Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIX, 9

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XXIX, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIX, 10

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIX, chapter 9
Surroundings and countryside

I visited Tivoli on the 10th of December 1803: at that time I wrote a narrative which was later printed: ‘This place is suited to reflection and reverie; I review my past life; I feel the weight of the present, I seek to penetrate my future: where will I be, what will I be doing and what will I be twenty years from now?’

Twenty years! It seems like a century; I thought I would be in my grave before that century had ended. And it is not I who has vanished, but the master of the world and his empire that have fled!

Almost all the ancient and modern travellers only saw in the Roman Campagna what they term its horror and its bareness. Montaigne himself, who was certainly not lacking in imagination, says: ‘Far to our left we had the Apennines, and a view of an unpleasant countryside, uneven, full of cracks…the region bare, tree-less, mostly uncultivated.’

The Protestant Milton cast an eye over the Campagna that was as cold and severe as his faith. Lalande and the President des Brosses were as blind as Milton.

Only in Monsieur de Bonstetten’s Travels over the landscape of the last six books of the Aeneid, published in Geneva in 1804, less than a year after my letter to Monsieur de Fontanes (printed in Le Mercure in the spring), will one find the true feelings engendered by that wonderful solitude, yet still mixed with objurgation: ‘How delightful to read Virgil under the skies of Aeneas, and, so to speak, in the presence of Homer’s gods!’ says Monsieur Bonstetten; ‘What a profound solitude there is in those wastes, where one sees only the sea, neglected woods, fields, wide meadows, and never an inhabitant! In a vast extent of countryside I saw only a single house, and that was nearby, on the crest of a hill. I went there, it lacked a door; I climbed the stairs, I entered a kind of bedroom, a bird of prey had made its nest there…

I spent some time at the window of that abandoned house. I saw at my feet that coast, so rich and magnificent in Pliny’s day, now un-cultivated.’

After my own descriptions of the Roman countryside, people passed from denigration to enthusiasm. The English and French travellers who followed me noted every step from Storta to Rome with ecstasy. Monsieur de Tournon, in his Statistical Studies, pursues the path of admiration which I had the good fortune to throw open: ‘The Roman countryside,’ he says, ‘reveals more distinctly at every step the grave beauty of its vast lines and numerous levels, and its lovely mountainous surroundings. Its unvarying grandeur impresses and elevates the mind.’

I have not mentioned Monsieur Simond, whose travels seem an affront, and who delights in viewing Rome aslant. I was in Geneva when he died quite suddenly. A farmer, he had just cut his hay and joyously reaped his first harvest and now he has gone to join his mown grass and his threshed crop.

We have several letters of the great landscape painters; Poussin and Claude Lorrain say nothing about the Roman countryside. But if their pen was silent, the brush spoke volumes; the agro romano (countryside of Rome) was a mysterious source of beauty, on which they drew, concealing themselves there by a kind of avarice of genius, and as if afraid lest the vulgar profane it. A strange thing, that French eyes best captured the Italian light.

I have re-read my letter to Monsieur de Fontanes on Rome, written twenty-five years ago, and I confess that I find it so exact that it would be impossible for me shorten it or add a word. A foreign company has, just this winter (1829), proposed to clear the Roman Campagna for cultivation; ah, gentlemen, thank you for your cottages and English gardens on the Janiculum! If you were ever to disturb the fallows where Cincinnatus’ ploughshare was broken, and over which the grasses of the centuries have bowed, I would flee Rome never to return. Go and drag your perfected ploughs elsewhere; here the earth yields and can only yield graves. The Cardinals closed their ears to the calculations of the Black Bands rushing to demolish the ruins of Tusculum which they took for aristocrats’ houses: they would have made whitewash with the marble of the sarcophagi of Emilius Paulus, as they have made gargoyles of the lead in our ancestors’ coffins. The Sacred College holds to the past; moreover it has been shown, to the great confusion of the economists that the Roman countryside returns five per cent to its owners as pasture and only brings in one and a half from wheat. It is not from laziness, but positive gain, that the cultivators of the plains give preference to la pastorizia (pasture) over li maggesi (cultivation). The revenue per hectare in the vicinity of Rome equals that of the most fertile French departments: to convince oneself of that, it is enough to read the work of Monsignor Nicolaï.