Michael G. Brennan, English Travellers to Venice: 1450-1600, London: The Hakluyt Society, 2022.

By Michael G Brennan, Professor of Renaissance Studies at the School of English, University of Leeds.

English Travellers to Venice: 1450-1600 originally developed from accounts of travellers to Venice in my two earlier Hakluyt Society books: The Travel Diary of Robert Bargrave Levant Merchant 1647-1656 (1999) and The Origins of the Grand Tour. The Travels of Robert Montagu, Lord Mandeville, 1649-1651, William Hammond, 1655-1658, and Banaster Maynard, 1660-1663 (2004). As I was editing these two volumes, I became aware that there were many other, earlier accounts of English travellers to Venice which either had never been edited or were not readily available to modern readers.

Hence, I began to research the period 1450-1600 and was increasingly interested – and surprised – by the sheer wealth, diversity and interest of manuscript and printed materials from these earlier times. I also decided to include individuals whose experiences were recorded in letters, diaries, intelligence reports and other media, in the case of Sir Henry Unton (c.1558-96) a large biographical painting recording various key moments from his life, including his time at Venice and Padua (which was otherwise unrecorded).

Sir Henry Unton by Unknown artist / oil on panel, circa 1596 / NPG 710 / © National Portrait Gallery, London

With reference to paintings and the images most of us know of Venice as a city floating on water, I felt it was important to give this book as strong a visual impact as possible. Hence, it includes 26 colour illustrations of scenes from Venice and paintings by Bellini, Titian, del Piombo, Veronese, Tintoretto, and other artists. 45 black and white engravings are also reproduced, many from the remarkable collections of Venetian engravings by Giacomo Franco (1550-1620), recording perspectives on daily Venetian life, fashions, its renowned annual carnival, major buildings and republican government. Finally, along with two modern maps of the city of Venice at this period and its possessions in the eastern Mediterranean, 14 colour illustrations are included of maps of Venice dating from the 1480s to the late sixteenth century.

The travellers themselves form a diverse group, including pilgrims, scholars, ambassadors, political and religious exiles, young men travelling to broaden their educational experiences (as a precursor to the eighteenth-century Grand Tour), members of the aristocracy, historians, intelligence gatherers and spies, and even an English sailor who had been enslaved in the galleys of the Turkish fleet. The earliest account dates from c.1454 and is a short description from a primarily medical manuscript, ‘The Physician’s Handbook’; and the latest describes the experiences in the mid-1590s of an Anglo-Irish Protestant Henry Piers as he travelled to Rome where he converted to Catholicism.

Two of the longest, factually informative and still influential accounts of Venice are by the historian William Thomas, whose The History of Italy, published in 1549, offered English readers the first meticulously detailed account of the city’s history, architecture, cultural life, political and religious institutions, and commercial importance as the hub of a maritime trading empire. Over two generations later, Fynes Moryson published in 1617 (but recalling his observations at Venice during the 1590s) his travel memoire An Itinerary, rich in specific detail and local descriptions, including churches, the Rialto, the Jewish Ghetto and Arsenal.

Cover image of English Travellers to Venice 1450 –1600 (Routledge, 2022)

Another fascinating account is by William Wey (1405/7-c.1476) who recorded in his ‘Itineraries’, written in Latin and late-Medieval English, his pilgrimages between 1457 and 1462 to Rome and Jerusalem. Like the accounts by Thomas and Moryson, Wey’s manuscripts are rich in practical information and personal observations. They were clearly compiled not only as a record of his own experiences but also as a guide for future pilgrims who would pass through Venice on their way either to Rome or the Holy Land. In fact, one of the earliest printed guidebooks, Informacon for Pylgymes unto the Holy Land (c.1498-1500), draws extensively on Wey’s geographical expertise and practical advice, including his lists of essential personal items for travellers, how to find a comfortable berth on the Venetian pilgrimage galleys, and how to change currency as one passed through various parts of Western Europe and the Mediterranean.

Two of the most interesting later accounts relate to the extensive stay at Venice and Padua of Sir Philip Sidney between November 1573 and August 1574; and in 1575-76 Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who rented a house at Venice, using it as a base to travel widely in northern Italy. Both Sidney and Oxford were highly educated individuals who could read and speak Italian and, as the sixteenth century progressed, this volume demonstrates how the acquisition of foreign languages was becoming increasingly important to English scholars, churchmen, ambassadors and politicians.

Stephen Powle (c.1553-1630) was educated at Oxford University and roomed with the young Walter Raleigh when he was studying at the Middle Temple in London. He had travelled widely in Europe during the 1580s and entered the service of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, in about 1585. He also knew Queen Elizabeth’s ‘spymaster’ Sir Francis Walsingham and in March 1587 Powle was dispatched to Venice to act as an undercover intelligence gatherer for Burghley and Walsingham. Of course, this was a key moment in Anglo-Spanish relations as fears of a Spanish invasion of England were escalating. Powle’s letters – or strictly speaking intelligence reports – contained a wealth of information about not only Venetian life but also European politics and the Spanish threat.

Following this volume’s account of Powle’s experiences at Venice is an analysis of Venetian intelligence reports from its various foreign ambassadors about the build-up to the Spanish Armada in 1588. From these official documents, it becomes clear that the Venetian intelligence network and secret service was the most sophisticated, wide-ranging and effective during the late-sixteenth century. It is also apparent that Venice regarded Spanish imperialism as a direct threat to its own political and economic wellbeing; and it is clear that some of the secret information gathered by Venetians about the preparations of the Spanish fleet filtered back to Walsingham and Burghley, via such resourceful and courageous figures as Stephen Powle.

This volume offers much more than the mere sampling offered above. It includes many other accounts of Venice relating, for example, to the travels (1458-60) of the courtier, John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester; the scholar and humanist Thomas Linacre who was based at Venice between 1492/3 and 1497; early-sixteenth century pilgrims such as Sir Richard Guildford, Thomas Larke and Sir Richard Torkington; the Catholic exile Cardinal Pole during the 1520s; Edmund Harvell, an influential businessman and English agent at Venice from the 1520s to the 1550s; the educationalist Roger Ascham who only visited Venice for a few days in 1552 but passionately denounced it in his The Schoolmaster (1570) as a corrupting den of sexual immorality and lewdness; Arthur Throckmorton a young Protestant from a strongly Catholic family whose personal notebook has survived, recording his daily activities at Venice in 1581; and Sir Henry Wotton, renowned as King James I’s Ambassador to Venice during the early seventeenth century, who first visited the city in 1591.

To conclude, although this collection provides a rich and diverse sampling of the experiences of English visitors to Venice during the second half of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it can offer only a fragmentary impression of how numerous other visitors at this period must have viewed the city and its centrality to European politics, religion and culture. The impressions and memories of many thousands of other little known or anonymous Englishmen – and it is regrettable that no accounts of English women at Venice during this period seem to have survived – are now lost because no physical evidence or written records of their travels between 1450 and 1600 have survived.


Michael G. Brennan, English Travellers to Venice: 1450-1600, London: The Hakluyt Society, 2022, xxxiv + 434.