SO many books have been written on Italy that, in adding to their number, something in the nature of an apology would almost seem to be desirable. Literary and artistic experts, historians, politicians, and men of science have turned again and again to Italy as to a mine of well-nigh in-exhaustible wealth, while poets and novelists have ever regarded her as a sovereign mistress in the realms of imagination.
But it is not to these that the present writer feels it incumbent upon him to offer an apology for his pages, but rather to the people of the country with whom this volume is concerned. If a residence of over twenty years in Italy, and more than half a lifetime spent almost exclusively among Italians of all classes, have taught him nothing else, they have at least convinced him of the extreme difficulty of reconciling the Anglo-Saxon spirit with that of the Latin races. This observation, I admit, would appear to be a platitude ; but it is, as I think, one of those many platitudes which it is as well perpetually to bear in mind, and its neglect has indubitably caused very many English and American writers on Italian subjects to draw altogether misleading impressions of the characteristics and temperament of the Italians. The truth is that any Anglo-Saxon writer whose desire it may be to present his readers with a tolerably faithful and accurate description of Italian life must, so to speak, get outside his Anglo-Saxon temperament, and endeavour to view his subject from a purely Latin standpoint. Now, this is a psychical feat extremely difficult of accomplishment, and especially so, perhaps, to an Englishman or an Englishwoman. Moreover, even if it be more or less successfully accomplished, the victory is by no means won. A writer may succeed in imbuing himself with a temperament alien to his own. He can scarcely succeed, however, in temporarily transferring that temperament to his readers, although it should sometimes be his ambition to do so.
There is certainly no other continental country in which so large a number of English people elect to dwell as Italy. Every Italian city of historic or artistic importance has its English colony, and in such places as Rome, Florence, and Venice these foreign settlements are very considerable. It has always been something of a mystery to me why this should be. That my compatriots should visit Italy periodically and enjoy for a few weeks her climate, her lovely scenery, and her art treasures is, of course, completely understandable. Such as these come, and go. The others, on the other hand, come, and do not go. That is the pity of it. To find an English resident in Italy who is not perpetually in a state of only semi-suppressed irritation with the Italians is a thing so rare as to be remarkable. ” They are like children ” is the stock criticism of the average English resident regarding the people in whose midst he has elected to dwell ; and on whom, if he could only realise it, he is dependent for the smoothness of life. I have often wondered if he ever by any chance hears Italian criticism regarding himself. I imagine not, how-ever ; and, moreover, even were he to hear it, he would in all probability be not much the wisersince the Italian language is, as a rule, the very last thing he troubles himself to study in the land of his adoption. A smattering sufficient for household purposes, for paying his way, and for abusing the natives, is considered sufficient, and how often have I heard the expression used with smug complacency” Oh, English carries one everywhere !” I confess that it is an expression which enrages me, as being the babble of a fool. No, assuredly I have often wondered what the satisfaction can be of living among a people whose methods are a constant source of annoyance, whose word is not to be depended upon, whose morals are deplorable, and who, in short, are thoroughly objectionable and untrustworthy. Economy surely cannot be the motive, for, as I shall presently have occasion to point out in these pages, Italy is by no means a cheap country in which to live. It cannot be climate, either ; for in the winter the climate of the south of England is infinitely better than that of, we will say, Florence ; and no sooner has the summer season commencedthat season when Italy is at her bestthan our Englishman begins to grumble at the heat, and, if he can afford it, hurries northward across the Alps. I can only come to the conclusion that, notwithstanding his racial prejudices, and in spite of his peculiarly British sense of superiority, Italy fascinates him against his will, and that in his secret soul he does not regard the Italians as being quite so black as he delights in asserting them to be. Perhaps, too, at the back of his mind lurks an un-pleasant suspicion that it may be his own lack of understanding and sympathy which creates for him so many difficulties in his dealings with his Latin surroundings. Poor man ! If he could only realise that the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon point of view are seldom precisely similar, he would be spared many petty annoyances and, perhaps, some of a more serious nature. If he could only realise, too, that he is living in a country where a pleasant smile and sometimes a little good-natured ” chaff” obtain far more practical results than impatience or abuse, he would find his daily life considerably more satisfactory. I freely admit, however, that it is hard to smile