From poets and presidents to kings and courtesans, history is filled with great romances and timeless love stories. This Valentine's Day, discover some of history's most famous tales of love and loss. From historic figures like Casanova, whose name has become synonymous with romance, to India's Shah Jahan, who built one of the world's most manificent buildings to honor his wife, to modern love affairs like that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, history's romantics have long had a place in the popular imagination.
Much uncertainty surrounds the life story of the celebrated Greek lyric poet Sappho, a woman Plato called “the tenth Muse.” Born around 610 B.C. on the island of Lesbos, now part of Greece, she was said to have been married to Cercylas, a wealthy man. Many legends have long existed about Sappho’s life, including a prevalent one — now believed to be untrue — that she leaped into the sea to her death because of her unrequited love of a younger man, the sailor Phaon. It is not known how much work she published during her lifetime, but by the 8th or 9th century Sappho’s known work was limited to quotations made by other authors. In the majority of her poems, Sappho wrote about love — and the accompanying emotions of hatred, anger and jealousy — among the members of her largely young and female circle. Sappho gave her female acolytes educational and religious instruction as part of the preparation for marriage; the group was dedicated to and inspired by Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. Her focus on the relationships between women and girls has led many to assume that Sappho was a lesbian — a word derived from the island and the communities of women that lived there — but it is also true that the existence of strong emotions and attractions between members of the same sex was considered far more common and less taboo than in later years.
This ascetic, probably celibate scholar who lived in classical India (around the 5th century A.D.) is an unlikely candidate to have written history’s best known book on erotic love. Little is known about Vatsyayana’s life, but in his famous book — actually a collection of notes on hundreds of years of spiritual wisdom passed down by the ancient sages — he wrote that he intended the Kama Sutra as the ultimate love manual and a tribute to Kama, the Indian god of love. Though it has become famous for its sections on sexual instruction, the book actually deals much more with the pursuit of fulfilling relationships, and provided a blueprint for courtship and marriage in upper-class Indian society at the time. In addition to his classic work on love, Vatsyayana also transcribed the Nyaya Sutras, an ancient philosophical text composed by Gautama in the 2nd century B.C. that examined questions of logic and epistemology. The Kama Sutra has been translated into hundreds of languages and has won millions of devotees around the world.
Emperor of India from 1628 to 1658, Shah Jahan has gone down in history for commissioning one of history’s most spectacular buildings, the Taj Mahal, in honor of his much beloved wife. Born Prince Khurram, the fifth son of the Emperor Jahangir of India, he became his father’s favored son after leading several successful military campaigns to consolidate his family’s empire. As a special honor, Jahangir gave him the title of Shah Jahan, or “King of the World.” After his father’s death in 1627, Shah Jahan won power after a struggle with his brothers, crowning himself emperor at Agra in 1628. At his side was Mumtaz Mahal, or “Chosen One of the Palace,” Shah Jahan’s wife since 1612 and the favorite of his three queens. In 1631, Mumtaz died after giving birth to the couple’s 14th child. Legend has it that with her dying breaths, she asked her husband to promise to build the world’s most beautiful mausoleum for her. Six months after her death, the deeply grieving emperor ordered construction to begin. Set across the Jamuna River from the royal palace in Agra, the white marble fade of the Taj Mahal reflects differing hues of light throughout the day, glowing pink at sunrise and pearly white in the moonlight. At its center, surrounded by delicate screens filtering light, lies the cenotaph, or coffin, containing the remains of the Shah’s beloved queen.
The name “Casanova” has long since come to conjure up the romantic image of the prototypical libertine and seducer, thanks to the success of Giacomo Casanova’s posthumously published 12-volume autobiography, Histoire de ma vie, which chronicled with vivid detail — as well as some exaggeration — his many sexual and romantic exploits in 18th-century Europe. Born in Venice in 1725 to actor parents, Casanova was expelled from a seminary for scandalous conduct and embarked on a varied career, including a stint working for a cardinal in Rome, as a violinist, and as a magician, while traveling all around the continent. Fleeing from creditors, he changed his name to Chevalier de Seingalt, under which he published a number of literary works, most importantly his autobiography. Casanova’s celebration of pleasure seeking and much-professed love of women — he maintained that a woman’s conversation was at least as captivating as her body — made him the leading champion of a movement towards sexual freedom, and the model for the famous Don Juan of literature. After working as a diplomat in Berlin, Russia, and Poland and a spy for the Venetian inquisitors, Casanova spent the final years of his life working on his autobiography in the library of a Bohemian count. He died in 1798.
The only child of the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the philosopher and novelist William Godwin, both influential voices in Romantic-Era England, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin fell in love with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was only 16; he was 21 and unhappily married. In the summer of 1816, the couple was living with Shelley’s friend and fellow poet, the dashing and scandalous Lord Byron, in Byron’s villa in Switzerland when Mary came up with the idea for what would become her masterpiece — and one of the most famous novels in history — Frankenstein (1818). After Shelley’s wife committed suicide, he and Mary were married, but public hostility to the match forced them to move to Italy. When Mary was only 24, Percy Shelley was caught in a storm while at sea and drowned, leaving her alone with a two-year-old son (three previous children had died young). Alongside her husband, Byron, and John Keats, Mary was one of the principal members of the second generation of Romanticism; unlike the three poets, who all died during the 1820s, she lived long enough to see the dawn of a new era, the Victorian Age. Still somewhat of a social outcast for her liaison with Shelley, she worked as a writer to support her father and son, and maintained connections to the artistic, literary and political circles of London until her death in 1851.
