“Thy rare gold ring of verse (the poet praised) / Linking our England to his Italy!” Thus concludes Robert Browning’s masterwork The Ring and the Book (1868-69), a poem whose composition celebrates the longstanding artistic relationship between the two nations in the nineteenth century.
English literature is full of Italian journeys. There are honeymooners, though their marriages tend not to fare well (Dorothea and Casaubon; Gwendolen and Grandcourt; George Eliot’s own Venetian wedding-night debacle). There are ill-fated convalescents (Keats; Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Milly Thrale; Ralph Touchett). There are traveloguing or scholarly visitors (Sydney Owenson; John Ruskin; Byron in his late Childe Harold phase). There are also exiles (Byron and the Shelleys). And—finally—there are Italians émigrés in England (the Rossettis).
In this post, I recommend some enjoyable and Romantically-informed travels in Italy—and invite you to contribute adventures of your own in the comments section!
Like the Romantics, you may find yourself exploring thousands of years of history with the help of a guidebook – perhaps Italy, written by Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) in 1821. You might also consult Byron’s always entertaining prose. He wrote in 1817, “I am delighted with Rome—as I would be with a bandbox, that is, it is a fine thing to see, finer than Greece; but I have not been here long enough to affect it as a residence. [I have been] about the city, and in the city: all for which—vide Guide-book.”
But, apparently unsatisfied with the “Guide-book” in question, Byron developed his own vision of Rome in the fourth Canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, where he writes (with characteristic grandeur):
Rome—Rome imperial, bows her to the storm,
In the same dust and blackness, and we pass
The skeleton of her Titanic form,
Wrecks of another world, whose ashes still are warm. (IV. 46)
Oh Rome! my country! city of the soul!
The orphans of the heart must turn to thee,
Lone mother of dead empires! and control
In their shut breasts their petty misery. (IV. 78)
Rome admired Byron back, and it comes as no surprise that the poet is omnipresent in the city. In the Villa Borghese, for instance, look for the Byron statue at the entrance to the park. This is a copy of the famous Thorvaldsen bust of the poet, for which he posed in Rome in 1817 (the original statue, refused by Westminster Abbey, is at Trinity College, Cambridge).
Even classical sites like the Colosseum can be seen anew through a Byronic lens. The poet devotes six stanzas to the gladiatorial games that took place in that “enormous skeleton” in Childe Harold, Canto IV, and finishes with this epic misquotation of the Venerable Bede:
“While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;
And when Rome falls—the World.” (145)
Nearby, Trajan’s Column, now separated from the Colosseum and the Roman Forum by a Mussolini-era expressway, also gets the sublime Byronic treatment: “Whose arch or pillar meets me in the face, / Titus or Trajan’s? No—’tis that of Time…” (Childe Harold IV. 110).
Byron began writing Canto IV—the Italian leg of his peripatetic long poem—in 1817, at his Roman residence, Piazza di Spagna 66, which is located at the bottom of the famous Spanish Steps. The building now seems to be a dentist’s office—suitably befitting its red-tooth-powder-obsessed former resident.
Considerably more important, however, is Piazza di Spagna 26, a pink building across the square and directly next to the steps. This is now the Keats-Shelley House. Keats died here in 1821, and the building has since been converted into a museum celebrating the life and works of the second-generation Romantic poets, especially Keats.
The poet’s modest rooms, on the second floor, are particularly moving: on the wall is a brass plaque that commemorates his death, and the bedroom has been restored to its historical condition, including the original fireplace and period furniture. The museum displays many of Keats’s belongings and letters, and even his death-mask.
The Keats-Shelley House also boasts an excellent collection of over eight thousand volumes related to Romanticism, including many early editions, as well as plentiful (and sometimes disturbing) paraphernalia associated with the English poets. There are many well-preserved original letters in Mary Shelley’s hand. Look out for locks of hair belonging to Milton and the Brownings, and scraps from Byron’s red bed-curtains (dating to the night terrors he experienced during his marriage). Perhaps most uncanny is Byron’s wax mask, which he wore during the Carnival at Venice. You can even take a virtual tour of the Salone (the central room) without the cost of airfare to Rome.
