Portrait of Vernon Lee. Oil on canvas by John Singer Sargent
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from Grace Pulvirenti
From the collections of the Tate in London emerges a face painted by John Singer Sargent, the famous portraitist of the luxurious life of the Edwardian era, cosmopolitan and indomitable traveller. It is a woman’s face, black hair a la garçonne, round glasses to highlight the gaze turned to an imaginary interlocutor. The woman, wearing a sober dark jacket from which the white points of a collar emerge, is portrayed with her mouth open, as if in conversation. The painter captures her in a communicative attitude, of intellectual exchange. And this was one of the many talents of a very talented writer and avant-garde art scholar for her time, Vernon Lee, pseudonym of Violet Page (1856-1935). Considered an exponent of Decadentism, in fact Lee lived art, to which she dedicated herself throughout her life with forerunner and prolific aesthetic studies of revolutionary intuitions, not as an end in itself, but as the end of an existence spent in research of the beautiful.
Now let’s leave Sargent’s painting and move in imagination to Florence, or rather to the surroundings of Florence, let’s enter the avenues of the garden of Villa Il Palmerino, a fifteenth-century building that originally belonged to the family of the sculptor Agostino di Duccio. If we can also take the hands of the clock back to the 1890s, we see Vernon Lee strolling, writing, conversing in this much loved place, to the point of living there from 1889 until he almost died. But Vernon Lee was also a great traveler and often left Tuscany for her countless trips to Italy and Europe.
Companions on his wanderings were, at different times, two other writers and art scholars, first of all Clementina Anstruther-Thomson with whom Vernon Lee lived for twelve years, starting in 1888. The original and bizarre art scholar was a forerunner of the theories on theembodiment and with Vernon Lee wrote an essay that is still surprising today for its innovative theories, Beauty and Ugliness (1912), much discussed for the emphasis given to the dimension of corporeity, and consequently criticized by the artistic community. The relationship between the two women was also the object of gossip and scorn, to which was added, in Lee’s life, that with another art scholar, Mary Robinson, with whom she developed studies on empathy and the sensory implications in artistic experience, anticipating recent discoveries on aesthetic fruition. With her work published in 1902, The Psychology of an Art Writer, Lee goes forward not only and not so much in psychology, but in studies on emotions, as an experience of the body involved in fruition and artistic creation, giving great prominence to the phenomenon of synesthesia, the subject of another study of his on the famous German writer of romanticism ETA Hoffman. Another woman appears and dramatically disappears from Vernon’s life, the young pacifist writer Amy Levy, who committed suicide at the age of 28. With the latter he shared the pacifist commitment, in whose sign the years of the Great War are placed.
But who was Vernon Lee? Scholar of art, music and aesthetic theory, passionate about Italian culture, she was a follower of Walter Pater, a friend of artists and writers, including Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Sargent himself, Telemaco Signorini, and many others, in short a catalyst of friendships and intellectual relationships, which always saw her prolific with ideas and intuitions. She became famous in London artistic circles with her first publication on eighteenth-century Italy, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), surprising readers with his young age and his ability to use words to make “see” the different objects of his passionate interest.
Now we leave the villa Il Palmerino, the art studios, the Italian and European museums, where we saw her strolling in the company of art-loving associates, and we follow her tracks inside a derelict villa on a stormy night , a villa populated by ghosts, or between squares and streets shrouded in mystery, where the past never ends, but reappears in the phantasmagoria of the imagination. Well, yes, Vernon Lee, among her many lives, also led that of a writer of stories steeped in mystery, bordering on horror, showing a surprising ability to bring the past back to life from places, objects, things, in animating figures , freeing them from the fixity of the image, in a supernatural succession and interweaving of life and death, absences and surreal presences. Eighteenth-century Italy, even before being the object of study, was in fact, in the young girl, the source of an imaginative elaboration that did not end throughout her life. And that girl, who between the ages of twelve and fifteen perceived Italy as a land of wonders and mystery, never stopped, even as an adult, dreaming of the ghosts that had appeared to her from distant eras, to which she continued to give life in his innumerable stories and in the pages of his fantastic tales.
(© Grazia Pulvirenti)
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“Between the folds of stories”:
Among the folds of stories, among the ravines of what usually disappears, but which is full of meaning.
Column edited by Grazia Pulvirenti.
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