Little more than 40 years ago, former Charlottesville mayor Nancy O’Brien received an unexpected letter. Sent from Poggio a Caiano, a tiny, two-square-mile municipality in the Italian province of Prato, the epistle recounted the tale of a very special—and very old—friendship.
“We were preparing to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and the people of Poggio a Caiano were extremely excited about it, because they’d discovered a relationship between a prominent native of the town, Filippo Mazzei, and Thomas Jefferson,” says O’Brien. “Their interest was so great, they requested to send over a delegation and take part in the festivities. We thought it was a fantastic idea, and we enthusiastically agreed.”
It was this initiative on behalf of the Italians that, according to O’Brien, spawned what has become Charlottesville’s Sister Cities Program, and led to its membership in Sister Cities International. A global nonprofit, SCI—and, by extension, the CSCP—seeks to create partnerships between the U.S. and international communities at the municipal level by promoting cultural exchange and fostering mutual economic development.
“The group from Poggio a Caiano ended up visiting Charlottesville and we hosted them in our homes and showed them around as best we could,” says O’Brien. “Then we followed up by going over there and staying with them in their homes. After that, things just sort of took off.”
Soon after, Prato reached out to Albemarle County, explaining that it was for Poggio a Caiano what Albemarle was for Charlottesville. Agreeing to a partnership in 1977, the two regions became united. “I was part of a group of seven or eight people participating in that first visit, and while we were there, things went so well we began a discussion about doing student exchanges,” says Gerald Fisher, who, at that time, was chairman of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. “Eventually, we began sending students from the city and county to live with Italian families for a period of weeks, and they sent back students to live with us as well. It was all very successful and, ultimately, fostered a special sense of community between our city and theirs.”
Since that inaugural visit, many more public and private exchanges have occurred. Marching bands and orchestras from Charlottesville and Monticello high schools have performed in concerts, parades and events in Italy. Soccer teams have competed in friendly competitions. Artists from the McGuffey Art Center have studied painting and sculpting. Restaurants have exchanged chefs. And, perhaps most importantly, families have struck up lifelong friendships.
In this latter camp, retired SunTrust bank president and long-time Charlottesville resident Steve Campbell is a prime example. After agreeing to host an Italian family in 1998, he got hooked. “My wife and I and our two young kids hosted a visiting family and it was such an amazing experience we decided to complete the circle by visiting them in Italy,” he says. “It was a beautiful place with a culture that we found intriguing and appealing and, since then, we’ve routinely hosted visitors and been back almost every year. We visit the same families, and our children have grown up alongside theirs. In a way, it’s almost like we’re dual citizens.”
During their interactions, Campbell was introduced to a subject that has become a passionate intrigue bordering on obsession. “We’d be eating and the wine would be flowing and the conversation would turn to this obscure, historical friendship between [Thomas] Jefferson and a guy named Filippo Mazzei,” he says. “I’m pretty big into history, but I’d never heard of him. I’d listen to the things that were being said and think to myself, ‘There’s no way.’ But then I’d go do some research and find out that what they were saying was true. And the more I discovered, the more I wanted to know.”
Campbell began visiting libraries, digging through records and stacks of centuries-old correspondence between the two men. Starting with the Jefferson Library at Monticello, his hunger for knowledge eventually carried him to Paris, London, Pisa and several other European locations. Twenty years and “hundreds of hours on the project” later, O’Brien jokes she’s anticipating Campbell’s book on the matter (there isn’t one, at least not yet). He says he’s still just scratched the surface.
Who was Filippo Mazzei and what was the nature of his curious friendship with Thomas Jefferson? According to Campbell, it’s best to start at the beginning.
Born in Poggio a Caiano in 1730, what brought Mazzei to Virginia was, above all else, wine. “He’d established himself as a wine merchant in London, which is where he met Benjamin Franklin,” says Gabriele Rausse, director of Monticello’s gardens and grounds. “Franklin liked Mazzei and was able to convince him the Virginia climate was similar to that of the Mediterranean, and that he should come here and seek to establish grape vines, olive trees and other citrus plants.”
When Mazzei arrived in Williamsburg in 1773, he brought along 11 indentured servants, and was greeted by a group of the state’s most prestigious citizens, including George Washington, James Madison and George Wythe. From there, having been granted 5,000 acres in Augusta County by the Virginia Assembly, he headed west with intention of establishing the first North American vineyard. However, en route to the Shenandoah Valley, he stopped at Monticello. “He spent the night there and, in the morning, he and Jefferson were the first to wake,” says Rausse with a chuckle. “They began talking and there was a spark—they found they had much in common. And that conversation marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship.”
As it turned out, even more than winemaking, Mazzei was passionate about the burgeoning ideals of personal liberty and representative democracy. “The two men shared similar interests and political ideas, and appear to have felt an immediate kinship for one another,” says Gaye Wilson, Shannon senior historian and deputy director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello.
