British Romanticism and Italian Literature: Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting

By Laura Bandiera; Diego Saglia | Go to book overview

Laura Bandiera and Diego Saglia (Università di Parma)


Introduction: ‘Home of the Arts! Land of the Lyre!’:
Scholarly Approaches and Fictional Myths of Italian Culture
in British Romanticism

As with Philhellenism, Hispanophilia or the widespread fascination with German literature and philosophy, interest in Italy and its culture has long been recognized as a major phenomenon among the many cross-cultural exchanges and intersections typical of the Romantic period. Most obviously, the theme of Italy is unavoidable when dealing with secondgeneration Romantic poets ‘Italy’, of course, intended as a suitably vague metonym for a complex accumulation of ideas on Italian language, literature, history, and landscape, as well as first-hand experiences. Hailing Italy in the fourth canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818), Byron defined it as ‘the home / Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree’.1 Presenting it as a natural and cultural-historical palimpsest and a femininely fertile country, he subscribed to the myth of Italy as an archive of unique natural phenomena, aesthetic manifestations, and cultural narratives. A year later, in his Venetian satire Beppo, he expressed another distinctive trait of the Italian myth, its pleasurable and easy lifestyle, declaring that ‘With all its sinful doings, I must say, / That Italy’s a pleasant place to me’,2 and then providing a detailed evocation of the sensual pleasures of life in ‘the land which still is Paradise’.3

If, as Maura O’Connor remarks, ‘No place on the European continent has captivated the English imagination so completely and for so long as the Italian peninsula’, this fascination became more intense during the Romantic period; and, in his still invaluable Italy and the English Romantics (1957), Charles Peter Brand notes that ‘Early nineteenth-century England was […] smitten with an Italo-mania, or Italianate fashion, which has since quite disappeared’.4 His view might be corrected by referring to the equally intense ‘Italo-mania’ which affected British culture in Victorian times re-examined, for instance, in Alison Chapman’s and Jane Stabler’s recent edited volume Unfolding the South: NineteenthCentury British Women Writers as Artists in Italy (2003). Yet the centrality of Romanticperiod approaches to, and constructions of, Italy cannot be denied. Felicia Hemans made the foundational role of Italy as the birthplace of culture clear when, in The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (1816), she apostrophized it as the ‘Home of the Arts!’ and the

1 IV. 26. 3–4, in Lord Byron, The Complete Poetical Works, ed. by Jerome J. McGann, 7 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980–93), II, p. 133.

2 ll. 321–22, in Lord Byron, The Complete Poetical Works, IV, p. 141.

3 l. 361, in Lord Byron, The Complete Poetical Works, IV, p. 143.

4 Maura O’Connor, The Romance of Italy and the English Imagination (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1998), p. 13, and C. P. Brand, Italy and the English Romantics: The Italianate Fashion in Early NineteenthCentury England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957), p. ix.

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