Before images of St Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel disappear from our television screens, I thought you might like to read how this set piece of the Roman scene was viewed at the end of the 18th century by a plain-spoken English woman.
At Easter 1786 Mrs Piozzi (the former Mrs Hester Thrale) was in Rome. The continental tour she had been enjoying with her second husband, Gabriel Piozzi, former music teacher to her children, was drawing to a close.
Like Charlotte Eaton, who arrived in Rome some years later, Mrs Piozzi viewed St Peter’s – and its Easter celebration – with an eye not a little clouded by Protestant prejudice.
‘Nothing can look very grand in St Peter’s church; and though I saw the general benediction given (I hope partook it) upon Easter Day, my constant impression was, that the people were below the place; no pomp, no glare, no dove and glory on the chair of state, but what looked too little for the area that contained them. Sublimity disdains to catch the vulgar eye, she elevates the soul; nor can long-drawn processions, or splendid ceremonies, suffice to content those travellers who seek for images that never tarnish, and for truths that never can decay. Pius Sextus, in his morning dress, paying his private devotions at the altar, without any pageantry, and with very few attendants, struck me more a thousand and a thousand times, than when arrayed in gold, in colours, and diamonds, he was carried to the front of a balcony big enough to have contained the conclave; and there, shaded by two white fans, which, though really enormous, looked no larger than that a girl carries in her pocket, pronounced words which, on account of the height they came from, were difficult to hear.
All this is known and felt by the managers of these theatrical exhibitions so certainly, that they judiciously confine great part of them to the Capella Sistina, which, being large enough to impress the mind with its solemnity, and not spacious enough for the priests, congregation, and all, to be lost in it, is well adapted for those various functions that really make Rome a scene of perpetual gala during the Holy Week – which an English friend here protested to me he had never spent with so little devotion in his life before.’
From Glimspses of Italian Society in the Eighteenth Century, From the ‘Journal of Mrs Piozzi’, Seeley & Co, 1892