In a letter to his father sent from Florence in September 1826, the 22-year-old Benjamin Disraeli proudly recounts his visit to Tasso’s prison cell in Ferrara, where he marvelled at Byron’s name – “here scratched with a great nail on the brick wall”. In his 1837 novel Venetia, Disraeli’s complex biofictional engagement with his Romantic literary heroes, Marmion Herbert, a curious fictional amalgam of Byron and Shelley, becomes the lucky master of Petrarch’s house at Arquâ and gives orders “that his absence should never deprive a pilgrim from paying his homage to the shrine of genius”. This ‘shrine’ is clearly on the map of the early-nineteenth-century tourist trail of literary celebrity, visited by Herbert’s estranged wife, Lady Annabel, and their daughter, the eponymous heroine, who – like Byron when he visited Tasso’s prison cell and Petrarch’s tomb – can’t resist the urge to leave her own mark: “I must write my name in Petrarch’s house”.
Disraeli’s fantasy of literary pilgrimage pays tribute to the auratic appeal of physical spaces, laying bare the thin line between the extraordinary and the ordinary. They promise privileged access to an individual’s ‘real’, ‘private’ self, the cradle of ‘genius’ and artistic creation, across temporal and spatial distance, tricking us into an illusion of getting closer to the bodies, and therefore the historical ‘truth’ of our subjects. There lies a central ambiguity in the fact that the houses of famous individuals promise access and intimacy, while at the same time they are part the public sphere, ‘homes and haunts’ eagerly sought out by scholars and tourists. They promise authenticity, while at the same time they present a specific version of a life, shaped by socio-political agendas and notions of creating and preserving cultural memory; a version sometimes uneasily positioned between commemoration and commodification.
“Lives of Houses” will explore new ways of thinking about the intersections of biography, material culture, and notions of fame and celebrity. It aims to encourage a dialogue between academics, biographers, curators, and audiences who study, tell, and productively consume the stories of famous or obscure lives through a variety of different media. Questions to be addressed include: Whose life gets commemorated through physical spaces? How do we recover marginal voices? Who are the agents involved in shaping these narratives and what are the media they avail themselves of? What is the balance between historical accuracy and imaginative reconstruction? What is shown, what is concealed? What survives and what is lost, and how do biographers, scholars, curators deal with the challenges posed by presences and absences? How do scholars write their own experience of their subjects’ private space into their work?
The day’s programme features a keynote lecture by Daisy Hay; a roundtable discussion on “Presenting Houses” with Nino Strachey, Serena Dyer, and Alexandra Harris; a panel on “Writers’ Houses” with papers by Alexandra Harris, Frankie Kubicki, and Nicola Watson; and a panel dedicated to “Musicians’ and Architects’ Houses” with papers by Gillian Darley, Lucy Walker and James Grasby.
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