Roba Di Roma
BEGGARS IN ROME.
DIRECTLY above the Piazza di Spagna and opposite to the Via di Condotti, rise the double towers of the Trinità de’ Monti. The ascent to them is over one hundred and thirty-five steps, planned with considerable skill, so as to mask the steepness of the Pincian, and forming the chief feature of the Piazza. Various landings and dividing walls break up their monotony; and a red granite obelisk, found in the gardens of Sallust, crowns the upper terrace in front of the church. All day long, these steps are flooded with sunshine, in which, stretched at length, or gathered in picturesque groups, models of every age and both sexes bask away the hours when they are free from employment in the studios. Here, in a rusty old coat and long white beard and hair, is the Padre Eterno, so called from his constantly standing as model for the First Person of the Trinity in religions pictures. Here is the ferocious bandit, with his thick black beard and conical hat, now off duty, and sitting with his legs wide apart, munching in alternate bites an onion, which he holds in one hand, and a lump of bread, which he holds in the other. Here is the contadina, who is always praying at a shrine with upcast eyes, or lifting to the Virgin the little child, among whose dark curls, now lying tangled in her lap, she is on a vigorous hunt for the animal whose name denotes love. Here is the invariable pilgrim, with his scallop-shell, who has been journeying to St. Peter’s and reposing by the way near aqueducts or broken columns so long that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, and who is now fast asleep on his back, with his hat pulled over his eyes. When the forestieri come along, the little ones run up and thrust Out their hands for baiocchi; and so pretty are they, with their large, black, lustrous eyes, and their quaint, gay dresses, that new comers always find something in their pockets for them. Sometimes a group of artists, passing by, will pause and steadily examine one of these models, turn him about, pose him, point out his defects and excellences, give him a baiocco, and pass on. It is, in fact, the model's exchange.1
All this is on the lower steps, close to the Piazza di Spagna ; but as one ascends to the last platform, before reaching the upper piazza in front of the Trinità de’ Monti, a curious squat figure, with two withered and crumpled legs, spread out at right angles and clothed in long stockings, comes shuffling along on his knees and hands, which are protected by clogs. As it approaches, it turns suddenly up from its quadrupedal position, takes off its hat, shows a broad, stout, legless torso, with a vigorous chest and a ruddy face, as of a person who has come, half-way up from below the steps through a trap-door, and with a smile whose breadth is equalled only by the cunning which lurks round the corners of the eyes, says, in the blandest and most patronizing tones, with a rising inflection, “Buon giorno, Signore! Oggi fa tempo” or "fa cattivo tempo” as the case may be. This is no less a person than Beppo, King of the Beggars, and permanent bore of the Scale di Spagna. He is better known to travellers than the Belvedere Torso of Hercules at the Vatican, and has all the advantage over that wonderful work, of having an admirable head and a good digestion. Hans Christian Andersen has celebrated him in “The Improvvisatore," and unfairly attributed to him an infamous character and life; but this account is purely fictitious, and is neither vero nor ben trovato. Beppo, like other distinguished personages, is not without a history. The Romans say of him, "Era un Signore in paese suo,”—“He was a gentleman in his own country,”—and this belief is borne out by a certain courtesy and style in his bearing which would not shame the first gentleman in the land, He was undoubtedly of a good family in the provinces, and came to Rome, while yet young, to seek his fortune. His crippled condition cut him off from any active employment, and he adopted the profession of a mendicant, as being the most lucrative and requiring the least exertion. Remembering Belisarius, he probably thought it not beneath his own dignity to ask for an obolus. Should he be above doing what a general had done '? However this may be, be certainly became a mendicant, after changing his name,—and, steadily pursuing this profession for more than a quarter of a century, by dint of his fair words, his bland smiles, and his constant "Fa buon tempo” and "Fa cattivo tempo,” which, together with his withered legs, were his sole stock in starting, he has finally amassed a very respectable little fortune. He is now about fifty-five years of age, has a wife and several children ; and a few years ago, on the marriage of a daughter to a very respectable tradesman, he was able to give her what was considered in Rome a more than respectable dowry. The other day, a friend of mine met a tradesman of his acquaintance running up the Spanish steps.
“Dove andate in una tanta affretta ?” he inquired.
"AL Banchiere mio.”
“ Al Banchiere ? Ma quale Banchiere sta in su le scale ? ”
“Ma Beppo” was the grave answer. “Ho bisogna di sessanta scudi, e lui mele presterà senza diffcolta."
