Roman Fever: Influence, Infection, and the Image of Rome, 1700-1870, by Richard Wrigley

Richard Bosworth on the ‘bad air’ of Rome and how it influenced artists and travellers

July 25, 2013

Yale University Press is to be congratulated on producing, at not too high a price, another elegant volume, furnished with many beautiful illustrations as well as with notes and bibliography that occupy more than 100 pages as against a text of just over 200. Roman Fever will shine on a coffee table. The book is a pleasure to riffle.

No doubt that is as it should be, since Richard Wrigley assures his readers disarmingly on more than one occasion that he is an art historian who writes with the assumptions and theoretical base of his trade. “From the sixteenth until the late nineteenth century,” he pronounces, “Rome held a talismanic place in the European and later North American imagination as a destination of artistic pilgrimages.” Given that situation, he sets his task as to enquire “what did influence [then] mean…as applied to artists’ and travellers’ experience of Rome?” “Influence”, he knows from Michel Foucault, is an under-theorised term, all the more since, he adds, it has ironical connections with the Italian “influenza”, a word that began to acquire an international medical meaning following an epidemic of some sort in Rome in 1743.

Wrigley’s major focus is on mal’ aria, the ‘something in the air’

As the title indicates, Wrigley’s major focus is on mal’ aria, the “something in the air”, as he evocatively puts it, that was the physical background to what he establishes was often a fundamental uneasiness, even a trauma, afflicting artists and travellers as they tried to frame a meaning of classical and Renaissance, and, less often, contemporary, Rome around their own creativity. For the Abbé Dubos in 1719, we learn, what had once been a fine climate in the city had been destroyed during its decline and fall. Such environmental change could explain why “decadent” contemporary Romans had lost in the battle between ancients and moderns then being waged so vigorously, but might also allow non-Italian moderns their own victory. As Wrigley hastens to remark, not everyone agreed; for some, Roman “light” was eternally “special”; its air enthralled still. Yet, Wrigley shows in his key chapters, the fatal presence of malaria could not be ignored, especially given the rise into the 19th century of medical understandings of the human condition.

Quite often such comprehension did not go far. Wrigley is at his drollest when he indicates efforts by experts to map just which part of the city was vulnerable to the disease and which was not. He cites one English traveller’s perplexing advice in 1813 that “At St. Callixtus, the cells next to the country are unhealthy in summer, while the opposite side of the convent is safe”. Opinion, we learn, was more united in dreading the Campagna surrounding Rome, although even it could be viewed by Thomas Ashby, early paladin of the British School in Rome, as an enticing expanse of classical treasure. Wrigley in his lengthiest chapter reproduces many lovely images of this treacherous but redolent countryside.

There is much of interest and importance in this commentary. Yet, for your reviewer, who is a historian and not an art historian, Wrigley’s findings are fretted by a curiously imprecise chronology and a failure to take his contextual imagining far. The Enlightenment, the Italian and Roman confrontation with the French Revolution and especially its hostility to peasant “backwardness”, the Industrial Revolution (which surely changed the meaning of “dirt” for many Europeans and so must have conditioned the earlier view, examined in detail in chapter 6, that Rome was “one of the dirtiest cities in Europe”), the rise of the modern nation (“Italy” seems always to be Italy for Wrigley), the spread of modern imperialism and its linked racial “science” (and of Italy’s unbecoming role as the least of the Great Powers) – none of these crucial developments rates a major place in Wrigley’s account. Even the Roman Catholic Church, its changes and continuities, its myths and images, remain noises off. The result is that Wrigley’s book contains some fascinating description of artists’ thoughts about the medical perils of Rome and its hinterland. But he scarcely achieves his (laboured) initial promise of a full-scale rethinking of “influence”, “acting through an ambient, immersive dimension as much as being the result of conscious ambition be that individual or institutional”.

Roman Fever: Influence, Infection, and the Image of Rome, 1700-1870

By Richard Wrigley
Yale University Press, 0pp, £45.00
ISBN 9780300190212
Published June 2013

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Reader's comments (1)

How disappointing to be reviewed by a historian who, despite some favourable comments, can only see a decorative coffee table book! Unfortunately the historian in question can’t see beyond the ‘lovely images’ [sic] to consider the extended analysis of what was at stake in the conception and making of these representations. Bosworth seems to be stuck in a school textbook historical mentality. He recommends ‘riffling’ through the book, rather than reading it from beginning to end. His review might have been more reliable in its judgements had he tried the latter. He wrongly attributes to me the ‘laboured’ ambition to produce a ‘full-scale rethinking’ of the idea of influence. The focus on Rome as a case study, and one which might be complemented by other specific research, is always explicit. Bosworth treats the longest chapter on mal’aria as droll but seems to have failed to pay much attention to its content, as if medical history was amusingly trivial. Had he done so he would not have fobbed it off as merely ‘artists’ thoughts’. He claims I ignore French imperialist attitudes, but it is he who has failed to notice significant parts of chapter five on the campagna which quote the Comte de Tournon and his contemporaries in Napoleonic Rome at length, also acknowledging the work of Michael Broers. Perhaps Professor Bosworth was distracted by the ‘lovely images’? He lists a series of standard episodes which he is disappointed to find missing, as if he thinks books on Rome must conform to the pattern of a conventional chronological story (it’s strange to be told off for not covering the Industrial Revolution and the ‘rise of the modern nation’) – a variant on the old reviewer’s foible of censuring a book for not being the one the reviewer imagines it to be. I’m not quite sure what to make of the alleged ‘failure to take his contextual imagining far’. I’m bound to disagree: providing a synthesis of medical ideas and artistic attitudes to and representations of the city of Rome and its environment for the period concerned seemed decidedly contextual - possibly even original - to me when researching and writing the book. Readers will find a more reliable statement of my thematic approach, and the overall scope of the book, in the introduction. Richard Wrigley University of Nottingham

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