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Women of the Romance Countries By John R. Effinger Characters: 29570

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Italian Women in the Nineteenth Century

After the torpor and stagnation of the last two centuries, after the self-abasement of the people, and the apparent extinction of all spirit of national pride, the French invasion and domination, under the stern rule of Bonaparte, was a rude awakening. Old boundaries were swept aside, old traditions were disregarded, old rulers were dethroned; everywhere were the French, with their Republican banners, mouthing the great words Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, ravaging and plundering in the most shameless fashion, and extorting the most exorbitant taxes. But the contagion spread-the Italians were impressed with the wonderful exploits of the one-time Corsican corporal, and they, in turn, began to wag their heads in serious discussion of the "rights of man," as the French had done a decade before. For the dissemination of the new ideas, political clubs were organized throughout Italy as they had existed in France, and the whole country was in ferment. Add to that the fact that Napoleon began to levy troops in Italy as soon as his position warranted this action, and that soon Italian soldiers were in all parts of Europe fighting under the French flag, and one can perhaps have some picture of the complete way in which French influences were made to prevail. In this conquered territory the population may be divided into three classes: first, the deposed nobility, who had for the most part left the country; second, the middle class, composed of professional men and the wealthier citizens; and third, the common people. Of these three classes, the second was the one which Napoleon tried in every way to conciliate, for he counted upon its aid in the moulding of public opinion. He had little to do with the departed nobility, the common people were helping him fight his battles, but, if he hoped to occupy Italy permanently, his real appeal had to be made to the educated class. Accordingly, the arts of peace were used in the interests of the god of war; public improvements of all kinds were begun over all Italy, under the supervision of the French officials, canals were built, marshes were drained, academies of learning were founded, commerce was stimulated, schools for girls were started at Milan, Bologna, and Verona in imitation of those which had already been established in France, and, in fact, everything was done to prove to the people that the rule of the French was beneficial to the best interests of the peninsula. Many men of letters were won over by fair promises, and scientific men were, in many instances, so aided in their researches and so loaded with honors that it was difficult to resist the approaches of the emperor; and there resulted much fulsome praise in honor of Napoleon, who was hailed as a veritable god. Some there were, however, who resisted the advances of the conquerors and were loath to see the country so completely in the control of a foreign nation. It is true that Italy was enjoying a great prosperity in spite of the demands made upon it by the French, but this sudden accession of Republican ideas and the consciousness that Italian armies were fighting bravely all over the continent had aroused a national spirit which had lain dormant for centuries; the more far-seeing patriots were already looking forward to a time when Italy might be not only free but independent.

Among those unmoved by French promises were a number of brilliant women, who were outspoken in their hostility, and who gathered about them many of the most able men of the time. Though it is true that the French set the fashions, and in every city it was usual to find that the French officials were eagerly courted by the inhabitants, it is none the less true that in many of these cities there was some small but active centre of opposition, the salon of some gifted woman who was working might and main for the final triumph of the principle of Italian control in Italy. Napoleon had penetration enough to take such opposition at its just valuation. Women had already given him many a mauvais quart d'heure in Paris; Madame de Sta?l and, later, the beautiful Madame Récamier were forced to go into exile because he feared their power, and here in Italy he resolved not to be caught napping. Among the number of these Italian women who were daring enough to oppose his success, one of the most influential and best known was the Countess Cicognara. Her husband, Count Leopold Cicognara, was an arch?ologist of some reputation, who is to-day best known by his Storía della Scultura; he was precisely the type of man whose friendship and good will Napoleon was anxious to obtain. Cicognara kept his distance, however, and in his determination to hold himself aloof from all actual participation in the new order of things he was ably seconded by his wife, who was a most ardent partisan. In Milan her salon was known to be of the opposition, and there gathered all the malcontents, ready to criticise and blame, and wholly refusing their aid in any public matters undertaken under French auspices. Here, at Milan, Madame de Sta?l came to know the countess in the course of her wanderings through Italy, and, as may readily be imagined, the two women were much drawn to each other by reason of their similar tastes, especially with regard to the political situation. Later, at Venice, the Countess Cicognara was again the centre of a group of free-thinkers, and there it was that she first felt the displeasure of Napoleon. The count had been summoned by him in the hope that he might finally be won over, but Cicognara conducted himself with such dignity that he excited no little admiration for his position of strict neutrality; his wife did not fare so well, inasmuch as she was harshly criticised for her active partisanship. Also, Napoleon caused it to be known that he would look with disfavor upon all who continued to frequent the salon of the countess; the result of this procedure was that of those who had formerly thronged her doors but two faithful ones remained-Hippolyte Pindemonte and Carlo Rosmini, both staunch patriots and men of ability.

