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From Here to Eternity

America’s Rome Vol. I: Classical Rome Vol. II: Catholic and Contemporary Rome

by William L. Vance
Yale University Press, Vol. II, 498 pp., $30.00 each volume


Rome has never been so much Rome, never expressed its full meaning so completely as nowadays,” the English essayist and novelist Violet Paget wrote under her pseudonym, Vernon Lee, in 1900.

This change and desecration, this inroad of modernness merely completes its eternity. Goethe has an epigram of a Chinese he met here; but a Chinese of the eighteenth century completed Rome less than an American of the nineteenth. Not only all roads in space, but all roads across Time converge hither.

American visitors to Rome had steadily increased in numbers from the late eighteenth century onward and were to go on increasing. They included most notably Henry James, no friend to Vernon Lee, whom he called a “tiger cat.” He had been lucky enough to go there for the first time in 1869, the year before it was transformed into the capital of United Italy and he went back time and again, on one occasion for a visit of nearly two years.

But he dissociated himself from the distressing incursions of modernity. In his travel writing and his biography of the sculptor William Wetmore Story—for many years the central figure in the American Roman “colony”—he tended to avert his eyes from changes in the urban scene. And the city he so beautifully evoked in his fiction remained the one he had first seen—a picturesque, underpopulated treasure house of mainly “antique” art and architecture, like the Rome of Hawthorne’s Marble Faun. For nowhere was the contrast between the moral values of the old world and the new more sharply defined than in the ruins of the Colosseum, among the statues of the Capitoline Museum or in St. Peter’s. The experience of Rome completed his protagonists more than they completed its eternity.

James described a first visit to Italy as a “great event (the revelation)” that was “never to be surpassed or effaced.” His own long, but characteristically never fully consummated, love affair with the country has been much studied recently. So too have the Italian experiences of many other Americans. A brilliant and very perceptive general account, The Dream of Arcadia (1958) by Van Wyck Brooks, is still the most accessible.1 America’s Rome by William L. Vance is a different kind of book, fully documented, well illustrated, and very much longer, though concerned with one city only: two volumes devoted respectively to American reactions to “Classical Rome” and to “Catholic and Contemporary Rome” from the eighteenth century to the 1980s. Vance investigates the diversity of these reactions as manifested in writings, paintings, and sculptures often of great appeal as vivid records also involving a “degree of self-representation.” It is with this that Vance is mainly concerned. His book makes, in fact, a major contribution to an understanding of the development of American culture and of America’s conception of itself over two centuries.

To Americans, nowhere did the old world seem older than in Rome with its visible record of more than two millennia of unbroken history—its pagan ruins, its churches dating back to the first centuries of Christianity, its opulent palaces set amid slums, its princes of ancient lineage, priests, and beggars. Here at the birthplace of classical Christian civilization Americans were confronted with problems that still perplex—the dominance of the classical tradition in education, the value of history, the strengths and weaknesses of republican government in Ancient Rome and modern America, the limits of religious tolerance, the equivocations of Puritan morality. They were bound to reflect on what it meant and still means to be American. And Vance’s book can, perhaps, be fully appreciated only by American readers. To a European, like this reviewer, it is nevertheless of the greatest interest, especially for the light it sheds on the similarities and differences between America’s Rome and England’s, France’s, Denmark’s, Germany’s, or, for that matter, Italy’s, all of which lie in the penumbra of Vance’s closely focused study. In a few places reference to other views of the city and its history might help to define American attitudes still more sharply; though that is hardly a criticism of this masterly investigation of a subject that has never before been adequately studied.

The Americans with whom Vance is concerned began to arrive in the mid-eighteenth century. They included Benjamin West, whose visit to Italy, from 1760 to 1763, was financed by Philadelphians whom he was expected to repay by painting copies of famous pictures. In this way his situation was the same as that of many northern European artists who copied old masters in Rome both to improve their art and earn their keep. He crossed the Atlantic with two young men who traveled like British grand tourists, “to have the pleasure of visiting the different parts of Italy,” as the father of one of them wrote. At that date all three were, of course, British subjects.

The same can be said of Thomas Jefferson’s future mentor, Dr. John Moore, who was in Rome in 1764, had his portrait painted by Angelica Kauffman, and was conducted around the ruins by James Byres, the Scottish cicerone engaged that same year by Edward Gibbon, whose “powers of attention were sometimes fatigued” before the end of his eighteen-week course. Ralph Izard (later to be senator for South Carolina) and his wife had themselves portrayed in one of the best of all grand tour images by the young Bostonian John Singleton Copley, who showed them seated on either side of the copy of an antique statue (called Papirius or Concord) with a distant view of the Colosseum. A few years later, Philip Livingston, whose uncle had been among the signers of the Declaration of Independence, sat—just like a milordo—to the fashionable Pompeo Batoni.

