Robert Barrett Browning

Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning (1849–1912)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 15, 345–354.

Generally known as “Pen,” the poets’ only child was born on 9 March 1849 in their Florentine home, Casa Guidi, at a quarter past two in the morning. In announcing the event to EBB’s sisters, RB wrote that his wife had been in labor “for more than twenty one hours—during the whole of which time she never once cried out, or shed a tear, acute as the pains were,” and the result was “a fine, strong boy” (letter 2776). Given EBB’s age (forty-three), her chronic respiratory problems, her dependence on morphine, and two previous miscarriages, the baby’s robust health was seen as something of a miracle by both parents. EBB declared to Mrs. Jameson: “You would wonder how such a child could be my child, .. just as I wonder myself. Such large round cheeks, such a superfluity of chins, such a broad chest, and vigorous legs & arms” (letter 2785). In the midst of the Brownings’ happiness, word arrived from England of the death of RB’s mother; she had died just nine days after the birth of their son. While the bereavement hit RB especially hard (EBB’s letters of the period recur frequently to his precarious emotional state), this did not keep either parent from doting on their newborn.

The first twelve years of Pen’s life were exhaustively documented by his mother in her letters. Through these we know at what age he was vaccinated for smallpox (five weeks), cut his first tooth (five months), and contracted his first cold (ten months). We know when and how he was weaned, when he started to walk, what he ate, and where he slept (apart from infancy, in his mother’s room). We know how he came to be nicknamed. The Brownings at first called their son Wiedeman, a name they had chosen to honor RB’s mother, as it was her maiden name (see letter 2800). The child, according to EBB, in trying to pronounce Wiedeman turned it “into Peninny—by an extraordinary resolution of syllables” (letter to Arabella, [12–14 October 1851]). The name Penniny, or more often Penini, was shortened to Peni and finally Pen. Years later, Pen’s own explanation was recorded by William Lyon Phelps: “When he was a child, he stuttered … and in trying to pronounce ‘Nini,’—the name Italians [i.e., Florentines] give their children,—he said, ‘P-n-n-n-nini’” (W.L. Phelps, “Robert Browning as Seen by His Son,” The Century Magazine, January 1913, p. 419).

We know what Pen wore. EBB expended a great deal of thought and energy on his clothing. She admitted freely to Arabella: “I want to show him off. … Robert has been really goodnatured about it, for he has let me give twenty two francs for a black velvet frock … he will look like a picture in it, with his fair skin & bright golden ringlets” (letter dated 25–26 December [1851]). As he grew older, a velvet tunic replaced the velvet frock, the ringlets fell to shoulder length, and a great hat with a feather completed the costume, which remained essentially the same until he left Italy in 1861.

We also know how the poets’ son was educated. Until the age of nine, he was taught solely by his parents. EBB began with brief lessons in reading and writing shortly after his fourth birthday. That she may have wanted to start earlier is indicated in letters to Henrietta. In January 1853, EBB remarked: “Robert wd. hang me up on a tree if I gave him [Pen] lessons.” Then in April 1855 she recalled: “It was not till he was past four that Robert would let me give him regular lessons.” Clearly, neither parent wished to create a prodigy. Two months earlier, EBB warned Henrietta of pushing her son Altham too hard when she began teaching him: “So much I have heard on this subject from thinkers who have considered it deeply, that I am nervous about forwardness in a child—& have been very cautious about my own.” EBB’s reports describing her student’s progress were usually punctuated with accounts of his alternating goodness and naughtiness. For the latter, which took the form of inattention, Pen received only mild punishment (the doubling of lessons), and he often gained clemency by sweetening the teacher with kisses. Pen’s inattentiveness seems unremarkable, however, when one considers that as late as age seven most of his lessons were received on his mother’s knee. Henrietta and EBB naturally compared their pupils’ strengths and weaknesses. Pen lagged well behind in spelling and arithmetic, but soared above his rival in languages. In June 1857, EBB could say to Henrietta that “while Altham begins French, Peni is beginning German”; the latter had already learned French to go along with his fluency in Italian and English. In the same letter EBB announced that he “gets on fast with his music.”

RB had begun giving Pen piano lessons in 1855, but they were interrupted by the Brownings’ travels to London and Paris of that year and 1856. Back in Florence, in the spring of 1857 they engaged Giuseppe Del Bene as Pen’s music master. The motivation their son sometimes lacked in his other studies seemed to vanish when it came to music. In a letter to Jane Wills-Sandford, EBB quoted RB as saying that Pen got on with the piano “like a house on fire” (letter dated [16 November 1857]). In later years, Pen looked back upon his musical education with regret. He told William Lyon Phelps that “it took up a lot of time and did no good” (Phelps, p. 419). Evidently, some of Pen’s new-found powers of concentration were due to the gender of his instructor. When RB lent a hand with some of Pen’s French and English lessons, he noticed that the boy behaved much better than he did with EBB. And Pen himself admitted, in regard to his music lessons, “if I had a lady to teach me, how very naughty I should be” (EBB to Arabella, 12 April 1858). No doubt, the Brownings had this evidence in mind when they decided in late 1859 that it was time for Pen to begin Latin and to repair his deficiencies in arithmetic. They chose a Jesuit priest, Abbé Venturini, EBB telling Arabella that the child “requires a stronger hand than mine sometimes” (25–26 December [1859]). The “stronger hand” seemed to work. Had she lived, EBB planned to follow with Greek in the winter of 1861–62.

It would be difficult to overstate the changes in Pen’s life that resulted from his mother’s death on 29 June 1861. Years later, looking back on that day and the events that followed, he wrote: “I have always remembered the date … as I remember what happened then as if it had been only recently: and the pain and anguish of it all are only too vivid and enduring” (letter to Elizabeth Porter Gould, 26 July 1896). Within a few days of EBB’s death, Pen’s appearance was completely altered, as can be seen from RB’s description of him in a letter to Sarianna: “The golden curls & fantastic dress … gone just as Ba is gone: he has short hair, worn boy-wise, long trowsers, is a common boy all at once” (5 July 1861). The next month Pen was removed from Italy, not to return for twenty-four years. In two more months, he was living in the gloom of London with new servants, new teachers, and without friends, although Aunt Arabella lived nearby.

Soon after relocating to London, RB devoted himself to superintending Pen’s education. Tutors were found for German, music, drawing, and dancing. RB also found a replacement for the Abbé in George Knox Gillespie; to lessons in Latin and mathematics, was added Greek. Although RB was preparing Pen for university, his ultimate aim was explained in a December 1861 letter to James and Julia Martin: “I intend him moreover, you must know (& not smile) for a diplomatist—his mother’s ambition for him.” RB did not send Pen to public school. At first he thought simply to delay it until such time as the boy could show enough proficiency in Latin and Greek to be placed in a higher form. Then it was decided to skip public school altogether. RB knew EBB’s mind on this subject. She had told Henrietta in March 1860 that Pen was “not fit for a school—he would be broken to pieces in it.” RB’s own mind, as expressed to Robert Bulwer Lytton, entertained “a grounded hope that Pen will do well in a School—much better than his previous life would lead one to expect. He is very socially inclined, best wrought upon by rivalry” (letter dated 20 September 1861). RB’s letters over the next five years contain approving references to Pen’s scholastic progress, as well as references to his feats of rowing, skating, fencing, and boxing. But when the time drew near for matriculation at Balliol College, Oxford, it became apparent that there had been too much sporting and not enough studying.

RB might have summarized Pen’s encounter with Oxford in the same way the latter regretted his music lessons: “It took up a lot of time and did no good.” In late March of 1867, Pen travelled to Oxford for a week’s stay with Benjamin Jowett, Regius Professor of Greek at Balliol and the driving force behind that college’s commitment to academic excellence. The purpose of the visit was to give Jowett an opportunity to determine Pen’s strengths and weaknesses in Greek and Latin. On 1 April, he reported his findings to RB. He thought that Pen’s Latin was nearly good enough to pass the entrance examination, “but in Greek he was far behind.” He suggested that matriculation be delayed “until Christmas or at least until October” and recommended a specific, if somewhat daunting, course of study for the next nine months, with the focus on Greek. He also thought it best that Pen should augment Gillespie’s tutelage with an Oxford man. Pen went to stay and study at Oxford on 21 October 1867. At the end of December, the professor reported again: Pen had made progress in Greek but was “unused to writing in English & also deficient in memory.” He thought that Pen might be ready for the exam at the beginning of the Easter Term on 23 April 1868. Obviously, Pen had not been found adequately prepared in October or at Christmas; nor was he ready for the exam in April. Finally, in a letter dated 8 October 1868, nine days prior to the next scheduled exam, Jowett cautiously suggested that Pen take it: “I wish I could say that I thought he was quite certain of getting through. But I see that to accomplish that is a more difficult matter than I supposed. … Still I should advise you to let him go in, because I think that there is more than an even chance of his passing.” He did not pass.

