Italy – Confessio Amantis

JUST as, in the course of a long life, I have been able to watch Germany, once a pleasant country inhabited by easy-going dreamers whose visions took concrete shape in Faust, the Ninth Symphony, or Parsifal, change into a nation of vulgar parvenus filled with blood-lust, whose imaginings reek with horrors, and whose deeds form a catalogue of unmentionable crimes, so I have been privileged by way of compensation, perhaps to see the swift transformation of Italy from a restless sleeper, shaken by dreams of unity and freedom, into a kingdom seething with young enthusiasms, eager to be the first in civilised progress, and, above all, burning with patriotism. I stood, a very small boy, in the Piazza at Venice when the band of the Austrian garrison played, and no Venetian, for all his love of music, would listen ; I knelt in Rome, to be blessed by gentle Pio Nono when he was both temporal and spiritual sovereign. Venice was dead, and Rome was dead ; the country was overrun with outlaws ; the great cities Milan, Turin, Genoa, Bologna, Florence were paralysed ; their streets half empty, their palaces deserted : beautiful, yes how could any Italian city ever be anything but beautiful ? —but beautiful with the beauty of a lovely woman wasting away in silent sorrow. This was the Italy of the smaller fry of writing people. Not the Italy of Byron or Swinburne, but of the essayists, the criticasters, the stylists who could not understand that great art is the outcome of great commercial prosperity, of great national activity. They seemed to think that St. Mark’s was built by idle fisher-folk engrossed in nothing but its building. They seemed not to understand that before St. Mark’s could be built a wealthy and vigorous community had to be organised. They went through Italy thinking they could sum it up in a well-turned phrase, and with that phrase they achieved a modest glory at suburban tea-parties. They owned Italy, and if an Italian city dared look after its drainage, they raised despairing hands to heaven, jabbered about sacrilege, and wrote to the Times. Italy was the bric-à-brac shop of the world. The world shed elegant tears over it, sentimentalised it, apostrophised it in anaemic verse, and even more anaemic prose, not for what it was, but for what it had been, and spoke of it as we speak of a beautiful, half-witted child, who must be admired for its beauty and pitied for its infirmity.

The old Italy exists. It is still the land of beauty and of romance ; the land of antiquity, where the dust on the highway is the dust of temples, perhaps the dust of Caesar himself. It is still the epitome of the world’s history ; the land from which all others have derived their civilisation, their art, their literature, and their music. While all the rest of the world was wearing woad and fighting with clubs and flint arrows, Italy went clad in purple, built St. Mark’s, and painted its houses in fresco. When all the world ate with its fingers, Italy used forks. There was, one may say, never a period of uncivilisation in Italy from the day when Pius AEneas landed on her shores. Now all this ancient civilisation, this matured wisdom, this vast experience of life, has burst into new blossom. Upon their passionate love of the past the Italians have grafted an equally passionate eagerness for the present, an equally passionate striving towards the future. Yet even now the Italian spirit is pre-eminently the spirit of poetry, but of poetry transmuted into action. Is not the man who imagined wireless telegraphy a poet ? The Italians are the scientists, the engineers, the mathematicians of the world. They have levelled the Alps ; they have annihilated space ; they are the road builders, the bridge builders, the builders of improbable roads in Switzerland, of unimaginable bridges, attributed to the devil because only the devil or an Italian could have thought of them. They are the indefatigable toilers who accomplish more in a day on a handful of maize than six of us could compass on six beefsteaks and six pots of stout. Whenever a thing has to be done which it is manifestly impossible to do, the Italians are called in to do it, and it is done with a smile. Their soldiers carry cannon up perpendicular precipices, singing ” La Donna è mobile ” the while. Their cavalry ride down perpendicular precipices, and pluck Edelweiss on the way ; in the midst of this toil their hearts will glow like hot coals at the call of their poets and their poets fling their messages from an aeroplane.

Italy’s heart is the heart of chivalry. She could have won all she wanted by sitting with her hands folded and watching the internecine struggle around her. She might have waited to strike until her enemy had received her death-blow. But, no. ” Louvain ” and ” Lusitania ” were trumpet-calls, and Italy did not stop to ask whether the moment were well chosen, or her interference expedient. She blazed up with a sacred anger, and, led by her hero king, and comforted by her saintly queen, she rushed into the fight for the good cause : let come what might.

It is good to know that among the weary nations there is one nation filled with the ardour of youth, striving after an ideal without counting the cost, ready to spend her blood in the cause of humanity. The Italy we all love for her beauty, her amenities, her hospitality, is also the Italy whose self-sacrificing heroism we admire without stint. Evviva !’ Italia !