Letters from a Grand Tour of Europe, 1870-1871

Roger W. Swaim (1848-1872)
Roger W. Swaim (1848-1872)

Here in Vermont, the autumn leaves have faded and gone and the sky is a dull gray. Driving home from work last week, there was a fierce wind blowing snowflakes onto my windshield, so it seems that winter has come early to New England this year. I’ve lit the fireplace and settled in with a cup of coffee and a good book, but the cold weather has me longing for a balmy Italian summer.

To get me through the next few months, I’ve been reading and transcribing a set of long letters written by a young Harvard grad in the 1870s while on “The Grand Tour” of Europe and the Holy Lands. They are a travelogue from a different age, filled with lush details and wide-eyed observations, as well as some boisterous merrymaking over few pints of beer in Munich. When I think of my own tramps across Europe through the years, I’m struck not by the differences, but by just how little has changed…



ROGER WILLIAMS SWAIM, son of Samuel B. and Aurora D. (Skinner) Swaim, was born in Worcester, Mass., July 12, 1848. He was fitted for college at the Cambridge High School, and entered with the Class in 1866; after graduation, in order to restore his health, which was quite poor, he started, in July, 1870, for a tour abroad, and for fifteen months travelled in Europe, Egypt, and the Holy Land, arriving in Berlin in September, 1871, where, as a member of the University, he studied during the winter. In March, 1872, while in Italy, he was taken sick, and died in Florence, on April 1 [1872], of congestion of the brain, aged twenty-three years and nine months. He had selected the ministry as his profession.

Source: Harvard College Class of 1870, Third Triennial Report of the Secretary, page 26.

August 2, 1870

I wonder if base-ball playing agrees with you as well as sight-seeing & parley-vousing does with me…

Asniers, Aug 2, 1870

Dear Perrin,

I wonder if base-ball playing agrees with you as well as sight-seeing & parley-vousing does with me. Except on sea travelling, [it] suits me perfectly. I walk regularly on my tramps around the city [of Paris] four, five, or six miles a day, searching both for what is in the guide book & what is not. I am afraid I shall be in the condition of Rev. Mr. Channing whose lectures I once attended, whom [William Master] Spackman, I believe, once said had learned more than he could systematize & comprehend.

You will take notice that this felicitous state of being is obtained only on land. On sea, it is a little different. I remember how beautiful to me once was the expression “rocked to sleep in the bosom of the billow.” I should like to see the man that uttered such a sentiment & either talk to him or take him or a voyage. I can no longer regard the sea as a sublime deity, throwing up its mighty waves & opening vast caverns disclosing the yellow sands beneath (Virgil). Now I look upon it as a mean sort of element which continually tips one this way & that way, forward & backward, from one side to the other, giving no peace to his brain, nor quiet digestion to his stomach. The whole voyage was just like this. The sea never rolled in such vast billows, or plunged with such force, that one could enter into the spirit of its fury & partake of the impulse, but heaving & swaying just enough & a little more than enough to make everybody feel like turning himself inside out. Poor passengers. Often have I seen ye stagger to the ship’s side & make libation after libation after libation to the sea, thus frightening away all the mermaids &c, or while promenading on the deck, dreadful warnings have filled the ship as some poor wretch in his extremity tried to relieve himself. But below in the cabin, what a noise. Squalls of infants, heart-rending bellowings, deep groans, followed by the noise of a rushing flood thrice repeated. After all there was considerable amusement. Many French people were aboard & the Americans who were abroad also affected the language so that I had a foretaste of La France. Many odd characters displayed themselves & Rich occupied a good part of his time in sketching them. Some of his drawings were very fine. He is now at the Hotel Mirabeau with his Father’s family. In a week or two he will go to Switzerland & return to Boston in the fall as he will study architecture in some office there.

