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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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Letter XXXI

Nice, March 5, 1765.

Dear Sir,

In my last I gave you my opinion freely of the modern palaces of Italy. I shall now hazard my thoughts upon the gardens of this country, which the inhabitants extol with all the hyperboles of admiration and applause. I must acknowledge, however, I have not seen the famous villas at Frascati and Tivoli, which are celebrated for their gardens and water-works. I intended to visit these places; but was prevented by an unexpected change of weather, which deterred me from going to the country. On the last day of September, the mountains of Palestrina were covered with snow; and the air became so cold at Rome, that I was forced to put on my winter clothes. This objection continued, till I found it necessary to set out on my return to Florence. But I have seen the gardens of the Poggio Imperiale, and the Palazzo di Pitti at Florence, and those of the Vatican, of the pope's palace on Monte Cavallo, of the Villa Ludovisia, Medicea, and Pinciana, at Rome; so that I think I have some right to judge of the Italian taste in gardening. Among those I have mentioned, that of the Villa Pinciana is the most remarkable, and the most extensive, including a space of three miles in circuit, hard by the walls of Rome, containing a variety of situations high and low, which favour all the natural embellishments one would expect to meet with in a garden, and exhibit a diversity of noble views of the city and adjacent country.

In a fine extensive garden or park, an Englishman expects to see a number of groves and glades, intermixed with an agreeable negligence, which seems to be the effect of nature and accident. He looks for shady walks encrusted with gravel; for open lawns covered with verdure as smooth as velvet, but much more lively and agreeable: for ponds, canals, basons, cascades, and running streams of water; for clumps of trees, woods, and wildernesses, cut into delightful alleys, perfumed with honey-suckle and sweet-briar, and resounding with the mingled melody of all the singing birds of heaven: He looks for plats of flowers in different parts to refresh the sense, and please the fancy; for arbours, grottos, hermitages, temples, and alcoves, to shelter him from the sun, and afford him means of contemplation and repose; and he expects to find the hedges, groves, and walks, and lawns kept with the utmost order and propriety.

He who loves the beauties of simple nature, and the charms of neatness, will seek for them in vain amidst the groves of Italy. In the garden of the Villa Pinciana, there is a plantation of four hundred pines, or rather firs,º which the Italians view with rapture and admiration: There is likewise a long walk of trees, extending from the garden-gate to the palace; and plenty of shade, with alleys and hedges in different parts of the ground: But the groves are neglected; the walks are laid with nothing but common mould or sand,  p491 black and dusty; the hedges are tall, thin and shabby; the trees stunted; the open ground, brown and parched, has scarce any appearance of verdure. The flat regular alleys of evergreens are cut into fantastic figures; the flower-gardens embellished with thin cyphers and flourished figures in box, while the flowers grow in rows of earthen-pots, and the ground appears as dusky as if it was covered with the cinders of a blacksmith's forge. The water, of which there is great plenty, instead of being collected in large pieces, or conveyed in little rivulets and streams to refresh the thirsty soil, or managed so as to form agreeable cascades, is squirted from fountains in different parts of the garden, through tubes little bigger than common glyster-pipes.​a It must be owned indeed that the fountains have their merit in the way of sculpture and architecture; and that here is a great number of statues which merit attention: But they serve only to encumber the ground, and destroy that effect of rural simplicity, which our gardens are designed to produce. In a word, here we see a variety of walks and groves and fountains, a wood of four hundred pines, a paddock with a few meagre deer, a flower-garden, an aviary, a grotto, and a fish-pond; and in spite of all these particulars, it is, in my opinion, a very contemptible garden, when compared to that of Stowe in Buckinghamshire, or even to those of Kensington and Richmond. The Italians understand, because they study, the excellencies of art; but they have no idea of the beauties of nature.

