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 Author of Beltraffio’: final part of the critique

My last two posts were about ‘The Author of Beltraffio’. In the first I wrote about the ironic significance of characters’ names in the story and how this indicated the relationships between those characters – notably the central erotic triangle of the eponymous Author, Mark Ambient, and the two rivals for his attention: his wife, Beatrice, and the American narrator – a callow 25-year-old, and a disciple of this Master of aesthetic literature. In the second I began examining James’s literary technique: the dual narrative perspective which created an ironic gap between the young narrator’s unreliable perceptions and those of his older, wiser self – who may also be less reliable than he thinks:

In looking back upon these first moments of my visit to him, I find it important to avoid the error of appearing to have understood his situation from the first, and to have seen in him the signs of things which I learnt only afterwards. This later knowledge throws a backward light…[my italics]

Let’s now continue with the question I finished with last time: how to understand the central theme of the story.

Symonds in 1889

Symonds in 1889: picture for Whitman

The answer is found, I think, in its origins. In his notebooks James wrote that the germ of the idea came via Edmund Gosse’s portrayal of John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), one of the group of aesthetic writers which included Pater, Wilde and Swinburne.  Symonds’ wife, he claimed,   disapproved of her husband’s work and homosexuality. Ambient is said by our young narrator to have been ‘saturated with what painters call the ‘feeling’ of that classic land’ (Italy), which he ‘understood’ profoundly. He’d set several of his novels there. The title of Ambient’s masterpiece may well have been inspired by the Italian high renaissance artist Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1466/7-1516), who worked in Leonardo’s studio. His would be an apt name for such an aficionado of this period’s art to use.

Boltraffio: Portrait of a Lady

Boltraffio: Portrait of a Lady

The narrator, before meeting Ambient, had spent the winter there: ‘Italy opened my eyes to a good many things, but to nothing more than the beauty of certain pages of the works of Mark Ambient’, he says.  As Italy was associated with (homo)sexual tourism at the time, this passage, and the emphasis on Ambient’s Italianism, appear to support the interpretation that the root cause of Beatrice’s fierce hostility towards her husband, and obsessive desire to keep him from contaminating their son, arises from similar causes to Mrs Symonds’: she knows of Ambient’s sexuality, and is terrified that he will ‘poison’ Dolcino with this ‘contagion’. This language seems, as we saw in my previous two posts, too strong to be explained simply as an aversion to her husband’s literary aesthetic.

As we saw last time, Ambient describes their opposing viewpoints as ‘the difference between Christian and Pagan. I may be a pagan…She thinks me, at any rate, no better than an ancient Greek.’ Symonds wrote extensively about Italian art and culture, and on ‘Greek love’ and ethics – he was an unusually outspoken advocate of homosexual attachments.

By employing this ‘ingenuous’ and adoring young American as the refracting lens for such a doomed family drama, James is able to show the underlying origins of the ‘discord’ between Ambient and Beatrice without ever explicitly naming this taboo subject. This would also account for Beatrice’s hostility to the narrator himself. He’d told her of his admiration for her husband: ‘He likes being admired’, she replies enigmatically. He replies that Ambient has ‘many worshippers’. ‘Oh yes’, she retorts, ‘I have seen some of them’, and he finds it ‘strange’ that ‘she was not in sympathy’ with her husband, but dismisses this half-perception as not ‘important’ at the time; on the contrary, it simply encourages him to become more ‘gushing’ and rapturous. He describes her as looking at him as if he were ‘peculiar’; he dimly perceives that she thinks him ‘rather young’, but that ‘people usually got over that sort of thing.’ She declares that she is different from her husband; ‘If you like him, you won’t like me.’ He thinks her ‘positively disagreeable; delicate and proper and rather aristocratically dry’. He becomes patronising and aggressive, and goads her by asking about what her husband is working on at the time. At this point the older narrator comments sardonically: ‘I have every reason now [my italics] to know that she thought me an odious person.’ This sounds like jealousy.

There are frequent uses of terms from the semantic field of perception: ‘You Americans are very sharp,’ said Ambient. ‘You notice more things than we do.’ This may have been meant sincerely by Ambient, but in the context of James’s dual-perspective narrative, it’s clearly ironic, ambiguous, even comically self-deprecating.

More on the ambiguities of ‘seeing’ in the narrative: Ambient is shown reading a Sunday paper – the Observer; the narrator ‘watched’ Beatrice, who had expressed her vehement antipathy towards her husband to him earlier, taking lunch with her husband with apparent ‘good grace’, showing few of the ‘signs’ (again!) of the ‘fanatical temperament’ he suspects her of harbouring – though he goes on, unsympathetically, to describe her ‘air of incorruptible conformity, her tapering, monosyllabic correctness’ which show with ‘a cold, thin flame’. At first he says she ‘looked’ like a woman of few ‘passions’, but if she did have one he supposes it would be ‘Philistinism’ – she’s the ‘angel of propriety’. ‘I saw, more than before,’ he adds, that she was ‘delicately tinted and petalled’ like a plant. Once more, this reads like the spiteful account of a romantic rival. She’s not even perceived by him as fully human; she’s bloodless, vegetable, decorative only, like a corsage, a portrait by Gainsborough, undeserving of the great Master, Ambient (whereas he, of course, would appreciate him and accord him the homage and devotion he merits.)

