Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XXIX

Nice, February 20, 1765.

DEAR SIR — Having seen all the curiosities of Florence, and hired a good travelling coach for seven weeks, at the price of seven zequines, something less than three guineas and a half, we set out post for Rome, by the way of Sienna, where we lay the first night. The country through which we passed is mountainous but agreeable. Of Sienna I can say nothing from my own observation, but that we were indifferently lodged in a house that stunk like a privy, and fared wretchedly at supper. The city is large and well built: the inhabitants pique themselves upon their politeness, and the purity of their dialect. Certain it is, some strangers reside in this place on purpose to learn the best pronunciation of the Italian tongue. The Mosaic pavement of their duomo, or cathedral, has been much admired; as well as the history of Aeneas Sylvius, afterwards pope Pius II., painted on the walls of the library, partly by Pietro Perugino, and partly by his pupil Raphael D’Urbino.

Next day, at Buon Convento, where the emperor Henry VII. was poisoned by a friar with the sacramental wafer, I refused to give money to the hostler, who in revenge put two young unbroke stone-horses in the traces next to the coach, which became so unruly, that before we had gone a quarter of a mile, they and the postilion were rolling in the dust. In this situation they made such efforts to disengage themselves, and kicked with such violence, that I imagined the carriage and all our trunks would have been beaten in pieces. We leaped out of the coach, however, without sustaining any personal damage, except the fright; nor was any hurt done to the vehicle. But the horses were terribly bruised, and almost strangled, before they could be disengaged. Exasperated at the villany of the hostler, I resolved to make a complaint to the uffiziale or magistrate of the place. I found him wrapped in an old, greasy, ragged, great-coat, sitting in a wretched apartment, without either glass, paper, or boards in the windows; and there was no sort of furniture but a couple of broken chairs and a miserable truckle-bed. He looked pale, and meagre, and had more the air of a half-starved prisoner than of a magistrate. Having heard my complaint, he came forth into a kind of outward room or bellfrey, and rung a great bell with his own hand. In consequence of this signal, the postmaster came up stairs, and I suppose he was the first man in the place, for the uffiziale stood before him cap-inhand, and with great marks of humble respect repeated the complaint I had made. This man assured me, with an air of conscious importance, that he himself had ordered the hostler to supply me with those very horses, which were the best in his stable; and that the misfortune which happened was owing to the misconduct of the fore-postilion, who did not keep the fore-horses to a proper speed proportioned to the mettle of the other two. As he took the affair upon himself, and I perceived had an ascendancy over the magistrate, I contented myself with saying, I was certain the two horses had been put to the coach on purpose, either to hurt or frighten us; and that since I could not have justice here I would make a formal complaint to the British minister at Florence. In passing through the street to the coach, which was by this time furnished with fresh horses, I met the hostler, and would have caned him heartily; but perceiving my intention, he took to his heels and vanished. Of all the people I have ever seen, the hostlers, postilions, and other fellows hanging about the post-houses in Italy, are the most greedy, impertinent, and provoking. Happy are those travellers who have phlegm enough to disregard their insolence and importunity: for this is not so disagreeable as their revenge is dangerous. An English gentleman at Florence told me, that one of those fellows, whom he had struck for his impertinence, flew at him with a long knife, and he could hardly keep him at sword’s point. All of them wear such knives, and are very apt to use them on the slightest provocation. But their open attacks are not so formidable as their premeditated schemes of revenge; in the prosecution of which the Italians are equally treacherous and cruel.

This night we passed at a place called Radicofani, a village and fort, situated on the top of a very high mountain. The inn stands still lower than the town. It was built at the expence of the last grand-duke of Tuscany; is very large, very cold, and uncomfortable. One would imagine it was contrived for coolness, though situated so high, that even in the midst of summer, a traveller would be glad to have a fire in his chamber. But few, or none of them have fireplaces, and there is not a bed with curtains or tester in the house. All the adjacent country is naked and barren. On the third day we entered the pope’s territories, some parts of which are delightful. Having passed Aqua-Pendente, a beggarly town, situated on the top of a rock, from whence there is a romantic cascade of water, which gives it the name, we travelled along the side of the lake Bolsena, a beautiful piece of water about thirty miles in circuit, with two islands in the middle, the banks covered with noble plantations of oak and cypress. The town of Bolsena standing near the ruins of the antient Volsinium, which was the birth-place of Sejanus, is a paultry village; and Montefiascone, famous for its wine, is a poor, decayed town in this neighbourhood, situated on the side of a hill, which, according to the author of the Grand Tour, the only directory I had along with me, is supposed to be the Soracte of the ancients. If we may believe Horace, Soracte was visible from Rome: for, in his ninth ode, addressed to Thaliarchus, he says,

