Thomas Gray was born in Cornhill, December the 26th,
1716; was educated at Eton school, under the care
of Mr. Antrobus, his mother's brother, who was at
that time one of the assistant masters, and also a
Fellow of St. Peter's College, Cambridge, to which
place Mr. Gray removed, and was there admitted a
pensioner in the year 1734. While at school, he
contracted a friendship with Mr. Horace Walpole
and Mr. Richard West: the former of these appears,
at present, with too much distinction in the literary,
as well as fashionable world, to make it necessary
I should enlarge upon his subject. (..)
As I allot this section entirely to that part of Mr.
Gray's life, which he spent in travelling through
France and Italy (in 1739-1741 with Sir Horace Walpole), my province will be chiefly that
of an editor; and my only care to select from a
large collection of letters written to his parents and
to his friend Mr. West, those parts which, I imagine, will be most likely either to inform or amuse
the reader. The multiplicity of accounts, published, both before and after the time when these
letters were written, of those very places which
Mr. Gray describes, will necessarily take from them
much of their novelty; yet the elegant ease of his
epistolary style has a charm in it for all readers of
true taste, that will make every apology of this
sort needless. They will perceive, that as these
letters were written without even the most distant
view of publication, they are essentially different
in their manner of description from any others that
have either preceded or followed them; add to
this, that they are interspersed occasionally with
some exquisitely finished pieces of Latin poetry,
which he composed on the spot for the entertainment of his friend.
William Mason (1724-1797) was an English poet; he was the friend, executor, and biographer of Thomas Gray who died in 1771. In 1775 The Poems of Mr. Gray. To which are prefixed Memoirs of his Life and Writings by W[illiam]. Mason. York, was published.
Excerpts from Thomas Gray's Letters related to his journey in France and Italy.
To his mother. Rheims, June 21, 1739 - We have now been settled almost three weeks in this city, which is more considerable upon account of its size and antiquity, than from the number of its inhabitants, or any advantages of commerce. There is little in it worth a stranger's curiosity, besides the cathedral church, which is a vast Gothic building of a surprising beauty and lightness, all covered over with a profusion of little statues, and other ornaments. It is here the Kings of France are crowned by the Archbishop of Rheims, who is the first peer, and the primate of the kingdom: the holy vessel made use of on that occasion, which contains the oil, is kept in the church of St. Nicasius hard by, and is believed to have been brought by an angel from heaven at the coronation of Clovis, the first christian king. The streets in general have but a melancholy aspect, the houses all old; the public walks run along the side of a great moat under the ramparts, where one hears a continual croaking of frogs; the country round about is one great plain covered with vines, which at this time of the year afford no very pleasing prospect, as being not above a foot high. What pleasures the place denies to the sight, it makes up to the palate; since you have nothing to drink but the best champaigne in the world, and all sort of provisions equally good.
To Mr. West.
Lyons, Sept. 18, 1739 - We are at the ancient and celebrated
Lugdunum, a city situated upon the confluence of
the Rhone and Saone two
people, who, though of tempers extremely unlike,
think fit to join hands here, and make a little
party to travel to the Mediterranean in company. (..) The houses here are
so high, and the streets so narrow, as would be
sufficient to render Lyons the dismallest place in
the world, but the number of people, and the face
of commerce diffused, about it, are, at least, as
sufficient to make it the liveliest. (..) All
yesterday morning we were busied in climbing up
Mount Fourviere, where the ancient city stood
perched at such a height, that nothing but the
hopes of gain could certainly ever persuade their
neighbours to pay them a visit: here are the ruins
of the emperors' palaces, that resided here, that is
to say, Augustus and Severus ; they consist in
nothing but great masses of old wall, that have
only their quality to make them respected. In a
vineyard of the Minims are remains of a theatre;
the Fathers, whom they belong to, hold them in
no esteem at all, and would have showed us their
sacristy and chapel instead of them: the Ursuline
Nuns have in their garden some Roman baths, but
we having the misfortune to be men, and heretics,
they did not think proper to admit us. Hard by
are eight arches of a most magnificent aqueduct,
said to be erected by Antony, when his legions
were quartered here: there are many other parts
of it dispersed up and down the country, for it
brought the water from a river many leagues off in
La Forez. Here are remains too of Agrippa's seven
great roads which met at Lyons; in some places
they lie twelve feet deep in the ground.
To his mother. April 1740. The night brought us to Viterbo, a city of a more lively appearance than any we had lately met with; the houses have glass windows, which is not very usual here; and most of the streets are terminated by a handsome fountain. Here we had the pleasure of breaking our fast on the leg of an old hare and some broiled crows.
