Vincenzo Lunardi – A Travel Writer and Aeronaut

Vincenzo Lunardi’s balloon flight from the grounds of London’s Honorable Artillery Company in 1784, was one of the first flights in the world and the first ascent into the English atmosphere.  This skyward exploration, a frontier largely foreign to man, broke scientific and exploratory ground.  Lunardi’s flight trumped the ground based travels of Johnson and Boswell to the wild Scottish Highlands, and outshone even Captain Cook’s voyages to the strange, unexplored lands of the South Pacific, and captured the imagination of the wider populace.  Despite Lunardi’s initial worries about a lack of public interest, his flight drew between one hundredand fifty thousand, and two hundred and fifty thousand people to the Artillery Ground.  Among the eager onlookers were members of Royalty and the aristocracy; something Lunardi makes sure to mention.

The ground-breaking nature of aeronautics at that time, manifests itself in numerous ways in Lunardi’s An Account of the First Aerial Voyage in England, and in ways that distinguish his account from the travel writing of the time.  Lunardi’s account cannot be clearly defined as the work of a philosophical, sentimental, scientific or civilised traveller, but rather a combination of all four, supported by the novel taking epistolary form.  Lunardi’s unique ascent above the English landscape enables his descriptions to encompass a scope wider than those descriptions provided by earthbound travel writers.  He does not restrict his descriptions to either a subjective or objective perspective, rather he freely incorporates both perspectives, allowing him to be recognised as both a scientific and sentimental travel writer.  His position as an aeronaut meant that the main challenges to his travels were presented by people, rather than by the challenges of terrain commonly depicted by terrestrial travellers.  Furthermore, his travels remained within the borders of England and as English culture was a defining force in the European psyche of the time, this ensured Lunardi did not  remove himself too far from his Italian cultural heritage.  As the accounts of the civilised traveller are notable for their authors’ use of their ethnocentrism as a compass while negotiating foreign lands, Lunardi’s position within England and as an aeronaut meant that the traditional image of the civilised traveller is largely inapplicable to him.  It is however, the most accurate description of Lunardi and is present in his writing, albeit in a more abstract form.

Defining Lunardi according to the usual parameters of the philosophical, sentimental, scientific or civilised traveller immediately presents difficulties when examining his text.  It is undoubtedly the groundbreaking nature of Lunardi’s aeronautical travel that muddies the waters of identification.  He is at once a scientist wishing to test his invention for future human development and service, an educated individual who observes and analyses the world around him, and also a writer wishing to convey to the populace what he has seen and experienced.  Lunardi’s inclusion of the tenets of all the main categories of travel writing in his account, is due to the difficulties he faced in explaining a frontier completely foreign to man’s experience and understanding, rather than simply explaining a race or country foreign to Europe.

Lunardi’s utilisation of the balloon as his mode of travel, virtually untested at the time, suggests his writing will subscribe to that of a scientific traveller due to the experimental nature of his flight and the wealth of knowledge and information peculiar to aeronautics yet to be recorded.  And in a few areas, his writing does this.  Lunardi makes specific mention of his recording of air temperature at varying altitudes during his flight, and his early descriptions of his balloon include the precise dimensions of its major components, like the gallery and the overall size of the balloon.  In this regard, he follows in the footsteps of the travel writings of Alexander von Humboldt and James Cook, whose “…notable emphasis on scientific concerns made his expeditions distinctively enlightened in character.”[1]  But unlike Humboldt, who “Everywhere he went, his mission was unambiguous: to discover facts and to carry out experiments towards that end.”[2], Lunardi’s recordings and measurements are almost non-existent in the extended narrative.  In part, this stems from the fact that Britain, particularly south of the Scottish border, was well mapped and did not require the meticulous noting of shoals, reefs and coastlines, or measurements of flora that Cook’s and Humboldt’s lengthy journeys into the geographic unknown facilitated.  The atmosphere does not contain the visible geographic obstacles that faced terrestrial explorers, and therefore Lunardi could not describe them in his account of his flight.  Lunardi did, however, undertake the ascent as he states, “…for the purpose of making some interesting experiment.”[3]  But these experiments, designed “…to ascertain the practicability of tendering the Balloon stationary, or descending at pleasure by means of oars, acting vertically; and superseding the use and necessity of valves.”[4] receive very little discussion in his account of his flight, except for when they provide a danger or excitement to relate to the audience.  It is true that Lunardi’s account, published for the benefit of a relatively unlearned public, would be unlikely to expound complex theories explaining the results of the experiment, but his mention of any results are cursory at best.  Even his descriptions of the landscape once in the air are relegated to a relatively small portion of his writings, almost directly contradicting the title of his writings, An Account of the First Aerial Voyage in England.  These few descriptions are mostly subjective, thereby placing Lunardi’s depictions into the realm of a sentimental travel writer.

