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American Society In Italy
by [?]

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.

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.