A brief visit to Rome last week – staying once again in the abidingly diverting Landmark Trust apartment at the side of the Spanish Steps – allowed me to retrace yet again the footsteps of some of the mid-19th-century women expatriates – British and American – who for a number of years made the city their home.
In the mid-1850s the intriguing Matilda Hays, journalist and novelist, was living in Rome – with her long-term partner, Charlotte Cushman, the American actress, who had now retired from the stage. For at least some of the time they lived, enjoying what Elizabeth Barrett Browning termed a ‘female marriage’, at 38 via Gregoriana, a road leading off to the right at the top of the Spanish Steps – as seen in the view above.
As the women walked down from their home – perhaps to have tea at the Caffe Inglese in the Piazza di Spagna – they presumably sometimes thought of John Keats, who had died in a room on their left (as seen in the above photo), on the floor with the terrace, just 30 years or so earlier. We were staying in the floor above.
Matilda Hays describes something of the life of her friends and acquaintances in her novel, Adrienne Hope, the story of a life, published by Newby in 1866. What the novel may lack in plot it makes up for in its ‘factional’ interest to those, like me, who are keen to repopulate the forestieri quarter of Rome with its mid-19th-century inhabitants. I must confess I know far more about their funny little ways than I do those of any Roman, ancient or modern.
So it interested me that Matilda Hays gives her leading characters, Lord Charles and Lady Charlotte Luttrell, ‘a suite of rooms in a large house at the southern end of the Via Gregoriana, rooms on the fourth piano [floor], beneath the windows of which Rome lay extended like a panorama, the turbid Tiber separating the Janiculum from its sister hills, and gliding like a monster sea-snake through the valley from its entrance into the city close to the Porta del Popolo to its exit south below the Aventino. There lies the Queen City of the World, with its quaint, irregular, grey roofs, its 364 churches, its noble pagan temples and imperial palaces, noble in their ruin and decay, asking through the day in the undimmed lustre of an Italian sun, to be glorified by its setting rays of gold, and crimson, and purple, the depth and richness of whose hues none who have not seen can by any means imagine, and none how have seen can ever forget.’
There has, of course, been much building – and rebuilding – in the course of the past 150 years and even from the topmost floor of a house at the southern end of the via Gregoriana I doubt that such a view could now be obtained – although that from the Piazza Trinita dei Monte, into which the street debouches, is still one of the most magnificent in Rome. Via Gregoriana has probably been renumbered since Hays lived there; but, for the record, number 38 is now towards the northern end, facing across over the city. Alas, I could not test whether or not the Tiber could be seen from the fourth piano.
The novel contains much visiting of artists’ studios in Rome. The comment is made that ‘Among all the different races of living sculptors Americans alone have shown a tendency to produce something new and original, and though none have been eminently successful – choosing for and the most part the wild Indian life of the North American continent for their subjects – yet this departure from the stereotyped classic form is welcome and refreshing..’ Alas, although it would have been neat, this observation probably comes too early to refer to the work of Edmonia Lewis, a young woman of African-American and Native-American parentage, who, from 1865, made her home in Rome, sculpting, among many other works, Hiawatha and his daughter (1868).
Matilda Hays was commenting on the pagan sculpture that was very much the mode of the moment and was well acquainted with the English sculptor, John Gibson, who was leading the vanguard. In the novel, Sir Charles and Lady Charlotte visit Gibson’s studio in via Fontanella – close to the Piazza di Spagna.
‘The transition from the dirty unfragrant street to the cool large studio, filled with lovely statues and bassi rilievi, with a green vista of moss and fern and trickling water beyond, and a scent of the rich flowers of the south wafted on the breeze, was a pleasant surprise both to eyes and nose. The mellow sunlight poured down upon the verdant niche in the small garden – which constantly falling water of a fountain keeps cool and fresh through the burning heats of summer, – and streamed in at the open door, throwing a beautiful light upon the graceful limbs of ‘Hylas and the Water Nymphs’, ‘Psyche and the Zephyrs’, two of the fairest groups the cultivated meditative brain has created, and the cunning hand of the master has wrought.’
‘Hylas Surprised by the Naides’ is now in Tate Britain – click here for details – having been given to the nation in 1847. That sculpture had, therefore, left Gibson’s studio long before Matilda Hays knew him – she had presumably seen the work when it was publicly displayed or perhaps he did have a cast of it to be admired by studio visitors.
Once inside Gibson’s studio Lady Charlotte Luttrell is shown his most infamous work – a statue of Venus, her skin tinted. Through her character Matilda Hays voices the popular controversy that surrounded the work – Lady Charlotte shows herself, politely, to be ambivalent about this use of colour on statuary.
Lady Charlotte is then taken to an upstairs studio to meet Gibson’s star pupil, the young American, Harriet Hosmer.
Bearing in mind that in the mid-1850s Matilda Hays had for a time left Charlotte Cushman for Harriet Hosmer, this is how she is described in Adrienne Hope:
’..there was something very winning in the fair, broad brow, with its clustering sunny brown curls, the inevitable velvet cap crowning them; the deep, earnest eyes, the compact nose, firm-set mouth, and square chin and jaw; the trim little figure, with its clothing of grey skirt and holland blouse, and as she addressed her visitors, the quaint short phrases, the peculiar sharp-cut of the words reminding them of her master (snap and bite, the wags called master and pupil) and the eyes and face danced and glowed with fun and fire. Lady Charles thought her as charming a sprite as the Puck she had modelled – and for which, before her visitors left, she received an order, accompanied by such kind expressions of admiration and good-will that the value of the order to the young artist must have been considerably enhanced.’
Gibson’s studio was at 4 via Fontanella – all trace of it, I am sure, long swept away. Via Fontanella is a continuation, across the via del Babuino, of via Margutta where Harriet Hosmer went on to have her own studios. The two addresses I know for her, at numbers 5 and 116 are, if the numbering is anything like it was in the mid-19th century, both at the via Fontanella end of the long via Margutta.
The other characters in Adrienne Hope include a Miss Reay, a literary woman, who has seen a good deal of the world and is not very much in love with it. She was ‘engaged in editing a philanthropic journal, with which a great deal of practical work is connected, the chief burden of which falls upon myself and two or three others..’ ‘I made a fair start in early life in a literary career.. but cruel circumstances intervened..the best years of my life were utterly and uselessly sacrificed..’
Poor put-upon Miss Reay is, of course, Matilda Hays herself. She had been a co-founder of The English Woman’s Journal – Britain’s first feminist monthly magazine – and had for a time been its editor before falling out (‘cruel circumstances’) with her fellow workers, Barbara Bodichon and Bessie Rayner Parkes. Miss Reay was a solitary, intrepid woman: ‘ I confess that to this day, habitually as I have walked and travelled alone, I have never experienced the smallest annoyance, and I should not hesitate to set out alone tomorrow, for travels as protracted and solitary as those of Madame Ida Pfeiffer..’ [Ida Pfeiffer being one of the first woman explorers.]
Also making an appearance in Adrienne Hope is a Lady Morton, the widow of a peer, who probably bore a very close resemblance to the slightly mysterious Theodosia, Lady Monson, a benefactor of The English Woman’s Journal, with whom Hays later lived.
Matilda Hays left Rome on 20 April 1857 – two days after a violent row with Charlotte Cushman – a final break that, after a few years’ gestation, resulted in Adrienne Hope. She died 40 years later at 15 Sefton Drive, Toxteth Park, Liverpool and (thanks to Phil Williams for the information) is buried in Toxteth Cemetery where, I believe, her headstone can still be seen.