With Byron in Venice
While wandering the streets of Venice a few years ago, I asked myself (as I often do when I’m traveling) if I could put a story there. Since I write largely Regency and Victorian romance I specifically wondered what Venice would have been like in the Regency era. Did the English aristocracy go to Venice? Boy did they!
As I was wandering the side streets and neighborhoods as I like to do—it gets me away from the crowds—I came on a particularly fine bookstore, where I found a treasure. In Venice and in the Veneto with Lord Byron opened up visions of the whole lagoon between 1816 and 1819, complete with maps and sketches of buildings from that era. Everything an author might need for world building in advance of a story lay at my feet. How could I resist?
George Gordon, Lord Byron, left legends behind him wherever he went, including Venice. Most notoriously, he swam the Grand Canal. I don’t mean he swam across it. I mean he swam the entire length and then some. By his account, he begin in Lido, swam across the Venetian lagoon to the entrance close to the Governor’s Palace, covered the length of the canal, and swam back across the lagoon to Fusina, a trip he estimated at 4.5 miles. Since I know he also swam the Dardanelles, the length seems feasible. The condition of the water in the canal, however, gives me pause. He must have had the constitution of an ox to avoid disease and/or infection.
Perhaps equally notorious were his numerous liaisons with Venetian women of all classes, notably that with Marianna Segati, the wife of his landlord. He seems to have been particularly enamored of her, although for Byron that doesn’t preclude other liaisons. The affair ended in March 1818; he remained in Venice another eighteen months.
That same year, Claire Clairmont gave her daughter Allegra—Byron’s daughter—into his custody and sent her with a nurse to Venice. She was fifteen months old. Byron’s famously horrendous domestic life is well reflected in the poor tyke. While he agreed to take her, he didn’t seem to know what to do with her. She was boarded with a half dozen families in a year. Her uncle, the poet Shelly, who was married to Clairmont’s step-sister, Mary, vigorously disapproved. He brought Claire to visit her in August that year. A month later Mary Shelley brought their own two-year-old daughter to Venice. That child fell ill and died! Byron later took Allegra into his own household. She reputedly grew quite attached to his mistress, Teresa, Countess Guiccioli who she thought of as her mother. Shelly strongly disapproved of Byron’s handling of Allegra. Byron for his part strongly disapproved of the Shelley household’s influence on a child and, oddly, worried about their loose morals and atheism. He later put the girl in the care of a convent, where she died at age five.
Lest you think his time in Venice consisted merely of chasing women, physical stunts, and domestic upheaval, he actually produced quite a flood of work. He published three cantos of Don Juan and two of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. He wrote Beppo, the Lament of Tasso, and much of The Prophecy of Dante.
In addition to his writing, Byron, easily bored and always fascinated by languages and places, began to study Armenian. As he put it, “By way of divertisement, I am studying daily, at an Armenian monastery, the Armenian language.” He traveled to the Island of San Lazzaro every day to study and interact with the monks of a Mekhitarist monastery. The result of this was collaboration on an English/Armenian grammar and later a dictionary. He is remembered in the Veneto for this more than anything. The island remains and international center for Armenian studies and Byron’s study at San Lazzaro has been preserved.
He moved his household to Ravenna, having heard that Countess Guiccioli was ill, in December 1819. Venice must have felt as though a hurricane had blown through and passed.
I continued my explorations. I discovered:
- Venice is a rabbit warren of small canals and walk ways and it is easy to get lost
- It is not one island. The others fascinate as well.
- Rot is pervasive and even the finest palazzo will decay if it is not cared for properly
- Jews were allowed few professions but one of them was medecine
All of it turned out to be useful in a story.
If you’d like to learn more, or explore for yourself, In Venice and the Veneto with Lord Byron is chock full of walking tours.
Caroline Warfield writes historical romance in which she nudges her characters to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. In addition to History Imagined, she is a regular contributor to The Teatime Tattler, a blog in the shape of a fictional nineteenth century scandal sheet.
The result of her Venice ruminations was Lady Charlotte’s Christmas Vigil, in which an English lady and an handsome Italian physician find that love heals the deepest wounds and sometimes the sweetest dreams aren’t what we expect.