The American Vandal Abroad

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The American Vandal Abroad  (1868) 
by Mark Twain

I am to speak of the American Vandal this evening, but I wish to say in advance that I do not use this term in derision or apply it as a reproach, but I use it because it is convenient; and duly and properly modified, it best describes the roving, independent, free-and-easy character of that class of traveling Americans who are not elaborately educated, cultivated, and refined, and gilded and filigreed with the ineffable graces of the first society. The best class of our countrymen who go abroad keep us well posted about their doings in foreign lands, but their brethren vandals cannot sing their own praises or publish their adventures.

The American Vandal gallops over England, Scotland, Spain, and Switzerland, and finally brings up in Italy. He thinks it is the proper thing to visit Genoa, the stately old City of Palaces, whose vast marble edifices almost meet together over streets so narrow that three men can hardly walk abreast in them, and so crooked that a man generally comes out of them about the same place he went in. He only stays in Genoa long enough to see a few celebrated things and get some fragments of stone from the house Columbus was born in -- for your genuine Vandal is an intolerable and incorrigible relic gatherer. It is estimated that if all the fragments of stone brought from Columbus's house by travelers were collected together they would suffice to build a house fourteen thousand feet high -- and I suppose they would.

Next he hurries to Milan and takes notes of the Grand Cathedral (for he is always taking notes). Oh, I remember Milan and the noble cathedral well enough -- that marble miracle of enchanting architecture. I remember how we entered and walked about its vast spaces and among its huge columns, gazing aloft at the monster windows all aglow with brilliantly colored scenes in the life of the Savior and his followers. And I remember the side-shows and curiosities there, too. The guide showed us a coffee-colored piece of sculpture which he said was supposed to have come from the hand of Phidias, since it was not possible that any other man, of any epoch, could have copied nature with such faultless accuracy. The figure was that of a man without a skin; with every vein, artery, muscle, every fiber and tendon and tissue of the human frame, represented in minute detail. It looked natural, because it looked somehow as if it were in pain. A skinned man would be likely to look that way -- unless his attention were occupied by some other matter.

The Vandal goes to see the ancient and most celebrated painting in the world, "The Last Supper." We all know it in engravings: the disciples all sitting on one side of a long, plain table and Christ with bowed head in the center -- all the last suppers in the world are copied from this painting. It is so damaged now, by the wear and tear of three hundred years, that the figures can hardly be distinguished. The Vandal goes to see this picture -- which all the world praises -- looks at it with a critical eye, and says it's a perfect old nightmare of a picture and he wouldn't give forty dollars for a million like it (and I endorse his opinion), and then he is done with Milan.

He paddles around the Lake of Como for a few days, and then takes the cars. He is bound for Venice, the oldest and the proudest and the princeliest republic that ever graced the earth. We put on a good many airs with our little infant of a Republic of a century's growth, but we grow modest when we stand before this gray, old imperial city that used to laugh the armies and navies of half the world to scorn, and was a haughty, invincible, magnificent Republic for fourteen hundred years! The Vandal is bound for Venice! He has a long, long, weary ride of it; but just as the day is closing he hears some one shout, "Venice!" and puts his head out of a window, and sure enough, afloat on the placid sea, a league away, lies the great city with its towers and domes and steeples drowsing in a golden mist of sunset!

Have you been to Venice, and seen the winding canals, and the stately edifices that border them all along, ornamented with the quaint devices and sculptures of a former age? And have you seen the great Cathedral of St. Mark's -- and the Giant's Staircase -- and the famous Bridge of Sighs -- and the great Square of St. Mark's -- and the ancient pillar with the winged lion of St. Mark that stands on it, whose story and whose origin are a mystery -- and the Rialto, where Shylock used to loan money on human flesh and other collateral?