Shelley’s impassioned response to Keats’s death in “Adonais” (1821) leads us to our final Romantic site in Rome. “Go thou to Rome,” Shelley urges, to see the “slope of green access / Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead / A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread” (433, 439-41)—that is, to the Protestant Cemetery, where not only Keats, but also Shelley’s son William (and ultimately Shelley himself) were buried. Other notable Romantics there include Keats’s friend Joseph Severn, and Shelley and Byron’s friend Edward Trelawny. Keats’s grave famously features only the inscription “Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water.” The map of the cemetery is available here.
Florence is known for its unparalleled art galleries, which were celebrated even in the time of the Romantics. Indeed, Byron’s letters attest to how little the collections have changed in two centuries:
“At Florence I remained but a day, having a hurry for Rome, to which I am thus far advanced. However, I went to the two galleries, from which one returns drunk with beauty. The Venus [dei Medici] is more for admiration than love; but there are sculpture and painting, which for the first time at all gave me an idea of what people mean by their cant, and what Mr. Braham calls “entusimusy” [enthusiasm] about those two most artificial of the arts. What struck me most were, the mistress of Raphael, a portrait; the mistress of Titian, a portrait; a Venus of Titian in the Medici gallery—the Venus; Canova’s Venus also in the other gallery: Titian’s mistress is also in the other gallery (that is, in the Pitti Palace gallery); the Parcae of Michael Angelo, a picture; and the Antinous—the Alexander—and one or two not very decent groups in marble; the Genius of Death, a sleeping figure, etc., etc.”
“The Venus” (Byron’s eyebrows clearly raised) likely refers to the celebrated and controversial “Venus of Urbino,” which is still displayed in the Uffizi Gallery. The other portrait of “Titian’s mistress,” which the poet saw in the Pitti Palace (the former residence of the Medici family), has a particularly interesting history. Usually titled “La Bella,” this painting of an unknown woman (probably the same model used for the “Venus of Urbino”) was taken to France in 1800 during Napoleon’s conquest of Florence. (Napoleon briefly occupied the Pitti Palace itself, and his opulent bathrooms, which are still accessible to visitors, would likely have provided Byron with considerable entertainment). The painting was returned to Florence fifteen years later—only two years before the poet visited the Pitti Palace in 1817. When I visited the gallery in 2011, “La Bella” had just undergone an in-depth restoration, the details of which were explained in an extensive exhibit.
Today, the Pitti Palace also features Lorenzo Bartolini’s bust of Byron, for which the poet posed some years after his sitting with Thorvaldsen:
Byron’s mistress, Teresa Guiccioli, offers an amusing account of the sculptor’s encounter with the poet:
“Bartolini, the sculptor, wrote to Lord Byron to ask permission to come to Pisa and carve a bust of him. Lord Byron liked very much to be surrounded by portraits of his friends and those whom he loved—but he was loath to pose himself. When he did , it was always to please friends. Thorwaldsen had sculptured his head and shoulders for Hobhouse, but Lord Byron did not even have a plaster cast. ‘It’s all very well,’ he said, ‘getting painted’ […] But to pose for a bust in marble struck him as vanity and pretentiousness, as wanting to obtrude oneself on posterity rather than leaving a private memento. […] When pressed, he replied that he would sit, provided it was not for himself, and that Bartolini would commit himself to doing a bust of Countess Guiccioli at the same time.
When [Bartolini] set eyes on Lord Byron, he announced that he could never do justice to such an original, since Lord Byron’s handsome appearance and his expression seemed to him to exceed the power of art. He was quite right […] His beauty was wellnigh superhuman in its manifestation, and Bartolini was far from being the man to overcome the difficulty.
