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Keith Crook, The Imprisoned Traveler: Joseph Forsyth and Napoleon’s Italy. Reviewed by Diego Saglia.

Sunday, October 4, 2020 - 15:19

Keith Crook, The Imprisoned Traveler: Joseph Forsyth and Napoleon’s Italy. Lewisburg PA: Bucknell University Press, 2019. Pp. xiii+247. ISBN: 9781684481620

Diego Saglia

Università di Parma, Italy

A major product of Britain’s geo-cultural imagination, early nineteenth-century manifestations of Italia romantica were intricate knots of fact and fiction, distant observation and personal involvement, resting on a solid bedrock of age-old myths and stereotypes. Given its extent and complexity, many features of this vision of Italy remain opaque, continuously inviting critical questioning that often results in significant contributions to our understanding of what the Romantic-period imagination ‘did’ with Italy. One such is Keith Crook’s book on Joseph Forsyth and his Remarks on Antiquities, Arts and Letters during an Excursion in Italy in the Years 1802 and 1803. Building on Crook’s 2001 critical edition of Forsyth’s Remarks, this is actually two books in one. The first part is an informative, insightful and enjoyable study of Forsyth’s Remarks. It starts from a reconstruction of its genesis and composition during the author’s imprisonment in France after being captured in Turin in 1803, at the end of the Peace of Amiens, upon his return to Britain. The creation of the manuscript was entangled with Forsyth’s relocations to different French prisons, and his attempts at obtaining a reprieve on the strength of being a published author. A means to achieving freedom, Forsyth’s book is deeply marked by the Napoleonic climate in France and on the Continent more generally. At the same time, it is a peculiar act of representation. Based on notes and memories reworked at different stages in different French prisons, its published versions (1813 and the second, posthumous, 1816) became authoritative and influential accounts of contemporary Italy, one of the essential Romantic-era travel books about the country alongside those by Mariana Starke, John Chetwode Eustace, and Anna Jameson. The second part of The Imprisoned Traveler collects the hitherto unpublished correspondence between Joseph and his brother Isaac between 1801 and 1815 (a fascinating figure in his own right, Isaac was a civic worthy, much given to social philanthropy, in their native Elgin). Usefully complementing Crook’s reconstructions and examinations, these letters uncover a thickly textured narrative of personal facts and local connections set against the uncertain, mutable background of Napoleonic Europe.

The first section of The Imprisoned Traveler is the more substantial and offers an introduction to the historical moment that saw the genesis of what became known as Forsyth’s Italy. This is followed by an account of the author’s experiences in the French prisons, a comparative analysis of the 1813 and 1816 editions, an examination of his contacts and exchanges with Italians, an exploration of the thoughts and opinions Forsyth encoded or suppressed when preparing the book for publication, and finally a discussion of the presence of Italy’s visual arts, literature and architecture in the book (in Appendix A, Crook also usefully tabulates the Italian works of art seen by Forsyth and mentioned in his travel book). In short, Crook opens up different avenues to get deeper into both an author and a book that played a crucial role in fashioning attitudes to, and interpretations of, Italy in the Romantic period and beyond. The importance of Forsyth’s book cannot be overstated. As Crook notes, it ‘helped [Byron] see Italy for the first time’ (p. 9), and was often read as a riposte to Eustace’s Classical Tour through Italy and its markedly Catholic undercurrents (in 1813 this comparison and contrast found an outlet in the opposing treatments of Eustace’s travel book in the Edinburgh and Quarterly reviews).

As Crook unfolds the story of the origins, composition and contents of Forsyth’s Italy, he touches on the personal and experiential dimensions, as well as their contextual frames. He carefully and sensitively tracks how Forsyth decided that writing about Italy would be beneficial to his cause, turning it into a cultural geography that could be instrumental to changing the course of his life. At the same time, this act of appropriation served as a way of attacking Napoleonic imperialism, both generally and specifically, as in the case of Italy’s requisitioned artworks and what Crook calls the theme of looting. The Imprisoned Traveler tells two interwoven narratives by weaving a fine fabric that repeatedly shows their connections and correspondences.

