Magazine article History Today

La Dolce Vita? Italy by Rail, 1839-1914

Magazine article History Today

La Dolce Vita? Italy by Rail, 1839-1914

Article excerpt

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. …

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