Overlooking the Roman Campagna from the Sabine Hills, Tivoli has always had an almost mythological resonance as the site of villas housing the great from Rome. Its waterfall and famed gardens evoke a kind of magical world. Over time, it also became a favorite subject for European landscape painters. And eventually, the Americans came to try their hand at it. I’ve never been to Tivoli, but like Thomas Cole and his many American admirers, I feel I should go there some day.
American art patrons in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often paid the passage of their young painters, who then in the course of learning from the old masters would dutifully bring back a copy of a Raphael from Florence or a landscape from the Campagna. Cole was already established by the time he went to Italy in 1831, having begun the series of landscapes that founded an informal school named for its favored Hudson River valley locations. Sunny Morning on the Hudson River from 1826 is an early example of Cole’s treatment of landscape. As it turned out, Cole’s approach to American scenes translated quite nicely to his new Italian surroundings.
By the time Cole got to Tivoli, it was as though he had already been there. His compositional sense is intact, and his developing sense of atmospherics is also on view. Followers of Cole, such as Sanford Robinson Gifford and Worthington Whittredge, went to paint Tivoli and the ruin-strewn Campagna in later decades, continuing the American fascination with a culturally rich yet politically spent ancient world. The American fascination with Italian art and culture, what Van Wyks Brooks called The Dream of Arcadia after one of Cole’s Italian-based paintings, suffered a rather rude interruption with the Great War. William Merritt Chase had to close down his summer painting school outside Florence. He and other American writers and artists came home while Ernest Hemingway deplored the incompetence and absurdity of an Italian front that earned him both injury and literary inspiration. By the time Thornton Wilder got to Italy as an archaeology student at the American Academy in Rome in 1920, Italy was on the brink of anarchy, suffering through the aftermath of a victory that felt like a defeat.
Wilder was a less than committed archaeologist, but he made fast acquaintance with a variety of aristocratic Romans who, from the heights of their villas in Tivoli, seemed to have an outsized influence on events in the Eternal City itself. By 1922, Wilder had come home, the fascist Benito Mussolini was in power, and Wilder’s first novel, The Cabala, began its life. Debuting in 1926, it reimagines Wilder’s Italian experience in fictional form. I should say mythological form, because in he fancies these Romans as inheritors of the gods—the gods whose powers diminish with each new generation and whose time, with fascism about to take hold, is definitively ending. No place in the modern world for gods or aristocrats, no matter how benevolent or capricious. Not for the first time did an American writer fall under the spell of the fanciful when strolling the streets and groves of Italy. Nathaniel Hawthorne had toyed with creating a Italian character, Donatello, “between the real and the fantastic,” a character inconceivable if made American, in The Marble Faun of 1860, so Wilder’s “Dusk of the Gods” has strong precedent. Just as Cole rendered Tivoli as a version of a Hudson River scene, Wilder’s narrator finds the conversation at the Tivoli villa of an American expat leader of the Cabala provoking “the mixed sensation that it was not unlike that of a house party on the Hudson.” Perhaps the presence of our young American hampers their style: “I recalled the literary tradition that the gods of antiquity had not died but still drifted about he earth shorn of the greater part of their glory—Jupiter and Venus and Mercury straying through the streets of Vienna or roaming the South of France as harvesters. Casual acquaintances would not be able to sense their supernaturalism . . .” In the end, Wilder’s tale is a parable of cultural transference. Rome is not, after all the Eternal City, or “the last and greatest of all cities.” That honor now falls upon New York. In the wake of war and fascism, the time had come for Americans to stop looking to Italy for inspiration. Americans would encounter Italy again, but under different circumstances: invasion, occupation, and reconstruction after World War II in a new era of U.S. political and military dominance. Wilder’s next novel would move deeper in time and to another continent, but the reality of remorseless power in the contemporary world is evident. In 1714, an Italian friar in Peru tries to make sense of a fatal accident in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and ends up paying dearly for his researches and speculations.