Albania through the Eyes of Edward Lear

Albania through the Eyes of Edward Lear

TIRANA, January 29

‘Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania &c’ is one of the most notable illustrated travel books by English painter, writer, and poet Edward Lear. He was a passionate painter and started drawing at the age of 16. Thus, he became the leading natural artists in Britain at the time with a special focus on exotic birds. Later, his patrons, the Bishop of Norwich and Lord Stanley supported his travels.

Edward Lear in Albania
The paintings of Lear are important as they provide an important record of life in Albania during the mid-nineteenth century. He describes in details the architecture, traditional costumes, the hundreds pelicans of Zverneci, the strange fashion of women in Gjirokastra, and much more.

In the autumn of 1848, he traveled to Albania on an originally unplanned journey. It was the British ambassador in Constantinople who managed to get the requisite papers for him to travel through what was then considered the wilds of the Ottoman Empire. Starting from Salonika, he arrived in Monastir (Bitola) on 20 September 1848, accompanied by his temperamental Suliot Albanian dragoman and lover, Giorgio Cocali (Jorgo Kokali, 1817-1883). From there, they continued on to Ohrid, Struga, Elbasan, Tirana, Kruja, Lezha and Shkodra, which they reached on 2 October. After several days in Shkodra, they returned to Tirana and Durres and continued southwards to Berat (14-18 October), Ardenica, Apollonia, Vlora, the coast of Himara (21-30 October), Tepelena, Gjirokastra and on to Janina (5 November). The delightful account of the journey was published in his Journals of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania, London 1851, reprint as Edward Lear in Albania, London 2008.
Having developed a fondness for Italy, he settled in Sanremo in the 1870s and saw out his final years there in a house he named “Villa Tennyson”. To combat the loneliness and depression (which he called “the Morbids”) that dogged him, the Englishman relied on the companionship of his cat, Foss, and his Albanian Suliot chef, Giorgio Cocali, who he described as a faithful friend but “a thoroughly unsatisfactory chef.”
Edward Lear died in San Remo in northern Italy, where he is buried with his long-time partner, Giorgio Cocali. The headstone says that Lear was a ‘Landscape painter in many lands, and ‘Dear for his many gifts to many souls’.
Lear was known for using long names to introduce himself like “Mr. Abebika Kratoponoko Prizzikalo Kattefello Ablegorabalus Ableborinto Phashyph” or “Chakonoton the Cozovex Dossi Fossi Sini Tomentilla Coronilla Polentilla Battledore & Shuttlecock Derry down Derry Dumps.”

Central Albania, Elbasan, Tirana

The valley of the Shkumbin River near Elbasan in central Albania, 26 September 1848

Shkumbini Edward Lear

“When the route began to ascend from the valley, the view southward over to Skumbi, in which the giant Tomóhr forms the one point of the scene, was remarkably grand.”

‘The Pass of Tyrana.’ View of Mount Tomorr in central Albania, looking southwards from the Krraba Pass between Elbasan and Tirana. 27 September 1848

Edward Lear in Albania

“How glorious, in spite of the dimming sirocco haze, was the view from the summit, as my eyes wandered over the perspective of winding valley and stream to the farthest edge of the horizon – a scene realizing the fondest fancies of artist imagination! The wide branching oak, firmly rivetted in crevices, all tangled over with fern and creepers, hung half-way down the precipices of the giant crag, while silver-white goats (which chime so picturesquely in such landscapes as this) stood motionless as statues on the highest pinnacle, sharply defined against the clear blue sky. Here and there the broken foreground of rocks piled on rocks, was enlivened by some Albanians who toiled upwards, now shadowed by spreading beeches, now glittering in the bright sun on slopes of the greenest lawn, studded over with tufted trees…” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

The old Sulejman Pasha Mosque (1614-1967) in Tirana, Albania, 28 September 1848

Tirana Edward Lear

“It was a work of trouble to sketch in Tyrana; for it was market, or bazaar day, and when I was tempted to open my book in the large space before the two principal mosques – (one wild scene of confusion, in which oxen, buffaloes, sheep, goats, geese, asses, dogs, and children, were all running about in disorder) – a great part of the natives, impelled by curiosity, pressed closely to watch my operations… Not the least annoyance was that given me by the persevering attentions of a mad or fanatic dervish, of most singular appearance as well as conduct. His note of “Shaitán” was frequently sounded; and as he twirled about, and performed many curious antics, he frequently advanced to me, shaking a long hooked stick, covered with jingling ornaments, in my very face, pointing to the Kawás with menacing looks, as though he would say, “Were it not for this protector you should be annihilated, you infidel!” The crowd looked on with awe at the holy man’s proceedings, for Tyrana is evidently a place of great attention to religion. In no part of Albania are there such beautiful mosques, and nowhere are collected so many green-vested dervishes.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

