5. Italian Retreats: Fourth Tour

fresco of Vallombrosa Abbey
Vallombrosa Abbey, fresco detail, Giovannie Stadano, 16th c.


In July, 1914, as the Great War began and Florence felt increasingly tense and threatened, Loy took her family and traveled with friends to Vallombrosa and Saltino, atop a high mountain outside of Florence. Baedeker’s Northern Italy (1906) paints an enticing picture of the mountain-top, with its monastery and national forest, and a long history of attracting English writers to relax, hike, and enjoy the views.

VALLOMBROSA. A visit to this celebrated monastery is now easily accomplished in one day with the aid of the cable-railway from San’Ellero to Saltino; but in the summer several days may be very pleasantly spent at Vallombrosa (rooms should be ordered in advance in July and August). The drive from Florence or Pontassieve . . . to Vallombrosa is charming. . . . The road steadily ascends, usually through woods, to Vallombrosa. (558)
. . .
The convent of Vallombrosa (3140 ft.), situated in a shaded and sequestered spot on the N.W. slope of the Pratomagno chain, was founded in 1015 and suppressed in 1866. The present buildings, dating from 1637, have been occupied since 1870 by the Reale Istituto Forestale, the only advanced school of forestry in Italy. There are now only three monks here, who celebrate service in the church and attend to the meterological observatory. (559)
. . .

The Paradisino, where Loy’s friends would stay during their visit, also garners mention:

Il Paradisino (3336 ft.), a small hermitage situated on a rock, ¼ hours to the left above the monastery, is now an annexe to the Alb. Della Foresta (see above; rooms not very comfortable). The platform in front commands an admirable Survey of the monastic buildings, and of the broad valley of the Arno as far as Florence, half of the cathedral-dome of which is visible behind a hill. The horizon is bounded by the Alpi Apuane (R. 21). —-Another walk may be taken on the road leading from the hotel towards the N.E. along the mountain-slopes viâ Villa del Lago to the Conusma Pass. (559)

The entry on Il Paradisino includes directions for climbing hikes further “through dense pine forest” to a “crest of the “ridge” and a commanding view of the Casention Valley, the Arno, and Florence; even the “blue Mediterranean is sometimes visible in the extreme distance” (559).

early postcard of Paradisiomo, perched on hillside
Albergo del Paradisino, Vallombrosa, early 20th-century postcard

From Florence, getting to Vallombrosa these days is easy by public transit, although bus times are limited. During a recent May trip to Italy, intent on retracing Loy’s steps – albeit by public bus rather than the train and cable-railcar Loy would have taken in 1914 – my husband and I boarded at Florence’s Stazione di Santa Maria Novella and  rode the 343A, at 3 euros each way.  After several stops in small villages outside of the city, the bus climbed high up windy roads, where red poppies punctuated the dense green mountainside.

cafe in Saltino
Café in Saltino, final bus stop, photo by L. Kinnahan

The final stop, about 45 minutes out of town, landed us in Saltino, just up the mountain road from Vallombrosa. Late May proves to be too early for anything to be open in this cool-aired mountain resort area. Climbing off the bus at Saltino, we found a tiny cluster of buildings at the very top of the mountain, with a single café open.

Corner building in Saltino
Saltino, shuttered up in May, photo by L. Kinnahan


As we wandered the few roads, closed-up hotels and shuttered buildings made clear that the high-mountain May coolness preceded the season for visitors.

Walking a short distance back down the mountain, we strolled through the tall firs of the Vallombrosa national forest. Vallombrosa is in the Reggellow municipality, 30 kilometers from Florence in the Appennines, and became the first national forest in Europe in the 1867, renowned especially for its old-growth firs and beeches. Among the forest trails, we began to spy hikers, suggesting the dense forest’s appeal at this time of year to some folks at least. Baedeker’s Northern Italy (1906) details several hikes, as this activity clearly held appeal during Loy’s visits, too. Shortly, we arrived at the gates of the old Benedictine monastery, where we would later catch the (only!) bus back to busy Florence, leaving the solitude and coolness of the mountains after just a few hours since we realized there would be no place to stay the night even if we so desired.

road from Saltino to Vallombrosa
The road from Saltino to Vallombrosa, photo by L. Kinnahan

Had we heeded our Baedeker, we would have known that July and August, rather than May, are prime months for visitors. That would have been the time of year that Loy escaped the heat of Costa di San Giorgio to come to this summer retreat. She drafted “July in Vallombrosa,” the first of three “Italian Pictures,” in July and August of 1914 while on vacation with her children and friends, a group including Mable Dodge, Frances Stevens, Edith Dale, Neith Hapgood, and Carl Van Vechten, traveling just as the war broke out. F.T. Marinetti would visit her that summer (Burke 171-174).

July 1914 Exodus from Florence

Carl Van Vechten’s memoir of his time in Florence recalls this somewhat tumultuous trip. Having arrived by train in Florence on July 31st to visit Edith Dale, living at the Villa Allegra, he caught a “glimpse of Ducie Haweis” (referring to Loy by her nickname and her husband’s surname) and Neith Boyce Hapgood in a car upon leaving the station. Dale had made plans for them to join “Ducie” and others at Vallombrosa within a couple of days. On August 3, he awoke in Florence with “a dreadful sense of doom,” feeling “everything seemed to be wrong with the world” upon learning from the papers “that the Germans had automatically declared war on France by entering Luxemborg,” while the “Belgians and the Dutch were mobilizing” (Sacred 119). In these first days of war, and before Italy joined the fight against Germany, rumors of the cessation of mail, stoppage of Italian boats sailing from ports, a possible invasion of Florence by Hungary, and the severance of money’s availability caused anxiety for the group of expatriates embarking upon the short trip to Vallombrosa. Boarding a train, with “Ducie . . . dressed in dull army blue,” her children, friends, and two owls in cages, the group shared “a sense of doom” (Sacred 120, 121). On the train, the group “smoked cigarettes in chains and were silent and irritable” (Sacred 122).

cover of The Trend
Trend, October 1914, cover by Djuna Barnes. Issue edited by Carl Van Vechten.

Preoccupied with reading an issue of Trend, a modernist little magazine running from 1911 to 1915 that Van Vechten subsequently helped edit, Loy did not notice the train stopping at Sant’ Ellero, their initial stop in the journey. Sant’ Ellero is described rather dismissively in the Baedeker as “an insignificant village with an old castle, in which the Ghibellines expelled from Florence in 1267 were besieged by the Guelphs” (558).

Only upon the train’s movement from the station did Loy realize their mistake. Van Vechten recalls that  “Ducie screamed, that’s our station we’ve just passed? That’s Sant’Ellero. It was too late” (Sacred 122). Fearing they would have to take the train to its endpoint in Rome, “Ducie was extremely apologetic and stopped reading her magazine. After all, we had counted on her and she had failed us” (Sacred 122).

exterior of Cathedral of Arezzo
Cathedral of Arezzo

Discovering they could get off the train at the next small town stop with a hotel, Arezzo, to pass the night and return to Sant’ Ellero the next morning, the group elected to stay in the “exceedingly picturesque” town (Sacred 124). There they encountered a fiesta celebrating the “completion of the façade of the cathedral in a festival which would endure the week,” causing them difficulty in finding hotel rooms. Once settled, however, they strolled through the town, ate, and joined a crowd watching an “exhibition of moving-pictures” (Sacred 124). The convergence of modernity (the war, the train, the new moving picture technology) with the old (the cathedral, the charming town, the festival amidst the opening days of Europe’s new war) suggests a poignant point in time marking this journey to a different place for Loy and friends. Traveling from Florence to Vallombrosa, they suspected the world would never be the same, Van Vechten tells us in hindsight.

Early the next morning, the group caught the train to Sant’ Ellero, their destination for catching the “rack and pinion railway, with its superb views, up to Saltino” to then “drive through the pine forests to Vallombrosa” (Sacred 122, 127). Consulting their Italy Baedeker, they would find the innovative cable railway and the carriage-road thus described:

The CABLE RAILWAY from S. Ellero to Saltino is 5 M. long with a maximum gradient of 22:100. The ascent takes about 1 hr.; fare 4, return-ticket 6 fr. —- The train starts from the railway-station at S Ellero and ascends through a grove of oakes, on the bank of the torrent Vicano, to the crest of one of the numerous spurs the Pratomagno range throws out into the valley of the Arno. A striking view is disclosed; straight on, Saltino appears, above a steep slope. . . . Saltino (3140 ft.), finely situated on a barren promontory, commanding a splendid view.
. . . . The carriage-road leads through a dense grove of firs to (1 ¼ M.) Vallombrosa. The road which diverges to the right at the station and passes the Scoglio del Saltino, a projecting rock with a fine view of the Arno valley . . .

painting of cable car
Saltino roadside mural of the cable car that once carried passengers to Saltino and Vallombrosa, photo by L. Kinnahan

Upon arrival, the group stayed in rooms at Albergo del Paradisino, a former Benedictine monastery, just above the Vallombrosa Abbey. Most of the monks were evicted in 1866 by the new Italian state, permitted to return only after World War II. The monastery and abbey still stand amidst the forests, and the grounds are open.

Front of Vallombrosa Abbey
Vallombrosa Abbey, from front gate, photo by L. Kinnahan

Within a couple of days of arrival, Loy left the Paradisino to rent a cottage in nearby Saltino, where she stayed with Frances Stevens and her children Giles and Joella.

Saltino building
Saltino building, on the road to Vallombrosa, photo by L. Kinnahan

Settling into the cottage, Loy stocked up on sustainable food, “laying in stores of flour, beans, and oil,” hoping to feed the whole group each night (her cook “scornfully rejected” the idea of cooking for everyone) (Sacred 132). Her cottage, built from prefabricated Swedish pieces, was a “small and unsightly red and buff house . . . entirely out of harmony with the landscape of the neighbourhood cottages,” Van Vechten notes disdainfully, but “it commanded a view of the magnificent plain below: even Florence was visible, gleaming in what appeared to be a shower of golden dust in the late afternoon light” (Sacred 132).

mountain view from Saltino
Saltino view, photo by L. Kinnahan

Vallombrosa’s Allure for the British

While Loy moved to nearby Saltino, her friends remained that summer at the Paradisino. They were enchanted by legends of Milton’s stay there and his reference to the Vallombrosa forest in Paradise Lost (Book 1):

Thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etruscan shades
High over-arch’d imbow’r.

