Why Did Some British Travellers Disapprove of the Modernisation of Rome after Unification?

Why Did Some British Travellers Disapprove of the Modernisation of Rome after Unification?

The triumph of the Risorgimento was witnessed in the acquisition of Rome as the capital of a newly united Italy in 1870. Rome’s new role as the capital resulted in modern life intruding upon the city’s appearance, with the creation of new buildings and constructs redolent of modernity. Simultaneously, the new Liberal government sought to assert that it was the heir to the greatness of Roman antiquity, by sponsoring excavations of the city’s most politically significant sites, and by building new monuments too, such as the Victor Emmanuel II monument on the ancient Capitoline Hill.[1] Famous ruins such as the Colosseum and the Forum were also altered in various ways. Although these transformations of Rome post-1870 were not the first (for example, the French occupation of 1809-1814 saw extensive excavations), they were arguably more drastic than any before.[2] As such, various types of British travellers, as well as other foreigners and locals, exhibited varying reactions. Here, it will be argued that modernisation took different forms. As Lanciani observes:

‘It may be said that not one but two Romes are being re constructed at this moment- the modern, with its boulevards, squares and churches; the ancient, with its temples, thermae, aqueducts and theatres.’

Different aspects of modernisation (including discoveries of new monuments, the creation of new constructs, alterations to existing monuments) and reactions to them (from individual guide-book authors, archaeologists, artists, photographers, and British travellers more generally) will be examined. It will be argued that a variety of reasons existed for disapproval towards modernisation, but also that disapproval was not the only reaction, and that some explanations (such as disapproval from those, such as archaeologists and photographers, who stood to lose in monetary or career-related terms because of modernisation) are better supported than others (such as Pemble’s idea that the core reason for disapproval was a desire for bygone eras in a time of rapid social change).[3]

Rome was not merely Italian before Unification. As Bosworth puts it, whereas before Rome was of universal appeal, Unification entailed nationalising Rome and its histories.[4]  The new Liberal nation sought to harness a history (separated from that of the Church) to its cause. This was disapproved of not only by the Papacy, which reacted  to the Liberal appropriation of Rome by asserting the need to define its own cultural sphere with a distinct history, but also by those British foreigners who had felt some claim over or connection to Rome. Rome had long been revered as the cradle of Western civilisation, although it came to compete with Greece for this position in British minds as the nineteenth-century wore on.[5] As such, it entwined with Britons’ perception of their own identity.[6] Its nationalisation, then, perhaps sat uneasily with its (formerly at least) ‘universal’ appeal.

Dean MacCannell, a leading theoretician of contemporary tourism, observes that ‘the best indication of the triumph of modernity… is not the disappearance of the non-modern world, but its artificial preservation and reconstruction’.  Indeed, the archaeological work sponsored by the Liberal government to unearth old monuments had ideological ends, as an element of attaching the newly unified Italy to a well-established history. However, this aspect of modernity was not welcomed by all.

Archaeologists came to be maligned by some foreigners as culprits of destruction; what they recovered was deemed inadequate compensation for what they destroyed. Thus, Ruskin considered Rome to be dismal because of antiquaries’ quarrying, with ‘the ground torn up in every direction yawn[ing], dusty and raw’; Frederic Harrison complained that what now stocked the museums was inferior to the Salvator Rosa ruins of old, and Wilfred blunt was upset by archaeologists ‘disturbing ancient ruins virgin of all meddling for three thousand years’.

Another way in which the appropriation of Rome by Italy created protest is manifest in the British (and other) question to the Liberals:  “What do you intend to do at Rome? This question worries everyone: you cannot be in Rome without some world-ranging intent…” [7] The question of Rome’s new ‘grand moral ideal’ also preoccupied Italian Liberal leaders, such as Quintino Sella, who responded with an ideal of Rome leading Italy and the world simultaneously. Accordingly, Rome should fulfil the needs of modernity, yet avoid being filled with unattractive proletariat or factories, as most other capital cities in Europe were.[8]

However, the demand for historic preservation was not necessarily met. Rome experienced a building boom that would last for two decades after Unification, (unchecked by town plans adopted in 1873 and 1881), that would more than double Rome’s population by the end of the nineteenth century.[9] As the Italian administration organised itself, clerks and other bureaucrats poured into Rome. To accommodate them, significant amounts of Church lands were appropriated by the State, contributing to the subjugation of heritage to modern utility in building appearances in Rome, to the annoyance of British travellers concerned with the picturesque appeal of Rome. Thus, Hare complains:

Whilst some of the improvements in the old town are well executed, there is not a single point in the entirely modern Rome which calls for anything but contempt. Hastily run up, with the worst materials, and by the most unskilled workmen, its buildings seem destined to perish within the century.

The mention of the impermanence or weak nature of the new buildings by Hare is reminiscent of the argument, made by Pemble, that British travellers were dismayed at the change in Rome partly because it spoke to the ‘perennial human sadness’ at the passing of time, although such an argument is inherently difficult to prove in any objective manner.[10]

The Ministry of Finance, together with the 1878 new Post Office, were both bastions of modernity. However, where Bosworth portrays their arrival as  positive symbols of modernity to be contrasted with the ‘less healthy’ signifiers such as increased brothels, Hare’s reaction to the Ministry of Finance in particular is one of disgust, due to his dissatisfaction with its physical appearance.[11]The taming of the Tiber was another aspect of modernisation. From 1877 until 1910, an embankment was under construction, and eight other crossings were created under Liberal Italy. Although a necessary aspect of modernisation, these have been described as being perceived as ‘ugly’ by foreign and local contemporaries.[12] Clearly, then, the appearance of the emblems of modernity discussed above was a significant cause of disapproval from British travellers.

Aside from new constructs for practical needs, the new government engaged in modernisation by secularising Rome, partly visually, through creating new monuments unrelated to or opposed to papal power. The construction of the Vittorio Emanuele II (1863-1877) monument (much disliked by Hare) provides one example of a new secular space overriding religious monuments.[13] The construction in 1889 of a monument to the Dominican priest, Giordano Bruno, judged a heretic by the Inquisition but to others champion of a liberal, anti-clerical nation, was read by contemporaries as a statement of the new Italy, rather than the Church, claiming ownership of Rome, and of the secular nature of Italy. Bruno was presented a ‘father of the Risorgimento’ akin to Garibaldi. Although the papacy was hostile to this monument, its inauguration drew a crowd estimated at around 30, 000 (although the hostile Jesuit Civilta Cattolicá judged the crowd at 6, 000).[14] Bosworth’s implication that the Church alone found issue with the removal of papal power is challenged by Pemble’s lengthy quotations of Britons such as Arthur Stanley, Anne Buckland, Augustus Hare, and Frederic Harrison recalling shows of papal power with nostalgia. As Pemble convincingly argues, this note of nostalgia frequently recurs, for the temporal power of the Papacy and the ceremonials of the Roman Church were enhanced by death: ‘no sooner had they passed away than they ceased to be outrageous and sinister, and became innocent causalities of a new barbarism’.

All of the above examples of modernisation combined to raise a chorus of regret from British travellers. Oscar Browning gave up his annual visit for twenty years after being assured by many familiar with the city that it was ‘entirely altered and in every way spoiled’.[15] In 1893, Frederic Harrison was dismayed by the new ‘avenues, tramcars, electric lightning and miles of American hotels’, observing that it had become like any other European city.[16] As Buzard argues,  the essence of travel as well as tourism is to experience what is peculiar to a place, or what,  as Murray puts it, ‘might be better seen there than elsewhere’.[17] The removal or decline of those unique features in favour of features found across Europe, in ‘any other European city’, was thus a source of dismay for British tourists and travellers seeking to experience the essence of Rome, or searching for a touristic or travelling experience.[18]

However, Lanciani in his popular work is more positive. Lanciani acted as a prominent transmitter of the archaeological endeavours of Liberal Rome to the English-speaking world, and from 1876 until 1913, published reports concerning those endeavours in the Athenaeum.[19] He describes the achievements of the Italian occupation of Rome as including eighty-two miles of new streets; 1,158 acres occupied by new quarters; and 3,094 apartment blocks constructed. During the same years, archaeologists had located 192 marble statues, 266 busts and heads, and 36,619 coins. The Colosseum had been cleaned, the Forum purged of refuse, and the Pantheon isolated. Whilst acknowledging that the work necessary for the transformation of Rome into a healthy, modern place required ‘some sacrifice’, with some loss of the picturesque, he maintains that ‘our antique, medieval and Renaissance monuments do not lose a particle of their interest if they are delivered from their shameful and dirty surroundings.’ [20] For Lanciani, it was only ‘a handful of artists or pseudo-artists’ who mourned the loss of the old city.[21]

