Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options




View Options


In a Walled Garden. Belloc, Bessie Rayner, 1829–1925.
previous
next
page: 64

IN ROME WITH MRS. JAMESON.

YOU have asked me to recall to you Rome as I first saw it, in the spring of 1857. It is as if one tried to revive the beauty of a dead cyclamen, for the old poetic charm of Rome is withered away. In all ages that city, which was the centre of the civilized world, must needs have been subject to change and to large destruction. Rome has been sacked and burned, overthrown and rebuilt, its pagan palaces have half sunk beneath the soil, in the lapse of centuries the Field of Mars became covered with the modern quarter, and a strange tangle of associations was silently and unconsciously created, the disentangling of which was a delight to the poet and the antiquary; but the total effect remained that of a very old picture, harmonized and browned by time. That picture has been cleaned, revarnished, and the lover of Rome page: 65 must dwell in his old impressions if he hopes to revive the past.

In the spring of 1857 no railway came within many hours of the Eternal City. She sat in isolated majesty upon the wild Campagna, and the traveller entered her gates as Cæsar and Cicero, Leo and Pius, and kings and pilgrims from time immemorial have approached, by travelling along the Aurelian Way. In 1818 six English youths sent to colonize the desolate and half ruined English College, similarly crossed the Campagna, and one of them, a famous man in later years, tells us of the “great cupola, cutting like a huge peak into the clear winter sky, increasing in size with every mile.” For indeed the rolling Campagna is like the sea, across which you may see the snowy sails of a ship, herself invisible. And that period of forty years had in 1857 made but little change. To us also the dome appeared faintly upon the horizon; beautiful was the wealth of flowers in the southern spring, the wayside bright and delicate with asphodel, and spaced with the mile‐stones of the famed Aurelian Way. The far mountains were filmy in the distance, the page: 66 classic mountains which are the best guardians of ancient traditions, for man cannot change their outline; and in Rome itself Mrs. Anna Jameson was waiting to receive one young traveller, and she was perhaps the most wonderful cicerone in the world, dearest, wittiest, most cultured of women, and though sixty years old, retaining all the fire and enthusiasm of her youth. It is impossible to give to another generation any adequate idea of many men and women whose personality was greater than their achievement, or whose achievements were practically those of the improvisatore.

Mrs. Jameson was born in the year 1794 in Dublin. Her father, Brownell Murphy, married an English wife; he was a well‐known miniature painter, who came over to England and became eventually Painter in Enamel to the young Princess Charlotte of Wales in the year 1810. It is told of Mr. Murphy that he once took the liberty of asking Her Majesty Queen Charlotte whether she recollected a famous picture of Nell Gwynne, known to have once existed in the Windsor Gallery. The Queen replied at once, that most assuredly since she had resided at page: 67 Windsor there had been no Nell Gwynne there! At the sad death of Princess Charlotte, the hopes, fortunes, and happiness of many to whom she had shown kindness failed, and the Murphys suffered with the rest, but Anna Murphy was tenderly devoted to her parents, and both before and after her own marriage she never ceased to be the most devoted of daughters. Her life, with all its varying fortunes, has been well told by her favourite niece, Gerardine, the wife of Robert Macpherson of Rome. It was published by Longmans, and to it we must refer those who would fain know more of one of the best and brightest women of the earlier years of the Victorian era.

Mrs. Jameson’s writing was like eloquent speech; she was an interpreter of art and nature, she was a human Irish harp; to see her kindle into enthusiasm amidst the gorgeous natural beauty and the antique memorials and the sacred Christian relics of Italy was an experience not to be forgotten. There is not a cyprus upon the Roman hills, or a sunny vine overhanging the southern gardens, or a picture in those vast sombre galleries of foreign palaces, or a page: 68 catacomb spread out dark under the martyr churches of the City of the Seven Hills, which is not associated with some vivid flash of her intellect and imagination, and with a dearer recollection of personal kindness from the old to the young.