We had a jolly time at Brest. Its magnificent fortifications, fine harbor filled with Monitors & ships of war, its narrow streets, funny shops & comical people, women with their white caps, peasants in their blouses & wooden shoes, soldiers & sailors in great numbers everywhere. We rambled about the town until evening, took the night train for Paris & arrived at the city at four o’clock in the afternoon of the next day, passing on the way the grand Cathedral at Chartres, which I purpose to visit after leaving Paris.

cdv-paris2We rode rapidly to the Hotel Mirabeau, passing by the Hotel des Invalides, with its gilded dome, beneath which the remains of Napoleon are entombed, then down the long esplanade, past the Corps Legislatif, over the Seine in the direction of whose length can be seen the towers of Notre Dame (by the way, I shall perhaps send home a few pictures of Paris by Rich, so if you call after his return, Mother will show them to you), then into the Place de la Concorde. These two places, the Tomb of Napoleon & this square are to me the crowning sights of Paris. I do not except even the Louvre, famous & glorious picture gallery though it may be, for stand here in the centre of the Place. Nearby is the famous Obelisk of Luxor over 3,000 years old telling of Egypt’s greatest sovereign, Sesostris. On each side are two magnificent fountains. All around are colossal images representing the different cities of France. Candelabra with designs representing the ancient galleys. Around is a broad grand avenue paved with concrete, while a wide side walk runs around the whole square. Add to this the size of the Square itself. Still more, on one side you look into the gardens of the Tuileries with its grand forest, on the other stretches away in the distance the Champs Elysees, a magnificent avenue with parks on both sides, at last ascending to the Arc de Triumphe. Then remember that in this place stood the guillotine of 1793. To this square hurried the fierce mob from the Faubourg St. Antoine to see the King, Louis XVI, die. Hither came from the Conciergerie, whose towers still remain, Marie Antoinette. Here continually came up the carts laden with the proscribed of Robespierre, Danton & Marat. The whole Revolution again comes up before the mind & one scene of history becomes realized.

cdv-paris1In the distance is the gilded dome of Napoleon’s tomb. One enters into what appears to be a vestibule above the great dome, with its frescoes below & just in front is a balustrade. You approach. It surrounds a crypt in which is The Tomb. It is an immense sarcophagus, magnificently polished & resting upon a rectangular mass of dark green stone in a cavity in which lies the body. Around in the pavement is a mosaic-like wreath of bay or laurel from which stream out rays of light. Around are images like Caryatides finely executed. Farther back is a shrine dedicated to Saint-Louis in the shape of a canopy, beneath which is an image of Christ on the cross. I need not say that in such a place as this, one can spend hours. Here one can realize another scene, or group of scenes, & becomes in some sense a hero worshiper. Right or wrong, one cannot but do homage in this place to a man who gave France a national sentiment, an idea of a foremost nationality. Perhaps someday we shall have a treatise with this title, “The Central Idea of the Napoleonic Dynasty.” It would be a grand study, that of this epoch. Perhaps this is nonsense.

Write soon, your friend,
R.W. Swaim

The rates of postage via Havre & via England, I have been told, are different. I have been told via England is best.

R.W. Swaim, Paris, France
Care of John Munroe & Co.
7 Rue Scribe

September 28, 1870

Now the road led me on past fields where women were out working, the men meeting, an old dame with rugged face & white cap like a sugar cone, seated in her lip-cart & driving a horse of immense proportions past huts thatched with straw, walled with stone & moss covered. Among these led little lanes in which men, women, boys & girls & infants all stared at the pilgrim…

Bordeaux, September 28, 1870

Dear Perrin,

My head is full of the jumble & Babel which assails my ears incessantly. Parisian French has ceased to be spoken & now uncouth, harsh sounds are heard on every side, poured forth with frightful volubility. Yet if I address them in book French, they immediately reply so that I can understand them & immediately return to their patios.

Possessed with an insane desire to see everything, I came to this little village, or hamlet, filled like all the other towns at present with the garde mobile, in order to visit the Druidic monuments. The distance between the stones, however, & Auray is eight miles & to Loch Maria Ker ten miles, & when one has reached the place it requires two or three miles more of walking or boating to visit them all, so scattered are they & so extensive. Behold me starting off at eight o’clock in the morning while the bell for mass was ringing. This mass is said everywhere for the French army. People were just coming with prayer books in hand, out of the houses. The road led for some distance between gardens completely enclosed by high stone walls, sometimes with a fierce & terrible aspect caused by the bits of glass stuck in the mortar at the top. The stone breakers & ditches, called here “cantonniers,” were just commencing their work for the day. In the forest, woodcutters were lopping off limbs, by no means dropping down trees in the wholesale way we have at home, but here a twig & there a branch. Everywhere the pine trees present this disfigured mutilated appearance. Great wounds on the trunk while atop the foliage is left to grow. Along the Loire, the willow trees are completely trimmed as fast as a new crop has grown & instead of beautiful waving willows there is only a succession of stumps.

Boys & girls now began to drive their little black & white cows to pasture, where little grass grew in the midst of much heath. Great heaps of fertilization showed themselves in the fields around which women in red skirts of diminutive length, barefoot, were working with fork & shovel. Here an old woman was cutting off the tops of potato vines, & yonder men & women were busily putting the potatoes into large sacks. At intervals along the road, old crones sat on the stone wall & watched a cow or black sheep, all the while knitting unceasingly black thunder clouds of stockings, one of the things which make the landscape of Brittany so dark & somber.

A windmill on every little eminence, at present their sails folded & only presenting an array of bare, rough sticks. I had a most curious sight of these from the summit of a hill near Dol. I could count eighteen of these madmen along the seacoast & on the ridge of hills extending around all jollily waving their arms & seeming to be in an ecstasy, sometime two close by each other would turn in opposite directions as if whacking each other in good earnest. It makes me laugh to see these old fellows go at each other in that way, each with a prop to his back. Every little while a crucifix lifted itself up by the wayside on pedestals, all in the coarse stone of the country, sometimes with rude attempts at carving a rough outline of a figure. In this respect, I fancy I find a difference between Normandy & Brittany—for in Normandy, the Calvary as it [is] called or in French “Calvaire” is of wood with a carved image of the same material & sometimes a spear & rod with a sponge at the end crossing below each other, but in Brittany usually only a stone crucifix.

Now I met the postman trudging along with mailbag on his back, or a lip-cart packed with women in white caps, black dresses & red cheeks, who stared vehemently at the stranger. All along the sides of the road, except where cultivated, grew this thorny heath, now become of a dully brown color & the nearer I approached the sea the more this covered the ground. Now & then little dolmens showed themselves. I turned aside to see three & had just got into a field to look at another when I saw a lot of girls leaning against it, which frightened me away. An old priest directed me to a long heath covered mound at the eastern extremity of which was an immense dolmen called “Table des Marchands.” An enormous block of stone formed the roof of a chamber, partially underground. The end of this chamber was formed by a large cone shaped column or boulder, the point of which supported the ends of the roof-boulder. At the opposite side an alley of stones commenced partially roofed & gradually narrowing down. The sides, or “parois,” were stones of a rude, rectangular shape, sometimes almost shapeless, but all destitute of any nicely marked angles. I could easily stand upright in it. The boulder forming the end of the chamber was entirely covered with figures, like pot-hooks, “par example” [an ink sketch is drawn here]. On the roof, a rude hatchet-shaped figure. On the sides, figures called “Caltae,” thus. But one marvel was the immensity of the stone which formed the roof, its underside convex, its upper surface almost perfectly level. The whole was supported on three points. A fragment large enough to make a second dolmen had been removed by some means to the other end of the mound. Very near this were the pieces of a huge Menhir, three facing toward the village, the remaining fragment being at right angles. Each of the pieces were enormous by themselves, when forming a whole one cannot estimate the strength required to lift such a mass into the air. It is the bulk, the mass, the density, combined with its size which impresses so forcibly the spectator. There one gets an idea of weight, of gravity, which is wanting in all polylithic structures. The stones were ten or twelve f[ee]t wide and six feet thick & all together the height over fifty feet. The material is surprising since it differs so much from the common stone or the country. The crystals are very large & the grain very coarse, resembling very much our Concord [Massachusetts] granite.

A gentleman in the cars gave me as his opinion that the stones were brought from Egypt. I should put an emphatic interrogation mark after that sentiment. The guide bade me stand at one end & put my ear to the stone while he tapped lightly on the end with the other & a sound otherwise hardly sensible became thus a clear, ringing note. Nearby were two smaller monuments, a dolmen & broken menhir. The guide then took me to the remains of [a] Roman circus. It was simply a stone wall with square stones on the exterior & where this had broken away, great masses of mortar & tile appeared. Everywhere in this region this tile shows itself sometimes in large fragments, usually in small bits.

