Going on a summer holiday? 9.1: what William did next

The last time I posted on this topic, I’ve discovered, was back in April last year. It’s been more than a year now, and I do feel that I have neglected poor old William Harris, having left him in Rome at the Carnival of 1822. That’s not to say that my Wm Harris Syracuse d sealenthusiasm for discovering more about his journey has diminished; in fact, the other day I was idly glancing through a holiday brochure and saw a package tour around Sicily, covering Mount Etna, Palermo, Siracusa and Taormina and got a bit over excited. No, this isn’t my planned holiday for this year (not at that price!) but this does follow the journey which William and his friends took nearly 200 years ago. In fact, it looks like William was part of the team which undertook some of the earliest work on these now very popular tourist destinations.

For anyone who is new to this series, some time ago (longer than I care to admit) one of our volunteers discovered some correspondence in an uncatalogued tin box which turned out to be letters written by one William Harris Junr. to his father, in Norton Place, during the 1820s. William (the younger) was an architect who had set off around Europe to discover the classical knowledge which was key to his profession, and undertook something of what we’d now call the role of art historian and archaeologist during his trip.Having crossed from Dover to Calais, taken in Paris, Geneva and the towns of northern Italy, William and his friends reached Rome in the autumn of 1821. From there, because of the ongoing wars in Greece, they set out for Sicily, where the journey eventually reached its thrilling conclusion.

If you’re new to this series, do take a look back at the other posts; if you’ve been following the story so far, I do hope that the long delay in this installment hasn’t put you off!

An image of William's letter

William’s letter from Syracuse

While the tourist brochure I was looking at provides much the same route as William took, the early nineteenth century experience of such tourism was rather different to our own. For one thing, the roads were more dangerous; our little group of travellers has already experienced the threat of robbery and kidnap, storms in the mountains and the threat of pestilence at Livorno. In addition, whether it’s particularly true of this group, or whether this applies more widely to travllers at this time, there seems to have been a fasination with getting close to danger. I’ve already related how William descended into a crater, tied to a piece of rope, but found that the heat of the (volcanic) earth scorched through his thick bootsoles in a few minutes. I imagine that, given the dangers inherent in travel, there had to be an element of the daredevil in you to set out on these journeys at all. This letter proves no exception: in June 1822, William and his friends decided to climb Mount Etna.

The missive is one of the longest in the series – not overwritten but put down in tiny handwritng on a large, unfolder sheet. Perhaps this was some of his drawing paper, requisitioned for the purpose, but in any case, for the sake of sanity, I’m going to have to split this letter into two. So, before they got as far as Etna, he and his friends took in the sights of Taormina, learned about local history and ran afoul of a Superior-General’s election.

Of course, being drawn to danger did not necesarilly mean embracing discomfort: William found the lack of roads in Sicily deplorable, claiming that this was a detriment to ‘commerce and improvments of almost every kind’. Apparently, the English had earlier tried to build roads on the island, but their imposition of tolls on the populartion failed, since ‘the toll houses were destroyed in the night’. Since the roads couldn’t support a carriage of any kind, William noted the use of a ‘settiga’ in the locality, which he described as ‘a whimsical sort of horse-sedan…. It resembles somewhat the form of a “Vis-à-vis”…but in the style of a …hackney coach.’ This rather confusing description leads to all kinds of stretching of the imagination, but does show how alien William and his friends found the customs of this country which we now consider only a couple of hours’ distant.

William describes the 'vis-a-vis' contraption

William describes the ‘vis-a-vis’ contraption

Despite the intrigue of the settiga, donkeys were the made method of conveyance for the small band of architects as they set out from Messina on foot. At Palermo, the small group was joined by a Mr. Atkinson, ‘a well informed and agreeable man, about 30’. This gentleman had studied law, but had given up the profession and spent the previous four years travelling the Continent. As you may recall, the rest of William’s travelling companions were all architects (which has led me to wonder whether Europe was awash with young English architects at this point, or whether they just travelled in packs), but Atkinson need not have felt left out. William explains that Atkinson had spent the time travelling with two architects, friends of Thomas Angell, who had joined the group in Paris. The longest serving member of the group, besides William, seems to have been something of the comedy partner. Mr. Brooks arrived late in Dover, so that William considered leaving without him, insisted having packing cases of fashionable clothes sent out from England and appears to have let William add notes to his own letters to assure his family that he was safe. This trek from Messina to Taormina proved no different:

Brooks – who likes to get through the world easily – mounted a donkey at the end of the first 12 miles

The rest of the group, however, continued on foot, reaching Taormina only to discover that their timing had been somewhat unfortunate. While they had hoped to stay at the Benedictine Convent, they found that ‘the place was so full of priests’; 300, in face, who had assembled for the election of a Superior-general. Having reached their goal, the travellers were determined to make the best of it, and lodged at ‘a dirty inferior ‘Locanda’…into a room so filthy that after the first night we determined on sleeping at a tolerable inn 2 miles off and close to the sea shore’. This extra distance appears to have paid off, at least in terms of comfort, but did mean that the architects had to start the ascent to Taormina’s Greek ampitheatre before sunrise, to avoid the ‘fatigue of 2 miles of steep ascent’.

