All Things Italy May 2022 May’s End Means a Return to Rome

May 29, 2022 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Ponte Sisto over the Tiber

Hello, friends, and greetings from Rome! 

Late May means, as many of you know, I submitted students’ grades and headed into sabbatical. Soon after, with a suitcase packed for each hand, I also headed to Rome. Rome has been home for a week, in which I have revisited some old haunts. “Haunts” is not really the right word, unless I adopt Nathaniel Hawthorne’s view that Italy has a way of doing that to people—to disturbing and corrupting, especially women, keeping them from being satisfied upon their return to the States.

So more simply put, I’ve revisited sites associated with the three women at the heart of Engaging Italy—Anne Hampton Brewster, Caroline Crane Marsh, and Emily Bliss Gould—and other American writers and artists of the 19th century.  I’ve also taken a dive into a new project. (Yes, it’s related to Italy!). Thanks to all of you who follow on social media and have liked and shared my posts from Rome. More on those follow.  

But first:

A Few Updates on Engaging Italy:

Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks is out as an e-book!!! I learned only last week –for those who like reading on a screen and want a less-costly copy than the hardcover, you can order through the SUNY Press website, linked in the prior sentence. The paperback release is scheduled for October, with pre-orders through SUNY Press beginning in August or at Amazon and Barnes & Noble now.  

Not sure you want to buy or read? You can download an excerpt from the introduction here.

The hardcover copies of Engaging Italy, featuring Caroline Crane Marsh, Anne Hampton Brewster, and Emily Bliss Gould (clockwise from lower left)

Meanwhile, I’ll offer another signed hardcover giveaway in late July to a newsletter subscriber. (Thanks to those of you who subscribed prior to the last giveaway!) To improve your chances, please go to your Goodreads account (it’s easy and free to set one up, if you don’t have one) and mark Engaging Italy as “want to read.” If you already have a copy, mark it as “reading.” And, if you’ve finished it, please write a review, and take another step by sharing on social media! Or course, you can review on Amazon as well–but it’s a little trickier to get reviews posted there.

Those are small steps you can take to spread the word about these women whose “later vocations” abroad show that they were “more than tourists” as they lived in and learned about another culture. (The two quoted phrases are threads that run through the book—Brewster, Marsh, and Gould were mature women—not young like college students or Henry James’s Daisy Miller—when they moved abroad).  

What else can you do to help? Get the word out about book talks in the fall and winter. I share dates for those here, and I’m still arranging them. Let me know if you’re interested! Sabbatical gives me more flexibility for travel, and of course, there are possibilities for virtual presentations as well.  

And now—Rome!

From a walk on the grounds of the Villa Doria Pamphili on the Janiculum Hill. In the evenings and on the weekends, the paths are rarely empty.

What has occupied me? Social media posts suggest my time has been outside, snapping shots of sites associated with Brewster, Marsh, and Gould and other 19th c. US travelers, enjoying public spaces (in the shade), and indulging in some good food and drink.  The bigger picture, however, is that this outdoor time has balanced the time I’ve devoted to desk work. 

View from a desk where I worked this week

Researching, reading, and writing provides a type of grounding for the sometimes overwhelming sensations of another culture. So does connecting with other native English speakers (yes, I met another American literature professor, also a former Fulbrighter, one evening for dinner). As those of you who travel much know, the comforting routines of checking social media and email, taking a morning coffee or tea, going for an evening walk—these familiar activities can root a person in an otherwise unfamiliar environment.  

So, too, are reading and writing for those who do it regularly. In the 19th century, Brewster, Marsh, Gould, and their contemporaries were no different. Their diaries and letters reveal how time inside in private spaces balanced their time outside, in public spaces. (And the light, layouts, and views of their private spaces were crucial to their work, as I describe in Engaging Italy. They took much care in selecting their lodgings, whenever possible). This balance between interior and exterior spaces gave them stability as they lived abroad.

