Charles Dickens.

The works of Charles Dickens (Volume 28) online

. (page 40 of 43)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 28) → online text (page 40 of 43)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

other attendants, smiled to each other, from time to time,
as if the thing were a great farce ; and if they thought so,
there is little doubt they were perfectly right. His Holiness
did what he had to do, as a sensible man gets through a
troublesome ceremony, and seemed very glad when it was
all over.

The Pilgrims' Suppers: where lords and ladies waited on
the Pilgrims, in token of humility, and dried their feet when


they had been well washed by deputy : were very attractive.
But, of all the many spectacles of dangerous reliance on
outward observances, in themselves mere empty forms, none
struck me half so much as the Scala Santa, or Holy Staircase,
which I saw several times, but to the greatest advantage, or
disadvantage, on Good Friday.

This holy staircase is composed of eight-and-twenty steps,
said to have belonged to Pontius Pilate's house, and to be
the identical stairs on which Our Saviour trod, in coming
down from the judgment-seat. Pilgrims ascend it, only on
their knees. It is steep; and, at the summit, is a chapel,
reported to be full of relics ; into which they peep through
some iron bars, and then come down again, by one of two side
staircases, which are not sacred, and may be walked on.

On Good Friday, there were, on a moderate computation,
a hundred people, slowly shuffling up these stairs, on their
knees, at one time; while others, who were going up, or had
come down and a few who had done both, and were going
up again for the second time stood loitering in the porch
below, where an old gentleman in a sort of watch-box, rattled
a tin canister, with a slit in the top, incessantly, to remind
them that he took the money. The majority were country-
people, male and female. There were four or five Jesuit
priests, however, and some half-dozen well-dressed women.
A whole school of boys, twenty at least, were about half-way
up evidently enjoying it very much. They were all wedged
'together, pretty closely; but the rest of the company gave
the boys as wide a berth as possible, in consequence of their
betraying some recklessness in the management of their boots.

I never, in my life, saw anything at once so ridiculous,
and so unpleasant, as this sight ridiculous in the absurd
incidents inseparable from it ; and unpleasant in its senseless
and unmeaning degradation. There are two steps to begin
with, and then a rather broad landing. The more rigid
climbers went along this landing on their knees, as well as
up the stairs ; and the figures they cut, in their shuffling


progress over the level surface, no description can paint.
Then, to see them watch their opportunity from the porch,
and cut in where there was a place next the wall ! And to
see one man with an umbrella (brought on purpose, for it
was a fine day) hoisting himself, unlawfully, from stair to
stair ! And to observe a demure lady of fifty-five or so,
looking back, every now and then, to assure herself that her
legs were properly disposed !

There were such odd differences in the speed of different
people, too. Some got on as if they were doing a match
against time ; others stopped to say a prayer on every step.
This man touched every stair with his forehead, and kissed
it ; that man scratched his head all the way. The boys got
on brilliantly, and were up and down again before the old
lady had accomplished her half-dozen stairs. But most of
the penitents came down, very sprightly and fresh, as having
done a real good substantial deed which it would take a good
deal of sin to counterbalance ; and the old gentleman in the
watch-box was down upon them with his canister while they
were in this humour, I promise you.

As if such a progress were not in its nature inevitably droll
enough, there lay, on the top of the stairs, a wooden figure
on a crucifix, resting on a sort of great iron saucer : so rickety
and unsteady, that whenever an enthusiastic person kissed the
figure, with more than usual devotion, or threw a coin into
the saucer, with more than common readiness (for it served
in this respect as a second or supplementary canister), it gave
a great leap and rattle, and nearly shook the attendant lamp
out: horribly frightening the people further down, and
throwing the guilty party into unspeakable embarrassment.

On Easter Sunday, as well as on the preceding Thursday,
the Pope bestows his benediction on the people, from the
balcony in front of St. Peter's. This Easter Sunday was a
day so bright and blue: so cloudless, balmy, wonderfully
bright : that all the previous bad weather vanished from
the recollection in a moment. I had seen the Thursday's


Benediction dropping damply on some hundreds of umbrellas,
but there was not a sparkle then, in all the hundred fountains
of Rome such fountains as they are ! and on this Sunday
morning they were running diamonds. The miles of miser-
able streets through which we drove (compelled to a certain
course by the Pope's dragoons : the Roman police on such
occasions) were so full of colour, that nothing in them was
capable of wearing a faded aspect. The common people
came out in their gayest dresses ; the richer people in their
smartest vehicles ; Cardinals rattled to the church of the
Poor Fishermen in their state carriages ; shabby magnificence
flaunted its thread-bare liveries and tarnished cocked hats, in
the sun ; and every coach in Rome was put in requisition for
the Great Piazza of St. Peter's.

