The Tuscan Temperament
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
"I do not profess to understand the Italians," says Mr. Grant Allen somewhere, "they are at once too simple and, too complex."
And in no part of Italy are the Italians at once so simple and so complex as in Tuscany. The Tuscan is so easily taken in and so difficult to get round; so meek of heart and so prone to wrath; so contented and so easily stirred to revolt and discontent; so rootedly old-world and so painfully modern; so common-sense, yet so easily deceived by big words and bogus ideals; so enamoured of liberty, yet so patient under galling slavery; so free and easy in church, yet so essentially devout; so truthful, so mendacious; so superstitious, so enlightened; so honest, such a cheat; so thrifty, such a spendthrift; so respectable, so disreputable—in a word, so simple and so complex, so good and so bad.
The Englishman who settles in Tuscany be-comes conscious first of all rather of the complexities of the Tuscan character than of its essentials simplicity. Life, so different from life at home, develops daily in complications and contrasts. The commonest people are casuists, metaphysicians, diplomatists, keen observers of human nature, instinctive judges of human character. Of every man they form a lively and highly-wrought estimate, a character sketch in all its details, but no man do they sum up with such avidity and relish as the foreigner. He is no ordinary child of Adam, but a new and bizarre creation, needing the full exercise of their quick wits. Twenty times as much thought is bestowed upon him, for twenty times as much is expected of him. Woe to the luckless foreigner if the judgment be adverse, if he be stigmatised as " suterbo" and "trepotente " and " egoista " and " poco educato," for he will lie upon a bed of thorns; happy the foreigner if he gain popular approval, if he be "gentile" and " distinto " and " affabile con tutti " and a "vero gentiluomo," for he will lie upon a bed of roses. There is no limit to the small subtle discomforts—and all so imperceptibly, so cunningly administered-that the fertile wits of this people can devise for whoso meets its disapproval; just as there is no limit to the small kindly acts—and all done without the shadow of ostentation or the desire of reward—which are showered upon him who has been judged with popular favour.
It is at least some satisfaction to live in a country where the happiness and general comfort of the sojourner depend to a great extent upon his merits. It puts a man on his mettle; he stifles his predatory instincts; he seeks to acquire by diplomacy rather than by force; he aims at making a goodly show of bonhomie and generosity—with all, and at all times, he strives to put on that cheery Tuscan courtesy which so effectually soothes and reassures. It is much if you can do all this, and your success would be assured if all Tuscans were alike, if they were all but as simple as they seemed. You have dealings with a man of sinister Mephistophelean countenance; you suspect .him, mistrust him, finally accuse him; he proves, on examination, to be as upright as Aristides, and you confess that you are misjudging the Tuscans. Then you have dealings with a very fascinating person, open, merry of countenance, childlike in his bearing and speech, childlike in his ideas. How welcome is the sincere cheery ring of his voice, how invigorating the echo of his honest laughter! You love him, trust him, place him in authority; he robs and cheats you, and once more you amend your estimate of the Tuscan temperament. And all this while, be it remembered, the unlucky foreigner is striving to acquire a tongue as difficult and complex, as rich in contrasts and perplexities, as the Tuscan temperament itself, the want of which leaves him the poor plaything of the meanest hind in his service, the perfect acquisition of which makes him, if he be Saxon, Teuton, or Scandinavian, no real match for a race of born probabilists.
It is easy to pick holes in the Tuscan character; it is pleasanter far, if far more difficult, to speak of its many surpassing excellencies. The foreigner—if he shall have proved himself to be unobjectionable—finds, to his astonishment, that the Tuscans are like people as he thought people were when he was a child, like people as the big masters of fiction paint them, with much heart, constant consideration for others, great delicacy of sentiment, and an ample measure of the bowels of compassion. The old servant of fiction, for instance, still lives in Tuscany—the man who seems to be getting no wage for he is a member of the family, who seeks no advantage, no rest, no recompense, who utters no complaint except to accuse himself of imperfect service. And the beggar of fiction survives—the creature to whom it is pleasant and fitting to give, and so does the giver of fiction who weighs not merits in any nicely - adjusted balance. Here, too, are the monks and nuns and men-at-arms of chivalrous fiction in whom we find no guile. There are still Brothers Cheeryble among Tuscan merchants, Uncle Tobys among Tuscan pensioners, Monseigneur Myriels in the Tuscan Episcopate, all capable of romantic leaps in the dark; and among the rejected and despised of the world, unsuspected, undiscovered, in the slums, in peasant hovels, in unknown, unsung monasteries and convents, the rare figure of the old-time Saint, living in the atmosphere and dying in the odour of sanctity.
