The Villa Curonia
The heights surrounding Florence afford many charming views of the city and neighbourhood, and some of the edifices erected on them also deserve notice. The afternoon is the most favourable time for excursions, as the city and environs are often veiled in haze in the forenoon. (Baedeker’s Northern Italy 548).
Let us move forward in time by a couple of years, from Loy’s arrival in Florence and the rather cold, lonely winter at the Villino Ombrellino to hike the artistic and geographic pathways that take us to the Villa Curonia, the home of Mabel Dodge (Luhan), often visited by Loy and all manner of international visitors.
In the spring of 1908, the couple’s move into the city from the Villino Ombrillino to a rented apartment and subsequent house purchase on the Costa San Giorgio brought them into the city and its lively street life. They would continue to venture into the Arcetri hills, particularly once they met Mabel Dodge and her husband in 1910, when the American couple arrived in Florence and visited Haweis’ studio. Loy and Haweiss joined salons and gatherings at Dodge’s Arcetri home, the Villa Curonia, famously celebrated in Gertrude Stein’s “Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia,” which Dodge printed up and distributed at the Armory Show in New York City, 1913.
Dodge introduced Loy to many modernist friends, including Carl Van Vechten, Gertrude Stein, John Reed, and Alice B. Toklas. Dodge and Loy would vacation together after Haweis left Florence (see Italian Retreats). Their letters across the Atlantic during the teens, as Dodge temporarily returned to New York, included news of the feminist movement in America and Loy’s response, a draft of her 1914 “Feminist Manifesto.”
To visit the Villa Curonia, Loy could ascend the hilly Costa San Giorgio and the Arcetri roads by cab or foot. Walking the route allows for lovely views (and excellent exercise). Should you want to get trace her steps, leave the site of her home at #54 Costa San Giorgio and proceed up the hill and beyond the street’s intersection with Costa San Scarpuccia. A bit further up the hill, at the intersection of Costa San Giorgio and Via San Leonardo, you pass the “House of Galileo,” which the Baedecker notes is at “No. 13 Via della Costa San Giorgio.”
Currently a tidy beige structure decorated with bold geometric frescoes, the House of Galileo sports a commemorative plaque.
The proximity of her city home to Galileo’s, echoing the cross-temporal coincidence of their residences at the Villino Ombrellino, might well have pleased Loy. Perhaps she imagined, passing his home, innovators sharing space across centuries, linked by their mutual distrust of convention and embrace of observational acuity. Images of vision and technologies of vision, a ghostly graft of the modern moment upon the Renaissance — Loy’s present upon Galileo’s past — proliferate in her writing, like the characteristic insertions of scientific language into her literary productions. Links in time and space — same home, same street — map onto an imagined lineage embodied in this walking tour from the Costa San Giorgio to the hills of Arcetri.
Traversing the Costa San Giorgio’s southern end entails a rigorous uphill march to the Porta San Giorgio at the Forte di Belvedere San Giorgio. Reaching the top of the street, you will pass through the Porta San Giorgio, part of the city’s medieval walls, “adorned with frescoes of the 14th-century” and adjacent to an old fort. The Baedeker further informs that “[a]bove the Boboli Garden rises the Fortezza di Belvedere (. . . now a barrack), constructed in 1590 by Buontalenti to protect the Pitti Palace” that lies below (548).
Track Loy’s passage through this gate in her three-poem sequence, “Italian Pictures.” The “porta” and the “stained fresoe” and “barrack” all appear in the middle poem, “Costa San Giorgio.”
At the Porta San Giorgio, a bas relief of St. George killing the dragon supplies the image of the “stained frescoe of the dragon-slayer” that marks this place and route in her poem (LLB96 10).
Above the arch of the medieval gate curves a fresco of the Madonna enthroned among saints, joining the many and unavoidable instances of Virgin Mary images Loy would encounter on any daily stroll (see Firenze is a woman). Passing through the Porta, examine the images of knight and virgin, thinking of strategic gender juxtapositions in Loy’s Florence poems.
Passing through the Porta, you will enter a walled street, strolling along the blessedly flat San Leonardo, traveling south of the Boboli Gardens and toward Arcetri, passing walled estates and occasional glimpses of the Tuscan hills.
Soon, you cross a major road for the first time, passing a café but deferring temptation as you advance southeast in the direction of Mabel Dodge’s Villa Curonia. Curving left at the bottom of the hill onto the Via Suor Maria Celeste, follow to #13 and stand before a gated and walled estate, denied any visual or physical access to your destination.