“ Da vero?” said my friend.
“Eh sicuro, come gli pare,” said the other, as he went on to his banker.2
Beppo hires his bank—which is the upper platform of the steps—of the government, at a small rent per annum; and woe to any poor devil of his profession who dares to invade his premises ! Hither, every fair day, at about noon, he comes mounted on his donkey and accompanied by his valet, a little boy, who, though not lame exactly, wears a couple of crutches as a sort of livery,—and as soon as twilight begins to thicken and the sun is gone, he closes his bank, (it is purely a bank of deposit,) crawls up the steps,mounts a stone post, and there majestically waits for his valet to bring the donkey. But he no more solicits deposits. His day is done; his bank is closed ; and from his post he looks around, with a patronizing superiority, upon the poorer members of his profession, who are soliciting, with small success, the various passers by, as a king smiles down upon his subjects. The donkey being brought, he shuttles on to its crupper and makes a joyous and triumphant passage down through the streets of the city to his home. The bland business smile is gone. The wheedling subserviency of the day is over. The cunning eye opens largely. He is calm, dignified, and self-possessed. He mentions no more the state of the weather. What’s Hecuba to him, at this free moment of his return? It is the large style in which all this is done that convinces me that Beppo was a “ Signore in paese suo." He has a bank, and so has Sir Francis Baring. What of that? He is a gentleman still. The robber knights and barons demanded toll of those who passed their castles, with violence and threats, and at the bloody point of their swords. Whoso passes Beppo’s castle is prayed in courtesy to leave a remembrance, and receives the blandest bow and thanks in return. Shall we, then, say, the former are nobles and gentlemen,—the other is a miserable beggar? Is it worse to ask than to seize? Is it meaner to thank than to threaten ? If he who is supported by the public is a beggar, our kings are beggars, our pensions are charity. Did not the Princess Royal hold out her hand, the other day, to the House of Commons ? and does any one think the worse of her for it ? We are all, in measure, beggars ; but Beppo, in the large style of kings and robber-barons, asks for his baiocco, and, like the merchant-princes, keeps his bank. I see dukes and guardie nobili, in shining helmets, spurs, and gigantic boots, ride daily through the streets on horseback, and hurry to their palaces; but Beppo, erectly mounted on his donkey in his short-jacket, (for he disdains the tailored skirts of a fashionable coat, though at times over his broad shoulders a great blue cloak is grandly thrown, after the manner of the ancient emperors,) is far more impressive, far more princely, as he slowly and majestically moves at nightfall towards his august abode. The shadows close around him as he passes along; salutations greet him from the damp shops; and darkness at last swallows up for a time the great square torso of the “King of the Beggars.”
Begging, in Rome, IS as much a profession as praying and shop-keeping. Happy is he who is born stroppiato, with a withered limb, or to whom Fortune sends the present of a hideous accident or malady; it is a stock to set up trade upon. St. Vitus’s dance is worth its hundreds of scudi annually; epileptic fits are also a prize; and a distorted leg and hare-lip have a considerable market value. Thenceforth the creature who has the luck to have them is absolved from labor. He stands or lies in the sun, or wanders through the Piazza, and sings his whining, lamentable strophe of, "Signore, povero stroppiato, datemi qualche cosa per amor di Dio!”—and when the baiocco falls into his hat, like ripe fruit from the tree of the stranger, he chants the antistrophe, “Dio la benedica, la Madonna e tutti santi!"3 No refusal but one does he recognize as final,—and that is given, not by word of mouth, but by elevating the fore-finger of the right hand, and slowly wagging it to and fro. When this finger goes up he resigns all hope, as those who pass the gate of the Inferno, replaces his hat and lapses into silence, or turns away to some new group of sunnyhaired foreigners. The recipe to avoid beggars is, to be black-haired, to wear a full beard, to smoke in the streets, speak only Italian, and shake the fore-finger of the right hand when besieged for charity. Let it not be supposed from this that the Romans give nothing to the beggars, but pass them by on the other side. This is quite a mistake. On the contrary, they give more than the foreigners; and the poorest class, out of their little, will always find something to drop into their hats for charity.
