Friday, 6 January 2017
Babington’s in Rome is more to my taste
than the new McDonalds near the Vatican
Babington’s English Tea Rooms is a traditional English tea shop at the foot of the Spanish Steps, in the Piazza di Spagna. The shop is on the ground floor of an 18th century building, beside the Spanish Steps, the 135-step staircase built in the 1720s and leading up to the Trinità dei Monti church.
The shop was founded in 1893 by two English women, Isabel Cargill and Anne Maria Babington, with the intention of catering for the many English-speaking people in Rome.
Isabel Cargill was a granddaughter of Captain William Cargill (1784-1860), the founder of Dunedin in New Zealand. She went to England in the 1890s, where she met Anna Maria Babington, a descendant of Anthony Babington, who was hanged for plotting against Queen Elizabeth I.
There was a number of marriages between the Babington, Comberford and Beaumont families in the 16th and 17th centuries. So I was interested to see how such a unique name because so closely identified with a ‘must-see’ site for tourists and visitors to Rome.
The two Victorian friends from England arrived in Rome with £100 and a dream of making a respectable living in the Eternal City. They opened their first teashop on Via dei Due Macelli, off the Piazza di Spagna, in 1893.
At that time in Italy, tea could be bought only in pharmacies. Their shop sold tea to the flourishing English community in Rome and provides a social place to read English newspapers. Babington’s Tea Rooms was such a success that the two women moved the following year to a more prestigious site on the Piazza di Spagna itself.
These were larger premises in a more prominent position, next to the Spanish Steps, in the heart of Rome. The building served first as the stables of the 18th century palazzo designed by Francesco de Sanctis, architect of the Spanish Steps and the Casina Rossa, now housing the Keats-Shelly Memorial House.
The new tea rooms were furnished in the latest fashion, and the shop became a favourite meeting place for writers, actors, artists and politicians as well as tourists and visitors to Rome.
Isabel Cargill married an Italian artist Giuseppe da Pozzo in 1902, and in 1910 her sister Annie joined Isabel and Anna Maria in Rome and opened the Hotel Londra Cargill.
The 1920s saw the rise of Fascism in Italy, and it also proved to be Babington’s lowest point. An exhausted Anna Maria Babington moved to Switzerland hoping to recuperate but died there in 1929.
Meanwhile, Isabel’s daughter Dorothy married Count Attilio Bedini Jacobini, and Isabel now thought of living a quieter life. But Babington’s Tea Rooms were saved by Isabel’s sister Annie who invested her life’s savings to give the Tea Rooms a complete facelift. Success was immediate and Babington’s once again became a hub of Roman society.
After the outbreak of World War II, Dorothy moved her mother and four children to relative safety in Northern Italy, and there Isabel died in 1944.
When Dorothy managed to return to Rome she found that three staff members had continued to Babington’s each day, using their own rations. Throughout World War II, the tea rooms had closed only for a few hours when the Allies entered Rome.
Today, Babington’s is still run by Isbael’s family, although it is Anna Maria’s name that continues to be linked inseparably with the shop. The interiors continue to reflect the late 19th-century, and the food is mostly traditional English fare. Babington’s Tea Shop sells specialty teas from all over the world, there are concerts, book launches, tea tastings and an annual Christmas carol concert.
Babington’s remains a little corner of England in Rome. The place has survived two world wars, the rise and fall of fascism, wave after wave of political and economic crises, and the arrival of fast food – why last week even McDonalds opened a franchise on Borgo Pio, beside the Vatican and within sight of Saint Peter’s Square.
Another member of the Babington family was Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), the historian, essayist and Whig politician. He was British Secretary at War (1839-1841) and Paymaster-General (1846-1848). His literary works include the Lays of Ancient Rome, a series of popular poems about heroic episodes in Roman history.
Thomas Babington Macaulay never married, so I cannot imagine how he was related to William James Babington Macaulay (1892-1964), who was the Irish Ambassador to the Vatican from 1933 to 1940.
