Henry James and the Villa Ludovisi (Part I of II, non-fiction)

By Cecily Smith 

The American novelist Henry James (1843-1916) travelled to Italy a number of times (1869/70, 1873, 1880, 1886/7, 1894, 1899, 1907). During these visits, he spent a considerable amount of time in Rome and published extensive accounts of his stays in several American magazines. Those included Scribner’s MonthlyThe Century Magazine, The Galaxy, The Atlantic Monthly and The Nation. He later went on to revise these essays and republish them in two principal collections: the first, Transatlantic Sketches (1875), the second, Italian Hours (1909).

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Among the many places he saw in Rome were the most important in the series of great urban villas. Though James stated that “he prefers none of them to the Villa Borghese“, and had special admiration for the Villa Medici, he wrote “and yet…you may stand in the little belvedere which rises with such surpassing oddity out of the dusky heard of the Boschetto at the latter establishment—a miniature presentation of the wood of Sleeping Beauty—and look across at the Ludovisi pines lifting their crooked parasols into a sky of what a painter would call the most morbid blue, and declare that the place where they grow is the most delightful in the world.”

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Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Le Casino de l’Aurore de la Villa Ludovisi (1806). Musee Ingres, Montauban, France. It shows the Villa Aurora as seen from the gardens of the Villa Medici, since 1803 home of the French Academy in Rome (and where in 1806 Ingres resided as a winner of the Prix de Rome).

Henry James wrote two main (non-fiction) accounts concerning the Villa Ludovisi, the first an essay entitled “The After-Season in Rome”, originally published in The Nation on 12 June 1873. In this work, he wrote a brief account of the Villa, praising its scenic views as well as criticizing King Victor Emmanuel II’s mistress, Rosa Teresa Vercellana (1833-1885) for her lack of taste. In 1872, the King had rented the Villa from the Boncompagni Ludovisi family and used the estate as the residence of Vercellana for the winter months. James critiqued Rosa, calling her “rigid” for closing the grounds that had previously been open for visitors.

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Rosa Teresa Vercellana (1833-1885), who became the mistress of Victor Emmanuel II shortly after meeting him when she was aged 14. The two married in a civil ceremony in 1877, just two months before the King’s death; but she was never made Queen and the two children they earlier produced together had no rights of succession to the throne of the Kingdom of Italy.

This is James’ account of the Villa Ludovisi in “The After-Season in Rome”, with the general dateline “Rome, May 20th, 1873”, later republished in both Transatlantic Sketches (1875) and in Italian Hours (1909):

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Detail of James’ “The After-Season in Rome” as it originally appeared in The Nation, no. 413, 12 June 1873.

You may watch the whole business [i.e., of the progress of spring] from a dozen of these choice standpoints and have a different villa for it every day in the week. The Doria, the Ludovisi, the Medici, the Albani, the Wolkonski, the Chigi, the Mellini, the Massimo—there are more of them, with all their sights and sounds and odours and memories, than you have senses for [then, after the appreciation of the Villa Borghese and Villa Medici quoted above] .…and look across at the Ludovisi pines lifting their crooked parasols into a sky of what a painter would call the most morbid blue, and declare that the place where they grow is the most delightful in the world.”

Villa Ludovisi has been all winter the residence of the lady familiarly known in Roman society as ‘Rosina,’ Victor Emmanuel’s morganatic wife, the only familiarity, it would seem, that she allows, for the grounds were rigidly closed, to the inconsolable regret of old Roman sojourners.”

Just as the nightingales began to sing, however, the quasi-august padrona departed, and the public, with certain restrictions, have been admitted to hear them. The place takes, where it lies, a princely ease, and there could be no better example of the expansive tendencies of ancient privilege than the fact that its whole vast extent is contained by the city walls. It has in this respect very much the same enviable air of having got up early that marks the great intramural demesne of Magdalen College at Oxford.”

“The stern old ramparts of Rome form the outer enclosure of the villa, and hence a series of ‘striking scenic effects’ which would be unscrupulous flattery to say you can imagine. The grounds are laid out in the formal last-century manner; but nowhere do the straight black cypresses lead off the gaze into vistas of a melancholy  more charged with associations—poetic, romantic, historic; nowhere are there grander smoother walls of laurel and myrtle.

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The Villa Ludovisi as it appeared in 1885; approach to the Casino Aurora. Photo by Prince Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi, collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Henry James’ second (non-fiction) account of the Villa Ludovisi seems to be based on the same visit as above. But it is much more extensive and was published as part of a series of journal entries that appeared as a compilation entitled “From a Roman Note-Book”, originally published in The Galaxy, in November of 1873.

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Detail from James’ “From a Roman Note-Book” as it originally appeared in The Galaxy, vol. 16, November 1873. It was Mark Twain who edited the periodical.

In this account of his visit to the Villa Ludovisi, James writes of being accompanied by a friend he refers to as L.B., whom Leon Edel and other (but not all) scholars have identified as his friend and fellow expatriate, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Otis Lyman Boott (1846-1888). Boott was an American artist as well as an inspiration for characters in James’ novels Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Golden Bowl (1904).

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Frank Duveneck (1848-1919), Portrait of Elizabeth Boott (1886). Private collection. Duveneck and Boott married in 1886, but she was to die just two years later.

