Mask of Byron Displays New Face

05 Ottobre 2004

A WAX carnival mask worn by Lord Byron at the height of the great poet's passionate affair with a young Italian countess in the early 19th century goes on display in Rome today after a delicate restoration.

The mask, worn by Byron at a Ravenna carnival in 1820, was given to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House 40 years ago. But Catherine Payling, 33, director of the museum, said she was shocked by its deterioration when taking over 15 months ago.

The Keats-Shelley house, next to the Spanish Steps, where Keats died in 1821, contains memorabilia associated with Keats, Shelley and Byron, all of whom lived in Italy at the height of the Romantic movement.

Byron had left England in 1816 after a series of affairs and a disastrous year-long marriage, to join a brilliant group of English literary exiles that included Shelley and his wife, Mary. In the spring of 1819, Byron met Countess Teresa Guiccioli, who was only 20 and had been married for a year to a rich and eccentric Ravenna aristocrat three times her age.

The encounter, he said later, "changed my life", and from then on he confined himself to "only the strictest adultery". Byron gave up "light philandering" to live with Teresa, first in the Palazzo Guiccioli in Ravenna - conducting the affair under the nose of the count - and then in Pisa after the countess had obtained a separation by papal decree.

In his letters to John Murray, his publisher, Byron said that carnivals and balls were "the best thing about Ravenna, when everybody runs mad for six weeks", and described wearing the mask - which originally sported a thick beard - to accompany the countess to the carnival.

A document at the Keats-Shelley house authenticating the Ravenna mask records that Byron wore it several times during the carnival. Written in 1865 by Giovanni Ghinaglia, the maker of the mask - by then 81 - and witnessed by the Mayor of Ravenna, the document testifies that Byron paid a louis d'or (a French gold coin) for two wax masks, one for himself and one for the countess. "The mask now lacks almost all the beard and hair, and the right ear is missing, partly because of the time which has elapsed since it was made, but also because nobody has cared for it," Signor Ghinaglia wrote.

The grotesque mask, which Ms Payling believes was meant to represent "a ruffian, perhaps a pirate", has been restored by Sergio Angelucci, one of Europe's leading wax restorers, who has also restored reliquaries damaged at Assisi during last September's earthquake.

Ms Payling said the fragile mask would be displayed under a perspex dome to protect it from the dust and air. The mask was donated to the Keats-Shelley Museum in 1957 by Lady Clarke, wife of the then British Ambassador to Italy, Sir Ashley Clarke, and now President of Venice in Peril.

[From Richard Owen, featured in The Times 20/7/98]