I must admit that everything degenerates in the end, and that the purest blood may occasionally lose its high qualities, as the most generous wine turns to molasses or vinegar. But we have all of us met in the world a young man of loftier and prouder bearing, more high-minded and more courageous, than his fellows; or a woman so beautiful and simple and chaste, that she seemed made of a finer clay than the rest of her sex. We may be sure that both one and the other have in their blood some globules of nobility.
These precious globules, which no microscope will ever be powerful enough to detect, but which the intelligent observer sees with the naked eye, are rare enough in Europe, and I am not aware of their existence out of it. A small collection of them might be brought together in France, in Spain, in England, in Russia, in Germany, in Italy. Rome is one of the cities in which the fewest would be found. And yet the Roman nobility is surrounded with a certain prestige.
Thirty-one princes or dukes; a great number of marquises, counts, barons, and knights; a multitude of noble families without titles, sixty of whom were inscribed in the Capitol by Benedict XIV.; a vast extent of signiorial domains; a thousand palaces; a hundred picture-galleries, large and small; a considerable revenue; a prodigal display of horses, carriages, servants, and armorial bearings; some almost royal entertainments in the course of every winter; the remains of feudal privileges; and the respect of the lower orders: such are the more remarkable features which distinguish the Roman nobility, and expose it to the admiration of all the travelling cockneys of the universe.
Ignorance, idleness, vanity, servility, and above all incapacity; these are the pet vices which place it below all the aristocracies in Europe. Should I meet with any exceptions on my road, I shall consider it my duty to point them out.
The roots of the Roman nobility are very diverse. The Orsini and the Colonna families descend from the heroes or brigands of the Middle Ages. That of Caetani dates from 730. The houses of Massimo, Santa-Croce, and Muti, go back to Livy in search of their founders. Prince Massimo bears in his shield the trace of the marchings and counter-marchings of Fabius Maximus, otherwise called Cunctator. His motto is, Cunctando restituit. Santa-Croce boasts of being an offshoot of Valerius Publicola. The Muti family counts Mutius Scaevola among its ancestors. This nobility, whether authentic or not, is at all events very ancient, and is of independent origin. It has not been hatched under the robes of the Popes.
The second category is of Pontifical origin. Its titles and fortunes have their origin in nepotism. In the course of the seventeenth century, Paul V., Urban VIII.; Innocent X., Alexander VII., Clement IX., and Innocent XI. created the houses of Borghese, Barberini, Pamphili, Chigi, Rospigliosi, and Odescalchi. They vied with one another in aggrandising their humble families. The domains of the Borghese house, which make a tolerably large spot on the map of Europe, testify that Paul V. was by no means an unnatural uncle. The Popes have kept up the practice of ennobling their relations, but the scandal of their liberalities ceases with Pius VI., another of the Braschi family (1775-1800).