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An essay by Charles Lever

Italian Traits And Characteristics

Title:     Italian Traits And Characteristics
Author: Charles Lever [More Titles by Lever]

My diplomatic friend is rarely very serious in his humour; this morning, however, he was rather disposed that way, and so I took the opportunity to question him about Italy, a country where he has lived long, and whose people he certainly understands better than most Englishmen. I gathered from him that he considered the English were thoroughly well informed on Italy, but in the most hopeless ignorance as to the Italians. "As for the house and the furniture, you know it all." said he; "but of the company you know positively nothing."

Byron understood them better than any other Englishman. He had his admission _par la petite porte_--that is, he gained his knowledge through his vices; and the Italians were so flattered to see a great Milor adapt himself so readily to their lax notions and loose morality that they grew frank and open with him.

His pretended--I suppose it was only pretended--dislike to England disarmed them, too, of all distrust of him; and for the first time they felt themselves judged by a man who did not think Charing Cross finer than the Piazza del Popolo.

Byron's rank and station gained him a ready acceptance where the masses of our travelling countrymen would not be received; for the Italians love rank, and respect all its gradations. Even the republics were great aristocracies; and in all their imitations of France they have never affected "equality." They love splendour too, and display; and in all their festivals you see something like an effort to recall a time when their cities were the grandest and their citizens the proudest in all Europe.

They are a very difficult people to understand. There are not so many salient points in the Italian as in the German or the Frenchman; his character is not so strongly accented; his traits are finer--his shades of temperament more delicate.

Besides this, there is another difficulty: one is immensely aided in their appreciation of a people by their lighter drama, which is in a measure a reflex of the daily sayings and doings of those who listen to it. Now the Italians have no comedy, or next to none; so barren are they in this respect, that more than once have I asked myself, Can there be any domesticity in a nation which has not mirrored itself on the stage? What sort of a substance can that be that never had a shadow?

The immortal Goldoni, as they print him in all the play-bills, is ineffably stupid, his characters ill drawn, his plots meagre, and his dialogue as flat as the talk of a three-volume novel. The only palpable lesson derivable from him is, that all ranks and classes stand pretty much on an equality, and that as regards modes of expression the count and his coachman are precisely on a level. There is scarcely a trait of humour in these pieces--never, by any accident, anything bordering on wit. The characters talk the veriest commonplaces, and announce the most humdrum intentions in phraseology as flat and wearisome.

Now you will ask, perhaps, Is this a fair type of the present-day habits--are the Italians of our time like those of Goldoni's? My reply would be, that it would be difficult to imagine a people who have changed less within a century. The same small topics, the same petty interests engage them. They display the same ardent enthusiasm about trifles, and the same thorough indifference to great things, as their grandfathers; and they are marvellously like the dreary puppets that the immortal dramatist has given us as their representatives.

It has been reproached to Sheridan, that no people in real life ever displayed such brilliancy in conversation as the characters in the 'School for Scandal;' and tame as Goldoni reads, I verily believe his dialogue is rather above the level of an Italian salon.

The great interests of Life, the game of politics, the contests and reverses of party, literature in its various forms, and the sports of the field, form topics which make the staple of our dinner-talk. Instead of these the Italians have their one solitary theme--the lapses of their neighbours, the scandals of the small world around them. Not that they are uncharitable or malevolent; far from it. They discuss a frailty as a board of physicians might a malady, and without the slightest thought of imputing blame to "the patient." They have now and then a hard word for an unfortunate husband, but even him they treat rather as one ignorant of conventional usages and the ways of the polite world, than as a man radically bad or cruel.

They have in their blood the old Greek sensitiveness to suffering, and they dislike painful scenes and disastrous catastrophes; and this sentiment they carry to extremes. Although they have the finest representative of Othello--Salvini--at this moment in Europe, the terrible scene of the murder of Desdemona is a shock that many would shrink from witnessing. They will bear any strain on the imagination, but their fine-strung nerves revolt against the terrible in action. To this natural refinement is owing much of that peculiar softness of manner and reluctance to disoblige which foreigners frequently mistake for some especial desire to win their favour.

The idleness which would make an Englishman awkward sits gracefully on the Italian. He knows how to "do nothing" with dignity. Be assured, if Hercules had been of Anglo-Saxon blood, Omphale would never have set him down to spin; but being what he was, I could swear he went through his tomfoolery gracefully.

