Sex and death in Venice: post 1

I started this post intending to discuss the three books about La Serenissima [see my picture] by Brodsky (thanks to Karen of Kaggsysbookishramblings blog for the recommendation), Marías and Morris. I became sidetracked – hence this is now an Aside-type post.

Venice has been so often painted, written and sung about, filmed and celebrated that I felt before my first visit there last week with Mrs TD (for her birthday) that I already knew the city; I was prepared to be disappointed. I wasn’t: it’s breathtaking.

For centuries it’s been associated with decadence, sin, dishonesty and deception, ruthless capitalism, danger, sickness and death. From The Merchant of Venice and Othello, Moor of Venice to Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (and the lush 1971 Visconti film with Dirk Bogarde) and Nicholas Roeg’s Du Maurier-derived 1973 film Don’t Look Now, it’s been the setting for all of the above. Don’t pursue the diminutive figure in a red cape beckoning you down a canalside alley cul-de-sac…

A few years ago, in a sequence of posts about Henry James, I wrote this on his 1888 novella The Aspern Papers, one of several by him with a Venetian setting.

Twitterfolk recommended some more Venice-set reading to prime us for our holiday; I posted back in December 2018 on Wilkie Collins’ so-so ghost story ‘The Haunted Hotel’

Photo from the 1880s by Carlo Naya, ‘Panorama da San Giorgio e gondola’; the Doge’s palace and the Campanile (which a few years later fell down) in the background.

Last month it was Hemingway’s rather unpleasant late novel Across the River and into the Seaduck-shooting and execrably written gondola sex with the 50-year-old protagonist-narrator and his fantasy teenage lover. This seems to take place under cover of the ‘felze’ – the curtained or solid canopy-cabin that used to be common on gondolas to maintain the privacy of the passengers. Gondolas today all seem to be open, like punts, with no such concealment.

This is where I start to digress. Hemingway’s Colonel’s gondola tryst with his seductive young Contessa reminded me of Byron, one of Venice’s greatest advocates (perhaps because he indulged in such unbridled debauchery there; Hemingway namechecks the poet in the narrative with approbation about his popularity in ‘this town’).

Soon after his wife Annabella finally left him, taking their newborn baby Augusta Ada (later Ada Lovelace, the pioneer mathematician to whom the notion of the computer is often ascribed) with her. He thought it expedient to leave England in 1816. He never returned.

I’ve written previously about the first parts of his trip, including the stay at the Villa Diodati with the Shelleys (her stepsister Claire Clairmont had thrown herself at him by this time. She was soon to be abandoned, as was their ill-fated daughter Allegra, who died aged five – a familiar pattern emerges). He travelled on to Milan, arriving in Venice in autumn 1816.

Byron's visit to San Lazzaro by Ivan Aivazovsky (1899)

Byron’s visit to San Lazzaro by Ivan Aivazovsky (1899). Gondola with ‘felze’ clearly seen

He was immediately smitten. He also threw himself vigorously into sexual profligacy. When not debauching, swimming or riding, he took to visiting the Mechitarist order of Armenian monks on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, where he redeemed himself somewhat by learning (or trying to learn) Armenian, helping translate several of the order’s texts into English, and with the compilation of an Armenian grammar guide and Armenian-English dictionary. Unfortunately I didn’t get time to visit the exhibition at San Lazzaro on this aspect of his contribution to Venetian culture during my stay; maybe next time. [Jan Morris has a lovely account of this island monastery and the Byron connection at pp. 272 ff.; more on her book in a later post.]

After several passing references in earlier poems to Venetian matters, he wrote a Venice section in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1817) – where he informs us that unlike in the time of Goethe’s visit in 1786, the gondoliers no longer sang the words of Tasso and Ariosto to tunes of their own composing.

Beppo (1818) is set during the Venice carnevale; the garrulous narrator describes with gleeful ribaldry the potential for decadent sensuality during a gondola ride:

Didst ever see a Gondola? For fear

You should not, I’ll describe it you exactly:

‘Tis a long cover’d boat that’s common here,

Carved at the prow, built lightly but compactly,

Row’d by two rowers, each called Gondolier,

It glides along the water looking blackly,

Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,

Where none can make out what you say or do.

 

And up and down the long canals they go,
And under the Rialto shoot along,
By night and day, all paces, swift or slow,
And round the theatres, a sable throng,
They wait in their dusk livery of woe, –
But not to them do woeful things belong,
For sometimes they contain a deal of fun,
Like mourning coaches when the funeral’s done.

He celebrates in this poem the looser, more pragmatic morals of the Italians, especially in their liberal attitude towards adultery, which he compared favourably with the more hypocritically puritanical (as Byron saw it) English. He gave prominence in this poem to the figure of the cicisbeo or cavalier servente: a gentleman who’d escort and protect a married lady in society, with the collusion of her husband. This ‘escorting’ might also include a sexual element – the part that Byron found particularly exhilarating: here’s his account of Laura’s response when her husband goes missing on a voyage, feared dead:

And Laura waited long, and wept a little,
And thought of wearing weeds, as well she might;
She almost lost all appetite for victual,
And could not sleep with ease along at night;
She deem’d the window-frames and shutters brittle
Against a daring housebreaker or sprite,
And so she thought it prudent to connect her.
With a vice-husband, chiefly to protect her.

