Italianizzati

Hugh Honour

  • A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701-1800 compiled by John Ingamells
    Yale, 1070 pp, £50.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 300 07165 5

There is no near equivalent to A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701-1800 apart from Friedrich Noack’s three volumes (1907-27) listing all the Germans in Rome, from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. The Dictionary is the brain-child of Sir Brinsley Ford, a collector of 17th and 18th-century art, a patron of living British painters, and in many ways a reincarnation of the ideal virtuoso and Grand Tourist. He was first drawn to the subject by the Roman landscapes of Richard Wilson; published a book on Wilson’s then little-known drawings; and went on to annotate the letters written from Rome in 1757 by a minor British painter who had mentioned Wilson and other British travellers and expatriates in the city. This led him to scour printed sources and consult Roman parish registers, then in the Vatican – tall, slender volumes in which, year by year and parish by parish, priests recorded every man, woman and child in the city, their attempts to spell foreign names providing not a few problems for the modern researcher. Widening his field of enquiry to the whole Italian peninsula and the whole of the 18th century, Brinsley Ford then began to read and make transcriptions from hundreds, if not thousands, of manuscript letters and diaries in British libraries, the Public Record Office and private archives. His generosity in sharing the results of his research with other students and scholars became all too well known and, at the age of 80, under constant demands for help, he passed his archive to the Paul Mellon Centre in London, which has now published it as this Dictionary, under the editorship of John Ingamells.

The Dictionary is unique in its comprehensiveness. No traveller from the British Isles or the British colonies in America who was spotted anywhere in Italy has been omitted, even if no more than his or her surname is known. The Mellon Centre’s researchers have trawled the British county record offices and the Archivio di Stato in every major Italian city. Hardly a minnow can have slipped through the net, though it has landed one whopper: Alexander Trippel, who was Swiss and described by a German in 1782 as ‘the greatest sculptor in Rome, that is to say the world’, is included as if he were an obscure British artist known only because he exported a relief and a portrait bust. This slip is of little moment, however. So closely is the Dictionary based on documents that the incidence of error is limited and it is hardly a complaint to say that some significant details could be added. A Mr Harris, for instance, about whom nothing is known save that he married the daughter of a British consul in Naples, is included, and it could have been mentioned that for want of an Anglican clergyman the ceremony was conducted by none other than the great German writer and Lutheran minister, Johann Gottfried Herder, who happened to be in the city that day. Likewise, some of the comments of Goethe’s friend, Alois Hirt, on artists in Rome in 1787 might have been quoted, notably those on Gavin Hamilton.

Among the travellers recorded in the Dictionary are 310 artists – painters, sculptors, architects, gem-carvers and engravers – from the Adam brothers to Wright of Derby. In Britain as elsewhere in Northern Europe and, indeed, in the states of Northern Italy, a visit to Rome was deemed an important if not an essential part of an artist’s education, although some who did not make it – Hogarth and Gainsborough, for instance – had more successful careers than the great majority of those who did. The idea spread across the Atlantic, Benjamin West being the first American artist to make the pilgrimage to Italy, sponsored by Philadelphian patrons. He spent three years there before going to England, where he decided to stay instead of returning to America. But artists did not go to Italy only to study what Reynolds called ‘the greatest works of art the world has produced’ – that is to say, the most famous antique statues and the paintings of Raphael and Michelangelo. Most of them hoped to obtain commissions from their rich compatriots, whom they might meet making the Grand Tour, and they might also hope to pick up diplomas of membership of Italian academies of art to enhance their status after their return home. Some stayed on in Italy for several years, Fuseli among them, a few for the rest of their lives, mainly in Rome, where they combined painting with the far more profitable activity of dealing in antiquities and Old Masters. From the mid-18th century they formed a small, exclusive colony financed by their compatriots, for whom they often acted as bankers and agents as well, employing Italian artists as restorers and fakers.

