Letters of Introduction? Lear, Gissing and Douglas’s Travels to Calabria

Aspromonte Mountains, Calabria (© Accenti Photo Archive)

For centuries, letters of introduction were considered almost as essential as passports for travelling within what is now Italy. A grand tour not only required a large number of passports to get through its many States, but you were also well advised to carry several letters from ambassadors or consuls or well-connected friends. The addressees of those letters were local dignitaries and wealthy people.

Each letter was likely to provide a good dinner or two, and often a comfortable, clean bed. It also secured valuable information about local routes, as well as access to guides, mules or horses. Most important, you could obtain from your hosts additional introductory letters for people in near-by smaller towns. These services were far from trivial when travelling through Calabria, since sparse roads were often disrupted and hotels and hostelries were not easy to find, particularly in small villages. Larger towns did have accommodation and meal facilities for travellers, but the former were often infested with bedbugs and the latter could offer only stale, unappealing food. The wine was usually good; if too strong, you could always dilute it with water or snow in mountainous areas.

In such circumstances, we might expect every traveller to try and secure letters of introduction. It turns out, however, that this was not always the case. Some travellers preferred to fend for themselves and hope by sheer good luck to happen upon a decent meal and bed. Let us look at the experience and attitudes of three British travellers to Calabria.

Up to World War II, Calabria was largely unexplored by visitors from northern Europe and, indeed, from northern Italy. The grand tour of aristocrats and upper middle-class people did not usually extend as far as Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria. Nonetheless, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries three British men left their mark after visiting the region: Edward Lear (1812-1888); George Gissing (1857-1903); and Norman Douglas (1868-1952). Their attitude towards letters of introduction differed considerably.

There were also travellers from other countries. The most notable regarding Calabria was François Lenormant (1837-1883) whose La Grande Grèce was considered a great inspirational work by both Gissing and Douglas.

Edward Lear in Calabria

The poet and landscape painter Edward Lear, accompanied by his friend and colleague John Proby, visited the most southern part of Calabria – the province of Reggio – from 25 July to September 2, 1847. Their first host in Reggio gave them good meals as well as several extra letters of introduction for notables in smaller towns. He also secured them a guide and a mule. The guide, Ciccio, arrived equipped with a rifle. From their background reading in Britain, our two travellers expected an armed man to be a brigand and to wear the distinctive, pyramidal hat. Ciccio wore no such hat. This both baffled and reassured them. During their few weeks together, Ciccio never used his rifle and he proved to be very kind and gentle. The main problem with him was communication. His sparse utterances were largely incomprehensible and always ended with what to Lear and Proby sounded like, “Dògo, Dìghi, Dòghi, Dàghi dà.” These are not words to be found in Italian or in the Calabrian dialect. They seem to have been specific to Ciccio. Lear and Proby soon adapted to this vernacular and found that Ciccio’s comprehension of their instructions improved when they were accompanied by a final “Dàgo si” or Dìgo no.” Reserving the mule for the transport of luggage and paintings, they travelled on foot and stopped here and there to allow the two artists to sketch the landscape.

Their ramblings and plans for visiting the northern provinces of Calabria were cut short by civil unrest. The farewell from Ciccio was emotional. He took them to meet his family in their very modest home. In the course of the final financial settlement for his labour, the guide burst into tears and declared that he had seen them more as his own children than his employers. He was reluctant to accept extra gratuities.

We are left with Lear’s beautiful drawings of Calabria as well as with his very interesting travel diaries: Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria (1852, 2016). In both of these the romantic view of Calabria is in full display. Among the sites he particularly likes are Bagnara and Scilla on the Tyrrenian coast. On the latter he writes:

Scilla is one of the most striking bits of coastal scenery, its white buildings and massive castled crag standing out in noble relief against the dark blue waves – while the Lipari Isles and Stromboli, with the Faro of Messina, form a beautiful background.

Lear and Proby’s plan to reach Scilla’s magnificent rocks by boat and sketch them close by had to be abandoned. The two painters experienced the same treacherous winds that, according to Homer, threatened Ulysses and his crew.

For most of their rambling, Lear and Proby lived off the generosity of people to whom they were introduced by letters. They seemed to feel no embarrassment presenting themselves at an unknown home and expecting a good dinner and a bed. Lear was not rich. Proceeds from the sale of copies of his Calabrian landscapes were in the future and uncertain, and the money he saved on expenses helped him. Thus Lear and Proby were prepared to put up with the negative side of being a guest in an unknown home. After many hours of walking through difficult terrain all they wanted was a meal and a rest. Their hosts wanted to talk about the travellers and the country they came from and were often keen to exhibit their own knowledge of the guests’ far-away country. The conversation could become not only tedious but also challenging. Occasionally, the host and his family might probe too closely into the traveller’s life, activities and plans. At times, their information was clearly wrong (no fruit grows in England), or it displayed a degree of scientific, technical and political knowledge about the visitor’s country that was too detailed and accurate for the intellectual comfort of their guests.

