Rome Top Destinations

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

The Forum was among the many sights in Rome that amazed Copley, who said he was “feasting my eyes.” (Bryan Schutmaat)
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Seventeen popes later, shortly after the investiture of Francis, Calvin and I follow Copley to the Vatican on a sweltering Sunday morning. As we meander down the cobblestoned Via Giulia toward the Tiber, we join other pilgrims kitted out with water bottles and sunscreen. By the time we reach St. Peter’s Square, the crowd has swollen into the tens of thousands, many of them leather-clad. Harley-Davidson’s 110th anniversary celebration has brought an estimated half-million motorcyclists to Rome; a papal blessing of the bikes will follow the Latin Mass. Anti-abortion activists from around the world have flocked to the same service to commemorate John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical on the sanctity of human life. To call the assembly diverse is an understatement. Yet when the popemobile passes we all scream, “like sixth-grade girls at a One Direction concert,” Calvin says. (Eye roll.)

Rome’s pleasures continue thick and strange. Calvin and I debate the top ten things we’ve seen, done, tasted. Is the light raking through the ancient dome of the Pantheon—where Raphael is buried—more ethereal than Bernini’s sinuous marble Apollo and Daphne at the Borghese Gallery? Which gelateria sells the most perfect tiny scoop? Did pappardelle with truffles trump the humble cacio e pepe? There’s a too muchness to it all, from the scale of the Vatican to the exquisiteness of dinners that stretch late into the night. Calvin has graduated from cappuccino to the occasional sip of wine. Why not a full glass? one waiter asks. E’ solo un bambino, I explain. The waiter raises an eyebrow as if to say, not really, Signora. Not for long.

Rome’s bounty tied Copley’s tongue. But despite its otherworldliness, it was an easy place to be British. By 1774, generations of grand tourists had built an elaborate infrastructure for travelers. Scholars offered courses in antiquities. Painters and sculptors crafted souvenir portraits and busts. (Calvin declares the grand tour portrait the analog ancestor of the digital selfie. He posts scores to Facebook. Now as then, it is vital to be seen seeing.) British travelers gathered by the dozen at the English Coffee House, near the Spanish Steps. “I Need not be alone but from Choice,” Copley told Sukey.

The density of this expatriate network allowed Copley and Carter to part. After their break—a bitter one, Carter said—Copley found lodgings near the Piazza di Spagna, in an enclave of British travelers, artists and antiquaries. The graceful four-story buildings that today line these narrow side streets would have been new in the 1770s. Their muted palette—stucco in shades ranging from mustard to russet—cries out for a painter’s eye.

Copley fell into a routine. In the mornings he walked up the hill to the French Academy (now the Villa Medici) or strolled down the Via del Corso to the Capitol (now the Capitoline Museums) to sketch ancient statuary. It “takes a great deal of time to see the Works of Art in this place,” he told Harry. What Copley called the “business of Feasting my eyes” might sound like leisure, but it was work. Calvin, who has visited more museums in the past week than in the previous 14 years, agrees. We brave the throngs at the Vatican Museums, lined up 20 deep to view the Belvedere Apollo and the Laocoön, ancient Roman copies of still more ancient Greek sculptures that Copley pronounced “Mericles of the Chisel.” Eighteenth-century connoisseurs—and generations of art history survey courses since—adore the restrained classicism of these statues. Calvin and I decide we vastly prefer the baroque excesses of Bernini.

“We’re seeing what Copley saw, but are we seeing how he saw?” Calvin asks. Sometimes—the crowds and the audio guides and the ubiquitous iPads notwithstanding—we come close. At the Palazzo Pallavacini-Rospigliosi, a splendid residence still in private hands four centuries after it was built, we arrange a private viewing of Guido Reni’s fresco L’Aurora, one of the most frequently copied works in the 18th century. We present our credentials to the owners, much as Cop­ley might have done, if quills were email. For €36.30, we buy 30 minutes alone with Reni’s masterwork, lying on the loggia’s cool marble floor, watching Aurora and Apollo haul a goldenrod sun through an amethyst sky toward an ultramarine sea.

Yet even this does not fully capture Copley’s way of looking. “I would have you keep in your Pocket a book and a Porto Crayon—as I now do—and where ever you see a butifull form Sketch it in your Book,” he counseled Harry. Copley drew in sketchbooks, on loose sheets, in the margins of letters. Calvin’s digital camera boasts molto megapixels, but we lack the talent to feel the Renaissance beneath our fingertips.


In January, Copley headed south, threading through orange groves heavy with “fruit so pleasing to the Eye that it would tempt a Second Eve to sin.” His rhapsody would have offered cold comfort to Sukey, who had recently delivered her baby in Boston, where Redcoats drilled on the frozen Common.

