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Back, Back, Down the Old Ways of Time: D. H. Lawrence in Italy

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“My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect,” wrote D. H. Lawrence, hot in the grip of the spiritual renovation Italy works on so many visitors, especially artists; “That is why I like to live in Italy. The people are so unconscious. They only feel and want: they don’t know. We know too much. No, we only think we know such a lot.”

Lawrence lived on the shores of Lake Garda from September 1912 to April 1913, then again from 1919 to 1922, mostly in Taormina, Sicily, and then a third time in the Florence area, from 1925 to 1929. In Italy he finished Sons and Lovers, started The Rainbow, and wrote Women in Love, Twilight in Italy, Sea and Sardinia, Etruscan Places, The Lost Girl, Revelation, and a book of poems. In July 1928, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was printed privately in Florence in a first edition of 1,000 copies.

And yet, he hadn’t foreseen it. In early April 1912, Lawrence was teaching at an English private school and sought the advice of one of his former professors about obtaining a position of lecturer of English at a German university. Ernest Weekley, who taught at Freiburg University, invited Lawrence to lunch at his home in Nottingham. Helping with the hosting duties that day was Weekley’s wife and the mother of his three children, Frieda Von Richthofen (a distant cousin to the famous “Red Baron”).

She and Lawrence fell quickly in love and began an affair. By early May Lawrence had convinced her to abandon her family, leave England, and run away with him.

They went to Germany, where Frieda visited her parents in Metz, and by May 24, the two had settled in Munich. While Frieda missed her children, she apparently missed Lawrence more, and they decided to stick together and live at Icking in southern Bavaria, in a chalet apartment lent to them by Max Weber’s brother. On August 5, they left Germany, walking through Austria to Italy, arriving on the shores of Lake Garda, at Riva del Garda, on September 7,1912. From Riva they moved down the western side of the lake to Gargagno (later famous as the residence of Benito Mussolini, who stayed at the Villa Feltrinelli from 1943-45). First they stayed temporarily in a local hotel on the lake’s shores, moving then to a small villa, Villa Igea. Almost immediately, he began to feel the renewal he would later write about in Sea and Sardinia: “to go to Italy and to penetrate into Italy is like a most fascinating act of self-discovery – back, back down the old ways of time…Italy has given me back I know not what of myself, but a very, very great deal. She has found for me so much that was lost: like a restored Osiris.”

In the autumn of 1913 (after a brief return to England, where the couple met and befriended publisher and literary critic John Middleton Murry and his wife, writer Katherine Mansfield), the couple set up home in Fiaschiarino, a small fishing village in the Gulf of La Spezia on the Ligurian eastern Riviera, not far from Lerici, where in the 1820s the poet Shelley had lived and died. In May 1914, Professor Weekley obtained a divorce from Frieda, the two lovers returned to London, and were married on July 13, 1914. During his time back in England Lawrence met and worked with such figures as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and philosopher, editor, and feminist Dora Marsden.

He also started to have problems with the authorities. World War I had begun, and Lawrence’s literary anti-militarism, German wife, and charges of obscenity for his novel The Rainbow (prompting its suppression in England) caused both political and financial problems so severe that in March 1916 Lawrence decided to move to the small village of Zennor in Cornwall and lease a small isolated cottage for five pounds a year. Lawrence convinced Murry and Mansfield to move nearby. Mansfield hated it there, and soon she and Murry left.

TheLostGirlIn 1916-17, with the war devouring thousands of young men in the trenches of France, Lawrence and Frieda became the object of police suspicion and were investigated for spying on Germany’s behalf. The local people had denounced them to the authorities, saying that Freida was signaling secret messages to German submarines using the laundry placed to dry on a clothesline facing the sea! Their cottage was searched, and the authorities tried to induct the sickly Lawrence into the armed forces. Finally, on October 11, 1917, the Lawrences were ordered to leave their Cornwall home within three days under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act. They were given no explanation for the order.

Unable to get passports to go abroad, the couple then moved to a string of villages where they could afford the rent until in 1919, the war over, they were issued travel documents and left for abroad. From then on, apart from two short visits to England, Lawrence remained abroad and lived in Italy, Sri Lanka, Australia, the United States, Mexico, and France.

These peregrinations started in November 1919 when the pair traveled by train to Italy. On November 19, they had reached Florence, then moved down to Rome in early December and within days took up residence in the mountaintop village of Picinisco, where the regions of Latium, Abruzzi, and Campania come together. They did not stay very long, since the farmhouse where they lodged with a family was up a mountain path two miles from town and life there was cold and primitive. The day after Christmas they walked down the mountainside to the town of Cassino and caught a bus south. They ended up in Sorrento and from there crossed to Capri, where they lived for two months. In Capri, Lawrence was grouchy and restless and wrote that the island was, “a gossipy, villa-stricken, two-humped chunk of limestone, a microcosm that does heaven much credit, but mankind none at all.”

By February 1920, they were again on the move, this time to Sicily, traveling with English novelist Francis Brett Young and his wife Jessica. From Palermo they first went to Agrigento, then to Syracuse, before finding a place Lawrence liked in Taormina, where he rented the upper floor of a large farmhouse named Fontana Vecchia. In Taormina, where he and Frieda lived for the following two years, Lawrence was busy and productive, writing many of the poems in Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, and finishing the novel The Lost Girl. He also worked on Aaron’s Rod and a book of criticism, Studies in Classic American Literature.

In January 1921, Lawrence and Frieda sailed from Palermo to Sardinia, a voyage he wrote about in Sea and Sardinia. On February 20, 1922, Lawrence and Frieda left Fontana Vecchia in Taormina on the way to the United States, where socialite Mabel Dodge Sterne Luhann had offered them an adobe house in her ranch in Taos, New Mexico. She’d discovered a little pueblo village, bought lots of land nearby and dreamed of making the area a colony of intellectuals and writers. After reading the instalments of Sea and Sardinia in Dial magazine, she thought of Lawrence as the perfect candidate for her fledgling colony. Her new guests arrived in September of 1922.

LadyChatterley'sLoverThe beauty of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the wide lonely spaciousness of the West enchanted the Lawrences immediately. The ranch, at 7000 feet altitude, was quite cold during the winter, but both D.H. and Frieda loved it, despite the nagging imperiousness of the ever-present Mabel, who tried to dictate to everyone around her. In 1924, Luhan deeded Frieda the Kiowa Ranch, 20 miles from Taos, in exchange for a singular payment: the original manuscript of Sons and Lovers.

The Lawrences stayed in Taos from September 1922 to September 1925, and during that time their relationship with their domineering hostess was stormy. After Lawrence’s death, Mabel Luhan wrote about it in her book, Lorenzo in Taos (1932). While at the ranch, Lawrence made two long trips to Mexico, in March 1923, and again from October 1924 to April 1925; these trips resulted in the books Morning in Mexico and The Plumed Serpent.

A Lawrence admirer, English aristocratic socialite and painter Dorothy Brett, had joined them in Taos in 1924 and stayed in a small cottage within the ranch’s land, painting and acting as Lawrence ‘s secretary and typing his manuscripts. She would stay on in Taos until her death.

Lawrence thus had three women who admired him and competed for his attention, often jealous of each other: his wife Frieda, Lady Dorothy Brett, and Mabel Sterne Luhan. As we’ll see, these rivalries would out-last their object.

In late November 1925, Lawrence was back in Italy with Frieda, and this time, on the advice of his London publisher, they decided to settle in Spotorno, a coastal town about thirty miles west of Genoa. In Spotorno they rented Villa Bernarda from an officer of the bersaglieri, Captain Angelo Ravagli, who would became Frieda’s lover, her second husband, and the inheritor of the Lawrence estate.

In Spotorno, Lawrence started the plot of Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover, wrote Sun, and the Virgin and the Gypsy. Traveling around Italy by himself, he also met with Dorothy Brett, back from Taos for a European visit.

On May 6, 1926, the Lawrences moved again, this time to Villa Mirenda, a small residence south west of Florence. There, from October 1926 to January 1928, Lawrence wrote Sketches from Etruscan Places, The Escaped Cock, Resurrection, and Apocalypse. There he also wrote the first version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the book that would win him his immortality.

The inspiration for the married Lady Chatterley’s affair with Mellors, her husband’s gamekeeper, has long been rumored to have come not from Nottinghamshire, the novel’s setting, but from Spotorno, where Frieda had carried on an open, torrid love affair with their landlord, Captain Ravagli. Alternately, Italian writer Gaetano Saglimbeni claims the “real Mellors” was a Sicilian muleteer of Castelmola (a small town above Taormina), Peppino D’Allora, with whom Frieda had had an affair when Lawrence lived in Taormina in 1920-22. Still another theory is that Lawrence drew his inspiration from the affair Lady Ottoline Morell (a friend and supporter of Lawrence) had with a young stonemason working on her property (she nicknamed him Tiger).

However it came about, the first edition of Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover was printed privately in Florence in a run of 1000 copies under the sponsorship of bookseller and publisher Pino Orioli, owner of a bookshop in the Lungarno delle Grazie and one of the few who believed in Lawrence’s new book from the beginning.

Although pirated copies of Lady Chatterly’s Lover began circulating on the black market quickly, that original Florentine volume was bound in a mulberry-red cover with a black phoenix, the symbol of immortality, printed on the front. Orioli had arranged for a small printing shop to do the job and Lawrence delivered the typed manuscript to the printer himself. Since the printer neither spoke nor understood English, the proofs had many errors.

