The Complete Works of Mark Twain

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Mark Twain > Innocents Abroad > Chapter XVII

Innocents Abroad

Chapter XVII

We had a pleasant journey of it seaward again. We found that for the
three past nights our ship had been in a state of war. The first night
the sailors of a British ship, being happy with grog, came down on the
pier and challenged our sailors to a free fight. They accepted with
alacrity, repaired to the pier, and gained--their share of a drawn
battle. Several bruised and bloody members of both parties were carried
off by the police and imprisoned until the following morning. The next
night the British boys came again to renew the fight, but our men had had
strict orders to remain on board and out of sight. They did so, and the
besieging party grew noisy and more and more abusive as the fact became
apparent (to them) that our men were afraid to come out. They went away
finally with a closing burst of ridicule and offensive epithets. The
third night they came again and were more obstreperous than ever. They
swaggered up and down the almost deserted pier, and hurled curses,
obscenity, and stinging sarcasms at our crew. It was more than human
nature could bear. The executive officer ordered our men ashore--with
instructions not to fight. They charged the British and gained a
brilliant victory. I probably would not have mentioned this war had it
ended differently. But I travel to learn, and I still remember that they
picture no French defeats in the battle-galleries of Versailles.

It was like home to us to step on board the comfortable ship again and
smoke and lounge about her breezy decks. And yet it was not altogether
like home, either, because so many members of the family were away. We
missed some pleasant faces which we would rather have found at dinner,
and at night there were gaps in the euchre-parties which could not be
satisfactorily filled. "Moult" was in England, Jack in Switzerland,
Charley in Spain. Blucher was gone, none could tell where. But we were
at sea again, and we had the stars and the ocean to look at, and plenty
of room to meditate in.

In due time the shores of Italy were sighted, and as we stood gazing from
the decks, early in the bright summer morning, the stately city of Genoa
rose up out of the sea and flung back the sunlight from her hundred

Here we rest for the present--or rather, here we have been trying to
rest, for some little time, but we run about too much to accomplish a
great deal in that line.

I would like to remain here. I had rather not go any further. There may
be prettier women in Europe, but I doubt it. The population of Genoa is
120,000; two-thirds of these are women, I think, and at least two-thirds
of the women are beautiful. They are as dressy and as tasteful and as
graceful as they could possibly be without being angels. However, angels
are not very dressy, I believe. At least the angels in pictures are not
--they wear nothing but wings. But these Genoese women do look so
charming. Most of the young demoiselles are robed in a cloud of white
from head to foot, though many trick themselves out more elaborately.
Nine-tenths of them wear nothing on their heads but a filmy sort of veil,
which falls down their backs like a white mist. They are very fair, and
many of them have blue eyes, but black and dreamy dark brown ones are met
with oftenest.

The ladies and gentlemen of Genoa have a pleasant fashion of promenading
in a large park on the top of a hill in the center of the city, from six
till nine in the evening, and then eating ices in a neighboring garden an
hour or two longer. We went to the park on Sunday evening. Two thousand
persons were present, chiefly young ladies and gentlemen. The gentlemen
were dressed in the very latest Paris fashions, and the robes of the
ladies glinted among the trees like so many snowflakes. The multitude
moved round and round the park in a great procession. The bands played,
and so did the fountains; the moon and the gas lamps lit up the scene,
and altogether it was a brilliant and an animated picture. I scanned
every female face that passed, and it seemed to me that all were
handsome. I never saw such a freshet of loveliness before. I did not
see how a man of only ordinary decision of character could marry here,
because before he could get his mind made up he would fall in love with
somebody else.

