Dante’s Bones Rediscovered and Exhibited

A showcase containing Dante's Bones

Contributor: Harald Hendrix

Location: Centro Dantesco dei Frati Conventuali, Ravenna [showcase]

Description: On May 27, 1865, in the small provincial town of Ravenna, a spectacular event occurred that made headlines all over the world, from New York to the East Indies. The mortal remains of one of the greatest poets that had ever lived, Dante Alighieri, were discovered after having been lost over some 350 years. Coinciding with the celebrations marking the sixth centenary of his birth — in Ravenna and well beyond, particularly in Florence — this remarkable event fueled unprecedented curiosity, coercing the local authorities to publicly exhibit Dante’s bones and the simple wooden coffin that had contained them for centuries. To such purpose this crystal showcase was used. During one month, from May 27 until June 26 1865, the public was allowed to see what remained of Italy’s national poet, an experience never to be repeated again. While satisfying the audience’s urge to establish a direct connection to a man as highly venerated as Dante was, the exhibition of his bones also revealed something about the cult of the author. As a consequence, this episode of hero worship signals a paradigmatic instance in a field where popular curiosity, scientific interest and concerns on heritage conservation meet and clash.

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The decanters Samuel Rogers gave to Lord Byron

The decanters Samuel Rogers gave to Lord Byron

Contributor: Charlotte May

Location: Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire

Description: This set of glasses and decanters has been on permanent display at George Gordon, Lord Byron’s ancestral home, Newstead Abbey, since 1974. It is believed that after Byron’s death in 1824 they came into the possession of Byron’s half-sister Augusta Leigh and were passed down her family line. A previous curator of Newstead Abbey, Haidee Jackson, traced the set’s provenance to an auction in 1906, where they were sold as: ‘Mahogany inlaid Spirit Case, containing four decanters and twelve glasses, with engraved on lid containing coronet and NB, and on inside lid an MS. Memorandum in Augusta Leigh’s autograph, “From Samuel Rogers to my Brother”’. The gift epitomises the many social transactions which characterized and cultivated the relationship between Byron and the then celebrated banker-poet Samuel Rogers (1763-1855) as fellow-poets and celebrities.

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Sir Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen, c. 1851

Painting of a stag

Contributor: Fanny Lacôte

Location: Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland

Description: The painting The Monarch of the Glen (c. 1851), by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873), has become a quintessentially Scottish image. The most ‘[…] potent, visual evocation of Scotland’s impact upon the popular imagination’, according to Scottish artist Lachlan Goudie, ‘it’s right up there with bagpipes, tartan and a mouthful of shortbread’. Until 2017, The Monarch of the Glen remained in private and corporate collections. Following a public appeal in 2016, the National Galleries of Scotland purchased the painting from the Diageo drinks conglomerate for £4 million.

Its iconic dimension set aside, The Monarch of the Glen is also a late expression of the Romantic era, and Sir Edwin Landseer’s homage to Highland Romanticism. The English romantic artist became a regular visitor to Scotland from 1824 onwards, combining hunting expeditions with sketching trips. Commissioned to hang in the House of Lords refreshment rooms, The Monarch of the Glen was painted in Landseer’s studio in London, and is considered a triumph of Victorian Romanticism. The English work crystallised romantic representations of the Scottish Highlands, with its wilderness, its sublime landscapes and sweeping vistas, castles, waterfalls, and herds of deer.

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Goya’s Dog

Image of cupula frescoes by Francisco de Goya depicting St Antony

Contributor: Clare Brant

Goya’s Dog

In the Ermita San Antonio de la Florida, a chapel in Madrid with frescoes by Goya, there is a circular scene around the cupola. It shows St Antony raising a man back to life in order to answer the question: who murdered him? The saint’s father has been accused; the corpse says he was not the murderer – but does not say who was. A crowd watches: in contemporary dress, all sorts of characters look on, in all sorts of attitudes. Among the figures is a hunchback with a beautiful dog, a brown hound, who leans forward towards the saint with more attention than many of the people.

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Ruth in Boaz’s fields (1856)

Image of the painting of Ruth

Contributor: Antonella Mampieri

Location: Bologna, Collezioni Comunali d’Arte

Description: This painting by Francesco Hayez (1791–1882), one of the leading painters of Italian Romanticism, was commissioned by Severino Bonora (1801-1866), a rich Bolognese landowner, for his collection. Its subject is an Old Testament story from the Bible. Ruth, a poor Moabite widow, returns with her widowed mother-in-law Naomi to Israel, and is depicted gleaning in the fields of one of her former husband’s relations, Boaz, in order to gain a living for herself and her mother-in-law. The exiled Ruth will eventually marry Boaz.

However, the subject of the painting, and indeed the painting itself, are far less significant here than the life and ideas of its patron and collector. Severino intended to lead a Romantic and adventurous life. A passionate traveller in spite of his epilepsy which brought him twice very near death during his travels, Severino organized a six month long tour every year through Europe, Asia or Africa, taking with him young artists who couldn’t otherwise afford to travel. He chose dramatic and moving subjects for his collection of paintings, helped his fellow artists develop their skills through his patronage and input, and more generally worked to form modern Romantic taste.

