”Italy and expatriates go together like peanut butter and jelly. So it’s not surprising that Rome has attracted more than its fair share of writers–English, German, American, and otherwise–who have found both artistic inspiration and a temporary home in the Eternal City.”
”IF God compel thee to this destiny,
To die alone, with none beside thy bed
To ruffle round with sobs thy last word said
And mark with tears the pulses ebb from thee,–
Pray then alone, ‘ O Christ, come tenderly !
By thy forsaken Sonship in the red
Drear wine-press,–by the wilderness out-spread,–
And the lone garden where thine agony
Fell bloody from thy brow,–by all of those
Permitted desolations, comfort mine !
No earthly friend being near me, interpose
No deathly angel ‘twixt my face aud thine,
But stoop Thyself to gather my life’s rose,
And smile away my mortal to Divine ! ” ( Elizabeth Barrett Browning, A Thought For a Lonely Death Bed )
”So Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett have gone off together!” wrote Wordsworth in 1846 when he was told that the two poets had eloped to Italy. ”It is to be hoped they can understand each other, for no one else can.” Apparently they did, for their life was happy, and they found themselves admired and welcomed wherever they traveled.
They first went to Pisa and then to Florence, where they lived for a time in rooms adorned with a portrait of Dante and a cast of Keats’s death mask. They had come to Italy hoping to restore Elizabeth’s faltering health; soon, instead of being confined to a parlor sofa, she was able to go mountain climbing. They spent the next ten years in Italy, mostly in Florence. But there were occasional stays in Rome, where the Brownings enjoyed the company of such luminaries as Thackeray, Hans Christian Anderson, and their friend William Wetmore Story. The city itself figures in several of Browning’s poems, the most famous of which is ”The Bishop Orders his Tomb in St. Praxed’s” Naturally enough, the poem is about death.
The life of the two lovers was idyllic, except for their continued worries about Elizabeth’s health and that of their young son, whose nickname was, aptly enough, ”Pen”, ”a poetical child” , his mother called him in a letter to a friend from Rome. In the letter she proclaimed her thankfulness that, despite her fears, the little boy ” had not dropped a single rose-leaf from his cheeks”. Eventually, back in Rome during the last winter of her life, she was dropping her own rose leaves. During that winter Elizabeth was grieving over the recent death of her sister in London. While Browning went for long walks beside the Tiber, she would rest indoors, waiting impatiently for him to come home, and when he did, would nag him gently for not spending more time at home writing.
Tennyson spent a certain part of each day rigidly devoted to nothing but work, she reminded him; why couldn’t Browning? By the end of the winter, Browning was forced to cooperate, for Elizabeth had entered the final stages of her illnes. Unlike Keats,she had enough strength to leave the city, and on June 4, 1861, the couple started out for Florence. By the end of the month she was dead.
Death not love, was what Dickens saw when he came to Rome a year or so before the Brownings first arrived. It was typical of Dickens whose fascinations with prisons and crime was unending, that one of the first tourist attractions he attended was a public execution. He was horrified to note that the people in the audience counted the drops of blood that spurted out of the decapitated criminal’s neck in order to bet that number in the public lottery.
”Fierce-looking Romans of the lowest class, in blue cloaks, russet cloaks, and rags uncloaked, came and went, and talked together. Women and children fluttered, on the skirts of the scanty crowd. One large muddy spot was left quite bare, like a bald place on a man’s head. A cigar-merchant, with an earthen pot of charcoal ashes in one hand, went up and down, crying his wares. A pastry-merchant divided his attention between the scaffold and his customers. Boys tried to climb up walls, and tumbled down again. Priests and monks elbowed a passage for themselves among the people, and stood on tiptoe for a sight of the knife: then went away. Artists, in inconceivable hats of the middle-ages, and beards (thank Heaven!) of no age at all, flashed picturesque scowls about them from their stations in the throng. One gentleman (connected with the fine arts, I presume) went up and down in a pair of Hessian-boots, with a red beard hanging down on his breast, and his long and bright red hair, plaited into two tails, one on either side of his head, which fell over his shoulders in front of him, very nearly to his waist, and were carefully entwined and braided!
He immediately kneeled down, below the knife. His neck fitting into a hole, made for the purpose, in a cross plank, was shut down, by another plank above; exactly like the pillory. Immediately below him was a leathern bag. And into it his head rolled instantly.
The executioner was holding it by the hair, and walking with it round the scaffold, showing it to the people, before one quite knew that the knife had fallen heavily, and with a rattling sound.
When it had travelled round the four sides of the scaffold, it was set upon a pole in front – a little patch of black and white, for the long street to stare at, and the flies to settle on. The eyes were turned upwards, as if he had avoided the sight of the leathern bag, and looked to the crucifix. Every tinge and hue of life had left it in that instant. It was dull, cold, livid, wax. The body also.
There was a great deal of blood. When we left the window, and went close up to the scaffold, it was very dirty; one of the two men who were throwing water over it, turning to help the other lift the body into a shell, picked his way as through mire. A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close, that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear; and the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder.
Nobody cared, or was at all affected. There was no manifestation of disgust, or pity, or indignation, or sorrow. My empty pockets were tried, several times, in the crowd immediately below the scaffold, as the corpse was being put into its coffin. It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle; meaning nothing but butchery beyond the momentary interest, to the one wretched actor. Yes! Such a sight has one meaning and one warning. Let me not forget it. The speculators in the lottery, station themselves at favourable points for counting the gouts of blood that spirt out, here or there; and buy that number. It is pretty sure to have a run upon it.” ( Charles Dickens )
Roman superstition astonished him. He carefully noted the menu- fish, vegetables, and two kinds of wine served at a ceremony in which the pope and twelve men dressed as apostles re-enacted the Last Supper. And he wondered why pilgrims in the Colosseum always paid their devotion to one cross which provided them with an indulgence for their sins for a hundred days when they kissed it, even though nearby there was another cross, almost neglected, which offered the faithful two hundred and forty days of indulgence for a kiss.
”Some Roman altars of peculiar sanctity, bear the inscription, “Every Mass performed at this altar frees a soul from Purgatory.” I have never been able to find out the charge for one of these services, but they should needs be expensive. There are several Crosses in Rome too, the kissing of which, confers indulgences for varying terms. That in the centre of the Coliseum, is worth a hundred days; and people may be seen kissing it from morning to night. It is curious that some of these crosses seem to acquire an arbitrary popularity: this very one among them. In another part of the Coliseum there is a cross upon a marble slab, with the inscription, “Who kisses this cross shall be entitled to Two hundred and forty days’ indulgence.” But I saw no one kiss it, though, day after day, I sat in the arena, and saw scores upon scores of peasants pass it, on their way to kiss the other.” ( Charles Dickens )
No doubt the Romans, between sins, are still kissing the hundred day cross. But modern writers don’t seem to be interested. They are much too busy documenting the sins of Rome. As romantic writers went their to view death, their successors go to view life; ie. sex, which obsesses our time as much as death obsessed Dickens. Love affairs like that of the innocent Brownings are a relic of the past. If art is any valid measure, it is evident that sex, or what the Italians call ”avventura” , is the thing for Rome. Fellini and Antonioni immortalized Rome as a fallen love in the mud of the Tiber, too deep to extricate itself.
Rome oozes sensuality, art and beauty. I had the pleasure of going last year and I have to say it was the most beatiful thing I have ever seen. It is also the land of art and where a lot of big screen films were shot:
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