Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XX

Nice, October 22, 1764.

SIR — As I have nothing else to do, but to satisfy my own curiosity, and that of my friends, I obey your injunctions with pleasure; though not without some apprehension that my inquiries will afford you very little entertainment. The place where I am is of very little importance or consequence as a state or community; neither is there any thing curious or interesting in the character or oeconomy of its inhabitants.

There are some few merchants in Nice, said to be in good circumstances. I know one of them, who deals to a considerable extent, and goes twice a year to London to attend the sales of the East-India company. He buys up a very large quantity of muslins, and other Indian goods, and freights a ship in the river to transport them to Villa Franca. Some of these are sent to Swisserland; but, I believe, the greater part is smuggled into France, by virtue of counterfeit stamps, which are here used without any ceremony. Indeed, the chief commerce of this place is a contraband traffick carried on to the disadvantage of France; and I am told, that the farmers of the Levant company in that kingdom find their account in conniving at it. Certain it is, a great quantity of merchandize is brought hither every week by mules from Turin and other parts in Piedmont, and afterwards conveyed to the other side of the Var, either by land or water. The mules of Piedmont are exceeding strong and hardy. One of them will carry a burthen of near six hundred weight. They are easily nourished, and require no other respite from their labour, but the night’s repose. They are the only carriage that can be used in crossing the mountains, being very sure-footed: and it is observed that in choosing their steps, they always march upon the brink of the precipice. You must let them take their own way, otherwise you will be in danger of losing your life; for they are obstinate, even to desperation. It is very dangerous for a person on horseback to meet those animals: they have such an aversion to horses, that they will attack them with incredible fury, so as even to tear them and their riders in pieces; and the best method for avoiding this fate, is to clap spurs to your beast, and seek your safety in flight. I have been more than once obliged to fly before them. They always give you warning, by raising a hideous braying as soon as they perceive the horse at a distance. The mules of Provence are not so mischievous, because they are more used to the sight and society of horses: but those of Piedmont are by far the largest and the strongest I have seen.

Some very feasible schemes for improving the commerce of Nice have been presented to the ministry of Turin; but hitherto without success. The English import annually between two and three thousand bales of raw silk, the growth of Piedmont; and this declaration would be held legal evidence. In some parts of France, the cure of the parish, on All Souls’ day, which is called le jour des morts, says a libera domine for two sols, at every grave in the burying-ground, for the release of the soul whose body is there interred.

The artisans of Nice are very lazy, very needy, very aukward, and void of all ingenuity. The price of their labour is very near as high as at London or Paris. Rather than work for moderate profit, arising from constant employment, which would comfortably maintain them and their families, they choose to starve at home, to lounge about the ramparts, bask themselves in the sun, or play at bowls in the streets from morning ‘till night.

The lowest class of people consists of fishermen, day labourers, porters, and peasants: these last are distributed chiefly in the small cassines in the neighbourhood of the city, and are said to amount to twelve thousand. They are employed in labouring the ground, and have all the outward signs of extreme misery. They are all diminutive, meagre, withered, dirty, and half naked; in their complexions, not barely swarthy, but as black as Moors; and I believe many of them are descendants of that people. They are very hard favoured; and their women in general have the coarsest features I have ever seen: it must be owned, however, they have the finest teeth in the world. The nourishment of those poor creatures consists of the refuse of the garden, very coarse bread, a kind of meal called polenta, made of Indian corn, which is very nourishing and agreeable, and a little oil; but even in these particulars, they seem to be stinted to very scanty meals. I have known a peasant feed his family with the skins of boiled beans. Their hogs are much better fed than their children. ’Tis pity they have no cows, which would yield milk, butter, and cheese, for the sustenance of their families. With all this wretchedness, one of these peasants will not work in your garden for less than eighteen sols, about eleven pence sterling, per diem; and then he does not half the work of an English labourer. If there is fruit in it, or any thing he can convey, he will infallibly steal it, if you do not keep a very watchful eye over him. All the common people are thieves and beggars; and I believe this is always the case with people who are extremely indigent and miserable. In other respects, they are seldom guilty of excesses. They are remarkably respectful and submissive to their superiors. The populace of Nice are very quiet and orderly. They are little addicted to drunkenness. I have never heard of one riot since I lived among them; and murder and robbery are altogether unknown. A man may walk alone over the county of Nice, at midnight, without danger of insult. The police is very well regulated. No man is permitted to wear a pistol or dagger’ on pain of being sent to the gallies. I am informed, that both murder and robbery are very frequent in some parts of Piedmont. Even here, when the peasants quarrel in their cups, (which very seldom happens) they draw their knives, and the one infallibly stabs the other. To such extremities, however, they never proceed, except when there is a woman in the case; and mutual jealousy co-operates with the liquor they have drank, to inflame their passions. In Nice, the common people retire to their lodgings at eight o’clock in winter, and nine in summer. Every person found in the streets after these hours, is apprehended by the patrole; and, if he cannot give a good account of himself, sent to prison. At nine in winter, and ten in summer, there is a curfew-bell rung, warning the people to put out their lights, and go to bed. This is a very necessary precaution in towns subject to conflagrations; but of small use in Nice, where there is very little combustible in the houses.