The radius of the circus I should judge to have been fifty feet or more, but both that & the height I could not determine because a great part had been broken away by two roads of which it formed the angle & also a graveyard with an ossuary filled up its interior. For I was now in the country of the Veneti & it was in these morasses of the sea that Caesar found such resistance. It was at Vannes, the ancient Dariorlk, that the great sea fight took place. This whole region goes by the name of Mor-Bihan.

After obtaining a drink of cider at a café in the village, I secured two boatmen to row me over to Gavi’ Mnis [Gavrinis], an island about two or three miles away. They pulled hard against the tide, taking a circuitous course among the islands which they told me equaled in number the days of the year. All around, fishing boats, windmills & now retiring into the distance the little town of Loch Maria Ker. A great heap of stones forming a rude mound now arose before us & a little distance from it a farmhouse with apple trees around. The fishermen landed me on the opposite side just in an angle formed by the island & the ebb tide which now shot past on its way to the sea. After obtaining the key from the farmhouse & a stump of a candle & making a vain attempt to get some more cider, we returned to the mound in the side of which we found a little iron door to which several steps descended. This opened, showed a long low, narrow gallery or alley ending in a small square chamber. The floor was made up of rough stones forming in rude, clumsy way an ascent of several steps towards the chamber. The sides were slabs or stones somewhat rectangular & supported a roof of boulders. They were evenly arranged & the surface more regular than I had noticed in the others & all were carved in a most strange way. Generally in the centre would be a series of concentric circles & around the outer ring concentric half circles covering thus the whole surface & scattered here & there sculptures like Celtare—columns of Greek Lambdas, serpent like figures & hatchets visible here & there. On one of the stones, the carvings seemed to take the form of a human skeleton, but perhaps it was only a fancy natural to my underground situation. From one rock projected two handles like those of an urn, formed partly also by cutting out the material behind. As yet no one knows the meaning of these marks or whether they have any meaning at all, but are only decorations of the tomb.

On emerging from this cavern & ascending the summit of the tumulus, a beautiful view disclosed itself. The islands, just separated from each other by narrow strips of sea flowing between, while on some were to be seen other tumuli similar to the one on Gavi’ Mnis. From the open sea, visible in the distance, to all around was the Morbihan where the hardy Veneti had their haunts. Scattered over the calm surface were the rough boats of the fishermen. Little villages were scattered along the shore & the coast gave a comfortable, cozy aspect to the view by its brown heath.

Another pull thro’ the winding channel & we landed at a point of land a short ways from the village where an officer of the coast guard was stationed who must have a look at my passport. Being more easily satisfied than some other officials I have met, he did not detain me long & with the fishermen I went into a café & gave them each a cents worth of cider & plenty at that, which they enjoyed hugely. On my rising to depart they were so moved that they took off their hats & shook hands most cordially, wishing me a hearty “bon voyage.”

On going thro’ the village, I peeped into an ossuary in the old church-yard, a mere rough shed with slats on one side, like a prison house, allowing one to see the little coffin like boxes which contain the bones of those who have died. For the Bretons after a certain time (on one box I made out ten years) open the graves of their relatives, carefully disintegrate them & pack in small boxes which they deposit in a house or shed in the graveyard. Some of them had broken open & on the ground I saw some bones & [a]skull which grinned horribly. You may guess that I enjoyed my dinner that day.

Another trip was taken to Carnac to visit the stone phalanxes there at a distance of about eight miles. There are three eminences & each has its array of Menhirs. I found a ragged little [man] seated in the top of one whom I hired for ten cents to show me the groups. He first led me a long distance thro’ the woods & meadows to a group forming the Eastern extremity. At first very small, with scarcely any regularity, the stones gradually come into line at the same time growing larger & larger until they end in eleven or twelve huge boulders, twelve to eighteen feet high, each forming the head of a column. They form also one side of a rectangle which terminates the group. A tumulus forms the North side & menhirs the remaining sides.

