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This article is taken from PN Review 113, Volume 23 Number 3, January - February 1997.Look Here Upon This Picture
Why Venice? In April 1816, Byron left England, for what turned out to be the last time. He had taken the Dover road in his specially commissioned, Napoleonic travelling coach complete with library. The grandiose conveyance would have cost him five hundred pounds, had he had the means to pay Mr Baxter's bill. He left behind many other unpaid accounts - the bailiffs were already emptying his rented house at 13, Piccadilly Terrace - as well as a vengeful wife with Christian principles. London's 'rogues' gallery' (as Byron once called the beau monde) was garrulous with allegations of his heterodoxy and/or homosexuality. Those who acquitted him of being a revolutionary were hot to credit him with incestuous relations with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Unlike Oscar Wilde, Byron looked forward to a world elsewhere. He did not dawdle about waiting for martyrdom: Don Juan would serve as his De Profundis. Venice, humiliatingly 'liberated' by Byron's 'little pagod' Napoleon, now in St Helena, was more attractive than a victorious London in thrall to Wellington ('they worship any bloody booby who breaks heads').
Childe Harold's grand tour had left Byron with youthful memories of unclouded skies, and of the pleasures to be found under them. Although there was an allusion to Venice in the poem which authorised him to wake up famous, Byron had not, on that first excursion, gone to Italy. However, he had long fancied the intersection of East and West where St Mark's parade of riches still mocked their looted source and Venice's quondam master, Byzantium. If Constantinople's prancing horses now dignified an impotent Serenissima, no longer mistress of the Adriatic, or - since Buonaparte's conquests - even of herself, Venice was at least somewhere a man could swim and not walk (Byron did not limp in the water), and where transgression had no bad name. The Rialto might no longer supply a brave offshore refuge for the wretched peasants, in flight from Lombards or Goths, who had founded the city 'throned on its seventy isles', but it still offered soft asylum to a poet who, having wrecked his English life, was well-heeled enough (in one sense at least) to emigrate to the appetising husk of a decadent supremacy. Did not London have the same allure for American 'fugitives' in the 1960s?
Not yet thirty, Byron was already England's most famous poet, for whom 'the tight little island' had begun to pinch. Was he the victim of a political conspiracy? Did the Tories run him out of the country? He was more probably paying the consequences of domestic wilfulness. He was, if only temporarily, unable to pay for anything else very much. No small part of the lure of abroad was that it was cheaper than London: towards the end of his self-indulgent three years or so in Venice (by which time he had sold the Byrons' ancestral home, Newstead Manor, and was again in the chips), his lordship calculated that he had spent less than five thousand pounds. He had had to be very extravagant to do so. His whores, of both sexes, cost him more than the rent of the palazzo Mocenigo or the salaries of his fourteen servants (there was also, of course, his menagerie to feed: like Alan Clark, a prosaic modern Byron, he was often more tenderly disposed to animals than to people).
At first, Byron's only forwarding address was 'Poste restante, à Geneve' (he gave it to Claire Claremont, never expecting her to forward her intrusive self, as she soon did). However, he was already toying with Venice, 'the greenest island of his imagination', as a final refuge. If, at the end of 1820, when writing from Ravenna to his estranged wife, Annabella, he claimed that he had meant to go to Turkey ('and am not sure that I shall not finish with it'), he had by then surfeited on the pleasures of the Serenissima. His disreputable adventures had culminated (as his presence at Ravenna proved, though he did not advertise the fact to Annabella) in his sentimental 'last attachment' to the Countess Teresa Guiccioli.
He would go no more a-roving, except to Missolonghi and his tragi-comic death in the cause of Greek independence. His wry last words were 'E finita la commedia'. He was an actor who found his happiest parts in the Venice of Goldoni. In the tradition of the commedia dell'arte, given that he was a lord, he devised a plot, and an ending, worthily frilled with heroic irony. One of the first things which had impressed Byron in Italy was the famous improvisatore Sgricci, whom he saw, and heard, at La Scala, in Milan in October of 1816, soon after his arrival from Geneva.
When, in reply to querulous comments from London, he later told his friendly critics that Don Juan had no 'plan', it indicated how far he had been recruited into the unEnglish uses of spontaneity Jerome McCann has detected a 'Wittgensteinian' modernity in the poem's sprawling proliferation of instances and its lack of conclusive argument). If Byron understood Italian - learnt, from his young lover Nicholas Giraud, on his first trip to Greece, in return for teaching the boy to swim - his audience, and target, remained English ('…I did not write to the Italians,' he wrote to Samuel Rogers in March 1818, 'nor for the Italians, nor of the Italians'). Nevertheless, the improvisatory skittishness of his Venetian work paid tribute to local buffoonery. Nervous of a theatrical audience's pitiless verdict (isolated in Venice, he was alarmed, and enraged, to hear of an unauthorised production of Marino Faliero at Drury Lane), Byron relished opportunities for ventriloquial imposture. He was in his mutable element when he donned the impudent masks which effaced quotidian identity and made all the Venetian world a stage in the Carnevale, that sensual farewell-to-flesh before Lenten abstinence.
Byron and John Cam Hobhouse, his habitual straight man, finally embarked for Venice at Mestre, in pouring rain, on 10 November 1816, and huddled under shelter until 'a boatman cried out to us - "The Rialto" - shortly afterwards we landed under the Hotel of Great Britain… and were shown up a magnificent flight of stairs into rooms whose gilding & painted silks showed they belonged to better people in better times…' The same was true of Venice. According to local myth, the Contessa Benzoni - who still had her salon and a long-time admirer, the Cavalier Giuseppe Rangone, besotted enough to describe the almost seventy-year-old, sausage-shaped countess to Byron one morning as 'Rugiadosa' ('dewy') - had danced around the liberty tree in her beautiful youth with the young Ugo Foscolo, 'dressed in an Athenian petticoat open along the flanks, with a vest which left her breast free'.
Venice's putative freedom lasted less long than the Contessa's youth: its population had dwindled and so had its prosperity. However, its crumbling beauty had the dilapidated charm which Newstead Abbey had also possessed when, by a fluke of inheritance (he was not in the direct line of baronial succession), Byron had come into it at the age of eleven. In Venice, he looked for a home from home, obligingly garnished with a past more glamorous and mementos less painful than Newstead.
On 11 November, the morning after their arrival, Byron and Hobhouse went to the Palazzo Dogale and saw the portraits of the Doges, the last of whom, Ludivico Manin, had surrendered his ducal hat less than twenty years before. Hobhouse observed that Byron was 'most impressed' with the black veiled space allotted to Marino Faliero, 'who was beheaded on the stairs in the yard for conspiracy against the state in 1355'. His response to Faliero's want of flattering depiction would be to supply one, in the form of a 'tragedy' which was both Shakespearian in diction and artful in its avoidance of an Othellan echo, even if Faliero too had rendered Venice some service.
Despite the offence he is shown to take at Michele Steno's notorious graffito (which was not, in historical fact, about the actual Doge's idealised wife Angiolina), Byron's Marino Faliero is depicted as more irascible than jealous, more self-destructive than mischievously lured into treason (Byron took the part of Iago, very well, they say, in amateur dramatics in Rome). In the preface to his play, Byron cites a passage from Langier which suggests the elective affinity he felt with the disgraced Doge: 'Tale fu il fine ignominioso di un'uomo, che la sua nascita, la sua età, il suo carattere dovevano tener lontano dalle passioni produttrici di grandi delitti.'
The dread, and thrill, of a great fall haunted and excited Byron. Marino Faliero was an old man cursed by a violent temper (there was a historical incident in Faliero's youth when he struck a Treviso priest who was dilatory in serving the Host), but his hubris - never forget Byron's classical education, as he did not - became fatal only when he took ruinous offence at a small provocation. Faliero's emotional and social instability were easily assumed by a writer who, better than his critics (and many historians), had an observant sense of the disproportionate nature of human causes and their effects:'…a basin of water spilt on Mrs Masham's gown deprived the Duke of Marlborough of his command, and let to the inglorious peace of Utrecht - …Louis XIV was plunged into the most desolating wars, because his minister was nettled at his finding fault with a window, and wished to give him another occupation… etc.'
