Annual Keynote Address to  The New York State Historical Association marking the opening of the  Fenimore Cooper Museum’s landmark exhibit “America’s Rome: American Artists  in the Eternal City 1800-1900.”

This essay is also published as a hardcover book (Capolavori, Inc. 2009) and is available for individual printing on Lulu. (Visit webpage).

16 July 2009

O Rome! My country! City of the soul!

The orphans of the heart must turn to thee,

Lone mother of dead empires! And control

In their shut breasts their petty misery.

What are our woes and sufferance? Come and see

O’er steps of broken thrones and temples – Ye!

Whose agonies are evils of a day-

A world is at our feet, as fragile as our clay.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

George Gordon, Lord Byron

Chairman Alder, President Elliot, Officers and Directors, members of the Board, members of the Society, Prof. Paul and Mrs. Anne D’Ambrosio, my dear friend, Robert Bullock, President of the New York State Archive Trust, ladies and gentlemen:

Thank you for inviting my reflections – destined to be painfully patriotic, perhaps even chauvinistic –on Italy’s unmistakable, enduring allure to artists, poets, composers, and all those we might well call “creators.” Think of those many generations of seekers after inner harmony; those who, as they walked the Appian Way, strode equally toward inner understanding, marching, as it were to the beat of an antique drum, the truly soulful music of western civilization. In the context of this brilliant, even historic display, I borrow an ageless adage and entitle this short excursus Roma non sponte sequor, roughly translated as “I follow Rome will-lessly”

Some days after this show’s announcement ceremony at the Italian Consulate on Park Avenue, I was deciding upon my approach for today, bothered, as you might imagine, by the wish to express myself in a manner appropriate to the beauty of these American masters’ works—a doomed undertaking, at best. My way became clear that very evening at dinner with Dr. Bilha Chesner, a thoroughly scientific, yet most charming medical doctor who had agreed to help plan an issue of our New York Doctor magazine, together with two medical researchers. It was rather a nice dinner and productive through the second course, but as conversation became lost in surgical technology, I was wandering off, allowing the wine to settle in, the check to arrive and the conclusion of the discussion to find its way to the cloak room. The researchers left, and Bilha and I stayed back to stir up some new cover story ideas when she suggested that we devote the upcoming issue to “medical tourism.”

Finding the expression itself to be interesting I said quickly, “Well, sure, that sounds like a fresh idea,” thinking that the concept referred to doctors going on tours of other countries’ hospitals to determine what new forms of corporal invasion, injection or other infliction was underway. Not so; medical tourism, she explained, refers to the practice of individuals going to other countries to have procedures done or, more interestingly, to purchase human organs – with or without warranties, I suppose – as and when they needed them.

By that point, the image of a heart or a kidney being transported on ice killed the idea of dessert, for sure, but did give me a quick point of departure, a way to frame this talk, providing the motive of a 19th century traveler—an artist, say—to Italy. For many centuries individuals from Europe and, later, from the United States, who were engaged in the arts, music, and literature found themselves rather will-lessly drawn to Italy, in a sense, to recover an “organ” or, perhaps, better, to repair some systemic element that would, to be done with this tiresome metaphor, “complete” them. Perhaps some functioning organ in their intellectual, spiritual center required a bath of light under the currently vogue-ish Tuscan sun, or a walk in Edward Lear’s mountains of Abruzzo, or along the canals of Venezia, over the hills of Umbria, down where the hot winds of Sicily blow, or within the majestic, man made arms of Bernini’s Piazza San Pietro, embracing the rock of Christ’s church on earth and its aethereal splendor.

Or perhaps that spiritual completion could be found—in fact, I am sure it is found—in Dante, Verdi, or the stunning work of today’s most popular Italian artist, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Think of Dante’s popularity in the 1800’s, his influence on, say, Franz Liszt: “Apres une lecture da Dante,” a work inspired by the poem of Victor Hugo about being inspired by Dante. In fact, I think inexorably of Liszt and the traveler in Italy and was even tempted just to substitute playing excerpts of his “Vallée d’Obermann” for this presentation. Dante is tied today to T. S. Eliot, his Waste Land, and his relationship to Pound and, in turn, Pound and the influence of Cavalcanti and the dolce stil novo upon him. And the ties bind most of English literature with Italy in some way.

It has been thus for some time in Western literature.

A rather subjective literary survey of those English language writers who found a voice in Italy, especially in the 19th century, includes many whose works reached, lured, paralleled or influenced the American painters whose work we so admire in this show. The works of art selected by Prof. D’ Ambrosio speak for themselves in tones and emotions suited for poets, most of whom walked through their own history as they traced the roads of  Toscana or crossed the Bridge of Sighs.

