SOCIAL AND DIPLOMATIC MEMORIES, 1902-1919
BY THE RIGHT HON. SIR JAMES RENNELL RODD, G.C.B.
Lord Currie, Ambassador. Political situation. Prinetti, Sonnino, Giolitti. Diplomatic representatives. Social life. Intellectual Society. Monseigneur Duchesne. Sabatier. The Keats-Shelley Memorial. Ninfa. The Shah's visit. Illness of King Edward VII. Vallombrosa. Summer festivals. Kitchener in Rome.
In the first volume of these memories I have described the Rome which I knew as a boy of six, but little changed from the city of Hans Andersen's improvisatore. It occupied only a portion of the area surrounded by Aurelian's wall which enclosed a vast acreage of gardens, parks, and fascinating regions abandoned to ruin and solitude. Even on my second visit, not long after Rome became the capital of United Italy, the Via Nazionale had not been completed, while Santa Maria Maggiore and the Lateran Basilica with their dependencies were islanded among vineyards and fields of artichoke. By the time I joined the British Embassy in 1891, the vacant spaces had to a great extent been laid out in streets, but the speculative excesses of the building crisis, in which many fortunes and some reputations were compromised, had left a number of new constructions roofless. Others designed as pretentious residences had been invaded by a class of tenant whose occupancy only promised a pitiful return on the vast outlay of capital.
A great improvement was manifest when I rejoined the Embassy at the end of January 1902. The city had spread beyond the gates along the Nomentan road, and the "Castle meadows " behind the fortress of St. Angelo and the new Law Courts had become a residential quarter. The anticipation of a large influx of population formed when the capital was transferred from the Arno to the Tiber had been realized, and rents were rising rapidly. The wide streets which had replaced the ilex avenues and fountains of the old Villa Ludovisi had become the Roman Mayfair. The stately but sombre palaces of the city of the Popes had been abandoned for the more sanitary modern houses on the ridge from which the spurs of Quirinal, Viminal, and Esquiline diverge. I had to march with the times, and in order not to be too far from the Embassy at Porta Pia had taken a large detached house, the Villino de Renzis, at a rental which absorbed two-thirds of the modest salary which in those days was considered adequate for a Counsellor of Embassy. There, about a fortnight later, my wife joined me, bringing with her a second daughter who had been born on the last day of the old year.
The Ambassador, Lord Currie, had aged considerably during the last two years. He had lost all his old vitality. There was none of that confident assurance which had been characteristic in him as an Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. His experiences abroad had disappointed him. At Constantinople he did not receive the support from home which he had anticipated, and when transferred to Rome he seemed out of his proper element. It was no doubt difficult for him, after thirty or forty years of official life in London, to receive with patience himself the instructions which he had so long been accustomed to dictate. With all the courtesies of a great gentleman, he was too unplastic and essentially British to appear sympathetic to the Italians, who did not appreciate his official manner, and were at one moment anxious to bring about his recall. An incident had accordingly been unduly magnified. During one of the late Duke of Norfolk's periodical visits to Rome, Lord Currie had, as an old friend, taken part in a reception given by the former at his hotel, not fully realizing that this party, chiefly attended by members of the Vatican hierarchy, had a sort of semi-official character. The health of the Sovereign Pontiff was reported to have been drunk at the buffet, and the National Press commented with some warmth on the presence of an Ambassador accredited to the Quirinal on such an occasion. Opposition between the rival camps of Whites and Blacks was at that time still pronounced, and could be exploited to serve a useful purpose.
It was perhaps not altogether unwelcome to the astute Lombard, who then filled the post of Minister for Foreign Affairs, Signor, afterwards Marchese, Prinetti, to have a grievance. We might thereby be more readily disposed to meet him in a matter to which he attached great importance, namely, the recognition of Italy's priority of interest in the future of Tripoli, if and when occasion should arise to assert it. At any rate Prinetti now secured gratuitously an adhesion which we had shown some hesitation in giving. Italy had obtained an acknowledgment of her reversionary interest in Tripoli from the Governments of Austria-Hungary and Germany nearly ten years earlier, when the Triple Alliance had been renewed by Rudini. The French Government, whose goodwill in this matter was exceptionally important, had just taken a somewhat similar engagement. Not, however, without their quid pro quo, by which, so far as Italy was concerned, a free hand was assured to France in Morocco. Relations with France had remained cool and distant ever since the fiery Sicilian, Crispi, had lost his temper with the Latin sister, and had sought a more congenial partnership in the Wilhelmstrasse at Berlin. Now, however, the situation had somewhat changed.
We had, ourselves, been associated in the Mediterranean understanding of 1887. But as time went on it became obvious that the status quo then contemplated would not be indefinitely maintained, and that such an understanding could only remain effective if revised. When Germany and Austria-Hungary accepted the reversion of Tripoli to Italy, we might have taken the opportunity of acting graciously at the same time. But apparently no one had given a second thought to the understanding of 1887. Some months later, when I was in charge of the Embassy and had established relations of intimacy with Prinetti, he observed to me that there had been, for a long time, practically no diplomatic contact with a series of British Ambassadors, mostly in failing health, who never discussed political questions, and confined themselves to current work. It was consequently assumed in Italy that we had lost interest in her, or regarded her as a negligible quantity.
