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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel

Journey to Italy

the Marquis de Sade

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To purchase Journey to Italy

Title: Journey to Italy
Author: D.A.F. de Sade
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (1776) (Eng. 2020)
Length: 727 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Journey to Italy - US
Journey to Italy - UK
Journey to Italy - Canada
Voyage d'Italie - Canada
Voyage d'Italie - France
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: University of Toronto Press
  • French title: Voyage d'Italie
  • First published in 1967
  • This translation is based on the 1995 edition (edited by Maurice Lever)
  • Translated and annotated, and with an Introduction by James A. Steintrager
  • With eight color plates and 22 illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting piece of work in this superb scholarly presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 24/4/2019 J. de Saint Victor
Le Monde . 30/3/1968 \Matthieu Galey
TLS . 2/4/2021 David Coward

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ce Voyage d'Italie est une auberge espagnole où il faut apporter son érudition -- et un certain gauchissement de l'esprit -- pour y découvrir ce qui s'y cache. Rien de commun, par exemple, avec le plaisir premier que l'on prend à relire, voire même à découvrir une œuvre comparable par le sujet, comme Rome, Naples et Florence, de Stendhal." - Matthieu Galey, Le Monde

  • "(S)turdily translated and exhaustively edited (.....) He keeps complaints about the terrible roads, indifferent lodgings, dull cuisine and thieving functionaries to a grumbling minimum but salutes the picturesque and pays his own pre-romantic tribute to ruins. And though he described himself as “a second-class art-lover”, he provides solid descriptions and opinions of artworks, architecture and public places. (...) For Steintrager, Sade’s performance as a “Philosophical Informant” (one title he considered for his unpublished Voyage) is less significant than Italy’s impact on his imagination." - David Coward, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Marquis de Sade was thirty-five when he set out on the trip chronicled in Journey to Italy. He had not yet written any of the notorious works his literary fame would come to rest on, but had already been involved in several scandals, notably the Rose Keller-affair (in 1768) and the 1772 scandal in Marseille, where he was sentenced to death and executed in effigy. In 1775 de Sade was, as translator James A. Steintrager puts it in his Introduction, yet again "on the run". As always, he had literary ambitions, and here the situation lent itself to his trying his hand at writing a kind of travel guide about his journey; he had already had a go at travel-writing in a similar work, Voyage en Hollande (1769) -- presented also, like this one, as a series of letters to a (fictional) countess.
       Journey to Italy was never completed, and only finally published in 1967 and then, in a more complete edition -- on which this translation is based --, in 1995. This translation is of the first volume of that 1995 edition edited by Maurice Lever:

which presents all of the material that the Marquis de Sade had gathered and redacted for his proposed book on what he saw and experienced in Italy, along with his exploratory drafts, fragments, summations, and selected excerpts from published sources that he was using for context and comparison with his own observations. It also includes correspondence addressed to Sade, both during but more especially after his trip, related to his travels in Italy and to the developing manuscript.
       As Steintrager notes, Lever's own introduction is not included in this translation; instead Steintrager provides his own lengthy and thorough Introduction -- 'A Guide to Sade's Grand Tour of Italy and the Road to Infamy', practically a monograph of its own. Steintrager also notes that he: "greatly expanded the explanatory and critical notes, which are almost entirely original". (His Introduction has 211 notes, and the text proper over 1300, so, yes, Journey to Italy is thoroughly and extensively annotated.)
       Beyond the lengthy Introduction, this edition is divided into two main parts: 'Journey to Italy', consisting of six chapters chronicling de Sade's trip, with its focus on Florence, Rome, and a then more recent addition to the Italian part of the traditional 'grand tour'-route, Naples (about which he notes: "if you are seeking out the arts, Naples is not the place to come. Having quit Rome, you leave them behind. You should only come here looking for Nature"), as well as the areas surrounding Rome and Naples, and then a section of 'Dossiers and Correspondence', consisting of three dossiers of notes and information ('General Material', as well as dossiers on 'Florence' and 'Rome'), of material de Sade collected for his (unfinished) travelogue-cum-guidebook as well as correspondence regarding the project.
       Journey to Italy is not a polished, finished work, but much of it is only lacking the final buff. De Sade put a lot of effort into the work, and wrote out a great deal; the first part is more than just a first draft, and presumably quite close to what de Sade was ultimately aiming for. The dossiers are also more than just stray notes, with much of the material already quite fully written out (some of it, admittedly, material taken essentially wholesale from other sources); together with the correspondence they also provide fascinating insight into the composition of this work.
       In his notes, de Sade explains the basic approach he embraces for the work:
This Voyage will be presented as a letter by a philosopher who has traveled, who imparts his reflections to a friend who wants to make the same voyage as he. This manner seems the best to me, because it is one that makes it most possible to lead his traveller by the hand.
       De Sade only gets so far with his semi-epistolary approach, but he does make some effort to keep up the pretense of writing to and for a single reader, an unnamed countess. One gets the sense that he had some trouble keeping it up, with only the first chapter beginning ("First Letter to Madam the Countess of ...") and concluding letter-like, though presumably a final version would have added similar frills to the remaining sections. He acknowledges that his exhaustive prolixity -- familiar, too, from his later fiction -- and the subject matter are perhaps not ideally suited to this form, referring in concluding his first chapter to the: "enormous letter" it had turned into -- even as the chapters on Rome and then Naples will turn out to be much longer. Possibly he or an editor might have tried to impose the epistolary structure more determinedly on the material in giving the book its final form, but as far as they go, de Sade's efforts in this regard are rather half-hearted.
       De Sade does acknowledge, near the beginning of this first 'letter', that rather than more traditional letters: "This collection will be a simple itinerary in which I will restrict myself to pointing out those striking beauties about which it is impossible not to speak, mingled with some reflections on mores". The dossier of 'General Materials' includes some of his ideas for how he wanted to title the work: 'Florence, Rome, and Naples'; 'The Philosophical Informant'; and 'Critical Memoirs on Italy were the three variations he came up with -- each with a(n increasingly detailed) subtitle, from: "New travels to its three cities, enlightened by the torch of truth and philosophy" to: "Work in which is particularly endeavoured to note with care the roles of legislation, government, forces, population, and mores, always neglected up to the present".
       For all his ambition, the 'Journey to Italy' proper nevertheless remains mainly guide-book, focused on the sights and arts, with the forays into mores limited and even less about legislation and the like. There is more history and background in the other material gathered by de Sade, but not all that much (yet) integrated into the travel-account itself.
       De Sade himself relied on guidebooks on his journey -- not least in contrasting his own efforts against them. Steintrager notes that Jérôme Richard's six-volume Description historique et critique de l'Italie was de Sade's "main general guidebook" -- but that: "Judging from how often he mentions its deficiencies, Sade saw abbé Richard's recently published Description historique et critique as his chief competition". Certainly, part of the fun of Journey to Italy is de Sade's relentless Richard-bashing -- even as he continues to cite him.
       The criticism begins early on:
Following in the path of this author, you see with chagrin how every day he put his fictions to work instead of relying on the truth, and above all, you see how much he was trying to make a book rather than a journey.
       Yet -- while apologizing: "forgive me, madam countess, if my description does not accord so well with that of Monsieur Richard" -- de Sade follows merrily along (and works away at his own book all the while) -- though not forgetting to continue the digs all along the way; it's not long before he's complaining that it's gotten to the point where: "My quill tires of refuting him". Almost all his disagreements with Richard are factual, but it's perhaps more interesting when they disagree on actual qualities, as, for example, when de Sade revealingly comments on Donatello's statue of Judith and Holofernes at the Palazzo Vecchio, arguing:
But today the subjugated Florentines ought to suffer at the sight of this statue, which must needs perpetually remind them of the era in which it was made. And it seems that they ought to have broken it with the same hand with which they crowned Cosimo I. Monsieur Richard has Jesuitically found confidence and courage in the heroine's face. As for me, I found nothing but impudence and audacity.
       As with the different titles he tries out, de Sade struggles some in just how he wants to shape his own book. It's an account of his voyage -- step by step, much of the way -- and the sights and art-work he comes across, whereby the sheer amount -- there's something at every turn, or sooner, it can seem -- can be overwhelming; there are times when he basically just gives up and just lists the works of art on display (and even so, some of these long inventories are only of selected pieces: when he visits the Borghese Palace he says he'll: "only mention, out of this numerous collection, those that gave me the most pleasure and that I believe to be the best" (noting that the collection itself is a jumble: "without order and without selection") -- and the list still covers over three page). Indeed, he emphasizes at times that he's just scratching the surface, as when he notes:
     Just imagine that I have not described the twentieth fraction of all the beautiful and all the precious antique objects contained in this Palace of the King of Naples, and then judge this magnificent collection from that.
       Early on, he basically sees how things are going and sums up his approach:
I point out things as I have seen them. It is up to the traveller who follows me to rearrange, as he sees fit, each object he would like to pursue. As for myself, I write as I go, and consequently, you must not hope for an ordering that is very exact in its details. Once again, I have my eyes only on truth and not on symmetry.
       If much of de Sade's account is, in its descriptions of pieces and sites, cursory, he does describe some more closely -- either providing more historical background, or expounding on what he perceives. His observations are often keen, and often nicely expressed -- as clearly also Journey to Italy is an exercise-book, a writer trying out different things in trying to find his footing. When something does capture his imagination, he often manages to put it very nicely, as when he writes about Stefano Maderno's Santa Cecilia statue:
It is a cadaver tossed there ... But you inhale still all the delicacy and al the svelteness of a young person seventeen or eighteen years old and as interesting as she is pretty. There is such a striking truthfulness in this divine piece that you cannot see it without being moved. I think that such a representation, glimpsed by someone who might have had some lively interest in the unfortunate model who might have experienced the same fate, would be liable perhaps to produce a stronger impression still than the cadaver itself. The effect could be dangerous.
       (This volume also includes eight color plates -- including of this Santa Cecilia -- and twenty-two illustrations, helpful reference regarding some of the pieces de Sade goes on about at greater length.)
       De Sade is modest about his art-critical faculties here:
Please excuse me for insisting perhaps too much on this piece. My taste and my feelings are only those of a second-class art lover. My claims are nothing more than this.
       But there's no question that his takes are more interesting than the sections that often seem to amount to little more than a catalogue of things seen. Even small asides are often striking, as when he writes of the Temple of Clitumnus that: "The interior is not much. Christian zeal appears to have utterly absorbed all the pagan beauties".
       De Sade does also describe his general impressions of places he visits, and of the locals -- and those impressions are not good, as he finds: "the most beautiful country in the universe inhabited by the most degenerate species". He is fairly consistently shocked by the backwardness he finds, right down to the poor lighting in Florence (leaving: "a darkness that is very condusive to criminal activity and even more so to breaking your legs"). For all the grand history of the places, contemporary Florence, Rome, and Naples have fallen far; he's shocked at: "just how much learning has degenerated and just how much the taste for villainy has replaced in the past few centuries that for literature and the fine arts". He can only conclude:
The resulting depravity has completed the work of corruption, and I believe that today it would require a total revolution to bring this people to that civility that reigns in the better part of the rest of Europe.
       De Sade expresses outrage at some of what he sees and learns of -- but much of it will remind readers of de Sade's own later fiction. In Naples he writes of seeing: "little girls of four and five offering themselves up for the most horrific debaucheries" and finds that basically everyone is willing to sell (out) everyone else:
A mother will offer you indifferently whichever of her children, male or female, will the more inflame your penchants. A sister will offer you her brother, a father his daughter, a husband his wife. It is just a matter of paying.
       He reports of having encountered a similar "moral disorder" in Florence -- including that: "Shortly before my arrival, an eight-year-old child had lost her life a fortnight after suffering forced indecencies in one of those palaces". Meanwhile in some of the 'Curious, Philosophical, and Critical Notes' on Rome included in one of the dossiers -- apparently a translation of another's account -- that city is described as having its share of rabble as well:
     The death of masters, the inevitable decadence of courtiers, the scarcity of public employments, the large number of handouts that ensure certain aid for idleness, all this produces that prodigious multitude of riff-raff who live in Rome without any profession.
       If much is static -- art; vistas -- occasionally de Sade reports actually witnessing real action -- and dramatic though some of this is, this can come close to the comic in its description, as when he sees:
