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Byron and Italy$

Alan Rawes and Diego Saglia

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781526100559

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9781526100559.001.0001

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‘Something I have seen or think it possible to see’: Byron and Italian art in Ravenna

‘Something I have seen or think it possible to see’: Byron and Italian art in Ravenna

(p.94) 5 ‘Something I have seen or think it possible to see’: Byron and Italian art in Ravenna
Byron and Italy

Jane Stabler

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter centres on the problematic theme of Byron’s relation to the visual arts and Italian art in particular. It offers possible keys for reading Byron’s response to the art of Italy by concentrating not so much on familiar Classical and Renaissance paintings and sculptures, but instead by focusing on the relationship between Byron’s Cain and the church art of Ravenna – its Byzantine mosaics. As there is no evidence that Byron actually saw any of these mosaics, the chapter takes an openly speculative approach to suggest a whole range of ways in which Ravennese visual art might have shaped Cain. In particular, as the chapter intimates, if ‘the form of Cain departs from all Byron’s previously stated aesthetic preferences’, it does not depart ‘from what he could see around him in Ravenna’s religious art’. Thus, the chapter’s speculative method raises some important and fundamental questions about Byron’s possible absorption of all sorts of Italian art works that he never mentions but certainly did see, the creative role of memory in Byron’s poetic responses to the art he encountered in Italy, and the poet’s more general fascination with different ways of seeing and knowing.

Keywords:   Cain, Byronic aesthetics, Italian art, Byzantine Mosaics, Cultural absorption, Religion, Memory, Knowledge/Epistemology

When Byron first arrived in Ravenna in June 1819, the feast of Corpus Christi blocked the route of his carriage. Ravenna was ‘fervent in keeping up the traditions and customs of the past’, Teresa Guiccioli noted, ‘the streets through which the procession would pass were strewn with flowers […] sumptuous tapestries and pictures adorned the houses […] and vehicles were not allowed access’.1 Byron, we might say, was stopped in his tracks in Ravenna by that religious festival with all its associated art and iconography. In this chapter, I want to look at the relationship between Byron’s Cain and the church art of Ravenna as a way of reading Byron’s response to Italian art beyond well-known classical and Renaissance paintings and sculptures. It is a speculative argument, but Cain is a ‘speculative’ drama that fosters a dialogue with the unknowable.2 In the Renaissance tradition, man is the measure of all things. Man is not the measure of all things in Byzantine mosaics, and this profoundly different world view is a vital context for Byron’s poetry and drama after 1819, even though his letters and journals contain far more about Ravenna’s political situation than its medieval art and architecture.

No written record remains of what Byron thought of the Ravenna mosaics. This may be disappointing, but Byron also lived in Venice for four years without describing the interior of St Mark’s. Perhaps he never went inside, but if he did, to what extent did or does his silent experience of that interior matter? It is a question for editors as much as for literary critics. To what extent are we justified in tracing the influence of things that we think a poet might have seen, (p.95) or know that he did see, but that he never actually describes? How might Byron’s critics and editors identify those things that were ‘so much in [his] head’ that he felt it redundant to stipulate when or how they entered his consciousness;3 how are we to determine the levels of influence that one artefact (lexical, musical or visual) might exert over a verbal one, perhaps years later? To ask these questions is to open a debate about the nature of critical evidence as well as the working of aesthetic allusion; this chapter will address such matters by suggesting some of the ways in which the visual art of Ravenna might have shaped the creativity of Byron’s Cain.

In bringing Byron’s experience of Italian religious art to the fore, I wish first of all to modify Bruce Haley’s view that Byron ‘hated most religious pictures’.4 Haley’s verdict is based on Byron’s off-hand account of the Manfrini Palace collection:

You must recollect however – that I know nothing of painting – & that I detest it – unless it reminds me of something I have seen or think it possible to see – for which [reason] I spit upon & abhor all the saints & subjects of one half the impostures I see in the churches & palaces […]. I never yet saw the picture – or the statue – which came within a league of my conception or expectation.5

Understandably, most critical attention has been focused on Byron’s writing about his highly charged encounters with canonical works of Western art in collections such as the Manfrini Palace, the Uffizi and the Vatican galleries – Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’s meditations on the Venus de Medici, the Dying Gaul, the Laocoon and the Apollo Belvedere, and the praise of Giorgione and Canova in Beppo. Bruce Haley, James Heffernan, Maureen McCue, Jerome McGann and Jonathan Sachs all explore Byron’s relationship with monumental art and ruins.6 But their combined focus – rich and rewarding though it is – truncates Byron’s experience of Italian art to the monolithic, the titanic and the heroic, overlooking the ways in which other less-celebrated aspects of Italian art might influence Byron’s poetry beyond those famous passages of ekphrasis.7

When confronted with canonical artworks, Byron tends to adopt an attitude that is either iconoclastic (spitting upon the saints, for example) or competitively determined to outdo all previous homage. There is, however, a difference between the arresting ways in which Byron responds to the famous works of art that had to be seen (p.96) by eighteenth-and nineteenth-century tourists, and the more subtle ways in which the Italian visual arts might inform and infuse his perception. I want to consider Byron’s assimilation of Italian art as an encounter with the fabric of a living culture, not just as a one-off response to the highlights of a well-worn tourist trail. At a temporal distance from the immediate act of perception, Byron’s memories of Italian art inevitably become more creative acts, arousing his fascination with not just what was seen but also with ways of seeing and knowing.

In Canto V of Don Juan (written in the autumn of 1820 when Byron had settled in Ravenna), Byron voices his guidebook ennui and versifies a high-cultural resistance to the exhausted trope of description:

  • I won’t describe; description is my forte,
  •    But every fool describes in these bright days
  • His wond’rous journey to some foreign court,
  •    And spawns his quarto, and demands your praise –
  • Death to his publisher, to him’tis sport;
  •    While Nature, tortured twenty thousand ways,
  • Resigns herself with exemplary patience
  • To guide-books, rhymes, tours, sketches, illustrations.

(DJ, V, 52)

Nevertheless, for the rest of Canto V, Byron does describe, albeit with a degree of ironic disdain. Leading his readers through the interior of a palace on the Bosphorus, the narrator of Don Juan loads his stanzas with detail and a sense of its superfluous excess – ‘articles which nobody required’ (DJ, V, 64).8 The sultan’s priceless works of art, which are wonderful to Juan and Johnson, but mundane to Baba, are awarded an evocative simile, and the carpet appears ‘As if the milky way their feet was under/With all its stars’ (DJ, V, 66). To render the immediacy of the aesthetic encounter, Byron intersperses description with the deictic, inviting the reader to visualise the scene by gesturing to ‘A certain press or cupboard niched in yonder/In that remote recess, which you may see –/Or if you don’t the fault is not in me’ (DJ, V, 66). This moment of self-reflexive narration exemplifies a tension between Byron’s proven facility with ekphrasis and his poetics of inference. I want to suggest that Byron’s formal techniques for gesturing to what lies out of sight form a link between the narrative style (p.97) of Don Juan and the blank verse of Cain, and that the bridge between the material and the immanent is a significant feature of Ravenna’s vernacular art.

Byron’s main textual signal of insinuation is the dash. In the manuscript fair copy of Canto V, there is a dash after ‘the fault is not in me’, which was converted first into a full stop (in pencil on the manuscript) and finally into a comma (in the first edition) by John Murray’s editorial team. It is worth pausing over this mark and what it tells us about Byron’s attitude to the relationship between the visible and the invisible.9 Byron’s dashes can stand in for commas, conjunctions or rests, but they can also invite the reader to interpolate something that is off the page – most famously, perhaps, the long dash in ‘The lady Astarte, his – –’ in Manfred (III, iii, 47), which did appear in print whereas the dash after Manfred’s ‘’tis not so difficult to die.’ did not.10 Byron’s heavier and longer manuscript dashes reach out to the unsayable, whether sacred or profane. They form part of a graphic repertoire of pause and syncope that touches, at one end of the generic spectrum, with comic theatre and bawdy humour, but at the other with the ineffable of deep emotion or even religious awe. The stroke of ink that extends into space often appears as a pathway into the unknown, which the reader might choose to follow or not (if, indeed, the reader who was the editor allowed the dash to go forward into type). When Byron invites the reader to use their imagination in co-producing either the precisely realised details of ekphrasis or the mysterious suggestion of the dash, he brings to a momentary crisis the relationship between the visible and invisible worlds. This relationship is a significant element in both Italian religious art and Romantic theory. It is also, as we shall see, at the heart of Cain.

Ravenna was Byron’s home for most of 1820 and 1821. From there he wrote to Thomas Moore on 31 August 1820:

What do Englishmen know of Italians beyond their museums and saloons […]? Now, I have lived in the heart of their houses, in parts of Italy freshest and least influenced by strangers, – have seen and become (pars magna fui) a portion of their hopes, and fears, and passions, and am almost inoculated into a family. This is to see men and things as they are.11

His proud Virgilian allusion to having played a great part, to being a ‘portion’, and to being an inoculated particle in a larger body tell (p.98) us that his various involvements (amatory and martial) in Ravenna led Byron to reflect on the relationship between social parts and the whole. This, as I shall suggest, is also a key element of what we might see as a mosaic aesthetic, but in the early nineteenth century, Ravenna’s intricately fabricated basilicas were generally underestimated: ‘this corner of Italy is not sufficiently visited’, as a later nineteenth-century guide declared, although he found it to be ‘more Constantinople than Constantinople itself’.12

Italian art had been the acknowledged standard of aesthetic perfection for British artists since the formation of the Royal Academy, but it was a selective ideal of the high Renaissance of Michelangelo and Raphael, the climactic third period of Vasari’s Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori.13 Mosaic composition is not mentioned in Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses; it had to be glossed in Warton’s 1785 edition of Milton’s works as ‘a kind of painting in small pebbles’.14 Mosaic’s tangible strangeness for early eighteenth-and nineteenth-century British tourists is captured by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, when she describes St Sophia in Constantinople and comments on the surprising visibility of the images of the saints. The mosaic work of the dome, however, she reported, ‘decays very fast, and drops down. They presented me with a handful of it; its composition seems to me a sort of glass, or that paste with which they make counterfeit jewels.’15 Rarely, eighteenth-or early nineteenth-century antiquarians find beauty in mosaic art, but more often it is seen as curious, stiff, primitive, great in its rudeness, just plain rude and exemplifying barbarity. Tobias Smollett sums up the prevailing disdain when he glances at the mosaics in St Peter’s, Rome:

