In June 1580, Michel de Montaigne and a small number of companions set out on a journey through France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy. The party’s ultimate goal was Rome, which they reached on November 30th, the feast of St Andrew. Montaigne was interested in all he saw in Rome, where he stayed for some months and to which he returned in the autumn of the following year, but he was not always impressed. Here is the entry for January 26th, 1581. The first part of the travel journal is written by a secretary, whose name has not come down to us, and the second part by Montaigne himself:
All these days he spent his time only in studying Rome. At the beginning he had taken a French guide; but when this man quit because of some fancy or other, he made it a point of pride to learn all about Rome by his own study, aided by various maps and books that he had read to him in the evening; and in the daytime he would go on the spot to put his apprenticeship into practice; so that in a few days he could have easily guided his guide.
He said that one saw nothing of Rome but the sky under which it had stood and the plan of its site; that this knowledge that he had of it was an abstract and contemplative knowledge of which there was nothing perceptible to the senses; that those who said that one at least saw the ruins of Rome said too much, for the ruins of so awesome a machine would bring more honor and reverence to its memory: this was nothing but its sepulcher. The world, hostile to its long domination, had first broken and shattered all the parts of this wonderful body; and because, even though quite dead, overthrown, and disfigured, it still terrified the world, the world had buried its very ruin. These little signs of its ruin that still appear above the bier had been preserved by fortune as testimony to that infinite greatness which so many centuries, so many conflagrations, and all the many conspiracies of the world to ruin it had not been able to extinguish completely. But it was likely that these disfigured limbs that remained were the least worthy, and that the fury of the enemies of that immortal glory had impelled them to destroy first of all what was most beautiful and most worthy; and the buildings of this bastard Rome which they are now attaching to these ancient ruins, although fully adequate to carry away the present age with admiration, reminded him precisely of the nests which sparrows and crows in France suspend from the arches and walls of the churches that the Huguenots have recently demolished.
He feared further, seeing the space that this tomb occupies, that we were not aware of all of it, and that the sepulcher itself was for the most part buried; and that judging from the fact that such paltry rubble as pieces of tile and broken pots had built up in ancient times to a pile of such excessive size that it equals in size and breadth several natural mountains (for he compared it in height to the hill of Gurson and estimated it to be twice as broad), this must have been an express ordinance of the Fates, to make the world feel that they had conspired for the glory and preeminence of this city by so novel and extraordinary a testimonial to its greatness.