The punishments inflicted upon malefactors and delinquents at Nice are hanging for capital crimes; slavery on board the gallies for a limited term, or for life, according to the nature of the transgression; flagellation, and the strappado. This last is performed, by hoisting up the criminal by his hands tied behind his back, on a pulley about two stories high; from whence, the rope being suddenly slackened, he falls to within a yard or two of the ground, where he is stopped with a violent shock arising from the weight of his body, and the velocity of his descent, which generally dislocates his shoulders, with incredible pain. This dreadful execution is sometimes repeated in a few minutes on the same delinquent; so that the very ligaments are tore from his joints, and his arms are rendered useless for life.

The poverty of the people in this country, as well as in the South of France, may be conjectured from the appearance of their domestic animals. The draughthorses, mules, and asses, of the peasants, are so meagre, as to excite compassion. There is not a dog to be seen in tolerable case; and the cats are so many emblems of famine, frightfully thin, and dangerously rapacious. I wonder the dogs and they do not devour young children. Another proof of that indigence which reigns among the common people, is this: you may pass through the whole South of France, as well as the county of Nice, where there is no want of groves, woods, and plantations, without hearing the song of blackbird, thrush, linnet, gold-finch, or any other bird whatsoever. All is silent and solitary. The poor birds are destroyed, or driven for refuge, into other countries, by the savage persecution of the people, who spare no pains to kill, and catch them for their own subsistence. Scarce a sparrow, red-breast, tomtit, or wren, can ‘scape the guns and snares of those indefatigable fowlers. Even the noblesse make parties to go a la chasse, a-hunting; that is, to kill those little birds, which they eat as gibier, or game.

The great poverty of the people here, is owing to their religion. Half of their time is lost in observing the great number of festivals; and half of their substance is given to mendicant friars and parish priests. But if the church occasions their indigence, it likewise, in some measure, alleviates the horrors of it, by amusing them with shows, processions, and even those very feasts, which afford a recess from labour, in a country where the climate disposes them to idleness. If the peasants in the neighbourhood of any chapel dedicated to a saint, whose day is to be celebrated, have a mind to make a festin, in other words, a fair, they apply to the commandant of Nice for a license, which costs them about a French crown. This being obtained, they assemble after service, men and women, in their best apparel, and dance to the musick of fiddles, and pipe and tabor, or rather pipe and drum. There are hucksters’ stands, with pedlary ware and knick-knacks for presents; cakes and bread, liqueurs and wine; and thither generally resort all the company of Nice. I have seen our whole noblesse at one of these festins, kept on the highway in summer, mingled with an immense crowd of peasants, mules, and asses, covered with dust, and sweating at every pore with the excessive heat of the weather. I should be much puzzled to tell whence their enjoyment arises on such occasions; or to explain their motives for going thither, unless they are prescribed it for pennance, as a fore-taste of purgatory.

Now I am speaking of religious institutions, I cannot help observing, that the antient Romans were still more superstitious than the modern Italians; and that the number of their religious feasts, sacrifices, fasts, and holidays, was even greater than those of the Christian church of Rome. They had their festi and profesti, their feriae stativae, and conceptivae, their fixed and moveable feasts; their esuriales, or fasting days, and their precidaneae, or vigils. The agonales were celebrated in January; the carmentales, in January and February; the lupercales and matronales, in March; the megalesia in April; the floralia, in May; and the matralia in June. They had their saturnalia, robigalia, venalia, vertumnalia, fornacalia, palilia, and laralia, their latinae, their paganales, their sementinae, their compitales, and their imperativae; such as the novemdalia, instituted by the senate, on account of a supposed shower of stones. Besides, every private family had a number of feriae, kept either by way of rejoicing for some benefit, or mourning for some calamity. Every time it thundered, the day was kept holy. Every ninth day was a holiday, thence called nundinae quasi novendinae. There was the dies denominalis, which was the fourth of the kalends; nones and ides of every month, over and above the anniversary of every great defeat which the republic had sustained, particularly the dies alliensis, or fifteenth of the kalends of December, on which the Romans were totally defeated by the Gauls and Veientes; as Lucan says — et damnata diu Romanis allia fastis, and Allia in Rome’s Calendar condemn’d. The vast variety of their deities, said to amount to thirty thousand, with their respective rites of adoration, could not fail to introduce such a number of ceremonies, shews, sacrifices, lustrations, and public processions, as must have employed the people almost constantly from one end of the year to the other. This continual dissipation must have been a great enemy to industry; and the people must have been idle and effeminate. I think it would be no difficult matter to prove, that there is very little difference, in point of character, between the antient and modern inhabitants of Rome; and that the great figure which this empire made of old, was not so much owing to the intrinsic virtue of its citizens, as to the barbarism, ignorance, and imbecility of the nations they subdued. Instances of public and private virtue I find as frequent and as striking in the history of other nations, as in the annals of antient Rome; and now that the kingdoms and states of Europe are pretty equally enlightened, and ballanced in the scale of political power, I am of opinion, that if the most fortunate generals of the Roman commonwealth were again placed at the head of the very armies they once commanded, instead of extending their conquests over all Europe and Asia, they would hardly be able to subdue, and retain under their dominion, all the petty republics that subsist in Italy.

But I am tired with writing; and I believe you will be tired with reading this long letter notwithstanding all your prepossession in favour of — Your very humble servant.

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