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George Gissing in Rome

The Greek and Roman classics had a great influence on George Gissing, not least because the literature and history of antiquity provided him with a kind of refuge from the grim realities of the modern industrial and commercial world. Gissing was a highly cultivated man who was at home in several foreign languages—French, Italian, Spanish, German—and was well read in their literatures. (He also read the major Russian writers, in translation.) He preferred Dante and Boccaccio, whom he had read with growing appreciation since he was young. In fact, he wrote the poem "Ravenna," a historical evocation of the town, at the age of 15.

Why Gissing was so interested in modern Italy and why he preferred Italy over Greece is up for conjecture. Perhaps it's because he was less interested in ancient Greece than in ancient Rome. Or perhaps Italy attracted him because it combined the two classical cultures: Italy was the cradle of the ancient Roman world, and Southern Italy was once part of Magna Grecia. The main character in The Unclassed remarks, "Romanus sum," which may very well reflect Gissing's own sentiments.

From Gissing's youthful devotion to classical studies arose the desire to visit Italy, to see the relics of ancient civilization and, through his experiences, to recapture something of its spirit. His poverty delayed the realization of the dream, but in September 1888, at...

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