Handwritten letter from Vernon Lee inviting friends to her home
The unpretentious charisma and domestic harmony of Il Palmerino has always been appealing to visitors. When writer Vernon Lee and her family lived on the property, its vocation for hospitality would find its greatest form of expression.
Lee would host a literary salon at Il Palmerino every Thursday afternoon, which brought together the leading international intellectual figures visiting Florence. At the turn of the twentieth century, the house was a regular stop for those travelling through Italy on their Grand Tour revivals, during which people preferred to stay in the villas of friends, rather than frequent anonymous guesthouses for foreigners. Vernon Lee, who could speak five languages fluently (English, Italian, French, German and Polish), was undoubtedly the right person to present guests to the Italian community, introducing them to the leading figures that populated the city’s cultural life.
The friendships Lee cultivated with families living in the area, whose homes dotted the hills of Fiesole, gave rise to a network of cultural exchanges and opportunities that helped the cosmopolitan culture of the time to thrive. It is not uncommon to find some of Vernon Lee’s most frequent visitors inside the pages of her novels and novellas, which would spark a fair amount criticism from those directly involved, who were not always happy to find themselves described in her literary works.
John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925) was an American painter and portraitist born in Florence. While he is considered by many to be one the greatest portraitists of his time, he also painted landscapes inspired by his travels throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. He was a lifelong friend of Vernon Lee.
Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was an Irish writer, poet, playwright, journalist, essayist, and literary critic. He is perhaps most well known for his 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey. Another particular area of literary success that Wilde found was in social dramas. In the late 19th century, Wilde was a spokesman for the Aesthetic movement in England.
Henry James (1843 – 1916) was an American novelist and critic. He is perhaps most well known for his novel, The Portrait of a Lady (1881). He is the brother of psychologist William James.
William James (1842 - 1910) was an Irish-born American psychologist and philosopher. He is known for pioneering what would come to be known as functionalism.
Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) was a British writer and essayist who was a part of the Bloomsbury group and also an activist who was engaged in efforts for promoting equality between men and women. She is considered one of the most important 20th-century modernist authors and was pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device.
Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was an American writer and poet. Growing up in the upper-class New York "aristocracy," she aims to accurately portray its lives and morals in her novels. In 1921, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Age of Innocence. She wrote over 40 books during her career, including authoritative works on architecture, gardens, interior design, and travel (notably including Italy).
Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) was an American impressionist painter and printmaker, a great portion of her work depicting the private life of women and the mother child relationship.
Mario Praz (1896-1982) was an Italian writer, essayist, literary critic, translator and journalist. He graduated with a degree in International Law in Rome and then a degree in Literature in Florence in 1920. In Florence, he came into contact with the colony of English aristocrats living in the city, bonding especially with Vernon Lee. Visits to the Palmerino greatly influenced Praz's education and artistic and aesthetic thinking.
Gaetano Salvemini (1873-1957) was an Italian historian and anti-fascist politician. After graduating with a degree in Literature from Florence, he began his academic career as a professor of history in Pisa and then in Florence. Salvemini joined the meridionalist and federalist current of the Italian Socialist Party and had economic positions of liberal socialism.
Telemaco Signorini (1835-1901) was one of the leading painters of the Florentine artistic group, the Macchiaioli, an important 19th-century Italian painting movement. With the exception of a few brief sojourns and exhibitions in Paris, Signorini lived and worked exclusively in Florence, also writing critical essays for various Florentine cultural magazines, and meeting with the other painters of the group at the Caffè Michelangiolo in Florence.
Rina Faccio, aka "Sibilla Aleramo" (1876-1960) was a feminist writer, poet, and journalist. In fact, she was one of the most important Italian authors of the early 20th century. She was a lover of well-known Italian writer Giovanni Cena.
Giovanni Cena (1870 - 1917) was an Italian novelist and poet. He was the director of the prestigious newspaper “La Nuova Antologia.” Together with his lover Sibilia Aleramo, another famous Italian writer, he would fight for the rehabilitation and literacy of the inhabitants of the Roman countryside.
Cesare Pascarella (1858-1940) was an Italian painter and poet admired by Benedetto Croce and Giosuè Carducci. Pascarella studied in a seminary and at the Istituto delle Belle arti di Roma. Some of his most well-konwn works include "Villa Gloria” of 1886, (celebrated by Carducci) and "The Discovery of America" of 1894.
Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) was one of the most important art historians of the 20th century. He is particularly interested in Italian artists and moved to Italy in 1890. A central concept in Berenson's complex aesthetic thinking was that of so-called "tactile values," an element that would be the focus of a bilious controversy with Vernon Lee.
Maurice Baring (1874 - 1945) was an English scholar, writer, playwright, poet, novelist and journalist. He wrote travel books, political dramas, and also texts on Russian culture and history in addition to novels, essays, poems, and parodies.
Ethel Smyth (1858 - 1944) was a renowned English composer and a member of the women's suffrage movement. She faced struggles in the field of composition being a woman; however, she created many pieces including songs, works for piano, chamber music, orchestral works, choral works and operas and found great success, so much that in 1922, she was the first female composer to receive damehood.
World-renowned celebrities of the day were among Lee’s guests, such as Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Edith Wharton, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. Yet, the less prominent figures who frequented the house or with whom Lee corresponded copiously are equally interesting in their own right. In short, the lives of these men and women intertwine and reconstruct a historical period of great change, profound transformations and political conflicts, leaving their mark on posterity and impacting the history of Italy, Europe, and farther afield.
Among her many guests, several are worthy of mention, including Mario Praz, an internationally renowned Italian Anglicist, whose early works were forged in Lee’s shadow and with the English writer’s staunch encouragement. Another important figure who sojourned at Il Palmerino for almost a year and a half was the young Maria Waser, poet and psychologist. She came to Il Palmerino to receive artistic and cultural training from Vernon Lee. A very young Gaetano Salvemini frequented Il Palmerino, starting in 1896, the year he earned his degree in Literature.
In early 1925, the young artist couple André and Berthe Noufflard would visit Il Palmerino for the first time. Amy (Emily) Turton came to Il Palmerino in February 1895, and would later play a leading role in founding Italy’s first nursing schools. The arrival of poet Sibilla Aleramo, together with writer Giovanni Cena, who was also editor-in-chief of the magazine Nuova Antologia, is documented in this period. American writers and artists visited Il Palmerino as well, including Alice Eliot, Annie Adams Field and illustrator and painter Joseph Pennel. Notable Italians include the likes of Carlo Placci, Francesco Protonotari, Telemaco Signorini and Enrico Nencioni.