Meanwhile, time had modified the conditions which had antagonized France and Italy. France had had an anticlerical phase, and the possibility of intervention in favour of the Holy See no longer gave preoccupation. Public sentiment in Italy had grown more reconciled to the French Protectorate over Tunis, where Italian settlers prospered. Crispi was dead, and the Triple Alliance was regarded as the particular work of a statesman who had led the country into a policy of adventure at that time beyond her powers. As the trend of political opinion gravitated more and more towards the left, the feeling became appreciable that the guarantees of that Alliance were dearly bought at the price of the permanent hostility of France and a pernicious tariff war. If Italy with her peculiar capacity for compromise could combine the maintenance of the Alliance with friendship for France her position in the world would be vastly improved.
This apparently impossible consummation was to a great extent accomplished, if at the cost of progressively increasing friction between Italy and Austria-Hungary. The result was largely due to the skilful management of my old friend, Barrère, during the early period of his long tenure of the French Embassy. The opportune moment for an exchange of views which might lead to far-reaching results was indicated by the approaching date for the periodical renewal of the Triple Alliance. Only many years later did I appreciate the full significance of the negotiations upon which he was engaged at this time or the precise terms of a further understanding contracted simultaneously with the Morocco-Tripoli agreement, and then I realized the debt which France owed to her able representative.
Lord Currie became rather seriously ill in the spring, when a disquieting weakness of the heart manifested itself. He was incapable of any sustained effort, and thus, very soon after my arrival, all the burden of current affairs fell on my shoulders. a
He left Italy at the end of April. When his leave expired he was granted a further period of sick leave. As his health did not improve he finally retired in December. I thus remained in charge of the Embassy from April 1902 until February of he following year, a very unusual experience for a junior Counsellor.
Not many weeks after my arrival in Rome, I heard with genuine sorrow of the death of my first chief in that capital, Lord Dufferin, the kindest and most constant of older friends. His last years had been clouded by misfortunes which must have weighed heavily on his proud and sensitive nature. It was an irony of fate which made one who gave such admirable advice to others so unlucky in the management of his own affairs, and I bitterly resented that such a Nemesis should have overtaken the brilliantly successful life in which he did such good service to his country. A few weeks later died Cecil Rhodes, whose extraordinary career also closed under a shadow, for it was not until some two months later that the South African War was brought to its close.
The brief reference to the diplomatic situation which I found when I began my second period of residence at the Roman Embassy may be completed by a sketch of the principal personalities with whom I had to deal.
In the not very remarkable Government of Zanardelli the most conspicuous figure was Prinetti, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who acted as a check on its tendency towards the left. A northerner and a man of business as a manufacturer of bicycles on a large scale, he continued to keep touch with the management of his firm while concentrating an untiring energy on public affairs. He also devoted much more time to social life than the majority of Italian statesmen, who are seldom seen outside their offices and the Chamber. He had to a great extent overcome an initial unpopularity due to a dominant manner and a somewhat mordant tongue and, had not overwork cut short a brilliant career in the full vigour of life, he would no doubt have succeeded to the Premiership. His wife was French, and her nationality was not without its influence on the new orientation of foreign relations, in directing which Prinetti was also endeavouring to promote closer relations with Russia.
Among the parliamentarians the personality which at that time impressed me most was that of Sidney Sonnino, with whom I was afterwards to be so closely associated in the grave days of 1915. He had already then, co-operating with the eminent economist, Luigi Luzzatti, played a conspicuous part in restoring equilibrium to the State finances. Thanks to their efforts the corner had been turned in 1897-98. The gold premium had disappeared, and a deficit, chronic for thirty-five years, had been converted into a surplus. Sonnino's father, a Tuscan of Jewish antecedents, had been established in Egypt, where he acquired a certain fortune which made his son more than independent. His mother, on the other hand, was Welsh, and she had brought Sidney up as a Protestant. To her influence was due an austerity of character which increased in later life and a scrupulous rectitude which was intolerant of any dereliction from principle. He was very good-looking, and combined a rather reserved manner with much personal charm. After a few years in diplomacy he had been elected to the Chamber. If he did not avowedly call himself a Conservative, a profession of faith which hardly anyone in Italian public life then ventured openly to assert, he was certainly one by conviction. He was universally respected and tacitly admired, but generally regarded as irredeemably rigid and uncompromising, with too many acute angles for comfortable association in the political combinations of the group system which had established itself. Men rather than principles commanded a following in an assembly where there were too many heterogeneous individualist elements for any Government to be long-lived.
The man already at that time singled out in my notes as most likely to succeed in controlling the difficult machine was Giolitti. His political career had suffered a temporary eclipse after the Banca Romana scandals which he, as Minister of the Interior, had been instrumental in bringing to light, a service which politically recoiled on his own head. In one of the not uncommon intrigues devised to break a Government Giolitti had lent himself to a scheme for undermining the authority of Crispi. He had in his possession a number of documents which he held back at the time of the revelations, and it was insinuated that they contained matter incriminating the veteran Sicilian statesman. There was, however, nothing in the much-discussed Giolitti plico, which had not been within the knowledge of the Committee appointed to investigate the affairs of the bank. The constituencies pronounced a definite judgment in favour of Crispi, and Giolitti's prospects seemed compromised. Crispi had, however, been dead some years, and a genius for parliamentary manipulation, which eventually became disastrous to the sincerity of political life, had brought Giolitti's star once more into the ascendant.
