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Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions


Bill Kent [editor]; Ros Pesman [editor]; Cynthia Troup [editor]

  1. Download this book
  2. First page
  3. Cover; Copyright and Contributor Information; Table of Contents
  4. Preface
  5. Presentazione
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Introduction
  9. Ch 1. Australians in Italy: The long view
  10. Ch 2. Twentieth-century diplomatic and trade relations
  11. Ch 3. Some facts and figures
  12. Ch 4. Gaining a foothold: Australian cultural institutions in Italy
  13. Ch 5. Arthur Dale Trendall: A memoir
  15. Ch 6. More than a love affair: Australian writers and Italy
  16. Ch 7. A great tradition revisited
  17. Ch 8. Funghi, family and fables
  18. Ch 9. ‘Everything else in Italy’: A journalist in Rome
  20. Ch 10. Australian artists in Italy: Residencies and residents
  21. Ch 11. Donald Friend: An Australian artist’s affair with Italy
  22. Ch 12. Drawing on Italian art
  23. Ch 13. Rinascimento through a contemporary lens
  25. Ch 14. Australian clergy in Italy after Vatican II
  26. Ch 15. Rome: My two cities
  27. Ch 16. Rediscovering Rome
  28. Ch 17. ‘Unevenly buried’: A personal topography of Rome
  30. Ch 18. Elusive landscapes: Australians and the Italian garden
  31. Ch 19. Educational tourism – cultural landscapes
  32. Ch 20. Carrara: Landscape of stone
  33. Ch 21. Imagining and experiencing Italy in the 1980s and 1990s
  35. Ch 22. Reflections and refractions: An Italian perspective on Australian Studies
  36. Ch 23. Australian cinema in Italy: Sguardi australiani
  37. Ch 24. Remembering Bernard Hickey
  39. Ch 25. Italian Australians in Italy
  40. Ch 26. Washing faces, cleansing hearts: Who am I?
  41. Ch 27. The returned migrants: The Associazione Nazionale Emigrati ed ex Emigrati in Australia
  42. INDEX

Chapter 1

Australians in Italy: The long view

Ros Pesman

Ros Pesman is Professor Emeritus in History at the University of Sydney. She thinks that it was the films of Antonioni, Visconti and Fellini (not to mention Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday) that aroused her interest in Italy while a student in Sydney in the late 1950s. She made the month-long boat trip to Italy in 1961 and stayed on to carry out research for her doctoral thesis on Florentine politics in the time of Machiavelli. She has continued to journey to Italy ever since, and has written extensively on Italian history from the Renaissance to the Risorgimento, on Australian-Italian connections, and on Italian migration to Australia. She is a past president of the Frederick May Foundation for Italian Studies at the University of Sydney and a past Chair of the Australian Centre for Italian Studies and is currently a member of the Australian committee of the newly established Centre for Australian Studies at the University of Salento (Lecce).

My task in opening this collection of essays is to sketch a broad picture of Australians in Italy over the past two centuries, and to point to some history, context and themes. Such a broad picture is in turn one aspect of the wider subject ‘Australia and Italy – Italy and Australia’, a subject that also includes Italians in Australia. Tourism and migration are the two major connections between Italy and Australia, connections which I like to encapsulate in an image of the ships of the Sitmar and Flotta Laura lines passing each other somewhere in the Indian Ocean during the 1960s, those bearing south packed with Italians migrating in the hope of material benefit, those voyaging north carrying young Australians in quest of cultural sustenance. My image is time specific, valid only until the early 1970s. The 1960s saw both the beginning of Australian mass travel and the ending of Italian mass migration, which from the 1970s dwindled to a small trickle. The majority of the Italians who come to Australia today are tourists rather than migrants.

Relations between Australia and Italy are not confined to the movement of people. They include trade and diplomacy, as well as the transmission and circulation of images and knowledge. There was no need for Australians to go to Italy to develop an interest in, or fascination with, the country and its culture. The first European settlers – whose colonisation of Australia coincided with the second great period of Italomania in Britain – brought with them their copies of Italian classics, together with a whole corpus of English literature that took Italy as its subject, setting or theme. Italian works of art and musical scores were imported, and Italian artists, musicians and travelling opera companies toured. Travellers’ tales, newspapers, tourist guides, and later film, radio, television and the advertising industry all transmitted information and ideas about Italy, and from early days Italy ‘past and present’ provided sites and background in Australian literature, just as Australian art galleries abound in Italian views and vistas.

Images of Italians were also formed in Australia from the migrant presence, although until the late twentieth century few Australians were interested in the cultures of paese (village) and parrochia (parish) that the immigrants brought with them. These worker-peasants were rarely associated with the Italy of history and culture. Rather, they were for the most part disparaged and unwelcome; by the end of the nineteenth century, their presence reinforced hardening racial stereotypes about inferior southern Europeans, and only occasionally challenged or disrupted them.

