The Basilica of Santa Croce is known for being the burial place of great Italian men such as Michelangelo and Galileo, but as you wander through the cloisters of the church, memorials to famous women and non-Italian figures grab your attention. This is the second blog post in a series celebrating the women of Santa Croce. Louise of Stolberg-Gedern was an incredible woman who challenged the traditional role of a subordinate and submissive wife and established herself as an independent woman with power in her own right.
As the oldest daughter in a family of German aristocrats, Louise of Stolberg-Gedern (September 20, 1752, Gedern, Germany – January 29, 1824, Florence) was raised to be highly educated, poised, elegant, and obedient, characteristics of a good wife and future princess. In the 18th century, being among the elite came with a large set of responsibilities: boys were raised to be the leaders of the country and girls were raised to marry well and advance their family’s political and financial position. Louise was no exception. Her family arranged her marriage to the much older Charles Edward Stuart, the exiled Pretender to the British throne, in the hopes that she would become queen and effectively benefit her family through her marriage. As a good daughter was expected to act, Louise did as her family requested and played the politics of marriage to secure an advantageous match.
Her husband, nicknamed Bonnie Prince Charlie, had hoped that a marriage would validate his claim to the British throne and facilitate the return of the Stuart dynasty to British government. His attempts to seize the crown had thus been unsuccessful and his reputation as a philanderer with illegitimate children did nothing to convince the papacy to support his claim of divine right to the throne, which would have introduced a whole other set of problems because it was at this time that religious turmoil had taken over Britain in a century long tug-of-war between Catholicism and Protestantism.
What was at first a comfortable and companionable marriage soon turned south when it became obvious that 1) no child would be borne of this union and 2) that Charles was no closer than before to being recognized as the rightful heir to the British throne. The couple withdrew from Britain to settle in Rome, at which point the continued disappointment drove Charles to drink and he became physically violent towards Louise. Divorce was not common during this period and was even impossible in such a Catholic society as Rome, but Louise would not allow herself to be a victim to her husband any longer. She did something that most others would not dare: she legally separated from her husband, secured his financial support, took Count Vittorio Alfieri as a lover, and lived with him until his death. Six years after she separated from Charles, Louise made her affair with Alfieri public much to the shock of the aristocracy and even paid for his tomb in Santa Croce between Michelangelo and Machiavelli, so that they would forever be together even in death. Louise of Stolberg-Gedern was a scandal, but even more than that, she was a woman of her own making.
The 18th century patriarchal society in which she lived judged her for having an extramarital affair and even more so for faulting it in public. Even after her husband died as Louise was free to marry Alfieri, they chose to continue ‘living in sin’, settling in Florence and establishing a salon to facilitate the discussion of art, culture, politics, etc. A most unconventional woman, Louise challenged the social norms of the society in which she lived in order to live her life the way she wanted. While the choice she made may not have been the right ones or for the right reasons, the fact remains that they were decisions she made for herself which was no small feat in the 18th century. Louise was known for her quick wit and tough shell, actively engaging the company of Paris and Florence’s intellectual elite in her salon and standing tall in the face of society’s disapproval of her marital scandal.
Louise of Stolberg-Gedern redefined the limits of 18th century gender roles by giving up the life of a ‘princess’ and the connections afforded her by her husband’s familial position, in order to save herself from domestic abuse and used the financial settlement from her legal separation to establish a home and intellectual salon with her Italian lover. Her monument in the Castellani Chapel of Santa Croce is a testament to her indisputable achievements as a modern woman in the face of a traditional patriarchal society.
Blogger Arielle Sison was a Stanford University in Florence student in Spring 2014. She is pursuing a major in European History with a double minor in Education and Classics and is passionate about Italy’s rich history and culture.