In the streets of early twentieth-century Venice, the city so marvellously described by Thomas Mann in one of his best novels, a strange Englishman in his fifties wandered. The man seemed to be the personification of the city: in the elegantly cut clothes, now worn and torn, there was the mark of an ancient glory that had given way to neglect. He posed as a wealthy dandy with a cigarette between his lips, pince-nez and old silver rings on his fingers, but there was not a penny in his pockets. It was said that he was a writer, but hardly anyone had ever read a book by him. He lived on expedients and the incipient baldness contributed to giving his figure a modest tone. The little money that his friends generously lent him was quickly spent so that many nights he was forced to sleep in a filthy gondola. Loneliness and sadness, he knew well, would soon bring him to an end.
The life of the writer Frederick Rolfe (1860-1913) – known by the nom de plume Baron Corvo – is summed up in a tragedy of the abject and the sublime, a spectacle of human frailty set in the sparkling fin de siècle, between Catholicism and the low recesses of vice.
Rolfe never abandoned that Catholic Faith to which he had converted at the age of twenty-six. Perhaps, at least in the beginning, it was only a superficial infatuation, nurtured by his love of Latin and the liturgy, but soon, whatever the initial religious sentiment, it was stabilized in a deep devotion.
On the other hand, his public behaviour repeatedly provokes scandal and reproof. Homosexual and reactionary, he combined excesses with a difficult character, bordering on paranoia, which naturally led to obstinacy, ingratitude and arrogance. He had friends, but with one exception several of them were with him for only a short time. He surprisingly managed to antagonize mild men, such as Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson, not to mention the numerous benefactors who never saw their generosity returned except with insults and cowardly attacks. When he tried to become a priest – which happened immediately after his conversion – he suffered the shame of being removed from two seminaries. Naturally Rolfe interpreted the circumstances as a personal affront, an injustice perpetrated against a weak novice who, in reality, must have seemed rather capricious to his superiors, in his unwillingness to apply himself diligently to his studies.
The same disordered passion that characterized his moral conduct is also found in his career as an artist. He first tried the path of painting, then that of photography, and finally settled on literature. In the late nineteenth century he made his debut with some short stories in the pages of the “Yellow Book”, the literary periodical which was symbolic of English decadence. He then wrote essays and novels which, with the partial exception of Hadrian the Seventh (1904), the story of an obscure scholar who becomes Pope, met with little success with the public and critics. Their commercial failure produced in Rolfe the feeling of being the victim of a universal conspiracy against him, so his relations with publishers and collaborators inevitably ended in accusations, outbursts and quarrels.
Perennial vagabond, he was always traveling between England, Scotland, Wales and Italy, without a stable job and almost completely without economic support; and in the last years of his life, depressed and disheartened, he was reduced to begging. The clumsy attempts to regain a shattered social credibility were useless: in order to raise some money, he shamelessly resorted to claiming that the pseudonym of Baron Corvo was an authentic noble title. Alone and despised by everyone, he dragged himself along until his death in Venice, a year before the outbreak of the Great War.