Today was spent on the island surrounding Venice: Murano, famous for its glass; Burano, famous for its lace, and Torchello, famous for being the first island settled. Although they are very touristy, the further off the beaten path I went, the more interesting they became. An ancient church, Roman ruins, and a vineyard with Roman-era debris every five feet or so, made this a mysterious and enchanting spot. Torchello would be an excellent hideout, although apparently, the development of marshes led to malaria, so maybe the mosquito population has won out over the humans.
I got a 72-hour vaporetto pass and have been hopping on and off whenever I can. The gondolas look tempting, but touristy, and unless I can find a group of wealthy tourists to adopt me, 80 euro is just an absurd amount to pay. I’m determined to take a gondola across the canal for 50c, if I can find the right spot. I did tour the Doge’s Palace because I don’t think you’re allowed to leave Venice unless you’ve sighed while crossing the Bridge of Sighs. With such an imposing building, the private apartments of the duke and his family were relatively small, but the focus was on rules of law and justice, and that golden book that included the names of the most important Venetian families. Inclusion in this book was such a status symbol, the moment it happens is included in works of art.
I walked through the prisons, which were truly creepy, over the Bridge of Sighs and into the great hall that includes the largest oil painting in the world. The detail is fascinating, but I couldn’t take my eyes off all the portraits of the doges through the years who line the top of the walls. First of all, they all wear these silly hats that look like Santa hats, and they all look a little more scared than proud. Each doge has a scroll behind his head that lists his accomplishments – some are very short and some long and complicated, but all of them are so far away, no one could possibly read them. A place is left for the doge who attempted a coup d’etat in the 1300s, but his face has been blacked out (a huge black rectangle) because his disgrace demands he be removed from history (of course his name is everywhere to explain what happened).
I found a fish restaurant not too far from the fish market and had an amazing meal. All of the restaurants in Venice boast about their fresh ingredients, but this one came through. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to find it again. The fun of Venice is wandering about, never knowing where you’ll turn up, but I’m careful to have certain landmarks in view after dark.
The lines in front of St. Mark’s were ridiculous, but I learned a trick in the guidebook to drop off a bag at the guardarobe, show your claim ticket at the front of the line and jump right in. It worked. I spent the 3 euro to go up to the balcony, and enjoyed the views of the square, the astrological clock, and the replicas of the four horses who sit atop the church (the 2,200 year old originals are inside). The workmanship on those bronze figures is astonishing.
There’s a lovely exhibit of mosaics and the process of making them included in the price of admission to the little museum. It also allows access to a hall connected to the Doge’s Palace that was lined with 6 and 800 year old tapestries. I used to think Boston had a long history, so much longer than many other cities in the US, but compared to here, where references are made to Etruscans, Longobards, and other relics from 2-3,000 years ago, Boston is still an infant.
After a break, I took the vaporetto to Ca’ Rezzonica, which was the place where Robert Browning died, when he was living with his son. After the Browning’s modest apartment in Florence, Ca’ Rezzonica is huge and ostentatious, and I wonder if they just rented a part of it. There is no mention of the Brownings, or any other non Italian, make that non Venetian, in this beautifully restored palace. After walking through the various rooms, including a beautiful bedroom, many of which had breathtaking Murano chandeliers, you can head upstairs to a exhibit of paintings organized in chronological order donated by a master restorer, who brought to light many forgotten artists and pieces. I was pleased to see many works by Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757), who was said to have travelled to Paris to teach the French how to paint pastels.
I left Florence yesterday with regret. I would like to spend a month or two there, spending as much time writing as researching and exploring. However, as compensation for having to leave Florence, I decided to head to Venice, just for a few days, before going back to Rome. Many people told me not to go to Venice in August because the canals smell and it’s overrun with tourists, but to be so close and not to check it out seemed like a waste.
