That ancient journey still tells us about a “sublime” Calabria. Raffaele Gaetano’s beautiful volume on Edward Lear


By John

A journey made up of many journeys undertaken by the Calabrian scholar Raffaele Gaetano with the magnificent critical edition, richly illustrated, of Edward Lear’s «Journal of walking in Calabria» (Laruffa, translation by Giuseppe Isnardi). It was July 25, 1847 when the English artist and his pupil John Joshua Proby set sail from Messina to reach Reggio, the alpha and omega of their tour in Calabria.

In the text, after Gaetano’s extensive introductory essay, incisive and rigorous, we are given an all-round image not only of fascinating towns and villages, but also of the character, sometimes frivolous, of the host families, of bizarre characters such as the muleteer Ciccio, Baron Rivettini or Count Grillo, but above all the unmistakable sense of welcome that from that remote epic reaches up to the present day.

Gaetano, who is one of the greatest scholars of the English diarist and illustrator, contributed to the knowledge of Lear with a series of successful works. The new book unravels Learia’s universe in the light of an aesthetic category that was very popular in the Romantic era: the sublime. According to Gaetano, in fact, the entire Calabrian tour is marked by the obstinate search for harsh and wild landscape glimpses, which Lear fixes in the sketches no less than in his diary. For example, as he approached Santa Maria di Polsi, he noticed the thick vegetation “overhanging” the rocks. In Roccella, the palace of Baron Giuseppe Nanni appears to him to be located “on the extreme edge of a precipice overlooking the sea”. The gorge near Stilo is also described as “grandiose”. However, the place that most of all summarizes his sensitivity for the sublime is Pentedattilo: «Frightening stone spires are thrown into the air… In the cracks and ravines of the terrifying and wild pyramid the houses stand, almost stuck in place».

The entire work proceeds concentrically, then converging in its center represented by Lear’s “Newspaper”. There are four chapters in the introductory essay: in «Plots of a walking journey in Calabria in 1847» the stages of Learia’s tour are reconstructed; in «A traveling companion: John Joshua Proby», Gaetano gives the reader a portrait of Lear’s traveling companion, met during a stay in Rome, «a perfectly excellent companion»; then there is an examination of the sources used by the artist before embarking on the journey to the southern regions; finally a chapter of fundamental importance, dedicated to the figure of Giuseppe Isnardi (1886-1965), by far the best Italian translator of the Journals, capable of entering Lear’s soul and capturing his emotions.

A refined preparatory journey for the «Travel Journal», which reveals the taste of an era and also finds its destination in the unexplored and little-known Calabria of the mid-19th century. Even in this light, knowledge of the work proves precious since the tour, today retraced in part through the evocative “English Path”, has brought to light a land that until then had remained on the fringes of the interest of travelers of the Grand Tour. Here lies the preciousness of Lear’s work and of those who, like Raffaele Gaetano, propose his figure: rediscovering Calabria to restore value to what already appeared to the genuine eyes of a “foreigner” as a chest teeming with treasures .