Byron in Italy As famous for his notorious private life as for his work, the post describes his eventful life; including his Venetian stay.
Lord Byron lived in Venice for three years, from 1816 to 1819 and has become one of the legends of the city, with his palace accommodation on the Grand Canal, his great swimming feats and his notorious love-life.
More importantly, these three years were a turning point in his creative career. Venice, the fabric of which was in sad decline during Byron’s stay, was the subject of a number of serious poems, such as “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” and the “Ode to Venice” and its history provided the theme for two major dramas.
However, Byron also composed one of the wittiest and most amusing works ever written on Venetian life, with his social satire, “Beppo”. For it was in Venice that he discovered the potentialities of the Italian form of “ottava rima” *, which gave him a way forward for his own poetry. His greatest poem, Don Juan, was begun in Venice and can be said to be fully Venetian in inspiration and atmosphere; even if it does not mention the city.
His relationship with Italy, where he spent the last eight years of his life and its influence on him; would change the way the English-speaking world saw the country.
Of course, Byron’s was a poetic, idealised image of Italy. However, his depiction of his travels through the country, provides a fascinating insight into the ways that the British saw Italy and also the ways that the literature of both countries intertwined.
(* ottava rima – a form of poetry consisting of stanzas of eight lines of ten or eleven syllables, rhyming abababcc.)
‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’. That is how Lady Caroline Lamb described her lover George Gordon Noel, sixth Baron Byron and one of the greatest Romantic poets in English literature.
The Napoleonic Wars, had kept the English away from the European continent for nearly two decades; principally young men on their “Grand Tours” – a “rite of passage”, particularly for the wealthy and aristocratic.
In 1815, Caroline of Brunswick, wife of the future King George IV; left England to buy the Nuova Villa d’Este in Cernobbio, on Lake Como.
With Caroline’s purchase, Italy immediately became the height of travel fashion once again and English intellectuals, writers, artists and personalities; descended on the country.
George Gordon Byron, the English baron and infamous Romantic poet, was one of them. His relationship with Italy, where he spent the last eight years of his life and its influence on him; would change the way the English-speaking world saw the country.
Of course, Byron’s was a poetic, idealised image of Italy. However, his depiction of his travels through the country, provides a fascinating insight into the ways that the British saw Italy and also the ways that the literature of both countries intertwine.
Byron in Italy – Biography
As famous for his scandalous private life as for his work, George Gordon Noel, sixth Baron Byron; was born on 22nd January 1788, in London. His father died when he was three, with the result that he inherited his title from his great uncle in 1798; at the age of ten.
He endured a chaotic childhood in Aberdeen, brought up by his schizophrenic mother and an abusive nurse. These experiences, plus the fact that he was born with a club foot, may have had something to do with his constant need to be loved; expressed through his many affairs with both men and women.
He was educated at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge. It was at Harrow, that he experienced his first love affairs with both sexes. In 1803 at the age of 15, he fell madly in love with his cousin, Mary Chaworth; who did not return his feelings. This unrequited passion was the basis for his works “Hills of Annesley” and “The Adieu“.
Whilst at Trinity he experimented with love, discovered politics and fell into debt (his mother said he had a “reckless disregard for money”, but bailed him out). When he turned twenty-one, he took up his seat in the House of Lords; however the restless Byron left England the following year, for a two-year European tour with his great friend, John Cam Hobhouse. He had also, visited Greece for the first time and fell in love with both the people and the country.
Byron arrived back in England in 1811, just as his mother died. Whilst on tour he had begun work on the poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, a partly autobiographical account of a young man’s travels abroad, documenting his two years touring Spain, Greece and Germany. The first part of the work was published to great acclaim. Byron became famous overnight and was much sought after in Regency London society. His celebrity was such, his future wife Annabella Milbanke; called it “Byromania’”.
It was his epic poem, that also made his name across Europe and it would later open doors for him; in literary circles in Venice and Milan. This work created the character of the so-called “Byronic hero” – the aristocrat, burdened by dissatisfaction, listlessness, cynicism, arrogance, disrespect for authority, past trauma and nihilism.
