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

In his “Pictures of Italy,” Charles Dickens described his journey through Italy, and also painted a delightful close-up of La Spezia.

The impressions from his journey were far from being positive, his description of the at the time so fragmented country are very different from those written by his fellow “Grand Tour” travelers. He loved, indeed, Mantova, Ferrara, Pisa, Milano, but 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. 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 passage from Genova to La Spezia is an exception in the whole picture, Dickens is truly charmed on one side 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.

Yet he crossed Liguria, and on the roads of that time, in winter, and was on the tough “Bracco” passage on a very stormy day, which didn’t allow to see the sea at all. La Spezia offered the writer a shelter after a very tough journey, where he had to stop because the at the time unbridged Magra river was too high to be crossed to reach Tuscany. And so this is why we have a description of the “beautiful bay” of La Spezia by Charles Dickens: we don’t know what is the “ghostly Inn” he refers to, but we think it was definitely a positive side, for the author of the Christmas Carol, to have such a spooky atmosphere in it, and unfortunately we don’t know what was the women’s headwear fashion, but we love to think they were creative fashionistas of the time!

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.



  • Tim Dyas August 10th, 2020

    Regarding Charles Dicken’s comment on the Spezzia hat, my great grandmother, Catherine Bailey, spent the night of the 2nd Sept 1857 in La Spezia and also noticed them:
    “Just before we reached the town, we saw one of the famous little hats about as round as a moderate saucer, made of thick straw and trimmed with red braid – they are perfect in shape, possessing a tiny crown, brim, and all in proportion for a doll. My notion about them is that they were originally intended as a sort of ornamental pad for carrying heavy weights on the head, as the straw is put together edgeways making a thickness of about three quarters of an inch. Nevertheless they are equally worn in the house and my conjecture may be a mistaken one. We then drove through a pretty avenue and turning sharp round by the sea, pulled up before the Croce di Malta, a beautiful hotel backed by trees and gardens with the road and beach before it and excellently fitted up and managed in all ways. Out came the nice little chambermaid Marionetta and welcomed us to our comfortable rooms. She had a little Spezzia hat on, the chin string being fastened under her back hair – she also brought us some for sale.”

    • Teresa Turano September 13th, 2020

      Dear Tim, thank you for sharing these words by your great grandmother! It is really nice and it confirms the La Spezia hat was well known and appreciated. I need to check it at the Museum and take a proper picture of it. I also really enjoyed Catherine’s words about La Spezia and how it looked like to a foreign traveler. It is very common to read such descriptions about Florence or Venice, while it is not so common to read them about La Spezia. Thank you again!

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