Welcome to Rome Across Europe!
Being the obvious fans of The Eternal City that we all are, there seems to be an endless amount of topics to discuss. From the Founding of Rome to the rise of the Res Publica Romana (Roman Republic) to the start of the Imperium Rōmānum (Roman Empire) to its final collapse, there has always been people and places that stood out.
The influence and culture of Ancient Rome spread from the Mediterranean Basin into Western Europe, Asia Minor, North Africa, and parts of Northern and Eastern Europe. This impact led to what was later called The Grand Tour (for more on this check out The Grand Tour: No Longer Just for Rich Men).
The Campagna Romana, or just Campagna, is a low-lying area surrounding Rome in the Lazio region of central Italy, with an area of approximately 810 sq mi. It is bordered by the Tolfa and Sabatini mountains to the north, the Alban Hills to the southeast, and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the southwest.
During the Ancient Roman period, it was an important agricultural and residential area due to the rivers Tiber and Aniene running through the area. However, the Campagna was abandoned during the Middle Ages due to malaria and insufficient water supplies for farming needs.
The pastoral beauty of the Campagna inspired many painters who flocked into Rome in the 18th and 19th Centuries. During that time, the Campagna became the most painted landscape in Europe and an excursion into the Roman countryside was an essential part of The Grand Tour.
During the 18th and 19th Centuries, whether en route to Rome for the first time or making an excursion from the city as a seasoned resident, all who traversed the Campagna did so in a state of heightened emotion and imaginative excitement.
Prior familiarity with a combination of classical texts and the idealized landscape imagery of the 17th Century established an expectation that the Campagna would reveal itself to be a suitably picturesque and poetic setting for the historic scenes which had been enacted and imagined within its expanses. Encountering the contemporary reality of a bleak expanse of landscape provoked various kinds of reflection.
In the 17th Century the Campagna became endowed with a further form of cultural prestige through the belief that it was here that Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin discovered the inspiring raw material out of which they created ideal landscape painting. This association was based on an idea of Claude inhabiting the landscape, savoring and absorbing its beauties, and translating them into pictorial form.
Approaching the Campagna primarily as a resource for landscape painting’s pursuit of an ideal level of representation was, in fact, a very effective way of steering historical understanding away from problems which were recognized as intractable and disturbing. There was much common ground between the various initiatives to investigate the root causes and identity of this pervasive but mysterious disease-producing agent and the excursions of artists in search of sites which would yield the ideal beauty promised by myth.
Both were premised on the importance of what could be learnt from studying the distinctive visual appearance of the land and its inhabitants. Such scrutiny focused closely on topography and the less tangible matter of air, factors which were assumed to have shaped the physical constitution and appearance of local people.
Artists were predisposed to seek out locations that matched their expectations of a terrain defined by its claimed copiousness of the beautiful. Equally, similar qualities were assumed to have been inherited by the inhabitants of this landscape from their ancient forebears.
Accounts of the Campagna’s appearance are often curiously uninformative precisely because of the burden of expectation weighing on the moment of the travelers’ encounter, and the overwhelming sense of a divergence between the anticipated scene and the impoverished reality revealed from actual examination. In both respects, the attention given to visual characteristics in the early 19th Century was a change from more established literary conceptions of the Campagna.
Undertaking a tour of Latium in search of Virgil’s sites and settings, the Campagna played a fundamental role in ideas and images of Rome. Having been discussed at length, the city was viewed and understood to be co-extensive with the surrounding landscape.
This was a connection that had been politically and economically sustained in the long term by virtue of the ownership of land by a symbiotic combination of papal state and Rome’s elite families. As was repeatedly observed, the whole farmland around Rome was owned by a small number of families, who in turn paid tenant farmers to manage their property.
Land was valued as a sign of status, more than as a source of income. Indeed, the conservatism of landowners to any improvement in agricultural exploitation of the Campagna was usually pointed out as the crucially obstructive factor in its almost unrelieved stagnation.
The question of definition extended to the interrelation of The Eternal City and the country, or more precisely involved recognizing that this distinction did not apply in any familiar or simple way. For all its density of monuments, both ancient and modern, the city of Rome was a patchwork of archaic and majestic townscape juxtaposed with parcels of cultivation.
This unusual configuration of urban and rural spaces gave to Rome an identity that fed into perceptions of the city in a way which was just as distinctive as the specific effects produced by individual ruins and monuments. For the philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, writing to his compatriot Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, it was indeed impossible to compare Rome and its surroundings with any other place.
The unparalleled physical presence of the city, with its loveliness of forms along with the grandeur and simplicity of its figures, was the definition of outlines in the translucent medium. So compelling was this level of experience that Humboldt condemned the excavation of half-buried buildings and viewed the idea of cultivating the Campagna as a disaster.
