I SUPPOSE that if all the books which have been written about Tuscany by Anglo-Saxon writers were collected, they would fill the shelves of a fairly large library. I will not be so presumptuous, there-fore, as to hope that I can say anything new on the subject, at any rate so far as Tuscan history, art, or scenery are concerned. I trust, however, that I have already made it clear that such matters lie outside the scope of this volume, and that its only object is to describe the characteristics of the modern Italians, their ordinary everyday life, and the social conditions and surroundings which influence that life.
Tuscany, more than any of the Italian States now forming the United Kingdom, has left its impress on the mind, if not on the character of the nation. It is here that the idioma gentile is spoken in all its purity, and with all its grace. It is here, too, that the refining spirit of Art and the illuminating spirit of Science were born again and went forth to redeem a world only then emerging slowly and painfully from the barbarism and superstition of the Dark Ages. Through long centuries Tuscany has had an influence on Italy which Imperial Rome never possessed even in the zenith of her power, and which Papal Rome, with the exception of brief intervals when members of the House of Medici occupied the chair of St. Peter, in vain attempted to destroy. That this influence was a purely intellectual one, and that its power consisted in its being so, need scarcely be said. Even now Florence regards herself as the Athens of Italy ; though whether she has any longer a special and distinct claim to do so may be an open question, since Rome, Naples, and indeed almost all the chief cities of the kingdom possess their own intellectual centres. I do not propose, however, to ask my readers to stay any length of time with me in Florence. I have no doubt that the vast majority of them are far better acquainted with the place than I am. Moreover, I must admit that, much as I love Tuscany, I do not greatly care for Florence, and for Florentine life I do not care at all. Its people are charming, of courseand amiability and pleasing manners are by no means confined to the upper classes, but may be equally met with in all. Nevertheless, sincerity is certainly not the strongest point of the Florentine ; and it is as well not to rely too much upon his affability. He has one be-setting temptationand this, I must say, he shares with Tuscans generally. The ” prendere in giro ” of a friend or acquaintance is to him a diversion which he can rarely forbid himself. I really do not know how I can express the phrase and the diversion otherwise than by using the vulgar translation of ” pulling the leg ” of a person. Now, leg-pulling is cultivated by the Tuscans to such a degree that it has become a positively artistic proceeding, and the art lies in performing it with such subtlety that the victim is not only supremely unconscious of the process, but, metaphorically, purrs with pleasure under its infliction. Very often this ” prendere in giro ” is harmless enough. Sometimes, too, it is even beneficial, since it is frequently exercised as a corrective to ” airs ” or other objectionable qualities displayed by the victim. Occasionally, however, it passes the bounds of kindness and good taste, and the unfortunate individual exposed to it is held up to ridicule none the less cruel because he or she is unaware of what is going on. This diversion, as practised by the Florentinesbut not so much by those belonging to the alta societàis apt to be less good-natured than in other parts of Tuscany, and perhaps it is also practised with less subtlety ; for, its objects being usually forestieri, it is often carried to a pitch which would instantly betray itself to any Tuscan, who would be very prompt to resent it. I confess that I have sometimes felt somewhat indignant when I have seen some unlucky foreigner made the butt of this pastime, and have often longed to enlighten him, or her, as to what was passing. I have learned by experience, how-ever, that it is better to leave people to discover certain things for themselves. It is very curious how this love of leg-pulling is implanted in the Tuscan nature ; and I imagine it largely accounts for the very remarkable peasants and other heroes and heroines who figure in Anglo-Saxon novels and books of travel dealing with Tuscany. I am sorry to say that I have heard the charming peasant boy or girl who has been questioned by an enthusiastic traveller in search of ” copy ” boasting of how successfully he has ” preso in giro ” such an one to a keenly appreciative audience, and I must admit that I have not always been able to refrain from joining in the consequent merrimentfor often the descriptions of the process are extremely humorous. But the leg-pulling, as I have already said, becomes infinitely more artistic when it is performed at the expense of another Tuscan, for it is then apt to display a delicate subtlety which is truly admirable. Of course, one must be to a certain extent behind the scenes of the village life to understand, for instance, the veiled innuenda contained in the improvised stornelli which have so pastoral and romantic an effect as the summer breeze wafts them to our ears from the vineyards in which the singer is working. One must remember, too, that the breeze wafts them to other ears as welland herein lies the sting of the stornello ! I recollect on one occasion how the vocal efforts of two or three peasants working in the fields called forth expressions of delight from some English friends who were with me. The singing was so charming, so poetic, they declared, and they insisted on sitting down to listen to it. A young Tuscan friend of mine who was with us looked at me and I at him in some dismay ; for, as a matter of fact, the refrains in question were of a nature to bring blushes to the cheek of a Carabiniere !
