Three Dead White Men Whom You Should Know


This is the first of a six-part series that traces the lives of three eighteenth-century men who were well celebrated in their lifetimes, and now are virtual nobodies. Each biographic essay will be covered in two separate  issues of this blog. The names of the men are, in the order to appear in this blog: Vincenzo Lunardi; James Swan; and, Brook Watson. All three were orphaned prior to age fifteen, left in poverty by their dead parents, and forced to move to another country in order to make their way in life. At that time, communication was restricted to letters that took weeks or months to receive, if ever; travel by land other than on horseback was limited to unsprung coaches that traveled over roads that were at best muddy or rut ridden paths and took more than a week of days to cross a country such as France; the intrepid travelers that went by sea needed a strong dose of sang froid to deal with menacingly high seas, rotted food, foul water, and God knows what sort of bath and toilet accommodations. In spite of all odds, they achieved levels of successes that eludes so many other people in easier times. 

Portrait of Vicenzo Lunardi


I bought the painting shown above some eight years ago in Mexico City where I had been living with my family. My wife and I along with a friend went to the combined house and shop of an antique dealer. His handsome, Beaux Arts stone townhouse sat on a once haute bourgois circle of similar stone houses located in a now decayed neighborhood. By bewildering contrast, every floor inside the house, table, shelf, and wall resembled a third-dimensional Jackson Pollock, in its maniacal mélange of chairs lacking one or more arms or legs, chipped shell-encrust, sappy paintings on velvet of the Crucifictions and the Annunciations, busts of ladies with large bosoms and big hair, and stuffed, knockoff Steiff-type bears.. If it had a name-or even if it didn’t, it was there. After going through its four-stories, we returned to the ground floor, wondering where its inhabitants could possibly sleep and eat; and, how any vendor with a claim on sanity could be so optimistic as to believe in the eventual sale of the full clutter.

My wife disappeared on the ground floor behind the winding staircase and called me to look at “something”. The “something” was the painting of Vincenzo Lunardi. Aside from being an absolutely charming and well executed oil painting on canvas in obviously good condition and clearly a United Kingdom product of late eighteenth century origin, she pointed out to me a metal plate affixed to the bottom horizontal of the handsome, carved and gilt frame, which stated:

Johann Zoffany, R.A


“Lunardi, the Ballonist”.

I knew Zoffany to be one of King George the Third’s favorite painters and the name immediately brought to my mind the Zoffany portrait of Queen Charlotte seated at her skirted dressing table, every inch of which was ruched and laced as heavily as her gown, along with her two eldest sons standing beside her: the younger of the two dressed as a sultan and the Prince of Wales, as a helmeted five-year old Mars.


When we returned home, my wife called the dealer to confirm that the currency of his quotation was in Mexican pesos, which he did; and, further, he said that the cost of the painting could be reduced by 30% of the original price. She asked him to send the painting over to our house, and he arrived within less than one hour and left shortly thereafter, elatedly, with a check in hand. That both the alleged painter and its subject were non-Latin in origin was obviously viewed by him as causing a long, slow, maybe never, sale, and his good luck to have a pair of “gringos” who wanted it enough to buy.

Both my wife and I immediately sat down at our respective lap tops, she exploring Johann Zoffany and me, the subject of the painting. What we found and didn’t find inspired this biography on Lunardi and what the painting “saw” in its passage from wall to wall, where it hung, and what we two encountered in the process.

Who was Vicenzo Lunardi?

“Lunardi the Ballonist”  was not a name familiar to me– I never having been especially a fan of ballooning. A jumping brown dog next to Lunardi wears a wide, polished steel collar around its neck, inscribed


“V. LUNARDI.” Lunardi rests one arms on a cannon and his other arm is raised to the sky, pointing to a tiny figure of himself standing in the undercarriage of a hot-air balloon. One man and a woman are seated on a bench in the mid-left zone of the painting and another man and woman are standing behind them; above them is a structure that resembles the Round Tower at Windsor Castle. So many clues awaiting revelation.

