Italy – Italian Crowds And Their Temper

IN the annual art exhibition in Rome this spring one large canvas represented an Italian crowd. A great group of workers was following two men whose upturned faces had a certain fanatic light. Beside the leaders ran a woman carrying her baby. The title of the picture, “The Strike,” suggested that the artist had wished to portray a part of the great industrial movements which are signs of Italy’s growth today, but as I studied his portrayal, I felt that he had failed signally. His crowd had no character. They were blindly following leaders who were blind also. They all like sheep had gone astray. Not so pitiful have been the Italian crowds that I have seen. I thought I could do better with such a subject. I resolved to try a picture of Italian crowds and their temper.

Of course, the writer has this great advantage over the artist that he can give like a cinema not one scene but scores in succession to produce his effect, and I should be at a loss in painting Italian crowds if I had to select only one: I have been in so many and diverse. I think I will begin with children and churches, for in Italy even the babies are gregarious.

Christmas is so peculiarly the children’s season that I was not surprised to find part of Rome surrendered to them. They had almost seized the Campidoglio, for on Sunday, December twenty-sixth, the Stairs leading from the Piazza of the Capitol to Santa Maria in Aracoeli was a veritable rag-fair for the Small. Hundreds of persons, every group with a child or with several, were moving up and down the steps around the stands where all sorts of little toys were being sold : tiny cradles with candy bambini in them, little jointed marionette figures dressed in every conceivable costume, miniature sets of dishes, Japanese parasols, noisy squawkers, balloons of all colors. The prices were infinitesimal. “Otto soldi per un bambolone” I heard one hawker shout. But the children happily clutched their little purchases and carried them into the church.

For the scene on the steps of Santa Maria in Aracoeli was only a prelude to the real business of the day, the recitations of the children in the church in immemorial Christmas custom. Inside I found the most marvellous Presepio I saw in Rome, for the life-size figures and beautiful effects of lighting gave an almost unearthly beauty to the scene,where all the hosts of heaven, above shining crescent moon and stars, looked down on the manger, in front of which, surrounded by Mary and Joseph, Saint John and the kings, lambs and doves, stood the wonder-working Bambino. His stiffly-bound little figure was ablaze with the jewels and gold of votive gifts, his head wore an ornate golden crown with which a Pope once rewarded his miracles, but I am sure no present ever pleased him more than the Christmas recitations of the little Italians. Opposite the Presepio on a small, high, wooden platform constructed against a tall gray column the children stood and recited their pieces to the sacred Bambino facing them. They were little tots, from five to ten, I should judge, and naturally greatly excited, their cheeks flushed, their eyes sparkling, but their sweet, high voices were clear and certain, their many little gestures expressive, their mien most earnest. Only one, very small, made a mistake and had to begin over again amid derisive giggles of naughty little boys below her, but the second time she was word perfect. It was an ordeal, for a large crowd stood listening, not only proud parents, but priests, soldiers, foreigners and also little friends. I saw many a Small One lifted up on father’s shoulder to see; and up over the crowd floated luminous pink and blue balloons whose strings were clutched below by tiny hands. It was all a Babies’ Day, a remarkable public opportunity for the self-expression of infancy, and the crowd that watched and listened was as happy as you would expect it to be in a nation that adores children.

A church festival that was almost another children’s day was the blessing of the lambs at Sant’ Agnese fuori le Mura on January twenty-first. The little church was crowded long before the ceremony and as we stood listening to preliminary masses, I noticed how many children were there as well as the long row of young girls in white veils kneeling on the steps of the choir for their first communion. It was fitting, for little Saint Agnes suffered martyrdom at thirteen and because the lamb is a symbol of her infant purity, the two lambs whose wool is to be used to make the archbishop’s robe are brought to Saint Agnes’ church for benediction. The crowd, children included, was quietly devout in the beauty of the church where many candles, burning in high crystal chandeliers, cast their light on the delicate alabaster statue of the Saint, on the mulberry porphyry of the baldachino columns, on the dull gold of the apse mosaics. But when at last the organ began to play and the choir to sing, the excitement was so intense that, most incongruously, two carabinieri had to make a passage through the crowd for the two beadles of San Giovanni Laterano who bore in the lambs. The beasties lay in their baskets, very white and good, decked with pink and blue ribbons and flowers, and never lifted their voices at the high altar through the arch-bishop’s long prayer, nor indeed in their difficult recessional when the ardent crowd all tried to pat them and the children, touching them with affectionate hands cried shrilly : “Addio, addio.” To me the lambs were no more self-controlled than the children in their quiet devotion, and their loving calls. I was glad that friend of children, Kenneth Grahame, was there, for when I saw, above all the Italians, his magnificent head with white hair and moustache, ruddy out-door coloring, intent blue eyes, and the sudden smile of a young god, I felt that he would understand in what a golden age the Italian children live, amid beauty and spontaneity.

The period of adolescence demands more vivacious self-expression than childhood and it is not strange, in this era of world strikes and group action, to find the students in Italy banding together in public demonstrations. which are as innocent as they are lively. In Rome, at some small crisis they gather in the streets, are peaceably dispersed by the Guardie Regie, dash around winding ways to some more obscure Piazza, sing their songs, begin their speeches, again are scattered. I saw the young Fascisti here one afternoon when they believed that national spirit needed exhilaration marching up the Corso Umberto, singing the Hymn of Mameli, and calling to all patriots to display the Tricolor, and from Palazzi, office windows and shops, men looked out tolerantly and with good-humored response unfurled their flags until the Corso was brilliant with the waving red, white and green. A more typical student agitation occurred in mid-winter when the students protested against the high price of books, declaring in public meetings, with a surprisingly serious ardor, that many of them could not afford to study. There was some glass-breaking in the large and expensive bookstores and a few arrests, but their own orators with extreme good sense exhorted them to show the self-control which their just cause demanded and not to give occasion to anarchists to laugh in their sleeves and point derisive fingers at the outbreaks of those who pretend to be upholders of education, discipline and law. I was especially interested in finding that again and again the students united for joint expression, achieved free speech, and maintained self-control in action.

Besides these crowds of the Very Young there are crowds of Intellectuals, “High-brows” they would be dubbed in America, who gather in overwhelming numbers for music, for classical plays and more surprising for lectures. The crowds of men who assemble for band-concerts in every small city as well as on the Pincio in Rome are not amazing, for such music in the open air always has a popular appeal, but it was surprising to find in mid-summer at Verona the old amphitheater packed to the top with thousands who had come from all over Italy to see grand opera. It was thrilling to be a part of that great Italian audience which under the full moon watched the magnificent spectacle of Boito’s “Mefistofele” so breathlessly and at the end, rising, cheered and applauded so madly, a proud people, sensing all the great past which the building represented, responding to all the beauty of their eternally creative genius.

I was not surprised to find the theater largely at-tended, for the Italians in every-day life are such facile and expressive actors that this form of art cannot but be highly developed and hugely enjoyed. A novelty for me was the children’s theater, that Teatro dei Piccoli where day after day all winter at five the marionettes entertain an audience of little people with such delightful performances as “Guerin Meschino,” “Gianni da Parigi,” “Venti Mila Leghe sotto il Mare,” yes and even with “La Tempestà” ! For the Teatro dei Piccoli was not to be outdone by the Argentina or the Valle in producing Shakespeare. My greatest theatrical surprise was to find that more Shakespeare is being given in Rome than in New York, “Othello,” “King Lear,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Romeo and Juliet” among the plays of the winter, and the large audiences which evidently justified the productions were as keenly responsive to both the tragedy and the comedy as they were naturally to such Italian plays as “Il Beffardo,” “La Cena delle Beffe” and D’Annunzio’s “La Gioconda” and “La Fiaccola sotto il Moggio.” It was natural that “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet” should each be “molto simpatico” to Italian hearts, but the very British and very roisterous Falstaff was as quickly understood by the Italian sensitiveness to personality, however new and strange.

