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20. Ways of Perceiving: The Passionate Pilgrims’ Gaze in Nineteenth-Century Italy

Margherita Ciacci

© 2019 Margherita Ciacci, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0151.20

Fig. 20.1 Carlo Canella, Veduta di Piazza della Signoria dalla Loggia dei Lanzi, Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze, 1847. Wikimedia. Public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carlo_canella,_veduta_di_piazza_della_signoria_dalla_loggia_dei_lanzi,_1830,_01.jpg

Traveling and writing are practices that involve both a ‘horizontal’ dimension across spaces and pages and a ‘vertical’ one, in which time seems to be suspended and sensitivity is heightened by the awe of specific events, discoveries, epiphanies. Thus, Michel Butor, in an influential paper written in the 1970s, addresses writing and traveling: he considers both as those sign-tracing activities that have accompanied human beings along the paths of history, allowing narratives and shared meanings to develop. The fabric of culture and the features of the known world are thus enveloped within the skeins of the written accounts and the visual renditions produced by human agents — according to the idiosyncratic cognitive and cultural backgrounds of those agents — while on their exploratory rounds at given moments in history.1

It is through such an interpretive lens that we too may look upon the traveling and ‘writerly’ deeds of the emerging American leisure classes from the East Coast who were engaged in their discovery of Europe during the nineteenth century. From the end of the War of Independence to the eve of the Civil War — a period that has been dubbed the ‘Homeric Age’ of American cultural history — incessant flows of ‘passionate pilgrims’ made it across the Atlantic.2 A rich literature has covered the many-faceted forces that have been held responsible for the phenomenon.3 Artists and writers, emerging professionals and ruthless adventurers, intellectuals and academics, all were spurred toward Europe as if in search of the ‘historic’ identity that could complete their self-image. The ‘lure of Italy’ celebrated throughout the eighteenth century (and even earlier) by northern European aristocracies and their scions had inscribed the peninsula within a mythical frame. Literary renditions of Italian travel experiences were increasingly hailed by Anglophone cultural milieus.4 Byron’s stanzas had evoked the Italian voyage as an initiatory pilgrimage while William Hazlitt declared in 1822 that the soul of a journey is liberty: ‘we go on a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind, much more to get rid of others’.5 The fashioning of oneself through traveling — key to the emergence of the psychological disposition demanded of the new English urban classes — was at the core of the ‘tourist’ craze that swept over Europe at the close of the Napoleonic wars. Set itineraries were identified and canonical sites were chosen in an effort to realize the travelers’ desire to imbue every aspect of their Italian voyage with prized ancient associations.

Across the Atlantic it was almost ‘natural’ for the ‘first new nation’ elites, obsessed with the foundational ideas that had hitherto accompanied their struggle for independence, to turn to a mostly imagined ‘eternal Italy’: a myth−laden place made meaningful by the creative lives of past generations.6 Besides, as James Fenimore Cooper had made clear, ‘all who travel know that the greatest pleasure is in the recollections’.7 The richer the palimpsests of the past, the more memorable the visiting experience.

Poet Lydia Sigourney — upon returning from her European tour in 1840 — was of a similar opinion: ‘among the pleasures of travelling are the emotions of traversing the spots that antiquity has hallowed’.8 What lessons might one learn from Italy’s glorious past? What had been the reasons for the ascent and subsequent decline of a formerly all-powerful civilization? The five-part allegory The Course of Empire (1833–36) painted by Thomas Cole upon his return from Europe, seems to capture the concerns of many enlightened American citizens while also warning about the fate of an increasingly materialistic society, oblivious of its original moral and religious bearings.

Back in 1833 (the same year that painter Samuel Morse completed his ‘pedagogical’ The Gallery of the Louvre, representing the Salon Carré, rich in visual examples of the importance of copying artworks), Ralph Waldo Emerson had extolled the value of traveling as a tool for improving one’s own judgment in order to measure, as it were, the tension between historical ‘authority’ (as represented by classical antiquity and the dream-like aura of a distant age) and the ‘new’ pilgrims’ Puritan individualism. The achievement of what Emerson called a ‘finished character’ represented one of the main goals that American travelers of the earlier part of the nineteenth century had more or less consciously set for themselves.9 The sonnet composed by William Cullen Bryant ‘To an American Painter Departing for Europe’ (addressed to Thomas Cole on the occasion of his first journey to Europe in 1829) reveals, however, some of the fears that accompanied such exposure: would the pristine eye and the ‘innocent’ sensitivity of American artists be tarnished by the confrontation with consummate European sophistication?

While seeking to enhance their own self-reliance, some travelers were also prompted by idealistic motives: such was the case of journalist and first American female public intellectual Margaret Fuller, a close follower of Emerson’s Transcendentalist teachings and a passionate supporter of the Italian Risorgimento during the 1848–49 years, which were crucial for the movement’s struggle to unify the peninsula under the rule of the House of Savoy. Fuller’s tragic death off the coast of Fire Island on her journey back to America in July 1850 marked a shift in the cultural climate that affected the minds of the growing numbers of American ‘new pilgrims’. The choice of Italy as a destination for one’s own ‘travels’, ‘journeys’ or ‘rambles’ was becoming less an elitist emblem of those personal virtues that might have hitherto been acquired by direct confrontation with the classical world. Rather, because of the rapid and tumultuous growth undergone by the American economy and its attendant vibrant social dynamism, by the end of the Civil War, visiting Italy had become a matter of social distinction, a way of confirming one’s own social status and personality. If art appreciation and the mastering of Old Masters’ skills had motivated the Italy-bound ‘rambles’ of a number of American travelers and artists in the earlier decades of the century, the booming American economy during the latter half and the destabilizing psychological effects of swifter social mobility encouraged new social tactics of collecting artworks, as well as all sorts of novel taste-making practices. The proliferation of material goods made the choice of tasteful objects and authentic artworks extremely complex. One’s own refinement and social standing was no longer gauged by knowledgeable appreciation, but rather by the rituals of purchase, possession, and display of goods that were perceived as belonging to meaningful hierarchies. In America, the diffusion of John Ruskin’s precepts (via his admirer and friend Charles Eliot Norton at Harvard University) generated an ‘aesthetic craze’ whose influence would continue to haunt the ambitions of the leisured classes later evoked by Thorstein Veblen.