Lawrence was honest with the printer and told him exactly what he was printing, giving him the opportunity to decline the job, if doing it would land him in trouble with the law. Lawrence assures us that the older white-moustached man looked at him indifferently and said “Oh! Mah! But we do it every day!”

By now Lawrence was very sick, but he continued to write until in October 1929 he moved to Bandol, France, on the French Riviera. There his doctor advised him that he required urgent treatment, and on February 6, he was admitted to the Ad Astra Sanatorium in Venice. As word spread that he was ailing, many of his friends and admirers visited him, including the Aga Khan, H.G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley and his wife Mary Nys Huxley.

On March 1,1929, Lawrence demanded to be discharged and moved to a residence, Villa Robermond. He died there on March 2, 1930. He was buried in Venice, under an elaborate tombstone bearing the mosaic of a phoenix, the symbol Lawrence had adopted as his own.

In May 1931, in one of the eerie parallels that Lawrence the novelist would have appreciated, Frieda invited her lover Ravagli to abandon his family and run away with her – specifically, to Taos, to the Kiowa ranch. In November 1931, they returned to Europe, where Frieda fought Lawrence’s sister and other relatives for the estate of her husband. Apparently, a will Lawrence had written had been lost in all the moves the two had undertaken, and after much litigation, the issue was resolved in Frieda’s favor on the basis of the testimony of John Middletown Murry, who testified that Lawrence had told him he had made a will in favor of Frieda (perhaps not unconnectedly, Murry, after Mansfield’s death in 1923, had also carried on a short but torrid affair with Frieda, and the affair had briefly resumed after Lawrence’s death).

In May 1933, Frieda and Ravagli returned to Taos, tore down the old cabin and started building a new home. When in the summer of 1934, they were told that Lawrence’s tomb in Venice was falling in a state of disrepair, Frieda made plans to have the remains exhumed, cremated, and transferred to the New Mexico ranch, where Ravagli was in the meantime building a small memorial chapel.

On March 4, 1935, Lawrence’s remains were exhumed in Venice and brought to Marseilles where they were cremated on March 13. Ravagli then boarded the ship Conte di Savoia bound for New York carrying the urn containing the ashes. On arrival, he ran into problems with U. S. authorities, but finally, helped by famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, he made it ashore and went on his way to Taos. Many were waiting Ravagli’s arrival by train in Lamy, N.M., and in the confusion the urn was left on the station platform, but the loss was discovered on the way to the ranch and the urn was hastily retrieved.

Once at the ranch, the question of how to treat the ashes led to a dispute between Frieda and Mabel Sterne Luhan and Dorothy Brett. Frieda wanted to bury them in the small Spanish-type chapel built on the property, while Luhan, supported by Brett, felt that the ashes of the famous man were not Frieda’s property but belonged to the world and should perhaps be spread by the wind over the ranch. But Frieda had possession, and fearing that they may be stolen, had them mixed with the concrete being made for the altar slab of the chapel.

Are Lawrence ashes really in the slab of the memorial chapel? According to a French professor at the University of Nice, when French Baron de Hauteville and his sister-in-law Rose Nys de Hauteville (related to Aldous Huxley’s wife) visited Ravagli at the Taos ranch after Frieda’s death, after a bout of drinking, he confided to them that the had dumped Lawrence’s ashes near Villefranche before boarding the ship for New York. After arrival, he had collected the beautiful vase selected by Frieda, and filled it ashes of local provenance, which he then took to Taos.

There is yet another story of the fate of the ashes. The Inn of the Turquoise Bear in Santa Fe` was formerly the residence of poet Witter Bynner, a friend of both Frieda and Lawrence. The story goes that somehow Bynner got hold of Lawrence ashes and in order to absorb Lawrence poetic genius, he started to mix one spoonful of ashes with his tea every morning. Whether or not his poetry got better open to doubt, but one of the two current owners of the Inn of the Turquoise Bear is reputed to have said, “D.H. Lawrence’s final resting place may very possibly be at the bottom of the outhouse in my backyard.”

Frieda continued to live in the ranch with Ravagli, hosting many literary icons such as W.H. Auden and Tennessee Williams. In 1950, Ravagli obtained a U.S. Divorce form his Italian wife (although it wasn’t valid in Italy) and married Frieda. In 1955, Frieda Ravagli deeded the Taos property to the University of New Mexico to be a cultural center named the D. H. Lawrence Ranch. She died in August 1956 and is buried outside the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. Angelo Ravagli returned to Italy in 1959, a wealthy man from the Lawerence royalties, which skyrocketed when U.S courts lifted the ban on Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Made rich by adultery, he rejoined his wife and children and died at Spotorno in 1976.

Luciano Mangiafico was born in Italy and is a retired U.S. diplomat. Among his many foreign postings in several continents, he was U.S. Consul in Milan (Italy), and Consul General in Palermo (Italy), Bucharest (Romania), and Bridgetown (Barbados). This essay is an abridged portion of a book in progress.