Silvia Curtoni Verza
She perfectly embodied the eighteenth century spirit. A traveler and Arcadian writer, she imbues a quiet enlightened aura to the city which subsequently permeated Verona for more than half a century. Silvia Curtoni Verza (1751-1835) inherited from her great-uncle Scipione Maffei an inclination for poetry and the arts, an internal drive which unfolded in the rooms of her “Grotta Magica” (“Magic Grotto”), as her salon was affectionately called. Friends, poets, scientists, drawn to the lively rooms of Honorij Palace, sometimes had the privilege to hear Silvia perform. A woman who ultimately promoted culture against the backdrop of deep political shifts, and observed, always with a reserved and calm demeanor, her Verona torn apart by foreign occupations.
Palazzo degli Honorij, 1794. A dim light rests on the salon’s curtains. Beyond the windows, a mist conceals passersby who fill up Piazza Bra. Another Friday is starting. The palace is awakening. The mirrors, already polished by the servants, reflect paintings of rural scenes, eager to observe the room coming to life with people. That evening Monsieur Bienvenu is coming back for his twelfth and last physics and chemistry lesson. A connection between science and culture which has had immense success among the salon’s regulars, something quite different from their previous literary encounters. It is a pity that her friend Ippolito [Pindemonte] couldn’t attend, yet perhaps, Silvia wonders, if she could invite the chemist again, to her countryside villa next summer.
“La grotta magica”
Silvia Curtoni Verza let culture in through her doors, walked through by friends and fellow citizens, whom were passionate about art and literature. Among the regular attendees there were Ippolito Pindemonte, Marco Marioni, Alessandro Carli, and ladies such as Elisabetta Contarini Mosconi, who held her own meetings on Thursdays. A net of relations which spread, not only throughout local life, as it became also a space which hosted some of the most notable contemporary writers, like Ugo Foscolo in 1806 and Vincenzo Monti in 1821.
The “Magic Grotto” additionally represented a place where culture could transcend any conflict. In 1801, following the treaties of Campoformio and Lunéville, through which Napoleon surrendered part of his Italian territories to the Austrians, Verona was now on the border: the river Adige divided the city in two, shared by French on the right side, and Austrians on the left. Still, despite these political transitions, Silvia remained neutral, as the palace continued her highly anticipated gatherings, allowing both factions to participate. Some friends received her decision with a critical and disapproving eye: in fact, Pindemonte wrote about seeing her “surrounded by German officials as if she were a French fortress”.
Silvia’s role in the city left such an influence that in 1819 she was welcomed as an Honorary Member of the Società Letteraria (“Literary Society”), a cornerstone for cultural life in Verona since 1808. She was the first and only woman to be accepted for almost one century.
Since a young age, Silvia attended lessons at the Benedectine monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli (where the homonym Agli Angeli high school is today located); even though she felt deeply inclined to pursue the religious call, her father soon diverted her from her intentions, bringing her back to classical studies.
Scipione Maffei’s legacy would significantly affect young Silvia who, in 1773, entered Arcadia, under the pseudonym Flaminda Caritea. It was her great-uncle, almost seventy years prior, who established an Arcadian colony in Verona. The Academy of Arcadia was founded in Rome in 1690, as a literary academy reacting to the baroque style and promoting a model of classical plain poetry instead.
Silvia’s works were oriented towards the same arcadic model, with many quotations from Dante and references to Latin authors as well as classical mythology. Furthermore, her style introduced new notes, showing a strong pre-romantic taste.
Although Silvia was somewhat reserved when it came to her writings, the second part of her life was dedicated to many publications, also thanks to her healthy competition with Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi. An influential Venetian salonnière, Isabella hosted the most important writers and people of culture of the period, such as Lord Byron, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, Antonio Canova, and Ugo Foscolo, with whom she lived a short and intense love affair.
