All Things Italy June 2022 Words from a Solo Traveler

June 26, 2022 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Hello, friends, and greetings from Genova Nervi. 

It’s been a month that I’ve been away from home and on the ground in Italy.  Approaching four weeks away, I felt certain cravings creeping up, erupting from mild tickles to full-fledged needs. What can I say? I have caved in and assuaged a few of them. At least one more is still tickling my senses. Please bear with me as I discuss daily concerns more than research work in this month’s newsletter!

First, as much as I love Italian coffee, I made myself a coffee “Americano” a few days ago. I needed to sip it slowly from a big mug as I wrote. Second, I bought an ice tray from the dollar store. I occasionally want a few cubes in a drink–especially cold coffee! Third, and most important, I made an appointment at a recommended parrucchiera. As many of you know, approaching an unknown hairstylist is quite frightening. Fortunately, I received a recommendation from a friend.

Patrizia, who has been in the hair business for forty years and proudly displays a certificate for Rusk styling, did a fantastic job. She understood my explanation in poor Italian I needed for a natural color—just a touch up to the roots. And I want curls but not frizz. Bottom line: the cut and color by Patrizia restored my sense of well-being more than the ice and coffee!  

Products from my visit to Patrizia’s salon, which she shares with her sister Miriam.

What remains unquenched? Diet Coke cravings, I must admit. They never hit when I’m at the supermarket or an eatery—only when I see pictures on social media. (LuElla D’Amico, should I thank you?) How much longer will I survive without giving in to this very American and un-Italian beverage?   

Perhaps a better question: why share these mundane elements of time abroad? They are a reminder that the quotidian, little parts of our daily routines, ground us. They keep us sane and feeling settled. I’ve seen the same in the diaries of nineteenth-century women. They depend upon their routines and meeting those daily needs.  

Another way of putting it: I’d be lying if I said my month away has all been like a grand cup of cappuccino and a cornetto. Sure, I’ve had my share of great coffee and pastries, but like most travelers, I’ve had a few unsettling moments. The worst was associated with lodging.

Many of you know—from a social media post or other communication—about an unanticipated move. I left one apartment after less than 24 hours and with very little sleep. I’d planned to be outside Florence in the hills of Tuscany for a month. But I discovered upon arrival that the apartment I had booked in April, imagining it and its large garden as idyllic, was much less than that. Or maybe it was indeed that—merely a dream that was never realized! I packed up and moved to a brief landing spot at a hotel until I could locate an acceptable apartment.  

But on the positive side—the many good parts of my research adventures thus far overpower the not-so-good. As a result of the scramble to restructure June’s plans for Tuscan hills, I ended up with two seaside lodgings. First, I spent two weeks at Viareggio and then two on the Ligurian coast on Genoa’s outskirts. Both sites served well the work I’m doing now.

I’m reading and writing—easily done in apartments with decent space. I’m visiting sites associated with Anne Hampton Brewster, Emily Bliss Gould, and Caroline Crane Marsh (the three women central to Engaging Italy). And, I’m walking and swimming. These physical activities not only make my body feel great—the bilateral movement also stimulates creativity and thinking. These provide fantastic follow up from and precursor to the necessary desk work. 

View from my Viareggio apartment kitchen into shared courtyard
View of the lighthouse and Alpi Apuane mountains from the public beach in Viareggio. This sandy spot was a ten-minute walk or a 3-minute bike ride from my apartment.


Bicycle I rented for tooling around Viareggio. Easier than walking in the heat!

So why visit these sites now, after Engaging Italy is out? Although I previously saw many sites in Italy associated with nineteenth-century travelers, many visits were early in the writing process. Additionally, I had not visited Genoa prior to this trip. I had zipped through without a stop on train or autostrada. Brewster, Gould, and Marsh all three wrote about their time in Genoa. The port city was an important stop on the “Grand Tour” route. It also was an important political point during Unification. My stay here has not been disappointing. It’s helped bring to life elements of these women’s time abroad that impact me as I continue to give talks about them and the book.

In the process, I’ve become quite attached—as I often do, whenever I stay anywhere for more than a day or so. Genoa, like Naples, often gets a bad rap for the sprawling mess and the problems typical of many larger cities—trash, graffiti, crime, and the less-than-beautiful elements that keep many tourists away. But it’s well worth at least a short visit to learn more of its rich history.

The entrance to one of the many historic palazzi on Genoa’s Strada Nuova. The entire street, now a pedestrian way, is a designated UNESCO site. Although these buildings were originally residences, most are now public buildings (such as the University of Genoa or the Genoa Chamber of Commerce) or private entities, such as Deutsche Bank.