Lunardi, whose first name I learned was Vincenzo, was born in 1759 in Lucca, still a gorgeous and relatively pristine hill town in Tuscany, to a family described as descended “from” minor Luccan nobility , but having no money at the time of Lunardi’s birth—and, most likely, none for many prior generations. I found no reference to the title they may have once held or any other vestige of nobility, such as a palace or castle, but only a possible coat of arms,  the “Stemma della famiglia Lunardi.”


The device  is shield-shaped with 5 horizontal alternating bands of three white and two red that each have a central double white crescent moon outlined in black, possibly suggesting service in a crusade. The term “minor nobility” suggests to me something equivalent to the Spanish term, hidalgo, which is a diminutive of “hijo d’algo,” translated literally as “son of something;” that is to say, the son of a man who had some memorable station in life as contrasted with a son of a total nonentity.

Vincenzo and his three sisters became orphaned well before reaching 20 years of age. More fortunate than most orphans under these circumstances in the laissez faire world of the mid-eighteenth century, the three were left to the care of a more financially substantial and older, caring cousin named Gherado Compani. Compani was a diplomatic factotum at the Court of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in Naples,


a Spanish Bourdon monarchy, carried the title of Cavaliere of Naples.

Compani believed that Lunardi was a capable and intelligent young man with a future that might exceed the low achievements of his forebears, polishing the dismal Lunardi family’s tarnished escutcheon. Contemporary accounts relate that Lunardi had an easy charm, was slight in build, and pleasant looking, the latter two are revealed in the “Zoffany” portrait. Compani helped Lunardi travel both inside and outside of the then broad composite of independent states we now call Italy, to enhance his education and sophistication. He is reported even to have spent some portion of his youth in the East Indies; but, I have not been able to findout when or why. In 1780, Compagni was able to obtain a clerical function for his young cousin at the Neapolitan court. Lunardi, who was then living in Paris, teaching as well as studying English and history, left for Naples to take the job upon receiving Compani’s summons.

The king of the Two Sicilies, consisting of the region of Naples and the island of Sicily, was a boorish soul  called Ferdinand IV, whose father  abdicated to become King Charles III  of Spain, and thereby left his Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to is twelve-year old son  His queen was Maria Carolina, one of Marie-Antoinette’s eleven sisters.


The Court was like a comic opera. Among other special pursuits, Ferdinand was reknowned for self-butchering the stags and wild boar he hunted, emerging staunchly from processing his kill into loins, hams, and ribs, covered in the blood, urine and feces. He also brought his fresh-caught fish to sell in the marketplace at his own stall, haggling over price as  did his non-royal vendors at their neighboring stalls. He prided himself on his frenetic approach to dancing the tarantella, the prime folkloric dance of Naples When his brother-in-law Emperor Joseph II of Austria came to visit, the King performed the dance before the Emperor, which was all very well and good, if not a bit looney, for a king to impress his wife’s kin. But, afterward, Ferdinand grabbed the Emperor’s hands and placed them inside his sweat-soaked shirt, presumably further to astound the then stupefied Joseph with his vigor.


The monarchy lived more in fear of its nobles than the proletariate. Even before the beheading of her sister in 1794, Maria Carolina lived in fear of being murdered by one of her fierce aristocratic subjects. Lunardi, being a graceful, intelligent, and ambitious young man in contrast to the coarse and peculiar royals and nobles, found Naples to be a “piece of cake” in his path for personal advancement.

