What happens to Americans when they go to Italy? It is a question that writers have explored from the beginnings of American travel there in the mid-eighteenth century. In one of my CSU Fullerton summer courses in Florence, we read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, a romance begun during the Hawthorne family’s stay in the city. The author’s journal of his four months there reveals a sophisticated American slightly out of his depth, a creative spirit exhilarated by new possibilities, and a fatalist unable to completely shake off the memory his time in Italy.
Hawthorne is well known for examining the dark recesses of what he called the “heart.” In his best-known novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850), as well as in much of his short fiction, he seems most concerned with the conflict between free expression of emotions and the repressive environment imposed by society. In casting this theme backwards into the New England past, he suggests its timelessness. It had a distinctly personal dimension as well. Hawthorne remained haunted by the knowledge that his ancestor had been a judge in the Salem Witch Trials.
With this inheritance weighing heavily, Hawthorne’s fiction spins out tales of a maypole in Merrymount that must be suppressed, a scarlet letter worn as penance for adultery, and a family curse to be divined in the depths of a daguerreotype. Many of Hawthorne’s characters pay a fearful price for daring to live more freely than their society will permit, and there seems to be no real place for an “Artist of the Beautiful,” as one of his rich stories has it. Hawthorne himself was an artist struggling to sustain a family with the writing of serious fiction. The nineteenth-century United States was not the most auspicious place in which to undertake such a task, so much so that Hawthorne and Herman Melville formed a sympathetic circle of two following Melville’s appreciation of Hawthorne in his essay “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” It was a case of Crusoe finding footprints.
Hawthorne’s 1852 campaign biography of his college friend Franklin Pierce earned him a lengthy European sojourn working for the US government in England after Pierce won the presidency. In 1857, the Pierce term ended, Hawthorne and his family began an extended tour of Europe, concentrating on France and Italy, where living was less expensive. And in Italy, Hawthorne and other creative artists could find what was not available in America: a culture with a deep, somewhat intimidating, and even exotic past.
So the brooding Hawthorne reached sunny Italy at last. Just how would this work? Would the sober chronicler of dour colonial New England brighten up a bit? So it appears. Just a bit.
Hawthorne’s journals tell us that his family stayed in Rome during the spring of 1858, then moved on to Florence. Arriving the first week of June 155 years and a week prior to our arrival this summer, Hawthorne called the journey from Rome “one of the brightest and most uncareful interludes in my life.” He first met the unofficial welcoming committee, the sculptor Hiram Powers, part of the growing English-speaking expatriate community. Powers’ gold-manacled The Greek Slave had become a transatlantic sensation. The sculptor helped the Hawthornes, as he had so many others, find lodging, and the writer stayed at Casa del Bello on via dei Seragli for the next two months. An author partial to strong visual symbols in his work, Hawthorne had curiosity about but little formal knowledge of the visual arts. Of the sculptor’s work he noted that Powers “seems to be especially fond of nudity, none of his ideal statues—so far as I know them—having so much as a rag of clothes.”
Typically American of Hawthorne to note this, and perhaps typically American of Powers to subversively flaunt it? The inability of Americans to take sophisticated European culture entirely in stride is a staple in the fiction of not only Hawthorne but of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and others for whom the dazzling surfaces of Italy seem to hide something more sinister and perhaps corrupting beneath. At a time when sculpture was still considered the greatest of the arts, Hawthorne’s curiosity found satisfaction at the Uffizi, where the famous Tribuna gallery contains what at the time was considered artistic perfection, the Venus de Medici. “At last . . . caught a glimpse of her, through the door of the next room,” he writes. “It is the best room of the whole series, octagonal in shape, and hung with red damask; and the light comes down from a row of windows passing quite round, beneath an octagonal dome.” Hawthorne seems to have been smitten by Venus. “She is very beautiful; very satisfactory; and has a fresh and new charm about her . . .” She seems to lighten him up: “The Venus de Medici has a dimple on her chin,” he closes. In her own notes on Italy, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne is far more expansive in her praise of Venus and in general seems attuned to John Ruskin’s aesthetics of morality, praising the artist for preserving “maidenly modesty,” for showing a “character” that “no covering can hide nor nudity expose.” Hawthorne himself would explore this fine line in The Marble Faun, which partly concerns young Americans gone to Rome to become artists. The Tribuna, whose 1850s clutter disappointed Sophia Hawthorne, re-opened a year ago and the Venus and her dimple were there for us to see as well, the white marble set against the deep red walls that had beckoned artists for centuries before the Hawthornes’ arrival, seeking something they could not find at home.