I had begun to feel that the old Venice of song and story had departed forever. But I was too hasty. When we swept gracefully out into the Grand Canal and under the mellow moonlight the Venice of poetry and romance stood revealed. Right from the water's edge rose palaces of marble; gondolas were gliding swiftly hither and thither and disappearing suddenly through unsuspected gates and alleys; ponderous stone bridges threw their shadows athwart the glittering waves. There were life and motion everywhere, and yet everywhere there was a hush, a stealthy sort of stillness, that was suggestive of secret enterprises of bravos and of lovers; and clad half in moonbeams and half in mysterious shadows, the grim old mansions of the republic seemed to have an expression about them of having an eye out for just such enterprises as these. At that same moment music came stealing over the waters -- Venice was complete.

Our Vandals hurried away from Venice and scattered abroad everywhere. You could find them breaking specimens from the dilapidated tomb of Romeo and Juliet at Padua -- and infesting the picture galleries of Florence -- and risking their necks on the Leaning Tower of Pisa -- and snuffing sulfur fumes on the summit of Vesuvius -- and burrowing among the exhumed wonders of Herculaneum and Pompeii -- and you might see them with spectacles on, and blue cotton umbrellas under their arms, benignantly contemplating Rome from the venerable arches of the Coliseum.

And finally we sailed from Naples, and in due time anchored before the Piraeus, the seaport of Athens in Greece. But the quarantine was in force, and so they set a guard of soldiers to watch us and would not let us go ashore. However, I and three other Vandals took a boat, and muffled the oars, and slipped ashore at 11.30 at night, and dodged the guard successfully. Then we made a wide circuit around the slumbering town, avoiding all roads and houses -- for they'd about as soon hang a body as not for violating the quarantine laws in those countries. We got around the town without any accident, and then struck out across the Attic Plain, steering straight for Athens -- over rocks and hills and brambles and everything -- with Mt. Helicon for a landmark. And so we tramped for five or six miles. The Attic Plain is a mighty uncomfortable plain to travel in, even if it is so historical. The armed guards got after us three times and flourished their gleaming gun barrels in the moonlight, because they thought we were stealing grapes occasionally -- and the fact is we were -- for we found by and by that the brambles that tripped us up so often were grape-vines -- but these people in the country didn't know that we were quarantine-blockade runners, and so they only scared us and jawed Greek at us, and let us go, instead of arresting us.

We didn't care about Athens particularly, but we wanted to see the famous Acropolis and its ruined temples, and we did. We climbed the steep hill of the Acropolis about one in the morning and tried to storm that grand old fortress that had scorned the battles and sieges of three thousand years. We had the garrison out mighty quick -- four Greeks -- and we bribed them to betray the citadel and unlock the gates. In a moment we stood in the presence of the noblest ruins we had ever seen -- the most elegant, the most graceful, the most imposing. The renowned Parthenon towered above us, and about us were the wreck of what were once the snowy marble Temples of Hercules and Minerva, and another whose name I have forgotten. Most of the Parthenon's grand columns are still standing, but the roof is gone.

As we wandered down the marble-paved length of this mighty temple, the scene was strangely impressive. Here and there in lavish profusion were gleaming white statues of men and women, propped against blocks of marble, some of them armless, some without legs, others headless, but all looking mournful and sentient and startlingly human! They rose up and confronted the midnight intruder on every side; they stared at him with stony eyes from unlooked-for nooks and recesses; they peered at him over fragmentary heaps far down the desolate corridors; they barred his way in the midst of the broad forum, and solemnly pointed with handless arms the way from the sacred fane; and through the roofless temple the moon looked down and banded the floor and darkened the scattered fragments and broken statues with the slanting shadows of the columns!

What a world of ruined sculpture was about us! Stood up in rows, stacked up in piles, scattered broadcast over the wide area of the Acropolis, were hundreds of crippled statues of all sizes and of the most exquisite worksmanship; and vast fragments of marble that once belonged to the entablatures, covered with bas-reliefs representing battles and sieges, ships of war with three and four tiers of oars, pageants and processions -- everything one could think of.