The works of what passes for Byron's maturity owe much of their imagery, form and recklessness to Venetian experience. In the palazzo Mocenigo, on the Grand Canal, and in the Palladian Villa Foscarini at La Mira, the Childe ripened - and, in some eyes, degenerated - into Don Juan. If he could scarcely have made bolder or more prolific use of his unserene life in Venice, it remains a shame that Byron did not prefer, for summer purposes, to rent the Villa Foscari, known as La Malcontenta, at Gambarare di Mira. It may be a lugubrious pile (with gigantic murals by Battista Franco that recall Giulio Romano's in the Palazzo Te, at Mantova) but it could have supplied a tasty donnée concerning le donne. Imagine, for instance, if Byron had surmised that the flagrantly ardent lady for whom it was named (though it was built long after her sullen exile from Venice), was only pretending to be wretched on the Brenta, in order to be free to pursue more local pleasures, perhaps with such a girl as Margarita Cogni, La Fornarina, whose figure 'to breed gladiators from' Byron admired while cruising, on horseback, along the banks of the river. (There were said to be eight horses in Venice: four on the façade of St Mark's and four in Byron's stables, either at La Mira or on the Lido, where he exercised them, and they him, in the winter.)
Venetian themes and styles are most clearly expressed, of course, in Beppo, and in his plays, Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari, but the ottava rima of Don Juan has a cursive flippancy which reeks, sweetly and persistently, of Venice. The unprintable satirist Pietro Buratti probably primed the insolence whose levity would lead the poet to say that his intention in Don Juan was nothing more than to 'giggle and make giggle'. If Buratti's insolent verses meant that 'every six months or so, by the governor's orders, he pays a visit to one of the prisons of Venice', Byron's status as an English peer, no less than the alien inscrutability of his verses, secured immunity from Austrian censoriousness; he was more familiar with palaces than prisons, even if - like Piranesi, whose work he must have seen, though he does not remark it - he suffered, painlessly, from a fascination with dungeons (Chillon, for instance) and with torture chambers. Like Jacopo Foscari, he had been 'racked', if therapeutically, by the quacks who tried to wrench his lame leg into conformity.
Byron was born to entertain opposites rather than 'for opposition', as the cant insists; his ambiguity - as saint and sinner, bully and victim, poet and hack, etc. - was, perhaps, a function of his dexterous lameness. His privileged curse rendered him sensitive to the twists of fate: he could sympathise easily, even emulously, with the tight-rope lives of men like Marino Faliero or Francesco Carmagnola, both of whom rose high before losing their heads to the Venetian oligarchs.
It is surprising that Carmagnola, the great condottiere, did not figure among Byron's dramatis personae: in 1432, deceived into returning to his employers' territory, he had been greeted like a prince and, at the last moment, conducted across the Bridge of Sighs to the lead-roofed cells. He was to cross it again only on the way to his execution under the eyes of Doge Foscari whose own fate was to prove hardly less ignominious and certainly more painful. The reason that Carmagnola did not catch Byron's eye for dramatic peripeteia may have been that the condottiere did not figure among any of the portraits on local display; he did not even announce himself, as Marino Faliero did, by the black-marked absence of a portrait. Byron may not have been a great appreciator of art, but he was to highest degree suggestible. Real and imagined worlds found a permeable frontier, and a bureau de change, in his mutable mind. His penchant for puns is part of the commerce he entertained between the straight account of a thing and its possible subversions; Picasso often played the same sort of games with imagery.
Byron had that sympathetic egotism which expresses its genius more by imagining itself in the place of others than by an aloof account of their distinct qualities. He 'painted' not by standing back from his subject but by insinuating himself in it. He was not so much all things to all men as all men to himself; an English lord, born in Scotland, who acted as if parodying an English lord (hence his articulate want of reticence); he became what he was by impersonating himself. Imitation was both a provocative defence - above all against anyone who might remark his lameness - and an aggressive form of deference; hence perhaps his (intermittent) sympathy for Jews and the defiant solitude in which he appropriated Shylock to say 'I will neither love ye nor fear ye… I will neither eat with ye, drink with ye, nor pray with ye.' He was the type of marked man who felt at home in an exile where the only thing different about him, so far as the natives were concerned, was everything.
Nevertheless, few contributions to literature have been more sociable than Byron's. Even his solitude was peopled by loquacious ghosts and menacing commendatori (and, of course, commendatrici). His merit as a poet can hardly be divorced from his ingenuity as an actor. In the manner of the dandy he longed (too plumply) to be, he liked nothing better than to be buttoned - oh, like a flashy foil too! - into a new personality. A master of the mimetic, he drew his inspiration - for instance, in Beppo - more often from an accidental donnée than from literary sources. In this, he resembled his deferential acquaintance Henri Beyle, who so successfully became Stendhal that his real name sounds like a pseudonym and whose Le Rouge et Le Noir derived from a fait divers seen in a newspaper. Byron and Stendhal met in Milan in 1816 and had some lively conversation, though the Frenchman was muffled by shyness at confronting so famous a personality.
