Charlotte and Jane Waldie arrived in Rome in the winter of 1816. We have read Charlotte’s report of her first sight of Rome, but Jane, too, was busy with her notebook. Her Sketches Descriptive of Italy in the years 1816 and 1817 were published by John Murray in 1820, the same year as Charlotte’s Rome in the Nineteenth Century.
Jane corroborated her sister’s description of that magical first sight of Rome. ‘ When the dome of St Peter’s first burst on our view in the midst of the Campagna. Unable any longer to restrain ourselves, we leaped out of the carriage and ran up a bank by the road-side. Never, oh, never shall I forget the motions with which I gazed on this prospect! That Rome itself should be before me seemed incredible, that my mind could scarcely take in the fact.’
We can then take up their story again with Charlotte who describes how, having arrived in the Piazza del Popolo, ”Rome was overflowing. We drove about for more than two hours, and found every hotel full of Inglesi. The lucky departure of one family of them, however, at length enabled us to take possession of their newly-vacated apartments, which are indeed most comfortable. You cannot conceive, without having travelled Vetturino from Florence to Rome, and lodged in the holes we have done, how delightful is the sensation of being in a habitable hotel, how acceptable the idea of a good dinner, and how transporting the prospect of sleeping in a clean bed.
Charlotte was, however, immediately ill with a pleuritic fever ‘Cicero himself was dangerously ill of it; so that, if I had died, I should have died a very classical death, which would undoubtedly have been a great consolation.’
‘By way of an agreeable adventure, about midnight, on the second night of my illness, loud cries through the hotel and in the street spread the alarm of fire. The master of the house (a Frenchman) burst into my room in his shirt, followed by a whole train of distracted damsels wringing their hands, while he continued to vociferate ‘Au feu! Grand Dieu!’ in a key which drowned even the shrill lamentations of the women. Volleys of smoke rolled down our chimney, where the fire had originated, and, rapidly spreading to the rafters of the room above, gained ground so fast, that in spite of the promptitude with which all the firemen of the city and their engines set to work, two hours elapsed before it was extinguished. In the interim, the inmates of the hotel fled in consternation from their apartments, all but ourselves; for, conceiving that there was much more danger, in my situation, of getting my death by cold than by fire, and expecting the flames to be got under every moment, I laid quietly in bed and S-, who would not leave me, sate beside me until we were both nearly stifled; thus acting as if it was no concern of ours the house being on fire, since we were only lodgers.’
It is from Jane that we learn that this hotel, its management conducted by, as Charlotte relates, a Frenchman, was in fact the Albergo di Parigi in the Via della Croce, just off the Piazza di Spagna. This hotel – sometimes variously termed the Hotel de Paris or Villa di Parigi – was to provide shelter to many English women writers over the next 20 years. It is slightly surreal to see their shades slipping into bed, one after the other, under this one Roman roof. Amusingly all commented on the indifference of its facilities; as soon as Charlotte had recovered the Waldies moved to lodgings in the Corso.
It was at the Villa di Parigi in March 1819, two years or so after Charlotte and Jane’s sojourn, that Mary Shelley, with husband, step-sister – Claire Clairmont – and her sole surviving child, William – stayed very briefly before also making the move to lodgings in the Corso. As summer approached they then moved again to take advantage to what they hoped was less feverish air at the top of the Spanish Steps. They may as well not have bothered, as far as the fate of poor little William was concerned.
A few years later Anna Jameson – then still Anna Murphy – related in Diary of an Ennuyee that her party was ‘rather indifferently lodged at the Albergo di Parigi’. ‘So here we are in Rome where we have been for the last five hours, and have not seen an inch of the city beyond the dirty pavement of the Via Santa Croce; where an excellent dinner cooked a la Anglaise, a blazing fire, a drawing-room snugly carpeted and curtained, and the rain beating against our windows, would almost persuade us that we are in London; and every now and then, it is with a kind of surprise that I remind myself that I am really in Rome .’ But to be fair to the Parigi it was December and the scene as she describes it appears rather cosy. At least the fire blazed without setting the chimney alight.