William L. Vance, of Boston University, had the brilliant idea of describing the relationship of citizens of a new nation to the civilization of a very old city. In the first volume, Vance concentrates on Americans’ reactions in literature and art to five important classical sites: the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, the Campagna, the Pantheon, and the art galleries of the Capitoline Hill. In the second volume, he reports Americans’ very different reactions to Baroque art and the papacy. He also goes to the American Academy in Rome and describes the works that emerged in this century from that fortress of Americanism on the Janiculum Hill. His style is conversational and lively. Almost every page expresses some vigorous insight or exasperated remark made by the author or his subjects.
This is a book to dip into for its wide-ranging interests and sympathetic insights into America and Americans. The structure, however, is flawed for reasons the author reveals when discussing Francis Marion Crawford’s once popular Ave Roma Immortalis (1898), which viewed Rome area by area. “By this method of chronology and its implied cause-and-effect developments are necessarily sacrificed to topographical accidents and associations. Consequently, random episodes of the past seem to exist simultaneously on a given spot.” Vance’s book suffers from the same fault. We begin with William Dean Howells’ negative reaction in 1864 and 1908 to a century of adulation of classical Rome. The next page discusses a John Vanderlyn watercolor of 1806. The chapter on the Roman Campagna, full of clever comments on individual paintings and passages of literature, moves from Thomas Cole’s paintings of the 1830’s and later, to Washington Allston’s pictures of the beginning of the century, and then leaps to’Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Marble Faun of the 1850’s. This random game of historical hopscotch makes it all but impossible for even the educated reader to see development in our nation’s response to Rome.
Topics and personalities are scattered throughout the two volumes. Cole’s The Course of Empire is discussed in two separate chapters, and we get to see only three of the five paintings. Margaret Fuller’s and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s very characteristic reactions to Rome are found separated in many chapters in both volumes. Vance returns to Hawthorne’s Marble Faun and his Italian Notebooks again and again, with many insightful comments, but the discussions are so scattered we never end up with a feeling for Hawthorne’s vision of the city.
In a rather good, chapter on changing American attitudes toward Baroque Rome, Vance tells us that the 19th century ignored the Trevi Fountain. Chapter 16 of The Marble Faun, however, mentions that during the day the piazza was “thronged with . . . Forestieri [foreigners], who came hither to see the famous fountain.” The passage is important for understanding an intelligent American’s confused attitude toward the Baroque. At first, Hawthorne condemns “the absurd design of the fountain, where some sculptor of Bernini’s school had gone absolutely mad, in marble.” The next paragraph begins a careful description of the fountain by noting, “after all, it was as magnificent a piece of work as ever human skill contrived.” An important scene in The Marble Faun involves a very positive evaluation of Guido Reni’s Archangel Michael Trampling Satan Underfoot. Vance notes that the last century admired Guido while we do not, but never suggests reasons for the change.
The omission is unfortunate because Vance’s discussions of painting are usually excellent. He is less good on sculpture and is very disappointing on the most important sculptor who tried to make Rome’s traditions relevant for great American art, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The important Diana which stood atop Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden is called “a monumental weathervane,” and there is no discussion of the Shaw Memorial, the most important version of the reliefs on the Arch of Titus in modern times, and now known to all viewers of the movie Glory.
It is unfortunate but not at all surprising in a work of American scholarship that Vance’s knowledge of Latin is nonexistent. He mistranscribes, thereby making nonsense out of the inscription on top of the Arch of Titus, which is his first illustration, and a full-page one at that. He mistranslates the title of Gerome’s Ave Caesar morituri te salutant. The Americans who came to Rome and were influenced by it in the 19th century knew Latin. Of course, Howells and Mark Twain seem more sympathetic in their mockery. They share the author’s ignorance of Livy and Vergil.
Nearly a full page is devoted to Howard Fast’s novel Spartacus. The words “Marxist,” “Communist,” and “Stalinist” never pass Vance’s lips, but we are told that the book contains “its own vision of a puritanical Utopian future.” I had never heard Howard Fast called a puritan before, but all is revealed by the bottom of the page. “Fast asserts at one point that a society that finds homosexuality ‘normal’ also is one that finds the crucifixion of six thousand rebel slaves ‘normal.'” Are we to be spared nothing? To fit this in Vance omits all reference to Charles Follen McKim’s Pennsylvania Station, America’s most important work of public architecture drawn from classical inspiration (the Baths of Caracalla).
The idea behind America’s Rome is grandiose, a Roman idea. Its faults are those of the Iron Age of the American university in which we are living. Its virtues are those of a cultured mind of ambition and wide sympathies, and for them the reader who knows and loves Rome and America will be grateful.
[America’s Rome, by William L. Vance (New Haven: Yale University Press) Vol. I: Classical Rome, 440 pp.; Vol. II: Catholic and Contemporary Rome, 544 pp.; $30.00 each]
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