Topography In A Very Small World

3D cover of The Topography of Rome and its Vicinity Volume 1 by William GellI have mentioned before (and more than once) the interconnectedness of intellectual life in the nineteenth century. I came across another stunning example last week. To begin at the beginning:

One of the first books we reissued in our Classics list was Sir William Gell’s Pompeiana. Actually, that sentence needs rephrasing: it was three books, the first edition (1817–19) in one volume, and the second (1832) in two, and they should have been among the first, but in fact we had so much difficulty getting the illustrations as clear as possible that at one point they seemed to be stuck in endless circles of revision hell.

Serious excavations at Pompeii had begun in 1748, but as Gell noted in his introduction to the first edition, ‘to the present day, no [substantial] work has appeared in the English language upon the subject of its domestic antiquities’, and his books are generally regarded as among the first publications of systematic archaeology in English. Gell’s career as an antiquary began with travels in the eastern Mediterranean, which led to several publications, and a knighthood. He accompanied George IV’s notorious Queen Caroline during her travels in Europe, as a chamberlain, and was given a pension of £200 a year when he left her service in 1815. (He later testified on her behalf at her trial before the House of Lords in 1820.) The pension was terminated by the king after the queen’s death in 1821, but it had been enough to enable him to settle in Italy, where he continued his topographical and antiquarian researches until his death in 1836.

As well as the Pompeii books, we have reissued his Narrative of a Journey in the Morea, and other are in the pipeline. His two-volume The Topography of Rome and its Vicinity is accompanied by an enormous map, almost a metre wide and 60 cm deep, which shows ‘Rome and its environs’ – in fact, it’s more accurate to say that the two volumes accompany the map. Scanning the books was straightforward, but it took quite some time to arrange for the map to be captured in all its glorious immensity: it is not one piece of paper, but cut into 28 (I think) segments mounted on linen, so that when it is folded up, the edges don’t get worn and split in the manner of frequently used maps everywhere. I have put the map up on the web  – it can be viewed as a PDF up to 400 per cent magnification from the catalogue page of the set or the individual volumes – and the books are now published.

The very next thing I did was check the three volumes of the life and letters of the ‘most gorgeous countess of Blessington’, which have just come in. The second two volumes consist of short biographies of her (frequently male, frequently famous) correspondents, and in Volume 2, the very first entry is Sir William Gell – and not only that, but in one letter, he is complaining to Lady B. that ‘Either the cholera or the reform [this was 1832] has so fettered the booksellers in London, that though the Dillettanti [sic] Society have engraved a map for me at their own expense, yet £300, which I want to get for the book accompanying it from a bookseller, do not seem at the moment to be easily forthcoming.’ Synchronicity, or what?

In fact, it was not until 1834 that the book (now in two volumes) was published by Saunders and Otley. It provides alphabetical entries (from Abbatone to Zagarolo) on all the sites in Rome and its environs, with their modern names and populations, and their significance in ancient history and literature. Volume 2 also contains essays on the history and languages of ancient Italy, and supplements to various entries, where new discoveries had been made during the course of the work’s preparation – so the two-year delay in publication was put to good use.

In the same letter, Gell asks Lady B. if she has yet read his new edition of Pompeiana, and if not, why not, given that the publishers’ list of frees despatched has her name on it? He also asks her to use her influence with the London booksellers about an edition of his colour sketches of Pompeii, and laments the necessity of always having to write for money (clearly, he was not with Dr Johnson on this, as he also says what he would REALLY like to write about, which is the Moorish art of Spain).

The mini-biography of Gell provided by R.R. Madden in the Blessington volume gives, among other details, an account of the somewhat risqué costumes (plural) in which Queen Caroline appeared at a ball she gave for the king of Naples in 1814 – during the ‘100 Days’, when Joachim Murat (Napoleon’s general and brother-in-law) was still king, so this may not have been the most diplomatic thing for the Queen of England to have done.

Gell is described as charming, a great gossip and raconteur, not necessarily a very deep thinker, but a passionate antiquary and gardener. His topographic skills (possibly learnt from his stepfather, who was the manager of his family’s estate, before he married his widowed employer) were widely admired, and he took great pains with his work (there is a reference to surveying for the map of Rome as early as 1824) – almost literally, because he was a martyr to ‘gout’, quite possibly rheumatoid arthritis, and did best in a warm climate. It is a pity that, although his numerous drawing and sketches ended up at the British Museum, his other papers appear to have been widely scattered and mostly lost. Given that he corresponded with everyone from Sir Walter Scott to Champollion and Baron Bunsen, and that his style is evidently lively and entertaining, this is a sad loss.


PS: for a map of Rome itself, go to this site, and you could even win a prize, courtesy of our colleagues in Journals!

This entry was posted in Archaeology, Art and architecture, English Men of Letters, History, Literary Studies, Printing and Publishing History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Topography In A Very Small World

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