Just back from Venice, where a surreal moment was provided by a group of Estonians in full art-folkloric fig in Campo S. Stefano, where presumably they had been singing and/or dancing on a temporary stage raised against the church wall. Him Indoors leapt into action with his camera, and shouted Estonian greetings, which appeared to be well received.
Another wonderful sighting was this Rosa banksiae in the courtyard of Università Ca’ Foscari.
But enough of my holiday snaps: today’s subject is the great work of Rawdon Brown (1806–83). Of independent means (he was related to the Lubbock family of bankers and scientists), he decided in his twenties to locate the grave of Thomas Mowbray, the banished duke of Norfolk in Shakespeare’s Richard II, and, as part of this quest, fetched up in Venice in 1833. He seems to have been instantly seduced, settled down, and in 1838 spent £480 on Ca’ Dario, the extraordinarily decorated palazzo at the end of the Grand Canal which is alleged to be accursed because of the unfortunate ends of some of its owners. (Though one of the stories produced in support of the curse is that Brown himself committed suicide in the building when driven into debt by his efforts to restore it – he didn’t, he just sold it four years later, and moved to apartments further up the canal.)
He hardly ever left Venice again – his friend Robert Browning wrote a comic poem about the time when Brown almost got away – and spent part of his time acting as a guide and advisor to British visitors, as did Thomas Trollope in Rome. He helped Ruskin with the research for The Stones of Venice, and remained his lifelong close friend, in spite of the great sympathy he expressed for Effie at the time of the annulment of the Ruskins’ marriage. But most of his energy went into exploring the riches of the Venetian State Archives, recently (in 1815) collected into the secularised cloister buildings of the enormous Franciscan church of the Frari (see below).
In 1854 he published a two-volume edition of the reports to the Senate of Sebastiano Giustinian, Venetian ambassador to the court of Henry VIII. This provided a new source of information on one of the most important periods in English history, and was enthusiastically received. Lord Palmerston (prime minister at the time) was persuaded by Sir Henry Layard, the father of Assyriology, politician, diplomat and lover of Venice, to commission Brown to edit those Venetian state papers that dealt with English history: he was paid £200 a year for his work. The rest of Brown’s life was spent on his Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts Relating to English Affairs Existing in the Archives and Collections of Venice, and in Other Libraries of Northern Italy (1864–81), of which he published six volumes; the seventh was completed in 1884 by his literary executor, George Cavendish-Bentinck.
The volumes cover the period from 1202 to 1580, and the first document in Volume 1 is a sidelight on history which means more in hindsight than it probably did at the time: Count Baldwin of Flanders (based on the island of St Erasmo, today the market-garden of Venice) promises to repay a loan to four Venetian noblemen, and agrees to have goods sequestered if he fails to make the payment. Two years later, following the sack of Constantinople, Baldwin was made the first Latin emperor, after the leader of the Venetian force, the blind and ninety-year-old Doge of Venice, had declined the throne. The last entry in the seventh volume is a 1580 report on the life and troubles of Mary Queen of Scots, ‘with the hope of the liberation of the Queen, and the re-introduction of the Catholic religion’.
The nine books (Volume 6 is split into three parts) cover everything from high politics to trade and finance to court gossip. In the long preface to the first volume (which is well worth reading as a summary of the history of English contacts with Venice), Brown explains the nature of the Venetian archives, their extent, the state of preservation of the documents (including their period of exile as plunder during the Napoleonic wars), the historical context, and the purposes for which they were written, and provides much fascinating detail about the materials of commerce with England – fabrics, especially cotton and silk, spices, elephants’ tusks, ambergris and coral, books, paper and glass… He provides lists of diplomatic agents of the Venetian Republic to the English and Scottish crowns, and vice versa. He also mentions the circumstances of Thomas Mowbray’s death and burial – the quest which had originally brought him to Venice – and describes in triumph how he eventually found the gravestone and had it sent back to England.
It would be interesting to know whether Brown was inspired by the labours of Eugenio Albèri – it is surely impossible that they did not meet each other regularly in the 298 rooms of the Archive or in the Biblioteca Marciana. But Brown’s great work in selecting, editing and translating over 8,000 documents is worthy to stand alongside the Rolls Series as an example of the nineteenth-century British government’s enlightened attitude to scholarship – as well, of course, as being a monument to the man himself more widely known than his gravestone on San Michele.
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