IT is remarkable how quickly and easily the months seem to slip away in Italy. The seasons merge into each other so imperceptibly that one is scarcely conscious of their passage. In my remote Tuscan home, which stands above a little village nestling on the slopes of what are known as the Colli Pisani, I seem to be perpetually entering upon a new month. It is quite possible, of course, that this impression is derived from the fact that a general settlement of wages, household bills, and other domestic matters of an equally prosaic and disturbing nature has to be dealt with at these periods ; but be this how it may, the intervening weeks of comparative peace, and of the absence of that wholly unreasonable feeling of mental irritation which the sight of tradesmen’s books produces on mankind in general, pass all too rapidly.
Perhaps I may be allowed to pause in the excursion I am taking my readers through Italy, and to give some account of that particular portion of Tuscany in which I pass the greater portion of my Italian year, and which is known as the Province of Pisa. I may say at once that it is at the same time one of the most attractive and one of the least desirable parts of Tuscany in which to live. Scenery, climate these are delightful. It is seldom too cold, at least for a north-country Englishman, and rarely too hot. In winter it is usually sufficient to open the windows on the sunny side of the house in order to enjoy a soft, balmy air stealing into the room, which renders the wood fire burning in the grate almost a superfluity.
In summer it is sufficient to shut the windows and the outer persiennes during the heat of the day in order to keep the rooms deliciously cool. Ah, that simple process of shutting the windows in order to keep out the heathow difficult it is to make the mind of the British domestic realise the logic of it ! How often, on a hot summer’s day in London, for instance, have I not watched with a pity akin to derision windows being flung open to “let in more air “-hot air, rising from the sun-baked pavements and streets ! My gentle reminder that a window which will keep out the cold will equally keep out the heat passes unnoticedfor, indeed, it is not only British domestics in whom the sense of logic fails in this matter. However, in my Tuscan establishment I havemay I say, fortunately ?no English servants. If I had, I am quite convinced that domestic upheavals and extravagant waste would be the order of the day. Moreover, my Italian servants would speedily become discontented, and might even be corrupted so far as to consider whether or not it was ” their place ” to do this, that, or the other piece of workthough, so far as I am concerned, observation, made in this sense, would be followed by their instant dismissal.
I confess that when I first come back to England after many months spent in Italy I suffered horribly from the British domestic. I find myself perpetually committing breaches of etiquette. If by mischance I momentarily forget where I am and wish the footman who calls me in the morning “good-morning,” he withers me with a glance of con-tempt, and I feel that at the least I have taken an unwarrantable liberty with him. I can quite understand his embarrassment when drowsiness and force of habit combined lead me to say buon giorno to himbut when I have done that, I have immediately buried my face under the bedclothes. I never am quite clear in my mind as to whether the inhumanness of English domestics is their fault or that of their employers. I am afraid, however, that it must be theirs, for they are apt to be equally unhuman to their equals if called upon to do anything out of ” their place.” However this may be, it is certain that if one treated English servants in the same friendly and human manner one naturally displays towards Italian domestics, instead of respect one would very soon meet with a contemptuous familiarity. The consciousness of this immense and altogether artificial gulf which separates us from our domestics in English life is to me extremely irksome. No doubt the bright smile with which the average Italian servant responds to any ordinary observation made to him, his openly expressed interest in any business which may concern his padroni, his readiness to turn his hand to anything, however foreign that thing may be to his particular place in the household, may be amenities born of habit and custom rather than of any special sympathy with or affection for his employers. But even so, they are amenities which are pleasingly human ; and one does not feel oneself to be merely surrounded by dangerous talking-machines as one does in the presence of the beings who in England are regarded as excellent servants. Life, too, seems to run more smoothly where, as in Italy, there is at least an outward appearance of a common sympathy between the servers and the served ; and very often this sympathy is not merely of a conventional kind, but genuine on both sides.
But alas, even in Italy the class of domestic servants who are disinterestedly attached to their padroni is fast disappearing, with the consequent result that the padroni themselves are no longer able to have the same confidence in, or the same feeling for, their domestics which formerly was possible and even usual. It is usually declared that the spread of socialistic ideas is responsible for this change ; but I wonder whether it may not also be due to the spread of education in the country. Nowadays, as I have pointed out else-where, numbers of the young fellows who in a former generation would have been content to follow in their father’s footsteps, are satisfied with nothing less than an appointment as impiegato in some Government department, or enter the crowded ranks of students ambitious to make a career for them-selves in law, medicine, and other civil professions. The girls gravitate to the cities, where, if they have a certain education, they may reasonably hope to find employment as typists, or posts in the various large shops, or with the telephone companies. Domestic service is fast becoming a trade which is by no means being adopted by the most respectable or trustworthy members of the lower classes. I feel that some socialistically inclined reader will take advantage of my supposition that the spread of education among the masses may be responsible for this change, and that he will point to it as a proof that education is all that is required to remove the inequality of classes. If he do so, I will reply that it is better to be a loyal servant to a private individual than to be an ill-paid and corrupt employé of a bureaucracy. A State is admittedly the hardest of all masters to serve ; and when the State itself has become the servant of a bureaucracy its exactions do not be-come less severe.
