Samuel Finley Breese Morse.

Samuel F. B. Morse; his letters and journals, ed. and supplemented by his son Edward Lind Morse; (Volume 1) online

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Online LibrarySamuel Finley Breese MorseSamuel F. B. Morse; his letters and journals, ed. and supplemented by his son Edward Lind Morse; (Volume 1) → online text (page 26 of 31)
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dome and the piazza. The change from the smaller to
the larger illumination is one of the grandest spectacles
I ever beheld.

"The lanterns which are prof usely scattered over it,


showing its whole form in lines of fire, glow brighter and
brighter as the evening advances from twilight to dark,
till it seems impossible for its brilliance to increase. The
crowds below, on foot and in carriages, are in breathless
expectation. The great bell of St. Peter's at length
strikes the hour of nine, and, at the first stroke, a great
ball of light is seen ascending the cross to its pinnacle.
This is the signal for thousands of assistants, who are
concealed over its vast extent, to light the great lamps,
and in an instant all is motion, the whole mass is like a
living thing, fire whirling and flashing over it in all direc-
tions, till the vast pile blazes as if lighted with a thou-
sand suns. The effect is truly magical, for the agents by
whom this change is wrought are invisible."

After the illumination of St. Peter's he went to the
Castle of St. Angelo where he witnessed what he de-
scribes as the grandest display of fireworks he had ever

" Tuesday, June 29. This day is St. Peter's day, the
grandest festa of the Romish Church. I went with Mr. B.
early to St. Peter's to see the ceremonies. The streets
were filled with equipages, among which the splendid
scarlet-and-gold equipages of the cardinals made the
most conspicuous figure. Cardinal Weld's carriage was
the richest, and next in magnificence was that of Cardi-
nal Barberini.

"On entering St. Peter's we found it hung through-
out with crimson damask and gold and filled with people,
except a wide space in the centre with soldiers on each
side to keep it open for the procession. We passed up
near the statue of St. Peter, who was to-day dressed out
in his papal robes, his black face (for it is of bronze)


looking rather frightful from beneath the splendid tiara
which crowned his head, and the scarlet-and-gold tissue
of his robes.

" Having a little time to spare, we followed a portion
of the crowd down the steps beside the pedestal of the
statue of St. Veronica into the vaults beneath the church,
which are illuminated on this festival. Mass was per-
forming in several of the splendid chapels, whose rich
decorations of paintings and sculpture are but once a
year revealed to the light, save from the obscure glim-
mering of the wax-taper, which is carried by the guide,
to occasional visitors. It is astonishing what a vast
amount of expense is here literally buried.

"The ornamented parts are beneath the dome; the
other parts are plain, heavy arches and low, almost
numberless, and containing the sarcophagi of the Popes
and other distinguished characters. The illumination
here was confined to a single lamp over each arch, which
rather made darkness visible and gave an awful effect to
some of the gloomier passages.

" In one part we saw, through a long avenue of arches,
an iron-grated door; within was a dim light which just
sent its feeble rays upon some objects in its neighbor-
hood, not strong enough to show what they were. It
required no great effort of the imagination to fancy an
emaciated, spectral figure of a monk poring over a
large book which lay before him. It might have been as
we imagined; we had not time to examine, for the sound
of music far above us summoned us into the regions of
day again, and we arrived in the body of the church just
as the trumpets were sounding from the balcony within
the church over the great door of entrance. The effect


of the sound was very grand, reverberating through the
lofty arches and aisles of the church.

"We got sight of the head of the procession coming in
at the great door, and soon after the Pope, borne in his
crimson chair of state, and with the triple crown upon
his head and a crimson, gold-embroidered mantilla over
his shoulders, was seen entering accompanied by his
fan-bearers and other usual attendants, and after him
the cardinals and bishops. The Pope, as usual, made the
sign of the cross as he went.

" The procession passing up the great aisle went round
to the back of the great altar, where was the canopy for
the Pope and seats for the cardinals and bishops. The
Pope is too feeble to go through the ceremony of high
mass; it was, therefore, performed before him by one of
the cardinals. There was nothing in this ceremony that
was novel or interesting; it was the same monotonous
chant from the choir, the same numberless bowings, and
genuflections, and puffings of incense, and change of
garments, and fussing about the altar. All that was new
was the constant bustle about the Pope, kissing of his
toe and his hand, helping him to rise and to sit again,
bringing and taking away of cushions an^l robes and
tiaras and mitres, and a thousand other little matters
that would have enraged any man of weak nerves, if it
did not kill him. After two hours of this tedious work
(the people in the mean time perfectly inattentive), the
ceremony ended, and the Pope was again borne through
the church and the crowd returned."

On July 7, Morse, with four friends, left Rome at four
o'clock in the morning for Naples, where they arrived on
the llth after the usual experiences; beggars continually


marring the peaceful beauty of every scene by their
importunities; good inns, with courteous landlords and
servants, alternating with wretched taverns and inso-
lent attendants. The little notebook detailing the first
ten days' experiences in Naples is missing, and the next
one takes up the narrative on July 24, when he and his
friends are in Sorrento. I shall not transcribe his im-
pressions of that beautiful town or those of the island of
Capri. These places are too familiar to the visitor to
Italy and have changed but little in the last eighty years.

From Capri they were rowed over to Amalfi, and
narrowly escaped being dashed on the rocks by the sud-
den rising of a violent gale. At Amalfi they found lodg-
ings in the Franciscan monastery, which is still used as
an inn, and here I shall again quote from the journal :

"The place is in decay and is an excellent specimen of
their monastic buildings. It is now in as romantic a
state as the most poetic imagination could desire. Here
are gloomy halls and dark and decayed rooms; long cor-
ridors of chambers, uninhabited except by the lizard and
the bat ; terraces upon the brow of stupendous precipices ;
gloomy cells with grated windows, and subterranean
apartments and caverns. Remains of rude frescoes stain
the crumbling ceiling, and ivy and various wild plants
hang down from the opening crevices and cover the tops
of the broken walls.

"A rude sundial, without a gnomon, is almost oblit-
erated from the wall of the cloisters, but its motto, "Dies
nostri quasi umbra super terram et nulli est mora, y still
resists the effects of decay, as if to serve the appropriate
purpose of the convent's epitaph. At the foot of the
long stairs in the great hall is the ruined chapel, its


altar broken up and despoiled of its pictures and orna-

"We were called to dinner by our host, who was
accompanied by his wife, a very pretty woman, two
children, the elder carried by the mother, the younger by
the old grandparent, an old man of upwards of eighty,
who seemed quite pleased with his burden and delighted
to show us his charge. The whole family quite prepos-
sessed us in their favor ; there seemed to be an unusual
degree of affection displayed by the members towards
each other which we could not but remark at the time.
Our dining apartment was the old domus refectionis of
the convent, as its name, written over the door which
led into the choir, manifested. After an excellent dinner
we retired to our chambers for the night.

" Tuesday, July 27. We all rested but badly last
night. The heat was excessive, the insects, especially
mosquitoes, exceedingly troublesome, and the sound of
the waves, as they beat against the rocks and chafed the
beach in the gusty night, and the howling of the wind,
which for a time moaned through the deserted chambers
of the convent, all made us restless. I rose several times
in the night and, opening my window, looked out on the
dark waters of the bay, till the dawn over the mountains
warned me that the time for sleep was passing away, and
I again threw myself on the bed to rest. But scarcely
had I lost myself in sleep before the sound of loud voices
below and wailings again waked me. I looked out of my
window on the balcony below; it was filled with armed
men; soldiers and others like brigands with muskets
were in hurried commotion, calling to each other from
the balcony and from the terraced steps below.


"While perplexed in conjecturing the meaning of
what I saw, Mr. C. called at my door requesting me to
rise, as the whole house was in agitation at a terrible
accident which had occurred in the night. Dressing in
great haste, I went into the contiguous room and, look-
ing out of the window down upon a terrace some thirty
feet below, saw the lifeless body of a man, with spots of
blood upon his clothes, lying across the font of water.
A police officer with a band of men appeared, taking
down in writing the particulars for a report. On enquiry
I found that the body was that of the old man, the father
of our host, whom we had seen the evening before in
perfect health. He had the dangerous habit of walking
in his sleep and had jumped, it is supposed, in that state
out of his chamber window which was directly beneath
us; at what time in the night was uncertain. His body
must have been beneath me while I was looking from my
window in the night.

"Our host, but particularly his brother, seemed for
a time almost inconsolable. The lamentations of the
latter over the bloody body (as they were laying it out
in the room where we had the evening before dined),
calling upon his father and mingling his cries with a chant
to the Virgin and to the saints, were peculiarly plaintive,
and, sounding through the vacant halls of the convent,
made a melancholy impression upon us all. . . . Soon
after breakfast we went downstairs; several priests and
funeral attendants had arrived; the poor old man was
laid upon a bed, the room darkened, and four wax-
lights burned, two each side of the bed. A short time
was taken in preparation, and then upon a bier borne
by four bearers, a few preceding it with wax-lights, the


body, with the face exposed, as is usual in Italy, was
taken down the steep pathway to its long home.

"I could not help remarking the total want of that
decent deportment in all those officiating which marks
the conduct of those that attend the interment of the
dead in our own country. Even the priests seemed to be
in high glee, talking and heartily laughing with each
other; at what it perplexed me to conjecture.

" I went into the room in which the old man had slept;
all was as he had left it. Over the head of the bed were
the rude prints of the Virgin and saints, which are so
common in all the houses of Italy, and which are sup-
posed to act as charms by these superstitious people.
The lamp was on the window ledge where he had placed
it, and his scanty wardrobe upon a chair by the bedside.
Over the door was a sprig of laurel, placed there since
his death.

" The accident of the morning threw a gloom over the
whole day; we, however, commenced our sketches from
different parts of the convent, and I commenced a pic-
ture, a view of Amalfi from the interior of the grotto."

Several of the notebooks are here missing, and from
the next in order we find that the travellers must have
lingered in or near Sorrento until August 30, when they
returned to Naples.

The next entry of interest, while rather gruesome,
seems to be worth recording.

"Wednesday, September 1. Morning painting. In the
afternoon took a ride round the suburbs and visited the
Campo Santo. The Campo Santo is the public burial-
place. It is a large square enclosure having high walls
at the sides and open at the top. It contains three hun-


dred and sixty vaults, one of which is opened every day
to receive the dead of that day, and is not again opened
until all the others in rotation have been opened.

"As we entered the desolate enclosure the only living
beings were three miserable-looking old women gath-
ered together upon the stone of one of the vaults. They
sat as if performing some incantation, mumbling their
prayers and counting their beads; and one other of the
same fraternity, who had been kneeling before a picture,
left her position as we entered and knelt upon another
of the vaults, where she remained all the time we were
present, telling her beads.

" At the farther end of the enclosure was a large port-
able lever to raise the stones which covered the vaults.
Upon the promise of a few grains the stone of the vault
for the day was raised, and, with the precaution of hold-
ing our kerchiefs to our noses, we looked down into the
dark vault. Death is sufficiently terrible in itself, and
the grave in its best form has enough of horror to make
the stoutest heart quail at the thought, but nothing
I have seen or read of can equal the Campo Santo for
the most loathsome and disgusting mode of burial. The
human carcasses of all ages and sexes are here thrown
in together to a depth of, perhaps, twenty feet, without
coffins, in heaps, most of them perfectly naked, and left
to corrupt in a mass, like the offal from a slaughter house.
So disgusting a spectacle I never witnessed. There were
in sight about twenty bodies, men, women, and children.
A child of about six years, with beautiful fair hair, had
fallen across the body of a man and lay in the attitude
of sleeping.

"But I cannot describe the positions of all without

Painted by Morse. Property of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


offence, so I forbear. We were glad to turn away and
retrace our steps to our carriage. Never, I believe, in
any country, Christian or pagan, is there an instance of
such total want of respect for the remains of the dead."