In terms of knowledge, the early relationship between Italy and Australia was unequal. If aspects of Italy – for the most part its medieval and Renaissance art and literature, its Roman past, and the representations of English writers – circulated in at least educated circles in Australia, the land was terra incognita for Italians. Until well into the second half of the twentieth century, elite knowledge of Dante’s ‘altro polo’ (other pole) was confined to the reports of explorers, consuls, would-be-colonisers, visiting naval personnel and strolling players (Pesman Cooper 1984, 69–81). More direct involvement was envisaged in the aborted plan of the Papal State to deport political prisoners after the revolution of 1848–49 (Lodolini 1991, 419–436), and in the later nineteenth-century radical interest in Australia’s social democracy (Balzani 1991, 455–470). And there were pockets of a different kind of knowledge about Australia in the villages and hamlets that had sent their sons and daughters as migrants to ‘these lonely parts of the world’ (Templeton 2003). The situation is different today. Images of Australia, including those created by indigenous Australians, now circulate in Italy through the export of literature, films and television programs; through touring art exhibitions, musical and dance groups, the Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and through the courses and conferences on Australian literature in Italian universities that followed in the wake of Bernard Hickey, the first Australian to hold a tenured position in an Italian university (Bertinetti and Gorlier 1982; Hickey 1983; Capone 1989; Prampolini and Hubert 1993).

* * *

The recent emphasis in historical studies on cross-national history is giving new recognition to external influences on the development of national cultures and identities, and to transnational lives. For long periods in Australia’s history, ‘expatriate’ was of course a term of disparagement, interpreted as rejection of ‘God’s own country’. Almost 30 years ago now, historian Donald Denoon (1987) argued that the proper study of Australian history is ‘Australians not Australia’. It was on the basis of this argument that I undertook my own earlier work on Australians in Italy, and on Australian women abroad: I suggested that to ignore people once they leave our shores is to diminish our history; it is to suppress the contribution that Australians have made to international trends and movements, and to other histories and societies; it conceals too the impact of their experience on the country that they left (Pesman 1996a). Exploring the experience of Australians in Italy, we need to ask why they went, why some chose to stay, what Italy meant to the people who visited, tarried or remained in the peninsula. How did the experience mould or enrich lives; change attitudes, identities or self-representation? For whom has Italy been important, how and why? What Italies, real and imaginary, did Australians visit?

Australians have gone to Italy for many and varied reasons, some of which remain unchanged over two centuries while others are more recent. From the beginning, they were there for the most part as tourists, to see the sites, Roman ruins and Renaissance architecture and art – to acquire the patina of culture, the status of having been there (Pesman Cooper 1983). In the later nineteenth century, more specific reasons were added: to study the language, literature, history, art, architecture, archaeology, music; to paint, write, compose, sing, and, more recently, to promote Australia’s cultural wares. Some travellers went to pursue dreams, to don new masks, to escape the restrictions and conventions of home, to find more fulfilling lives, or in search of sex and romance, although this last cluster of motives does not appear in print until the late twentieth century. No tales of amorous ambitions or adventure – such as those that stud Jeffrey Smart’s account of his life in Italy or, as Ian Britain illustrates in this volume, Donald Friend’s diaries – touch the pages of travel accounts penned by nineteenth-century colonial worthies (Smart 1996). Australians have travelled to Italy to study for the priesthood and as pilgrims to the holy sites of Catholicism. In the nineteenth century, they also travelled to scoff at these same sites and, in the case of one Methodist pastor, to assist in the conversion of Italy to Methodism (O’Donnell 1886, 81–85). More recently, food, wine, and the experience of some form of idyllic rural life in a Tuscan or Umbrian village have been added to agendas. And there is always shopping. We have gone to have our prejudices confirmed and reinforced; to condemn difference but also to embrace it; to confirm the superiority of our own land but also to criticise it. The traditional British Australian visitors to Italy have now been joined by Australians of Italian origin returning to their ancestral sites to test the worth of their migration or that of their forebears, and to work out the hybrid identities that they carry.

There are now some 30,000 Australians living in Italy, although we need to remember that probably at least two-thirds are dual passport holders – that is Italian Australians. Longer-term residents are late arrivals in the story of Australians in Italy. I have found only a handful for the nineteenth century, notably painter Adelaide Ironside (Poulton 1987; Pesman 2003), writers Louise Mack (Phelan 1991), and Randolph Bedford (Pesman Cooper 1990b). I have found two handfuls for the first half of the twentieth century, including classical archaeologist Dale Trendall, sometime secretary of the British School at Rome, and Sydney cancer specialist Herbert Moran. The latter fled his wife and family to pursue a woman in Rome, and to write and work for the Fascist cause in the English-speaking world in the aftermath of the invasion of Ethiopia (Pesman Cooper 1989). Among the longer-term residents were the Australian women who married Italians, and the prisoners of war whose presence was involuntary. They also must predominate among those who have had closest contact with Italian society.

