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All poetic roads lead to Florence; A Golden Ring. By Charles Hobday (Peter Owen, pounds 25). Reviewed by R ichard Edmonds.

In this splendid book on English poets in Florence, which ranges from the 14th century to the present day, Charles Hobday notes that there were probably more British poets and novelists in Florence during the 1850s than at any other time in the city's hi story.

But reading this lively but informative text, you conclude that it was the Brownings, Robert and Elizabeth, who exerted a kind of gravitational pull on Florentine society in the middle of the century.

All kinds of people were drawn to their salon, from Frederick Tennyson, the Poet Laureate's elder brother, to Robert Lytton, son of a once-famous novelist and Mrs Frances Trollope, mother of the author of Barchester Towers .

But why Italy? Shelley, a frequent visitor, had called it a "Paradise of Exiles". Certainly, the Brownings were the most famous couple of elopers in history so they were virtually exiled from England. In Kensington High Street they would have been notori ous but in Florence with its siestas, laissez-faire attitudes to most things and its cheap living, the Brownings were welcome.

And they thrived on it. Elizabeth took off her corsets in the heat and slyly returned the waiters' smiles in between sips of Chianti, while Robert (who had earlier detested Florence) was inspired to write his fine poem Andrea del Sarto. He also discovere d that this idyll could have a darker side to it and his wife seems to have been the cause of some anxiety:

"I would that you were all to me/You that are just so much, no more".

You do begin to wonder just what this dumpy, middle-aged woman with the spaniel's ears hair-do could have been up to.

"Where does the fault lie/What the core of the wound/Since wound must be!?"

Part of their problem was Pen, their only son, who at 12 years old was still dressed as a girl with long hair and lace flounces, becoming Elizabeth's surrogate daughter. After her death, Robert quickly outed his son's masculinity by cutting his hairand putting him into long trousers before more damage could be done towards his sexual orientations.

But the magnet of Florence, which caused fortunes to be squandered away by young spendthrifts during the 18th century Grand Tour, had exerted its influence on the English for hundreds of years.

As early as 1370, Geoffrey Chaucer was there on a visit of no political significance but yet for him, an English poet, it was a special event, producing long-lasting impressions. Chaucer read Boccaccio in Florence and so became conscious of the potential which lay within romance. At home, he would have sniffed at such silliness. But after the experience of Florence, Chaucer created The Knight's Tale and also Troylus and Criseyde (the nice thing about Hobday's book is that the text has insertions of sign ificant poetry which allows interesting cross-referencing).

John Milton is not a man one would usually associate with pleasure-loving Florence, where Elizabeth Barrett Browning found nightingales and fireflies as well as political disturbances.

Yet Milton was there nevertheless in the summer of 1638, a visitor whose experiences in Italy were as important for English poetry as Chaucer's had been.

In Rome, Milton was entertained by Cardinal Barberini, the Pope's nephew, and in Florence developed a close relationship with a former pupil of Galileo, Carlo Roberto Dati. The boy was 19 and Milton was a good-looking young man of 29 and "extreme" pleasa nt in his conversation. It would have been interesting to know what Dati told him of Galileo's highly subversive views of a heliocentric universe.

But no mention is made of it here, so probably Milton left no notes, although he did meet a Florentine who told dirty jokes which apparently he relished but which did not find their way into Paradise Lost.

Thomas Gray is by far the most delightful of this collection of poets in Italy. Florence, he wrote to his father, was where the air was so dulcet, that "one could continue in the open air all night long in a slight nightgown, and the marble bridge (over the Arno) is the resort of everybody, where they hear music, eat iced fruits and sing by moonlight".

Sir Francis Dashwood, who was later to found the notorious Hellfire Club, was also in Florence offsetting the tedium of dinner guests who would parade their classical learning at mealtimes. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the dotty poetess, was always threate ning to drop in on the English visitors and wreck their literary gatherings.

Thomas Gray, his intimate friend Horace Walpole and Dashwood, of course, searched through their copies of Virgil for a suitable description and were delighted when for Lady Mary they came across the words "Insanam vatem aspicies" translated as, "Youwill see an insane poetess."

Walpole, meanwhile, attached himself to the young and beautiful (and married) Elisabetta Grifoni. These were bloodless infidelities condoned in Florence. Walpole became Elisabetta's cicisbeo or handbag carrier. People tittered behind their hands andsaid it was a lesbian affair. Writing to his friend West, Gray noted that he had passed 11 months in Florence, "and yet (God help me) I know not either people or language".

Oscar Wilde visited Florence in May 1895 just before his trial and he charmed everyone with his sparkling conversation but perhaps the funniest picture in this wonderfully readable book is the image of D H Lawrence in Florence getting Lady Chatterley thr ough the presses of Orioli the printer.

"The printer doesn't know a word of English - nobody in the place knows a word - where ignorance is bliss" though Lawrence insisted on explaining to the master-printer, Franceschini, that the book contained particular words in English.

Lawrence asked him not to print it if he thought it would get him into trouble with the authorities. When the nature of the book was explained to him Franceschini replied, "Oh! But we do it every day". And so, as there was nothing political in the book, and the printer was working in Fascist Italy and not in free England, he was able to proceed without fear of prosecution. A nicely ironical situation.
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Author:Edmonds, Richard
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 2, 1998
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