Tirana, Albania, with a view of the Lana River and the old Tanners’ Bridge (Ura e Tabakëve), 28 September 1848

Tirana Edward Lear

“The immediate neighbourhood of Tyrana is delightful. Once outside the town and you enjoy the most charming scenes of quiet, among splendid planes, and the clearest of streams. The afternoon was fully occupied in drawing on the road from Elbasan, whence the view of the town is beautiful.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)


View of the fortress of Kruja (Kroia), Albania, 30 September 1848

Kruja Edward Lear

“I was glad enough to leave Tyrana, and rejoiced; in the broad green paths, or roads, that lead northwards, through a wide valley below the eastern range of magnificent mountains, on one of which, at a great height from the plain, stands the once formidable Kroia, so long held out against the conquering Turk, by Iskander Bey. Certain of its historical interest, I was now doubly anxious to visit it, from its situation, which promised abundance of beauty.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

Hiking to the town and fortress of Kruja (Kroia), Albania, 30 September 1848

Kruja Edward Lear

“A winding ascent through green wooded hill-buttresses or shoulders changed ere long for a sharp climb up to the foot of the great rock round which the town clusters and hangs – at which point I arrived at half-past four P.M., and where I gladly paused to sketch, rest, and enjoy the view above, below, and around. Few prospects are more stately than those of this renowned spot; and perhaps that of the crag, with its ruined castle projecting from the great rocks above, and lording over the spacious plain country north and south from Skodra towards Durázzo, reminded me more of Olévano, that most lovely landscape in a land of loveliness, than any place I ever saw.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)


Shkodra (Scutari) in northern Albania, with a view of the fortress and the old Bahçëllëk (Gardens) Bridge (1768-1880) over the Drin River, 4 October 1848

Shkodra Edward Lear

“By the aid of a tractable Kawás I drew throughout the whole day unremittingly from various points below the south side of the castle, whence the view was very imposing, and near a wondrous old bridge across the Boyána, constructed of pointed arches of irregular width, and having somewhat the effect of the columns in a Gothic cathedral, suddenly resolved on spanning the stream, some with little steps, some with long.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

Shkodra (Scutari) in northern Albania. Albanians sitting beside the Drin River, with the fortress of Shkodra in the background, 4 October 1848

Shkodra Edward Lear

“A small bit of salt cheese, and some very bad wine, was all the food I could obtain; but the loss of luncheon was compensated for by the increasing interest of the costumes of the peasantry; their scarlet and crimson capotes, short coarse kilts, long black hair, dark faces, and immoderately long pistols, gave them an air of romance and savageness I had not yet seen.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

Shkodra (Scutari) in northern Albania. Albanians smoking by the Drin River, with the fortress of Shkodra and the Lead Mosque (dating from 1773) in the background, 4 October 1848

Shkodra Edward Lear

“Everywhere the various groups of buffalo carts and peasants, or of scarlet-coated Gheghes sitting on the ground, were full of interest; but the thin population of a place so extensive as Skódra is very apparent, and it was a great contrast to the lively and thriving Monastir.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

Shkodra (Scutari) in northern Albania. The path leading up to the fortress. 4 October 1848

Shkodra Edward Lear

“At three P.M. I set out with Signor Bonatti on a visit to the Pashá of Skódra, to whom Mr. Blunt of Saloniki has given me a letter; and after a visit to some of the merchants in the bazaars, we climb the steep castle-hill, whence the line of the lake and mountains are surpassingly lovely. The castle occupies the whole of the summit of the hill, and by its area, walls and numerous decaying forts within, betokens greater extent and power in by-gone days.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

Abdullah Bey of Shkodra (Scutari) in northern Albania, 5 October 1848

Shkodra Edward Lear

“Early I went to the Consul’s, to make a drawing of a Gheghe chief, Abdulláh Bey, who was magnificently attired in a full suit of scarlet and gold.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

Calliope Bonatti, second daughter of the British vice-consul in Shkodra (Scutari), Albania, posing in native costume, second view, 6 October 1848

Shkodra Edward Lear

“No toilet can be more splendid: purple silk and velvet, elaborately embroidered in gold and silver, form the outer garment, the patterns worked by hand with the greatest taste; two or three undervests covered with embroidery, full purple trousers, innumerable chains of gold and silver coins and medals, with a long white veil, complete the costume, excepting several coloured silk handkerchiefs, which are sewn inside the outer vest, and have a tawdry and ill-arranged look, when compared with the rest of the dress. This gay attire is only worn on great fete days, or on marked occasions, such as marriages and christenings.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)


