Journals 10.4 – Loiterings in Europe by John Corson (Part 4)

This is the fourth part of my article on Corson’s journal.  For the previous parts please see the entries posted on 4th, 11th and 18th January 2016.


An 18th Century eruption of Vesuvius, as painted by Joseph Wright

Corson was lucky enough to be in Rome for the inauguration of a new pope: Pius IX. The longest-serving pope since Saint Peter, Pius IX led the Catholic Church for more than 31 years, and was also the pope who lost the Papal States to Italy.

One bright morning the cannon of St. Angelo fired, and all Rome was in motion. I followed the crowd. Presently we were rushing, in one countless array of foot, horse, and carriages, past the Coliseum toward the ancient Church of St. John in Lateran. This splendid ancient edifice, on account of its alleged consecration by Constantine, and other circumstances, claims precedence even to St. Peter’s; and the crowning inaugural act after the election of a new pope is a gorgeous procession to this church, and other ceremonies constituting what is termed the “taking possession.” The act, from some cause, had been deferred a few months, and the enthusiastic joy of the Italians at the signs of amendment in the papal policy, the well-timed clemency of the new incumbent, and their fears and aversion of Austrian and other influences made them determine on giving a popular demonstration. A friend who had been twenty years in Rome had never seen any thing so imposing. The windows and balconies were filled with thousands. Beautiful women waved their handkerchiefs. Flowers and olive-leaves were strewed all along the route. I hastened in advance to the church. There is a confused recollection of a hale, good-looking old man carried on a triumphal chair, like a bier — of immense yellow silk canopies, like umbrellas, spread over him at the steps — of deafening huzzas that followed a blessing — of clouds of incense and pealing anthems — of a church all decorated with scarlet and gold trimmings — of the Swiss guard, with a queer striped uniform and halberds — of long ceremonies at the altar, and of the pope’s return to the grand entrance with increased pomp, wearing the triple crown. I hastened by a nearer route to the Coliseum, and secured a position where I could see the whole cortege as it passed on its return. The pope was drawn by six horses, splendidly caparisoned; and an immense state coach, covered with scarlet velvet and gold, with a couple of gilt angels in front bearing the keys of St. Peter. Then came the College of Cardinals, each in a richly-gilded coach, with three liveried attendants behind. A long array of other dignitaries, the mounted guard of nobles, and some regiments of artillery and infantry followed. Altogether it was a most imposing pageant.

Travelling on through Italy, Corson visited Mount Vesuvius, which was at the time far more dramatically active than it is today. I had the fortune to visit Vesuvius myself a few years ago, and took the obligatory walk around the caldera, watching the smoke rising from the inside. But that sort of gentle stroll around the caldera was not possible in 1846, as Vesuvius had been in a period of almost continuous activity since the major eruption of 1631, with the last severe eruption just seven years before, in 1839. The next would follow in 1850. Visiting Vesuvius in 1846 meant running a gauntlet of explosions and flying rocks.

Panting up the highest and steepest ascent, all bare and black, without any thing to lay hold upon, and with our feet sinking every step in the ashes and loose cinders, we at last caught the smell of sulphur and the sight of fire. Melted lava was slowly oozing at two or three spots outside, below the brim of the crater, and we went and stood beside one of these burning streams, while one of the men present thrust a stick into the fiery viscid mass, and brought out a portion of lava, which, like a piece of dough, he molded with the stick for me round a copper coin. The volcano had been unusually active for some days. One of my fellow-travelers, in trying to protect a lady, had just burned and spoiled a good coat, and a piece of burning rock had hit and severely injured his hand. Every few moments an explosion rent the air. The sulphurous stench nearly stifled us, and the ground was reeking hot beneath our feet. I greatly desired to see the crater, and tried urgently to get the guide to pilot me. After coming all the way from Rome to look into the throat of the fiery monster, it was hard to be disappointed. But this ordinary feat had become highly dangerous. After demurring awhile, he grasped my hand, and seizing a more calm moment, rushed with me for a few dizzy seconds to a spot overlooking the burning abyss. The fearful convulsive explosions shaking the ground beneath us — the hissing of melted rocks hurled high in air — and the boiling fiery gulf below contrasting with the darkness of night, and the murky cloud above, will never be forgotten. Presently there was a heaving in the direction in which we stood, and the guide took to his heels, dragging me after him, and we managed to dodge the shower of hot grape that fell around. Returning down the mountain, by torchlight, to Resina, I overtook my suffering friend, who had met with no further accident, except the falling of his horse.

Dangerous situations seemed to be something of a theme for Corson’s tour of Italy, but he was more than capable of coping with them.