Vides, ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte —

You see how deeply wreathed with snow Soracte lifts his hoary head,

but, in order to see Montefiascone, his eyesight must have penetrated through the Mons Cyminus, at the foot of which now stands the city of Viterbo. Pliny tells us, that Soracte was not far from Rome, haud procul ab urbe Roma; but Montefiascone is fifty miles from this city. And Desprez, in his notes upon Horace, says it is now called Monte S. Oreste. Addison tells us he passed by it in the Campania. I could not without indignation reflect upon the bigotry of Mathilda, who gave this fine country to the see of Rome, under the dominion of which no country was ever known to prosper.

About half way between Montefiascone and Viterbo, one of our fore-wheels flew off, together with a large splinter of the axle-tree; and if one of the postilions had not by great accident been a remarkably ingenious fellow, we should have been put to the greatest inconvenience, as there was no town, or even house, within several miles. I mention this circumstance, by way of warning to other travellers, that they may provide themselves with a hammer and nails, a spare iron-pin or two, a large knife, and bladder of grease, to be used occasionally in case of such misfortune.

The mountain of Viterbo is covered with beautiful plantations and villas belonging to the Roman nobility, who come hither to make the villegiatura in summer. Of the city of Viterbo I shall say nothing, but that it is the capital of that country which Mathilda gave to the Roman see. The place is well built, adorned with public fountains, and a great number of churches and convents; yet far from being populous, the whole number of inhabitants, not exceeding fifteen thousand. The post-house is one of the worst inns I ever entered.

After having passed this mountain, the Cyminus of the antients, we skirted part of the lake, which is now called de Vico, and whose banks afford the most agreeable rural prospects of hill and vale, wood, glade and water, shade and sun-shine. A few other very inconsiderable places we passed, and descended into the Campania of Rome, which is almost a desert. The view of this country in its present situation, cannot but produce emotions of pity and indignation in the mind of every person who retains any idea of its antient cultivation and fertility. It is nothing but a naked withered down, desolate and dreary, almost without inclosure, corn-field, hedge, tree, shrub, house, hut, or habitation; exhibiting here and there the ruins of an antient castellum, tomb, or temple, and in some places the remains of a Roman via. I had heard much of these antient pavements, and was greatly disappointed when I saw them. The Via Cassia or Cymina is paved with broad, solid, flint-stones, which must have greatly incommoded the feet of horses that travelled upon it as well as endangered the lives of the riders from the slipperiness of the pavement: besides, it is so narrow that two modern carriages could not pass one another upon it, without the most imminent hazard of being overturned. I am still of opinion that we excel the ancient Romans in understanding the conveniences of life.

The Grand Tour says, that within four miles of Rome you see a tomb on the roadside, said to be that of Nero, with sculpture in basso-relievo at both ends. I did see such a thing more like a common grave-stone, than the tomb of an emperor. But we are informed by Suetonius, that the dead body of Nero, who slew himself at the villa of his freedman, was by the care of his two nurses and his concubine Atta, removed to the sepulchre of the Gens Domitia, immediately within the Porta del Popolo, on your left hand as you enter Rome, precisely on the spot where now stands the church of S. Maria del Popolo. His tomb was even distinguished by an epitaph, which has been preserved by Gruterus. Giacomo Alberici tells us very gravely in his History of the Church, that a great number of devils, who guarded the bones of this wicked emperor, took possession, in the shape of black ravens, of a walnut-tree, which grew upon the spot; from whence they insulted every passenger, until pope Paschal II., in consequence of a solemn fast and a revelation, went thither in procession with his court and cardinals, cut down the tree, and burned it to ashes, which, with the bones of Nero, were thrown into the Tyber: then he consecrated an altar on the place, where afterwards the church was built. You may guess what I felt at first sight of the city of Rome, which, notwithstanding all the calamities it has undergone, still maintains an august and imperial appearance. It stands on the farther side of the Tyber, which we crossed at the Ponte Molle, formerly called Pons Milvius, about two miles from the gate by which we entered. This bridge was built by Aemilius Censor, whose name it originally bore. It was the road by which so many heroes returned with conquest to their country; by which so many kings were led captive to Rome; and by which the ambassadors of so many kingdoms and states approached the seat of empire, to deprecate the wrath, to sollicit the friendship, or sue for the protection of the Roman people. It is likewise famous for the defeat and death of Maxentius, who was here overcome by Constantine the Great. The space between the bridge and Porta del Popolo, on the right-hand, which is now taken up with gardens and villas, was part of the antient Campus Martius, where the comitiae were held; and where the Roman people inured themselves to all manner of exercises: it was adorned with porticos, temples, theatres, baths, circi, basilicae, obelisks, columns, statues, and groves. Authors differ in their opinions about the extent of it; but as they all agree that it contained the Pantheon, the Circus Agonis, now the Piazza Navona, the Bustum and Mausoleum Augusti, great part of the modern city must be built upon the ancient Campus Martius. The highway that leads from the bridge to the city, is part of the Via Flaminia, which extended as far as Rimini; and is well paved, like a modern street. Nothing of the antient bridge remains but the piles; nor is there any thing in the structure of this, or of the other five Roman bridges over the Tyber, that deserves attention. I have not seen any bridge in France or Italy, comparable to that of Westminster either in beauty, magnificence, or solidity; and when the bridge at Black-Friars is finished, it will be such a monument of architecture as all the world cannot parallel. As for the Tyber, it is, in comparison with the Thames, no more than an inconsiderable stream, foul, deep, and rapid. It is navigable by small boats, barks, and lighters; and, for the conveniency of loading and unloading them, there is a handsome quay by the new custom-house, at the Porto di Ripetta, provided with stairs of each side, and adorned with an elegant fountain, that yields abundance of excellent water.