The poet was, in particular, impressionable. 'I hate things all fiction,' he told Murray in a letter in the spring of 1817, 'and therefore the Merchant and Othello have no great associations to me.' This confession did not prevent G. Wilson Knight from finding a plethora of involuntary (?) allusions to both plays - and to Timon of Athens - in Byron's Venetian life and letters. Why not? Byron was both spontaneous and a striker of attitudes. When. he posed for Thorwaldsen, in Rome, the sculptor said, 'You need not assume that look'; to which his subject retorted, 'That is my expression.' He took such pleasure in fresh sensations that he could try on a character, or a way of life, like a hat which could later be thrown aside. Consistency was the drabbest of proprieties, although accuracy - which he found wanting in his ninety-two volume edition of Voltaire - remained a 'scholarly' virtue he respected; it was seconded, in his own not always accurate case, by a prodigious, gliding memory. Although no unquestioning recruit to the Romantics, Byron shared their cult of energy (he took sexual performance to be its proper measure) and depended on the immediacy of his responses for proof of his genius. 'Mill away right and left' - his pugilist tutor Jackson's motto - became a lifelong watchword.
In many ways, mimetic skill like Byron's is also likely to be conventional; it relies, for its competent impertinence, on familiarity with the rules it breaks, or challenges. The iconoclastic Shelley spoke of 'the antique courtesies' which he would always respect; Byron was in similar case: whatever his affectations of devilish outsiderdom, he also wanted to belong to the world in which Douglas Kinnaird, his London confidant and honorary treasurer during his Venetian residence, was so grandly at home. Hence Byron's response to the arts of painting and sculpture had more in common with that of the average Regency dilettante than with, say, the informed astringency of Baudelaire half a century later. His lordship would not have taken it as a compliment to be called an intellectual, although he knew that the word, when he applied it to his mathematician wife, rhymed prettily with 'hen-pecked you all'.
Byron's work was sufficiently picturesque ('The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,' we all remember, 'And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold') for him to have a naïve appetite both for a good likeness and for dramatic effect. If pretentiousness was part of his literary repertoire, painting and sculpture - unlike the literary classics and Shakespeare, whose reputation shadowed him, and whom he swerved to elude - lay beyond his scholarly terms of reference: he approached them, as he did Venice, with unguarded curiosity and admitted want of expertise. Yet he had his quick opinions about art. He wrote to his publisher, John Murray, 'The Flemish school, such as I saw it in Flanders, I utterly detested, despised and abhorred,' while to John Cam Hobhouse, he remarked 'As for Rubens… he seems to me… the most glaring - flaring - staring harlotry impostor that ever passed a trick upon the senses of mankind… I never saw such an assemblage of florid nightmares as his canvas contains; his portraits seemed clothed in pulpit cushions.' The rhyming sequence of his denunciation suggests that wordy playfulness easily took over from rigorous appreciation when it came to something as marginally interesting as old(ish) masters.
Beppo was his prototypical tribute to Venice. In its frisky ottava rima he found an ideal way to 'paint' the local scene and to find the crossing point between the vivid appearance of the place and its representation in art:
'They've pretty faces yet, these same Venetians
Black eyes, arch'd brows, and sweet expressions still;
Such as of old were copied from the Grecians
In ancient arts by moderns mimick'd ill;
And like so many Venuses of Titian's
(The best's at Florence - see it, if ye will),
They look when leaning over the balcony,
Or stepp'd from out a picture by Giorgione,
'Whose tints are truth and beauty at their best;
And when you to Manfrini's palace go,
That picture (howsoever fine the rest)
Is loveliest to my mind of all the show;
It may perhaps be also to your zest,
and that's the cause I rhyme upon it so:
'Tis but a portrait of his son, and wife,
And self, but such a woman! love in life!'