The walls of Durrës (Durazzo), Albania, 11 October 1848

Durres Edward Lear

“The town itself has now shrunk to the dimensions of a single street running to the end of the promontory, and overlooked by the massive grey towers of the castle, which are built on considerably higher ground. Towards these I speedily set out to procure a good view of Dyracchium. The castle is a building apparently Norman, though much patched and repaired; its fortifications extend down the hill-side to the water’s edge, where they join the town-walls; and in various parts of them I observed armorial shields having owls carved on them in basso-rilievo. The combinations of scenery around are very elegant and delightful, and extremely unlike any Albanian view I had yet seen.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

Second view of the walls of Durrës (Durazzo), Albania, with the bay in the distance, 11 October 1848

Durres edward Lear

“Rain again! – but it subsides into drizzle, and meanwhile I prowl about Durázzo. It possesses singularly little of artistic interest, considering its former extent and grandeur, though many fine pictures might still be made in its neighbourhood, the castle being always to be introduced as the principal feature. From eight to ten, between showers, I jotted down scraps of the town and bay, but clouds obscure the line of hills towards Acroceraunia, which ought to be seen from this place, and the damp prevents steady drawing, besides which, the Gheghes came and bullied me (as it was not worth while asking for a Kawás), by shaking my sketch-book in paroxysms of orthodox piety, by secreting pencils, and asking for paper.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)


Berat in central Albania, with oxcarts at the river and the town and fortress in the background, 15 October 1848

Berat Edward Lear

“At length, the celebrated fortress of Berát appeared – dark blue, and diminutive, on a pointed hill. Approaching the capital of Central Albania – a place I had so long desired to see – every step leads into grander scenes. The river Apsus or Beratino is repassed on a stone bridge, and the road winds over the plain on the banks of the wide stream, through a tract of country of the finest character.”

View of Berat in central Albania, with the hilltop fortress and Gorica (Beratino) Bridge, 15 October 1848

Berati Edward Lear

“The city is placed chiefly on the right bank of the river, as also is the Acropolis or castle-hill which rises immediately above the town – the houses and mosques are piled one above another on the steep ledges of rock which slope from the frowning fortress and its stupendous cliffs down to the water’s edge, and constitutes a view that combines Tyrolese or Swiss grandeur with all the pretty etcetera of Turkish architecture.”

Costumes in Berat in central Albania, with the town in the background, 15 October 1848

Berat Albania Edward Lear

“Passing below the cliffs of the gorge, and entering the street of bazaars which runs quite through the town, I was at once struck by the entire change of costume in this district – that of the Tóskidhes. Instead of the purple frock, scarlet vest, black waistcoat, and short kilt of Ghegheria, here all is white, or spruce fluffy grey cloth, with long, many-fluted fustianelles, while the majority, instead of the red fez, wear white caps. Beyond the bazaars, which are extensive and well filled, is a wide open space by the river, whence the view of the dark gorge of the Beratino, the town and castle are truly wondrous… Nothing could be more amusing than the variety of life below. There was the dervish with high white or green caps – the Mohammedan, as well as most of the Christian women, in loose blue feringhis and closely veiled – while infinite numbers of carts drawn by coal-black buffaloes – Greeks, Turks, Albanians, mingled and moved in profusely changing groups.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008), p. 91-92.

Watercolor of Berat in central Albania, with the Osum (Apsus) River, and Mount Tomorr in the distance. 15 October 1848

Berat Albania Edward Lear

“As this day was to be passed on the banks of the Apsus, for the purpose of sketching Tomóhr, I awoke and rose at three, and by daylight, the mountain sparkled like clear crystal. A sketch of the palace, and a visit to Hussein Pashá’s brother, Achmet Bey (an hour of pipes and coffee), and ten o’clock has arrived. A Kawás and horses were ready, for I had planned to go some miles from the city, and was soon on my way upon a white charger, most gorgeously bedecked, with my armed guide on another, trotting (for the deep mud of last week’s rain is already dry) by the river-side as far as the bridge, by which I had arrived on the 14th. The Kawás put up his horses at a hut, and I drew very satisfactorily until it was time to return; and although a grey sirocco had thrown a cloud over all the beauty of colour, yet the form of Tomóhr is in itself a picture, combined with the broad Beratino in its stony channel and cliff banks, and the distant fortress of Berát perched on its rocky hill.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008), p. 95-96.


An ancient Doric column at Shtyllas, district of Fier, Albania, part of the ruins of Apollonia, 19 October 1848
Apollonia Edward Lear

“Taking a peasant from the convent as guide, I went at sunrise to the single Doric column, the only remaining token of Apollónia above ground. It stood on a dreary little hill, covered with long grass and brambly thorn, and a more lonely and forlorn record of old times could not well be contemplated. The pillar was of coarse sandstone, and all the marks and dimensions of cella and temple were distinct, though the remaining columns had been transported by some Pashá to adorn Berát. On every side of this single relic of grandeur, how noble were the objects in the distance.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

Southern Riviera

View of the Acroceraunian Mountains (Linguetta) and the Bay of Vlora in southern Albania, ca. 21 October 1848


“Beyond them were grey cliffs and green dun heights – a strip of white sand and the long promontory of Linguetta stretching out into the gulf; the clear splashing sea at my feet, and above all the bright streaked sky. A quiet half-hour in such a scene crowds many a reflection into the tablets of thought, but such can have no place in journals.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

Tragjas (Draghiádhes) south of Vlora in southern Albania, with the Bay of Vlora in the background. 22 October 1848

Tragjas Vlora

“Draghiádhes, the door, as it were, of Acroceraunia, stands on a height immediately in front, while the majestic snowy peak of Tchika (the lofty point so conspicuous from Corfu, and on the southern side of which stand the real Khimáriote villages), towers over all the scene, than which one more sublime or more shut out from the world, I do not recollect often to have noticed. At the sea-side I stole time for a short sketch, and then remounting, our party rode on over the sands to nearly theend of the gulf, whence we turned off to the left, and gradually ascended to Draghiádhes… We passed the village of Radima high above us, and after I had contrived to make another sketch, the scene momentarily grew finer as the descending sun flung hues of crimson over the lonely, sparkling town of Draghiádhes, and the bright peaks of the huge Tchika. Presently we came to the oak-clad hills immediately below the town, where narrow winding paths led upwards among great rocks and spreading trees worthy of Salvator Rosa, and not unlike the beautiful serpentara of Olévano. I have never seen more impressively savage scenery since I was in Calabria. Evening, or early morn, arethe times to study these wild southern places to advantages; they are then alive with the inhabitants of the town or village gathering to, or issuing from it.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

View of Dukat (Doukhides/Dukádhes/Ducades) south of Vlora in southern Albania, 22 October 1848
Dukati Vlora

“At the highest part of the pass a most singular scene opens. The spectator seems on the edge of a high wall, from the brink of which giddy elevation he looks down into a fearfully profound basin, at the roots of the mountain. Above its eastern and southern enclosures rises the giant snow-clad Tchika in all its immensity, while at his very feet, in a deep, dark green pit of wood and garden, lies the town or village of Dukádhes, its houses scattered like milk-white dice along the banks of a wide torrent, which finds its way to the gulf between the hill he stands on, and the high western ridge dividing the valley from the sea.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

Costumes in Dukat (Doukhides/Dukádhes/Ducades) south of Vlora in southern Albania, 22 October 1848

Dukati Vlora

“I gave the last hour of daylight to delineating a tree full of Albanian idlers who sat smoking tranquilly on the gnarled wide-spreading branches of a huge ilex, which hangs over a precipice – as wild a piece of poetical painting as Salvator might wish for. At sunset, the indescribable dark terror of this strange place was at its full; yet unwilling to retreat to my night’s prison till the last moment,I lingered on a rock in the middle of the ravine, while crowds gathered round me, saying, “Scroo, scroo, scroo,” after their fashion, and were greatly pleased at my drawing them. At length it became quite dusk, and I went reluctantly to my second night-home in Khimára.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

Sunset on the coast of Himara (Khimára/Cimara) on the southern Albanian coast, 24 October 1848

Himara Albania

“After drawing some of the innumerable cousins of the house of Kasnétzi – each of them a picture (though from their sense of mourning I could not get sketches of any of the females) – I went out, and drew Vunó from the north, until sunset, surrounded by groups of Khimáriotes, a naturally well-behaved set of people, whose conversation was intelligent and various, and whose interest in my drawing reminded me of Abruzzi and Calabria.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

View of Palasa (Palása/Palazza) on the southern coast of Albania, 26 October 1848


“At the summit of the Strada Bianca the mists cleared away and the Pass of Tchika commenced in all its unhidden majesty. The huge sides of the mountain are wrapped in pine forests, and the bare snowy peaks above stood forth in the utmost magnificence. The groups of trees are most beautiful and resemble feathery cedars; indeed the whole Pass throughout is a noble scene of mountain beauty.” Edward Lear in Albania

