[Illustration from the September 1747 issue of “The Gentleman’s Magazine]
“A man who has not been to Italy is always conscious of an inferiority, from not having seen what it is expected a man should see.” Samuel Johnson said it, and Joseph Spence, at the age of 31 in 1730, set off from Oxford to see what a man should see. Spence was a commoner with little money, but through the connections of friends, arranged to travel with Lord Middlesex, the 19-year-old son of a duke. The rakish lord drank his way through Europe for a couple of years, while the Oxford don spent his time developing a passion for Italian opera.
In 1737, Spence accompanied John Morley Trevor to the continent, eager to return to Italy. However, Trevor turned out to be a dull companion, and they did not make it to Italy, because Trevor was recalled to England before the end of the year.
In 1740, Spence was asked to accompany another young nobleman, Lord Lincoln, to Italy, where Lincoln was to attend the Royal Academy at Turin. As his governor, Spence oversaw the improvement of Lincoln’s fragile health and guided him out of an affair with an unsuitable partner, returning him to England better prepared for his future.
Spence kept a journal, and wrote numerous letters to his mother while traveling. Here are excerpts from letters to his mother describing his first visit to Naples:
In going to Naples we often passed old Roman roads, in many places all laid with large smooth stone and as entire still as the pavement of a great hall, though near two thousand years old. ‘Tis to me the most surprising thing of art which we have seen abroad. This noble pavement, sometimes for miles together, is bordered with myrtles and a hundred other evergreens, and on each side of it you see perpetually the ruins of old tombs and monuments, for the Romans always buried by great roads (perhaps to put people in mind that this life is but a journey, and that in this world we are not properly at home).
There are sometimes orange-trees in the road, and at Mola, a little seaport on the way to Naples, all the orchards were full of them just like apple-trees with us. Within about thirty miles of Naples we came into a vast plain, the richest soil and the best cultivated in Italy: whence the Italians call it ‘Campagna Felice’ or ‘the happy country’. It was soon after that we discerned the top of the famous Mount Vesuvius, and the smoke which it perpetually flings out looked at that distance like a cloud gilded with the sun.
Naples is one of the most delicious sea-ports in the world: it lies down a sloping ground, all in a large half moon to the sea. The shore on for a great way humours the same shape of a half moon. In one side of it, about six miles on the left hand from Naples, is Vesuvius, and on the right the grotto of Pausilippo and the tomb of Virgil…
It was with a great deal of impatience that I waited for the morning when we were to go up Mount Vesuvius, which was heightened by my seeing it every morning. The tops of the houses are all flat at Naples and as smooth as a floor; they often set them out with flower-pots and orange-trees, and ’tis their usual place for diversion on summer evenings. From the top of our house we had a most distinct view of Vesuvius, and I used to run up there every morning the first thing I did, to see whether he increased in his smoking or not.
At last the morning came: four mile we went along the beautiful shore of Naples in chaises, which were then quit from the rising and badness of the way, for horses. These carried us two mile more, and then the way is so steep and bad that you are forced to quit even them and be dragged up the two last mile by men who make a trade of it…. Two of these honest men get just before you, with strong girdles on; you take hold of the girdles, and then they draw, and you climb up as fast as you can. Both they and we are forced to rest very often, and then tug and trudge again…. In some of the resting places here we felt the earth hot under us as we sat down…. The last stage is infinitely the worst. ‘Tis all loose crumbling earth in which your two draggers and you sink every step almost up to the knees, beside which it often yields under you, and ’tis often impossible not to slip back half a yard…but eagerness to get to the top when so near makes it the less troublesome. When there, you have a ragged rocky edge all round a vast cauldron of perhaps half a mile deep and a mile round, all full of smoke. The wind every three or four minutes clears away the smoke, and then you have a view of it. It sinks irregularly and raggedly all down on the inside. There are several places in it that look of a fire-colour, blueish, greenish and principally yellow…
One of my guides was an extraordinary honest fellow; I was got very intimately acquainted with him in our journey uup. He told me that ‘to be sure the devil lived in that hill’, and wished very heartily that all the Frenchmen were in there with him. Upon my telling him that we are all Frenchmen, he said he was sorry for it, but it could not be helped….
When the wind blew away the smoke from between the crags of the opposite side of the cauldron, we had a veiw of a beautiful piece of country, green fields, meadow-grounds, etc. thick set with houses; on the right hand appeared a part of the delicious bay of Naples: ’twas but turning the head, and we had a full view of all the city and bay.
Spence’s writings are collected in a book edited by Slava Klima entitled Joseph Spence: Letters from the Grand Tour published in 1975.
Watch for a BONUS re-blog of a modern day view of Vesuvius.