Naples itself was filthy, Copley said. The streets “Stink often to that Degree as to make me quite sick; and the People are as Dirty as the Streets.” Modern travel guides likewise play up the city’s dirt and danger, and Calvin deems the environs of our hotel, on the northern edge of the centro storico, “un po sketchy.” But we wind up adoring the tattered magnificence of Naples, where laundry flutters above alleyways covered in gorgeous, trenchant graffiti. A stenciled statuary Madonna reaches imploringly from a crumbling stucco wall: a street art fresco. The pizza approaches the sublimity of Vesuvius, and the bittersweet caffè alla nocciola allows Calvin to combine his newfound passions for coffee and hazelnuts. Compared with Florence and Rome, Naples comes to us unmediated—pristine in its splendid decay. Cruise ships crowd the bay, but beyond the quayside we encounter few tourists and not much English. The city feels private, mysterious. Florence and Rome preened for us, but we have to earn Naples, and we love the challenge.

One afternoon we trek into the hills above the city, to the Museo di Capodimonte, which Copley encountered as the palace of the King of Naples. The vast museum, with its horde of Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael, is nearly empty. Calvin, who can now spot a Raphael from 50 paces, agrees with Copley that the Madonna of Divine Love is especially luscious: tender mother, delicious baby, acres of ultramarine. Near the Capodimonte, we descend into the Catacombs of San Genarro, where the oldest tombs and murals date from the second century A.D. Copley went there, with a cicerone who lit his way with a torch.

The remote past draws still closer in nearby Herculaneum and Pompeii, entombed by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Excavations of both cities began during Copley’s youth and continue today. We walk streets of stone, marveling, as Copley did, at “the Marks of the Carriages...deeply worn” millennia ago. He discovered houses “as neat as you can immagine,” their walls “plaister’d as smooth as Glass,” and floors covered with “Mosaiks, all as perfect as if finish[ed] yesterday.” Here were the remains of “a people of great Society,” he told Sukey—a people much like themselves, consigned, overnight, to the ash heap of history.

Paestum, 40 miles down the Tyrrhenian Coast from Herculaneum, marked the outermost point of Copley’s wanderings. “The extreeme part of my Tour,” he called it. Paestum’s fame was only beginning to spread. Copley was among the first Americans to visit the Greek ruins, some of which date to the sixth century B.C., nearly seven centuries before Pompeii succumbed.

Where Pompeii and Herculaneum were suddenly destroyed, Paestum was used up and plowed under gradually, over centuries. Villagers carted their daily lives elsewhere, leaving massive ceremonial structures behind. Spectacular temples tower over fields of wildflowers. Calvin and I spy more lizards than people. These are comforting ruins: a noble past sleeping peacefully, archaeology without the messiness of history. The silent majesty of Paestum can only have salved Copley as he worried about America’s future, and his own.


Copley returned to Rome in February feeling lonely but lucky. “I have made a great sacrafice in depriveing myself of the Infinite pleasure of your company & that of our Dear Children,” he told Sukey. “But when I consider the unhappy state of Boston I think it one of those occurences that Providence has blessed me in, for what should I do in that unhappy place but share largely in it[s] misery”? What indeed.

Eager to make the best of his good fortune, he began painting a religious scene, one of only two works he completed during his tour. The Ascension sought to capture the moment the resurrected Jesus rose into heaven. A study in contrasts, Copley’s Ascension divides horizontally: earth below and heaven above, fallen man beneath rising God. The bust-size canvas pays homage—and gives chase—to Raphael’s monumental Transfiguration, which, Copley said, had “always been allowed to be the greatest picture in the world.” Placed at the head of Raphael’s coffin when he died, The Transfiguration had the aura of a saintly relic. Raphael perished at 37—Copley’s age—but the painting had endured, “an Immortal Monument,” Copley told Sukey. To attempt the same subject was to recognize the fleeting nature of life while bidding for eternal fame.

Copley described the weeks he spent making The Ascension in a letter to Harry that runs to 12 densely written pages. Tiny sketches illustrate the finer points of composition. “I should have been happy to have had such a plain account of the process when I was in America,” he said. But in the end, only one thing mattered: “Is it good for anything?” Copley’s world did not much cotton to bragging, but he hoped Harry would forgive him his indecorous honesty. The Ascension, Copley said, was good, very good indeed. “I believe it will support its merrit in any Cumpany whatever.”

This was where it led, then, this business of feasting one’s eyes: Copley’s easel beside Raphael’s. The ascension of Jesus—a more dynamic figure in Copley’s compact version than in Raphael’s outsized masterpiece—marked Copley’s ascension too.



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