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Pictures from Italy (1846)

by Charles Dickens

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368668,465 (3.43)27
In 1844 Charles Dickens (1812-70) and his family moved to Italy for a year, eventually settling in Genoa. This book, Dickens' second travel memoir, describes his experience of travelling through France and exploring Italy. Based on letters to friends, particularly John Forster, it was first published in instalments from January to March 1846 in the Daily News (a new radical newspaper which Dickens himself founded and briefly edited). The edition in book form reissued here appeared in May 1846. The main focus of the book is the northern regions of Italy, including Tuscany, Milan and Venice. It also includes substantial sections on Rome and Naples as well as a brief sketch of Switzerland. Landscapes, architecture, lodgings and food are described with selective but penetrating detail. The shrewd social observations characteristic of Dickens' novels are found here, especially in his critical remarks about poverty, popular religion and the Catholic clergy.… (more)
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This is Dickens's account of a year (1844) he spent with his family in Italy, touring around but largely based in Genoa. This is not as well known as his other travelogue American Notes, and indeed this largely lacked for me the impact of that account. As you would expect from Dickens, his senses of observation and description are very sharp, and he is evocative in describing aspects such as the prisons and torture chambers of the Inquisition, a favourite theme of 19th century authors particularly as a vehicle for their anti-Catholicism. At one point he is similarly scathing of the many religious people he sees: "Every fourth or fifth man in the streets is a Priest or a Monk.....I have no knowledge, elsewhere, of more repulsive countenances than are to be found among these gentry. If Nature’s handwriting be at all legible, greater varieties of sloth, deceit, and intellectual torpor, could hardly be observed among any class of men in the world". He describes the various carnivals he encounters across the country in some detail.

Some of his most haunting descriptions are of the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum: "at every turn, the little familiar tokens of human habitation and every-day pursuits; the chafing of the bucket-rope in the stone rim of the exhausted well; the track of carriage-wheels in the pavement of the street; the marks of drinking-vessels on the stone counter of the wine-shop; the amphoræ in private cellars, stored away so many hundred years ago, and undisturbed to this hour — all rendering the solitude and deadly lonesomeness of the place, ten thousand times more solemn, than if the volcano, in its fury, had swept the city from the earth, and sunk it in the bottom of the sea".... "in the theatre of Herculaneum, a comic mask, floating on the stream when it was hot and liquid, stamped its mimic features in it as it hardened into stone; and now, it turns upon the stranger the fantastic look it turned upon the audiences in that same theatre two thousand years ago".

Dickens's itinerary seems unclear and he seems to move up and down Italy in a way that makes it hard to see how much time he is spending in each place. Although travelling with his family, they receive almost no mention, apart from the humorous "....obliged to take my other half out of the carriage, lest she should be blown over, carriage and all, and to hang to it, on the windy side (as well as we could for laughing), to prevent its going".

Finally, while the introduction mentions him visiting Venice, this seems to appear only as a dream sequence in the book. Overall a good read. ( )
  john257hopper | Aug 30, 2022 |
Dickens wrote Pictures of Italy during his year there in 1844, two years after his first tour of America, and about 7 years after he lived on Doughty Street, London, and wrote both Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby there. Also, it was four years before the Revolution, which began in 1848, finished in 1871. (Garibaldi, during his first attempt to free Rome in 1849, lived in the same place I did at the American Academy, the Villa on the Gianicolo hill; part of our residence was the Ancient Roman wall built by Aurelius.)
All over Italy, Dickens finds some doubtful inns, “your own horses being stabled under the bed, that every time a horse coughs, he wakes you” but even the worst Italian inn will entertain you, “Especially, when you get such wine in flasks as the Orvieto, and the Monte Pulciano”(103).

Before Italy, in Avignon, Dickens saw the cell where Rienzi was held, and the instruments of Inquisition torture. He disparages Marseilles, but loves the sail on the vessel Marie Antoinette, to Genova, so beautiful and layered in the sun as they arrive late afternoon, “its beautiful amphitheater, terrace rising above terrace, palace above palace, height above height, was ample occupation for us, until we ran into its stately harbour”(23). Walking uphill, he finds many women wearing blue—to honor the Madonna for a year or two: “blue being (as is well known) the Madonna’s favorite colour. Women who have devoted themselves to this act of Faith, are very commonly seen walking in the streets”(43).
One of the three Genovese theaters is open air, Teatro Diurno, the audience’s faces turned this way, “changed so suddenly from earnestness to laughter; and odder still, the rounds upon rounds of applause, rattling in the evening air, to which the curtain falls”(48). The Marionetti—a famous company from Milan— is, without any exception, the drollest exhibition I have ever beheld in my life. I never saw anything so exquisitely ridiculous”(44).

