Two Americans Abroad: The Italian Soggiorni of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville; or, Travel is a Literary Act

Signe Wegener (University of Georgia)

Presented at the 18ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2011.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2011 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 18), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn and Hugh C. McDougall, editors. (pp. 125-128).

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

Good morning, everybody! Welcome to brief tour of James Fenimore Cooper’s and Herman Melville’s Rome. Cooper, as a “temporary local,” to borrow a phrase from the travel expert Rick Steves, spent a total of five months here in 1829-1830, familiarizing himself with the area at a leisurely pace. Melville, apparently in more of a “tourist mood,” spent a little less than a month here in February-March 1858, covering all the “recommended sights” at high speeds. My presentation is a reply, in a sense, to a Melville Walking Tour I took in Rome earlier this summer, as a participant in the Eight International Melville Conference. While on this tour, hearing frequent references to Melville, I could not help thinking of it as a tour of Cooper’s Rome as well: all the places the group visited appear in the Rome letters in Gleanings in Europe: Italy. Not all of them appear in Melville’s journal from his Grand Tour. And since Cooper was noticeably absent from any of the proceedings, I’m happy to fill this lack, dedicating my presentation to him. As Cooper was seduced by Italy, so I have been seduced by his words and descriptions. Accompany me on my Cooper tour of Rome, and leave yourselves open to seduction!

We start the tour a quiet Sunday morning, June 26, 2011, when a group of fifty participants from the 2011 International Melville conference gather just before 9:00 a.m. in the Piazza della Rotonda in front of Marcus Agrippa’s famous Pantheon. I have the distinction of being a lone Cooperian swallow in the flock of Melvillian blackbirds. Our backs are to the fountain in the middle of the piazza. This baroque centerpiece is, as it was in Cooper’s and Melville’s days, enhanced with an Egyptian obelisk. Originally dedicated to Rameses II, now crowned by a cross, the obelisk serves as an eloquent testament to the cultural hodge-podge that is and has always been Rome. Led by a group of three Italian guides, our lacquaises de place as Cooper would have called them, many of us come armed with not only the pamphlet provided by the conference but with Fodor’s, Frommer’s, or Rick Steves’s travel books. In this we resemble the nineteenth-century travelers of the Baedeker generation-they came equipped with travel guides as well. And Cooper and Melville utilized popular guide books as well.

We can agree with Cooper: the Pantheon may be impressive, but its closeness to the adjacent buildings make this less obvious than would have been the case had the building been in a more open area. The Pantheon, in fact, sneaks up on you, or you on it — you are quite surprised when the narrow street you have followed suddenly opens up and you find yourself in the Piazza della Rotonda, the Pantheon on your left. But what we see differs markedly, at least in one particular area, from what Cooper saw. Bernini’s controversial belfries that then (dis)graced the roof are gone, having been removed in 1883. About these eyesores, Cooper comments that “two belfries peep out, like asses’ ears, at each side of the portico, in a way to make a spectator laugh while he wonders that the man who devised them did not stick them on his own head.”

At 9:00 a.m., the doors of the Pantheon open, and we wander inside — for five minutes — to contemplate, in awe, another Roman Catholic appropriation of a once pagan landmark. It is the best preserved of the ancient buildings in Rome, sporting the largest unsupported concrete dome in the world, the model for similar constructions in Europe and the US, such as the Capitol rotunda in Washington D.C.

The next station on our tour is quite literally around the corner from the Pantheon: Piazza della Minerva. Here Melville stayed at the Hotel de Minerve, then reasonable lodgings in particular popular with the French, and with ecclastiastics, now a five-star hotel. In this piazza we admire another Christianized obelisk, this one mounted on the back of an elephant. The latter, like so many sculptures in Rome, is a contribution by the famous artist Bernini. The elephant, with a rather porcine-looking rear end, has also been nicknamed Bernini’s “porcino.” The obelisk originally came from the Iseum on the Fields of Mars, the Roman temple consecrated to Isis, where even Augustus had practiced incubation, spending nights there to deliberately seek visionary dreams. The text on the pedestal justifies the blending of the pagan and the Christian, “He who sees the carved symbols on the obelisk of wise Egypt borne by the elephant, the strongest of animals, will understand that indeed it is a robust mind which sustains solid wisdom.”

