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Sterne in Italy, by W.G. Day, François Colson and Amélie Junqua

This is an annotated translation of an extract from the Grand Tour diary of Georg Heinrich von Berenhorst (1733-1814), the illegitimate son of Leopold I, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau. A rather unreliable German translation of the original manuscript, written in French, was published in 1845-47, but no part of it has previously been translated into English. The manuscript, which was housed in the Anhaltische Landesbibliothek, was very fortunately transcribed in 1932, prior to being destroyed in the Allied bombardment of Dessau in 1945.

The Laurence Sterne Trust is most grateful to Dr François Colson for permission to translate and make available on this site the section of the diary recording three meetings von Berenhorst had with Laurence Sterne during his European travels in 1765-68. The relevant passage contains unique details of Sterne’s physical appearance and behaviour.

The fully edited French text has been published by Editions Honoré Champion of Paris: Friedrich Wilhelm von Erdmannsdorf and Georg Heinrich von Berenhorst: Un Grand Tour: deux journaux d’un même voyage en Italie, France et Angleterre (1765-1768), transcrit à partir des deux documents originaux et présenté par François Colson, and the extract below is a translation of pages 561-562. Dr Colson would be happy to answer questions about the original manuscript and may be contacted at: francois.colson@u-picardie.fr


At Mr. Hamilton’s residence, just as at Mr. Jemminot’s, there was a gathering of all sorts of English ladies, for the fair sex of this travelling nation does not like to stay alone at home, and their greater wealth affords husbands no less than fathers, the sweet satisfaction of showing their loved ones all the wonders which we other nations travel alone to see. Lord Hillsborough had just lost his wife at Naples where he had taken her with his entire family: a little boy and two charming daughters of 13 and 14. A certain Mr. Sharp, a surgeon from Bath, was travelling the world with three female offspring, as ugly as the others were pretty. Mr. Hervey, whom I have spoken of above, had his wife with him, and there were others.

It was also at Naples that we made the acquaintance of the Sterne who subsequently has become so famous as Yorick. He was then already known to his fellow Englishmen for his Tristram Shandy, the sales of which funded his travels. But he was regarded at the same time by them as being a little crack-brained; the usual fate of great geniuses. It has to be acknowledged, however, that he did behave whimsically. One evening we were at Mr. Jemminot’s. Sterne was sporting with the ladies. The contortions and grimaces he made, the opinions he proposed, would have been enough to have him declared mad by any nation less sanguine and less accustomed to eccentrics. He continually licked the hands of one of the daughters of Sharp (Smelfungus in his Sentimental Journey). I was sitting in the window to watch the fire-balls thrown out by Vesuvius every now and then. We talked about it. ‘Come over here,’ I told him, ‘there’ll be another one any moment now!’ ‘Sir’ he replied, replied pathetically, ‘I am much more interested in the fire flashing from Miss Sharp’s pupils.’ Sadly those poor eyes had never dreamed of engaging in such an activity, but all occasions were the same to him when he was in one of his raptures.

At Rome I was next to him in the Sistine Chapel when they were singing the famous Miserere in Easter Week. He was so full of remarks that this melancholy ceremony inspired in him, that not being able to contain himself he continually whispered to me, and often so loud, that his voice was as audible as the Orchestra of Eunuchs. ‘For heaven’s sake! my dear Sir,’ I said, ‘you will have us ignominiously ejected.’ In the end, despairing of keeping him quiet, I found myself obliged to go and find another seat.

We met him again in London. The Prince assured me that at the Court of St James he had been obliged similarly many times to snub Sterne because of his indecent conversation. Talking of his Tristram Shandy, he said to the same Prince that having written several sensible pieces, which met with no success, he wrote a book full of idiosyncratic extravagances which he often did not even understand himself, despite which this very book made him both money and reputation; and he was now about to write another, in which he was going to include us all. Perhaps that would have been in the second part of his Journey devoted to Italy. The day following the departure of the Prince from London I met Sterne in the street: ‘How goes your Prince?’ he asked me. ‘He set off yesterday for Germany,’ I told him, ‘and I am worried about his crossing from Dover, because the wind is so strong.’ At this, he wetted a finger, raised his arm, and having remained a short time in this pose: ‘Have no fear,’ he said, ‘the wind is in the right quarter,’ and walked off. That was the last time I saw him. In Italy he used to wear a sword and carry a purse. The frontispiece to the German translation of his sermons is a very good likeness. He seemed to me to be red-haired, pale-skinned and had black pock-marks, visibly scattered across his face.