Pelicans near Zvërnec (Svernez) in southern Albania, 29 October 1848

pelicans Zvernec

“As we skirted these salt lagunes, I observed an infinite number of what appeared to be large white stones, arranged in rows with great regularity, though yet with something odd in their form not easily to be described. The more I looked at them, the more I felt they were not what they seemed to be, so I appealed to Blackey, who instantly plunged into a variety of explanations, verbal and active; the chief of which consisted in flapping his arms and hands, puffing and blowing with most uncouth noises, and putting his head under one arm, with his eyes shut. As for his language, it was so mixed a jargon of Turkish, Italian, Greek and Nubian, that little more could be extracted from it, than that the objects in question ate fish and flew away afterwards. So I resolved to examine these mysterious white stones forthwith, and off we went, when – lo! on my near approach, one and all put forth legs, long necks, and great wings, and “stood confessed” so many great pelicans, which, with croakings expressive of great disgust at all such ill-timed interruptions, rose up into the air in a body of five or six hundred, and soared slowly away to the cliffs north of the gulf.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

A gorge on the Vjosa River (exaggerated for effect), probably near Kalivaç at the foot of Mali i Kudhesit (Mount Coudessi), between Vlora and Tepelena in southern Albania, 30 October 1848. The inscribed date of 1 November 1848 is erroneous

Vjosa River Albania

“By four, we had crossed a level tract at the summit of this hill, and descending thence towards the northeast, the view was strikingly magnificent. The Viósa pours through a narrow gorge in the rocks at the foot of Mount Kúdhesi, and above this dark outlet rise the detached and finely-formed mountains of Trebushin and Khórmovo. Immediately below the spectator is the great extent of stony river course, along which the Viósa, no longer confined in its straitened limits – its dark waters sparkling like so many winding threads on a dazzling white ground – rushes in broad freedom, and many-channelled, to the sea.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

The fortress of Tepelena (Tepeléni) on the Vjosa River in southern Albania, looking southwards, 31 October 1848

“Nearer Tepeléni we met many peasants, all in white caps and kilts, and of a more squalid and wretched appearance than any I had yet seen. The whole of this part of Albania is indeed most desolate, and its inhabitants broken and dejected. Their rebellion under Zuliki seems to have been the last convulsive struggle of this scattered and disarmed people, and the once proud territory of Ali Pashá is now ground down into a melancholy insignificance, and well nigh deprived of its identity.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)


The town and fortress of Gjirokastra (Arghyró Kastro) in southern Albania, 3 November 1848

Gjirokastra Edward Lear

“The general appearance of Arghyró Kastro is most imposing; but the glittering triangular area of houses, which from afar appears as one great pyramid of dwellings against the mountain side, is broken up, on a nearer approach, into three divisions. The whole town is built on three distinct ridges, or spurs of rock, springing from the hill at a considerable height, and widening – separated by deep ravines or channels of torrents – as they stretch out into the plain.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

View of the aqueduct and fortress of Gjirokastra (Arghyró Kastro) in southern Albania, 4 November 1848

Gjirokastra Edward Lear

“The town stands mainly on the face or edge of these narrow spurs, but many buildings are scattered most picturesquely down their sides, mingled, as is the wont in Albanian towns, with fine trees, while the centre and highest ridge of rock, isolated from the parent mountain, and connected with it only by an aqueduct, is crowned by what forms the most striking feature of the place, a black ruined castle, that extends along its whole summit, and proudly towers, even in decay, over the scattered vassal-houses below.” Edward Lear in Albania (London 2008)

Mansion in Gjirokastra (Arghyró Kastro) in southern Albania, with the fortress and the aqueduct in the background, 4 November 1848

Gjirokastra Edward Lear
“But of all surprising novelties, here or anywhere else, commend me to the costume of the Arghyró Kastro women! The quaintest monsters ever portrayed or imagined fall short of the reality of these most strange creatures in gait and apparel; and it is to be wondered at when and by whom the first garb of the kind was invented, or how human beings could submit to wear it. Suppose first a tight white linen mask fixed on the face, with two small slits cut in it for the eyes to look through. Next, a voluminous wrapper of white, with broad buff stripes, which conceals the whole upper part of the person, and is huddled in immense folds about the arms, which are carried with the elbows raised, the hands being carefully kept from sight by the heavy drapery. Add to these, short, full, purple calico trousers, and canary-coloured top-boots, with rose-coloured tassels; and what more amazing incident in the history of female dress can be fancied?

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, Albanian Art, Atlas Obscura

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