The Strange Pilgrimage of Pietro Della Valle
By Stephen Bertman
One of the earliest and most extraordinary travelers to explore the lands of the Bible was Pietro della Valle.
Born in 1586 into an aristocratic Roman family that counted cardinals among its members, young Pietro, a child of the Renaissance, was tutored in literature and music and soon displayed considerable talent in both, becoming a rising intellectual star in Roman and Neapolitan society. However, at the age of 25, to dispel the ennui that often infects the super-rich, he traded the quill pen for the sword and joined a Spanish expedition to battle Barbary pirates along the North African coast. Back in Rome at 28 years old, he had already fathered two illegitimate children (one of whom died in infancy) and, perhaps at his family’s prompting, sought the respectability of marriage with a woman of good breeding.
After an extended courtship, however, his proposal was rebuffed. Lapsing into melancholy, he sought consolation from a learned friend, Mario Schipano, a professor of medicine at Naples. The doctor prescribed a change of scene combined with the promise of spiritual redemption: Della Valle was told to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Della Valle promised to keep in touch by mail, and did so with copious correspondence, sending his physician-friend 36 detailed letters—over a million words—in which he described the exotic flora, fauna, customs and cultures of the lands he visited. Published in their entirety only after Della Valle’s death, the three-volume Viaggi di Pietro della Valle constitutes one of the most remarkable travel diaries ever written.
Humbly garbed (as befitted a pilgrim) and accompanied by a retinue of servants lugging his baggage (as befitted a nobleman), Della Valle set sail from Venice on a June morning in 1614. Almost as soon as he had landed in Istanbul, however, he fell under the spell of Oriental opulence and exchanged his drab pilgrim’s robe for bright silks. Enamored of luxury and dressed like a dandy, he reveled in his status as an honored guest of the Ottoman court. He delayed his spiritual mission for more than a year, devoting his time to partying and brushing up his Turkish. Despite his privileged status, however, Della Valle began to despise the imperialistic Ottomans for the brutal way they treated minorities, especially Christians, who lived within their domain.
While in Turkey, Della Valle visited the purported site of Troy and knelt to kiss the soil where heroes had given their lives—at the same time pocketing a chunk of marble to take home as a souvenir. His letters from Turkey described the preparation of a curious black liquid called “cahue” (coffee) whose flavor, he noted, can be improved by adding sugar, cinnamon, and a hint of cloves. Elsewhere, he described a uniquely comfortable piece of furniture—a “sofa”—and recommended its use in Italy. He also recorded another Middle Eastern discovery: a highly absorbent looped fabric, ideally suited, he argued, for making bathrobes and towels—the fabric later called terry cloth.
By 1615, he set sail for Egypt and soon arrived in Cairo. Upon seeing white monkeys for the first time Della Valle, ever the collector, immediately arranged for one to be shipped back home. At Giza, he explored the interior of the Great Pyramid and left his graffito on its summit. Clambering down into a burial pit at Saqqara, he became the first Westerner to excavate a well-preserved Egyptian mummy. The embalmed corpses he extracted (the body of a man, and a woman whose head he snapped off to inspect her bones) were promptly packed up for shipment along with extraordinarily vivid “Fayum” portraits of the dead, the first such realistic paintings from Egypt available to Westerners.
On a later excursion to Mt. Sinai, he also became the first European to comment on mysterious ancient inscriptions carved on the valley’s walls. While at the foot of the mountain in the Church of St. Catherine, he prayed to the patron saint of marriages to heal the scars of sexual passion still inscribed on his heart.
Six months after arriving in Egypt, Della Valle joined a caravan headed for Jerusalem, reaching the city in time to celebrate Easter and tour the holy sites. With his pilgrim’s duty done, he headed to Damascus. Always on the look-out for new additions to his collection of precious manuscripts, he purchased a Pentateuch written in the Samaritan language, a scriptural text that would revolutionize Biblical studies because it departed significantly from the traditional Hebrew version. Rather than donate the manuscript to the Vatican Library where, he argued, it would be lost among so many other books, Della Valle decided to keep it at his own palazzo where scholarly visitors could peruse it at their leisure.