Intellectual curiosity is as much a national trait as it was of the Greeks when St. Paul proclaimed that they always wished to see and hear some new thing. Italian curiosity, however, focuses as much on the old as on the new. A nation that must always have a live wolf on the Campidoglio in memory of Romulus’ kindly nurse is one that cherishes traditions and monuments even to the point of desiring knowledge about them. Sunday after Sunday you may see in the Forum a great throng of men, women and children, many poorly dressed, about some lecturer who is explaining the history of some building. The list of announcements in the papers for such Sunday lectures is long. Then there are also the classical trips in or near Rome made under the auspices of some society. One such gita which I attended was conducted by Commendatore Tambroni to Frascati and Tusculum and there fifty people from Rome followed him up the long green road to the Roman theater on the hill to sit in the old seats for an hour’s lecture on the history of Tusculum. And this was a group not only of scholars, but of artists and professional men with their wives and daughters. In Commendatore Tambroni’s talks in the city, in the Michael Angelo cloisters of the National Museum and on the Passeggiata Archeologica beyond the Arch of Constantine, not only such a nucleus of the Really Interested was present, but the Passing Crowd stopped and stayed, small boys wriggling through the audience to the front for a better view, stray soldiers standing attention, priests foregoing prayers, beggars fringing the outskirts of the crowd, all quietly attentive to ac-counts of some ancient tombstone, mutilated statue, ruined temple. Both the numbers and the interest in such archaeological talks are indicative of the Italian reverence for the past.

This innate sense of reverence in the race is manifested always in the presence of death, no Italian failing to stop with lifted hat when a funeral passes. Such reverence at times projects itself into action, conspicuously in the after-war organization of the Fascisti, groups of young men who in the name of their five hundred thousand brothers dead in the war have banded to try to make realities out of some of those ideals-in-words for which they fought. Such reverence at other times acts as an inhibitive force to restrain violence. Last summer in Florence when the industrial agitations were at their height and the workmen had assumed control of the operation of the factories, one of the greatest experiments ever countenanced by a government, in the midst of some street excitement, one of the Carabinieri was accidentally killed in the performance of his duty. I saw his funeral corteo pass the beautiful façade of the Cathedral while all Florence, hushed and reverent, stood in silent honor to his martyrdom. American newspapers may proclaim such an episode as his death a sign of revolution. One who lives here considers it remarkable that when Italy is making industrial and social experiments with a rapidity hardly paralleled in the world, although feeling runs high and clashes between factions come, so few lives in proportion to the great numbers involved have been lost, such general balance has been preserved, such crucial experiments have been made.

Watching the great game of politics here this winter, I have been impressed with the fact that in the political Iife as well as the industrial, the temper of the people is shaping its own future through experiment. The Socialist House of Deputies was in itself a great national experiment, the Socialist majority being elected in an after-war reaction when peace and bread were compelling slogans for votes, and the experiment went on until the astute Minister of the Interior, seeing that the nation (no millennium arriving) was tired of constant obstructionism in Parliament and social agitation in public that incited unbalanced anarchists to violence like that in the Milan theater, dismissed the Camera and called for the elections which diminished the Socialist numbers and united most of the other parties in a Nationalist block. I saw the temper of the Socialist Camera at an ordinary session, extraordinary enough in my eyes, though most of the speeches were as dull as those of the average college faculty meeting. Academic circles, however, manifest no such freedom of expression as found vent there, for Deputies showed their personal reactions to speeches at the moment, hurled invectives, anathematized and howled together while De Nicola in the chair shook continuously a huge bronze bell that was noisy but ineffective. All this was over a censure just reported by a committee of inquiry on the peculations of a certain Socialist member. From this bedlam the House presently dropped into one of those dull and interminable speeches by which the Socialists were obstructing the proposed increase in the price of bread and though certain Deputies of the Center assured the Honorable Zanardi that all his arguments were already before them in a printed statement which they waved, he went droning on until the house was half emptied. Such a session is no fair representation of all that the Socialists are doing for Italy in getting the principles of syndicalism into the national consciousness and in giving publicity to the cause of the workers, but having promised much and accomplished less, they have seen the pendulum swing back and their power truncated by the practical sense of the populace which is determined somehow to have the work of reconstruction go on. Certainly, however, the Socialists had their day in the Camera and enjoyed the greatest freedom of speech.

