Salem State College
“I” is for “Italian” and “Images,” and Other Ideas about Catholics and Art in the Early Republic
In their representations of Italy and Italians, early 19th century children’s alphabet books and geographies reveal deeply rooted, paradoxical American cultural ideas about art, ethnicity, and religion. Images in these popular books elide appreciation for Renaissance fine arts with condemnation of papal authority. In small illustrated alphabets such as the Cries of New York (1809) and the Cries of Philadelphia (1810), the letter I often stands for “Italian” or for “images”—or both. Other children’s books, particularly geographies, note that Italy is the home of both art and the pope. These twin characteristics find parallels in other writing genres. Grand Tour travel writing and fine art treatises described Italy as the heart of both Renaissance art and authoritarian Catholicism. Inexpensive popular wood engravings promoted an understanding of Italians as people who practiced a superstitious religion based on images. Illustrations in children’s books reinforced these perspectives. Yet ironically, by picturing Catholicism as a religion of images and Protestantism as a culture of the Word, they acknowledged the power of the image as a pedagogical tool. By adopting new illustration technologies in children’s books, they created pictures that contributed to changes in Protestant identity in the new world of images.
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