During the 19th and early 20th centuries, southern Italy, the Mezzogiorno, was a remote and exotic place for northern Europeans. Generations of affluent travelers had taken the Grand Tour to acquaint themselves with the continent’s classical heritage, but the lands south of Naples remained terra incognita. Isolated and undeveloped, this was a region of ancient traditions and extreme physical beauty, but it was also poverty-stricken and plagued by bandits. Three books by intrepid British travelers opened a window onto this relatively unknown world.
The first, “Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria,” by Edward Lear, was published in 1852. Lear began his career as an ornithological artist and was sometimes compared with the great American painter John James Audubon. However, as a result of deteriorating eyesight, he was obliged to abandon such detailed work and turn instead to landscape painting and travel. This diary follows his journey into the region with a local guide and fellow artist while enduring hardships along the way.
“By the Ionian Sea: Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy” appeared in 1901 and was written by the prolific novelist George Gissing, whose customary output was realist fiction about lower-middle-class life in imitation of his literary hero, Émile Zola. In contrast, his Italian travels were an exploration of the lost classical world of Magna Graecia, a region that Gissing called his personal “land of romance.”
Perhaps the best-known narrative about the Mezzogiorno is “Old Calabria,” by Norman Douglas, an Anglo-German essayist and novelist who lived for much of his life on Capri. Published in 1915, it describes the author’s arduous and at times hair-raising travels in an accessible and conversational style.