So far, good. If any man has a right to feel proud of himself, and satisfied, surely it is I. For I have written about the Coliseum, and the gladiators, the martyrs, and the lions, and yet have never once used the phrase “butchered to make a Roman holiday.” I am the only free white man of mature age, who has accomplished this since Byron originated the expression.
Butchered to make a Roman holiday sounds well for the first seventeen or eighteen hundred thousand times one sees it in print, but after that it begins to grow tiresome. I find it in all the books concerning Rome — and here latterly it reminds me of Judge Oliver. Oliver was a young lawyer, fresh from the schools, who had gone out to the deserts of Nevada to begin life. He found that country, and our ways of life, there, in those early days, different from life in New England or Paris. But he put on a woollen shirt and strapped a navy revolver to his person, took to the bacon and beans of the country, and determined to do in Nevada as Nevada did. Oliver accepted the situation so completely that although he must have sorrowed over many of his trials, he never complained — that is, he never complained but once. He, two others, and myself, started to the new silver mines in the Humboldt mountains — he to be Probate Judge of Humboldt county, and we to mine. The distance was two hundred miles. It was dead of winter. We bought a two-horse wagon and put eighteen hundred pounds of bacon, flour, beans, blasting-powder, picks and shovels in it; we bought two sorry-looking Mexican “plugs,” with the hair turned the wrong way and more corners on their bodies than there are on the mosque of Omar; we hitched up and started. It was a dreadful trip. But Oliver did not complain. The horses dragged the wagon two miles from town and then gave out. Then we three pushed the wagon seven miles, and Oliver moved ahead and pulled the horses after him by the bits.
We complained, but Oliver did not. The ground was frozen, and it froze our backs while we slept; the wind swept across our faces and froze our noses. Oliver did not complain. Five days of pushing the wagon by day and freezing by night brought us to the bad part of the journey — the Forty Mile Desert, or the Great American Desert, if you please. Still, this mildest-mannered man that ever was, had not complained. We started across at eight in the morning, pushing through sand that had no bottom; toiling all day long by the wrecks of a thousand wagons, the skeletons of ten thousand oxen; by wagon-tires enough to hoop the Washington Monument to the top, and ox-chains enough to girdle Long Island; by human graves; with our throats parched always, with thirst; lips bleeding from the alkali dust; hungry, perspiring, and very, very weary — so weary that when we dropped in the sand every fifty yards to rest the horses, we could hardly keep from going to sleep — no complaints from Oliver: none the next morning at three o’clock, when we got across, tired to death.
Awakened two or three nights afterward at midnight, in a narrow canon, by the snow falling on our faces, and appalled at the imminent danger of being “snowed in,” we harnessed up and pushed on till eight in the morning, passed the “Divide” and knew we were saved. No complaints. Fifteen days of hardship and fatigue brought us to the end of the two hundred miles, and the Judge had not complained. We wondered if any thing could exasperate him. We built a Humboldt house.
It is done in this way. You dig a square in the steep base of the mountain, and set up two uprights and top them with two joists. Then you stretch a great sheet of “cotton domestic” from the point where the joists join the hill-side down over the joists to the ground; this makes the roof and the front of the mansion; the sides and back are the dirt walls your digging has left. A chimney is easily made by turning up one corner of the roof. Oliver was sitting alone in this dismal den, one night, by a sage-brush fire, writing poetry; he was very fond of digging poetry out of himself — or blasting it out when it came hard. He heard an animal’s footsteps close to the roof; a stone or two and some dirt came through and fell by him. He grew uneasy and said “Hi! — clear out from there, can’t you!" — from time to time. But by and by he fell asleep where he sat, and pretty soon a mule fell down the chimney! The fire flew in every direction, and Oliver went over backwards. About ten nights after that, he recovered confidence enough to go to writing poetry again. Again he dozed off to sleep, and again a mule fell down the chimney. This time, about half of that side of the house came in with the mule. Struggling to get up, the mule kicked the candle out and smashed most of the kitchen furniture, and raised considerable dust. These violent awakenings must have been annoying to Oliver, but he never complained. He moved to a mansion on the opposite side of the canon, because he had noticed the mules did not go there. One night about eight o’clock he was endeavoring to finish his poem, when a stone rolled in — then a hoof appeared below the canvas — then part of a cow — the after part. He leaned back in dread, and shouted “Hooy! hooy! get out of this!” and the cow struggled manfully — lost ground steadily — dirt and dust streamed down, and before Oliver could get well away, the entire cow crashed through on to the table and made a shapeless wreck of every thing!
Then, for the first time in his life, I think, Oliver complained. He said,
“This thing is growing monotonous!”
Then he resigned his judgeship and left Humboldt county. “Butchered to make a Roman holyday” has grown monotonous to me.
In this connection I wish to say one word about Michael Angelo Buonarotti. I used to worship the mighty genius of Michael Angelo — that man who was great in poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture — great in every thing he undertook. But I do not want Michael Angelo for breakfast — for luncheon — for dinner — for tea — for supper — for between meals. I like a change, occasionally. In Genoa, he designed every thing; in Milan he or his pupils designed every thing; he designed the Lake of Como; in Padua, Verona, Venice, Bologna, who did we ever hear of, from guides, but Michael Angelo? In Florence, he painted every thing, designed every thing, nearly, and what he did not design he used to sit on a favorite stone and look at, and they showed us the stone. In Pisa he designed every thing but the old shot-tower, and they would have attributed that to him if it had not been so awfully out of the perpendicular. He designed the piers of Leghorn and the custom house regulations of Civita Vecchia. But, here — here it is frightful. He designed St. Peter’s; he designed the Pope; he designed the Pantheon, the uniform of the Pope’s soldiers, the Tiber, the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Capitol, the Tarpeian Rock, the Barberini Palace, St. John Lateran, the Campagna, the Appian Way, the Seven Hills, the Baths of Caracalla, the Claudian Aqueduct, the Cloaca Maxima — the eternal bore designed the Eternal City, and unless all men and books do lie, he painted every thing in it! Dan said the other day to the guide, “Enough, enough, enough! Say no more! Lump the whole thing! say that the Creator made Italy from designs by Michael Angelo!”
I never felt so fervently thankful, so soothed, so tranquil, so filled with a blessed peace, as I did yesterday when I learned that Michael Angelo was dead.
But we have taken it out of this guide. He has marched us through miles of pictures and sculpture in the vast corridors of the Vatican; and through miles of pictures and sculpture in twenty other palaces; he has shown us the great picture in the Sistine Chapel, and frescoes enough to frescoe the heavens — pretty much all done by Michael Angelo. So with him we have played that game which has vanquished so many guides for us — imbecility and idiotic questions. These creatures never suspect — they have no idea of a sarcasm.
He shows us a figure and says: “Statoo brunzo.” (Bronze statue.)
We look at it indifferently and the doctor asks: “By Michael Angelo?”
“No — not know who.”
Then he shows us the ancient Roman Forum. The doctor asks: “Michael Angelo?”
A stare from the guide. “No — thousan’ year before he is born.”
Then an Egyptian obelisk. Again: “Michael Angelo?”
“Oh, mon dieu, genteelmen! Zis is two thousan’ year before he is born!”
He grows so tired of that unceasing question sometimes, that he dreads to show us any thing at all. The wretch has tried all the ways he can think of to make us comprehend that Michael Angelo is only responsible for the creation of a part of the world, but somehow he has not succeeded yet. Relief for overtasked eyes and brain from study and sightseeing is necessary, or we shall become idiotic sure enough. Therefore this guide must continue to suffer. If he does not enjoy it, so much the worse for him. We do.
In this place I may as well jot down a chapter concerning those necessary nuisances, European guides. Many a man has wished in his heart he could do without his guide; but knowing he could not, has wished he could get some amusement out of him as a remuneration for the affliction of his society. We accomplished this latter matter, and if our experience can be made useful to others they are welcome to it.
Guides know about enough English to tangle every thing up so that a man can make neither head or tail of it. They know their story by heart — the history of every statue, painting, cathedral or other wonder they show you. They know it and tell it as a parrot would — and if you interrupt, and throw them off the track, they have to go back and begin over again. All their lives long, they are employed in showing strange things to foreigners and listening to their bursts of admiration. It is human nature to take delight in exciting admiration. It is what prompts children to say “smart” things, and do absurd ones, and in other ways “show off” when company is present. It is what makes gossips turn out in rain and storm to go and be the first to tell a startling bit of news. Think, then, what a passion it becomes with a guide, whose privilege it is, every day, to show to strangers wonders that throw them into perfect ecstasies of admiration! He gets so that he could not by any possibility live in a soberer atmosphere. After we discovered this, we never went into ecstasies any more — we never admired any thing — we never showed any but impassible faces and stupid indifference in the presence of the sublimest wonders a guide had to display. We had found their weak point. We have made good use of it ever since. We have made some of those people savage, at times, but we have never lost our own serenity.
The doctor asks the questions, generally, because he can keep his countenance, and look more like an inspired idiot, and throw more imbecility into the tone of his voice than any man that lives. It comes natural to him.
The guides in Genoa are delighted to secure an American party, because Americans so much wonder, and deal so much in sentiment and emotion before any relic of Columbus. Our guide there fidgeted about as if he had swallowed a spring mattress. He was full of animation — full of impatience. He said:
“Come wis me, genteelmen! — come! I show you ze letter writing by Christopher Colombo! — write it himself! — write it wis his own hand! — come!”
He took us to the municipal palace. After much impressive fumbling of keys and opening of locks, the stained and aged document was spread before us. The guide’s eyes sparkled. He danced about us and tapped the parchment with his finger:
“What I tell you, genteelmen! Is it not so? See! handwriting Christopher Colombo! — write it himself!”
We looked indifferent — unconcerned. The doctor examined the document very deliberately, during a painful pause. — Then he said, without any show of interest:
“Ah — Ferguson — what — what did you say was the name of the party who wrote this?”
“Christopher Colombo! ze great Christopher Colombo!”
Another deliberate examination.
“Ah — did he write it himself; or — or how?”
“He write it himself! — Christopher Colombo! He’s own hand-writing, write by himself!”
Then the doctor laid the document down and said:
“Why, I have seen boys in America only fourteen years old that could write better than that.”
“But zis is ze great Christo — ”
“I don’t care who it is! It’s the worst writing I ever saw. Now you musn’t think you can impose on us because we are strangers. We are not fools, by a good deal. If you have got any specimens of penmanship of real merit, trot them out! — and if you haven’t, drive on!”
We drove on. The guide was considerably shaken up, but he made one more venture. He had something which he thought would overcome us. He said:
“Ah, genteelmen, you come wis me! I show you beautiful, O, magnificent bust Christopher Colombo! — splendid, grand, magnificent!”
He brought us before the beautiful bust — for it was beautiful — and sprang back and struck an attitude:
“Ah, look, genteelmen! — beautiful, grand, — bust Christopher Colombo! — beautiful bust, beautiful pedestal!”
The doctor put up his eye-glass — procured for such occasions:
“Ah — what did you say this gentleman’s name was?”
“Christopher Colombo! — ze great Christopher Colombo!”
“Christopher Colombo — the great Christopher Colombo. Well, what did he do?”
“Discover America! — discover America, Oh, ze devil!”
“Discover America. No — that statement will hardly wash. We are just from America ourselves. We heard nothing about it. Christopher Colombo — pleasant name — is — is he dead?”
“Oh, corpo di Baccho! — three hundred year!”
“What did he die of?”
“I do not know! — I can not tell.”
“I do not know, genteelmen! — I do not know what he die of!”
