Iris Origo wrote biographies of an Italian poet, an Italian saint, a merchant from Prato, and Byron’s Italian mistress; her bestselling book was the diary she kept of her experiences on her estate in the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany during the Second World War. Everything in her life and writing was inflected by her relationship with the idea of Italy and its past (of course it was not always one ‘Italy’), as well as with the actual 20th-century country where she mostly lived. And yet she wrote in her first language, English, and didn’t think of herself as Italian. She went to live in Fiesole, in the hills above Florence, after her father’s early death from tuberculosis in 1912, when she was seven years old; her father’s family were American, wealthy from railroads, shipping and sugar beet, and her mother was born into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Her parents had spent the few years of their marriage in wanderings – from Ireland to California to Switzerland to Italy to Egypt – which were partly the rootless travels of a privileged leisure class and partly, as time went on, a search for the best climate for Bayard Cutting’s deteriorating health. ‘I’d like it to be different for Iris,’ he wrote in his last letter to his wife. ‘Make a home for her and yourself, all this travelling and homelessness is so bad for you and will be bad for her.’
Yet when Sybil Cutting rented the Villa Medici in Fiesole, she was not exactly submerging herself and her daughter in authentic Italian life. They joined a community of stylish, gossiping, arty, feuding expatriates who had made their lives in Italy because Italy was beautiful and full of art: English and Americans mostly, some with lots of money (the Cuttings among them) and some with less. Bernard Berenson, Janet Ross (Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen) and Vernon Lee were their near neighbours and friends. In Florence there were English banks and English doctors, English shops where you could buy tea and mackintoshes.
This art-loving, literary Anglo-American community in Italy had complex relationships with actual Italians. At least the peasantry looked picturesque, in contrast to the industrial workers of northern Europe and America. The upper classes had to be taken into a different kind of consideration, but the Italians were hard to get to know – the English and Americans couldn’t mingle with them on such easy terms as they could with one another. To visitors from the modernised industrial democracies, the recesses of Italian family life could appear darkly archaic and tribal: its superstitious Catholicism, stiff social code and economy not fit for purpose. No doubt the visitors partly wanted the Italians to appear like that – it was more romantic. They were fascinated by the dilapidated interior lives of the old palazzi, and half-longed to follow their inhabitants inside – but you can usually detect condescension and exasperation entangled with their interest. Could the Italians really be trusted to look after their precious heritage? Among all the classic non-Italian novels set in Italy, it’s striking how few of them actually feature many Italians, except as maids, guides and gondoliers.
It’s hard not to think that when in 1924 Iris Cutting married Antonio Origo, she had made over her father’s wish that she put down roots into her own significant need. She was complicated, clever and bookish, and had been educated at home by ‘a long and dreary dynasty’ of governesses. Shy and self-conscious, sure that she ‘was not pretty’, she would rather have gone to Oxford than endure the rounds of fashionable parties: she had to ‘come out’ three times, in Florence, London and New York. She wanted to belong somewhere. Years later she would interrogate her grandchildren: did they feel more Italian, or more English, or something else? Life with Antonio offered Iris some kind of answer. He was a real-enough Italian marchese, via some fairly operatic impropriety and illegitimacy (although his grandmother was Russian-born). Iris’s family were appalled by her choice, at least at first – and she herself wasn’t without quite a few of the prejudices of her class and upbringing. She once confided her dismay at the idea that if she married a ‘foreigner’ she’d never have a son at Eton; yet something in her was more original and interesting than all that. If Italy was to be her home, she needed to make substantial and reciprocal relationships with its reality.
Iris and Antonio withdrew from the gossipy parties in Florence and dedicated themselves to La Foce, a neglected estate they bought in the Val d’Orcia: 3500 parched, eroded acres, 25 poverty-stricken farms in terminal disrepair. (In one ‘dark, airless’ little room they found an old man dying and a woman giving birth in the same bed.) They worked hard, and succeeded in bringing life and prosperity back to the place, farming intensively and modernising with the help of ‘patience, energy – and capital’, as well as agricultural subsidies from Mussolini’s government. In the early days Antonio was fairly enthused by il Duce’s politics, while Iris didn’t take much notice of them. La Foce thrived, became self-sufficient and prosperous – and a home. Iris was awkward at first with the peasant women, and struggled to understand their dialect, but she helped set up and support a school for about fifty children, as well as overseeing the transformation of the 16th-century house and making a garden. For their first wedding anniversary, Antonio presented her with a pair of young Maremmano oxen, their horns painted gold for the occasion.
