“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.
In ancient Rome, Americans saw the origins of the humanist culture they shared with Europeans and in the living city a striking contrast with what they themselves had made of it. Some were pious pilgrims to the capital of Catholicism—as the vast majority of European visitors to Rome had been since the early Middle Ages and probably still are today. But the most volubly articulate American commentators on modern Rome were Protestants and freethinkers who were usually appalled by the prevalence of “superstition” and the conspicuously low standard of material life which seemed to them to be interrelated. Their reactions were often similar to those of present-day visitors to Calcutta or Varanasi (Benares). But what troubled Americans of the nineteenth century was that the Rome of beggars and priests was as much a product of Western civilization as their own bright new cities. And here there is a striking difference between the views of Americans and Europeans, especially the British, who were inured to the sight of misery. So far as Catholicism was concerned, the British, not angels but Anglicans, looked with patronizing indulgence on the “errors” into which the Roman Church had fallen but from which it might still be redeemed. Americans were generally much more concerned and radical in their reactions.
James Fenimore Cooper was distinctly unusual in confessing to a “passion for the poetry of Roman worship”; but he was an Episcopalian. His compatriots who had been educated in more radical forms of Protestantism and even those who had lost their faith were perturbed not only by what they saw as an alien religiosity. Their comments reveal, as Vance puts it, “the difficulty the liberal mind has in maintaining its ideal of tolerance towards what it perceives as a bigoted ideology that exploits American freedom in order to gain power to suppress that freedom”—a problem that still exists though Catholics are no longer at its center. Samuel F. B. Morse, who had accompanied Cooper to church services in Rome, published in 1834 a series of letters entitled A Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States. It did nothing to dampen the anti-Catholic fanaticism that led to the burning down of the Ursuline convent in Boston in the same year.
Vance’s Americans regularly complained that Gregory XVI, the reanimator of foreign missions, was more interested in the expansion of the Church than in the physical welfare of his subjects in the Papal States, and that his police forces were employed in hunting down liberals rather than maintaining public order. They had nothing to say of his more beneficent acts which included the first condemnation of the slave trade to issue from the Vatican. Nor did they remark on his enlightened penal code that abolished public executions and floggings, judicial torture, and other medieval survivals (reinstated by Leo XII after the kindly rule of Pius VII). Was their silence due to the fear that an improved image of papal government might assist Catholic infiltration in the United States? As Vance shows, only one American gave the Pope credit for his tolerance in permitting, for the first time, Protestant worship in the Papal States, though only outside the walls of Rome itself.
The tentative gestures toward political liberalism made by Pius IX after his election in 1846 were, however, widely commended by Americans as by the English. Margaret Fuller, who arrived in Rome next year, called him the “genuine king of men.” But this dedicated Mazzinian republican soon changed her mind. She welcomed the Roman Republic in 1849 and, indeed, found its constitution in closer correspondence with her ideals than that of the United States. So closely did she identify with it that she and her husband, the marchese d’Ossoli, who had fought in its defense, prudently escaped when the Pope was restored. But the American sculptor Thomas Crawford, who had also served in the republic’s civil guard, stayed on. So too did Harriet Hosmer. On the other hand, William Wetmore Story and his wife, friends of Margaret Fuller, arrived in time to experience the thrills of the siege of Rome—as from an opera box, Henry James was to say—but left in a carriage flying the white flag when the situation became too uncomfortable, returning later to spend the rest of their lives there.
Like other expatriates, these American residents often expressed a kind of Fabian sympathy for the Risorgimento while enjoying to the full the benefits of the status quo—the low cost of living with abundant domestic service in apartments of princely magnificence, as well as the picturesque charm of an unchanging urban scene. Story, who rented a whole floor of the vast Palazzo Barberini, enthused in his Roba di Roma over the beauty of the
browned rotted walls of Rome, with their peeling mortar, their thousand daubs of varying grays and yellows, their jutting brickwork and patched stonework, from whose intervals the cement has crumbled off, their waving weeds and grasses and flowers, now sparsely fringing their top, now thickly protruding from their sides…
Other American visitors, usually short-term visitors, tended to be more critical, seeing physical decay as evidence of poverty and misgovernment and not in the least picturesque.