His Smelfungus was another eccentric. One day he wanted to persuade me to learn English. The whole problem, he said, is the pronunciation of the diphthong ‘the’, but given a certain way of flexing the tongue, you will immediately solve the problem. ‘As an anatomist I ought to know this. Watch what I do.’ He opened his mouth and showed me his [tongue]. ‘See how you have to move it. Now pronounce the word The! The!’ Just to be obliging I was trying this pronunciation a couple of times, when suddenly I found Mr. Sharp’s fingers in my mouth, as he claimed to be improving the position of my tongue. One used to see him in all the churches and public places, his note-books in his hand, his antiquarian guide at his side, as he wrote down what he was being told. These combined observations together with his experiences in inns were the basis for his Letters from Italy, which during our stay in England were bought and read so eagerly that I do not doubt in the slightest that he made enough from this book to cover all the costs of his travels.

François Colson, Université de Picardie Jules Verne
Amélie Junqua, Université de Picardie Jules Verne
W. G. Day, The Laurence Sterne Trust


Mr. Hamilton: William Hamilton (1731–1803) was a diplomat and art collector, whose first wife, Catherine (1738–1782), he described as ‘a virtuous, good-tempered woman with a little independent fortune’. Because of her delicate health in 1764 he successfully applied to be appointed the British consul in Naples. In this role he regularly reported on the activities of exiled British supporters of the Stuarts and on the political inclinations of the Neapolitans, particularly with Spain. There were many British visitors, as calling upon the Hamiltons was regarded as an essential part of the Neapolitan section of the Grand Tour. Most of his time was devoted to collecting art and enjoying life at one of the several houses he maintained, including a little house north of Naples, near Posilippo, which was later known as Villa Emma, after his more famous second wife.

Mr. Jemminot: Berenhorst’s quasi-phonetic spelling of Isaac Jemineau, who had been made consul at Naples in 1753. In 1755, the London Magazine (vol. 24, p. 41) reported an account of the recent eruption of Vesuvius, which Jemineau had had read before the Royal Society on 9 January. Charles Burney enquired of Jemineau the truth of the stories concerning castrati (for which see below ‘Orchestra of Eunuchs’) and was assured that the operation was not carried out at the conservatories, and that such singers came from Lecce in Puglia, where their parents arranged the surgery which was forbidden under both church and civil law.

Lord Hillsborough: Wills Hill, (1718–1793), the third and only surviving son of the first Viscount Hillsborough, was created Viscount Kilwarlin and Earl of Hillsborough in the Irish peerage in 1751. Though in 1756 he acquired the British title of Baron Harwich of Harwich, he continued to be known as Hillsborough. Eventually he was created first Marquess of Downshire, an Irish title. In 1748 he had married Lady Margaret Fitzgerald (1729–1766), daughter of the nineteenth Earl of Kildare and sister of James, first Duke of Leinster. She died in Naples and Horace Mann reported her death to Horace Walpole in a letter of 15 February 1766 (Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, vol. 22, p. 398).

Mr. Sharp: Samuel Sharp (c 1709-1778) became surgeon to Guy’s Hospital in 1733, but resigned in 1757 on the grounds of ill health. In 1765 he set out on a winter tour through Italy and the results were published in his Letters from Italy, of 1766. Dr Johnson thought highly of the publication, saying, ‘there was a great deal of matter in them’ (Boswell, Life, 755).

Mr. Hervey: the Hon. Augustus John Hervey (1724–1779), who, in 1775, succeeded his brother as third earl of Bristol. His marriage was notorious: early in 1769 Hervey fell in love with a physician’s daughter in Bath and sought a divorce for adultery. The redoubtable Mrs Hervey, whose sole child had died, realised, according to Walpole, that the original witnesses to the wedding were also dead and, forcing her way into the house of the elderly parson who had married them, made him hand over the documentation, which she destroyed. She then swore in Doctor’s Commons that she had never been married. Having had the marriage declared non-existent, she promptly married the Duke of Kingston. She was subsequently tried for bigamy and found guilty. As Hervey and his wife had effectively separated as early as 1749, the identity of the lady referred to here as his wife is unclear.