While Milton’s visit remains debated, a plaque testifying to his presence is installed on the grounds.

The mid-nineteenth century brought a stream of British travelers to the area, particularly poets and writers interested in its natural beauty. William Wordsworth penned “At Vallombrosa” in direct reference to Milton and using his predecessor’s lines as a preface to his own poem that claims to seek the “leaves” of “Miltonian shades.” Henry James, Mary Shelley, and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning all write about Vallombrosa in travel writings and poems, creating a particularly British poetic claim that they trace to Milton. Perhaps Loy knew of a narrative by the popular late-19th-century British writer Adeline Sergeant. The opening pages of Sergeant’s In Vallombrosa, A Sequence (London, 1896) begins with an inscription from Elizabeth Barrett Browning and is based upon a trip taken by the author with a female companion, describing travels from the city to the mountain air much like the one Loy would take some twenty years later.

cover of In Vallombrosa

In Vallombrosa begins:

When she first came up from Florence to the heights of Vallombrosa for a breath of cool and bracing air, she found the delicate wind-flowers still in blossom and a few violets and primroses in the woods. The city had been gradually growing hot and oppressive during those last days of May, but while her carriage climbed the mountain roads she felt as though the seasons had been put back again and as if she had exchanged glaring summer for an early spring. There was even a touch of coldness in the deep shadow of the trees.

She had disdained the little mountain railway and chosen to drive from Pontassieve, but the horses were barely strong enough for their work (1-2). . . .

The season had not begun and none of the hotels near the monastery itself were open; even Paradiso [sic], up among the trees whose leaves still strew the brooks in Vallombrosa, where the cells of the hermits used to be, and where Milton, they say, was aforetime entertained – even Paradiso was closed against visitors; and she was obliged to leave her carriage at the monastery gates . . . and walk up to the higher ground near the little railway station at Saltino . . . (3-4).

Carl Van Vechten on Vallombrosa: Loy’s Figure of Fashion

Of course, for Loy and her friends, the reality of sudden war-time shortages and anxieties interfered with any sense of embowered bliss for the American and British travelers in 1914. With a degree of humor, Van Vechten recalled

These days were very comic opera. Later in the afternoon, we gathered, Ducie, Edith, John Evans, and I, at an outdoor tea-place situated in an ugly hollow between Saltino and Vallombrosa. Tables, laid under the trees, were guarded by two unsubstantial looking tin lions, the size of police dogs, stationed at either side of the shed where the refreshments were kept. Here we sat, late in the afternoon, frugally drinking water.  (Sacred 132)

Indeed, their “little economies” in this time of impending shortages meant “moderation” for “wine with our meals, cigarettes, and even carriages in moderation,” although the women freely smoked in public, aware that their unconventional behavior would mark them as different in this Italian village (133). Van Vechten and friends, while residing a short distance from Loy, routinely encountered her, and “Twice a day, invariably, Ducie . . . visited the post-office to inquire for mail.” His description of her appearance is classically characteristic of other descriptions of her at the time, remarking upon her beauty and fashion:

She made an unforgettable figure with her grey-blue eyes, her patrician features, her waved black hair, parted in the centre. Tall and slender, her too large ankles were concealed by the tight hobble-skirts she wore. Her dresses, of soft dove-coloured shades, or brilliant lemon with magenta flowers, or pale green and blue, were extremely lovely. Strange, long earrings dangled from her artificial rosy ears: one amber pair imprisoned flies with extended wings. It is very easy to recall Ducie as she tramped along the dusty roads of Vallombrosa, enveloped in a brown cloak trimmed with variegated fur, scarcely able, thanks to her tight skirts, to move one smartly shod foot in front of the other (Sacred 130).

Van Vechten stayed only a few days before he left to find passage back to New York and safety from the European conflict, departing from Naples with Dale and Hapgood on August 22. On September 8, from Saltino, Loy wrote to him in New York, sending a set of “eight fashion drawings” that she wanted him to give to “someone,” perhaps to the “Biggest dressmaker” in New York, who might then want to buy more from her portfolio of “hundreds” of fashion sketches (Letter 1914 Sept. 8). Such an inquiry typifies Loy’s fluid movements between art and mass culture or commerce, which continue through her various enterprises in Paris and New York.

