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Italy and Sicily

A youthful traveler in Italy (1827)

Although the Rome Affair was the most important question that Alexis de Tocqueville dealt with as Minister of Foreign Affairs, he never visited Italy except for reasons of pleasure and tourism. His first trip to the country was in order to celebrate the end of law studies and to complete his education with the discovery of the land of classical Antiquity. In the company of his brother Édouard, he set off in December 1826, and reached Rome in January 1827. They then traveled throughout the Italian peninsula to Naples, which they left in early March 1827 to travel to Sicily. The crossing was a memorable one, since their ship sailed through a formidable storm, nearly foundering in the midst of the Tyrrhenian Sea. In a particularly dramatic fashion, Tocqueville described this epic adventure in a page of his travel diary.
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« Sicily, we said to ourselves. There it is at last. We came from Italy. We had walked on the ashes of the greatest men who ever lived and breathed the dust of their monuments. but here something else entirely spoke to the imagination. We were in contact with the world at its inception. »
(Travels in Sicily)

Unfortunately, the manuscript of the notes Tocqueville took on this first trip to Italy is today lost, and we know only the fragments kept by Gustave de Beaumont for his edition of the Complete Works of Tocqueville. It is all the more regrettable in that the manuscript, if we are to believe Beaumont, allowed the reader to "follow the path taken by Tocqueville's mind, his trials and errors, his mistakes, his changes of mind, and the circuitous paths that he took to arrive at his true path." The manuscript also contained Tocqueville's views on aesthetics, which his later works almost never discuss. All that has come down to us are very lavish and romantic descriptions (which are highly unrepresentative of Tocqueville's talent, who appears to be trying out a Chateaubriand-like style), such as the ascension of Mount Etna or the paradoxical grandeur of Roman ruins. One of these fragments, however, gives us a glimpse of the future author of Democracy in America: it is a passage in which he recounts a dialogue between a Sicilian and a Neapolitan that - in its discussion of the devastating effects of despotism and the conditions required for freedom to flourish - prefigures Tocqueville's "true path", both in the method used and the themes chosen.

The Coliseum, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot

The Coliseum, seen from the Farnèse gardens, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot; Paris, Musée du Louvre
© RMN/Daniel Arnaudet

View of Palermo Sicily

View of Palermo, Anonymous © BNF

Agrigente, Sicily

Part of the temple of Junon, Anonymous © BNF

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