Countess Baldelli

(Henrietta Gertrude Walker)

Gertrude, Countess Baldelli (1814-1903) was a prominent member of the Anglo-Italian expatriate community in Florence in the latter part of the 19th century. The eldest daugher of Captain Charles Montagu Walker, who had served under Nelson, she was the niece of Lieut-Gen Sir George Townshend-Walker, Baronet, whose glittering military career culminated in his appointment as Commander-in-Chief in Madras in the 1820s.  Henrietta Gertrude Walker's parents moved from England to Florence a few years after she was born. Her maternal grandmother was Maria Riddell, famous for her friendship with the poet Robert Burns. 

After being widowed in her mid-twenties, she married Count Antonio Baldelli, a Tuscan nobleman. In Florence she was closely acquainted with the poet Walter Savage Landor, who in 1858 had returned to live out his days in the Tuscan capital. "All my former friends have left this country. Most of them are dead. Mrs Browning among these; and Browning has gone to England, probably never to revisit Florence. There still remain Kirkup, Mrs Trollope and the Countess Baldelli née Walker. She brought her sister and two children to see me a few days since. She often shows me the same kindness since I have been unable to get so far as to her house. . ," Landor wrote in 1862, two years after the present portrait was painted.
 

Landor's poem "To-morrow If The Day Is Fine" is dedicated to Countess Baldelli and her two young daughters: To-morrow if the day is fine/ I visit you before you dine./ Juliet a little shy may be,/ But Blanche will sit upon my knee...


The countess's  nephew, Guy Fleetwood Wilson, who was a young boy when he met Landor in Florence, described the ageing poet's "vitriolic" temper but also the special affection in which he held his aunt. "He had quarrelled with every soul he owned or knew, and appeared to have no affection for any living thing except my Aunt Gertrude and Giallo, his yellow pomeranian, a brute who bit everyone without distinction." After Landor's death in 1864, Giallo outlived his master by eight years, cared for by the Contessa Baldelli.

 

The Baldellis' town house was off the Piazza D'Azeglio in Florence, and they had a country estate at Poggio Ubertini near Montespertoli outside the city.
 

Gertrude Baldelli was a fierce campaigner against animal mistreatment, her fondness for animals undampened by the fact that her first husband, John Andrew McDouall, had died at the age of 33 as a result of a fall from his horse. He is buried in Naples. A friend of feminist, reformer and supporter of animal welfare Frances Cobbe, the countess campaigned against animal vivisection and in 1873 was a driving force behind the foundation of the Florentine Society for the Protection of Animals devoted to combating animal cruelty. Strongly Evangelical, Countess Baldelli brought to her campaign for animal welfare the Protestant proselytising zeal of a Victorian social reformer. Cultivated and multilingual, she "maintained correspondence throughout her life with many of the great thinkers and writers of her generation" and was "closely associated with all the philanthropic and other agencies for the moral and material improvement of her adopted country" (The Times).
 

The Contessa Baldelli was a keen amateur astronomer and regularly reported her observations to the learned press, including a sighting of a fireball in the night sky at Poggio Ubertini in November 1864. She described seeing a "white globe of fire many times larger than the full moon" accompanied by a smaller ball of a "fiery orange colour". Her account of the sighting, published in the Astronomical Register, has recently been seized on by Italian ufologists as the first description of a UFO in post-unification Italy.
 

As one of the grandes dames of Anglo-Florentine society, Countess Baldelli was received by Queen Victoria during royal visits to Florence in 1888 and 1894.


The countess's beauty was remarked on by many who met her. Writing in 1832, Sarah Burney paid the young Gertrude Walker a double-edged compliment in a description of a recent encounter with her, writing that if she had not "from weakness, become round shouldered" she would have looked "prettier than ever". In later life, her white widow's weeds were said to accentuate her striking appearance. Guy Fleetwood Wilson called her a "remarkable woman" who had inherited the "very exceptional beauty of her grandmother, Mrs. Riddel [sic], as well as her literary culture". The Times, in its obituary, referred to the countess's "remarkable beauty".


Gertrude, Countess Baldelli died in 1903 and is buried at the Cimitero degli Allori in Florence. The Baldelli country estate at Poggio Ubertini was left to the Christian Evangelical Church of Florence by her daugher, Giulia Tommasi-Baldelli (Landor's "Juliet"), on the latter's death in 1932.


SOURCES AND FURTHER READING



  • Debrett's Baronetage of England

  • Guy Fleetwood Wilson, Letters to Somebody; a Retrospect

  •  Walter Savage Landor, letter to Mrs Graves-Sawle 14th January 1862

  • The Times 16th April 1888, 13th April 1894, 27th November 1903

  • Animal World: An Advocate of Humanity, 1914

  • The Letters of Sarah Harriet Burney, ed. by Lorna J. Clark

  • Angus Macnaghten, Burns' Mrs Riddell

  • Georges Virlogeux, Epistolario: 1819-1866, Massimo d'Azeglio

  • Malta Family History online - Index to Old Protestant Cemetery - Naples

  • Alessandra Pecchioli, "Giulia Baldelli: Una prima breve panoramica delle famiglie Walker, Baldelli e Tommasi", in La Chiesa «degli italiani»: all'origine dell'Evangelismo risvegliato in Italia, ed. Alessandra Pecchioli

  • Astronomical Register vol. 3 (1865), p. 53

  •  "La grande galassia degli Ufo - Storie di incontri ravvicinati", in La Repubblica-Torino, 12th November 2011

  • "La contessa e l'Ufo" in Il Tirreno, 27th November 2011

  • Description of miniature portrait of "Captain Charles Montague [Hudlestone] Walker 1780-1833", held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Retrieved from collections.rmg.co.uk website 16th December 2012.

Alfonso Gelabert y Buxó (d. 1897)
Alfonso Gelabert y Buxó (d. 1897)

"Countess Baldelli"

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Watercolour heightened with gouache on paper, 17 cm x 14.2 cm, signed and inscribed in pencil "A-so Gelabert y Buxo, Florencia 1860", with pencilled inscription by another hand transferred from old mountboard to new mount: "La Contessa Baldelli by Gelabert 1860" . Price: £180

Alfonso Gelabert y Buxó

The Catalan artist Alfonso Gelabert y Buxó (Alfons Gelabert) studied under Couture in Paris and divided his time between the French capital and Florence. In 1859 he followed the Sardinian and French armies on campaign in the Austro-Piedmontese War, sketching at the battles of Montebello, Palestro and Magenta. Subsequently he returned to his native Girona where he taught at the city's School of Drawing, counting Josep Berga i Boix among his pupils. 

 

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING

 

  • D. Victor Balaguer. Italia. Coleccion de Cantos Sobre la Guerra de la Independencia Italiana, escritos en idioma catalan. Barcelona: Libreria de Salvador Manero, 1859, Notas pp XVII-XVIII. 

  • Gran Enciclopèdia Catalana