- Historic Sites
Miss Knight Abroad
For a provincial belle from Natchez, the Grand Tour was a priceless introduction to Europe’s art, its feudal pomp, and its tourist trade
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
The capital was extremely gay. One Sunday morning Fanny arose to find all Paris preparing for a fete in honor of Emperor Louis Napoleon. The military was out, hand organs played in the streets, and great crowds surged along the boulevards. In the evening everything was a blaze of lights. The wily Louis was endeavoring to make the populace forget the bloody struggles of 1848, and he was succeeding admirably: already hundreds of buildings that had been reduced to rubble had risen again.
“The Emperor has a twofold design in view,” Fanny wrote, “the embellishing of the city, and keeping the people out of mischief, for he well knows that his security lies in keeping the working class employed so that it will have no time to meditate revolution. We have seen the Emperor several times, as well as the Empress Eugénie. Louis Napoleon is a fine looking man—at least he appears that way in an open phaeton—is rather pallid and wears an immense moustache … He dresses plainly in a dark blue cloth suit with gilt buttons and a plain black hat. The Empress has the most beautiful neck and shoulders that I ever saw, and her bust is considered one of the finest.”
Many years before, Louis Napoleon’s uncle, Jérôme Bonaparte, had married a beautiful American girl, but his family had refused to recognize her. Now, as Jérôme passed them in the royal cavalcade, Mrs. Knight and her daughter indulged in a bit of chauvinism, mixed with womanly solidarity. “Ma remarked to me,” Fanny wrote, “that Prince Jérôme looked rather superannuated although his wig is so black. It is hard to believe that this old man was once the dashing lover of Mistress Betsy Patterson in Baltimore!”
From Paris the Knights toured the Low Countries and visited the Field of Waterloo, where they encountered an enterprising British coach operator (see top left). Then, as winter neared, they turned southward along the path to Rome.
A large and cosmopolitan artists’ colony flourished in Rome during the 1850’s, and it was considered fashionable for visitors to the city to make the rounds of the studios, looking at works of art, admiring and criticizing, and often buying. Fanny and her parents visited almost fifty studios and were for the most part pleased with what they saw. But their interest in culture was kept firmly within the bounds of Victorian propriety. Mrs. Knight kept a travel diary, too, and to it she confided: ”… we went to Mr. William Page’s studio and saw two of his Venuses. They are entirely too nude, one being in a lying posture, the other standing on a dolphin. At the studio of John Gibson, an English sculptor, I did not care at all for his painted statue of Venus, as the pink colouring of the marble makes her look indecent.”
The artist whom the Knights visited most often was young Edward Sheffield Bartholomew, a shy, lame sculptor from Hartford, Connecticut. Fanny and her mother “sat for their busts,” and Mr. Bartholomew gallantly squired the ladies around Rome. They walked wondering through the baroque vastness of St. Peter’s, and one evening after dinner, as Fanny was walking in the Piazza del Popolo, she saw the Pope himself—it was Pius IX—pass quite close to her. “He was attended by two Cardinals,” she wrote, “while two heralds on horseback announced his approach. The cortege was very plain and unpretending, his carriage being the only object which had any pretensions to grandeur and style. The pope looked remarkably well and seemed pleased.”
The tourists remained in Rome for some time—long enough to participate in the social life of the international colony. And in Rome, too, Fanny began acquiring some of the intellectual attainments which, in her father’s mind, had been one of the purposes of their tour. She studied music and art, and took lessons in Italian from Signor Vincenzo Sanguinetti, a most attractive gentleman. The winter passed pleasantly in the warm Italian sun, but with the return of spring they would be off again. One evening Signor Sanguinetti called for a farewell visit. Bowing low over Fanny’s hand, he placed in it a note (above, right), beautifully decorated with gilded cupids, bows and arrows, and a pink Venus reclining in a sea shell towed by swans. It was a sonnet he had written to the “lovely damsel” from Natchez—a romantic memento for young Fanny Knight as she headed south with her parents for Naples.