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WEDNESDAY, JULY 28, 1926
ITALY AS I FIND HER
ROME AND FLORENCE
By Kennedy Allen
Rome is assuredly one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Her enchantment is irresistible. But the spell does not declare itself in a day: it requires time.
That may be one reason why Rome attracts fewer English visitors than, for example, Florence . The antiquity of Florence is, of course, incontestable. It was an Eturian city long before it became a Roman colony some 80 years B.C. But, although in the middle ages it developed into a centre of art and literature and later, into the capital of a grand-duchy, its earlier history is uninteresting and not widely known. Her appeal is general and immediate; it is the appeal of beauty, the beauty, on the one hand, of natural situation, of river and hills, and, on the other hand, of human handiwork, of churches and companiles and pictures and statues. Florence is pre-eminently the paradise of all who value the giddy pleasures of the eye. She is the art-capital of Italy – that is to say, of the world.
Moreover, with Florence are associated some of the great names of English literature. One of the first to celebrate it was Milton . The famous comparison of the fallen angels lying inert upon the surface of the infernal lake,
“Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
In Vallombrosa where the Eturian shades
High-overarch'd embower – ”
a perfect simile was no doubt inspired by what he observed on the mountain-slopes upstream, not far from the city. Then there is the equally famous reference to Fiesole . After many generations came Byron, who sang the glories of “the Eturian Athens,” inhaling “the ambrosial aspect” of the Medicean Venus. The Brownings and Ruskin and George Eliot followed. Every Florentine bookseller who knows his business exhibits in his window “Mornings in Florence ” and “Romola.” In England , in the course of the last 30 years, the dictatorial John and the psychological George have “fallen on evil days;” on the continent they
“suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.”
Apparently they still find fit audience, and the Brownings, too, even without the stimulus of a university examination. Whatever the literary and artistic value of these writers – and certainly Milton shines in undiminished glory and George Eliot has been compared by an Italian critic to Manzoni – their association with Florence has had one material result at least: the have proved, for the principal tourist nations, England and America, the best possible advertisement, and the hotelkeepers of Florence ought, in common decency, to treasure their names with everlasting gratitude. Even the Children's Encyclopaedia may have done something in the way of influencing the younger folk to regard Florence as a Mecca of art and loveliness. These considerations may help to explain why the city supports so extensive an English colony and is able to provide it with a daily newspaper in its native tongue.
Rome is different. For English people she has not nearly so many memorable associations. Certainly Byron celebrated her monuments, and the Protestant Cemetery guards the dust of Keats and the ashes of Shelley. Moreover, in the last few years, as a winter resort, she is said to be competing seriously with Cairo and the Riviera . But her 28 centuries of legend and history, of kings, republic, empire, papacy, Risorgimento, are so vast, so packed, that, even in the best preserved and most explicit of all her monuments, more is meant than meets the eye. Ancient Rome , like Saturn dethroned, is still majestic, though in ruins, but of her majesty we can have only an elusive glimpse. That indeed is the secret of her abiding charm. The majority of those who visit her place themselves in the hands of Italian guides, whose knowledge of history is apparently as superficial as their knowledge of English. Even if they knew as much as a history professor, how could they impart anything of value in a limited, cursory inspection? What a blur their subjects must carry away! “I remember a mass of things, but nothing distinctly,” exclaims poor Michael Cassio to his false friend Iago. Today I overheard an American lady, as she was descending the staircase of the Capitoline museum, declare to a compatriot: “You come away with that much,” indicating with a gesture that she had received too much for her money. On the other hand, an adequate examination demands time, patience, and tranquillity. But that is not the English or American way. Matthew Arnold had observed his countrymen abroad –
“We who pursue
Our business with unslackening stride,
Traverse in troops, with carefill'd breast,
The soft Mediterranean side,
The Nile , the East,
And we see all sights from pole to pole
And glance and nod and bustle by
And never once possess our soul
Before we die.”
Decidedly the Eternal City is no place for tourists in a hurry. Not for them will she weave her spell. The Latin inscriptions on her monuments, not only in the squares, but in the museums – inscriptions of which neither guide nor guide-book says anything – reveal more of the moral grandeur of antiquity than all the chatter. These will not only thrill you with their evocation of historic personalities; they will also make you realise, what the extant classical literature attests, that the old conception of the virtues of duty and loyalty, which Horace and Shakespeare call the ancient Roman honour, was at all events not inferior to ours. In an equalitarian age like the present, however, these inscriptions are too exacting; in fact, they seem hardly fair. A love of Latin is an acquired taste; and few can identify and memorise the several details of the Roma Forum in five minutes. Yesterday another American lady, gazing from the Capitol on the Forum below exclaimed to a companion, in a tone of disappointment, “Why, you have to know Latin and history and lots of things.” Well, the remedy is plain: before visiting Rome , if you find that you cannot master the language of Cicero , at all events read Roman history. It is at least as interesting as the history of England , upon which Australian boys and girls lavish their attention, and certainly deserves from our schools far more consideration than it receives. If you do so, Rome will mean something.
What impresses all who really endeavour to make a study of ancient Rome is the relatively insignificant portion of man's handiwork now surviving. Why should this be so? Well here, in an abridged translation, is how the veteran archeologist Joseph Gatteschi summarises the contributing forces of destruction, in his invaluable work entitled “Restorations of Imperial Rome” and published, after more than 30 years of Research, two years ago. He says: “Anyone inspecting the glorious ruins of ancient Rome has just reason to wonder how these buildings, designed to defy the ages, could ever have been destroyed. Their destruction is, to a small extent, due to earthquakes, fires, civil wars, and the barbarian invasions of the fifth century, but principally to the men who succeeded one another on the sacred soil of Eternal Rome from the year 430 A.D. to the year 1780. That is to say 13 ½ centuries.
“Paganism was finally abolished and Christianity officially declared the State religion in the year 394 A.D. by the emperor Theodosius the First. The pagan temples were then closed by imperial order. In the year 435 the Christian emperor Theodosius the Second in the East and Valentinian the Third in the West ordered the destruction of such temples as then remained intact. In the middle-ages and during the Renaissance Rome had a limestone quarry, where lime was made daily from the ancient marbles, statues, columns, entablatures, bas-reliefs, &c. The church now known as San Nicola ai Cesarini was in the 16 th century still called San Nicola de Calcario (St Nicholas of the Limestone Quarry) and other churches in the neighbourhood bore similar attributives.
“Against this systematic barbarian destruction of the monuments of antiquity the painter and architect Raphael energetically protested in a letter addressed in the year 1519 to Pope Leo the Tenth.
“In the sixteenth century, while the Renaissance was at its height, were destroyed not only the monuments of the pagan epoch, but even the glorious and venerable monuments of primitive Christianity.
“In May, 1780, was discovered and destroyed the Tomb of the Scipos, in the Appian Way ….”
Byron who sang so well of Italy , could mark unmoved
“Actium, Lepanto, fatal Trafalgar”, but his blood stirred in the presence of the Eternal City .
“ Rome ! My country! City of the Soul!
The Niobe of nations! there she stands,
Childless and crownless, in her voiceless woe …….
Alas, for Earth, for never shall she see
The brightness in her eye she bore when Rome was free.”
Well, that is how it strikes a contemporary Australian too.
Rome , June 13 th , 1926.
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