All Things Italy Fall 2021

November 18, 2021 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

An autumn view of Ragusa Ibla, Sicily


Dear friends,

Here we are, deep into autumn, past Halloween and approaching Thanksgiving. I missed October in writing to you, and here’s why:  I have been swamped with writing deadlines, presentations, and travel. It’s all been good, but exhausting. Whew!

I returned home a week ago, grateful for a stretch ahead with less pressure of writing deadlines. That is, I face only self-imposed deadlines now, rather than externally imposed ones, including getting this newsletter to you.

First, some updates on the presentations and progress on Engaging Italy, my forthcoming book. But then I’ll also share a bit about travel to a less-visited site in Italy–Ragusa, a beautiful spot in Sicily. And I have a few comments about on one of my favorite biographies published this year, Frances Wilson’s Burning Man.

Engaging Italy – Updates on Production

What’s been happening with Engaging Italy since my last update?

In early September, I received suggestions by the copyeditor for tweaking the writing. I was given a month turnaround time for the 400-plus-page manuscript. Fortunately, there weren’t too many suggestions to review. Most of the editor’s notes pointed to ways to improve the text.

The cover design has also been underway. I got a sneak peek two weeks ago! You can now see the image here, on the SUNY Press website. I’ll be sharing more in my next newsletter and on social media as well.

And, I have contracted with someone to create the index. Many authors index their own books, but I have never had the energy for such detail-oriented mental work when I reach this point with a project. I am excited to have found an indexer recommended by SUNY Press who is an Italian woman, interested in women’s history, and who is also a University of Virginia alumna (UVA is among my almae matres). She seems perfect for the project!

Now, to wait for the next and almost-final phase in the book production process . . . one more round of proofreading on my end.

Meanwhile, I go on talking, reading, writing, and dreaming about Italy—as this newsletter issue illustrates.

Talking about Italy . . .

Two weeks ago I gave three presentations—each different—but all related to Engaging Italy.

For a women’s group in Springfield, Missouri, I gave a quick overview of the book’s key players. Anne Hampton Brewster, Emily Bliss Gould, and Caroline Crane Marsh believed in women’s education and found “later vocations” while living in Italy at mid-life. None was a young, fresh, Daisy Miller (the fictional character Henry James created in 1878–an ill-fated young American woman in Rome). Brewster wrote weekly for US newspapers in Boston, Philadelphia, and across the country. Gould published periodical articles before devoting her attention to founding a school and orphanage and fundraising for it. Marsh, the US Ambassador’s wife, chaired committees and oversaw teachers for another girls’ school and orphanage. She also managed a household full of family and guests—all while deemed “invalid.”

Anne Hampton Brewster (left), Caroline Crane Marsh (center), and Emily Bliss Gould, the key figures in Engaging Italy. Credits: Library Company of Philadelphia & Silver Special Collections, University of Vermont

Then, at the conference of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (yes, there’s a group with this name, and I’ve been a member for more than twenty years—gulp!), I shared information on a digitization project with Brewster’s 1869-70 news articles from Rome for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Brewster captured debates over Pope Pius IX’s authority, the Vatican Council’s debates over his infallibility, and whether Rome and the Papal States would become part of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy.

One of Brewster’s Letters from Rome in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, June 1870

One joy of this project is collaborating with two former Missouri State graduate students in English: Natalie Whitaker, now Public Services Librarian at Concordia Seminary, and a PhD candidate at St. Louis University, and Alyssah Morrison, an award-winning writer (who is also involved with the local food scene). We’re working with graduate students this semester to provide online access to Brewster’s writings of this tumultuous time in Rome.

Alyssah Morrison (center) assists graduate students with transcribing newspaper articles into plain text using Markdown coding

I answer a student’s question about the digitizing work, part of the Recovery Hub for American Women Writers

The digitizing project is part of the larger Recovery Hub for American Women Writers, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and hosted by Southern Illinois University Press and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. The project will continue next semester as well, with funds from Missouri State’s Graduate College. An additional student collaborator or two also will be on board. I’m delighted that we will be able to make Brewster and her work from Rome more accessible to the public—all around the time Engaging Italy appears in old-fashioned paper and print!

The third presentation I gave recently was on correspondence between Marsh, who lived in Italy’s Piedmont, and her sister Lucy, who lived in St. Louis, in 1862—the height (or depth!) of the Civil War. The year was bleak for both of them. Lucy described it as “a year of public and private calamity.” In addition to the losses of the battle at Shiloh, Lucy had lost her young daughter Flora to diphtheria. Caroline had moved four or five times in one year, after she and her husband, the US ambassador to Italy, arrived at his post in Turin, unified Italy’s first capital.


