King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Byron & politics: ‘born for opposition’

Introduction to: Italy: politics, patriotism & plays

‘ … supposing that Italy could be liberated, who or what is sacrificed. It is a grand object – the very poetry of politics. Only think – a free Italy!!!’
Ravenna Journal, 18 February 1821

Photograph of exhibition case 6 showing fragmentary proof, playbill and manuscripts.Case 6In Italy Byron became immersed in love affairs, politics and literature, and his time there was one of his most creatively productive. His literary output included eight dramatic poems, two of which were based on Renaissance Venetian politics: Marino Faliero (1820) and The Two Foscari (1821). Despite Byron’s assertion to Murray that these were not political plays, the works made obvious references to contemporary political issues both in Britain and Italy.

Marino Faliero was written between April and July 1820 while Byron was in Ravenna. However, he had been interested in the story of this fallen Doge since 1816, when he discovered Faliero’s obscured portrait on the wall of the Great Hall of the Doge’s Palace, painted over with a drawn curtain. By carefully adapting historical facts, Byron created a tragic hero in this Doge who was decapitated for conspiring with the people against the Venetian oligarchy. This was also a hero who fulfilled Byron’s political vision of a radical revolution combined with aristocratic leadership. The Two Foscari is another bleak vision of Venetian politics, with a Doge who sacrifices his family for the interests of the state and is rewarded by the state with demotion.

Byron strongly and frequently asserted that none of his plays was intended for the stage. In London he had been a member of the Management Committee of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and this experience left him disillusioned with the London stage and influenced him in developing a new style of poetic drama, following the ancient Greek model and its revival in Italy, rather than the Shakespearean free model which he professed to deplore. The only one of his plays to be performed during his lifetime was Marino Faliero, and Byron ordered Murray to get the production stopped. Despite injunctions from the Lord Chancellor, however, some performances at Drury Lane did go ahead, although to generally poor reviews.

Photograph of exhibition case 7 showing swordstick, portrait, manuscript and books.Case 7Whilst in Italy Byron became increasingly involved in radical and revolutionary activities. These included his writings for the radical British periodical The Liberal, edited by Leigh Hunt, who joined Byron in Italy in 1822, and, in Ravenna, his joining the Carbonari, a secret society of Italian nationalists whose object was to create a united Italy, free from Austrian control (an aim that would not be achieved until the 1860s).

Despite being under suspicion from the authorities, Byron wrote frequently to Hobhouse and Murray about the political and military situation in Italy. His initial optimism soon turned to disillusionment and bitterness when the Italian uprising was easily crushed. The collapse of the Carbonari and of Italian nationalism, and the relative commercial and critical failure of his Italian plays, prompted him to develop a more pragmatic, although perhaps no less optimistic, approach to another political cause: the Greek struggle for national independence against the Ottoman Empire, to which he would next direct his energies and hopes.

In this exhibition

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