I FEEL sure that my readers would feel themselves aggrieved if, being in Lombardy, I did not take them to the Italian Lakes ; but, if they wish to make a reading tour through that delightful district, I must refer them to other pages than these. Como, Maggiore, Varese, and Lugano, which is not, of course, correctly speaking, an Italian lake at all, are house-hold words with the British traveller. As, however, we have to choose between them, let our choice fall upon Como, since not only is it incomparably the most beautiful, but also because the Comasco district presents far more interesting and more typical details of Italian life than the others. Its past history and traditions are well-nigh inexhaustible, and take the student back into the very earliest timesfor there are innumerable traces of civilisations long dead, and of pagan customs still surviving under a mask of Christianity, to be found in many of its villages and towns as well as among its lovely mountain passes. Like the south of Italy, the Comasco had its ancient Greek colonies established in its midst, and as in far Campania and Calabria the beautiful Greek type is still occasionally to be met with among its population, while several of the little towns on the shores of the lake preserve their Greek names scarcely concealed under an Italianised form. The origin of the city of Como itself is lost in antiquity ; but we know that the Etruscans dominated the whole district for more than six centuries, having found already in possession a more ancient people still, whose traces have entirely vanished from off the face of the earth. We know, too, that to the civilised Etruscans succeeded the barbarous Celtic conquerors, who were in their turn vanquished and expelled from Como by Julius Cesar and the might of Rome. Afterwards, as most visitors to the Lake of Como know to their cost,. that intolerable bore, the younger Pliny, appears upon the scenea worthy person with a nice taste for scenery and for the simple pleasures of a country life, and, in common with very many other individuals of his day, possessing to the full that spirit of benevolence and humanity which is erroneously supposed to be the exclusive product of Christianity.
A very charming people in many ways are the Comaschi, especially the peasant populations of the hill villages who have not been spoiled by contact with the tourists frequenting the shores of the lake. Their chief defect is, I am inclined to think, too great a sympathy with the wine flask, and excessive drinking is a common failing in these parts. Nevertheless, there are countless exceptions to the rule, and in no district of Italy do I know more trust-worthy people, or any in whom the instincts of loyalty and fidelity to those with whom they have once made friends are more remarkable, unless, indeed, it be among the Abruzzesi. And what more pleasant little city can be found than Como itself, nestling under its green mountains ? One has no feeling of being overwhelmed by its ” sights, though some of these are of considerable interest. The beautiful little cathedral is perhaps the most perfect specimen in all Italy of a fusion of the Gothic with the Renaissance styles in architecture. I must refer my readers to the guide-books regarding its history and contents ; but perhaps I may be allowed to quote from a volume of my own dealing with the Italian Lakes, and to mention a medieval practical joke connected with the cathedral of Como, concerning which I believe all guide-books are silent.
In the year 1850, a certain priest at Introgna, a village not far from Locarno, on the Lago Maggiore, declared that he was possessed of an ancient document indicating a spot in the Duomo of Como where a buried treasure might be found, and that this spot was precisely beneath a sculptured frog, which may be seen to this day among the elaborate and graceful carving which surrounds the northern door-way of the building. It is a frog, by the way, of peculiarly hideous appearance. The priest prevailed upon a master-builder of Como to search for the treasure, and this individual consented to do so on the condition that the priest would show him the document, and that the necessary permission to excavate was conceded by the authorities. The priest at once produced the paper in question. It was carefully examined by competent experts, and was declared to be a genuine document bearing the date of, I think, 1470. Its contents were as follows :
” A treasure is to be found in the city of Como. Whoever shall find a carved frog, and shall dig beside it to a depth of eight braccia, will find an iron chest full of silver ; digging further, he shall find another chest containing a corpse ; and digging further still he shall come upon yet another chest containing gold.”
On the strength of this mysterious document, permission was given by the authorities to excavate at the spot indicated, on the condition that half the treasure, were it found, should be consigned to the municipality. The work was begun early in May 1852, and was carried on for a whole week amid the intense excitement and curiosity of the Comaschi of all classes. Unluckily, however, nothing was discovered except a spring of very excellent water, and amidst jeers and hisses from the disappointed crowd the search was abandoned. The document, however, found by the priest seems to have been absolutely genuine so far as its age was concerned, and must be regarded as being presumably a practical joke of the fourteenth century, which only reached its maturity nearly four hundred years after conception.
It is hard to believe, when looking down on the peaceful Lake of Como from any vantage-ground among the mountains which encircle it, that its waters were in the Middle Ages often the scene of fierce naval actions, and that pirate vessels harried the villages along its shores. The descendants of the pirates, of whom Il Medeghine “–Gian Giacomo de’ Mediciwas certainly the most famous as well as the most romantic, are now engaged in the less truculent, but I dare say equally exciting, trade of smuggling, of which a great deal is done on and around the lake. The close proximity of the Swiss frontier must make the temptation well nigh irresistible to convey contraband articles such as spirits, tobacco, sugar, and salt into Italy ; and one cannot help feeling some sympathy with the delinquents when one comes to think of the cost of such necessaries of life in their own country. The Italian Government, in addition to many patrol boats manned by custom-house officials, maintains a few torpedo-boats on the lake, which occasionally steam furiously after some suspect. At one point, too, a powerful electric search-light is in constant use, at the cost, it is said, of a hundred francs a night. I have often amused myself with watching the vagaries of this search-light, and by mysterious evolutions, practised with my own innocent boat, drawing its attention to my doings, I have noticed, moreover, that its full blaze ruthlessly pursues any boat which may contain an amorous couple from the various hotels, who are presumably engaged in enjoying the romantic effects of a moonlight night on the waters of Como, and certainly these effects are sometimes very romantic indeed, as any of the boatmen will tell you.
But it has occasionally struck me that the guardians of finance are not always actuated by an active, if indiscreet, curiosity regarding the behaviour of lovers. Many a time have I seen one of the peculiar boats used by the country people creeping stealthily in the shadow of the rocks towards some sequestered creek from which a path leads up into the mountains, or perhaps to some cave in which a smuggled cargo may be temporarily hidden away. I have often observed, too, that the broad track of the search-light somehow seems to sweep across the lake in every direction without actually illuminating the spot where the said boat happens to be. Now, this is very curious, for the two rowers of the boat are evidently working hard. They row standing up, and my own little craft is near enough to them to enable me to see and admire the graceful motion of their bodies as they bend forward and then straighten themselves for another stroke. All the same, the inquisitive search-light is frequently turned full upon me ; but with a sudden twist, which betokens great dexterity on the part of those controlling it, it invariably skips over the heads of my neighbouring oarsmen to cast a dazzling glare on the water some hundred yards in front of them, and far beyond the spot for which I have reasons of my own for imagining to be their destination. I am not going to give away professional secrets confided to me by some of my Comasco friends in humble life who, although they themselves held aloof from the smuggling trade, had many relations and friends among its members ; but one little incident which was recounted to me with glee the morning after it occurred I think I may mention without indiscretion, as it happened a good many years ago, and no doubt would now be impossible, or perhaps, I should say, exceptional ! A heavy and fairly valuable cargo of tobacco and sugar had been successfully brought over the mountains from Swiss territory to the Lake of Como, and was about to be deposited in a certain spot which it is unnecessary to name here. Unluckily, or perhaps luckily for the smugglers as events turned out, on arrival at the hiding-place they found a brigadiere di finanzieri and a comrade of lower grade already in possession, who informed them with the utmost calmness that an informer had, so to speak, given away the show ; that he knew the contraband cargo was an affarone, and that if any resistance were offered he had only to give a signal and others of his men would be quickly upon the scene. I conclude that something in the non-commissioned officer’s mannerpossibly a wink (though that, by the way, is a surmise)caused the smugglers to hope that things might not be so black as they looked. However this may have been, after a few minutes’ discussion the majesty of Italian law unbent. The brigadiere and his companion kindly assisted the smugglers in reloading their boat with its cargo, the brigadiere meanwhile carefully checking every sack of sugar and package of tobacco. Eventually the two finanzieri accompanied the smugglers in their boat to a remote osteria in a spot which again shall be nameless, where, over a few measures of wine, the claims of the Italian Government were settled in a manner satisfactory to all parties. Needless to say, the alleged proximity of other members of the force was an invention on the part of the brigadiere ; but in any case, he and his subordinate had the advantage of being armed, which the smugglers were not. Whether the matter ever reached the ears of the authorities I cannot say, but I should imagine not, as for some little time afterwards smuggling was certainly carried on with increased activity in that particular neighbourhood.
It is a demoralising trade, however, and the self-respecting members of the community keep themselves apart from it, though I do not imagine that even the most punctilious among them are above benefiting by a successful coup. ” Lavora di notte ” is the innocent phrase intended to convey that a man is a smuggler ; and I have no doubt that many tender-hearted ladies and others who are not acquainted with its real significance give an extra tip to their poor boatman who not only rows them about all day, but also works at night !
Unfortunately, the ill – gotten gains of the smugglers are also, as a rule, ill-spent ; and much drinking in company with the least desirable of the population is the usual mode of expenditure, leading to quarrels, in which the knife may be the immediate, and prison the eventual, result, though in the country villages and towns on Como the knife, happily, is very rarely known to make its appearance, and only then in the hands of some pessimo soggetto.