And the coastal areas beyond the port provide excellent vantage points for rest and relaxation without the crowds of the Cinque Terre.  (Boats leave from here for Portofino, and the frequently passing trains provide easy access for day trips to any of the towns along the coast–Sestri Levante, Rapallo, and Santa Margherita Ligure are among my favorites).  

Along the coastline of Genova Nervi, looking toward Bogliasco and the peninsula of Portofino

If you follow me on social media, get ready for some Genoa photo dumps! And I’ll share more of the historical connections to my research and writing in my next newsletter. This one is already too long with a focus on Tuscany.

Tuscany, Again

In Tuscany the gem of my research time was a private tour of the villa in Florence which Caroline Marsh considered home from 1865 until the time of her husband’s death in 1882. Before, I had only seen the villa from the outside. This summer, I determined to reach out to ask about seeing the inside. The building has been city offices since the late twentieth century, so I figured that I could at least get into the entryway. What I didn’t expect was a private tour, conducted by a former employee (now retired) who was called in to show me the villa and talk about its history. 

Villa Forini, also known as Villa Soderini, former home of Caroline and George Perkins Marsh, serves as city offices in Florence

Most exciting was seeing that the city has placed a reproduction photo of US Ambassador George Perkins Marsh sitting in what was the couples’ library above the fireplace in that same grand salon, which now serves as a meeting room. (A copy of the same photo, thanks to the New York Public Library, is in Engaging Italy). 

Photo of George Perkins Marsh at his desk in the villa room he and Caroline used as a library. The original photo is in the Crane Family Papers of the New York Public Library. Furniture in the room, used now for public hearings, kept me from getting a better angle on the photo. Below, restored fresco detail, from the upper portion of the wall behind Marsh in the photo above.

In addition to touring the villa in Florence where Caroline Crane Marsh lived, from Viareggio (not mentioned in Engaging Italy), I was also able to take trains to see people and places elsewhere in Tuscany, according to my plans prior to the apartment switch. Catching up with professors in Pisa and Florence who also teach American and British literature, exploring the smaller towns of Pietrasanta and Torre del Lago, and visiting one of Pauline Buonaparte Borghese’s many “homes” were highlights. I was busy!

Added to those activities, the proprietors of my apartment invited me several times to participate in local events with them. I said “yes” whenever possible.  One highlight of those invitations—unrelated to Engaging Italy except that it reflects women’s willingness to build relationships and to be open to the unexpected—was a publicity photoshoot for an event of the local chapter of FIDAPA, the Italian arm of the international Business and Professional Women’s association. The proprietor of the apartment I book in Viareggio is president of the local chapter.  We explored the morning fish market and discussed the importance of the yacht industry to the area.

Off the Beaten Track 

Now a few more insights to some of the sites listed above.

Pietrasanta makes itself known as a “city of art.” More of a small town than a city, it merits a day trip (easily accessible from almost anywhere in Tuscany by train or car), with careful planning and attention to the gallery and museum hours. Virtually the entire town closes at midday—perfect for a long, relaxing lunch. But it’s 4:30 or 5 before people begin to move around again. Keep that in mind as you consider a “day” there.

I especially enjoyed the June exhibit of Sandro Gorra’s sculptures. A bit like Andy Warhol in that he began as a very successful commercial artist, he is known for his flair for the comedic. The works on display when I visited all vibrated with satirical social commentary. The city keeps the exhibits free–only asking for donations. There are also two Botero frescos in the Chiesa della Miseriacordia and numerous private galleries.

Chiesa di Sant’Agostino in Pietrasanta serves as a public art gallery
Sandro Gorra’s Ballerina, part of a spring 2022 show in Piestrasanta
An historic tower, now a small gallery space, in Pietrasanta

At Torre del Lago, the two key sights are associated with Giacomo Puccini. In addition to his home there (now a museum), which he had built early in the twentieth century and where he composed many works, an outdoor theater features his works beginning in July. If you’re an opera fan, plan a visit during the summer season and purchase your tickets well in advance. The theater, museum, and lake are just a few kilometers from the seaside, should you want to plan a combination visit with day at the beach. 

