‘We are really truly coming to Rome!!!!!!….I don’t believe it. It is a dream! I shall never believe it, and shall have to keep pinching myself!’
So wrote Elizabeth Gaskell to her friend Mrs Story in February 1857. Elizabeth did indeed travel to Rome, spending several weeks there visiting many of the most well-known sights. She was famously shown round by art critic Charles Eliot Norton, who became a lifelong friend to the family.
Elizabeth returned to Rome in 1863, though it was this first trip which made the strongest impression on her. See (Elizabeth Gaskell’s Continental Travels, Part 3 Italy – elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk )
2023 – the present Day
A party of 26 Gaskell-ites including volunteers from Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, has just returned from a week in Rome, where we followed in Elizabeth Gaskell’s footsteps, visiting places we know she saw, as well as others. Two of our volunteers, Jane and Diana, have each picked out a highlight from their visit…..
The Basilica of San Clemente
Within an hour of arriving at our hotel, very close to the Colosseum, we set off to look at a church on our doorstep. The Basilica of San Clemente is one of the most historic and fascinating churches one could hope to visit. It was a magical introduction to the history, art and religious culture that awaited us throughout the trip.
The first feature to be pointed out to us was this plaque bearing the badge of Rome SPQR (standing for Senatus Populusque Romanus- the Senate and People of Rome) and coincidentally the date 1857- the year of Elizabeth Gaskell’s first visit.
The date in this instance remembers the year in which archaeological excavations were begun, to uncover
the layers below the 12th Century Church, dedicated to the 4th Pope, who may have known St Peter.
Elizabeth Gaskell could only have seen this upper church, which is itself very beautiful. The golden apse is decorated with animals, birds, flowers, early Christian symbols as well as scenes of everyday life. We also noticed the particularly beautiful marble floors.
In her desire to learn more about the origins of Christianity, Elizabeth would have been as fascinated as we were to learn that the Basilica was built above a house, part of which had briefly served as a very early church. The fourth century church was used until 1084 and there are still some very early frescoes visible.
Descending to a 3rd level there is also evidence of pagan worship at the site. In the second century, members of a Mithraist cult built a small temple dedicated to Mithras. This temple lasted until around the end of the third century.
For more information and images of this wonder of history and art see the Basilica’s own website Home – English – Basilica of San Clemente (basilicasanclemente.com)
Although this was the first site the group visited, it remained for Jane one of the highlights of the trip.
The highlight, for Diana, was the eagerly-anticipated visit to the Galleria Borghese set in the beautiful Villa Borghese Park. Elizabeth Gaskell, along with her family, and friend Catherine Winkworth, visited the Galleria Borghese during that significant holiday in 1857, and according to Catherine, the Galleria is;
‘the best in Rome. It has a great many beautiful pictures, and one exquisite entombment by Rafaelle’ [sic].
Its collection of Classical, Renaissance and Neoclassical works was originally amassed by Pope Paul V, who then passed 107 paintings, which had been confiscated from the painter Giuseppe Cesari, on to his nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633).
He was a renowned art-lover of the early Baroque. His patronage of the young sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and the artist Caravaggio meant that he added even more incredible works of art to an already stupendous collection.
Our group had a very informative and enthusiastic guide who initially focused on the collection of early sculptures by Bernini. We were fascinated by one in particular begun when the sculptor was only 24 and completed two years later: Apollo and Daphne, a dramatic depiction of a scene in pure white marble where the Greek god is pursuing Daphne. She prays to the gods to have pity on her plight, and they begin to transform her into a laurel…beautiful yet terrifying!
We were also captivated by paintings by Raphael, or to give his full name Rafaello Sanzio da Urbino – one, the Deposition of Christ, probably the Galleria’s most famous painting, in 1608 had been secretly removed from the Baglioni Chapel in Perugia and transported to its present place in the Galleria Borghese.
In complete contrast Rafaello’s Young Woman with Unicorn (Dama con Liocorno) – almost certainly inspired by The Mona Lisa, demonstrates the virtuosity and scope of the artist who with Michelangelo and da Vinci make up the trinity of great masters of that period.
Our trip to Rome and all the places we visited, including the Galleria Borghese, is certainly one which will stay in my memory. Elizabeth’s happy sojourn in Rome was one that she never forgot. In 1860, three years after her holiday she writes to her friends, Emelyn and William Wetmore Story: ‘I think Rome grows almost more vivid in recollection as the time recedes’.
For more information: homepage – Galleria Borghese (beniculturali.it)
Jane Mathieson and Diana Ashcroft, Volunteers at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House