Support for the Risorgimento, in England as well as America, was combined with anti-papal feelings which Pius IX exacerbated by his spiritual pronouncements during his last two decades of temporal rule. The elevation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception to a dogma was followed by the publication of the Syllabus of Errors condemning socialism, communism, secret societies, bible societies, clerico-liberal societies, stating that only Catholics could hope for eternal salvation and anathematizing the idea that “every man is free to embrace and profess the religion he shall believe true, guided by the light of reason.” Many devout Catholics were shocked by this document, and worse was to follow when its statements were given retroactive authority by the dogma of papal infallibility—against the protests of many bishops, including several Americans. That “Popery and Protestantism” were, as Samuel Morse had argued, synonymous with “Absolutism and Republicanism” seemed to have been confirmed from the throne of Saint Peter.
Although by this time Karl Marx was already prophesying that the communist revolution would begin in America, there was for long less fear of reds than of Catholics, whose numbers were increasing with the immigration of peasants from Ireland and, indeed, Italy. Pius IX’s foundation of the American College for training priests can hardly have been reassuring. Nor can many Americans have been pleased to learn of his attempt to mediate in their affairs during the Civil War, when he wrote to both Lincoln and Davis urging reconciliation although his sympathies were with the Confederates: there were, he said, “more conversions to Catholicism in the South than the North.” Those who attended audiences—which many did whenever possible—were as much alarmed as flattered by the great interest the Pope expressed in their country.
Attitudes to the Roman Church conditioned reactions to the city’s churches, especially those of the seventeenth century. As Vance remarks:
Any demonstration of the present political power, religious vitality, and material splendor of the Roman Catholic church was a threat to American assumptions about history and about the future. As an effective expression of the Counter-Reformation surviving into the present, the churches of Rome were not something they liked to see.
The more exuberant examples of baroque architecture and sculpture from which Americans averted their eyes had, of course, been censured ever since the mid-eighteenth century not only by Protestants but also by the Roman Jansenists who, however mistakenly, ascribed their stylistic “impurity” to the Jesuits. By the early nineteenth century few Europeans who had an interest in the arts had a good word to say for them. Some Americans were, however, less bound by conventions of taste. Longfellow on his first visit called Bernini’s great fountain in Piazza Navona a noble work of art. Thirty years later Nathaniel Hawthorne thought it “monstrous”; but his notebooks show that he responded to the beauty of several baroque church interiors. Edith Wharton boldly remarked in 1905 that it “might be well for the purist to consider what would be lost if the seventeenth century Rome which he affects to ignore were actually blotted out.” She observed “how skillfully Bernini and his best pupils managed to preserve the balance and rhythm of their bold compositions; and how seldom profusion led to incoherence.” But the Italian Backgrounds she enthusiastically described were still regarded by most of her contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic as hideous foregrounds.
In artistic taste, Vance’s Americans tended to be conservative. They were inclined to admire what had previously been admired, including the paintings by Bolognese masters of the Seicento, despite the fulminations of Ruskin and the objections of Franz Kugler which cast them into European disrepute for nearly a hundred years. (Vance is himself rather behind the times when he remarks on “our failure to see the greatness of Guido Reni.”) On the other hand, they seem to have shown precious little interest in the early Christian and medieval art of Rome. James Jackson Jarves was in the mid-nineteenth century virtually the only American to take a serious interest in early Italian paintings: but his Italian years were spent mainly in Florence, and the fate of his collection, reluctantly acquired for a fraction of its value by Yale in 1871 and little regarded for some forty years, is a sufficient indication of the taste of his compatriots.