The fun poked by Mark Twain at his ‘innocents abroad’ (1869) epitomizes the hedonistic and utilitarian ethos that increasingly seemed to pervade most Americans’ traveling experiences, turning them into a trite proto-consumerist ritual.10 As William W. Stowe observes, education was all very well and a little polish never hurt anyone, but the new American travelers of the sixties, seventies and eighties were not about to ‘purchase choice bits of European culture and experience’ on any terms but their own.11 An indirect indication of the increasing sophistication of American travelers may be gleaned by considering William D. Howells’s humorous yet negative review of the recently published Harper’s Hand-Book for Travelers in Europe and the East by W. Pembroke Fetridge (1862). Howells claimed that its ‘chatty’ tone did not recommend it as a guidebook but rather as a ‘New York Odyssey describing with Homeric freshness and simplicity the travels of a metropolitan Ulysses’.12

The above broad sketch is meant to provide a sort of roadmap for loosely organizing various instances of travel literature produced (and used) by those Americans who visited Italy throughout the nineteenth-century. The places they went to admire — in the present case we will briefly skirt around Florence and Rome — and even the thoughts and the emotions they were expected to formulate and to feel were, from the earliest trips, fashioned along the lines of previous visitors’ accounts or by the engraved images illustrating guidebooks, travel memoirs, family correspondence, novels and literary essays. The reports of one’s own experiences were magnified by the cumulative knowledge that grew around specific sites whose explorations had acquired an almost prescriptive quality. Collective stereotyping quickly ensued (and still prevails), generating an endless mirroring effect: ‘slanted’ representations of places almost becoming a substitute for the ‘experience’ of actual sites. For the increasingly broad middle class of the later decades of the nineteenth century, tourism represented a path for enculturation into an elite endowed with a rational, managerial perspective. Both nature and foreign culture became sites on which American travelers could deploy the ‘tourist gaze’, which was, in John Urry’s definition, a ‘socially organized gaze, constructed through difference’.13 Tourism had inadvertently become part of a Bildung project: namely the achievement of a national subjectivity fashioned through culture that was initially spurred by a north-eastern elite and that encouraged the growing participation of women.14

Selected instances of American odeporic literature offer evidence of ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ travel discoveries: the ‘vertical’ dimension evoked by Butor being subsequently translated by means of the ‘horizontally’ inscribed pages that reveal the observers’ ‘perceptual distances’. Which were the main discoveries? What did the ‘passionate pilgrims’ look at? What did they actually see? What did they perceive as ‘strange’ during their Italian itineraries? Why did visitors increasingly complain about the poor visibility of art collections? Did they expect to get at deeper meanings or hidden messages had the artworks been more clearly visible? Was the assumption that darkness is not the absence of light, but rather the outcome of the interaction of light and darkness unfamiliar to American learned travelers? Darkness was condemned inasmuch as it hampered the visibility of the artworks, and yet some travelers’ reports show the misgivings of those who complained about getting ‘white light enough’. Paraphrasing notions of the ‘visual brain’ as developed by neurobiologist Semir Zeki, might one assume that the lamented darkness shrouded an otherwise inadmissible feeling of ‘perceptual distance’?15

Given the essentially ‘aesthetic’ nature of the visitors’ endeavors, aspects such as landscape and the built environment, even varieties of skies and ‘atmospheres’ as well as artworks and monuments became all items for scrutiny within a process of selective cultural appropriation. The very basic element of light is instrumental to the construction of subjectivity and makes observation possible according to different perceptual habits.16 This was all the more so at a time when scientific and technological innovations were rapidly producing new geographies of ‘enlightened’ standards. The following pages represent an attempt to register the perceptual experiences recorded by some of the American travelers who, throughout the nineteenth century and for many different reasons, were engaged in ‘doing’ Italy.17

The ‘strong American light’ evoked by Henry James represents the standard by (and through) which nineteenth-century North American travelers tended to observe and interpret their new surroundings. The ‘light of reason’ reflected in the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment’s learned arguments had successfully reached colonial America and had shaped the making of the new republic. The positive associations binding the newly born political regime to economic entrepreneurial success were founded on a reading of the Bible that did away with superstition and received knowledge. The exploitation of immensely rich natural resources through the ‘rational’ adoption of profit-oriented behaviors had quickly borne its fruits. Incessant innovations in the industrial field had ensured constant economic and social development. The memory of the Old World’s Dark Ages was being outdone by the unprecedented successes leading toward the Gilded Age, symbolized by the growing, if ‘unromantic’, glare of urban lights. The perceptual habits revealed in many nineteenth-century American travelers’ reports often reveal value judgments about Italy’s lack of civic culture and overall ‘backwardness’. This was not uniformly the case: some travelers of the earlier part of the nineteenth century (such, as for instance Washington Irving) enthusiastically considered ‘every moldering stone a chronicle’ and looked forward to treading in the footsteps of antiquity.

