Journals 10.3 – Loiterings in Europe by John Corson (Part 3)

This is the third part of my article on Corson’s journal.  For the previous parts please see the entries posted on 4th and 11th January 2016.


The interior of the Colosseum, as painted by Thomas Cole in 1832, just 14 years before Corson’s journal.

Crossing back over to Europe, Corson visited the unfinished Cologne Cathedral. Work had halted in 1473, but had recently resumed in 1842, just four years before Corson visited. A crane stood on the top of the unfinished south tower, where it had been for nearly four hundred years at this point. The cathedral was finally completed in 1880.

Cologne, as travelers for the last twenty years have told us, abounds with Roman remains. Its very name is one of these in a modified form, and was given it by Agrippina, mother of Nero, who was partial to it as her birthplace, and sent here a colony of Roman veterans. But all the inscriptions, altars, and old walls are eclipsed in interest by its unfinished cathedral, one of the finest Gothic specimens in Europe. So, as in duty bound, I made this the first thing in the order of a day of sight-seeing. The object that most prominently arrests your attention on your approach is a large crane for raising stones, that for centuries has been left standing on the highest unfinished tower. Having been once taken down, a terrible thunder-storm drove the superstitious citizens immediately to replace it in its former respectable position.

Travelling to Switzerland, Corson made some friends and decided to undertake an excursion ‘up the wild gorge’ of the river Reuss in the Alps. Their route was along the Susten pass, which was converted to a road in the 1940, but was a very different prospect in the 19th Century.

It was a dismal day. The chalets grew smaller and more thinly scattered. It seemed a wonder how the famished peasantry had food for subsistence; for the most extensive terraced patch of potatoes, the only article cultivated, did not appear much larger than the area of a cottage. Finally, cattle and pasturage disappeared, and we saw nothing but a few goats browsing among the cliffs. We had passed the last habitation: the mists grew more dense, and the freezing rain poured in torrents. We had ventured without a guide. A kid that had so far strayed that no efforts could drive it back, and which, like ourselves, seemed lonely, was the only living thing in sight. The cold increased, and mosses and arctic plants began to appear. Were those dimly-seen masses close at hand but thicker fogs? They were glaciers. Night came on sooner than we had dreamed. Hungry, wet and shivering, we began gloomily to contemplate the contingency of sleeping among snows. At length the steep, zig-zag path seemed for a moment easier; but it was getting dark, and we could scarcely see any thing. We soon thought, however, by the sound of the mountain torrents that they ran the other way. The summit was gained. After groping our way in the dark with our alpenstocks for a time in descending, we gladly welcomed the sight of a human dwelling, and rested at the first mountain chalet. A plentiful supply of warm goats’ milk, devoured with a voracious appetite, and a night’s rest, soon made us forget our troubles.

Corson had the opportunity to observe and describe some of the local Swiss people at a fair. They had ‘smiling and ruddy faces’ and ‘the constant habit of climbing precipices seemed to have given the shoulders a peculiar set, or stoop forward.’ He thought the Alpine ‘peasant women’ looked ‘unnaturally masculine’, due to the ‘extraordinary muscular exertion required in balancing the immense loads they so often carry upon their heads’. At Berne he met a ‘wandering journeyman’, who had travelled around Europe and had a sad tale to tell.

He had wandered over a large part of the Continent, and obtained the knowledge of several languages. Some of his adventures in Italy and Spain had been really quite romantic. His last place of steady employment had been Rome, and after being on foot for more than a month, he had passed the Alps by the Simplon, and reached his own country again. He turned into two or three villages, and came out every time with a sadder face. Occasionally he grew absent, and sighed heavily, as if laboring under a weight of secret grief I could not feel happy in leaving him without delicately prying into the cause. At last he confessed that all his late applications for work had been vain, that he was penniless, and that he had traveled since the day before without food, in hopes of reaching that day the place of his birth, which ten years previously he had left as a friendless orphan. He would like, he said, to see it once more before he died. With a kind of shudder he at length spoke of temptations to commit suicide. “Who will weep for me?” said he. “If I had but one friend” — and he seemed choked with emotion. The only thought that seemed for a moment to console him was of Him who feeds the “young ravens when they cry.” Never shall I forget the mingling of enthusiasm and sorrow that gushed forth as we ascended an eminence commanding a distant view of the spot which, in the absence of the sympathy or love of the living, seemed the dearest object of his affections. It was the simple poetry of nature. I could not but feel thankful for so instructive a lesson. How little ought those to murmur who in mercy never endure the deeper sufferings of humanity!

