Mariana Starke: The Celebrated Tourist

October 2012

As today’s traveller sets off for Italy—or anywhere else—he is likely to take with him a guide book. Whatever his choice, its presence in his luggage can be traced back to the work of one woman—Mariana Starke—who in 1802 published Travels in Italy between the years 1792 and 1798. Over the subsequent thirty-five years that book evolved from a series of letters particularising her own experiences into a work that contained details of everything she thought necessary to provide mental stimulus and bodily comfort for the visitor to Italy—and beyond.

When published in 1815 a revised edition answered a new demand. With Napoleon banished, Europe was once again open and in this new age it was no longer only aristocrats but also men and women of the middling sort who were eager to gaze on the glories of the past. With an eye on their finances and a very English fear of being cheated by duplicitous foreigners, such travellers were relieved to discover there was no need go to the expense of hiring a cicerone when one book would answer all their requirements. Its title was reassuring and to the point—Letters from Italy…pointing out the matchless works of art which still embellish Pisa, Florence, Siena, Rome, Naples, Bologna, Venice, etc. Also specifying the expense incurred by residing in various parts of Italy, France, etc so that persons who visit the Continent for economical motives may select the most eligible places for permanent residence…and for the use of invalids and families who may wish to avoid the expense attendant upon travelling with a courier.

In the past those who had undertaken—and then written of—the Grand Tour had not burdened themselves with even the vaguest knowledge of the price to be paid for washing petticoats in Pisa, buying wax candles in Venice, asses’ milk in Tuscany, or hiring carriages in Florence. It took a woman, and a woman conscious of value for money, to set out these details—and a thousand more—pertinent to the traveller’s life. In addition Mariana Starke included a very lengthy list of the equipment to be carried—from a nutmeg grater to a chamber pot to fit into the well of a coach—and detailed the best lodging houses, restaurants, doctors, dentists, provision merchants, dress makers and tailors, as well as descriptions and opening hours of all the principal sights.

It was Mariana Starke who introduced into her guide such practical ideas as annotating particular buildings and paintings with exclamation marks to indicate merit and of setting out a daily itinerary in order to ‘prevent Travellers from wasting their time and burdening their memory by a minute survey of what is not particularly interesting, and thereby, perhaps, depriving themselves of leisure to examine what really deserves the closest attention.’ Although such didacticism was open to mockery from the cultured élite, history proved the firm of John Murray to have made a wise decision when, in the early 1820s, it took over publication of Mariana Starke’s work. For, after her death in 1838, it was her travel guide that Murray took as a template for the famous series of Handbooks that, with Baedeker’s equivalent, conducted the traveller through Europe during the subsequent century. Although long forgotten, in her lifetime Mariana Starke’s work was carried in the hands of Stendhal, Dickens and Mary Shelley, as well as in those of thousands of lesser mortals, meriting her the epithet ‘The Celebrated Tourist’.

This entry was written by Elizabeth Crawford; more can be found out about Mariana Starke on Elizabeth’s website Woman and her Sphere