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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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 p481  Letter XXX

Nice, February 28, 1765.

Dear Sir,

Nothing can be more agreeable to the eyes of a stranger, especially in the heats of summer, than the great number of public fountains that appear in every part of Rome, embellished with all the ornaments of sculpture, and pouring forth prodigious quantities of cool, delicious water, brought in aqueducts from different lakes, rivers, and sources, at a considerable distance from the city. These works are the remains of the munificence and industry of the ancient Romans, who were extremely delicate in the article of water: But, however, great applause is also due to those beneficent popes who have been at the expence of restoring and repairing those noble channels of health, pleasure, and convenience. This great plenty of water, nevertheless,  p482 has not induced the Romans to be cleanly. Their streets, and even their palaces, are disgraced with filth. The noble Piazza Navona is adorned with three or four fountains, one of which is perhaps the most magnificent that Europe can produce, and all of them discharge vast streams of water: but notwithstanding this provision, the piazza is almost as dirty as West-Smithfield, where the cattle are sold in London. The corridores, arcades, and even stair-cases belonging to their most elegant palaces, are depositories of nastiness, and indeed in summer smell as strong as spirit of hartshorn. I have a great notion that their ancestors were not much more cleanly. If we consider that the city and suburbs of Rome, in the reign of Claudius, contained about seven millions of inhabitants, a number equal at least to the sum total of all the souls in England; that great part of ancient Rome was allotted to temples, porticos, basilicae, theatres, thermae, circi, public and private walks and gardens, where very few, if any, of this great number lodged; that by far the greatest part of those inhabitants were slaves and poor people who did not enjoy the conveniencies of life; and that the use of linen was scarce known; we must naturally conclude they were strangely crowded together, and that in general they were a very frowzy generation. That they were crowded together appears from the height of their houses, which the poet Rutilius compared to towers made for scaling heaven. In order to remedy this inconvenience, Augustus Caesar published a decree, that for the future no houses should be built above seventy feet high, which, at a moderate computation, might make six stories. But what seems to prove beyond all dispute, that the ancient Romans were dirty creatures, are these two particulars. Vespasian laid a tax upon urine and ordure, on pretence of being at a great expence in clearing the streets from such nuisances;​a an imposition which amounted to about fourteen pence a-year for every individual; and when Heliogabalus ordered all the cobwebs of the city and suburbs to be collected, they were found to weigh ten thousand pounds. This was intended as a demonstration of the great number of inhabitants; but it was a  p483 proof of their dirt, rather than of their populosity.​b I might likewise add, the delicate custom of taking vomits at each other's houses, when they were invited to dinner, or supper, that they might prepare their stomachs for gormandizing; a beastly proof of their nastiness as well as gluttony. Horace, in his description of the banquet of Nasidienus, says, when the canopy, under which they sat, fell down, it brought along with it as much dirt as is raised by a hard gale of wind in dry weather.​c

— "trahentia pulveris atri,

Quantum non aquilo Campanis excitat agris."

I might observe that the streets were often encumbered with the putrifying carcasses of criminals, who had been dragged through them by the heels, and precipitated from the Scalae Gemoniae, or Tarpeian rock,​d before they were thrown into the Tiber, which was the general receptacle of the cloaca maxima, and all the filth of Rome: Besides, the bodies of all those who made away with themselves without sufficient cause; of such as were condemned for sacrilege, or killed by thunder, were left unburned and unburied to rot above ground.

I believe the moderns retain more of the customs of the ancient Romans, than is generally imagined. When I first saw the infants at the enfants trouvés in Paris, so swathed with bandages, that the very sight of them made my eyes water, I little dreamed that the prescription of the ancients could be pleaded for in this custom, equally shocking and absurd: but in the Capitol at Rome, I met with the antique statue of a child emmaillotéº exactly in the same manner; rolled up like an Egyptian mummy from the feet. The circulation of the blood, in such a case, must be obstructed on the whole surface of the body; and nothing at liberty but the head, which is the only part of the child that ought to be confined. It is not surprising that common sense should not point out, even to the most ignorant, that those accursed bandages must heat the tender infant into a fever; must hinder the action of the muscles, and the play of the joints, so necessary to health and nutrition; and that,  p484 while the refluent blood is obstructed in the veins, which run on the surface of the body, the arteries, which lie deep, without the reach of compression, are continually pouring their contents into the head, where the blood meets with no resistance? The vessels of the brain are naturally lax, and the very sutures of the skull are yet unclosed. What are the consequences of this cruel swaddling? the limbs are wasted; the joints grow ricketty; the brain is compressed, and a hydrocephalus, with a great head and sore eyes, ensues. I take this abominable practice to be one great cause of the bandy legs, diminutive bodies, and large heads, so frequent in the south of France and in Italy.