One of the few objective descriptions deals with Lunardi’s depiction of the Chelsea Hospital, which emulates the tendency of Samuel Johnson to make an observation and then follow with analysis.  Lunardi begins with a history of the hospital, then a description of the layout of the square, which he decrees to be “…as a picturesque and propitious spot; and I wish, as it were from the altar of humanity, to ascend from the skies.”[5]  It is important to note, that even this more objective observation of the landscape departs from the process of a scientific traveller who endeavors “to discover facts and to carry out experiments towards that end”[6].  Lunardi’s observations are broad in scope, imprecise in detail and filled with subjective opinion,  “…bounded by hills gently rising, highly cultivated, and beautifully marked with villas, churches and villages, all indicating the opulence and felicity of the inhabitants.”[7]  This could describe innumerable places not only within England, but also within Europe.  Lunardi’s writing and observations exhibited in this epistolary novel can only be associated with scientific travel writing due to the groundbreaking science involved in aeronautics at that time, rather than by his detailed recording of scientific data and analysis of results.

The lack of objective description and Lunardi’s tendency to follow the path of Laurence Stern, “who seemed more focused on himself and his sentiments than on any observation of France or Italy”[8] suggests he writes more in the vein of the sentimental traveller.  Many examples of travel writers struggling to describe an unknown landscape to their audience can be found, and similarly Lunardi struggles with the impact that flight has on his writings.  The difficulty Lunardi faces in describing more than a scene, but an experience so beyond, and so unnatural to human comprehension at the time dictates the tone of his writings; his few descriptions of the landscape from the air lack definition and fall apart very quickly due to his confessed inability to describe what he is seeing.  “It was so reduced on the great scale before me, that I can find no simile to convey an idea of it.”[9]  His descriptions of the landscape settle on a few choice references to notable and well-known points of interest, such as St. Paul’s Cathedral; this is mirrored with his constant references to the importance of notable and well-known dignitaries hailing his success, bravery and genius, and in this, his writings recall, “the sentimental traveller supplied the exclamatory element of personal intensity.”[10]  Lunardi’s descriptions centre on his astonishment, his fear and his frustration, and it is in this that the effect of his being an aeronaut can most obviously be seen in his writing.  His language makes use of large, sweeping adjectives to inspire deep and monumental feelings, “The stillness, extent, and magnificence of the scene, rendered it highly awful.”[11]  Lunardi admires and employs imagination, “because only the imagination can ‘carry us beyond our own person’ to bridge the gap between subject and object.”[12]  He shares some of the hallmarks of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Selected Letters/The Turkish Embassy Letters “when she brought her readers with her into the Ottoman baths of Sofia and she evoked the naked charms of the other female bathers.”[13]  While her writings are of a very different nature and on a much smaller scale, Lunardi similarly focuses on personal opinion and uses subjective, emotive adjectives to transport the reader into the balloon with him, effectively providing a more entertaining, intimate experience.  This epistolary format allows the reader to move beyond the frame of an observer to the frame of a participant, unlike other accounts of the flight, such as Lunardi’s Grand Aerostatic Voyage Through the Air, written in the third person by an unknown author, which firmly relegates the reader to a passive observer.  Lunardi abjures extensive objective description, but rather emphasises his moments of fear or apprehension, playing to his daredevil image, “Adieu, my honored and respectable friend; my health and spirits are injured by a series of unfortunate and cruel accidents; but if I succeed I shall be abundantly rewarded.”[14]  He provides a constant stream of references to time, heightening the sense of danger and immediacy in his writings.  Adding to this, Lunardi employs multiple references to biblical and mythical imagery, “How happy I should be, if some kind spirit would instruct me, to emulate Astolpho on his flying horde; and to explore those regions where the straying wits of mortals betake themselves.”[15]  The use of such imagery is realistic, but is also taking liberties to engage his reader’s imagination.   It is realistic in that it reflects his flight as being a marvel of the day.  The ascension of man to the skies immediately recalls biblical imagery, and in doing so Lunardi effectively transcended all known experience within England, and according to his narrative, some field hands believed he was in league with the Devil.  At the same time, his use of mythical imagery combined with his use of emotive adjectives, engages the reader’s imagination and is effective in enabling the audience to envision the unknown perspective of aeronautic flight, even if it is a subjective vision.  Lunardi’s exploration as an aeronaut, rather than as a scientist frames his writing, and appeals to a wider audience than an account of his scientific findings would.

