The Venice Letters

The Gay Love Letters of F. W. Rolfe, Baron Corvo

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.


Frederick William Rolfe (1860–1913), self-styled Baron Corvo, was expelled from a Roman Catholic seminary in 1887 only nine months after entering it. He left England for Italy, where he discovered the source of his inspiration and future work, in the Alban Hills and a young peasant named Toto. His "Stories Toto Told Me" were published in the notorious Yellow Book in 1895. But he never earned much from writing, and always struggled to make ends meet as a tutor, painter, photographer, and journalist. His most famous novel is Hadrian the Seventh (1904), in which he imagines himself as the Pope, which D. H. Lawrence called "the book of a man demon, not a mere poseur". His Venetian novel The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, which he finished during the course of the letters printed here, is based upon his motto "He who desires must pursue his desire though the whole world obstructs him." Corvo remained in Venice after a holiday in 1908 rather than return to England and the struggle to earn money by writing. Thrown out of his hotel when it was apparent the arrears would never be cleared up, he lived as a tramp in borrowed shelter, and even briefly as a freelance gondolier. "But I am not humbled, nor will be. Better by far to wear ruin as a diadem." He quarrelled with all his friends in England, who dropped him one by one, and with the English colony in Venice. He was befriended by Charles Masson Fox (1866–1935), an Anglican clergyman and timber merchant from Falmouth, Cornwall, while on holiday in Venice. Fox gave him so much money that Rolfe set himself up in a Renaissance palazzo on the Grand Canal, with his bedroom hung in scarlet brocade. He had a private boat manned by four gondoliers, in which he reclined in the stern on a leopard skin – John Cowper Powys recalled in his autobiography that this "floating equipage . . . resembled the barge of Cleopatra". But all the money was squandered within a year, and the following letters are remarkable record of his relationship with his benefactor. Rolfe and Fox were never lovers – they both preferred boys – and the correspondence constitutes a kind of mutual masturbation. Corvo expected Fox to obtain a vicarious pleasure from learning how he spent his patron's money on handsome young stevedores: "I gave [poor dear Piero] five francs from you and took him to a trattoria and filled him with polenta and wine." The two men exchanged photographs of their boys, sometimes nude. The last few pathetic letters record the increasing number of rats (more than 61) Corvo has drowned in the slop bucket in his increasingly squalid lodgings, where he came down with bronchitis and pneumonia. Rolfe wanted Fox, or someone secured through Fox, to become his "financial partner", to send him a regular monthly income and a large loan to pay off his debts, in expectation of being repaid from royalties on his unfinished books, which the patron would arrange to publish. In return, Corvo would pimp for Fox: "If this thing comes off and I get clear and some money in my pocket to play with I shall take a month's holiday and bring Peter and Carlo to England and live at an hotel at Falmouth where I can return your hospitality in a way which would enchant you." But their correspondence ended on August 21, 1910, Fox's charity having apparently ceased just as Rolfe predicted it would, and Rolfe, physically worn out by his poverty, died in 1913. Fox successfully brought an action for blackmail against a woman who threatened to reveal that he had seduced her son; he died a bachelor in 1935.


FREDERICK ROLFE, BARON CORVO TO CHARLES MASSON FOX

[Late November 1909]

