The Countess of Albany and the monument for Vittorio Alfieri

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By Samuele Magri – Art Historian and Tourist Guide in Florence
samuele.firenze@libero.it Phone: 340 5278209

Luisa, the Princess of Stolberg, a Belgian noblewoman of German ancestry, born in 1752, had come to Italy to marry Charles Edward Stuart in 1772, a catholic suitor at the throne of England who was exiled in Italy. After their marriage, they were awarded the title of Counts of Albany, the Pope not wanting to recognize the claim of Stuart to the throne of England; this was the reason why the couple moved from Rome to Florence, in a building known since then as the “Palace of the Pretender” in via Micheli, today the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Florence. This was the city where love blossomed between Luisa and Vittorio Alfieri. Married life was very hard for her because of the big age difference between the two of them and her husband’s alcoholism. Luisa fled to a convent in Florence and then to Rome, where she was approached by Alfieri with great scandal. Later on she lived in France with the literary man, but she never married him, even after the death of her spouse. Because of the dangers that the French Revolution presented, the couple returned to Florence, this time in Palazzo Masetti, on the river bank and remained together until the poet’s death, which occurred in 1803. During her relationship with Alfieri and even after, until her death in 1824, the countess had a lounge attended by leading cultural figures of the time, such as Chateaubriand, Byron, Canova, Foscolo and the painter Fabre, her last love. Vittorio Alfieri died on October 8, 1803, failing to have a priest at his side at the time of death. He had been a well-known disbeliever and it seems that, before going to his bed side, the contacted religious figure, having doubts, went to seek advice from the bishop, finding the poet dead on his return. Alfieri was very celebrated in those times, and having written tragedies in which the heroes were fighting against the tyrants, he was seen as an example for young writers who were abandoning the neoclassical grace for a more romantic tension created out of idealistic struggles. It is therefore understandable why the Countess of Albany was determined to place the funerary monument of the poet in Santa Croce, along with those of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli, a politician who he admired deeply. The first obstacle to overcome was the ecclesiastical opposition: the poet being famous for his skeptical and libertarian spirit, it was considered inappropriate to build him a monument in a church, and also the project was being conceived by the woman with whom he had lived his entire life without being properly married. This resistance was overcome thanks to the approval of the Queen of Etruria, Maria Luisa of Bourbon (Tuscany then was no longer ruled by the Grand Duchy of Lorraine but by the United Etruria governed by the Bourbons). All that was let was to find a sculptor, suited to express the greatness of the deceased and she immediately thought of Antonio Canova, one of the most celebrated living artists of the time, and contacted him through the director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. Unfortunately, Canova said that he could not accept because of the many commitments he had. The Countess didn’t lose faith and contacted one of the most influential people of Rome, Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, not only secretary of Pope Pius VII, but also a good friend of the sculptor, asking him to petition the artist on her behalf. Canova accepted the job. The monument was finished after seven years, depicting Italy weeping at the tomb of the artist (perhaps the first depiction of the beautiful country in a sculpture), and it was inaugurated on September 27, 1810, creating further scandal because of the epitaph, which named Countess d ‘Albany to have been his partner. However, Luisa was not present because she was found in exile in Paris. The countess returned to Florence only in 1811, being finally able to enjoy the funeral monument for which she had worked so hard and she was very pleased. Today she rests in Santa Croce too, in the Castellani Chapel.

Italiano

Luisa, principessa di Stolberg, nobildonna belga di stirpe tedesca nata nel 1752, era giunta in Italia per sposare nel 1772 Carlo Edoardo Stuart, pretendente cattolico al trono d’Inghilterra in esilio in Italia. Dopo il matrimonio vennero insigniti del titolo di Conti di Albany, non riconoscendo il Papa le pretese dello Stuart al trono d’Inghilterra; per questo la coppia si trasferì da Roma a Firenze nell’edificio da allora noto come “Palazzo del Pretendente” in via Micheli, oggi Facoltà di Architettura dell’Università di Firenze. In questa città sbocciò l’amore tra Luisa e Vittorio Alfieri. La vita matrimoniale era per lei durissima a causa della grande differenza di età tra i due coniugi e dell’alcolismo del marito. Luisa fuggì in convento a Firenze e poi a Roma, dove fu raggiunta da Alfieri con grande scandalo. Successivamente visse in Francia con il letterato, ma non lo sposò mai, neppure dopo la morte del coniuge. A causa dei pericoli della Rivoluzione Francese la coppia ritornò a Firenze, questa volta presso Palazzo Masetti sul Lungarno e rimase unita fino alla morte del poeta, sopraggiunta nel 1803. Durante la sua relazione con Alfieri e anche dopo, fino alla morte nel 1824, la contessa ebbe un salotto frequentato dai più importanti personaggi della cultura del tempo, ad esempio Chateaubriand, Byron, Canova, Foscolo e il pittore Fabre, suo ultimo amore. Vittorio Alfieri morì l’8 ottobre 1803, non riuscendo ad avere un sacerdote al momento del trapasso. Era stato un noto miscredente e pare che, prima di recarsi da lui, il religioso contattato, preso da scrupoli, sia andato a chiedere consiglio al vescovo, col risultato di trovare il poeta ormai morto al suo ritorno. Alfieri era molto celebrato all’epoca e avendo scritto tragedie in cui gli eroi erano in lotta contro i tiranni, veniva visto come un esempio per i giovani letterati che abbandonavano la grazia neoclassica per una tensione romantica fatta di grandi lotte ideali. È quindi comprensibile il motivo per cui la Contessa d’Albany fosse determinata a porre il monumento funebre del poeta proprio a Santa Croce, per collocarlo insieme a quelli di Michelangelo, Galileo e Machiavelli, politico questo da lui tanto ammirato. Il primo ostacolo da superare fu l’opposizione ecclesiastica: essendo il poeta famoso per il suo spirito scettico e libertario, non era considerato opportuno erigergli un monumento in una chiesa, e inoltre il progetto era stato ideato dalla donna con cui egli aveva convissuto tutta la vita senza un regolare matrimonio. Questa opposizione fu vinta grazie all’approvazione della Regina d’Etruria Maria Luisa di Borbone (la Toscana allora non era più Granducato retto dai Lorena ma Regno di Etruria governato dai Borbone). Ora occorreva trovare lo scultore adatto a esprimere la grandezza del defunto e si pensò subito ad Antonio Canova, uno degli artisti viventi più celebri dell’epoca, contattato tramite il direttore dell’Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze. Purtroppo Canova rispose che, a causa dei molti impegni, non poteva accettare. La Contessa non si perse d’animo e contattò uno dei personaggi più influenti di Roma, il cardinale Ercole Consalvi, non solo segretario di papa Pio VII ma anche buon amico dello scultore, per inviare attraverso di lui una supplica all’artista.

Canova accettò l’incarico. In sette anni venne realizzato il monumento raffigurante l’Italia che piange presso la tomba dell’artista (forse la prima raffigurazione del Bel Paese in una scultura), inaugurato il 27 settembre 1810, con ulteriore scandalo dovuto all’epitaffio che nominava la contessa d’Albany che era stata sua convivente. Luisa però non era presente perché in esilio a Parigi. La contessa ritornò a Firenze solo nel 1811, potendo così finalmente ammirare il sepolcro per cui tanto si era adoperata e ne restò soddisfatta. Oggi anche lei riposa a Santa Croce nella cappella Castellani

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