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Italian Journeys By William Dean Howells Characters: 7775

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


In our visits to the different churches in Ferrara we noticed devotion in classes of people who are devout nowhere else in Italy. Not only came solid-looking business men to say their prayers, but gay young dandies, who knelt and repeated their orisons and then rose and went seriously out. In Venice they would have posted themselves against a pillar, sucked the heads of their sticks, and made eyes at the young ladies kneeling near them. This degree of religion was all the more remarkable in Ferrara, because that city had been so many years under the Pope, and His Holiness contrives commonly to prevent the appearance of religion in young men throughout his dominions.

Valery speaks of the delightful society which he met in the gray old town; and it is said that Ferrara has an unusual share of culture in her wealthy class, which is large. With such memories of learning and literary splendor as belong to her, it would be strange if she did not in some form keep alive the sacred flame. But, though there may be refinement and erudition in Ferrara, she has given no great name to modern Italian literature. Her men of letters seem to be of that race of grubs singularly abundant in Italy,-men who dig out of archives and libraries some topic of special and momentary interest and print it, unstudied and unphilosophized. Their books are material, not literature, and it is marvelous how many of them are published. A writer on any given subject can heap together from them a mass of fact and anecdote invaluable in its way; but it is a mass without life or light, and must be vivified by him who uses it before it can serve the world, which does not care for its dead local value. It remains to be seen whether the free speech and free press of Italy can reawaken the intellectual activity of the cities which once gave the land so many literary capitals.

What numbers of people used to write verses in Ferrara! By operation of the principle which causes things concerning whatever subject you happen to be interested in to turn up in every direction, I found a volume of these dead-and-gone immortals at a book-stall, one day, in Venice. It is a curiously yellow and uncomfortable volume of the year 1703, printed all in italics. I suppose there are two hundred odd rhymers selected from in that book,-and how droll the most of them are, with their unmistakable traces of descent from Ariosto, Tasso, and Guarini! What acres of enameled meadow there are in those pages! Brooks enough to turn all the mills in the world go purling through them. I should say some thousands of nymphs are constantly engaged in weaving garlands there, and the swains keep such a piping on those familiar notes,-Amore, dolore, crudele, and miele. Poor little poets! they knew no other tunes. Do not now weak voices twitter from a hundred books, in unconscious imitation of the hour's great singers?

I think some of the pleasantest people in Italy are the army gentlemen. There is the race's gentleness in their ways, in spite of their ferocious trade, and an American freedom of style. They brag in a manner that makes one feel at home immediately; and met in travel, they are ready to render any little kindness.

The other year at Reggio (which is not far from Modena) we stopped to dine at a restaurant where the whole garrison had its coat off and was playing billiards, with the exception of one or two officers, who were dining. These rose and bowed as we entered their room, and when the waiter pretended that such and such dishes were out (in Italy the waiter, for some mysterious reason, always pretends that the best dishes are out), they bullied him for the honor of Italy, and made him bring them to us. Indeed, I am afraid his life was sadly harassed by those brave men. We were in deep despair at finding no French bread, and the waiter swore with the utmost pathos that the

re was none; but as soon as his back was turned, a tightly laced little captain rose and began to forage for the bread. He opened every drawer and cupboard in the room, and finding none, invaded another room, captured several loaves from the plates laid there, and brought them back in triumph, presenting them to us amid the applause of his comrades. The dismay of the waiter, on his return, was ineffable.

Three officers, who dined with us at the table d'h?te of the Stella d'Oro in Ferrara (and excellent dinners were those we ate there), were visibly anxious to address us, and began not uncivilly, but still in order that we should hear, to speculate on our nationality among themselves. It appeared that we were Germans; for one of these officers, who had formerly been in the Austrian service at Vienna, recognized the word bitter in our remarks on the beccafichi. As I did not care to put these fine fellows to the trouble of hating us for others' faults, I made bold to say that we were not Germans, and to add that bitter was also an English word. Ah! yes, to be sure, one of them admitted; when he was with the Sardinian army in the Crimea, he had frequently heard the word used by the English soldiers. He nodded confirmation of what he said to his comrades, and then was good enough to display what English he knew. It was barely sufficient to impress his comrades; but it led the way to a good deal of talk in Italian.

"I suppose you gentlemen are all Piedmontese?" I said.

"Not at all," said our Crimean. "I am from Como; this gentleman, il signor Conte, (il signor Conte bowed,) is of Piacenza; and our friend across the table is Genoese. The army is doing a great deal to unify Italy. We are all Italians now, and you see we speak Italian, and not our dialects, together."

My cheap remark that it was a fine thing to see them all united under one flag, after so many ages of mutual hate and bloodshed, turned the talk upon the origin of the Italian flag; and that led our Crimean to ask what was the origin of the English colors.

"I scarcely know," I said. "We are Americans."

Our friends at once grew more cordial. "Oh, Americani!" They had great pleasure of it. Did we think Signor Leencolen would be re?lected?

I supposed that he had been elected that day, I said.

Ah! this was the election day, then. Cospetto!

At this the Genoese frowned superior intelligence, and the Crimean gazing admiringly upon him, said he had been nine months at Nuova York, and that he had a brother living there. The poor Crimean boastfully added that he himself had a cousin in America, and that the Americans generally spoke Spanish. The count from Piacenza wore an air of pathetic discomfiture, and tried to invent a transatlantic relative, as I think, but failed.

I am persuaded that none of these warriors really had kinsmen in America, but that they all pretended to have them, out of politeness to us, and that they believed each other. It was very kind of them, and we were so grateful that we put no embarrassing questions. Indeed, the conversation presently took another course, and grew to include the whole table.

There was an extremely pretty Italian present with her newly wedded husband, who turned out to be a retired officer. He fraternized at once with our soldiers, and when we left the table they all rose and made military obeisances. Having asked leave to light their cigars, they were smoking-the sweet young bride blowing a fairy cloud from her rosy lips with the rest. "Indeed," I heard an Italian lady once remark, "why should men pretend to deny us the privilege of smoking? It is so pleasant and innocent." It is but just to the Italians to say that they do not always deny it; and there is, without doubt, a certain grace and charm in a pretty fumatrice. I suppose it is a habit not so pleasing in an ugly or middle-aged woman.

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