By contrast, in the view of Camille de Tournon-Simiane, former Prefect of Rome under the Napoleonic occupation, the fact that city and country were indistinguishable was the result of a local attitude of nonchalant neglect. However, this appealingly prolific evenness has important consequences for our understanding of the place of landscape painting in Rome.
Yet ideas of mythic fertility informed a wide range of imagery, both Italian and foreign. The Roman artist Giovanni Battista Lusieri’s Extensive Landscape on a Road Above the Tiber Valley, North of Rome (1781) shows an interlocking view of buildings, cultivation, and open countryside, in which these different types of structure and terrain are elided together.
Such benign conventions for showing the Campagna continued through the 19th Century almost unchanged in their components. Théodore Caruelle d’Aligny’s print View From the Ancient Road of the Tombs (1844) shows a remarkably intact aqueduct running across the Campagna, in the midst of which a group of peasants are placed before a solid wall of corn, with a fig sprouting vigorously from a ruin.
Precisely the same juxtaposition of monument and cultivation is found in some photographic views of Rome from the mid-19th Century. Representing such contiguity as natural acts to hold at bay not only anxieties about the Campagna as barren and poisoned, but also the unwelcome spectre of modernity.
The accuracy of the name Campagna Romana has been called into question for some believe it to have been called countryside out of politeness, for in all directions this area is no more than a diseased and often sterile wetland. In so doing, this belief hints at the way Rome was bound to its surroundings by the immaterial but inescapable presence of bad air.
The harrowing contrast of the Campagna with the prospect of the great city was rendered not merely a dramatic anti-climax, but was potentially life-threatening. This was poetically alluded to by the English writer William Hazlitt, when he asked why artists would want to remain in Rome at all.
Hazlitt further conceded that the enthralling experience of being able to watch the morning mist rise from the Marshes of the Campagna and circle round the Dome of St. Peter’s might persuade some that this was enough to offset the city’s squalor and disease. The novelist Lady Morgan was an authority of such symbolic conflicts, stating that St. Paul’s and St. John Lateran rise on the lifeless limits of the infected deserts (referring to malaria) they dominate.
Whether the collapse of the Imperium Rōmānum had led to physical degradation of the Campagna, or that local bad air was to blame for the destruction of a wealthy and sophisticated culture, was a problem recognized as having existed in antiquity. The science historian Robert Sallares has recently provided an authoritative account of awareness of and attitudes to this in classical texts, informed by a modern understanding of malaria.
By virtue of this literary evidence, later commentators carried on an extended debate on the changing condition of the ancient and modern Roman landscape. The 19th Century historian of Rome Jean-Jacques Ampère, for example, sought to establish a physical context for the evolution of early Roman history.
Indeed, that Roman culture was too successful in its struggle with an inhospitable climate and environment was further evidence of the indomitable spirit of these early generations of Romans. The Campagna was thus the converse of conventional ideas of a rural retreat where artists of all kinds escaped the city’s hustle and bustle while actually being was a space seen as empty and forbidding.
Rather it was a territory which predominantly encouraged quick traversal, cautious if not distant inspection, accompanied by melancholy reflections perhaps alleviated by scientific curiosity. This sense of circumspection can be linked to the way views of the Campagna are often constructed as if looking out from a protective screen of buildings or vegetation.
The celebrated oil sketches of P.H. Valenciennes, renowned as a reformer of landscape painting, exemplify this tendency to maintain a certain distance, at once aesthetic and precautionary. Seen from this perspective, these studies retain their sense of being products of a desire to explore Rome as a source of landscape imagery, but express that engagement precisely through setting the motif at one remove from the space occupied by the artist.
The region was reclaimed in the 19th and 20th Centuries for use in mixed farming, and new settlements have been built. Starting with the 1950s, the expansion of Rome destroyed large parts of the Campagna, all around the city. The only continuous green area where the natural resources of the region were saved from overbuilding is along the Via Appia (Appian Way).
We hope you enjoyed today’s journey. Maybe it has even inspired you to traverse the Roman countryside on your adventure.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Ashby, Thomas. The Roman Campagna in Classical Times. London 1927.
Gage, John and J.M.W.Turner. “A Wonderful Range of Mind”. New Haven and London 1987.
Hazlitt, William. “English Students at Rome”. Criticisms on Art. London.
McGann, Jerome. “Rome and its Romantic Significance” in Annabel Patterson (ed.), Roman Images. Baltimore 1984.
Negro, Silvio. Seconda Roma, 1850–70. Milan, 1943.
Powell, Christine. Turner in the South: Rome, Naples, Florence. New Haven and London 1987.
Tommasi-Crudeli, Corrado. The Climate of Rome and the Roman Malaria (trans. by C. Cramond Dick). London 1892.
Wrigley, Richard. “The Roman Campagna Revisited”. Tate Papers, no.17, Spring 2012.