Lord Byron left England in 1816, aged 28, scandal-ridden and debt-stricken – never to return. After time in the Swiss Alps where he befriended the Shelleys, he settled in Venice, later spending time in Rome, Ravenna, Genoa and Pisa.
Shelley, his wife Mary Godwin and her step-sister Claire Clairemont were wanderers, living in various Italian cities in their own bittersweet version of the Grand Tour. Eventually they set up home in Pisa, where Byron joined them in 1821. Byron and Shelley both became proficient in Italian and engaged deeply with the heritage, politics and literature of the country that Shelley called “a paradise of exiles”. They were in thrall to the Renaissance ideals of beauty in art and literature, and also believed that the country offered greater tolerance and freedom than their English homeland, from which they were all, in their own way, social outcasts.
Byron dabbled in politics, tried to learn Armenian and conducted several affairs, most lastingly with the (married) Contessa Teresa Guiccioli. Shelley remained more detached, seeing himself as a permanent expatriate. Together with the poet and editor Leigh Hunt they produced a radical journal, The Liberal.
Death was pervasive. Both lost children: the Shelleys a daughter and a son; Byron the five-year old Allegra, who was previously in his care but had been sent to a convent. Shelley was not yet 30 when a sudden storm wrecked his sailing boat and he drowned in the Gulf of La Spezia. He was preceded in 1821 by John Keats, who succumbed to tuberculosis in Rome at the age of 25. Byron died in 1824, a hero of the Greek War of Independence.
Among the better known works by Byron from this productive period are ‘Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage’, ‘The Lament of Tasso’, ‘Mazeppa’, ‘Don Juan’, ‘So we’ll no more go a-roving’ and ‘Beppo’. Shelley composed ‘The Cenci’, ‘Julian and Maddalo’, ‘Prometheus Unbound’, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ and ‘Ode to the West Wind’. ‘Adonais’ he wrote as an elegy to Keats.
This tour explores their experiences in Italy and the poetry that resulted; the poets’ relationships with each other; and the art and events that fuelled their imaginations. It looks at where they lived and the places associated with their poems, both little- and well-known.
Venice. Fly at c. 1.30pm from London Gatwick to Venice (British Airways). Cross the lagoon by motoscafo (water-taxi) and travel up the Grand Canal to the doors of the hotel. First of two nights in Venice.
Venice, Lido, San Lazzaro. Visit the Doge’s Palace, which is connected to its adjoining prison by the imposing stone ‘Bridge of Sighs’, named so by Byron. Travel by boat to the Lido, where both Byron and Shelley liked to go riding and swimming; Byron also loved the old Jewish cemetery. Shelley wrote ‘Julian and Maddalo’ based on their conversations here. In pursuit of intellectual stimulation, Byron spent time at the island monastery of San Lazarro degli Armeni, where he worked with the monks on an Armenian-English dictionary. In the small museum, a room is dedicated to him.
Venice, Florence. Between 1816 and 1819, Byron lived at Palazzo Mocenigo, along with 14 servants, 2 monkeys, a fox, a wolf, an eagle and two mastiff dogs. See the palazzi of the Grand Canal from the viewpoint of a gondola. Travel by rail to Florence (first class). An afternoon walk explores locations connected with Shelley, including Cascine Park, where he wrote ‘Ode to the West Wind’ while sheltering from a rainstorm. The walk ends with a visit to Casa Guidi, whose piano nobile was inhabited by the Brownings between 1847 and 1861. First of three nights in Florence.
Florence. Byron dismissed Florence as being full of “gossip-loving English”, but he did express the feeling of being “drunk with beauty” as he took in the great artworks in the city’s galleries (especially Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ in the Uffizi). Shelley also relished wandering in the Uffizi and wrote detailed, original notes on the Medici sculpture collection. Lunch is at a restaurant on the Piazzale Michelangelo before a visit to S. Miniato al Monte, the Romanesque abbey church with panoramic views of the city.
Pisa, Bay of Poets. Drive to Pisa, where the Shelleys rented the top floor of the Tre Palazzo di Chiesa and Byron lodged opposite in Palazzo Lanfranchi, now a graphics museum. Visit the Baptistry, as the Shelleys did on their first trip to Pisa in May 1818, and the Palazzo dell’Orologio, the inspiration for Shelley’s ‘The Tower of Famine’. Continue to Lerici and the Bay of Poets, where the Shelleys’ rented house still stands and bears a plaque to them. On 8th July 1822, Shelley drowned sailing to Lerici from Livorno. Byron also used to stay across the bay at Portovenere and swim across; do this journey in reverse by boat (weather permitting).
Florence, Rome. Travel by rail to Rome (first class). In Canto IV of ‘Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage’, Byron records his impressions of Rome. Explore some of the Classical sites that excited the poets, including the Roman Forum and the Arch of Titus, the ancient frieze of which inspired Shelley as he wrote ‘Prometheus Unbound’ and ‘The Triumph of Life’. See also the Baths of Caracalla, where Shelley composed ‘Prometheus Unbound’: “never was any desolation more sublime and lovely”.
Rome. Visit Palazzo Barberini, Rome’s National Gallery, which houses a painting by Guido Reni of Beatrice Cenci (subject of Shelley’s verse drama ‘The Cenci’). A walk takes in various places associated with the poets. Keats arrived in Rome terminally ill with tuberculosis, and died months later aged only 25. He spent his last days lovingly tended by his friend, the artist Joseph Severn. Their quarters are now a delightful and moving museum housing a collection of letters, paintings and manuscripts associated with Keats and Shelley. Private evening visit to the museum, with a talk from the Director.
Rome. Visit the Protestant cemetery, the serene final resting place of Keats and Shelley. Guided visit with historian Nicholas Stanley-Price, author of The Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome. Fly from Rome Fiumicino to London Gatwick, arriving c. 2.45pm.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £3,680 or £3,540 without flights. Single occupancy: £4,350 or £4,210 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus A321); travel between Venice airport and the hotel by water-taxi; a vaporetto pass for the time spent in Venice; first-class rail travel from Venice to Florence and from Florence to Rome; luggage porterage from Venice to Florence and from the airport to the hotel in Venice; travel by private coach in and around Florence; travel by private minibus in and around Rome; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 2 lunches and 6 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips for waiters, drivers and guides; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hotel Palazzo Sant’Angelo, Venice: a 4-star hotel in an excellent location on the Grand Canal near Campo Sant’Angelo and the Rialto Bridge. Hotel Santa Maria Novella, Florence: a delightful, renovated 4-star hotel in a very central location. Hotel Bernini Bristol, Rome: 5-star hotel excellently located on the Piazza Barberini. Single rooms throughout are doubles for sole use.
The nature of Venice, Florence and Rome means that the cities are more often than not traversed on foot. Although part of their charm, there is a lot of walking along the flat (and up and down bridges in Venice); standing around in museums is also unavoidable. The historic area of Rome is vast, and vehicular access is increasingly restricted. Minibuses are used on some occasions. The tour should not be attempted by anyone who has difficulty with everyday walking and stair-climbing. Fitness is essential.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
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Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.