Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XXI

Nice, November 10, 1764.

DEAR DOCTOR — In my enquiries about the revenues of Nice, I am obliged to trust to the information of the inhabitants, who are much given to exaggerate. They tell me, the revenues of this town amount to one hundred thousand livres, or five thousand pounds sterling; of which I would strike off at least one fourth, as an addition of their own vanity: perhaps, if we deduct a third, it will be nearer the truth. For, I cannot find out any other funds they have, but the butchery and the bakery, which they farm at so much a year to the best bidder; and the droits d’entree, or duties upon provision brought into the city; but these are very small. The king is said to draw from Nice one hundred thousand livres annually, arising from a free-gift, amounting to seven hundred pounds sterling, in lieu of the taille, from which this town and county are exempted; an inconsiderable duty upon wine sold in public-houses; and the droits du port. These last consist of anchorage, paid by all vessels in proportion to their tonnage, when they enter the harbours of Nice and Villa Franca. Besides, all foreign vessels, under a certain stipulated burthen, that pass between the island of Sardinia and this coast, are obliged, in going to the eastward, to enter; and pay a certain regulated imposition, on pain of being taken and made prize. The prince of Monaco exacts a talliage of the same kind; and both he and the king of Sardinia maintain armed cruisers to assert this prerogative; from which, however, the English and French are exempted by treaty, in consequence of having paid a sum of money at once. In all probability, it was originally given as a consideration for maintaining lights on the shore, for the benefit of navigators, like the toll paid for passing the Sound in the Baltic. [Upon further inquiry I find it was given in consideration of being protected from the Corsairs by the naval force of the Duke of Savoy and Prince of Monaco.] The fanal, or lanthorn, to the eastward of Villa Franca, is kept in good repair, and still lighted in the winter. The toll, however, is a very troublesome tax upon feluccas, and other small craft, which are greatly retarded in their voyages, and often lose the benefit of a fair wind, by being obliged to run inshore, and enter those harbours. The tobacco the king manufactures at his own expence, and sells for his own profit, at a very high price; and every person convicted of selling this commodity in secret, is sent to the gallies for life. The salt comes chiefly from Sardinia, and is stored up in the king’s magazine from whence it is exported to Piedmont, and other parts of his inland dominions. And here it may not be amiss to observe, that Sardinia produces very good horses, well-shaped, though small; strong, hardy, full of mettle, and easily fed. The whole county of Nice is said to yield the king half a million of livres, about twenty-five thousand pounds sterling, arising from a small donative made by every town and village: for the lands pay no tax, or imposition, but the tithes to the church. His revenue then flows from the gabelle on salt and wine, and these free-gifts; so that we may strike off one fifth of the sum at which the whole is estimated; and conclude, that the king draws from the county at Nice, about four hundred thousand livres, or twenty thousand pounds sterling. That his revenues from Nice are not great, appears from the smallness of the appointments allowed to his officers. The president has about three hundred pounds per annum; and the intendant about two. The pay of the commandant does not exceed three hundred and fifty pounds: but he has certain privileges called the tour du baton, some of which a man of spirit would not insist upon. He who commands at present, having no estate of his own, enjoys a small commandery, which being added to his appointments at Nice, make the whole amount to about five hundred pounds sterling.

If we may believe the politicians of Nice, the king of Sardinia’s whole revenue does not fall short of twenty millions of Piedmontese livres, being above one million of our money. It must be owned, that there is no country in Christendom less taxed than that of Nice; and as the soil produces the necessaries of life, the inhabitants, with a little industry, might renew the golden age in this happy climate, among their groves, woods, and mountains, beautified with fountains, brooks, rivers, torrents, and cascades. In the midst of these pastoral advantages, the peasants are poor and miserable. They have no stock to begin the world with. They have no leases of the lands they cultivate; but entirely depend, from year to year, on the pleasure of the arbitrary landholder, who may turn them out at a minute’s warning; and they are oppressed by the mendicant friars and parish priests, who rob them of the best fruits of their labour: after all, the ground is too scanty for the number of families which are crouded on it.