The diplomatic body has always played a conspicuous part in the life of Rome, where much is expected of its members by the horde of travellers who arrive from all countries. I have already referred to Barrère, who became at a very early age French Ambassador at Bern, and shall have more to say hereafter. The doyen was the Austro-Hungarian representative, Baron Pasetti, who like his wife was correctness itself in an protocolar formalities. The Russian, M. de Nelidow, had been Lord Currie's colleague at Constantinople, whence both of them were transferred to Rome about the same time. The German Ambassador, Count Monts, was able and genial, with a strong sense of humour which he did not always diplomatically control. It was no doubt unfortunate that while the tragedy of Belgrade was still a recent memory he should, at a game of bridge, when his partner, the popular Serbian Minister Milovanovich, inadvertently trumped his winning king, have addressed him as le Régicide. The United States could have sent no more acceptable a representative to the capital of nations than George von Lengerke Meyer, who had charm as well as ability, and a wife who at once became a general favourite. With us at that time, however, those who filled the position of second-in-command were more intimate than the heads of missions, and I had as colleagues, with a similar status to my own, Herr von Jagow at the German Embassy, M. Sazonow at the Russian Legation to the Holy See, and at the Embassy M. Kroupensky, who was ambassador when the Great War broke out. The naval and military attachés at our own Embassy, Captain Mark Kerr and Colonel (now Sir Charles) Lamb, a brother of Lady Currie, were also to be associated with Italy during the war. The Rome of 1902 was thus full of elements who were to be prominent in the stormy days of 1914-15.
The social world had changed considerably since I had served there under Dufferin ten years earlier. But cosmopolitan gatherings in hotel ball-rooms had not yet, as during my third and final phase at the Embassy, replaced the old dignified traditions of social life. A certain number of the great Roman houses still maintained a decorous state, though many of their chiefs, including even those who had rallied to the new order, lived their own lives and took little part in public affairs. There were exceptions, such as the witty an cultured Duke of Sermoneta, who had acted as syndic of the city and, for a brief uncomfortable moment in 1896, had filled the post of Minister for Foreign Affairs. Palazzo Doria, maintained as a model of what a Roman palace should be by the refined taste of Alfonso Doria, was open to the friends of a grand seigneur, whose tall and well-groomed figure was almost as well known in Bond Street as in the Corso. His eldest sister, the Duchess Massimo, with the conservative blood of an English mother, was a living protest against social innovations The ancient house of Colonna presented a typical example of the Italian genius for compromise, for while the eldest of the three brothers by whom it was represented filled by hereditary right the highest civil function at the Papal Court, his daughter, the beautiful Vittoria Colonna, whose marriage with the heir of the Liberal family of Caetani seemed to close an ancestral feud dating back to the days of Boniface VIII, had become a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Italy. The second brother, Don Fabrizio, had been nominated to the Senate, while the third, Don Prospero, one of the most popular figures in the capital, was later to become the chief magistrate of the Roman municipality. On the other hand, the front door of the Lancilotti Palace remained hermetically sealed ever after the 20th of September, 1870, and the old Prince was consistent in his recusancy to the new régime until his death.
A few of the great Roman ladies, such as the Duchess Massimo, the gracious Princess of Venosa, and the Marchesa Pallavicini, still held their weekly receptions, and an after-glow of the old stately life was then still perceptible. It has passed away now, and it can never return. The exclusive noli me tangere of the Roman aristocrat has been replaced by the less dignified tango of the hotel ball-room, and banking counters occupy the remodelled ground-floors of venerable palaces. I was recently discussing with an old Roman friend reminiscences of our youth, and lamenting the disappearance of much that linked us to an historic past. " Aujourd'hui," I said," il n'y a plus de salons à Rome." He assented, but added with a sly French wit inherited from his mother, " Mais il y a toujours des chambres à coucher."
Intellectual society found a meeting-ground in the apartment in Palazzo Odescalchi of the historian, Count Pietro Desiderio Pasolini, where the Countess, enthusiastic, intelligent, and moderately rebellious to convention, assembled as her guests the most interesting personalities in the world of politics, economics, and letters. The Ravennese Senator, who displayed an impish pleasure in shocking his audience and especially his wife, was one of the most attractive types of those courteous and cultivated Italian noblemen of the old school who, if they are less often seen in the capital, may still be found taking care of their estates in many local centres. There, or in the Palazzo Lovatelli, whose mistress, a sister of the Duke of Sermoneta and mother of my old naval friend of East African adventures [Vol. 1, chs. IX and X.], was one of the finest classical scholars in Italy, you would be sure to find any foreign literary celebrities who. were visiting the city. In her house I once more renewed acquaintance with a familiar figure of the old Berlin days, the veteran Mommsen. At the Pasolinis' I had the pleasure of hearing the Roman poet, Pascarella, read to us his vivid and suggestive poem on the Catacombs, and there I learned to know one of the most sympathetic and picturesque personalities of an older generation, Count Domenico Gnoli, then librarian-in-chief of the Victor Emmanuel Library. He had had the singular experience of making two different literary pseudonyms famous. In youthful days the son of a high official at the Papal Court had had to conceal his identity as a patriotic poet under the name of Dario Gaddi. In later years, when he filled a distinguished position in the world of art and letters, he had recourse to a similar disguise. A poetess of no ordinary talent had fascinated his critical sense and rejuvenated his spirit. To Vittoria Aganoor, the source of inspiration, he presented a dedicatory volume which purported to be the work of a young and unknown writer, Giulio Orsini, condemned by physical infirmity to a hermit's isolation. It was not long before every one was quoting the haunting verses of Giulio Orsini. The end of Vittoria Aganoor led to one of the real romantic tragedies of my experience. She had married the then Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Guido Pompfiji, and he, when after a brief married life she died prematurely in the flower of her fame, shot himself broken-hearted beside her death-bed and was buried with her in the same grave. The secret of Giulio Orsini was eventually revealed, and Gnoli continued to write under that name until his death.
