Diary of Daniel Sargent Curtis

Daniel Sargent Curtis (1825–1908), Boston lawyer turned banker, was the only son of Thomas Buckminster Curtis (1795–1871) and his first wife, Maria Osborne (née Sargent, 1803–35). The elder Curtis was the head of the Boston office of Brown Brothers and Co., a New York banking and shipping firm. Both parents descended from well-established New England families. The younger Curtis graduated from Harvard Law School in 1848, but after practicing his profession for a year he joined his father at Brown Brothers on what was intended to be a temporary basis. The move became permanent, however, and in 1863 he succeeded to his father’s position. Ten years earlier, Curtis married Ariana Randolph (née Wormeley, 1833–1922), youngest daughter of Ralph Randolph Wormeley (1785–1852), who was raised and educated in England, though his ancestors were of old Virginia stock. Ariana was born in London and spent the first fifteen years of her life in Europe. The Curtises resided first on Beacon Hill, an old Boston neighborhood, until 1863 when they moved out to the more suburban and more affluent Chestnut Hill. They had two children, both sons: Ralph Wormeley (1854–1922) and Osborne Sargent (1858–1918).1

In 1877 the Curtises having tired of America relocated to Europe and spent the next four years sojourning in various Italian cities, including Venice. According to Richard Lingner, Ariana had long wished to return to Europe, whereas Daniel was motivated by a perceived “breakdown of common decency and the lack of gentlemanly conduct and values among the men of Boston.”2 They decided that Venice answered their need for culture and refined society; so they took a five-year lease on the piano nobile of Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal. In a short time they became one of the three main hosts in the Venetian expatriate community, along with Henry and Enid Layard at Ca’ Capello and Katharine de Kay Bronson at Ca’ Alvisi, all of whom had their one reserved evening a week for entertaining. In 1885 the Curtises bought the second and upper floors of the Palazzo Barbaro and continued in earnest the restoration they had slightly begun as tenants. Some of the late nineteenth century’s leading lights in art and literature paid visits to the Curtises, including John Singer Sargent, a distant cousin of Daniel’s and a friend of his son, Ralph, also a painter; Henry James, who made more than one lengthy stay at the palazzo; and Robert Browning.

The Curtises first met Browning at Venice in the autumn of 1879, probably early October. Daniel later recalled that they were introduced to him on the Lido by William Wetmore Story and his wife (see Curtis’s introduction to the diary). Writing to his sister Mary, after having had a chance to see and hear the famous poet, Curtis observed: “Browning is growing old—but not in mind. He is stout, short, grey of beard & coat. Very frank & manly with clear voice & out spoken way. Simple kindly, genial, but observing & of quick insight. … I see them now all going by up the Canal, Storys & Brownings—to S. Elena probably. Yest[erda]y we went to Lido with them” (13 October 1879, ms at Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice).

During Browning’s 1881 stay in Venice, Curtis began keeping a diary for the specific purpose of recording his friend’s conversations. Browning and his sister, Sarianna, made four more trips to Venice in the autumns of ’83, ’85, ’88, and ’89 (they had planned to travel there in 1882 but were turned back by floods) and Curtis documents all of these visits. At the end of his introduction to the diary, Curtis writes: “All the notes which I have recorded of Mr. Browning’s remarks, reminiscences, and opinions were taken down at once, on the day on which he made them, and while his exact words were fresh in my memory.”