From any one of the windows of my house I can look over an expanse of country difficult to rival for variety. On one side is a view of purple hills, where heather grows, which reminds me of many a north-country scene in my native land ; on another, the fertile Pisan plain melts into the sea, and on clear nights the powerful light at the entrance to the Gulf of Spezia, some eighty miles away, flashes at intervals out of the darkness. The Duomo and leaning Campanile of Pisa, a dozen miles away as the crow flies, gleam white in the sunshine, while behind them rise bold, jagged peaks of the Apuan Alps, better known as the Carrara Mountains. On another side again rises Monte Nero, behind which lies Leghorn, while away to the northward stretch the blue distances of the Val d’Arno Inferiore, dotted with the towns of Pouted era, Santa Croce, Montopoli, and a score of others, and backed by the snowy crests of the Apennines. In the fields and valleys immediately below me are vineyards and olive groves, about which the great white oxen are perpetually moving with their slow, measured tread, while all through the warm spring nights the fireflies dance among the patches of corn, and the nightingales sing from every bank and thicket. It is a pastoral country, full of a quiet and poetic beauty all its own. An occasional faint and far-off whistle from the railway ten miles away in the plain is the only sound which speaks of progress and conjures up visions of citiesand sometimes in spring and summer months the hoot of a motor-car. In the fields and vineyards the peasants sing stornelli all day longand I often wish they wouldn’t ! I do most of my writing out of doors, and there are moments when the stornelli and the singers would both succumb to an apoplexy if my language were translated into English and its purport carried into effect.
But I regret to say that often while I sit watching the lovely prospect of the ever-changing light over valleys and mountains the two last couplets in a verse of a certain hymn beloved by Protestant; missionaries comes into my mind. I am not well up in hymns, but I believe the one in question to have been written by a certain Bishop Heber. I have a vague idea that the hymn has something to do with India or other parts of the heathen world, the inhabitants of which are not in complete harmony with the natural beauty of their surround ings. If this be so, its author need not have gone so far afield for his inspiration. He would have found ample material in the Province of Pisa. I wish I could represent the inhabitants of this province as being as attractive as those in other Tuscan districts ; but, save for the Tuscan landscape, there is little in this region to remind one that one is in Tuscany. The people are in the general way both arrogant and uncouth, of a prodigious vanity, and yet at the same time very ignorant, and utterly opposed to any reformation of their habits and customs. The peasantry are not au fond bad-hearted. Indeed, where I live they are entirely untrustworthy, avaricious to an incredible extent, but, on the whole, a sober, hard-working class, in which crimes of violence are excessively rare.
When I first came into the district, my doubts were soon aroused as to the character of the people by hearing from neighbouring landowners the frequent observationmade for my benefit” Buona gente buonissima gente ! ma bisogna saperle prendere.” Now, this ” knowing how to take them” in reality meant, as I soon realised, the process of sitting down quietly under all the dis-honesty, and submitting to all the pretensions of a singularly unscrupulous race. The fact is, that in the Province of Pisa generally there is very little distinction either in character, habits, or ideas between the so-called signoria and the small shop-keepers and peasants ; and I am bound to say that what distinction there is, is entirely to the advantage of the peasants. A common dead-level of entire lack of refinement, both in ideas and manners, unites all classes of the community. The landowner, often of good old family, who would represent with us the squire of the locality, is in nine cases out of ten an individual whom it would be quite impossible to ask to breakfast or dinner. Moreover, he would be extremely miserable and embarrassed were he to find himself a guest in an ordinary gentleman’s house. He seeks his society entirely among those who are his social inferiors in birth only, but who are his equals in all other attributes. His leisure hours are passed in the osterie and the appalti, the little stores in which tobacco, groceries, and liquors of various kinds are sold. Here he plays cards, smokes, drinks, and gossips, often with his own peasants, and in the company of the doctor, the priest, and the population generally. The presence of the priest might be supposed to exercise a restraining influence on the conversation in these resorts. It does nothing of the kind, however, for the grossest blasphemy and language of other descriptions form the usual accompaniment to the conversation of a Pisano. Throughout Tuscany, indeed, the habit of swearing is carried to excess. No one, I imagine, objects to using, or hearing, a hearty swear-word every now and thenthat is, no one who is not an intolerable prig. But there is a considerable difference between legitimate swearing and the use of blasphemies and unrepeatable phrases with which the most sacred names and objects are coupled. This last form is universal throughout the Province of Pisa. I have heard these phrases used, too, in the presence of priests, and pass not only unrebuked, but unheeded by them. In a village which I will not name here the sacristan is, I am inclined to think, the foulest-mouthed member of the community. After him come the local landed proprietorand the priest who teaches in the village school ! It is perhaps not to be wondered at if, in the said villageand it is not an exceptional one in these mattersone hears both girls and boys using phrases of the most revolting nature, in which the names of the Madonna and others to which I will not allude are introduced.