Nevertheless, RB immediately made arrangements for Pen to attend another Oxford college, Christ Church. Its academic standards were not as exacting as Balliol’s, and he easily passed its matriculation exam on 15 January 1869. Pen’s ensuing career at Oxford proved a short one. RB’s hope that his son would be “best wrought upon by rivalry” was fulfilled, in a way. He excelled at sculling and billiards and shooting, but he did less well at his studies. Consequently, on 25 November 1869, he failed to pass Responsions, or “smalls,” the first of three exams required for a B.A. (his cousin and former competitor Altham Cook, who was also at Christ Church, passed). Seven months later, on 17 June 1870, despite some intense studying with his tutor, Evelyn Abbot, Pen failed a second time. On the same day, RB communicated his bitter disappointment to George Moulton-Barrett: “Two months of labor were not enough to overcome nine years of idleness.” Pen might have been given one more chance if his father had pursued it, but he would “not dream of doing so: his [Pen’s] expenses for the last term of residence (scarcely five weeks) were about £170. He cannot be made to see that he should follow any other rule than that of living like the richest and idlest young men of his acquaintance … . You see that all my plans are destroyed.”

However, new plans for Pen’s education were soon formulated. RB again called on Evelyn Abbot, and Pen resumed his studies with him that same summer. The focus turned away from Latin and Greek to something more practical. Reporting to William Surtees Altham ( Cook) in August 1870 that Pen was reading political economy, RB wrote of his revised hopes for him: “I shall see if I cannot secure some Civil Service post which may suit, after all.” Evidently, nothing came of this new direction. The last mention in the correspondence of Pen and his tutor occurs in May 1871. Pen’s next two years are something of a blank. In RB’s letters of the period there are not so many references to him as there were before, and most of these concern either his health or his travels. The father seems to have stopped making plans for his son. Writing from the house of Ernest Benzon ( Schlesinger), near Pitlochry, Scotland, on 1 October 1871, he told Isa Blagden that Pen was “assiduously labouring in that occupation to which Providence apparently hath pleased to call him,—that is, in shooting, idling and diverting himself.” Pen spent a good part of 1872 paying visits, chiefly in Scotland. He was there again in the autumn of 1873, staying at Birnam with John Everett Millais, when a life-changing event occurred. As told by another painter Felix Moscheles, who heard the story from RB, it happened “whilst Millais was painting his picture of ‘Scotch Firs,’ his young friend made a study of the same subject, which gave evidence of so much talent that Millais unhesitatingly advised him to devote himself to art” (Fragments of an Autobiography, 1899, p. 320).

Pen and his father embraced the idea. Moscheles recommended a teacher in Antwerp, a Dutch painter named Jean-Arnould Heyermans. The recommendation was followed, and on 17 January 1874, Pen left London for the Belgian city. Soon, RB was receiving reports from both teacher and student of Pen’s enthusiasm and rapid progress. Idleness had been replaced by diligence, proof of which was gathered by RB himself on a visit to Antwerp in November 1874. On his return, he told Emilia Pattison that Pen was “doing his utmost, & showed such an amount of work … as made his master’s representation quite trustworthy.” Within two years Pen had sold his first painting, “Mademoiselle de Maupin,” (see Reconstruction, K4).