While Lunardi does not subscribe completely to the mindset of a philosophical traveller, and he does not focus his writing on topics of interest to philosophical travellers such as Voltaire, who “clearly appreciated that travel, which permitted the comparison of laws, customs, institutions, and societies, was perfectly adapted to the spirit of philosophical criticism”[16], Lunardi does occasionally foray into the realm of the philosophical traveller.  This partial adoption of the style of the philosophical writer, further complicates Lunardi’s categorisation and can be directly attributed to Lunardi being an aeronaut.  His travel takes him above the landscape, he does not engage with its people, its laws, its institutions or other defining cultural features.  His physical distance excludes him from the philosophical analysis in which Voltaire engages.  However, when Lunardi’s balloon is grounded, his writings make observations on the difficulties inherent to acquiring funding and support from various London institutions and dignitaries, and these situations spur commentary containing aspects of the philosophical traveller.  His writing suddenly draws sweeping conclusions in a similar manner to Voltaire’s, who “Himself travelled only vicariously along the route of his historical hero [Charles XII], but philosophically illuminated the terrain by offering enlightened commentary.”[17] Lunardi does not formulate ideas on subjects as involved as religious toleration, as Voltaire did, and his writings do not focus on “…the importance of perspective and evaluation of lands and peoples… the variety of customs and the relative nature of their merits”[18]; however, Lunardi does proffer his insights into the British psyche, which alternate between praise and condemnation based on his limited experiences.  This can be seen particularly in his views on social mobility, which he has deduced solely from his experience acquiring funding, “Here wealth is more equally diffused; and by any contrivance that can gratify the curiosity of the people, sums of money are immediately collected, without the anxiety and mortification or petitioning the great.  This has, in some measure, banished patronage from England; but ingenious men are perhaps better rewarded, and are not rendered slaves to the purposes and caprices of patrons.”[19]

Lunardi clearly possessed the qualities of the scientific, the sentimental and the philosophical traveller and by definition then, he can be most accurately described to be the amalgam of these three, the civilised traveller.  “The civilized traveler brought together the viewpoints of the philosophical traveler, with a penchant for critical comparisons of the sentimental traveler who made himself or herself the focus of new experience; and of the scientific traveler, who aspired to perfect empirical observations of places, languages and customs.  The civilized traveller possessed a condition of the hierarchy of lands and peoples and presumed to make an enlightened evaluation of relative development.”[20]  While Lunardi includes in his writing the characteristics of all of these categories, and can most accurately be called a civilised traveller, he does remain outside the traditional framework of one.  This difference can be attributed to his experiences being framed by the then marvel of aeronautics.

The classic civilised traveller “set up to judge the barbarism of others, and he did not hesitate to make recommendations on the basis of his supposedly more enlightened perspective.”[21]  This revolved around judgments “…of civilization with reference to a variety of factors, from technology and transport to costumes and customs.”[22]  The judgments of these writers commonly entailed sweeping and scathing remarks about foreign lands, such as, “everything remains to be done in that land; or to say it better still, everything remains to be undone and redone.”[23], an observation of the French physiocrat Lemercier de la Rivere in reference to the Russian Empire in 1767.  The civilised traveller was a figure who represented the Enlightenment, bearing the light of civilization to the darkest corners of the world.  At first glance, Lunardi does not immediately embody this categorisation of the traveller.  He is not travelling vast distances like Cook to the South Pacific, nor even to some of the more distant nations of Europe such as the Russian.  His travel is limited to England, a nation accepted to be civilised within the European context, even by the French, whose interests were often in conflict, typified by the eighteenth century War of Spanish Succession.  Eurpoean nations sent their richest and brightest students abroad to study the commendable aspects of those foreign nations.  For English students, this usually included stops in France for exposure to high society, and in Italy for the artistic and historical merit of its sculptures and ruins.  With Lunardi’s travels occurring entirely within what was considered to be the civilised world, any judgments about the intelligence and civilization of the native peoples, cultures and traditions based on petty discomforts typical of the civilised travel writer, are presented in a more abstract form.  This different approach, instigated by the location of his travels is solidified by the nature of his travel.  As an aeronaut, his method of travel was foreign.  Ballooning had only previously occurred in France and was at the dangerous forefront of science and technology.  Whereas James Boswell and Johnson were merely Englishman exploring the wilds of Scotland, Lunardi transcended the frontiers of the land and ascended into the air – a marvel never before seen in England.   Therefore, like “…both Oroonoko and Crusoe the ex-patriate narrators find themselves the subject of amazed scrutiny by indigenous inhabitant.”[24]  Lunardi epitomises this reversal of roles, in which the traveller is exotic due to his aeronautical endeavors.

