Saving the Magic City

Vanni/Art Resource
The view of Ponte Vecchio, from the Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence

Italiam petimus!“—We’re off to Italy!—exclaimed John Addington Symonds in his travel journal, enthusiastically repeating it over and over again as he set forth on horseback one October morning in 1883, riding out of the Swiss Alps, through the Majola Pass, down to Chiavenna, a town he praises as “a worthy key to this great gate Italian.” His Latin phrase, which was appropriated a quarter-century later by E.M. Forster, is only pseudo-Virgilian, but the sentiment goes back at least to Aeneas. Whether for dynastic, religious, artistic, medical, antiquarian, or hedonistic reasons, men and women for centuries have longed for Italy. Bernd Roeck’s Florence 1900: The Quest for Arcadia is the most recent account of those who succumbed to this feeling. From the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries, Du Bellay and Montaigne, Sidney and Milton, and those indomitable travelers Thomas Coryate and Fynes Moryson, not to mention Ben Jonson’s Sir Politic Would-be and his logorrheic wife, all traveled to Italy.

By the eighteenth century, the Grand Tour had become such an integral part of a gentleman’s education that Samuel Johnson, who never managed to get there, lamented to Boswell that “a man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority.” A decade later, from 1786 to 1788, Goethe made his famous journey to Italy, his account of which inspired an entire Romantic generation with Italiensehnsucht, longing for the land where the lemon trees flower. Just over a century after that, however, when Freud had a patient who had never been there but dreamed of going to Italy (“gen Italien“), he interpreted her time-honored desire as mere genital obsession.

For northern Europeans, the urge to fuir là-bas was first and foremost because of the weather. In late February and early March, when the gelid north is still wrapped in winter, the Italian sun has already coaxed almond trees into blossom, and the olive groves of Tuscany are carpeted with deep-purple wild anemones. In some cases, travelers hoped, as Keats had, that the vivifying sun would restore their health. Intellectual travelers came to sit and muse among classical ruins, like Goethe in Tischbein’s portrait, enviously pondering the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. Aesthetes came for the beauty of the landscape and people and the harmony of existence, invariably commenting on the scent of flowers everywhere.

Others, like Byron, were in flight from impossible spouses or importunate bill-collectors. Some, like Norman Douglas and Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, discovered opportunities for dalliance afforded by amoral freedoms denied them at home. Still others came to Italy because the good life there was simply much more affordable: servants and villas on the Vomero or in Bellosguardo were cheap and plentiful, and dolcefarniente cost nothing. For “the pallid children,” as Auden described them, “of a potato, beer-or-whiskey/Guilt…

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