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Bill Thayer

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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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p454 Letter XXVII

Nice, Jan. 28. 1765.

Dear Sir,

Pisa is a fine old city that strikes you with the same veneration you would feel at sight of an ancient temple which bears the marks of decay without being absolutely dilapidated. The houses are well built, the streets open, straight, and well paved; the shops well furnished; and the markets well supplied: There are some elegant palaces, particularly that of the grand-duke, with a marble statue of Ferdinand III. before it. The churches are built with taste, and tolerably ornamented. There is a beautiful wharf of free-stone on each side of the river Arno, which runs through the city, and three bridges thrown over it, of which that in the middle is of marble, a pretty piece of architecture: But the number of inhabitants is very inconsiderable; and this very circumstance gives it an air of majestic solitude, which is far from being unpleasant to a man of a contemplative turn of mind. For my part, I cannot bear the tumult of a populous commercial city; and the solitude that reigns in Pisa would be a strong motive to choose it as a place of residence. Not that this would be the only inducement for living at Pisa. Here is some good company, and even a few men of taste and learning. The people in general are counted sociable and polite; and there is great plenty of provisions, at a very reasonable rate. At some distance from the more frequented parts of the city, a man may hire a large house for thirty crowns a-year: But near the centre, you cannot have good lodgings ready furnished for less than a scudo (about five shillings) a day. The air in summer is reckoned unwholesome by the exhalations arising from stagnant water in the neighbourhood of the city, which stands in the midst of a fertile plain, low and marshy: Yet these marshes have been considerably drained by the new canal extending from hence to Leghorn. As for the Arno,º it is no longer navigable for vessels of any burden. The university p455of Pisa is very much decayed; and except the little business occasioned by the emperor's galleys, which are built in this town, I know of no commerce it carries on: Perhaps the inhabitants live on the produce of the country, which consists of corn,º wine, and cattle. They are supplied with excellent water for drinking, by an aqueduct consisting of above five thousand arches, begun by Cosmo, and finished by Ferdinand I. grand-dukes of Tuscany; it conveys the water from the mountains at the distance of five miles. This noble city, formerly the capital of a flourishing and powerful republic, which contained above one hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants within its walls, is now so desolate that grass grows in the open streets; and the number of its people do not exceed sixteen thousand.

You need not doubt but I visited the Campanile, or hanging tower, which is a beautiful cylinder of eight storeys, each adorned with a round of columns, rising one above another. It stands by the cathedral, and inclines so far on one side from the perpendicular, that in dropping a plummet from the top, which is one hundred and eighty-eight feet high, it falls sixteen feet from the base. For my part, I should never have dreamed that this inclination proceeded from any other cause, than an accidental subsidence of the foundation on this side, if some connoisseurs had not taken great pains to prove it was done on purpose by the architect. Any person who has eyes may see that the pillars on that side are considerably sunk; and this is the case with the very threshold of the door by which you enter. I think it would have been a very preposterous ambition in the architects, to show how far they could deviate from the perpendicular in this construction; because in that particular any common mason could have rivalled them; and if they really intended it as a specimen of their art, they should have shortened the pilasters on that side, so as to exhibit them entire, without the appearance of sinking. These leaning towers are not unfrequent in Italy; there is one at Bologna, another at Venice, a third betwixt Venice and Ferrara, and a fourth at Ravenna; and the inclination in all of p456them has been supposed owing to the foundations giving way on one side only.

In the cathedral, which is a large Gothic pile, there is a great number of massy pillars of porphyry, granite, jasper, and verde antico, together with some good pictures and statues; but the greatest curiosity is that of the brass gates, designed and executed by John of Bologna,a representing, embossed in different compartments, the history of the Old and New Testament. I was so charmed with this work, that I could have stood a whole day to examine and admire it. In the Baptisterium, which stands opposite to this front, there are some beautiful marbles, particularly the font, and a pulpit, supported by the statues of different animals.

