Though the majority of the Medici Archives are filled with records of day-to-day communication in a large bureaucracy, there are several entertaining reports from agents and observers from the political power centres of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century western Europe. So much detailed information was sent from cities such as Rome, Milan, Madrid, Antwerp and London on a regular basis that accounts were written in the form of an avviso, or hand-written news-sheet.
One such avviso was sent from Rome to the Florence headquarters in March 1626. It reported on the return of a sort of seventeenth-century ‘Marco Polo’—Signore Pietro della Valle. The 28-year old Pietro had set off for the Holy Land on the orders of his doctor in 1614. His arrival in Rome after travelling through Turkey, Egypt, the Holy Land, Persia and India was the source of some amazement.
12 YEAR TRIP ON DOC’S ORDERS
ORIENTAL VOYAGER LOVESICK NO MORE
12 YEAR SEARCH FOR LOVE ENDS IN ROMANCE
TRAVELLER PACKS MUMMIFIED LOVER
‘ANYTHING TO DECLARE?’
‘JUST ONE EMBALMED WIFE’
These are just a few of the possible tabloid headlines that could have been written for the seventeenth-century avviso. Even without headlines, the report on the return of Pietro della Valle highlights the sensational aspect of his arrival in Rome:
Signore Pietro della Valle of Rome is back home after 12 years of pilgrimage, having visited the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and having seen almost all of the East, including the Turkish lands, Arabia and Persia, in which countries he travelled in the company of four men and two women and his wife, a woman of Armenian birth, whom he married in the course of his travels. Due to her death during their journey [della Valle] had her corpse transported [back to Rome for burial] as well as some other things of his.
One of the most remarkable details of this bizarre story is the reason why this wealthy young man set off on his journey in the first place. According to his own writings, he undertook the journey on the advice of his doctor, Marco Schipano, in order to recover from a broken heart in the wake of a disappointing romance. The doctor advised his severely depressed patient to go to Palestine and meditate on the wounds of the Saviour if he wished to cure his own broken heart.
Pietro della Valle’s letters to his doctor—written during his travels—were published after the traveller’s death. The collected letters greatly contributed to Europeans’ knowledge of the geography, history and culture of the Middle East.
Pietro met Sitti Maani, the Assyrian noblewoman who was to become his wife, in Baghdad. She died within a few years of their nuptials, at the age of 23. Pietro had her body embalmed and carried it with him for the rest of his travels, eventually burying his wife in the Eternal City. And if that little tale doesn’t bring a tear to the eye
Translation and research by Sheila Barker, Samuel H. Kress Curatorial Fellow at the Medici Archive Project.
Edited by Mike Samuda.