“He Might As Well Have Called Me Nancy!” Mark Twain in Italy
The first time Mark Twain visited Italy was as a passenger on the pleasure cruise of the steamship Quaker City, which traveled to the Mediterranean from June 8 to November 11, 1867. Twain was already an up-and coming humorist, and his book The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and other Sketches was in the process of being printed. He had also written a series of reports on a four-month trip he had made to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaiian Islands) in 1866, and he’d started to lecture, with success, about life in the Hawaiian Islands. In December 1866, wishing to return from San Francisco to the East Coast rather than cross the continent overland, he sailed south on the steamship America, planning to make his way through what is now Panama and take another ship bound for New York in the Gulf of Mexico.
He arrived in New York City on January 12,1867. While staying in a hotel and making a living as a reporter for the publication Alta California, he heard that the Brooklyn congregation of the famous abolitionist clergyman, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, was organizing a five-month cruise to Europe and the Holy Land aboard the Quaker City. Beecher and General William Tecumseh Sherman were said to have already booked, although neither one ultimately went on the trip. Twain was able to convince the Alta California to pay his fare in exchange for about 50 reports on the journey, and with money from his lectures in his pocket booked on the ship.
He sailed to Europe on June 9, 1867, and shared the cabin that had been originally assigned to General Sherman with publisher Dan Slote.
By June’s end the ship was in Gibraltar, and passengers took a side trip to Tangier, proceeded to Marseilles and by train to Paris, and by the middle of July they were docked in Genoa, Italy. From there, Twain and two companions went to Milan and Lake Como and visited Bellagio, moving on toward Venice and continuing to Florence and Rome before rejoining the ship in Naples on August 11. In Naples, Twain visited the city, went to Ischia, Pompeii, and Capri, and climbed Mount Vesuvius. In mid-August, the group was in Athens, went to Constantinople, Odessa and Yalta on the Black Sea, traversed Turkey to Lebanon and the Holy Land, crossed into Egypt, got back on board the Quaker City and returned home to New York via Bermuda.
In all, Twain had spent about a month in Italy and wrote about 15 “letters” to the newspaper. The total number of “letters” was subsequently revised and made into a book, The Innocents Abroad, which was first published in 1869.
Both the “letters” and the subsequent book are travelogues with an unusual twist. Twain recorded his personal experiences, comparing and critiquing various aspects of life and culture in the places they visited, going from the witty to the comedic, from the bored to the bitter, always irreverent and often irascible. His was not the genteel prose of previous American travellers amazed by the remains of past civilizations, and the splendid works of art to be seen in European palaces, churches, and museums. Indeed the book had a not-so-subtle chauvinist message, advancing the proposition that the United States was the standard bearer of the future and that Americans were not impressed by highbrow taste and delicate finesse, a glorious past and long-dead artistic achievements, but were living in the present and looking forward to a future made better by technology, know-how, and ambitious drive. His prose exemplified American braggadocio, freed of the Old World strictures and social divisions, deflating the balloons of supercilious pretension and superior airs. There had never been travel writing quite like it before.
He contended that Lake Como is not the equal of Lake Tahoe, and that Mount Vesuvius does not hold a candle to volcanoes in Hawaii. Of Naples, he said: “See Naples and die.’ Well, I do not know that one would necessarily die after merely seeing it, but to attempt to live there might turn out a little differently.” Venice got equal treatment, at least during daylight hours. He wrote: “In the glare of the day there is little poetry about Venice, but under the charitable moon her stained palaces are white again…”
In Italy, his major targets were the institutions of Catholic Church and art. He compared the poverty of most of the population with the affluence of churchmen. While in Florence he wrote:
As far as I can see, Italy, for fifteen hundred years, has turned all her energies, all her finances, and all her industry to the building up of a vast array of wonderful church edifices, and starving half her citizens to accomplish it. She is today one vast museum of magnificence and misery. All the churches in an ordinary American city put together could hardly buy the jeweled frippery in one of her hundred cathedrals. And for every beggar in America, Italy can show a hundred – and rags and vermin to match. It is the wretchedest, princeliest land on earth.
