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Description: America’s Rome: Volume I—Classical Rome
Although some Americans preferred to live in Florence or (later) Venice, Rome offered by far the richest repository of historical suggestion and the most provocative stimuli to creative representation. Indeed, in all the ways that Americans were obliged to confront the fact of Europe in the shaping of their own identity ...
PublisherYale University Press
Those have not lived who have not seen Rome.
—Margaret Fuller (1848)
Rome became a city for me only when I chose, as did many before me, to give it a sense and for me Rome can exist only in so far as I have shaped it to my idea…. We are not in relationship with anything until we have enwrapped it in a meaning, nor do we know for certainty what that meaning is until we have costingly labored to impress it upon the object.
—Julius Caesar in Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March (1948)
This is a book about Rome.
This is a book about America.
For over two hundred years American writers, painters, and sculptors have been visiting Rome and making artifacts of their own national culture from what they saw and experienced there. This is a book about those artifacts—the representations of that experience in ink, paint, marble, and bronze.
Americans, sharing a fascination for Italy with German, French, and English writers and artists, were extremely conscious of the uses to which Italy had been put by other European nations in their own cultural self-definitions. But as citizens of a new nation, they felt that they had the most to gain and that what they gained would be distinctive. Both the uniqueness of their political identity and the deprivations of their cultural circumstances intensified their experience of Italy. In Italy were to be found a concentration of history and an access to experience, knowledge, and pleasure that could not be had at home. In 1869 Charles Eliot Norton wrote to his friend John Ruskin, “Italy is the country where the American, exile in his own land from the past record of his race, finds most of the most delightful part of the record.” Two years later he contrasted the American experience of Italy with that of Germany: “In Italy one feels as if one had had experience, had known what it was to live, had learnt to know something if but very little, and could at least enjoy much.”1 Norton, Letters, 1:349, 410.
Although some Americans preferred to live in Florence or (later) Venice, Rome offered by far the richest repository of historical suggestion and the most provocative stimuli to creative representation. Indeed, in all the ways that Americans were obliged to confront the fact of Europe in the shaping of their own identity (an identity that owed more to Europe than it did to the western frontier), Rome offered the greatest challenge and some of the most precious gifts. England, as the “old home” of the Anglo-Saxon Americans who founded our culture and determined our language, was the place from which America most needed to differentiate itself. In contrast Rome before 1870 was the place most alien to America. Burdened and enriched by more historical strata than any other place; preserver of great art from antiquity and the Renaissance that had been inspired by pagan myths and celebrated the nude; center of a medieval religion from which the original Americans had fled; oppressed by autocratic rule and populated by a sensual and degraded people—Rome, a city with no future, was antithetical to what America was and (in all ways except the aesthetic) to dreams of what it might become. Rome thus originally had for Americans the attraction of the Other, both in the knowledge and beauty that it offered and in the horrors of its spiritual and social condition.
The story of American representations of Rome, however, is one of changes, in the representers as in the Rome represented. Hundreds of writers and artists have written their Roman fictions and commentaries or painted their Roman images and in doing so have represented themselves. But those who wrote of the modern capital of Italy in 1944, when the American Fifth Army passed through its walls, or painted it in 1955, in the days of la dolce vita, had little in common with those Americans who in 1844 or 1855 had visited a supposedly dying little papal city surrounded by a desolate Campagna. Within our narrative of America’s possession of Rome through the works of its artists and writers, then, is the story of two great changes: in America’s own idea of itself and in Rome as the place against which that idea could be measured.
Much has been written on the subject of Americans in Italy—first and most notably by Henry James, subsequently by Giuseppe Prezzolini, Van Wyck Brooks, Howard S. Marraro, Paul Baker, and Nathalia Wright, and most recently by Michele Rivas and Eric Amfitheatrof. One of the ways in which this book differs from theirs is that the subject of Americans in Italy has a secondary place; its primary focus instead is on Rome and on the actual works by Americans—the writings, paintings, and sculpture—that resulted from their encounter with Rome. These works, of course, always involve a degree of self-representation. This fact is of major significance since it determines the character of the Rome represented, which is always the product of partial perception and selective emphasis. But exploring what individual Americans made of their experience is a different thing from describing the historical phenomenon of the American presence in Italy. The lives of Americans in Rome appear here only as they affected representations of Rome. On the other hand, it has sometimes been necessary to consider the ideas of writers and the works of artists who never went to Rome at all, in order to define more sharply the motive of an argument or the relative quality of an achievement in the representations of those who did go.