Until very recently most Australians in Italy moved in Anglo worlds. Edward Ogilvie settled in Florence for some time at the end of the nineteenth century, and married the daughter of the English chaplain (Farwell 1973, 303–307, 315–318). His close Florentine friend was Robert Browning. At the same time Louise Mack made her living in Florence editing the local English language newspaper (Phelan 1991). While he lived in Florence after the Second World War Alan Moorehead’s two mentors were Bernard Berenson and Ernest Hemingway (Moorehead 1970). Australian scholars in Italy have attached themselves to the Harvard Center in Berenson’s villa, or to the British School at Rome.

Of course there is a wide repertoire of responses to Italy; even so, without homogenising experience or erasing diversity some general observations can be made for the period from around the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth century. This is possible if only because the vast majority of the travellers came from the same social class and background: a provincial, Protestant British-Australian bourgeoisie. There were no Byrons or Baron Corvos among Australians in Italy.

Until the 1880s, typical visitors in Italy were members of the colonial elite, such as the chief justices of Victoria, William A’Beckett (A’Beckett 1854) – progenitor of the Boyd clan – and Sir Redmond Barry, the judge who presided over the trial of Ned Kelly. Or they were squatters, like Samuel Pratt Winter from the Western District of Victoria.1 For some the experience of Italy was no more than Naples as a port of call or a place of disembarkation. For others, sojourns of several weeks were not uncommon, which permitted time for daughters to take some lessons in Italian language, art, and music; for portraits to be painted; for copies of works of art and objets d’art to be acquired. While in Italy William A’Beckett and Samuel Pratt Winter bought copies of Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola. Pratt Winter added a copy of Titian’s Beauty to his purchases, specifying in his letter home that it was ‘not the nude one’. Edward Ogilvie on his first trip to Italy in 1858 commissioned a marble fountain, two carved lions and a chandelier for the crenellated mansion he was building on the upper reaches of the Clarence River in northern New South Wales (Farwell 1973, 232, 245–247). With the rapid demographic and economic expansion of Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the subsequent development of a prosperous middle class, the numbers of travellers grew to include lawyers, clergy, academics, businessmen, journalists and their wives and daughters.

The Italy that the colonial worthies visited was the land of ancient ruins and of art. Thus they spent their time moving among archaeological sites, galleries and churches. Only a few were interested in the society around them. Alfred Joseph, a town councillor of Bendigo, commented in the 1890s on ‘the manner and customs of the people and places’ that he visited, and included a plethora of information and observations on the Continental Sunday; public urinals; ‘terrific ice-cream’ and the payment of members of parliament (Joseph 1892, 5–11, 58–67). Joseph was an exception. When the visitors turned their eyes – briefly – to the Italy around them, it was usually represented in terms of street theatre or the picturesque. Contrary to the present penchant for rural villas, for earlier visitors the countryside was something for the most part glimpsed from train and carriage windows, and usually commented on in terms of Arcadian simplicity – or of filth and squalor. Daily life was perceived as a series of tableaux or as street theatre. It was in Naples above all that the tourists wrote as if present at a spectacle:

It is not, however, in its churches, or its catacombs, its museums, palaces or theatres that we see the characteristic of Naples. All these are to be seen in other cities, but in its street life Naples is unique.

We saw a great deal of this marvellous street life every day… pages would be needed to describe the numberless peculiarities of this restless noisy people and the occupations carried on in its streets and doorways (Cowderoy 1884, 75).

It was a small step from Italy as theatre to Italians as theatrical: ‘The house of Parliament is very operatic; instead of liking things plain and solid as the British do, the Italians love everything showy and theatrical… Milan cathedral looks more like a showplace than a place of worship’ (McKay 1936, 22).

It was as spectacle and theatre that the rituals of the Catholic church were usually perceived: ‘I amused myself in church by watching the congregation – a very small one – and the people who came in and out, for the purpose of performing some particular act of devotion’ (A’Beckett 1854, 39). If religion was a spectacle, it was also portrayed by Australia’s Protestant bourgeoisie as something suspicious, immoral, full of superstition and as an obstacle to Italy’s progress. This view predominates because few Catholics, apart from priests, travelled abroad, a fact probably accounted for by the lower socio-economic position of Irish Australians in the nineteenth century. And those Catholics who did visit Italy could be repelled by Italian Catholicism: ‘Those, however, who know Italians… know that on the whole, as a people, they are only Catholic in name, and, judging by their attitude towards the Church generally, and by the fact that they have invented swearing and heresy, they are the worst heretics ever created by Almighty God’ (Ievers 1894, 73). Half a century later, an Australian Catholic woman married to an Italian took a different view on Catholicism in Italy and Australia:

Here one accepts it [the Catholic religion] as one does the weather, with some grumbles but no criticism. I suppose the fact that there are different brands of religion in Australia keeps the religious issue very much alive. The Catholic Church in Italy seems very roomy – there are people of many different ways of thinking within it. It must be that terrible bigoted ignorant Irish-ism that makes it so repellent in Australia.2

This was an opinion that Italian immigrants in Australia would not have contested.