The fascination with ruins and decay ensued from the Romantic appreciation for individual emotions and feelings. Ruins stood as silent yet powerful reminders of the passing of time; their ‘picturesque’ decay embodying the natural cycle of life.18 Again, in the words of James L. Sloan: ‘The ruins of palaces and temples are dressed with the choicest offerings of Flora and the twice blooming rose of Paestum glows with undiminished beauty in the midst of scenes of decayed beauty’.19 Yet the somber hues enveloping celebrated art venues and their precious contents marred many of the American visitors’ experiences. Complaints such as the ones worded by Philadelphia artist Rembrandt Peale on his visit to the Tribuna in the ‘far-famed Florentine’ Gran Duke’s Gallery were not infrequent: ‘The little windows that surround the cornice [of the Tribuna] afford an imperfect or injurious light upon most of the objects’.20 Besides, while many of the gallery’s pictures are ‘excellent, curious and interesting’, Peale deprecates their being crowded in poorly lit rooms. Sloan himself comments to the same effect, observing that ‘the distribution of the gallery at Florence is strikingly objectionable, and is as little pleasing to the sense of vision as it is gratifying to the understanding’. In fact statues are best observed by moonlight ‘whose paleness gives so eloquent an expression to marble, and in which the divine forms of sculpture appear to become animated’.21

The display of statues (the most prized art exempla from antiquity) received much attention from American travelers. As Margaret Fuller perceptively observed:

The facts of our history, ideal and social, will be grand and of new import; it is perfectly natural to the American to mould in clay and carve in stone. The permanence of material and solid relief in the forms correspond to the positiveness of his nature better than the mere ephemeral and even tricky methods of the painter — to his need of motion and action, better than the chambered scribbling of the poet. He will thus record his best experiences, and these records will adorn the noble structures that must naturally arise for the public uses of our society.22

A number of American sculptors, who shared Fuller’s views, did come to Italy — some settling in Florence, some in Rome — with the aim of mastering the art and improving their training in academic environments.23 Marble quarries at Carrara and Serravezza provided the prized medium favored by the Neoclassical taste that then prevailed, which was the raw material for much of the statuary needed to stress the symbolic importance of the young democracy’s public buildings. Skilled local craftsmen and carvers, necessary for the labor-intensive process of enlarging and translating sculptural compositions into marble, were easily available at minimal wages; copying from antiquity was highly inspirational. It also became quite fashionable for leisured American travelers to have their likenesses rendered in marble by their ‘expat’ compatriots.24

The deeds of the foreign sculptor inspired by the Italian ambiance were turned into a cultural icon of pre-Civil War America by the prose of Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel The Marble Faun (1860). Statues came alive in the Notes penned by ‘Mrs. Hawthorne’ during the extended visit she paid to Florence — a ‘city of dream and shadow’ in her husband’s words — when the whole family at first resided downtown and later up at Bellosguardo. Sophia Peabody Hawthorne was an attentive observer: on one occasion she saw a band of musicians standing in the Loggia [dei Lanzi] and performing symphonies of the great composers, ‘which made all the marble figures seem to live and breathe and move.’25

The new aesthetic theories made popular by the Enlightenment considered art primarily as a type of illusion and emphasized the role of the beholder’s imagination. The latter was expected to ‘complete’ the work of art, turning it into something truly ‘alive’. Visits by torchlight to antique sculpture galleries and monuments were meant to enhance the visitors’ experience: this practice, which had been made popular by the eighteenth-century Grand Tour, became a much apreciated experience for American travelers.26 The following quotes by George Stillman Hillard are revealing:

As a matter of course, everybody goes to see the Colosseum by moonlight. The great charm of the ruin under this condition is, that the imagination is substituted for sight; and the mind for the eye. The essential character of moonlight is hard rather than soft. The line between light and shadow is sharply defined, and there is no gradation of color. Blocks and walls of silver are bordered by, and spring out of, chasms of blackness. But moonlight shrouds the Colosseum in mystery. It opens deep vaults of gloom where the eye meets only an ebon wall, but upon which the fancy paints innumerable pictures in solemn, splendid, and tragic colors […] By day, the Colosseum is an impressive fact; by night, it is a stately vision. By day, it is a lifeless form; by night, a vital thought.

The author then displays his mixed feelings:

It was my fortune to see the Colosseum, on one occasion, under lights which were neither of night nor day. Arrangements had been made by a party of German artists to illuminate it with artificial flames of blue, red, and green. The evening was propitious for the object, being dark and still, and nearly all the idlers in Rome attended. Everything was managed with taste and skill, and the experiment was entirely successful […] But, from the association of such things with the illusions of the stage, the spectacle suggested debasing comparisons. It seemed a theatrical exhibition unworthy of the dignity and majesty of the Colosseum. It was like seeing a faded countenance repaired with artificial roses, or a venerable form clothed in some quaint and motley disguise, suited only to the bloom and freshness of youth. Such lights, far more than sunshine, ‘gild but to flout the ruin gray’.27

The fascination with statues turned almost into ‘living’ entities by waterworks was also remarkable. Thus ‘expat’ sculptor William Wetmore Story, when visiting patrician villas at Frascati, described the combined effects of sculpture and fountains’ jets d’eau:

Great fountains tower shivering with sunshine into the air, and fall into vast basins surrounded by balustrades, where carven masks, half hidden by exquisite festoons of maidenhair, pour their slender, silver tribute. Down lofty steps, green with moss, the water comes bounding and flashing like a living thing, to widen below into a pool, where glance silver and gold fish.28

The effect of statuary upon bridges is memorable, wrote Henry Tuckerman, while observing the statues upon the bridge of Santa Trìnita at Florence, bathed in moonlight, their outlines distinctly revealed against sky and water.29 The insidious, irresistible mixture of ‘nature and art, nothing too much of either, only a supreme happy resultant’ in Henry James’s words, does indeed evoke a ‘divine tertium quid’.30

American visitors’ viewing of paintings seems to have been more problematic. Not only did guidebooks warn about visiting churches and museums (only) on fine days and equipped with opera-glasses, but a common complaint about the poor visibility of the artworks exudes from most travelers’ accounts and literary endeavors. The question of optimum lighting had already been raised in the eighteenth-century — at a time when light-as-metaphor played a major role in Enlightenment debates. That was also the period when the first important theoretical statements on aesthetics were being circulated in Europe. Enlightened rulers were spurred to reorganize their private collections by turning them into art galleries open to the public. Collecting became synonymous with the political and public identity of those rulers who were increasingly attentive to their subjects’ intellectual improvement. Besides, cultivation of the mind could soften the rigors of the law, or so it was believed. Consequently, at that time, artworks were mostly displayed within existing buildings whose magnificence was thought sufficient to frame statues, paintings, fossils and exotica in a neutral manner.