The English of the party, however, were perfectly content with the performance, being under the impression that they were listening to amorous swains pouring out impassioned love-songs as they dressed the vines, and so, indeed, they were, but of a very far from edifying or poetic kind. Many, of course, of the traditional stornelli are charming so far as their sentiments go, though the notes to which they are sung are, as a rule, extremely monotonous, and lack the musical element so attractive in the Romanesco and Neapolitan popular canzoni. It is the impromptu stornelli of the Tuscan peasants which are apt to be of more than doubtful propriety ; and in them, if one only happens to have a clue to the lesson they are intended to convey to some listener in a neighbouring cottage, or to some fellow-toiler a few hundred yards away, one may assist at a very typical performance of leg-pulling.
As to Florentine social life, I suppose it all depends on one’s own tastes whether or not one finds it interesting. It is largely a tea-party lifeand that, when all is said and done, in a provincial town. The society is small, and its view of life in general is small also. There are clubs, of course, for the aristocracy and the upper bourgeoisie, and much gambling takes place in both. The club life of the former seems chiefly to consist, when not gambling, of standing at the street entrance and commenting on the passers-by. The spectacle of a group of dissipated-looking young men, and of old men who ought to know better, idling away hour after hour of the day in such a feeble occupation is certainly not a very edifying one, but it is a spectacle, unfortunately, which may be seen also in Rome or any other Italian city. It is only in comparatively recent years that the Italian aristocracy has begun to realise that if it is to continue to exist at all it must do something useful. In this respect the women of the nobiltâ are far ahead of the men, and they are also far better educated. In every large city, and notably in Florence, Rome, and Naples, there are ladies of the highest rank who devote much of their time to useful works, and who are ever ready to help in alleviating poverty and distress. What they do, too, is, as a rule, done very quietly and with no ostentation, and some of the foremost in doing good and useful works are those whose names most rarely are to be seen on the lists of lady-patronesses of bazaars and charitable fêtes. One very great lady indeed occurs to my mind as I writefor I have sometimes seen her in Rome, poorly dressed and deeply veiled, in a tram-car at an early hour of the morning on her way to or from some errand of sympathy and charity. In the evening she would perhaps be entertaining in her own magnificent palace ; but in the morning she was a worker, like the operaio seated next her, whose evening, perhaps, would be passed in a socialist club listening to a paid agitator denouncing the iniquities of the rich.
Although there are many and brilliant exceptions among them, it cannot be said that the men of the Italian aristocrazia are of much use to their country. A title is too often considered as making it derogatory to its possessor to enter any kind of business or devote himself to any occupation other than that of amusing himself. As everybody knows, titles in Italy are as plentiful as blackberries ; but very many of them are by no means genuine, or, indeed, recognised by the Italian Government. Very frequently we may come across princes, dukes, and counts who have no real right to the title that they prefix to their names, and the Principe di This, or the Duca di That has perhaps only the legal right to the distinction of adding to his Christian and surname the explanatory words ” dei principi,” or ” dei duchi di” This or That, thus identifying himself with the family bearing the title. The prevailing custom, however, and it is certainly a very ridiculous one, of numerous persons belonging to one family all annexing the family title does not contribute towards the dignity of the nobiltà. Too large a number of these individuals are in existence who use their titles as a commercial asset, and who in many cases are little better than mere adventurers. Certain of the haute noblesse have the right to hand over one of their secondary titles to any son upon whom they may choose to confer itbut this, of course, is quite a different matter. It is usually the smaller fry whose younger sons, brothers, and even cousins are eager to prefix the family title to their names, instead of being content with the legitimate and correct method which in Italy has always been to use the term nobil’ uomo, a term which sufficiently identifies them with their family. Except among Italians more or less acquainted with our own system in these matters, it is almost impossible for them to understand that Englishmen may be members of the most illustrious of English families and yet have no handle to their name. That the grandson of an English duke, for instance, should be simply Mr. So-and-so is a mystery which they are entirely unable to solve. However, in Italy, as in most countries, the shepherds and shepherdesses of the alta società know their own sheep ; and they know, too, the wandering sheep from foreign folds in a manner which few of our English “leaders of society” take the trouble to acquire.
In all places in which the English and Americans congregate, counts and marquises abound. La caccia ai dollari is a famous sport among these penniless noblemen, and it is very often successful. In Florence, especially, the chase is pursued with remarkable activity, and I am told that many of the pensions frequented by English and American women are coverts which are regularly drawn. The British and American consuls in these cities could, I fear, tell sad tales, if they chose to be so indiscreet, as to the snares spread by these hunters. But no doubt there are faults on both sides ! The Italian does not, as a rule, understand the liberty accorded by custom to Anglo-Saxon women, and is apt to take advantage of the freedom of intercourse with the opposite sex which distinguishes them. The English or American woman, on the other hand, does not understand that the Italian does not understandand so complications arise. Moreover, I am afraid that the Anglo-Saxon woman sometimes thinks to herself : ” Oh, it doesn’t matter how I behave, he is only a foreigner ! ” At any rate, if she does not think so, she often conducts herself as though this idea were in her mind.
But, indeed, why should I, while I am upon this subject, discuss the Italian mote, and not heed the English beam ? Italy abounds with British adventurers and adventuresses, and these of the most barefaced kind. Sometimes they hunt in couples, in the form of a most plausible and persuasive husband and wife. Of course, there are the social adventurersbut they, as a rule, have money, and their object is the comparatively harmless one of climbing. We need not concern ourselves with these, since we have hundreds of the same type in our own country. Nevertheless, it has sometimes filled me with amazement when I have seen British “bounders” of the most pronounced typemale and femaleclimb into the innermost recesses of Roman society, batter down portals as exclusive aswell, I will name no namesas any of those few remaining ones in London which know what the word exclusion means ! The other type of British adventurer in Italy exists to prey upon his or her compatriots, and upon any Italians with whom they may scrape acquaintance. Many and varied are their manoeuvres, and I have suffered from them myself. They have even found me out in my Tuscan hermitage, which is ten miles from a railway station and never an English-speaking individual within very much more than that distance. They have arrived by the creaky and jingling ” machine” which conveys the Royal Mails to this hinterland, and which, I may add, passes my residence late in the evening at an hour when visitors are scarcely expected.
On one occasion, at this untoward hour, a card was brought to me bearing not one, but two of the most illustrious surnames known to English history.
I confess that the coupling of these distinguished patronymics aroused immediate suspicion ; but what was I to do ? To turn a stranger from my gates at nightfall, who declared that he had travelled miles to see me on the most urgent business, would have been almost brutalso he was admitted. Naturally, the urgent business, which, by the way, he at first pretended was concerned with an English journal published in Italy, which I never happen to have perused, was the very ordinary one of inducing me to transfer money from my pockets to his own. There was a certain pathetic humour in the situation which stood him in far better stead than either his visiting-card or his story, for he naively admitted that when he alighted at the railway station he thought that, of course, my house was at the most a few minutes’ walk. His wide experience of English residents in Italy had evidently never furnished him with a specimen so eccentric as to live among exclusively Italian surroundingsand there he was, at nine o’clock on a summer evening, ten miles from any place in which he could hope to get a whisky and soda. I heard afterwards that he had taken kindly enough to the substitute offered him by a neighbouring publican, so the modest donation which I made him, in order to get rid of him, was at all events partially expended in assisting local enter-prise. But perhaps the most amusing English couple of this type of whom I have heard are a husband and wife whose beats lie in more fashionable quarters than mine. The plan of action appears to be invariably the same. While the husband is explaining the urgent business which has obliged him to take the liberty of calling, etc. etc., the lady is suddenly seized with faintness. She has a weak heart, and to move her at such a moment, or, indeed, for some hours after the attack, would be highly dangerous. I am thankful to say that I have never been honoured by a visit from this fashionable couple ; but I am assured that they have spent many pleasant and profitable days as the unexpected guests of kind-hearted people who naturally would not hear of their departing until the lady was quite out of danger. Our paternal Government attempts to outwit adventurers of this type by issuing warnings in the shape of a letter from the Foreign Office to the various British consuls whose districts they frequent ; but it is, of course, merely a chance if the victim happens to mention their names to the Consul and so is able to receive his warning in time.
Other experiences of the kind I have had in Rome. There the British adventurer sometimes presents him or herself in the guise of the pious Catholic yearning to be admitted to the presence of the Holy Father. Of course my obvious question as to why they should resort to me and not to some English dignitary of the Church in communication with the Vatican leads to endless explanations all amazingly futile and, on my assuring them that I am the very last person in Rome whose recommendation would be favourably received in Vatican circles, the real business is brought on the tapis. The worst of it all is that these impostors are very often what they themselves would probably describe as quite superior people. They sometimes produce letters from well-known individuals, written on terms of equality and even of friendliness, and more than once I have seen a familiar handwriting and signature to a letter they have insisted on my reading. I have often wondered if the writers of such letters have the slightest idea of the uses to which they are put.
Like Rome, Florence is too largely dependent on foreign visitors to be progressive in matters of commerce and industry. She contents herself with the possession of her marvellous treasures of Art, and her intellectual traditions of the past, knowing that these alone cause a yearly stream of foreign gold to flow into her coffers from visitors and sightseers. The city is increasing both in size and population, but, as in Rome, there is little attempt to make it in any way self-supplying. The prices of the most ordinary objects of everyday necessity are very high, and a demand for any but the most commonplace articles for household use is generally met by the reply : ” We must write to Milan for itor to Germany.” And yet there are numbers of excellent workmen among the Florentines capable of copying in the most accurate and artistic manner any design or object entrusted to them.
