Today on the K-SAA Blog we are thrilled to present this post by Professor Nora Crook reporting from the Mary Shelley conference in Carrara last month.
Between Roots and Routes: il viaggio, la politica, l’Italia.
Carrara, Accademia di Belle Arti, 29–30 October, 2018
Florence, Rome, Venice, Pisa, Bologna, and Naples are acknowledged hubs of Romantic period Anglo-Italianism. Might Carrara be added to the list? This small, friendly conference, curated by the Accademia, Carrara’s famous art school, and the Open Centre of Carrara, set out to explore the question. Carrara, celebrated for its marble for over two millennia, was on the route of most early touristic nineteenth-century guidebooks. The Shelleys and Claire Clairmont actually visited Carrara in September 1821. Percy Shelley went again with Jane Williams less than two months before drowning. Did they visit the Accademia, our conference venue? Maybe.
We met in a chamber lined with life-size plaster casts of antique sculptures, perhaps the very ones noted in the above-mentioned guidebooks. The audience, mostly Italian speaking, included high-school students.
The conference, opened by the joint convenors, Luciano Massari (Director, the Accademia), and Maria Mattei (Director, Open Centre), was dedicated to Charles Robinson, whose genial spirit presided over us. As one of Charlie’s many correspondents, Mattei spoke warmly and movingly of his encouragement and inspiration.
Next was unveiled a striking three-quarter length terracotta of Mary Shelley by the sculptor Alessandro Cacciotti, a former Accademia student. Mary Shelley’s resolute, undaunted expression was not only a comment on a colossal plaster cast of Hercules looming above, but also an embodiment of the conference motto, spoken originally by Frankenstein’s Creature.
The conference was interdisciplinary, with literary criticism, biography, feminism, art, and local history conversing with each other. Papers in English had been translated by Sonia Pendola, a Carrara language coach, with passages of English and Italian read alternately. The procedure worked very well.
Elizabetta Marino (U of Rome Tor Vergata) documented, in a compendious overview, how untypical Mary Shelley was of the British lady tourist in her understanding of and emotional commitment to Italy. Professor Lilla Crisafulli (U of Bologna), doyenne of Anglo-Italian Romantic studies, detailed the figuration of the Risorgimento in the British collective imagination, and the role of travel narratives, such as those of Lady Morgan and Mary Shelley, in informing the British public of the complexity of Italian culture and politics.
Other papers engaged with particular aspects of Liguria’s cultural legacy. Maria Mattei’s “Elizabeth Lavenza, ou de l’Italie” proposed what, for me, is the first convincing answer to a question that has baffled everyone confronting it: why is Frankenstein’s Elizabeth Lavenza called Lavenza? It satisfyingly linked the Geneva of 1816 with the modern Avenza (formerly Lavenza) in Massa Carrara. The local historian Pietro di Piero’s “Elizabeth Frances Batty e la fortezza di Lavenza” revealed tantalizing connections between Lavenza and the Shelleys’ circle. Batty made an artistic Grand Tour of Italy in 1817. Among her paintings, engraved and published in 1820, was the Castle of Lavenza, once possessed by Castruccio Castracani, hero-villain of Mary Shelley’s 1823 Italian historical novel, Valperga. Batty’s physician father owned Lawrence’s drawing of Godwin at the 1794 Treason Trials and gave a lock of Milton’s hair to Leigh Hunt.
My paper, “Geologia e statuaria negli scritti di Mary Shelley,” examined pervasive references to geology, Italian stone, marble, and statuary in Mary Shelley’s writings, from her repeated citation of Wollstonecraft’s metaphor for mountain ranges (“bones of the world”) to the symbolism of marble within Valperga and The Last Man. Valperga and art informed the paper of Carla Sanguineti, President of “Amiche e Amici di Mary Shelley,” who examined the iconography of the novel, detailing the workings of Mary Shelley’s visual and conceptual imagination, and her likely use of written descriptions of paintings. Geology figured in the paper of Miranda Seymour (U of Nottingham), biographer of Mary Shelley and now of Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, which foregrounded the role of women in science and mathematics during the 1830s and 40s. Did Mary and Ada ever meet? Both frequented London scientific circles; both were friends of Charlotte Murchison, wife of the famous geologist, Roderick Murchison, herself a geologist.
The tempestuous Ada was not the only “ribelle” at the conference. As Mariella Zoppi, (Professor Emeritus, U of Florence) explained, the neoclassical temple of Minerva Medica at Montefoscoli, commissioned by the Shelleys’ freethinking doctor Andrea Vaccà of Pisa in memory of his father, and executed (1823) by the radical architect, Ridolfo Castinelli, is a coded political reassertion of subversive Enlightenment values. Carrara has a live tradition of philosophical anarchism. Gualtiero Magnani (Accademia Aruntica di Carrara) related how, in 1907, Ceccardo Ceccardi, the anarchist poet, and an establishment figure competed acerbically for the privilege of wording the plaque to honor Shelley in San Terenzo, Lerici. Ceccardi won. His lyrical tribute is on the façade of Shelley’s last home, the Villa Magni.
Returning us to Frankenstein, James Grande (Kings College, U of London) posed the question: How can we know, in the absence of all but a few written accounts, how Frankenstein was read by its first contemporary English readers? We can, he argued, at least recreate contexts: polar exploration, popular unrest, and the bad weather that dogged the Shelley’s Geneva summer of 1816, which lasted until June 1818. Unluckily bad weather became a context for the conference too; wind and floods forced some conferenciers to leave early as terrible cyclonic winds lashed Italy.
Other features included a tribute to Andrea Dazzi, whose renowned sculptor grandfather was born in Carrara, and to the late Cristina Dazzi, discoverer of Mary Shelley’s story “Maurice.” There was a showing of the 1997 film Conceiving Ada, a visit to an Accademia classroom, where we saw students from many nations practicing anatomical drawing from actual skeletons and plaster casts of half-flayed cadavers, as in the nineteenth century, and a visit to a quarry.
Those fortunate enough to be able to stay on were treated to a visit to a historic cafe, with terracotta bas-reliefs designed by Thorwaldsen on the façade, and the marvellous studio of the Michelangelo Cave, where we met the owner, Signor Franco Barattini, a conference sponsor. Skilled craftsmen polished limbs of deities with fine sandpaper. You saw, as you might have in 1818, reproductions of the Discobolos in the finest white statuary marble, or a group of footballers struggling like the Laocoon.
So, may Carrara be considered a Romantic hub? Definitely! There are plans to publish the conference proceedings and to found an association.
– Nora Crook, Professor Emerita, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.