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01 August 2010

Rome and America

A recent drive around the East Coast brought me to a series of sites that illuminate the challenges of reconnecting American culture to its European roots. A priori this has to acknowledge the inevitable artistic provincialism of the colonies and the early United States, a subject glossed over at Williamsburg—a place at once quaint and bizarre, where the focus of the guided tours (all convincingly done, it must be said) of the most prominent buildings—the Governor’s mansion and the Capitol—virtually ignores the architecture and focuses instead on politics and social life around the time of the Revolution. A decision has obviously been made to make of Williamsburg a teaching opportunity for the history of Revolutionary America, but this has the consequence of turning its back on the whole raison d’être of having reconstructed Williamsburg in the twentieth century, which was to show what an important American small town was physically like in the eighteenth century (since so little of eighteenth century America survives). Being my first time there, I was struck by how un-urban Williamsburg is in fact, really more a loose main street collection of disparate buildings whose street width and trees preclude any sense of urban spatial definition. The adjacent college of William & Mary is in many ways more urban, but the claims for Wren’s authorship of the first building only points up the desperation of the attempt to put this humble place on the European stage, especially when one compares it to Wren’s work at Hampton Court (where the in-costume guides do, by the way, talk about the architecture) or the Chelsea Royal Hospital. We had stopped for an overnight in Frederick, MD beforehand, and here we actually found a real, vital urban environment, one that New Urban apologists should enthusiastically embrace over Williamsburg.

The excellent show Ancient Rome & America at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia did (it closes today) do a remarkable job of connecting early America to Ancient Rome, from the arts and architecture to foundation myths, political culture, and even the nature of slavery. Would that students of classical art and architecture today could have seen it—there was, amazingly, no catalogue—since it makes the point of how readily Americans were once able to learn from Europe, indeed define themselves quite precisely with relationship to European culture. Philadelphia still does, in fact, retain quite a lot of its eighteenth century fabric and monuments, and Philadelphia’s John Blatteau has been one of the few American classicists to tie his work explicitly to European models, which goes a long way to explaining why his work is so much better than most American contemporary classicism.

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