One of the traditional handicrafts of Florence, that of working in the precious metals, is still almost an instinct with many of her inhabitants belonging to the working-classes. Unluckily these artists, for in some cases they are worthy of the name, find less and less scope for their talents, and the Florentine orefici have indeed fallen on evil times. German productions turned out by machinery flood the goldsmiths’ shops, to the exclusion of native talent, and the goldsmith himself finds it cheaper to import these articles than to maintain a staff of orefcci, for whose far more genuine and artistic work there is little or no sale. Another famous Florentine trade, that of working in the pietra dura, has almost ceased to exist. Cabinets, paper-weights, tables, and various other objects of the kind which the sellers will swear by all their gods to be in pietra dura are nothing of the sort, but clever imitations in soft stones which require little or no skill to work, and which, in a comparatively short space of time, crack, or become loose in their settings. Many of these imitations, too, are of German origin, and it is now extremely difficult to find any genuine Florentine pietra dura work in the brio-A-brae shops. Formerly, however, so renowned was the skill of the Florentine artists in pietra dura, that under the Medici rulers, and down to the middle of the nineteenth century, the Tuscan Government exercised a jealous watch over them, and the most able were retained to work solely for the State. Even at the present day there exists a Government institution in which beautiful specimens of the real pietra dura work are made, and the artists engaged there are not permitted to work for other employers.
In connection with this industry I had an interesting experience some years ago. It is not, I imagine, generally known that the decorations of the famous throne at Delhi of the ancient Mogul emperors were made by Florentine workers in pietra dura, specially sent out by the Medici of the day at the instance of the Eastern potentate then ruling over a portion of our Indian Empire. When preparations were being made for the great Durbar held in connection with the visit of his present Majesty when Prince of Wales to India, it was brought to the notice of the then Viceroy, Lord Curzon, that many of the pietra dura panels adorning the throne, which are of extremely beautiful design and workmanship, had been missing since the days of the Mutiny. Lord Curzon was anxious that these panels should, if possible, be substituted by others of equal worth before the Durbar took place, and he wrote to our ambassador in Rome asking him if any Florentine expert could be found who would undertake the work of restoration according to the old traditions of the pietra dura art. As I happened to be in Florence at the time, the ambassador asked me if I would try to find a suitable man. The Indian Government offered very handsome terms, and the work was calculated to last for two years, during which period the Florentine artist, if found, was to have at his command a staff of native workmen accustomed to handling precious stones. I at once carried the matter to the Director of the Government pietra dura works in Florence, though, knowing the regulations by which no artist engaged there could accept other employment of the kind, I had small hopes of being able to secure one of those experts. The historical interest of the fact that four centuries ago Florentines had been sent out to Delhi to decorate the throne of the Mogul emperors, and that once again the services of Florentines were sought for the same purpose, caused the Director to seek instructions from headquarters, with the result that the Italian Government at once gave all facilities for the dispatch to India of one of the most skilled artists in the Florence factory. A search among the Archives of Florence confirmed the fact of a band of workers in pietra dura having been placed at the disposal of the Mogul Emperor of the day by, I think, Cosimo de’ Medici. Unluckily, the newspapers got hold of the object of my mission, and I was, of course, besieged by all the dealers in sham pietra dura in the city, each anxious to send out his particular ” artist.”
Naturally, I had no intention of recommending any but a most undoubted expert in the real art, but it amused me to see to what lengths of dis-honesty the dealers would go, and I pretended to be taken in by their assurances, concealing from them that I happened to be aware of the difference between real and spurious pietra dura work. I suppose that the artist in the Royal factory had been indiscreet enough to talk about the affair while it was yet under discussion, for the terms offered by the Indian Government were known in every shop in Florence dealing in mosaics. One establishment in particular was so persistent in forcing its claims to possessing the only artist in Florence suitable for the post, and so eager to convince me that the services of the said artist could be secured at less than what one of the employees of the Royal factory would demand, that I had the curiosity to examine more closely into the swindle which I felt convinced was underlying so much concern for the suitable restoration of the Mogul throne. Having obtained, not without some difficulty, the name and address of the ” artist ” so highly recommended, I sought out a friend of mine who was also earning his living by his hands, but in another trade. In a few hours my friend brought the ” artist” in question to see me, and I proceeded to sound him as to how much he had been offered by his principale if he would accept a job in India. I will not state the exact sum, but his principale had informed him that if he cared to undertake a two years’ engagement in India he would allow him to go, and would, moreover, pay him higher wages during that period than those which he was already receivingin fact, not a tenth part of the salary offered by the Indian Government. In course of conversation he informed me that he knew scarcely anything about the real pietra dura process, as he was exclusively employed in the manufacture of the sham article. He was under the impression that this last was what he would be required to work upon in India, and, unlike his principale, had evidently not the slightest idea of the terms the Indian Government had offered. In a word, it was all a clever ” try on ” on the part of the Florentine shopkeeper to foist upon the English ambassador an ordinary worker in sham pietra dura at the salary offered, to pay the said workman a pittance during his engagement, and to put the enormous difference in his own pocket.