Herodotus, the father of history, lies and superb narrative, you will surely recall as members of the Historical Society, considered history an inquiry, as the first line of his noble work belies. It is an inquiry, for sure.

That inferential exercise that is history, holds Italy in special esteem for its effects on so many artists over so many centuries.

The special pull of Italy—one recalls here the Alitalia Airlines commercial “Fire your psychiatrist and fly to Italy”—rewards the inquirer with (and here’s a first motive or lure) the sense of search, sailing fast toward an illusion of earthly permanence, witnessing a tired, yet still-standing empire’s ruins that have yet to fall.

Byron wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the words carved below his statue in Villa Borghese:


But my soul wanders; I demand it back

To meditate amongst decor, and stand

A ruin amidst ruins; there to track

Fall’n states and buried greatness, o’er a land

Which was the mightiest in its old command

And is the loveliest, and must, ever be

The master-mould of Nature’s heavenly hand,

Wherein were cast the heroic and the free,

The beautiful, the brave—the lords of earth and sea,


The commonwealth of kings, the men of Rome!

And even since, and now, fair Italy!

Thou art the garden of the world, the home

Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree;

Even in thy desert, what is like to thee?

Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste

More rich than other climes’ fertility;

Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced

With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.

The inquirer pieces together both Rome’s and one’s own story.

A second lure is the myth of “amore” spawned from the time of Shakespeare to E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and up to those popular romantic novels where love is found amidst the freedoms and anonymities of a forgiving land and a people unafraid of emotion. The 1950’s cinematic romances set in Italy – remember Three Coins in the Fountain, It Happened in Naples, and so many others – are all tales, at their root, of acceptance of emotion; that is, of the conversion from rigidity to new flexibility. These simple films and more complex, lasting works remain in the popular psyche today as they did in other, largely literary and musical forms in the 1800’s and much earlier, going all the way back to Marlowe, the neoclassicists and then up to Byron and the Romantics.

Unafraid of emotion, indeed. It was a young Italian nobleman in love with his Juliet who was given the line “He jests at scars that ne’er felt a wound.” Italy’s first public relations in the English speaking world may be said to have been managed by William Shakespeare, presenting a view of the land and its people that was of an exotic, far off locale where such strange things happened as those we see in the Merchant of Venice, such bloody scenes as we see in several works: the tender, but scandalous (in its day) Romeo and Juliet and, mostly, Othello, Moor of Venice, an interracial marriage for the early 1600’s, full of that lasting sense of the fantastic and macabre that Venice held for Stratford audiences, as an exotic junction of the Orient and the Occident.

Up to the 20th century, to Thomas Mann, whose Venice was sickly warm and yet sexually liberating in its timeless, aimless days, and Rilke, with his cries to the heavens, and to the other post romantics—the Serenissima breathes wonder in its fetid air and we discover a third lure: Italy’s unpredictability and seductively ever-changing natural and man made circumstances, the terrible, liberating beauty of it, even at its worst.

Shakespeare knew first hand the inclusion in the contemporary English dictionary of the entries supplied by Giovanni Florio, who added some 1,500 Italianate words to the corpus of the English language; Shakespeare gave birth to an appreciation that fascinated those most wide-eyed romantic poets, Keats, Byron, and Shelley. Byron, in particular, whose Childe Harold and other romances and epics take place in Italy, exemplifies the three points—the lures—to which I have referred so far, only to add a fourth: sprezzatura, Baldassare Castiglione’s term for courtly behavior, in his Art of the  Courtier from the 1500’s. The sentimental journeys of the neo classicists and contemporaries of Samuel Johnson such as Laurence Sterne and, later, Charles Dickens, all made for great reading and great interest in the far away place that was then Italy. Sterne learned how “gravity” in one’s visage is designed to cover over one’s ignorance. The Brownings redefined love during their year in Rome and expressed it in noble, yet intimately personal ways. The art of organizing fastidiously and behaving self consciously yet always seeming to be carefree and spontaneous, is a lesson still taught in Italy’s salons. Seriousness, not gravity.  Sprezzatura makes the most carefully structured poem seem natural, and the most perfectly, fastidiously matched suit and tie seem almost indeliberate.

