The world beyond the Medici court

Travel accounts reveal wonders abroad

Alessio Assonitis
January 29, 2009

As many friends and patrons of the Medici Archive Project already know, the Mediceo del Principato

archival corpus is composed mostly of correspondence directed to and originating from the grand dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses, secretaries and ministers, agents and ambassadors in Italy and abroad, and letters primarily dealing with military matters and war dispatches.


Documenting the political, diplomatic, personal, economic, artistic, military and medical culture of early modern Tuscany and Europe, this archival collection contains over three million epistolary documents, included in more than 6,400 volumes.


Few are aware, however, that the Mediceo is much more than letters. A limited number of volumes contain handwritten news reports (avvisi), travel accounts, treatises, printed speeches, copies of wills and marriage contracts, rudimentary sketches, pasquinades, conclave reports, and other disparate typologies of documents. This material is sometimes grouped together without much chronological or thematic criterion and is almost always superficially indexed in various catalogs and publications devoted to the grand ducal archives. For this very reason, scholars often bump into remarkable-and unexpected-finds when examining such volumes.


Mediceo del Principato 6381 certainly belongs to this category. This plump, unbound volume holds seven modern manila folders, for the most part seventeenth-century accounts of travels, written by Tuscans during their extended sojourns in Europe. Even a quick examination of this material reveals three very different types of travel accounts. The first, records of Leopoldo and Anna di Cosimo II and the young Cosimo III's diplomatic missions beyond the Alps, are straightforward reports, written by members of the Medici entourage, and have little literary quality. The second group comprises missives, minutes and dispatches whose function is to provide constant travel updates.


The last group, however, is closer to Michel de Montaigne's Journal de Voyage en Italie (1580-1): documents that capture the personal experience, mostly in the form of memoirs, mostly by Florentine merchants, scholars, diplomats, and missionaries. The most exceptional of these accounts is Roberto Pucci's manuscript, about 100 folios, of his travel in Northern Italy, Germany, Holland, Flanders, England, France and Spain in the years 1657-1661.


Somewhere in between a modern guide and a travel journal, with some news and curiosities for the pleasure of any friend who desires to travel in these parts of the world, Pucci remains throughout his work attentive to cultural and artistic matters. In the first pages, he provides detailed descriptions of paintings by Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto and Jacopo Bassano in the Veneto. Soon after crossing the Dolomites, he embarks on lengthy descriptions of the cities, people, customs, religious divisions, oddities and food of northern Europe. He is mesmerized by the clocks, fountains and mechanical city gate in Augsburg. During his German sojourn, he remarks on the cultural differences between Catholics and Protestants and on the Teutonic passion for beer. In Amsterdam, aside from its harbor and multitude of canals and botteghe, his eye is caught by mountains of cloves, pepper, and cinnamon that have just arrived from the Indies, and the gargantuan piles of tobacco that he has seen in a pipe shop. He describes other curiosità in full detail: a collection of skeletons in Leiden (along with the exhibited flayed skins of two Spaniards), the tapestries after drawings by Peter Paul Rubens in Antwerp, the myriad bookshops in Hamburg.


Pucci's chapter on England is especially packed with information. He is initially concerned with women. He tells the visitor that London is very safe at night, except in the neighborhoods where prostitutes are accustomed to lure their clients. In general, he testifies that women enjoy a kind of freedom unseen in other parts of Europe. He finds their beauty and the ease with which they befriend foreigners remarkable, likewise their dance skills and knowledge of religious matters.


Pucci considered Londoners great gamblers, betting on everything from cockfighting to horseracing. Amazed at the buildings, he describes in detail the churches of Saint Paul, most famous in the world for its size, and Saint Peter (Westminster Abbey) with sepulchers made of marble and bronze of the first kings and knights of the kingdom; Palace of Whitehall, unimpressive... except for one hall...; the home of the Earl of Arundel, decorated with statues from Greece and Rome; the Tower on the Thames, famous more for its ancient origins; and Hampton Court Palace, which houses... nine pieces of Andrea Mantegna's Triumph of Caesar in tempera, bought by the King for nine-thousand scudi a piece ... a small picture representing three Jesuits with an  inscription: JESUIT FATHERS GO TO HELL!...  the Seven Deadly Sins drawn by Albrecht Durer... and Indian carpets.

