La Bella Libertà: Anna Miller

‘I love the sun and the hotter he shines, the more health and spirits are dealt me. However, this luminary is no friend to the complexion, and I have contrived to make a hat of pasteboard, and trimmed it with blond and pink ribbon. I believe I shall find it extremely convenient in the mornings when we are walking among the Ruins, for constantly going out in the Roman Fashion, with nothing to shade my face, has tanned me to such a degree, that I know not whether all the strawberry-water in Rome will be able to whiten me again.’ How different from the preoccupations of those – men – undertaking the Grand Tour was this observation, made by the first Englishwoman to publish an account of her travels in Italy, – in Letters from Italy Describing the Customs, Antiquities, Paintings etc of that Country, in the years MDCCLXX and MDCCLXXI to a Friend Residing in France (E & C Dilly, 1776). How such comments irritated the literati of her day; how they appeal to me.

 The woman who had the temerity so publicly to set herself – and her complexion – amidst the glories of Italy was Anna Miller, wife of a somewhat impoverished Irishman.  Her portrait, above, was painted by another Italophile Englishwoman, Ellis Cornelia Knight. Having exhausted her small fortune in building a villa near Bath, the Millers had, for reasons of economy, retired to the Continent. Leaving their infant children in France in the care of her mother, to whom the original letters were written, they then repaired to Italy. The Letters were published five years after their return to England. In the interim Mrs Miller’s reign over her literary salon at Batheaston had resulted in several volume of Poetical Amusements, published by the Dilly brothers.

It is likely that Anna Miller, as well as prizing her inclusion in the Dilly list alongside such bluestockings as Elizabeth Montagu and Catherine Macaulay, saw the publication of her Letters  as an opportunity to aid the family finances. The book clearly enjoyed some success, being bought in numbers sufficient for Dilly to issue a slightly revised two-volume edition in 1777. Mrs Miller was soon identified as the author and her work received some attention, not least from that waspish derider, Horace Walpole, to whom, of the book, Mrs Delaney commented, ‘very conceited, they say, and not worth buying.’ It was doubtless considered ‘conceited’ for a woman such as Mrs Miller to propound her views on taste, interposing herself between the reader and the art canon. In addition one can imagine Walpole’s reaction to the description of the pasteboard hat or to Anna Miller’s comment of the passage into Italy over Mon Cenis: ‘At some moments during the descent, I could not help fancying myself a witch upon a broomstick.’

Today, looking at Italy through Mrs Miller’s keen and sympathetic eyes, we bridge the centuries, experiencing everyday details of the traveller’s life and relishing the people and sights she encountered. She is a diligent reporter, telling us that ‘for fear of error, I take my notes upon the spot, which I assure you is often very troublesome, as I am frequently obliged to write in my pocket-books standing, and at times placing it on the pedestal of a statue, or the moulding of a surbase’. She displays all the inquisitiveness of a tabloid hack. In the Queen’s apartments in the Royal Palace in Turin, noticing shelves of books, ‘My curiosity urged me to open two or three, amongst which I found the Female Spectator  translated from English; a book enitled A Monitor for Sovereigns, doubled down and marked in several places.’ She brings immediacy to every experience, detailing the food, furnishings and service at inns the length of Italy. Dining at ‘a village called Maschieri in the dirtiest of all possible inns [we] supped upon, what think you? A pork soup with the Bouilliée in it, namely a hog’s head, with the eye-lashes, eyes, and nose on ; the very food the wretched animal and last eat of before he made his exit remained sticking about its teeth.’

A theatrical costumier could treat as patterns Anna Miller’s descriptions of dress. At a wedding in Venice, ‘The ladies walked two and two; they were all dressed in thin black silk gowns (excepting the bride), with large hoops; the gowns were strait-bodies, with very long trains…tucked up on one side of the hoop, with a prodigious large tassel of diamonds. Their sleeves were covered up to the shoulders with falls of the finest Brussels lace, a drawn tucker of the same round the bosom, adorned with rows of the finest pearl, such as large as a moderate gooseberry, till the rows descended below the top of the stomacher; then two ropes of pearl, which came from the back of the neck, were caught up at the left side of the stomacher, and finished in two fine tassels.’

Piazza di Spagna as Anna Miller would have known it

Of Rome Mrs Miller wrote: ‘’The part of the town we are in is by much the best for strangers, and the accommodation any where else extremely bad; for you know one cannot occupy the palaces nor the churches, which latter abound’. They were staying ‘at Pio’s Hotel, strada della Croce, Piazza di Spagna. Our table is served rather in the English style, at least there abounds three or four homely English dishes (thanks to some kind English predecesssors who have taught them), such as bacon and cabbage, boiled mutton..’ To Mrs Miller’s pleasure, they mingled with Roman nobility. On one occasion when the Pope was due to appear her hostess asked her not to speak to him as the Pope did not wish any stranger, particularly an English stranger to speak to him. ’I assured her my principles were diametrically opposite to those of the Stuart family and their party.. but concluded with saying, that if he spoke to me, I could not, as a gentlewoman, refrain from answering him.. and should treat him as I would do any other foreigner or native, with that general civility requisite on such occasions.’ And that put the Pope in his place. For Mrs Miller took a light-hearted approach to religion – writing at the end of Holy Week, on 4 April 1771: ’ At length the functions are finished; and now I may avail myself of the indulgence of sinning for three hundred years to come, having been in St Peter’s church every day during the Santa Settimana.’ 

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