Madame Helbig, née Princess Schachowskoia, studied under Liszt and kept his grand piano at her villa on the Tarpeian Rock in Rome. A stout six feet tall, she preferred to drag it forcefully to her lap rather than shift her seat. She read music easily and was a companionable duettist. In her Roman salon for artists, musicians, writers, diplomats, and scholars, she introduced the great German classicist Theodor Mommsen to his fellow countryman and historian Ferdinand Gregorovius. Mommsen, in full knowledge of Gregorovius’s eight volumes of medieval Roman history, made his rival small with small talk: “Have you also been in Rome before, Herr Gregorovius?”
William James teasingly asked Henry Adams if he feared the reaction of such German professors to his book Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904). Adams had toured Chartres with their mutual friend, the American artist John La Farge, who met the James brothers while studying at the Newport studio of William Morris Hunt. In fact, La Farge convinced Henry James to put down the paints and pick up his pen. In conversation with the Catholic painter, the novelist was led to a catholic view of his calling, the “dawning perception that the arts were after all essentially one and that even with canvas and brush whisked out of my grasp I still needn’t feel disinherited.”
In James’s first novel, Roderick Hudson (1875), the title character is modeled after La Farge. Hudson, a young artist, seeks the exact antipode of Northampton, Massachusetts, and finds it in Rome where his “quick appreciation of every form of artistic beauty reminded his companion of the flexible temperament of those Italian artists of the sixteenth century who were indifferently painters and sculptors, sonneteers and engravers.” Other real-life companions also made it in: James transformed Madame Helbig into Madame Grandoni, “highly esteemed in Roman society for her homely benevolence and her shrewd and humorous good sense.”
As a young man, James traveled throughout Europe and lingered in Rome during the twilight of the Papal States. Roman street life captivated him. He preserved a flash of it with the novel’s introduction of Miss Light, the perfectly beautiful young woman in search of a perfectly eligible Italian prince. “The young lady was walking slowly and letting her long dress rustle over the gravel; the young men had time to see her distinctly before she averted her face and went her way. She left a vague, sweet perfume behind her as she passed.” Passing each other on the streets of Rome, young men and women often held their gazes for an extra second, stretched with meaning. “They might belong to different classes,” wrote the expatriate Margaret Terry Chanler, a friend of Adams, La Farge, and James, “and know they could never meet but in the long, long look, or perhaps in a dream.” Some anecdotal evidence: Chanler once welcomed a Roman lady of society just as the local doctor departed from his house call. The door closed and, as she began to explain who the man was, the lady stopped her and said, “Oh, but I know him! He is an old street flirt of mine.”
James admired Chanler as an unusually cultivated and sensitive American. H. G. Wells compared the novelist’s searching prose to a hippopotamus struggling to pick up a pea. And James’s verbal efforts were no less laborious than his written ones: his speech impediment could make conversation a time-intensive ordeal. But Chanler saw his stuttering as a search for the perfect word to express precisely what he meant. “The word when found well justified the search,” she said: “it was never a pea, nearly always a pearl.” Chanler, a Catholic convert, thought James would have made a wonderful confessor.
Returning to the Eternal City later in life, James lamented the loss of Roman street culture after Italian troops breached the Aurelian Wall. Pope Pius IX became a prisoner of the Vatican; Rome now offered the sad certainty “that you’ll not, by the best of traveler’s luck, meet the Pope sitting deep in the shadow of his great chariot with uplifted fingers like some inaccessible idol in his shrine,” as James wrote in Italian Hours (1909). “You may meet the King indeed, who is as ugly, as imposingly ugly, as some idols, though not so inaccessible.” He was relieved to find that a few stray cardinals “still testify to the traditional splendor of the princes of the Church; for as they advance the lifted black petticoat reveals a flash of scarlet stockings and makes you groan at the victory of civilization over color.” Donning their Carnevale masks, Romans tried to revive their old festal energy, but James noticed that tourists were starting to outnumber the locals. He escaped the crowds by slipping into the church of Santa Francesca Romana in the Forum. Inside he found “a feast for the eyes—a dim crimson-toned light through curtained windows, a great festoon of tapers round the altar, a bulging girdle of lamps before the sunken shrine beneath, and a dozen white-robed Dominicans scattered in the happiest composition on the pavement.”
“There were women,” says Roderick Hudson (standing in for John La Farge), “whom it was every one’s business to fall in love with a little—women beautiful, brilliant, artful, easily fascinating.” When they were both back from Rome and dining with La Farge at the Washington home of Henry Adams, James asked Chanler to take him to see Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Clover Adams memorial. Once arrived, he bowed his head in reverent contemplation for many minutes as snow dusted his shoulders. On the brougham ride back to town, James revealed to Chanler that he considered Clover the more interesting half of the couple: “We never knew how delightful Henry was till he lost her; he was so proud of her that he let her shine as he sat back and enjoyed listening to what she said and what she let others say.”
When James went to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he saw that Michelangelo’s Pietà was an ineffable masterpiece and “the rarest artistic combination of the greatest things the hand of man has produced.” With the same eye for beauty, La Farge once refused to allow a heart attack to interrupt his tour of European art. As a precaution, he hired a doctor to accompany him on gallery visits. The doctor revealed that La Farge’s pulse raced fastest while he stood before the Avignon Pietà. But whenever James felt the world was too disagreeable to bear, he went to Rome, not France. He went to St. Peter’s. To quote the author of Roderick Hudson: “From a heart-ache to a Roman rain there were few importunate pains the great church did not help him to forget.”