The subsequent launch of Pen’s career as an artist was complicated in 1877 by a romantic involvement in Dinant, Belgium. He had been spending his summers and autumns there, painting outdoors, and became attached to the daughter of a local innkeeper. RB disapproved of the attachment, as he later told F.J. Furnivall, on the grounds that it would hamper Pen’s career (letter dated 5 January 1882). However, he did not tell Furnivall of the bitterness that the affair provoked in both father and son. That information comes from the letters of Joseph Milsand, RB’s closest friend. On 20 October 1877, Milsand wrote to his daughter Claire of his conversation with Pen the day before: “The crisis has come. There is a love affair, a serious one I believe … he had just written to Robert to confess his earnest resolve to marry the girl … . This morning he came and communicated to me his father’s answer. It is full of grief, the marriage will break his heart.” Milsand renewed the subject in a letter to Claire on 21 December: “Pen has left Paris, and the storm has subsided. After a foolish letter of his, his father had made up his mind to give up all intercourse with him, and tell him henceforth to communicate only with an uncle of his … . I hope I have been of some help—on his own side Pen had written a new letter, in which he confessed he had been wrong to send the former one.” The “storm” may have “subsided,” but it still threatened. Writing to Claire from Warwick Crescent on [22] April 1878, Milsand reported that Sarianna and RB were disappointed in Pen for persisting in his affair with the Dinant girl and for running up “extravagant expenses” such as treating her to “breakfast with champagne.” A few days later Milsand wrote again from London: “Pen has come yesterday, I hope I may be of some use to prevent unpleasant frictions. From a word he said he considers himself as ayant plié [“having submitted”], and is consequently displeased that his father should object to his going to Dinant.” Presumably, what Pen submitted to was RB’s wish that his son not marry the innkeeper’s daughter. In RB’s January 1882 letter to Furnivall, he declared that he had “communicated” with the innkeeper and that “the project was dropped on both sides.” But he did not provide details of when he communicated or how the project was dropped; nor is there further explanation in any of Milsand’s extant correspondence. That RB and his son weathered this combative period is apparent from the renewed closeness of their relationship. And although Pen evidently continued to see the girl for some time, Milsand indicates that the affair was over by April 1879 (letter to Claire Blanc-Milsand, 21 April 1879).

Meanwhile, Pen was beginning to enjoy some success as an artist. In April 1878 his painting, “A Worker in Brass” (see Reconstruction, K12), was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and sold for £300. Through 1884, Pen’s works found a place every year at the R.A.; through 1889, nearly every year at the Grosvenor Gallery. In some cases the exhibits were of his sculptures. From January to April of 1882, Pen studied life modelling with Auguste Rodin in Paris and soon after produced a bronze bust entitled “An Italian Model” (see Reconstruction, K73), which was exhibited in 1883 at the R.A. To the same institution, a year later, he submitted a life-size bronze statue of a maiden “Dryope” being fascinated by Apollo in the form of a serpent (see Reconstruction, K76). It was considered indecent and, consequently, not accepted. When it was turned down by the Grosvenor as well, RB interceded on his son’s behalf—with tears in his eyes. Although the Grosvenor had made it a policy not to take any work the R.A. had rejected, for the son of the poet they made an exception (C.E. Hallé, Notes from a Painter’s Life, 1909, pp. 120–121). RB was acting, at this point, as his son’s promoter if not manager. Apart from helping to organize Pen’s public exhibits, RB also assisted with private showings, often seeing personally to the unpacking, storing, and hanging of Pen’s pictures, not to mention the annual flurry of invitations to friends, beckoning them to come and see his son’s productions. He even went so far as to ask the Grosvenor in 1885 to display a portrait of himself that Pen had painted in 1882. It now hangs in the library at Balliol, a gift from the artist (see Reconstruction, K34). Three other portraits of RB by Pen are extant, as well as several copies of a bust modelled in 1886. The copy in bronze was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1888 and won a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle at Paris in 1889 (see Reconstruction, K79). RB would bristle at negative criticism of Pen’s work, especially if he thought the critic unreasonable. In 1886 when R.A. painter John Calcott Horsley took exception to the nudity of “Joan of Arc and the Kingfisher” (see Reconstruction, K43), RB proceeded to attack him through the character of Filippo Baldinucci in Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day (1887).

During the early 1880’s, Pen divided his time between Antwerp, Dinant, and Paris, with periodic visits to London. In late summer of 1885, he returned to Italy for the first time since his mother’s death, travelling to Venice with the intention of taking a studio there. He was instantly smitten with the city. RB wrote of Pen’s “rapturous impression of Venice” to Louise Corkran on 28 September. Less than two months later, he told Mr. and Mrs. Charles Skirrow that he had bought the Palazzo Manzoni on the Grand Canal: “I did this purely for Pen … . I secure him a perfect domicile, every facility for his painting and sculpture.” The seller of the property, however, proved to be difficult, and the sale did not take place. But Pen had made known his desire to live in Italy.

In the summer of 1887, Pen renewed his acquaintance with Fannie Coddington (1853–1935), an American woman he had met years earlier through her cousin Emilie Schlesinger (née Berly), the wife of RB’s friend, Henry Schlesinger (Ernest Benzon’s brother). Fannie, daughter of Thomas and Almira Coddington, well-to-do New Yorkers, was visiting England with her sister Marie. Pen called on Fannie at her hotel in late June, and met her the next month at Hawkwell Place, an estate the Schlesingers were leasing in Pembury, Kent. Soon afterward, Pen proposed marriage. He told his father that it was the second time he had done so, having proposed to her fourteen years earlier. Writing to Pen on 19 August 1887, RB declared: “I do approve of your choice with all my heart: there is no young person I know at all comparable to Miss C. She has every requisite to make you happy and successful.” With RB and his sister Sarianna in attendance, Pen and Fannie were married in the Pembury parish church on 4 October 1887. Following a post-nuptial breakfast hosted by the Schlesingers, the newlyweds left the same day for a three-week honeymoon in Venice, subsequently visiting New York from November to March.

Although RB had hoped that Pen would settle in London, the latter clearly had other plans. After returning from America, he and his wife made their way back to Venice in May 1888. Before long, Pen found a property he wanted, Palazzo Rezzonico, one of the largest private residences on the Grand Canal, which he bought on 3 September 1888. Evidence indicates that the purchase money came from RB. On 14 July, he informed Pen: “I received your letter last night, and have just returned … from the L. & W. Bank where I have arranged everything as you desired. … there is £3000 to your account opened there.” Lady Layard, who resided at nearby Ca’ Capello, also on the Grand Canal, recorded the following in her journal on 11 December 1893: “Mrs Bronson says that Mr Browning [Pen] told her that his father had given him the money to buy the Pal. Rezzonico & the housekeeping was to be paid by his wife.” Upon acquiring the property, Pen began carrying out extensive restorations; these were also paid for by Fannie. Consequently, the couple did not move in to their new home until February of 1889. In the autumn of that year, RB and Sarianna came to stay with them, having previously stopped at Asolo, which Pen saw for the first time while visiting them in early October. In late November, the poet came down with a cold that developed into severe bronchitis, and by the beginning of December he was too weak to leave his bed. He died with Pen at his side on 12 December 1889. It fell to his son to make the decision as to where RB was to be buried. The Protestant Cemetery in Florence, where EBB was buried, had been closed since 1877. According to Evelyn Barclay, an appeal was made to open it for the dead poet. But while Pen waited for a response from Florence, word came from London of the offer of internment in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, and he accepted (BBIS-5, p. 9). A few days after the burial on 31 December, Pen told Mrs. Bloomfield-Moore that he had had the opportunity to move the remains of his mother to the Abbey as well but thought “it would have been against my father’s wishes, and would have displeased the Florentines.”

Following RB’s death, Pen and Fannie’s marriage began to fail. The couple’s attempt to have children ended in two miscarriages, and Fannie’s physical and mental health were apparently affected thereafter. Writing from Marienbad in June 1891, she confided to Lady Layard: “I have had a really serious nervous breakdown.” In 1893 a crisis occurred that culminated in a separation. Briefly, Fannie came to believe that Pen was having an affair with a servant named Ginevra Biagiotti (1870–1923). The latter had been working as an artist’s model in Florence and, according to Lady Layard, posed for Pen when he, his wife, and Sarianna were living there in the winter of 1891–92. Fannie liked the Florentine girl so well that she engaged her as a nurse-companion for herself. While away in England in the summer of 1893, she made the mistake of leaving Ginevra in charge of the Venice household. This was evidently resented by the older servants, and it is assumed that one of them may have sent a report to Fannie, accusing Pen and the girl of having an affair. By most accounts, there was no truth in it. Fannie was convinced, however, and consequently stayed away from Venice and Pen for several years. At the turn of the century, through the mediation of Lady Layard, an attempt was made at a reconciliation. Fannie admitted to her in a letter dated 8 May [1899] that she was now certain her husband had never been intimate with Ginevra. Stubbornness on both sides, however, particularly Pen’s, doomed the effort. He would not live at the Rezzonico with her, and she would not live at Asolo with him. Why she would not might be better understood in the light of Sarianna’s description of the house there, which Pen called “Palazzo Pigsty”: “My nephew inherits his father’s passion for animals, and we live, a kind of happy family, in the midst of monkeys, macaws, parrots, dogs, horses, peacocks, doves, geese, magpies, &c—all on the most familiar and friendly terms” (letter to Louisa Lawrence, 17 December 1898). And she could have added to the list: cats, snakes, pigs and owls. Amid further alienation, the Brownings separated again—this time permanently.

