Gwendoline Maud Catherine Steward

Gwendoline Maud Catherine Steward

b: 3 APR 1871
d: 1956
'Gwendoline Steward' by J A C Pearce.

My first contact with my Italian cousins was in 1936, when things were very difficult between England and Italy. Mussolini was engaged in his African adventure in Abyssinia. I was just out of Oxford, having wasted my four year stay (took Latin and Greek, changed to Logic, then Modern Greats, ended with a 4th, tried diplomacy, failed, then law), and my sister Phyllis and I planned to make a visit to Florence, as we were both very keen on Italy and Renaissance art. My mother, who was a wonderful head of the family in every sense, especially in keeping in touch with all its members, kindly wrote on our behalf to Giulietta Burlamacchi. She was wife of Gualtiero, son of Lilian Burlamacchi, herself the daughter of Florance Steward, my grandmother's eldest sister.

My Italian cousins are the offspring of two marriages which took place at the end of the 19th century. Florance Skinner was the eldest daughter of a remarkable family headed by Judge Skinner, and my grandmother Euphemia was the youngest. I know very little of Florance except that she had great musical talent - as my grandmother had great dramatic talent - and wrote opera, one of which I believe was performed at the Naples Opera. Her husband Colonel Steward was reputedly a member of the family of Mary Queen of Scots. As a widow I understand Florance travelled around Europe with her two glamorous daughters, the elder Gwendoline and the younger Lilian, at first staying at Heidelburg and then Florence, I believe accumulating numerous debts and many broken hearts in the process. In Florence the two daughters, who must have been a striking pair, acquired two very grand husbands -- Gwendoline marrying the Marchese Strozzi and Lilian the Marchese Burlamacchi.

My sister and I stayed at a very nice pensione on the Arno. A couple of nice young English men were also staying there at the time, one of whom was Benjamin Britten. I sat next to him at table for two weeks without realising that he was destined to become a world-renowned genius. In any event, I was sadly unappreciative of modern music. During our stay Gualtiero took Phyllis and me in a taxi on a trip around Tuscany, including a visit to a beautiful lake behind Viareggio called Lake Massaciuccoli, where Puccini had built a villa and where he wrote most of his famous operas. On the way back we finished up at my cousin Gwendoline's villa at Abetone - one of the six villas owned by her family. There we all had tea at table, although Gwendoline, like a dutiful Victorian widow, stayed in bed wearing her widow's cap, and we were entertained by her younger son Gerio. The party included Maurizio Burlamacchi, then a small boy of six, who sat between my sister and me at the table. Gerio was a rather curious and childlike character but very charming, and I remember that during the tea he asked me and my sister whether Maurizio was our only son, which was rather disconcerting. After tea Phyllis and I went up to talk to Gwendoline, who was always a grande dame and every inch a Marchioness - and incidentally extremely loyal to Mussolini.

England in those days was in a very unsettled state. Although enormous dangers were building up on the continent under the magic of Hitler and Mussolini, England was distracted by the absurd soap opera of Edward the Eighth and Mrs Simpson, and most politicians except Churchill seemed quite unaware of the impending danger. So we had a decidedly stilted conversation, but I remember Gwendoline asking my sister if she and other young women all behaved like characters out of D H Lawrence's book Lady Chatterley's Lover? Anyway, she said rather regretfully that it looked as if Mussolini was destined to destroy the British Empire but although she was born in England it didn't seem that she was altogether sorry.

The next time I saw Gwendoline was about ten years later in 1944, when I was a Captain in the Eighth Army serving in General Mark Clark's headquarters, then located in Florence. At that time the Germans were gradually being pushed back to their defence positions on the Appenines, called the Gothic line. We were held up that winter for several months, and I made a point of visiting Gwendoline now and then, partly as a relief from army life. She was living in a large bedroom on the third floor of the Strozzi Palace behind the Duomo, which was full of refugees. When I entered her bedroom she took a moment to recognise me, and on my saying that I was her cousin she said "Oh, I'm so glad that it's you. I thought you were a British officer come to requisition something! This week I had several visits from British officers who took the furniture, two weeks ago we had the partisans who took the wine and cheese, and before that we had the Germans who took the peasants." After this rather curious welcome we had a pleasant talk, although Gwendoline, being an ardent fascist, was very sad at the condition of Italy.

