All Things Italy December 2021

December 20, 2021 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

A sunset view near Sorrento on the Bay of Naples

Dear Friends:

I am a little later than I had planned in writing to you. It’s that time of year, you know? Schedules sometimes go out the window . . . when we get a message from a childhood friend, or a family member needs a call.  But here we are–together on your screen. I hope the holiday season is treating you well so far and that you’re finding time for solace amidst the periods of chaos and some light in the moments of darkness. For me, taking time to read and reflect soothes my soul. If I can only remember to indulge in these activities when they are most needed. 

Of course, reading and reflecting on my times in Italy are among the cures. Perhaps this newsletter will add some cheer to your day (or evening).  

As promised last month, this issue includes an update on Engaging Italy (forthcoming in April—finally!), a review Robert V. Camuto’s South of Somewhere, and some tidbits on Italy during the holiday season.  

Engaging Italy: A Cover and Galleys  

The cover of Engaging Italy (SUNY Press 2022), featuring Caroline Crane Marsh, Anne Hampton Brewster, and Emily Bliss Gould (clockwise from lower left)

Since I last wrote, SUNY Press sent me both the cover design AND the galleys of Engaging Italy for my review. For those new to the newsletter, Engaging Italy is my account of three nineteenth-century American woman who found their “later vocations” as they lived abroad. Journalist Anne Hampton Brewster, translator and Ambassador’s wife Caroline Crane Marsh, and orphanage and industrial school founder Emily Bliss Gould lived and worked in the same expat circles in Rome at the time of Italian unification. Unlike the fictional Daisy Miller, created by expat author Henry James, these women did not lose themselves while living abroad but rather found new callings. They engaged with the local political culture to live out their new dreams of making the world a better place. 

Rather than tell you how their stories end, I’ll encourage you to read future newsletters and the book when it becomes available in the spring. I’ve written and shared bits and pieces of the women’s stories since 2013, when I first started research on the project. 

At this point, I’m reviewing the galleys—the page proofs—the final step for me in the book production process. In addition to the galley proofing, the index preparation is underway. Both are due back to SUNY in early January. I hope in my next All Things Italy letter to you that I can joyously report that all have been completed. 

The title page for Engaging Italy, as it appears in the galley proofs I am reviewing this month

Nineteenth-Century Italy and Natale 

How did the three women in Engaging Italy celebrate the holidays outside the US? To answer the question, I turned to my notes to see what they wrote about Christmas, or Natale, as it is known in Italy.  

Gould’s Philanthropy in Florence and Rome

Among the most uplifting are Emily Bliss Gould’s reports of the celebrations at the schools and orphanages she supported in Florence and Rome. In 1867 she wrote from the warm and lit dining room of the Villa Forini, Caroline Crane Marsh’s home near the Arno River in Florence. For the second time, the Anglo community provided a Christmas tree and gifts for the “some 200 or 300 children” of The Florence Evangelical School. Gould explained in her letter to Dr. Thompson, the President of the American Foreign and Christian Union, that “the little fingers of our American children have been busy for some weeks in preparing activities for their comfort and pleasure.” Gould’s letter was also a year-end appeal. The Anglo expat community could not support the “teachers, heat and other expenses” needed for the months ahead, she explained. They needed help from those back in the US.  

Gould’s letter to the President of the American Foreign and Christian Union, written from Marsh’s home in Florence, the Villa Forini (This letter is in the archives of New York University).

Gould continued to organize such celebrations and fundraising as her efforts turned from Florence to Rome after 1870. She wrote of the Christmas party and tree in her annual letters. And the Italian newspaper, Il Popolo Romano, also wrote of the event in early January 1874. It describes a party “of the Christmas tree” held at the school “founded and directed by the philanthropist Mrs. Gould, an American.” About 150 young students, the story explained, receive a free education there. Among these, ten of the “orphaned and abandoned” children are “fed and clothed” by Gould. During the celebration the students received gifts of toys and clothes from under the tree, but only after a reading and “remarks” by leaders, both Italians and “foreigners.”    

A party “of the Christmas tree” was held at the school “founded and directed by the philanthropist Mrs, Gould, an American.”

