Back in October, my class took a road trip to Boston. During the morning drive, our van wound through frosty hills and dewy horse pastures. After a while we ended up in the sleepy little village of Cherry Valley. Really, there wasn’t much to it; a single intersection adorned with decrepit buildings, a Civil War monument, and a modern-day Valero station. But as we crept through at twenty miles per hour, something caught my eye: a tiny front-gabled building with a large white sign above the door that said “Books.” In the bay window was a haphazard pile of books, both old and new. The display just looked kind of dirty. Was this shop even open anymore? For all I knew, it could have been abandoned for years. Before I could observe any more, our van had passed the building. I made a mental note of this place.
Last week I became restless. When this happens, I run away…temporarily. It was finally time to check out that little book shop in Cherry Valley. I made the drive within twenty minutes. The route was fresh in my mind, as I had just been to the Valero station on a previous Sunday (where some farmers heckled me and a new sales clerk made a mess of my credit card transaction – but that’s another story). At last, on this Wednesday of restlessness, the book shop was open. A historic marker outside said that the building was an old telegraph office. How quaint!
Upon entering, I met Toulouse-Lautrec.
All right, I’m being facetious, but the shop owner looked quite a bit like him. And oh, what a wonderful shop! Rows of long shelves made the building seem quite spacious from the inside. History compendiums, The Chicago World’s Fair, cookbooks…there were piles of dusty books everywhere, just how I like it. I spent almost two hours exploring and getting to know the shop owner; but in the end, I didn’t buy a single book. I bought art.
Meet Parisina. A poem bearing her name was written by Lord Byron and published in 1816. My 1835 engraving came from the book Finden’s Byron Beauties: Or, The Principal Female Characters in Lord Byron’s Poems. I’m guessing it was the 1836 edition. According to “Lautrec,” the book fell apart and the illustrations were too lovely to throw out with the rest of the pages. I bought the print at a discounted price and framed it a few days later. Antonio Frizzi chronicles the true story of Parisina in his 1791 book Memorie per la storia de Ferrara. Basically, Parisina was the wife of the Marquis of Este. She fell madly in love with the Marquis’s dashing young bastard son Hugo and pursued an incestuous relationship with him. When the Marquis found out, he had both Parisina and his son beheaded. A tragedy, to be sure.
My print of Parisina was published in London by Charles Tilt of Fleet Street. It was drawn by John William Wright, an English painter and illustrator. Wright was a member of the Old Watercolour Society. The engraving was done by William Henry Mote. Also an Englishman, Mote was well-known in his time as a portrait engraver. He became a member of the Royal Academy around the age of twenty-eight. While I have seen other copies of this engraving, I have never seen one hand colored. Such tedious attention to detail! I almost don’t believe this was done in watercolor. The scene depicts Parisina in a shady garden spot waiting for her lover to approach. Ironically, she appears rather pious, with hands folded and eyes gazing toward the heavens. Viewers would not suspect her of incest or adultery. From a distance, one could almost mistake her for the Virgin Mary. Clearly, Wright’s depiction is a result of Byron’s sympathetic attitude toward the tragedy. After all, Byron does not openly sentence Parisina to death in his rendition of the story. Instead, he idealizes the affair and likens it to the bloom of any socially acceptable love. A beautiful sham…and beautiful wall art, for that matter.