The lavishness of the Spanish court under Philip IV greatly attracted Pucci, who spent an entire winter in Madrid after and before his travels in France. One folio is solely devoted to their passion for chocolate, particularly among noble Spanish women, as well as acciote paste, sugar and vanilla. He was impressed by a house in Madrid that stored over 10,000 pieces of chocolate. In another large section he describes at length the elaborate drinking and eating ceremonies involving the menini and meninas at Court. Pucci especially admired the king's collection of armor and a carriage furbished with coral from Sicily; the many horses in the Royal stables; an elaborate stage set with pastoral decorations designed by Baccio del Bianco for the Buen Retiro theater.


However, what struck Pucci the most was the spectacular collection of paintings: in the Royal Palace you shall see marvelous things by Rubens, Tintoretto, Coreggio, Paolo and others...Have them show you Titian's room, where you can find the beautiful Europa along with Diana's Baths, and other stories and single figures, that amount to twenty-two pieces...Aside from these works, you shall see endless number of pictures by the most excellent Flemish and Italian artists, both ancient and modern...the very beautiful arrangement of these works was planned by the King's painter, Assistant to the Privy Chamber, and Knight, called Pedro Velázquez. Later on in his work, Pucci claimed that one could wander anywhere in the Escorial and still find superb art, though the sacristy was especially crammed with pictures: Titian triumphs with eight sumptuous pieces, Tintoretto, with a panel fifteen feet long which the King purchased from Mantova spending nineteen thousand scudi of today. By Raphael you will admire a Madonna at head of the sacristy. Rubens, Andrea , Coreggio, Paolo Veronese, Van Eyck, Baroccio, surround this work, while Guido is also among these triumphs of art.


Another travel account, Fra Francesco da Pavia's description of "four-legged, winged and water animals in the kingdoms of Congo, Angola, is altogether quite a different work. Neatly handwritten in tiny script and covering the recto and verso of two folios, this brief treatise was probably sent along with a letter to Cosimo III de' Medici or a member of his court around the turn of the seventeenth century. This Capuchin missionary is known to have written a number of reports on the Kingdom of Kongo and its population at the time when this region was suffering from civil turmoil. His exhaustive (and sometimes exaggerated) account of lions, wolves, water buffalos, elephants, oxen, rhinoceros, zebra, hares, rats, wild boars, crocodiles, pelicans, parrots, snakes, and bees often includes comments on their cohabitation with the local villagers. Whenever men would cross paths with these large felines, they would begin to beat their chest and fall on their knees, and talk to them as if these possessed reason and were noblemen, asking humbly not to take their lives. Less prone to diplomacy were the cheetahs: a number of times I had to run for my life whenever I would hear one nearby. The most aberrant entry concerns a certain breed of macaques, remarkable for their quasi-human behavior (they stood on their two feet, cried, laughed and made intelligible gestures). These animals, according to the Portuguese, were born from the violent union of macaques and local women.


Fra Francesco also indicated how some animals possessed medical properties. The genitalia of a hippopotamus were especially useful for curing water retention and kidney stones, especially if minced and cooked in broth. The right ear of a large rodent named Imboice performed miracles against apoplexy. The teeth of the Engalas, instead, have the identical medical powers of a Bezoar stone; if one doubled the usual amount and ground them, they could put an end to terminal infirmities. He lists a number of roots that served as powerful antidotes. Thanks to these medical treatments-and to the help of God-he thrice survived poisoning.


He ends this account with a rather ambiguous statement: I have seen and observed many other things in that part of the world. The more notable, I wish one day to summarize so that one may better comprehend the qualities of this region, its inhabitants, both from a spiritual and political perspective and thank God to have us be born and live in Europe, which is the Garden of the world.



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