Authors: Wilkie Collins
He stopped; for by this time he had lashed himself into fury. His eyes glared, his cheeks flushed, his voice rose. Could he then have seen the faintest vision of the destiny that future ages had in store for the posterity of the race that now suffered throughout civilised Europe, like him — could he have imagined how, in after years, the ‘middle class’, despised in his day, was to rise to privilege and power; to hold in its just hands the balance of the prosperity of nations; to crush oppression and regulate rule; to soar in its mighty flight above thrones and principalities, and rank and riches, apparently obedient, but really commanding; — could he but have foreboded this, what a light must have burst upon his gloom, what a hope must have soothed him in his despair!
To what further extremities his anger might have carried him, to what proceedings the indignant Gordian, who still listened from his concealment, might have had recourse, it is difficult to say; for the complaints of the ill-fated landholder and the cogitations of the authoritative bailiff were alike suddenly suspended by an uproar raging at this moment round a carriage which had just emerged from the palace we have elsewhere described.
This vehicle looked one mass of silver. Embroidered silk curtains fluttered all around it, gold ornaments studded its polished sides, and it held no less a person than the nobleman who had feasted the people with baskets of meat. This fact had become known to the rabble before the palace gates. Such an opportunity of showing their exultation in their bondage, their real servility in their imaginary independence, was not to be lost; and accordingly they let loose such a torrent of clamorous gratitude on their entertainer’s appearance, that a stranger in Rome would have thought the city in revolt. They leapt, they ran, they danced round the prancing horses, they flung their empty baskets into the air, and patted approvingly their ‘fair round bellies’. From every side, as the carriage moved on, they gained fresh recruits and acquired new importance. The timid fled before them, the noisy shouted with them, the bold plunged into their ranks; and the constant burden of their rejoicing chorus was — ’Health to the noble Pomponius! Prosperity to the senators of Rome, who feast us with their food and give us the freedom of their theatres! Glory to Pomponius! Glory to the senators!’
Fate seemed on this day to take pleasure in pampering the insatiable curiosity of Gordian, the bailiff. The cries of the multitude had scarcely died away in the distance, as they followed the departing carriage, when the voices of two men, pitched to a low, confidential tone, reached his ear from the opposite side of the pillar. He peeped cautiously round, and saw that they were priests.
‘What an eternal jester is that Pomponius!’ said one voice. ‘He is going to receive absolution, and he journeys in his chariot of state, as if he were preparing to celebrate his triumph, instead of to confess his sins!’
‘Has he committed, then, a fresh imprudence?’
‘Alas, yes! For a senator he is dreadfully wanting in caution! A few days since, in a fit of passion, he flung a drinking-cup at one of his female slaves. The girl died on the spot, and her brother, who is also in his service, threatened immediate vengeance. To prevent disagreeable consequences to his body, Pomponius has sent the fellow to his estates in Egypt; and now, from the same precaution for the welfare of his soul, he goes to demand absolution from our holy and beneficent Church.’
‘I am afraid these incessant absolutions, granted to men who are too careless even to make a show of repentance for their crimes, will prejudice us with the people at large.’
‘Of what consequence are the sentiments of the people while we have their rulers on our side! Absolution is the sorcery that binds these libertines of Rome to our will. We know what converted Constantine — politic flattery and ready absolution; the people will tell you it was the sign of the Cross.’
‘It is true this Pomponius is rich, and may increase our revenues, but still I fear the indignation of the people.’
‘Fear nothing: think how long their old institutions imposed on them, and then doubt, if you can, that we may shape them to our wishes as we will. Any deceptions will be successful with a mob, if the instrument employed to forward them be a religion.’
The voices ceased. Gordian, who still cherished a vague intention of denouncing the fugitive landholder to the senatorial authorities, employed the liberty afforded to his attention by the silence of the priests in turning to look after his intended victim. To his surprise he saw that the man had left the auditors to whom he had before addressed himself, and was engaged in earnest conversation in another part of the portico, with an individual who seemed to have recently joined him, and whose appearance was so remarkable that the bailiff had moved a few steps forwards to gain a nearer view of him, when he was once more arrested by the voices of the priests.
