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The Giorno Dei Morti by T. A. T.


We all know that the second of November is All Souls' Day, and that it is the day dedicated in the Roman calendar to the commemoration of all those who have departed "in the faith." And few who have traveled on the continent of Europe are not aware that the day is observed in all Southern countries with a degree of devotion which the greater part of the communities in question are not in the habit of according to any other of the ordinances of the Church. But to observe the manifestation of this devotion in its most striking forms, to seize all the more picturesque developments and presentations of it, the "Giorno dei Morti" must be passed at Rome.

It is a curious fact—one of the many of a similar order which illustrate the moral specialties of the Latin populations—that hundreds of thousands of people of both sexes, who neither believe, nor affect to believe, the doctrines of the orthodox Church, and who are in the habit of utterly disregarding all her prescriptions and teaching, should nevertheless, as often as this sad anniversary comes round, behave as if they were to all intents and purposes good Catholics. It will be said, perhaps, that the feelings to which the special character of the commemoration appeals are so common to all human hearts that the manifestation of them on any customary occasion is in no degree to be wondered at. But I do not think that this will suffice to explain the phenomenon—at least as it may be witnessed here in Italy. Other church ordinances might be pointed out of which the same thing might be said, but which are not similarly observed. The real cause of the phenomenon I take to be that this population is—as it was of old, and as it always has been through all outward changes—pagan. I put it crudely for the sake of putting it shortly, for this is not the place to trouble the readers of a few paragraphs of "Gossip" with a dissertation in support of the assertion. The innate paganism of these people, born of the beauty of the climate and of all external Nature, and of the sensuous proclivity to live and breathe and have their being in the present and the visible which results therefrom, first forcibly shaped their early Christianity into moulds which assimilated it to pagan observances and modes of thought, and still remains ready to resume more and more of its old empire as the authority of Church beliefs waxes feeble. The very striking and singular scene which was to be witnessed in the great Roman cemetery outside the Porta di San Lorenzo on the second day of November was to all intents and purposes pagan in its spirit and meaning. And it is curious to observe in this, as in so many other instances, how the use of words supplies illustrations of national peculiarities and specialties of character. The Church has dedicated the day in question to the commemoration "omnium animarum"—of all souls. And we others, people of a Teutonic race, have taken and used the phrase in its proper Christian sense: we talk of "All Souls' Day." But with the peoples of the Latin stock all thought or question of "souls" is very speedily lost sight of. With them the day is simply the "Giorno dei Morti"—the day of the dead. And their observance of it is to all intents and purposes what it might have been two thousand years ago.

The very ancient church of San Lorenzo, one of the four extramural basilicas, is situated some ten minutes' walk outside the gate of the same name on the road to Tivoli; and around and behind this church is the vast cemetery to which all the Roman dead are carried. It was first used as an extramural cemetery at the time of the first French occupation, but has been very greatly extended since that time. Clergy, nobles and monks were at first, and as long as Papal rule lasted, exempted from the decree which forbade interment within the city. Now all must be taken to San Lorenzo, and the greatly increased population of the city has already very thickly filled an immense area. The first thing that strikes the visitor to this huge necropolis is the very marked division between the poor and the rich quarters of this city of the dead. The fashionable districts are quite as unmistakably divided and separated from those occupied by "the lower classes" as they are in any city of the living; as is perhaps but right and natural in the case of a population among which it is held that the condition and prospects of the dead may be very materially influenced by a quantum sufficit of masses said for them, and where these can be purchased in any quantity for cash. A very large parallelogram, for the most part surrounded by cloisters, is first entered from the gates which open on the road. But this has been but little used as yet. Beyond it, to the right, is the vast space occupied by the graves of the multitude. Let the reader picture to himself a huge flat space extending as far as the eye can see, thickly planted with little black wooden crosses, with inscriptions on them in white letters. The sameness of all these fragile memorials produces a strange and depressing effect. The undistinguished thousands of them make all the space seem black spotted with white. They are ugly; and the poverty of these bits of painted stick, incapable of resisting the effects of the weather, seems sordid in the extreme. In the graves of this part of the cemetery all are in truth equal. To the left of the vast cloister-surrounded square which has been mentioned the scene is a very different one. There, immediately behind the eastern end of the basilica, the soil rises in a very steep bank to a height greater than that of the church. To the space on the top of this bank a handsome and garden-decorated flight of step leads; and there the "Upper Ten" take their dignified rest, and their dust is perfectly safe from all danger of being mingled with that of less distinguished mortality. This higher ground is called the Pincetto—as who should say the "Little Pincian"—a name adapted from that of the celebrated promenade of the gay and fortunate in life, with a suggestion of meaning so satirical that it might seem to have been given to the "fashionable" quarter of the dead city by the united sneers of all the ghosts who haunt the undistinguished graves below. In this aristocratic quarter there is of course no monotonous uniformity. The monuments, some of freestone and some of marble, are of every conceivable form and degree of splendor, and death is made to look pretty and coquettish by the introduction of numerous weeping willows and other such botanical helps to sentiment. The great majority of the inscriptions are in Latin, for Pius IX., so long as his power lasted, absolutely forbade the use of any other language; which was a measure of very questionable judiciousness, seeing that a large crop of Latinity by no means creditable to Italian scholarship has been the result. It would have been better to stick to good Della-Cruscan Italian, or to have employed some English school-usher to come here as resident reviser of Roman Latinity. Inelegant and even ungrammatical inscriptions, however, do not interfere with the general picturesqueness of the spot, or with its singular adaptation to show to advantage the remarkable scene enacted there on the last "Giorno dei Morti."