In 1812, Byron embarked on a affair with the passionate, eccentric and married, Lady Caroline Lamb (below left). The scandal shocked the British public. He also had affairs with Jane Elizabeth Scott “Lady Oxford” (below centre), Lady Frances Webster and also most probably, with his married half-sister, Augusta Leigh (below right). In 1814 Augusta gave birth to a daughter. The child took her father’s surname of Leigh, but gossip was rife that the baby girl’s father; was in fact Byron.
Perhaps in an attempt to recover his reputation, the following year Byron married Annabella Milbanke; with whom he had a daughter Augusta Ada. Because of Byron’s many affairs, the rumours of his bisexuality (homosexuality was illegal at this time) and the scandal surrounding his relationship with Augusta; the couple separated shortly after the birth of their child.
Left: Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1812,
Never to Return
In April 1816, Byron fled England; leaving behind a failed marriage, notorious affairs and mounting debts to his creditors. He journeyed through Belgium and continued down the Rhine. By the summer of 1816, he settled at the “Villa Diodati” by Lake Geneva, Switzerland; with his personal physician, John William Polidori.
He spent the summer at Lake Geneva, with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary and Mary’s half sister Claire Clairmont; with whom Byron had had an affair whilst in London. Claire was an attractive, lively and voluptuous brunette and the couple rekindled their affair. In 1817, she returned to London and gave birth to their their daughter, Allegra.
House bound because of incessant rain in June, the five turned to reading fantastical stories, including “Fantasmagoriana”, they then devised their own tales.
Mary Shelley produced what would become “Frankenstein”, or “The Modern Prometheus”, and Polidori produced “The Vampyre”, the progenitor of the Romantic vampire genre. The Vampyre, was the inspiration for a fragmentary story of Byron’s – “A Fragment“. It was published as a postscript to “Mazeppa”; he also wrote the third canto of “Childe Harold”.
Byron in Italy – Italian period (1816-19)
Leaving Switzerland after the summer, Byron went straight to Venice; a city that would be his home for three years. He had considered his stay as a pause in his travels, but fell in love with Marianna Segati; in whose Venice house he was lodging. (Note. Calle della Piscina, off the Frezzeria; which is close to St Mark’s VSquare. Number 1673, marks the entrance to the rooms Byron rented nearly 200 years ago.)
She was to be later replaced by 22-year-old Margarita Cogni. Both women were married. Cogni was illiterate and left her husband a baker, to move into Byron’s Venice house. Their fighting, often caused Byron to spend the night in his gondola and when he asked her to leave the house; it is said that she threw herself into the Venetian canal!
Byron frequented the famous Café Florian in Piazza San Marco, meeting many writers and artists, including Charles Dickens, Carlo Goldoni, and Goethe. His writings were derived mostly from his surroundings, like “Beppo” a story about the Venetian “Carnevale”. His Italian improved and his thirst for reading and translating Italian writers grew.
For Byron, Venice became a playground for all manner of physical exertion. There was one of his implausible swims, for four hours from the Lido to St Mark’s Square, then on down the length of the Grand Canal. There was a lot of rowing. And there were the daily rides, near to the ancient Jewish cemetery; for a time accompanied by Percy Shelley. It was the perfect place for his romantic spirit.
Then, notoriously, there was sex and plenty of it! Byron embarked on countless liaisons with local prostitutes in Venice. He bragged of them in letters back to London, claiming liasons with 200 women in less than three years and in the process spending more than £2000. At the time of his residence there, Venice was going through a serious economic crisis; so it was not difficult to seduce the locals with cash. Hid friend the poet Shelley, visiting Byron in 1818; wrote that the poet’s Italian women were hardly the elegant courtesans he described! In a sense, he established a precedent for future British literary visitors, who, while romanticising the city and its people; copied Byron’s pattern of sexual imperialism.
Several places in Venice are most associated with him, such as the Palazzo Mocenigo on the Grand Canal (photo left exterior and right below interior), where Byron rented accommodation, from 1816 to 1819; together with 14 servants, 2 monkeys, a fox and two mastiff dogs and where he composed the first songs of “Don Juan”. It was to become one of his most famous works.
Byron was also fascinated by the bridge that connected the Doge’s Palace, to the prisons. Whilst crossing the bridge, he invented the name that made it famous all over the world; the “Bridge of Sighs”. This was said to be because of the sighs of the condemned; on seeing Venice and freedom for the last time.
