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Symonds, John Addington

Date born:1840

Place born: Bristol, United Kingdom

Date died: 1893

Place died: Rome, Italy

Author of a popular renaissance history and an influential Michelangelo biography; early gay studies writer.  Symonds was the son of John Addington Symonds, M.D., (1807-1871) a socially prominent British physician and Harriet Sykes (1808/9–1844).  After his mother's death he was raised by a strict aunt.  His father instilled in him a love for Greek and Italian art, who himself studied these humanities two hours daily.  Symonds entered the Harrow School in 1854, where his homosexual awakening led to a relationship with a fellow student, Willie Dyer, in 1858. Symonds entered Balliol College, Oxford, in 1858, meeting there the classicists Benjamin Jowett (1817–93) and John Conington (1825–69). Like Jowett, Symonds became a master at an Oxford collection, Magdalen, for the1862–3 year.  There, his essay "The Renaissance" won the Chancellor's Prize.  When Symonds fell ill with a variety of illnesses, including an eye inflammation, a diagnosis of sexual repression was made; the cure prescribed, ironically was marriage.  More physical and mental illnesses ensued, including pulmonary disease.  Symonds made an extended trip to Belgium, Germany, Austria, France, Italy between 1860 to 1863 to to recover his health.  In Switzerland he met another British subject, Janet Catherine North (1837–1913), sister of the botanical artist Marianne North (1830–1890), whom he married in 1864. Symonds entered law school in 1865 but was diagnosed with tuberculosis (and another nervous breakdown) in 1868.  He secured a position lecturing on Greek art at Clifton College in 1869 and began another affair with Clifton student Norman Moor, whom he took to Italy and Switzerland. He also lectured in art at Society for Higher Education for Women.  Sketches in Italy and Greece (1874) and the first volume of his history of the Italian renaissance, Renaissance in Italy: the Age of the Despots (1875) appeared in succession.  His father died in 1871 and the Symonds, now in control of his family fortune in rail investments, moved to the manner.  The second and third volumes of his renaissance history, The Revival of Learning, and The Fine Arts both appeared in 1877. In 1877, too, Symonds set out for Egypt but got only as far as Davos, Switzerland.  In 1881 be built a permanent home there, Am Hof. In Davos he met among others Robert Louis Stevenson also convalescing from tuberculosis.  During spring and fall, Symonds and his family spent in Venice at Ca' Torresella owned by Horatio Forbes Brown (1854–1926).  In 1881 he met a gondolier, Angelo Fusato (1857–1923) who became his final life partner, though Angelo, with Symonds' help, married the woman who had borne Fusato two sons. In 1883, Symonds published the first history of homosexuality in English, Problem in Greek Ethics, written in 1873. His translation of Michelangelo's poetry, The Sonnets of Michael Angelo Buonarroti appeared in 1878.  At the suggestion of his publisher, John C. Nimmo, he translated The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, published in 1888. A collection of essays, Essays: Speculative and Suggestive (1890), included "On the Application of Evolutionary Principles to Art and Literature," a discussion of biological and cultural evolutionary stages of birth, acme and decline. Another Symonds's essay "Landscape" traced the subject from the Classical to the baroque.  His own biography A Problem in Modern Ethics appeared in 1891 as well as articles on renaissance figures for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The success of the Cellini biography lead Nimmo publishers to commission a biography of Michelangelo.  Symonds spent months sifting through the Florentine archives in order to write his Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, which appeared shortly before his death. The same year he commission Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) to co-write a book on "Sexual inversion" (homosexuality) in 1892. While lecturing in Rome in April 1893 he caught pneumonia and died. He is buried in the protestant cemetery in Roma near Shelley's grave.  Ellis and Symond's investigation of homosexuality first appeared in German as Das konträre Geschlechtsgefühl in 1896 and then in English as Sexual Inversion (1897), though suppressed.  It was reissued as Studies in the Psychology of Sex, volume one, Sexual Inversion now only with Ellis' name, at the insistence of Brown.  Symonds' children included the later nursing pioneer Dame Katharine Furse (1875-1952).

Symonds' biography of Michelangelo was widely read at the time; it immediately superseded the other early documentary biography of the artist by Hermann Grimm (q.v.), also available in English.  Symonds revealed in his Michelangelo biography that the Buonarroti archives altered the artist's poems and letters in their publication to hide his homosexuality.  Symonds' translation of both Michelangelo's sonnets and Cellini's autobiography are his most durable works.  Much of his writing, as in The Age of the Despots, belies a Hegelian conception of history.  The volume on The Fine Arts praises renaissance painting but disparages its architecture as remaining medieval in spirit. To Symonds, renaissance painting harmonized pagan and Christian traditions, emphasizing the humanity of both spiritual beliefs. Symonds' renaissance, siding with Jacob Burckhardt (q.v.), emphasized the secular nature over Christian superstition.  This set him at odds with the other popular prevailing notion, that of John Ruskin (q.v.) and the idea of Christian progress.  Implicit in Symonds' particular history of art is the notion of sexual liberation (Norton).  Symonds' initial posthumous reputation was clouded by the biography written of him by Brown likely rendered unrecognizable by Edmund Gosse.  Further damage was done when the London Library, who inherited Symonds' personal papers, burned everything except the Brown biography, under orders of Gosse and Charles Hagberg Wright, the librarian. 

Home Country: United Kingdom

Sources: Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, p. 146 mentioned; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971,p. 91; Norton, Rictor. "Symonds, John Addington." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Gilbert, Creighton E.  "Introduction." The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti: Based on Studies in the Archives of the Buonarroti Family at Florence.  Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002, pp. ix-xxv; Grosskurth,  Phyllis, ed.  Symonds, John Addington. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds. New York: Random House, 1984.

Bibliography: Renaissance in Italy. 7 vols. London: Smith, Elder, 1875-86; Essays Speculative and Suggestive. 2 vols.  London: Chapman and Hall, limited, 1890; Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti: Based on Studies in the Archives of the Buonarroti Family in Florence. 2 vols.  London: J. C. Nimmo, 1892; The Life of Benvenuto Cellini. 2 vols. London: John C. Nimmo, 1888.