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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The Shelley Memorial

Image of a white marble statue of Percy Shelley's drowned body on a plinth.

Contributor: Nicholas Halmi

Location: University College, Oxford, UK

Description: This object is a striking marble and bronze sculptural ensemble commemorating Percy Bysshe Shelley and displayed since 1893 at University College, Oxford, from which the poet had been expelled in 1811. Commissioned in 1890 by Lady Jane Shelley, the widow of Percy’s and Mary’s son Percy Florence—the only one of their children who lived to adulthood—the work was created by the English sculptor Edward Onslow Ford (1852–1901), a practitioner of the naturalism characteristic of Britain’s so-called ‘New Sculpture’ movement. The work consists of two visually contrasting elements, an idealized effigy in white Carrara marble and an allegorical base in dark green bronze. The marble, a life-size nude lying on its side, represents the drowned Shelley after he had washed ashore at Viareggio in July 1822. His body, reposing on a pale-green marble slab, is supported by two winged lions, between whom, and in front of Shelley, sits the half-nude figure of a mourning Muse—also in bronze—leaning heavily on her broken lyre. Both the lions and the Muse rest upon a large dark maroon marble plinth labelled (on bronze plaques) with the poet’s surname and two phrases from stanza 42 of Adonais, his elegy to John Keats: ‘IN DARKNESS AND IN LIGHT’ and ‘HE IS MADE ONE WITH NATURE’. Originally Shelley’s head was adorned with a gilt-bronze wreath—a ludicrous embellishment that can only have detracted from the statue’s undeniably arresting appearance. A fragment of this wreath survives in the college archives.

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The Junot-Wellington Watch

Image of a the front and back of a pocket watch, gold on one side, platinum on the other

Contributor: Jorge Bastos da Silva

Location: Casa-Museu Medeiros e Almeida, Lisbon

Description: This state-of-the-art pocket watch was commissioned by General Jean-Andoche Junot, the commander of the first invasion of Portugal by Napoleon’s armies, from the famous Swiss clockmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet. After Junot’s death, the watch was sold back to Breguet and eventually came into possession of Junot’s enemy, the Duke of Wellington, as a gift from a comrade-in-arms. The watch thus suffered radical repurposing by a roundabout way, becoming a virtual war trophy. Its story points to the relevance of tracing the transit of objects to understanding the social and material culture of the Romantic period.

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Petrarch’s Inkstand

Image of Petrach's inkstand.-  the lid decorate with a seated Cupid, inscribed to the underside ‘PETRARCH’S INKSTAND’ and with a ten-line poem beneath, ‘By beauty won from soft Italia’s land’, enclosing a gilt brass inkwell, the compressed spherical body applied with masks, on three paw supports, 17 cm highGold

Contributor: Nicola J. Watson

Location: Current whereabouts of object unknown

Description: In February 2008, this object came up for auction at a sale of selected contents of Clothall House, Hertfordshire and of items from The Savoy Hotel run by Bonham’s Auctioneers in London. The auction catalogue described it as ‘A 19th century gilt bronze European Tour souvenir model of ‘Petrarch’s inkstand.’ It sold for £60 to a private collector, a figure that registers its catastrophic decline in cultural import since the date of its manufacture, sometime between the first half of the nineteenth century when Petrarch’s reputation was running high on the tides of Romantic taste and the 1870s when such items were being mass-produced. At the outset of the century, such an item would have been made to special commission to describe an intellectual or sentimental affinity. In brokering and making visible an imaginary conversation between the dead and the living, ‘Petrarch’s inkstand’ was one of a number of inkstands that constructed a transnational notion of Romantic posterity.

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Sir Walter Scott’s Elbow Chair: The Seat of Power

Black and white engraving of Scott's chair, with shoes in the foreground and a cane leaning against the chair

Contributor: Kirsty Archer-Thompson F.S.A. Scot

Location: Abbotsford, Melrose, Scotland

Description: This item is a mahogany-framed elbow chair with a sloping scooped back, of the type often found in late-Georgian libraries. The seat itself has always been assumed to be real leather, but in fact it may be a very early example of imitation leather, made of layers of pulped paper coated with preservative. The seat is deep, even for a man of some stature, and it is a curiously relaxed choice to combine with the versatile architect’s desk that Walter Scott commissioned from Gillows of Lancaster in 1810. One cannot help but see a seating position more conducive to thinking or reading rather than hours spent at ‘the task’ of writing voluminous histories and novels. Although a plain piece of furniture overall, the chair has some reeded detail on the front of the frame and down the tapered legs. Evidence of a sparsely buttoned back survive in a series of small pin holes and clumps of threads, with none of the true buttons now remaining. The seat is heavily worn and the whole piece exudes an aura of robust rusticity. The maker of the chair and the exact time of its purchase is unknown, although it is likely to have been purchased from William Trotter of Edinburgh. The piece was certainly in position in Scott’s Study at Abbotsford by 1826 and may have been relocated to the property, alongside the desk, after the sale of the family’s Edinburgh home following the financial crash of 1825-6.

Almost as soon as the interior of Scott’s Abbotsford Study was finished in 1825, there was an intense interest in the space as the place from which his stories emanated, and this enthusiasm naturally settled most enthusiastically on his desk and chair as a kind of secular altar. As early as 1826, in The Border Tourist, we find the author making himself comfortable in Scott’s elbow chair where he tells us the writer is still “accustomed to sit.” Musing whilst surveying the writing paraphernalia surrounding him, he declares that future generations will “look on with an interest approaching adoration.” This was prophetic of one aspect of Scott’s transition into a cult figure of the Romantic movements across Europe and beyond.

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Adam Mickiewicz’s Tie Pin

Image of a gold tie pin in the form of a four-stringed classical lyre, decorated with diamonds set in silver

Contributor: Małgorzata Wichowska

Location: Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature, Warsaw, Poland

Description: This tie pin is part of the Mickiewicz Collection, the most important collection in Warsaw’s Museum of Literature, itself named after the poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), a founding figure in Polish Romanticism. The historical-literary museum’s mission is to gather manuscripts, books, works of art, photographs, and mementos relating to Poland’s diverse literary and artistic heritage of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Made of gold, the tie pin is in the form of a four-stringed classical lyre, decorated with diamonds set in silver. Tradition has it that the tie pin was a gift from the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) to Adam Mickiewicz.

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János Erdélyi’s Travelling Box

image of János Erdélyi's travelling box, open

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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The ‘Messiah’ Violin

images of a violin

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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Narcissa’s Tomb

Image of a stone plaque on Narcissa's tomb.

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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Goya Frescoes

Image of cupula frescoes by Francisco de Goya depicting St Antony

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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