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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.

Smollett's text is in the public domain. My photos and notes are not.

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 p471  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;​a as well as the history of Æneas Sylvias, afterwards Pope Pius II painted on the walls of the library, partly by Pietro Perugino, and partly by his pupil Raphael D'Urbino.​b

Next day at Buon Convento, where the emperor Henry VII. was poisoned by a friar with the sacramental wafer,​c 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 postillion 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  p472 bruised, and almost strangled, before they could be disengaged. Exasperated at the villainy of the hostler, I resolved to make a complaint to the magistrate of the place, who is called uffiziale. 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, meagre, and haggard, 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 post-master came up stairs, and I suppose he was the first man in the place, for the uffiziale stood before him cap in-hand, 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-postillion, 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, postillions, 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  p473 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 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 fire-places, 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 ancient Volsinium, which was the birth-place of Sejanus, is a paltry 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 —

but, in order to see Montefiascone, his eye-sight must have penetrated through the Mons Cyminus, at the foot of which stands the city of Viterbo. Pliny tells us, that Soracte was not far from Rome, haud procul ab urbe  p474 Roma;​d but Montefiascone is fifty miles from this city. And Desprez, in his notes upon Horace, says it is now called Monteº S. Oreste.​e 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 postillions 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 Matilda 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 ancients, we skirted part of the lake, which is now called the Vico, and whose banks afford the most agreeable rural prospects of hill and vale, wood, glade, and water, shade and sunshine. 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 ancient cultivation and fertility. It is nothing but a naked withered down, desolate and dreary, almost without enclosure, cornº-field, hedge, tree, shrub, house, hut, or habitation; exhibiting  p475 here and there the ruins of an ancient castellum, tomb, or temple, and in some places the remains of a Roman via. I had heard much of these ancient works, 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 conveniencies of life.

The Grand Tour says, that within four miles of Rome you see a tomb on the road-side, said to be that of Nero, with sculpture in basso rilievo 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 Paschalº II. in consequence of a solemn fast and a revelation, went thither in procession with his court and cardinals, cut down the tree, 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  p476 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 Æmilius 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 solicit 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 ancient Campus Martius, where the comitia 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 ancient 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.​f 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; 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  p477 di Ripetta, provided with stairs of each side, and adorned with an elegant fountain, that yields abundance of excellent water.​g

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 ancient 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 ancient city, and that the bed of the river is raised in proportion; but this is altogether incredible. Had the bed of the Tyber been anciently 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 ancient city.​h Appian, Dio, and other historians, describe an inundation of the Tyber, 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,

Ira dejectum monumenta regis,

Templaque Vestae:

Iliae dum se nimium querenti

Jactat ultorem; vagus et sinistrâ

Labitur ripâ, 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" — To this custom of transferring the Ludi Apollinares to another place  p478 whenº the Tyber had overflowed the Circus Maximus, Ovid alludes in his Fasti:

Alter gramineo spectabis equiria campo

Quem Tiberis curvis in latus urget aquis.

Qui tamen ejecta si forte tenebitur unda,

Caeliusº accipiet pulverulentus equos.

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 Egyptian obelisk, brought hither from the Circus Maximus, and set up by the architect Domenico 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.​i Such an august entrance cannot fail to impress the stranger with a sublime idea of this venerable city.​j

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 di piazza,º 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 economy, I would choose another part of the town than the Piazza d'Espagna, which is, besides, at a great distance from the  p479 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 landlords for two and thirtyº 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, especially the vitella mongana, which is the most delicate veal I ever tasted, but 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 so 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 ancient and modern Rome, together with the little manual, called, Itinerario istruttivo per ritrovareº 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, intituled, Roma antica, e moderna, which contains a description of every thing remarkable in and about the city, illustrated with a great number of copperplates, 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  p480 in his conjectures; and with regard to the arts of ancient 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 poxed and 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,º 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 phenomenon 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  p481 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 for 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 sit very awkwardly upon,

Dear Sir,
Your friend and servant.

Thayer's Notes:

a It is indeed a splendid pavement; see for example this photoillustrated page.

b Current scholar­ship attributes it entirely to Pinturicchio. Several good photos can be found here.

c Current wisdom is that the Holy Roman Emperor's death in August 1313 was due to a sudden illness, which rather begs the question, frankly. Smollett is picking up on a story that had long been floating around: a hundred years before him Sir Thomas Browne addressed it, but prudently as was his wont, without confirming or denying it.

The Tale of the Poisoned Communion Host, however, is frequently told of various people and periods, like for example Queen Olympia, the consort of Arshak II of Armenia. The sudden death of Henry VII is merely the most famous version: neither I nor anyone else knows the ultimate source of the story, and as with most gossip, rumors, and urban legends, it's unlikely anyone ever will.

d Twice. Once, sort of, in the passage Smollett is thinking of; a second time here.

Smollett is quite right, that Montefiascone, at the top of the highest hill in the area at 596 m, cannot be seen from Rome because the Monti Cimini are in the way: they are in the 800‑1000 m range. The low but strikingly-shaped mountain now known as M. Soratte is the one Desprez refers to (see the next note, below); which doesn't necessarily mean that it is the mountain the ancients called Soracte.

From Rome, despite sometimes actually looking for it, I've never seen M. Soratte: pollution might account for that. From M. Soratte, I could not see Rome — but I did not climb to the top of the mountain, just skirting its W flank.

[image ALT: An isolated mountain ridge, seen along its length of several miles, emerging from a plain. It has seven fairly distinct summits; it is Mount Soratte in the northern Lazio, north of Rome.]

M. Soratte from the modern Via Flaminia, due W of it.

e Today's village of S. Oreste is about 5 km SW of the summit of M. Soratte (to give it its modern Italian spelling), on a sort of natural platform jutting out southwards from its base: the photo above shows the mountain; the town is just off-photo to the right. Just under the surface of Desprez' statement, which is accurate, I suspect something else not quite true, viz. that Sant' Oreste would be a corruption of Soracte. In fact, it appears to be a corruption of S. (H)Edisti. See S. Hédiste et S. Oreste.

f Lots of people have thought otherwise, of course. The best starting-point online is The Tiber River, Tiber Bridges, and Tiber Island in Rome.

g Smollett was right: the Ripetta (see this 18c engraving on a very informative page) was considered very beautiful. There is not a trace of it left. It was destroyed in the 1930s.

h Smollett is right in the essentials, and totally wrong-headed about the details.

The Tiber did in fact overflow in Antiquity just as often and as badly as it did in more recent times, until a very thorough program was undertaken by the new secular government of post-Papal Rome in the 1870s, when the river bed was dredged and its banks were raised and reinforced.

On the other hand, the riverbed was indeed considerably raised by the rubbish of old Rome, and in particular by the extraordinary, and appropriate, measures taken by Nero after the fire in 66 A.D. He ordered all the débris pushed into the Tiber as fast as possible: this was not laziness, but good management of what would have quickly become, in those days before modern medicine, a horrific epidemic from the festering corpses of animals. Smollett's hydrological explanation is curious, at best.

i The (almost) twin churches of S. Maria di Montesanto on the E side, and S. Maria dei Miracoli on the W side.

j That is exactly what it was designed to do. The Porta Flaminia was the main entrance into Rome from the North, and it was at least once in its history very consciously refurbished to welcome and impress a stranger: in 1655, Queen Christina of Sweden — who had lost her throne by converting to Catholicism — arrived in the Pope's city to find the gate embellished by Bernini and a plaque wishing her happiness and success.

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