Arrival to Rome
Rome, April 2, 1740. This is the third day since we came to Rome, but the first hour I have had to write to you in. (..) We soon after crossed the Tiber, a river that ancient Rome made more considerable than any merit of its own could have done: however, it is not contemptibly small, but a good handsome stream; very deep, yet somewhat of a muddy complexion. The first entrance of Rome is prodigiously striking. It is by a noble gate, designed by Michel Angelo, and adorned with statues; this brings you into a large square, in the midst of which is a vast obelisk of granite, and in front you have at one view two churches of a handsome architecture, and so much alike that they are called the twins; with three streets, the middlemost of which is one of the longest in Rome. As high as my expectation was raised, I confess, the magnificence of this city infinitely surpasses it. You cannot pass along a street but you have views of some palace, or church, or square, or fountain, the most picturesque and noble one can imagine.
Relics of S. Pietro
To his mother. Rome, April 15, 1740. Good-Friday. To-day I am just come from paying my adoration at St. Peter's to three extraordinary relics, which are exposed to public view only on these two days in the whole year, at which time all the confraternities in the city come in procession to see them. It was something extremely novel to see that vast church, and the most magnificent in the world, undoubtedly, illuminated (for it was night) by thousands of little crystal lamps, disposed in the figure of a huge cross at the high altar, and seeming to hang alone in the air. All the light proceeded from this, and had the most singular effect imaginable as one entered the great door. Soon after came one after another, I believe, thirty processions, all dressed in linen frocks, and girt with a cord, their heads covered with a cowl all over, only two holes to see through left. Some of them were all black, others red, others white, others party-coloured; these were continually coming and going with their tapers and crucifixes before them; and to each company, as they arrived and knelt before the great altar, were shown from a balcony, at a great height, the three wonders, which are, you must know, the head of the spear that wounded Christ; St. Veronica's handkerchief, with the miraculous impression of his face upon it; and a piece of the true cross, on the sight of which the people thump their breasts, and kiss the pavement with vast devotion. The tragical part of the ceremony is half a dozen wretched creatures, who, with their faces covered, but naked to the waist, are in a side-chapel disciplining themselves with scourges full of iron prickles; but really in earnest, as our eyes can testify, which saw their backs and arms so raw, we should have taken it for a red satin doublet torn, and showing the skin through, had we not been convinced of the contrary by the blood which was plentifully sprinkled about them.
Roman Night (near S. Giuseppe a Capo le Case)
To his mother. Rome, April 15, 1740. I am now at home, and going to the window to tell you it is the most beautiful of Italian nights, which, in truth, are but just begun (so backward has the spring been here, and every where else, they say). There is a moon! there are stars for you! Do not you hear the fountain? Do not you smell the orange flowers? That building yonder is the convent of S. Isidore; and that eminence, with the cypress trees and pines upon it, the top of M. Quirinal. This is all true, and yet my prospect is not two hundred yards in length.
Ball at a Roman Villa, maybe Palazzo Corsini
To Mr. West. May 1740. Figure to yourself a Roman villa; all its little apartments thrown open, and lighted up to the best advantage. At the upper end of the gallery, a fine concert, in which La Diamantina, a famous virtuosa, played on the violin divinely, and sung angelically; Giovannino and Pasqualini (great names in musical story) also performed miraculously. On each side were ranged all the secular grand monde of Rome, the ambassadors, princesses, and all that. Among the rest, II Serenissimo Pretendente (as the Mantova gazette calls him) displayed his rueful length of person, with his two young ones, and all his ministry around him. "Poi nacque un grazioso ballo," where the world danced, and I sat in a corner regaling myself with iced fruits, and other pleasant rinfrescatives.
