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Travel stories > Rome

We arrived at Rome at 11 p.m. The stillness of night increased the impressive awe that inspired us as we neared the "Eternal City. As we crossed the silent-rolling Tiber, and the reverberations of the railway bridge smote on our ears with a hollow, sepulchral sound, we felt, almost with a shiver, that we were entering a city of the dead.

However, we soon found that Rome was Imperial in her charges. Ultimately we were safely housed about midnight in the Hotel de la Ville, in the Piazza del Popolo, at the head of the Corso. Though perhaps a little out of the way and less conveniently situated than the more central hotels in the Piazza di Spagna, it has many advantages in comfort. This Hotel de la Ville was once the palace and museum of the Marquis Campana. It is surrounded by so-called "English gardens," beautifully decorated with columns, statues, fountains, and orange trees full of golden fruit.

The next morning, on rising, we felt the dream of many years was at last realized!
"Thou art truly a world, O Rome!" says Goethe; and we indeed felt it so, as, having breakfasted, we sallied forth, eager to begin our explorations. A plan of Rome may always be obtained at one's hotel, and it is well to study the streets, etc., and arrange one's campaign of sight-seeing.

The Corso, the main street in the city, is very narrow, and about a mile in length. Starting from the Piazza del Popolo, it extends to the foot of the Capitol. Most of the shops are situated here. The other principal thoroughfares are the Strada del Babbuina, ending in the Piazza di Spagna; and the Strada di Ripetta, leading to the Tiber. Most of the streets converge into the Piazza di Venezia. This corner of the city is usually known as the "Stranger's Quarter."
We went to the top of the Capitol, and, being the hour of noon, the great bell (which Garibaldi struck when he called the Romans "to arms") boomed out twelve mighty strokes with its immense clapper. Right over the Eternal City beneath me, and far away beyond the plains around it, lay that great range of bare mountains over which, in the day of her distress, poured Rome's Gothic enemies, in wild and overwhelming hordes.

Around lay the seven hills on which Rome was originally built. The Capitoline, on which I was standing, the Palatine, Quirinal, Cœlius, Aventine, Esquiline, Viminal. Some of them appeared merely green mounds, the remains of the wonderfully strong and ancient walls, and here and there the broken outline of some palace of the great Cæsars. Immediately beneath us lay the mighty Coliseum, the Forum, and other monuments of Rome's ancient grandeur and departed glory. Away to the north-west, across the muddy, silent Tiber, lay decaying papal Rome, crested by the dome of St. Peter's and the Vatican. Again, to the north-east, right over ancient Rome, and towards the Quirinal and Esquiline hills, young Italy.

On descending from the tower, we passed through storehouses filled with broken remains of figures, capitals, plinths, and other fragments disentombed from the Forum, etc. The three palaces which comprise the principal buildings of the modern Capitol were designed by Michael Angelo, and form three sides of a square. In the centre stands the noble equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The open side faces the modern part of Rome. The palace on the left side, or Capitoline Museum, as it is called, contains one of the finest collections of sculpture in Italy. It is quite a day's work to see it properly, but we had to be content with an hour or two.

Here we saw that most noble and pathetic presentment of Death, grappled with, and almost conquered, in the statue of the Dying Gladiator. The right arm was restored by Michael Angelo, and the guide informed me that by general agreement it should have been brought a little more forward, and that the great sculptor, although aware of it, was unable for some reason to restore it in this way. I think, however, that his conception as resting must be the right and natural posture, as the wounded man seems to depend on the support of that arm entirely, while struggling in the agonies of death. You may almost see the moisture on his manly brow, while in the intensely expressive face you catch glimpses of that lifetime which is passing across his memory in the space of a moment—thoughts of the wife and little ones in that far-away home to which he will never return. It is a fine subject, exquisitely conceived and executed, and worthily described in Byron's two immortal stanzas.

Upstairs, in a small rotunda-shaped temple, enshrined in a niche in the wall, we saw that most beautiful conception of womanhood, known as the Venus of the Capitol. She appears as though suddenly disturbed while taking her bath, and the expression of frightened innocence and maiden shame upon the face, and the graceful shrinking attitude of the limbs, form a picture of perfect purity and loveliness. I did not until then catch the full beauty of "the statue that enchants the world." An almost living memorial of the "Age of Beauty," there seems in this one radiant figure to be enfolded the whole wealth of love and loveliness that distinguished so richly those times when—
"Human hands first moulded, and then mocked

Yet one other masterpiece of ancient art we eagerly looked for was the marble Faun of Praxiteles, around which the graceful genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne has woven such a delicate web of romance, the figure itself being inimitably described in the opening chapter. But this and other immortal works are made familiar to us by so many gifted writers, that I need but to mention their names to conjure them in all their beauty to the eye of the intelligent reader, who instantly recalls to mind some beautiful passage in poetry or prose, to which any words I could pen would be superfluous

Close by the museum is the Church of Santa Maria di AraCœli, ascended by some 124 steps. Here we were reverently ushered by a monk into a little chapel, to see the Santissimo Bambino. After opening the shutter, he approached the altar, and from an iron door in the top drew out a drawer, inside which was a box; from this he carefully lifted out, reverently crossing himself as he touched it, a doll of wax or painted wood, supposed to be an image of the Infant Jesus. The legend runs, that an angel appeared in the porch of the church at midnight, and, ringing the bell, flew back to heaven, leaving the image of the Sacred Babe to the care of the church,

Between the Capitol and the Forum is the Mamertine prison, where among other illustrious captives were confined Jugurtha, Sejanus, and the Catiline conspirators; St. Paul, too, noblest of men, was here held in durance vile, and Popish tradition says St. Peter also. Passing through a little church, we were lighted down into a dark dungeon, and below this found another, communicating by narrow stone steps; but it is said the poor prisoners were dropped from the one to the other through a hole or trap-door. They were confined below until sentenced to death, when they were brought up the steps to the dungeon above, where they were executed, and their bodies thrown out for the satisfaction of the people thronging the Forum.

We did not omit to pay a visit to the palaces of the Cæsars, which lie clustered above and about the Forum. It is rather difficult to understand how the Romans obtained sufficient light for their dwellings, the rooms being generally small, and without external windows. What there was, however, usually came from above, as the courts were open; and also by radiation, the large marble tanks in these courts being filled with water, on which the descending light smote, and was dispersed around. There is a subterranean passage leading from the palaces to the Coliseum, which was made use of by the emperor and his suite for their transit thither; and a terribly anxious little journey that must often have been to the great Cæsars.

The grand old Coliseum still rears its crumpling walls proudly towards the skies, though almost two-thirds lie in ruins. The centre has been filled in with earth, so that we scarcely see the original bottom, but there is sufficient left to show clearly to what use this great amphitheatre was put. Here the gladiators fought, and the Christians and criminals were torn to pieces, to make sport for the countless multitudes sitting

It has been said that Byron's celebrated description of the Coliseum is better than the reality; that "he beheld the scene in his mind's eye, through the witchery of many intervening years, and faintly illumined it with starlight instead of the broad glow of moonshine." Be this as it may, the noble stanzas are all too well known to bear further quotation. The reader may possibly be less acquainted with the fine lines on the subject, which Longfellow has put in the mouth of Michael Angelo, in the fragmentary tragedy of that name lately published in America: "Tradition says that fifteen thousand men were toiling for ten years incessantly upon this amphitheatre. Behold”


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