Macaroni drying in the dirty streets of Naples
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Shades of Vesuvius ! What a calamity it would be if that boy grinning under the cap, which is several sizes too large for him, should drop those four sticks off his shoulders and let that macaroni slide down into the puddle of dirty water just beneath it ! Ah, well! In case that should happen, what then? It would be gathered up again, placed once more on the sticks and hung up on the rack to dry and sold at a fancy price to some unsuspecting American on account of that especially delicate flavor which you only get in the imported article, and which is the result of a combination of causes. Flies in clouds light on these threads of gold, dust whirls about them all day long, and children play hide and seek among the swaying tresses, all of which is calculated to impart something aromatic to this popular article of commerce. That lad standing this side of the lamppost, with his hands in his pockets and his face all broken with a broad grin, seems to be enjoying our discomfiture as we gaze on the production of what has long been our favorite article of diet.
The chap nearest us with the basket on his arm is taking a more serious view of the situation, for he is perplexed as to what the children and the macaroni-makers of Naples will do for a living in case we with-draw our valuable support by refusing to purchase the article. Never fear, little fellow. You don't know us. We will have, we must have, the imported article, even if it carries the whole town with it.
I never see macaroni but I think of a macaroni fiend whom I once encountered sitting beside a portable cookstove which was blazing away beneath an awning in the middle of a Neapolitan street. For one lira, about twenty cents, the fellow offered to eat all the macaroni in the shop, and that, not by chewing it, but by swallowing it whole. I did not believe he could do it, as there was a large panful on the stove which had been cooked with tomato sauce and which appeared to hold about one-fourth of a bushel. However, I agreed to the arrangement and he started in. First of all he took the pan from the stove to cool. Before the temperature was lowered sufficiently to allow the contest to begin, a dense crowd had assembled about us, and I was in imminent danger either of being pushed over on to the red hot stove or of having the stove pushed over on to me, and the day was very hot even for Naples. When the macaroni was ready he undid the front of his shirt, loosened his waistband and placed the pan upon his knees, after which he proceeded to twirl the fore-finger and thumb of his right hand about in the savory mass of macaroni until he had secured half a dozen ends of the yet steaming delicacy. Then, holding them at arm's length above him, he threw back his head and opened his mouth wide and let the suspended streamers disappear into his mouth and down his throat with lightning-like rapidity, never moving a muscle of his face until they had completely disappeared, which they did in a surprisingly short time. This process was repeated with a dexterity that was magical until three-fourths of the contents of the pan were consumed, and, all the time he was at work, he was the target for the gibes and ridicule of the crowd. In his sitting position, however, he had reached the limit of his capacity and he therefore found it necessary to stand erect, upon which, individuals in the crowd offered all sorts of original and comical suggestions as to how he could the more easily dispose of the remainder. When the last bunch of paste had fallen into his mouth I paid him his lira, and the last I saw of him he was leaning against the wall of a neighboring building with his hands clasped in front of him and a woebegone expression on his face as though life was not worth the living.
Gloves, coral necklaces, brooches and wine are manufactured in Naples, which has a population of five hundred and thirty-five thousand eight hundred, but the distinctively characteristic product is macaroni, which is made from white wheat flour mixed with water and kneaded with heavy wooden blocks worked with levers ; when sufficiently firm, it is forced through holes, each with a spindle in the center, which, in this way, forms it into hollow cyclinders. It is named according to the size of these holes, macaroni, vermicelli and cappellini (little hairs).
Until recently the Italians thought that macaroni could only be made by manual labor. Now it is almost universally manufactured by machinery, and the article thus produced is not inferior to the old. If they could now invent some way of drying it other than by hanging it out in the streets, it would be the most desirable improvement possible.
The workman who, you observe, is squinting at us while he holds four sticks of macaroni between the fingers of his right hand, makes from fifty to seventy cents a day; but in a land where taxes are so excessive and so unequal, wages must necessarily be low, and poverty, even where the people are disposed to be industrious, which, in the large cities of southern Italy they are not, must be widespread. The peasants of Italy are the hardest working people in the world, and yet they are miserably poor. How can it be otherwise when the land is taxed thirty-three and one-half per cent. of its net income? In Italy tobacco, salt and oil are government monopolies ; and grain, as well as numerous other necessities of life, is heavily taxed.
