All Things Italy October 2022

October 9, 2022 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Early October light on the details of an eighteenth-century monastery in southern Italy

Dear Friends: 

First, a hearty hello to new subscribers! I hope you enjoy a few interesting tidbits about Italy, past and present. 

Second, as promised to those who read last month’s letter, I’m sharing this month some insights on visitors to Naples in the nineteenth century. Last month was way too detailed about my own travels in the July heat. Before I dive into the promised topic, though, I must share the latest good news about Engaging Italy. It’s now out in paperback, and at a much lower price. Added to that good news, SUNY Press is boosting the release with a 30% off coupon! Use the code XNIP1022 when you place your order through this link.  

In preparation for this release, I’ve been super busy with podcasts, presentations, and blogs related to the book. (More on all these items below.) Meanwhile, let’s move on across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Aegean to Naples. . . .   

Naples and the New “Iron Horse”  

When we think Naples, what comes to mind? Pizza, Pompeii, Vesuvius, Capri, or the Amalfi Coast? Those are the top items for most Americans who travel to the lively city in Italy’s mezzogiorno. The authors Virgil, Tasso, Homer, and Ovid are less often on the radar. But these authors and their writings were on the mind of American travelers of privilege and education–like the women in Engaging Italy–who journeyed south of Rome in the nineteenth century.  

Following in their footsteps, my husband and I booked an e-bike tour in July. Our goal was not to see the sprawling city’s centro storico –better negotiated on foot—but to travel west to the outlying regions. Truthfully, my husband wanted to ride e-bikes; I wanted to see sights from Virgil’s tomb in the Mergellina to Posillipo, areas nineteenth-century Anglo visitors wrote about.  

One of the e-bikes my husband and I rented for a tour of Naples’ outskirts

The e-bikes served us well. Hills and uneven lava-stone streets would have been torturous if not impossible with thin tires and my legs’ inadequate muscle power. The power of these new-fangled “iron horses” was perfect. Our guide—arranged by Mavin Bike Rent—also served us well. His instruction (I’m taking some liberty with the quotation here): “stay close to my rear wheel and don’t worry about traffic. That’s my job. I’ll direct the cars and they won’t hit you.” His instructions worked. We weaved in and out of traffic, which sometimes stopped for us, climbing the ascent to the Parco Virgiliano. It provided stunning views of Vesuvius, the Bay of Naples, and the islands of Procida, Ischia and Capri.

We cycled into the Parco Virgiliano along the top of the ridge; the lower coastline captures some of the ruins in Posillipo, Credit; Wikimedia Commons
Arial view of archeological park with amphitheater at Posillipo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The view from the overlook was inspiring—especially as I considered the women in Engaging Italy (Caroline Crane Marsh, Anne Hampton Brewster, and Emily Bliss Gould), who traveled through some of the same spots during their outings by carriage or, at times, on horseback. Later I learned that this park was a twentieth-century establishment—always good to do historical research before making bold claims! Zoom in on the Google map excerpt below to place some of the sites, relative to the center city and the port of Naples.

Famous Roman tunnel near Virgil’s Tomb. Travelers passed through it to arrive at Posillipo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, I was motivated to do this investigation because I knew they regularly took such outings to view the bay and take in some fresh air and sun. In one passage in Brewster’s autobiographical novel, St. Martin’s Summer, set mostly in Naples, the characters make an excursion to Virgil’s Tomb, Posillipo, and then Baiae. Three women ride in a barouche, while two men and the heroine, Ottilie, are on horseback. Another passage describes Ottilie riding with her male friend, Luigi, all the way to the Lago d’Agnano to have a picnic. They were unchaperoned, too! No spoilers here on the novel’s interesting marriage plot, however.  

Brewster’s autobiographical novel set in Naples is the focus of the October 11 Lost Ladies of Lit podcast episode

You can learn more about this novel set in Naples by listening to the Lost Ladies of Lit podcast episode out on October 11. Here, though, the point is that Brewster’s outings—on horseback—capture the freedom which many American women felt while living in Italy. The riding was considered healthy, as long as women did it in moderation and with the appropriate saddle (so as not to damage their reproductive capacity).  

