The story of Rome is a mighty chronicle of such deep importance towards
an understanding of the growth of Europe, that a feeling almost of
helplessness assails me as I essay to set down in this limited space an
account of the city’s ancient grandeur and of its monuments. It is with
a sense of awe that one enters Rome. The scene gives birth to so much
reflection, the pulse quickens, the imagination is stirred by the annals
of Pompey and Cæsar, and the mighty names that resound in the history of
the wonderful capital; while the ruins of the days of power and pomp are
as solemn tokens of the fate of all great civilisations.
The surroundings of Rome, the vast silent Campagna, that rolling tract
of wild country, may be likened to an upland district of Wales. Here are
scattered relics of the resplendent days, in a desert where the sirocco
breathes hotly; where flocks of sheep and goats wander, and foxes prowl
close to the ancient gates. Eastward stand the great natural ramparts of
purple mountains, whence the Tiber rolls swiftly, and washing Rome,
winds on through lonely valleys.
Dim are the early records of the city. Myth and legend long passed as
history in the chronicles of the founding of Rome. We learn now from the
etymologists and modern historians that the name of Rome was not derived
from Roma, the mother of Romulus, nor from _ruma_, but, according to
Niebuhr, from the Greek _rhoma_, signifying strength; while Michelet
tells us that city was called after the River Rumo, the ancient name of
Romulus, the legendary founder, was supposed to have lived B.C. 752. The
growth of the community on the Seven Hills began, according to the old
annalists, with a settlement of shepherds. We are told that after the
death of Romulus, the first king, the city was ruled by Numa Pompilius.
This sovereign instituted nine guilds of industry, and united the mixed
population. Tarquinius Superbus, the despotic king, reigned with
fanatical religious austerity, and after his banishment Rome became a
The first system of rule was sacerdotal, the second aristocratic, and
the third a state of liberty for the plebeians. Then came the Gauls who
burned the city to the ground and harried the whole country. Hannibal
and Scipio arose, and we enter upon the period of the great Punic Wars,
followed by the stirring epoch of Cæsar and Pompey.
How shall we separate myth and simple tradition from the veracious
chronicles of the Roman people? What were the causes of the downfall of
their proud city, and the decadence of the great race that invaded all
quarters of Europe? These are the questions which fill the mind as we
wander to-day in Rome. We are reminded of the menace of wealth, the
insecurity of prosperity, and the devastating influence of militarism
and the lust of conquest. We meditate, too, on the spirit of persecution
that flourished here, the love of ferocity, and the cruelty that
characterised the recreations of the city under the emperors.
With all its eminence in art and industry, in spite of its high
distinction in the science of warfare, and its elaborate jurisprudence
and codes, Rome, at one time terrorised by Nero, at another humanely
governed by Aurelius, was in its last state a melancholy symbol of
decrepitude and failure. The final stage of degradation was worse than
the primitive period of barbarism and superstition.
In the Middle Ages, at the time when most of the wealth went to the
Popes of Avignon, the city had fallen into pitiful decay. The majestic
St Peter’s was threatened by destruction through lack of repair; the
Capitol was described as on a level with “a town of cowherds.”
The monarchy of Rome is said to have endured for about two hundred and
forty years. The city extended then over a wide area, and was protected
by walls and towers. The Coliseum, the Pantheon, and the Forum were
built as Rome grew in might and magnificence, and the Roman style of
architecture became a model for the world. Happily these structures have
survived. The Rome of pagan days and the Rome of the Renaissance are
mingled here strangely, and the pomp and affluence of former times
contrasts with the poverty of to-day that meets us in the streets.
Note the faces of the people; here are features stern and regular,
recalling often old prints of the Romans of history. The dress of the
poorer women is ancient, while that of the upper classes is as modern as
the costumes of Paris, Berlin, or London. On days of fête it is
interesting to watch these people at play, all animated with a southern
gaiety which the northerner may envy. The life of Rome is outdoor; folk
loiter and congregate in the streets; there is much traffic of vehicles
used for pleasure. Over the city stretches “the Italian sky,” ardently
blue–the sky that we know from paintings before we have visited
Rome–and upon the white buildings shines a hot sun from which we shrink
in midsummer noons.
