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 Bersagliere student’s goodbye

Statue of two figures embracing.

Contributor: Elena Musiani

Location: Museo Civico del Risorgimento di Bologna

Description: This statuette, L’addio dello studente bersagliere (The Bersagliere student’s goodbye), is held in the Museo Civico Del Risorgimento of Bologna. The piece, in polychrome terracotta, by the sculptor Fortunato Zampanelli (1828-1909) from Forlì, was acquired by the Museum in 1939 from the sculptor’s son. The work was made during the years in which Zampanelli was still a student at the Accademia di Belle Arti of Bologna, as evidenced by the slightly ‘raw’ nature of the piece and the simple facial features of the young couple. At first glance, it seems a conventionally, even insipidly, sentimental and patriotic piece; but hidden within it lies a more urgently autobiographical and historical story of the young caught up in the war and revolution associated with Romanticism.

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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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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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Garibaldi’s Cabin

Image of a brick hut with a thatched roof and  trees on either side.

Contributor: Harald Hendrix

Location: Via Baiona 192, 48123 Area Industriale Ravenna, Italy

Description: Inextricably linked to one of the most dramatic moments in the heroic life of Giuseppe Garibaldi, this humble hunting lodge situated in an almost inaccessible area of wetlands near the city of Ravenna preserves the long-lasting memory of popular consent to Garibaldi’s republican and patriotic project to unite Italy. Erected in 1810 by a local clergyman to accommodate his passion for hunting in this part of the river Po delta between Ravenna and Comacchio, it grew into an ideal hideaway for those escaping from arrest by the authorities. In the aftermath of the revolutionary season of 1848 it thus became the shelter of one of Europe’s most radical and appealing advocates of political change, Giuseppe Garibaldi, in what doubtless was the most difficult moment of his life.

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Memorial to Giustiniana Wynne in Angelo Quirini’s Garden

 

Contributors: Rotraud von Kulessa and Catriona Seth

Location: Unknown (probably destroyed), Italy

Description: Giustiniana Wynne (1737-1791) was a true cosmopolitan from the moment of her birth in Venice, to a ‘Greek’ local woman (born in Lefkos) and an English baronet. The list of her friends and lovers reads like a Who’s Who of the republic of letters from her ‘caro Memmo’, the Venetian patrician Andrea Memmo (1729-1793) who was her first love in the 1750s, to the young William Beckford (1760-1844) when he was touring Europe, 30 years later. She was briefly betrothed to the wealthy French Fermier-Général La Poupelinière (1693-1762). The adventurer Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) recounts in his Memoirs how he failed to help her abort an illegitimate child but tricked her into having sex with him. She married the elderly Austrian ambassador to the Serenissima, Count Orsini von Rosenberg (1691-1765) and once widowed spent much of her time during her final years with Senator Angelo Quirini (1721-1796). Her literary collaborator was sometime government spy Bartolomeo Benincasa (1746-1816). She entertained the poets Melchiore Cesarotti (1730-1808) who reviewed her 1788 novel Les Morlaques, and Ippolito Pindemonte. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Leopold Mozart are amongst those who refer to her in their letters.

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Mount Vesuvius

Painting showing the eruption of the Vesuvius volcano

Contributor: Cian Duffy

Location: Gulf of Naples, Italy (40°49N’ 14°26’E)

Description: Located just outside the Italian city of Naples, the volcano Vesuvius was one of the most spectacular instances of the ‘natural sublime’ typically visited as part of the Grand Tour of Europe. Vesuvius was in a more-or-less constant state of activity throughout the Romantic period and had a least six significant eruptions between 1774 and 1822. In a letter of December 1818, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) describes it as ‘after the glaciers [of the Alps] the most impressive expression of the energies of the nature I ever saw’ and his response is visible in the volcanic landscapes and imagery of Prometheus Unbound (1820). (1) Influential Romantic-period travel writing, such as A Classical Tour through Italy (1812) by John Chetwode Eustace (1762-1815) and Remarks […] During an Excursion in Italy (1813) by Joseph Forsyth (1763-1815), offered extended descriptions of the volcano and its environs for the increasing numbers of tourists who visited as well as information about the latest speculations in natural philosophy. Eruptions of Vesuvius were made the subject of numerous paintings, including celebrated works by the British artists Joseph William Mallord Turner (1775-1851) and Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97), by the German Jacob Philipp Hackert (1737-1807), and by the Frenchman Pierre-Jacques Volaire (1729-99), who died in Naples. They were often depicted in panoramic exhibitions in London and other European capitals – and, of course, they feature in countless works of fiction, poetry, and drama by authors across Europe. Arguably, Vesuvius drove the explosion (if the pun may be forgiven) in the use of volcanoes and volcanic eruptions in Romantic-period cultural texts right across Europe as metaphors and similes for everything from poetic inspiration to political revolution. Hence Lord Byron (1788-1824) no doubt had Vesuvius in mind when he lamented, in the thirteenth canto of Don Juan (1823), what he saw as the clichéd ubiquity of volcanic imagery: ‘I hate to hunt down a tired Metaphor –/ So let the often-used Volcano go;/ Poor thing! how frequently be me and others/ It hath been stirred up, till its Smoke quite smothers’ (ll. 285-8).

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Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence

Interior of the Basilica of Santa Croce

Contributor: Francesca Benatti

Location: Piazza Santa Croce, Florence

Description: The Basilica of Santa Croce is a late 13th-century Gothic church in Florence, probably designed by architect Arnolfo di Cambio. Home to the Franciscan order in Florence, it contains significant artworks by, among others, Giotto, Donatello, Brunelleschi and Vasari. From the mid 15th century onwards, Santa Croce became the burial place of some of the most prominent literary, artistic and scientific figures from Tuscany and later, the rest of Italy. In the early nineteenth century, it boasted the tombs of Niccolò Machiavelli, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Galileo Galilei and Vittorio Alfieri, the latter completed by Antonio Canova in 1810. These burials attracted the attention of Romantic authors across Europe, who variously interpreted them as metaphors of the state of Italy and for the nature of artistic fame.

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Mount Etna

The Eruption of Etna (oil on canvas)

Contributor: Cian Duffy

Location: Sicily, Italy (37°45.3N’ 14°59.7’E)

Description: With a current elevation of c.3350m (as of June 2019), Mount Etna is an active stratovolcano on the east coast of the island of Sicily. Etna was much less frequently visited during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than the more accessible Vesuvius, outside Naples, the usual terminus of the European Grand Tour (the main route to Sicily was via boat from Naples). The mountain had nevertheless been ‘famous from all antiquity for its vomiting up fire’, as John Dryden the younger (1688-1701), the son of the poet, reminds us in his posthumously-published Voyage to Sicily and Malta (1776). During the Romantic period, Etna and its eruptions were made the subject of many paintings and panoramas and featured also in numerous works of prose, verse, and drama produced and consumed across Europe.

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