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Saturday, March 2, 2013


If you have ever been to Thomas Jefferson’s stately home Monticello which sits on top of a small hill, you have seen the beautiful dome that rises over the center portion of the main house. Few people know the story of how this dome, Jefferson’s years in Paris, and his unfulfilled love affair with an Italian painter are connected. 
In 1768, Jefferson began to design the dream mansion he would build in the neoclassical style. He chose a remote site outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, and called it Monticello (which is Italian for “little mountain”). It would become the home for himself and his new bride, Martha, during the American Revolution. But Martha died in 1781 with the house still unfinished.
Several years later, the still grieving Jefferson was asked by George Washington to be the country’s Foreign Minister to France. While in Paris, his friend, artist John Trumbull, took Jefferson to visit the newly constructed Grain Exchange building. It was topped with a beautiful 130-foot iron dome which Jefferson loved. That day Trumbull also introduced Jefferson to a fellow painter and friend of his, Richard Cosway, and his wife, Maria. The Italian-English Maria Cosway was also a painter of some note.
Maria and Thomas shared an interest in art and architecture. They began to see each other on a daily basis, attending exhibits throughout the city. Over the course of a few months, Jefferson fell in love with the 27 year old Maria. In some ways the two of them were opposites. Maria was more artistic and Thomas was more rational. It isn’t known if anything further developed in their affair as Jefferson was very discreet.

Maria’s husband, Richard, insisted that he and Maria leave France and return home. Jefferson was heart-broken. Historians believe that Jefferson was somewhat emotionally vulnerable at that time. His wife had died a few years earlier, and he had just learned of the death of his youngest daughter. Not long after, Jefferson returned to Monticello but not before writing to Maria, “I am going to America and you are going to Italy. One of us is going the wrong way, for the way will ever be wrong that leads us further apart.”

After his return, Jefferson wrote of his feelings for Maria in what has become to be known as “A Dialogue of the Head and Heart.” It is a conversation between his rational head who says, “The art of life is the art of avoiding pain,” while his romantic heart says, “What more sublime delight than to mingle tears with one whom the hand of Heaven has smitten.” Between the lines, one can see that his heart blames his head for taking them both to see the Grain Exchange that day in Paris and meeting Maria. His heart was only interested in Maria, but his head was obsessed by the architectural triumph of the building’s great dome.
Jefferson never saw Maria again. But he tore apart the old Monticello and created a new design with the central focus being a great dome - like the one he saw in Paris the day he met Maria Cosway. The two continued to exchange letters for the rest of Jefferson’s life. He had an engraving of Maria hung at Monticello, and she had John Trumbull create a portrait of Jefferson that she kept. Her portrait of Jefferson now hangs in the White House in Washington.

The next time you pull a nickel out of your pocket, look at the image of Monticello on it and remember the story of Jefferson’s Head and Heart.

(historical note: the liaison between Jefferson and Maria Cosway took place after the death of his wife, Martha, and prior to his later relationship with Sally Hemings)

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