American Society In Italy by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

The phrase at the head of this chapter and other sentences, such as “American Society in Paris,” or London, are constantly on the lips of people who should know better. In reality these societies do not exist. Does my reader pause, wondering if he can believe his eyes? He has doubtless heard all his life of these delightful circles, and believes in them. He may even have dined, en passant, at the “palace” of some resident compatriot in Rome or Florence, under the impression that he was within its mystic limits. Illusion! An effect of mirage, making that which appears quite tangible and solid when viewed from a distance dissolve into thin air as one approaches; like the mirage, cheating the weary traveller with a vision of what he most longs for.

Forty, even fifty years ago, there lived in Rome a group of very agreeable people; Story and the two Greenoughs and Crawford, the sculptor (father of the brilliant novelist of to-day); Charlotte Cushman (who divided her time between Rome and Newport), and her friend Miss Stebbins, the sculptress, to whose hands we owe the bronze fountain on the Mall in our Park; Rogers, then working at the bronze doors of our capitol, and many other cultivated and agreeable people. Hawthorne passed a couple of winters among them, and the tone of that society is reflected in his “Marble Faun.” He took Story as a model for his “Kenyon,” and was the first to note the exotic grace of an American girl in that strange setting. They formed as transcendental and unworldly a group as ever gathered about a “tea” table. Great things were expected of them and their influence, but they disappointed the world, and, with the exception of Hawthorne, are being fast forgotten.

Nothing could be simpler than life in the papal capital in those pleasant days. Money was rare, but living as delightfully inexpensive. It was about that time, if I do not mistake, that a list was published in New York of the citizens worth one hundred thousand dollars; and it was not a long one! The Roman colony took “tea” informally with each other, and “received” on stated evenings in their studios (when mulled claret and cakes were the only refreshment offered; very bad they were, too), and migrated in the summer to the mountains near Rome or to Sorrento. In the winter months their circle was enlarged by a contingent from home. Among wealthy New Yorkers, it was the fashion in the early fifties to pass a winter in Rome, when, together with his other dissipations, paterfamilias would sit to one of the American sculptors for his bust, which accounts for the horrors one now runs across in dark corners of country houses,–ghostly heads in “chin whiskers” and Roman draperies.

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The son of one of these pioneers, more rich than cultivated, noticed the other day, while visiting a friend of mine, an exquisite eighteenth-century bust of Madame de Pompadour, the pride of his hostess’s drawing-room. “Ah!” said Midas, “are busts the fashion again? I have one of my father, done in Rome in 1850. I will bring it down and put it in my parlor.”

The travellers consulted the residents in their purchases of copies of the old masters, for there were fashions in these luxuries as in everything else. There was a run at that time on the “Madonna in the Chair;” and “Beatrice Cenci” was long prime favorite. Thousands of the latter leering and winking over her everlasting shoulder, were solemnly sent home each year. No one ever dreamed of buying an original painting! The tourists also developed a taste for large marble statues, “Nydia, the Blind Girl of Pompeii” (people read Bulwer, Byron and the Bible then) being in such demand that I knew one block in lower Fifth Avenue that possessed seven blind Nydias, all life-size, in white marble,–a form of decoration about as well adapted to those scanty front parlors as a steam engine or a carriage and pair would have been. I fear Bulwer’s heroine is at a discount now, and often wonder as I see those old residences turning into shops, what has become of the seven white elephants and all their brothers and sisters that our innocent parents brought so proudly back from Italy! I have succeeded in locating two statues evidently imported at that time. They grace the back steps of a rather shabby villa in the country,–Demosthenes and Cicero, larger than life, dreary, funereal memorials of the follies of our fathers.

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The simple days we have been speaking of did not, however, outlast the circle that inaugurated them. About 1867 a few rich New Yorkers began “trying to know the Italians” and go about with them. One family, “up to snuff” in more senses than one, married their daughter to the scion of a princely house, and immediately a large number of her compatriots were bitten with the madness of going into Italian society.

In 1870, Rome became the capital of united Italy. The court removed there. The “improvements” began. Whole quarters were remodelled, and the dear old Rome of other days, the Rome of Hawthorne and Madame de Stael, was swept away. With this new state of things came a number of Americo-Italian marriages more or less successful; and anything like an American society, properly so-called, disappeared. To-day families of our compatriots passing the winter months in Rome are either tourists who live in hotels, and see sights, or go (as far as they can) into Italian society.

