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Archetypes and Responsive Smiles: Classical Statues and American Artists in Rome

Andrea Mariani


The essay analyzes the ambivalent response of some major Anglo-American artists and writers to the Roman cultural context, focusing, in particular, on their reaction to classical and neoclassical sculpture. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Rome was often interpreted as “the city of statues,” an image that was shared by visual artists (B. West, W. Allston, H. Greenough, T. Crawford, W. W. Story, H. G. Hosmer) and novelists like Melville, Hawthorne, and James. The function of the archaeological background and the fruitful permanence of dense images from the past are investigated in some of their texts, in terms of an updated archetypal criticism.

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1. The City of Statues

  • 1 The book (1873) is based, above all, on May’s letters home (Shealy 2008). But the author feels free (...)

1As scholars of cultural intersections know, in the 18th and 19th centuries Rome was interpreted and described as “the city of statues.” The same physical space that in the 2nd century A.D. was occupied by almost two million people, in the 1850s hosted no more than 180.000 inhabitants (Corridore 564-574; Martinelli; Bartoccini; Vidotto). Soon after their arrival, travelers noticed the sense of void that haunted the vast empty areas, separating the enormous monuments that dwarfed passers-by, intimidating foreigners, and establishing ambiguous dialogues with the natives. As they walked through the streets of the city, visiting museums, churches, and noble palaces, the grand tourists were met by an army of statues, that they interpreted, in turn, as silent witnesses of local history, fascinating icons of eternal beauty, symbols of ancient fables, pale ghosts from the past, or disquieting muses. These obsessive presences concealed in every corner, “freaks in marble,” archetypes of truths that only in Rome could be revealed, after a number of days became discreet interlocutors in implicit conversations involving crucial moral themes. Anglo-American tourists were no exception, including Louisa May Alcott, as we discover reading through the Roman pages of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag: Shawl Straps (1873), although the text is deliberately conceived and written in an irreverent, occasionally sarcastic mood. As the three protagonists of the book enter the Eternal City in the infamous winter of the great flood (1870-1871), they expect to find fountains, splendid palaces and, even more, statues.1 In the spring of 1871, during a garden party near Albano, in the Castelli Romani, the three ladies are delighted by the food, the dances, the charades, but, above all, by “stories and statues”—an expression that I have no hesitation in interpreting as “stories of statues,” since, as we shall see, Roman statues regularly had and told stories (189; italics are mine). In addition, many Roman statues had wings, and seemed ready to fly: there were statues of angels everywhere, starting with the most important one, on top of Castel Sant’Angelo. But also, statues without wings appeared to be able to fly: see Melville’s interpretation of the statues on the façade of St. John’s Lateran as storks, and his mention of the horses of the Dioscuroi in the Quirinale Square, as two Pegasuses. If some statues did not show the attitude to movement and action, at least in potentia, their fans forced them to lose their static countenance, visiting them by night, in the light of torches, contemplating the various “expressions” they manifest: the proof of an early dissatisfaction with the neoclassical self-sufficiency of sculpture, and a change in taste towards proto-expressionism.

2Considering the question in broader terms, we observe that in the history of western culture there has always been a complex sense of embarrassment before the often too significant presence of statues. We start, in the Bible, with the statue of Nabukadnezar (Book of Daniel, 2, 24-28) and continue with Shakespearean statues: see The Winter’s Tale and Leonte’s desperate appeal to the icon of his lost wife Hermione. There have also been frequent interpretations of classical statues as ominous (in contrast with the myth of Pygmalion), as in the myth of Juno’s simulacrum in Samos, that was so thoroughly similar to the goddess, that Zeus had to possess it. In Plutarch, Caesar’s statue bleeds on the eve of his assassination. Sometimes statues became stone guests (as in Tirso de Molina’s Don Giovanni), or destructive “agents” (the monument of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, in Pushkin and Gogol’). In Mérimée’s La Vénus d’Ille a bronze statue, even when turned to a church bell, keeps its perverse will, ruining the harvest of a whole community. No less dangerous can be the statue when it is not the protagonist of a story, but the antagonist par excellence, as in Gabriele d’Annunzio’s La Gioconda and in Thomas Hardy’s Barbara of the House of Grebe (Thomas 246-272).