Il Popolo Romano, January 1874

The holiday season’s events did not always go as planned. One year Gould reported that a large box of items intended for Christmas and sent by a US patron did not arrive on time. The items supplied a spring celebration instead. Supply chain and shipping issues are nothing new. 

Marsh’s Natale Experiences

Some prefer quieter celebrations, and such was the case in the nineteenth century as well. Marsh wrote in her diary of her first Christmas in Torino (1861) as “very peacefully passed at home” – except for the evening. Then she and her husband George went to the Teatro Regio.

Marsh noted, likely somewhat surprised, that it was open on the holiday. The performance moved her:

A eighteenth-century oil painting of performance in the Teatro Regio by Pietro Oliviero Domenico, a century before Marsh witnessed a holiday performance there. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“The orchestra was good, even excellent, the singing only passable, but the ballet exceeded all. A young ballerina exhibited leaps that even Fanny Elssler [an Austrian dancer] would have found impossible. In the dance as in the music: each new movement seemed in physical execution to have exceeded the preceding.”

Caroline Crane Marsh, 1861

Beyond the ballerina’s spectacular abilities, Marsh captured the event’s emotionally patriotic element:

“The backdrop consisted of a painting with typical elements of Italy’s principal cities (such as St. Peter’s and the Colosseum for Rome, the Duomo and Giotto’s bell tower for Florence, Milan’s cathedral, Turin’s Superga, and so forth), all harmoniously pulled together better than one could possibly imagine. Suspended in the Italian sky’s insuperable intense blue, an angel held the tricolor [flag] on which appeared the white cross of Savoy. Together with the rich and elegant costumes of the ballerinas, they documented every angle of the new united rule [of Italy].” 

Caroline Crane Marsh, 1861

Note: Although Marsh wrote in English, these quotes are my translation from an Italian version of her journal by Luisa Quartermaine and David Lowenthal. The original journal, at the University of Vermont’s Silver Special Collections, is being digitized and will be available online in the coming months. See the Special Collections blog on Caroline and her journal of her Piedmont years here.

The “tri-color,” with the Savoyard cross, as it looked in 1861, when Marsh attended the performance at Teatro Regio in Turin (from Wikimedia Commons)

The next year Marsh was on the Ligurian coast at Pegli (now swallowed up by the sprawling Genoa), where she and her husband George had moved. (The University of Vermont blog mentioned above includes a great 19th-century image of Pegli.) She raved about the abundant citrus fruit and about being able to have the windows open. She enjoyed a calm Christmas day, without the interruption of going out.

Just a few days prior to Christmas, however, she wrote of her annoyance at the “infantile” preparations she and her niece Carrie were making for the daughter of their friends the Tebbs. The young girl Strettel already had twenty-seven dolls and as many other toys, Marsh wrote. Such indulgent giving to small children caused them to be self-centered and bored even before they are grown. She would not have wasted her time in such foolishness, had she not feared offending their friends.

The Tebbs family joined them for Christmas dinner. Discussion of Wordsworth’s letter from “A Priest” turned the table talk to the religious controversies surrounding Unification. Many Anglo Protestants, such as Marsh and the Tebbs family, saw the peninsula’s problems as rooted in Roman Catholicism. They differed in their views of how the problems might be solved. The entries reflect Marsh’s interest in the every day “ordinary” as well as political and religious life. These threads run through Engaging Italy.  

Brewster captured the beauty of the lights and gift-giving as well as the darkness of political uprisings and year’s end. She first arrived in Rome just prior to the holiday season of 1868. Caught up in a newcomer’s excitement that first year, she swirled about in seeing sites and attending concerts and events as the Christmas season’s parties blurred into those of Carnivale. Eight years later, in 1876, a difficult year for her due to loss of friends to death and disagreements, she wrote of her loneliness and spinster life.

Brewster’s Holidays in Rome

A page from Brewster’s journal in late November 1868, just after her arrival in Rome and before the holiday season began. (This journal and most of Brewster’s other papers are in the Library Company of Philadelphia).