Until well into the twentieth century Americans went to Rome mainly to see the antiquities. Ruins seemed to have interested them for their historical associations rather than their architectural qualities (as buildings in the United States demonstrate, Greek simplicity being generally preferred to Roman richness and structural daring). The statues, on the other hand, continued to be regarded as unsurpassed masterpieces, the “wealth of the civilised world,” as Emerson remarked on the collection in the Vatican. Although they gradually came to be recognized as copies after lost Greek originals this did little to alter their status, for it was supposed that the merits of sculpture (unlike paintings) derived from conception rather than execution—a notion that diverted attention from their frequently damaged, patched, and stained surfaces, as well as justifying extensive copying of both ancient and modern statues. They held their interest for the art-loving public as well as such students of classical art as Lucy Wright Mitchell, the first American and so far as I can discover the first woman to write a full History of Ancient Sculpture (1883).
Not until the early twentieth century did the statues come under aesthetic attack together with the art of classical Greece from which they derived, and then only in Europe. As late as 1929 Paul Manship—the art-deco sculptor for whom Vance has a weakness—declared that Italy was “the most important of countries for the study of sculpture, with Rome as the inexhaustible treasure-house”—and he was clearly thinking mainly of antiquities as models for young students. Five years later, at the very beginning of the Great Depression, Americans paid the highest prices for statues from the Lansdowne collection, which typified the taste of the late eighteenth century when it had been largely acquired: more than $100,000 for the fine but much restored Amazon now in the Metropolitan Museum, a very high price indeed at that date for a sculpture, or any work of art. One can but wonder whether admiration for such expressions of a physical ideal both classical and “Caucasian” was in some way connected with the idea that “first in beauty shall be first in might.” (Americans were slow to accept African sculpture.) Or was it due simply to conservatism?
Roman antiquities were made a part of WASP culture by writers and artists whose works reached many Americans who never crossed the Atlantic. Vance investigates the imaginative literature with exemplary thoroughness—The Marble Faun, of course, Roderick Hudson and other works by Henry James, Francis Marion Crawford’s novels which deserve revaluation, as well as a great number of novels and poems that are rarely read nowadays or are totally forgotten, although, in their time, they contributed to the building of America’s Rome. He gives as much attention to the visual arts and his book makes a major contribution to the history of American painting and sculpture, from Benjamin West to Cy Twombly. He discusses and illustrates the paintings of the Campagna which have been little regarded by students of the native landscape traditions, and also the numerous statues carved in Rome by Americans, which were for long dismissed as a collection of “horrors” but are now being disinterred from museum basements throughout the United States even if they have not yet been effectively installed in the American musée imaginaire. But whereas literature expressed reactions that often distinguished and even detached to some extent Americans from Europeans, images in the visual arts maintained close links.
Nineteenth-century American painters in Rome usually worked in styles approved by the academies of Paris and Düsseldorf where some had been trained. And they differed from their European contemporaries less by what they depicted than by what they ignored—there are, for example, very few American images of simple peasant piety of the type so popular with Europeans, though some were painted surprisingly enough by the militantly anti-Catholic Samuel F.B. Morse. Two of the most accomplished and interesting painters, John Gadsby Chapman and Elihu Vedder, settled permanently in Rome. Few of the others stayed for long, and one of them, Worthington Whittredge, recorded that they had difficulty in finding patrons whereas sculptors “often had large orders on hand.”
In fact, the majority of mid-nineteenth-century American sculptors who were celebrated in their own time worked either in Rome or Florence, and Vance gives close attention to their work. They included Harriet Hosmer and William Wetmore Story, the prototypes for Hilda and Kenyon in The Marble Faun, which secured them some enduring fame denied to others, women as well as men. Their ostensible reason for choosing to work in Rome was the opportunity for frequent communion with the masterpieces of antiquity.
But the city had other practical advantages as well for sculptors, advantages that drew them there from all parts of the West (foreigners outnumbered Italians in a contemporary account of sculptors resident in Rome in 1841). Nowhere else were beautiful male and female models so easily available: they stood on the Spanish Steps waiting for clients. Nor were there elsewhere so many well-trained craftsmen ready to undertake the supposedly “technical” task of carving marble with which, as Hawthorne observed, “a sculptor in these days has very little to do.” This made it possible to have numerous identical marble statues executed from a single figure modeled in clay. A visitor to Randolph Rogers’s studio was confronted with seven copies of his Nydia, the blind girl of Pompeii, “all in a row, all listening or groping, and seven marble cutters at work cutting them out. It was a gruesome sight.” Hosmer, who employed as many as twenty technicians at a time, was able to supply thirty copies of her faun-like Puck at a thousand dollars apiece after the first had been bought by the Prince of Wales.
Sculpture “made in Italy” had a cachet valued by art buyers on both sides of the Atlantic, and Americans working in Rome or Florence could reach wider markets and achieve a prosperity enjoyed by few if any of their stay-at-home contemporaries. They were patronized by their compatriots for American monuments—Hosmer’s colossal (three times life-size) Senator Thomas Hart Benton for St. Louis, Rogers’s bulky Civil War memorials for Detroit and Providence, Thomas Ball’s deplorable statue of Lincoln with a freed slave crouching at his feet for Washington and Boston, Story’s of Colonel William Prescott for Bunker Hill. But fame and fortune depended also on the sale of statues to private collectors, in competition with those offered by the many north European sculptors in Rome, not to mention the several Italians who had American patrons. Whatever the nationality of their originators, the products of this Roman sculpture industry had close similarities not only in the handling of marble (by local Italian craftsmen) but also in style and subject matter. All expressed similar aesthetic preferences and observed the same taboos, especially in the rendering of nude figures.
Statues and busts of Americans in antique costume were in steady demand but it is seldom easy to discern whether they were intended to associate their subjects with the moral qualities of the ancients or were merely following a European convention. Statues of George III and the first Earl of Chatham in Roman costume had been exported from England to America toward the end of the colonial period and thrown down during the Revolution. George Washington asked to be portrayed by Houdon in the clothes he normally wore. He was nevertheless to be shown in a Roman general’s attire—with obvious reference to Cincinnatus—in the statue carved by Canova on the recommendation of Thomas Jefferson, who said that antique costume would be preferred to modern by the “artist and every man of taste in Europe.” There was a great deal of discussion and controversy on this issue, called in Germany the Kostümstreit—Toga oder Pantalon. Horatio Greenough in Florence carved his colossal statue of Washington posed in hubristic emulation of the Olympian Zeus by Phidias; but the nudity of the torso gave offense. Hosmer portrayed Thomas Hart Benton in a pose that recalls Demosthenes but prudently covered both his shoulders in a toga-like cloak.
Americans were sometimes embarassed by the sculptural nudity they encountered in Rome, although the Vatican’s Venus was provided with a plaster skirt, while the Capitoline Museum’s Venus, Cupid and Psyche, and Leda and the Swan were hidden away in a room kept closed on public visiting days. Vance’s interesting analysis of their comments on the male statues, wearing only the fig leaves that had begun to flutter down in the late eighteenth century, reveals how prudish and deeply Puritan most of his Americans were. They focused exclusively on facial expressions as if they did not see the bodies beneath. There was, nevertheless, a demand in the United States as in Europe for statues inspired by the antique, usually nude, to decorate private houses and gardens: they were the most conspicuous symbols of their owners’ classically formed taste and their superiority to a general public unable to distinguish between the naked and the nude.
