Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXX, 12

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXX, chapter 12
The French in Rome



The first invasion of Rome by the French, under the Directory, was vile and destructive; the second, under the Empire, was iniquitous; but once accomplished, order reigned.

The Republic demanded of Rome, as a peace-offering, twenty-two millions, the occupation of the citadel of Ancona, a hundred paintings and statues, and a hundred manuscripts selected by the French Commissioners. Above all they wanted the busts of Brutus and Marcus Aurelius: so many men were named Brutus in France at that time! It was simply that they wanted to possess the sacred image of their putative ancestor; but Marcus Aurelius, whose relative was he? Attila, only asked quantities of gunpowder and silk, for sparing Rome: in our age, it was an event purchased with paintings. Great artists, often neglected and unfortunate, left their masterpieces to serve as ransom for ungrateful cities they never knew.

The French of the Empire were forced to repair the ravages in Rome caused by the French of the Republic; they also had to make expiation for that former sack of Rome accomplished by an army led by a French Prince; it was fitting that a Bonaparte should set in order the ruins that another Bonaparte had seen multiply, and the overthrow of which he had described. The plan, which the French administration followed, for the clearing of the Forum was that which Raphael proposed to Leo X: three columns of the Temple of Jupiter the Thunderer emerged from the earth; the portico of the Temple of Concord was revealed; the pavement of the Via Sacra was uncovered; the new buildings with which the Temple of Peace was cluttered were removed; the earth that covered the terraces of the Coliseum was dug out, the interior of the arena cleared, and seven or eight rooms in the Baths of Titus repaired.

Elsewhere the Forum of Trajan was excavated; the Pantheon, the Baths of Diocletian and the Temple of Patrician Chastity. Funds were allocated to maintain, outside Rome, the walls of Falerii and the tomb of Cecilia Metella.

The work of maintaining the modern buildings was equally pursued: St Paul’s Outside the Walls, which has been destroyed, saw its roof restored; St Agnes Outside the Walls, and St Martin’s In the Hills, were protected from the weather. Sections of the paving and vaulting of St Peter’s were repaired; lightning conductors were put in place to protect Michelangelo’s dome from storms. The sites of two cemeteries on the east and west of the City were marked out, and one on the east near the monastery of San Lorenzo was closed.

The Quirinal clothed its internal bareness in a wealth of porphyry and Roman marble: designating it an Imperial palace, Bonaparte, before taking up residence, wished to remove all traces of the Pontiff’s abduction, he having been imprisoned at Fontainebleau. It was proposed that an area of the City between the Capitol and Monte Cavallo, should be razed in order that the conqueror could ascend an immense avenue to arrive at his Imperial residence: events obliterated these vast dreams by destroying massive realities.

Among the abandoned projects was one of constructing a series of quays from Ripetta to Ripa Grande; these quays would have been planted out; the four islets with houses on between Castel Sant’Angelo and the Piazza Rusticucci were acquired in part and have been razed. A large avenue was thus opened onto St Peter’s Square which could then be seen from the foot of Castel Sant’Angelo.

The French were always out walking; In Cairo I saw a large square which they had planted with palm trees, and surrounded with cafes that bore Parisian names: in Rome, my compatriots have created the Pincio; one climbs it by a slope. Descending the slope, the other day, I saw a carriage go by in which there was a woman still quite young: with her blonde hair, the solidity of her waist, and her inelegant appearance, I took her for a pale fat foreigner from Westphalia; it was Madame Guiccioli: no one is less suitable as Byron’s memorial. What does it matter? The daughter of Ravenna (whom the poet had wearied of by the time he joined the dead) will none the less pass, lead by the Muse, to take her place in the Elysian Fields and add one more to the divinities beyond the tomb.

The eastern section of the Piazza del Popolo should have been planted out in the area occupied by building-sites and shops; one might have seen, from the extremity of the square, the Capitol, the Vatican and St Peter’s beyond the quays along the Tiber, that is to say ancient Rome and simultaneously modern Rome.

Finally, a wood, created by the French, now rises to the east of the Coliseum; one meets no one there: though it has grown, it looks like undergrowth scattered at the foot of a tall ruin.

Pliny the Younger wrote to Maximus:

‘They are sending you to Greece, where hospitality, literature, even agriculture, had their origin. Respect the gods their founders, and the presence of those gods; respect the ancient glory of that nation, and respect old age, sacred in the townships as it is venerable in men; honour their antiquity, their famous exploits, even their myths. Undertake nothing in opposition to anyone’s dignity, liberty or even vanity. Keep continually before your eyes the fact that we have derived our legal system from that country; that we have not imposed laws on that people after conquering them, but that they have given us their own after we sought to know them. You are to command in Athens, and Sparta; it would show inhumanity, cruelty, barbarism to rob them of the name and shadow of freedom which remains to them.’

When Pliny wrote those noble and moving words to Maximus, did he realise he might be writing instructions for nations who were still barbarous, but would one day come to rule the ruins of Rome?