The ingenuity which the beggars sometimes display in asking for alms is often humoristic and satirical. Many a woman on the cold side of thirty is wheedled out of a baiocco by being addressed as Signorina. Many a half-suppressed exclamation of admiration, or a prefix of Bella, softens the hearts of those to whom compliments on their beauty come rarely. The other day, as I came out of the city gate of Siena, a ragged wretch, sitting, with one stump of a leg thrust obtrusively forward, in the dust of the road, called out, “ Una buona passeggiata. Signorino mio!” (and this although my little girl, of thirteen years, accompanied me.) Seeing, however, that I was too old a bird for that chad, he immediately added, “ Ma priina pensi alla conservazione dell' anima sun.”4 A great many baiocchi are also caught, from green travellers of the middle class, by the titles which are lavishly squandered by these poor fellows. Illustrissimo, Eccellenza, Allezza, will sometimes open the purse, when plain “Mosshoe” will not.
The profession of a beggar is by no means an unprofitable one. A great many drops finally make a stream. The cost of living is almost nothing to them, and they frequently lay up money enough to make themselves very comfortable in their old age. A Roman friend of mine, Conte C., speaking of them one day, told me this illustrative anecdote:—
“ I had occasion,” he said, “a few years ago, to reduce my family,” (the servants are called, in Rome, the family.) “ and having no need of the services of one under-servant, named Pietro, I dismissed him. About a year after, as I was returning to my bouse, after nightfall, I was solicited by a beggar, who whiningly asked me for charity. There was something in the voice which struck me as familiar, and, turning round to examine the man more closely, I found it was my old servant, Pietro. ‘Is that you, Pietro?’ I said; ‘you begging here in the streets! what has brought you to this wretched trade?’ He gave me, however, no very clear account of himself, but evidently desired to avoid me when he recognized who I was. But, shocked to find him in so pitiable a condition, I pressed my questions, and finally told him I could not bear to see any one who had been in my service reduced to beggary ; and though I had no actual need of his services, yet, rather than see him thus, he might return to his old position as servant in my house, and be paid the same wages as he had before, He hesitated, was much embarrassed, and, after a pause, said,—' A thousand thanks, your Excellency, for your kindness; but I cannot accept your proposal, because, to tell you the truth, I make more money by this trade of begging.’ ”
But though the beggars often lay by considerable sums of money, so that they might, if they chose, live with a certain degree of comfort, yet they cannot leave off the habit of begging after having indulged it for many years. They get to be avaricious, and cannot bring their minds to spend the money they have. The other day, an old beggar, who used to frequent the. steps of the Gesù, when about to die, ordered the hem of her garment to be ripped up, saying that there was money in it. In fact, about a thousand scudi were found there, three hundred of which she ordered to be laid out upon her funeral, and the remainder to be appropriated to masses for her soul. This was accordingly done, and her squalid life ended in a pompous procession to the grave.
The great holidays of the beggars are the country festas. Thronging out of the city, they spread along the highways, and drag, drive, roll, shuffle, hobble, as they can, towards the festive little town. Everywhere along the road they are to be met,—perched on a rock, seated on a bank, squatted beneath a wall or hedge, and screaming, with outstretched hand, from the moment a carriage comes in sight until it. is utterly passed by. As one approaches the town where the festa is held, they grow thicker and thicker. They crop up along the road like toadstools. They hold up every hideous kind of withered arm, distorted leg, and unsightly stump. They glare at you out of horrible eyes, that look like cranberries. You are requested to look at horrors, all without a name, and too terrible to be seen. All their accomplishments are also brought out. They fall into improvised fits; they shake with sudden palsies; and all the while keep up a chorus, half whine, half scream, which suffers you to listen to nothing else. It is hopeless to attempt to buy them all off, for they are legion in number, and to pay one doubles the chorus of the others. The clever scamps, too, show the utmost skill in selecting their places of attack. Wherever there is a sudden rise in the road, or any obstacle which will reduce the gait of the horses to a walk, there is sure to be a beggar. But do not imagine that he relies on his own powers of scream and hideousness alone,—not he! He has a friend, an ambassador, to recommend him to your notice, and to expatiate on his misfortunes. Though he himself can scarcely move, his friend, who is often a little ragged boy or girl, light of weight and made for a chase, pursues the carriage and prolongs the whine, repeating, with a mechanical iteration, “ Signore! Signore! datemi qualche cosa, Signore!” until his legs, breath, and resolution give out at last; or, what is still commoner, your patience is wearied out or your sympathy touched, and you are glad to purchase the blessing of silence for the small sum of a baincco. When his whining fails, he tries to amuse you; and often resorts to the oddest freaks to attract your notice. Sometimes the little rascal flings himself heels over head into the dust, and executes somersets without number, as if they had some hidden influence on the sentiment of compassion. Then, running by the side of the carriage, he will play upon his lips with both hands, making a rattling noise, to excite your curiosity. If you laugh, you are lost, and he knows it.