Never smoke any Italian tobacco. Never do it on any account. It makes
me shudder to think what it must be made of. You cannot throw an old
cigar "stub" down anywhere, but some vagabond will pounce upon it on the
instant. I like to smoke a good deal, but it wounds my sensibilities to
see one of these stub-hunters watching me out of the corners of his
hungry eyes and calculating how long my cigar will be likely to last.
It reminded me too painfully of that San Francisco undertaker who used to
go to sick-beds with his watch in his hand and time the corpse. One of
these stub-hunters followed us all over the park last night, and we never
had a smoke that was worth anything. We were always moved to appease him
with the stub before the cigar was half gone, because he looked so
viciously anxious. He regarded us as his own legitimate prey, by right
of discovery, I think, because he drove off several other professionals
who wanted to take stock in us.

Now, they surely must chew up those old stubs, and dry and sell them for
smoking-tobacco. Therefore, give your custom to other than Italian
brands of the article.

"The Superb" and the "City of Palaces" are names which Genoa has held for
centuries. She is full of palaces, certainly, and the palaces are
sumptuous inside, but they are very rusty without and make no pretensions
to architectural magnificence. "Genoa the Superb" would be a felicitous
title if it referred to the women.

We have visited several of the palaces--immense thick-walled piles, with
great stone staircases, tesselated marble pavements on the floors,
(sometimes they make a mosaic work, of intricate designs, wrought in
pebbles or little fragments of marble laid in cement,) and grand salons
hung with pictures by Rubens, Guido, Titian, Paul Veronese, and so on,
and portraits of heads of the family, in plumed helmets and gallant coats
of mail, and patrician ladies in stunning costumes of centuries ago.
But, of course, the folks were all out in the country for the summer, and
might not have known enough to ask us to dinner if they had been at home,
and so all the grand empty salons, with their resounding pavements, their
grim pictures of dead ancestors, and tattered banners with the dust of
bygone centuries upon them, seemed to brood solemnly of death and the
grave, and our spirits ebbed away, and our cheerfulness passed from us.
We never went up to the eleventh story. We always began to suspect
ghosts. There was always an undertaker-looking servant along, too, who
handed us a program, pointed to the picture that began the list of the
salon he was in, and then stood stiff and stark and unsmiling in his
petrified livery till we were ready to move on to the next chamber,
whereupon he marched sadly ahead and took up another malignantly
respectful position as before. I wasted so much time praying that the
roof would fall in on these dispiriting flunkies that I had but little
left to bestow upon palace and pictures.

And besides, as in Paris, we had a guide. Perdition catch all the
guides. This one said he was the most gifted linguist in Genoa, as far
as English was concerned, and that only two persons in the city beside
himself could talk the language at all. He showed us the birthplace of
Christopher Columbus, and after we had reflected in silent awe before it
for fifteen minutes, he said it was not the birthplace of Columbus, but
of Columbus' grandmother! When we demanded an explanation of his conduct
he only shrugged his shoulders and answered in barbarous Italian. I
shall speak further of this guide in a future chapter. All the
information we got out of him we shall be able to carry along with us, I

I have not been to church so often in a long time as I have in the last
few weeks. The people in these old lands seem to make churches their
specialty. Especially does this seem to be the case with the citizens of
Genoa. I think there is a church every three or four hundred yards all
over town. The streets are sprinkled from end to end with shovel-hatted,
long-robed, well-fed priests, and the church bells by dozens are pealing
all the day long, nearly. Every now and then one comes across a friar of
orders gray, with shaven head, long, coarse robe, rope girdle and beads,
and with feet cased in sandals or entirely bare. 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 old Cathedral of San Lorenzo is about as notable a building as we
have found in Genoa. It is vast, and has colonnades of noble pillars,
and a great organ, and the customary pomp of gilded moldings, pictures,
frescoed ceilings, and so forth. I cannot describe it, of course--it
would require a good many pages to do that. But it is a curious place.
They said that half of it--from the front door halfway down to the altar
--was a Jewish synagogue before the Saviour was born, and that no
alteration had been made in it since that time. We doubted the
statement, but did it reluctantly. We would much rather have believed
it. The place looked in too perfect repair to be so ancient.

The main point of interest about the cathedral is the little Chapel of
St. John the Baptist. They only allow women to enter it on one day in
the year, on account of the animosity they still cherish against the sex
because of the murder of the Saint to gratify a caprice of Herodias. In
this Chapel is a marble chest, in which, they told us, were the ashes of
St. John; and around it was wound a chain, which, they said, had confined
him when he was in prison. We did not desire to disbelieve these
statements, and yet we could not feel certain that they were correct--
partly because we could have broken that chain, and so could St. John,
and partly because we had seen St. John's ashes before, in another
church. We could not bring ourselves to think St. John had two sets of

They also showed us a portrait of the Madonna which was painted by St.
Luke, and it did not look half as old and smoky as some of the pictures
by Rubens. We could not help admiring the Apostle's modesty in never
once mentioning in his writings that he could paint.

But isn't this relic matter a little overdone? We find a piece of the
true cross in every old church we go into, and some of the nails that
held it together. I would not like to be positive, but I think we have
seen as much as a keg of these nails. Then there is the crown of thorns;
they have part of one in Sainte Chapelle, in Paris, and part of one also
in Notre Dame. And as for bones of St. Denis, I feel certain we have
seen enough of them to duplicate him if necessary.

I only meant to write about the churches, but I keep wandering from the
subject. I could say that the Church of the Annunciation is a wilderness
of beautiful columns, of statues, gilded moldings, and pictures almost
countless, but that would give no one an entirely perfect idea of the
thing, and so where is the use? One family built the whole edifice, and
have got money left. There is where the mystery lies. We had an idea at
first that only a mint could have survived the expense.

These people here live in the heaviest, highest, broadest, darkest,
solidest houses one can imagine. Each one might "laugh a siege to
scorn." A hundred feet front and a hundred high is about the style, and
you go up three flights of stairs before you begin to come upon signs of
occupancy. Everything is stone, and stone of the heaviest--floors,
stairways, mantels, benches--everything. The walls are four to five feet
thick. The streets generally are four or five to eight feet wide and as
crooked as a corkscrew. You go along one of these gloomy cracks, and
look up and behold the sky like a mere ribbon of light, far above your
head, where the tops of the tall houses on either side of the street bend
almost together. You feel as if you were at the bottom of some
tremendous abyss, with all the world far above you. You wind in and out
and here and there, in the most mysterious way, and have no more idea of
the points of the compass than if you were a blind man. You can never
persuade yourself that these are actually streets, and the frowning,
dingy, monstrous houses dwellings, till you see one of these beautiful,
prettily dressed women emerge from them--see her emerge from a dark,
dreary-looking den that looks dungeon all over, from the ground away
halfway up to heaven. And then you wonder that such a charming moth
could come from such a forbidding shell as that. The streets are wisely
made narrow and the houses heavy and thick and stony, in order that the
people may be cool in this roasting climate. And they are cool, and stay
so. And while I think of it--the men wear hats and have very dark
complexions, but the women wear no headgear but a flimsy veil like a
gossamer's web, and yet are exceedingly fair as a general thing.
Singular, isn't it?

The huge palaces of Genoa are each supposed to be occupied by one family,
but they could accommodate a hundred, I should think. They are relics of
the grandeur of Genoa's palmy days--the days when she was a great
commercial and maritime power several centuries ago. These houses, solid
marble palaces though they be, are in many cases of a dull pinkish color,
outside, and from pavement to eaves are pictured with Genoese battle
scenes, with monstrous Jupiters and Cupids, and with familiar
illustrations from Grecian mythology. Where the paint has yielded to age
and exposure and is peeling off in flakes and patches, the effect is not
happy. A noseless Cupid or a Jupiter with an eye out or a Venus with a
fly-blister on her breast, are not attractive features in a picture.
Some of these painted walls reminded me somewhat of the tall van,
plastered with fanciful bills and posters, that follows the bandwagon of
a circus about a country village. I have not read or heard that the
outsides of the houses of any other European city are frescoed in this

I can not conceive of such a thing as Genoa in ruins. Such massive
arches, such ponderous substructions as support these towering broad-
winged edifices, we have seldom seen before; and surely the great blocks
of stone of which these edifices are built can never decay; walls that
are as thick as an ordinary American doorway is high cannot crumble.

