A Miserable Winter in Rome

A painting of the River Tiber in winter, by Willem Schellinks (1627-78)

Snippets 188. In 1817 Henry Matthews went on a “tour in pursuit of health”, and wrote about his experiences in Diary of an Invalid, in 1820. His first port of call was Lisbon, and from there he travelled to Italy.  The approach to Rome did not impress him, and by the time he arrived there he was exhausted from travelling.  Far from being “in pursuit of health”, he seemed to be subjecting his body to the stresses of a long journey, and the discomfort of miserable weather.  His description of his time in Rome is consequently one of the grumpiest I have ever read.

The English swarm every where. We found all the inns full. It seemed like a country town in England at an assizes. To look for lodgings was impossible, for it rained unmercifully. By the way, when it does rain here, it pours with a downright vehemence that we are but little accustomed to in England. We got a resting-place for the night with some difficulty, at the Hotel de Paris. Dear and bad…

Established ourselves at No. 43, Via degli Otto Cantoni, Corso. This situation is bad. The Corso is the Bond-street of Rome; — but it is also the Billingsgate. There are two fish-stalls under my window, the people belonging to which commence their vociferations as soon as it is light. There is, however, at least, more variety in these cries than in the perpetual “All alive ho!” of London. The Italian fish-monger displays all the humour he is master of to get rid of his stock, and he will sometimes apostrophize his stale mullet with ludicrous effrontery; — “Pesce! cosa fate? Pesce! state chete.” But the worst objection to our lodgings is their height. We are on the quarto piano; — a hundred and four steps from the ground — though this objection relates only to convenience; for it is by no means mauvais ton in Rome, to live in the upper story, which does not at all answer to our garret. Here, — your approach to heaven does not in the least detract from your gentility…

The more I see of Italy, the more I doubt whether it be worth while for an invalid to encounter the fatigues of so long a journey, for the sake of any advantages to be found in it, in respect of climate, during the winter. To come to Italy, with the hope of escaping the winter, is a grievous mistake. This might be done by getting into the southern hemisphere, but in Europe it is impossible; and, I believe, that Devonshire after all, may be the best place for an invalid, during that season. If the thermometer be not so low here, the temperature is more variable, and the winds are more bitter and cutting.

In Devonshire too, all the comforts of the country are directed against cold; — here, all the precautions are the other way. The streets are built to exclude as much as possible the rays of the sun, and are now as damp and cold, as rain or frost can make them. And then, — what a difference between the warm carpet, the snug elbowed chair, and the blazing coal-fire of an English winter evening; — and the stone staircases, marble floors, and starving casements of an Italian house! — where every thing is designed to guard against the heat of summer; which occupies as large a proportion of the Italian year, as the winter season does of our own. The only advantage of Italy then is, that your penance is shorter than it would be in England; for I repeat, that during the time it lasts, winter is more severely felt here, than at Sidmouth, where I would even recommend an Italian invalid to repair, from November till February; — if he could possess himself of Fortunatus’s cap, to remove the difficulties of the journey.

“Mauvis ton” is French for “the done thing”, i.e. that which is considered correct or fashionable in this context.  Fortunatus was a popular story in medieval Europe.  The cap Matthews refers to here is a wishing hat which transports Fortunatus to any place he wishes to be.  I wouldn’t mind one of those.  Fortunatus was also fortunate enough to be given (by Lady Fortune) a magic purse which refills itself.  Some people have all the luck.

A painting of the River Tiber in winter, by Willem Schellinks (1627-78)

Matthews survived the ordeal of his “tour in pursuit of health”, but sadly died in 1828, still a young man.  He had managed to fight through ill-health to pursue a successful legal career, and was advocate-fiscal of Ceylon from 1821 to 1827.  His only child was born in Ceylon in 1826, also called Henry Matthews, who became a Conservative MP and was ennobled as the first Viscount Llandaff of Hereford.


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About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, History, Humor, Humour, Nature, People, Snippets, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Miserable Winter in Rome

  1. Love your posts and really love the painting you included – thank you for the share!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Pocock says:

      Thanks for mentioning the choice of painting! I spend ages trying to find illustrations to use that have some relation to the articles and also are inspiring in themselves. It’s not always easy to find something to use!

      Liked by 1 person

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