The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 2

The Man in Black — The Emperor of Germany — Nepotism — Donna Olympia — Omnipotence — Camillo Astalli — The Five Propositions

In the evening I received another visit from the man in black. I had been taking a stroll in the neighbourhood, and was sitting in the dingle in rather a listless manner, scarcely knowing how to employ myself; his coming, therefore, was by no means disagreeable to me. I produced the hollands and glass from my tent, where Isopel Berners had requested me to deposit them, and also some lump sugar, then taking the gotch 33 I fetched water from the spring, and, sitting down, begged the man in black to help himself; he was not slow in complying with my desire, and prepared for himself a glass of hollands and water with a lump of sugar in it. After he had taken two or three sips with evident satisfaction, I, remembering his chuckling exclamation of ‘Go to Rome for money,’ when he last left the dingle, took the liberty, after a little conversation, of reminding him of it, whereupon, with a he! he! he! he replied, ‘Your idea was not quite so original as I supposed. After leaving you the other night I remembered having read of an Emperor of Germany who conceived the idea of applying to Rome for money, and actually put it into practice.

‘Urban the Eighth then occupied the papal chair, of the family of the Barbarini, 34 nicknamed the Mosche, or Flies, from the circumstance of bees being their armorial bearing. The Emperor having exhausted all his money in endeavouring to defend the church against Gustavus Adolphus, the great King of Sweden, who was bent on its destruction, applied in his necessity to the Pope for a loan of money. The Pope, however, and his relations, whose cellars were at that time full of the money of the church, which they had been plundering for years, refused to lend him a scudo; whereupon a pasquinade picture was stuck up at Rome, representing the church lying on a bed, gashed with dreadful wounds, and beset all over with flies, which were sucking her, whilst the Emperor of Germany was kneeling before her with a miserable face requesting a little money towards carrying on the war against the heretics, to which the poor church was made to say: “How can I assist you, O my champion, do you not see that the flies have sucked me to the very bones?” Which story,’ said he, ‘shows that the idea of going to Rome for money was not quite so original as I imagined the other night, though utterly preposterous.

‘This affair,’ said he, ‘occurred in what were called the days of nepotism. Certain Popes, who wished to make themselves in some degree independent of the cardinals, surrounded themselves with their nephews, and the rest of their family, who sucked the church and Christendom as much as they could, none doing so more effectually than the relations of Urban the Eighth, at whose death, according to the book called the “Nipotismo di Roma,” 35 there were in the Barbarini family two hundred and twenty-seven governments, abbeys, and high dignities; and so much hard cash in their possession that threescore and ten mules were scarcely sufficient to convey the plunder of one of them to Palestrina.’ He added, however, that it was probable that Christendom fared better whilst the Popes were thus independent, as it was less sucked, whereas before and after that period, it was sucked by hundreds instead of tens, by the cardinals and all their relations, instead of by the Pope and his nephews only.

Then, after drinking rather copiously of his hollands, he said that it was certainly no bad idea of the Popes to surround themselves with nephews, on whom they bestowed great church dignities, as by so doing they were tolerably safe from poison, whereas a Pope, if abandoned to the cardinals, might at any time be made away with by them, provided they thought that he lived too long, or that he seemed disposed to do anything which they disliked; adding that Ganganelli 36 would never have been poisoned provided he had had nephews about him to take care of his life, and to see that nothing unholy was put into his food, or a bustling, stirring brother’s wife like Donna Olympia. He then, with a he! he! he! asked me if I had ever read the book called the ‘Nipotismo di Roma,’ and on my replying in the negative, he told me that it was a very curious and entertaining book, which he occasionally looked at in an idle hour, and proceeded to relate to me anecdotes out of the ‘Nipotismo di Roma,’ about the successor of Urban, Innocent the Tenth, and Donna Olympia, showing how fond he was of her, and how she cooked his food, and kept the cardinals away from it, and how she and her creatures plundered Christendom, with the sanction of the Pope, until Christendom, becoming enraged, insisted that he should put her away, which he did for a time, putting a nephew — one Camillo Astalli — in her place, in which, however, he did not continue long; for the Pope, conceiving a pique against him, banished him from his sight, and recalled Donna Olympia, who took care of his food, and plundered Christendom until Pope Innocent died.

