Cooper’s Italian Seas

Anna Scannavini (Università dell’Aquila)

Presented at the James Fenimore Cooper’s International Dimensions Panel of the 2014 Conference of the American Literature Association in Washington, D.C.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 31, May, 2015, pp. 24-27.

Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

In her 2005 book Domesticating Foreign Struggles, Paola Gemme tackles the American discourse that, in the antebellum United States, surrounded the “Italian Risorgimento,” Italy’s struggle for national unification. 1 Her book opens with the well-known political map of 1815 Italy. The Congress of Vienna had sanctioned the fragmentation of the peninsula into a number of different small states, sometimes city-states variously controlled by the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine. The only exception was the Kingdom of Sardinia then comprised of the Italian northwest with the adjoining regions of Nice and Savoy. The 1815 map is there to remind us that in another few years Italy would be shaken by the local insurrections of 1821 and 1830-1831(” moti“) and by the insurrections of 1848. There would follow the series of wars and diplomatic negotiations carried on by the monarchy of Sardinia that led, after the 1860 successful insurrectional expedition of Garibaldi, to the annexation of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; to the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy under the rule of Sardinia; and, eventually, to the taking of Rome in 1870.

Gemme adopts Amy Kaplan’s transnational perspective to investigate how the actuality of Italy’s struggles found its way into mid-century American public opinion (see page 2). She argues that commitment to the Italian uprisings and public support for the 1848 revolts were instrumental in the United States’ search for self-definition in the 1850s. The search had, according to Gemme, a definite expansionist overtone, entailing the celebration of American democracy as a republican pedagogy and mirror for other countries. In the case of Italy, the mirror image was further reinforced by the U.S.’s long-standing preoccupation with negotiating the control of the Mediterranean. In developing her line of reasoning, Gemme also devotes a chapter to Margaret Fuller’s long Italian stay, arguing that her “Dispatches” from the Roman Republic of 1848, were somehow collusive with U.S. expansionist interests, as the Mediterranean was at stake in much of what was written in the U.S. at the height of 1850.

Four years later, Dennis Berthold tackles the Risorgimento again, again foregrounding Gemme’s same map of a divided country. The map announces Berthold’s discussion of the interest that Garibaldi’s presence in the Americas raised with the U.S., and the American public. His discussion is anchored not only on transnational, but also on anti-exceptionalist assumptions, extending Gemme’s assumptions to the literary, and finally disengaging the study of American writers and artists in Italy from the shoals of traditional aesthetic appreciation. 2

A similar approach seems also to call for a reappraisal of Cooper’s stay in Italy, suggesting that it might add something to our understanding of his Italian works. The two vantage points of the Risorgimento and the Mediterranean seem particularly useful. The idea of the Mediterranean helps us to reinstate Cooper’s two Italian romances as sea tales. The shadow of the Risorgimento, on the other hand, brings into relief the political import of some of their themes and narrated events. Spanning the period from 1828 to 1830, Cooper’s Italian stay fell not long after the first wave of Italian risings of 1821, and immediately before the ” moti“ that, sparked by the July revolution, affected the northeastern part of the peninsula in 1830-1831, involving Modena, Parma, Bologna and Ancona. This is earlier than the 1840s and 1850s discussed by Gemme, but the late 1820s and early 1830s are the years when a specifically Italian national project was slowly finding its way out of the ideas set in motion by the Napoleonic wars and by Napoleon’s occupation of the country. 3

We don’t know how far Cooper got involved in political conversations on Italian society, its situation and future prospects, because he intentionally left little testimony of that. It is noteworthy, however, that Restoration Florence continued for some years to be a center of attraction for liberals and exiles from Italy and the rest of Europe. And, as Beard observes, “Cooper’s professional reputation provided easy entrance” into this “cosmopolitan society,” acquiring him, besides his American and European friends and acquaintances, “new Florentine friends” such as “Jean Pierre Vieusseux, Giuseppe Pucci, Gino Capponi, and Alessandro Poerio.” 4