He also denigrated famous artists such as Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo.
Michelangelo comes in for a famous drubbing:
I used to worship the mighty genius of Michael Angelo–that man who was great in poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture–great in everything he undertook. But I do not want Michael Angelo for breakfast–for luncheon–for dinner–for tea–for supper–for between meals. I like a change, occasionally. In Genoa, he designed everything; in Milan he or his pupils designed everything; he designed the Lake of Como; in Padua, Verona, Venice, Bologna, who did we ever hear of, from guides, but Michael Angelo? In Florence, he painted everything, designed everything, nearly, and what he did not design he used to sit on a favorite stone and look at, and they showed us the stone. In Pisa he designed everything but the old shot-tower, and they would have attributed that to him if it had not been so awfully out of the perpendicular. He designed the piers of Leghorn and the customhouse regulations of Civita Vecchia. But, here – here it is frightful. He designed St. Peter’s; he designed the Pope; he designed the Pantheon, the uniform of the Pope’s soldiers, the Tiber, the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Capitol, the Tarpeian Rock, the Barberini Palace, St. John Lateran, the Campagna, the Appian Way, the Seven Hills, the Baths of Caracalla, the Claudian Aqueduct, the Cloaca Maxima – the eternal bore designed the Eternal City, and unless all men and books do lie, he painted everything in it! Dan said the other day to the guide, “Enough, enough, enough! Say no more! Lump the whole thing! say that the Creator made Italy from designs by Michael Angelo!”
I never felt so fervently thankful, so soothed, so tranquil, so filled with a blessed peace, as I did yesterday, when I learned that Michael Angelo was dead.
The Innocents Abroad sold about 70,000 copies in the United States during its first year in print. By 1872 sales had passed 100,000 without including those in Great Britain, and pirated editions, and by 1910, it had outsold Twain’s Tom-Huck novels. Twain would tell his friend William Dean Howell that The Innocents Abroad “sells right along like the Bible.”
In choosing a publisher, Twain had made one of the few smart business decisions of his life: he selected the American Publishing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, a firm that sold by subscription and whose book orders were taken by door-to door salesmen. He also declined a flat rate of $10,000, and gambled on a royalty of 5%, netting him $.17 on each $3.50 volume sold.
In October 1871, a married Mark Twain moved to Hartford, Connecticut. At the time, Hartford was the wealthiest city in America, a major publishing center with twelve publishers, the headquarters of major insurance companies, a notable manufacturing center of firearms, bicycles, and machinery, and had a sizable colony of writers living in the city and of painters living in nearby Farmington.
To be near to his publisher and live in a congenial writing environment, Twain at first rented a large house, then bought land and built the mansion at 351 Farmington Avenue, which is now a museum. He liked Hartford and was to write: “Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see, this is the chief… You do not know what beauty is if you have not been here.”
Mark Twain, this time with his entire family, was in Italy again toward the fall of 1878, as part of a European stay lasting longer than a year.
The trip was undertaken for several reasons. First, it was cheaper to live in Europe, even in hotels, than in Hartford, Connecticut, where his grandiose and lavish living style, including the servants, gardeners, carriage drivers, and so on, coupled with the taxes on his mansion and entertaining, cost a pretty penny. Getting away from his many social obligations, and the hundreds of letters he received and that he conscientiously answered, was another reason. Abroad, he also would be able to work, gathering more material for writing projects and finishing Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn.
And there was a further reason, perhaps less publicized: he’d gotten into hot water with the literary elite of Boston and wanted to put some distance between himself and literary New England.
In December 1877, he had been invited by his friend William Dean Howells to give a speech in Boston at a December 17 dinner honoring poet James Greenleaf Whittier’s 70th birthday. The dinner, sponsored by The Atlantic Monthly, of which Howell was editor, was attended by such Olympian literary icons as Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. About fifty other Atlantic contributors such as Charles Elliott Norton, Charles Dudley Warner, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and William Henry Bishop, were also attending.
