Letters from Turkey, by Mary Wortley Montagu

Letter xlv

From Genoa. — Description of Genoa and its inhabitants — Cizisbeis, the nature of their employment, and occasion of their institution — the government — palaces — paintings — remark on their fondness for the representation of crucifixes — church of St Lawrence, and the famous emerald plate — their churches not to be compared with the Sancta Sophia at Constantinople.

To the Countess of ——.

Genoa, Aug. 28. O. S. 1718

I BEG your pardon, my dear sister, that I did not write to you from Tunis, the only opportunity I have had since I left Constantinople. But the heat there was so excessive, and the light so bad for the sight, I was half blind by writing one letter to the Abbot —— and durst not go to write many others I had designed; nor indeed could I have entertained you very well out of that barbarous country. I am now surrounded with subjects of pleasure, and so much charmed with the beauties of Italy, that I should think it a kind of ingratitude not to offer a little praise in return for the diversion I have had here. — I am in the house of Mrs D’Avenant at St Pierre d’Arena, and should be very unjust not to allow her a share of that praise I speak of, since her good humour and good company have very much contributed to render this place agreeable to me.

GENOA is situated in a very fine bay; and being built on a rising hill, extermixed with gardens, and beautified with the most excellent architecture, gives a very fine prospect off at sea; though it lost much of its beauty in my eyes, having been accustomed to that of Constantinople. The Genoese were once masters of several islands in the Archipelago, and all that part of Constantinople which is now called Galata. Their betraying the Christian cause, by facilitating the taking of Constantinople by the Turk, deserved what has since happened to them, even the loss of all their conquests on that side to those infidels. They are at present far from rich, and are despised by the French, since their doge was forced by the late king to go in person to Paris, to ask pardon for such a trifle as the arms of France over the house of the envoy, being spattered with dung in the night. This, I suppose, was done by some of the Spanish faction, which still makes up the majority here, though they dare not openly declare it. The ladies affect the French habit, and are more genteel than those they imitate. I do not doubt but the custom of Cizisbei’s has very much improved their airs. I know not whether you ever heard of those animals. Upon my word, nothing but my own eyes could have convinced me there were any such upon earth. The fashion began here, and is now received all over Italy, where the husbands are not such terrible creatures as we represent them. There are none among them such brutes, as to pretend to find fault with a custom so well established, and so politically founded, since I am assured, that it was an expedient, first found out by the senate, to put an end to those family hatreds, which tore their state to pieces, and to find employment for those young men who were forced to cut one another’s throats, pour passer le temps: and it has succeeded so well, that since the institution of Cizisbei, there has been nothing but peace and good humour amongst them. These are gentlemen who devote themselves to the service of a particular lady (I mean a married one) for the virgins are all invisible, and confined to convents: They are obliged to wait on her to all public places, such as the plays, operas, and assemblies, (which are called here Conversations) where they wait behind her chair, take care of her fan and gloves, if she plays, have the privilege of whispers, &c. — When she goes out, they serve her instead of lacquies, gravely trotting by her chair. ’Tis their business to prepare for her a present against any day of public appearance, not forgetting that of her own name [That is, the day of the saint after whom she is called.]; in short, they are to spend all their time and money in her service, who rewards them accordingly (for opportunity they want none) but the husband is not to have the impudence to suppose this any other than pure Platonic friendship. ’Tis true, they endeavour to give her a Cizisbei of their own chusing; but when the lady happens not to be of the same taste, as that often happens, she never fails to bring it about to have one of her own fancy. In former times, one beauty used to have eight or ten of these humble admirers; but those days of plenty and humility are no more. Men grow more scarce and saucy, and every lady is forced to content herself with one at a time.

You may see in this place the glorious liberty of a republic, or more properly, an aristocracy, the common people being here as arrant slaves as the French; but the old nobles pay little respect to the doge, who is but two years in his office, and whose wife, at that very time, assumes no rank above another noble lady. ’Tis true, the family of Andrea Doria (that great man, who restored them that liberty they enjoy) have some particular privileges. When the senate found it necessary to put a stop to the luxury of dress, forbidding the wearing of jewels and brocades, they left them at liberty to make what expence they pleased. I look with great pleasure on the statue of that hero, which is in the court belonging to the house of duke Doria. This puts me in mind of their palaces, which I can never describe as I ought. — Is it not enough, that I say, they are, most of them, the design of Palladio? The street called Strada Nova, is perhaps the most beautiful line of building in the world. I must particularly mention the vast palaces of Durazzo, those of the two Balbi, joined together by a magnificent colonade, that of the Imperiale at this village of St Pierre d’Arena, and another of the Doria. The perfection of architecture, and the utmost profusion of rich furniture are to be seen here, disposed with the most elegant taste, and lavish magnificence. But I am charmed with nothing so much as the collection of pictures by the pencils of Raphael, Paulo Veronese, Titian, Caracci, Michael Angelo, Guido, and Corregio, which two I mention last as my particular favourites. I own, I can find no pleasure in objects of horror; and, in my opinion, the more naturally a crucifix is represented, the more disagreeable it is. These, my beloved painters, shew nature, and shew it in the most charming light. I was particularly pleased with a Lucretia in the house of Balbi; the expressive beauty of that face and bosom, gives all the passion of pity and adoration, that could be raised in the soul, by the finest artist on that subject. A Cleopatra of the same hand, deserves to be mentioned; and I should say more of her if Lucretia had not first engaged my eyes. — Here are also some inestimable ancient bustos. — The church of St Lawrence is built of black and white marble, where is kept that famous plate of a single emerald, which is not now permitted to be handled, since a plot, which, they say, was discovered, to throw it on the pavement and break it; a childish piece of malice, which they ascribe to the king of Sicily, to be revenged for their refusing to sell it to him. The church of the annunciation is finely lined with marble; the pillars are of red and white marble; that of St Ambrose has been very much adorned by the Jesuits; but I confess, all the churches appeared so mean to me, after that of Sancta Sophia, I can hardly do them the honour of writing down their names. But I hope you will own, I have made good use of my time, in seeing so much, since ’tis not many days that we have been out of the quarantine, from which no body is exempted coming from the Levant. Ours, indeed, was very much shortened, and very agreeably passed in Mrs D’Avenant’s company, in the village of St Pierre d’Arena, about a mile from Genoa, in a house built by Palladio, so well designed, and so nobly proportioned, ’twas a pleasure to walk in it. We were visited here only by a few English, in the company of a noble Genoese; commissioned to see we did not touch one another. — I shall stay here some days longer, and could almost wish it were for all my life; but mine, I fear, is not destined to so much tranquillity.

I am, &c. &c.

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