Monday, July 2, 2012

Monday Madwoman: Evelyn Martinengo Cesaresco

I originally discovered Countess Evelyn Martinengo Cesaresco as the author of an essay on Vittoria Accoramboni of The White Devil in her collection Lombard Studies (1902).  (Her picture at left is from that collection.)

Her full name is given as Evelyn Lilian Hazeldine Carrington Martinengo Cesaresco, an Englishwoman encountering Italy in the tradition of Ann Radcliffe or John Webster, in fact an Englishwoman who writes apparently exclusively about the country.  In the early 1880s she came to the palace at Salo as a bride, her father-in-law Count Giuseppe Martinengo Cesaresco.

Sometimes she reminds me of Mary Wortley Montagu:

"Ardent spirits, consumed by spiritual passion, living symbols of the lamp which burns till light and sustenance fail, these do not belong to a single clime or race. A few weeks after witnessing the beatification of Maria Maddalena Martinengo, I was taken by some Mussulman ladies into the beautiful sanctuary-tomb of a Mohammedan woman saint, an uncommon and exceptional favour. While the Turkish ladies chaunted, or rather warbled sotto voce, their sweet-sounding prayers, I made the reflection: 'Here, perhaps, lies one who was a true sister-soul to the youngest of the Blessed!'" (83).

Elsewhere, her travel writings recall Edith Wharton.

She quite often focuses on exceptional women: hers are not histories of men alone.  The beatified ancestor Maria Maddalena, as mentioned above, is discussed in detail.  Vittoria Colonna is mentioned as "the incomparable woman" (78).  

The Palazzo Martinengo at Salo, on the Lake of Garda, is mentioned as her ancestral home; in 1750, Lady Mary called it "the finest place I ever saw."  This provides a link to Accoramboni, "my predecessor here" (131), who is supposed to have taken refuge at the palazzo with her ducal paramour, although the Countess presents herself as recovering the true Accoramboni, a virtuous Victorian whose affair with the duke never had any basis in fact.  Evelyn Martinengo Cesaresco numbers among the adaptors of Webster here with her corrections of The White Devil and her language of restoring historical fact and redeeming Vittoria Accoramboni's name.  

Her discussion of Vittoria's "indomitable courage," especially regarding the death scenes (154) and the suggestion that Vittoria received popular sympathy, ties into discussions of the Duchess of Malfi's Stoicism.

She wrote other works as well: Italian Characters in the Epoch of Unification; Cavour; The Liberation of Italy; Essays in the Study of Folk-Songs, which Oscar Wilde praised in the Pall Mall Gazette (1886): 

"The Countess Martinengo deserves well of all poets, peasants and publishers. Folk-lore is so often treated nowadays merely from the point
of view of the comparative mythologist, that it is really 
delightful to come across a book that deals with the subject simply as literature. For the Folk-tale is the father of all fiction as the Folk-song is the mother of all poetry; and in the games, the tales and the ballads of primitive people it is easy to see the germs of such perfected forms of art as the drama, the novel and the epic. It is, of course, true that the highest expression of life is to be found not in the popular songs, however poetical, of any nation, but in the great masterpieces of self-conscious Art; yet it is pleasant sometimes to leave the summit of Parnassus to look at the wildflowers in the valley, and to turn from the lyre of Apollo to listen to the reed of Pan. We can still listen to it. To this day, the vineyard dressers of Calabria will mock the passer-by with satirical verses as they used to do in the old pagan days, and the peasants of the olive woods of Provence answer each other in amoebæan strains. The Sicilian shepherd has not yet thrown his pipe aside, and the children of modern Greece sing the swallow-song through the villages in springtime, though Theognis is more than two thousand years dead. Nor is this popular poetry merely the rhythmic expression of joy and sorrow; it is in the highest degree imaginative; and taking its inspiration directly from nature it abounds in realistic metaphor and in picturesque and fantastic imagery. It must, of course, be admitted that there is a conventionality of nature as there is a conventionality of art, and that certain forms of utterance are apt to become stereotyped by too constant use; yet, on the whole, it is impossible not to recognize in the Folk-songs that the Countess Martinengo has brought together one strong dominant note of fervent and flawless sincerity. Indeed, it is only in the more terrible dramas of the Elizabethan age that we can find any parallel to the Corsican voceri with their shrill intensity of passion, their awful frenzies of grief and hate. And yet, ardent as the feeling is, the form is nearly always beautiful."

Of course.  Back always to the early modern drama.


  1. Congratulations for an excellent article on a remarkable writer. Her biography of Cavour is superb.

  2. An interesting account of an unusual woman, but this is only one side of her!