A `Blue Guide' to the Rome of the Mind


AMERICA'S ROME: I. CLASSICAL ROME by William L. Vance, New Haven: Yale University Press, 454 pp., $30.


by William L. Vance, New Haven: Yale University Press, 498 pp., $30.

TO say that William Vance's monumental survey of ``America's Rome'' is uneven is like saying St. Peter's, in whose large harmonious spaces his Americans were wont to feel like motes of dust, is uneven: Once past the lips, the judgment is swallowed by the continuously opening views. A professor of English and American civilization at Boston University, Vance has made a virtue of his work's salient failure. Unable to discover (or invent) a simple order in (or for) his voluminous material, he has used its very multiplicity to ape the experience of Americans in Rome.

Or Rome in Americans: ``America's Rome'' is a tale of participation, of self-discovery of Americans in the Forum, the Coliseum, the Campagna di Roma (that bleak waste extending north of the old city, now overdeveloped and overpopulated) - the first volume opens with magisterial essays on these large topics. The choice of these three is itself suggestive. To the touring Americans - Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, seeking comfort from grief over his wife's death and consolation from his rebellious minister's heart - the great, broken Forum and the enormous, shattered Coliseum were spaces to get lost in, like the Campagna itself. It's no wonder that the art of landscape - as practiced by George Innis and others - provides Vance with some luminous pages.

Vance reads pictures, texts, and places with equal patience and equal penetration. Art historians - specialists in this or that artist, this or that genre - will nitpick, bearing witness to Vance's capacity for provocative and often acerbic insight as well as roomy generalizations.

After the great spaces, the first volume moves into the interiors filled with marble Venuses and such. How New Englanders - Vance's story is largely the Boston-Rome connection - reacted to the ``felicity or freedom'' of classical and Renaissance artists' portrayal of the human body recalls, at points, the recent controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe's photography. When is a nude an object of free-floating, erotic desire, and when is it a statue? Vance shows how ready some visitors from Boston were to accept the arts of sculpture or painting as a revelation of thought. I noted with interest the impact of Titian's great ``Sacred and Profane Love'' on Margaret Fuller, an early feminist whose anguished, energetic, and brief career Vance limns with candor and unfailing sympathy.

Volume I is full of pictures, literally; the second volume is packed with historical vignettes about the ``cross-fire of influences'' that was, and is, the Roman Catholic Church and Rome itself. (Henry James, that great and faithful lover of Rome, is a commanding presence in both volumes.) The second volume covers politics, the movements for Italian independence (``Let one joy illume the heavens and the earthly paradise /since Italy is one,'' sang Julia Ward Howe nine tumultuous years after she had written ``The Battle Hymn of the Republic'' to the same tune), and the new Rome of Mussolini. We meet new friends: During World War II Reynolds Packard kept the United Press office open by avoiding three topics: the soundness of the lira, the courage of the Italian soldier, and the good health of Il Duce.

In the course of ``America's Rome,'' Vance paraphrases many lost - well-lost, one may feel without apology - volumes of romance written by Americans for whom Rome allowed a certain expansion of the spirit. Over his shoulder, we read the newspapers of the times and gaze at seemingly countless images. As we watch, we begin to feel a part of the old Rome and the new, the Rome of Bernini and of Paul Cadmus, whose ``Bar Italia'' provides a riot of color and form (human and architectural) to the dust jacket of Volume II. It's easy to get lost in these pages; sometimes we hear the echoes only of voices whose speakers we cannot see behind this column, over that wall.

This is not a history of Rome; it is not a scientific study of a group in a setting: These projects have been done, and will be done, by lesser men. Watched over by a bust of Henry James and several of Venus in the Boston Public Library - whose spacious, labyrinthine interior and confident, harmonious, highly articulated exterior make the presence of Rome, America's Rome, felt every day in Boston - Vance has created an improbable masterpiece.

``America's Rome'' is a ``Blue Guide'' to the Rome of the mind. Rereading these writers, we grow familiar with some major and some minor individuals, and think again of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who remarked, with dry good humor (he was feeling better) one April day in 1833 that ``I counted 15 persons here from Boston.''

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