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Above all, there is always a receptacle for the contributions
of the Faithful, in some form or other. Sometimes, it is a
money-box, set up between the worshipper, and the wooden
life-size figure of the Redeemer ; sometimes, it is a little chest
for the maintenance of the Virgin ; sometimes, an appeal on
behalf of a popular Bambino ; sometimes, a bag at the end of
a long stick, thrust among the people here and there, and
vigilantly jingled by an active Sacristan; but there it always
is, and, very often, in many shapes in the same church, and
doing pretty well in all. Nor, is it wanting in the open air
the streets and roads for, often as you are walking along,
thinking about anything rather than a tin canister, that object
pounces out upon you from a little house by the wayside;
and on its top is painted, " For the Souls in Purgatory ; " an
appeal which the bearer repeats a great many times, as he
rattles it before you, much as Punch rattles the cracked bell
which his sanguine disposition makes an organ of.

And this reminds me that some Roman altars of peculiar
sanctity, bear the inscription, " Every Mass performed at this


altar frees a soul from Purgatory. 11 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 1 indulgence. 11
But I saw no one person 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.

To single out details from the great dream of Roman
Churches, would be the wildest occupation in the world. But
St. Stefano Rotondo, a damp, mildewed vault of an old
church in the outskirts of Rome, will always struggle upper-
most in my mind, by reason of the hideous paintings with
which its walls are covered. These represent the martyrdoms
of saints and early Christians ; and such a panorama of
horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though
he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded
men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild
beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses,
chopped up small with hatchets : women having their breasts
torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears
screwed off, their jaws broken, their bodies stretched upon
the rack, or skinned upon the stake, or crackled up and
melted in the fire : these are among the mildest subjects. So
insisted on, and laboured at, besides, that every sufferer gives
you the same occasion for wonder as poor old Duncan awoke,
in Lady Macbeth, when she marvelled at his having so much
blood in him.

There is an upper chamber in the Mamertine prisons, over
what is said to have been and very possibly may have been


the dungeon of St. Peter. This chamber is now fitted up
as an oratory, dedicated to that saint; and it lives, as a
distinct and separate place, in my recollection, too. It is
very small and low-roofed ; and the dread and gloom of the
ponderous, obdurate old prison are on it, as if they had come
up in a dark mist through the floor. Hanging on the walls,
among the clustered votive offerings, are objects, at once
strangely in keeping, and strangely at variance, with the
place rusty daggers, knives, pistols, clubs, divers instruments
of violence and murder, brought here, fresh from use, and
hung up to propitiate offended Heaven : as if the blood upon
them would drain off in consecrated air, and have no voice to
cry with. It is all so silent and so close, and tomb-like ; and
the dungeons below are so black and stealthy, and stagnant,
and naked ; that this little dark spot becomes a dream within
a dream : and in the vision of great churches which come
rolling past me like a sea, it is a small wave by itself, that
melts into no other wave, and does not flow on with the rest.
It is an awful thing to think of the enormous caverns that
are entered from some Roman churches, and undermine the
city. Many churches have crypts and subterranean chapels of
great size, which, in the ancient time, were baths, and secret
chambers of temples, and what not ; but I do not speak of
them. Beneath the church of St. Giovanni and St. Paolo,
there are the jaws of a terrific range of caverns, hewn out of
the rock, and said to have another outlet underneath the
Coliseum tremendous darknesses of vast extent, half-buried
in the earth and unexplorable, where the dull torches, flashed
by the attendants, glimmer down long ranges of distant vaults
branching to the right and left, like streets in a city of the
dead ; and show the cold damp stealing down the walls, drip-
drop, drip-drop, to join the pools of water that lie here and
there, and never saw, or never will see, one ray of the sun.
Some accounts make these the prisons of the wild beasts
destined for the amphitheatre ; some the prisons of the
condemned gladiators ; some, both. But the legend most


appalling to the fancy is, that in the upper range (for there
are two stories of these caves) the Early Christians destined
to be eaten at the Coliseum Shows, heard the wild beasts,
hungry for them, roaring down below ; until, upon the night
and solitude of their captivity, there burst the sudden noon
and life of the vast theatre crowded to the parapet, and of
these, their dreaded neighbours, bounding in !

Below the church of San Sebastiano, two miles beyond the
gate of San Sebastiano, on the Appian Way, is the entrance
to the catacombs of Rome quarries in the old time, but
afterwards the hiding-places of the Christians. These ghastly
passages have been explored for twenty miles ; and form a
chain of labyrinths, sixty miles in circumference.