Lunardi enlisted in the Engineer Corps of the Royal Army, and gained a sinecure that, in the main, brought him a smart and colorful uniform, which was in itself a “door opener” to the highest levels of Neapolitan society. Cleverly, he then joined the local chapter of the Freemasons,


a recherché group allegedly brought to the city by the Queen  who was more liberal than her “French” sister, and excoriated by the local clergy as being heretical. As an expected, direct result of clerical disapproval, the membership of the local Freemasons included the most prominent, rich, and powerful men in the Kingdom, including  Francesco d’Aquino, the Prince of Caramanico, a principal advisor to Ferdinand. The Prince, albeit massively fat, was allegedly the Queen’s lover, possibly because she viewed his girth as providing a broad shield against an assassin’s blade. Apropos of nothing,  one of the two current claimants to the throne of the Two Sicilies is associated with the current Prince of Caramanico , Don Alesaandro d’Aquino, in the very small and exclusive Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George, a Roman Catholic dynastic order of knighthood founded in 1520-1545.


The ambassadorship from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to England became vacant in 1793; and, the Prince of Caramanico was appointed to that post. Having become acquainted with Lunardi, perhaps from their mutual Freemason membership, the Prince asked Vincenzo to be his attaché in London, officially with the title of Private Secretary to his Excellency, the Neapolitan Ambassador to the Court of Saint James’s. Although the opportunity came with very low salary, Lunardi accepted the job eagerly, as it seemed to provide a clearer path to prosperity. Naples, he had realized early on, was no more than a pleasurable, wacky backwater for a person of his talents and ambition.

Lunardi and the Prince arrived in London in 1793, where the Prince rented five rooms on New Bond Street, in Mayfair, to serve both as office and home for the Ambassador and his staff of one. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was a very small, insignificant, and then peaceful state, notwithstanding that its monarchs inhabited one of the largest palaces in Europe.


Naples’ irrelevance provided little to do for the Ambassador and his private secretary, once they had been introduced at the court of George the Third and made the required rounds as newcomers on other officials. Nevertheless, empty diplomatic boxes, all bound in the scarlet red leather with bright gold embossing the escutcheon of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, went back and forth weekly between London and Naples. Lunardi recognized quickly that the combination of his expansive free time and his diplomatic title provided him with broad entrée in London, to advance his pursuit to augment the petty stipend he received.

Late eighteenth-century London was a highly entrepreneurial, free-market capital city, open to scientific and mechanical innovations, discoveries, and cures; and, its moneyed class was willing to reward liberally those ambitious and clever people who came up with those advances. At the time, great interest was focused on experimentation with lighter–than-air crafts that was happening on the Continent. In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers sent a sheep, duck and rooster up 1500 feet into the air in a carriage slung below a gorgeously-decorated balloon on the grounds of Versailles


before an incredulous Louis XVI. This was followed quickly by a balloon ascent launched later that year by the brothers with a man in the balloon carriage, also witnessed by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. While the idea of hot air balloons is enjoyed by many in the twenty-first century, particularly as a touristic enhancement, we need to understand that, in the eighteenth century, it was comparably nothing less than going into orbit in space by Russian astronauts in 1957.

All of Europe talked about flying machines, and cheap engravings of balloon flights made the experiences visually available to broad populations. The Church railed against these excursions to the clouds as “knocking on heaven’s door.”  Country people saw the flying balloons as the work of demons; and, fallen balloonist were often chased with pitchforks aloft as fallen devils themselves. The English upper crust was aware of the ballooning mania in Europe, but tried to fain disinterest as it was a Continental phenomenon; a few unexciting  ballooning attempts in Scotland didn’t change that general attitude. In fact, ever competitive, England was embarrassed that France had achieved the lead in sending men and animals aloft. Indeed, a London newspaper in 1783 advised that “all men to laugh this new folly out of practice.” Another Italian, Court Francesco Zambeccari, launched a small, unmanned hydrogen balloon in London on November 21, 1783, and, several weeks later set off a larger version, also unmanned. Neither event was particularly successful and failed to gather any meaningful notoriety..

Lunardi was smitten, and chose ballooning as his key to prosperity. He took a leave of absence from his secretarial post to learn how to do it, which he clearly did in depth. First of all, he needed money to make a balloon, as he had none. Promising an Englishman of means named George Biggin


a seat beside him on the first flight, Biggin agreed to back Lunardi. Biggin lived on a sizeable estate called Cosgrove Hall and was on an amateur inventor who produced a new means of tanning leather and, perhaps, a coffee pot still in use called the “coffee biggin.”.