Major Florentine art museums (the Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti) developed along the same lines.31 As is well known, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, the Electress Palatine — the last scion of the House of Medici — at her death in 1743 bequeathed the centuries-old family art collections to the Tuscan Grand Duchy on the condition that no part of them should be moved from Florence: their role being one of ‘decoration for the State, for the utility of the public, and to attract the curiosity of the foreigners.’ The decision was further implemented by the Grand Dukes of the House of Lorraine (especially by enlightened reformer Grand Duke Peter Leopold). The princely art treasures were thus enshrined within the Florentine palaces’ ‘dark piles’ where their visibility had never been the keepers’ top priority, nor had it been one that preoccupied the Romish Church and the religious custodians of its artworks.

In the eyes of most American visitors the display of art-works in Italy was mostly inappropriate and irrational: this judgment may have been influenced both by objective conservation conditions and by an awareness of the ideological and political differences that separated sensitivities and perceptual habits across the Atlantic. Henry James himself complained about the ‘ducal’ saloons of the Pitti being ‘imperfect as show-rooms’.32 His fastidiousness in such matters is perhaps nowhere better displayed than in the description of his visit to the Academy in Florence — where he relishes finding fewer tourists, fewer copyists and fewer ‘pictorial lions’. However here he discovers:

An enchanting Botticelli so obscurely hung, in one of the smaller rooms, that I scarce knew whether most to enjoy or to resent its relegation. Placed in a mean black frame, where you wouldn’t have looked for a masterpiece, it yet gave out to a good glass every characteristic of one […] That was my excuse for my wanting to know […] what dishonour, could the transfer be artfully accomplished, a strong American light (my emphasis) and a brave gilded frame would, comparatively speaking, do it’.33

Likewise the journalist Caroline M. Kirkland, after visiting the Uffizi, declared in her Holidays Abroad:

The Tribune, with all its splendors of marble and mother-of-pearl, is a miserable place for seeing the wonders of art which it enshrines. There is so little light, that it is only on very bright days that one can see the pictures at all; and the statues are so arranged that it is difficult to view them at the requisite distance. Then the pictures are crowded, for the sake of thrusting in several which ought never to have been there — such as the ‘Endymion’ of Guercino, so unfavorable a specimen of that master that he would have blushed to see it in its present position. The same remark is true of some other pictures by great names, exalted thus conspicuously; while a part of the precious space is given to the works of artists unknown to fame — a circumstance almost condemnatory in our day of research and criticism […] The sculptures show to tolerable advantage under the perpendicular light of the Tribune […] This want of distance is the general complaint throughout the galleries of Italy, but it is, perhaps, nowhere felt so keenly as in the Tribune, the very heart of all this wondrous world.34

The fate of the art lover did not meet with more favorable conditions when entering churches and chapels. Such was the case of Nathaniel Hawthorne when visiting the church of the Badia in Florence:

There were likewise a picture or two, which it was impossible to see; indeed, I have hardly ever met with a picture in a church that was not utterly wasted and thrown away in the deep shadows of the chapel it was meant to adorn. If there is the remotest chance of its being seen, the sacristan hangs a curtain before it for the sake of his fee for withdrawing it. In the chapel of the [del] Bianco family we saw (if it could be called seeing) what is considered the finest oil-painting of Fra Filippo Lippi. It was evidently hung with reference to a lofty window on the other side of the church, whence sufficient light might fall upon it to show a picture so vividly painted as this is, and as most of Fra Filippo Lippi’s are. The window was curtained, however, and the chapel so dusky that I could make out nothing.35

Visitors’ eyes became ‘owlish’ in the attempt of viewing the Florence Baptistery’s mosaics. The only satisfying illumination within religious buildings seems to have been that filtering through ‘pictured windows’. Hawthorne’s treatment of the light transmitted through painted glass is famously penned in The Marble Faun where he has Kenyon, one of the main characters, muse about the ‘miracle’:

It is the special excellence of pictured glass, that the light, which falls merely on the outside of other pictures, is here interfused throughout the work; it illuminates the design, and invests it with a living radiance; and in requital the unfading colors transmute the common daylight into a miracle of richness and glory in its passage through the heavenly substance of the blessed and angelic shapes which throng the high-arched window.36

He admits Kenyon’s borrowing the expression ‘dim, religious light’ from Milton’s Il Penseroso. However he also has Kenyon wonder whether Milton, although he had once been in Italy, ‘ever saw but the dingy pictures in the dusty windows of English cathedrals, imperfectly shown by the gray English daylight’ and thus continues:

He would else have illuminated that word, ‘dim,’ with some epithet that should not chase away the dimness, yet should make it glow like a million of rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and topazes. Is it not so with yonder window? The pictures are most brilliant in themselves, yet dim with tenderness and reverence because God himself is shining through them.37

The metaphor of Christian faith as a grand cathedral ‘with divinely pictured windows’ stresses the somber colors of the worldly exterior: only by entering the sacred precinct ‘the celestial radiance will be inherent in all things and persons’. Might we infer that Hawthorne’s Transcendentalism-inspired gaze encouraged the inner/outer viewing metaphor when approaching religious sites? Of course the issue is open to speculation but offers itself to some further questioning if we follow Hawthorne’s steps into the church of Santa Croce. Here he happens to observe that the many-hued saints’ images lose their mysterious effulgence when ‘we get white light enough’ and that it is like admitting ‘too much of the light of reason and worldly intelligence into our mind, instead of illuminating [it] wholly by some religious medium’.38

Further obstacles to the enjoyment of artworks came in the shape of the ‘hordes’ of copyists ‘who infest[ed] the galleries of Europe.’39 Travelers who wished for some tangible souvenirs of their voyages — originals and photographs often being unavailable — resorted to full-size or scaled-down casts and Old Masters’ copies. These tokens would signal both the travelers’ cultural refinement and their altruistic dispositions — in case they graciously decided, upon returning home, to lend their copies for pedagogical purposes to the nation’s institutions, which were still lacking in original Old Masters.