Smelfungus: Berenhorst’s error: Tobias Smollett was pilloried in A Sentimental Journey as Smelfungus: Sharp appears under the pseudonym ‘Mundungus’: ‘Mundungus, with an immense fortune, made the whole tour; going on from Rome to Naples, – from Naples to Venice, – from Venice to Vienna, – to Dresden, to Berlin, without one generous connection or pleasurable anecdote to tell of; but he had travell’d straight on, looking neither to his right hand nor his left, lest Love or Pity should seduce him out of his road.’ (‘In the Street. Calais’)

Vesuvius: a volcano in the Gulf of Naples, about 9 kilometres east of Naples, and renowned for the eruption of 79 A.D. that caused the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (and possibly the death of Pliny the Elder). The volcano erupted six times in the 18th century: in 1707, 1737, 1760, 1767, 1779, and 1794. Berenhorst appears to be describing a minor series of explosions.

Sistine Chapel: the most famous of the chapels in the Pope’s official residence in the Vatican City. Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, painted for Pope Julius II, covers the ceiling.

Miserere in Easter Week: Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus is a setting of Psalm 51 (in the Anglican numbering, 50 in the Roman Catholic psalter), composed in the 1630s, for use in the Sistine Chapel during matins, as part of the Tenebrae service on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week [i.e. Sterne was there on 9th or 11th April, 1766]. The service, in which the Miserere was the highlight, began at around 3 a.m. The performance was heightened by the gradual extinguishing of all the candles, save one. It was forbidden to transcribe the music, which was performed only at those particular services, thus adding to the air of mystery. It is said that the fourteen-year-old Mozart was visiting Rome when he first heard the piece. Later that day, he wrote it down entirely from memory. At some point in his travels he met the British music historian Dr Charles Burney, who copied the score from him and took it to London, where it was published in 1771.

Orchestra of Eunuchs: traditionally no instruments were played in the Sistine Chapel, and the choir was dominated by castrati, whose contribution to the soaring soprano elements of the Miserere was well known. Voltaire, in his A philosophical dictionary (1764), under ‘Adultery’, includes ‘A memorial, written by a magistrate, about the year 1764’, which contains the claim: ‘If I, an Alsatian, am dependent on a priest who lives at Rome and has the barbarous power to deprive me of a wife, he may as well make me a eunuch to sing Miserere in his chapel.’

Prince: in the original French he is termed ‘Msgr. le Prince regnant’, and this was the form of address of Leopold Friedrich Franz III (1740-1817), Prince of Anhalt-Dessau 1751-1807, then Duke of Anhalt-Dessau until his death. Leopold III travelled to London in the summer of 1766, where he lodged in Suffolk Street.

Court of St James: the official diplomatic residence of the British sovereign, to which ambassadors and representative of other powers are accredited.

indecent conversation: this is supported by Samuel Johnson’s account in Works (1787, ix. 214): ‘I was but once in Sterne’s company, and then his only attempt at merriment consisted in his display of a drawing too indecently gross to have delighted even in a brothel.’

second part of his Journey devoted to Italy: Sterne died on 18 March 1768, twenty days after the publication of the first two volumes of A Sentimental Journey. In some copies of the first edition of that work is inserted an advertisement, promising a further two volumes as originally offered to subscribers.

wear a sword: this unusual and unclerical accessory is also to be found in Thomas Patch’s cartoon of Sterne in Italy.

the frontispiece from the German translation of his sermons: the frontispiece is derived from Reynolds’ portrait of Sterne, which was the source of many frontispieces to Sterne’s works, some of which bore little resemblance to the original. The most circulated version was the mezzotint by Fisher.

red-haired, pale-skinned and had black pock-marks, visibly scattered across his face: Berenhorst very rarely provides a physical description of his subjects, which adds to the interest of these words. No other source indicates either red-hair or the aftermath of smallpox, though the Mortimer group portrait does suggest a red-brown hair colour. The omission of any reference to smallpox may surprise modern readers, but it was so prevalent in eighteenth-century England that it may well not have been a matter for comment.

dipthong ‘the‘: ‘The’ is not a diphthong; it is a dental fricative.

Letters from Italy: Samuel Sharp’s Letters from Italy, published 1766.