- The Lapidation of Giuseppe Baretti and the Invective of His Lettere familiari from Portugal and Spain
In the late summer of 1760 we find Giuseppe Baretti attending a "festa dei tori" in Lisbon. After the last dead bull has been dragged away, the Italian traveler heads toward the "palchetto reale," where he manages to get close enough to the ladies of the Portuguese Royal Family to be able to describe their attire down to the jewelry and lace. The extremely myopic Baretti must have seemed an unabashed investigator. The only one of the ladies he could examine without his eyeglass was a modestly dressed one standing right next to him, who in fact turned out to be the Queen—and he examined her, as he says, from head to foot.1
Baretti's intention, in his Lettere familiari a' suoi tre Fratelli, Filippo, Giovanni, e Amedeo (1762-63), is to be a "vero viaggiatore," to travel as a philosopher "che osserva ogni cosa" (129). He admits that wanting to know which countries produce the best wine and which the worst may be a frivolous matter, but then adds that he does not see why he should not acquire such knowledge if he can (194). To be sure, Baretti, as he made his way back from England to Italy via the Iberian Peninsula, had encouragement and advice on traveling from no less [End Page 141] an authority than Samuel Johnson. The learned doctor, who had the highest respect for truth even in its most minute particulars, insisted that the traveler keep an exact journal.2
Along with meticulousness and encyclopedic fervor, the Lettere familiari reveal nearly unbounded linguistic exuberance. In an age when the necessity of learning several modern languages was coming to be seen as a burden, now that Latin had passed away as the universal scholarly medium, Baretti mastered no less than five of them.3 It is in English that he will write, in 1768, An Account of Manners and Customs of Italy, with Observations on the Mistakes of Some Travelers with Regard to that Country—combating the vituperative Samuel Sharp.4 In his Discours sur Shakespeare et sur Monsieur de Voltaire of 1777, he will argue against the great philosophe in French.5 It is not surprising, then, that [End Page 142] Baretti, as he sails off from England, throws himself into the study of Portuguese. Or that in Lisbon, as he visits a convent of English nuns whose "parlatorio" is filled with guests, his thoughts turn to plurilingualism. How useful it would be, he muses, to set up in Turin several convents, one of English nuns, one of French nuns, one of German nuns, one of Florentine nuns, and to send the noble young ladies of the town from one to the other, so that in no time they would learn all four of the languages. Baretti is an optimistic pedagogue, certain that in knowing many languages one would be assured of having a large quantity of ideas, and that having those ideas would make life more enjoyable than not having them. Ignorance, he says, is nothing other than a paucity of ideas (111-12).
Amid all of the curiosity, vivacity, factuality, delight in the variety of things, however, one comes across hints of weakness and of disappointment in Baretti's letters. After presenting a "storiella" about Alexander Pope and two friends trying to distinguish between an ear of wheat and an ear of rye, he adds that such reverence for minimal facts can render life comfortable and pleasing so far as "l'umana miseria" permits (130). After a careful presentation of the merits of British manufacture and of it demerits, he concludes: "Pure ognuno tengasi la sua opinione, chè al fin del fine poca felicità v'è in questo mondo, pigliala al modo loro, o pigliala al mio modo" (50-51). Outside of Lisbon his traveling companion Edward Southwell, the young aristocrat that Baretti conducts to Italy, is so taken by the Franciscan friars that he thinks of converting to Roman Catholicism and becoming one of them. Baretti does not hesitate to exploit the comicality of this youthful rashness. He then adds...