Excursions Near Rome
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The excursions in the neighborhood of Rome are charming, and would be full of interest were it only for the changing views they afford of the wild Campagna. But every inch of ground in every direction is rich in associations, and in natural beauties. There is Albano, with its lovely lake and wooded shore, and with its wine, that certainly has not improved since the days of Horace, and in these times hardly justifies his panegyric. There is squalid Tivoli, with the river Anio, diverted from its course, and plunging down, headlong. some eighty feet in search of it, with its picturesque Temple of the Sibyl, perched high on a crag; its minor waterfalls glancing and sparkling in the sun; and one good cavern yawning darkly, where the river takes a fearful plunge and shoots on, low down under beetling rocks.
There, too, is the Villa d'Este, deserted and decaying among groves of melancholy pine and cypress-trees, where it seems to lie in state. Then, there is Frascati, and, on the steep above it, the ruins of Tusculum, where Cicero lived, and wrote, and adorned his favorite house (some fragments of it may yet be seen there), and where Cato was born. We saw its ruined amphitheater on a gray, dull day, when a shrill March wind was blowing, and when the scattered stones of the old city lay strewn about the lonely eminence, as desolate and dead as the ashes of a long-extinguished fire.
One day we walked out, a little party of three, to Albano, fourteen miles distant ; possest by a great desire to go there by the ancient Appian Way, long since ruined and overgrown. We started at half-past seven in the morning, and within an hour or so were out upon the open Campagna. For twelve miles we went climbing on, over an unbroken succession of mounds, and heaps, and hills of ruin. Tombs and temples, overthrown and prostrate; small fragments of columns, friezes, pediments; great blocks of granite and marble; moldering arches grass-grown and decayed; ruin enough to build a spacious city from; lay strewn about us. Sometimes loose walls, built up from these fragments by the shepherds, came across our path; sometimes a ditch, between two mounds of broken stones, obstructed our progress; sometimes, the fragments themselves, rolling from beneath our feet, made it a toilsome matter to advance; but it was always ruin. Now, we tracked a piece of the old road above the ground; now traced it underneath a grassy covering, as if that were its grave; but all the way was ruin.
In the distance, ruined aqueducts went stalk ing on their giant course along the plain; and every breath of wind that swept toward us, stirred early flowers and grasses, springing up, spontaneously, on miles of ruin. The unseen larks above us, who alone disturbed the awful silence, had their nests in ruin; and the fierce herdsmen, clad in sheepskins, who now and then scowled out upon us from their sleeping nooks, were housed in ruin. The aspect of the desolate Campagna in one direction, where it was most level, reminded me of an American prairie; but what is the solitude of a region where men have never dwelt, to that of a desert, where a mighty race have left their footprints in the earth from which they have vanished; where the resting-places of their dead have fallen like their dead; and the broken hour-glass of Time is but a heap of idle dust ! Returning by the road at sunset, and looking, from the distance, on the course we had taken in the morning, I almost felt (as I had felt when I first saw it, at that hour) as if the sun would never rise again, but looked its last, that night, upon a ruined world.
To come again to Rome, by moonlight, after such an expedition, is a fitting close to such a day. The narrow streets, devoid of footways, and choked, in every obscure corner, by heaps of dunghill-rubbish, contrast so strongly, in their cramped dimensions, and their filth and darkness, with the broad square before some haughty church; in the center of which, a hieroglyphiccovered obelisk, brought from Egypt in the days of the Emperors, looks strangcly on the foreign scene about it; or perhaps an ancient pillar, with its honored statue overthrown, supports a Christian saint; Marcus Aurelius giving place to Paul, and Trajan to St. Peter. Then, there are the ponderous buildings reared from the spoliation of the Coliseum, shutting out the moon, like mountains; while here and there are broken arches and rent walls, through which it gushes freely,, as the life comes pouring from a wound. The little town of miserable houses, walled, and shut in by barred gates, is the quarter where the Jews are locked up nightly, when the clock strikes eight—a miserable place, densely populated, and reeking with bad odors, but where the people are industrious and money-getting. In the daytime, as you make your way along the narrow streets, you see them all at work —upon the pavement, oftener than in their dark and frowsy shops; furbishing old clothes, and driving bargains.
Crossing from these patches of thick darkness out into the moon once more, the fountain of Trevi, welling from a hundred jets, and rolling over mimic rocks, is silvery to the eye and ear. In the narrow little throat of street beyond, a booth drest out with flaring lamps, and boughs of trees, attracts a group of sulky Romans around its smoky coppers of hot broth, and cauliflower stew; its trays of fried fish, and its flasks of wine. As you rattle around the sharply twisting corner, a lumbering sound is heard. The coachman stops abruptly, and uncovers, as a van comes slowly by, preceded by a man who bears a large cross; by a torch-bearer, and a priest; the latter chanting as he goes. It is the dead-cart, with the bodies of the poor, on their way to burial in the Sacred Field outside the walls, where they will be thrown into the pit that will be covered with a stone tonight, and sealed up for a year.
But whether, in this ride, you pass by obelisks, or columns, ancient temples, theaters, houses, porticoes or forums, it is strange to see how every fragment, whenever it is possible, has been blended into some modern structure, and made to serve some modern purpose—a wall, a dwelling-place, a granary, a stable—some use for which it never was designed, and associated with which it can net otherwise than lamely assort.