Another agreeable centre of discreetly intellectual society was the hospitable apartment in Piazza Paganica of Donna Laura Minghetti. She was, although she spoke no English, of British origin, being an Acton of Naples, descended from the well-known Prime Minister of the two Sicilies, Sir John Acton. Two distinguished admirals bear the old British name in the Italian Navy to-day. After the death of her first husband, Prince Camporeale, she had surprised every one by marrying the veteran patriot and statesman, Mareo Minghetti, Un Giorno di Scirocco, as she used to say. Age did not alter nor could custom stale the infinite grace of her winsome personality, and young and old alike acknowledged the supremacy of her charm. Her daughter was married to Count (afterwards Prince) Bülow.
The presence of distinguished French men of letters was always announced to us by my friend, Count Giuseppe Primoli, who summoned us to his quaint old house in Tor di Nona, now rebuilt on a much more sumptuous scale. As the son of a Bonaparte Princess, he had an almost dual nationality, and was as much at home in Paris as in Rome. His quick and strongly seasoned but never unkindly wit found readiest expression in his mother tongue. Is it given to anyone to be witty in more than one language ?
At such gatherings you would be almost sure to find the illustrious historian of the Church, Monseigneur Duchesne, Director of the French Institute in Rome, which occupied the upper floor of the Farnese Palace. In a long and wide experience I have seldom met a more entertaining conversationalist than that eminent ecclesiastic whose caustic humour might in any case have been an impediment to his promotion to the highest dignities, even if he had not sacrificed professional ambition to his devotion to historic truth. His softer affections were bestowed upon a family of cats. One of these, a special favourite, fell from a lofty window of the Farnese palace and was killed. Duchesne was greatly upset, and observed to a friend who expressed his sympathy, "It has been a great blow to me. I could better have spared five cardinals." Some of his excellent stories, unexceptionable when told de vive voix , might perhaps be less "convenient" in print. His humour, however, which had a delicate spice of malice, was spontaneous and topical, and would lose by an attempt to reproduce it without the context. When certain conclusions in his ecclesiastical history were discountenanced by the Vatican, he was bound like Galileo to submit and withdraw them, or accept the consequences of rebellion, but his acquiescence was no doubt qualified by a mental reservation similar to that which escaped the great astronomer. It was reported at the time that the question of transferring his activities from Rome to Egypt was under consideration. When asked whether there was any foundation for the rumour, Duchesne replied that he thought it might prove to be correct; it would, after all, be quite in traditional order: "Après le Massacre des innocents la fuite en Egypte."
The troubles of our dear Monseigneur remind me of the curious experience of Paul Sabatier, whom we met soon after our arrival in Rome, on one of his periodical visits from Assisi, where he was pursuing his Franciscan studies. He told me that on finishing his classic work on St. Francis, he forwarded the two first published copies which reached him to Cardinal Rampolla, in acknowledgment of the kindness and assistance which he had received while making researches in the Vatican archives. He had begged him if he thought it suitable to offer one of these copies to Leo XIII. Sabatier was not a little surprised and certainly gratified when he received an official letter communicating to him the Apostolic blessing. Unfortunately, a correspondent who saw the letter communicated its substance to the Press. This afforded Luigi Luzzatti an opportunity too good to miss of pointing out in an article that it seemed hardly consistent with the doctrine of infallibility for the Pope to have conferred the Apostolic benediction on a Protestant ; and not long afterwards his book was placed on the Index. The charm of Sabatier's company attracted us once more to Assisi, to which I have been a constant and devout pilgrim. Umbria is the paradise of Italy, and there is hardly a hill town in that delightful province which my wife and I have not explored, following up the work of those lesser masters, who painted for a simple people with a naive and endearing realism which transferred the scene of the Nativity or the Adoration to their own wide valley of the Clitumnus and the pasture grounds of the oxen of Mevania.
It was our devotion to such studies that made our post such a welcome one. My wife was at this time giving half of her day to sculpture and reserving the other half for the social duties which the absence of an ambassadress imposed upon her. To my regret, after we left Rome on my promotion to be a Minister, the obligations of official life compelled her to renounce an art for which she had undoubted talent. My own judgment might be suspected of partiality, but it is confirmed by the fact that the only two works which she submitted were accepted for exhibition at the Academy.