[image ALT: A life-sized marble head of a man whose expression betrays both weakness and truculence. His head is squarish, fleshy, and with a weak yet prominent chin; his hair is arrayed along his forehead in a neat, dense row of curls. It is a contemporary bust of the Roman emperor Nero.]

A bust of Nero currently (1998) in the Capitoline Museums: probably not the one about which Smollett is writing.

I was no less surprised to find the modern fashion of curling the hair, borrowed in great measure from the coxcombs and coquettes of antiquity. I saw a bust of Nero in the gallery at Florence, the hair represented in rows of buckles, like that of a French petit maitre, conformable to the picture drawn of him by Suetonius. Circa cultum adeo pudendum, ut comam semper in gradus formatam peregrinatione Achaica, etiam pene verticem sumpserit. I was very sorry however to find that this foppery came from Greece.​e As for Otho, he wore a galericulum, or tour, on account of thin hair, propter raritatem capillorum. He had no right to imitate the example of Julius Caesar, who concealed his bald head with a wreath of laurel. But there is a bust in the Capitol of Julia Pia, the second wife of Septimius Severus, with a moveable peruke,​f dressed exactly in this fashionable mode, with this difference, that there is no part of it frizzled; nor is there any appearance of pomatum and powder. These improvements the beau-monde have borrowed from the natives of the Cape of Good Hope.

Modern Rome does not cover more than one-third of the space within the walls; and those parts that were most frequented of old are now entirely abandoned.— From the Capitol to the Coliseum, including the Forum Romanum and Boarium, there is nothing entire but one or two churches, built with the fragments of ancient edifices. You descend from the Capitol between the  p485 remaining pillars of two temples, the pedestals and part of the shafts sunk in the rubbish; then passing through the triumphal arch of Septimius Severus, you proceed along the foot of Mons Palatinus, which stands on your right hand, quite covered with the ruins of the ancient palace belonging to the Roman emperors, and at the foot of it there are some beautiful detached pillars still standing. On the left you see the remains of the Templum Pacis, which seems to have been the largest and most magnificent of all the temples in Rome. It was built and dedicated by the emperor Vespasian, who brought into it all the treasure and precious vessels which he found in the temple of Jerusalem. The columns of the portico he removed from Nero's golden house, which he levelled with the ground. This temple was like famous for its library, mentioned by Aulus Gellius. Farther on, is the arch of Constantine on the right, a most noble piece of architecture, almost entire; with the remains of the Meta Sudans before it; and fronting you, the noble ruins of that vast amphitheatre, called the Colossaeum, now Coliseo, which has been dismantled and dilapidated by the Gothic popes and princes of modern Rome, to build and adorn their paltry palaces. Behind the amphitheatre were the thermae of the same emperor Titus Vespasian. In the same quarter was the Circus Maximus; and the whole space from hence on both sides to the walls of Rome, comprehending above twice as much ground as the modern city, is almost covered with the monuments of antiquity. I suppose there is more concealed below ground than appears above. The miserable houses, and even garden-walls of the peasants in this distance, are built with these precious materials, I mean shafts and capitals of marble columns, heads, arms, legs, and mutilated trunks of statues. What pity it is, that, among all the remains of antiquity, at Rome, there is not one lodging-house remaining. I should be glad to know how the senators of Rome were lodged. I want to be better informed touching the cava aedium, the focus, the ara deorum penatum, the conclavia, triclinia, and caenationes; the atria where the women resided, and employed themselves in  p486 the woollen manufacture; the praetoria, which were so spacious as to become a nuisance in the reign of Augustus; and the xysta, which were shady walks between two porticos, where the men exercised themselves in the winter.º

I am disgusted by the modern taste of architecture, though I am no judge of the art. The churches and palaces of these days are crowded with petty ornaments,​g which distract the eye, and, by breaking the design into a variety of little parts, destroy the effect of the whole. Every door and window has its separate ornaments, its moulding, frize, cornice, and tympanum; then there is such an assemblage of useless festoons, pillars, pilasters, with their architraves, entablatures, and I know not what, that nothing great or uniform remains to fill the view; and we in vain look for that simplicity of grandeur, those large masses of light and shadow, and the inexpressible ΕΥΣΥΝΟΠΤΟΝ, which characterize the edifices of the ancients.​h A great edifice, to have its full effect, ought to be isolé, that is, detached from all others, with a large space around it: But the palaces of Rome, and indeed of all the other cities of Italy, which I have seen, are so engaged among other mean houses, that their beauty and magnificence are in a great measure concealed. Even those which face open streets and piazzas are only clear in front. The other apartments are darkened by the vicinity of ordinary houses; and their views are confined by dirty and disagreeable objects.​i Within the court there is generally a noble colonnade all round, and an open corridore above; but the stairs are usually narrow, steep, and high: The want of sash-windows, the dullness of their small glass lozenges, the dusty brick floors, and the crimson hangings laced with gold, contribute to give a gloomy air to their apartments: I might add to these causes, a number of pictures executed on melancholy subjects, antique mutilated statues, busts, basso relievos, urns, and sepulchral stones, with which their rooms are adorned. It must be owned, however, there are some exceptions to this general rule. The villa of Cardinal Albani is light, gay, and airy; yet the rooms are too small, and too much decorated with carving and gilding,  p487 which is a kind of gingerbread work. The apartments of one of the princes Borghese are furnished in the English taste; and in the palazzo di Colonna Connestabile,º there is a saloon or gallery, which for the proportions, lights, furniture, and ornaments, is the most noble, elegant, and agreeable apartment I ever saw.

It is diverting to hear an Italian expatiate upon the greatness of modern Rome. He will tell you there are above three hundred palaces in the city; that there is scarce a Roman prince whose revenue does not exceed two hundred thousand crowns; and that Rome produces not only the most learned men, but also the most refined politicians in the universe. To one of them talking in this strain, I replied, that instead of three hundred palaces, the number did not exceed fourscore; that I have been informed, on good authority, there were not six individuals in Rome who had so much as forty thousand crowns a-year, about ten thousand pounds sterling; and that to say their princes were so rich, and their politicians so refined, was, in effect, a severe satire upon them, for not employing their wealth and their talents for the advantage of their country. I asked why their cardinals and princes did not invite and encourage industrious people to settle and cultivate the Campania of Rome, which is a desert? why they did not raise a subscription to drain the marshes in the neighbourhood of the city, and thus meliorate the air, which is rendered extremely unwholesome in the summer, by putrid exhalations from those morasses? I demanded of them, why they did not contribute their wealth, and exert their political refinements, in augmenting their forces by sea and land, for the defence of their country, introdu­cing commerce and manufactures, and in giving some consequence to their state, which was no more than a mite in the political scale of Europe? I expressed a desire to know what became of all those sums of money, insomuch as there was hardly any circulation of gold and silver in Rome, and the very bankers, on whom strangers have their credit, make interest to pay their tradesmen's bills with paper notes of the bank of Spirito Santo? And now I am upon this subject, it  p488 may not be amiss to observe. that I was strangely misled by all the books I consulted about the current coin of Italy. In Tuscany, and the Ecclesiastical State, one sees nothing but zequines in gold, and pieces of two paoli, one paolo, and half a paolo, in silver. Besides these, there is a copper coin at Rome, called Bajocco and Mezzo Bajocco. Ten bajocchi make a paolo, ten paoli make a scudo,º which is an imaginary piece: Two scudi make a zequine; and a French Loui'dore is worth two zequines.

