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23. ‘Into the Broad Sunlight’: Anne Hampton Brewster’s Chronicle of Gilded Age Rome

Adrienne Baxter Bell

© 2019 Adrienne Baxter Bell, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0151.23

And thou didst shine, thou rolling moon, upon

All this, and cast a wide and tender light,

Which soften’d down the hoar austerity

Of rugged desolation, and fill’d up,

As ‘twere, anew, the gaps of centuries;

Leaving that beautiful which still was so,

And making that which was not, till the place

Became religion, and the heart ran o’er

With silent worship of the great of old! — 

The dead, but sceptred sovereigns, who still rule

Our spirits from their urns. — 

‘Twas such a night!

George Gordon Lord Byron, Manfred (1816–17), from Act III, Scene IV

The name of the American expatriate art critic and novelist Anne Hampton Brewster (1818–92) has been long forgotten. Her work has not been adequately analyzed in histories of American art; there is no mention of her even in histories of important nineteenth-century American women. The omission is astonishing and unwarranted. In fact, Brewster was a literary and proto-feminist pioneer. During an era in which the cares of home and family monopolized the lives of women, she courageously left America to develop a career as a foreign correspondent in Rome. Her timing couldn’t have been better; the twenty-four years in which she lived abroad witnessed the unification of the Kingdom of Italy and the influx of thousands of American artists, who sought inspiration from Italy’s storied sites and landscapes, as well as patronage from its Grand Tour visitors. During this dynamic period, Brewster provided the American public with around-the-clock, detailed accounts of life in Italy and, specifically, the latest events in the worlds of art and politics in Rome.

Fig. 23.1 Fratelli D’Alessandri, Anne Hampton Brewster, photograph, Rome, ca.1874. Print Collection, The Library Company of Philadelphia.

Brewster wrote frequently and exhaustively for a variety of American journals and newspapers, including the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, the Daily Evening Telegraph (Philadelphia), the Boston Daily Advertiser, the Chicago Daily News, the New York World, and the Newark Courier. The quantity of her work matched the specificity of her observations; she habitually visited artists’ studios and consulted leading Roman archaeologists, who promptly informed her of their projects and discoveries. Brewster rarely referenced the subject of light in museums in her articles for a simple reason: she examined works of art long before they entered public collections. Nevertheless, light in its many incarnations played a crucial role in her work as a journalist and novelist. She first saw Rome by moonlight, which organically shaped her relationship to the city. On multiple occasions, she witnessed Rome as it capitalized on light’s spiritual, even metaphysical properties. In her fictional identity, she experienced the lighting of Naples during annual religious festivities. Finally, she was present when much of ancient Rome was ‘brought to light’ during the Gilded Age. As Rome was illuminated for her, she illuminated Rome for her readers, as she does for us today.

Anne Hampton Brewster was born in Philadelphia as the second child of Maria Hampton and Francis Enoch Brewster. She was descended from William Brewster (1568–1644), an English official and passenger on the Mayflower. Elder Brewster, as he was known, led the Plymouth Colony; a great deal of his courage seems to have migrated to his descendent. Anne was educated by her mother, who instilled in her a love of writing from a young age. She read voraciously but, like most women in antebellum America, received little formal education. Her brother, Benjamin, by contrast, was educated at Princeton University and became a distinguished lawyer. Fortunately, Anne developed a friendship with the actress Charlotte Cushman (1816–76), a champion of female independence, who encouraged her to pursue her writing. As a result, she published a novel, Spirit Sculpture (1849), and at least twenty-two short works of fiction by the age of thirty-one.

Brewster’s early literary success, however, was neither financially rewarding nor personally fulfilling. After her father died and left his entire estate to two illegitimate sons, her brother contested the will and had the estate divided between himself and his half-brothers. Although Benjamin promised to support her, Anne was excluded from the proceedings. Unable to tolerate dissension with her brother, she left America in May 1857 for Switzerland and Naples. While she would receive a small inheritance from some rental properties for the rest of her life, she depended financially on herself. Inspired by such successful writers as Anna Jameson, Lydia Sigourney, and Margaret Fuller, she set out to create a career as a professional writer. In 1868, she made an arrangement with George W. Childs, the publisher of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and publishers of several other American newspapers to pay her for weekly or monthly ‘Letters from Rome’; as a foreign correspondent, she would become the spokesperson for a city that was, in her words, ‘the centre of interest to all the world.’1

Roman Antiquities Seen by Moonlight

Brewster arrived at the newly constructed train station in Rome on 2 November 1868. ‘I stood there alone,’ she writes in her journal. ‘It was a desolate outlook.’ Her despair was short-lived. The novelist and portraitist Thomas Buchanan Read (1822–72) and his wife introduced her to the city. Brewster later recorded her oneiric impressions of Rome, which she first saw by moonlight via carriage ride. She described the fountain surrounding the obelisk at the Piazza del Popolo as follows:

The full moon shone on streams of water that poured out steadily as if supplied by some eternal source from the lion’s mouth at the base of this four thousand year old Egyptian mystery. The two hemicycles of the vast piazza adorned with fountains and statues, the paths leading up the slopes of the Pincio with marble figures and architectural decorations, trees and shrubbery made another Piranesi picture, or a Claude without the colour.

