-ONE of the sorrowfullest pieces of affectation and abused power that have ever misled the world" was John Ruskin's verdict on the Sistine Chapel roof in 1872.
Ruskin was in Rome to see Joseph Severn, the artist who years earlier had looked after the poet Keats as he lay dying in a room above the Spanish Steps. But Ruskin's passion was for the countryside of Keats' contemporaries, Byron and Shelley. His journey down the Italian coast road from Nice to La Spezia had been made more romantic for him by its associations with Shelley's drowning and cremation on the beach at Viareggio.
To Ruskin this was the most glorious combination of scenery he had ever passed through, and he considered Tuscany to be the meeting place of European cultures. The exhibition Ruskin and Tuscany at Sheffield's Ruskin Gallery (daily except Sundays until April 10; free) could be called Sheffield and Tuscany for the Gallery was founded by Ruskin who tried to bring the beauty of the Italian region to Derbyshire.
Speaking in Bradford in 1859, Raskin compared Pisa to suburban Rochdale, claiming that "beautiful art can only be produced by people who have beautiful things about them-. This was not just a romantic view for the watercolours and architectural drawings he brought back are authentic enough
to be appreciated by Italians. This exhibition, organised by Jane Barnes of the Sheffield museum, has already been previewed at the Accademia Italiana in London and this summer it will be a major attraction in Lucca.
In Pisa, where Shelley had lived, Ruskin found frescoes in a perilous state and set about recording them. His own Pisa drawings include numerous views of churches and religious houses.
The immense influence of the rebellious Shelley on Ruskin's generation can be found at the British Museum where the British Library is staging a late exhibition marking the 200th anniversary of Shelley's birth in 1792. Shelley: An Ineffectual Angel? (daily until February 28; free) also has numerous fascinating loans.
But most interesting are the depictions of Shelley himself. Best of all is the wooden bust of Marianne Hunt, borrowed from Eton College. Her husband thought it startlingly accurate although, like most portraits. it is posthumous. There are various versions of Amelia Curran's famous head and shoulders. Shelley's sister considered them all "frightful".