Rome has nothing to fear from the catholic powers, who respect it with a superstitious veneration as the metropolitan seat of their religion: but the popes will do well to avoid misunderstandings with the maritime Protestant states, especially the English, who being masters of the Mediterranean, and in possession of Minorca, have it in their power at all times to land a body of troops within four leagues of Rome, and to take the city, without opposition. Rome is surrounded with an old wall, but altogether incapable of defence; or if it was, the circuit of the walls is so extensive, that it would require a garrison of twenty thousand men. The only appearance of a fortification in this city is the castle of St. Angelo, situated on the further bank of the Tiber, to which there is access by a handsome bridge: But this castle, which was formerly the moles Adriani, could not hold out half a day against a battery of ten pieces of cannon properly directed. It was an expedient left to the invention of the modern Romans, to convert an ancient tomb into a citadel. It could only serve as temporary retreat for the pope in times of popular commotion, and on other sudden emergencies; as it happened in the case of Pope Clement VII when the troops of the emperor took the city by assault; and this only while he resided at the Vatican, from whence there is a covered gallery continued to the castle: it can never serve this purpose again, while the pontiff lives on Monte Cavallo, which is at the other end of the city. The castle of St. Angelo, howsoever ridiculous as a fortress, appears respectable as a noble monument of antiquity, and, though standing in a low situation, is one of the first objects that strike the eye of a stranger approaching Rome. On the  p489 opposite side of the river, are the wretched remains of the Mausoleum Augusti, which was still more magnificent. Part of the walls is standing, and the terraces are converted into garden-ground. In viewing those ruins, I remembered Virgil's pathetic description of Marcellus, who was here entombed:

Quantos ille virûm magnum Mavortis ad urbem

Campus aget gemitus vel quae, Tyberine, videbis

Funera, cum tumulum praeterlabere recentem.

The beautiful poem of Ovid de Consolatione ad Liviam, written after the ashes of Augustus and his nephew Marcellus, of Germanicus, Agrippa and Drusus, were deposited in this mausoleum, concludes with these lines, which are extremely tender:

Claudite jam Parcae nimium reserata sepulchra;

Claudite, plus justo jam domus ista patet!

What the author said of the monument, you will be tempted to say of this letter, which I shall therefore close in the old style, assuring you that I ever am,

Yours most affectionately.

Thayer's Notes:

a Vespasian did tax urine, but our source (Suet. Vesp. 23) says nothing at all about why: let alone that it was a service fee for cleaning the streets. A moment's reflection will show that Smollett has got it quite wrong: whom could Vespasian have taxed for loose débris in the street? On the contrary, the passage is clear evidence that someone was collecting urine, and that it wasn't the government: for several hundred years, the consensus of people who look into such things has been that it was the only group of private people who could have benefited from it. (Who, you wonder?)

b The sole source of this curious statistic is a passage of the Historia Augusta, a work so obviously fantastic as to constitute a kind of novel rather than serious history, and now largely discredited as unreliable.

Mind you Smollett was a doctor in an age where his concern with cleanliness was at the cutting edge of the profession, and our modern sanitation and health owes a lot to the few who thought similarly: so let's go along with him, for the sake of the ride. If as a low estimate we assume Rome to have had a million inhabitants in Elagabalus's time, ten thousand pounds of cobwebs amounts to one-hundredth of a pound per person: about 4 grams.

(At this point yours truly paused in his annotations and went on an empirical chase in his own house.) True, I couldn't find a cobweb this morning, although you can imagine I didn't look very hard; but a casual scoop of a staircase and a few other places — it's quite useless pretending — yielded well over 4 grams of dust pussies, dust bunnies, dust balls, etc.; there seems to be a wide variety in nomenclature out there. Anyway, the Historia Augusta's figure seems very low to me, especially when you factor in all the industrial and commercial spaces in a large city. If there is any truth to this outlandish tale at all, the emperor's slaves must not have ranged much farther than the palace and its storerooms.

c The editor of the 1900 edition (Archibald Constable and Co., Westminster) has this to say here:

