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The Baronessa’s Dream

Beatrice in her Galleria dell'Ariete, 1978.  

“Oh, thank you, Beatrice,” he says.

At Santa Maddalena, the provenance of most objects is bound up in Beatrice’s own history: a wooden objet from a safari in Africa, works by Fontana, Tàpies, and Hockney from the days when she ran a gallery in Milan. And the predominant aesthetic is what the baronessa calls “Oriental,” the inspiration for which is revealed during a tour of her private rooms upstairs. She points out a small black-and-white photograph of a striking young woman with dark curls, a portrait of her Istanbul-born Armenian mother, who fled the massacre to live in Rome. There she married an Italian aristocrat and gave birth to a daughter—only to die of typhus at 25. As Bruce Chatwin once wrote, it was her mother who “gave Beatrice an idea to which she has clung all her life: that glamour—real glamour, not the fake Western substitute—is a product of the Ottoman world.”

Trailed by the ever-present Alice, whose collar of silver beads spells BOW WOW, Beatrice heads into the bedroom, modest quarters if you happen to miss the drawings by Claes Oldenburg and Giacometti. More opulent is the bathroom, with two tubs sunken into the floor side by side, arranged to face each other—her husband’s idea. “Well, it’s a bit sad now,” she says, looking down at the porcelain couple, “as the other tub is never used.”

The baronessa’s photo albums give the impression of two very well-matched partners. There is the picture of the nearly naked pair in bed together, snapped by Beatrice in a mirrored ceiling. And there is Von Rezzori in a fine suit and ascot, downing oysters at a bar in Vienna. The caption in French reads, “Souvenir of the time my wife was in the hospital.” “We were traveling, and I hurt my leg and needed surgery,” Beatrice explains. “He left me and continued on to Austria—ha!” The writer Deborah Eisenberg, who knew the couple well, says, “I think when people think ‘the baronessa,’ they’re imagining somebody who’s saying, ‘Oh, I’m sick of peacock’s eggs, take them away!’ But she’s the least jaded person I’ve ever met.”

Of George Plimpton, she declares, “I did not like his social manner.” But then there’s Ralph Fiennes.

“I find my life very boring,” Beatrice likes to say. After her mother’s death, when she was 6, she moved to the north of Italy to live with her grandfather, a French governess, and several dogs, her existence that of a prewar Eloise left to wander the 30-room family mansion. Later, when her father was remarried to a “not nice woman” in Capri, Beatrice found her way into a circle of artistes, becoming the preteen pet of Max Ernst, Alberto Moravia, and Curzio Malaparte. “When people ask me how I know so many people,” she explains, “I say it’s because of Capri. I was the pretty girl of Capri, and I met all these writers, artists, homosexuals—and they would take me around, much like the pug.”

At 25, after World War II dealt a financial blow to her family, Beatrice founded one of the first European galleries to show new American art, Galleria dell’Ariete, where she exhibited works by Cy Twombly and “that beautiful, brilliant couple,” Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. (“That was a time when there were no women in the field, and she and I were up against the boys like Leo Castelli,” says New York gallerist Paula Cooper.) When she met Von Rezzori, she’d already become an anomaly: a successful Italian woman in her late thirties, insistently single. Von Rezzori, or Grisha as he was known, was a writer nearly twenty years her senior, and with cinematic good looks that had led to bit parts in Louis Malle movies. Alex Liberman threw them a wedding party with Marlene Dietrich and Salvador Dalí in attendance, and so began Beatrice’s final incarnation, as literary patron.

Over the course of three decades at the villa, Von Rezzori wrote many books (including the classic Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, about World War II and its aftermath), and their home attracted various writers, artists, and filmmakers, who occasionally stayed as long as two years. When Grisha was dying, Beatrice told him she planned to convert it into a writers’ residency. He was indifferent to the specifics, more concerned that his impatient, intensely energetic wife have a project to keep her active. “Do not become a lugubrious widow,” he insisted.

But it’s unlikely that Von Rezzori believed Santa Maddalena would have any significant impact on contemporary literature. The notion that, since art is romantic, the process of making art must also be romantic—this was Beatrice’s fantasy. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth: Writing is sedentary, repetitive, often boring, and can be done in such aesthetically imperfect locales as a studio apartment in Brooklyn. Von Rezzori understood this. In his memoir, Anecdotage, he wrote of a guest at Santa Maddalena, “Doesn’t he too get the feeling that the whole thing has been staged so as to create the illusion of a form of existence unconnected to any truth?”