Edith Wharton over Rome

Edith Newbold Jones werd in 1862 geboren in New York . Haar bemiddelde ouders waren zeer reislustig. Edith verbleef met haar familie vanaf 1868 in Parijs. In Florence woonden zij vanaf eind 1870 tot juni 1872. Terug in Amerika huwt zij in 1885  Edward Wharton. Het echtpaar verblijft in de jaren 1886-1893 elk voorjaar in Italië. Toerend door Italië bezoeken zij in 1903 ruim zeventig villa’s en hun tuinen. Eind 1904 verschijnt haar boek Italian Villa’s and their Gardens. Een jaar later verscheen Italian Backgrounds. Het zijn beschouwingen over wat zij zag gedurende haar reizen in Italië. Het bevat een paragraaf over de hoofdstad van één en een kwart eeuw geleden. Hier volgt de volledige tekst in de taal waarin Edith Wharton over Rome schreef. De paginanummers staan tussen /…/

Edith Wharton over Rome
Temple of Æsculapius, Villa Borghese. Uit het boek Italian Villa’s, p. 96.


Perhaps Rome is, of all Italian cities, the one in which this one-sidedness of aesthetic interest is most oddly exemplified. In the Tuscan and Umbrian cities, as has been said, the art and architecture which form the sight-seer’s accepted “curriculum,” are still the distinctive features of the streets through which he walks to his gallery or his museum. In Florence, for instance, he may go forth from the Riccardi chapel, and see the castle of Vincigliata towering on its cypress-clad hill precisely as Gozzoli depicted it in his fresco; in Siena, the crenellated palaces with their iron torch-holders and barred windows form the unchanged setting of a medieval pageant. But in Rome for centuries it has been the fashion to look only on a city which has almost disappeared, and to close the eyes to one which is still alive and actual.
The student of ancient Rome moves among painfully-reconstructed debris; the mediaevalist must traverse the city from end to end to piece together


the meagre fragments of his “epoch.” Both studies are absorbing, and the very difficulty of the chase no doubt adds to its exhilaration; but is it not a curious mental attitude which compels the devotee of mediaeval art to walk blindfold from the Palazzo Venezia to Santa Sabina on the Aventine, or from the Ara Coeli to Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, because the great monuments lying between these points of his pilgrimage belong to what someone has taught him to regard as a “debased period of art”?
Rome is the most undisturbed baroque city of Italy. The great revival of its spiritual and temporal power coincided with the development of that phase of art of which Michael Angelo sowed the seed in Rome itself. The germs of Bernini and Tiepolo must be sought in the Sistine ceiling and in the Moses of San Pietro in Vincoli, however much the devotees of Michael Angelo may resent the tracing of such a lineage. But it is hard at this date to be patient with any form of artistic absolutism, with any critical criteria not based on that sense of the comparative which is the nineteenth century’s most important contribution to the function of criticism. It is hard to be tolerant of that peculiar form of intolerance


which refuses to recognize in art the general law of growth and transformation, or, while recognizing it, considers it a subject for futile reproach and lamentation. The art critic must acknowledge a standard of excellence, and must be allowed his personal preferences within the range of established criteria: aesthetically, the world is divided into the Gothically and the classically minded, just as intellectually it is divided into those who rise to the general idea and those who pause at the particular instance.

The lover of the particular instance will almost always have a taste for the Gothic, which is the personal and anecdotic in art carried to its utmost expression, at the cost of synthetic effect; but if he be at all accessible to general ideas, he must recognize the futility of battling against the inevitable tendencies of taste and invention. Granted that, from his standpoint, the art which evolved from Michael Angelo is an art of decadence: is that a reason for raging at it or ignoring it? The autumn is a season of decadence; but even by those who prefer the spring, it has not hitherto been an object of invective and reprobation. Only when the art critic begins to survey the modifications of art as objectively as he would study the


alternations of the seasons, will he begin to understand and to sympathize with the different modes in which man has sought to formulate his gropings after beauty. If it be true in the world of sentiment that il taut aimer pour comprendre, the converse is true in the world of art. To enjoy any form of artistic expression one must not only understand what it tries to express, but know

The hills where its life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

Thus philosophically viewed, the baroque Rome – the Rome of Bernini, Borromini and Maderna, of Guercino, the Caracci and Claude Lorrain – becomes of great interest even to those who are not in sympathy with the exuberances of seventeenth-century roman art. In the first place, the great number of baroque buildings, churches, palaces and villas, the grandeur of their scale, and the happy incidents of their grouping, give a better idea than can elsewhere be obtained of the collective effects of which the style is capable. Thus viewed, it will be seen to be essentially a style de parade  the setting of the spectacular and external life which had developed from the more secluded


civilization of the Renaissance as some blossom of immense size and dazzling colour may develop in the atmosphere of the forcing-house from a smaller and more delicate flower. The process was inevitable, and the result exemplifies the way in which new conditions will generate new forms of talent.

It is in moments of social and artistic transformation that original genius shows itself, and Bernini was the genius of the baroque movement. To those who study his work in the light of the conditions which produced it, he will appear as the natural interpreter of that sumptuous bravura period when the pomp of a revived ecclesiasticism and the elaborate etiquette of Spain were blent with a growing taste for country life, for the solemnities and amplitudes of nature.

The mingling of these antagonistic interests has produced an art distinctive enough to take rank among the recognized “styles”: an art in which excessive formality and ostentation are tempered by a free play of line, as though the winds of heaven swept unhindered through the heavy draperies of a palace. It need not be denied. that delicacy of detail, sobriety of means and the effect of repose were often sacrificed to these new requirements;


but it is more fruitful to observe how skilfully Bernini and his best pupils managed to preserve the balance and rhythm of their bold compositions, and how seldom profusion led to incoherence. How successfully the Italian sense of form ruled over this semi-Spanish chaos of material, and drew forth from it the classic line, may be judged from the way in which the seventeenth-century churches about the Forum harmonize with the ruins of ancient Rome. Surely none but the most bigoted archeologist would wish away from that magic scene the facades of San Lorenzo in Miranda and of Santa Francesca Romana!

In this connection it might be well for the purist  to consider what would be lost if the seventeenth century Rome which he affects to ignore were actually blotted out. The Spanish Steps would of  course disappear, with the palace of the Propaganda; so would the glorious Barberini palace, and Bernini’s neighbouring fountain of the Triton; the via delle Quattro Fontane, with its dripping river-gods emerging from their grottoes, and Borromini’s fantastic church of San Carlo at the head of the street, a kaleidoscope of whirling line and ornament,


offset by the delicately classical circular cortile of the adjoining monastery. On the Quirinal hill, the palace of the Consulta would go, and the central portal of the Quirinal (a work of Bernini’s), as well as the splendid gateway of the Colonna gardens. The Colonna palace itself, dull and monotonous without, but within the very model of a magnificent pleasure-house, would likewise be effaced; so would many of the most characteristic buildings of the Corso-San Marcello, the Gesù, the Sciarra and Doria palaces, and the great Roman College.

Gone, too, would be the Fountain of Trevi, and Lunghi’s gay little church of San Vincenzo ed Anastasio, which faces it so charmingly across the square; gone the pillared court-yard and great painted galleries of the Borghese palace, and the Fontana dei Termini with its beautiful group of adjoining churches; the great fountain of the piazza Navona, Lunghi’s stately facade of the Chiesa Nuova, and Borromini’s Oratory of San Filippo Neri ; the monumental Fountain of the Acqua Paola on the Janiculan, the familiar “Angels of the Passion” on the bridge of Sant’Angelo, and, in the heart of the Leonine City itself, the mighty sweep of Bernini’s marble


colonnades and the flying spray of his Vatican fountains.
This enumeration includes but a small number of the baroque buildings of Rome, and the villas encircling the city have not been named, though nearly all, with their unmatched gardens, are due to the art of this “debased” period. But let the candid sightseer – even he who has no tolerance of the seventeenth century, and to whom each of the above-named buildings may be, individually, an object of reprobation – let even this sectary of art ask himself how much of “mighty splendent Rome” would be left, were it possible to obliterate the buildings erected during the fever of architectural renovation which raged from the accession of Sixtus V to the last years of the seventeenth century.

Whether or no he would deplore the loss of anyone of these buildings, he would be constrained to own that collectively they go far toward composing the physiognomy of the Rome he loves. So far-spreading was the architectural renascence of the seventeenth century, and so vast were the opportunities afforded to its chief exponents, that every quarter of the ancient city is saturated with the bravura spirit of Bernini and Borromini.


Some may think that Rome itself is the best defence of the baroque: that an art which could so envelop without eclipsing the mighty monuments amid which it was called to work, which could give expression to a brilliant present without jarring on a warlike or ascetic past, which could, in short, fuse Imperial and early Christian Rome with the city of Spanish ceremonial and post-Tridentine piety, needs no better justification than the Circumspice of Wren.

But even those who remain unconverted, who cannot effect the transference of artistic and historic sympathy necessary to a real understanding of seventeenth-century architecture, should at least realize that the Rome which excites a passion of devotion such as no other city can inspire, the Rome for which travellers pine in absence, and to which they return again and again with the fresh ardour of discovery, is, externally at least, in great part the creation of the seventeenth century.

Aantekeningen bij Edith Wharton over Rome

  • Edith Wharton, Italian Backgrounds. New York: The Ecco Press, 1989. Het is een herdruk van de eerste uitgave: New York: Scribner’s, 1905. Dit citaat is paragraaf IV uit het hoofdstuk ‘Italian Backgrounds’, pp. 171-214, m.n. de pp. 181-189.
  • Men kan voor schrijfster het beste de Engelse wikipedia pagina raadplegen.
  • Voor een chronologie zie hier.
  • Veel titels zijn digitaal beschikbaar op Gutenberg.


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