Salome by Bernardino Luini (detail)
 (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)

Henri Beyle’s great aunt on his mother’s side, Elisabeth, told him at a young age, that the Gagnon family was in fact of Italian origin and had emigrated to France sometime in the 17th Century.

The two people he cherished most as a youth were both fond of Italy and the Italian culture. His maternal grandfather ‘knew and honoured Italian’ and his mother was known to be fond of Dante.  

Beyle was thus already predisposed towards Italy when, in May 1800, he crossed the Alps as part of Bonaparte’s Italian Campaign. In June of that year he entered Milan and, already enamoured by Italy, its landscape and its music, he fell in love with the city and with the glamorous Angela Pietragua.

His first stay in Italy was to last six months and it was perhaps the best time of his life. From this moment on, Beyle felt more at home in Italy than in France, and was especially attached Milan, to the point where he considered himself ‘Milanese’.

While back in Paris in 1802 he consolidated his Italian by reading, among others, Dante, Aristotle, Alfieri, Machiavelli and Goldoni and everything he could find on Italy’s culture and history.

He returned to Milan in 1811, and at this time made Angela Pietragua his mistress, and from there travelled to Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples. During his travels he was able to see many great works of art but, aware of his ignorance, wished he had had a good guidebook. Back in Paris in the late autumn of 1811, he started to write such a book. As he had little knowledge himself of Italian art, he relied on a number of sources in Italian, in particular the work of Lanzi, which he translated into French. He went on Napoleon’s campaign to Russia in 1812 and took the manuscript with him but lost it in the hasty retreat from Moscow.

In 1814 he returned to Milan for what was to be a ten-year stay. There he began writing what was to be his first published work, the highly plagiarised Letters on Haydn, Mozart and Metastasio.

His rekindled affair with Angela was not to last and Beyle consoled himself in his writing, going back to his project on Italian painting. This was eventually published in 1817 as Histoire de la Peinture en Italie.

In March of 1818 Stendhal met Matilde Dembowski (he always called her Métilde) who was arguably the greatest love of his life… only she did not feel the same way. He compared her in looks to Luini’s depiction of Salome (see detail on the left).

Her continued rejection of Stendhal gave him the inspiration to write a work on the phenomenon of love and he began work on De l’Amour in late 1819. Métilde never reciprocated his love but his romantic purgatory was brought to an end by an order from the Austrian police to leave Milan, on suspicion of plotting with the city’s liberals, and in 1821 he returned to Paris.

Stendhal returned to Italy in 1832 as the French consul in the papal state of Civita-Vecchia. He hated the sleepy port and spends as much time as possible in Rome. The advantage of the post was that it gave Stendhal the time to write and Souvenirs d’égotisme, Lucien Leuwen and La Vie de Henry Brulard were all written at this time.

He takes extended leave from his position to return to Paris from 1836-1839, during which time he dictated La Chartreuse de Parme, before going back to Civita-Vecchia. In March of 1840 Stendhal suffered his first apoplectic attack and in October left Italy for the last time.