La Bella Libertà: British women writers and Italy

For  many years I have been interested in what English– and Scottish and Irish – women have written about Italy. Two factors stimulated this interest. 

The first: the elder of my daughters has, ever since leaving university, lived in Rome, married to a Roman, spending her days helping visitors to understand the history – particularly the art and architecture – of the city. (Find her at Understanding Rome.)

The other is more prosaic: interested, as always, in what the past had to say to the present I began browsing in the ‘Topography: Italy’ section – located in one of the more crepuscular basements of the London Library. Armed with a torch I found many idiosyncratic records of women’s engagement with that country and, in the darkest corner of a bottom shelf, I came across the 2 volumes of Mariana Starke’s Travels in Italy, between the years 1792 and 1798; containing a view of the late revolutions in that country. Likewise poihting out the matchless works of art which still embellish Pisa, Florence, Siena, Rome, Naples, Bologna, Venice etc With instructions of the use of invalids and families, who may not chuse to incur the expence attendant upon travelling with a courier. Also a supplement, comprising instructions for travelling in France, with descriptions of all the principal roads and cities in that republic. London: Printed for R. Phillips, St Paul’s Church Yard, by T. Gillett, Salisbury Square, 1802.. This being the London Library I was able to bring the volumes home – albeit that they were over 200 years old – and peruse them at my leisure.

It was this initial introduction that led to a most interesting engagement with Mariana Starke (1762-1838) – a tough, eccentric, opinionated individual  – and with other women – from the 18th to the late-20th century  – who have paid extended visits to Italy or made it their home. Women and her Sphere devotes a separate series of posts to Mariana Starke, but, here in ‘Women writers and Italy’, I write of the  ‘sweet freedom’ that women found in Italy, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning extols in Under Casa Guidi Windows. Thanks to the Landmark Trustly I, too, have stood in the evening on Casa Guid’s balcony, with the long shutters open, letting dusky light into the somewhat cavernous drawing room. and imagined Elizabeth craning over the railing, to catch a glimpse of a young boy as he passes, singing, along the street below. It is the essence of his song that I have lifted to name this Theme. For this is how Elizabeth Barrett Browning put into words her experience that evening:

‘I heard last night a little child go singing

Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church,

O bella libertà, O bella – stringing

The same words still on notes he went in search

So high for, you concluded the upspringing

Of such a nimble bird to sky from perch

Must leave the whole bush in a tremble green,

And that the heart of Italy must beat,

While such a voice had leave to rise serene

‘Twixt church and palace of a Florence street’

Thus in Under Casa Guidi Windows, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of England’s most famous exports to Italy, extolled ‘La Bella Libertà’, the freedom that was Italy’s due. However it takes only a cursory reading to realise that ‘sweet freedom’ was what above all Italy gave to the many women writers who have, over the last two centuries, flocked there.

As we can recognize, ‘freedom’ is not synonymous with ‘bliss’, but in Italy English women have felt free to fail as well as succeed – to be unhappy as well as happy – at least to be unhappy in their own way. They have felt able in that country, far from home, the Alps a psychological as well as a physical barrier, to construct a life for themselves, untramelled by the conventions that controlled society in England. One would think that nowadays such escape would no longer seem necessary. But nobody can fail to have noticed the recent spate of books by women – not only British women, but also Americans and Australians – describing new lives forged in Italy. These are merely the latest in a line of such love affairs with Italy that stretches way back into at least the 18th century.


3 August 2012: Dearest Bess

10 August 2012: Anna Miller

24 August 2012: Anna Miller crosses Mont Cenis

  1. #1 by Alison T. McCall on July 29, 2012 - 1:51 pm

    I am researching the poet Bessie Craigmyle (1863-1933) I know that she visited Florence c1887/8 and wrote about it, but the poems appear to be lost. I would love to find them.

    • #2 by womanandhersphere on July 31, 2012 - 12:28 pm

      Alas, Bessie Craigmyle hasn’t swum previously into my ken. Though I must say, after reading your piece about her on the Women’s History Network Blog, I am most intrigued and will certainly keep a look out for anything about her.

  2. #3 by Tuscan olive grove girl on June 17, 2013 - 1:49 pm

    Very interesting, thank you.

  3. #4 by thomasina Dearlove on February 9, 2020 - 8:19 pm

    How wonderful to find your blog. As a frequent visitor to Rome as a senior woman with a passion for the city I have spent a wonderful evening researching Mariana Starke. The fact that I live in Epsom where she was baptised gave me an additional smile. The painter Constable spent time at Hylands as it was leased by his Aunt and Uncle James Gubbins in 1802. I must also mention I follow your daughter on Twitter, enjoying her daily tweets. Best regards Thomasina.

    • #5 by womanandhersphere on February 10, 2020 - 3:19 pm

      Thomasina – good to hear from you..and to know that Mariana has another fan. I think she was quite a character. I’ve peered through the gates of Hylands..and wandered round the Epsom parish my bid to re-encounter her.
      Best wishes, Elizabeth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: