By Trix Wilkins
The search for the birthplace of Theodore Laurence
It’s one of those details on which Little Women is sketchy – we are told simply that Laurie was born “in Italy” to a gifted Italian musician. The novel opens a few months before his sixteenth birthday, placing his birth around 1852 – a year when Italy was not officially unified, and agitations against Austrian rule would continue until full independence in 1870.
Where in pre-unification Italy might a woman have reached such levels of education, accomplishment, and recognition; where might the wealthy son of a British merchant have met such a woman; and what place might have sustained them in their lifestyle and passions during their early years of marriage and parenthood? Where, in short, might Laurie have been born?
And as I mused over these questions, I came across Bologna, Italy.
A city beyond its time
Can one fall in love with the mere idea of a city without beholding it? Florence is reputably elegant, Rome majestic, but Bologna – Bologna was innovative centuries beyond its time. Home to the first and oldest university in the world, the first major world city to formally abolish slavery in 1256, over five hundred years before Wilberforce’s tenaciously fought triumph in England…
The more I read of this millennium-old city and the more I uncovered of its grand history, the more I felt this is the one. The one city throughout the Italian states I could imagine Louisa May Alcott alluding to as the birthplace of Theodore Laurence.
Florence and Rome may have been home to the ruling elite in the 1850s, but Bologna drew intellectuals and egalitarians from around the globe. The alma mater of all universities, the University of Bologna was founded in 1088 by its own students, beginning as a place of free education independent from the ecclesiastical schools of its day.
Boasting alumni such as the artist Albrecht Dürer and scientist Nicolaus Copernicus, within its walls many ideas were fostered and practiced that would only be developed in other parts of the world centuries later.
It was the place to go for women to obtain high levels of education, to reach for opportunities that would have been unheard of anywhere else – as early as the 12th century, when the education of women was unthinkable or reviled, women teachers were admitted.
One such teacher, Bettisia Gozzadini, was said to be so popular that her lessons had to be held in the public squares as the classrooms could not hold all who came to hear her.
Not only did women teach during an era when it was a struggle elsewhere to simply gain admittance to study, some were granted leadership – Laura Bassi was given the chair in philosophy in 1732; in 1776 the chair in experimental physics including Logic, Metaphysics, Chemistry, Hydraulics, Mathematics, Mechanics, Algebra, and Geometry.
Bologna might have been the city where Laurie’s mother developed her love for and talent in music; the sort of place to where Laurie’s father might have run off to learn of a world beyond his father’s ships to India.
The Laurences in Bologna
Known for its heart for the arts, Bologna is home to a plethora of monuments to culture, education, and faith. To this day, its historical center remains one of the largest in Italy. Churches, museums and towers replete with art and objects from centuries past have been preserved and restored – testaments to an age when historical study and musical skill were especially valued.
I can easily see why Laurie told Jo that he wanted to live in Italy, had he Bologna in mind.
Bologna simply makes me think of Jo – the city seems made for her. I can picture her immersed in research for a doctorate; her frustration that the abolition of slavery had been accomplished so long ago in Bologna compared to the United States; her wandering amongst old monuments, settling in dusty nooks to write epics spanning the centuries between the stone walls.
And the letters – what letters Jo might have written! To Amy of the intricate architecture, Beth of the divine music, Meg of the colorful cuisine, her mother of the local politics.
I can picture Laurie delighting in the idea of giving Jo a tour of this city, as he related to her what he could recall of his parents’ courtship and marriage.
I imagine Laurie’s mother having performed at the first opera house constructed with public funds and owned by the municipality, the Teatro Communale. She might have played the works of Guiseppi Verdi, the music that played such an instrumental part in stirring ardor for Italian unification. Laurie’s father might have repeatedly dared her to climb the Torre degli Asinelli with him, the tallest leaning tower in Italy (one of the Due Torri, or Two Towers – it is open to the public to climb today).
I picture their having explored the labyrinth of churches in the Abbazia di Santo Stefano, and marvelled at the 16th-century frescoes by Lorenzo Costa depicting the life and death of St Cecilia and her husband Valeriano in the Oratorio di Santa Cecilia. They might have discussed life and faith as they frequented the Oratorio di San Colombano with its frescoes of the resurrection and passion of Christ, the conversation deepened as they continued to the Oratorio di Santa Maria Della Vitta examining life-sized terracotta sculptures such as the Lamentation over the dead Christ.
If Laurie’s mother had been anything like his first love Jo, I have no trouble believing that she may have persuaded his father to sneak into the private residence Palazzo del Podestà to see the ‘whispering gallery.’ Beneath the palazzo, two passages intersect at a point which is said to produce amazing acoustics – perhaps the proposal might have happened here involving a serenade and a stringed instrument. (Or if Laurie’s father was anything like him, simply an appeal along the lines of, “We’ve got to have it out, and the sooner the better.”)
Before Little Women
Where might have Laurie’s mother taken him on walks to soothe him, as she tried to sustain him when he had been so “sickly,” that would have been more refreshing and inspiring than Bologna’s lengthy porticoes? Might she have walked that three kilometer stretch from Porta Saragozza to the Basilica san Luca atop a hill, sheltered from the sun whilst enjoying views of the city? Where else might she have read to him some of the deepest and most novel ideas of their time, than the University of Bologna’s centuries-old library, the Archiginnasio?
Little Women relates that Laurie’s parents both died when he was a child. Bologna had been a seat of political agitation and unrest – the fervor for independence ran hot, and many fought and died for it. Might Laurie’s parents have been amongst those who had done so, having faced similar dangers to Margaret Fuller and Giovanni Angelo Ossoli with direr consequences? Might James Laurence’s dislike of his daughter-in-law have been rooted in her exposing his son to such ideas?
To consider Bologna the place of Laurie’s birth, I can more readily sympathize with his grandfather, and feel greater conviction that his affection for Jo ran deep. Bologna, with its pulse for history, learning, and innovation – perhaps Laurie simply recognized a woman in Jo who embodied the essence of a time and a place he already held dear to his heart.
Other places of interest
Piazza del Cestini – Houses the original law text of the Liber Paradisus or Paradisum Voluptatis, also known as the Heaven Book, abolishing slavery in Bologna.
Oratory of San Colombano – Hosts a collection of over 80 musical instruments dating from the 1500s, the musical library of Oscar Mischiati, and free concerts.
Museo della Storia di Bologna – An interactive museum of 35 chronologically themed rooms of Bologna’s 2500-year history.
Basilica of St Francis – A center of musical performance and study in the 18th century; utilized as a military storehouse during the Italian war of independence.
Collezioni Comunali d’Arte – On the 2nd floor of Palazzo Comunale, this art gallery holds a collection of 13th- to 19th-century paintings, sculpture and furniture.
Pinacoteca Nazionale – Hosts a collection of works by Bolognese artists from the 14th century.
…And even more on Bologna
- The Heaven Book that abolished slavery
- A day full of Bologna
- Seduced by Bologna: Interview with Writer Mary Tolaro Noyes
- Bologna Travel Tips: Interview with Local Tour Guide Micol Mazzeo
- Top romantic places in Bologna
- Bologna: the Chronicles of Carlo