Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Path to Rome

Prose just doesn't get any better (or funnier) than this! First, Belloc deftly and humorously details an encounter where he was almost knifed in a tavern in a small Italian town on his pilgrimage, by foot, to Rome:

"The room within was of red wood. It had two tables, a little counter
with a vast array of bottles, a woman behind the counter, and a small,
nervous man in a strange hat serving. And all the little place was
filled and crammed with a crowd of perhaps twenty men, gesticulating,
shouting, laughing, quarrelling, and one very big man was explaining
to another the virtues of his knife; and all were already amply
satisfied with wine. For in this part men do not own, but are paid
wages, so that they waste the little they have.

I saluted the company, and walking up to the counter was about to call
for wine. They had all become silent, when one man asked me a question
in Italian. I did not understand it, and attempted to say so, when
another asked the same question; then six or seven--and there was a
hubbub. And out of the hubbub I heard a similar sentence rising all
the time. To this day I do not know what it meant, but I thought (and
think) it meant 'He is a Venetian,' or 'He is the Venetian.' Something
in my broken language had made them think this, and evidently the
Venetians (or a Venetian) were (or was) gravely unpopular here. Why, I
cannot tell. Perhaps the Venetians were blacklegs. But evidently a
Venetian, or the whole Venetian nation, had recently done them a

At any rate one very dark-haired man put his face close up to mine,
unlipped his teeth, and began a great noise of cursing and
threatening, and this so angered me that it overmastered my fear,
which had till then been considerable. I remembered also a rule which
a wise man once told me for guidance, and it is this: 'God disposes of
victory, but, as the world is made, when men smile, smile; when men
laugh, laugh; when men hit, hit; when men shout, shout; and when men
curse, curse you also, my son, and in doubt let them always take the
first move.'

I say my fear had been considerable, especially of the man with the knife,
but I got too angry to remember it, and advancing my face alsoto this
insulter's I shouted, _
'Dio Ladro! Dios di mi alma! Sanguinamento!
Nombre di Dios! Che? Che vole? Non sono da Venezia io!
Sono de Francia! Je m'en fiche da vestra Venezia! Non se vede
che non parlar vestra lingua? Che sono forestiere?'
_ and so forth.
At this they evidently divided into two parties, and all began raging
amongst themselves, and some at me, while the others argued louder
and louder that there was an error.

The little innkeeper caught my arm over the counter, and I turned
round sharply, thinking he was doing me a wrong, but I saw him nodding
and winking at me, and he was on my side. This was probably because he
was responsible if anything happened, and he alone could not fly from
the police.

He made them a speech which, for all I know, may have been to the
effect that he had known and loved me from childhood, or may have been
that he knew me for one Jacques of Turin, or may have been any other
lie. Whatever lie it was, it appeased them. Their anger went down to a
murmur, just like soda-water settling down into a glass.

I stood wine; we drank. I showed them my book, and as my pencil needed
sharpening the large man lent me his knife for courtesy. When I got it
in my hand I saw plainly that it was no knife for stabbing with; it
was a pruning-knife, and would have bit the hand that cherished it (as
they say of serpents). On the other hand, it would have been a good
knife for ripping, and passable at a slash. You must not expect too
much of one article.

I took food, but I saw that in this parish it was safer to sleep out
of doors than in..."

And just a few pages later he succinctly describes why the modern world hates the Church, and why, at the same time, it loves some of what the Church has given to the world, for instance much of the greatest art, architecture and the soul of Europe:

"Have you ever noticed that all the Catholic Church does is thought
beautiful and lovable until she comes out into the open, and then
suddenly she is found by her enemies (which are the seven capital
sins, and the four sins calling to heaven for vengeance) to be hateful
and grinding? So it is; and it is the fine irony of her present
renovation that those who were for ever belauding her pictures, and
her saints, and her architecture, as we praise things dead, they are
the most angered by her appearance on this modern field all armed,
just as she was, with works and art and songs, sometimes superlative,
often vulgar. Note you, she is still careless of art or songs, as she
has always been. She lays her foundations in something other, which
something other our moderns hate. Yet out of that something other came
the art and song of the Middle Ages. And what art or songs have you?
She is Europe and all our past. She is returning."

You can read more at the Project Gutenberg site:

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