Italy underwent considerable change in its political structure over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; the early nineteenth-century plethora of petty states being succeeded by unification under the Savoy monarchy, the Fascist regime, and then the postwar Republic. Tourists are rarely interested in local politics, but there were some exceptions. The young Sydney painter Adelaide Ironside was probably the first Australian to live in Italy, as well as the first Australian-born artist to study abroad; she resided in Rome from 1856 until her death in 1867 (Poulton 1987; Pesman 2003). She had grown up in mid nineteenth century Sydney republican circles, where the revolutions of 1848 in Italy had been keenly followed. Describing Giuseppe Garibaldi’s abortive approach on Rome in 1860, Ironside wrote to that leading Sydney republican and pope-hating Protestant pastor, John Dunmore Lang, that ‘come what may, I shall go on with my Art and cry “Viva Italia” with the Republicans.’3 At the time, she was creating a visual public statement of her political sympathies: at work on her large biblical painting, The Marriage at Cana, which now hangs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, she informed Lang that ‘the portrait of the bridegroom is that of Garibaldi’.

Other Australians who had been inspired by the Risorgimento struggles travelled after 1860 to see the new Italy reborn, and none was more enthusiastic than the lawyer and member of the Tasmanian Legislative Assembly, Andrew Inglis Clark, one of the architects of the Australian Constitution, and the only republican in the inner circles of those who forged the Australian Federation (Hirst 2000; Pesman 2005). Clark much admired Giuseppe Mazzini, his republicanism and political ideas, and was reputed to have a picture of his hero hanging in every room of his house. Clark achieved his long-held ambition to visit Italy in 1890 and recounted the events of his journey in a long poem, My Pilgrimage.4 He had not travelled to behold ‘the monuments of thy dead past’. What his ‘eager eyes desired’ was:


Some trace or record of the holy war

Fought to expel the Austrian and the priest,

The new and living Italy that taught

A doubting world the immortality

Of human aspirations.


Clark’s sacred sites were those of his Risorgimento heroes; of Mazzini above all. He went to Genoa to make his obeisances before the house where Mazzini was born and the tomb where he was buried. At the conclusion of his poem, Clark looked to the future of Australia. His memory and experience of ‘the new and living Italy’ would ‘revive his drooping faith’ in the eventual triumph of an independent and republican Australia.

Another participant in the constitution-making of the 1890s, Samuel Griffith, a former premier of Queensland and future first chief justice of the High Court of Australia, also had strong Italian interests. In the 1860s, he had made an extensive tour of Italy, including Sicily.5 But his focus was on the past, and the eventual outcome of his Italian fervour was his translation – a very literal translation – of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (Griffith 1911). Griffith was not the last Italophile among Australian political leaders, as former prime minister Gough Whitlam would be quick to point out (Whitlam 2002).

Visitors to Italy towards the end of the nineteenth century were prone to assess its progress from its previous unredeemed backward state towards a satisfactory nation on the British model. If the travellers often felt themselves to be, in the words of the writer Ethel Turner, ‘we crude unhistoried Australians’ (Turner 1912, 81), they laid claim to progress and the future. One traveller announced on disembarking at Brindisi: ‘Jack says we shall now be able to compare the effete civilisations of the old world with the rapid progress of our country’ (Anonymous 1879). With their Australian background of rapid urbanisation, summed up in ‘marvellous Melbourne’, the travellers judged Italy’s progress towards a modern society on the criteria of urban renewal; large buildings; streets broad and straight, and municipal services. Their opinions varied. For James Smith, an enthusiastic celebrator of the Risorgimento in Melbourne, Italy was well on the road to taking its place in the modern world (Smith 1888, 3–4). Others were less sure. Thomas Shaw opined in 1883: ‘To make Rome a good modern city like Melbourne, half of the houses would have to be pulled down’ (Shaw 1883, 135).

The travellers not only assessed Italy but also its people, with whom contact was for the most part confined to hotel keepers, waiters, guides and those in general who serviced the tourist industry. They did not meet Italians in social situations – they had little of the language. The values by which the Italians were patronisingly judged were those so confidently held by the Victorian British middle class: industry; honesty; sobriety; protection of the inferior, including women, children and animals, and above all cleanliness. The Italians were with some exceptions deemed to be deficient in these qualities. On one feature only did they score well, and that was, in contrast to Australia, the absence of drunkenness. Reinforcing the negative images of Italians was the travellers’ sense of superiority as members of the British race. Vulgarised versions of racial theory circulating from the end of the nineteenth century placed Mediterranean and Southern European people below those of Northern Europe.

