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Letter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Travels through France and Italy

by Tobias Smollett

published by J. Mundell & Co.
Edinburgh, 1796.

The text is in the public domain.


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Letter

(p445) Letter XXVI

Nice, Jan. 15, 1765.

Dear Sir,

It is not without reason that Genoa is called La Superba. The city itself is very stately; and the nobles are very proud. Some few of them may be proud of their wealth; but, in general, their fortunes are very small. My friend Mr. R— assured me that many Genoese noblemen had fortunes of half a million of livres per annum: But the truth is, the whole revenue of the state does not exceed this sum; and the livre of Genoa p446is but about nine pence Sterling. There are about half a dozen of their nobles who have ten thousand a-year; but the majority have not above a twentieth part of that sum. They live with great parsimony in their families, and wear nothing but black in public; so that their expences are but small. If a Genoese nobleman gives an entertainment once a quarter, he is said to live upon the fragments all the rest of the year. I was told that one of them lately treated his friends, and left the entertainment to the care of his son, who ordered a dish of fish that cost a zechine, which is equal to about ten shillings Sterling. The old gentleman no sooner saw it appear on the table, than, unable to suppress his concern, he burst into tears, and exclaimed, Ah Figliuolo indegno! Siamo in Rovina! Siamo in precipizio!

I think the pride or ostentation of the Italians in general takes a more laudable turn than that of other nations. A Frenchman lays out his whole revenue upon tawdry suits of clothes, or in furnishing a magnificent repas of fifty or an hundred dishes, one half of which are not eatable, nor intended to be eaten. His wardrobe goes to the fripier; his dishes to the dogs, and himself to the devil, and, after his decease, no vestige of him remains.a A Genoese, on the other hand, keeps himself and his family at short allowance, that he may save money to build palaces and churches, which remain to after-ages so many monuments of his taste, piety, and munificence; and, in the mean time, give employment and bread to the poor and industrious.— There are some Genoese nobles who have each five or six elegant palaces, magnificently furnished, either in the city, or in different parts of the Riviera. The two streets called Strada Balbi and Strada Nova, are continued double ranges of palaces adorned with gardens and fountains; but their being painted on the outside, has, in my opinion, a poor effect.

The commerce of this city is at present not very considerable; yet it has the face of business. The streets are crowded with people; the shops are well furnished; and the markets abound with all sorts of excellent provision. The wine made in this neighbourhood is, however, p447very indifferent; and all that is consumed must be bought at the public cantine, where it is sold for the benefit of the state. Their bread is the whitest and the best I have tasted any where; and the beef, which they have from Piedmont, is juicy and delicious. The expence of eating in Italy is nearly the same as in France, about three shillings a-head for every meal. The state of Genoa is very poor; and their bank of St. George has received such rude shocks, first from the revolt of the Corsicans, and afterwards from the misfortunes of the city, when it was taken by the Austrians in the war of 1745, that it still continues to languish, without any near prospect of its credit being restored. Nothing shows the weakness of their state more than their having recourse to the assistance of France to put a stop to the progress of Paoli in Corsica; for, after all that has been said of the gallantry and courage of Paoli and his islanders, I am very credibly informed, that they might be very easily suppressed, if the Genoese had either vigour in the council or resolution in the field.

True it is, they made a noble effort in expelling the Austrians, who had taken possession of their city; but this effort was the effect of oppression and despair; and if I may believe the insinuation of some politicians in this part of the world, the Genoese would not have succeeded in that attempt, if they had not previously purchased with a large sum of money the connivance of the only person who could defeat the enterprise. For my own part, I can scarce entertain thoughts so prejudicial to the character of human nature, as to suppose a man capable of sacrificing, to such a consideration, the duty he owed his prince, as well as all regard to the lives of his soldiers, even those who lay sick in hospitals, and who, being dragged forth, were miserably butchered by the furious populace. There is one more presumption of his innocence, he still retains the favour of his sovereign, who could not well be supposed to share in the booty. "There are mysteries in politics which were never dreamed of in our philosophy, Horatio!" The possession of Genoa might have proved a troublesome bone of contention, which it might be convenient to lose p448by accident. Certain it is, when the Austrians returned after their expulsion, in order to retake the city, the engineer, being questioned by the general, declared he would take the place in fifteen days, on pain of losing his head; and in four days after this declaration the Austrians retired. This anecdote I learned from a worthy gentleman of this country, who had it from the engineer's own mouth. Perhaps it was the will of Heaven. You see how favourably Providence has interposed in behalf of the reigning empress of Russia, first in removing her husband; secondly, in ordaining the assassination of Prince Ivan, for which the perpetrators have been so liberally rewarded; it even seems determined to shorten the life of her own son, the only surviving rival from whom she had any thing to fear.