Sketch of Scilla, Calabria, by Edward Lear, 1847

Lear praises the generosity of most of his hosts, though on some of them we find the odd snobbish remark about their lack of elegance compared to hosts in other regions of Italy. In his review of Jenny Uglow’s 2017 biography of Lear, Matthew Bevis remarks that Lear “…is not somebody with whom you want to spend prolonged periods of time.” From reading his interesting travel book to Calabria, I suspect Lear was not somebody you would want as a guest for too long.

George Gissing in Calabria

George Gissing travelled through Taranto and Calabria from November 16 to December 12, 1897. Fifty years had elapsed since Lear’s rambles, and the political, social and economic distance between the Italy visited by Lear and the one visited by Gissing may have been even bigger than what one might expect in half a century. Italy had become a united nation and was gradually joining the league of economically advanced countries. Nonetheless, unification did not benefit most of the South, whose infant industries were unable to compete with the more advanced North. Calabria lost some of its young industries such as silk and was left behind. However, the foreign traveller no longer needed to carry many passports and could indeed move around by railway. These changes may have also affected social conventions about offering and receiving hospitality with respect to travellers. Personal circumstances may have also weighed in the traveller’s decision to use or not use letters of introduction.

Gissing was a sensitive, late Victorian novelist who struggled for recognition in his own time, and even now is not as well-known as he deserves to be. He came from a relatively poor family and started his intellectual life as a classical scholar. He was widely seen as having the potential for major contributions in the field and was expected to have a brilliant academic career. Instead, a series of unfortunate associations and wrongdoings led to a life of failure and near-poverty. It also led to some of the best fictional depictions of poverty, women’s position and the dire situation of writers without private means in late Victorian Britain. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa labels him “il romanziere dell’insuccesso,” (the novelist of un-success). Gissing’s New Grub Street (1895 [2008]) illustrates how changes in the economics of publishing affected the lives of writers. It is a work of great relevance for the understanding of late Victorian literature as well as the literature of our times.

Gissing’s love of the world and the literature of classical Greece and Rome continued throughout his life and took him to Greece, Italy and finally to Calabria. A propos the latter, he left us one of the finest travel books ever written: By the Ionian Sea: Notes on a Ramble in Southern Italy, published in 1901.

Every man has his intellectual desire; mine is to escape life as I know it and dream myself into that old world which was the imaginative delight of my boyhood. The names of Greece and Italy draw me as no others; they make me young again, and restore the keen impressions of that time when every new page of Greek and Latin was a new perception of things beautiful. The world of the Greeks and Romans is my land of romance; a question in either language thrills me strangely, and there are passages of Greek and Latin verse which I cannot read without a dimming of the eyes, which I cannot repeat aloud because my voice fails me. In Magna Grecia the waters of the two fountains mingle and flow together; how exquisite will be the draught!

Unlike Lear, Gissing did not carry many introductory letters. Embarrassment at seeking hospitality may have been one reason, but the main one was probably just the desire to be on his own (“solitude suits me… I much preferred to be alone with my own thoughts; …”) and to allow his unencumbered mind to immerse itself in the world of the Greeks and Romans.

During his almost fatal illness in Cotrone, now Crotone, he had hallucinatory visions of people, colours, the architectural monuments of ancient Greece, as well as of Hannibal on the shores of Cotrone. All this was crowned by the nightmarish fear of being deprived of the sight of a last remaining column of the famous Greek Temple of Hera at Capo Colonna. He was, indeed, unable to see it due to weather conditions.

Gissing was a keen and sympathetic observer of people and had something positive to say about many of the Calabrian people he met. Like Edward Lear before him, he noted how pride often prevented the Calabrian lower classes from accepting tips for services. On his attempt at giving a gratuity to helpful locals he writes: “They refused with entire dignity – grave, courteous, firm. And as soon as I had apologized, which I did not without emphasis, we were on the same terms as before. With handshaking, we took kindly leave of each other. Such self-respect is the rarest thing in Italy south of Rome, but in Calabria I found it more than once.”

Regarding practical arrangements in Calabria, Gissing travelled mainly by railway and now and again hired a coach. He found hotels and small restaurants – both often unsatisfactory –using travel guides or the railways’ own guides. Occasionally, he asked local people for directions and information. In Cotrone he regretted not having secured letters of introduction for local well-to-do people because he felt that this would have given him a glimpse into the life of middle and upper-middle classes in southern Italy.

