All Things Italy November 2022 Where is Home?

November 3, 2022 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Rome’s cimitero acattolico, or non-catholic cemetery

With the fall of leaves, the slant of the sun, holidays like All Saints Day, and other holidays ahead, many begin to think of lost family and of what it means to go home. But for those who move often–especially those who live abroad as expats–where exactly is home?

Margaret Sullivan raises the question, “where’s home?” in her memoir Fragments of a Mobile Life. Sullivan’s memoir touches upon “10 countries, 29 homes, and more than 60 years marriage to a career diplomat.” In her short and insightful essays, Sullivan writes of childhood time in China and in Springfield, Missouri, and adult years throughout Asia, Africa, and the US. Her comments about “home” have resonated with me since I first read them last year.

She answers the question, “where’s home?”:

“‘Home’ continued to be wherever the family lived, not a specific place. Deep down, it remained essentially multiple, a multifaceted experience, built up in numerous accretions of this place and that, these foods and those, this way of speaking and that–one way of understanding who I was and another. Like an onion, home consisted of layers of time, place, and people existing in memory as well as the wherever now.”
Margaret Sullivan, Fragments of a Mobile Life

Sullivan’s ideas resurfaced as I walked through Rome’s cimitero acattolico, or non-catholic cemetery, late last May. Reading the stones there reminded me of how many Americans, British, and other non-locals and non-Roman Catholics died while traveling or living abroad. Similar cemeteries exist in Florence and in Tuscany’s Bagni di Lucca–both worth visits and reflections. (Take a virtual tour of Florence’s English Cemetery here. And see some of what I’ve written about Bagni di Lucca and those buried in its English Cemetery here.)

In many instances, those memorialized claimed Italy as home. Some others did not. Among those in Rome are British poets John Keats and Percy Shelley, novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, and US ambassador George Perkins Marsh.

Stones of Keats and his friend Severn in Rome
Woolson’s gravesite in Rome
Memorial to George Perkins Marsh, Rome

Marsh’s wife, Caroline, and Constance Fenimore Woolson are among the women I discuss in Engaging Italy. While Woolson was buried in Rome, Caroline returned to the US after her husband’s death and lived another twenty years. She was buried near her nephew in Scarsdale, New York–what she considered her “home” in her final decades.

I don’t touch upon these women’s deaths in Engaging Italy as much as upon their lives. One aspect of their lives I consider is the way in which they created home while living abroad. These women’s experiences and Sullivan’s comments on home resurfaced recently as I prepared a blog for SUNY Press on the women’s many moves during their decades as expats. Here I share some of that blog, which gives glimpses into one part of the book.

I hope you don’t find the topic depressing but rather an encouragement–as Sullivan suggests–to embrace “home” as wherever you are now. And perhaps these insights to what it meant to be “more than tourists,” as I refer to these women, will draw you to one of the events or podcasts listed in the newsletter’s close. Or perhaps these tidbits will entice you to buy a copy of the book, if you have not already.

Making Home Abroad  

For the women at the core of Engaging Italy, “location, location, location” could well have been their common chant. For Anne Hampton Brewster, Caroline Crane Marsh, and Emily Bliss Gould, who threw themselves into their work abroad as authors and activists, location was crucial. But finding and creating homes was not without its challenges.  

These homes were often temporary, as external causes such as war, financial losses, and climate moved them from place to place. Marsh arrived in Italy in 1861 with her husband, the first US Minister Plenipotentiary to the newly unified Kingdom of Italy. They lived first in Turin, then Florence, and then Rome—as the Kingdom’s capital and parliament moved–all within a decade.

And even within each city, the Marsh household moved from structure to structure, under her supervision. Initially they lodged in hotels, with no furnishings to change. But then the moves to more permanent residences demanded work to make them homelike. After two months in an elegant hotel on Turin’s Piazza di Castello, for example, Caroline wrote of being “very busy . . . with the preliminary arrangements for housekeeping.” Then, when their boxes from the US arrived, she was responsible for getting them “comfortably settled” with their “familiar books” surrounding them. And there was shopping for silver and china “to fill up the wide gaps” in the “cuisine department,” as the Ambassador’s wife deemed necessary for their duties. 

Caroline Marsh wrote of these three windows and single balcony of their hotel rooms overlooking the Piazza di Castello upon her arrival in Turin, June 1861

With almost every steamy summer, the women vacated the cities and headed to the mountains or further north. They hoped to avoid the fevers of malaria (literally, “bad air”). Each return often meant a new space, sometimes “in a horrible confusion,” as Brewster wrote from Rome one autumn. They took charge of reorganizing and decorating, writing of wallpaper, paint, rugs, fireplaces or stoves, and views. After dealing with the “confusion,” for example, Brewster wrote, “now thank heaven, it is in order and I have not been so comfortable for years. It is the prettiest sunniest coziest place possible.” The loggia, where she usually ate, allowed her to “look out on lovely views.” These she described as “so Italian” and “picture like” but also essential to her writing.  

Another move Brewster made—thanks to her friendship with Gould, also improved her health as well as her view. Gould and Brewster met because they lived near each other and Rome’s Spanish Steps—an area where many expats, such as Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James made their homes.