It is hard to decide which appeals to us the more strongly in Rome–the
relics of Cæsar’s empire or the art of the Middle Ages. The Coliseum
brings to mind “the grandeur that was Rome,” in the days of the pagan
majesty, while St Peter’s, with its wealth of gorgeous decoration and
great paintings, reminds us of the supreme power of the city under the
In the Coliseum there is social history written in stone. We look upon
the tiers rising one above the other, and picture them in all the
splendour of a day of cruel carnival. We may see traces of the lifts
that brought the beasts to the arena from the dens below.
_Ad leones!_ The trumpet blares, and a victim of the heretical creed is
led into the amphitheatre to encounter the lions. How often has this
soil been drenched in blood. How often have the walls echoed with the
plaudits of the Roman populace, gloating upon a spectacle of torture, or
aroused to ecstasy by the combats of gladiators.
Silence broods in the arena, and in every interstice the maidenhair fern
grows rife among the decaying stones. The glory has departed, but the
shell of the Flavian amphitheatre remains as a monument of Rome’s
imperial days. Here were held the chariot races, the competitions of
athletes, the tournaments on horseback, the baiting of savage brutes,
the wrestling bouts, throwing the spear, and the fights of martyrs with
animals. Luxury and cruelty rioted here on Roman holidays.
For a comprehensive view of the Coliseum, you should climb the Palatine
Hill. The hundreds of arches and windows admit the sunlight, and the
building glows, “a monstrous mountain of stone,” as Michelet describes
it. Tons of the masonry have been removed by vandals. The fountain in
which the combatants washed their wounds remains, and the walls of the
circus rise to a height of a hundred-and-fifty-seven feet. In yonder
“monument of murder” there died ten thousand victims in a hundred days
during the reign of Trajan.
The triumph of Christianity is symbolised in St Peter’s. An impartial
chronicler cannot close his eyes to the truth written in the great
cathedral. Both pagans and Christians persecuted in turn to the glory of
their deities. Force was worshipped alike by emperor and pope. Pagans
tortured martyrs in the arena; the Christians burned them in the square.
In 1600 Giordano Bruno was tied to the stake, and consumed in the
flames, by decree of the Church, after two years of imprisonment. His
offence was the writing of treatises attempting to prove that the earth
is not flat, and that God is “the All in All.” He also dared to opine
that there may be other inhabited worlds besides our own. Bruno’s last
words have echoed through the ages: “Perhaps it is with greater fear
that you pass the sentence upon me than I receive it.”
Under Innocent IV. the Inquisition was established as a special tribunal
against heretics. Men of science soon came under its penalties.
Copernicus was a teacher of mathematics in Rome, when he conceived his
theory, “The Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies,” which he dedicated to
Pope Paul. Fearing the awful penalties of the Holy Office, he withheld
publication of the work for many years, only seeing a copy of the
printed volume in his last hours. The book was condemned by the
Inquisition and placed on the index.
About a century later, Galileo wrote his “System of the World,” an
exposition and defence of the theories of Copernicus. The Inquisition
dragged him before its tribunal at Rome, where he was charged with
heresy and compelled to recant or die. We know that he chose
recantation, or the fate of Bruno would have been his. For ten years
Galileo pined in the dungeon, and his body was flung into a dishonoured
Not a man in Rome was safe from the Inquisition. Its courts travestied
justice; its terrified witnesses lied, and the accusers were
intimidated. Suspicion alone was sufficient to compel arrest and trial,
and there was no possible appeal, and no hope of pity or leniency. The
Church urged that while unbelief existed, the Inquisition was a
necessity, and the chief means of stamping out heretical doctrine. And
yet, a few years ago, an International Free-thought Congress was held
under the shadow of St Peter’s. How truly, “it moves!”
The Renaissance, with its mighty intellectual impetus, its reverence for
the arts and culture, and its resistance against the absolutism of the
Papacy came as the salvation of Rome from the terrors and the stagnation
of the dark days.
