|Twain, 1871, photo by Mathew Brady|
bones of St. Denis," he wrote, "I feel certain we have seen enough of them to duplicate him if necessary." While acknowledging Genoa's historic greatness, it was to Twain a thing of the past, having "degenerated into an unostentatious commerce in velvets and silver-filigree work."
Milan fared better, or at least its enormous cathedral did. "Surely," wrote Twain with nary a jot of irony, "it must be the princeliest creation that ever brain of man conceived." Da Vinci's "Last Supper," on the other hand, was a "mournful wreck," "stained and discolored," something akin to a
|Da Vinci's Last Supper. Were the disciples Hebrews, or Italians?|
Lake Como? Disappointingly small and narrow, and its waters "dull" in comparison "with the wonderful transparence of Lake Tahoe," where, Twain claimed, "one can count the scales on a trout at a depth of a hundred and eighty feet," and whose reputation suffers only because of an unfelicitous name: Tahoe means "grasshopper soup."
Italy's interior? Populated by peasants and their children, "idle, as a general thing" and the "home of priest craft--of a happy, cheerful, contented ignorance, superstition, degradation, poverty, indolence, and everlasting unaspiring worthlessness."
|Tintoretto, Finding the Body of|
Florence? The required visit to the Pitti Palace and the Ufizzi, where "we tried indolently to recollect something about the Guelphs and Ghibelines and the other historical cut-throats whose quarrels and assassinations make up so large a share of Florentine history, but the subject was not attractive." Twain admired the city's mosaics. Of the Arno, he wrote, "it would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it. They call it a river....They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it."
Civita Vecchia? "...the finest nest of dirt, vermin and ignorance we have found yet, except that African perdition they call Tangier, which is just like it." "All this country belongs to the Papal States. They do not appear to have any schools here, and only one billiard table." "We are going to Rome. There is nothing to see here."
Rome was for Twain an intimidating place that threatened to deny him the joy of discovery, His introduction to his first experience of the city begins with a long discourse on discovery, "the noblest delight." "To be the first," he adds, "that is the idea." And therein lay the problem. "What is there in Rome," Twain lamented, "for me to see that others have not seen before? What is there for me to touch that others have not touched? What is there for me to feel, to learn, to hear, to know, that shall thrill me before it pass to others? What can I discover?--Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. One charm of travel dies here."
There's hope in that last sentence--"One charm of travel dies here," for it implies some knowledge of travel's other charms, as if Twain might slough off his despair and dig into Rome's other charms. No. So invested is he in the city's denial of discovery that he immediately reverses the field and imagines himself a modern inhabitant of the Roman Campagna--slothful, superstitious, ignorant--traveling to wondrous America to experience the joys of discovery. In a passage long enough to make me wonder if the man was sane, Twain describes what his Roman peasant would see, for the first time: a nation with "no overshadowing Mother Church, and yet the people survive; common country children actually reading books; cities where people drink milk but the streets are not crowded with goats; houses with "real glass windows"; fire engines and fire departments; newspapers, printed by "a great machine...by thousands every hour"; common men who own land not rented from the church or nobles; and Jews "treated just like human beings, instead of dogs."
|St. Peter's. Just too damn big.|
Later, perhaps in a state of regret, Twain visits the Coliseum. He's still intimidated; "Every body knows the picture of the Coliseum." But he's also appreciative of the structure's "reserve," "that royal seclusion which is proper to majesty," in sum a building that "more vividly than all the written histories...tells the story of Rome's grandeur and Rome's decay." Then, oddly, swept away by his own ruminations on the pomp, pageantry, and drama that once characterized the "theatre of Rome," Twain imagines discovering the only extant playbill for one of those Coliseum productions, then adds the discovery of "a stained and mutilated copy of the Roman Daily Battle-Ax, containing a critique upon this very performance." Page upon page follow, of what can only be called drivel. Faced with a city that thwarted his desires for original experience, Twain had found a way to "discover": he invented historical documents, then writes endlessly about them. He concludes this exercise with self-praise for not using the clichéd phrase "butchered to make a Roman holiday."
There is more to this section on Rome. More pages are filled with a rant on Michelangelo: "I did not want Michael Angelo for breakfast--for luncheon--for dinner--for tea--for supper--for between meals. I like a change, occasionally." "In Rome, especially, Michelangelo is a force, designing St.
|One of too many Michelangelos|
There's some serious relief from the well-intentioned but failed, and revealing, humor. A visit to the catacombs of St. Callixtus, under the Church of St. Sebastian, finds Twain attentive and moderately involved, if again overwhelmed at the scope of the phenomenon: 160 catacombs under Rome, he observes, and 7 million graves. Similarly, the spectacle of bones at.the Capuchin Convent elicits a kind of wide-eyed awe, if also some good-natured ribbing of their Monk guide, for whom
|The catacombs of St. Callixtus. Too many graves.|
As the long chapter concludes, Twain confronts Rome's ghosts. "I wished to write a real 'guide-book' chapter on this fascinating city, but I could not do it, because I have felt all the time like a boy in a candy-shop--there was everything to choose from, and yet no choice." And that was that. He was done. "The surest way to stop writing about Rome," he wrote, "is to stop." And he did.