Re-imagining Cardenio

Impressions of Savoy

January 19, 2011

I found myself wondering what impressions the young Prince Henry might have had of the Dukedom of Savoy, the home of the Infanta whom his father proposed to be his bride. He might have turned to a book published the previous year in 1611, by the extraordinary Thomas Coryate. Ben Jonson said of Coryate: 'He is always Tongue –Major of the company', which captures something of the lively spirit of this gossipy traveller, so evident in his book.

The lengthy title says it all: 'Coryate's Crudities hastily gobbled up in five months travel, and newly digested in the hungry air of Odcombe in the county of Somerset, and now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling members of his kingdom'. Coryate dedicated the book to Prince Henry, calling him with ingratiating hyperbole, 'the orient pearl of the Christian world'.

His observations of Savoy are contained in the first volume. At ten o'clock in the morning on Wednesday 8th June 1608, Coryate arrived at the foot of his first Alp. He describes how he was carried shoulder high on a precarious chair litter up the mountains at the start of his week in the dukedom.

He complains of the bad roads 'which were as bad as the worst I ever rode in England in the midst of winter, in so much that the ways of Savoy may be proverbially spoken of as the owls of Athens, the pears of Calabria, and the quails of Delos.' He shudders at the steepness of the roads through the mountain passes: 'If my horse had happened to stumble, he had fallen down with me four or five times as deep in some places as Paul's Tower in London is high.'

He shivers in this chilly, damp Alpine pocket: 'The country of Savoy is very cold and much subject to rain by reason of those clouds that are continually hovering about the Alps.' Once he has passed through the Alps, Coryate admires the vineyards and the fine meadows, the chestnut, walnut and hazel trees, and he marvels at the 'admirable abundance of Butter-flies in many places of Savoy, by the hundredth part more than ever I saw in any country before.'

Oddly he notices how many of the population seem to be afflicted with terrible goitres (swelling of the thyroid gland), which he ascribes to the common drinking of snow water. 'Yea some of their bunches are almost as great as an ordinary football with us in England.'

Coryate always has an eye for the detail of the national costume he sees. In Savoy, he wonders at the high girdled dress of the women, and admires the quaintness of their head gear: 'For they wrap and fold together after a very seemly fashion, almost as much linen upon their heads as the Turks do in those linen caps they wear, which are called Turbents.' A little further along in his journey to Turin, he observes 'the most delicate straw hats, which both men and women use in most places in that province, but especially the women. For those that the women wear are very pretty, some of them having at least an hundred seams with silver and many flowers, borders and branches very curiously wrought in them, in so much that some of them were valued at two duckatons, that is eleven shillings.'

When he arrives in Turin, he has to apologise that his observations of 'so flourishing and beautiful a city' are so brief, because like many a traveller, he became ill. He warns his fellow tourist 'I found so great a distemperature in my body by drinking the sweet wine of Piedmont that caused a grievous inflammation in my face and hands, so that I had but a small desire to walk much abroad in the streets. Therefore I advise all Englishmen that intend to travel into Italy to mingle their wine with water as soon as they come into the country.'

He mentions the present Duke of Savoy, Testa di Feu, Charles Emanuel, and 'the great amity and affinity betwixt the king of Spain and the Duke' because the Duke had married the King's sister Margarita. Coryate has heard of the recent marriages of two of the princesses, one to a Duke of Modena and the other to a Prince of Mantua.

He is very impressed with the Duke's palace, and his new gallery. 'Truly it is incomparably the fairest that ever I saw, saving the King of France's at the Louvre in Paris', and he concludes: 'Thus much of Turin.'

I wonder if Prince Henry consulted his clowning friend, the 'Odcombian Leg-Stretcher' about the home country of his prospective bride.

By the time Cardenio was performed at Whitehall, Coryate had set out on his travels again. He hung up the shoes in which he had walked to Venice in the parish church at Odcombe, (which he calls his 'dear natalitiall place') and set off for the East to Zante, Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria and Cairo, to Joppa and Jerusalem, to Aleppo where he joined a caravan for Persia, to Isfahan and Lahore and on to the court of the great Moghul, where he died in 1617 aged 40. There is a famous engraving of the madcap traveller riding an elephant.

by Greg Doran  |  No comments yet


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