The Greek and Roman classics had a great influence on George Gissing, not least because the literature and history of antiquity provided him with a kind of refuge from the grim realities of the modern industrial and commercial world. Gissing was a highly cultivated man who was at home in several foreign languages—French, Italian, Spanish, German—and was well read in their literatures. (He also read the major Russian writers, in translation.) He preferred Dante and Boccaccio, whom he had read with growing appreciation since he was young. In fact, he wrote the poem “Ravenna,” a historical evocation of the town, at the age of 15.

Why Gissing was so interested in modern Italy and why he preferred Italy over Greece is up for conjecture. Perhaps it’s because he was less interested in ancient Greece than in ancient Rome. Or perhaps Italy attracted him because it combined the two classical cultures: Italy was the cradle of the ancient Roman world, and Southern Italy was once part of Magna Grecia. The main character in The Unclassed remarks, “Romanus sum,” which may very well reflect Gissing’s own sentiments.

From Gissing’s youthful devotion to classical studies arose the desire to visit Italy, to see the relics of ancient civilization and, through his experiences, to recapture something of its spirit. His poverty delayed the realization of the dream, but in September 1888, at the age of 31, he was able at last to visit the Mediterranean. The diary that Gissing kept during his three visits (the first in 1888-89, the second in 1889-90, and the third in 1897-98), describes not only his reactions to the remains of the classical past, but reveals his delight in Italian art, his lively concern with Italian journalism and contemporary literature, and his close interest in Italian customs and the details of everyday life.

Gissing not only read intensely about Italy in preparation for his visits, but even carried with him during his travels several weighty tomes, such as Gautier’s Voyage en Italic, Stendhal’s Promenade dans Rome, and Leigh Hunt’s Stories from the Italian Poets. Lenormand’s three volume work on La Grande Gréce also accompanied him throughout his journeys in Italy.

Gissing had a lively interest in Italian newspapers as well. At the end of October 1888, he wrote that he read the Corriere di Napoli every morning and Il Piccolo every evening, to improve his Italian and to be informed about events. Another newspaper that he used to read in Rome at breakfast time was the Popolo Romano, and when in Galabria he digested La Tribuna. In his diary, Gissing compares the Roman and Neapolitan newspapers: “The Roman newspapers are miserable rags. I find myself falling back on the Corriere di Napoli, which really has a lot of interesting matter, and it is well conducted. It seems to sell greatly in Rome.”

From Gissing’s Diary we learn much about his literary tastes at that time. For instance, he bought the Poesie & Prose of Giacomo Leopardi, perhaps being attracted to this writer’s pessimistic view of human nature, which was combined with a certain romanticism. He also bought Silvio Pellico’s Le Mie Prigioni, as well as some novels by the Sardinian novelist Grazia Deledda (who, many years later, in 1926, was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature). The theme of love, often painful and unhappy, is conspicuous in most of Deledda’s novels, in which the characters often seem controlled by an inexorable destiny.

When Gissing was in Naples the following year, he read Matilde Serao’s Addio, Amore!, which was published in installments in the Corriere di Napoli, a newspaper edited by Serao herself. It is not surprising that Gissing was attracted to her naturalistic fiction, which paid much attention to the lives of the poor, their loves, their struggles to improve themselves, and their dedication to gambling.

Regarding Serao’s Il paese di cuccagna (a Neapolitan novel, serialized in the Corriere di Napoli), Gissing writes to Miss Edith Sichel that, “The story was much better written than most that now appear in Italy (which is so swamped with translations from the French), but it showed so plainly the influence of foreign models, and was even a little amateurish in parts. The Italians can do nothing, I am afraid, in this direction. They have no imaginative vigour nowadays; all their strength goes to commerce.”

Gissing also showed interest in the works of Giovanni Verga, now regarded as probably the most important Italian novelist of the late 19th century. At the end of his third trip to Italy, Gissing attended the Teatro Nazionale in Rome, for a performance of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” Unfortunately, he was not impressed: “Bad singers and rowdy house.”

He also read L’Ultima Battaglia di Prete Agostino by Salvatore Farina, remarking that it was “far more interesting than I expected; in fact, excellently written. I must see more of the man’s work.” In this case, Gissing discovered literary merit in a writer most critics have judged mediocre. Thus, Giulio Cattaneo classifies him as a “fashionable novelist, much loved by lower middle-class readers.” Cattaneo concedes, however, that the novels have a “certain documentary value, and they are all based on sound sentiments, above all on a strong defence of the family.”