On we promenade to Piazza Navona, famous for its three Bernini fountains, the central one crowned by yet another obelisk. This was — and is — another popular destination for visitors and, one assumes, seen by both Melville and Cooper. Neither man sees fit to mention it, though.

We stroll on to the next Cooper-connection, the Ponte di Sant’ Angelo. Guarded by saints, this pedestrian bridge runs to the entrance of the Castel Sant’ Angelo. Cooper crosses this bridge, leading his son Paul by the hand, on his very first day in Rome. Neither Cooper nor Melville visits the fortress itself — it was until 1901 a prison. Today, of course, it is a national museum, and it figures prominently in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. In fact, the only thing mentioned by our writers is that this was originally the tomb of Hadrian. Both Cooper and Melville comment on the Tiber, drawing comparison to rivers in the US. It is, Cooper comments, “as meandering as our own Susquehannah” (XXI). Melville writes, “the banks of the Tiber near it, fresh, alluvial look near masonry — primeval as Ohio in the midst of the centuries.” This was prior to the flood-control embankments seen today. On his first day in Rome, though, Melville had described it as “a ditch, yellow as saffron” (190).

Turning left at the entrance to the fortress, we make our way to St. Peter’s. This was Cooper’s first stop, but, unlike many earlier travelers who found it didn’t live up to expectations, he is “not disappointed by its magnitude,” a feat he attributes to having a trained eye for proportions due to his stay in Switzerland. But he admits to being “oppressed by the vastness” (XXI). Melville, on the other hand, finds the “front view disappointing” but the “Interior comes up to expectations” even if “Dome not as wonderful as St. Sophia’s” (Melville 191). We admire the mandatory obelisk, this one originally honoring Caesar Augustus and constructed in Alexandria. We find the piazza crowded and hot-the three-hour line prevents us from visiting the interior. We traipse on to the nearest Metro station to shorten the distance to our next stop.

Our tour ends in the very heart of ancient Rome: the Coliseum, the Forum, the Palatine and the Capitoline Hills and the Capitoline Museum. Flanking two sides of the hilltop, it is connected by an underground passage. All these are places visited by both Cooper and Melville. The Capitoline Hill was Melville’s starting point for his exploration (this was recommended by travel books then, as it is today). Here they (and we), admire the large bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius, as Cooper says, “the only equestrian bronze statue of ancient Rome in existence” (Cooper XXIII). Melville mentions the “Bronze Wolf,” the statue of the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus — a composite statue: the children were not part of the original one (Melville 192). Both writers admire the famous “Dying Gladiator,” or “Dying Gaul.” In Melville’s words, this statue shows that “humanity existed amid barbarians of the Roman time, as now among Christian barbarians” (Melville 191). They see the Marmetine prison, the Church of St. Peter in Chains, where saints Peter and Paul were held. And they comment on the Tarpeian cliffs, overlooking the Forum, the execution place for traitors. Here Cooper argues, augmented by the words of an “antiquarian” that the place commonly pointed out to travelers cannot possibly be the correct one.

About the Coliseum, Cooper writes, “of the Coliseum it is unnecessary to speak, beyond the effect it will produce. ... For me, unlike the effect of St. Peter’s, some time was necessary to become fully conscious of its vastness. ... I know nothing, in its way, that gives one ideas of the magnificence and the power of Rome so imposing as the Coliseum” (XXIII). To Melville, it is “Like a great hollow among hills” (190), yet he comes back to it in order to “re-people it” (210). Neither man mentions the Stations of the Cross erected inside the arena.

Ironically, both writers, eager to extol the glories that were Rome, mask a pertinent fact: the Forum is at the time, a pasture, as Turner shows in his painting “Campo Vaccino” — the field of cows — from 1839. Shown front and center in this picture, the area is not only a pasture, but a place for impoverished squatters. Cooper mentions squatters among the tombs along Via Appia, but at the Forum, he seems engaged in a process familiar from his description of Glen Falls in The Last of the Mohicans: he strives for an earlier, more pristine version, a forum without the accumulated silt and debris of a millennium or more.

