For centuries, the “Grand Tour” brought writers and artists down across Northern Europe to Italy. Among the great writers inspired by Italian antiquities, art treasures, and landscape were Montaigne, Goethe, Sterne, Dickens, John Keats, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Edith Wharton. The itinerary of the Grand Tour touched the pulse points of Renaissance and Baroque culture: Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples — with a jaunt to the isle of Capri. Only the more adventurous headed further south, or to the wilder islands.
Among those wilder, windswept isles is the Maddalena Archipelago between Sardinia and Corsica. Sculpted in pink granite, these rough islands offered thrilling seascapes, choppy sailing, and few amenities. Yet in the 19th century, this spot welcomed an odd assortment of errant Englishmen straying from the prescribed routes of the Grand Tour. Among them was Daniel Roberts, poet and navy man, companion at arms of Admiral Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar, intimate friend of Shelley and Byron. After leaving the navy, Roberts settled down in this forlorn oasis of goatherds and fishermen. Here he could not only contemplate endless sunsets on the sea--- but also, surprisingly, consult one of the best- stocked poetry libraries in the Mediterranean.
The library was housed in the Villa Webber, built by James Webber, a wealthy London hatter who came to La Maddalena in the 1850's . Webber’s serendipitous arrival evokes the plots of both The Tempest and Robinson Crusoe. En route from Australia to London, he was shipwrecked off La Maddalena.. Safely ashore, he fell into a deep sleep, and the morning after found himself miraculously cured of all the ills, physical and moral, from which he had suffered for years. When his ship was repaired and ready to sail, he chose to stay behind.
Webber constructed a sumptuous villa in Moorish style on the cliffs facing Corsica. His pride were his art gallery — consisting of paintings of the Neapolitan school, and his poetry library - with hundreds of preciously- bound volumes by the great English, French, and Italian poets. The library soon became a local landmark. All travelers who dared make it down this far, such as the writer Speranza Von Schwartz, called on Webber at the Maddalena to spend a few hours in his library, while gale winds battered the windows. Webber was so jealous of his books, he refused to let his servants touch them and insisted on dusting them himself. Yet he welcomed those who came to study in his library.
Many myths have sprung up about the mysterious hatter. Was he only an eccentric merchant or perhaps a British spy? At his death, the artistic patrimony he collected was scattered and destroyed. The villa’s furnishings and paintings were carted away — all the books were lost. Today, stripped of its contents, Villa Webber stands concealed behind thick tangles of prickly pear, off limits to visitors - a relic of a former time when travelers braved tempestuous seas for the pleasure of a good book of poetry.