For Englishmen, the Roman Forum was nearly as much a part of their political heritage as the Tower of London or Westminster Abbey. Since Colonial America was a part of British culture, educated American colonists shared in the British reverence for antiquity. Eighteenth-century Englishmen (and those Americans who could manage it) traveled to Italy—Rome in particular—in search of roots of the kind that have nothing to do with ethnicity, and everything to do with culture and the burden of a glorious shared past.
Philip Stanhope, earl of Chesterfield, whose letters to his son express the ideal of the civilized life conceived of as a Mozart concerto, visited Rome only once, as a young man. In 1750, he offered this advice: “You will probably never see Rome again; and therefore you ought to see it well now: by seeing it well, I do not mean only the buildings, statues, and paintings; though they undoubtedly deserve your attention; but I mean seeing into the constitution and government of it.” Earlier, Chesterfield suggested his private view of the English community at Rome when he wrote of the “sauntering, illiterate English . . . living entirely with one another, supping, drinking, and sitting up late at each others’ lodgings; commonly in riots and scrapes when drunk; and never in good company when sober.” Elsewhere, he remarks, “You seem to like Rome. . . . Have you made an acquaintance with some eminent Jesuits? I know no people in the world more instructive.” Given the earl’s detestation of popery, the comment may be surprising. The Catholic Church, however, seems to have had a fascination for Chesterfield (as it did for many English and even more, as we shall see, for American visitors to Rome), since he also wrote, in an earlier letter, “A propos of the Pope: remember to be presented to him before you leave Rome, and go through the necessary ceremonies for it, whether of kissing his slipper or his b-h; for I would never deprive myself of anything that I wanted to do or see, by refusing to comply with an established custom.”
In the fall of 1764, 14 years after le petit Stanhope left Rome, another Englishmen, far better known today, arrived there. The young gentleman, only recently a British military officer, had come down to Italy from Geneva, where he had lived for some years and rediscovered his Protestant faith after losing it temporarily to popery. Twenty-five years later, memories of his first view of Rome remained sharp in his mind.
I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal city. After a sleepless night I trod, with lofty step, the ruins of the forum; each memorable stop where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present to my eye; and several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation.
A few days after his arrival, he wrote to his father in England;
I am now Dear Sir at Rome. If it was difficult before to give you or Mrs. Gibbon any account of what I saw it is impossible here. I have already found such a fund of entertainment for a mind somewhat prepared for it by an acquaintance with the Romans, that I am really almost in a dream. Whatever ideas books may have given us of the greatness of that people. Their accounts of the most flourishing state of Rome fall infinitely short of the picture of its ruins. I am convinced there never never existed such a nation and I hope for the happiness of mankind that there never will again.
In expressing hope that, for mankind’s sake, no new Rome would ever arise, Edward Gibbon expressed his ambivalence on the subject that became his life’s work. Only days or weeks later, presumably, he had his memorable experience, memorably expressed, of sitting by the Campodoglio listening to the monks chant vespers when the idea for The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire occurred to him.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Rome had become, for English writers, less an ancient model and fons et origo than what we would call today an interactive artwork, offering a sensuous contemporary experience as much as a recreative intellectual one. At the same time, Italy as a whole, in the early Risorgimento, was, like Greece, a symbol of nationalistic freedom and secular progressivism. Lord Byron’s appreciation of Rome, which he saw for the first time in 1817, is typical of the English poetic response of the period—less cerebral than emotional.
Byron had been living in Venice, enjoying Carnival and another man’s wife when he—reluctantly—yielded to his friend John Hobhouse’s urging to join him in Rome. “Rome the wonderful,” he called it, when he finally saw the city. Before, the poet had found perfection only in nature. Now, he drought he could fully comprehend the passion for art he had previously dismissed as “cant.” “As a whole,” he wrote, “ancient and modern, it beats Greece, Constantinople, every thing.” Once settled in, he had a look at the town: “I have this morning seen a live pope and a dead cardinal.” On the saddle horses he brought with him, he rode “all about the country,” had his bust done by Bertel Thorswalden, and witnessed a public execution at which three criminals were guillotined. The day after the execution, he was off to Lombardy.
Byron’s friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, arriving in Rome several years later, found “that the story of the Cenci was a subject not to be mentioned in Italian society without awaking a deep and breathless interest.” This story (of events in Rome at the end of the 16th century) concerned Beatrice, a beautiful young noblewoman who, after submitting to her father’s incestuous attack, killed him with the help of her mother and brother; all of them were later put to death by order of the pope himself. The story haunted Shelley for many reasons, especially because he perceived the pope to be responsible for the tragedy, underscoring the contrast between the nature of Catholic and Protestant piety.
Shelley found the ultimate meaning of the tragedy of the Cenci to be what he called Catholicism’s “combination of an undoubting persuasion of the truth of the popular religion with a cool and determined perseverance in enormous guilt.” For him, this was the deepest horror.
