I’m revisiting my trip of three years ago (almost exactly) to the sites in England and Italy where Woolson lived. You can see my first two posts about England here and here. I’ve been back to England again since, but Italy still haunts me. My first stop was Venice, the city that Woolson thought of as her Xanadu. Once I saw it in person, I understood why.
I will never forget my first (and only) gondola ride. (They are incredibly expensive!) Woolson was lucky; she had her own gondolier, who would take her out whenever she wanted. She loved to spend her afternoons and evenings in a gondola, gliding along the Grand Canal and out into the lagoon to visit the islands. One short ride was all I needed to see why. Not only is it relaxing, but it’s also fun to watch the gondoliers, who are like ballet dancers rocking to the swaying rhythm of the boat. They are artists of the water. Woolson’s gondolier was Angelo Fusato, the handsome man the art historian John Addington Symonds had been having an affair with before his death just months before Woolson moved to Venice in 1893. (You can read about it in Italian Sexualities Uncovered.) Woolson was exhausted after writing her last novel, Horace Chase, and recovering from a bout of influenza, which had been raging in successive epidemics across Europe. Angelo was a great comfort to her and helped her heal again.
This is the Casa Semitecolo, where Woolson was living in the final months of her life. You can see it across the Grand Canal from St. Mark’s Square. It helps to get into a gondola to get a close-up view. Woolson was disappointed to learn, shortly after she moved in, in the fall, that the windows facing the canal only got the sun in the summer. She had moved to the wrong side of the Grand Canal and would have to move all of her belongings into the back of the house to stay warm.
Sadly, Woolson became ill that winter and either fell or jumped from her third-story window on January 24, 1894. I discuss her final weeks, days, and hours in depth in the biography. There was nothing like being on the spot, though.
This is the Calla del Bastion, the street into which she fell. There is a Murano glass store there on the right and a store that sells beautiful scarves on the left. (I bought one that is all shades of blue and reminds me of the sun dancing on the water in Venice.) I was surprised to see how much through traffic there is there. The narrow street leads to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. I was very lucky, though, to have a few moments to myself, when the crowds cleared briefly, to reflect on where I was and what had happened there.
This is the back of the Casa Semitecolo. The windows with the bars, as far as I can tell, were the ones in Woolson’s bedroom. The bars are a later addition, presumably to ensure that no one would ever fall or jump from those windows again. I was not able to go inside the house (the family was away on vacation), but I met the Henry James scholar, Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, while I was in Venice. She later sent me pictures from inside and helped me to locate the exact rooms.
Although I visited on a beautiful October day, and I felt warm for the first time since I had left home, I tired to imagine what it was like that snowy night when Woolson had lain in the street and was mistaken for a pile of snow by passersby, because of her white nightgown. The only word she said when they picked her up was “freddo,” Italian for cold. Despite the difference in weather and century, I felt during those few solitary moments very close to Constance again. I was overcome with sadness, but I reminded myself that she was not afraid to die and, as she had told James many years earlier, she would be happy to die when her time came.
I think Woolson was where she wanted to be when she died too. Venice is a magical land, almost not of this Earth. I thoroughly fell in love with it. Here are two more pictures that show why:
Arrivederci la Venezia!