In the 1840s Charles Dickens observed and unforgettably caricatured the English members of an early package-tour doing the rounds of Rome; he supposed that they had been brought from London in nine or ten days. This was soon to change dramatically. The Baptist minister Samuel Manning, revisiting Italy in the 1870s, observed that now `Turin may be easily reached from London in thirty-six hours. It is not long since the distance from London to York occupied the same time.' In Alps and Sanctuaries, first published in 1881, Samuel Butler remarked: `Wednesday morning, Fleet Street; Thursday evening, a path upon the quiet mountain side, under the overspreading chestnuts, with Lombardy at one's feet.'
Butler was conscious not only of the immense acceleration of the pace of travel which had taken place in the past generation, but of its significance on the time-scales of the world's history:
The first period, from the chamois
track to the foot road, was one of millions
of years; the second, from the first
foot road, to the Roman military way,
was one of many thousands; the third,
from the Roman to the medieval, was
perhaps a thousand; from the medieval
to the Napoleonic, five hundred; from
the Napoleonic to the railroad, fifty.
What will come next we know not, but
it should come within twenty years,
and will probably have something to
do with electricity.
He was also aware of the psychologically disorientating effects of these transformations: `science is rapidly reducing space to the same unsatisfactory state that it has already reduced time.'
Everywhere, including the land of its birth, the railway had from the beginning aroused opposing and ambivalent feelings. Ralph Harrington has explored some of the predominantly negative reactions (History Today, July 1994). There were those who hailed the dawn of a new age of progress and seized eagerly on the commercial possibilities, and there were those who were appalled by the destruction entailed by the building of the railroads (brilliantly evoked by Dickens in Dombey and Son). If such feelings were entertained in Britain, the `cradle of the industrial revolution', what was the reaction of members of the British intelligentsia when as tourists they saw the iron roads spreading over the Italian peninsula?
The question is worth asking because of what Italy signified to many cultivated Britons in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Italy was recognised as the cradle of great cultures, Roman and Renaissance; in the present, it shared with other countries bordering the Mediterranean in a hopeless backwardness, but for that very reason it furnished a precious contrast to the rapidly industrialising northern world. Italian nature, including human nature, seemed unspoiled; the Italian peasant might almost be cast as the noble savage; the great art cities were valued not only for what they contained, but because, as cities, they were everything that Birmingham and Manchester were not.
The popular novelist Maurice Hewlett put one version of these views trenchantly in The Road in Tuscany (1904):
let the modern adventurer consider
that he is going to a country where the
best is dead or dying, and play the reactionary
as far as he can. If he is minded
to get close to old Tuscany, and to consider
the noble side by side with the
base, I can promise him that he will do
better on the highway than the railway.
This, with its intolerable apparatus of
iron, smoke and noise, and the venal
cosmopolitans who are paid to do its
service and do it not unless you pay
them more, has driven a broad furrow
across and across the land; and
wherever it has stayed there has leaked
out of it over the town or village some
poisonous breath, as it were, to kill
every natural thing. Uniformity is the
staple of its beastly food; it goes by
clockwork and expects you to live by it.
Here is why every railway station and
railway suburb is like every other.
There is nothing to be learned from
such travel but how to keep your temper
or (rather) when to lose it.
Hewlett was not the first Italian traveller to be worried by the `uniformity' of rail travel. The Reverend Samuel Manning too believed that:
Railways are alike all over Europe, and
the Italian ferrovie differ from those of
other countries only in their intolerable
slowness. The stazione at Capua or at
Pompeii might be a station at Wapping,
but for its greater dirt and discomfort
... There is little to remind the traveller
that he is in Italy, not in England; and
he has to stimulate his imagination into
activity by saying to himself `It is not
Margate or Brighton that I am approaching,
but Naples or Rome'.
