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Rome in 1860

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My first recollections of Rome date from too long ago, and from too early an age, for me to be able to recall with ease the impression caused by its first aspect.  It is hard indeed for any one at any time to judge of Rome fairly.  Whatever may be the object of our pilgrimage, we Roman travellers are all under some guise or other pilgrims to the Eternal City, and gaze around us with something of a pilgrim’s reverence for the shrine of his worship.  The ground we tread on is enchanted ground, we breathe a charmed air, and are spellbound with a strange witchery.  A kind of glamour steals over us, a thousand memories rise up and chase each other.  Heroes and martyrs, sages and saints and sinners, consuls and popes and emperors, people the weird pageant which to our mind’s eye hovers ever mistily amidst the scenes around us.  Here above all places in God’s earth it is hard to forget the past and think only of the present.  This, however, is what I now want to do.  Laying aside all memory of what Rome has been, I would again describe what Rome is now.  And thus, in my solitary wanderings about the city, I have often sought to picture to myself what would be the feelings of a stranger who, caring nothing and knowing nothing of the past, should enter Rome with only that listless curiosity which all travellers feel perforce, when for the first time they approach a great capital.  Let me fancy that such a traveller—a very Gallio among travellers—is standing by my side.  Let me try and tell him what, under my mentorship, he would mark and see.

It shall not be on a bright, cloudless day that we enter Rome.  To our northern eyes the rich Italian sun-light gives to everything, even to ruins and rags and squalor, a deceptive grandeur, and a beauty which is not due.  No, the day shall be such a day as that on which I write; such a day in fact as the days are oftener than not at this dead season of the year, sunless and damp and dull.  The sky above is covered with colourless, unbroken clouds, and the outline of the Alban and the Sabine hills stands dimly out against the grey distance.  It matters little by what gate or from what quarter we enter.  On every side the scene is much the same.  The Campagna surrounds the city.  A wide, waste, broken, hillock-covered plain, half common, half pasture land, and altogether desolate; a few stunted trees, a deserted house or two, here and there a crumbling mass of shapeless brickwork: such is the foreground through which you travel for many a weary mile.  As you approach the city there is no change in the desolation, no sign of life.  Every now and then a string of some half-dozen peasant-carts, laden with wine-barrels or wood faggots, comes jingling by.  The carts so-called, rather by courtesy than right, consist of three rough planks and two high ricketty wheels.  The broken-kneed horses sway to and fro beneath their unwieldy load, and the drivers, clad in their heavy sheepskin jackets, crouch sleepily beneath the clumsy, hide-bound framework, placed so as to shelter them from the chill Tramontana blasts.  A solitary cart is rare, for the neighbourhood of Rome is not the safest of places, and those small piles of stone, with the wooden cross surmounting them, bear witness to the fact that a murder took place not long ago on the very spot you are passing now.  Then, perhaps, you come across a drove of wild, shaggy buffaloes, or a travelling carriage rattling and jilting along, or a stray priest or so, trudging homewards from some outlying chapel.  That red-bodied funereal-looking two-horse-coach, crawling at a snail’s pace, belongs to his Excellency the Cardinal, whom Papal etiquette forbids to walk on foot within the city, and whom you can see a little further on pottering feebly along the road in his violet stockings, supported by his clerical secretary, and followed at a respectful distance by his two attendant footmen with their threadbare liveries.  At last, out of the dreary waste, at the end of the interminable ill-paved sloughy road, the long line of the grey tumble-down walls rises gloomily.  A few cannon-shot would batter a breach anywhere, as the events of 1849 proved only too well.  However, at Rome there is neither commerce to be impeded nor building extension of any kind to be checked; the city has shrunk up until its precincts are a world too wide; and the walls, if they are useless, are harmless also; more, by the way, than you can say for most things here.  There is no stir or bustle at the gates.  Two French soldiers, striding across a bench, are playing at picquet with a pack of greasy cards.  A pack-horse or two nibble the blades of grass between the stones, while their owners haggle with the solitary guard about the “octroi” duties.  A sentinel on duty stares listlessly at you as you pass,—and you have entered Rome....