Edith Wharton's biographer R. W. B. Lewis has stated that she was one of the most accomplished practitioners in American literary history in the genre "unsatisfactorily known as 'travel writing.'" In no volume are Wharton's knowledge of art and understanding of Italian history and culture more evident than in Italian Backgrounds.  The volume consists of essays that diverge substantially from the tradition of the picturesque sketch that prevailed in much nineteenth-century American travel literature and was represented by the works of Irving, Cooper, Longfellow, and Hawthorne.  The pioneer generation of travelers often exhibited a genuine innocence, if not bewilderment, about the aesthetic minutiae of the Old World.  They did not climb, as Wharton did, to Volterra, rising from the hills like a "scaly monster floating on the waves," or sail to the Borromean palace on Isola Bella, Lago Maggiore, to view the remarkable baroque water theater, or search out the frescoes by Correggio at the convent of Saint Paul in Parma that would later be celebrated by art historians.  They were content to wander through such cities as Rome and Florence.  At the Vatican Sculpture Gallery, Hawthorne was able to enjoy, "in some small degree, two or three wonderful works of art," but he had a "perception that there were a thousand other wonders around me."  Wharton did not subscribe to such a hesitant Transcendentalist approach, but considered it her mandate to focus on art and architecture with the eye of a connoisseur and to initiate her fellow countrymen into the "parentheses of travel," little-known places and by-ways.   She discounted much of the work of the earlier writers as uninformed, sentimental, and non-analytical.

She seemingly builds, chronologically, on the foundation of Italian Villas and their Gardens (Century, 1904) in assessing the art and landscape of Italy on a broad scale.  Actually, however, most of the book was published in serial form and based on travels undertaken before her visits to the specific villas and gardens described in Italian Villas and their Gardens.  To some extent, both books are represent a synthesis of her travels in Italy spanning nearly two decades; from the time of their marriage in 1885 through 1903 the Whartons made an extensive annual pilgrimage to Italy.  Italian Backgrounds, unlike Italian Villas and their Gardens, focuses on the landscape of the countryside and on the civic and ecclesiastical architecture of towns and regions, including Parma, Milan, the northern Italian lakes, the Pennine Alps, Venice, Sicily, Rome, and other regions.

Chapter 1:  "An Alpine Posting-Inn."   This chapter presents the dilemma Wharton and her party face in the town square of Splügen, high in the Swiss Alps: should they take the diligence to Thusis, the Swiss region of "good hotels, pure air, and scenic platitudes"?  The Chiavenna diligence goes to "the land where the church steeples turn into campanili . . .  and . . . far off, beyond the plain, the mirage of domes and spires, of painted walls and sculptured altars, beckons across the dustiest tracts of memory.  In that diligence our seats are taken" (IB 14).

Chapter 2: "A Midsummer Week's Dream:  August in Italy."  The chapter begins with the Whartons' stately journey by diligence through the Splügen Pass, one of the highest in the Swiss Alps (and the noted site of one of Sherlock Holmes' more famous escapes). The remainder of the chapter is devoted to their visits to the towns and lakes of northern Italy: Lake Como, Sondrio, Tirano, the Valtelline, Edolo, the Val Camonica, Lake Iseo, Cerveno, Breno, Lovere, and Brescia. The commedia dell'arte (comedy of skill, the historic improvisatory theater) figures in the chapter epigraph, the first two lines of Paul Verlaine's poem "Claire de Lune."  He compares the soul of the poet's loved one to a "paysage choisi," or "chosen landscape," that has been charmed by the strolling players, or maskers, in their disguises.  The metaphor provides the framework for Wharton's description of the Lake of Iseo: she imagines the villages on the shore as a backdrop for the performances of comedies "in the Bergamasque dialect, with Harlequin in striped cloak, and Brighella in conical hat and wide green and white trousers strutting up and down before the shuttered house in which Dr. Graziano hides his pretty ward."  The lake reflects the "eighteenth century of Longhi, of Tiepolo and Goldoni . . . as in some magic crystal," to be discovered beneath the waves by "some later traveller. . . . if ever the boundaries between fact and fancy waver, it may well be under the spell of the Italian midsummer madness."      Wharton's descriptions of landscapes are those of a connoisseur; she sees each new scenic vista as a "pastoral of Giorgione's" or one of "Bonifazio's sumptuous picnics," and the drive across the Aprica pass to Edolo recalls landscapes by Claude.  She is also a religious pilgrim, searching for such obscure works of art as the terra-cotta figures on the Sacred Way, or Via Crucis, at the hill-village of Cerveno and the noted painting of the Madonna by Romanino in the church of San Francesco at Brescia. At the same time, she charms the reader by becoming a reluctant tourist herself.  After cataloguing the aesthetic treasures of Brescia, she reflects that "in summer there is a strong temptation to sit and think of these things rather than to go and see them," and, in a rare depiction of her actual surroundings, mentions the comfort of her hotel court-yard, with its tinkling fountain and electric fans.

