Dickens’ “Pictures from Italy”, a Victorian travelogue

8 minute read

I have recently embarked on a journey across books devoted to adventure and travel - it’s being quite the reading journey (pun intended), and “Pictures from Italy” was one of the pieces on the list. Then while reading, and being Italian myself, I realised there was material to do a data card. This is a marvellous little book written exactly like a modern travelogue that transports you both back in time to the mid-1800s when Dickens actually did his travels in the country and across the many months he spent there.

Dickens travelled around Italy for about a year between 1844 and 1845 with his family, moving mostly from place to place in a carriage and staying either at inns (for short stays) or renting a house for longer periods. The book reads like a diary as he notes down everything he saw and experienced, from visits to churches and monuments to local celebrations and customs (which he generally found very weird and entertaining). The Charles Dickens Page site built (in 1997!) by D Perdue is a goldmine of information about Dickens, but also contains a great section on the travels he did in Italy, with an interactive map and quotations from what he wrote.

Bear in mind that Italy was certainly a favoured destination (in fact, typically the end one) of many wealthy and gentlemen of the European intelligentsia of the 1700s and 1800s who went around wandering, exploring and criticising places during their Grand Tour - I guess Dickens’ one belongs to the tail end (historically/chronologically speaking) of the phenomenon.

Bring-along items

As always in these data journeys, let’s select three items to bring along. I choose a book, a place and a movie.

A book

Surprise surprise, the book can’t be anything else than “Pictures from Italy”, of course. You can get it for free on Project Gutenberg. I really enjoyed it (I have actually read it a second time when working for this card to isolate the sentiment and the best quotes). It is very Victorian, it is quite funny and descriptive. Obviously, it is outdated as a travel guide, though actually you would be surprised about how much it contains that still provides a decent overview. After all, many of Italy’s treasures are older than his times; what’s changed is the context. Furthermore, I find it incredibly interesting to read about places I know on old narrations, it makes for a good exercise to mentally check how expectations and reality-checks may have changed in time.

A place

It would be dumb to just recommend Italy at this stage, I feel like I have to be more specific. Why don’t we do a quick trip to Ferrara, which Dickens so clearly didn’t like (see below)? I felt like he missed out, though obviously whatever impression we can get today isn’t anything like what he got more than a century and a half ago.

Ferrara, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

I will confess upfront that so far I have never been to Ferrara, actually. But I said he missed out because while I do believe that he found poverty and desolation (which he did nearly everywhere anyway, and that’s not surprising), this is a city full of art and culture and had been an important place during the Renaissance, so I am pretty sure he just didn’t explore much.

There are many other places in the book where he gets a similar impression and his descriptions sound quite entertaining and, to be fair, a bit Victorian-snob. Yet another reason to give it a read.

A movie

For a movie, I feel like recommending “È stata la mano di Dio/The hand of God” which is a recent one (Netflix production, so you find it there) set in Naples in the ’80s. It is a tale of dreams, culture, belonging, family and love, and I think narrates the city very well. I am from around there, and I have this visceral love for Naples, but I swear this movie is all in all delightful.

The data card

In my data card, I have decided to give representation to all the cities and towns Dickens passed through or stayed in in his travels - they are identified as dots on the map. Then, I drew a little green circle around the places he clearly liked and a little red circle around the places he clearly didn’t like; some of the most important cities have both colours because the sentiment was positive and negative in about equal measure. Note that the map is that of modern Italy, the borders didn’t look like that at the time and of course the country wasn’t even the one we know today but rather a collection of states: this video gives a quick timeline of the history of the peninsula, but there exist a bunch of other ones. On the map, I have written down names of cities/towns in the Italian version rather than the original text.

My data card on Dicken's travels in Italy (modern map) narrated in "Pictures from Italy". In green circles, the places he loved; in red circles, the places he really didn't like - some places have both sentiments. There's also some little stats on the adjectives used in the text.

I have not drawn temporal arrows showing the succession of places in Dickens’ journey: this was a deliberate choice driven by simplicity, considering that this trip wasn’t actually a single one but rather a collection of different trips. You can explore more in this map on the Charles Dickens Page.

The card shows some quotes I found particularly funny and interesting about a specific place; I’ve isolated four and for them I kept the cities names as per the English original:

  • Of Naples Dickens says that (this is my absolute favourite one) “Everything is done in pantomime in Naples”. He is particularly struck by the theatrical atmosphere of this city, its many seemingly senseless traditions and lores and the general whimsical attitude to life. It is a gigantic stereotype but I think it really characterises the city quite well and in fact it was super interesting to read this in a text this old. He explores the neighbourhood of Naples a bit too, mentioning the islands of the gulf (though I think he only observed them at a distance) and the ancient remnants in Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum. Want another stereotype? He talks about the sun and sea here a lot!
  • Of the many things he says about Rome, mostly positive, I have selected “its beauty becomes devilish”: Dickens is stunned by how rich of historical artefacts the city is, by its grandeur and also by the calmness of the “campagna” around it. He visited lots of things and I think he stayed a while here.
  • Ferrara he really didn’t like, the place is “more solitary, deserted, depopulated than anything”. Shame, as it’s actually a lovely place so I think he just had a bad day or was really unlucky!
  • Leghorn (Livorno) is a “thriving, business-like, matter-of-fact place”, which I think is likely how you would describe it nowadays too.

There’s of course much more than these four places in the book and I guarantee you it’s a good read. The book consists of about 73000 words, and about 16.5% of the unique terms utilised are adjectives. At the top of the list in terms of occurrences, we have “little”, “great” and “old”, but “beautiful” makes the top 6 too.

Overall, I would say his perception of Italy is quite balanced: pretty much anywhere he is annoyed about desolation, poverty, dirt and the overwhelming presence of beggars, but on the other hand he really seems to have loved what he saw. This is confirmed by running sentiment analysis on the text, which demonstrates that there is about as much positivity as there is negativity.

The more technical bits

This card didn’t take much technical work other than downloading the free TXT from Project Gutenberg and using some simple NLP to isolate the adjectives. I have used the TextBlob package for the job, which has also given me a sentiment score.

Other than this, the decision as to whether Dickens liked or disliked a place was totally up to my interpretation. As I said I read this book twice, the first one was just for pleasure and the second was to collect information about how he characterised each site he visited. I armed myself with the ancient instruments of paper and pen and scribbled down the most salient descriptions with a particulr attention to the choice of adjectives (which is what prompted the idea of then measuring their occurrences text-wide). Afterwards, I went through my notes and gave a summary judgment. As such, the assessments are subjected to my own impression.

To conclude

Dickens leaves Italy with these words:

“Let us part from Italy, with all its miseries and wrongs, affectionately, in our admiration of the beauties, natural and artificial, of which it is full to overflowing, and in our tenderness towards a people, naturally well-disposed, and patient, and sweet-tempered. […]”


These are all the references used to realise the card and write this post.