I had the good fortune to be present also at the Senate on an occasion that was peculiarly significant. The Senate is a very different looking body from the Camera, for the members are veritably “fathers” of the country appointed for life and nominated by the king on the basis of long service in the Camera, distinguished work in science or scholarship and distinguished service to the state. One sees hoary heads and well known faces, General Badoglio and Admiral Millo, Vita Volterra, mathematician, Rodolfo Lanciani, archaeologist, Marconi, inventor, Sonnino, statesman; and watching one feels that the Senate of today might be the subject of as dignified an historical painting as Maccari’s great representation of it at the time of Cicero and Catiline. The first session I attended was for the discussion of the Treaty of Rapallo, that corollary of the Treaty of Versailles, by which Italy’s frontiers have been guaranteed by land to the north, but left inadequate by sea to the east, a compromise measure, as treaties are, to secure a modus vivendi during a reconstruction period. All knew that the Treaty Fiad to be signed, for the economic recuperation of Italy, but the bitterness of the day was voiced by the new senator from Zara, Ziliotto, who protested in the name of the Italianita of Dalmatia against the sacrifice of Zara’s sister-cities on the eastern coast of the Adriatic. The Senate listened gravely until the orator suddenly launching a tremendous enconium of the hero of Fiume declared that Italy could not make peace against or without Gabriele D’Annunzio. That name of poet-aviator-commander, which still so inflames the hearts of young Italy, fired the bald-headed fathers to a vociferous protest almost equal to those of the Camera, but amidst hisses and cries of “Basta, basta,” “Enough,” Ziliotto calmly continued his praise of the influence, the independence and the patriotism of “the greatest leader of Italy.” The Treaty had to be signed and the terrible “five days of Fiume” at Christmas-time had to be endured by the nation which now is sacrificing even its most passionate hero-worship to its national life. The temper of the Senate as I saw it then and at other times was a grim, sustained resolution to hold the country to recuperation.

National traits appear also in the great public feste of anniversary days. Such a one was September 20, the fiftieth birthday of United Italy. I wished to share all the popular celebrations, so the evening before I went up on the Pincio for the illumination. Two great war search-lights or “reflectors” were being operated by soldiers, and first one made a Milky Way of light above the avenue of trees through which we ascended the hill. Soon they sent golden beams filtering down through trees on fountains as if Zeus were descending to Danaë. Then suddenly they would flash on the city below and evoke St. Peter’s dome from the dark. Again in a moment they were off to the sky chasing each other in great while balls, a mystic dance of Luna and Endymion. And all the time the band was playing to their madness and the enraptured crowd was watching quietly, proud of the glory that is Rome. On the morning of September twentieth, I stood in the enormous crowd at the foot of the Campidoglio to see the senators and the deputies go up to hear the speeches in the hall of the Horatii and the Curiatii. The most moving part of the morning was not the gorgeous picture made by tricolor and flag of Rome, floating above the Dioscuri at the top of the steps, or the enthusiasms of the crowd as they cried “Viva il Re” when in a great touring-car the king dashed past, but the sight of the Garibaldini some forty of them, old, old men in scarlet shirts and caps, proudly stumping up the slope of the Capitoline, the heroes of the day for the sake of their youth when they flung lives and fortunes into the cause of the Thousand.

Such days call out the pride of Italy in her history and show her unity. The spirit of the war, that reunion of all forces in a great, common cause, was again evoked on November fourth, the anniversary of the overwhelming defeat of the Austrians at Vittorio Veneto. For five and a half hours in the Piazza Venezia I watched the celebration, unconscious of bodily fatigue in the contagious exaltation of the crowd’s spirit. The ceremony which took place before the Altar of the Country on the Monument of Vittorio Emmanuele was the decoration by the king of the flags that had seen service in the war. The Piazza Venezia was gradually surrounded by a cordon of soldiers, conspicuous among them the black Africans in baggy white trousers, red fezzes and red velvet jackets, and the mounted lancers along the bottom of the Piazza, magnificently sitting their great horses and carrying on the tops of their spears small dark-blue banners. With the striking black, red, white, blue of the Carabinieri and the green-gray of the soldiers, the Piazza was already brilliant before the Grand Corteo arrived. Promptly at nine-thirty the resplendent king’s guard rode in, men who seemed giants in black and steel with long horse-hair crests flowing from glistening helmets. There followed the royal carriages, coachmen and footmen in scarlet livery, a guard of honor of army and navy in each carriage, in the first the king who was warmly acclaimed by the people, then Queen Margherita and Queen Elena, the crown prince and the young princesses, but far more than by any royalty was I stirred by General Diaz who walked with Admiral de Revel at the head of “the army with banners.”

