copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)                                             

Click Here to return to
Measure of the Hours
Content Page

Click Here To Return
To the Previous Chapter




FOR twenty centuries, Rome has been the storehouse of all that was beautiful; and surely in no other spot in the world does so much beauty survive.

She has created nothing, save perhaps a certain spirit of grandeur, a coordination of beautiful things; but the most magnificent moments of the earth clung to her so fondly and displayed such energy during their sojourn that on no other point of the globe have they left so many imperishable traces. Treading her soil, we tread the mutilated footprint of the goddess who reveals herself no longer to men.

Nature gave her the wonderful site, established her fitly for the races that passed beside on the peaks of history to let fall their jewels into the noblest cup ever opened beneath the sky. She was not unworthy to receive those marvels; she was already their equal. Beneath her limpid azure, the gloomy, obscure plants of the north still mate with southern foliage, inhaling their brightness and gladness. To the purest of her trees -- the cypress, which lifts its head like an ardent and sombre prayer; the stone-pine, into which the forest has whispered its gravest and sweetest thought; the massive evergreen oak, which so willingly adopts an archway's graceful form -- to these the tradition of ages has given a pride, a conscious solemnity which they possess no elsewhere in the world. None can forget them, who once has seen them and understood, or fail to recognise them from among kindred trees of a less sacred soil. They were the ornaments, they were the witnesses of incomparable things. They are one with the scattered aqueducts, the discrowned mausoleums, the broken arches; one with the columns, heroic in their ruin, that array the deserted Campagna. They have assumed the style of the eternal marbles, which they surround with respect and silence. Like these marbles, they also have two or three clear, but mysterious lines to tell of the sorrow confessed by a plain that bears, without flinching, the wreck of its glory. They are  -- and know they are -- Roman.

A circle of mountains, their sonorous names augustly familiar, their heads often charged with snow, as dazzling as the memories which they evoke, create around the city that never can perish a precise and glorious horizon, which divides her from the world, but does not isolate her from the sky. And, in these desolate precincts; in the midst of the lifeless places where the flagstones, the steps, the porticoes multiply silence and absence; at all the cross-roads where some wounded statue keeps guard in emptiness; among the basins, the capitals, the nymphs and the tritons, water flows docile and luminous, obedient still to the orders received two thousand years ago, decking the immaculate solitude with its mobile fragrance, its garlands of dew and trophies of crystal, its azure plumes and crowns of pearl. It is as though time, among all the monuments that had hoped to brave it, respected only the fragile hours of that which evaporates and flows away.



Beauty, though always a borrowed beauty, has dwelt so long within these walls which go from the Janiculum to the Esquiline; it has taken root there so persistently that the very spot, the air we breathe, the sky that covers it, the curves that define it have acquired a prodigious power of appropriation and ennoblement. Rome, like a pyre, purifies all that the errors and caprices of men, their ignorance and extravagance have forced upon her incessantly since her ruin. So far, it has been impossible to disfigure her. One might almost believe that, for any work to be carried out here or to live, it must first cast off its original ugliness, it must cease to be vulgar. Whatever does not conform to the style of the seven hills is slowly effaced and rejected; it crumbles beneath the influence of the watchful genius that has fixed the aesthetic principles of the city on the horizons, the rocks and the marble of the heights. Thus, for instance, the art of the middle ages and the Primitives must have been more active here than in any other city, since this was the heart of the Christian universe; and yet they have left but few distinctive traces, these even appearing, as it were, hidden and ashamed: enough, but no more, for the history of the world, of which this was the centre, not to be left incomplete. But when we turn to those artists whose spirit was naturally in harmony with that which presides over the destinies of the eternal city -- Giulio Romano, the Carracci and, above all, Raphael and Michael Angelo -- we find in their work here a plenitude of power, a conviction, a kind of instinctive satisfaction which they manifest in no other place. One feels that they had not to create, but only to choose from among the unrevealed forms that thronged to them imperiously from every side, clamouring to be born, to these the masters gave substance: A mistake was impossible: they did not paint, in the proper sense of the word, but merely uncovered the veiled images which had haunted the halls and arcades of the palaces. And so intimate, so indispensable is the relation between their art and the  environment that gives it life that, when their works are exiled to the museums or churches of other cities, they seem out of proportion, unduly vigorous and unduly decorative, with an arbitrary conception of life. It is for this reason that copies or photographs of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel appear disconcerting and almost incomprehensible.

But to the traveller who does not enter the Vatican till he, too, has drunk in the mighty will-power that emanates from the thousand fragments of the temples and public places: to him Michael Angelo's overpowering effort becomes magnificent and natural. The prodigious vault, on which a people of giants hurtle together in a grave and harmonious orgy of enthusiasm and muscles, turns into an arch of the very sky and reflects all the scenes of energy, all the burning virtues the memories of which are still restless beneath the ruins of this passionate soul. So, too, as he stands before the Conflagration of the Borgo, he will not feel as he would were he to behold the admirable fresco on the walls of the National Gallery or the Louvre; he will not say to himself, as Taine does, for instance, that these superb nude bodies are but vaguely concerned with the thing that is happening, that the flames which arise from the building in no wise disturb them and that their one preoccupation is to pose as good models and bring into value the curve of a hip or the anatomy of a thigh. No, the visitor who has submissively heeded the injunctions of all that surrounds him will require no telling that here, in these halls of the Vatican, as beneath the vault of the Sistine, he is contemplating the tardy, but normal and logical development of an art which might have been that of Rome. He will realise that, different as the impression may be which these two great efforts produce, he discovers the formula here which the too positive genius of the Quirites had lacked the good fortune or the opportunity to disengage. For Rome, notwithstanding all her endeavours, could not, of her own initiative, give to the universe the essential image which she had promised. It was to the spoils of Greece that she owed her beauty; and her chief merit was that she understood the beauty of Greek art and eagerly amassed its treasures. Her endeavours to add to it resulted only in deformity; she was unable to adapt its expression to her personal life. Her paintings and sculptures responded only by a kind of heresy, a vague approximateness to the realities of her existence; and such feeble originality as her architecture possessed was due solely to its colossal proportions. One might almost imagine that old Buonarotti and the superb colourist of Urbino had but unearthed, after all the catastrophes, all the long silences and the seeming deaths of Rome, the latent, uninterrupted tradition which had unceasingly been in travail underground and which now emerged at last to culminate in their work and to declare to the world what the Empire had been powerless to say. For these men are more distinctively Roman, more truly representative, perhaps, of the unconscious and secret desire of that Latin earth than was the Rome of the Caesars. That Rome had failed in its image. She had remained artificially Hellenic; and Greece could not provide this infinitely vaster race, differing so widely from her, with the forms demanded by its ornamental consciousness. Greece could be only a sure and magnificent starting-point; but her delicate, precise statues and paintings, so nicely, almost minutely proportioned, were out of place in that Forum, surcharged with immense monuments, as among the monstrous Thermae and violent circuses, or under the sumptuous arches of the superposed basilicas. What if those frescoes of Michael Angelo were the answer to the call of the empty arches that had waited a thousand years; what if they were the almost organic consequence of those imperial columns and marbles? And may we not ask ourselves too whether the ceiling, the pendentives and lunettes of the Farnesina and the Conflagration of the Borgo do not illustrate, better by far than the sculptures of Phidias or Praxiteles, better also than the best paintings of Pompeii or Herculaneum, the Metamorphoses of Ovid, Virgil's AEneid, or the poems of Horace?



But all this, perhaps, is merely illusion and due to the spell of the appropriative power which we have mentioned above. That power is such that whatever might, at the first glance, seem wholly opposed to the idea that reigns within these walls not only does not contradict this idea, but serves to define and declare it. Even Bernini -- rhetorical, exuberant, ubiquitous Bernini -- as irreconcilable as it is possible to be with the primitive gravity and taciturnity of Rome, even he, so detestable elsewhere, seems here to be adopted, justified by the genius of the city and serves to explain and illustrate certain somewhat redundant and declamatory sides of Roman greatness.

Moreover, a city that possesses the Venus of the Capitol and of the Vatican, the Sleeping Ariadne, the Meleager and the Torso of Hercules, the countless marvels of museums as numerous almost as her palaces -- think only of the treasures in a single one of these museums, the newest of all, the Nazionale -- a city whose every street, almost every house conceals some fragment of marble or bronze which, did some new town contain it, would send pilgrims flocking; a city that can offer the Pantheon of Agrippa, certain columns in the Forum, in a word, so many treasures that baffled memory cannot keep pace with untiring admiration; a city that has among its wonders those cypress-girdled lawns of the Villa Borghese, those fountains, those eternal gardens; a city, indeed, that is the refuge of all that was best in the past of the only people who cultivated beauty as others cultivated corn, the olive or the vine: such a city opposes a resistance to vulgarity which, inactive though it be, is yet invincible; and she can tolerate all things without defilement. The immortal presence of an assembly of gods, so perfect that no mutilation can alter the rhythm of body or pose, protects her against the errors herself may commit and prevents the new generations of men from having more empire upon her than time and the barbarians had on those very gods.

