Novelist Linda Lappin (Katherine’s Wish) wrote us this charming "postcard” from Rome she thought you might enjoy, about an old English poetry library once located in a remote Sardinian outpost. Posted here in full:
The Lost Library of Villa Webber: Postcard from the Maddalena Archipelago
For centuries, the “Grand Tour” brought writers and artists down across Northern Europe to Italy. Among the great writers inspired by Italian antiquities, art treasures, and landscape were Montaigne, Goethe, Sterne, Dickens, John Keats, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Edith Wharton. The itinerary of the Grand Tour touched the pulse points of Renaissance and Baroque culture: Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples—with a jaunt to the isle of Capri. Only the more adventurous headed farther south, or to the wilder islands.
Among those wilder, windswept isles is the Maddalena Archipelago, between Sardinia and Corsica. Sculpted in pink granite, these rough islands offered thrilling seascapes, choppy sailing, and few amenities. Yet, in the 19th century, this spot welcomed an odd assortment of errant Englishmen straying from the prescribed routes of the Grand Tour. Among them was Daniel Roberts, poet and navy man, companion at arms of Admiral Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar, intimate friend of Shelley and Byron. After leaving the navy, Roberts settled down in this forlorn oasis of goatherds and fishermen. Here, he could not only contemplate endless sunsets on the sea, but also, surprisingly, consult one of the best-stocked poetry libraries in the Mediterranean.
This library was housed in the Villa Webber and built by James Webber, a wealthy London hatter who came to La Maddalena in the 1850s. Webber’s serendipitous arrival evokes the plots of both The Tempest and Robinson Crusoe. En route from Australia to London, he was shipwrecked off La Maddalena. Once safely ashore, he fell into a deep sleep and found himself the next morning miraculously cured of all the ills, physical and moral, from which he had suffered for years. When his ship was repaired and ready to sail, he chose to stay behind.
Webber constructed a sumptuous villa in Moorish style on the cliffs facing Corsica. His pride were his art gallery—consisting of paintings of the Neapolitan school—and his poetry library, with hundreds of precious bound volumes by the great English, French, and Italian poets. The library soon became a local landmark. All travelers who dared make it down this far, such as the writer Speranza Von Schwartz, called on Webber at La Maddalena to spend a few hours in his library, while gale winds battered the windows. Webber was so protective of his books, he refused to let his servants touch them and insisted on dusting them himself. Yet he welcomed those who came to study in his library.
Many myths have sprung up about the mysterious hatter. Was he only an eccentric merchant, or perhaps a British spy? Upon his death, the artistic patrimony he collected was scattered and destroyed. The villa’s furnishings and paintings were carted away—and all the books were lost. Today, stripped of its contents, Villa Webber stands concealed behind thick tangles of prickly pear, off limits to visitors; a relic of a former time when travelers braved tempestuous seas for the pleasure of a good book of poetry.
[Selected readings from Katherine’s Wish are available from iTunes as a free podcast.]