Such views could easily be exaggerated, and contaminated by the sentimentalisation of an Italy which the viewer wished to preserve in an epoch of rapid and discomfiting change. Such sentiments abound in the travel writing of the early twentieth century. Writing, in 1907, of the little Umbrian city of Todi, Edward Hutton exclaimed `You hear no train, even in the stillest night; no tram rushes past your windows to remind you of the horrible new world that has only time for action, and has forgotten to think. Ah! it is not happy, that great modern world from which I have fled away.'
There were, however, and had been much earlier in the railway age, other reactions. Dickens was only too conscious of the squalor and poverty in which too many Italians lived and warned against romanticising it.
It was perhaps not so surprising, therefore, that (whatever his ambivalence in his own land) Dickens should see the coming of railways to Italy as a sign of a welcome transformation, and associate resistance to them with reactionary regimes. He commented on:
the railroad between leghorn and Pisa,
which is a good one, and has already
begun to astonish Italy with a precedent
of punctuality, order, plain dealing
and improvement - the most dangerous
and heretical astonisher of all.
There must have been a slight sensation,
as of earthquake, surely, in the
Vatican, when the first Italian railroad
was thrown open.
By contrast, Dickens observed that Francesco IV of Modena was both a double-dyed reactionary, whose proud boast it was that he alone of European sovereigns had refused to recognise Louis Philippe as king of France, and an implacable foe of the railway.
Another Italian ruler who could readily be dismissed as a reactionary was Pope Gregory XVI. In the last month of his life (he died on June 1st, 1846) he gave an audience to a group of English ladies and asked them how they had come to Italy. `In the most energetic manner', one of the ladies recalled, `he declared his dislike of railways; adding that though he doubted not when he was "sotto terra" railways would speedily be introduced into the Papal States, vet that as long as he lived not one should be permitted.' The pope's aversion to railways was evidently notorious, for a pasquinade produced on his death imagined him complaining of the length and tedium of the journey to Paradise, only to be told by his guide that if he had permitted the building of railways the journey might have been easier. Furthermore, if there had been a telegraph from Rome, more fitting arrangements could have been made for his reception.
The first Italian railway line actually opened, on October 4th, 1839, was the short line from Naples to Portici, in a kingdom which for good European liberals was a by-word for corruption and despotism. The Austrian government in the north had in 1836 already planned a line from Milan to Venice which was briefly delayed by municipal rivalries between the Lombard cities. The line from Milan to Monza was built by a private company between 1838 and 1842. The view that a railway network must, realistically, be a national enterprise found expression in a book published in 1845 by the Piedmontese Carlo Petitti, which was reviewed by the future first prime minister of the Italian kingdom, Count Cavour.
Cavour hailed the plans for a railway through the Alps between Turin and Chambery as `a masterpiece of modern industry and the finest triumph of steam'. In its plans for the Milan-Venice route, the Austrian government `showed itself enlightened and benevolent toward its Italian subjects'. Cavour looked forward to the linkage of this route, when built, with Piedmont, `to form a single artery along the Po Valley', and to the building of further routes to link Vienna to Italy and to Trieste. His interests, as expressed in this review, were primarily economic and commercial. He foresaw the growth of tourism as a consequence of railway building, although this was, in his view, of relatively minor significance and not without its disadvantages: he did not wish the Italian population to make an easy, parasitic living out of rich foreigners, rather than out of hard work and enterprise.
Meanwhile the Milan-Venice railway had at last physically linked the Queen of the Adriatic to the Italian mainland, but although John and Effie Ruskin came as far as Mestre by train late in 1849, they had to take a boat to Venice. The causeway carrying the railway had been damaged in the Austrian bombardment of the city occasioned by the attempted revolution of 1848. Effie poured out an indignant torrent of words against the causeway:
If I was Radetsky not one stone of it
should be left on another. It completely
destroys your first impressions
of venice and it cost the Italians
150,000[pounds] and no good has come of it
so far & the everlasting shame of turning
half their Churches into Mills
because they can't be troubled to keep
them in order, covered with invaluable
Frescoes of Titian, Giorgion, the Bellinis
and others, and giving all that
money for a Railway bridge.