In June 1818 he moved into the Palazzo Mocenigo, beside the Grand Canal (the length of which he liked to swim, when he wasn’t doing so off the Lido).

Palazzo Mocenigo Casa Nuova (Wikipedia image, public domain)

Palazzo Mocenigo Casa Nuova (Wikipedia image, public domain)

I thought I’d taken a picture of this grand palazzo from a vaporetto, but on checking online I found I’d mistakenly framed the building next door. His ménage included fourteen servants, a menagerie including several dogs, monkeys and a fox. In his letters he loved to present a raffish image, claiming he’d bedded over 200 women and spent a fortune – such services didn’t come cheap in a city where sex was widely for sale. Shelley’s account of his friend’s amorous activities is less poetic; he claimed Byron made extensive use not of elegant courtesans but of the lowliest women in the city. Like John Addington Symonds and Frederick ‘Baron’ Rolfe in later years, he appears to have indulged in a squalid kind of sexual imperialism, not romantic trysts.

Here’s how he presented, with mock sobriety and restraint, in a famous letter of 1819 to his friend Douglas Kinnaird, what happened during this sojourn in the palazzo [link to online source, which contains the hyperlinks]:

I have been faithful in my honest liaison with Countess Guiccioli — and can assure you that She has never cost me directly or indirectly a sixpence — indeed the circumstances of herself and family render this no merit.  — I never offered her but one present — a broach of brilliants — and she sent it back to me with her own hair in it (I shall not say of what part but that is an Italian custom) and a note to say she was not in the habit of receiving presents of that value — but hoped I would not consider her sending it back as an affront — nor the value diminished by the enclosure. — I have not had a whore this half-year — confining myself to the strictest adultery.

The nineteen-year-old Contessa Teresa Guiccioli had only been married a year to a count in his late fifties (how Byron would have loved reading that Hemingway Venice novel with its similar liaison). She and Byron were to spend the next four years together in various Italian cities.

He composed the first cantos of his ‘Epic Satire’ Don Juan in Venice’s stimulating environment. When the first cantos (unsurprisingly) provoked as much opprobrium for their immorality and bawdiness as praise for their comic genius, he defended himself with characteristic flamboyance that same Kinnaird letter:

As to “Don Juan” — confess — confess — you dog and be candid that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing — it may be bawdy — but is it not good English?  It may be profligate — but is it not life, is it not the thing?  — Could any man have written it — who has not lived in the world? — and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a gondola? [my emphasis] against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis a vis? — on a table? — and under it?

Venice gondola BL 16CToday in my Twitter feed I came upon this lovely image from the British Library: what appears to be a double-prowed Venetian gondola in an image from a 1588 ‘friendship album’, publicising a free exhibition at the BL, Friendship Before Facebook, that’s running until May 12. Click the link to (hopefully) access the BL’s gif in which the felze cabin covering is cheekily removed to reveal the seduction taking place inside.

Clearly it would have been easy to conduct illicit dalliances in such a vessel. Like Madame Bovary in her curtained carriage – but on the canal waters with an indulgent gondolier turning a blind eye – and deaf ear – to what was going on inside the felze. (I’m indebted to Jan Morris’s fascinating account of gondolas for the Venetian terminology).

More on Venice next time.

One of my first posts here was about some lines from Beppo cited by TS Eliot (dining on ‘becaficas’) and Byron’s ingenious, audacious rhyming practices.

Previous posts on Don Juan here (where that notorious Kinnaird letter is again quoted) and here

Posts about Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, the visit with Byron by the Shelleys and Byron’s physician Polidori at the Villa Diodate (before Byron reached Venice), and related matters here

[All images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

The origins of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. 1818 edition

Shelley

Engraving in a Victorian edition of the poetical works of Shelley from a portrait by Alfred Clint, now in the National Portrait Gallery.

1816 was ‘the year without a summer’. The previous year volcano Mt Tambora, in Indonesia, erupted, an event a thousand times more powerful than the recent Icelandic eruption that grounded aircraft across much of the world. The cloud of ash and dust still darkened the skies of the northern hemisphere the following year, adversely affecting the weather. [See this account at the Guardian]

In June 1816 the poet Percy Shelley, at the age of 23, accompanied by the 18-year-old Mary Godwin, daughter of radical philosopher and author William Godwin and the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – she and Shelley didn’t marry until late 1816, after his first wife Harriet had committed suicide [see below] – were

MaryWollstonecraft

MaryWollstonecraft, portrait at the Tate Britain gallery

travelling through Europe. Mary had already experienced the trauma and grief of losing their baby daughter soon after her birth in 1815; they took their six-month-old second child William, named after her father, with them on this trip to Switzerland in 1819, by which time she had lost three very young children.