There were then still in Rome a few survivals or descendants of the old cosmopolitan society of art and letters. Old William Story was dead, but his son Waldo still maintained the tradition of plastic art in the studio in Via San Martino. The Americans were indeed more conspicuous in this group than the British. Marion Crawford came up from Sorrento to make studies for the historical volumes which in later years he found more congenial than romance. That curiously attractive pessimistic but kindly social philosopher, Richard Brewster, who elected to write in French, as a more lucid vehicle of expression, entertained a small and select circle of friends in the Palazzo Antici Mattei.
America had indeed asserted itself in many directions in the new Rome. The director of the American school, Benedict Carter, who did so much for its extension and endowment, attracted large audiences to archaeological and historical lectures, in which he substituted a vivid modem incisiveness of exposition for the old academic manner. A number of young and comely American brides were unconsciously demonstrating that the pride which they took in bearing ancestral titles was not inconsistent with a readiness to defy the traditional conventions with which these had hitherto been associated. They imported an entirely new and sometimes rather hectic atmosphere to the ancient city, where they helped, though probably not deliberately, to accelerate the disintegration of the old order. It was one of the less agreeable experiences of the American Ambassador to be occasionally invoked as an arbitrator in their domestic differences, and it was then that George Meyer's imperturbable calm and common-sense stood him in good stead.
I had occasion to observe this quality of his in a rather remarkable experience. He was one of the pioneers of motoring in Central Italy, and was one day driving my wife and myself over a little-frequented road on the farther side of Lake Bracciano. We were slowly descending a steep slope when, as we rounded a corner, we saw at the foot of the hill a number of young horses in charge of three Butteri, the centaurs of the Campagna, armed with their spear-like ox-goads. Though Meyer at once stopped his car the whole cavalcade, sighting an unknown monster, in a moment broke and galloped away to right and left over the unfenced grass land. The three drovers tried to hold in their own frightened horses, but only one succeeded. The other two were carried away with the stampede. The third, who was then barely a hundred yards distant, lowered his spear, applied the spur and tried to charge the car. Meyer kept his head and waited till the rider had covered half the space separating him from us. Then he sounded his horn and the scared animal bolted back. Three times did that indomitable horseman turn him and spur him again to the charge, but each time a blast from the horn at the critical moment was too much for his horse, and he had to give it up and ride after his companions; whereupon we proceeded on our way. It must, I fear, have taken them a long time to round up their scattered troop. Meyer, who was not long afterwards transferred to Russia, was later recalled to fill a high post in the administration in his own country, where as his guest during the Roosevelt Presidency, I renewed a sincere attachment which was only ended by his premature death.
There was also a small and agreeable Russian colony in Rome. Maurice Baring, who came as a welcome addition to our Embassy, was devoting all his spare time to the study of Russian, and it was through him that we made the acquaintance of one of the most entertaining elderly ladies that it has been my good fortune to meet, Princess Ourousow. She had been intimate with literary circles in many countries, and had a keen critical sense and a rich store of anecdote. Her description of her one and only interview with Victor Hugo in his latter days was delightful, even though one might suspect the portrait of being overdrawn. At the time when she paid her visit with a letter of introduction, the old man had long felt himself to be a sort of national institution, and after years of adulation he had accepted himself as an oracle. She found him sitting on a kind of throne, surrounded by a group of' worshippers who waited for the word of wisdom. He motioned her to a seat and after a while, looking into the infinite observed, " Tout ce qui a été sera; tout ce qui sera a été." When an appreciative audience had had time to absorb this platitude he turned to Princess Ourousow and inquired, as he understood her also to be a devotee of letters, on what particular work she was then engaged. She replied that at that time she was occupying herself with German literature. "German literature ! " said Victor Hugo; " but what is there to read in German?" "Surely," she rejoined, "you will at least concede me Goethe ? " The seer reflected; "Le Goethe, oui, oui, il a fait quelque chose qui n'est pas mal, La Mort de Wallenstein." When she broke in with, "Pardon, maître, vous voulez dire Schiller, n'est-ce pas ? " he disposed of her interruption with, "Goethe, Schiller---Schiller, Goethe, c'est la même chose!" Then with a flash of inspiration he continued: " Non, Madame, croyez-moi, il n'y a eu que trois, l'Homère, le Dante et le Shakespeare" ; and, tapping his forehead with a gesture which seemed to imply that all three had combined to produce a fourth, he added, "Je les ai tous ici." The conversation closed with a reaffirmation of the oracular statement, "Tout ce qui a été sera; tout ce qui sera a été,"
A constancy, interrupted only by official infidelities, to my first love, poetry, has always made me happy to have been associated, during my term in charge of the Roman Embassy, with the inception of the scheme for acquiring the house where Keats died, and there inaugurating a Museum and Library dedicated to the memory of the two great English poets, whose graves lie under the Aurelian wall in the cemetery near the gate of San Paolo.
The project was first conceived by Mr. Robert Underwood Johnson, who at that time edited the Century Magazine. He spent a spring in Rome, to which he was eventually to return many years later for a brief period as American Ambassador. He and his fellow-countryman, my old friend, Henry Nelson Gay, whose studies in the Risorgimento had led him to adopt Rome as his residence, suggested to me that we should convene a small meeting of British and Americans who might be in sympathy with such a scheme, to which it appeared the more urgent to give early effect, as the incorporation of the house in an hotel was reported to be contemplated.
