In April 1786 Mrs Piozzi (the former Mrs Hester Thrale) was about to depart from Rome, the leisurely continental tour she had been enjoying with her second husband, Gabriel Piozzi, former music teacher to her children, was drawing to a close. Her final observation on the Eternal City and its inhabitants – both natives and visitors – is characteristically sharp.
The air of the city is unwholesome to foreigners, but if they pass the first year, the remainder goes well enough. Many English seem very healthy who are established here without even the smallest intention of returning home to Great Britain, for which place we are setting out to-morrow, 19th April, 1786, and quit a town that still retains so many just pretences to be styled the first among the cities of the earth, to which almost as any strangers are now attracted by curiosity as were dragged thither by violence in the first stage of its dominion, impelled by superstitious zeal in the second.
The rage for antiquities now seems to have spread its contagion of connoisseurship over all those people whose predecessors tore down, levelled, and destroyed, or buried underground, their statues, pictures, every work of art; Poles, Germans, Swedes, and Germans innumerable flock daily hither in this age to admire with rapture the remains of those very fabrics which their own barbarous ancestors pulled down ten centuries ado, and give for the head of a Livia, a Probus, or Gallienus, what emperors and queens could not then use with any efficacy for the preservation of their own persons, now grown sacred by rust and valuable from their difficulty to be deciphered.
The English were wont to be the only travellers of Europe, the only dupes, too, in this way; but desire of distinction is diffused among all the northern nations, and our Romans here have it more in their power, with that prudence to assist them which it is said they do not want, if not to conquer their neighbours once again, at least to ruin them, by dint of digging up their dead heroes, and calling in the assistance of their own pagan deities, now useful to them in a new manner, and ever propitious to the city.
From Glimpses of Italian Society in the Eighteenth Century, From the ‘Journal of Mrs Piozzi’, Seeley & Co, 1892