The geographic boundaries and varieties of a “Southern Journey” back then were not as clearly defined as they are today. To go from England to France and Italy introduced such variety that we must enter our fifth lure: multiplicity. The unification of Italy in the late 1800’s, brought together a confederation of regions and evolved states mostly wary of each other, or at least frustrated with each other. These petty disputes carry on until the present day, where Italians immediately recognize themselves as being from a certain province or another or a certain region or another, and use that to define the individuals with whom they are speaking, like a sign of the zodiac. It is not uncommon to the present day to have someone ask you “where are you from?” like “what’s your sign?” and gain some curious character insight from the answer as if to infer, “Oh, that explains it.” Today, we hold that Italy, with its often-fractionalized political parties in incessant, but artful contention, has no fewer than 54 million governments. It was that way then, too—so much variety at every turn. For the traveler, a multiplicity of landscapes, epochs, styles, dialects, cuisine, even music and versions of the past were irresistible in the retelling on canvas or folio.

No less a figure than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe found yet another lure in Italy, discovery of what may be termed “ softer” aspects of a hard, male world. May I indulge you here to recall that Goethe has long been considered to be among the top seven writers of all time (Homer, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe), of whom four were Italian born. All but one wrote about Italy quite regularly and meaningfully. This side refers to a kind of liberation that one finds, perhaps, in Greenwich Village or Berlin, these days—an ability to be soft, as the world goes, stylishly forward, outward, sympathetic, and full of flourish—and yet be “manly.” A wide band of acceptable expression, flourished of openness, a different spirit form the Nordic version of manliness or others of less cultivated expression.

An unmistakable seventh lure is another of those elusive values expressed by the great Italo Calvino; it’s the topic of one of his six lectures (“Sei Lezioni…”): the principle of leggerezza. Valery’s line “Il faut être…léger comme l’oiseau mais non comme la plume” makes the point. This quality is long found in Italy in the relationship of music-dance-and poetry centered in the very language itself. It does not strike us as peculiar that 14 of Mozart’s operas work quite well in Italian. In Italy, Pound found that “poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music; music atrophies when it gets too far from the dance.” The forms of music and the astonishing rhythms of Italy prove intoxicating in their insistence, to the sensitive soul. From Bach to Berlioz, from the first opera—a poetic invention in 1607 by Claudio Monteverdi—to its spread throughout the world, the merging of language, motion, plot and rhythm came together in Italy and was found there by Tchaikovsky, Mendelsohn and, in so many of their figures, Bach and Beethoven and hundreds of others, major and minor.

The English and American writers who may well have “seduced” the artists in this show follow suit: Charles Dickens, Henry James, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain –his Innocents Abroad – and Edith Wharton – her Roman Fever – drew forth, all or some of them, from the artists in this splendid show, an urge for excursion and discovery with all of the enchantment and luster of pre-air travel, when distance “from” and “to” were themselves exciting. Referring here, as a matter of household respect, to James Fenimore Cooper, his novel Bravo, a political novel that reflects the early American Republic’s rather anti-aristocratic posture, was completed in 1830 after some weeks in Venice, the serene site of every sin and intrigue man could, shall we say, set afloat.

This work falls in line with the Founding Fathers and their writings—largely Roman inspired, notably Jefferson, whose treatises draw from Lucretius (“Nature and nature’s law…”) and others. The Roman Republic was ubiquitous in the New World, a column of inspiration, a draw and a lure itself. Latin was studied ubiquitously until about 50 years ago and was required of the educated person. English Parliament was conducted in Latin as were most discussions at the University level until perhaps 75 years ago. Call it the ultimate version of “Roots” or radix sententiarum.

In fact, there were more than 350 American poems written in Latin in the two centuries before 1825, most of them elegiac, dealing with death and misfortune, while the second biggest group commemorated or narrated events. These can be dramatic and vivid in expressing the way the New World drove forward referring, as it were, to its “rear view mirror” upon  the Old. Our painters on show here knew these works or had some sense of them for sure. They referred back with zeal.

When the colonists succeeded in establishing their own government, recourse was immediately made to Latin to give solemnity to the instruments of the new state. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress named a committee to design a great seal for the country. But only after almost six years was a design accepted. Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Congress, secured congressional approval in 1783.

Today, despite time and challenge, the dollar contains  no fewer than three Latin mottos: (A) e pluribus unum, (B) annuit coeptis and (C) novus ordo saeclorum. None of them is precisely a quotation. Starting with the most interesting, the last (C) is almost messianic, recalling the passage in Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, which was widely taken in the Middle Ages to be a prophecy of Christ.

Ultima Cumaei venit iam carmine

Aetas; magnus ab integro saeclorum

Nascitur ordo. Iam redit et virgo, redeunt

Saturnia regna, iam nova progenies

Caelo demittitur alto

[The last age of the Cumaen sibyl has Come; a great order of the ages is born. Now the Virgin and the age of Saturn

Return; now a new Child is sent from Heaven above.]