On September 5, he again reverts to the universal
plague of beggars in Italy :

"In passing through the country you may not take
notice of a pretty child or seem pleased with it; so soon
as you do the mother will instantly importune you for
'qualche cosa' for the child. Neither can you ask for a
cup of cold water at a cottage door, nor ask the way to
the next village, nor even make the slightest inquiry of
a peasant on any subject, but the result will be * qualche
cosa, signore.' The first act which a child is taught in
Italy is to hold out its hand to beg. Children too young
to speak I have seen holding out their little hands for
that purpose, and so mechanical is this action that I
have seen, in one instance, a boy of nine years nodding
in his sleep and yet at regular intervals extending his
hand to beg. Begging is here no disgrace; on the con-
trary, it is made respectable by the customs of the

On September 6, after visiting the catacombs, he goes
to the Convent of St. Martino, and indulges in this
rhapsody :

"From a terrace and balcony two views of the beau-
tiful scenery of the city and bay are obtained. From
the latter place especially you look down upon the city
which is spread like a model far beneath you. There is
a great deal of the sublime in thus looking down upon
a populous city; one feels for the time separated from
the concerns of the world.


"We forget, while we consider the insignificance of
that individual man, moving in yonder street and who
is scarcely visible to us, that we ourselves are equally
insignificant. It is in such a situation that the superiority
of the mind over the body is felt. Paradoxical as it may
at first seem, its greatness is evinced in the feeling of
its own littleness. . . . After gazing here for a while we
were shown into the chapel through the choir. ... In
the sacristy is a picture of a dead Christ with the three
Marys and Joseph, by Spagnoletto, not only the finest
picture by that master, but I am quite inclined to say
that it is the finest picture I have yet seen. There is in
it a more perfect union of the great qualities of art,
fine conception, just design, admirable disposition of
chiaroscuro, exquisite color, whether truth is consid-
ered or choice of tone in congruity with the subject's
most masterly execution and just character and expres-
sion. If any objection were to be made it would, per-
haps, be in the particular of character, which, in eleva-
tion, in ideality, falls far short of Raphael. In other
points it has not its superior."

Returning to Rome on September 14, the only entries
I find in the journal for the first few days are, "Painting
all day at home," and a short account of a soiree at the

"Monday, September 20. Began the portrait of the
celebrated sculptor Thorwaldsen. He is a most amiable
man and is universally respected. He was never married.
In early life he had two children by a mistress; one, a
daughter, is now in a convent. It was said that a noble
lady of England, of great fortune, became attached to
him, and he no less to her, but that the circumstance of


his having two illegitimate children prevented a mar-
riage. He is the greatest sculptor of the age. I have
studied his works; they are distinguished for simple
dignity, just expression, and truth in character and
design. The composition is also characterized by sim-
plicity. These qualities combined endow them with
that beauty which we so much admire in the works of
Greece, whether in literature or art. Thorwaldsen can-
not be said to imitate the antique; he rather seems to be
one born in the best age of Grecian art; imbued with the
spirit of that age, and producing from his own resources
kindred works."

The following letter was written by Morse before he
left Rome for Naples, but can be more appropriately
introduced at this point :


MY DEAR SIR, I had hoped to have the pleasure of
painting your portrait, for which you were so good as to
promise to sit, before I left Rome for Naples; but the
weather is becoming so oppressive, and there being a
party of friends about to travel the same road, I have
consented to join them. I shall return to Rome in Sep-
tember or October, and I therefore beg you will allow
me then to claim the fulfilment of your kind promise.

What a barrier, my dear sir, is difference of language
to social intercourse! I never felt the curse that befell
the architects of Babel so sensibly as now, since, as one
of the effects of their folly, I am debarred from the
gratification and profit which I had promised myself in
being known to you.

With highest respect, etc.


Curiously enough, Morse never learned to speak a
foreign language fluently, although he could read quite
easily French and, I believe, German and Italian, and
from certain passages in his journal we infer that he
could make himself understood by the Italians.

The portrait of Thorwaldsen was completed and be-
came the property of Philip Hone, Esq., who had given
Morse a commission to paint a picture for one hundred
dollars, the subject to be left to the discretion of the
artist. Mr. Hone valued the portrait highly, and it
remained in his gallery until his death. It was then sold
and Morse lost track of it for many years. In 1868,
being particularly desirous of gaining possession of it
again, for a purpose which is explained in a letter quoted
a little farther on, he instituted a search for it, and finally
learned that it had been purchased by Mr. John Taylor
Johnston for four hundred dollars. Before he could en-
ter into negotiations for its purchase, Mr. Johnston heard
of his desire to possess it, and of his reasons for this wish,
and he generously insisted on presenting it to Morse.