To me the life of ” the people” in the Comasco is far more interesting than that of the signoria. There are, of course, numerous and great exceptions ; and in the case of several, at all events, of the great Lombard families who possess stately villas on the lake it would be hard to find in any country more interesting and charming individuals, nor any who combine in the happiest manner greater simplicity and absence of “airs” with the high-bred manners and courtesy inherited together with ancient and historic names. Existence in these villas is made as pleasant and informal as possiblealthough no doubt it would not content the average English person, who would at once ask : ” But what is there to do?” Well, there is very little to do besides that which any intelligent person can make for him or herself. At least there is always employment for the eyes and the ears and also for the head, if one chooses to use it. There is not, certainly, anything to kill, unless it be a fish, and even this is unlikely, except in seasons when the villas are, as a rule, uninhabited. Personally, I find it a relief to live in a country where one is not expected to kill something most days and to listen to other people talking about what they have killed. As to exercise, that British fetish, rowing and long expeditions on foot among the hills and valleys, when the thermometer is in the eighties Fahrenheit, cause the skin and, for aught I know, all the other organs of the body to act healthilyand this, I suppose, is the primary boon the fetish is expected to confer. Provided, however, that other parts of oneself are well occupied, one can very well, I think, put the fetish away even for a long period, and set him up on his pedestal again when necessary. He is, I am the first to admit, a far more satisfactory idol than his substitute, the British pill.
Life indoors, no doubt, is preferable to spend with the signoria, and this for many obvious reasons, Outdoor life, however, not only in the Comasco but in every part of Italy, I have generally found more full of interests when passed among the people. Perhaps this is merely because I am a foreigner ; but I am by no means sure that I do not often find the same thing in EnglandI am quite sure that I do find it in Scotland. And in the Comasco more than in many districts the lives and occupations of the people vary greatly. There are the people who earn their livelihood from the waters, and those who earn it from the land ; and both are well worth studying. Both, moreover, are usually delightful companions, rarely presuming on that companionship, but maintaining a kind of courteous independence which seems to imply not so much equality as incapacity to take a liberty or to receive one.
The Comaschi, perhaps, have not always the smoothness of tongue and the refinement of manner which the Tuscan peasant knows so well how to assume. There is something of the roughness of the North about them ; but of the two I think I would rather trust the Comasco. Of course, it is necessary to pick one’s companyand I by no means intend to convey that every member of the working-classes will be found to be either an interesting or a desirable acquaintance. Far too much sentimental nonsense is written (not, I hasten to add, by Italians) concerning the charms of the Italian peasant. He is commonly represented in novels as a kind of hero brimming over with noble and refined instincts. Such portraits do infinite honour to the novelist’s gift of imagination, but they are not portraits of the Italian peasantry, or, it may be supposed, of any other. The fact is that the peasantry, like many other things in the country, has changed enormously in the character and qualities of its members, and the Italian peasant is far from being the disinterested individual who figures in the pages of fiction. He is, on the contrary, exceptionally shrewd, keenly alive to his own advantages, and certainly not troubled by scruples of conscience as to what means he employs to further those advantages at the expense of’ his employer. The times are past when peasant families lived for generation after generation on the lands of the proprietor, regarding his interests as more or less identical with their own, and when their sons and daughters who did not till the ground became faithful and devoted domestic servants to their padroni. The constant subdivision of all property has put an end to that state of things, and nowadays the peasants, when not owners of a small piece of land themselves, migrate hither and thither as the demand for their labour may occur. Occasionally, it is true, one may meet with some peasant, even of the young generation, who is not only extremely intelligent, but also unites with his intelligence good looks and a refinement of manner and of ideas which many among his superiors might be glad to possess. If one is fortunate enough to come across a specimen of this kind he forms a pleasant and interesting companion on a country expedition, and much that is useful may be learned from him. But he is an exception which, unluckily, seems to become more rare every year. socialistic ideas have largely permeated the Italian peasantry ; and though the peasants have been shrewd enough to realise that socialism, if put into general practice, would be very much against their interests, and have become far less amenable of late years to socialistic agitators, they have absorbed many of the pernicious delusions which these have put into their heads regarding social equality and the like ; and although, as a rule, they are too wary to parade their opinions before the signoria, when among themselves they are apt to give vent to assertions which, were they not so mischievous, would be amusing, owing to the ignorance they display. One does not, however, come across the socialistic peasant nearly so frequently in Lombardy as in Tuscany, and especially in that least civilised of all the Tuscan districts, the province of Pisa. ” Pisa, vituperio della gente ! ” The Pisano, indeed, uncouth, ill-mannered, and ill-conditioned in most ways, fully deserves the dislike he has incurred from other Italians generally from the days of Dante to the present. But we shall see more of the Pisani later on, so for the moment we will return to the far more attractive Comaschi. One