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Princess Alice of Hesse: A British Princess’s trip to Italy

In the spring of 1873, Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Alice, Princess of Great Britain and Ireland and Princess of Hesse by marriage, set out to visit Italy. It was the fulfilment of a life’s dream. Certainly, it was an entirely new experience of travel for her, in marked contrast to the type of holidays that she had made up until this point in her life.

Due to the financial constraints of her family and the outbreak of conflict over the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein as well as the Franco-Prussian War, Princess Alice’s travels had until this point at least, been more or less limited to family visits within Germany – as witnessed by her sojourns in Dresden and Potsdam in 1869 – or the usual visits to Windsor, Osborne and Balmoral to see the Queen. Towards the end of 1869, Princess Alice joined her sister, Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia in Cannes whilst their two husbands, Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia and Prince Louis of Hesse travelled to the East for the opening of the Suez Canal. Gradually, as her children were born, the emphasis on ‘family holidays’ grew to be the primary focus of her travels, which is reflected in the choices of Houlgate in Normandy and Blankenberghe in 1871.

The stay at Eastbourne in the summer of 1878 would be the last that Princess Alice’s family would enjoy together, again a trip to the British seaside. But this trip to Italy was to be a very different holiday for Alice. It would stimulate her both culturally and intellectually and prove to be a journey that she was never destined to forget, whose echoes would be felt much later by her children.

Princess Alice of Hesse, 1870s (PeterSymonds [United States Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

It was, of course, the country whose art her father, Prince Albert had so profoundly admired – Raphael being the artist he considered the greatest of all time. Queen Victoria would herself visit Italy, seeing some of the sights that Princess Alice had seen, developing a preferred love of the country in her own right, visiting Florence for example, in 1888, 1893 and 1894. She had herself been examined by her Principal Master the Rev. George Davys, later Bishop of Peterborough, as a child at Kensington Palace aged four, where he noted as part of his examination of her that she had learned to speak “a little” Italian. She must have persevered with the language, as Lord Melbourne, her Prime Minister, later wrote that she “understands Italian”. One senses that the Queen’s conscious – and curious – discovery of Italy may have had its origin in the profound admiration that the Prince Consort had expressed for its art and culture, the Prince having completed his own ‘ Grand Tour’ back in 1838.

But the beauty of Italy indeed struck a genuine chord with the Queen. This last point was stressed somewhat defensively in a comment made to her exceptionally gifted eldest daughter Victoria – who for example, made a copy in oils of Rembrandt’s famous portrait of his mother – now Empress Frederick of Germany, that she was “quite wrong” to suppose that the Queen did not care for art and that she “delighted in the treasures of art to be seen to such great advantage [there]”.

However, the possible aesthetic closeness which Queen Victoria may have gained to the Prince Consort through her trips to Italy is illustrated by a touching anecdote later recounted by the Hon. George Peel in conversation with Sir Harold Nicholson. It described the Queen drawing out a locket from her corsage and holding it up to the façade of the famous Duomo in Florence. A lady-in-waiting later explained to the confused Peel that the locket in question contained an image of the Prince Consort and that the Queen had held it up to the Duomo so that the Prince might posthumously see the improvements that had been made during its restoration.

Prince Albert’s support of the movement to revive fresco painting again harked back to his deep admiration of early Italian art, which as Chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission, was something he was keen to encourage. Princess Alice knew her father’s Dressing, and Writing Room at Osborne House represented his love of the art which contained early Renaissance pictures, including works by the artists Mantegna, Bellini and Fra Angelico. Prince Albert had stayed at the Casa Gherini in Florence – which Queen Victoria passed in 1888 – recalling his admiration of the sculpture of Donatello as she did so. Prince Albert had also played the organ in the Badia and hired a piano in Florence, which was the only one he could find and which had been sadly out of tune.

The Neues Palais in Darmstadt (By Illustrated London News [United States Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Princess Alice was, therefore, following quite literally, in the footsteps of Prince Albert, who must certainly have discussed Italian art with Alice. It is important to note that Princess Alice’s sitting-room in the Neues Palais in Darmstadt contained a copy of Raphael’s ‘Disputa’, something that Alice directly referred to in her letters before making the trip to Italy. Alice was also herself a highly accomplished artist, making skilled sketches as well as extremely well-executed watercolours, some of which still survive in The Royal Collection.