And with all this, is it not strange that these are the people who furnish the most reckless political enthusiasts of the world, and who, year after year, go to the scaffold for "an idea"? There is something hysterical in this Italian nature, which prompts to paroxysms like these--some of that impulsive fury which, in the hill-tribes of India, sends down hordes of fanatics to impale themselves on British bayonets. The men like Orsini abound--calm of look, mild of speech, and gentle in manner, and yet ready to commit the greatest of crimes and confront the most terrible of deaths for a mere speculative notion--the possibility of certain changes producing certain contingencies, and of which other changes are to ensue, and Italy become something that she never was before, nor would the rest of Europe suffer her to remain, if ever she attained to it.

Wine-tasters tell us it is vain to look for a bottle of unadulterated port: I should in the same way declare that there are few rarer things to be found than a purely Italian society. The charm of their glorious climate; the beauty of their country, the splendour of their cities, rich in centuries of associations, have attracted strangers from every corner of the Old World and the New; and the salons of Italy are but caravanserais, where all nations meet and all tongues are spoken.

The Italians like this; it flatters national pride, and it suits national indolence. The outer barbarians from the Neva or the Thames have fine houses and give costly entertainments. Their sterner looks and more robust habits are meet subject for the faint little jests that are bandied in some _patois_; and each thinks himself the superior of his neighbour. But as for the home life of these people, who has seen it? What is known of it? Into that long, lofty, arched-ceilinged drawing-room, lighted by its one lamp, where sits the Signora with her daughter and the grimy-looking, ill-shaven priest, there is not, perhaps, much temptation to enter, nor is the conversation of a kind one would care to join in; and there is but this, and the noisy, almost riotous, reception after the opera, where a dozen people are contending at "Lansquenet," while one or perhaps two thump the piano, and some three or four shout rather than sing the last popular melody of the season, din being accepted as gaiety, and a clamour that would make deafness a blessing being taken for the delight of a charmed assembly.

I have been told that Cavour once said, that no great change would be accomplished in Italy till the Italians introduced the public-school system of England. So long as the youth of the country were given up for education to the priests--the most illiterate, narrow-minded, and bigoted class in Europe--so long would they carry with them through life the petty prejudices of their early days; or, in emancipating themselves from these, fall into a scepticism whose baneful distrust would damp the ardour of all patriotism, and sap the strength of every high and generous emulation. As the great statesman said, "I want Italians to be Italians, and not to be bad Frenchmen."

With a Peninsular Eton or Rugby at work, who is to say what might not come of a people whose intellectual qualities are unquestionably so great? The system which imparts to boys the honourable sense of responsibility, the high value of truthfulness, the scorn of all that is mean,--this is what is wanting here. Let the Italian start in life with these, and it would not be easy to set limits to what his country may become in greatness.

I have never heard of a people with so little self-control; and their crimes are, in a large majority of cases, the results of some passionate impulse rather than of a matured determination to do wrong. It is by no means uncommon to find that your butler or your coachman has taken to his bed ill of a _rabbia_, as they call it--a fit of passion, in plain words, brought on by a reproof he has considered unjust. This same _rabbia_ is occasionally a serious affair. Some short time ago, an actor, who was hissed off the stage at Turin, went home and died of it; and within a very few weeks, a case occurred in Florence which would be laughable if it had not terminated so tragically. One of the new guardians of the public safety, habited in a strange travestie of an English police-costume, was followed through the streets by a crowd of boys, who mocked and jeered him on his dress. Seeing that he resented their remarks with temper, they only became more aggressive, and at last went so far as to pursue him through the city with yells and cries. The man, overcome with passion, got _rabbia_, and died. Ridicule is the one thing no Italian can bear. When you lose temper with an Italian, and give way to any show of violence before him, he is triumphant; his cheek glows, his eye brightens, his chest expands, he sees he has you at a disadvantage, and regards you as one who in a moment of passion has thrown his cards on the table and exposed his hand. After this it is next to impossible to regain your position before him. If you be calm, however, and if, besides being calm, you can be sarcastic, he is overcome at once.

