As this novel is written in two parts, the first half based in Italy and the second half based back in England, the characters of the story are passing through thresholds as they enter back into English society, and it appears that most of them pass through unchanged.
In the beginning of the novel, as we discussed recently in class, Forster writes the Italian way of life to be very laid back and passionate; the Italians are portrayed this way throughout the whole story, as lovers, as murderers, as people who do not bother with the little things, though there are not many Italians in the story. This lifestyle is a stark contrast against the English society that Lucy lives in, and this is seen in the first chapter where her chaperon and older cousin, Miss Bartlett, complains about the location of their rooms yet denies the Emerson’s offer to switch bedrooms. As the Emersons are looked at as lowly and unpredictable, and as Lucy seems to be unable to make any decisions for herself with her cousin as chaperon, it is revealed that while the English are in Italy, they are not really influenced by the culture that surrounds them, and still maintain their rigid rules and ways of thinking; in fact, none of the English tourists seem immersed in the culture at all, and are concerned still with class and social standing, even away from home. Lucy, as it turns out, differs from the rest as she ultimately rejects that lifestyle and elopes with George Emerson rather than Cecil Vyse who is deemed the socially acceptable choice.
While I like that Forster wrote what appears to be a critique of English society, we also discussed in class how he contrasts these snobbish characters with a very stereotypical Italian lifestyle. As I mentioned in the beginning of the post, the Italians that are present in the story are exhibiting some extreme form of passion, and there is never really a genuine sense (in my opinion) of their true culture. However, it certainly works in this novel as a way to compare the two countries, and certainly, it plays in favor of a critique on high society in England at the time.
Aside from reading Rome by Robert Hughes, our class has also been asked to read E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View as we prepare for more literary discussions as the course unfolds. This novel is extremely entertaining to me, especially after picking up on some of the obvious criticisms Forster seems to be making about social life of the upper class in England. Despite some of Lucy’s more common characteristics fitting for a young woman in the Edwardian Era (beginning in early 1900s England), her time in Italy, (albeit chaotic) seems to be changing her in some way, and there is a particular quote which alerted me to this possibility at the end of chapter four:
“Leaning her elbows on the parapet, she [Lucy] contemplated the River Arno, whose roar was suggesting some unexpected melody to her ears” (36).
I sensed a very obvious shift being set up for Lucy’s character with this line, especially after the events that occurred prior to this quote, where she witnessed a murder in the street and was “rescued” from the scene by George Emerson. I enjoy this quote for its foreshadowing and allusion to the possibility that Lucy might soon break away from society life in England (undoubtedly credited to Italy’s influence).
Hughes, in his prologue, makes an interesting comment upon seeing Bernini’s fountain in the piazza that its utter size and presence instantly rid him of any “half-baked notions of historical progress [that] may have been rattling about, loosely attached to the inside of my skull” (11). This is an intriguing point to make as we are living in world where technology is constantly evolving, and even where many people, because of race, religion, gender, class, and sexuality are still striving for equality.
Piazza Navona, Bernini Fountain
I am interested in this idea of “progress” as a culture, especially when thinking about Rome: despite any “progress” the city and its developing culture have experienced throughout time, memories of the past are still present in the architecture of the buildings, the fountains and the art. In fact, these are even the traits which constantly call to its tourists. In a sense, these pieces of the past are what define how many of us understand the city today.
In the first chapter of Hughes’s Rome entitled “Foundation”, the groundwork in which Rome began is laid out in a very complicated history of the ancient city’s possible beginning, its founders, its leaders, etc. On page fifteen, Hughes describes Rome’s start as a shady one, as no reliable documents were recorded, and we are therefore left mostly with mythology to explain “how” Rome got its “start”. Hughes explains the story of a long and tangled past “with many variants, which tend to circle back to the same themes we will see again and again throughout Rome’s long history: ambition, parricide, fratricide, betrayal, and obsessive ambition…No city has ever been more steeped in ferocity from its beginnings than Rome. These wind back to the story of the city’s mythic infancy” (15).
This idea of murdering relatives and “obsessive ambition” which heavily sets the foundation of Rome’s start is incredibly fascinating when thinking of the glory and beauty we attribute to Rome today. Of course history of the world in general is unfortunately a bloody and murderous one, yet I can’t help but dwell on the irony of that as our class prepares for our trip in September, where will undoubtedly experience some of the most ancient beauty a city can offer. Despite the long, often times tyrannical, often times oppressive, and often times dirty history of the city, it stands today as one of the most respected and sought out places to explore. The sheer history it has to offer calls to us, and I can only hope that as we experience the breathtaking sculptures, the timeless art and culture, that we also remind ourselves of where we stand, of the unimaginable history that is being shared beneath the very feet that will bring us there.
Recently for my Literature of Travel course we have been reading Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, a pretty dense book by Robert Hughes which discusses the beginnings of the ancient city, its art, influences, and more, all tied together with accounts of Hughes’s own stories. In the first chapter, Hughes begins by telling his readers how he came to find Rome as a young man, and I was most struck by his passionate language for nearly every facet of the city. Early in the prologue he discusses the first time he visited the Campo dei Fiori, a market in a piazza as he remarks at its simple beauty, and says, “Then there became apparent something of a kind I had never seen at home in Australia. All this vegetable glory, this tide of many-colored life, this swelling and bursting and fullness, welled up around a lugubrious totem of Death” (5).
Campo dei Fiori
Hughes goes on to discuss the square’s gruesome history, and I was so shocked to discover the irony of the many executions that took place there as Campo dei Fiori is now a place which promotes such beauty and vibrant life. I find this realization painfully exquisite and with a city such as Rome with its incredibly long, rich history, I expect to be further shocked as I read through this piece of literature and discover more about the city’s secrets, the evolution of its people, and traditions.