Smollett at Livorno

Tobias Smollett (1721-1771), the distinguished Scottish novelist, died near the Italian city of Leghorn. Nowadays the city is more or less universally known as Livorno, a lively Mediterranean port and sea bathing resort. It is not difficult to understand why the British merchants, long associated with the city, who first heard the name pronounced in a guttural Tuscan accent, anglicised it to Leghorn. In the following paper Livorno is used with reference to the present, but Leghorn is retained elsewhere

At the end of his life Tobias Smollett applied for the British consulship, either in Nice or in Leghorn. In the late 1750s he had been offered Nice, but had turned it down and in 1762 he had again applied for a consulship, but was unsuccessful. In 1767 his fellow historian, a friend and admirer, David Hume, formerly chargé d’affaires in Paris, told him that the consulships at both Nice and Leghorn were promised to others. Hume did not tell him that it was considered in Government circles that Smollett might not be very popular in Nice because he had criticised the place in his Travels Through France and Italy (1766). Thus, in late 1768, for the second time, Smollett left Britain for the Mediterranean for the sake of his health, still making a living with his pen.

He went first to Pisa where his friend, Dr John Armstrong (1709-79), wrote to him at the Casa Lenzi in March 1769. While he was there, he enjoyed the society of the professors at the University whom he had also met during his Travels in 1764. He was in Pisa in January 1770 when Sir Horace Mann (1701-86), the British Consul in Florence, mentioned in a letter to Horace Walpole that Smollett had retired to Pisa for his health. [In his reply Walpole, one of the few critics to actively dislike Humphry Clinker, characterised Smollett as “a most worthless and dangerous fellow and capable of any mischief.”] Pisa was, indeed, known as a health resort at that time, and, at about the same time as Smollett had been there in 1765, Prince Charles Edward Stuart went to Pisa.

It is more or less certain that in was at Pisa in 1770 that an unknown Italian artist executed the best likeness of Smollett – almost invariably the portrait used to illustrate articles about him. In the spring of 1770 Smollett moved to Il Giardino [The Garden] a fine villa situated at Antignano, a village immediately south of Leghorn. The following summer, his last, he visited Bagni di Lucca, a fine spa resort in the valley of the Serchio, before returning to the villa at Antignano where he died on 17th September 1771.

The consulship at Leghorn, had he obtained it, would not have been a sinecure because Leghorn, then as now, was a lively commercial port and naval base. In the eighteenth century a long-established confederation of British merchants (factors) manipulated the commerce of the place as far as they could. They constituted what was called the ‘English Factory’ at Leghorn.  Leghorn was, in many ways, the principal British port on the Mediterranean. When Smollett was there it was the only place in Italy where Protestants could be buried. A significant function of the consul in Leghorn was, in conjunction with Sir Horace Mann in Florence, to keep an eye on the Jacobites in Italy because Britain did not enjoy diplomatic relations with Rome itself. In Smollett’s day the most important Scots family in Leghorn were the Aikmans, the house of Aikman having been established in the 1690s. Another Scot, Sir John Dick was consul, on and off, from 1754 until 1776.

 Montenero, looking towards Livorno; Smollett’s villa is in the middle distance at the foot of the hill..

Montenero, looking towards Livorno; Smollett’s villa is in the middle distance at the foot of the hill..

We have a single sentence to tell us how agreeable Smollett found Il Giardino: “I am at present rusticated on the side of a mountain that overlooks the sea, in the neighbourhood of Leghorn, a most romantic and salutary situation.”  Indeed, one is very conscious of the presence of the sea at the villa. “I was under some apprehension,” wrote Smollett, “that I should find the air of Leghorn much more unfavourable than [the air of Pisa] where I passed the two last winters; but I keep my health much better here than at Pisa, and I ascribe the difference to the sea air which has always been propitious to my constitution.” (Letter to an unidentified correspondent from Leghorn, January 1771).

We know from his letters that Smollett was at La Giardino when a relatively severe earthquake struck Leghorn in January 1771. He describes how people had fled the town, some taking to vessels in the harbour, but he had stayed put: “…. for my own part I thought it was better to run some small risque of being smother’d quietly in my own warm bed than expose myself to certain death from the damps of a dark winter night, while the cold was excessive.”  (Letter to Alexander Telfer)

Lewis Knapp, Smollett’s infuriatingly thorough biographer, states that ‘long-standing Italian tradition’ has it that Smollett worked on his finest novel, Humphry Clinker, at Leghorn. This hints at how little we know of this period in Smollett’s life. The novel is clearly based, in part, on his time at Bath and in London in the late 1760s, and on his final visit to Scotland of 1766. Did he begin it in Britain? Almost certainly, but did he then take the manuscript to Italy to revise it? In all probability he did, but who then saw it through the press in London, and so on? It is perhaps best simply to accept the tradition, which seems to have originated in Guiseppe Vivoli’s assertion in his Annals of Livorno (1844) that it was so.

