Vignettes of travel. Some comparative sketches in England and Italy ([1880]) by William Nevin

Vignettes of travel. Some comparative sketches in England and Italy ([1880])
Nevin, William Wilberforce, 1836-1899


The streets of old Genoa range from three feet to
twenty in width. Of course, sunlight never strikes
the flagstones of the three-feet avenues. They must
be delightful summer resorts, but at this time are rather
chilly, even when some parts of the town are bright
with warm sunshine and redolent with exotic perfumes.
My own room in this aristocratic old hotel has proba-
bly never seen the sunshine for five hundred years.
When I want sunlight I do as I suppose the old
Knights of Malta did, go out and find it on the hills
or open piazzas, where the Genoese eat confections and
drink the Falernian wines so thoroughly advertised by
Horace.

It is strange, however, how the result of centuries of
ignorance and poverty and oppression is to make a land
outwardly picturesque and beautiful. In all Genoa
there is hardly a point from which every view is not a
picture. You stand anywhere in the old streets, turn
in any direction, and you wish you had the painter's
pencil. There is a poetic effect of the lines of the
buildings as well as in the movement and pose of the
people, and when you add the skies of Italy and the
fruits, flowers, and perfumes of the Mediterranean, life
is a poem, and you feel as if it might be better to live
here in bodily poverty than to exist elsewhere under
colder suns and a less sympathetic nature.

In this beautiful and picturesque city, where every
view is a scene striking with arches and terraces and
statuary and ruined walls; where the air is redolent
with the perfumes of almond and magnolia and orange;
where brilliant flowers flash from half-concealed gardens
and droop down from balconies and towers ; where
light-hearted people, clad in the brightest of colors, go
singing all the day long; where the altars of the
churches are set with stage effect, and in them music
rolls and surges from morning to night ; where the
streets, crowded with priests and soldiers in contrasting
uniforms, with ragged muleteers and laughing children,
present the effect of a continuous carnival, you cannot
for the life of you avoid the feeling that the whole
thing is a play, an elaborate and well-produced opera,
whose scenic effects will dissolve, and whose music will
hush with the near tinkling of the call-bell as the cur-
tain drops. Nevertheless, these people have been living
this life for centuries, and their fathers, who were like
them, have done some great things. The Italians of
to-day are great grown-up children. They have the
happy carelessness of children and their outward aban-
don, their love for the beautiful, their enjoyment of
the moment, their unselfish kindness and sympathy.

In this remarkable church, which exists now just as
it did five hundred years ago, whichever way you look,
long aisles of Gothic arched columns stretch away like
the trees of the forest. Under them kneeling groups
cluster, or entering worshippers move noiselessly for-
ward like ants. So great is the grand nave, so wide
the dark aisles, so high the fretted ceiling, that you do
not hear the feet of rude men and wooden-shod peasant
women as they tramp the marble floor. The noble
dead of mediaeval ages sleep in their stone coffins about
you in peaceful and eternal rest. The organ rolls, the
clouds of incense float upward, and by their tombs the
same rhythmic prayers ascend that these men heard
here in their lifetimes. All around in niches and
chapels stand fine statues, not the morbid and ascetic
work of a later period, but after the more human fash-
ion of the antique, rejoicing in the beauty and loveliness
of the human figure. In front, against a dark back-
ground of ancient, rich wood-carving panelling the
walls and covering the stalls of the choir, stands out
the great main altar, splendid in its mass of silver and
its hundred lights, glittering with jewels and gleaming
crosses, and the gold-worked robes of the priests, and
you think of Jupiter come down to see Danse. The
time has? passed when religion can be taught or en-
forced by dramatic effects. The aesthetic fable of classic
legend, and the lower theatrical splendors of the
mediaeval altar, have both had their day, have both
served, perhaps, a useful purpose, and are both equally
useless for good in this day and generation.

They had a pleasure in the life and strength of the
human body ; they delighted in depicting the beauty
and symmetry of its form. Their art was the child of
Greece as well as of the hardy Gothic North, and there
is often a curious simplicity in the mixture of classic
and Christian legend in their sculpture. Their churches
are bright with statuary fashioned after the antique,
light and graceful with an architecture of delicate lines
and tracery that seem to float and carry up the build-
ings into the air. They are lavishly dowered with
ornament. All that is beautiful in art, all the treasures
of wealth, have been poured into them without stint or
measure, lovely statues, precious stones, rare paintings,
curiously-carved pulpits with whole lives of legend
told in marble on their panels, altars that are solid
masses of silver. The people who built these churches,
so white and pure and delicate, had a cheerful religion,
a faith of love and trust and hope. It was something
that was the natural outgrowth and development of the
sunshine and smiling fields of Tuscany, lustrous with
the rich foliage of their olives, and wreathed and fes-
tooned and garlanded with grapes. It was the natural
incense of happy Italy ascending to heaven, something
very different from the slavish superstition and morbid
religion that hang like a pall over this land to-day,
when men have lost their sense of the living Christ in
the worship of His dead body and of death.

