The 1858 visit of Nathaniel Hawthorne to the Villa Ludovisi, illustrated

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The Boncompagni Ludovisi family’s own photographic album (late 1880s-early 1890s) of their sculptural collection. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

In January 1858, after four years of service as US Consul in Liverpool, American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) came to Rome with his wife and three children. He spent almost a year and a half in Italy, into May 1859, with visits to Siena and Florence. In his journals he recorded from what was essentially a tourist’s vantage point many exquisitely detailed impressions of the country and its cultural riches. The chief literary expression of this Italian experience was Hawthorne’s 1860 work The Marble Faun, the last of his four great romances, which he mostly wrote after leaving the Continent for England.

The journals include  Hawthorne’s account of a family visit to the Villa Ludovisi (quoted in full below), on 26 March 1858, some two months after their arrival in Rome. Here one can sense early glimpses of a melancholic view of the Eternal City that soon became much more pronounced after his eldest daughter, Una, then aged about 18, suffered a serious attack of  the notorious strain of malaria known as “Roman fever”. 

His daughter’s near-death experience obviously colored Hawthorne’s perception of the city. “I bitterly detest Rome,” Hawthorne wrote to his friend the publisher James Thomas Fields on 3 February 1859 (i.e., not quite a year after the visit to the Villa Ludovisi), “and shall rejoice to bid it farewell forever; and I fully acquiesce in all the mischief and ruin that has happened to it, from Nero’s conflagration downward. In fact, I wish the very site had been obliterated before I saw it.”

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Unused entrance ticket to the Boncompagni Ludovisi museum collection (1890s). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Hawthorne says that the ticket that secured his family’s entry came directly from the “Prince of Piombini”, i.e., Antonio Boncompagni Ludovisi (1808-1883), who became Prince of Piombino (VII) on the death of his father Luigi (born 1767) in 1841. A written application directly to the Prince Boncompagni Ludovisi was indeed the standard mode of applying for a visit to the Villa Ludovisi for the whole latter half of the 19th century. One notes that the children of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne at the time of the visit were aged 18 (Una, 1844-1877), eleven (Julian, 1846-1934), and not quite seven (Rose, 1851-1926). So even rather young children could gain admission to the Villa and its Museum.

On the day of their appointment—which happens to have been a Friday—Hawthorne and his family entered through the main gate on the Via Friuli, and managed to see the “Casino delle Statue” which housed the most famous sculptural works of the Museo Ludovisi, and then apparently wandered quite freely around the extensive grounds. Finally, the family, along with a small group of other visitors, entered the Casino Aurora—perhaps by special pleading, for it was then “under repair”. (Indeed, a major expansion of the Casino Aurora was just then in its final stages.) At the Casino, Hawthorne managed to see Guercino’s “Aurora” fresco (but apparently not the “Fama” on the floor above it), climb the famed spiral staircase that practically all visitors note, and ascend to the Casino’s upper story terrace with its spectacular view of the city and beyond.

Significantly, Hawthorne says nothing of the Palazzo Grande, which will have been the main residence of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family at this time. Evidently it was not accessible to visitors in this era.

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The Palazzo Grande of the Villa Ludovisi (at left), from the vantage point of what approximates today’s Via Boncompagni in Rome (between Via Marche and Via Lucullo). Photographed by Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi in 1885, just before the re-development of the Villa. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Hawthorne did not intend for the journal entries from his family’s Italian sojourn to be published. It was his wife, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne (1809-1871), who in winter 1870-1871 transcribed what was soon issued as the Passages from the French and Italian Note-books of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The London firm of Strahan & Co. first published this work in two volumes in autumn 1871, after Sophia’s death in February of that year.

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At the point when the Hawthorne family visited the Villa Ludovisi, the head of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family—Antonio Boncompagni Ludovisi, and his wife Guglielmina Massimo (1811-1899)—had five surviving children, ranging from age 26 (Rodolfo, born 1832) to age four (Lavinia, born 1854). A son Livio just the previous summer, in August 1857, a month before his sixteenth birthday; a daughter Filomena had died in infancy in 1836. In 1885 their second eldest son, Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi (1845-1913), was responsible for the photographic campaign that resulted in the images of  the Villa Ludovisi seen throughout this post. Photographs of the sculptures are from an album in the family’s private collection (cover shown above).

Here is that entry from 26 March 1858:

“Yesterday, between twelve and one, our whole family went to the Villa Ludovisi, the entrance to which is at the termination of a street which passes out of the Piazza Barberini, and it is no very great distance from our own street, Via Porta Pinciana.”

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Main gate of the Villa Ludovisi (as it appeared in 1885) at the “bend” of the Via Friuli (today, inside the US Embassy compound). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“The grounds, though very extensive, are wholly within the walls of the city, which skirt them, and comprise a part of what were formerly the gardens of Sallust.”

