Turin, Sept. 24, 1766.
My Dear Sirs,1
I left Paris the 7th of this month, and had, thank God! a most agreeable journey. The weather being extremely fine, the country of Burgundy, and the other southern parts of France, made a most delicious appearance, being at that time teeming over with all the riches and abundance of autumn. We may in England talk as much as we please of cultivation and plenty, but I must honestly confess, that I never before saw any thing but the faint glimmerings of it, compared with this country, where nature seems ambitious of doing every thing herself. The people, who are extremely numerous, are (or seemed to me to be) for the most part, very amply employed in the gathering and storing up of fruits. Methinks without any great poetical amplification, it is somewhat probable, when Bacchus2 made his rounds of the earth, that his head quarters must have been in one of the valliesvalleys of Burgundy, where on every side mountain peeps over mountain, and appears cloathed clothed in all the variegated hues of the vine, interspersed with sheep, corn, and I may say, with every thing. This, and the crouds3 of busy contented people, which cover (as one may say) the whole face of the country, make a strong, but melancholy contrast to a miserable —— which I cannot help thinking of sometimes.—You will not be at any loss to know that I mean Ireland; and that I glance at the extensive, unpeopled wastes where only now and then one is to see some meagre, scared fellow, who has almost a day's journey to drive cattle to a habitation, where his ill-fated family perhaps may make a Christmas dinner upon the offals of these very cattle; very little of which falls to his share out of the market that is made of them for other countries,4 —but hang them all, I have long since given them up,5 and will go on to give you such accounts of the Alps as I can, though I should repeat, as I often do, what you know already, and have much better informations of than I can possibly give you.
From the confines of France over mount Cenis,6 to within about thirty miles of Turin, we have been in one continued ascent, though strictly speaking it was all the way through Savoy, up and down the horrid ridges of the mountains, and sometimes in the most gloomy vales between them, which would have made it almost impossible to say whether we were upon the rise or fall in general, if it was not for a great river,7 by the side of which our road lay, and which takes its rise near mount Cenis, and tumbles and cascades all the way through rocks and precipices, into France. You may conceive how high its source must be by this observation (which I think is pretty just) that in every hundred yards taken one with another, it cascades near twenty feet at least; then taking in the length of the way, you will believe me much nearer heaven upon mount Cenis than I was before, or shall probably be again for some time. We passed this mountain on Sunday last, and about seven in the morning were near the top of the road over it, on both sides of which the mountain rises to a very great height, yet so high were we in the valley between them (where there is a fine and large lake) that the moon, which was above the horizon of the mountains, appeared at least five times as big as usual, and much more distinctly marked than I ever saw it through some very good telescopes. The mountains, seas, &c. were so evident, their lines of separation so traceable, that I would actually have stopped the mule to have made a drawing of them, if I had not been in some apprehensions of a troop of Savoyard soldiers,8 who were at that time passing, and would doubtless have taken me up as a spy and a dangerous person. I was more than once cautioned how I let any of these people see me drawing, at which I was constantly employed all the way. My friend Barret9 was exceedingly out in his notions of Savoy and the Alpine country. The drawings he saw of them might be, as he said, bird's eye views—but had he been here himself, he would have made a very different work of it; he would have seen, as I did, for above five days together, the most awful and horridly grand, romantic, and picturesque scenes, that it is possible to conceive; he would say every thing else was but bauble and boys play compared with them. All this tract down to Grenoble, one sees was the country Salvator Rosa10 formed himself upon: nobody esteems Salvator more than I do, yet I must say he has not made half the use of it he might have done; the wild forms of his trees, rocks, &c.11 (for which he is condemned, as frantic, by some cold spiritless artists, whose notions reach no further than the artificial regular productions of their own climes,) are infinitely short of the noble phrenzy in which nature wantons all over these mountains;12 great pines, of the most inconceivable diversity of forms, some straight as arrows, others crooked as a horn, some the roots uppermost, are hanging over frightful rocks and caves, and torrents of water rolling amongst them.
But I should lose myself in attempting to speak of them, and shall reserve for the colours and canvass the observations I have made. Though in the best hands any of these views painted singly must fall fail in its effect in comparison of the reality, where the continued succession of them leads on and advances the operation. One thing by the way, the people are just the species of figures for such a landscape; though I believe they may be honest as they are said to be, yet every countenance has that ferocity and assassin look, which Salvator Rosa has so truly, and so agreeably to the costume, introduced into his pictures.13 Lest you may be tired with the length of this letter, I shall keep the king's collection at Turin,14 and other things, for the next, and I am, my dear sir, your's and the family's,
With great respect and sincerity,J.B.