To-day I have had adventures. . . . A Sicilian ship was lying alongside the quay and armies of lusty youths were dancing down long long planks with sacks on their shoulders which they delivered in a warehouse ashore. The air was filled with a cloud of fine white floury dust from the sacks which powdered the complexions of their carriers most deliciously and the fragrance of it was simply heavenly. As I stopped to look a minute one of the carriers attracted my notice. They were all half naked and sweating. I looked a second time as his face seemed familiar. He was running up a plank. And he also turned to look at me. Seeing my gaze he made me a sign for a cigarette. I grabbed at my pockets but hadn't got one; and shook my head. He ran on into the ship. I ran off to the nearest baccy shop and came back with a packet of cigs and a box of matches to wait at the foot of his plank. Presently he came down the plank dancing staggering under a sack. I watched him. Such a lovely figure, young, muscular, splendidly strong, big black eyes, rosy face, round black head, scented like an angel. As he came out again running (they are watched by guards all the time) I threw him my little offering. "Who are you?" "Amadeo Amadei" (lovely mediaeval name). The next time, "What are you carrying?" "Lily-flowers for soap-making." The next time, "Where have I seen you?" "Assistant gondolier one day with Piero last year" – then – "Sir, Round Table –" My dear F. I'm going to that ship again to-morrow morning. I want to know more. . . . I couldn't stay longer to-day because of the guards but I shall try to get Amadeo Amadei to some trattoria for his lunch. I have a faint remembrance of his face, but only a faint one. It's as though he had grown up suddenly. I expect he was some raggamuffin whom Peter scratched up once suddenly, and since then he has developed wonderfully. And of course, Peter has been talking. Well, all I can say is that if this is a real Knight of the Round Table and knows his way to Caerleon, you may depend on me to collect information, which I of course will verify the first moment I am able. Peter, Gildo, Carlo and the Greek (and I take it also Eduardo) are private practitioners: for none of them have let slip the password. But this florescent creature one would think is a professional. However there will be news tomorrow. Here I stop to leave a blank space to show through the envelope. N.B. "Signore" not "Seniore" which means "Elder." Do write. I have only you to speak to.

          R.

November 28, 1909

. . . I went off to the Quay of San Basegio on the Zattere to see the Knight of the Round Table. It was getting dusk and I was just in time to see his lissome muscular figure come dancing down the long plank from the ship with his last sack of dried lily flowers silhouetted against the sunset. As he passed, I said, "Do me the pleasure to come and drink a little beaker of wine." "With the greatest possible respect to your valorous face," he answered, passing on. When he had delivered his load in the warehouse he came out and joined me. While he was working he had on a pair of thin flannel trousers tightly tucked into his socks, canvas slippers, and a thin sleeveless shirt open from neck to navel. Over this, his day's work done, he wore a voluminous cloak of some thick dark stuff and a broad-brimmed hat. He flung one end of the cloak over his shoulder like a toga. I describe his attire thus particularly, for reasons which will appear later on. "Take me," I said, "to a quiet wine shop where we can have much private conversation." We went through a few back alleys to a little quay in a blind canal off the Rio Malcontent where there was a very decent wineshop kept by an apparent somnambulist. I called for a litre of New Red (very fresh and heady) at 6d. We sat at the back of the shop among the barrels, our two chairs being together on one side of the only table there. The counter with its sleepy proprietor was between us and the door; and no one else was present.
          I asked him to tell me about the Round Table; and took care that he drank two glasses to my one. Of course I fed him with cigarettes. He said there was formerly a house on the Fondamenta Osmarin: but, owing to the fear which struck all Italy last year, when Austria seized Herzegovina and suddenly placed 80,000 men on the frontier where Italy has only 6,000 (remember this frontier is not 30 miles away, and Venice I know was frightened out of her wits) then the Venetians took a hatred of all Germans and went and smashed the windows, calling the boys and men there "Eulenbergs" [referring to the notorious homosexual scandal involving the German prince of that name]. Wherefore the committee (comitato) of the club, for it was a private club of Signiori of the very gravest respectability, moved the club to a house which they purchased at Padova, about an hour and a half by steamer and train. He said that the club used to be open day and night; and ten boys were there always ready for use. The fee was 7 fr. payment for the room and what you pleased to the boy, but you had to pay the latter in the presence of the steward and never more than 5 fr. even though you stayed all day or all night, i.e. 5 fr. and 7 fr. for 12 hours. Beside the staff, any boy could bring a Signiore. And many did, chiefly school-boys at some of the public or technical schools who liked to make a little pocket-money. But now, unfortunately, these and other Venetian boys were out of employment; for at Padova there is a great University with about 1,300 students of all ages, besides many schools; and students were generally in want of money. . . . it was difficult for an honest lad he is 16 to find a way of employing his nights. During the day he works as a stevedore along the Zattere or in the harbour of Marittima earning 3.50 generally, of which he has to give 3 fr. to his father, also a stevedore and earning the same. His elder brother is doing military service. His cousin gondoles for a merchant, i.e. a grocer with whom he lives and sleeps. One younger brother of 12 earns 1.50 as a milk-boy. Beside these three there are a mother and grandmother, five sisters and three small brothers to be kept out of the joint earnings of 8 fr. a day. Naturally he wants to earn money for himself.

