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Bicycling Italy with Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell

Bicycling Italy with Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell:

The Earliest American Bicycle Tourists in Italy in 1884?

The Pennells descending a hill outside Montepulciano.  Note the foot pegs used to keep one's feet out of the way of the spinning pedals on downhills.In late June of 1884 Joseph Pennell and his bride, Elizabeth Robins, set sail from New York City on the Steamship Oregon bound for Liverpool on the greatest adventure of their lives.  They had a six-month commission from the popular monthly, Century Magazine, for Joseph to sketch and for Elizabeth to write articles about life in England and Europe.  Surely the young couple felt they were on an extended honeymoon as they waved goodbye to family and friends.  They had a round trip ticket, a letter of credit and a plan to purchase a tandem tricycle in England and head off to Italy for a ride from Florence to Rome, one of their first commissions from the magazine.

The Pennells arrived in London and completed preparations for the journey to Italy by August but their ride was delayed by an outbreak of cholera.  Their tricycle ride was only one of their commissions on this trip, but for Joseph it was central.  Yet caution prevailed as the editors and Pennell family members asked them to hold off until Italy was safe from cholera.  Joseph was disappointed, no doubt, as he had spent nine months in Europe in 1883 traveling throughout central Italy making etchings for H.D. Howell’s magazine articles and visiting Perugia, Urbino, and a variety of cities and villages in Tuscany and Umbria.  His letters home to his soon-to-be bride described how he eventually hoped to share this experience with Elizabeth.

 Pennell had returned to the US in October 1883 and rekindled his relationship with Elizabeth.  On a trip to Washington DC together in early 1884 she writes that "he began at once on a favourite subject — the beauty of Italy, the absolute necessity of my spending the following summer there" with him.   "If prudish Philadelphia [their hometown] would stand our journeys to New York and Baltimore, why wouldn’t they stand a journey to Italy?" she asked.  Their engagement was sealed during that train ride to DC when "he suggested a life partnership which would enable us henceforward to share not simply Italy’s, but the world’s beauty, at no risk of criticism or gossip.  And, with his genius for success, he succeeded in settling the matter."  (Elizabeth Pennell writing in The Life and Letters of Joseph Pennell, Vol. 1, p. 107).

 Married and in London in August 1884, yet disappointed by the cholera epidemic, Joseph was anxious to get on the road so the newly weds elected to test their new Coventry Rotary tricycle with a ride from London to Canterbury.  The account that resulted from this ride became the Pennells’ first of many bicycle touring books in Europe, A Canterbury Pilgrimage, published simultaneously in Britain and the U.S. in 1885 (here’s a drawing of the Rudge Coventry Tricycle).

By October the cholera epidemic in Italy had dissipated and the adventurers prepared to head to Italy.  As Elizabeth later wrote, "we took the train . . . on Sunday morning, the twelfth of October, and started from London on the journey which was the immediate reason for our marriage."  Elizabeth explains that "before leaving London we had exchanged the Coventry Rotary for a Humber Tandem, a better designed, better looking machine, and it did not fail us in the end."

The Pennells in PerugiaThe Pennells stayed three days in Florence, a city Joseph knew well from his stay there the previous year.  They then headed off across the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s centuries old covered bridge, and over the next month they bicycled through central Italy to Rome.  In Elizabeth’s words, "the names of the towns through which we wheeled and where we stayed were guarantees of beauty — Empoli, Poggibonsi, Siena, Monte Oliveto, Monte Pulciano (sic), Cortona, Perugia, Assisi, Spoleto, Terni, Civita Castellana."
The Pennells’ bicycle ride in Italy set the tone for their travels in Europe over the next decade.  In between their magazine assignments — Joseph drawing and Elizabeth writing — they were able to find time to bicycle across France, into Eastern Europe and in Britain and to become two of the most important bicycle touring advocates of the decade.

They also set a tone for bicycle touring that prevails to this day at ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours.  In Elizabeth’s words, "I would not exchange the old friendly little albergo as we knew it for to-day’s big tourist hotel, the same from one end of the world to the other.  Not even our arrest for some infringement of cycling regulations, in the Piazza di Spagna (for "furious cycling" and refusing to dismount!)  on the late afternoon we wheeled into Rome, could throw a shadow over the most beautiful, the most successful of the many beautiful, successful journeys we were to take together."

We will pedal the Pennells’ October 1884 route next June 12 – 22, 2008.  We would be delighted to have you join us to replicate what we believe to be the earliest bicycle tour by Americans in Italy.   For details visit the Cycling Through History: Florence to Rome on the Pennell Trail tour details page.