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Worldly Ways and Byways (chapter 36)

2006-07-09 20:38

  CHAPTER    36 - American Society in Italy

  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 today); 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.

  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     . 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.

  The simple days we have been speaking of did not, however, outlast

  the circle that inaugurated them. About      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     , 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. 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       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.

  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 schoolboy to a little girl who has received a box of candies.

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