Pen’s career also underwent a change after his father’s death. The only sale of his work traced after 1889 is a copy he made of his last portrait of RB (see Reconstruction, K54). This may be partly attributable to an eye ailment that is occasionally mentioned in Sarianna’s correspondence. The problem seems to have been of a degenerative nature. In May of 1903, Pen wrote to a friend: “I have a serious trouble with my sight: with one eye I can scarcely see, and the other I am forbidden to use.” Still, he continued to paint and sculpt through the 1890’s, Sarianna often referring to his contentment and enthusiasm in these occupations. The abrupt drop in his artistic production may be better explained by the refocussing of his creative energies that began with the purchase and restoration of Palazzo Rezzonico. Here, he at once showed himself to be a capable architect and designer—and talented in ways RB had been unaware of. During the latter’s only stay in the Rezzonico he told George Murray Smith of his surprise at Pen’s “developing so much ability without any sort of experience. What I left, last year, as a dingy cavern is now bright and comfortable in all its quantity of rooms” (6 November 1889). Some two years later Felix Moscheles wrote to Elizabeth Purefoy FitzGerald, declaring Pen’s work “wonderful; such reconstructions are so rarely successful, that one feels doubly grateful for the masterly work he has done and is still doing.” His father’s old friend was also full of praise for renovations Pen had made on a building he had acquired in Asolo, one that RB was attempting to buy at the time of his death, and which he referred to as “Pippa’s Tower.” Pen converted it into a villa of multiple levels and called it “Torricella” (“little tower”). He later used it as a studio. More properties followed: in November 1892 he completed the purchase of a large house in Asolo that included some four acres of land. It was his principal residence for many years and the home of his aforementioned collection of animals. In 1893, he purchased the place of his birth, Casa Guidi; a hill (described as a mountain by Henry James) in Asolo, 1899; and in 1901, a large estate containing some 20 farms outside Florence, La Torre all’Antella. In addition to these squirely pursuits, Pen founded in 1892 a working lace school in Asolo, the students consisting of local peasant girls.

Toward the end of the century, Pen’s relations with his mother’s side of the family became strained. By 1896, there was little communication between him and his Moulton-Barrett uncles, who had been friendly to him during the Brownings’ London visits of 1855 and 1856, and who had hosted him at their country houses throughout the 1860’s. In a February 1896 letter, Alfred writes of his nephew: “Neither my brothers nor myself ever hear or see anything of him.” In 1897, Pen allowed a selection of EBB’s letters to be published by Smith, Elder. Edited by Frederic Kenyon, they appeared as The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Two years later, he permitted the same firm to publish his parents’ courtship letters. The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, to which Pen supplied a prefatory note explaining his decision to publish, outraged his uncles for the unfavourable light cast on their father. Charles John was particularly wroth and sent a stinging letter to The Standard (London), accusing Pen of “a want of delicacy hardly conceivable” and concluding with “few sons, either for gain or love of notoriety, would make public the confidential letters of their mother” (25 April 1899, p. 5).

But for the most part, as shown by his purchase of Casa Guidi, Pen took care to preserve the associations of his childhood and honor his parents’ memories. He converted a chapel in the Rezzonico into a memorial for his mother. Later, he designed the marble slab that was laid over his father’s grave in 1894. Pen also remembered his parents’ servants: Wilson and her husband Ferdinando (now separated), both of whom he was especially close to as a child. During Pen’s stay in Florence in the winter of 1891–92, he found Wilson to be in poor health. He subsequently made a place for her in the household at Asolo. Meanwhile, Ferdinando, the former man-servant at Casa Guidi, had been living in Venice for many years and was heard to be ailing as well; he too was taken on as a retainer. He died in the Rezzonico in 1893; Wilson died at Asolo in 1902. Commenting on her death in a letter to W.H. Griffin, Pen wrote: “for me it was the breaking of the last link but one with the past.” The “last link” was his Aunt Sarianna who, after leaving 29 De Vere Gardens in 1891, had rarely been out of Pen’s company.