when one’s favourite prejudices are being ruthlessly offended, and that it is still harder to ” chaff” the offenders when one possesses only a rudimentary acquaintance with their language. And here I would ask : Why, in the name of common sense, live in a country and elect to remain practically in ignorance of its language ? Such a position would seem analogous to that of a man who, having purchased a beautiful house, was unable to enter it, and to make himself master of its contents, because he had at the same time refused to purchase the key of the front door. I do not mean to imply that all English people residing in Italy are ignorant of Italian, but I think I am not, probably, beyond the mark in saying that an enormous percentage pass the greater portion of their lives in the country, and are to all practical intents and purposes but superficially acquainted with the language. I have invariably found, moreover, that these are the severest and most uncompromising critics of the people among whom, but not in any sense with whom, they dwell. On this latter point, also, I would like to insist, for it forms an important factor in the mystery which I would fain unravel to my own satisfaction. The English colony in every Italian city is a littlea very littleEngland. It has its English life, its English habits, even its English food, and that not only material but also spiritual. It is, as a rule, under the pleasing delusion that it forms a part of Italy and Italian life, but with a strange inconsistency it is quite likely to allude to the Italians as ” foreigners,” and invariably thinks of them as such in its superior British mind. It is extremely rare, except in Rome, where the society, which spells its name with a capital S, has been until recently largely cosmopolitan, to find an English man or woman who is on an intimate footing in the Italian world ; while even the few who do mix in Italian society either herd together, or foregather with the American element. This habit, it may be added, cannot be ascribed to shyness at not knowing the Italian language ; for in all the chief Italian cities there are countless men and women of the world who can talk English fluently, and often perfectly. It is true, of course, that the majority of our compatriots are unable, for varying reasons, to obtain the entry into la haute société in Italy or elsewhere. But in no country is la haute société the only department of Society into which one may profitably enter ; and, as a matter of fact, in Italy it is by far the least interesting of all the various social worlds. Our typical English resident, however, maintains the same attitude of aloofness and superiority to all the departments of Italian social life. Visits to other English residents, entertainments at the English consuls’ or the English chaplains’, lawn tennis at the English club, dances at the hotels frequented by English peoplethese form the daily round of his life in such cities as Rome, Florence, and Venice, and except for the satisfaction of being able to print Palazzo this, or Villa that on his note-paper and his visiting-cards, he might quite as well be in South Kensington as in either of the three.
I am inclined to think that our typical English man and woman expect too much from Italian society, and that they are, if I may so put it, in a perpetual state of huff. I have constantly heard them say : It is quite useless to try to make real friends among these Italians, for one never gets to know them any better. They will dine with us if we invite thembut they never do anything in return. Well, perhaps there are faults on both sides ! But, according to my interpretation of it, the Anglo-Saxon is apt to attribute far too much importance to the stomach as a factor in the production of social intimacy. He will prepare a banquet, and ask his Italian acquaintance to come and partake of it. It will in all probability be an expensive banquet, such as he would never dream of providing for his own family circle on ordinary occasions. His Italian acquaintances come, eat, and wonder. Then they return home and say to each other : We should like to ask those English people to dine with usthey are very nice, very simpaticibut they would expect too much. And so the Browns’ dinner bears no fruit, and Mrs. Brown declares to her friends that the Italians will take all they can get and give nothing in return, while Mr. Brown dismisses them as a damned inhospitable, stingy lot, like all foreigners.
The fact is that the Latin idea of hospitality differs fundamentally from the Anglo-Saxon. To the average Italian the fact of being invited to eat a pretentious and costly meal does not imply any particular social intimacy or any particular social obligation. Rather, indeed, does it imply a formality which is by no means conducive to intimacy. If, for instance, the Browns had said to their Italian acquaintances : Come and dine with us en famille one of these nights, quite informally, and please do not expect a dinner-partyin all probability the Italians would have taken it as a friendly and agreeable invitation, and would not only have come, but would have asked the Browns to a similar informal entertainment. I am assuming, of course, that their Italian friends were not important person-ages, official or otherwise, who could scarcely be asked informally to take “pot-luck ” unless the Browns had something more than a casual acquaintance with them.