Of the actual entrance into Rome it is strange that I can remember nothing. It must have been after dark on a moonless night, and the voyage from Genoa and the long hours in the open air behind the postillion of other days must have made me fall unromantically asleep. But in the gray dawn of the next morning I awoke, and woke to Rome. It was but little after six when I found some servant afoot to let me out of the front door into the shadowed black and white street, the Via Condotti. I was determined not to ask my way; to speak to a fellow‐creature would have destroyed the spell. I had been, for a girl educated in the Forties, well‐grounded in the classics, and I was back with Romulus and Remus in a fantastic dream. I knew that what I wanted lay to the west, and I threaded my way swiftly along the Corse. With a greater traveller I could have page: 69 said, “From this point”—the Column of Antoninus—“all reckoning was lost; a long, narrow street and a labyrinth of tortuous ways, through which a glimpse of a church or palace front might be caught, occasionally askew; the Farnese Palace, as completely Michelangelesque in brick as the Moses is in marble,” and so on to his goal. But I was not an English youth running for the English College; pagan was then my heart, and pagan all my historic desire. Rain began to fall; if the skies had fallen it would have been unheeded. I reached the foot of a flight of immense steps, knew them at a glance by old engravings, and also the great buildings atop—swerved to the right and round the corner of the gigantic edifice, and there—below me—there they were—the three great pillars with the broken cornice, rising out of rough, unkempt, hillocky ground, a waste of stone and grass, for the most part unexcavated, untortured; the unswept Forum where Cicero had spoken, where Paul had passed, where Goethe had stood amazed; and rising sharp from the soil that slender shaft, by Byron named “The nameless pillar with the buried base.” page: 70 Silently I had come, silently I retraced my steps, but the lapse of thirty‐seven years has left that one unparalleled moment a landmark in my life.

And now began a period of such vivid intellectual happiness as can fall to the lot of few; in Rome with Mrs. Jameson. She was visiting her niece Gerardine, whose house was a centre for the English in Rome, and a room had been arranged for me in the dwelling of a friend; so that I came into the midst of all that was going on. The Macphersons then lived in a villa just on the outskirts of the city, with a heavenly view towards the mountains. My first visit was to St. Peter’s, whither I was taken with a sort of solemnity, Mrs. Jameson herself raising the great leathern screen and watching me as the vast nave met my view. So that of the Catholic and mediæval world my first vision was through the eyes of Michel Angelo. She then took me to see Gibson. The famous sculptor was a little, gentle old man with whom it seemed to me that the Greek gods had literally come down to live in the Via della Fontanella. In 1821 Mrs. Jameson had seen him at work on a beautiful group of Psyche borne by the Zephyrs; page: 71 in 1847 she had found him in the self‐same studio, modelling the bas‐relief of the Hours leading forth the Horses of the Sun, and had felt that “there was something inexpressibly touching, and elevating too, in the sense of progress without change; all appeared the same in that modest, quiet little room, but round it extended lofty and ample ateliers, crowded with models of works, already executed or in progress, and with workmen, assistants, students, visitors.” And here, after the lapse of another ten years, she brought her young English friend. Gibson told Mrs. Jameson that his first commission in Rome was from “a tall young man” who said he had been “sent by Canova.” It was the Duke of Devonshire who made a happy man that day! “Mars and Cupid” are now at Chatsworth.

In 1844, when Gibson visited England, the Queen sent for him and commanded a statue of herself, intimating at the same time a desire that the “statue should be a faithful portrait such as her children should recognize, and calculated for a room in the palace, not for any public institution.” The young Queen of five and twenty sat every day for ten days. Gibson was wont to say page: 72 that he owed his start in life more to the praises bestowed on his work by Mrs. Jameson in the pages of her “Diary of an Ennuyée” than to the fact of the group of Psyche borne aloft by the Zephyrs having been purchased by Sir George Beaumont. The Diary, her first work, was published after her marriage in 1825, and her only remuneration was a guitar!

From Gibson’s studio the entranced visitor naturally turned to that of his favourite pupil, Miss Hosmer, who had come from Boston five years previously. Of all her admirable work, “Puck” was, perhaps, the most appreciated by her public and by me. The Little Man struck a Shakespearian note amidst the endless classic beauties of Rome. Gibson had evidently in some previous existence been intimate with Phidias, but Miss Hosmer was of a newer time, and at that youthful period she herself resembled a charming boy with a curly crop, except that few boys ever show such dogged determination to succeed. She went on from strength to strength, and was then working at a reclining figure of the Cenci. Many happy hours I spent in Miss Hosmer’s studio, and for the first time page: 73 understood the sculptor’s art and how the human image gradually formed itself in the wet clay and died in plaster, to resuscitate in marble.