At Palazzo Querini Benzon, on the Grand Canal, he met his last love, the eighteen year old Countess Teresa Gamba Guiccioli; wife of the rich sixty year old nobleman, Count Alessandro Guiccioli, from Ravenna.
At around this time, Byron’s illegitimate daughter Allegra had arrived in Italy; sent by her mother Claire, to be with her father. Byron sent her away to be educated at a convent near Ravenna, where she died in April 1822. Tragically, later that same year, Byron also lost his friend Shelley; who died when his boat, the “Don Juan“, went down at sea.
Left: Countess Teresa Gamba Guiccioli
Right: Byron’s visit to San Lazzaro by Aivazovsky – 1899
Left: Byron in Armenian National Costume.
Probably the place which is most linked to the name of Lord Byron, is the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni; where he lived with a small community of monks of the “Mechitarist Order”. Byron learned the Armenian language and attended many seminars about language and history, co-authoring and translating works. Byron later in 1821, helped to compile the English Armenian Dictionary and wrote the preface; in which he explained Armenian oppression by the Turkish pashas and the Persian satraps and the Armenian struggle of liberation. His profound lyricism and ideological courage, inspired many Armenian poets. The memory of the great English poet, is still alive in the community of monks and in fact, in the small museum there is a room dedicated to him; with books that belonged to him and biographical texts.
In 1817, he had also journeyed to Rome. On returning to Venice, he wrote the fourth canto of Childe Harold. About the same time, he sold his home Newstead Abbey and published “Manfred“, “Cain“, and “The Deformed Transformed“. The first five cantos of Don Juan were written between 1818 and 1820. It was during this period, that Byron met the 18-year-old Countess Guiccioli, who finally asked her to elope with him.
By now Byron’s illegitimate daughter Allegra had arrived in Italy, sent by her mother Claire, to be with her father. Byron sent her away to be educated at a convent near Ravenna, where she died in April 1822. Later that same year Byron also lost his friend Percy Shelley, who died when his boat, the “Don Juan”, went down at sea.
RAVENNA (1819 to 1821) In Ravenna, he settled into an apartment belonging to Count Alessandro Guiccioli and had a relatively long affair with Guiccoli’s young wife, Teresa.
Here he continued Don Juan and wrote the “Ravenna Diary” and “My Dictionary” and “Recollections“. Around this time he received visits from Percy Shelley, as well as from Thomas Moore; to whom he confided his autobiography or “life and adventures“. which Moore, Hobhouse, and Byron’s publisher, John Murray were to burn in 1824, a month after Byron’s death.
Of Byron’s lifestyle in Ravenna we know more from Shelley, who documented some of its more colourful aspects in a letter: “Lord Byron gets up at two. I get up, quite contrary to my usual custom … at 12. After breakfast we sit talking till six. From six to eight we gallop through the pine forest which divide Ravenna from the sea; we then come home and dine, and sit up gossiping till six in the morning. I don’t suppose this will kill me in a week or fortnight, but I shall not try it longer. Lord B.’s establishment consists, besides servants, of ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were the masters of it… . [P.S.] I find that my enumeration of the animals in this Circean Palace was defective … . I have just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane. I wonder who all these animals were before they were changed into these shapes.”
Byron was later introduced to the secret Carbonari revolutionary society.
In 1821, Byron left Ravenna and went to live in the Tuscan city of Pisa; to which Teresa had also relocated. From 1821 to 1822, Byron finished Cantos 6–12 of Don Juan at Pisa, and in the same year he joined with Leigh Hunt and Shelley in starting a short-lived newspaper called “The Liberal”, in whose first number “The Vision of Judgment” appeared.
For the first time since his arrival in Italy, Byron found himself tempted to give dinner parties; his guests included the Shelleys, Edward Ellerker Williams, Thomas Medwin, John Taaffe, and Edward John Trelawny; and “never”, as Shelley said, “did he display himself to more advantage than on these occasions; being at once polite and cordial, full of social hilarity and the most perfect good humour; never diverging into ungraceful merriment, and yet keeping up the spirit of liveliness throughout the evening.”
