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Marriage Customs Of Italy, Spain And Portugal

( Originally Published 1897 )



THE good old custom of "keeping company," as distinct from being formally engaged, obtains among the gondoliers' families at Venice. When a young man finds that a damsel eyes his suit with favour, he informs a friend, and the two don their best clothes and make a ceremonious call upon the girl's father. If the parents are satisfied, a certain trial time of some months is arranged for, and the young people see what they can of each other, or " keep company " during this period. When this is past, if they have meanwhile discovered that their tempers are incompatible, the matter drops. If, on the other hand, all goes well, the young man, his parents and relatives, visit the girl's father and make a formal demand for her hand in marriage. A day or two later the betrothal is celebrated, when the lover presents his mistress with a wedding and other rings, which must all be returned should the lady prove fickle. Mr. Horatio Brown I says that in the province of Udine a jilt must present her former fiance with a pair of shoes, as compensation for the time he has wasted in fruitless courtship.

The Venetian lover is exceedingly attentive ; he makes certain regulation presents according to the season—at Easter a cake, on St. Mark's Day a buttonhole of rosebuds, at Martinmas roast chestnuts, at Christmas a box of almond paste and a jar containing a curious confection of fruit and raw mustard seed. The girl gives in return neckties and kerchiefs embroidered with his name, or two hearts, as a tribute of her affection. But both must beware of making presents which bring ill-luck, such as pictures of saints or books. To do so is to court misfortune. Neither should any person offer a comb, clearly because witches so often use one ; scissors, not, as the northern people say, because they cut love, but because in Venice they signify a sharp tongue.

A Tuscan youth visits his innamorata on feast days, bringing as an offering a carnation or a rose. When poetically inclined he also composes verses in her praise. In due time the house-father (capoccio), who rules the bridegroom's family, demands the girl's hand for his kinsman, and a feast celebrates the conclusion of the business. A curious piece of conventionality hems in the Tuscan maiden. Just as among old-fashioned folk in England at the beginning of the century it was thought incorrect for a betrothed girl to visit her future husband's house, so the young Tuscan peasant of our day is ordered, as she values her reputation, never to approach her lover's dwelling, and even in her walks to avoid it.

A valuer has meanwhile drawn up an inventory of the bride's belongings, and this paper is delivered to the capoccio of the bridegroom's house. Should the young man die without children, the widow receives back the full value of all she brought to her husband. Her dowry invariably consists of some clothes and linen, a bed, and a pearl necklace worth from £5 to 100 ; or if her family are too poor to buy pearls of this value she must be content with coral. In the north of Italy the dowry consists of gold ornaments, and a bride will sometimes have as many as twenty-three gold rings upon her fingers at the wedding. The Venetian fiancee knows that she must provide, if possible, the furniture of the household, but if her means are not adequate to such a purchase, the bed-room furniture, consisting of a bed of walnut wood, six chairs, two chests of drawers and a looking-glass. This is invariably expected of her. She brings also an array of copper pots, which hang from the beams of the kitchen roof. These become heirlooms and are portioned out to the daughters of the house as they marry. In many parts of Italy the dowry is brought with great pomp to the bridegroom's house the day before the wedding. A friend of the present writer met a cart drawn by white oxen, decked with gorgeous head-fringes, on the road between Scirollo and Loreto. The cart was laden with linen and household goods, two immense and gaily decorated pillows topping the pile. The bride's mother and friends followed, on their way to make up the nuptial bed.

Before the wedding-day the Venetian bridegroom must seek out a suitable " best man." This is not always an easy matter, for the duties of that functionary are heavy, and entail no little expense on any one who wishes to acquit himself of the task with eclat. On the day before the wedding he must send a box of bon-bons, on the top of which is a little sugar baby, to the bride's house, with two bouquets, one of real and one of artificial flowers, and a present of jewelry, a brooch or earrings. It falls to his lot to provide liqueurs and wine for the wedding supper, four candles for the wedding mass, four gondolas to convey the guests to the inn for supper, and satisfy the demands of beggars and children, who cry "Evviva la sposa," at the church door. A compare's hand is always in his pocket.

