IN THE MIDDLE of the eighteenth century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu offered a typically biting description of the young men on the Grand Tour, men who kept ‘an inviolable fidelity to the language their nurses taught them’, embarked on adventures like ‘ the important conquest of some waiting gentlewoman of an opera queen’ and thought of little else but dressing well for the coffee-houses. Venice had already become a tourist trap, from which life’s grimmer side was banished. A Board of Health tried to ensure that neither the city’s cisterns nor its prostitutes should be a health hazard to visitors. Even the instruments of torture, Christopher Hibbert tells us, ‘were now retained largely as interesting – and, being Venetian, characteristically elegant – curiosities; while the Inquisitors’ famous poison had not been used for many years’.
Byron’s ‘fairy city of the heart’ is a difficult place to pin down. Nothing ever seems quite real. Even the Battle of Lepanto, the great naval victory over the Ottoman Turks in 1571, was instantly turned into an annual procession and a ceiling painting by Veronese. People invariably went to the opera in the evenings, but a knowing English visitor once remarked that ‘It would not only be the most fruitless, but the most vulgar thing in the world, to attempt listening’. And Byron himself spent his time learning Armenian from a monk and allowing ‘fathers and mothers to bargain with him for their daughters’ (in the words of Shelley, who commented that ‘for an Englishman to encourage such sickening vice is a melancholy thing’).