Description: The summit of Mont Blanc was first reached in 1786, when the Chamonix-based doctor Michael-Gabriel Paccard and the crystal hunter Jacques Balmat attained the highest point in Western Europe. The following year, the Genevan man of science, Horace Bénédict de Saussure, fulfilled his obsessional desire to reach the loftiest of vantage points, which for him became the most elevated of outdoor laboratories; he spent four hours on the summit conducting various experiments. De Saussure, best known for his four volume Voyages dans les Alpes (1779-1796), speedily published an abbreviated narrative of his ‘Journey to the Summit of Mont Blanc’. De Saussure’s evocation of his mountain ascent was a major contribution to the developing genre of Alpine travel writing, which became a key form in materialising and transmitting Romantic ideas and sentiments across Europe.
Description: In the early 1820s, the British Museum passed up the opportunity to purchase what is now among the most celebrated objects in the Sir John Soane Museum and, according to Tim Knox, “one of the most spectacular Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt” (105): the alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I, dating from about 1279 BC. It was carved from a single block of semi-transparent aragonite and covered with hieroglyphs from the Book of Gates. Inside, on the floor of the coffin, an image of the goddess Nut, guardian of the dead king’s soul, has been incised. (1) Admittedly, the price tag was 2,000 pounds, and the precise value of newly excavated antiquities from Egypt—received as curiosities more ‘wondrous’ than aesthetically pleasing—was difficult to establish. After some protracted dithering, the object went instead, in 1824, to John Soane whose house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields was not just a working architect’s studio, but also a dramatic showcase for his collections of architectural fragments, antiquities, artworks, and curiosities – many of which are documented in this watercolour by Richardson, Soane’s former pupil and assistant. The sarcophagus, given pride of place, can be thought of as a romantic ‘medium’ apart from the occult connotations of the term: it is itself a transported or displaced vehicle for transport into the afterlife, a museum monument to the way memory can be materialized, and death made a living (if empty) object of meditation in the present. It is also part of a narrative about the attractions of Egypt for Romantic traveller-explorers, and the perils of imperial appropriation.
Description: This remarkable map was the work of the Chartist poet, wood engraver, editor, printer and activist William James Linton (1812-97). (1) Linton is probably unknown to most Romantic scholars, yet he played an important role in preserving the radical legacy of Romanticism for the nineteenth century.
Description: On the 11th of October, 1819, Thomas Moore left Venice, headed for Ferrara. He was carrying one of the most infamous lost objects of European Romanticism: Byron’s manuscript memoirs. Moore agreed not to publish the Memoirs during Byron’s lifetime, but he was left free, in Byron’s words “to do whatever you please” with it after his death. Byron later supplemented the Memoirs with further additions, which he sent to Moore by post. The two did not know it at the time, but they were never to meet again face to face.
Description: This medal, struck in 1817, commemorates the work of one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of ballet history, creator of the so-called choreodrama, Salvatore Viganò (1769-1821). It reads:
A SALVATORE VIGANO’ / IMPAREGGIABILE COREOGRAFO/ CHE COLLA/ RAPPRESENTAZIONE DEL PROMETEO/ DATA L’ AN MDCCCXIV/ NEL REGIO TEATRO DI MILANO / IMMORTALATOSI. /TANTA GLORIA. NELLA MIRRA / E NEL PSAMMI / BRILLANTE. TVTTAVIA / SOSTIENE/ GLI AMMIRATORI DEL BELLO/ SACRAVANO MERITATAMENTE/ NEL MDCCCXVII.
[TO SALVATORE VIGANO’ SUPREME CHOREOGRAPHER WHO WAS IMMORTALIZED FOR THE STAGING OF HIS PROMETEO IN THE YEAR 1814 IN THE ROYAL THEATRE OF MILAN. MUCH GLORY FOR HIS MIRRA AND BRILLIANT IN PSAMMI. HOWEVER ADMIRERS OF THE BEAUTIFUL PRAISED HIM DESERVEDLY IN 1817.]
Viganò’s Prometeo opened on 22 May 1813 and met with an unprecedented popular triumph. This ballet was one of Viganò’s fantastic-allegorical dances that Ritorni calls pantomimo-dramas, transitional ballets located somewhere between the ballet en action and the danced poem. In all, Viganò composed more than 40 ballets of which 15 were these pantomimo-dramas, heroic dances or grand ballets animated by hero-comic or tragicomic actions. The so-called “passo d’azione alla Viganò“ [pasen action à la Viganò] was to dance what Wagner’s infinite melody was to opera. The ballet entirely danced à la Viganò disappeared with his death in 1821, until, a century later, the Russians rediscovered it, and used it as a basis for their choreographies. Admiration for Salvatore Viganò and his revolutionary dance had a lot to do with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Italian experience and underlies the expression of his revolutionary poetics in Prometheus Unbound (1820).