One hundred and fifty thousand people were there at least !
Yet there was ample room. How many carriages were there,
I don't know ; yet there was room for them too, and to spare.
The great steps of the church were densely crowded. There
were many of the Contadini, from Albano (who delight in
red), in that part of the square, and the mingling of bright
colours in the crowd was beautiful. Below the steps the
troops were ranged. In the magnificent proportions of the
place they looked like a bed of flowers. Sulky Romans, lively
peasants from the neighbouring country, groups of pilgrims
from distant parts of Italy, sight-seeing foreigners of all
nations, made a murmur in the clear air, like so many insects ;
and high above them all, plashing and bubbling, and making
rainbow colours in the light, the two delicious fountains welled
and tumbled bountifully.

A kind of bright carpet was hung over the front of the
balcony ; and the sides of the great window were bedecked
with crimson drapery. An awning was stretched, too, over
the top, to screen the old man from the hot rays of the sun.
As noon approached, all eyes were turned up to this window.
In due time, the chair was seen approaching to the front,
with the gigantic fans of peacock's feathers, close behind.


The doll within it (for the balcony is very high) then rose up,
and stretched out its tiny arms, while all the male spectators
in the square uncovered, and some, but not by any means
the greater part, kneeled down. The guns upon the ramparts
of the Castle of St. Angelo proclaimed, next moment, that
the benediction was given ; drums beat ; trumpets sounded ;
arms clashed; and the great mass below, suddenly breaking
into smaller heaps, and scattering here and there in rills, was
stirred like parti-coloured sand.

What a bright noon it was, as we rode away ! The Tiber
was no longer yellow, but blue. There was a blush on the
old bridges, that made them fresh and hale again. The
Pantheon, with its majestic front, all seamed and furrowed
like an old face, had summer light upon its battered walls.
Every squalid and desolate hut in the Eternal City (bear
witness every grim old palace, to the filth and misery of the
plebeian neighbour that elbows it, as certain as Time has laid
its grip on its patrician head !) was fresh and new with some
ray of the sun. The very prison in the crowded street, a
whirl of carriages and people, had some stray sense of the
day, dropping through its chinks and crevices: and dismal
prisoners who could not wind their faces round the barricading
of the blocked-up windows, stretched out their hands, and
clinging to the rusty bars, turned them towards the overflowing
street : as if it were a cheerful fire, and could be shared in,
that way.

But, when the night came on, without a cloud to dim the
full moon, what a sight it was to see the Great Square full
once more, and the whole church, from the cross to the
ground, lighted with innumerable lanterns, tracing out the
architecture, and winking and shining all round the colonnade
of the piazza ! And what a sense of exultation, joy, delight,
it was, when the great bell struck half-past seven on the
instant to behold one bright red mass of fire, soar gallantly
from the top of the cupola to the extremest summit of the
cross, and the moment it leaped into its place, become the


signal of a bursting out of countless lights, as great, and red,
and blazing as itself, from every part of the gigantic church ;
so that every cornice, capital, and smallest ornament of stone,
expressed itself in fire : and the black solid groundwork of
the enormous dome seemed to grow transparent as an egg-
shell !

A train of gunpowder, an electric chain nothing could be
fired, more suddenly and swiftly, than this second illumina-
tion ; and when we had got away, and gone upon a distant
height, and looked towards it two hours afterwards, there it
still stood, shining and glittering in the calm night like a
jewel ! Not a line of its proportions wanting ; not an angle
blunted ; not an atom of its radiance lost.

The next night Easter Monday there was a great display
of fireworks from the Castle of St. Angelo. We hired a room
in an opposite house, and made our way, to our places, in
good time, through a dense mob of people choking up the
square in front, and all the avenues leading to it; and so
loading the bridge by which the castle is approached, that
it seemed ready to sink into the rapid Tiber below. There
are statues on this bridge (execrable works), and, among
them, great vessels full of burning tow were placed : glaring
strangely on the faces of the crowd, and not less strangely
on the stone counterfeits above them.

The show began with a tremendous discharge of cannon ;
and then, for twenty minutes or half an hour, the whole
castle was one incessant sheet of fire, and labyrinth of blazing
wheels of every colour, size, and speed : while rockets streamed
into the sky, not by ones or twos, or scores, but hundreds at
a time. The concluding burst the Girandola was like the
blowing up into the air of the whole massive castle, without
smoke or dust.

In half an hour afterwards, the immense concourse had
dispersed ; the moon was looking calmly down upon her
wrinkled image in the river; and half-a-dozen men and boys,
with bits of lighted candle in their hands : moving here and


there, in search of anything worth having, that might have
been dropped in the press : had the whole scene to themselves.

By way of contrast we rode out into old ruined Rome,
after all this firing and booming, to take our leave of the
Coliseum. I had seen it by moonlight before (I could never
get through a day without going back to it), but its tre-
mendous solitude that night is past all telling. The ghostly
pillars in the Forum ; the Triumphal Arches of Old Emperors ;
those enormous masses of ruins which were once their palaces ;
the grass-grown mounds that mark the graves of ruined
temples ; the stones of the Via Sacra, smooth with the tread
of feet in ancient Rome; even these were dimmed, in their
transcendent melancholy, by the dark ghost of its bloody
holidays, erect and grim; haunting the old scene; despoiled
by pillaging Popes and fighting Princes, but not laid ; wring-
ing wild hands of weed, and grass, and bramble ; and lament-
ing to the night in every gap and broken arch the shadow
of its awful self, immovable !

As we lay down on the grass of the Campagna, next day,
on our way to Florence, hearing the larks sing, we saw that
a little wooden cross had been erected on the spot where the
poor Pilgrim Countess was murdered. So, we piled some
loose stones about it, as the beginning of a mound to her
memory, and wondered if we should ever rest there again,
and look back at Rome.


WE are bound for Naples ! And we cross the threshold of
the Eternal City at yonder gate, the Gate of San Giovanni
Laterano, where the two last objects that attract the notice
of a departing visitor, and the two first objects that attract
the notice of an arriving one, are a proud church and a
decaying ruin good emblems of Rome.

Our way lies over the Campagna, which looks more solemn
on a bright blue day like this, than beneath a darker sky;
the great extent of ruin being plainer to the eye : and the
sunshine through the arches of the broken aqueducts, showing
other broken arches shining through them in the melancholy
distance. When we have traversed it, and look back from
Albano, its dark undulating surface lies below us like a
stagnant lake, or like a broad dull Lethe flowing round the
walls of Rome, and separating it from all the world ! How
often have the Legions, in triumphant march, gone glittering
across that purple waste, so silent and unpeopled now ! How
often has the train of captives looked, with sinking hearts,
upon the distant city, and beheld its population pouring out,
to hail the return of their conqueror ! What riot, sensuality
and murder, have run mad in the vast palaces now heaps of
brick and shattered marble ! What glare of fires, and roar
of popular tumult, and wail of pestilence arid famine, have
come sweeping over the wild plain where nothing is now
heard but the wind, and where the solitary lizards gambol
unmolested in the sun !

FONDI. 489

The train of wine-carts going into Rome, each driven by
a shaggy peasant reclining beneath a little gipsy-fashioned
canopy of sheepskin, is ended now, and we go toiling up into
a higher country where there are trees. The next day brings
us on the Pontine Marshes, wearily flat and lonesome, and
overgrown with brushwood, and swamped with water, but
with a fine road made across them, shaded by a long, long
avenue. Here and there, we pass a solitary guard-house ;
here and there a hovel, deserted, and walled up. Some
herdsmen loiter on the banks of the stream beside the road,
and sometimes a flat-bottomed boat, towed by a man, comes
rippling idly along it. A horseman passes occasionally,
carrying a long gun cross- wise on the saddle before him,
and attended by fierce dogs; but there is nothing else astir
save the wind and the shadows, until we come in sight of

How blue and bright the sea, rolling below the windows
of the inn so famous in robber stories ! How picturesque
the great crags and points of rock overhanging to-morrow's
narrow road, where galley-slaves are working in the quarries
above, and the sentinels who guard them lounge on the sea-
shore ! All night there is the murmur of the sea beneath
the stars ; and, in the morning, just at daybreak, the prospect
suddenly becoming expanded, as if by a miracle, reveals in
the far distance, across the sea there ! Naples with its islands,
and Vesuvius spouting fire ! Within a quarter of an hour,
the whole is gone as if it were a vision in the clouds, and
there is nothing but the sea and sky.