The birth of Michael Angelo, in 1474, came with a new era of
enlightenment. Angelo, painter, sculptor, poet, and philosopher, was
commissioned by Pope Julius II. to carve a great work in Rome, and to
adorn the Sistine Chapel with frescoes. Three years were spent on these
superb paintings. This is the most wonderful ceiling painting in the
world. In the centre are pictures of scenes of the Creation and Fall; in
compartments are the prophets, and other portions represent the
ancestors of the Virgin Mary and historical characters.
The figures are colossal, and wonderful in their anatomy, revealing the
artist’s richness of imagination, as well as his unsurpassed technical
skill. To see to advantage the frescoes of the roof, it is necessary to
lie flat on the back, and gaze upwards. The human figure is superbly
imaged in “The Temptation, Fall and Expulsion.” The largest figures in
the whole composition are among the prophets and sibyls.
“Here, at last, here indeed for the first time,” writes Mr Arthur
Symons, in his “Cities,” “is all that can be meant by sublimity; a
sublimity which attains its pre-eminence through no sacrifice of other
qualities; a sublimity which (let us say it frankly) is amusing. I find
the magnificent and extreme life of these figures as touching, intimate,
and direct in its appeal, as the most vivid and gracious realism of any
The vast picture of “The Last Judgment,” on the wall of the Sistine
Chapel, was painted by Michael Angelo when he was growing old. The work
occupied about seven years. It is full of figures in every kind of
action, and most of them are nude. Their nakedness affronted Paul IV.,
who commanded Da Volterra, a pupil of Angelo, to paint clothing on some
of the forms, thus marring the beauty of the work.
In the Pauline Chapel of the Vatican are two mural paintings by Michael
Angelo, “The Crucifixion of St Peter,” and “The Conversion of St Paul.”
“I could only see and wonder,” writes Goethe, referring to the works of
Angelo in a letter from Rome. The mental confidence and boldness of the
master, and his grandeur of conception, are beyond all expression.
Sir Joshua Reynolds spent some time in Rome, in 1750, and recorded the
result of his study of the work of Raphael and Michael Angelo. It was in
the cold chambers of the Vatican that Reynolds caught the chill which
brought about his deafness. He made many copies of parts of the
paintings of Angelo. “The Adonis” of Titian in the Colonna Palace, the
“Leda,” by Coreggio, and the works of Raphael, were closely studied by
the English painter. Before he left Rome he declared that the art of
Angelo represented the highest perfection.
Many critics affirm that St Peter’s is somewhat disappointing,
architecturally considered, while some critics maintain that it is one
of the finest churches in the world. The colonnades, with their gallery
of sculptured images, are stately and impressive. It is the huge façade
that disappoints. Nevertheless, St Peter’s is a stupendous temple, with
a dignity and majesty of its own. The interior is garish; we miss the
dim religious light and the atmosphere of sober piety so manifest in
the cathedrals of Spain. As a repository of masterpieces St Peter’s is
world-famous. Here is “The Virgin and Dead Christ,” the finest of
Michael Angelo’s early statues.
Angelo spent various periods in Rome, after his first stay of five
years. He was in the city at the age of sixty, and much of his work was
executed when he was growing old. It was in the evening of his days that
he became the close friend of Vittoria Colonna, the inspirer of his
poetry, and after her death, in 1547, he entered upon a spell of
ill-health and sadness. But his activities were marvellous, even in old
age. In 1564 he planned the Farnese Palace for Paul III., and directed
the building of the Church of Santa Maria.
Immensity is the chief impression of the interior of St Peter’s. Even
the figures of cherubs are gigantic. The great nave with its marble
pavement and huge pillars, is long-drawn from the portal to the altar,
and the space within the great dome is bewildering in its vastness.
The bronze statue of St Peter, whose foot is kissed yearly by thousands
of devotees, is noted here among the numerous images. At the altar we
shall see Canova’s statue of Pius VI., the chair of St Peter, and tombs
of the Popes Urban and Paul.
