In the spring of 1873, Princess Alice of Hesse, second daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, set out from Darmstadt to visit Italy. It was the fulfilment of a life’s dream. Certainly, it was a totally 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 both the conflict over the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein and the Franco-Prussian War, Princess Alice’s travels had until this point at least, been limited to either visits within Germany or to the usual family 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, returning home by way of Naples. Gradually as Alice’s children were born, the emphasis on family holidays grew to be the main focus of her travels, as reflected in the choices of the resorts of Houlgate and Blankenberge. The stay at Eastbourne in the summer of 1878 would be the last that Princess Alice’s family would enjoy together. But this trip to Italy was to be a very different holiday for Alice. As Prince Albert’s daughter, 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 own children.
It was the country whose art her beloved father Prince Albert had so deeply admired, Raphael, being his prefered artist. Artistic references to Italy are in rich abundance at the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore. Later, Queen Victoria would also visit the sights that Princess Alice had seen, developing a deep admiration of Italy visiting Florence in 1888, 1893 and 1894. As a child, Victoria had been examined by her Principal Master the Rev. George Davys, later Bishop of Peterborough at Kensington Palace when she was aged only 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 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 version of the Grand Tour back in 1838.
But the beauty of Italy certainly struck a genuine chord with the Queen. This last point was stressed somewhat defensively in a comment made to her profoundly gifted eldest daughter Victoria, 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 Victoria may have gained to her beloved Albert through these trips to Italy is illustrated by a touching anecdote that was 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 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 appreciation of early Italian art, which as Chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission, was something he was keen to encourage. Princess Alice would have remembered her father’s Dressing and Writing Room at Osborne House, which contained early Renaissance pictures including works by the artists Mantegna, Bellini and Fra Angelico, some of which are today to be found in London’s National Gallery. 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.
Princess Alice was, therefore, following in the footsteps of her beloved father, Prince Albert. It is important to note that Princess Alice’s sitting-room in the Neues Palais in Darmstadt contained appropriately, a picture of Raphael’s celebrated Disputa.
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 she was totally absorbed in the preparations for her journey and was also learning Italian. She had given birth to her penultimate child, Princess Alix of Hesse, future Tsarina of Russia, 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. In the volume of letters written by Princess Alice of Hesse to Queen Victoria published after her death, is a memoir of Alice by the Darmstadt clergyman Dr Sell, who would later instruct Princess Alix of Hesse in preparation for her confirmation in the Lutheran faith. Dr Sell confirmed that the March trip to Italy undertaken by Princess Alice had indeed been a “long-cherished wish”, later writing: “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.”
Importantly, Alice’s trip was made incognito. She travelled to Italy via Munich, where she spent two days and paid a visit to the Queen Mother, Queen Marie of Bavaria and also met King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Prince Otto of Bavaria. It will be remembered that Ludwig II of Bavaria was particularly fond of his cousin, Prince Wilhelm of Hesse, Alice’s brother-in-law. Her journey to Rome went over the Brenner Pass and Bologna, where she caught the night train at Florence, reaching Rome early the next day.
We can judge from Alice’s letters to the Queen, how deeply the visit to Rome impressed her. Overwhelmed, she wrote to the Queen, “It is too, too beautiful! To tell you all we have seen and are seeing would tire you. Bertie and Arthur’s [the Prince of Wales and Prince Arthur] descriptions, too, so lately have told you the same…” Soon after her arrival, her incognito was discovered, and she was promptly invited to the Quirinal by Crown Prince Umberto and his wife, Margherita of Savoy, meeting King Victor Emmanuel II. 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 and paying a visit to Pope Pius IX. To emphasise her sense of family sentiment, Alice mentioned 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.
Again, the thought of the Prince Consort was ever-present, strongly evoked by the collections that the Princess visited in the Vatican, enthusiastically commenting on the beauty of Raphael’s Stanze. Princess Alice wrote: “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 again the memory of the Prince Consort’s Dressing and Writing Room, Alice went on to say that the Villa Doria Pamphili reminded her greatly of the terraces at Osborne.
A pleasant surprise was that her brother-in-law, Prince Wilhelm of Hesse joined them in Rome. Another family visit awaited with the invitation of Empress Marie Alexandrovna to visit her in Sorrento. Princess Alice’s father-in-law, Prince Charles of Hesse was joining his sister in Sorrento and Princess Alice wrote as early as February to Queen Victoria, that her mother-in-law Princess Charles of Hesse, had been intending to join them, too. She saw the Blue Grotto at Capri from the yacht of the Empress of Russia, together with Prince Charles of Hesse and several of the ladies and gentlemen from their various entourages. During Alice’s stay, she visited the Villas of Albani, Ludovisi and Borghese, being conducted over the Farnesina by Count Bermudez.
