Reading Italy through Sound in British Travel Writing, 1815-1914.

Reading Italy through Sound in British Travel Writing, 1815-1914.

This post seeks to read Italy through the sounds written into travel books by Britons travelling to the Continent from around 1815 to 1914. 1815 marked the ‘opening’ of the Continent after the Napoleonic Wars, and witnessed a surge in British travel to Italy, accompanied by a swell in travel writing, and so forms a convenient starting point. The outbreak of the First World War also marked the end of travel as it had become known, and forms a convenient point at which to end the essay. Scholarship on Anglo-Italian relations during this period, on Italian Unification (the Risorgimento), and on nationalism has drawn on this body of sources, yet the ways in which sound has been written into these texts has been almost entirely ignored. This is perhaps unsurprising. As Smith observes, aural history may not be especially novel, but methodologically and theoretically, historians have not arrived at any consensus as to the ‘best’ methods by which to assess perceptions of sound from printed evidence.[1] The methodology used here is as follows.

It is not within the scope of this essay to consider a numerically representative sample of these texts (since such a sample would include several hundred published works). Instead, especially well-known travel works (those by prominent authors, with high sales figures, and widely reviewed by contemporaries, as well as often featuring in the ongoing modern scholarly work on these texts) are used. Although each text is unique and has been examined individually, differences occur within larger discursive frameworks.  The views collected were then examined in chronological order, to discern whether attitudes expressed changed across the period. Any reading of any text is determined by discursive frameworks- as Mills puts it, ‘there will never be a ‘pure’ reading of any text’.[2] However, an attempt was made to locate sounds in their wider contexts, taking a holistic approach to the sounds described in these texts.

This essay seeks to support the ‘sound studies’ scholarship arguing against the narrative that asserts that, in becoming modern, Western culture became dominated by seeing rather than hearing.[3] Here, such elements of modern life present in the travel texts as industrialism, new forms of collective identities, and movements as modern as that resulting in Italian Unification in 1870, will be examined through sound. This is not to argue that sound held a privileged place above sight. Although the likes of Connor have argued that hearing, rather than sight, is of defining importance in modern society, I will instead draw on Black and Bull’s notion of a ‘democracy of the senses’, where no sense is accorded importance over another.[4]

Bodies of scholarship drawn on other than sound studies include those focusing on Anglo-Italian relations and Risorgimento history, the scholarship on colonial discourse sparked by Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), and the field, emerging in the wake of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities(1983) which explores traditions and nations as inventions.[5] The rhetorical strategies used to write about colonised lands are very similar to those used to write about fellow Europeans, as acknowledged by Pratt, and travel texts are a part of the print culture facilitating the ‘imagined community’ that is Anderson’s notion of the nation, making these bodies of scholarship relevant for present purposes.[6]

The structure of the essay is as follows. Considered first is how sound is used in travel writing about the Florentine Revolution of 1859-1860. Sound scholarship examining how sound can shape collective political action will be incorporated, as will theories on silence and what it can reveal about power relations. Secondly, industrialisation will be examined, with a focus on the use of sounds in Italy to escape from industrialism in Britain earlier in the period, as well as how Italy itself reflected modernisation through sound later in the period considered here. The third strand is how sounds were used to convey anti-Catholicism (an important element of British discourse on Italy). Theories of noise will be drawn upon to discern what such sounds can reveal about power relations, the ‘othering’ of Italians, and identity formation. Many possible areas of exploration have been excluded, due to length constraints. However, some of these will be outlined as possible avenues for future research in the conclusion.


Trollope in her Social Aspects of the Italian Revolution is concerned to convince her middle-class British audience of the justice of the Florentine Revolution, occurring during the process known as the Risorgimento. This has been explored by Schor, but the ways in which sound has been written into this text and has also contributed to this end has been entirely neglected by scholars of the Risorgimento and of Trollope’s text. This post is therefore offering an original contribution of interest to scholars of all concerned fields.[7]

The first instance of sound being used for this end occurs during a description of the crowds thronging the Tuscan streets and town square, ‘ringing with shouts of “ Viva la nostra Italia!” and with the liberty hymns of ’48.’ It has been noted that sound can shape political organizing, inspiring collective action.[8] The chanted hymn and shouted slogans quoted above are the sonic interventions producing unity and cohesion in this instance. However, the different contexts of listeners is significant: participants may experience the sounds of a political march as inspiring, but critics may find it threatening.[9] Given that Trollope’s abiding purpose in this text is to soothe her audience’s potential unease at the Revolution, it is significant that Trollope is quick to add that the chanting and crowds were ‘yet so orderly… peaceable’.[10]