Our smooth-tongued driver had promised to get to Florence early in the evening, and it really mattered little how we were carried there. But after trying to increase the original terms, he collected a crowd around us in the street by beating up for more passengers, and got into a furious altercation on the highest key with a party whom he deemed not liberal enough. The most extravagant gesticulations and expressions were freely exchanged and but for the affliction to one’s ears, the scene was altogether quite amusing. We had waited a long time in the middle of the street, without any signs of moving, and the storm raged as violently as ever. Gentle remonstrances were tried in vain. At last, I bethought myself of attempting a little mock tragedy — imitated, as well as I could, a towering passion — fiercely produced paper and pencil — demanded the full name of the driver — and, with a face that I could scarcely keep in frowning shape for a struggling inside laugh, shouted at the top of my voice the respected name of the police. It was rather a bold experiment, but it succeeded admirably. In five minutes there was a perfect calm, and we were on the road to Florence. My companions happened to be all Italians; and perhaps from the above incident, the gratitude of some, their curiosity, or their politeness, to the only one present who had the natural right to put on “foreign airs,” I was treated the rest of the way, in the human sense, as a sort of pet lion.

One of the highlights of Corson’s stay in Florence was a chance encounter with a celebrity:

Happening to step into a neighboring cafe to read the journals, I found myself beside a gentlemanly retiring countryman. An accidental conversation afterward led to the discovery that I had made the acquaintance of the celebrated American sculptor, whose chisel has produced the “Greek Slave.” Upon visiting his studio, the marble copy seemed more beautiful than from any of the current glowing descriptions I had ever dreamed. She stands as a lovely, bashful creature of seventeen, chained to a stake, and exhibited in a slave-market for sale. Her form is symmetry itself. Her exquisite face is averted, as if blushing at the unkind gaze of the beholder; and there is depicted in her innocent, intelligent features an unutterable sadness that is deeply touching.

The sculptor in question would have been Hiram Powers. A year after Corson met him and viewed The Greek Slave (or rather, one of six marble copies produced for private patrons), the statue was sent on a tour of America, where it was viewed by 100,000 people. It was subsequently exhibited at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851. Powers remained in Florence until his death in 1873. The original plaster cast is held in the Smithsonian.

After the mild Italian climate, when the time came to travel northwards again the change in the weather came as a bit of a shock, and could have proved dangerous had Corson not made the acquaintance of a wise friend, an Austrian captain who advised him on the correct way to dress for the Austrian mountain landscape ahead of them.

We toiled up the heights back of the town, bade adieu to the Adriatic and balmy Italy, and, in a few hours, in spite of my blanket and pilot coat, my teeth were chattering, and my knees shaking as with the ague. I rubbed a corner of a pane, iced by my breath, and looked upon bleak hills and rocks covered with snows, as if we had exchanged the sunny south for Greenland. I had simply caught December on the Julian Alps. The change was too violent, and I suffered terribly. But the good captain protected me tenderly, and insisted on sharing with me his warmer covering; and by his fund of good humor and cheerful conversation during that memorable night, enabled me at times, in spite of my shivering, to indulge in a sort of grim smile — so that I fancy if I had actually congealed, and been taken out next morning as a frozen curiosity, could I have “kept my face,” I should have furnished, position and all, the most perfect realization of the poet’s idea of “Patience on a monument, smiling at Grief.”

Shortly before Corson’s arrival in Austria in 1846, the Austrian Empire had helped to put down an uprising in Poland, the Kraków Uprising, a failed attempt to fight for independence, political and social reform. This clearly troubled Corson, and he was keen to discuss the matter with the locals.

“Why have you repaid the saving of your capital and country from the Turks, by John Sobieski and his Poles, by helping to enslave Poland,” said I, warmly, to a Vienna friend, as we were walking through the Prater one day, about the time of the Cracow troubles.

“The people do not rule here, as in your country and England, or that never would have happened,” he replied. ” We are governed by Metternich and the Archduke Louis.” But the emperor — ” The emperor is a dwarfish personage with a large head and a very weak intellect,” he muttered, in a low tone, looking around to see if any one was near.

The ‘saving of your capital and country’ by John III Sobieski (the king of Poland from 1674-1696) refers to the Battle of Vienna in 1683, when the king led Polish, Austrian and German troops to victory against the Ottoman Turks. The large-headed emperor (although his portraits do not really seem to indicate that) was Ferdinand I, who would abdicate just two years later in 1848 during a period of revolution. There was some truth in the ‘weak intellect’ claim, as his father Francis II had left instructions in his will that Ferdinand was only to rule in consultation with Archduke Louis due to neurological problems. His parents were double first cousins (i.e. they shared the same set of four grandparents, the result of two siblings from one family marrying two siblings from another). Corson had an opportunity to judge the emperor’s appearance for himself.

At the invitation of a friend, holding a situation under the government, I went with him one day to the palace, to see the emperor passing in state to the Imperial Chapel. A courtly crowd in military dresses and decorations were present. The German, Hungarian, and Italian body-guards, in splendid embroidered uniforms of their different countries, were drawn up in two files, and presently, the emperor, in a rather plain military dress, in company with half a dozen dignitaries, came walking quietly through the apartments between the files of the guards.

The person of the emperor was exceedingly diminutive. He had a good-natured countenance, and a head so large as to appear deformed.

The final part of this article, in which Corson travels to England and see Parliament in session, will follow soon.  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
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, History, Journals, Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Journals 10.4 – Loiterings in Europe by John Corson (Part 4)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s