“May be — may be — I do not know — I think he die of somethings.”
“Ah — which is the bust and which is the pedestal?”
“Santa Maria! — zis ze bust! — zis ze pedestal!”
“Ah, I see, I see — happy combination — very happy combination, indeed. Is — is this the first time this gentleman was ever on a bust?”
That joke was lost on the foreigner — guides can not master the subtleties of the American joke.
We have made it interesting for this Roman guide. Yesterday we spent three or four hours in the Vatican, again, that wonderful world of curiosities. We came very near expressing interest, sometimes — even admiration — it was very hard to keep from it. We succeeded though. Nobody else ever did, in the Vatican museums. The guide was bewildered — non-plussed. He walked his legs off, nearly, hunting up extraordinary things, and exhausted all his ingenuity on us, but it was a failure; we never showed any interest in any thing. He had reserved what he considered to be his greatest wonder till the last — a royal Egyptian mummy, the best preserved in the world, perhaps. He took us there. He felt so sure, this time, that some of his old enthusiasm came back to him:
“See, genteelmen! — Mummy! Mummy!”
The eye-glass came up as calmly, as deliberately as ever.
“Ah, — Ferguson — what did I understand you to say the gentleman’s name was?”
“Name? — he got no name! — Mummy! — ‘Gyptian mummy!”
“Yes, yes. Born here?”
“No! ‘Gyptian mummy!”
“Ah, just so. Frenchman, I presume?”
“No! — not Frenchman, not Roman! — born in Egypta!”
“Born in Egypta. Never heard of Egypta before. Foreign locality, likely. Mummy — mummy. How calm he is — how self-possessed. Is, ah — is he dead?”
“Oh, sacre bleu, been dead three thousan’ year!”
The doctor turned on him savagely:
“Here, now, what do you mean by such conduct as this! Playing us for Chinamen because we are strangers and trying to learn! Trying to impose your vile second-hand carcasses on us! — thunder and lightning, I’ve a notion to — to — if you’ve got a nice fresh corpse, fetch him out! — or by George we’ll brain you!”
We make it exceedingly interesting for this Frenchman. However, he has paid us back, partly, without knowing it. He came to the hotel this morning to ask if we were up, and he endeavored as well as he could to describe us, so that the landlord would know which persons he meant. He finished with the casual remark that we were lunatics. The observation was so innocent and so honest that it amounted to a very good thing for a guide to say.
There is one remark (already mentioned,) which never yet has failed to disgust these guides. We use it always, when we can think of nothing else to say. After they have exhausted their enthusiasm pointing out to us and praising the beauties of some ancient bronze image or broken-legged statue, we look at it stupidly and in silence for five, ten, fifteen minutes — as long as we can hold out, in fact — and then ask:
“Is — is he dead?”
That conquers the serenest of them. It is not what they are looking for — especially a new guide. Our Roman Ferguson is the most patient, unsuspecting, long-suffering subject we have had yet. We shall be sorry to part with him. We have enjoyed his society very much. We trust he has enjoyed ours, but we are harassed with doubts.