But the following year Brewster contented herself with a few close friends and gift exchange. She recorded in her journal, “Xmas eve—I had a most pleasant reception to day—a regular salon.” These evening gatherings she regularly hosted in her apartments of the Palazzo Albani shrank on Christmas Eve to only a “few women and very intelligent men.” But the smaller crowd allowed them to “talk most agreeably.”  

After the reception Brewster went out with the younger sculptor Albert Harnisch, with whom she shared an apartment. He kept her company and reduce her expenses. She wrote:

“I went with Harnisch in a cab coupe’ to distribute presents. . . . Xmas Eve! And I am in my sixtieth year! Alone but not desolate- a little sad tonight but not unhappy—very content with my life and full of wonder at my prosperity — . . .  My xmas gifts are very beautiful. Harnisch has made me a lovely flower stand—the base is a charming cupid–such a pretty amore [lover], struggling angrily with a stork.”

Anne Hampton Brewster, 1877

My takeaway from these women: regardless of our age or gender, the holiday season is much what we make of it. For some, larger celebrations, theatrical events, and children’s gifts bring joy. For others, quiet days and evenings with a few friends suffice. During the short days and long nights of darkness, we must find the blessings that surround us and share them. Through sharing we make light appear in the midst of darkness. 

South of Somewhere: Wine, Food, and the Soul of Italy 

Speaking of light in the darkness—what do I love about Robert V. Camuto’s non-fiction book South of Somewhere 

First, the title. Who doesn’t want to go south during the winter? The cover’s coastal scene—a bright blue bay with rocky terraces towering above—pulled me in. And the word Italy in the subtitle called forth memories of my first forays into the Mezzogiorno. The fantasy lands surrounding Naples—Sorrento and the islands of Capri and Procida; short stops and longer stays in Puglia, Calabria, and Sicily all punctuate my dreams. The subtitle also teased me with stories of food and family energy. I recalled Crazy in the Kitchen: Foods, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family (2005), one of my favorite memoirs by Louise DeSalvo. 

Robert V. Camuto’s South of Somewhere: Wine, Food, and the Soul of Italy

Similarly, I loved Camuto’s opening pages. He pulled me in with his “Introduction: My Summer of Love,” in Vico Equense, a dot on the Bay of Naples. The “slice of paradise,” birthplace of his grandparents, tourists often miss as they pass in route from Naples’s train station or airport to Sorrento or some better-known site on the Amalfi Coast. As Camuto recalls his childhood days there in the late 1960s, diving into the bay with his cousins on a hot summer day, we’re taken back to an Italy that was still climbing out of the destructions of World War II and the reconstruction which followed. 

In that introduction we also get a glimpse of a theme that threads through the book—the innumerable changes to the peninsula and family life in those years. The family restaurant, O’Saracino, where Camuto recalls eating simple spaghetti at midday on the shaded terrace, is gone, for example. It has been replaced, we learn later, by the sleek La Torre del Saracino, a Michelin-star restaurant. “Modern architecture and minimalistic design, with mostly white interiors, lots of glass” have replaced the family trattoria feel of the former eatery. Yet even now dishes on the menu, served up with the perfect wines—a Falanghina from Campania, “a more delicate and salty Greco di Tufo, and floral and almond-tinged Biancolella from Ischia”—do not disappoint him. They maintain the local roots of the famed founding chef, Gennaro Esposito, despite arriving at the table with contemporary flair and as “small bonsai-like creations.”   

View of volcanic Mt. Vesuvius towering above the Bay of Naples. I took this photo near Sorrento, not too far from Vico Equense, where Camuto begins his Italian food and wine journey. Recent constructions, such as the Hotel Girasole in the foreground, stand beside older structures and cater to the flood of tourists.

While La Torre del Saracino towers above the empty lot where the former establishment once stood, and Camuto feared all his past loves were lost, he learned through this exploratory venture that he was wrong. Despite the disappearance of the local symbol of family warmth and hospitality, though, the new establishment has arisen like a phoenix from the ashes. It maintains traditions, captured in its food and wine, which burn like an eternal flame that is the undying soul of Italy.  