A gaunt Franciscan friar, with a wild bright eye, was our
only guide, down into this profound and dreadful place. The
narrow ways and openings hither and thither, coupled with
the dead and heavy air, soon blotted out, in all of us, any
recollection of the track by which we had come : and I could
not help thinking "Good Heaven, if, in a sudden fit of
madness, he should dash the torches out, or if he should
be seized with a fit, what would become of us!" On we
wandered, among martyrs' graves : passing great subterranean
vaulted roads, diverging in all directions, and choked up with
heaps of stones, that thieves and murderers may not take
refuge there, and form a population under Rome, even worse
than that which lives between it and the sun. Graves, graves,
graves ; Graves of men, of women, of their little children, who
ran crying to the persecutors, " We are Christians ! We are
Christians ! " that they might be murdered with their parents ;
Graves with the palm of martyrdom roughly cut into their
stone boundaries, and little niches, made to hold a vessel of
the martyrs' blood ; Graves of some who lived down here, for
years together, ministering to the rest, and preaching truth,
and hope, and comfort, from the rude altars, that bear
witness to their fortitude at this hour ; more roomy graves,
but far more terrible, where hundreds, being surprised, were


hemmed in and walled up: buried before Death, and killed
by slow starvation.

"The Triumphs of the Faith are not above ground in our
splendid churches," said the friar, looking round upon us, as
we stopped to rest in one of the low passages, with bones
and dust surrounding us on every side. "They are here!
Among the Martyrs' 1 Graves ! " He Avas a gentle, earnest
man, and said it from his heart; but when I thought how
Christian men have dealt with one another; how, perverting
our most merciful religion, they have hunted down and
tortured, burnt and beheaded, strangled, slaughtered, and
oppressed each other ; I pictured to myself an agony surpass-
ing any that this Dust had suffered with the breath of life
yet lingering in it, and how these great and constant hearts
would have been shaken how they would have quailed and
drooped if a foreknowledge of the deeds that professing
Christians would commit in the Great Name for which they
died, could have rent them with its own unutterable anguish,
on the cruel wheel, and bitter cross, and in the fearful fire.

Such are the spots and patches in my dream of churches,
that remain apart, and keep their separate identity. I have
a fainter recollection, sometimes of the relics; of the frag-
ments of the pillar of the Temple that was rent in twain ; of
the portion of the table that was spread for the Last Supper ;
of the well at which the woman of Samaria gave water to
Our Saviour ; of two columns from the house of Pontius
Pilate ; of the stone to which the Sacred hands were bound,
when the scourging was performed ; of the gridiron of Saint
Lawrence, and the stone below it, marked with the frying of
his fat and blood ; these set a shadowy mark on some cathe-
drals, as an old story, or a fable might, and stop them for an
instant, as they flit before me. The rest is a vast wilderness
of consecrated buildings of all shapes and fancies, blending
one with another; of battered pillars of old Pagan temples,
dug up from the ground, and forced, like giant captives, to
support the roofs of Christian churches ; of pictures, bad, and


wonderful, and impious, and ridiculous ; of kneeling people,
curling incense, tinkling bells, and sometimes (but not often)
of a swelling organ : of Madonne, with their breasts stuck
full of swords, arranged in a half-circle like a modern fan ; of
actual skeletons of dead saints, hideously attired in gaudy
satins, silks, and velvets trimmed with gold : their withered
crust of skull adorned with precious jewels, or with chaplets
of crushed flowers ; sometimes, of people gathered round the
pulpit, and a monk within it stretching out the crucifix, and
preaching fiercely : the sun just streaming down through some
high window on the sail-cloth stretched above him and across
the church, to keep his high-pitched voice from being lost
among the echoes of the roof. Then my tired memory comes
out upon a flight of steps, where knots of people are asleep,
or basking in the light; and strolls away, among the rags,
and smells, and palaces, and hovels, of an old Italian street.

On one Saturday morning (the eighth of March), a man
was beheaded here. Nine or ten months before, he had way 7
laid a Bavarian countess, travelling as a pilgrim to Rome
alone and on foot, of course and performing, it is said, that
act of piety for the fourth time. He saw her change a piece
of gold at Viterbo, where he lived ; followed her ; bore her
company on her journey for some forty miles or more, on the
treacherous pretext of protecting her; attacked her, in the
fulfilment of his unrelenting purpose, on the Campagna,
within a very short distance of Rome, near to what is called
(but what is not) the Tomb of Nero ; robbed her ; and beat
her to death with her own pilgrim's staff. He was newly
married, and gave some of her apparel to his wife : saying
that he had bought it at a fair. She, however, who had
seen the pilgrim-countess passing through their town, recog-
nised some trifle as having belonged to her. Her husband
then told her what he had done. She, in confession, told a
priest ; and the man was taken, within four days after the
commission of the murder.


