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Voguish these days for weddings, Chiswick’s Thames-side parish church has seen its share of august burials. So its large graveyard, a stone’s throw from the howl of the Great West Road, is just the place for a thoughtful stroll. Painters are prominent: Hogarth, De Loutherbourg and Whistler all have striking monuments. Less noticed is a granite table tomb cast into insignificance by two scruffy evergreens, its railings plundered for war scrap. It commemorates the Italian poet Ugo Foscolo, buried here in 1827 at the age of fifty.

Foscolo’s tomb is a cenotaph. ‘From the sacred guardianship of Chiswick to the honours of Santa Croce in Florence the Government and People of Italy have transported the remains of the wearied Citizen Poet 7th June 1871,’ reads the fulsome inscription. ‘This spot where for forty-four years the Relics of Ugo Foscolo Reposed in honoured Custody will be for ever held in grateful Remembrance by the Italian Nation.’ No clue, though, as to why one of the great Romantic poets once lay in a suburban London churchyard.

There are other puzzles. Why, if the monument was raised after Italian unification, does another inscription say it was restored in 1861? The Buildings of England ascribes it to Queen Victoria’s favourite sculptor, Marochetti, but there is no sculpture to it, and Marochetti died in 1867. As for those undisciplined evergreens, neither bush nor tree, bickering and collapsing shapelessly into one another, were they really cypresses, deformed from their true Italian straightness and nobility? The church was open but the verger could not tell me: ‘To me a tree is just a tree.’

Chaotic in life, in verse Foscolo was a perfectionist. Just once did his talents as poet, scholar and controversialist come together to create a finished masterpiece: Dei sepolcri, published 200 years ago, in 1807. The Sepolcri is perhaps the greatest middle-length poem in Italian. It blends scorn, idealism and melancholy with a high-flown Neoclassical diction altogether Foscolo’s own. It is not an easy work. Its close-packed, learned allusions make it practically untranslatable. But for those who can grapple with it, the Sepolcri resonates with Miltonic anger and grandeur.

The poem’s topic is the commemoration of the dead, more seriously treated in English graveyards, Foscolo claims in passing, than in the new mega-cemeteries decreed for Italians by Napoleonic law. When he wrote that, he had not yet visited this country. His notions about its burial customs drew heavily on Young’s Night Thoughts and Gray’s Elegy, poems then honoured in Italy. That Foscolo himself should end up in an English churchyard would have seemed absurd in 1807. Yet the seed that led him to an impoverished death in Chiswick had already germinated.

Foscolo was always something of an outsider. He was born in 1778 to an Italian father and Greek mother on Zakinthos (then Zante), a Venetian outpost. When he was fifteen his widowed mother moved to Venice, where he turned out a precocious young poet, headstrong in love and politics. Like many Italians, he was thrilled by the liberties that seemed to open up when the French invaded in 1797. Then Napoleon handed Venice back to the Austrians. The radical Foscolo shifted to Milan, mixing literature with soldiering for the short-lived Cisalpine Republic. His first and biggest hit was the Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis, a novel about hopeless love in the genre of Goethe’s Werther. It begins with an epigraph from Gray and ends in Romantic suicide.

There was, however, more to Foscolo than Jacopo Ortis portended, along with a reckless streak. Eager to join Napoleon’s army at Boulogne for the famous invasion of England that never took place, he arrived late in 1804, delayed by political intrigue. With little to do, he was dispatched on light duties around the local towns. Among his tasks was to look after some British internees who had been concentrated in Valenciennes after the Treaty of Amiens collapsed and the decisive phase of the Napoleonic Wars began. They included a couple (unmarried, it seems) and their teenage daughter. How they got stuck in France is unclear, and their identity is uncertain. But their names are usually given as George and Lady Mary Hamilton. The daughter appears to have been Sophia St John Hamilton.

Just then Foscolo was brushing up his English by reading Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, which he later translated into Italian. The Hamiltons’ dashing and accommodating captor, according to one account published under the pseudonym Captain Hughes, started reading Sterne and Petrarch with Sophia. Whether she knew she was pregnant before Foscolo returned to Italy is unknown, but they never met again. In due course the Hamiltons were released and the child was born. Foscolo never had another.

Back in Milan, he began Dei sepolcri. Above all it is a political and patriotic poem. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, how to commemorate the dead in a modern, secular state elicited a fervent debate, drawing in both art and politics. The Panthéon was being established in Paris, while in London St Paul’s was evolving into a Valhalla for fallen British war heroes. Italians, fragmented politically, started to view Santa Croce, resting place of such great Florentines as Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Galileo, in the same nationalistic light.