Della Valle’s next stop was the bustling mercantile town of Aleppo, where he received a welcome bundle of 43 letters from home. After two years of traveling, his next destinations should have been Constantinople, and then Rome. But after spending three months at Aleppo procrastinating, he made a decision that fatefully altered the trajectory of his life.
Instead of heading back to the world he knew, his pilgrimage complete, he continued on, undertaking a journey into Mesopotamia, Persia, and India that would last another ten years. This would be a daring pilgrimage of his own invention. His expressed mission was to meet and ultimately serve in the army of charismatic Persian leader, Shah Abbas the Great. The Shah shared Della Valle’s animosity toward the Ottomans and was well known for his policy of religious tolerance toward minorities. Perhaps by serving the Shah, Della Valle had hoped to somehow make the Muslim world more secure for his fellow Christians. In so doing, he would fulfill a long-held ambition to make something of his life through a noble act and thus attain lasting glory.
Joining a camel caravan, he traveled across the desert toward Baghdad, a month-long trek of some five hundred miles across parched terrain infested with brigands. During the last night of the trip, just outside Baghdad, a thief crept into his tent and stole a precious box containing, much to Della Valle’s consternation, all of his fine Italian underwear! Fortunately, the robber had missed another even more precious box, the one containing his books and manuscripts.
After finding lodging in Baghdad, Della Valle set out on an expedition along the Euphrates to find the ruins of Babylon, guided in the search by his knowledge of ancient sources. In so doing, he would became one of the very first modern European travelers to identify and describe the fabled city’s desolate remains.
Then, in the course of a long letter to Dr. Schipano—in fact as almost an addendum to the fifty-second page (of the printed edition)—Della Valle made a startling admission: “It remains for me to tell you of my Babylonian love, which I name thus to differentiate it from my loves of Rome and elsewhere.” Della Valle had married!
He and his bride, Maani Gioerida, had fallen in love (at first sight) on the very caravan that had taken him to Babylon. Della Valle was 30 and Maani was 18. Her parents, who soon befriended the wealthy Italian nobleman, were refugee Nestorian Christians from southeastern Turkey, though Maani herself had grown up in Baghdad.
Della Valle described the physical charms that had attracted him: her dark skin and long eyelashes, her gracious smile, and noble bearing—but also the personal courage she had shown, bravely refusing to take cover when their caravan was threatened with attack. In December 1616, barely a month after they had first met, the two were wed.
Together they planned to fulfill Della Valle’s dream of founding safe-havens for persecuted Christians, under the aegis of the Shah. They soon set out by caravan for the Shah’s capital at Isfahan in northern Persia. Much to Maani’s dismay Della Valle had a local barber shave off the big “Syrian” beard he had grown over the last sixteen months, leaving only a pair of large “mustachios” so he would look more properly Persian. Despite his eagerness to meet the Shah, Della Valle had to cool his heels in Isfahan for a year until the Shah returned from military campaigning. Eventually, he was warmly welcomed into the Shah’s court, grew to know him intimately, and went on to serve proudly in his army. Due to his failing health, however, Della Valle was forced to return to the capital, where he stayed with Maani for three years, trying to regain his strength and striving in vain to establish the communities of religious freedom that had been his goal. Joining Della Valle and Maani in Isfahan were members of Maani’s family, including her parents, and a young war orphan Maani had adopted, a child named Mariuccia. Providing extra companionship were a half dozen or so Persian cats the Della Valles had also adopted—a species Della Valle would later introduce to Europe.
Disheartened by his frustrated plans, however, and still so physically weak from illness that he contemplated his own death, Della Valle decided it was finally time to return home. Leaving Isfahan by caravan, Della Valle, Maani, Mariuccia, and two servants would head south to the Strait of Ormuz and then go in stages to Italy by sea and land rather than travel directly overland across potentially hostile Ottoman territory.
