Arnaud Denjoy goes to Rome in 1908

Arnaud Denjoy wrote in April 1964:

This story must have been entirely composed in the months preceding the writing of my notice on Lebesgue, partially read at the plenary session of the Institute in October 1946.

I had forgotten the existence of this finished piece. I thought it had remained in a draft state, when, from 1957, having completed the publication of a series of mathematical works begun in 1940, I thought many times of describing what was left of my impressions of Rome in 1908.

Recently, delving into this object in my scattered notes, I discovered that my projected work had been completed for twenty years.

Rome 1908

For half a century, every four years, with the periodicity of the ancient Olympiads, the mathematicians of the world have met in a vast Congress. Before separating they fix the place of their next assembly. In April 1908 the turn of Rome had come. We were four young Parisians who wanted to go to this to improve our knowledge.

There will soon be forty years since this journey. But some impressions are still etched in my memory, like on a metal board the lines carved by the chisel.

And since that time so far away, I have never stopped hearing murmured in my ear the words where, some spontaneously sprung, others long meditated, from the start I wanted to enshrine them, to save their sharpness, these most precious jewels of my memories.

We left Paris one evening. The train speed at that time was modest. The middle of the day had passed when on the next day we went down to Turin station. But before, at the exit of the Mont Cenis pass above the Aosta Valley, cut by the alpine barrier of the mist-clouded firmaments, those of the North and West Atlantic, we had, amazed, moved, undergone the ecstasy of a spark of the day unknown to us.

When three years later, I went to Florence to spend the Easter fortnight, I had promised myself on my departure the happy dazzling of my first stay under the Italian sky. But for eighteen months I had been established in Montpellier, and the light of Languedoc had in advance extinguished the prestige of the Piedmontese sun.

We end this first afternoon in Turin. The style of this city is that of an ancient capital of a dynasty that once lived without pomp, almost bourgeois and wise. A hundred years ago, the wing of fortune raised it in a dream destiny. She consumed her ruin for having imprudently linked herself to the adventure.

A long and wide avenue descending towards the Po, which it crosses and then comes up against the hills closing the valley to the north, reminds me in grandiose of a perspective of Auch, my hometown. In the far northwest, resting on a peak, like the Sacré Coeur at the top of Montmartre, the Soperga church has the whiteness of a bubble exhaled by the top of the peak and remained attached to it.

The third day we leave Turin. Genoa past, the route arranged in a high ledge follows the convolutions of the seashores called the Riviera du Levant. The noon sun blazes above the landscape. Nature, rocks, woods, sparkling sea, deploys a fairyland transposing an orchestra in waves for the eyes: sounds and tones vibrating on the colours, melodies in glittering rays, arpeggios of light scaling the ether. ... The tongues of fire escape from every point, wave crest, treetop, rock edge.

The tunnels follow one another without interruption. It is a continuous alternation of darkness oppressing the eyes and blindfolds brutally torn away.

During these clearings, sometimes a brief and delicious episode enchants us. I remember on the steep slope precipitated to the sea, a poor cemetery of a fishing village, "its modest grey tombs attracted by the abyss, having at their bedside a lopsided cross, flock of tumbling sheep, chased by a confused shepherd's crook".

At the bottom of a bay, the powerful silhouettes of warships. It's La Spezzia.

Then, from our carriage we contemplate the four illustrious monuments of Pisa in passing. Under the splendour of this metropolis they had to occupy the centre of the city, in the middle of large districts, abundantly and sumptuously built. What riches, what powerful and abolished luxury do these marble colossuses not bear witness to? Defeat, tributes, servitude have bent the pride of the city. Time has dilapidated the palaces and houses from which the owners were exiled. One day all this rubble was swept away. And in their place an immense bare lawn isolates the abandoned giants, outside of the current Pisa.

Still on our left, the mountain of Carrara, cut with a wide bevel, lights up the country with its snowy whiteness. Then the interest of the sites bordering our route weakens. The hours get long. The attention hitherto constantly sought had dismissed fatigue and weariness. The burden of this long journey begins to weigh on us.

