Page images
PDF
EPUB

LETTER LXXIV.

ROME CONTINUED--POPE'S CATHEDRAL-PUBLIC PESTIVAL-BAPTIST

ERY--SCALA SANTA-CHURCH OP SANTA MARIA MAGGIORE-ST. MARY

OF THE ANGELS-MONTE TESTACCIO-TOMB OF CAIUS CESTIUS— PROTESTANT CEMETERY-EXCURSION TO ST. PAUL'S OF THE THREE FOUX

TAINS.

June, 1826.

Sr. John Lateran, or the Pope's Cathedral, is second only to St. Peter's in magnitude and the grandeur of its proportions, and claims even a superiority in sanctity and religious importance. It is the mother church of Rome, founded by the emperor Constantine, or more properly converted by him from a palace into a sanctuary. It stands upon an elevated, spacious, and beautiful area, near the Neapolitan Gate, commanding a charming view of the ruins in the vicinity, as well as of the distant mountains. The front is peculiarly bold, grand, and imposing, surpassing in my opinion the principal façade of St. Peter's. Its battlements are surmounted by colossal statues of the Saviour and the twelve apostles. The material of the church is a handsome stone of a light complexion. A magnificent flight of steps, extending the whole breadth of the front, leads to the vestibule. The central door is of sculptured bronze, said to be from the ancient temple of Saturn near the Roman Forum.

Such is the stately exterior of St. John Lateran. The interior is of the form denominated the basilica, consisting of a wide nave in the centre, with double aisles on each side, separated from one another by rows of pilasters, which at the time of our several visits were covered with crimson cloth, the usual decorations during festivals. A series of splendid chapels line the outermost aisles. Of these shrines, the Corsini is by far the most magnificent. In the four corners are statues, representing the cardinal virtues, beautifully executed in white marble. The figures are admirable both in design and execution. On the left as you enter, is the proud tomb of Clement XII. who consecrated and enriched this chapel, in honour of St. Corsini, his ancestor. The sarcophagus of the Pope is porphyry, of the most exquisite workmanship. It was pilfered from the Pantheon, and is supposed to have contained the dust of Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus. On the tomb of one of the Corsini, opposite that of Clement, is a statue representing religion, the expression of which is inimitable. In a word, all the sculpture in this chapel is of the very first order, as

beautiful in the designs as in the material and finish. Much cannot be said in favour of the other ornaments of St. John Lateran. Along the sides of the nave, are ranges of colossal saints, some of them in very bad taste. One of them holds a knife in his hand, and has his own skin, which has just been taken off, thrown over his arm. The altar of the holy sacrament is extremely splendid, glittering with costly embellishments, and supported by four fluted bronze-gilt pillars of the Corinthian order, said to have been taken from the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus.

We witnessed in this church the anniversary celebration of Ascension Day, when the Pope officiated in person. The ceremonies were splendid, but had little the appearance of religious rites. Early in the forenoon, the principal streets leading to the Cathedral were thronged with carriages and pedestrians, hastening to see the Pontiff perform his sacred functions. Regiments of Austrian troops in full uniform, wearing sprigs of evergreen in their hats, were paraded on the great square, in front of the church; and a numerous band of martial music gave life and animation to the scene. An immense multitude, comprising nearly the whole population of Rome, with all the strangers in the city, were collected in the church, on the steps, and seated in their coaches thronging the area. There was a fine display of Roman beauty and taste. At length the Pope appeared in pontifical robes of snowy whiteness, fringed with gold, wearing an image of the sun upon his breast, and the glittering tiara upon his brow. He was borne along the aisles on the shoulders of men, and seated in the tribune behind the high altar, surrounded by all the ecclesiastical dignitaries. After high mass was celebrated, closing with exquisite music, bis Holiness was carried in state to the balcony in front of the church, for the purpose of pronouncing his benediction upon the assembled multitude. Above his head rose a splendid canopy of crimson velvet, and an orb of plumes, resembling a peacock's tail, was displayed on his right. The moment he made his appearance, all dropped upon their knees, while he spread forth his hands and uttered a brief blessing. As soon as the ceremony was over, a salute of twenty guns was fired from the eastle of St. Angelo, and the Austrian band struck up some of the martial airs of the north. In the midst of the uproar, the Pope threw from the balcony printed papers, which came down like a shower of play-bills, and set the crowd in a general scramble for these precious copies of his benediction. Hucksters were all the while crying punch, and apple-women, cakes and fruit. It was, on the whole, a very odd scene, more resembling a military muster, a theatrical exhibition, or any other show, than a sacred festival of the church.