Between the cathedral and this building, about one hundred paces on one side, is the famous burying ground, called Campo Santo, from its being covered with earth brought from Jerusalem. It is an oblong square, surrounded by a very high wall, and always kept shut. Within side there is a spacious corridore round the whole space, which is a noble walk for a contemplative philosopher. It is paved chiefly with flat grave-stones: The walls are painted in fresco by Ghiotto, Giottino, Stefano, Bennoti, Buffalmaco, and some others of his contemporariesº and disciples who flourished immediately after the restoration of painting. The subjects are taken from the Bible. Though the manner is dry, the drawing incorrect, the design generally lame, and the colouring unnatural; yet there is merit in the expression: And the whole remains as a curious monument of the efforts made by this noble art immediately after her revival. Here are some deceptions in perspective equally ingenious and pleasing; particularly the figures of certain animals, which exhibit exactly the same appearance from whatever points of view they are seen. One division of the burying-ground consists of a particular compost, which in nine days consumes the dead bodies to the bones: In all probability it is no other than common earth mixed with quick-lime. At one corner of the corridore, there are the pictures of three bodies represented in the three different stages of p457putrefaction which they undergo when laid in this composition. At the end of the three first days, the body is bloated and swelled, and the features are enlarged and distorted to such a degree, as fills the spectator with horror. At the sixth day the swelling is subsided, and all the muscular flesh hangs loosened from the bones; at the ninth, nothing but the skeleton remains. There is a small neat chapel at one end of the Campo Santo, with some tombs, on one of which is a beautiful bust by Buona Roti.b At the other end of the corridore, there is a range of ancient Roman stone-coffins, representing on the sides and covers some excellent pieces in basso-rilievo. The hunting of Meleager has been greatly admired; but what struck me most was the figure of a woman lying dead on a tomb-stone, covered with a piece of thin drapery, so delicately cut as to show all the flexures of the attitude, and even all the swellings and sinuosities of the muscles. Instead of stone, it looks like a sheet of wet linen.

For four zechinesº I hired a return coach and four from Pisa to Florence. This road, which lies along the Arno, is very good; and the country is delightful, variegated with hill and vale, wood and water, meadows and corn-fields, planted and enclosed like the countries of Middlesex and Hampshire; with this difference, however, that all the trees in this tract were covered with vines, and the ripe clusters, black and white, hung down from every bough in the most luxuriant and romantic abundance. The vines in this country are not planted in rows, and propped up with sticks, as in France and the county of Nice, but twine around the hedge‑row-trees, which they almost quite cover with their foliage and fruit. The branches of the vine are extended from tree to tree, exhibiting beautiful festoons of real leaves, tendrils, and swelling clustres, a foot long. By this economy the ground of the enclosure is spared for corn, grass, or any other production. The trees commonly planted for the purpose of sustaining the vines, are maple, elm, and aller, with which last the banks of the Arno abound. This river, which is very inconsiderable with respect to the quantity of water, would be a charming pastoral p458stream if it was transparent; but it is always muddy and discoloured. About ten or a dozen miles below Florence, there are some marble quarries on the side of it, from whence the blocks are conveyed in boats, when there is water enough in the river to float them, that is, after heavy rains, or the melting of the snow upon the mountains of Umbria, being part of the Apennines, from whence it takes its rise.

Florence is a noble city, that still retains all the marks of a majestic capital, such as piazzas, palaces, fountains, bridges, statues, and arcades. I need not tell you that the churches here are magnificent, and adorned not only with pillars of oriental granite, porphyry, jasper, verde antico, and other precious stones; but also with capital pieces of painting by the most eminent masters. Several of these churches, however, stand without fronts, for want of money to complete the plans. It may also appear superfluous to mention my having viewed the famous gallery of antiquities, the chapel of S. Lorenzo, the palace of Pitti, with its statues, the triumphal arch, and every thing which is commonly visited in this metropolis. But all these objects having been circumstantially described by twenty different authors of travels, I shall not trouble you with a repetition of trite observations.