3In Anglo-American culture the presence of statues is not only pervasive but extremely significant. We find statues in works of artists who never visited Rome, or were in the city for a limited span of time: in Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798), in Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire, in Edgar Allan Poe’s “To Helen” and “The Assignation,” in Rebecca Harding Davies’s Life in the Iron Mills (1861). Even simple busts can become over-determined, due to their thickness of meaning, as the “placid bust of Pallas,” upon which the raven finally perches, in Poe’s “The Raven,” and the bust of Socrates, firmly embraced by a “brown boy with a William Penn style of countenance,” in Alcott’s Transcendental Wild Oats (1873, 1569). In analyzing such semiotic intersections we have to keep in mind the fact that, every time a statue or a piece of sculpture enters a written text, it becomes, in the language of French semiology, “signe de signe,” that is to say, a verbal construction that does not refer to a concrete or metaphorical level of “reality,” but to a “sign,” already employed/exploited by an artist in a different epistemological field.

4When we concentrate on American artists in Rome and their responses to ancient statues, we detect another reason for their embarrassment: Rome, more than most cities in the world, proved to be a palimpsest, and forced the passionate pilgrims to endure hard itineraries, in order to organize a cognitive mapping of the environment. And if this is what happened on the diachronic axis, on the synchronic axis the city appeared as a maze, an intricate text, hard to decipher: a puzzle with many missing pieces. The former vision of Rome is best exemplified by Henry James, whereas the latter finds its best expression in Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (Rivas, in Ludovici-Pisapia 7-11.)

5The Roman cultural milieu in the second half of the 18th and in the first half of the 19th century was, in fact, very heterogeneous (Heiser). On the one hand, the predominance of neoclassicism is undeniable; on the other hand, also evident is the emergence of romantic traits, original experimentations, and “modern” interpretations. Winckelmann’s theory of imitation/emulation included the possibility of individual variations: opposite ideologies could co-exist in the personality of an artist or within the texture of a work of art.

6In 18th-century Roman architecture, for instance, we see the impact of a Palladian revival (exported from Italy to England and to the Jeffersonian United States, and later re-imported from England to Italy), an “archaeological” classicism (originated by the enthusiasm which followed the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii), Neoclassicism proper and, finally, an academic/eclectic late Neoclassicism. The general background of the 19th century, therefore, presents the scholar with “lags” in the different transatlantic areas. If I were asked to simplify my discourse, I would say that neoclassicism in Northern Europe and in the U.S. was never felt to be in contrast with something that had dominated before it; whereas in Italy and in other Catholic countries it was seen as an aesthetic movement in strong opposition to baroque and rococo.

2. The Chronological Pattern

7I think it useful, now, to reconsider a few dates and some protagonists of the Roman scene, in the long period that marked the transition from baroque to the decline of the “idéal classique.” Far from being of marginal importance to the history of U.S. culture, the chronological context enables us to better find our ways as we study the humus that made possible the production of 19th-century Anglo-American sculpture.

8It would obviously be incorrect to start without mentioning Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who arrived in Rome in 1740. In his series of Carceri (“Prisons,” 1745-65), the sophisticated traveler saw the heritage of classicism, the first hints of neoclassicism, and that pre-romantic atmosphere, which accounts for the artist’s great fortune in England, in the wake of the debate around the idea of the sublime. A few years later, Johan Joachim Winckelmann settled in Rome (1755), establishing his “headquarters” in the famous Villa Albani, a perfect example of a neoclassical building, with strong classical reminiscences. The villa was destined to become the center for the diffusion of Neoclassicism. The years of Winckelmann’s stay in Rome correspond to the acme of the archaeological excavations in Herculaneum (1738-65) and Pompeii (1754-70), whose cultural impact can hardly be overestimated.

  • 2 None of these statues is a classical Greek original, though, since the Apollo is a 2nd century A.D. (...)

9Winckelmann advocated a style that is radically neoclassical, insisting, for instance, that ancient Greek statues be restored and polished till they looked brand-new. Three major works were regularly quoted by Winckelmann as emblems of the art of sculpture: the Apollo Belvedere, one of the versions of the so called Antinous, and the Laokoon.2 These statues (plus the Faun from Praxiteles, and a few Venuses, Junos and Minervas) were used by Anglo-American writers in their works; but it is important to underline that Anglo-American culture could not refrain from stressing the narrative and historical, as well as the symbolic, dimensions of the masterpieces the grand tourists were supposed to meet, face, and deal with.

