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Friday, January 23, 2015

A Cynic Abroad: Mark Twain in Rome

Twain, 1871, photo by Mathew Brady
In 1867, Mark Twain toured Europe and the Holy Land.  His usually acerbic comments were published two years later in The Innocents Abroad--to this day his best-selling book.  Rome was on the itinerary, but by the time he reached the Eternal City he had seen other Italian cities, including Genoa, whose palaces he found rather stolid and ordinary, making "no pretensions to architectural magnificence," and where he discovered that Italian "vagabonds" were sure to pounce with glee on his cigar butts. There as elsewhere, he found too many churches and too many "well-fed priests."  "These worthies suffer in the flesh and do penance all their lives, I suppose, but they look like consummate famine-breeders.  They are all fat and serene."
The itinerary
Perhaps with some justification, he was suspicious of the relics he found in every church.  "As for the
bones of St. Denis," he wrote, "I feel certain we have seen enough of them to duplicate him if necessary."  While acknowledging Genoa's historic greatness, it was to Twain a thing of the past, having "degenerated into an unostentatious commerce in velvets and silver-filigree work."

Milan fared better, or at least its enormous cathedral did.  "Surely," wrote Twain with nary a jot of irony, "it must be the princeliest creation that ever brain of man conceived."  Da Vinci's "Last Supper," on the other hand, was a "mournful wreck," "stained and discolored," something akin to a
Da Vinci's Last Supper. Were the disciples Hebrews, or Italians?
"decayed, blind, toothless, pock-marked Cleopatra," indeed, so awful that for Twain any of the 12 copies being made while he visited was superior to the original.  So damaged that "the spectator cannot really tell, now, whether the disciples are Hebrews or Italians."  "After reading so much about it," Twain concluded, "I am satisfied that the Last Supper was a miracle of art once.  But it was 300 years ago." 

Lake Como?  Disappointingly small and narrow, and its waters "dull" in comparison "with the wonderful transparence of Lake Tahoe," where, Twain claimed, "one can count the scales on a trout at a depth of a hundred and eighty feet," and whose reputation suffers only because of an unfelicitous name: Tahoe means "grasshopper soup."

Italy's interior?  Populated by peasants and their children, "idle, as a general thing" and the "home of priest craft--of a happy, cheerful, contented ignorance, superstition, degradation,  poverty, indolence, and everlasting unaspiring worthlessness."

Tintoretto, Finding the Body of
St. Mark
Venice?  A shadow of its former self, "her piers [are] deserted, her warehouses are empty, her armies and her navies are but memories.  Her glory is departed, and with her crumbling grandeur of wharves and palaces about her she sits among her stagnant lagoons, forlorn and beggared, forgotten of the world....a peddler of glass beads for women, and trifling toys and trinkets for school-girls and children."  It was in Venice, too, that Twain began to experience something like tourist burnout.  "We have seen famous pictures until our eyes are weary with looking at them and refuse to find interest in them any longer.  And what wonder, when here are twelve hundred pictures by Palma the Younger in Venice and fifteen hundred by Tintoretto?"  The same, he thought, could be said of all-too-frequent depictions of martyrs:  " seemed to me that when I had seen one of these martyrs I had seen them all."

Florence?  The required visit to the Pitti Palace and the Ufizzi, where "we tried indolently to recollect something about the Guelphs and Ghibelines and the other historical cut-throats whose quarrels and assassinations make up so large a share of Florentine history, but the subject was not attractive."  Twain admired the city's mosaics.  Of the Arno, he wrote, "it would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it.  They call it a river....They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it."

Civita Vecchia?  "...the finest nest of dirt, vermin and ignorance we have found yet, except that African perdition they call Tangier, which is just like it."  "All this country belongs to the Papal States.  They do not appear to have any schools here, and only one billiard table."  "We are going to Rome.  There is nothing to see here." 

Rome was for Twain an intimidating place that threatened to deny him the joy of discovery,  His introduction to his first experience of the city begins with a long discourse on discovery, "the noblest delight."  "To be the first," he adds, "that is the idea."  And therein lay the problem.  "What is there in Rome," Twain lamented, "for me to see that others have not seen before?  What is there for me to touch that others have not touched?  What is there for me to feel, to learn, to hear, to know, that shall thrill me before it pass to others?  What can I discover?--Nothing.  Nothing whatsoever.  One charm of travel dies here."

