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La Spezia, one of Charles Dickens’s "Pictures from Italy"

The impressions from his journey were far from positive. His description of the fragmented country at the time is very different from those written by his fellow “Grand Tour” travelers. He loved Mantova, Ferrara, Pisa, and Milano, but Dickens thought Venice would smother him and that Rome’s majesty somehow suffered its history.
His sincere words freely expressed disgust in describing the sight of a poor, run-down country in the first half of the nineteenth century without a chance for redemption. Often his descriptions are full of irony but flow into abhorrence.

La Spezia at Dickens's time in the view of the local painter Agostino Fossati
La Spezia at Dickens’s time in the view of the local painter Agostino Fossati

The impressions from his journey were far from positive. His description of the fragmented country at the time is very different from those written by his fellow “Grand Tour” travelers. He loved Mantova, Ferrara, Pisa, Milano. Still, Dickens thought Venice would smother him and that Rome’s majesty somehow suffered its own history.

His sincere words freely expressed disgust in describing the sight of a poor, run-down country in the first half of the nineteenth century without a chance for redemption. So often, his descriptions are full of irony but flow into abhorrence.

The passage from Genova to La Spezia is an exception in the whole picture. On one side, Dickens is thrilled by the “broken rocks” of our coast and the view of the open blue sea only at times crossed by a slow “felucca “; on the other side, by the “lofty hills” with white cottages scattered around, the olive woods, the picturesque country churches, and gaily painted houses.

But he crossed Liguria in winter on the roads of that time. He went through the rugged “Bracco” pass on a very stormy day, which didn’t allow him to see the sea. La Spezia offered the writer shelter after a very tough journey. He needed to stop because, at the time, the Magra river was unbridged, and it had rained too much to cross the river and reach Tuscany. 

Besides the contingency, Dickens probably strived to find reasons to visit Spezia. He didn’t know he was about to sketch a picture of a town on the verge of changing forever. Those were the last years before the small village became a strategic military base of the Italian Kingdom, doubling its population in a few years with workers from all over Italy

And so this is why we have a description of the “beautiful bay” of La Spezia by Charles Dickens. We don’t know what the “ghostly Inn” he refers to is. Still, it was lucky for the author of the Christmas Carol to find such an inspiring spooky atmosphere in it. 

We have some more news about the “small doll’s straw hat”, an example of which can be seen at the Museo Ethnological. Dickens was right; it was a really funny headgear! 

Hence, when we came to Spezzia, we found that the Magra, an unbridged river on the high-road to Pisa, was too high to be safely crossed in the Ferry Boat, and were fain to wait until the afternoon of next day, when it had, in some degree, subsided. Spezzia, however, is a good place to tarry at; by reason, firstly, of its beautiful bay; secondly, of its ghostly Inn; thirdly, of the head-dress of the women, who wear, on one side of their head, a small doll’s straw hat, stuck on to the hair; which is certainly the oddest and most roguish head-gear that ever was invented.

Charles Dickens, Pictures of Italy