Review: La donna che amava i colori

By Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore

“They [the Italians] seem to commence everything with spirit to get tired of it before it is finished.”[1] Mary Marrifield’s letters from Italy to her husband are full of charming–and if you are Italian sometimes engaging–reflections. The importance of the publication of Mary P. Merrifield’s (1804-1899) letters for the history of recipes will not pass unnoticed to the reader of this blog as well as to those interested in the transmission of the art techniques. Merrifield published the first English translation of Cennini’s Libro dell’Arte (1844),and a few years later, following her journey in Italy, The Art of Fresco Painting (1846), and the Original Treatises on the Arts of Painting (1849), works that have made the history of modern artistic techniques.

Recently found in Brighton by Zahira Véliz Bomford, Merrifield’s letters have never been published in English. Sent by the English Royal Fine Arts Commission, Merrifield travelled in Italy for several months between 1845 and 1846 to collect as many historical manuscripts on painting techniques as possible. The objective of the search was to enhance the English arts, which were called to glorify the British Empire at its acme. The letters are a refreshing, revealing, and entertaining look of northern Italy in the years before the political turmoil of 1848, as well as a dive into Merrifield’s world and vision. Giovanni Mazzaferro now publishes the full text of the correspondence in an enjoyable Italian translation, La donna che amava i colori: Lettere dall’Italia 1845-1846 (Milano: Officina Libraria, 2018. 192 pp. ISBN: 978-88-99765-70-5).

An independent scholar at his second publication –the first being  Le Belle Arti a Venezia nei manoscritti di Pietro e Giovanni Edwards (2015)–Giovanni Mazzaferro keeps a renowned blog, Letteratura Artistica, which started around his rich collection of published sources for art history. Mazzaferro thorough apparatus of footnotes will be of use to the growing number of scholars interested in Merrifield as it spans from the identification of manuscripts and paintings, to individuating the people Merrifield met during her quest, and to secondary literature. In the substantial introduction, Mazzaferro insists that studying Merrifield under a single perspective, such as the artistic or the scientific one, deprives us of a full understanding of the complexity of her character. Merrifield was a multifaceted intellectual, almost the nineteenth-century woman version of a Renaissance virtuoso. A swift but careful overview of her life and works shows this vast breath: she published in the field of artistic techniques and colors, of maritime biology, and, toward the end of her life, for the advancement of women in society.

Merrifield’s familial practices predate her written commitments to the advancement of women. During the journey in Italy, Merrifield travelled accompanied by her son Charles, while her husband stayed in Brighton with their other four children. Husband and sons were all working for Mary, as they were involved in the transcription, translation, and writing of Mary’s books. Such odd family arrangement, at least for the time, presents us with an unconventional nineteenth-century woman. Overall, Merrifield does stand as a complex figure whose progressive private arrangements are parallel to her deep patriotism, her commitments to the English empire, and her Victorian style. Her figure reminds us that intellectual and private identities cannot be easily defined: a progressive stand on the role of women does not necessarily conflict with an imperial vision, the interest in old manuscripts, and color techniques can go hand in hand with a passion for algae.


[1] Mary Merrifield to John Merrifield, November 2, 1845.