After that great commander of Vittorio Veneto flowed a stream of men in green gray and dark blue, carrying the tricolors, and we realized anew what those youths had endured as we saw not only flags rent to mere streamers, but men carrying them who were mutilated in face and body. Through the crowd at last I caught a glimpse of the great white monument thronged with men in uniform and across the top of the steps, before the statue of Roma, the long rows of the flags awaiting the king’s recognition. Above, five aeroplanes were circling. Below, the Piazza was now filled with ranks of soldiers. The thoughts of those who were making the speeches and those who watched were with the dead as much as with the living and, as the mothers of the fallen laid a golden wreath upon the altar of the fatherland, Italy in silent reverence seemed to reconsecrate herself to united effort towards those ideals of liberty, democracy and justice for which she had believed she was fighting.

Such attempts to share the experiences of many an Italian crowd have made me, I believe, participate in their feeling so that I can appraise their temper. I do not forget the old Roman proverb “many men, many minds,”

“quot homines, tot sententiae,”

and I know that different groups have different spirits and that another person may receive from them different impressions from mine. For myself, I have found certain group traits recurring so often that they seem to me national. One is a warmth of feeling that makes devoted friends and bitter enemies, that easily strength-ens into worship for the church, for a hero, or for a cause so that passionate ardor paints the national life in Titian’s colors. Such feeling, easily ebullient, carries its own perils, but because it seeks and attains the outlet of full self-expression, it is not often surcharged or dangerous. The freedom of speech maintained (not always without struggles) in press, open air meetings, public discussions, Camera and Senate is the greatest guarantee of the nation’s sanity, for it proves that restricting fear is absent. The Italians, personally and as a nation, so respect the right to be one’s self, that self-expression is tolerated alike for individual and group.

Sensitiveness to beauty is another part of the national heritage in a country where from childhood men have the aesthetic senses stimulated by nature and by art. There is a true psychology back of Wordsworth’s lines,

“Beauty born of murmuring sound Shall pass into her face,”

and the eye as well as the ear drinks unconsciously that magic draught. This aesthetic sense of the Italians is evinced not only in the support of various forms of art, but in the cultivated aspect of- their public life from the beautifying of the Roman forum and the Palatine with wealth of roses, oleanders, wistaria, to the smart elegance of the military uniforms and all the brilliant pageantry of national celebrations.

Of course, intermingled with such fine sense of form is the reverence for the past that makes part of the national pride, that historical sense which sees not only the present, but looks before and after. “Italy can afford to wait for justice,” a statesman remarked, “for she counts time, not by hours, but by centuries.” It is an anomaly that hand in hand with such reverence for the past goes an intellectual curiosity about the untried that is making the Italians today such experimenters in national problems that now the workmen may try to operate factories, now forty Fascisti, elected deputies on a vague program and with no party affiliations, may dash into the Arena of public life chanting “Ci siamo noi,” “We are here,” and attempt, like the knights of the round table, “to right all wrong.” Perhaps one reason the Italians are not afraid of experiment or of the new is because they know how deep-rooted and vital are their traditions. Also the lightheartedness that starts many a little song floating up from the streets and that makes even beggars often so gay and the good humor which is part of the reward of living much in the open keep the country sanguine in its worst moments.

Moreover, at times of national crisis that which binds is far stronger than that which sunders. In the war, united Italy was reborn, and the memory of that renascence today forms the subconscious welding of all factions. When D’Annunzio in his last days in Fiume indignant at the “rinunciatori” in the home government, flung off his war decorations and declared him-self an outlaw, one of the humorous papers had a skit representing the conversation of two Deputies in Rome.

“What a pity D’Annunzio has given up his country!” “Don’t worry. If any foreign nation attacks Italy, D’Annunzio will be Italian again.”

That patriotism which holds the most volatile is deep-rooted in the common soul. Skirmishes between Communists and Fascisti may keep daily life agitated and hot feeling and free speech may create abroad the mirage of an Italian revolution, but here one sees the fundamental patriotism of the individual Italian and knows that the reverence for past history and the devotion to a growing state are stronger than the fisticuffs of the hour. When again shall come the call “Brothers of Italy, Italy awakes,”

“Fratelli d’Italia L’Italia s’è desta,”

together all her sons, shoulder to shoulder in one great crowd, will respond with a single devotion,

“Stringiamci a coorte Siam pronti alla morte : Italia chiamò.”