I am glad to say that, notwithstanding several similar intrigues, which I reported both to the ambassador and to Lord Curzon, the skilled expert in pietra dura from the Royal factory was ultimately dispatched to Delhi to execute restorations to the Mogul throne which his predecessors in the art had enriched with their decorations four hundred years previously. Now, the dealer in mosaic work especially, and in objets d’art generally, who attempted this little ” try on,” which, had it succeeded, would have put several thousands of francs into his own pocket during the period of two years, and would have supplied the Indian Government with a work that would have quickly perished in a tropical climate, was not a Florentine, but of Teuton origin.
This is only an example of the countless in-stances in which Germans are, in every part of Italy, ousting the Italians. The German invasion of Italy in the course of the last twenty years has assumed almost incredible proportions. It is not the German tourists who are injuring Italy. They bring money into the country. The commercial German, however,and he is everywhere and, one may almost say, in everything,takes money out of the country. And not only does he do this, but he takes the very bread out of the mouths of the Italians of the working-classes. He has succeeded in dumping down his own cheaper, machine-made imitations of Italian handicraft throughout the length and breadth of the land, and the consequence is that in such cities as Florence, Rome, and Naples numbers of skilled artisans are unable to obtain employment, because it no longer pays the shop-keepers and dealers to stock the results of their handiwork. Nor is this German invasion confined to so-called artistic productions only. In the little country town nearest to me here in Tuscany every one of the principal shops is owned by a German, or German-Swiss ; while the two rather important manufactories it contains are both in the hands of the said Teuton shopkeepers.
I might, to be sure, here point a moral, and observe that whereas a few years ago English goods and materials were in vogue in Italy, these are now almost entirely supplanted by things made in Germany. And the humiliating part of the business is, that I am bound to confess that these last are as a general rule infinitely superior. I have watched this development closely for some years, and year by year I notice a constant deterioration in every kind of English goods imported into Italy, and a corresponding amelioration in the quality and variety of the German productions. Unluckily, the Italians have for some little time begun to notice the same thing. I say, unluckily, merely because if it were a question of German versus English commercial enterprise only, I should naturally prefer to see English goods maintaining the superiority for which they were formerly renowned. I must admit, however, that personally speaking I should like to see the day when the Italians will have need neither of the German nor the English ” fornitori ” in their midst ; and I am convinced that this day would come far more quickly if they would be less ready to encourage foreign intruders at the expense of their own countrymen. But until that day comes, it may be permitted to one who is himself an obtruder in the country to deplore the fact that any article guaranteed as inglese can no longer be regarded as a superior article, but rather the reverse whereas the roba tedesca, while considerably cheaper, is also as a rule considerably more satisfactory.
It all depends, of course, on one’s individual tastes whether one likes the social life of Florence or not. The interests to be found by any student or lover of the artsalways excepting that of Music, which, in Florence, may almost be said to be a negligible quantityare too well known to be described in these pages. The Leonardo da Vinci Society, to which belong most of the intellectual members of the Florentine world, gives many evening entertainments in the course of the year. At these one is sure to meet people who have other topics of conversation than those concerned with their neighbours’ doings ; and here, too, may often be heard famous musicians and celebrated artists, both national and foreign, who seem ever ready to give of their best when guests of the Society.
I forget who the French cynic was who declared that the only fault he had to find with towns was the fact that they were surrounded by the country. Unlike him, I plead guilty to being ever ready to shake the dust of a city from off my feet and to exchange it for that of the countryand to me, personally, the surroundings of Florence are far more attractive than the town itself. I do not mean the immediate surroundings. Places such as Fiesole, for instance, I rigidly avoid. Except in the province of Pisa, it would be hard to find in all Tuscany a more objectionable population than the Fiesolani. In addition to a natural uncouthness, which on slight provocation degenerates into brutality, the people have been contaminated by perpetual influxes of the worst specimens of German, British, and American tourists, and the visitor to Fiesole is apt to pay dearly for the privilege of gazing at the views over the Val d’Arno, which can be with difficulty enjoyed without molestations from every species of tout and undesirable character of every kind.