The crowds of copyists were such that it was a common complaint that their easels and materials impeded the circulation of visitors and did not allow the viewing of pictures on the walls. When visiting the Uffizi, Rembrandt Peale observed that: ‘In one of these long corridors, a number of artists had their easels copying pictures, which they were permitted to have taken from the walls, and placed near them at the windows.’40

Connoisseurs and art lovers were not the only ones who suffered from such state of affairs. Henry James describes the toil of an ‘aged Frenchman of modest mien perched on a little platform’ beneath the ‘finest of Ghirlandaios — a beautiful Adoration of the Kings at the Hospital of the Innocenti […] behind a great hedge of altar-candlesticks’. His surprise at seeing the admirable copy, just completed under such difficult conditions, induces the novelist to consider the copyist’s performance ‘a real feat of magic’ brought about by the ‘old art-life of Florence that still at least works spells and almost miracles’.41

Finding one’s own way at night was no small feat for the forestieri. Street lighting, the use of candles and of lamps of various types were the frequent objects of American travelers’ accounts throughout nineteenth-century Italy. The topic may provide us with more or less direct metaphoric allusions to the darkness/light conceptual pair whose semantics are spelled out in terms of economic backwardness vs. more affluent lifestyles; obscurantism and authoritarian rule vs. patriotic self-determination and democratic assertiveness. In Florence the first gas lights appeared in September 1846 — the inaugural lamps being lit on the Via Maggio — as an evident homage to the Granducal family living at the nearby Palazzo Pitti.42

Precise timetables were drawn up and street lamps were not lit during a full moon. In June 1858 Sophia Hawthorne still enjoys the sight of the gas-lit Lungarno glimmering in the dark waters below and thus comments: ‘The Lung-Arno was lighted with gas along its whole extent, making a cornice of glittering gems, converging in the distance, and the reflection of the illuminated border below made a fairy show. No painting, and scarcely a dream could equal the magical beauty of the scene.’43

A few years later (1873), Baltimore American editor Charles Carroll Fulton thus extols ‘Florence by gas−light’:

We reached Florence in time to take a stroll through its streets and view the city by gas-light. The streets all through the heart of the city were literally thronged with promenaders, and the stores and cafés brilliant with gas-jets. Such a shining scene would never be seen in an American city, except on the eve of some national holiday.44

Gas obtained from English imported coal, however, was quite expensive and by the end of the century electric street lighting was gradually introduced. (Only well into the twentieth century were State museums provided with electricity). Private lodgings and hotels (not to mention churches and other museums) were still lit by candles, kerosene or Argand lamps throughout most of the nineteenth century. A whole literature about the uses (and abuses) of candlesticks is contained in travelers’ accounts. The following is but one example:

The moment we alighted, the tall host lighted two as tall wax candles, and preceded us upstairs, in the orthodox way, meaning to charge one franc per candle though we should burn but an inch. These candle-tricks have afforded us no little amusement […] Sometimes we immediately blow out one of each pair; sometimes burn them as long as we like, and then gravely put the remains in our carpet-bags in the morning, in order that we may have a double supply without extra cost at the next lodging-place — nobody daring to object, as the whole candle has been paid for. When we sit down to write our journals, we thus have a grand array of light, doubtless to the great astonishment of our entertainers. We have proposed publishing these journals with the title of Candle Ends, or Light-Reading, in memory of the resolute ingenuity with which we have withstood this petty imposition — gambled against by all travellers, but usually submitted to.45

Reports of ‘candle-tricks’ played at the travelers’ expense suggest the kind of behavior that almost by definition juxtaposes narratives about the forestieri and the natives. Suspicions about being cheated by vetturini, hotel managers, sacristans, museum guards and cicerones often surface in travelers’ accounts. However, reports about the enjoyment of the physical closeness brought about by the festive mingling with the crowds celebrating the traditional contest, the moccoletti, during the Roman Carnival reveals a different side of the relationship — one characterised by empathy and spontaneous appreciation for local folk life. Margaret Fuller recorded her own perception of the ‘patriotic’ atmosphere surrounding the Roman celebration of the 1849 Carnival season:

Although less splendid than the Papal one — with fewer foreigners than usual, many having feared to assist at this most peaceful of revolutions — the ‘Republican Carnival’ was not less gay — with flowers, smiles and fun abundant.46

The amusement normally consisting in all the people blowing one another’s lights out, the rulings of ordinary norms being suspended during the festival season, Fuller seems to perceive in the 1849 Carnival’s popular enthusiasm also the symbol of a reversal ritual, almost an anticipation of the deep political transformations under way in the peninsula. Thus she continues:

This is the first time of my seeing the true moccoletti; last year, in one of the first triumphs of democracy, they did not blow out the lights, thus turning it into an illumination. The effect of the swarms of lights, little and large, thus in motion all over the fronts of the houses, and up and down the Corso, was exceedingly pretty and fairy-like […] It is astonishing the variety of tones, the lively satire and taunt of which the words ‘Senza moccolo, senza moccolo’, are susceptible from their tongues. The scene is the best parody on the life of the ‘respectable’ world that can be imagined. A ragamuffin with a little piece of candle, not even lighted, thrusts it in your face with an air of far greater superiority than he can wear who, dressed in gold and velvet, erect in his carriage, holds aloft his light on a tall pole. In vain his security; while he looks down on the crowd to taunt the wretches senza moccolo, a weak female hand from a chamber window blots out his pretensions by one flirt of an old hand-kerchief.47

A few years earlier, James Fenimore Cooper had been struck by the same street scene and the superficial alteration of social hierarchies it afforded: ‘Everyone is privileged to extinguish his neighbour’s light. Common street-masquers will clamber up on the carriage of a prince, and blow out his taper, which is immediately re-lighted, as if character depended on its burning.’48 However, the novelist had not (yet) perceived the episode’s potentially political disruptive meaning. He simply dismissed it as a remnant of the Roman Saturnalia. Pagan rites and queer traditions were ready at hand for the Puritan imagination to seize on as explanations for the ‘strange’ behaviors of the local population. The Roman Carnival’s popular scenes, which took place along the Corso, kept drawing the attention of American visitors even after gas lighting (‘with its white flame’) had been adopted. The contrasts perceived by some observers between the swarms of lit tapers — suggesting ‘the thought that every one of those thousands of twinkling lights was in charge of somebody who was striving with all his might to keep it alive’ — and the illumination by gas light, ‘not half so interesting as that of the torches, which indicated human struggle’, provide us with an unexpected cue. Its fuller meaning may be gleaned by Hawthorne’s concluding remarks: ‘The lights vanished, one after another, till the gas-lights, which at first were an unimportant part of the illumination, shone quietly out, overpowering the scattered twinkles of the moccoli. They were what the fixed stars are to the transitory splendors of human life.’49

Indeed, as with everything that is transitory, the centuries-old illumination provided by candles and torchlights that had contributed to the ‘softened sublimity’ of the insidious and mellow, if ambiguous, charm experienced by nineteenth-century American travelers, was on the wane. The roadside Tuscan shrine whose little votive lamp glimmered through the evening air provides Henry James with the disconcerting awareness of an ‘incongruous odour’ that ‘had not hitherto associated itself with rustic frescoes and wayside altars’. James soon realizes that:

The odour was that of petroleum; the votive taper was nourished with the essence of Pennsylvania. I confess that I burst out laughing, and a picturesque contadino, wending his homeward way in the dusk, stared at me as if I were an iconoclast […] to me the thing served as a symbol of the Italy of the future.50

About fifty years earlier, the evening walks of another Yankee had been accompanied by a different sight best described in James L. Sloan’s own words:

Nor did the night disclose a spectacle less wonderful, than that of the day had been beautiful. The atmosphere swarmed with the large fire-fly of Tuscany, which rose from the neighbouring fields, and filled the air with particles of living fire.51

Tuscan fireflies and petroleum-fed votive tapers: two light sources marking a fifty-year timespan. The meaning suggested by this loose measure of the passing of time points toward an inexorable disenchantment of the world — even of the one that had persistently made Italy such a picturesque destination for the rambles of so many passionate pilgrims.


1 Cf. Michel Butor, ‘Voyage et récriture’, Romantisme 4 (1972), 4–19 (special issue ‘Voyager doit être un travail sérieux’).

2 The notion of ‘passionate pilgrims’ was made popular by Henry James in his novella of the same name first published in 1871 in The Atlantic Monthly. Many of James’ inspirational motifs already appear therein.

3 For cursory references to some classics of the genre, see: Paul R. Baker, The Fortunate Pilgrims: Americans in Italy. 1800–1860 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and Oxford University Press, 1964); Van Wyck Brooks, The Dream of Arcadia: American Writers and Artists in Italy, 1760–1915 (London: Dent, 1959); Natalia Wright, American Novelists in Italy. The Discoverers: Allston to James (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965); A. W. Salomone, ‘The Discovery of Nineteenth-Century Italy: An Essay in American Cultural History’, The American Historical Review 73.5 (1968), 1359–91. For more recent contributions to the field see, for example, Theodore Stebbins (ed.), The Lure of Italy: American Artists and the Italian Experience, 1760–1914 (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1992).

4 One important example is represented by Lady Sydney (Owenson) Morgan: she not only authored Italy, 2 vols. (London: Henry Colburn and Co, 1821), I, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015020085299;view=image, II, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433000262190;view=1up;seq=11 whose merits were acknowledged by Lord Byron himself, but also wrote The Life and Times of Salvator Rosa, 2 vols. (London: Henry Colburn, 1824), I, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t53f4n474;view=1up;seq=7, II, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015073730742;view=1up;seq=7. The book exerted great influence over American artists of the time: such was the case of Thomas Cole. See, for instance, Cole’s Salvator Rosa painting banditti (1832–40), Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/salvator-rosa-sketching-banditti-33726

5 William Hazlitt, ‘On Going a Journey,’ in Table-Talk, or, Original Essays (New York: Chelsea House, 1983), pp. 249–61.

6 The phenomenon was already present in colonial America. Since ‘for Americans at this time, the leisurely pursuits of connoisseurship and antiquarianism as well as the more frivolous recreations and amusements which constituted an important part of the Grand Tour were generally beyond their grasp both financially and practically. Those who did travel abroad generally were in pursuit of advanced training [italics added] in their professions of a sort not available at home, with the result that their journeys were frequently of a far more serious tenor than those of many of their fellow travelers from the mother country’. See Arthur S. Marks, ‘Angelica Kauffmann and Some Americans on the Grand Tour’, The American Art Journal 12. 2 (1980), 4–24.

7 James Fenimore Cooper, Excursions in Italy, 2 vols. (London: R. Bentley, 1838), I, p. 34, https://archive.org/details/excursionsinita00coopgoog/page/n11

8 Lydia H. Sigourney, Pleasant Memories of Pleasant Lands (Boston: J. Munroe & Co., 1842), p. 89, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Pleasant_Memories_of_Pleasant_Lands

9 R. L. Rusk (ed.), The Letters of R. W. Emerson, 6 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), I, p. 375.

10 Mark Twain (pseud. of Samuel L. Clemens), The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869). The subtitle of Twain’s best-seller refers to John Bunyan’s celebrated text, The Pilgrim’s Progress from this World to that Which is to Come (1678). The English theologian’s intentions are obviously opposite to Twain’s ironic mood. See also the satirical account of American travelers’ deeds in Italy by the Canadian James B. De Mille, The Dodge Club or Italy in 1859 (Philadelphia: published for private circulation, 1869), https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000285095.

11 William W. Stowe, Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 34.

12 William D. Howells, ‘Review of Harper’s Handbook for Travellers in Europe and the East by W. Pembroke Fetridge, 1867’, The Atlantic Monthly (March 1867), 380–83, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100150512 Howells was familiar with American traveling habits and moods having himself lived in Europe (and Italy) for extended periods of time.

