Sir Francis Ronalds' Travel Journal: Southern Sicily and Malta
Valetta Malta Decr 31st 1819
Octr 9th is the date of my last notes. Since then I have thought of nothing little as my journal altho' I have not wanted materials for it. What I now write by way of bringing it up to about the time of my sailing for Egypt shall be as free from grumpings & preachings as possible. -
I left the best friend I have had in Sicily in the Commendatore Gioeni with great regret at Catania about the beginning of November (I quite forget all about dates). I arrived at Syracuse in one night sleeping all the way in a Speronaro by the side of a Sicilian young person with a child in her arms (they don't stand upon trifles in these parts) and immediately sallied forth to kill the lions, "screwed up to the sticking place" of resolution to go through them as diligently as possible and as expeditiously as my duty admitted.
"There never existed a stronger family likeness than amongst the Doric Temples... Yet there is nothing so beautiful in these parts as the ruins of them... when they sit enthroned on some craggy height... blazing in a flood of dancing sun beams & presiding majestically over a lovely wide extended landscape below"
The Temple of Minerva came first, now converted into a Christian church and preserved by Christian walls from the fate of many other Temples of the same family. There never existed a stronger family likeness than amongst the Doric Temples & I have scarcely seen any thing new or striking in them as Temples since I visited those of Paestum. Yet there is nothing so beautiful in these parts as the ruins of them and the more ruined they are the more I am now pleased with them; that is to say not when they lie mouldering and literally immersed in some dank dismal hole or corner, but when they sit enthroned on some craggy height as at Girgenti blazing in a flood of dancing sun beams & presiding majestically over a lovely wide extended landscape below. Then they seem to receive as a homage from Time that unspeakable beauty and irresistible grandeur which amply compensates his boundless merciless ravages; then they reflect a little of their Sun shine into the soul. Such is my ill taught taste Peter. (Ma che). But after all Peter, pray where is the vast difference between on old-wall-grubber, & an old-coin-hoarder? Or between a bibliomaniac & a Muromaniac [sic]? Ma che. Are not the pleasures of a man of sound literary taste (such as yours) much more frequently baulked and diminished, by roaming over classic Ground, than increased. Are not his pursuits & enjoyments far superior & essentially distinct from those of the maniacs whom I have mentioned. Only turn your eyes from the sunny hill one moment & I am sure you will answer me in the affirmation, were the two different pursuits ever united in the same man? Can they be Enthusiastic for Antiquities! Enthusiastic for a ruffle[?]. I pretend to neither species of enthusiasm either that of the scholar or of the Antiquarian as you have known long ago and know that nothing less than my absolute ignorance is the cause, but I have already broken my promise about preaching.
Latomia of the Capuchin convent
"The immense depth & extent...; the novelty & luxury of descending from a burning rock into the cool solitary refreshing shade of a beautiful natural garden crowded with several varieties of trees & plant; the fragrance of the orange flower & fruit; the very grotesque forms of the rock;... all these taken together rendered it alltogether one of the most romantic and interesting spots I ever saw"
Latomia containing the Ear of Dionysius
"I ascended by the help of 6 or 7 men... and a Pulley, and Ropes, and here I found with great pleasure a card of Sir Fredk Henniker left by him there for me no doubt"
Rock formation in the Ear of Dionysius latomia
View of Syracuse from the amphitheatre
"whenever I want to find out the best point of view of or from a place I always go to the amphitheatre and I am never disappointed"
Having made these and many more sapient reflections at the Temple of Minerva I next proceeded to make the tour of the Fortifications and arrived when it was compleated at the Caffé de'Nobili. If I had said anything about them before arriving at Malta it would certainly have been in high admiration but still I recollect having thought that a few clumsy bangs at their Gates, or a broadside or two from a Seventy Four, or a few of Congreve's Rockets would rather disturb those gentlemen sitting sipping their coffee & ices at the Caffé de'Nobili and might rather alter the tone of their easy chat & dignified cross-legged mien. Soon I came to the Fountain of Arethusa "The dread voice is past that shrunk thy streams", but had Milton's Alpheus obeyed the voice of his friend he would certainly have come out of the holes which now supply the shabby little pool of soap & water in the semblance of macaroni if he came in any tangible form at all. This celebrated fountain serves now the washerwomen quite as faithfully as it has ever served the poets of yore.
The next day I crossed the harbour about 2 miles and went up the river Anapus to the head about 3 miles more to see the far famed Papyrus plant which is said (but without truth) to flourish only now on its banks. The quantity I found in going up was not so large as I had expected but it seemed to grow in great luxuriance. I think the height of a full grown plant is abt 12 ft. On my return I called upon the two solitary immense columns of the Temple of Jupiter Olympus. You recollect how Dionysius swindled or rather bullied Jupiter out of a verry costly gold cloak at this temple. It was a trick worthy of imitation by a Buonaparte. If he had ripened, would he not have soon grown into a second Dionysius?
On the 3rd day I visited the Latomia of the Capuchin convent. (A latomia is supposed here to have been formerly an excavation or quarry from which was taken stone for the buildings of the Towns and which was sometimes afterwards converted to other purposes). The immense depth & extent of this; the novelty & luxury of descending from a burning rock into the cool solitary refreshing shade of a beautiful natural garden crowded with several varieties of trees & plant; the fragrance of the orange flower & fruit; the very grotesque forms of the rock; and the view (through an immense almost natural arch) of similar but more distinct objects; all these taken together rendered it alltogether one of the most romantic and interesting spots I ever saw. Nothing more could I think be desired than a glympse [sic] of the Horizon.
Next I went to the Latomia which contains The Ear of Dionysius. Turn to my sketch book for an idea of this curious place. The ear is situated in the left corner of the Latomia; it consists of 2 Holes about 6 feet square cut out of the rock or cliff horizontally one opening in front as you see and the other into the large arched cavern which cavern is cut out of the cliff also; these holes meet each other at a right angle and are about 12 feet deep. This is called the ear of Dionysius into which I ascended by the help of 6 or 7 men (who are ropemakers living and working in another larger cavern hard by) and a Pulley, and Ropes, and here I found with great pleasure a card of Sir Fredk Henniker left by him there for me no doubt (I shall return the call on the top of the 2nd Pyramid of Gizeh if I have the good fortune to reach the top and if he should not have been there before me on my arrival, but I fear he will have forestalled me.) The echo which one perceived in this ear from a voice within the cavern below is nothing extraordinary, nor is it possible to suppose that in its present state it served the purpose attributed to it (viz that of a listening place where the tyrant overheard the conversations of his prisoners in the cavern), some other apparatus must have been also employed if he ever used this place at all. This Latomia also contains a very high narrow rock with an ancient ruined tower on the top and some very picturesque heaps of stones and patches of trees, the whole would come very well (to borrow a painters' term) and produce a picture of more than ordinary interest if executed decently.
Not far distant from this Latomia are the immense Amphitheatre and the small Theatre. The former is the most favourable spot for a fine view of the town, harbour &c &c, whenever I want to find out the best point of view of or from a place I always go to the amphitheatre and I am never disappointed. The prince di Biscari extolls highly the wonderfull ingenuity of the architect in constructing the seats of this amphitheatre in such manner that the people could not accidently kick each others' backs. I think this is one out of many hundreds of instances in which great Antiquarians in their enthusiasm exalt a singularity into an object for high admiration. He also remarks that this contrivance is a proof of the growing luxury of Syracuse and therefore of the amphitheatre having been built at a later period than is usually assigned to it. The latter observation appears to me to be the most acute of the two, certainly it is a great luxury to know that one cannot be kicked easily by accident, but I can see no very extraordinary display of ingenuity in placing the seats of one stage or row a little higher than the floor of the stage or row next above it, in order to effect this purpose.
I met here with a rather curious adventure in the sentimental Sterne's line but recollecting your quizations about a Lyonese lady, altho' so long ago, I shall not tell it. I put down this hint merely that I may not forget it myself.