Sculptors respected propriety, however, and their female figures were modestly posed with heads turned to avoid the gaze of spectators. They were “clothed all over with sentiment, sheltered, protected by it, from every profane eye,” as one writer remarked of The Greek Slave by Hiram Powers—nude but for her chains which were not, presumably, intended to arouse sadistic fantasies. The bodily proportions of adolescents provided a general rule, in the innocent belief that statues of boys and girls had less erotic appeal than those of mature men and women. Innumerable nymphs, fauns, young shepherds, and fisherboys crossed the Atlantic. And those by American sculptors might suggest that in matters of taste the United States in no wise lagged behind Europe, while its morals were superior to the ancient world with its often quite overtly lubricious statuary.
Artists were, of course, assimilated into the cosmopolitan world of Rome more easily and fully than other Americans, apart from Margaret Fuller, who was in every way exceptional. Worthington Whittredge remarked of his fellow painters in the 1850s:
The necessity of selling our work made us bestir ourselves in society, in making the acquaintance of all the strangers we could, who had come to town. In doing this we often fell in with many very delightful people of other nations than our own.
Looking back to the same years, however, the British writer Frances Minto Elliot recalled in Roman Gossip (1894) that there was an “English set, exclusive, dull, pretentious, keeping much aloof, especially toward Americans, whom they held in the light of Pariahs…The American set on the other hand…, despising the English, formed quite a world in itself, with its own manners, customs and drawl, to which outsiders, especially English, were rarely admitted.” She was once invited by the US consul to a “most charming dance of American girls” but when she inquired why she was never asked again she “was told that being admitted at all was considered too great a favor to repeat.”
One result of the self-segregation of the “American set” was that its members sometimes defined themselves in contrast not with the ancient Romans but with the British whom they encountered on territory that was, so to speak, neutral—as in Henry James’s fiction. Italians presented a different kind of contrast. Their supposed fecklessness was viewed with Puritan disapproval, though sometimes also with a touch of envy. Only the highest and lowest levels of society figure in the memoirs, travel writings, or fiction of Americans in Rome. They seem to have very rarely met their social equals of the Italian middle class. They took little interest in politics from 1870 until Mussolini seized power, and then he was generally applauded by Americans as well as the British. Nor do they seem to have read much nineteenth-century Italian literature—still too little appreciated outside the country. It was left to Eleanor Clark in Rome and a Villa (1953) to reveal the strength, vitality, and wit of G.G. Belli’s Roman dialect sonnets. But this remarkable book stands at the beginning of a new era in the history of America’s Rome.
In 1944 the entry of the Fifth Army brought to Rome Americans of a type who had never been there before—soldiers oblivious of the papacy and the classical past, but ready to enjoy the present pleasures offered by the città aperta. They were followed a few years later by a generation that had grown up during the Depression, and had limited transatlantic travel, but now found themselves able to luxuriate in Rome on relatively few dollars. For them the flowers of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone came into full blow. And they discovered a city that by contrast defined the United States in new ways. Some have stayed there ever since.
Baroque art and architecture which had become the object of a cult in Europe between the wars—with devotees ranging from serious Germanic scholars to such Anglo-Saxon dilettanti as the Sitwells—came as a revelation to young Americans in the 1950s. Borromini, the bugbear of all theorists from his own time until the twentieth century, was now acclaimed as one of the greatest of all architects. This revolution in taste may have been brought about partly by pluralistic or merely indifferent attitudes to religious practices. But it seems also to have been a reaction against the proliferation throughout the United States of drab high-rise blocks in a debased version of the International Modern style. Vance mentions drawings of baroque façades and fountains by Michael Graves, a student at the American Academy in Rome in the 1960s and already on the road to Post-modernism. He might also have said something of Robert Venturi’s more adventurous studies in Rome, which embraced not only seventeenth-century churches but also, more significantly, the little known neo-baroque buildings of the 1920s in which he found a stimulating “complexity and contradiction.”