Unable to see or visit the Villa Curonia, you retrace your steps to the sweet café you passed on the way. Refreshing yourself with an espresso or gelato, you suspect Loy most often took a cab back and forth on these hilly roads.
Perhaps you carry images of the Villa Curonia in your mind, having seen photographs in a book about Mabel Dodge.
While sipping your espresso, you speculate about what those walls enclosed in the early 1910s. At the Villa Curonia, Loy engaged in lively discussions about psychology, spirituality, occultism, and art. She would meet Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, who shared her early writing, and the three shopped together in her Oltrarno neighborhood. A friendship ensued with Carl Van Vechten, who promoted her early writings as an editor of Trend and was a fellow Greenwich Village habitué when Loy came to New York in 1916. Van Vechten’s essayistic accounts of his extended prewar visit to the Villa Curonia in 1914 appeared in issues of Rogue and also in his 1932 autobiography, Sacred and Profane Memories, recounting his visit to Vallombrosa and Saltino with Dodge, Loy, and others just as the war broke out (see Italian Retreats)
Mabel Dodge’s friendship and her expatriate community of Anglo-Americans proved fundamental to Loy’s encounters with new ideas, artists, and writers. Dodge’s autobiography reveals a rather conflicted regard for Loy, complicated by Dodge’s musings on her simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from Haweis. Devoting an entire chapter to him, Dodge relays his dalliances with other women and their strange attraction to him, conceding that her own pull toward him coexisted with a restless fear when they were alone. Employing metaphors of animals, reptiles, and insects, she describes Haweis as a decidedly “penguin type,”“diminutive, black as a beetle, and very, very inky” (338), with a “lizardy mouth” and “lips . . . shaped like a trowel” below “large, inky, oily dark eyes [that] would become fixed with the lids drooping over them” (342). She sculpted a penguin-like portrait of his image.
Dodge described Haweis and “Ducie” as a “strange couple together,” dramatized by physical contrasts that resolved, nevertheless, into a strange similarity:
His dark, inky eyes would have an oily glint in them and his long black hair that grew, like a page’s, long and over his ears, used to grow damp and he would brush it back with his trembling lizardy hands . . . . She was beautiful, with dark hair parted and with a great knot on the nape of her white neck, a fair, fine skin with high cheekbones, and she was graceful.
She looked like a painting by Augustus John. Her eyes were long and narrow of a nondescript color, something pale. There was something a little reptilian about her, too. Just as Stephen resembled a lizard or a little tortoise on end, so she made one think of serpents. (338)
Dodge’s account of Loy’s artistry charts her change in names, recognizing a play with nomenclature that Loy loved and that, in Dodge’s rendering, maps her distance from Haweis’ surname and nickname for her: “Lilith her name might have been. But in reality it was Minna. Minna Levi. Then Minna Lowey. Then Minna Loy (after she finally divorced Stephen). He called her Ducie” (342), an alternatively spelled version of “Dusie,” the nickname she derived as a student in Munich and that continued with Haweis (see Burke; and Hayden 229). Although Dodge spent a good deal of time with Loy and they wrote to one another once apart, her final summary of Loy sounds strangely cruel and cold, conveying a distanced aloofness from her friend:
Ducie was very gifted in an unhappy, morbid way. She painted small, cynical pictures, picturesque and delicate, of ladies’ tea-parties, or half-fantastic scenes from a fabulous world where her mind dwelt customarily in a perpetual half-tone, poetic and depressing. She was perfectly dissatisfied through some lack in herself. She seemed to grow dry as the years went on. It was not Stephen’s fault, through perhaps he was difficult to live with after one outgrew the taste one had for him. (341)
A complex social scene attended the many gatherings so intoxicating to Loy. In her chapter devoted to Haweis (not to her friend Loy), Dodge admits his strange appeal to other women, including Emily Sayre who reputedly committed suicide after his rejection. Dodge’s eery lingering on Haweis’ power of attraction includes an admission of her own duplicity as a confident to Loy. While participating in an erotic dynamic with Haweis, Dodge confesses to being well aware that “Ducie hated him with a profound, convinced detestation which had been developed in intimacy. ‘He is the kind that bites the hand that feeds him,’ she told me once” (342).
According to Dodge, Haweis “used to delve in magic things and knew a few little magical tricks. . .. He wanted power and he had some. There he was, married to Ducie Haweis, lovely as a Byzantine Madonna, taller than he by several inches; and there was Emily Sayre, who became infatuated with him [later committing suicide]. . . and I had too an interest in him” (338). Dodge’s narrative recalls the husband in “Costa Magic,” chanting magical incantations that suggestively contribute to a young woman’s misery and death.
This imaginative visit to the Villa Curonia, then, traces something of the difficult marriage between Loy and Haweis. A path appears to another Florence poem. His infidelity surfaces subtly in “Lions Jaws,” likely written after Loy has actually left Florence and, according to Conover, appearing to be her “final verse verdict on Futurist affairs” (LLB96 186). Parodying the Futurists as “the flabbergasts,” and implicating herself (as “Imna Oly”) in their antics for a time, the poem mockingly recalls the major figures and the misogyny prompting what Conover calls their “sex war” (LLB96 188).
While Haweis is not identified through the more direct method of pseudonyms that point to Italian figures like Marinetti, Papini, or D’Annunzio, “Mrs. Krar Standing Hail” stands in for his unfaithfulness and, perhaps, its roots in his shallow inability to understand Loy and her feminist modernity:
As for Imna Oly
I agree with Mrs. Krar Standing Hail
She is not quite a lady. (LLB96 50)
Hail is a “stand-up jab for Stan Harding Krayl (A.k.a. Mrs. Garner Hale),” who numbered among Haweis’ affairs and was a friend of Dodge’s (Conover, LLB96 187). Dodge, while hinting that Krayle was also attracted to her, muses: “It was perhaps not so strange that such women as Stan and the others fell so desperately in love with him. He must have had a strong element that they need . . . . And she capitulated completely to Stephen. Why? I can’t fathom the connection. She was devoured by her passion for him.”
That Dodge devotes an entire chapter to Haweis in writing of life in Florence suggests not merely her own attraction but points more significantly to the drama of these social intrigues. Loy’s defiant distance — refusing to “be a lady” — looks back with a dryly self-aware critique. Krayl-Hall’s brief appearance in the poem serves up a bit of sly commentary on the Dodge-centric Villa Curonia.
The Braggiottis and the Scuola del Canto
Venture into the hills north of the city, the Montughi area. From the city, follow the Via dei Cappucinni until it becomes the Via San Marta. Near the Chiesa dei Capuccini at the end of the Via San Marta (near the current Stibbert Museum) is the villa where the Braggioti family resided from 1900 until 1918. Their youngest daughter Gloria memorializes the villa in her autobiography of growing up at the villa:
The villa my parents selected was in Montughi, on the outskirts of Florence, situated on one of the lovely hills overlooking the city. It was built of stucco, of a cheery vanilla color, with green blinds brightening all the windows . . . .(13)
The Braggiotis — an American wife and Italian husband with eight children — opened a music school at their villa. The Scuola di Canto served as an active hub for guests and events, especially the Saturday gatherings that “[e]veryone in Florence knew about” and that Loy attended with family and friends:
The Saturday guests were a conglomeration of all types of people, nationalities, and ages, including the aristocratic families of Florence. There were also our American friends . . . . Musicians, artists, and writers visiting Florence were automatically informed of our musicales. Nobody waited for an invitation. Edward Johnson, Douglas Ainsley, Emma Eames, Muriel Draper, Paul Draper (age seven), and Mabel Dodge were frequent visitors. (Braggioti 63)
Loy met the Drapers at the Braggiotti’s. She would visit them in London and also see them when they came to Florence to stay with Mabel Dodge (Burke 125).
Gloria recalls the proximity of the Braggioti’s villa to the Capuchin convent, next to the Chiesa dei Santi Francesco e Chiara: “This tiny Catholic church was situated at the end of the dusty Via Santa Marta, about a half mile from our villa” (31). Taken to church by their Italian nanny at times, the children came to know the contadini among their local neighbors:
The Chiesa dei Capuccini was built about the fifteenth century. It was a small and simple church, its parishioners consisting mainly of the contadini, servants and gardeners who worked in the villas and gardens in the Montughi section. (33)
The church-going was not a family affair, however, for the parents distrusted the confinements of orthodox Catholicism along with other conventions. They read aloud from “the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita” (130), followed the vegetarianism of Hindu tradition, hosted regular concerts and performances, and held salons about spiritual matters, as with Swami Paraman. In 1912, Loy and Dodge attended weekly sessions with the Swami Paraman, who was staying with the expatriate Braggiotti family at their villa in these hills (Burke 132).