The mosaic work, though brought to a wonderful degree of improvement, and admirably calculated for churches, the dampness of which is pernicious to the colours of the pallet, I will not yet compare to the productions of the pencil. The glassyness (if I may be allowed the expression) of the surface, throws, in my opinion, a false light on some parts of the picture; and when you approach it, the joinings of the pieces look like so many cracks on painted canvas.16

Among Byron’s contemporaries, William Wordsworth’s mention of the ‘rude fidelity’ of a mosaic typifies its habitual association with the primitive while Percy Shelley uses mosaic art as an image for what is inferior or second best in A Defence of Poetry.17 Byron includes (p.99) ‘mosaic stone’ in The Siege of Corinth (920), and one of his letters home records the ‘beautiful Mosaic’ at Aventicum in 1816.18 He does not describe the much more extensive wall mosaics in Ravenna, but we know that he went to look at them.

In June 1819, ‘Dante’s tomb, the classical pine wood, [and] the relics of antiquity’ provided Byron with ‘a sufficient pretext’ for visiting Teresa Guiccioli in Ravenna.19 He referred impatiently to ‘this farce of visiting antiquities’, and Teresa claims that ‘he rapidly exhausted the round of visits to the historic buildings of Ravenna’.20 Teresa’s memoir and Byron’s letters tell us that he visited the Sepulchre of the Exarchs and the church of St Vitale. His saturation with images of martyrs (perhaps the foot procession of martyrs in St Apollinare Nuovo) might inform his exasperated comment to Teresa at the height of his infatuation: ‘Love has its martyrs like religion.’21 Silence need not, however, imply lasting hostility or rejection. Although Byron does not write about any of the churches in detail, Teresa reveals that he gave ‘alms in plenty’ to ‘churches and poverty-stricken convents’ and that he funded the restoration of the fittings and the organ of ‘a large Ravenna church’.22 Bernard Beatty (in this volume) and Gavin Hopps provide convincing accounts of Byron’s inclination to be more receptive to forms of Catholicism once he settled in Italy, and the Eastern orthodoxy of Ravenna is a significant manifestation of this tangible form of Christianity.23 Besides quotidian familiarity with his hometown, however, there is another reason why, in 1821, Byron might have been reminded of the mosaics on his doorstep.

On 6 August of that year, Percy Bysshe Shelley arrived in Ravenna.24 If Byron’s manuscript dating is accurate, Shelley arrived in the middle of the composition of Cain, and it seems likely that their intermittent debate about religion informs the composition of Cain – though perhaps not as much as Shelley wanted.25 Byron aimed to startle English readers in his shift to neoclassical drama in Marino Faliero, Sardanapalus and The Two Foscari and then to the ‘mystery’ form of Cain. His unprecedented experiment with a medieval dramatic mode occurred as Byron found himself being bound into a traditional Italian family structure, buttressed by Teresa Guiccioli’s patterns of religious observance and embedded in the omnipresent early Christian architecture of Ravenna. This visual context offered a distinctive way of handling a religious topic that had always intrigued him. Mosaics fall outside the generic competence of humanistic Western art. Ravenna’s (p.100) inscrutable two-dimensional mosaic forms provide a different sort of aesthetic experience from the soft curves of the Venus de Medici or Raphael’s mistress or Titian’s mistress.26 As one can see from his views on the Manfrini collection in Venice, Byron’s enthusiasm for art is usually predicated on its proximity with the human (often the female), just as his appreciation of the sublime in the ‘Letter to John Murray Esqre’ depends on there being some perceptible human activity in the foreground. The art of Ravenna does not accord with the idea that we find beautiful what is ‘near’ or what reminds us of us (as Cain loves Adah). It is a separate, more algebraic, aesthetic. On more than one level, British tourists in Ravenna find themselves staring at the unfamiliar and the incomprehensible.

Two days into his visit, Shelley visited the church of St Vitale, the Basilica of St Apollinare in Classe and the tombs of the Christian emperors. From his letter to Mary, it sounds as if Shelley went round ‘in Albe’s carriage’ without Byron, but Byron, as we know, had completed the tourist circuit in Ravenna two years earlier and seems to have been keen to point other visitors in the direction of Ravenna’s antiquities.27 When J. Mawman arrived in Ravenna, just after Shelley’s departure, Byron offered ‘his Carriage & horses in case Mr. M. would like to make the round of the remarkable buildings’.28 Even if Byron and Shelley did not talk about these ‘remarkable buildings’ in their after-dinner conversations, they evidently discussed Shelley’s failure to get into one of them as Byron fired off an angry letter to the papal legate when Shelley was denied admission to Ravenna’s Duomo.29

