Lord Charlemont's Dante and Irish Culture: A Whig Interpretation of Dante at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Charting the revival of Dante’s fortunes in the English-speaking world, Frances Yates argued many years ago that the eighteenth-century British imagination was captivated by the figure of Ugolino imprisoned in the Torre della Fame.1 She accounts for this fascination on grounds of pathos and changing political values, and she dwells at some length on Sir Joshua Reynolds’s painting of the Ugolino episode, Ugolino and his Cchildren (1773), which hangs in Knole Park, Kent, drawing out subtle pathetic and political nuances. Yates emphasizses the sectarian and political overtones of eighteenth-century Dante readings, which saw in the actions of Archbishop Ruggiero—, – ‘Pisa’s perfidious Prelate’ in Thomas Gray’s version (mid- century, but not published until 1884)— – priestly persecution of the noble Earl Ugolino, and the spectre of Stuart absolutism which had been defeated by the Glorious Revolution, or as she puts it pithily, ‘Dante, the Protestant, has developed into Dante the Whig’.2 Yates’s analysis is supplemented by her note of James Northcote’s recollection that it was probably Edmund Burke (or possibly William Goldsmith) who suggested the subject to Reynolds, though she demonstrates quite conclusively that Jonathan Richardson’s Discourse on the Dignity, Certainly, Pleasure and Advantage of the Science of a Connoisseur (1719) was Reynolds’s most important source.3 Northcote’s pairing of Burke and Goldsmith in relation to Reynolds and Dante is peculiarly apposite, as the two Irish intellectuals and the painter were all friends of James Caulfeild (1728–99), first Earl of Charlemont, statesman, connoisseur, and the man who justly may be regarded as the first English-speaking Dante scholar. His claim to that honour rests on a 1,400–page manuscript history of Italian poetry, on which he worked for the last fifteen years of his life, which was long thought to be lost.4 Charlemont had been instrumental in establishing the first two chairs in Modern Languages in the British Isles, and in the following pages I will contend that his book attempts to set out the canon for students of Italian literature at the turn of the nineteenth century, from the perspective of an Anglo-Irish Protestant Whig aristocracy. One- quarter of his manuscript is dedicated to Dante, providing both translation and interpretation, and thus making a claim for Dante’s central relevance which was far from being taken for granted in the eighteenth century, whether in Italy itself or abroad.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDante in the Long Nineteenth Century
Subtitle of host publicationNationality, Identity, and Appropriation
EditorsAida Audeh, Nick Havely
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages344
ISBN (Electronic)9780191739095
ISBN (Print)9780199584628
Publication statusPublished - 15 May 2012


  • Dante
  • Irish culture
  • Italian catholic poet
  • Italian literature
  • Lord Charlemont
  • Protestant canon
  • Whig politics


Dive into the research topics of 'Lord Charlemont's Dante and Irish Culture: A Whig Interpretation of Dante at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this