Oscar Wilde's time in Rome, six months before his death in Paris, was characterised by a curious mix of boys, tourism and smells-and-bells Catholicism.
In 1875, during his first summer vacation from Oxford, Oscar Wilde travelled to Italy. He was joined in Florence by his old professor of ancient history at Trinity College, Dublin, Rev John Pentland Mahaffy.
They toured Florence, had supper in Bologna and took in the sights of Venice. The professor and his former student went on to Padua, saw Hamlet indifferently performed in Verona, and spotted the Princess Margherita, princess of Savoy-Genoa, at the opera in Milan, “very high-bred and pale”. Wilde, running out of money, caught the diligence over the Simplon Pass to Lausanne. From there he went on to Paris where a genial £5 was waiting for him from his mother.
During his Oxford years, Wilde flirted with the idea of going over to Rome, the ‘Scarlet Woman’, but his father and Professor Mahaffy dissuaded him. He thought of undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome in the company of Oxford friends. But the project was abandoned in favour of going down to County Longford for a spot of fishing.
However, in late March 1877, Wilde set off, again in the company of his former professor. The professor and the undergraduate stopped at Genoa, Ravenna, Brindisi and Corfu. On the way back from Greece, Wilde paid his first visit to Rome, staying at the Hotel d’Angleterre. The young aesthete visited Keats’s grave, “the holiest place in Rome,” and was inspired to write a sonnet. He complained of the bas-relief of Keats’s head: “I do not think this very ugly thing ought to be allowed to remain”. Arriving back at Oxford in May, a month late, he was fined £47.10s and rusticated for the rest of the term. Wilde went fishing.
In 1884, already notorious, he considered honeymooning in Rome, but took his bride, Constance, to Normandy and Paris instead. It was not until the end of his life that Wilde spent any considerable time in Rome. Since his release from prison in 1897, he had been leading a peripatetic life in Normandy, Paris, Switzerland and Naples. In Naples he shared the Villa Giudice in Posilippo with his erstwhile lover, Bosie.
Because of this cohabitation, Constance cut off Wilde’s only regular source of income, a stipend of £3 per week. Wilde and Bosie then parted ways, amid recriminations about money. By the time Wilde fetched up in Rome, in April 1900, Constance was dead, and he himself had six months to live.
Wilde thought of Rome as “the one city of the soul”. He arrived on Holy Thursday. On Easter Sunday, he squeezed his way forward to “the front rank of the pilgrims in the Vatican, and got the blessing of the Holy Father”. On Easter Sunday evening, Wilde attended vespers at St John Lateran. In the ensuing days he visited the Doria Palace several times to look at the Velasquez portrait of Innocent X, and admired “that beautiful voluptuous marble boy” at the National Museum. This is perhaps the marble faun in the Capitoline Museum.
His nights were spent in more malleable company. “I have given up Armando, a very smart elegant young Roman Sporus. He was beautiful, but his requests for raiment and neckties were incessant: he really bayed for boots, as a dog moonwards. I now like Arnaldo; he was Armando’s greatest friend, but the friendship is over. Armando is un invidioso (jealous) apparently, and is suspected of having stolen a lovely covert-coat in which he patrols the Corso. The coat is so delightful, and he looks so handsome in it, that, although the coat wasn’t mine, I have forgiven him the theft.”
Apart from boys, Oscar also courted royalty. One afternoon he was drinking iced coffee and eating ice-cream outside the Caffè Nazionale when the king drove past. “I at once stood up, and made him a low bow, with hat doffed – to the admiration of some Italian officers at the next table. It was only when the king had passed that I remembered I was Papista and Nerissimo (ultra-papist). I was greatly upset: however I hope the Vatican won’t hear about it.” This contretemps refers to the antipathy between papal and royal circles, at a time when the pope was a virtual prisoner in the Vatican.
Religiosity Wilde’s time in prison and in Normandy had spurred a religiosity that was all his own. On his deathbed he was conditionally baptised into the Catholic Church only to receive the last rites a day later, both sacraments being administered by Father Cuthbert Dunne of the Passionist Fathers.
Already in April it was hot. “Rome is burning with heat: really terrible: but at 4.30 I am going to the Borghese, to look at daisies, and drink milk. The Borghese milk is as wonderful as the Borghese daisies. I also intend to photograph Arnaldo.” The photographs of Arnaldo haven’t survived.
Roman snapshots Three photographs of Wilde in Rome do survive, however. The first two were taken in 1897, when he stopped off en route to Naples. The ex-convict is stout, with a fedora and velvet-collared coat. He’s standing in St Peter’s Square with the papal apartments behind. He has just finished writing “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” a few weeks before.
The third Roman snapshot dates from 1900. Wilde’s wife, Constance, has died. He has been denied access to his two sons, whom he will never see again. Bosie, the love of his life, has been and gone. Wilde stands under the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in Michelangelo’s lovely square on the Capitol, hand on hip, white fedora, dark suit. He doesn’t look happy. His good friend, Robbie Ross, who was with him in Rome, “noticed that a great change had come over his health”.
Wilde travelled to Orvieto, revisited Tivoli and went on a day trip to Albano. “The day was beautiful, and the silent waveless lake a mirror of turquoise… Omero was with me, and Armando, forgiven for the moment. He is so absurdly like the Apollo Belvedere… His body is slim, dandy-like, elegant, and without a single great curve.”
This curious mix of boys, tourism and smells-and-bells Catholicism characterises Wilde’s stay in Rome. He continued to haunt the Vatican at every opportunity. “I do nothing but see the Pope: I have already been blessed many times, once in the private Chapel of the Vatican… I spend all my money in getting tickets: for now, as in old days, men rob the pilgrims in Rome. The robbing is chiefly done by hotel porters, or rather by real robbers disguised as hotel porters… My position is curious: I am not Catholic: I am simply a violent Papist. No one could be more ‘black’ than I am. I have given up bowing to the King.”
Vatican He also took time to visit the Vatican Museums, or the Vatican Gallery, as it was then known. Afterwards, he slipped into the Vatican Gardens. “The peacocks screamed, and I understood why tragedy dogged the gilt feet of each pontiff. But I wandered in exquisite melancholy for an hour. One Philippo, a student, whom I culled in the Borgia room, was with me: not for many years had Love walked in the Pope’s pleasaunce.”
Boys In May, we find Wilde inviting his boys to the papal audience. “I gave a ticket to a new friend, Dario. I like his name so much: it was the first time he had ever seen the Pope… would have kissed me on leaving the Bronze Gateway had I not sternly repelled him. I have become very cruel to boys, and no longer let them kiss me in public. In mid-May he left Rome to return to Paris. He’d had a good time in the Eternal City. He bid good-bye to his boys.
“In the mortal sphere I have fallen in and out of love, and fluttered hawks and doves alike. How evil it is to buy love, and how evil to sell it! And yet what purple hours one can snatch from that grey slowly-moving thing we call Time! My mouth is twisted with kissing, and I feed on fevers.”
Wilde said that he “could never outlive the century as the English people would not stand it.” He died in Paris six months after leaving Rome, on 30 November 1900. By Padraig Rooney