Beginning in 1901, nephew and aunt began spending more time near Florence. The purchase of the medieval La Torre all’Antella that year from the Peruzzi family served two purposes for Pen: it allowed him to ease the financial difficulties of his old friend Edith Peruzzi (née Story) and at the same time further indulge his taste for restoration. He transferred most of his parent’s possessions and mementoes to the Torre and eventually many of the furnishings from the Rezzonico. In 1902, Pen acquired Casalino, an estate located in the hills above and adjacent to the Torre. He renovated a country house on the property where he and Sarianna spent the late summer and autumn. The following spring, in her ninetieth year, Sarianna succumbed to the same illness that had taken her brother. She died at the Torre on 22 April 1903. Pen wrote of his aunt’s death: “No one without a personal knowledge of my aunt can realise what the loss of her companionship is to me, being young as she was in every respect but years, and wise with the experience which years alone can give” (letter to F.H. Stead, [ca. 30 April 1903]).

Except for his animals and servants, Pen was now alone. William Lyon Phelps visited him at the Torre in 1904 and found “a short man, like his father, rotund and red-faced, and the red veins traced patterns on his cheeks and brow” (Phelps, p. 417). Palazzo Rezzonico, which had long-ceased to be a residence, was sold in 1906. In August of that year, in a letter to Anne Leigh Smith, Pen described the joys of travelling by automobile (“motoring”) through the countryside. This seemed to be a natural extension of his love of speed. Phelps describes a drive back to Florence from the Torre in Pen’s carriage: “A smart pair of horses, hitched tandem, carried us along at high speed; they were spirited and skittish, but were beautifully handled by my host” (Phelps, p. 420). Recalling a conversation with Pen in 1909 at a Florence hotel, A.J. Armstrong noted that “his chief hobby was his auto … with which he was as charmed as a boy with a new toy” (“Robert Barrett Browning,” Baylor Times, 15 March 1913). Armstrong also commented on Pen’s florid complexion and thought him “excellently preserved, so that I should have said he yet had many years to live.” But in 1911 Pen’s health began to deteriorate. W.C. Cartwright saw him in Florence in May and recorded in his journal: “I do not like his state of health” (ms at Northamptonshire). In November Pen was in bed with bronchitis. At Christmas he returned to Asolo, staying in Casa Scotti, a fairly recent acquisition that he was in the process of restoring. He informed Anne Leigh Smith on 2 March 1912: “I am still very unwell and my health seems to have broken down completely. This asthma has weakened me so that I become breathless after the slightest exertion and even without any, at times.” According to Edith Peruzzi, Pen had been “more or less in bed” since arriving in Asolo and that in addition to asthma “he had neuralgia then his liver was bad then his kidneys then he had an attack of pleurisy—and all these troubles have weakened his dear heart” (letter to A.L. Smith, 30 April [1912]). Edith also mentioned Fannie’s inquiries about Pen and reported that he had said “he should die at once if she came into the room.” In this feeble state Pen roused himself on 7 May to participate in the centenary celebration of his father’s birth, “giving three entertainments in the day & going out in a motor to see the illuminations” (letter from Herbert Young to A.L. Smith, 14 May 1912). But afterwards he continued to sink, and the end came from an asthmatic attack on 8 July 1912. In Pen’s honor, the shops in Asolo were closed and flags flown at half-mast. He was buried in the Santa Anna churchyard, where Wilson had also been buried.

After Pen’s death it was ruled that he had died intestate. Consequently, his property was divided between Fannie and his sixteen Moulton-Barrett cousins, and many of the personal effects that carried an association with his parents were sold in the 1913 auction at Sotheby’s (see Reconstruction, pp. xv–xliii). In 1929, Fannie learned that the cemetery in Asolo was undergoing changes that might involve moving Pen’s grave. That spring, she had his remains exhumed and reinterred just outside Florence, not far from Sarianna’s grave, in the Evangelical cemetery called Gli Allori; that is, “The Laurels.”


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