Irresolute for an instant to which party to devote his unscrupulous attention, he returned mechanically to his old position. Ere long, however, his anxiety to hear the mysterious communications proceeding between the landholder and his friend overbalanced his delight in penetrating the theological secrets of the priests. He turned once more, but to his astonishment the objects of his curiosity had disappeared. He stepped to the outside of the portico and looked for them in every direction, but they were nowhere to be seen. Peevish and disappointed, he returned as a last resource to the pillar where he had left the priests, but the time consumed in his investigations after one party had been fatal to his reunion with the other. The churchmen were gone.
Sufficiently punished for his curiosity by his disappointment, the bailiff walked doggedly off towards the Pincian Hill. Had he turned in the contrary direction, towards the Basilica of St. Peter, he would have found himself once more in the neighbourhood of the landholder and his remarkable friend, and would have gained that acquaintance with the subjects of their conversation, which we intend that the reader shall acquire in the course of the next chapter.
In the year 324, on the locality assigned by rumour to the martyrdom of St. Peter, and over the ruins of the Circus of Nero, Constantine erected the church called the Basilica of St. Peter.
For twelve centuries, this building, raised by a man infamous for his murders and his tyrannies, stood uninjured amid the shocks which during that long period devastated the rest of the city. After that time it was removed, tottering to its base from its own reverend and illustrious age, by Pope Julius II, to make way for the foundations of the modern church.
It is towards this structure of twelve hundred years’ duration, erected by hands stained with blood, and yet preserved as a star of peace in the midst of stormy centuries of war, that we would direct the reader’s attention. What art has done for the modern church, time has effected for the ancient. If the one is majestic to the eye by its grandeur, the other is hallowed to the memory by its age.
As this church by its rise commemorated the triumphant establishment of Christianity as the religion of Rome, so in its progress it reflected every change wrought in the spirit of the new worship by the ambition, the prodigality, or the frivolity of the priests. At first it stood awful and imposing, beautiful in all its parts as the religion for whose glory it was built. Vast porphyry colonnades decorated its approaches, and surrounded a fountain whose waters issued from the representation of a gigantic pine-tree in bronze. Its double rows of aisles were each supported by forty-eight columns of precious marble. Its flat ceiling was adorned with beams of gilt metal, rescued from the pollution of heathen temples. Its walls were decorated with large paintings of religious subjects, and its tribunal was studded with elegant mosaics. Thus it rose, simple and yet sublime, awful and yet alluring; in this its beginning, a type of the dawn of the worship which it was elevated to represent. But when, flushed with success, the priests seized on Christianity as their path to politics and their introduction to power, the aspect of the church gradually began to change. As, slowly and insensibly, ambitious man heaped the garbage of his mysteries, his doctrines, and his disputes, about the pristine purity of the structure given him by God, so, one by one, gaudy adornments and meretricious alterations arose to sully the once majestic basilica, until the threatening and reproving apparition of the pagan Julian, when both Church and churchmen received in their corrupt progress a sudden and impressive check.
The short period of the revival of idolatry once passed over, the priests, unmoved by the warning they had received, returned with renewed vigour to confuse that which both in their Gospel and their Church had been once simple. Day by day they put forth fresh treatises, aroused fierce controversies, subsided into new sects; and day by day they altered more and more the once noble aspect of the ancient basilica. They hung their nauseous relics on its mighty walls, they stuck their tiny tapers about its glorious pillars, they wreathed their tawdry fringes around its massive altars. Here they polished, there they embroidered. Wherever there was a window, they curtained it with gaudy cloths; wherever there was a statue, they bedizened it with artificial flowers; wherever there was a solemn recess, they outraged its religious gloom with intruding light; until (arriving at the period we write of) they succeeded so completely in changing the aspect of the building, that it looked, within, more like a vast pagan toyshop than a Christian church. Here and there, it is true, a pillar or an altar rose unencumbered as of old, appearing as much at variance with the frippery that surrounded it as a text of Scripture quoted in a sermon of the time. But as regarded the general aspect of the basilica, the decent glories of its earlier days seemed irrevocably departed and destroyed.
