Why write about a villa which, as I understand it, we cannot visit when in Florence? What possible impact could a woman born in Buffalo have had on Florence, no less Taos, New Mexico? Read on.
In the long list of famous structures surrounding Florence, in the shadow of the Medici and others, Villa Curonia is one of many. However, its history traces an important part of the life of Mabel Dodge Luhan who was a remarkable, determined and passionate presence in the artistic social circles of early 20th Century Florence.
Mabel (Ganson) was born in Buffalo, NY. She was raised in that city and, against her family’s wishes married in 1900 to a ne’er do well by the name of Karl Evans. In the months following her marriage, she decided to take up with her gynecologist. Keeping the affair hidden from the watchful eyes of Buffalo society took it’s toll: Karl was killed in a hunting accident.
Following Karl’s untimely death and to avoid any further publicity regarding Mabel’s affair, she and her son John were packed off to Europe by her mother. A few days out of Le Harve, she met Edwin Doge, a Bostonian architect. He pursued her to acceptance of his proposal and, in 1904 they were married. They both fell in love with Florence and, in 1905, the couple purchased Villa Curonia and moved in. The property offered a splendid garden and its location, above the city in the village of Arcetri, offered relatively easy access to Florence.
She entertained obsessively. Gertrude Stein, Andre Gide, Alice B. Toklas, Daniel Varney Thompson and a host of other artists and writers gathered often at her villa. Never one satisfied with the mundane, Mabel decided to bed their chauffeur with a resultant double suicide attempt the aftermath of discovery. Her then estranged husband brought her back to New York where they purchased a lovely brownstone in Greenwich village. I imagine, though, that Florence was never far from her thoughts. In her Winter in Taos, released in 1935, she shares her longing for and memories of the city.
She established a ‘salon’ in New York, continued to lavishly entertain and became involved in the European Modern Art movement by supporting the Armory Show. Whatever countless affairs she pursued, regardless of who was ‘the man’ in her life, she truly was unceasingly and fiercely driven, endlessly curious and immeasurable passionate.
After another failed marriage, she met and married a Russian born artist by the name of Maurice Sterne. It was Sterne who brought her to New Mexico and Mabel never looked back. She settled in Taos in 1919. Following her arrival she once again became a magnet for the creative world: Georgia O’Keeffe, Frank Waters, Ansel Adams, Marsden Hartley and Willa Cather…the list just keeps going…came to and went from her adobe home.
It was after yet another failure in marriage that a Native American Pueblo chief, Antonio Luhan, became the center of her life. Placid, stoic, patient and ‘tied to the earth’, he gave her a place for peace and the gift of inspiration. With “Tony’s” nonjudgmental support beside her she pursued, with the same level of passion with which she approached everything, a writer’s life.
Lorenzo in Taos was published in 1932. Intimate Memories followed in 1933, Europe Experiences, in which she confesses her unabashed love for Florence, was released in 1935, as was Winter in Taos. Two more books, Movers and Shakers (1936) and Edge of Taos Desert (1937) quickly followed.
She died at her home in 1962. The compound, now a National Historic Landmark, is a Retreat and Conference Center offering workshops throughout the year.
There is, to me, a profound connection between the gifts of Florence-her art, architecture, inspiring vistas-and the place of peace that Mabel found in Taos. Both are cities of the heart, they both affect our souls. The story of Luhan, not unlike the thousands of others whose lives have have graced the environs of Florence, provides additional threads to the textured warp and weave of bella Firenze.
Not currently available to tour (as far as this author is aware, January 2016)
Mable Dodge Luhan House
240 Morada Lane, Taos, NM 87571
(800) 846-2235 or (575) 751-9686