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Percy Bysshe Shelley’s copy of Homer’s Odyssey

image of two copies of Homer, bound in red, on their sides

Contributor: Valentina Varinelli

Location: Keats-Shelley House, Rome

Description: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s copy of Homer’s Odyssey is on long-term loan to Keats-Shelley House, Rome, from the present Lord Abinger, the Shelleys’ heir. Homer occupied a pre-eminent position in Shelley’s personal canon, yet the existence of this copy is largely unknown. It consists of volumes 3 and 4 of the so-called ‘Grenville Homer’ (1801) bound together in one volume (the complete set would have included volumes 1 and 2, again bound in one volume, which comprised the Iliad), and it is contained in a custom-made red quarter-leather solander box with “Homer Odyssey” and “Shelley’s Copy” gold-tooled on the spine, which is both an indication and a product of the fetishisation of this volume. The recto of the second front fly-leaf is inscribed: “Percy Bysshe Shelley March 5 – 1816”. (However, the inscription is not Shelley’s autograph. Nora Crook has established that it is in fact in Mary Shelley’s hand of 1816 (private email communication).)

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Edgeworthstown House

Black and white ink illustration of Edgeworthstown House

Contributor: Yuri Yoshino

Location: The Taylor Institution Library, the University of Oxford

Description: This house, Edgeworthstown House in Co. Longford, Ireland, was an important intellectual powerhouse in Europe during the Romantic period. This engraving, published on the front cover of the 42nd issue of Le Magasin Pittoresque (1833-1938) in October 1850, testifies to the continuing influence of works by Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) and her family in France and beyond, years after the publication of her final major novel, Helen (1834) and its translation into French by Louise Swanton-Belloc in the same year. The object of Le Magasin was popular education; it had been launched as the earliest imitation of Charles Knight’s Penny Magazine (1832-46), which aimed to enlighten popular readers with the aid of wood-engraved images without provoking radical ideas. Le Magasin was, however, more progressive than its British counterpart, promoting the institutionalization of general education in France during the period (Mainardi 86), and this may account for its interest in the Edgeworths.

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An Opening in a Holland House Dinner Book

image of an open manuscript book

Contributor: Will Bowers

Location: British Library, London.

Description: This opening occurs in the first of the dinner books kept at Holland House, Kensington, in which Elizabeth Vassall-Fox (Lady Holland, 1771-1845) recorded who dined at the house between 1799 and 1845. The coterie that gathered at this Jacobean mansion, then on the outskirts of west London, kept alive the flame of Charles James Fox, the uncle of Henry Richard Vassall-Fox (Lord Holland, 1749-1806). The group continued Fox’s desire for reform, especially his fight for the emancipation of slaves and Catholics, his opposition to European wars, and his support of global freedom movements. The international dimension of these concerns meant the house was a kind of alternative foreign office for liberal culture and politics, receiving European authors and politicians who it was hoped would spread Foxite principles aboard. The centre of exchange for this group was the dining room, in which Lady Holland played the chatelaine, entertaining the leading cultural figures of Romantic culture. Her eight assiduously kept dinner books, which Leslie Mitchell neatly describes as ‘catalogues of talent’, document forty-five years of the salon. (Mitchell, 35)

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The Commonplace Book of Marie Louise of Austria, Duchess of Parma

Image of an open manuscript book with a red cover

Contributor: Diego Saglia and Francesca Sandrini

Location: Salone delle Feste, tavolo 3; Museo Glauco Lombardi, Parma.

Description: This object, a commonplace book, speaks to a number of questions: What did a European female ruler from the Romantic period read? And how did she respond to the works? And was this reading also a creative, ‘writerly’ act?

Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise of Austria, Duchess of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla from the Congress of Vienna (1814/15) to her death in 1847, was a keen reader who kept several diaries, akin both to English commonplace books and the French practice of extraits et mélanges. There she transcribed longer and shorter extracts from the books she read, as well as her own observations and reflections. This commonplace book in our exhibition is the most significant and representative of them. This kind of artefact was in fact a relatively common phenomenon among women (and men) of the middle and upper classes all around Europe; yet, this specific example offers insights into a woman whose life blended public and private aspects, officialdom and intimacy, in peculiar and significant ways. Mixing reading and writing, reception and creation, Marie Louise’s commonplace book may be argued to be ultimately a vehicle for authoring both one’s own book and, in turn, one’s own Romantic self.

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The petition for Richard Lovell Edgeworth to be permitted to stay in Paris, 1803

Image of the petition and signatories. Ink on paper.

Contributor: Anne-Claire Michoux

Location: National Library of Ireland (Dublin)

Description: On the 21st of January 1803, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who had been residing in Paris for a few months with his daughter Maria and other family members, was ordered by the police to leave the capital within twenty-four hours. This document is a copy of the petition addressed to the ‘Citoyen Grand Juge’, Claude Ambroise Régnier (nominated in 1802), signed by eighteen leading French and Genevese literary, scientific, and political authorities appealing against the order on the family’s behalf. Many of the signatories were members of the Institut national des sciences et des arts, founded in 1795, of which Napoleon was also a member, and were in high office as members of the Tribunat, one of the main legal institutions under Napoleon. The petition captures the still-operative Enlightenment belief in a republic of letters which privileges intercultural intellectual exchanges. It reflects the dream of a European intellectual community that endures beyond or despite political and military conflict.

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