The Neapolitan frontier crossed, after two hours 1 travelling ;
and the hungriest of soldiers and custom-house* officers with
difficulty appeased; we enter, by a gateless portal, into the
first Neapolitan town Fondi. Take note of Fondi, in the
name of all that is wretched and beggarly.

A filthy channel of mud and refuse meanders down the
centre of the miserable streets, fed by obscene rivulets that
trickle from the abject houses. There is not a door, a


window, or a shutter; not a roof, a wall, a post, or a pillar,
in all Fondi, but is decayed, and crazy, and rotting away.
The wretched history of the town, with all its sieges and
pillages by Barbarossa and the rest, might have been acted
last year. How the gaunt dogs that sneak about the miser-
able streets, come to be alive, and undevoured by the people,
is one of the enigmas of the world.

A hollow-cheeked and scowling people they are ! All
beggars ; but that's nothing. Look at them as they gather
round. Some, are too indolent to come down-stairs, or are
too wisely mistrustful of the stairs, perhaps, to venture : so
stretch out their lean hands from upper windows, and howl;
others, come flocking about us, fighting and jostling one
another, and demanding, incessantly, charity for the love of
God, charity for the love of the Blessed Virgin, charity for
the love of all the Saints. A group of miserable children,
almost naked, screaming forth the same petition, discover
that they can see themselves reflected in the varnish of the
carriage, and begin to dance and make grimaces, that they
may have the pleasure of seeing their antics repeated in this
mirror. A crippled idiot, in the act of striking one of them
who drowns his clamorous demand for charity, observes his
angry counterpart in the panel, stops short, and thrusting
out his tongue, begins to wag his head and chatter. The
shrill cry raised at this, awakens half-a-dozen wild creatures
wrapped in frowsy brown cloaks, who are lying on the church-
steps with pots and pans for sale. These, scrambling up,
approach, and beg defiantly. " I am hungry. Give me
something. Listen to me, Signor. I am hungry ! " Then,
a ghastly old woman, fearful of being too late, comes hobbling
down the street, stretching out one hand, and scratching her-
self all the way with the other, and screaming, long before
she can be heard, " Charity, charity ! Ill go and pray for
you directly, beautiful lady, if you'll give me charity ! "
Lastly, the members of a brotherhood for burying the dead :
hideously masked, and attired in shabby black robes, white


at the skirts, with the splashes of many muddy winters:
escorted by a dirty priest, and a congenial cross-bearer:
come hurrying past. Surrounded by this motley concourse,
we move out of Fondi : bad bright eyes glaring at us, out
of the darkness of every crazy tenement, like glistening frag-
ments of its filth and putrefaction.

A noble mountain-pass, with the ruins of a fort on a
strong eminence, traditionally called the Fort of Fra Diavolo ;
the old town of Itri, like a device in pastry, built up, almost
perpendicularly, on a hill, and approached by long steep
flights of steps ; beautiful Mola di Gaeta, whose wines, like
those of Albano, have degenerated since the days of Horace,
or his taste for wine was bad : which is not likely of one who
enjoyed it so much, and extolled it so well ; another night
upon the road at St. Agatha; a rest next day at Capua,
which is picturesque, but hardly so seductive to a traveller
now, as the soldiers of Praetorian Rome were wont to find
the ancient city of that name ; a flat road among vines
festooned and looped from tree to tree ; and Mount Vesuvius
close at hand at last ! its cone and summit whitened with
snow ; and its smoke hanging over it, in the heavy atmosphere
of the day, like a dense cloud. So we go, rattling down hill,
into Naples.

A funeral is coming up the street, towards us. The body,
on an open bier, borne on a kind of palanquin, covered with
a gay cloth of crimson and gold. The mourners, in white
gowns and masks. If there be death abroad, life is well
represented too, for all Naples would seem to be out of
doors, and tearing to and fro in carriages. Some of these,
the common Vetturino vehicles, are drawn by three horses
abreast, decked with smart trappings and great abundance of
brazen ornament, and always going very fast. Not that their
loads are light ; for the smallest of them has at least six
people inside, four in front, four or five more hanging on
behind, and two or three more, in a net or bag below the
axle-tree, where they lie half-suffocated with mud and dust.