of the principal industries of the province of Como is the manufacture of silk, and in most of the peasants’ dwellings the silk-worm is an important occupant and a far from savoury one ! It is, I think, among the hands in the silk factories that one finds the least pleasing types of the population ; but this, of course, is usually the case when workers at indoor trades are brought into comparison with workers in the open-air. In good seasons, when the hot weather sets in at the proper time, the silk-worms conduct their functions with proper punctuality, and contribute a considerable addition to the precarious income of the peasants who may at any moment see crops and vineyards scorched and blackened by the sudden and terrible hailstorms which occasionally visit these districts. When a bad hailstorm threatens, there is anxiety indeed among the peasants, who are often also the owners of the land. It is impossible to say what track the storm may take ; and very often a narrow strip of country, a mile or more in length, or a single vineyard of a few acres is devastated, while the ground immediately adjoining is left scathless. The hailstones, moreover, sometimes take the form of jagged pieces of ice several inches in length. One storm in particular, which did appalling damage in the course of a very few minutes, I well recollect, for I had only just time to get to shore in my boat when it swept up from the Lake of Lecco. The inky blackness which seemed to descend almost to the surface of the water, and the hiss of the descending hail that increased to a veritable roar as the storm approached, were not a little alarming, and never did I feel more thankful than when my boat had gained the refuge of the porto at Cadenabbia. A steamer was crossing the lake to Bellagio, and encountered the full fury of the storm. The man at the steering-wheel had his hands and arms severely cut and lacerated by the hailstones, and had it not been for his jacket, which he took off and threw over his head, he would in all probability have been stunned, if not worse, by their force. In half an hour the sun was shining again, but the storm, which was very local in its track, left a piteous scene behind it of crops irretrievably ruined and vines stripped of their fruit, as well as a record in broken windows and damaged roofs.
The majority of the foreign visitors to the Italian Lakes hurry away from them at the first approach of real summer, while those Italian families who have villas on their shores seldom come to them before the end of August, and then only stay at latest till the middle of October. And yet to appreciate the full beauty of this district it is well to brave the heat of the summer months, which, it must be confessed, is often intense, though a cool air is usually to be found on the water.
This the time when, accompanied by some trusty guide in the person of a peasant or a boatman who knows the paths, a moonlight night spent in ascending one of the mountains, so as to be at the summit a little while before the dawn, is an experience which will dwell long in the memory of those who have the energy and the good sense to seek it. Nothing can be more beautiful or impressive to any lover of Nature than to gaze on such a scene, for instance, as I have witnessed from the summit of one of these Como mountains at the sunrise of a July day. The gradual ascent from the lake, at first through sweet-smelling vineyards to chestnut woods, and afterwards across the higher pasture-lands, is fascinating enough ; and every now and then one turns to look below one at the placid lake lying like a great shield of silver, and at the mountains beyond it bathed in a soft, shimmering haze. But the coming of the dawn is the most wonderful sight of all. I recollect on one occasion seeing the Lake of Como still gleaming under the mellow rays of a harvest moon, while that of Lugano was flushed red with the glow of the rising suna sight not easily to be forgotten. Far away, too, over the Lombard plain the white marble pinnacle of Milan Cathedral could be seena mere rosy speck in a sea of purple mist. It was as well, perhaps, that both I and my companion had thoroughly enjoyed those magic hours between the night and the day, for the descent to the lake when the sun was already high in thé heavens was anything but enjoyable. We took a wrong track, and more than once found ourselves in places where to advance would have meant broken bones, and perhaps necks, and to retreat was not always easy. Finally, after hours of scrambling, during which I am afraid I added to my vocabulary of Comasco oaths, we found ourselves on the Lugano instead of the Como side of the mountains, with a long and weary walk of some dozen miles or more along what my companion insisted was a path, but which I am convinced was nothing but the dry bed of a torrent. My feet were blistered by the rocks, which also cut to ribbons my bootsa far more serious matterand my nose was blistered by the sun to such an extent that I feared for several days afterwards that I might be supposed to be addicted to that vice which I regret to say Italians are apt to imagine is indulged in by the great majority of my compatriots.
The peasants’ houses throughout the Comasco and in Lombardy generally are tolerably good, except in the mountains, where they are often little better than ill-built sheds. Overcrowding is common everywhere, with the result that many diseases are contracted which might be avoided. But this is a defect to be met with all over Italy, in towns and country alike, and the problem of the housing of the working-classes in accordance with hygienic principles is now a very serious one. Twelve is no uncommon number for a peasant family, and even twenty persons living together in a very limited space is not unknown. Unlike the peasants of Tuscany and the central and south of Italy, the peasants of the north are by no means the healthiest among the population, and the pellagra, which is due to eating polenta made of musty maize, is still prevalent in certain districts ; although this terrible disease has been greatly diminished of recent years owing, largely, to the spread of co-operative bakeries in the various small towns and the more general use of properly made bread, which is gradually displacing the polenta.