The marriage came under strain when their son Gianni died in 1932, aged seven, of meningitis – an unassuageable grief that was afterwards always at the centre of Iris’s emotional life. She put together a little book about him, and would bring it out years later to show her unenthusiastic grandchildren. Origo is characteristically reticent about her husband and their relationship in her autobiography, Images and Shadows, published in 1970; there’s a fair amount left over for Caroline Moorehead to explore in her nuanced and generous biography (2000). Antonio seems to have been energetic, capable, humorous and affectionate, not interested in literary talk – and Iris noted that he ‘seldom listened to any woman’s conversation, and certainly never to that of plain ones’. Iris was diffident, reserved, self-conscious and restless, with a certain hauteur – and sometimes, in her letters to her lover Colin MacKenzie, rather earnestly high-flown. ‘We shall be able to look back and say: this at least life has given me, this I have known’ (MacKenzie is even more inclined to a well-behaved-but-purple prose). Both Iris and Antonio had significant affairs, and in the first years of their marriage Iris travelled extensively and spent a lot of time in England. Before the war, however, she seems to have made a definite commitment to her life in La Foce. Her daughters Benedetta and Donata were born in 1940 and 1943, and during the war, described in her memoir War in Val d’Orcia, she and Antonio worked indefatigably together through successive crises, caring for their stricken community and sheltering partisans, refugees and deserters. In peacetime the couple seem to have found their way to lives companionable in their separateness. Antonio worked on the estate, and Iris on her writing: she was after all a child of the Anglo-American community in Italy, inveterately literary.
Pushkin Press have recently reissued five of Origo’s books: the autobiography, the war memoir, some previously unpublished diaries from 1939-40 as A Chill in the Air, and the two substantial biographies, of Leopardi and Teresa Guiccioli, Byron’s mistress. If Origo had written fiction, she’d have had either to write about the world she came from – which was beginning by that time to feel very musty and fading and fin-de-siècle – or to blunder into addressing the Italian Italy of which she was only a privileged observer. But in her biographies she was able to write precisely on the cusp between the two cultures, turning her work into a bridge of interpretation and understanding. She freights the Anglo-American dream of Italy with the substantial reality of the Italian past, not speculating about ‘what it was like’ through any framing nostalgic idea, but assembling evidence for the texture of individual lives, through the minutiae of daily detail as it emerges in letters, diaries and contemporary commentary. In The Merchant of Prato (1957), a portrait of a fairly unreflective 14th-century merchant, drawn from the vast treasure trove of his letters and account books, her tradition of intelligent belles lettres meets the new historians mining the same archival material from a different direction.Both aim at the correction of dangerous grand narratives through the painstaking recuperation of ephemera, facts on the ground. (‘Facts and events are infinitely more fragile things,’ Hannah Arendt said at around the same time, ‘than axioms, discoveries, theories.’)
Origo doesn’t have to dissimulate or wrestle with her un-Italian sensibility; her sensibility becomes her method as a biographer. At the best end of the Anglo-American tradition, her style is reticent, sophisticated, clever, sometimes stately; her English irony comes into its own; she reserves judgment but also gives way to impulses of imaginative sympathy not quite available to the historian. Her subjects seize her as a novelist’s subjects do – they fertilise and are fertilised by elements in her own history. Her worldly modernity encounters the absolute otherness in these lives – Leopardi stifling among the bigoted provincial aristocracy; Guiccioli’s unthinking passion for Byron – and resonates with something she uncovers there, alien and yet known to her.
She first published her life of Leopardi, A Study in Solitude, in 1935, then revised and enlarged it in the 1950s. Leopardi’s poetry isn’t well known in English. Its idealising, classicising lyricism doesn’t translate easily; he doesn’t have Shelley’s urgency, Keats’s sensuous materiality or Wordsworth’s plainness. The limited Italian word endings give the verse an incantatory effect whether it’s rhyming or not; transplanted into English, his madrigal-like canzone libera form can sound thin, like mere poeticising:
O graziosa luna, io mi rammento
Che, or volge l’anno, sovra questo colle
Io venia pien d’angoscia a rimirarti:
E tu pendevi allor su quella selva
Siccome or fai, che tutta la rischiari.
O gracious Moon, I call to mind again
It was a year ago I climbed this hill
To gaze upon you in my agony;
And you were hanging then above that wood,
Filling it all with light, as you do now.
