What artist can visit Rome and not be impressed, if not overwhelmed, by the monumentality and magnificence of the eternal city? When Goethe made his Italian journey in the late 1700s, the artists of antiquity moved him to write that “before them, all that is arbitrary and imaginary collapses.”
It was on this stage of Antiquity that the Renaissance matured and defined itself, demonstrating the fertility of the classical tradition and setting the model for centuries of elaborations. It was faith in this continuum that, many years later, shaped so much of the architectural heritage in the United States and eventually brought about the creation of an American Academy in Rome.
The driving force behind the formation of an Academy in Rome was Charles Follen McKim, of the legendary architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White. The goals were lofty. McKim wrote to the sculptor Saint-Gaudens about the importance of developing a program of study based only on “the greatest examples” lest the Academy degenerate into a kind of club for “tourists in architecture”. Patterened after the prestigious French Academy in Rome, which had been founded in the 1600s, a collaborative atmosphere was encouraged between architect, sculptor and painter with access to classical scholars who would be working under the same roof. The purpose of the institution was to study from original Roman masterworks, to elevate taste and influence projects back in America.
We should remember, however, that the choice of Rome as the definitive international environment for so many academies and cultural institutions was never based on any single masterwork. The choice was a reaction to that “magnificence” of overall design uniting the frescoes, sculptures, buildings and urban spaces of Rome into what remains a living encyclopedia of inspiration.
~ D. Jeffrey Mims