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Celebrating Byron bicentenary - and his Italian connections

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2024 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of the poet Lord Byron (22 January 1788-19 April 1824), who was a genuine European in his tastes and enthusiasms. In Italy, where he spent six years, he is celebrated among the national poets, and in Greece, where he died during the war of independence, he is remembered as a national hero.

Byron wrote many of his most well-known works in Italy, and his semi-autobiographical poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage IV, helped fuel the burgeoning genre of travel literature. It sold out in five days, leading to his comment: “I awoke one morning to find myself famous.” 

Byron’s bicentenary will be marked with a year-long series of special events in London, Rome and New York, including an exhibition, Byron’s Italy: An Anglo-Italian Romance, at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome from April to December. The exhibition focuses on Byron’s relationship with Italy, and includes copies of his works, manuscripts, letters from Byron and from Byron’s mistress’s maid about Byron, as well as paintings and two rare busts of the poet. Concerts, readings and talks are planned in Rome throughout the year. 

Many Romantic poets cherished Italy for its history and art, but Byron’s understanding of the Italian language and culture gave him a more intimate connection. In a letter to John Murray dated 1820, he wrote: “I have lived in their houses and in the heart of their families.”, Byron also engaged in Italian politics and society. When Mary Shelley defined the ‘Anglo-Italian’ in an article for the Westminster Review in 1826, she put forward Byron as the prototype of this figure. It was while staying in Bryon’s villa on Lake Geneva with Percy Bysshe Shelley and entertaining each other by telling ghost stories that Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein.

Byron, however, remains a controversial figure, described as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” by his lover Lady Caroline Lamb. A close relationship with the younger John Edleston at Cambridge, an incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and numerous affairs, including those with Caroline Lamb, Charlotte Mardyn, Claire Clairmont, Marianna Segati, and Teresa Guiccioli characterised his life. Following his death in 1824 Byron was denied a burial at Westminster Abbey due to his morality. He was buried at the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. His daughter, the mathematician and computer pioneer, Ada Lovelace, was later buried beside him.

But what of his poetic legacy? According to the Poetry Foundation, he is “a Romantic paradox: a leader of the era’s poetic revolution, he named Alexander Pope as his master; a worshipper of the ideal, he never lost touch with reality; a deist and freethinker, he retained from his youth a Calvinist sense of original sin; a peer of the realm, he championed liberty in his works and deeds, giving money, time, energy, and finally his life to the Greek war of independence.

“His faceted personality found expression in satire, verse narrative, ode, lyric, speculative drama, historical tragedy, confessional poetry, dramatic monologue, seriocomic epic, and voluminous correspondence, written in Spenserian stanzas, heroic couplets, blank verse, terza rima, ottava rima, and vigorous prose.

“In his dynamism, sexuality, self-revelation, and demands for freedom for oppressed people everywhere, Byron captivated the Western mind and heart as few writers have, stamping upon 19th-century letters, arts, politics, even clothing styles, his image and name as the embodiment of Romanticism.”

More details of Byron events during 2024






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