Touring Rome With the Late H.V. Morton

I went to Rome not long ago and took H. V. Morton along for the ride. He was an agreeable companion, for the most part. Through no fault of his own, he has been dead for 40 years, but before he clocked out he managed to publish a series of travel books that brought him fame and riches. His native England was a favorite subject and so was the Holy Land, but it was in Rome that he plowed especially fertile ground. Over a dozen years he managed to produce A Traveller in Rome, This Is Rome, A Traveller in Italy (with lots of stuff about Rome), A Traveller in Southern Italy (ditto), The Waters of Rome, and The Fountains of Rome. Thus he managed to match and exceed the freelancer’s mandate: “Publish every piece three times.” He’s a hero.

Morton’s first fame exploded when he broke the news of the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1923. After that sensational ka-boom his work and career settled down. His tokens were the quiet anecdote and the picturesque detail. The best of his Rome books is the first, A Traveller in Rome, and I tossed it in my carry-on bag for inflight reading, hoping that once airborne I could resist the temptations of Black Panther and Fantastic Mr. Fox beckoning from the seatback screen 18 inches from my face.

Morton had the essential journalistic quality: absolute confidence in his own judgments. Without it a hack can never achieve the fluency needed to shovel words by the bushel. “Often wrong, never in doubt” was long the motto of editorial writers, but it can be applied to the journalism racket generally. And so: “To cut a good figure,” writes Morton, “to have panache, to preserve one’s ‘face,’ are necessary to the self-respect of the Italian, and to reduce him in his own estimation is to earn his eternal enmity.” Is this true? I have no idea—my knowledge of the Italian character doesn’t extend beyond Godfather I and II, which are about Sicilians. It sounds plausible enough, and whatever it is, it’s not mush. Morton gives his readers granite-hard assertions they can grab onto and use to hoist themselves into the next paragraph. He is full of assertions.

And he phrases them always in excellent prose. Common enough among pen-pushers of his day, Morton has a style that flirts with the fancy, approaches the purple, but always turns back in the nick of time. I never knew what would draw my companion’s attention. Rome, I learned early on, “has the most wonderful steps in the world,” a fact that launches him into a kind of prose poem about stairs, along with their effect on his leg muscles. He grows censorious when he contemplates Roman elevators. “Italy is a country of intransigent lifts,” he scowls. And the motor scooter Romans favored in the postwar years: “An absurd vehicle.”

Morton isn’t a full-time grump. He would hardly have been worth taking along on a trip if he were. His eye for beauty is worthy of Rome, and he is always open to surprise. I find him especially useful for the unexpected fact with which a traveler can impress fellow travelers and feign worldliness. Did you know that it was once traditional, when a pope died, for the Cardinal Chamberlain (whatever that is) to enter the papal bedchamber and give the Catholic carrion three ceremonial taps on his forehead with a silver hammer? Me neither. But I know it now, and so do you, thanks to my companion’s tireless researches. Morton does not, unfortunately, go on to explain why this tapping ritual was performed. He’s not perfect.

It is commonplace to observe that in Rome history lies in sedimentary layers. The clay of imperial Rome covers the Roman Republic, that of Alaric and the barbarians is laid upon the remains of empire, the Middle Ages barely peeks through the Renaissance, and so on, up to the bullet-pocked façade of Mussolini’s headquarters. To these I now add an idiosyncratic layer of my own. When I walk the length of the Lateran basilica, I think not only of popes and saints and pilgrims; I think that this is where a British travel writer walked more than a half-century ago, author of what has become one of my favorite books, who left this holy place one afternoon for a quick bite to eat and recorded the event with his inexhaustible capacity for wonder.

“To watch an Italian faced by a gigantic mass of spaghetti is always to me an interesting spectacle. The way he crouches over it, combs it up into the air and winds it round his fork before letting it fall into his mouth and biting off the fringe, rouses the awe . . . ”

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