All of these “new friends” were “literary and political figures” (345) of note. Jean Pierre Vieusseux’s international renown reflected on the “Vieusseux Cabinet,” the literary and scientific cabinet he founded in Florence in 1819. Capponi and Alessandro Poerio were both active representatives of the Italian Risorgimento, although in different ways. Venetian by birth and allegiance, Alessandro Poerio died during the insurrection and defense of Venice against Austria in 1848. Gino Capponi was a moderate reformer, descended from a well-known Florentine family. In 1821 he co-founded with Vieusseux L’Antologia, which published articles by many of the most important public figures of the time — including Niccolò Tommaseo, Giacomo Leopardi and Carlo Cattaneo, figuring as one of the most influential Italian cultural venues of the 1820s. Following the model of the French Encyclopédie, the editors aimed at promoting the formation of a new professional and cultural elite by publishing articles on a wide range of subjects (economy, statistics, history, the natural sciences), as well as the economy, geography and institutions of the U.S.

The review’s eclectic interests responded to the demand of the time. According to the cultural historian Maurizio Bossi, a significant figure in Italian liberalism, “curiosity” was the distinctive feature of enlightened thinking. The attitude was pragmatic; curiosity and knowledge should contribute to “the day-to-day development of concrete activities aimed at ameliorating the living conditions of the whole of society.” Between 1700 and 1800, Bossi continues, “the idea had gradually become the overarching distinctive feature of European culture: the men collected around the Scientific and Literary Cabinet founded in Florence in 1819 by Giovan Pietro Vieusseux were a significant example of it.” 5 Curiosity would produce the kind of knowledge necessary to create better living conditions, a project, Bossi points out, also pursued by the Vieusseux Cabinet.

The project is in line with Cooper’s personal search and factual curiosity, his “great pains to get his facts right,” to cite Daly. His knowledge of Italian was not such, I would surmise, as to allow him to read L’Antologia, but he must have partaken of the overarching atmosphere he found in the Vieusseux Cabinet, to which he subscribed when he was in Florence. The Cabinet rewarded him with a warm welcome, and with lively interest in his works. Most of his early novels were translated in Tuscany, and Vieusseux introduced him to Molini, who helped him to bring out the first edition of The Wept-of-Wish-ton-Wish. The eclectic interests animating the Cabinet, together with their interest in him in his own right, offered the American writer a congenial milieu. 6 And it is difficult to believe that, attentive as Cooper was to his surrounding society and to politics, he did not pay attention to the international conversations that took place there.

Cooper’s choice to say little of Italian society, I am arguing, does not necessarily mean that he had no notion of where Italy stood on the international and European scene, and I will contend that this much emerges from his uses of the sea. In Cooper’s Italian writings, the sea is an ever-present factor and the author’s intellectual and imaginative rambles touch several of the most important ports of the peninsula. Venice, Naples and Sorrento are described and commented upon in Gleanings, and are used in the two Italian romances: The Bravo, set in Venice on the margins of the Adriatic; and The Wing-and-Wing, whose resolution occurs in the stretch of sea between Naples and Sorrento. Both seascapes were evidently present to Cooper’s imagination in a very factual way. Whenever he could, he seems to have taken time to visit and study Italian ports and coasts. 7 He sailed the Tyrrhenian. When he left Tuscany he boarded a rather reluctant family on a felucca and set sail out of Leghorn (“A[t five?] beat out of the harbor [ ... ] Everybody sick, but myself before 8. Got them spread about on mattresses and was pretty comfortable during the night” 8). During the passage, he stopped at Elba and, to get round Neapolitan quarantine laws, in Civitavecchia, the Tyrrhenian port of the Papal States. In Gleanings, the author describes Civitavecchia’s “small” basin, placing it in the context of the western coast: “an ancient mole, and a basin that once contained Roman galleys” protected by “a good holding-ground off the mole, and against easterly or north-easterly a good roadstead, but not much better than is to be found anywhere else on the west side of the boot.” 9 (91, 90).