But Lunardi needed funds larger than Biggin was willing to commit to produce the balloon. Potential English backers initially resented the fact that the first likely manned balloon flight in their country would have an Italian at the helm and a seat onboard. However, Lunardi’s charm and enthusiasm overcame the local reluctance to open their pockets. In a letter to his cousin Compani during his fund raising stage, Lunardi writes very presciently the difference between raising venture capital in London as opposed to Italy:

“In Italy, I should have sought the patronage and generosity of my Sovereign, or of some liberal and opulent nobleman, to enable me to obtain the expense of my present undertaking, Here wealth is more diffused; and by any contrivance that can gratify the curiosity of the people, sums of money are immediately collected, without the anxiety and mortification of petitioning the great.” He adds: “Ingenious men are perhaps the better rewarded, and not rendered slaves to the purposes and caprices of patrons.”

Lunardi raised the money to produce the balloon. However, he also needed to locate a ] London site for the lift-off, which needed to be conveniently  situated, as the bulk of attendees would come on foot, as London lacked affordable transport; he also required  a site large enough to hold 100,000 or more persons that he hoped to attract. He was able to persuade the administrators of the Chelsea Hospital, a charitable organization located in what is now South Kennsington,


 to use their spacious grounds for the lift-off. The Hospital then as now provides  a hospice for military invalids and  had begun in the reign of  Charles II under the urging if Nell Gwyn, the Merry Monarch’s  long-term mistress. This site was located two miles from the City if London, but believed by Lunardi to be acceptable as a walk-to venue from the City where the bulk of the London population then lived. South Kennsington/Chelsea in the late eighteenth century was a bucolic region of country villas, small villages, and spacious gardens and fields.


There were two alternative means of filling the balloon, one, by placing a wood-burning stove in the undercarriage of the balloon that feed continuously heated air into the balloon chamber; and, the other was to fill the balloon with hydrogen attained by pouring sulfuric  acid onto zinc or iron filings, thereby producing  hydrogen gas, which is lighter than air; and, then seal the balloon when airborne, only to let the gas escape to lower altitude or land. Anyone who had been close to a sulfur spring is familiar with that noxious smell that occurs when hydrogen gas is so produced in open air. The first method, which Lunardi describes as a moving chimney heated a common fire, and represented the most dangerous method  of filling a balloon, as it can cause the balloon material to catch fire. However, the benefit of using hot air was its low cost as it could made by burning straw. It  had been used by the Mongolfier brothers. Lunardi chose the second method as being safer, except when the craft passed through thunder clouds when the hydrogen could explode. He believed could be avoided if on kept a close eye on the weather in choosing when to lift off. A hydrogen balloon was safer but more costly and required a gradual process to cool down the gas before it could safely channeled into the cavity of the balloon.

Another would-be balloonist, a Frenchman named Moret who had been somehow involved in hot air balloon trials in Paris, arranged for a lift off of his balloon at a field close to the Chelsea Hospital grounds. A crowd exceeding 50,000 paid to watch the lift-off. Attempts to fill Moret’s balloon,  used the fire-fed method, but for reasons unknown took hours linger than Moret anticipated, and the balloon ultimately collapsed into the furnace. Angry spectators destroyed not only was left of the balloon, but some of the crowd robbed other more affluent attendees, and then levelled all fences in the neighborhood. Lunardi described that this bunch of brutes “spread desolation and terror through the whole district.”He adds:

“Though the people of England are comparatively well-informed and  enlightened; yet is the multitude in all nations is nearly alike.”