I passed another day at the Castle & walls of Pipoli &c &c about 8 miles from the Present Syracuse. They consist of little else than mounds of shapeless ruins except that here and there a part of the walls exhibit a few enormous masses of square blocks of stone. The subterranean passage which Mirabella found capable of admitting Horse soldiers into the citadel of Tica is not now capable of admitting a rat. On returning over the site of the ancient city of Napoli I observed a vast number of squares carved out of the rock of about one foot and a half and from 1 to 2 inches deep. These are also observable on the tombs and in short in every part of the anct city. Having no opportunity of consulting any authors who speak of them I cannot learn what was their use, nor can I guess. They were certainly not intended for receiving the ends of the beams or rafters of houses for they appear as well on the fronts facing the street as in the interiors of the ruins and on the fronts of the Tombs. A great quantity of the [blank] plant grows among these Ruins the root of which is used for polishing the brick or stone floors and a great variety of very agreeable aromatic plants which I know nothing about. I don't recollect anything more to say about the antiquities of Syracuse altho' I have not mentioned half of them.
"Of the ladies I can only say how they look for I have spoken to but one. They look fairer than some other Sicilians, rather prettyer than some others, rather coyer than some others, capital eyes, good teeth, good whigs [sic], not verry, verry good figures"
With respect to the People I think the peasantry of the neighbourhood seem a little less savage and better disposed towards each other than those of the other large towns of Sicily, & the lower rank of townsfolk rather prouder and of more decent appearance. The Dons & Dandies seem to be strenuous but not very successful imitators of the disgusting Neapolitans and Palermitans, purseproud, insolent, obsequious, cunning, ignorant & seeming to pride themselves on these qualities. Catania is the only place in Sicily where I have met with those accomplishments which we Englishmen are accustomed to consider the requisite qualifications of a gentleman. But I am quite ready to acknowledge that a residence of a month or two in a place does not furnish a sufficient opportunity of observing accurately the character of a set of people and therefore speak with the greatest diffidence on the subject, indeed if my ideas had not agreed with those of all others with whom I have spoken I would not even in a private letter have said a syllable about it. Of the ladies I can only say how they look for I have spoken to but one. They look fairer than some other Sicilians, rather prettyer than some others, rather coyer than some others, capital eyes, good teeth, good whigs [sic], not verry, verry good figures. By the By, talking of figures reminds me that I have not mentioned one of the best things in Syracuse viz a Venus not very long ago discovered at [blank] and now in the Museum. It has no head or right arm but is esteemed, and I believe with good reason, a very exquisite piece of sculpture. I don't know where to look for its equal in my humble judgement except at Florence.
Sir Francis' passport to travel from Sicily to Malta
"I sailed at last... but we had scarcely peeped out of the harbour when a violent in shore gale obliged us to stand out to sea a long way and it increased so much that the Captain & the whole crew were frequently obliged to go upon their knees & say prayers by the dozen before we could reach our Port in safety"
Temple of Concord at Girgenti (Agrigento)
Temple of Hercules
"beautiful ruins & so finely situated and so varied that I think if I had my painting & drawing materials & a place to lie my head & some decent food, I could live amongst them many weeks with great pleasure"
"During this last storm... I began to recollect... the stories which I had frequently heard of heretics being thrown over board... and I fancied that my Captain as well as all the crew looked a little more bluff at me than usual"
All my diligence to get through Syracuse proved abortive by the scandalous conduct of the Prince [blank], who ought to have signed my passport instead of indulging in a sound sleep at the proper hour of business at his office and who could not be awakened by the inferior Jacks altho' the Speronaro in which I had taken & paid for my passage in port sailed about a quarter of an hour afterwards. By his negligence I lost 3 weeks, I lost the society of Sir Fredk in Malta & Egypt & my money for the passage, so you may guess that I made noise enough to awaken his Excellency but you cannot imagine with what perfect sang froid first my entreaties and afterwards my abuse were received. This was exactly a counterpart to the treatment which one of my good companions de voyage Capn Dunn received at Naples from the Jack at the head of the police office there, "Non ho mangiato" said the brute turning on his heal instead of signing the passport which would not have occupied one minute. These things would not suit "the absurd English prejudices" of John Bull, Hey Peter! At least they would not have done so when I left you, but I hear much about improved laws and the increase of standing armies & decisive[?] measures. I fear John is getting rid of his absurd prejudices and that the cloak in which I "wrap myself up" & which procures me respect wherever I go abroad will be quite antiquated and out of cut on my return home, I shall not have kept pace with your improvements. I might try to acquire a few hints at Grand Cairo.
I sailed at last in a schooner for Girgenti but we had scarcely peeped out of the harbour when a violent in shore gale obliged us to stand out to sea a long way and it increased so much that the Captain & the whole crew were frequently obliged to go upon their knees & say prayers by the dozen before we could reach our Port in safety, which we did however after we had rolled about 3 days.
On landing I proceeded immediately to the Town about 3 miles from the Harbour on the Top of a mountain as very many of the old towns of Sicily are, the ascent to Girgenti is particularly steep & high, but on my arrival was thunderstruck with learning that nothing like an Inn was to be seen at this wretched place and that I must return to my dirty little hole of a cabin in the schooner at night. However making the best of the matter I walked up to the Cathedral which contains the only thing to be seen in the modern town viz an ancient Sarcophagus ornamented with figures representing certainly a species of [?] and inimitably executed but there are many different opinions about who the personages represented are intended for. As the Temples &c of Girgenti lie at a distance of a mile or so from the Town and on lower ground they may be almost all seen from the Town, but I think the best point of view for the Temples taken all together is in the plain just below the rocky mountain on which the ancient town was built.
I have really nothing to say about these beautiful ruins. I attempted sketches but had not time to make even intelligible outlines of them and my terms of admiration viz beautiful, magnificent, sublime, grand &c &c &c are now quite worn out. I am myself tired of them. The Temple of Jupiter affords an exception to the Sameness of which I complain in the Others, I could perceive some variations in the accustomed style & a greater complication of monument[?] but an Architect & antiquarian would no doubt find a very great interest in this Temple. It is said never to have been finished. The Temple of Concord is more perfect than even those of Paestum but defaced by an inscription setting forth the paltry services of a paltry fellow who made a few repairs upon it named Ferdinand. All the others are beautiful ruins & so finely situated and so varied that I think if I had my painting & drawing materials & a place to lie my head & some decent food, I could live amongst them many weeks with great pleasure. They are built close to the Wall of the town, upon it even, & must have given to the town a most superb appearance when viewed form the plains below.
On sailing again with the intentions of taking a cargo of Corn at Terra Nuova for Malta we were again obliged to keep off the shore and to roll about for 4 days at Sea. During this last storm I own I began to recollect with greater distinctness than before the stories which I had frequently heard of heretics being thrown over board on such occasions and I fancied that my Captain as well as all the crew looked a little more bluff at me than usual. However I trimmed the lamp which hung before the Holy virgin now & then (An Unitarian trimming the Virgin's lamp, what a spectacle!) and lent a hand when we went about, and so on the fourth day we all arrived safe and sound & sulky in the harbour of the dirty Syracuse again, not having been able to take in the Cargo of corn at Terra Nuova.
Whilst I remained in a state of uncertainty what measures to pursue to conquer the obstacles which my bad luck seemed to oppose to my getting to Malta, I learned that an english gentleman was lying very ill on board a brig which had been driven into Syracuse by the same storm which I had encountered, and upon visiting him found him to be a Mr Allingham whom I had before seen at Catania. Therefore I immediately determined to quit the schooner and take my passage to Malta in the same vessell with him, which determination was an extreemly fortunate one for I derived very great pleasure in being of some little utility to him. We remained 7 or 8 days in this state obliged to sleep on board every night with 6 dirty blackguards in a cabin of about 12 ft square, on account of the gates of the town being closed every evening at 6 and the probability of a favourable wind springing up at night. But at the end of the 10th day never were I and my new friend Mr Allingham better pleased with the view of any place ancient or modern than with that of Malta. He had been nearly 3 weeks in the condition I have mentioned persecuted by a dreadfull [sic] Tertian ague & I had been tossed about at sea and stirred up so as not to be able to sleep without my clothes on for nearly 3 weeks, living a great part of the time upon Olives & Capsicums & hard biscuit. We arrived here on the 30th of November.
