Downing (The Calligraphy Shop, 2003) delivers an illuminating biography of Janet Ross (1842–1927), who led the Anglo-Florentine community through the belle epoque and into the 1920s.
The early-19th-century seekers of wisdom and beauty landed in Florence and rarely ventured into the countryside, preferring to wallow in the culture of the cities and enjoy the affordable cost of living. Ross and her banker husband, Henry, first lived in Egypt for years, where she immediately showed her inherited talent for mixing with the locals and becoming one with her environment. She descended from a matriarchy of independent, self-sufficient women who imbued her with a great sense of self-worth and an inquiring mind and whom she described in Three Generations of English Women. In 1865, the Rosses moved to Florence in post-Risorgimento Italy and found her family’s contacts and her quick ability to learn languages opened all doors for them. They rented a country villa, and Ross soon became the Padrona, working side by side with the peasant farmers and learning to dare una spintarella, or give a nudge, a crucial art in Italy. Her wide network of friends and relations ensured a steady flow of interesting visitors to their last home, Poggio Gherardo. She was not necessarily a personable woman; in fact, she was often rude, ornery and surly, but most put up with her. But her love for Italy and the Tuscan countryside was unquestionably pure. “If our current collective obsession with Tuscany is another version of the ‘sickly love’ of the Anglo-Florentine’s,” writes the author, “Jane’s was a healthy love—measured, skeptical, informed, slow-building, and ultimately deep and more rewarding for all that realism.”
While exploring the life of his human subject, Downing also effectively draws us to visit Tuscany, to stay and absorb its magic.