There are no fixed times for the administration of justice,
or its execution, in this unaccountable country ; and he had
been in prison ever since. On the Friday, as he was dining
with the other prisoners, they came and told him he was to
be beheaded next morning, and took him away. It is very
unusual to execute in I^ent ; but his crime being a very bad
one, it was deemed advisable to make an example of him at
that time, when great numbers of pilgrims were coming
towards Rome, from all parts, for the Holy Week. I heard
of this on the Friday evening, and saw the bills up at the
churches, calling on the people to pray for the criminal's soul.
So, I determined to go, and see him executed.

The beheading was appointed for fourteen and a-half
o'clock, Roman time: or a quarter before nine in the fore-
noon. I had two friends with me ; and as we did not know
but that the crowd might be very great, we were on the
spot by half-past seven. The place of execution was near the
church of San Giovanni decollato (a doubtful compliment to
Saint John the Baptist) in one of the impassable back streets
without any footway, of which a great part of Rome is com-
posed a street of rotten houses, which do not seem to belong
to anybody, and do not seem to have ever been inhabited,
and certainly were never built on any plan, or for any parti-
cular purpose, and have no window-sashes, and are a little
like deserted breweries, and might be warehouses but for
having nothing in them. Opposite to one of these, a white
house, the scaffold was built. An untidy, unpainted, uncouth,
crazy -looking thing of course : some seven feet high, perhaps :
with a tall, gallows-shaped frame rising above it, in which
was the knife, charged with a ponderous mass of iron, all
ready to descend, and glittering brightly in the morning sun,
whenever it looked out, now and then, from behind a cloud.

There were not many people lingering about; and these
were kept at a considerable distance from the scaffold, by
parties of the Pope's dragoons. Two or three hundred foot-
soldiers were under arms, standing at ease in clusters here


and there ; and the officers were walking up and down in
twos and threes, chatting together, and smoking cigars.

At the end of the street, was an open space, where there
would be a dust-heap, and piles of broken crockery, and
mounds of vegetable refuse, but for such things being thrown
anywhere and everywhere in Rome, and favouring no parti-
cular sort of locality. We got into a kind of wash-house,
belonging to a dwelling-house on this spot; and standing
there in an old cart, and on a heap of cart-wheels piled
against the wall, looked, through a large grated window, at
the scaffold, and straight down the street beyond it, until, in
consequence of its turning off abruptly to the left, our per-
spective was brought to a sudden termination, and had a
corpulent officer, in a cocked hat, for its crowning feature.

Nine o'clock struck, and ten o'clock struck, and nothing
happened. All the bells of all the churches rang as usual.
A little parliament of dogs assembled in the open space, and
chased each other, in and out among the soldiers. 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 hang-
ing down on his breast, and his long and bright red hair,
plaited into two tails, one on either side of his head, which

2 u


fell over his shoulders in front of him, very nearly to his
waist, and were carefully entwined and braided !

Eleven o'clock struck ; and still nothing happened. A
rumour got about, among the crowd, that the criminal would
not confess ; in which case, the priests would keep him until
the Ave Maria (sunset) ; for it is their merciful custom never
finally to turn the crucifix away from a man at that pass,
as one refusing to be shriven, and consequently a sinner
abandoned of the Saviour, until then. People began to drop
off. The officers shrugged their shoulders and looked doubt-
ful. The dragoons, who came riding up below our window,
every now and then, to order an unlucky hackney-coach or
cart away, as soon as it had comfortably established itself, and
was covered with exulting people (but never before), became
imperious, and quick-tempered. The bald place hadn't a
straggling hair upon it; and the corpulent officer, crowning
the perspective, took a world of snuff.

Suddenly, there was a noise of trumpets. " Attention ! r>
was among the foot-soldiers instantly. They were marched
up to the scaffold and formed round it. The dragoons
galloped to their nearer stations too. The guillotine became
the centre of a wood of bristling bayonets and shining sabres.
The people closed round nearer, on the flank of the soldiery.
A long straggling stream of men and boys, who had accom-
panied the procession from the prison, came pouring into the
open space. The bald spot was scarcely distinguishable from
the rest. The cigar and pastry-merchants resigned all
thoughts of business, for the moment, and abandoning them-
selves wholly to pleasure, got good situations in the crowd.
The perspective ended, now, in a troop of dragoons. And
the corpulent officer, sword in hand, looked hard at a church
close to him, which he could see, but we, the crowd, could not.

