A Traveler’s View on the Papal City

Correspondence between a 17th century traveler and his friend

When Frederik Haring, a 17th century Leiden-based book seller, was offered an unknown travel manuscript, he read only the front page and then asked himself the question: do people really want to read another travelogue on Rome? As one of the main travel destinations in Europe, there had been countless of travel guides, travelogues and travel diaries written on Rome already. Pilgrims visited the city in search of its external and internal religious treasures. The English upper class sent its youth on an educational journey through Europe known as the Grand Tour, with the Italian capital as its most important stop. Scholars gathered in Rome’s libraries and universities. And then there were those lucky few who could afford to treat themselves to a leisurely Roman holiday. A lot of tourists documented their stay in Rome and many of those works had been published for the reference of future travelers. No wonder that Frederik Haring had his doubts. Weren’t his clients tired of all these books on Rome? But soon he realized he had encountered a very interesting source.

French correspondence
The manuscript consisted of twenty two letters written by a traveler from France. The Frenchman had made a two year trip through Italy between 1690 and 1692, during which he wrote a letter to a friend every month. The traveler spent most of his time in Rome – about half of the letters are sent from the Italian capital. Every letter is filled with the traveler’s observations on everything that surprised and astonished him about his journey, the Italian cities and its inhabitants. According to Haring, the stories are so ‘entertaining and instructive’ that he did not want to keep them from his readers. Therefore, he translated the French letters to Dutch and published them together in the book
Tegenwoordige toestand van het Pauselyke Hof, nevens alle andere Hoven, Republyken, en Voornaamste Steden van Italien [Present State of the Papal Court and other Courts, Republics and Principal Cities of Italy] (1697).

Title page of the book.
In the preface to the book, Haring praises the accuracy of the traveler’s political and historical observations. Also, Haring says, his descriptions of the papal court are so vivid that they ‘should appeal to Protestants and Catholics alike’. The book is clearly intended for the general audience. One telling sign is the type of the book: it is printed in gothic script, which was often the case for mass-printed books. Haring also explains that ‘on the advice of others’ he has decided not to edit or delete any parts of the letters, even the sections that could be considered offensive by some.            

The traveler’s identity
The traveler’s letters do not contain a lot of information on his identity, because he is writing to a friend who already knows him well. In his sixteenth letter, however, he mentions he has had an encounter  in Rome with another Frenchman, ‘who has heard that I am a book trader’. It thus seems that the traveler had a profession in the book industry. He also shows a great interest in Roman architecture, gardens, paintings, sculptures and especially libraries. This might have to do with his profession, but the traveler also mentions in his sixteenth letter that he has visited many libraries and has ‘extensively studied a considerable amount of matters’ in Rome. The Frenchman thus seems to have traveled to Rome for scholarly or business purposes, or both.

It is argued that the traveler might have been the Protestant writer François Maximillien Misson, who fled Catholic France in 1685, and that the manuscript was actually part of his famous Noveau Voyage d’Italie, published in 1691. The dates on the letters do not match with this statement, however. Misson was in Italy between 1687 and 1688, while according to Haring’s book the traveler sent his letters more than three years later. Because of this uncertainty about his identity, the quote in this essay and the title of the book in the bibliography have been marked as ‘anonymous’. The identity of the friend receiving the letters is unknown, although the traveler does mention the man’s ‘high occupation’ in his first letter.

Anthropological approach
What is striking about the traveler’s manner of describing Rome is his almost anthropological way of explaining Catholic practices. From the letter correspondence it is clear that both men know very little about Roman religious ceremonies, and therefore the traveler extensively writes about them to his friend. They include, amongst others, the canonization of saints, the papal funeral and the Conclave of the cardinals. In a very precise manner, the Frenchman outlines what happens when, where and who is involved. He also defines and answers very practical questions his friend might have, for example: why do cardinals usually elect an old pope? According to the traveler, the Papal Chair comes with such riches that a pope with a long-term reign would eventually become unprofitable to the Catholic Church. An old pope can only profit from his wealth for a short time – then he dies. The traveler’s descriptions of the Catholic ceremonies are so thorough that he really must have
, as he said himself, done a lot of research in Rome.

A comic-like image of the papal funeral rites, added by book seller Haring.
The Spaniard and the statue
Besides the informative descriptions, the traveler has also packed his letters with anecdotes about the roads he travels, the cities he enters and the people he meets. These anecdotes have a lot of historical value, because they paint a contemporary picture of what Italy was like in the late seventeenth century. It would be absolutely worthwhile for historians or other researches to delve deeper into T
egenwoordige toestand van het Pauselyke Hof because it covers so many aspects of Italian society. Some of the traveler’s anecdotes are, however, simply for entertainment purposes. The following quote about St. Peter’s Church was probably one of the controversial citations that book seller Frederik Haring had doubts about whether to publish or not:

‘On the grave of Pope Paul II from the House of Farnese there are two very beautiful marble statues, of an old unsightly and a young attractive woman, the last one which has now been covered by a cloth, because of a Spaniard, who had locked himself in the church at night, to pleasure himself with that beautiful statue.’ Ellen Schuurman

Sine nomine [Tegenwoordige toestand van het Pauselyke Hof] Tegenwoordige toestand van het Pauselyke Hof, nevens alle andere Hoven, Republyken, en Voornaamste Steden van Italien (imp. Tot Leiden, By Frederik Haring, boekverkooper 1697)
4o, 10 - 614 – 17
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, Pregatio DR66

Dekker, Rudolf. “Van ‘grand tour’ tot treur- en sukkelreis, Nederlandse reisverslagen van de 16e tot
                begin 19e eeuw.” Opossum, Tijdschrift voor Historische en Kunstwetenschappen 1994: 8-25.
Delbeke, Maarten and Anne-Françoise Morel. “Roma Antica, Sacra, Moderna: The Analogous Romes
                of the Travel Guide.” Library Trends Fall 2012: 397-417.
Pinnavaia, Laura. “Traveling Words, the Words of Traveling: 17th Century English Travelogues of
                Italy.” Selected Proceedings of the 2012 Symposium on New Approaches in English Historial
. Ed. R. McConchie et al. Somerville, 2013. 128-140.

You Might Also Like



Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome