I’ve been reliving my trip to England and Italy to follow in Woolson’s footsteps almost exactly 3 years ago. It was late October, early November, and the weather was cold and rainy pretty much nonstop. I had to buy extra layers to stay warm, but I was still freezing and wet most of the time. When I arrived in Florence, I discovered the hazards of umbrella-wielding tourists clogging the narrow streets of one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. I wondered how it must have looked in the late nineteenth century. Florence was a mecca for English and American visitors, and Woolson often felt it difficult to work there due to all of the activity. Yet, Florence was the place where Woolson lived the longest during her 14-year expatriation in Europe. She kept coming back, and it was the only place she ever thought of as home in her adult life.
On her first visit to Florence in the spring of 1880, Woolson met Henry James. He took out three weeks from his work on The Portrait of a Lady to show her around the churches and galleries of Florence. She wrote a wonderful story about a man and woman meeting in Florence and basically dancing around each other and trying to figure each other out. The climactic scene takes place in the Dumo (above), which she and James had also visited. (The story, “A Florentine Experiment,” is one that I chose for Miss Grief and Other Stories.)
This is the home Woolson found on the hill of Bellsguardo, the Villa Bricheri-Colombi. She lived there for three years, from 1887 through 1889. Nearby lived her friends, whom she met through Henry James: Francis Boott, his daugther Lizzie, and her husband Frank Duveneck. Francis was a composer, and Lizzie and Frank were artists, so the four of them formed a kind of artists’ colony on the hill. James came to stay twice in the villa, episodes much speculated about by his biographers.
I devote three chapters in my biography to Woolson’s Bellosguardo years. I realized during my visit that these were the happiest years of her adult life. She had longed for a home for many years, and although she refused to say that Italy was her home, she settled into a life there that satisfied her and fulfilled her as an artist and a person–until it all came tumbling down with the death of one of her friends. But until then she had this beautiful balcony . . .
. . . and this amazing view to enjoy. She never tired of looking at it. She felt as if it made up for all of the toil and worry she had endured. Fortunately, the sun came out the day I made my trek up the hill, and I could see it in all its glory.
I had only three short days in Florence. But they enriched my understanding of Woolson immeasurably. I’m not sure I would have realized exactly how happy she was there if I had not seen it for myself. And her joy and satisfaction in Florence and Bellosguardo was an important piece of the puzzle I was putting together about her. Most people have seen only the suffering and grief in her life and her sad death. It was important to me not to see her entire life that way. She was capable of great joy and had the good fortune to enjoy a few years of it in her villa on the hill overlooking the domes and campaniles of Florence.