Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Roman Campagna
By William Wetmore Story (18191895)
[Roba di Roma. 1862. Revised Edition. 1887.]
HERE, on the spot whence Virgil tells us that Juno surveyed the ranks of the contending armies, Laurentum Troumque, and gazed upon the city of the Latins, you may stand and overlook the Roman world from Civita Vecchia to Naplesand not disdain a stout coat to protect you in the evenings of summer. Where the Alban Hill again drops into the plain on the western side is a wide gap of distance, through which you look far away down towards Naples, and see the faint misty height of Ischia just visible on the horizonand then rising abruptly with sheer limestone cliffs and crevasses, where transparent purple shadows sleep all day long, towers the grand range of the Sabine mountains, whose lofty peaks surround the Campagna to the east and north like a curved amphitheatre. Down through the gap, and skirting the Pontine marshes on the east are the Volscian mountains, closing up the Campagna at Terracina, where they overhang the road and affront the sea with their great barrier. Following along the Sabine hills, you will see at intervals the towns of Palestrina and Tivoli, where the Anio tumbles in foam, and other little mountain towns nestled here and there among the soft airy hollows, or perched on the cliffs. At their feet, on three little hills that stand like advanced posts before the lofty mountains, are the half-ruined villages of Colonna, Zagarola, and Gallicano, which give their names to princely Roman families of to-day. Further along, towers the dark and lofty peak of Monte Gennaro, that wears its ermine of snow almost into the summer, and the longer line of the Leonessa, where rose-colored snow lies softly glowing against the sky as late as April. Beyond these, alone and isolated, in the north, rises out of the turbulent waves of the Campagna the striking and picturesque height of Soracte, swelling from the plain in form like a long swept wave about to break, that on the crest hangs pausing. Sweeping now round by Rieti, Civita Castellana, and the mountains of Viterbo, we come back to the sea at Civita Vecchia.
Within this magnificent amphitheatre lies the Campagna of Rome, and nothing can be more rich and varied, with every kind of beautysometimes, as around Ostia, flat as an American prairie, with miles of canne and reeds rustling in the wind, fields of exquisite feathery grasses waving to and fro, and forests of tall golden-trunked stone-pines poising their spreading umbrellas of rich green high in the air, and weaving a murmurous roof against the sun; sometimes drear, mysterious, and melancholy, as in the desolate stretches between Civita Vecchia and Rome, with lonely hollows and hills without a habitation, where sheep and oxen feed, and the wind roams over treeless and deserted slopes, and silence makes its home: sometimes rolling like an inland sea whose waves have suddenly been checked and stiffened, green with grass, golden with grain, and gracious with myriads of wild flowers, where scarlet poppies blaze over acres and acres, and pink-frilled daisies cover the vast meadows, and pendent vines shroud the picturesque ruins of antique villas, aqueducts and tombs, or droop from mediæval towers and fortresses.
Such is the aspect of the Agro Romano, or southern portion of the Campagna extending between Rome and Albano. It is picture wherever you go. The land, which is of deep rich loam that repays a hundredfold the least toil of the farmer, does not wait for the help of man, but bursts into spontaneous vegetation and everywhere laughs into flowers. Here is pasturage for millions of cattle, and grain fields for a continent, that now in wild untutored beauty bask in the Italian sun, crying shame on their neglectful owners. Over these long unfenced slopes one may gallop on horseback for miles, through meadows of green smoothness on fire with scarlet poppiesover hills crowned with ruins that insist on being painted, so exquisite are they in form and color, with their background of purple mountainsdown valleys of pastoral quiet, where great tufa caves open into subterranean galleries leading beyond human ken: or one may linger in lovely secluded groves of ilexes and pines, or track the course of swift streams overhung by dipping willows, and swerving here and there through broken arches of antique bridges smothered in green; or wander through hedges heaped and toppling over with rich, luxuriant foliage, twined together by wild vetches, honeysuckles, morning-glories, and every species of flowering vine; or sit beneath the sun-looped shadows of ivy-covered aqueducts, listening to the song of hundreds of larks far up in the air, and gazing through the lofty arches into wondrous deeps of violet-hued distances, or lazily watching flocks of white sheep as they crop the smooth slopes guarded by the faithful watch-dog. Everywhere are deep-brown banks of pozzolano earth which makes the strong Roman cement, and quarries of tufa and travertine with unexplored galleries and catacombs honeycombing for miles the whole Campagna. Dead generations lie under your feet wherever you tread. The place is haunted by ghosts that outnumber by myriads the living, and the air is filled with a tender sentiment of sadness which makes the beauty of the world about you more touching. You pick up among the ruins on every slope fragments of rich marbles that once encased the walls of luxurious villas. The contadino or shepherd offers you an old worn coin, on which you read the name of Cæsar; or a scarabæus which once adorned the finger of an Etruscan king, in whose dust he now grows his beans; or the broken head of an ancient jar in marble or terra-cotta, or a lacrymatory of a martyred Christian, or a vase with the Etrurian red that now is lost, or an intaglio that perhaps has sealed a love-letter a thousand years ago. Such little touches urge the imagination:
What is that with which you are striking fire on your steel to light your pipe? said a gentleman to a contadino, whom he had stopped to ask a question. Una pietraa stone I found here some months ago, he replied. Would your Excellency like to see it? and he extended to him a stone, the edge of which he had worn away on his steel. It was a magnificent intaglio in pietra dura, one of the rarest and largest of the antique stones that exist, and undoubtedly was the shoulder brooch of an imperial mantle worn by one of the Cæsars. For a few pauls the ignorant contadino sold an antique gem which was worth a fortune, and which had for its possessor no other value or use than that of a common flint.
Subterranean Rome is vaster than the Rome above ground. Almost every rising hillock has its pozzolano cave which stimulates your curiosity to explore. You enter and creep a short distance into the damp shadow of the earth, and then a shudder comes over you and you return; or else, finding your way blocked up by fallen earth and fragments of ruin, you are glad to turn back, and, after stumbling over stones, to issue again into the warm sunshine. Some of these are entrances into the arenariæ or sand quarries of the ancients, which are burrowed far into the bowels of the earth. In these, hunted Christians in fear of martyrdom, robbers and assassins in ancient and mediæval days, emperors fleeing for their life from the insurrections of the Golden House were wont to hide themselves. Into one of them, near the Esquiline gate, Asinius was decoyed and murdered, as we learn from Cicero. In another, Nero was recommended to take refuge when, with naked feet, disguised, and trembling with apprehension, he passed out the Nomentan gate with death at his heels, and shuddering, refused to bury himself alive in the sand-pit. And all along the Appian Way they afforded hiding-places for thieves, who rushed out from them upon unwary travellers.
But besides the arenariæ and latomiæ, there are the dark labyrinthine galleries of the catacombs, intersecting everywhere the Campagna underground with their burrowing network. Here, in the black tunnelled streets of this subterranean city, is a mighty population of the dead. Tier above tier, story above story, in their narrow walled-up houses, for miles and miles along these sad and silent avenues, lie the skeletons of martyred and persecuted Christians, each with his lacrymatory, now dry, and his little lamp, which went out in the darkness more than fifteen centuries ago.