The seven-course dinner was accompanied by five different wines, and by the time the speechifying started, everyone must have been more than slightly inebriated. When Twain’s turn came, he told a story that he claimed had been told to him fifteen years earlier by a Nevada mining prospector. Upon arrival at the mining camp, Twain had identified himself and the miner told him that it was funny that within the last 24 hours three other persons claiming to be Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes had also stopped at the camp. The miner, Twain claimed, had described Emerson as “a seedy little bit of a chap,” Holmes as “fat as a balloon,” and Longfellow with the physique of a “prize fighter.” The miner had added that the three strangers had behaved abominably, fighting, gambling, cursing, and drinking. Twain had then told the miner that the three must have been impostors and the miner had replied, “Ah-imposters, were they? Are you?”
Twain’s irreverence in making fun of the three icons of 19th century American letters had not gone down well with the audience, and he later wrote a letter of apology to the three. Longfellow answered with a gracious note, while Emerson’s daughter and Holmes wrote back that they had not taken offense, but a certain pall was cast.
Mark Twain, his wife Olivia, their two girls Clara and Susy, a German nursemaid, and Olivia’s childhood friend Clara Spaulding, sailed from New York bound for Hamburg on the German steamship Holsatia on April 11, 1878. The ship arrived in Hamburg on April 25, and Twain remained in Europe for the next fifteen months, traveling around and collecting material for another travel book, A Tramp Abroad, which was published in 1880.
In early September, the Twains and Spaulding crossed into Italy, stopping first in Turin. Twain’s feelings toward Italy had somewhat mellowed from his previous visit during the Quaker City cruise eleven years earlier. He admired Turin’s wide streets and large squares, and surmised by the number of bookstores in the city that its inhabitants must be voracious readers. He expected “to be cheated at every turns by the Italians,” but was pleasantly surprised in Milan when he observed two vendors’ honesty. From Turin, the family travelled north to Lake Como and Bellagio, and on to Milan, where Twain admired the “noble cathedral.”
In visiting museums, he also noted that “old masters were still unpleasing to me but they were truly divine when contrasted with copies,” a change from his previous belief that some copies of old paintings were improvements on the originals.
In Venice, he thought now that St. Mark’s was “perfect…monumental…” but that the bell tower was nothing but a big pile of bricks. In visiting the Doge’s Palace he found the figures and horses in paintings of Veronese to be out of proportion and badly designed, but admired Tintoretto’s monumentally large Paradise in the Hall of the Grand Council, complained that the portraits of the doges in the upper frieze of this hall appeared to have been modeled on the same subject, and, in jest, opined that a chest appearing as a small detail in Leandro Bassano painting of Pope Alexander III and Doge Ziani in the Hall of the Council of Ten was a superlative artistic achievement.
In Florence, Twain kept spewing his opinions on old masters. Describing Titian’s Venus of Urbino in the Uffizi Gallery he wrote:
…there, against the wall, without obstructing rap or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses – Titian’s Venus. It isn’t that she is naked and stretched out on a bed – no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude there would be a fine howl – but there the Venus lies for anybody to gloat over that wants to – and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and art has its privileges…
They moved on north, passed through Bologna, were in Trento by November 16, and from there returned to Germany. The second stay in Italy had lasted about 45 days.
By the beginning of the 1890s, Mark Twain was rich. Living in his spectacular mansion in Hartford’s Nook Farm, he was outwardly a dignified, white haired figure respected in the community and adored by his fans all over the world. He had a very attractive wife, Olivia, and three beautiful daughters. The money (no income tax then) came not only from royalties from his own books, but also from those of the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a book that he had encouraged the seriously ill former president to write. Twain’s publishing firm, Charles L. Webster & Company, had printed it in 1885 and made into a phenomenal bestseller of 600,000 copies, netting Twain an astounding $400,000. The humorist lived like a millionaire but his good luck scared him a bit, with good reason, as it turned out. “I am frightened,” he wrote, “at the proportion of my prosperity. It seems to me that whatever I touch turns to gold.”
Not quite. At the time, in addition to his investment in publishing, Twain had sunk money into a new machine that he believed would revolutionize the printing business and had told a friend that it was, “very much the best investment I ever made.” The machine Twain was crazy about was a “typesetting compositor” made up of 18,000 parts. Hartford machinist and inventor James W. Paige was developing it and it was believed that the machine would make investors in its development rich. Twain, in total, invested about $200,000 in the machine, whose debut kept being delayed by glitches. The prototype sold to the Chicago Herald failed to work.
Only two such prototypes were ever made: one is still on display in the Mark Twain House in Hartford, while a benefactor gave the other to Cornell University. This second machine was donated and melted for scrap during a metal collecting drive in World War II.
Slowly giving up on the idea that the Paige Typesetter would be a gold mine, Twain wrote:
Paige shed even more tears than usual. What a talker he is! He could persuade a fish to come out and take a walk with him. When he is present I always believe him; I can’t help it. Paige and I always meet on effusively affectionate terms, and yet he knows perfectly well that if I had him in a steel trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died.
Due to this and other financial reverses, the family decided to close the Hartford house and in the late spring of 1891 embarked for Europe, where they felt they could live cheaper and the writer would find material for newspapers and magazine articles. The Farmington Avenue house, to which the Clemens never returned to live, was sold in 1903 for $28,000, less than a quarter of what it had cost to build, remodel and maintain.
From September 1892 to June 1893 the family lived in Florence at Villa Viviani, in the hilltop Florentine suburb of Settignano, where Michelangelo was born and lived as a child, and where Italian poet, novelist, and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio, and Renaissance art historian Bernard Berenson, lived later. Twain loved the place, writing:
The situation of the villa was perfect. It was three miles from Florence, on the side of a hill…to see the sun sink down, drowned on his pink and purple and golden floods, and overwhelm Florence with tides of color that make all the sharp lines dim and faint and turn the solid city to a city of dreams, is a sight to stir the coldest nature and make a sympathetic one drunk with ecstasy…
Clara Clemens was to recall that, “In Florence it was possible to live like princes on limited means,” and although her father did not particularly like the villa’s furnishings, he loved the views and the beauty of the surroundings. He felt better physically, and he started to write again, finishing Tom Sawyer Abroad, Pudd’nhead Wilson, and short stories that paid him about $800 each.
(While living in Florence Mark Twain may have unwittingly become the friend of an American who was a fugitive from justice. William Riley Foster was the son of a wealthy New York merchant who in September 1888 had absconded with $193,000 belonging to the New York Produce Exchange. Foster fled abroad together with a young girl named Loula Belote, and they assumed the names of John Fermain Ward and Louisa Ward, evading capture for about 10 years. According to a diary left by their alleged daughter, Dorothy Ward, the couple was married in England and lived in Florence when Twain was there. “In Florence,” wrote Dorothy later, “Mark Twain called frequently on my parents, & is said to have taught me to walk.” In October 1897 Foster was caught in Paris and he was extradited to New York for trial in February 1898. In June somehow, he absconded again and this second time was never found.)
Mark Twain’s fourth and last visit to Italy took place from December 1903 to June 1904. Unlike the previous stay, the motives this time were personal, not financial: Olivia Clemens was ill, and it was believed that a change of climate, sunny Italy and all that, might improve her fragile health. Why Italy, and particularly Florence, where the climate in both winters and summers is not ideal, rather than going to southern California or Bermuda, remains a mystery.
The packing done over the summer, Mark Twain, Olivia, their long-time housekeeper Katy Leary, and Olivia’s personal nurse sailed from New York to Genoa on the German steamship Princess Irene on October 24, 1903. In mid-November the Clemens family was settled in Villa di Quarto, a large country mansion north of Florence’s center which Twain had leased for $2,000 for a year.
