This is the fourteenth instalment of a tour through the Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron published between 1832 and 1834. Here we turn to plate eleven which continues our journey eastwards across the Mediterranean.
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Continuing eastwards on the packet ship Townshend across the Mediterranean from Cagliari in Sardinia, Byron’s next port of call was at Agrigento on Sicily’s south coast. They set sail about midnight on Sunday 27 August and after two full days out of sight of land awoke on Wednesday off the coast of Sicily.
Byron’s travelling companion John Cam Hobhouse recorded in his journal.: Wednesday August 30th 1809: At sea – view all day of the coast of Sicily, full of villages, and detached houses, with cultivated spots besides vestiges of large castles on the peaks of high hills. Sciacca, near the ancient Selimontia, a pretty town, apparently like Brighton. As we approach to Girgenti the country more barren, but two green spots towards the shore. Saw, with the glass, ruins of a temple, columns &c., under the city (the ancient Agrigentum on a hill). Landed at the port on the mole, about half-past seven. Nobody but Byron and myself, obstantibus omnibus [i.e. getting in everyone’s way] allowed to go in the boat. Went to the Captain of the Port, living in a large desolate house, who was dressed in a sky-blue coat with a gold epaulette, and who could not spell “Townshend.” Delivered the mail, and returned with a fine breeze to the packet.’
Another of Byron’s companions on the voyage, John Galt recorded that the day was enjoyed by all: ‘Byron, during the.. day, as we were sailing along the picturesque shores of Sicily, was in the highest spirits overflowing with glee, and sparkling with quaint sentences. The champagne was uncorked and in the finest condition.
This fleeting evening trip ashore to deliver the post seems to represent the sum total of Byron’s association with Sicily. Of Etna, there is but a couple of fleeting references in his entire oeuvre, and neither suggest any personal observation.
So what is this subject that Byron never saw or discussed? No-one involved with the Illustrations project seems to have known, other than it being a view of ‘Mount Aetna’. William Brockedon in writing the commentaries for the bound edition of the plates had no idea, and was forced to waffle about whether Byron might just possibly have seen Etna – from a ship perhaps, on the distant horizon when sailing from Malta to Greece – padded out with some early travellers’ accounts.
And nor does anyone ever seem to have taken the slightest interest since. It’s been a continual amazement to me to witness how little most people seem to care about such issues in their pictures. The question here, then, is just the kind of Quixotic windmill that Sublimesites.co was set up to tilt at.
I started by searching for ancient bridges within sight of Etna. The only one that presented itself was the ‘Saracens’ Bridge’ just north of Adrano on the western slopes. Although this is similar to that pictured in the engraving, and may be coupled with a distant view of Etna, it is not the same. The key difference is that the Saracens’ Bridge has a pointed rather than a rounded main arch.
The Ponte de Saraceni spans the Simeto river which drains the west and south slopes. An alternative river to follow might be the Alcantara which drains the north. Searching for possibilities there, I came across an 1835 engraving for sale on Ebay that shows exactly the same bridge as our Byron engraving, complete with Etna smoking in the background.
This print is titled ‘Pont sur la Cantara’, based on a drawing by Charles Caius Renoux (1795-1846) and was published as plate 17 of Voyage Pittoresque en Sicile in Paris 1822-26.
The bridge is identical, and shown in the same relation to Etna, but the profile of Etna differs. That in the Renoux engraving appears entirely consistent with the profile as seen from the north, with the distinctive long eastward slope descending to the sea. This might require a different story, but I have spent several pleasant days enjoying just that profile from a balcony in Taormina.
Presuming the bridge to be Roman, the most likely area would then be where the first major Roman road in the area, the Via Consolare Valeria crossed the Alcantara River.
At the end of the third century B.C. Consol Marco Valerio Levino, Roman Governor of Sicily began a programme of road building around Sicily to provide an alternative to ships and boats.
The crossing point is just west of the ancient Greek city of Naxos, and searching on Google Earth,
I found, just below the modern Via Consolare, the remains of an ancient bridge, and across the river the looming profile of Etna. I have yet to confirm when the old bridge disappeared. It would be wonderful if it survived into the age of photography, but I did enjoy the discovery that when the Arabs arrived in the area they found a Roman bridge still standing, and so the name Alcantara is of Arabic origin (القنطرة, al-Qanṭarah, ‘the Arch’) and refers to a bridge from Roman times found by the Arabs.
The original watercolour is untraced, but was supplied by William Purser (1785-1856). He contributed a total of nine subjects to the Illustrations, mostly Mediterranean, plus one Swiss and another Scottish. The British Museum’s website tells us that he travelled around Italy and Greece 1817-20 and during the 1820s and 1830s also travelled in the Near East.
The composition does not, however, seem to have been based on his own observations. Later copies of the print add to the credit line; ‘from a sketch by T.Little, Esq’. Thomas Little, we might observe, was the pseudonym used by Thomas Moore – the author of the very same Life of Byron to which this was made as an illustration – in the first public outing of his youthful poetry..
This is difficult to construe, but Purser might have wanted to distance himself from any potential criticism of his representation of Etna. The Redoux engraving is entirely in keeping with a location near the ancient city of Naxos. The details of Etna in the present plate are not at all consistent with the location of the bridge, and one wonders whether Purser simply combined the best of a couple of plates from the Voyages Pittoresque.
A view of the northern aspect of Etna from the same series, for example, is a lot closer to the form shown in Purser’s composition.
The connection with Byron might be tenuous, but the same is true of quite a number of the subjects in the Illustrations. Rather than just serve Byron, however, the intention appears to have been to unfold a panorama of a Byronic Europe. An expanse of heightened experience, of more vivid being, of wider possibilities.
And the contemporary reader would certainly have seen such significance in this plate. Active volcanoes were not to be found around Bath or Cheltenham or Harrogate, not even in the Lakes or the Welsh mountains or Scottish Highlands. Here in Etna natural forces were visibly still creating and shaping the world. Britain by comparison was a thoroughly humanised country, covered over by fast-road carriageways, canals, and since 1830, the first passenger railway – the Liverpool and Manchester.
Here, by contrast, is a landscape in which time and nature hold sway. Since the building of the Roman road, nothing, except the distant mountain gaining a few feet in height, appears to have changed. The bridge has sufficed for the best part of two thousand years. Here, the picture argues, Europe offers something timeless; a stunning alternative to the bustling quotidian.
Today the site is entirely consumed by the chaos of its changing times. The Alcantara is crossed immediately upstream by a new road bridge, itself undergoing some improvements to judge from the clutter around it in Google Earth’s image. A short distance upstream of that is the railway bridge, and a short distance above that, a four- lane motorway bridge, although that appears already in need of some serious maintenance.
The approach road to the old Roman bridge on the east side is occupied by a makeshift yard next to a car-breaker’s. Nowhere could be more illustrative of how grimly manic can be the face of modern economic development. Sadly, now, all too much of the world wears the same expression. So ubiquitous, indeed, as to hardly register on our consciousness. Thankfully there are pockets to which we cling to console ourselves, but so much of the unkempt, denatured, artificial or merely blank, to pass through in order to get there.
Next: Onwards to Malta