After Waterloo and the fall of Napoleon, the French power in Italy was gone, and the Congress of Vienna, which arranged the terms of peace for the allied powers of Europe, restored the Italian states to their original condition, as they were before the Revolution. But the real conditions of Italian life were changed; for the people were now aroused in an unprecedented way, which made a return to the old mode of life impossible except in the outward form of things. The socialistic ideas of the French had gained some foothold in Italy; men and women were waking up to the possibilities which lay before them in the way of helping each other; and charitable and philanthropic works of every kind were undertaken with an interest which was altogether uncommon. As might be expected, women occupied an important place in these various activities and showed much enterprise and zeal in carrying out their plans. The Marchioness Maddalena Frescobaldi Capponi aided in founding at Florence a house of refuge for fallen women; Maria Maddalena di Canossa, in the year 1819, established at Venice and at Verona the Order of the Daughters of Charity, whose task it was to perfect themselves in "love to God and love to man"; and various charitable schools were organized in other parts of the country. At Turin, Julie Colbert di Barolo, the friend of the famous Silvio Pellico, founded the Order of the Sisters of Saint Anne, whose members were to devote themselves to the education of poor girls, training them not only in the usual studies, but also in manners and deportment, and teaching them to be contented with their lot, whatever it might happen to be. The spirit of arts and crafts had ardent supporters at this time, and many endeavors were made to teach the people how to do something which might be of avail in their struggle for life. Among those interested in this movement was Rosa Govona, who had founded a society whose members were called, after her, Les Rosines, and who were bound to support themselves by means of their own work. The Napoleonic campaigns had taken from Italy many men who never returned; thus, there were many women who were left to their own resources, and it was for this class that Rosa Govona was working. The society grew rapidly, branch organizations were established in many cities, and there is no doubt that the movement was productive of much good. Another woman philanthropist of this time was the Countess Tarnielli Bellini, who left quite a large sum of money at Novara for the establishment of several charitable institutions, among them an industrial school.

Rome now became the real centre of Italian life; it was the objective point of every tourist, and it soon gathered together a somewhat heterogeneous population which was to pave the way for that cosmopolitan society which is to-day found in the Eternal City. While this foreign element was growing more important every day, it cannot be said that the members of the old and proud Roman nobility looked upon it with any smile of welcome. Many of the newcomers were artists, sculptors and painters, who were attracted by the wealth of classic and Renaissance art which Rome contained, or they were expatriates for one of a number of reasons. One of the most distinguished women of this foreign colony was Madame Bonaparte, Napoleon's mother, who took up her residence in Rome after 1815, and lived there until 1836, the year of her death. She was a woman of fine presence and great courage, content with a simple mode of life which was quite in contrast with the princely tastes of her sons and daughters. Pauline Bonaparte, the emperor's favorite sister, had lived in Rome for a number of years, as she had married, in 1803, Camillo, Prince Borghese. She was soon separated from her husband, but continued to reside in Rome, bearing the title of Duchess of Guastalla; there she was housed in a fine palace, where she dwelt in a style of easy magnificence. Pauline was one of the most beautiful women of this time, and much of her charm and grace has been preserved in Canova's famous statue, the Venus Victrix, for which she served as model.

The most hospitable palace in all Rome during the first quarter of the century was that presided over by Signora Torlonia, Duchess of Bracciano. Her husband, "old Torlonia," as he was familiarly called, was a banker during the working hours of the day; but in the evening he became the Duke of Bracciano, and no one questioned his right to the title, as he was known to have paid good money for it. He had made princes of his sons and noble ladies of his daughters, and his great wealth had undoubtedly aided his plans. Madame Lenormant says of him: "he was avaricious as a Jew, and sumptuous as the most magnificent grand seigneur," and he seems to have been a most interesting character. He lived in a beautiful palace upon the Corso, wherein was placed Canova's Hercules and Lycas, and there he and his wife dispensed a most open-handed hospitality. Madame Torlonia had been a beauty in her day, and she was a very handsome woman even in her later years. Kind and good-natured, she was like the majority of Italian women of her time-a curious combination of devotion and gallantry. It is related of her that she confided to a friend one day that she had taken great care to prevent her husband's peace of mind from being disturbed by her somewhat questionable conduct, and then added: "But he will be very much surprised when the Day of Judgment comes!" The Torlonia palace was practically the only princely house open to strangers, and it often sheltered a most distinguished company. Among those who were entertained there may be included Thorwaldsen, the great Danish sculptor, Madame Récamier, Chateaubriand, Canova, Horace Vernet, the French painter, and his charming daughter Louise, and the great musician Mendelssohn. The last, in a letter written from Rome in 1831, makes the following allusion to the Torlonias, which is not without interest: "Last night a theatre that Torlonia [the son] has undertaken and organized was opened with a new opera of Pacini's. The crowd was great and every box filled with handsome, well-dressed people; young Torlonia appeared in a stage box, with his mother, the old duchess, and they were immensely applauded. The audience called out: Bravo, Torlonia, grazie, grazie!"

