The Romantics and Italy

Stephen Hebron examines how both the idea and the reality of Italy shaped Romantic writing.

Britain’s relationship with Italy during the Romantic period is too large a subject to summarise briefly, but some general points can be made. The first thing to recognise is that from 1796, when Napoleon first crossed the Alps with his army, until his final defeat at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, the British were effectively cut off from Italy. Their knowledge of the country and its culture was therefore largely confined to what they found in literature and art.

This knowledge was far, however, from meagre, for Italian culture was widely available in various written and visual forms. Prior to the French Revolution, the privileged classes had for decades visited Italy as part of the Grand Tour of Europe. Many had published written accounts of their travels and their studies. The wealthier among them had acquired paintings, sculptures and antiquities, and employed artists to record its urban and rural scenery and make copies of the great Italian masters. At home, audiences imagined the Italian landscape according to the idealised and dramatised paintings of Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa and Poussin, or the work of English artists such as Richard Wilson and John Robert Cozens who had visited Italy under patronage. They saw these paintings, when they got the chance, in private collections and public exhibitions, or more usually in engraved copies. Caricatures of Italy, such as the mustachioed, stiletto-wielding Italian villains found in the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, were also popular.

Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, with a watercolour drawing

Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, with a watercolour drawing

Regarded as the first Gothic novel, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), set in Italy; the preface claims that it was based on a 16th-century text written in Naples. This edition contains a watercolour sketch of the supposed 'real Castle of Otranto' in Naples.

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Returning to Italy

When Italy was opened up again in the years following Napoleon’s defeat, many returned to the country with relief and delight, recognising it as one of the fountainheads of civilisation. ‘How ardently I have wished to renew the pleasure I received so long ago in this enchanting country’, Sir George Beaumont wrote to Sir Thomas Lawrence from Rome in October 1821. ‘I can assure you the pictures, the climate & the scenery have given me more pleasure than even when my pulse beat high & every object was an object of rapture.’[1] Samuel Rogers visited Italy in 1815 and 1822, and wrote a long descriptive poem, Italy; the 1830 edition included illustrations by J M W Turner, whose artistic response to Italy and its extraordinary light was profound.

At the same time, English readers were becoming increasingly aware of the classics of Italian literature, thanks to the work of translators such as Henry Cary, who in 1818 published an English version of the greatest Italian poem, the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. This was extravagantly praised by Coleridge, who called it ‘a great national work’, and was a powerful influence on Keats. William Blake made a remarkable series of illustrations of Dante in the final years of his life.

Lord George Byron contemplating the Colosseum in Rome

Lord George Byron contemplating the Colosseum in Rome

A romantic depiction of Lord Byron seated by the Roman Colosseum possibly created by engraver James Tibbitts Willmore or Arthur Willmore.

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Byron and Shelley in Italy

Among the major Romantic poets, Byron and Shelley spent the most time in Italy, which was their home during their years of exile, and they became proficient in its language and well-read in its literature. Byron included this description of the country (then a geographical area rather than a unified sovereign state) in the Canto 4 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, published in 1818:

… and now, fair Italy!
Thou art the garden of the world, the home
Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree:
Even in thy desert, what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste
More rich than other climes’ fertility;
Thy wreck a glory; and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced (stanza xxvi)

Byron’s many affairs with Italian women – most importantly, and lastingly, with Teresa Guiccioli, the wife of one the leading citizens of Ravenna – brought him into contact with living, breathing contemporary Italy, and he even participated to some extent in its politics.

Shelley lived in Italy from 1818 to his death in 1822. Like his friend Byron he delighted in the country’s antique ruins, Renaissance marvels and glorious weather; but he did not engage with the Italian people in the way that Byron did: ‘I do not like the Italian women; the men are, as the reviews say, below criticism’, he wrote dismissively to T J Hogg in December 1818 (Letters, ii, 69). It is revealing that his celebrated description of Italy in his poem ‘Julian and Maddalo’, set in Venice, should refer to his status as a stranger in the country:

How beautiful is sunset, when the glow
Of Heaven descends upon a land like thee,
Thou Paradise of exiles, Italy! (ll. 55-57)

The Cenci by P B Shelley

The Cenci by P B Shelley [page: 68-69]

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘cabinet drama’ The Cenci (1819) was inspired by the story of an Italian family in which the father’s abuses, excused by higher authorities, provoked his murder by his daughter.

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Keats came to Italy in late 1820 when he was in the last stages of tuberculosis. He was far too ill to notice his surroundings in Rome, but had he been healthy he would surely have been deeply interested in the city. Posthumously, he found a lasting place in Rome in the form of the house by the Spanish Steps where he spent his final days, and the beautiful cemetery just outside the city walls where he was buried. Shelley’s ashes are interred nearby. Thomas Hardy visited the poets’ graves in 1887, and observed how admired they were compared to the grand memorial built nearby in honour of a forgotten Roman, Caius Cestius:

He does a finer thing,

In beckoning pilgrim feet
With marble finger high
To where, by shadowy wall and history-haunted street,
Those matchless singers lie … 

Letter from Joseph Severn about John Keats's last illness, 11 January 1821

Letter from Joseph Severn about John Keats's last illness

Letter from Joseph Severn to Mrs Brawne, Fanny Brawne’s mother, written from Rome, Italy as he nursed Keats during the final months of the poet’s life, 1821.

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[1] Felicity Owen and David Blayney Brown, Collector of Genius: A Life of Sir George Beaumont (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), pp. 203-4.

  • Stephen Hebron
  • Stephen Hebron is a curator at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. He has published widely in the field of British Romanticism, including most recently John Keats – A Poet and His Manuscripts (2009) and Shelley’s Ghost (2010).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.