Putney on the Tiber.
His mother was born near St Marys by Putney Bridge. His father at the big house in now East Putney. It was a love match but the paterfamilias, a director of the South Sea Company disapproved. The marriage went ahead but their first son was so sickly that they named another Edward so that the family name would be preserved. The name Gibbon is of course preserved almost entirely through that sickly boy who went on to be one the greatest historians.
He came to mind last week as I stood in the ruins of the Roman Forum. A few months before I had walked along Hadrian’s Wall-the frontier of Empire. Now I was standing at its heart. But on the 15 October 1764, Gibbon on his delayed Grand Tour notes in his diary” In the close of evening I sat musing in the Church of Zoccolanti or Franciscan friars, while they were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter.”
One can see the portly, vain, little fellow, so learned , so educated so desperate to fulfil what he knew to be his destiny. The warm autumn evening, the pastel pinks in the sky set against the yellow ruins and then the drifting melodious chants coming up the hill.
Pictures of the time show that the Eternal City was in serious decay with cows grazing on the now historic and much revered sites. No wonder Decline and Fall came to Gibbon at that moment. He had previously been toying with other subjects not least a History of the Swiss Republic. Typically it would be ten years before the first volume of the great work appeared.
But Gibbon did not look down on the Capital as a tourist. But as an educated child of the Age of Reason who could recite Homer, Virgil and the other great classical poets in their original tongue. For Gibbon and many others coming to Italy on their Grand Tour was the missing piece in their practical and intellectual education.
Twenty five years after his visit Gibbon writes,”I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and then entered the Eternal City. After a sleepless night I trod with lofty step, the ruins of the Forum; each momentous spot where Romulus stood or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was once present to my eye, and several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to cool and minute investigation”
As Dr Johnston in whose dining club Gibbon was a mute member said, “The only purpose of travel is to see the Mediterranean”. He of course went to Paris and the Outer Hebrides.