Writing Places & Bagni di Lucca, Italy
Six years ago this week, I was in one of my favorite Italian towns—Bagni di Lucca. I’ve written about this spot in Tuscany before. It’s nestled high above the often-visited town of Lucca, in a mountain valley formed by the Lima River and, below it, the larger Serchio. Known since the Roman era for the hot springs that have drawn people to its comforting waters, Bagni di Lucca takes its name from those healing baths (bagni=baths). Centuries after the Romans, French author Michel de Montaigne wrote of the medicinal qualities of the waters in his 1580 Voyage en Italie. But for me, the healing I find in this mountain village comes from the history linked to the contemporary culture which celebrates it. Together, they inspire me to write.
My visits primarily have been to participate in the Michel de Montaigne Society conferences. (An exception: a group trip in 2018 featured an evening in this lovely town). The Montaigne Society conference topics are not limited to the sixteenth-century essayist. When this photo was snapped, I was sharing information on Anne Hampton Brewster, a nineteenth-century American journalist from Philadelphia who spent most of her last twenty-five years in Rome. Escaping Rome’s heat during the late-summer months, as many other English and Americans in Italy did, Brewster joined an expat crowd in this village. Bustling in the summer, but not so much in the winter, Bagni offered then and continues to offer now a site of refuge from the heat and humidity of the plains below.
In addition to unnamed Romans and the French Montaigne, some well-known Anglos in literary circles gathered here. Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley spent two glorious months not long after her Frankenstein appeared. Later in the century (1853 & 57) Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband Robert were among the summer residents. Other Anglo expat figures little-known now—artist Nelly Erichsen, former US First Lady Rose Cleveland, and philanthropist Evangeline Whipple, enjoyed living together here. Charles Isadore Hemans, son of popular English poet Felicia Hemans, himself an author on Roman history and Medieval art, lived here during his last year in Italy. The English Cemetery attests to this population, where many were buried.
The former English Church also attests to the expat culture. The church now serves as the local library and venue for events such as the Montaigne Society conferences. See the shelves of books in the photo?
Brewster on the Region’s Features
During my presentation on Brewster, I shared some of her writings on Bagni. These appeared in her weekly publications in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in October 1873. Brewster wrote with stereotypical prejudices about the mountain people, whom she witnessed when she took “excursions on donkeys to the various [. . .] villages.” There she enjoyed harvests of grapes, olives, and chestnuts. The gathering and drying of mushrooms, and the preparation of “tomato conserve” won her attention. She explained how tomatoes were spiced, boiled down, sun-dried, sliced and placed under oil, and she noted her “tomato conserve and funghi [were] ready to take to Rome” for winter use. She purchased them here because they were always twice as expensive in Rome as at Bagni.
Brewster also described the art objects of the Della Robbia family, hidden away in many of the small, simple churches dotting the mountain villages. Neither “mentioned in Murray” nor “chronicled in Kugler”–the era’s popular travel guides—the art seemed “all the more fresh and attractive.” Ducking inside a church’s shadows, away from the sun’s August and September light, creates a sense of oasis and surprise. And seeing the art without a throng of visitors around also would have contributed to the beauty.
Brewster wished her readers “no better fortune than a tranquil summer at Bagni di Lucca, and a quiet study of these beautiful surroundings.” She concluded, “Nature is very charming here. It is inexpressibly refreshing to the mind as well as to the body, to walk, ride and drive over these thickly shaded mountain roads, [and] through the great chestnut forests,” where Rome’s political and social ills could be forgotten.
Brewster on Writing Spaces
But to me, and other writers among us, the most resonant of Brewster’s records of her time in Bagni are lines she inscribed in her journal. There she poured out the delights of her writing space. It was, for her, “una vera benedizione” (a real blessing). Brewster had chosen for herself “the salon of the apartment of the old Ducal palace . . . in the wing that extends over the Piazza,” with a view “from the hill to the Camagione torrent.” The spot was essential. She had a tough task of laborious translating as well as her writing each day. Brewster wanted comfort and a stimulating view.
“I wish it was all done. I am actually longing to do nothing–“Anne Hampton Brewster on her writing, 1873
Brewster’s attitude toward her work was not all positive. As she noted one day, “I wish it was all done. I am actually longing to do nothing—to idle over pleasant books in the hot hours of the day, and then to lounge out of doors in the open air.”
Brewster’s focus that summer and early fall—beyond her regular news articles—was a translation of a popular guide to the recent excavations on Rome’s Palatine Hill, Guida del Palatino. Written by her friend and neighbor in Rome, Rodolfo Lanciani, the book Brewster translated that summer never was published. The sad tale of how it happened and why was the focus of my presentation at Bagni back in 2015 and is the focus of an article and a blog. (I also mention it briefly in my forthcoming book Engaging Italy.)
Today, though, my emphasis is on the importance of that writing space for Brewster. It, along with the daily writing time, kept her going. Sure, she had downfalls along the way. Brewster frequently wrestled with illness, and she dealt with publication rejections. Some of her most painful moments surrounded her friend Lanciani’s sabotaging her publication plans. But an important take away is Brewster’s persistence. And, she recognized that she needed the right writing space.
What about you? How’s your work space? What do you need around you to keep you at your tasks? a view? a candle? music? a favorite beverage?
For the traveler—or traveling writer—Bagni di Lucca provides ample spaces to rent (and to buy). The Park Hotel Regina and other B&Bs offer nightly rates and breakfast. And numerous apartments are available for longer stays. During the winter months, you can head further up the mountains to ski at Abetone.
If you wish a larger city for your lodging, book a place in Lucca and drive up the valley by rental car. Be sure to stop at the Ponte della Maddelena, also known as the Devil’s Bridge. It’s a scenic site on the Serchio for a snack or to stretch your legs. And it’s a perfect photo op.
If you’re willing to forego the convenience of your own schedule, forget the rental car and travel by bus to Bagni from Lucca. Trains to and from Florence serve Lucca throughout the day.
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As always, send me any suggestions you have about topics. I’m also happy to answer questions. If I don’t have answers, I’ll try to find them for you.
In the meantime, keep learning about the past and dreaming about the future, including future travels to Italy!