As the New Year approached, Betty and I made our much-delayed trip to Italy to scout sites for the final episode of the film. Having read the many biographies and accounts of Liszt’s final years, his activities in and around Rome were a blur of motion. He lived in many different residences; his activities often overlapped and come down to us today as a confusion of associations, disjointed locations, sudden shifts, and seemingly long periods of inactivity. We chased after Liszt in Rome traipsing through narrow alleys, broad boulevards, and mountaintops that he frequented beginning in 1861. But it was one afternoon standing atop the Spanish Steps in the heart of Rome, that it suddenly became clear to us how Liszt intuitively framed his existence in Rome.
His appointment in Weimar had ended disastrously in 1859 with the failure of the court orchestra, the death of two of his children, severe public criticism of his compositions, and the death of his chief benefactor in Weimar, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna. Rome was to be a new beginning for Liszt.
Still a man without a country, Franz Liszt built his world around the Spanish Steps. Just to the east a few blocks along Via Felice (renamed Via Sistina), he took his first Roman residence in an hostel for traveling priests; at the bottom of the steps (plazza di Spagna) he regularly met with his Italian colleague and student Giovanni Sgambati; his mistress and muse, Carolyn von Sayn-Wittgenstein, took an apartment a few blocks north on Via del Baubino; Caffe Greco was the meeting place for Liszt and his students to enjoy cigars and brandy; he frequently performed and taught at the Academy de Santa Cecilia within earshot of Carolyne’s windows; and, Santa Francesca Romana was an elegant apartment on the grounds of one of Rome’s most famous chapels and just a short walk from the Spanish Steps. These locations functioned as his secular abodes for music-making, hosting guests, and teaching.
Liszt simultaneously maintained several more remote and secluded dwellings to feed his spiritual life. The Dominican monastery atop Monte Mario in Rome, Madonna del Rosario, was his home for five years (1863-68). In it he maintained a small cell a few feet square with little more than a table, chair, a wooden bed, and a piano (with a missing “D”). Overlapping all of these dates, Liszt maintained an apartment more distant from the center of Rome in Tivoli. Via d’Este was then and is today a sprawling villa built along the contours of a cascade of waters. The fountains and cypresses of Villa d’Este became the subject of his most impressive piano compositions late in life.