Michael Angelo designed the beautiful Capello Gregoriana. His lovely
“Pieta” is the Cappella della Pieta, and this is the most splendid work
within the building. Tombs of popes are seen in the various chapels. In
the resplendent choir chapel is Thorvaldsen’s statue of Pius VII.
The Vatican is a great museum of statuary, the finest collection in
existence to-day. On the site of the building once stood a Roman
emperor’s palace, which was reconstructed as a residence for Pope
Innocent III. Besides the statues in the Vatican and the cathedral,
there are many remarkable works of sculpture in the Villa Albani and the
Capitoline. In the Capitoline Museum are, the “Dying Gladiator,” the
“Resting Faun,” and the “Venus.”
Days may be spent in inspecting the minor churches of Rome. Perhaps the
most interesting is San Giovanni Laterano, built on the site of a Roman
imperial palace, and dating from the fourteenth century. The front is by
Galileo, very highly decorated. Within, the chapels of the double aisles
are especially interesting for their lavish embellishment. The apse is
a very old part of the structure, and the Gothic cloister has grace and
dignity, with most admirable carved columns. It is a debated question
whether the ceiling of this church was painted by Michael Angelo or
The Lateran Palace, close to San Giovanni, has a small decorated chapel
at the head of a sacred staircase, said to have been trodden by Christ
when he appeared before Pilate, and brought here from Jerusalem.
The Churches of San Clemente, Santi Giovanni Paolo, Santa Maria in Ara
Coeli are among the other churches of note.
The memorials of pagan and Christian times stand side by side in Rome,
and in roaming the city it is difficult to direct one’s steps on a
formal plan. Turning away from an arch or a temple of Roman origin, you
note a Renaissance church, and are tempted to enter it. If I fail to
point out here many buildings which the visitor should see, it is
because the number is so great.
The part of the city between the Regia and the Palatine Hill is very
rich in antiquities. It is said that Michael Angelo carried away a great
mass of stone from the Temple of Vesta to build a part of St Peter’s;
but I do not know upon what authority this is stated. A few blocks of
stone are, however, all that remain of the buildings sacred to the
The tall columns seen as we walk to the Palatine Hill, are relics of the
temple of Castor and Pollux. Behind the Regia is the temple of Julius
Cæsar, built by Augustus; and here Mark Antony delivered his splendid
oration. Near to this temple is the Forum, with traces of basilicas, and
a few standing columns. The whole way to the Capitoline abounds in
ancient stones of rich historical interest. Here are the walls of the
Plutei, with reliefs representing the life of Trajan, the grand arch of
Septimus Severus, the columns of the Temple of Saturn.
The Palatine Hill is crowned with the ruins of the Palace of the Cæsars.
Mural decorations still remain on the walls of an apartment. Here will
be seen relics of a school, a temple dedicated to Jupiter, and portions
of the famous wall of the mythical Romulus. These are but a few of the
antiquities of the Palatine, whence the eye surveys Rome and the rolling
In the quarter of the Coliseum are ancient baths, once sumptuously
fitted and adorned with images, now removed to the museum of the city.
Trajan’s Column towers here to about one hundred-and-fifty feet. Then
there is the Pantheon, a classic building wonderfully preserved. All
these are but a few of the ancient edifices of Rome.
Among the more important museums and picture galleries are the splendid
Vatican, at which we have glanced, the Capitol Museum, the Palazzo del
Senatore, with works by Velazquez, Van Dyck, Titian, and other masters,
the National Museum, the Villa Borghese, the Dorian Palace, and the
The art annals of the Rome of Christian times are of supreme interest.
The greatest of the painters who came to study in Rome was Velazquez,
who was offered the hospitality of Cardinal Barberini in the Vatican. He
stayed, however, in a quieter lodging, at the Villa Medici, and
afterwards in the house of the Spanish ambassador. Velazquez paid a
second visit to Rome in 1649, where he met Poussin, and Salvator Rosa.
To Rosa he remarked, “It is Titian that bears the palm.”
