Vernon Lee’s The Spirit of Rome: Leaves from a Diary is a favorite of mine. Lee, the nom de plume of Vivian Paget (1856–1935) is best known as a writer of supernatural fiction but also devoted her writing life to travel and aesthetics.
She was born October 14, so today is an appropriate time to remember her.
Her association with Rome was lifelong. As a child she lived in the city from age 12 to 17. These years, 1868–1873 were also pivotal for Rome, as the Papal States passed from existence and the city became the capital of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy. This change in political status included the migration of the governing class to Rome and alternation in the appearance and the way of life (in some ways) of the city.
The Spirit of Rome is an edited diary. It includes entries from 1888 to 1905. Lee provides no context interpreting them. The diary is not continuous, and the method of selection is not made clear to the reader. That’s part of the allure of the book; the reader is left to question how the pieces fit together.
I cannot focus Rome into any definite perspective, or see it in the colour of one mood. And whatever may have happened there to my small person has left no trace in what I have written. What I meet in Rome is Rome itself. Rome is alive (only the more so for its occasional air of death), and one is too busy loving, hating, being harassed or soothed, and ruminating over its contradictions, to remember much of the pains and joys which mere mortals have given one in its presence.
The value of The Spirit of Rome lies more in the crafting of vignettes that communicate observation and personal experience. She doesn’t require an authority or an intermediary to express a sense of life by evoking feelings through description and narration.
Here she is May 8, 1895 at Prima Porta at the Villa of Livia before it was excavated for museum display:
At Prima Porta, in this wilderness, a hillock of grass, descending into which you find a small chamber painted all round with a deep hedge of orchard and woodland plants, pomegranates, apples, arbtutus, small pines and spruce firs, all most lovingly and knowingly given, with birds nesting and pecking, in brilliant enamel like encaustic on an enamel blue sky.Coming home in the rain, Rome appears with cupola of St. Peter’s and Vatican gardens so disposed as to seen only a colossal sanctuary in the wilderness.
And on March 31, 1897, to the then open spaces around Tor Pignaturra east of the city:
Drove today with Maria outside Porta Maggiore. Stormy sunshine, the mountains blue, with patches of violet, like dark rainbow splendours, flashing out with white towns; cherry blossoms among the reeds, vague gardens with statues and bits of relief stuck about. Finally the circular domed tomb of Empress Helena, with a tiny church, a bit of orphanage built into, and all around the priest’s well-kept garden and orphans’ vegetable garden. A sound of harmonium and girls’ hymn issuing out of the ruin, on which grow against the sky great tufts of fennel, of stuff like London price (saxifrage urbium?) and of budding lentisk. This is Rome!
And in April 1904 in the city around the Teatro Marcello, before the neighborhood was bulldozed by Mussolini and its Romans forced to the suburban periphery:
We went in to see some people who are furnishing an apartment in Palazzo Orsini. A very Roman impression this: the central court of that fortified palace built into the theatre of Marcellus; lemons spaliered and rows of Tangerine trees, with little Moorish-looking fountains between; only the sky above, only the sound of the bubbling fountains.
You look out of a window and behold, close by, the unspeakable rag-fair of that foul quarter, with its yells and cries rising up and stench of cheap cooking. We saw some small Renaissance closets, still with their ceilings and fire-places, where tradition says a last Savelli was stabbed. A feudal fortress this, and, like those of the hills round Rome which these ruins mimic, raising its gardens and pompous rooms above the squalor of the mediæval village. Immediately below, the corridors of the theatre; below that, the shops, where pack-saddles, ploughs, scythes, wooden pails—the things of a village—are for sale in the midst of those black arches. And then the dining-room, library, bath-rooms of excellent New Englanders crowning it all; and in the chapel, their telephone! “Take care,” I said, “the message will come some day—not across space, but across time. Con chi parlo?” Well, say, The White Devil of Italy!
The ruminations on philosophic items found in The Spirit of Rome are less evocative. For example, her thoughts on death are banal and the evocation of a philosophical authority have the power to provoke yawns.
The entry from March 4, 1893 is a good example of this.
I was right, I think, when I wrote the other day that it would be easier for us to face the thought of danger, death, change, here in Rome than elsewhere. K. told me she felt it when we met at the Cemetery at her poor old aunt’s grave. To die here might seem, one would think, more like re-entering into the world’s outer existence, returning, as Epictetus has it,
where one is wanted”. The cypresses of the graveyard, there under the city walls, among the ruins, do not seem to unite folk with the terrible unity Death, so much as with the everlasting life of the centuries.
It’s hard to outdo Shelley when it comes to musings on death and graveyards in Rome and the non-Catholic cemetery there, which made him write in the preface to Adonais, his elegy for John Keats,
The cemetery is an open space among the ruins covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.
And then there is the exhortation to confrontation with the significance of death in the poem itself:Go thou to Rome—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shatter’d mountains rise,
And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
The bones of Desolation’s nakedness
Pass, till the spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread
The postscript to The Spirit of Rome was written in 1905. Lee addresses the absences on the printed page of those who formed her experience of Rome. Reading her diaries was a prompt to remembrance. This envoi gives the reader a sense of what is left invisible but still vivid in memory.
Yesterday morning, while looking through, with a view to copying out, my Roman notes of the last eighteen years, I felt, with odd vividness, the various myselfs who suffered and hoped while writing them. And, even more, I felt the presence of the beloved ones who, unmentioned, not even alluded to, had been present in those various successive Romes of mine. All of them have changed; some are dead, others were never really living. But while I turned over my note-books, there they were back. Back with their feeling of then; back with their presence (in one case the presence of a distant companion, to whom I could show these things only in thought); their complete realisation, or their half explicit charm, their still unshattered promise. Of all these I find not a word, barely a name; nothing telling of them to others. Only to me, in these sites, impersonal and almost eternal, on these walls which have stood two thousand years and may stand two thousand more, and these hillsides and roads full of the world’s legend—there appear, visible, distinct, the shadows cast by my own life; the forms and faces of those changed, gone, dead ones; and my own.