There was perhaps no stretch of railway which occasioned so much debate among visitors to Italy. To rumble by train into Venice, the most phantasmagorical of Italian cities, could seem either an abomination or a novelty whose very incongruousness had something to commend it. The `Gothic Revival' architect George Street left an account of his arrival by train in Notes of a Tour in Nortern Italy (1855):
At last however the broad watery level
of the Lagoon is reached; venice rises
out of the water at a distance of some
two miles; and then across an almost
endless bridge the railway takes us into
the outskirts of the city; a confused
idea of steeples and domes is all that is
obtained, and one finds oneself going
through that most painful of processes
to an excitable man the usual examination
of luggage; at last, however, we
were outside the station, the Grand
Canal lies before us. and we are vehemently
urged to get at once into an
omnibus-gondola. But, no, this is too
absurd a bathos for our first act on
entering venice, and we step therefore
into a private gondola, and, propelled
rapidly and lightly over the still, unruffled
water sink at once into that
dreamy kind of happiness which of all
conveyances in the world the gondola
is best calculated to encourage.
The impact of railway timetables on the traditional Venetian scene is suggested by Street's account of his departure from the city, where his gondolier slept in the gondola under his hotel window so that he should not miss the chance to take him to the station. To enjoy the speed and comfort of the train on the journey proper, but to take a private gondola to and from the hotel was a compromise between the old and the new which recommended itself to numerous travellers, including William Dean Howells, who arrived at Venice in 1860 to take up his appointment as American consul general. Howells had travelled by train from Vienna; the dreams of Cavour's generation were in a process of rapid realisation.
The sense of the incongruous juxtaposition of ancient and modern created by the railway was also vividly expressed by visitors to Pompeii. Howells `took the seven o'clock train [from Naples], which leaves the Nineteenth Century for the first cycle of the Christian Era'; Manning exclaimed: `It is with a strange feeling that one goes to the railway-station and asks for a return ticket to a city which was in its glory when our Lord was yet upon earth, which passed out of existence when the Apostle John was yet living, and which is now being disentombed after an interment of eighteen hundred years.'
As far as Howells was concerned, old and new were less acceptably juxtaposed in the railway system that now, in the 1860s, existed in the Papal State. `Nobody who cares to travel with decency and comfort' he declared, `can take the second-class cars on the road between Naples and Rome, though these are perfectly good everywhere else in Italy. The Papal city makes her influence felt for shabbiness and uncleanliness wherever she can, and her management seems to prevail on the railway. A glance into the second-class cars reconciled us to the first-class, - which in themselves were bad, - and we took our places almost contentedly.' On the way from Rome to Civita Vecchia, `Our engine-driver had derived some of his ideas of progress from an Encyclical Letter, and the train gave every promise of arriving at Civita Vecchia five hundred years behind time'.
From time to time, travellers betrayed a realisation that the railway might produce worthwhile sights of its own. Manning admitted some exceptional compensations for everything that the train-traveller undeniably missed: `The grand outlines of the mountains, amid which the Mont Cenis route winds, are seen to great advantage from the train. And as one climbs a steep ascent, shoots across some perilous gorge, or plunges into the tunnel, the sense of man's power and his victory over nature adds to the impressiveness of the scenery.' That some railway routes, at least, were widely conceded to be spectacular, is suggested by the words of W.H. Woodward, who, in 1909, in an article in the Manchester Guardian, recommended `the line from Rome to welcome datacompstrangers know, though hardly half a dozen railway routes in Europe surpass it for beauty and historic interest.'