For most Americans visiting Rome in the 19th century, up to and after the War Between the States, the gap between Roman religiosity and Roman behavior was, quite simply, scandalous. It did not help that, as Erik Amfitheatrof has said, they approached the Vatican pretty much the way Americans in the 1950’s and 60’s approached the Kremlin. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, paving the city a visit as a young man in 1828, wrote, “Whenever I go to the principal street of the city at the hour for promenade, I see a lady of the highest tone, who has a rich young banker as her cicisbeo, driving in her carriage, with her daughter, her husband and her lover!” Yet Longfellow experienced what he described as “the awe and sublime joy which every student must feel when looking his first upon the “lone mother of dead empires,'” whose effect, he admitted, was to render him “almost delirious.” And Herman Melville, stopping over in Rome on his way home from the Holy Land, though at first he found the city “oppressively flat,” carefully explored its galleries and museums.
Wintering in Rome became an American fashion in the 1840’s and 50’s for such people as Francis Parkman, Charles Eliot Norton, Theodore Parker, Julia Ward Howe, and James Russell Lowell. Mrs. Howe, predictably, was appalled by the Roman Church’s failure—indeed, its unwillingness—to live up to the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the practices of a Boston political ward. Lowell agreed with his friend Norton that the Roman Church was moribund and made it a point to avoid St. Peter on Easter Sunday so as not to be tempted by “the mockery of Pio Nono’s blessing.”
Margaret Fuller, the transcendentalist poet, author, journalist, and editor, was in Rome in 1848 as a roving correspondent for Horace Greeley s New York Tribune when she met William Wetmore Story, a Massachusetts attorney and son of Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story who had come to Italy to sculpt his father’s bust on a commission from the Commonwealth. Not long after their meeting, Margaret Fuller vanished, only to reappear less than a month later and confide mysteriously, “I am not the same person, but in many respects another.” The cause for this transformation, the Storys soon learned, was the Marchese Angelo Ossoli della Torre, the youngest son of a noble family that owned a palazzo in Rome as well as a fortress in the Sabine country, whom she had met at dusk at St. Peter’s. Though a marchese, Ossoli was a partisan of Mazzini and a member of the newly formed Roman militia known as the Civil Guard. That spring, the Revolution of 1848 broke out all over Europe—Paris, Berlin, and finally Milan, whose citizens drove Prince Radetzky’s troops out of the city and, for a while, out of Lombardy. Ossoli and Margaret were overjoved by these events; as Fuller wrote, “I have seen the Austrian arms dragged through the streets of Rome and burned in the Piazza del Popolo.” She sent a letter to Greeley resigning as correspondent for the paper “just,” he moaned, “as Italy and Europe were in the throes of a great Revolution.” Of course, she didn’t give him the reason: She was pregnant by Ossoli.
After the fall of the short-lived Roman Republic in 1849, Margaret and Ossoli went into hiding. A year later, they set sail for New York on the Elizabeth, which was wrecked several weeks later off the coast of Fire Island. Margaret Fuller, Marquesa de Ossoli, her husband, and infant child were lost, along with the manuscript of Margarets work in progress, the History the Roman Republic.
Two other members of the William Wetmore Story circle in Rome were Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia, who, as a girl, had known Margaret Fuller in Massachusetts. For Hawthore, Rome was a case of hate at first sight. “I hate the Roman atmosphere,” he wrote. “[W]hat impresses me is the languor of Rome, its weary pavements, its little life, pressed down by the weight of death.” After two weeks in the city, he felt no better about the place. “We have been in Rome . . . a fortnight,” he wrote in his Italian Notebooks,”. . . and I have seldom or never spent so wretched a time anywhere. . . . [O]ld Rome does seem to lie here like a dead and mostly decayed corpse, retaining here and there a trace of the noble shape it was, but with a sort of fungus growth upon it, and no life but the worms that creep in and out.”
Gradually, however, his mood softened as he investigated Rome further. On a second visit to St. Peter’s, which he had initially found “a terrible disappointment,” he found its beauty and magnitude growing upon him. Even on his first visit, this rockribbed New England Puritan had been touched by the hundreds of men and women kneeling at the numerous confessionals, confessing themselves in as many languages: “This popish religion certainly does apply itself most clearly and comfortably to human occasions,” he wrote at the time. On departing Rome, his final reflections had to do with his daughter, whom he feared he and his wife had done no good by bringing her to see the “city of the soul,” if the result were to be an “unsatisfied yearning” to return. He need not have worried: The young lady, perhaps agreeing with her father’s conclusion that “Protestantism needs a new apostle to connect it into something positive.” entered the Roman Catholic Church not many years later.
Unlike Hawthorne, Mark Twain found nothing in the city to inspire hate, but plenty to provoke yawns and bad jokes. That, anyhow, became his literary conceit. “What is there in Rome for me to see that others have not seen before me?” he asked in The Innocents Abroad. “What is there for me to touch that others have not touched? What is there for me to feel, to learn, to hear, to know, that shall thrill me before it pass to others? What can I discover? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. One charm of travel dies here.” In writing The Innocents Abroad, Twain, like many a satirist before and since, employed excess to counter excess—in this case, using Western knownothingism as a means of deflating the worshipful view of European culture entertained by the American Northeastern elite who were the real targets of such episodes in the book as the trip to the Colosseum, where he imagines American circus-style posters advertising the gladiatorial combats, or his put-on of the Roman museum guide to whom he and his friends feign an ignorance of schoolboy culture. It is possible, in short, to take Mark Twain’s put-down of the Old World generally, and Rome in particular, a little more seriously than he intended it to be taken.
At the same time, after the War Between the States, American visitors to Rome arrived with a different attitude from what their predecessors had displayed. William Dean Howells, the formally uneducated, small-town Ohio novelist who first saw the city as a young man in 1864, arrived there from Venice, where he was serving as U.S. consul, in a consciously anti-romantic frame of mind. His first impressions make even Hawthorne’s seem polite by comparison. In Rome, Howells found “a dirty cowfield . . . filled with mere fragments and rubbish . . . obscenely defiled by wild beasts of men.” The Forum he thought a morass of “incoherent columns overthrown and mixed with dilapidated walls—doubly representing the past, out of which all vocal glory had departed.”
For Americans in the preceding hundred years, Rome and its symbolic Colosseum had been a font of inspiration and the ancient Republic the historic seat of liberty, defended valiantly by Cincinnatus, Cicero, and Cato the Younger—American heroes all. From now on, however, Howells’ attitude was to become typical. When Howells saw Rome again in 1908, he was an old man, internationally famous, and America had become an empire more powerful than the Mother of Empires. After being escorted round the city by the mayor, Howells, still unimpressed, went home and wrote an essay called “An Effort to be Honest With Antiquity.” “Rome,” he concluded, “either republican or imperial, was a state for which we can have no genuine reverence.’
The change, of course, did not occur overnight. And there were still well-educated Americans, knowledgeable in classical learning, who appreciated the Eternal City for all the old reasons. Henry Adams in 1860—the year before war broke out at home—described a “medieval Rome” he found to be a kind of “sorcery,” while even the modern one he thought “the worst spot on earth to teach nineteenth-century youth what to do with a twentieth-century world”—which, for Adams, was a compliment. Sitting on the steps of the Ara Coeli—which, with its Santo Bambino, had been for generations the supreme butt of anticlerical Americans—Adams had an intuition: “Rome is going to be America.” Adams understood that, for his fellow Americans, the “Italian troubles,” as he called them, were simply a process by which “one more of the civilized races” was dedicating itself to principles Americans had already decided were the “heart and soul of modem civilization.”
When Henry James arrived in 1869, he almost immediately had to step aside to avoid being run down by Pio Nino riding in his black coach drawn by black horses. “At last—for the first time I live! For the first time I know what the picturesque is.” His enthusiasm for the picturesque did not, as it turned out, extend to “brutish-looking monks,” “the uncleanness of monarchism,” old churches, and so forth. But James loved the Campagna, where he rode horseback regularly, delighting in the open country, American-like in its wildness, and the walled city containing a cozy urban world of shops, cafes, theaters, balls, and parties; the two made, he wrote in his essay “Roman Rides,” a “double life.” With the “great gates,” he, like so many American—and German, French, and English—writers. found an array of classical backdrops for his characters, including Roderick Hudson, the protagonist of his first book, Daisy Miller, and Isabel Archer. For both, the Colosseum provides the setting for their greatest scenes.
At some point early in the 20th century, foreign visitors—Americans in particular—began arriving in Rome with the aim of observing the future at work, rather than the past in repose. Among these were Progressive muckrakers Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, both fervent admirers of Benito Mussolini. For May Day 1920, Steffens traveled up to Rome from the south to witness the Fascists taking power. For Steffens, fascism was acceptable as an amoral movement less severe—and therefore more palatable—than Bolshevism: “genially experimental and always growing and playing,” he called it. Rome, he believed, inculcated a consciousness of history that had succeeded in giving the lower classes an awareness of the future. “The Italians,” Steffens wrote, “are the future of Rome. They are the future of all other people too.”
In the 1930’s, though, the burden of Italian fascism was beginning to weigh on Rome’s image, at least among most Americans. More and more, American novelists and poets kept to the north of the city, rarely traveling south. Even the Italophile Sinclair Lewis, who was to the in Rome in 1951, set the spiritual regeneration of his Sam Dodsworth, an American auto-industry executive, in Venice and Naples rather than the Eternal City. Similarly, All the King’s Men, a fictional treatment of Gov. Huey Long of Louisiana by Robert Penn Warren, was partly composed in Rome and Perugia, where Warren described bully boys in black shirts giving funny salutes.
Ezra Pound, though he spent much of his life in Italy and admired Mussolini, apparently had little interest in or affection for Rome, a city he visited chiefly on political business. In 1935, during the Ethiopian crisis. Pound visited the Eternal City, “apparently feeling,” as his biographer Humphrey Carpenter comments, “that he should be near the seat of government at this crucial moment.” On January 30, 1933, Pound received an audience with Il Duce in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome. He was allowed a half-hour, long enough for the poet to expound on the essentials of his Social Credit plan and for Mussolini to pronounce the Cantos Pound had sent him ahead of time “diverting.” Pound was not recalled to The Presence afterward. Late in 1939, he traveled to Rome to suggest to the minister of popular culture—in reality, the minister of propaganda—that he, Pound, host a wireless program broadcast to America. “Well,” he later wrote, “the Minister looked at me careful and said in perlite words to the effect that: Ez, or probably he said ‘Mio Caro Signore,’ if you think you can use OUR air to monkey in American INTERNAL politics you got another one comin’.” Eventually, however, Pound did a few mild recordings by way of audition, and on the strength of these was engaged to appear on the American Hour with a series of regular broadcast talks, which he recorded ahead of time, in batches. These talks were the basis of the charge of treason leveled against him by the American government after the war. On the day after the American forces landed at Salerno, Pound, aware of what was in store for him, fled north from Rome on foot.
Immediately following the conclusion of World War II, Edmund Wilson, reporting on Rome for the New Yorker, painted an ambivalent picture of the city that at once looked back to Hawthorne’s and Howells’ impressions and ahead to the sensuality and intellectual detachment recorded later by Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, John Cheever, and many others. In “Roman Diary: Sketches for a New Piranese,” “the whole past of Rome,” Wilson stated, “has been pushed by the war into a history that is now finished.” He went on to complain of the raggazzini, the beggars, Italian politics, Italian poverty, human excrement in the Palatine, and the Forum: “all that irrelevant old rubbish . , . ought to be cleaned up and carted away and the place turned into a nice public park” instead of being allowed to remain “a playground for the Roman poor.” On a visit to Café Greco, Wilson picked up a brochure telling him that Goldoni, Canova, Leopardi, Carducci, Berlioz, Corot, Gounod, Bizet, Baudelaire, Byron, Shelley, Thackeray, Liszt, Wagner, Thorswalden, Mark Twain, and others had all patronized the establishment. His attempt to “react appropriately” to this information had, he wrote, “the effect of an emetic and compelled me to disgorge, as it were, the whole mass of lore that I had swallowed before in connection with the genius-haunted past of Rome.”
In the story “Roman Fever,” Edith Wharton has her Mrs. Blake remark, “I was just thinking, what different things Rome stands for to each generation of travelers. To our own grandmothers, Roman fever; to our mothers, sentimental dangers,—how we used to be guarded!—to our daughters, no more dangers than the middle of Main Street. They don’t know it—but how much they’re missing!” What Mrs. Wharton could not see was the end of the progression, whereby the worrisome opportunities for sexual experience implied by Hawthorne and James became, in the later 20th century, the principal attraction of Rome, celebrated in the works of Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams.
Leslie Fiedler, in 1952, published a book of essays, some of which had to do with Rome, whose central theme was that the myth of American innocence had been exploded, or else superseded by reality; certainly, postwar American writers in Rome were anything but innocent. In his first letter to his lover, Donald Windham, Tennessee Williams wrote,
Honey, you would love Rome! Not Paris, but Rome. The pin-cushions [Williams’s expression for youthful male behinds] have been justly celebrated by artists for many centuries and there is nothing I can add to the statements of Michelangelo except a corroberation [sic] in modern times. I have not been to bed with his David but with any number of his more delicate creations, in fact the abundance and accessibility is downright embarrassing.
From the postwar era down to modern times, the Rome experienced, described, and recreated by American writers (when not just another fleshpot) is a grabbag of abstracted, intellectualized, and personalized fragments.
In his story “The Abundant Dreamer,” Harold Brodkey referred to “Hollywood on the Tiber,” which is what, in the early 60’s, Rome had become. Or, as Erik Amfitheatrof, in his wonderful book The Enchanted Ground: Americans in Italy, 1760-1980, put it: “Rome was degenerating into the corrupt nevernever land that Emerson and other American Puritans had criticized so sharply in the 1850s.”
For a period of nearly 250 years, British and American writers—like nonliterary American and British citizens—visiting Rome have always found more or less what they deserved to find. And that, of course, is exactly as it must—and should—be.