Considering Mazzei’s résumé, is there any wonder? He was an intellectual and had served as a doctor in the Middle East. He was well-traveled and had cultivated friendships with powerful European leaders such as Pietro Leopoldo I, who was the duke of Tuscany and would later become the Holy Roman emperor. He was a skilled viticulturalist, loved gardening and, of course, had been a celebrated wine merchant for nearly 20 years.
“The bond was so striking, Jefferson convinced Mazzei to abandon his plans and install himself basically next door,” says Wilson. “In fact, he gave Mazzei 193 acres of his own land, which Mazzei accepted on the spot. …In a sense, it was a mutual sacrifice and an investment. Clearly, the two men were enamored with one another.”
“The two men worked together to hone and craft their ideas, and the parallelism of their thought is astounding. It’s clear they were influencing one both philosophically and intellectually, and that Mazzei played a role in shaping ideas that eventually found their way into the Declaration of Independence.” Steve Campbell
However, according to Rausse, like so many things with Jefferson, the move was simultaneously pragmatic and self-serving. On the one hand, as a lover of fine wine, he very much wanted to secure for himself a source free of the cumbersome—and expensive—realities of importing European vintages. On the other, as an agrarian, he felt Virginia’s economic future depended on what could be grown on the land and, from that vantage, the notion of producing domestic wines that could compete with European varieties was enticing. “[Jefferson] was a tinkerer and loved to experiment with plants,” says Rausse. “This was a kind of exciting challenge for him, and he wanted to be a part of it. But he always kept in mind the possibility of what the project could mean economically, first for the Virginia colony, then for nation-building.”
The plot Jefferson gave Mazzei was located along the current intersection of state Route 53 and Milton Road, today the location of Salt artisan market, and included the site of what is now Jefferson Vineyards. With the help of his new friend, Mazzei purchased an additional 281 acres of land from Edward Carter, and began building a home on the estate, which he named Colle, in honor of the area where he was born.
In the meantime, he boarded with Jefferson. “While he ordered workers to install grapevines at Colle almost immediately, he was living with Jefferson and was passionately engaged in discourse regarding the possibility of a new republic,” says Wilson. “He already knew Franklin, Washington and Madison, and was soon introduced to John Adams, James Monroe, Patrick Henry and others. He corresponded with all of these founding fathers and played an active role in the conversation surrounding the formation of America.”
Naturalized as a Virginia citizen by colonial governor Lord Dunmore in 1784, Mazzei quickly became a frequent contributor to the Virginia Gazette. And while his English was excellent, he wrote in Italian, which Jefferson, who was fluent in that language, translated. “The two men worked together to hone and craft their ideas, and the parallelism of their thought is astounding,” says Campbell. “It’s clear they were influencing one another both philosophically and intellectually, and that Mazzei played a role in shaping ideas that eventually found their way into the Declaration of Independence.”
Filippo Mazzei, depicted in this unfinished portrait by Jacques-Louis David, first came to Virginia in 1773 and was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson’s who lived on an adjacent plot of land that’s now home to Jefferson Vineyards. The two men shared many ideals, including ones about democracy. File photo.
But don’t take Campbell’s word for it. This excerpt, written by Mazzie and plucked from a 1774 edition of the Virginia Gazette, reads uncannily like the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence: “All men are by nature equally free and independent. Such equality is necessary in order to create a free government. All men must be equal to each other in natural law.” In 1994, the scope of Mazzei’s contribution to the document was officially recognized in a congressional resolution stating, “The phrase in the Declaration of Independence ‘All men are created equal’ was suggested by Italian patriot and immigrant Philip Mazzei.”
Jefferson and Mazzei’s collaboration continued, and, in 1776, led to the production of another important political document, the “Instructions of the Freeholders of Albemarle County to their Delegates in Convention,” in which Mazzei argued the colonies should have “but one and the same constitution.”
“Their relationship was close and quite profound,” says Wilson. “Among other things, Jefferson gave Mazzei a draft of the Declaration of Independence to review, and used an excerpt from Mazzei’s [“Instructions of the Freeholders…”] in his attempt to institute a new state constitution.”
Additionally, Mazzei signed a petition for Jefferson’s Committee on Religion to abolish spiritual tyranny, and, after becoming a member of the local vestry, proceeded to present the argument from the pulpit of the occasional area church.
In 1775, at the dawning of the American Revolution, Mazzei enlisted as a private in the Independent Company of Albemarle. However, his peers—namely, Henry, Mason and Jefferson—had different plans. Aware of Mazzei’s friendship with the duke of Tuscany, the men sent him back to Italy in 1779 with instructions to secure much needed funding for the revolution. “Mazzei knew Leopoldo because Poggio a Caiano was the site of a Medici villa and the duke had spent some summers there,” says Campbell. “As tensions were escalating in the colonies, Mazzei shared current events with him, sending along an early copy of the Bill of Rights, for instance. The duke appeared sympathetic to the revolution, and Mazzei felt there was a good chance of getting a loan.”