Italy had continued its reputation as the home of music, and now, as in the eighteenth century, Italian singers, men and women, were wearing the laurel in all the capitals of Europe. Among the women who were thus celebrated the best known were Grassini, Catalani, Pasta, and Alboni. Grassini was the daughter of a Lombardy farmer, and the expenses of her musical education had been defrayed by General Belgioso, who was much impressed with her wonderful voice and her charm of manner. Her début at La Scala was a wonderful success in spite of the fact that she then sang in company with the two greatest Italian singers of the time, Crescentini-one of the last of the male sopranos-and Marchesi. Later, she attracted the attention of Bonaparte, and soon accompanied him to Paris, anxious, it has been said, to play the r?le of Cleopatra to this modern C?sar. Josephine's jealousy was aroused more than once by this song bird of Italy, but she continued in the emperor's good graces for a number of years, in spite of the fact that she was ever ready to follow the whim of the moment and distributed her favors quite promiscuously. In 1804 she was made directress of the Paris Opéra, and some years after, returning from a most wonderful London engagement, she sang in Romeo and Juliet with such effect that the usually impassive Napoleon sprang to his feet, shouting like a schoolboy; the next day, as a testimonial of his appreciation, he sent her a check for twenty thousand francs.

Angelica Catalani first created a stir in the world at the age of twelve, when, as a novice in the convent of Santa Lucia at Gubbio, in the duchy of Urbino, she sang for the daily service in the little chapel with such amazing sweetness that people came from all the neighborhood to listen to her. After some preliminary training, which was undertaken without the entire approval of the girl's father, Angelica was confided to the care of the great teacher Marchesi, who soon put her in the front rank of singers. Her success upon the stage was unquestioned, and her voice was one of the most remarkable in all the history of music, being a pure soprano, with a compass of nearly three octaves,-from G to F,-and so clear and powerful that it rose fresh, penetrating, and t

riumphant above the music of any band or orchestra which might be playing her accompaniment. Bell-like in quality and ever true, this voice lacked feeling, and while it never failed to awaken unbounded enthusiasm, it rarely, if ever, brought a thrill of deeper emotion.

Giuditta Pasta, who became the lyric Siddons of her age, began her career as an artist laboring under many disadvantages, for she lacked a graceful personality and possessed a voice of but moderate power and sweetness. One thing she did possess in full measure, however, and that was an artistic temperament, which, combined with her unbounded ambition and her ability for hard work, soon brought her public recognition. Her simple but effective manner of singing and her wonderful histrionic ability made all her work dignified and impressive; her representation of the character of Medea, in Simon Mayer's opera by that name, has been called the "grandest lyric impersonation in the records of art." When the great actor Talma heard her in the days of her early success in Paris, he said: "Here is a woman of whom I can still learn. One turn of her beautiful head, one glance of her eye, one light motion of her hand, is, with her, sufficient to express a passion." The whole continent was at her feet-London, Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Vienna showered her with their bravas and their gifts, and her native Italy went wild at her approach. Her last great public performance was at Milan in 1832, when, in company with Donizetti the tenor and the then inexperienced Giulia Grisi, she sang the r?le of Norma, in Bellini's opera, which was then given for the first time under the baton of the composer himself. Alboni, the wonderful contralto who owed her early advancement and training to the kindly interest of Rossini, Fanny Persiani, the daughter of the hunchback tenor, Tacchinardi, who through her singing did more than any other artist to make the music of Donizetti popular throughout Europe-these and a number of other names might be mentioned to show that Italy was now the fountain head of song, as in the Renaissance it had been the home of the other fine arts.