As you reach the gates of the town, the row becomes furious. There are scores of beggars on either side the road, screaming in chorus. No matter how far the town be from the city, there is not a wretched, maimed cripple of your acquaintance, not one of the old stamps who have dodged you round a Roman corner, not a ragged baron who has levied toll for passage through the public squares, a privileged robber who has shut up for you a pleasant street or waylaid you at an interesting church, but he is sure to be there, How they got there; is as inexplicable as how the apples got into the dumplings in Peter Pindar’s poem. But at the first ring of a fesla-bell, they start up from under ground, (those who are legless getting only half-way up,) like Roderick Dhu’s men, and level their crutches at you as the others did their arrows. An English lady, a short time since, after wintering at Rome, went to take the baths at Siena in the summer. On going out for a walk, on the first morning after her arrival, whom should she meet but King Beppo, whom she had just left in Rome ! lie had come with the rest of the nobility tor recreation and bathing, and of course had brought his profession with him.
Owing to a great variety of causes, the number of beggars in Rome is very large. They grow here as noxious weeds in a hot-bed. The government neither favors commerce nor stimulates industry. Its policy is averse to change of any kind, even though it be for the development of its own resources or of the energies of the people. The Church is Brahmanie, contemplating only its own navel. Its influence is specially restrictive in Rome, because it is also the State there. It restrains not only trade, but education ; it conserves exploded ideas and usages ; it prefers not to grow, and looks with abhorrence upon change.
Literature may be said to be dead in Rome. There is not only no free press there, but no press at all. The “ Diario Romano ” contains about as much news as the “ Acta Diurna” of the ancient Romans, and perhaps less. I doubt whether at present such facts as those given by Petronius, in an extract from the latter, would now be permitted to be published. However, we know that Augustus prohibited the “ Acta Diurna,”—and the “Diario Romano” exists still; so that some progress has been made. And it must be confessed that Tuscany is scarcely in advance of Rome in this respect; and Naples is behind both. Even the introduction of foreign works is so strictly watched and the censorship so severe, that few liberal books pass the cordon. The arguments in favor of a censorship are very plain, but not very conclusive. The more compressed the energies and desires of a people, the more danger of their bursting into revolution. There is no safety-valve to passions and desires like the utterance of them,—no better corrective to false ideas than the free expression of them. Freedom of thought can never be suppressed, and ideas kept too long pent up in the bosom, when heated by some sudden crisis of passion, will explode into license and fury. Let me put a column from Milton here into my own weak plaster; the words are well known, but cannot be too well known. “ Though all the winds of doctrine.,” he says, “ were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter ? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.” Here in Rome genius rots. The saddest words I almost ever heard were from a young Italian of ability and esprit.
“ Why,” said I, in conversation with him, one day, “do you not devote your talents to some worthy object, instead of frittering them away in dancing, chatting, fencing, and morning-calls?”
“ What would you have me do ? ” he answered.
“ Devote yourself to some course of study. Write something.”
"Mio caro.” was his reply, “ it is useless. How can I write what I think ? How can I publish what I write ? I have now manuscript works begun in my desk, which it would be better to burn. Our only way to be happy is to be idle and ignorant. Tbe more we know, the unhappier we must be. There is but one avenue for ambition,—the Church. I was not made for that.”
This restrictive policy of the Church makes itself felt everywhere, high and low; and by long habit the people have become indolent and supine. The splendid robes of ecclesiastical Rome have a draggled fringe of beggary and vice. What a change there might be, if the energies of the Italians, instead of rotting in idleness, could have a free scope! Industry is the only purification of a nation ; and as the fertile and luxuriant Campagna stagnates into malaria, because of its want of ventilation and movement, so does this grand and noble people. The government makes what use it can, however, of the classes it exploits by its system ; but things go in a vicious circle. The people, kept at a stand-still, become idle and poor; idleness and poverty engender vice and crime; crime fills the prisons; and the prisons afford a body of cheap slaves to the government.