The Spanish painter was made a member of the Roman Academy; and at this
time he painted the portrait of Innocent X., which occupies a position
of honour in the Dorian Palace. Reynolds described this as “the finest
piece of portrait-painting in Rome.” Velazquez’ portrait of himself is
in the Capitoline Museum in the city.
The art records of Rome are so many that I cannot attempt to refer to
more than a small number of them. Literary associations, too, crowd into
the mind as we walk the lava-paved streets of the glowing capital.
Goethe sojourned long in Rome, and wrote many pages of his impressions.
In 1787 he writes of the amazing loveliness of a walk through the
historic streets by moonlight, of the solemnity of the Coliseum by
night, and the grandeur of the portico of St Peter’s. He praises the
climate in spring, the delight of long sunny days, with noons “almost
too warm”; and the sky “like a bright blue taffeta in the sunshine.” In
the Capitoline Museum he admired the nude “Venus” as one of the finest
statues in Rome. “My imagination, my memory,” he writes, “is storing
itself full with endlessly beautiful subjects…. I am in the land of
Full of rapture are the letters of Shelley from Rome: “Since I last
wrote to you,” he says to Peacock, “I have seen the ruins of Rome, the
Vatican, St Peter’s, and all the miracles of ancient and modern art
contained in that majestic city. The impression of it exceeds anything I
have ever experienced in my travels…. We visited the Forum, and the
ruins of the Coliseum every day. The Coliseum is unlike any work of
human hands I ever saw before. It is of enormous height and circuit, and
the arches, built of massy stones, are piled on one another, and jut
into the blue air, shattered into the forms of overhanging rocks.”
Shelley was entranced by the arch of Constantine. “It is exquisitely
beautiful and perfect.” In March 1819, he writes: “Come to Rome. It is a
scene by which expression is overpowered, which words cannot convey.”
The Cathedral scarcely appealed to Shelley; he thought it inferior
externally to St Paul’s, though he admired the façade and colonnade.
More satisfying to the poet’s æsthetic taste was the Pantheon, with its
handsome fluted columns of yellow marble, and the beauty of the
proportions in the structure.
The Pantheon is generally admitted to be the most noble of the ancient
edifices of the city. It was erected by Agrippa 27 B.C., and sumptuously
adorned with fine marbles. The dome is vast and nobly planned, and the
building truly merits Shelley’s designation, “sublime.”
Keats was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, in a tomb bearing
the inscription: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” His loyal
and admiring friend, Shelley, wrote a truer memorial of the young poet:
“Go thou to Rome–at once the paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shattered 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.”
In 1850 Robert Browning and his wife were in Rome, and it was then that
Browning wrote the beautiful love poem, “Two in the Campagna,” telling
of the joy of roaming in:
“The champaign with its endless fleece
Of feathery grasses everywhere!
Silence and passion, joy and peace
An everlasting wash of air—-“
Poets and painters have through the centuries drawn inspiration from
this wondrous city of splendid monuments and ancient grandeur. How true
was Goethe’s statement that wherever you turn in Rome there is an object
of beauty and arresting interest.
The appeal of the city is strong, the variety bewildering, whether you
elect to muse upon the remains of the imperial days, or to study the
Renaissance art of the Christian churches. It is well, if possible, to
make a survey of the antiquities in chronological order, beginning with
an inspection of the ruins of the Romulean wall and the traces of the
oldest gates. Then the Forum should be visited in its valley, and the
art of the temple of Saturn, the Basilica Julia, and the Arch of Fabius
examined. The Temple of Vespasian, the Palace of Caligula, Trajan’s
Column, and the numerous arches will all arouse memories of the emperors
and the splendid purple days.
The Campagna is not only a wilderness, but it is rich in historic
memories. Here lived the cultured Cynthia, the friend of Catullus, the
poet, and of Quintilius Varus. Numerous villas dotted the Campagna in
the days of the emperors, and here, during the summer heats, retired
many of the wealthy citizens of Rome. Valuable antiquities, vases, urns,
and figures, have been unearthed from this classic soil.
- The Project Gutenberg EBook of Old Continental Towns, by Walter M. Gallichan