That part of the city which stands on each side of the river makes a very elegant appearance, to which the four bridges and the stone-quay between them contribute in a great measure. I lodged at the widow Vanini's, an English house, delightfully situated in this quarter. The landlady, who is herself a native of England, we found very obliging. The lodging-rooms are comfortable; and the entertainment is good and reasonable. There is a considerable number of fashionable people at Florence, and many of them in good circumstances. They affect a gaiety in their dress, equipage, and conversation; but stand very much on their punctilio with strangers; and will not, without great reluctance, admit into their assemblies any lady of another country whose noblesse is not ascertained by a title. This reserve p459is in some measure excusable among a people who are extremely ignorant of foreign customs, and who know that in their own country, every person, even the most insignificant, who has any pretensions to family, either inherits, or assumes the title of principe conte, or marchese.

With all their pride, however, the nobles of Florence are humble enough to enter into partnership with shopkeepers, and even to sell wine by retail. It is an undoubted fact, that in every palace or great house in this city, there is a little window fronting the street, provided with an iron-knocker, and over it hangs an empty flask, by way of sign-post. Thither you send your servant to buy a bottle of wine. He knocks at the little wicket, which is opened immediately by a domestic, who supplies him with what he wants, and receives the money like the waiter of any other cabaret. It is pretty extraordinary that it should not be deemed a disparagement in a noblemanº to select half a pound of figs, or a palm of ribbon or tape, or to take money for a flask of sour wine; and yet be counted infamous to match his daughter in the family of a person who has distinguished himself in any one of the learned professions.

Though Florence be tolerably populous, there seems to be very little trade of any kind in it: But the inhabitants flatter themselves with the prospect of reaping great advantage from the residence of one of the archdukes, for whose reception they are now repairing the palace of Pitti. I know not what the revenues of Tuscany may amount to since the succession of the princes of Lorrain; but, under the late dukes of the Medici family, they were said to produce two millions of crowns, equal to five hundred thousand pounds Sterling. These arose from a very heavy tax upon land and houses, the portions of maidens, and suits at law, besides the duties upon traffic, a severe gabelle upon the necessaries of life, and a toll upon every eatable entered into this capital. If we may believe Leti, the grand duke was then able to raise and maintain an army of forty thousand infantry, and three thousand horse; with twelve galleys, two galleasses, and twenty ships of war. I question if Tuscany p460can maintain, at present, above one half of such an armament. He that now commands the emperor's navy, consisting of a few frigates, is an Englishman, called Acton, who was heretofore captain of a ship in our East-India Company's service. He has lately embraced the Catholic religion, and been created admiral of Tuscany.

There is a tolerable opera in Florence for the entertainment of the best company, though they do not seem very attentive to the music. Italy is certainly the native country of this art; and yet I do not find the people in general, either more musically inclined, or better provided with ears than their neighbours. Here is also a wretched troop of comedians for the burgeois, and lower class of people: But what seems most to suit the taste of all ranks, is the exhibition of church pageantry. I had occasion to see a procession, where all the noblesse of the city attended in their coaches, which filled the whole length of the great fleet called the Corso. It was the anniversary of a charitable institution in favour of poor maidens, a certain number of whom are portioned every year. About two hundred of these virgins walked in procession, two and two together, clothed in violet-coloured wide gowns, with white veils on their heads, and made a very classical appearance. They were preceded and followed by an irregular mob of penitents in sackcloth, with lighted tapers, and monks carrying crucifixes, bawling and bellowing the litanies: But the great object was a figure of the Virgin Mary, as big as the life, standing within a gilt frame, dressed in a gold stuff, with a large hoop, a great quantity of false jewels, her face painted and patched, and her hair frizzled and curled in the very extremity of the fashion. Very little regard had been paid to the image of our Saviour on the cross; but when his lady-mother appeared on the shoulders of three or four lusty friars, the whole population fell upon their knees in the dirt. This extraordinary veneration paid to the Virgin must have been derived originally from the French, who pique themselves on their gallantry to the fair sex.

Amidst all the scenery of the Roman Catholic religion, p461I have never yet seen any of the spectators affected at heart, or discover the least signs of fanaticism. The very disciplinants, who scourage themselves in the holy-week, are generally peasants, or parties hired for the purpose. Those of the confrairies, who have an ambition to distinguish themselves on such occasions, take care to secure their backs from the smart, by means of secret armour, either womens boddice, or quilted jackets. The confrairies are fraternities of devotees, who inlist themselves under the banners of particular saints. On days of procession they appear in a body dressed as penitents and masked, and distinguished by crosses on their habits. There is scarce an individual, whether noble or plebeian, who does not belong to one of these associations, which may be compared to the Free Masons, Gregoreans, and Antigallicans of England.

Just without one of the gates of Florence, there is a triumphal arch erected on occasion of the late emperor's making his public entry, when he succeeded to the dukedom of Tuscany; and here, in the summer evenings, the quality resort to take the air in their coaches. Every carriage stops, and forms a little separate conversazione. The ladies sit within, and the cicisbei stand on the foot-boards, on each side of the coach, entertaining them with their discourse. It would be no unpleasant inquiry to trace this sort of gallantry to its original, and investigate all its progress. The Italians, having been accused of jealousy, were resolved to wipe off the reproach, and, seeking to avoid it for the future, have run into the other extreme. I know it is generally supposed that the custom of choosing cicisbei was calculated to prevent the extinction of families, which would otherwise often happen in consequence of marriages founded upon interest, without any mutual affection in the contracting parties. How far this political consideration may have weighed against the jealous and vindictive temper of the Italians, I will not pretend to judge; but certain it is, every married lady in this country has her cicisbeo, or serviente, who attends her every where, and on all occasions; and upon whose privileges the husband dares not encroach, without incurring the censure and ridicule of the whole p462community. For my part, I would rather be condemned for life to the galleys than exercise the office of a cicisbeo, exposed to the intolerable caprices and dangerous resentment of an Italian virago. I pretend not to judge of the national character from my own observation: But, if the portraits drawn by Goldoni in his comedies are taken from nature, I would not hesitate to pronounce the Italian women the most haughty, insolent, capricious, and revengeful females on the face of the earth. Indeed their resentments are so cruelly implacable, and contain such a mixture of perfidy, that, in my opinion, they are very unfit subjects for comedy, whose province it is, rather to ridicule folly than to stigmatize such atrocious vice.

You have often heard it said, that the purity of the Italian is to be found in the lingua Toscana and bocca Romana. Certain it is, the pronunciation of the Tuscans is disagreeably guttural: The letters C and G they pronounce with an asperation,c which hurts the ear of an Englishman; and is, I think, rather rougher than that of the X in Spanish. It sounds as if the speaker had lost his palate. I really imagined the first man I heard speak in Pisa had met with that misfortune in the course of his amours.

One of the greatest curiosities you meet with in Italy is the Improvisatore; such is the name given to certain individuals, who have the surprising talent of reciting verses extempore on any subject you propose. Mr. Corvesi, my landlord, has a son, a Franciscan friar, who is a great genius in this way. When the subject is given, his brother tunes his violin to accompany him, and he begins to rehearse in recitative, with wonderful fluency and precision. Thus, he will, at a minute's warning, recite two or three hundred verses, well turned, and well adapted, and generally mingled with an elegant compliment to the company. The Italians are so fond of poetry, that many of them have the best part of Ariosto, Tasso, and Petrarch, by heart; and these are the great sources from which the improvisatori draw their rhimes, cadence, and turns of expression. But, lest you should think there is neither rhime nor reason in protracting this tedious epistle, I shall conclude it with old burden of my song, that I am always

Your affectionate humble servant.

Thayer's Notes:

a John of Bologna: The Flemish sculptor usually now referred to by the Italian rather than an English translation of his name, as Giambologna.

b Buona Roti: Michelangelo Buonarroti, of course.

c The letters C and G they pronounce with an asperation: An interesting slip in spelling, either Smollett's, or more probably the printer's. Aspiration is meant, of course (from spirare, "to breathe"); but someone is connecting this with asper, the Latin word for "rough".

Since his time, Tuscan pronunciation has softened, from a -kh- sound to a simple -h-; but it remains every bit as distinctive: see my diary for the first time I ran into it.

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