A month in Rome

The story that draws our attention today begins beautifully:

‘Thursday April 6th

Cover of James Knowles diary, April 1854. Image property of Westminster City ArchivesYesterday morning early the Neapolitan Company’s boat “Calabre[s]e” (300 horse power) brought us into the picturesque harbour of Civita Vecchia after a most tranquil night of passage from Leghorn. The moon and stars had added to their beauty the interest of a rare guest & a small comet with a nucleus of great brightness was visible during the first hours of the evening. After some idle time of waiting whilst passport formalities were in progress we were admitted to land […]’

James Knowles diary, 6 April 1854. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Inspired by the daily updates and podcasts of Nathaniel Bryceson’s diary of 1846, we have turned our noses internally to seek out similar items in the Westminster City Archives‘ collections. There are a number of manuscript diaries in the deposited archives and even more in the printed collections.

The object in question is James Knowles’ account of a month spent in Rome in April 1854 – just eight years after Bryceson was detailing his daily life in London. There is great enjoyment to be found in Knowles’ vivid descriptions of a tourist experience eerily familiar yet so far removed for the lucky ones among us who have seen Rome. Examining its content superficially, this detailed narrative paints the experience of the travelling Englishman which we can cross-reference with what is known of the time. The Neapolitan boat arriving from Leghorn, for example, was part of a longer route leaving Marseilles and travelling through Genoa, Leghorn, and Civita Vecchia on the way to Naples over 4 days (see bibliography below). Knowles comments upon recognisable works of art and tourist sites also:

‘We looked again into the Cathederal but liked it none the more. The dome less & less. The size of the place tho’ grand, it seemed wonderfully great today.

Passing the Pantheon, look’ again into it for a few moments and liked it better, especially the Portiico seemed finer than at first sight […]’

James Knowles diary, 8-9 April 1854. Image property of Westminster City Archives

But the value of this item is manifold, for it opens a space in which to briefly consider the diary as a historical source. The value of diaries as sources for social research is one which has been considered widely with both school-level and scholarly learning in mind and is one which we hope to touch upon at a later date. Pervasively though, it is agreed that one must start by addressing preliminary concerns, ie: by questioning by whom and when a diary was written, its purpose and its intended audience, and of course, its subject.

This diary is that of a young man, but Sir James Knowles (1831-1908) (log in to the ODNB with your library card number) was to become a key figure in nineteenth century London.

Whilst this is, generally, a travel diary, it is particularly the voyage of a learned man whose knowledge of the classics and the arts is scholarly and well-established. Following the life and literary output of Knowles’ work allows us to place it in a wider context of acquisition and use of knowledge. In the “Papers of Sir James Thomas Knowles, Architect and Editor, 1850-1908”, the deposited collection held here at the Archives Centre (Ref no: 716), it is one in a set of diaries of a tour of Italy and Sicilly. The only other one of our collection is “No.3” – a daily account of travels in and around Naples and in Sicily that ends in mid-sentence of description of journey from Salerno to Amalfi. Whilst the diary of the month in Rome cannot linearly be traced to another item in our collection, diary no. 3 can, for we hold a volume of lecture notes on travels to Rome and Sicily for a lecture delivered to the Clapham Literary and Scientific Institute in January 1856.

Sir James Knowles was an architect and journal editor, with humble origins editing the Clapham Magazine to becoming an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1853, and a fellow of the institute in 1870, founding and editing the Nineteenth Century journal and being a key member of the Metaphysical Society, a representative ‘theological society’ to discuss the bases of morality founded 1869.

Besides the diaries in question, the deposited papers in Acc 716 include letters to notable persons and the Royal Family, papers relating to the Metaphysical Society and Nineteenth Century journal including manuscript drafts, photographs and papers relating to the knighthood and death of Sir James Knowles and other examples of speeches papers and poems.

We hope that this has inspired you to visit and peruse these treasures more closely!

[Michelle]


Bibliography:

A handbook for travellers in southern Italy : being a guide for the continental portion of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies : with a travelling map and plans” (Paris, 1855), accessed 27 April 2016

Sidney Lee, ‘Knowles, Sir James Thomas (1831–1908)’, rev. H. C. G. Matthew, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010, accessed 3 May 2016

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