”It was just before leaving Rome that Hawthorne conceived the idea of a romance in which the “Faun” of Praxiteles should come to life, and play a characteristic part in the modern world; the catastrophe naturally resulting from his coming into conflict with a social organization for which he was unfitted.”
All roads lead to Rome. At least many literary ones.This despite Rome offering no easy hope or simple consolation, nor shortcut to escape the pervasive guilt. The city has always attracted writers who have mourned of its fall and complained about its decadence, but they have never stopped coming. Most writers found to their surprise that they came to experience more sorrow over Rome’s life than they did over its death. They loved the ruins, but almost everything else tended to shock them; the found the Romans decadent, the shopkeepers avaricious, the aristocrats snobbish, the children diseased and the fleas healthy.
”I have seldom or never spent so wretched a time anywhere,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne during his first days in Rome. ”The atmosphere certainly has a peculiar quality of malignity.” The streets were ”indescribably ugly,” …sour bread…enormous prices for poor living; beggars, pickpockets, ancient temples and broken monuments…a shabby population, smoking bad cigars.” Hawthorne considered Rome dirty, as many Americans did, and he wondered ”whether the ancient Romans were as unclean a people as we wverywhere find those who have succeeded them.”
Hawthorne arrived in the city in February of 1858, having come to Italy for the sake of the health of his wife and daughter. He was immediately attacked not only by flu but by the fleas for which the city was famous. Even though he huddled by the fire in his room with all his coats on, he was unable to get warm. There were no ”great logs of a New England forest to burn” in ROme, he observed sadly. Occasionally he went to St. Peter’s which was the only place he could find that was not too cold. But he rarely went out.
However, as the climate changed, he became happier. ”I am very glad I have seen the pope,” he wrote at the end of March, ”because now he may be crossed out of the list of sights to be seen.” The list of sights was enormous, and, according to the customs of the time, Hawthorne and his wife added to it the studios of painters and the sculptors working there. They sought out Browning’s friend William Wetmore Story, whose apartments in the Palazzo Barberini were a center for American artists and writers in Rome. Among those who visited Story were Ralph Waldo Emerson and that original Boston bluestocking, Margaret Fuller; the lady abolitionists Julia Ward Howe and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hawthorne crossed paths with none of these literary compatriots, but he did encounter the poet William Cullen Bryant. The two men spent an evening together, discussing Bleeding Kansas.
Although Hawthorne was too preoccupied to work while he was in Rome, because of the mortal illness of his daughter Una, he did think of ideas for two stories. One was inspired by a macabre newspaper report about a widower who had had his late wife’s ashes chemically resolved into stone, which he had set in a ring; Hawthorne’s sentimental protagonist would present the ring as a bridal gift to his next spouse. The second story became ”The Marble Faun” . Its theme is certainly less ghoulish, yet the novel does evoke the ”peculiar quality of malignity” the author found in Rome.
A climactic scene is set in the Cemetery of the Capuchins, one of Rome’s more sensational tourist sites where the walls are adorned with the skulls of monks who have departed to dwell in the City of God. Since the hero of ”The Marble Faun” had killed a sinister Capuchin who was plaguing the heroine, the exigencies of nineteenth century fiction required that he and his lady visit the cemetery where the remains of the victim would soon lie.
um, Rome, of Praxiteles' Resting Satyr. Photo and cast from Norwich Free Academy's Slayter Casts Collection, Norwich, Connecticut.''" width="325" height="570" />