We are told that the bed of this river has been considerably raised by the rubbish of old Rome, and this is the reason usually given for its being so apt to overflow its banks. A citizen of Rome told me, that a friend of his lately digging to lay the foundation of a new house in the lower part of the city, near the bank of the river, discovered the pavement of an antient street, at the depth of thirty-nine feet from the present surface of the earth. He therefore concluded that modern Rome is near forty feet higher in this place, than the site of the antient city, and that the bed of the river is raised in proportion; but this is altogether incredible. Had the bed of the Tyber been antiently forty feet lower at Rome, than it is at present, there must have been a fall or cataract in it immediately above this tract, as it is not pretended that the bed of it is raised in any part above the city; otherwise such an elevation would have obstructed its course, and then it would have overflowed the whole Campania. There is nothing extraordinary in its present overflowings: they frequently happened of old, and did great mischief to the antient city. Appian, Dio, and other historians, describe an inundation of the Tiber immediately after the death of Julius Caesar, which inundation was occasioned by the sudden melting of a great quantity of snow upon the Apennines. This calamity is recorded by Horace in his ode to Augustus.

Vidimus flavum Tiberim retortis Littore Etrusco violenter undis, Ire dejectum monumenta regis, Templaque Vestae: Iliae dum se nimium querenti, Jactat ultorem; vagus et sinistra Labitur ripa, Jove non probante Uxorius Amnis.

Livy expressly says, “Ita abundavit Tiberis, ut Ludi Apollinares, circo inundato, extra portam Collinam ad aedem Erycinae Veneris parati sint,” “There was such an inundation of the Tiber that, the Circus being overflowed, the Ludi Appollinares were exhibited without the gate Collina, hard by the temple of Venus Erycina.” To this custom of transferring the Ludi Appollinares to another place where the Tyber had overflowed the Circus Maximus, Ovid alludes in his Fasti.

Altera gramineo spectabis equiriacampo Quem Tiberis curvis in latus urget aquis, Qui tamen ejecta si forte tenebitur unda, Coelius accipiet pulverulentus equos.

Another race thy view shall entertain Where bending Tiber skirts the grassy plain; Or should his vagrant stream that plain o’erflow, The Caelian hill the dusty course will show.

The Porta del Popolo (formerly, Flaminia,) by which we entered Rome, is an elegant piece of architecture, adorned with marble columns and statues, executed after the design of Buonaroti. Within-side you find yourself in a noble piazza, from whence three of the principal streets of Rome are detached. It is adorned with the famous Aegyptian obelisk, brought hither from the Circus Maximus, and set up by the architect Dominico Fontana in the pontificate of Sixtus V. Here is likewise a beautiful fountain designed by the same artist; and at the beginning of the two principal streets, are two very elegant churches fronting each other. Such an august entrance cannot fail to impress a stranger with a sublime idea of this venerable city.