Now retracing our steps, we came to a windmill “moulin a vent,” remarking all the way stones scattered here & there without any order. From the windmill, another group begins to form in the same way. From disorder & from little rocks, lines of mighty stones developing—rudely aiming at a conical shape as it seems, covered with moss & almost looking like some of the old Druids, petrified while marching in solemn procession. Some are fallen as if conquered in the Cadmean strife. There they are arrayed in order, but waiting as if for the return of those who were to guide them, but who have forsaken them. They stand there unable, as it were, to move or to speak, meaning something, but unable or forbidden to reveal it. At the head of this column was a Dolmen.

Crossing now the road between Carnac & Auray, soon another row appeared forming in similar manner & now terminating on a circular enclosure in which little cottages have been erected. The whole distance that we had traversed was about two miles. From this hill or rising ground, one could look back upon the long rows stretching away back over hill & valley & along the meadows, like great stone armies, their arrangement due to no glacier movement, but their bulky parts disposed by men if by main strength then with Titan toil & gigantic strength or if by artificial means then with awls & more of our modern implements.

Alas, among this people, no legend, such as Greece or Rome would have devised, is thrown around these remains. No gods or mighty heroes have people this land. They have never ascended higher than man, and instead of a golden age, nothing remains but these memorials of a hard, stern, cruel, rocky age. Yet on such a coast whose pasture is thorn & heath, where the sea extends its barren surface, extends into all manner of nooks & openings, making mere morsels of land whose whole coast is a graveyard, where fog, rain & terrible winters rule, all sentiment & romance must be washed out, or frozen out. Here stand these monuments, huge [and] hoary with age, the pendant moss bespeaking veneration & reverence, but silent, horribly silent—a silence which repels & terrifies. Is it that they dare not tell of the barbarities & cruelties of their savage antiquity, that of the shadows cast upon their surface by worshippers or revelers, all is too terrible for revelation? No romance, no glowing tale or love or valor, no legend of fairy power or hero’s might. Nothing but rough, shapeless masses on a bleak, gloomy, heath-covered coast. This mystery is not delightful.

But such a jolly time as I have had travelling in Normandy. I visited it just in the right time & obtained the first I could possibly eat & cider. If it does not flow in the streets, it was because such a tremendous absorbent as myself was found. But such landscapes as one finds in Normandy. I spent three days in Rouen & had a glorious time ransacking the churches, towers, museums, old building & all places where anything was ever done or said. It has a most delightful situation on the banks of the Seine, which here becomes a broad stream fitted for larger vessels. Around are high hills forming almost a cup for Rouen. It is easy enough to climb them, by reason of the magnificent roads which ascent by easy grades to the summits. I took one morning the road which leads to the Abbey of Jumieges. It winds along the brow of the hill which slopes toward the river & at every turn in the road, the meadow broad, magnificent, perfectly level, stretching away from the stream, not a fence to be seen upon their surface, but only variegated by the contrasts of the crops & newly plowed earth. The Seine with little islands shown only by heaps of foliage, the banks lined with shrubbery from which arose the tall, graceful popular & settled cozily the little country houses & chateaus, all assume new positions, each [surpassing] the others in beauty. From the summit one could look away into the valley with now the warm tins of its fields. The glitter of the river in the sun with the city for a dark background lifting up its spires & lanterns from St. Owen & the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Now the road led me on past fields where women were out working, the men meeting, an old dame with rugged face & white cap like a sugar cone, seated in her lip-cart & driving a horse of immense proportions past huts thatched with straw, walled with stone & moss covered. Among these led little lanes in which men, women, boys & girls & infants all stared at the pilgrim. I wish I could adequately describe the glorious walks I have taken, both around Rouen & Caen. In Rouen itself, too, I could have spent weeks. Many boulevards have been made thus sweeping away much that was curious & antique, but a great deal still was left.

One night I had been rambling about the streets when suddenly at nine o’clock the great bell of an ancient tower began to ring the curfew. It sounded strangely to hear that deep solemn sound, repeating its old command to disobedience & forgetful ears. But still it rung in its vehement way as strongly as in the days of old when at its voice every household ceased its occupation & darkness nited thro’ all the village. I almost forgot the present as I stood beneath, in the little narrow land & imagined I shared in it longing for the past when it was not as now an unmeaning custom.