This Villa Pinciana, which belongs to the Borghese family, would make a complete academy for painting and sculpture, especially for the study of ancient marbles; for, exclusive of the statues and busts in the garden, and the vast collection in the different apartments, almost the whole outside of the house is covered with curious pieces in basso and alto rilievo. The most masterly is that of Curtius on horseback, leaping into the gulph or opening of the earth, which is said to have closed on receiving this sacrifice. Among the exhibitions of art within the house, I was much struck with a Bacchus, and the death of Meleager, represented on an ancient sepulchre. There is also an admirable statue of Silenus, with the infant Bacchus in his arms; a most beautiful gladiator; a curious Moor of black marble, with a shirt of white alabaster; a finely proportioned bull of black marble also, standing upon a table of alabaster; a black gipsey, with a head, hands, and feet of brass; and the famous hermaphrodite, which vies with that of Florence; though the most curious circumstance of this article, is the matrass, executed and placed by Bernini, with such art and dexterity, that to the view it rivals the softness of wool, and seems to retain the marks of pressure, according to the figure of the superincumbent statue. Let us likewise own, for the honour of the moderns, that the same artist has produced two fine statues, which we find among the ornaments of this villa, namely, a David with his sling, in the attitude of throwing the stone at the giant Goliah; and a Daphne changing into laurel at the approach of Apollo. On the base of this figure, are the two follow elegant lines, written by Pope Urban VIII. in his younger years:

Quisquis amans sequitur fugitivae gaudia formae,

Fronde manus implet, baccas vel carpit amaras.

I ought not to forget two exquisite antique statues of Venus, the weeping slave, and the youth pulling a thorn out of his foot.

I do not pretend to give a methodical detail of the curiosities of Rome: They have been already described by different authors, who were much better qualified than I am for the task: But you shall have what observations I made on the most remarkable objects, without method, just as they occur to my remembrance; and I protest the remarks are all my own: So that if they deserve any commendation, I claim all the merit; and if they are impertinent, I must be contented to bear all the blame.

The piazza of St. Peter's church is altogether sublime. The double colonnade on each side extending in a semi-circular sweep,º the stupendous Egyptian obelisk, the two fountains, the portico, and the admirable façade of the church, form such an assemblage of magnificent objects, as cannot fail to impress the mind with awe and admiration: But the church would have produced a still greater effect, had it been detached entirely from the buildings of the Vatican. It would then have been a master-piece of architecture, complete in all its parts, entire and perfect: Whereas, at present, it is no more than a beautiful member attached to a vast undigested and irregular pile of building. As to the architecture of this famous temple, I shall say nothing; neither do I pretend to describe the internal ornaments. The great picture of Mosaic work, and that of St. Peter's bark tossed by the tempest, which appear over the gate of the church, though rude in comparison with modern pieces, are nevertheless great curiosities, when considered as the work of Giotto, who flourished in the beginning of the fourteenth century. His master was Cimabue, who learned painting and architecture of the Grecian artists, who came from Constantinople, and first revived these arts in Italy. But, to return to St. Peter's, I was not at all pleased with the famous statue of the dead Christ in his mother's lap, by Michael Angelo. The figure of Christ is as much emaciated, as if he had died of a consumption: besides, there is something indelicate, not to say indecent, in the attitude and design of a man's body, stark naked, lying upon the knees of a woman.

Here are some good pictures, I should rather say copies of good pictures, done in Mosaic to great perfection; particularly a St. Sebastian by Domenichino, and Michael the Archangel, from a painting of Guido Rheni. I am extremely fond of all this artist's pieces. There is a tenderness and delicacy in his manner and his figures are all exquisitely beautiful, though his expression is often erroneous, and his attitudes are always affected and unnatural. In this very piece the archangel has all the air of a French dancing-master; and I have seen a Madonna by the same hand, I think it is in the Palazzo di Barberini, in which, though the figures are enchanting, the Virgin is represented holding up the drapery of the Infant, with the ridiculous affectation of a singer on the stage of our Italian opera.

