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Famous Tourists of the past in Rome: you are not the first one

24th Feb 2015

If you’re thinking of going on a group tour when you visit Rome, you’re not the first one. Back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, wealthy Englishman flocked to Italy to “consolidate their education.” Basically, these were the rich sons of rich English slave traders who wanted their sons to be worldly. They financed these trips to Italy and France as a right of passage to learn Latin, the classics, art, music and architecture. Sound like anyone you know? It sure sounds like me when I first stepped foot in Italy five years ago. I was just 18, a recent high school graduate looking for romance, art and love. I fell in love with Italy and as a result moved to Rome two years ago. When we read the letters of Tobias Smollett for my literature class, written about his discovery of Rome in 1765, I was shocked at the similarities between us. He is much more arrogant than I, and maintained constantly that Britain was a superior country, but we were enamored with many of the same things.

For example, Smollett says, “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.” One of my favorite aspects of Rome is her fountains. The best tour I’ve ever done was a Rome at twilight tour, Bernini’s Four Rivers in Piazza Navona is my favorite, at any time of day. Another plus to wandering her cobblestone streets are the “nasoni.” It means “big nose” in Italian, and they are the thousands of public water fountains that spurt fresh, clean drinking water 24 hours a day.

Smollett wasn’t all compliments however. I found his disgust of the Tiber River kind of cute: “As for the Tiber, it is, in comparison with the Thames, no more than an inconsiderable stream, foul, deep, and rapid; navigable by small boats, barks, and lighters”. Now, I was convinced that until the 1970s the Tiber was clean, people fished in it and bathed in the summer. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that it turned green with pollution. If Smollett is already calling it foul, maybe I was previously misinformed. However, this Smollett fellow seems like a pretty proud Englishman. Maybe nothing could compare to his beloved Thames, which, when I saw it in 2009, was pretty foul as well.

I find a startling similarity to my own experience in modern Italy in Smollett’s description of English tourists in Rome. He says the Englishmen, “the moment they set foot in Italy, they are seized with the ambition of becoming connoisseurs in painting, music, statuary, and architecture; and the adventurers of this country do not fail to flatter this weakness for their own advantage”. When I first came to Italy, I was entranced by the art, the music, the architecture, and the general beauty that surrounded me. I certainly spent lots of money on myself, souvenirs for others, little pieces of this beauty that I could buy for my own pleasure and take home with me. However, Smollett says the Italians take advantage of this willingness to spend money. I would agree, but not completely. I think Italians are more respectful of tourists than the French or English I have experienced. Italians are proud of what they have, especially when they know it is good quality. They aren’t embarrassed to charge you accordingly, but they won’t sell you junk either in my experience. It would make them look bad.

Finding these letters by Tobias Smollett was really special for me. Almost 300 years ago, tourists were amazed, stupefied, and frustrated with the same things I am today. It makes me wonder if the Eternal city continues to thrive because she is so attached to her roots, her values, her very “Rome-ness.” Perhaps this stubborn attachment to one’s self is helpful in long-term success.

~ by Challis Popkey ~