Continuing on his very circuitous route, Corson travelled back into France and then headed south for Italy, still a collection of independent states until the unification of 1866. So Corson was travelling through a region that would not see unification for another twenty years, and his destination was Rome, part of the Papal State, which was the last part of Italy to be unified when it was annexed in 1871. There is a sense, when reading this section of his journey, that Corson was now travelling through a part of the world that was a little less safe than he was used to.

On stopping to change horses, our senior postillion and all the ragged juniors, with hat in hand, came supplicating a fee. We were as yet uninitiated, and puzzled to know, in small points, our just duties to the public in a strange country. Poor fellows, they really looked as if they needed it, and the majority were generous. A wealthy lady in her private carriage behind us, however, seemed resolved to resist what she seemed sincerely to believe was some dishonest charge; and the postillion, with violent gestures, was enforcing his demand. The words grew high and loud, when an English gentleman by my side, who was fluent in Italian, and rather given to waggery, managed, most amusingly, to protract the debate and perplex them both, and in the end gallantly sided with the lady.

Corson’s first sight of Rome was by moonlight. As is often the case in these old travel journals, there is something magical about an ancient city by the light of the moon (see also Bayard Taylor’s moonlit exploration of Karnak in A Journey to Central Africa as another good example).

At length, in the bright moonlight, we looked out over a little hill; there, looming up in the distance, gorgeous and beautiful, was the dome of St. Peter’s. I shall never forget the sensation which burst upon me at the first glimpse of desolate yet magnificent Rome. We entered by the Porta Cavallegieri. Passing in front of the Piazza of St. Peter’s, we crossed the Tiber by the bridge in front of the Castle of St. Angelo, and were soon in the depths of the Eternal City. It was not late, but it seemed there reigned a deathly stillness.

On another occasion, Corson decided to take a moonlit walk around Rome, when he was awakened by rain in the middle of the night, which died away to reveal a beautiful night. Despite the dangers, Corson could not resist the chance to fulfil a long-held ambition: to see the Colosseum at night.

It was a singular, wild-looking night, presenting the aspect of black clouds fringed with narrow strips of moonshine, and the glimmer of a few stars through the crevices contrasting with the gloom like the light in a picture of Rembrandt; the sort of nocturnal weather in fact that makes one think of child-stories of conjurors and evil spirits — such as one would fancy should have succeeded the storm in which the hero of Burns escaped from the witches…

I hastily equipped, and succeeded in waking the porter. He rubbed his eyes, then stared at me as if to detect insanity, muttered some very significant words about robbers, as if to give fair warning, and seeing me resolute at length unbarred the street-door. Assassinations, though much diminished, are not even yet so rare as they might be in Italy…

I comforted myself with the companionship of a respectable stick, my tried friend in the Alps. I turned for a moment for one earnest gaze at the Column of Trajan, then by a winding way escaped from the houses of the modern city into a kind of common, surrounded with ruins — the site of the ancient Roman Forum, and passing beneath the Arch of Titus along the edge of the Palatine Hill and the Palace of the Caesars, I presently reached the Arch of Constantine, when just before me, like some immense towering fortress, more impressive in the stillness and gloom of night, was the Coliseum.

By this time the moon shone out, and there remained but a few flitting clouds, that seemed determined to rain, and floating in mid air, like spirits, filled the earth beneath with changing lights and shadows. It seemed more impressive, and less like day than the glare of a full moon in a cloudless sky. I appeal to all poets, and tender people too, if moonlight is not improved by being a little damp? The face of nature, like the human face, is, doubtless, more interesting after weeping…

Both my imagination and my feet had traveled a good distance for so late or early an hour, and I naturally began to think of returning. Walking round to the side of the Coliseum, toward the Arch of Constantine, and casually looking homeward, I perceived a real human being, that was no optical illusion, making directly toward me, in the shape of a tall figure that, with a little feeding would have done for the English horse-guards. He wore a cloak and slouched hat, fit for a representation of Guy Fawkes, or the picture of an assassin, and was dressed inferiorly in white (a discovery for painters), which with advancing steps, by moonlight, was particularly effective. I then recollected the porter’s warning, and determined to sound his intentions by taking a little circuit. He closely followed. Just as I began to think seriously of showing my defenses, and demanding explanations, unexpectedly I stumbled upon one of the pope’s sentries, whom I succeeded in puzzling with bad Italian till my interesting, and possibly harmless, follower had passed. Presently day began to break, and I returned to my hotel.

The fourth part of this article, in which Corson dodges flying rocks on Mount Vesuvius, will follow next Monday.  In the meantime, there will be another “snippet” to enjoy.  You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the “follow” button on the right of the screen.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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