On the Road with: Pietro della Valle

Even after Maani died she travelled with Pietro for five years until he could get her back to Italy.pietro della valle

Quickly, the group of women attending the body removed her viscera and filled her innards with camphor oil. Next they delivered her heart, likewise camphorized, to Pietro on a saucer. He was less than impressed and ordered them to immediately return Maani’s heart to the body. Catholic belief at the time dictated that, for the heart to be present on Judgment Day, it had to remain in the body upon death.

The coffin was made of mango wood. The workers nailed it shut, wrapped it in a wax-coated fabric then sheathed the box in lead. At Ormuz where he sought passage to India, Pietro hired several men to build two over-sized wooden trunks clad in leather. He then placed Maani’s coffin at the bottom of one of the trunks then covered it with multiple layers of clothing. No ship’s captain would have ever agreed to take a body aboard but there was no way the heartbroken Roman aristocrat was going to leave behind the woman who had captured his heart.


It was heartbreak that started the whole thing. Mario Schipano, a professor of medicine at Naples had suggested a pilgrimage to the Holy Land would alleviate the pain in the young man’s heart after he was roundly rejected by a woman he had courted for several years.

Della Valle and the servants bearing his luggage reached Venice in late-May, taking the good doctor’s advice. Della Valle carried with him the illustrated volume Observations by Pierre Belon du Mans, which was to serve as his guidebook for the journey ahead.

They embarked on the heavily armed and extremely over-crowded Gran Delfina, a Venetian galleon bound for the Holy Land on June 8, 1614. The vessel was packed with Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Persians, Jews, Italians, French Spanish, Portuguese, English, Germans and Flemings, Indians, Muscovites and Moors.

The ship’s bell tolled each day and everyone aboard prayed as they saw fit.


The opulence of the Ottoman court sucked della Valle in and within days the honored guest was draped in colorful silks and fancy shoes. He described many hours passed on the “sofa”, a stunningly comfortable and uniquely Turkish piece of furniture. Instead of continuing on to Jerusalem the Italian spent the next year learning Turkish, drinking “cahue” (coffee) scented with cloves, cinnamon and sugar and party-ing his broken-heart away. He also made note of things like terry cloth, ceiling fans and an early ferris wheel:

“I was delighted to find myself swept upwards and downwards at such speed. But the wheel turned round so rapidly that a Greek who was sitting near me couldn’t bear it any longer, and shouted out “soni! soni!” (enough! enough!)”

Della Valle was impressed by the eastern culture but shocked however at how the Ottomans brutalized the minorities within the empire – particularly the Christians. Over time, he came to hate the Ottomans – and they him.

Egypt, the Holy Land and a New Beginning

And so on the 25th of September della Valle set sail, along with two-thousand other travelers, from Istanbul to Alexandria, Egyptpietro della valle on a large galleon owned by the Georgian pasha, Muhammad Kaymakam. While there he toured Cairo, the pyramids at Giza, collected a large number of floral specimins, a white monkey specimen to be sent home and organized a primitive archaeological dig among the “pozzi profondissimi” at Saqqara where he pulled up two mummies, ripping one open to inspect it ‘s bones. It was here that della Valle also learned about the magnificent Fayum portraits, arranging for several to be sent back to Europe.

He moved on to the Sinai, St. Catherine’s and then joined a caravan to Jerusalem, arriving at Easter 1616. After touring the holy sites, della Valle moved on to Damascus and Aleppo where he was meant to embark on a ship to Istanbul and then on to Venice and home.


The Italian had by now heard of the Persian Shah Abbas the Great, well-known for his policy of religious and ethnic tolerance. He was also well-known for the disgust he held for the Ottomans, a people he perceived as backwards and intolerant.

And so it was from Aleppo that della Valle wrote to Schipano, explaining an odd new plan to travel east, meet the Persian leader and serve in the Persian army.

He grew out a giant Syrian-style beard and went by camel across 500 miles of desert to Baghdad from where he sent back to Europe the first cuneiform tablets Europeans had seen – as well as a remarkable description of Babylon.

It was soon after his arrival in Baghdad that della Valle met Maani Gioerida (Maʿanī Jowayrī), an 18-year old Nestorian Christian. Maani was not only beautiful but brave, the enamored man wrote. She also shared her husband-to-be’s dream of creating a haven for Christians in the region – and she knew the Shah.