Shelley found the buildings ‘very peculiar & striking’ and ‘remarkable’, but this was mainly for their height: ‘Heaven alone knows how they contrived to lift it’, he says of one granite dome.30 Shelley was unimpressed by the art of the Christian imperial family: ‘The tombs are massy cases of marble adorned with rude & tasteless sculpture of lambs & other Christian emblems’, he wrote back to Mary. ‘It seems to have been one of the first effects of the Christian religion to destroy the power of producing beauty in art.’ Echoing the verdict of many earlier travellers, Shelley refers to the starry decoration of the vaulted chamber over the tomb of Galla Placida as ‘rude mosaic’.31

We cannot know, of course, exactly what condition the mosaics were in when Shelley saw them, but Henry James’s account of Ravenna fifty years after Byron and Shelley were there gives us a glimpse of the mosaics themselves and the effect they had on a Western visitor. (p.101) I will draw on James’s descriptions to reconstruct something of what Byron and Shelley encountered. By reading Jamesian ekphrasis alongside Cain, we can begin to trace a possible dialogue between Byron’s drama and the mosaics. One of James’s most revealing comments is about the way he finds all the images merging in his mind: ‘I have no space for a list of the various shrines […] and, to tell the truth, my memory of them has already become a very generalised and undiscriminating record.’32 As we saw in Byron’s memory (and forgetfulness) of the Manfrini Palace, every description of a work of art is already an interpretation.

Standing in for our representative nineteenth-century viewer, James experienced a tension between ‘Regular pictures full of movement, gesture and perspective’ (for example Guido’s fresco in the Duomo) and ‘emblems of primitive dogma […] slabs […] covered with carven hieroglyphics of an almost Egyptian abstruseness – lambs and stags and fishes and beasts of theological affinities even less apparent’. The ability of the mosaics to outlast time and the sheer scale of the creative labour also struck him, and he wrote of his ‘deep amaze […] that, while centuries had worn themselves away and empires risen and fallen, these little cubes of coloured glass had stuck in their allotted places and kept their freshness’.33 Even for someone like Byron, who had seen St Sophia, the mosaics of Ravenna would have offered a vertiginous awareness of scale, which I would map on to ‘the million millions/the myriad myriads’ in Cain (I, i, 521–2) and ‘the unborn myriads of unconscious atoms’ seen by Lucifer (II, ii, 42). It is at least possible that the ‘un-numbered and innumerable/Multitudes, millions, myriads’ (I, i, 447–8) and the ‘myriads of starry worlds’ (II, ii, 360) that Cain describes are energised by a memory of all those tiny pieces.

Byzantine mosaics were designed to create the effect of light. An inscription from the episcopal palace in Ravenna gives the wall its own words to tell viewers what they were seeing. Translated into English, the mosaic’s self-description runs as follows:

Either light was born here, or captured here it reigns free; it is the law, from which the current glory of heaven excels. The roofs deprived [of light] have produced gleaming day […]. See, the marble flourishes with bright rays, and all the stones struck in starry purple shine in value, the gifts of the founder, Peter. To him honor and merit are granted, thus to beautify small things, so that although confined in space, they surpass the large. Nothing is small to Christ.34

(p.102) This is, of course, the opposite of what Lucifer teaches Cain. Mosaics focus attention on a harmonious relationship between parts and the whole, but instead of the orthodox understanding that man is a beloved part of something much bigger, Lucifer’s aim is to sharpen Cain’s suspicion that he is a radically disconnected particle floating in a universe that has been doomed to destruction by its heartless creator.

The nature of God and his attitude to the rest of his creation is one of the central issues of Cain. The image of Christ in St Vitale’s church as recorded by James is a representation of Shelley’s (but not necessarily Byron’s) worst nightmare in this respect: ‘The great Christ […] is quite an elaborate picture, and yet he retains enough of the orthodox stiffness to make him impressive in the simpler, elder sense. He is clad in a purple robe, even as an emperor.’35 There is a deliberate kinship in Ravenna’s mosaics between representations of Christ and the Emperor Justinian, who wanted to be presented as the meeting point of political order and religious orthodoxy. Byron’s Lucifer, like Shelley in Prometheus Unbound, sees divine power as omnipotent tyranny and Lucifer’s depiction of God on his ‘vast and solitary throne’ (I, i, 148) might recall the Christ in St Vitale’s church or in St Apollinare Nuovo. We do not, of course, see God in Cain. Byron’s God is as inscrutable in Cain as he is in Genesis, which is why Byron could insist that his drama was at once ‘orthodox’ but also ‘not quite canonical’.36

In Cain, we watch human characters struggling to realise natural and supernatural forms they do not understand. Cain wonders at the shapes of mammoths and sea monsters (II, ii, 132–42, 190–6), and both Cain and Adah try to describe the ‘Haughty, and high, and beautiful’ (II, ii, 54) angels and mighty phantoms they meet: ‘as the silent sunny noon/All light they look upon us’ (I, i, 509–10). The eerie inscrutability of these beings is matched by James’s apprehension of the mosaic angels in St Apollinare Nuovo:

Upon all these strange things, the strange figures in the great mosaic panorama look down […]. What it is these long slim seraphs express I cannot quite say, but they have an odd, knowing, sidelong look out of the narrow ovals of their eyes which, though not without sweetness, would certainly make me murmur a defensive prayer or so were I to find myself alone in the church towards dusk.37

(p.103) The mosaics on Ravenna’s walls are not simply visual decoration; they are a means of communion, opening the material church building out to eternity. The religious function of the mosaic icon is as a channel between two worlds. James slightly misreads the mosaic’s purpose as didactic illustration: ‘It is an interest simple […] almost to harshness, and leads one’s attention along a straight and narrow way.’ That ‘harshness’ is, as we have seen, what earlier tourists recognised; James writes of ‘strange stiff primitive Christian forms’ and notes that when in Rome one is distracted by the sensuous excess of paganism underlying Catholic art, but ‘Ravenna […] began with the Church, and all her monuments and relics are harmoniously rigid’.38 In the expression of doctrinal and formal rigidity we can identify a kinship between the Ravenna mosaics and the poetics of Cain.

Shelley had already disapproved of the ‘severe and unharmonising traits’ of Marino Faliero, but Byron persisted in wanting to ‘[break] down the poetry’ and for his plays to be ‘rigidly historical’, ‘simple and severe’, ‘Doric and austere’.39 In his volume of three plays, ‘a tragedy’, ‘an historical tragedy’ and a ‘mystery’, linguistic attenuation and fragmentation were part of the experiment: ‘I have broken down the poetry as nearly as I could to common language’, he says of The Two Foscari, and we might see the ‘rugged’ or ‘jerky’ rhythms of Cain (to use Truman Guy Steffan’s adjectives) as a poetic form of mosaic.40 The repeated interruptions of stichomythia or ‘subdivisions of dialogue’ about which reviewers complained (whereby a single line of verse is shared by more than one speaker) are almost a visual recreation of the glittering tessellated surface of mosaic, the cracked or fissured surface that Smollett so much disliked.41

Byron introduces Cain using the formulation ‘in the following scenes’, indicating the static form of ‘Mystery play’ tableau. The prayers that initiate the first act take us through the episodes of creation, and each provides a shift of scale from the awe-inspiring creation of light and dark to the much more troubling introduction of creatures at close quarters when Zillah’s praise of God includes ‘Oh God who loving, making, blessing all,/Yet didst permit the serpent to creep in’ (I, i, 18–19). And this brings us to the realisation of original sin, which Byron handles brilliantly by letting us feel it as the weight of dramatic irony. We know what will happen to Cain, but it still seems to happen by accident, and yet it is impossible to avert. (p.104) When he ‘tread[s] on air, and sink[s] not’ (II, i, 1), Cain becomes one with the giant mosaic figures floating in space against their glittering backgrounds, but his overexposure to cosmic wonder makes him unfit to participate in mundane or familial religious ritual.

The touristic experience of Byron and Shelley in Ravenna might also be evinced in Byron’s use of the dynamics of the guided tour to dramatise the way Cain’s vision of the universe becomes Lucifer’s creation and by Cain’s resentment at being obliged to admire he knows not what. To turn Cain against the mysteries of the universe, Lucifer has only to behave like a bored chaperone: ‘behold! Is it not glorious?’, he says, languidly, asking Cain to ‘point out’ the site of Paradise (II, i, 97–8, 33–4). The second act is full of Lucifer’s visual prompting: ‘look back’, ‘Look there!’ ‘what yonder’, ‘Behold!’, ‘Behold these’, ‘Approach the things […] and judge their beauty near’ (II, i, 118, 120, 197; II, ii, 86, 249–50). And perhaps like Shelley’s tour of Ravenna’s antiquities, the glimpses of Eden and immortality just make Cain into a boring dinner companion: ‘The overpowering mysteries of space […] have made me/Unfit for mortal converse’ (III, i, 179–84). Adah, meanwhile, is happy to leave the invisible where she did not find it. She looks in a different way from Cain and can accept without questioning the idea of hidden possibility. Adah appreciates the way ‘unnumber’d stars/Spangle the wonderful mysterious vault/With things that look as if they would be suns’ (I, i, 512–14), but she is wary of the lure of visual attraction and resists Lucifer’s invitation to adore the symbols of the invisible.

Cain’s desire to get outside dramatic irony should make him into a scientist, but he always falls back into a different sort of empiricism, sounding like an early nineteenth-century tourist in a gallery, determined to cram in all the best sights and compass or number or measure everything he is shown: ‘I have looked out/In the vast desolate night in search of him’ (I, i, 270–1) Cain says of death – ‘let me […] see them nearer’ (II, i, 117) he says about the lights in the blue wilderness; ‘let me look on it’ (II, i, 145); ‘show me’ (II, ii, 366, 397); ‘I see them but I know them not’ (II, ii, 168); ‘And to what end have I beheld these things/Which thou hast shown me?’ (II, ii, 417).