addressed envelope from Loy to Van Vechten
Letter from Loy to Van Vechten, Sept. 1914, from Saltino (Beinecke YCAL MSS 1050)

letter from Carl Van Vechten to Loy, about fashion sketches

excerpt from handwritten letter

drawing by Mina Loy of 4 women's dresses, one show front and back
Mina Loy. [Dress designs]. From the collection of Roger Conover.
In the watercolor by Loy shown above, we see her sense of design in the  preference for “hobble-skirts,”  “soft dove-coloured shades” and a love of color that Van Vechten recalls (see Mina Loy Fashion Designs for extended discussion and StoryMap). While not established as the same “fashion drawings” accompanying her 1914 Vallombrosa letter to Van Vechten, the designs nonetheless evoke his description of Loy. Moreover, the painting (now in Roger Conover’s collection of Loy’s art) was once in Van Vechten’s possession, a provenance secured by a label on the back of the painting stating “From the Collection of Carl Van Vechten.” Perhaps these designs, each signed by Loy, inspired his vivid memories of Loy’s own self-fashioning. More than a decade after their sojourn to Vallombrosa, Loy’s sense of fashion had found its way into his 1932 memoir and art collection.

See Mina Loy, Fashion Designs

A few years after this Vallombrosa trip, while living in New York, “Madame Mina Loy” marketed her fashion designs. An ad for a dress and hats was published in a Pittsburgh newspaper in 1921. Displaying drawings of a dress called “The Background for Stockings” and hats named “The Canoe” and “The Horse Ear,” the ad reports from New York that “Madame Mina Loy is keeping busy these days creating for several houses here frocks and hats that should satisfy those who seek to be different.”

Loy fashion ad
Ad for Mina Loy’s hat designs, Pittsburgh Press, April 3, 1921a

The designer’s modern touch promises new paths for the fashion consumer: “Yes, if you want to be different, madame can point the way.” Always the entrepreneur supporting herself through fashion, lampshade, and other designs, Loy’s sense of the modern intersected artistry with commerce, imagination with survival.

 “July in Vallombrosa”: “there is always nature”

In the same September letter, Loy conveyed “hope you got the manuscripts,” signing the letter “Dusie” rather than the spelling adopted by Van Vechten and Mabel Dodge (other times, she signs “Doosie,” and around 1915, starts signing “Mina”) (Letter 1914 Sept. 8). Did the manuscripts include her three “Italian Pictures,” as seems likely? As editor of the October, November, and December issues of Trend, Van Vechten would publish “Italian Pictures” in November 1914, within four months of their time together in Vallombrosa. His own time in both this wooded Italian retreat and a more bustling Florence would undoubtedly enhance his enthusiasm for the three-part poem. Might he have even read drafts of “July in Vallombrosa” or the other two poems from the sequence while there, amidst the giant trees and magnificent views?

path through tall evergreen trees, Vallombrosa
Path in Vallombrosa forest, photo by L. Kinnahan

Van Vechten describes the ancient and sacred-like ethos the large trees bodied forth: “Centuries ago the monks planted these pines in straight rows and now the bare trunks rise to incredible heights before the branches spread, forming a canopy of green needles overhead, so that the effect is that of a natural cathedral” (Sacred 128). “July in Vallombrosa,” not unlike works by British authors writing about the forest long before Loy, also responds to the natural environment and its distinctive woodland, opening with a view of an “Old lady sitting still / Pine trees standing quite still” (LBB96 9).

Shrine on road between Vallombrosa and Saltino
Shrine on the road between Vallombrosa and Saltino, photo by L. Kinnahan

Yet the old lady is sick, waiting to die in a sanatorium-like environment. Nature is a site for commerce in the poem, enticing tourists seeking health, relaxation, or escape. Indeed, Vallombrosa became a health and tourist resort during the period of the Benedictine order’s absence (from 1866-1949) and the founding of the National Forestry reserve and school. The area’s  interplay of natural and sacred, manifested by the presence in the “cathedral” of trees of the monastery, abbey, and numerous shrines and chapels  (many devoted to the 11th-century founder San Giovanni Gualberto), appears in Loy’s poem as one of several dualisms. “July in Vallombrosa” opposes the British and American guests with Italian visitors, residents, or workers; counterpoints health with illness or death; and imbricates the “natural” with commerce and tourism.

In the poem, the “whispering” of “Sisters of mercy” under the pine trees surrounds the old lady. The nuns’ whispers seek to “Oust the Dryad,” producing a sterile “consecration of forest,” a sacrilization of the “uneventful” (9) that Tara Prescott also reads as an extinction of the “female tree spirit” (17), perhaps an ironic comment on the secular state’s banishment of the monks from the monastery-turned-Paradisimo (a few were left to care for the Abbey chapel and grounds). Just as the Church sought to banish the pagan, the state extinguished the monastery for the forest’s care taking – and its related commerce as tourist destination, literary pilgrimage, and health resort. The mountain’s attraction to tourists seeking health cures or rest during illness bespeaks a trend beginning in the 19th century for what Loy’s poem tags as a “respectable” British endorsement of “prolonged invalidism” (LBB96 9).