Having given our names at the gate, we repaired to the dogana, or custom-house, where our trunks and carriage were searched; and here we were surrounded by a number of servitori de piazza, offering their services with the most disagreeable importunity. Though I told them several times I had no occasion for any, three of them took possession of the coach, one mounting before and two of them behind; and thus we proceeded to the Piazza d’Espagna, where the person lived to whose house I was directed. Strangers that come to Rome seldom put up at public inns, but go directly to lodging houses, of which there is great plenty in this quarter. The Piazza d’Espagna is open, airy, and pleasantly situated in a high part of the city immediately under the Colla Pinciana, and adorned with two fine fountains. Here most of the English reside: the apartments are generally commodious and well furnished; and the lodgers are well supplied with provisions and all necessaries of life. But, if I studied oeconomy, I would choose another part of the town than the Piazza d’Espagna, which is, besides, at a great distance from the antiquities. For a decent first floor and two bed-chambers on the second, I payed no more than a scudo (five shillings) per day. Our table was plentifully furnished by the landlord for two and thirty pauls, being equal to sixteen shillings. I hired a town-coach at the rate of fourteen pauls, or seven shillings a day; and a servitore di piazza for three pauls, or eighteen-pence. The coachman has also an allowance of two pauls a day. The provisions at Rome are reasonable and good, the vitella mongana, however, which is the most delicate veal I ever tasted, is very dear, being sold for two pauls, or a shilling, the pound. Here are the rich wines of Montepulciano, Montefiascone, and Monte di Dragone; but what we commonly drink at meals is that of Orvieto, a small white wine, of an agreeable flavour. Strangers are generally advised to employ an antiquarian to instruct them in all the curiosities of Rome; and this is a necessary expence, when a person wants to become a connoisseur in painting, statuary, and architecture. For my own part I had no such ambition. I longed to view the remains of antiquity by which this metropolis is distinguished; and to contemplate the originals of many pictures and statues, which I had admired in prints and descriptions. I therefore chose a servant, who was recommended to me as a sober, intelligent fellow, acquainted with these matters: at the same time I furnished myself with maps and plans of antient and modern Rome, together with the little manual, called, Itinerario istruttivo per ritrovare con facilita tutte le magnificenze di Roma e di alcune citta’, e castelli suburbani. But I found still more satisfaction in perusing the book in three volumes, intitled, Roma antica, e moderna, which contains a description of everything remarkable in and about the city, illustrated with a great number of copper-plates, and many curious historical annotations. This directory cost me a zequine; but a hundred zequines will not purchase all the books and prints which have been published at Rome on these subjects. Of these the most celebrated are the plates of Piranesi, who is not only an ingenious architect and engraver, but also a learned antiquarian; though he is apt to run riot in his conjectures; and with regard to the arts of antient Rome, has broached some doctrines, which he will find it very difficult to maintain. Our young gentlemen who go to Rome will do well to be upon their guard against a set of sharpers, (some of them of our own country,) who deal in pictures and antiques, and very often impose upon the uninformed stranger, by selling him trash, as the productions of the most celebrated artists. The English are more than any other foreigners exposed to this imposition. They are supposed to have more money to throw away; and therefore a greater number of snares are laid for them. This opinion of their superior wealth they take a pride in confirming, by launching out into all manner of unnecessary expence: but, what is still more dangerous, the moment they set foot in Italy, they are seized with the ambition of becoming connoisseurs in painting, musick, statuary, and architecture; and the adventurers of this country do not fail to flatter this weakness for their own advantage. I have seen in different parts of Italy, a number of raw boys, whom Britain seemed to have poured forth on purpose to bring her national character into contempt, ignorant, petulant, rash, and profligate, without any knowledge or experience of their own, without any director to improve their understanding, or superintend their conduct. One engages in play with an infamous gamester, and is stripped perhaps in the very first partie: another is pillaged by an antiquated cantatrice; a third is bubbled by a knavish antiquarian; and a fourth is laid under contribution by a dealer in pictures. Some turn fiddlers, and pretend to compose: but all of them talk familiarly of the arts, and return finished connoisseurs and coxcombs, to their own country. The most remarkable phaenomenon of this kind, which I have seen, is a boy of seventy-two, now actually travelling through Italy, for improvement, under the auspices of another boy of twenty-two. When you arrive at Rome, you receive cards from all your country-folks in that city: they expect to have the visit returned next day, when they give orders not to be at home; and you never speak to one another in the sequel. This is a refinement in hospitality and politeness, which the English have invented by the strength of their own genius, without any assistance either from France, Italy, or Lapland. No Englishman above the degree of a painter or cicerone frequents any coffee-house at Rome; and as there are no public diversions, except in carnival-time, the only chance you have of seeing your compatriots is either in visiting the curiosities, or at a conversazione. The Italians are very scrupulous in admitting foreigners, except those who are introduced as people of quality: but if there happens to be any English lady of fashion at Rome, she generally keeps an assembly, to which the British subjects resort. In my next, I shall communicate, without ceremony or affectation, what further remarks I have made at Rome, without any pretence, however, to the character of a connoisseur, which, without all doubt, would fit very aukwardly upon — Dear Sir, Your Friend and Servant.

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