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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsSaunterings - A High Day In Rome
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Saunterings - A High Day In Rome Post by :joannent Category :Nonfictions Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :3304

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Saunterings - A High Day In Rome


The splendid and tiresome ceremonies of Holy Week set in; also the rain, which held up for two days. Rome without the sun, and with rain and the bone-penetrating damp cold of the season, is a wretched place. Squalor and ruins and cheap splendor need the sun; the galleries need it; the black old masters in the dark corners of the gaudy churches need it; I think scarcely anything of a cardinal's big, blazing footman, unless the sun shines on him, and radiates from his broad back and his splendid calves; the models, who get up in theatrical costumes, and get put into pictures, and pass the world over for Roman peasants (and beautiful many of them are), can't sit on the Spanish Stairs in indolent pose when it rains; the streets are slimy and horrible; the carriages try to run over you, and stand a very good chance of succeeding, where there are no sidewalks, and you are limping along on the slippery round cobble-stones; you can't get into the country, which is the best part of Rome: but when the sun shines all this is changed; the dear old dirty town exercises, its fascinations on you then, and you speedily forget your recent misery.

Holy Week is a vexation to most people. All the world crowds here to see its exhibitions and theatrical shows, and works hard to catch a glimpse of them, and is tired out, if not disgusted, at the end. The things to see and hear are Palm Sunday in St. Peter's; singing of the Miserere by the pope's choir on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday in the Sistine Chapel; washing of the pilgrims' feet in a chapel of St. Peter's, and serving the apostles at table by the pope on Thursday, with a papal benediction from the balcony afterwards; Easter Sunday, with the illumination of St. Peter's in the evening; and fireworks (this year in front of St. Peter's in Montorio) Monday evening. Raised seats are built up about the high altar under the dome in St. Peter's, which will accommodate a thousand, and perhaps more, ladies; and for these tickets are issued without numbers, and for twice as many as they will seat. Gentlemen who are in evening dress are admitted to stand in the reserved places inside the lines of soldiers. For the Miserere in the Sistine Chapel tickets are also issued. As there is only room for about four hundred ladies, and a thousand and more tickets are given out, you may imagine the scramble. Ladies go for hours before the singing begins, and make a grand rush when the doors are open. I do not know any sight so unseemly and cruel as a crowd of women intent on getting in to such a ceremony: they are perfectly rude and unmerciful to each other. They push and trample one another under foot; veils and dresses are torn; ladies faint away in the scrimmage, and only the strongest and most unscrupulous get in. I have heard some say, who have been in the pellmell, that, not content with elbowing and pushing and pounding, some women even stick pins into those who are in the way. I hope this latter is not true; but it is certain that the conduct of most of the women is brutal. A weak or modest or timid woman stands no more chance than she would in a herd of infuriated Campagna cattle. The same scenes are enacted in the efforts to see the pope wash feet, and serve at the table. For the possession of the seats under the dome on Palm Sunday and Easter there is a like crush. The ceremonies do not begin until half-past nine; but ladies go between five and six o'clock in the morning, and when the passages are open they make a grand rush. The seats, except those saved for the nobility, are soon all taken, and the ladies who come after seven are lucky if they can get within the charmed circle, and find a spot to sit down on a campstool. They can then see only a part of the proceedings, and have a weary, exhausting time of it for hours. This year Rome is more crowded than ever before. There are American ladies enough to fill all the reserved places; and I fear they are energetic enough to get their share of them.