This image of a sober, retrained people is reinforced again through sound. Trollope moves to a description of the crowds watching the fleeing Duke. Although this marked a popular victory for the Tuscan masses, they express no bitterness towards the Duke. Rather, Trollope depicts their reaction through sound (or its absence) as

[a]nother instance of popular moderation… A great throng had gathered to see him pass… But here again the wise and generous guidance prevailed, and the carriages passed by in unbroken silence far more significant than would have been the bittered invocatives.[11]

Silence can also be read in other ways. As Bailey argues, silence in the presence of authority is a recurring trope.[12] Given this, silence can reveal something of power relations, as it does in Trollope’s description of the Archduke’s attempt to restore the pre-revolutionary order by issuing instructions to an officer to suppress the revolution by force. When the officer protests, he is met with: ‘”Be silent!” broke in the Archduke, “what right have you to speak?”’[13]Here, then, power flows are marked by the demand for obedience to be manifest in silence, and by the questioning of the very right of the officer to speak. The revolution is consequently protected by a rejection of this sound-illustrated power structure, through the officer’s speech (and not through violent or physical means, in keeping with the creation of an image of a restrained, non-violent uprising) :

But the stout-hearted officer did speak… that the Archduke could no longer doubt that no co-operation was to be expected from the military in opposition to the popular movement… thus was accomplished a revolution not only unmarked by any act of violence, but unaccompanied by… so much as a harsh word, except those of the royal personages above recorded.[14]

A final element of sound in Trollope’s account is her mention of ‘newly composed patriotic hymns’ created to support the Italian Revolution.[15] Further research might reveal the significance of these in the creation of an Italian ‘imagined community’ (to borrow Anderson’s useful phrase for what the modern-nation-state is).[16]

Another phenomenon that can be read through sound in these travel texts is industrialisation. Although much of the past has been read and understood through sight, as Smith points out, industrialisation was an aural affair too, and was understood as such by contemporaries.[17] There has been a tendency to misleadingly express understanding of the transition to industrialism in a binary fashion- through a false distinction between a ‘quiet’ countryside and ‘loud’ factory.[18]This artificial separation will not be made here, as it is not (as will be apparent) supported by the primary material.

One response to the noises of industrialisation in Victorian Britain was to seek escape in less rapidly industrialising areas of Europe, including Italy. [19] From the late eighteenth-century, with the advent of Romanticism, partly in reaction to the industrialisation of Britain, the picturesque arguably became the main prism through which to view the south.[20] However, the very picturesque details of costumes, beliefs, and customs could act towards separation, representing them as ‘historical’ and therefore Other. The uses of stereotyping other nations or races as primitive have been examined by Johannes Fabian, who has stated that using words or images with temporal aspects- such as ‘backwards’, ‘primitive’, or ‘developing’- aids in consigning  the other nation to a time distant from one’s own, thus ‘othering’ said nation.[21]

Janet Ross’s travel book is rife with descriptions of the Tuscan peasantry’s music as a simple, picturesque escape from industrial Britain- the following is representative:

…Tuscan popular songs… to the simple accompaniment of the guitar, and perhaps a flute, in the open air, under the serene blue sky of evening… with the sweet spontaneous, unaffected Italian singing, like the singing of birds, so effortless it sounds… can we really appreciate the charm of these songs[?][22]

However, these songs are also ascribed temporal values- Ross describes ‘…their simple pathos and old-world purity’.[23] They are thus ‘othered’ in the manner outlined by Fabian.