13 John Urry, The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in the Contemporary Age, 2nd ed. (New York: Sage, 2002).

14 B. Bailey, ‘Gender, Nation, and the Tourist Gaze in the European ‘Year of Revolutions’: Kirkland’s ‘Holidays Abroad’, American Literary History 14.1 (Spring 2002), 60–82.

15 Semir Zeki, Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

16 I have borrowed the expression ‘perceptual habits’ from the paper by Claus C. Carbon and Pia Deininger, ‘Golden Perception: Simulating Perceptual Habits of the Past’, i-PERCEPTION 4 (2013), 468–76. The authors present research data about the different perceptual experiences observed when viewing paintings depicted on gold-leafed backgrounds under different lighting conditions.

17 This was the case of poet William Cullen Bryant: see, for instance, his Letters of a Traveller: or Notes of Things seen in Europe and America (First Series) (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1851), pp. 24−28. One is reminded of the impressions of an earlier American traveler who maintained that in Italy ‘the rays of the Sun glowing through a mass of transparent vapour, gild all objects with tints that almost realize the visionary light with which the imagination of Virgil has illuminated the ideal scenery of his Elysium’. Cf. James L. Sloan, Rambles in Italy in the Years 1816−17 (Baltimore: N. G. Maxwell, 1818), p. 5 and passim. Also James Fenimore Cooper, during his Italian sojourns, had mused about the ‘liquid softness of the atmosphere’ and the ‘softened sublimity’ lending ‘prismatic colours’ to the landscape. See James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe. Italy by an American, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1838), II, p. 36, https://archive.org/details/gleaningsineuro01coopgoog/page/n10 In a similar vein, William W. Story observed that: ‘Nothing can be more exquisite than these summer nights in Italy. The sky itself, so vast, tender, and delicate, is like no other sky. The American sky is bluer, but harder, more metallic. There is all the difference between the two that there is between a feeling and an opinion’. Cf. William W. Story, Roba di Roma, 2 vols., 5th ed. (London: Chapman and Hall, 1866), II, p. 14.

18 The term ‘picturesque’ was originally used in eighteenth-century English cultural debates over issues of aesthetics, by, amongst others, William Gilpin and Uvedale Price. For the latter, see his Essays on the Picturesque as Compared to the Sublime and the Beautiful (1794). Travel literature’s later semantic appropriation of the term has almost equated it to kitsch.

19 Sloan, Rambles in Italy, p. 3.

20 Rembrandt Peale, Notes on Italy, Written During a Tour in the Years 1829 and 1830 (Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1831), pp. 202–05.

21 Sloan, Rambles in Italy, pp. 269–70. We may notice here one example of the contradictions voiced by sensitive travelers: poorly lit paintings were objectionable inasmuch as they revealed the keepers’ careless ignorance and did not allow for satisfactory visibility. Yet, in some cases, glaring lights could spoil the emotional side of the visitors’ experience.

22 Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Letter XXVII, February 1849, At Home and Abroad: Things and Thoughts in America and Europe, Edited by her Brother Arthur Buckminster Fuller (Boston: Crosby & Nichols, 1856; 2nd ed. New York: The Tribune Association, 1869).

23 This was the case of Horatio Greenough, the ‘first American sculptor’, whose colossal statue of George Washington for the American Capitol was sculpted in Florence over the 1832−40 period, as well as that of Hiram Powers: both had their ateliers in Florence. Sculptresses Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, Edmonia Lewis and Emma Stebbins (members of the ‘marmorean flock’ mocked by Henry James), as well as Thomas Crawford and William W. Story. amongst others, had their studios in Rome. Also some American painters settled for more or less lengthy periods of time in Italy — Florence being one of the favored destinations. For instance during the early 1830s Thomas Cole, John Cranch and his brother Christopher Pearse Cranch, Samuel F. B. Morse and the Greenough brothers shared Florentine living arrangements, first at what is today known as Via Valfonda and then on via San Sebastiano, today via Gino Capponi. For an interesting account of these abodes, cf. Giovanna De Lorenzi, ‘1831−2: Horatio Greenough e Thomas Cole alla “Casa dei Frati”’, in Cristina De Benedictis, et al. (eds.), La Palazzina dei Servi a Firenze: da Residenza Vescovile a Sede Universitaria (Florence: Edifir, 2014), pp. 51–68. The topos of foreign artists’ responses to the Italian setting figures prominently in some of Henry James’s early short stories and novels: e.g. The Madonna of the Future (1873) and Roderick Hudson (1875). Besides, at the time, quite a number of American artists who had visited Italy penned their recollections (for instance the Greenough brothers, John Cranch, William W. Story, Elihu Vedder etc.) allowing for a multi-faceted rendition of their experiences.

24 Some spirited travelers were of a different mind, such as journalist Caroline M. Kirkland, who was against the fashion of having one’s own bust sculpted, declaring that ‘one of the glories of art is that it carries us outside of ourselves; it is the very antagonist of petty egotism’. Caroline M. Kirkland, Holidays Abroad: Or Europe from the West, 2 vols. (New York: Baker & Scribner, 1849), I, p. 63.

25 Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, Notes in England and Italy (New York: Putnam and Sons, 1869), p. 345. As is well known the same visit to Italy was inspirational for her husband’s novel The Marble Faun or, the Romance of Monte Beni (Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co., 1860), https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001027404. (The quotes in the text are drawn from Vol. IV of the Centenary Edition of N. Hawthorne’s Works published by Ohio State University Press, 1968).

26 Claudia Mattos, ‘The Torchlight Visit: Guiding the Eye through Late Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century Antique Sculpture Galleries’, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 49 (Spring-Autumn, 2006), 139−52. In this respect and closely linked with the growing scientific interests of the age, it is worth mentioning some of the works by British painter Joseph Wright of Derby, who was active in the later decades of the eighteenth-century and a learned member of the Lunar Society whose meetings were attended also by Benjamin Franklin. See, for instance, J. Wright of Derby, The Academy by Lamplight (1769) (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art). Although there are no explicit accounts of torchlight nocturnal visits to any of the Florentine galleries according to the historical Archives of the Polo Museale Fiorentino, we may infer that such visits did occur. Dating from 1865 there are specific Archive entries reporting night guardianship expenses sustained for the Galleria delle Statue at the Uffizi: one may speculate that such visits to the gallery were accompanied by on-duty guards (and torch-bearers).

