Byron and the Coliseum: The Art of Recycling

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Early in May 1817, Byron paid his only visit to Rome. Upon arrival, he immediately began a frenetic round of sightseeing both in the city itself and in the Campagna, and since he was simultaneously revising Manfred, worrying over his daughter's fate among the Milbankes and trying to expedite the sale of Newstead, it is unsurprising that his letters are perfunctory in their enumeration of the cultural highlights. 'I have been riding my saddle horses every day,' he told Murray on 9 May '... about the city & in the city - for all which - vide Guide-Book.'1 Next day, he wrote to Augusta Leigh 'Of Rome I say nothing - you can read the Guide-book - which is very accurate',2 and on 12 May Moore was short-changed with 'Of Rome I say nothing; it is quite indescribable, and the Guide-book is as good as any other'.3

An inevitable scholarly response to all of this is to try to identify which of the available guide-books Byron is referring to, and Leslie Marchand obliges in a footnote: 'The ... book which Byron mentions here and elsewhere was probably Joseph Forsyth's Remarks on Antiquities, Arts, [and Letters, during an Excursion in Italy in ... 1802 and 1803 (1816)], which gave large space to the antiquities of Rome.'4 Marchand offers no evidence for his conjecture, but it is presumably based on the acknowledged use made of Forsyth in the notes Hobhouse provided for Canto IV of Childe Harold, and so seems likely enough.5 But is it really probable that Byron could confidently assume that three such different addressees would each both recognize which unnamed guide-book he was referring to and have copies to hand? Is it probable, even, that Byron is recommending that all three recipients of his letters should compensate for his silence by consulting a set text? The explanation for Byron's recurrent reference to the guidebook needs, I think, to be sought elsewhere than in the discovery of a specific title.

When he told Moore of his decision to visit Rome in a letter of 11 April, Byron airily explained that 'Having seen Constantinople, I should like to look at t'other fellow'.6 Rome, the climax of what Byron disparagingly called 'the usual tour'7 undertaken by well-heeled Englishmen, had been omitted in his youthful 'pilgrimage' through Spain, Greece and the near East. When, therefore, he stresses having seen Constantinople, the second Rome, before he has seen its prototype, Byron is implicitly, and a little boastfully, reminding Moore of his earlier defiance of convention. Consequently, when he does finally enter the Eternal City, he is especially conscious of following countless earlier sightseers, of being less an adventurous Corsair than just another tourist, the latest in a long succession of visiting milords. It is a role into which he throws himself with gusto, but he remains aware that it is a role and that it is therefore subject to ironic play. One problem with being a tourist is not just that you see what everybody else sees but that you tend to see it in the same ways, that your responses are largely predetermined by expectation. The more literate you are, moreover, the more restrictive this condition becomes: the more handbooks to, poems about, and meditations on the glories of Rome you read, the more you ensure that you will know in advance what to look at and what to feel about it. In these circumstances, Byron implies, there is little point in trying to disentangle your own authentic response; your response will be more or less identical with anyone else's, so you might as well list the sights you have crossed off - 'the Coliseum, Pantheon, St. Peter's, the Vatican, Palatine, &c. &c.'8 - and then refer your readership to the guide-book for details - not to any particular guide-book, of course, because all guide-books will be singing the same tune.

Byron's 'guide-book' allusions, I am suggesting, should be read as a calculated anticlimax - as part of a self-parodying exploration of the role of tourist, a role which, characteristically, he both plays to the hilt and sends up. …