It was absolutely the right decision and good for me to go toward the end of my Italian adventure, when I have become used to Italians’ relaxed attitude and have eased my American expectations. This is the first time I’ve stayed in a hotel in Italy and it’s very simple, although they did assure me wifi acces, which isn’t working this week. Oh well. It ’s fun to have someone else make my bed.
I took the slow boat from the train station and drank in the Grand Canal and all the sights. Venice truly is a magical place, and the vaporetto that stops everywhere is the only way to arrive. I am staying on a side street behind St. Mark’s Place, which I thought would be noisy, but it quiets down as soon as the shops close, around 8 p.m. and is a perfect alarm clock around 7:30 am when people start making deliveries and opening their shutters. I wandered around last night, got fleeced at a restaurant on the Grand Canal, and tucked myself in ready to explore in the morning.
Today I visited Casa Guidi, the Florence home of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I went at the suggestion of one of the other guests here at Il Palmerino, a professor of Italian at the University of Kansas who is doing research here on Galileo. I met her at a dinner hosted by the owners, and felt very flattered to be included among a group that also included a novelist working on a book about Mary Shelley. The Italian professor also suggested a visit to the Specolo, the science museum, where she said the artists might have gone to get access to the human body for modeling since it has skeletons and other pieces the artists’ might study. We all talked about our research and the challenge of finding our focus. The novelist has completed her research and says she’s just started her writing. How long will you be staying here? I asked. Until the book is finished, she answered. Wow.
Anyway, Casa Guidi is across the Ponte Vecchio, very close to the lavish Pitti Palace, but by contrast is a very nondescript building, with a plaque above the door commemorating Elizabeth (not Robert). I rang the bell for Casa Guidi was buzzed in and headed up the stairs after passing an artist working in his ground floor studio. I walked in to an apartment that was not at all as lavish or as large as I’d expected; perhaps all that time spent in palaces people called home has thrown off my sense of proportion. It was, in fact, quite homey, with a bedroom at the back, a dining room, another study. The sitting room where they entertained and did some writing felt inviting rather than intimidating. (The museum is owned by the British Trust for Reservations, which owns and runs many historic homes in England.) I did wonder where the Brownings fit their son and the many people who came to visit. The woman who ran the little museum (it’s only open Mon, Wed, Fri from 3-5 p.m.) showed me a bronze version of the clasped hands of the Brownings made by Harriet Hosmer (there’s another version at the Schlesinger Library, and a third at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY), and told me that although she did stay with the Brownings, she also stayed with Isa Blagden (another mysterious and fascinating character) just up the road at the picturesque Bellosguardo. She also showed me a great book with an article written by Marilyn Richardson, a Bostonian who is the expert on Edmonia Lewis, one of the sculptors I’m writing about. I spent some time soaking up the atmosphere and looking through Elizabeth’s letters. The chatty and detailed correspondence really offers a feel for the personalities of these people and reduces them from larger-than-life legends to individuals who expressed concern about their friends’ choices, worried about their health, outlined plans and dreamed about the future.
I am writing this from the garden just up the path from my little apartment. Across the lovely lawn is a spectacular view of Fiesole, a hilltop retreat for weary city dwellers for the past 3,000 years (yikes). Florence is amazing. I spent time in both the Accademia and the Uffizi Galleries. The art is breathtaking, but unlike the Vatican Museum, the size of these museums is much more manageable. The Accademia has Michelangelo’s David, and although I’ve seen lots of pictures of it over the years, to see it in person, all 15 feet of it, is jaw-dropping. The gallery also has lots of plaster casts of works that, in their final stone or bronze stage, went to the Vatican or elsewhere, which offered tremendous insight into the process, the changes and modifications the artists (or the patrons) made before creating the final product. Although the breadth of the art is astonishing, it’s a museum you can go through in 3 hours without having your feet hurt. After a picnic lunch (I pack a sandwich, fruit and cookies every day so I don’t waste time trying to find a good place for lunch) I headed to the Ponte Vecchio, a place right out of a photograph or water color. The little shops lining the bridge are bursting with gold and silver. Can they really make money selling it here? Do people really come here to buy jewelry?
