We often think of the Victorian era, and rightly so, as being a period of prudishness and strictly imposed public morality. But there was a counter-movement, which did much to contribute to those 20th century social mores we often consider to be modern. John Stuart Mill's On Liberty marks a milestone in this counter-movement. Published in 1859, the same year as Darwin's Origin of Species, Mill claimed that society should never censure any act that did not directly harm another. In other words, what consenting adults do to each other is no business of their government and no business of their neighbours. A healthy society, according to Mill, would embrace a huge variation in ways of living. In the late 19th and early 20th century a number of utopians, socialists, anarchists, hedonists and spiritualists discovered the northern shores of Lake Maggiore in southern Switzerland. They put into practice ways of living that couldn't have been further from Victorian prudishness.
One such pioneer was the eccentric Baroness Antoinette Saint Leger. Born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1856, possibly the illegitimate daughter of Tsar Alexander II, she had discovered the charm of the Mediterranean climate during a visit to Italy aged 16. In an age when women's lives were regulated and confined, Antoinette seems to have been determined to follow Mill's advice and to experiment with different ways of living. By the age of 25 she had already seen off two elderly husbands and had married a third: the Anglo-Irish Lord Richard Fleming-Saint Leger. In 1885, after an uncle died leaving him a fortune, she persuaded him to buy the deserted Brissago Islands, just off the coast of the village of Ascona in Lake Maggiore, close to the border that separates Italy from Switzerland. The baroness loved to play piano (her teacher had been Franz Liszt) and to collect art, but her greatest love, besides the company of handsome men, was gardening. The couple proceeded to import thousands of plants from all over the world and created a garden paradise on the larger of their two islands. As the wealthy and generous Lady of her own islands, the baroness attracted an increasing collection of composers and musicians, artists and writers to her little colony. She loved the company of artists and among those she supported were the composer Ruggero Leoncavallo and the painter Giovanni Segantini.
In 1897 her husband abandoned Antoinette, due to, it is said, her insatiable desire for erotic adventures and risky commercial escapades. Meanwhile, a newer, younger artistic colony was taking root outside the nearby village of Ascona, on a hillside known as Mount Verita – the Mountain of Truth. Neo-pagans, vegetarians and a variety of communists tried to invent alternative ways of living and Ascona, rather than the Brissago Islands, became the main artistic magnet. On the islands themselves, surrounded by her garden and her memories, Baroness Antoinette gradually lost her good looks and gradually wasted away her fortune on bad investments. In 1919 she was visited on her island by Rainer Maria Rilke and James Joyce. The Irish novelist was not impressed, referring to her as a woman who had buried seven husbands without shedding a tear. He may have had her in mind as he wrote the chapter of Ulysses about Circe, the Greek goddess who bewitched those men unlucky enough to be stranded upon her island. By the 1920s she was alone on her island, her only company the thousands of plants and trees and the hundreds of homemade puppets that populated her large house. In 1927, close to bankruptcy, alone and elderly, the baroness was forced to sell her beautiful islands and her magnificent garden to a German owner of a department store empire, Max Emden. Emden wished to create his own hedonist way of living. Antoinette lived nearby for over two decades more, gradually succumbing to poverty. She died in an old people's home in 1948, close to penniless. Her remains were moved to the island during the 1960s. Hers is the only grave on the island.
Her garden island is much visited today. Tourists by the thousands trample through the paths that she first laid down, between the plants and trees that she planted. But at night, everyone leaves, and again she is alone, surrounded by the waters of Lake Maggiore, rimmed by Alpine peaks.
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