10Winckelmann’s writings sound, in retrospect, as a premonition of the kind of sculpture that Antonio Canova produced, from the moment he arrived in Rome (1780), where he dominated the art scene for forty years. The first decade of the 19th century was conditioned by the project of Napoleon’s triumphal entrance into Rome. The event, that never took place, kept both Canova and architect Giuseppe Valadier busy for years. Canova carved a heroic portrait of the Emperor, interpreted as a Greek god, and the more famous portrait of his sister Paolina – the wife of Roman Prince Borghese, and a host of George Bancroft (1821-22) – as “Venus victrix” (1804-1808), in which a subtle vein of sensuality creeps under the apparently cold surface of polished marble.

11Valadier started planning the Bonaparte Forum in the late 1790s. After Napoleon’s disappearance from the political and artistic scene the plan, reduced in scale, kept some of its initial grandeur, becoming Piazza del Popolo, with the fountain of four lions, the obelisk, and the panoramic terrace on the Pincian hill, later a favorite meeting place for members of the art colony and the Roman upper classes, as characters in James’s Daisy Miller testify.

12After Canova’s death, the role of leader of the artistic community was taken over by another sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen, who worked in Rome between 1796 and 1818, and again between 1830 and 1840. The Welsh sculptor John Gibson (in Rome after 1817) began gaining some fame during Thorvaldsen’s cultural predominance, but only after the Danish sculptor’s departure did he become a central—though controversial—figure. In the light of Winckelmann’s aesthetics, his famous/infamous “Tinted Venuses” are abominable, though we know that in ancient Greece statues were indeed colored, at least in some parts. Gibson’s production exemplifies another change in taste and ideology: evidently by the mid-1840s Winckelmann’s authority did not monopolize the artistic debates any longer. Needless to say, an excessive adherence to the truth, in particular in the nude, could never be accepted by the North American puritanical mind.

  • 3 George P. A. Healy’s portrait of Louisa M. Alcott was painted in Rome during the writer’ stay, betw (...)

13Sometime in the 1860s, the center of the European art world moved from Rome to Paris. In 1870, the year of Alcott’s arrival, Rome became the capital of Italy, rapidly losing its Romantic aura. However, the city continued to appeal to expatriates and cosmopolitan travelers, precisely for the changes due to its new political role and the transformations in the cityscape (Vance in Stebbins 94-111).3 Modern sculpture—now mostly in bronze, rather than marble—was produced in France (cf. Auguste Rodin), and the marble outputs of late neoclassical epigones, such as Hendrik C. Andersen (in Rome since 1897) revealed their preposterous, pathetic quality even to friends and patrons like Henry James.

3. The Anglo-American Contribution

14Anglo-American sculptors had to come to terms with a more problematic sense of responsibility than painters or men of letters. A sculptor is, in fact, par excellence, the artist who rivals with the God of Genesis, molding his “creatures” in clay! The relationship with ancient statues and the best production of fellow European sculptors, therefore, proved a double challenge.

15In this sense, Benjamin West is an emblematic figure; his profession as a painter did not prevent him from visiting the Vatican Sculpture Galleries as his first cultural “exploration” of Rome (1760). His expression of wonder in front of the Apollo Belvedere, recorded by his biographer, soon became legendary: “My God, how like it is to a young Mohawk warrior.” The episode is indeed paradigmatic, but more interesting than the words themselves, is the harsh debate that was the result of West’s response, revealing a sure awareness of an American identity, since the “noble savage” was indeed mentioned with admiration and pride (Galt 105-106). West could not accept the sense of cultural inferiority that Europeans expected from a naïve “innocent abroad,” supposedly deprived of a prestigious cultural heritage (Prown 28-49).

16Washington Allston’s response to the same masterpiece is Romantic in a different sense. The painter was in Rome during his extended European trip of 1808-1810. Visiting the Vatican Museums, he commented on the statue in words that “eliminated Apollo’s pride and disdain and his physicality altogether. He is simply a sublime intellectual experience” (Vance 291-292). The spiritual character of allegorical figures that people his pictures is evident, even more of those inhabiting his late novel Monaldi (1841); still the reader has the impression that the symbolic interpretation of his Apollos and Venuses was made possible only by the experience of actual statues, in the density of their classical beauty.

