Many aspects of Thomas Jefferson's home, work, and personal tastes were influenced by Italian people and culture. Some specific examples are provided below.
In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Rutledge that "Italy is a feild where the inhabitants of the Southern states may see much to copy in agriculture." Long before, in 1773, Jefferson had given the newly-arrived Tuscan wine producer, Philip Mazzei, a 193-acre farm contiguous to Monticello. There Mazzei established a small colony of Italian immigrants devoted to producing wine grapes, but the experiment was ultimately unsuccessful. Mazzei devoted more attention to political developments than to viticulture, and by 1779, his active involvement at Colle had come to an end. Jefferson, however, continued to employ some of the Italian vignerons: Giovanni da Prato worked as a gardener at Monticello in the 1780s, as did Anthony Giannini. While Minister to France, Jefferson traveled to Italy to study its rice industry. He had a copy made of the machines the Italians used to clean their rice, and despite the threat of death for violating such a ban, he smuggled rice out of the country in the pockets of his coat. Olive production also captured Jefferson's attention. He recommended their cultivation to friends from South Carolina.
Andrea Palladio's Four Books of Architecture became the "bible" Jefferson consulted in the early stages of building Monticello. As Palladio had done, Jefferson consciously emulated the architecture of ancient Rome. He observed that "Roman taste, genius, and magnificence excite ideas."
Jefferson had a great appreciation for Italian artistic accomplishments. In Paris, Jefferson bought copies of paintings by such notable Italian painters as Guido Reni, Carlo Murati, and Raphael. Guiseppe Ceracchi sculpted a marble bust of Jefferson in Roman costume. This bust stood in the Entrance Hall of Monticello from 1795 until after Jefferson's death. Ceracchi's Alexander Hamilton is there today. Peter Cardelli in 1819 sculpted busts of James Madison, James Monroe, and Jefferson, copies of which were on display at Monticello. Jefferson, moreover, employed Italian sculptors to work on various aspects of the construction of the University of Virginia.
Jefferson taught himself Italian while a student at the College of William and Mary and later made sure Italian was included among the languages studied at the University of Virginia. In 1764, Jefferson bought an Italian-English dictionary, two historical works in Italian, and the works of Niccolo Machiavelli. Philip Mazzei reported that when he met him in 1773, Jefferson knew the language, though he had never heard it spoken. Carlo Bellini, through Jefferson's intercession as governor of Virginia and member of the Board of Visitors of the College of William and Mary, received in 1779 the first ever appointment at the college as a professor of modern languages. Later, in 1787, Jefferson warned his nephew Peter Carr that, though Italian was a "delightful language," learning it "will confound your French and Spanish." Even so, the University of Virginia's faculty in 1824 included a professor of modern languages (George Blaetterman) whose duties included teaching Italian.
Jefferson once described music as the "favorite passion of my soul." The skills and achievements of a variety of Italian composers, musicians, and instrument makers enriched Jefferson's enjoyment of music. He acquired a violin thought to have been made by Amati and received instruction on that instrument from Francis Alberti while in Williamsburg. At the time, Jefferson was courting Martha Wayles Skelton, one of Alberti's piano students. Alberti visited the newlyweds at Monticello to continue their instruction. Among Jefferson's favorite composers were such Italians as Vivaldi, Corelli, Boccherini, and Antonio Campioni. He once observed to Giovanni Fabbroni (a friend of Philip Mazzei) that, in contrast to Italy, music in America was "in a state of deplorable barbarism." During his time in Europe, Jefferson sought out and befriended two Italian musicians, the flautist Caravoglia and Niccolò Piccinni, a famous composer and pianist. Jefferson conferred with Piccinni before purchasing a harpsichord for his daughter.
In 1789, William Short wrote to Jefferson from Naples to report success in acquiring a machine for making macaroni. Short was confused as he sought a machine that made the "maccaroni" (flat noodles, apparently) he and Jefferson were accustomed to finding in Paris.
In 1787, Jefferson spent three weeks touring the northern regions of Italy. He visited Turin, Vercelli, Milan, Casino, Genoa, and about forty other small towns and cities in Lombardy, Piedmont, and Liguria. In his travel diary, Jefferson observed details of Italian life: the arrangement for ferrying passengers across the Po, for instance, and the process of making Parmesan cheese. He later loaned the maps he purchased of Turin and Milan to Pierre L'Enfant. L'Enfant consulted those maps while designing Washington, D.C.
Jefferson's tenure as Minister of France gave him the opportunity to sample fine wines from all over Europe. His travels in Italy in 1787 brought him into contact with a large number of Piedmont varieties, and his daily journal is full of observations about different vintages. He developed a preference for the lighter French and Italian wines. Since his advice on wine matters was widely esteemed, Jefferson's tastes shaped the cellars stocked by George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe. Although his financial state worsened after 1809, Jefferson still continued to import French and Italian wines, but he did so from more modest vineyards. One of his perennial favorites was a Montepulciano.
- Jay Boehm, 9/1997
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902