Photograph by Rolfe, c. 1890

          He assured me that he knew incredible tricks for amusing his patrons. "First, Sior, see my person," he said. And the vivacious creature did all which follows in about 30 seconds of time. Not more. I have said that we were sitting side by side of the little table. Moving, every inch of him, as swiftly and smoothly as a cat, he stood up, casting a quick glance into the shop to make sure that no one noticed. Only the sleepy proprietor slept there. He rolled his coat into a pillow and put it on my end of the table, ripped open his trousers, stripped them down to his feet, and sat bare bottomed on the other end. He turned his shirt up right over his head, holding it in one hand, opened his arms wide and lay back along the little table with his shoulders on the pillow (so that his breast and belly and thighs formed one slightly slanting line unbroken by the arch of the ribs, as is the case with flat distention) and his beautiful throat and his rosy laughing face strained backward while his widely open arms were an invitation. He was just one brilliant rosy series of muscles, smooth as satin, breasts and belly and groin and closely folded thighs with (in the midst of the black blossom of exuberant robustitude) a yard like a rose-tipped lance. And – the fragrance of his healthy youth and of the lily flower's dust was intoxicating. He crossed his ankles, ground his thighs together with a gently rippling motion, writhed his groin and hips once or twice and stiffened into the most inviting mass of fresh meat conceivable, laughing in my face as he made his offering of lively flesh. And the next instant he was up, his trousers buttoned, his shirt tucked in and his cloak folded around him. The litre of wine was gone. I called for another. "Sior" he said, "half a litre this time, with permission." So we made it half. Would I not like to take him to Padova from Saturday till Monday? Indeed I would. Nothing better. But because I see that you, my Amadeo, (i.e. Love God, quite a Puritan name) are a most discreet youth as well as a very capable one, I shall tell you my secret: for, in fact, you shall know that I am no longer a rich English but a poor, having been ruined by certain traitors and obliged to deny myself luxuries. To hear that gave him affliction and much dolour. But he wished to say that he was all and entirely at my disposal simply for affection; because, feeling sure that he had the ability to provide me with an infinity of diversions, each different and far more exciting than its predecessor, he asked me as a favour, as a very great favour, that I should afterwards recommend him to nobles who were my friends. And, without stopping, he went on to describe his little games. . . .

December 11, 1909

I changed the [Money] Order quite easily at a money-changers without signing it and got 6.25 for it, i.e. 2d. more than its face-value. How this came about I do not know; and it is needless to inquire. But oh, my dear, my dear, if you only knew that each loan of this kind stamps me down deeper and deeper and more loathsomely into the mire relieves me for the moment, but is worse than useless for setting me free and on my feet! This is not ungracious. I am indeed most grateful for your kind feelings to me. You are absolutely the only person in this world to whom I can speak openly and friendly. Imagine then how I value your friendship and how anxious I must be to deserve it and to maintain it. And, just because I have the most ardent desire to keep your friendship, which comes to me at a time when I have no other friend, – I implore you to read and ponder what follows as earnestly as you can. I'm certain that this state of things cannot continue. Why is it that I have had so many friends in the past, and now have lost them all? The reason is simple. They got tired. They liked me; and they pitied my penury; and they gave me little teaspoonsful of help. But friendship is only possible among equals. There must not be any money mixed up with it. And, by and bye, you also will get tired and bored and annoyed by the continual groans which I'm forced to emit, howling for a strong hand once for all to come along and haul me out of this damned bog and set me on my feet. . . . if you were an ordinary man, like C. or J. [Fox's wealthy American friend Cockerton, and the solicitor and editor Charles Kains Jackson], on seeing me shabby, miserable and poor, you would have done as they did and been civil and said good morning. That would have been natural. But, being one of ten thousand, you went a jolly sight further. The poverty and misery and shabbiness which were inauspicious enough to put them off, did not have that effect on you. But, it will, my dear, it will unless we can change my inauspicious circumstances right soon. . . . Now I know you're not the kind of man who does good deeds for the sake of a reward. So I'm sure you won't misunderstand what I'm going to say next. You say that you look forward to next Autumn. . . . Peter will be in the carabinieri by next Autumn, Zorzi (the Greek in England), Amadeo and Zildo and Carlo much too big. [Fox preferred small boys.] But if I were free NOW, . . . I would have your place ready with suitable servants by next Autumn. And more if I were free NOW, there wouldn't be any difficulty about putting my property in proper management and getting enough cash out of it to pay off the 260, and also, to bring Peter and Carlo to any place you liked in England for a month whenever you pleased. See that now. Think it over; and then strike out boldly. . . .