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Map of Rome (detail, showing the Villa Ludovisi), from P. Benoist, Rome dans sa grandeur (Paris 1870)

“The villa is now the property of Prince Piombini, a ticket from whom procured us admission. A little within the gateway, to the right, is a casino, containing two large rooms filled with sculpture, much of which is very valuable.”

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The Casino Capponi (= “Casino delle Statue”) as it appeared in 1885. Today the site is occupied by an auto maintenance garage for the US Embassy. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“A colossal head of Juno, I believe, is considered the greatest treasure of the collection, but I did not myself feel it to be so, nor indeed did I receive any strong impression of its excellence.”

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Acquired by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (1595-1632), the “Juno Ludovisi” is now in the Museo Nazionale Romano at the Palazzo Altemps. Goethe, for one, admired this colossal head so much that he made his own cast. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“I admired nothing so much, I think, as the face of Penelope (if it be her face), in the group supposed also to represent Electra and Orestes.”

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It was Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) who first identified these figures as Electra recognizing her brother Orestes; Hawthorne seems to opt for a tradition that they represent Penelope and her son Telemachus. Already listed in the Villa Ludovisi inventory of 1623, today the sculptural group is exhibited in the Palazzo Altemps. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“The sitting statue of Mars is very fine;…”

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The Ares Ludovisi, now in the Palazzo Altemps. Winckelmann called this sculpture “the most beautiful Mars from antiquity”. His shield, hands, and feet, and the head, arms and feet of the small Eros at his right leg saw restorations by Bernini in 1622. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“…so is the Aria and Paetus; so are many other busts and figures.”

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The sculpture which Hawthorne calls the “Ar(r)ia and Paetus”, and today (housed in the Palazzo Altemps) is now known as the Suicidal Gaul and his ‘Wife’, first appears in the Villa Ludovisi inventories for 1623. It is likely that Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi discovered it in developing the Roman-era Gardens of Sallust for his newly-purchased Villa. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“By-and-by we left the casino and wandered among the grounds, threading interminable alleys of cypress, through the long vistas of which we could see here and there a statue, an urn, a pillar, a temple, or garden-house, or a bas-relief against the wall.”

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Villa Ludovisi (1885): colossal head of Alexander the Great, embedded in the Aurelian Walls. The sculpture is still visible today on the Via Campania (just east of the intersection with Via Veneto), though the modern street is several meters lower than the path in this image. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“It seems as if there must have been a time and not so very long ago when it was worth while to spend money and thought upon the ornamentation of grounds in the neighbourhood of Rome. That time is past, however, and the result is very melancholy; for great beauty has been produced, but it can be enjoyed in its perfection only at the peril of one’s life. . . For my part, and judging from my own experience, I suspect that the Roman atmosphere, never wholesome, is always more or less poisonous.”

“We came to another and larger casino remote from the gateway, in which the Prince resides during two months of the year.”

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Grand entrance to the Casino Aurora (as it appeared in 1885). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“It was now under repair, but we gained admission, as did several other visitors, and saw in the entrance-hall the Aurora of Guercino, painted in fresco on the ceiling.”

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Detail from Guercino’s great ceiling fresco on the piano terra of the Casino Aurora, where the figure of the Dawn is robed in the Ludovisi colors of red and gold. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“There is beauty in the design; but the painter certainly was most unhappy in his black shadows, and in the work before us they give the impression of a cloudy and lowering morning, which is likely enough to turn to rain by-and-by.”

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Detail (the figure of “Night”) from Guercino’s Aurora fresco. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“After viewing the fresco we mounted by a spiral staircase to a lofty terrace, and found Rome at our feet, and, far off, the Sabine and Alban mountains, some of them still capped with snow. In another direction there was a vast plain, on the horizon of which, could our eyes have reached to its verge, we might perhaps have seen the Mediterranean Sea.”

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View from the terrace of the Casino Aurora (1885), looking SW toward the College of S. Isidore. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“After enjoying the view and the warm sunshine, we descended, and went in quest of the gardens of Sallust, but found no satisfactory remains of them.”

“One of the most striking objects in the first casino [i.e., the Casino delle Statue] was a group by Bernini,—Pluto, an outrageously masculine and strenuous figure, heavily bearded, ravishing away a little, tender Proserpine, whom he holds aloft, while his forcible gripe impresses itself into her soft, virgin flesh. It is very disagreeable, but it makes one feel that Bernini was a man of great ability.”

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Bernini’s Rape of Prosperpina (1621/1622), a Ludovisi then Boncompagni Ludovisi possession from 1622 until 1908, when the Italian state purchased it for exhibition in the Galleria Borghese. Photo from collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“There are some works in literature that bear an analogy to his works in sculpture when great power is lavished a little outside of nature, and therefore proves to be only a fashion, and not permanently adapted to the tastes of mankind.”

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  1. […] Ludovisi family could also bring access to the Villa, even to what we would call tourists. When the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne visited in March of 1858, he brought his three children, aged 18, 11 and […]

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