After putting away their Lobster Newburg and roast plover, the ninety guests at Delmonico’s on November 8, 1877 tucked into their nesselrode pie while a succession of governors, cabinet secretaries, and captains of industry offered speeches in honor of the financier Junius S. Morgan. With feigned surprise at being called to offer spontaneous remarks and after ritual confessions of his nervousness in front of an audience, each speaker claimed deep friendship with Mr. Morgan, expressed admiration for the political and financial achievements of the assembly, and submitted his entry in the night’s unannounced name-dropping competition. Governor Samuel Tilden of New York demurred briefly before boasting of how President Martin Van Buren had sought his advice when drafting his will. “As I stood before his broad and large wood fire,” Tilden remarked, “I said: ‘It is not well to be wiser than events, to attempt to control the far future which no man can foresee, to trust one’s grandchildren whom one does not know, out of distrust, without special cause, of one’s children whom one does know.’ ” Unrecorded is the reaction of the many progenitors and beneficiaries in the audience, including the men seated together at the end of one table: Henry Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., and John Pierpont Morgan. Closer to the center sat Egisto Paolo Fabbri, Sr., a new partner at Drexel Morgan & Co., who would soon be entrusted with the future of his brother’s wife and children.
Born in Florence, Egisto Paolo, Sr. and his brother Ernesto left Italy in 1854 to rebuild the family’s wealth after the Risorgimento. After humbly restarting their careers as junior bookkeepers, the brothers established their own shipping firm in the South Street Seaport in 1860, which Ernesto continued to run after Egisto was tapped by J.P. Morgan as his first new partner. The muckrakers at McClure’s Magazine reported that
Morgan pushed and jammed and dragged in business to him: government bonds, Northern Pacific, New York Central, the West Shore and the Long Island railroads. Fabbri worked out the details. And together they turned out good securities for good customers, who would come again and ask for more. . . . It was extremely strenuous work. Fabbri, a man a little older than Morgan, wore out under it in about ten years. He took his fortune, went to Florence, bought a castle, and took medals from the King.
Fabbri’s Italian connections played an essential role in helping Morgan secure an agreement to sponsor the Edison Electric Light Company’s European expansion. Bringing the best of the old country to New York, Fabbri helped to found the Metropolitan Opera. After J.P. Morgan became president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a New York socialite could boast: “We have two Metropolitans now, and I would no more miss the opening of the Museum than that of the Opera.”
When his brother died, Egisto, who had no children, took guardianship of his brother’s widow and eight children. Henry Adams’s niece Mabel LaFarge remembered the three boys as movements of a symphony, “only the adagio came first, Egisto, the eldest, followed by the andante, Ernesto, and lastly an inimitable allegro, Sandro, the youngest, the gayest, perhaps the most forceful of the three.” Egisto Paolo Fabbri, Jr. was grateful for the kindness of his namesake uncle, whose wealth paid for his education at St. Paul’s School. Raised Episcopalian in affluent comfort, his childhood loneliness matured into Franciscan detachment—altissima povertade—and pulled him back to the art and faith of the old country.
In appearance he combined a Florentine father and American mother with tapered strains of Russian and Armenian nobility. He had an ivory complexion framed by black hair and beard that intensified the whites of his contemplative eyes. His chiseled features were enhanced by fine Italian tailoring, also in black. Egisto as a young dandy is best seen in a painted group portrait by Michele Gordigiani of his son Edoardo with young Egisto holding a lit cigarette while studying their friend Alfredo Müller’s canvas. He reinforced his good looks with a charming and unforgettable personality that made him dangerously attractive to women and gave his friendships a touch of glamour. When his uncle retired to Italy, the extended family lived together in patriarchal fashion. Young Egisto studied painting at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze and under J. Alden Weir at The Art Students League of New York. He rented a studio in Paris up six flights of stairs in Montmartre. At this stage, he risks becoming a cliché—the trust-funded aspiring artist with a waifish model girlfriend—until his generous and gentle soul shines light on our doubts. His portrait of his amour Stephanie shows a beautiful young Parisienne who must have stopped every party as her lithe frame entered holding Egisto’s arm. When he completed her black-and-white portrait in 1910, her weakened posture and alluring but exhausted eyes already showed signs of the tuberculosis that would later claim her life. Egisto risked his own health to comfort her until she died in 1913.