I shall now quote the following extracts from a letter
written in Dresden, on January 23, 1868, to Mr. Johns-

MY DEAR SIR, Your letter of the 6th inst. is this
moment received, in which I have been startled by your
most generous offer presenting me with my portrait of
the renowned Thorwaldsen, for which he sat to me in
Rome in 1831.

I know not in what terms, my dear sir, to express to
you my thanks for this most acceptable gift. I made an
excursion to Copenhagen in the summer of 1856, as a


sort of devout pilgrimage to the tombs of two renowned
Danes, whose labors in their respective departments
the one, Oersted, of science, the other, Thorwaldsen, of
art have so greatly enriched the world.

The personal kindness of the late King Frederick
VII, who courteously received me at his castle of Fred-
ericksborg, through the special presentation of Colonel
Raslof (more recently the Danish Minister at Washing-
ton) ; the hospitalities of many of the principal citizens
of Copenhagen; the visits to the tomb and museum of
the works of Thorwaldsen, and to the room in which the
immortal Oersted made his brilliant electro-magnetic
discovery; the casual and accidental introduction and
interview with a daughter of Oersted, all created a
train of reflection which prompted me to devise some
suitable mode of showing to these hospitable people my
appreciation of their friendly attentions, and I proposed
to myself the presentation to His Majesty the King of
Denmark of this portrait of Thorwaldsen, for which he
sat to me in Rome, and with which I knew he was spe-
cially pleased.

My desire to accomplish this purpose was further
strengthened by the additional attention of the King at
a later period in sending me the decoration of his order
of the Danebrog. From the moment this purpose was
formed, twelve years ago, I have been desirous of ob-
taining this portrait, and watching for the opportunity
of possessing it again.

Here follows a detailed account of the circumstances
of the painting of the portrait and of its disappearance,
with which we are familiar, and he closes by saying:


"This brief history will show you, my dear sir, what
a boon you have conferred upon me. Indeed, it seems
like a dream, and if my most cordial thanks, not merely
for the gift, but for the graceful and generous manner
in which it has been offered, is any compensation, you
may be sure they are yours.

"These are no conventional words, but they come
from a heart that can gratefully appreciate the noble
sentiments which have prompted your generous act."

Returning from this little excursion into later years,
I shall take up the narrative again as revealed in the
notebooks. While occasionally visiting the opera and
the theatre, Morse does not altogether approve of them,
and, on September 21, he indulges in the following reflec-
tions on them and on the social evil :

"No females of openly dissolute character were seen,
such as occupy particular parts of the theatre in England
and America. Indeed, they never appear on the streets
of Rome in that unblushing manner as in London, and
even in New York and Philadelphia. It must not
from hence be inferred that vice is less frequent here
than elsewhere; there is enough of it, but it is carried on
in secret; it is deeper and preys more on the vitals of
society than with us. This vice with us, like a humor on
the skin, deforms the surface, but here it infects the very
heart ; the whole system is affected ; it is rotten to the core.

"Theatres here and with us are different institutions.
Here, where thousands for want of thought, or rather
matter for thought, would die of ennui, where it is an
object to escape from home and even from one's self, the
theatre serves the purpose of a momentary excitement.
A new piece, a new performer, furnishes matter for con-


versation and turns off the mind from the discussion of
points of theology or politics. The theatre is therefore
encouraged by the Government and is guarded against
the abuses of popular assemblage by strong military

"But what have we to do with theatres in America?
Have we not the whole world of topics for discussion or
conversation open to us? Is not truth in religion, poli-
tics, and science suffered to be assailed by enemies
freely, and does it not, therefore, require the time of all

Online LibrarySamuel Finley Breese MorseSamuel F. B. Morse; his letters and journals, ed. and supplemented by his son Edward Lind Morse; (Volume 1) → online text (page 26 of 31)