Friday, June 23, 2006

Gentlemen- More Dolce, Please...

I'd like to spend today featuring one of my favorite items in our current crop of books on Ebay- I'll be sad to see this one go to a new home. It's an uncommon early American traveler's phrase book for a popular 1830s destination of American writers and artists- Italy!

The title is "De Porquet’s Italian Phrases; or, Il Fraseggiatore Toscano. A Copious Choice of Italian Sentences to facilitate a complete knowledge of the formation of the verbs and syntax of that elegant tongue" and it's by Carlo Alfieri, "Professor of the Italian language, London". Published in Boston by S. Burdett & Co., in 1832. “With familiar and easy dialogues in Italian and English, and rules on the different forms of addressing persons, used by the Italians”.

Entire books have been written on the exodus of Americans to the Continent in general, and Italy in particular, in the 1830s and 40s. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and sculptors Hiram Powers and Horatio Greenough all sojourned there. American artist Rembrandt Peale wrote his own guide to traveling in Italy, and sculptor Thomas Crawford settled down in Rome and became a leading figure in the American expatriate community there for several years.

Charleston, South Carolina artist James DeVeaux loved Italy so much that he lived there for several years before his tragic early death in 1844. In fact, although he loved Rome and Venice and Florence, DeVeaux did not enjoy the excess of visiting Americans very much. While staying in Florence he wrote- "There are American painters and sculptors here of all sorts. I find nothing in their society to please me, and so keep to myself. Strange that so much venom should exist among professors of a liberal art -but the truth is, that envy and jealousy are our (painters) besetting sins, and the first thing I heard of here was a flare up at Rome 'mongst the American artists, and now they are all in Florence for the summer, so I keep housed."

And yet, the warm Italian sun and pretty signoras and centuries of art and monuments would draw the visitor out again. DeVeaux continued a few months later-

"Whilst looking down from the steeple of the Campodoglio upon Rome, my companion warmed into a classic fit, and bringing up from the bottom of his pockets notes and memoranda of history gathered from Goldsmith and others, he would glance from one scene to another, till I was deluged in declamation, -flinging his arms into the air and stretching himself so far over the railing, as to induce me to wrap the skirt of his coat around my hands to ensure his safety, -he pointed to the spot where "Ceasar's body lay", -passed to Lucrezia the chaste, and Virginia the innocent, -Camillus pausing to look back upon the city, from whence he was issuing a banished man; and had got as far into his story as to be busily engaged with the Goths and Vandals in sacking Rome over again, when the old attendant cut short the oration by declaring that the "Signore" had detained him too long, as his wife waited his presence for dinner."

But we have strayed far from our charming little phrase book. Or perhaps not, because this is just the sort of book any of these American travelers would have picked up when preparing to take the “The Tour”, or join the expatriate community there. An interesting little piece of Americana and not all that common- a search of internet sources failed to turn up another copy, and the OCLC database of institutional library holdings (which is an imperfect tool, but still gives some indication of scarcity) locates only 3 copies.

It sells on Ebay Sunday evening, and I'll be sorry to see the little fella go.

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