Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Roman Fever: Influence, Infection, and the Image of Rome, 1700-1870: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Roman Fever: Influence, Infection, and the Image of Rome, 1700-1870: Books

Article excerpt

Roman Fever: Influence, Infection, and the Image of Rome, 1700-1870. By Richard Wrigley. Yale University Press, 270pp, Pounds 45.00. ISBN 9780300190212. Published 27 June 2013

Yale University Press is to be congratulated on producing, at not too high a price, another elegant volume, furnished with many beautiful illustrations as well as with notes and bibliography that occupy more than 100 pages as against a text of just over 200. Roman Fever will shine on a coffee table. The book is a pleasure to riffle.

No doubt that is as it should be, since Richard Wrigley assures his readers disarmingly on more than one occasion that he is an art historian who writes with the assumptions and theoretical base of his trade. "From the sixteenth until the late nineteenth century," he pronounces, "Rome held a talismanic place in the European and later North American imagination as a destination of artistic pilgrimages." Given that situation, he sets his task as to enquire "what did influence (then) mean ... as applied to artists' and travellers' experience of Rome?" "Influence", he knows from Michel Foucault, is an under-theorised term, all the more since, he adds, it has ironical connections with the Italian "influenza", a word that began to acquire an international medical meaning following an epidemic of some sort in Rome in 1743.

As the title indicates, Wrigley's major focus is on mal' aria, the "something in the air", as he evocatively puts it, that was the physical background to what he establishes was often a fundamental uneasiness, even a trauma, afflicting artists and travellers as they tried to frame a meaning of classical and Renaissance, and, less often, contemporary, Rome around their own creativity. For the Abbe Dubos in 1719, we learn, what had once been a fine climate in the city had been destroyed during its decline and fall. Such environmental change could explain why "decadent" contemporary Romans had lost in the battle between ancients and moderns then being waged so vigorously, but might also allow non-Italian moderns their own victory. As Wrigley hastens to remark, not everyone agreed; for some, Roman "light" was eternally "special"; its air enthralled still. Yet, Wrigley shows in his key chapters, the fatal presence of malaria could not be ignored, especially given the rise into the 19th century of medical understandings of the human condition. …

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