All Things Italy January 2022

January 27, 2022 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Dear Friends: 

It’s that time in late January when many of us lose our late-December aspirations for the New Year. How are your resolutions holding up as we slouch toward February? What more can we do in these winter months than make and fail at resolutions? How may we successfully move through them?

Many of us look for the sunny side through photos and reading. I especially like this sunny shot I took in my south-facing kitchen in Sicily. It brings back memories for a bundle of fresh sesame grissini—quite inexpensive and delicious from the local forno (bakery)—and the abundant and downright cheap mandarini of January.

Perhaps this issue of All Things Italy will help you a bit, wherever you are in your steps toward February and March. I start with a short account of Anne Hampton Brewster’s winter upheaval in 1870. Then, after a brief update on Engaging Italy (due out in April in hardcover!), I turn to a review of The Life Ahead (a film with Sophia Loren), and bit about traveling to Italy during the winter from my friend and colleague Gwen Walstrand. I hope you enjoy . . .

Slouching Toward February . . . with Friends  

One benefit of reading is that it connects us with others. We don’t feel so alone in our desolation and despair. Reading nineteenth-century manuscripts—especially Anne Hampton Brewster’s journal accounts she recorded in Rome from late December 1869 and early January 1870—I saw that even 150 years ago people wrestled with such annual convictions. And, in Brewster’s case, they were preceded by what she referred to in her journal as being “quite gray and depressed . . . suffering from a revulsion of feeling.” 

Anne Hampton Brewster, ca. 1874, by the Fratelli D’Alessandri, from the Library Company of Philadelphia. She did not always feel so elegant and poised.

Brewster, one of the three women at the center of my forthcoming book Engaging Italy, went to Rome with aspirations of supporting herself as a single woman through her newspaper accounts published in the US. (She achieved those aspirations in the 1870s.) But she also went abroad as an adult convert to Roman Catholicism. During her first months in Rome, swept up in sightseeing and getting her career going, she found (or made) little time to practice her faith. In late December 1869, as the days were short and the dark nights long, she wrestled with despair and depression. Family troubles back in the US contributed to Brewster’s plummeting spirits. (Her brother Benjamin, an important public figure, was embroiled in political and personal conflict. More on this topic in the book.)  

She wrote in her first entry of 1870 that she had “thrown off the old Adam.”

But Brewster’s confirmation in Rome and her new “friend” Mrs. Hicks’s baptism and confirmation, followed by Holy Communion, helped her to bounce back. She wrote in her first entry of 1870 that she had “thrown off the old Adam.” She would have her spiritual practices guide her. Noting that she had been too consumed by agreements with the newspapers and accomplishing her writing goals, she determined to “take Sunday as a rest day, go to Mass and . . . rest.” Planning to punctuate her writing with Wednesday and Saturday visits to galleries and studios, she added “but above all rest all my desires—all my work on God! Do nothing thing of myself—just as He pleases!” That month Brewster attended mass weekly, often commenting in her journal on the sermons. On January 7, for example, likely full of New Year’s fervor, she listened to two sermons.  

Despite Brewster’s plans to be a better Catholic, and her early January journal entries about attending mass and what she learned, by the end of the month the entries had ground to a halt. Perhaps her secular work as a newspaper correspondent took over. When the journal entries picked up again in March, she wrote only of her social interactions and the politics of the Vatican Council. Late December and early January’s spiritual fervor were fleeting. But she plugged along with life’s daily demands. In the spring her work reporting on the Vatican exploded as Rome’s sunshine and bright blooms also began to warm her spirits.

Engaging Italy Updates

Since I last wrote, SUNY Press and I have plugged along with the last few production steps for Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks. I finished reviewing the page proofs, including the index, and am awaiting one more look before all goes to press and the book appears. It’s listed now on the SUNY Press site, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads.  

The bad news is that the book price for hardcover, which is what will appear in April, is $95. Primarily libraries will purchase it. You could do me a favor and ask your library to order a copy? 

There IS good news, however. I learned last week that the paperback release date has been moved up from January 2023 to October this year. Yay! And the paperback price will be much more reasonable (just over $30, I’ve been told. Let’s hope inflation slows  . . .) And there may be a free sample chapter available . . . more on that in the next newsletter.  

I’ll also continue sharing bits and pieces related to the book, such as the account of Brewster’s New Year’s resolutions, in future issues. But for now, let’s think about travel . . .

