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August 11, 2020 | Rome, Italy

The pilgrim

By | 2018-03-21T18:42:58+01:00 January 19th, 2011|Features Archive|
Wharton in 1880.
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luestocking Edith Wharton is acclaimed for her clever, middle-brow satires that expose the mildewing morals and impossible conventions that bound old New York’s waspy elite. Yet the author of “The House of Mirth,” “Ethan Frome” and “The Age of Innocence” — for which Wharton became the first woman in history to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 — was also an erudite travel writer and fervent Italophile.

Wharton, née Edith Newbold Jones, was born in New York City on Jan. 24, 1862. Her Gilded Age family was so wealthy that the saying “keeping up with the Joneses” is said by some to refer to them. When their fortune suffered a small plunge in 1866, family patriarch George Frederic Jones moved Edith, only four at the time, and the family from New York to the more dollar-friendly Europe. After living between France and Italy for six years, the Joneses returned to the United States in 1872 with 10-year-old Edith speaking French, German and Italian.

These early years abroad stoked Wharton’s unquenchable passion for the Continent, in particular for Italy. When Wharton married Edward “Teddy” Wharton in 1885 (they would divorce in 1913 at which time Wharton became a permanent expatriate, settling in France), they began making an annual sojourn to Italy that would last until 1903 – coincidentally, the same year Wharton befriended fellow literary Italophile Henry James and rode in a car for the first time in Rome.

Italy’s influence on Wharton is manifested everywhere in her fiction of the time. Her first full-length novel, “The Valley of Decision” published in 1902, is an historical fiction set in the 18th century about a faux duchy modeled on Parma and Mantua. In short stories, including “The Muse’s Tragedy” (1895), “Souls Belated” (1899) and “The Duchess at Prayer” (1900), the peninsula is a complex, corrosive and quasi-mythical Old World where displaced Americans might discover or purge themselves of the carnal and the taboo that is simply impermissible back in the New World.

“Roman Fever,” Wharton’s most popularly anthologized short story written three years before her death in 1937, is one of her finest portraits of Italy’s hand in coaxing les liaisons dangereuse from her weary American characters. While overlooking the ruins in Roman Forum one of the protagonists, Mrs. Slade, confesses a plan she had concocted years ago to lure her nemesis, Mrs. Ansley, to the Coliseum at night in hopes that she would contract malaria and stop sniffing around Mrs. Slade’s husband, then her fiancé. In response, Mrs. Ansley implies that her daughter Barbara is Mr. Slade’s love child — conceived inside the venerable Coliseum, of course.

Italy as a symbol and facilitator of decay permeates the milieu of Wharton’s fiction, but her exceptional travel narratives depict a country with an entirely dreamy landscape, an unmatched artistic heritage and, especially with the Baroque, the most sublime of architecture. It is travel writing intended to contribute to the hot 19th century debate on notions of culture, but overall to enlighten Wharton’s readers with her finely cultivated ideas of good taste.

Published in 1904, “Italian Villas and Their Gardens” is an illustrated, scholarly study of more than 75 villas and their relationship to their gardens. Wharton scours sites from Lombardy to Tuscany to Lazio, putting forth her aesthetic preference for the “ineffable Italian garden magic” to the then-in-vogue English garden. Written with a detailed and historical approach to garden analysis, the book boasts a biography of 55 landscape architects, a bibliography in four languages and an astonishing catalog of three centuries’ worth of landscape architects.

Clearly, Wharton was not just another Grand Tourist “doing” Rome or Florence. Her 1904 tome “Italian Backgrounds,” a collection of previously published travel articles, is at once her ultimate panegyric to Italy and an argument against mechanized tourism. “The foreground,” she writes in the final chapter, “is the property of the guidebook and of its product, the mechanical sightseer; the background that of the dawdler, the dreamer, the serious student of Italy.”

Wharton’s off-the-beaten-path connoisseurship and keen observations on art steal the show in Italian Backgrounds.

In a chapter titled “A Tuscan Shrine,” it is with “the thrill of explorers sighting a new continent” that she and Teddy set out to San Vivaldo where Wharton, who received no formal education unless one counts the books she read in her father’s library, remarkably identifies a group of terracotta sculptures long-believed to have been made by 17th century sculptor Giovanni Gonnelli as belonging instead to the much earlier Della Robbia School: “Indeed what chiefly struck me in the group was that air of devotional simplicity which we are accustomed to associate with an earlier and purer period of art.” (Professor Enrico Ridolfi of the Florence’s Royal Museums confirmed Wharton’s insight).

This sort of pioneering insight is what sets Wharton’s travel narratives not only apart, but also above those of American travel writers in Italy before her. Mark Twain stuck to the Grand Tour circuit and was wholly disenchanted, complaining that there was “nothing whatsoever” to discover while in Rome. Nathaniel Hawthorne was utterly bewildered by the Vatican Museums, noting a few “wonderful works of art” before being overwhelmed by the “perception that there were a thousand other wonders around me.”

In contrast, Wharton sails out to the Borromean Islands, explores Italy’s rural hermitages, waxes poetic on Correggio’s Parma, discerns in landscapes a “pastoral of Giorgione’s,” in northern Italian lakes the “eighteenth century of Longhi, of Tiepolo and Goldoni,” and, in the frescoes at the church of the Madonna of Saronno near Milan, arrives at Dante’s Paradiso.

Despite all of her years of travel in Italy, and despite the burgeoning threat of homogenized tourism, Wharton remained a consummate pilgrim among tourists.

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Jennifer Theriault's "History 102" column ran from 2010 through 2015.

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