by Elizabeth Cunningham
The story of Mabel’s years in Florence opens with her second marriage. On board a steamship from New York to Havre, France, Mabel met Edwin Dodge, a wealthy architect from Boston. He would become her second husband. With degrees from Harvard and MIT, Edwin continued his studies in Paris. He graduated from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1902. The following year he began his architectural career, opening an office in Boston. In the summer of 1904 Edwin returned to Europe for two months’ vacation. Whatever he had planned, however, changed.By the time he and Mabel landed in Paris, he had fallen in love. He pursued Mabel throughout the summer. In October 1904 Edwin won out. They wed in the village mairie (town hall) of St. Sulpice in the Pyrenees. Their marriage nearly floundered on their Biarritz honeymoon. An unacknowledged conflict—caused by feeling trapped in another marriage—plunged Mabel into depression.
I’m afraid that I did not even try to be cheerful with poor Edwin. In the bleak negative state I was in I must have been terribly hard to put up with.
The atmosphere improved when John and his nurse joined the newlyweds. Edwin took Mabel’s young son swimming in the ocean every day. She watched how they laughed when ocean waves buffeted them. The two “became good friends and allies.”
I wanted, now, a house with a husband in it, a father for John, and some kind of peace.
The Dodges spent the winter on the French Riviera. Then Italy beckoned. Once in Florence, Mabel wished to settle there in a royal residence. “I wanted space around me—an ampleur of sunny space—and no neighbors. Besides I wanted grandeur.” She and Edwin found it in the Villa Curonia.
THE VILLA CURONIA
Built by the Medicis in the 15th century, it met Mabel’s standards of being both majestic and picturesque. The previous owners, Russian Baron de Nolde and his family, named the villa after their home province, Kurland. The Dodges liked the word “Curonia” [Italian for Kurland] and kept the name.
It was a long house running east and west so the one length of it had the southern sunlight, and it had the width of two large rooms. The roof line, facing Florence, arched up in a great false curve…at each corner of the roof there were placed huge terra cotta urns that in the distance looked like exclamation points.
A high special hill of its own in the bottom of a green bowl—that was the lay of the land around the Villa Curonia.
Perched on a hill in Arcentri, “like a crown on the grey-green land,” the north side of the villa overlooked Florence. It offered a viewshed of the “round dome of the cathedral and Giotto’s tower dimly outlined against it.” [Mabel was referring to the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flowers), a masterpiece of early Italian Renaissance architecture completed in 1436 with its renowned red brick dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, and to Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower), a splendid example of Italian Gothic architecture, designed by Giotto di Bondone and begun in 1334.)
Mabel and Edwin divided the villa’s renovation tasks. With his architectural background, he handled the exterior work. Axing his way through a storeroom, Edwin uncovered first a beautiful archway, then a stone column topped by a perfect Corinthian capital. Further excavation uncovered “a perfect cinquecento cortile (fifteenth-century courtyard) of noble proportions.” He had found a pearl hidden in this old Italian villa. As Mabel commented: “What could have been more thrilling for a Beaux Arts man than to find a two-storied Brunelleschi court buried in his house?”
All I realize of it now is that I had turned to beauty…my thoughts were of a life made up of beautiful things, of art, of color, of noble forms, and of ideas and perceptions about these that had been waiting, asleep, within me.
LITTLE YELLOW SALON
In “Making a Home,” a chapter in Mabel’s second memoir, she paints a word portrait of the Villa Curonia. Responsible for furnishing the Dodges’ home, she matched Edwin’s architectural skills with her talent for interior design. A sampling of significant rooms provides an overview.
A black and white photo of the Little Yellow Salon depicts the objects Mabel described. Her narrative adds color. Yellows and greys predominated this eighteenth-century room. The gold chaise lounge flanked a round low table bedecked with the newest books. Several small grey Louis XV chairs served as accent pieces. Over the solid yellow couch she hung portraits of Austrian royalty, offset on the back wall by Italian landscape paintings. Mabel deemed the Little Yellow Salon “the most comfortable, most intimate room in the villa”. The Dodges, and sometimes their guests, sat there over coffee after dejeuner (luncheon). The room was also frequented on winter evenings as it was easier to heat than the Gran’ Salone.
It was here I wrote all my letters except when I wrote them in bed after breakfast–on thick, white paper with a violet monogram inside a silver circle around which Whitman’s words pursued each other: “Do I contradict myself: Very well, then, I contradict myself.”
The Gran’ Salone! How achieved it was! It satisfied something in me. The way the light came in past the full golden red curtains, the way the logs burning in the fireplace threw a golden light on the dark oak floor, the glimpses of the Italian hills one caught from outside the loggia, framed between the pale stone columns…like the backgrounds in early Florentine paintings.
Edwin had built this great room across the whole west end of the villa. It measured ninety feet in length with three high French windows opposite a door. The door opened onto a high, serene loggia (covered exterior corridor) that ran the length of the room. Tall stone columns supported the roof, which in turn formed the loggia for the bedrooms upstairs.
At the end, facing the city, there were windows in a row—the central one forming a door that opened onto the curved stone balcony where one could, as Dante said, “Hang amorously over Florence.”