As the century progressed, and Italy also underwent industrialisation, the sounds written into texts as a response changed. Italy too was now written as sounding industrial noises, rather than as a repository for picturesque, pre-industrial sounds. The more traditional expressions of industrialism through the noises of modern machinery are certainly present in some of these travel texts. Thus, Hutton describes himself as ‘…weary of the garish modernity… from the tram lines that have made so many Italian cities a pandemonium’. [24] However, modernity is also expressed through an absence of certain sounds from Italy, in particular detail by Gissing, who wonders:

Has Naples grown less noisy…? The men with bullock carts are strangely quiet; their shouts have nothing like the frequency and spirit of former days. In the narrow and thronged Strada di Chiaia I find little tumult; it used to be deafening… I catch but an echo of the jubilant uproar which used to amaze me. Is Naples really so much quieter? … [I]t would not be surprising if the modernisation of the city, together with the state of things throughout Italy, had a subduing effect… [25]

Another widespread phenomenon reflected in the texts is anti-Catholicism. Anti-Catholicism was, during the eighteenth and earlier nineteenth century, the prime ideological stance in British popular culture- from Punch cartoons to Dickens’ popular works- the religion of the Italians is linked with dirt, superstition, primitivism, depravity, and childishness. Since the Pope was also secular leader of Rome until 1871, Catholicism is usually criticised not merely for theological reasons, but economic and political reasons, as illustrated by McAllister amongst others. Impoverished inhabitants, little investment in infrastructure, and heavy censorship all formed sites of critical comparison with the supposedly prosperous, well-regulated, and liberal societies of northern Europe.[26]

The sounds written into the travel texts strongly reflect this, particularly during the earlier part of the period. Thus, Henry Matthews describes a Roman Catholic church service in Italy: ‘Music and the common domestic amusements proceed as usual, without any approbation that the recording angel is noting these things down as abominations.’[27] Dickens, in a rare travelogue, describes the chanting in Catholic churches as ‘heartless, drowsy chaunting [sic], always going on…’[28]

Other sounds related to Catholicism- the Latin Ave Maria, and church bells- recur throughout all travel texts examined, and are described as deeply ingrained in the fabric of Italian life. Thus, Janet Ross writes of how the sounding of the Ave Maria is embedded so deeply in Italian society that time and time-telling are structured around it: ‘The old fattore was very anxious to know how we in England knew the hour, as he had heard that our churches did not ring the Ave Maria at midday or in the evening.’[29] The Ave Maria is sounded to mark the beginning and end of events such as carnivals elsewhere, too.[30]

These sounds are almost invariably presented as a nuisance, or as noise. Dickens makes a statement typical of others examined here in its description of the church bells: ‘Bells of churches ring incessantly… in a horrible, irregular, jerking, dingle, dingle, dingle…’[31]

Bailey draws on Mary Douglas’s famous notion of dirt as ‘matter out of place’ to suggest that noise may be called ‘sound out of place’.[32] Just as Mary Douglas has shown that assigning dirt to other nations is a common method of separation and ‘othering’, I propose assigning noisiness to Catholicism in these texts serves to mark it as ‘other’.[33] Since power-relations are often visible through what has been labelled noise, as Kahn shows (with the less powerful force often being associated with noise) it could be argued that the sounds associated with Catholicism and depicted as  deeply embedded in Italian society are presented as nuisances, as ‘other’, implying Italian Catholic identity is inferior to Protestant English identity.[34]

There could be multiple reasons for such ‘othering’ representational activity in these travel texts. Said implies that ‘othering’ is an inbuilt psychological mechanism, and a part of human nature.[35]  It is arguable that ‘there can be no identity without an alterity against which to define it’.[36] As Chard observes,  many travel writings complain of the lack of alterity in certain places. The refrain ‘it might be London’ recurs- so,  another possible explanation for ‘othering’ is that travellers demand that the foreign should be different from the familiar. In doing so, ‘othering’ techniques are employed.[37]  Another explanation is related to the eighteenth-century appropriation of the cultural symbolic associated with Ancient Rome by northern Europe, which makes British or German accounts of Italy sounding much like their accounts of colonized lands unsurprising, as Pratt has argued. [38] Sound, then, is significant in informing all of these representational activities within the travel texts considered here.

To conclude, sound is of significance in travel writing, and has been overlooked by scholars engaged with what may be called ‘sound studies’, as well as those involved in scholarship on travel texts from other perspectives. This essay is subject to constraints that make only a very brief and incomplete discussion possible. There are a host of possible further avenues for research. Picker and McAllister have examined how Italian organ-grinders and street musicians came to be ‘othered’ on the streets of London during the same period considered here.[39] Further work could develop the connection between depictions of Italian musicians in Britain and in Italy- the travel texts are rife with descriptions of native Italian carnivals and street music. The texts also contain significant mention of how the Italian language and accents were navigated and experienced, how  ‘noise’ was defined and depicted by Britons in Italy, how certain classes (such as beggars) were associated with particular (usually unpleasant and frightening) sounds, and even how, with the emergence of ‘anti-tourism’ in the late nineteenth century, certain travellers came to satirise the (usually Cockney) accents of fellow Britons encountered abroad, as a gesture of disdain for those perceived as ‘tourists’ (as opposed to ‘travellers’, a distinction often based on class amongst other factors, and explored by Buzard).[40] In short, travel writing has much to offer to scholars exploring sound.

