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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

II. French and Italian Hours

9. The Aspern Papers: From Florence to an Intertextual City, Venice

Rosella Mamoli Zorzi

Texte intégral

1It is a well-known fact that James heard the ’germ’ of the story developed in The Aspern Papers in Florence:

Hamilton (V.L.’s brother) told me a curious thing of a Capt. [Edward] Silsbee—the Boston art critic and Shelley-worshipper; that is of a curious adventure if his. Miss Claremont, Byron’s ci-devant mistress (the mother of Allegra) was living, until lately, here in Florence, at a great age, 80 or thereabouts, and with her lived her niece, a younger Miss Claremont—of about 50. Silsbee knew that they had interesting papers—letters of Shelley’s and Byron’s—he had known it for a long time and cherished the idea of getting hold of them. To this end he laid the plan of going to lodge with the Misses Claremont […]
(Florence, 12 January 1887, Notebooks 33).

2It is also common knowledge that James presented some reasons for his transposition of the story from Florence to Venice in the Preface to The Aspern Papers: ”Delicacy had demanded, I felt, that my appropriation of the Florentine legend should purge it, first of all, of references too obvious; so that, to begin with, I shifted the scene of the adventure” (Henry James: Literary Criticism II 1179).

  • 1 See Giorgio Melchiori’s questioning of these passages in ”Henry James: Burbank or Bleistein,” in H (...)

3These are of course quite acceptable reasons, but one wonders if there may be less obvious reasons behind the change in the setting,1 that is if in addition to fairly evident historical reasons, the traditional literary image of Venice as the city of beauty and intrigue may have acted on James’s imagination.

4As the anecdote referred to the letters of Byron and Shelley preserved by Miss Claremont, it could be considered equally appropriate that the story should be set in Venice, since Byron had lived in Venice from 1816 to 1819. James also specified: ”Juliana, as I saw her, was thinkable only in Byronic and more or less immediately post-Byronic Italy;” (1179). James was well aware of the haunting presence of the memory of Byron in the city, as he wrote in his essay ”The Grand Canal”:

There are persons who hold this long, gay, shabby spotty perspective, in which, with its immense field of confused reflections, the houses have infinite variety, the dullest expanse in Venice. It was not dull, we imagine, for Lord Byron, who lived in the midmost of the three Mocenigo palaces, where the writing table is still shown at which he gave rein to his passions
(Italian Hours [1992] 48; Mamoli Zorzi, In Venice 43).

5The literary presence of Byron is part of James’s perception of the city when mentioning the Mocenigo palaces. The mention of Byron’s presumed writing desk underlines Byron’s activity as a poet, but the reference ”it was not dull” might hint at Byron’s sexual encounters, displayed and celebrated by Byron himself in his letters.

6The presence of Browning, mentioned in the same essay, shows James’s awareness of the presence of another poet in the city:

Those who have a kindness for Venetian gossip like to remember that it [Palazzo Montecuccoli] was once for a few months the property of Robert Browning, who, however, never lived in it, and who died in the splendid Rezzonico, the residence of his son […]
(Italian Hours [1992] 42)

7Byron, for his life in Venice, for his famous Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, for his Ode on Venice, for his vision of a decayed and fallen Venice, more than for the humorous, 18th-century vision of the city in his Beppo, is on one hand the obvious reason for James’s transposition of the story from Florence to Venice, and on the other the first stitch in the tissue of transtextuality regarding the representation of Venice which I will try to illustrate.

  • 2 Although this refers to the Northern side of the lagoon, the narrator has come back from the Lido (...)

8As regards the actual letters mentioned in Florence (Shelley and Byron’s), Shelley is also important, not so much for his horseback riding on the Lido with Byron as for his Venetian lines in Lines Written among the Euganean Hills and Julian and Maddalo. In James’s early story ”Travelling Companions” the sunset described by the narrator returning from the Lido with Miss Evans [”the lagoon is sheeted with a carpet of fire” (Complete Stories 524)] evokes quite closely the sky ”roofed with clouds of rich emblazonry, /Dark purple at the zenith” and the ”lake of fire” of the lagoon, in Shelley’s Julian and Maddalo (327). Sunsets are amply present in The Aspern Papers: the lagoon is ”aglow with the sunset,”2 Juliana exhorts Tina to go out with the narrator: ”He will show you the famous sunsets […]” (232), and Colleoni continues to look ”at the red immersion of another day” (295). The lexicon is, however, different. Perhaps Shelley’s fire may be seen as turning into the fire of the burning of the letters. Shelley’s famous portrait by Amelia Curran has been seen as the source of Aspern’s portrait (Hoeveler ”Romancing Venice”155).

