Contributor: Emese Asztalos
Location: Private collection, Hungary
Description: When the poet, János Erdélyi (1814 – 1868) left Hungary in the mid-1840s to join a former pupil on his Grand Tour, he took this Travelling Box with him. The box could be held in its owner’s lap throughout the journey, and it was also appropriate to use it in a comfortless guesthouse. It has several functions: it is a writing-desk, toilet-table, treasure chest and a kind of workplace, from which Erdélyi sent reports about his travels to Hungarian journals. Beside papers, inks, correspondence, and pens, it could hide toilet accessories and secret belongings. The mirror could help with shaving, which was very important for Hungarian nobles or intellectuals, who were especially proud of their beards.
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Contributor: Robert Samuels
Location: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Description: You can see the ‘Messiah’ violin today. It is on display at the Ashmolean Museum as the centrepiece of their collection of musical instruments. It was made in 1716 by the most famous of all violin makers, Antonio Stradivari of Cremona. It is, indeed, a ‘Stradivarius’, a ‘Strad’, the most perfect example from the hands of the man reputed to make the most beautiful-sounding instruments the world has ever known.
You can see it today. You can see it, but you cannot hear it. No-one can. The violin rests in its glass case, mute symbol of perfection in sound, unplayed, forever. It has never been played. It was kept by Stradivari himself in his workshop, its perfection such that he wished never to part with it. Kept after him by his son Paolo, sold on Paolo’s deathbed in 1775 to Count Cozio di Salabue, a collector who never touched it. Bought from him by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, a violin maker and collector who kept it under lock and key, but told everyone of its worth, causing it to be named ‘Le Messie’, because like the Messiah its coming was eagerly awaited but never seen. It may possibly have been heard, once, at the London World Exhibition of 1862, where, in a competition organised by himself, he entered an unidentified violin anonymously, which was declared superior to all others played against it. The Messiah did eventually come to London, exhibited in 1871 at the Exhibition to celebrate the opening of the Royal Albert Hall. But still it was not heard. Bought at last by the London dealers W. E. Hill and sons, it was those sons, Arthur and Alfred, who quite rightly bequeathed it at last to a museum where its perfection could remain unchallenged forever.
The mythical status of this unheard and yet peerless instrument is of course a Romantic trope. While all of the history recounted above is true, it is also couched in terms which betray its Romantic intent.
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Contributor: Catriona Seth
Location: Jardin des Plantes, Montpellier, France
Description: The poet Edward Young’s The Complaint: or Night-Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality, published between 1742 and 1745 entranced readers throughout Europe. Whilst a fairly accurate German version was produced quite rapidly, the first French book-length translation only came out in 1769—it was a free adaptation by Le Tourneur and would be widely reprinted over the years. From Rousseau to Robespierre and Germaine de Staël to Bonaparte, whatever their social status or political sensibilities, the chattering classes read Les Nuits.
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Contributor: Clare Brant
Location: La Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida, Madrid
Description: In 1798, Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) was commissioned to decorate a newly-rebuilt Neoclassical chapel devoted to St Antony of Padua (1195-1231) in a fashionable district of Madrid. Its frescoes, painted when Goya was 52 and working for the court, are a remarkable survival, and a masterpiece of religious art by Romanticism’s most versatile and original painter. Goya’s subject is a profound belief that the truth can be spoken, even if you have to revive a father’s corpse.
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Contributor: Jorge Bastos da Silva
Location: Author’s own collection
Description: O Panorama (The Panorama) was one of the most ambitious cultural magazines of the Romantic period in Portugal, considered to be the years between ca. 1825 and 1865. This illustration reflects an increasing tendency among Romantic period Portuguese intellectuals to see England as a nation at the forefront of progress, and the railroad as the means of ensuring the spread of progressive ideas, objects and people across Europe. It thus serves as a corrective to other more celebrated, and more pessimistic, accounts by Romantic artists of modern technology, its clarity and optimism standing in stark contrast with Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, which the Romantic painter J. M. W. Turner was to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1844.
Continue reading “Illustration from Portuguese periodical O Panorama showing the railroad between London and Greenwich, 1840″
Contributor: Alice Rhodes
Location: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield, UK
Description: Although best known for his careers as poet and doctor (or perhaps for his grandson Charles, who would go on to lay claim to the Darwin name in the public consciousness) Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was also a prolific inventor proposing apparatuses of every kind from systems of canal locks to a steam powered chariot. Many of these, like the “Artificial Bird” pictured above, can be found in the commonplace book which Darwin kept between 1776 and 1787, now housed at Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield. There is no record of the bird leaving the pages of the commonplace book until its reconstruction by Erasmus Darwin House in 2013, yet Darwin’s bird is more than a flight of fancy. Nor was it a mere toy or curiosity. It can be read as an instrument or experiment through which Darwin gained knowledge of both physics and avian physiology, and it hatched from a long European history of creating such mechanisms.
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Contributor: Delia da Sousa Correa
Location: Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.
Description: Purchased on 22 November 1869 for the 50th birthday of the novelist George Eliot by her partner George Henry Lewes, this Broadwood piano was delivered to a grieving household. Lewes’s middle son, Thornfield, had returned from farming in Africa with a painful illness and had died, aged 25, just a month previously. It was a period when neither Eliot, who was writing Middlemarch, nor Lewes, were able to work. That the piano was purchased then, indicates that it represented something of deep significance. Not surprisingly, no flurry of references to the new piano fills Eliot’s correspondence at this date. Fittingly however, the piano has an implied presence as a source of solace a decade later when, on the first anniversary of Lewes’s own death, a line in Eliot’s diary for 8 Sept 1879 reads simply: ‘Darwin. Schubert’ (Journals, 180). ‘Darwin’ may denote a visitor, or his books; Schubert she must have been playing at the piano. Eliot’s journal further records that she had ‘Touched the piano for the first time’ after Lewes’ death on 27th May (Journals, 175). This piano is, however, representative not just of the personal importance for George Eliot of Romantic music but of its significance for numerous areas of Victorian culture in Britain.
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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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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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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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