- Strangers on a Train: The Double Dream of Italy in the American Gilded Age*
In late 1887 Bernard Berenson left Boston for his first tour of Europe. This gifted young man—the child of Lithuanian Jewish parents who had immigrated to America after his birth—had had his way paid to Harvard by Boston Brahmin families impressed by his potential for cultivation. After his graduation, wealthy patrons supplied him with the means for the appropriate next step in a career of self-civilization: the European Wanderjahre, sequel to the old-fashioned Grand Tour. Having already travelled to France, to England, and to Germany, Berenson in the summer of 1888 descended into what his biographer Ernest Samuels calls “the fabled art cities of Italy,” where his travel took on a sharper focus. Lengthening out his stay, Berenson made a rapturous tour of Italian artistic monuments both on and off the beaten path. (Samuels’s phrase for his swing through Pesaro, Urbino, Gubbio, Città di Castello, San Sepolcro, and back to Florence—“a strenuous and highly methodical campaign and the prelude to many similar bone-wearying tours in quest of paintings and architecture”—will suggest the blend of ardor and discipline that drove these travels.) In the course of his researches he met the principal art historians of contemporary Italy—Giovanni Cavalcaselle and Giovanni Morelli, chief exponents of the new, more scientific form of art historical study. He also developed, under the weight of his accumulating art-historical exper-tise, an increasing mental distance from his adopted home: to a patron from the self-appointed culture capital Boston he wrote that Boston now appeared provincial to him, not [End Page 1] the metropolis but that culturally impoverished opposite of the center called “the colonies.” By Berenson’s account, these new alienations and devotions came to a head in 1890, when, sitting in a Bergamo café with his Italian-Peruvian friend Enrico Costa, he found his life-structuring mission:
Nobody before us has dedicated his entire activity, his entire life to connoisseur-ship.... We shall give ourselves up to learning to distinguish between the authentic works of an Italian painter of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, and those commonly ascribed to him. We must not stop until we are sure that every Lotto is a Lotto, every Cariani a Cariani, every Santacroce a Santacroce. 1
A second emblematic incident occurs within a year of Berenson’s finding of his vocation but has a very different cast. In 1891 the superintendent of police in New Orleans (in John Higham’s words) “was murdered under conditions which pointed to the local Sicilian population.” Egged on by both city officials and the media, the police rounded up a number of Italian suspects, who were quickly put on trial. “But when some of the accused were tried,” Higham continues, “the jury (which may have been suborned) stunned the city by refusing to convict. While officials stood idly by, a mob proceeded to ‘remedy the failure of justice’ by lynching eleven Italian suspects.” In the wake of this nationally publicized event the United States had an Italian-based version of the Big Red Scare. Italy withdrew its ambassador from Washington in protest over the lynchings; an impending attack by the Italian fleet became a subject of popular rumor and fear; and workers in places remote from New Orleans went on strike, demanding that their employers rid the workforce of a hated Italian presence. 2
The topic of this essay is the image of Italy in American culture on the verge of modernity. I start with these two episodes because it seems to me that the main point to be made is that there were not one but two images of Italy in late nine-teenth-century America, for which my initial examples can stand as synecdoches. The decisive fact about Italian American relations in the postbellum period is that contact between these cultures became greatly extended at this time, but in two starkly different modalities. On the one hand, this is the time of the birth of modern tourism, so that many more Americans “saw Italy” in the last decades of the nineteenth century...