The blasting of the great Alpine routes seemed a signal illustration of the power of man over nature remarked by Manning. Henry James, finding himself at Chambery an one occasion, `decided there might be mysterious delights in entering Italy by a whizz through an eight-mile tunnel, even as a bullet through the bore of a gun'. In 1873 he crossed the Old Saint Gothard pass by coach, conscious of the mighty work of tunnelling that was going on beneath him. He travelled alongside the coachman, who was invincibly cheerful, despite the (almost literal) undermining of his profession: 'he hopes, for long service's sake, to be taken into the employ of the railway; he at least is no cherisher of quaintness and has no romantic perversity.'
Despite this implied rebuke to the sentimentalists, James admitted to very mixed feelings about the work in progress, which were shared by Samuel Butler, who expressed his gratitude that `I have known the Val Leventina intimately before the great change in it which the railway will effect'. Butler gives a vivid account of the noise and other inconveniences occasioned by the blasting: `it was surprising to see the height to which stones were sometimes carried. The dwellers in houses near the blasting would cover their roofs with boughs and leaves to soften the fall of the stones.' Butler too had travelled by the Mont Cenis route and noted another change that the railway had brought: S. Ambrogio was `once a thriving town, where carriages used to break the journey between Turin and Susa', but left stranded since the opening of the railway; the inn where the carriages had put up had closed.
The travel literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries bears witness to the extension of the rail network into relatively remote corners of the peninsula and to the utilisation of the railways, not only by foreign tourists, but by humble Italians for purposes of recreation and devotion. The English-woman Dorothy Nevile Lees, for example, told in 1907 how Lucia, an impoverished and hunchbacked Florentine woman, saved every year for the fare that took her on a forty-minute journey in a third-class carriage for a fortnight's `villeggiatura' in the Tuscan countryside. On the eve of the First World War, Estella Canigiani, a resident of London, visited the Abruzzi with her father and her water-colours, in search of folklore and peasant costumes. She was waiting at a small rural station for a train to Sulmona when a long train came in bearing peasants from the deep south on their way to the Holy House of the Virgin at Loreto, and stopped to allow them (not without a great deal of jostling and elbowing) to fill their water-bottles at the spring.
At Cocullo on the Sulmona line, Estalla Canigiani met the formidable Maddalena, who was the porter. She was by no means the only woman employed on the Italian railway. A generation earlier, Howells had seen peasant women mending the line between Naples and Rome, their traditional costumes immaculate, bearing loads of earth on their heads, and pausing to gaze curiously at the passengers whenever a train stopped. Estella Canigiani once again felt the incongruous juxtaposition of the old world and the new when Maddalena sat with her on the station at Cocullo and told her how a witch had been put to death locally a few years previously.
It was widely agreed that the train traveller risked losing contact with the by-ways and the real life of the country. Manning reflected that `the old roads led through many a picturesque town and village, affording bits of characteristic colour or incident which are missed altogether on a railway journey ... Rushing through the country by train, time is economised, comfort is secure, the destination is reached speedily and without fatigue; but the journey itself is wanting in interest.' Howells too ruefully acknowledged: `I am afraid that the talk of the modern railway traveller, if he is honest, must be a great deal of the custodians, the vetturini, and the facchini, whose acquaintance constitutes his chief knowledge of the population among which he journeys ... we buy our through tickets, and we put up at the hotels praised in the hand-book, and are very glad of a little conversation with any native, however adulterated he be by contact with the world to which we belong.'
It is, of course, debatable how much real contact with the natives many earlier travellers, however leisurely, had had or desired to have. The sad truth was that this contact was not the priority of most tourists, and the speed and convenience of the train served the turn of most. Street, who came to Italy in quest of medieval architecture, stated solemnly in 1855 that `in these days of railways and rapid travelling there is scarcely any excuse for ignorance of Continental art'. Soon the package tours were coming by train, and the standard guide-books expected the traveller to use it. `Herr Baedeker', Hewlett sourly observed, `loves the train.'