This theme, then, is also one of the books’ appeals, which Camuto carries along as he explores food and wine primarily south of Naples. He includes himself in the account of his visits to smaller wineries and interviews with their entrepreneurial owners and vintners. These folks have chosen to retain or reclaim the lesser-known local varietals: the Abruzzo’s Bombino Bianco, Campania’s Grero, and Basilicato’s Anglianco, for example, are almost unknown in the US—except by wine connoisseurs and a few Italophiles.  

Camuto includes himself in the account

Camuto himself qualifies as both. In addition to his heritage as Italian American, he is a wine connoisseur who writes for Wine Spectator (magazine and website). Camuto also has published two other volumes in the At Table series (the University of Nebraska Press series in which my Eating in Eden also appeared): Corkscrewed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country (2008) and Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey (2010). His knowledge and his personality exude from the pages as he visits and interviews individuals in these locales.  

Damiano Ciolli, Antonello Coletti, Elena Fucci, Andrea Manzani, and almost two dozen others roll out through the pages. Their unique personalities erupt, as they share their histories. (The numerous photos Camuto includes also help.) They also share their learning and their losses in the process. All have seen little wins in recent years. Some have even had big wins, with their wines recognized internationally. Each has sought to maintain the local terroir. Many have inherited land and varietals and traditions from family. Others, however, such as those in Sicily and Puglia, have ventured south to try new ways of vine growing and wine production  

As we make the journey with Camuto, from Calabria and then back to the Abruzzo, to Umbria and Lazio, and to Puglia and Sicilia, we learn about the production process as well as about markets and even the tastes of these unique wines. As he samples abundant wine paired appropriately with local food at each site, we witness how heart and soul are coupled. I found myself wondering how I, too, might take the trip he had taken, becoming educated by more than a half-day tourist visit to winery or agriturismo.  

What, then, is there to not like about the book? 

What, then, is there to not like about the book?  Perhaps the same detailed accounts of his visits, appealing to some, might be tedious to a reader not interested in wine. I had expected a few more stories of memories and people—more soul and food and a little less detail about the wine. My expectations likely were based on prior reading of DeSalvo. I should know by now that expectations often are the sources of disappointment. If those are set aside, or if a reader’s expectations are for details about growing varietals, their exquisite flavors, and marketing them, then Camuto’s book provides a wealth of knowledge about these and the people in Italy’s south who have dedicated their souls to carrying on these traditions.  

Camuto tells the story in an engaging, easy-to-read style, with himself an actor on the stage of the Mezzogiorno and connected to his family’s heritage and its preservation. In fact, just as Camuto opens the book with his return to Vico Equense and his family connection there, he closes with family there. His shared simple meals with his aging bachelor cousin Vittorio, described in the final pages, make those of us without relatives in Italy wish that we did. If not a dream of family living there, South of Somewhere will push you to dream of a trip to Italy and its sunny skies.  

Speaking of trips to Italy: a Sabbatical! 

Last month I promised a bit on my next trip—perhaps for a writing retreat–but the plans have not yet materialized. The Omicron Covid variant and recent surge in cases have caused a pause in plans. Additionally, some uncertainties about 2022 for me have prevented any scheduling. But I learned last week I have been awarded a full year’s sabbatical, beginning at spring semester’s end. Yippee! More time for writing, reading, and travel. So the travel dreams, if not the plans, are alive and well.

I appreciate the messages from some of you with your thoughts about joining me. Thank you for sending those my way. I hope by my next newsletter to have more clarity. Meanwhile, please do send along your interest, availability, timeframe, etc. for a small group experience. 

Lightly fried calimari and prawns on the island of Procida. The photo helps with the memories and the travel dreams!

In the next All Things Italy newsletter: 

  • Italy as it celebrates winter festivals 
  • Updates on Engaging Italy (of course)
  • A review of a contemporary film or, perhaps, a novel (it’s a surprise!) 

As always, I enjoy hearing from you. And, I appreciate your passing along the newsletter to those you know who may be interested in All Things Italy.  

Meanwhile, may your upcoming winter days be filled with warm dreams of Italy’s sunny skies! 

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Etta Madden