Little is known of the reactions to Rome of these eighteenth-century visitors from America. But Benjamin West was to reminisce forty years later, according to an American friend, that

such was the effect which a sudden passage from a little town on the Delaware to the mistress of the world & such the enthusiasm for his art that his mind was over-whelmed by it. After six weeks of anxious days and sleepless nights, he was obliged to go to Leghorn out of reach of the arts to recover from his enthusiasm. After his mind had become tranquil, he again returned to Rome, but the ardor of his mind instead of being diminished became greater and after seven months he was again obliged to leave Rome and abstain from study. What is still more surprising, he was forced to leave a third time.2

This was the effect that antique statues and the paintings of Raphael, Michelangelo, the Carracci, and Guido Reni were supposed to have on any young artists of true sensibility—at the time of his visit West attributed his ill-health to rheumatism and a growth on his ankle rather than to aesthetic overexcitement—but, in general, when he came to look back on his time in Rome, it was from an American angle. Crossing the Campagna on the way there—his friend John Galt reports—he was “touched with sorrow at the solitude of decay” but “cheered by the thought of the greatness which even the fate of Rome seemed to assure to America.” Reflecting on

the procession of the arts and sciences from the East to the West…he could not but rejoice, in contemplating the skeleton of the mighty capital before him, that they had improved as they advanced, and that the splendor which would precede their setting on the shores of Europe, would be the gorgeous omen of the glory which they would attain in their passage over America.

A different future for America was envisaged by John Thayer, a Protestant minister from Boston who published an account of how he came to embrace “the Roman Catholic Religion at ROME, on the 25th of May, 1783,” and expected his fellow countrymen to follow. Vance remarks of this booklet—one of his several discoveries—that

nowhere in the argument is any awareness shown of a possible conflict between the values of Monticello and Rome. On the contrary, it is assumed that America’s separation from Great Britain—victoriously completed in the same year—had laid the necessary groundwork for its conversion to Rome.

It is still more astonishing in view of the circumstances of Thayer’s conversion, for he wrote that his doubts had been partly resolved by investigating a miraculous cure effected by a draught in which a bone of “the Venerable Labre” had been dipped. Benoit-Joseph Labre was a French ascetic mendicant who had been for some years a familiar figure in Rome, dressed in verminous rags, spending his days in churches and his nights under the stars in the Colosseum. Immediately after his death during Holy Week 1783 he was popularly declared a saint, relics were torn from his corpse, and miracles were promptly reported. This was very embarrassing for the none too ascetic ecclesiastical hierarchy, especially the mondain Cardinal de Bernis who, as French ambassador, had some responsibility for his compatriot—though one he would never have invited to his notoriously lavish entertainments.

Labre’s cult was encouraged by former members of the suppressed Society of Jesus who instructed Thayer. De Bernis did his damndest to preclude official recognition of Labre’s sanctity which, he thought, would expose the church to ridicule. On the subject of Thayer’s conversion, which was claimed as a miracle by his Jesuitical instructors, he wrote with evident satisfaction that the English in Rome “have a very poor opinion of this Bostonian whom they accuse of being irreligious and having embraced Catholicism as a means of obtaining money which he badly needed.” (At this date small pensions were paid to converts who settled in Rome.) The pleasure-loving Pius VI was not to declare Benoit-Joseph Labre venerable until 1794, when more was to be feared from the spread of French atheism than from popular demonstrations of religious enthusiasm. (He was to be beatified in 1859 and canonized in 1881, perhaps significantly at two later moments of tension between the papacy and France.) Thayer, according to his own account, was more Catholic than the Pope or Cardinal de Bernis, who commented: “There is no more true devotion in Rome than elsewhere, but there is certainly more superstition and ignorance.”

After the Napoleonic wars, Rome received a steadily increasing stream of Americans. The prototypical “rubberneck” was already on the scene in the 1820s when Longfellow claimed to have met one who could “dispatch a city in an incredibly short space of time. A Roman aqueduct, a Gothic cathedral, two or three modern churches, and an ancient ruin or so were only a breakfast to him.” The visitors with whom Vance is concerned were more thoughtful. Unlike those of the eighteenth century, they had been born and educated as citizens of the United States: and as they did the round of the ruins they could hardly fail to see a special relevance to themselves. One, Samuel Eliot, began in 1839 to write a history of liberty from its birth in the Forum to its maturity in the United States. He never reached the happy ending; but in the four volumes he published in 1853 he wrote, as Vance remarks, “the first chapter in the essential history of America.” Lessons might also be learned from the decline and fall of the empire, not least because its social structure rested on slavery. Like everyone else, Americans drew from antiquity whatever parallels happened to suit their purpose, without any consistent theory of recurrence and historical necessity. Some still do. “This is the stuff of Roman legions,” Senator Pat Moynihan remarked of the American forces guarding the eastern frontier of Europe.

  1. 1

    Dutton; London: J.M. Dent, 1959.

  2. 2

    Thomas B. Wainright, “Conversations with Benjamin West,” in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. cii (1978), p. 111.

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