Archives & Libraries, Features, History & Classics, Languages & Literature, Publications, Research & Resources
comment 1

Master of the essay: a review of Joseph Addison’s European ‘Grand Tour’

Joseph Addison

Dr Karen Attar remembers the writer and politician Joseph Addison, who died on 17 June 1719, exactly 300 years ago today. He is probably best known for his literary journalism in partnership with Richard Steele on The Tatler and The Spectator. Unsurprisingly, Senate House Library holds several editions of these. But as summer begins and minds turn to holidays and travel, it seems appropriate to focus on his earlier trip to Europe.

Joseph Addison (1672–1719) is visually prominent in Senate House Library, as his portrait, copied in oils from the painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller, hangs in the Special Collections reading room. Kneller’s likeness, like the book, came about through the significant London literary publisher Jacob Tonson, who commissioned the portrait for the Kit-Kat Club and who published Addison’s written output, poetical, dramatic and overtly political as well as the text featured below, Remarks on Several Parts of Italy – the long-lasting result of Addison’s Grand Tour.

Joseph Addison

Although in the early 18th century the Grand Tour was undertaken less frequently than it was later in the century, it was nonetheless well established when Addison embarked upon it, usually lasted longer than a year, and was regularly viewed as educational. His travels were supported by a government grant of two hundred pounds as they were intended to equip him for a career in the public service.

By starting in France before progressing to Italy and visiting the standard cities there: Rome, Naples, Venice, Genoa, Florence, Milan, he followed a well-mapped route. Beyond these centres Addison saw several others, from Ravenna and Rimini in the east to Pisa and Livorno in the west. He commented on historical sites or landscapes, buildings, statuary, inscription, paintings, collections of antiquities, festivals (he was in Venice during Carnaval and Naples during Holy Week) and cultural diversions, whereby he considered the Italian comedies he saw ‘very indifferent, and more lewd than those of other countries’.

Addison was in many ways a typical traveller. Although a trailblazer in describing scenery on the way from Monaco to Genoa as ‘romantic’, he favoured urban centres to the rustic scenery which was to become popular only at the very end of the century. A Whig politically, Addison favoured commerce and free trade, and opposed absolute monarchy. Thus he criticised Venice for failing to make the most of its natural commercial advantages, and much of Italy for oppressive government.

Late-17th-century political turbulence is reflected in Addison’s reflections on how well various Italian towns would cope in war: for example, that the flat roofs of the houses in Naples meant that every bomb that fell on them would take effect. Addison adhered to an English prototype in his hostility towards Romanism.

He differentiated between French and Italian Catholicism, to the detriment of the latter, and expressed his views frankly, as when recording: ‘I had twice an operation of seeing the operation of this pretended miracle [the liquefication of the blood of Saint Januarius], and … look upon it as one of the most bungling tricks that I ever saw.’ Yet he was by no means anti-Italian: indeed, he begins his work by asserting, ‘there is certainly no place in the world where a man may travel with greater pleasure and advantage than in Italy.’ Like many a compatriot, however, Addison returned home with a reinforced sense of English superiority.

When steeped in a classical education, a trip to Italy was to an extent a pilgrimage. Addison in his Remarks viewed Italy through the Classical poets (an emphasis shared with many British tourists). This deliberate stance was intended to fill a market gap:

[O]ne may observe among those who have written on Italy, that different Authors have succeeded best on different sorts of Curiosities.

 There are still several of these Topicks that are far from being exhausted, … . I have taken care particularly to consider the several passages of the ancient Poets, which have any relation of the Places and Curiosities that I met with; For before I entered on my voyage I took care to refresh my memory among the Classic Authors, and to make such collections out of them as I might afterwards have occasion for. I must confess it was not one of the least entertainments that I met with in travelling, to examine these several Descriptions, as it were, upon the spot, and to compare the natural face of the country with the Landskips [sic] that the Poets have given us of it.

The Remarks included quotes from more than two hundred selections from 19 poets: Horace, Virgil, Juvenal, Manilius, Ovid and others. References within the narrative work well, such as:

As in my journey from Rome to Naples I had Horace for my guide, so I had the pleasure of seeing my voyae, from Naples to Rome, described by Virgil. It is indeed much easier to trace out the way Aeneas took, than that of Horace, because Virgil has marked it out by Capes, Islands, and other parts of nature, which are not so subject to change or decay as are towns, cities, and the works of art.

The citations are more of an interruption, as when Addison cites Ovid, Silius Italicus, Statius and two places in Horace within a couple of pages in connection with the naming of the settlement of Parthenope.

An early work, The Remarks on Several Parts of Italy has survived far less well than Addison’s subsequent journalistic writings or his drama Cato. Romantic travellers were scornful because Addison’s reliance on the Classics diminished the sense of personal experience. Editions since the first two decades of the 19th century have been scarce. In the 18th century, reactions were more favourable.

Admittedly, Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding, in Tristam Shandy (1759–67) and the preface of The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (1755) respectively, deplored Addison’s reliance on classical literature. An anonymous contemporary reviewer, in his eight-page satirical A Table of the Principal Matters Contained in Mr. Addison’s Remarks on Several Parts of Italy …, listed grammatical errors with acerbic comments, such as: “p., 240, “Have went. (Fetch me the rod).”

Yet the Remarks ran through ten editions by 1773. Many eighteenth-century tourists referred to them: among others, the British diplomat Sir Andrew Mitchell (1734); Thomas Brand, who read Addison over breakfast in Geneva; and Mrs Piozzi, who cites him in her Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany (1789).

It is important to remember that Addison’s account of his travels through Italy was intended as literature, to be read by armchair travellers as much as to be used as a guide book. While modern travellers to Italy are unlikely to want Addison in the latter capacity, the text remains an absorbing narrative.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *