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West of Suez: Britain and the Mediterranean, 1704-1967

Travels through Italy

During the 18th century a key element of British engagement with Italy was through travel and the literature of travel. A visit to the Italian states was an essential stage in the Grand Tour, which served to introduce wealthy young men to the cultural life of the great cities of the Continent, taught them to appreciate classical and Renaissance art and architecture and inspired them with magnificent landscapes.

Mountain of Salfatara near Naples, with people observing the volcanic activityThe mountain of Salfatara near NaplesThe author of these Travels is identified as John Northall, an officer in the Royal Regiment of Artillery who had seen action during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-8) and who died in India in 1759.

Little else is known of his career, although there is evidence that he was at Capua, near Naples, in April 1752. Earlier that year, he seems to have sailed from Menorca, then a British possession, to Leghorn (Livorno), with its community of British merchants, from where he began his tour.

When his Travels were published in 1766, they were advertised as the writings of ‘a scholar; a gallant officer, and an experienced engineer; a good draughtsman, and a fine judge of paintings, sculpture and architecture.’

The Grand Tour, however, was often the subject of much satire. In a derisive notice in the Critical review, the English novelist Tobias Smollett pointed out that Northall’s work had drawn heavily on JG Keysler's Travels (published in an English translation in 1756). Such compilations were not uncommon at a time when publishers were eager to satisfy a market for Italian travels. 

The copperplate illustrations in the book, ‘from drawings taken on the spot’ seem to be original to the publication and this image depicts Solfatara, west of Naples, where travellers could observe volcanic activity at close quarters. Passages in the text are taken verbatim from Keysler, but there is a technical description of the extraction of sulphur and alum that bespeaks of an artilleryman.

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