“Italy . . . drew her like a magnet”

June 13, 2024 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

All Things Italy May 2024

Villa di Papiano in Tuscany

Dear Friends and Fellow Italy Lovers: 

I write this month from Italy, where I arrived on May 1. The streets of Rome were relatively quiet. Although there was something of a throng around the Pantheon, Rome’s main shopping street, the Corso, was not thick with crowds. It was not so much because of the spring drizzle, which later became a downpour, but because May 1 is a holiday—traditionally, La Festa dei Lavori–the equivalent of Labor Day in the US. It falls exactly one week after Liberation Day, the April 23 celebration of freedom from Mussolini’s fascist regime. The two holiday’s back-to-back certainly put spring in the air. Desires to break routine and get outside prevail. But then, when rain arrives, people scurry inside, side-stepping puddles as much as possible.  

Nonetheless, when I ventured out from my writing desk during dry spells, I caught the smell of jasmine and was reminded that spring almost everywhere warms the senses, when we let it.  

The jasmine is alive and well in May on many walls in Italy

Enough of weather and my arrival. What of the promised topic for this month? My guess is that many don’t recall, and new subscribers certainly shouldn’t. (Welcome to you!) The title only hints at this month’s exploration of 19th-century expat Laura Towne Merrick. According to a family biography written by one of her nieces, during Merrick’s first visit to Italy in 1869-70, she was struck by the love of Italy common to so many visitors. Later, back in Philadelphia, that love “drew her like a magnet” to return.* Sounds simple. End of story, right? 

Laura Towne Merrick & Anne Hampton Brewster

But Merrick’s story, like so many, is much more complicated. It involves love, and loss, and illness, and art. I came across it through my research and writing on expat journalist Anne Hampton Brewster (featured in my book, Engaging Italy). Both women were from Philadelphia, and that origin linked them. There were other similarities in their lives. Neither woman ever married (although they had romantic interests), and both had a deep appreciation for art. Both fell in love with Italy on a first visit, and then returned to the peninsula a decade later, where they remained until their deaths.  

Merrick’s and Brewster’s paths crossed only briefly, however. In fact, I would have missed their link, if a Tuscan woman writing about Merrick had not reached out to me. Stefania Corsini, resident of Pistoia and author of a brief biography of Merrick, contacted me because of my work on Brewster. (Corsini’s biography is now available on demand in English. She gave me a copy a few days ago, when we met up in Tuscany. Let me know if you’d like a copy, and I’ll help you work it out). Our initial contact by email prompted a meet up in 2019 and the article on Merrick, which appeared in the most recent issue of Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide.

Stefania Corsini and I with a copy of her biography of Laura Towne Merrick, now translated into English

To bring the recent article to light, Corsini and I collaborated with art historian Caterina Pierre of New York. The article focuses on the role of art in Merrick’s and Brewster’s expat life. Specifically, we tell the story of a sculpture by the renowned US artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens, which Merrick commissioned. Previously, the sculpture has been listed as “unlocated” in directories of Saint-Gaudens’s work. I share some tidbits of that story, related to Merrick and Brewster, below. (You can read the entire article, from which I draw much of this information, here.) 

Lost Love & Love Rediscovered  

Merrick’s story, as her biographers tell it, is that her family’s physician and friend, Silas Weir Mitchell, advised that she travel abroad to get over her melancholy, brought on by a broken heart. She was then in her twenties.

Note: This Dr. Mitchell is now famous for the “rest cure” he devised and prescribed for many nineteenth-century women of privilege, who were often made worse by this treatment of bedrest and isolation. Even reading and writing were too stimulating. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” fictionalizes her treatment with the rest cure under Mitchell’s care after the birth of her first child. If you’ve not read it, you likely can imagine the outcome of such restricted activity.  

But Merrick’s travel abroad stimulated rather than depressed her. She wrote home about her gallery visits in Rome. She noted “enthusiasm” for the Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican Museums, and she also seems to have been impressed by the Antinous at the Capitoline Museum. At least, she later commissioned the rising artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens to make busts based on both.  

The Antinous bust Merrick commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create

We know something of Merrick’s gallery visits because Brewster, who had arrived in Rome a year earlier, wrote of them in her newspaper articles, published regularly in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. In two articles, in particular, Brewster mentioned seeing sites with Merrick. These included a torchlight tour of the Vatican Museums.  

Merrick left Rome after what was then considered a short stay—only three months. Likely, she went back to Philadelphia because of her father’s ill health. In Philadelphia she had her travel journal, books, and images of Europe she had purchased while abroad. And, of course, she had her memories to keep her spirits up. A decade later she would select her favorite possessions and return to Italy for good. 