9With Byron, Shelley, and Browning, we start seeing a ’Venetian’ literary network, to which Ruskin’s Stones of Venice is an essential addition, a literary network that has been studied by several scholars, such as Leon Edel, Marilla Battilana, Tony Tanner, John Pemble, Adeline R. Tintner, Manfred Pfister, and others.

  • 3 On Ruskin and James see Clegg (1981, 1987) and Follini (2008).

10If no specific and explicit references to Ruskin3 seem to appear in The Aspern Papers, Ruskin’s observations on the dilapidated exteriors and interiors, echoed in Sargent’s paintings of bare halls used for low purposes, all infuse in the description of the Misses Bordereau’s empty sala (Mamoli Zorzi, ” ’A Knock-down Insolence of Talent” 152-55), ”in a sequestered and dilapidated old palace” (163):

It [the sala] had a gloomy grandeur, but owed its character almost all to its noble shape and to the fine architectural doors, as high as those of grand frontages, which, leading into the various rooms, repeated themselves on either sides at intervals. They were surmounted with old, faded, painted escutcheons, and here and there in the spaces between them hung brown pictures, which I noted as speciously bad, in battered and tarnished frames […] (176).

11To Byron, ”Otway, Radcliffe, Schiller, Shakespeare’s art/ Had stamp’d” the image of Venice in him (”Her Image in Me,” Canto IV, XVIII, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage). For Byron, then, four authors come into the picture in creating an imaginary Venice, one known before going there: Thomas Otway, the author of Venice Preserved (1680); Ann Radcliffe, the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), which presents an imaginary, melancholy Venice; Shakespeare; and Schiller.

12Of Schiller’s novel Byron also wrote, in a letter to Murray (April 2, 1817), as follows:

Schiller’s Armenian, a novel which took a great hold of me when I was a boy. It is also called The Ghost Seer, and I never walked down St. Mark’s by moonlight without thinking of it, and ’at nine o’ clock he died’
(A Self-Portrait II 405).

  • 4 Washington Irving also happened to quote this phrase in a story—again of mystery and intrigue—part (...)

13Schiller’s unfinished novel, The Visionary (Der Geisterseher 1788-89) was a very popular text in the 19th-century, with its protagonist haunted in the Piazza San Marco by a mysterious stranger (the ”Armenian”), who announces a death that will actually take place (”at nine o’ clock he died”).4 This was a Gothic novel, similar in a way to Brockden Brown’s novels, for the principle of the ”explained supernatural.” The evocation of the spirits of the dead, for instance, is first represented in all its romantic terror, but then explained through the presence of such devices as a magic lantern, stones falling down to cause noise, etc. The novel, however, seems to have impressed its readers above all for the phrase quoted above.

14James was well aware of the existence of Schiller’s novel, which is explicitly mentioned in the Venetian pages in William Wetmore Story and his Friends (1903). After quoting a long letter on ”black” Venice by William Wetmore Story, James added: ”He [Story] ends his throbbing day by the inevitable evening in the Piazza, thronged and brilliantly lighted, and remembers Schiller’s ’Geisterseher’” (I 190).

15In William Wetmore Story and His Friends, James foregrounded Story’s black vision of Venice, taking his distance from it: this was at a later date than The Aspern Papers, but James’s insistence in quoting passages by Story on the Venice of the Inquisition and the Venice of crime and deceit shows his awareness of this representation: ”Before me”—wrote Story, later quoted by James—”the dagger of the cloaked bravo or of the jealous husband gleams, and I hear the splash of the body as it falls into the dark canal” (194).

  • 5 Of course one can refer to many other texts. In James Fenimore Cooper’s The Bravo (1831), a warnin (...)