The great plain of Lombardy is, of course, the most extensive, as well as the most fertile portion of the old duchy, and this fertility is greatly due to the wonderful system of irrigation, without which the soil itself would certainly not produce the rich and numerous crops for which it is famous. As far back as the twelfth century the Cistercian monks of the great abbey of Chiaravalle in the neighbour-hood of Milan introduced the system, which gradually was adopted all over the Lombard plain ; but it was not until the Austrian rule that it attained the elaborate proportions which are now to be seen on all sides. Vast fields of rice, trefoil, flax, and other crops are flooded at will, and can thus resist the drought of summer. I believe the total cost of these irrigation works, as they exist to-day, has not been far short of two milliards of francsand there is a significant Lombard saying to the effect that, ” Chi ha prato ha tutto.”
Properties are large on the Lombard plain, and individual farms, while often of a thousand acres or more, are regarded as small holdings if they be under three hundred. The Métayage system is largely, but not by any means entirely, in vogue. As I have said before, dairy-farming is everywhere a most important industry ; and it is usually calculated that a farm of fifty acres will easily support the same number of cows, and very often more. When, as has occurred in good seasons, as many as ten crops of hay have been taken off a single meadow, it will readily be understood that certain holdings will bear a large head of stock in proportion to their size. Indeed, were it not for heavy taxation, the Lombards should be one of the richest and most prosperous people in Europebut the crux lies there !
I must not, however, dwell any longer on these dry details, otherwise I may expose myself to the same criticism as the clergyman who took as the text for his sermon” Now, behold, all these things I have told you before ! ”
As is invariably the case in mountainous countries, the Comasco is full of legends and superstitions, and has a considerable folklore. In certain parts a belief in witchcraft still lingers ; but, fortunately, no active steps are taken against suspected witches. In former times, however, and even late in the eighteenth century, witches did not escape the same barbarities as were practised upon them in other countries, and notably at that period in Scotland. Lezzeno, a little village just above the shores of the Lake of Como, was supposed to be particularly infested by streghe, and the authorities, both civil and ecclesiastical, combined to stamp out the evil by adopting measures which are better left untoldso revolting was their cruelty. No doubt Lezzeno owed much of its ill-fame to its peculiarly gloomy and sinister position ; and, indeed, the place is still regarded with something like aversion by its neighbours.
“Lezzeno della mala fortuna, d’Inverno senza sol, d’Estate senza luna,”
is an ancient couplet which is always repeated in connection with it, and the couplet is true enough, since the sun never shines on the village throughout the winter months, while on summer nights when every other paese is bathed in moonlight Lezzeno lies in sombre and mysterious darkness. Formerly the place would seem to have been of greater importance, since our friend San Carlo Borromeo established a commission of the Holy Inquisition there which committed atrocities to the full as shocking as those perpetrated by the witch-hunters. While we are on the subject of atrocities, however, I think none can equal in grimness an episode which occurred, not in Lombardy, indeed, but in the neighbouring Venetian State, and this as late as 1705. In these days passion-plays existed, and one of these representations was usually given in connection with the celebration of the feast of Corpus Domini. It is recorded that on this occasion the procession of the Host was followed by a so-called ” car of Purgatory,” in which, for the edification of the faithful, twenty living infants were thrown into the flames and burned to death. To any one who knows how deep, and even exaggerated, is the love of Italians for children, and how this passion-ate affection is too often the ruin of the children themselves, such a horror as this would appear to be impossible. The fact, however, has been substantiated, and can only be regarded as another proof of how religion degenerated into superstition may be responsible for the most barbarous crimes against humanity.
The modern Comasco, fortunately for his welfare and progress, brings comparatively little superstition into his religion, and is beginning to look upon miraculous Madonnas and the stage property of the priests generally as what they really arenamely, means of extorting money from the pockets of the ignorant or credulous, and of maintaining influence over the female portion of the community. Nevertheless, many traditions and practices are still observed by the peasants which have lost the sinister significance which they had in ancient times, and which are now merely picturesque and harmless survivals. Such, for instance, are the bonfires which on the Eve of St. John twinkle on the mountain-sides throughout the midsummer night, around which young couples perform certain time-honoured rites, into the ultimate scope of which it is not necessary to enter, and of the significance of which, moreover, they are themselves completely unaware. These Beltane or Baal-fires are, of course, lighted in honour of the Christian saint and not of the pagan deity. The truth is, that any one who is sufficiently interested in these matters to investigate their origins will find, possibly to his dismay, that there is not a single festival of the Church, and scarcely a single detail of the ritual of the Church, which is not directly derived from pre-Christian religious observances ; and if he will bear this fact in mind, many things in Italy which puzzle and perhaps shock him will be made clearer to him. It can never be sufficiently remembered, at all events in Italy, that the Popes merely stepped into the place of the Pontifex Maximus and the Roman Emperors, and that in the Madonnas and saints, in the ritual and the observances of Catholicism, we are merely confronted by old acquaintances wearing masks more suitable to the present needs of society.