The Palatine Hill, “the cradle of Rome” is, both in 1830 and 1858 crowned — and marred by — the so-called Villa Mills, a house owned by an Englishman who had made his fortune in the West Indies. This villa is, Cooper writes, “singularly ill placed as respects sentiments. ... One could wish every trace of modern existence to be obliterated from such a spot” (XXIII). His wish has been fulfilled. However, it is rather amusing to contemplate that the last dinner parties on the Palatine were given, not by a Roman emperor, but by an Englishman, one who had grown rich in another wave of colonial enterprise.

But travel is not only a physical but a literary act. And with their travel journals, Cooper and Melville are connected to every practitioner in the field of travel writing. Both men relied on older and contemporary texts — at least part of them travel narratives-and also on the increasingly popular travel guides for information. Cooper, for instance, turns to travel guides for factual information when transforming his sparse journal entries into his Gleanings. Constance Ayers Denne in her 1980 essay “Cooper in Italy” names 10 of the guidebooks. But whereas the word “gleanings” might seem humble, there is nothing humble about Cooper’s text. Here, as in many other fields, Cooper is an innovator, not a mere copy-cat. He wants to provide something not found in other travel books, but true to form, the technique he chooses puts him in the company of Lady Mary Montagu, Tobias Smollett, Laurence Sterne, Mariana Starke, John Eustace, and Mariano Vasi. Like Sterne, Smollett, and Starke, Cooper adopts the an intimate epistolary form of travel narrative: he is an educated reader communicating with an equally educated friend. Cooper’s intention is not necessarily to prove other writers wrong, but instead to pick up what they have left out, the little known but essential facts irresistible to the discerning traveler whose interest goes beyond the most obvious. He writes, for instance, that he will not take his reader through museums and galleries — a “must” for travelers on the so-called “Grand Tour.” In Rome, for instance, he takes his reader out of town, riding the circumference of Rome once a week. He also gives his reader a thorough survey of Roman history. Cooper does, however, argue that both travel books and guides had their limitations: the self-proclaimed authoritative texts have a “doubtful character”; Mariana Starke’s famous works, for instance, have “no definite notions of distances, surfaces, etc.” (XXIV).

Melville’s frenetic schedule also attests to prior readings on Italy — and to the popular guidebooks of his day. We know from Dennis Berthold’s 2009 American Risorgimento: Herman Melville and the Cultural Politics of Italy that Melville had an in-depth knowledge of Dante and Machiavelli; he was also a student and collector of Italian art. These facts necessarily shape his Rome itinerary: he spends a large portion of his stay in Rome visiting art galleries and museums. But Melville’s journal also attests, to a careful study of travel guides such as John Murray’s 1,400-page opus on Italy. Melville, Howard Horsford observes in his notes to the 1955 edition of Melville’s journals of his Middle-East and Italian travels, Journal of a Visit to Europe and the Levant, that he follows the recommended itinerary for shorter stays. As I mentioned earlier, Melville starts his Roman holiday at the Capitoline Hill, something recommended even in today’s travel guides; Cooper starts at St. Peter’s.

Despite certain similarities in their reasons for travel (health, finances, education — issues that link them to Sterne, Smollett, and Starke), one important fact separates the two. Cooper is what the travel guru Rick Steves calls a “temporary local,” that is, he and his family stay months in the same place, renting apartments/villas instead of staying in hotels. Inns/hotels are only used when relocating. And when the Coopers journey from place to place, they rent ships and carriages privately: they do not use public conveyances. Melville, on the other hand, remains essentially a tourist, staying in hotels throughout, using public transportation, and adhering to the schedules suggested by guide books when visiting places of interest.

In addition to health and financial concerns, which were of concern to both writers, came the desire to learn, and this learning process, as John Locke once claimed, depends on physical stimuli. But how travelers reacted to and interpreted such stimuli depended on the expectations with which they approached individual situations and relied on prior readings. Cooper opines in his letters from Rome, that travelers “are too much in the practice of describing under the influence of their early and home-bred impression” (XXIV). And as Paula Kopacz has observed, if Americans traveled to Europe, which was often discouraged in the early American republic, they were expected to ridicule and demonize what they saw. Thankfully, neither Cooper nor Melville falls into this trap in his journals, although quite a bit of negativity shines through in Melville’s text.

Both Cooper’s and Melville’s journals show their writers’ attitude to the Italian people (and other travelers they encounter). Their positions, though, are as outsider looking in, never those of the insider. Many a “temporary local”/tourist recognizes the scenario Cooper describes. The visitor may know the sights, the mode of life, even some of the language, yet will not be a part of the local society.