Meanwhile, while overseas, Mazzei had rented his estate to Hessian general and prisoner of war Baron von Riedesel. “The general paid no mind to Mazzei’s vines and his horses trampled them all,” says Rausse. In response to the tragedy, Jefferson later lamented: “[They] destroyed the whole labor of three or four years, and thus ended an experiment, which, from every appearance, would in a year or two more have established the practicability of that branch of culture in America.”
After spending five years in Europe lobbying the American cause and raising money for the war effort, Mazzei returned to the U.S. in 1783, hoping to receive a consular post. And while that ultimately didn’t happen, prior to departing North America for good just two years later, the Italian made one last contribution to the republic from its home soil. “He founded the Constitutional Society of 1784, which had 34 members, including James Madison, James Monroe, George Mason and John Marshall,” says Campbell. “Almost all of the group’s members went on to take major roles in the new government, and The Virginia Plan arose at least in part from the group’s discussions.”
After writing letters of introduction ahead of Jefferson’s arrival in Paris as a minister to France, Mazzei joined his friend in Paris in 1785. There, the two continued to work together to further the American cause.
“Jefferson decided to publish his Notes on Virginia while in Paris and, by way of accompaniment, suggested to Mazzei he should write a history of the United States from the perspective of a European,” says Campbell. Not one to shy away from a challenge, the result was a four-volume history of the colonies, Recherches Historiques et Politiques sur les États-Unis de l’Amérique Septentrionale. Published in 1788, the history was the first of its kind written in French, and relied heavily on Mazzei’s Virginia connections. “The idea was to have the book serve as a counterweight to British propaganda and French misinformation,” says Wilson.
And while the book wasn’t translated into English until 1976, Wilson says it received ample attention in Europe and, ultimately, achieved what it was meant to do.
After Jefferson left Paris in 1789, the two men’s paths would never again cross in person. While Jefferson went on to become the third president of the United States, Mazzei became involved in the French Revolution and, among other things, worked as an agent and councilman for King Stanislaus of Poland, helping to establish the first diplomatic relations between Poland and France.
However, the friends never ceased to correspond.
“At one point, Jefferson wanted to obtain some portraits of explorers he felt were important to the American narrative,” says Wilson. With Mazzei acting as his agent, Jefferson acquired Florentine paintings of Vespucci, Columbus, Magellan and Cortez from the grand duke of Florence. “Virtually all later copies that found their way into other American collections were taken from these originals, including those hanging in Monticello’s parlor,” says Wilson.
Elsewhere, Mazzei sought to improve provisions for U.S. merchants in Italian ports and aided Jefferson in finding sculptors to work on projects in the U.S. Capitol. Additionally, he served as a translator of Jefferson’s public speeches and letters, and circulated them in hopes of eliciting interest in the American cause in Europe.
But, above all else, horticultural topics proved an endless source of interest for the two friends. “They always talked of retiring to be gardeners and both ended up doing just that—Mazzei in Pisa, and Jefferson at Monticello,” says Rausse. “Through the years, Jefferson sent Mazzei descriptions of his plough and constant observations regarding the success or failures of his experiments, while Mazzei sent Jefferson many seeds and plants.”
The relationship continued until Mazzei’s death in 1816. Upon receiving the news from Thomas Appleton, Jefferson responded: “[A]n intimacy of 40 years had proved to me his great worth; and a friendship, which had begun in personal acquaintance, was maintained after separation, without abatement, by a constant interchange of letters. His esteem too in this country was very general; his early & zealous cooperation in the establishment of our independence having acquired for him here a great degree of favor.”
More than 240 years after Jefferson and Mazzei’s fortuitous breakfast at Monticello, on June 26, a delegation from Poggio a Caiano arrived in Charlottesville to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Sister Cities Program. While touring the area the group encountered more than a few reminders of their enlightened predecessor.
There is the Rivanna tributary named Colle; the salvaged lumber from Mazzei’s estate that was used to renovate Michie Tavern; the portraits hanging in the Monticello parlor and numerous trees in its orchard; and the historical plaque announcing the former site of Colle off state Route 53. And yes, the thriving viniculture at Jefferson Vineyards.
“For Italians, Mazzei is important because he came to this country at a time when it was very difficult to travel to,” says Rausse, who himself immigrated from Italy in the mid-’70s, and was later responsible for establishing the vines at Jefferson Vineyards. “We are proud of him because of his ability to be fearless and live an adventurous life and just follow his dreams wherever they took him. Meanwhile, for Jefferson, Mazzei opened the gateway to Italy. It was a land of beautiful aesthetics and rich, historical culture, and Mazzei introduced him to possibilities that were different from his British family upbringing.”
At a welcome dinner held at Nancy O’Brien’s Charlottesville home, Poggio a Caiano Mayor Marco Martini summed up the legacy of the friendship: “As we share our cities, culture and friendship, we build bridges instead of walls.”