Ever the chameleon, Della Valle shaved his beard into a massive Persian-style pointed mustache and met the Shah at Isfahan. They developed a solid relationship and he spent three years in the Shah’s army – most notably at Ardabīl.  But his health failed him continually and Maani spent another three years nursing him surrounded by her family, an adopted child called Mariuccia and a dozen Persian and Angora cats. Dispirited, della Valle decided to return home to Italy via the Strait of Ormuz where Europeans ships plied the waters and he knew he could purchase passage for himself, Maani, Mariuccia and their servants.

Tragedy and Another New Route

Pregnant Maani died while waiting for a ship to Europe.

She was twenty-three. The Italian adventurer was devastated. His letters pietro della valleto Schipano are of anguish and desolation.

While the coffin was prepared and ship passage sought, there was more trouble ahead. The Portuguese had taken the rich pearl-producing island of Bahrain near Ormuz and the Persians wanted it back. Passage through the war zone was impossible to find. Medical travel insurance wasn’t what it is today so through the hot desert winter, della Valle slept outside, ill and shirtless, listening to the Portuguese cannon defend against the Persian attack. At this point his letters indicate a man near the end of his rope.

The memory of his dead-wife permeates the remainder of his travel journals.  She is never far behind.

It was only one year later however, in February 1623, that della Valle, Maruiccia, the servants and Maani’s corpse disembarked from the English East India ship Whale. This time they were at Cambay near Surat, India, a city della Valle described as large and prosperous and populated by far more Hindus than Muslims. On the very first day, della Valle fell in with a German, Albert von Schilling, and traveled immediately to an animal hospital for sick birds.

Why India? Della Valle had passed several months in and around Ormuz waiting for the fighting to subside and for his health to improve. In that time he had healed, somewhat, from Maani’s death and his letters indicate that with the advent of spring he had regained his optimism and his desire to see more of the world had returned. India seemed a logical choice for the next leg of his journey.

One thing that stands out in della Valle’s letters and his later accounts of his travels, is his compassion for all humanity. I find this strikingly progressive for a man travelling at a time when most non-Europeans were seen as less than human. His concern for the less-fortunate seems to have only grown after his wife’s death and during his time in India. One has to wonder if, upon returning to Italy, he was equally as affected by the Catholic mistreatment of Jews and other religious minorities.

A Portuguese ship took them to Goa and for the next two years Della Valle’s letters to Schipano paint a picture of color-filled bazaars, the challenges faced by European businessmen in the region, the dancing-girls, a climb into the Ghats…

“The ascent of this Mountain is not very rough but rather easie and pleasant like the other parts being thick set with Groves of Trees of excessive greatness some of them so strait that one alone might serve for the Mast of a Ship Withall the Mountain is so watered with Rivulets and Fountains that me thought I saw the most delightful place of the Appennine in Italy If there be any difference the Gat of India hath the advantage in this place because the height is much less than that of our Appennine the ascent more easy the wood more beautiful and thick the waters not less plentiful and clear…”

…the sexually-explicit carvings in an ancient temple, local kings, yogis, nabobs and Ambassadorial masquerade parties. The travelers moved south, eventually meeting King Vekatappa Nayaka of Keladi:

“At length I went to see the King of the Gioghi, and found him employed in his business after a mean sort, like a Peasant or Villager. He was an old man with a long white beard, but strong and lusty; in either ear hung two little beads, which seemed to be of Gold, I know not whether empty or full, about the bigness of a Musket-bullet; the holes of his ears were large, and the tips much stretched by the weight; on his head he had a little red bonnet, such as our Galley-slaves wear, which caps are brought out of Europe to be sold in India with good profit. From the girdle upwards he was naked, only he had a piece of Cotton wrought with Lozenges of several colours across his shoulders; he was not very low, and, for an Indian, of colour rather white than otherwise.”

His accounts of India remain some of the most important historical and ethnographic sources for the sub-continent.pietro della valle


In December 1625 della Valle and his party sailed for Iraq. From there they traversed the Syrian desert to Aleppo and then sailed on a French ship for Italy.

“Thus, 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.”

In February, Schipano met the party in Naples and at the end of April, after twelve years of travel, Pietro della Valle returned to Rome.

