Tobias Smollett’s grave in the Old English Cemetery of Livorno has always sparked people’s interest: numerous visitors were attracted to the English Cemetery just to see the tomb of the great Scottish writer and historian. Some of them even took pieces of marble off as souvenirs, or left messages inscribed on the monument. Many travellers left short accounts on their visit to the cemetery and to Smollett’s tomb. Later on, the apparent mystery of its wrong inscription led to a written confrontation between Consul Montgomery Carmichael and Col. Buchan Telfer on the pages of The Times. More recently, after WWII, some concerned readers wrote to the Editor of The Times to denounce the state of neglect of the cemetery and of Smollett’s grave. The newspaper even published two pictures of the burial ground, of which one portrayed the writer’s monument at that time (1953).
The following picture shows the actual monument over Smollett’s grave in the Old English Cemetery of Livorno, as it is now.
I do not intend here to discuss the old debate regarding the incongruence of the date of the inscription (indicating a date some two years later than the actual death), but I’d like to point out an article which began appearing in the English press in the autumn of 1818, entitled “Smollett’s Tomb”. The article described a completely different grave and also quite a different location for Tobias Smollett’s tomb…
Intrigued by this story, I searched for more information and transcribed the original 1818 article which I found printed in several different magazines:
The New Bon Ton Magazine or, Telescope of the Times, August 1st, 1818, p.204.
The London Literary Gazette, n.86, Sept. 12th, 1818, p.590-591.
The European Magazine and London Review, vol.76 (Jul.-Dec. 1819), p.512.
The same article appeared also in other magazines, for many years to follow. Here it is:
Situated on the banks of the Arno, between Leghorn and Pisa, in the most romantic spot that even the vivid imagination of an Italian could select, rises the tomb of our countryman Smollett, the author of Roderick Random, &c. It is of a plain octagonal form about thirty feet in height, and six feet in diameter at the base which forms an apartment, to which there are three doors. The English who visit it from the port of Leghorn, have erected a plain marble table, surrounded by stone seats within, and scarce a vessel arrives, but the officers and crews pay a visit to Smollett’s tomb, and do homage to his memory in sacrifices of the finest fruits and copious libations of the most generous “lachrymae christi” wine.
It is worthy of remark, that the tomb is covered with laurel, so that scarce a stone can be seen, and it is even bound up to clear the entrance at the doors. The laurel grows wild in all parts of Tuscany, and the homage of friends has planted many a slip on the tomb of departed genius. Four marble slabs are placed inside, with suitable inscriptions in the Italian, Latin, Greek and English languages. The Italian runs thus:-
Stranger; respect the name of TOBIAS SMOLLETT,
A man of letters and playful genius;
Contented in Tuscany.
requires your prayers.
He knew every thing – he loved every one.
Familiar with past
His works merit a place by the side
Pray for his soul.
The Greek Inscription has been thus translated: I am not competent to say but a better may be given:-
Here Smollett rests,
Citizen of the world,
A Xenophon and an Hippocrates,
A Terence and a Boccaccio.
If he had
A native country, it was this;
he chose to die.
I was his friend.
THE ENGLISH INSCRIPTION
“Patria cara carier liberta”
The great historian of his day,
who rivall’d all but HUME below,
Thou tread’st upon his lowly clay;
then let thy tears of rapture flow.
The first of novellists he shone,
the first of moralists was he,
Who Nature’s pencil waved alone,
and painted man as he should be.
Dumbarton’s vale in life’s gay prime
Cherish’d this blossom of the North,
Italia’s sweet and favoured clime
Enshrines in death the man of worth.
There is much merit in the latter composition: it has evidently been written by a Scotchman. The Factory at Leghorn know not who placed the slab, except that it was some person who brought it from Florence: the initials J.H.B. I have heard interpreted James Hay Beattie. I believe the doctor never was in Italy; whether he ever wrote such an inscription I cannot pretend to say; this little account may not be uninteresting to some of your readers. A TRAVELLER.”
The same reference to this unknown location on “the banks of the Arno” was made by the Times in two short identical articles printed two days apart:
The Times, September 23rd and 25th, 1818:
” …. The tomb of Dr Smollett, which is situated on the banks of the Arno, between Leghorn and Pisa, is now so covered with laurel, that it can scarcely be seen, and the branches are even bound up to clear the entrance to the doors, so many of his countrymen having planted slips in honour of departed genius. … “
This article was also printed in The Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1818 (p.267).
In 1825, finally, a longer and illustrated article appeared in The Portfolio magazine. This even showed an engraving representing the mysterious octagonal grave of Smollett:
The Portfolio, N.145, vol.VI, October 29th, 1825, p.1
“(…) When he [Smollett] arrived at Leghorn he was hospitably received by all the British in the place, and the Grand Duke of Tuscany ordered him apartments in a palace near the sea-side – there he experienced a state of convalescence, and began to hope for a longer extension of his span. He removed from the city, where the fame of his merits brought him too many visitors, to a neat cottage on the banks of the River Arno, about nine miles from Leghorn, there he amused himself with reading, and wandering on its flowery banks for two summers. He was too weak for attempting any literary composition; and without any symptoms of having grown worse, he died as calmly as he wished. His old domestic found him on a turf seat, which stood under a fig tree, surrounded on three sides with flowering shrubs, leaning his head against the tree, with a book in his hand, and quite dead.
His tomb is erected on the very spot, and was done at the expense of the British merchants and gentry resident at Leghorn and Florence. Inside of the tomb is an inscription, in Latin and Italian, implying:-
Scotland gave him birth,
England fostered his genius,
And Italy holds the ashes of
Tobias Smollett, M.D.,
The first Novelist of his age.
The plate represents his tomb as it stood in the year 1790; but in the desolations that have visited unhappy Italy, his tomb – the grave of genius – did not escape devastation. A great part of it is now thrown down, and the ruins are every where twined round with laurel and myrtle.
When the French occupied Leghorn, Smollett’s tomb was the head-quarters of a subaltern, who lived in it, and his small party in the cottages adjoining. There is a stone table in the centre, around which twenty persons may conveniently sit, and the roof is 10 feet high; the door is large, and the silver Arno flows majestically by, about fifty yards from the front.
When the British fleet, commanded by Lords Hood and Hotham, made Leghorn roads a rendezvous, it was the fashion to make parties up the Arno, and dine in the tomb of the British novelist. Sometimes twenty officers have sat down, and fired their pistols as a requiem over his grave, when they toasted his health.
The writer was one of a party, where a Lieutenant (I decline mentioning his name) insisted upon bumpering Smollett’s health three times over; he was asked the reason of his enthusiasm and if he knew who Smollett was. “Not exactly,” was the reply; “for he kicked the bucket before my time, but I suppose he was some great Italian Admiral in the days of the Romans.”
Smollett’s tomb has been the scene of much festivity:- a Scotch sailor, belonging to the Diadem, Captain Towry, was taken thither with his sweetheart, by the officers, and married in the sepulchre of genius. A dance and a feast ensued; and had Smollett been able to pop his head above the earth, he would have witnessed a scene worthy of the most brilliant touches of his quaint and humourous pen; for no man ever portrayed sea characters to the life more truly and pleasingly than he did.
When Lord Byron lived at Pisa, he often visited this most romantic spot – so dear to every free-born Englishman; and it is much to be wondered at, that he never strung his lyre, and breathed an anthem to the memory of a kindred soul. His Lordship, no doubt, wrote much which has not yet seen the light, and never may; for I cannot persuade myself he would let such an opportunity escape of paying a tribute to the worth of a poet, a novelist, and a historian.
It is not intended here to say any thing of the merits of Smollett as an author: they are well known, and properly appreciated, and his name will be as lasting as his “land’s language.”
Smollett left no children; and, like Absalom, he has his pillar to perpetuate his name, near Dumbarton, on the banks of Loch Lomond, where he was born: it is almost as romantic and pictoresque as his tomb on the banks of the Arno; and both were erected by strangers! his country has, as yet, awarded him – “No storied urn or animated bust.” […]”
In 2011, during my research visit to the National Archives, I stumbled upon a modern (1957) typescript transcription of a journal dated much earlier. The document, conserved among the Foreign Office Papers (FO904/13), described a visit to the Old English Cemetery of Livorno made by the author together with other people (Dr. Peebles, Lady Belmore, Miss Caldwell and the two Miss Swinnerton). It is possible to approximately date it because of the following sentence: “…we paid a tribute of respect to the mould which covers the remains of Francis Horner. His monument has not yet been erected, but a simple marble slab protects his revered dust in the meanwhile (…). I made the following sketch of the spot. (The stone on the left covers the grave of two sisters, Frances and Louisa Jane Drewe (…) who died (…) the 19th of March, and (…) the 10th May, 1817. Both (…) had attended Mr. Horner’s funeral.)“. From this passage we can definitely say that these people visited the cemetery after May 1817 and before 1820, year in which Francis Horner’s brother received the medallion portrait he had commissioned in 1817 to the sculptor Chantrey for his grave in Livorno. This date is important for the next passage regarding Smollett’s tomb: “The ingenious Dr. Smollett died at Leghorn and his remains are interred here. But he was without a monument until several gentlemen amongst whom were Mr. Grant and Mr. Hall, joined to pay him that tribute. His is of white marble, and simple and beautiful in its form. (…)“.
