Vanda Scaravelli: seeing the body’s light

Vanda Scaravelli: seeing the body’s light

One of Florence’s creative and spiritual greats

Fri 03 May 2024 3:27 PM

Vanda Scaravelli was born in 1908 into a vibrant socially and culturally elite Florentine family. Virginia Woolf, born a generation earlier, used a phrase to describe such women, who were still without the vote and without broad access to higher education. “Daughters of educated men” was what Woolf called them, and included herself in the definition. These women had access to family libraries, famous tutors and gifted connections, thus ways to grow and succeed.

In Paschimottanasana, supporting B. K. S. Iyengar in Mayurasana. Source: Cristina Zanotto (2017), “Le Donne nello Yoga: la bellezza coltivata da Vanda Scaravelli”Cosebelle

As the city celebrates the yearly beauties of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, founded by her father, Alberto Passigli, it seems right to include the legacy of Vanda Scaravelli, who broke free from a solar system and brightened new heavens. Her radical shift and original teaching place her among Italian geniuses. Like another Florentine, Dante before her, she inexplicably woke up in the middle of her life in a dark wood, in part precipitated by the sudden death of her husband.

Scaravelli started to practice Yoga in her late forties, when she was encouraged to join by a house guest in the chalet the family was renting. Yehudi Menuhin was receiving daily Yoga instruction from BKS Iyengar, an Indian Yogi known throughout the world. In a matter of months, as she put it in her book, Awakening the Spine, Scaravelli became “clay” in Iyengar’s hands as energy began to “explode like fire from the heels to the top of the head”. Scaravelli left her Chanel suits and the family Lancia Flaminia behind. She became a Yogi.

In the section for modern art at the Pitti Palace, there is a bust of Vanda sculpted by Libero Andreotti. Locating her lovely intelligent face, her terracotta collar fastened with a feminine little bow, is a fitting way to place her within her origins. His interpretation shows her as a contemplative, modest, impishly well-bred young woman, not unlike some of Degas’ dancers. Later, as a Yogi, she usually dressed in dark blue pants and classic navy pullovers; her large bare feet radiated root-like toes. In grand houses she had long visited, her simple appearance announced a buoyant reordering of life.

Scaravelli’s father, Alberto Passigli, formed the Societa’ degli Amici della Musica (1920) and Florence’s permanent orchestra (1928) before founding the jeweled international festival, Maggio Musicale Florentino (1933). His committed leadership, giving the city hope and a world profile in music, was even more remarkable as his Jewish identity in those dark years became a personal hazard. Vanda’s mother, Clara Corsi, was among the first women to graduate from university in Italy. Scaravelli took a degree in piano from the Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini in Florence and studied conducting in Paris under Hermann Scherchen. She performed, often in private settings, while raising two children.

From “Awakening the Spine: Yoga for Health, Vitality and Energy” by Vanda Scaravelli

Scaravelli’s principal Yoga students, whom she taught without pay, have each gone on to spread her method, which explores three general principles: gravity, wave and breath. In photos of the small woman standing among her famed male teachers, each an imposing figure in white garb contrasted by burnished skin, Vanda Scaravelli appears like a supple tree, at ease, disinterested in power, fully alive. She saw her Yoga method not as western perfection, performance or enlightenment, but as a way to grasp “happiness and peace”. 

Scaravelli was informed, lively and astute about art. A friend, Elizabeth Lutz Pauncz, originally brought me to Fiesole to discuss my poetry with her. Pauncz is currently rushing against time to publish Scaravelli’s words from long-ago fresh notes on more than a decade of her lessons and friendship. She is also collecting Scaravelli’s words from other of her original students before priceless firsthand sources are lost.  

When Vanda Scaravelli was a young girl, the family villa “Il Leccio” overflowed. Arturo Toscanini, Yehudi Menuhin, Pablo Casals, Rudolf Serkin, Arthur Segovia, Bronisław Huberman and Benedetto Croce were frequent presences. They talked, they ate, they stayed up late playing and singing. After Vanda’s marriage to Luigi Scaravelli, who rose to professor of philosophy in Florence and Pisa, the continuum of intellectuals, artists and political thinkers continued mixing with the Anglo-Saxon hub of Bernard Berenson and the writer Marchese Iris Origo, who occupied the same landscape, hills and villas. 

A person of few words, Scaravelli would nevertheless slip in brief observations of those times. It happened to me when she stopped in front of her mirror in the large, unadorned room in her villa where she taught and often slept. Trying to comb down white hair that had mussed after standing on her head, she observed, “I’ve never met a musician with more energy than Toscanini. He was a god.” Energy was the life source she shared freely with anyone, without mystification, or asking to be paid. “It must bring freedom to the body, all it needs.”

Scaravelli’s radical approach to beauty, setting aside ambition and a stress-free vision of an ancient, often rigid practice makes this intriguing woman one to elevate to a permanent place among Florence’s creative and spiritual greats. As a woman, she broke free, not as a rebel, but as a seer/student of the body’s light.

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