The night comes and the moon rises. We dine. Back in our compartment we only exchange languid words. Already inscribed in us by the continuous effect, the din of the train launched straight to its goal rocks us. The route runs along the coast.
Under the milky night the phosphors of the sea sparkle. The gallop of steam takes us over the countryside of Maremma; in escort, like riders running beside the door, the pale star close to the zenith and its white rays trailing on the waves.
The approach to Rome moves us. All of our adolescence drew stories, examples, lessons from history, the writings, the politics of the Romans. Later the origin of our law came from the laws of this people, great architect of cities if ever there was one.

We evoke the traits of our social life, going back to it without interruption, characters still alive thirty years ago, greatly blurred after two wars and revolutions that shook the planet.

In a third of a century the foundations of civilisations two millennia old have been ruined. I think of this contrast so striking in my youth: deferential foreheads bent over what claims to be the landed property, summary disdain for what is authorised only of the spirit.

Since then, owning property has become a fiction. Intelligence is today the source of all power, proving its mission and placed in its rank by massacres, universal ruins, the plagues of apocalypse, which alone have called the scientist to glory. What benefits he had not earned in science, respect, comes to him, deviating from questionable and fragile values.

The Congress opened the morning after the night of our arrival. I must admit that our participation in scientific work was only of sympathy and wishes. We mingled with the crowd of delegates in large collective demonstrations: the inaugural session chaired by the King himself, an example which would have seemed very strange to the President of the French Republic, and to his fellow citizens as much as it was to myself; then the delegates assembled for the plenary session when, invited by the most illustrious mathematicians of the world, they gave their turn to Poincaré and Darboux, two Frenchmen; yet the unforgettable evening offered by the municipality of Rome to the Capitoline Museum, in the galleries bordered by a row of statues erected on their pedestal and making up one of the most beautiful sets of marbles bequeathed by antiquity. We also had a visit to the Palatine under the supervision of the Director of Roman excavations; finally a day trip to Tivoli and Frascati to show us Hadrian's villa and the waterfalls. But, from the first hours, came into our possession cards and badges ensuring us many advantages or freedom in Rome, museums, railways of Italy, we rushed to explore the city, in search of this host of monuments and vestiges of which so many books had so often, so long told us.

I often made people laugh and said, "I visited Rome in six days." And indeed I did not have seven. Instead of tending to the largest percentage of hastily inspected curiosities, I limited myself to gathering brief impressions, original and strong, on the monuments and works bequeathed by architecture or other arts, and whose meaning and interest seemed to me to provide the most lasting nourishment for meditation and memory. Besides, seeing in the blink of an eye is the principle of many artists whose opinion would support me. Trees grow better when planted discreetly and not densely.

I remember my visit, necessarily limited to two hours, at the Pio Clementino museum in the Vatican, devoted to ancient sculpture. In front of each statue a two-step back and forth, eyes attached to the effigy, to see in an oscillating evolution, a face expressively delivering its thought, a torso indicating its pace. And, at the end of each long room examined, in a last transverse, alternative and slow journey, my eyes fixed on the two rows of plinths bordering the room, I saw these rows of profiles come alive with their mutual displacement, and, in this swing, accuse its distinctive physiognomy. The photograph taken away and later consulted, far from remaining in front of me on a page without relief or soul, produced the immediate awakening of my dozing memories, as the suddenly turned switch gushes out into a dormant light bulb immediately a bright light.

The reader familiar with Rome can guess from what I have already said that the main objects of my pilgrimages to humanity were in the city and its countryside. I will not write more. This image still stayed with me.

One afternoon, after one of these showers alternating many times, in the Roman climate at Easter time, with dazzling embellishments, I remember having climbed to the top of the Colosseum to gain the advantage of an observatory from where the archipelago of the seven hills emerging from the urban outskirts, the Palatine coming into a promontory, and the undulations of the Sabine to the horizon of the Alba mountains, disciplined themselves before my eyes. The rain washing their dust, the air, the leaves, the rocks, had made the suburban landscape a mosaic of purple lacquer. Turning my eyes in the opposite direction, I have the curious chance to see the sun setting behind Saint Peter's and the burning disc applying the halo around the blessed dome.