16James was certainly aware of this 19th-century literary tradition in the representation of Venice, some examples of which we have just seen.5

17The perception of places by James was always heavily filtered, as one may well expect, by his readings: London is seen very much through the lens of Dickens; Tour, Touraine, and Paris, through the lens of Balzac; Florence through that of President des Brosses, etc.; Venice through Shakespeare, Schiller, Byron, Shelley, Browning, and Ruskin.

18For Venice, James himself recognised the innumerable representations— literary and visual—which conditioned a traveller’s perception of the city, representations that even allowed the traveller to imagine the city without going there. James himself reminds us of this in the well-known opening paragraph of his 1882 essay on Venice:

Venice has been painted and described many thousands of times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there. Open the first book and you will find a rhapsody about it; step into the first picture-dealer’s and you will find three or four high-coloured ’views’ of it
(Italian Hours [1992] 1).

  • 6 To the literary lens, one should of course add the ’visual’ lens, just as important in James: his (...)
  • 7 Hayez also painted some famous pictures such as The Revenge of a Rival (Venezia nell’Ottocento 244 (...)

19What could these paintings have been?6 Of course some ”perfidious Canalettos,” of which Britain was so rich, contribute, however, to the ”glorious” view of Venice that goes together with the negative representation we are focusing on. But, also, in addition to the glorious Venetian paintings where the city was represented in its splendor (Titian, Veronese), James must have been necessarily aware of some of the most popular paintings underlining the black myth of Venice, such as William Etty’s The Bridge of Sighs. This was perhaps the most famous 19th-century representation of the black legend, illustrating, in a night scene, in the canal of the Bridge of Sighs, the action of two men loading onto a boat a man’s corpse, to be taken out and thrown into the lagoon. James, a great esteemer of Delacroix, might have known this painter’s The Execution of the Doge Marin Faliero (Venezia nell’Ottocento, 149, no. 179), again recalling Byron and the black legend.7

20There were also innumerable prints and etchings illustrating both the romantic and the negative view of Venice: an example could be the collection of etchings printed in Legends of Venice by J. R. Herbert Esq. (1840) (The Fatal Curiosity, 246; Aloisi Sanuto and the Ambassador’s daughter, 247; The Elopement of Bianca Capello, 248; Lady Viola, 249) illustrating such subjects as ”Marin Faliero Imprecating Vengeance on his Wife’s Traducer,” ”The Doge Foscari Pronouncing Sentence of Exile upon his Son,” subjects obviously made popular by Byron’s dramas. Any image of a lover serenading his sweetheart on a balcony, of a romantic elopement, of heroic deeds, can be seen as a background to which The Aspern Papers offers an ironic commentary.

21These paintings and prints were the popular, and widely-circulating, visual translations of the black myth of Venice, which started, for the English-speaking world, together with the myth of beauty, in the Elizabethan time, and was present of course also in Shakespeare. Echoes of Shakespeare’s Othello and The Merchant of Venice, but also of Macbeth, have been identified in the revisions of The Aspern Papers by Philip Horne (Horne Revision 265-68), the most relevant among them, for our purpose, being the narrator’s ”super subtle inference” in front of the secretary containing the letters, recalling the ”super-subtle Venetian” (Othello Act I Scene III, 357 in Horne Revision 281).

22The 19th century representations of Venice had deep roots further back in time: I would like to refer more explicitly to three texts: Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller, or the Life of Jack Wilton (1594); Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster (1570, published posthumously); and Coryat’s Crudities (1611).

23In Nashe’s book, a young lord, who has swapped clothes with his servant, arrives in Venice and is taken to the house of Tabitha, a courtesan. Dressed as a servant, he soon learns that Tabitha and her friend Petro de Campo Frego want him to kill his master: ”stab, poison, or shoot him through with a pistol, all is one; into the vault he shall be thrown when the deed is done” (301).

24This hyperbolic choice of possibilities does not take anything away from the real intention of the courtesan, who also wants to get rid of the young gentleman’s servant later on. The plotting is eventually unsuccessful.

25It is interesting to observe that Tabitha’s house appears as a ”saint’s” house, with its ”books, pictures, beads (i.e., rosaries), crucifixes” (300) spread all around, even near the bed on which she exercises her profession. The reference to these objects of religion is an obvious hint at Roman Catholic depravity.