On the way, their caravan passed by Persepolis, ancient capital of the Persian Empire, where Della Valle stopped to marvel at the ruined palace and copy inscriptions he found on its walls. Thanks to the publication of his letter to Dr. Schipano, cuneiform writing appeared in print for the first time and attracted the interest of Western scholars. Though the meaning of the inscriptions was unknown—and would remain unintelligible for over two centuries—Della Valle had correctly deduced from the formation of the wedge-shaped characters that the inscriptions must be read from left to right. Years earlier, in fact, he had been the first modern traveler to visit the ruins of Sumerian Ur and comment upon its cuneiform-inscribed bricks and seal-stones.
On the trek to Ormuz, Maani gave Della Valle the wonderful news that she was pregnant. Soon thereafter the couple found themselves trapped in a war zone as the British and Portuguese vied for control of maritime trade routes to the south. With Ormuz blocked, their escape route to Europe was now cut off. During this time, Maani contracted a fever that would prove fatal. Miscarrying and delivering a stillborn son, she died at the age of 23 in her husband’s arms. His letter describing her death offers poignant testimony to the anguish and desolation he felt at her loss, commemorated in 36 now-lost sonnets he entitled My Tears.
Determined that Maani not be buried on pagan soil, he ordered her body embalmed for transport back to Italy. However, the customary embalming oils were unavailable. Following Della Valle’s instructions, local women ministered to Maani’s corpse, removing the viscera that could rot and filling her abdominal cavity with camphor. On Della Valle’s order, only the heart was left inside so that, in accordance with Catholic belief, it would be present for her resurrection at the Last Judgment. To demonstrate their compliance with his wishes, the women ministering to his wife—to Della Valle’s horror—brought him Maani’s camphorized heart on a saucer before reinserting it into her body. Afterwards, the corpse was placed in a coffin made from the wood of a mango tree. The coffin was nailed shut, wrapped in a wax-steeped cloth, and sheathed in leather for added protection.
Della Valle was already infected with the same disease that had felled his wife. Suffering from thirst and chills, he was transported “more dead than alive” to the city of Lar; after a two-month convalescence under medical care, he recovered. Spring had now come to the desert. Enveloped in the fresh scent of blossoming orange-trees, roses, and jasmine Della Valle’s spirits revived. He was shown hospitality by a learned circle of local men with whom he conversed on matters theological and scientific. In a new letter to Dr. Schipano, Della Valle discussed the “wind-catchers” of Lar: roof-mounted fans spun by the wind that brought fresh air into houses, eminently suited, he noted, for the hot climate of southern Italy.
On the road back to Isfahan, he received the good news that English ships heading for India had now docked at Ormuz. Reversing direction, he headed south with Mariuccia, his servants, and the body of his wife—but not before ordering the construction of two large leather-covered trunks, each as long as the coffin but twice as deep. Knowing that a ship’s captain would not accept a corpse as cargo for fear of contamination, Della Valle put Maani’s coffin at the bottom of one trunk and then covered it with several layers of clothing. Into the other he put an assortment of other objects. Because females were denied passage, Della Valle dressed Mariuccia as a boy and smuggled her aboard. In February 1623, over a year after Maani’s death, the English ship Whale docked on the east coast of India near the city of Surat.
Logically, Della Valle should have sought passage back to Europe, but now a new and potentially more exotic world had opened up for him. He yielded to its temptations. Leaving his baggage (including Maani’s coffin) behind in the hold of the Whale, he traveled with new European friends, and with Mariuccia in tow, to see an animal hospital for sick birds.
