Jefferson’s Excursion through France and Northern Italy 28 February-10 June 1787
On the last day of February 1787, Jefferson set off from Paris on a trip into southern France. He extended the journey into what is now northern Italy, going as far as Turin, Milan, and Genoa before crossing the south of France, traveling north through Bordeaux to the port of Lorient and then back to Paris.
To follow Jefferson’s route: View Map
For just the Italian segment of the journey: View Map
Or for only the return journey from Antibes to Paris: View Map
Jefferson made this journey in a private capacity. He didn’t use a pseudonym, but did want to keep a low profile and not let it be known that this curious American traveler was the minister plenipotentiary of the United States. He left his assistant, William Short, in Paris to take care of official business. He also left behind his daughter Martha, who was 14 years old and attending a convent school, and all of his servants. (His younger daughter, Maria, had not yet come to France.) Being “quite determined to be master of my own secret,” he took no one along who knew him, instead hiring help along the way. He lodged in inns and only a few times stopped to see someone he knew or who had been recommended to him.
He had several reasons for making the journey. He had injured his wrist and wanted to visit hot springs at Aix-en-Provence to see if they might be therapeutic. He stayed at Aix long enough to try the waters forty times, with no improvement to his wrist. He also wanted to learn about the state of American commerce at French seaports, and at Nîmes he had an appointment to speak with a Brazilian eager to share information about that Portuguese colony. Mostly, though, he wanted to spend some time away from Paris and see France. He made notes about agriculture, wines, architecture and antiquities, and social and economic conditions. “I have courted the society of gardeners, vignerons, coopers, farmers &c. and have devoted every moment of every day almost, to the business of enquiry” he informed the Marquis de Chastellux. He was much taken with the architecture of the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple at Nîmes, reporting to Madame de Tessé that he was “gazing whole hours at the Maison quarrée, like a lover at his mistress.” He passed through and learned about the great wine-producing regions of Burgundy, the Rhône Valley, and Bordeaux.
He entered no information in his weather observation record for the first part of the journey, from 28 February through 19 March. We learn from a letter that he was “pelted ... with rain, hail, and snow” almost until he reached Lyon on 11 March. Yet by the time he got to Aix-en-Provence on 25 March, the world was awash in a quality of sunshine that enthralled him. He started noting temperatures at Nîmes on 20 March. He used his thermometer also at Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, Toulon, and Nice: “10 morning observations of the thermometer,” he recorded in his notes of the trip, “from the 20th. to the 31st. of March inclusive, made at Nismes, St. Remy, Aix and Marseilles give me an average of 52.° and 46° and 61° for the greatest and least morning heats. 9. afternoon observations yeild an average of 62?° and 57.° and 66.° the greatest and least.” He did not record temperatures elsewhere on the journey, but from Nîmes onward he made notations of general weather conditions, usually twice a day.
Although he did not keep extensive meteorological records on the trip, Jefferson’s notes and letters include information relating to climate, weather, and ecology. More than once he noted snow visible on mountains, for example. He also heard anecdotes about significant past weather events. Because he was traveling in the spring, he observed the availability of some of his favorite foods, such as peas and strawberries. And he made note of nightingales, which were not birds he had known in America. We have put these notations relating to seasons, weather, climate, and phenology at the locations to which they relate in our narrative map of the journey.
At Marseille, Jefferson decided that he should travel into the Piedmont region of what is now northern Italy to learn about rice production for the benefit of rice growers in South Carolina. As he crossed the Var River east of Antibes on the Mediterranean coast, he left France and entered the old duchy of Savoy, which was part of the kingdom of Sardinia. It was too early in the year for the road over the Alps to be open for wheeled vehicles, so he left his carriage and much of his baggage at Nice to cross the mountains on a mule. Once over the Alps, he was able to hire carriages to continue the journey through Piedmont and Lombardy. He traveled through Turin to Milan, then south to Genoa. In the end he did not gain much knowledge about rice production that would prove useful to Americans, despite paying someone to smuggle out a bag of it in violation of the law. He did, however, devote a full day at Rozzano to observing the details of how Parmesan cheese was made.
From Genoa he had a difficult trip to Nice, where he took up his carriage again to return to France. He crossed the south of France on the Languedoc canal, then turned north to visit the ports of Bordeaux and Lorient before returning to Paris.
A Note on the Maps
We have used modern place names for locations on the maps. (In the weather records data, we have included modern country names as well.)
For France, we have used as a base map the meticulous topographical survey of the country that was created, beginning in the mid-18th century, under the supervision of César-François Cassini, the director of the royal observatory at Paris, and his son, Jean-Dominique Cassini, who succeeded him in that role. Engraved at a scale of 1:86,400 and printed from 1756 to 1818 on 182 sheets, the Cassini map is available online from the Library of Congress.
For the portions of the journey in what is now northern Italy, we have used as our base map A New Map of Piedmont, the Duchies of Savoy and Milan, and the Republic of Genoa, published in London in 1799. The map is at a scale of approximately 1:750,000. It was the work of English cartographer John Cary and may be found online here.
For Jefferson’s extensive memoranda from the trip, see his Notes of a Tour into the Southern Parts of France, &c. Additional information is in his Hints to Americans Travelling in Europe. His itinerary can be traced in the accounts in his Memorandum Books, 1:655-70 (28 February-10 June 1787).