27 George Stillman Hillard, Six Months in Italy (Boston: Ticknor Reed & Fields, 1853), p. 190. The quote within the quote is from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805).

28 Story, Roba di Roma, II, p. 185.

29 Henry P. Tuckerman, The Italian Sketch-Book (Boston: Light, Stearns & Cornhill, 1837), p. 181, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/007675127

30 James, ‘The Autumn in Florence’ (1873), Italian Hours, p. 244.

31 During the nineteenth century the Uffizi were generally known as the Galleria del Granduca whereas Palazzo Pitti hosted both the grand ducal family residence and their private art collections. Neither of these buildings had been originally planned as museums for the display of artworks. Only the Tribuna, commissioned by Grand Duke Francesco I to Bernardo Buontalenti in 1581−84, was conceived specifically for the display of the choicest artworks in the collection. It is worth observing that the octagonal room receives natural lighting from above through two sets of windows in the drum and in the lantern. Although this architectural solution at the time was deemed innovative, many of ‘our’ American travelers’ accounts are quite negative about it.

32 Henry James, The Madonna of the Future.

33 James, ‘Florentine Notes’ (1874) in Italian Hours, p. 270.

34 Kirkland, Holidays Abroad, I, p. 205.

35 Nathaniel Hawthorne, Passages from the French and Italian Notebooks, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne (ed.) (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1871), p. 371. Hawthorne here may have been referring to the painting by Filippino Lippi, Apparition of the Virgin to St Bernard (1486) originally commissioned by a member of the Del Pugliese family for their chapel in the church of the Campora (no longer extant) and later moved to the church of Badia. Artworks are often misattributed by visitors. The phenomenon might be a fruitful research topic, to assess degrees of (suspended) attention on the part of visitors and/or changed scholarly attributions and overall tastes.

36 Hawthorne, The Marble Faun (1860), pp. 304–06. The following quotes are from Hawthorne’s report about visiting the Florence Cathedral (almost in John Milton’s footsteps): ‘Its windows of painted glass, throw over its tombs and altars a dim religious light [my emphasis], which accords with the mysteries of religion and the solemnity of prayer’. We find a similar description in John Cranch’s travelogue: ‘Near sunset we went into the Duomo, the Church of Santa Maria del Fiore. It was beautiful and holy at this hour, the sun illuminating all the rich old stained glass windows, and shooting down level bars of light from the dome’. John Cranch, Italian Journal 1831−33, Reel 3569, Smithsonian, Archives of American Art.

37 Ibid.

38 Hawthorne, Passages from the French and Italian Notebooks, p. 340.

39 Jacqueline M. Musacchio, ‘Infesting the Art Galleries of Europe: The Copyist Emma Conant Church in Paris and Rome’, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 10.2 (2011), n.p. See also the ‘Art-students and Copyists in the Gallery of the Louvre’ etched by Winslow Homer and published by Harper’s Weekly, 11 January 1868. Requests to copy artworks (and eventually to export them) had to be made well in advance to gallery administrators. Apparently copying Raffaello’s Madonna della Seggiola in the Pitti Gallery was so popular that people were on waiting lists for as much as five years. Interesting information about American copyists in Florentine galleries may be found in Carol Bradley, ‘Copisti Americani nelle Gallerie Fiorentine’, in M. Bossi and L. Tonini (eds.), L’Idea di Firenze: Temi e interpretazioni dell’arte straniera dell’Ottocento (Florence: Centro Di, 1989), pp. 61−67. For a more recent assessment see Shirley Barker, ‘The Female Artist in the Public Eye: Women Copyists in the Uffizi, 1770–1859’, in T. Balducci and H. Belnap Jensen (eds.), Femininity and Public Space in European Visual Culture, 1789–1914 (Farnham, Routledge, 2016), pp. 65–77.

40 Such was the case of Rembrandt Peale, himself a busy copyist in the Florentine galleries, who proudly declared that ‘a correct copy is next in value to the original itself’. He also donated copies painted by himself to the Peale Museum he had established in Baltimore in 1812. Cf. Rembrandt Peale, Notes on Italy, Written During a Tour in the Years 1829 and 1830 (Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1831), p. 208.

41 James, ‘Autumn in Florence’, in Italian Hours, p. 246.

42 Archivio Storico Comune di Firenze, Lavori e servizi pubblici, Illuminazione a gas. 1845–1862, 8750. Thanks are due to Silvia Ciappi (KHI Associate, Florence) for this reference.

43 Peabody Hawthorne, Notes in England and Italy, p. 842.

44 Charles C. Fulton, Europe through American Spectacles (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1874), p. 225.

45 Kirkland, Holidays Abroad, II, p. 213.

46 The years 1848–1849 represent a crucial moment during the Italian Risorgimento. Pope Pius IX had to quit Rome under mounting requests for democratic rule. A Republican government was elected (February-July 1849) but was quickly overthrown by an international coalition that the Pope had formed. Margaret Fuller’s quote chronicles events that took place under the brief rule of the short-lived Republican Triumvirate. The Risorgimento eventually culminated in the unification of the country under the rule of the House of Savoy in 1870, Rome being the capital of the new kingdom.

47 Fuller Ossoli, At Home and Abroad, pp. 346–47.

48 Fenimore Cooper, Excursions in Italy, II, p. 166, https://archive.org/details/excursionsinita00coopgoog/page/n11

49 Hawthorne, Passages from the French and Italian Notebooks, p. 282.

50 James, ‘Italy Revisited’ (1877), in Italian Hours, pp. 104–05.

51 Cf. Sloan, Rambles in Italy, p. 291.