Merrick’s travel journal, now in the private collection at the Villa di Papiano

In the meantime, however, she commissioned the two busts by Saint-Gaudens. His career had been fostered by Brewster, who wrote of his studio work in Rome in her articles. Brewster also hosted evening receptions twice a week in her fourteen-room apartment not far from the Spanish Steps and the Piazza Barberini. Here artists, tourists, and expatriates mingled. They enjoyed conversation, music, and refreshments—all supporting each other emotionally while they lived in a new culture.  

We know that these webs of connections were important to people like Brewster, Saint-Gaudens, and Merrick. We’re able to see references to them in existing documents, such as diaries, account books, and letters. Merrick mentioned in a letter to Saint-Gaudens, for example, “When you see Miss Brewster will you not give her my love. . . . Miss Brewster was so kind to me while in Rome that much of my pleasure was owing to her.”* At this time Brewster and the artist were neighbors in Rome. Merrick obviously was holding tight her memories of time in Italy. 

Merrick’s memories of Rome and the busts she commissioned by Saint- Gaudens likely factored into her return to Italy almost a decade later. The deaths of her father, a sister, and her mother changed her family and her financial situations. These losses also likely contributed to Merrick’s decision to move abroad for good. From October 1883 until her death, she lived primarily in Florence, Rome (where she maintained a villa for many years), and in rural Tuscany in the region of Pistoia. There she purchased in 1886 the Villa di Papiano, perched on a hilltop above the village of Lamporecchio. She summered at the villa from 1887 until her death in 1926.  

The villa in Rome which Merrick maintained for many years (from the private collection at Villa di Papiano)

So what was the love Merrick rediscovered after she lost that first love in the 1860s? We could say it was the love of Italy, of course, and also the love of art. She wrote of the pleasure she found in gazing upon the busts Saint-Gaudens created. We can imagine how these helped her to remember her first trip to Italy and the people and places she had encountered there. But the recent Merrick biographer, my collaborator Stefania Corsini, also suggests an important relationship with a new love in Italy. For that story, I refer you to Corsini’s biography, rather than the article.

You can read more details of Merrick, Brewster, and the “lost” and “found” Saint-Gaudens bust in the recently published article, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Antinous, 1874 in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 23, no. 1 (Spring 2024). I have drawn heavily from our collaborative article here. That article cites all the sources for our research.

*Mary Williams Brinton, Their Lives and Mine (Philadelphia: Mary Williams Brinton, 1972), 201.

**Laura Towne Merrick to Augustus Saint-Gaudens, February 21, 1878, folder 31, box 13, series 1, ML-4, RSC, Dartmouth College. 

Visiting Villa Papiano Today

For those of you interested in Italy today, you would likely enjoy scrolling through the Villa Papiano’s website. Laura Merrick’s former home is now a lovely lodging of the Venturini family. Although I have not been an overnight guest, I had the opportunity to visit in July 2019, six months before Covid shut down travel. But the Villa is back in business, with rooms and apartments for travelers to Tuscany, and an inviting pool and garden for the summer months. (You can also see reviews on Trip Advisor).

Another view of the Villa di Papiano in Tuscany
Two views of the surrounding Tuscan hills from the loggia of Villa di Papianoof the Villa di

The Villa also includes numerous rooms set aside as a museum, dedicated to Laura Merrick’s life and years at Papiano. These may be visited on appointment. The website provides contact information.

Other Nineteenth-Century Women in Italy 

Merrick’s story is just one among many that could (and should) be told of women who left the US to live in Italy. The reasons for the moves and the results differ with each. But each enriches our understanding of the constraints and dreams that women before us have faced, in turn helping us make decisions about how to live. Another example of an enlightening woman from the past, mentioned in Engaging Italy, is author Constance Fenimore Woolson. Who is she, you might ask? Stay tuned . . .  

Next week here in Italy I begin co-leading a group of Woolson-lovers and scholars. My co-leader, Anne Boyd Rioux, is the premier Woolson biographer and a member of the Woolson Society, which maintains a website with lots of Woolson information and links to her writings. (We proudly refer to ourselves as “Woolites.”) We’re following in Woolsons footsteps—although in reverse of the way she lived out her years in Italy. She died in Venice, where we begin before moving south to Florence and to Rome, where Woolson was buried in the Cimitero Acattolico. We’ll end in Sorrento, where Woolson once wintered. Next month’s All Things Italy will feature more of this trip.  

If you don’t want to wait until then to see some of our steps, you can follow along on social media (Facebook or Instagram). I (and other Woolites) will be posting pictures.  

Until next month, I wish you the best of what the late spring offers, wherever you are. 

Alla prossima!  (until the next time),

Etta

Etta Madden