Frenzy and craziness, loud music, masked, disguised, laughing kids and young people all around … Would you ever think this is the right setting for a romance? Have you ever lived one at Carnival?


Tonight, Shrove Tuesday, while (almost) everybody is partying to say good-bye to Carnival before Lent begins, I’d like to tell you about a romance dating back to the 19th century.

The setting – Rome

The time – 24 February, Shrove Tuesday, 1857

The protagonists: Elizabeth (46) Charles Eliot (30)

She, English, was there with her daughters. Her husband at home. She had arrived at Civitavecchia from Marseilles after an exhausting voyage which took more than expected. They reached Rome on 23 February, guests of the Storys, at the Casa Cabrale, at 43, Via San Isidoro, in the same district as the Spanish Steps, the traditional artists’ quarter where John Keats had died in 1821.
The sheer novelty of the scene, the gaiety of the crowds disguised as figures of high romance with their Travestia and masks, completed the spell cast of the spring morning. Mother and daughters were intoxicated with the mere sight and sound of Roman life before ever they tasted it. It was like nothing they had experienced before and they were, then and lastingly, profoundly affected by the place.

The Storys had hired a balcony on the Corso from where to see the Carnival processions and were settled there with their guests when Charles Eliot Norton entered the scene. Meta, one of Elizabeth ‘s daughters recorded the incident many years later:

“The narrow street was filled with a boisterous crowd of Romans, half mad with excitment at the confetti-throwing and horse-racing. Suddenly against this turbulent background there stood out the figure of a young man just below the balcony, smiling up at my mother, whom he knew he was to see there and whom he easily distinguished from the others. It is fifty – three years since that day, and yet even now I can vividly recall the sweet, welcoming expression on the radiant face. He was brought on to the balcony, but how little he and my mother thought m as they greeted one another, that until her death they were to be most true and intimate friends”.

It was instant sympathy what sprang up between those two elected souls: he was the perfect cicerone, she the ideal recipient for every beautiful scene or object he could bring up her notice. The experience can perhaps best be described by the rather old-fashioned expression, Platonic Love. Given the total frankness of her nature, she abandoned herself to it without reservation or scruple, because nothing could conceivably be wrong with it: “it was in those charming Roman days – she would write on her return to England - that my life, at any rate, culminated. I shall never be so happy again. I don’t think I was ever so happy before. My eyes fill with tears when I think of those days, and it is the same with all of us. They were the tip-top point of our lives. The girls may see happier ones – I never shall”

Her husband had remained at home, in England. His name was … Rev. William Gaskell. And yes, she was Elizabeth Gaskell who had already published her Mary Barton (1848) ,Cranford (1851–3), Ruth (1853) and North and South (1854–5) She was already an acclaimed novelists at the time. He was Charles Eliot Norton, American student of art history of which later he became professor at Harvard and was then on his second trip to Europe. In fact, seven years before, in 1850, he had already been introduced to Mrs Gaskell during one of her London visits at the Proctors’ house and had retained a charmed memory of her.

“She is – he later told James Russel Lowell – like the best things in her books; full of generous and tender sympathies, of thoughtful kindness of pleasant humour, of quick appreciation, of utmost simplicity and truthfulness, and uniting with peculiar delicacy and retirement a strength of principle and purpose and straightforwardness of action, such as few women possess”.

(Excerpts from Winifred Gérin, Elizabeth Gaskell, Oxford University Press, 1976)

A real demonstration of love. Maybe Platonic but true sincere love. Did you recognize any of Gaskell’s future characters in this young man so dear to her?

(from an American tourist's  point of view)

For generations the place to be for Carnival was Rome.

European and, eventually, American tourists took in the pre-Lenten celebrations in Rome, often at the end of a winter stay in the city, as part of a "Grand Tour." The New York Times even had correspondents reporting from Carnival in Rome into the 1870s

In his Europa: or, Scenes and society in England, France, Italy, and Switzerland, Bostonian Daniel C. Eddy, a Baptist clergyman, wrote of his travels in a "reminiscence of our pleasant tour".

