The History Woman's Blog

An English republican exile in Florence

Posted in Early Modern, History, Political Thought, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on September 23, 2012
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View over Florence from the Boboli Gardens behind the Palazzo Pitti.

Why would a protestant English republican take refuge at the Tuscan court? The answer does not seem obvious. Ferdinando II, Grand Duke of Tuscany when Henry Neville made his way to Italy in 1664, was a staunch Catholic as well as a prince. The Civil War republican Neville (1619-94) was known for his unorthodox views and libertine leanings and accused of ‘atheism and blasphemy’ in Richard Cromwell’s Parliament of 1659. He had to leave England after a period in the Tower for his alleged involvement in the Yorkshire Plot of 1663, and Tuscany and the Florentine court in particular seemed like an ideal place for him to withdraw to.

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Palazzo Pitti in Florence – residence of the Medici Dukes from the 16th century onwards.

Neville had been to Florence before. He had travelled to Italy on his Grand Tour between 1641 and 1645 and acquired friends that would serve him well during his second stay in the country. He was fluent in Italian, as his correspondence reveals, and he was an admirer of Machiavelli and of the Italian city states – notably Venice, which he also visited during the 1660s. And, as he wrote to his brother Richard from Florence in 1665, he found ‘a sensible difference between being civilly treated, … valew’d and esteem’d by princes abroad, and not only hatted but persecuted at home’. If persecution in England was his hell, Italy was his ‘paradise’.

Besides, as I have argued elsewhere, neither the hostility between republicans and princely rule, nor the enmity between Protestants and Catholics were as strong as much secondary literature implies. Neville seems to have moved in Italian high society, he had contacts to the Accademia del Cimento, and – like his cousin and fellow republican Algernon Sidney – he was also well connected among the cardinals in Rome.

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The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence (just because it’s prettier than the Archivio di Stato).

Rome was a city Neville liked to refer to as ‘Babylon’. It was certainly not holy. He thought it made up in entertainment what it lacked in ‘devotion’, and for him it seems to have been a place for various amorous adventures as well as the hub of Catholic politics.

It would be naïve to say that European Catholics and English republicans could not be allies. After all, they had a shared a common enemy in Charles II, and my enemy’s enemies are my friends. This is certainly an area I will further inquire into as I look more at the English republican exiles in Europe.

In the meantime, having spent a week in Florentine archives and libraries as well as wandering around the city, the palazzi, squares and gardens, I also have an alternative explanation for Neville’s choice of exile: Florence is just a beautiful place.

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The Fascination of The Isle of Pines (1668)

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, Political Thought, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on November 28, 2011

Henry Neville’s utopian travel narrative The Isle of Pines (1668) is one of my favourite pieces of literature. It tells the story of the shipwreck of an English trading vessel during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and  of the subsequent survival of one man and four women on a lonely island near terra Australis incognita. The five survivors settle together on the island and create a new society from scratch like Adam and Eve after God’s creation of the earth, or Noah and his family after the Flood, except they keep some of their English ways and make a few new laws to maintain order in their ever-growing society. Several generations later, in 1667, the English Pines are discovered by the crew of a Dutch ship, whose captain publishes an account of the savaged English society he found stranded on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere.

There is no reason why The Isle of Pines should stand out as a literary work. The prose is basic, the story is simple, and the description of the relations of George Pines and the four women worthy of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. But there are most of all two things that make The Isle of Pines such a fascinating work. First, it has so many layers that generations of scholars have not been able to agree whether the work is a utopia, a hoax, a work on polygamy, a coded political pamphlet, Restoration satire, or all of the above. And secondly, The Isle has a complex and highly successful publishing history, including numerous re-issues and translations in several European languages to make it truly one of the international bestsellers of the seventeenth century.

With large parts of the world still unmapped and the story appearing in the news sheets and gazettes, many contemporaries might have believed Neville’s account of the mysterious island was true, while his friends in the coffeehouses of London and Oxford soon smelt a rat and recognised it as the work of a disgruntled republican, who blamed Charles II and his corrupted court for the decline of English fortunes after the defeat in the second Anglo-Dutch war (1665-67). The story had a mixed reception in the seventeenth century, both at home and abroad, as contemporaries tried to work out what they were dealing with. The number of modern editions as well as scholarly works on the piece published in recent years shows that the mystery of The Isle remains unresolved.