In one year the government made five million dollars out of the lottery. The government pays thirty cents for two hundred and twenty pounds of salt and sells it for eight dollars. It pays three dollars and twenty cents for two hundred and twenty pounds of oil and sells the same for thirteen dollars. One year the tax on grain was one dollar and a half for two hundred and twenty pounds, and the government's revenue from this source alone was somewhat over eight mil-lion dollars.
In Italy, as in America, taxation is unequal, but Italy is extremely poor, and its lower classes can ill afford to pay the bulk of taxation. A great part of the non-territorial wealth of Italy is concentrated in Liguria (Genoa and Pisa), places we shall visit later; an army corps is stationed there, most of the royal seats lie within its boundaries, and its people hold one hundred and sixteen thousand nine hundred and seventy-six of the two hundred and ninety-nine thou-sand eight hundred and forty-one shares of the Banca d'Italia, the national bank of Italy, and a majority of the owners of Italy's merchant marine reside there ; and yet Liguria pays less than two-thirds as much to the national revenues as does the province of Naples. What can you expect but socialism and anarchy from the eighty thousand straw-plaiters whose wages sometimes go as low as twenty centesimi (four cents) a day, and of the charcoal burners of Tuscany, who do well on the day when they earn from thirty to fifty cents? No wonder the thought steals into their minds as they contemplate the privileged classes, " they have everything, we have nothing ; let's divide among our-selves what they squander upon themselves."
An aristocratic Italian, talking with a cultured Englishman who had spent years in Italy, about the question of taxes and extravagant government expenditures, said languidly, " I know, everybody in Italy knows, that we spend a little too much. Dio mio ! the nations around us - are they not doing the same thing, more or less?"
" That is true," was the answer, " but we in Italy are not so rich as they are."
" Yes, I know that. Nevertheless, please to observe that our security, perhaps, and certainly our pride, require us to go on imitating our neighbors. Tell me, would you go to a grand reception in a cut-away coat when everybody else was in evening dress? "
" Perhaps so."
" Certainly not ; you would be ridiculous ; you would not go."
"Excuse me; I would go, if I were sure to be there the next time with my silk facings."
The nobleman made no reply, and, in this case, at least, silence gave consent.
It is this excessive taxation, combined with the in-equality in its distribution, that drives more than one hundred thousand people out of Italy every year. Formerly, the majority of them came to the United States, but now most of them emigrate to South America, principally to Brazil, and it is to the mountain-bred men of Italy, the strong, energetic and intelligent peasants, and not to the loafers of the cities, that Brazil owes much of its present advancement.
This condition of things not only drives men but coin out of the country. The depreciated paper money alone remains. How is this done? Ask the small tradesman, and he replies, " Una piccola combinazione, signore ! " And what is this little combination? Why, this. The people save their money until they get five lira or more, when they bring the silver to the tradesmen, who put it with that received from others and send it over into Switzerland, where it is sold for a higher price than can be obtained in Italy.
Last year Switzerland had on hand eighty millions of Italian lira, and France had twice as much.
Take one more look at those buildings with their balconied fronts ; the ground floor only is used for the manufacture of macaroni, while the floors above are rented to skilled artisans and clerks. The rent for five rooms is from sixteen to twenty dollars a month, and they are respectable apartments, occupied by neat and self-respecting people, as is evident from the fact that the balconies are not loaded with filthy rags. Good apartments for the poorer classes consisting of four rooms may be had for five and a quarter dollars a month; two rooms for three and a half dollars.
Look just beyond the boy with the basket on his arm and you will see a woman standing in front of the slat door of the factory - those doors serve to keep out intruders and to let in the air. The woman is probably of a retiring disposition, for she does not wish to be seen. The man holding the macaroni sticks is evidently her husband, and the boy who is helping them is doubtless their son. It is but a simple statement of the truth to say that wives among the lower classes in Naples are not much thought of, while a mother is loved and revered. The worst criminal will make up verses-and Italians of all classes are passionately fond of versifying-in which he "kisses her gray hair " and addresses her in most endearing terms. Mothers frequently starve them-selves for their children. A sweetheart in Italy be-comes the absolute slave of the one she loves, and the more he abuses her the more she lavishes her affections upon him.
" Tony is madly in love with me, for he is always beating me," a Neapolitan woman confided to her intimate friend. If an Italian girl is treated gently and kindly by a lover, she soon abandons him for another, for she explains contemptuously, " a man must be a man, you know."
Let us now leave the present crude and practical side of Neapolitan life and, entering the National Museum at the north end of the Toledo, view one of the art treasures of antiquity.