The English foreigners contrast with the “Wanton Italian matrons” who sit and sew “[a]round the hotel” and “Discuss the better business of bed-linen,” suggestively savvy about the bedroom as a place for marketing women, through marriage or otherwise (LBB96 10). The economics of patriarchal marriage appear also in Loy’s “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” another Florence composition that critiques the system of “Virgins for Sale,” as does her “Feminist Manifesto” of 1914. Other women appearing in the poem as caretakers, a deadening duty. The Blue Nun, referencing an order in nearby Fiesole whose members traveled to care for the dying, follows the most “permissible . . . chastity” for women, conforming to a feminine duty linguistically reduced to a mere “hobby of collecting death-beds” (LBB96 9). Likewise diminished in her self-sacrificial duty, the daughter of the ailing old woman “has been spent / In chasing moments from one room to another,” tending the “bronchitis kettle” and losing “her last little lust . . . in a saucer of gruel” (LBB96 10).

wall fountain
Wall fountain, Abbey at Vallombrosa, photo by L. Kinnahan

The presence of tourists, whether seeking health or rest or respite from the noisier world, promotes commerce to support the “expensive upkeep” of a “Nature” portrayed as pure and natural. While the commerce of tourism ensures “there is always Nature,” it also ensures, rather sardonically, a supply of “loves” for the “head-waiters,” the workers who seem the only passionate presence within the tourist scene (as these final lines look forward to the opening of the next poem in the triptych, “The Costa San Giorgio,” and the “passionate Italian life-traffic”) (LBB96 10). In this rather dystopian view of the resort’s economies, passion seems to serve and be restricted to men. Rather than passion or desire, the association of money with particularly Anglo-American tourism attends the image of the blankets the Blue Nun uses to wrap the body waiting upon the “eneffable moment / When Rigor Mortis / Divests it [the body] of its innate impurity,” for the blanket is “flannel and wool / Of superior quality from the Anglo-American”(LBB96 9). Prescott identifies “Anglo-American” as a store selling quality goods but also as a clear reference to the nationalities of the guests (18).

In this early poem, among the first to find publication, Loy’s “Anglo-American” designation, as distinct from the Italians she observes, is inscribed into the poem. She is part of the non-Italian crowd, watching from the “outside.” That fall, she  would return to Florence, to a rental at 27 Via dei Bardi but leave the children in the mountain cottage with a nursemaid during the war’s opening months. Living near Giovanni Papini on dei Bardi, she moved in and out of contact with him and with Futurism while her poetry explored the strategy of “coming from the outside” that “July in Vallombrosa” suggests in its acknowledged outsider’s view of the scenes before her.

Loy’s “Mediterranean Sea”: “the rouse and hush of drowsing foam”

Bagni di Lucca, the Mountains, and the Coast

Summers presented challenges in Florence, and while the children were quite young and before Stephen Haweis left Italy, the family found refuge in the mountains and sea to the west. Traceries of these places and other Italian mappings thread through “The Mediterranean Sea,” a poem Loy wrote in 1928, several years after leaving Italy and while living in Paris. The descriptive quality of the poem enfolds geographical points with an aura of their history, while suggesting the “volcanic privacies” that the landscape hosted for her own life in Italy. In 1928, looking back upon her near-decade in Italy, she would see a geography of loss and vibrancy, a “monstrous sapphire” of a jewel that, like the Mediterranean Sea she thus metaphorizes, could both overwhelm and infuse her.

At the beginning of their Italian decade, Loy and Haweis moved in the summer of 1907 from the far flung Villa Ombrellino to a small city apartment on the Costa di San Giorgio, where they would later purchase a home. There, they awaited the birth of a child. Both knew the child was the offspring from a union between Loy and her Parisian lover, Henry Joël Le Savoureux, “the sympathetic French doctor who treated her for neurasthenia after the death of Oda”; indeed, the daughter’s name “Joella” carries the paternal trace (Burke 102). Their shared knowledge, too, of Haweis’s own dalliances prompted him to agree to claim the child as his own.

Italian river and town

To escape the heat of Florence as Loy approached full term, the couple traveled westward to a mountain resort with natural baths located just outside of the medieval town of Lucca, a relatively straight shot west from Florence but not quite to the sea. On this “green incline / of vengence” (sic) – language referring to Vesuvius in Loy’s poem but that might well be layered with memories of Bagni di Lucca’s hillsides, with her infidelity imagined as revenge – Loy delivered Joella Synara Haweis on July 20, 1907 (Loy LBB96 100, sic). Haweis’ own revenge would inlude monetary manipulations and a demand for another baby to make up for the affair (see Burke, Becoming Modern).

Baekdeker’s Northern Italy (1906) beckons with enticing descriptions of Bagni di Lucca:

From Lucca to the Bagni di Lucca, 15 M., railway in 1 hr. (fares 1fr. 80, 90 c.). . . . Bagni di Lucca, the terminus, is situated a little above the junction of the Lima and the Serchio.
The Bagni di Lucca (season, May 1st to Sept. 15th), which were known as early as the 10th cent. under the name of the “Baths of Corsena,” with springs containing salt and Sulphur . . . consist of several different villages in the valley of the Lima. They are much frequented by English and American visitors. . . . The freedom from dust, glare, and excessive heat makes this a delightful summer -resort. . . . The valley of the Lima is cool and well-shaded, chiefly with chestnut-trees, affording pleasant walks.