It rained Sunday; but there was a steady stream of people and carriages all the morning pouring over the Bridge of St. Angelo, and discharging into the piazza of St. Peter's. It was after nine when I arrived on the ground. There was a crowd of carriages under the colonnades, and a heavy fringe in front of them; but the hundreds of people moving over the piazza, and up the steps to the entrances, made only the impression of dozens in the vast space. I do not know if there are people enough in Rome to fill St. Peter's; certainly there was no appearance of a crowd as we entered, although they had been pouring in all the morning, and still thronged the doors. I heard a traveler say that he followed ten thousand soldiers into the church, and then lost them from sight: they disappeared in the side chapels. He did not make his affidavit as to the number of soldiers. The interior area of the building is not much greater than the square of St. Mark in Venice. To go into the great edifice is almost like going outdoors. Lines of soldiers kept a wide passage clear from the front door away down to the high altar; and there was a good mass of spectators on the outside. The tribunes for the ladies, built up under the dome, were of course, filled with masses of ladies in solemn black; and there was more or less of a press of people surging about in that vicinity. Thousands of people were also roaming about in the great spaces of the edifice; but there was nowhere else anything like a crowd. It had very much the appearance of a large fair-ground, with little crowds about favorite booths. Gentlemen in dress-coats were admitted to the circle under the dome. The pope's choir was stationed in a gallery there opposite the high altar. Back of the altar was a wide space for the dignitaries; seats were there, also, for ambassadors and those born to the purple; and the pope's seat was on a raised dais at the end. Outsiders could see nothing of what went on within there; and the ladies under the dome could only partially see, in the seats they had fought so gallantly to obtain.

St. Peter's is a good place for grand processions and ceremonies; but it is a poor one for viewing them. A procession which moves down the nave is hidden by the soldiers who stand on either side, or is visible only by sections as it passes: there is no good place to get the grand effect of the masses of color, and the total of the gorgeous pageantry. I should like to see the display upon a grand stage, and enjoy it in a coup d'oeil. It is a fine study of color and effect, and the groupings are admirable; but the whole affair is nearly lost to the mass of spectators. It must be a sublime feeling to one in the procession to walk about in such monstrous fine clothes; but what would his emotions be if more people could see him! The grand altar stuck up under the dome not only breaks the effect of what would be the fine sweep of the nave back to the apse, but it cuts off all view of the celebration of the mass behind it, and, in effect, reduces what should be the great point of display in the church to a mere chapel. And when you add to that the temporary tribunes erected under the dome for seating the ladies, the entire nave is shut off from a view of the gorgeous ceremony of high mass. The effect would be incomparable if one could stand in the door, or anywhere in the nave, and, as in other churches, look down to the end upon a great platform, with the high altar and all the sublime spectacle in full view, with the blaze of candles and the clouds of incense rising in the distance.

At half-past nine the great doors opened, and the procession began, in slow and stately moving fashion, to enter. One saw a throng of ecclesiastics in robes and ermine; the white plumes of the Guard Noble; the pages and chamberlains in scarlet; other pages, or what not, in black short-clothes, short swords, gold chains, cloak hanging from the shoulder, and stiff white ruffs; thirty-six cardinals in violet robes, with high miter-shaped white silk hats, that looked not unlike the pasteboard "trainer-caps" that boys wear when they play soldier; crucifixes, and a blazoned banner here and there; and, at last, the pope, in his red chair, borne on the shoulders of red lackeys, heaving along in a sea-sicky motion, clad in scarlet and gold, with a silver miter on his head, feebly making the papal benediction with two upraised fingers, and moving his lips in blessing. As the pope came in, a supplementary choir of men and soprano hybrids, stationed near the door, set up a high, welcoming song, or chant, which echoed rather finely through the building. All the music of the day is vocal.

