Last week the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall undertook a brief tour of Italy, covering primarily Florence with brief stops in Rome and the Holy See. While there, Charles as able to delve into several of his passion projects, sustainable agriculture and support for vulnerable youths to name two. He was also able to tour programs that highlighted his long-held interest in the arts, classical music and history, three pursuits that he has not only always cultivated, but that he has seen as overlapping.
Charles is the definition of a “big picture” thinker, as we might put it today. He thinks unbelievably broadly and seeks to make connections between what others might consider disparate thoughts or fields. To him, there is always a point of intersection; there is always a broader purpose. Some of us (myself included) like to be able to see the forest through the trees; Charles likes to put everything in the context of nothing short of the world.
In many ways, Italy is an ideal country for him, its history and culture dwarfing many. It ladders back up to his natural philosopher’s way of thinking and background in anthropology from his Cambridge days. It makes sense, then, that Charles has always had a bit of a love affair with it. Indeed, the Prince has even said, “Art seems to invade every aspect of [Italian] life.”
Italy was first introduced to him by his grandmother, the Queen Mother, with whom he spent copious amounts of time in his youth, but only through stories, literature and arts. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh aren’t particularly invested in the arts, particularly the fine arts, which Charles has not only always been interested in, but for which he has an aptitude. She described to him her travels there in her youth, providing him an education and a companion as he dove into classical music, Renaissance art and reading.
Later on he would say, “My grandmother was the person who taught me to look at things.”
Ironically, the Prince wouldn’t actually see the country until 1984 where he undertook a two-day tour to visit his patronage of the United World College at Duino. Six months later he would be back for a two-week tour with his then-wife, the late Princess of Wales and their two children, Princes William and Harry. It was, to say the least, a completely different affair than the trip he just took with Camilla.
The tour was wildly hyped in the press beforehand, stemming largely from anticipation of what clothes Diana would debut in one of the world’s biggest fashion capitols. But more substantially, and interesting in light of his most recent visit to a more informal Vatican, in true Charles form the Prince got himself into some hot water over a planned meeting with Pope John Paul II. Essentially, Charles planned to attend mass with the Pope, but not take communion, however this plan wasn’t cleared by the Queen. When the Palace found out there were serious concerns that Charles might be jeopardizing his future position as Head of the Church of England.
The Queen famously avoids confrontation and lets her family members find their own way as they sort out their roles within the institution. Not this time. Charles was summoned to the Palace and after a long, private conversation, the Prince’s office was forced to inform the Vatican the mass was no longer possible. Unfortunately, news of this story broke on the day Charles and Diana arrived in the Holy See.
The press managed to drag four days of coverage out of the story, but the trip itself was a success. Diana, of course, wore the customary black and not the pale gold Camilla was able to get away with today.
Beyond that, as Sally Bedell Smith writes in her latest biography:
“The Italian tour was otherwise an ebullient cultural pilgrimage by the prince […] At each stop he painted whenever he could and chronicled his impressions in his journal. When he saw Leonardo’s Last Supper and the churches and galleries in Florence, he reeled ‘from the sheer concentration of unadulterated beauty.’ In the Church of St. Miniato, he wrote, ‘I could physically feel my spirit being lifted.’ On seeing Luca della Robbia’s blue and white terracottas he was ‘moved to tears.'”
It’s unfortunate that the image most people remember from this trip, if they remember or know it at all, is the green tartan that Diana wore one day in Venice. Which isn’t, of course, Diana’s fault, but the contrast between the intensity of the trip for Charles as the culmination of life-long passions and the headlines that came out of it is gaping.
Here is he with Diana speaking of his particular love of Florence:
The family arriving in Venice:
It’s interesting to see the difference between the images and videos coming out of the most recent tour and this 1985 trip, which more closely conjures up images of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge touring Canada with their young children last year. It’s interesting, too, to see how the family has changed so dramatically and the tours themselves have not. This practice, which is so foreign to many, has essentially stayed the same for a century.
Unfortunately the marriage was on its last legs and within a year the could would essentially give up and begin living very different lives. The same couldn’t be said for Charles and Italy. He would return three more times in the ’80s alone and all told has been there 18 times, including to attend John Paul II’s funeral in 2005, one day before he married Camilla in a civil ceremony.