It happened that year that our poet-laureate, Mr. Alfred Austin, was residing at Albano, only a few miles from the city, and I naturally at once approached him and invited him to be present. To my amazement he excused himself from coming, and wrote that, in his opinion, a disproportionate amount of attention had been devoted to Keats and Shelley. "For my part," he added, " I must remain with Shakespeare and with Milton," and there under the circumstances I had to leave him. Johnson, Nelson Gay, Miss Agnes Repplier and one or two more represented American letters. Mrs. Edith Wharton was unable to be present, but gave the scheme her blessing. I myself, without other support, undertook to promote the cause in Great Britain. Committees were organized in the two countries to raise the necessary funds. The property had been mortgaged up to its ultimate capacity, and there were a number of parties interested in the settlement. But, thanks largely to the zeal and perseverance of Nelson Gay, all the practical difficulties were in time surmounted. The golden-coloured house at the foot of the stairway leading to the Trinity of the Hills, with a library of seven thousand volumes, and relics deposited there by Arthur Severn, Mrs. Call, and other benefactors, is now securely held by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, and is visited annually by many hundreds of pilgrims.
In the glorious May weather my wife and I, with Maurice Baring and Stephen Leach, made an expedition, which a happy accident rendered memorable, to the ruins of the abandoned medieval stronghold of Ninfa in the Pontine marshes. Since the introduction of the motor-car, Ninfa, which lies some forty miles south of Rome. has become more accessible. In those days the lonely site was known only to a few, and the tradition of pernicious malaria, which had led to its abandonment in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, scared the traveller from the ill-famed marshlands, not then redeemed by an extensive system of drainage canals. The walled town commanded the line of the Appian highway to the south, from the higher edge of the swampy plain which extends to the Tuscan sea from the base of the sheer Volscian mountains, where Norma and the Cyclopean remains of Norba cut the skyline. We had arranged to drive from Velletri, and as a subsidiary railway line from Terracina to Rome passed within easy reach of the ruins we sent the carriage back, proposing to return in the evening by the later of the two daily trains.
The fortress, which has belonged to the Caetani family ever since it was acquired simultaneously with Norma and Sermoneta by Peter, the nephew of Boniface VIII, at the end of the thirteenth century, stands on the edge of a rush-bordered lake fed by springs rising at the foot of the mountains. A little crystal-clear river, the Nymphaeus, which gave Ninfa its name, issues from the lake and bisects the town, running under two broken bridges both within the circuit of the many-towered walls. The irregular streets were in those days choked with brier and thistle. The roofless churches still bore traces of frescoed saints dimly outlined over altars in chapels invaded by wild jasmine and red valerian, and festooned with climbing honeysuckle. Between the lake and the hills masses of broom were golden in full flower, and seaward all the plain was scarlet with a riot of poppies. Landwards the long line of the Volscians ran south, past Sermoneta on the lower slopes to where the marshland was bounded by the heights of Anxur and the bold outline of Circe's hill projecting into the sea. Only the song of mid-May's nightingales broke the silence of beautiful desolation half-veiled in the ivy of centuries.
We spent a long afternoon exploring the ruined churches and courts whose gates were barred by the wild growth of nature. Then reluctantly, as the declining day intensified the purple shadows and gilded the broken towers, we turned our backs on the silent city and started for the little station where we were to join the train from Terracina. But we had not reckoned with a change in the time-table made on the 15th of the month ; and in the distance we saw the train on which we had counted steam in and stop and start again. And so as the sun went down in the Tuscan sea and mists began to draw up from the plain we were left shelterless in the Pontine fen. The only alternatives before us were to scale the steep cliff to Norma, where there was little prospect of securing any accommodation for the night, or to turn northwards and walk nine miles by an ascending stony path to Cori, where we were told by a herdsman of buffalo, sallow and drawn with fever, that we should find a modest inn.
We chose Cori, and set out as the brief twilight began to darken. Among the bushes bordering our rocky road innumerable fire-flies flashed their tiny lamps. The nightingales, silent for a moment after the sun had gone under, burst into song once more, first one and then another and another, till the air, heavy with the perfume of the broom, vibrated with their chorus. Then to crown it all the moon rose full and brilliant, and we no longer needed the distant lights of Cori on its hill to guide us. Not for a moment did we regret the train that had left us in the wilderness. No one spoke. The magic of that spring night was beyond the power of words to express, and after twenty years its unforgotten beauty haunts me still.
