June 4, 1921
Page 3

Tenor’s Return to “Villa Bellosguardo” Recalls to Maurice Halperson Vivid Memories of His Sojourn There—Mansion Commands Magnificent Scenic Picture—Famous Home of the Counts Pucci Explored from Inside—Caruso in the Rôle of Squire and Head-Farmer

By Maurice Halperson

A BOAT is floating over the blue waves bound for la bella Italia. It carries aboard the idolized pet of two worlds, a man who has been bidden adieu here with all honors becoming a king and who will be received in his native land with the same ardor and sincerity. Enrico Caruso, who seemed to be a sure prey of death for many months, has left our country, which may well be called his “second country,” a convalescent, and there is all hope that Italy will send him back to us in full possession of his health and artistic powers. And then we shall give him a truly royal welcome, as no artist ever could boast of in this or any other country.
It was in the summer of 1911, on one of those transparent, unspeakably beautiful summer nights of Tuscany. I had the privilege of being a guest of Enrico Caruso in his beautiful “Villa Bellosguardo” (“The Beautiful View”), near Florence, for five days. Pausing to dream at the celebrated marble group of the “Del Tritone” fountain which Gabriele D’Annunzio has immortalized in one of his dramas, after a stroll in the park with its wonderful groves, clumps of giant trees, fountains, ponds, magnificent specimens of the cypress and other kinds of trees of the Southern woods, I thought regretfully that on the following day the time will have come to bid farewell to this charming spot.
While I listened to the voices of the night in the woods, I heard a glorious burst of song rising from the balcony of the villa to the skies. It was the touching romanza from the last act of “Tosca” which Caruso sang to himself, the condemned Cavaradossi’s farewell to life.
And when the news of Caruso’s critical condition was brought to me I could not help thinking of that poetic scene in the enchanted park flooded by moonlight I still heard them in my mind, the last golden notes: “E pur non ho mai tanto amato la vita” (“And still I never loved life as much as just now!”)
Caruso did not die; Death, kinder than Scarpia, spared him for us, and now he is on the road to his complete restoration, on the road to his adored Italy, to his beloved Tusculum in the poetic mountains of Tuscany.
I can follow the great singer step by step to all his favorite spots in the gardens of this Eden. It is an ideal place for resting, for concentrating, for forgetting life and its evils, and for storing up energy, and so we may hope that he will make in the near future his triumphant re-entry into this country.
As it might interest the readers of MUSICAL AMERICA to know more about “Villa Bellosguardo;” I shall tell of my stay there, which forms one of my most delightful recollections.
I HAD seen Caruso in Milan, in the “Galleria,” of course, in June, 1911, and his invitation to pay him a visit at his famous villa upon my return from Rome, where I was bound in order to witness the operatic festival on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Italia unita, had such a cordial and sincere ring in it that I stopped at Florence on my way from Rome to Vienna in order to call on Caruso.
On my arrival at Florence I hurried at once to the station from which the train goes to Empoli. The trip is charming, the road running through field and wood. We reached Signa Lastra in about twenty minutes. There we entered an automobile, and a delightful trip took us through flower-grown meadows and up the hills to Caruso’s famous villa “Bellosguardo.” They seemed to be plaiting straw wherever we passed. Everywhere women, young and old, sat in the shade of the trees working the fine straw into Florentine hats, the celebrated pagliette, with agile fingers.
But here is the villa! Proudly crowning a noble elevation is a noble facade in the shape of a splendid colonnade. Its many colors gleam with a warm azure tint in the glowing sunlight and yield in the center to a handsome portal.
“Villa Bellosguardo,” which the famous tenor purchased fourteen years ago for 300,000 lire—a genuine bargain—has been marvelously transformed, according to people who remember it as it was. Not only did Caruso add largely, and in a manner calculated to appeal to the imagination, to the historic old castle which belonged for centuries to the noble Counts Pucci, but he also erected, as a counterpart to the original structure, a building of the same dimensions and with corresponding decorative externals on the other side. He then made of the two edifices one imposing ensemble by the erection of the monumental colonnade already mentioned. The buildings, like the colonnade, had the same faint blue gleam, a peculiarity of the valuable hard stone quarried in the vicinity.
