On the track of Boydell Authors in Italy

We have just come back from six days in Italy, in Umbria, where the temperature hit 40 C, which more or less defeated the air conditioning. We were there because my partner’s son Ben and his family asked us to join them in a house they were borrowing.

When I discovered that the house was at Todi, I couldn’t resist the invitation, because there is a very strong connection to the Boyce Papers. Joanna Boyce went to Todi in the summer of 1857, with her friend Margaret Piotti and her Italian husband, to escape from the heat of Rome. She spent two months there, finding a studio which she shared with Margaret. Among Joanna’s sketchbooks in the British Museum there is one which has a number of sketches of the town, and more important, of the people there. Joanna methodically dated her sketches, and these tie up wonderfully with the dates of the letters that she wrote to her fiancé Henry Wells. She was waiting for him to come out from England, so that they could get married in Rome at the end of the year. Joanna was a fine writer, admired by Ruskin, and her sketches and the descriptions in the letters complement each other to perfection. Todi hasn’t changed much since she was there, though there was some damage in the Second World War, and it was easy to envisage the kind of life she led – though there are fewer mosquitoes and better remedies for the terrible heat rash which she suffered from.

We ventured out into a small village where a restaurant had been warmly recommended to us, and had an excellent meal; the food in the region is delicious, with the special treat of fresh black truffles. Continental restaurants often have cookery books on the shelves,- I remember a massive encyclopedia of Portuguese cooking in its sixtieth edition in Lisbon a year or two ago. I glanced idly at the handful behind the table, only to discover that one was a familiar Boydell title, Terence Scully’s The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, in the Italian edition, as pictured here.

That wasn’t the end of the Boydell trail. We moved on to a hotel in Spoleto, perched above a deep forested gorge with a superb medieval aqueduct across it: it was just outside the town, and almost isolated, even though it was no more than half a mile from the centre. It had been a focal point of the Spoleto festival, founded by Samuel Barber and his partner Gian Carlo Menotti, with splendidly eccentric posters of past festivals and photos of musicians who had stayed there on the walls. Their activities in Spoleto naturally figure in Peter Dickinson’s Samuel Barber Remembered.

Breakfast was on a terrace overlooking the gorge, and we came down one morning to find someone apparently practising the guitar. On closer inspection, it was not a guitar, but a lute, and its owner explained that he had made it, and was trying out at Spoleto because it was impossible to do so in Rome because of the noise. I remembered meeting lute-makers at the Suffolk Villages festival, run by Peter Holman, author of Life After Death: The Viola da Gamba in Britain from Purcell to Dolmetsch and an expert on early instruments. I mentioned this, to find that our lutenist actually knew Peter Holman, in the relatively small world of those interested in the making of early instruments.

So quite a good haul for a mere six days!

Listen to author Sue Bradbury give an introduction to the intertwined lives of three remarkable young artists in Victorian London as she discusses her latest publication: Joanna, George and Henry.

Sue Bradbury talks about Joanna, George and Henry

This guest post is written by Richard Barber, who is the author of numerous books on medieval history and Arthurian legend. The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief (2004) and Henry II (2015) were published by Penguin Books. He was visiting Professor at the University of York until 2016 and was awarded an honorary doctorate there in 2015.

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