As I traveled by e-bike, then, with cars and busses zooming by, and pedestrians strolling through the park, I imagined being there on horseback, or in a carriage, escaping the more-crowded streets of the city and the enclosures of its stone buildings.  

The Google map clip shows, among other sites, the lake Brewster’s characters visited in the center of what is now a nature preserve in a crater.

E-bikes to Ascend Vesuvius? 

My husband and I did NOT ride our e-bikes to Vesuvius—although he wanted to do so. (It’s a tour option now with at least one company.)  I hiked on Vesuvius in early June of 2017 with friend and nineteenth-century American literature expert Tina Gianquitto. (Thanks, Tina, for taking this photo of our outing together.) It was hot and desolate enough in June, after arriving in an air-conditioned bus. I couldn’t imagine July or August!

Gould, Marsh, and Brewster went during the winter and by carriage, as far as possible. And they often went at night.

Gould, who witnessed an eruption in November 1868 wrote that it went beyond any words she could try to use. In February 1850 Marsh, a deemed “invalid,” “was carried to the top of the mountain in a litter,” according to her husband. She “spent half an hour on the edge of the crater.” Marsh herself wrote of the Vesuvius experience as among the moments during her travels of which she was most proud.

Brewster included many details of her ascent in St. Martin’s Summer. The novel’s characters saw the sky shimmering with light as they returned from their outing to Baiae. They soon learned that the light was from the glowing crater and that an eruption was immanent. Several days later, they traveled first by carriage, surrounded by thronging crowds also going to observe the spectacle. Then, leaving the carriage at the “hermitage,” they “proceeded with guides, torches, and . . . servants up the mountain footpaths, . . . as far as was prudent.”

Brewster wrote of the characters clambering up on all fours, over hillocks of cooling lava which gave way beneath them. She wrote of their “scorching . . . boots” and “crisping . . . gloves.” When they reached the top, however, they found it cooler than the sides, where lava had burst through new openings. And, the mountaintop, where they peered into the crater, also provided a view that “repaid” them for their efforts.

While Brewster’s writing here is fiction, the adventure emerges from her diary entries of similar experiences during her stay in 1857-58. For her, as for Gould and Marsh, witnessing an eruption of Vesuvius while in Naples was something both hoped for and feared.

These women’s stories are among many that remain of nineteenth-century American and British travelers to Naples. They remind us of how travel abroad now is both the same as and different from travel abroad then. People still want to have exciting adventures and see stimulating sights. These women also wanted to be safe. Among their concerns were finding guides and trusting that there would not be a life-threatening eruption while they were visiting. Then as now, they were subject to trusting local knowledge. We, too, are subject to this type of trust as we travel as guests rather than residents of a culture not our own.  

Considering Travel to Italy in October?

October light reflecting off an eighteenth-century monastery in southern Italy
October light in southern Italy

The light and temperatures in Italy in early October are lovely. Visitors in this period may go for the vendemmia—the grape harvest and wine making in rural villages. But even without those plans, visitors can enjoy the historic sites without the thronging crowds of summer. The sunshine still warms the stones of historic buildings, and it’s easy to enjoy outdoor seating at cafes, even in the evenings.  

A full month of Engaging Italy 

Since last month Engaging Italy and its projects have kept me super busy. In addition to the Lost Ladies of Lit podcast, mentioned above, I’ve written essays on Marsh and Brewster (material not in Engaging Italy), recorded a podcast on daily writing as a therapeutic practice, and given a conference presentation on Margot Anne Kelly’s FoodtopiaCommunities in Pursuit of Peace, Love & Homegrown Food. Whew! 

I’ve also booked a couple of other presentations and podcasts on Engaging Italy for November and January. 

All of these activities are on my Events page, and I share reminders about them on social media. I hope you’ll enjoy and share them as well.  

Meanwhile, I am happy to continue booking talks on Engaging Italy. or other topics related to my research and writing. If you or a group you‘re a part of are interested, let me know!       

Until next month, keep dreaming of All Things Italy!

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Etta Madden