Italy: with sketches of Spain and Portugal

William Beckford (1760-1844)

Traveler, author, social critic, adventurer, musician, art exponent, dancer, he was born with a golden spoon in his mouth and lived a life normal persons can only imagine…  His grandfather was governor of Jamaica and his father, twice Lord Mayor of London, once picked a fight with King George III on the floor of parliament…  His only book of fiction, Vathek, is currently read almost as much as The Arabian Nights.  Purportedly, he wrote it in two days and three nights…  His income was about 100,000 lbs. a year;  a couple of million by today’s standards…  He studied the harpsichord with Mozart and was considered a friend by the ruling heads of Portugal…

This two volume production is epistolary, being selections from letters he wrote during several journeys to Italy, Spain, and Portugal, not to mention the Netherlands, Belgium, and various countries of eastern Europe…

He first started this journey in 1785, traveling to Belgium and continuing through the Netherlands, southern Germany, the Tyrol,  Austria, and on to Italy through the Innsbruck/Bolzano/Trento route.  Of his very first experiences, he described the stay in Belgium as noisy, smelly, and overpopulated with dirty people;  he felt the same way about the Netherlands, with a few exceptions, mostly related to his distaste for crowds.  He had the habit, which he pursued throughout his travels, of walking off without telling anyone and rambling around, studying flowers, rocks, trees and admiring landscapes until he got tired;  sometimes not returning for hours…  the route he followed (he had his own carriage, of course, and maybe more than one:  picture him bouncing around in a four wheeled vehicle made of mostly wood with very minimal suspension if any, trying to catch a nap or leaning out of the window to visually capture yet another glorious vision of the passing landscape) basically went up alongside the Rhine, through heavily wooded country with occasional wide vistas of mountain ranges with rivers and streams…  Sometimes he complains of bugs and dirty inns, but usually he’s too entranced with the surround to bother much about those inglorious features…  He possessed an extraordinary curiosity about nature and frequently would jump out of the carriage as it was bouncing over the deeply rutted dirt roads and take off running up through the forest, gleefully dashing from one intriguing prospect to another…  presumably his fellow travelers would either wait for him or continue on to  the nearest inn, assuming he might show up when he was tired.  His descriptions of the extensive forests in Austria, with the infrequent half-timbered farm houses and Gasthofs are brilliant:  the imagery jumps into the eye seemingly without effort, William’s prose being of that rare type that can bring a scene to life without drowning itself in a sea of verbiage…

Entering Venice, his first major stopover in Italy, he’s in a desperate hurry to tour the cathedrals and convents;  one of the most memorable experiences occurred when he was invited to a concert at the Ospedale de la Pieta, the convent in which Antonio Vivaldi taught for many years;  the all-sister orchestra and chorus had not lost any abilities since the reign of the master.  But Venice at that time had drawbacks:  one of which was the overodorous miasma generally pervading the entire city…  William at one point, trying to get away from the stench (he was preternaturally sensitive to smells), climbed to the top of the Campanile, in St. Marks plaza and stayed there, admiring and dreaming his private dreams, for twelve hours…  He received generally welcome receptions at most of the convents and cathedrals he visited;  rich Englishmen were not usually denied access…  and he writes at some length in admiration of the pictures, architecture, and sculpture he finds, evidencing an accurate and critical knowledge of all three disciplines…

After Venice, he travels west, through Padua, Mantua and Verona, stopping to tour edifices and interesting churches, landscapes and lakes, farms and other agricultural venues…  he was interested in everything, seemingly, and pursued those interests with a disregard of his own safety or the convenience of others in the party.  As mentioned above, he loved the freedom of dashing off to no purpose, climbing cliffs and forging through forests and feeding his spirit with views and vistas.  Reaching Naples, he follows the same sort of program.  One day, on a hike up the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, he visits an old lady in a hovel who makes a living from weaving cloth from goat hair.  She offers him water and a crust of bread, then relates the story of her history and how she came to  be there:  a Boccaccian tale of love, poison, betrayal and death.  Upon finishing she explains that the nearby cliff is the one her beloved threw himself over, along with his false sweetheart. Walking on, William discovers lovely meadows and grandiose visions of the sea;  he describes one meadow:  “springs, whose frequent meanderings gave the whole prospect the appearance of a vast green carpet shot with silver”…  nice, i thought…

Anyway, after stops in Rome (more paintings and sculpture), he returns to England.  When asked by someone why he went to Italy, he said:  “to see – and drown in my vision!”

Beckford’s expositions of his Portuguese visits were similar to the above, except they had somewhat more to do with his merrymaking and dinners with his highly placed noble acquaintances, than with the excellences of the topography…  He describes many festivals and, possibly not inadvertently, dwells occasionally on the ubiquitous presence of the Inquisition and the abominably low state of the peasantry, who suffer miseries beyond counting from the higher classes and the church…  Eventually he journeys to Madrid where things are about the same.  Madrid is located in the middle of the Extremadura, a high plateau, desert-like, hot in summer and very cold in winter.  Many of the conquistadores came from the Extremadura.  The impression he received from the  peerage there was of a somewhat looser society, but still divided into the same sort of privilege ridden social ambience fostered by the church and the entrenched nobility, to the general detriment of the people.

The last letter of the second volume is written in 1795, eight years later, on a subsequent visit, after the French Revolution, and upon revisiting many of the same entrancing locales he’s seen previously, he finds that neglect and lack of forethought or care has caused deterioration to almost all of them:  statues are crumbling, estates are overgrown, palace walls are peeling off;  and the people are more drunken and fearful than they had been on his first visit…  Beckford doesn’t come right and say it, but the impression i got was that he blamed this deterioration on the revolution and the falling standards and fear induced by the deposing of the French royalty, and the consequential radiation of these social earthquakes throughout Europe.

Beckford lived a long time and was an amazingly gifted person.  He built an estate in England, “Fonthill Abbey” with the aid of about a thousand workmen and one architect, Myer, who kept disappearing while the work was in progress.  William ended up doing most of the designing and supervising himself.  The place was huge.  A ten foot high fence made of stone surrounded it, eight miles long.  The Abbey itself, had a gate thirty feet high, of which the hinges alone weighed about a ton each.  The dining room was about 300 feet long.  Partly from his travels and in part from his obsession with orientalism (i should have mentioned that Beckford was crazy about Orientalism from an early age), he had a great love of towers.  So he had one built that was 300 feet high.  Well, until it fell over.  Then he built another one and THAT fell over.  So…  yes, he built another, and that was more successful, standing until 1822.  By that time William had moved, selling Fonthill Abbey for about 50,000 lbs. more than it had cost him…

Footnotes:  I should mention that i got a lot of the biographical information from Wiki and from the intro to Vathek, the latter published by Ballantine and written by Lin Carter.



8 thoughts on “Italy: with sketches of Spain and Portugal”

    1. i’m a little curious why not very much has been written about him: no bios that i know of… i had to leave out many of his escapades; he was an archetypical madcap…


    1. tx for the comment… it was quite a while ago when i read it; reading the letters brought it back, tho… i found it the two volumes on Gutenberg, if you want to look at them… under Beckford, William…


  1. Thanks for this informative and interesting post. I barely knew more then Beckford’s name before reading this. He seems like he was a very interesting person. I tend to like epistolary works. I should give this a read.


    1. tx, Brian… as i mentioned above, my post just samples a few of his adventures and descriptions; he was definitely an original…


  2. Oh, my goodness, I would have loved to travel with Beckford! He sounds like he’d be a lively and interesting travelling companion and perhaps keep you laughing all the way. This read sounds delightful! I’m going to search for it! Thanks for the wonderful review!


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