The procession having reached its destination, and disappeared behind the altar of the dome, the pope dismounted, and took his seat on his throne. The blessing of the palms began, the cardinals first approaching, and afterwards the members of the diplomatic corps, the archbishops and bishops, the heads of the religious orders, and such private persons as have had permission to do so. I had previously seen the palms carried in by servants in great baskets. It is, perhaps, not necessary to say that they are not the poetical green waving palms, but stiff sort of wands, woven out of dry, yellow, split palm-leaves, sometimes four or five feet in length, braided into the semblance of a crown on top,--a kind of rough basket-work. The palms having been blessed, a procession was again formed down the nave and out the door, all in it "carrying palms in their hands," the yellow color of which added a new element of picturesqueness to the splendid pageant. The pope was carried as before, and bore in his hand a short braided palm, with gold woven in, flowers added, and the monogram "I. H. S." worked in the top. It is the pope's custom to give this away when the ceremony is over. Last year he presented it to an American lady, whose devotion attracted him; this year I saw it go away in a gilded coach in the hands of an ecclesiastic. The procession disappeared through the great portal into the vestibule, and the door closed. In a moment somebody knocked three times on the door: it opened, and the procession returned, and moved again to the rear of the altar, the singers marching with it and chanting. The cardinals then changed their violet for scarlet robes; and high mass, for an hour, was celebrated by a cardinal priest: and I was told that it was the pope's voice that we heard, high and clear, singing the passion. The choir made the responses, and performed at intervals. The singing was not without a certain power; indeed, it was marvelous how some of the voices really filled the vast spaces of the edifice, and the choruses rolled in solemn waves of sound through the arches. The singing, with the male sopranos, is not to my taste; but it cannot be denied that it had a wild and strange effect.

While this was going on behind the altar, the people outside were wandering about, looking at each other, and on the watch not to miss any of the shows of the day. People were talking, chattering, and greeting each other as they might do in the street. Here and there somebody was kneeling on the pavement, unheeding the passing throng. At several of the chapels, services were being conducted; and there was a large congregation, an ordinary church full, about each of them. But the most of those present seemed to regard it as a spectacle only; and as a display of dress, costumes, and nationalities it was almost unsurpassed. There are few more wonderful sights in this world than an Englishwoman in what she considers full dress. An English dandy is also a pleasing object. For my part, as I have hinted, I like almost as well as anything the big footmen,--those in scarlet breeches and blue gold-embroidered coats. I stood in front of one of the fine creations for some time, and contemplated him as one does the Farnese Hercules. One likes to see to what a splendor his species can come, even if the brains have all run down into the calves of the legs. There were also the pages, the officers of the pope's household, in costumes of the Middle Ages; the pope's Swiss guard in the showy harlequin uniform designed by Michael Angelo; the foot-soldiers in white short-clothes, which threatened to burst, and let them fly into pieces; there were fine ladies and gentlemen, loafers and loungers, from every civilized country, jabbering in all the languages; there were beggars in rags, and boors in coats so patched that there was probably none of the original material left; there were groups of peasants from the Campagna, the men in short jackets and sheepskin breeches with the wool side out, the women with gay-colored folded cloths on their heads, and coarse woolen gowns; a squad of wild-looking Spanish gypsies, burning-eyed, olive-skinned, hair long, black, crinkled, and greasy, as wild in raiment as in face; priests and friars, Zouaves in jaunty light gray and scarlet; rags and velvets, silks and serge cloths,--a cosmopolitan gathering poured into the world's great place of meeting,--a fine religious Vanity Fair on Sunday.

There came an impressive moment in all this confusion, a point of august solemnity. Up to that instant, what with chanting and singing the many services, and the noise of talking and walking, there was a wild babel. But at the stroke of the bell and the elevation of the Host, down went the muskets of the guard with one clang on the marble; the soldiers kneeled; the multitude in the nave, in the aisles, at all the chapels, kneeled; and for a minute in that vast edifice there was perfect stillness: if the whole great concourse had been swept from the earth, the spot where it lately was could not have been more silent. And then the military order went down the line, the soldiers rose, the crowd rose, and the mass and the hum went on.

It was all over before one; and the pope was borne out again, and the vast crowd began to discharge itself. But it was a long time before the carriages were all filled and rolled off. I stood for a half hour watching the stream go by,--the pompous soldiers, the peasants and citizens, the dazzling equipages, and jaded, exhausted women in black, who had sat or stood half a day under the dome, and could get no carriage; and the great state coaches of the cardinals, swinging high in the air, painted and gilded, with three noble footmen hanging on behind each, and a cardinal's broad face in the window.

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