17Horatio Greenough is another interesting case. After a short but intense stay in Rome (1825-28), the sculptor moved to Florence. This is the description of his figure in H. T. Tuckerman’s Book of the Artists (1867): his heroic figure reminded the scholar of “the triumphs of ancient games… perfectly symmetrical… sensitive and athletic,” a man who remained, also in his maturity, “a good horseman, swimmer” (251, 249). The implicit idea is that, since he can create beautiful forms, the sculptor cannot but be handsome himself; a concept that was resumed several decades later, in James’s description of Roderick Hudson (1907).

18Greenough’s group The Rescue, showing a family of pilgrims attacked by a violent native warrior, reveals an attitude towards the American Indians in sharp opposition to that of Benjamin West. In spite of its undeniable structural qualities, it could not survive as an emblem of the nation’s multicultural history, in periods of progressive anthropology. Thence the refusal of its ideological implications in the 1930s, and its removal from the pedestal of the Capitol.

19Greenough’s worship of classic culture and Greek art comes to the foreground in this passage (from his Form and Function):

Let us now turn to the human figure, the most beautiful organization on earth.… This stupendous form, towering as a light-house… tells the majesty and domination by that upreared spine.… It is all beauty, its motion is grace.… The savage who envies or admires the special attributes of beasts maims unconsciously his own perfection to assume their tints, their feathers, or their claws; we turn from him with horror, and gaze with joy on the naked Apollo. (120-121)

20Greenough’s art is dramatically connected with Margaret Fuller’s death; in fact, the cruel coincidence was that, when a storm hit the Elizabeth, the ship that carried Margaret Fuller, her husband Count Ossoli, and their child, a few miles off the coast of Fire Island (1850), the vessel sank because it was overloaded with tons of marble purchased by Greenough and sent to his studio in America. But Fuller does not play only a tragically passive role in my discourse. Apart from her significance in the history of political relationships between Italy and the United States, she wrote a remarkable essay on Canova (The Dial, III 454-484), full of expressions of disappointment, in contrast with her great expectations. But her judgment of the sculptor’s art was based on copies and casts, seen many years before the direct contact with Canova’s original products. However, Fuller’s conclusions, i.e., that Canova was “a man of taste” and a great critic of his art, were instrumental in spreading the Italian sculptor’s fame in North America, promoting, at the same time, the interest in contemporary American artists, who followed Canova’s aesthetics.

21The following three sculptors have unequal significance in terms of aesthetic achievements, but similar historical importance, since they all produced fundamental pieces of the cultural puzzle I have described. They all lived and worked in full awareness of their cosmopolitan milieu, exploiting every possible connection, including the inter-semiotic debates around the vicissitudes of ancient and modern arts (Gerdts in Stebbins 66-93). Thomas Crawford (in Rome from 1835) was, in my opinion, the most gifted of the three, the one who best succeeded in accepting the influence of classical heritage without the customary sense of inferiority, or the embarrassing uneasiness that characterized his fellow expatriate sculptors. His Orpheus reveals the influence of Bernini’s David; his Indian Chief Contemplating the Progress of Civilization (1856) shows a genuine romantic attitude, in keeping with a nostalgic vision of the Indian: the obvious classical model is Marius Meditating among the Ruins of Carthage by Salvator Rosa (1650). Crawford’s experience of Western cultural tradition was as varied and inclusive, as it was functional and “operative.”

22A more limited capacity to deal with the cumbersome presence of ancient statues is evident in William Wetmore Story (in Rome between 1850 and 1880). But Story has other merits, perhaps more literary than artistic. He was a writer himself (Roba di Roma, The Evil Eye), and a great friend of both Hawthorne’s and James’. For three decades, his apartment at Palazzo Barberini became a salon and meeting place for the English and American art colony in Italy. Louisa May Alcott met him and was impressed by his strong personality (in Shawl Straps the narrating voice defines him tout court “a great sculptor”). He is the model for Kenyon in Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (where we find a graphic ekphrasis of his Cleopatra), as well as the protagonist of Henry James’ William Wetmore Story and His Friends. Story had the merit of introducing Hawthorne to Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, who appears in many vivid pages of the novelist’s French and Italian Notebooks.

23Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, an ante litteram feminist no less than Alcott, arrived in Rome in 1852, soon becoming a pupil of John Gibson’s. Her free and self-sufficient behavior impressed the three protagonists of Shawl Straps, as is evident in one of the most entertaining episodes of the book, in the Castelli Romani. Her extraordinary figure of female artist would deserve greater analysis; but since her importance in the history of American women has been already acknowledged in gender studies, I can limit myself to stressing the fact that she was the first woman sculptor to study anatomy from male live models, and one of the first to work both in marble and bronze, starting in the early 1860s. Her much acclaimed Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra (1857-59) shows Hosmer’s preference for strong female figures, whose dignified countenance expresses much more energy than the conventional “fiery” attitude of Story’s Cleopatra. On the contrary, the male nude of her Sleeping Faun (a chaste version of the Barberini Faun in Münich) is smooth but not eroticized, perfectly balanced, and all but aggressive.

24I conclude my survey with Augustus Saint-Gaudens who, following the change in fashion, worked mostly in bronze. His stay in Rome was very brief (again, in the crucial year 1870), but there he met the American art student Augusta Fisher Homer, who became his wife, and obtained his first commission, Silence, a subject matter “of an abstract nature” that seems, at first, very distant from all shades of neoclassic taste. However, as Ernst Scheyer argues, it foreruns Saint-Gaudens’ much later masterpiece, the Adams Memorial in Washington. The enigmatic, genderless statue that dominates the funeral monument at Rock Creek Cemetery, in fact, is equally “of an abstract nature,” and confirms the idea that all statues possess a mysterious, ambivalent aura. The uncanny simulacrum dialogues with observers precisely through its austere presence, refraining from sending a message that can easily be translated into words (Scheyer 216-17).

4. The Writer’s Ambivalent Response

  • 4 I do not consider ambivalence and ambiguity as synonymous. The latter, in fact, suggests the idea o (...)

25I concentrate now on the response to statues and the art of sculpture in Melville, Hawthorne and James, starting with two preliminary remarks: the first, that it is obviously no coincidence if all three major American novelists of the 19th century were so deeply concerned with the themes I have discussed, and so much impressed by the masterpieces I have mentioned; the second, that in all three cases the epistemological boundaries within which their response took shape can be summed up in a question: ambiguity or ambivalence?4

26Unlike Hawthorne and James, Melville was in Rome only for a few weeks (1857); but the impression of the city and its monuments was great, and lasted long. Melville was a good connoisseur of Greek and Roman history and archaeology, thoroughly aware, from the beginning of his career, of the ambivalent, indeed polyvalent nature of classical statuary. References to classical art, ancient myths and famous statues abound in his writings, before and after his Roman sojourn. The paradigmatic text, in this sense, is his essay Statues in Rome, based on a lecture he gave in several cities of the East Coast and Midwest, upon his return from Europe and the Near East (Sealts 144-45). As the novelist wrote in a letter to George William Curtis, his intention was to use his reminiscences of the Roman statues to describe “the Daily Progress of man towards a state of intellectual and moral perfection.” This socio-historical interest, so much in keeping with Melville’s frame of mind, does not exclude perceptive observations, that could easily be defined as examples of archetypal criticism. The layers of interpretation deposit one on top of the other, enriching the overall result (Letter to George W. Curtis, October 26, 1857, qtd. in Sealts 17).

27A statue of Minerva is of crucial symbolic meaning in his late poem “After the Pleasure Party” (1881); the simulacrum of the virgin goddess of wisdom, seen under the porch of Winckelmann’s Villa Albani, acquires a density of allusions that reverberates throughout the poem; in a late reminiscence of Byronian attitude towards the old glories of Italy, Rome is defined as an apt shelter for “discrowned queens.” It is to Melville that we owe the definition of statues as the real inhabitants of Rome; Melville, as we have seen, compared the statues on the façade of St. John’s Lateran to storks, and saw the horses of Castor and Pollux in the Quirinale square as two winged Pegasuses. Statues can, therefore, be semantically and symbolically heavy, as well as aesthetically pleasant in their apparent levity.

  • 5 Recent Melville criticism, with its varieties of interpretations even of single specific themes, li (...)