You desire to know the state of the arts and sciences at Nice; which, indeed, is almost a total blank. I know not what men of talents this place may have formerly produced; but at present, it seems to be consecrated to the reign of dulness and superstition. It is very surprising, to see a people established between two enlightened nations, so devoid of taste and literature. Here are no tolerable pictures, busts, statues, nor edifices: the very ornaments of the churches are wretchedly conceived, and worse executed. They have no public, nor private libraries that afford any thing worth perusing. There is not even a bookseller in Nice. Though they value themselves upon their being natives of Italy, they are unacquainted with music. The few that play upon instruments, attend only to the execution. They have no genius nor taste, nor any knowledge of harmony and composition. Among the French, a Nissard piques himself on being Provencal; but in Florence, Milan, or Rome, he claims the honour of being born a native of Italy. The people of condition here speak both languages equally well; or, rather, equally ill; for they use a low, uncouth phraseology; and their pronunciation is extremely vitious. Their vernacular tongue is what they call Patois; though in so calling it, they do it injustice. — Patois, from the Latin word patavinitas, means no more than a provincial accent, or dialect. It takes its name from Patavium, or Padua, which was the birthplace of Livy, who, with all his merit as a writer, has admitted into his history, some provincial expressions of his own country. The Patois, or native tongue of Nice, is no other than the ancient Provencal, from which the Italian, Spanish and French languages, have been formed. This is the language that rose upon the ruins of the Latin tongue, after the irruptions of the Goths, Vandals, Huns, and Burgundians, by whom the Roman empire was destroyed. It was spoke all over Italy, Spain, and the southern parts of France, until the thirteenth century, when the Italians began to polish it into the language which they now call their own: The Spaniards and French, likewise, improved it into their respective tongues. From its great affinity to the Latin, it was called Romance, a name which the Spaniards still give to their own language. As the first legends of knight-errantry were written in Provencal, all subsequent performances of the same kind, have derived from it the name of romance; and as those annals of chivalry contained extravagant adventures of knights, giants, and necromancers, every improbable story or fiction is to this day called a romance. Mr. Walpole, in his Catalogue of royal and noble Authors, has produced two sonnets in the antient Provencal, written by our king Richard I. surnamed Coeur de Lion; and Voltaire, in his Historical Tracts, has favoured the world with some specimens of the same language. The Patois of Nice, must, without doubt, have undergone changes and corruptions in the course of so many ages, especially as no pains have been taken to preserve its original purity, either in orthography or pronunciation. It is neglected, as the language of the vulgar: and scarce any-body here knows either its origin or constitution. I have in vain endeavoured to procure some pieces in the antient Provencal, that I might compare them with the modern Patois: but I can find no person to give me the least information on the subject. The shades of ignorance, sloth, and stupidity, are impenetrable. Almost every word of the Patois may still be found in the Italian, Spanish, and French languages, with a small change in the pronunciation. Cavallo, signifying a horse in Italian and Spanish is called cavao; maison, the French word for a house, is changed into maion; aqua, which means water in Spanish, the Nissards call daigua. To express, what a slop is here! they say acco fa lac aqui, which is a sentence composed of two Italian words, one French, and one Spanish. This is nearly the proportion in which these three languages will be found mingled in the Patois of Nice; which, with some variation, extends over all Provence, Languedoc, and Gascony. I will now treat you with two or three stanzas of a canzon, or hymn, in this language, to the Virgin Mary, which was lately printed at Nice.


Vierge, maire de Dieu, Nuostro buono avocado, Embel car uvostre sieu, En Fenestro adourado, Jeu vous saludi, E demandi en socours; E sense autre preludi, Canti lous uvostre honours.

Virgin, mother of God, our good advocate, With your dear son, In Fenestro adored, I salute you, And ask his assistance; And without further prelude, I sing your honours.

[Fenestro is the name of a place in this neighbourhood, where there is a supposed miraculous sanctuary, or chapel, of the Virgin Mary.]


Qu’ario de Paradis! Que maesta divine! Salamon es d’advis, Giugiar de uvostro mino; Vous dis plus bello: E lou dis ben soven De toutoi lei femello, E non s’engano ren.

What air of Paradise! What majesty divine! Solomon is of opinion, To judge of your appearance; Says you are the fairest And it is often said Of all females, And we are not all deceived.


Qu’ario de Paradis! Que maesta divine! La bellezzo eblovis; La bonta l’ueigl raffino. Sias couronado; Tenes lou monde en man Sus del trono assettado, Riges lou avostre enfan.

What air of Paradise! What majesty divine! The beauty dazzles; The goodness purifies the eye: You are crowned: You hold the world in your hand: Seated on the throne, You support your child.

You see I have not chosen this canzon for the beauty and elegance of thought and expression; but give it you as the only printed specimen I could find of the modern Provencal. If you have any curiosity to be further acquainted with the Patois, I will endeavour to procure you satisfaction. Meanwhile, I am, in plain English — Dear Sir, Ever yours.

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