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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
In Rome: St. Peter’s
By Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809–1847)
 
From the ‘Letters from Italy and Switzerland’: Translation of Grace Wallace

I WAS in St. Peter’s to-day, where the grand solemnities called the absolutions have begun for the Pope,—which last till Tuesday, when the Cardinals assemble in conclave. The building surpasses all powers of description. It appears to me like some great work of nature,—a forest, a mass of rocks, or something similar; for I never can realize the idea that it is the work of man. You strive as little to distinguish the ceiling as the canopy of heaven. You lose your way in St. Peter’s; you take a walk in it, and ramble till you are quite tired; when Divine service is performed and chanted there, you are not aware of it till you come quite close. The angels in the Baptistery are monstrous giants; the doves, colossal birds of prey; you lose all idea of measurement with the eye, or proportion; and yet who does not feel his heart expand when standing under the dome and gazing up at it? At present a monstrous catafalque has been erected in the nave in this shape. 1 The coffin is placed in the centre under the pillars; the thing is totally devoid of taste, and yet it has a wondrous effect. The upper circle is thickly studded with lights,—so are all the ornaments; the lower circle is lighted in the same way, and over the coffin hangs a burning lamp, and innumerable lights are blazing under the statues. The whole structure is more than a hundred feet high, and stands exactly opposite the entrance. The guards of honor, and the Swiss, march about in the quadrangle; in every corner sits a cardinal in deep mourning, attended by his servants, who hold large burning torches; and then the singing commences with responses, in the simple and monotonous tone you no doubt remember. It is the only occasion when there is any singing in the middle of the church, and the effect is wonderful. Those who place themselves among the singers (as I do) and watch them, are forcibly impressed by the scene: for they all stand round a colossal book from which they sing, and this book is in turn lit up by a colossal torch that burns before it; while the choir are eagerly pressing forward in their vestments, in order to see and to sing properly; and Baini with his monk’s face, marking time with his hand and occasionally joining in the chant with a stentorian voice. To watch all these different Italian faces was most interesting; one enjoyment quickly succeeds another here, and it is the same in their churches, especially in St. Peter’s, where by moving a few steps the whole scene is changed. I went to the very furthest end, whence there was indeed a wonderful coup d’œil. Through the spiral columns of the high altar, which is confessedly as high as the palace in Berlin, far beyond the space of the cupola, the whole mass of the catafalque was seen in diminished perspective, with its rows of lights, and numbers of small human beings crowding round it. When the music commences, the sounds do not reach the other end for a long time, but echo and float in the vast space, so that the most singular and vague harmonies are borne towards you. If you change your position and place yourself right in front of the catafalque, beyond the blaze of light and the brilliant pageantry, you have the dusky cupola replete with blue vapor; all this is quite indescribable. Such is Rome!  1
 
Note 1. A little sketch of the catafalque was inclosed in the letter. [back]
 
 
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