Yesterday I visited the Uffizi Gallery, just a short walk from the Accademia, and just past where David stood for several hundred years before being brought in from the weather (I only do one museum a day now. I’ve also learned to eat gelato every day as an essential mid-afternoon pick-me-up. I impressed my Italian hostess by knowing the word for hazelnut – nocciolo – and confessed I’d learned everything from the gelato counter. Having mastered most of the flavors, I’m moving on to cannoli!) Anyway, the Uffizi has works by Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Raphael, and Botticelli. Once again, although I’ve seen countless images of his “Birth of Venus,” to see it in the flesh, in a room full of his other works, is amazing. I got there at 9 am, was finished at noon, and then headed to the #7 bus at Piazza San Marco for Fiesole, high above Florence. The setting up there is so ridiculously picturesque, I kept feeling I was in a movie. I looked around at the Etruscan/Roman ruins, thrilled to the view, ate my daily gelato, and then walked down halfway into Florence to Il Palmerino. This is heaven.
I arrived in Florence this afternoon, and was feeling overwhelmed by going from one busy urban scene to another, so I splurged and took a taxi to Il Palmerino, where I am staying. Despite being just 15 minutes outside the city center, I feel like I’m in the middle of the countryside. A fellow grad student found this place and will be headed here in the fall, and recommended it to me. What a find! The former home of Vernon Lee (Violet Paget), a late 19th century English expatriate who had written several books on Italian art, architecture and gardening, Il Palmerino is a group of buildings surrounded by vineyards and gardens. Purchased by the owner’s grandmother in the 1930s, soon after Lee’s death, it was left in the grandmother’s will to her three children. There are three apartments for rent in one building: I have a two-room flat; there is a studio next door, and above me is an American who is working in one of the museums in Florence for a year. But it is so quiet, I don’t see or hear anything except a few chickens and a rooster who has no sense of timing (really, crowing at 4 in the afternoon?) I will have to drag myself away from here into downtown Florence. This is a much-needed oasis.
Today is my last day in Rome for awhile, and I am struck by the beauty of the crazy mix of old and new, and the relative cleanliness of a city busy with a huge tourist population as well as a busy government and locals. City workers are everywhere cleaning up, washing streets, emptying recycling bins, and I’ve seen several billboards promoting the people who keep the city clean. So many of the 19th century writers were struck by the decay and mess of Rome; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first impressions of the “eternal city” were full of dismay and a bit of disgust. It took a while for him to become charmed by the city. Part of the city’s appeal, it seems, came from getting to know and socializing with the rest of the expatriate community. He was clearly impressed by the artistic community, particularly Harriet Hosmer, who was the inspiration for a character in his novel, “The Marble Faun.”
It’s only when I look at some of the paintings of the British and American artists of the early 19th century that I can see what disturbed them. In many paintings, statues, arches, and broken columns are scattered about without any sense of connection or coherence. It’s pre-excavation, and the look is one of decay. These are ruins, after all, and are evidence of a civilization that was destroyed, that didn’t survive, despite all of its sophistication. In “Haps and Mishaps,” Grace Greenwood (aka Sara Jane Lippencott) writes, “Ancient Rome affects me with a singular, gloomy wonder…. We spent one day among the ruins, and though the [January] sunshine was as brilliant as June and the breath of wild roses was afloat on the soft air, that day to me was full of shadows and sadness.” The impression Rome gives today is one of awe – more than 2,000 years ago, a civilization was incredibly sophisticated, with artistic techniques artists looked to hundreds of years later (the Belvedere torso in the Vatican was studied by Michaelangelo and later, Rodin, for his “Thinker.”) Still, the Colosseum, even with its incredibly artistic graffiti, and elaborate system of trap doors and pulleys, echoes with the sound of screams, and the smell of sweat and fear. Greenwood says the place has a “terrible power over the imagination,” and it’s true.