The experience of Italy could be disturbing. While Australians went to Italy with their heads full of British stereotypes and images, they also recognised that their background was very different from that of English visitors, and especially in relation to climate. The English might go to Italy in search of monuments and art, but sun and warmth also drew them south; Australians enjoyed sun and warmth in abundance at home: ‘Lovely as is the aspect of Naples… the fact is undeniable that it is largely indebted for its reputation to that perfect transparency and ethereal brilliancy of atmosphere to which Australians are accustomed’ (Turner 1882, 328). Australians associated their sun with purity and cleanliness. Yet there were other images that came to mind, and in Naples in particular: sloth and languor, for example, leading to the sensuality and explicit sexuality that above all threatened respectability. As George Mosse has argued in his study, Nationalism and Sexuality, respectability was the cluster of characteristics that gave the emerging British middle classes their self-definition, and their claim to status against the aristocracy, working classes and foreigners (Mosse 1985).

In the late nineteenth century, the impact of climate on race was an issue of some considerable concern in Australia. The supposed British qualities of hardiness, self-discipline, stoicism, and self-control had been forged in a cold and challenging climate. One participant in the debate voiced his fears that the supposed Southern European climate of Australia would develop a race ‘having the characteristics rather of the lands fanned by soft airs and summer seas than those of rugged shores[;] […] of Sicily and Florence rather than of sturdy Kent and stony Caithness’ (Meudell 1882, 441). Some of these characteristics were enumerated as: ‘pleasure-loving’, ‘addicted to festivals and galas’; displaying intellectual dexterity rather than being ‘deep and solid’; spawning fluent and witty speakers rather than silent thinkers; poets, musicians and painters rather than philosophers and scholars.

The common Australian opinion of Italians as inferior – as lazy, frivolous and dishonest – serves in part to explain the enthusiasm for Benito Mussolini among those who visited the peninsula in the 1920s and 1930s, an enthusiasm by no means confined to Australians (Pesman Cooper 1990a). Mussolini and Fascism had not only ‘cleaned up’ the buildings and the streets but also the people. Under the new regime, the Italians ‘were now an orderly people’, were imbued with moral fibre and national dignity. The Duce had subdued ‘the malicious spirit of the erstwhile disintegrated nation’ (Gay 1931, 158). Most of the commentators added that while the Fascist dictatorship was good for Italians, it would not suit Australia with its inherited British political virtues. But not all. On his return from Italy, Mr Loxton KC announced in the Sydney Morning Herald of 15 September 1930 that there was no doubt ‘a dictatorship would clean up our troubles more rapidly than other forms of government’.

Not all Australians who visited Italy were impressed by Mussolini and Fascism but the dissenters were a small minority. The exceptions on the record are scholars and writers. The young historian Keith Hancock, having sojourned in Italy in 1923 on vacation from Oxford, later recalled that the speeches of Mussolini ‘outraged my deepest political convictions’ (Hancock 1954, 92). It was the rise of Mussolini that led him to meditate on orthodox interpretations of the Risorgimento, and on the assumption that nationalism and democracy were linked causes. Why was Mazzini followed by Mussolini? Thus Hancock wrote his first work of history, Ricasoli and the Risorgimento (1926). Fuelling his choice of Italian history was also his desire to prolong his encounter with Italy, ‘an excuse for frequent visits to Tuscany and for living my own particular brand of the good life’; in Italy he learnt that the historian needs ‘a lust for life’ (Hancock 1954, 94–95). Except for a later essay on Machiavelli, Hancock did not continue his writing on Italian history, shifting his attentions to Commonwealth and Australian studies – as perhaps more serious subjects.

I want to conclude my rapid survey of Australians in Italy up until the mid twentieth century with a brief focus on Randolph Bedford because his life in Italy, and his representations of that country, depart notably from the norm (Bedford 1914; Pesman Cooper 1990b). Bedford, sometime farmhand, actor, miner and speculator, journalist, novelist and eventually a Labor member of the Queensland parliament, was an Australian nationalist belonging to the world of Bohemia, the Bulletin and the Bush. His quest in Italy was not for the ancient or the picturesque but for mining investments. Thus he may well have been the first Australian in Italy for business opportunities. While Bedford lived in Florence and visited and enjoyed the great cities, his mining fever took him well beyond the tourist highways: to the bleak Tuscan Maremma; to remote regions of the Appenines and Liguria; to Sardinia and to Lecce. The Italy he encountered was not – in his words – the land of the ‘precious Mr Ruskin’ and his ‘beastly Botticelli’, but that of rural poverty, a world of ‘fear, hunger and despair’.

It was what Bedford saw as Italy’s affinity with Australia that framed much of his response. Over and over again, Italy reminded him of Australia. In Livorno, he noted ‘the softness of a Sydney spring in the air’. A glimpse of oranges and oleanders turned a Pisan vista into a ‘pale imitation of mine own land’. The garden of his hotel in Rome ‘was flooded by moonlight almost central Australian in its intensity’. Anticipating his late twentieth century descendants, Bedford believed there was much that the land of sun and light in the south could learn from Italy, particularly with regard to building and town planning. His call was not for the mere imitation of Italian practices. What he perceived in Italy was harmony between the creations of nature and those of humanity: the magnificent simplicity of the Pitti and Strozzi palaces might have been suggested by some great rock in the Appenines. The lesson to be learnt was that:

We want in Australia to kill the imported abuses of the old world – to imitate in our art our trees and our climate – beautiful, generous and strong, as these Italians did […] The beautiful gum trees should have suggested the columns: the Waratah – flame and sword in one – should have suggested colour and form in decoration (Bedford 1914, 261).