You have frequently heard of the singular appearance which the mode of preserving the soil from being washed away by rains gives to this rock called Malta and of the astonishing extent & beauty of its fortifications. I shall not commit myself by any observations on the latter except that I think them quite equal in every respect if not superior to any work of antiquity of the kind that I ever saw either in Italy or any where else, and that they will hereafter vie with any such works where they have been sanctified by Time or the opinions of Antiquarians & Squirrels.
Of other subjects of observation nothing remains worth mentioning except the Ladies. I have certainly seen no women so beautiful since I left England as these I have seen here. Fine penetrating, sparkling, black eyes, beautiful hair & teeth, a fine open confiding expression sometimes united with a jocund smiling hilarity but more frequently with an appealing humility quite distinct from our modesty but almost as engaging. I think the Maltese ladies must be very much like the Polish ladies. You don't see a great many beauties here but now and then a very beautiful Girl.
"It is curious to contrast the slovenly wastefull system of Agriculture of the Sicilians with that of these poor Maltese who pursue every hat full of soil with so much care and turn it to so good account"
"[Poll Adams] does all she can to make me fat & sleek, she greases my chops every morning... and sets before me joints of meat and Turkies... and I am entombed every night in a Sea of feathers"
Tailor's receipt for new clothes in Malta
Their day is short. I took a ride with Mr Allingham the other morning to the Boschetto, one of those little vallies [sic] into which the inhabitants creep in the heat of summer for shade, poor creatures! They think them very beautiful. In going up a Hill here if you look straight before you every thing appears barren, in coming down the island appears covered with verdure and it is in reality so, this is owing to the walls I have mentioned. It is curious to contrast the slovenly wastefull system of Agriculture of the Sicilians with that of these poor Maltese who pursue every hat full of soil with so much care and turn it to so good account. Notwithstanding the general want of trees &c there is something pleasing in the landscape of Malta derived from the distribution of Villages and Hills & walls &c - but it is of a nature which I don't know how to describe, perhaps its novelty is its greatest charm. The Cave of St Peter is niente.
I live here just as I should at a good Inn in Canterbury or Bristol except that I pay about half the price. I am lodged at Poll Adams's. Poll is a very good woman and does all she can to make me fat & sleek, she greases my chops every morning with fine rose cork of Cattalians shipping and sets before me joints of meat and Turkies [sic] magnificent enough to strike the stoutest hearted Sicilian with profound veneration and awe, and I am entombed every night in a Sea of feathers. I enjoy the Society of Mr Allingham & a friend or two & I don't know how to tear myself away from english comforts to encounter the [?] of an Egyptian town but nil desperandum. I sail on Tuesday next the 4th of Jany for Alexandria in a Turkish vessell. You wish me a good voyage I dare say & I wish you plenty of patience to make out my scrawl up to this time. Let me know whether you chuse to read any more of my achievements & remarks or whether you are overdosed, for I shall write the rest in short hand and in much shorter terms if it is of no use to any but myself.
Valetta, Malta, Jany 4th 1820
Why should I care for Peter (said I one morning as I was wiping my Razer upon a piece of my poor disgraced Journal). I have been despairing myself of amusement because [?] that fellow don't like it & I have suffered my vanity to be wounded by his complaints of my "grumpiness" &c, this is not fit. So I immediately collected the tattered remains, copied some of them afresh and determined to pursue my old plan. This determination I have adhered to more or less ever since & I am now glad of it. The conversations with my Whig will appear to you as they do to me (if you read them), rather or perhaps verry little worth the trouble of setting down. (Non importa) no matter, they pleased me, but mind I should have continued them if I had had the opportunity of writing whenever the fancy took me for I have left out a great deal at Syracuse & Girgenti which would have come in very well for my purpose. Sicily is an Island which from its ancient fame and its extraordinary capability of becoming again famous (perhaps at no very distant period) is the most interesting little spot in the world. Every body knows this & this is the reason why it has been so often described. The reason why it has been so badly described is I believe on account of the infectious laziness and lassitude of mind which seems to have attacked every one who has travelled through it. I more than any body else have suffered this apathy because I have less classic knowledge. Read any of the best writers, you will find them entertaining but don't depend upon what any of them say. It is too hot to tell the truth in these parts.