Italy on the Road

Two Dutch guidebooks from the 17th and 18th Century

‘A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see.’

Map of Italy in Beknopte beschryving van Italien.
When Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) wrote this, he was probably not thinking about swimming, sunbathing and an abundance of ice cream and pizza, as a modern tourist might. Italy has always attracted many different travellers from far and wide. Pilgrims have made their way to the holy city of Rome from the early centuries of Christianity onwards. In the Renaissance, humanists came over to admire the architecture. Around the same time, young upper class people ventured on Grand Tours to France and Italy to gain life experience and knowledge about culture, customs, languages, and all kinds of skills necessary for their future career. Later on, more and more middle class tourists and merchants travelled to Italy too. How did all these people find their way? The answer is: not so different from how we do nowadays, with travel guides. In the library of the KNIR there are various examples of guides to Italy, not just in Italian and Latin but also in Dutch. We will look at two of those, Weghwyser door Italien [Guide through Italy], and Beknopte beschryving van Italien [Concise description of Italy].

Travel literature
Let’s first look at the general types of travel literature that exist. To begin with, travel journals contain mostly factual information about a journey. You could think of the ships of the Dutch East India Company, where a journal was kept to record information such as the distance travelled and what the weather and wind were like. Second, travel descriptions are also about a journey that was made, but the facts are often juiced up to please the readers. Third, there are guidebooks, like the Weghwyser and the Beknopte beschryving. It is not surprising that these books guide travellers around Italy, because Italy, and in particular Rome, were the most popular travel destinations in early modern times.

The two Dutch guidebooks to Italy, Weghwyser and Beknopte beschryving.
Then we have different kinds of guidebooks, depending on the intended audience. The oldest type is the pilgrim’s guide. Arguably, the ultimate pilgrim’s guide to Rome is Mirabilia Urbis Romae, a 12th century book full of legends and miracles and 'a considerable amount of inventive faculty'. Christians used this book to guide and inspire them on a pilgrimage to Rome, where all their sins would be absolved if they visited all sette chiese, the seven most important churches of Rome, in one day. In the Renaissance, a new type of guidebook was published, written by humanists who tried to reconstruct an image of ancient Rome, Roma antica, from the ruins of the old city. We could call them the earliest archaeologists. The man who set the example in this tradition around 1450 was Flavio Biondo with his Roma Instaurata. Travelers who read this kind of books were not really looking at Rome as it was at the end of the Middle Ages, but rather looking through it and picturing the grandeur of the past. The third type of guidebooks, starting about a century later, were those meant for tourists. Among them were many young people who went on a Grand Tour, not unlike students taking a gap year nowadays. There are many examples of these guides: cheap and expensive, pocket-sized and large, practical (recommending where to eat and sleep, for example) and theoretical (about things like history and architecture), original, compiled, translated, and everything in between.

“Guide through Italy”
Now, let’s have a look at two different Dutch guidebooks – or perhaps they are not as different as they seem. Weghwyser door Italien, published in 1657, is a travel guide that follows a route along many of Italy’s cities. Each city is described in a few pages, with remarks about the sights to see and a little bit of history. It was written by Lambert van den Bos (1620-1698), a Latin school headmaster and one of the most productive Dutch writers and translators of the 17th century. Although he is not known for particularly high literary quality and originality, the number and variety of his works can certainly match with those of contemporaries such as Hooft, Huygens, and Vondel. Van den Bos had never been to Italy himself, but he borrowed information from French and Spanish books – plagiarism did not exist yet! – and talked to his friend Samuel van Hoogstraten about his journey.

Title page of Weghwyser door Italien.
The book is not very exciting at first sight: it is slightly smaller than your hand (this was the smallest format that was printed frequently) and it only contains plain text. However, this is for a reason: imagine, for example, bringing a large atlas with you when travelling from city to city. Because the guide was printed in such a small format, it would have been easy to carry with you on the road.

Van den Bos readily admits that he did not write his guide himself, but that it is 'gathered together from the best authors and experiences' by him. He actually speaks in quite a humble tone and does not take personal credit for the content of the book: he just happens to be the one who collected the information and put it in a book. But perhaps he is exaggerating in his humility, because the book seems to have been quite popular. A second edition was published, and in that edition illustrations were added – a sign of commercial success.

“Concise Description of Italy”

Title page of Beknopte Beschryving van Italien.
Another sign of its success is the guide titled Beknopte Beschryving van Italien, published in 1703. Whereas Van den Bos distanced himself from the content of his guidebook, some publishers did not mind taking some credit for someone else’s work. In fact, the main text of this “Concise Description” seems to be an exact copy of Van den Bos’s book. Perhaps the publisher, Nicolaas ten Hoorn, was confident after the success of Van den Bos’ book, because his introduction is not as modest as Van den Bos’. He admits having borrowed from 'other writings', but he doesn’t fail to mention that he has 'improved and expanded' it.

It is true that he has added something to the book. His edition is slightly larger, contains a number of city maps that can be folded out, and an alphabetical list of all cities with corresponding page numbers at the end, which is very handy. In any case, let’s take both these guides as a compliment to their sources: Van den Bos used the best sources he could get his hands on, and Ten Hoorn would not have borrowed Van den Bos’ text if he did not think he could sell a lot of copies. Both guides also come from a tradition where it was quite common to translate, copy and compile guidebooks. This only shows that there was a market for them and that many people wanted to travel to Italy. Some things never change! M. Borst

Picture of Rome in Beknopte beschryving van Italien.
Lambert van den Bos [Weghwyser door Italien] Weghwyser door Italien, of beschrijvinge der Landen en steden van Italien. (imp. Tot Dordrecht : voor Abraham Andriessz., 1657).
12mo, [24] – 498 – [2] p.
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, Pregiato DR56

Sine nomine [Beknopte beschryving van Italien] Beknopte beschryving van Italien: behelzende 's lands outheid, beginselen, voortgang, oorlogen, verwoestingen, en tegenwoordige staat. (imp. Amsterdam : by Nicolaas Ten Hoorn, 1703).
8o, [16] – 405 – [11] p.
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, Pregiato DR59

Barend-van Haeften, Marijke. “Van Scheepsjournaal tot Reisverhaal: een Kennismaking met
           Zeventiende-eeuwse Reisteksten.” Literatuur 7 (1990): 222-228. Web. 28 November 2015.
Krol, Hans. “Lambertus van den Bos (Sylvius) 1620-1698.” Librariana. 29 February 2012. Web. 28
           November 2015. <
“Mirabilia Urbis Romae.” Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907-
           1912. Web. 28 November 2015. <>
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 Historical
           Lexis. Ed. R.W. McConchie et al. Somerville: Cascadilla Proceedings Project, 2013. 128-140.
“Toerisme in Italië.” 12 January 2014. Web. 28 November 2015.

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Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome