Description: The summit of Mont Blanc was first reached in 1786, when the Chamonix-based doctor Michael-Gabriel Paccard and the crystal hunter Jacques Balmat attained the highest point in Western Europe. The following year, the Genevan man of science, Horace Bénédict de Saussure, fulfilled his obsessional desire to reach the loftiest of vantage points, which for him became the most elevated of outdoor laboratories; he spent four hours on the summit conducting various experiments. De Saussure, best known for his four volume Voyages dans les Alpes (1779-1796), speedily published an abbreviated narrative of his ‘Journey to the Summit of Mont Blanc’. De Saussure’s evocation of his mountain ascent was a major contribution to the developing genre of Alpine travel writing, which became a key form in materialising and transmitting Romantic ideas and sentiments across Europe.
Description: The catalogue for an auction of “a Collection of Books” advertised as “LATE THE PROPERTY OF A NOBLEMAN ABOUT TO LEAVE ENGLAND ON A TOUR,” highlights some of the volumes it will include, among them: “The Large Plates to Boydell’s Shakespeare, 2 vol. . . . – Morieri, Dictionnaire Historique, 10 vol. . . . Malcolm’s History of Persia, 2 vol. russia. . . –And some Romaic books of which no other Copies are in this Country.” It adds, set off from this assorted list of books, “AND A Large Skreen [sic] covered with Portraits of Actors, Pugilists, Representations of Boxing Matches, &c.” The volumes in this collection were far-flung, not unlike the Nobleman about to leave on a tour: he was Lord Byron, the most famous poet in Europe, poised to travel to Switzerland, through Italy, and finally to Greece after signing the deed of separation from his wife in April 1816. Perhaps even more out of place than the Lord and the “Romaic books of which no other Copies are in this Country,” the large screen singled out for notice on the cover of the catalogue has more than one story to tell about the mobility of the Romantic imagination.
Description: In the early 1820s, the British Museum passed up the opportunity to purchase what is now among the most celebrated objects in the Sir John Soane Museum and, according to Tim Knox, “one of the most spectacular Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt” (105): the alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I, dating from about 1279 BC. It was carved from a single block of semi-transparent aragonite and covered with hieroglyphs from the Book of Gates. Inside, on the floor of the coffin, an image of the goddess Nut, guardian of the dead king’s soul, has been incised. (1) Admittedly, the price tag was 2,000 pounds, and the precise value of newly excavated antiquities from Egypt—received as curiosities more ‘wondrous’ than aesthetically pleasing—was difficult to establish. After some protracted dithering, the object went instead, in 1824, to John Soane whose house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields was not just a working architect’s studio, but also a dramatic showcase for his collections of architectural fragments, antiquities, artworks, and curiosities – many of which are documented in this watercolour by Richardson, Soane’s former pupil and assistant. The sarcophagus, given pride of place, can be thought of as a romantic ‘medium’ apart from the occult connotations of the term: it is itself a transported or displaced vehicle for transport into the afterlife, a museum monument to the way memory can be materialized, and death made a living (if empty) object of meditation in the present. It is also part of a narrative about the attractions of Egypt for Romantic traveller-explorers, and the perils of imperial appropriation.
Description: The ‘Malta Notebook’, as this manuscript has become known, measures 177 x 120 x 38mm and is bound in vellum. It has one hundred and eighty-six leaves of hand-made paper of different tints, written mostly on both sides, and holding about eight thousand lines of poetry of Wordsworth’s unpublished work at that time. It is the result of an intense period of sorting, assimilation and copying of verses involving William, Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth in February and March of 1804. Significantly, it is a gift of love from the Dove Cottage household to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, their close friend and fellow poet, to be his companion during his forthcoming time in the Mediterranean.
Taken together, it is one of the greatest treasures in the Wordsworth Trust’s Designated Collection.
Contributor: Anne Bohnenkamp, Frankfurt am Main (Deutsches Romantik-Museum
Location: Frankfurt am Main (Germany)
Description: Letters belong to the most important media of the Romantic era. Apart from the general rise of private correspondence in the 18th century, which was marked by profound social, political and technical change, specific characteristics of the Romantic movement are responsible for the growing importance of letters in this period. These include characteristic tendencies of border transgressions – such as to abolish the distinction between life and art, to declare life a work of art and art as life, so that the distinction between private letters and works of art begins to blur. Last but not least emerging forms of female authorship frequently operate with the medium of the letter because it allows the author to disguise their claim to produce a literary work, which was still considered to be a very inappropriate aspiration for women. Today, the letters of the Romantic period give us intimate insights into the communication between the protagonists of this era.
