Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Lord Byron, the club-footed genius of English Romantic poetry. Here he is on one of his dressing up days. See below for more exciting photos.
As regular readers will be very well aware, I am writing a book about my lovelife at the moment - called Millions of Women are Waiting to Meet You. This morning I heard that my esteemed and marvellous agent, Eugenie Furniss of William Morris, has just sold this book proposal to an Italian publisher, for a five figure euro sum. I am therefore feeling rather cocky and upbeat right now, and also very Italophile.
To celebrate my sudden love of all things Italian, here's a little essay I wrote a few months back, about the Venetian years of Lord Byron (a hero of mine). Ciaobella!
Pursuing an historic literary figure around their ancient haunts can be frustrating: the tides of time erase the famous footprints, the fin de siecle cafe too often turns out to be a multi-storey carpark. But because Venice has changed so little over the centuries, conserved as it is in the aspic of its fame and topography, it is possible to track its legendary habitues in a way unfeasible anywhere else. Lord Byron’s Venice for instance, exists now: right underneath the tourist gimcrackery, just behind the crowds of daytripping Slovenes. All it takes is a good map, a good biography, and a good mental picture of the club-footed Regency poet: ‘tooling in a Gondola, against a wall, in a court carriage, in a vis a vis, on a table, and under it’.
It was mid-November 1816, when Lord Byron, accompanied by his friend John Hobhouse, first stepped off a gondola onto the damp and fogbound flagstones of the Grand Canal. The twenty-eight year old poet was theoretically en route from Milan; in reality he was in flight from an England which was still agog at rumours of his lunatic behaviour. In the months before he fled England, Byron had attempted rape on his wife, had threatened her with murder, had spent days in drunken fits firing pistols at the furniture, had been stripped of his possessions by the bailiffs, had committed incest with his half-sister, and had tried to molest the infant children of his lover Lady Oxford. He’d also taken opium, which he found disagreeable.
But if Byron was celebrated for his amorality and loucheness, so was the city he surveyed that drizzly November afternoon. Post-Napoleonic Venice, with its twenty thousand whores, its platoons of castrati, its cardinals, fishwives, blackamoors and raddled aristocrats, was strangely akin to the poet: both were notorious, irreligious, decadent, living off inherited money, and enormous fun.
Lord Byron was to spend three long years in Venice, this ‘Sodom by the sea’, this ‘watery Gomorrah’. But he wasted no time in getting in the Venetian swing: within four days of his arrival he had moved out of his hotel, stabled his horses, rented a flat, and fallen ‘fathomlessly in love’. The lady of his attentions, Marianna Segati, was twenty-two, and the wife of his landlord. The flat was at 1673 Calle della Piscina, behind the Frezarria, a shopping street near St Mark’s Square. The shops are still there - selling carnival masks and overpriced sandwiches - and so is the apartment: unplaqued, uncelebrated, but very much the place where Byron stared into the ‘large black oriental eyes’ of his amoroso. As well as hundreds of other lovers.
Rampant promiscuity did not hinder Byron’s writing. Perhaps it fuelled it. Between bouts of Venetian libertinism, he managed to write the final cantos of Childe Harold, the poem Beppo, large parts of his memoirs, sundry other lyrics, some verse drama, dozens and dozens of letters, and the first sections of his masterpiece, Don Juan. Regarding his use and abuse of Venetian women, and its relation to his work, Byron wrote to his publisher John Murray: ‘There’s a whore on my right, For I rhyme best at night, when a cunt is tied close to my inkstand’.
Byron’s enthusiastic exploration of the Venetian fleshpots eventually scuppered his relationship with Marianna Segati and her husband. After about a year he upped and moved to much grander accommodation: the noble Palazzo Mocenigo, on the southern curve of the Grand Canal. He also moved on to another regular squeeze: Margarita Cogni, ‘La Fornarina‘, the amazonian wife of a local baker.
The Palazzo Mocenigo is privately owned, but it’s still possible to press your face to the iron gates and look at the dank cloistered garden, and the chambers beyond. This is where Byron installed his carriages, his manservant, his mistress, as well as several cats, a mastiff, a pair of cranes, a fox, a wolf, at least two monkeys and a sickly crow.
Equally evocative is the canal-front of the palazzo, viewable from the vaporetto, where Byron and friend Shelley would alight after their nocturnal ramblings; where La Fornarina once stood, in a storm, anxiously awaiting his return ‘with her great black eyes flashing through her tears’; and where Byron once paused, alone, clutching his cane, pondering whether to return to England and his foes. He never did go back.
When Byron wasn’t drinking, writing, or tooling, he liked to take vigorous exercise. Sometimes he would swim: once he swam across the lagoon and all the way up the Grand Canal. It took him four hours. Other times he went to the Lido, where he galloped his horses along the then-deserted strand to the pines of the old Jewish cemetery. The cemetery is still there, crumbling, overgrown, atmospheric. Apparently Byron wanted to be buried on this spot, on the lonely beach, looking across the lagoon to the campaniled Venetian skyline. Whether he’d still want to be buried on the Lido, amidst its suburban housing, nose-to-tail Fiats, and soccer-playing kids, is moot.
Another favourite haunt of the poet was the Armenian monastery on the lagoon island of San Lazzaro. Finding himself bored one day Byron decided to ‘break his mind on something craggy’, so he spent a winter being rowed to and from the monastery, intent on learning Armenian. Today’s monks are deeply proud of the poet’s patronage: take a vaporetto from St Mark’s Square to San Lazzaro and they will show you the room where he studied. They don’t show you where he did his trysting.
The ‘last attachment’ of Byron’s Venetian sojourn, and of his life, was a short, red-blonde, blue-eyed, curvaceous and very married teenage countess: Teresa Guiccioli. The poet first met her in 1816, but failed to be impressed. Their next meeting, at a conversazione, in April 1817, was much more the thing: within two days they had consummated their love in one of Byron’s ‘casinos’.
A Venetian invention, a casino was a kind of bijou summerhouse specifically designed for illicit sex: the food was delivered by dumb waiter so no shenanigans could be observed. Nearly all the casinos have gone (though a haunted one, Casino degli Spiriti, can be seen on the north side of the city, opposite the cemetery-isle of San Michele). But we know Byron rented a casino in the square opposite the Gritti Palace Hotel, so it’s probably here that he first lifted the skirts of the woman who was, eventually, to lure him out of Venice, lodge him in Ravenna, travel with him to Pisa, where Shelley drowned, and finally see him off to his death in Greece.
At times in those later years Byron was to revile Teresa, and the city where they met; but he surely didn’t mean it. To Teresa he professed he was ‘tua amica e amante in eterno’ - ‘your friend and lover for eternity.’ And as for Venice, it’s likely the lame, limping, aquatic, melodramatic aristocrat never felt more at home than in the ‘greenest isle’ of his imagination, the Queen of the Adriatic, that stage-set built on water, La Serenissima.
Some Other Byronic Places You Might Want To Know About
Ten year old George Gordon became the sixth Lord Byron in 1798. As such he inherited the rambling pile that is Newstead Abbey, about twelve miles from Nottingham. This is the house Byron staffed entirely with pretty young women - ’all the makers and unmakers of beds in the household’ as he called them. Newstead Abbey is also where Byron lived, flagrantly, with his half sister Augusta, in 1814. The grounds of the Abbey are open year round, should you fancy visiting. Near Newstead is the church of Hucknall Torkard, where the poet is buried.
Harrow & Cambridge
Harrow School, Harrow on the Hill, vaunts its association with the notorious poet. Visitors are shown the ‘Byron’ graffito the schoolboy lord carved in the Jacobean pews; in Harrow churchyard one can see Peachey’s Tomb, on which Byron liked to lie and gaze out over the beautiful Middlesex hinterland - now not so beautiful. Trinity College Cambridge, by contrast, makes less of its Byronic association, perhaps because he spent most of his time there ridiculing the staff, being leeched for the clap, trying to get his pet bear elected a Fellow, and seducing the Chapel choirboys.
Byron spent several years in London; as a boy, a teenager, a married man. Byron’s London is around St James and Mayfair, the fashionable West End then as now; his London is still discoverable. The bachelor ‘sets’ of the Albany, on Piccadilly, where he enjoyed his years of fame, are a going concern, though off-limits to casual visitors. Perhaps more poignant are the Georgian offices of the publishers, John Murray & Sons, in Albemarle Street, where on May 17, 1824, a group of Byron’s friends sanctimoniously burned the dead poet’s ‘scandalous’ memoirs, one of the greatest crimes in the history of English letters.
The wet and stormy summer of 1816 saw Byron in Switzerland. His principal residence was the pretty eighteenth-century Villa Diodati, overlooking Lake Geneva; the Shelleys were his neighbours. One opiated evening of revelry on June 18, when the two poets, their women, and their friends, told each other ghost stories to the sound of thunderclaps, resulted in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Byron’s poem Mazeppa, and Doctor Polidori’s The Vampyre, the first vampire story in English fiction. The Villa Diodati is not open to the public, but can be viewed from the lake where Byron swam and sailed.
Posted by sean at 12:01 pm