I said that I only wondered that between Pope and cardinals the whole system of Rome had not long fallen to the ground, and was told in reply that its not having fallen was the strongest proof of its vital power, and the absolute necessity for the existence of the system. That the system, notwithstanding its occasional disorders, went on. Popes and cardinals might prey upon its bowels, and sell its interests, but the system survived. The cutting off of this or that member was not able to cause Rome any vital loss; for, as soon as she lost a member, the loss was supplied by her own inherent vitality; though her Popes had been poisoned by cardinals, and her cardinals by Popes, and though priests occasionally poisoned Popes, cardinals and each other, after all that had been and might be, she had still, and would ever have, her priests, cardinals, and pope.

Finding the man in black so communicative and reasonable, I determined to make the best of my opportunity, and learn from him all I could with respect to the papal system, and told him that he would particularly oblige me by telling me who the Pope of Rome was, and received for answer that he was an old man elected by a majority of cardinals to the papal chair; who, immediately after his election, became omnipotent and equal to God on earth. On my begging him not to talk such nonsense, and asking him how a person could be omnipotent who could not always preserve himself from poison, even when fenced round by nephews, or protected by a bustling woman, he, after taking a long sip of hollands and water, told me that I must not expect too much from omnipotence. For example, that as it would be unreasonable to expect that One above could annihilate the past — for instance, the Seven Years’ War, or the French Revolution — though anyone who believed in Him would acknowledge Him to be omnipotent, so would it be unreasonable for the faithful to expect that the Pope could always guard himself from poison. Then, after looking at me for a moment stedfastly and taking another sip, he told me that Popes had frequently done impossibilities. For example, Innocent the Tenth had created a nephew; for, not liking particularly any of his real nephews, he had created the said Camillo Astalli his nephew; asking me, with a he! he! ‘What but omnipotence could make a young man nephew to a person to whom he was not in the slightest degree related?’ On my observing that of course no one believed that the young fellow was really the Pope’s nephew, though the Pope might have adopted him as such, the man in black replied, ‘that the reality of the nephewship of Camillo Astalli had hitherto never become a point of faith; let, however, the present Pope, or any other Pope, proclaim that it is necessary to believe in the reality of the nephewship of Camillo Astalli, and see whether the faithful would not believe in it. Who can doubt that,’ he added, ‘seeing that they believe in the reality of the five propositions of Jansenius? The Jesuits, wishing to ruin the Jansenists, induced a Pope to declare that such and such damnable opinions, which they called five propositions, were to be found in a book written by Jansen, though in reality no such propositions were to be found there; whereupon the existence of these propositions became forthwith a point of faith to the faithful. Do you then think,’ he demanded, ‘that there is one of the faithful who would not swallow, if called upon, the nephewship of Camillo Astalli as easily as the five propositions of Jansenius?’ ‘Surely, then,’ said I, ‘the faithful must be a pretty pack of simpletons!’ Whereupon the man in black exclaimed, ‘What! a Protestant, and an infringer of the rights of faith! Here’s a fellow who would feel himself insulted if anyone were to ask him how he could believe in the miraculous conception, calling people simpletons who swallow the five propositions of Jansenius, and are disposed, if called upon, to swallow the reality of the nephewship of Camillo Astalli.’

I was about to speak when I was interrupted by the arrival of Belle. After unharnessing her donkey and adjusting her person a little, she came and sat down by us. In the meantime I had helped my companion to some more hollands and water, and had plunged with him into yet deeper discourse.

33 ‘The earthern jugs out of which the people of Norfolk drink are called gotches.’— WRIGHT: ‘Provincial Dict.’

34 Barberini.

35 By Gregorio Leti, 2 v., 12o, 1667.

36 Clement XIV., d. 1774.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:18