[1] M. Smith, ‘Introduction’, in (ed.), M. Smith, Hearing History, (Athens, 2004), p. x.

[2] Mills, Discourses, p. 196.

[3] J. Sterne, ‘Hello’, in (ed.), J. Sterne, The Audible Past, (Durham, 2003), p. 3.

[4] S. Connor, ‘Sound and the Self’, in (ed.), M. Smith, Hearing History, (Athens, 2004), p. 55;

  1. Bull & L. Black, ‘Introduction’, in (eds.), M. Bull & L. Black, The Auditory Culture Reader, (Oxford, 2003, p. 2.

[5] Mills, Discourses, p. 2.

[6] M. L. Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, (London, 1992), p. 10.

[7] E. Schor, ‘Acts of Union’, in (eds.), A. Chapman & J. Stabler, Unfolding the South, (Manchester, 2003), pp. 91-97.

[8] D. Bender & D.J. Corpis & D.J. Walkowitz, (eds.), ‘Editors’ Introduction’, Radical History Review,121 (2015), p. 2.

[9] Bender & Corpis & Walkowitz, ‘Introduction’, p. 2.

[10] T. Trollope, Social Aspects of the Italian Revolution, (London, 1861), p. 4.

[11] Trollope, Revolution, p. 6.

[12] P. Bailey, ‘Breaking the Sound Barrier’, in (ed.), M. Smith, Hearing History, (Georgia, 2004), p. 26.

[13] Trollope, Revolution, pp. 9-10.

[14] Trollope, Revolution, p. 9.

[15] Trollope, Revolution, p. 266.

[16] B. Anderson, Imagined Communities, (London, 1983), p. 6.

[17] M. Smith, ‘The Garden in the Machine’, in (eds.), T. Pinch & K. Bijsterveld, The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, (Oxford, 2012), p. 40.

[18] Smith, ‘Garden’, p. 40.

[19] J. Pemble, The Mediterranean Passion, (Oxford, 1988), p. 86.

[20] N. Moe, The View From Vesuvius: Italian Culture and the Southern Question, (Berkely, 2002), p. 3.

[21] Mill, Discourses, p. 89.

[22] J. Ross, ‘Vintaging in Tuscany’, Macmillan’s Magazine, 32 (1875), p. 445.

[23] Ross, ‘Vintaging’, p. 445.

[24] E. Hutton, Florence and Northern Tuscany (London, 1907), p. 24.

[25] G. Gissing, By the Ionian Sea, (London, 1917), pp. 5-7.

[26] A. McAllister, John Bull’s Italian Snakes and Ladders, (Cambridge, 2007), p. 25.

[27] H. Matthews, Diary of an Invalid, (London, 1820), p. 329.

[28] C. Dickens, Pictures in Italy, (London, 1846), p. 135.

[29] Ross, ‘Vintaging’, p. 445.

[30] Dickens, Pictures, p. 128.

[31] Dickens, Pictures, p. 45.

[32] Bailey, ‘Breaking’, p. 23.

[33] M. Douglas, Purity and Danger, (London, 1966, p. 2.

[34] D. Kahn, ‘Noises of the Avant-Garde’, in (ed.), J. Stern, The Sound Studies Reader, (London, 2012), p. 429.

[35] E. Said, Orientalism, (London, 1978), p. 20.

[36] McAllister, Snakes, p. 1.

[37] C. Chard, Pleasure and Guilt on the Grand Tour: Travel Writing and Imaginative Geography, 1600-1830,(Manchester, 1999), p. 3.

[38] M. Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, (London, 1992), p. 10. 

[39] J. Picker, ‘The Soundproof Study’, Victorian  Studies, 42 (1999), p. 435;

McAllister, Snakes, pp. 110-120.

[40] J. Buzard, The Beaten Track, (Oxford, 1993), p. 19.


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