Two men attacked one another for half a cow -- the object was worth the trouble, that I admit. Immediately, knives were in hand. In Naples and Rome, this is the only response to a discussion. One of the men collapses, swimming in his blood. But the vanquisher does not enjoy his victory for long. The scaffolding along which he was climbing in order to make off with his prize gives way under his feet. Smothered under the side of beef, he himself plummets onto the cadaver of his rival. Meat, wounded, dead, everything becomes one. You can only make out a single mass, when new competitors, taking advantage of the disgrace of the two conquered me, disentangle the mound of meat from the cadavers under which it has been swallowed up and triumphantly carry it away, still dripping with the blood of their rivals.
       There's also the occasional colorful historical anecdote -- the Godfrey who: "died quite violently: having gone to relieve himself in the lavatories, an arrow pierced him through the anus" -- and brief discussion of a variety of more explicit art, from the statue that is: "a single priapus or virile member, but of such prodigious size that it would be possible to gaze upon the piece without guessing what it is" (de Sade also noting that the sculpture is kept: "covered by a cardboard lion's head, and if you are accompanied by a young person whose imagination one fears awakening, it is not shown") to the Hermaphrodite that no longer is one: "formerly one could see the well-formed masculine part as well, but the zealotry of the master of the house ordained that this indecency be broken off in such a manner that the statue, no longer showing anything but feminine characteristics, has entirely lost its value and no longer resembles anything at all".
       The supplemental material -- the dossiers and correspondence -- offer some good material of their own, but are especially interesting in revealing de Sade and those he asks for input shaping his work. There are marginal notes reminding him: "You have said this in the text" or: "Insert the years; you forgot to do so", or a note that suggests (surely not very helpfully, regardless of which way one takes it): "Talk about the paving, which I think you already have done". There's a section offering: 'Abridged Descriptions (Very Abridged at That) of Saint Peter's Basilica' with, tucked away in the notes, de Sade going off on Peter as: "one of the first idlers that the opportunist Jesus came across and whom he reckoned thanks to his absurdness worthy of following him, and it was at the home of his mother-in-law that the new magician of the Jews did his first trick".
       The correspondence is largely one-sided, the letters de Sade wrote not preserved and mostly only the ones he received found here. They include the heated correspondence from Chiara Moldetti -- who complains that he never writes, even as she throws herself at him. Of particular interest are the questionnaires de Sade sent out, looking for specific bits of information for his book, with a Doctor Mesny particularly obliging in responding. Not everything de Sade asks has to do with Italy either, as he also throws in personal inquiries such as:
     [Q] Question concerning my health. Cologne water, in which I place considerable faith, taken internally and mixed into some liqueur, can it assuage stomach pains occasioned by slow and painful digestion ? Does it have any drawbacks ? I am subject to these troubles.
     [A] Cologne water is made up of spirit of wine and of essential oils of orange, citron, and others. It can be good for digestion, but it would be better not to put yourself in that situation: eat less, walk more, and consume healthy things, less fatty foods, few pastries.
       The entire volume is painstakingly presented, a model piece of scholarship, with Steintrager (of course also building on Lever) tracking down each reference, seeking out exact quotes, providing additional information (such as what exactly that punishment for Vestal Virgins who violated the laws of chastity involved) -- and correcting de Sade where necessary (or noting where, for example: "Sade's description wants clarity"). The volume is a beautiful piece of work in every respect -- and Steintrager's lengthy Introduction very helpful in placing it in context and showing the influences on de Sade's later, better-known work.
       Much of the value of this work is in the strayest bits, such as the mention of a 1779 letter by Madame de Sade to her husband, writing: "Once again all your ideas are killing you and making me despair; there is nothing commonsensical in them", or in the eerie point where de Sade describes how easily lawlessness prevails in part of the country -- writing about a place just a few kilometers from where his son "would be murdered by Neapolitan bandits" some two decades later.
       If exhausting in its exhaustiveness -- so also in the all-inclusiveness of this volume, extending to the surrounding notes and correspondence -- Journey to Italy is still a fascinating document of its times, and along its long way offers considerable insight into the Italy of the late eighteenth century (taken with more than a grain of salt, of course as de Sade clearly tends towards seeing the worst in then-present day Italy and its inhabitants). Of course, the book is also of considerable interest in the light it casts on its author and his future work.
       Though incomplete, and not published until nearly two hundred years after it was written, Journey to Italy is quite readable -- though presumably many would-be readers would tend towards skimming in parts. Certainly, especially in this excellent presentation, there are many nuggets here which make a closer reading worthwhile; obviously, this isn't for everyone, but readers interested in Italian culture, those specific times, and in de Sade as man and author will find a great deal here that is worthwhile.
       Journey to Italy is also simply a beautiful book, physically (yes, with the price tag to go with it), which never hurts.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 April 2022

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Journey to Italy: Donatien Alphonse François de Sade: Other books by D.A.F. de Sade under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Notorious French author Donatien Alphonse François de Sade lived 1740 to 1814.

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© 2022 the complete review

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