Location: Royal residences in Copenhagen (Christiansborg, Amalienborg and Rosenborg).
Description: According to (disputed) tradition, Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark commissioned the 1895-piece Flora Danica dinner service in 1790 as a gift for Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. Frederik, the son of Christian VII of Denmark and Caroline Matilda of Great Britain, had ruled Denmark as regent since 1784, following the collapse of his father’s mental health; his mother – ‘poor Matilda’, as Wollstonecraft called her in her Letters written during a Short Residence (1796) – had been divorced and exiled from Denmark in 1772 when her affair with Johann Friedrich Struensee, the king’s physician, was exposed. In 1790, Danish-Russian relations were reeling from the Russo-Swedish War (1788-90), during which Denmark-Norway declared its neutrality despite having committed to a defensive alliance with Russia under the Treaty of Tsarskoye Selo (1773). (1) Frederik’s extravagant gift, so the story goes, was intended to help patch the rift – and no doubt also to eclipse the 980-piece creamware ‘Frog Service’, which had been presented to Catherine the Great in 1774 by the Staffordshire-based Wedgwood Company.
Description: Lakagígar is a 27km-long volcanic fissure in Iceland. The name means ‘craters of Laki’, after Mount Laki, the highest point at the centre of the fissure. Lakagígar was formed through a huge eruption in 1783-4 that had massive environmental, social, and cultural consequences for Iceland and indeed the rest of Europe, and which leaves a record in early Romantic literature.
Description: The Livre d’or de La Flégère, a 635-page, folio-sized, leather-bound book held at the Musée Alpin in Chamonix, is one of the few extant alpine visitor books from the first half of the nineteenth century, and the only one to cover such a wide time span. It contains over fifteen thousand names, comments in various languages, and roughly a hundred and fifty poems, sketches, and doodles, offering us rare insight into the cultural practices of European Romantic travel as well as the concomitant commoditizing of the Alps. Belonging to what historian Kevin James has described as ‘an experimental space of self-exposure’ with its well-established dramaturgy, visitor books such as this one played a central role in disseminating and democratizing the Romantic Sublime.
Description: This object is tied to Abbotsford, the home of Walter Scott, a globally famous literary tourist destination in Britain. It not only embodies the connection between literature and place, but negotiates, in quite explicit ways, some of the tensions between conceiving of literature in an age of mass consumption and recognising the intimate experience of the pilgrim reader.
This is a fairly common edition of Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion, printed and published in Edinburgh by the firm of Adam and Charles Black in 1873, and now held in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. Marmion, originally published in 1808, remained at the end of the nineteenth century, along with The Lady of the Lake and The Lay of the Last Minstrel, one of the most popular works of Walter Scott and one of the most celebrated works of English Romantic poetry. Black’s was associated with the author through the multi-volume Waverley novels that they had produced in their thousands since the mid nineteenth century. In 1871, they had produced a lavish 25 volume centenary edition of Scott’s works.
What makes this item unusual in the first instance is its covers, and in the second an inscription by its first owner.
Location: Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
Description: This engraving shows Leadenhall Street in the City of London at the close of the eighteenth century. Today, the thoroughfare is primarily associated with banking and finance; then, Leadenhall Street was one of the publishing centres of Romantic London. Dominating the image on the right is the unmistakable, pillared building of the East India House (demolished in 1861 and now the site of Lloyd’s of London). A block away, opposite the pink building near the back of the image, was No. 33, Leadenhall Street. It was here that William Lane (1738–1814) established his Minerva Press and Library in 1773, a major influence on the Romantic book trade and a key player in the history of fiction. This illustration appeared around 1799, during the golden age of the Minerva Press that spanned the 1790s to the 1810s. Yet, no image of the Minerva Press survives, and nor do its archives. The only traces that remain are the books and circulating library catalogues that the press produced. Still, these reveal the extent to which the output of the Minerva Press depended on translation and adaptation both to sell to British readers and to sell across Europe, and other evidence underscores the press’s market penetration in continental Europe.