Exhibitors of Punch, buffo singers with guitars, reciters of
poetry, reciters of stories, a row of cheap exhibitions with
clowns and showmen, drums, and trumpets, painted cloths
representing the wonders within, and admiring crowds
assembled without, assist the whirl and bustle. Ragged
lazzaroni lie asleep in doorways, archways, and kennels ;
the gentry, gaily dressed, are dashing up and down in
carriages on the Chiaja, or walking in the Public Gardens ;
and quiet letter- writers, perched behind their little desks and
inkstands under the Portico of the Great Theatre of San
Carlo, in the public street, are waiting for clients.

Here is a galley-slave in chains, who wants a letter written
to a friend. He approaches a clerkly-looking man, sitting
under the corner arch, and makes his bargain. He has
obtained permission of the sentinel who guards him : who
stands near, leaning against the wall and cracking nuts. The
galley-slave dictates in the ear of the letter- writer, what he
desires to say ; and as he can't read writing, looks intently
in his face, to read there whether he sets down faithfully
what he is told. After a time, the galley-slave becomes dis-
cursive incoherent. The secretary pauses and rubs his chin.
The galley-slave is voluble and energetic. The secretary, at
length, catches the idea, and with the air of a man who
knows how to word it, sets it down ; stopping, now and then,
to glance back at his text admiringly. The galley-slave is
silent. The soldier stoically cracks his nuts. Is there any-
thing more to say ? inquires the letter-writer. No more.
Then listen, friend of mine. He reads it through. The
galley-slave is quite enchanted. It is folded, and addressed,
and given to him, and he pays the fee. The secretary falls
back indolently in his chair, and takes a book. The galley-
slave gathers up an empty sack. The sentinel throws away
a handful of nut-shells, shoulders his musket, and away they
go together.

Why do the beggars rap their chins constantly, with their
right hands, when you look at them? Everything is done


in pantomime in Naples, and that is the conventional sign
for hunger. A man who is quarrelling with another, yonder,
lays the palm of his right hand on the back of his left, and
shakes the two thumbs expressive of a donkey "s ears
whereat his adversary is goaded to desperation. Two people
bargaining for fish, the buyer empties an imaginary waist-
coat pocket when he is told the price, and walks away with-
out a word : having thoroughly conveyed to the seller that
he considers it too dear. Two people in carriages, meeting,
one touches his lips, twice or thrice, holding up the five
fingers of his right hand, and gives a horizontal cut in the
air with the palm. The other nods briskly, and goes his
way. He has been invited to a friendly dinner at half-past
five o'clock, and will certainly come.

All over Italy, a peculiar shake of the right hand from
the wrist, with the forefinger stretched out, expresses a
negative the only negative beggars will ever understand.
But, in Naples, those five fingers are a copious language.

All this, and every other kind of out-door life and stir,
and maccaroni-eating at sunset, and flower-selling all day
long, and begging and stealing everywhere and at all hours,
you see upon the bright sea-shore, where the waves of
the bay sparkle merrily. But, lovers and hunters of the
picturesque, let us not keep too studiously out of view the
miserable depravity, degradation, and wretchedness, with
which this gay Neapolitan life is inseparably associated ! It
is not well to find Saint Giles's so repulsive, and the Porta
Capuana so attractive. A pair of naked legs and a ragged
ml scarf, do not make all the difference between what is
interesting and what is coarse and odious? Painting and
poetising for ever, if you will, the beauties of this most
beautiful and lovely spot of earth, let us, as our duty, try
to associate a new picturesque with some faint recognition
of man's destiny and capabilities ; more hopeful, I believe,
among the ice and snow of the North Pole, than in the sun
and bloom of Naples.


Capri once made odious by the deified beast Tiberius
Ischia, Procida, and the thousand distant beauties of the Bay,
lie in the blue sea yonder, changing in the mist and sunshine
twenty times a-day : now close at hand, now far off, now
unseen. The fairest country in the world, is spread about

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 28) → online text (page 40 of 43)