Frederick Rolfe (pronounced "Rofe") was born in Cheapside, London in July 1860 and died in Venice in October 1913.
At the age of twenty-five, he converted to Roman Catholicism and dedicated himself to the priesthood. The Church, however, did not open its arms to Rolfe's eccentric nature, twice expelling him from the seminary, including a memorable occasion in Rome in May 1890, when he was thrown bodily out of
the Scots College in Rome, together with the mattress on which he was lying.
Rolfe was a difficult man, who refused to accept charity yet spent his life cadging money and hospitality from others; a man who spent his life looking for the Divine Friend but was never happier than when he was making enemies; a man who never gave up his ambition to be a priest and remained celibate for twenty years as his eyes continued to be drawn to handsome young men; a man who in early life changed his name to suit his circumstances, even styling himself a noble - Baron Corvo - in his late twenties.
Rolfe's last five years were spent in Venice, where he swung between relative comfort and abject poverty, at times reduced to starvation and
sleeping outdoors. Yet despite the privations, about which he complained bitterly, it was perhaps the
happiest period in his life. He
had his own pupparin (a kind of gondola), which he
navigated around the city and to neighbouring islands, and was a member of
the Bucintoro rowing club. He continued writing, both books and correspondence and maintained lively disputes with most of the expatriate
Rolfe considered himself primarily a painter until a dispute with a priest left him without artists' materials.
Although novels and letters and newspaper articles
and works of history and more poured from his pen, he considered
writing a "loathsome occupation". Today, much of what he wrote is out of print,
apart from one undisputed masterpiece; in the novel Hadrian VII, an Englishman, George Arthur Rose, who has
been denied the priesthood for twenty years, is suddenly given the cloth and made Pope. As with several of his other
books, Hadrian VII is wish-fulfilment, with many of the characters acerbic portraits of real people that Rolfe
had met and fallen out with. Unlike those books, however, Hadrian VII
is deeper and its portrayal of Rose is the most honest, and for that reason, the most sympathetic, of Rolfe's self-portraits.
Now We Are Pope
Now We Are Pope takes place on the last day of Rolfe's life, in his room in the Palazzo Marcello in Venice. It combines elements of the writer's own life with incidents from Hadrian VII and other of his works. As a result, much of the play consists of quotations from his letters and novels. The script of the play, together with copious notes giving the background to many of the events in Rolfe's life, will be published by
Arbery Books in October 2015.
The idea for the play was suggested by the actor Christopher Annus as a companion piece to Martin Foreman's
Tadzio Speaks . . . . In that short play Tadzio, the beautiful youth in the classic story
Death in Venice, returns to the city decades after the death of Aschenbach and relives the fateful summer in which the two formed a silent relationship.
Now We Are Pope has also been performed with Martin's Angel, about a priest torn between his sexuality and his faith.
Rolfe in 1898
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