These were also the pioneering years of the cemetery movement. Emanating from Paris, its impulse was rational and sanitary. Church and churchyard burials were prohibited; citizens were to be interred in large, orderly, state-run cemeteries beyond the city walls, first and foremost among them Père Lachaise. There was plenty of ancient precedent for extra-mural burial. But when the policy was extended to the Napoleonic puppet Kingdom of Italy, in a decree handed down to Milan from Saint-Cloud, Foscolo was outraged. In his eyes the law symbolised creeping despotism and the imposition of a chilly, impious bureaucracy on Italian custom and affections.

Not that Foscolo was any kind of Christian. The famous opening of the Sepolcri turns a stock Romantic image into a cry of existential doubt. ‘Nell’ombra dei cipressi . . . Under the shade of cypresses, if urns are consoled by the grief of mourners, may the sleep of death be perhaps less harsh?’ The poem goes on to denounce the practice of burial in stinking churches, where venal priests terrify the credulous into paying for intercessionary prayers. Instead Foscolo conjures up an ideal of small-scale, shaded groves of commemoration close to home, where Roman-style families may repair with sweet-smelling spices and flowers to tend the urns and busts of the ancestors, heroes and poets they lament.

With such pietosa insània, he fancifully adds, British virgins honour the tombs of their mothers in suburban gardens. For good measure Foscolo throws in the story of Nelson, who had his coffin made from the mast of the vanquished Orient, sailed with it on the Victory and was escorted back in it after Trafalgar for solemn interment in St Paul’s. In the bleak, anonymous new cemeteries beyond human habitation, by contrast, rabid dogs would root up and mingle the bones of the virtuous with those of executed criminals. And much more to what might be preposterous effect, were it not for Foscolo’s compact and energetic language.

No doubt the Valenciennes episode had encouraged his anglophilia. Yet in the dust of controversy stirred up by the Sepolcri, Foscolo distanced himself from his English mentors. ‘Gray wrote as a philosopher,’ he explained,

the point of his elegy being the obscurity of life and the tranquillity of death, and so a country graveyard suffices him. The author considers sepolcri politically; his aim is to inspire Italians to the political emulation of other nations, who by their example honour the memory and the tombs of the great. Therefore he was obliged to venture further than Young, Hervey and Gray, and to preach the resurrection not of the body, but of virtue.

Foscolo never equalled the triumphs of Jacopo Ortis and the Sepolcri. There were too many love affairs with clever married women, too many literary quarrels, equally distracting. He also made the mistake of focusing on the stage, not his true métier. Then Napoleon fell and the repressive Austrians took over in Milan. Identified with the irredentist strain in Italian politics, he opted to leave. At that time there were few European havens for liberals. First he tried Switzerland; then impulsively he came to London, arriving in September 1816.

The strange story of Foscolo’s English decade has been told twice: in a book of impeccable grace, economy and scholarship, E.R. Vincent’s Ugo Foscolo: An Italian in Regency England (1953), and again in a confusingly embroidered account by Carlo Maria Franzero, A Life in Exile: Ugo Foscolo in London 1816-27 (1977). It is a tale in which credit is due to the poet’s many English hosts for generosity and forbearance. Foscolo also did his bit. He was industrious by nature and worked hard to earn himself a niche in London society and literature. His talents and erudition were vast, his talk was brilliant if hyperbolical, he could be a loyal friend, and his manners could be charming. But he was also vain, dogmatic, wanton, occasionally belligerent and always liable to abject self-pity.

Italian culture enjoyed wider prestige in the educated circles of the Regency period than it commands today. So Foscolo was welcomed and courted both as a creative writer – plenty of people, specially women, could and did read his work in the original – and as the highest authority on his country’s literature and history among the community of Italian exiles in London. He began by performing this role privately for the liberal Whigs of the Holland House circle, who took him up and set him on his feet. Soon enough Foscolo was writing long interpretative pieces often of great penetration, invariably edged with controversy, for the great magazines of the day, the Edinburgh Review, its Tory rival the Quarterly, and others. Most covered aspects of Italian literature from Cavalcanti to Foscolo’s own day, but several of the earlier essays were political. To produce them Foscolo relied on an assortment of ill-paid researchers, copyists and secretaries, for as a finicky stylist he never quite trusted his own very passable English.

