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Venice Art & Culture!

Byron Goes Swimming – an excerpt from Venice

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 have written their worst books about the city (the most recent culprits are Hemingway and Muriel Spark). Legions of other writers have been unable to resist the challenge of describing Venice; they strive to leave their mark on the city with the persistence of spraying tomcats. Some are mercifully content to settle for vignettes or epigrams.

DH Lawrence, who loved the dry desert of Arizona, called Venice ‘an abhorrent, green, slippery city’; for Boris Pasternak Venice was ‘swelling like a biscuit soaked in tea’. In the end perhaps all descriptions meet in a soft centre, as Italo Calvino’s Marco Polo commented to Kublai Khan in a lovely book called Invisible Cities: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.’

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 can study the symptoms from the poet’s arrival in 1816, his heart full of romance as he rented a villa on the Brenta to compose the last canto of his Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage. Venice checks in here with a rather tepid ‘fairy city of the heart’. 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), 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 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 in its war of independence. His last moments were soothed by his faithful gondolier Tita Falsieri, who for love had followed him to Greece.

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls

Letters from Readers

Imagine our surprise and pleasure at finding your book on Venice. True it was packed with the usual travel information. And indeed there was a good bit of history. But your book had character, wit and charm. We enjoyed the side trips down small alleys, insightful if not obscure facts about past inhabitants, honesty about historic sites and suggestions on places to go. It was not uncommon for us to be standing in front of a church, building, painting, or sculpture, reading your book and laughing. In some cases people must have thought us irreverent... if you've stopped writing travel books please start again. If you are still writing, continue!