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  • A Course of Antiquities at Rome, 1764
  • Jules David Prown (bio)

During the third quarter of the eighteenth century, neoclassicism displaced the rococo as the dominant artistic style in Europe. Its spread was powered intellectually by Enlightenment concepts that located models for human behavior and achievement in classical antiquity and given substance by direct contact with the ancient world, especially in Italy, through excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, archaeological recovery of important pieces of classical sculpture, and publication of measured drawings and visual reconstructions of ancient ruins. Transmission of neoclassicism northward was furthered by travelers returning from Grand Tour trips to Italy. Aristocratic Englishmen, for example, often deferred the start of a professional or political career for the opportunity to broaden themselves through travel and the acquisition of foreign languages on the Grand Tour. 1 They absorbed lessons from classical antiquity through the writings of classical authors on Roman history, visits to sites where important events had transpired, and the study and collecting of sculpture and artifacts—vases, coins, intaglios, etc. 2

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Figure 1.

Angelica Kauffman, Samuel Powel, c. 1764–65. Private Collection (photograph courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

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Figure 2.

Angelica Kauffman, John Morgan, 1764–65. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of the James Smithson Society and Gallery purchase.

The neoclassical style was not, however, rapidly adopted in Colonial America. Physical distance was one factor, but this paper will suggest that other factors were at work. The first recorded Americans arrived in Italy in 1760. 3 In that year William Allen, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, sent his son, John, from Philadelphia abroad for a Grand Tour, accompanied by a young relative, Joseph Shippen. Rev. William Smith, Provost of the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania), arranged for a young Philadelphia artist, Benjamin West, to sail with them in order to pursue the study of art in Italy. By the autumn of 1763 West, following three years of study in Italy, Allen and Shippen, along with the elder Allen and Provost Smith, were all in England. Their circle was enlarged by the presence of two more young Philadelphians. Samuel Powel (1738–1793, fig. 1), a 1759 graduate from the College of Philadelphia, belonged to a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker family. He later became both the last mayor of Philadelphia under the Crown (1775–76) and the first under the Republic (1789–90). 4 Dr. John Morgan (1735–1789, fig. 2), after graduating from the College in the first class, 1757, served with the provincial Pennsylvania troops in the early campaigns of the French and Indian War as a lieutenant and surgeon. In 1760 he went to London to study medicine, and then spent two years of study in Edinburgh where he took his degree. 5 Powel and Morgan planned to travel to Italy via Paris where Morgan would study medicine for a while en route. The other young men, having recently returned from Italy, undoubtedly gave them advice about what to see and do on their trip, and West perhaps suggested that in Rome they hire the cicerone James Byres as a guide to the antiquities. 6 In the Spring of 1764 the two young Philadelphians took a three week “course of Antiquities” in Rome with Byres. Powel’s manuscript notes survive, as does a published fragment of Morgan’s notes. 7

Powel and Morgan, who considered themselves to be, and were, Englishmen, 8 took their trip at the dawn of a brief golden age of the Grand Tour, the decade that lasted from the mid 1760s and the end of the Seven Years War to the mid 1770s and the initial crises of the ancien régime in France, when relative peace and stability on the continent facilitated travel. 9 Tourists traveled to Rome by various routes. Those who sailed via Gibraltar (as did West, Allen and Shippen from Philadelphia in 1760) docked at Leghorn, and then traveled through Tuscany—Pisa, Lucca, Florence, Siena. Of those who came through France, some like Powel and Morgan took a ship from Marseilles, Nice or Toulon to Genoa or Leghorn and then followed a...