Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Sardanapalus, or, Romantic Drama between History and Archaeology

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Sardanapalus, or, Romantic Drama between History and Archaeology

Article excerpt

In 1814, while he was renewing his courtship of Annabella Milbanke after her refusal of his first offer to marry her, Byron wrote a letter to his future wife in which he detailed the history books that he recommended for her reading and that he had himself profitably perused. While producing his Pantheon of historians, he wrote:

... the best thing of that kind I met with by accident at Athens in a Convent Library in old & not "very choice Italian" I forget the title - but it was a history in some 30 tomes of all Conjurazioni whatsoever from Cataline's down to Fiesco of Lavagna's in Genoa - and Braganza's in Lisbon - I read it through (having nothing else to read) & having nothing to compare it withal thought it perfection.1

The work he refers to might well be Antonio Graziosi's Storia generale delle congiure, cospirazioni, e sollevazioni celebri, antiche e moderne, printed in Venice in 1778, which was in fact the translation of a French study by François-Joachim Duport du Tertre, titled Histoire générale des conjurations, conspirations, et révolutions célèbres tant anciennes que modernes, published in 1762. Graziosi's volumes contained accounts of all the conspiracies mentioned by Byron and of many more, going from antiquity to the present and covering an equally imposing geographical terrain, from Persia to France, from Portugal and England to Japan. Graziosi's translation of du Tertre's history, however, amounted to six and not thirty tomes as recalled by Byron. While it is unlikely that he referred to another edition (there are no traces of it in the bibliographical records), we might conjecture that by swelling up the number of volumes Byron was trying to impress the intellectual Annabella with the exorbitance of his erudition.

Whatever the case, and whatever the exact source of Byron's interest,2 conspiracies were to play an important role in his lifelong engagement with history, notably when he took up historical subjects for the dramas he wrote during his Italian stay, a period in which he was himself involved in the conspiratorial projects of the Carbonari. Conspiracies are notoriously synonymous with secrecy, deception, withheld or missing information. For Byron, they came to embody history's elusive side - the silences and the blank pages that fascinated him, asking to be fathomed and filled. What Ann Rigney has defined as the "imperfection" of historical discourse3 left the door open for Byron's investigation and imaginative recreation of critical moments of the past, and also for the questioning of the orthodox scripts of history, which he thematized in both the Venetian plays (Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari) and in Sardanapalus. In this respect Sardanapalus appears of particular interest because different historical discourses seem to be competing over this text - not only historiographical orthodoxy and Byron's revisionist approach, but also the crystallizing of historical knowledge that accompanied the rise of a new discipline touching upon the historical field, namely archaeology.

"The growing calumnies of time"

Byron's dramatic interest in conspiracies was initially triggered by Marino Faliero's attack against the Republic of Venice in 1355, which he dramatized in the first of his historical tragedies, Marino Faliero, composed in Ravenna in 1820. Then it was the turn of Sardanapalus, written over a period of five months in 1821. In both tragedies Byron was confronted with an historical character that posed him problems of interpretation, defying him to assess the degree of reliability of the various historical accounts he had at his disposal and to penetrate beyond facts to the motives at work in human actions. In Marino Faliero this quest had found symbolic expression in the black veil covering the likeness of Faliero in the portrait gallery of the Ducal Palace. As Byron explains in the Preface, he deliberately set himself the task of lifting that veil, that is of filling the silences of history by unearthing a tale of conflicts within the State that the Republic of Venice had done its best to obliterate - or to consign to posterity in a version that bore the imprint of the ruling ideology, depicting Faliero as a downright traitor to his people and country. …

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