Very different are the people of the Pistoiese, the lovely district to the north of Florence backed by the Apennines. I recently spent a whole winter and spring in a house dignified by the name of a villa, which I hiredfurnishedat the rate of some-thing under three pounds a month. The furniture, certainly, was primitive, and so was the lifebut all the same the last was thoroughly enjoyablein its own peculiar way, and this entirely, thanks to the simple kindliness and almost embarrassing honesty of the peasant population of the mountain valley in which the villa was situated. These good folk seemed as though they could never do enough for me and for my Tuscan friend who was my companion. Our ménage consisted of natives of the valley, and the owner of the villa and her daughter lived in a remote corner of it. Unlike the British landlady, she kept a maternal and searching eye always open to see that we were not paying more than the local prices for our provisions. How she and her daughter occupied their days, I never knew ; and had it not been for certain articles restricted to female wear which on washing days hung out of upper windows to dry, we should scarcely have known that the house contained other inmates than ourselves. Occasionally, on fine days, the old lady would descend into the garden, accompanied by her daughter. If she found either myself or my friend there, she would relate how a Roman prince had wished to marry la mia bambina, as she called her, though the term was scarcely applicable under the circumstances. I am afraid that Roman prince was a myth ; for not only was the bambina very much the reverse of pre-possessing, but I should imagine that no dot could have been forthcoming, neither could I understand what should bring a Roman prince to the Val . Both mother and daughter were very devout, and indeed I think they seldom went beyond the walls of the villa except to attend Mass and other functions at the village church near by. Nevertheless, to mention priests to either of them was to embark upon a subject before which the Roman prince faded into insignificance. Briganti and mascalzoni were quite the least opprobrious epithets which they would apply to the clergy in general and to their own parish priest in particularand with regard to the last I fear that they were not misplaced. The parocco, I regret to say, was the one discordant element in our otherwise peaceful life at Val . He was a truculent peasant from another part of Tuscany, and had not long been appointed to the cure. For some time after our arrival in the place my friend and I were unable to understand why the priest should be the only person in the whole valley who regarded us with ill-concealed aversion. After one or two attempts to conciliate him, we decided to leave him alone, and we were given to understand by many of his flock that this was the best thing we could do, and that they wished they could do the same ! It was not long before we discovered the reason of his black looks. It appeared that our landlady was in the habit of letting her villa every summer to a wealthy and very dévote Florentine lady and her husbandan elderly couple, both of whom were invalidsand that the priest got a great deal of money out of them. He was in deadly fear lest it might be our intention to buy the villa, as he knew that one of our reasons for coming to Val was to see if a suitable property was to be had in the neighbourhood. I am afraid that my companion, being already full of dislike and distrust of the clergy, and being, moreover, no mean adept in that Tuscan art of leg-pulling which I have already described, took great delight in adding to the parocco’s misgivings. We had not the slightest intention of buying the villa we had rented for a few monthsbut all the same my friend deliberately encouraged the villagers to believe that the purchase was more or less a settled thing. The clerical scowl grew blacker and blackerand I verily believe that only the certainty that suspicion would immediately fall upon him prevented the irate parocco from lying in wait for us behind some hedge with a gun. At length he became desperate, and on the vigil of some festa, when our padrona di casa was fulfilling her religious duties, he threatened her with the nether-most pains of hell in the future and disaster in the present if she ventured to sell her villa to us. We had to confess to the lady that the whole affair had only been devised to prendere in giro the parocco, and, whatever her designs upon us as possible purchasers might have been, she not only thoroughly enjoyed the joke, but, I believe, became my friend’s confederate in the matter. As to this particular parocco, as he was unluckily no very exceptional type of Italian rural priests, I feel that some description of his practices will not be attributed to any personal resentment of an attitude which only afforded us amusement at the time. Like many other similar villages in Italy, Val is a place of pilgrimage, inasmuch as it possesses one of the innumerable Madonnas who are supposed to work miracles. The possession of one of these supernatural objects is, of course, a most valuable asset to any village community, and though there is extremely little faith left on the part of the population in the genuineness of the business, there is a very lively sense of the pecuniary benefits brought to the place by the pilgrimages. It is not too much to say that the Madonna in these instances is usually ” run ” by a syndicate consisting of the clergy and the local tradespeople with the publican at their head. In the village, for example, in which I live, the preachers on special occasions are chosen not so much on account of their oratorical giftsand certainly not on account of their moral worth, for I have heard observations passed during a sermon as to the number of its deliverers’ illegitimate childrenas whether they meet with the approval of the neighbouring osteria-keeper as likely to “draw” a thirsty crowd. This worthy, and not the priest, is in reality the most influential organiser of religious celebrations in my parish !
In Val, and in many other similar places, the unfortunate peasants are not only made to pay two francs apiece for the candles they hold when following a procession in honour of the Madonna, but they have to return the candles to the priests after the function, and the priests sell the remnants. I am told (on the authority of a sacristan !) that a windy day is particularly welcomed by the clerics, since the candles get quickly blown out. The peasants sometimes pay as much as ten francs for the honour of a prominent place in a procession, and if they cannot pay in money they will pay in kind, sending chickens, grain, or wine to the parocco. The amazing part of the whole thing is that very likely the very peasant who allows himself to be victimised by these clerical extortioners does not scruple to express the most profound scepticism of, and even contempt for, miraculous Madonnas and all the rest of the priestly myths. I have talked with many such, and knowing the failing of the Tuscan peasanta pleasant enough failing when one has not to do business with himof expressing opinions he thinks may please his listener, I have sometimes pretended to be myself a thorough believer. Occasionally I have met with a faith which was evidently genuineand when this is the case, who would take upon himself the responsibility of disturbing it ? I, for one, certainly would not. Even misplaced faith may be better than none at all. But for the most part I have only met with the most cynical scepticism, and this not only among the peasants and artisans, but sometimes also among priests themselves.