Once a part of the kingdom of Syracuse, the settlement of Taormina was well established by the time the Romans arrived in the third century BC. The town provided plenty ‘antiquities’, and was already popular with antiquarians when William and his friends visited. The theatre proved a point of particular interest for William;

The situation of this theatre is magnificent; placed on the ridge of a fine chain of mountains which run out to the sea, it commands scenery of the grandest description… Angell and myself…determined on measuring it – it proved a work of tedious duration from the difficulty of attaining dimensions, being much ruined

A modern view of the theatre at Taormina

A modern view of the theatre at Taormina

Of the other antiquities in the town, William proved less enamoured, adding that they were ‘generally much dilapidated.’ Perhaps the same could be said of the official to whom they were introduced in Taormina; ‘we immediately found he was an original character’, since he quickly showed them a bundle of materials he was looking to publish when he learned about the reason for their visit. They had further evidence of his status as ‘an original character’ that evening:

he gave us an invitation to attend his public lecture in the ancient Greek theatre in the evening. Several of his friends were present and a young man read aloud his chapter on that monument of antiquity which he interrupted “ever and anon” by his own personal explanations, given with great emphasis and in a strong nasal tone.

On 30 May, the group left Taormina for Nicolasai, where they found the widespread use of lava in buildings and the burnt soil made the place ‘sombre and uninviting’. The better sort of buildings met with more approval from the architects:

the cornices are of black lava and the walls covered with white plaster, a most singular contrast; one may almost call it architecture in mourning.

From there, they learned that a local physician and professor was in the habit of putting up travellers intent on climbing the mountain and, in spite of a rather English mix up over a lack of letters of introduction, William and his friends were welcomed to rest before their ascent the following day. Here, his letter breaks off to explain to his father that he will transcibe directly from his notebook – if this is the case, then he has a wonderful turn of phrase even when busy climbing a mountain!

William’s narrative is so illuminating and detailed that I think it’s best to leave this until another post – or else you’ll be here for another hour at least. But I promise I’ll do better, this time, to finish the tale in good time so that we can take in the last few stops on William’s journey at a leisurely pace. One thing you can be sure of – it won’t be a dull holiday, and there are probably more ‘original characters’ to come!


Going on a Summer Holiday? 8: a Roman Carnival

William usually over-wrote his letters to make the most of available paper

William usually over-wrote his letters to make the most of available paper

Well here we are in what finally feels like spring. The sun is shining, for now, and while I don’t suppose that it will last a week, it’s put me in mind of holidays and exotic locations once again. Those of you who’ve been following the series of posts recounting William Harris’ journeys around Europe in 1821-23 may remember that I started this series way back last summer, with a similar ‘holiday’ theme. In reality, William’s trip wasn’t a holiday but more of an extended gap year, on which he met a number of like minded young gentlemen, most of them architects, who spent their time exploring and frequently (if a little bizarre, to my un-architectural mind) measuring the remains of classical architecture around the Mediterranean.

William’s story comes from a dozen or so letters written to his father back at home in London and recently discovered in the mysteriously named ‘Hansard Family deed box’. Unfortunately, we don’t have his father’s replies, but occasionally there are hints of the conversations which took place in the extant letters. Some of the replies evidently went astray; this is painfully clear in William’s previous letter from Rome, sent in January 1822, in which he wrote of the misery of being so far away from his loved ones. Probably in response to this, William’s father often annotated the received letters as ‘replied’ with a date, presumably to keep track of what had been sent.

William's father noted the date of his reply

William’s father noted the date of his reply

By the end of February 1822, William seems to have been in a more cheerful mood. He had received the package which he had requested from home in November, containing a watch, book and other ‘appendages’. It also seems that Rome itself was a more cheerful place to be – rather than the rain and funerals, the carnival season had come to the city.

One of the highlights of the carnival was a horse race along the Via del Corso, noted by William as ‘the Bond Street of Rome’.

“About 7 o’clock the Corso nearly half a mile in length…was filled with crowds…. A little before sunset at a signal given the course is cleared for the race. The ends of the cross streets are closed with files of soldiers and the military…dispersed throughout the whole length. Numerous spectators fill the footpaths and windows and balconies, which are also hung with tapestries or crimson silk. This is a strange scene compared with an English racecourse.”