Next, (B) Annuit coeptis: “He nodded to the undertakings” is taken from a passage in Virgil’s Aeneid:

Jupiter omnipotens, audacidus annue coeptis ‘Almighty Jupiter, nod to my undertakings.’
It refers to Ascanius, the son of Aeneas, asking for Jupiter’s support in an arrow-shot at an enemy soldier who has demeaned his manhood. Jupiter complies and Remulus duly falls dead, an arrow through his skull.

And, of course, e pluribus unum: ‘from the many, one’ has no clear classical context, although the phrase appears in an ancient poem, the Moretum, long attributed to Virgil. It describes the making of a dish:

It manus in gyrum: paulatin singular vires deperdun proprias, color est e pluribus unus, nec totus viridis, quia lacteal frusta repugnant, nec de lacte nitens, quia tot variatur ab herbis.

[the hand moves in a circle: little by little each loses its own force, and the color stirred into one, not all green, because the milky slices resist, nor shining from milk, because varied by so many herbs.]

The U.S. Constitution itself was designed after a Roman model. The classically educated founders naturally saw themselves in the traditional Roman mold, deposing a king, and setting up a Republic that would be a bulwark against instabilities where there would be no predictable, pre-set sovereign, head of state. This is Cooper’s heroic subject in Bravo.

It was Virgil, whose Jupiter, promised that world an unending Empire (“Imperium sine fine dedi.”) He could not know what it would become: The lure here, to use Eliot’s term, is the “objective correlative” for a formula of emotions combining might, with a sense of human mortality. Byron stated it well and lived it well:

While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;

When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;

And when Rome falls-the World.” From our own land

Thus spake the pilgrims o’er this mighty wall

In Savon times, which we are wont to call

Ancient; and these three mortal things are still

On their foundations, and unalter’d all:

Rome and her Ruin past Redemption’s skill,

The World, the same wide-den-of thieves, or what ye will.


Relic of nobler days, and noblest arts!

Despoil’d, yet perfect, with thy circle, spreads

A holiness appealing to all hearts-

To art a model; and to him who treads

Rome for the sake of ages, Glory sheds

Her light through thy sole aperture; to those

Who worship, here are alters for their beads;

And they who feel for genius may repose

Their eyes on honour’d forms whose busts around them close.

Another lure that is yet clear to any American is that of Italy’s enduring and relentless dolce far niente, a centuries old resistance to creeping modernity in its pejorative sense. It is Italy’s time management that sets ownership of the hours with the individual, not the clock. A G-8 country and staunch U.S. ally, Italy’s economy and its advances in science and technology are among the world’s models, although it is considered a bit gauche to “market” such a fact in the Italian way of thinking.

The author William Bode spoke of Italy as…morally regenerative, indispensable to the soul’s salvation. “We need Italy,” he wrote, “for our spiritual sustenance, this country and its art, a country that has been the object of our longing and of our love for almost 1,500 years.” Italy offers an ambiguous solace. Rilke, arriving in Florence in 1898, will praise its morning light, “the gleam of a hundred hopes,” and that “simple clarity and holy majesty as the evening dies away.”

For D.H. Lawrence, “the soul of the Italian was the summer sun, a vintage in to his veins into ecstatic sensual delight, the intense, white-cold ecstasy of darkness and moonlight”. E. M. Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch, on holiday in Tuscany in A Room with a View, allows the climate and its people’s passionate nature to awaken sexuality and celebration of the body. We note here the Academy Award Winning Art Director and our dear friend Gianni Quaranta’s work in the unforgettable film based upon this book, in the mid-1980’s.

Travel writing of the early 1800’s imagined Italy as a vast plain scattered with ruins. To Shelley, writing in 1818, Rome was “a city, as it were, of the dead, or rather of those who cannot die, and who survive the puny generations which inhabit…the spot which they have made sacred.” Frustrated by the chaotic and politically complex reality, writers from Britain, Germany and France fantasized a nation frozen in the past, a country with sepulchers, tombs and cemeteries. For Byron, the countless dead buried under Italy’s churches made the country special, holy with “dust which is even in itself an immortality” as did, more than likely, the painters in this show.

And so, it is again, to an inspired Byron we are drawn, a Byron inspired (ispirato — “breathed into”) by Italy, by Rome, journeying inward, speaking, I would like to believe, for himself and for Italy itself at once, in these immortal lines:


But I have lived, and have not lived in vain;

My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,

And my frame perish even in conquering pain;

But there is that within me which shall tire

Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;

Something unearthly which they deem not of,

Like the remember’d tone of a mute lyre,

Shall on their soften’d spirits sink, and move

In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love;

“Like the remember’d tone of a mute lyre,

Shall on their soften’d spirits sink.”

We follow the beat of Western Civilization’s antique drum and are drawn, will-lessly, to Italy.

Roma non sponte sequor

Thank you.

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