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Writing fiction about a real person is a big responsibility. As I researched my novel about the painter Angelica Kauffmann (1741 – 1807) I worried that I wasn’t bringing her to life vividly enough. During the fifteen years she lived in London she was so successful that a word was coined: Angelicamad. I’m a Londoner, so it was easy to stare at the site of her house in Golden Square and visit Kenwood House in Highgate where there are five of her paintings. As Catholics, she and her Italian husband were traumatised by the violently anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780 and she spent the rest of her life in Italy.
In Rome she had a beautiful house, now demolished, at the top of the Spanish Steps. I was lucky enough to be given a grant by the Authors’ Foundation to revisit Rome, a city I love and where I lived for three years in my twenties. My research wasn’t formal; it involved wandering around the city, which has changed less than most capitals since the eigh
teenth century. I had a very expensive cappuccino in the luxury hotel that has replaced her house and, with the aid of a floorplan, tried to imagine it as it was when she lived there. Revisiting the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, I shut my eyes and tried to see them as they were in her day, before Mussolini tidied them up; wild ruins overgrown with wild flowers and olive trees where sheep and cows grazed.
One of the most important characters in my novel is the brilliant polymath, poet and statesman Goethe. During the year he spent in Rome as a kind of celebrity student of art I believe that Angelica was unrequitedly in love with him. In pursuit of him I got the train to Weimar where Goethe, influenced by that year in Italy, built himself an Italianate palace which is now a museum dedicated to his life and work.
One of the many fascinating things about Angelica is that she was a true European. Her mother was Swiss, her father was Austrian, and she spoke German, Italian, English and French. Her father came from a village called Schwarzenberg in the Bregenz Woods where there is now an Angelica Kauffmann museum which I’m looking forward to visiting in some sweet post-Covid days.
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