One of history’s most revered composers, Richard Wagner set his work on the famous Ring cycle aside in 1858 to work on his most romantic opera, Tristan and Isolde. He was inspired to do so partially because of his thwarted passion for Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant and patron of Wagner’s. While at work on the opera, the unhappily married Wagner met Cosima von Bulow, daughter of the celebrated pianist and composer Franz Liszt and wife of Hans von Bulow, one of Liszt’s disciples. They later became lovers, and their relationship was an open secret in the music world for several years. Wagner’s wife died in 1866, but Cosima was still married and the mother of two children with von Bulow, who knew of the relationship and worshiped Wagner’s music (he even conducted the premiere of Tristan and Isolde). After having two daughters, Isolde and Eva, by Wagner, Cosima finally left her husband; she and Wagner married and settled into an idyllic villa in Switzerland, near Lucerne. On Cosima’s 33rd birthday, Christmas Day 1870, Wagner brought an orchestra in to play a symphony he had written for her, named the Triebschen Idyll after their villa. Though the music was later renamed the Siegfried Idyll after the couple’s son, the supremely romantic gesture was a powerful symbol of the strength of Wagner and Cosima’s marriage, which lasted until the composer’s death in 1883.
Edward, then Prince of Wales, was introduced to Wallis Simpson in 1931, when she was married to her second husband; they soon began a relationship that would rock Britain’s most prominent institutions — Parliament, the monarchy and the Church of England — to their cores. Edward called Simpson, whom others criticized as a financially unstable social climber, “the perfect woman.” Just months after being crowned king in January 1936, after the death of his father, George V, Edward proposed to Simpson, precipitating a huge scandal and prompting Britain’s prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, to say he would resign if the marriage went ahead. Not wanting to push his country into an electoral crisis, but unwilling to give Simpson up, Edward made the decision to abdicate the throne. In a public radio address, he told the world of his love for Simpson, saying that “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.” Married and given the titles of Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the couple lived in exile in France, where they became fixtures of cafe society.
Though her life was marked by sickness, tragedy and other hardships from beginning to end, the famous French chanteuse with the throaty voice became the epitome of classic Parisian-style romance for her legions of fans. Born Edith Giovanna Gassion in 1915, she was abandoned by her mother and reared by her grandmother; while traveling with her father, a circus acrobat, she began singing for pennies on the street. Discovered by a cabaret promoter who renamed her Piaf, or “sparrow,” (and was later brutally murdered), Edith enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom and by 1935 was singing in the grandest concert halls in Paris. Piaf was married twice, but her great love was the boxer Marcel Cerdan, a world middleweight champion who was killed in a plane crash en route from Europe to New York in 1949. It was for Cerdan that Piaf sang the achingly romantic “Hymne a l’amour,” celebrated all over the world as one of her best loved ballads. After a near lifelong struggle with drug and alcohol addictions, Piaf died of liver cancer on the French Riviera in 1963. Her grave is one of the most visited in Paris’s world famous Pere Lachaise cemetery.
Born in 1939 in Alexandria, Louisiana, Kathleen Woodiwiss was a young wife and mother when she began writing romantic fiction as a response to her dissatisfaction with the existing “women’s fiction” of the time. In 1972, she published her first novel, The Flame and the Flower, set on a Southern plantation in the late 18th century. Its historical setting and theme, florid prose style and steamy sex scenes inspired a legion of imitators, and its smashing commercial success sparked a new boom in romance fiction. Woodiwiss was given credit for inventing the modern romance novel in its current form: thick period melodramas packed with an array of dashing and dangerous men and bosomy women in low-cut dresses. She herself wrote 13 of these so-called “bodice-rippers,” including “Shanna” (1977), “A Rose in Winter” (1982), “Come Love a Stranger” (1984) and “The Reluctant Suitor” (2003). In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Woodiwiss firmly denied the characterization of her books as erotic, maintaining that she wrote only “love stories, — with a little spice.” By the time of her death in 2006, Woodiwiss’s spicy love stories had sold more than 36 million copies in 13 countries.
An actress since early childhood, the dark haired, violet-eyed Elizabeth Taylor has won two Best Actress Oscars (for “Butterfield 8″ in 1960 and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 1966) but is perhaps best known for her rare beauty — and her epic love life. She has been married a total of eight times — twice to the same man, the actor Richard Burton, whom she has called “one of the two great loves of my life.” The first was the film producer Mike Todd, who died in a plane crash in 1958. Taylor and Burton met on the set of “Cleopatra,” when both were married to other people; their affair soon made headlines around the world and earned a public rebuke from no lesser authority than the Vatican. Their own married life together was a study in extremes, soaked in alcohol and characterized by a passion that was no less intense when they were fighting than when they were getting along. After divorcing in 1973, they found it impossible to stay apart and remarried in 1975, only to break up four months later. Barred from Burton’s funeral in 1984 by his last wife, Taylor still received legions of condolences, honoring her and Burton’s place in the pantheon of history’s most celebrated love stories.