Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XVII

Nice, July 2, 1764.

DEAR SIR — Nice was originally a colony from Marseilles. You know the Phocians (if we may believe Justin and Polybius) settled in Gaul, and built Marseilles, during the reign of Tarquinius Priscus at Rome. This city flourished to such a degree, that long before the Romans were in a condition to extend their dominion, it sent forth colonies, and established them along the coast of Liguria. Of these, Nice, or Nicaea, was one of the most remarkable; so called, in all probability, from the Greek word Nike, signifying Victoria, in consequence of some important victory obtained over the Salii and Ligures, who were the antient inhabitants of this country. Nice, with its mother city, being in the sequel subdued by the Romans, fell afterwards successively under the dominion of the Goths, Burgundians, and Franks, the kings of Arles, and the kings of Naples, as counts of Provence. In the year one thousand three hundred and eighty-eight, the city and county of Nice being but ill protected by the family of Durazzo, voluntarily surrendered themselves to Amadaeus, surnamed the Red, duke of Savoy; and since that period, they have continued as part of that potentate’s dominions, except at such times as they have been over-run and possessed by the power of France, which hath always been a troublesome neighbour to this country. The castle was begun by the Arragonian counts of Provence, and afterwards enlarged by several successive dukes of Savoy, so as to be deemed impregnable, until the modern method of besieging began to take place. A fruitless attempt was made upon it in the year one thousand five hundred and forty-three, by the French and Turks in conjunction: but it was reduced several times after that period, and is now in ruins. The celebrated engineer Vauban, being commanded by Louis XIV to give in a plan for fortifying Nice, proposed, that the river Paglion should be turned into a new channel, so as to surround the town to the north, and fall into the harbour; that where the Paglion now runs to the westward of the city walls, there should be a deep ditch to be filled with sea-water; and that a fortress should be built to the westward of this fosse. These particulars might be executed at no very great expence; but, I apprehend, they would be ineffectual, as the town is commanded by every hill in the neighbourhood; and the exhalations from stagnating sea-water would infallibly render the air unwholesome. Notwithstanding the undoubted antiquity of Nice, very few monuments of that antiquity now remain. The inhabitants say, they were either destroyed by the Saracens in their successive descents upon the coast, by the barbarous nations in their repeated incursions, or used in fortifying the castle, as well as in building other edifices. The city of Cemenelion, however, was subject to the same disasters, and even entirely ruined, nevertheless, we still find remains of its antient splendor. There have been likewise a few stones found at Nice, with antient inscriptions; but there is nothing of this kind standing, unless we give the name of antiquity to a marble cross on the road to Provence, about half a mile from the city. It stands upon a pretty high pedestal with steps, under a pretty stone cupola or dome, supported by four Ionic pillars, on the spot where Charles V. emperor of Germany, Francis I. of France, and pope Paul II. agreed to have a conference, in order to determine all their disputes. The emperor came hither by sea, with a powerful fleet, and the French king by land, at the head of a numerous army. All the endeavours of his holiness, however, could not effect a peace; but they agreed to a truce of ten years. Mezerai affirms, that these two great princes never saw one another on this occasion; and that this shyness was owing to the management of the pope, whose private designs might have been frustrated, had they come to a personal interview. In the front of the colonade, there is a small stone, with an inscription in Latin, which is so high, and so much defaced, that I cannot read it.

In the sixteenth century there was a college erected at Nice, by Emanuel Philibert, duke of Savoy, for granting degrees to students of law; and in the year one thousand six hundred and fourteen, Charles Emanuel I. instituted the senate of Nice; consisting of a president, and a certain number of senators, who are distinguished by their purple robes, and other ensigns of authority. They administer justice, having the power of life and death, not only through the whole county of Nice, but causes are evoked from Oneglia, and some other places, to their tribunal, which is the dernier ressort, from whence there is no appeal. The commandant, however, by virtue of his military power and unrestricted authority, takes upon him to punish individuals by imprisonment, corporal pains, and banishment, without consulting the senate, or indeed, observing any form of trial. The only redress against any unjust exercise of this absolute power, is by complaint to the king; and you know, what chance a poor man has for being redressed in this manner.

With respect to religion, I may safely say, that here superstition reigns under the darkest shades of ignorance and prejudice. I think there are ten convents and three nunneries within and without the walls of Nice; and among them all, I never could hear of one man who had made any tolerable advances in any kind of human learning. All ecclesiastics are exempted from any exertion of civil power, being under the immediate protection and authority of the bishop, or his vicar. The bishop of Nice is suffragan of the archbishop of Ambrun in France; and the revenues of the see amount to between five and six hundred pounds sterling. We have likewise an office of the inquisition, though I do not hear that it presumes to execute any acts of jurisdiction, without the king’s special permission. All the churches are sanctuaries for all kinds of criminals, except those guilty of high treason; and the priests are extremely jealous of their privileges in this particular. They receive, with open arms, murderers, robbers, smugglers, fraudulent bankrupts, and felons of every denomination; and never give them up, until after having stipulated for their lives and liberty. I need not enlarge upon the pernicious consequences of this infamous prerogative, calculated to raise and extend the power and influence of the Roman church, on the ruins of morality and good order. I saw a fellow, who had three days before murdered his wife in the last month of pregnancy, taking the air with great composure and serenity, on the steps of a church in Florence; and nothing is more common, than to see the most execrable villains diverting themselves in the cloysters of some convents at Rome.

