Byron goes swimming

Venice makes him a new man

Portrait of Lord Byron, by Thomas Phillips

Like lime (or linden) blossoms, Venice tends to relax the mind, or at least the logical centres; this is especially true in the minds of those who, like the rascally Aretino, ‘live by the sweat of their ink’. Many authors have written their worst books about the city (including Hemingway and Muriel Spark).

But, on certain metabolisms, linden blossoms have the opposite effect, stimulating rather than relaxing the brain. Doctors of literature could call it the ‘Byron syndrome’ and study the symptoms from the poet’s arrival in 1816, his heart full of romance as he rented a villa on the Brenta Canal to compose the last canto of his Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage. Venice checks in here as a ‘fairy city of the heart’.

She looks a sea Cybele, fresh from ocean,
Rising with her tiara of proud towers
At airy distance, with majestic motion
A ruler of the waters and their powers.

Byron took to Venice like a fish to water. Its canals at least afforded him the personal advantage of being able to swim anywhere (his limp made him shy); on one occasion he swam a race from the Lido to the Rialto bridge and was the only man to finish.

It wasn’t long before the emotional polish of Childe Harolde began to crack. To Byron’s surprise, romantic Venice didn’t aggravate his romantic temperament, but cured him of it; the ironic detachment and mock heroics of the city’s own ottava rima tradition made him question all his previous assumptions.

He went to live in the Palazzo Mocenigo on the Grand Canal, in the company of 14 servants, a dog, a monkey, a wolf, a fox and a passionate, garlicky baker’s daughter who stabbed him in the thumb with a table fork (which so angered Byron that he ordered her out, whereupon she threw herself off the balcony into the Grand Canal). Under such circumstances, all that had been breathless passion reeked of the ridiculous, as he himself admitted:

And the sad truth which hovers o’er my desk
Turns what was once romantic to burlesque.

Venice and its women and its noble Armenian monks and its love of liberty galvanized Byron and set his mind free to write first Beppo: A Venetian Story, spoofing Venice’s cavalieri serventi (escort/lovers – even the nuns had them), its balls and Titians and its gondolas, while celebrating the freedom of its people. He wrote two bookish plays on Venetian themes, Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari, and most importantly began his satirical masterpiece, Don Juan.

Meanwhile too much sex and not enough swimming was beginning to take a toll: an English acquaintance in 1818 wrote home: ‘His face had become pale, bloated, and sallow, and the knuckles on his hands were lost in fat’. Byron became infatuated with the Contessa Teresa Guiccioli and left Venice to move in with her and her husband in Ravenna. But, having tasted freedom in Venice, Byron began to chafe; the Contessa was ‘taming’ him.

He bundled up the manuscript of Don Juan and left for Greece, only to die of fever at the age of 36 during its War of Independence. His last moments were soothed by his faithful gondolier Tita Falsieri, who for love had followed him to Greece.

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