Her carriage ride continued to the Forum. Recalling Byron’s description of Rome, she observed that ‘the moon outlined with ‘a wide and tender light’ all the columns and architectural fragments […] that [stand] on that hill of hills.’ She arrived at San Giovanni in Laterano to see

the Roman Campagna, divine in the solitude, its undulating surface and fine horizon of Sabine and Latium hills enveloped in the mystical light of the moon. The silence and grandeur of the scene! A soft breeze blew up and made the tops of some tall cypresses that stood in a neighboring villa nod sleepily in the night air.

‘As long as I live,’ she avowed, ‘I shall remember this wonderful drive, this divine view of Rome by midnight.’ She credits Buchanan Read, an ‘artist poet,’ for making this landmark experience possible.2

Light’s Metaphysical Properties

During the nineteenth century, religious events in Rome often involved the careful manipulation of light’s physical and metaphysical properties. On one evening, Brewster observed ‘a torch light funeral procession’ across the Piazza di Spagna. She was taken by the ‘ghastly picturesqueness’ of the scene, in which ‘the torch bearers were clothed in sackcloths with hoods that covered the heads and faces.’3 On 24 June the next year, she witnessed the Festival of St. John the Baptist, which she described as ‘a sort of Walpurgis night.’4 En route to the Via San Giovanni, she described preparations for the festivities: ‘Flambeaux [blazing torches] were fastened against the walls’ and ‘[g]ay booths stood on either side of the road, all the way up to the church; they were ablaze with candles…’5 As a crowd gathered around the church, she saw people carrying torches against the moonlight and noted, ‘the mingling of moonlight and heavy shadow, the flashing of the torches, the merry cries of the gay mob, created a strange, weird effect.’6 Brewster’s account reveals that eccentric light effects created by the intermingling of myriad forms of light — moonlight, candles, and torches — sustained and nourished longstanding, public religious festivities in Rome.

Several years later, in 1881, Brewster witnessed one of the annual requiems in honour of Victor Emmanuel II (1820–78). On a dreary, rainy afternoon, she entered the Pantheon and braced herself against the cold. She took her seat on the highest platform of the chapel altar to observe the ceremony that honoured Italy’s first king. Her description features the extraordinary play of different forms of light at the event and reads, in part, as follows:

This huge catafalque was lighted on Saturday with blazing tripods at the summit, at the base of the little temple, and at the grand base of the whole: also with rows of tall large wax candles, so arranged that their flames formed interlaced garlands. At the four corners of the catafalque stood candelabra. […] Blazing tripods like ancient pagan altars stood on top of all the altar façades of the temple, and were arranged in groups of three around the marble attic. […] The lucernario, or great circular opening in the dome, was covered with a transparency, on which was painted the shield and red cross of Savoy. Some pale rays of sunlight crept in at this opening for a few moments, then faded away as life in the presence of death, and all the morning a grey, cold, unearthly light streamed faintly down on the richly decorated temple, and created a strange effect. The tripod flames shot up pointed and tongue-like, trembling in the damp, cold atmosphere. The large pendant gold and silver lamps [t]hat hung in front of the many chapels threw out small yellow rays; the myriads of wax candles were like fiery sparks.7

Brewster understood the evocative power of light. Her meticulous description centers on the combination of different forms of light — light from tripods, wax candles, and candelabras, and pale sunlight seeping through the Pantheon’s legendary oculus — that generated the resplendent atmosphere of the ceremony. In short, light in the Pantheon captured the spectacle of mourning and the sublimity of death.

Brewster also experienced the joyful expression of Roman light. On 24 February 1877, she reported to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin on the last days of the annual Carnival, which immediately preceded Lent. She was especially taken with the moccoletti, the event’s trademark candles (see Fig. 23.2). She describes how,

at the beginning of night-fall on the last day, thousands and thousands of little wax-tapers are lighted in the streets and balconies. Every one stops throwing confetti and begins a new piece of fun, which consists in each one trying to put out his or her neighbor’s candle. Long poles, with cloths fastened on their ends, are brandished about.

Brewster took pleasure in describing how every car had Bengal lights ‘of every color in it: red, green, lilac, blue, with all their curious reflections,’ and how they ‘threw a strange, almost devilish light over the crowd. […] [F]rom half-past five o’clock to seven o’clock the brilliancy and gayety can hardly be described with justice.’8 In this case, the frenzied, even meteoric quality of the lights fueled the festive revelry.

Fig. 23.2 Ippolito Caffi, I moccoletti al Corso, tempera on paper, 83.8 x 121.8 cm., Museo di Roma, Trastevere, Rome.

In a chapter entitled ‘Sky-Rockets’ from her novel St. Martin’s Summer (1866), written on the eve of her permanent expatriation to Italy, Brewster portrays the dramatic effects of fireworks in Naples. The character of Ottilie, a likely stand-in for Brewster, recounts the activities of a small group of women who travel around Switzerland and Italy for the summer. After the group settles in Naples, Ottilie describes the festivities on Trinity Sunday, when the city is elaborately illuminated. Buildings are scaffolded and then strung up with ‘parti-colored glass cups’ that are ‘half-filled with oil, on which floats a taper. […] At nightfall these lamps are lighted and the scaffoldings removed, with a celerity that seems hardly possible.’9 Ottilie portrays the rest of the illuminations as follows:

The church façade then looks like a fairy scene, with its twinkling, sparkling, brilliant-hued letters and devices, and as they begin to pale and drop out, one by one, the attention of the crowd is attracted by the firing-off of petards [small bombs] and the sending up of remarkably fine fireworks. The pyrotechnical displays in Naples seem inexhaustible: there is one called the Girandola, which is remarkably beautiful; it is formed by a simultaneous discharge of numberless rockets, that fall back from a centre as they explode, looking like fiery petals of a gigantic lily-cup or bell.10

In this sublime scene, light takes on both physical and metaphysical properties. The fireworks recall the harrowing Plinian eruptions of Vesuvius, whose mass lay within the narrator’s field of vision. A few minutes later, she observes gas jets mounted on the base of the dome of the Church of San Francesco di Paola, a massive church in Naples’ main square. For Ottilie and her friends, the ‘cross of fire’ created by these gas jets immediately evoked the visionary cross and empyrean inscription, ‘Conquer through this,’ that (according to Eusebius) Constantine famously saw before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.11 Having visited Naples in 1857, Brewster could now transform personal experience into fiction to show how pyrotechnical displays there seamlessly intertwined secular revelry and ecclesiastical history — history at the root of Italy’s Catholic identity.

Antiquities Brought to Light

Some of Brewster’s finest contributions to American and European newspapers consist of detailed reports on antiquities excavated during the late nineteenth-century in Rome and surrounding cities. Fluent in Italian and French, adept at reading German, Latin, and Greek, and possessing a relentlessly inquisitive mind, Brewster was also captivated by Italian archaeology. She befriended a number of leading excavation directors and found ways of seeing works of art only days after they had been unearthed. She was, in this regard, an invaluable witness to the original condition of ancient objects and buildings.

One of her closest friends was Rodolfo Lanciani (1845–1929), the prolific archaeologist and writer. The change in the salutations of his letters to her over the years reflects their growing camaraderie. At first, he writes to her in French — the lingua franca of the nineteenth century — as ‘Chère Mademoiselle Brewster.’ As the friendship develops, she is ‘Dear Miss Brewster.’ He addresses his final set of letters, written in Italian, to ‘Cara Anna.’ The detailed reports that he sent to her — almost as a colleague working synchronically with him — testify to the considerable trust he put both in her devotion to his work and her ability to interpret the information he provided. She, in turn, often reproduced parts of his letters word for word in her reports to American newspapers.

Brewster also befriended the archaeologist Andrea Fraja, who published his findings in the Giornale degli Scavi di Pompei (1861–65).12 Through introductions from him, she spoke to the excavators who, in July 1875, discovered the tabellae ceratae, or wax tablets (56 CE), from the tomb of a Pompeiian banker, which were written by Marcus Alleius Carpus. The wooden tablets, coated with wax, had been stored in a wooden box, which was now, according to Brewster, ‘completely carbonized’; when brought to light, it ‘crumbled to pieces at the first touch.’ The box contained between 300 and 400 little tablets bound together in packages of three. Brewster published the Latin inscription on one — a record of the repayment of a loan — and translated it for her readers. Tragically, the tablets had been discovered on a very hot day and they proceeded, as she put it, to ‘crack or snap.’ They were rushed to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples at night to try to preserve them from the damaging rays of the sunlight but some eventually decomposed.13 Brewster’s account endures as a testimony of their appearance.