Hewlett did not go so far as to blame the railways for the invention of the modern tourist phenomenon, which in effect was what he was attacking, but he saw them as a link in a malign chain: `The railways, the love of towns, and the worship of Art have worked together in a vicious circle which has become like a whipcord round the neck of the intelligent traveller ... pictures and sculptures have been herded into town museums; the railways have borne us from town to town - not that we may pretend to visit a country, but rather that we may walk through museums ....'
The extension of the railway made available choices which (in Hewlett's view) might be wrong or misguided. A travel-writer like Edward Hutton made, and counselled, choices. Like so many of his generation and, of course, their forbears, he was a doughty walker, and, when it pleased him, he joined in the now familiar criticisms of rail as a means of travel. On other occasions he succumbed and (as when torrential rain overtook him at Terni in Umbria) `went on to Narni ignominiously by train'. Rather than that the visitor to Cremona should omit altogether to see its little neighbour Crema, `I state here once and for all: it is easy to go to Crema and back from Cremona by train in one day.'
In 1914, E.V. Lucas, in A Wanderer in Venice, set out a choice of ways of approaching the city. He strongly commended doing so by sea, preferably from Chioggia; an alternative involved the `electric tram' from Padua to Fusina and brought the traveller into Venice through its industrial and commercial end. However, `it must not be forgotten that there are many visitors who want their first impression of this city of their dreams to be abrupt; who want the transition from the rattle of the train to the peace of the gondola to be instantaneous; and these, of course, must enter Venice at the station.'
Lucas was prepared to acknowledge a truth that many modern travellers would vouch for: `whether it is by day or by night, this first shock of Venice is not to be forgotten. To step out of the dusty stuffy carriage, jostle one's way through a thousand hotel porters, and be confronted by the sea washing the station steps is terrific!' He even directed his readers to a Canaletto in the National Gallery which, he said, presented them with a view in most particulars identical with that which they would see on leaving the terminus.
By the time Hutton published The Cities of Lombardy in 1912, yet another choice was becoming available. Henry James lived to experience motoring in Italy. Lombardy, Hutton acknowledged, was often monotonous, and, therefore, less enticing walking-country than Tuscany, but it was so much the more suitable for `the automobilist'. Francis Miltoun, author of Italian Highways and Byways from a Motor Car, published in 1909, did not regard this mode of transport as a mere alternative or a second best. `The real Italy, the old Italy still exists, though half-hidden by the wall of progress built up by young liberty-loving Italy since the days of Garibaldi; but one has to step aside and look for the old regime. It cannot always be discovered from the window of a railway carriage or a hotel omnibus, though it is often brought into much plainer view from the cushions of an automobile.' Miltoun proclaimed `the real mission of the automobile. It takes us into the heart of the life of a country instead of forcing us to travel in a prison van on iron rails.'
The voracious enthusiasm of the people of Italy for the motor-car would, of course, do much to destroy more of `the old Italy' which Miltoun still significantly regarded as `the real Italy'. In principle, the motor car welcome datacompcoupled the restored freedom of the road and of the by-ways with the option of speed. Whether it was profitably so used depended (and still depends) on the ability of the individual to free himself from the constraints of conventional itineraries which had in many respects been laid down even before the advent of the railway.
It was perhaps ironic that the newest technology of travel should be invoked as a means of discovering what was still the land of the dreams of the industrialised north.
FOR FURTHER READING:
John Pemble. The Mediterranean Passion (Oxford University Press. 1987); Piers Brendon, Thomas Cook: 150 Years of Popular Tourism (Seeker & Warburg, 1991); Charles Dickens Pictures from Italy (Granville Press, 1991); Fred Kaplan, Travelling in Italy with Henry James (Hodder & Stoughton, 1994); W.D. Howells, Italian Journeys and Venetian Life, (Marlboro Press, 1988 and 1989 respectively); G.E. Street, Notes of a Tour in Northern Italy, reprinted in the series Artists Abroad (Waterstone, 1986).
Diana Webb is Lecturer in History at King's College, London.…