The Newcomes, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XXXV

Across the Alps

Our discursive muse must now take her place in the little britzska in which Clive Newcome and his companions are travelling, and cross the Alps in that vehicle, beholding the snows on St. Gothard, and the beautiful region through which the Ticino rushes on its way to the Lombard lakes, and the corn-covered great plains of the Milanese; and that royal city, with the cathedral for its glittering crown, only less magnificent than the imperial dome of Rome. I have some long letters from Mr. Clive, written during this youthful tour, every step of which, from the departure at Baden, to the gate of Milan, he describes as beautiful; and doubtless, the delightful scenes through which the young man went, had their effect in soothing any private annoyances with which his journey commenced. The aspect of nature, in that fortunate route which he took, is so noble and cheering, that our private affairs and troubles shrink away abashed before that serene splendour. O sweet peaceful scene of azure lake, and snow-crowned mountain, so wonderfully lovely is your aspect, that it seems like heaven almost, and as if grief and care could not enter it! What young Clive’s private cares were I knew not as yet in those days; and he kept them out of his letters; it was only in the intimacy of future life that some of these pains were revealed to me.

Some three months after taking leave of Miss Ethel, our young gentleman found himself at Rome, with his friend Ridley still for a companion. Many of us, young or middle-aged, have felt that delightful shock which the first sight of the great city inspires. There is one other place of which the view strikes one with an emotion even greater than that with which we look at Rome, where Augustus was reigning when He saw the day, whose birthplace is separated but by a hill or two from the awful gates of Jerusalem. Who that has beheld both can forget that first aspect of either? At the end of years the emotion occasioned by the sight still thrills in your memory, and it smites you as at the moment when you first viewed it.

The business of the present novel, however, lies neither with priest nor pagan, but with Mr. Clive Newcome, and his affairs and his companions at this period of his life. Nor, if the gracious reader expects to hear of cardinals in scarlet, and noble Roman princes and princesses, will he find such in this history. The only noble Roman into whose mansion our friend got admission was the Prince Polonia, whose footmen wear the liveries of the English royal family, who gives gentlemen and even painters cash upon good letters of credit; and, once or twice in a season, opens his transtiberine palace and treats his customers to a ball. Our friend Clive used jocularly to say, he believed there were no Romans. There were priests in portentous hats; there were friars with shaven crowns; there were the sham peasantry, who dressed themselves out in masquerade costumes, with bagpipe and goatskin, with crossed leggings and scarlet petticoats, who let themselves out to artists at so many pauls per sitting; but he never passed a Roman’s door except to buy a cigar or to purchase a handkerchief. Thither, as elsewhere, we carry our insular habits with us. We have a little England at Paris, a little England at Munich, Dresden, everywhere. Our friend is an Englishman, and did at Rome as the English do.

There was the polite English society, the society that flocks to see the Colosseum lighted up with blue fire, that flocks to the Vatican to behold the statues by torchlight, that hustles into the churches on public festivals in black veils and deputy-lieutenants’ uniforms, and stares, and talks, and uses opera-glasses while the pontiffs of the Roman Church are performing its ancient rites, and the crowds of faithful are kneeling round the altars; the society which gives its balls and dinners, has its scandal and bickerings, its aristocrats, parvenus, toadies imported from Belgravia; has its club, its hunt, and its Hyde Park on the Pincio: and there is the other little English world, the broad-hatted, long-bearded, velvet-jacketed, jovial colony of the artists, who have their own feasts, haunts, and amusements by the side of their aristocratic compatriots, with whom but few of them have the honour to mingle.

J. J. and Clive engaged pleasant lofty apartments in the Via Gregoriana. Generations of painters had occupied these chambers and gone their way. The windows of their painting-room looked into a quaint old garden, where there were ancient statues of the Imperial time, a babbling fountain and noble orange-trees with broad clustering leaves and golden balls of fruit, glorious to look upon. Their walks abroad were endlessly pleasant and delightful. In every street there were scores of pictures of the graceful characteristic Italian life, which our painters seem one and all to reject, preferring to depict their quack brigands, contadini, pifferari, and the like, because Thompson painted them before Jones, and Jones before Thompson, and so on, backwards into time. There were the children at play, the women huddled round the steps of the open doorways, in the kindly Roman winter; grim, portentous old hags, such as Michael Angelo painted, draped in majestic raggery; mothers and swarming bambins; slouching countrymen, dark of beard and noble of countenance, posed in superb attitudes, lazy, tattered, and majestic. There came the red troops, the black troops, the blue troops of the army of priests; the snuffy regiments of Capuchins, grave and grotesque; the trim French abbes; my lord the bishop, with his footman (those wonderful footmen); my lord the cardinal, in his ramshackle coach and his two, nay three, footmen behind him; — flunkeys, that look as if they had been dressed by the costumier of a British pantomime; coach with prodigious emblazonments of hats and coats-of-arms, that seems as if it came out of the pantomime too, and was about to turn into something else. So it is, that what is grand to some persons’ eyes appears grotesque to others; and for certain sceptical persons, that step, which we have heard of, between the sublime and the ridiculous, is not visible.

