HISTORICALLY, Italy has always provoked mixed emotions in Americans, and although it has attracted artists, something about its easy charms seemed to frighten them. Writers as radically different as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Tennessee Williams imagined a witch's brew of evil bubbling up out of contradictory ingredients -- religious intolerance and Mediterranean amorality.

Arriving in Rome in 1869, dizzied by the city's splendor, Henry James scrawled in his notebook, "At last, for the first time, I live." Yet he didn't stay; he moved to London. More revealing, his fiction is full of characters who remained in Rome only to be morally ruined, artistically corrupted, or killed off.

Even today, Rome is alternately viewed as a museum or a mausoleum. When not described as dirty, disorderly, or dangerous, it's dismissed as culturally dead.

Fresh from the success of Russian Journal, Andrea Lee arrived in Rome in 1983 with her hushand, an investment banker. In short order, Miss Lee finished her first novel, Sarah Phillips, based on a series of stories that appeared in the New Yorker, gave birth to a daughter, and started a new novel. Yet she readily volunteers that she's unhappy here. "Rome's a beautiful city," she says, "but it's a terrible backwater. Very provincial. I miss decent films, art and photographic exhibitions, theater. I can't wait to get out of here. I'm dying to go to Paris where some 20th-century things are happening."

One could argue that every film eventually makes it to Rome, albeit in Italian. One could point out that Rome has opera, ballet, theater, classical and modern music and, in recent months, major exhibits of Degas, Chagall, Emil Nolde, and George Segal. But Miss Lee could reply quite corctly that Paris has more and better.

Perhaps that is the single irreducible truth in any discussion about Rome; it's not Paris, not London. It's not where expatriate American writers are supposed to live -- although hundreds have and many still do for the very reason Miss Lee wants to leave. What she sees as the city's shortcomings, others view as advantages.

While Rome isn't a center of any contemporary art form, it's a fine city in which to live and work. Small and safe enough to cover on foot, a cluster of villages, each with its own shops, churches, and distinctive character, it's friendly, but never nosy, an easy place to meet people or to avoid them. Interestingly, Italians never wonder why foreign writers live here. They assume anybody who appreciates history, beauty, good wine, mild weather, marvelous food, proximity to the sea and the mountains, a relaxed pace, and a varied social life would choose Rome.

Italo Calvino has returned after years in Paris. "Paris is more stimulating," he concedes, "but I try to live everywhere as in the country. The least contact possible with public life." Now more than ever, uninterrupted concentration is important to Calvino who is preparing to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton lectures next year at Harvard.

Gore Vidal owns a villa in Ravello and a mansion in California, but spends most of his time in a Rome apartment overlooking the ruins of Largo Argentina. He does so, he has said, on the theory that the best place to watch the end of the world is in a city that calls itself eternal.

Rome also provides a counterbalance to his hectic promotional tours and political campaigns. Not that he lives as a recluse here. A prominent figure at receptions and dinner parties, frequently seen on Italian, French and British TV -- he recently narrated a two-hour special on Venice -- he welcomes virtually every writer and critic who calls on him. In fact, he sets the egalitarian tone that distinguishes the city's literary life. There are no coteries, no cliques. But basically Vidal remains in Rome to work. Currently launched on a long novel about Theodore Roosevelt, he observes with satisfaction that over the course of his career he will have written the entire history of the United States from the vantage point of Italy.

WHILE Stephen Geller was a graduate student at Yale Drama School, he published his first novel, And She Let Him Continue, subsequently made into the movie, Pretty Poison. A film assignment brought him to Rome and here he has lived for 14 years, publishing three more novels, writing dozens of screenplays, including an award-winning adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five, and doing an hilarious column for the National Lampoon called the "Disaster Agent." Shielded from the worst of the Hollywood hustle and blessed by the best of Rome, Geller says, "Regardless of how much money I made in the States, we couldn't recreate the life we have here and I couldn't work as well."

Robert Katz agrees with Geller and feels he's better off in Italy where, in the past 18 years, he has injected into the highly politicized national press the notion of independent, investigative journalism. With Death in Rome (later made into the movie Massacre in Rome), he reconstructed events leading up to the execution of several hundred Italians in retaliation for a World War II partisan attack on a German patrol. His most recent book, Days of Wrath, was a meticulous account of the kidnaping and assassination of Aldo Moro. At present, Katz is doing a biography of German film director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and working on a film adaptation of Days of Wrath.

In 1980, Robert Tine's first novel, State of Grace, described an assassination attempt on the pope. A year later, life imitated art and Ali Agca shot Pope John Paul. After Tine published his second novel, Uneasy Lies the Head, he moved to Rome where, in the absence of the sort of teaching job that supports so many writers in the States, he pays his bills by doing journalism and movie novelizations.

Literary, not to mention social, life here is often enriched by temporary visitors. Muriel Spark, Germaine Greer, Ann Cornelisen, Clare Sterling, and William Weaver, whose translations have done so much to bring Italian writers to the American public, live in Tuscany but often come to town. Since 1982 Gay Talese has spent months at a stretch in Rome doing research on a book about his family's Italian roots. Pat Conroy, author of The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline, lived here for two years and is now returning. So is Erik Amfitheatrof, a Time correspondent who during his last assignment in Rome wrote The Enchanted Ground, a warm historical account of Americans and their complicated involvement with Italy.

That's another truism about American writers in Rome -- they tend to be recidivists. Nowhere is this tendency more prevalent than at the American Academy where this winter Francine Du Plessix Gray returned for the fifth time in six years.

In the past decade, the Academy's roster of writers reads like an honor roll of American letters. Robert Penn Warren, Edward Hoagland, Mary Lee Settle, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Joseph Brodsky, Mark Strand, Frank MacShane, Mark Helprin, Annie Dillard, and William Gaddis have all come, seen, and been conquered by the city and its inhabitants. In many cases they have also made friends with the writers who live here permanently and who use the Academy's library and enjoy its year-round program of concerts, lectures and exhibitions.

Perhaps more than anything, it is a sense of quick personal attachment to the place and its people which inclines some writers to remain and others to return over and over. As poet David St. John, a recent writing fellow at the American Academy who teaches at Johns Hopkins, says, "Eleanor Clark expressed much of my own feeling for the city. In Rome and a Villa she wrote that the streets here constitute 'a great rich withinness . . . Even a tourist can tell in a Roman street that he is in something and not outside something as he would be in most cities. In Rome to go out is to go home.' There's no question I'd stay on if I could. I know I'll always look for ways to come back."