Lord Byron himself […] was unfavorably impressed; and when the marble was destined for Murray, he wrote to him: ‘The bust does not turn out a good one, though it may be like for aught I know, as it exactly resembles a superannuated Jesuit.’ Then again: ‘I assure you Bartolini’s is dreadful.’ He also added that if it were like him, he could not be long for this world, for the bust made him look seventy.”
I leave Bartolini’s likeness to your judgment, though the partner bust of the Countess Guiccioli (normally held at the Istituzione Biblioteca Classense in Ravenna) strikes me as being quite serene and beautiful. And a reading of Browning’s “The Statue and the Bust” would not be amiss when visiting the Pitti Palace.
Next, though not the grandest cathedral in Florence, the Basilica di Santa Croce is a fascinating historical site, and it too gets the Childe Harold treatment:
In Santa Croce’s holy precincts lie
Ashes which make it holier, dust which is
Even in itself an immortality,
Though there were nothing save the past, and this,
The particle of those sublimities
Which have relaps’d to chaos:—here repose
Angelo’s, Alfieri’s bones, and his,
The starry Galileo, with his woes;
Here Machiavelli’s earth, return’d to whence it rose.
These are four minds, which, like the elements,
Might furnish forth creation: —Italy! (IV. 54-55)
Though Harold was rhapsodically transported by the four great monuments within Santa Croce, Byron himself was less impressed: “The church of ‘Santa Croce’ contains much illustrious nothing. The tombs of Machiavelli, Michael Angelo, Galileo Galilei, and Alfieri, make it the Westminster Abbey of Italy. I did not admire any of these tombs—beyond their contents. That of Alfieri is heavy, and all of them seem to me overloaded. What is necessary but a bust and a name? and perhaps a date?” But in spite of Byron’s derision, Donatello’s frescoes are worth seeing, and more recent additions include a statue by Henry Moore and a monument to Florence Nightingale on the cathedral grounds.
Moving forward through the nineteenth century, a literary tour of Florence would be incomplete without a visit to Casa Guidi, where the Brownings lived from 1847 to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death in 1861. Casa Guidi is located on the piano nobile (second floor) at Piazza San Felice 8. Now owned by Eton College, the home has been restored as a museum. Look out for the Brownings’ personal collection of flea-market-acquired Renaissance art.
And, in true Browning spirit, when you visit one of Florence’s many street markets, bring along your copy of the Old Yellow Book, which Robert Browning bought at a Florentine market in 1860. The poet ultimately used the book’s voluminous correspondence about a 1698 murder case to develop his best-selling poem, The Ring and the Book.
La Spezia and the Bay of the Poets
A lovely day-trip from Florence will take you to the province of La Spezia in Liguria, located next to the Tuscan border. The area is most famous for the Cinque Terre, a collection of five tiny coastal villages now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which are linked by a train and hiking trails. The stretch between La Spezia proper and Lerici, one of the many small towns in the area, has been renamed the Golfo dei Poeti (the Bay of the Poets) after the Shelleys and Byron, who lived in the area. The Shelleys’ home on the beach of San Terenzo, Casa Magni, now renamed the Villa Shelley, is accessible by coastal road. The villa is actually available for private rental, though the damage deposit alone might prove too much for a graduate student’s stipend… There is also a monument to Shelley in nearby Viareggio, where Shelley was cremated.
Portovenere, another UNESCO-protected village on the Ligurian coast, pays considerable homage to Byron. Most important is the Byron Grotto, which commemorates the “Immortal Poet, who as a Daring Swimmer Defied the Waters of the Sea” by swimming from Portovenere to the Shelleys’ home at Lerici.
The grotto isn’t a particularly appealing swimming-hole, as it’s filled with sharp rocks (perhaps of interest to Romantic geologists!), but there is a staircase that will take you near the water’s edge. Local shops and pizzerias are also named in memory of Byron. And be sure to sample some of the locally made pesto (the town holds a Feast of the Basil every year).