28Billy Budd’s physique, in Melville’s unfinished masterpiece, hints at “the reposeful good nature bestowed on a statue of Hercules”; but the innocent, “handsome sailor” is likened also to an incredible, contradictory series of pagan deities, mythological figures, and statues. Since the text never reached its final form through publication, I refrain, on the one hand, from accepting ambiguity as its ultimate dictum, while, on the other, I appreciate the old master’s unflinching tension towards Truth, no matter how ambivalent and, perhaps, unspeakable.5 A truth that, in his opinion, classical statues not only suggested and promised, but guaranteed.

29A similar tension towards truth, and an analogous, fascinating use of ambivalence, are present in Hawthorne’s treatment of classical and neoclassical statues. As in Melville, what is most fruitful is the discovery, on the part of the novelist, that the so-called “ambiguity” and elusiveness of sculpture is, instead, the “multi-valency” of that art. In this respect, he seems to echo Charles Baudelaire’s observations in the essay “Pourquoi la sculpture est ennuyeuse,” where the French poet, contradicting the title of his “revue” of the 1846 salon, underlines the “tantalizing suggestion of an interior to so much exterior” (Fernie, “Introduction” I-XII; see also Hamrick 110-131).

30Sculpture and statues are present in many Hawthorne’s stories (“The Great Stone Face,” “The Snow-Image,” etc.), again, as in Melville, also prior to his European grand tour; they constellate his French and Italian Notebooks and appear—almost obsessively—in The Marble Faun (1860). In the novel the author, the narrator, and his characters, describe, discuss, dialogue “through silence” with numberless significant statues (Mukai 163-214). Transatlantic criticism analyzed their symbolic, allegorical, political role: some are seen as archetypes, and therefore are crucial on a psychological level. The ambivalence that underlies the text is the result of Hawthorne’s mixed feelings towards Rome, as towards all major historical and social questions; the statues, therefore, acquire multiple meanings. For instance, Miriam has strong perplexities as to both ancient and modern sculpture. Before the Dying Gladiator, she is embarrassed by the “expression” of a fleeting moment, crystallized in the marble that imprisons it, and wonders why the dying warrior doesn’t die, “without any further ado.” The disquieting fact that the Gladiator is portrayed “frozen” as eternally almost dying is echoed in Alcott’s Shawl Straps and demonstrates that her impression of the masterpiece depended not on her first-hand experience, but on the use of it by a writer as generally admired as Hawthorne was in the Alcotts circle. Another disturbing idea is the fact that the numerous statues produced in vain competition with the unparalleled masterpieces of the past, were destined, unlike them, to remain in a permanent perfect shape, without undergoing the changes caused by the passing of time. Here Hawthorne foreruns a passage in Marguerite Yourcenar’s Le temps, ce grand sculpteur, in which the 20th-century writer appreciates the fact that, due to the centuries that have gradually modified them, the pieces of ancient sculpture have become almost products of nature, similar, for instance, to “calcinated bones on a shore” (Yourcenar 52).

31Omitting the nth discussion of the faun—simply observing, by the way, its/his “polyvalent” nature of man, statue, animal, mythical creature, and archetype—I mention two other interesting loci classici in the novel. The first is the episode of Kenyon’s meeting with the statue of Venus on the via Appia, showing the usual embarrassment of the “innocent”/prude puritan before the nude, though in fragments. Only after the arm that is to cover the intimate parts of the goddess has been put back in the right place, can the sculptor try to establish a form of communication with the face, as his hand eliminates a few remains of earth from the lips (in the source episode, reported in the Notebooks, William Wetmore Story uses a twig as intermediary). Finally, the statue reacts with a smile of gratitude. Whereas the faun asked for a “responsive smile,” here it is the statue that “responds,” gratifying its worshipper, and almost taking life. But Kenyon is ashamed of his excessive interest in a marble piece and flees in search of Hilda. When he retrieves her, the two leave Rome for good. Returning to their motherland, Kenyon gives up his profession!

32But probably the most intriguing interpretation of a piece of sculpture (almost an ekphrasis in movement) pertains to the clay sketch for Donatello’s portrait, modeled by Kenyon at Monte Beni: an artistic output that, refusing to comply with the will of its creator, decides its own destiny, shape and expression. When the sculptor leaves the studio, the reader is told that the sketch, after an autonomous transformation, finally resembles the “character” of the model better than the result of a conscious intention: another example of a proto-expressionistic taste, with the grimace bestowing an element of grotesque on the product of a 19th-century sculptor (Mariani 1992 108-113).