It is a combination of these two features of Lunardi’s travels that cast him as a civilised traveller of a different mould.  Whereas the traditional civilised traveller made deductions based on how well a foreign land was developed for travelling, “What are we to think of a country that has made, in the eighteenth century, no better provisions for its travellers?”[25], Lunardi’s flight involved none of these; his travel bypassed them and cast him as a celebrated traveler “who represented the Enlightenment in supposedly less civilised parts.”[26]  He therefore replaced descriptions of geographic obstacles with his accounts of his benefactors, noted members of society and others who could either spur on, or derail, his adventure, and based his observations of English civilisation on his interactions with them.  This therefore, in Lunardi’s view, divided the English populace into two distinct parts: the educated, usually titled benefactors and dignitaries, who supported his adventure and were, therefore, civilized individuals like himself; and those who opposed or threatened his journey and were, therefore, dismissed as uncivilized natives.

In true civilised traveller form, titled individuals who supported and facilitated Lunardi’s flight are recognised in his writing to be civilised men of his calibre.  This is clear in his description, “The King of England…is for an unblemished character… the innumerable concerns of an empire, to which extent and unwieldiness alone have been an inconvenience, do not prevent his personal notice of any remarkable character; or his correct examination of any scientific event.”[27]  It is typical of a travel writer to laud someone who is bankrolling or showing interest in his cause, and Lunardi’s opinion about the English character demonstrates an interesting rise and fall based on the fortune of his balloon.  While many writers feel their country to be the bastion of civilisation because of their ethnocentric compass, Lunardi’s balloon, the ultimate symbol of enlightenment and civilisation would be impossible without the aid of his benefactors and, therefore due to his dependency, he paints them positively.

Alternately, those individuals who obstructed Lunardi’s flight by any means, whether it be the retraction of monetary support, or by challenging his desire to be the first man in the English atmosphere, are denounced.  They are painted as individuals possessing the qualities of uncivilised natives in a classical sense.  Lunardi’s makes reference to another aeronaut, “A Frenchman, whose name was Moret; and who may possibly have assisted at some trials at Paris to launch Balloons in the manner of Montgolfier, advertised, as it were in competition with me; and fixed on a day for ascending with his Balloon previous to that, on which I had the permission of Sir George Howard to make my excursion from Chelsea-Hospital”[28], whose flight threatened Lunardi’s fame and fortune.  Typical of the civilised traveller, Lunardi describes this obstacle to the success of his travel in a curt and dismissive tone, “I therefore waited with as much patience as I could command, the event of Moret’s experiment; imagining however it would fail.”[29]  He makes blanket statements validating himself as the superior individual carrying the torch of civilisation and progress, “the place were crouded with fifty or sixty thousand people, not so much from economy, as incredulity and suspicion, of the undertaking.”[30]  Lunardi’s deliberate inclusion of the smaller number of attendees at Moret’s launch provides enough detail to dismiss Moret as inferior.  It is in this reframing of Lunardi’s deductions, from the physical challenges posed by geography to the human challenges of individuals, that the effect of his being an aeronaut can be seen.  Lunardi knows he is not a civilised traveller bringing the light of European civilisation to far-flung barbarian natives, but rather he sees himself as a praiseworthy individual demonstrating the latest aeronautical marvel, albeit to a sometimes unappreciative English audience, in the centre of civilisation.  As such, this is a morphed version of the civilised traveller.

Furthering Lunardi’s tendency to describe those who opposed his journey in a manner similar to civilised travel writers’ descriptions of the uncivilised natives of far off lands, Lunardi presents the general, untitled English populace as an uncivilised mass.  That he views them to be an unenlightened, unruly and unpredictable mob, is seen in his description of the mob after Moret’s failed flight, “and when every effort was seen to fail, and the balloon such into the fire which expanded it, the mob rushed in, tore it to a thousand pieces; robbed many of the company; leveled with the ground all the fences of the place and neighborhood; and spread desolation and terror though the whole district.”[31]  Lunardi fears this section of the British populace, persons who could one moment be in favor of his flight and worship him, and at the next moment, embody all the primitive qualities of the Hawaiians who killed Cook, and destroy on a whim his flight, the symbol of the civilised light of progress.  He continues to pit his civilised self against the uncivilised natives when he depicts them to be driven by the gratification of their base desires on the day of his flight.  When they are bored by the events, Lunardi fears them and “…any accident which might confine me and my Balloon to the fury of the populace, whose impatience had wrought them up to a degree of ferment.”[32]  Once he is in the air he describes their unbounded joy, “The effect was, that of a miracle, on the multitudes which surrounded the place; and they passed from incredulity and menace, into the most extravagant expression of approbation and joy.”[33]  His language inspires images of uncivilised natives mindlessly worshipping something they do not understand, driven purely by what interests their base desires.  This contradicts entirely, the language used to describe the titled, civilised and educated members of English society, in whose approval Lunardi seeks to bask.

Mr Biggin fulfils an interesting role within Lunardi’s framework bounded by civilised, titled, educated English gentlemen supporting his venture and an uncivilised, native English population.   Mr Biggin’s position in Lunardi’s writing is like that of a civilised native guide who helps a colonising, intelligent mind achieve greatness, “And as the regions I intend to visit are unknown.  And Mr Biggin’s talents so useful and engaging I have accepted his offer.”[34]  Mr Biggin is untitled and moneyless, and is therefore in Lunardi’s opinion, not to be depended upon, nor placed in the same category of those Englishman who bankroll or provide him social benefit.  Mr Biggin is however, intelligent, so he can be employed as a tool under Lunardi’s direct control.  Although he is treated with far less aversion by Lunardi than Crusoe treated Xury or Friday, Lunardi still shuns Mr Biggins in his writing, relegating him to a mention when unfortunately, Mr Biggin cannot join Lunardi in his flight.  This relegation of Mr Biggin’s role is reiterated by the newspaper clipping entitled, ‘Grand Air Balloon’ in which Mr Biggin is referred to only as “an English Gentlemen”[35].  As such, Mr Biggin is a recasting of the traveller’s traditional native guide.

Vincenzo Lunardi’s travel through the use of a balloon had a direct impact on the writings in his epistolary novel, An Account of the First Aerial Voyage in England.  At the time, aeronautics was at the forefront of scientific progress and its largely untested nature, combined with the obvious appeal of flight, captured the public’s interest.  The challenge Lunardi faced in relating this unknown experience of flight to the wider public, manifests itself in his adherence to select characteristics of the scientific, sentimental, philosophical and civilised traveller, although, it is this final category by which he can be most accurately defined.  However, due to the civilised, European location of his travels and the ability of flight to make null the geographic challenges of the traditional, land-bound traveller, his adherence to the characteristics of the civilised traveller took an unconventional form.  In this form, Lunardi’s relations with people from different levels of society replaced geography as the main obstacles to his journey



Baines, Paul, The Long 18th Century, (Arnold, 2004).

De Botton, Alain, The Art of Travel, (Hamish Hamilton, 2002).

Kors, Alan Charles, Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Lunardi, Vincenzo, An Account of the First Aerial Voyage in England, (J. Bell, 1784)

Sambrook, James, The Eighteenth Century: the Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1700-1789, (Longman Literature, 1986).

[1] Kors, Alan Charles, Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, (Oxford University Press, 2003). Pg. 191

[2] De Botton, Alain, The Art of Travel, (Hamish Hamilton, 2002). Pg. 108

[3] Lunardi, Vincenzo, An Account of the First Aerial Voyage in England, (J. Bell, 1784) Pg. 3

[4] Lunardi, Pg. 11

[5] Lunardi, Pg. 3

[6] De Botton Pg. 108

[7] Lunardi, Pg. 3

[8] Kors Pg. 190

[9] Lunardi, Pg. 40

[10] Kors Pg. 190

[11] Lunardi, Pg. 40

[12] Sambrook, James, The Eighteenth Century: the Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1700-1789, (Longman Literature, 1986). Pg. 206

[13] Kors Pg. 190

[14] Lunardi, Pg. 33

[15] Lunardi, Pg. 36

[16] Kors Pg. 189

[17] Kors Pg. 189

[18] Kors Pg. 188

[19] Lunardi, Pg. 6

[20] Kors Pg. 192

[21] Kors Pg. 192

[22] Kors Pg. 192

[23] Kors Pg. 192

[24] Baines, Paul, The Long 18th Century, (Arnold, 2004). Pg. number indecipherable.

[25] Kors Pg. 193

[26] Kors Pg. 193

[27] Lunardi, Pg. 4

[28] Lunardi, Pg. 14

[29] Lunardi, Pg. 14

[30] Lunardi, Pg. 14

[31] Lunardi, Pg. 15

[32] Lunardi, Pg. 39

[33] Lunardi, Pg. 39

[34] Lunardi, Pg. 13

[35] Lunardi, Pg. 21

© Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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