That May, the Italian Court received a visit from the reigning Shah of Persia. The visits of Shahs had ceased to be like those of the angels, but they still gave some preoccupation to the hosts. The first European tour of a Persian autocrat which I can remember had occurred some twenty years earlier. Dufferin, who was then our Ambassador in St. Petersburg, told me a pleasing story of an episode at a Court reception there when the Shah, who was escorted into the cercle by the Emperor, cast a wondering eye over an assembly which, in the great days of the Winter Palace, presented one of the most brilliant pageants in Europe. The Grande Maîtresse was a lady no longer young, of massive proportions, with an ample bust and shoulders. The Shah, advancing towards her with an extended forefinger which pointed to the décolletage, turned to his host and smilingly observed: " Vieille, laide. Pourquoi nue ? "
In the potentate, who on this occasion paid a visit to Rome, a naturally nervous temperament had been accentuated by an attempt on his life. The normal railway service was thrown out of gear by his demand that the speed of no train in which he travelled should exceed twenty-five miles an hour. To ensure that his nights should be free from care, he had a guard lying across each doorway into his bedroom, and another at the foot of the bed. The ancient and the medieval city did not arouse any enthusiasm in his strangely impassive temperament. I once crossed the Atlantic with a music-hall artist, who was described in the advertisements as "the man who made the Shah laugh." His success in diverting the melancholy monarch was, it seems, due to his entry on the stage as waiter carrying a high pile of plates, which fell with a crash and broke as he tripped over a carpet. A military parade, organized in the Shah's honour, left him quite unmoved until the moment came for an observation balloon attached to a lorry to make its ascent. He expressed a desire to acquire a similar one, and suggested when the balloon descended that his Minister of Public Works should there and then go up in it to be instructed in its management. The natural pallor of that distinguished official became cerulean, but the Shah insisted on his entering the car. It was, however, tactfully explained that this balloon was intended to carry one passenger only, and that with two it could only rise a few metres. The Minister's nerves were therefore not put to too high a test.
At the dinner party given in his honour at the Quirinal, I had on my right an eminent Chinese dignitary who was visiting Europe on a special mission. His clothes were beautiful, but his expression rather fierce and truculent. I; however, smiled benignantly, and was about to try all the languages with which I am more or less familiar in an opening for conversation when he sternly pronounced a sentence no doubt acquired for such occasions. "No speakie English. No speakie anything." After that, I at any rate knew how we stood, and devoted all my conversational charm to my neighbour on the left.
It had been contemplated that the Shah should pay a visit to the Sovereign Pontiff, and he had proposed to proceed to the Vatican from the Persian Legation. Such a course was, however, not acceptable to the ecclesiastical authorities, who Insisted that he must set out from one of the Missions accredited to the Holy See. To this, however, the Shah demurred, and under the circumstances he decided not to go at all, a decision which gave great satisfaction to certain sections of the Press, which acclaimed him as a monarch of liberal ideas.
In the same month the renewal of the Triple Alliance was announced by Prinetti in the Chamber, and on the 31st the Boers definitely accepted the terms of surrender. This happy consummation was regarded as a matter for congratulation in Italy. In Germany the comments made displayed a prudent reserve, which suggested disappointment. Certainly no other state had so zealously and consistently encouraged the idea of autonomy in the Transvaal.
We had taken for the summer a villa at Vallombrosa, which stood isolated on the edge of the forest a mile or more from the monastery and the hotels. It was still chilly when we arrived in June at an altitude of 3,000 feet. After settling my family there I returned to Rome within a week, and there to my consternation received a telegram announcing that it had been necessary to defer the coronation, and that two days before the date fixed for the ceremony King Edward had had to undergo a very serious operation. The news created a profound impression in Italy, and the Embassy was besieged with callers. Circumstances had, over a number of years, brought me into intimate relations with a Prince who had given me many marks of his confidence before he became my sovereign, and I was deeply concerned at the heavy blow which had fallen on the King, who, surrounded by delegations from all the ends of the earth, had with indomitable pluck continued in full activity up to the last moment. Happily the news reported in a succession of telegrams was favourable, and I returned to our forest abode which it was possible to reach under the most favourable conditions in some five hours by trains corresponding with a funicular mountain railway.
From one of my periodical visits to Rome I was summoned back by telegraph owing to the serious illness of our Italian cook, an old friend who had been with us since our marriage. I took the first available train, but the funicular railway did not run after sunset, and a long uphill drive through the mountains from a station which I only reached at nightfall was inevitable. About 10.30 p.m. on a dark night, at the worst point in the road which skirted a precipice without rail or wall, the horse stumbled and fell obliquely to the road. As I jumped out to go to his head, he tried to rise by himself, and in his struggle went over the edge, dragging carriage and driver after him down a sheer depth, as I imagined, of hundreds of feet. We were far from any human habitation, and I felt a shiver of apprehension. Then a voice from the darkness reassured me. The driver at least was not killed. Nor, indeed, was he hurt. There was a ledge some feet below with trees which had held the carriage jammed. The horse, he told me, was lying there tied up in the harness. It was, however, dangerous to move in the darkness, and Gennaro clung to his tree while I went back along the road to look for assistance. After running for about a mile, I found some houses and roused the sleeping occupants. Eight men with ropes and lanterns' returned with me, and in due course the horse, a good deal cut about the head but not otherwise seriously injured, was extricated from the wreckage. I then went on alone on foot. In a village some miles farther on, I roused a man who had a horse and trap, and was thus enabled to reach our house soon after daybreak.
My unfortunate retainer did not live many days. He had made up his mind to die, and was perfectly tranquil when he had received my assurance that his body should be sent back for burial to his home in the Abruzzi. The process of embalming for transportation, which was carried out in the open air in a neighbouring cypress-sheltered cemetery, and the removal of the coffin from our isolated summer residence to the distant Abruzzi mountains, was no easy matter. But with the assistance of his brothers it was accomplished. The homing instinct of the dying seems to be a general characteristic of simple humanity. He had left in his will a sum of six thousand lire to be devoted to his funeral and monument.