“I wish it were not so,” writes Clive, in one of the letters wherein he used to pour his full heart out in those days. “I see these people at their devotions, and envy them their rapture. A friend, who belongs to the old religion, took me, last week, into a church where the Virgin lately appeared in person to a Jewish gentleman, flashed down upon him from heaven in light and splendour celestial, and, of course, straightway converted him. My friend bade me look at the picture, and, kneeling down beside me, I know prayed with all his honest heart that the truth might shine down upon me too; but I saw no glimpse of heaven at all. I saw but a poor picture, an altar with blinking candles, a church hung with tawdry strips of red and white calico. The good, kind W—— went away, humbly saying ‘that such might have happened again if heaven so willed it.’ I could not but feel a kindness and admiration for the good man. I know his works are made to square with his faith, that he dines on a crust, lives as chaste as a hermit, and gives his all to the poor.

“Our friend J. J., very different to myself in so many respects, so superior in all, is immensely touched by these ceremonies. They seem to answer to some spiritual want of his nature, and he comes away satisfied as from a feast, where I have only found vacancy. Of course our first pilgrimage was to St. Peter’s. What a walk! Under what noble shadows does one pass; how great and liberal the houses are, with generous casements and courts, and great grey portals which giants might get through and keep their turbans on. Why, the houses are twice as tall as Lamb Court itself; and over them hangs a noble dinge, a venerable mouldy splendour. Over the solemn portals are ancient mystic escutcheons — vast shields of princes and cardinals, such as Ariosto’s knights might take down; and every figure about them is a picture by himself. At every turn there is a temple: in every court a brawling fountain. Besides the people of the streets and houses, and the army of priests black and brown, there’s a great silent population of marble. There are battered gods tumbled out of Olympus and broken in the fall, and set up under niches and over fountains; there are senators namelessly, noselessly, noiselessly seated under archways, or lurking in courts and gardens. And then, besides these defunct ones, of whom these old figures may be said to be the corpses, there is the reigning family, a countless carved hierarchy of angels, saints, confessors of the latter dynasty which has conquered the court of Jove. I say, Pen, I wish Warrington would write the history of the Last of the Pagans. Did you never have a sympathy for them as the monks came rushing into their temples, kicking down their poor altars, smashing the fair calm faces of their gods, and sending their vestals a-flying? They are always preaching here about the persecution of the Christians. Are not the churches full of martyrs with choppers in their meek heads; virgins on gridirons; riddled St. Sebastians, and the like? But have they never persecuted in their turn? O me! You and I know better, who were bred up near to the pens of Smithfield, where Protestants and Catholics have taken their turn to be roasted.

“You pass through an avenue of angels and saints on the bridge across Tiber, all in action; their great wings seem clanking, their marble garments clapping; St. Michael, descending upon the Fiend, has been caught and bronzified just as he lighted on the Castle of St. Angelo: his enemy doubtless fell crushing through the roof and so downwards. He is as natural as blank verse — that bronze angel-set, rhythmic, grandiose. You’ll see, some day or other, he’s a great sonnet, sir, I’m sure of that. Milton wrote in bronze; I am sure Virgil polished off his Georgics in marble — sweet calm shapes! exquisite harmonies of line! As for the Aeneid; that, sir, I consider to be so many bas-reliefs, mural ornaments which affect me not much.

“I think I have lost sight of St. Peter’s, haven’t I? Yet it is big enough. How it makes your heart beat when you first see it! Ours did as we came in at night from Civita Vecchia, and saw a great ghostly darkling dome rising solemnly up into the grey night, and keeping us company ever so long as we drove, as if it had been an orb fallen out of heaven with its light put out. As you look at it from the Pincio, and the sun sets behind it, surely that aspect of earth and sky is one of the grandest in the world. I don’t like to say that the facade of the church is ugly and obtrusive. As long as the dome overawes, that facade is supportable. You advance towards it — through, oh, such a noble court! with fountains flashing up to meet the sunbeams; and right and left of you two sweeping half-crescents of great columns; but you pass by the courtiers and up to the steps of the throne, and the dome seems to disappear behind it. It is as if the throne was upset, and the king had toppled over.

