Charles Dickens—an eyewitness in Rome, 8 March 1845

Who reads the travel writing of Charles Dickens?

On his travels, beyond being feted by local dignitaries, Dickens examined the penal system in the places he visited. In Rome, he witnessed and wrote a vivid account of the execution by beheading of Giovanni Vagnarelli, who had been convicted of the robbery and murder of a pilgrim on her way to Rome.

He preserved us a moment of Rome that no longer can be experienced. The scene is just outside Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the beautiful church featured in the film Roman Holiday, where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck visit the Bocca della Veritá.

Dickens’ account was published in the collection Pictures from Italy. Read the entire essay below. It’s really good.

The abolition of capital punishment by civil authorities had its origins in Italy. Tuscany, in the eighteenth century, was the first state to do away with it. The government of the Papal States was the last to impose it. The last execution in Rome took place just a few years before the Eternal City became the capital of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy in 1871.

Preparing for an execution in Rome

Charles Dickens: “When Mastro Titta Crossed the Bridge”

On one Saturday morning (the eighth of March), a man was beheaded here. Nine or ten months before, he had waylaid a Bavarian countess, travelling as a pilgrim to Rome – alone and on foot, of course – and performing, it is said, that act of piety for the fourth time. He saw her change a piece of gold at Viterbo, where he lived; followed her; bore her company on her journey for some forty miles or more, on the treacherous pretext of protecting her; attacked her, in the fulfilment of his unrelenting purpose, on the Campagna, within a very short distance of Rome, near to what is called (but what is not) the Tomb of Nero; robbed her; and beat her to death with her own pilgrim’s staff.

He was newly married, and gave some of her apparel to his wife: saying that he had bought it at a fair. She, however, who had seen the pilgrim-countess passing through their town, recognised some trifle as having belonged to her. Her husband then told her what he had done. She, in confession, told a priest; and the man was taken, within four days after the commission of the murder.

There are no fixed times for the administration of justice, or its execution, in this unaccountable country; and he had been in prison ever since. On the Friday, as he was dining with the other prisoners, they came and told him he was to be beheaded next morning, and took him away. It is very unusual to execute in Lent; but his crime being a very bad one, it was deemed advisable to make an example of him at that time, when great numbers of pilgrims were coming towards Rome, from all parts, for the Holy Week. I heard of this on the Friday evening, and saw the bills up at the churches, calling on the people to pray for the criminal’s soul. So, I determined to go, and see him executed.

Mastro Titta’s memoir, Mastro Titta: the executioner of Rome: Memoirs of a corpse-maker written by himself, aims for a more bouncy account of his work than the tone found in Dickens. The book is hard to find; anyone else have a copy?

The beheading was appointed for fourteen and a-half o’clock, Roman time: or a quarter before nine in the forenoon. I had two friends with me; and as we did not know but that the crowd might be very great, we were on the spot by half-past seven. The place of execution was near the church of San Giovanni Decollato (a doubtful compliment to Saint John the Baptist) in one of the impassable back streets without any footway, of which a great part of Rome is composed – a street of rotten houses, which do not seem to belong to anybody, and do not seem to have ever been inhabited, and certainly were never built on any plan, or for any particular purpose, and have no window-sashes, and are a little like deserted breweries, and might be warehouses but for having nothing in them.

Opposite to one of these, a white house, the scaffold was built. An untidy, unpainted, uncouth, crazy-looking thing of course: some seven feet high, perhaps: with a tall, gallows-shaped frame rising above it, in which was the knife, charged with a ponderous mass of iron, all ready to descend, and glittering brightly in the morning sun, whenever it looked out, now and then, from behind a cloud.

There were not many people lingering about; and these were kept at a considerable distance from the scaffold, by parties of the Pope’s dragoons. Two or three hundred foot-soldiers were under arms, standing at ease in clusters here and there; and the officers were walking up and down in twos and threes, chatting together, and smoking cigars.
At the end of the street, was an open space, where there would be a dust-heap, and piles of broken crockery, and mounds of vegetable refuse, but for such things being thrown anywhere and everywhere in Rome, and favouring no particular sort of locality. We got into a kind of wash-house, belonging to a dwelling-house on this spot; and standing there in an old cart, and on a heap of cartwheels piled against the wall, looked, through a large grated window, at the scaffold, and straight down the street beyond it until, in consequence of its turning off abruptly to the left, our perspective was brought to a sudden termination, and had a corpulent officer, in a cocked hat, for its crowning feature.

