Letters from New Zealand 1857-1911
"You are a day too late for the fair," said a much travelled friend to me, as I spoke of going to Rome for the first time; "its beauty has vanished before the spade of the excavator, and the zeal of the archæologist; they have turned the Forum into a quarry yard of stones, and scraped the Colosseum of its graceful mantle of creepers and wild flowers."
"Wrong," I said to myself, "whatever the artist might say," as on my first morning there I stood on one of the massive tiers of seats in the Colosseum, and looked down on the most imposing ruin in the world. The whole circuit of the walls remains, though only on one side rising to its original height of one hundred and fifty-seven feet; its seats for ninety thousand spectators; the original surface of the arena, with its cages of wild beasts, and arrangements for gladiatorial shows, are all laid bare to view. Sitting there, and musing on those terrible scenes of blood which the Romans delighted in: Ignatius torn to bits by wild beasts; Telemachus, the plucky monk who rushed into the arena to protest against the gladiatorial fight, and by his death putting a stop to them for page 246ever; I was greeted with a voice, unmistakably American,—"You couldn't show us, sir, could you, where the Emperor's box was?" Two well-dressed, educated young fellows from Boston, doing a tour in Europe. "And we want to see the place in the Forum where Julius Cæsar's body was burned, and where Mark Antony made his oration."
The next day I met them there. It seemed all too small for such a place, perhaps because it is crowded in every corner with relics of old Rome, which go back to its earliest days. A few years ago to a great extent it was buried forty feet deep with the debris accumulated during so many centuries of rum, and by the mud brought down by floods in the Tiber. To-day, thanks to the archæologist, one sees so much that it is comparatively easy to reconstruct in imagination the Forum as it was, even in the Kingly period, right back in the days of Romulus, and all through its story, of Julius Cæsar, Augustus, and the Emperors.
I can only briefly touch on one's first impressions of Rome. The seven hills hardly rise to the height one expects, but that is due to the gradual filling up of the valleys which separated them. The old walls, including those of the Kingly period, are splendid examples of Roman work, great masses of tufa rock set without mortar, no less than thirteen miles in circuit, with twenty gates. The Tiber, such a much bigger river than I expected, with its course of three miles within the city walls; the buildings of mediæval and modern Rome, alike in one respect, in the love of the gigantic, which seems to have been always characteristic of Roman architecture; the immense proportions and solidity of such ancient buildings as the Baths of Caracalla, and Diocletian, the aqueducts, page 247and the Pantheon; the peculiar tenacity and toughness of old Roman brick and concrete has defied the tooth of time.
I confess I was rather disappointed with St. Peter's. At a distance the dome is perfect and seems to dominate the whole landscape. Approaching the building its vast size is dwarfed by the ungainly proportions of the facade, with its columns one hundred feet in height. Inside, also, it takes time to realize its vast extent. The arches of the nave are so few in proportion to the length of the church, resting on such massive piers that one's eye is deceived, until you note in the distance the diminutive size of people walking about. There is a glorious view of Rome and the neighbourhood from the top of the dome, of which I managed to get a fairly good sketch.
On a Sunday afternoon, after the Vesper Service in the Papal chapel, in one of the side aisles of the nave, I came upon a Sunday Catechism School. On raised seats opposite each other sat a number of boys, in front of them a teacher with a catechism, another with a notebook for marks. Question put to one side; if a mistake was made, shouts of "Errore" from the other side, which then had to answer correctly. The class dismissed, the boys scattered about the pavement, playing with a ball which ran against my foot. Picking it up and giving it to one of them, I said "Is it permitted to play in this sacred Church?" "And why not?" was the reply! The fact is that our conceptions of reverence due to a church are not those of Italians. They use their churches as if they belonged to them; coming and going all the day long; strolling about; kneeling for private prayer; talking; even during masses many, apparently, paying no page 248attention. Nor do the officiating priests seem to mind what the people are doing. They are frequented as much on week-days as on Sundays.
Rome is unique; a city of modern life, tramways, electric light, hotels, palaces, and crowds of people; yet also a city of the past and of the dead. Its three hundred churches are full of graves; outside the walls in the Catacombs, with galleries extending many miles, there are millions buried. The famous Via Appia, begun as far back as 300 B.C., and extending to Brindisi, for several miles outside the city is bordered with tombs and monuments. We went down the Callixtine Catacomb, which lies a little way off this road. Steep steps lead into a gallery branching out in various directions, with descents into galleries below. These are cut out of soft tufa rock, allowing room for walking upright, and in places opening out into chambers of some size. A perfectly dry atmosphere, and good ventilation, but a place of absolute darkness, lit up only by the candle which everyone carries. A guide precedes, and it is necessary to keep together, for there are gruesome tales of people lost and perishing in these subterranean mazes. In the walls of the galleries there are cavities containing stone coffins, with inscriptions recording the names and ages of the dead, mostly Christian, but some Pagan. I saw on the coffin of a little girl her toys in bone and wood and marble; over another, on a brick, the imprint of a die, with the date of year and the names of the Consuls, 257 a.d. Curious that it never occurred to them to use the same means for printing on paper or parchment. Entering one of the chambers, one saw that it had been used for Christian worship; at one end a large sarcophagus used as an altar; over page 249it a fresco painting of the Last Supper, and on the side walls rude paintings of the Good Shepherd, Jonah, figures of saints, and many cryptic emblems of the Faith, Ivy leaves are the emblem of Immortality, the peacock's eye feather of immortal beauty, the dove of peace, the anchor of hope, a fish in water of Baptism, wheat-ears and grapes of our Lord's words, "I am the Bread,—the Vine." The word in Greek signifying fish was the secret sign of Christianity, as its letters are the initials of "Jesus Christ, of God the Son, the Saviour." It is noticeable that there are no literal representations of Christ's agony and death; no crucifix, only the cross; our Lord always depicted as a young Shepherd in the prime of life. The great respect which Roman custom accorded to all burial places and rites enabled Christians to use these Catacombs for their worship, which would not have been permitted in public; regarded by the authorities as mere burial clubs, they escaped persecution for many years.
Having once been in Rome, I feel the spell which they say comes upon most who visit the Eternal City, alluring them to it again, and as I threw my coppers into the Fountain of Trevi, I am assured by those who know that I shall return. If so, I may be able to tell you more.