The original of Raphael’s famous painting, ‘Disputation of Holy Sacrament’ (1509-10) in the Vatican Museums (Raphael [United States Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Princess Alice set out for Italy in the spring of 1873. As early as February, she had detailed in a letter to Queen Victoria from Darmstadt, that alongside planning for her journey, she was also preparing for it in cultural terms too, studying the history and art of Italy more closely and even learning Italian. She had given birth to her penultimate child, Princess Alix of Hesse in the summer of the previous year, and at the time of her departure, her anxiety over her beloved haemophiliac second son, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm “Frittie” of Hesse, was less pronounced, as he seemed well again. The Darmstadt clergyman Dr. Sell confirmed that the March trip to Italy undertaken by Princess Alice had indeed been a dream of hers: “Her journey had been one of thorough enjoyment, and she felt deeply grateful that she had at last been able to see with her own eyes those glorious works of art, which from her childhood she had only been able to picture dimly to herself.” Princess Alice was accompanied by a Miss Hardinge and Hofrath Ruland.

Alice’s trip was made incognito, which would have initially enriched her impressions, for one who was so interested in matters concerned with social reform and nursing, as she had demonstrated back home in Darmstadt – but this was soon guessed at: “Our incognito did not last long (though even now we maintain it…”

She travelled to Italy via Munich, where she spent two days and paid a visit to the Dowager Queen Marie of Bavaria and also met King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Prince Otto. Her route went via the snow-covered Brenner Pass and Bologna where she spent the morning, waiting three hours to catch the night train at Florence, reaching Rome at six o’clock the next morning. She stayed at the fashionable Hotel d’Allemagne.

King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy, ca. 1860 (Jordiferro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

We can judge from Alice’s letters to the Queen, how deeply the visit to Rome impressed her and appealed to her artistic sensibilities. She wrote to the Queen, “every day I admire the scenery more and more; every little bit of architecture, broken or whole, with a glimpse of the Campagna… it is a picture in itself which one would like to frame and hang up in one’s room. It is too, too beautiful!”  Even the route into Rome merited a poetic description: “the Via Appia…. along which St. Paul went… it is a fit one to lead to such a city as Rome, which ruled the world….” Soon after her arrival, her incognito was discovered, and she was promptly invited to the Quirinal by the Crown Prince and Princess of Italy, meeting King Victor Emmanuel II. Alice drove with the Crown Princess of Italy through Rome on the celebration of Rome’s ‘birthday’, seeing the illumination of the Capitol, the Forum and the Colosseum. During Queen Victoria’s visit to Italy in 1893, the Queen witnessed the Silver Wedding Celebrations of the then Crown and Crown Princess of Italy, now King Umberto I and Queen Margherita.

Pope Pius IX, painted by the artist George Peter Alexander Healy in 1871, two years before Princess Alice’s visit (George Peter Alexander Healy, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Alice spent Palm Sunday in Rome, celebrating the feast day by witnessing the Mass and blessing of the Palms at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City.  She was escorted by Cardinal Howard over St. Peter’s Basilica and celebrated Easter service at the German Embassy. She paid a visit to Pope Pius IX, who remarked to her – in French: “The blessings of an old man always bring good”.

Alice also visited the Roman ruins, the catacombs of San Callisto and the church of San Clemente. She was conducted over the sixteenth-century Villa Farnesina in Rome’s Trastevere district by the Spanish Ambassador in Rome, Bermudez de Castro, Duke of Ripalta, whose residence it was. As if to emphasise her sense of sentiment, Alice mentioned in a letter to Queen Victoria of having visited the Sepolte Vita convent, which had been visited only recently by the Prince and Princess of Wales in their turn, and much earlier by Queen Victoria’s beloved half-sister Feodore, Princess of Leiningen. It was clear that Alice was also encountering Italy based on more previous, familial impressions.

At the visits to the Vatican and Capitol, Alice detailed having seen: “The celebrated Venus, Apollo Belvedere, the Torso (which Michaelangelo admired so much…), the wounded Gladiator, &c., are there….” We might detect a subconscious desire to communicate all this to her father, the Prince Consort when we read: “Raphael’s Stanze is far better preserved and lighter than I had expected, and of such beauty!…” This was all the more so because the next passage in Alice’s letter to Queen Victoria directly mentions Prince Albert:“I thought so often and so much of dear Papa, when I saw the originals of all the pictures he so much admired and took such interest in… I can see in many things where dear Papa got his ideas from for Osborne and for his decorations…” As if to emphasise the memory of the Prince Consort’s Dressing and Writing Room at Osborne House again, Alice went on to say that the Villa Doria Pamphili reminded her greatly of the terraces at Osborne. Hofrat Ruland appears to have been throughout all this, a cultural ‘Cicerone’, who accompanied the Princess on her visits to galleries, “for pictures and sculptures”.