In Italy the dread of a wedding in May seems to be universal, and in Venice people marrying are very much restricted with regard to suitable days. When all is said, Sunday is the only time when the nuptial knot can be tied with any prospect of future happiness for the bridal pair. Saturday is indeed an exception to this rule, but then it is reserved for widows. Marry on Monday and you are sure to go mad ; on Tuesday, and there is the prospect of endless suffering before you ; " while Thursday, as the witches' combing-day, is out of the question. There are no doubt equally cogent reasons why Wednesday and Friday should be rejected.

In Venice they prefer to be married at the earliest morning mass ; in some parts of the Val d'Arno after sundown. The Tuscan bride wears a black dress, with a white bonnet or cap, while even in the coldest weather she carries a fan. No bridesmaids, but only married women accompany her to church, as no unmarried girl is allowed to witness a wedding. Her mother-in-law, or the house-mother (messaia) of her husband's house, also stays at home to give the newcomer the kiss of welcome on the threshold.

The Venetian bride walks by the canal side on the compare's arm, in her second-best wedding dress, for only the evening dance witnesses her best display of finery. The bridegroom and the comare follow in their wake, and thus they go to church in procession. The groomsman's services are frequently required during the ceremony ; he kneels on a crimson faldstool beside the bridal pair, puts the ring on the lady's middle finger, pays fees when all is over, and scatters small coins among the waiting crowd for charity. Then he gives his arm to the bride, and all go merrily home-wards. Still he is weighed down by a great responsibility during the remainder of the day. The bride is under his charge, and unless she is in her mother's keeping he must never let her go out of his sight.

After some slight refreshment the company separate to meet at four o'clock, when they adjourn to the tavern for supper. No formal invitations are issued, and all, save the parents and the compare and comare, pay their share of the bill. Supper lasts four whole hours ; at dessert a cake of hardbake is placed before the bride with much ceremony ; she breaks it and a bird flies out ; the guests cry " Evviva la sposa." Then the tables are cleared and they all dance. A curious feature of the wedding feast in Tuscany is the absence of the women of the bride's circle. It is true she sends them a basket of good things when the meal is over ; but one would think she must miss them during the merriment.

On the whole the Tuscan wife knows that hers will be a hard lot. So many of her husband's family are gathered under the patriarchal roof. There is the frequently tyrannical capoccio, the paterfamilias, who orders the affairs of the whole family ; there is the messaia, his mother or wife, under whose dominion the various women of the household, sons', brothers', nephews', and cousins' wives and daughters pass their lives. For the first week of her married life, the young wife, just to show her capacity, must rise early and prepare the meals for the male portion of her husband's household. This is a foretaste of her future labours. Working early and late, in the house. and in the fields, we think as we watch these Tuscan women, grown old before their time, how abundantly in their case has the curse of Adam been added to the curse of Eve.

In Sicily the first step in arranging a marriage is for the young man's mother to call upon the mother of the girl selected by her son, in order to ascertain, in the first place, whether she approves of the proposed alliance, and secondly to find out the amount of her dowry. Should there be no objection on her part, and supposing that the girl also has no serious objection, the other mother usually presents an inventory of all the worldly goods she is able to bestow on her daughter. This seems to be the usual mode of procedure, but other ways are customary in certain districts.

About fifty years ago, in the province of Syracuse, the overtures were made in quite a different manner, which was less direct, and therefore possibly more polite. The young man's mother, when making the call, carried a certain kind of reed under her cloak, and inquired of the girl's mother whether she had a reed like it. If the latter said they had no such reed in the house, or refused to look for one, it was taken as a polite way of intimating that her family, or perhaps her daughter—were not desirous of receiving the young man as their son-in-law. This was considered final, and there the matter ended.