This time Clemens’ stay in Florence, for a number of reasons, was not as pleasant as it had been some ten years before. First, the villa was too large, uncomfortably furnished, and cold. Twain wrote to Howells:
It is rather comfortable (as European comfort goes), though God himself couldn’t start through it on a given excursion & not get lost. It is a monster accumulation of bricks for $2,000 a year – furnished. It must have been built for fuss & show & irruptions of fashion, not for a home. There are 20 large chambers on the top floor, but they are for servants. Our own floor (ground floor) is cut up into 21 rooms, passages, corridors, &c., & the floor above us is cut up into 22 of the like useless things (the house is 200 feet long) – yet if you were to come I could not find you a comfortable & satisfactory place…
The winter that year was dreary and cold and Twain complained, “We have heavy fogs every morning, & rain all day…”
Predictably, Olivia’s health did not improve. She suffered from a heart condition, had trouble breathing and had to be administered oxygen frequently. Her condition deteriorated further until she died at the villa on June 5, 1904.
In the winter of 1903-4, Mark Twain was nearing the age of 70 and life was getting more complicated for him. His wife’s illness gave no respite; his beloved daughter Susy had died of spinal meningitis; his daughter Jean was subject to violent epileptic fits; and the eldest daughter, Clara, then 29, was trying desperately to become a concert pianist and free herself from the shadow of her famous father.
Worries about his wife’s health, constant arguments with the rebellious and strong willed Clara, and the disputes with his landlady Countess Massiglia, did not appreciably affect Twain’s writing. During the eight-month stay in Florence, he wrote a number of humorous short pieces, including some on the Italian language: Italian without a Master, Italian with a Master, and Italian with Grammar. In an interview in the New York Times in 1904, Twain complained that, “they [Italians] had for verbs too many ways of expressing themselves…why should there by fifty-seven ways of conjugating the verb ‘to love,’ and none of them convincing?”
He also told the journalist that to digest the complexities of Italian grammar he had put the grammar book under his pillow at night but this had not helped; he then noticed that most Florentine men had short hair and surmised that his thick white hair was not allowing the grammar to penetrate into his skull; hence he had shaved his hair to test his theory. One time he claimed he just about got into a fight with a Florentine when passing him on the Piazza della Signoria he addressed the stranger with the random words he had learned that day, “Noi chiudiamo le nostre finestre.” (We close our windows). The puzzled stranger asked him, “Che ha, Ella” (What is matter with you?) Twain, misunderstanding the word “Ella,” which normally is used as a feminine pronoun, thought the man had taken him for a woman; “he might as well have called me Nancy!” he concluded.
Sometimes, when the weather was fine, Twain went to the city with his two daughters to walk on the Lungarno river promenade and talk with the children playing on the river bank. People he passed started addressing him, “Buon giorno, Borzi!” Although puzzled by his apparent and sudden popularity, he cordially answered, “Buon giorno!” The puzzle was solved when journalist Carlo Paladini explained to him that he bore an uncanny resemblance to well-known Professor Antonio Borzi, a distinguished botanist who was well known in Florence.
After his return to the Unites States, the grand old man of American letters did not go back to Italy. He had been marked by the personal tragedies in his life, such as the death of his daughter Susy in 1896 and of his wife Olivia in 1904. More sad events were to follow. Headstrong daughter Clara was having an affair with her married piano accompanist and was sued by the man’s wife for alienation of affection. Shortly after she ended the relationship and in October 1909 married another musician, Ossip Gabrilowitsch. Daughter Jean, who had been in and out of institutions because of her epilepsy, drowned in a bathtub in December 1909 after suffering a heart attack.
As he became older and these tragedies pulled at his psyche, Twain’s humor took a mordant sarcastic edge and he railed against what he considered hypocrisy in politics, religion, and morality. Even The New York Times commented that Twain was “tumbling in among us from the clouds of exile and discarding the grin of the funny man for the sour visage of the austere moralist.” His worst tirades, on religion and lynching, remained unpublished for years, some appearing only recently.
Mark Twain, who had been born in November 1835 when the Halley’s Comet was visible, died in April 1910, with the comet again blazing in the sky.
Luciano Mangiafico is a retired U.S. diplomat who served, among many postings abroad, as consul in Milan and Consul General in Palermo.
NOTE: This article has been excerpted from an unpublished book the author has written on prominent foreigners who resided in Italy.