All Things Italy July/August 2022 Fa Caldo . . . Fa Caldissimo!

August 5, 2022 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Italian Alps near Courmayer, just south of Monte Bianco

Dear friends:

I’m writing this letter from home, back in the USA, sitting at a desk surrounded by air-conditioning and looking out on a scorched Midwestern patch of grass and weeds. As I reflect on my last month in Italy, I recall the response to “how are you?” I frequently heard. Friends and strangers alike replied not about themselves but about the weather. How “caldo” and “caldissimo!” The heat seems to be a global phenomenon.

For those of us living in warmer climates, during the dog days of July and August, we look for respite. In Italy I sought the shade, swam at the seaside, went to the mountains, and slept in air-conditioned apartments. I needed relief from the season’s oppressive heat.  

I also took two weeks off from research and writing to rest my soul. This latest newsletter, then, looks back at work that is almost a blur, as my brain began to fog during days of rest with family and friends. I’ll do my best here to share a bit about my time in Turin and Italy’s Piedmont. Photos help! I hope they interest you as well.

As many of you know (welcome, recent subscribers, who may not know!), my treks through Italy follow the trails others have trod. I fell in love with Italy while an undergraduate student in Florence years and years ago. But more recently I’ve been writing about Americans abroad. Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks, now out in e-format as well as hardcover, is one example. Specifically, nineteenth century Americans who lived and traveled in Italy provide the template for my itineraries. The newsletter All Things Italy includes a bit about those people of the past as well as contemporary culture. More than merely a travel blog, it provides some snippets of history as well.  

Heading North

This past month I did what the women at the center of Engaging Italy did in the summer months. Anne Hampton Brewster, Emily Bliss Gould, and Caroline Crane Marsh left the low-lying city streets near rivers where heat and humidity hovered. Rome’s Tiber, Florence’s Arno, and Turin’s Po were hotbeds for malaria (literally in Italian, “bad air”). These women (and other people of some means and privilege) headed to the hills. Often, their travels took them north to the Alpine region—even into Switzerland and Germany.  

Likewise, since I wrote in late June, I left the seacoast outside Genoa and headed north. My destination: Turin. The city, not yet steamy, was new to me. In other years I have passed through train station and airport in route elsewhere. Turin was a past-due stop. Its history in Italy’s Unification drew me, as did Brewster’s, Gould’s, and Marsh’s significant time in the city and region.

Turin: Seat of Unified Italy

In 1861 Turin became the first capital of the new Kingdom of Italy. Before that, in 1848, the Savoyard King Carlo Alberto had granted a statute for religious freedom to his subjects. Later, this statute would become part of the new Kingdom of Italy’s constitution. The statute granted communities of Jews, Waldensians, and other non-Roman Catholics to worship as they pleased amidst the dominant Roman Catholicism. 

Turin’s Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace), seat of the Savoyard monarchy and unified Italy’s first King, Victor Emmanuel II, is now a museum.

This history of cultural diversity and spirit of independence in the region attracted nineteenth-century Americans who wanted to see more constitutional rights and representation of the masses on the Italian peninsula. I needed to see and experience some of this spirit myself. 

As soon as I left the Porta Nuova train station and headed into the historic center, I began to see the spirit of diversity and the wealth of Turin under the Savoyard monarchy in its numerous palazzi (large “palaces” or houses of wealthy families).

Two views (above and below) in the courtyard of the Palazzo Carignano, now the Risorgimento Museum, celebrating Turin’s role in Italy’s unification
The Casa d’Angennes (now private residences), where Caroline Crane Marsh lived for much of her time in Turin while her husband was US Minister to Italy.

Additionally, the city’s design with many loggia impresses. My favorite runs along Via Po, extending from Piazza Vittorio Veneto near the river to the Palazzo Reale. The loggias serve as popular promenades for people of all types, protecting pedestrians from the sun in summer and snow in winter. I knew that even in the lunchtime or late-afternoon heat, I could stroll for almost an hour in the loggia’s shade.

One view of a loggia along Turin’s popular Via Po

And then, if I wished, I could stop into one of the famous historic coffee houses, such as Baratti e Milano, which provide the city’s renowned hot chocolate beverage, the bicerin, and pastries in elegant surroundings.

Interior of Baratti e Milano (a colleague and I opted for inside and air conditioning on the day we indulged).
Floral table decor at Baratti e Milano

Or I could opt for a less-expensive environment and refreshment, still under the loggia or elsewhere, and watch people saunter by. Fortunately in the summer months, the coffee houses offer cold versions of the bicerin. I enjoyed something like a cold chocolate pudding at the historic Al Bicerin, where political leader Camillo Cavour hung out during the mid-nineteenth century.

The afternoon I visited Al Bicerin, a summer temporale (thunderstorm) drove me and other customers inside. On a positive note, without the sudden rain and wind, I would not have seen the portrait of Count Camillo di Cavour and had a chance to sit in his favorite corner of the cosy cafe.

Caroline Crane Marsh wrote of Cavour upon her arrival in Turin in 1861. He had just died, and the city was mourning his loss and celebrating his life of leadership. Throngs gathered in the piazza between the Palazzo Reale and the hotel where she and her husband lodged temporarily. She witnessed firsthand the public’s concern with political change.

Il Museo Egizio: Ancient History

As much as Marsh was concerned with the present, she also wrote about history. She acknowledged in her diary the Egyptian Museum. The impressive collection of antiquities arrived in Turin in the seventeenth century and was opened to the public in the early nineteenth century. Additions to the collection have continued through the years.

Of course, the museum raises questions of the role of grave-robbing for the purposes of social sciences, especially when crossing cultures as well as centuries. Nonetheless, I enjoyed following the museum’s suggested trail through the rooms and reading detailed placards along the way. One of my favorite sections displayed animal mummies–pointing to the place of beloved pets in the afterlife, as well as offering to the deceased gifts of gods, believed to be embodied by the animals. Audio guides and guided tours available and an asset to this massive museum. I devoted the better part of an afternoon to my visit.

Mummy of Merit, Egyptian Museum
Cat mummies, Egyptian Museum
 Sarcophagus cover of Gemenefherbak, Egyptian Museum

The Palazzo Reale

Like the Egyptian Museum, the Palazzo Reale’s scope was beyond my imaginings. It merits a full day visit. In addition to the sumptuous rooms where the royalty lived and received visitors, its chapel houses the famous Shroud of Turin.

Its armory boasts one of the grandest collections of armor. (I recalled my sons’ fascination with knights, shining armor, and swords as I saw kids and their families pose for pictures.)

Its gardens surprise with contemporary sculpture.

Contemporary sculpture in the palace gardens

I opted for a lengthy lunch (vegetarian option) at the Palazzo restaurant in view of the gardens. The eatery is open and accessible even to those who have not purchased a pass to visit the entire complex, but it also provides a nice break for those visiting the extensive collection of Renaissance art and Roman artifacts in the “newer” wing.

Pathway in palace gardens

The artifacts in the Palazzo Reale’s archeology section accompany explanations of the city’s Roman origins—the town of Augusta Taurinorum. The name’s etymology includes Taurus, the bull. The city was a stronghold on the plains. Sitting just below the mountains, it stood guard to the major passages to the northern parts of the Roman Empire. Those passes also were the paths for nineteenth-century travelers as they moved from north to south and vice versa.

Exploring with a Local

Museum visits, tracking down the house and hotel where Marsh lived, and visiting other sites kept me busy exploring during the afternoons, when I took a break from morning desk work. One memorable afternoon I spent with my colleague, Professor Vadim Putzu, a Turin native. He shared the medieval city and the expansive daily outdoor and indoor “open” market by the Porta Palazzo. And he introduced me to his favorite piola, a casual eatery serving up small snacks and drinks throughout the day. This one operated by the Ranzini family boasts a long history and a local crowd.

Entrance to the piola run by the Ranzini family (above) and a listing of their featured sandwiches and snacks (below)

Outside the Historic Center

Vadim also recommended another spot along the Po, in the city’s popular Parco del Valentino. This expansive green space is quite popular for morning exercise. In the evening hours it fills with people and pets taking their passeggiata. Many also take refreshments at one of several kiosks or riverside establishments, such as Imbarchino. On the evening I strolled, a band was setting up for live music. An “in-the-know” crowd was gathering and spreading blankets.

During our afternoon together, Vadim drove me outside the city, winding up the nearby hill to the Basilica of Superga. As we walked the grounds, he showed me the scene of the Turin soccer team’s devasting 1949 plane crash. The site has become a shrine and memorial for those killed by many who visit the hilltop.

A visit to the Basilica of Superga (above) provides a view of Turin (below), split by the Po River, and the ring of mountains in the distance.

Another day, following Vadim’s advice, I trekked uphill to the Capuchin monastery for a different view of the city. The structure now also houses the Alpine Club museum, a mecca for climbers and hikers. Caroline Crane Marsh’s husband George was an avid hiker and early member of the club, founded in 1863.

On the afternoon of my visit, as on my visit to Superga, hazy skies obscured the distant ring of mountains. But nonetheless from this point above the city, I gained perspective on what Caroline Marsh often mentioned in her diaries.  

As the days passed, the city grew hotter and quieter. Stores and cinemas began to close for the summer season.

A popular cinema in Turin’s historic center casually announced it’s summer closure on July 4.

I looked forward to my mountain exploration–planned to cool me off and to connect me to nineteenth-century women. Gould, Brewster, and Marsh each wrote about their time in these mountains. 

The Val d’Aosta

Two days of hiking in the Val d’Aosta, near the Italian-French border and the town of Courmayer, lifted my spirits. Contributing to the change was companionship of a long-time friend, Kelly Van Patter, with a kindred adventurous attitude. In my limited time with Kelly, we barely scratched the surface of the numerous trails and passes. But we laughed and talked as we loved the outdoors together. (Thanks to her for sharing these photos on Instagram & giving me permission to share here!) In my spandex leggings and technical shoes, I hiked enough to imagine traversing these trails as a nineteenth-century woman. A wool skirt, supple leather slippers, astride a donkey or in a carriage, as the trails permitted? How times have changed for women!

Keeping cool by heading from the lowlands to the Italian Alps with my friend Kelly Van Patter.

Next Newsletter: Campania in the Summer

After the mountains and Turin area, I took a short vacation to meet up with my husband and spend time in Italy’s Campania–around the Bay of Naples. But since All Things Italy has rambled on this far, I’ll hold off on sharing any details of those adventures until next time. Until then, it’s back to the writing, manuscript reviewing, preparing for interviews and talks—all at my desk in the Midwest where, as they say in Italy, “fa caldo . . . fa caldissimo.” 

Upcoming Events:

By the time I write again, I hope we will have had some rain and some reprieve from the scorching heat. (Some rain is falling now, as I revise . . . ) As usual, I also share a bit here about upcoming events related to Engaging Italy.

Revising Daisy Miller: The Story of Miss Jones
September 7 @ 11:00 am – 12:00 pm CDT

This online talk, drawn from Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks, will focus on Emily Bliss Gould, founder and fundraiser for an industrial school and orphanage in Rome.  The audience will be an online group–mostly academics–that focuses on “transatlantic” women writers. See the Transatlantic Literary Women website for more information about connecting.

Mr. Kate Cromo: News Correspondent Anne Hampton Brewster in Rome, 1869-1890
January 19, 2023 @ 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm CST

This presentation, part of the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Fireside Chat Series, focuses on Philadelphian Anne Hampton Brewster’s career as a news correspondent in Rome. This part of her life plays a significant role in my book, Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks. Brewster’s personal library, papers, and several other items were left to the Library Company after her death in 1892. Research in these materials laid the foundation for Engaging Italy and for the talk. The talk will be streamed and recorded. Register for this FREE event here.

If you’re part of a group interested in scheduling a talk related to the book, let me know. These are custom designed for each group.  

Finally, I keep getting requests for info about travel to Italy. Feel free to reach out with those questions. If you’d like to organize a small group trip, I’m happy to be of help.  

Engaging Italy Reviews

Remember, those of you who already have a copy of Engaging Italy, please post a review on Goodreads, or Amazon, or some other favorite site. And for those of you who have not yet bought a copy, remember the e-copies are available, and paper editions will be out soon (available for pre-order at SUNY Press and elsewhere now).  

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Etta Madden