The Queen of Italy, who speaks excellent English, developed a penchant for Americans, and has attached several who married Italians to her person in different court capacities; indeed, the old “Black” society, who have remained true to the Pope, when they wish to ridicule the new “White” or royal circle, call it the “American court!” The feeling is bitter still between the “Blacks” and “Whites,” and an American girl who marries into one of these circles must make up her mind to see nothing of friends or relatives in the opposition ranks. It is said that an amalgamation is being brought about, but it is slow work; a generation will have to die out before much real mingling of the two courts will take place. As both these circles are poor, very little entertainment goes on. One sees a little life in the diplomatic world, and the King and Queen give a ball or two during the winter, but since the repeated defeats of the Italian arms in Africa, and the heavy financial difficulties (things these sovereigns take very seriously to heart), there has not been much “go” in the court entertainments.

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The young set hope great things of the new Princess of Naples, the bride of the heir-apparent, a lady who is credited with being full of fun and life; it is fondly imagined that she will set the ball rolling again. By the bye, her first lady-in-waiting, the young Duchess del Monte of Naples, was an American girl, and a very pretty one, too. She enjoyed for some time the enviable distinction of being the youngest and handsomest duchess in Europe, until Miss Vanderbilt married Marlborough and took the record from her. The Prince and Princess of Naples live at their Neapolitan capital, and will not do much to help things in Rome. Besides which he is very delicate and passes for not being any too fond of the world.

What makes things worse is that the great nobles are mostly “land poor,” and even the richer ones burned their fingers in the craze for speculation that turned all Rome upside down in the years following 1870 and Italian unity, when they naively imagined their new capital was to become again after seventeen centuries the metropolis of the world. Whole quarters of new houses were run up for a population that failed to appear; these houses now stand empty and are fast going to ruin. So that little in the way of entertaining is to be expected from the bankrupts. They are a genial race, these Italian nobles, and welcome rich strangers and marry them with much enthusiasm–just a shade too much, perhaps–the girl counting for so little and her dot for so much in the matrimonial scale. It is only necessary to keep open house to have the pick of the younger ones as your guests. They will come to entertainments at American houses and bring all their relations, and dance, and dine, and flirt with great good humor and persistency; but if there is not a good solid fortune in the background, in the best of securities, the prettiest American smiles never tempt them beyond flirtation; the season over, they disappear up into their mountain villas to wait for a new importation from the States.

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In Rome, as well as in the other Italian cities, there are, of course, still to be found Americans in some numbers (where on the Continent will you not find them?), living quietly for study or economy. But they are not numerous or united enough to form a society; and are apt to be involved in bitter strife among themselves.

Why, you ask, should Americans quarrel among themselves?

Some years ago I was passing the summer months on the Rhine at a tiny German watering-place, principally frequented by English, who were all living together in great peace and harmony, until one fatal day, when an Earl appeared. He was a poor Irish Earl, very simple and unoffending, but he brought war into that town, heart-burnings, envy, and backbiting. The English colony at once divided itself into two camps, those who knew the Earl and those who did not. And peace fled from our little society. You will find in every foreign capital among the resident Americans, just such a state of affairs as convulsed that German spa. The native “swells” have come to be the apple of discord that divides our good people among themselves. Those who have been successful in knowing the foreigners avoid their compatriots and live with their new friends, while the other group who, from laziness, disinclination, or principle (?) have remained true to their American circle, cannot resist calling the others snobs, and laughing (a bit enviously, perhaps) at their upward struggles.

It is the same in Florence. The little there was left of an American society went to pieces on that rock. Our parents forty years ago seem to me to have been much more self-respecting and sensible. They knew perfectly well that there was nothing in common between themselves and the Italian nobility, and that those good people were not going to put themselves out to make the acquaintance of a lot of strangers, mostly of another religion, unless it was to be materially to their advantage. So they left them quietly alone. I do not pretend to judge any one’s motives, but confess I cannot help regarding with suspicion a foreigner who leaves his own circle to mingle with strangers. It resembles too closely the amiabilities of the wolf for the lamb, or the sudden politeness of a school-boy to a little girl who has received a box of candies.

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