Ack. A long gap. Internet access has not been as easy as I’d hoped, and since the American Academy closed for the summer on July 18, I’m forced to rely on internet points, which don’t let me use my own computer, and charge by the minute. You’d think after years of writing on deadline at a newspaper I’d have no problem with the time pressure, but it’s easier to ponder over an espresso, or a glass of vino blanco.
I took a break from Italy and research with a long weekend in Vienna, Austria for a cousin’s wedding. My cousin, originally from Chicago, worked for the United Nations, where she met and married a Frenchman. Since he was a nuclear weapons inspector, they were based in Vienna where they raised their three kids, the oldest of whom was getting married. It was absolutely worth the trip, since they organized events for guests starting on Tuesday before the wedding (for those who arrived early) and running through the following Tuesday with a trip to Salzburg (for those staying longer). The wedding was fairy tale perfect, with a civil ceremony in a charming little room in the Schonbrunn Palace (Vienna’s Versailles, and the place where Marie Antoinette grew up), followed by a church wedding with Mass, followed by a reception at another palace (now used for receptions and other events) that had a cocktail hour in a beautiful garden, followed by a four-course dinner in one room, then cake and dancing in another, going on till 5 a.m.
Back in Rome, I headed to the Piazza del Popolo, created in the 17th century as part of a beautification project (!) for the city. My family joins me this week, and my 12-year-old son wants to see Pompei, so we headed down there for the day. I had no idea how large the town was, or how distinctly individual each home was. While each house follows the basic format, the owner’s individual taste is clear in the decoration, the garden design, the frescos and the mosaics (it was a kick to see Cave Canem and the head of the dog at one entryway. My favorite was the home with an elaborately designed table base, inscribed with the initials of the owner, who was also the first Senator to stab Julius Caesar. Learning that the area had been settled by Greeks and Etruscans before the Romans, making it a working port for some 4,000 years, is jaw-dropping. We wandered around Naples to get a flavor of that town, but were overtired and got ripped off by a cab driver before jumping on the train back to Rome. A long, but fun day.
As I sit in the American Academy library, I start to feel everything coming into focus. References that didn’t make any sense before are now connected to places in Rome I’ve seen and walked through; names of artists referred to I now have a context for; and a description of the scene at the Spanish Steps I found in Grace Greenwood’s hilariously enthusiastic “Haps and Mishaps of a European Journey,” published in 1854, could make a great opening scene for “Roman Conquest.”
I find myself gasping at the odd juxtaposition of the modern with the ancient at every turn in the city, but the Romans take it in stride. “Well,” said one, “it makes it difficult to expand the Metro, but it’s what makes Rome Rome.” I have also been struck by the continued devotion to Mary with candles, people stopping to say a prayer at little statues tucked into the walls on random streetcorners, candles and fresh flowers. It’s fascinating since so much of the art of the 16th and 17th century centered around convincing Catholics of the Immaculate Conception, which the Pope finally made a doctrine of the church in the 19th century. Many of the 19th century expatriate writers sneered at the superstitious Catholics, which makes it interesting that Harriet Hosmer had a commission in a Catholic church. One of the de rigeur visits of the 19th century tourists on the Grand Tour was a trip to the Protestant Cemetery, where many famous ex-pats are buried, including Keats and William Wetmore Story. I confess I made a special detour on another European visit to see James Joyce’s grave in Switzerland, but don’t have the same compunction on this trip to go to the Protestant cemetery.
This is a photo of the Judith Falconnet tomb monument in Sant Maria della Fratte that Harriet Hosmer was commissioned to sculpt when she was 26. I need to crop and enlarge the photo (I’m a little embarrassed shooting pix in church). People are very respectful and I never go in with a sleeveless shirt on. It’s a very simple statue, but similar to hundreds of tomb monuments I’ve seen in the Vatican Museum. I panicked a little because I couldn’t find it at first. It’s tucked into a little chapel and was easy to pass by. It’s fascinating, so many churches have six or eight separate chapels that a particular family chose to have a sculptor or painter decorate. A nearby church has three paointings by Caravaggio in it. There are lots of advertisements on buses for a the upcoming Notte de Caravaggio, in which viistors will take a tour to all of the churches and museums in Rome where his paintings are hung. I couldn’t translate all of it, but I wonder if drinking, carousing and stabbing people by the banks of the Tevere, for which the artist was as famous as for his paintings, is included in the ticket price. Although it sounds tempting, I believe I have already visited all of his works in Rome, and in some ways, it’s better to visit them is small bursts.
I thought I’d burned out on art, but it was just the overwhelming scale of the venue that wore me out. Today I went to the Borghese Gallery, an exquisite palace filled with statues by Canova and Bernini (I am starting to be able to distinguish his particular style) and some luscious Caravaggios, not to mention amazing ceiling paintings and rooms dedicated to art and music. Each of the rooms here were much smaller than at the Vatican, except for the grand entryways and “ballrooms” for entertaining, which made the gallery feel much more livable, although how anyone could sleep in rooms overstuffed with dramatic paintings is difficult to imagine. I have begun to seek out Caravaggio paintings and Bernini sculptures at churches throughout Rome. 2010 marks the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death and there are ads for a “Notte de Caravaggio,” which my pitiful Italian suggests is an evening tour to many of the places where you’ll find his paintings.
I walked back to the Spanish Steps via the Villa Borghese, a huge park, but couldn’t really get a sense of its size, so sprung for an hour rental of one of the bikes and pedaled around, discovering a cool little temple, a Fifa Fan Fest (planned when Italians did not expect their team to be so rudely eliminated early in the World Cup), and a variety of quiet nooks and crannies with fountains and two sarcophagi, many of which offered shade and break from the hot sun.
It’s taken me a day to recover from six hours of traipsing around the Vatican Museum. The sheer number and quality of artworks – sculpture, paintings, tapestries, mummies, and let’s not even start on the frescos – made my eyes, let alone my feet, hurt after a while. I got my ticket in advance (definitely worth the booking fee since the line was endless) but chose not to get a guided tour. It was easy enough to tag along with various other tours. Some guides were better than others, but the best were the ones who were passionate about a particular subject – my favorite was the one who practically swooned as he described Caravaggio’s technique and his wild and crazy life – but all of the guided tours I eavesdropped on offered fascinating tidbits of information. While Caravaggio’s three-dimensional paintings, with their astonishing use of light and emotional intensity also made me swoon, Raphael’s frescos and his “Transfiguration” were so active, they felt like a video simply on pause, and at any moment, the scene might begin again with all of the characters bursting back to life. It’s silly to even begin to describe Raphael’s frescos or the Sistine Chapel, both of which tell extraordinary stories (and the political jockeying that went into the selection of the artists is just as fascinating), but suffice to say, they are magnificent. It was odd to wander into St. Peter’s Basilica and have it feel so familiar. The little town where I grew up had a much smaller replica paid for by a wealthy resident and dedicated to his daughter, who died on her way back from a trip to Italy.
At the American Academy library I found the letters and travel diary of a woman named Emma Cullum Cortazzo, who travelled to Europe several times between 1865-1880. Reading her descriptions of the artwork in the Vatican Museum I appreciated the fact that she was as overwhelmed as I was, looking at the same pieces 150 years ago. Her strategy was to go once a day for 10 days to avoid art fatigue. She finally says her amateur descriptions sound “ridiculous and stupid, and I won’t say any more about it.” I’ll follow her lead there, but will say it’s an extraordinary feeling to be walking among pieces that inspired, and continue to inspire, artists for hundreds, even thousands of years. The Greek statues inspired the Romans, the Roman statues inspired the Renaissance artists, and so on. When you think that the Belvedere torso inspired Michaelangelo and Rodin, that there was such skill with sculpting the human form more than two thousand years ago, it’s both awe-inspiring and comforting. Artists didn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they set out to make a sculpture – they found a character or a pose and found a way to make it their own. In Harriet Hosmer’s letters she talks about struggling to find the right pose and dress for her Queen Zenobia, which was in turn inspired by a popular romance by William Ware, written in 1838. Harriet haunted the Vatican and many churches decorated with statues, and consulted friends for recommendations of pieces to consider. Harriet’s contribution to art history has been disparaged to some degree, since her art was rooted in classicism and didn’t move the form forward, but I find her very feminine takes on classic historic figures uniquely her own, and given that she was sculpting at a time when there was no opportunity for her to sketch models or even view much classical art at home, her work really stands out.
