There are a good many things about this Italy which I do not understand--
and more especially I can not understand how a bankrupt Government can
have such palatial railroad depots and such marvels of turnpikes. Why,
these latter are as hard as adamant, as straight as a line, as smooth as
a floor, and as white as snow. When it is too dark to see any other
object, one can still see the white turnpikes of France and Italy; and
they are clean enough to eat from, without a table-cloth. And yet no
tolls are charged.
As for the railways--we have none like them. The cars slide as smoothly
along as if they were on runners. The depots are vast palaces of cut
marble, with stately colonnades of the same royal stone traversing them
from end to end, and with ample walls and ceilings richly decorated with
frescoes. The lofty gateways are graced with statues, and the broad
floors are all laid in polished flags of marble.
These things win me more than Italy's hundred galleries of priceless art
treasures, because I can understand the one and am not competent to
appreciate the other. In the turnpikes, the railways, the depots, and
the new boulevards of uniform houses in Florence and other cities here, I
see the genius of Louis Napoleon, or rather, I see the works of that
statesman imitated. But Louis has taken care that in France there shall
be a foundation for these improvements--money. He has always the
wherewithal to back up his projects; they strengthen France and never
weaken her. Her material prosperity is genuine. But here the case is
different. This country is bankrupt. There is no real foundation for
these great works. The prosperity they would seem to indicate is a
pretence. There is no money in the treasury, and so they enfeeble her
instead of strengthening. Italy has achieved the dearest wish of her
heart and become an independent State--and in so doing she has drawn an
elephant in the political lottery. She has nothing to feed it on.
Inexperienced in government, she plunged into all manner of useless
expenditure, and swamped her treasury almost in a day. She squandered
millions of francs on a navy which she did not need, and the first time
she took her new toy into action she got it knocked higher than
Gilderoy's kite--to use the language of the Pilgrims.
But it is an ill-wind that blows nobody good. A year ago, when Italy saw
utter ruin staring her in the face and her greenbacks hardly worth the
paper they were printed on, her Parliament ventured upon a 'coup de main'
that would have appalled the stoutest of her statesmen under less
desperate circumstances. They, in a manner, confiscated the domains of
the Church! This in priest-ridden Italy! This in a land which has
groped in the midnight of priestly superstition for sixteen hundred
years! It was a rare good fortune for Italy, the stress of weather that
drove her to break from this prison-house.
They do not call it confiscating the church property. That would sound
too harshly yet. But it amounts to that. There are thousands of
churches in Italy, each with untold millions of treasures stored away in
its closets, and each with its battalion of priests to be supported.
And then there are the estates of the Church--league on league of the
richest lands and the noblest forests in all Italy--all yielding immense
revenues to the Church, and none paying a cent in taxes to the State.
In some great districts the Church owns all the property--lands,
watercourses, woods, mills and factories. They buy, they sell, they
manufacture, and since they pay no taxes, who can hope to compete with
Well, the Government has seized all this in effect, and will yet seize it
in rigid and unpoetical reality, no doubt. Something must be done to
feed a starving treasury, and there is no other resource in all Italy--
none but the riches of the Church. So the Government intends to take to
itself a great portion of the revenues arising from priestly farms,
factories, etc., and also intends to take possession of the churches and
carry them on, after its own fashion and upon its own responsibility.
In a few instances it will leave the establishments of great pet churches
undisturbed, but in all others only a handful of priests will be retained
to preach and pray, a few will be pensioned, and the balance turned
Pray glance at some of these churches and their embellishments, and see
whether the Government is doing a righteous thing or not. In Venice,
today, a city of a hundred thousand inhabitants, there are twelve hundred
priests. Heaven only knows how many there were before the Parliament
reduced their numbers. There was the great Jesuit Church. Under the old
regime it required sixty priests to engineer it--the Government does it
with five, now, and the others are discharged from service. All about
that church wretchedness and poverty abound. At its door a dozen hats
and bonnets were doffed to us, as many heads were humbly bowed, and as
many hands extended, appealing for pennies--appealing with foreign words
we could not understand, but appealing mutely, with sad eyes, and sunken
cheeks, and ragged raiment, that no words were needed to translate. Then
we passed within the great doors, and it seemed that the riches of the
world were before us! Huge columns carved out of single masses of
marble, and inlaid from top to bottom with a hundred intricate figures
wrought in costly verde antique; pulpits of the same rich materials,
whose draperies hung down in many a pictured fold, the stony fabric
counterfeiting the delicate work of the loom; the grand altar brilliant
with polished facings and balustrades of oriental agate, jasper, verde
antique, and other precious stones, whose names, even, we seldom hear--
and slabs of priceless lapis lazuli lavished every where as recklessly as
if the church had owned a quarry of it. In the midst of all this
magnificence, the solid gold and silver furniture of the altar seemed
cheap and trivial. Even the floors and ceilings cost a princely fortune.
