Sunday, February 17, 2008

Horatio and the Gondolier


No, not some new naval fiction about Horatio Hornblower, or worse, Horatio Nelson engaged in some nefarious Venetian goings on... rather, another of my research interests, Horatio F. Brown. Unlike a great many other of the gay Victorian/Edwardian, literary figures that I look into from time to time, HFB very much had a life outside his poetic musings about pretty young men. In fact, there was only one book of such poetry and, although it's not easy to be clear exactly how much, he disassociated himself from it. To the public at large HFB was much better known at the time as 'our man in Venice' and wrote a number of very popular books about Venetian people, history and customs. In his historical writing he can be as dry as the rest of them, but when he sets his mind to describing the wonders of Venice for a more popular audience, he writes some quite beautiful prose.

His best friend John Addington Symonds always hoped - and nudged, nagged and encouraged HFB to this end - that HFB would one day write a serious piece of Venetian history, something solid and massive which could become a standard work. But although he wrote a large number of books on Venice in his lifetime, and although he would have been more than capable of such a magnum opus, HFB prefered to write in the shorter format of essays, or to translate the work of others or to work as an editor of archives. This is, I think, to our benefit. There is no doubt that if HFB had given in to the pressure we might have been richer by a large and insightful scholarly book but we would have lost a great deal of quite beautiful and much more accesible prose about Venice.
Given just how cagey HFB was about his sexuality, it seems odd, perhaps just a symptom of the times, that he felt he could dedicate his first book Life on the Lagoons:

"To my Gondolier, Antonio Salin, my constant companion in Venice and Venetia"

So constant in fact that HFB eventually moved Salin and his family into a mezzanine level of his own house in Venice. And just in case the 'sensitive' reader should be in any doubt whatever how HFB felt about Salin, there is a wondeful passage in the book where HFB describes being invited to dine chez Salin.

"I found the door, and at the top of the little staircase there was Antonio, his head fresh from a basin of water, all his masses of hair tossed back and dripping, like Bacchus stepped from Tintoret's loveliest picture, or Saint George with never a dragon left to conquer; a black and white flannel shirt, a blue sash round his waist, a towel in both hands, and his eyes laughing out as he gives the last scrub to his face"

Who knew eh?

What is particularly intriguing of the photo which appears alongside this portion of the text which is captioned simply 'bathing'. It looks very like the kind of photo that might have been taken by Frederick Rolfe, who did know HFB a little during Rolfe's time in Venice, but sadly for Corvine photo hunters, the first edition of Life on the Lagoons was published too early for this to be a lost Rolfe photo.


HFB's relationship with Salin was a long one and the drawing at the head of this post, although I have yet to identify the artist, was used as the frontispiece to HFB's In and Around Venice.

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