The number of British travellers and residents in 18th-century Italy is astonishing. There were, first of all, the diplomats en poste in Turin, in Venice (Consul Smith, who promoted the careers of Canaletto and other artists), Florence (Horace Mann, whose letters to Horace Walpole are famous) and Naples (Sir William Hamilton). There were political refugees, notably Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, and his brother, the Cardinal Duke of York (who was born in Rome and left only once to go to Paris in 1745 and prepare to go to England should the rebellion be successful). Many Jacobites had followed them and some may have ‘pined by Arno’ for their ‘lovelier Tees’ – though that was just Macaulay’s Whiggish gloss. Several seem to have settled down quite happily in the milder climate. But the diplomats were kept busy by the rumours of plots and spying, exacerbated by the presence of many scions of old Catholic families, who visited Italy partly for religious reasons but who also went sightseeing and antique-buying, like their Protestant compatriots. In Rome, Catholic priests formed part of the British colony, the genial Scot Peter Grant being ‘an agreeable companion to everybody’ and the Jesuit John Thorpe acting as an agent for the purchase of works of art. Father Thorpe commissioned paintings and furnishings for the chapel of Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, a unique surviving complex of 18th-century Roman art in England. One English nun is recorded, Mary Montagu, the granddaughter of Lady Mary. Many merchants travelled in Italy, some of them settling permanently in Leghorn, Naples, Venice and other port cities. There were also visitors with special interests: vulcanologists who went to see Vesuvius, agronomists such as Arthur Young, and the philanthropist John Howard, who inspected prisons and hospitals.

In this many-headed crowd of travellers it was, however, the young sprigs of the nobility and landed gentry, or milordi, who were conspicuous in their own time and have remained so in the historical record. Many sat for their portraits, usually in Rome, where Pompeo Batoni alone depicted more than two hundred, recording their fashionable clothes, pink cheeks and languid arrogance. Some, like the master of Robert Burns’s ‘Twa Dogs’, had set out in a ‘frolic daft’ simply

To make a tour an’ tak a whirl
To learn bon ton and see the worl’.

But the ostensible purpose of the Grand Tour – a term coined in the mid-century – was the completion of a classical education. In the hope that this might be achieved, travelling tutors known as ‘bear-leaders’ were engaged to accompany many lordlings. In some families the Tour seems to have become a traditional rite of passage – a father being followed a generation later by his son and then by his grandson. By the end of the century it was de rigueur for the upper class, the more fashion-conscious members of the middle class following in its wake. William Patoun, a painter who acted as a guide, compiled for an unnamed milordo in about 1766 a summary of sage advice: on the means and cost of transport, food (beware of salads with too much oil but ‘a cold tongue or a piece of roast beef in the chaise will prove an excellent companion’), clothing (black velvet coat and Lyon silk waistcoat for winter), necessary medicines, company to be cultivated or avoided, and the perennial problems of changing money and disbursing tips. (This previously unpublished manuscript is printed as a Preface to the Dictionary.)

The Tour might, however, also serve as an excuse for leaving England. The Duke of Gloucester, a younger brother of George III, went to Italy in 1771 to meet his mistress, in 1775 to live with the wife he had married without the King’s consent, and in 1786 with his wife and another mistress. His nephew, Prince Augustus Frederick, whose marriage George III refused to recognise, spent ten years in Italy, where he financed excavations for antiquities, patronised artists and musicians, and provided a room for a German to give lectures on Kant’s philosophy. But he was said to keep bad company and a contemporary reported that ‘even a Grub St journal would be contaminated with the stories that are told.’ Several ladies separated from their husbands found refuge in Italy: Lady Craven, who became the mistress and then the wife of the Margrave of Ansbach; the bigamously married Duchess of Kingston, ‘that pompous piece of effrontery and impertinence’, according to Horace Walpole; the Countess of Belvidere, after her imprisonment in Ireland for adultery; Lady Elizabeth Foster, mistress of the Duke of Devonshire and bosom friend of his Duchess; Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was drawn to Italy by her love for the ambidextrous Francesco Algarotti and then took up with a Brescian count who swindled her; the free-thinking Countess of Orford, who became entirely italianizzata and had amorous liaisons with, in turn, a Neapolitan castrato, an English clergyman, an Italian intellectual and an Austrian diplomat. The notorious Whig courtesan Elizabeth Armitstead was on the move in Italy for some time, pursuing or being pursued by Lords Cholmondeley, Coleraine and others, before she settled down with Charles James Fox. Though many, perhaps most, of the women travellers were eminently respectable, being accompanied by husbands or fathers (like Horace Walpole’s darling Mary and Agnes Berry), a surprising number went on their own.

