Clara Maffei:
the power of kindness

Gisella Lombardi

And yet, inside a building in Milan, there was a salon , in which a dainty woman was contributing to the struggle to unite Italy through kindness.  

When we think of the Risorgimento period our minds go back in time to wars and battles, big ideas and important names such as: Cavour, Mazzini, Garibaldi. A troubled time in history, filled with strong emotions and daring choices to be made. And yet, inside a building in Milan, there was a salon, in which a dainty woman was contributing to the struggle to unite Italy through kindness.
The Countess Chiara Carrara-Spinelli Maffei, often called Clara, was born in 1814. Both her father Count Giovanni Battista Carrara-Spinelli, a private tutor, and her mother shared her a passion for poetry. Her mother even named her after her grandmother Chiara Trinale who was a poet, too. But her lifelong passion was not poetry but rather politics. It was her mother Ottavia Gambara who first introduced her to the topic, Ottavia came from a republican family and taught her the importance of such values as freedom and independence. Mother and daughter were very close, and it was with great sorrow for Clara when they had to part. Ottavia left her home to go and live with her lover and Clara was sent off to boarding school. Sadly, her mother soon passed away, but one must not think that Clara held a grudge against her. His father took charge of her education and sent her to a school for wealthy girls in Milan. Regarding this school, Chiara writes that they could only brag about their ignorance. Before finishing her studies, her father proposes she marry Andrea Maffei. Andrea is a poet, good looking, a romantic, quite famous not only as an artist but also as a player and sceptical towards marriage. Although it is easy to see how he could fascinate a 17-year-old girl, it is a little bit more difficult to understand why her father approved of him so. Chiara is very happy to accept this proposal and soon the two get married. Their happiness is alas very brief, Maffei soon goes back to his old habits of gambling. Furthermore, he neglects Chiara, letting her travel all alone, forgetting to go and pick her up and never accompanying her into society. To modern eyes these may seem to be irrelevant issues, but this lack of attention was very problematic for the morale standards of that time. Clara puts all her faith and happiness into her pregnancy. Sadly, the baby girl Ottavia, named after her mother, dies after a few months. While Andrea and Chiara seem to find common ground in their grief, this death puts an end to their marriage.
Clara falls into a depression and Andrea, who doesn’t want to give up his pastimes, seeks a way to distract her, so he starts inviting friends home. Her father is worried too and believes that a good conversation is the best medicine, so he starts bringing the most illustrious minds together for her to talk to. And so, it turns out that Clara was born to host. Very quickly the living room of Casa Maffei becomes the place to be for any artist and intellectual. Alessandro Manzoni, Tommaso Grossi, Massimo d’Azeglio, Carlo Cattaneo, Francesco Hayez, Balzac (who dedicates a novella to her) Listz, Giuseppe Giusti, Tullio Dandolo, Marco Minghetti, Giuseppe Verdi are only some of the famous names that have talked and laughed in those rooms. At first, the theme of the salon was art in its various forms, but soon the conversations switched to more pressing and patriotic topics. As the Austrian government became more oppressive, the guests of Salotto Maffei were planning the Unity of Italy.