St. John Lateran is surrounded by other structures, which contribute to its external grandeur. Near its western entrance, stands a beautiful Egyptian obelisk, ten feet in diameter at the base, and one hundred and twenty in height, richly sculptured with hieroglyphics. It was brought from the Temple of the Sun at Thebes, and erected by one of the Popes. The Baptistery belonging to the Cathedral claims peculiar sanctity and celebrity, in as much as the Emperor Constantine received the holy rite at its font. It is not a very large building, octagonal in shape, rich in marbles and precious stones. A profusion of porphyry, verde antique, and of alabaster has been lavished on its altars. The font is an ancient sarcophagus, to which you descend by several steps. One of the paintings upon the walls represents Constantine in the character of an iconoclast, in the act of demolishing idols, or in other words, the beautiful specimens of Grecian and Roman sculpture, which were probably converted into lime, as thousands have since been, to be used as mortar for constructing palaces.

The most curious edifice in the vicinity of St. John Lateran is the Scala Santa, or Holy Stairs, situated opposite the church, always open and always crowded with devotees. Here are to be seen twenty-five or thirty white marble steps, said to have belonged to the palace of Pontius Pilate at Jerusalem, and to have been hallowed by the footsteps of the Saviour. They are covered with thick plank, renewed at short intervals, to prevent them from being worn out by the knees and kisses of the devout. No person is allowed to ascend or descend this sacred way upon his feet. There are two lateral flights, by which the profane may go up or the pious walk down, after the fatigues of climbing the consecrated marble. I have visited the Scala Santa perhaps a dozen times, and never without seeing a multitude of both sexes, often well dressed ladies and gentlemen, engaged in the arduous pilgrimage of creeping from the bottom to the top. They commence by kneeling and kissing the lower step, and on each of the succeeding ones they pause to whisper a short prayer. The ascent occupies half or three quarters of an hour. It is at once painful and melancholy, to see delicate females struggling in the performance of this superstitious penance, imposed as a religious duty. In all my visits, I do not recollect to have seen one of the priesthood, reducing his corpulency, or soiling his sacerdotal robes, by such an act of humility. At the head of the stairs is a little chapel, denominated the sanctum sanctorum, from its peculiar holiness. It contains a precious crucifix, and two of the nails from the cross, brought from Jerusalem. We had an indistinct view of these relics, through a lattice and by the faint glimmer of a taper, kept forever burning in the sacred shrine. The picture of

superstition is here more gross and revolting, than I have found it in any other part of Italy, because it is accompanied with bodily pain. An effectual remedy would be found, in compelling the ecclesiastics, who inflict such penalties on the multitude, to take a few turns up the Scala Santa themselves.

In the same neighbourhood is the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, founded by St. Helen, mother of Constantine, who brought a piece of the cross from the Holy Land, and here planted it with her own hand, giving sanctity to a Roman Basilica, which stood upon the same site. The front and vestibule are peculiarly fine, facing the great square, and rich in pillared magnificence. On either side of the central door is a marble font, in which a sculptured fish is represented playing in the holy water. In the crypt is the tomb of St. Helen, and a fresco upon the ceiling portrays her miraculous labours in finding the fragment of the cross in Palestine.