Some sources say Macaulay was born in Dun Laoghaire (Kingstown), Co Dublin, in 1892, the son of Captain Patrick Macaulay from Carnlough, Co Antrim. However, his obituary in the New York Times in 1964 says he was born in Co Limerick.
Macaulay was educated privately, attended the Sorbonne in Paris, and was in the Royal Naval Reserve during World War I. He was a member of the British Civil Service in Inland Revenue before the Irish Free State was formed in 1922, and he soon joined the Irish diplomatic service.
He was First Secretary of the Irish Legation in Washington from 1925 to 1929, and from 1929 to 1930 he was the legation counsellor, serving at times as chargé d’affaires. In 1930, he became the first Irish Consul General in New York, and he moved to Rome in 1933.
In 1937, Macaulay married Duchess Genevieve (Garvan) Brady, a very wealthy American widow. Her first husband, Nicholas Frederic Brady (1878-1930), was a New York businessman and philanthropist who held several papal honours, including being a papal duke. Brady chaired the board of the New York Edison Co, and was a director of Anaconda Copper Mining Co, Westinghouse Electric, National City Bank, Union Carbide, and many other companies in the US and Japan. The Brady brothers also provided the funds for Walter Chrysler to take over the ailing Maxwell Motor Company.
Brady married Genevieve Garvan, and the couple had no children. A devout Roman Catholic, she was a Dame of the Order of Malta, a Dame of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and held many other Papal honours. Nicholas Brady was the second American, after Francis Augustus MacNutt, to be named a Papal Chamberlain. In 1926, Pope Pius XI made Brady a Papal Duke ad personam, meaning the title was not hereditary, and Genevieve was made a papal duchess in her own right.
The papal duke and duchess lived at 910 Fifth Avenue, New York, but they also built a large mock Tudor Elizabethan mansion on Long Island estate. It was completed by 1920 and they named it ‘Inisfada’ – an Irish-language pun on ‘Long Island.’
The Bradys lived for part of the time at Casa del Sol, their villa on the Janiculum Hill, between Trastevere and the Vatican. There they entertained senior Vatican officials, including Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII.
Nicholas Brady died in 1930, and his widow continued to divide her time between the Casa del Sol in Rome and Inisfada in New York, and she entertained Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pope, at Inisfada, during his American tour in 1936.
In 1934, she met the Irish Ambassador to the Vatican, William James Babington Macaulay, in Rome. They were married three years later in 1937 in the Church of Saint Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan, with Cardinal Francis Spellman officiating.
But Genevieve died in Rome the following year, 1938. Her body was brought back to New York for her funeral and she was buried beside her first husband at the Jesuit Provincial House in Pennsylvania.
The net value of her estate was almost $6.3 million, and Genevieve Garvan Brady Macaulay left her second husband $1 million outright along with the furnishings of their Roman villa. In her memory, he presented Stations of the Cross to Saint Patrick’s Church in Rome, and these are considered among the finest in design and craftsmanship in Rome.
After Genevieve died, the Inisfada estate was sold on generous terms on her instructions to the Jesuits. They used it as the Saint Ignatius Jesuit Retreat House until it was sold and demolished controversially in 2013.
When William James Babington Macaulay retired from the Irish diplomatic service, he became a US citizen in 1944. He lived in retirement in Essex, Connecticut, was an active yachtsman, and travelled widely. In 1958, he donated $60,000 to Eamon de Valera to establish a foundation to assist young Irish painters, writers, sculptors, dramatists and musicians.
He later returned to live in Italy and died in Florence in 1964; he was 71. He was survived by his sister, Mrs Mary Hand of Dublin.
I still have to figure out the former ambassador’s connections with the Babington family. When I next visit the Vatican and Rome, I shall not be calling into McDonalds on Borgo Pio – Babington’s by the Spanish Steps might much more to my taste.
And yet … nothing comes near to eating real Italian food in Italy.