Category Archives: Travel

From Venus to Venice

Venus Venice Cover 001History is not simply to be read about. It is something to be experienced. Wherever we go, and whatever we see, we can choose to experience the outcomes of history, or we can choose to be blind to the history that surrounds us.

This is the story of a journey – a journey into history. It is also a journey into the present, and the future. For what we understand about the past, influences the way we think about the present, and what we plan to do in the future. Eventually, in a few seconds time, the future becomes the present, and then the past. Present, past and future are constantly in a state of transition from one to the other.

This is the story of a journey. A transit. And a transition. It involved Venus, and Venice. A Transit of Venus, or of Venice; a transition from one to the other. Here is the first chapter…

Some months ago, at the beginning of 1998 I decided to travel half way around the world and back again.
That, in itself, is hardly a startling event. Millions of people have done it. But why me? Why would I decide do such a thing?
Well, all I can say is that in 1768 Captain James Cook was commissioned by the Royal Society to sail a diminutive wooden boat called the Endeavour around the world in order to observe the transit of the planet Venus across sun in the southern sky. It came to me, possibly in a dream, that I should also travel to the other side of the world to observe Venus.
The problem with all of this is that my dream was rather vague, and I have never really been too sure whether it was Venus or Venice that I was to go to observe. In fact, I am not even certain whether it will be a transit or a transition that I will be observing most of.
So, here I am at the airport. I am off to observe the Transit of Venus; or the Transition of Venus; or possibly the Transit of Venice; or maybe even the Transition of Venice. Which it will be I am yet to discover.
It is six-thirty in the evening of Saturday the twenty-sixth of December. I am boarding a KLM Boeing 747-400 at Sydney airport and flying to Milan in Italy. The plane will leave at about seven.
Five hundred years ago, when working for the Duke of Milan, Leonardo da Vinci designed a machine that he hoped would enable a man to fly through the air like a bird. He carefully studied the flight of birds and the mechanics of their wings and applied this knowledge to his designs. Leonardo’s flying machine never actually took off, but that is probably not the point. The wonderful thing is that he bothered to spend the time investigating such a thing; to spend the time working out the reason that things stay up or don’t stay up. The reason that things fall out of the sky. Perhaps that was for Newton to discover.
Is it the ability to reason that man shares with God and makes us different to other creatures? The ability to recognise the laws of nature and to explain the world around us? Leonardo, were you at the forefront of this investigation of the universe? Was it men like you who began the age of reason? The age where everything had to have a reason. The age where anything that could not be explained in rational terms was not worthy of consideration. Perhaps we would be better off sometimes if we didn’t want a reason for why things happen.
Why am I going to Milan? Is there a reason? Perhaps I will know the answer only when I discover the nature of the question.
Leonardo did not plan his flying machine to have on-board films, toilets, lunch, dinner and breakfast, and a multitude of other services. Today my flying machine has all of these.
I have never been in a 747 before. I am impressed by its size, but disappointed by the cramped conditions. I have the impression that there are too many passengers. There are close to four hundred. There are too many seats crammed into the plane. Take out eighty or a hundred seats. Make more space. It would be much more comfortable. But, this is the way it is, and I find my seat. It is about half way along the plane. Row forty-five. Seat ‘B’. That makes it the centre seat of three next to the left-hand windows. It is just in front of the wing.
I am apprehensive as we take off and steadily climb to a height of over 11,000 meters above the ground. Yes, I have flown before. But this is something different. There is always the possibility that the gravity of the earth will do what it is meant to do and pull this relatively inconsequential cylinder of metal towards the ground at a velocity that will inevitably result in a million fragments being spread over a very wide area.
But the engineers, the latter-day Leonardos, have worked it all out, and the jet engines manage to keep the plane flying through the air at a speed of nearly one million meters each hour. It’s not easy to do that, and the sound of the jet engines make it quite clear just how hard they are trying in their battle against the forces of gravity.
There must be a better way. Somebody will invent an anti-gravity machine one day. Perhaps somebody will invent the means of sub-atomic particle transmission and we will simply disappear from one place only to reappear in another place. Perhaps even another time. Today I am travelling in space. Maybe I will also travel in time.
I begin to think about the possibility of the plane crashing. It is not the first time. Several weeks ago I thought about it. If I am going to die what preparations should I make? I thought about that. And I wrote my Last Will and Testament. The emphasis is, of course, upon the word Last. But I want the emphasis to be on the word testament. I wanted it to be a testament to many things. So I wrote it, and rewrote it. It became something of an autobiography. It was long. In the end I sealed two versions of it in an envelope with the hope that, if it was ever read, people could actually work out what I really wanted. … I sealed it up and left it on the shelf at home.
I had been reading Keats before leaving, because he went to Rome and wrote about his experiences. He also once wrote to his friend Fanny Brawne in 1820.