For a long time, indeed for many years,- I found it very hard to account for this characteristically Italian attitude towards religious matters ; and it certainly is not an easy matter to explain why a peasant, for instance, should trouble himself to make a considerable sacrifice in money or in kind unless he were convinced that he would obtain some spiritual benefit therefrom. It was not until I had become better acquainted with the material side of the problem that things began, so to speak, to straighten themselves out. It was, I admit, some-thing of a shock to find that a material side existed, and a still greater one to realise the fact that it not only existed but that it greatly overshadowed the spiritual element in Italian popular religion. Yet I think that no one who has studied Italian popular life, and has honestly attempted to put away his own personal beliefs or disbeliefs while studying it, can fail to come to the conclusion that the boasted unity of faith in the dogmas and doctrines of the Church is, in Italythe headquarters of Catholicismnon-existent.
But the question still remains as to why, if this be so, the peasant, to whom every lira is of immense consequence, should so frequently give money or money value to support religious observances in which he has not the slightest faith. We will put aside the spiritual advantages, real or imaginary, which may accrue to him from such support, and glance only at the material and tangible benefits it brings him. To begin with, he is part of a community which for countless generations has centred round the parish church. Let us enlarge the picture, and magnify our Italian town or village into Italy herself. In no country, except perhaps in Germany and certainly in no Catholic countryis religious scepticism so profound and so common in all classes as in Italy. Yet in Italy as a whole the Church is still the most powerful factor in the country. That it is losing its power daily is of no present moment, since enough remains, and will long remain, greatly to influence the Italian character and, perhaps, Italian policy. To the average well-educated Italian the Church represents not so much a spiritual fabric in which he will find future salvation, as a great national institution of which in his innermost heart he is very proud, as being typical of the influence of the Latin race upon the thought and intellect of the world. He may rail at the priests, laugh at the ceremonies, deny the dogmas ; but when it comes to the point he will not willingly consent to any measure which would lower the prestige of the Latin Church in the eyes of foreign nations. You may discuss the abuses of the Church with the most ” intransigente ” of Italian socialists or freemasons, and up to a certain point you will feel convinced that he would readily see the Vatican in ruins and a cinematograph established in St. Peter’s ; but there will infallibly come the moment when, should you agree with him (which I should not), he will turn and rend you. Although he may not himself be aware of it, there lurks at the back of his mind pride in the Papacy as an institution of purely Italian origin and development exercising a power more world-wide than that which the Roman Empire ever wielded. He may detest the methods of this power, and believe, not without reason, that it is injurious to the progress of any nation that allows it to become a dominating influence ; but he recognises that any attack on the institution which was in reality to cause its overthrow, would be a deadly blow aimed at his nation and at the whole of the Latin race. It may be objected that these are sentimental reasonings only ; but it must not be forgotten that sentiment is the ruling influence in every race. The anti-clerical educated Italian, however, is not sentimental only in his attitude towards the Papacy as distinct from the Church ; he is also influenced, although in a less crude form, by the same considerations which weigh with the peasant. The death of the Papacy as an Italian institution would mean an immense material loss to Italya loss not merely financial, but also political. In a word, his country would find itself deprived of an indispensable moral support both at home and abroad. Paradoxical as such an attitude may appear and, of course, anathema to the Catholic whose reason has been submitted to his faithan educated Italian, or for that matter an educated individual of any race who has become more or less Italianised by long residence in the country, may come to combine profound dislike of the Church with a certain admiration for and pride in the Papacy as a great though, of course, essentially human Latin organisation.
The uneducated Italian, on the other hand, has naturally only the vaguest idea, if any at all, of the Papacy as distinct from the Church. Nevertheless, it is the Papacy which he unconsciously supports when, as is often the case, he cheerfully submits to be exploited by the priests for objects in which he has little or no real belief. He is acting for himself and his small community in precisely the same way as the educated Italian freethinker is acting in the interests of Italy and the Latin race. The difference between their respective attitudes is one of degree only. The peasant is perfectly aware of the immediate and tangible advantages which accrue to him by sup-porting his local sanctuary, and lending his material if not spiritual support to those things which he practically regards as storie. In the first place, it is well to keep on good terms with the parocco. A kind of mutual understanding may be said to exist between the ecclesiastical shepherd and his flock, especially when, as is frequently the case, the parocco is a peasant like his parishioners. As likely as not, the peasant will give vent to language of a wholly irreligious kind when he is called upon to contribute some of his earnings to the glory of the local Madonna, and he cherishes no illusions as to where his money eventually finds its way ; but he would be roused to fury were the local Madonna to be publicly held up to ignominy as a painted fraud. Such an exposure would be bad for trade. The power which attracted the country people from far and near to the little paese would depart from it ; its reputation (and here the spirit of ” campanalismo,” to which I have already alluded, comes in) would suffer, and many an opportunity of doing business during the pilgrimage season be lost.
As to the policy of keeping in with the parocco, to any one who knows the undercurrents of Italian country life, the advantages to be gained from it are obvious. A very few years ago, when the Italian Government was under the mistaken idea that it could suppress socialistic and anarchist ideas by persecution, it was not only advisable but necessary to be well looked upon by the priests. In those days any young fellow who was rash enough to air his anti-clerical ideas ran the risk of being denounced to the civil authorities as a sovversivo or an anarchist, and of finding himself arrested and sent to the domicilio coatto. I myself know of several village lads entirely guiltless of any revolutionary ideas, whose only crime consisted in the fact that they declined to attend religious functions, who in a little Tuscan town with which I am acquainted were denounced by the priests as dangerous anarchists, and consigned to the domicilio coatto, from which they very naturally emerged ruined in character and justly embittered against a society in which such foolish cruelty was possible. Fortunately, a wiser policy now prevails in Italy, and priestly denunciation would no longer be allowed to influence the civil authorities in such cases. But the facts which I have stated occurred comparatively recently, and may fairly be quoted as evidencing the ruthless spirit in which the priests would hound to destruction any who ventured to interfere with their trade, had they the power to do so.
As things stand at present, this power is fortunately denied to them in Italy as elsewhere. They can still, however, do much to make or mar the career of those who actively oppose their practices, especially in villages and small country towns. Moreover, the peasant priest is as likely as not to combine the occupation of sensale with his other trades, and many a small peasant proprietor or storekeeper depends upon his good word for a profitable sale or purchase. Among the many little matters of business which the priestly sensale is usually ready to arrange are marriages. It is not long ago that a priest whom I asked to breakfast one day informed me of his successes in this line. With the slightest encouragement, I believe he would have offered his services to me and, indeed, he alluded more than once to various families in the district able to give their daughters satisfactory dowries. No doubt, however, he perceived that the ground was not favourable ; for he shifted it, and began again later on, offering to negotiate on my behalf for the purchase of a piece of land adjoining my property, which he pointed out would be to my advantage to possess.
But I must not be unfair on the rural Italian clergy, neither would I wish to create the impression that there are no individuals worthy of their office to be found among them. Moreover, even the worst among them are the servants, rather than the masters, of their parishioners. They are usually men whose mental outlook differs in no way from that of those to whose spiritual wants they are supposed to minister. Of peasant origin them-selves, they find themselves placed among peasants who would resent any attitude of social superiority on their part. Hence they are often compelled to drift with the current of popular opinion ; to feign to ignore, or perhaps participate in practices altogether at variance with the doctrines they are called upon to preach in their churches. In addition to these disadvantages, they are often extremely poor.
In countless cases, as I have mentioned before, the son of a peasant becomes a priest not from any special vocation for Holy Orders, but in order to make a living for himself and his relatives. His stipend is probably something under forty pounds a year, paid, as a rule, by the Government, and he usually has a small podere a kind of miniature glebefrom which he naturally does all in his power to extract some addition to his income. As to his miracle-working picture or statue, if his church is fortunate enough to possess one, he very often does not believe in its powers himself, and if you possess his confidence he will probably hint as much to you. But it is a valuable asset an attraction belonging to the paese which it is to his own and to the common interest to ” boom ” to the best of his ability.
In a certain church in Campania there are some stones which occasionally undergo the not uncommon and purely natural process of sweating. This is regarded, of course, as a supernatural phenomenon by the people.
A priest was appointed to the Church whose honesty was superior to his judgment. He ventured to attempt to persuade the people that the weeping of the stones was due not to the sorrows of the Madonna, but to certain atmospherical conditions, and created a riot by doing so, in which he very nearly lost his life. In this case, however, he had offended the genuine faith of his flock ; for in southern Italy faith still exists, and is none the less genuine because it manifests itself in very debased forms. Were a priest to be equally honest in a country town or village of northern or central Italy, he would run little risk of offending the faith of his people, but his honesty would be speedily checked by an intimation that he was damaging their pecuniary interests and the local reputation of their paese ; and that he must either do what was expected of him, or the place would be made too hot to hold him. As to the pecuniary sacrifices so often made by members of the lower classes, and especially among the peasants, who are in reality utter sceptics as to the genuineness of the pious myths recounted to them, I believe that something more than mere business principles enters. There is a lurking fear lest after death things might turn out to be as the priests had represented themand a feeling that in order to guard against any unpleasant surprises of this description it would be more politic to have something to the credit side in Domeneddio’s ledgers. After all, if we come to analyse the matter, the same feeling probably exists in most of us ; and hence the power of the priesthood in every age and of every creed, Christian and otherwise.