The first American ambassador living in Florence

The letters of George Perkins Marsh

Melinda Gallo
December 10, 2009

Many know George Perkins Marsh as a pioneering environmentalist, statesman, author, lawyer, architect and linguist, but few know that he was an expatriate in Italy as the first and longest-serving American ambassador to Italy appointed by Abraham Lincoln in 1861.


Marsh was first stationed in Turin for four years. In 1865, when Florence became the capital of the Italian kingdom, he relocated to the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. At the time, Florence was a provincial town and was not prepared to become the Italian capital. Marsh's initial impressions of Florence were negative. He wrote, ‘Florence is a mighty fine museum and a mighty poor residence.' In time, however, he grew to love the city and was opposed to leaving it in 1870 when the capital was then moved to Rome. After serving as ambassador for 22 years, Marsh decided to stay in Italy; he never returned to the United States. He died at his residence in a town to the east of Florence, Vallombrosa.


During his stay in Florence, Marsh befriended numerous Florentine intellectuals, aristocrats and artists. He also met many famous Americans passing through Florence, among them Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Henry James and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.


While he was the American ambassador in Florence, Marsh wrote daily letters to various people, including his friend and acting secretary of state, William H. Seward, and Hamilton Fish.


Lucia Ducci's book, L'unità debole. Lettere dell'ambasciatore americano George P. Marsh sull'Italia unita, recently published by L'Ornitorinco, captures the history of Florence's reign as the capital of the Italian kingdom from 1865 to 1870 through Marsh's insightful correspondence. Marsh's opinions and views of the unification of Italy as well as the Italian government are still significant today. According to Marsh, Italy lacked the patriotism that allowed the country to completely unite, which in his mind was directly related to the pope's presence in Rome and the Vatican being under the control of French rule.


After studying political science at university and getting a Ph.D. in international relations, Ducci developed a passionate interest in Marsh through a discussion with one of her professors. Marsh's letters fascinated her, and while she was teaching Italian at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, she began researching him. From Ducci's hometown of Florence, she traveled to Washington D.C., College Park (Maryland), Burlington (Vermont), Boston and New York to gather information from the various archives. She studied reels and reels of Marsh's letters on microfilm to compile her book. During one of her stays in the States, Ducci also visited Marsh's home state of Vermont and got a sense of how his childhood home influenced him to be the man that he later became.


Through Marsh's letters, Ducci paints a picture of life in Florence as the political center of the country at a time when many Americans were coming here to develop their artistic skills, immerse themselves in the city's beauty and explore the ‘Old World.' Ducci writes that ‘Firenze offriva allora un vivace clima culturale, a cui contribuì la crescente presenza di stranieri.' (‘Florence offered a lively cultural climate that contributed to the growing presence of foreigners.')


After years of researching Marsh and publishing her first book about him, Ducci's interest in him has escalated beyond his stay in Florence: she is now writing his biography.



L'Unità debole. Lettere dell'ambasciatore americano George P. Marsh sull'Italia unita

Lucia Ducci - L'Ornitorinco, € 25


On December 10 at 5:30 pm, Lucia Duccia will be presenting her book in the Sala Ferri del Gabinetto Vieusseux in Palazzo Strozzi.


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