We have been in the catacombs. It was like going down into a very deep cellar, only it was a cellar which had no end to it. The narrow passages are roughly hewn in the rock, and on each hand as you pass along, the hollowed shelves are carved out, from three to fourteen deep; each held a corpse once. There are names, and Christian symbols, and prayers, or sentences expressive of Christian hopes, carved upon nearly every sarcophagus. The dates belong away back in the dawn of the Christian era, of course. Here, in these holes in the ground, the first Christians sometimes burrowed to escape persecution. They crawled out at night to get food, but remained under cover in the day time. The priest told us that St. Sebastian lived under ground for some time while he was being hunted; he went out one day, and the soldiery discovered and shot him to death with arrows. Five or six of the early Popes — those who reigned about sixteen hundred years ago — held their papal courts and advised with their clergy in the bowels of the earth. During seventeen years — from A.D. 235 to A.D. 252 — the Popes did not appear above ground. Four were raised to the great office during that period. Four years apiece, or thereabouts. It is very suggestive of the unhealthiness of underground graveyards as places of residence. One Pope afterward spent his entire pontificate in the catacombs — eight years. Another was discovered in them and murdered in the episcopal chair. There was no satisfaction in being a Pope in those days. There were too many annoyances. There are one hundred and sixty catacombs under Rome, each with its maze of narrow passages crossing and recrossing each other and each passage walled to the top with scooped graves its entire length. A careful estimate makes the length of the passages of all the catacombs combined foot up nine hundred miles, and their graves number seven millions. We did not go through all the passages of all the catacombs. We were very anxious to do it, and made the necessary arrangements, but our too limited time obliged us to give up the idea. So we only groped through the dismal labyrinth of St. Callixtus, under the Church of St. Sebastian. In the various catacombs are small chapels rudely hewn in the stones, and here the early Christians often held their religious services by dim, ghostly lights. Think of mass and a sermon away down in those tangled caverns under ground!
In the catacombs were buried St. Cecilia, St. Agnes, and several other of the most celebrated of the saints. In the catacomb of St. Callixtus, St. Bridget used to remain long hours in holy contemplation, and St. Charles Borromeo was wont to spend whole nights in prayer there. It was also the scene of a very marvelous thing.
“Here the heart of St. Philip Neri was so inflamed with divine love as to burst his ribs.”
I find that grave statement in a book published in New York in 1808, and written by “Rev. William H. Neligan, LL.D., M. A., Trinity College, Dublin; Member of the Archaeological Society of Great Britain.” Therefore, I believe it. Otherwise, I could not. Under other circumstances I should have felt a curiosity to know what Philip had for dinner.
This author puts my credulity on its mettle every now and then. He tells of one St. Joseph Calasanctius whose house in Rome he visited; he visited only the house — the priest has been dead two hundred years. He says the Virgin Mary appeared to this saint. Then he continues:
“His tongue and his heart, which were found after nearly a century to be whole, when the body was disinterred before his canonization, are still preserved in a glass case, and after two centuries the heart is still whole. When the French troops came to Rome, and when Pius VII. was carried away prisoner, blood dropped from it.”
To read that in a book written by a monk far back in the Middle Ages, would surprise no one; it would sound natural and proper; but when it is seriously stated in the middle of the nineteenth century, by a man of finished education, an LL.D., M. A., and an Archaeological magnate, it sounds strangely enough. Still, I would gladly change my unbelief for Neligan’s faith, and let him make the conditions as hard as he pleased.
The old gentleman’s undoubting, unquestioning simplicity has a rare freshness about it in these matter-of-fact railroading and telegraphing days. Hear him, concerning the church of Ara Coeli:
“In the roof of the church, directly above the high altar, is engraved, ‘Regina Coeli laetare Alleluia.’ In the sixth century Rome was visited by a fearful pestilence. Gregory the Great urged the people to do penance, and a general procession was formed. It was to proceed from Ara Coeli to St. Peter’s . As it passed before the mole of Adrian, now the Castle of St. Angelo, the sound of heavenly voices was heard singing (it was Easter morn,) ‘Regina Coeli, laetare! alleluia! quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia! resurrexit sicut dixit; alleluia!’ The Pontiff, carrying in his hands the portrait of the Virgin, (which is over the high altar and is said to have been painted by St. Luke,) answered, with the astonished people, ‘Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia!’ At the same time an angel was seen to put up a sword in a scabbard, and the pestilence ceased on the same day. There are four circumstances which ‘CONFIRM’ — [The italics are mine — M. T.] — this miracle: the annual procession which takes place in the western church on the feast of St Mark; the statue of St. Michael, placed on the mole of Adrian, which has since that time been called the Castle of St. Angelo; the antiphon Regina Coeli which the Catholic church sings during paschal time; and the inscription in the church.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00