Mastro Titta killed over 500 people by various gruesome means. It was a part-time occupation. He was a souvenir manufactuer and salesman St. Peter’s basilica in the other part of his life. His bloodstained clothes and the tools of the executioner’s trade are on display at the Museum of Criminology in Rome.

Nine o’clock struck, and ten o’clock struck, and nothing happened. All the bells of all the churches rang as usual. A little parliament of dogs assembled in the open space, and chased each other, in and out among the soldiers. Fierce-looking Romans of the lowest class, in blue cloaks, russet cloaks, and rags uncloaked, came and went, and talked together. Women and children fluttered, on the skirts of the scanty crowd. One large muddy spot was left quite bare, like a bald place on a man’s head. A cigar-merchant, with an earthen pot of charcoal ashes in one hand, went up and down, crying his wares. A pastry-merchant divided his attention between the scaffold and his customers.

Boys tried to climb up walls, and tumbled down again. Priests and monks elbowed a passage for themselves among the people, and stood on tiptoe for a sight of the knife: then went away. Artists, in inconceivable hats of the middle-ages, and beards (thank Heaven!) of no age at all, flashed picturesque scowls about them from their stations in the throng. One gentleman (connected with the fine arts, I presume) went up and down in a pair of Hessian-boots, with a red beard hanging down on his breast, and his long and bright red hair, plaited into two tails, one on either side of his head, which fell over his shoulders in front of him, very nearly to his waist, and were carefully entwined and braided!

Eleven o’clock struck and still nothing happened. A rumour got about, among the crowd, that the criminal would not confess; in which case, the priests would keep him until the Ave Maria (sunset); for it is their merciful custom never finally to turn the crucifix away from a man at that pass, as one refusing to be shriven, and consequently a sinner abandoned of the Saviour, until then. People began to drop off. The officers shrugged their shoulders and looked doubtful. The dragoons, who came riding up below our window, every now and then, to order an unlucky hackney- coach or cart away, as soon as it had comfortably established itself, and was covered with exulting people (but never before), became imperious, and quick-tempered. The bald place hadn’t a straggling hair upon it; and the corpulent officer, crowning the perspective, took a world of snuff.

Mastro Titta exhibiting the remains of the departed.

Suddenly, there was a noise of trumpets. “Attention!” was among the foot-soldiers instantly. They were marched up to the scaffold and formed round it. The dragoons galloped to their nearer stations too. The guillotine became the centre of a wood of bristling bayonets and shining sabres. The people closed round nearer, on the flank of the soldiery. A long straggling stream of men and boys, who had accompanied the procession from the prison, came pouring into the open space. The bald spot was scarcely distinguishable from the rest. The cigar and pastry-merchants resigned all thoughts of business, for the moment, and abandoning themselves wholly to pleasure, got good situations in the crowd. The perspective ended, now, in a troop of dragoons. And the corpulent officer, sword in hand, looked hard at a church close to him, which he could see, but we, the crowd, could not.

After a short delay, some monks were seen approaching to the scaffold from this church; and above their heads, coming on slowly and gloomily, the effigy of Christ upon the cross, canopied with black. This was carried round the foot of the scaffold, to the front, and turned towards the criminal, that he might see it to the last.

It was hardly in its place, when he appeared on the platform, bare-footed; his hands bound; and with the collar and neck of his shirt cut away, almost to the shoulder. A young man – six-and-twenty – vigorously made, and well-shaped. Face pale; small dark moustache; and dark brown hair.

Current image of the site of the execution on 8 March 1845. The church of S. Maria in Cosemedin is just out of the frame to the right; S. Giovanni Decollato is out of frame to the left.

He had refused to confess, it seemed, without first having his wife brought to see him; and they had sent an escort for her, which had occasioned the delay.
He immediately kneeled down, below the knife. His neck fitting into a hole, made for the purpose, in a cross plank, was shut down, by another plank above; exactly like the pillory. Immediately below him was a leathern bag. And into it his head rolled instantly.