At first sight that’s just any melancholy moon-moment, part of the poetic kit in the first decades of the 19th century. If you take your time with it (those are the first five lines of 16), and try the Italian, you can begin to feel how limpid it is, and starkly minimal. It’s a bit like trying not to miss the earthy, textured solidity of Chaucer, or Thomas Wyatt, when you read Petrarch: you have to learn not to want that particular localised moonlit wood. It’s just ‘the wood’. In fact Leopardi was writing out of an intense attachment to the landscape around his home in Recanati, in the Marche, 15 miles from the Adriatic. Once you know the conditions of Leopardi’s life, it makes a difference to reading his poetry – the conditions can’t explain it, but they root it in a historical moment and a geographical home. And perhaps there’s some inverse relationship to be made out between the localism in a life and the abstraction in a poetic form, because it’s difficult to conceive of an existence more constrained and confined to one locality than Leopardi’s. He was born in Recanati, lived much of his suffering, thwarted 39 years there, and mostly – apart from the moon and the landscape – loathed and resented it. Recanati, Origo says, combines ‘distinction and squalor, dignity and dreariness’; ‘the narrow, sunless little side streets come to an end with startling suddenness, framing a view of an astounding beauty.’ In photographs the Palazzo Leopardi looks like a workhouse or a prison.
Life in the palazzo would have satisfied the most extravagantly gothic imaginings of the Anglo-American community in Florence. Giacomo was the oldest son; at the time of his birth in 1798 the family had four ecclesiasticals living with them, as well as his ancient and gallant grandmother at the top of the house, visited every afternoon by her cavaliere servente. Leopardi’s mother, the contessa, was cruelly pious: if her children burned their tongues on their soup, she bade them ‘offer it up to Jesus’, and said she was glad when her babies died and went to heaven. After she discovered her husband’s profligacy, she inflicted a ruthless regime of poverty on the family: they were starved of warmth, food and clothing, just so long as they kept up the appearance of aristocratic privilege. ‘The great rooms of Palazzo Leopardi still remained open, and the household was not diminished by one footman, one coachman, or one priest.’ The poet’s father was more harmlessly eccentric, and built the all-important library; he was absurdly over-protective, however, still cutting up his son’s food when he was 27. Giacomo and his siblings were never allowed out, even as adults, unless accompanied by a chaperone; they were never given any money. His sister Paolina poured out her resentments in long secret letters to her best friends, two girls she never actually met. Their replies had to come disguised under cover to Giacomo’s tutor.
The poet discovered books in his teenage years and became a prodigy of learning. He set himself an impossible regime of study, learned ancient Greek in a few weeks and spent his days and nights in the freezing library, wrapped in thin blankets. He lost his faith, began to write, and developed scoliosis (not because of his studying, though he may have blamed himself for it). His father never spoke of this disability, but when Giacomo went out in the streets of Recanati the children threw stones at him and chanted doggerel verses mocking the gobbo, the hunchback. He longed to leave, but his parents wouldn’t let him. When eventually his fame as a poet brought him friends in the outside world, and allowed him to make forays into it, he longed for Recanati as soon as he was away, inveighing bitterly against the conditions everywhere he went. How could any world live up to the dream he’d had of it? ‘In truth,’ he wrote, ‘it was too late to try to adapt myself to life, never having had any taste of it … I felt old, almost decrepit, before I had ever been young.’ Leopardi was difficult, frustrated, disappointed, ill, but attracted the love and loyalty of a few good friends – and inspired, through his political poems and his prose Operette Morali, the passionate patriotism of generations longing for a united Italy. He died in 1837, possibly from constriction of the heart and lungs caused by the deformity of his spine.
At least Paolina outlived their parents, though she was never allowed to marry, and said she’d never known ‘a single moment of real happiness’. She was fifty when her mother died: she took to reading novels, bought herself clothes in the latest fashions and lavished all her affections on a little dog – ‘mio figlietto’, my little son. You couldn’t make it up. Or you could, perhaps, but Origo didn’t. Rather, she chose from the overwhelming mass of material the details that give the feel of a life, clearing a space for the reader’s encounter with its dailiness and not its headlines. Her interpretive commentary is insightful but not overdetermining: it runs sympathetically close alongside her quotations of her subjects’ own expression of themselves. Leopardi for instance,
was worn out – too blind to work, too exhausted and discouraged to see anyone, or to bolster up his courage by any fine attitude. ‘I am tired of life,’ he wrote, ‘tired of the philosophic indifference which is the only remedy to suffering and tedium, but which at the end becomes tedious itself.’
And she prefers to write biographies of individuals carried helplessly along in the slipstream of stories larger than themselves: of Leopardi in his loneliness; of Allegra, Byron’s daughter with Claire Clairmont, bundled out of the way of the adults and only living to be five years old; of San Bernardino, a 15th-century Franciscan visionary (Origo converted eventually to Catholicism); and, in A Need to Testify, of four more or less eccentric individuals, including the actor and mimic Ruth Draper, caught up in self-sacrificing opposition to fascism.