A Thomas Rowlandson illustration showing a British racecourse c.1820

A Thomas Rowlandson illustration showing a British racecourse c.1820

William had, of course, a love of horses, witnessed in his concern about the lameness of one of the family ponies, named Dick, in earlier letters. This particular Roman race appears to have been a popular event since the fifteenth century, but it was somewhat alien to William’s cultural expectations. While debates over the humaneness of the Grand National continue, this race was a far cry from anything which William considered kind;

As the Italian race-horses always run without riders they have recourse to various means more or less cruel to urge their speed. A kind of spur is attached to their sides formed by a ball of lead stuck with spikes and fixed to the end of a short thong which beating against them goads the poor animals…. Fireworks also are sometimes fastened to them and large pieces of metal foil. Besides these instruments of torture, the horses are decked with ribbons.

Even in the nineteenth century, it’s clear that there were wide cultural differences in attitudes towards animals across Europe. Of course, goading the horses in this way could be as much danger to people as well: William reported that, ‘when led out for the race, some of them are so irritated as to require some 3 or so men to hold them…’

Without the need to impel the horses to start, the method of making them stop seemed to William still more bizarre:

A large sail cloth is hung entirely across the street – several grooms stand before it and by their shouts endeavour to check the speed of the animals.

Despite some of the animals getting outside the city walls and running for several miles before they could be stopped, in general, William considered this method of ending the race was ‘more effective than one would suppose’. The prize for the race was thirty crowns and the sail cloth.

Wm Harris Rome c2

Aside from being unnerved by Roman styles of horse racing, William evidently enjoyed the ‘confusion’ of the Carnival, which came to its end on 19 February 1822. He described streets ‘filled with pedestrians’ including ‘crowds of persons in the most grotesque masquerading dresses…huddled together in motley groups.’ ‘The coachmen’, William noted, ‘wore women’s dresses and one coach was filled with people masked as cats’.

As an educated gentleman with good connections, William was also privileged to be invited to a ‘very gay masked ball given by Torlonia’ at which the ‘rooms were brilliant and the dresses splendid’. The Torlonia family was a powerful banking family in Italy, and this particular Torlonia, probably Giovanni (1755-1829), administered the Vatican’s finances. Their wealth was evidently on display: William noted Torlonia’s ‘diamond buttons’ and that ‘the Duchess his wife was sparkling with finery’. ‘Many of the English and Italian nobility were there’, William commented airily, most of them in costume: ‘the young Torlonias danced as Peruvians in character-whimsical enough’.

Another of the honoured guests – somewhat higher up the social ladder than William himself – was ‘Prince Couburg who is to be seen everywhere.’ Evidently, the presence of Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg (1785-1851) was nothing great to be commented on in Rome at that time, but we now know him as the uncle of both the later Queen Victoria (who was only 3 and a long way from the throne at this point) and her husband, Prince Albert.

Virginius, or; the liberation of Rome advertised this exotic location to playgoers from Ulverston, 1824, advertising

Virginius, or; the liberation of Rome This exotic location was used to advertise the play at Ulverston, 1824

Perhaps William’s buoyant mood also had something to do with his plans to move on from Rome after the long winter, to head to Sicily and discover new wonders. This meant the breaking up of their little group, gathered piecemeal from Calais onwards. Mr Butts (who avoided the near run-in with bandits near Naples by staying with the mules) and Mr Montagu (who had spent the summer cruising the Mediterranean in a brig of war) were returning to England via Northern Italy. Mr. Brooks, however, intended to come back to Rome from his visit to Florence in time to set off with Thomas Angell and William for Sicily in April. Their adventures – including climbing a volcano and sparking an international furore in the archaeological world –  must wait until a later post, but I hope you still have time to hear an unusually personal note which William added to his letter the following morning.

We have surmised that Margaret, William’s sister, was married to a man named Thomas (another architect); some time between the 27 and the morning of 28 February, William received a letter from them which troubled him:

I am truly grieved to hear that circumstances have induced Thomas and my sister to think of letting their house and taking up their residence in the country

William evidently shared contemporaries' mistrust of renting property

William evidently shared contemporaries’ mistrust of renting property

These ‘circumstances’, though they were apparently not spelled out in the letter, William had surmised to be ‘health and economy united’. The drive for economy, William feared, would prove futile, owing to the dangers of unreliable tenants, the expense of moving and ‘the damage which would almost inevitably accrue to their furniture when in the hands of strangers.’ Moving from the capital might also, William feared, have a negative impact on Thomas’ career and he also considered ‘the loss my poor Mother would suffer’. In the eloquent and painstakingly polite style of the time, William asked his father, who had ‘already done much’:

would it not be a satisfaction to you to reflect you had left nothing undone…?

Assuring his father that he requested this assistance to his sister ‘solely by my own convictions’ rather than any urging on any other behalf, ‘dictated by an ardent wish for the domestic happiness of all most dear to me’, he added;

may I not hope you will consider the matter and avert so unfortunate a circumstance

I don’t know why but I find it particularly touching that even halfway round the world on the trip of a lifetime, William clearly still felt the need to intervene and help his family, with real concern for their well-being. What happened to them is still to be discovered, with William setting off for Sicily in the hopes of new adventure – but I suspect that neither he nor his family could have imagined what would happen next.

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