I have got a new friend, the finest in the world…
Walking through Venice the other day, I saw this wonderful sight next to the place that sells presepio figures at San Giovanni Crisostomo. Being the sort of person I am, I immediately thought of Byron.
Byron loved animals. It’s well-known that when he lived at Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice, the courtyard was home to a rag-tag menagerie including a peacock, a very vicious monkey, a raven and a fox. Where he picked them up is anyone’s guess, although they did have a habit of attacking guests.
Dogs, however, were his favourite. Wherever he was in the world he was never happy until he had a dog: Boatswain at Newstead (his tomb with an elaborate epitaph can still be seen in the grounds), Mutz in Venice, Lyon in Greece. I love this sketch of Byron – one of the last images of him before his death – with Lyon at Missolonghi. Man and dog look lovingly at each other.
Anyway, this has taken us a long way from a bear in a Santa hat. In 1805 Byron, seventeen years old, became a student at Trinity College Cambridge. Like all young gentlemen he expected all the comforts of home whilst “studying.” He had his valet, he had his horses. And so of course he expected to have his dog. Alas, the college authorities were sorry to inform My Lord that dogs were forbidden.
A glance at the regulations soon revealed that, although dogs were specifically banned, there was no mention of a variety of other animals. So, when he saw a man in the street with a tame bear (it was probably a dancing bear, a fairly common sight in the 18th and 19th centuries) he bought it and took it to his rooms. Job done: he had put one over on authority, found a pet and made himself the centre of attention.
Byron clearly thought that a bear able to follow instructions was more intelligent than college authorities who wrote easily-broken rules, since he wrote to a friend,
I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was, ‘he should sit for a fellowship’.
And so, from Lord Byron and his bear, Happy Christmas!