If I should die I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered.

I wonder about the same unanswerable question. Although, in the end Keats is remembered and his works are read, and loved.
Eventually I put my mind to thinking about other things—like the growing discomfort of sitting in a cramped centre seat for twenty-four hours. I settle down to reading; or watching the progress of the journey on the overhead video screens; or just looking out the window at the passing parade of clouds. The stewards seem to be constantly asking whether I would like another drink or something to eat. I always accept their hospitality and in this way I collect a number of bottles of French or Italian wine for later consumption.
Eventually the machine does allow gravity to take over and it descends rapidly toward the ground. Soon it lands on the tarmac at the Malpensa Airport just outside Milan—the place where Leonardo had designed his original prototype. It is a relief to be out of the confined space. It is a relief to walk on solid ground again.
But Milan is not my final destination, and the four hundred passengers of flight AZ797 are not the only people to arrive at Milan. Another three flights arrive within minutes of each other pouring out a thousand passengers in a mass that overwhelms the Italian customs officials. Accurate checking of baggage is forgotten. Stamping of passports becomes irrelevant. The officials simply wave the new arrivals through their checkpoints as quickly as possible.
I look at my watch. It tells me that the time is six-thirty on Sunday afternoon. The flight has taken nearly twenty-four hours. I look at the clock on the Milan airport wall. It tells me that the time is eight-thirty on Sunday morning.
Somewhere I have saved ten hours. How far would I have to travel to save a whole day? Or a week? Or a year? Can I travel back in time to an era long gone? I think of Umberto Eco’s novel The Island of the Day Before. What has happened to time? I do not have time to consider the answer just now. Time flies and I must catch another plane.

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Posted by on 16/05/2015 in Philosophy, Travel


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The Journal of Madame Callegari

Madame Callegari Cover 13 August 2015 001

WHO WAS MADAME CALLEGARI? Was she one of these?

  • The Transported Convict
  • The Venetian Merchant’s Wife
  • The Heroine of the Californian Goldrushes
  • The Adventurer of the Mexican Jungles
  • The Celebrity of European Literary Circles
  • The Plantation Owner of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec

No. Madame Callegari was not just one of these. In fact, she was all of these.

Early in 1855, a thirty-six-year-old French woman approached Alexandre Dumas in Paris, and asked him to edit, and publish, her account of ten years spent travelling in Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, California and Mexico. Dumas agreed to her request, because her story was one of adventure and romance, and took this young lady, and her husband, to places seldom visited by young women. However, she insisted that, in publishing her story, her true identity should not be revealed. To achieve this they chose the pseudonym Madame Giovanni, and changed, or omitted, certain parts of the narrative which could have identified her. Since first publication, the true identity of Madame Giovanni was cause for speculation, and readers could not decide whether the story was true at all, or whether it was a mixture of fact and fiction. The Journal of Madame Callegari, researched over four years, and using archives from at least eight countries, reveals that Madame Marie Giovanni was in fact Madame Marie Callegari. Madame Callegari’s true adventures go far beyond those recorded by Alexandre Dumas in 1855. Yes, she visited all of the placed described by Dumas—Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, New Caledonia, Hawaii, California, and Mexico—but she also became involved in the Mexican civil war with President Santa Anna; she and her husband were granted a vast hacienda on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; they came under attack by rebel troops who destroyed their farm; she witnessed American corruption on the Isthmus and reported it to President Ulysses S Grant; she was witness to great battles during the American Civil War and witnessed the siege of New Orleans. Eventually, late in life she tried to have published a sequel to her 1855 journal, but negotiations failed and her goal was not achieved. Now, for the first time we can read the story of Madame Callegari — the true story behind Alexandre Dumas’s 1855 Journal of Madame Giovanni, in the Journal of Madame Callegari. (414 pages, maps and Illustrations)