We walked out into the grass-grown, fragment-strewn court beyond the Parthenon. It startled us every now and then, to see a stony white face stare suddenly up at us out of the grass, with its dead eyes. The place seemed alive with ghosts. We half expected to see the Athenian heroes of twenty centuries ago glide out of the shadows and steal into the old temple they knew so well and regarded with such boundless pride.

The full moon was riding high in the cloudless heavens now. We sauntered carelessly and unthinkingly to the edge of the lofty battlements of the citadel, and looked down, and, lo! a vision! And such a vision! Athens by moonlight! All the beauty in all the world could not rival it! The prophet that thought the splendors of the New Jerusalem were revealed to him, surely saw this instead. It lay in the level plain right under our feet -- all spread abroad like a picture -- and we looked down upon it as we might have looked from a balloon. We saw no semblance of a street, but every house, every window, every clinging vine, every projection, was as distinct and sharply marked as if the time were noonday; and yet there was no glare, no glitter, nothing harsh or repulsive -- the silent city was flooded with the mellowest light that ever streamed from the moon, and seemed like some living creature wrapped in peaceful slumber. On its father side was a little temple whose delicate pillars and ornate front glowed with a rich luster that chained the eye like a spell; and, nearer by, the palace of the king reared its creamy walls out of the midst of a great garden of shrubbery that was flecked all over with a random shower of amber lights -- a spray of golden sparks that lost their brightness in the glory of the moon and glinted softly upon the sea of dark foliage like the pallid stars of the Milky Way! Overhead, the stately columns, majestic still in their ruin; underfoot, the dreaming city; in the distance the silver sea -- not on the broad earth is there another picture half so beautiful!

We got back to the ship safely, just as the day was dawning. We had walked upon pavements that had been pressed by Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Socrates, Phocion, Euclid, Xenophon, Herodotus, Diogenes, and a hundred others of deathless fame, and were satisfied. We got to stealing grapes again on the way back, and half a dozen rascally guards with muskets and pistols captured us and marched us in the center of a hollow square nearly to the sea -- till we were beyond all the graperies. Military escort -- ah, I never traveled in so much state in all my life.

I leave the Vandal here. I have not time to follow him farther -- not our Vandals to Constantinople and Smyrna and the Holy Land, Egypt, the islands of the sea, and to Russia and his visit to the emperor. But I wish I could tell of that visit of our gang of Quaker City Vandals to the grandest monarch of the age, American's stanch, old steadfast friend, Alexander II, Autocrat of Russia!

In closing these remarks I will observe that I could have said more about the American Vandal abroad, and less about other things, but I found that he had too many disagreeable points about him, and so I thought I would touch him lightly and let him go.

If there is a moral to this lecture it is an injunction to all Vandals to travel. I am glad the American Vandal goes abroad. It does him good. It makes a better man of him. It rubs out a multitude of his old unworthy biases and prejudices. It aids his religion, for it enlarges his charity and his benevolence, it broadens his views of men and things; it deepens his generosity and his compassion for the failings and shortcomings of his fellow creatures. Contact with men of various nations and many creeds teaches him that there are other people in the world besides his own little clique, and other opinions as worthy of attention and respect as his own. He finds that he and his are not the most momentous matters in the universe. Cast into trouble and misfortune in strange lands and being mercifully cared for by those he never saw before, he begins to learn that best lesson of all -- that one which culminates in the conviction that God puts something good and something lovable in every man his hands create -- that the world is not a cold, harsh, cruel, prison-house, stocked with all manner of selfishness and hate and wickedness. It liberalizes the Vandal to travel. You never saw a bigoted, opinionated, stubborn, narrow-minded, self-conceited, almighty mean man in your life but he had stuck in one place ever since he was born and thought God made the world and dyspepsia and bile for his especial comfort and satisfaction. So I say, by all means let the American Vandal go on traveling, and let no man discourage him.

This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.