BMCR 2002.07.07

Allan Ramsay and the Search for Horace’s Villa

, , Allan Ramsay and the search for Horace's villa. [Reinterpreting classicism]. London: Ashgate, 2001. xx, 183 pages, 12 pages of plates : illustrations (some color), maps ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0754600041. $104.95.

Horace tells us a great deal about his Sabine farm, but he neglects to tell us exactly where it was. Not that the address matters. “Horace’s Sabine farm” matters as a literary topos more than as a physical location. It is one of the touchstones against which literary persons have assayed country seats in the shires, cottages in the Poconos, and the dichotomies of city and country, business and leisure, or engagement and retreat. In no era was the idea of the Sabine farm more important than in the British Augustan period, as this welcome editio princeps of an antiquarian treatise on the Sabine villa’s location reveals.

Ideal Sabine farms cannot, however, be entirely divorced from real ones. Topos and topography persist in reacting with one another. The real landscape on which an imagination works can give scale to ideas and expressions in a text, and it can suggest possibilities. For a reader of Thoreau, it is worth knowing how big Walden Pond is and where it lies in relation to Concord. To someone walking across London with Mrs. Dalloway in hand, or across Dublin with Joyce, the scene will offer critical reflections on the text — not truth, despite the hard reality of streets and buildings, but another interpretation.

The Scots painter Allan Ramsay (1713-1784), like many of his contemporaries, encountered Horace’s Sabine villa first as a place of the imagination, the place outside which the poet encountered a wolf or found the pleasant hill that Pan exchanged for Arcadia’s mountains. The polymathic Ramsay talked empirical philosophy with David Hume, arranged for Camillo Paderni to supply plates for George Turnbull’s A Treatise on Ancient Painting, and in the 1750s on the second of his four visits to Italy discussed antiquities and taste with Robert Adam and Giovanni Battista Piranesi. (Iain Gordon Brown chronicles these contacts and other aspects of Ramsay’s intellectual world in his admirable opening essay, “Allan Ramsay: Artist, Author, Antiquary.”)

Ramsay was not content to leave the Sabine farm in the country of the imagination. In 1755, he made an informal visit to the Licenza valley. Twenty years later he returned on an extended antiquarian expedition with the intention of investigating the site of Horace’s Sabine villa. On his return to London, he talked about his researches over dinner with Dr. Johnson, Edward Gibbon, and others, and Boswell encouraged him to publish them.

He never did. When he died in 1784, “An Enquiry into the Situation and Circumstances of Horace’s Sabine Villa, Written during Travels in Italy in the Years 1775, 76 and 77” survived in three manuscript copies. One is in the National Library of Scotland, a second is in Edinburgh University Library, and the third, an anonymous fair copy in a professional hand with illustrations, came to light only in October 2000, when Bernard Frischer recognized it in the Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA. The UCLA manuscript, collated with the two in Scotland and illuminated by ancillary material, forms the basis of this first publication of Ramsay’s “Enquiry.”

Ramsay seems to have envisioned a substantial publication, with maps and engraved illustrations of the landscape. For the latter, he made preliminary sketches, but he intended to draw on the talents of two specialists in landscape, the Scot Jacob More and the Prussian Jakob Philipp Hackert, for finished plates. In a significant piece of art history, “Illustrating Horace’s Villa: Allan Ramsay, Jacob More and Jakob Philipp Hackert,” Patricia R. Andrew explores the work of these two artists and others who illustrated the Licenza valley. She is able to assign several previously anonymous or misattributed works to More and to correct mistaken titles for others. Her essay opens a potentially interesting line of enquiry into Horatian presence in eighteenth-century painting. The isolated peak in the background of Claude Lorraine’s Landscape with Apollo and the Muses (figure 4.3, p. 55), for example, and in William Wollett’s engraved homage to it (figure 4.10, p. 65), has the characteristic profile of Mt. Soracte, inviting a viewer to discover in the foregrounded river god or other details further resonances with specific poets or works.

John Dixon Hunt’s “Some Reflections on the Idea of Horace’s Farm” and Martin Goalen’s “Describing the Villa: un rêve virgilien,” the second and third essays in this collection, in fact address the Sabine villa’s presence (or as Goalen argues, its absence) in different aspects of European culture. Hunt analyses the way in which Horace’s Sabine farm, mediated by Pope’s Twickenham, resonates in eighteenth-century English landscape gardening; as he says (p. 32), “The vagueness (or better, elasticity) of Horace’s descriptions kept them relevant to the changing concerns of garden and estate design throughout the eighteenth century.” Goalen bypasses Horace almost entirely and traces the European idea of villeggiatura through Palladio to Pliny the Younger’s detailed descriptions of his villas.

In the text of his Enquiry, Ramsay took up two issues: where Horace’s villa was, and what a contemporary visitor could see on the ground. He shared with his friend Hume a belief that informed skepticism was the appropriate mode of antiquarian enquiry, and although he was not always as skeptical as he might have been, his work remains an impressive early example of field archaeology and of the use of literary texts, topography, and material remains to illuminate one another. Ramsay surveys the evidence of Horace’s poetry, the topography of the Licenza Valley, and the possible identification of Rocca Giovine, Vicovaro, and other modern sites with places mentioned by Horace. Although the abbé Bertrand Capmartin De Chaupy had earlier identified ruins in the Vigne di San Pietro as Horace’s villa and had conducted modest excavations there, Ramsay clarifies De Chaupy’s identifications and sheds cold Scots water on some of his speculations.

Bernard Frischer is one of the few classicists equally expert in material and literary culture. His experience as director of excavations at the Licenza site makes his essay, “Ramsay’s ‘Enquiry’: Text and Context,” an indispensable introduction to Ramsay’s text and to the antiquarian controversies that surrounded the question of the Sabine farm’s location. Frischer’s survey of attempts to locate Horace’s farm, from Flavio Biondo in the mid-fifteenth century to De Chaupy in the eighteenth, reveals the particular virtues of Ramsay’s research — its rigorous empiricism, its willingness to use evidence of all kinds, including traditions of the local contadini — as well as on some of its faults.

Students of eighteenth-century intellectual history, landscape painting, or gardening will find some matter of interest in this book. Classicists, especially Horatians, will find a valuable survey of early modern literature on the location of Horace’s villa as well as a fascinating text by an eighteenth-century predecessor and a case study in the history of classical scholarship. They may find something in addition: an invitation to think again about the complex relation between text and reality, topos and topography.