After some minutes of conversation we talked more easily, and Gwendoline showed her true feelings when she finally said to me "You British and Americans have ruined Italy. Mussolini was the best thing that ever happened, and now we have nothing," - waving her hands round her large bedroom hung with masterpieces by Titian, Rembrandt etc. By now I was beginning to get a bit hot under the collar, feeling that I was a crusader come to liberate Europe from the tyranny of Naziism and Fascism, but I managed to keep my temper. Listening to her tragic comments though I could not help but compare with her life my life in a tent beside the Arno, with two inches of snow outside and a camp bed with a broken leg inside!

Certainly, talking to someone so civilised was quite a welcome change from the usual Army life, especially as I was then working as a junior officer in the mixed Anglo American HQ, in the G (Plans) section under a rather colourful American Colonel called Aaron M Lazar, a very dynamic and brilliant officer of German Jewish extraction, who was quite a contrast to Gwendoline's aristocratic refinement, more like a character out of Damon Runyan. I saw her several times that winter, and I think the only occasion when she seemed really cheerful was during Von Runtdstet's successful offensive in the Ardennes at Christmas 1944. I remember she said to me "My dear, I'm afraid the news is not very good for you just now. It looks as if the war may go on for another ten years."

She suggested that I might like to visit the large villa that the Strozzis owned at a village near Florence called Ponte A Mensola near Settignano, and I remember an amusing incident there. As I drove my Jeep up the long avenue leading to the grandiose villa, I saw a figure in the distance disappear into one of the bushes beside the road. I stopped at the bush and called out to Gerio who had a curious attitude to visitors. "It's only me, Gerio" I said, and he came out of the bush in a very friendly way. He showed me round the beautiful villa, which had a wonderful sunken lemon garden where the lemons were wheeled out in their enormous ornamental jars during the summer, and wheeled back into the shelter of the hothouses during the cold weather. There were in addition to this villa numerous other properties in the Strozzi estate, and when Gerio and his younger brother Uberto had both died, the whole thing turned out to be worth £30m, so Gwendoline's remark "now we have nothing" was only an approximation!

When Uberto died in 1982 a great problem arose. There appeared to be no will of any sort, although every corner of the great palace behind the cathedral was diligently searched several times over and no doubt all the other villas too -- but there was no trace of a will. It therefore appeared that an intestacy had occurred, so administrators were appointed to deal with the situation. After some months however a claimant to the estate appeared in the person of Signor Sorri, who was following an Italian tradition of forging wills, made possible by the fact that providing a will is a holograph document in the testator's handwriting, it does not need witnessing. In English law, except in extreme circumstances as in a battle or a shipwreck, every will must be witnessed by two witnesses in a formal manner. This so-called will was very cleverly written by Sorri or his agent, and stated that Uberto, in the recollection of a youthful attachment, had left all his property to a certain lady, although the relationship must have been decidedly platonic. Sorri found out about this relationship and adopted the lady as his mother - as one can do in Italy - and she agreed to proceed as far "as the law permitted". The forgery was very cleverly done, as shown by a photograph of the will published in the Florentine papers, carefully written in an elderly scrawl.

Sorri had apparently already done several deals of a dubious nature, and the idea of forging a will is not uncommon, partly because of this defect in the law. A famous example is given in Puccini's delightful opera Gianni Schicchi, itself based on the story of a famous mediaeval rascal to whom Dante gave an honoured place in the Inferno. The chief problem faced by Sorri was how to plant his will, and his solution seemed almost unbelievable. He made friends with an unscrupulous policeman, and together they made an appointment to visit the Strozzi Palace on some pretext. The housekeeper, who had been living in the palace since Uberto died, and had no doubt accompanied many search parties looking for the will, let them in, but also became suspicious, and telephoned my cousin Maurizio Burlamacchi about the visit. Sorri was apparently wearing blue spectacles and a false beard. Maurizio immediately got on his bicycle and raced over to the Palace about half a mile away, then joined the procession of Sorri, the policeman, and the housekeeper, going up and down the numerous galleries and corridors. After some minutes Sorri halted and said "I think I see an envelope lying under that cupboard. I wonder if it is the will." He picked up the envelope, and sure enough the word 'Testamento' was written on it, whereupon Maurizio exclaimed "That is a forgery," and insisted that the envelope be handed over to the police.

If he had not been there and made that intervention, I personally believe the lady and her adopted son Sorri would have acquired the £30m estate. As it was, the matter ended up in the law courts, where most disputes have a long and happy life of many years, and eventually, after some 13 years of argument based mainly on argument between the graphologists, the court decided against Sorri and the intestacy proceeded. The beneficiaries were all farmers in New Zealand, descended from Gwendoline's brother Walter Steward, an officer in the Navy, who had absolutely no contact with Florence. They clearly appreciated how lucky they were in the action that Maurizio had taken, and therefore included him among the list of beneficiaries, of whom there were about a dozen.

