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Lord Byron’s stay in Venice

Lord Byron’s stay in Venice deserves a special article.

When the renowned English poet George Gordon (Lord Byron 1788–1824) was forced to leave England due to his debts and too many sex scandals, he briefly resided in Venice. The Mocenigo Palace on the Grand Canal, where Byron lived from 1816 to 1819 with 14 servants, 2 monkeys, a fox, and 2 mastiff dogs, and where he wrote the first Don Juan lyrics, is only one of the many locations in Venice that are associated with him.

Between 1816 and 1819, Lord Byron spent three years residing in Venice. With his castle on the Grand Canal, his amazing swimming prowess, and his infamous love life, he has emerged as one of the city’s legends. More significantly, these three years marked a pivot in his artistic career. A number of important poems, including Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the Ode to Venice, as well as two significant plays have been written on Venice, which was in tragic decline during Byron’s stay.

Two years before he actually settled in the lagoon city, Lord Byron wrote in 1814, “I want to see Venice, and the Alps, and Parmesan cheeses.” He identified with Venice’s degradation, which he would still find today, and enjoyed the city’s lack of tourists even after his arrival in the winter of 1816. He described the city as “the greenest island of my imagination,” and it quickly became his “head, or rather my heart, quarters.”

It undoubtedly got his heart racing; for Byron, Venice turned into a playground for all kinds of physical activity. He once undertook a four-hour swim from the Lido to St. Mark’s Square and then continued along the Grand Canal’s entire length. Rowing was done a lot.

And then there were the daily rides through the ancient Jewish cemetery, which were formerly made with Percy Shelley’s company. In “Julian and Maddalo,” in which Byron assumes the persona of “a Venetian nobleman of ancient family and of an immense fortune,” Shelley gave the journeys a poetic purpose.

In fact, Byron’s primary method of contact with Venice was his obsessive need for sex, which he frequently purchased from the city’s prostitutes. He claimed to have spent more than $2000 and bedded 200 women in Venice in his letters home. At the time of his residency there, Venice was going through a major economic crisis, thus it was not difficult to entice the locals with cash.

When visiting Byron in 1818, the poet Shelley observed that the poet’s Italian women were not at all the graceful courtesans he had imagined, but rather “probably the most vile of all that inhabit beneath the moon – the most uneducated, the most repulsive, the most bigoted.”

Laven contends that although Byron professed to have loved la Serenissima and its culture, his relationship with the city was really “based on trade.” He so set the stage for other British writers like John Addington Symonds and Frederick Rolfe, who romanticized the city and its inhabitants while imitating Byron’s pattern of sexual imperialism (albeit in homosexual terms).

They engaged in relationships with locals while deluding themselves that they were on an equal footing and that they were being paid and patronized.

The “acceptance of the Byronic myth,” according to Dr Laven, “effectively legitimized sexual tourism… where visitors with superior wealth and education imitated Byron by taking advantage of locals, whom they paid for sex, but whom they later sentimentalized and idealized in their writing, justifying the purchase of sex as a means of buying not just physical pleasure, but also of getting closer to the city and its inhabitants.”

In Alan Rawes & Mirka Horová (eds. ), “Tears, and Tortures, and the Touch of Joy,” David Laven discusses “Sex, Self-Fashioning, and Spelling: (Auto) Biographical Distortion, Prostitution, and Byron’s Venetian Residence.”

Some of Byron’s affairs became novels, or at the very least, elaborate tales for him to tell his English publisher and colleagues. Margarita Cogni, Byron’s “Fornarina,” later brought some semblance of order to the chaotic menagerie kept by the poet at Palazzo Mocenigo, which he had leased in the early summer of 1818.

Marianna Segati, the wife of his “Merchant of Venice” landlord, had him pondering Italian morality, which he fully condoned for its flexibility. The following year, in a picaresque pursuit of his beloved, he was eventually drawn away from Venice due to a new attachment to Contessa Teresa Guiccioli.

Then there is the other Byron, the one who incorporated his priapism and preening into his writing in order to survive. Byron spent a considerable amount of time in Venice engaging in extracurricular activities, but he also found time to focus, on learning Armenian on the monastery island of San Lazzaro Degli Armeni, where he wrote some of his best works, including the concluding canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the opening chapter of Don Juan.

The ottava rima poem form, which would later come to represent Byron’s poetic style and all of its flaws, was invented by him in Venice. Beppo, a Venetian tale that served as his first poem to make use of this riotous eight-line stanza, appears in retrospect to have served as a throat-clearing exercise for Don Juan, a considerably longer work.

It wonderfully embodies the balance of direction and digression that distinguishes the best of Byron’s poems, a straightforward story that is stretched out by numerous authorial pauses. He lived by a paradox in Venice, his “sea Cybele” in the Adriatic.

Byron’s communication with his English friends during his stay in Venice between November 1816 and December 1819 contributed to the creation of this version of himself. As Dr Laven notes, since Moore (1830), Byron’s biographers have mostly taken his own account of his time in Venice at face value.

While Byron’s letters, poetry, and plays gave the impression that he was fully immersed in Venetian culture, Dr Laven contends that Byron actually interacted with Venice on the periphery, spending the majority of his time with his fellow countrymen (when he wasn’t pursuing esoteric interests like trying to learn Armenian unsuccessfully) and showing little interest in its art, architecture, or current political and economic conditions.

He met his last love, Teresa Gamba Guiccioli, age 18, who was the wife of wealthy Ravenna native Alessandro Guiccioli, age sixty when he was still living in the Querini Benzon Palace on the Grand Canal. The Lido Island was the ideal setting for the great poet’s romantic spirit as he used to swim there to visit the “ancient Jewish Cemetery.”

Doge’s Palace and the bridge that crosses over to the jails. Due to the moans that the condemned would let out when they finally saw Venice and freedom, he gave the bridge the moniker that would make it renowned across the world: the bridge of Sighs.

The renowned English poet is still remembered in the monastic community, and there is even a space in the little museum that is devoted to him, complete with books that belonged to him and biographies.