The cemetery had been visited by great numbers of persons, bringing chaplets and flowers, during the day, both in the aristocratic and the plebeian quarters, but it was at night that the crowd was greatest and the scene most striking. The night, as it so chanced, was a dark one, which did not make the scene by any means less strange and weird-looking. The greater number of visitors, especially in the poor quarter of the dead city, were women. Such is always the case, whether it be that the female mind is more generally accessible to gentle thoughts of and yearnings over their lost ones, or whether the explanation be simply that, as is especially the case here, women, having less to occupy their leisure either in the way of business or amusement, are more eager to seek any emotion or occasion which may serve to break the flat monotony of their lives.

Certainly the scene in the cemetery on the evening of the "Day of the Dead" was one calculated to make an impression not to be readily forgotten by any mere looker-on who witnessed it. Nor was that presented by the road from the gate to the cemetery less remarkable in its way. It is an ugly, disagreeable bit of road, between high walls, deep with mud in wet, and with dust in dry weather, as was the case on the present occasion, and without the smallest vestige of a pathway for foot-passengers; so that the motley crowd, with their lights and chaplets and flowers, had to make their way amid a cloud of dust and among the carriages of those bound for the "Pincetto" as best they might. But it was the general apparent mood and temper of mind in which these pilgrims, bound on so sad an errand, seemed to be performing their self-imposed task that was especially noteworthy. It might be supposed that a certain degree of reverential self-concentration, or at least of quietude, would have been the characteristic of a crowd bound on such an errand. There was not the smallest symptom of anything of the sort. It is true that many visit the cemetery on the evening in question who have not recently lost any relative or friend, going thither merely as performing an act of devotion or of amusement, or, as is usually the case with all devotion in this country, of both combined. But the greater number of the pilgrims is composed of those who have buried their dead within the preceding year. Yet, as I have said, there was observable in the bearing of the crowd not only no reverential feeling, but not even that amount of quietude which the most careless body of people of our race would have deemed it but decent to assume on such an occasion. Laughter might have been heard, though not perhaps very much. But the noise was astonishing—noise of incessant chatter in tones which bespoke anything but the tone of mind which might have been expected. The truth is, that he who expects to find in the people of this race the sentiment of awe or reverence under any circumstances whatever does not know them. It is not in them. The capacityfor it is not in them. It is not a question of more or less education, or of this or that condition of life. The higher and the lower classes, the clergy and the laity, are equally destitute of the capacity for feeling or comprehending the sentiment which makes so large a part of the lives of the people of a different race. To me the observation, far from being suggested by what met my eye on the occasion in question, is the outcome of more than a quarter of a century's experience of Italian ways and thoughts. But the exhibition of the peculiarity on that occasion was very striking. Doubtless there was many a mother among that throng whose heart had been wrung, whose very soul had been struck chill within her, by the loss of the child on whose grave she was about to place the humble tribute of common flowers which she carried in her hand. No doubt many a truly-sorrowing husband and yet more deeply-stricken wife were on the way to visit the sod beneath which their hopes of happiness had been buried with their lost ones. But whatever might have been in their hearts was not manifested by any token of reverential feeling. There were tears, there were even sobs occasionally to be heard, but there was neither reverence nor what we should deem decency of behavior.

Within the cemetery "distance lent enchantment to the view." As seen from the cloister which surrounds the great square, as has been mentioned, the outlook over the "poor quarter" of the vast burial-ground was very striking. Amid the wilderness of black crosses, which extends farther than eye could see, numerous figures were flitting hither and thither, many of them with lights in their hands. In the farther distance, where the figures were invisible, the lights could still be seen mysteriously, as it seemed, moving over the closely-ranged graves like corpse-candles, as the old superstition termed the phosphoric lights which may in certain states of the atmosphere be seen in crowded graveyards. In the foreground, where the figures could be distinguished, many were seen on their knees in the damp and malarious evening air at the graves of their lost relatives. But not even in the bearing these could anything of real earnestness be traced. They were performing a routine duty, of which no doubt their own consciences and their friends and neighbors would have disapproved the omission; and that was all. Nevertheless, the picturesqueness of the general effect was perfect, and it appealed to the imagination of a looker-on in a manner which to many minds, more intent on sensational emotions than on discrimination of social characteristics, would have caused the above remarks to appear sadly ill-timed and out of place.

The scene which was meantime being enacted on the Pincetto, where the wholly separated resting-places of the "Upper Ten" protest so successfully against the leveling notion that in death all are equal, I might have suggested many a mordant epigram to the cynically-minded visitor. I fear that there is often something provocative of cynicism in sundry of the aspects of fashionable devotion, but on such an occasion as the present it could hardly be otherwise. Rachels in Parisian bonnets and sweeping silk skirts, muttering over their rosaries for their children on splendid cushions borne in due state by attendant plush-clothed ministers, were contrasted in these realms of the universal Leveler somewhat too strongly with the scene one had just left in the (physically and socially) lower regions of the cemetery. Of course hearts that beat beneath silken bodices may be wrung as bitterly as those that serge covers. I am speaking only of those outward manifestations which contributed to complete the strangeness of the general spectacle which I had come out to see. The better tending of the aristocratic portion of the cemetery, and the greater space between the graves and their monuments, made it of course easier and less disagreeable to pass among them and to note the bearing of individual mourners. If the former scene had presented much that was indecorously formal, here all was decorously formal. The routine, cut-and-dry nature of the duty being performed exercised in either case its property of numbing natural feeling, or at least the appearance of it.

On the whole, the experience offered by a visit to the great Roman cemetery on the evening of the "Giorno dei Morti" is a singular and curious one, as will be admitted, I think, by any one who may be tempted by my example to go and see it.