Not far from this tower is the little square in which Joan of Arc was burned. Perhaps it is absurd, but since I have seen so many of the places where she showed forth her mission & since so much of her history is forced upon my attention, I feel something like a superstitious veneration for her & this little neglected square seemed almost like holy ground. The surroundings are not attractive. Old dilapidated buildings around & in the centre a poor statue serving as a fountain for cabmen to water their horses, but one sweeps away all these profanities brings back the infamous scene that was enacted here all of which was yet glorified by her death. It becomes a spot not easy to forget & even a place of pilgrimage.

As Paris is just now shut up, it would be best to direct letters:

“R.W. Swaim
Care of Maguay Pakenham & Hooker
Rome, Italy”

Yours travellingly,

Please remember me to your Father & Mother & Brother.

If you can just let me know what Drew is doing. He had about the same questions as to a profession that I had. Just remember [me] to any of the fellows you see.

Sept 28, 1870

En route for Pau, Toulouse, Marseilles & Italie.

December 12, 1870

But jolliest of all to take an afternoon’s siesta in a gondola (twenty cents the first hour, fifteen after). Regularly we ordered the boatman “Up the Grand Canal” and back on the cushions put up our feet on the stools, whispered good night & passed into a blissful, cozy, half dreamy state to be aroused only by the approach of the dinner hour. Oh! I am getting homesick, not for America yet, but for Venice…

Mons Quirinalis, Dec 12, 1870

Dear Perrin,

It is with the greatest pleasure that I acknowledge the receipt of your letter. All the letters which I have received thus far have been greatly delayed by the war. Some I have not received which I know to have been sent & I am afraid that a few of mine have shared the same fate. Nor is this the worse treatment which I have experienced from that pseudo-republic of France. And the more it is punished the better. I feel & excuse myself because I think, perhaps, it may do them good. Over here one becomes intensely interested in European news & almost neglects American politics. But how I excel in this life of travel. It keeps one busy, gives him no time to read, scarcely to write, much less to eat—you may doubt that last statement in my case—& continually new sights, new aspects & a fellow is always revising & correcting his former opinions. But alas! As I may have written before, one tour only prepares the way for another & unless other duties intervene I shall have to make a business of traveling.

After having guided you around the Druidical remains at Auray, my duty should be to take you down to Pau, there to look off on the beautiful Pyrenees or visit the castle where Hen[ry] IV was born & describe his tortoise shell cradle, from thence to Marseilles where the “Reds” were have quite a carnival, from thence to Genoa as beautiful a place as one could desire, famous for its streets of palaces with the sea continually clashing against its walls & around its mountains capped with fortresses. And I think of all the palaces I have seen thus far those in Genoa are the most pleasing, for about the others there is either a mediaeval fortress like gloomy aspect or else a dilapidated appearance, but these have a princely, luxurious air which is increased on visiting the interiors. And best of all, for even if the front is unpretending, on looking in at the great portal one sees a delightful court sometimes containing shrubbery & flowers & around it a marble colonnade & from this court grand staircases lead to the upper floors where often are the choicest pictures. Sometimes the outside of the buildings is frescoed & all manner of designs & figures historical & symbolical are represented. There along the quay is a fine marble promenade built over the custom house & other buildings & from this one has a noble view of the harbour & the hills around. This then was the great rival of Venice. On the sea & at present [it] is becoming quite eminent as a sea port. Every where are scattered tablets & memorials of the power of the ruling family of the Dorias. And this is one of the singular things in the history of these Halian towns, that their record judging merely from the monuments remaining as buildings, statues & historical palaces is only the history of the ruling family. As in Milan, the viscounts, at Verona, the Scaligers, in Ferrara the house of Este, in Florence the Medici.