Of Milano, where I have lived almost yearly, two weeks or a month, Dickens notes the Duomo spire into the fog might as well have ended in Bombay. He mentions La Scala, and the Corso Garibaldi where the gentry ride in carriages under the trees, “and rather than not do which, they would half starve themselves at home”(88). But he astutely notes the city is “not so unmistakeably Italian,” it has an admixture of the French and the north generally…not to mention, now, the world.
Dickens made it to Carrara. When I lived there a couple weeks translating Bruno’s hilarious Candelaio, I loved the huge Meschi sculpture to Union workers, and the small Cathedral, my favorite in Italy —along with San Marco Venice, Dickens’ favorite, “a much greater sense of mystery and wonder” than at St Peter’s (107). I parked on the marble sidewalks while translating. Marble sidewalks sound better than they are when there’s a garage and cars drip oil on ‘em. My Milan daughter’s relative drove us up to the marble caves—the great profit now’s in the marble dust they make kitchen counters from. The trucks with huge marble blocks are dangerous, descending; their brakes don’t suffice, so they depend on low, low gear. If the truck gets away, they’re dead over the side. One monument stands beside the road for many accidents. When Dickens went up to the caves he rode a pony, and he learned some of the mines went back to Roman times (95). He tells of the signal for an explosion, a low, “melancholy bugle” upon which the miners would retreat expecting the blast.

He sees many processions, such as a Roman one after dusk, “a great many priests, walking two and two, and carrying—the good-looking priests at least—their lighted tapers, so as to throw the light with a good effect upon their faces”(143). He witnessed the climbing of the Holy Stairs, one man touching each step with his forehead, a lady praying on each one, but every penitent came down energetic, “which would take a good deal of sin to counterbalance”(147). He calls such a scene “droll enough.” At a dinner where the Pope “served” thirteen Cardinals, the latter “smiled to each other, from time to time, as if they thought the whole thing were a great farce.”

Our Victorian describes exactly what I saw during my N.E.H. seminar in Naples under Jean D’Amato, “The fairest country in the world, is spread about us. Whether we turn towards the Miseno shore of the splendid watery amphitheatre, and go by the Grotto of Posilipo and away to Baiae: or the other way, towards Vesuvius and Sorrento, it is one succession of delights”(156). “Everything is done in pantomime in Naples,” with hand gestures—but also with Neapolitan proverbs which I learned to be accepted by the nearest pizza-maker off Via Carraciolo to accept my order for Pizza Napolitano. He talks of Via Chiaja, my route to the Spanish palace with the National Library, and San Carlo Opera house (so that as I studied Bruno their local boy, I heard vocal and instruments practice for the opera). Off of Chiaia the first pizza, Pizza Margherita for the Queen of Naples, was made; the shop’s still open, Pizzeria Brandi.
He tells of ladies being carried down Vesuvius on litters, until the litter-bearers slipped, of Leghorn / Livorno being famous for knifing, with an assassin’s club recently jailed, and visits to Herculaneum (which the British largely unearthed a century before) as well as Paestum, where three of the finest Greek temples, built “hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, and standing yet, erect in lonely majesty, upon the wild, malaria-blighted plain” (161). I was so exhilarated to tour those temples, where the stone altars are outside, of course, for sacrifice, and only more exhilarated to learn Zeno the Greek Stoic lived there.

He happened across a beheading in Rome, which disgusted Dickens. The gallows had been set up before San Giovanni Decollata. It was supposed to occur at 8:45, but was delayed 'til after 11 because the condemned young man, barefoot on the scaffold, had refused to confess until his wife was brought to him. He had accompanied a Bavarian countess for forty miles pretending to guard her, then killed her, took her clothes and jewelry, gave 'em to his wife, who had seen the countess walk through town, so she told the priest, etc. ( )
  AlanWPowers | Feb 17, 2018 |
Great little descriptions of scenes, people and places. You can imagine yourself traveling with him. ( )
  ktlavender | Jul 17, 2017 |
http://librivox.org/pictures-from-italy-by-charles-dickens//

A very enjoyable listen both for the reader and the book itself. I know that Dickens is not quite as popular these days as other Victorian authors but I really enjoy the over wordiness and the turns of phrase. This is somewhat different in tone and style than American Notes but still highly enjoyable. Instead of travels about, he did live in Genoa for a while and has many more comments on the culture and people than things like prisons or schools for the blind. I saw the parts of Italy that I have been to very clearly through his eyes. I also really enjoyed the LibriVox reader and I would listen to his reading again.
  amyem58 | Jul 8, 2014 |
Sorry for the length, but I just had to add all those quotes. Quotes and review might contain spoilers.

With 272 pages certainly one of the shortest books by Charles Dickens, and it's not a novel, it's a travelogue which seems to have served as a model for later humorous travel writers like Bill Bryson. In 1844 Dickens and his family spent a year in Italy. In Genua they rented a house and from there they took some longer trips and visited Modena, Bologna, Venice, Verona, Ferrara, Pisa, Carrara, Siena, Rome, Naples and finally Florence before they returned to France.