When they were in Italy at the end of the author’s life the Smolletts continued to enjoy the friendship of Ann Renner who had accompanied them on their travels in 1763-5 when she was Ann Curry. At Florence in June 1769 she had married George Renner, a German banker who became a naturalised Englishman. Smollett was one of the witnesses, as was Smollett’s landlady when he stayed in Florence in 1764, Signora Vanini. The Renners were a part of the English Factory in Leghorn and doubtless it was their position in Leghorn which led Smollett to choose to live there at the very end of his life. Indeed Smollett made a substantial bequest to Ann Renner in his will and the Renners afforded Mrs Smollett companionship after the author’s death. They are buried next to the Smolletts. It can be asserted with some confidence that, even if they spent two winters in Pisa, the Smolletts visited Leghorn regularly between late 1768 and 1771

Leghorn is thus the Italian city with the most significant connections with Smollett. There is a good local studies library presently housed at the Mascagni Museum, named after Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945), the distinguished composer born in Livorno. It preserves much material dealing with Smollett including, for example, the considerable article about Smollett in Liburni Civitas (1936) by Montgomery Carmichael (1857-1936). He was a diplomat and later a novelist, who had become Vice Consul in Leghorn in 1892, and eventually enjoyed the title of Consul-General to the Republic of San Marino and His Britannic Majesty’s Consul for Tuscany (except Florence), Umbria and the Marches. In addition to these duties Carmichael took responsibity for Smollett’s legacy in Italy, and, by consulting British and Italian records, did his best to find out about him.

Il Giardino, now called the Villa Gamba, is situated outside Antignano on the Via del Litorale. It is still in the hands of the Gambas, the family who owned it in the eighteenth century, but, ironically, it did not belong to them when Smollett was there. Owing to some  financial  difficulty  the villa  had passed  to a family called Sampieri.

Plan of Antignano showing the Villa Gamba

Plan of Antignano showing the Villa Gamba

However, it reverted to the original owners and it is said that, then, the Countess Gamba caused some of the rooms to be kept as they were when Smollett had them. Carmichael stated in Notes and Queries in April 1898 that the then owner of the Villa Gamba, Eugenio Niccolai Gamba, had told him that he slept in the room in which Smollett died.  Today the exquisite gardens have echoes of the gardens which Smollett knew, and the splendid prospect from the villa across the Tyrrhenian Sea towards Gorgona is unchanged.

Il Giardino, the garden of the delightful villa above Antignano where Smollett spent the  last year of his life.   Photo- Louis Stott

Il Giardino, the garden of the delightful villa above Antignano where Smollett spent the last year of his life. Photo- Louis Stott

On 27 September 1979 a plaque was erected at the Villa Gamba, during an Anglo-Italian Studies Convention at Livorno, as follows:

IN QUESTA VILLA
SOGGIORNO DAL 1769 AL 1771

IL ROMANZIERE INGLESE

TOBIAS SMOLLETT

E QUI SCRISSE ANCHI

IL SUO PIU CELEBRE ROMANZO

“HUMPHREY CLINKER”

QUESTA LAPIDE E STATA POSTA

IN OCASIONE DEL CONVEGNO

DI STUDI GLI INGLESI A LIVORNO
E ALL‘ISOLA D’ELBA

Carmichael (1857-1936) pointed out that Smollett, and his biographers, have confused things by referring to his residence as being situated at Montenero, the hilltop site of a handsome pilgrimage church. Montenero was also the name of the considerable estate, associated with both Byron and Shelley as well as with Smollett, out of which the parish of Antignano was carved. Those who seek Smollett at the top of the hill will not find him; the Villa Gamba is at the foot of the hill. “The villa itself is outside the village [of Antignano] about three-quarters of a mile further south on the road to Rome. It lies well back from the road and is placed at some altitude.” (Carmichael Notes and Queries 1898). It was formerly reached by a level crossing in the village of Antignano, but the building of a superstrade, called the Variante Aurelia, has confused things.  Directions can be obtained in the centre of the village. Appropriately, the road outside Antignano station is called Via Smollet.

The other memorial to Smollett is in the English Cemetery. The obelisk is like several others, and the inscription is simple enough, although, inexplicably, the year of his death is wrong:

Memoriae

Tobiae Smollett

Qui Liburni

Animam efflavit 16 Sept 1773 quidam

Ex suis valde amicis

Civibus

Hunc tumulum

Fecerunt

Indeed with regard to Smollett’s death a good deal is unexplained and, at this distance in time, is unlikely to be satisfactorily elucidated. One might suppose that the question of when and where a figure of Smollett’s substance died would cause little dispute, but there has been a great deal. It is now generally agreed that he died at the Villa Gamba, attended by Doctors Garden and Gentili, on Tuesday, 17th September 1771. Sir Horace Mann reported the date in a postscript in his own hand to a letter to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

In describing Smollett’s grave Sir Walter Scott refers to a plain monument with ‘a spirited inscription’ by Smollett’s friend, Dr John Armstrong. Armstrong was the only one of Smollett’s longstanding friends who visited him at Leghorn. He called in May 1770, and in July 1770 spent two weeks at Antignano which he referred to briefly in Lancelot Temple [John Armstrong] A Short Ramble Through Some Parts of France and Italy (1771). It is possible that Armstrong contributed the existing inscription as stated by Seccombe in the old DNB, but the inscription referred to by Scott was twenty-eight lines long. Carmichael is of the opinion that it was the intention to erect a more considerable monument in Leghorn, but that it was not carried into effect.