venice2But pardon me if I hurry you across Northern Italy. This delightful Milan with its wonderful Cathedral & clean sheets, thro’ Brescia & Verona where I visited Juliet’s house three times, I think, thro old Padua with its ancient University & streets lined with arcades, its tomb of Antenor[e] & great wooden horses to the best of all—most poetic, romantic, historic & beautiful—the strangest of cities—O glorious Venice! The one of all places that I remember with greatest delight & long to revisit, associated with all that is grand & inspiring. Poets time & again have referred to thee, how can I enough extol thee? We crossed the long bridge which leads from the mainland on a most beautiful day when the surface of the water glistened like a mirror in the sun & away in the distance disappeared in the sky. Some one shouted “gondola” & all became as enthusiastic as possible at the sight. And so we entered the station as jolly & gay, rushed for the boat & almost without knowing how began to move so easily & swiftly along the Grand Canal while others flitted past us in the same smooth, light manner. Palace after palace passed us, sometimes a dark massive structure rising from Doric to Tuscan & from Tuscan to Corinthian order, or its front of coloured marbles giving a gay & festive air. Soon rise up in the distance the great arch of the Rialto, but the boatmen turned aside before we reached it into a narrow canal full of angles where one must give a warning cry to others. Then we passed between two dark buildings & above us appeared a bridge & a second fit of enthusiasm seized all at the cry of “Bridge of Sighs.” But as usual, hotels are the first care & romance must have the second place.

The glory of Venice is the Piazza & Piazetto of St. Mark, places beautiful in themselves, famous for the scenes which have there taken place & peculiar & unique & without parallel. All that has occurred here has gained a strange, enchanting character & the usual events of history lose their tiresomeness here & read like romance. Of all the churches that of St. Mark’s is the most curious & perhaps the most interesting. Just in front are three bronze supports in which are thrust poles from which in former times waved the flags of conquered states. Over the central portal stand the famous bronze horses by which alone the Venetians are aware that there is such a species. All over the front are mosaics & the portals are filled with columns of rare marble, then a hall or entry extending the whole width of the church. Above are mosaics representing scenes from Bible history, below in the center the spot where Fred Barbarossa submitted himself to the Pope. At one end the tomb of [Ludovico] Manin, the last Doge. Entering & the same strange, fantastic character prevails as one on the exterior. A continual smell of incense, gold mosaics covering the arches & roof & pillars in which are worked figures of the Apostles, Martyrs & Saints, the pavement of little squares & triangles & round pieces of coloured marbles arranged in various forms, columns of rich marble brought to Venice as spoils from the East. Directly opposite the entrance is the choir with its canopy & altar under which rest the relics of St. Mark? Behind this another altar of whose columns two in alabaster came from Solomon’s temple & almost transparent. As to these relics I can hardly reckon how many pictures I have seen that were painted by St. Luke. How many impressions in stone made by the feel of Christ or the Saints & a miracle must have happened in regard to the true cross. But Venice is hardly the place for such superstition as the Popes never found her given over to superstition & blind obedience but rather a perverse & obstinate republic.

venice3In front of the church of St. Mark is the great Square with colonnades on three sides under which are the great stores which like all European establishments make beautiful displays in the shop windows & my evenings have generally been spent in strolling along stopping every little while to look in all the windows & no one is regarded as a greenhorn for doing it. As to the wonderful appearance of Paris shop windows, especially in the Palais Royal—alas—I refer you to Mons[ieur] Rich who fairly won the hearts of the Parisians during his stay. There are very good assortments of gift books, but jewelry holds the first rank & as I see city after city my perplexity ever increases as to what & where to choose. Then the Cafés (Hal. Caffé) where, rather curiously, one finds the very best society in Venice—gentlemen & ladies all coming to meet one another—and of all Cafe Florian’s is unrivalled (oh that lemonade). It is jolly enough to sit down at one of the little tables with a friend, order that beverage, hear the great bands play in the centre of the Sq[uare] around the immense candelabrum with numberless gas jets [and] watch the people promenading & around in one great circle or walking arm in arm around the colonnades. Such swell couples as they were, for the ladies of Venice are famous for their beauty.

From this great “Piazza” leads off between the Doge’s Palace & the huge Campanile & Library the Piazetta with its two famous columns on one of which is the Lion of St. Mark’s. This Piazetta at the end opp[osite] to the church form the quay where gondolas lie crowded together & gondoliers continually pester one. It is like a dream to stand here at the edge & not only enjoy the glorious view of the Lagune but to bring to mind (by the guide book) all that has taken place here. The sight of the Doge’s Palace is enough of itself to bring up visions & after visiting the Chambers of the “Council of Three,” “Council of Ten,” & Senate & then into the dungeons small & close & utterly black with the places for decapitation & strangling close by an opening into the canal for the bodies one feels that the romance has indeed a dark side. Here were pointed out the cells of Marin[o] Falier[o] & the Foscari & in the Court is the great staircase where it is said that Faliero was beheaded. We also passed into the Bridge of Sighs, but one could believe that conspirators found enough that was terrible in the Palace itself without needing to cross the Bridge. But what perhaps most attracted my attention was a little hole in the wall of the antechamber to the rooms of the Councils, formerly ornamented with a lion’s mouth, into which were once dropped secret accusations.

