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What an anonymous travel manuscript from the 1700s reveals about eighteenth-century Italy


Pictured above is an interleaved edition of Johann Hermann von Riedesel’s "Travels through Sicily," published in 1773. On the left is the published narrative, on the right are anonymous annotations. It has taken classics scholar Giovanna Ceserani years of detective work to figure out who wrote them.
Photo Credit: 
Courtesy of Giovanna Ceserani

Stanford Humanities Center fellow Giovanna Ceserani is an associate professor of classics at Stanford University. She studies what early modern Europe’s deep interest in ancient Greece and Rome can tell us about those early modern social and political contexts. Ceserani’s first book, Italy’s Lost Greece: Magna Graecia and the Making of Modern Archaeology (2012), examines the history of Greek archaeological remains in modern South Italy. Ceserani also directs The Grand Tour Project, which uses digital tools to better understand eighteenth-century British travel to Italy. While at the Center this year, Ceserani is working on a monograph called A Sicilian Journey: In Search of the Cosmopolitan Enlightenment. The seeds of this project were planted over twenty years ago with her chance discovery of an anonymous manuscript detailing a 1766 trip to Sicily.


Q. How did you discover the manuscript at the center of your project?

One afternoon, while a graduate student at Cambridge University in the mid-1990s, I was in the university library’s rare books section reviewing the 1773 English translation of Johann Hermann von Riedesel’s Travels through Sicily. As closing time came, I wasn’t yet finished with the book, but it needed to be returned. On the spur of the moment, I checked the rudimentary online catalogue and discovered the history library across campus contained a copy of the same edition. I cycled over as fast as I could to check it out for the evening. I was delighted that the librarian didn’t mind, or didn’t seem to notice, that I was taking home an eighteenth-century book. My excitement at holding such a rare volume with my own two hands only grew when I opened it and discovered an interleaved—or layered page—edition, thick with pages of anonymous, handwritten notes and comments recounting an earlier journey to Sicily.

After years of research and following up on indirect leads, I have finally identified the author as the English academic John Symonds, who traveled to Italy from 1766 to 1771 before he became a modern history professor at Cambridge. With this knowledge, I am writing a book that revisits established narratives of the eighteenth-century Grand Tour of Italy.


Q. What was the Grand Tour? How does the manuscript you discovered challenge the common Grand Tour story?

The Grand Tour was a phenomenon where tens of thousands of British travelers visited Italy in the eighteenth century. It has been documented with a substantial paper trail that includes published and unpublished travel journals, letters, and other notes. Often these accounts evoke the image of the “Grand Tourist” as a young, elite man, for whom travel was a finishing school before assuming a position in society. For a long time, scholars primarily focused on these tourists, their lavish collections of Italian artifacts, and their perception of Italy as a land of past greatness and modern desolation.

However, the Grand Tour narrative I discovered is unusual because it details a Britisher and Italian traveling together. Symonds’ manuscript names as his travel companion Domenico Cirillo, a doctor and botanist from Naples. The two men traveled in South Italy, not as mere tourists but as scholars. Symonds took notes not only on antiquities and natural wonders but also on the agriculture, prisons, and hospitals of the region. The travelers also exchanged new knowledge, progressive ideals, and the excitement of discovery, whether they were observing ancient ruins or examining botanical phenomena.

By studying this unique joint journey to Sicily, I rethink the usual separation between Italians and foreign travelers that defines so many Grand Tour narratives. I also make a case for a biographical and microhistorical approach to the history of ideas. As a result, South Italy in the late eighteenth century emerges as a site of significant and fruitful cross-national exchange.


Q. What would people be surprised to learn about your research?

The mystery of the author’s identity required detective work, which has been exciting for me and for the audiences with whom I have shared the project so far. But, unlike a detective who neatly solves the crime, I am a historian faced with many unanswered questions.

For instance, I have learned rare things from the manuscript, such as the name of the horse Symonds rode during the journey (“Dapple”). However, when it comes to Symonds’ earlier life, I know little more than the names of his parents and the dates of his degrees. I also do not have any evidence that he and Cirillo corresponded after their shared Sicilian journey.

These narrative gaps are a distinct trait of microhistories: they bring us closer to otherwise forgotten people, but often there is little else we can know. In these instances, context becomes a crucial tool. If carefully handled, context offers possibilities to fill in those missing details. But a historian has to make choices when telling a compelling and relevant story, including whether some gaps might be better acknowledged and left as such.


Q. Why is it valuable to write microhistories?

Microhistories raise important methodological questions about how we study history. Recent scholarship in my field has embraced “global” and “big” history, the resurgence of grand narratives, and the emergence of “big data.” Indeed, my own digital research enterprise, called The Grand Tour Project, harnesses big data on thousands of eighteenth-century Grand Tour travelers.

Yet, microhistory and biography prove more necessary than ever. How better can we understand global history than by examining well-documented microscale cases of people whose lives unfolded across national boundaries and cultural contexts?

At times, the global focus of history has also eclipsed the south of Europe and its ancient past. My project illuminates this overlooked region. This manuscript reveals how Cirillo and Symonds were concerned with questions of marginality, modernity, decline, progress, inequality, science, and classical ideals. Examining these travelers’ conversations and their exploration of culture, nature, and the past, underscores the importance of South Italy in accounts of emerging modernity.