The Mosaic work, though brought to a wonderful degree of improvement, and admirably calculated for churches, the dampness of which is pernicious to the colours of the pallet, I will not yet compare to the productions of the pencil. The glassyness (if I may be allowed the expression) of the surface, throws, in my opinion, a false light on some parts of the picture; and when you approach it, the joinings of the pieces look like so many cracks on painted canvas. Besides, this method is extremely tedious and expensive. I went to see the artists at work, in a house that stands near the church, where I was much pleased with the ingenuity of the process; and not a little surprised at the great number of different colours and tints, which are kept in separate drawers, marked with numbers as far as seventeen thousand. For a single head done in Mosaic, they asked me fifty zequines.

But to return to the church. The altar of St. Peter's choir, notwithstanding all the ornaments which have been lavished on it, is no more than a heap of puerile finery, better adapted to an Indian pagod, than to a temple built upon the principles of the Greek architecture. The four colossal figures that support the chair, are both clumsy and disproportioned. The drapery of statues, whether in brass or stone, when thrown into large masses, appears hard and unpleasant to the eye; and for that reason the ancients always imitated wet linen, which exhibiting the shape of the limbs underneath, and hanging in a multiplicity of wet folds, gives an air of lightness, softness, and ductility to the whole.

These two statues weigh 116,257 pounds, and as they sustain nothing but a chair, are out of all proportion, inasmuch as the supporters ought to be suitable to the things supported. Here are four giants holding up the old wooden chair of the apostle Peter, if we may believe the book De Identitate Cathedrae Romanae. The implements of popish superstition; such as relicks of pretended saints, ill proportioned spires and belfrys, and the nauseous repetition of the figure of the cross, which is in itself a very mean and disagreeable object, only fit for the prisons of condemned criminals, have contributed to introduce a vicious taste into the external architecture, as well as in the internal ornaments of our temples. All churches are built in the figure of a cross, which effectually prevents the eye from taking in the scope of the building, either without side or within; consequently robº the edifice of its proper effect. The palace of the Escurial in Spain is laid out in the shape of a gridiron, because the convent was built in consequence of a vow to St. Laurence, who was broiled to death like a barbecued pig.

What pity it is, that the labours of painting should have been so much employed on the shocking subjects of the martyrology. Besides numberless pictures of the flagellation, crucifixion, and descent from the cross, we have Judith with the head of Holofernes, Herodias with the head of John the Baptist, Jael assassinating Sisera in his sleep, Peter writhing on the cross, Stephen battered with stones, Sebastian stuck full of arrows, Laurence frying upon the coals, Bartholomew flayed alive, and a hundred other pictures equally frightful, which can only serve to fill the mind with gloomy ideas, and encourage a spirit of religious fanaticism, which has always been attended with mischievous consequences to the community where it reigned.

The tribune of the great altar, consisting of four wreathed brass pillars, gilt, supporting a canopy, is doubtless very magnificent, if not over-charged with sculpture, fluting, foliage, festoons, and figures of boys and angels, which, with the hundred and twenty-two lamps of silver, continually burning below, serve rather to dazzle the eyes, and kindle the devotion of the ignorant vulgar, than to excite the admiration of a judicious observer.

There is nothing, I believe, in this famous structure, so worthy of applause, as the admirable symmetry and proportion of its parts. Notwithstanding all the carving, gilding, basso relievos, medallions, urns, statues, columns, and pictures with which it abounds, it does not, on the whole, appear over-crowded with ornaments. When you first enter, your eye is filled so equally and regularly, that nothing appears stupendous; and the church seems considerably smaller than it really is. The statues of children, that support the founts of holy water when observed from the door, seems to be of the natural size; but as you draw near, you perceive they are gigantic. In the same manner, the figures of the doves, with olive branches in their beaks, which are represented on the wall, appear to be within your reach; but as you approach them, they recede to a considerable height, as if they had flown upwards to avoid being taken.