The Genoese have now thrown themselves into the arms of France for protection: I know not whether it would not have been a mark of greater sagacity to cultivate the friendship of England, with which they carry on an advantageous commerce. While the English are masters of the Mediterranean, they will always have it in their power to do incredible damage all along the Riviera, to ruin the Genoese trade by sea, and even to annoy the capital; for notwithstanding all the pains they have taken to fortify the mole and the city, I am greatly deceived if it is not still exposed to the danger, not only of a bombardment, but even of a cannonade. I am even sanguine enough to think a resolute commander might, with a strong squadron, sail directly into the harbour, without sustaining much damage, notwithstanding all the cannon of the place, which are said to amount to near five hundred. I have seen a cannonade of above four hundred pieces of artillery, besides bombs and cohorns, maintained for many hours, without doing much mischief.

During the last siege of Genoa, the French auxiliaries were obliged to wait at Monaco, until a gale of wind had driven the English squadron off the coast, and then they went along shore in small vessels, at the imminent risk of being taken by the British cruizers. By land I apprehend their march would be altogether impracticable, p449if the king of Sardinia had any interest to oppose it. He might either guard the passes or break up the road in twenty different places, so as to render it altogether impassable. Here it may not be amiss to observe, that when Don Philip advanced from Nice with his army to Genoa, he was obliged to march so close to the shore, that, in above fifty different places, the English ships might have rendered the road altogether impassable. The path, which runs generally along the face of a precipice washed by the sea, is so narrow that two men on horseback can hardly pass each other; and the road itself so rugged, slippery, and dangerous, that the troopers were obliged to dismount, and lead their horses one by one. On the other hand, Baron de Leutrum, who was at the head of a large body of Piedmontese troops, had it in his power to block up the passes of the mountains, and even to destroy this road in such a manner, that the enemy could not possibly advance. Why these precautions were not taken I do not pretend to explain: Neither can I tell you wherefore the Prince of Monaco, who is a subject and partizan of France, was indulged with a neutrality for his town, which served as a refreshing place, a safe port, and an intermediate post for the French succours sent from Marseilles to Genoa. This I will only venture to affirm, that the success and advantage of great alliances are often sacrificed to low, partial, selfish, and sordid considerations. The town of Monaco is commanded by every height in its neighbourhood; and might be laid in ashes by a bomb-ketch in four hours by sea.

I was fortunate enough to be recommended to a lady in Genoa, who treated us with great politeness and hospitality. She introduced me to an abbate, a man of letters, whose conversation was extremely agreeable. He already knew me by reputation, and offered to make me known to some of the first persons in the republic, with whom he lived in intimacy. The lady is one of the most intelligent and best-bred persons I have known in any country. We assisted at her conversazione, which was numerous. She pressed us to pass the winter at Genoa; and indeed I was almost persuaded: But I had p450attachments at Nice from which I could not easily disengage myself.

The few days we staid at Genoa were employed in visiting the most remarkable churches and palaces. In some of the churches, particularly that of the Annunciata, I found a profusion of ornaments, which had more magnificence than taste. There is a great number of pictures; but very few of them are capital pieces. I had heard much of the Ponte Carignano, which did not at all answer to my expectation. It is a bridge that unites two eminences, which form the higher part of the city, and the houses in the bottom below do not rise so high as the springing of its arches. There is nothing at all curious in its construction, nor any way remarkable, except the heighth of the piers from which the arches are sprung. Hard by the bridge there is an elegant church, from the top of which you have a very rich and extensive prospect of the city, the sea, and the adjacent country, which looks like a continent of groves and villas. The only remarkable circumstance about the cathedral, which is Gothic and gloomy, is the chapel where the pretended bones of John the Baptist are deposited, and in which thirty silver lamps are continually burning. I had a curiosity to see the palaces of Durazzo and Doria, but it required more trouble to procure admission than I was willing to give myself: As for the arsenal, and the rostrum of an ancient galley which was found by accident in dragging the harbour, I postponed seeing them till my return.

Having here provided myself with letters of credit for Florence and Rome, I hired the same boat which had brought us hither, to carry us forward to Lerici, which is a small town about half way between Genoa and Leghorn, where travellers, who are tired of the sea, take post chaises to continue their route by land to Pisa and Florence. I paid three Loui'dores for this voyage of about fifty miles, though I might have had a feluca for less money. When you land on the Wharf at Genoa, you are plied by the feluca men, just as you are plied by the watermen at Hungerford-stairs in London. They are always ready to set off at a minute's warning for Lerici, p451Leghorn, Nice, Antibes, Marseilles, and every part of the Riviera.

