On a beautiful morning in May, two figures stood on the ancient stones of the Appian Way. One was a Bishop, easily recognisable, and the other was a young boy of nine, the Bishop’s great-nephew.
The Bishop in question was the American, Fulton John Sheen who combined his Bishop’s duties in the 1950’s with a career as a broadcaster on radio and TV, and a prolific writer. On the visit to Rome he was accompanied not only by his great-nephew Jerome but by the English journalist and travel writer, H.V.Morton and the Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh, known for his portraits of celebrities and royalty of the era, including Winston Churchill.
What young Jerome thought of it all we cannot say. Would he have secretly rather have stayed at home to play with his friends and did he feel a little lonely in the company of three old men? Or was he impressed by the weight of the occasion and feel special at having been chosen to accompany his great-uncle on what would have truly been, in the 1950s, a trip of a lifetime for a young American boy. I’d love to hear his side of the story – are you out there Jerome?
As you would expect from such a formidable trio, the resulting book of essays and photographs is a beautiful guide for the pilgrim to Rome. Together Jerome, impeccably dressed in jacket and tie and the Bishop in his clerical best, visit Rome’s great religious and historic sights.
In a series of essays on the different places they visit, Morton’s polished prose takes us through the Rome of the Caesars, the Apostles, the early Christians and finally the Rome of today. We are reminded, in between visiting the ancient monuments and tossing a coin in the Trevi fountain, that Rome has been a site of pilgrimage and religious devotion since the death of Christ, and is now the world centre of the Catholic faith.
H.V.Morton is on my list as one of the big hitters of travel writing and a must-read for any aspiring travel writer – if you can’t find this one, do read his other book, A Traveller in Rome, which has now been republished. Rather than try to imitate, here’s a quick tour of Rome’s finest, in the words of H.V.Morton.
The road that knew the firm tramp of the hobnailed legionaries now knows the rubbery shudder of a Vespa. The sight of a Roman driving along the Via Appia on his Vespa, with his girl seated sideways beside him, is typical of that incongruous association of past and present, of historic names of other times, with the commonplace of today which is characteristic of Rome.
In the month of May Rome is filled with flowers and the crying of swifts as they fly in the evening above the Spanish Steps and the Piazza of St Peter’s. May is the month when winter has definitely departed, and you can see the old ochre-tinted palaces, and the population of gesticulating statues upon the roof-tops gratefully sunning themselves in the returning warmth.
Most remarkable of all, so it seemed to us, was that like the Colosseum in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Bernini’s colonade possesses its own flourishing vegetation. Blown by the wind, or carried up there by birds, are hundreds of little rock plants and grasses lodged in cracks in the masonary, so many that a botanist could probably write a facinating paper on the flora of that untrodden island of stone in the heart of Rome.
No other city can boast so many fountains, neither has any city encouraged so many artists to create them. The most famous, of course, is the mighty Trevi, a mountain gorge set in the heart of the city, where Neptune with his sea horses stand triumphantly above a rocky cascade, whose roar can be heard streets away.
Pilgrims come forward all day long and perfom the ancient homage of kissing his foot. The little gold crosses embroidered on the Pope’s red shoes today are a relic of this custom, and a sign that the reverence was paid not to him but to the Son of God. The right foot of the statue is as smooth as brown glass and the shape of the toes has been obliterated by centuries of kissing.
It is a secluded corner of Rome and might be even more tranquil were it not for a keyhole in an ancient gateway. Tourists apply their eyes to the keyhole and are always delighted by what they see. This is a garden path lying between two dark Laurel hedges which converge to a point where, perfectly framed and far off on the opposite bank of the Tiber, is seen the dome of St Peter’s. It is a magic and unexpected glimpse.
On the edge of the Ghetto, hidden away in a maze of mean streets and enclosed by ancient palaces, is the little Piazza Mattei, whose centre is occupied by the exquisite Fountain of the Tortoises. By the standards of Rome it is a small one, but it is perfectly satisfying and it expresses the brilliance of the High Renaissance.
You can see more pictures from the book on my Flickr site here.