Underlying Bedford’s espousal of Italy was a perceptible hostility to the British ruling class. He was contemptuous of claims for the superiority of the British people and very critical of the baleful influence of Britain on Australia. Life in the colonies was much darkened by the English parsonical superstition that was responsible for the dreary Sabbath, ridiculous licensing laws and barbaric drinking.

I think Bedford’s response to Italy does in many ways anticipate some of the postures of the 1950s and 1960s, when passion for Italy could be linked to a rejection of a philistine Australia and Britishness; when embracing Italy could be a way of bypassing Britain while still laying claim to a European heritage. Similarly Bedford’s sense of rebirth in Italy becomes a common trope among writers in the twentieth century, as does his perception of harmony between the creations of nature and those of human settlement, a harmony so delicately etched in David Malouf’s novella, Child’s Play (1982).

The Italian declaration of war against the Allies put a stop to tourism but there were Australians trapped in Italy during the war. Among them were the women who had married Italians, and who lived in and experienced an Italy very different from that of tourists and temporary expatriates. In 1928, Lorna Pitt, sister of historian Kathleen Fitzpatrick, married an Italian engineer, Egidio Maneschi, whom she had met in Paris while studying at the Sorbonne. In February 1931 the couple settled in Milan. Her letters and her wartime diary provide a rare insight into life as a foreign wife in Italy during the war and the immediate postwar years:

Last winter, we had some refugee guests in the Milan flat whom the German S. S. pounced in on and took off to prison one morning. We were pretty scared that they might take Egidio [her husband] too. The S. S. came back several times to the flat, but never when Egidio was in it (Maneschi 1999–2000, 134).6

In the following year, Pitt Maneschi told of meeting another Australian woman married to an Italian, who ‘went through incredible adventures during the war, living for the last two years in an abbey on top of a mountain. She lived in the midst of Germans, partisans, escaping prisoners, constant bombing and machine-gunning’ (Maneschi 1999–2000, 152).7 Australian wives in Italy were invisible until recently, but they have now begun to tell their stories. In 2004, Lisa Clifford published The Promise: An Italian Romance, an account of the love affair that led to marriage after 18 years of travelling between Sydney and Florence (Clifford 2004).

Until the British Nationality Act of 1948, marriage to a foreign national by a British woman resulted in the loss of British citizenship, and usually in the imposition of the husband’s nationality. Consequently Australian wives in Italy were Italian, an uncomfortable situation between 1940 and 1945. As Lorna Pitt Maneschi was regarded as an enemy, her assets in Australia were confiscated; and other Australian wives of Italian nationals found that they had conflicting identities. Patricia Kelly Volterra was the wife of an Italian Jew whom she had met while a student in Italy; she fled the country with him in 1939.8 In Australia, she found that she was an enemy alien, and was forced to report each week to Rose Bay Police Station. Sydney journalist Doris Dinham Gentile, the estranged wife of a Sicilian draughtsman in the Italian army (whom she had married in Benghazi in 1934), failed in her attempt to escape into Switzerland. In the later years of the war she lived in dire poverty near Como (Pesman 1996b). Her young son, born in London, received Red Cross food parcels because he was a British subject and hence a prisoner of war. By contrast, as the wife of an Italian national, Dinham Gentile was classified as an enemy, and received nothing, as did her daughter, who had been born in Rome. In a letter home after the war and in the surviving fragments of two novels, Dinham Gentile represented herself as having fought with the partisans – so far no substantiating evidence has been found.

Doris Dinham Gentile’s claims to have participated in the Resistance seem fanciful, but this cannot be said of other Australians whose war experiences have been recovered by Roger Absalom (Absalom 1989; 1991; Webster 2003). Some 2000 Australian soldiers and airmen were held captive in Italy, about half of whom escaped in September 1943 in the aftermath of the armistice. Of the escapees, over 500 avoided recapture. Their survival depended in no small part on the help of the village people who hid and fed them. After 1944, a number of the Australians joined up and fought with partisan brigades. Sapper ‘Butch’ Jocumsen, known to the inhabitants of the Val Sesia in Piedmont as ‘Frank the Australian’, fought with the Communist ‘Garibaldi Division’ led by Cino Moscatelli (Absalom 1989, 29–30). Thirty-five years after the end of the war, the town council of Borgosesia conferred honorary citizenship on Jocumsen in recognition of his role in the Resistance.