The Last Attachment, published in 1949, is a biography not of Byron but of his last mistress, the wonderfully ordinary, chatty, impulsive and sentimental Teresa Guiccioli – who mystifies many Byron admirers because the cult of the great Don Juan requires that, after loving the innumerable women who throw themselves at him, he leave them. But in 1819 Byron seemed ready to settle down to a life of domesticity and mediocrity in provincial Italy, whose inner workings were as mysterious to the English poets, artists and hangers-on in Italy then, as they were to Origo’s mother’s set a century later. ‘Now I have lived among the Italians,’ Byron wrote, ‘not Florenced and Romed and Galleried and Conversationed it for a few months and then home again – but been of their families, and friendships and feuds, and loves and councils, in a part of Italy least known to foreigners.’ And Teresa wasn’t even famous, or clever, or – according to most contemporaries – especially beautiful, apart from her youth (she was 18) and her mass of auburn hair. It wasn’t because she held out on him, either: ‘even Byron – accustomed as he was to easy conquests – was slightly taken aback by the extreme facility and publicity of this one,’ Origo wrote.
Teresa had only been married for a few months to the Conte Guiccioli, forty years older, when she met Byron in Venice at a fashionable conversazione. He had said that he did ‘not wish to meet any more ladies; if they are ugly because they are ugly and if they are pretty because they are pretty’. Then he changed his mind and allowed himself to be introduced to Teresa, as ‘pair d’Angleterre et son plus grand poète’. They were lovers within days. Teresa said afterwards that ‘she gave up her soul entirely where her heart led’, but Byron was embarrassed at first by Teresa’s lack of sophistication. She called him ‘mio Byron’ out loud in front of everyone, pushed melodramatically into his all-male opera box in the middle of a performance of Rossini’s Otello. Her husband took her away to his estate at the mouth of the Po, ‘in a desolate marsh’ where ‘the only sound was that of the wind and the wailing of sea-birds’. Teresa and Byron smuggled letters to each other with the help of ‘a Priest, a Chambermaid, a young Negro-boy, and a female friend’, and something in Byron’s feelings changed. ‘You sometimes tell me,’ he wrote, ‘that I have been your first real love – and I assure you that you shall be my last Passion.’ He really meant it.
There’s so much documentation of all this, abounding in character, story and period atmosphere. There are Byron’s and Teresa’s letters to each other, and the letters of Teresa’s confidante, and those of all the gossips reporting on Byron’s every move; then there’s the story Teresa told years afterwards in her Vie de Lord Byron en Italie, and a revealing confession found among her papers and never published, less romanticising and more frank. There are the reports of the spies of the Austrian and Papal governments once Byron, domesticated in Ravenna, got involved in local Carbonari politics, meeting the conspirators in the pine forests where he also rode with Teresa (‘she can’t guide her horse – and he runs after mine – and tries to bite him – and then she begins screaming in a high hat and sky-blue riding habit’). When Origo first asked Count Carlo Gamba, Teresa’s great-nephew and heir, old-fashioned and very deaf, if she could see Teresa’s letters, he brought out a carved mahogany box which had inside not only letters but also the locket containing Teresa’s hair which Byron was supposed to have been wearing when he died, and Byron’s handkerchief and a fragment of one of his shirts, and the copy of Madame de Staël’s Corinne which the lovers had read together, ‘on the flyleaf of which he wrote one of his most famous love letters to her’ – in English, refusing to translate it for her. It ends: ‘Think of me, sometimes, when the Alps and the ocean divide us, but they never will, unless you wish it.’
How substantial and how close the past feels at such a moment. A biographer ‘may see,’ Origo writes, ‘as suddenly as, at the turn of a passage, one comes upon one’s image in a mirror, a living face … in that fleeting moment, he may perhaps reach a faint apprehension – as near to the truth as we are ever likely to get – of what another man was like.’ Origo’s memoirs of the war years and her autobiography are wonderfully intelligent and moving and interesting, but it’s in the biographies – and perhaps in The Last Attachment above all – that she transcends her own persona, becomes more than herself. She was guarded and discreet and her sensibility was of her class and time: rather coolly and mournfully distant, a little superior, judging silliness with asperity. At her best as a biographer, however, she grows to fill out the material of her story with a novelistic disinhibition and relish – Teresa’s naivety and childish self-importance, Byron conspiring among the pines, the gothic privations in Palazzo Leopardi, Paolina and her little dog. The sheer Italianness of it all.