33In the case of Henry James, I also have to limit myself to a few emblematic examples. In The Last of the Valerii (1874) the protagonist falls in love with a statue; not with a Venus, though, but with a Juno: the hypotext is Mérimée’s La Vénus d’Ille. The protagonist’s interest shifts from the affection for a human being to the adoration of a pagan statue, from the ordinary reality of a marriage deprived of intellectual and ethical stimuli, to the world of eternal beauty and, as recent criticism clarifies, to the worship of a personal religion (Monfort 69-80). James’s text proceeds through accumulation: the connotations of the statue’s symbolic reading increase in number. At the end of the story, after the statue, that had been “unearthed,” accepts being put back underground, the fact that the Count keeps one of its hands in a cabinet of his studio alludes to fetishism. Apparently, the husband can love again the whole of his wife, provided he can worship a part of his divine mistress, in secret (Izzo 59-80).

34Also in Roderick Hudson (1875) the protagonist (who, this time, is a sculptor, like Kenyon in The Marble Faun) falls in love with a statue of Hera/Juno, but, in contrast with the tale, shifts his attention from statue to woman (Christina Light), experiencing love, and losing his artistic inspiration. The strategy of ambivalence is confirmed, the accumulation of materials, in plot and rhetoric of narration, is impressive. The relationship between Roderick and his patron Rowland Mallet can be read as the sublimation of a homoerotic affair: a same-sex enactment of the myth of Pygmalion, in which the statues produced by the young artist act as mischievous go-betweens, as well as objects of the older man’s scopophilia (Mendelssohn 512-541). Roderick moves among contrasting tensions, and seems, in turn, intellectually naive and artistically engagé. His style, sometimes, suggests an early evidence of proto-expressionistic taste, but the justification of his poetics is commonplace (a belated compliance to Winckelmann’s ideas): once the artist declines, the man cannot survive.

35Another use of ancient statues is documented in The Portrait of a Lady (1881, Chap. XXVIII). In the first part of the chapter Isabel, at the opera house in Rome, disturbed by the coming-and-going of visitors in her box, seeks in vain to concentrate on what happens on stage; a full immersion in the passions expressed by singers might have afforded a clue to clarify her doubts about her future choices. A better chance is offered, a few days later, by the silent spaces of the Capitoline sculpture gallery, that she visits in complete solitude. When her wordless, but evidently intense, dialogue with the statues is interrupted by Gilbert Osmond, she confesses that the “dumb” but discreet works of art are “the best company.” As Anthony Lane observes, Osmond will soon prove “an anti-Pygmalion, quenching Isabel’s vital fire and nailing her into place like a statue” (2012. See also Gorra). But, for the time being, before friendly marble archetypes, Isabel seems to establish the first coordinates in her inner world.

5. Conclusions

36What do we make of this “scenario” and of the actors that played major and minor roles in it (when I say “actors,” I obviously mean statues no less than people)? The complex and varied phenomenology can be described according to the following lines:
1. a positive response, embodied in the responsive smiles of Hawthorne’s faun and Venus—a mysterious fascination that persists and gradually finds a justification in a discovery, an epiphanic moment, a privileged dialogue;
2. a negative response, when the statue tends to become possessive, absorbing, totalizing, vengeful: a dangerous relationship often implying a morbid, masochistic, late romantic, pre-decadent sensitivity;
3. an ambiguous/ambivalent response, that can produce passion but also embarrassment, curiosity and helplessness, doubts more than revelations—and therefore implies a cautious safety distance;
4. an “imaginative” response, when the statue is only a pretext, an excuse for the introduction of the narrative element—a reaction against the neoclassical ideology of “absolute self-sufficiency” of the work of art. In this case, the statue is “overdetermined,” betraying intentions the author/observer/narrator super-imposes on it, in a patent mechanism of projection;
5. the statue can be interpreted as the final stage of a “story,” a context, the quintessential “condensation” of an event (in Lessing’s words, “einzigen Augenblick”). A bust, the portrait of a man, the head of a woman, tell their stories, reveal their characters and that of a society, a phase in the development of taste; no more a timeless presence, the statue becomes a historical document, in a philosophical discourse. In all cases, the silent communication between statue and human being promotes the subject’s meditation upon explicit and implicit messages, fostering self-definition, as the marble piece reflects and sends back a message that in fact comes from the subject.