There's hope in that last sentence--"One charm of travel dies here," for it implies some knowledge of travel's other charms, as if Twain might slough off his despair and dig into Rome's other charms.  No.  So invested is he in the city's denial of discovery that he immediately reverses the field and imagines himself a modern inhabitant of the Roman Campagna--slothful, superstitious, ignorant--traveling to wondrous America to experience the joys of discovery.  In a passage long enough to make me wonder if the man was sane, Twain describes what his Roman peasant would see, for the first time:  a nation with "no overshadowing Mother Church, and yet the people survive; common country children actually reading books; cities where people drink milk but the streets are not crowded with goats; houses with "real glass windows"; fire engines and fire departments; newspapers, printed by "a great thousands every hour"; common men who own land not rented from the church or nobles; and Jews "treated just like human beings, instead of dogs." 

St. Peter's.  Just too damn big.  
Emerging from his Rome-induced depression, Twain visits the Vatican, only to experience more disappointment.  St. Peter's is big, yes, but despite its mass it "did not look nearly so large as the [US] capitol, and certainly [was] not a twentieth part as beautiful, from the outside."  Inside, the building was on such a vast scale that "there were no contrasts to judge by--none but the people, and I had not noticed them.  They were insects,"  "lost in the vast spaces."  He tells the story of an army officer, searching for 10,000 troops he knew to be inside the cathedral--and failing to find them.  From the dome, he finds the distant Coliseum, only to describe it as the place where ignorant Romans killed Christians in order to "teach the people to abhor and fear the new doctrine that followers of Christ were teaching."  And this lesson--we're still apparently in the Dome--segues into an indictment of the Inquisition, for Twain an even worse phenomenon, the product not of Roman "barbarians" but of "civilized people."

Later, perhaps in a state of regret, Twain visits the Coliseum.  He's still intimidated; "Every body knows the picture of the Coliseum."  But he's also appreciative of the structure's "reserve," "that royal seclusion which is proper to majesty," in sum a building that "more vividly than all the written histories...tells the story of Rome's grandeur and Rome's decay."  Then, oddly, swept away by his own ruminations on the pomp, pageantry, and drama that once characterized the "theatre of Rome," Twain imagines discovering the only extant playbill for one of those Coliseum productions, then adds the discovery of "a stained and mutilated copy of the Roman Daily Battle-Ax, containing a critique upon this very performance."  Page upon page follow, of what can only be called drivel.  Faced with a city that thwarted his desires for original experience, Twain had found a way to "discover": he invented historical documents, then writes endlessly about them.  He concludes this exercise with self-praise for not using the clichéd phrase "butchered to make a Roman holiday." 

There is more to this section on Rome.  More pages are filled with a rant on Michelangelo: "I did not want Michael Angelo for breakfast--for luncheon--for dinner--for tea--for supper--for between meals.  I like a change, occasionally." "In Rome, especially, Michelangelo is a force, designing St.
One of too many Michelangelos
Peter's, the Pantheon, the Tiber, even the Roman sewer known as the Cloaca Maxima--which of course he did not design."  Funny, perhaps, but also a sign of the novelist's failure to find a way into a real Rome that he could enjoy.  Another rant follows, this one about their Roman tour guide, whom they befuddle and mock by asking him if (for example) the Roman Forum was a work by Michael Angelo.  "This guide," he writes, "must continue to suffer.  If he does not enjoy it, so much the worse for him.  We do."  At the Vatican museums, the same guide is again victimized, this time by an exaggerated boredom: "we never showed any interest in any thing." 

There's some serious relief from the well-intentioned but failed, and revealing, humor.  A visit to the catacombs of St. Callixtus, under the Church of St. Sebastian, finds Twain attentive and moderately involved, if again overwhelmed at the scope of the phenomenon: 160 catacombs under Rome, he observes, and 7 million graves.  Similarly, the spectacle of bones at.the Capuchin Convent elicits a kind of wide-eyed awe, if also some good-natured ribbing of their Monk guide, for whom
The catacombs of St. Callixtus.  Too many graves.  
this skull or that femur identified Brother Carlo or Brother Thomas.  Twain is serious, too, when he observes on a return to the Vatican, that despite all the Raphaels and Guidos and other old masters, "the sublime history of Rome remains unpainted!  They painted Virgins enough, and popes enough and saintly scarecrows enough, to people Paradise, almost, and these things are all they did paint."  (Twain as social historian, lacking material.)  The church comes in for criticism again at the Scala Santa, where Twain observes that "the Saviour...seems to be little importance any where in Rome"; it's all about Mary or the Popes, especially St. Peter. 

As the long chapter concludes, Twain confronts Rome's ghosts.  "I wished to write a real 'guide-book' chapter on this fascinating city, but I could not do it, because I have felt all the time like a boy in a candy-shop--there was everything to choose from, and yet no choice."  And that was that.  He was done.  "The surest way to stop writing about Rome," he wrote, "is to stop."  And he did.


1 comment:

mary jane cryan said... He was the man who invented cruising.