“There must be moments, in Rome especially, when every man of friendly heart, who writes himself English and Protestant, must feel a pang at thinking that he and his countrymen are insulated from European Christendom. An ocean separates us. From one shore or the other one can see the neighbour cliffs on clear days: one must wish sometimes that there were no stormy gulf between us; and from Canterbury to Rome a pilgrim could pass, and not drown beyond Dover. Of the beautiful parts of the great Mother Church I believe among us many people have no idea; we think of lazy friars, of pining cloistered virgins, of ignorant peasants worshipping wood and stones, bought and sold indulgences, absolutions, and the like commonplaces of Protestant satire. Lo! yonder inscription, which blazes round the dome of the temple, so great and glorious it looks like heaven almost, and as if the words were written in stars, it proclaims to all the world, this is that Peter, and on this rock the Church shall be built, against which Hell shall not prevail. Under the bronze canopy his throne is lit with lights that have been burning before it for ages. Round this stupendous chamber are ranged the grandees of his court. Faith seems to be realised in their marble figures. Some of them were alive but yesterday; others, to be as blessed as they, walk the world even now doubtless; and the commissioners of heaven, here holding their court a hundred years hence, shall authoritatively announce their beatification. The signs of their power shall not be wanting. They heal the sick, open the eyes of the blind, cause the lame to walk today as they did eighteen centuries ago. Are there not crowds ready to bear witness to their wonders? Isn’t there a tribunal appointed to try their claims; advocates to plead for and against; prelates and clergy and multitudes of faithful to back and believe them? Thus you shall kiss the hand of a priest today, who has given his to a friar whose bones are already beginning to work miracles, who has been the disciple of another whom the Church has just proclaimed a saint — hand in hand they hold by one another till the line is lost up in heaven. Come, friend, let us acknowledge this, and go and kiss the toe of St. Peter. Alas! there’s the Channel always between us; and we no more believe in the miracles of St. Thomas of Canterbury, than that the bones of His Grace John Bird, who sits in St. Thomas’s chair presently, will work wondrous cures in the year 2000: that his statue will speak, or his portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence will wink.

“So, you see, at those grand ceremonies which the Roman Church exhibits at Christmas, I looked on as a Protestant. Holy Father on his throne or in his palanquin, cardinals with their tails and their train-bearers, mitred bishops and abbots, regiments of friars and clergy, relics exposed for adoration, columns draped, altars illuminated, incense smoking, organs pealing, and boxes of piping soprani, Swiss guards with slashed breeches and fringed halberts; — between us and all this splendour of old-world ceremony, there’s an ocean flowing: and yonder old statue of Peter might have been Jupiter again, surrounded by a procession of flamens and augurs, and Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, to inspect the sacrifices — and my feelings at the spectacle had been, doubtless, pretty much the same.

“Shall I utter any more heresies? I am an unbeliever in Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration’— the scream of that devil-possessed boy, in the lower part of the figure of eight (a stolen boy too), jars the whole music of the composition. On Michael Angelo’s great wall, the grotesque and terrible are not out of place. What an awful achievement! Fancy the state of mind of the man who worked it — as alone, day after day, he devised and drew those dreadful figures! Suppose in the days of the Olympian dynasty, the subdued Titan rebels had been set to ornament a palace for Jove, they would have brought in some such tremendous work: or suppose that Michael descended to the Shades, and brought up this picture out of the halls of Limbo. I like a thousand and a thousand times better to think of Raphael’s loving spirit. As he looked at women and children, his beautiful face must have shone like sunshine: his kind hand must have caressed the sweet figures as he formed them. If I protest against the ‘Transfiguration,’ and refuse to worship at that altar before which so many generations have knelt, there are hundreds of others which I salute thankfully. It is not so much in the set harangues (to take another metaphor), as in the daily tones and talk that his voice is so delicious. Sweet poetry, and music, and tender hymns drop from him: he lifts his pencil, and something gracious falls from it on the paper. How noble his mind must have been! it seems but to receive, and his eye seems only to rest on, what is great, and generous, and lovely. You walk through crowded galleries, where are pictures ever so large and pretentious; and come upon a grey paper, or a little fresco, bearing his mark-and over all the brawl and the throng recognise his sweet presence. ‘I would like to have you been Giulio Romano,’ J. J. says (who does not care for Giulio’s pictures), ‘because then I would have been Raphael’s favourite pupil.’ We agreed that we would rather have seen him and William Shakspeare, than all the men we ever read of. Fancy poisoning a fellow out of envy — as Spagnoletto did! There are some men whose admiration takes that bilious shape. There’s a fellow in our mess at the Lepre, a clever enough fellow too — and not a bad fellow to the poor. He was a Gandishite. He is a genre and portrait painter, by the name of Haggard. He hates J. J. because Lord Fareham, who is here, has given J. J. an order; and he hates me, because I wear a clean shirt, and ride a cock-horse.