Following these descriptions, Mabel remarked that despite its enormous size, the gran salone had “a curious intimacy in it: a life. It made one feel happy.” Five wide, curving stone steps provided a dramatic entrance from two other rooms. Tapestries, silk brocade, and red damask—satin on silk—covered the walls. Accented by fireplaces at either end, this “ruby glow” created an atmosphere of warmth and sumptuousness. Italian Renaissance connoisseur Bernard Berenson responded to the room’s perfect proportions. “Ah! No one can build rooms like this any more.”
The gran salone’s brilliant morning light inspired French painter Jacques-Emil Blanche. He chose to place Mabel and her son John in this room for the dual portrait she commissioned. For the occasion, she donned an orange and gold gown fashioned from old damask. The dress hung in heavy folds from the shoulder to the floor. “Great full sleeves slashed open from shoulder to wrist, bound there with a band of gold braid.” An orange and white silk scarf, wound into a turban, and “a long string of amber beads like frozen honey”, completed the ensemble. Mabel looked every bit the Renaissance lady. Kneeling beside her and wearing a blue sweater, John provided a striking contrast to his mother.
The dining room echoed the portrait’s atmosphere. French windows flanked the carved Renaissance fireplace. Five brass lights, hung from an iron bar stretched between two ceiling vaults, provided light for evening dining. Mabel placed six damask-covered, high-backed armchairs and six leather-covered chairs studded with brass nails throughout the room for seating. A round dining table created the room’s centerpiece. Two ornately carved walnut sideboards anchored the back wall.
The Villa Curonia loomed sumptuously about me, heavy, golden—carried so far into perfection, it seemed important to me—a career in itself. I had given so much thought to it—so much time.
Renovation completed, the Dodges could now receive guests. Lady Walburga Paget suggested a reception. As head of English society in Florence, she provided an invitation list. The guests included established English and European royalty. Mabel entertained a la Renaissance with a Medicean feast. She brought out her gilded Venetian glassware, silver dishes, pitchers, goblets and platters. The dining room table was laden with fruit, flowers, and “luxurious things to eat.” Out on the terrace, the guests enjoyed Venetian pitchers filled with punch and fruit, champagne, and coffee served with chocolates and other dolci (sweets). Roses perfumed the air, music and soft light set the tone.
Though tired afterwards, Mabel felt “a little satisfaction at the presence of those figures who had animated the rooms.” The evening’s success launched Mabel’s reputation among the international set of Florence. Together with Edwin, she hosted such diverse international luminaries as Italian actress Eleonore Duse, French novelist Andre Gide, and Pen Browning, son of Robert and Elizabeth. American guests included artists Janet Scudder and Mary Foote, sculptor Jo Davidson, art historian Bernard Berenson (authority on Italian Renaissance paintings and drawings), and sister and brother Gertrude Stein and Leo Stein (proponents of modernism).
Several guests portrayed Mabel. Jo Davidson sculpted her head, Mary Foote painted her portrait. Gertrude Stein wrote a cubist prose piece titled “Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia.” Italian writer Enrico Barfucci’s words reveal Mabel’s Italian persona. “Possessed of…a rich and joyous imagination which turned her life into something nearing poetry,” Mabel was “one of the most vivid personalities in the Florentine cosmopolitan set, which was one of the most intellectually refined of the last hundred years.”
With the Villa Curonia, Mabel succeeded in her mission to recreate the Renaissance. In 1911, after a visit to the Steins’ collection of Picassos, Cezannes and other modern painters, she grew increasingly disenchanted with dead forms of the past. Florence no longer stimulated her. The people bored her. Her life had grown stale. Making arrangements for John’s schooling in the US for fall 1912, the Dodges boarded a steamer bound for New York.
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Author’s note: Just last year I chanced upon a color photo of the Villa Curonia. It appeared in an April 2014 edition of the Wall Street International. The article bore the title Il giardino di Mabel Dodge: un tributo all’umanesimo (“The Garden of Mabel Dodge: A Tribute to Humanism”). I recognized the author’s name. Elena Macellari had contributed an essay on the Villa Curonia’s garden in the book Nello specchio di Mabel (In Mabel’s Mirror, 2011) written by Italian poet Marco Tornar. I contacted Elena to inquire about using her photo. She kindly gave me permission and sent me more images. Elena’s striking photos add depth and color to this piece. And, yes, there is a story here—coming up soon.
Full Credit for Mabel portrait: Jacques-Emile Blanche (French, 1861-1942) Portrait of Mrs. Mabel Dodge and Son, ca. 1911 Oil on canvas, 71 1/16 x 51 3/4 inches (180.42 x 131.45 cm); framed: 90 1/4 x 70 1/2 x 4 inches (229.24 x 179.07 x 10.16 cm) Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, Gift of Mabel Dodge Luhan, 1924 (1924:10) Photograph courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery
SOURCES: European Experiences by Mabel Dodge Luhan. 1st edition, 1935 (Volume Two of Intimate Memories); Intimate Memories: The Autobiography of Mabel Dodge Luhan. Edited by Lois Palken Rudnick, 2014; Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West. Edited by Lois Palken Rudnick and MaLin Wilson-Powell, 2016.