‘The Governor of London’s Coldbath Fields House of Correction remembered his young French prisoner as ‘a treacherous, bad woman’. Though ‘by no means handsome’, she possessed a ‘very high talent, remarkable for eloquence and tears’. Three decades later the same woman, now with an Italian name, introduced herself by letter to the American president Ulysses S. Grant, saying she was returning to Europe as a ‘traveler who certainly will be believed’. When Alexandre Dumas published in Paris the journal of her earlier travels, he may or may not have ‘believed’ her, but as one of the most famous writers of his day, he had an eye for a good story and hers was a dramatic tale of adventure and romance across continents and overseas. Douglas Wilkie has followed the paper trail left behind by this shape-changing adventurer with a flair for language and a sense of herself as the heroine in her own romance. Having tracked the stylish swindler through the archives of eight countries, he weaves together a meticulously researched account of an unexpected and utterly fascinating woman.’

Emeritus Professor Lucy Frost, The University of Tasmania

“After four years of meticulous research during which he was able to trace her movements around the world, Wilkie was able to reveal that Madame Marie Giovanni was certainly Madame Marie Callegari, a real woman who had visited most of the places described in Dumas’ book.

Douglas Wilkie has chosen to tell this fascinating story in the first voice, that of Madame Callegari herself, so we find her writing posthumously, telling why she chose to publish under a pseudonym and introducing us to her former self, the young woman known as Louisa La Grange … intriguing and well-told, from the wretchedness of prison and transportation followed by a pardon in Australia and then marriage to fellow-convict, the Venetian merchant Pietro Callegari, to their remarkable travels and sojourns in parts of the world rarely visited by a nineteenth century woman. … The original Dumas journal is written in the first person but here we find the voice enhanced with detailed facts and insights, drawn from Wilkie’s meticulous research. This remarkable attention to detail successfully draws the reader deeper into Madame Giovanni’s story, thus dissipating any initial unease; the end-notes are crucial as evidence of Madame Callegari’s claims. Wilkie writes ‘The Journal of Madame Callegari is what I believe Madame Callegari would have told us if she had the opportunity.’ He is to be congratulated on his achievement.”

Elaine Lewis, Author Left Bank Waltz, (Vintage 2006); Co-editor The French Australian Review.

“… a fascinating story from start to finish: not only the very notion that the true identity of Madame Callegari has remained hidden until now, but also the incredible story of Madame Callegari’s life and travels. The journal is bookended by the equally interesting story of the author’s own four year journey to uncover the truth and his essay on The Voice of Madame Callegari. As one would expect, the author’s choice to write the journal in the first person adds greatly to the pace and personal nature of the story and draws the reader in from the very beginning. … Astute readers … will no doubt be delighted to now be able to read the full story of Madame Callegari and her incredible life. This complete account is meticulously researched and a valuable and important contribution to the literature in the area of French-Australian Studies, given the time that Madame Callegari spent here and in the surrounding region. Readers everywhere can be very grateful that Douglas Wilkie came across Madame Callegari’s true identity, that he has set the record straight, and that he has shared her fascinating story with us.”

Dr Kerry Mullan, Senior lecturer, Coordinator French Studies, RMIT University Melbourne

Review of The Journal of Madame Callegari by Mary McMichael Ritzlin in Terrae Incognitae, Vol 49, No 1, 2017

This book is unusual in that Wilkie presents his new research using the first person, as if Callegari were commenting from beyond the grave on the original publication, her later work, and his own additions. This device allows Marie to point out discrepancies between editions and the factual record as due to either creative editing by Dumas, lapses of memory on her part, or allowing for natural gaps in the record due to careless record-keepers.

Wilkie addresses the pros and cons of using the first person narrative, … and shares many other scholarly opinions on the subject. He argues his book conforms to what “Marie Callegari would have told us if she had the opportunity” (p. 335) and he has convinced this reader, for one.

The full review is available in Terrae Incognitae through Taylor & Francis with DOI 10.1080/00822884.2017.1295692

The Journal of Madame Callegari, The True Story Behind Alexandre Dumas’s 1855 Journal de madame Giovanni, Douglas Wilkie, Historia Incognita, 2015, pp.410. ISBN 9781320395878

Review in History News, Issue No.322, Feb-Mar 2016 (Newsletter of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria), p.10.