The executioner was holding it by the hair, and walking with it round the scaffold, showing it to the people, before one quite knew that the knife had fallen heavily, and with a rattling sound.

When it had travelled round the four sides of the scaffold, it was set upon a pole in front – a little patch of black and white, for the long street to stare at, and the flies to settle on. The eyes were turned upward, as if he had avoided the sight of the leathern bag, and looked to the crucifix. Every tinge and hue of life had left it in that instant. It was dull, cold, livid, wax. The body also.
There was a great deal of blood. When we left the window, and went close up to the scaffold, it was very dirty; one of the two men who were throwing water over it, turning to help the other lift the body into a shell, picked his way as through mire. A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close, that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear; and the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder.

Nobody cared, or was at all affected. There was no manifestation of disgust, or pity, or indignation, or sorrow. My empty pockets were tried, several times, in the crowd immediately below the scaffold, as the corpse was being put into its coffin. It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle; meaning nothing but butchery beyond the momentary interest, to the one wretched actor. Yes! Such a sight has one meaning and one warning. Let me not forget it. The speculators in the lottery, station themselves at favourable points for counting the gouts of blood that spirt out, here or there; and buy that number. It is pretty sure to have a run upon it.

The body was carted away in due time, the knife cleansed, the scaffold taken down, and all the hideous apparatus removed. The executioner: an outlaw EX OFFICIO (what a satire on the Punishment!) who dare not, for his life, cross the Bridge of St. Angelo but to do his work: retreated to his lair, and the show was over.

Exterior of the church of S Giovanni Decollato, the church that housed the confraternity that served spiritual needs of the condemned. Michelangelo, who lived in the area, was a member.

Anniversary of a WWI poet: “Where I am alone with my murder …”

Georg Trakl (3 Feb 1887–3 Nov 1914) was an Austrian poet assciated with Expressionism, the artistic movement that emphasized subjective perception of the world. The work of Expressionist writers and painters distorted reality to evoke moods and ideas.

Trakl served as a medic for the Austrian army in the Great War. He was present at the Grodek, an engagement within the Battle of Galicia (23 August to 11 September). The territory of the now-disappeared Kingdom of Galicia is now divided between Poland and Ukraine. Among other things, the region was the ancestral home of Andy Warhol.

During those weeks, Austrian causalities numbered over 100,000 dead and double that number of Austrian wounded. In the chaotic aftermath of defeat, the young poet was left to administer care, without medical supplies, to scores of wounded. He witnessed suicides among the hopeless injured men.

The shock of the war experience means is magnified when one considers that at the time the battle of Grodek occurred, the possibility of war seemed unlikely just a few months prior.

Convalescing from a mental breakdown after the battle, Trakl died of a cocaine overdose in a Cracow mental asylum on November 3. The nature of the overdose, by suicide or misadventure, is uncertain. 

The poem “Grodek” was among the last he wrote.

At evening the autumnal forests resound
With deadly weapons, the golden plains
And blue lakes, above them the sun
Rolls more darkly by; night enfolds
The dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths.
But in the grassy vale the spilled blood,
Red clouds in which an angry god lives,
Gathers softly, lunar coldness;
All roads lead to black decay.
Beneath the golden boughs of night and stars
The sister’s shadow reels through the silent grove
To greet the ghosts of heroes, their bleeding heads;
And the dark flutes of autumn sound softly in the reeds.
O prouder sorrow! you brazen altars
Today an immense anguish feeds the mind’s hot flame,
The unborn descendants.

After the war, Ezra Pound wrote about the destruction of the creative talent of the younger generation during the war. I don’t know if “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” reckoned Trakl among those lost creators.Here are some of Pound’s verse that look back to those like Trakl who were made to disappear between 1914 and 1918.

Fortitude as never before
frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.                                                                       There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books

All the things Spain can mean #Hemingway

If one likes A Moveable Feast there’s a good chance you’ll like at least parts of Death in the Afternoon. It’s a book about bullfighting and many other things—Spain, being in love, traveling, friendship, and learning how to write.

