Updated 19 Jul 2010

Essay on Rome and Vienna 1945

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Essay on Rome and Vienna 1945

My father was in Rome and Vienna at the end of WW11. In November 1945 he wrote a long letter from Vienna to Dorothy, his sister-in-law in Sheffield. Here is the letter. Any reader with possible connections or enquiries please contact:

Care Br.Public Relations,

November 12th 1945
Dear Dorothy,
It's been a long time coming this letter of mine and I have a very guilty conscience even now I have started it. I have been meaning to write so often but nothing ever seems to happen and after I have told Ena any news I might have it seems so dull repeating it to anyone else. I forget that it might be new to them even if it's old to me. Last time I wrote I was in Rome. Now there is a place for you. We had a lovely mess and very comfortable bedrooms overlooking the Corso which is Rome's principal street. We had a very big balcony running round the place and every morning when I woke I could see St. Peter's through my French windows. On the other side we had a lovely view of the Pincio. And the colours were simply marvellous. Of course the sun helps so very much. The Pincio is the same place as the Gardens of Lucullus. I hope I have spelt it right but I might as well warn you that if bad spelling annoys you you had better read no further. I am one of the world's worst. It is up on the Pincio that Nero sought shelter and where he died. You will know more about this than I. That was my trouble in Rome. The place was full of the most interesting places and I didn't know anything about them. The guide books were enough to spoil any interest you had in the place and were quite useless. The first place I went to there was St. Peter's as you might guess. I only went there once though. I have never been so disappointed in my life. It is a magnificent place but it has the atmosphere of a gilded museum. There is no feeling about the place at all. Everything is in gold and marble and so huge that the wonderful things like Michaelangelo's Pieta are lost. Now there is a wonderful thing for you. It is an early work of Michelangelo and full of feeling. The Madonna is so lovely and the figure of Christ done so well that I could only look at it for about ten seconds. I simply refused to have a second look. By itself I could look at it for ages, but surrounded by all the gilt and marble it looked lost. The most wonderful thing about St. Peter's is the colonnade. It looks awful in photographs but when you get up to it it couldn't be better. There are two lovely fountains in it and you feel overawed by the wonder of it. When you go inside the place, St Peter's I mean, it is an awful anticlimax. Indeed St Peter's looked at its best from my window. I also stirred myself one day and dragged Jim along with me to San Pietro in Vincule where there is a statue of Moses by Michelangelo. That is the best thing I have seen. Even Jim was pleased to come along and have another look at it a week or so later. In the same Church they have the chains which bound St. Peter at some time or other and which is so much hooey to me. It seems as though all the churches must have a bit of the cross or something like that. But the churches are very fine when they can forget the gold and marble. We went into one called San Stephano Rotondo. It is a round church and has pictures or rather paintings all round the walls of the various martyrs. Some of the paintings are very crude and revolting. Although we got to the church easily enough after about an hour's walk we couldn't find a way in. Eventually we rang a bell at a farmhouse gate and an old crone came along and showed us into the church and left us to wander around at will. The church is next door to the hospital? of the famous Blue Sisters and I'm afraid we wandered all round their gardens in our effort to find the entrance to the church. We saw one or two of the sisters but they said nothing to us. But they had a wonderful place with very brilliant flowers in the courtyard. I think it must have been part of the farm once upon a time. Round San Stephano is some of the nicest part of Rome I think but I can't tell you its history. It is not far from the Palatine Hill where all the Caesars lived. We used to go round the hill about three times a week but gleaned very little knowledge. Portions of the houses are left lying about and you could see it had all been very wonderful at one time but so many generations had built and rebuilt on the hill that it wasn't a relic of one age but many. Now it is almost deserted except for a church and the villa mills. But we loved walking round and looking at some of the simply huge remains. We used to walk up the Corso through the Piazza Venezzia and then through the Forum and so up the Hill. The Americans had a bright idea of putting up little placards telling the ignorant people like me what all the remains were but how can you take it all in when there is so much of it. There is the Temple of this and that and all the various things that are so interesting that even though we went often we failed to understand. I did have a look at the bellybutton of Rome. You know the centre of the city where they had all the distances marked to various parts of the Empire. And the Rostra and the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, and the Column of Phocus, and goodness knows what. The best thing in the Forum is the Arch of Titus. That was bricked up in case of damage during the air raids but I am glad to say that they uncovered it before I left. The most glorious view was from just beyond the Piazza Venezzia where you could look through one of the arches of Septimus Severii into the Forum. You have no idea of the blueness of the sky and the whiteness of the old stones and the green of the trees when seen through that arch. You might have seen picture postcards of that view and no matter how highly coloured they are they are no exaggeration. And of course the Arch of Titus on its little hill looked marvellous and completed the picture. I left Rome without throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain and so I suppose I shall never go back there. I left so hurriedly that I didn't do half the sentimental things I intended to do. But Rome does grip you. I shall never forget it. The wonderful buildings. And they knew how to build too. The places built about 1600 and earlier are so numerous that you don't go and