When, after spending several months in Rome, the family left in 1830, they travelled cross-country, through the Papal States, to Ancona in the Marches, to then turn North to Bologna, Modena and Venice. The route cut into Italian powers, west to northeast, from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic. Ancona, one of the most important ports of the Adriatic, was a stronghold of papal Rome against the rising power of Austrian Trieste in the north. While there, Cooper took time to visit the port with its mole and the Roman arches: it was the first time he had seen the Adriatic: “Here we first stood on the shores of the Adriatic. The colour of this sea is less beautiful than that of the Mediterranean; its waters having a stronger resemblance to those of our own coast than to those of the neighbouring sea.” 10 Recurrence of the port is reinforced in The Bravo by a footnote and, even more to the point, by Cooper’s attempt to represent Ancona as the landing place of Camillo and Violetta’s flight from Venice in The Bravo’s rejected chapters. 11

Gemme’s insistence on the Mediterranean as a center of American interest meets Cooper right here. It invites us to interpret the presence of the sea as a way to somehow superimpose an order on the fragmented political and geographical context of Italy, placing it internationally, and attracting it into the wider context of European interconnections, and into the possible field of American republican influence and national ideology. I do not want to question the special place Italy had in Cooper’s public and domestic memories, nor do I want to imply that his writings were subservient to a national expansionist view. But I want to look at how his memories are engrained in the political puzzle Cooper admittedly found in Italy. 12 And the Mediterranean brings, in fact, order to a coherent line of reading, from The Bravo down to the conclusive comparison of the Bays of Naples and New York in The Wing-and-Wing. It is relevant, for instance, that Cooper uses the name Mediterranean to refer to what we now term ” Mar ligure“ (the northeastern coast from Leghorn to the north) and, in general, to Italy’s western coasts, as opposed to the Adriatic. And, when in Ancona, he compares the color of the Adriatic not to the Tyrrhenian, but to the “Mediterranean.” Accordingly, “Mediterranean” only occurs twice in The Bravo, but is used in Gleanings and, repeatedly, in The Wing-and-Wing. In Wing, moreover, the common Italian name “Tyrrhenian” occurs only once — which deserves attention in a corpus of texts that favors the use of local names in order to create local color (canal of Otranto, Scilla, canal of Piombino, Gulf of Genoa, etc).

What I am arguing is that Cooper uses “Mediterranean” to attract the western coast (our Tyrrhenian) into the international arena of the entire basin, an area that was at the center of much international attention, included the U.S.’s. The move is all the more interesting because it entails different and contradictory motives. Two quotations illustrate their dialectics. The first is taken from a letter Cooper wrote to his wife when he was travelling to Paris in order to negotiate the publication of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish. The journey followed the coast of northwestern Italy to Finale and Marseilles and the letter is from Genoa:

Genoa. Friday 4 o’clock in the afternoon [27 February 1829]

I am at the Croix de Malta, which looks directly upon the harbor. I can scarcely describe to you the pleasure I feel in seeing ships, hearing the cries of seamen, a race every where so much alike, and in smelling all the odours of the trade. Yesterday I did the harbor thoroughly, by land and water, floating in the Mediterranean again, after an interval of twenty one years, with a delight like that of a schoolboy, broke out of his bounds. An Italian sea-port is far more picturesque than one in our own country. Here is to be seen every sort of vessel in form and rig known to these classic seas — the polacre, the latteener, feluccas, [pinnaces?] &c &c, with red cap’d, swarthy faced sailors in abundance. [ ... ]

There is a French Corvette here, and I went on board her this afternoon — She carries twenty two guns, but I think one of our 22’s would soon dispose of her.