I was much disappointed at the sight of the Pantheon, which, after all that has been said of it, looks like a huge cockpit, open at top. The portico which Agrippa added to the building, is undoubtedly very noble, though, in my opinion, it corresponds but ill with the simplicity of the edifice. With all my veneration for the ancients, I cannot see in what the beauty of the rotunda consists. It is no more than a plain unpierced cylinder,​b or circular wall, with two fillets and a cornice, having a vaulted roof or cupola, open in the centre. I mean the original building, without considering the vestibule of Agrippa. Within side it has much the air of a mausoleum. It was this appearance which, in all probability, suggested the thought to Boniface IV. to transport hither eight and twenty cart loads of old rotten bones, dug from different burying-places, and then dedicate it as a church to the blessed Virgin and all the holy martyrs. I am not one of those who think it is well lighted by the hole at the top, which is about nine and twenty feet in diameter, although the author of the Grand Tour calls it but nine. The same author says, there is a descent of eleven steps to go into it; that it is a hundred and forty-four feet in height, and as many in breadth; that it was covered with copper, which, with the brass nails of the portico, Pope Urban VIII. took away, and converted into the four wreathed pillars that support the canopy of the high altar in the church of St. Peter, &c. The truth is, before the time of Pope Alexander VII. the earth was so raised as to cover part of the temple, and there was a descent of some steps into the porch: but that pontiff ordered the ground to be pared away to the very pedestal or base of the portico, which is now even with the street, so that there is no descent whatsoever. The height is two hundred palmi, and the breadth two hundred and eighteen; which, reckoning the palmi at nine inches, will bring the height to one hundred and fifty, and the breadth to one hundred and sixty-three feet six inches. It was not any covering of copper which Pope Urban VIII removed, but large brass beams, which supported the roof of the portico. They weighed 186,392 pounds; and afforded metal enough not only for the pillars in St. Peter's church, but also for several pieces of artillery.​c What is more extraordinary, the gilding of those columns is said to have cost forty thousand golden crowns: Sure money was never worse laid out. Urban VIII. likewise added two belfry towers to the rotunda; and I wonder he did not cover the central hole with glass, as it must be very inconvenient and disagreeable to those who go to church below, to be exposed to the rain in wet weather, which must also render it very damp and unwholesome. I visited it several times, and each time it looked more and more gloomy and sepulchral.

The magnificence of the Romans was not so conspicuous in their temples, as in their theatres, amphitheatres, circusses, naumachia, aqueducts, triumphal arches, porticoes, basilicae, but especially their thermae, or bathing-places. A great number of their temples were small and inconsiderable; not one of them was comparable either for size or magnificence, to the modern church of St. Peter of the Vatican. The famous temple of Jupiter Capitolinus was neither half so long, nor half so broad: it was but two hundred feet in length, and one hundred and eighty-five in breadth; whereas the length of St. Peter's extends to six hundred and thirty-eight feet, and the breadth to above five hundred. It is very near twice as large as the temple of Jupiter Olympius in Greece, which was counted one of the seven wonders of the world. But I shall take another opportunity to explain myself further on the antiquities of this city; a subject, upon which I am disposed to be (perhaps impertinently) circumstantial. When I begin to run riot, you should check me with the freedom of a friend. The most distant hint will be sufficient to,

Dear Sir,
Yours assuredly.

Thayer's Notes:

a glyster-pipes: The doctor and the curmudgeon here conjoin to give us a lovely simile on Italian fountains that only Smollett could write. Alternately spelled clyster-pipes, these are the intubations of enemas.

b the Pantheon is no more than a plain unpierced cylinder: No. It is a perfect sphere, although disguised in a casing and preceded by a banal pedimented rectangle that robs it of some of its daring. Smollett's attitude is rather more understandable in his time, and that of the Romans, than now when we have electric light to make the interior less gloomy: but who said religion had to be cheerful?

c This is quite true, and is the act of depredation for which Pope Barberini, otherwise so solicitous of his family's fame, richly deserved the famous quip: Quod non fecerunt Barbari, fecerunt Barberini. For the details, see Rodolfo Lanciani's The Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome (1897).

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