It is all very charming when you come to know it, but it takes a deal of knowing, and in the course of coming to know a thousand disenchantments lower upon the path. The foreigner's first year—as likely as not through his own fault—is almost certain to be passed in discomfort and disquiet. He comes there prejudiced to begin with; he vaunts his prejudices, or has no care to conceal them; popular opinion condemns him, and then the process of slow torture begins. The Englishman, in everyday life, is ordinarily very passive towards people. He should know that this people require to be actively managed, that their interest in him is profound, that their eyes are upon him taking his every measurement, that his conduct and manners are being ruthlessly overhauled, and that his judges are great sticklers for externals. A certain Royal Highness, one of the most exalted princesses of Europe, once came among them travelling in transparent incognito. She descended from her yacht and drove through the little town out into the wild free country. And here she was seen by a handful of peasants to descend from her carriage and to run, if not to skip, nay, there was one who said that she had even jumped! Conduct so light and unbecoming a Royal Princess immediately became the talk of this commune of four thousand peasants. There were but two opinions — that of the contemptuous minority that she was no real Princess; that of the offended majority, that by this levity of demeanour she had meant to convey that they, the people, were too uncivilised to call for the decorum expected of Royalty. Poor dear lady, out for a holiday jaunt in the wilds of Tuscany, free for once to cast off the tedium of Royal state, little did she dream that critical eyes were upon her expecting perfection and finding only grave imperfection, that she was among peasants who in many respects require for themselves all the ceremony due to the weary denizens of courts!
I sometimes doubt if Tuscan professions of love for the foreigner can really be genuine. How would it be possible, one may well ask, for the Tuscan to love appetitively a Norseman, a Hollander, or a Pomeranian? But professions of affection are most profuse where the Englishman is concerned, even though we may doubt whether such professions do not spring—at least in the first instance-rather from a sense of duty and gratitude than from pure inclination. For in some dim way the Tuscan believes that Englishmen contributed vitally to that Union of Italy which he believes, still more dimly, has in some way contributed to his good. Then the Englishman is rich, he is dense and unsuspecting, often he is good-natured, usually he is mad enough to pay more than is due, and he is a member of that race which, in deference to the greatness of Italy, has joined the quadruple alliance against the proud and hated French. Certainly the Tuscan has some real love of the Englishman. He finds him defective in manners, a trifle overbearing and a trifle parvenu, too credulous of the upper classes and too sceptic of the lower, deficient in the right hand-ling of delicate questions of conduct, unable to appreciate at their due value the myriad gradations of right and wrong. The Tuscans are proud: Italy led the world when England was a second-class power, Italy was mistress of all arts, the capital of Italy was ever the capital of the world. Tuscans descend from Etruscans and Romans, English from savage hordes on the Baltic. And Italy sent Christianity to England. Decidedly the Tuscan thinks himself superior to the Englishman in a degree that quite outdoes the Englishman's belief in his superiority to the Tuscan, and, moreover, he measures with an entirely different measure. But, as I said, the Tuscan has certainly some real affection for the Englishman; he loves his honesty, he admires his generosity, he reveres his pluck, he gapes in wonder at his plain dealing, and when he comes across his ideal Englishman (who as often as not turns out to be an Irishman) there is no limit to his whole-hearted enthusiastic love and admiration.
The travelling Englishman, ignorant of its language, who visits a foreign country for a mere holiday jaunt is not in a position to judge of the character of its people. The travelling English-man's opinion of the Tuscans is usually ludicrously beside the mark: to him all the Latin races are knaves and thieves and cheats. But the resident Englishman usually succumbs entirely to the charms of the Tuscan character, and loves even more than he is beloved. It is surprising what a number of English people live permanently in Tuscany, not quitting it even for an annual holiday, but going instead, like any good Florentine, to the Tuscan mountains or the Tuscan seaside. An Englishman, say a retired civil servant, comes with his family for a stay of six months to " see " Florence. He arrives charged to the brim with captiousness, prepared not to submit to six months of dirt, and discomfort, and impossible fare, and wholesale robbery, without constant, aggressive, and loud-voiced protest. He finds instead, though the fact is slow to penetrate his intelligence, willing service, cheap living, wholesome food, sound wine, scrupulous cleanliness, a cheery welcome, and honesty closely allied to honour. His doom is sealed, and though he does not yield without a struggle, his native land knows him and his daughters no more.
It is the lower classes, the peasant class and even the working class of the towns, who supply the great charm of life in Tuscany. And this charm in the main proceeds from their inborn good manners, from that sunny, cheery courtesy which never seems to be mere external ceremony, but springs straight from the heart itself. Only the other day I was striving in a network of slums to find a given slum. In despair I entered a vile enough looking drinking-shop to inquire my way. There were but two customers inside, discussing with the host a highly sweetened non-intoxicant syrup made from the red-currant, and known as Ribes.
" Cosa comanda? " inquired mine host, which was as much as to say, " What may you be pleased to drink?"
I ought to have drunk something, I know; decency required it of me; but the stomach turns coward at the thought of sweet syrup in the slums. I bowed instead ceremoniously, and inquired the way to the Via della Rosa Bianca.
Mine host scratched his head and looked distressed. " It is still far from here," he said, " and the street is difficult to find." He mused awhile, still in obvious distress, and then his face suddenly brightened. " Go thou, Alfredo," he said, turning to one of his two customers, "and show this gentleman the way to the Via della Rosa Bianca."
Alfredo leapt to his feet, bowed, excused him-self, drank off his sickly syrup, and stood ready to accompany me. But a troubled expression came across his face also. " And yet," he said ruminatively, " I am not certain whether the third to the left would bring us there, or
"Nay, certainly not the third to the left" interrupted the other tippler.
