A BlackBerry plays no role in my life, but I do carry a black Moleskine notebook in my jacket pocket.

Some of my written entries are practical. “Replenish checking account.” Grocery lists. CD rates. Names of favorite cheeses. Gifts to be purchased. Weather conditions. (Concerning the last, the French painter, Pierre Bonnard, commented on the weather in the notebook he carried. On a sunny day, he would write, “Beau.” When a strong, cold north-west wind was blowing through the Rhone valley, “Mistral.”)

Other of my entries are more substantive. Let me share some with you.

Entry: “John Howard (1726-1790), high sheriff of Bedfordshire. George Romney (1734-1802), painter, who did drawings of Howard’s prison visits.”

Howard, the 18th century prison reformer; Romney, the18th century society portrait painter, perhaps best known for his more than 20 portraits of Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, and later still, lover of Lord Nelson—an inspiring “divine lady,” in Romney’s words. (One such portrait—Lady Hamilton as ‘Nature’—is on view at The Frick Collection.)

The improbability of Romney doing prison drawings aroused my curiosity, as did the prison reform work of John Howard. With my notebook in hand, I head for the library.

In 1773, at age 47, John Howard, a landowner living a secluded life, with an interest in meteorological observations, was appointed high sheriff. “It was a political sinecure without qualifications, and it came as a surprise when Howard took the responsibilities of the appointment seriously and embarked on his inspections of prisons,” writes Gordon Hay of the John Howard Society of Canada.

On his prison visits, Howard found wretched conditions. These led him to advocate for clothing for the half-naked prisoners. For clean, healthy prisons. For restrictions on the use of underground dungeons. For separation of prisoners by age, sex and the nature of their offense. Through his prison visits, research and advocacy, Howard brought prison reform to England.

In his major study, “The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, With Preliminary Observations, and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons,” Howard wrote:

Those gentlemen who, when they are told of the misery which our prisoners suffer, content themselves with saying “let them take care to keep out…,” forget the vicissitudes of human affairs; the unexpected changes to which men are liable; and that those whose circumstances are affluent, may in time be reduced to indigence, and become debtors and prisoners.

Here was a man who understood human suffering and the vagaries of the human condition.

At his death, Edmund Burke paid Howard this moving tribute:

He dived into the depth of dungeons, plunged into the infection of hospitals, surveyed the mansions of sorrow and pain, took the gauge and dimensions of misery, depression and contempt, remembered the forgotten, attended the neglected, visited the forsaken, and compared and collated the distressed of men in all countries.

His death in 1790 revived public interest in his achievements. Encouraged by a close friend who greatly admired Howard, Romney, now age 56, began a series of drawings depicting Howard’s prison visits. As with Howard before him, Romney, late in life, and to his own surprise, found himself immersed in the world of prisons. With enthusiasm, he sketched 500 prison drawings, the largest group by far that he produced on a single subject.

Romney’s drawings “stress most powerfully,” writes David A. Cross in “A Striking Likeness, the Life of George Romney,” “the horror of Howard’s exposure of the treatment of half-naked, ill and dying prisoners.”

“[T]he basic composition Romney adopted for these scenes” show Howard and the jailor entering “a dark cell tightly packed with a mass of suffering prisoners: men, women—even children,” writes Yvonne Romney Dixon in “Designs From Fancy, George Romney’s Shakespearean Drawings.” She continues: “In all the Howard drawings the same general concept is followed: a mass of wretched human beings looks toward an agent of salvation.”

Suffering humanity portrayed by George Romney awaiting its rescuer in the form of John Howard.


Entry: “12 Ponti Alla Fine.”

This sign, in English reading, “12 bridges to the finish,” brings immense relief to the thousands of marathoners who had started hours earlier by the Palladian villas along the banks of the Brenta River.

With notebook in hand, I am watching the Venice marathon from the Zattere, a promenade running along the Giudecca Canal in the Dorsoduro section of Venice. How different from my usual perch at 70th Street and First Avenue where I watch the New York City marathon.

The day before an acqua alta—”high water”—flooded parts of the city. On the day of the marathon, a bright warm Sunday, the waters of the Adriatic have receded.

Waiters carry trays, weaving their way through the passing runners to reach their patrons. Young children dart out on the course. “Bambini! Bambini!” shout alarmed members of the Polizia Locale. Chastened parents swoop down to rescue their children from harm’s way.

Motoscafi and vaporetti, the mass transit system of Venice, pass by on the Giudecca Canal, along with cruise ships like the “Empress,” arriving from Malta, guided by two tugs, decks filled with passengers cheering the runners. Car ferries ply between terra firma (the mainland) and the Lido.

Dogs, who could have stepped out of paintings by Carpaccio and Veronese—Venetian painters who liked to include them in their works—draw attention to their role in the artistic life of Venice by barking. Yellow warning tapes have been placed along the water’s edge to discourage weary runners from plunging into the Giudecca Canal.

I yearn to join the marathoners, but only for the final two kilometers of the course. My mini-marathon would have me follow the Zattere to the Punta della Doghana, where I would pause to enjoy the view of Palladio’s church, San Giorgio Maggiore; cross a bridge temporarily put in place over the Grand Canal for the marathon runners, stopping midway to cast an affectionate backward glance at the dome of Santa Maria della Salute; pass Sansovino’s library; run through the Piazzetta with its two granite columns, one bearing St. Theodore, the first patron saint of Venice, the other the winged lion of St. Mark; pass the Doge’s Palace, and continue along the Riva Schiavoni to the finish line.

To participate in a marathon on these terms, I would set aside my dislike for running.

William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.