In 1806, both were intentioned to publish some Ritratti (Portraits), short prose texts that trace the figures of their respective guests. After an initial hesitation, Silvia, in 1807, preceded her rival by some months, receiving her friends’ blessings. Even Isabella wrote a letter to her on the 6th of October, right before her publication, praising her choice of including female portraits:
I know that you will soon publish new Portraits, and I await with that anticipation, and certainty, with which one awaits something good, when one already holds in their hands a warranty; and I find you more brave than myself, for depicting the difficult and perilous traits of women.
Following her first publication, she devoted herself to poetry work – updated through different editions, in 1810, 1812, 1822.
Berenice on stage
Count Alessandro Carli, author of some tragedies and acting scholar, met Silvia in 1774. It was a fruitful friendship, which made Silvia’s talent for theater shine. In the same year, Alessandro founded a small theatre company. As a member, Silvia became a prominent figure, to the extent that she would ultimately select the first play to be staged by the Veronese company. After improving her knowledge of French, she was fascinated by their theatrical tradition, and, in particular, by Racine’s Berenice. For this occasion, Ippolito Pindemonte helped his friend Silvia with the translation, since an adequate edition hadn’t yet been published.
A year later, the company performed Berenice for the aristocracy of Verona who, enraptured by Silvia’s performance, later gave her the nickname “the Queen”, after the first character she played. Silvia participated in the company’s activities until 1778, but her fame endured throughout all her life. In fact, in 1803, more than 20 years after her last appearance on stage, she was invited by Isabella to perform as protagonist for a French tragedy:
I would like if you decided to be Giunia. I would then suggest another equally beautiful role, but I would need to be certain. Come, and pick your laurel wreath on the Adria riverbanks.
Following the European tradition of the Gran Tour, Silvia herself was drawn to the possibility of travelling outside of Verona. Since 1785, she began her first travels in Italy, which led her to the cultural capitals of the period. Her visits were rich with historical and literary echoes. Silvia was escorted through the Italian landscape by nobles and writers across the lands of Dante and Tasso. She visited many universities – such as the campus of Bologna – and she followed the ancient Roman roads.
Between 1786 and 1787 she took a trip to Rome, which she would later fondly remember. There, she met the Roman aristocracy and was invited to the first seat of Arcadia, and was granted the privilege of performing a few of her sonnets, “Nella morte del marito” (“Eulogy to my husband”) and “Alla propria tomba” (“To my tomb”).
After the first wonderful experience in central and southern Italy, Silvia decided to carry out a second tour across the Po valley the following year. She fell in love with Milan and its stylish life. Moreover, in the capital of Lombardia she developed a lively friendship with Giuseppe Parini, who shared parts of his work with her, Il Giorno (“The Day”) and, charmed by the lady of Verona, dedicated a sonnet to her in their following correspondence.
To Silvia Curtoni Verza
Immortal Silvia, even if you shine and nurture
the river of our fathers far away from me;
and even if time leads
every sweet memory to the dark afterlife:
Even after all this time,
you’re still present and alive in my heart
with your high intellect
and your vague features and beautiful eyes
And oft my imagination awakens,
and I see you in the daylight and during dark nights,
and my gaze stops:
and not believing in such Fate
my heart throbs and I scream: the soul of Silvia
must belong to the Muses or to one of the Graces.
BIADEGO, Giuseppe (ed.), Carteggio inedito di una gentildonna veronese, Verona: Tip. Artigianelli 1884.
MARCHI, Gian Paolo, «Salotti veronesi fra Settecento e Ottocento» in LANARO, Paola, SMITH, Alison (ed.), Donne a Verona: una storia della città dal Medioevo ad oggi, Verona: Cierre Edizioni 2012.
MONTANARI, Benassù, Vita di Silvia Curtoni Verza veronese, Verona: coi tipi di Dionigio Ramanzini 1851.
UGLIETTI, Francesco, Una gentildonna veronese tra rivoluzione e restaurazione: Silvia Curtoni Verza 1751-1835, Verona: Archivio Storico Curia Vescovile 1983.