Nice abounds with noblesse, marquisses, counts, and barons. Of these, three or four families are really respectable: the rest are novi homines, sprung from Bourgeois, who have saved a little money by their different occupations, and raised themselves to the rank of noblesse by purchase. One is descended from an avocat; another from an apothecary; a third from a retailer of wine, a fourth from a dealer in anchovies; and I am told, there is actually a count at Villefranche, whose father sold macaroni in the streets. A man in this country may buy a marquisate, or a county, for the value of three or four hundred pounds sterling, and the title follows the fief; but he may purchase lettres de noblesse for about thirty or forty guineas. In Savoy, there are six hundred families of noblesse; the greater part of which have not above one hundred crowns a year to maintain their dignity. In the mountains of Piedmont, and even in this country of Nice, there are some representatives of very antient and noble families, reduced to the condition of common peasants; but they still retain the antient pride of their houses, and boast of the noble blood that runs in their veins. A gentleman told me, that in travelling through the mountains, he was obliged to pass a night in the cottage of one of these rusticated nobles, who called to his son in the evening, “Chevalier, as-tu donne a manger aux cochons?” “Have you fed the Hogs, Sir Knight?” This, however, is not the case with the noblesse of Nice. Two or three of them have about four or five hundred a year: the rest, in general, may have about one hundred pistoles, arising from the silk, oil, wine, and oranges, produced in their small plantations, where they have also country houses. Some few of these are well built, commodious, and situated; but, for the most part, they are miserable enough. Our noblesse, notwithstanding their origin, and the cheap rate at which their titles have been obtained, are nevertheless extremely tenacious of their privileges, very delicate in maintaining the etiquette, and keep at a very stately distance from the Bourgeoisie. How they live in their families, I do not choose to enquire; but, in public, Madame appears in her robe of gold, or silver stuff, with her powder and frisure, her perfumes, her paint and her patches; while Monsieur Le Comte struts about in his lace and embroidery. Rouge and fard are more peculiarly necessary in this country, where the complexion and skin are naturally swarthy and yellow. I have likewise observed, that most of the females are pot-bellied; a circumstance owing, I believe, to the great quantity of vegetable trash which they eat. All the horses, mules, asses, and cattle, which feed upon grass, have the same distension. This kind of food produces such acid juices in the stomach, as excite a perpetual sense of hunger. I have been often amazed at the voracious appetites of these people. You must not expect that I should describe the tables and the hospitality of our Nissard gentry. Our consul, who is a very honest man, told me, he had lived four and thirty years in the country, without having once eat or drank in any of their houses.

The noblesse of Nice cannot leave the country without express leave from the king; and this leave, when obtained, is for a limited time, which they dare not exceed, on pain of incurring his majesty’s displeasure. They must, therefore, endeavour to find amusements at home; and this, I apprehend, would be no easy task for people of an active spirit or restless disposition. True it is, the religion of the country supplies a never-failing fund of pastime to those who have any relish for devotion; and this is here a prevailing taste. We have had transient visits of a puppet-shew, strolling musicians, and rope-dancers; but they did not like their quarters, and decamped without beat of drum. In the summer, about eight or nine at night, part of the noblesse may be seen assembled in a place called the Pare; which is, indeed, a sort of a street formed by a row of very paltry houses on one side, and on the other, by part of the town-wall, which screens it from a prospect of the sea, the only object that could render it agreeable. Here you may perceive the noblesse stretched in pairs upon logs of wood, like so many seals upon the rocks by moon-light, each dame with her cicisbeo: for, you must understand, this Italian fashion prevails at Nice among all ranks of people; and there is not such a passion as jealousy known. The husband and the cicisbeo live together as sworn brothers; and the wife and the mistress embrace each other with marks of the warmest affection. I do not choose to enter into particulars. I cannot open the scandalous chronicle of Nice, without hazard of contamination. With respect to delicacy and decorum, you may peruse dean Swift’s description of the Yahoos, and then you will have some idea of the porcheria, that distinguishes the gallantry of Nice. But the Pare is not the only place of public resort for our noblesse in a summer’s evening. Just without one of our gates, you will find them seated in ditches on the highway side, serenaded with the croaking of frogs, and the bells and braying of mules and asses continually passing in a perpetual cloud of dust. Besides these amusements, there is a public conversazione every evening at the commandant’s house called the Government, where those noble personages play at cards for farthings. In carnival time, there is also, at this same government, a ball twice or thrice a week, carried on by subscription. At this assembly every person, without distinction, is permitted to dance in masquerade: but, after dancing, they are obliged to unmask, and if Bourgeois, to retire. No individual can give a ball, without obtaining a permission and guard of the commandant; and then his house is open to all masques, without distinction, who are provided with tickets, which tickets are sold by the commandant’s secretary, at five sols a-piece, and delivered to the guard at the door. If I have a mind to entertain my particular friends, I cannot have more than a couple of violins; and, in that case, it is called a conversazione.

Though the king of Sardinia takes all opportunities to distinguish the subjects of Great-Britain with particular marks of respect, I have seen enough to be convinced, that our nation is looked upon with an evil eye by the people of Nice; and this arises partly from religious prejudices, and partly from envy, occasioned by a ridiculous notion of our superior wealth. For my own part, I owe them nothing on the score of civilities; and therefore, I shall say nothing more on the subject, lest I should be tempted to deviate from that temperance and impartiality which I would fain hope have hitherto characterised the remarks of — Dear Sir, your faithful, humble servant.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30