‘What a sad location I write from compared to yours, my kind cousin! It suits a solitary like me, as Rome does one whose star wanders. How tenderly fate has treated you, as you say, even though she has made you quarrelsome!!!’

Between Coulanges’ first trip to Rome, in 1656, and his second, in 1689, thirty-three years passed; I lost only twenty-five between my first trip to Rome, in 1803, and my second in 1828. If I had known Madame de Sévigné, I would have been cured of the sorrow of ageing.

Spon, Misson, Dumont, and Addison successively followed Coulanges. Spon, and Wheler his companion, guided me through the ruins of Athens.

It is interesting to read in Dumont of the location of the masterpieces we admire, at the time of his journey in 1690; the Rivers Nile and Tiber, the Antinous, the Cleopatra, the Laocoon and the torso supposed to be of Hercules could be seen in the Belvedere. Dumont places the bronze peacocks from the tomb of Scipio Africanus in the Vatican Gardens.

Addison travels as a scholar, his journey summarised by classical quotations marked with memories of England; passing through Paris he presented his Latin poems to Monsieur Boileau.

Père Labat followed the author of Cato: he is a strange man this Parisian monk of the Order of Preaching Friars. A missionary to the Antilles, freebooter, able mathematician, architect and soldier, brave artilleryman aiming his cannon like a grenadier, and knowledgeable critic, who regained possession for the inhabitants of Dieppe of their original discoveries in Africa, he had a spirit inclined to raillery and a character inclined to liberty. I know no traveller who gives a more exact or clearer idea of Papal government. Labat covers the ground, goes to the processions, mixes everywhere and pokes fun at almost everything.

The preaching father relates how, in Cadiz, among the Capuchins, he was given bed linen quite new ten years previously, and saw a St Jospeh dressed in Spanish style, sword at his side, hat under his arm, with powdered hair and glasses on his nose. In Rome, he assisted at a Mass: ‘I have never,’ he says, ‘seen so many castrato musicians together and so large an orchestra. Connoisseurs said they had never heard anything so beautiful. I said the same in order to be thought knowledgeable; but if I had not had the honour to be part of the officiant’s procession, I would have left the ceremony which lasted three straight hours at least, and seemed like six to me.’

The nearer I come to the time in which I am writing the more similar the customs of Rome are to those of today.

From the time of De Brosses, Roman women have worn wigs; the custom is ancient: Propertius asks of his life (his lover) why she chooses to adorn her hair:

‘Quid juvat ornato procedure, vita, capillo!
Why, mea vita, come with your hair adorned?’

The Gallic women, our ancestors, furnished hair for those Severinas, Piscas, Faustinas, and Sabinas. Velléda says to Eudore speaking of her hair: ‘It is my diadem and I cherish it for you.’ A hairstyle was not the Roman’s greatest legacy, but it was one of the most durable: people take from women’s tombs whole hairpieces which have evaded the scissors of the daughters of the night, and seek in vain the elegant brows they crowned. The perfumed tresses, an object of idolatry to the most fickle of passions, have survived empires; death, that breaks all bonds, could not disturb those fragile nets.

Today the Italian girls wear their own hair, which ordinary women plait with coquettish grace.

The magistrate and traveller De Brosses shows, in his portraits and writings, a deceptive resemblance to Voltaire with whom he had a comical dispute regarding a meadow. De Brosses often chatted at the bedside of a Princess Borghèse. In 1803, in the Borghèse Palace, I saw another Princess who shone with all her brother’s brilliance: Pauline Bonaparte is no more!

If she had lived in the age of Raphael, he would have depicted her as one of those amours that lean on the backs of lions in the Farnesina, and the same languor would have possessed painter and model. How many flowers have perished already in those wastes where I made Jerome, Augustine, Eudore and Cymodocée wander!

De Brosses depicts the English on the Piazza de Spagna almost as we see them today, living together, making a great noise, regarding humble humanity as beneath them, and returning to their red-brick hovels in London, having barely cast an eye on the Colisseum. De Brosses had the honour of paying court to James III.

‘Of the Pretender’s two sons,’ he says, ‘the elder is about twenty years old, the younger fifteen. I heard from those who know them well that the elder is nicer, and more deeply kind; that he has a good heart and great courage; that he feels his situation keenly, and that, if he does not escape from it someday, it will not be for lack of daring. I am told that having been taken when very young to the siege of Gaeta, during the Spanish conquest of the Kingdom of Naples, while crossing it his hat fell into the sea. Someone wished to retrieve it: “No,” he said, ‘it is not worth it; it would be better for me to come back and fetch it myself one day.”’

De Brosses thought that if the Prince of Wales attempted anything, he would fail, and he gave his reasons. Returning to Rome after his gallant feats, Charles Edward, who carried the title of Count of Albany, lost his father; he married the Princess of Stolberg-Goedern, and settled in Tuscany. Is it true that he visited London secretly in 1752 and 1761, as Hume relates, that he was present at George III’s coronation, and that he said to someone who recognised him in the crowd: ‘The man who is the object of all that ceremony is him whom I envy least’?

The Pretender’s marriage was not a happy one; the Countess of Albany separated from him and took up residence in Rome: that was where another traveller, Bonstetten, met her; the gentleman from Bern, in his old age, told me at Geneva that he possessed letters from the Countess of Albany’s youth.

Alfieri met the Pretender’s wife in Florence and loved her for life: ‘Twelve years later,’ he says, ‘at the moment I am writing all these trifles, at the terrible age when there are no more illusions, I feel that I love her more every day, as time destroys the only charm not owing to herself, the brilliance of her passing beauty. My heart is elevated, and is becoming kinder and gentler because of her, and I dare to say the same thing of her, that I sustain and strengthen her.’