The poet’s conversations ranged over much of his life: from his early school days “at Mr. Ready’s” (Diary, 15 November 1889)3 to calling on George Sand, who “had a lot of men about” and who “Mrs. Browning … went at risk of her life to see” (25 November 1889), to his audience with Queen Victoria—“Carlyle was there and ‘talked to the Queen exactly as he did to all others’”(30 October 1881)—to the reviewer Alfred Austin, who “persistently printed extracts of his (B’s) verses” with “alterations and omissions of words and punctuation” (15 October 1883). In addition to Carlyle and George Sand, Browning’s memories touched on many other leading figures from the world of literature, art, and politics. On Gladstone: “Possessed of a senile ambition to die in office. Lady Aberdeen asked Browning to write an inscription for a portrait [of Gladstone] by Millais … RB declined … on account of his entire disapproval of G’s anti-English policy” (4 November 1889). On Shelley: “Deserted his children, and Eldon rightly refused to restore them to him. Shelley—the biggest liar … cursed his father to his school-fellows. … He was coming out of it when he died. And had he lived, might have been—anything” (15 October 1883). On Swinburne: “I must go to Putney to see Swinburne the first thing when I go back to London– … He is always kind to me. He is good enough to speak of my knowledge—but I believe his is greater” (25 November 1889). On Rossetti (this diary entry was made by Ralph Curtis): “He died miserably—his ideas of right & wrong being, as is often the case, quite obliterated by morphine. … But the sad thing to me is that after his death someone told me that on many occasions he cried ‘what have I done to Browning that even he cuts me now!’ … I could tell you a great deal more, very interesting & very painful” (20 October 1888).

The Curtises thought highly of the aging poet. On more than one occasion he asked Curtis to drop the “Mr.” and call him simply “Browning.” But the diarist demurred, and in an entry of 22 November 1888, he wrote: “I said I shouldn’t mind him, but shd not like to have others hear me. That I call him Mr. B. from respect, not to age, but to the vates sacer [divine poet].” Mrs. Curtis often asked Browning to give poetry readings at Palazzo Barbaro, which he never refused, and when he read elsewhere in Venice, she and her husband invariably attended. After one of these readings, hosted by Katharine Bronson, at which Browning read seven of his poems, including the lengthy “Hervé Riel” and “Andrea del Sarto,” Curtis recorded the following: “He read quite simply & naturally but with variety of expression—& often with a good deal of feeling, emotion even” (18 October 1885). Two others present at this reading were Sir Henry Layard and his wife, Enid, the latter also keeping a diary. Her estimate of Browning’s performance contrasts sharply with that of Curtis’s: “We did not think he read very well or clearly—but I think I understood what he read which I had never been able to do … but I came to the conclusion that it was none of it poetry” (Lady Layard’s Journal, 18 October 1885, ms at British Library).

In the autumn of 1885, Browning entered into negotiations for the purchase of Palazzo Manzoni, situated on the Grand Canal, and he turned to Curtis for assistance. The Curtises themselves had considered buying the same palazzo five years before and had dealt personally with one of the owners, Marchese Rodolfo Montecuccoli. Curtis went with Browning to meet the Marchese on 4 November 1885, and the buyer and seller soon came to terms. However, Montecuccoli and other members of the family who were co-owners failed to honor the agreement, forcing Browning to sue. In the end, the transaction fell apart, which in Curtis’s mind was just as well. In a diary entry of 22 November 1885, he expressed misgivings about Browning’s ambitious plans for the palazzo: “He has not only no doubt or hesitation as to a step so important, at his age & with his not large private means … but is full of elation and conviction, wh. we & other friends of his … can not fully share– He has consulted us as to the means of effecting the purchase, with wh. we have had much to do. But he has never asked our opinion or advice as to the desirability of it—and consequently we have never offered it. Had he done so, we might have expressed the same reasons & doubts wh. prevented us from ourselves buying the Palace, 5 years ago, or since.” Curtis spelled out the “reasons & doubts” in the previous day’s entry when he referred to the amount of money Browning planned to spend on restoration: “Some think this dubious, & the palace too large too old, & too cold, & on wrong side of G[ran]d. Canal.”