This focus characterizes particularly Forsyth’s sociable relations with Italians. Crook highlights Forsyth’s constant search for closer contacts with them by analyzing his penchant for conversation and exchange of information, accompanied by his distinctive predisposition to listening. A sign of Forsyth’s cultural openness, this way of feeling ‘at home’ with Italians is also, evidently, intended to give his book the edge over other accounts by casting its translation and explanation of Italy as more direct and reliable. In this respect Crook’s study captures well the sense of a country so frequently and extensively written about that it constituted a contested cultural object, one whose cultural capital might be acquired and reinvested by a skillful foreign interpreter. Similarly, he sets into relief Forsyth’s creation of a picture of Italy different from that found in other competing titles, for example in combining a classical set-piece such as the description of Naples and its bay, with more unusual observations (such as his reflections on women’s visits to anatomical theatres that double as musings on the condition of women in Italian society and culture) or accounts of off-the-beaten-track places of faded grandeur like Mantua and Ferrara.

Another point of interest in Crook’s exploration is its sustained interest in Forsyth’s continuous interconnections between past and present and the problem of reading the past in and for the present. An emblematic instance is in his references to the famous collection of papyrus rolls found in the middle of the eighteenth century in a villa at Herculaneum, the only library of ancient times to have reached us. As Forsyth records their fragility and the various (failed) experiments to unravel and read them (even today’s technology has had limited success), these tantalizing pieces of antiquity gather symbolic resonance. They signify the gap and attrition between the ancient technology of papyrus and modern science and technology; yet, more comprehensively, they also point to the inability of the present to interpret the past. A similar impasse appears in Forsyth’s reception of the Renaissance painter Parmigianino, whose ‘Antea’ and ‘Galeazzo Sanvitale’ he probably saw at Capodimonte in Naples. Crook carefully unravels the difficulties in Forsyth’s attempt to make sense of this enigmatic painter and his art, stressing how, in seeking to pinpoint what made Parmigianino’s art special, he resorts to the concept of ‘grace’. As Crook notes, this is a recurrent term in Forsyth’s remarks on art, an ultimately vague and slippery one. Conveying a sense of ineffability, it makes Forsyth’s grappling with the beauty of Parmigianino’s paintings all the more interesting as an index of the broader questions at stake in his translation of Italy. If his use of ‘grace’ expresses the complex process of understanding and reappraising the later Renaissance and Mannerism, their intricate and arcane visual codes, it also gestures towards Italy as a reality that defies interpretation and defers explanation. The resulting triangle is paradigmatic: the ineffable ‘grace’ of Parmigianino, the mysterious attractions of Italy, and the endless work of reading them. As Crook notes, at this point Johann Joachim Winckelmann becomes crucial for Forsyth as the internationally revered scholar who had provided a new language to understand antiquity and redefine its relevance to contemporaneity.

Through both parts of The Imprisoned Traveler Crook follows in Forsyth’s footsteps across a landscape made of cities and figures from the past and, especially, the present – familiar names such as the poet Vincenzo Monti or Duke Pietro Leopoldo of Tuscany, as well as more unexpected figures, such as the Roman archeologist Carlo Fea and the Tuscan improvisatrice Fortunata Sulgher Fantastici. In the latter case, Forsyth’s assessment of her poetry is somewhat veined with chivalrous condescension, yet through her he more generally extols the art of improvisation, its qualities of enthusiasm and immediacy, in ways that once again read metaphorically like a depiction of the national genius of Italy, its inexhaustible profusion and continuous cultural relevance. This profusion characterizes Italy in Forsyth’s account and, by reflection, the two parts of The Imprisoned Traveler. For Crook, the Scottish traveller’s account testifies to ‘an individual voice and independent mind’ inviting readers to explore Italy ‘in a spirit of enquiry and a receptiveness to tone’ (p. 85). It is in this particular respect that Crook’s guide to Forsyth’s Italy proves invaluable: in alerting us to Forsyth’s individual voice, Crook emphasizes the complexities in his works – its silences, its indirections and innuendos, its ironic undertones, and its moments of opacity and vagueness – showing how integral they are to the making of this landmark in the discourse of Italia romantica. Forsyth’s book, especially the 1813 version, ‘is remarkable for what it does not say’ (p. 49). These sometimes impenetrable and baffling moments, as well as the sheer wealth of lived experience permeating it, constitute the value and significance of Forsyth’s travel account, and Keith Crook has provided us with an excellent vademecum to its intricacies and, in the process, a powerful reminder of its cultural significance.