Partner Florence Blood

Queer Places:
Villa Gamberaia, Via del Rossellino, 72, 50135 Firenze FI

Princess Catarina Giovanna Ghyka-Comanesti  (1864-1954) purchased Villa Gamberaia in 1896. Princess Ghyka was born Catherine Jeanne Kesko to the Romanian Princess Pulchérie Sturdza and Colonel Kesko of the Imperial Russian Guard. Country villas historically being the home of wealthy and influential people, Princess Ghyka was the perfect candidate to carry on tradition. Despite her position as foreign royalty, she took advantage of her Italian home to remove herself from society to a greater degree than both her historical predecessors and contemporary neighbors. She was reputed to be aloof and enigmatic. Bernard Berenson, quite the character himself, described her as “a narcissistic Rumanian lady who lived mysteriously in love with herself perhaps and certainly with her growing creation, the garden of the Gamberaia.” Despite his opinions, Berenson did not often turn down an invite to the Gamberaia, certainly not when Princess Ghyka did hold a social gathering and the villa was host to important others of the literary and artistic worlds.

Jeanne Kesko was born in Nice, France, and raised in the late 1860s in Florence. She was known to her family as Bebe. As a young adult, in the early 1880s, she went to Paris as an art student and circulated socially with the students of the male-only Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In Paris, Jeanne Kesko had known numerous gay artists and was free to lead a bohemian and unorthodox life. Paris in the late 1800s was termed Lesbian Heaven and same-sex couples lived openly. Jeanne Kesko is recorded as one of Gertrude Stein’s friends, attending her famous sourees. It was in Paris that Princess Ghyka first met Miss Florence Blood, an American who was to be her lifelong companion.

In 1875, Jeanne Kesko’s older sister, Natalie, married Milan Obrenovic I of Romania. Prince Eugene Ghyka-Comanesti, Prime Minister in Milan I’s Romanian government, was known to be very wealthy. Eugene was a soldier of fortune and was widely acclaimed throughout Europe for having successfully fought at the side of General Ulysses Grant in the American Civil War. King Milan I arrange a political marriage with Jeanne Kesko. The marriage did not last long. As divorce was not a possibility, they separated. The Prince made a settlement of money to Jeanne in exchange for her permanent exile from both Paris and Bucharest.

Jeanne Ghyka returned to Florence in 1896. She became the Gamberaia’s new owner, a revolutionary fact at the time: married women, as Jeanne Ghyka was still legally married, were unable to own property under Italian law. From 1896 to around 1914, Princess Ghyka hosted parties at Villa Gamberaia that were the rage of society. At the turn of the XIX century, the elaborate soirees and dress balls for international nobility were known as the cult of the Gamberaia and were acclaimed worldwide. A broad roster of nobility and aristocrats attended these functions: Countess Marie-Stani Cambaceres Stanislas de Montebello, Prince of Turin and the Princess of Taxis, the Countess Serristori, and Lady Sassoon of Umbria. Carlo Placci, the writer and notorious Florentine-Parisian playboy, attended almost all of these social functions and was probably their real host. As the Princess was on a fixed stipend, Placci’s offer to sponsor many of the Gamberaia’s soirees was mutually beneficial. Placci was a celebrated monologist and is described by Bernard Berenson as spontaneously performing with Princess Ghyka’s friend, Serge Wolkonsky, an actor: Did you ever see him act? He does it well. The other night, at Gamberaia, he and Placci acted some charades, and in one, the great Miss Paget came in.

It was well known in Paris and Florence that Jeanne Ghyka had a constant live-in companion and possibly lover in Miss Florence Blood. Florence (Flora) Blood was born in Württemberg, Germany, the daughter of Caroline (Carrie) Laura Shelby of Nashville, Tennessee and Henry Blood of Norwich, Vermont, a businessman. Living in Paris with Leo Stein, Gertrude Stein’s brother, Blood took painting lessons with Paul Cezanne. Later in Florence, Blood painted several views of the water parterre garden at Gamberaia, all in the color style of Cezanne. Berenson called her a dilettante painter, her ability mediocre. As reproduction, however, her work was thought to be astonishing. She copied very well. As the city of Florence was known for its remarkable reproductions of art, it is quite possible Miss Blood did these to provide personal support. Florence Blood was a small dainty woman who along with Jeanne Ghyka, wore long velvet dresse in the style of tunics. When Maud Cuttwell, the art historian, wondered how the Princess Ghyka could bear to live with Miss Blood, such a commonplace person, Berenson laughed and replied, She isn’t commonplace. Miss Blood is brutal and vulgar and wicked, but she isn’t commonplace.

In 1902 Edith Wharton thought the water parterres of Villa Gamberaia were unrelated in style to the surroundings… completely out of harmony with the rest of the villa. It was unrelated in style to any other part of the garden. Blood rose to the garden’s defense, charging Wharton with the dubious fault of being in-critical. Wharton never was permitted to visit the garden again.

The Princess grew less visible as the years passed, or so it is understood from the account of the marchesa Iris Origo. As a child, Iris accompanied her mother, Lady Sybil Cutting, on strolls through the gardens. She recalls in her memoirs: “Occasionally we visited the most beautiful, and certainly in my eyes the most romantic garden of all, that of the Villa Gamberaia, and I wandered about, hoping that I might catch a glimpse of the place’s owner, Princess Ghyka, a famous beauty who, from the day that she had lost her looks, had shut herself up in complete retirement with her English companion, refusing to let anyone see her unveiled face again. Sometimes, I was told, she would come out of the house at dawn to bathe in the pools of the water-garden, or would pace the long cypress avenue at night – but all that I ever saw (and I wonder if a hopeful imagination was not responsible for even this) was a glimpse of a veiled figure at an upper window.” While using the garden for personal and possible amorous purposes is not in conflict with historical record, the desire for more extensive privacy is. Renaissance patrons were always happy to stroll through their gardens as a display of their wealth, even if only with a single lover to accompany them. Princess Ghyka was much more selective in her company, and often left the garden to show itself, enjoying it herself only once alone.

During WWI Princess Ghyka is reported to have lost her beauty (it has been suggested she had a skin condition) and to have become a recluse. She dressed in black, covering herself from head to toe. She was seldom seen in public and came out of the Villa building to walk the gardens only when it was cleared of all servants and when all house shutters were tightly closed. Miss Blood abandoned the bliss of the Gamberaia in order to manage a hospital for allied soldiers, set up in the villa Sachino bought by Princess Ghyka’s sister near Biarritz. After the war, she returned to the Gamberaia, but her failing health left her to live her last few years as an invalid.

In 1919 the villa and its gardens were accurately measured by the laureate of the Rome Prize in Landscape Architecture and the American Academy in Rome, Edward G. Lawson. In 1923, the Jellicoes sketched the plan of the villa. The role of Florence Blood in the design of the garden at this time is not clear. Harold Acton, who was very young at the time, stated that Miss Blood was also a designer. She is said to have advocated the planting of parasol pines. She is cited in Lean Zach’s guide in 1921 as infirmed. Her role was most probably advisory at best. With the death of Blood in October 1925, Princess Ghyka sold the Villa, moving first to one, then to another, of the smaller houses on, or close to, the property of the Gamberaia. Eventually she settled in a small village in Switzerland where she spent the last years of her life. At the end, Ghyka entered a convent in Paris, where she died in 1942.

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