January 27, 1910

Now I'm going to make you sit up. . . . I told you that I had tipped Zildo and Carlo in your name. Two days after they wrote hideous picture postcards saying that they had been to see Cavalleria and Pagliacci at the Rossini Theatre and thanked you for the pleasure of your gracious gentility. Very well. That ends that.
          Now about yesterday. It appeared to me that the time was come to break out of all caution and prudence. So I did, as thoroughly as you please. Peter met me as agreed on Fondamenta Nuove. I explained to him exactly how I stood as to money, and I offered to give him all I had left of yours for his needs, or else to take him out for a day's pleasure.
          If you could have seen how he beamed on me! He instantly chose the last. "My pleasure is to be with my Padron," he said. Fancy a great big boy of seventeen being as sweet as that! And he took my bag – I had a satchel full of papers for the sake of looking business-like – and declared himself at my disposition. So we took the steamer to Burano where we lunched on beef steaks and cheese and wine, not at the inn you went to but another up the street. Lord, how he wolfed. It was a fiendish day – snow all night and the snow at Burano a good yard deep and still snowing. . . .
          Then Piero and I went upstairs. I never saw anyone slip out of his clothes as he did – like a white flash – he must have unlaced his boots and undone all his buttons on the way up. Then he turned to me. He was scarlet all over, blushing with delight, his eyes glittered and his fingers twitched over my clothes with eagerness. As for his rod lawks! As I came out of my guernsey he flung himself back on the bed, across the bed as he knows I like it, throat up, ankles crossed, thighs together and body expectant.
          The clutch of us both was amazing. I never knew that I loved and was loved so passionately with so much of me by so much of another. We simply raged together. Not a speck of us did not play its part. And the end came simultaneously. Long abstinence had lost us our self-control. He couldn't, simply couldn't wait his turn, and we clung together panting and gushing torrents – torrents. Then we laughed and kissed, rolled over and cleaned up and got into bed to sleep, embraced. His breath was delicious. He pressed his beautiful breast and belly to mine and our arms and legs entwined together. So we took a nap.
          I was wakened by a gentle voice "Sior, Sior, Sior, with permission!" And his rod was rigid and ready. I took him on me. "Slowly, and as hard as you like" I said. Oh what a time we had. He took me at my word splendidly and laboured with the sumptuous abandon of a true artist, straining his young body to his very utmost but holding himself in control prolonging the pleasure for the pure joy of it. As he writhed, I became excited in my turn and rolled him over to do with him; and close-locked we wrestled, how long I don't remember but I know that presently we were both gasping for breath and as rigid as ever. For a few minutes we lay side by side, hugging, laughing, devouring each other's lips and each trying to clip the other's thighs with his own. Then we began again, more fiercely than ever, and finished the matter. "Oh, che bel divertimento!" says Peter, squeezing me as we spouted – "Oh, what a beautiful diversion."


SOURCE: The Venice Letters, ed. Cecil Woolf (London: Cecil & Amelia Woolf, 1974).


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