The remaining column, Temple of Hera at Capo Colonna. Image courtesy of the author.

These reflections indicate that, had he wanted to, he could have obtained some letters of introduction. In fact, he did secure two letters, both of which he used to gain information about his intellectual interests rather than to gain hospitality. A letter to the curator of the Museum of Taranto, Eduardo Caruso (“a jovial fellow speaking English fairly well”), was bestowed by the British Consul in Naples, Eustace Neville-Rolfe, author of a book on Naples. Gissing had a most pleasant and leisurely visit around the museum where he made sketches of busts and masks. From the curator he also gained information about the possible source of the river Galeso, known to Gissing from the writings of Horace. A short, introductory “Note” was also delivered by our traveller to Signor Pasquale Cricelli, the English Vice-Consul at Catanzaro. Mr Cricelli was delighted to make the acquaintance of this erudite writer and to be able to converse in English. He showed his pleasure with many signs of favour, including little gifts.

Norman Douglas in Calabria

Norman Douglas was born of a Scottish father and German mother, both of aristocratic lineages. On the paternal side he was related to the Queensberry Douglases, the very ones who had produced the (in)famous Lord Alfred who caused the ruin of Oscar Wilde. The two sides of Norman Douglas’s family were very prosperous, with the paternal side owning cotton mills. He joined the diplomatic service but, after a sexual scandal with a married woman, he was forced to leave St Petersburg where he had been posted. Later in life his financial circumstances became precarious following a disastrous marriage and divorce. At this stage, his writings proved a very important source of income. His literary works span a variety of areas, from zoology to economics to fiction to travel to autobiography.

While continuing sexual affairs with women, Douglas also took up with young boys. On at least two occasions he was forced to leave towns in disgrace. (His life as a fugitive may have been the model for Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita.) The 1955 Introduction to Douglas’s Old Calabria by his friend John Davenport speaks openly about our traveller’s sexual proclivities.

Douglas travelled to Calabria in 1907, 1911 and 1937. The first visit was, therefore, ten years after Gissing’s and sixty years after Lear’s. His famous book Old Calabria was first published in 1915, the result of his experiences during the first two visits. The book shows Douglas’ extensive knowledge of the region’s long history and of its economic, social and political conditions. It also shows a deep love of its people, most palpably when, on his second visit, he witnessed the destruction that the 1908 earthquake had brought to Reggio. He muses with sadness at the fate of a refined old man and his grandsons, whom he had met by chance during his first visit to the town.

There is no evidence that Douglas used or sought letters of introduction. By the time he was travelling, such letters were probably less necessary and common, though there is evidence that they were still used. In Italo Svevo’s La Coscienza di Zeno, set on the eve of World War I, the main character and narrator notes that he and his bride had neglected to secure letters of introduction for their honeymoon travels. The reason why Douglas did not bother to carry letters may have been specific to him. He wanted to get the most from his ramblings.

He knew that the best way to achieve his aim was to travel on foot and meet the local, common people: “Cars don’t help you to know people,” he wrote. He refused to take the daily postal diligence from Gioia Tauro on the Tyrrennian coast to reach my native small town of Delianuova on the Aspromonte hills: he walked the 30-plus kilometres. Once there, he looked for a guide to take him over the peak and onto the descent towards Bova on the Ionian coast. He was strongly advised by a local boss not to try such an arduous task, but he did it anyway and was amply rewarded for his daring. “Passing through magnificent groves of fir, we descended rapidly into another climate, into realms of golden sunshine… To the firs succeeded long stretches of odorous pines, interspersed with Mediterranean heath (bruyère) which here grows to a height of twelve feet…”

In the end he concluded that “Aspromonte [meaning harsh mountain] deserves its name.” Today, no less than in the first half of the twentieth century, the harshness is social. The magnificence of its landscape so much admired by Douglas is still there, protected by the National Park status. Senseless building developments in the last decades have, however, affected other parts of Calabria no less than other regions of Italy.

Douglas could fend for himself. He was an old hand at travelling, could speak the language, and knew how to set about gaining information. He thus advised the traveller:

Where, then, do I generally go for accommodation? Well, as a rule I begin by calling for advice at the chemist’s shop, where a fixed number of older and wiser citizens congregate for a little talk. The cafés and barbers and wine-shops are also meeting-places of men; but those who gather here are not of the right type – they are the young, or empty-headed, or merely thirsty. The other is the true centre of the leisured class, the philosophers’ rendezvous. Your speciale [speziale or apothecary] … is himself an elderly and honoured man, full of responsibility and local knowledge; he is altogether a superior person, having been trained at a university. You enter the shop, therefore, and purchase a pennyworth of Vaseline. This act entitles you to all the privileges of the club. Then is the moment to take a seat, smiling affably at the assembled company, but without proffering a syllable. If this etiquette is strictly adhered to, it will not be long ere you are politely questioned as to your plans, your present accommodation, and so forth; and soon several members will be vying with each other to procure you a clean and comfortable room at half the price charged in a hotel. Even when this end is accomplished, my connection with the pharmacy coterie is not severed. I go there from time to time, ostensibly to talk, but in reality to listen. Here one can feel the true pulse of the place. Local questions are dispassionately discussed, with ample forms of courtesy and in a language worthy of Cicero. It is the club of the élite.