It was my fortune to be in Pistoja on the Sunday of
the feast of Corpus Christi. I had seen the procession
also in Massa, a much ruder place, a few days previous.
The feature of this feast is a procession in which the
consecrated wafer or, as it is always popularly called
here on this feast, the body of Christ is carried by
the bishop through the streets for the adoration of the
people. The sight of this spectacle gives one a very
good idea of the popular religion. In Massa the sacred
burden was followed immediately by a brass band, and
was preceded by bands of peasants and little children,
marshalled by nuns, bearing tapers and singing hymns,
a rude procession, but rather effective at a distance.
Here the ceremonies were more elegant, and the scene
in the church very brilliant and in good taste as well
as picturesque, the white masks of the penitents, the
long white veils of the girls, the lilies and the roses,
the gleaming wax-lights, the bending and kneeling
worshippers, the clouds of incense, and the radiating
splendors of the altar, a shaking mass of flame and gold
and silver, making a very dramatic tableau.

It is this greatness of Rome, swallowing up time and
history, which, like the infinity of the ocean, draws all
men to it with an irresistible fascination, as if it were a
pleasure to lose themselves in its Limitless existence, and
which creates that insatiable longing to return, to be
forever in it and of it, which every strong man who
ever saw the Eternal City has confessed. This inde-
finable sense of Rome which takes possession of one
with a kind of pantheistic force, and often by some odd
power of association involuntarily floods his whole
being at the mere passing memory of its laughing-eyed
beggars, its incense-smelling churches, its corporeal
smells wandering from dirty courts, its aromatic Pin-
cian or the sunny, humble Trastevere, this strange
compelling sense is the evidence of the spell of its his-
toric incantation. And those blessed ones to whom it
comes are they who have drank of the real waters of
the fountain of Trevi.

Pushing up these steps you come on an entrance to
the piazza of the modern Capitol, flanked on three sides
with historic and handsome marble palaces, and filled
with statuary familiar, and some of it clear, to the art
world. Even the roofs around the entire square are
lined with ranks of colossal statues of the heroes and
great men of Rome, standing like sentinels forever.
Resisting the temptation to loiter here, but going still
further on and up the picturesque stairs, worn half into
ruin by the use of ages, I came by a sharp turn on a
half-hidden side entrance to one of the most striking
and historically interesting of the churches of Rome,
the Ara Cceli. It was a fete day, and as I pushed aside
the heavy leathern curtain which masked the entrance
a stifling cloud of incense swept out into the air with
the prayers and music. Endless wax lights from altars
in every direction half illuminated the vast building,
throwing moving shadows here, reflecting back there
with a half lurid glare from the scarlet-draped columns.
More like an English cathedral than a Unman church,
this building was crowded with the tombs and busts and
names of the great dead, nobles, princes, cardinals,
pop'-s. Every foot of the lloor of this church was
paved with tablets, elli^ies, and strangely etched stones
covering graves. These etched pictures were mostly
worn to barely traceable lines, the inscriptions almost
obliterated, and the effigies had generally their noses,
faces, and all salient limbs worn bare and flat by the
feet of the worshipping multitudes who had trodden
there for hundreds of years.

The environs of the town here are for this season
very beautiful and attractive. As you pass along the
road you catch continuous glimpses of homes of ease
and elegance and refinement hidden in tlfe trees or
nestling quietly and warmly in the midst of broad and
abounding acres, golden now with wheat, and bordered
by thorn-hedges red and fragrant with roses.

This is the every-night opera of Venice, music,
flowers, costumes, statuary, columns, arcaded vistas,
moonlights, star, legended trophies, golden paintings.
Do we wonder that, with all this luxury as an inheri-
tance and education, the Venetian of to-day has grown
somewhat indolent, and takes his exercise in sleeping
in a gondola or inhaling the fragrance of a flower in
some arched and grated palace window?

This quiet and beautiful spot, covered with violets,
swept softly by fragrant winds, sleeping, as it were,
out of the world, is so restful and soothing that it has
a singular charm for all who see it. Shelly sang it long
ago
"Where, like an infant's smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread."

OXFORD the ford where, in old Saxon times, the
oxen crossed the river, and now the ford where, for five
hundred years, England's youth have crossed a greater
stream is a charming picture of rest and sylvan beauty,
an academic idyl. It is a picturesque old place of
that medisevo-ecclesiastical architecture, half religious,
half military, which tells so impressively the story of
its day ; a town of towers and turrets and spires ; of
ancient walls and buttresses and quaint gargoyles ; of
glorious stained-glass windows, oriel and rose and
arched and Catharine; of lovely academic garden-
parks; of quadrangles and chapels and cloisters for
the monks of letters; of forgotten bastions and re-
doubts, and long, stern walls with battlemented walks,
now peacefully crumbling under ivy and roses; of
stately oaks and beeches, and grand old trees venerable
with moss and lichen and tenderly watched and cared
for in their green old age ; of Gothic arches and gate-
ways and falling ruins ; of wooded walks and gentle
waters ; of smooth, soft meadows, all shaven and shorn,
" and fields of living green ;" of noble bits of forest,
carefully tended and stocked with antlered tenants ;
of prisons of the martyrs and precious altars where, in
flame and fire, they won their crowns ; of crosses and
statues of great men and good women and strange
beasts, grotesque symbolic images in stone ; of quiet
churchyards and chiming bells and peaceful graves;
of gray stone and clinging green and ancient gables ;
of scented gardens filled with old-fashioned English
flowers with homely Saxon names ; of rustic inns ; of
classic streams and time-stained halls consecrated by the
traditions of faith and learning, and hallowed with the
names and memories of the great and good of England,
" Were ever river-banks so fair,
Gardens so fit for nightingales, as these?
Was ever town so rich in court and tower?"