Travels in Latium: An English Woman in Italy (Part II)

Steve Hobbs continues his account of Ellis Cornelia Knight, her writing,on Italy. An 1805 edition of her Description of Latium is held by Worcester Cathedral Library. 

Following her mother’s death in 1799, and in compliance with her dying wishes, Ellis Cornelia Knight placed herself under the protection of Lady Hamilton. She returned to England with the Hamiltons and Lord Nelson. During the journey home she became embarrassed at the growing intimacy between Lady Hamilton and Nelson, and was encouraged by her friends to drop the acquaintance in the light of the ensuing scandal. Although she feared the consequences she made the break, much to the indignation of Lady Hamilton.

In 1805, the year of Latium’s publication, she entered the service of Queen Charlotte (to whom she dedicated the book) as her companion, and remained there until 1813, when she moved to a similar position with the Princess of Wales, Charlotte Augusta. The move caused some conflict with the Queen, and subsequently led to her dismissal by the Regent.

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Temple of Serapis at Palestrina. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

One possible reason for Latium’s undoubted popularity in its day was Cornelia’s particular attention to the minutiae of daily life and customs. Not only did the region’s towns, roads, country-houses, and wildlife receive her attention, but also its diseases, ailments, social mores and conventions. She was particularly captivated by the more modest people, as evidenced by her chapter on the town of Palestrina, where she gives a lengthy description of the dress of the local wives. And throughout the book she returns again and again to evocative descriptions of interiors, paintings and frescos. She never fails to sing great praise of the local people, and credits them with good sense, manners, appearance and customs. On the whole she finds them both uncommonly civilised and gregarious. On reading the book the reader is left in no doubt of her love for the region and its people.

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Albanese and Neptunese (women’s regional dress). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

In her conclusion she outlines what she finds most captivating about the region, namely the “noble structures and delightful gardens still remaining”, and when reformation and political change lessened the respect for this part of Italy she takes great comfort from the fact that “the arts stepped in to support and vivify their drooping country, and rendered it once more the object of delight and veneration.”

Cornelia returned to Europe in 1816, spending her last twenty years away from England. By 1818 she was employed as a teacher of English, literature, science and the fine arts to the young Marquis d’Azeglio, a prominent Italian writer, painter and politician. She subsequently died in Paris in 1837, having published five works, and left around 1800 drawings. Her portrait, painted by Angelica Kauffman, remains to give us an impression of this remarkable woman.

Steve Hobbs

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