Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By George Stillman Hillard (18081879)
[From Six Months in Italy. 1853.]
IF as a building the Colosseum was open to criticism, as a ruin it is perfect. The work of decay has stopped short at the exact point required by taste and sentiment. The monotonous ring of the outer wall is broken, and, instead of formal curves and perpendicular lines, the eye rests upon those interruptions and unexpected turns which are the essential elements of the picturesque, as distinguished from the beautiful and the sublime; and yet so much of the original structure is left, that the fancy can without effort piece out the rents and chasms of time, and line the interior with living forms. When a building is abandoned to decay, it is given over to the dominion of Nature, whose works are never uniform. When the Colosseum was complete, vast as it was, it must have left upon the mind a monotonous impression of sameness, from the architectural repetitions which its plan included: but now that it is a vast ruin, it has all that variety of form and outline which we admire in a Gothic cathedral. Not by rule and measure have the huge stones been clipped and broken. No contriving mind has told what masses should be loosened from the wall, or where they should lie when fallen. No hand of man has trained the climbing plants in the way they should go. All has been left to the will of time and chance: and the result is that though there is everywhere resemblance, there is nowhere identity. A little more or a little less of decay, a chasm more or less deep, a fissure more or less prolonged, a drapery of verdure more or less flowing, give to each square yard of the Colosseum its own peculiar expression. It is a wilderness of ruin in which no two fragments are exactly alike.
The material of which the Colosseum was built is exactly fitted to the purposes of a great ruin. It is travertine, of a rich, dark, warm color, deepened and mellowed by time. There is nothing glaring, harsh, or abrupt in the harmony of tints. The blue sky above and the green earth beneath are in unison with a tone of coloring not unlike the brown of one of our own early winter landscapes. The travertine is also of a coarse grain and porous texture, not splintering into points and edges, but gradually corroding by natural decay. Stone of such a texture everywhere opens laps and nooks for the reception and formation of soil. Every grain of dust that is borne through the air by the lazy breeze of summer, instead of sliding from a glassy surface, is held where it falls. The rocks themselves crumble and decompose, and turn into a fertile mould. Thus, the Colosseum is throughout crowned and draped with a covering of earth, in many places of considerable depth. Trailing plants clasp the stones with arms of verdure; wild flowers bloom in their seasons; and long grass nods and waves on the airy battlements. Life has everywhere sprouted from the trunk of death. Insects hum and sport in the sunshine; the burnished lizard darts like a tongue of green flame along the walls; and birds make the hollow quarry overflow with their songs. There is something beautiful and impressive in the contrast between luxuriant life and the rigid skeleton upon which it rests. Nature seems to have been busy in binding up with gentle hands the wounds and bruises of time. She has covered the rents and chasms of decay with that drapery which the touch of every spring renews. She has peopled the solitude with forms and the silence with voices. She has clothed the nakedness of desolation, and crowned the majesty of ruin. She has softened the stern aspect of the scene with the hues of undying youth, and brightened the shadows of dead centuries with the living light of vines and flowers.
As a matter of course, everybody goes to see the Colosseum by moonlight. The great charm of the ruin under this condition is, that the imagination is substituted for sight, and the mind for the eye. The essential character of moonlight is hard rather than soft. The line between light and shadow is sharply defined, and there is no gradation of color. Blocks and walls of silver are bordered by, and spring out of, chasms of blackness. But moonlight shrouds the Colosseum in mystery. It opens deep vaults of gloom where the eye meets only an ebon wall, but upon which the fancy paints innumerable pictures in solemn, splendid, and tragic colors. Shadowy forms of emperor and lictor and vestal virgin and gladiator and martyr come out of the darkness, and pass before us in long and silent procession. The breezes which blow through the broken arches are changed into voices, and recall the shouts and cries of a vast audience. By day, the Colosseum is an impressive fact; by night, it is a stately vision. By day, it is a lifeless form; by night, a vital thought.
The Colosseum should by all means be seen by a bright starlight, or under the growing sickle of a young moon. The fainter ray and deeper gloom bring out more strongly its visionary and ideal character. When the full moon has blotted out the stars, it fills the vast gulf of the building with a flood of spectral light, which falls with a chilling touch upon the spirit; for then the ruin is like a corpse in its shroud of snow, and the moon is a pale watcher by its side. But when the walls, veiled in deep shadow, seem a part of the darkness in which they are lost,when the stars are seen through their chasms and breaks, and sparkle along the broken line of the battlements,the scene becomes another, though the same; more indistinct, yet not so mournful; contracting the sphere of sight, but enlarging that of thought; less burdening, but more suggestive.
It was my fortune to see the Colosseum, on one occasion, under lights which were neither of night nor day. Arrangements had been made by a party of German artists to illuminate it with artificial flames of blue, red, and green. The evening was propitious for the object, being dark and still, and nearly all the idlers in Rome attended. Everything was managed with taste and skill, and the experiment was entirely successful. It was quite startling to see the darkness suddenly dispelled by these weird lights, revealing a dense mass of animated countenances, and hanging a broad sheet of green or crimson upon the wall. The magic change was a sort of epigram to the eye. But, from the association of such things with the illusions of the stage, the spectacle suggested debasing comparisons. It seemed a theatrical exhibition unworthy of the dignity and majesty of the Colosseum. It was like seeing a faded countenance repaired with artificial roses, or a venerable form clothed in some quaint and motley disguise suited only to the bloom and freshness of youth. Such lights, far more than sunshine, gild but to flout the ruin gray.
But under all aspects, in the blaze of noon, at sunset, by the light of the moon or starsthe Colosseum stands alone and unapproached. It is the monarch of ruins. It is a great tragedy in stone, and it softens and subdues the mind like a drama of Æschylus or Shakespeare. It is a colossal type of those struggles of humanity against an irresistible destiny, in which the tragic poet finds the elements of his art. The calamities which crushed the house of Atreus are symbolized in its broken arches and shattered walls. Built of the most durable materials, and seemingly for eternityof a size, material, and form to defy the strong hours which conquer allit has bowed its head to their touch, and passed into the inevitable cycle of decay. And this too shall pass awaywhich the Eastern monarch engraved upon his signet ringis carved upon these Cyclopean blocks. The stones of the Colosseum were once water; and they are now turning into dust. Such is ever the circle of nature. The solid is changing into the fluid, and the fluid into the solid; and that which is unseen is alone indestructible. He does not see the Colosseum aright who carries away from it no other impressions than those of form, size, and hue. It speaks an intelligible language to the wiser mind. It rebukes the peevish and consoles the patient. It teaches us that there are misfortunes which are clothed with dignity, and sorrows that are crowned with grandeur. As the same blue sky smiles upon the ruin which smiled upon the perfect structure, so the same beneficent Providence bends over our shattered hopes and our answered prayers.