Douglas was fond of Calabrian wine, particularly Cirò. Where was information about the best to be had locally?

To this end I generally apply to the priests; not because they are the greatest drunkards (far from it; they are mildly epicurean, or even abstemious), but by reason of their unrivalled knowledge of personalities. They know exactly who has been able to keep his liquor of such and such a year, and who has been obliged to sell or partially adulterate it; they know from the confessional of the wives, the why and wherefore of all such private family affairs and share, with the chemist, the gift of seeing the farthest into the tangled web of home life… And failing the priests, I go to an elderly individual of that tribe of red-nosed connoisseurs, the coachmen, ever thirsty and mercenary souls, who for a small consideration may be able to disclose not only his secret, but others far more mysterious.”

Might Douglas have wanted to meet local dignitaries for news and chats? Very unlikely: he was too upper-class, intellectual and arrogant to seek provincial company. There were also stronger reasons why he might have wanted to avoid the company of notables and officials: his wild reputation with women and boys could have reached small towns in Calabria.

It seems, therefore, that personal circumstances and inclinations played a role in our three travellers’ decision to carry, or not, letters of introduction in their travels through Calabria. Walking around and leaving solo suited Douglas as he was very well-travelled and knowledgeable about the area. Gissing’s reticence in imposing himself on other people and his love of solitary intellectual musing may have deprived him and some local intellectuals of interesting conversations. As for Lear and Proby, they may have overused the local hospitality. He tells us that a couple of addressees of the letters refused to receive them and, instead, pointed out the way to local hostelries. This could have been due to a desire to avoid inconvenience or to political reasons. Some local people seemed suspicious of these two strange foreigners drawing pictures and snooping around. It was a time charged with fear of something terrible happening and the local population may have wanted to keep out of trouble with the authorities. A revolution against the Bourbons did, indeed, happen, and Lear and Proby were forced to leave Reggio in a hurry.

Grazia Ietto Gillies is Emerita Professor in Economics at London South Bank University. She was born in Calabria and moved to Rome with her family when she was ten. She lived and worked as an academic economist in London from 1971 and has published extensively in economics. She came across the works of Lear, Gissing and Douglas while doing research for her memoir on Calabria, By the Olive Groves. A Calabrian Childhood, published in 2017.


For further reading:
Bevis, M. (2017), ‘Were you a tome?’ London Review of Books, 14th December, pp. 27-30.
Chekhov, A., (1982), The Kiss and Other Stories, Translated with an Introduction by Ronald Weeks, London: Penguin Books. (The Kiss first published in 1887).
Davenport, J., (1955), ‘Introduction’ to Old Calabria, London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks: 7-16.
Douglas, N., (2010, [1915]), Old Calabria, London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks.
Gissing, G., (2004, [1901]), By the Ionian Sea. Notes on a Ramble in Southern Italy, Oxford: Signal Books.
Gissing, G., (2008 [1891]), New Grub Street, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kimber, G. (2021), ‘Nastiness and joy. A virtuosic biography of D.H. Lawrence’, The Times Literary Supplement, May 28, pp. 3-5.
Ietto Gillies, G. (2017), By the Olive Groves. A Calabrian Childhood, London: IB Tauris.
Lear, E., (2009, [1852]), Diario di un Viaggio a Piedi. Introduzione di Giuseppe Restivo, Reggio Calabria: Rubettino Editore. First English Edition as: Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria, published in 1852 by Richard Bentley. A recent edition published in 2016 by Andesite Press.
Lenormant, F., (2010 [1881]), La Grande Grèce. Whitefish, MT USA: Kessinger Publishing, LLC.
Nabokov, V. (1995 [1955]), Lolita, London: Penguin Books.
Svevo, I., (1938 [1923]) La Coscienza di Zeno, Milano: Dall’Oglio Editore. English edition: Zeno’s Conscience, (2003), New York: Vintage International.
Tomasi di Lampedusa, G. (1991). A cura di Nicoletta Polo. Letteratura inglese. L’ottocento e il Novecento, Milano: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore.

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