Clara was extremely loved, there is barely any known sign of criticism about her soirees, and the few that existed had nothing to do with the hostess. She had a special gift and was able to conduct a conversation without being the centre of attraction; she created a place in which even the most contrasting opinions could be discussed without ever evolving into a fight. Even during the most crowded soirees she could make you feel at home and give the conversation a sense of intimacy. And even though she wasn’t immune to the ambition of having the most prestigious guests and the most talented geniuses, she also need not seek them out, because most of them found their own way to her salon and were glad to stay anyway. This is not to say that she oversaw who her invitees to her evenings were, she actually had a very strict anti-Austrian policy. But as a person with very little prejudice, she had no qualms going against society’s conventions, especially when they didn’t align with her personal beliefs. Clara had no problems welcoming Listz and a heavily pregnant countess d’Agoult and one of her best friends was Giulietta Pezzi, who had a child out of wedlock, Chiara’s godson. Balzac was truly fascinated by her that he famously stated, he would have given 10 years of his life to be loved by her for 3 months and he remembers how her eyes lit up when discussing something she was passionate about. Visconti-Venosta remembers her to be slender, elegant and with very good manners, she expressed herself with grace and certainty, and most of all she grew fond of everybody. She had such sincere and deep affection for all her friends that she seemed to have a predisposition to like, well… simply everybody!
Clara’s wedding is crumbling, Andrea Maffei spends more and more time both gambling and with other women. Clara, who has had enough of the situation, decides that she wants a separation. For her it is an act of freedom, of independence. It turns out to be a very bold move for the time and even her popularity will not spare her gossip and nasty comments for the rest of her life. It is her dear friend Tommaso Grossi who takes care of the papers and Verdi, one of her closest friends, who takes it upon himself to mediate between Clara and Andrea. After the separation, she seeks refuge in the countryside but society there cuts her off because of the separation. She thus returns to Milan, to her salon, doing what she does best. Her soirees become ever more political and who contributes to this shift is Carlo Tenca. Carlo Tenca came from a poor family that made big sacrifices to allow him to study, he worked as a tutor and literary critic. He was introduced to Clara’s salon on the 13th March 1844, the day of her birthday. Their love lasted through distance, the thick and thin their whole lives. They were aware of the historic importance of their letters, so they made sure all the more personal ones were destroyed after their death.
In the meantime, the tension between the Austrian government and the citizens of Milan grows, and more protests turn into violence. Many high society ladies flee from the city, but Chiara stays, defying the authorities and hosting every night. It is in her home that during the Five Days of Milan the temporary government members come together to discuss a strategy. She cared for the injured and the hungry with the other ladies that stayed in the city. When Austria conquers the city, she leaves, not out of fear for the dangers he would face, but simply to follow Tenca to Locarno. During her stay, she gets to meet Mazzini whose theory she had admired for a long time. Yet she is quite disappointed when she finds him to be disagreeable and they both land up sharing the same aversion towards each other. When Carlo and Chiara return to Milan they move into adjacent buildings. She starts hosting again and a new project is conceived under her roof: Il Crepuscolo (The Twilight), a political newspaper directed by Tenca. To avoid censorship, they write about international politics, safe from anything regarding Austria and Italy. This silence was more eloquent than a thousand swords and the newspaper is a success. During this time the conversation at the salon was also influenced by the letters by Cavour and was extremely focused on the efforts made to sustain and encourage the emigration and subsequent enrolment in the Sabaudien army. The second war of independence is near.
The 31st December 1859 was one of the most memorable evenings in Salotto Maffei history: everyone was there, pushing their way past each other to congratulate Chiara for the first year of Italian redemption. Tenca has become a Member of Parliament and must move to Turin. Carlo and Chiara will write to each other almost every day for the following twenty years. During this time Carlo Tenca worked as a Member of Parliament, following the growth of the nation while Clara kept on hosting; her salon remains a point of reference in Milan. In their letters you can trace the history of Italy, the birth of the State and the disenchantment of a generation of young revolutionaries that had to grow up and face bureaucracy and the intrigues of politics. Only in old age will Carlo and Chiara be able to live stably near each other again, sadly Tenca’s illness will make their last years together quite difficult. As the years go by, Chiara starts to host less and only intimate friends, until 1886 when she dies of meningitis.
In turbulent times Chiara did her part in such a delicate and yet fundamental manner. Her evenings, the space she created for conversation, all her friends and connections with whom she prepared the groundwork. By suggesting an idea, changing a word, filing a too harsh decision, encouraging, smiling, and listening to others this is how Clara Maffei made Italy, with kindness.

[1] Daniela Pizzagalli, “L’amica: Clara Maffei e il suo salotto nel Risorgimento italiano”, Mondadori (1997)

[2] Gemma Giovannini Magonio, “italiane Benemerite del Risorgimento Nazionale”, L.F. Cogliati (1907)

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