Transferring to a Portuguese ship, he then sailed south to the Portuguese colonial capital of Goa, where he had his mustachios “tipped up” in the Portuguese style, leaving the beginnings of a goatee he would thereafter wear together with a single earring in his left ear. The earring, he said, would improve his hearing. He strolled through bazaars, eyed native dancing-girls, and attended a high-society masquerade party put on by his friends for which he wore an outfit covered with embroidered tears to advertise his widower’s grief. Continuing south, he commented with shock at the sexually explicit sculptures on an Indian temple and hobnobbed with local nabobs, feigning asceticism while claiming that his wife’s death had made him “more than a yogi.”
In December 1625, more than two years after he had come to India, Della Valle and his party sailed for Iraq and then, after traversing Syria, continued the sea voyage to Italy. “Thus,” he wrote, “after many years I quitted the continent of Asia, fully resolved never to set foot upon it again unless fully armed, and began my voyage towards Italy for which I so greatly longed” —though not without scheduling side-trips for sightseeing and collecting souvenirs from his eager hosts.
The following February, the ship dropped anchor in the harbor of Naples, where Dr. Schipano and some of Della Valle’s old friends were waiting to greet him, inaugurating five weeks of receptions and parties in his honor. On April 4, 1626 Pietro della Valle returned to Rome, almost twelve years from the time he had first left home on his pilgrimage. Observing the dictates of propriety, he entered his palazzo by a back door “as befitted a widower.”
Soon he was invited to the Vatican to receive a papal appointment as Urban VIII’s honorary chamberlain. He was also welcomed back to the meetings of the aristocratic academy to which he had belonged so many years before. Academy members, whom he regaled again and again with tales of his adventures, now celebrated him as “Il Fantastico.” As for Della Valle himself, he preferred to humbly call himself “Il Pellegrino,” “The Pilgrim,” an epithet he used every time he gave an autograph.
The coffin containing Maani’s body had arrived in Rome separately. It was to be interred in the Della Valle family vault in the Ara Coeli (“Altar of Heaven”) church high up on the slopes of Rome’s Capitoline Hill. Della Valle decided a preliminary inspection of the corpse was in order. His account exhibits an almost scientific detachment reminiscent of his earlier inspection of Egyptian mummies.
After the erection of an elaborately sculpted catafalque and in the company of a distinguished invited audience, a more formal ceremony took place at which Della Valle delivered a lengthy eulogy adorned with rhetorical embellishments. In it he extolled his deceased wife’s heroic virtues comparing her to the legendary heroines of the past. When he spoke of her beauty, however, he broke down into uncontrollable sobbing.
Two accounts survive of what happened next. One says that the mourners began to cry with him. Another says that in response to his outpouring of tears they broke out into derisive laughter.
Sometime later, Della Valle married Mariuccia. She gave him fourteen sons, whom tradition records as undistinguished. Della Valle busied himself writing intricately rhymed poems or composing music based on Oriental themes, and even found time to invent two musical instruments. At other times he entertained guests in his elegant palazzo surrounded by ornate cabinets of exotic collectibles, discoursing, as he once said, “on my adventures, and the curiosities which have hitherto afforded delicious repast to my always hungry intellect.”
Occasionally, an aroma, faint but pungent, not unlike camphor, drifted through the air of his study, though the servants could never determine its exact source. On April 21, 1652, Pietro della Valle passed away at the age of 66 and was laid beside his most famous souvenir.
Stephen Bertman is Professor Emeritus of Classical Studies at Canada’s University of Windsor. Dr. Bertman’s books include Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (Facts On File/ Oxford University Press) and The Eight Pillars of Greek Wisdom (Barnes & Noble).
Note: The translations from the Italian above are those of G. Havers (1664) and George Bull (1989). For more details of Pietro della Valle’s life see Wilfrid Blunt, Pietro’s Pilgrimage (London: James Barrie, 1953); George Bull, The Pilgrim (London: The Folio Society, 1989); and J.D. Gurney, “Della Valle, Pietro” in the Encyclopedia Iranica as well as his essay, “Pietro della Valle: The Limits of Perception,” in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 49.1, 103-116.
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