 In his preface to the travel book, however, Eddy is upfront about his nativist political leanings and his anti-Catholicism (he would be elected as a "Know Nothing" to the state legislature and served as Speaker of the House in Massachusetts):

Carnival in Rome by Bartolomeo Pinelli (1781-1835). Watercolor. Rome, Italy, 1806. Victoria & Albert Museum)

If Italy is ashamed of her bones and beads, crosses and cardinals, her sovereign, with his tiara and his dandy guards, let her enslaved thousands rise and be men again, as were the people of Rome, when even Paul could boast that he was a citizen of that once favored, but now fallen city.

In spite of himself, Eddy, like many other American tourists, found themselves ambivalent and conflicted with the beauty, customs, history, and decay of Rome and the Church. American reactions to Carnival, Lent, and Easter in Rome often brought out that ambivalence. Eddy, in between quotations from Charles Dickens, writes:
The carnival, which continues eight days, and consists of a succession of masquerades, races, balls, and frolicks, is gay, magnificent, and foolish beyond description. The last two days bring out all the people of Rome, and thousands of strangers, who resort to the city for the purpose of seeing the famous sports. ...
The Corso is the broad way, the great thoroughfare of Rome; and it is here that pleasure appears in its most attractive forms. Families lay aside their aristocratic pride, and ride out in their carriages; strangers hire less imposing vehicles; poorer classes on foot crowd the streets, while the windows, verandas, porticoes, and balconies are filled with the delighted spectators. ...
The carriages are filled with men and women, young and old, gay and grave, who are armed with baskets of flowers and piles of confectionery, which they throw at others whom they may meet in the street, in other carriages, on the sidewalks, and at the windows. ...
At night, carriages again fill the Corso, crowded with beauty and life. Each person has a lamp, and the frolic consists in blowing out each one the lamp of his neighbor, and keeping his own burning. The Corso becomes a cloud of fire, which shines out from many a torch and lantern. Red, green, blue, and many a gay color flashes on the wight, until the whole scene becomes one of bewildering beauty. ...
During the carnival, Rome is a sort of paradise--a heaven of gay pleasures; but when the carnival closes, hell begins...These festivals are held to cover up the wretchedness of the masses; but they cannot do it..."

Special thanks to my little fairy, Merryweather!


Luciana said...

Here we hear more about the carnival in Venice, but I suppose they are similar aren't they? Well, I must confess, I HATE carnival. I'm only happy we have almost a week of resting time!

Maria Grazia said...

I must admit I've always hated Carnival and even hated being disguised by my mother as a child! As soon as I could, I definitely refused. I hated it. I still dislike and avoid Carnival crowds and parties but the idea of Mrs Gaskell and the young American art lover being together in Rome during the Carnival celebrations ...I was fond of the idea of a romance between those two! Desperately romantic, I know! So, Luciana, it seems we share something more...

JaneGS said...

Lovely story, Maria. I must admit that when I first started learning about Gaskell, I was a bit put off her when I heard about her alleged "affair" with Charles Eliot Norton. The documentary that I watched made their relationship sound so salacious. After learning more about Gaskell and her open ardent personality, generous nature, and love of life, I understood much better the scope of the relationship and it made sense to me.

I've read about Carnival but coming from Puritan stock never experienced it! :)

BTW, I have awarded you the Happy 101 award...http://janegs.blogspot.com/2010/02/happy-happy-happy.html

Maria Grazia said...

@Jane GS
I'm sure it was just a very special close friendship between two elected souls. Maybe it had some romanitc nuances at first but, as the biographer here quoted wrote, it was a deep Platonic love. Anyhow, romantic.
Thanks for your award. I have to keep on resisting the temptation of getting big -headed!
Have a nice day. MG.

Avalon said...

Very interesting post, you put some time and effort in this one. Great job!