In doctrinal terms, Byron’s insistence in the play’s preface that his subject ‘has nothing to do with the New Testament’, and that ‘there is no allusion to a future state in any of the books of Moses, nor indeed in the Old Testament’, does and does not partake of the spirit of (p.105) the mosaics in Ravenna.42 There is, indeed, a noticeable lack of direct representation of New Testament images in the church of St Vitale. The apse is dominated by Christ on the globe flanked by angels and St Vitale and Bishop Ecclesius; the mystic lamb against a starry sky presides over the vault of the presbytery, but the most obvious biblical images are scenes of Abraham’s hospitality to the angels and the averted sacrifice of Isaac in the lunettes on the left-hand side of the altar, while on the right-hand side of the altar Abel is shown offering a sacrificial lamb. The mosaics depict Christ as simultaneously the sacrifice and the priest, prefigured in the Old Testament figures of Abel, Melchizedik and Isaac. Through typology, the scenes of Old Testament sacrifice prefigure the New Testament Eucharist – exactly as Lucifer does with his warning ‘that Son will be a Sacrifice’ (I, i, 166). Byzantine icons allow a worshipper to move between the dimensions of time and space and to enter the presence of the mystery depicted; the overlapping of temporal schemes in the mosaic panels might represent a visual intertext for the vistas of time through which Lucifer leads the dazzled Cain.

In the hospitality of Abraham icon in St Vitale’s church, the three seated figures are portrayed almost identically, with no real distinguishing features. Their visual similarity aids understanding of the process of typology. The scenes of sacrifice set on the walls above the altar are versions of the liturgical drama of sacrifice in the Eucharist, a drama repeated over the altar of St Apollinare in Classe. The relationship between the visible and the invisible must be completed by the viewer – as intimated by Adah: ‘How know we that some such atonement one day/May not redeem our race?’ (III, i, 85–6). The hand that appears over the sacrifice of Isaac (and above many of the other Old Testament scenes) is the hand of God, symbolising God’s acceptance of sacrifice and his intervention in human history. In Byron’s imagination, the hand that looms the largest is a human hand stained with blood – ‘Incarnadine’ (III, i, 398–9) – allowing us to recognise Cain as the prototype for all the murders and imagined murders of history, including that of Macbeth. The image of the ‘multitudinous seas incarnadine’ (Macbeth, II, ii, 59) cannot quite come into focus as Byron tells us that Cain has never seen the ocean so Cain’s metaphor is that the water of the four rivers of Eden could not cleanse him (III, i, 522). The four rivers of Eden are depicted under the Christ in St Vitale’s apse.

(p.106) One irony of Byron’s drama is that Cain’s hatred of violence and his awe at the beauty of the cosmos might so easily have become a religious instinct; his lack of comprehension might have been an acceptable form of worship. Alienation from modern life, muddle or confusion can sometimes be part of an icon’s impact, David Brown reminds us. It is a mistake, Brown suggests, to have too simplified a theory of meaning, to suppose that symbols only work if they are fully comprehended.43 Cain’s confrontation with the mysteries of time and space, especially his ‘Oh, thou beautiful/And unimaginable ether!’ (II, i, 98–117) speech, almost tilts into being a hymn of praise. In the manuscript, extensive dashing traces Cain’s delirious, incredulous wonder, ‘Intoxicated with eternity? – –’, and stammering before the vast enigma of creation: ‘How beautiful – ye are! How beautiful –/Your works – or accidents – or whatsoever/They be! –’. In the duration of the dashes Cain sways between visions of unaccountable design and something begotten not made; the most speculative passages of the play in Act II are actually the parts that come closest to orthodox joy and reverence.

The process of showing or beholding or peering or gazing is at the heart of the relationship between visual image and written text, and helps to explain why Cain was written in Ravenna. The questions of how one can look steadily at the mysteries of the universe are philosophical, formal and ethical. While watching the execution of three men in Rome 1817, Byron found his hand shaking so much that he could scarcely hold the opera glass. In Ravenna he had to witness retributive justice on a different scale. The suffering of the families who were uprooted in the wake of the failed uprising moved Byron profoundly: ‘It has been a miserable sight to see the general desolation of families’, he wrote, ‘it is a kind of thing which cannot be described without equal pain as in beholding it’.44 ‘I gazed’, Byron writes as the narrator of Don Juan, over the shooting of the military commandant at his door in Ravenna, ‘(as oft I have gazed the same) […] But it was all a mystery’ (DJ, V, 38–9). How to behold it is the key question. How does one look steadily at individual or general desolation? What is the role of the artist in such matters?

One answer is the kind of art devoted to the small scale – this is the ‘tender’ Dante that the Romantics respond to, the episode of Paolo and Francesca (which Byron adapted while in Ravenna), the affective ekphrasis of the Inferno where the poet swoons to see so (p.107) much agony as the cost of one moment of human passion. Beauty that one has to be close to is one sort of art; it is the sensual world of Adah and the little Enoch, the art of human features and ‘sweetness’: ‘his little cheeks,/In their pure incarnation, vying with/The rose leaves strewn beneath them’ (III, i, 10–12). Byron’s writing in Cain shows that his response to the visual arts divides between the Manfrini Palace treasures, ‘a face to go mad for’, and another realm that is without body, parts or passions.

