From Rome in 1869 to Chioggia in 2023 December All Things Italy

December 13, 2023 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Thomas Buchanan Read’s The Angel Appearing before the Shepherds, painted in Rome, 1869-70. Image from the Dayton Art Institute & Wikimedia Commons.

Dear Friends: 

December is upon us, with its short days and long, dark nights (at least in the Northern Hemisphere, where I believe most of you are).  

As I think of you during these days of busy-ness,  I want to say thanks for connecting with me and my love of Italy– especially those who are new subscribers. Many of you know that these newsletters mix the past with the present, emerging from my research on 19th -century US travelers and expats and my experiences in Italian archives, teaching Italian students, and leading adult travelers on specialized treks. This month’s issue is no different.  

As I reflect on December in Italy, what comes to mind are readings and movies about the month rather than my own experiences on the ground. I’ve witnessed Rome and Calabria in late November and Sicily in early January, but otherwise, what I know of the short days and holiday season is second-hand. However, I believe the second-hand accounts interesting and informative, so here’s a bit of that for you. 

For those interested in contemporary culture, I hope you’ll make your way through some historical tidbits first. After those views from around 1870, I’ll share a bit about a contemporary, “feel good” Netflix series to help you through the holidays. (If you don’t want the historical, scroll down quickly!)  

Also, in keeping with the season of gift-giving, I’m offering a giveaway this month. Three weeks from now I’ll select randomly from new subscribers AND any longer-term subscribers who recruit a new subscriber. The one selected will receive a copy of my book Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks. To enter, just reply to this message with the name & email of the new subscriber (which I’ll check against my subscriber list), and you will both be entered! The giveaway ends December 21. 

Here’s a share button to help you encourage a friend to subscribe and enter the giveaway!

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A “Letter from Rome” in December 1869 

Journalist Anne Hampton Brewster wrote a lengthy account on December 17, 1869, about British and US citizens who were enjoying the winter season abroad. She regularly sent dispatches to several US newspapers, but this one gave readers a glimpse of her participation in “a most agreeable dinner and reception.” Might we call it a holiday party? I think so.  

In this “Letter from Rome,” published in the January 6, 1870 Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Brewster included several details of the dinner and reception at the home of artist and poet Thomas Buchanan Read (1822-72). Linked to the artist through their Pennsylvania origins, Brewster had lived with Read and his family for several months when she first arrived in Rome a year earlier. She had written favorably of a similar evening, celebrating the famous US poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the previous winter.

Brewster did not describe the décor on this occasion, as she did for the Longfellow fête, but she did follow her habit of name dropping. She listed several of the guests attending, many of whom were newspaper people, like her: George Ripley and George Washburn Smalley of the New-York Tribune, Henry G. Wreford of the London Times, Gerardine Macpherson of the New York World, a “Mr. Jones” of the New York Times, and correspondents of the New York Evening Post. Brewster took time to share a bit about each, including an explanation that Macpherson, the only other woman writer present, was a niece to popular author Anna Brownell Jameson.   

The gaggle of reporters was so great that, according to Brewster, Ripley quipped, “there were enough correspondents present to get up a popular edition of a “New and Complete Letter Writer”–a bestselling how-to book of the era. 

Brewster’s comments about all these correspondents suggest that Read, something of a showman, wanted the event to be widely publicized. He succeeded, at least with Brewster’s writing about the festivities.  

For the entertainment, Read attempted to direct attention away from himself by reading an ode to another artist, Randolph Rogers (1825-92). Rogers had been at work on a statue of Abraham Lincoln, which, Brewster explained was at that moment “going into bronze at Munich.” Read himself, Brewster told her readers, had written the “fine” ode, which he “recited with great effect and success.” (The ode later was published as a broadside. You can see an image of the final statue, completed in 1871, and now located in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, here.) 

Copy of the broadside from the Library Company of Philadelphia digital collections.

What does any of this fanfare about Rogers and Lincoln have to do with the holidays?  Very little, it may seem at first.  

But imagine the evening, the celebratory air on a long winter’s night, Read performing for the crowd as he delivered the poem in his home near the Piazza di Spagna, the news reporters and other expats gathered in the room to enjoy the cheer and make spirits bright.

In fact, as Brewster captured the event, she added a bit more for readers back home in Philadelphia, connecting the dinner and reception near the Spanish Steps to the Christmas season in the US. 

Brewster spilled more ink as she raved about the generous host Read and his latest work than she did in writing about Rogers.

“Read is always having a new and popular picture in his studio,” she began. “The one attracting attentions now is the “Star of Bethlehem,” which, both for composition and execution, is one of his best.” 

Thomas Buchanan Read’s The Angel Appearing before the Shepherds. Brewster referred to the work as the “Star of Bethlehem” before it was completed in 1870. Image from the Dayton Art Institute & Wikimedia Commons.

Rather than relying merely on her own judgment, Brewster shared comments from one of Read’s “brother-artists,” George Henry Yewell (1830-1923), another expat painter. His “praise is worth something,” Brewster explained, “because he is genuine, sincere, and one of the best artists in Rome.” Within the painting, Yewell spoke of the Angel as “the capital bit of work—well modeled, well painted, and a beautiful conception.”   

Brewster continued the artistic praises with additional description:  

“The distant landscape is well composed, and the hazy atmosphere of moonlight melts into the supernatural rays proceeding from the Angel most harmoniously. The Angel is poised with fine effect over a stream; above the head is a star in whose light a cross is faintly prefigured. The group of shepherds on the hill watching their flocks is spirited, and the fire of twigs and sticks throws up a ruddy glow over them, which forms a fine contrast to the rest of the picture.”  

With all of her attention to the “Star of Bethlehem,” Brewster gave readers added attention to her friend Read and to the holiday season.

Although these letters from Rome generally appeared in print about two weeks after Brewster wrote them (they went by post rather than by transatlantic cable), the January 6 publication date was Epiphany, likely was no coincidence. The holiday traditionally celebrates the wise men said to have visited the baby Jesus after seeing a bright star.  

Brewster also referred briefly in her “Letter from Rome” to the Advent season, as she pointed readers to Wreford’s pointed Protestant account in the London Times of a service at St. Peter’s Basilica. Although she considered Wreford’s piece “clever and witty” and “a masterpiece of . . . amusing, spirited and concise” writing, she did not agree with the author’s tone. As an adult convert to Roman Catholicism, Brewster considered Wreford’s description of the service “from a different point of view.”   

Perhaps in these brief lines about St. Peter’s, as much as in her celebration of Read’s painting, Brewster reminded readers then and reminds us today of the differences among people as they pass the December days and nights.

Brewster’s writings throughout the month and even in this one account went far afield from the holidays.

She kept readers up to date on art, culture, and politics, and shared gossip about the royalty and the wealthy. For example, in the close of this letter she referred to the actress Charlotte Cushman (with whom she had been in a relationship in Philadelphia) and Cushman’s latest partner, Emma Stebbins. Earlier in the same letter she informed readers that Rodolfo Lanciani, “the clever young archaeologist and architect, of whom I have repeatedly spoken” was expected to be appointed the new Director of the Capitoline Museum. The position had opened up with the sculptor Pietro Tenerani’s death three days earlier. (Brewster’s relationship with Lanciani became quite complex, as I note here.)

Illness, death and darkness stood nearby in December. Brewster’s diaries, kept throughout the twenty years she was in Rome, show that the month was a difficult time for her, filled with memories of lost family and relationships.  

However, what’s also clear from Brewster’s words in this December 1869 “Letter from Rome” is that she let social evenings and thoughts about art and literature fill her heart and lift her soul. 

*** 

If you’re interested in knowing more about Brewster’s professional and private life, including how her utopian dreams fell short as she lived abroad, you can read more here and in Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks. 

If you’d like to read more about December in 19th-century Italy, you might enjoy the brief accounts linked here, about Emily Bliss Gould and Caroline Crane Marsh, two other women featured in Engaging Italy. (Brewster also features briefly in the second link.) They include fundraising at year’s end and gift-giving, including too many toys for spoiled young children

My Gift to You

Remember, as a gift to one of you, I’ll be selecting randomly from new subscribers and any former subscribers who recruit a new All Things Italy subscriber. Please send me an email, if you fit that category. Giveaway entry ends December 21!  Here’s a “share” link to help you out:

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A Feel-Good Flick for December: Odio Il Natale 

If you want to forget about December darkness and enjoy a fun, feel-good “flick” (a short series of six approximately half-hour episodes), try Odio Il Natale (I Hate Christmas), on Netflix. Although the title suggests Ebeneezer Scrooge’s “bah humbug,” this series is not a variation on Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol but rather a romping rom com set in Chioggia, near Venice. It’s filled with youthfulness and laughter, even alongside the stresses of family during the holiday season.  

Already seen it? Interested in more? The second season releases soon—on December 7. 

Without any spoilers offered here (you can find those almost anywhere you wish, thanks to Google), I want to emphasize one cultural element I love in the series. It showcases the phenomenon known in Italy as the presepe, or nativity scenes. The building of these dioramas takes on much cultural value throughout the Italian peninsula. The tradition varies, as Italian food does, from region to region. Presepe intensify in the south, especially around Naples, and often feature caves rather than wooden stables. (I once saw an amazing display of these and their history in Naples, and I don’t think I will ever forget it. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures.)

Want to read more about the presepe traditions, which usually begin around December 8, with the Feast of Immaculate Conception? 

Take a look at this blog and this one.

Recommendations for Readers 

Finally, for those who are avid readers, since I’ve moved All Things Italy to Substack, I’ve become more familiar with others who are writing on this platform. To close out this issue, I want to recommend a “Substack,” called @ItalyWriters that features Italy and books. You can find it here.

Next month I’ll recommend another. 

For now, I want to close with another thanks for reading along. Remember, I would love to hear from you, if you’d like more contemporary culture, more history, more about specific locations, etc. Your feedback feeds my writing and research! 

And, if you’re part of a group that is looking for a speaker in 2024, let me know that as well. We’ll see what we can work out! 

Until then, I hope you make your way through the December darkness with enough light and love to carry you along peacefully.

As they say in Italy, Buone Feste!  

Etta Madden