Monday, July 11, 2016

Story and History: A Traveller in Rome

by H. V. Morton

Before our trip to Rome, the priest who was leading the trip lent me three books: Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (which I had already read), A Traveller in Rome, and Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces (which I didn't have time to read, what with the Grand Adventure and all). This book I did read, however, and it was an absolute delight!

H.V. Morton was a premier travel writer in his day (this book was published in 1957). His delightful writing abounds with history, art, architecture, and stories of his own wanderings in Rome. He would make an acquaintance and then end up somewhere amazing and generally off-limits, like the Papal Gardens.

On his visit to the Papal Gardens, his guide points out a bouquet of fresh flowers in the hands of a status of Mary, telling him the Pope has picked them for her.
What a beautiful moment this must have been: the old pontiff all alone in the garden in his white caped soutane and his red velvet shoes, looking about among the hedge banks on a quiet sunny afternoon for wild flowers to give the Madonna.
He evokes the sounds and spirit of earlier times in the city.
One can imagine what it must have been like to walk through the deserted Forum on a day of the games and to hear the flapping of this great awning, then to be pulled up by a savage roar of sound from eighty thousand voices.
Never failing to find the humor in stories of old and unexpected accomplishments, he wrote of the Altar of Peace, awarded to Augustus when peace descended upon the Empire. The altar was in pieces, scattered, and some still buried.
How all these detached fragments were brought together, and the other parts dug out from beneath the palace, is one of the great romances of excavation; and when the Fascists come up for judgment perhaps the reconstruction of the Altar of Peace will cancel out their graceless Via della Conciliazione.
My anticipation for our trip only increased while reading this beautiful book.
When darkness falls the old streets of Rome sink back into a former existence and fill with a stealthy vitality. Ancient palaces stand in the narrow ways like masked conspirators, and the network of stout iron grilles which masks their lower windows brings thoughts of knavery and prisons; the forms of men ahead, slipping into archways or side turnings, rouse in the mind the fears that such streets seem designed to provoke. Happily, sometimes from an upper storey floats down the reassuring voice of Bing Crosby, saying that love is all.
Though not Catholic, Morton appreciated the faith at the heart of Rome. He attended a Mass spoken by an American priest at the altar of St. Gregory at St. Peter's. After the Mass, waiting for his friend, he ducked into a confessional himself, just to chat with the amiable priest. Their conversation ended abruptly when a woman appeared.
We were interrupted by a woman who slipped into the confessional with her little burden of sins; soon she would emerge without it, looking much happier.
As they walked away from the church, the American priest asked him what most impressed him about St. Peter's.
I told him that it was not its size, but its continuity. There is nothing else in the world like it. The seed of faith, love and reverence planted on this hillside in the days of pagan Rome had grown into this colossal shrine, and the size of St. Peter's, the fact that you scarcely know where to look or what to look for, disguises its function: that it is really a shrine, the trophy of Anacletus grown and developed beyond imagination of its originators.
While writing about the Vatican, he shared anecdotes about Popes and events. I especially enjoyed one about a Protestant who tried to convert the Pope.
The most determined missionary was a Scottish minister who had convinced himself that the 'whore of Babylon' in Revelations was the Pope, and that it was his duty to go to Rome and win him over to Presbyterianism. He managed to get near the Pope during a ceremony in St. Peter's and, approaching, cried in a loud voice: 'O thou beast of nature with seven heads and ten horns! thou mother of harlots, arrayed in purple and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls! throw away the golden cup of abominations, and the filthiness of thy fornication!'
The Swiss Guard would have thrown him in prison, but the Pope took a kindlier view.
The Pope paid his passage home to Scotland and remarked that he was 'obliged to him for his good intentions and for undertaking such a long journey with a view to do good.'
Just before leaving Rome, Morton visits St. John Calybit, at the time one of the best hospitals in Rome, on Isola Tiberina, an island in the Tiber. Run by the Brothers of St. John of God, the hospital was built upon an ancient place of healing. Of course, his inquiries lead to a tour and conversations with the brothers.
And when I stood on the Tiber embankment and looked back at the island, I thought that in a world in which evil is striving for the mastery of the minds of men, it is with happiness and gratitude that ones sees in places such as this how a good deed can grow and prosper through the centuries. To seek out good thoughts and to reverence them is the privilege of those who have lived for no matter how brief a time in the mother city of the western world.
 If you are going to Rome, this book is superb preparation. If you cannot go to Rome, assuage yourself with this book; it's almost an adequate substitute.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments make me happy; thanks for speaking up!