Puccini’s summer home at Torre del Lago

And in the center of Viareggio, the Villa Paulina also features local artists in some of its rooms, now repurposed as galleries. I’d determined to visit the villa, however, at the suggestion of fellow Italophile and artist Jacqueline Warren (one of her photos was featured in All Things Italy last summer). Jacqueline didn’t know it, but I became fascinated with Pauline Buonaparte Borghese about a decade ago—after seeing Antonio Canova’s Venus Victrix and the Borghese Gallery in Rome and after reading about her in nineteenth-century American novels. (These references to Leonora Sansay’s Secret History; or, the Horrors of San Domingo and Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Clarence, and a photo of the sculpture are in Engaging Italy).

A miniature of Canova’s Venus Victrix on a mantel in the Villa Paulina, Viareggio, and, below, the larger-than-life size original in the Villa Borghese, Rome (below)
Photo credit: Wikimedia images

I’ve often shown students the picture of Canova’s sculpture and described it as Pauline’s “selfie.” They get it. At the same time we’re also reading the novels by American women writers, listed bove, where Princess Pauline is described very negatively. Surprising to me during the visit, then, was realizing how beloved she was by people here—at least, that’s the impression given by the placards in the Villa Paulina in Viareggio.

Villa Paolina’s grandest room, glowing golden in the afternoon sun

One small disappointment in my visit was that at some point previously each room decorated in period style also included a 1950s evening gown of high style. These gowns—not associated with Princess Pauline, of course—have been removed indefinitely, however, and are in a museum in Lucca (a Tuscan city also well worth a visit).  

Beach Reading: Elena Ferrante’s La Figlia Oscura 

While I’m on the beach, or when I am on a train, or in the evening when I’m not exhausted, I do turn to reading. Perhaps well-known to many of you, some works by the contemporary author known as Elena Ferrante have been produced as the HBO series My Brilliant Friend. I’ve read almost all the novels by this elusive figure (said to be a group of collaborating writers) and enjoyed them all. But La Figlia Oscura (translated as The Lost Daughter), I picked up at the recommendation of friend Saundra Weddle back in the spring as I was preparing for my trip. This novel appeared in 2006, prior to the popular four-volume Neapolitan series. I highly recommend it. I decided to reread it this month since the setting is at the seaside (perhaps in Tuscany near Viareggio), and the narrator/protagonist is a woman there alone.

I’m liking the novel even more now than I did in the spring–imagining my similarities with the protagonist narrator as well as significant differences. Yes, I’m a woman who’s been at the beach alone, watching other families and contemplating their dynamics. But I’m not Italian, I have no daughters, and I have never been obsessed with dolls. Enough said. No spoilers here! (You can see my spring review here). Topics: motherhood, mother-daughter relations, female-female relations, and the power of memories and the imagination. It’s quick and also a good beach read—especially since so much of the action occurs at the seaside! And here’s another compelling and detailed review which discusses the title and its many renderings as threads within the novel. I’m looking forward to seeing the film version, to see how it captures the narrator’s interior thoughts, which are central to the novel. 

Keep Reaching Out

Messages from many of you who are (or have been) in Italy have kept me going during my solo adventures this summer. You know who you are! It’s also been nice to hear from those of you who have had similar experiences or have friends nearby. Do you have plans for Italy later this summer, fall, or winter? Do you have questions about your plans? Please let me know. I’m happy to be of help. 

Also related—I’ve been delighted to see photos friends and family have shared of their copies of Engaging Italy. I’m looking forward to seeing some reviews posts on Goodreads, Amazon, and elsewhere . . . . And, speaking of reviews—if you or someone you know would like to write one, please reach out. I’ll help you get a review copy!  

Don’t have a copy yet? If you’re not ready to purchase an expensive hard cover edition—have no fear—Consider these options: 1) ask your library to purchase a copy 2) order an e-copy, available now 3) preorder a paperback copy  or 4) as a newsletter subscriber, hope that you’ll win a hardcover copy in the “giveaway” drawings I’ll be doing before the paperback arrives in October. Not yet a subscriber to All Things Italy? Subscribe now to add your name to the pool! 

Looking Ahead

Next month—more on visits to historic sites in Genoa and in Naples and its environment–and their connection to my writing on American women in Italy. I’m looking forward to visiting some new spots in this “on the beaten path” part of Italy!  

I am also looking ahead to the fall and winter. A couple of talks are already on my events list, plus, I have some podcast recordings scheduled. As soon as I know more about when those podcasts will be available, I’ll post them on my events calendar and share on social media. The topics? Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks, of course! (You can see specific talk titles on the events calendar).  Are you part of a group or organization—a book club, a historical society, etc.–who looks for speakers? Let me know how I might help . . . 

Alla prossima,  


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