But jolliest of all to take an afternoon’s siesta in a gondola (twenty cents the first hour, fifteen after). Regularly we ordered the boatman “Up the Grand Canal” and back on the cushions put up our feet on the stools, whispered good night & passed into a blissful, cozy, half dreamy state to be aroused only by the approach of the dinner hour. Oh! I am getting homesick, not for America yet, but for Venice, where walking about & all exertion was tabooed. There I place the Isles of the Blessed. Here [in Rome] it is nothing but trudge thro narrow, dirty streets smelling horribly. How I hate these cities & I feel good only when away from them. Yet says that nuisance, the guidebook, “no visitor should neglect” &c. I am fast coming to a horribly utilitarian & degraded wish. Give me fresh air, the sun & good food & down with pictures, statues & antiquaries. Away with them—Hurrah. Soon a woolen shirt, broad brimmed hat, big shoes & shillalah. A free & easy life on the Nile where clean shirts & neckties are forbidden & jolly camel back donkey-riding trip in Syria. Then won’t I make a holocaust of civilization & kidgloves—whoop—toot—toot—toot—that’s my bugle. There are some jolly people gone East whom if I meet—“Now my boys let’s all go in.”

cdv-colosseumBut Oh dear! Here is this awful task of Rome on my hands. A mass of brick to investigate, excavations to penetrate, from a few scattered labyrinthic, pell-mell ruins to get an idea of what Rome was from eight feet of stone wall to guess what, the wall of Servious was & to make this out thro mud & rain & bad odours. That Cloaca Maxima had so bad an effect on a gentleman whom I accompanied that he ran off to the corner of the next street & waited there for me (literal fact). It was pretty bad. All that could be seen was an arch of coarse stone just peeping out of the stream. It certainly should not be visited in rainy [weather], being almost submerged. Most of my time I have spent merely in walking about, find out where the places are situated & this is more than enough for two weeks & as to visiting the places thoroughly, say from one year up. Moreover, the Pope has lightened my labours by closing the Vatican at which one acts like a child who with his hands full of fruit wants more. But most fortunately, coming here a little before the crowd, I got one of the few tickets given out and had the luxury of seeing the Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoon & the Torso. That was a glorious afternoon to me & perhaps I ought never to visit them again. Such a great impression did they make upon me I can hardly describe them now as I don’t know what words to use.

I am sure, however, if I did not remember Plato & my standing on the scale as respects my understanding him, I should call the Greeks first in everything—art, literature &c.  But the summum bonum of Rome is perhaps the Forum. I have tried to descend the Capitoline Hill by the winding way where the ancients walked & stand on the Rostia or sit on the cone which represents the ideal centre of Rome, but “none e permesso.” After all, I shall only appreciate Rome after getting away when forgetting its filth & discomforts. I can think of its power in the post & its grandeur. Yet one does feel the influence of the power perhaps past, when under the shadow of St. Peter’s. The thought of being at the centre not only of a mighty temporal empire, but of an awful spiritual power which has so long & so completely controlled men’s souls, is sometimes terrible. And perhaps nothwithstanding Bunyan’s parable there is mighty life remaining, one is compelled to think a little about Popery here.

cdv-romanforumBut, if I can, I will describe in dull prose that Forum from the Capitol to the Colosseum. I hope to send home some photographs of Rome & I should be very much pleased if you would call & see them. Your letter has set me to dreaming of baseball. I am very fortunate so far in acquaintances, having fallen [in] with good, jolly fellows. Please direct to Munroe & Co. as before & remember me to your family. Hope to leave in a week for Naples & Sicily. I write amid the difficulties of sightseeing &c. My quarters are gay, being just opp[osite] the Palazzo Barberini.

Truly Your Friend,
Roger W.S.

Dec 14, 1870