To-day, as I am writing, some hundreds of forcats, in their striped brown uniforms, are tugging at their winches and ropes to drag the column of the Immaculate Virgin to its pedestal on the Piazza di Spagna. By the same system of compulsory labor, the government, despite its limited financial resources, is enabled to carry out public projects which, with well-paid workmen, would be too expensive to be feasible. In this manner, for instance, for an incredibly small sum, was built the magnificent viaduct which spans with its triple tier of arches the beautiful Val di L’Arriccia. But, for my own part, I cannot look upon this system as being other than very bad, in every respect. And when, examining into the prisons themselves, I find that the support of these poor criminal slaves is farmed out by the government to some responsible person at tbe lowest rate that is offered, generally for five or six baiocchi. apiece per diem, and often refarmed by him at a still lower rate, until the poor wretches are reduced to the very minimum of necessary food as to quantity and quality, I confess that I cannot look with pleasure on the noble viaduct at L'Arriecia, or the rich column to the Immaculate Virgin, erected by the labor of their hands.
Within a few years the government seemed to become conscious of the great number of beggars in Rome, and of the reproach they offered to the wise and paternal regulations of the priestcraft. Accordingly, for a short time, they carried, on a move in the right direction, which had been begun by the Triumvirate of 1849, during their short career. Some hundreds of the beggars were hired at the rate of a few baiocchi a day to carry on excavations in the Forum and in the Baths of Caracalla. The selection was most appropriate. Only the old, decrepit, and broken-down were taken,—the younger and sturdier were left. Ruined men were in harmony with the ruined temples. Such a set of laborers was never before seen. Falstaff’s ragged regiment was a joke to them. Each had a wheelbarrow, a spade, or pick, and a cloak; but the last was the most important part of their equipment. Some of them picked at the earth with a gravity that was equalled only by the feebleness of the effort and the poverty of the result. Three strokes so wearied them that they were forced to pause and gather strength, while others carried away the ant-hills which the first dug up. It seemed an endless task to fill the wheelbarrows. Fill, did I say? They were never filled. After a bucketful of earth had been slowly shovelled in, the laborer paused, laid down his spade carefully on the little heap, sighed profoundly, looked as if to receive congratulations on his enormous success, then, flinging, with a grand sweep, the tattered old cloak over his left shoulder, lifted his wheelbarrow-shafts with dignity, and marched slowly and measuredly forward towards the heap of deposit, as Belisarius might have moved at a funeral in the intervals of asking for oboli. Bat reduced gentlemen, who have been accustomed to carry round the hat as an occupation, always have a certain air of condescension when they work for pay, and, by their dignity of deportment, make you sensible of their former superior state. Occasionally, in case a forestiere was near, the older, idler, and more gentlemanlike profession would be resumed for a moment, (as by parenthesis,) and if without success, a sadder dignity would be seen in the subsequent march. Very properly for persons who had been reduced from beggary to work, they seemed to be anxious both for their health and their appearance in public, and accordingly a vast deal more time was spent in the arrangement of the cloak than in any other part of the business. It was grand in effect, to see these figures, incumbered in their heavy draperies, guiding their wheelbarrows through the great arches of Caracalla’s Baths or along the Via Sacra It often reminded me of modern bassi-rilievi and portrait statues, in which gentlemen looking sideways with very modern faces, and both hands full of swords, pens, or books, stand impotently swaddled up in ancient togas or the folds of similar enormous cloaks. The antique treatment with the modern subject was evident in both. If sometimes, with a foolish spirit of innovation, one felt inclined to ask what purpose in either ease these heroic mantles subserved, and whether, in fact, they could not be dispensed with to advantage, he was soon made to know that his inquiry indicated ignorance, and a desire to debase in the one case Man, in the other Art.
It would, however, be a grievous mistake to suppose that all the beggars in the streets of Rome are Romans. In point of fact, the greater number are strangers, who congregate in Rome during the winter from every quarter. Naples and Tuscany send them by thousands. Every little country town of the Abruzzi Mountains yields its contribution. From north, south, east, and west they flock here as to a centre where good pickings may be had of the crumbs that fall from the rich men’s tables. In the summer season they return to their homes with their earnings, and not one in five of those who haunted the churches and streets in the winter is to be seen.
