Leigh Hunt’s Parlour at Surrey Gaol

Two engravings of Leigh Hunt sitting at his desk in his cell at Surrey Gaol.

Contributor: Serena Baiesi

Location: Surrey Gaol, Horsemonger Lane, London. Detail from Edmund Blunden, ed., Leigh Hunt. A Biography (Archon Books, 1930)

Description: In 1812 Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) wrote that the Prince Regent was a violator of his word and a disreputable libertine in an article published in The Examiner — a radical newspaper he edited with his brother John. As a result he was sentenced to prison for two years from 1813 until 1815 for seditious libel and sent to Surrey Gaol, Horsemonger Lane. After a month spent in a small dwelling, Hunt was moved to a two-room suite in the prison infirmary. Here Hunt spent his days reading, writing, meeting with friends who constantly visited him, and enjoying the company of his wife and children. Even though during his prison days Hunt suffered several nervous attacks, characterised by palpitations, headaches, and uncontrollable anxiety, he describes this period in his autobiography, in many letters, and in reported conversations, as very convivial. Secluded in prison, Hunt became very productive, constantly contributing to The Examiner, writing poetry later collected in Foliage, composing the long poem The Story of Rimini, and beginning his drama The Descent of Liberty. He also became the centre of a very animated literary and liberal intellectual circle, which became legendary as a model for Romantic intellectual sociability.

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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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Teresa Guiccioli’s Travelling Chest

Teresa Guiccioli’s Travelling Chest

Contributor: Diego Saglia

Location: Istituzione Biblioteca Classense, Ravenna (Italy)

Description: This sizeable travelling chest (48.2 x 80.7 x 19.2 cm) belonged to Countess Teresa Guiccioli, née Gamba (1800-73), the co-protagonist of what Iris Origo called Lord Byron’s ‘last attachment’. A little battered, perhaps, it hides its secrets well. Read carefully, it nonetheless expresses continuity with systems of aristocratic identity construction familiar from the ancien régime, describes the consumerist self-styling of the travelling woman, and testifies to its central role in Teresa’s construction of her relationship with Byron.

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Lord Byron’s Autograph at the Castle of Chillon

Byron's Autograph at Chillon Castle

Contributor: Patrick Vincent

Location: Chillon Castle, Avenue de Chillon 21 · CH 1820 Veytaux · Switzerland

Description: 

Au milieu de tous les noms obscurs qui égratignent et encombrent la pierre, il reluit seul en trait de feu. J’ai plus pensé à Byron qu’au prisonnier. [In the midst of all the obscure names which scar and clutter the stone, his alone glows with fire. I thought more of Byron than of the imprisoned.] Gustave Flaubert (1845)

As enthusiastic readers of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Hélöise (1761), Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley sailed around Lake Geneva from 22 to 30 June 1816, visiting settings made famous by the novel, including Chillon Castle at the eastern end of Lake Geneva (or Leman), on Tuesday, June 25, 1816. This first visit inspired Byron’s poem The Prisoner of Chillon, composed in Ouchy two days later on the subject of François Bonnivard (1493-1570), a famous political prisoner held there by the Duke of Savoy between 1530 and 1536. Byron returned to Chillon with his friend John Cam Hobhouse on 18 September 1816, on the first day of their Alpine tour. Louis Simond, who visited Chillon a full year after Byron, on 4 August 1817, was the first to record the presence of Byron’s autograph in the castle’s souterrain, or dungeon, carved into the southern side of the third column, 1.45 meters from the lower edge of the shaft.

The authenticity of this autograph has been a matter of controversy and criticism almost from the very beginning.

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Byron’s hair

Location: Istituzione Biblioteca Classense, via Baccarini 3 Ravenna (Italy)

Contributors: Claudia Giuliani, Diego Saglia

Made of gold decorated with enamel, this medallion contains a lock of George Gordon, Lord Byron’s hair. The hair is dark and fastened by a small cord. This jewel is part of Teresa Gamba Guiccioli’s collection of souvenirs, letters and manuscripts kept at Ravenna’s Biblioteca Classense (Classense Library) and donated by the Gamba heirs in 1949.

It was given to Teresa by Byron on the eve of his departure for Greece in July 1823, after a relationship of more than four years. It is preserved together with other such love-tokens: another medallion commissioned by Byron in Genoa before leaving, made from intertwining the two lovers’ locks of hair and bearing Teresa’s “TGG” monogram; a braided lock of Teresa’s hair; and other locks of the poet’s hair, sometimes kept in paper wrappers with her own signature, which Byron gave her at various times during their relationship. The last lock of Byron’s hair in the collection was cut after his death in Greece, where he passed away with her medallion still round his neck, hanging from a cord made of hair. The collection is complete, with cards containing Teresa Gamba’s autograph. Continue reading “Byron’s hair”