After a short delay, some monks were seen approaching to
the scaffold from this church; and above their heads, coming
on slowly and gloomily, the effigy of Christ upon the cross,
canopied with black. This was carried round the foot of the


scaffold, to the front, and turned towards the criminal, that
he might see it to the last. It was hardly in its place, when
he appeared on the platform, bare-footed ; his hands bound ;
and with the collar and neck of his shirt cut away, almost to
the shoulder. A young man six-and-twenty vigorously
made, and well-shaped. Face pale ; small dark moustache ;
and dark brown, hair.

He had refused to confess, it seemed, without first having
his wife brought to see him ; and they had sent an escort for
her, which had occasioned the delay.

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 upward, 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 momen-
tary interest, to the one wretched actor. Yes ! Such a sight
has one meaning and one warning. Let n\e not forget it.
The speculators in the lottery, station themselves at favour-
able 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.

The body was carted away in due time, the knife cleansed,
the scaffold taken down, and all the hideous apparatus
removed. The executioner : an outlaw ex qfficio (what a satire
on the Punishment !) who dare not, for his life, cross the
Bridge of St. Angelo but to do his work : retreated to his
lair, and the show was over.

At the head of the collections in the palaces of Rome, the
Vatican, of course, with its treasures of art, its enormous
galleries, and staircases, and suites upon suites of immense
chambers, ranks highest and stands foremost. Many most
noble statues, and wonderful pictures, are there ; nor is it
heresy to say that there is a considerable amount of rubbish
there, too. When any old piece of sculpture dug out of the
ground, finds a place in a gallery because it is old, and
without any reference to its intrinsic merits : and finds
admirers by the hundred, because it is there, and for no other
reason on earth : there will be no lack of objects, very in-
different in the plain eyesight of any one who employs so
vulgar a property, when he may wear the spectacles of Cant
for less than nothing, and establish himself as a man of taste
for the mere trouble of putting them on.

I unreservedly confess, for myself, that I cannot leave my
natural perception of what is natural and true, at a palace-
door, in Italy or elsewhere, as I should leave my shoes if I


were travelling in the East. I cannot forget that there are
certain expressions of face, natural to certain passions, and
as unchangeable in their nature as the gait of a lion, or
the flight of an eagle. I cannot dismiss from my certain
knowledge, such commonplace facts as the ordinary proportion
of men's arms, and legs, and heads ; and when I meet with
performances that do violence to these experiences and
recollections, no matter where they may be, I cannot honestly
admire them, and think it best to say so ; in spite of high
critical advice that we should sometimes feign an admiration,
though we have it not.

Therefore, I freely acknowledge that when I see a Jolly
young Waterman representing a cherubim, or a Barclay and
Perkins's Drayman depicted as an Evangelist, I see nothing
to commend or admire in the performance, however great its
reputed Painter. Neither am I partial to libellous Angels,
who play on fiddles and bassoons, for the edification of
sprawling monks apparently in liquor. Nor to those Monsieur
Tonsons of galleries, Saint Francis and Saint Sebastian ; both
of whom I submit should have very uncommon and rare
merits, as works of art, to justify their compound multiplica-
tion by Italian Painters.

It seems to me, too, that the indiscriminate and determined
raptures in which some critics indulge, is incompatible with
the true appreciation of the really great and transcendent
works. I cannot imagine, for example, how the resolute
champion of undeserving pictures can soar to the amazing
beauty of Titian's great picture of the Assumption of the
Virgin at Venice ; or how the man who is truly affected by
the sublimity of that exquisite production, or who is truly
sensible of the beauty of Tintoretto's great picture of the
Assembly of the Blessed in the same place, can discern in
Michael Angelo's Last Judgment, in the Sistine chapel, any
general idea, or one pervading thought, in harmony with the
stupendous subject. He who will contemplate Raphael's
masterpiece, the Transfiguration, and will go away into another


chamber of that same Vatican, and contemplate another
design of Raphael, representing (in incredible caricature) the
miraculous stopping of a great fire by Leo the Fourth and
Avho will say that he admires them both, as works of ex-

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 28) → online text (page 38 of 43)