It is but justice to the Roman government to say that its charities are very large. If, on the one hand, it does not encourage commerce and industry, on the other, it liberally provides for the poor. In proportion to its means, no government does more, if so much. Every church has its Cassa dei poveri. Numerous societies, such as the Sacconi, and other confraternities, employ themselves in accumulating contributions for the relief of the poor and wretched. Well-endowed hospitals exist for the care of the sick and unfortunate ; and there are various establishments for the charge and education of poor orphans. A few figures will show how ample are these charities. The revenue of these institutions is no less than eight hundred and forty thousand scudi annually, of which three hundred thousand are contributed by the Papal treasury, forty thousand of which are a tax upon the Lottery. The hospitals, altogether, accommodate about four thousand patients, the average number annually received amounting to about twelve thousand; and the founding hospitals alone are capable of receiving upwards of three thousand children annually. Besides the. hospitals for the sick, there is also a hospital for poor convalescents at Sta Trinita dei Pellegrini, a lunatic asylum containing about four hundred patients, one for incurables at San Giacomo, a lying-in hospital at San Rocco, and a hospital of education and industry at San Michele. There are also thirteen societies for bestowing dowries on poor young girls on their marriage ; and from the public purse, for the same object, are expended every year no less than thirty-two thousand scudi. In addition to these charities, are the sums collected and administered by the various confraternities, as well as the sum of one hundred and seventy-two thousand scudi distributed to the poor by the commission of subsidies. But though so much money is thus expended, it cannot be said that it is well administered. The proportion of deaths at the hospitals is very large; and among the foundlings, it amounted, between the years 1829 and 1833, to no less than seventy-two per cent.
The arrangements at these institutions were very much improved during the career of the Triumvirate, and, under the auspices of the Princess Belgiojoso, cleanliness, order, and system were introduced. The heroism of this noble-hearted woman during the trying days of the Roman siege deserves a better record than I can give. She gave her whole heart and body to the regeneration of the hospitals, and the personal care of the sick and wounded. Her head-quarters were at the Hospital dei Pellegrini. Day after day and night after night she was at her post, never moving from her chair, except to visit the various wards, and to comfort with tender words the sufferers in their beds. Their faces, contorted with pain, smoothed at her approach ; and her hand and voice carried consolation wherever she went. Many a scene have I witnessed there more affecting than any tragedy, in which I knew not which most to admire, the heroism of the sufferers or the tender humanity of the consoler and nurse. In all her arrangements she showed that masterly administrative faculty in which women are far superior to men. When she came to the Pellegrini, all was in disorder; but a few days sufficed to reduce a chaotic confusion to exact and admirable system. Hers was the brain that regulated all the hospitals. Always calm, she distributed her orders with perfect tact and precision, and with a determination of purpose and clearness of perception which commanded the minds of all about her. The care, fatigue, and labor which she underwent would have broken down a less determined spirit Nothing moved except from her touch. In a little damp cell, a pallet of straw was laid on the brick floor, and there, when utterly overcome, she threw herself down to sleep for a couple of hours,—no more; all the rest of the time she sat at her desk, writing orders, giving directions, and supervising the new machinery which owed its existence to her.
With the return of the Papal government came the old system. Certain it is that that system does not work well. Despite the enormous sums expended in charity, the people are poor, the mortality in the hospitals is very large. “ Something is rotten in the state of” Rome.
There is one noble exception not to be forgotten. To the Hospital of Sari Michele Cardinal Tosti has given a new life and vigor, and set an example worthy of his elevated position in the Church. This foundation was formerly an asylum for poor children and infirm and aged persons; but of late years an industrial and educational system has been ingrafted upon it, until it has become one of the most enlarged and liberal institutions that can anywhere be found. It now embraces not only an asylum for the aged, a house of correction for juvenile offenders and women, and a house of industry for children of both sexes, but also a school of arts, in which music, painting, drawing, architecture, and sculpture are taught gratuitously to the poor, and a considerable number of looms, at which from eight hundred to one thousand persons are employed for the weaving of woollen fabrics for the government. A stimulus has thus been given to education and to industry, and particularly to improvements in machinery and manufacture. Once a year, during the holy week, religious dramas and operas, founded on some Biblical subject, are creditably performed by the pupils in a private theatre connected with the establishment. I was never present but at one of these representations, when the tragical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was performed. Honor to Cardinal Tosti for his successful efforts in this liberal direction !
