2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 11

Women Abroad: Female Travellers in Italy in the late Eighteenth-Century

By Jess Allen

The flexibility of the ‘separate spheres’ ideology has been thoroughly demonstrated by historians due to evidence signifying women’s inherent role in public life. Whilst there was still a domesticated role seldom expected of women in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century, particularly after the French Revolution, women in public life further increases. Due to the Lockean ideology of citizenship presented in The Declaration for the Rights of Man and Citizen in France, Mary Wollstonecraft drew up a similar abstract of her own, titled a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, of which she argued for more political responsibilities and representation of women. This, coupled with expanding the female workforce, demonstrates a subtle shift to a more ‘equally’ gendered world. 

Of course, separate sphere ideologists maintain that elite and middling-sort women were confined to their homes, of educating and caring for children, as well as helping to manage the household. Meanwhile, the female presence in public life has largely been applied to working-class women. However, whilst elite women were beginning to take a more definitive role in politics, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, there is evidence to show women started travelling more towards the end of the eighteenth century, weakening the ‘separate spheres’ model further.

It would appear that women mainly travelled with their husbands which perhaps tarnishes the idea that women were completely independent, but the very act of travelling in the first place was a liberation in its own right. John Boyle travelled to Italy in the 1750s with his daughter, and the female travellers in the late eighteenth-century continued this tradition. However, it appears that when abroad, women did have a generous amount of independence and were able to roam freely in cities, allowing them to appreciate art and culture.

Whilst the men mainly travelled to refine one’s manners and strengthen his classical knowledge, women had to find ways to keep themselves busy. Out of all of the cities in Italy, Florence was the favourite amongst women (and men for that matter). Florence contained more feminine aspects with the abundance of art and theatre and women were allowed into galleries which enhanced their experiences. As Rosemary Sweet as cogently demonstrated, some women were not allowed to enter some galleries and ruins in Rome, but in it is evident that in Florence, women were able to visit galleries on their own and engaged in conversazione with other Italian women. Whilst women were expected to engage in this conversation, it was expressed as being quite crucial for the enjoyment of their voyages. Their identification with other elite Italian women also provided a subtle sense of continuity for them and made their travelling experiences more pleasurable. 

Women were also careful to record the Italian manners and customs and noted the modernity of British society by describing Italian women’s customs as backward. The use of the Cicisbeo, a man who accompanied married women in public places, rather than her husband, was of particular distaste. Traveller Hester Piozzi notes, whilst on her honeymoon with her Italian husband, that Italian men never dare leave women on their own, and women always had a man around telling them what to do. Travelling instilled an essence of independence for women, knowing that Britain ‘had annihilated even the name of subordination’, and Italian women had not yet been liberated. (See Piozzi, p. 300)

Travelling in the period after the French Revolution provides evidence that elite women were not completely domesticated. The masculine atmosphere of travelling was diluted with allowing women abroad and provided women with a sense of independence and liberation. Despite this, in comparison to that of men’s journals, the women’s accounts are absent of antiquarian discourse that dominates that of the men’s, and it is clear that women still looked through a household management lens. Although, this aptly presents the paradox of being a woman in the eighteenth-century. Whilst participating in the public sphere, it is evident that women still had to retain elements of traditional femininity. Nevertheless, travelling to Italy was a great achievement and a positive improvement on the lives of elite women, weakening the notion that women were only allowed within the confinements of their homes.

Select bibliography:

Cohen, M., ‘The Grand Tour. Language, National Identity and Masculinity’, Changing English 8.2, (2001), pp.129–141.

Craven, E., A journey through the Crimea to Constantinople. In a series of letters from the Right Honourable Elizabeth lady Craven, to His Serene Highness the Margrave of Brandebourg, Anspach, and Bareith, (London, 1789).

Kent. S. K., Gender and Power in Britain 1640-1990, (New York, 1999). 

Miller, A., Letters from Italy, describing the manners, customs, antiquities, paintings, etc. of that country, in the years MDCCLXX and MDCCLXXI, to a friend residing in France, vol. 2, (London, 1776).

Piozzi, H. L., Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany, Vol. 1, (London, 1789)

Starke, M., Letters from Italy: Between the Years 1792 and 9̀8, Containing a View of the Revolutions in that Country, Vol. 1, (London, 1800).

Sweet, R., ‘British Perceptions of Florence in the Long Eighteenth Century’, The Historical Journal, 50.4, (2007), pp. 837–859.

Sweet, R., Cities and the Grand Tour: The British in Italy, C. 1690-1820. (Cambridge, 2012).

Turner, K., British Travel Writers in Europe 1750-1800: Authorship, Gender and National Identity, (Oxon, 2018)