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by Gianluca Isaia

30 NOV 2015

The Volcano Lover - Part 2

by Gianluca Isaia

Eighteenth century Naples was a vibrant cosmopolitan city and prime destination of Grand Tours. It was among the European capitals celebrated for their exceptional cultural ferment, for the opulence of their aristocracy, and for their fabulous musical production. Everyone came to Naples and inevitably ended up in the salons of the Cappella Vecchia residence where Hamilton, who bought the museum owned by the Count of Pianura and accumulated a huge collection of ancient vases that mostly ended up in the British Museum, also sold antiques. Goethe made mention this activity in his journal during his first trip to Italy in 1787, when he visited the cellars of the palazzo filled with objects and finds of mysterious origin. In September 1791, Sir William, who had been a widower for nine years, made a rash decision, returning to London and marrying Emma Lyon, an attractive adventuress with a much talked-about and scandalous past who was the former lover of his nephew Charles Francis Greville, who had her portrayed several times by his friend George Romney. Hamilton was sixty years old and Emma, immediately called by the Neapolitans "Emma Liona", was just twenty-six. The couple, which was prominent in the Capital of the Two Sicilies, entertained frequently. Emma, the daughter of a poor blacksmith of Cheshire and a former prostitute, became a close friend of Queen Maria Caroline, the wife of Ferdinand I, on whom she would had a terrible influence during the bloody repression following the end of the Neapolitan Republic in 1799.



Emma devoted her time to what she called "attitudes": living tableaus of poses, dances and choreography in ancient costumes, interpreting Cleopatra or Medea, for example. These performances, which celebrated her beauty and grace, made her famous. In 1793 Emma Hamilton met Admiral Horatio Nelson, the heroic sailor who – missing an eye, almost all his teeth, and an arm, prematurely aged, wracked by violent bouts of coughing and covered with scars – became her lover five years later, creating, practically with the approval of her husband, one of the most famous threesomes of history. "Meglio tené 'e corne che na croce," [Better to be cuckolded than dead] Hamilton probably thought, accepting and even encouraging the irresistible passion that erupted between the two. And so it was, until the end.

In 1800 the trio moved to England, inaugurating a perfect living arrangement amidst the morbid curiosity of the media and the nation's respect for a hero of the seas.

As in Naples, at the height of her success, she seduced everyone, imposing fashions and headdresses and launching home décor, floral arrangements, and table settings. But destiny was waiting to pounce. "Quanno 'a furmicola vó murí mètte ´e scélle" [When the ant dies, it grows wings] ...If the debut of the bold and passionate Emma's love triangle took place at a party for 1,800 offered in honor of Nelson, the victor of the naval battle on the Nile in 1798, the epilog was very sad and melancholic after both the men in her life died. Emma, who also had a daughter from Nelson who she named Horatia, died destitute in Calais in 1815 after spending time in debtors' jail: far from her Neapolitan glory, ruined by gambling and her expensive habits, an alcoholic forgotten by all.