I enjoyed this book very much, not only because I have seen many of the places he describes and it was interesting to compare, but also because this book gave me an idea of 'Dickens at work'. Every old building has a story to tell, every person he meets becomes a character. Sure he sees the grievances, the dirt, the poverty. But he doesn't turn away in disgust, as Goethe did when he came to Verona. Instead he only takes a closer look. This is a great example:

“I wonder why the head coppersmith in an Italian town, always lives next door to the Hotel, or opposite: making the visitor feel as if the beating hammers were his own heart, palpitating with a deadly energy! I wonder why jealous corridors surround the bedroom on all sides, and fill it with unnecessary doors that can’t be shut, and will not open, and about on pitchy darkness! (…) I wonder why the faggots are so constructed, as to know of no effect but an agony of heat when they are lighted and replenished, and an agony of cold and suffocation at all other times! I wonder, above all, why it is the great feature of domestic architecture in Italian inns, that all fire goes up the chimney, except the smoke!
The answer matters little. Coppersmiths, doors, portholes, smoke, and faggots, are welcome to me. Give me the smiling face of the attendant, man or woman; the courteous manner; the amiable desire to please and to be pleased; the light-hearted, pleasant, simple air – so many jewels set in dirt – and I am theirs again to-morrow!"


Sure he takes notice of the inconveniences, and I admire the family for undertaking the strenuous travelling. Imagine sitting in a shaking carriage with so many people, day after day, spending the night in cold and dusty inns just to get back into the carriage early in the morning. We couldn’t imagine doing it in our times where you board a plane in London and leave it again 2-3 hours later in Rome. But CD doesn’t complain, on the contrary:

“Mr and Mrs Davis, and their party, had, probably, been brought from London in about nine or ten days. Eighteen hundred years ago, the Roman legions under Claudius, protested against being led into Mr. and Mrs. Davis’s country, urging that it lay beyond the limits of the world.”

Yet he is relieved when the long journey to Rome finally comes to an end:

“…when, after another mile or two, the Eternal City appeared, at length, in the distance; it looked like – I am half afraid to write the word – like LONDON!!!”

It is often said that there’s much criticism towards the Catholic Church in this book. For me however it looks like Dickens didn’t have any problems with the basic beliefs, it is the rites he is openly doubting, the exaggerated worship of relics, pictures and waxed dolls, the shameless traffic in indulgence which he abhorrs, seeing the wealth of the church and the poverty of the people.

This is the first Dickens book that was almost too short for my liking, I could easily have enjoyed another 100 or more pages. When the Dickens family leaves Italy and heads home again, he closes the book with the following that still in many ways holds true for Italy’s situation today:

(..) let us part from Italy, with all its miseries and wrongs, affectionately, in our admiration of the beauties, natural and artificial, of which it is full to overflowing, and in our tenderness towards a people, naturally well-disposed, and patiend, and seet-tempered. Years of neglect, oppression, and misrule, have been at work, to change their nature and reduce their spirit; (…) but the good that was in them ever, is in them yet, and a noble people may be, one day, raised up from these ashes. ( )
4 vote Deern | May 1, 2012 |
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In 1844 Charles Dickens (1812-70) and his family moved to Italy for a year, eventually settling in Genoa. This book, Dickens' second travel memoir, describes his experience of travelling through France and exploring Italy. Based on letters to friends, particularly John Forster, it was first published in instalments from January to March 1846 in the Daily News (a new radical newspaper which Dickens himself founded and briefly edited). The edition in book form reissued here appeared in May 1846. The main focus of the book is the northern regions of Italy, including Tuscany, Milan and Venice. It also includes substantial sections on Rome and Naples as well as a brief sketch of Switzerland. Landscapes, architecture, lodgings and food are described with selective but penetrating detail. The shrewd social observations characteristic of Dickens' novels are found here, especially in his critical remarks about poverty, popular religion and the Catholic clergy.

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Οι εικόνες από την Ιταλία (1846) συγκεντρώνουν τις εντυπώσεις του Ντίκενς από την περιήγησή του στην Ιταλία το διάστημα 1844-1845. Το απολαυστικό αυτό οδοιπορικό αποτυπώνει, με τη γνώριμη κομψότητα και δεξιοτεχνία του Ντίκενς, την εξαθλίωση των πόλεων και το κάλλος της ιταλικής υπαίθρου, αλλά και τον θαυμασμό του συγγραφέα για την πολιτιστική κληρονομιά της χώρας. Δύο από τα γοητευτικότερα κείμενα των Εικόνων από την Ιταλία, αντλημένα από την παραμονή του Ντίκενς στη Ρώμη, σταχυολογούνται στην έκδοση αυτή: το πρώτο υμνεί την ευφρόσυνη φρενίτιδα του ιταλικού καρναβαλιού, ενώ το δεύτερο περιγράφει έναν δημόσιο αποκεφαλισμό στο κέντρο της πόλης. Τα δύο αποσπάσματα, που διαβάζονται σαν αυτόνομα αφηγήματα, δεν συνιστούν μόνο μια πολύτιμη μαρτυρία για τη Ρώμη της εποχής διά χειρός Ντίκενς, αλλά συνάμα κερδίζουν τον αναγνώστη με την καλαισθησία, το χιούμορ και το λεπτό τους ύφος, εφάμιλλo των καλύτερων σελίδων του σπουδαίου Άγγλου πεζογράφου.
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