Nor, perhaps, need this fact be a disturbing one to the faith of those who are capable of realising its full significance.
It has always been said, though it is very difficult to know why, that the Italians are a lazy race. I am quite sure that they understand the art of idling better than any other peopleat any rate than any people north of the Alps. But I have no hesitation in saying that the Italian working-man, whether he be peasant or artisan, as a general rule works far harder while he is about it than any other. Moreover, he is about it for many more hours in the twenty-four than would be tolerated by his British brother. The peasant’s day frequently begins in the spring and summer months at 2 a.m., and he continues working till eight or nine o’clock, when he eats, and takes at the most an hour’s rest after his meal. He works again till midday, and from two o’clock till the Ave Maria, which in the summer months is not till eight o’clock in the evening. He can hardly be blamed, therefore, if on his feste he thoroughly enjoys his repose, for he has certainly earned itthough these feste are apt in certain parts of Italy, and especially in the south, to occur too frequently, and so are conducive neither to the public good nor to the public morals. In the long winter evenings, too, when out-of-door work is impossible, the more thrifty of the peasantry often provide themselves with some occupation by which they can add a little to their earnings. It is not uncommon, too, to find among the younger men an intense craving for learning ; and I have sometimes been surprised at the books I have found in their housesbooks which bore evident traces of having been read not once but many times. I do not know that this desire for information is so remarkable among the northern peasantry and working-man as in central and southern Italybut some of my friends among them have often showed me their literary treasures, and amongst these history books and historical romances seem to be the most valued. A great source of amusement, and one that often takes an instructive form, are the gatherings round the wood fire on winter nights, when each man in turn will tell a story. The range of these stories is large ; for while some are recitations, often delivered in quite a dramatic manner, of facts historical or otherwise, some are improvisations. The last not unfrequently are strange combinations of folklore and weird legends, probably handed down by word of mouth through the centuries. Sometimes they deal with love, but more often with stirring deeds ; while, in the case of the Comaschi, smuggling adventures and hairbreadth escapes from the finanzieri are not unnaturally a popular subject. But whatever the subject of these improvised stories may be, there is almost always a vein of poetry running through them which is very attractive. All over Italy this custom of telling stories to while away the long winter evenings prevails ; and the recruits for the army carry it with them to their barracks, where the soldiers sit in a circle and repeat, no doubt with a home-sick feeling that al paese the same thing is being done, the tales they have heard so often in their native villages. But the Roman Campagna has been the place where I have had reason to be the most astonished at the literary tastes I have found in a class in which I should certainly never have looked for their existence. Of all beings, one would never suspect a Sabine or Abruzzi shepherd of being a student of Dante, of Leopardi, of Tasso, and, to come to our own times, of a poet who was certainly greater than either of the two lastCarducci. Yet tattered volumes of all these poets I have seen produced from the mysterious depths of a shepherd’s mantle ; and I have heard extracts from them recited by heart with no audience but the sheep, a couple of the great white Maremma sheep-dogs, and myself, to listen to the reciter. I can scarcely believe these men to have been a great exception, for it has happened to me several times, in different parts of the Campagna, to be astonished and edified by similar students in the wilderness, and I have wondered what my impressions would have been had I heard Shakespeare recited by a shepherd among the Cheviots, or on the Westmorland fells. One attractive young fellow I remember well, and I have often wondered what his eventual career has been, and whether he was destined every winter to bring vast flocks of sheep down from mountain pastures among the Sabines to the dreary though fascinating Roman Campagna, returning again to his native paese when the summer heat set in. He’ was but two- or three-and-twenty, but splendidly made ; and with his superb good looks and bearing might have been one of the Greek statues in the Vatican come to life. I feel convinced that if Ouida could have seen him she would have woven around him one of her most poetic romances. The savage dogs guarding his sheep were my introduction to him, for I was riding, and had ventured too near the flocks. The half of a toscano cigarof which I invariably carry a good supply in my pocket when wandering about the Roman province, as they are more welcome and in very many cases less offensive gifts to shepherds and butteri than money if one has need of their services to protect one from dogs or cattlecemented the acquaintanceship, which was renewed on several subsequent occasions. My shepherd friend discoursed so easily, and yet so simply, on various authors and poets, as well as concerning matters relating to his own particular occupation, that I could not long resist the temptation of asking him why in the world he was not doing something more suitable to his tastes than shepherding. It appeared that his family were at one time well-to-do peasant farmers living on their own soil, and that for a year or two his father had sent him to a college at Cività Castellana with a view to his studying to be an advocate.