37The function of the statue that I prefer to stress is that of the embodiment of the archetype. Through the statue, American travelers and expatriates could meet (and face) what they were looking for (perhaps without knowing), when they came to Rome: that is, in Jungian terms, the shadow side of their psyche, and the European component of their collective and political unconscious; both had to be “integrated” within their consciousness. Thus, they had to acknowledge that what apparently seemed so different and “alien”—in turn, or at the same time, discomforting and mysteriously stimulating—was the priceless instrument through which they could reach the stage of mature self-individuation. But since their identity had to be ceaselessly re-negotiated, the function of the archetype also changed incessantly. In fact, no matter how long they lived in Rome, these passionate pilgrims had to adjust themselves to the awareness of the multiple, ambivalent value of the messages from the works of art that challenged and unsettled their certainties. Fortunately, in so doing, they transferred the complexity of these debates to the visual and verbal texts they produced, enriching the history of North American culture, and of culture in general.

38A fundamental observation serves as a concluding note: if we consider what the statues did to the texts produced by the protagonists of our story—providing them with priceless instruments of signification—and what the texts did to the statues—enlarging their metaphorical and symbolic density, their capacity to echo tensions and intentions—we observe that the statues were never neutral. Motionless but not inert, temporarily dormant but never indifferent, discreet but not marginal, they acted as operative sources of suggestions, productive in so far as they regularly set in motion a train of consequences, refusing to be mere decorative elements, or passive occasions for narcissistic ekphrases.

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1 The book (1873) is based, above all, on May’s letters home (Shealy 2008). But the author feels free to “distribute” the various, often contrasting impressions, among the three protagonists, vividly creating three distinct characters. In Rome Alcott began writing Little Men. The flood of late 1870 (portrayed by Anglo-American painter Elihu Vedder—see his canvas at the Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi) created serious problems, so much so that the King of Italy postponed his move from Florence to the new Capital city, visiting it only for a day trip. The protagonists of Shawl Straps saw him at least once, describing him as less unpleasant than his fame would have him, though “certainly not an Apollo” (a reference to the statue of Apollo Belvedere, in the Vatican, more than to the Greek god) (Daniele “Spinsters for Ever!”).

2 None of these statues is a classical Greek original, though, since the Apollo is a 2nd century A.D. Roman copy of a Greek original in bronze of the 2nd century b. C.; the Laokoon is a Roman copy of a Greek original in bronze of the 2nd century b. C., and the so called Antinous (Hermes Psicopompos) is a Roman original of the 2nd century A.D.

3 George P. A. Healy’s portrait of Louisa M. Alcott was painted in Rome during the writer’ stay, between late 1870 and the spring of 1871.

4 I do not consider ambivalence and ambiguity as synonymous. The latter, in fact, suggests the idea of a subtle uncertainty, implying the writers’ choice of leaving their messages elusive, the gist of their discourses epistemically unsolvable. The former, instead, testifies the authors’ struggle towards a solution, in which the coexistence of various options, far from being felt as a utopian wishful thinking, can be considered feasible. Both techniques and narrative structures are fascinating and aesthetically fruitful, but ambivalence produces, in my opinion, texts of a richer ethic density (Mariani 1995 41-62).

5 Recent Melville criticism, with its varieties of interpretations even of single specific themes, like the ones I have discussed here, seems to confirm the horizon of my reading (Flory; Ludot-Vlasak).

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Electronic reference

Andrea Mariani, “Archetypes and Responsive Smiles: Classical Statues and American Artists in Rome”European journal of American studies [Online], 17-3 | 2022, Online since 27 October 2022, connection on 29 November 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Andrea Mariani

Andrea Mariani taught Anglo-American Literature at the University of Rome La Sapienza, and at the Univ. of Chieti-Pescara, where he was Chairman of the Department of Linguistics and Literary Sciences. He was President of the Italian Association for North American Studies (2010-2013) and published four books on the classics of the 19th century and on 20th century American poets. He edited eight volumes of the series Riscritture dell’Eden (“Re-writing Eden” 2003-2015) on the role of gardens in literature and the arts.

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