Maani was placed in the family vault after a scientific examination by the widower:

“I found the flesh of the head, which I could see through a tear in the shroud, to be wholly eaten away, nothing remaining but the bone; at this I was not surprised, for the brain had not been removed and this had caused the decomposition. The rest of the body appeared to be better preserved…”

Della Valle was appointed an honorary chamberlain at the Vatican. He and Mariuccia were eventually married and fourteen children – all boys! The rest of his life was rather uneventful, but still creative and energetic.

Various accounts of his travels appeared soon after his death, the most important being Viaggi di Pietro della Valle, a compilation of the extraordinarily lengthy and extremely detailed 36 letters he had written to Schipano while on the road. While you certainly won’t find a lick of literary ability or humor in his writings, della Valle was detailed (the Safavid legal system, dress, customs, music, tactics, military pay, wolf-baiting, balls, conversations, weights and measures, currency, flora, crops, drugs, spices and on and on…) observant, well-informed and accurate. Viaggi is one of the most impressive travel diaries you’ll ever come across.

Without a doubt, della Valle’s travel letters are perhaps the most reliable and complete accounts of life in what we now call the Middle East and India.


It is said that for the remainder of his days, a hint of camphor wafted through his study. Perhaps Maani’s heart was never far from him, perhaps hidden away in a jar in the room.

Pietro della Valle finally passed on April 21, 1652, at the age of 66. He was laid next to Maani in the family vault high on Capitoline Hill.



The Travels of Pietro Della Valle in India
The Pilgrim: The Travels of Pietro Della Valle
Pietro’s Pilgrimage A Journey to India and Back at the Beginning of the Seventeenth Century
J.D. Gurney, “Della Valle, Pietro”, Encyclopedia Iranica
J.D. Gurney, “Pietro della Valle: The Limits of Perception”. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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8 Responses to On the Road with: Pietro della Valle

  1. Iain Mallory October 20, 2012 at 9:59 pm #

    That is a hugely well researched article Jim, a fascinating story filled with historical fact. I'll have to take a look at the other stories in the series, if this is an example of the rest it'll be well worth reading the rest.

    I have to admit to not being familiar with Della Valle, thanks for sharing this educational series.

    • Jim O'Donnell October 20, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

      Iain. Thank you so much. Coming from you this is a HUGE compliment. In fact, this is the first in a monthly series so I'll let you know when the November historic traveller piece is out. I bought a reprint of Della Valle's book a few years ago and was blown away. I've been collecting old travel accounts since! Thanks again!

    • Iain Mallory October 21, 2012 at 12:01 am #

      Thanks Jim

  2. Linda June 2, 2013 at 1:55 am #

    I am a bit lost for words here. That was a rivetting read.I read it this morning, over breakfast, and if, as something of a coffee addict, I tell you that my coffee went cold perhaps it indicates how much I enjoyed it!

    The older I get the more drawn I am by stories of travels of yore (isn’t there a fashion these days to think “we” are discovering the world!). I think possibly living in the Canary Islands and realizing that they have been at the hub of world travels for centuries and not just the tourist destination of today brought home to me that wanderlust is nothing new! Reading your comment to Iain I totally understand your fascination.

    • Jim O'Donnell June 4, 2013 at 2:57 pm #


      I am so happy you enjoyed this. I intend it as a once every few months feature here. I love historical travels. The world has changed so much and I would have loved to have seen what they saw. The history of the Canaries is fascinating in and of itself – and it was such an important place for so many centuries of travel and exploration!

      Please, if you havent, be sure to check out part 2 in this series….on the Italian traveler Giuseppe Acerbi: http://www.aroundtheworldineightyyears.com/giuseppe-acerbi/


  3. Jan Willem Geuzebroek June 4, 2014 at 5:26 am #

    I’m very pleased that you paid attention to the remarkable Italian traveller Pietro della Valle, who is only known to scholars, but not to a broad public. The man and hisvoluminous travel account the Viaggi…certainly deserves better.

    However, familiar with della Valle’s Viaggi..(the Dutch translation of 1664) .and the history of Persia in the 17th century I would like to add some corrections concerning his travel and stay in Persia.

    1. Before arriving in Aleppo della Valle must have heard of Shah Abbas the Great. In Italy (as in Spain) one was well aware of the power of the Turks who harmed the commercial interests of Venice. Even before Shah Abbas came to power Italian diplomats traveled to Persia to try to league the Persians against their common enemy. A Turkish-Persian war would reduce the Turkish aspirations in Europe.