Stylized map of area near Rome’s Spanish Steps indicates where famous expat Brits and Americans lived. Author photo from original image at the Keats-Shelley House, Rome, used with permission

Preparing to leave for the summer, Gould had “kindly” invited Brewster into “her fine airy apartment . . . during her absence.” Brewster complained of her own “wretched rooms” just a few steps away in the Via Sistina as “very unhealthy owing to the bad drains on either side.” She admired Gould’s space on the “piano nobile” or above, where the ceilings would be high, the rooms and windows larger.  

The Palazzo Albani at the intersection of Via Quattro Fontane and Via Venti Settembre on Rome’s Quirinal hill. Brewster lived and hosted receptions in her rooms on an upper floor.

As soon as Brewster was able, she moved into an apartment on Via Quattro Fontane on the Quirinal Hill. She described it as “high, healthy and airy.”  The nicer environment helped Brewster compose her weekly columns, published in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, the Boston Daily Advertiser, and other US newspapers. Additionally, her spacious rooms on the upper floors of the Palazzo Albani enabled her twice-weekly receptions. These were crucial to maintaining the network of expat life which fed her writing.  

Networking was one of the most important parts of the women’s chosen locations. They needed to be able to socialize nearby as well as to host guests. Feeling isolated as an expat could contribute to emotional and physical ill health. Brewster wrote in her journal about her own struggles as well as those of others she knew. One novelist from Maine, Mary Agnes Tincker, was admitted to the “malinconia” (an institute for the mentally unwell) due to her struggles. Brewster kept herself as connected as possible while still treasuring her writing time alone.

Marsh’s favorite home, the Villa Forini, just outside Florence’s Porta alla Croce, fostered this important networking. The villa’s dining room was important not only for formal events but for Marsh’s interactions with friends. There one December evening in 1867, for example, she worked with Gould, as the two discussed their activist efforts. Gould took the lead, composing a fundraising letter to Dr. Thompson, president of the American Foreign and Christian Union. Both women, however, worked together on behalf of the newly established protestant schools in Florence. These efforts with education would continue to occupy them through the mid-1870s.

Caroline Crane Marsh’s favorite home, the Villa Forini, just outside Florence’s Porta alla Croce. Today the building houses some city offices.

As Gould wrote the letter, she depended on Marsh’s encouragement and support. She later reciprocated with insistent invitations for the Marshes to visit her in Rome and lodge in her expansive home. In 1870 she proudly wrote that she had room for the ambassador and his wife and for their servants as well: “We have a big house now, and I know I can make you more comfortable than you could be at a hotel.”  

Each of these privileged women deemed ample space necessary, significant to the work they did. They also made the space their own in order to make the most of the time they spent there. And, most importantly, the locations each found factored into their relationships. They knew that “location, location, location” would impact what they viewed, what they heard, and whom they hosted. Their selected locations kept them engaged in their web of relations and stimulated their work as activists and authors abroad. These activities lie at the heart of Engaging Italy.  

Updates on Engaging Italy 

Since last month’s newsletter, I have heard from several who have ordered paperback copies of Engaging Italy with the 30% off coupon code above, and I have seen a couple of copies! My first glimpse was a friend’s copy (you know who you are!), which I happily signed during lunch here in Springfield, Missouri, before I received my comp copy just this week. I also communicated one evening this week with a friend in northwest Arkansas who just received her copy (and one for a friend). We were trying to figure out a way for me to sign those copies on an upcoming trip to Fayetteville. . . .

For me, the paperback is more exciting than the hardcover because it says, “more affordable.” I like that!

If you’re interested in a signed copy and want to support indie bookstores, you can order a copy through Pagination Bookshop, with whom I have arranged to sign and ship copies. These are a little more pricy than purchasing directly from SUNY Press with the coupon code above, but you’re supporting a good cause–a local bookstore. The details are here.

Another option is to schedule a book talk in your area–maybe at a library or bookstore? I am always happy to talk about Engaging Italy or other topics related to my research and writing. If you or a group you‘re a part of are interested, let me know! We would arrange to have book copies available for purchase and signing.

If you’re interested in learning more about Engaging Italy as you walk, or clean, or rest, you can listen to the podcast interview I had with BIO (Biographer’s International Organization). We discuss the book’s content and why these nineteenth-century women matter today. But we also talk about the craft of writing biography–especially one focused on a group of women. Thanks to those of you who already listened and sent me your feedback. It keeps me going!

Upcoming Events

Meanwhile, there are a couple of upcoming presentations on Engaging Italy and another podcast ahead:

Let’s Talk Books! Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions

November 18 @ 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm CST

This virtual presentation on Engaging Italy is part of the series Let’s Talk Books with Professor Lynn Domina of Northern Michigan University. A Q & A will follow the presentation. To participate, here is the registration form to receive a zoom link. The presentation also will be recorded for later viewing.

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. The talk will also provide a brief overview of the book. 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.

These activities are updated on my Events page, and I share reminders about them on social media. I hope you’ll participate and share them as well.  

Until next month, keep dreaming of All Things Italy!

Etta Madden