To a dark, endless catacomb, I think it was Santa Agnese, Mrs. Jameson took me in the company of Sir David Brewster; and his keen intellect played vividly on the most diverse associations. He was quite an old man, but had lately entered into his second marriage with extraordinary freshness of feeling. He had a private hobby, a fine collection of engraved gems, and brought them out one evening for inspection. In that cosmopolitan Rome the strangest side‐lights fell upon well‐known figures.

Another image which rises to memory is that of Dr. Auguste Braun, the most learned of German archæologists. He lived in a house on the top of the Tarpeian Rock, from the windows of which was seen a splendid view over the Forum, and there he carried on a great controversy about the site of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, a question upon which Germans and Italians were bitterly opposed. One party page: 74 said the foundations existed under the church of Ara Cœli, the other party assigned them to the opposite hill; but as the two hills were extremely near together and densely covered with buildings of all ages, it was indeed a very pretty quarrel, and one in which I took at the time a youthful and quite fantastic interest. Little did the disputants foresee that within thirteen years a new Italy would arise, and Rome be given up to a generation of railway‐makers and building speculators. Who now cares for that poor old vanished temple? It is as extinct as the dispossessed Lion on the roof of Northumberland House, whose tail pointed to so many quarters of the compass that nobody could ever say which was which. Dr. Braun the archæologist died in 1860, and one is inclined to say that it was fortunate for him.

The excavations of the soil of Rome at that epoch had been very partial, and a sense of the mystery of the haunted ground enhanced its charm. They have since been “Systematized,” and suggest an Examination in Ancient History. For instance, in the Fifties the Coliseum was decorated with a rich flora. page: 75 Delicate ferns and mosses and creeping greenery flourished among the huge steps and corridors, and were said to be unique, springing from the blood of the martyrs. Total ignorance of botany prevents my putting forth this as other than a legendary statement; but nature had wonderfully softened the horrors of the pagan amphitheatre; the floor was a soft mat of grass, and in the centre stood a black mission cross, where some monk had preached of grace and redemption. The cross is gone, and half of the vast area is deeply dug, and reveals the subterranean passages which ministered to the cruel show. He who now walks in the Coliseum by moonlight moo nligh would do well to walk warily, lest in some dark corner he slip through the rails and plunge downwards into the dens of the wild beasts. If, on the other hand, the traveller approaches the Coliseum at noon, his eyes will be fatally attracted to the left of the great building, and to that hill‐road, once so picturesque, but now blocked by a huge depôt for the sale of olive‐oil, the Pears’ soap of Italy.

That old Rome wherein Shelley was portrayed by Joseph Severn, where Wiseman came to study page: 76 and remain as Rector, where Wilkie renewed his youth after long sickness, where Hawthorne imagined Donatello, has for ever faded away.

Of the overpowering ugliness of the great new buildings erected in the meadow below the Castle of St. Angelo, and on that high site beyond the Baths of Diocletian, once covered by lovely vineyards and gardens, what adequate description can be given! Peabody’s Lodgings and Queen Anne’s Mansions, half‐finished and already old, dirty, and dilapidated—such is the vision that meets the eye inside and outside the San Lorenzo gate. The financial troubles of Italy have stopped the works, and it is a moot question whether what they meant to do or what they half achieved is the more deplorable. One complete handsome result has, however, been effected, the Via Nationale cuts through Rome like a Parisian boulevard, it recalls the architecture of Florence, and should fairly be praised as a beautiful street, but in the very nature of things Rome cannot be effectually Haussmannized. The mementoes of the pagan past are too numerous and too important to be disregarded, and the great churches and colleges belonging to every nation page: 77 in the civilized world cannot be erased for the formation of new structures, though here and there they stand out as huge blocks in the midst of clearings, and puzzle the old tourist as to their identity. In Rome we all have a vested interest; to the English College, the Scotch College, and the Irish College is now added a beautiful new Canadian College with the Imperial right of sanctuary. The French have St. Louis des Français, and French Sisters of more than one Order have standing room in Rome. That far‐famed English College, “where many a pilgrim, gentle or simple, has knelt leaning on his trusty staff, cut in Needwood or the New Forest,” and where among many other memorials of our dear land are the tombs of Sir Thomes Dereham, of a Prior of Worcester and an Archbishop of York, is standing evidence that the city of Rome guards other associations than those of her own citizens. And putting aside those ecclesiastical treasures about which men so widely differ, but of which it may be fairly said that all men of the slightest culture regard them with interest, none can deny that the art treasures of the Eternal City are the heritage of the world.

previous
next