Two brothers had served in the army, and he was therefore exempted from doing the same, and had looked forward to making a career for himself. But evil times came. His family suffered reverse after reverse, and his father could no longer afford the money necessary to keep him at any school. Finally, the land had to be sold, and from being employers the family had to become employed, and sohe was a shepherd ! I fear he was something of a revolutionary as well, for he certainly dwelt with keen appreciation on Carducci’s writings of that period when the poet-philosopher had not yet fallen under the spell of the House of Savoy, or recognised all that the Monarchy had done and was doing for Italy. But he was at least a mild revolutionist, and spoke with horror of anarchist theories and proceedings. I imagine, nay, I know, that many an intelligent lad belonging to his class, whose family was possessed of a small capital, has been compelled to abandon studies for which just at the most critical moment his parents were at great sacrifice to pay, and to sink back into the condition of a contadino, when Nature seemed to have created him to play some far more important rôle in life.
And this, perhaps, is an opportune moment to mention a feature of modern Italian life which is becoming more and more remarkable as education spreads among the lower orders. Almost incredible efforts are made by families in very poor circumstances to send some boy who promises to make the speculation likely to prove a successful one to be educated for the medical, legal, or engineering professions ; and to have a son who is a ” studente ” is a great feather in the cap of a peasant proprietor or an operaio who is gaining good wages. Formerly, such a lad would probably have been told that he must become a priest, and support his family by the proceeds of the altar. This is still the ambition of many contadini, and, probably, is the reason why the Italian clergy as a body are regarded with so much dislike and suspicion by the majority of Italians. Too often, the boy who is sent to be trained for the priesthood has no vocation whatever for that office. He embraces the career for motives which are purely mercenary. Nor is he entirely to be blamed for this, since from his earliest childhood it has been instilled into him that to be a priest is emphatically ” good business,” and that money is far more easily to be gained in this way than from following the plough. Nowadays, however, a young fellow of spirit, and, it may be said, who possesses self-respect as well as intelligence, does not at all approve of the idea of becoming one of a body whose methods are perhaps too well known to him. He is quite aware that by taking such a step he would sink rather than rise in the estimation of his friends, and in his own.
And so, if it has been decided by the family that his brains justify the outlay, its most intelligent lad is sent to study, if possible, in the capital city of the province, where, unless he goes utterly to the bad, the chances are that he will become sufficiently well educated to enable him, when he has completed his term of military service, to enter one of the universities and gain his footing as a doctor, an impiegato in some Government or municipal institution, a lawyer, or in some other profession which will lift him out of his natural sphere. The consequences of this ambition on the part of the working-classes to escape from their social condition and to enter professional life are beginning to be far-reaching. Not only has competition for posts of all kinds become enormous, but the growing feeling among the working-classes that manual labour is derogatory, together with the temptation to emigrate to other countries, and especially to the Argentina and Brazil, has caused a dearth of agricultural labourers generally, to the detriment of the land. The overcrowded state of all professions, too, renders it almost impossible for any but a very small proportion of those desirous of entering them to succeedI am omitting, of course, the military profession, as this is the least popular of all, and only a small percentage of conscripts who enter the army do so with any wish to continue in its ranks a day longer than the law requires of themin making a career for themselves. The result is that thousands of so-called students, whose lives would have been far more happy and useful had they not been brought up to consider that they were too good to follow their fathers’ trades, find themselves with no occupation, and possessed, perhaps, of a superficial education which only makes them discontented and disappointed members of society. They are apt, therefore, to become mere adventurers, grasping eagerly at any chance mode of making a few francs which will enable them to ” tirare avanti ” and to cut a respectable figure in that condition of life into which they have been transplanted. Honesty is very often thrown to the winds in the face of the dire necessity to live ; and this undoubtedly accounts for the widespread corruption and untrustworthiness to be found in Italian professional life, which Italians themselves are the first to recognise and deplore.