The republics of Genoa and Pisa were very powerful in the Middle Ages.
Their ships filled the Mediterranean, and they carried on an extensive
commerce with Constantinople and Syria. Their warehouses were the great
distributing depots from whence the costly merchandise of the East was
sent abroad over Europe. They were warlike little nations and defied, in
those days, governments that overshadow them now as mountains overshadow
molehills. The Saracens captured and pillaged Genoa nine hundred years
ago, but during the following century Genoa and Pisa entered into an
offensive and defensive alliance and besieged the Saracen colonies in
Sardinia and the Balearic Isles with an obstinacy that maintained its
pristine vigor and held to its purpose for forty long years. They were
victorious at last and divided their conquests equably among their great
patrician families. Descendants of some of those proud families still
inhabit the palaces of Genoa, and trace in their own features a
resemblance to the grim knights whose portraits hang in their stately
halls, and to pictured beauties with pouting lips and merry eyes whose
originals have been dust and ashes for many a dead and forgotten century.

The hotel we live in belonged to one of those great orders of knights of
the Cross in the times of the Crusades, and its mailed sentinels once
kept watch and ward in its massive turrets and woke the echoes of these
halls and corridors with their iron heels.

But Genoa's greatness has degenerated into an unostentatious commerce in
velvets and silver filagree-work. They say that each European town has
its specialty. These filagree things are Genoa's specialty. Her smiths
take silver ingots and work them up into all manner of graceful and
beautiful forms. They make bunches of flowers, from flakes and wires of
silver, that counterfeit the delicate creations the frost weaves upon a
windowpane; and we were shown a miniature silver temple whose fluted
columns, whose Corinthian capitals and rich entablatures, whose spire,
statues, bells, and ornate lavishness of sculpture were wrought in
polished silver, and with such matchless art that every detail was a
fascinating study and the finished edifice a wonder of beauty.

We are ready to move again, though we are not really tired yet of the
narrow passages of this old marble cave. Cave is a good word--when
speaking of Genoa under the stars. When we have been prowling at
midnight through the gloomy crevices they call streets, where no
footfalls but ours were echoing, where only ourselves were abroad, and
lights appeared only at long intervals and at a distance, and
mysteriously disappeared again, and the houses at our elbows seemed to
stretch upward farther than ever toward the heavens, the memory of a cave
I used to know at home was always in my mind, with its lofty passages,
its silence and solitude, its shrouding gloom, its sepulchral echoes, its
flitting lights, and more than all, its sudden revelations of branching
crevices and corridors where we least expected them.

We are not tired of the endless processions of cheerful, chattering
gossipers that throng these courts and streets all day long, either; nor
of the coarse-robed monks; nor of the "Asti" wines, which that old doctor
(whom we call the Oracle,) with customary felicity in the matter of
getting everything wrong, misterms "nasty." But we must go,

Our last sight was the cemetery (a burial place intended to accommodate
60,000 bodies,) and we shall continue to remember it after we shall have
forgotten the palaces. It is a vast marble collonaded corridor extending
around a great unoccupied square of ground; its broad floor is marble,
and on every slab is an inscription--for every slab covers a corpse. On
either side, as one walks down the middle of the passage, are monuments,
tombs, and sculptured figures that are exquisitely wrought and are full
of grace and beauty. They are new and snowy; every outline is perfect,
every feature guiltless of mutilation, flaw, or blemish; and therefore,
to us these far-reaching ranks of bewitching forms are a hundred fold
more lovely than the damaged and dingy statuary they have saved from the
wreck of ancient art and set up in the galleries of Paris for the worship
of the world.

Well provided with cigars and other necessaries of life, we are now ready
to take the cars for Milan.

< Back
Forward >

Index Index

Other Authors Other Authors

Mark Twain. Copyright 2008,
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.