A close reading of one dramatic exchange about invisible influence will help to draw together the possible parallels between mosaic art and Byron’s medieval mystery play. In Act II, scene 1, as Cain grapples with different scales of vision, he finds the worlds he has seen to be less bright than ‘the fire-flies and the fire-worms’ which ‘Sprinkle the dusky groves and the green banks/In the dim twilight’ (II, i, 123–5). Lucifer works to exacerbate Cain’s new sense of littleness:

  •    Thou has seen both worms and worlds,
  •    Each bright and sparkling, – what dost think of them?
  • Cain. That they are beautiful in their own sphere,
  •    And that the night, which makes both beautiful
  •    The little shining fire-fly in its flight,
  •    And the immortal star in its great course,
  •    Must both be guided.

(II, i, 126–32)

This is, as Steffan calls it, ‘one of Byron’s faulty sentences’.45 The trouble is that we do not know whether it is a bit of carelessness or a deliberate disruption of syntax. In the manuscript, the dashes that fall after ‘sphere’, ‘flight’, ‘course’ and ‘guided’ suggest Cain’s probing of the darkness and Lucifer’s knowing silence. Lucifer has just invited Cain to look back at the earth. In the manuscript, the dialogue of Cain and Lucifer includes one line broken by Cain’s double dash and concluded by Lucifer’s mirroring of this symbol: ‘I cannot see it. – –/Yet it sparkles still. – –’. The dashes are extra-metrical: even though they look as if they stand in for missing words, the two speech units add up to ten syllables. Cain and Lucifer are locked into a line that is whole and broken at the same time. The dashes work to convey Cain’s baffled confrontation with invisible presence and Lucifer’s ability to flood the void with meaning. Byron then opens a grammatical aporia with the line, ‘And that the night which makes both beautiful’, a (p.108) fragment of meaning which remains incomplete. It is a gap in sense that gestures to something else Cain cannot see. But it lets through a significant thought. The night, Byron says elsewhere, is ‘a religious concern’.46 Cain sort of does but sort of does not recognise God in dark matter. Act II gazes at the ‘multiplying masses of increased/And still-increasing lights’ (II, i, 100–1) but also at the darkness that surrounds them and engulfs them. Mosaics create light, but in so doing, they also make darkness visible.

Two months after Shelley left Ravenna, Byron moved to Pisa. There he showed his drama to the Shelley circle, and Percy realised ruefully that he had not managed to shake Byron’s tendency to recur to the ‘delusions of Christianity’.47 Mary Shelley heard it slightly differently: ‘To me it sounds like a revelation […]. One has perhaps stood on the extreme verge of such ideas and from the midst of the darkness which has surrounded us the voice of the Poet now is heard telling a wondrous tale.’48 The echo of the prophet Isaiah is fitting. Steffan assumes that the art of Cain is flawed, but I think it is more likely to be part of a deliberate, utterly uncompromising rigidity: the God of Byron’s mystery play does not look like Jupiter or a Tory or an Austrian or the Emperor Justinian. He has to be much worse than that. ‘I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things’, says the God of Isaiah (45:7). Byron’s drama, like the mosaic icons of Ravenna, is a moment of contact with the unknowable, the unseeable and the unsayable. In its starkness, the form of Cain departs from all Byron’s previously stated aesthetic preferences, but not from what he could see around him in Ravenna’s religious art.


I am grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for the Research Fellowship that enabled this research and to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin for allowing me to consult and quote from Byron’s draft manuscript of Cain.


(1) T. Guiccioli, Lord Byron’s Life in Italy, trans. M. Rees, ed. P. Cochran (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2005), p. 142.

(p.109) (2) See Byron’s letter to Thomas Moore of 8 March 1822, BLJ, vol. IX, p. 123.

(3) Letter to John Murray of 12 October 1817, in BLJ, vol. V, p. 268.

(4) B. Haley, Living Forms: Romantics and the Monumental Figure (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2003), p. 170.

(5) Letter to John Murray of 14 April 1817, in BLJ, vol. V, p. 213.

(6) See J. A. W. Heffernan, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 133; M. McCue, British Romanticism and the Reception of Italian Old Master Art, 1793–1840 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), p. 116; J. J. McGann, The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 325; J. Sachs, Romantic Antiquity: Rome in the British Imagination, 1789–1832 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); C. Chard, Pleasure and Guilt on the Grand Tour: Travel Writing and Imaginative Geography, 1600–1830 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999); S. Cheeke, Writing for Art: The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008); C. Kenyon Jones, ‘“ Of painting I know nothing”: Byron’s response to some European art’, Newstead Abbey Review (2016), 32–46.

(7) However, see Richard C. Sha’s diagnosis of a profound ambivalence to monuments in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in Visual and Verbal Sketch in British Romanticism (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), p. 188, and Janice Hewlett Koelb’s questioning of modern criticism’s very limited definition of ekphrasis in The Poetics of Description (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

(8) Cheeke notes the relationship between ekphrasis and digression in Writing for Art, p. 19.