I had hoped Emma Cullum Cortazzo’s letters might reveal something about the relationship between the expats and the Italians, and she does seem very concerned about the Risorgimento and the political unrest leading up to Italian unification in 1870, but she is annoyingly vague, only mentioning changes in her travel plans to avoid the militias. Most of her travel arrangements are made by a man from home who irritated her no end, but I couldn’t quite figure out his relationship to her. She did learn Italian, but said she didn’t like the language, finding German much more musical (funny, I think the opposite). I did happen on a passage on her first trip when she calls on Charlotte Cushman on Jan. 31, 1866, when Emma was 24. “Coming in late this afternoon we found a note from Miss Cushman, asking us to call and see her at eight o’clock, so we went and we found Miss Cushman alone with a Mrs. Heywood, of Boston. The house is very fine, beautiful paintings, fine carved furniture and a dear little dog who drank part of my tea. Miss Cushman herself is charming, very genial and entertaining…. Miss Cushman was perfectly natural, had an intenseness which fascinated me and her eyes when she fixes them upon you as is her wont, thrill you all over. I did not talk much but sat and listened to her with delight.”
I am continually enchanted by how easy it is to step back in time 150 years here, and how the challenges of travelling and the reactions to the place are so similar to my own.
July 8, 2010
Here is a photo of the Canova Gallery and Museum Cafe dedicated to the work of Antonio Canova and many others who followed in his footsteps on the Via Bambuion.
This was the famous Italian sculptor’s actual studio, and although I have an archival photo of one of Edmonia Lewis’s studios and it looked just like this, the address doesn’t match the one I have. Never mind. The place is amazing, stuffed with sculptures by Canova, and many of his predecessors and followers. There’s a small area in the back where you can see the tools he used and the space where he actually worked with the clay.
Around the corner is Via Magutta, where Harriet Hosmer had a large studio when she was flying high after the success of her “Puck.” It’s a retail shop now, but the super-high ceilings and open areas make it clear it would be a great space for sculptor to work in. Although it has a swanky hotel or two, Via Margutta is still dominated by artists’ studios (ok, high end artist studios) and includes more than one shop where you can pick up your own bit of Roman debris (I’m sure they’re copies).
July 6, 2010
The Spanish Steps area is the motherload of history for me. The photo above is taken in front of Charlotte Cushman’s home at 38 Via Gregoriana, which is the setting for my play, “Roman Conquest.” There are no Vespas in my play, although I’m certain Harriet would have ridden one if she’d had a chance
I have wandered in and around all the little streets, and found the locations of the studios used by Edmonia Lewis, Emma Stebbins and Harriet Hosmer. Harriet’s at 5 Margutta, was huge, a reflection of the success of her sales of Puck (once the Prince of Wales visited her studio and purchased one, everyone had to have one) and one book in the American Academy library guesses that 30 were sold for a profit of $30,000 (the book was published in 1903, so I’m not sure if it was 30k at that time or in the 1860s when she sold them).
I went in and had an overpriced coffee at the Caffe Greco, which was a hub for the American expats to drink and talk. My favorite story so far is that Harriet marched in to the mens-only joint to prove a point, and although she was booted out, she definitely made an impression. She wrote the Doleful Ditty of the Caffe Greco in response to the men’s reaction, making fun of the lot of them.