Another aspect of modernisation involved the alteration of popular ruins and monuments, such as the Colosseum.  The new government demonstrated its understanding of the symbolic importance of the Colosseum by making one of its first public projects the excavation and restoration of it. Plants and flowers were removed to prevent further damage to the stonework. The Stations of the Cross and the crucifix were likewise removed, not only to allow for the excavation of the arena’s substructure, but also to indicate that the Church’s proprietorship had ended. [22] In particular, those who had appreciated romantic views of the place reacted negatively. Augustus Hare is less aggressively critical in his guidebook than in his autobiography. In the former, he merely observes that “[t]he clearing out of the arena, though exhibiting more perfectly the ancient form of the building, is much to be regretted by lovers of the picturesque’.[23] In his autobiography, he adopts a more negative tone:

‘The spoliation of Rome continues every day. Its picturesque beauty is gone… the Colosseum, the Baths of Caracalla and the temple are scraped quite clean and look like sham ruins built yesterday”.[24]

In 1884, Mrs. Buckland mourned the Colosseum of twenty years before, ‘beautiful in its clinging, graceful drapery of living green’. [25] It is apparent that the romantic view of the Colosseum was based on perceiving it as a synthesis of past and present, art and nature, Christian and pagan. To have any element removed was to ruin the harmony of the whole and thus provoked outrage from some British travellers.[26]

Photographers of the Colosseum were arguably aware their clients sought fusions of monumentality and deterioration in the romantic fashion. There was a canon not just of sites, but of ways of depicting them.[27] While the Vatican supported photography for propaganda and scientific research, most photographers living in Rome during this period made tourist views, producing pictures of ancient ruins and sculptures. Photographers such as James Anderson, Pietro Dovizielli, and Robert Macpherson, gained some degree of international acclaim for their work on Italian art and architecture.[28]  Pelizzari argues that photographers were aware of the impact of tourism and the demand for romance in their own photographs. She demonstrates this by pointing out that Macpherson chose to list in his catalogue a photograph named ‘Hilda’s Tower’, named after Nathaniel Hawethorn’s The Marble Faun– suggesting that the photographer was aware of this book in connection with tourism. By choosing this somewhat unusual subject, not as famous as the Roman Forum or St. Peters, Macpherson displays his understanding of the tourist market eager for romanticised views of Rome. Given this awareness, it is possible that British and other photographers would have disapproved of the modernisation that was eroding romantic aspects of Rome, for monetary and other career-related reasons. However, there has been little scholarship addressing the issue directly, and it is possible that in some cases the sources required to determine photographers’ responses to modernisation are not present (for example, to date only a handful of Macpherson’s letters have been discovered, and none of them deal with his photographic intentions.)

Rome had been central to foreign and Italian archaeology since modern excavation during the Enlightenment.[29] However, with the creation of an Italian nation state, this cosmopolitanism lessened: the ‘profession’ deemed that Italians must take leadership, and their views on history should predominate as part of tethering history to their cause. Thus, although several nations were expanding institutions dedicated to exploring Rome’s archaeology, such as the British School opened in 1910, foreigners could only were limited in their access.[30] It can be assumed that British archaeologist travellers disliked this result of modernisation, although again not a great deal of scholarship dealing directly with the issue exists.

One area that presents an interesting conundrum is that of literature. The literature of ancient Rome had long played a central role in the education of the British upper- classes. Early in the nineteenth century, within the remnants of the ‘Grand Tourists’, many approached Italy after decades of study. According to Edwards, such travellers were disappointed to not see the places present in their reading of ancient literature; some of the most prominent material survivals from the ancient city have a low profile in ancient literary texts, and there is a lack of fit between literary and material survivals.[31] Thus the question arises of how (although this class of tourist became less common as the century wore on) these travellers would have reacted to modernisation. It is possible that certain sites mentioned in texts were re-discovered by ongoing archaeological digs, or alternatively that even those ancient sites remaining were thrown further into obscurity by modernisation. This issue has not received much historiographical attention, perhaps because of the popular perception of the Grand Tour having ended well before 1870, but it possibly forms an avenue of further research.