All this is very well you say, but it does not advance you towards Paris — No help for it my dear. I was obliged to stop until Saturday afternoon, or to go on the same afternoon.”

The quick series of diversions assembled in less than two hundred words is striking. The letter conveys a split, a double consciousness: the sea as an element of romance, and the sea as the place of maritime industries and technicalities; Cooper the self-represented American artist and Cooper the practical boy of nineteen; the arts and the human landscapes of work. First, James admits to his desire to be “out of bounds” and out of time. With a sudden turn, he then reverts to the present and overwrites desire in terms of the picturesque: “An Italian sea-port ... ” A few words later, observation of the French Corvette prompts him to take up a favorite issue, and compare the naval force of France and the U.S. 13 The circle closes with protestations that he did not stop for pleasure, but was “obliged” to it by actual fact, and not by his delighted love of deep water — an assertion contradicted immediately, it seems to me, by the line of direct discourse ascribed to Susan.

The sea is observed in a completely different way from the vantage point of Leghorn. References to the past — either Cooper’s or Italy’s — disappear from its description, both in the Journals and in Gleanings. I quote from the Journals:

Sunday, 2 August.

Weather agreeable with fine sea breeze. Visited the port. One American in and three in the anchorage. Ten English. Many Sardinians. But few Tuscans and none of size — Three Russians laid up, on account of the war, probably belong to Odessa. They were among the finest looking vessels in port. American sailor playing on the flute — Inquiries after a vessel for Naples. Statue in the Gall[e]y Mole. Harbor of Leghorn. Mole and mole head. New Pratique house. Galle[e]y Mole. Egyptian man of war, said to be for 74 guns, about as large as a 44. Not as long. She may be an old fashioned 64. Slow work on her, for a time of war. Grand Duke [has] no fleet. A small schooner of 8 or 10 guns and a row boat or two. Few Tuscan vessels of any sort. A Dutch and a French cruiser at the anchorage-Harbor covered with row boats; women [singing?] &c &c — &c — 14

As often happens in the Journals, a few, swift strokes give back a perfect visual understanding of a rather complex scene. The representation synthesizes the variety and difference of the international powers that are at play in the Mediterranean, and Cooper does not eschew their political import. The port of Leghorn does not tap deep emotions, as Genoa does; it rather speaks of the present. When juxtaposed, the two quoted passages seem to show that the author constructs Genoa and Leghorn as the two limits of the geography, history, and imagination of the Mediterranean: distant romantic memories in Genoa; factual anchorage in Leghorn.

The opposition reaches out into the special position of Leghorn as a free port in the Mediterranean and Florence’s port of choice. During the first decades of the nineteenth century, the town was a busy center of interest and activity — the fifth port of the Mediterranean in 1832. Besides the vastly documented British presence, it also welcomed American commerce and travelers. It was the first seat of an American consulate in Italy (1794), acting as a channel between the recently formed new American nation and the dukedom of Tuscany. 15

Looked at from Italy, Leghorn was important because of its cultural cosmopolitanism. Commercial activities opened it not only to the U.S., but also to European liberalism and, in some instances, to revolutionism. The port had traditionally been an open door to the influence of the French Enlightenment. After the Lucca edition of 1758-1776, the second Italian edition of the Encyclopédie was printed in Leghorn in 1770-1778. Despite the Restoration of 1815, there persisted in town liberal printers and free thinkers who also offered a venue to American republican ideas and the works of American writers. Cooper was a renowned author, and some of his first novels were printed in Leghorn by Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi (1804-1873), a well-known writer and patriot, who translated The Spy in 1828, to be followed by The Pilot and Lionel Lincoln.