Chapter 3:  "The Sanctuaries of the Pennine Alps."  This chapter covers the high hill towns of Biella, Andorno, San Giovanni, Varallo, and the Lake of Orta, which contains the small island of San Giuliano, "incredibly complete . . . with its ancient church embosomed in gardens."  She takes into account the church-going scene on Sundays, each town with its distinctive peasant dress. The Sacred Mountain at Varallo contains the major church, built by Saint Charles Borromeo, surrounded by forty-two chapels of the "New Jerusalem"; within each chapel is a terra cotta group representing a New Testament event, such as the Annunciation, the Nativity, or the Last Supper.  This description parallels the account in Chapter 5, "A Tuscan Shrine," of the Sacred Way at San Vivaldo.

Chapter 4: "What the Hermits Saw."  In this chapter Wharton examines the rural hermitages dotting the Italian rural landscape, explaining the aesthetic depiction of the lives of the solitaries in Italian art.  She explores the legendary attachment between solitaries and wild animals and touches on the integration of early beliefs in "the heathen gods" into Christian theology and iconography.  This chapter is the most theoretical of the book, offering few specific localities that could be sought out by the modern traveller.

Chapter 5:  "A Tuscan Shrine."  This chapter is a revision of Wharton's first published travel article, "A Tuscan Shrine: (Scribner's Magazine, Jan. 1895).  In 1893 she and her husband Teddy went to the monastery of San Vivaldo to see some large terra cotta statues of which she had heard; they were purportedly by Giovanni Gonnelli, a 17th-century sculptor.  On examination she came to believe some of them were much earlier, dating from the 16th and not the 17th century.  She was positive that they an artist trained in an earlier tradition had executed them.  They still preserved, "under the stiffening influences of convention, a touch of that individuality and directness of expression which mark the prime of Tuscan art."  She recalled seeing a similar Presepio at the Bargello [in Florence], compared them, and found identical treatment of "certain details of hair and drapery" and "the recurrence of the same type of face."      Although she found it difficult to believe that the similarity between the figures at San Vivaldo and those at the Bargello could have escaped notice, she was virtually positive "that a remarkable example of late quattro-centro art had remained undiscovered, within a few hours' journey from Florence, for nearly 400 years" (IB 91-106).    

To test her theory, Wharton asked one of the Alimari brothers of the noted Florentine photographic firm to take photographs, which she forwarded to Professor Enrico Ridolfi, then director of the Royal Museums at Florence. As soon as he saw the photographs, he became convinced of the error of attributing them to Giovanni Gonnelli.  He then reattributed them to Giovanni della Robbia, although there has been some dispute about whether he executed all of the figures. Modern scholars, according to Eleanor Dwight, believe three of the five groups Wharton singled out show stylistic similarities to the work of Giovanni della Robbia (Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life, 284).

Chapter 6: "Sub Umbra Liliorum: An Impression of Parma."  Parma, a city about eighty-eight miles northwest of Florence, on the Parma River, was the home of Correggio, whose paintings Edith Wharton greatly admired.  The title refers to the lilies that were emblematic of the Farnese family who once ruled the city.  Only in Italy, she comments, "could so unpromising an exterior hide such varied treasures" (IB 110).  Among the treasures are the Farnese Palace with its ducal theater, the frescoes of the Convent of Saint Paul, and the Baptistery.  She concluded that, for the traveler, the city would not "hang as a whole in the gallery of his mental vignettes" in the way that Siena or Vicenza might, but that "in the mosaic of detached impressions some rich and iridescent fragments will represent his after-thoughts of Parma" (IB 124).   