During the summer, which for us passed quietly in the beautiful forest world of Vallombrosa, many things happened.. King Edward had made so good a recovery that the date of his coronation was fixed for the 9th of August. It was not possible to celebrate the occasion in Rome, as no one was left there, and even the Foreign Minister was taking a holiday before accompanying the King of Italy to Berlin. His Majesty had also paid a visit to Russia. Lord Salisbury, whose retirement had been anticipated on the conclusion of the South African War, had resigned, and was succeeded by Mr. Balfour, to the satisfaction of the French Press, which had displayed anxiety lest the reversion should fall to Chamberlain. The great tower of St. Mark's at Venice had subsided and become a huge mass of debris, covering its base in the piazza.
At the beginning of September we went to Viterbo, the city where the Popes of the Middle Ages had so often taken refuge, when factions in Rome were at enmity with the ecclesiastical power, in order to see the annual Festa, the Macchina of Santa Rosa. The saint has my devout gratitude for having inspired so picturesque a celebration. But as according to the story she began to be precociously devout at about the age of six, and even in those early days was persistent in putting every one else right, she must have been a little trying in her own family. Every year, as her day in the calendar approaches, an ornate baroque lath and plaster tower of great height and elaborate design is constructed in an open space beside the Roman Gate, to which the street ascends at a steep gradient. Seventy-two Viterbans are selected from among the worthiest citizens to carry this lofty erection on their shoulders after nightfall down the hill from the Roman Gate to the central piazza and then uphill on the farther side to the church of the saint. They are divided into two groups of thirty-six according to their stature. On the downhill road the tall men are in front. In the piazza the tower is deposited on trestles, and for the uphill portage the order is reversed, the taller men going to the rear. It is steadied by guy-ropes held by other members of the company , and its windows are brilliant with innumerable candles. In the top story sits a man in charge. The municipal band plays at the head of the procession. The illuminated tower overtops the houses and irradiates the picturesque town. In front of the church the bearers spin round with the Macchina on their shoulders, and the Viterbans feel reassured that all will be well with them in the coming year. Summer in Italy. is rich in such local celebrations. The Palio at Siena, the Ceri at Gubbio, and a number of lesser festivals date back far into the past, and some of them, such as the Ceri and the Santissima Trinita in the Sabines, are possibly survivals of prehistoric times. Viterbo, lying under the Ciminian hills, with its interesting churches, Cosmatesque monuments, and its unique twelfth-century houses, is one of the most characteristic towns in central Italy. Motor-cars have now rendered it very accessible.
In October Kitchener paid me a brief visit. He was in his element exploring the Forum and Palatine with Boni, and he thoroughly enjoyed himself. I was rather surprised to hear him express the opinion that though the Boers had shown themselves to be good fighters, they had been badly led. Their generals, he explained, did not work together. Had de Wet when he entered Cape Colony been supported by other simultaneous movements, things might have been made very difficult for us. Boer farmers who were called out for a three weeks' raid obeyed the summons without hesitation, but they could not be induced to remain out for a day beyond the prescribed date, and took their departure as soon as their time was up. For Milner he had a high regard and a great personal admiration. He did not nevertheless consider that his presence at the Cape would promote reconciliation, because, quite unjustly, the Boers could not "get it out of their wooden heads" that he had brought on the war. As for the War Office, over which he could hardly then have foreseen he would one day be called to preside, he observed that only by digging up its foundations and beginning again from the bottom could that fossil institution ever be improved.
We had at this time a serious reverse in Somaliland, where the Mad Mullah was becoming formidable. Perhaps we had placed too much confidence in native levies. The Somali is a first-rate shikari, but my African education under Lloyd Mathews had been never to trust him in war or business. It was necessary now to take drastic measures. The enormous sum spent in that Somali war was quite disproportionate to the real value of a very barren land. Had the advice which Wingate and I had pressed in 1897 been adopted, and an inexpensive light railway been constructed into the interior, we might have been spared this great expenditure. The Italians were naturally anxious that the Mullah. should not be driven into the hinterland of their Benadir Colony, towards the Webbe Shebeli. After a little conference at Rome, which was attended on behalf of the Foreign Office by Eyre Crowe, we succeeded in obtaining authority to land a British force at Obbia, in the Italian Protectorate.
Prinetti, who had been very helpful, now suggested that Italy should be associated with ourselves and with Germany in coercive action against Venezuela, where Italian claims had met with as little regard as our own. The proposal was favourably received, but the idea of united action with Germany was very unpopular at home. John Bull is slow to anger and little disposed to suspect the motives of others. But a long series of ungracious actions on the part of the German Government and finally their attitude during the South African War had aroused a resentment which had not been mollified by certain recent manifestations of goodwill on the part of the. Emperor. Statesmen were perhaps justified in hoping that an occasion for terminating the growing spirit of animosity might be found in a common interest. But the average man was more concerned not to compromise our relations with the United States.
Owing to Lord Currie's illness I had to forgo my leave. When at the end of the year he resigned, the King of Italy took an opportunity to say to me that he hoped I might be left at his Embassy. The significance of his friendly words was explained when Prinetti told me that he had instructed the Italian Ambassador in London to express the wish that I might be appointed to succeed Lord Currie. Gratifying as was this evidence of goodwill, I knew that such a proposition was out of the question, and being myself quite innocent in the matter, I could only trust that I should not be regarded as a desperate intriguer.
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