The wind being still unfavourable, though the weather was delightful, we rowed along shore, passing by several towns, villages, and a vast number of cassines, or little white houses, scattered among woods of olive trees, that cover the hills; and these are the habitations of the velvet and damask weavers. Turning Capo Fino we entered a bay, where stand the towns of Porto Fino, Lavagna, and Sestri di Levante, at which last we took up our night's lodging. The house was tolerable, and we had no great reason to complain of the beds: But, the weather being hot, there was a very offensive smell, which proceeded from some skins of beasts new killed, that were spread to dry on an out-house in the yard. Our landlord was a butcher, and had very much the looks of an assassin. His wife was a great masculine virago, who had all the air of having frequented the slaughter-house. Instead of being welcomed with looks of complaisance, we were admitted with a sort of gloomy condescension, which seemed to say, "We don't much like your company; but, however, you shall have a night's lodging in favour of the patron of the gondola, who is our acquaintance." In short, we had a very bad supper, miserably dressed, passed a very disagreeable night, and paid a very extravagant bill in the morning, without being thanked for our custom. I was very glad to get out of the house with my throat uncut.

Sestri de Levante is a little town pleasantly situated on the sea-side, but has not the conveniency of a harbour. The fish taken here is mostly carried to Genoa. This is likewise the market for their oil, and the paste called macaroni, of which they make a good quantity.

Next day we skirted a very barren coast, consisting of almost perpendicular rocks, on the faces of which, however, we saw many peasants houses and hanging terraces for vines, made by dint of incredible labour. In the afternoon, we entered by the Porto di Venere into the bay or gulf of Spetia, or Spezza, which was the Portus Lunae of the ancients. This bay, at the mouth of which lies the island Palmaria, forms a most noble p452and secure harbour, capacious enough to contain all the navies in christendom. The entrance on one side is defended by a small fort built above the town of Porto Venere, which is a very poor place. Farther in there is a battery of about twenty guns; and on the right hand, opposite to Porto Venere, is a block-house, founded on a rock in the sea. At the bottom of the bay is the town of Spetia on the left, and on the right that of Lerici, defended by a castle of very little strength or consequence. The whole bay is surrounded with plantations of olives and olives, and makes a very delightful appearance. In case of a war, this would be an admirable station for a British squadron, as it lies so near Genoa and Leghorn; and has a double entrance, by means of which the cruisers could sail in and out continually, which way soever the wind might chance to sit. I am sure the fortifications would give very little disturbance.

At the post-house in Lerici, the accommodation is intolerable. We were almost poisoned at supper. I found the place where I was to lie so close and confined, that I could not breathe in it, and therefore lay all night in an outward room upon four chairs, with a leathern portmanteau for my pillow. For this entertainment I paid very near a Loui'dore. Such bad accommodation is the less excusable, as the fellow has a great deal of business, this being a great thoroughfare for travellers going into Italy, or returning from thence.

I might have saved some money by prosecuting my voyage directly by sea to Leghorn: But, by this time, we were all heartily tired of the water: The business then was, to travel by land to Florence, by the way of Pisa, which is seven posts distant from Lerici. Those who have not their own carriage, must either hire chaises to perform the whole journey, or travel by way of cambiatura, which is that of changing the chaises every post, as the custom is in England. In this case the great inconvenience arises from your being obliged to shift your baggage every post. The chaise or calesse of this country is a wretched machine with two wheels, as uneasy as a common cart, being p453indeed no other than what we should call in England a very ill-contrived one-horse chair, narrow, naked, shattered, and shabby. For this vehicle and two horses you pay at the rate of eight paoli a stage, or four shillings Sterling; and the postillion expects two paoli for his gratification: So that every eight miles cost about five shillings, and four only if you travel in your own carriage, as in that case you pay no more than at the rate of three paoli a horse.

About three miles from Lerici we crossed the Magra, which appeared as a rivulet almost dry, and in half a mile farther arrived at Sarzana, a small town at the extremity of the Genoese territories, where we changed horses. Then entering the principalities of Massa and Carrara, belonging to the Duke of Modena, we passed Lavenza, which seems to be a decayed town with a small garrison, and dined at Massa, which is an agreeable little town, where the old duchess of Modena resides. Notwithstanding all the expedition we could make, it was dark before we passed the Cerchio, which is an inconsiderable stream in the neighbourhood of Pisa, where we arrived about eight in the evening.

The country from Sarzana to the frontiers of Tuscany is a narrow plain bounded on the right by the sea, and on the left by the Apennine mountains. It is well cultivated and enclosed, consisting of meadow-ground, cornº fields, plantations of olives; and the trees that form the hedge-rows serve as so many props to the vines, which are twisted round them, and continued from one another. After entering the dominions of Tuscany, we travelled through a noble forest of oak trees of a considerable extent, which would have appeared much more agreeable, had we not been benighted and apprehensive of robbers. The last post but one in this day's journey is at the little town of Spirito Santo, a kind of sea-port on the Mediterranean. The roads are indifferent, and the accommodation is execrable. I was glad to find myself housed in a very good inn at Pisa, where I promised myself a good night's rest, and was not disappointed. I heartily wish you the same pleasure, and am very sincerely

Yours.


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