Pushkin Press, £11.99, 193pp. £10.89 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Light in Between, By Marella Caracciolo Chia, trans. Howard Curtis
Friday 17 December 2010
What happens when a dynamic and bored Italian aristocrat meets the most famous painter of their time? Marella Caracciolo Chia, the author and an Italian aristocrat herself, has found the letters exchanged between the Roman princess Vittoria Colonna and the leading Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni during their short but extremely intense and romantic affair, and has written this biographical study based on them.
Caracciolo Chia was searching for the correspondence between Vittoria and her husband, the eccentric aristocrat Leone Caetani. The couple were married for 20 years – 1901 to 1921, when Leone left Italy to go to Canada with his lover, a cabaret singer, and their daughter. There exists a large number of letters that the two sent to each other. Vittoria was eager to travel abroad in order to enliven her tedious routine, and loved going to London and New York to shop and see her high-society acquaintances: Edward VII and Winston Churchill among them. Leone went to the front, where he fought bravely. He wrote to his energetic wife, who in turn would tell him about her flirtatious relationships.
Vittoria interspersed her travels with long periods spent at her villa on a small island on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy. It was an oasis of peace and quiet for the restless Vittoria, unlike the dark and foreboding Palazzo Caetani in Rome, with her mother-in-law's intrusive presence. Vittoria was used to her family's wonderful Palazzo Colonna, one of the most beautiful examples of Renaissance architecture.
In June 1916 the equally restless and anarchic artist Boccioni, a real "tombeur de femmes", was invited to the island and met Vittoria. It was love at first sight. Their letters are full not only of sensuous passion but also of affection; they demonstrated friendship and mutual respect. "With you everything is possible," writes Umberto to Vittoria. "I am very ambitious for you, now that we are friends," replies the Princess. Boccioni's premature death in August of the same year – a fatal fall from a horse while learning how to mount, contrary to the legendary and courageous death at the front we have all been led to believe - put an abrupt end to this short and passionate love story between two glamorous and noteworthy people.
Caracciolo Chia offers us a wonderful portrait not only of the intellectual exchange between an aristocrat and an artist, but also an insight into European society during the First World War and its cultural transition towards modernity: a rare and enjoyable combination, and a perfect Christmas read.
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