An 1852 Review of “Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria”

Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria, &c. By Edward Lear, Author of “Journals of a Lnadscape Painter in Albania,” &c. ―London: Bentley, 1852.

This splendidly got up volume contains a simple but lively and graphic narrative of a tour undertaken by the author through Southern Calabria and through the Basilicata and the adjoining provinces of the kingdom of Naples. Travelling as he did with no other object than to enrich his sketchbook and portfolio, for which purpose he sought out places lying completely out of the track of the ordinary tourist, and being furnished with excellent introductions, he came into constant and close contact with all classes of society, and was thus enabled to give in his journal many details of the social life and manners of the countries he visited, which would probably escape the common traveller. His account fo the state of society in Calabria is peculiarly interesting, from the comparative seclusion in which its injabitants live, and from its being ground untrodden hitherto by English tourists. The ignorance, however, is abundantly reciprocated, at least if we may judge by the various commentaries upon England and English life to which our traveller was doomed to listen, and of which we shall transcribe, by way of specimen; and, for the entertainment of our readers, to that of the Superior of Sta-Maria di Polsi, with all its attendant circumstances: ―

It was nine o’clock eere we arrived before the gate of this remote and singular retreat. It was a long while before we gained admittance; and the Superiore, a most affable old man, having read our letter, offered us all the accomodation in his power, which, as he said, we must needs see was small. Wonder and curiosity overwhelmed the ancient man and his brethren, who were few in number, and clad in black serge dresses. “Why had we come to such a solitary place? No foreigner had ever done so before?” The hospitable father asked a world of questions, and made many comments upon us and upon England in general, for the benefit of his fellow-recluses. “England,” said he, “is a very small place, although thickly inhabited. It is altogether about the third part of the size of the city of Rome. The people are a sort of Christians, though not exactly so. Their priests, and even their Bishops marry, which is incomprehensible, and most ridiculous. The whole place is divided into two equal parts by an arm of the sea, under which there is a great tunnel, so that it is all like one piece of dry land. Ah ― che celebre tunnel!” A supper of hard eggs, salad, and fruit followed in the refectory of the convent, and we were attended by two monstrous watch-dogs, named Assassino and Saraceno, throughout the rest of the evening, when the silence of the long hall, broken only by the whispers of the gliding monk, was very striking. Our bed-rooms were two cells, very high up in the tower of the Convent, with shutters to the unghlazed windows, as a protection against the cold and wind, which were by no means pleasant at this great elevation. Very forlorn, indeed, were the sleeping apartments of Sta. Maria di Polsi, and fearful was the howling of the wind and the roaring of a thunder-storm throughout the night! ― but it was solemn and suggestive, and the very antithesis of life in our own civilized and distant home.

The author’s tour of Calabria was unhappily cut short by the revolutionary movements consequent upon Pio Nono’s sudden and shorlived fir of Liberalism. The tour of the Basilicata has since acquired an additional interest from the desolation caused in the very districts which he visited four years before, by the terrible earthquake of August 14th, 1851, a brief account fo which, from the pen of one of his former hosts, Mr. Lear has appended to his volume. The landscape sketches which accompany the text in rich abundance are of the most striking character and create a great longing to have a further peep at the collection from which they are derived.

[From John Bull, 1663, Saturday, 23 October 1852; pp. 683-684.]


For more information on the history and condition of Calabria and Basilicata at the time of Edward Lear’s tour, see Il tempo, il viaggio e lo spirito negli inediti di Edward Lear in Calabria by Giuseppe Macrì, Reggio Calabria: Laruffa, 2012: it does not really have much to say about Lear, but its overview of the history of the area is of great interest.

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