To his father. Lyons, Oct. 25, 1739 - Sir Robert has written to Mr. Walpole, to desire he would go to Italy; which he has resolved to do; so that all the scheme of spending the winter in the south of France is laid aside, and we are to pass it in a much finer country. You may imagine I am not sorry to have this opportunity of seeing the place in the world that best deserves it: besides as the Pope (who is eighty-eight, and has been lately at the point of death) cannot probably last a great while, perhaps we may have the fortune to be present at the election of a new one, when Rome will be in all its glory. Friday next we certainly begin our journey. (..) Florence, March 19, 1740. The Pope is at last dead, and we are to set out for Rome on Monday next. The Conclave is still sitting there, and likely to continue so some time longer, as the two French Cardinals are but just arrived, and the German ones are still expected. It agrees mighty ill with those that remain inclosed: Ottoboni is already dead of an apoplexy; Altieri and several others are said to be dying, or very bad: yet it is not expected to break up till after Easter. (..) St. Peter's I saw the day after we arrived, and was struck dumb with wonder. I there saw the Cardinal d'Auvergne, one of the French ones, who, upon coming off his journey, immediately repaired hither to offer up his vows at the high altar, and went directly into the Conclave; the doors of which we saw opened to him, and all the other immured cardinals came thither to receive him. Upon his entrance they were closed again directly. It is supposed they will not come to an agreement about a pope till after Easter, though the confinement is very disagreeable. (..) Rome, July 1740 The Conclave we left in greater uncertainty than ever; the more than ordinary liberty they enjoy there, and the unusual coolness of the season, makes the confinement less disagreeable to them than common, and, consequently, maintains them in their irresolution. There have been very high words, one or two (it is said) have come even to blows; two more are dead within this last month, Cenci and Portia; the latter died distracted; and we left another (Altieri) at the extremity: yet nobody dreams of an election till the latter end of September. All this gives great scandal to all good Catholics, and every body talks very freely on the subject. (..) Florence, August 21 The day before yesterday arrived the news of a pope; and I have the mortification of being within four days journey of Rome, and not seeing his coronation, the heats being violent, and the infectious air now at its height. (..) So, between fear and laziness, we remain here, and must be satisfied with the accounts other people give us of the matter. The new pope is called Benedict XIV. being created cardinal by Benedict XIII. the last pope but one. His name is Lambertini, a noble Bolognese, and archbishop of that city. When I was first there, I remember to have seen him two or three times; he is a short, fat man, about sixty-five years of age, of a hearty, merry countenance, and likely to live some years. He bears a good character for generosity, affability, and other virtues; and, they say, wants neither knowledge nor capacity. The worst side of him is, that he has a nephew or two; besides a certain young favourite, called Meiara, who is said to have had, for some time, the arbitrary disposal of his purse and family. He is reported to have made a little speech to the cardinals in the Conclave, while they were undetermined about an election, as follows: "Most eminent lords, here are three Bolognese of different characters, but all equaUy proper for the popedom. If it be your pleasures -to pitch upon a saint, there is Cardinal Gotti; if upon a politician, there is Aldrovandi; if upon a booby, here am I." The Italian is much more expressive, and, indeed, not to be translated. (..) Cardinal Coscia is restored to his liberty, and, it is said, will be to all his benefices. Corsini (the late pope's nephew) as he has had no hand in this election, it is hoped, will be called to account for all his villanous practices. (..) October - The new pope has retrenched the charges of his own table to a sequin (ten shillings) a meal. The applause which all he says and does meets with, is enough to encourage him really to deserve fame. They say he is an able and honest man; he is reckoned a wit too. The other day, when the senator of Rome came to wait upon him, at the first compliments he made him the pope pulled off his cap: his master of the ceremonies, who stood by his side, touched him softly, as to warn him that such a condescension was too great in him, and out of all manner of rule: upon which he turned to him, and said, "Oh! I cry you mercy, good master; it is true, I am but a novice of a pope; I have not yet so much as learned ill manners."
I have not yet seen his majesty of Great-Britain, &c. though I have the two boys in the gardens of the Villa Borgese, where they go ashooting almost every day; it was at a distance, indeed, for we did not choose to meet them, as you may imagine. This letter (like all those the English send, or receive) will pass through the hands of that family, before it comes to those it was intended for. They do it more honour than it deserves; and all they will learn from thence will be, that I desire you to give my duty to my father, and wherever else it is due, and that I am, etc. (..) The Pretender I have had frequent opportunities of seeing at church, at the corso, and other places; but more particularly, and that for a whole night, at a great ball given by Count Patrizii to the Prince and Princess Craon, (who were come to Rome at that time, that he might receive from the hands of the Emperor's minister there the order of the golden fleece) at which he and his two sons were present. They are good fine boys, especially the younger, who has the more spirit of the two, and both danced incessantly all night long. For him, he is a thin ill-made man, extremely tall and awkward, of a most unpromising countenance, a good deal resembling King James the Second, and has extremely the air and look of an idiot, particularly when he laughs or prays. The first he does not often, the latter continually. He lives private enough with his little court about him, consisting of Lord Dunbar, who manages every thing, and two or three of the Preston Scotch lords, who would be very glad to make their peace at home.
