Camilla Urso Collection

Irvin Department of Special Collections

The collection of papers belonging to Bonds Conway (1763-1843), an African-American resident of Camden, South Carolina, offers a rich and insightful record of a free family of color spanning multiple generations from the 18th to the 20th centuries. This valuable compilation comprises family letters, land papers, and various other items, shedding light on social relations during pivotal periods such as the antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction eras, and beyond, across different locations in South Carolina, Georgia, Kansas, east Texas, and more.

The digitization of these materials was skillfully completed by Kindra Becker Redd (MLIS 2011), who received the first group of materials donated by Betsy G. Miller. Following this, Brianna Hughes (MLIS 2015) contributed a second group of materials donated by Mrs. Miller. Together, they expertly scanned the items using the Avision bookedge scanner, while Katharine Thompson Allen handled the metadata for the first group.

Camilla Urso, a renowned violinist of the 19th century, defied societal norms as she excelled in a field predominantly considered unsuitable for women. Born in Nantes, France, in 1840, she demonstrated exceptional talent from an early age, leading her musical parents to move to Paris for her enrollment at the Paris Conservatoire. As the first female violin student admitted to the institution, her journey was remarkable. In 1852, she traveled to the United States with her father, despite initial financial setbacks, her skills earned her recognition among leading artists, and she performed with the New York Philharmonic at the age of fifteen.

Throughout her life, Urso encountered various challenges and experiences that shaped her career. In 1856, she was stranded in Nashville, where she met and married her first husband, a pianist and music teacher. Following his death during the Civil War, she determinedly rebuilt her career and transformed from a child prodigy into a mature virtuoso, captivating audiences in North America, Europe, South America, Australia, and South Africa. Despite her extensive travels, Urso considered the United States her home.

A review of her performance in Flint, Michigan, just before her death, testified to the lasting impact of her talent. Even newspaper editor and poet Theodore Tilton marveled at her playing, describing her as a “phenomenal combination of cold and heat” that captivated audiences with her artistry.

The exploration of Urso’s life led the researcher to discover errors in some historical accounts, necessitating intensive research to uncover accurate details about her life and career. The digitized collection includes items such as the silver laurel wreath presented to Urso in 1879, now held by the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina.

For those interested in further information about Camilla Urso’s life and work, there are several recommended sources, including a dissertation by Jennifer Schiller, a chapter in “Music Research: New Directions for a New Century,” and articles in The Strad and The Bulletin of the Society for American Music. Moreover, “Camilla, a Tale of a Violin” by Charles Barnard, written with Urso’s assistance, provides insights into her life during her lifetime, though some details may not be entirely accurate. As scholars delve into her life, various resources such as programs, photographs, and artifacts offer valuable clues and tangible connections to the past, enriching our understanding of this exceptional violinist’s legacy.

Betsy G. Miller

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