To set the tone for your final stop, begin by reading Byron’s letters and journals from 1817-1818. A sample: “I am just come out from an hour’s swim in the Adriatic; and I write to you with a black-eyed Venetian girl before me, reading Boccaccio…” Poetically, his first attempt at ottava rima, Beppo, is absolutely required reading for a Venetian stay.
There are a few key literary stops. First is the Palazzo Mocenigo, which Byron rented from the Mocenigo family in 1818. The palace has been turned into a museum of textiles, and much of the décor on the piano nobile dates back to the eighteenth century. The palazzo’s library holds extensive collections of early editions, including literary works by Byron and the Gambas (Teresa Guiccioli’s family of origin).
But be warned: there are several Mocenigo palaces in Venice. This museum is in the San Stae district. When I visited in 2011, museum staff told me that Byron lived on the piano nobile of that building; unfortunately, subsequent searches suggest that the poet lived in another Mocenigo palace in the San Marco district, which I can confirm is closed to the public. But you can see the San Marco Mocenigo palace from a #1 vaporetto ride on the Grand Canal, and admire the balcony from which Margarita Cogni took her impassioned dive during a domestic squabble with the poet.
More rewarding for the poetically-inclined is the Brownings’ palazzo, Ca’Rezzonico, which is located on the Grand Canal and has its own water-taxi stop. Bought by Pen Browning, the poets’ son, and his heiress wife, this was Robert Browning’s last residence. Like the Palazzo Mocenigo, Ca’Rezzonico has also been converted into a museum dedicated to eighteenth-century Venice. It boasts a recreated apothecary’s shop on one of the upper floors, and a traditional enclosed gondola, “Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe” (Beppo ll. 150-51), in the main entrance. (And, as Shelley’s heroic couplets in “Julian and Maddalo” make clear, “gondola” really did rhyme with “way” in the nineteenth century). Browning’s rooms are on the ground floor; when I visited, they were closed for repairs. The museum café is lovely, though, and you can sit on the terrace overlooking the canal.
Located in the city centre, St Mark’s Square, is the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), the historical residence of the democratically-elected rulers of Venice, and its annexed prison. Notably for Romanticists, the Doge’s Palace features the so-called Bridge of Sighs, a name fancifully coined by Byron to commemorate the sighs of the prisoners as they caught a final glimpse of the lagoon before being taken to their cells. As usual, Childe Harold says it best:
I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs,
A palace and a prison on each hand;
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O’er the far times, when many a subject land
Look’d to the wingèd Lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles! (IV.1)
And, for eighteenth-century aficionados, the Doge’s Palace offers a splendid tour focused on Casanova’s imprisonment and dramatic flight from the allegedly “unescapable” prison.
My final suggestion, for those looking to emulate Casanova’s escape from Venice’s main tourist hub, is a short boat-journey to the Lido, the final stop on the #1 vaporetto line. Here, you can revisit the initial setting of Shelley’s conversation poem “Julian and Maddalo,” which was based on a series of philosophical debates he had with Byron in Venice in 1818. The “bank of land which breaks the flow / Of Adria towards Venice” was a favourite riding-place for the poets: “This ride was my delight.—I love all waste / And solitary places” (ll. 2, 14-15). And, looking West from the Lido at sundown, you can try to find the Maniac’s dwelling:
A building on an island; such a one
As age to age might add, for uses vile,
A windowless, deformed and dreary pile;
And on the top an open tower, where hung
A bell, which in the radiance swayed and swung… (99-103)
One final word of caution: take care not to travel to the Lido in a “heavy squall,” lest you, like Byron, return to an unexpected dressing-down: “Ah! Dog of the Virgin, is this a time to go to the Lido?”
Happy travels—and may you, like the poets, be creatively inspired by Italy—the “Mother of Arts, once our guardian, and still our guide” (Childe Harold IV. 47).
(All photos belong to Arden Hegele)