At the beginning of the 1950s a new stage began in Australian travel to Italy. As a passenger on the Fairsky in January 1961, I now become part of my narrative. Australia entered a period of unprecedented prosperity at the end of the Second World War, and cheap berths on the returning migrant ships opened up the possibility of travel abroad to a wider group of Australians. Educational opportunities were expanding and the young were questioning the values and lifestyles of older generations. At the same time, new images of Italy were circulating in Australia. The Italian film industry was undergoing the renaissance associated first with Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, and then with Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti and above all Federico Fellini. These were films to which my generation flocked. We still went to Italy, at least in my case, to experience art, acquire language and a patina of culture. Few of us ventured south beyond Naples – but the few included John MacDonald, who spent his time in Italy in the 1950s in Calabria completing research for his groundbreaking thesis on Italian migration to Australia (MacDonald 1958).

For the young like myself travelling to Italy was underpinned by vague longings to escape home, and what we saw as the monoculturalism, Anglophilia and philistinism of Mr Menzies’ Australia. We were in pursuit of difference. In an interview after the publication of M, his biography of Caravaggio, the writer Peter Robb was asked what drew him to Italy. The answer that he gave is also true for many others in the third quarter of the twentieth century:

What drew me to Italy, specifically southern Italy, and the Mediterranean countries and cultures in general, was a sense I’d had since I was very young that these countries and peoples were richest in the qualities my own Anglophone culture was poorest in. The visual, the plastic, the musical, the physical, the erotic, the culinary, a sense of continuity with the past. All these things, and people’s resources of emotional intensity, seemed to me marvellous compared with Anglo calculation and control (Robb, n.d.).

There were changes in the pattern of travel in that Italy became a place of longer stay for the creative classes, a change that reflects the decentring of Britain in Australian cultural life. While Australian artists had visited Italy from the late nineteenth century, they had studied and lived in Paris and London during their long periods abroad. Writers, academics, students, and journalists had tended to base themselves in London. From the 1950s a growing number of artists and writers chose to reside in Italy. Young women too began to tarry in the peninsula, attending courses at the University for Foreigners in Perugia or supporting themselves as English language teachers and as au pairs. As related in Hal Porter’s short story, ‘Brett’, the occupation of au pair was by no means always ideal (Porter 1980, 230–247). The establishment and expansion of Australia’s Department of External Affairs and the signing of a Migration Agreement between Italy and Australia meant that diplomatic and consular staff and public servants were sent to Italy. Ambassadors like Paul McGuire and Rory Steele, who analyses Australian diplomatic and trade relations with Italy in this volume, did much to raise Australia’s political profile.

From the 1960s academics and budding academics became a significant Australian presence in Italy as a result of generous scholarship schemes and the expansion of Australian universities. In their later scholarly work, they went on to write about Italian literature, history, art, archaeology, society, politics and migration. The Italy they inhabited – and inhabit – is that of archives, galleries, museums and libraries. Historian Richard Bosworth has described his first months in Rome: ‘we discovered the Biblioteca di storia moderna e contemporanea, other libraries and much more besides, falling in love with Rome’ (Bosworth 2002, xii). And he tells of the sudden cessation of activity in the reading rooms of the Archivio Centrale dello Stato, situated in the Fascist model suburb of EUR, when the Director offered readers glasses of spumante and slices of panettone to celebrate Christmas and the ‘collective nature of intellectual endeavour’: ‘In this tiny ceremony I found expressed the humanity in the humanities, and I have never let go my hope in it’. Bosworth went on to rewrite the history of Liberal and Fascist Italy; to work – successfully – for greater academic ties between Italy and Australia, and – not so successfully – for ‘Italian style’ recognition for Australian intellectuals. Bosworth was unusual in his choice of contemporary Italian history as his subject. The majority of Australian scholars in Italy have sought older worlds, the glory that was Rome and the grandeur of the Renaissance. Indeed, there is now a very visible Australian presence in the archives and libraries and in the international literature on Renaissance Italy.

Although the 1950s and 1960s were the period of the great economic boom in Italy, its visitors still had little trouble encountering difference. To travel even a few kilometres out of Florence into the hills above Pistoia was to enter the world of ‘la miseria’; the world of primitive conditions and grinding work associated with rural poverty. From the 1970s, Italy was not just a society ‘catching up’ – it was actually ‘racing ahead’ in terms of modernisation, whether in the abundance of soft porn movies on the television after midnight, or in the destruction of coastline in ghastly tourist developments. Peter Robb’s difference was disappearing, as he himself recognised:

The trouble was I was arriving at the very end of an ancient culture. These days I don’t find so much difference any more. The English-speaking peoples have loosened up, learnt to live from the minority cultures living among them, and the Italians have become late capitalist consumers like everyone else (Robb, n. d. [1998?]).

More Australians than ever journey to Italy today, and more dally for longer periods. They go for language and culture; to learn about food and wine; to participate in cooking classes; to carry out business as workers in the global market. Italy means fashion, style, food, ‘the art of living’, not only art and antiquity. Australians who live in Italy now include not only writers, artists, designers, musicians, scholars and journalists but also lawyers, like Katarina Lawergren working with the American embassy in Rome, winegrowers, businessmen, supermodels like Megan Gale – and others like George Negus who just drop out of Australia into Italy for a while (Negus 2001).