Letter from Lucy Crane Wislizenus to her sister Caroline Crane Marsh, Dec. 29, 1862: “a year of public and private calamity . . . to me – to us and to how many thousands in our land.” In the upper margin, Lucy refers to Flora, questioning why the girl “had to suffer so.” from Crane Family Papers, New York Public Library

The talks all went well—even with masks and Zoom technology involved. I’d love to schedule more talks about women (or travel) in Italy in 2022. You can see on my calendar of upcoming events that I’ve hit a resting point for the holidays. Let me know if you’re interested in arranging a presentation for 2022. You can email me directly. [email protected]

Ragusa: Then & Now

Sicily’s Ragusa Ibla glows in the autumn sun

And now, for some insights to an under-visited spot in Sicily: Ragusa. The lovely twin hilltop towns in Sicily—Ragusa Ibla, the older, historic section, and Ragusa Superiore, the more modern part—demand a determined traveler. They are not difficult to access, but many who venture onto the football-shaped island at the toe of the Italian boot take only a quick stopover in route to somewhere else. They debark from cruise ships for day trips to Taormina, Agrigento, or Siracusa, to see the famous Greek amphitheaters and temples, for example. Or they arrive by air or rail and lodge in the major cities—Catania, Messina, or Palermo—and take day trips from there. Ragusa, like many points further away from the major cities and ports, demands a little extra time. But they are well worth it.

Two years ago I visited in late September, so I can confidently say that Ragusa glows gorgeously in the fall. The sun at only a slight slant still gleams on the stone structures and streets, turning the twin towns into brilliant gems glowing in the morning and evening light. (I was so moved by the morning view that it became my website banner image. Perhaps you recognize it?) Walking in the sun I had to shed the layers I brought along. I also rejoiced for having packed short sleeves and sandals. Because I was moving up and down the two major hills, sturdy footwear and comfortable clothing were essential.

View of Ragusa Ibla from steep stone steps of Ragusa Superiore

But I had arrived in Ragusa for a professional event, before COVID shut down conferences and international travel. The local university sponsored the annual AISNA (Italian Association of American Studies) gathering, and I was fortunate enough to have institutional support to attend and present.

Poster for the 2019 AISNA conference in Ragusa

This baroque-style church now serves as a university building, where several conference presentations were delivered

I connected with old friends from my Fulbright days. (The university in Ragusa is actually a branch of the University of Catania, where I taught in 2009.) In fact, this visit was my second, a reminder of a talk I gave on food and American literature there that spring. I can also write confidently that April is an equally beautiful time to visit.

What would call a traveler to Ragusa? There’s the local history—both ancient and more recent—which reminds us of the layers upon layers of people who have inhabited the island and left their traditions—architecturally and otherwise. Records indicate that almost 500 BCE Hippocrates of Gela attacked it and that Greeks lived in the area not long after that. Romans and later Arabs and Normans exerted their influence—a pattern common to the island’s history of being ruled by outsiders. After an earthquake in 1693, the town was reconstructed with the dual design seen today, including the many baroque-style buildings.

The beautiful historic surroundings also provide a peaceful base for a restful stay within a small city. Ragusa has a city’s conveniences—eateries, galleries, shops, museums—all negotiable on foot.

View into the open door of one of Ragusa’s galleries

But if your knees, ankles or thighs can no longer take the uneven stone steps, sidewalks, and steep hills, the city is large enough to cater to you with cabs. With about 75,000 residents, it beats the isolation of a rural villa or village. In the evening you can take a passeggiata and sit at an outdoor café with the locals and then easily stroll back to your lodging.

As in many smaller cities in Italy, signs in English appeal to travelers interested in real estate ventures and Ragusa’s recent gentrification. Climbing roses and the bright autumn sun tempt many to dream of a longer stay in a more permanent residence.

Climbing roses soften the stone surroundings

Looking for a luxury home?

If you’re bored with the city, you can venture to the beach at Marina di Ragusa, or take a day trip to Modica, a nearby city known for its chocolate production. Of course, depending upon your energy and enthusiasm for driving, there are other points to enjoy throughout the island. (Noto is another of my favorite smaller cities in the southeast).