The Farnese theater was, unfortunately, destroyed by a bomb during World War II; the present restoration has eradicated the charming theater Wharton saw, although it was somewhat dilapidated when she saw it (probably in the 1890s).  She describes it as "one of those brilliant improvisations in wood and plaster to which Italian artists were trained by centuries of hurriedly-organized trionfi, state processions, religious festivals, returns from war, all demanding the collaboration of sculptor, architect and painter in the rapid creation of triumphal arches, architectural perspectives, statuary, chariots, flights of angels, and galleons tossing on simulated seas:  evanescent visions of some pays bleu of Boiardo or of Ariosto, destined to crumble the next day like the palace of an evil enchanter. . . . The ceiling of painted canvas is gone. . . but the fine composition of the auditorium, and the throng of stucco divinities. . . serve to recall the original splendour of the scene.  The dusty gloom of the place suggests some impending transformation, and when fancy has restored to the roof the great glass chandeliers now hanging in the neighbouring museum, their light seems to fall once more on boxes draped with crimson velvet and filled with lords and ladies. . . . while on stage. . . Isabel and Harlequin and the Capitan Spavento, plasticatori of another sort, build on the scaffolding of some familiar intrigue the airy superstructure of their wit (IB 122-3). (Isabel, Harlequin, and Capitan Spavento are stock characters in the commedia dell'arte).

Chapter 7:  "March in Italy."  This chapter, added to make up the book, covers geographically disparate sites, such as Sicily, Rome, Orvieto, and Vallombrosa.  It contains a rewritten passage from Wharton's earliest known travel writing, a description of the Castle of Euryalus on the crest of Epipolae, a fortress built by Denys the Elder during the Greek period. What appears to be an earlier form of the description appear in the diary of her 1880 cruise aboard the steam yacht Vanadis and in Italian Backgrounds.  (The French scholar Claudine Lesage discovered the diary in Hyères in 1991 and published it in 1992).

Chapter 8:  "Picturesque Milan."  This chapter shows Wharton's connoisseurship in shedding new light on well-known paintings, sculpture, and architecture.  She defends the art and architecture of the Baroque against the "submissive generation of art critics" taught by Ruskin to develop a fanatical preference for the Gothic.  Much of the chapter focuses on the architecture and sculpture of Milan that have been largely overlooked, rather than the "catalogued riches" of the city.  Near Milan, the pilgrimage church of the Madonna of Saronno has a cupola with seventeenth-century frescoes painted by Gaudenzio Ferrari, with a "circle of choiring angels" so joyous that "form seems to pass into sound," recalling the angel-choruses of 'Faust' or the last lines of the "Paradiso" [in Gounod's opera Faust].  Here the viewer is called upon to hear the painting, envisioning "celestial pastures" and associating the whole with Dante's "Paradiso."  Sensations of sound, color, sight, and memory are inextricably mixed.  Here Wharton values the fusion of associations that may be aroused by a work of art, and that may have combined in its inception on the part of the artist; she is an appreciative visitor rather than an analytical art historian throughout much of this chapter.

Chapter 9: "Italian Backgrounds."      Wharton divides Italy into a "foreground," the "property of the guide-book and of its product, the mechanical sight-seer," and the "background," belonging to "the dawdler, the dreamer and the serious student of Italy." She addresses, in particular, the "happy few" who "refuse to measure art by time" and remain in Italy more than a few days (IB 177, 179).

The principal thrust of this chapter is the defense of the Baroque style in architecture and sculpture that had been castigated by John Ruskin, who preferred the medieval style.  She challenges readers who fancied they "were not in sympathy with the exuberances of seventeenth-century art" to imagine Rome without the work of Bernini, Borromini, Maderna, Guercino, the Caracci, and Claude Lorrain.  The city would lack Borromini's "fantastic church of San Carlo," a "kaleidoscope of whirling line and ornament," the Spanish steps, with their almost rococo curves, the Barberini palace, Bernini's fountain of the Triton, Nicola Salvi's Fontana di Trevi, the "Angels of Passion" on the bridge of Sant' Angelo, and the "mighty sweep of Bernini's marble colonnades and the flying spray of his Vatican fountains" as well as his Baldacchino in St. Peter's, the canopy over the tomb of St. Peter, with its bronze columns spiralling up into space a manifesto of Baroque art.  Even those travellers, Wharton observes, "who cannot effect the transference of artistic and historic sympathy" necessary to an understanding of the period should realize that

        . . . the Rome which excites a passion of devotion such as no other city can inspire, the Rome for which travellers pine in absence, and to which they return again and again with the fresh ardour of discovery, is, externally at least, in great part the creation of the seventeenth century (IB 184-186).

The chapter concludes with a penetrating discussion of Venetian art and artists, including Tiepolo, Longhi, and Canaletto.  

Discussion Questions:

1.  If you have visited Italy, how would you compare the country today with the one of a century ago described by Wharton?  Do you agree with her advice to avoid being a mere tourist and becoming, instead, "the dawdler, the dreamer and the serious student of Italy"?

2.  Compare the religious mores and way of life of the knight in Wharton's short story "The Hermit and the Wild Woman" with those in Chapter 4, "What the Hermits Saw."

3.  The trope of the commedia dell'arte recurs in several chapters of Italian Backgrounds.  Compare Wharton's treatment of it with those of other writers, such as Vernon Lee [(Violet Paget), Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (London: Unwin, 1887)]; Hans Christian Andersen [A Visit to Germany, Italy and Malta 1840-1841, trans. Grace Thornton (London: Peter Owen, 1985)], or Kenneth Richards and Laura Richards [The Commedia dell'Arte:  A Documentary History (Oxford:  The Shakespeare Head Press, 1990)].

4.  One of Wharton's most acclaimed short stories is "Roman Fever."  Compare the Rome of Chapter 9, "Italian Backgrounds," with the setting of the story.

5.  John Ruskin appears as a character in one of Wharton's Old New York novellas, False Dawn (The 'Forties).  Compare her depiction of him in this novella with that in Italian Backgrounds.

6. Compare the Italian settings of The Valley of Decision (1902), Wharton's first novel, with those in Italian Backgrounds.

7.  Wharton's earliest book, The Decoration of Houses (1897, written with Ogden Codman), is based in part on her observations of Italian dwellings and furnishings.  How do the principles she puts forth in that volume compare with her conclusions in Italian Backgrounds and also with Italian Villas and Their Gardens?

Recommended readings:

Benstock, Shari.  No Gifts from Chance:  A Biography of Edith Wharton.  New York:  Charles     Scribner's Sons, 1994.  

Craig, Theresa. Edith Wharton: A House Full of Rooms:  Architecture, Interiors, and Gardens.  New York: The Monacelli Press, 1996.

Dwight, Eleanor.  Edith Wharton:  An Extraordinary Life.  New York:  Harry N. Abrams, 1994.

Joslin, Katherine and Alan Price (eds).  Wretched Exotic:  Essays on Edith Wharton in Europe.  New York:  Peter Lang, 1993.

Lewis, R. W. B.  Edith Wharton:  A Biography.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1975.  

Lewis, R. W. B., and Nancy.  The Letters of Edith Wharton.  New York: Scribner's, 1988.

Petry, Alice Hall. "A Twist of Crimson Silk: Edith Wharton's 'Roman Fever.'" Studies in Short Fiction 24 (Spring 1987), 16366.

Prampolini, Gaetano.  "Edith Wharton in Italy." Edith Wharton Review  9:1 (Spring 1992), 24-6.

Schriber, Mary Suzanne.  "Edith Wharton and Travel Writing as Self-Discovery."  American Literature 59 (May 1987), 257-267.

Wharton, Edith.  The Cruise of the Vanadis [Edith Wharton's diary of her 1888 Mediterranean cruise], ed. Claudine Lesage.  Amiens:  Sterne (Presses de L'UFR Clerc Université Picardie), 1992.

-------.  False Dawn (The 'Forties).  New York: Appleton, 1924.

-------.  The Hermit and the Wild Woman and Other Stories.  New York: Scribner's, 1908.

-------.  Italian Villas and their Gardens.  New York:  The Century Co., 1904.  

-------.  The Valley of Decision.  2 vols.  New York:  Scribner's, 1902.

Wright, Sarah Bird.  Edith Wharton's Travel Writing:  The Making of a Connoisseur.  New York: St. Martin's, 1997.

-------.  "Refracting the Odyssey:  Edith Wharton's Travel Writing as the Cultural Capital of her Fiction."  Edith Wharton Review 13:1 (Fall 1996), 23-30.

--Contributed by Sarah Bird Wright, Midlothian, VA.