The Villa Farnesina, (Baldassare Peruzzi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A pleasant surprise was that her brother-in-law Prince Wilhelm of Hesse joined them in Rome, whose artistic expertise must have been welcome: “He is quite a connoisseur in art and a good historian, quite at home in Rome, about which he raves…” Another family visit awaited with the invitation of Empress Marie Alexandrovna of Russia – daughter of Grand Duke Ludwig II of Hesse – to visit her in Sorrento. She saw the Blue Grotto at Capri from the yacht of Empress Marie Alexandrovna, together with Prince Charles of Hesse and several of the ladies and gentlemen from their various entourages. During Alice’s stay, she visited the multiple Villas of Albani, Ludovisi and Borghese.

The gardens of the Villa Ludovisi in Rome, painted by Ettore Roesler Franz, 1880s. (Ettore Roesler Franz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A particularly pleasant episode for Alice was the celebration of her thirtieth birthday in Florence, which she reached on the 23rd April, two days beforehand. Princess Alice wrote from Florence to the Queen, words which the Queen would readily have agreed with some fifteen years later: “Florence seems a beautiful town, and the situation amongst the hills, over which the suburbs spread, is most picturesque…” She travelled via Perugia and Lake Thrasimene, through the Arno Valley. She visited the Uffizi and Pitti Palaces, the Medici graves in San Lorenzo, St. Mark’s Convent, the Duomo, the Church of Santa Croce and the Museo Nazionale.

In contrast to Queen Victoria, Alice did not mention Prince Albert’s own time spent in Florence or having seen the Casa Gherini, where he stayed, which no longer exists. Alice remained in Florence for some three or four days, declining a trip to Naples, suggesting she would go instead for a few days to Castellammare and from there to Sorrento and Pompeii, then returning to Rome. She described the Bay of Naples lyrically instead: “The Bay of Naples, particularly seen from Sorrento, is most lovely – like a beautiful dream…” Again, with her strong sense of family ties, Alice enclosed flowers from Florence inside her letter to Queen Victoria. The return route after this trip – the greatest in Alice’s life, in cultural terms – traced its way back via Verona where she spent the night, then directly back to Darmstadt by way of Munich.

Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Hesse (1870-73) (Tuga9890,http://forum.alexanderpalace.org [United States Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Princess Alice arrived back in Darmstadt on 2 May 1873. She had deeply missed her children and her home: “though we see such fine, interesting things, yet I feel very homesick for the dear children always. In three weeks or less, I shall see them again… I am so rarely separated from them, and we live so much together.” However, barely three weeks after her return, a tragic event occurred, the effects of which Princess Alice never truly recovered from.

On 29 May, whilst her children were at play and her eldest son Prince Ernst Ludwig “Ernie” was running in the next room, the younger son, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm “Frittie” was left in her bedroom. The little boy fell from her window, perhaps from not being able to stop running himself and having broken his fall against the glass, down onto the stone terrace of the Neues Palais below. His unconscious body was recovered moments later, and after only a few hours, he died in the arms of his distracted mother. For this beloved haemophiliac child, there could have been no hope, bleeding on the brain being pronounced the cause of his swift death. Princess Alice, utterly distraught, was heartbroken. For her, so recently buoyed up and enriched by her Italian journey, this event sapped the emotional energy that the trip had so greatly helped to recharge.

The Uffizi Gallery (By Chris Wee [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Princess Alice’s journey to Italy seems to have found a later resonation in the lives of all of her surviving children, after her death in 1878. Even allowing for the artistic tutelage of Italy on any undertaking of what was the established ‘Grand Tour’, there appears to have been more than cultural curiosity behind the trips that each of them made.

With the permission of their father, Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse, Princesses Victoria, Elizabeth “Ella” and Irene of Hesse undertook their own three-week long Italian journey in October 1882. A glance at their itinerary makes the question as to whether this Italian trip was made perhaps even subconsciously with their mother in mind, a profoundly interesting one to consider. Her elder daughters visited Milan – unlike their mother, Princess Alice – and admired the cathedral. Whilst in Florence, they visited – as Princess Alice herself had done – the Uffizi and Pitti galleries, making an excursion to Fiesole. Princess Victoria admired Florence most, but Princess Irene preferred Venice.

The time in Venice was spent with buying souvenirs and visiting the city’s churches and galleries, with the afternoons reserved for gondola rides. As Princess Elizabeth “Ella” confided to her grandmother Queen Victoria, in a strange echo of her mother’s ambition, “Of all the countries in the world Italy was the one I longed to see…” The desire to get to Italy had clearly been a long-cherished one for her as it had been for her mother; indeed, it is easy to see how the country, so culturally wealthy in literature, art and architecture, with its fabled beauty and ancient sites, would have appealed to the artistically sensitive children of Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse, with Florence being the cradle of their maternal grandfather, Prince Albert’s beloved Renaissance.