Italy did put some spring into Hawthorne’s step. No one who has walked Florence can ever forget the experience. “I absolutely walk on the smooth flags of Florence for the mere pleasure of walking, and lie in its atmosphere for the mere pleasure of living,” Hawthorne wrote in his June 5 journal. “I hardly think there can be a place in the world where life is more delicious for its own simple sake than here.” Hawthorne provides rich descriptions of a Florence that has not entirely changed a century and a half later, despite the vast increase in tourism. June 7: “The city was all alive in the summer evening, and the streets humming with voices. Before the doors of the caffes were tables in which people were taking refreshment . . . As we returned home over the Arno, crossing the Ponte di Santa Trinita, we were struck by the beautiful scene of the broad, calm river, with the palaces along its banks repeated in it, on either side, and the neighboring bridges, too, just as perfect in the tide beneath as in the air above—a city of dream and shadow so close to an actual one.”
My students and I crossed the reconstructed bridge (the Germans destroyed it during World War II) on the trail of American writers and artists in Florence, and we saw the Arno, so calm on this warm morning but prone to terrible floods every fifty years or so. Once among the narrow stone-fenced lanes beyond the old Porta Romana city gate, we wound our way among cyprus and olive trees, the occasional whirring Vespa and auto, and the villas where expatriate British and Americans had found places to live and work when tourism was much younger and the rents much cheaper. At Villa Montuato on Bellosguardo, we stopped before the large tower that has a close connection to Hawthorne. The Hawthornes lived here for two months beginning in August 1858, and the tower became a favorite feature of the place. In his journal, Hawthorne called it a “moss-grown tower, haunted by owls and by the ghost of a Monk,” referring to the Gothic romance tradition. It was the perfect stimulation for Hawthorne’s imagination, similar to what a seven-gabled house had provided for an earlier novel. Hawthorne wanted to take the tower “bodily away and clap it into a Romance, which I have in my head already written out.” In The Marble Faun, which he began writing in the tower itself, the villa becomes Monte Beni, home of a mysterious count.
By September Hawthorne had essentially shut himself in the tower as he worked on the novel. On his last night in Florence at the end of September, his joy in Italy and his old New England fatalism began to mingle. He sat at the top of Villa Montuato’s tower, watching the city spread before him, the Palazzo Vecchio’s tower, Giotto’s campanile, and Brunelleschi’s dome dominating the skyline then as they do today on a misty evening. As he smoked a cigar and listened to the “sweet bells” of the city, he was reluctant to descend to the earth, “knowing that I shall never again look heavenward from an old-tower-top, in such a soft, calm evening as this.”
But he was ready to go. “I soon weary of any soil that I may be temporarily deposited in,” he writes. “The same impatience I sometimes feel, or conceive of as regards this earthly life; since it is to come to an end, I do not try to be content, but weary of it while it lasts.” Back in Rome, the Hawthornes suffered from illness, and the author again was happy to leave the city, never intending to see it again.
Hawthorne hardly forgot Florence and Rome, as The Marble Faun attests. In that novel, we see the struggle of the heart once again. The desire to live more freely mixed with the fear of a corrupting old culture cannot fully be resolved. And not long before he departed “this earthly life,” Hawthorne created one more reminder of his time in Italy. He built a new study at his house in Concord, Massachusetts. It was a tower.