"Then if thou knowest, go thou likewise, Arturo!" cried the host, addressing his only other customer.
Arturo too leapt to his feet, bowed, excused himself, drank off his drink, and accompanied by Alfredo and Arturo (sort of waterside characters, I should think) I found my destination. Thus did the landlord of a low Tuscan bettola forcibly eject his only customers (who would certainly have drunk at least another siroppo each) from the mere love of serving a person in need of help. This is the real character of Tuscan courtesy; there may be much ritual, much smiling, bowing, throwing about of arms, and ceremonial phrase; but the essence of each courteous act springs from that old-fashioned Christian charity which suffereth long and is kind, and which, owing to bushels of precept and centuries of practice, still burns cheerily in the land of St. Francis and St. Antoninus.
It is perhaps scarcely fair to say anything of the Tuscans politically. They are new to modern politics, and time has as yet had no chance of leavening the political lump. Though they make a great show of being devoted to modern political ideas, the observer is inclined to think that the leaven is unsuited to such fine flour. And the observer cannot help regretting a little that aggressive modernity which, in conversation, so often seems to imply that Italy had no history to be proud of before 1859, or, at the very remotest, 1848. The average Italian urgently requires to study more dispassionately the great past of Italy, and needs very different preceptors in history from the text-books now current in the Peninsula. To reconcile past and present: that is the great problem, on the solution of which depends the future happiness of the country; the solution is hindered and not advanced by ignoring and maltreating the past.
It is perhaps a curious circumstance, and certainly an interesting fact politically, that although Tuscany was the best governed of all Italy's separate States, yet never a soul is found to advocate the restoration of the old order. Si stava meglio quando si stava peggio—we were better off when we were worse off; this popular saying is the only retrospective expression -one ever hears, and it has no reference to dynasty, but only to material well-being. Tuscany under the recent Grand Dukes seems to have been a kind of earthly paradise: £50 a year was a competency, and £100 a year a fortune; taxes were almost nil, trade thriving, living cheap, wine so abundant that the peasant women used to bathe their children in it, and personal liberty greater than in the present day. You could do almost anything you liked in old Tuscany except preach revolution, practise rebellion, and propagate heresy. Yet—unlike Naples, the worst governed of the States—not a shred of a Legitimist party exists in Tuscany, and the King of Italy has no more devoted subjects than the Tuscans, not even among his native Piedmontese. One will find more people in one small city of the old Sardinian kingdom in favour of the restitution of the Temporal Power, than in the whole of the country of papal St. Catherine of Siena. This is but one of those characteristic contradictions and surprises with which the complex Tuscan temperament is for ever plaguing the distracted observer.
And talking of the Temporal Power leads one naturally to the subject of religion. The Tuscan temperament—if it is ever safe to give it any single simple attribute—is essentially devout, but many of the Tuscans are no longer religious. Although one would expect from many other indications that a Tuscan would always be at extremes, yet practical propagandist infidelity is a negligible quantity existing only in artisan clubs and freemason lodges; while indifference pure and simple is rife and rampant, extending nowadays even to the womenkind of the bourgeois classes. I think it was Pius IX. who said there were no Frenchmen in Purgatory, that they were all either in Paradise or the Inferno. Purgatory, I should say, must be full of Tuscans. Extreme in their politics, extreme in their passions, in their loves and hates and jealousies, they content themselves with the minimum in religion when they do not neglect it altogether. Of course so simple a statement about so complex a people needs modification. There are whole classes of men in Tuscany sincerely and enthusiastically religious. The old-fashioned aristocrat is religious, and so is the hard-worked peasant; it would be impossible to find a body of more sincerely religious men than the Tuscan clergy, both secular and regular. And really when the observer has quite made up his mind that religious indifferentism is rife in the towns, a visit to one of the large churches, where a vast crowd is listening in rapt attention to a sermon an hour long and at the close complaining of its brevity, immediately disturbs his previous judgment, and he begins to think that there must be after all a great deal of religion in Tuscan towns. One thing at least is certain, that the Tuscan temperament is eminently susceptible of being worked upon by religion, that it is cap-able of rising to a revival movement, and that there are not wanting signs that this revival has already begun.
With all his faults, in spite of all the difficulty we have in comprehending his character, in spite of contradictions, complexities, and crudities, the Tuscan is perhaps the most charming of all the children of Adam, just as his country, in spite of all its drawbacks, in spite of fierce heat, damp, scirocco, tramontana, mosquitoes, and all the plagues of a vexatious bureaucracy, is more nearly like the Promised Land than any other. But to live in that enchanted land and dwell among its siren people, needs an apprenticeship not easy to serve, and many a Philistine from beyond Jordan cancels his articles early in the apprenticeship and flees the country in affright or disgust. It is often only after years of hard service, constant uneasiness, and continual perplexity that the stranger sojourning in the land awakens one day to find that he is dwelling in Eden, and sees on all sides of him, living in the flesh and working in the spirit, characters and ideals which had dimly figured among the dreams he dreamt in the far-off days of his generous, romantic boyhood.