The amorous affairs of the young Grand Tourists seem usually to have been conducted within the endogamous British upper class, although David Hume made himself ridiculous by his unrequited passion for a Piedmontese countess and James Boswell did more than flirt with a Sienese lady foolish enough to fall for him. ‘Whore hunting amang groves o’ myrtles’ may have been as common as Burns implies but few explicit accounts survive in diaries or in letters written for home consumption. The young Lord Annandale was commended in Siena as an example of ‘how Englishmen should behave’, but in Rome he was reported to have ‘f—d a girl on Pont de St Angelo after getting d—k’ – which was perhaps how many Englishmen did behave. References to homosexual escapades, for which Italy provided ample opportunities, were, as a rule, politely veiled. The painter Thomas Patch, who had been expelled from Rome for pederasty, spent the rest of his life happily in Florence untroubled by the authorities. He was described by William Patoun simply and bluntly as ‘a—’. In Genoa, however, a certain Richard Creswell was accused of 38 flagrant acts of sodomy ‘in his own house, the streets, the porches of churches and palaces’. This was too much for the curiously entitled Magistrato dei virtuosi who investigated such cases and he was imprisoned; but the British consul ‘had hopes of stifling the process in regard to the nation’s honour’ and seems to have succeeded. Although condemned by Church and State, homosexuality was generally regarded as a matter for the individual conscience so long as it was discreet. The exquisite Lord Tylney, for instance, who was said to have been unable to resist ‘the temptations and instigation of a passion, contrary to reason, – at which nature shudders, which has banished him a (willing) exile from his country’, was able to live peacefully in his Florentine house, ‘all over blue and silver, with stuffed birds, alabaster Cupids and a thousand prettinesses more’. The sexual proclivities of other residents who never married would nowadays arouse suspicion but it would be anachronistic to invoke a ‘gay sub-culture’ or anything resembling it in 18th-century Italy.

The strangely cut section of British society revealed in the Dictionary was not without its share of debtors, criminals and impostors. In addition to notorious international financiers, such as John Law of the Mississippi Bubble, who ended his days in Venice, there was a varied selection of other well-marked specimens. A Mr Black, for instance, first a Jesuit then a Protestant, who assumed the name of Smith, claimed to have been a bishop in England and returned to the Roman Church in the vain hope of obtaining a pension from the Pope, was described as ‘a composition of infidelity, religion, vice, rattle, literature, poverty and affectation of riches’. And he was only one of many who consorted happily, no doubt, with the more well-to-do eccentrics, among whom Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s son Edward was conspicuous. He settled in Venice, wore Oriental costume and received visitors seated like a pasha, flanked by two Nubian servants instructed to strip off their loincloths if anyone referred to them as eunuchs.

The ‘Dictionary’ is packed with anecdotes about the famous, the infamous and many people otherwise forgotten, all briskly recounted by their contemporaries. In this way it enlarges understanding of life in the 18th century, and not only that of the upper classes, quotations from the diary of a manservant, Edmund Dewes, being notable in this respect. Nevertheless, one may well ponder on the effect of all this jolting about and sight-seeing. Most Grand Tourists seem to have travelled and returned home with their religious, political and racial prejudices unchanged and an enhanced notion of their own superiority, categorising those they met as ‘men, women and Italians’, as did Richardson in The History of Sir Charles Grandison. To them, Italy was not only a foreign country but a land of the past, as it was long to remain in the eyes of North Europeans. The paintings they bought in Venice, Florence and Rome were mainly views of old buildings, the sculptures mainly restored antiquities and copies after the antique, the portraits usually of themselves lording it over the ancient ruins and statues in the background. Their references to recent works of art and architecture were disparaging, although some enjoyed contemporary Italian music, much of which they had, of course, already heard in London. For them, Italian literature came to an end with Tasso. Very few made contact with living writers, apart from antiquaries, though an exception was made for Melchiorre Cesarotti, the translator of Ossian and therefore almost an honorary Scot.

Yet, no matter how blinkered most of them may have been, the Grand Tourists left an indelible mark on British culture. Had Gibbon not followed the route to Rome he would never have written his great work. ‘Would Reynolds have done what he did, if he had never seen Italy?’ David Wilkie asked. Architects benefited even more, from Lord Burlington and William Kent to the Adam brothers, William Chambers, James Wyatt and John Soane. Palladian and later classically inspired country houses stand as enduring monuments to the Grand Tour as a cultural phenomenon that was brought to an end by the wars of the French Revolution.

It is poignant that publication of the Dictionary should have coincided with news of the premature demise, incomplete, of the Dizionario biografico degli Italiani. One of the great works of corporative scholarship of our time, it began publication in 1960 and has become an indispensable tool for historians. The volumes already published include saints from Ambrose, Clare and Dominic onwards; Popes from the sixth-century Benedict I to Benedict XV, who died in 1922; explorers from Cabot to Columbus; statesmen from Cavour to Ciano; soldiers of fortune, scientists, inventors and industrialists as well as artists, musicians and writers. It is, in fact, the only work of its kind which may be set alongside the Dictionary of National Biography. The announcement that it will cease publication with the 50th volume, concluding the letter F, has come as a shock. It has testified to the maintenance of the highest Italian cultural standards through a troubled period. Might the Italian state or some international organisation come to the rescue?