Back in Paris, I find myself saying for the first time, and then I like to repeat:
Rome, a gentle hand that takes your heart.
And then I went to Naples for five days.

I will slide past the bad memory remaining of the monstrous begging, hidden under the innocent trade of the mandolins in porcelain and fragments of coral, but pushing its instances to the persecution, poisoning the days as much as the mosquitoes do with the nights. I will not speak more about my visits to the famous museums, the ruins of Pompei.

I will only tell you about an unforgettable evening whose splendour was ordered by unique nature.

It was the Thursday before Easter. The beautiful Neapolitans, very scrupulously carrying out their ritual visits, had crowded into the most famous churches. The afternoon was coming to an end when, having gone to the tip of Posillipo, a peninsula bordering the marvellous bay to the west by a high cliff, I took the tram back to Naples. The roadway it followed sometimes ran along the precipice, from which it hardly ever departs. Approaching slowly, the soft ripple of the sea at our feet expired in crumbs of foam on the outcrop of the rocks. The length of the winding road, the frequent stops of the vehicle meant that, leaving already late in the day, I reached the end of the route by a complete night. In the two hours of the journey the revolution was accomplished.

In front of me, beyond Naples I had Vesuvius, and on my right, damming the gulf to the east, the Sorrento peninsula, higher than the Vosges. These mountains would define the perspective if the dimensions of the marine circle, closed to the south by the island of Capri, were not twenty times greater than the altitudes. Here the grandiose tempers itself with balance and harmony. So it can take on grace and sweetness.

From our left, over the crest of Posillipo dominating our position from above, the sun in its decline illuminates with its grazing lights all the eastern approaches, therefore opposite us, of Naples and its gulf. The volcano lit in this way separates into clear horizontal zones, the hues of softness and languor at the base, passing from loving it to wanting, harden around the summit, capped with its perpetual smoky plume. Sun, ready to sink beyond the waves of the Tyrrhenian sea, the last wet rays paint on the background of the mountains the changing shades of iridescent plumes.

Below us, the shadow of the Posillipo continues to stretch out over the calm and united sea. Above the immense theatre an august serenity hovers, summoned by the close of daybreak. The boats carrying indolent passengers, which the distance makes appear tiny, slow down their progress. The rowers stop their movement. The noises are extinguished so as not to disturb the meditation which takes over nature, while the aerial region exposed to the sun's rays rises with the lower rays of the sun. An emanation of silent harmonies, hitherto oppressed by the energy of the day, inspires with bliss the panorama whose colours, free of violence, are refined and powdered. A kind of ecstasy where the memory of previous hours, hot and tumultuous, is abolished, seems to penetrate souls and matter. Time stands still. Nature falls asleep with her rapture.
In the symphony and its dying adagio, it is the high point that drags on.
The sun has finally disappeared. The shadow rises, occupying its empire. Instantly thicker, in a few minutes it has become dark. Still far from us the lights of the big city shine, and also a fine sowing of fireflies at various points on the horizon. The tram continues on its way and my eyes dive in vain on the indistinct and dark mass of the sea. But a new clarity appears.

At the far end of the long valley of Castellamare the pink moon has risen. It rises, and, from our sight, its rays reaching the bay spray it with a purple rain to our feet. The show comes alive with a second life. In its ascent the disc of the moon emerges from the mists of the horizon. It therefore returns the faithful image of the sun passed behind the earth. The reflection on the waters of the gulf directs towards us a large blade of gold with shimmering dents, posed like a flaming sword on the blue satin of the sea.

The hour passes, captivated, intoxicated with a magnificence evolving its phases before our eyes.

The moon is now very high or well it has risen. The gulf, up to the horizon after the coal block of Capri, is a basin with sinuous and black edges of which a mass of pale and limpid diamonds has filled the bottom.

The soul of the landscape has passed into serious melancholy. The hour of the sea is ended. The fiery night life is from now on all in Naples.

Last Updated July 2020