If I were looking for an Amazon review headline for The Conquest of Rome, Mathilde Serao’s 1885 novel, I’d probably opt for “Zola Does the Italian Parliament.” For, like a number of Zola’s novels, such as The Belly of Paris, Money, or The Ladies’ Paradise, the story is really just the author’s excuse for a long, leisurely and meticulously detailed description of the workings of the behind-the-scenes world of some enterprise most people would have taken for granted.
In this case, it’s the world of the Montecitorio, the Italian Parliament, as seen through the eyes of Francesco Sangiorgio, the newly-elected deputy from a remote rural area of Basilicata, one of the poorest parts of southern Italy. Intensely driven, with great ambition despite deep insecurity for his poverty and humble status, Sangiorgio has fought his way from school teacher to country lawyer to district advocate, and now heads to Rome to launch his political career.
A man with little in the way of personality, Sangiorgio soon learns how low is the position of an unknown deputy from a backward district in a parliament as large as the U. S. House of Representatives. Taking a cheap room in a dank and dirty boarding house, he makes almost no acquaintances until he is befriended by Tullio Giustini, a hunchbacked deputy from Tuscany. Shunned for his physical defects, Giustini uses his position as an outsider to act as an acerbic critic of the Montecitorio and its social strata.
“Why should it be concerned with you,” he asks Sangiorgio, “an infinitesimal atom, passing across the scene so quickly? It is indifferent; it is the great cosmopolitan city which has this universal character, which knows everything because it has seen everything.” To conquer Rome, he advises, one must have “a heart of brass, an inflexible, rigid will; he must be young, healthy, robust, and bold, without ties and without weaknesses; he must apply himself profoundly, intensely to that one idea of victory.” It’s obvious that Giustini considers this a fool’s goal, but instead, Sangiorgio is inspired and vows to become the next conqueror.
With no money and no social connections, Sangiorgio has little chance of being noticed, but Giustini takes him along to a reception hosted by Countess Fiammanti, whose salon is one of the true centers of power. Sangiorgio’s looks are nothing to speak of, but the Countess is attracted by his passion for political success, and spins an idle web to see if she can instigate an affair between him and Donna Angelica Vargas, the wife of a Cabinet member.
Although Donna Angelica never puts her position at risk, she encourages Sangiorgio just enough to fill him with a dangerous blend of romantic and political passion, supercharged by his utter naivety. He rushes headlong into a session of Parliament, at which Donna Angelica’s husband is giving a long and dull speech introducing the new budget. It is a predictable matter, and after droning on for an hour, the Minister concludes and begins accepting the congratulations of his colleagues when another speaker is announced: “Honourable colleagues, I beg for silence. The Honourable Sangiorgio has the floor.”
“‘Who ? Who ?’ was the universal inquiry.”
Taking advantage of the suprised silence, Sangiorgio plays the moment for its full dramatic value.
Hereupon the curious eyes of the members sought out that colleague of theirs, whom scarcely anyone knew. … No one thought him insignificant. And then divers speculations grew rife in the Chamber. Would this new deputy speak for or against the Minister? Was he one of those flatterers who, scarcely arrived, hastened to make a show of loyalty to the Government? Or was he some little impudent nobody who would stammer through a feeble attack before the House, and be suppressed by the ironical murmurs of the assembly? He was a Southerner and a lawyer — only that was known about him. Therefore he would deliver an oration, the usual rhetoric which the Piedmontese detested, the Milanese derided, and the Tuscans despised.
Instead, the Honourable Sangiorgio began to talk deliberately, but with such a resonant, commanding voice that it filled the hall and made the audience give a sigh of relief. The ladies, whom the warmth had half lulled to sleep, revived, and the press gallery, empty since the conclusion of the Minister’s discourse, began to refill with reporters, returning to their places.
Sangiorgio delivers a riveting speech that condemns the Government for its neglect of the very peasantry that elected him, and gains the attention of the press, opposition, and a few members of the Government.
It is, however, just a flash in the pan. Sangiorgio’s only real agenda is to be accepted, and when Donna Angelica begins to take him a little more seriously, he quickly loses all interest in anything aside from having her accept him as a lover. He neglects the affairs of his electorate. He spends money he doesn’t have to create an elegant love nest to entice her. He succeeds only in annoying a better-placed would-be suitor, and the two end up fighting a duel. Sangiorgio wins, but in a manner that merely further alienates him from the people he would engratiate himself with. And so he climbs aboard the train back to the Basilicata, Rome having never really noticed his existence.
It’s a fairly predictable story pattern, one that could be found in dozens of other novels about an ambitious young man from the sticks trying to make it in the big city, and on its own would provide little incentive to read The Conquest of Rome.
What the book really is, though, is a rich and carefully observed journey through Rome as it existed in the 1880s. Serao started as a journalist, and The Conquest of Rome is probably more successful as descriptive rather than artistic work. Here, for example, is Serao’s sketch of the room in which constituents wait for hours on end in hope of an audience with their deputy:
It might have been the anteroom of a celebrated physician, where invalids came, one after another, waiting their turn, looking about with the indifferent gaze of people who have lost all interest in everything else, their thoughts for ever occupied with their malady. And as in such a lugubrious anteroom, which he who has once been there on his own behalf or for one dear to him can never forget, as in such a room are assembled people with all the infirmities that torment our poor, mortal body — the consumptive, with narrow, stooping shoulders, with lean neck, his eyes swimming with a noxious fluid; the victim of heart disease, with pallid face, large veins, yellowish, swollen hands; the anaemic, with violet lips and white gums; the neurotically affected, with protuberant jaws, bulging cheekbones, emaciated frame; and the sufferers from all other diseases, hideous or pitiful, which draw the lines of the face tight, which make the mouth twitch, and impart an unwelcome glow to the hand, that glow that terrifies the healthy — thus, in such a room, did the possessors of all the moral ills unite, oblivious of all complaints but their own. … Every one of those people has a grievance in his soul, an unfulfilled desire, an active, torturing delusion, a secret sorrow, a fierce ambition, a discontent. And in their faces may be seen a corresponding spasmodic twitching, a contraction of angry lips, a dilation of nostrils trembling with nervousness, a knitting of the brows which clouds the whole countenance, hands convulsively doubled in overcoat pockets, a melancholy furrow in the women’s smile, which deepens with every new disillusion. But all of them are completely self-centred, entirely oblivious of foreign interests, indulging in a single thought, a fixed idea, because of which they watch, meet, and conflict with one another, although seeming neither to hear nor to see each other.
There are several dozen such set-pieces in the book–the galleries in the Montecitorio, the grimy quarters of the poorer deputies, the teeming life in the slums along the banks of the Tiber. Like Zola, Serao sometimes forgets to come up for air when she dives into the details, but you just have to slip a page or so further to avoid suffocation. But if you appreciate the chance to step back into a world from 100-plus years ago and soak up the sights and sounds and smells, I can recommend taking a trip through Matilde Serao’s The Conquest of Rome.
The Conquest of Rome, by Matilde Serao
New York City: Harpers, 1902
First published as La conquista di Roma, 1885