Amongst the many travel books in the Cathedral Library’s collection, there is one that seems to be invested with a particularly personal affection for its subject. The book is Latium (full title A description of Latium or La Campagna Di Roma). It was published in London in 1805, and illustrated with 20 beautiful etchings by the author. Whilst the title page does not bear the author’s name, we know her to be Ellis Cornelia Knight.
Cornelia was the daughter of a Rear-Admiral, well educated in Latin and several other European languages. Upon her father’s death she moved with her mother to Naples, where their modest income would stretch further. Here they moved in relatively exalted circles, and became part of the extended English court that centred on Sir William and Lady Hamilton. She was also acquainted with Nelson, and had become his unofficial poet laureate, writing verses celebrating his victories.
Latium is a personal study of the history, geography, mythology and people of the area that bounds the city of Rome. Cornelia’s research was impressive, and whilst her tone, to modern readers, can seem a little patronizing towards the local people, it is nevertheless an affectionate study of a region she clearly loved.
She was both a writer and an artist, and her artist’s eye comes to the fore and lends an aesthetic colour to her prose, as in her description of the hills around Rome, where she describes “…a sky, where the brilliancy of the purest azure is softened by light vapours near the horizon.”
Her stated aim, in writing the book, was to excite curiosity and provide descriptions of scenery which may serve to elucidate many passages of her readers’ favourite classical authors. In particular she takes delight in the humbler objects of the locality, and in the striking features peculiar to the country. One graphic example of this can be found in her etching for Plate 12, which depicts a “Cottage at Grotta Ferrata”, the site of a monastery, and supposed to be the spot where Cicero’s villa was situated. Rather than depict the monastery she has chosen the picturesque scene of a thatched cottage, with attendant cottagers, a pig on a lead, and a dog.
But her artist’s eye was forever tuned, and in her chapter on Marino, a town “twelve miles distant from Rome” she again betrays her artistic inclinations by describing the merits of the Prince Colonna’s art collection, housed in his palace there. The Prince was the High Constable of the kingdom of Naples, and boasted amongst his collection works by Claude, Poussin, Rubens and Tintoretto amongst others. The author devotes a whole page to listing and describing the “most worthy”.
The second part of this blog will concentrate on Cornelia’s later life, and in particular on her affection for the people of Latium.