When Robert Browning died on 12 December 1889 at Palazzo Rezzonico, his son’s residence in Venice, the Curtises were a great help to the poet’s family. Daniel wrote that night to Pasquale Villari at Florence “as to the probability of obtaining permission of the Authorities to bury Mr. Browning beside his wife.” The next day, Ralph Curtis, at Pen Browning’s request, supervised the casting of Browning’s head and hands and engaged a photographer for pictures of the deceased. The same day, Daniel directed the city officials who called at the palazzo to confirm Browning’s death. On 14 December he wrote: “I went over to Giudecca, to get from our garden some branches of bay-leaves, wh. RBB [Pen] wished made into wreaths to be laid on the coffin.” Mrs. Curtis and Mrs. Bronson made the wreaths, and Ralph designed the damask pall. Daniel described the funeral, which took place on 15 December at Palazzo Rezzonico, and the subsequent removal of the coffin to the isle of San Michele. “Nothing could exceed the beauty of the evening sky and sea– Nor could a poet’s funeral be more graced by Nature. The air was clear, cold, and still when we disembarked and moved in procession thru the cloisters to the Receiving Chapel. We accompanied Mr & Mrs Browning [Pen and his wife, Fannie] throughout. … The place was not displeasing in any way, and there we left our friend to remain till the longer journey to Eng[lan]d” (see diary entries for 12–15 December 1889).

 

Sources

            Curtis’s diary as presented here is compiled from three sources. The first, entries of 30 September–30 October 1881, is a manuscript in the holdings of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice (Rari-Tursi 450).

            The second, entries of 5 October1883–10 October 1885, is a transcript made by Curtis (copied from a diary no longer extant), now at the Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University, Waco, Texas (L0084). This document also contains entries from 18 October through 21 November 1885, which period is part of the third source.

            The third source, entries of 18 October 1885 through 8 October 1891, is a manuscript also at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice (Rari-Tursi 449).

 

Acknowledgements

            We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Rita S. Patteson in preparing the transcriptions. We would also like to express our thanks to the Armstrong Browning Library, of Baylor University and the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice, for permission to mount this electronic edition on the internet.

 

  1. See Richard Lingner, “‘A most singular, original and entertaining couple’: Daniel and Ariana Curtis in Boston and Venice,” Gondola Days: Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Palazzo Barbaro Circle, ed. Elizabeth Anne McCauley, Alan Chong, Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, et al., (Boston, 2004), pp. 54–56. Much of the following information about the Curtises and Palazzo Barbaro comes from this source. We here record our debt to Mr. Lingner’s scholarship.
  2. Lingner, pp. 58 and 59.
  3. All subsequent date references in this paragraph are to Curtis’s diary.

 

Introduction to the Diary

by Daniel Sargent Curtis

The first time we met him was at the Lido, where he was with Mr & Mrs W.W. Story, of Rome, and they introduced us to him. This must have been in 1880—or ’79. Mr & Miss Browning were then living at Hôtel Universo, the Palace next to the Iron Bridge and to the Accademia. We were at Barbier’s, opposite to the Prefettura or Palazzo Corner. The ‘Universo’ was kept by an old couple, Dalmatian, or other, with a title of Count and very poor. The husband was constantly away, sailing his boats on the lagunes, and could hardly be called a ‘landlord.’ His wife did what house-keeping and cookery she knew—which was little enough. The halls and rooms were spacious but bare, and guests few. The food was bad and the cold intense, but Mr. Browning is not difficult and sometimes stays for months in mountain inns, where eggs and milk are the staple bill of fare. They dined with us at Barbier’s, and later at Palazzo Barbaro, and we dined with them, at his old house in Warwick Crescent, on our several visits to London.

It became a habit with us to row over to the Giudecca, after breakfast, and landing at the Church of S. Biagio, now displaced by the Mill of Stücky, to walk as far as S. Giorgio and back, which took forty minutes. I regret not having earlier kept some note of his conversation, anecdotes and reminiscences, always so abundant and so interesting, and illustrating the extent of his knowledge, the many-sidedness of his mind, & the strength of his character. But I well remember that, one morning, as he looked over his letters just received, he handed one to me to read. It was the first proposition and programme for a ‘Browning Society.’ He said, ‘Il me semble que cela frise le ridicule?[’] He received at the same time some doggrel [sic] verses from America, about his poetry. I afterwards knew that these were sent by Miss Maria Potter of New York [sic, Porter of Massachusetts].

All the notes which I have recorded of Mr. Browning’s remarks, reminiscences, and opinions were taken down at once, on the day on which he made them, and while his exact words were fresh in my memory.

 

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