But Cooper had another reason of interest. Not far to the south of the port of Leghorn lies Elba, Napoleon’s first place of imprisonment. The attraction was irresistible: on leaving Leghorn, Cooper decided to stop there to visit Portoferraio. Some years later, the passage through the Piombino Canal and the anchorage at Elba was romanticized in The Wing-and-Wing. In Elba the captain of the French privateer Feu-Follet and protagonist of the story, Raoul, joins Ghita, the girl he loves. The stop reveals him to the British and there follows a series of pursuits and narrow escapes that will take the Feu-Follet to Corsica and, eventually, to the Bay of Naples, where Raoul will die of his wounds in the waters beneath the Cape of Sorrento.

Besides and beyond the romantic plot, the story is set against the background of the foreign powers’ interference in the definition of Italian affairs at the time of Napoleon. Raoul’s incautious route and his romantic death are paralleled by the woeful execution of Admiral Francesco Caracciolo, ordered by Horatio Nelson. As a consequence, the romance is ideologically overshadowed by a reflection on British and French international agencies in the Neapolitan fracas of 1799, one of the first (although very contradictory) Italian liberal experiments.

Thirty years after 1799, Cooper’s visit would start in Tuscany, where he crossed paths with the intellectual circles that were beginning to reflect on the necessity of a wider vision as the only means to find a new Italian course. These people appreciated and positioned Cooper as the voice of the new world, offering him ample ground to send abroad his work. Things seem to have changed somewhat when the borderline was crossed that divided Tuscany from Naples and the Papal states. Cooper met with conservative resistance there; may we surmise that it is there that the Italian romance actually begins?


1 Paola Gemme, Domesticating Foreign Struggles. The Italian Risorgimento and Antebellum American Identity (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005).

2 Dennis Berthold, American Risorgimento: Herman Melville and the Cultural Politics of Italy (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009). A trans-national approach is anticipated by Leonardo Buonomo, Backward Glances. Exploring Italy, Reinterpreting America (1831-1866) (London: Associated University Presses, 1996).

3 See Derek Beales & Eugenio Biagini, The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy, 2ⁿᵈ ed. (London: Pearson Education Ltd., 2002), Chapter 2: “From the Restoration to 1832.”

4 James Franklin Beard, “Italy,” in The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, 6 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-1968) 1:345-47; 345, 346.

5 “Una concezione ben riconoscibile anche nel quotidiano svolgersi dell’attività concreta indirizzata al miglioramento delle condizioni di esistenza di tutta la società, divenuta progressivamente tra Sette e Ottocento elemento imprescindibile e unificante della cultura europea, e della quale sono esempio tra i più eloquenti gli uomini che si erano radunati dopo la Restaurazione presso il Gabinetto Scientifico Letterario fondato nel 1819 a Firenze da Giovan Pietro Vieusseux.” Maurizio Bossi, “Le voci del mondo,” in Linguaggi della prima metà dell’Ottocento. Dalla casa Giusti alla Toscana dell’epoca, ed. Mirella Branca e Paola Luciani (Firenze: Polistampa, 2000) 98. My translation.

6 Robert Daly, “The More We Know, the More We Notice: Informed awareness in LEAR 5,” The James Fenimore Cooper Society Newsletter 24.3 (Winter 2013) 1.

7 There is no trace of such a visit, but I can easily imagine that, when in Venice, James took a few hours away from his family to see the “arsenale”, the famous navy yard where the Republic built its proud galleys.

8 . Letters and Journals 1:376.

9 . Gleanings in Europe: Italy, ed. Constance Ayers Denne and John Conron; intr. and notes Constance Ayers Denne and John Conron (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981) 90, 91.

10 Ivi: 267.

11 Schachterle, Lance. “A Long False Start: The Rejected Chapters of Cooper’s ‘The Bravo’ (1831),” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 115.1 (2005).

12 . Gleanings 295-99.

13 In those same years he was trying to publish a pamphlet on the subject.

14 Letters and Journals 1:361, 375. The war referred to is the one between Russia and Turkey-begun in 1828 and lasting two years.

15 In Gleanings, Cooper likens it to the commercial towns of the U.S. Gleanings 82.