To conclude, a variety of reasons exist for the disapproval manifest by some British travellers at the modernisation of Rome. One argument less prominent in the scholarship is Pemble’s: British travellers disapproved of modernisation because they were predisposed to interpret that change negatively, since they consciously moved through a world that was being torn apart.[32] The French Revolution, the so-called ‘industrial revolution’, and the cults of Reason and Utility had severed the connection with the preceding era. Victorians inhabited, Pemble argues, a world dominated by man’s worse (rather than better) self. As Burke’s famous lament ran, ‘the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.’[33] The signs of the time were the dehumanisation of labour mourned by Ruskin, the ‘Cheapness, Nastiness, and Mammonism’ identified by Carlyle, and the ugliness disliked by Morris. In such an era, many arguably longed for a return to the irrecoverable past. However, Pemble does not provide any evidence for this argument.

More demonstrably, the following caused disapproval towards modernisation: displeasure at the appearance of constructs of modernity, such as new bridges and buildings, and the idea that the nationalisation of Rome complicated the claim non-Italians had upon it. Economic and career-related reasons existed: related to the lessened romantic appeal of Rome was the disapproval of those (such as photographers) whose careers had benefited from selling romantic views to tourists. Archaeologists arguably disapproved of modernisation since nationalisation entailed less cosmopolitanism in archaeological fields. Further avenues for research include artists’ reactions to the modernisation of ruins, although they were arguably less interested in ruins by the end of the nineteenth-century, and the reactions of those travellers primarily concerned with ancient Roman literature.

[1] C. Edwards, ‘The Roads to Rome’, in M. Liversidge & C. Edwards (eds.), Imagining Rome: British Artists and Rome in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1996), p. 14.

[2] Edwards, ‘Roads’, p. 14.

[3] Pemble, J., The Mediterranean Passion, (Oxford, 1988), p. 178.

[4] R.J.B. Bosworth, Whispering City: Modern Rome and its Histories (London, 2011), p. 106.

[5] A. Szegedy- Maszak, ‘A Perfect Ruin: Nineteenth-Century Views of the Colosseum’, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 2/1 (1992), p. 116.

[6] C. Edwards & M. Liversidge, ‘Foreword’, in M. Liversidge & C. Edwards (eds.), Imagining Rome: British Artists and Rome in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1996), p. 7.

[7] Bosworth, Whispering, p. 117.

[8] Bosworth, Whispering, p. 117.

[9] Bosworth, Whispering, p. 118.

[10] Pemble, Mediterranean, p. 179.

[11] Bosworth, Whispering, p. 119; A. Hare, Walks in Rome, Vol. 2 (London, 1897), p. 32-33.

[12] Bosworth, Whispering, p. 125.

[13] M. A. Pelizzari, Photography and Italy, (London, 2010), p. 63.

[14] Bosworth, Whispering, p. 108.

[15] Pemble, Mediterranean, p. 173.

[16]Pemble, Mediterranean, p. 173.

[17] J. Buzard, ‘A Continent of Pictures: Reflections on the “Europe” of Nineteenth-Century Tourists’, PMLA, 108/1 (1993), p. 31.

[18]Pemble, Mediterranean, p. 173.

[19] Bosworth, Whispering, p. 121.

[20] R. Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, (London, 1897), p. 143.

[21] Lanciani, Rome, p. 193.

[22] Anonymous, circa 1885, Interno del Colosseo, in Szegedy-Maszak, ‘Perfect Ruin’, p. 140.

[23] Hare, Walks in Rome, p. 142.

[24] A. Hare, The Story of My Life, Vol. 2 (London, 1874), p.171.

[25] Pemble, Mediterranean, p. 178.

[26] Pemble, Mediterranean, p. 178.

[27] Szegedy-Maszak, ‘Perfect Ruin’, p. 124.

[28] Pelizzari, Photography, p. 50.

[29] Bosworth, Whispering, p. 1.

[30] Szegedy-Maszak, ‘Perfect Ruin’, p. 115.

[31] Edwards, ‘Roads’, p. 14; C. Edwards, Writing Rome, (Cambridge, 1996), p. 4.

[32] Pemble, Mediterranean, p. 178.

[33] E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, (Harmondsworth, 1968), p. 170.


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