A Wander round Eighteenth-Century Rome with a Georgian Lady

Ever wondered what Rome was like in the eighteenth century, in the age of Grand Tourists, endless art shopping and constant archaeological excavation? Well here are the adventures of Henrietta Femor, the Countess of Pomfret, who took to the continent with her husband and two eldest daughters from 1738 to 1741. Henrietta detailed all of her experiences in letters to her best friend, Frances Seymour, Countess of Hertford, along with all her opinions about what she saw. With these she certainly pulled no punches! She also offers a fascinating insight into what travellers might have chosen to see on a trip to Rome, particularly a female traveller. So here are some of the sights that Henrietta took in…

Piazza Navona

“the great fountain … designed by Bernini, (which I went next to see); in the middle of which is an Egyptian obelisk on a rock in the form of a rude arch, on the four corners of which are seated four large statues, representing the four great rivers of the world – the Danube, for Europe; the Ganges, for Asia; the Nile, for Africa; and the Rio Plata, for America.”[1]

Vatican Library

Henrietta unveils some of the secrets of some of the historical treasures that can be found inside the library at the Vatican

“Here we were shewn some of the finest miniatures (in books) that, I believe, are in the world; and several very ancient manuscripts. In this place are also the original letters from king Henry the Eight to Anne Bullen, whilst the divorce was depending; and the book against Luther, that he himself sent to Leo the Tenth.”[2]

Villa Borghese

My favourite part of the trip that Henrietta took to the Borghese is the fact that she’s so impressed with it, or perhaps sceptical of the splendour of it, that she asks how the collection came to be:

“The house is the richest in antiquities that I ever saw; all the four sides without being stuck as thick with bas-relievos, busts, &c., of the finest sculpture, as pictures in a closet. Within, it is filled up with entire pillars of the rarest marbles, vases, urns, tombs, bust, whole statues, groups, and large tables; besides some good pictures. So vast a treasure, in a private family, gave me curiosity to inquire how it came there; and I was told that the cardinal Scipio Borghese made both the place and the collection in the time of Paul the Fifth, his uncle; who was elected pope in 1605, and reigned near sixteenth years.”[3]

Castel Sant’Angelo

It seems Henrietta expected a little more of the arms collection in Castel Sant’Angelo!

“Amongst many other antiquated things, was a pistol that had belonged to the constable Bourbon, the famous lover of the queen of Navarre, killed in besieging Rome: and also the red armour, half mail and half silk, in which Clement the Eighth took possession of Ferrara. The new room was in good order; but the arms were fewer than in any armoury I have seen since I came abroad.”[4]

Palazzo Doria Pamphilj (or, as Henrietta calls it, Palazzo Pamfilia)

Here, you’ll find great art, but apparently an ugly building!

“The architecture is bad; but the collection of pictures within makes it very well worth seeing. The apartments are large; and furnished, besides the paintings, with gold and crimson velvet. The tables are of antique marbles. There is a great deal of fine old tapestry, with the colours quite fresh; and looking-glasses in abundance adorn a gallery that runs over the colonnade on all sides of one of the square courts below.”[5]

Barberini Palace

Again, Henrietta isn’t impressed with the building – or the way they have arranged it!

“…as soon as I had breakfasted I went to the Barberini Palace, in which I think they reckon four thousand rooms. This was produced from the riches acquired by the family in the long popedom of their uncle, Urban the Eighth. Here are collected together vast quantities of painting, pillars, bas-relievos, busts, tapestry, silver vessels, &c.; but they are so crowded and ill kept, that they appear a heap of fine things going to ruin as fast as fast as possible: and of the many apartments I passed through, I could not see one comfortable room, nor a piece of furniture that seemed to have been of any use since the death of the first owner. However, it must be allowed that there are many pleasing as well as fine things.”[6]

Villa Farnesina

Henrietta was incredibly satisfied with her trip to the Villa Farnesina, and the artistic treasures that can be found there…

“We were conducted to-day to the little Farnese, where we saw the famous ceiling painted by Raphael, of the whole history of Cupid and Psyche, which, with the Rape of Galatea, in another room, and the Aurora of Guido … pleases me better than any painting I ever beheld in my life.”[7]

Find these letters here:

Anon, (ed.), Correspondence between Frances, countess of Hartford and Henrietta Louisa, countess of Pomfret, Volumes II & III (London: Printed by I. Gold, Shoe Lane, for Richard Phillips, No. 6, Bridge-Street, Blackfriars, 1805)

[1] Volume II, pp.295-296.

[2] Volume II, p.304.

[3] Volume II, pp.308-309.

[4] Volume III, p.61.

[5] Volume III, p.62.

[6] Volume III, p.76.

[7] Volume III, p.90.

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