A League exists in Tuscany, and especially in Florence, against foul swearing, and it is supported by all classes. Unfortunately, it would seem to be non-existent where it is most needed. In these country districts of which I am writing there is no quarter from which any refining or civilising influence can reach the people. The Church, unluckily, makes appeal only to the superstitions and the pockets of those who frequent it. The priests, who might even still do much, instead of setting a good example too frequently set the very reverse. They are mixed up with all that is most worldly and corrupt n the rural life around them. No sooner have they doffed their sacred vestments than they become mere afaristi touting for commissions to buy or sell, to make up a marriageand, very often, to make or ruin some man or woman of the place. I am not exaggerating, for I am speaking of what I know, and of what I see going on around me.
It is not the custom, nor, indeed, is it necessary, to go but armed in these districtsthough for precaution’s sake any one who is known to travel with money on him may do soand I myself, for instancethough I have extremely seldom any money on me worth the takingcarry a revolver if I am motoring. This, however, is not for use (except in very unlikely contingencies), but merely as a moral lesson to be displayed in cases of difficulties with wagoners who often attempt wilfully to cause an accident in order to claim compensation. The sight of a revolver very quickly persuades these gentry to reason. Now, in my model village, the priests go armed. The significance of this fact is worthy of attention. They have made their enemies certainly not in the church, or in the execution of their clerical duties, but in pursuing the various speculations they combine with those of the altar. Indeed, the few respectable priests with whom I am acquainted in these parts would not dream of carrying a revolver on their walks abroad.
From the signoria, then, the people have nothing to gain in the way of example, and no attempts are made by this class to ameliorate either the moral or physical conditions of those who work for them. When I see all that is done in English rural districts by the wealthier classes, and by the churches, Catholic and Protestant alike, to promote the well-being and social condition of the labourers, and compare this with the complete indifference and neglect under which the working-classes suffer in most parts of Italy, I can only marvel that the Italian peasant is not a far more primitive and inferior being than is the case. A very little tactful organisation on the part of his superiors and of his parish priests would have more practical and more useful results than any number of miracle-working Madonnas and processsions of the Host.
The difficulty, however, would lie in the impossibility of organisation ; and individual efforts infallibly produce far more harm than good. These last at once give rise to jealousies and to suspicions as to their real scope. The priests are the first to discountenance any movement which has for its aim the amelioration of the conditions and mental out-look of the labouring classes by legitimate means ; while, as a rule, the employers of labour, especially of agricultural labour, are supremely indifferent to the labourers’ welfare, and only concern themselves with getting as much work out of them as they possibly can. The fact is that in Italy, as a general rule, the possession of land carries with it not the slightest sense of responsibility towards the workers on that land. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule ; but they are to be found rather among the very great proprietorsand even among these they are rare. There is, I believe, only one large estate in this part of Tuscany, the proprieter of which has for very many years done all in his power to raise the social conditions of his labourers and tenants, and he is of Swiss origin.
The city of Pisa may be said to be in a moribund condition, and there would seem to be but little likelihood of its making any permanent rally. Indeed, if it were not for its Universityand even this is threatened with suppressionit is difficult to see what is to prevent the place from becoming anything else than an overgrown village. Its near rival, Livorno, is rapidly absorbing all the trade of the district ; its railway service has been reduced to being a comparative nonentity ; and even its attractions, such as the Duomo and the Campo Santo, are not sufficient to detain the tourist within its gates more than a few hours, during which he has to pay very dearly for accommodation at extremely uncomfortable and badly managed hotels. The Pisani maintain the unenviable character which they have enjoyed since the days of Dante, and the city is the resort of a very low class of teppisti, who give much trouble to the authorities.
Livorno, on the other hand, is progressing fast, and there are many who predict that in the near future it will rival Genoa as a port and as an industrial city. The influential members of the Livornese community are principally Jewish, in origin if not in creed. I fear that the prevailing idea with the Livornesi concerning my compatriots is that all Englishmen are drunkards ! and this is due to the disgraceful conduct of the English sailors belonging to the merchant vessels which call at the port. These no sooner come ashore than they resort to the lowest osterie and bars in the city, from which they too frequently emerge only to quarrel with and insult passers-by. The behaviour of Italian seamen of a similar class is indeed a contrast. But I regret to say that in every Italian port one finds the British and American sailor regarded with dislike and con-tempt on account of the scenes which too often accompany his visits ; though I doubt not that the scum of the population are quite ready to encourage and take full advantage of his weaknesses, South of Leghorn we enter the Tuscan Maremma that weird yet fascinating country which lies between the seacoast and the hills, and which continues with more or less unbroken wildness and solitude into the Roman province and far onwards until it is lost in the Pontine Marshes.
But here one begins to feel the call of Romedistant as yet, but none the less compellingand to Rome we must make our way, though much remains of Tuscan life on which I would have liked to dwell. As this is no guide-book, however, I do not apologise for having left such unvisited places as Siena, Volterra, as well as such lovely districts as the Mugello, and that entrancing country where the Lucchese joins the Garfagnano and the frontier of the old duchy of Modena is passed.