When the art critic Walter Pach visited Egisto’s studio, he found the artist at his easel under a skylight. Modesty compelled Egisto to hide his canvas. He often destroyed his own works. For his visitor, he brought out his collection of Cézannes. Fabbri was one of the first to appreciate the old painter from Aix, and he purchased over twenty works when they were being sold for next to nothing. Later they adorned the walls of his quattrocento Villa Bagazzano, inaccessible by motor car atop a cypress hill overlooking the Arno valley. Facing the villa’s porch across the garden is a small pink stucco chapel with the Medici and Ardinghelli coats of arms atop the entrance. The villa’s interior is a cloistral white matching the description of E. M. Forster’s Room with a View: “a bright bare room with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not.” A peasant woman placed good local wine atop the dark wood refectory table for the Fabbri brothers, who thanked her with friendly banter and grateful generosity. On Easter morning, a guest recalled stepping into a living old master scene as this “dignified contadina” honored her padrone with “a little rustic basket of white eggs, half hidden by a peasant’s napkin, and a bunch of tawny gilly flowers.” A friend wrote, “To have seen him at Bagazzano was one of those events that make life rich. . . . If I think now why I did not try and see him more, I think it was awe.”
In Paris, Egisto befriended Mabel LaFarge. At a time when many Catholics felt the sting of exclusion from WASP society (“Where Lowells speak only to Cabots, And Cabots speak only to God.”), John’s marriage to Margaret Perry and his son’s marriage to Mabel Hooper created an exception recorded by one son of an established family: “The LaFarges were the only Catholics we spoke to!” Raised in a house filled with paintings by Winslow Homer, Whistler, Elihu Vedder, and her future father-in-law, Mabel moved before the First World War with her husband and four sons to an old estate in Mount Carmel, Connecticut, near Yale. She purchased “Edgehill” with the proceeds from her sale of Homer’s Huntsman and Dogs now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Guests at Edgehill included Paul Claudel, Jacques Mauritain, Wallace Stevens, Wallace Fowlie, and Yale’s Catholic chaplain, Father T. Lawrason Riggs. Egisto designed a small chapel for the property. Although it was never built, a wooden model survives. The altar is decorated with the first words of the Eucharistic hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas: “Lauda Sion Salvatórem.”
Through Mabel, Egisto received an early private draft of The Education of Henry Adams, but he misplaced his copy soon after reading it. She completed the journey abandoned by her famous uncle on the road from Mont St. Michel to Chartres by converting to Catholicism in 1917. Father Edward Downes of Mount Carmel was responsible, which confirms Chesterton’s maxim that coincidences are divine puns. When Downes was a boy, Father Michael McGivney stood up in full cassock in New Haven probate court to claim guardianship of the indigent Downes children. Later that evening McGivney convened the men’s meeting that launched the Knights of Columbus.
Fabbri’s frequent correspondence with Mabel tracks his transition from artist to self-taught architect and the steps each of them took towards the Catholic Church. His sister in law Edith Shepard Fabbri gave him an opportunity to design a quattrocento-style townhouse on Ninety-Fifth Street near Park Avenue. Fritz Kreisler played in the library to celebrate its completion. “I didn’t know you were an architect,” Walter Pach told Fabbri during a tour of the perfectly proportioned house. “I’m not,” he replied, “This is the first thing I’ve ever done. But essentially, fine architecture is fine drawing. If you can distinguish a head that’s well drawn from one drawn with mere correctness, you can distinguish between what’s architecture and what’s merely building.”
