Posts Tagged Anna Miller

La Bella Libertà: Anna Miller crosses Mont Cenis

In 1770 Anna Miller and her husband crossed into Italy via Mont Cenis., the route used for centuries by tourists – and armies – to travel from France into Italy  It being another 30 years or so before Napoleon carved out a road through the pass and so allowed for coach travel, the Millers and their contemporaries enjoyed a very much more energetic adventure.

[The drawing is a reimagining, by Sandy Nightingale, of a crossing of Mont Cenis ]

The Millers spent the night before the ascent at Lanebourg where, Anna reported, ‘There are about an hundred porters, whose names are upon a list; the Syndics take care that they carry travellers in their turn, and are referred to, in case of any dispute that may arise amongst them. ‘While we were eating a very bad supper, composed of liver and brains, (to what animal they belonged, I do not pretend to decide) the Syndic of the Porters came in, to judge how many of the latter we should have occasion for. Four were assigned for me, and six for M  —‘

Having passed a sleepless night, partly owing to a mountain torrent that descends close to the window, we set out at five o’clock the next morning in our chairs, the ascent not being ten paces from the door. These chairs are constructed in the most simple and portable manner. There are two small bars of wood for arms, and another bar behind which rises but little higher than the arms, and which serves as a support to the back of the person in the chair; the seat is matted with bark of trees and ropes twisted together, which yields to the weight of those thus carried. You are so near the ground, that there is not the least difficulty in stepping out of the chair at pleasure; there are no legs to these chairs, but in their room a board is tied on by ropes to the seat, which the feet being placed upon, and the cords as much shortened as can conveniently be, the legs and feet are well supported, being sufficiently raised to clear them entirely of any shock from uneven or rocky ground. The chairs are fixt on poles.. The chairmen are aided by straps over their shoulders, in the same manner as they carry in England.

I liked this manner of travelling very much. You are conveyed along surprisingly fast on the plain; the porters run rather than walk’

‘Our chaise being taken to pieces, it was carried on the mules’ backs. These animals make a droll appearance, with a wheel on each side, and the body of a chaise on their back.

Just before we gain the plain, the ascent augments in rapidity. The air was very keen on the plain; and I was obliged to wrap myself up in a pelice, lined through with fur, although the day was remarkably fine for that country.

The descent is extremely rapid for about 300 yards. I don’t know any thing this road resembles more than a broken stone staircase, which occasions the porteurs to turn so suddenly by its windings, that the person in the chair passes clear over the sharp angles, cutting them, as it were, across. Notwithstanding the novelty of this manner of travelling, the steepness of the road, and the velocity with which I descended, my porteurs running almost the whole way, I never once felt myself sufficiently frightened to lay hold of the arms of the chair, my attention was so much engaged with the singularity and variety of the prospect below. At some moments during the the descent, I could not help fancying myself a witch upon a broomstick.

18th-century Turin, comfortable civilisation after the rigours of Cenis

Having crossed over into Italy  ‘on the finest day imaginable’ Anna Miller assures the recipient of her letter that ‘we are safely arrived without having met with the least accident, and are well lodged in the house of Countess d’Or-b-ns at Turin.’

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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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