The conjectural nastiness of Roman feeding proved a congenial subject to Smollett. He pasted into his copy of the Travels (at page 317 in this edition, in writing for him unusually small and crabbed) this note:
The same author who lived like a man of fashion and may be supposed to have been as nice as others of the same rank, in his invitation to Torquatus, mentions as an inducement that he shall have a clean table cloth, and be served in pewter well scoured

— ne turpe toral, ne sordida mappa

corruget nares, ne non et cantharus, et lanx

ostendat tibi te —

"— no dirty towel shall your nose offend —
My pots and dishes all are scour'd so bright,
As to reflect your image to the sight —"

A little lower in the same epistle, he says

Sed nimis arcta premunt olidae convivia caprae

"The crowded feast disgusting steams annoy —"

Indeed it could not well be otherwise, if we consider that three persons at least were wedged together upon one couch or triclinium, in a hot climate where the perspiration naturally rank and copious, was increased by the heat of the bed, the mutual contact of their bodies and the exercise of eating and drinking to excess. They had also another filthy custom which still prevails among the modern Italians; I mean that of spitting and hawking incessantly, and defiling the floor with slops of every kind. This was so much the case in ancient times that the floor of the dining room was generally covered with scobs or saw-dust to absorb what Seneca calls the purgamenta et jactus caenuntium, "the excretions and discharges of the guests." The scobs became at last a point of luxury. Heliogabalus ordered his portico to be strewed in lieu of scobs with gold and silver dust, and lamented that he could not find amber enough for that purpose.

On the habits of present-day Italians I will not expatiate, except to say that in over a year in Italy, I cannot remember ever having seen anyone spit on either street or floor, although surely some few must, just as in any other country; but that this does appear to be a relatively recent improvement: at the entrance of the parish church of Campi Vecchio (comune of Norcia, Umbria) in the fall of 2000 you could still read a sign, appearing to be no more than twenty or thirty years old, reminding us that we should not spit on the floor of God's house.

About spitting in Antiquity, I have no information, but the garbage on the dining-room floor and the rest of Smollett's commentary is accurate as far as anyone can tell. (The tale of Elagabalus's flaming excesses comes from the sensationalist Historia Augusta, about which see the preceding note.)

Smollett is, however, gleefully and disingenuously misreading Horace: it is quite clear that the poet is making fun of some particularly nasty hosts, precisely because civilized people ate off clean plates, under clean canopies, and with clean napkins.

d This reads ambiguously, and Smollett knew better; in his unpublished notes he would later correct it to read "the Scalae Gemoniae, or the Tarpeian rock". Though both serving for the punishment of malefactors, they are different places.

e It all depends whether, like Freda in the comic strip Peanuts, you had naturally curly hair, and even then, the Romans were a tough bunch of people: they didn't like it much. . . .

f A contemporary guidebook (Titi's Descrizione delle Pitture, Sculture e Architetture esposte in Roma, as revised by Bottari, 1763 edition) does identify such a bust as being Julia Pia.

g If Smollett's taste seems modern, it isn't that surprising. By the time he was writing, English architecture had long revolted against the excesses of the Baroque, so that he is not expressing a particularly original opinion. In our own postmodern day, the safest thing to say is that it takes a better architect to work successfully in an ornate idiom than in an austerer style: the churches of Rome exhibit examples both of mediocre buildings of the latter type (S. Salvatore in Lauro) and of beautiful buildings of the former (S. Ivo alla Sapienza).

h Our author is guilty of romanticizing "the ancients". It's an easy trap to fall into. There must have been lots of ugly ancient buildings, whether on the exceedingly ornate or the utterly sterile side: but being in ruins, they are now enveloped in an aura of our own making, partly because we look at them to wonder what might have been, and partly because we each restore and complete them in our mind's eye to our own liking, in effect becoming their second architects: how can we fail to like them?

i Wandering the streets of Rome, it is impossible not to agree with Smollett here. The most contrary opinion I can muster is that a really good architect will take the setting of a building into account. Fine, so a structure looks great as a scale model or a set of drawings; but if you can expect the city to obscure or clash with your work, you should redesign it: very few of us have enough personality to be able to impose our will over society's — and then, should we?

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