Incidentally, the big Palace at the back of the cathedral - Piazza del Duomo No. 10 - is now the residence and office of the head of the Province of Tuscany, which I feel would have greatly appealed to Gwendoline's rather grand ideas. The bedroom I saw her in on the second floor was the only room available to her at that time as the Palace was then full of refugees. Incidentally nearly all upper-class Florentines had fled the city in the war but certainly not Gwendoline, with her pugnacious English temperament, who was more Royalist than the King, like Winifred Wagner, another expatriate [correct?].

One amusing detail in this story concerns the stone plaque set into the corner of the Palace, inscribed "Canto dei Bischeri". It was only placed there after Uberto's death. Similar plaques are placed on many famous Florentine buildings. This one is particularly intriguing, as the word Bischero is a famous local term for an idiot. This is because, about 600 years ago, when the cathedral was being built and Florence was at the height of its wealth and glory, the Commune wished to extend the east end of the building far beyond the old church onto land then owned by the Bischeri family. The Commune offered them a fair price for the land, but they refused to deal and lost the land, hence becoming famous for their stupidity. No doubt during Gwendoline's life the commune was far too tactful to put up the plaque to this effect!

J A C Pearce - an account written in the year 2000. See also Uberto Strozzi.

  • 3 APR 1871 - Birth -
  • 1956 - Death - ; Buried at the Cemetery in Soffiano in the family chapel next to her husband, her mother Florance and then her two sons G
Allan Maclean Skinner , Q.C.
14 JUL 1809 - 23 MAY 1885
Florance Marion Skinner
13 AUG 1842 - 12 APR 1918
Caroline Emily Harding
22 OCT 1812 - 12 JAN 1901
Family Group Sheet - Child
PARENT (M) Walter Holden Steward
Death1913 England
Marriage4 JUN 1863to Florance Marion Skinner at Tixall, Staffordshire. The marriage certificate giving details can be obtained through the index in book 1a page 134 of
FatherHenry Edward Steward , Rev
MotherMary-Clay Holden
PARENT (F) Florance Marion Skinner
Birth13 AUG 1842
Death12 APR 1918 Florence
Marriage4 JUN 1863to Walter Holden Steward at Tixall, Staffordshire. The marriage certificate giving details can be obtained through the index in book 1a page 134 of
FatherAllan Maclean Skinner , Q.C.
MotherCaroline Emily Harding
MWalter John Wyndham Steward , R.N.
Birth30 MAR 1864At Allan Maclean Skinner's house at Brocton. Christened Tixall Church on 22 May
MHenry Allan Holden Steward
Birth18 MAY 1865
Marriage1 DEC 1890to Georgiana Barbara Ridgeway
FFlorance May Steward
Birth10 SEP 1866
Death29 MAR 1917Tung Yuan, Fang shensi, China
FLilian Grace Caroline Steward
Birth7 APR 1870
Death1940Naples, during the war. Her grave has gone. According to Pio Burlamacchi she had lived alone in Naples, in very bad shap
Marriage14 SEP 1891to Adolfo Arturo Burlamacchi
FGwendoline Maud Catherine Steward
Birth3 APR 1871
Death1956Buried at the Cemetery in Soffiano in the family chapel next to her husband, her mother Florance and then her two sons G
Marriage1897to Massimiliano Georgio Alessandro Strozzi
Family Group Sheet - Spouse
PARENT (M) Massimiliano Georgio Alessandro Strozzi
Marriage1897to Gwendoline Maud Catherine Steward
PARENT (F) Gwendoline Maud Catherine Steward
Birth3 APR 1871
Death1956 Buried at the Cemetery in Soffiano in the family chapel next to her husband, her mother Florance and then her two sons G
Marriage1897to Massimiliano Georgio Alessandro Strozzi
FatherWalter Holden Steward
MotherFlorance Marion Skinner
MGerio Massimiliano Strozzi
Birth29 JAN 1898
Death5 APR 1976Florence
Marriageto Corkos (?)
MUberto Georgio Alessandro Strozzi
Birth4 JAN 1900Fiesole
Death13 NOV 1982Florence
[S20969] Pio Burlamacchi's CD etc with Burlamacchi family details, 2000
[S9164] Effie Ray-Jones by word of mouth or in writing
Descendancy Chart
Gwendoline Maud Catherine Steward b: 3 APR 1871 d: 1956
Gerio Massimiliano Strozzi b: 29 JAN 1898 d: 5 APR 1976
Uberto Georgio Alessandro Strozzi b: 4 JAN 1900 d: 13 NOV 1982