26In Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster, ”Papistrie” is quite evidently the cause of corruption. The ”schoolmaster” writes:

I was in Italy my selfe: but I thank God, my abode there was but IX. dayes: And yet I sawe in that little tyme, in one Citie (Venice), more libertie to sinne, than euer I hard tell of in our noble citie of London in IX. Yeare. I sawe, it was there, as free to sinne, not onelie without all punishment, but also without any mans marking, as it is free in the citie of London, to chose, without all blame, whether a man lusts to weare Shoo or pantocle. And good cause why: For being unlike in troth of Religion, they must nedes be unlike in honestie of living (234).

27The duplicity of the attraction of Venice, with its sexual dangers and its plots of murder, is present in these Elizabethan texts, where one can clearly see the protestant suspicion as regards a Roman Catholic, and therefore corrupt, country, in the presence of the misleading rosaries and crucifixes, covering up the activity of a prostitute.

28A slightly later book, Thomas Coryat’s very famous Crudities Hastily Gobbled up in Five Months Travel (1611), celebrates the wealth and beauty of the Republic, its magnificent ”milk-white palaces” that ”stand very near the water,” the new Rialto bridge (whose cost Coryat annotates, to show the wealth of the city); all this beauty ”did even amaze or ravish my senses” (314). Senses are always alerted in Venice, and the visitor should be careful, as

the boatmen […] are the most vicious and licentious varlets about all the City. For if a stranger entereth into one of their Gondolas, and doth not presently tell them whither he will goe, they will incontinently carry him of their owne accord to a religious house forsooth, where his plumes shall be well pulled before he commeth forth again (…). Therefore I counsaile all my countrimen whatsoever, Gentlemen or others that determine hereafter to see Venice, to beware of the Circaean cups, and the Syrens melody, I meane these seducing and tempting Gondoleers of the Rialto bridge, least they afterward cry Peccavi when it is too late
(Coryat I 311).

29The ”religious house” to which the ”diabolical” gondoliers will take the British gentlemen is of course the house of a courtesan, similar to Tabitha’s, the trap of a Roman Catholic country.

30Coryat goes on to describe the courtesans, and only after fascinating his reader with a detailed and enchanted descriptions of their charm does he warn him about the dangers of the place:

For thou shalt see her decked with many chaines of gold and orient pearle like a second Cleopatra, (but they are very little) divers gold rings beautified with diamonds and other costly stones, jewels in both her eares of great worth. A gowne of damaske (I speake this of the nobler Cortizans) either decked with a deep gold fringe […] or laced with five or sixe gold laces each two inches broade. Her petticoate of red chamlet edged with gold fringe, stockings of carnasion silke, her breath and her whole body, the more to enamour thee, most fragrantly perfumed (I 404-05).

31Having seduced his reader, Coryat adds that the courtesan ”will either cause thy throate to be cut by her Ruffiano, […] or procure thee to be arrested […] and clapped up in prison” (I 405-06), if the customer does not pay up. The house of Coryat’s courtesan also has a sacred image:

And amongst other amiable ornaments she will shew thee one thing only in her chamber tending to mortification, a matter strange amongst so many irritamenta malorum; even the picture of our Lady by her bedde side, with Christ in her armes, placed withing a cristall glasse (I 405).

32The negative myths of Venice that we find in Nashe, Ascham, and Coryat, Papistry being the cause of all this sexual license, crime, and dissimulation, can be found in many other British writers. Ben Jonson chose a Venetian setting for his play Volpone or the Fox (1606), to stage a warning against plots in England.

33Other authors could come into the picture, such as Voltaire, with his Venetian pages in Candide, George Sand, with her Venetian novels, ”her masterpiece Consuelo” (Sand 707), La Dernière Aldini (explicitly quoted in ”Travelling Companions,” 514), Léone Léoni (Sand 719) or Henri de Reigner and Hyppolite Taine: but what interests us here is the Protestant British tradition.

  • 8 Goldoni was added in the New York Edition (Horne Revision 279).

34One could also mention the ”queer rococo Venice of Goldoni and Casanova,”8 of which Miss Tina’s ”tone, hadn’t it been so decent, would have seemed to carry one back” (The Aspern Papers 220). We have here a macrosystem of representation, whose single items were not necessarily known in detail.

