Seeing Rome through the eyes of Oscar Wilde


Great Cities Through Travellers’ Eyes
Edited by Peter Furtado
Thames and Hudson, 368pp, £19.99/$29.95

In this commendably ambitious book, the former History Today editor Peter Furtado has selected 38 world cities, spread across six continents, and enabled us to view them through the prism of time and the multiple perspectives of the travellers, including writers, pilgrims, diplomats, soldiers and explorers, who have visited them over the millennia.

Apart from the testimonies themselves, the book includes a concise introduction to each city and a pen-portrait of the commentator. In this way the book provides not only an insight into the cities but also an interesting perspective on each of the travellers.

Where to start such a journey? How about “A” is for Alexandria? Here we have useful factual descriptions by two geographers – Strabo in 20 BC and Al-Idrisi in c1150 – providing us with a description of the location and its strategic and commercial advantages on the cusp of the Mediterranean and the Nile Delta, along with a somewhat breathless account of a visit to the famous lighthouse on Pharos. There is also a contribution by Vivant Denon, a French diplomat visiting French forces in 1798 prior to the naval Battle of the Nile. This is based more on anticipation of Alexandria’s wonders than its reality, bearing in mind that Alexandria had by this time entered a period of decline.

This multi-dimensional perspective allows us to witness the evolution of the city and proves to be an invigorating theme throughout the book. Although some things never seem to change: Amsterdam is seen to be a testament to the genius of Dutch engineers battling against the challenges of building on water. (“They will remove large buildings from one place to another,” says admiring Cornishman Peter Mundy in 1840). A less admiring German prince writes of London in 1826 that “the huge city is … full of fog and dirt”.

On the whole, however, the book never fails to provoke and challenge our expectations as we see the interaction between the commentators, with their own intellectual and emotional baggage, and the evolution of the cities through time.

Sometimes the selection of commentators is reassuringly predictable: Freya Stark looks much at home in Baghdad; Ian Fleming seems happy in Hong Kong; Francis Younghusband is in his element in Lhasa; Graham Greene is our man in Havana and Colin Thubron has got behind that wall to reach Canton.

But what, we may ask, is Rudyard Kipling doing in Chicago and Oscar Wilde in Rome? The answer to the latter is that Wilde was by then a broken man seeking solace in the Eternal City a few months before his death. These are all names with which we are relatively familiar. Yet many of the journeys of discovery here are by travellers you might never have heard of.

For some of the contributors, danger was never far away. Freya Stark is led by a harmless-looking old man down a passageway and through ancient doors which instantly close behind her, finding herself surrounded by scantily clad men in what proves to be a bath house. Her English tourist act with a camera somehow saves the day. Richard Burton enters Mecca disguised as an Afghan Muslim, placing himself in mortal danger. This does not stop him both measuring and sketching the sacred Kaaba.

For Marco Polo, after his extensive travels on the Silk Road and a visit to Beijing, the danger was returning home to Venice where he was arrested and locked up. René Caillié was more fortunate. After being the “first man” to reach Timbuktu in the 1820s, which he entered disguised as an Arab, he returns to France to receive a 10,000 franc reward from the Société Geographique.

Among the many perspectives found in this book, there is always a sense of wonder. Alexander the Great said of Samarkand that “it is even more beautiful than I imagined”, though he was not your standard tourist.

Elsewhere, the wonder comes from the discovery of different cultures. The Japanese historian Kume Kunitake, for example, was sent on a fact-finding tour to the
West to provide reports in support of the modernisation following the Meiji Restoration in 1868. “Westerners,” he writes on a visit to San Francisco, “think trade to be the most important business in life.”

One of the beauties of this book is that we get a “foreign” perspective on places that we might regard as reasonably familiar. Bearing in mind LP Hartley’s dictum that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” all the cities covered here are to some extent foreign and waiting to be discovered through the eyes of the selected travellers.

The last word goes to Jan Morris on a visit to Washington: “Nowhere in the world is so inexorably improving,” she says. Regardless of whether you will be improved by this book, you will almost certainly be entertained and enlightened.