The sublime Hellenistic Seated Boxer, which may have been displayed at the Baths of Constantine, had been carefully buried in late antiquity, possibly to preserve it against invasions that ravaged Rome in the fifth century CE; Lanciani discovered it on the Quirinal in 1885.14 Shortly thereafter, he brought Brewster to the site. ‘It is impossible to describe the emotion it caused to all present,’ she wrote in a subsequent article. ‘Laborers, guards, contractors, builders, each and all, were as excited and as full of joy as the scholarly Superintendent and my humble self. I sat down on a stone and watched the men lift the earth carefully away from the precious bronze.’15 Brewster was also one of the first to study the sarcophagus of Larthia Sciantia (3rd century BCE), a masterpiece of Etruscan art, shortly after it had been found in Chiusi and brought to Rome for analysis. (It is now in the National Archaeological Museum of Florence.) In her report on the discovery to the Boston Daily Advertiser, she described in extraordinary detail every facet of the sarcophagus, including the noblewoman’s expression (‘a dazed, half-wondering look, as if death had just opened to her vision sights of marvellous import’), the acorns on the figure’s earrings, the veil she holds over her head, the cushions that support her, even the five rings on the fingers of her left hand. She described the woman’s elaborate clothing, including her stockings and sandals, and the large rosettes on the base of her casket. Brewster even surmised that the Greek physician Areagathus was summoned to help this noblewoman as her illness was ‘taking her away in her youth.’ ‘His medical aid was useless,’ she decided, ‘the Etruscan Fates had cut her thread of life.’ Brewster concluded: ‘Now, two thousand years after her long rest, the dust and ashes of her body, the portrait-statue with its curious beauty, is upturned from this solemn tomb, brought out into the broad sunlight.’16

Anne Hampton Brewster was an eyewitness to Roman history. The hundreds of articles that she sent to American and Italian newspapers from Rome represent the richness of her experiences and observations. Light played a central role in these experiences. By seeing Rome first by moonlight, she established the personal, poetic tenor of her relationship to The Eternal City. It seemed to have been lit only for her. She experienced the uncanny, somewhat supernatural light of the Festival of St. John the Baptist and the incandescent, sepulchral performance of the Italian King’s annual requiem. She was there, too, when Rome let loose at Carnival; lights — Bengal lights and moccoletti — took center stage at a time of dissimulation and clemency. She processed these images not only through the objective format of the newspaper article but also poetically through the fictive world of the novel. In this space, she could tease out the uncanny intersections between geological eruptions, religious festivities, and revelry. Sublime, nearly intoxicating experiences always seemed imminent. Finally, Brewster was present at the gradual, systematic revelation — the bringing to light — of ancient Rome. We would be hard pressed to find a more systematic, devoted, and capable interpreter of these discoveries. Given its importance to our understanding of Italian and American art history, the work of Anne Hampton Brewster, long overshadowed by her male counterparts, must now be brought to light.


1 Quoted in Denise M. Larrabee, Anne Hampton Brewster: 19th-Century Author and ‘Social Outlaw’ (Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1992), p. 25.

2 All citations in this paragraph are from the Journal of Anne Hampton Brewster, 4 November 1868–92, Box 4, folder 2, Anne Hampton Brewster Manuscript Collection, The Library Company of Philadelphia.

3 Ibid.

4 Anne Brewster, ‘Letter from Rome’, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 28 June 1869.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Anne Hampton Brewster, ‘Italian Notes’, Philadelphia Daily Evening Telegraph, 17 January 1881, p. 8.

8 Anne Brewster, ‘Correspondence. Letter from Rome. The Last Days of the Carnival’, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 24 February 1871.

9 Anne M. H. Brewster, St. Martin’s Summer (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1866), p. 277, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008658127

10 Ibid., 277–78.

11 Ibid., 278–79.

12 Fraja also contributed research to Karl Zangemeister, Inscriptiones Parietariae Pompeianae, Herculanenses, Stabianae (Berolini: G. Reimer, 1871), https://archive.org/details/inscriptionespar41zang

13 All quotations from this paragraph are from Anne Brewster, ‘New Treasures Brought to Light at Pompeii’, Boston Daily Advertiser, recorded on 7 August 1875; published on 21 August 1875.

15 Anne Hampton Brewster, ‘A Landmark in Rome’, undated journal clipping, Anne Hampton Brewster Manuscript Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

16 Anne Brewster, ‘The Old Monuments — A Remarkable Etruscan Statue — Memorials of an Ancient Lady — Interesting Speculations’, Boston Daily Advertiser, 1 January 1878.