Mothers sometimes select wives for their sons ; they are naturally most anxious to find a steady and industrious girl who will be willing to work—not an idle flirt. The following method of selection may appear somewhat rough and ready, but there is something to be said for it. The young man's mother having some particular girl in view pays her a surprise visit." Should the girl be found working (of course all good girls ought to be, among people in whose lives there is but little time for recreation) it is taken as a signal that she would make a useful wife, and her mother is interviewed at once. If, on the other hand, the girl is idling, it produces an unfavourable impression of her character, and no further steps are taken in that direction. How far such a method with its obvious defects is justifiable, it is not for us to say.

The betrothal customs of Sicily are curious. In the province of Trapani, the girl is placed in the centre of the room ; her future mother-in-law then enters, parts her hair, places a ring on her finger, gives her a hand-kerchief, and finally kisses her. In the province of Catania the young man presents his fiancee with a red ribbon, which she wears in her hair until the day of her marriage.

This custom is observed in many parts of the island. The red ribbon being a sign of betrothal, serves as an announcement of the fact that a girl is " engaged " ; and sometimes the young men merely present it to her, instead of making a formal proposal—which apparently requires more courage. As soon as a maiden is betrothed, her lover must consider what kind of present would be most acceptable to his future wife. In bygone days, young men gave tortoise-shell combs, silver needle-cases, silk handkerchiefs, rings or gloves according to their means. Nowadays there is less variety in these matters ; a ring, a silver ornament for the hair, or a small gold cross, is usually given.

The valuation of the maiden's property, especially of her trousseau, is an important ceremony. Friends and relatives come to satisfy their curiosity. The garments are either laid out on a bed, or hung on cords stretched across the mother's bedroom. Amongst other things are tables, chairs, and various articles of furniture. A professional valuer, always a woman, determines the worth of each article, and an accountant makes the entries in a book. Should the woman be inclined to make her estimates too high, the young man's mother may protest, and sometimes quarrels arise in this way.

There is a civil marriage as well as a religious ceremony, the latter being considered the more important of the two ; the bridegroom, in fact, does not really consider himself married until after the latter has taken place. It is a very festive occasion ; and the ceremony frequently takes place at night, hence torches are used. According to tradition the bride used in old times to arrive at the church door on horseback.

In Spain when a young man desires better acquaintance with a maiden, he appears at her house-door and asks for water. If invited to sit down the lover rolls up a cigarette, and asks for a light. This gives him an opportunity to observe the lady, and, if his impressions are favourable, he finds excuses for subsequent visits. Having made up his mind to demand her in marriage he makes overtures to the damsel's father. The latter, like a true Spaniard, is in no haste. Go," he says, and make inquiries concerning me, so that you may learn who I am. I, for my part, will make inquiries concerning you ; come again after a certain interval, and you shall learn my decision." If, however, before this stage is reached, the lady has decided that the swain is not to her liking, she hands the crestfallen youth a pumpkin, and by that he knows that his hopes are dashed to the ground. But if the fair one is not averse to the match, and the father is satisfied, the lover is allowed to pay more frequent visits. A Murcian courtship is, however, a very decorous affair ; the damsel receives the youth under her mother's eye. They do not shake hands, and kissing is not allowed. And it is only in the larger towns of Andalusia, where the strictness of these customs is somewhat relaxed, that a lover may offer his mistress an arm when they are out walking together in the streets.

Among Spanish lovers, especially in Valencia and Andalusia, the serenade is a favourite method of court-ship. The suitor, accompanied by two torch-bearers and musicians, stands, on an evening prearranged, underneath the lady's balcony, and tells his love through the mouth of a trovador, who has skill in improvising and singing verse. After much entreaty the lady vouchsafes to appear on the balcony, and first making a show of maidenly reluctance, is sometimes so overcome by the trovador's pleading, as to throw down the wreath from her head, and promise the lover to be ever faithful to him. Naturally this is all a comedy, even if a very graceful one, the lover having obtained the consent of the parents, and of his mistress, some time before this public display of his affection takes place.