(9) For a recent exploration of the rhetorical force of dashes in stanzas 96 and 97 of Childe Harold III, see S. J. Wolfson, ‘“ This is my lightning”; or sparks in the air’, SEL, 55 (autumn 2015), 751–86. Wolfson reads the speed of the manuscript dashes as ‘a lightning on the page that seems too impatient for any other punctuation’ (p. 765). Murray’s team opted for commas. Byron delegated the meaning of manuscript dashes to his editors (whether in the house of John Murray or John Hunt), who had the task of interpreting whether the mark was being used as an edgy lighting conductor or as a contemplative musical rest.

(10) The dash in stanza 66 of Don Juan V replicates Laurence Sterne’s art of verbum sat – see The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, ed. Graham Petrie (London: Penguin, 1986), p. 427.

(11) BLJ, vol. VII, pp. 170–1.

(12) M. Valery, Historical, Literary, and Artistical Travels in Italy (Paris: Baudry’s European Library, 1842), pp. 415–16.

(p.110) (13) See J. Hale, England and the Italian Renaissance (London: Fontana, 1996), pp. 55–78, for Vasari’s role in the formation of English taste.

(14) John Milton, Paradise Regain’d… to which is added Samson Agonistes; and Poems Upon Several Occasions (London: Strachan and Rivington, 1785), p. 373.

(15) Lady M. Wortley Montagu, Letters Written During Her Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa to Persons of Distinction, Men of Letters &c. in Different Parts of Europe (London: Thomas Martin, 1790), p. 135.

(16) T. Smollett, Travels through France and Italy, 2 vols (Dublin: Robert Johnston, 1766), vol. II, p. 115.

(17) William Wordsworth, ‘On Re-visiting Dunolly Castle’ (l. 5), in Wordsworth: Poetical Works, ed. T. Hutchinson and E. de Selincourt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985); P. B. Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works, ed. Z. Leader and M. O’Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 697.

(18) Letter to John Cam Hobhouse of 26 May 1816, in BLJ, vol. V, p. 78.

(20) Letter to Teresa Guiccioli of 11 June 1819, in BLJ, vol. VI, p. 154; Guiccioli, Lord Byron’s Life in Italy, pp. 144, 146, 152.

(21) Letter of 14 June 1819, in BLJ, vol. VI, p. 156.

(23) Gavin Hopps, ‘Gaiety and grace: Byron and the tone of Catholicism’, The Byron Journal, 40: 1 (2013), 1–14.

(24) See P. B. Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2 vols, ed. F. L. Jones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), vol. II, p. 330.

(25) See C. E. Robinson, Shelley and Byron: The Snake and the Eagle Wreathed in Fight (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 195–201.

(26) See Byron’s letter to John Murray of 26 April 1817, in BLJ, vol. V, pp. 217–19.

(27) Letter of 8 August 1821, in Shelley, Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, vol. II, p. 321.

(28) Letter to J. Mawman of 31 August 1821, in BLJ, vol. VIII, p. 195.

(29) Letter to Count Giuseppe Alborghetti of 15 August 1821, in BLJ, vol. VIII, p. 180.

(30) Letter to Mary Shelley of 8 August 1821, in Shelley, Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, vol. II, p. 321.

(31) Letter to Mary Shelley of 8 August 1821, in Shelley, Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, vol. II, p. 322.

(32) H. James, Italian Hours, ed. John Auchard (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995), p. 299.

(p.111) (34) D. M. Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 192.

(36) Letter to Douglas Kinnaird of 4 November 1821 (in BLJ, vol. IX, p. 56) and letter to Thomas Moore of 19 September 1821 (in BLJ, vol. VIII, p. 216).

(39) Letter to Horace Smith of 14 September 1821, in Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, vol. II, p. 349; letters to John Murray of 14 July and 16 February 1821, letter to Douglas Kinnaird of 27 September 1821, in BLJ, vol. VIII, pp. 152, 78 and 223.

(40) Letter to Douglas Kinnaird of 27 September 1821, in BLJ, vol. VIII p. 152; T. G. Steffan, Lord Byron’s Cain (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1968), pp. 92, 108. For a more recent discussion of ‘Byron’s labour to disfigure his poetry for dramatic effect’, see M. Callaghan, ‘The struggle with language in Byron’s Cain’, The Byron Journal, 38: 2 (2010), 125–34 (p. 125).

(41) See, for example, the British Review, 19 (December 1822), p. 78. For Cain’s reception, see Steffan, Lord Byron’s Cain, and R. Mortenson, Byron’s Waterloo: The Reception of Cain, A Mystery (Seattle, Wash.: Iron Press, 2015).

(42) CPW, vol. VI, p. 229.

(43) D. Brown, God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 49, 20.

(44) Letter to Thomas Moore of 2 August 1821, letter to John Murray of 14 July 1821, in BLJ, vol. VIII, pp. 165, 152.

(46) ‘Detached thoughts’, No. 100, in BLJ, vol. IX, p. 46.

(47) Letter to Horace Smith of 11 April 1822, in Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, vol. II, p. 412.

(48) Letter to Maria Gisborne of ‘?20–21 December [1821]’, in M. Shelley, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. B. Bennett (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), vol. I, p. 212.