There is no reason to suppose that Foscolo came to England in the first place in search of his child, or that he made contact with her immediately he arrived. But he probably knew something of Mary, as she had been named. During Foscolo’s first years in England she was living with her grandmother, Lady Mary Hamilton, as her own mother had managed to put the affair in Valenciennes behind her and find a husband. In 1821 Lady Mary died. Within a few months ‘little Mary’ had gone to live with Foscolo, bringing with her what appears to have been a not insubstantial sum of money. Romantically italianised as ‘Floriana’, Mary stuck with her father throughout his years of decline, always hazy in the background.

Foscolo seems to have seen in Floriana and her windfall the chance to establish himself in high, poetic style. He therefore built a house. According to Vincent, he may have wished to provide himself with a property qualification on which to base an application for naturalisation. If so, he was naive in the extreme, for the whole enterprise was based on a 21-year lease. So short a term would never have been recognised by the law, and couldn’t conceivably justify his scale of outlay. In the event the fantasy lasted less than three years.

As to the house, everything about it was ludicrous. Digamma Cottage – the name came from a polemical essay of Foscolo’s about an obsolete letter in the Greek alphabet – was a four-square, single-storey villa-bungalow on the banks of the Regent’s Canal in St John’s Wood. While it was being finished, Foscolo took a neighbouring cottage from the same builder. The transactions over the two houses landed him in complexities perfectly calculated to bring out all his instincts for invective and paranoia. But Digamma was his goal; ‘my home, my work-shop, my prison and my Champs-Elysées’, he told a correspondent. It was furnished, largely on credit, in tip-top Regency style and lavishly landscaped with trees, shrubs and plants, English and Italian. There was also, of course, a Sepolcri-style bust or urn, beneath which Foscolo hoped to be buried.

The human accoutrements of Digamma Cottage were no less aesthetic. Besides the poet himself there were three young female attendants, dressed for the part. One almost certainly was Mary/Floriana. The other two were sisters who turned out to be prostitutes, to Foscolo’s distress, and so had to go. They had assumed they were his harem, but that was not his style. Foscolo’s idealism was not of the Shelleyan type. It distressed him equally to see the Regent’s Canal at the bottom of his garden plied by uncouth coal barges instead of the Grecian craft of his imagination. For all his egotism and irresponsibility, he was never a typical ‘Italian villain’. Yet that is how the next English generation, more xenophobic, came to remember him. In The Woman in White, for instance, he is conjured up as the wicked Count Fosco of St John’s Wood. The travesty was probably relayed to Wilkie Collins by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose exiled father had met Foscolo once and did not get on with him at all.

By the spring of 1824, with Floriana’s inheritance spent and the tradesmen-creditors massing, Digamma had to be abandoned. After that Foscolo’s life descended into the ignominious ducking and weaving of the debtor, entailing short-term addresses and false identities. He worked on at his reviews and enjoyed some generosity from friends, but despite hopes of a university post it was now clear he could not fundamentally be helped. Ailing with dropsy, he made his last move in 1827 to Turnham Green. Here Foscolo’s tomb and its setting, so frequently reflected on, assumed reality at last. ‘If I do not recover,’ he wrote to a friend that April, ‘at least I shall be buried under a tree in that open and breezy graveyard situated on the banks of the Thames.’

A few months later, his wish came true. But only for 44 years. Then a unified Italy, recalling the lines from the Sepolcri about the inspiration to be had from the great Florentines buried in Santa Croce, took him off there, leaving a clumsy granite tomb in compensation. Taking Foscolo’s troubled career on balance, Chiswick was surely the fitter repository for the bones of one of the great Romantic outsiders. And yes, those neglected evergreens brooding over his memorial really are cypresses. Puzzling over my botanical problem, I took myself off to the municipal cafeteria in the grounds of Chiswick House nearby. There I chanced on a cheap guide to the trees, on sale among the plastic cups. Were there cypresses marked in the gardens? Indeed there were, and of two sorts, the Italian and the swamp cypress. Armed with leaf-specimens, not without having had a finger wagged at me by a dogwalker for despoiling trees, I returned to the tomb. The Italian fronds made a match.

‘Nell’ombra dei cipressi . . .’ Considering Foscolo’s crossed and exiled fate, perhaps it’s right that they do not rise bolt upright to the sky, as Italian cypresses ought. As for Floriana, after her father died in her arms she fades into obscurity.

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