Shelley and Williams rented a house on the coast and had a schooner built. Byron decided to have his own yacht, and engaged Trelawny’s friend, Captain Daniel Roberts, to design and construct the boat. Named the Bolivar, it was later sold to Charles John Gardiner, 1st Earl of Blessington, and Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, when Byron left for Greece in 1823.
Byron attended the funeral of Shelley, which was orchestrated by Trelawny; after Williams and Shelley drowned in a boating accident on 8 July 1822.
His last Italian home was Genoa. While living there he was accompanied by the Countess Guiccioli and the Blessingtons. During this period, Lady Blessington obtained much of the material for her book, “Conversations with Lord Byron“.
GREECE AND HIS TRAGIC EARLY DEATHI
In July 1923, after the publication of his masterpiece, Don Juan, Byron decided to accept the invitation from a London Greek Committee; to go to Greece and exploit his fame, in order to stir up patriotic sentiment in Greece’s war of independence against the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Byron left Genoa to travel to Cephalonia to become involved, where he took command of a Greek unit of fighters. He spent £4000, refitting the Greek fleet and in December 1823, sailed to Missolonghi. Unfortunately, his charisma couldn’t protect him against contracting a fever; that was to prove fatal. He died in Missolonghi on April 19th, 1824 and was mourned throughout Greece; as a symbol of disinterested patriotism. He would have loved such adulation.
His death was also mourned throughout Britain. His body was brought back to England to be buried in Westminster Abbey; but this was refused on account of his “questionable morality”. Byron was buried at his ancestral home at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.
Above: Statue of Lord Byron in Athens
Two of his great poems on Venice
ODE TO VENICE Lord Byron
Many writers in the nineteenth century feared that the city of Venice, which had endured for over a millennium; would sink under the waters and be lost forever. In his ‘Ode to Venice’, Byron laments what he believes to be Venice’s imminent loss; below the waters of the Adriatic.
O VENICE! Venice! when thy marble walls
Are level with the waters, there shall be
A cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls,
A loud lament along the sweeping sea!
If I, a northern wanderer, weep for thee,
What should thy sons do? – anything but weep?
And yet they only murmur in their sleep.
In contrast with their fathers, as the slime,
The dull green ooze of the receding deep,
Is with the dashing of the spring-tide foam,
That drives the sailor shipless to his home,
Are they to those that were; and thus they creep,
Crouching and crab-like, through their sapping streets.
O agony! that centuries should reap
No mellower harvest! Thirteen hundred years
Of wealth and glory turned to dust and tears;
And every monument the stranger meets,
Church, palace, pillar, as a mourner greets;
And even the Lion all subdued appears,
And the harsh sound of the barbarian drum, 20
With dull and daily dissonance, repeats
The echo of thy tyrant’s voice along
The soft waves, once all musical to song,
That heaved beneath the moonlight with the throng
Of gondolas, – and to the busy hum
Of cheerful creatures, whose most sinful deeds
Were but the overbeating of the heart,
And flow of too much happiness, which needs
The aid of age to turn its course apart
From the luxuriant and voluptuous flood
Of sweet sensations, battling with the blood.
But these are better than the gloomy errors,
The weeds of nations in their last decay,
When vice walks forth with her unsoftened terrors,
And mirth is madness, and but smiles to slay.
I STOOD IN VENICE Lord Byron
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
Looked to the wingéd Lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!
She looks a sea Cybele, fresh from ocean,
Rising with her tiara of proud towers
At airy distance, with majestic motion,
A ruler of the waters and their powers:
And such she was – her daughters had their dowers
From spoils of nations, and the exhaustless East
Poured in her lap all gems in sparkling showers:
In purple was she robed, and of her feast
Monarchs partook, and deemed their dignity increased.
In Venice Tasso’s echoes are no more,
And silent rows the songless gondolier;
Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone – but Beauty still is here;
States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die,
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear,
The pleasant place of all festivity,
The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy!
LINKS: Internal: Blue. External: Orange
Byron in Italy Byron in Italy Byron in Italy Byron in Italy Byron in Italy
Byron in Italy Byron in Italy Byron in Italy Byron in Italy Byron in Italy
Byron in Italy Byron in Italy Byron in Italy Byron in Italy Byron in Italy