The facility with which Byron travels between life and its double, in art, cannot conceal his preference for the former, which supplies the latter's certificate (in this he shares something, if never his wit, with the art critic Paul Johnson). Byron's disgust with Rubens, we may guess, was somewhat practical: it owed something to his distaste for women once they had grown 'flummety'. Whatever his pederastic diversions, the beauty of women, if not their characters, determined what he admired most keenly: 'Italian beauty! didst thou not inspire Raphael, who died in thy embrace…?' When he saw the Helen of Canova, in the house of the Countess d'Albrizzi, whose conversazioni he attended, he told Murray that it was 'without exception to my mind the most perfectly beautiful of human conceptions - and far beyond my ideas of human execution'. Given that he was playing the connoisseur with his publisher (and condescending to a show of equality), his appended verses confirmed his tendency to evasive flippancy when called upon to respond to art:
'What nature could- but would not do -
And Beauty and Canova can!
Beyond imagination's power -
Beyond the Bard's defeated art,
With immortality her dower -
Behold the Helen of the heart!'
As if to get off his aesthetic high horse as soon as may be, he adds: 'Talking of the "heart" reminds me that I have fallen in love - which except falling into the Canal (and that would be useless as I swim) is the best (or worst) thing I could do…' He remounted on another occasion, to tell Murray, in a letter of 14 April 1817, of (another?) visit to the Manfrini palace where he saw Titian's portrait of Ariosto, 'surpassing all my anticipation of the power of painting - it is the poetry of portrait - & the portrait of poetry…' After this vacuously chiasmic play, he sounds more throat-clearingly earnest when he goes on,
What struck me most in the general collection was the extreme resemblance of the style of the female faces in the mass of pictures - so many centuries or generations old -to those you see & meet every day amongst existing Italians. - The Queen of Cyprus & Giorgione's wife -particularly the latter - are Venetians as it were of yesterday… You must recollect however - that I know nothing of painting - & that I detest it - unless it reminds me of something I have seen or think it possible to see - for which [reason] I spit upon and abhor all the saints & subjects of one half the impostures I see in the churches & palaces - & when in Flanders, I never was so disgusted in my life as with Rubens & his eternal wives & infernal glare of colours - as they appeared to me - & in Spain I did not think much of Murillo & Velasquez. - Depend upon it of all the arts it is the most artificial and unnatural - and that by which the nonsense of mankind is most imposed upon. - I never yet saw the picture - or the statue - which came within a league of my conception or expectation - but I have seen many mountains & Seas - & Rivers and views - & two or three women - who went as far beyond it - besides some horses; and a Lion (at Veli Pasha's) in the Morea and a tiger at supper in Exeter 'change.
There are other examples of Byron's skittishness when confronted with masterpieces: 'I beg to conclude,' he wrote to Murray, in May 1817, 'by wishing Mr Southey damned - not as a poet - but as a politician. There is a place in Michael Angelo's last judgment in the Sistine Chapel which would just suit him…' And a few days later, he wrote, 'The Apollo Belvedere is the image of Lady Adelaide Forbes - I think I never saw such a likeness.' It is not surprising that Byron inscribed his name on the temple at Sounium, among other places: he found it difficult not to insert himself, or his opinions, wherever he happened to be. The number of hotels named after him returns the compliment.
Byron's time in Venice was divided between industry and venery. He showed little interest in art and rather less in music (of which there was still a great deal), although he did say that the sound of the organ disposed him to favour the Catholicism in which he had his and Claire Clairmont's natural daughter, Allegra, raised for the few sorry years that she lived. Opinionated eclecticism was always his style, but the best museum in Venice was Venice itself. The visual arts were always trumped, in his eyes, by natural landscape and female beauty. Perhaps we shall never again understand to what degree painting, especially portraiture, could be a mere trade to a milord like Byron. The mechanical reproduction of works of art, so far from derogating from their worth and mystique, has given 'originals' an aura of remote uniqueness. Photography has dignified the portrait, not - as was generally feared - destroyed it. Byron's own work with its next-slide-please succession of scenic enchantments, presages both the travel literature, and journalism, of today and the sort of self-mocking, self-advancing 'postcards from abroad' from which Clive James makes a fatter living than even Byron did from his garrulous jaunts.
Byron, The Poetical Works (Oxford)
Leslie A. Marchand (ed.), Byron's Letters and Journals;
Byron, a biography
G. Wilson Knight, Byron and Shakespeare Donata Battilotti, Le Ville di Palladio Donald M. Nicol, Byzantium and Venice John-Julius Norwich, Venice The Greatness and the Fall Jerome McCann, Byron In Context Frederic Raphael, Byron
This article is taken from PN Review 113, Volume 23 Number 3, January - February 1997.