The whole relationship between Australian travellers and Italy has changed radically in the last 20 years because the revolution in transport and communications is obliterating distance, and globalisation is eradicating difference. I am not sure what it means to be expatriate in the twenty-first century. Does it matter where a first world professional lives? With a little effort one can enjoy a good cappuccino in Sydney or Melbourne. With even less effort one can buy a Big Mac in Rome or Florence. In political terms, Italy and Australia matter little to each other, even if both were among the few in the Coalition of the Willing. With the fall of the Soviet Bloc and the end of Eurocommunism, Italy has lost its romantic appeal to the left. Under the shadow of tangentopoli, corruption and Silvio Berlusconi’s administrations, Italy’s image has been sullied and its importance in Europe, let alone the world, has declined. One of the most bitter exposures of Italian corruption was Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily (1996).

The emphasis on lifestyle in global consumer culture means that a new kind of travel book is fast multiplying, one that usually has its focus on living in Italy; on cooking, food and wine, and on the adventures of ‘doing up the rural dream house’ with the aid of comic Italian workers. As noted by one recent commentator, the salient features of this genre are ‘the charm of the past and the eccentricities of the present, in which Italians have walk-on parts, and the subject is autobiographical’ (Cavaliero 2005, 212). Australia too is nurturing its contribution to this global genre.9

* * *

Italy has been an important experience in the lives of many Australians and for some, a source of inspiration and solace. This experience of Italy has made a contribution to Australian art, writing, music, architecture, scholarship, and since the 1970s, to food, wine and lifestyle. The ubiquity of pizzas and pasta in Australia today, of so-called ‘cappuccino culture’, is often attributed to Italian migration. But that is only part of the story and the role of the migrants was not that of trendsetters but of caterers to demand. Much of this culture has come to us as a global trend, through multinational marketing. However, I would also argue that important in the demand for this new ‘Italian’ lifestyle were those Australians who left to find other ways of living, and on their return pushed and then provided the market for the changes that came from the late 1970s.

As to what we obtain from Italy, Dennis Porter – with a backward look to Sigmund Freud – has suggested that there is a sense in which a foreign country constitutes a giant Rorschach test; that we project onto places perhaps more than we project onto people (Porter 1991). There is much diversity in Australian experiences and responses to Italy. We have made different discoveries in Italy, and some of us have found no gods there and departed disappointed and alienated, while some never wanted to find gods. No doubt much of what we project onto Italy is illusion. Yet, as Shirley Hazzard, who has written that it was in Naples that she first discovered joy and became a writer, reminds us, ‘illusion is part of civilized power’ (Hazzard 1993, 77 ).

So what is it about Italy? For myself – sitting at dusk on the patio of the Villa Linda (now a convent bed and breakfast) situated on the slopes below Fiesole; looking out over cypresses, olives, vines, church towers and roofs, and listening to the nightingales – I can only see an answer so obvious that I wonder why anyone asks the question. The next day downtown, coping with the bureaucracy, the frustrations, the traffic, and the endless queues outside galleries and museums, I have the answer to the question of why I leave. But then I keep going back.


1 Sir Redmond Barry, Journal of a Visit to Rome 1862–1863, LaTrobe Library Melbourne, MS 83 80; Samuel Pratt Winter to Trevor [?], Como, 17 June 1867, LaTrobe Library Melbourne, Winter Cooke papers, MS 10840, I, I, 4.

2 Lorna Maneschi to Batty [Kathleen Fitzpatrick], 4 March 1946. See Maneschi (1999–2000, 145).

3 Adelaide Ironside to John Dunmore Lang, 3 November 1860, Mitchell Library Sydney, Lang papers, vol. 9, 210.

4 Andrew Inglis Clark, ‘My pilgrimage’, manuscript. University of Tasmania Archives, Andrew Inglis Clark Papers, Correspondence C/4/h8. I thank John Hirst for drawing my attention to this poem.

5 S. W. Griffith, ‘Mort Fellowship Report 1867’, manuscript. Fisher Library, University of Sydney. On Griffith, see Joyce (1984).

6 Lorna Maneschi to Batty, 4 October 1945. Lorna Maneschi’s son has recently published his memories of his childhood and adolescence in Fascist Italy – see Maneschi (2007).

7 Lorna Maneschi to Batty, 23 May 1946.

8 Regarding the connections of the Kelly family to Italy, I have referred to an unpublished lecture presented by Jim Andrighetti at the State Library of New South Wales on 23 September 1998, titled ‘The Kellys of Darling Point. Sydney Italophiles during and between the wars’.

9 See, for example, Luck (2000); Ryan (2000); Howard (2005) and Green (2005; 2007).


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Publication information

This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to

Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions

   by Bill Kent [editor]; Ros Pesman [editor]; Cynthia Troup [editor]