In keeping with the colonnade is a magnificent Italian garden, lying between the two wings of the mansion, confined at the back by a wonderful tree-hedge some seven feet high. It contains glorious exotic plants, picturesque parterres, in which flowers are represented in all their variety, great vases, poetic nooks and corners, somehow suggesting the plan of the famous gardens of the Vatican.
In the rear of the hedge is a great open lawn space, with a fine growth of grass, and then begins the park, wonderfully romantic and, though making the impression of having been left to its own free and unhindered development, carefully laid out and maintained. It is rayed with splendid paths, and extends downward along every slope of the hill, the entire great property being enclosed with a high and massive stone wall.
ITALY is the country of natural and artistic harmony. Caruso’s villa certainly could not have been placed into more harmonious surroundings. We see Tuscany in its most irresistible charm. The upper windows of the villa and its other vantage points give an enchanting bird’s-eye view of an historic landscape of eternal youth and bewitching beauty. We gaze far out into the open country, the luxuriant fruitfulness of which delights the eye, while its charm of color grows iridescent under the combined influence of clear air and burning sun.
It is the most blessed of the Tuscan valleys through which the historic and legendary Arno flows, although during the hot months this river, famed in song, is by no means an inspiring sight. Its waters have a grayish-yellow tinge and are decidedly shallow. I felt somewhat disappointed at this sight, but I was told that the gentle spring presents old Arno in quite a different aspect; then it drives youthfully onward with foaming wave, whereas I saw it creeping like some weary wanderer. And yet flowing water of any kind invariably lends life and animation to a land-scape.
The lay of the land tends toward gently rounded hills and fruitful valleys, and from Caruso’s mansion the eye may travel without interruption to a magnificent scenic picture—the lofty peaks of the Apennines disappearing in the blue ether. Heavily wooded, these noble mountains form a frame for the softly curving plain, lush with vegetation, a picture varied at every point of the compass.
Then, when we consider the practical arrangement of the apartments of the villa and note the still frequent recurrence of the armorial blazon of the Pucci on their walls, it is not difficult to imagine with what strained attention the sentinels kept watch over the valley against a surprise attack of the enemy. The Strozzi, hereditary foes of the Pucci, were a wild and warlike clan, who often joined battle with the former owners of the villa, then a real fortress. And in those times, as in these, preparedness was the price of liberty: Yet the old feudal days have passed away and the erstwhile baronial stronghold has been transformed into the buen retiro of a tenor idolized by the whole world.
The hills surrounding the mansion are dotted with attractive peasants’ cottages, the homes of tenants whose holdings form part of the great estate. On all larger Italian estates, the old-established system of land-tenure still holds sway, in accordance with which the individual colono is given a certain tract of ground to cultivate, and provided with a house for himself and his family. He farms his ground and is entitled to a half-share of the net proceeds of his labor, while the other half is delivered to the owner.
Caruso is the landlord for some twenty-four small tenants, all of whom appeared to be prosperous and contented. Their houses are well kept and their farming seems to be conducted along rational lines. I admired in particular the wonderful fruit that they grow. While I sat with Caruso in his fattoria, his coloni brought in quantities of the most wonderful fruit in baskets and barrels they carried these magnificent gifts of God, the most superb garden products that could possibly be imagined. I recollect grapes of every variety, one more juicy and fragrant than the next; plums of exceptional sweetness; apricots, berries, and, above all, figs, figs of every shape and color. In this fruit Caruso does a large business. The figs, for instance, are dried, and I could see girls seated in a row, cutting open the dried fruit and inserting an almond in each. Grain, too, of every sort is delivered at the fattoria, all most carefully inventoried.