The Palazzo Pitti, Florence (By Giovanni Dall’Orto (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons)

Even as early as 1880, Queen Victoria had written to Princess Alice’s eldest daughter, Princess Victoria: “I am so glad to hear that you are getting on with Italian.” Princess Elizabeth “Ella” is known to have been acquiring a knowledge of both Italian and Latin in around 1883 – a year after her Italian journey – in addition to the customary French and her fluent command of both German and English, the mother tongues of both her parents. We can imagine how the curiosity of the siblings would have been aroused by the inspection of the souvenirs and mosaics that the elder sisters brought back from Italy, which then most probably found their way into the furnishings of their rooms in the Neues Palais, as reminiscences of their grand Italian tour and later into their own castles and palaces, when they married. In a strange turn of fate, Grand Dukes Sergei Alexandrovich and Paul Alexandrovich of Russia paid a visit to their cousins in Darmstadt at the end of 1882; having made their Italian tour and stopping in Germany en route back home to St. Petersburg.

Princess Elizabeth “Ella” wrote to Queen Victoria that the Russian Grand Dukes had visited the same Italian cities as they had and Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich knew Italian fluently enough to read Dante in the original. In February 1891, a costume ball was held in the Darmstadt court theatre, which featured Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse dressed as a Knight of the Garter, whilst Princess Alix and Prince Ernst Ludwig wore medieval Italian costume, described by Grand Duke Ludwig IV in his diary and of which photographs survive. In 1891, Princess Alix wrote privately to a close friend that she was also learning Italian and both Prince Ernst Ludwig and Princess Alix of Hesse visited Florence and Venice a mere two years later, in 1893. The Italian trip of Princess Alice’s surviving son and youngest daughter – perhaps significantly – took place precisely twenty years after Alice’s trip, in the spring of 1893.

Villa Palmieri, Fiesole, (From a postcard; by Sailko (www.ebay.it) [United States Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Queen Victoria herself also visited Florence in 1893. Queen Victoria delighted in Italy, using the time to paint in the area around Fiesole. Perhaps Fiesole was chosen as it was the birthplace of Fra Angelico, one of the artists that the Prince Consort greatly admired, some of whose work he had also personally owned at Osborne. She stayed at the Villa Palmieri on the outskirts of Florence, once lived in by Boccaccio, which had been lent to her by the Countess of Crawford and Balcarres and had been specially decorated for her visit. On a subsequent stay, she was accommodated at the Villa Fabbricotti. Whilst the sights documented that she saw are, of course, among those that most international visitors choose to seek, it could be significant that the Queen visited the Church of Santa Croce, the Uffizi gallery and the Palazzo Pitti, the exact sights that Princess Alice had described so enthusiastically in her letters to her mother in 1873.

Another Battenberg relative joined Queen Victoria on her 1893 visit; Princess Marie zu Erbach-Schönberg, who dined with the Queen and later recorded in her diary: “Afterwards Ernie [Prince Ernst Ludwig] who was also there, persuaded me to go on to the terrace with him to enjoy the moonlight… by the glitter of many lights, the domes of Florence… nightingales sang, the fountains splashed lightly, and Ernie said, ‘I can see Boccaccio standing here and reading aloud from his Decameron’…”

Livadia Palace in the Crimea (Voevoda, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons)

Again, a trip to Italy left lasting impressions. Princess Alix of Hesse was said to have developed a love of Michaelangelo as the result of her visit in 1893. Italy had appealed to Princess Alix, who was sensitive to artistic beauty in all its forms, as it had to her sisters and her mother, Princess Alice before her, as well as her maternal grandparents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

When the new imperial palace at Livadia in the Crimea was built in 1911, to replace the older palace in which her future father-in-law, the Russian Tsar Alexander III had died in 1894, it was built from white limestone, overlooking the Black Sea. The balconies and courtyards of the palace were in the Italian style and are said to have been inspired by the palaces and architecture that Alix had seen in Florence during her visit to Italy. At the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, the imperial residence outside St. Petersburg, Alix kept specific souvenirs that she had bought on her Italian visit in 1893, which she arranged on the right side wall of the Imperial Bedroom, in her suite of rooms. During this visit, Alix had purchased some watercolours, “copies of Della Robbia ceramics and a copy of a Botticelli Madonna”, the latter of which, she took with her to Tobolsk, when the Imperial Family were moved to Siberia in 1917 and imprisoned in the Governor’s House (or Mansion) until April 1918. Not only as a picture of sentimental importance, but it was also a relic of Alix’s youth, prior to her marriage. It is significant that it was among the personal belongings that she chose to make the journey with her to Tobolsk – what would turn out to be the penultimate journey of her life.

Elizabeth Jane Timms ©2018

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