Chocolate samples (pre-Covid!) in Modica’s Antica Dolceria Bonjuto Source: wikimedia commons Ludvig14

Modica chocolates for sale in a Siracusa market Source: Wikimedia commons


But is it necessary to have a car, you may be wondering? Not necessarily, no. I arrived by bus, from Catania’s airport following a short flight from Rome. Locating the appropriate bus at the airport was relatively easy and inexpensive. The ride was comfortable. Some colleagues arriving for the conference booked private drivers for the approximately two-hour ride. I’m sure some others may have rented cars—always an option with an international driver’s license and the willingness to have the adventure of Sicilian driving. (Narrow streets and limited access historic centers, not to mention parking, can make driving a challenge).

The decision about how to arrive at Ragusa, as always, depends upon how the stop fits into your larger itinerary, your budget, and your preferred ways to travel. Whether to arrive is another question. If you’re looking for a less-visited spot that is equally enjoyable for its beauty, serenity, and local culture, you can’t go wrong with Ragusa.

Burning Man: Little to do with Women in Italy?

Cover of Frances Wilson’s biography of D. H. Lawrence, Burning Man

Sicily came into my view also as I read not about women in Italy but Frances Wilson’s Burning Man: The Ascent of D H Lawrence. Lawrence seems a far cry from my recent research and recovery work on women writers. In fact, he’s been skewered by many critics as misogynistic. This attitude really grew after Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics appeared in the late 1970s, according to Wilson.  But I chose to read and review this biography nonetheless. Why?

First, because I was curious about Lawrence’s time in Italy (of which I knew very little). Lawrence lived and wrote in Taormina and also shipped out from Siracusa to Malta, where he spent a winter writing. Second, because I fell in love with Lawrence’s writings when I first read them as an undergraduate. I only stepped out of love with them when I awakened as a woman and a feminist. (Yes, I read Millet’s work in grad school and never saw Lawrence’s works in the same way after that).

And I also started the biography because of what I read in advance about Wilson’s work. She approached this biography in a fascinating way. First, she chose to zoom in on Lawrence’s ever-unquenched desires—captured in the “burning” metaphor of the book’s title. Second, she connected these desires not only to his drive for success and to find answers to life’s difficult questions but also his incessant travels. From his first years in England’s industrial north, later to Italy, to Malta, to New York and the desert Southwest, and then back to England, this biography includes much more than snippets of Sicily and Italy.  And, third, among the most engaging parts of the entire work, Wilson structures this life journey of the burning man alongside of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, a work which Lawrence read and referenced throughout his life.

Lawrence becomes the traveler, from the Inferno, upwards toward Purgatory and Paradise. The Italian Dante, channeling figures in literature, art and history who well predated him, serves as a shadow (or a guide) for Lawrence himself. As Wilson tells his story, she intertwines references from Lawrence’s literature and letters to illustrate this journey. Along the way she informs us about many of the key players in Lawrence’s life.

There’s Frieda, his flamboyant German wife. There’s the gay life he learned in post-World War I Florence, sharing meals and whiskey with Norman Douglas and Maurice Mangus. There’s time in Caserta, Sicily, Sardinia, and Malta, where Mangus appears again and again. And there’s Mabel Dodge Luhan and her artists’ community in Taos, New Mexico. Syphilis and tuberculosis both weave through the books final phase. They remind us of the nature of disease, secretive treatments, and death that haunts us all, in spite of our burning desires.

In short, the Italian part of Wilson’s biography is rich with details of an expat author’s life. Lawrence’s love/hate relationships with both men and women close to him ran through much of his short life. This lyrical, impassioned, and emotionally heavy book is not for any old Italophile. But if you have literary loves that at some point included Lawrence or Dante, if you are interested in expat authors, or if the influence of relationships upon writing intrigues you, then you likely will love Wilson’s work.

Next newsletter:

I’ll review a lighter text: Robert Camuto’s South of Somewhere: Wine, Food, and the Soul of Italy.

Cover of Robert Camuto’s South of Somewhere

Also up then:

  • Italy during the holidays
  • Updates on Engaging Italy (of course!)
  • Plans for a group trip—maybe a writing retreat! I’ve already heard from a few friends who are interested . . .

Finally, if you like what you read here, let me know. I always love hearing from you! And, if you know someone else who might enjoy my little snippets about All Things Italy, please share a link with them.

Until next time, stay safe during any travels, and keep reading and dreaming of Italy!


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Etta Madden