A Tramp Abroad is a non-fiction piece written by Mark Twain about some of his travels through Europe. The book focuses on his journey through Germany, France, Switzerland, and Italy. For the purpose of this blog post I will focus on the experiences through Italy – Milan, Venice and Rome – as their culture and architecture are easily relatable to my study abroad site of Florence. What I found highly interesting throughout this book was the comparison between Europeans and Americans. There is a large amount of commentary on the streak differences that arise in cultures and therefore translate to the people themselves. In Chapter 17 there was a quote that read, “It will not do for me to find merit in American manners for are they not the standing butt for the jests of critical and polished Europe? Still, I must venture to claim one little matter of superiority in our manners; a lady may traverse our streets all day, going and coming as she chooses, and she will never be molested by any man; but if a lady, unattended, walks abroad in the streets of London, even at noonday, she will be pretty likely to be accosted and insulted and not by drunken sailors, but by men who carry the look and wear the dress of gentlemen. It is maintained that these people are not gentlemen, but are a lower sort, disguised as gentlemen.” This is a notion that is very evident throughout my travels in Europe, especially in Italy. Living in New York, you can easily discern the types of people that you should be avoiding on the street. It doesn’t surprise you when these people make crude remarks towards you but you walk on the other side of the street and move on. Here in Italy, this description that Mark Twain gives couldn’t be more apparent. The men who make comments towards women on the street are everywhere. During orientation our professors addressed this situation as a cultural norm to be aware of. The fact that this is normal is what struck me as most interesting. But the description of these lower sorts disguised as gentlemen hit me as the perfect definition and the reason that these cat calls on the streets of Europe are very hard to avoid.
Later on in the book, Twain gives a description of St. Mark’s in Venice that can easily be applied to most Italian architecture, “There is a strong fascination about it partly because it is so old, and partly because it is so ugly. Too many of the world’s famous buildings fail of one chief virtue harmony; they are made up of a methodless mixture of the ugly and the beautiful; this is bad; it is confusing, it is unrestful. One has a sense of uneasiness, of distress, without knowing why. But one is calm before St. Mark’s, one is calm within it, one would be calm on top of it, calm in the cellar; for its details are masterfully ugly, no misplaced and impertinent beauties are intruded anywhere; and the consequent result is a grand harmonious whole, of soothing, entrancing, tranquilizing, soul-satisfying ugliness. One’s admiration of a perfect thing always grows, never declines; and this is the surest evidence to him that it is perfect. St. Mark’s is perfect.” So much of American architecture is visually very simple and straightforward, yet in Europe there is a complexity that makes looking at these buildings extremely complicated. The architecture can be extremely beautiful on the outside and then barely anything on the inside or vice-versa. So much of the architecture is completely overrun with tourists which places you in a very interesting viewing situation – making a building that you may have just passed on the street something that seems enticing.