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The Many Lives of Irene Brin

A piercing writer, a hyper-cultured art dealer, a sensible translator, a militant fashionista: always ahead of her time, Irene Brin held many roles, although it’s not apparent she herself ever knew who she really was. 

As she wisely put it, she was part of “a naïve generation that deluded itself with the idea of living at an exceptional rhythm”. She lived through it all: the Great War, the rise of Fascism, another World War, the fall of Fascism, the Italian economic miracle. From the corset to the mini skirt.

Amongst her many merits, Brin has been consigned to history as the utmost performer of an original way of writing about what we, today, call “lifestyle” and back then was known as “costume” (meaning what you wear, how you wear it, and why, at the same time). 

Her writing was short, caustic, and packed with clever quotes. In the 1940s, the Almanacco della donna, one of the first Italian publications dedicated to women, described her as “the scourge of habits, the most insolent, the brightest amongst Italian journalists”.  

“She’s been a piccola maestra of the difficult literary craftsmanship that manages to blend the utmost sense of style and sense of humour, with the least of means and evident strain” commented her friend Alberto Arbasino, who shared with Brin the same pungent tone and contentment in playing the part of the snob writer.    

She wasn’t particularly beautiful, but had style to spare; she wasn’t an aristocrat, but had learned how to behave as such and, most importantly, was incredibly well read. 

Her shoes were always open at the front, even in Winter, to reveal her perfectly polished nails. She never wore socks. 

Helplessly short-sighted, she would strenuously refuse to wear glasses (not chic enough!), originating countless funny anecdotes: from the identities of her footmen, frequently mistaken, to the fake eyelashes accidentally dropped on her plate during a party and coherently ingested with dinner. 

Irene was born Maria Vittoria Rossi in 1911 (she would often cheat on her age), in a well-educated family of progressive views. She started writing for a newspaper when she was only 20, and she’d never stop until her death in 1969, switching between pen names and personalities with the same ease she would change haircuts. 

Based on her readers and, probably, depending on the mood of the day, she was: “Oriane” (after the elegant Duchesse de Guermantes from Proust’s Recherche); “Mariù” (her childhood nickname, but also an hommage to Vittorio de Sica’s song: Parlami d’amore, Mariù! / Tutta la mia vita sei tu!”, recently brought back to life by Dolce&Gabbana to promote David Gandy’s white speedos); “Cecile Wheldon Aldighieri”; “Morella”; “Marina”; “Adelina” e “Geraldina Tron” for articles on women magazines; “Ortensia” for pieces on socialites; and, between the 1950s and the 1960s, my favourite: “Contessa Clara Ràdianny von Skéwitch”, later just “Contessa Clara”, a wise Austrian countess who would give advices on style and pretty much anything else to the gentrified Italian public. 

“Irene Brin”, her most loved nom de plume, was an invention of her publicist, Leo Longanesi, who wanted her as a regular contributor for Omnibus, the biggest Italian illustrated magazine of the 1930s. “My name isn’t Irene, my surname isn’t Brin, even if I appear as such in contracts, telephone directories, family conversations. I am an invention of Leo Longanesi, like many other people who had the fortune of passing by him” she stated about her pseudonym.

In 1935, during a Carnival ball for the cavalry at the Hotel Excelsior in Rome, Irene, in a beautiful white lamè gown, meets the officer Gaspero del Corso.

“We danced together all night long, talking about Proust. Then she went back to Genoa, where she lived, and I to Merano, where my garrison was. We wrote to each other, and we met up only three or four times before getting married. She was wonderful”. 

“It was a perfect union, of happiness and emotional and cultural sharing, of love, as it almost always happens when an intelligent woman marries a homosexual” shrewdly notes journalist Natalia Aspesi.

War breaks out. Gaspero is sent to the front line in the Balcans, Irene follows him.

In 1943 they’re back in Rome, setting up home in Palazzo Torlonia, two blocks off the Spanish Steps. Following the armistice of 8 September, the capital is occupied by Nazi troops. Gaspero is considered a deserter. Irene hides him, along with some other forty soldiers who are fleeing the German raids.

To make ends meet, she is forced to sell her personal objects, including her wedding gifts: a crocodile purse, prints and drawings by Picasso, Matisse, Morandi. 

After Italy is liberated, people slowly start to feel alive again, “even if beaches were mined, pine groves were still burning, and bunkers were blocking the sea”.

Art and fashion are back to be part of everyday life.  

In 1946 Irene and Gaspero opened Galleria l’Obelisco in Via Sistina, the first art gallery to open in the postwar period, which quickly became the cultural epicenter of the capital.

Walking Via Sistina today, I find difficult to believe that what is currently a modest grocery shop at number 146 – one of those with a schizophrenic “OPEN” sign that flickers on and off at every fraction of second – was once one of the best galleries in Rome, attended by the city’s gotha of culture: Luchino Visconti and Ennio Flaiano, Pier Paolo Pasolini who has just moved from Friuli, Sandro Penna, Eugenio Scalfari.

To browse through the gallery’s catalogues is like getting a who’s who of 20th century art history. Nobody’s missing: Afro, Bacon, Balthus, Burri, Calder, Dalí, de Chirico, Fontana, Magritte, Matta, Morandi, Moore, Kandinsky, Picasso, Rauschenberg, Tanguy, Toulouse-Lautrec…

L’ Obelisco gives Brin international air to breathe. 

In the meantime, Rome is turning from a city in ruins into an idea – or, better, an ideal.  Life is sweet. “I understood that Rome had become the centre of the world and that it was worth taking part in it”, she later explained.

In the 1950s Brin supported the marquis Giovanni Battista Giorgini in the first catwalk of Italian fashion in Florence, which later became a celebrated event at Palazzo Pitti. Italian fashion is opening up to the world (and the USA, mainly). Brin, of course, is there.

During a trip to New York in 1950, she walks down Park Avenue wearing a huge Jacques Fath hat and a fabulous red Fabiani, when Diana Vreeland stops her to ask who’s the designer of her tailleur. The mythological fashion editor is probably equally interested in Brin’s clothes as much as in what they cover. The two start talking about Italy and fashion, Brin is later appointed correspondent for Harper’s Baazar

Between a catwalk and her column of advice, Brin, who is now “Contessa Clara”, writes her Galateo, a book on good manners illustrating how to behave in society, from handling asparagus to handling marriages. It’s an instant success. 

With her carefully studied frivolousness, Brin has described a nation better than dozens of engaged journalists. 

Towards the end of her life, looking back at her past, she wrote:

“The postwar ended a little melancholically, like periods of euphoria and wealth end. 

From 1919 to 1929 there had been the roaring twenties, the Charleston and Hemingway and Miss Chanel, then Wall Street occurred, with the financial crashes. From 1950 to 1963 there was the boom, Elvis Presley, and Miss Chanel, then the conjuncture occurred”.  

History goes in circles. It should find you on your best behavior.