This account of the triumphs of Italian women upon the continental stage would be wholly incomplete without some reference to the incomparable danseuse La Taglioni, who will always occupy an important place in the annals of Terpsichore. Without great personal charm, her success was due to her wonderful skill, which was the result of the mercilessly severe training that she had received from her father, Filippo Taglioni, who was a ballet master of some repute. Born at Stockholm, where her father was employed at the Royal Opera, she made her début at Vienna, where she created an immediate sensation. Hitherto ballet dancing had been somewhat realistic and voluptuous, as illustrated by the performances of the celebrated Madame Vestris, but La Taglioni put poetry and imagination into her work, which was more ideal in character, and her supremacy was soon unquestioned. Among her most remarkable performances was the dancing of the Tyrolienne in Guillaume Tell, and of the pas de fascination in Robert le Diable. In this mid-century period dancing occupied a far more important place in opera than it has since, but with the retirement of La Taglioni, in 1845, the era of grand ballets came practically to an end. About her work there seems to have been a subtle charm which no other modern danseuse has ever possessed, and her admirers were to be found in all ranks of society. Balzac often mentions her, and Thackeray says in The Newcomes that the young men of the epoch "will never see anything so graceful as Taglioni in La Sylphide."

With the final accomplishment of Italian unity and the establishment of the court at Rome, there began a new life for the whole country, wherein the position of the ruling family was decidedly difficult. At the outset there was the opposition of the Vatican, for the pope was unwilling to accept the inevitable and relinquish his temporal power with good grace; and there was the greater problem, perhaps, of moulding into one nationality the various peoples of the peninsula. Neapolitans and Milanese, Venetians and Romans, were all so many different races, so far as their history and traditions were concerned, and the task of making them all Italians-which had been put upon the house of Savoy-was fraught with much danger. It is too early yet to know with what complete success this work will be crowned, but it may be safely said that Queen Margharita, wife of Humbert I., did much to bring about that general spirit of good will which has thus far been characteristic of united Italy. Owing to the peculiar conditions of the situation, and the strong local spirit which still endures everywhere, it was soon found that all Italy would be slow in coming to the court at Rome, and so the court decided to go to the country. Royal villas are scattered through the different provinces, and it is customary for the king and his suite to visit them with some frequency. During all this perambulating court life, Queen Margharita became a popular favorite, in no less degree than the king, and their democratic ways soon gained the love and esteem of the people in general. The following incident will show to what extent the queen was interested in the welfare of her subjects and what she was able to accomplish by means of her ready wit. Certain towns along the coast had become very prosperous through the manufacture of coral ornaments of various kinds, and large numbers of women were given lucrative employment in this work until, slowly, coral began to go out of fashion, and then the industry commenced to diminish in importance. It became, in fact, practically extinct, and so great was the misery caused by the lack of work that the attention of the queen was called to this pitiful situation. Instantly, by personal gifts, she relieved the pressure of the moment, and then by deliberately wearing coral ornaments in a most conspicuous way she restored their popularity and at the same time brought back prosperity to the stricken villages. Since the death of King Humbert, Margharita has naturally lived somewhat more in retirement, but she has ever shown herself to be most eager to do everything for her people and especially for the women of Italy. Much progress in educational affairs has been brought about through her influence; and to show her interest in the movement for the physical training of women, which is slowly taking form, she has recently joined an Alpine club, and has done not a little mountain climbing in spite of the fact that she is no longer in the first bloom of youth.

The present queen, Helena of Montenegro, is beginning to enjoy the same popularity, and there is every reason to believe that her reign will continue, in a most worthy way, the traditions left by her predecessor. The conditions attending the marriage of the heir apparent when he was yet the Prince of Naples were such indeed as to win the sympathy and approval of the whole nation. Before this marriage, Crispi, the Italian premier, had tried to arrange for the young prince a match which might have some political significance, and to this end he collected the photographs of all the eligible princesses of Europe, put them together in a beautiful album, and told his young master to look them over and select a wife for himself. The prince gazed at them with but languid interest, however, for these royal maidens were, most of them, strangers to him; he finally announced to the astonished minister that he did not intend to marry until he found a woman he loved! In this resolution he was not to be shaken, and the Princess Helena, whom he made his wife, he saw for the first time at the czar's coronation ceremonies at Moscow, and it was a simple case of love at first sight. Such simplicity and sincerity as are apparent in this real affection of the king and queen for each other cannot fail to have a widespread influence.

The modern Italian woman is not an easy person to describe, as it would be difficult to find one who might serve as a type for all the rest. In general, it may be said that they are not so well educated as the women in many other countries, and that so long as a woman is devout, and at the same time domestic in her tastes, she is considered to possess the most essential requisites of character and attainment. The women of the peasant class work in the fields with the men; in the towns and cities women help in their husbands' shops, as in France, and while they may not always possess the energy and business skill which characterize the French women, they are at least no more indolent and easy-going than their male companions. The women of the nobility are often less educated than their plebeian sisters, and for the most part lead a very narrow and petty existence, which produces little but vanity and selfishness and discontent. There are exceptions, however, and here and there may be seen a gentlewoman who has studied and travelled, and made herself not only a social but also an intellectual leader of distinction.

