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 them?
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
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 vituperation.
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
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 want.
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
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.