The great singer, who sat before me on that brilliant July morning in 1911 in the factory and storehouse of his estate, was in the best of spirits and eager to attend to the work on hand.
There sat the idol of two continents, clothed as simply and unostentatiously as any casual farm laborer, checking up the bills and accounts which had been brought to him. For the better part of an hour I watched him at his work, and. could not but admire his business ability. What a fund of knowledge and acumen he had, and what a command of every detail! In one case he would counsel reductions, in another an increase of the prices fixed; to one employee he gave expert advice; another he commended; still another he censured, and his suggestions without exception were for the improvement of his property. Of course, the singer had brought with him from America new plans and ideas which called for practical development. Caruso puts back the greater part of his annual income from “Bellosguardo” (upon which, fortunately, ·he does not depend for his daily bread) into the estate in the shape of improvements. The income for that year had been lire 39,000, of which some lire 24,000 were reinvested in the property. Caruso’s tireless efforts to improve and perfect his estate have given rise to much criticism and mockery on the part of neighboring landed proprietors and farmers. He told me, laughingly, that because of his “mania” for continual improvements there had given him the nickname il pazzo di Bellosguardo—”the maniac of Bellosguardo.”
The villa itself impresses us without and within as a domain of refined comfort, the mansion seat of an artist with an experienced eye and a sentient soul. The individual apartments are furnished with all of a collector’s incredible labor and at fabulous expense. I found a great hall, in each of the stories of the building, especially noteworthy. It stretched along the entire breadth of the mansion, from one end to the other end, and owing to the wonderful ventilation afforded even during the most caloric summer days by the enormous open windows, made a most cool and agreeable lounging place.
There were, of course, salons, dwelling, dining and billiard rooms, and more than fifteen bedrooms for the family and their guests. Interesting·are the two apartments to the left and right of the great entrance portal in the colonnade. To the right of this entrance is an ideal music- room, spacious, cheerful, artistic and sympathetic, containing a beautiful collection of musical instruments of every kind. Here Caruso used to practice—according to his own account—very industriously.
To the left of the entrance a decidedly original panoramic display has been arranged. It is a so-called presepe, in the form of a theater with curtains, decorations, and footlights, a space some twelve or fourteen feet square, which sets off with theatrical effect and in romantic surroundings Caruso’s famous “Collection of Dolls.” To be exact, this is no ordinary collection of dolls, but a scientific one, ethnographically correct and completed with the most painstaking care. The puppets are attired in admirably accurate folk-costumes, covering the various regions of Italy and, with their unique panoramic background, offer an interesting study.
In other rooms are Caruso’s valuable collections of costly snuff-boxes, rare glass and precious coins. The numismatical collection contains only gold coins, representing probably the many gold eagles Caruso has earned in this country. King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy is also a numismatist and the owner of a collection in which are included valuable coins of gold, silver, copper and other metals. When the King was told of Caruso’s collection, he said with a sigh: “Ah, well, if I were Caruso, I, too, would collect only gold coins!”
It is an unmixed delight to wander in the extensive park of “Villa Bellosguardo,” given over entirely to one’s own thoughts and emotions. How shall one properly describe its natural glories! Words do not suffice! The park extends in every direction from the noble height crowned by the villa and contained on all sides by the wall I have already mentioned. What does it encompass? The most wonderful vistas and landscapes that can be imagined. One must be prepared for surprises. “Villa Bellosguardo,” as we know, was not always the country seat of a peaceful mastersinger; once it had been the nesting place of wild and quarrelsome barons, who lived in constant anticipation of an enemy’s attack. It is not too much to say that Caruso’s whole estate is undermined, as though a whole tribe of foxes had established itself beneath it. Wherever one digs, the spade soon lays bare the walls of underground passageways. A veritable labyrinth of subterranean passages’ and sallyports, of which only a small part has until now been discovered and investigated, extends beneath the surface. Caruso and his two sons used to indulge in the pleasure of making new discoveries.


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