di Emanuela Borgatta Dunnett

Frances Winwar was born in Taormina in 1900 to Domenico Vinciguerra and the singer Giovanna Sciglio. In 1907, the family moved to New York.

In the United States, Francesca proved to be a brilliant student at Columbia University’s Hunter College and, at just eighteen, began her career as a journalist and writer for the socialist magazine The Masses. A rapid escalation led her first to the literary editorial staff of the New York World magazine, then to prestigious collaborations with the New York Times and the Saturday Review of Literature.

The step was short and led her to a successful career in the writing of partly fictional but firmly fact-based biographies of famous people. She made her debut in 1927 with The Ardent Flame, in which she retraced the love story between Paolo and Francesca and won the title ‘poet in prose’. Words from the New York Times Book Review (7 July 1927), strongly reiterated by The Spokane Woman magazine, which speaks of it as ‘one of the most successful works of the 1920s. It recalls the courtly period when the arts were run by the most eminent families of Italy’. 

After the success of her debut book, she devoted herself to translating (being perfectly able to understand: English, Italian, Spanish, French, and German) Boccaccio’s Decameron for the English-speaking market, a work that is still published today and used in American Italian language faculties, along with her transpositions of passages from the Divine Comedy. Her personal literary passions, however, made her miss a biographical comparison with those she considered her greatest influences in style. For this reason, in 1933, she published what – by critics and the public alike – is considered her absolute masterpiece: Poor splendid wings, dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with a focus on the founder Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his artistic circle, also analysing the controversial relationship with his wife, Elizabeth Siddal.

The work carefully reconstructs the Victorian era to allow the characters who moved within the Brotherhood to reveal themselves to the reader in their true facets. This is a constant in Winwar’s writings, as is also demonstrated by the subsequent The romantic rebels based on the lives of the great English poets Byron, Keats, and Shelley, the Oscar Wilde portrait in Oscar Wilde and the yellow nineties, the analysis of Withman’s poetics in American Giant, the figure of George Sand in The life of the heart, and the splendid The immortal lovers on the writers Elizabeth Barrett & Robert Browning and their relationship with 19th-century Italy.

Her wide-ranging knowledge in various fields also allowed her to devote herself to other historical figures such as Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Rousseau, and Joan of Arc (a biography that struck Hollywood and was prefaced by Ingrid Bergman who played the role in 1948). Without disdaining a return to her main interests, then came Farewell the banner, where she illustrates (among the few to date) the controversial relationship that united siblings Dorothy and William Wordsworth with the rebellious poet Coleridge. A vast bibliography that begins, as pointed out, in the 1920s and continues until the 1960s; also including two milestones such as the biography of Edgar Allan Poe: The haunted palace (1959) and a prestigious research work from 1956, on the relations of art and love that linked Gabriele d’Annunzio to Eleonora Duse.

The volume Wingless victory is interesting for both D’Annunzio scholars and Duse’s, as it makes use of unpublished material from the then not-yet-fully catalogued archives of the Vittoriale (d’Annunzio’s mansion), which Winwar had the opportunity to visit for several months during the drafting process. 

Wingless victory is, probably, his most successful work beyond the enthusiastic reviews for her first biographical work devoted mainly to the Rossettis (who return, rightly, between these pages to untangle the knots of the Italian Vate’s life and his stylistic ‘debt’ to the spiritual father of the Pre-Raphaelites). In fact, all the passion for the subjects treated and the ‘relationship’ of choice with d’Annunzio transpires, a communion of intent in preserving the beauty of the word that recalls that which, in life, united him to the writer Sibilla Aleramo. 

Francesca Vinciguerra was loved by the public and by contemporary writers. Unforgettable, in this sense, are the praises addressed to her by Thomas Mann, who particularly appreciated her scientific approach to the lives she dealt with; or those received by Maurice Maeterlinck regarding the biography of Joan of Arc, admiring her meticulous search for detail.   

Having died in New York in 1985, the city of Taormina has recently revived her memory with the opening of a library in her name, located inside the Carlo Zuccaro retirement home. Moreover, for those who want to know more, it is possible to consult her complete bibliography and personal correspondence both in person and online, via the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center of Boston University.