Contributor: Diego Saglia
Location: Umbria, Italy
Description: This line engraving of the celebrated ‘Falls at Terni’ (the ‘Cascata delle Marmore’) in the central region of Umbria in Italy was created by John Landseer after a watercolour by Joseph William Mallord Turner. Turner produced it in 1818, as part of a series of illustrations for James Hakewill’s Picturesque Tour of Italy. It was based on Hakewill’s drawings and other impressions gathered from descriptions in travel books. The age-old fascination with the spectacle of the leaping and crashing waters of the river Velino, one of the highest falls in Europe, reached new heights in the Romantic period. As Lord Byron organized his journey from Venice to Rome in the spring of 1817, he made sure it would take in the falls. Back in Venice, on 4 June, he wrote triumphantly to his London-based publisher John Murray: ‘I visited twice the fall of Terni – which beats every thing’. He turned the experience into poetry in stanzas 69-72 of the fourth canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a section that soon became one of the most widely appreciated and quoted from that extremely successful poem. Its popularity contributed to fixing and defining the experience of the falls for English-language readers, first, and then – in translation – for readers all over Europe and beyond. In Victorian times, the stanzas were reproduced in John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Central Italy (1843) in the section dedicated to the Cascata delle Marmore, included in Route 27: ‘Florence to Rome by Arezzo and Perugia’.
Though not directly inspired by Byron’s lines, this image captures in visual form the poet’s dynamically dramatic description:
The roar of waters! – from the headlong height
Velino cleaves the wave-worn precipice;
The fall of waters! rapid as the light
The flashing mass foams shaking the abyss;
The hell of waters! where they howl and hiss,
And boil in endless torture; while the sweat
Of their great agony, wrung out from this
Their Phlegethon, curls round the rocks of jet
That gird the gulf around, in pitiless horror set
(Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, IV.69)
Byron’s lines conjure up a scene of incessant, chaotic movement – an infernal scene (the river Velino becomes the mythological Phlegethon of the classical underworld) that is also a spectacle of extreme beauty.
The presence of the falls in literary and cultural history long predates Byron. The creation of the cascade caused dissension between the ancient Roman towns of Terni (Interamna) and Rieti (Reate); Cicero represented the position of the latter before the Senate in 54 BCE. Also, it is likely that Dante included a reference to them in his Divina Commedia (Paradise XX.19-21). The literary travellers who visited the falls in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries included Wilhelm Heinse, Johann Caspar Goethe (the author’s father – it is not certain that his famous son actually saw the falls), Lady Anna Miller (eminence grise of the Batheaston poetical coterie), Vittorio Alfieri, François René de Chateaubriand, and Hans Christian Andersen. One of those who wanted to visit the site but was unable to do so was Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan: she could not reach them because there were no government-approved vetturini (coach drivers) available to take her there. Nonetheless, in Italy (1821), she depicts the falls as ‘an object of European curiosity’ and a natural spectacle the ‘depth, boldness, and brilliancy’ of which matches ‘the genius of him [Byron] who has best celebrated its wonders’.
In seeking to reproduce the visual experience of the falls, Turner’s watercolour, Landseer’s engraving and Byron’s poetry aim to convey an effect that is both aesthetic and emotional. Yet the falls were also an object of deep fascination as a feat of ancient and modern engineering. As travellers knew from guidebooks and their ciceroni, they were created in the third century BCE to control the river Velinus, to reduce flooding locally and on the plains of adjacent Rieti, and especially to dispose of stagnant water. In fact, the falls were and remain an enormous drain, diverting the Velino into the Nera, a tributary of the Tiber. The cascade was repeatedly improved over the centuries until 1787, when the papal architect Andrea Vici modified the salti (steps, ‘jumps’), giving the falls their current shape. Thus, even as Romantic-era visitors related to them as an aesthetic and emotional experience, the Marmore also spoke to other concerns, equally present to those visitors, such as the benefits to agriculture, human occupancy and health thanks to the containment of malaria, a widespread affliction in Italy, from the Northern plain and the Maremma to the Roman campagna and beyond.
These realities are not conveyed by the original watercolour or this print, which privilege picturesque and sublime features from the point of view of a traveller and a tourist enchanted by the seemingly interminable surprises offered by Italy and its landscapes. This Romantic vision still characterizes visitors’ experiences. One of the areas from which the falls can be viewed has been named Piazzale Byron and has been adorned with a metal bench, created by the artist Peppe di Giuli, on which lie the poet’s mantle in gilded bronze and an open book with the lines on the waterfall in English and Italian. Nowadays, however, the environmental implications of this site are re-emerging. In our Anthropocenic times the falls represent a monumental, and beautifully ominous, sign of human intervention on the environment, a place that speaks to us loudly and insistently of some of our most pressing concerns.
Date: c. 1819
Creator: John Landseer after J.M.W. Turner
Subject: Cascata delle Marmore, Terni (Italy)
Media rights: Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Object type: 218 x 142, line engraving
Format: ink, paper
Publisher: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Catalogue number: WA.RS.ED.278
Angeletti, Gioia and Diego Saglia, ‘Italy and British Romanticism: Human-Nonhuman Conversations’, in Studies in Romanticism, Special Issue: Romanticism and Ecological Knowledge, ed. Noah Heringman, 62.1 (Spring 2023), forthcoming.
[Blewitt, Octavian], Handbook for Travellers in Central Italy, including the Papal States, Rome, and the Cities of Etruria (London: John Murray, 1843)
Brown, David Blayney, Turner and Byron (London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1992)
“Byron e la cascata orribilmente bella”, Online: https://www.lacascatadellemarmore.net/it/articles/17/BYRON-E-LA-CASCATA-ORRIBILMENTE-BELLA-.html (last access: 06/09/2022)
Elfenbein, Andrew, Byron and the Victorians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
[Owenson, Sydney], Lady Morgan, Italy (London: Henry Colburn, 1821)
“Parco Cascata delle Marmore, Umbria – Official Website”: Online: https://www.cascatadellemarmore.info (last access: 06/09/2022)
Schaff, Barbara, ‘John Murray’s Handbooks to Italy: Making Tourism Literary’, in Literary Tourism and Nineteenth-Century Culture, ed. Nicola J. Watson (Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 106-18.