A winter view of Florence and the Tuscan hills, on the descent from San Miniato al Monte Photo: ©Gwen Walstrand

Off Season is “Off the Beaten Path” 

I’ve been in Italy in January a couple of times, but rather than rely on my own experiences and those I’ve read about in documents from the nineteenth century, I asked friend and colleague Gwen Walstrand to share some of her insights and photos from a trip this year. This off season visit is in some sense an “off the beaten path” experience–even in tourist-frequented cities such as Florence..  

Gwen and I taught university students together in Florence in the summer of 2011—she taught photography and I, American literature and travel writing. Her seventh session as leader of these art and culture courses is this summer. Gwen has had extended stays in Italy on several other occasions: when her art was on exhibition, for artist residencies, and for vacation. The residencies, in particular, on Mount Subasio, near Assisi and the St Francis’ hermitage, and in the Chianti region of Tuscany in a deconsecrated church and rectory, offered her a chance to get “off the beaten path” to converse with locals.  

With this year’s winter trip, as you might suspect, she faced Covid cancellations as well as necessary testing for travel. Nonetheless, as she summed up, Italy in winter was not disappointing: “fewer crowds than summer, far fewer tourists than previous winters, and”—surprising or not—“Italians engaging in as much revelry as was allowed.” 

“If you’re able to choose any time of year to go, you may find the woes of travel lessen between November and February or October and March.”

–Gwen Walstrand

Gwen spent three weeks this winter, beginning right after Christmas, in a range of places: Bologna, Florence, Parma, Modena, and Venice. Notable in her photos is the lack of snow in these locales. It is not bitter cold. While people are out in coats, they are not staying inside, either. As she explained, “colder weather does not mean Italians spend all their time inside buildings and cars. Most transport themselves nearly everywhere on foot and stop for social respites along the way. Piazzas, outdoor restaurants . . . always have a lively amount of activity. It can be very cold to sit at outdoor tables after dark, but most bars and restaurants provide heaters or blankets or both.”  The outdoor activity is, of course, welcomed during this time of Covid. 

Strolling in Bologna, even with overcoats Photo: ©Gwen Walstrand

So why travel at a time of year when heaters are needed in outdoor eateries? What are the benefits of planning a winter trip? In addition to “fewer crowds and more opportunities for talking leisurely with locals,” Gwen planned her trip in hopes of experiencing some of the holiday festivities associated with Christmas, Epiphany, and New Year’s.  For example, in Bologna to celebrate Capodanno (New Year’s), she explained, “for many decades they’ve commissioned a large sculptural representation of Il Vecchione (the old man) and burned it in the main piazza at midnight.” But this year with large gatherings cancelled due to COVID, according to Gwen, celebrations were more “low key and less traditional.” Although “there were many partiers on the streets,” the local carabinieri “ignored the random fireworks people brought with them to the center.” 

Festive holiday lights in Florence Photo: ©Gwen Walstrand

In Florence she had anticipated the celebration of Epiphany. While she has witnessed festas and processions in Florence through the years, she has not seen the traditional one for Epiphany, where participants sport Renaissance costumes as they “mark the occasion of the Magi visiting the Christ child.” Included in the procession is “a unique Italian character, the Befana,” who distributes “goodies to children.” But the event didn’t happen this year.    

(You can learn more about the traditions of Bologna’s Il Vecchione here and the Befana and Epiphany in Italy here.) 

“Despite the minor disappointments [due to Covid],” she continued, she was happy to see the “safety precautions and protocols in place . . . and being in a place where humans are decent to one another and masking appropriately indoors and outdoors. In each indoor venue or train station, we were required to present proof of vaccination as well as wear masks. Once inside restaurants and after our CDC cards were verified, we were able to unmask at the table. Moving about inside the restaurant and for exiting required masking up again. . . .  Because Italians generally seem to have a much stronger sense of community and family, and because they are now so grateful to have vaccines after the COVID devastation they’ve experienced, they seem very willing to protect one another. The vaccination rate in the country is now around 82%.” 

A verdant winter view from Bologna’s Santuario della Madonna di San Luca Photo: ©Gwen Walstrand

I asked Gwen for final words of advice to pass along about traveling off season. Here’s her message:  “If you’re able to choose any time of year to go, you may find the woes of travel lessen between November and February or October and March. . . . Wear some thin merino wool layers, good shoes. . . . Especially in winter, you’ll see a lot of stylish coats and scarves over jeans and sturdy shoes or boots.”  

