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. 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 …

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