It is a rare thing--one of the rarest--to see this weapon employed in the debates; but when it does occur, it is ever successful. The fact is, that Wit, which forms the subtlety of other nations, is not subtle enough for the Italian; and the edge that cuts so cleanly elsewhere makes a jagged wound with them.

After all, they are very easy to live with. If the social atmosphere is not very stimulating or invigorating, it is easy to breathe, and pleasant withal; and one trait of theirs is not without its especial merit--they are less under the control of conventionalities than any people I ever heard of, and consequently have few affectations. If they do assume any little part, or play off any little game, it is with the palpable object of a distinct gain by it; never is it done for personal display or individual glory. There are no more snobs in Italy than there are snakes in Iceland; and that, after all, is, as the world goes, saying something for a people.

Of all the nations of Europe, I know of none, save Italy, in which the characters are the same in every class and gradation. The appeal you would make to the Italian noble must be the same you would address to the humble peasant on his property. The point of view is invariably identical; the sympathies are always alike. No matter what differences education may have instituted and habits implanted, the nobleman and his lackey think and feel and reason alike. Separate them how you will in station, and they will still approach the consideration of any subject in the same spirit, and regard it with the same hopes and fears, the same expectations and distrusts. To this trait, of whose existence Cavour well knew, was owing the marvellous unanimity in the nation on the last war with Austria. The appeal to the prince could be addressed, and was addressed, to the peasant. There was not an argument that spoke to the one which was not re-echoed in the heart of the other. In fact, the chain that binds the social condition of Italy is shorter than elsewhere, and the extreme links are less remote from each other than with most nations of Europe.

Every Italian is a conspirator, whether the question be the gravest or the lightest; all must be done in it ambiguously--secretly-- mysteriously. Whatever is conducted openly is deemed to be done stupidly. To take a house, buy a horse, or hire a servant without the intervention of another man to disparage the article, chaffer over the price, and disgust the vendor, is an act of impetuous folly. "Why didn't you tell _me!_" says your friend, "that you wished to have that villa? My coachman is half-brother to the wife of the _fattore_. I could have learned everything that could be urged against its convenience, and learned, besides, what peculiar pressure for money affected the owner." Besides this, everything must be done as though by mere hazard: you really never knew there was a house there, never noticed it; you even sneer at the taste of the man who selected the spot, and wonder "what he meant by it." In nine cases out of ten the other party is not deceived by this skirmishing; he fires a little blank-cartridge too, and so goes on the engagement. All have great patience; life, at least in Italy, is quite long enough for all this; no one is overburdened with business; the days are usually wearisome, and the theatres are only open of an evening!

It is, besides, so pleasant and so interesting to the Italian to pit his craft against another man's, and back his own subtlety against his neighbour's. It is a sort of gambling of which he never wearies; for the game is one that demands not merely tact, address, and cunning, but face, voice, manner, and bearing. It is temperament. Individuality itself is on the table; and so is it, that you may assume it as certain that the higher organisation will invariably rise the winner.

Imagine Bull in such a combat, and you have a picture of the most hopeless incapacity. He frets, fumes, storms, and sulks; but what avails it? he is "done" in the end; but he is no more aware that the struggle he has been engaged in is an intellectual one, than was the Bourgeois Gentilhomme conscious that he had been for forty years "talking prose."

The Priest was doubtless the great originator of all this mechanism of secrecy and fraud. For centuries the Church has been the Tyrant of Italy. The whole fate and fortunes of families depended on the will of a poor, ill-clad, ignoble-looking creature, who, though he sat at meals with the master, ate and talked like a menial. To this man was known everything--all that passed beneath the roof. Not alone was he aware of the difficulties, the debts, the embarrassments of the family, but to him were confided their feelings, their shortcomings, their sorrows, and it might be their shame. From him there was nothing secret; and he sat there, in the midst of them, a sort of Fate, wielding the power of one who knew every spring and motive that could stir them, every hope that could thrill, every terror that could appal them. There was no escape from him--cold, impassive spectator of good or evil fortune, without one affection to attach him to life, grimly watching the play of passions which made men his slaves, and only interested by the exercise of a power that degraded them. The layman could not outwit him, it is true, but he could steal something of the craft that he could not rival. This he has done; how he has employed it any one can at least imagine who has had dealings in Italy.

[The end]
Charles Lever's essay: Italian Traits And Characteristics