[Using]… soundly based historical method and not fictional imaginings … [the author]  … takes the reader on a fascinating trail of historical detection …”

“The author convincingly shows that Madame Giovanni, the author of Alexandre Dumas’s publication of her journal, was not a fictional character but Madame Callegari whose travels took her away from Paris in 1843 to 1853. Convicted in London, sent to Van Diemen’s Land, she briefly visited Melbourne in 1848 and 1849. the journal is mostly about Van Diemen’s Land, and then the South Pacific, California and Mexico where her ‘adventures’ took her after serving her sentence. Wilkie has reconstructed Callegari’s life and rewritten her journal in the first person in what he shows to be soundly based historical method and not fictional imaginings. The journal first translated in 1944 is not well-known and the author has not only revealed its content but also takes the reader on a fascinating trail of historical detection.”

The Journal of Madame Callegari is also reviewed by the Société des Amis d’Alexandre Dumas

“Ouvrage présenté comme « La véritable histoire derrière le livre d’Alexandre Dumas : Journal de voyage d’une parisienne – Marie Giovanni ».

Douglas Wilkie, professeur à Melbourne University, fait paraître son livre The Journal of Madame Callegari présenté comme « La véritable histoire derrière le livre d’Alexandre Dumas : Journal de voyage d’une parisienne – Marie Giovanni« .

Alexandre Dumas a publié en effet en 1855 un journal de voyage dont une première version lui aurait été confiée par une dame se dissimulant sous le nom de Marie Giovanni.

Cette dame est souvent identifiée à Gabrielle-Anne Cisterne de Courtiras, épouse du Poilloüe de Saint-Mars, dite la comtesse Dash. Est-ce là la vérité ?

Douglas Wilkie a mené l’enquête et nous révèle la personnalité de Madame Callegari qui se cache derrière le nom de Giovanni…”

    Who was Madame Callegari? 1
    The Journal of Madame Callegari 5
    To My Readers 7
    Prologue: The Departure 9
    Isle de France 11
    Part One : The Merchant of Venice 17
    Awaiting Exportation 19
    Pietro Callegari & John De Castaños 27
    A Ship of Desperate Mutineers 35
    Van Diemen’s Land 37
    Barlatier Demas 39
    The Governor & the Forty Thieves 42
    Part Two : A Treacherous, Bad Woman 45
    Louise Mirabello 47
    Coldbath Fields House of Correction 54
    Viscountess La Grange 59
    You Have Abandoned Me 63
    Louise Mirabello Becomes Louisa La Grange 71
    Faithful Wives & Good Servants 76
    A Ship of Hysterical Women 80
    A Ship of Troublesome Characters 83
    Hobart 86
    A Gracious & Kind Governor 88
    Part Three : Madame Callegari 99
    Madame Callegari 101
    Polyglot Academy 102
    Mauritius 107
    Mount Wellington 111
    Curious Madrigals 118
    Le berger et le l’ingot d’or 124
    Freedom, Bellini & Governor’s Balls 129
    Part Four : South Pacific Adventures 139
    Sailing Ships 141
    Part Five : California— Un fichu pays 157
    San Francisco 159
    Twist’s Flat 166
    Honolulu 178
    Part Six : Mexico 185
    Acapulco 187
    President Santa Anna 194
    Mexico City 199
    Part Seven : Madame Giovanni 205
    Paris 207
    New York 214
    Tehuantepec 220
    War 228
    An Outrage at La Puerta 232
    United States of America 243
    President Ulysses S Grant 246
    Part Eight : A Quiet & Simple Life 257
    San Antonio 259
    The Heart of a Woman 268
    The Women of Mexico 273
    Postscript Postmortem 283
    The End of My Journey 285
    Maps & Illustrations 291
    Annotations and Sources 307
    The Voice of Marie Callegari 309
    Acknowledgements 336
    Annotations and Sources 339

 Journal Articles

Douglas Wilkie, ‘Femina Incognita: Alexandre Dumas’s Madame Giovanni‘,  Terrae Incognitae, The Journal of the Society for the History of Discoveries, Volume 48, 2016 – Issue 1

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Purchase The Journal of Madame Callegari (ISBN: 9781320468312) from Blurb; or from Amazon (USA); Amazon (UK); The Book Depository; Fishpond (NZ); AbeBooks; Wheelers; Readings Books; or Search Google for ISBN: 9781320395878)

Madame Callegari in Libraries

Auckland City Library

San Antonio Public Library

State Library of Victoria

State Library of Tasmania

National Library of Australia

Hawaii State Public Libraries

Baillieu Library, (University of Melbourne).

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