I knew Madame d’Albany in Florence; age appeared to produce in her an opposite effect to that usually produced: time ennobled her face and, as it is itself of the ancient race, it imprints something of that race on the brow it touches: the Countess of Albany, with her thick-waist, and expressionless face, had a common air. If the women from Rubens’ paintings were to grow old they would resemble Madame d’Albany at the age when I encountered her. I am sad that her heart, strengthened and sustained by Alfieri, needed another prop. I will reproduce here a passage from my letter on Rome to Monsieur Fontanes:

‘Do you know that I only saw Count Alfieri once in my life, and can you guess how? I saw him laid on his bier: I was told he looked almost unchanged; his physiognomy seemed noble and grave to me; death doubtless added fresh severity; the coffin being a little too short, the dead man’s head was bowed on his chest, which made him make a tremendous lurch.’

Nothing is as sad as re-reading what one has written in one’s youth towards the end of one’s life: all that was present is now past.

In 1803, in Rome, I glimpsed the Cardinal-Duke of York, Henry IX, last of the Stuarts, aged seventy-eight. He had been weak enough to accept a pension from George III; Charles I’s widow solicited one from Cromwell in vain. So, the race of Stuarts was extinguished a hundred and eighteen years after losing that throne which it never recovered. Three Pretenders passed on, in exile, the shadow of a crown: they had the intellect and courage; what was it they lacked: the hand of God.

As for the rest, the Stuarts consoled themselves with the sight of Rome; they were merely one trivial incident the more among its mounds of rubble, a little broken column, erected in the midst of a vast network of ruins. Their race, as it vanished from the world, had one other reason for solace: it saw the old Europe fall, the fatality attached to the Stuarts brought other kings down to the dust with them, among whom was Louis XVI, whose grandfather refused sanctuary to Charles I’s descendant, while Charles X died in exile at almost the same age as the Duke of York, and his son and grandson are wandering the earth!

Lalande’s Travels in Italy in 1765 and 1766 is still the best and most exact work regarding artistic Rome and ancient Rome. ‘I love to read the historians and the poets, ‘he writes, ‘but one will never read them with more pleasure than while walking the earth on which they trod, wandering the hills they described, and watching the rivers they sung of flowing by.’ Not too bad for an astronomer who lived on spiders.

Duclos, almost as emaciated as Lalande, made this fine comment: ‘The theatrical works of different nations are a true reflection of their manners. Harlequin, the manservant and principal character in Italian comedies, is always represented as famished, which arises from their habitual state of poverty. Our servants in comedy are commonly drunk, from which they may be supposed villainous but not wretched.’

The declamatory admiration of Dupaty offers little compensation for the dryness of Duclos and Lalande, yet it invokes the presence of Rome; one sees on reflection that his eloquence of descriptive style is born from Rousseau’s inspiration, spiraculum vitae: the breath of life. Dupaty partook of that new school which quickly substituted the sentimental, obscure and mannered for the truth, clarity and naturalness of Voltaire. However, through the medium of his affected jargon, Dupaty reveals careful observation: he explains the patience of the Roman people by the age of their successive sovereigns. ‘A Pope,’ he says, ‘is always for them a dying king.’

At the Villa Borghèse, Dupaty watched night falling: ‘Only a single ray of sunlight was left which died on Venus’ brow.’ Could the poets of today do better? He took leave of Tivoli: ‘Adieu, little valley! I am a stranger; I do not live in your lovely Italy. I will never see you again; but perhaps my children or some of my children will pay you a visit one day: be as delightful for them as you have been for their father.’ One of those children of the erudite poet visited Rome, and he would have been able to see the last ray of daylight die on the brow of Dupaty’s Venus genetrix.

Dupaty had scarcely left Italy before Goethe arrived to replace him. Had the President of the Bordeaux Parliament ever heard of Goethe? Nevertheless Goethe’s name lives while that of Dupaty has almost vanished. It is not that I have any love for Germany’s powerful genius; I have little sympathy for the materialistic poet: I feel Schiller, I hear Goethe. That there is great beauty in the enthusiasm Goethe experiences for Jupiter in Rome, excellent critics so judge, but I prefer the God of the Cross to the God of Olympus. I search in vain for the author of Werther along the banks of the Tiber; I only find him in this phrase: ‘My present life is like a youthful dream; we will see if I am destined to enjoy it or to recognise that it is vain as so much else has been.

When Napoleon’s eagle allowed Rome to escape its clutches, it fell back into the arms of its peaceful shepherds: then Byron appeared within the crumbling walls of the Caesars: he has cast his sorrowful imagination over so many ruins, like a mourning cloak. Rome! You had one name, he gave you another; that name remains yours: he called you: ‘The Niobe of nations! There she stands, childless and crownless, in her voiceless woe; an empty urn within her withered hands, whose holy dust was scattered long ago’

After a last surge of poetry, Byron did not wait to die. I might have seen Byron at Geneva, and did not; I might have seen Goethe in Weimar, and did not; but I have seen Madame de Staël die, who disdaining to live beyond her youth, passed rapidly to the Capitol with Corinne: imperishable names, illustrious ashes, which are linked to the name and ashes of the Eternal City. (I invite the reader to view two articles by Monsieur Ampère in the Revue des Deux-Mondes, of the 1st and 15th of July 1835, entitled Portraits of Rome in various Ages. These interesting documents will complete a picture of which the above is merely a sketch. Note: Paris, 1837)