But neither has a catalog of those representations been my purpose. I have been most interested in exploring how the representations spoke to each other (not always knowingly), and in how they were devised as messages to America about itself or, in the case of paintings and sculptures, as appropriate, even necessary contributions to American culture. For nothing is further from the truth than the idea that American artists in Europe forgot who they were or where they came from. With rare exceptions, they labored as Americans for America. Some of the most eloquent testimonials from fellow citizens who visited their Roman studios are tributes to the heroism of the artists who lived in self-imposed exile so that they might become capable of giving America the great art it needed and deserved. Their sacrifice was a measure of their patriotism. The necessity of Rome to artists, and its effect upon them, were, of course, points of contention in the writings about Rome (including many by artists themselves). Indeed, Rome in all its aspects was problematical for Americans, as I have already intimated. Italy as a whole was very far from being the Dream of Arcadia or the Enchanted Land that it has been represented as being through a romantic emphasis upon its happier features. And in none of its four contemporary phases—papal, monarchical, fascist, and republican—has Rome offered unalloyed pleasure or an escape from “reality.” The question of what could be ignored in order to enjoy what one wished Rome to be is therefore a common element in representations of Rome down to the present day. Starting from the Campagna in 1822 or from the Via Veneto in 1922, we may soon find ourselves far from the actual place, in an aesthetic forest or an aristocratic salon, equally pure products of the imagination.
I have attempted an exposition of my subject sufficiently comprehensive to include the major qualifications necessary to a complex truth. By organizing my descriptions and analyses of hundreds of artifacts around Rome’s most prominent sites and sights—those physical things that make Rome Rome, things of which everyone had to take notice—I have hoped to discover the dominant perceptions and to bring them into relief by placing them against dissenting and eccentric views, which are often more eloquent because more deeply felt. One of the things I have most wished to avoid is to allow the individual representation to be swallowed up in a generalization about “American” opinion. Such generalizations are sometimes necessary as well as possible, but the truth is that there is no “American” representation of Rome, for not only did Americans change over time, but at any given period there were Americans who saw things very differently from other Americans. This is obviously true in the present century characterized by ethnic pluralism, but from the beginning the Americans who described Rome were far more varied, particularly in economic background, than is commonly thought. The majority of Americans who took up permanent residence in Italy or visited annually were no doubt wealthy, but the writers and painters and sculptors who created our Rome were far more typically poor: the work they did in Rome they did for a living. So “America’s Rome” is necessarily a multifaceted and inconsistent Rome collectively created by many diverse individuals. To demonstrate and to preserve their disagreements over matters political, religious, and aesthetic has been one of my major concerns.
I have thought it important, too, to keep them, so far as possible, in the language of the original debates. Nothing is more depressing, or less authentic, than the bland paraphrase from which the engaged individual voice has been removed. It is, in any case, less the idea to which paraphrase reduces any statement than the total character of the statement itself that has interested me. I could no more do without my quotations from writers than I could do without adequate illustration of the paintings and sculptures. This is as true of the scores of forgotten writers as it is of Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Travel writing or art criticism loses vitality only when it is pared down to a common core of experience or limited to the most frequently restated received opinions. Every individual perceived Rome differently, and the best professional writers possessed distinctive styles of representation adequate to the task of rendering their differences. They also calculated differently what would please their readers back in America, since it was for specific American audiences that they wrote. So every Rome differed and every statement was in some sense fresh. My concern has been much more with the recovery of a vast and varied body of American writing—much more easily lost and less easily recoverable than the paintings and sculptures to which the writing is intimately related—than it has been to simplify hundreds of representations into a single national vision.
Travel books and other kinds of writing engendered by the encounter with Rome besides fiction and poetry—journals, letters, chapters of autobiographies, aesthetic, political, and religious commentary and polemics—are essential records of the experience of Rome in its entirety as it mattered to Americans. Travel writing especially is far more vital than one might anticipate. As Henry James, himself a worker in the field, wrote of William Dean Howells’s books on Italy: they “belong to literature, and to the center and core of it,—the region where men think and feel, and one may almost say breathe, in good prose, and where the classics stand on guard.”2 H. James, North American Review 106 (Jan. 1868): 336; quoted in Woodress, Howells, p. 71. Allowing for all calculations of commercial popularity, one still finds in these books immediate personal representations of Rome, representations valuable both in themselves and in the way they provide a context for the usually more artful versions of stories and poems. It is through their representations that we can best recapture what it was like to know Rome in 1850—or even 1950. In digging through old letters and other sources in order to recapture papal Rome, Henry James himself first felt the pathos and the significance of this effort. Thinking of the once-famous painter Jasper Cropsey, and all the forgotten Cropseys of the Hudson River School who also painted Roman scenes with a brilliant palette, James asks “what the Cropseys can have been doing by the bare banks of the Tiber.” What makes such questions in “the history of taste” so “thrilling” is that they require us, in living “over people’s lives,” to “live over their perceptions, live over the growth, the change, the varying intensity of the same—since it was by these things they themselves lived.” To follow this inquiry is to discover “how such dramas, with all the staked beliefs, invested hopes, throbbing human intensities they involve in ruin, enact themselves.”3 H. James, Story, 1:125.
