The more things change…

Guidebooks for travelers in the 19th century provide an interesting glimpse into the way things have changed—and the way they haven’t. Then, as now, people often set off for foreign lands with a picture in their minds drawn from books they have read. I know my picture of Paris was permanenty etched in my mind by BABAR THE ELEPHANT back when I was a toddler. The wrought-iron balconies are just what I expected, but I'm always surprised that there aren't any little old ladies wearing long dresses.

Back in the 19th century, people may have read different books, but those books still created expectations. According to numerous Gothic novels of the Romantic period, the hills of Italy were thick with robbers, some of them villains and some of them tortured heroes. There was L’Innominato, the Unnamed, in Manzoni’s The Betrothed, Montoni in Mrs. Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho,  Vulpius’s Robber Captain, and all their numerous progeny.

Those books were enormously popular—so popular that generations of romantically inclined readers grew up convinced that Italy was a hotbed of brigandage.

They weren’t entirely mistaken, but that is not the sort of reputation that does the tourist industry much good. By 1867, when tourists were covering the Continent, guidebooks in hand, Karl Baedeker, creator of the famous guidebooks that continue to this day, was assuring his readers that Northern and Central Italy were quite as safe as the more northern countries of Europe.

That didn’t mean travelers should leave their common sense behind. “At the same time,” he wrote, “the traveller might be reminded of the danger of seeking quarters for the night in inferior or remote inns in large towns. Rome and Naples are deservedly notorious in this respect.”

In other words, don’t go wandering down dark alleys in strange parts of town—the same sort of warning that might be given to tourists in New York, Paris, London or any other large city today.

He also pointed out that robbers on the highway preferred to attack wealthy residents of the area who they knew would be carrying large sums of money. Presumably, the robbers didn’t want to waste their time.

Baedeker’s Handbook for Travellers for Southern Italy told a slightly different story:

“Owing to the revolution of 1860 [Brigantaggio] had increased in the Neapolitan provinces to an alarming extent. The Italian government has done its utmost to suppress this national scourge and its efforts have in a great measure been crowned with success, but the evil still resembles a conflagration which has not been completely extinguished and from time to time bursts forth anew. The demoralization of the inhabitants of the southern provinces is still deplorably great, and the brigandage there is not only fostered by popular discontent and a professed sympathy for the Bourbons, but is actually carried on as a speculation by landed proprietors. These ‘gentry’ frequently equip and harbour gangs of banditti with whom they share the spoils, or at least aid and abet them ;on condition that their own property is respected. The evil is moreover favoured by the mountainous character of the country, into the remote recesses of which troops cannot easily penetrate. The most notorious districts are the frontier range of mountains between the Neapolitan provinces and the present States of the Church, the mountains of Campania and the whole of Calabria. Sicily has also of late years been much infested by brigands, especially the provinces of Palermo and Girgenti, but even in the most dangerous localities those who adopt ordinary precautions may travel with tolerable safety.”

After all, even today, the Mafia, the ’Ndrangheta and their ilk rarely trouble tourists.

There was a further warning for those who might consider “tolerable safety” insufficient: “Weapons cannot legally be carried without a license. For the ordinary traveller they are a mere burden, and in the case of a rencontre with brigands they only serve greatly to increase the danger.”


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