Engraved portrait of American writer and editor Sarah Margaret Fuller (1810-1850). Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Fuller wrote in her dispatches, published in the New-York Tribune in the era of the 1848 revolutions, of the long walks she took from her apartment near the Piazza Barberini, across the Tiber to St. Peter’s, Trastevere, and the Janiculum Hill. Fiction and essay author Constance Fenimore Woolson wrote thirty years later of similar walks—(see some of Anne Boyd Rioux’s blogs about Woolson in Rome here and here). Woolson’s lodging, like Fuller’s was in central Rome near the Spanish Steps. These were long walks! Brewster, who lived in the same area in the 1870s and 80s, often went by carriage—perhaps her age, perhaps her attitude influenced her decisions in moving about the Eternal City.  

And so, while walking outside and posting pics of Rome’s beautiful public spaces–flora, fauna, and fountains!–I also find comfort inside. Reading and writing especially ground me. So what focuses that time? 

A New Project: Visitors to Vesuvius 

This week I’ve been reading about visitors to Vesuvius. Gould, Brewster, and Marsh—like many other 19th century US travelers—visited Naples and wrote about Vesuvius. My reading prepares me for a visit in July, but I’m also researching for an essay due in August. No more tedious details on that right now! But get ready for posts in July when I’m there.

An image from my reading this week

My reading about Vesuvius reminds me of some titles to recommend now: 

  • For fiction lovers: 

Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover: A Romance (1992). One of my sisters recommended this novel to me years ago, but I’d forgotten about it until I came across a reference to it in my reading this week. Sontag combines historical fiction with contemporary themes of concern—art collecting (or obsessions), the politics of 18th century Naples and its environs, and the triangulated relationships of the English diplomat Sir William Hamilton, his wife Emma Hamilton, and her lover, the military “hero,” Admiral Lord Nelson. I read it prior to having studied much about Naples and this period. This week I determined that I’m due to read it again! 

  • For creative non-fiction and essay lovers:  

Matt Donovan’s A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape: Meditations on Ruin and Redemption (2016). The title comes from a translated excerpt from one of Pliny the Younger’s letters to Tacitus (CE 79), in which he reflects on the cloud hovering over Vesuvius. Donovan’s collection of essays emerged from his time as a writing fellow at the American Academy in Rome. (Anthony Doerr, author of Cloud Cuckoo Land and All the Light We Cannot See, was also a fellow at the AAR. He wrote about that time in Four Seasons in Rome—also recommended, although not about Vesuvius!)

In one of the longest essays of Donovan’s collection, “Almost a Full Year of Stone, Light, and Sky,” he reflects on numerous visits to the Pantheon during his eleven-month sojourn in Rome. Should you think you know everything you want or need to know about the Pantheon—take note: Donovan’s writing is neither simplistic travel writing nor basic history. Rather he writes in the meditative style of Montaigne, the “father of the essay,” with a mix of contemporary personal narrative and creative time travel. I highly recommend it, for those inclined to this genre and interested in Italy.  

Food and Drink in Rome: 

Schiacciata farcita con fiori di zucca , fior di latte, and acchiughe

Is there anything new to eat or drink under the Roman sun? For someone who’s not looking, there are sometimes surprises. Mine this week:  schiacciata farcita con fiori di zucca. (You can Google recipes and easily find several for this thin bread, sliced and stuffed with multiple items. What I had was tasty due to the acchiughe–anchovies–and the mild fior di latte cheese and zucchini flowers.)   

No shame in returning to the familiar, however! Along with research I’ve consumed the regular comestibles. These includes, of course, morning and afternoon coffees; a simple aperitivo when those in the neighborhood are also enjoying theirs around 6:30. Strollers and children’s scooter, families of several generations–these are the sites of the early evening hour.

Prosecco, probably my favorite summer aperitivo; note the barely visible stroller in the upper right and then, in the next photo, the baby “enjoying” some “airtime” with family.

I’ve also had some of Rome’s favorite fried savories: supplì, filetto di baccalà and fior di zucca (a rice ball stuffed with cheese, a filet of cod, a zucchini blossom stuffed with cheese). I was too busy enjoying them during a conversation with friends that I forgot to take pictures. I came across a vendor on a later walk, and snapped a shot, but I’m sure the ones I consumed, brought hot to the table, were much tastier.

For now, I’ll sign off for now until next month, when I’ll share updates from Tuscany. 

Until then, keep dreaming of “All Things Italy”! 



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Etta Madden