Rome: Retracing Romantic Tourism

by Ella Nowicki

I spent the second half of June all’estero, abroad in Rome, Florence, and Venice. It was both familiar (from episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe and coffee-table art books) and unknown (estero means abroad and foreign in Italian). But I was a happy foreigner. I eventually got people to speak to me in Italian, I ate pasta for almost every meal, and I gaped at shimmering basilicas and medieval towers. With this five-part series, I hope to share the overwhelming experience of art and history in Italy.

The first stop was Rome. Day one was spent fighting jet-lag, day two was dedicated to gelato and astounding Baroque ceilings, and the day three included a breakneck tour of Roman power centers: first, the stopping grounds of emperors in the Forum, then the domain of popes in the Vatican. This day was the day to be an unabashed tourist. Despite the overpowering history of ancient empire and religious dominance, part of Rome’s significance comes from a long history of tourism. So my goal at the Roman Forum wasn’t to imagine its gleaming marble in 113 CE, but to see its ruins and wildflowers as tourists have for centuries. I went full-out tourist: I brought a bright orange sun hat to the Forum and posed like the eighteenth-century author and tourist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose iconic wide-brimmed hat is the envy of every tourist. The yellow construction equipment in my photo is a little anachronistic, but the sun hat is spot on.

I came to Rome to eat pizza, see massive churches, walk along the Via Sacra, and practice my Italian. I also wanted to retrace the history of Roman tourists, from Catholic pilgrims to Goethe to George Eliot. Tourism in Italy is lamented for forcing Venetians out of Venice and crowding the Trevi Fountain, but historical tourists have defined our modern notion of Italy as a place of ancient ruins, walled cities, and passionate culture. Tourism hit Rome during the age of the Grand Tour. Peaking in the late eighteenth century, it led well-to-do European men on coming-of-age journeys through Europe, with a crucial focus on the remains of Ancient Rome in Italy. They returned with a painting by Canaletto or Pannini, a completed education, or maybe even a best-selling travelogue. More than anything, the tourists sought ruins to commune with ancient truths and resurrect the much-admired Roman Empire. And when it came to Rome, the Romantics had everyone beat in their appreciation of both classical glory and modern decay. Although my own tour was decidedly less grand and more air-conditioned, I was still looking for ruins.

Unsurprisingly, the Colosseum has been a highlight for centuries. In Lord Byron’s poem Manfred, the moonlight “shone through the rents of ruin” and reinvigorated the Colosseum from an overgrown wreck inhabited by owls to a “magic circle” where its bloody gladiatorial history could be witnessed. While Percy Shelley wrote about the Colosseum as a ruin purified by decay and as a welcome escape from Catholic Rome, Byron refocused some attention on its life as an imperial stadium. Ruined structures lose much of their original meaning and, to many nineteenth-century travelers, they seemed more picturesque than historical. Today, its crumbling walls and blue sky (though the plant overgrowth has been cleared) make it too easy to overlook the grisly fact that the Colosseum was built from the spoils of the Second Temple by Jewish slaves and that 400,000 people died in the arena. It’s good of Byron to remind us.

Lord Byron’s dramatic descriptions made a nighttime visit to the Colosseum a staple of the nineteenth-century anglophone tourist itinerary; Byron’s publisher John Murray created a ubiquitous series of travel guides which state that “there are few travelers who do not visit this spot by moonlight in order to realize [Byron’s] magnificent description].” Countless letters and travel accounts were defeated by the prospect of describing it and referred their readers to Byron, whose words became common knowledge. The Colosseum could only be portrayed by Byron, they wrote, and to understand it at all required a tour by the light of the moon. The phenomenon exemplifies a tendency to mold one’s own personal experience to that of someone else, whether it's following the Romantics’ footsteps or sitting on Dante’s seat in Florence. Nathaniel Hawthorne lamented the tourists who engaged in “raptures that were Byron’s, not their own,” though he did admit that Byron’s description was “better than reality.” Even Byron, who popularized the moonlight tour, called English tourists “staring boobies, who go about gaping.”

Sadly, I only succeeded in gaping at the Colosseum during the day: the Colosseum now closes at 7:15PM, way before moonlight. After being ushered through a security check and turnstile at the updated entrance, I was caught up in photographing the plants growing out of the Colosseum’s seams and sitting on 1900-year-old columns. I remembered the bloody aspects when I looked out onto a reconstruction of the Colosseum floor and imagined the gladiators Byron described, though Hawthorne may have been right that my imagination can't rival Byron’s. For me, modern archaeological exhibits and excavations on view at the Colosseum have made it easier to envision the original building and its purpose, instead of getting lost in the beauty of the ruin.

To Hawthorne’s probable dismay, I did spend a lot of my time in Italy contemplating other people’s experiences. I wanted to look at the Laocoon in a Vatican courtyard as if I were Michelangelo unearthing it. I tried to walk down the side aisles at St. Peter’s Basilica like a Renaissance pilgrim. I imagined Percy Shelley writing at the weed-covered Baths of Caracalla. And every time I climbed a bell tower I sympathized with George Eliot’s comment that her “muscles [were] much astonished” at Giotto’s Campanile in Florence. But I had my own fun too: I doubt Goethe ate as much gelato and supplì or risked his life in a Roman taxi.

Thinking about the past is an exercise in empathy, and nowhere is that clearer than at the Keats-Shelley House. Situated on the Spanish Steps, the museum memorializes the final months of John Keats, the young English poet who came to Italy from Hampstead with the painter Joseph Severn in a last attempt to overcome tuberculosis. Their small apartment now houses the room where Keats died (though his furniture was burned to contain his disease), letters from their circle of friends, and locks of hair that have been revered as relics by Keats’s fans. Exhibits in the library guide you through Keats’s childhood in Hampstead, the death of his parents and brother, and his decision to throw himself into poetry. After tracing his romance with Fanny Brawne, the exhibit arrives in a more sobering room. I looked out the window at Keats’s final view of Rome and read Severn’s letters documenting his exhaustion and relief. And I stood alone in silence in the tall, narrow bedroom where Keats called to his friend, “Severn—lift me up for I am dying…thank God it has come.”

Keats was buried in the middle of the night in Rome’s Non-Catholic Cemetery in February of 1821 in a shady green plot in view of the Pyramid of Cestius, a massive Roman sepulcher where about sixty cats have lived for centuries. I rested on a wooden bench in front of Keats’s tombstone—which is famously inscribed with a lure with its strings snapped to symbolize Keats’s life cut short—and I tried to envision a young Oscar Wilde throwing himself on the ground and proclaiming this “the holiest place in Rome.” Thinking about Wilde’s touching essay, I realized I had come to Keats’s grave to appreciate the experience of another tourist. As strange as it seems, I think it's fitting: in Rome, layers of history have accumulated for millennia, and it takes layers of experiences to understand them.

— Ella Nowicki is a high school student in Madison, Wisconsin. Her poetry appears in ShufPoetry and The Cadaverine and her literary criticism was recently recognized in the Keats-Shelley Young Romantics Prize. She loves art history and baking.

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