Their Other Side: Six American Women & the Lure of Italy

Essays by Helen Barolini

© 2006. Fordham University Press: NY.  309 pp.
ISBN 13: 978-0-8232-2629-0 (Cloth alk paper).

A Review by Daniela Gioseffi

As a student, Helen Barolini, an Italian American whose forte is writing fine essays, spent years as a student in Italy after World War II, married an Italian, and lived a good deal of her life there. These Italian years of her life have given us her best book of essays, yet. Well conceived and artfully written and researched, Barolini explores the wanderings of six American women who found their heart’s desire for emotional freedom and expressive in the land of sunlight and art. The women are in order of appearance: Margaret Fuller who longed most of her life to live in Italy and finally did to meet the love of her life there at nearly age forty and become involved in the Risorgimento; Emily Dickinson (who traveled there only in her imagination); Constance Woolson who lived and died in Venice; Mabel Dodge Luhan who was always in search of her personal south; Yankee Principessa, Marguerite Caetani; and eccentric Iris Origo who was to the manor and manner born.

This reviewer found the chapters on Fuller and Dickinson most interesting, and the one on Fuller quite edifying and fascinating, as well as tragic. Fuller’s only truly happy years were in Italy. She met her sad death at the peek of her powers, shipwrecked and drowned just off the Northeast coast upon her return to America with the manuscript she had written abroad lost in the ocean depths with her. One finds oneself at the end of the essay on Fuller, wishing with all one’s heart that she had stayed in Italy continuing to send her dispatches back to The Dial and The Tribune for what both she and we lost upon her journey home.

Barolini makes us fully aware of the fact that for nineteenth century English and American intellectuals, Italy represented an emotional expressiveness and freedom from dogmatic ways. Italia was the place to go if one wanted to create and fulfill all passionate potential. This concept was what constituted Italy’s mythic appeal prior to Hollywood’s destruction of thoughts of all fine things Italian with its cruel over emphasis on the Mafia stereotype. In the nineteenth century prior to World War II and the Fascist fiasco of the fickle Mussolini, Italians were respected by intellectuals from all over the world for their artistic temperament, liberal expressiveness, their love of fine music, visual art and architecture, good food and fine wine, as well as their great struggle for freedom and independence from Medieval ideas of aristocracy and the “divine right of kings” TheRisorgimento was seen as a noble revolution to be supported by all who believed in democracy and intellectual freedom.

The Risorgimento attracted Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s involvement as well as Margaret Fuller’s. The Brownings had fled to Italy earlier from England to find their freedom from Elizabeth Barrett’s father and to pursue their poetry. Fuller met Elizabeth there and they became friends. Both Fuller and Dickinson were great fan’s of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry, and Aurora Leigh, her novel in verse, which championed the lives of the likes of both Margaret Fuller and George Sand who were members of Browning’s salon. Aurora Leigh was Emily Dickinson’s favorite book, a novel written in verse that heralded women’s freedom and emotional life. Dickinson, like Fuller, longed for life in mythic Italy for it also represented to her the freedom to feel passion and ardor. Barolini quotes Dickinson’s verse that speaks of a longing to escape Yankee propriety into a place of emotional truth.

Our lives are Swiss—
So Still—so Cool—
Till some odd afternoon
The Alps neglect their Curtains
And we look farther on!

Italy stands the other side!
While like a guard between—
The Solemn Alps—
The siren Alps
Forever intervene!

The Dickinson poem became emblematic for Helen Barolini of the pull of Italy and the theme of her latest book. She writes, as she did in her introduction to The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women, another of her finest essays:

It is interesting how many English or American women turned from the Anglo tradition and toward the idea of Italy as a freeing of their human qualities and an enriching of life. The Brownings went off to live in Florence; Margaret Fuller, in her thirty-seventh year, arrived in Italy as the leading American woman writer and intellectual of her time and found love and motherhood there, writing. “Italy has been glorious to me.” And Emily Dickinson, from Amherst thought of Italy as the loosening of trammels, some absolute freeing of the spirit.

Barolini quotes Fuller, a highly cultured woman of many languages and worldly knowledge in her longing to live in Italy: “Once I was almost all intellect; now I am almost all feeling. Nature vindicates her rights, and I feel all Italy glowing beneath the Saxon crust. This cannot last long: I shall burn to ashes if all this smolders here much longer. I must die if I do not burst forth in heroism or genius.” Fuller would finally arrive in Rome at the age of thirty-seven, in 1847, to find love and fulfillment there.

As Barolini explains in her introduction to this engrossing and enjoyable book of essays, each a cameo of a fascinating woman:

So much of the writing on Italy is not from long-lost or strayed children of the Motherland, the Italian American, but from those who have adopted Italy as a generous foster mother. In fact, until the mid-century, it was not Italian-Americans, but the Anglo-descended elite and intellectuals who went to Italy, who formed Dante Societies at home, who learned Italian and translated The Devine Comedy. It was the fashion to love Italy…. Still Italy was assumed to be a man’s dream. “Italia, O Italia, Thou who hast/ the fatal gift of beauty!” declared Lord Byron on his pilgrimage.  And Robert Browning’s words are engraved in the Venetian palazzo where he died: “Open my heart and you will see/ Graved inside it, Italy.”

With her splendidly interesting and well-written book of essays, Helen Barolini proves fully that Italy was not only a man’s dream, but also hers, and the dream of great or liberated women of America who found in her the emotional articulacy or artistic perspicuity that they had longed for. For anyone who has felt the pull of Italy, this book explains it all. For Italian Americans, it is an eye-opener and helps to explain why an Italian encultured with the motherland’s mode might not feel as at home in this Anglo-style world as in the mythic land of emotional and artistic eloquence.

Daniela Gioseffi is an American Book Award winning author of 14 books of poetry and prose, two grant awards in poetry from The New York State Council for the Arts and the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, 2007. Her latest books are Women on War: International Writings, from The Feminist Press, NY, 2003, and Blood Autumn (Autunno di sangue) New & Selected Poems in a bilingual edition from VIA Folios: Bordighera Press, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Calandra Institute, 2006