After the close-by Moret disaster, Chelsea Hospital as politely as possible canceled its agreement with Lunardi. He was embarrased and concerned that his backers would jump his lighter-than-air ship and desperate that his scheme might fail.. He writes in one of his letters that that, although he really had no reputation in London to be destroyed, the loss of the Chelsea Hospital site was a set-back for him. Nevertheless, he continued to calm his backers; and, once  the balloon was completed, he arranged to exhibit it at the Lyceum Hall on the Strand,  


a private  hall pending the arrangement of a new lift-off site and date The balloon was made of oiled silk with decorative red and white stripes, had a diameter of 32 feet, and was exhibited inflated. One attendee, a young woman, wrote in a letter that she had seen “the curious Machine, ” was made sick by the “horrid smell it of it.” This was, of course, the sulfurous smell given off when  acid was poured on metal to produce hydrogen to keep the balloon inflated at the exhibition.  More than 20,000 people came to see the novelty, but the gate was paid only to the owner of the Lyceum. However, he turned out to be a greedy swine, as no previous event in his hall had ever attracted so large an audience. He told Lunardi that he wouldn’t release the balloon unless he were given a percentage of all the funds that Lunardi would garner from the lift-off gate as well.

Lunardi pulled off a major coup by persuading the Honorable  Artillery Company (the HAC”),


England’s oldest military regiment dating from Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII and headed by the then Prince of Wales, later to become George IV, to lease the HAC field of some 6 acres in the City of London for the launch, a prestigious institution and a field that still exists within the City of London. With this sort of backing, Lunardi had no problem convincing the police forcibly to rescue his balloon from the Lyceum owner’s clutches and deliver it safely to the HAC field. And with the publicized use of HAC field, Luardi had London at his beck and call.


The balloon arrived at the HAC field in the early morning hours of September 15, 1784. A massive paying audience estimated at 150,000 to 200,000 people came to see the historic event, including 

Lunardi ascent ticket

some honorary guests such as  Prince of Wales, Lord North, the principal foe of the North American colonials to their attainment of voting and economic rights, Charles Fox soon to be Prime Minister, and the politically active, great beauty, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Inflating the balloon with hydrogen gas took hours longer than Lunardi anticipated. The crowd was becoming restive and the thought of what had occurred at Chelsea Gardens plagued Lunardi; he tried to stay out of view as much as he could. The Prince of Wales calmed the crowd, standing on the launching field close to the balloon to show his personal interest in protecting the craft. When the balloon was only partially filled at 12 noon, Lunardi asked his investor Biggin, who had been promised a place on the first flight, to relinquish that seat for the sake of public peace and allow Lunardi go it alone with a partly-filled balloon. Biggin was a gentlemen and agreed to stay behind on terra firma, at least for the current voyage into space.

Just before Two P.M.,  Lunardi shook hands with Prince of Wales, who wished the brave fellow a safe flight. He then climbed into the carriage with a dog, a cat, and a pigeon. Someone attached a bottle of wine to his belt. All present, including the Prince of Wales, removed their hats in a show of respect to Lunardi. As the lines were released, the balloon began to rise silently into the air,


travellng to the north as the spectators watched in awe, but fearful and doubtful that the “airgonaut” would return, whether or not alive. Because the balloon was not fully filled before lift-off, it lost altitude and dipped close to the heads of the horrified crowd as it was making its way up to the sky. Lunardi gave up some ballast. He had installed several paddles which he erroneously believed would allow him to steer the craft as well as raise and lower its altitude. As the balloon was gradually gaining altitude, the pigeon Lunardi took aboard flew off and one paddle broke and dropped to the ground. A “gentlewoman” thought the paddle was Lunardi himself and suffered a stroke that proved fatal several days after. Unaware of the mayhem that the fallen paddle had caused, the intrepid Lunardi rowed on into the London sky with his one remaining oar. Laundry’s balloon passed Old Buckingham House


before it was converted into Buckingham Palace, where King George the Third was conferring with his cabinet. The King called called the meeting to a halt to watch Lunardi in his flight, saying grimly that they might never see Lunardi again. And all of them watched the balloon with their telescopes.   





To Be Continued in Next Week’s Third Issue of SoRandom: Historical Snapshots.