look at them in amazement as you would in England, they are all just part of the city. The view from the Pinchio overlooking the Piazza de Populo is very fine but a bit artificial somehow. No-one will forget the Wedding Cake either. It is in the Piazza Venezzia and commemorates Emmanuel First King of United Italy. It is awful. I think so at least. Jim thinks it is very fine. It just dominates the whole place. Even more so than St. Peter's. It is very big and very white with gold statues and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in it. All the soldiers knew it as the Wedding Cake. It had one redeeming feature. Whenever I got lost I made my way to it. It's almost impossible to get lost because of that. I spent lots of time looking for the Tarpean Rock on the Capitol Hill but never really tracked it down though I had maps with it marked on. That's the trouble with Rome. If you get a guide it loses all its interest and if you don't you don't know where you are. But the Capitol Hill is a fine place. Usually there was a shepherd lad looking after a poor-looking flock of sheep and the whole place was very quiet. It overlooked the Forum too. We went into one or two museums there and saw the Dying Gladiator and the Wolf of Rome. And the lad with the thorn in his foot. But there are too many things to see. I just came away dazed. Jim was always going up there because he liked it so much. One day he was very ill. We haven't discovered just what was the matter with him yet. He left the office before it was time to go and we missed him for about two hours. I got out of him in the end that he thought he was going a bit silly and couldn't stand the office for another minute so went out for a walk. He remembered nothing else till he found himself on top of the Capitol. After that he simply refused to go there any more. So that was off the beaten track. I was sorry. We went into the Marmatine Prison where Peter and Paul were imprisoned and were shown the wonderful well that Peter conjured up so he could baptise his jailers. Believe it if you wish. Anyway it was a most awful place. There is an imprint of Peter's face in the wall. How could that happen? I am afraid you have to be a Roman Catholic to take all that in. The roads round Rome are as interesting as anything else. It's fine in summer to see the little carts going about their business with the driver fast asleep on his back and the horse going where it likes. That's what I like about these places. It is quite alright if you go to sleep anywhere. And the men did. They didn't bother about seeking out a nice comfortable place. They just went to sleep where they were. But the women didn't sleep. They have to do the work. And quite right too. You see the people going home from a day in the fields with the men walking behind the women and the women carrying great loads. Of course the men carry nothing less exciting than a gun with which they have been having a bit of fun while the women have been digging in the fields. I suppose the men walk behind the women to see the women don't slack. We went bathing to a place called Fregene occasionally and it was lovely. Just off the beach are fine pine woods and I am afraid I used to go in for a dip and then go to sleep in the pinewoods. And the beautiful girls we used to see down there. I didn't like the Italian women in the winter. But in the summer they blossom out and wear very bright clothes and carry themselves perfectly. They can give the girls in England a few lessons alright. I didn't fall for one so don't think I am prejudiced.You would say the same if you saw them. I want to go back to Rome and see everything again. I think that if I do I shall go to see only a few things after all but take them in. I shall certainly go to see Moses again and see if he has risen from his seat yet. He can't sit there much longer. Michelangelo in his modesty threw a mallet at the statue when he had completed it saying "why don't you speak" it took a chip out of the knee. And certainly I don't see why Moses didn't speak either. And I am quite sure he will get up one day. We saw the pretty sculptures of Bernini too. They are very wonderful but not a patch on Michelangelo's stuff. I can't remember the titles of the sculptures but here is one of the girl changing into a laurel bush when pursued by Apollo. Daphne and Apollo. That's it. And there is Dido and Aeneas. And the Rape of Proserpina. Or Persephone or however you spell it. And a wonderful one of the boy David with the sling. Thinking again I suppose they are very good. I liked one by (Can't remember his name - Canova) showing Josephine's sister reclining on a sofa. I'll remember the man's name before I finish this letter. But you must go to Rome and see the place for yourself. I felt as though I should never take anything in at all when I was there. One Pope talking to three men asked the first man how long he had to stay in Rome and when the man said he was there for three days he said "in that case you will see everything Rome can show you" to the second one who said he was there for a couple of months he said "you will see a great deal" and to the third one who was staying there he said "you will see a very small part of Rome" and the Pope was right. In three days I had seen everything. After eight months I had seen nothing. And what about the Colisseum? Yes I saw that too. Very big and disappointing and the lavatory of Rome. You couldn't put your foot down anywhere in safety. I would give all of these things away just to be on the Hill of Jove on the Capitol. That's the place where you feel that everything is alright. Shelley's house near the Trinita dei Monte has an atmosphere about it. And of course the Spanish Steps leading up to the Trinita dei Monte. How could I almost forget that view with all the flower sellers on them. Colour all the time. And sacrilige (that's wrong)--I actually went down the steps in a car. We got a bit tight one night and one of the BBC fellows drove us round at about three in the morning and actually drove the car down the Spanish Steps. Looking at them afterwards I am sure it is impossible. Here I am writing this letter and jumping up every few minutes to get on with my work. I hope I am not boring you too much. Or bewildering you too much. How can you be anything but bewildered. There are so many more things that I liked in Rome - the fountains. The Trevi Fountain in particular. The Piazza Navona. I loved the last. I