ST. ONOFRIO AND TASSO

Connected with the church is a monastery dedicated to St. Jerome. In one of the upper corridors is a beautiful arched fresco of the Madonna and Child, by Leonardo da Vinci, with the donor of the picture in profile kneeling before her. The picture is surrounded by a frame of fruit and flowers on an enamelled ground. The soft, tender features of the infant Jesus, and the quiet dignity and grace of the smiling Madonna, are so characteristic of the style of Leonardo da Vinci that the picture would be at once referred to him by one who did not know its origin. The chamber where Tasso spent the last days of his life is on the upper floor, and is the most conveniently situated in the whole building. It is left very much in the same state as when he lived in it. The walls and ceiling are bare and whitewashed, without any decoration. Here and there are several pale marks, indicating the places of objects that had been removed. In one part is painted on the plaster a false door partially open, behind which is seen the figure of Tasso about to enter; but every person of good taste must condemn the melodramatic exhibition, and wish that he could obliterate it with a daub of whitewash. The custode directed my attention to it with an air of great admiration, and could not understand the scowl with which I turned away my face. There are several most interesting relics of Tasso preserved in this chamber—his table, with an inkstand of wood; his great chair covered with Cordova leather, very aged and worn-looking; the belt which he wore; a small German cabinet; a large China bowl, evidently an heirloom; a metal crucifix of singular workmanship, given to him by Pope Clement VIII., which soothed his dying moments; several of his letters, and an autograph copy of verses. In one corner is the leaden coffin, much corroded, in which his remains were originally deposited. On the table is a mask in reddish wax moulded from the dead face of the poet, and placed upon a plaster bust—a most fantastic combination. From this mask, which is an undoubted original, numerous copies have been taken, which are scattered throughout Europe. It is in consequence somewhat effaced, but it still shows the characteristic features of the poet—the purity of the profile, the fineness of the mouth, and the spiritual beauty and fascinating expression of the whole face. But the incoherence of the adaptation makes it painful to think that this is the best representation of the poet we possess.

The extensive garden behind the convent combines a considerable variety of natural features. The monks grow large quantities of lettuce and fennochio; and interspersed among the beds of vegetables are orange and other fruit trees, and little trellises of cane, wreathed with vines. A large tank is supplied with water from a spring whose murmur gives a feeling of animation to the spot. The garden rises at the end into broken elevated ground showing the native rock through its grassy sides. A row of tall old cypresses crowns the ridge—their fluted trunks gray with lichen-stains, and their deep green spires of foliage forming harp-strings on which the evening winds discourse solemn music, as if the spirit of the poet haunted them still. On one side are the picturesque ruins of a shrine overarching a fountain, now dry and choked up with weeds, and fringed with ferns. Cyclamens—called by the Italians viola pazze, "mad violets"—grow on its margin in glowing masses; sweet-scented violets in profusion perfume all the air; and a few Judas-trees, loaded with crimson blossoms, without a single leaf to relieve the gorgeous colour, serve as an admirable background, almost blending with the clouds on the low horizon. On the other side the hill slopes down in a series of terraces to the crowded streets of the Trastevere, forming a spacious out-door amphitheatre, in which the Arcadian Academy of Rome used to hold its meetings during the summer months, and where St. Filippo Neri was wont to give those half-dramatic musical entertainments which, originating in the oratory of the religious community established by him, are now known throughout the world as oratorios. Between these two objects still stands the large torso of a tree which bears the name of "Tasso's oak," because the poet's favourite seat was under its shadow. It suffered much from the violence of a thunderstorm in 1842, but numerous branches have since sprouted from the old trunk, and it now affords a capacious shade from the noonday heat. It is a variety of the Valonia oak, with delicate, downy, pale-green leaves, much serrated, and contrasts beautifully with the dark green spires of the cypresses behind. The leaves at the time of my visit had but recently unfolded, and exhibited all the delicacy of tint and perfection of outline so characteristic of young foliage. The garden was in the first fresh flush of spring—that idyllic season which, in Italy more than in any other land, realises the glowing descriptions of the poets. Plucking a leafy twig from the branches and a gray lichen from the trunk as mementoes of the place, I sat down on the mossy hole, and tried to bring back in imagination the haunted past. Nature was renewing her old life; the same flowers still covered the earth with their divine frescoes; but where was he whose spirit informed all the beauty and translated its mystic language into human words? The permanency of nature and the vanity of human life seemed here to acquire new significance.