Letter from William Henry Seward to Frances Adeline Seward, August 23, 1859

  • Posted on: 10 November 2021
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Letter from William Henry Seward to Frances Adeline Seward, August 23, 1859



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Distributor:Seward Family Digital Archive

Institution:University of Rochester

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Letter from William Henry Seward to Frances Adeline Seward, August 23, 1859

action: sent

sender: William Seward
Birth: 1801-05-16  Death: 1872-10-10

location: Rome, Italy

receiver: Frances Seward
Birth: 1844-12-09  Death: 1866-10-29

location: Auburn, NY

transcription: amr 

revision: jxw 2021-02-07


Page 1


Editorial Note

William Henry Seward’s series of travel letters in 1859 are organized and listed by the date of each entry.
Tuesday evening August 23d 1859
12th day in Rome.
The Church of San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in
chains.) was the first object ^place^ of our studies to day, Michael
was a man of universal genius in arts. His painting of
the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, takes
rank with the first pictures. St. Peters places him at the
head of all modern Architects. We stood awed and
silent before his ^colossal^ statue of Moses delivering the law,
in St Pietro in Vincoli and reluctantly yielded
to him also the acknowledgment that he was the
greatest in sculpture. The work is of the order
of the Apollo, the Laocoon, Castor & Pollux of the
ancients, combining grandeur and dignity with expression
of human intelligence and sentiment. In this church
I saw also saw excellent water pieces of Domenichi-
Birth: 1581 Death: 1641
, and this lovely, and touching picture the "Hope"
of Guido, of which copies are scattered over the
world as thickly as artists daring enough to try to imi-
tate it can be found to make them. The chains of St.
commemorated & preserved in the church are those he
wore in prison at Jerusalem when the Angel came
down & liberated him. They are preserved in a bronze
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cabinet designed by Michael Angelo and are not shown
except on ^some^ great feast days.
Once more we reprieved to the Capitol de-
lighted with the offerant of studying the veritable monuments
and memorials made by the Ancient themselves. There is a
triumphal column commemorating the ^past^ naval triumph of
the Romans over the Carthagines 250 years before Christ –
the navy vessels as simple and almost as small
as the fishermens boats on our Lakes. There a stone
with bas relief coarse and mean but yet presenting
preserving for mankind the sublime spectacle of
the mounted Quintus Curtius leaping, horse and
rider from the precipice to save his beloved Rome.
D Sculptures which commemorate Marcus Aurelius
offering sacrifices in the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus
and giving you the center of the Court, the Campo,
the Priests, and the Vestal Virgins by contemporaneous
hands. The apotheosis of Faustina illustrating the
Roman theology, if so their lone system can be called
an very silentiary. But chiefly here we contemplated
the old Roman sculpture figure of the boy
taking a
thorn from his foot, the original of a piece found in
imitations more or less made in every home in
America. And the old brazen, thunder stricken
she wolf nurse of Romulus and Remus
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which by its patriotic associations now are immortal
fame in Cicero's orations and in Virgil's epics.
The "Annual register" an almanac of Rome seemed open
to us as we read the tables in which they registered
the names of all the consuls and public officers
for a period of five hundred years.
From the chambers of sculpture I entered the
gallery of Italian ^and other^ pictures of the Capitol. Critics
perceive it inferior to some others in Rome. But you
can imagine the pleasing excitement which I found
in studying for the first time at pleasure two hundred
and nine pictures in which I was to discriminate
between the works of artists all of whom were
masters during the ^modern^ Augustan age of art, and
not one of whom has yet been displaced from
his proud eminence. Domenichino, Raphael, the Carracci
Birth: 1560-11-03 Death: 1609-07-15

