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

During the  eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, artists and travellers were lured to Rome, the home of civilized values and artistic beauty. But the history of visiting Rome had a pathological side – not only crisis and disorientation but repulsion at its filth and stink. Crucially Rome’s air was considered to contain a chronic source of disease. Roman Fever argues that ‘bad air’ (mal’aria) is a neglected aspect of thinking about the city’s history and as a destination for artists, visitors, and Romans both ancient and modern. These problems interfered with exploring Rome, its art and architecture, and representing its landscape. Atmospheric contamination made plain air painting and investigating antique ruins challenging activities.

In this extract from the Introduction to Roman Fever , author Richard Wrigley describes how Rome became the ‘preordained climax’ of an artist’s Italian journey and why the city was ripe for Romantic interpretation.

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This book started out with a simple question: what did influence mean during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as applied to artists’ and travellers’ experience of Rome? Although neither unaware of nor uninterested in the more general ramifications of influence as an art-historical topic, my interest in it, and the shape of the book that has resulted, has grown out of working on (and in) Rome. A more comprehensive account of changing ideas concerning transmission and assimilation of artistic knowledge in and from Italy would need to range more widely through comparative attitudes to other cities, and would inevitably come up with different conclusions. Be that as it may, the meanings of influence articulated here have emerged from a study of the ideas and circumstances which were thought to explain the idiosyncratic nature of Rome and the effects it produced. It was clear from the outset that past thinking about Rome as a stage for the working out of influence was premised on the belief that there was something unique about the city, and more specifically that this could be explained in terms of the city’s relation to its environment. The combination of exceptional artistic resources, a strangely bleak surrounding countryside, and a notoriously changeable and at times inhospitable climate created a potent but unpredictable milieu awaiting artists who journeyed to Rome in order to realise its promise of transformation. I have tried to suggest how these different components worked together, and fed into narratives of the journey to Rome and its consequences.

Rome was and remains an exceptionally appropriate place in which to think about influenza and art. From the origins of the Grand Tour in the seventeenth century to its replacement by modern tourism, the ‘Eternal City’ was the preordained climax of an Italian journey. Rome’s credentials as the home of ancient grandeur reduced to picturesque ruination were unassailable, albeit that Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum had a seductive southward pull. Its status as a treasure house of great Renaissance and seventeenth-century art was reinforced and thrown into relief by the framework of dispersed but sublime antique remains. In the earlier nineteenth century Rome became the quintessential Romantic city – its ruins stimulated melancholy reverie, less about the fall of a great civilisation than introspective ruminations, interspersed with laments over the smothered aspirations of Italian nationhood. Even after its reinvention as national capital in 1871, its accumulated symbolic significance provoked ambivalence if not outspoken resistance to modernisation. Yet the city’s cultural capital continued to remain highly valued. If Rome had been the an early exemplar of museum culture, at one and the same time home to innovative museums and a museum city par excellence , its status as a unique repository of art and architecture was further intensified by an unprecedented phase of accelerated urban expansion and modernisation.

Influence is usually thought of as a matter of the transfer of visual knowledge or information, and fits within well-work art-historical models of change or development. Roman Fever is made up of an interlocking set of studies and argues that ideas of influence should be detached from this kind of matching and making, and rather rethought in contextual terms, acting through an ambient, immersive dimension as much as being the result of conscious ambition be that individual or institutional. Adopting such an approach follows from trying to understand what range of meaning influence and its workings had in the periods studied in this book.

It is immediately apparent that, as applied to art, influence has predominately been constructed as an inherently pathological process; indeed, ambiguity between artistic and medical language and concepts seems to be almost invariably present. The journey to, and encounter with, Rome engendered altered states of mind and body, which frequently descended into collapse and crisis. The predicament endowed narratives of arrival and discovery, usually expected to involve a thrill of accomplishment. with a sense of risk and the threat of failure; in its milder manifestations this might take the form of temporary disarray and disorientation, but could lead to more disturbingly painful reactions. 

[…]

Central to my account is an emphasis on the crossover and overlap between influence as both a cultural and medical term. Such shared conceptions of the dependence of cultural expression and health on physical conditions remind us of the different, much closer, relations that obtained between artistic and scientific theory and practise compared to later professional and disciplinary distinctions. ‘Roman fever’ refers to one of the names for the indigenous illness caused by ‘bad air’, expressing the widely held belief that this was a quintessentially Roman problem. The phenomenon of ‘bad air’ derives from the miasma theory of the environmental causes of disease, which was dominant throughout the period covered, and indeed lingered on even after the discovery of the trye nature of malarial fever. Roman Fever draws attention to something which is abundantly present in primary sources but has almost entirely been ignored in cultural historical studies focused on Rome.

– from the Introduction to Roman Fever by Richard Wrigley

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