stood on Mussolini's balcony in the Palazzo de Venezzia and saw some lovely pictures in there too. Yes I think I shall have to go back one day even though I didn't throw any coins into the Trevi. The Tiber. Fancy forgetting that dirty little yellow stream with all its history. And the Castle Saint Angelo. I'll send you a guide book. That's all I can think of. If I had left Rome after three days I should be much happier. But we had to rush and catch a plane at a day's notice and go on to a place called Klagenfurt by the side of the Wurthersee Lake. And of all places that is the most beautiful. I only had two days there. What a change from Rome with all its gilt and show. It was clean and green and altogether too lovely to stay there. We bathed in the lake and climbed the mountains and saw more butterflies in half an hour than I have ever seen in my life. We had to pack up our tents and go to Judenberg through the countryside. That was nice too. Nice is very weak. But I can't say lovely every other word can I? From there we set out for Vienna. We started out in a convoy of 200 lorries and were held up at the Russian border for ten hours. Were we bored. But in the end they allowed us through and seventy of us managed to get to Vienna. The rest of the lorries were turned back. We were lucky. We arrived at two in the morning and had to sleep on the barrack square of the Schloss Schonbrunn. And when we got up at five o'clock we found it was seven by Vienna time. We didn't get to sleep before three. How we got mixed up with the various times. There was GMT, Russian time, and Vienna time. I never knew which was which and don't really know now. We used to get up at seven and find the rest of the world still asleep. There you are I have gone wrong already. We got up the first morning by Russian time not Vienna time. Still we have settled down fairly well by now. We had to eat standing up for the first few days and for the first fortnight we had nothing but bullybeef and hot strong sweet Army tea. We had to work in a garage where everything had been blown up and destroyed. In the end we found some very nice quarters in Heintzing. It was very comfortable there and we could get out into the Vienna woods in a short time. But we spent most of our time in the Park of the Schloss Schonbrunn. It was the place that Marie Theresa built. And very nice too. We liked to go up on the gloriette although half of it had been knocked down by bombs. The people were very pleased to see us and during our journey to Vienna we were cheered and waved at all the time. People used to stop us in the streets to tell us how glad thy were to see us and now they could have something to eat. They didn't think much of the Russians. Lots of them had not dared to come out of their gardens until we arrived. They had been living there and in the houses for weeks without venturing abroad. But they have got over that now and don't think much of us either. But I must say that the British soldiers are very well behaved and show very favourably with the Russians. I had a few words with one Russian one night. He didn't know a word I said and I didn't know what he said either but it finished up with him bending down and kissing my hand. Maybe that is an insult in Russian.They were very truculent and always went about fully armed while our chaps weren't allowed to carry anything in the firearms line. That was before we got our part of Vienna to look after. Now in our bizerks as the different districts are called we see very few Russians. And I am not sorry because I am afraid I haven't much of an opinion of them. Maybe that is because I don't understand them. They used to take things away from people and give them to others. And are fond of wrist watches. So long as they are very ornate they are happy. Honestly I don't think half of them are capable of telling the time. They have put up a big statue to commemorate the liberation of Vienna and the figure on top is holding a big round shield shaped like a watch. The Viennese say that it is full of wrist watches the Russians have liberated. The people out here don't look very happy though. Most of them looked underfed and very cold. The girls look awful although I do like their native dress. They call it a Dierndl or something like that. Do you know I haven't seen one pretty girl out here yet. And that is funny because most of them are fair and I like fair girls. Jim has managed to get himself a mitzie and spends most of his time in her company and so I see very little of him now. Maybe I shall get struck one of these days although I can't rouse up any enthusiasm at all now. This everlasting mucking about away from home is enough to finish anybody off. It seems endless and very aimless. Think of the time I could be having with John Robert and Ena. And here I am doing nothing but waiting for the time to pass and growing older all the time. I'm forty now. It's alright seeing these places and I suppose I shall be able to bore people plenty when I get back. We eat very well and although we have no beds I managed to find a settee in the corridor of our mess and now I sleep on that. I don't know whether it is damp or not but I get aches and pains in my fingers now when I wake up in the morning. I can't speak any German and never shall be able to. I was just as bad when I tried to speak Italian. What a life. We have a few cinemas out here and one ENSA theatre which is enough to put anyone off going to the theatre again. And apart from that the only thing I do is to saunter down to the cafe where we can get coffee and cakes and get warm. And now how are you getting on Dorothy? I hope you are better than when you last wrote to me. I didn't know you were so ill and I am sorry I didn't write to you immediately. But I always do the wrong thing. Are you still living in Rupert Road? I can't remember your address and so will send this to Banner Cross Road and hope that you get it eventually. Give my love to your Mother and my very kind rememberence to Billie and Ernest. I hope you are all well and happy. I'll shut up now because the work is getting a bit complicated. What I have written in this I don't know but I'm damned if I am going to read it through then throw it away in disgust. That's what I shall do if I read it so you must put in any nots or ifs where you think they should be. And don't tick me off for my awful English. I never could write an essay.



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