It must by no means be supposed, however, that there is not another side to the picture. Some of the most respected and distinguished men in all professions are of peasant origin, and many a peasant lad or the son of an operaio has risen by his own merits to be either famous or, at any rate, of repute in the line of life he has adopted. We may assume that such as these would in any case have risen from the ranks, since genius or talents of a certain order are bound to find an outlet. But, when all is said and done, they remain the exception, in Italy as in other countries, and it is not from exceptions that we must judge. The truth is, that the large majority of the sons of contadini and working-men are prompted rather by purely mercenary motives to abandon their natural calling than by any exceptional talent ; and it is such as these who, when the competition they have to confront proves too strong for them, find themselves neither, so to speak, fish, flesh, nor fowl, and are driven by circumstances to employing unscrupulous and corrupt methods to gain their livelihood, thereby bringing the character of their compatriots for professional dishonesty into still greater disrepute. Probably, however, the failures would not be so many, and the standard of professional rectitude would be higher, if it were not for the fact that discipline is practically an unknown factor in the Italian educational system. It is, indeed, a factor which is usually lacking in the relations between parents and their children ; and the first real example of it which the average Italian boy experiences is when he enters the army or the navy. In, the universities, and in other educational establishments generally, the student is treated as seriously as though he were already a man of the world. His boyish ideas and caprices are taken into account as though they were matters of grave importance. If he refuses to obey orders, or if those orders and regulations are inconvenient to him, he forms an agitation committee among his fellow-students, and institutes a strike ! Teachers and professors tremble ; the Press advertises the folly ; and perhaps, if the heads of the youthful heroes become sufficiently swelled and disorders occur, the troops are called out, and questions are asked in the Chamber of Deputies ! The use of a birch-rod, or, in the case of rioting, of the fire-hose, would seem, in the majority of cases, to be more appropriate to the situation. As it is, the students have almost always the best of it, and the notoriety given by the authorities and the Press to their childish outbreaks adds to their sense of importance and renders them less amenable than ever to discipline.
In the mountainous region of Lombardy, and indeed in all parts of Italy, emigration drains away a very large proportion of the able-bodied youth of the country.
It is not uncommon, indeed, to find villages in which only old and infirm men and small boys represent the male portion of the population, any young fellow possessed of ordinary health and strength being either serving his time in the army or trying to earn a living abroad. Such a state of things would at first appear to be very detrimental to the country generallybut fortunately the emigration, at all events, though certainly injurious in one way, is beneficial in another. The sums of money remitted by the emigrants to their families at home are very considerable, for the Italian rarely forgets his duty to his parents, and that the folks left at home should be the first to benefit by his earnings in foreign parts is usually his predominating desire. Moreover, the emigrant seldom absents himself from home for many years. He invests none of his savings in the country to which he has emigrated, and therefore has few or no ties in that countryand this, of course, is all to the ultimate benefit of his native land. Two years is the usual duration of his exile ; and there are many emigrants who return even from America every year. This is especially the case in the province of Lucca, where a. yearly voyage to the Argentina or other American States seems to be regarded as a trifle. All the same, so much yet remains to be done for agricultural Italyso many vast districts are suffering from scarcity of labourthat it would seem regrettable that so large a tide of emigration should flow out of the country even temporarily. But one social problem infallibly leads to another. It is the fashion to account for the enormous Italian emigration by supposing it to be due to the heavy burden of taxation the lower orders have to support. This, however, is merely a secondary causenor do the labouring classes suffer so much from taxation as is imagined by foreigners. It is not they who are the chief victims, nor is it, in proportion, the landed proprietors, but the small tradesman and the piccola borghesia upon whom it weighs the most heavily. Excess of population, and, more than all, the great competition which, as I have mentioned before, is one of the features of modern Italian life, are undoubtedly the primary causes of emigration. The former, indeed, cannot be counted as an evil in any country which is able to meet its demands either at home or in its colonies. The latter, it may be feared, is far more injurious, in that it is largely a spurious form of competition, due in a great measure to the spread of education among the working-classes. Now, Heaven forbid that one should deplore the spread of education among any class of a population ! To do so would be to range oneself on the side of the priests, at all events the Italian priests. Unfortunately, however, the better educated an Italian of the lower orders becomes, the more discontented does he become with his surroundings, and the greater his eagerness to emancipate himself from them. Naturally a democrat, he wishes to take part in the democracy, and hence his desire to enter professions for which he is very often totally unfittednot, very likely, from want of technical knowledge, for this his quick intellect has enabled him to acquire to a certain degree, but from want of that hereditary training which, in ideas of justice and honour, when all is said and done, counts for much when a man is called upon to fill a position of trust or to command other men. That these ideas are not implanted by education alone is amply proved by the state of any country which is unfortunate enough to allow itself to drift into being governed by a bureaucracy. And here, I think, we English may pause and ask ourselves whether bureaucracy is not the invariable result of all ultra-democratic principles when these are carried into effect. In these days, when it is so fashionable to be a democrat, the question would seem worth the asking.