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were that produced the emotion that you experienced.

Death in the afternoon

Death of a B-movie masterpiece novel writer

Script writer and novelist Nathanael West died December 22. 1940, one day after his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Like the people he depicted in The Day of the Locust, West moved to Hollywood seeking fulfillment but instead observed and joined in a way of life more like a treatment for a lurid B-movie than the lush fantasy of a carefully weeded major motion picture.

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

The Day of the Locust was West’s final novel, and he wrote it at the same time Fitzgerald was writing The Love of the Last Tycoon.

Both Fitzgerald and West were always looking for something more somewhere else. Restless minds. Fun fact: West was a Jew who married an Irish Catholic. Scott was an Irish Catholic whose last paramour was a Jew.

It’s no wonder that these revelatory behind-the-scene stories of Golden Age Hollywood were produced in the New Hollywood of the 1970s.

The Day of the Locust came out in 1975 (director John Schlesinger, screenwriter Waldo Salt, starring Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson (yes!).

The Last Tycoon appeared in 1976 (director Elia Kazan, screenwriter Harold Pinter, starring Robert Deniro (and a great cast).

Stendhal, his diary, coffee, and something more around St. Peter’s Basilica #November 24, 1835

Michelangelo – Detail – The Last Judgement

I love Stendhal—the masterful French writer whose work combined Romanticism and Realism. In his imagination, it is a magical combination. He is tied for first with Chateaubriand as my favorite writer about Rome. Born Marie-Henri Beyle in provincial France in the last years of the Ancien Régime, Stendhal was a solider in Napoleon’s army, and he encountered Italian culture as a solider based there. Stendhal remained a liberal during the Restoration period as he struggled to survive as a reluctant bureaucrat and a neglected literary genius. His love of Italy colored his works in all sorts of ways until his death in 1842.

Here he records how a combined fit of nerve irritation and ennui interfered with a visit to the Vatican on November 24, 1835.

Today, November 24th 1835, I’ve just come from the Sistine Chapel, where I got no pleasure at all although I was provided with a good opera-glass for locking at the ceiling and Michelangelo’s Last Judgement; but I was suffering from neuralgia, due to drinking too much coffee the day before yesterday at the Caetani’s, for which a machine brought from London by Michel Angelo Caetani was to blame. The over perfection of this machine, the over-excellence of the coffee – a bill of exchange drawn on future happiness for the benefit of the present moment – brought back my old neuralgia, and I visited the Sistine Chapel like a sheep, id est, without pleasure; my imagination never took flight. I admired the gold brocade drapery painted in fresco beside the throne, that is to say the pope’s great walnut arm chair. This drapery is inscribed with the name of Pope Sixtus IV—Sixtus IIII Papa—you think you can touch it with your hand; its two feet away from your eyes and it still creates an illusion, after 354 years.

Years later, the girl’s rubber ball bounced over the barricades in the piazza di San Pietro and was chased down by the Swiss Guard as it rolled toward the Ufficio degli Scavi. Then they made a photograph with her.

The first view of the Sistine Chapel

Read Ascanio Condivi, the authorized biographer of Michelangelo, narrate the unveiling of the frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on October 31, 1512. Michelangelo created this image of himself to strike against dark rumors about this personality and his lifestyle. Condivi published this work late in the artist’s life. It seems to have produced its desired effect since Giogio Vasari, an artist, biographer and friend to Michelangelo, edited later versions of his life of the artist to affirm this other account of the great man.

Exterior of the Sistine Chapel

He finished his entire work in twenty months, without any help whatever, not even someone to grind his colors for him. It’s true that I’ve heard him say that it’s not finished as he would have wanted, as he was hampered by the urgency of the pope, who asked him one day when he would finish that chapel, and when Michelangelo answered, “When I can,” the pope, enraged, retorted “(Do) you want me to have you thrown off this scaffolding.” 

The Creation of Adam

Hearing this, Michelangelo said to himself, “You shall not have me thrown off,” and he removed himself and had the scaffolding taken down. On All Saints’ Day he revealed the work, which the pope, who went to the chapel that day, saw with immense satisfaction and all Rome admired it and crowded to see it.