But of all the churches at Rome or in Italy, so far as my observation bas extended, none will sustain a comparison in elegance of form, richness of materials, and splendour of ornament, with Santa Maria Maggiore. It is situated upon the summit of the Esquiline Hill, and covers ground once occupied by a temple of Juno. The shrine of the Virgin Mother no doubt far surpasses in sumptuousness that of the Queen of Heaven. At all events, the brilliancy of its decorations is better suited to a theatre, a pavilion, or a ball-room, than to the character of that religion, which in its origin is associated with a manger, and the prevailing spirit of which is lowliness of heart. Yet here the holy babe is annually born, and rocked in a more splendid cradle, than ever lulled the slumbers of an earthly monarch. The form of this church is that of the ancient basilica, allowed to be the most perfect, so far as it respects symmetry and beauty. Nothing can exceed in richness and elegance the view from the front door, towards the high altar and the tribune. Forty beautiful antique pillars of the Ionic order line the nave, and support galleries, which are divided into compartments, filled with paintings. The glories of the ceiling vie with the mosaics of the pavement. Between the nave and the choir, rises a canopy supported by four porphyry pillars, wreathed with gold, and only surpassed in splendour by the profusion of lapis-lazuli, agate, and jasper, which glitter on the altars around. Two magnificent chapels open on either hand, and are filled with piles of monumental marble, of the most exquisite workmanship. Among these are the tombs of four Popes. In one of the chapels is a beautiful tabernacle supported by angels of bronze gilt. The outside of Santa Maria Maggiore does not fully correspond in magnificence with the interior. Its roof is crowned with two domes and a misshapen steeple. On one side stands an Egyptian Obelisk, taken from the tomb of Augustus ; and on the other, a column from the temple of Peace, surmounted by a statue of the Madonna. It has a deep and noble portico in front, containing among other ornaments a full bronze statue of Philip IV. of Spain.

The church of St. Maria of the Angels possesses an interest entirely different from that of the one just described. It stands on the ruins of Diocletian's Baths, and in fact once formed a part of that imperial and luxurious establishment, which covered several acres. Michael Angelo converted that portion which was denominated the Xystum, or the arena for wrestlers and gladiators in unpleasant weather, into the present church, and made it one of the grandest in Rome. Its form is perfect, being a Greek Cross, from the intersection of which every object in the edifice may be distinctly seen. The nave is nearly two hundred feet in length, and upwards of one hundred in height, supported by antique columns of granite, sixteen feet in circumference. On the splendid mosaic pavement is a delineation of the Ecliptic, exhibiting the signs of the zodiac, the most remarkable stars within the limits of the solar path, and the feasts of the church, all finely executed. The line extends diagonally the length of the church. In the vestibule, which was one of the hot baths of Diocletian, are the tombs of Salvator Rosa and Carlo Maratta, two eminent artists. That of the former is of beautiful white marble, comprising a statue of himself, with two children at the base, and a very neat appropriate inscription. The altars of this sanctuary exhibit the usual quantity of precious materials and brilliant decorations, together with more than an ordinary share of good paintings. Among these are the Fall of Simon Magus, the Baptism of the Saviour, and above all the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, by Domenichino, in his most forcible and finished style. We wandered over the extensive ruins of the ancient baths, among which is now situated a modern convent of Carthusian monks; but after full examinations of the baths of Titus and Caracalla, little was here found worthy of particular notice. In a neighbouring garden once stood temples sacred to Apollo and to Æsculapius.

I made two excursions to St. Paul's without the walls, several miles from the city, taking in my way several intermediate objects, among the most interesting of which are Monte Testaccio, the tomb of Caius Cestius, and the Protestant Cemetery. The Mons Testaceus, as it was called by the old Romans, situated near the left bank of the Tiber, is nearly two hundred feet in height, and five or six hundred feet in circumference. It is entirely artificial, composed of broken porcelain, thrown out as refuse ware by workmen in the potteries. It is now

« PreviousContinue »