The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

6. Sleeping and Waking Fauns Harriet Goodhue Hosmer's Experience of Italy, 1852-1870

ANDREA MARIANI, University of Chieti-Pescara

"Come in, wild faun," she said "and tell me the latest news from Arcady!"

-- Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun, chap. 5

Those American artists and writers who, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, saw Italy as Arcadia, and interpreted it as such in their work, were adhering to a fashion and taste which were widespread at the time. Depending on their sensitivity and intellectual awareness, they could choose from a large variety of Arcadias, each of which represented -- more or less obviously -- a different development of the common prototype. 1 A brief survey of this motif will account for the crucial impact that the classical and Italian heritage had on yet another aspect of American culture.

A clear ambivalence was already present in Theocritus' bucolic world; this fruitful ambiguity is reflected as well in the literature of later centuries and divides the critics in their definition of the core of his poetry. Theocritus' shepherds are removed from their native Arcadia and transferred to the different comers of the Hellenistic world (the island of Cos, Alexandria, Syracuse) where they become either vulgar characters or refined individuals. The latter, obviously destined for a greater success, were originally re-created as ideal figures, inhabiting an abstract world of equilibrium, between nature and culture.

Theocritus' poetic taste, in spite of a manneristic tone or shade, responds to an atmosphere that can be described as "panic," in the literal sense of the word and in a broader sense. In his verse, Pan is both the Arcadian god and the archetypal spirit of the woods, protector of the flocks and ruler of the solitary sun-bathed landscape. At midday he appears to the shepherd, numbing his waking senses, making him surrender to the powers of nature. In the torpor that follows, Pan instills nightmares from which the shepherd awakens with "panic," fear (Greek, πανισμóς; Latin, timor panicus).

The history of Pan's iconography presents us with contradictory items. A survey of all these interpretations is beyond the scope of this essay. It will suffice to mention, on the one hand, the terrible Pan and Daphne ( Naples, National Museum), the beastly Pan with enormous genitals ( Berlin, Antiquarium), the mischievous Pan and Aphrodite ( Athens, National Museum), the lusty Pan Chasing a Shepherd ( Boston, Museum of Fine Arts); and, on the other, the humanized Pan in a bronze of Polikleteian derivation ( Paris, National Library), the pleasant Pan on a coin from Megalopolis ( Basel, Antikenmuseum), the Greek basrelief showing Pan's Cave, with Satyrs, Hermes, and Nymphs ( Rome, Barracco Museum), and Pan with Little Diony-sus ( Rome, Lateran Museum); and in-between, the fascinating Leering Pan with wild hair and slender horns in a mosaic from Genazzano ( Rome, National Museum). A summing-up of all possible facets of the archetype is offered by the terracotta from Beotia ( Athens, National Museum, late fifth century B.C.), showing the greatest variety of Pans, fauns, and satyrs, both pleasant and unpleasant.

Theocritus is at his best when he describes the "inebriation of the noonday sun," the "warm desire to live and enjoy," 2 and Pan's uncontrollable urge to possess the nymphs. In the short, inspired Homeric hymn, Pan has goat-like feet and horns, loves dancing, is attracted by the call of melodious flutes, and plays the pipes himself in the eve

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