To Mr. West. Rome, May 20, 1740. Dame Nature (..) has built here three or four little mountains, and laid them out in an irregular semicircle; from certain others behind, at a greater distance, she has drawn a canal, into which she has put a little river of hers, called Anio; she has cut a huge clift between the two innermost of her four hills, and there she has left it to its own disposal; which she has no sooner done, but, like a heedless chit, it tumbles headlong down a declivity fifty feet perpendicular, breaks itself all to shatters, and is converted into a shower of rain, where the sun forms many a bow, red, green, blue, and yellow. To get out of our metaphors without any further trouble, it is the most noble sight in the world. The weight of that quantity of waters, and the force they fall with, have worn the rocks they throw themselves among into a thousand irregular crags, and to a vast depth. In this channel it goes boiling along with a mighty noise till it comes to another steep, where you see it a second time come roaring down (but first you must walk two miles farther) a greater height than before, but not with that quantity of waters; for by this time it has divided itself, being crossed and opposed by the rocks, into four several streams, each of which, in emulation of the great one, will tumble down too; and it does tumble down, but not from an equally elevated place; so that you have at one view all these cascades intermixed with groves of olive and little woods, the mountains rising behind them, and on the top of one (that which forms the extremity of one of the half-circle's horns) is seated the town itself. At the very extremity of that extremity, on the brink of the precipice, stands the Sibyls' temple, the remains of a little rotunda, surrounded with its portico, above half of whose beautiful Corinthian pillars are still standing and entire.
To Mr. West. Rome, May 1740. Let me tell you, in plain English, that we come from Albano. The present town lies within the enclosure of Pompey's Villa in ruins. The Appian Way runs through it, by the side of which, a little farther, is a large old tomb, with five pyramids upon it, which the learned suppose to be the burying-place of the family, because they do not know whose it can be else. But the vulgar assure you it is the sepulchre of the Curiatii, and by that name (such is their power) it goes. One drives to Castel Gondolfo, a house of the Pope's, situated on the top of one of the Collinette, that forms a brim to the basin, commonly called the Alban Lake. It is seven miles round; and directly opposite to you, on the other side, rises the Mons Albanus, much taller than the rest, along whose side are still discoverable (not to common eyes) certain little ruins of the old Alba Longa. They had need be very little, as having been nothing but ruins ever since the days of Tullus Hostilius. On its top is a house of the Constable Colonna's, where stood the temple of Jupiter Latialis. At the foot of the hill Gondolfo are the famous outlets of the lake, built with hewn stone, a mile and a half under ground. Livy, you know, amply informs us of the foolish occasion of this expense, and gives me this opportunity of displaying all my erudition, that I may appear considerable in your eyes. This is the prospect from one window of the palace. From another you have the whole Campagna, the city, Antium, and the Tyrrhene sea (twelve miles distant) so distinguishable, that you may see the vessels sailing upon it. All this is charming. Mr. Walpole says, our memory sees more than our eyes in this country.
To his mother. Naples, June 17, 1740. The strangest hole I ever was in has
been to-day, at a place called Portici, where his
Sicilian Majesty has a country-seat. About a year
ago, as they were digging, they discovered some
parts of ancient buildings above thirty feet deep in
the ground: curiosity led them on, and they have
been digging ever since; the passage they have
made, with all its turnings and windings, is now
more than a mile long. As you walk, you see
parts of an amphitheatre, many houses adorned
with marble columns, and encrusted with the same;
the front of a temple, and several arched vaults of
rooms painted in fresco. Some pieces of painting
have been taken out from hence, finer than any
thing of the kind before discovered, and with these
the king has adorned his palace; also a number of
statues, medals, and gems; and more are dug out
every day. This is known to be a Roman town*,
that in the Emperor Titus's time was overwhelmed
by a furious eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which is
hard by. The wood and beams remain so perfect
that you may see the grain; but burnt to a coal,
and dropping into dust upon the least touch. We
were to-day at the foot of that mountain, which at
present only smokes a little, where we saw the materials that fed the stream of fire, which about four
years since ran down its side. We have but a few
days longer to stay here; too little in conscience for
such a place.
Read What Dante Saw.
Read What Goethe Saw.
Read What Lord Byron Saw.
Read What Charles Dickens Saw.
Read What Henry James Saw.
Read What Mark Twain Saw.
Read What William Dean Howells Saw.
Read Dan Brown's Spaghetti Bolognaise (excerpts from Angels and Demons)