Now, where is the use of allowing all those riches to lie idle, while
half of that community hardly know, from day to day, how they are going
to keep body and soul together? And, where is the wisdom in permitting
hundreds upon hundreds of millions of francs to be locked up in the
useless trumpery of churches all over Italy, and the people ground to
death with taxation to uphold a perishing Government?
As far as I can see, Italy, for fifteen hundred years, has turned all her
energies, all her finances, and all her industry to the building up of a
vast array of wonderful church edifices, and starving half her citizens
to accomplish it. She is to-day one vast museum of magnificence and
misery. All the churches in an ordinary American city put together could
hardly buy the jeweled frippery in one of her hundred cathedrals. And
for every beggar in America, Italy can show a hundred--and rags and
vermin to match. It is the wretchedest, princeliest land on earth.
Look at the grand Duomo of Florence--a vast pile that has been sapping
the purses of her citizens for five hundred years, and is not nearly
finished yet. Like all other men, I fell down and worshipped it, but
when the filthy beggars swarmed around me the contrast was too striking,
too suggestive, and I said, "O, sons of classic Italy, is the spirit of
enterprise, of self-reliance, of noble endeavor, utterly dead within ye?
Curse your indolent worthlessness, why don't you rob your church?"
Three hundred happy, comfortable priests are employed in that Cathedral.
And now that my temper is up, I may as well go on and abuse every body I
can think of. They have a grand mausoleum in Florence, which they built
to bury our Lord and Saviour and the Medici family in. It sounds
blasphemous, but it is true, and here they act blasphemy. The dead and
damned Medicis who cruelly tyrannized over Florence and were her curse
for over two hundred years, are salted away in a circle of costly vaults,
and in their midst the Holy Sepulchre was to have been set up. The
expedition sent to Jerusalem to seize it got into trouble and could not
accomplish the burglary, and so the centre of the mausoleum is vacant
now. They say the entire mausoleum was intended for the Holy Sepulchre,
and was only turned into a family burying place after the Jerusalem
expedition failed--but you will excuse me. Some of those Medicis would
have smuggled themselves in sure.--What they had not the effrontery to
do, was not worth doing. Why, they had their trivial, forgotten exploits
on land and sea pictured out in grand frescoes (as did also the ancient
Doges of Venice) with the Saviour and the Virgin throwing bouquets to
them out of the clouds, and the Deity himself applauding from his throne
in Heaven! And who painted these things? Why, Titian, Tintoretto, Paul
Veronese, Raphael--none other than the world's idols, the "old masters."
Andrea del Sarto glorified his princes in pictures that must save them
for ever from the oblivion they merited, and they let him starve. Served
him right. Raphael pictured such infernal villains as Catherine and
Marie de Medicis seated in heaven and conversing familiarly with the
Virgin Mary and the angels, (to say nothing of higher personages,) and
yet my friends abuse me because I am a little prejudiced against the old
masters--because I fail sometimes to see the beauty that is in their
productions. I can not help but see it, now and then, but I keep on
protesting against the groveling spirit that could persuade those masters
to prostitute their noble talents to the adulation of such monsters as
the French, Venetian and Florentine Princes of two and three hundred
years ago, all the same.
I am told that the old masters had to do these shameful things for bread,
the princes and potentates being the only patrons of art. If a grandly
gifted man may drag his pride and his manhood in the dirt for bread
rather than starve with the nobility that is in him untainted, the excuse
is a valid one. It would excuse theft in Washingtons and Wellingtons,
and unchastity in women as well.
But somehow, I can not keep that Medici mausoleum out of my memory. It
is as large as a church; its pavement is rich enough for the pavement of
a King's palace; its great dome is gorgeous with frescoes; its walls are
made of--what? Marble?--plaster?--wood?--paper? No. Red porphyry--
verde antique--jasper--oriental agate--alabaster--mother-of-pearl--
chalcedony--red coral--lapis lazuli! All the vast walls are made wholly
of these precious stones, worked in, and in and in together in elaborate
pattern s and figures, and polished till they glow like great mirrors
with the pictured splendors reflected from the dome overhead. And before
a statue of one of those dead Medicis reposes a crown that blazes with
diamonds and emeralds enough to buy a ship-of-the-line, almost. These
are the things the Government has its evil eye upon, and a happy thing it
will be for Italy when they melt away in the public treasury.
And now----. However, another beggar approaches. I will go out and
destroy him, and then come back and write another chapter of
Having eaten the friendless orphan--having driven away his comrades--
having grown calm and reflective at length--I now feel in a kindlier
mood. I feel that after talking so freely about the priests and the
churches, justice demands that if I know any thing good about either I
ought to say it. I have heard of many things that redound to the credit
of the priesthood, but the most notable matter that occurs to me now is
the devotion one of the mendicant orders showed during the prevalence of
the cholera last year. I speak of the Dominican friars--men who wear a
coarse, heavy brown robe and a cowl, in this hot climate, and go
barefoot. They live on alms altogether, I believe. They must
unquestionably love their religion, to suffer so much for it. When the
cholera was raging in Naples; when the people were dying by hundreds and
hundreds every day; when every concern for the public welfare was
swallowed up in selfish private interest, and every citizen made the
taking care of himself his sole object, these men banded themselves
together and went about nursing the sick and burying the dead. Their
noble efforts cost many of them their lives. They laid them down
cheerfully, and well they might. Creeds mathematically precise, and
hair-splitting niceties of doctrine, are absolutely necessary for the
salvation of some kinds of souls, but surely the charity, the purity, the
unselfishness that are in the hearts of men like these would save their
souls though they were bankrupt in the true religion--which is ours.