He also designed a replacement for her burned-down Bar Harbor mansion. He gave her “Buonriposo”—a waterfront white stucco Italian country house with a tiled roof and central loggia. As the little Brunelleschi of Bar Harbor, he also created a small hexagonal temple with open arch porticos for a springhouse that stills stands in Acadia National Park. When this Episcopalian struggled with ecclesiastical authority, a friend suggested to him what must be one of the most unusual arguments in favor of the Roman pontiff. The ribs of his springhouse roof met to form a red tiled dome crowned with a pineapple. “Imagine your design without the pineapple,” his friend said, “and then imagine the Church without its head.”
Fabbri’s spiritual search led him to see God as the fountainhead of all artistic excellence. He saw the natural beauty of the Apennines as the work of a divine intellect that also moves man’s soul to create. “The light of the Church illumines the whole of the art of Italy. Dante, Michelangelo, Luca della Robbia, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Brunelleschi, Palestrina . . .” He contemplated especially the sonnets of Michelangelo Buonarotti:
When genius hath conceived of art divine,
Her primal birth, an incomplete design,
Is shaped in stuff of humble quality.
Later in living marble’s purity
The chisel keepeth promise to the full;
Reborn is the idea so beautiful,
That it belongeth to eternity.
His soul was moved by the chanting of nuns in Paris, which he experienced as “an emanation of the light of the Church” unequalled in the art of music. He sought the advice of Dom Mocquereau, the leader of the Gregorian restoration emanating from the Benedictine Abbaye of Solesmes, and Miss Justine Ward, the pioneering educator of Gregorian chant at her Pius X School in New York. (Richard Rodgers visited her school during research for The Sound of Music.) He sought to give form and voice to perfect worship through the creation of a church and choir in the Italian village of Serravalle. He supplied the funds and his architectural design was completed by stonecutters working in the medieval style, every block cut and laid by hand. “Only those who know the conditions of life in a remote Appennine village can realize the full boldness of Signor Fabbri’s ideal, realize too the element of pure beauty that he brought into the lives of people whose daily routine was the hardest,” wrote his Florentine obituarist.
Even as the foundation was laid, Fabbri remained outside the Church he was blessing with his munificence. “I am beginning to feel I cannot but be of the Church to whose affirmation I am giving all the energies of my life,” he wrote to Mabel LaFarge. “Will my beliefs be such that the Church will admit me?” His letter one month later stated plainly: “I was received into the Holy Church; it seemed as if the time had come for this, and I had no feeling of having taken any great resolution or determination by an act of the will, but it was as if all was natural and could not be otherwise.” He made his profession of faith to a Franciscan monk and quietly continued his work by funding a new convent choir school on the outskirts of Florence. The choir performed at a private audience with the pope in 1930 and Fabbri was thrilled to be pulled aside by Pius XI who told him: “We know what you have done and we thank you.”
Towards the end of his life, Egisto made a final generous gift. The family Palazzo Capponi in Florence was in financial peril so he stepped in to rescue his sisters and their children in the same way that his uncle once safeguarded him and his siblings. He sold thirteen of his precious Cézannes to raise the necessary funds. On a visit to Florence, Walter Pach arrived at the address given by Fabbri and was surprised to find himself standing in front of a palazzo. Doubting he was in the right place, he was relieved by the footman’s reply of “Subito” to his inquiry. Passing through the halls, Pach nodded to the portraits of the Marchesa and Contessa. “This is a grand place you’ve got into and those look like nice women to paint. How did you ever hit it off with them?” Fabbri replied, “Oh, I didn’t tell you. Those are my sisters; I live here.” He claimed only a modest apartment in the palazzo to live out the last few years of his life surrounded by his sisters, nieces, and nephews where his friends saw in him “something of a Greek sage, and of a Christian saint.”
Saint Francis lauded the golden light of Italy in his Canticle of the Sun. Henry Adams called the Canticle a holy bridge “over which only children and saints can pass.” Fabbri died in the light of faith in 1933.