Sketch for The Creation of Adam

What was lacking was the retouching of the work a secco with ultramarine and in a few places with gold, to give it a richer appearance. Julius, when the heat of this enthusiasm had subsided, really wanted Michelangelo to furnish these touches; but when Michelangelo thought about the trouble it would give him to reassemble the scaffolding, he answered that what was lacking was nothing of importance.

“It really ought to be retouched with gold,” answered the pope, to whom Michelangelo responded with the familiarity which was his way with his Holiness, “I do not see  that men wear gold.” The pope said, “It will look poor.” Michelangelo rejoined, “Those are depicted there, they were poor too.”  So he remarked in jest, and so the work remained.

Portrait of Michelangelo by Daniele da Volterra

For all his work and for all his expenses, Michelangelo received 3,000 ducats, of which he was obliged to spend about 20 or 25 on colors, according to what I’ve heard him say. After he accomplished this work, because he had spend such a long time painting with his eyes looking up at the vault Michelangelo then couldn’t see much when he looked down, so that  if he had to read a letter or other detailed things, he has to hold them with his arms up over his head.Nonetheless, after a while, he gradually grew accustomed to reading again with his eyes looking down. From this, we can understand how great were the attention and diligence with which he did his work.

Detail of The Creation of Adam

Old stone to new building in the Roman Forum

The Santa Maria Antiqua exhibit was a highlight of a recent trip to Rome so it’s fitting to observe the anniversary of the death of that church’s patron Pope John VII, who died in the papal palace he built on the Palatine Hill above his church October 18, 707.

The church was built within imperial-age buildings that were adapted for ecclesiastical use. Santa Maria Antiqua was consecrated in the fifth century; it was the first church to be built in the Roman Forum. An earthquake in 847 rendered the church unusable. A new church, Santa Maria Nova, was built nearby by Pope Leo IV.

Santa Maria Antiqua is perhaps best known for the frescoes that were installed there by John VII. After a long program of restoration, this church was opened in 2016. Like other bishops in Rome and elsewhere, John VII arranged his own likeness to be included in contemporary church décor.

Here are some highlights of his life recounted by his near contemporary biographer:

John, born in Greece, son of Plato, held the see two years, seven months and 17 days.
He provided images in various churches; whoever wants to know what he looked like will find his face depicted on them.
He adorned with painting the basilica of the holy mother of God, which is called Antiqua, and there he built a new ambo, and above the same church an Episcopum, which he wanted to build for his own use, and there his life and time of his pontificate came to an end. He provided an excellent gold chalice weighing 20lb. and decorated it with jewels.
He was buried at St. Peter’s basilica in front of the altar of the holy mother of God, which he had constructed, on October 18. The bishopric was vacant three months.

Liber pontificalis

Bonus #VernonLee The Spirit of Rome describing the #Pantheon from #sopraminerva

The back of the Pantheon, and its side, as seen from the steps of the Minerva, the splendid circle of masonry, and arched courses of rose-coloured brickwork, lichened and silvered over, broken off, turned into something almost like a natural cliff of rosy limestone; and at its foot the capitols of magnificent columns, and fragments of delicate dolphined frieze.

Vernon LeeThe spirit of rome

With Vernon Lee in Rome “ … the presence of a distant companion …”

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.

Portrait by John Singer Sargent

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.

The road to Castel Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s through what is now the Prati neighborhood of Rome,
Frescoes from the Villa of Livia now in the Palazzo Massimo
Detail of fresco

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!

Mausoleum of Sant’Elena

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!

Teatro Marcello before the demolition of the neighborhood

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.

Protestant cemetery in Rome – 1860

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
Protestant Cemetery

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.

Memorial to Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery

One thought about Mexico City

#octaviopaz #Coyoacán

Beautiful face
That like a daisy opens its petals to the sun
So do you
Open your face to me as I turn the page.

Enchanting smile
Any man would be under your spell,
Oh, beauty of a magazine.

How many poems have been written to you?
How many Dantes have written to you, Beatrice?
To your obsessive illusion
To you manufacture fantasy.

But today I won’t make one more Cliché
And write this poem to you.
No, no more clichés …