Here is the entry that appeared in James’ “From a Roman Note-Book”, dated 27 April [sc. 1873], again prominently referencing Victor Emmanuel’s mistress Rosa Vercellana. The essay was republished in James’ 1875 Transatlantic Sketches (and in that volume’s 1883 truncated reissue as Foreign Parts) and the 1909 Italian Hours:

A morning with L.B. at Villa Ludovisi, which we agreed that we shouldn’t forget. The villa now belongs to the King, who has lodged his morganatic wife there.”

There is nothing so blissfully right in Rome, nothing more consummately consecrated to style. The grounds and gardens are immense, and the great rusty-red city wall stretches away behind them and makes the burden of the seven hills seem vast without making them seem small.”

There is everything—dusky avenues trimmed by the clippings of centuries, groves and dells and glades and glowing pastures and reedy fountains and great flowering meadows studded with enormous slanting pines. The day was delicious, the trees all one melody, the whole place a revelation of what Italy and hereditary pomp can do together. Nothing could be more in the grand manner than this garden view of the city ramparts, lifting their fantastic battlements above the trees and flowers. They were all tapestried with vines and made to serve as sunny fruit-walls—grim old defence as they once were; now giving nothing but a splendid buttressed privacy.”

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The Casino delle Statue of the Villa Ludovisi, as it appeared in 1885. The statues on pedestals at left and at center are of Dacian captives, originally from the Forum of the emperor Trajan (AD 98-117). This pair now stands at the entrance of the Villa Aurora. Photo Prince Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi, collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

The sculptures in the little Casino [i.e., the Casino delle Statue] are few, but there are two great ones—the beautiful sitting Mars and the head of the great Juno, the latter thrust into a corner behind a shutter. These things it’s almost impossible to praise; we can only mark them well and keep them clear, as we insist on silence to hear great music…

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The Ludovisi Ares (left, with extensive restorations by Bernini) and Ludovisi Juno (right), from collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome. Sold to the Comune di Roma in 1901, each can now be viewed in the Palazzo Altemps (Museo Nazionale Romano).

James then shifts his attention from the Casino delle Statue (“little Casino”) to the Villa Aurora (“greater Casino”), where he and L.B. are given free rein…

If I don’t praise Guercino’s Aurora in the greater Casino, it’s for another reason; this is certainly a very muddy masterpiece. It figures on the ceiling of a small low hall; the painting is coarse and the ceiling too near. Besides, it’s unfair to pass straight from the Greek mythology to the Bolognese.”

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The “Aurora” of Guercino in the Villa Aurora, as captured on a period postcard (dated 1901)

We were left to roam at will through; the custode shut us in and went to walk in the park. The apartments were all open, and I had an opportunity to reconstruct, from its milieu at least, the character of a morganatic queen. I saw nothing to indicate that it was not amiable; but I should have thought more highly of the lady’s discrimination if she had had the Juno removed from behind the shutter.

In such a house, girdled about with such a park, methinks I could be amiable—and perhaps discriminating too. The Ludovisi Casino is small, but the perfection of the life of ease might surely be led there. There are English houses enough in wondrous parks, but they expose you to too many small needs and observances—to say nothing of a red-faced butler dropping his h’s. You are oppressed with the detail of accommodation.

Here the billiard-table is old-fashioned, perhaps a trifle crooked; but you have Guercino above your head, and Guercino, after all, is almost as good as Guido [sc. Reni, whose 1614 Aurora stands in the Casino Pallavicini Rospigliosi in Rome].

The rooms, I noticed, all pleased by their shape, by a lovely proportion, by a mass of delicate ornamentation on the high concave ceilings. One might live over again in them some deliciously benighted life of forgotten type—with graceful old sale, and immensely thick walls, and a winding stone staircase, and a view from the loggia at the top; a view of twisted parasolpines balanced, high above the wooden horizon, against a sky of faded sapphire.”

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The view (1885) from the Villa Aurora looking south west toward St. Peter’s. Photo: Prince Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi, collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

An epilogue. Among James and Elizabeth Boott’s social circle were other American expatriates including Sarah Butler Wister (1835-1908), daughter of the actress Fanny Kemble (1809-1893), both of whom made an impression on James’ fictional characters and with whom he frequently corresponded. (Wister in turn was mother The Virginian author Owen Wister.) On 27 February 1887, after hearing of the destruction of the Villa Ludovisi he had seen just 15 years prior, James wrote from Venice to Mrs. Wister of his distress and disappointment stating:

“…one’s stomach is really turned here by the accounts of the hideous things that are being wrought upon the helpless seven hills. Destruction and vulgarization everywhere—and the Villa Ludovisi cut up into building lots. The Villa Ludovisi—je ne vous dis que cela!”

In Part II of this post, we shall examine Henry James’ treatment of the Villa Ludovisi in his fiction, especially his 1875 novel Roderick Hudson.

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John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Henry James (1913). Charcoal; 24 ½ x16 in. Collection Royal Library at Windsor

About the author: Cecily Smith is a senior at Rutgers University majoring in Classical Studies and English Literature and minoring in Art History. She is a member of Rutgers’ Peithessophian Society, which was founded in 1825 and is one of the oldest college literary societies in the United States. Cecily will be spending part of this summer in Chestertown, Maryland writing for a local newspaper, The Chestertown Spy. She is one of four students awarded a Research Assistantship for 2013/4 under the auspices of Rutgers’ Aresty Research Center to work on the Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi project under the direction of Rutgers professor Corey Brennan. In her spare time she enjoys running, photography and traveling. 

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