This letter that Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau in Frankfurt am Main wrote on July 16, 1834, is addressed to “Frau von Arnim / née Fräulein Brentano / frey / in Berlin.” This handwritten inscription can be found on the reverse of the sheet shown here. The recipient of the letter – Bettine von Arnim, née Brentano – is one of the most important female authors of Romanticism in the German-speaking world. Her published work consists almost exclusively of ‘letter books’. Her “epistolary worlds of desire” combine a documentary impression with imaginative inventions forming “fantasy correspondences”, which are based in part on letters that were actually exchanged.
Description: On the 11th of October, 1819, Thomas Moore left Venice, headed for Ferrara. He was carrying one of the most infamous lost objects of European Romanticism: Byron’s manuscript memoirs. Moore agreed not to publish the Memoirs during Byron’s lifetime, but he was left free, in Byron’s words “to do whatever you please” with it after his death. Byron later supplemented the Memoirs with further additions, which he sent to Moore by post. The two did not know it at the time, but they were never to meet again face to face.
Description: Looking at this photograph of my husband holding a Claude glass reflecting Manhattan as seen from our Brooklyn rooftop, I can’t help thinking how much my feelings about both the view in the mirror and the mirror itself have changed. For the last months, during the lock-down, Manhattan has hung like an inaccessible mirage across the river, first uncannily silent, now backed with the low drone of the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd. A dark mirror means something different in dark times.
Description: This medal, struck in 1817, commemorates the work of one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of ballet history, creator of the so-called choreodrama, Salvatore Viganò (1769-1821). It reads:
A SALVATORE VIGANO’ / IMPAREGGIABILE COREOGRAFO/ CHE COLLA/ RAPPRESENTAZIONE DEL PROMETEO/ DATA L’ AN MDCCCXIV/ NEL REGIO TEATRO DI MILANO / IMMORTALATOSI. /TANTA GLORIA. NELLA MIRRA / E NEL PSAMMI / BRILLANTE. TVTTAVIA / SOSTIENE/ GLI AMMIRATORI DEL BELLO/ SACRAVANO MERITATAMENTE/ NEL MDCCCXVII.
[TO SALVATORE VIGANO’ SUPREME CHOREOGRAPHER WHO WAS IMMORTALIZED FOR THE STAGING OF HIS PROMETEO IN THE YEAR 1814 IN THE ROYAL THEATRE OF MILAN. MUCH GLORY FOR HIS MIRRA AND BRILLIANT IN PSAMMI. HOWEVER ADMIRERS OF THE BEAUTIFUL PRAISED HIM DESERVEDLY IN 1817.]
Viganò’s Prometeo opened on 22 May 1813 and met with an unprecedented popular triumph. This ballet was one of Viganò’s fantastic-allegorical dances that Ritorni calls pantomimo-dramas, transitional ballets located somewhere between the ballet en action and the danced poem. In all, Viganò composed more than 40 ballets of which 15 were these pantomimo-dramas, heroic dances or grand ballets animated by hero-comic or tragicomic actions. The so-called “passo d’azione alla Viganò“ [pasen action à la Viganò] was to dance what Wagner’s infinite melody was to opera. The ballet entirely danced à la Viganò disappeared with his death in 1821, until, a century later, the Russians rediscovered it, and used it as a basis for their choreographies. Admiration for Salvatore Viganò and his revolutionary dance had a lot to do with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Italian experience and underlies the expression of his revolutionary poetics in Prometheus Unbound (1820).
Location: Royal residences in Copenhagen (Christiansborg, Amalienborg and Rosenborg).
Description: According to (disputed) tradition, Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark commissioned the 1895-piece Flora Danica dinner service in 1790 as a gift for Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. Frederik, the son of Christian VII of Denmark and Caroline Matilda of Great Britain, had ruled Denmark as regent since 1784, following the collapse of his father’s mental health; his mother – ‘poor Matilda’, as Wollstonecraft called her in her Letters written during a Short Residence (1796) – had been divorced and exiled from Denmark in 1772 when her affair with Johann Friedrich Struensee, the king’s physician, was exposed. In 1790, Danish-Russian relations were reeling from the Russo-Swedish War (1788-90), during which Denmark-Norway declared its neutrality despite having committed to a defensive alliance with Russia under the Treaty of Tsarskoye Selo (1773). (1) Frederik’s extravagant gift, so the story goes, was intended to help patch the rift – and no doubt also to eclipse the 980-piece creamware ‘Frog Service’, which had been presented to Catherine the Great in 1774 by the Staffordshire-based Wedgwood Company.
Description: Lakagígar is a 27km-long volcanic fissure in Iceland. The name means ‘craters of Laki’, after Mount Laki, the highest point at the centre of the fissure. Lakagígar was formed through a huge eruption in 1783-4 that had massive environmental, social, and cultural consequences for Iceland and indeed the rest of Europe, and which leaves a record in early Romantic literature.