Guido, Claude
Birth: 1604 Death: 1682-11-23
, Van Dyck
Birth: 1599-03-22 Death: 1641-12-09
. But I here preserve
myself from attempting to describe pictures.
At three o'clock I visited the Church of
San Pancrazio. A Outside of the walls of the City, an
vis Inscription tells us that that saint was slain under-
neath this church, and another one at the altar tells
us that that sacred thing table incloses his bones.
Dr. Smith
Birth: 1812-09-12 Death: 1892-12-11
spoke in Italian to a monk
who was in
attendance, and he immediately brought from the adjoining
monastery three lamps, each of our party took one
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The monk opened a door and led the way down a
rough stairway hewn in the earth and stone tortuous
and low, and so dark that I could never see
the ground before me for my next step. It was
here, said the monk when we had descended
some thirty feet that Saint Pancratius was slain.
I held up my lamp and read an inscription that
confirmed the monks statement. I passed on slow, left
behind by my associates and bewildered. They
would call out to me to come on but their voices
came from directions opposite or angular to that
in which I was treading, with a cold damp sweat
dribling from my face. There was room at no time
for more than one person to walk and often it
was necessary to stoop almost to kneel. Presently
I saw caves on either side of me – and ^wide^ shelves
^ in the solid ^ of rock made in the solid rocks. One two, three
four five six shelves one above the other, some sunk
lower than my feet, some far above my head. It was
necessary to take hold of these shelves to support myself
and assure my steps against stumbling and falling. ^A^ white
substance like slack lime po almost slacked
was strewed over them. The lime dissolved under
my hand. Then there was a higher roof, eight feet higher
cut smooth with a chisel, and it was plastered
Page 5

and painted in fresco, and with wide devices
and this arch covered a floor way on which tables
were raised that upheld num sarcophagi and
these too contained lime. It was not difficult to
know where I was. I was in the catacombs of
Rome. These shel caves were vaults, these shelves
graves, that lime, the dust of human bones, narrow
circuitous and irregular descents sometimes with one step
or two or more hewn in the rock, often by an inclined
plane not graded with any care led me then
to similar caves and vaults and shelves and
inscriptions, one cave and path over another,
until I shrank from further progress in a place
so dark so lonely so loathsome. I examined the
vaults, read the inscriptions enough and studied
the arrangement very briefly, and gladly hailed the
offer to return to the world where acts of pardon
may yet be passed – and deeds of propitiation if
not merit may yet be done. I was exhausted and
asked for water. The good monk took us all
into the monastery and refreshed us with a pitcher
of its simple wine. You will have comprehended
that the Roman Catacombs are very different from those
of Paris. Ancient Rome excluded burials ^within^ in their
city. The Christians labored under persecution
Page 6

at Rome three hundred years until the conquest and
conversion of Constantine. They burrowed holes
in the rocks, of soft tufa soft when yet in the
earth unexposed to the air, they sought refuge there
made rude chapels there for their uninhibited
worship, and they buried their dead there. They
closed up every grave hermetically, air tight, and
so the places of refuge and worship were prevented
from becoming offensive. In three hundred years they
undermined large districts. They built family cemeteries
and rich vaults and chapels according to their
wealth. They ornamented them with statues and sarco-
phagi and bas relief, and frescoes. They The
excavations extend in circuits to an length almost
inconceivable a most forming a labrynth whole
lines in the extant length would be more than
ten thousand miles. Not less than two or three
millions of graves were made there. When the
persecution ceased they eac Christians built churches
over the entrances to their vaults, gathered martyrs
bones from them and dedicated the churches to
the memory of these martyrs. Then the ^ wh ^ burial rite
of Christian burial was performed above ^the^ ground. Then
the Catacombs came to be superstitiously feared
and then for ages to be forgotten. The Antiquarians
Page 7

and devotees here within the last twenty years
became aware of the treasures of art and of Christian
relics deposited there. They have opened accesses
ascertained and mapped the paths, broke through the
coffins and lifted the covers of the sarcophagi. They
found the remains perfect in form but air sour
as the air was admitted the corpses slack into
lime. They have removed ^all^ the marbles of all
that can illustrate the history which the these
Catacombs preserved so far as they have explored,
in other words rifled the city of the dead, leaving
the dead to rest in peace but bringing their
memories back to life. This pious work is
only just begun, and yet the Vatican & the
^St John Lateran^ other depositors I have examined contain as
you have already seen rich in relics of
the rarest value. Such are the Catacombs
of Rome.
I closed the day with a visit to
the villas of some of the Nobles in Rome noble
parks with magnificent fountains and gardens
and with a drive to the Milvian gate where
I studied the victory over won up on the ground
upon which I stood conflict between the
Page 8

Horatii and the Curiatii fought on the ground
before me, and the victory won by Constantine
the first Christian over Maxentius the last Pagan
emperor of Rome won on the very ground on
which I stood which admitted the Conqueror
to the City, determined the conflict between the
new and the old religion and opened the way
through at so remote a period to the regeneration
of society, and the establishment of Free government
among man, which is just beginning in our own
Here my dear Fanny ends the story of my
12th day in Rome.