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A PIECE OF ITALY IN WACO, TEXAS“How do I love thee, let me count the ways” is synonymous with the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. You can read the poems of both her and her husband Robert Browning or take in the one of six colorful Italian glass stained windows at the Armstrong Browning Library located on the campus of Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Robert Browning visited Italy in the mid 1800’s spending two weeks in Venice, which later inspired such poems as “In a Gondola” and “A toccata of Galuppi’s”. His tour in Italy continued with Naples, Rome, Asolo, Florence and Pisa.
Years past and after marrying Elizabeth Barrett decided to spend most of their life in Italy beginning and ending with Venice after relocating to Florence, Rome and Asolo. It was the Italian art and experience that moved Robert to compose many of his poems.
Jane Collins, a designer for Willet Hauser Architectural Glass in Philadelphia, was given the task of designing the library’s windows that would produce a visual for the stature of the Browning’s heritage. People began to donate these stain glass windows each with some Browning poetry written on it.
The Italy Window shows a grapevine, the Italian peninsula, Leaning Tower of Pisa, fountain in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square and ancient lute to evoke the music of Italy with poetry of both Robert and Elizabeth.
A Florentine wreath stands out in the Florence Window, centering on the a scene of the cathedral or Duomo, bell tower or Campanile as the Arno River flows under the Ponte Vecchio and Michelangelo’s “David”.
In the Vallombrosa Window, a wreath reflects the foliage with the central image of the Vallombrosa monastery. A close look at the bottom right hand corner reveals a vignette and the image of Elizabeth and her maid Wilson.
Another joyful wreath calls the eyes of the Rome Window with the ruins in the Roman Forum as the center. The Roman Colosseum, Spanish Steps and image of Trajan’s Column are portrayed here.
In the Venice Window, you can view St. Mark’s Basilica, the Grand Canal and gondola with the gondolier and mooring poles.
The wreath in the Asolo Window evokes the autumn harvest while the central image is the view from the loggia at LaMura, the summer home of Browning’s close friend. Pippa’s Tower is pictured, along with the Fonanina Zen as well as an image of La Rocca. Probably of most interest is a window entitled “The Guardian Angel” based upon Giovanni Francesco Barbieri’s painting L'Angelo Custode located in Fano, Italy. Browning then wrote “The Guardian Angel: A Picture at Fano”. On Easter Day in 1912, William Lyon Phelps, former professor emeritus of English literature at Yale University and distinguished Browning scholar led a small group of travelers to Fano, where they stood before the painting in the little church of San Agostino and formed the Fano Club. Between them, they gathered 75 postcards to mail to America; unfortunately, all of the postcards went down on the Titanic. For years Phelps carried on a tradition of meeting once a year on May 7 (Browning's birthday), sharing dinner with fellow Fano travelers and then having the youngest member recite the poem, “The Guardian Angel.” The Fano Club thrives today with over 125 members.
Not the entire Library is focused on the Italian aspect. The Martin Entrance Foyer, for instance has three stained glassed windows, one of many with poetry about Rabbi Ben Ezra, while door panels represent ten of Browning’s poems; five of Elizabeth and five of Robert. There is also a portrait of Robert Browning behind what is his original desk.
Stained glass windows fill each of the rooms including the Hankamer Treasure Room that include a collection of 200 books, and the antique Hankamer organ. The Jones Research Hall allows campus students and visitors to research material associated with the Brownings.
In the McLean Foyer of Meditation marble, cathedral windows, walnut paneling, bronze-grilled lighting combine for a relaxation and sometimes gatherings. A major focal point is the Cloister of the Clasped Hands, the bronze casting represents a hand of Elizabeth and Robert and displayed in a glass case. On the right wall is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet beginning “How do I love thee?” The opposite wall is Robert’s dedication of The Ring and the Book, “O Lyric Love!”
Elizabeth is quite know for her authorship of forty-four sonnets from the Portuguese, five of which are represented in stained glass in the Elizabeth Barrett Browing Salon. Her writing desk stands in the center of the room with other mementos on display. There are two large mahogany cabinets, needlepoint on a chair and a few afghans as well as portraits of her along the walls.
The Armstrong Browning Library is one of many attractions to visit in Waco as I begin a series.
January 20, 2011 - Giornale Italo Americano
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