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Early Slow Travelers in Italy

Mary Jane Cryan

What better companions on a sentimental journey to Italy than the writers whose classic tales we studied at school. They help us understand that there is nothing new under the Italian sun.

Nathaniel Hawthorne had a love-hate relationship with Rome for he had caught cold upon arriving by carriage from the port of Civitavecchia and his daughter Una almost died with a flu she caught staying out late to sketch in the Forum.

In his notebooks Hawthorne pondered on the old palazzi, the filthy streets and the begging children - how many modern day travelers have done the same! But when the sun came out Rome became a "poetic fairy precint" where he was able to gather inspiration for his new novel, "The Marble Faun".

While Italian writers were complaining about Papal censorship, Hawthorne enjoyed freedom of expression. "... papal despotism allows us freer breath than our native air", he jotted to friends back in New England, summing up the feelings many expatriates would echo even a century later.

After having kept himself aloof during the Carnival that first year in Rome, he fully participated in the next year's festivities and began wondering how he and his family would live back in their New England village where, "..there are no pictures, no statues."

Together with the author of Moby Dick, Herman Melville, he snobbed the artistic gathering place, the Caffe Greco, for they both disliked the smokey bohemian atmosphere. Melville did however frequent the Lepre trattoria across the Via Condotti where the foreign artistic community ate economically and met friends.

How envious we are today when we discover that he dined at the Lepre for 19 cents and how we sympathize with his remark that he was "...fagged out completely" after a first cursory visit to the Vatican galleries.

Trattoria Lepre unfortunately no longer exists and Via Condotti has become one of the capitals's most expensive shopping streets but the Caffe Greco and Babington's Tea Rooms are still there at the bottom of the Spanish Steps serving out cakes, tea and atmosphere.

Between 1863 and 1868 the American Legation was located in the back room of a private banking firm on the same premises now occupied by Babington's.

Wandering around this triangular area known as the English Ghetto between Piazza di Spagna and Piazza del Popolo, the visitor is struck by the many plaques set in the facades of buildings showing where 19th century writers and painters had their lodgings:

  • The Brownings at 41 Via Bocca di Leone,
  • Keats and Shelley at the bottom of the Spanish Steps,
  • the painter Turner who had rooms at 12 Piazza Mignanelli (near today's McDonalds)
  • James Joyce still an impoverished bank employee, on Via Frattina.

There was a myriad of American and English-speaking writers, artists and sculptors who gravitated around the noble palaces and the "scuderie" where they had their studios.

Don Filippo Barberini gave the American archeologist and sculptor William Wetmore Storey a life's lease on an enormous suite of rooms on the piano nobile of the family palace in the center of Rome.

In a letter dated May 21, 1857, Storey described his apartment:

"The Principe has shown very good will ... he will put the whole apartment in complete order and let it to us for $250 less than the rent we receive for our little house in Bussey Place. I never saw anything more rambling than the upper rooms above the apartment which are to be included in our lease. They are legion in number and crop out at every new visit. I should think there are some twenty at least, of every kind and shape, going oddly about, up little stairs, through curious holes, into strange lumber rooms and then suddenly opening into large and admirable chambers."

Another American sculptor who chose Rome as his home and work place was Thomas Crawford who arrived from New York in 1835. Crawford took a rambling studio among the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian and lived in Villa Negroni on the spot where Rome's Stazione Termini now stands. He was one of the few Americans to consider himself a permanent resident of the city and learned to speak a perfect Italian as well as "romanesco". During the short-lived Roman Republic he enrolled in the civic guard and helped to man the city's fortifications.

Excerpt from "Rambles Around Rome" Mary Jane Cryan's next book. To read press releases about the already published "Affreschi-Exploring Etruria", click on her site, www.elegantetruria.com.

© Mary Jane Cryan, 2002

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