The Braggiottis’ philosophies of child-rearing and education included a belief in each child’s unfettered freedom. Notorious for their refusal to wear clothes and freedom to roam the villa and its surrounding fields, the children at times shocked their parents’ friends. Gloria tells a story of British women coming for afternoon tea, finding the children running around the villa naked except for horns and tails made of sticks and leaves. Burke surmises that Loy was part of this group, slightly appalled by the children’s inventive devils’ tails made, as Gloria describes, “by sticking little branches into our ‘fannies’” (17).
Whether Loy was among the shocked or not, her children joined the Braggiotis in school and play. Writing to Van Vechten in 1914, Loy exclaims that she “Saw lots of Braggiottis the other day – the children may go there yet — !” Indeed, Joella and Giles often went to play with the Braggiotti children, especially during weekly concerts the family attended.
The Braggiotti children attended the same English school with Joella and Giles. Miss Penrose’s Academy, “an institution frequented by the children of foreign residents” (Burke 276), garners fond memories from Gloria Braggiotti.
Miss Penrose’s school held small, cosy classrooms, with tiny wooden chairs and desks, and the huge map of Europe nailed beside the blackboard, with each country tinted a different color. Italy, that lovable boot, was a shiny green, and ever since I have thought of it in that color. What I preferred most of all was the recess period, when Miss Penrose personally directed us in calisthenics and exercises with Indian clubs. . . .
Miss Penrose was a perfect schoolmistress because she truly loved her pupils. Her raspberry pink cheeks gave her the appearance of just having come in from a brisk walk on a cold day and of being very happy about it. Her slightly protruding teeth, which I have always associated with the English, enhanced her pleasant expression. Her teeth smiled even when she herself did not. Her graying hair was loosely rolled into a bun. She had the figure of a person completely dedicated to being useful and active; there wasn’t an ounce of fat or laziness about her. Though she eventually had quite a dose of Braggiottis, nevertheless she seemed really fond of us. She never missed our Saturday musicales and when we returned from the seashore she always met us at the station. (127-128).
Indeed, Miss Penrose was entrusted to keep Loy’s children when she left for New York in 1916 (Burke 193).
Lily Braggiotti, the mother, embraced a clothing philosophy that rejected corsets and associated certain spiritual energies with different colors of clothing. Loy, noted for her distinctively creative, modern dress and, by 1915 sketching fashion designs that she would send to Carl Van Vechten, was a likely fellow-traveler (see Italian Retreats).
Walking to the Centro
From the Costa di San Giorgio, Loy’s downhill walk into the center city crossed the Ponte Vechhio onto the main shopping street, Via Tornabuoini. From there, a visit to the Futurist gathering spots Giubbé Rosse and Paszkowski’s took her to the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele (now the Piazza dell Repubblica), built in the late nineteenth century after the city torn down ancient, medieval, and Renaissance structures (see Futurist Florence/Futurist Rome).
Likely responding to the demolition of medieval structures, such as churches, towers, residences, and palaces, undertaken during the square’s renovation as a celebration of Italy’s new nationhood, the 1906 Baedeker looks with scorn upon this modernization, noting that the “uninteresting new PIAZZA VITTORIO EMANUELE . . . now forms the focus of the Centro and is especially animated in the evening” (emphasis added, 532).
Directly behind the Piazza Vittoria Emmanuele, Gordon Craig settled for a while on the top floor of the old Palazzo Sassetti. Theater set designer and editor of The Mask, he hosted visits at the Palazzo from Haweis and Loy in their early Florence years, and Haweis “contributed to Craig’s cosmopolitan magazine The Mask as an illustrator” (Scuriatti 307).
Craig later moved briefly to the Costa San Giorgio and then relocated to #4 Viuzzo della Gattaia, near the Piazzale Michelangelo, where he lived for seven years. Loy, if visiting him on this hillside above the city, might take the electric tramway No. 7 up the steep incline, where the extended views of Florence and the “villa-covered hills” are “[c]harming” (Baedeker 549).
The Centro suggests the literal conjunctions daily offered by Florence for Loy, as a place of diverse cultural, historical, religious, and artistic energies. Around the corner from the edgy energies of Futurist cafés and the central, modern piazza, the Duomo’s dome and tower rise high above the city. Catholicism’s dominating presence encodes Loy’s Italian poetic Baedeker as it maps gender in poems that include “Virgins Plus Curtains,”“Babies in Hospital,” “The Black Virginity,” “The Beneficent Garland,” “Involutions,” and “The Prototype” (see Firenze is a woman).