Brio and Bon Ton

It was late November and, animated by the chill, I went to see the exhibition of Käthe Kollwitz’ etchings at the Obelisco in via Sistina. How the walls of the gallery could hold up so much pain I don’t know. Everywhere there was poverty, hunger, and war. And one heart wrenching Pietà after the other. The Prussian born Käthe, icon of pacifism and class struggle, whispered at the top of her voice that women are destined to pray because of wars invented by men. I was feeling overwhelmed when this elegantly dressed woman walked up to me and said “Buon Giorno”.

She was Irene Brin, co-owner of the gallery as well as journalist and bon vivant. Irene, hauntingly polite, had a hermetically sealed expression that made her come across as a snob. Her presence felt like ice and I would have been intimidated had it not been for all those aperitifs with fellow artists at Piazza del Popolo’s Café Rosati.

Here I’d learned much about Irene. At the age of 20, she started her journalistic career writing about cultural customs and social events.  Her real name was Maria Vittoria Rossi but her editor, realizing that it was a name completely without verve, changed it to Irene Brin (she later collected many other pseudonyms as well). Irene wrote with irony and refinement—haute couture style.

But fascism was on the rise obliterating spontaneity and creativity. Furthermore, fascists were not generous with women believing that they existed only in order to pacify male sexual desires, to produce babies who could grow up to be soldiers, and to cook & clean for their family. Fascism did not believe in equal rights. To save herself from the banality of evil, Irene used her carefully constructed cultural references to accost the sacred with the profane, the mundane with the extraordinary. If necessary, she could write about codfish as if it were caviar.

During the German occupation of Rome, Irene maintained herself with translations. But more money was needed. So Irene worked at La Margherita on via Bissolati, an art gallery with a pawn shop flavor. Paintings and drawings were sold along with porcelains, silverware, ornate clocks, and rare books. Irene’s husband, Gasparo del Corso, was an art connoisseur forced to keep a low profile as he’d deserted the military because of his anti-fascist principles. With the help of de Chirico’s brother, Alberto Savinio, del Corso assumed a false identity and went underground. But even living in secret, he blatantly sought out talent in the arts.  Along with Irene, he used La Margherita’s window displays to exemplify aesthetic ideals. Unfortunately, a difference in ideals often creates conflict. On various occasions German soldiers destroyed the window by shooting at it with a machine gun. “Degenerate art!” was the excuse they gave.

After the American liberation of Rome, a new life began. In 1946, the couple opened an art gallery, l’Obelisco, named after the many obelisks in Rome. The first exhibition was that of the then unknown Giorgio Morandi who had a talent for elegantly depicting ordinary bottles. Exhibitions of Kandinsky, Dalì, Burri, Calder, Bacon, Rauschenberg and so many others later followed.

The years of isolation had finally ended and Rome was now exploding. So was Irene. The Italian capital had become the center of the world. Suddenly Rome was full of American film directors ready to make better use of the Cinecittà Studios created by Mussolini. William Wyler arrived at the Hollywood-on-the-Tiber ready to film A Roman Holiday. Now Irene could encounter Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, and other stars as well.

Star struck and ready for glamour, Irene decided it was time for her own Hollywood makeover. She lost weight (her idea of a diet lunch was that of eating three bites of risotto followed by a glass of champagne). She always wore open-toed heels, collected Jaques Fath hats, and was a frequent visitor at Alberto Fabiani’s atelier on via Frattina. And with her new look established, Irene headed for New York City to show it off. And show it off she did. One day, while walking down Park Avenue, she was spotted by Diana Vreeland. “Just where did you get these clothes?” Diana asked. Diana, also polyglot and well read, was so impressed by Irene that she invited her to be the Rome correspondent for Harper’s Bazaar. And this was the beginning of Made in Italy.

But style is not just about fashion. In 1950, Irene made her debut as Contessa Clara, the name used for her bon ton column. “La buona educazione”, wrote the Contessa, “comes before everything else.”

Contessa Clara had advice about everything. For example: Eating ice cream while walking is slovenly as is standing at a bar to drink coffee if you are alone. And, when talking with someone, learn to use your eyes. Always look directly at your interlocutor frankly even if you are false, with serenity even if you are shy. Use interest, curiosity, and sympathy to make your eyes seem brighter. This was the same trick the photographer Cecil Beaton had taught the Duchess of Windsor. When being photographed, said the photographer to the duchess, look animated and amused as if you’ve just heard an entertaining story. Pleased with the results, it became the technique she’d often use when listening to the Duke.

Irene Brin dedicated herself to fashion and the arts until 1969 when, at the age of 59, she died of cancer.

LESSONS LEARNED:  From Irene Brin we learn that elegance emanates from within. Wearing a designer dress or raising your pinky when drinking champagne is not enough. Because elegance is not a surface quality.

In September 1943, Italy signed an armistice with the Allies and, to conserve its artistic patrimony, Rome was declared an Open City thus a demilitarized zone. Nevertheless, the Germans occupied the Italian capital and made life difficult for everyone.

Irene and her husband, finding an existential conflict with Nazi and Fascist ideals, had secretly hidden a group of political exiles in their attic. Every morning Irene, well-dressed and made-up, would leave her home at Palazzo Torlonia to procure food for these secret guests. To finance their meals, Irene sold her wedding presents including a painting by Picasso. 

The German soldiers were ruthless and without pity (as seen in Roberto Rossellini’s film “Rome, Open City”). To give shelter to these men took great courage because, in doing so, Irene and her husband risked their lives.

There is nothing more elegant than courage. And sometimes it takes courage to grow old gracefully.

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)


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2 Responses to Brio and Bon Ton

  1. Madeleine says:

    Courage. Of all the things you want to do, choose the one that scares you the most. And do it. If you do this consistently, instead of shrinking as you get older, your life will keep growing along with your age.

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