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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1184

Marbot opens with Sir Andrew Marbot, age twenty-four and on his second Grand Tour of the Continent, conversing in flawless German with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Not awed in the least by the elderly German poet, Andrew had made it his life’s work to conduct research into the inner lives of gifted artists and writers. He had spent the first nineteen years of his life on his family’s estates in the north of England, where he came to hate his father and love his mother with a passion that was later to become incestuous. A melancholic and pessimist, Marbot saw art as the only creative response to the otherwise senselessness of life. As much as he longed to be an artist, Marbot apparently had no artistic talent and remained a critical observer of painting, past and present, until his suicide in Italy in 1830.

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Marbot acquired his aesthetic interests from his maternal grandfather, Lord Claverton, a foreign diplomat who retired in 1797 to his estate, Redmond Manor, seventy miles from Marbot Hall. Catherine, Lord Claverton’s only child, was born in 1781, grew up in Italy, was converted with her parents to Catholicism in Rome in 1790, and was married to Sir Francis Marbot in 1799. Sir Francis, unlike his cosmopolitan and cultivated wife, was not intellectual and devoted himself instead to hunting, fishing, raising cattle, and looking after his holdings. The three months each summer that Lady Catherine would spend at Redmond Manor with her children (Andrew and his younger brother and sister, Matthew and Jane) but without her husband gave Andrew ample opportunity to acquaint himself with Lord Claverton’s collection of Venetian masters. Writers and artists were frequent guests at Redmond Manor, as was Father Gerard van Rossum, a Dutch priest who converted the Clavertons. He joined them in England and became the Marbot family chaplain and the children’s tutor. Father van Rossum, fluent in German and Italian and well-versed in literature, art, theology, and philosophy, was the boy’s only teacher and a very liberal and tolerant one.

Among his grandfather’s paintings, Tintoretto’s Origin of the Milky Way was particularly mysterious to the young Andrew. In it, Hercules sucks so strongly from Juno’s breast that a stream of milk shoots into the heavens, thereby creating the Milky Way. The five-year-old child asked his mother to explain the painting and, especially, to show him the parts of her body that corresponded to those of the naked Juno. She refused, but she held him in her arms in such a way that he might feel “this mysterious territory” with his body. In one of the first of the entries that became his secret diary, Marbot notes that this experience was his earliest, and most wonderful, conscious memory.

Marbot left on his first Grand Tour of the Continent in the spring of 1820, when he was nineteen. His mother accompanied him to London, where both stayed in her parents’ townhouse. It was here, shortly before his departure for the Continent, that the consummation of their forbidden love took place. This “unnameable deed” would shape Marbot’s emotional and intellectual development: “[W]ithout giving him a lasting and universal vision, it nonetheless [made] him look in all his future encounters for hidden or suppressed forces beneath the surface.” During his stay in London, he began to record these investigations into the deeper truths in art and the artists themselves in three leather-bound quarto volumes that he had made. His notes and observations, compiled by Father van Rossum under the assumed name of Gerald Ross, would eventually be published posthumously in England in 1834 under the title Art and Life. Father van Rossum, under the assumed name of Gerald Ross, was the compiler and editor. Marbot’s first Grand Tour, now in part an exercise in renunciation for both him and his mother, lasted two years. He traveled simply and lightly, first to Paris for several months, then on to Padua, Venice, Pisa, Siena, Urbino, and finally Florence. In August, 1822, he arrived in Florence, where he learned of his father’s death in the autumn.

Between the winter of 1822 and the spring of 1825, Marbot and Lady Catherine pursued their love without interruption, hindered only by the threat of discovery. Before their final separation, which had been planned all along, the lovers paid a final visit to Redmond Hall. In May, Marbot left for London, where he renounced his claim to both family estates. Lady Catherine returned to Marbot Hall in the fall and confessed the illicit affair to Father van Rossum, who with superhuman grace would remain her friend and supporter until her death in 1832. Before Marbot’s departure to Hamburg on June 23, he vigorously resumed his intellectual pursuits as compensation for the loss of his beloved.

Marbot spent the summer and fall in Germany and Switzerland. In Weimar, not only did he converse with Goethe, but he also had a brief affair with Goethe’s daughter-in-law, Ottilie, the first of three liaisons that he would have in the next five years. At some point during the fall, Marbot received a letter from Lady Catherine in which she told of her confession and Father van Rossum’s stern compassion. In October in Splugen, Switzerland, Marbot became very ill, probably with pneumonia, and was unable to cross the Splugen Pass into Italy until mid-November. Crossing the pass during a wild snowstorm seemed to him a purifying experience, “both link and dividing line between two sections of his life.” He would spend almost all of his remaining years in Italy, engrossed in his observation and criticism of art.

Marbot settled in Urbino, which provided for him sufficient cultural atmosphere and “a retreat from the world.” He rented a large house from a wealthy widower, Anna Maria Baiardi. It was she who was primarily responsible for keeping the memory of Marbot alive, for after his death, she sent all of his notes, letters, and papers to Lady Catherine, who in turn, after editing out intimacies, passed them on to Father van Rossum. In April of 1826, Marbot visited Rome for the first time and stayed on until November. There he had his second affair, with Teresa Guiccioli, a flamboyant woman with a penchant for Englishmen. Back in Urbino, he found the “calm and equilibrium” needed for his studies and fell in love with Anna Maria. He traveled only twice more, to Paris for two months in the fall of 1827 and to Rome in December, 1828, to visit the poet Giacomo Leopardi.

In his own house he was an affable host who welcomed guests and enjoyed the respect of the townspeople. Convinced of the futility of his research and lacking the artist’s creative solutions to life, he chose his “free death” (he abhorred the word suicide) in February, 1830, at a time “when he considered that the register of his receptivity and potentialities was exhausted and foresaw a future full of necessary repetition.” With the mystery of artistic inspiration still unsolved, his notebooks end with the question: “The artist plays on our soul, but who plays on the soul of the artist?”

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