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…” The equivalent of what we might call a modern-day cultural trip, 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.
The return journey traced its way back via Verona, which took some twelve hours and thence to Munich and then directly back to Darmstadt. Princess Alice arrived back home at the beginning of May. She had deeply missed her children and her home. However, barely three weeks after her return, an event occurred, the effect of which Princess Alice never ever truly recovered from. On 29 May 1873, whilst her children were at play and her eldest son Prince Ernst Ludwig (“Ernie”) was running in the next room, her youngest son, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm (“Frittie”) was left in her bedroom. It is not certain what happened next. It is thought that the little boy fell from her window down onto the stone terrace below. His body was recovered moments later, and after only a few hours, he died in the arms of his distracted mother. For this particularly beloved (haemophiliac) child, there could have been no hope. Princess Alice 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 fashionable tradition of a cultural trip to Italy was the central aim of the aristocratic Grand Tour. But for Alice’s family, it was a legacy perhaps consciously replicated by her own children, in memory of their mother. After Alice died in 1878, each of her surviving children made their own trips to Italy.
With the permission of their father, Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse, Princesses Victoria, Elizabeth (“Ella”) and Irene undertook their own three-week-long Italian journey in October 1882. A glance at their itinerary begs the question as to whether this Italian journey was done with their mother’s exact trip in mind. Her elder daughters visited Milan, admired the cathedral and whilst in Florence, visited – as Princess Alice herself had done – the Uffizi and Pitti galleries, making an excursion to Fiesole. The time in Venice was spent buying souvenirs and visiting 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 and it is easy to see how the rich legacy of Italian art and architecture with its ancient beauty and holy sites, would have appealed to the Schöngeist of the children of Ludwig IV, Florence being the cradle of Prince Albert’s beloved Renaissance. 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.” We can imagine how the curiosity of the other children would have been aroused by the inspection of the souvenirs that the elder sisters brought back from Italy, which would have found their way into the furnishings of the Neues Palais.
On 3 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, of which photographs survive in the Darmstadt Hessian State Archives. Ludwig IV wrote of the ball in his diary: ‘I in the costume of the Order of the Garter, Ernie and Alix medieval Italian-style’ (StAD D24 Nr. 9/5, Erinnertes, Ernst Ludwig, Grossherzog von Hessen und bei Rhein, op. cit., 207). A month after the costume ball, Princess Alix was taking Italian lessons in Darmstadt and both Ernst Ludwig and Alix visited Florence and Venice a mere two years later. The Italian trip of Princess Alice’s surviving son and youngest daughter took place, perhaps significantly, exactly twenty years after Alice’s own trip, in the spring of 1893.
Happily, Queen Victoria also visited Florence in 1893. Queen Victoria delighted in Italy, using the time to paint in the area around Fiesole. It is possible, in the view of the present author that there may have been a greater meaning behind this choice, because Fiesole was the birthplace of Fra Angelico, one of the artists that the Prince Consort greatly admired and whose work he had personally owned. She stayed at the Villa Palmieri on the outskirts of Florence – said to have been lived in once by Boccaccio – which had been lent to her by the Countess of Crawford and Balcarres and had been especially decorated for her visit. On a subsequent stay, she was accommodated at the Villa Fabbricotti.
Whilst the sights documented that she saw are among those that most visitors choose to seek, it is perhaps significant that the Queen visited the Church of Santa Croce, the Uffizi Gallery and the Palazzo Pitti, the same sights that Princess Alice had described so enthusiastically in her letters of 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’…”
Again, a trip to Italy left lasting impressions. Princess Alix is said to have developed a love of both Botticelli and Michaelangelo as the result of her visit. When the new imperial palace at Livadia in the Crimea was built in 1911, it was built from white limestone overlooking the Black Sea. The balconies and courtyards of the palace were in the Italian style and by tradition were inspired by the palaces and architecture that Alix had seen in Florence during the visit to Italy in 1893. Alix, now Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, brought some of her own Italian souvenirs with her to Russia on her marriage and kept them at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo.
The trip to Italy in 1873 had certainly been a memorable and lasting one.
Elizabeth Jane Timms ©2019