Be prepared for menus to be different than they would be in the summer months. “Ask waiters for advice about what you should eat and drink.” Don’t merely fall back on what seems familiar; “pairing courses and wines can be difficult to do well without . . . having eaten those particular dishes before.”  


Tortellini in Brodo, at Bologna’s Ostaria le Sette Chiese Photo: ©Gwen Walstrand

The most important advice she passed along: “make it happen!”  

See more of Gwen’s fantastic photos on her website: and by following her on social media: @gwen_walstrand 

Sophia Loren Does it Again – Almost!

Sophia Loren Photo credit: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Fotograf: Comet Photo AG (Zürich) / Com_X-L060-007 / CC BY-SA 4.0CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Not quite the same as her early 60s flicks, Sophia Loren’s latest film (and likely her last?) is nonetheless equally engaging. In The Life Ahead, a Netflix film released in 2020, Loren plays the role of a much older woman, of course. She was eighty-six at the time of release. But her elegance, wisdom, and care emerge as she plays the elderly Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor, who lives in a past-its-prime eighteenth-century palazzo in Bari. Like her earlier films set in Naples, the film depends upon its setting in this not-so-beautiful environment. The goal is not to present the scenic and the picturesque but to focus on people and their relationships—on “family,” as she shared in a New York Times interview (I provide the link below).  

Almost stealing the show from Loren is the young Ibrahima Gueye, who plays Momo, the Senagalese son of an immigrant, who faces two paths—one to dealing drugs and the glitz it promises, the other to learning literacy and history. History and literacy provide insights to his Muslim culture’s past and the possibilities it offers for the future. Also key among the poignant people is Lola, a trans prostitute, somewhat estranged from family but building a new family within this circle, for whom Madame Rosa serves as the surrogate mother.  

I have watched this film twice—first right after its release, and then again this winter. (I like to turn off the English subtitles on Italian films to exercise my comprehension. The Italian title is La vita davanti a sé). But I also was curious to see whether I found it as engaging on the second viewing. I did. To be honest, my husband thinks it a bit too predictable. But, if you want a good flick, filmed in Italy but a far cry from a tourist vision, give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.   

If you wish, you can compare my husband’s response and mine to a New York Times review here.

And see a Netflix film trailer here.

Speaking of Italy: Upcoming Talks  

In the coming months I have three events lined up, only one of which focuses on Italy. (As my website explains, I give talks on topics related to all my writing and research.) But the first does focus on life abroad.

  • A Conversation with Margaret Sullivan, celebrating her memoir, Fragments of a Mobile Life 
    • February 2 @ 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm CST  This virtual event is sponsored by Pagination Bookshop and the Missouri State University English Department. As Sullivan reads excerpts from her book on topics such as cultural literacy, diplomacy abroad, identity as related to gender, place, and profession, and Ozarks history, Dr. John Schmalzbauer (Missouri State University Religious Studies) and I will offer questions.
    • Read more about Sullivan and the event at the Pagination Bookshop website
    • The event may be accessed through this Zoom link: 
  • Utopian Visions of Food 
    • April 21 @ 10:30 am – 11:30 am CDT  Part of this year’s Missouri Humanities Symposium, Sustenance and Sustainability, at Drury University. I will provide an historical overview of utopian foodways. The talk highlights dreams individuals and communities have shared about food. From dreams of Edenic abundance to the contemporary explosion of urban gardens, people through the centuries have centered their lives upon desires to eat better. What “better” means varies from person to person and group to group: having plenty, having healthy habits, eating with others, or eating less. 
    • This presentation draws from Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias as well as an essay forthcoming in The Palgrave Handbook of Utopian and Dystopian Literatures (2022). 
    • The talk is free and open to the public. Information on streaming the presentation will be provided as soon as possible. 
  • Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions 
    • April 22 @ 9:00 am – 10:00 am CDT  An overview of my book provided to colleagues at Missouri State University as part of the English Department’s research forum. A Zoom link will be available to any interested in watching. Contact me directly for the link.

Are you a part of a group who is looking for a speaker? Let me know.  

As always, I enjoy hearing from you and am open to your questions and suggestions for future newsletters. And I appreciate your passing along the newsletter to those you know who may be interested in All Things Italy.  

I hope February is filled with warm thoughts of Italy’s sunny skies! 


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Etta Madden