These little social incidents are trifling enough in themselves ; but they are important factors in the mutual understanding and appreciation which are necessary before two races, differing so widely from each other as do the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon, can fairly estimate their respective merits and demerits. In the present volume my readers must not expect to find detailed descriptions of the Italy of poetry, fiction, and artistic research, and with the Italy of the past it has nothing or little to do. The poet, the novelist, the art critic, and the historian have amply dealt with these things : and if the novelist, from whose pages, I believe, the general public gleans most of its ideas concerning the Italians, has but too frequently considered it to be sufficient to give Italian names and titles to characters in his novel who speak, think, and act in entirely Anglo-Saxon fashion, this is indubitably because he, or she, as the case may be, has been psychically unable to divest himself of his Anglo-Saxon temperament before undertaking his work.
Now, this remark will not, I trust, be regarded as invidious, in that it is made by one who has himself ventured to write novels dealing with Italian life. I am quite aware that Brown, having returned from his Italian home to avoid the heat of an Italian summer, will, if he happen upon this book at his club, shrug his shoulders scornfully. Probably, too, he will quote Horaceand he will observe : ” Coelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt.” I shall not overhear the observation ; but, if I did, I should reply that neither Horace nor the present representatives of Horace’s race would recognise a single word of his quotationfor the simple reason that he will have the effrontery to pronounce his Latin as though it were English. And this leads me at once to my apology, which I consider to be due not to my English, but to my Italian readers.
There is probably no other people in Europe so given to self-criticism as the Italians. At the same time, there is probably no other people which so bitterly resents criticism from outside sources. This attitude may appear to be illogical, and, perhaps, to be the result of an overweening vanity. But in reality it is not so. The Italian resents, and I think very rightly resents, superficial criticism ; and his Latin susceptibilities are immediately aroused by strictures on his customs, character, and morals delivered by those born of a different race and climate from his own. He regards them as not only unjust, but as foolish. He is perfectly well aware that it is an extremely rare and difficult thing for an Englishman or an American to understand his Latin temperament, and the feeling that he is being judged without being understood is apt to make him excessively angry. Perhaps, too, there is another reason for his resentment to foreign criticism. The modern Italian is, after all, the representative of a young and recently constructed nation. He may be compared to an ambitious youth just merging into manhoodbut a youth who has already achieved great things, and has achieved them through much opposition and adversity. Fully aware that he has still some of the defects of youth, and that he has still much to achieve, he is profoundly sensitive to what strangers may say and think of him. He can point proudly to his country’s career so far as it has gone, and can ask with justice what other people could have done so much in fifty years of existence as a free and united nation. He knows that his bitterest critics are those who are ignorant of the well-nigh overwhelming odds against which he has had to struggle in order to attain his present position or, worse still, those whose criticisms are envenomed by political and also by religious hatred.
It is these considerations, then, which lead me to “mettere le mani avanti per non cascare “to adopt the significant Italian phraseand to offer to my Italian readers an apology for any defects, inaccuracies, or erroneous impressions which this volume may appear to them to contain. These will assuredly be due to the fact that in certain details I have not yet succeeded in entirely divesting myself of my Anglo-Saxon temperament, and that I have therefore fallen into the same errors of judgment as those which I have condemned in others. I have no wish to conceal from them the fact that I shall have occasionally some hard things to saybut I trust that in the manner of the saying of them there will be no offence. Above all, I trust that they will not be open to the charge of being ill-considered criticisms on the part of a writer whose native temperament precludes him from entire sympathy with, if not a complete understanding of, a nation in whose midst he has dwelt for many years, and of a people he has learned to admire and to love.
I must take this opportunity of acknowledging my indebtedness to the editor of The National Review for his courtesy in allowing me to in-corporate in subsequent chapters dealing with the Maffia and with the progress of United Italy material previously used in articles contributed by me to his pages.