For some Americans, and Europeans also, this new appreciation of Roman architecture and sculpture was part of a much wider revolt against Puritanism involving a surrender to sensuality in both art and life. At the beginning of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Tennessee Williams described a youth whose “beauty was notable even in a province where the lack of it is more exceptional in a young man. It was the sort of beauty that is celebrated by the heroic male sculptors in the fountains of Rome.” In a private letter of the same time he remarked that the buttocks of Roman boys had been “celebrated by artists for many centuries”; he had bedded any number of Michelangelo’s “more delicate creations, in fact the abundance and accessibility is downright embarassing.”
Nineteenth-century Americans had gazed up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel without noticing the ignudi! And although some had, like their British and German contemporaries, acquired the favors of Roman boys, this was rarely mentioned—and was still a dangerous topic in the 1950s. Tennessee Williams prudently cast the central character of his novel as an aging actress rather than a playwright in his mid-thirties. Homosexuality in Rome was taken for sophisticated granted in Gore Vidal’s The Judgment of Paris. More conventional American attitudes were reflected in Howard Fast’s best-selling Spartacus, which presented it as a deplorable vice of the ancient Romans. Increasing permissiveness in the United States from the 1960s made this continuing feature of Roman life seem less extraordinary—indeed tame in comparison with New York or San Francisco. Yet it may be doubted whether any American would have published as brazen a record of his homosexual promiscuity as the Journal romain 1985-1986 by Renaud Camus.
During the past two decades Rome, like the rest of Italy, has become increasingly Americanized, by no means always in a negative sense. It is not simply that there are supermarkets everywhere, that the young wear American-style clothes and the most popular show on Italian TV is Beautiful, watched daily by millions, week after week, month after month, year after year. But American literature is widely read and intensively studied—no one can now be fully up to date on Henry James without reading Italian publications.3 Italian artists are nowadays more strongly influenced by Americans than vice versa. And the traffic is not simply one way: the pope visits America and so too do paintings and statues which could previously be seen only after a long journey. Yet Rome itself can still present a formidable challenge to Americans. Cy Twombly, with whom Vance’s book concludes, has struggled with the meaning of its past and present civilization during a residence there of more than thirty years, covering large canvases with graffiti-like palimpsests of time-worn and age-old scrawls—“Virgil,” “Ovid,” and “Roma Roma Roma.” His works are probably inaccessible to anyone without knowledge of cultural developments in America since the war, a classical education, and perhaps also some doubts about the validity of both.
A few years ago I met a Chinese friend and his companions from the Ministry of Culture in Beijing for lunch in the Piazza Navona and it became clear, as they grappled with fettuccini (so coarse and crude in comparison with noodles), that Rome was to them just another incomprehensibly alien Western city. Goethe’s epigram (to which Vernon Lee alluded in 1900) came to mind: “I saw a Chinese man in Rome; all buildings, ancient and modern, appeared to him boring and cumbrous.” And I began to wonder afterward as we made our way to the Pantheon whether his heavy irony was not misplaced. Rome continues to disturb as well as delight Westerners on first encountering their cultural roots. Vance’s fascinating book reveals what it signified, in many different ways, to Americans, as distinct from Europeans. And although its aim is a definition of American culture, it helps to define by contrast European culture as well—the often largely concealed tensions within Atlantic civilization. In fact it is a major work of much greater and wider relevance than its title suggests.
June 13, 1991
Dutton; London: J.M. Dent, 1959. ↩
Thomas B. Wainright, “Conversations with Benjamin West,” in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. cii (1978), p. 111. ↩
Sergio Perosa, ed., Henry James e Venezia, (Florence: Leo Olschki, 1987), is a collection of papers read at a congress held at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice; James W. Tuttleton and Agostino Lombardo, editors, The Sweetest Impression of Life: The James Family and Italy (New York University Press, 1990) is the product of a symposium attended by American and Italian scholars; Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, ed., Henry James: Letterre da Palazzo Barbaro (Milan: Rossellino Archinto, 1989), with an introduction by Leon Edel, includes Italian translations of letters by Henry James, some of which have not yet been published in English. ↩