35My suggestion is that the transposition of the intrigues and plotting of The Aspern Papers must be read also against a longer literary background: ”plot” and ”conspiracy” are keywords in The Aspern Papers (268). The ”palpable imaginable visitable past” for James is also the centuries-long literary reading and rendering of a city. James of course, as any great writer, refined and changed this representation: there is no explicit stiletto or poison to further the drama, but the scene is filled with the representation of an explicit psychological war, which takes place in a labyrinthine Venice, an apt stage for the psychological drama. The actors are different, as are the means of the plotting, but the stage and its atmosphere of intrigue, reflected in the topography of the city, are the same.

36This literary image of Venice seems to have stayed with James even in his late novels. If Tabitha the courtesan is defined as ”a temptress,” the art of writing, for Morton Densher, who will never actually write a word, is, in The Wings of the Dove, ”a temptress by Titian,” as is Kate Croy (”he brought out the beauty of the chance for him—there before him a temptress painted by Titian—to do a little quiet writing,” [1965] 352).

37The sensuality of Venetian painting, amply underlined by James in his comments on Veronese’s Europa, chimes in with the representation of the alluring Venice as a city of corruption and intrigue, re-appropriated by James in The Aspern Papers. Here sensuality could only have belonged to the past, in Juliana’s relation with Jeffrey Aspern. It does not belong to the present, and any offer of sexual relation, which is not so alluring, is to be rejected: the passion is all for the papers.

38The background of intrigue is still there, present through the transtextual relations with the works of the past.


1 See Giorgio Melchiori’s questioning of these passages in ”Henry James: Burbank or Bleistein,” in Henry James e Venezia, pp. 9-10, where the answer is found in James’s appreciation of Venice as ”a place of the mind” by 1888. See also Giuliano Gramigna, pp. 111-112, on the ”sedimentazione più intensa, e per così dire più disperata, di passato,” and on the theatrical quality of the city.

2 Although this refers to the Northern side of the lagoon, the narrator has come back from the Lido (like Shelley); the contiguity of the passage might suggest an influence.

3 On Ruskin and James see Clegg (1981, 1987) and Follini (2008).

4 Washington Irving also happened to quote this phrase in a story—again of mystery and intrigue—partly set in Venice, The Adventure of the Mysterious Stranger (1824). Poe’s tale, The Visionary (1833, published 1834), which is set in Venice, echoed Schiller’s title, before it was changed to The Assignation. See Mamoli Zorzi ”The Text is the City” (1990), for this and references to other authors.

5 Of course one can refer to many other texts. In James Fenimore Cooper’s The Bravo (1831), a warning against corruption aimed at the USA, Venice is again the city of intrigue and plotting. Cooper placed a quotation at the beginning of each chapter of his novel: several of these are drawn from two unavoidable texts, Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Canto IV) and the tragedy Marin Faliero. One must also remember that the black legend of Venice was intensified by such interpretations of her history as the post-Napoleon Histoire de la Republique de Venise by Daru (1819, explicitly mentioned by Cooper as one of his sources). See Mamoli Zorzi, ”Intertextual Venice,” 225-36.

6 To the literary lens, one should of course add the ’visual’ lens, just as important in James: his perception of Florence, for instance, was surely influenced by the Thomas Cole painting of Florence ”which covered half a side” of the Jameses’ New York ”front-parlour” (Autobiography [1983] 153), the Campagna is seen through Claude Lorraine (”A months’ rides in different directions will show you a dozen prime Claudes.” ”Roman Rides,” Italian Hours [1992] 149). For the hidden presence of Giorgione in The Aspern Papers, see O’ Gorman.

7 Hayez also painted some famous pictures such as The Revenge of a Rival (Venezia nell’Ottocento 244), the Last adieu of Doge Francesco Foscari, painted also by Grigoletti (243). One can also mention Meissonnier’s The Bravos (1852), so popular as a subject in the tableaux vivants of British and American expatriates in Venice in the 1880’s.

8 Goldoni was added in the New York Edition (Horne Revision 279).


Rosella Mamoli Zorzi is professor of American Studies and Director of the Graduate School in Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Venice. She has worked on the relationships between American writers and Venetian painters (Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo). Her works include In Venice and in the Veneto with Henry James (2005), Henry James: Letters from the Palazzo Barbaro (1998), Beloved Boy: Letters to Hendrick Andersen (2004) and Letters to Isabella Stewart Gardner (2009).


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