Sterneana | Sterne in Italy

This entry was posted on 3rd July 2013

Sterne in Italy

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:


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