A few blocks away is the Church of Sant’ Andrea delle Fratte, where Harriet’s tomb monument to Judith Falconnet is. It’s exquisite because she creates such a sense of softness to hard, heavy material.
July 5, 2010
It’s a sunny July 4 in Rome, and I’m sitting on the terrace of the apartment where I’m staying, enjoying the cool shade and a cup of espresso. I have a room in a lovely apartment in a neighborhood above Trastevere, still very urban, but a 10-minute bus ride into the heart of the city. It took a couple of days to become oriented, but I’m beginning to get the lay of the land here. Rome is very compact, with a wonderful public transportation system that makes it easy to get around if you’re not up for walking. I am mostly on foot, and although it is very hot and sunny, there are plenty of public fountains to cool your face or feet in. The mix of two thousand year old columns sitting right next to a semi-modern building is striking, but the Romans I’ve met so far say it’s something they get used to. It’s just Rome, said one with a shrug.
After spending the first few days visiting the essential tourist sites – the Forum, the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, and a check in at the American Academy – I headed into the neighborhood around the Spanish Steps where the 19th century expatriate artistic community was primarily based. That neighborhood was their home because in the 18th century it was turned into a tax-free zone for artists. In addition to the women I’m studying (Harriet Hosmer, Emma Stebbins and Edmonia Lewis), the poet Keats lived and died here (there’s a small museum dedicated to his memory at the house where he died, William Wetmore Story (known today more for Henry James’ biography than for his own artistic achievements), William Thackeray (“Vanity Fair”), painter Frederic Leighton, and many others found a vibrant social and intellectual scene. The neighborhood became so well-known for its art that a guide to the artists’ studios was published with descriptions of the artists and their work. Tours of the studios became an essential element in wealthy American’s “Grand Tours” of Europe, and their subsequent purchases became an important part of the artists’ income. Edith Wharton, in her novella, “The Old Maid,” describes the home of a wealthy New York family as including a statue by Harriet Hosmer, which was purchased while the protagonist was in Rome on the Grand Tour.
The neighborhood now is full of designer boutiques – Gucci, Ferragamo, Dolce and Gabbana, Tiffany’s and every other high-end group you can think of. July 3-6 marks a big sale, so while I wandered in search of history, the streets were filled with people lining up to get a pair of Jimmy Choo’s or a Prada bag at anywhere between 30-50 percent off, although even with the discount, it was still far beyond my budget.
I visited 38 Via Gregoriana, the home of the Boston actress Charlotte Cushman, who was the patron of many women artists, especially Harriet, Edmonia, and Emma, and is also the setting of my play, “Roman Conquest.” For my reading, the director kept asking me where the windows were, and where the entrances and exits were, and I struggled to visualize the look of the room. But here it was, five stories tall, with huge French doors to open for light and air, plenty of room for Charlotte to host parties, and provide bedrooms, studio space and sitting area for her “family,” which consisted of Emma (her partner), Sally Mercer (her longtime dresser and personal maid), Harriet for a while, and Charlotte’s nephew, his wife (who may also have been Charlotte’s lover), and their young children. I would have loved to go in, but it’s a private home. There was a hotel across the street, and I went in to check out the prices, but with a cost of 250 euros per night, I didn’t even go look at the rooms. More discoveries near the Piazza di Spagna later.
June 30, 2010
This summer I will be following in the footsteps of several extraordinary women who left Boston in the 1860s and headed to Rome, with occasional trips to Florence, to pursue their love of the arts, particularly sculpture, in an environment that supported and nurtured them. With the patronage of Boston, actress Charlotte Cushman, Emma Stebbins (Bethesda Fountain in New York’s Central Park), Edmonia Lewis (“Death of Cleopatra,” Smithsonian Institution), and Harriet Hosmer (“Puck,” Smithsonian), lived and learned together in an American expatriate community that included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James and many others. Their experiences in Italy deeply influenced their sense of themselves and their work and I am hoping to capture that feeling in my dramatized look at their artistic lives in my play, “Roman Conquest.”