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The Forum was among the many sights in Rome that amazed Copley, who said he was “feasting my eyes.” (Bryan Schutmaat)

When Colonial America’s Greatest Painter Took His Brush to Europe

John Singleton Copley left for Europe on the eve of the American Revolution. A historian and her teenage son made the trip to see why

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(Continued from page 1)

As their weeks together stretched into months, Carter’s litany of complaints grew. Copley was demanding, “not knowing a Syllable of the Language,” yet having “so much to say.” He could be combative and even perverse, yet he brooked disagreement poorly. Carter’s diagnosis: His companion had been too “long the Hero of each little Tale,” allowed to believe “there is Nothing that he is not Master of.” Boston was a small pond. These were deeper waters.

Carter wearied, especially, of Copley’s paeans to the Colonies. American wood burned hotter. American milk tasted sweeter. From Toulon, near the end of September, Carter wrote: “My Companion is solacing himself that if they go on in America for an 100 Years to come as they have for 150 years past, they shall have an independent Government...Art will then be more encouraged there, great Artists would arise and that was the great object that induced him to take this Tour to Roame. I just hinted that it was probabl[e] he might not live to see that Period; and therefore his coming to Rome, if that was the End intended to be answered, would he not be some what mistaken in the Outset?”

About the timing, Carter was wrong. Independence came far sooner than either man could have predicted.

Like all caricatures, Carter’s Copley both resembles and distorts the original. Copley lacked sophistication, and he knew it. “I felt some degree of mortification in not having the Language,” he confessed, a deficit he bemoaned on more than one occasion. He marveled that the French used clean napkins at the table. Having learned his manners from borrowed books at the edge of the British world, Copley strained to project the easy grace so central to politeness. By turns ingratiating and imperious, he kissed up and kicked down. Carter dissected these foibles brilliantly, making Copley a bumbling bumpkin in faded finery with a gleaming, impotent sword.

But Carter failed to sense the aching loneliness concealed by Copley’s too-brave face. Throughout the separation from his family, Copley whipsawed between joy and longing. The tour was wondrous, “like a Dream,” he said. But it was also a “time of Banishment” that could not end quickly enough. Copley measured out his progress in works seen and techniques mastered, and in miles from the moment he would gather his babes in his arms.

All travelers get homesick, even my Calvin, though he’s loath to admit it. But Copley’s melancholy had a particular cast, because home itself was a moving target. Whether Copley returned to Boston depended on whether Boston returned to itself. He was desperate for news of the town, but letters were long in coming. In his first four months on the road, Copley received but one dispatch from Beacon Hill. While he bragged of America’s wonders, home grew so distant, so silent, so small. Were he “suddenly transported to Boston,” he told Sukey when he reached Genoa, “I should think it only a collection of wren boxes.”

“Do you like him?” Calvin asks, when I describe the prickly Copley lampooned by Carter.

I do, especially for his halting ambivalence during what we wrongly imagine as a time of easy certainties.

“Would he have liked you?”

This is a much harder question, one only a teenager could ask.

***

On October 14, Copley’s carriage rumbled into Florence, where Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael had birthed the Renaissance. Calvin and I arrive by high-speed train. But as we leave the modern rail station for the old city, the centuries melt away. We wind through labyrinthine streets to a hotel tucked into a courtyard so tiny that the GPS can’t find it. Our room sits in a tower built in the 11th century, around which the swallows circle at dusk. When a jar of Nutella appears at breakfast, Calvin decides this a pretty grand tour after all. He orders cappuccino—coffee, now as in Copley’s day, marking one’s entry into the world of adults.

Our first stop on the Copley trail is the Uffizi Gallery, which the Medici family had opened to the public a few years before Copley’s journey. We rush past the Botticellis—worshiped in our day, ignored in Copley’s—to find the octagonal Tribuna. There the Medicis displayed their greatest treasures against crimson walls capped by an intricate shell mosaic that evoked their dominion over the seas. Copley knew the Tribuna’s masterpieces secondhand, through prints and plaster casts. One of Copley’s earliest surviving drawings copies an engraving of the ancient statue known as the Venus de’ Medici. The original staggered him. Made “near two Thousand years” before, it remained “as perfect in all its parts, as Clean and fair in its Colour as if it had been finished but a Day,” he told Sukey. Titian’s Venus of Urbino, a luscious reclining nude, likewise amazed him. The copies he had seen in America led Copley to imagine that Titian’s canvases were painted “with great precision, smooth, Glossy and Delicate, somthing like Enamil wrought up with care and great attention to the smallest parts.” (Much like his own work, in other words.) But the reality was far more complex and subtle, especially the flesh tones. Copley told his half-brother Harry, himself a painter: “If you put your hand to the flesh of this Venus you will find it the same Colour.” The effect was miraculous, an illusion that did not seem to come from mere combinations of “white, read, black, blew, etc.” Copley would experiment to discover how it was done.

From the Uffizi we walk across the Ponte Vecchio in search of the Palazzo Pitti, where Copley gorged on Raphael. Engravings after Raphael—considered “the greatest of The Modern Painters,” as Copley said—were popular in the Colonies; a Raphael print once hung over his chimney. But that was about as close as he could get—for Boston, like the other seaports in British North America, had no galleries or museums. At the sprawling Pitti (then the palace of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany), Copley caromed from famine to feast.

Calvin and I wander the Pitti till our feet give out, checking off Madonnas on our Copley’s grand tour spreadsheet. “Too. Many. Marys,” Calvin says. We use postcards as flashcards, drilling Raphaels: Madonna of the Goldfinch, Madonna of the Curtain, Madonna of the Grand Duke. “He saw a copy of Madonna of the Chair back in Boston, right?” A perfect score on the IDs earns molto gelato at the famed Vivoli. Calvin samples enough flavors to declare hazelnut—nocciola—the winner. Daily gelato (“at least daily”) is deemed a right, not a privilege, for all staff photographers.

“Why is Mary always wearing that blue?” Calvin asks. He’s onto something: As rendered by the Renaissance masters, Mary’s raiment is vibrant, almost pulsing—a blue as different from the palette of New England painters as a Tuscan June is from a Boston January. We do a little research and learn that the Queen of Heaven was often robed in ultramarine, the most intense, durable and luxurious pigment of the era. Made from ground lapis, ultramarine cost thousands of times more than other blue powders. Very little crossed the Atlantic. Copley must have marveled at the lavish expanses of ultramarine that enlivened so many altarpieces and frescoes.

Calvin decides that we need to buy some. Beneath the intricate carved archways of the Studio Fiorentino (est. 1348), we find the venerable Zecchi color shop. We purchase a small hexagonal jar of blue powder labeled Oltremare Scuro, a cheaper artificial pigment, but still a vivid souvenir: a Proustian madeleine for the eye.

***

“I grow more and more impatient to reach Rome,” Copley told Sukey. If Italy was the grand tourist’s favored destination, Rome was the heart of Italy, a synecdoche for all that humanity had wrought. Rome bore witness to the fate of republics and empires, faiths and fortunes. For every rise, a fall: Time conquered conquerors.

After racing through Florence and Tuscany, Copley and Carter entered Rome on October 23, a Sunday. Bells pealed from the steeples of more than 300 churches. With little of the disdain that marked many Protestant travelers’ descriptions of Catholic ritual, Copley counted the timing lucky. He would witness “the Magnificience of the Rejoicings in the Election of the Pope” selected to replace Clement XIV, who had died the month before.

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