    2. There is no evidence in the Viaggi… that Maani knew Shah Abbas.

    3. Della Valle did not meet Shah Abbas in Isfahan but in Ashraf, near the Caspian.

    4. Della Valle never served in the army of Shah Abbas. The Shah was willing to see him, but to della Valle’s frustration never offered him a job. Hoping to fight the Turks, who invaded the northern part of Persia, della Valle followed the Shah and a part of his army to Ardabil, which was under threat. However, due to a resounding victory by the other part of the Persian army near Tabriz, the Turks chose to come to terms with Shah Abbas. For the time being Ardabil had been saved. After a stay of about 2.5 months della Valle returned to Isfahan, while Shah Abbas went back to his quarters in Ashraf.

    5. The fighting in the Persian Gulf was not about Bahrain, but about the strategic island of Hormuz (or Ormuz). In 1507 the Portuguese conquered the small island in the Strait of Hormuz and built a strong fortress. From there the Portuguese controlled all the commercial activities in the Gulf. To break the monopoly the English joined forces with the Persians and together they besieged the Portuguese at Hormuz.

    6 Della Valle did not stay at Hormuz, but in Minab (also called Mina), a small town about 80 kilometres east of Gombroon (now Bandar Abbas).It was in Minab that Maani died. You probably mixed the island of Hormuz with what was once the old Hormuz, a thriving harbour town, 10 kilometers from Minab. Marco Polo visited this town twice (1272 and 1293). But at the time of della Valle hardly anything was left of this town. Due to dynastic infighting and ever- changing support from neigboring kingdoms, the ruler of Old Hormuz decided in 1296 to move the entire population and its possessions to the small island of Jarun, which was renamed Hormuz.

    7. Della Valle did not stay all the time in Minab. Soon after the death of Maani he himself fell seriously ill. At all costs he wanted to leave the terrible climate of Minab and to go to a healthier town where doctors were available. After a two weeks travel he arrived in Lar, a little more than 400 kilometers from Minab. While della Valle slowly recovered from his illness, the English and Persian troops finally conquered the Portuguese fortress at Homuz. However, as soon as della Valle was able to travel again he set off for Shiraz. It was in Shiraz that della Valle heard of English ships in the harbour of Gombroon ( Bandar Abbas). He rightly presumed that the English crews were ignorant of the existence of the coffin with the remains of Maani. So, in Shiraz della Valle decided to return to the Strait of Ormuz to try to embark on one of the English ships, which was bound for India.

    8. Della Valle did visit Hormuz once after he returned from Shiraz (and before he embarkied to India).He was shocked by the way the Persians pillaged the Portuguese fortress.

    9. Shah Abbas is not particularly known for his etnic and religious tolerance. True, all kinds of missionaries (Carmelites, Capuchins and Augustinians) were allowed to settle in isfahan. By permitting Roman-Catholics in his realm Shah Abbas was merely serving his commercial and military interests. As long as the Turks were threatening Persia it was his goal to please the different courts in Europe and Rome. Once the threat was over, Shah Abbas just tolerated the presence of the missionaries. As Father John Thaddeus, head of the Carmelites and acquaintence of della Valle, wrote to Rome: “You should not imagine that he will give us a church , or permission to make Christians of his subjects…”.
    It is also true that the Armenian craftsmen and traders in Isfahan could profess their own religion. Della Valle counted 10 churches in their quarter (New Julfa).But here too, Shah Abbas’ tolerance served one particular goal: the skills and wealth of the Armenian traders and craftsmen to bolster economic growth and fill the Treasury. Other Armenians with no economic value, who were deported from the Caucasus, were often less fortunate. Many were killed or enslaved (and forced to accept the faith of their muslim master). The same applies for thousands of Georgians and Kurds. For exemple: della Valle’s stepdaughter Mariuccia was from Georgia.
    That said, Shah Abbas is particular known for creating a strong central government with an effective bureaucracy. During his reign trade relations with Europe and India were promoted, roads and caravansarais built and Shiism as a state religion further implemented. Above all Shah Abbas is known for supporting arts and architecture..On his command Isfahan, with its mosques, bridges, palace and magnificent square, became the stunnig, which it still is. city

    • Jim O'Donnell June 6, 2014 at 11:51 am #

      Jan Willem, thank you so much for your very informative comment. I really appreciate the additional information.


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