Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIX, 8

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XXIX, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIX, 9

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIX, chapter 9
The present mode of life in Rome

Thus the changes of manner and person have altered in Italy from century to century; but above all the major transformation has come about because of our dual concern with Rome.

The Roman Republic, established under the Directory’s influence, ridiculous as it was with its two consuls and its lictors (vicious facchini, scoundrels, picked from the crowd), happily only left its innovatory imprint on the civil law: it was from the prefectures, dreamt up by that Roman Republic, that Bonaparte borrowed his institution of prefects.

We brought Rome the seeds of an administration that did not exist; Rome, as the centre of the new Tiber department, was ruled more effectively. It acquired its system of loans and mortgages from us. The suppression of monasteries, the sale of ecclesiastical properties sanctioned by Pius VI, weakened belief in the permanence of the consecration of things religious. That famous index, which had some effect on our side of the Alps, achieved nothing in Rome: for a few bajocchi, a few sous that is, you could obtain permission to read the forbidden work, with a safe conscience. The index is one of a number of things which remain as a witness in the present to ancient times. In the RomanRepublic, in Athens, were not the title of King and the names of great families supporting the monarchy, respectfully preserved? It was only the French who raged furiously against their tombs and annals, who pulled down crosses, devastated churches, in their vindictiveness towards the clergy of the years of grace 1000 or 1100. Nothing more stupid and puerile than those outrages inflicted on their heritage; nothing leads one to believe more that we are incapable of whatever is serious, that among us the true principles of liberty are always misunderstood. Rather than despising the past, we ought to treat it, as other nations do, as a venerable old man who seated by our fireside recounts what he has seen: what harm can he do us? He instructs us and entertains us with his writings, his ideas, his language, his manners, his customs of another age; but he is powerless, and his hands are weak and trembling. Should we be afraid of this contemporary of our ancestors, who would already be with them in the grave if he were able to die, and who has no more authority than their ashes?

The French passing through Rome established their principles there: it is what always happens when the conquest is achieved by a nation more advanced in civilisation than the nation which is conquered, witness the Greeks in Asia under Alexander, as the French in Europe under Napoleon. Bonaparte, by snatching sons from their mothers, by forcing the Italian nobility to leave their palaces and bear arms, hastened a transformation of the national spirit.

As for the physiognomy of Roman society, on days when there are concerts and balls you might think yourself in Paris: the same dress, the same taste, and the same habits. The Altieri, Palestrina, Zagarola, Del Drago, Lante, Lozzano, etc, would not be out of place in the salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain: though some of these ladies have a somewhat nervous manner which I think is due to the climate. The delightful Falconieri, for example, always sits near the door, ready to flee to MountMario, if one should look at her: the Villa Mellini is hers; a novel set in that deserted house, beneath its cypress trees, would be worth something.

But, whatever changes of manners and persons have taken place in Italy over the centuries one notices there a habitual grandeur, which the rest of us, petty barbarians, cannot approach. There is still Roman blood in Rome and the tradition of world mastery. When one sees foreigners crammed into tiny newly-built houses by the Porto del Populo, or sheltering in palaces divided into apartments and pierced with chimneys, they look like rats scrabbling at the feet of monuments by Apollodorus or Michelangelo, and gnawing holes in the pyramids.

Today the noble Romans, ruined by the Revolution, stay in their palaces, live parsimoniously and have become their own business managers. When one has the good fortune (which is quite rare) to be admitted to their houses in the evening, one traverses vast marble halls, barely lit, along the length of which antique statues show white in the dense shadows, like phantoms or exhumed corpses. At the far end of these rooms, the threadbare lackey who is leading you shows you into a kind of gynaecium: around a table are seated three or four old ladies or badly-dressed young ladies, working in the lamplight at their embroidery exchanging a few words with a father, brother, or a husband reclining obscurely in the sanctuary of a ragged armchair. Yet there is something fine, regal, clinging to the noble race, in that gathering which has taken refuge behind the masterpieces and which you at first take for a religious meeting. The race of cavalier servantes is finished, though there are still priests bearing shawls and foot-warmers; here and there a Cardinal is still established in a lady’s house like a sofa.

Nepotism and scandalous behaviour among the pontiffs is no longer possible, as kings can no longer have titled and honoured mistresses. Now that politics and tragic love affairs have ceased to fulfil the lives of the great ladies of Rome, how do they spend their time in the depths of their households? It would be interesting to penetrate fully their new way of life: if I remain in Rome, I will occupy myself with doing so.