Dickens in Italy

Destinations: France and Italy (1844)

Book: Pictures From Italy by Charles Dickens (1846)

Reading Dickens’ descriptions of travel by coach and steamboat should put to a halt any modern grousing about minor inconveniences like Ziploc bags and barefoot security queues. It was such a chore to arrange for the travel of his party of twelve, that he hired a Frenchman as a Courier.  This man  smooths the way through customs, haggles with the landlords, and makes sure there will be meals to eat and horses to pull the coach.

Even so, in Pictures from Italy, (Free on Kindle) Dickens regales us with the condition of the roads–generally muddy and narrow; the sleeping arrangements–sometimes flea-ridden and generally drafty and the people he meets along the way–characters of a Dickensian quality, every one.

Lanterna, The symbol of Genoa, Italy

Perhaps it is the timeless rivalry between France and England that influences his carping about France.  He dismisses Chalon as too flat. After taking an 8-hour trip by steamboat to Lyons, he describes that city in paragraphs packed with dreary adjectives, dissing even the cathedral, where he finds the stone walls as dirty as the pavement.   But he admires Avignon…”The streets old and narrow, but tolerably clean…..quaint and lively.” His mood is unquestionably better because he is traveling in July through summer heat and in Avignon a breeze has come up.

I will not trouble you with the churches just now,” he starts out. But he talks a great deal about churches throughout the book.  Typical of Dickens, he spends more time describing the prison torture chambers of Avignon’s Palace of the Popes than he spends on the Cathedral.  The Palace became the home of the Inquisition and later a prison during the French Revolution, so there are blood-stained walls and instruments of torture to be seen. Dickens, however, revels in the fact that where the prisoners once were penned in a small, dark space, the ceiling has fallen and now sunlight streams in.

Palace of Popes, Avignon
Palace of Popes, Avignon

Moving south, he finds Marseille picturesque…but dirty. There they board the Marie Antoinette, a steamer bound for Genoa, which he calls “beautifully clean”. On the water,  at last he gets relief from the heat.

The house a friend found for him in Albaro, a suburb of Genoa, is not altogether satisfactory. Albaro apparently is now as it was then an upper-class residential area–not a tourist area, and although the house bears a plaque it is not open to visitors.  Lord Byron had stayed at a home nearby twenty years earlier.

Entrance to Palazzo Peschiere
Entrance to Palazzo Peschiere

But Dickens goes house hunting and finds a Palazzo inside the Genoa walls that suits him better and improves his impression of Genoa and Italy in general. Like modern-day Slow Travelers, his family and retinue are staying in one place and making forays out to see a bit of the rest of the country.

Painting in Dickens bedroom, Genoa
Painting in Dickens bedroom, Genoa

Unlike today’s Slow Travelers, who might be content with a room or two in a sixteenth-century mansion, Dickens lives like royalty in the gorgeous Palazzo Peschiere (fish ponds) with its extensive gardens, famous murals, and view over the city. Just the writer, his wife, the French courier, his sister-in-law, five small children, three servants and a nurse. They also have brought from England four horses and a carriage big enough to accommodate everyone. According to the information I could find, it is privately owned and only rarely open to the public.

It is tempting to endlessly quote Dickens, but I hope you will be tempted by these examples to look up Pictures from Italy for yourself.



The Tourists

 Mr. and Mrs. Davis whom he runs into in Rome sound awfully familiar. I think they have been on a couple of guided tours, except that in our day he was wearing Bermuda shorts and white socks with black shoes and she was wearing much-too-tight polyester. She is constantly shrilling for him and disturbing the peace of others in their travel group. Dickens says,

“Eighteen hundred years ago, the Roman legions under Claudius, protested against being led into Mr. and Mrs. Davis’s country [England], urging that it lay beyond the limits of the world.”

Travel fatigue, or Too Many Churches

And by dint of going out early every morning and coming back late every evening, and labouring hard all day, I believe we made acquaintance with every post and pillar in the city and the country round; and, in particular, explored so many churches, that I abandoned that part of the enterprise at last, before it was half finished, lest I should never, of my own accord, go to church again as long as I lived.


…the inferior servants of the inn are supping in the open air, at a great table; the dish, a stew of meat and vegetables, smoking hot, and served in the iron cauldron it was boiled in.  They have a pitcher of thin wine, and are very merry; merrier than the gentleman with the red beard, who is playing billiards in the light room on the left of the yard, where shadows, with cues in their hands, and cigars in their mouths, cross and recross the window constantly. Still the think Curé walks up and down alone, with his book and umbrella. And there he walks, and there the billiard-balls rattle, long after we are fast asleep.

Observation of Place–emphasis on painterly quality

(He describes a market, held in front of the cathedral)

It is crowded with men and women, in blue, in red, in green, in white, with canvassed stalls and fluttering merchandise. The country people are grouped about, with their clean baskets before them.  Here, the lace-sellers; there, the butter and egg-sellers,; there, the fruit-sellers; there, the shoe-makers.  The whole place looks as if it wer the stage of some great theatre, and the curtain had just run up, for a picturesque ballet.  And there is the cathedral to boot: scene-like: all grim, and swarthy, and mouldering, and cold: just splashing the pavement in one place with faint purple drops, as the morning sun, entering by a little window on the eastern side, struggles through some stained glass panes, on the western.

 How can you NOT love such an observant writer? “splashing the pavement… with faint purple drops.” How can you not want to read more of a writer who commands rhythm in the way Dickens does at the end of the paragraph, “And there he walks….

So, would you rather turn back the clock and travel in the mid-19th century like Dickens? Or do you prefer the Ziploc bags to fleas and mud?

Credits and Disclaimers: The pictures of Genoa’s lanterna is from Flickr, used with a Creative Commons License. However the other three photos are used with the permission of Victorian Web. The links here from book titles use an affiliate link, which means that if you shop at Amazon through those links, although it costs you nothing extra, A Traveler’s Library  benefits. THANKS!

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

5 thoughts on “Dickens in Italy

  1. Dickens seems like the kind of dreary, glass-is-half-empty kinda guy I would’ve enjoyed being friends with, but never would have traveled with…!

    Though, I can certainly relate to his penchant for describing, in greater detail, dungeons over cathedrals.

  2. I find this hilarious. So often we paint these romantic pictures of legends in our minds, but they were, after all, just people. I like this portrait of Dickens you have painted in this entry – just a man commenting on the sights and, I imagine, rather tired of lumping around after a while. He was likely just longing for a vacation from his vacation. I also enjoy hearing Samuel Clemens reports of the middle east when he was there. Good stuff.

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