My narrative, with its stops for descriptions and analyses, makes an irregular circuit of Rome’s topography in a sequence determined by the merging of two chronologies. The three great phases of Roman history—classical, Catholic (medieval and baroque), and contemporary (the Rome in which Americans actually lived)—are reflected in my three divisions, the first of which occupies volume I, and the others volume II. It happens that the earliest American interest in Rome as a place (rather than as the Antichrist of Puritanism) centered on the earliest period: classical Rome. The Roman Republic filled the imagination of Adams and Jefferson during the same decades that American artists were first seeing the actual ruins of the Empire. And their own imperial possibilities dominated the imaginations of Americans for the following century. Later Americans (including Catholic Americans) became preoccupied with the character and power of the Roman Catholic church and finally interested themselves in the possibility of democratic developments in an Italy with Rome as its capital. Thus by instructive coincidence the chronology of successively emerging American interests in Rome (none of which ever fully fades away) parallels the chronology of Roman history.
A brief guide to the two volumes of America’s Rome, with an indication of recurrent political, religious, ethical, and aesthetic themes, may be useful. The first three chapters of volume I take the reader from the Forum, center of the ancient Republic, to the Colosseum, greatest emblem of empire, to the Campagna, the melancholy evidence of empire’s fall. Political and social questions dominate the representations of the Forum and the Colosseum; they provoke questions about the uses of history for thinking about republics and empires and for imagining new ones. The Campagna also relates to “the course of empire,” but interest there shifts to themes from classical mythology and conceptions of symbolic or ideal landscapes (a crucial concern for painters whose obvious alternative was the American wilderness). In the final two chapters of volume I we consider what may survive the fall of empire: the gods and an ideal of beauty. At the Pantheon a consideration of Greco-Roman mythology serves as a prelude to tours of the museums of the Capitoline and the Vatican, where still stand those images of nude gods and heroes that so long served as the problematic ideal toward which American sculpture aspired. Neoclassical works of sculpture and painting produced by American artists as icons for an emergent religion of Beauty are explored at length, in the context of related American writing, as the most conspicuous products of the nineteenth-century encounter with Rome.
Volume II begins with representations of Rome as the center of Roman Catholicism. The Church’s three most familiar local icons—as they were regarded by most observers in the nineteenth century—are described: the Santo Bambino, the Mother of God, and the pope. By pursuing representations of the popes down to the present day, we are able to compare the conflicted representations of contemporary American Roman Catholics with those of the antipapal Protestants of the preceding century, whose views had previously been dominant. Religious and aesthetic questions combine in chapter 2, a brief interlude in which we consider the largely negative reaction of nineteenth-century Americans to Rome’s predominantly baroque sculpture and architecture. This judgment would be reversed a century later, when neoclassical sculpture was scorned and everyone adored Borromini.
The third chapter of volume II is the counterweight to the fifth chapter of volume I, in which the values, materials, and commitments necessary for aesthetic achievement were considered. Here some of the questions about political and social achievements, previously asked in relation to the ancient Roman Republic, return in the context of Italy’s move toward national unification and liberalization. The representation of Rome consists now of its people and of the walls, both real and symbolic, that divided them. Not long after 1871, when Rome became the capital of United Italy, it ceased to be the magnet for artists it had been, and visual representations (other than by photography) became the incidental products of artists on brief visits, whose primary centers of activity and artistic influence were elsewhere. But Rome as the capital of a nation undergoing rapid transformation held a new fascination. As the American publishing industry prospered and international journalism developed, written representations of Rome greatly increased between 1870 and 1920 and continued down to World War II, and even then they were kept up by a spy and a nun. Therefore it was possible to compose a continuous collective American representation of the volatile social conditions and dramatic events in Rome from the early days of the Risorgimento to the foundation of the Republic of Italy after World War II.
The significance of such an account lies not in its questionable reliability as contemporary Roman history (foreign eyewitnesses could hardly be expected to provide that) but in the commitments, ambivalences, and contradictions about social and political values displayed by the American recorders themselves. For better or worse, America is always the point of comparison with Rome. Usually it is thought of as better—as the model for Italian progress; but often enough, in 1848 as in 1918 and 1948, American disciples of freedom could declare that only in Rome did they find their “true America.” These representations of Rome thus serve as a kind of running commentary on the changes that America itself was undergoing. Once more, in representing Rome the Americans represented—and sometimes discovered—themselves. The dual process continues to this day. After the war American artists and writers returned to Rome in unprecedented numbers, and chapter 4, as an epilogue, accounts for something of what Americans have made of Rome in the last forty years. Unquestionably they have been a different people visiting a drastically changed city. But in finding their own ways of taking imaginative possession of Rome, these writers and artists have demonstrated once more Rome’s apparently inexhaustible capacity to contribute to America’s unending process of critical self-definition. That Rome—America’s Rome—is the subject of this book.
1      Norton, Letters, 1:349, 410. »
2      H. James, North American Review 106 (Jan. 1868): 336; quoted in Woodress, Howells, p. 71. »
3      H. James, Story, 1:125. »