The fact that Smollett’s death was alluded to by His Majesty’s Government’s man in Florence, and not by Sir John Dick, their man in Leghorn, caused John Buchan Telfer (b. circa 1830, a great-grandson of Smollett’s sister, Jane Telfer) to assert, in Notes and Queries 1898, that Smollett might well have died nearer Pisa than Leghorn. This called forth a riposte in the same year from Montgomery Carmichael whose answer to this point was that it was no part of a Consul’s duties to report such deaths, and that this was why Sir Horace’s addendum was handwritten.

Amongst the arguments made for burial somewhere other than the Protestant Cemetery in Leghorn was the absence of the words “here lies” (hic jacet) at Leghorn, and the statement in the Dumbartonshire inscription of 1774 that he lies interred near the gate of Leghorn (Propre Liburni Portum in Italia). Carmichael pointed out that the English Cemetery was just outside the old walls of the port.

Equally the date of Smollett’s death took on a life of its own. There were minor disputes about whether it was 16th or 17th September 1771, and Dr Gentili accidentally wrote the year 1772 in his notes. These slips were insignificant in comparison to the statement that he died on 21st October (reported in the Scots Magazine, and adopted by several of his early biographers including Vivoli, Anderson, Moore and Sir Walter Scott), and the gap of two years in the date of death which has already been noted. Carmichael’s explanation for this is ingenious. He suggests that the date is when the monument was erected, and that a later minister of the Protestant Church in Leghorn, anxious to update the register copied the entry, which had been omitted, from the obelisk.

After his death many literary figures visited the English cemetery to see Smollett’s grave. In 1819 Shelley stayed at the Villa Valsovona near Montenero where he completed the classical drama The Cenci and wrote To a skylark. It is recorded that he visited the cemetery. In 1822 Byron stayed at the Casa Dupuy, Montenero and probably visited the grave. Indeed it seems to have been a standard thing to do in the nineteenth century; for example, Hawthorne’s biographers have him paying a routine visit to Smollett’s grave at Leghorn on 19 January 1858. Dickens, who came in January 1845, held that Leghorn, of which he gave a lively account, was “made illustrious by Smollett’s grave.” Longfellow put his visit to Leghorn in his Outre-Mer. Fennimore Cooper who visited Leghorn on 3 August 1829 is the most forthcoming visitor:

“Leghorn seemed vulgar and mean after Florence, with its pretty little court, its museums and its refinements; the only things that interested us were the sea, the port, the picturesque vessels, the fragrance and a cemetery for the Protestant dead.

The island of Gorgona was looming in the haze, a hummock of rock, and it is said that there are days on which the mountains of Corsica are visible from the mole. There is also a noble dark pile at no great distance from the town which is, appropriately enough, called Monte Nero. Its side is garnished with country-houses and there is a church near its summit that is in great repute among mariners, as a shrine at which offerings are to be made for deliveries from the casualties of the sea: I believe its name is that of Our Lady of the Storms.”

Cooper goes to the Protestant Cemetery and, to his amazement, discovers the grave of a sea captain with whom he had sailed on Lake Ontario:

“On examining the monuments near I was still more startled at reading the name of Tobias Smollett on one of them. He is known to have come to Italy to terminate his worldly career. The “Siste Viator” applies with force to those who speak English, and who find themselves unexpectedly standing over such a grave.”

James Fenimore Cooper Gleanings from Europe: Italy

It is said that Smollett’s Italian fans erected a tomb on the banks of the Arno between Leghorn and Pisa. This was described in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1818. It seems to have been a substantial octagonal edifice and Anderson’s edition of Smollett’s Works (1820) contains four inscriptions in Italian, Latin, Greek and English from it. But there is no trace of it. However, Smollett’s description of the Arno in Travels is a loving one, so the site was very suitable. Admittedly his description is of the country between Pisa and Florence, but it evokes Tuscany before such evils as the motorway and the motor-car which render the country between Pisa and Leghorn something of an industrial desert these days: “…. The country is delightful, variegated with hill and vale, wood and water, meadows and cornfields, planted and inclosed like the counties of Middlesex and Hampshire with this difference, however, that all the trees in this tract were covered with vines, and the ripe clusters, black and white, hung down from every bough in the most luxuriant and romantic abundance.” These agreeable sentiments make a fitting epitaph for Smollett in Italy.

Louis Stott

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3 Responses so far »

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  2. 3

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