Bagni di Lucca postcard
Bagni di Lucca postcard, early 20th century

The history of British visitors flocking to this spot, as in Vallombrosa and Florence, boasted a litany of 19th-century British poets. Shelley, Byron, and the Brownings visited Bagni di Lucca, a connection appealing no doubt to Stephen Haweis’s image of a poetic “foreign poetic colony” they might join in Italy, fostered by “his mother’s recollections of the Brownings, with their Victorian poeticizing about the Renaissance” (Burke 107).

For Loy, the Romantic era’s Shelley resonates with Italy’s intertwined history of tragedy and richness. She writes:

From the green incline
of vengence
the Vesuvian vine
drips lucently
Lacrimae Christi
to drift      imperceptibly
with the lost sob of Shelley      (LBB96 101, sic)

These lines layer ancient history of Vesuvius as both a deadly force, destroying most famously the town of Pompeii in little time, and a fertile giver of life, as the lava-enriched soils on the slopes produce a grape for the celebrated Neapolitan wine, Lacrimae Christi. The wine most equivalent to that drunk by the ancient Romans, the name means “Christ’s tear,” derived from the legend that the savior wept tears over the fall of Lucifer; from the spot on the ground where the tears fell, the grapes of this wine grew. Ancient Rome and Christian Rome join in this wine of lament, given to human celebration.

Loy connects the wine and Christ’s tears to the poet Shelley. Mary and Percy Shelley lived in Florence in 1818, on the Via Valfonda near the railway station in a house that stood until its destruction in World War I (currently, a plaque identifies its location). Their three-year old son William would die the following year and be buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, joined some hundred yards away in 1822 by Shelley’s interred ashes after he drowned off the Gulf of Spezia in the Ligurian Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean Sea on the northwest coast of Italy. Shelley’s “lost sob” echoes Christ’s tears, invoking his loss of a child as well as his own death (LLB96 101).

pedestal with bust of Shelley
Shelley memorial at Viareggi

Just as the tears “drift     imperceptibly” from Christ to wine to Shelley to sea, Shelley’s body would drift at sea before washing up on the Ligurian shore. His friends cremated him on the beach of Viareggio, just south of Forte dei Marmi, the seaside resort town Loy and her children visited periodically after Giles’ birth. Shelley’s drowned and cremated body lingers in the image of “aqueous ashes / of the tinseled sands” that ends the poem, ashes and water conjoined in the liminal space of the coastal sands (LLB96 102).

Did Loy visit the Monument to Shelley the Baedeker describes in Viareggio’s Piazza Principe Amedeo, a marble bust by Urbano Lucchesi on a pedestal “encircled by intertwined branches of oak and olive” and inscribed with words of tribute to the poet “ ‘drowned in this sea, consumed by fire on this shore’,” bequeathing his poetry to “every generation’” in its “ ‘struggles, its tears, and its redemption’” (Baedeker ‘s Northern Italy 122)?

Long range photograph of sea, beach town, and mountains around Forte dei Marmi
View of sea and mountains enclosing Forte dei Marmi

Written a few years after Giles’ death in Bermuda, where he was taken by his father without Loy’s permission, “The Mediterranean Sea” folds Loy’s own “sobs,” perchance, into Shelley’s and the sea. The sea, “il mare” in Italian and “mer” in French aurally chimes with “mère,” or “mother,” in the French Loy would be speaking and hearing in her daily life in Paris.

Forte dei Marmi

street view of Italian town

At Forte dei Marmi, , a “little seaside resort surrounded by pine-woods, with a quay for shipping marble,” the Apuane Alps seem to descend directly into the sea, a visual feature of the coast that Loy’s poem captures in imagery combining maternity and the labor of making (Baedeker’s Northern Italy 121).

black and white photograph of Forte Dei Marmi quay, c.1930s
Forte dei Marmi quay, 1930s

For centuries, marble quarried nearby shipped from the quays of Forte dei Marmi. In Loy’s time, stacks of marble, especially from nearby Carrara, stood perpetually stacked for shipment at the pier. Known since Roman times for its marble, Carrara supplied materials used in the Pantheon, the tower of Pisa, and many churches, monuments, and sculptures. The mountains, as seen from Forte dei Marmi, hold expanses of white appearing to be snow but actually are marble.

painting of Carrara Quarries by Edward Gennys Fanshawe c.1857
Carrara Quarries, Edward Gennys Fanshawe, 1857

An excursion to Carrara, easily accomplished from Forte Dei Marmi, might well include “a visit to the quarries . . . best made early in the morning when the weather is warm,” as the 1906 Baedeker instructs. The view of the quarries gained from hiking up mountain paths would reveal “expanses of dazzling white debris (raveneti)” below (Baedeker’s Northern Italy 120).

