French writers on Rome in the early nineteenth century

Two outstanding French writers on Rome in the early nineteenth century were creative authors. Mme de Stäel was inspired by a Roman visit of 1804-1805 to write her popular romance, Corinne, filled with descriptions of Roman scenes and monuments interpreted with all the 'sensibility' fashionable in her day. This was translated into English in 1807, within a year of its Paris publication, and had several fresh translations during the century. It also appeared, at a rather later date, in German. Her compatriot, Stendhal ( Henri-Marie Beyle), also began his romantic interpretations of Rome in Napoleon time, his Journal d'Italie appearing in 1811 and Rome, Naples et Florence a few years after the emperor's fall. Notes made during these early years were also the basis for his Promenades dans Rome, not published, however, until 1829.

Not until after Napoleon's final defeat in 1815 did the Englishmen who immortalized the romantic dream of Rome come to her sun-warmed hills. The poets of these years following the emperor's exile have become identified with Rome throughout the English-speaking world and, through translation, in all lands where men's minds have been attuned to the romantic view of the city and its ruins.

The Rome of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, though nominally ruled by the popes, was directly or indirectly dominated by Austria from Napoleon's fall in 1815 until the middle of the century. For a brief time in 1798-1799 her citizens, fired by the example of the French Revolution, had proclaimed a Roman Republic. This was soon abolished by Napoleon, who first restored the papal power and then, in 1809, incorporated Rome and all the papal states with France. The old Holy Roman Empire, which had expired quietly in 1806 under pressure from Napoleon, was not restored when the French emperor was exiled, but the Hapsburgs, as successors to his power in Rome, exerted an authority which was considerably resented by the Romans and criticized bitterly by the foreign visitors who thronged the city when travel became easy once again.

George Gordon, Lord Byron, was in Rome less than four weeks in the spring of 1817. Yet his descriptions in the third act of Manfred, written there, and in the fourth canto of Childe Harold, composed within a few months after his departure, have coloured the traveller's thoughts of Rome for more than a century, taking their place among the immortal commonplaces of English literature. It is difficult to think of a time when Rome had not been called 'Niobe of Nations'--though the aptness of that phrase is now gone--or 'city of the soul'.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was in Rome a little longer than Byron, visiting it first in the fall of 1818 and returning early in the following year. Although renaissance Rome was the setting for his tragedy of The Cenci, his poems contain few mentions of the ancient city except for the famous descriptions of the Pyramid of Cestius in Adonais. Yet his name is indissolubly linked with Rome; through his lament for Keats and its exquisite prose preface; through his description of the writing of Prometheus Unbound 'upon the mountainous ruins of the Baths of Caracalla'; through his letters; and through his own burial in the Protestant Cemetery by the ancient pyramid. 'The first aspect of Italy enchanted Shelley', wrote his wife in later years; 'it seemed a garden of delight placed beneath a clearer and brighter heaven than any he had lived under before. He wrote long descriptive letters during the first year of his residence in Italy [ 1818-1819], which, as compositions, are the most beautiful in the world. . . . The charm of the Roman climate helped to clothe his thoughts in greater beauty than they had ever worn before; and as he wandered among the ruins, made one with nature in their decay, or gazed on the Praxitelean shapes that throng the Vatican, the Capitol, and the palaces of Rome, his soul imbibed forms of loveliness which became a portion of itself.'

John Keats was too near his end to write of Rome when he reached the city late in 1820, yet in death his name was bound with it more closely than the names of many who have filled volumes with its lore. This link was partly the work of Joseph Severn, the friend who comforted his last days, but chiefly that of Shelley, with his passionate defence of the dead poet and description of his burial place. When, a year later, Shelley too was laid to rest in that same Protestant Cemetery in the shadow of the pyramid, the bond between the two and the city was complete. Their memory is fittingly united now in the Keats-Shelley Memorial, the house by the Spanish Steps where Keats died in 1821.

From these years illumined by the English romantic poets comes an interesting comparison between the city as evoked by a poet and as described by an intelligent tourist with a keen power of observation and sense of humour. Charlotte Eaton Rome in the Nineteenth Century, a series of letters written during a stay covering much of the years 1817 and 1818, describes the antiquities and life of Rome at almost the same time as Byron's short visit. The two saw the scene with a similar romantic appreciation; even in their phraseology there is sometimes a striking resemblance; but the Englishwoman noted many a detail and nuance which the poet either did not observe or chose to ignore. Mrs. Eaton, though almost forgotten now, was well appreciated in her day. In the 1840's George Stillman Hillard, writing one of the most nearly comparable of American travel books, noted of Mrs. Eaton's volume: 'Before the days of Murray, there was not a better guide-book in English to the sights of Rome; and it will still be found an agreeable and instructive companion both there and at home.'

In these early golden days of peace, painters as well as poets and sculptors thronged from other lands to Rome; her sunshine and picturesque charm and her wealth of paintings as well as ancient monuments gave her still a peculiar appeal. But the forerunners of the new movement in painting no longer cared essentially for ruins; they were experimenting instead with still more universal themes, on which the romanticists had already touched--the significance of ordinary life, the effects of atmosphere and light which were to lead before many years to the French Impressionists and to shift the centre of painting from Rome to Paris. The English were the leaders here; the French brought the movement to its full flowering.

Turner, the Englishman, was already deep in studies of light and atmosphere when he first visited Rome in 1819. Most of his delicate drawings of the city done at this time are accurate topographical sketches of Rome and her monuments as Byron, Shelley, and Keats saw them. A few paintings done at the same time suggest the city's colour and light as well. Both drawings and paintings of this period have the added interest of being among the last works to show certain ancient monuments just before the considerable alterations which took place in the 1820's. That Turner was by no means exclusively interested in topography even in his views of Rome is evident from a picture done after his second visit to the city in 1828-1829. In the Palace and Bridge of Caligula, a few actual remnants on the Palatine and in the Forum serve merely to state the theme of an imaginative composition, a brilliant and timeless harmony of colour.

Some of the monuments painted by Turner, such as the Colosseum and Arch of Titus, had already been changed considerably before Corot reached Rome in 1825. The French artist's representations of the massive structures he saw about him have a solid simplicity and clarity not to be found in his later and softer grey-green idylls of the northern countryside. The city's intense light was a revelation to him; as he painted it, this light was not the serene, soft radiance of Claude Lorrain. It was strong, almost violent, a form in itself rather than an enveloping atmosphere.

Both Turner and Corot occasionally treated the Roman scene in the more consciously picturesque manner, selecting or arranging their compositions to appeal to the imagination and the memory. This was especially true of Turner's delightful vignettes for the de-luxe edition of Rogers' Italy published in 1830. Samuel Prout's popular water-colours and drawings, while topographically accurate and detailed, were avowedly picturesque, meant to attract the eye and the pocketbook of the homeward-bound or nostalgic traveller. Prout, who has been aptly called a 'master of dilapidation', dwelt lovingly on each time-worn stone and broken column, while adding as a note of piquant contrast some attractive scene from Roman life of his time.

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