In a brief moment of rare perspicacity the narrator then sees Ambient as ‘a little of a hypocrite’ for this apparent docility at table, but he quickly explains away this perception. We saw above how another aspect of Ambient’s hypocrisy has already been hinted at but not apparently accepted by the narrator. That the narrator himself at this point might also be perceived as hypocritical is a possibility that the narrator refrains from considering.

Later he ‘suspected’ but ‘afterwards definitely knew’ that Beatrice had ‘taken a dislike’ to him: she thought him an ‘obtrusive and even depraved young man, whom a perverse Providence had dropped upon their quiet lawn to flatter her husband’s worst tendencies.’ She tells Ambient’s sister Gwendolen that she had rarely seen her husband ‘take such a fancy to a visitor’, and ‘measured, apparently, my evil influence by Mark’s appreciation of my society.’  Is this another reference to the narrator’s adulation of his author-master’s artistry, or to a sexual attraction which Beatrice has jealously perceived?

DG Rossetti, Beata Beatrice, c.1864-70

DG Rossetti, Beata Beatrice, c.1864-70

This ‘consciousness, not yet acute’, is partially clarified at the story’s conclusion, after the tragic climax, when the older narrator reflects on what has happened. The crisis is precipitated by the narrator’s urging Beatrice to read the manuscript of Ambient’s work in progress, which the author had earlier lent to him. Gwendolen tells him that the crisis with Dolcino came after Beatrice had unaccountably read the pages, by ‘an author whom she could never abide.’ He agrees it was ‘a singular time for Mrs Ambient to be going into a novelist she had never appreciated’, on the recommendation of a young American she ‘disliked’. He ingenuously describes his younger self picturing her ‘turning over those pages of genius and wrestling with their magical influence.’ When the tragedy duly comes, Gwendolen tells the narrator Beatrice ‘sacrificed’ the boy: ‘The book gave her a horror, she determined to rescue him – to prevent him from ever being touched.’ He thinks it ‘dreadful’ to see himself figuring in this story of hers ‘as so proximate a cause…I saw myself to woefully figure in it.’ With this rather Gothic language the young narrator finally permits us a glimpse of the culpable (treacherous?) role he played in destabilising the Ambients’ marriage. Or is he simply a catalyst – bringing about the inevitable fracturing of relations between a couple married only in name? This seems unlikely, given that this requires the sacrifice of the angelic Dolcino. But he in turn can be seen as another object of the narrator’s jealousy – the embodiment of the physical, heterosexual bond between Ambient and Beatrice. Then again, how do we interpret the narrator’s lyrical, swooning accounts of the boy’s ethereal beauty, if he is so jealous of him?

Other possible interpretations arise. This is the first of several James stories in which a writer or artist plays a central role, and in Ambient’s long discussions with the narrator about the aesthetics of fiction he adumbrates some of the arguments in his extended essay on such principles in The Art of Fiction, published just months after this story. Although James’s position is very different from the posturing ‘art for art’s sake’ faction’s (as represented in part by Ambient), his is nevertheless a plea for high ideals and artistic freedom in the craft of fiction. And his work, written in accordance with those ideals, though popular, didn’t sell well. He was impelled to produce more crowd-pleasing fiction – a compromise which must have rankled. He was also scathing about the purveyors of low-brow, mass-market fiction which sold far better than his own.  The central triangle in this story can therefore be seen as a melodramatic representation of the tensions between high literary art (‘Beltraffio’ ) and the moralist repugnance it elicited in a philistine, puritanical and hypcritical reading public – represented here by Beatrice. As for Gwendolen: she could stand for the poseurs and hangers-on in the Aesthetic movement – the wearers of the moody garments and owners of the soulful, husband-seeking eyes.

The narrator says near the story’s end,

And, à propos of consciences, the reader is now in a position to judge of my compunction for my effort to convert Mrs Ambient.

Who, though, is ‘converted’?  The story ends with the ambiguous disclosure that, shortly before her death, she even ‘dipped into the black Beltraffio.’ James seems to be inviting us to accept the narrator’s inference that she is the one who’d been ‘converted’ by her child’s death (and by inference her husband’s aestheticism: she regrets preferring her son should die than be contaminated by his father); I have tried to show how the dual narrative perspective in the story, however, indicates otherwise. She was surely just proving to herself that her assessment of her husband as a malign, perverse influence on her little boy because of his sexuality was justifiable, and would be confirmed in this other book, his ‘masterpiece’.

As with Pip’s younger narrator, James’s young American’s imperfect perception of the scenes he finds himself caught up, and his myopic, partial presentation of the events he witnessed, presents us with an invitation to share his misinterpretations and vanities, with just the occasional ironic hint from the older narrator to encourage us to see through these ingenuous misinterpretations and possibly deliberate evasions. James’s narrative resists lending itself to a definitive interpretation of events: full knowledge is elusive. It’s probably too simplistic to see the story as just a representation of suppressed homoerotic impulses and feelings. James seems to thwart our efforts to decode the story’s signs, and the disorientating narrative voice, with its shifts in mood and tone (from social-satiric comedy to macabre psycho-sexual melodrama), in focalisation and narrative authority, draw us as readers back into the story’s own self-reflexiveness.

It’s for these subtleties of narrative technique, structure and ambivalence that I feel this story ranks higher in the literary canon (and James’s own) than some commentators would place it.

All pictures are in the public domain via WikiMedia Commons