The Shelleys stayed at Cologny by the shores of Lake Geneva, but spent much time in the nearby Villa Diodati, where Byron (then aged 28) was staying, brooding over the dire weather that exacerbated his mood. He had been obliged to go into exile after the scandal of his profligate behaviour (including rumours of incest with his half-sister Augusta) that culminated in his separation from his wife of just over a year, Annabella (they’d had a daughter, Ada, later famous as Ada Lovelace, the pioneer of computer science). Annabella had left Byron, and initiated proceedings for a legal separation. England had become too hot even for him to stand.

Claire Clairmont

Claire Clairmont (1798-1879) by Amelia Curran, portrait now at Byron’s home of Newstead Abbey

Shelley’s group included Mary’s precocious, slightly younger step-sister Claire Clairmont. Her competitive relationship with Mary may have been what led her, like her two (half or step) sisters, to have entered into sexual relations with Shelley; possibly rebuffed by him, she turned her passionate attention to Byron, who she eventually succeeded in seducing (it’s hard to believe he put up much of a fight).

He soon tired of her, however, and made it clear they had no future together. She seems to have insisted Mary and Shelley take this trip to pursue Byron, but he made it clear that although he enjoyed the company of the rest of her party at his lakeside villa, she was not welcome, and they had no future together. She would have known by then that she was carrying his child. Their daughter Allegra was effectively abandoned by him, despite his having agreed to care for her, and she died of fever at the age of five in an Italian convent. The atmosphere in this romantically complicated group must have been electric.

[I posted back in 2015 about this tangled web of intrigue and passion around Claire and its depiction after the event in Henry James’s novella the Aspern Papers].

Unable to get out much because of the weather, the party (Byron was accompanied by his physician, Dr Polidori) passed the time in earnest discussion of the fashionably radical topics of ‘natural sciences’ and ‘natural philosophy’ – that is, what we currently think of as ‘science’ but mixed with more arcane, semi-mystical, even supernatural topics. They would discuss the mysteries of the ‘life principle’, the nature of man as ‘instrument’: the origins of life and nature of death and what follows it. The work of scientists like Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, and his precursor in theorising evolution, Humphry Davy’s experiments with anaesthetic and other gases, and the use of Italian physicist Galvani’s electrical devices on corpses of humans and animals (to apparently reanimate them) – such semi-theatrical ‘demonstrations’, like post-mortem anatomical dissections, were held in public and attracted rapt audiences – would also have figured in their discussions. What they were often dabbling in was the dangerous and controversial ‘vitalist controversy’, with on the one hand adherents to the conventional teachings of Christianity on such matters, and on the other the new, radical scientific thinking of the likes of Shelley’s one-time physician and surgeon friend William Lawrence, who (like this group of radical Romantics) hotly opposed those establishment, theologically-based views.

Mary Shelley

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton in 1820

One night in mid-June 1816, at Byron’s villa, they agreed upon a competition: each was to compose a ghost story. According to Mary’s preface to the third, 1831 edition of the novel, her mind was hyperactive after these discussions, and she had a nightmare that inspired the short story she offered the party next day. It told a horrific tale of a transgressive experiment that resulted in the production of a living creature out of dead body parts. She continued drafting it until the novel it grew into was finally published in England in 1818.

The emotional turbulence she had experienced and witnessed throughout her young life: multiple bereavements, the controversial, sometimes suicidal and often scandalous behaviour of those near to her, and this seething atmosphere of dangerous, radical theorising about highly volatile topics, from genetics to the origins of species, of life itself, and the consequences of death, would have provided a febrile set of themes, characters and motifs for her to plunder for her narrative. The alpine scenery she had recently toured would provide the perfect Gothic setting for much of it; the rest she had read about in the fashionable books of exploration and discovery of the period (as had Coleridge, who supplied some key allusions and details in the novel; the other major literary influence was Milton, whose Paradise Lost provided its epigraph, and much of its narrative material and tone).

While Mary was working on her draft of her novel in England she experienced yet more catastrophe: her half-sister Fanny Imlay (Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter from a relationship before she met Godwin), who may also have been romantically involved with Percy Shelley, committed suicide in October 1816, having lived an unhappy life, torn between loyalties to the various involved factions of siblings and relatives. She may also have inherited her mother’s depressive tendencies; Mary Wollstonecraft attempted suicide twice during her troubled relationship with Fanny’s father. As noted above, Shelley’s first wife Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine in London at the age of 21, after he left her for Mary, and having become pregnant by a new lover.

Lord Byron in Albanian dress

Byron in Albanian dress, painted by Thomas Phillips in 1813 (all images in this post in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Percy Shelley was to die aged 29 in a boating accident in Italy just four years after this first edition of Frankenstein was published. Keats had died at the age of 25 the previous year. Byron died in Greece, where he was supporting the independence movement, two years later, aged 36. Mary Shelley lived on until 1851, when she was in her 54th year. Claire Clairmont didn’t die until 1879, in Florence, at the age of 81. Make of all that what you will.

I felt it necessary to provide some context to the origins of Frankenstein, though I acknowledge it’s all pretty well known. I’ve tried to keep it brief, but it’s a complicated web of relationships and influences out of which the novel arose in Mary Shelley’s imagination. Next time I’ll explore the text.