And these lead us back to the little cities of Hellas that discovered one day and fixed for ever the laws of human beauty. The beauty of the earth, except for some spots which our sordid industries have ravaged, has altered but little since the days of Augustus and Pericles. The sea is infinite still, is still inviolate. The forest, the plain, the harvest, the villages, rivers and streams, the mountains, the dawn and the evening, the stars and the sky, vary as these all may according to climate and latitude, offer us still the same spectacles of grandeur and tenderness, the same soft, profound harmonies, the same fairy-like scenes of changing complexity which they showed to the Athenian citizens and the people of Rome. Nature remains more or less as she was; and, besides, we have grown more sensitive and can to-day admire more freely.

But, when we turn to the beauty special to man, the beauty that is his own immediate aim, we find that, owing perhaps to our too great wealth or excessive application, to the scattering of our efforts, our lack of concentration, or the want of a certain goal and an incontestable starting-point, we appear to have lost almost all that the ancients had been able to establish and make their own. In all that regards purely human aesthetics, in what concerns our body, our gestures, our clothes, the objects we live with, our houses and gardens, our monuments, even our landscapes, we are groping so timidly, we display such confusion and inexperience that one might truly believe our occupation of this planet to date but from yesterday and ourselves to be still at the very beginning of the period of adaptation. For the work of our hands there no longer exists a common measure, an accepted rule or conviction. Our painters, our architects, our sculptors, our men of letters -- and we in our homes, our cities -- seek in a thousand different, contradictory directions for the sure, the undeniable beauty which the ancients possessed so fully. Should one of us, by any chance, create, join together or discover a few lines, a harmony of form or colour that should incontestably prove that the mysterious, decisive point had been attained, it would be regarded as the merest hazard, as an isolated and precious phenomenon and neither the author nor any one else would be able to repeat it.

And yet, for a few happy years, man had mastered the laws of the beauty that is essentially and specifically human; and so great was his certainty that it compels our conviction even to this day. In the beauty of his own body, the Greek instinctively found the fixed standard which the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Persians and all the anterior civilisations had sought in vain among animals and flowers, rocks and mountains, monsters and chimeras; and the architecture of his temples and palaces, the style of his houses, the proportion and ornament of the things which he used in his daily life were all derived from the beauty of this nude and perfect body. This people, among which nudity, with its natural consequence, the irreproachable harmony of limbs and muscles, was almost a religious and civic obligation, has taught us that the beauty of the human body is as diverse in its perfection, as spiritual, as mysterious as the beauty of the stars or sea. Every other ideal has misled and must always mislead the endeavours and efforts of man. In all the arts, intelligent races came nearer to true beauty in proportion as they came nearer to the habit of nudity; departing from this, they departed also from beauty. The beauty proper to Rome-in other words, the little original beauty which she  added to the spoils of Greece -- was due to the last remains of this custom. For, in Rome, as Taine tells us, "they also assembled together to swim, to be rubbed, to perspire, to wrestle and run; or at least, to watch the runners and wrestlers. For Rome, in this respect, is only an enlarged Athens; the same ways of life obtain, the same habits, the same instincts and pleasures: the only difference lies in the proportion and the moment. The city has swollen till it numbers masters by the hundred thousand and slaves by the million; but, from Xenophon to Marcus Aurelius, the gymnastic and rhetorical training has not altered; they have still the tastes of athletes and orators and it is in this direction that one must work to please them; they are worshippers of the nude, they are judges of style, of conversation and ornament. We can no longer understand this pagan life of the body, which was so curious and yet so idle; the climate has remained as it was, but man changed when he put on clothes and turned Christian."

It might more justly be said, perhaps, that Rome, at the period of which Taine speaks, was an intermittent and incomplete Athens. What was habitual there and, in some measure, organic becomes here only artificial and exceptional. They still cultivate and admire the human body, but it is almost always concealed by the toga; and the wearing of the toga blurs the pure, clear lines which  a multitude of nude and living statues imposed upon the columns and pediments of the temples. The monuments grow larger and larger, lose their form and, little by little, their human harmony. The golden standard is shrouded and the veil shall be lifted only by a few artists of the Renascence, which was the moment when positive beauty shed its last beams.

   Click the book image to continue to the next chapter