If the girl's parents are obdurate, and refuse to countenance his suit, the Spanish youth has a sure remedy ; he appeals to them three times, and after a third refusal, applies to the authorities. A local official (Alkalde) appears in a carriage in full uniform, and demands either the father's consent to the union or the person of his daughter. Should the former be denied, the girl is, without further parley, carried off, and placed in a respectable family until the wedding, which is sure to take place unless the youth is of questionable character.

In Castille the bride wears a white flower in her bosom ; in Andalusia a wreath of pinks and red roses fastened on her head. In Cadiz no ring is given in marriage, but the distinction between a married woman and an unmarried girl is that the former wears a flower on the right side of her hair. Poor girls in Madrid wear a flower but do not always know on which side to put it. Hence the young men are sometimes at a loss to know what it means. Sometimes they say to a girl, " Are you married ? You have a flower on the right side ! "

In the neighbourhood of Madrid a curious custom, though not without its parallel in other lands, is still preserved. Two youths stand at the door of the bride's house on the wedding-day, and when all the children and idlers of the neighbourhood are gathered round, they begin an oratorical dispute. One points out the bride's faults and failings, the other, loud in her defence, extols her virtues. Sometimes the orators are so carried away by excitement that they come to blows, and knives have been used at times. In the same district the bridegroom, if he is a native of another place, must buy with gifts of wine, meat, and good things, permission from the lads of the village to take away his bride—another form of ransom.

In Barcelona only the relations accompany the pair to church ; the remaining guests meanwhile assemble at the parents' house, where the feast is to be held. The members of the different sexes have tables laid for them in two separate rooms, and while the gentlemen are well supplied with meat and wines, the ladies have daintier dishes, such as pyramids of candied fruits and sweetmeats of the most enticing description. At the close of the meal the bridegroom appears among the lady guests, who, seated in a semi-circle, hold out their dresses to receive the bon-bons he scatters from a basket into each lap. They are veritable children in the matter of sweetmeats, these sedate ladies of Spain.

After the meal is over the company dance, and as an interlude make gifts to the bride. This is, in a Spanish father's eyes, a most important item ; for as he is obliged in many places to provide the whole of the furniture and household goods as well as the house itself, for the young couple, he can seldom spare his daughter a further dowry. Where the seguidillas manchegas, as the popular dance is called, finds favour with the guests, each man, woman, and child takes a few turns with the bride and makes her a present, which usually consists of money. In the villages of Salamanca they place a pie and knife on a table at one end of the room, and every guest that dances with the bride comes up afterwards, cuts the pie with the knife and put inside a piece of money.

When at midnight the young Valencian husband tries to steal away with the bride from among the throng of guests, her girl comrades strive with all their might to keep her back, and he is forced to call in the aid of his friends. When at last they make their escape, the young people retire to the terrace on the house-roof, where a bower of flowers has been prepared. Truly they manage things poetically in Spain ! In no other nation does (ostensible) courtship begin with music of the serenade under the stars, and married life begin with a bower of flowers !

In Portugal enamoured bachelors have to make the best of very slender opportunities for making love. A young man paces before the fair one's window until he has aroused her attention, and then must contrive to make some pretty speeches before being observed by the passers-by. He is sure to find her at mass, and so becomes constant in attendance at her favourite church. If the duenna is not too vigilant, it is always possible to slip a love letter, expressive of his deep admiration, into the fair lady's hand. They may be lucky enough to meet at dances ; but, alas ! how little can there be said, when decorum requires that the young lady should be led back to her chaperon the moment a dance is over.

It is a Portuguese custom for the priest literally to bind the hands of the bridal pair together with the end of his stole, before he puts on the ring. Directly the service is over, it rains bon-bons, and if the officiating priest is hit by any of the shower intended for the young couple, there is much laughter and merriment.



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