“I wish you could come to our mess at the Lepre. It’s such a dinner: such a tablecloth: such a waiter: such a company! Every man has a beard and a sombrero: and you would fancy we were a band of brigands. We are regaled with woodcocks, snipes, wild swans, ducks, robins, and owls and oionoisi te pasi for dinner; and with three pauls’ worth of wines and victuals the hungriest has enough, even Claypole the sculptor. Did you ever know him? He used to come to the Haunt. He looks like the Saracen’s head with his beard now. There is a French table still more hairy than ours, a German table, an American table. After dinner we go and have coffee and mezzo-caldo at the Cafe Greco over the way. Mezzo-caldo is not a bad drink — a little rum — a slice of fresh citron — lots of pounded sugar, and boiling water for the rest. Here in various parts of the cavern (it is a vaulted low place) the various nations have their assigned quarters, and we drink our coffee and strong waters, and abuse Guido, or Rubens, or Bernini selon les gouts, and blow such a cloud of smoke as would make Warrington’s lungs dilate with pleasure. We get very good cigars for a bajoccho and half — that is very good for us, cheap tobaccanalians; and capital when you have got no others. M’Collop is here: he made a great figure at a cardinal’s reception in the tartan of the M’Collop. He is splendid at the tomb of the Stuarts, and wanted to cleave Haggard down to the chine with his claymore for saying that Charles Edward was often drunk.

“Some of us have our breakfasts at the Cafe Greco at dawn. The birds are very early birds here; and you’ll see the great sculptors — the old Dons, you know, who look down on us young fellows — at their coffee here when it is yet twilight. As I am a swell, and have a servant, J. J. and I breakfast at our lodgings. I wish you could see Terribile our attendant, and Ottavia our old woman! You will see both of them on the canvas one day. When he hasn’t blacked our boots and has got our breakfast, Terribile the valet-de-chambre becomes Terribile the model. He has figured on a hundred canvases ere this, and almost ever since he was born. All his family were models. His mother having been a Venus, is now a Witch of Endor. His father is in the patriarchal line: he has himself done the cherubs, the shepherd-boys, and now is a grown man, and ready as a warrior, a pifferaro, a capuchin, or what you will.

“After the coffee and the Cafe Greco we all go to the Life Academy. After the Life Academy, those who belong to the world dress and go out to tea-parties just as if we were in London. Those who are not in society have plenty of fun of their own — and better fun than the tea-party fun too. Jack Screwby has a night once a week, sardines and ham for supper, and a cask of Marsala in the corner. Your humble servant entertains on Thursdays: which is Lady Fitch’s night too; and I flatter myself some of the London dandies who are passing the winter here, prefer the cigars and humble liquors which we dispense, to tea and Miss Fitch’s performance on the pianoforte.

“What is that I read in Galignani about Lord K— and an affair of honour at Baden? Is it my dear kind jolly Kew with whom some one has quarrelled? I know those who will be even more grieved than I am, should anything happen to the best of good fellows. A great friend of Lord Kew’s, Jack Belsize commonly called, came with us from Baden through Switzerland, and we left him at Milan. I see by the paper that his elder brother is dead and so poor Jack will be a great man some day. I wish the chance had happened sooner if it was to befall at all. So my amiable cousin, Barnes Newcome Newcome, Esq., has married my Lady Clara Pulleyn; I wish her joy of her bridegroom. All I have heard of that family is from the newspaper. If you meet them, tell me anything about them. — We had a very pleasant time altogether at Baden. I suppose the accident to Kew will put off his marriage with Miss Newcome. They have been engaged, you know, ever so long. — And — do, do write to me and tell me something about London. It’s best I should — should stay here and work this winter and the next. J. J. has done a famous picture, and if I send a couple home, you’ll give them a notice in the Pall Mall Gazette — won’t you? — for the sake of old times and yours affectionately, Clive Newcome.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07