After what has been said of the edifice, the reader will have little difficulty in imagining that the square in which it stood lost whatever elevation of character it might once have possessed, with even greater rapidity than the church itself. If the cathedral now looked like an immense toyshop, assuredly its attendant colonnades had the appearance of the booths of an enormous fair.
The day, whose decline we have hinted at in the preceding chapter, was fast verging towards its close, as the inhabitants of the streets on the western bank of the Tiber prepared to join the crowds that they beheld passing by their windows in the direction of the Basilica of St. Peter. The cause of this sudden confluence of the popular current in once common direction was made sufficiently apparent to all inquirers who happened to be near a church or a public building, by the appearance in such situations of a large sheet of vellum elabourately illuminated, raised on a high pole, and guarded from contact with the inquisitive rabble by two armed soldiers. The announcements set forth in these strange placards were all of the same nature and directed to the same end. In each of them the Bishop of Rome informed his ‘pious and honourable brethren’, the inhabitants of the city, that, as the next days was the anniversary of the Martyrdom of St. Luke, the vigil would necessarily be held on that evening in the Basilica of St. Peter; and that, in consideration of the importance of the occasion, there would be exhibited, before the commencement of the ceremony, those precious relics connected with the death of the saint, which had become the inestimable inheritance of the Church; and which consisted of a branch of the olive-tree to which St. Luke was hung, a piece of the noose — including the knot — which had been passed round his neck, and a picture of the Apotheosis of the Virgin painted by his own hand. After some sentences expressive of lamentation for the sufferings of the saint, which nobody read, and which it is unnecessary to reproduce here, the proclamation went on to state that a sermon would be preached in the course of the vigil, and that at a later hour the great chandelier, containing two thousand four hundred lamps, would be lit to illuminate the church. Finally, the worthy bishop called upon all members of his flock, in consideration of the solemnity of the day, to abstain from sensual pleasures, in order that they might the more piously and worthily contemplate the sacred objects submitted to their view, and digest the spiritual nourishment to be offered to their understandings.
From the specimen we have already given of the character of the populace of Rome, it will perhaps be unnecessary to say that the great attractions presented by this theological bill of fare were the relics and the chandelier. Pulpit eloquence and vigil solemnities alone must have long exhibited their more sober allurements, before they could have drawn into the streets a fiftieth part of the immense crowd that now hurried towards the desecrated basilica. Indeed, so vast was the assemblage soon congregated, that the advanced ranks of sightseers had already filled the church to overflowing, before those in the rear had come within view of the colonnades.
However dissatisfied the unsuccessful portion of the citizens might feel at their exclusion from the church, they found a powerful counter-attraction in the amusements going forward in the Place, the occupants of which seemed thoroughly regardless of the bishop’s admonitions upon the sobriety of behaviour due to the solemnity of the day. As if in utter defiance of the decency and order recommended by the clergy, popular exhibitions of all sorts were set up on the broad flagstones of the great space before the church. Street dancing-girls exercised at every available spot those ‘gliding gyrations’ so eloquently condemned by the worthy Ammianus Marcellinus of orderly and historical memory. Booths crammed with relics of doubtful authenticity, baskets filled with neat manuscript abstracts of furiously controversial pamphlets, pagan images regenerated into portraits of saints, pictorial representations of Arians writhing in damnation, and martyrs basking in haloes of celestial light, tempted, in every direction, the more pious among the spectators. Cooks perambulated with their shops on their backs; rival slave-merchants shouted petitions for patronage; wine-sellers taught Bacchanalian philosophy from the tops of their casks; poets recited compositions for sale; sophisters held arguments destined to convert the wavering and perplex the ignorant.