Among the other books that Gissing read were Pietro Giannone’s Istoria Givile del Regno di Napoli, and L’Eco del Vesuvio, a large collection of Neapolitan songs. Another volume containing sketches of Neapolitan life engaged Gissing’s attention to such an extent that he read it twice during his travels, first in a German translation, then in the original Italian; this was Sebetia by Amilcare Lauria, which Gissing judged “poor literary work but interesting.” Probably it was the subject matter that Gissing found interesting, and his unfavorable verdict on its literary quality was later endorsed by Benedetto Croce, who noted Lauria’s inability to produce works on a large scale but praised the vitality of his writing and the light it throws on Neapolitan life. Gissing also records having bought a copy of Dante’s Vita Nuova, and “a couple of volumes of the Biblioteca Universale”; on another occasion, he records having bought several novels, La Cieca di Sorrento and Novelle, Scene e Racconti, both by Francesco Mastriani, La Napoli che scompare by Carlo Gaetani, but he does not say what he thought about them.

Gissing was fascinated by Italian art, buying and reading several books on the subject. He spent a long time gazing at Michelangelo’s “Moses” in S. Pietro in Vincoli. In the Corsini Palace, he saw Caravaggio’s “Madonna and Child,” remarking on its “singular realism.” He also saw the three “Ecce Homo”: one by Dolci, with “his favourite effeminate face” and “long and soft hair”; the second, by Guercino, which Gissing thought “realistic, even painful. Bloodshot eyes and the mouth open in pain”; the third, by Guido Reni, had “no realism in the blood-drops. The whole is more idealistic, in a truer way, of course, than Dolci.”

Gissing describes in detail his impressions of “The Transfiguration” in the Vatican Gallery, and of “The Last Judgment” and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He expressed his enthusiasm for Italian art in a letter to his sister Margaret: “In the museums of the Vatican I walk about in a state of exultation, waving my arms and shouting in a suppressed voice.”

Although Gissing showed much interest in Italian literature and art, and in various other aspects of the national life, there is little doubt that he was attracted most of all by Italy’s classical remains and associations. Two of his letters attest the liveliness of his interest. In 1885, three years before his first visit, he wrote to his sister Ellen: “I dare not read a book about Rome, it gives me a sort of angina pectoris, a physical pain, so extreme is my desire to go there. And I shall not wait much longer.” He also remarked that “Rome is the center of the Universe,” and that to study the city for only “a year would be utterly inadequate and I can give only a month, but I hope to come again, and more than once.”

In Taranto, Gissing, who had heard that different types of murex shells could be observed at Fontanella (by the shore of the Little Sea), went in search of the place, hoping to see these shells and to take at least one back to England as a souvenir; but he discovered that “Fontanella had vanished, swallowed up, with all remnants of antiquity, by the graceless Arsenal.” Nevertheless, Gissing observed that the new Arsenal was “the pride of Taranto, and the source of its prosperity,” and that it “signified substantial good to Italy!” Gissing remarked that anyone finding himself in Taranto would like to go to the river Galaeso—so loved by Horace—and walk along its banks.

While Gissing was in Gosenza, he thought of Alarico the Hun, remarking that “the rivers Busento and Grati still keep the secret of the ‘royal sepulchre’ adorned with splendid spoils the trophies of Rome.” At Metaponto, Gissing examined with keen interest the “Tempio detto delle Tavole Palatine,” one of the most important reliquia. Then he went in search of Siris, one of the famous cities of the ancient world. At Grotone, a town honored by Zeus for having painted the Temple of Hera Lacinia, Gissing unfortunately fell ill and was unable to go to see the only column that still survived.

While in Florence, Gissing wrote to his German friend, Eduard Bertz, “Yes, it is Italy still, but it is not Italy of the South. . . . The Uffizi and the Pitti are glorious, and the many churches are full of interest. But it is not Rome; it is not the bay of Pozzuoli; it is not divine Paestum, and Salerno and Capri. I have been taught in these days how intensely classical are my sympathies; if indeed I needed the lesson. Amidst the most splendid artistic work of the Renaissance, I felt a heartache for the Forum Romanum, and for the passionate beauty of the southern sea. At present there is but one word in my mind, and that is ‘Sicily!’ . . . There one has both Greece and Rome. In Sicily, with Thucydides and Theocritus in my hands, I shall reach the supreme earthly happiness.”

But his dream of visiting Sicily remained unrealized. Gissing saw the northwestern coast of that island only when the ship in which he was traveling to Greece passed through the Straits of Messina. However, a few years later, he spent a few days in Reggio Calabria, from which he had a fine view of the same coast and of Mount Etna.

These comments by Gissing in his diaries and letters reveal Gissing’s profound interest and delight in Italy. He was a cultivated student of classical civilization, of Renaissance art, and of Italian literature, and these Italian experiences enriched him as a man and influenced his literary work.