Past glories, present miseries
Nationality, politics, and art in Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home
in Republics and empires
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Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home (1841) offers her readers, among other things, passages that they would have expected to find in a travelogue – namely descriptions of famous paintings, statues, and buildings – though she frequently prefaces her comments with confessions of lack of expertise. This rhetorical strategy allows Sedgwick to present a non-technical and non-canonical reading of Italian art, one in which Italy’s artistic heritage could be perceived as providing insight into the country’s predicament. But if Sedgwick, by her own admission, was not particularly conversant with art history and architecture, she could bring to the Grand Tour genre her knowledge of the Italian language and Italian literature, which sets her apart from the majority of American and British authors, and gave her unfiltered access into Italian society. That knowledge, combined with what she had absorbed through her interaction with Italian political exiles in the United States, informs the Italian section of Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home and renders it an important chapter in the history of American literary transatlanticism. Sedgwick sets the tone for the entire Italian section of her travelogue by making a consistent effort to challenge what she believed to be her Anglo-Saxon Protestant audience’s deeply engrained superiority complex. Reading Italy and its treasures from the enlightened perspective espoused in her book, Sedgwick hoped Americans would understand with unprecedented clarity, and wholeheartedly support, Italy’s right to self-determination.

Republics and empires

Italian and American art in transnational perspective, 1840–1970

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