One of these fat bare-footed rascals came here to Civita Vecchia with us
in the little French steamer. There were only half a dozen of us in the
cabin. He belonged in the steerage. He was the life of the ship, the
bloody-minded son of the Inquisition! He and the leader of the marine
band of a French man-of-war played on the piano and sang opera turn
about; they sang duets together; they rigged impromptu theatrical
costumes and gave us extravagant farces and pantomimes. We got along
first-rate with the friar, and were excessively conversational, albeit he
could not understand what we said, and certainly he never uttered a word
that we could guess the meaning of.
This Civita Vecchia is the finest nest of dirt, vermin and ignorance we
have found yet, except that African perdition they call Tangier, which is
just like it. The people here live in alleys two yards wide, which have
a smell about them which is peculiar but not entertaining. It is well
the alleys are not wider, because they hold as much smell now as a person
can stand, and of course, if they were wider they would hold more, and
then the people would die. These alleys are paved with stone, and
carpeted with deceased cats, and decayed rags, and decomposed vegetable-
tops, and remnants of old boots, all soaked with dish-water, and the
people sit around on stools and enjoy it. They are indolent, as a
general thing, and yet have few pastimes. They work two or three hours
at a time, but not hard, and then they knock off and catch flies. This
does not require any talent, because they only have to grab--if they do
not get the one they are after, they get another. It is all the same to
them. They have no partialities. Whichever one they get is the one they
They have other kinds of insects, but it does not make them arrogant.
They are very quiet, unpretending people. They have more of these kind
of things than other communities, but they do not boast.
They are very uncleanly--these people--in face, in person and dress.
When they see any body with a clean shirt on, it arouses their scorn.
The women wash clothes, half the day, at the public tanks in the streets,
but they are probably somebody else's. Or may be they keep one set to
wear and another to wash; because they never put on any that have ever
been washed. When they get done washing, they sit in the alleys and
nurse their cubs. They nurse one ash-cat at a time, and the others
scratch their backs against the door-post and are happy.
All this country belongs to the Papal States. They do not appear to have
any schools here, and only one billiard table. Their education is at a
very low stage. One portion of the men go into the military, another
into the priesthood, and the rest into the shoe-making business.
They keep up the passport system here, but so they do in Turkey. This
shows that the Papal States are as far advanced as Turkey. This fact
will be alone sufficient to silence the tongues of malignant
calumniators. I had to get my passport vised for Rome in Florence, and
then they would not let me come ashore here until a policeman had
examined it on the wharf and sent me a permit. They did not even dare to
let me take my passport in my hands for twelve hours, I looked so
formidable. They judged it best to let me cool down. They thought I
wanted to take the town, likely. Little did they know me. I wouldn't
have it. They examined my baggage at the depot. They took one of my
ablest jokes and read it over carefully twice and then read it backwards.
But it was too deep for them. They passed it around, and every body
speculated on it awhile, but it mastered them all.
It was no common joke. At length a veteran officer spelled it over
deliberately and shook his head three or four times and said that in his
opinion it was seditious. That was the first time I felt alarmed. I
immediately said I would explain the document, and they crowded around.
And so I explained and explained and explained, and they took notes of
all I said, but the more I explained the more they could not understand
it, and when they desisted at last, I could not even understand it
myself. They said they believed it was an incendiary document, leveled
at the government. I declared solemnly that it was not, but they only
shook their heads and would not be satisfied. Then they consulted a good
while; and finally they confiscated it. I was very sorry for this,
because I had worked a long time on that joke, and took a good deal of
pride in it, and now I suppose I shall never see it any more. I suppose
it will be sent up and filed away among the criminal archives of Rome,
and will always be regarded as a mysterious infernal machine which would
have blown up like a mine and scattered the good Pope all around, but for
a miraculous providential interference. And I suppose that all the time
I am in Rome the police will dog me about from place to place because
they think I am a dangerous character.
It is fearfully hot in Civita Vecchia. The streets are made very narrow
and the houses built very solid and heavy and high, as a protection
against the heat. This is the first Italian town I have seen which does
not appear to have a patron saint. I suppose no saint but the one that
went up in the chariot of fire could stand the climate.
There is nothing here to see. They have not even a cathedral, with
eleven tons of solid silver archbishops in the back room; and they do not
show you any moldy buildings that are seven thousand years old; nor any
smoke-dried old fire-screens which are chef d'oeuvres of Reubens or
Simpson, or Titian or Ferguson, or any of those parties; and they haven't
any bottled fragments of saints, and not even a nail from the true cross.
We are going to Rome. There is nothing to see here.