Italy – A Fine Italian Gentleman Of The Old School


MARGARET VAUGHAN TOWARDS the close of the last century the writer of these lines, investigating the social and economic situation of South Italy, alighted at a small wayside station in Old Calabria, in the far-away heel of the boot of Italy a remote spot unvisited by the tourist, unknown even to the travelling Italian. It was before the days of State railways, and the infirmities of the way-and-weather-worn first-class carriage in which he travelled needed first aid with hammer and nails before it was in a condition to leave Lecce.

Comparisons are sometimes made between English and Continental standards of hospitality, to the detriment of the latter. The writer can truly say that, possessing no other credential than a brief, formal introduction, he was welcomed with a cordiality, a courtesy and delicacy of manner that formed the prelude to a lifelong friendship. ” Here,” said his genial host, ” is your room where you can quietly write ; such are the hours of our repasts ; my sons will drive you about and assist you in your inquiries.” It was a large palazzo, with lofty rooms and painted ceilings, a private chapel, a loggia, and charming garden with vine and orange, and a classic exhedra at the end containing a bust of Dante, with the inscription Non surse il secondo.

A patriarchal household, with pensioners and dependents not a few, its mistress the Baronessa, a stately Italian gentlewoman of rare charm and matronly sympathy.

Much has been written of the evils and deficiencies of the Italian south ; of absenteeism, of illiteracy, of poverty, of corruption, of laziness. Laziness ! When the Southern Italian is he who, among all European labourers, will perform the greatest amount of efficient work for the smallest pay ; who will cross the ocean to reap one harvest on the burning plains of Argentina, and return to reap another under the fiery sun of South Italy.

Truly in those days, before remedial legislation and emigration to America, with its consequent influx of money, its contact with a higher standard of living, had brought about the relative economic improvement now everywhere visible, material existence was low enough compared with Western standards. And what a land it was that met the traveller’s gaze as he rolled along in the roomy ancestral berlina from the railway station to his destination ! A vast, torrid, stony plain, curiously Eastern in aspect, with its low, flat-roofed houses, and here and there a palm tree lifting its tall fronds over the scene a land significantly known as the Sassonia, where the bare bones of mother earth protruded, gaunt and sterile, through her scant, tattered vesture of soil. Meagre harvests of barley, fig, and olive were wrested from her novercal breast the local plough in use, a prehistoric, unshod wooden implement drawn by one or two cows, which could be hired, cows and all, for is. 3d. a day, or 2s. 6d. at seed-time. Owing to devastating attacks of the musca olearia on the olive crop, wages were as low as 8d. a day for men ; 4d. for women.

A primitive folk they ! Did the family need new boots or shoes ? The shoemaker would instal himself in your house, and for a wage of i 0d. a day work up your own material. In the village the only baker’s oven was the property of the parish priest. Every two or three months the peasant would prepare for a grand baking ; he would bring his loaves of barley meal and some fuel, paying for the use of the oven in kind by leaving a quota of the batch. Let a word be here said for the parish priest of the south as the writer knew him. Passing rich on 32 a year, he usually contrived to house and feed a poor relation a grand-parent, a nephew, a niece and yet have to spare for outside charity. Truly a padre to his flock, he was welcomed in every home ; children kissed his hand, and their elders asked his blessing. In education far below the standard of the parroco of the more prosperous north, he was frequently the only educated man in his parish. In every crisis of a villager’s life ; in contests with the hydra-headed local bureaucracy or the fisc, a marriage, a death (and succession duty is payable in Italy on inheritances as low as 4 sterling), he would be packed off on a donkey to the nearest town to see the business through. Often drawn from the peasant class, he retains the peasant’s passion for land. One such I well remember, who, after showing me with pride his well-cultivated orchard, asked, ” What did we grow in England ? Olives ? ” ” No.” ” Oranges ? ” ” No.” ” Lemons ? ” ” No.” ” Nespoli ? ” ” No.” ” Grapes ? ” ” No ; not out of doors.” ” What did we grow ? ” ” Well, cherries, apples, pears, plums.” Then, with a look of pitying scorn, he exclaimed, ” Ma che ! Povero paese ! Povero paese ! ”

Equally admirable too the devotion of the village schoolmaster. At teaching classes in three standards in one poor, bare room, I found a heroic pedagogue with a similar stipend of 32 a year valiantly educating the few children whose parents could afford to forego the two or three soldi they might otherwise earn in the fields, and generously giving his evenings to offer the elements of a higher education to the still fewer lads who were able to attend. The education of the village girls was entrusted to sisters of the Order of St. Vincent and St. Paul gentle, devoted creatures they too, full of enthusiasm. The children, sweet, dark-eyed things sang in full, rich voices, time being set by castanets.

Under such conditions, then, lived Barone di C, a cultured aristocrat of high lineage bearing a name famous in Italian annals, a fine example of the southern gentleman of the old school. Like so many absentee Baroni of the south, he might have existed in self-indulgent ease at Naples or Rome. But noblesse oblige. Choosing rather a life of service, he devoted his rare intelligence, his artistic sympathies, his frugal means for the Baroni of the south are but poor compared with the English gentry to the material elevation of his people, achieving a great work in a narrow sphere. Possessing a lofty ideal of the functions of a landed aristocracy, he sought by careful experiment and personal example to improve agricultural methods. After thirty years of indefatigable efforts and disappointments, he succeeded in wresting the concession from Rome of a local railway, whose inauguration he was not permitted to see. The Barone di C is said by the author of his funeral oration to have been the last of that company of gentiluomini umanisti that so long honoured the Terra d’Otranto. Certainly no other Italian correspondent of the present writer possessed in equal degree the lost art of letter-writing. His epistles were written in a precise, neat, and comely script which gave expression to a mind rich in knowledge and steeped in the writings of the great stylists of the past.

But what most impressed the present writer, and became a revelation to him, was the native dignity and absence of servility among the common people, and the intellectual atmosphere he breathed in this far-away corner of Southern Italy. How different the standard from our own gross conception of entertainment, where eating and drinking form the inevitable concomitants of social inter-course ! After the frugal evening meal, open house was kept for any neighbour who cared to drop in for a chat the schoolmaster ; Monsignor B , my host’s brother, a tall, ascetic figure of the Manning type ; a local officer, or other literate acquaintance. During the writer’s brief stay, conversation ran on Darwinism, on Cardinal Newman and the Tractarian movement for Monsignor had translated the Dream of Gerontius local antiquities ; agricultural methods and markets ; the talk always maintained with easy good-fellowship. No refreshment other than mental was offered or expected ; no trace of social inequality apparent. This admirable note of intellectuality has recently been emphasized by an author who has a wide range of knowledge of South Italian life. Referring to this old province of the peninsula, Mr. Norman Douglas remarks :1 ” The number of monographs dealing with every one of these little Italian towns is a ceaseless source of surprise. Look below the surface, and you will find in all of them an undercurrent of keen spirituality, a nucleus of half a dozen widely-read and thoughtful men who foster the best traditions of the mind. You will not find them at the Town Council or the Caffè. No newspapers command their labours ; no millionaires or learned societies come to their assistance ; and though typography is cheap, they often stint themselves of the necessaries of life in order to produce those treatises of calm research.”

Thus has it availed amid the thunders of a world at war to catch the whisperings of a still small voice recalling a life of faithful service, of duties nearest at hand nobly performed ? These are they who turn aside from the strident ambitions, the petty personalities, the bitterness of political factions. They are not heard of abroad ; they are not received at courts ; no honours decorate their breasts. But they are the salt that keeps a nation sweet ; the wholesome, purifying life-blood of a great people. Happy the land that nurtures them !