The second of two reviews.
See part I – click here
In Pictures from Italy, Charles Dickens’ description of Napolitanos doing “everything in pantomime” illustrates his unsurpassed skill at animating a scene:
…beggars rap their chins with their right hands… the conventional sign for hunger. A man quarrelling with another lays the palm of his right hand on the back of his left, and shakes the two thumbs—expressive of a donkey’s ears — [goading] his adversary. Two people bargaining for fish, the buyer empties an imaginary waistcoat pocket when he is told the price, and walks away… Two people in carriages, meeting, one touches his lips, twice or thrice, holding up the five fingers of his right hand, and gives a horizontal cut in the air with the palm. The other nods briskly, and goes his way. He has been invited to a friendly dinner at half-past five… All over Italy, a peculiar shake of the right hand from the wrist, with the forefinger stretched out, expresses a negative — the only negative beggars will ever understand.
Dickens’ captures one of traveling’s purest joys, the “confounding nature” of “the wonderful novelty of everything.” His sightseeing was off the beaten path, for example, the quarry at Carrara, source of renowned Italian marble:
But the road, the road down which the marble comes, however immense the blocks! The genius of the country… paves that road: repairs it, watches it, keeps it going… Standing in one of the many studios of Carrara, that afternoon — for it is a great workshop, full of beautifully-finished copies in marble, of almost every figure, group, and bust we know — it seemed so strange to me that those exquisite shapes, replete with grace, and thought, and delicate repose, should grow out of all this toil, and sweat, and torture…
Dickens sees guide-book touted sights with fresh eyes. Rome’s catacombs symbolize the “triumph of the faith,” not its “splendid churches” above ground. The monumental Spanish Steps link two of Rome’s great piazzas; but Dickens makes them irresistibly fascinating as a place where artists find models for hire. There is the “patriarch” with his “long white hair and an immense beard who has gone half through the catalogue of the Royal Academy.” And others, too: the “dolce far’ niente,” (sweet nothingness), even now a singularly Italian model who “always pretends to be asleep in the sun.”
There is another man in a brown cloak, who leans against a wall, with his arms folded in his mantle, and looks out of the corners of his eyes: which are just visible beneath his broad slouched hat. This is the assassin model. There is another man, who constantly looks over his own shoulder, and is always going away, but never does. This is the haughty, or scornful model. As to Domestic Happiness, and Holy Families, they should come very cheap, for there are lumps of them, all up the steps
Sightseeing is “conscientious work,” says Dickens. He shows us a different side of Italy, home to the greatest conglomeration of sights in global tourism. His itinerary is worth following today.
—Tucker Cox, Zeteo Contributing Writer
An interesting blog about islands off the coast of Tuscany — lovely photos & practical information – click here
Traveling independently to Italy? Get advice from an expert, and see some beautiful pictures – click here
I believe Carrara was very much on the beaten track for tourists in Dickens’s time. The Victorians worshiped all things Renaissance.