Chateaubriand – Trip to Italy
Chateaubriand – Trip to Italy, followed by trips to Auvergne and Mont-Blanc: When François-René, Viscount of Chateaubriand, for the first time crowds the soil of Italy, in 1803, it is not occasionally of a stage of the Grand Tour, but to take up his new duties as Secretary of Legation in Rome, with Cardinal Fesch, Bonaparte’s uncle. This first post in diplomacy will be a failure on the professional level: the author of Atala, Rene, the Genius of Christianity, then aged thirty-five, is at the top of his literary glory. Returned to France in 1800, after eight years of exile in London under the Revolution, he now aspires to the career of statesman. His friend Fontanes, close to the First Consul, appointed him to Rome; but the writer will prove himself so undisciplined, even malicious, that the cardinal, exhausted, will dismiss him after six months. A humanist with a passion for history, Chateaubriand will use his vast erudition to explore the Eternal City and the environs of Naples, recording his impressions in a “jumble” of notes, letters and newspaper excerpts that he will never take the time to read. organize into a coherent whole. Thus, with the exception of the Letter to Fontanes and the Ascension of Vesuvius, published in 1804 and 1806 respectively, the Journey to Italy remains a draft that will not appear until much later, in 1827, in an increased volume of the Voyage in Auvergne and travel to Mont Blanc.
Leaving Lyon in May 1803, Chateaubriand crossed the Alps on Mount Cenis, made a stopover in Turin, which he found beautiful but a little sad, and then in Milan, where the gothic of the cathedral seemed to him “to swear with the sun and the manners of Italy “. His coldness vanished while crossing Tuscany and arriving in Rome on June 27, 1803. In the wonder of the first days, he rushed to the Colosseum, the Pantheon, Castel Sant’Angelo, St. Peter’s. On July 2, even before the arrival of his ambassador, he obtained a private audience with the Holy Father. The cardinal takes umbrage and will have many other opportunities to complain about his cumbersome secretary … But Chateaubriand will not tell us anything about these differences. He is also stingy with chronological and biographical details, leaving a hole of several months in his story, which he will not resume until December 10. What he was, and will only reveal in his Memoires d’Outre-tombe, is the tragic death of Pauline de Beaumont, one of his dearest mistresses, who came to join him in Rome. This mourning will color the rest of his stay, transforming the places he visits into deserts of ruins where he meditates on the passage of time, men and empires. At Tivoli, at Villa Adriana, in the cold light of December, he invokes Horace, Tibullus, Virgil, whom he quotes from memory; these poets, who have sung the loss of a loved one, will now serve him as a guide. But at the Vatican Museum, the Capitol or the Doria Gallery, no work will hold him for long. Only Rome in the moonlight seems to be in tune with her pain.
On December 30, 1803, he left for Naples, which disappointed him at first sight. However, a few days later, inspired by the Dantesque landscape of Vesuvius, he brilliantly describes the shimmering colors of the lava and the deep rumor of the abyss on which he meditates on his life and destiny. Leaving this infernal place, he finally reaches Herculaneum and Pompeii, which archaeological excavations are revealing. The Journey to Italy ends with the famous Letter to Fontanes, where Chateaubriand, recovering all the impetus of his poetic genius, evokes the “inconceivable grandeur” of the Roman campaigns bathed in a light worthy of the paintings of Lorrain.
If Italy is undoubtedly a place of memory, if Auvergne, which he visits in 1805, is itself a land steeped in history, it is quite different from the Alps, which leave it … ice. So his Voyage au Mont-Blanc, first published in 1806, will cause scandal: the writer, born on the shores of the Atlantic, is reproached for being insensitive to the greatest monument of the nature. For Chateaubriand, in fact, the mountains, seen from close up, do not lift the soul, they oppress it (no offense to Rousseau), and if it grants them a certain majesty, it is only by far when they appear on the horizon, as in the sublime landscapes of the French school of Rome. (* Victor-L Tapié, Chateaubriand by himself (Threshold 1965), 17. ** Juan Rigoli, The Voyage in reverse.Magnes de Chateaubriand (Droz 2005), 23.)