From a legal standpoint, the position of women differs in the various provinces, for, while the written law may be the same throughout the kingdom, local customs are often widely divergent. Villari, in his recent book on Italian life, says that a woman's property is guaranteed to her by law from any abuse on her husband's part; she has equal rights of inheritance with her brothers, if her parents have made no will; and there are few cases in which her rights are inferior to those of her male relatives. Also, the woman is considered the natural and legal guardian of her children, after the death of her husband. In spite of this legal equality, the old idea of woman's inferior position still crops out, and it is noticeable that a father, in bequeathing his property, rarely leaves it to his daughters, but rather to his sons, and often to the eldest son alone, as in the old feudal days. Social conventions are not unlike those of other southern countries. For the majority of women marriage is the one aim in life, and an unmarried woman is shown little consideration and is the butt of much ridicule. In the northern part of Italy, women are gaining a certain amount of liberty in these latter days, and young girls of the better class may, without causing much comment, go upon the street unattended. In the south, however, the position of women is very different, and they are still regarded in much the same way as are the women of Oriental countries. The long years of Saracen rule are responsible for this condition, which makes the woman little more than the slave of her husband. It is said that in some country districts it is the custom for the husband to lock his wife in the house whenever he goes from home, and the usage is so well established that if the ceremony is omitted the woman is inclined to think that some slight is intended.

With regard to the education of women, the law makes no distinction between the sexes, and practically all schools, classical and technical, under government control, and the universities, are open to both men and women. Special schools, both public and private, have been established exclusively for women, but they are not the rule. With regard to matters of attendance, statistics show that the proportion of women is larger in the universities than in the preparatory schools. As yet, the legal profession is not open to women practitioners, but many have pursued the study of medicine, and there are several who enjoy a large and lucrative practice. With all these advantages, the ordinary woman in Italy to-day rarely possesses what we would call an ordinary education, and there is absolutely no public opinion in favor of it. There are frequent bluestockings, it is true, but they have no influence with the public, and are showing themselves entirely ineffectual in forcing public opinion in this regard.

Though the great singers seem to come from Germany in these modern days, Italy has held a distinguished place upon the boards for the last half-century by reason of its great tragic actresses, Adelaide Ristori and Eleonora Duse. Ristori was beginning her career in the fifties when she went to Paris, where the great Rachel was in the very midst of her triumph; and there in the French capital, in the very face of bitter rivalry, she was able to prove her ability and make a name for herself. Later, in the United States she met with a most flattering reception, and for a season played with Edwin Booth in the Shakespearean répertoire. Duse first came into public notice about 1895, when her wonderful emotional power at once caused critics to compare her to Bernhardt, and not always to the advantage of the great French tragédienne. At one period her name became linked most unpleasantly with that of the young Italian realist Gabriele d'Annunzio.

In modern Italian literature two women stand out conspicuously-Matilda Serao and Ada Negri. The Signora Serao, who began life as a journalist, is to-day the foremost woman writer of fiction in Italy, and her novels, which are almost without exception devoted to the delineation of Neapolitan life, are quite graphic and interesting, though her literary taste is not always good and she sometimes lapses into the commonplace and the vulgar. Also, she inclines somewhat toward the melodramatic, and, like many of her brothers in literature, she is far from free from what may best be termed "cheap sentiment." Ada Negri, who started in her career as a modest school teacher in Lombardy, is a lyric poet of no mean ability. She has taken up the cudgel for the poor and the weak and the oppressed, and so thorough and genuine are her appreciation and understanding of the life of the people, that she seems to have touched many hearts. Singing as she does of the hard lot of the poor, and of the many struggles of life, it is appropriate that the two volumes of her verses which have appeared up to this time should bear the titles Fatalità and Tempeste.

Many other women have acquired honored positions in literature, and woman's increased activity and prominence in all intellectual branches is a condition which may well excite wonder. While from many points of view unfortunately backward, the women of Italy are beginning to realize their more serious possibilities, and it is safe to say that the more advanced ideas regarding woman's work and her position in society, which come as the inevitable consequence of modern civilization and education, will soon bear fruit here as in other parts of the continent.

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Part Second

Spanish Women

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