So, if we believe this account, made between 1817 and 1820, Smollett’s grave was marked by the same monument that we can see today well after his death. Could this be an argument towards the existence of the octagonal mausoleum “on the banks of the river Arno“? Still it seems strange that the author would not know about it, especially visiting the cemetery with Dr. Peebles, a long time resident of Livorno. Indeed, the four inscriptions cited above were also included in Smollett’s Works by Anderson. In the 1796 edition of the Works, Anderson remained vague: “Soon after his death, a monument was erected to his memory, near Leghorn, by his wife, with the following inscription, written by his friend Armstrong…“. Dr. Armstrong’s supposed inscription never appears in the articles I cited above and certainly is not inscribed on the grave in the English Cemetery. Carmichael argues that this could have been the idea of Smollett’s wife, but it never happened in fact. In the 1820 edition, Anderson made a more detailed description: “Soon after his death, a plain monument was erected to his memory by his disconsolate widow, in the burying-ground belonging to the English Factory at Leghorn“. However he seems to confuse the two graves because he also added that “Within the tomb of Smollett, situated in a romantic spot, of an octagonal form, (…) four marble slabs were placed, we are told, at a subsequent period…“. He finally referred to a transcription of these four slabs he found on St James’s Chronicle (Oct. 3, 1818), but doubted that “The account of his tomb may be a fabrication, but the inscriptions claim a place among the memorials of his fame (…)“
The Buchan Telfer-Carmichael dispute over Smollett’s grave can certainly provide a few interesting hints; for instance, Carmichael suggests that Smollett’s entry on the burial register of Livorno’s protestant community was added by Rev. Thomas Hall after noticing it was not entered at the right time by his predecessor Rev. James Haggarth. Hall, as Carmichael says, must then have copied the date from the monument inscription, and this could have happened only after 1783, when he became Chaplain at Livorno. There’s no proof that the monument existed long before this date but if Carmichael is right, then it definitely existed sometimes after 1783 and before 1824 (Hall’s death). It is also to be considered that Smollett’s wife was living in Livorno until her own death in 1791. Is it realistic to think that a monument would be erected over her husband’s grave with a wrong date while she was still living there? Maybe not, and so it might have been erected after 1791. The anonymous journal cited above would confirm this hypotheses adding the important detail that Smollet “…was without a monument until several gentlemen amongst whom were Mr. Grant and Mr. Hall, joined to pay him that tribute“. The Mr. Hall and Mr. Grant are, most certainly, the reverend Thomas Hall, and one of the Scottish brothers Grant, either Isaac, who established himself in Livorno in the late 1780s, or John, who joined him later.
Col. Buchan Telfer, in his answer to Consul Carmichael, adds that he had a letter dated 1882, from his old friend Mr. Alexander Macbean (British Consul in Livorno 1843-1883) stating that his “recollection of the obelisk dates back fully sixty years…“. This would demonstrate that the obelisk was there before 1822, but we have to believe that a 9 years old Alexander Macbean would have remembered this fact 60 years later! Buchan Telfer adds also that there’s evidence that the obelisk existed already in 1816, but unfortunately he does not reference his statement.
The quotes about the Old English Cemetery that I collected in a specific page are of little help, but at least can confirm the existence of the obelisk before a certain date:
In the letter from Dr. Gaspard Marcet to Leonard Horner (brother of Francis) dated from Florence the 5th March 1821, he says, speaking about his very recent visit to the cemetery: “(…) Thus I very unexpectedly fell in with Smollett’s tomb (…)”.
On 17th November 1816, Major W. E. Frye visited the cemetery and reported in his ‘After Waterloo: Reminiscences of European Travel 1815-1819’: “My guide at Leghorn conducted me to see the burying ground belonging to the English factory, which is interesting enough from the variety of tombs, monuments and inscriptions. Here all Protestants, to whatever nation they belong, are buried. I noticed Smollett’s tomb.”
The american merchant and traveller Robert Semple visited the cemetery in January 1806 and wrote on his ‘Observations on a Journey through Spain and Italy to Naples’: “(…) Here lie the remains of Tobias Smollett; and I felt a melancholy pleasure at beholding in Italy the grave of a man by whose writings I had been so often charmed, and to whose memory I had already seen an obelisk erected on the banks of the Leven. (…) Besides the pillar to the memory of Smollett and many others worthy of attention I particularly paused on the tomb stone of a mother (…)”
After all these arguments, it would make sense to think that Smollett’s grave in the Old English Cemetery of Livorno was probably made between 1791 and 1806, but what about the mysterious octagonal mausoleum “on the banks of the river Arno”?
No convincing proof, until now, has ever been found to demonstrate its existence, but the fact that Smollett might not have had a monument in the cemetery for maybe 20-35 years after his death, could indicate that the mausoleum existed.