Cooper freely emphasizes this phenomenon, claiming he knows “too little of Italian society to say anything new about it, or even speak confidently on any of the old usages” (XXIV). Furthermore, few foreigners “see much of Italian society” (XXIV). He goes on a picnic arranged by the Russian princess Volkonskaya, finding himself in company with Russians, Poles, Frenchmen, Italians, and so on, and is the only one there whose “mother tongue” is English. In another episode, he has seventy-five yankees sit down to dinner together. Yet despite his position as an outsider, he is overall extremely positive. He is delighted, when on the way to Rome, to realize he is walking on the famed Via Appia. He rhapsodizes over the food, contemplating the perfection of a single fig, the wine, the buildings, and the way nobility in reduced circumstances live in their palazzi.

His attitude toward the Romans demonstrates a certain ambiguousness. Overall, he is charmed: in Rome, especially “the females” who “are among the most winning and beautiful of the Christian world. One who has been here a week can understand the bocca Romana, for no females speak their language more beautifully. The manner in which they pronounce that beautiful and gracious word ” grazie,” is music itself” (XXIV). Still, “In the lower classes I have been agreeably disappointed. Strangers certainly see the worst of them” (XXIV).

Melville’s journal lacks interaction with the local population; rather depressed, he notes, “No place where lonely man will feel more lonely than in Rome (or Jerusalem)” (192). And about Romans, “Fashion everywhere ridiculous, but most so in Rome” (177). Most of his interactions seem to be with other foreigners, artists among them. For instance, he visits the famous bohemian hangout, Cafe Greco, later commenting, “’English sculptor’ with dirty hands etc. Dense smoke. Rowdy looking chaps etc.” (192).

I hope my little presentation has shown you that James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville have more in common than the nautical connection: both were eager traveler who translated their experiences into writing. While traveling, both authors utilized travel guides and local experts, finally creating their own travel texts. “When somebody makes a journey, he has something to tell,” writes the German Romantic poet Matthias Claudius. Cooper and Melville certainly did. And the noble art of travel writing still continues, be it through guidebooks, Facebook, Live Journal, Twitter, or book-length works of twenty-first century travel writers. And each new text connects to, relies on, and responds to older texts, travelogues and the more prosaic travel guides alike. Grab one, and set out on your own adventure!


Works Cited

  • Berthold, Dennis. American Risorgimento: Herman Melville and the Cultural Politics of Italy. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2009.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Gleanings in Europe: Italy. Philadephia, 1838. First published in England as Excursions in Italy. London, 1838.
  • The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard. 6 vols. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960-68.
  • Denne, Constance Ayers. “Cooper in Italy.” 3ʳᵈ Cooper Seminar, July 1980. James Fenimore Cooper Society Website. online
  • Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper: A Biographical and Critical Study. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1967.
  • Kopacz, Paula. “Travels Conversions: Melville in American Context.” Rome, Italy: The Eighth International Melville Conference, 22-26 June 2011.
  • McCullough, David. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
  • Melville, Herman. Letter to Rufus Wilmot Griswold, December 19, 1851. online.
  • Melville, Herman. The Journal of a Visit to Europe and the Levant, ed. Howard C. Horsford. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955. Reprint: Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1976.
  • Reigelmann, Milton. “The Grand Tour with a Baedecker: Melville’s Journals.” Rome, Italy: The Eighth International Melville Conference, 22-26 June 2011.
  • Smollett, Tobias. Travel Through France and Italy. London, 1766.
  • Starke, Mariana. Letters from Italy, between the Years 1792 and 1798; Containing a View of the Revolutions in That Country . 2 vols. London, 1800.
  • Sterne, Laurence. A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. London, 1768.
  • Vasi, Mariano. Itinéraire instructif de Rome et de Ses Environs, 3ʳᵈ ed. Rome, 1829. (The full title on the 1ˢᵗ ed.: Itinéraire instructif de Rome Ancienne et Moderne, ou Description Générale des Monuments Anciens et Modernes, et des Ouvrages les plus Remarquables en Peinture, Sculpture, et Architecture de cette Ville Célébre et Ses Environs . Rome, 1818.