Snapshots of the Eternal City: Ralph Ellison in Rome
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Snapshots of the Eternal City:
Ralph Ellison in Rome

History, science of the past, science of the present.

—Lucien Febvre1

“The best of Rome remains its past,” writes Ralph Ellison to Albert Murray from his studio at the American Academy in Rome, where he resided from 1955 to 1957.2 In the midst of lengthy discussions of books, political events, and travel plans, Ellison voices his frustration with the lack of photographic equipment and jazz records to be found in the eternal city. In 1955 Rome might have been “Hollywood on the Tiber,” but the country had yet to fully recover from the destruction of World War II.3 No wonder that procuring items such as lenses, cameras, and special film stock is among Ellison’s major preoccupations, second only to the progress on his long-awaited new novel. He confesses to his lifelong friend and fellow writer Murray, “You know me, I have to have something between me and reality when I’m dealing with it most intensely” (Trading Twelves, 118).4 Indeed it is through the camera that Ellison engages “most intensely” with Rome, as evinced by the photographs located among his papers housed at the Library of Congress. Two series, both exemplary of street photography, are most compelling for their quality thematic consistency. The first one, shot in multiple locations, betrays Ellison’s keen eye for the daily rituals unfolding in the squares and alleys of Rome and it is in tune with the deep historicity of the eternal city. The second series, shot in the square Campo dei Fiori, focuses on the workmen who clean the square after the daily farmers’ market. At the center of every image in [End Page 819] this series, shot from multiple angles of the square, towers the statue of the heretic philosopher Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition in 1600. The photographs expose the deep historicity of the city and its interactions with the inhabitants’ everyday life. Thus, I suggest we read these photographs as tools through which Ellison reflects on historical becoming, historiography, and the entanglement of history with fiction.5

The relation of photography to historiography, traceable in the etymology of the word photography (“writing with light”) is especially pertinent to Ellison’s work. His photographs understate the monumental quality of Rome’s architecture by leaving outside of the frame the glorious sacred and secular history of the city. In so doing, they afford us the opportunity to consider the crucial relationship between history and fiction in Ellison’s thought, from the perspective offered by Rome—one of the cradles of Western culture, yet in the 1950s, a minor center of power on the world stage. These images, I argue, enact the dialectic between the longue durée of history made available by the architectural simultaneity of Rome and the everyday life of its inhabitants. Multiple temporalities emerge when these photographs are used as tools to excavate living history: the present time of Ellison’s experience in Rome in the mid-1950s overlaps with the historicity contained in the images themselves, as well as with our experience of uncovering the photographs today, a moment marked by a growing interest in the international dimensions of Ellison’s work.6 My reading of Ellison’s photographs focuses on the centrality of the human presence in the historical spaces captured in the images; they privilege the lived history of everyday life and the multiple ways in which common people appropriate monuments, churches, and palazzos, thus making their mark on the history told by the architecture. This quality of the photographs inevitably reminds us of Ellison’s interest in excavating the inner structures of American society in order to reveal the workings of race relations within it. Indeed, metaphors of excavation, technological mediation, and temporal distance abound in his correspondence with Murray.7 Such intellectual interests and methodological praxis are very much attuned to the contemporaneous European debate on historiography sparked by the work of the French annalistes, a debate that could hardly escape Ellison, whose interest in the relations of history with literature is well known, especially from his location in Italy in...


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