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.