Reading the Baedeker’s rather detailed entry on Carrara, Loy might have been struck by the attention given to the marble workers, including their wages and working hours, in the entry on Carrara. It is

a pleasant little town with 21,000 inhab., most of whom gain their livelihood by working the marble. . . . The Marble Quarries (Cave) of Carrara enjoy a worldwide fame. The deposits of marble occur throughout almost the whole of the Apuan Alps [and have been mined since Roman times] . . . . The industry now grows steadily; in 1901 about 204,000 tons of rough blocks were exported, besides 154, 000 tons of sawn blocks and 29,700 tons of otherwise worked blocks. . . . The quarryman, who receive 1-3 fr. Per day, work from 8 to 4 in winter, in summer from 5-3.
The view of the quarries gained from hiking up mountain paths would reveal “expanses of dazzling white debris (raveneti)” below (120).

Stereocard of Quarried near Carrara c.1902
Quarries near Carrara, stereocard, 1902

How might this backdrop of Italian labor inform the Italian land and seascape Loy imagines? Loy’s final stanza visualizes the alps as they descend into the sea, while emphasizing the working labor by which the “dazzling white” marble is “Hewn”:

Hewn in the Apuanne
Carrara stands
as marble sentinel
beyond the blazing rust
of branches
roofing amphibian babies
as they rise
from the Ligurian gullies
their polished thighs
armoured with aqueous ashes
of the tinseled sands.                          (LLB96 101-102)

The language of protective militarism (“sentinel,” “armoured”) chimes with Loy’s stress on the Italian name for the Alpi Apuane, spelled Apuan in English and granted an extra ‘n’ by Loy. Might she have read or otherwise known that the “name of the Alpi Apuane is derived from the warlike tribe of the Apuani, subdued by the Romans in 180 B.C.”, enfolding that name history into the image of a “sentinel” of marble in these distinctive mountains, their “boldly shaped peaks” standing “in vivid contrast to the flat rounded summits” of the nearby Appennines (Baedeker’s Northern Italy 123)? The “spears” of the “mistral” that open the poem, moreover, suggest a rejuvenating energy in this force, for the mistral is the renewing wind that clears both dust and atmospheric clouds to bring sunny and clear air to the Mediterranean coast.

Apuanne Alps near Carrara
Apuanne mountains near Carrara

In the image of the mountains, this protective and renewing sentinel emerges as an agency of labor, the marble “hewn” by workers. Loy’s diction and imagery merges physical labor with maternal labor: the sentinel mountains, “as they rise” from the sea, are “roofing amphibian babies” within that sea. The ambivalent grammar of “as they rise” – the “they” referencing both mountains and babies –figures the liminal meeting space of mountain and sea as the liminal stance of the maternal. A space both sentinel and fertile, the “polished thighs” of marble receive the “rouse and hush of drowsing foam” (LLB96 101, 100), recollecting the imagery of birth scandalously voiced in her poem “Parturition” more than a decade earlier.

Carrara, the marble capital of the world, set where the Alpi Apuane descends into the Mediteranean Sea, produced the marble preferred by Michelangelo and Bernini. Loy encodes their lineage into the poem with the mere mention of this marble but places – as does Baedeker’s 1906 guide – the work of the quarrymen into this lineage. By the end of the 19th century, Carrara was a center of anarchism in Italy, especially among quarry workers organizing labor. The poem’s ostensibly descriptive picture of the Mediterranean Sea coast charts a map of labor – physical, economic, poetic, reproductive – upon the coast line, guiding us to a revisionary maternal space of strength, endurance, and “hewn” or creative shelter.

Mina Loy holding Joella Haweis Bayer]
Photograph of Mina Loy holding Joella Haweis (Beinecke YCAL MSS 778)

Indeed, Forte dei Marmi offered a place of healing for Loy and her children. Joella’s poor health as a child necessitated leaving Florence in the summer, so after Giles’ birth the toddlers “spent two months in the mountains followed by two months at Forte dei Marmi” (Burke 117). Gloria Braggioti, a childhood friend of Loy’s children and daughter of Loy’s musical friends in Florence, recalls in her memoir that  “It was as chic for Florentines to spend their summers at Viaregio, Forte dei Marmi, or Levanto as it was for Parisians to go to Biarritz or Deauville. For years my parents spent every summer at one of these Italian resorts . . .. “ (94; see Mapping Florence: Second Tour, Friends).

A pair of Loy’s watercolors from these years reflects the seaside resort’s beaches and cultural attractions. In the first, titled “Maison des Bains” (title found on the back of the painting, now in Roger Conover’s collection), people gather in what appears to be the entrance to a boardwalk theater playing the popular “La Tosca” (see Suzanne Churchill’s discussion and Storymap of this painting in “Courting an Audience”). First a world-touring play starring Sarah Bernhardt and then restaged as the opera “Tosca” by Giocaomo Puccini in 1900, the Rome-set story of ill-fated love and violence appealed to audiences, especially with Bernhardt – an adored celebrity – in the title role of the play. When writing the opera, which also met with great success, Puccini lived in Torra del Lago, the town adjacent to Forte dei Marmi. until 1921, becoming friends with Gabriele D’Annunzio who lived nearby in the early years of the twentieth century.

pencil drawing of figures in front of theater
Linda Kinnahan’s pencil sketch of “Maison des Bains at Forte dei Marmi,” watercolor by Mina Loy, likely done in the 1910s

In this pencil sketch depiction of Loy’s painting, one can see a woman in the right corner background, gazing with seeming adoration and hands on her cheeks at the women in the foreground. Are any of these women actresses, per chance? One holds a bouquet of flowers at her back, reminiscent of the poster below advertising the play. Behind her, to the left, a man and woman seem to be buying tickets.

poster of woman in hat holding flowers in poster for La Tosca
La Tosca poster by Aphonse Mucha, late 19thc

Whether stage performers or attendees, all “perform” their parts. As Suzanne Churchill astutely observes,

the people lining up to enter “La Tosca” are themselves performers. Dressed in elegant costumes, they pose on the boardwalk, observed by curious onlookers on the sidelines. “Maison des Bains” depicts the theater of life, displaying Loy’s keen interest in gender performativity.


See Mina Loy, “Maison des Bains a Forte dei Marmi”

Such attention to gender performativity structures a second painting, “The Beach” (see the StoryMap of this painting below for extended discussion). As a woman inside a vertically striped beach tent ostensibly changes from street clothes to beach wear (we see her booted feet sticking out beneath the tent), other women in their beach robes and garb surround themselves with fashionable beach accessories, such as a beach hat propped beside an iron chair. Its curvy design resonates visually with the curved umbrellas. The curves of curly or draped hair further signify the feminine curves of the covered bodies under the women’s lovely beach robes. Intent on how they look, they casually perform for each other and the viewer’s eye. One, seated and wearing a filmy pink beach cover and tied hair cover (with curls escaping), holds a mirror but gazes in the direction of the tent. Another woman literally steps into a beach sandal, her bare leg (another curve) emerging with a performative flare from her white beach robe as she drapes her (curved) long hair over one hand to dry it. She looks side-long at the viewer.

Pencil sketch of seaside scene
Linda Kinnahan’s pencil sketch of “The Beach,” watercolor painting by Loy, likely done at Forte dei Marmi between 19909 and 1915

Two pairs of children, girls and at least one boy, flank the central group of women. As they play in the sand, their part in this scene of gender performance includes their own dress – a little girl on the left wears flouncy, lacy white beach toggles and a hat with flower-like puffs, while the little boy has a striped shirt and front-brimmed hat. The pair of children in the right-hand background, which includes a sitting baby, seem oblivious in their play. Nonetheless, their presence suggests the generational transmission of gender codes in a socially-sanctioned script of femininity that always includes children with women. Loy’s painting registers her own time at the beach with her children, Joella and Giles, while its emphasis on performance suggests the subversive insights about gender flavoring her poetry of the period and her own self-presentations.

As in her painting, Loy’s summers in Forte dei Marmi were flanked by children and their needs. Although she would stay at Forte dei Marmi for part of the time, she entrusted the children’s care to the nursemaid for stretches of time. However, when Loy herself suffered a period of illness in January, 1913 (Burke suggests possible influenza and anxiety over the collapse of her marriage, 141), Forte dei Marmi offered a place of convalescence. Allowing herself to be cared for by Stephen, despite her fears about his plans to leave for Australia and his newest affair, Loy improved during the days on the coast but fell back into a dark period upon coming back to Florence.

beach scene with sun tents at Forte dei Marmi
Forte dei Marmi beach, 1910 postcard

Loy returned to Forte dei Marmi with her children in May of 1915 to escape the city heat. By this point, as opposed to her convalescent summer of 1913, she was seeking a divorce from her absent husband and found herself in a much different creative space as a poet appearing in exciting new magazines like Camera Work, Trend, and Rogue. Her writing that summer included a determined de-romanticization of the love poem, a birthing of a gender-aware lyric telling of modern love. She completed a 34-sequence draft of “Love Songs to Joannes” at the coast, linking Florence’s Arno river and the Mediterranean Sea in narrating love’s demise through the distance between these locations, revealing an underlying geography for the sequence:

Licking the Arno
The little rosy
Tongue of dawn
Interferes with our eyelashes
— — — — — — — —
We twiddle to it
Round and round
And turn into machines  (63)

My pair of feet
Smack the flagstones
That are something left over from your walking     (55)

We might have lived together
In the lights of the Arno               (59)

The moon is cold
Where the Mediterranean — — — — —
(end of section, LLB96 67)

In another poem written that summer at the shore, Loy furthers her goodbye to Futurism and its men. Loy tags “The Effectual Marriage” with the place of its composition, writing sardonically in a post-script that “This narrative halted when I learned that the house which inspired it was the home of a mad woman.  — Forte dei Marmi.” Both poems composed by the sea and the alps engage creative labor – a quarrying of the mine, a discovery of “amphibious babies” – to birth poems casting “dazzling white” light upon the psychological and sexual circumstances of gendered power mediating modern love.

people swimming at Forte dei Marmi, 1920s
Forte dei Marmi, 1920s postcard