At many of the convents in Rome, it is the custom at noon to distribute, gratis, at the door, a quantity of soup, and any poor person may receive a bowlful on demand. Many of the beggars thus become pensioners of the convents, and may be seen daily at the appointed hour gathering round the door with their bowl and wooden spoon, in expectation of the Frate with the soup. This is generally made so thick with cabbage that it might be called a cabbage-stew; but Soyer himself never made a dish more acceptable to the palate of the guests than this. No nightingales’ tongues at a banquet of Tiberius, no edible birds-nests at a Chinese feast, were ever relished with more gusto. The figures and actions of these poor wretches, after they have obtained their soup, make one sigh for human nature. Each, grasping his portion as if it were a treasure, separates himself immediately from his brothers, flees selfishly to a corner, if he can find one empty, or, if not, goes to a distance, turns his back on his friends, and, glancing anxiously at intervals all around, as if in fear of a surprise, gobbles up his cabbage, wipes out his bowl, and then returns to companionship or disappears. The idea of sharing his portion with those who are portionless occurs to him only as the idea of a jobber to the mind of a miser.
Any account of the beggars of Rome without mention of the Capuchins and Franciscans would be like performing the “ Merchant of Venice ” with no Shylock; for these orders are founded in beggary and supported by charity. The priests do not beg ; but their ambassadors, the lay-brothers, clad in their long, brown serge, a cord around their waist, and a, basket on their arm, may be seen shuffling along at any hour and in every street, in dirty sandalled feet, to levy contributions from shops and houses. Here they get a loaf of bread, there a pound of flour or rice, in one place fruit or cheese, in another a bit of meat, until their basket is filled. Sometimes money is given, but generally they are paid in articles of food. There is another set of these brothers who enter your studio or ring at your bell and present a little tin box with a slit in it, into which you are requested to drop any sum you please, for the holidays, for masses, for wax candles, etc. As a big piece of copper makes more ring than gold, it is generally given, and always gratefully received. Sometimes they will enter into conversation, and are always pleased to have a little chat about the weather. They are very poor, very goodnatured, and very dirty. It is a pity they do not baptize themselves a little more with the material water of this world. But they seem to have a hydrophobia. Whatever the inside of the platter may be, the outside is far from clean. They walk by day and they sleep by night in the same old snuffy robe, which is not kept from contact with the skin by any luxury of linen, until it is worn out. Dirt and piety seem to them synonymous. Sometimes I have deemed, foolishly perhaps, but after the manner of my nation, that their goodness would not wash off with the soil of the skin,—that it was more than skin-deep ; but as this matter is above reason, in better moods I have faith that it would. Still, in disbelieving moments, I cannot help applying to them Charles Lamb’s famous speech,—“If dirt were trumps, what a hand they would have of it!” Yet, beggars as they are, they have the reputation at Rome of being the most inoffensive of all the conventual orders, and are looked upon by the common people with kindliness, as being thoroughly sincere in their religious professions. They are, at least, consistent, in many respects in their professions and practice. They really mortify the flesh by penance, fasting, and wretched fare, as well as by dirt. They do not proclaim the virtues and charms of poverty, while they roll about in gilded coaches dressed in “ purple and fine linen,” or gloat over the luxuries of the table. Their vices are not the cardinal ones, whatever their virtues may be. The “ Miracles of St. Peter,” as the common people call the palaces of Rome, are not wrought for them. Their table is mean and scantily provided with the most ordinary food. Three days in the week they eat no meat; and during the year they keep three Quoresime. But, good as they are, their sour, thin wine, on empty, craving stomachs, sometimes does a mad work; and these brothers in dirt and piety have occasionally violent rows and disputes in their refectories over their earthen bottles. It is only a short time since that my old friends the Capuchins got furious together over their wine, and ended by knocking each other about the ears with their earthen jars, after they had emptied them. Several were wounded, and had time to repent and wash in their cells. But one should not be too hard on them. The temper will not withstand too much fasting. A good dinner puts one at peace with the world, but an empty stomach is the habitation often of the Devil, who amuses himself there with pulling all the nerve-wires that reach up into the brain. I doubt whether even St. Simeon Stylites always kept his temper as well as he did his fast.
As I see them walking up and down the alleys of their vegetable garden, and under the sunny wall where oranges glow and roses bloom, without the least asceticism, during the whole winter, I do not believe in their doctrine, nor envy them their life. And I cannot but think that the one hundred and fifty thousand Frati who are in the Roman States would do quite as good service to God and man, if they were an army of laborers on the Campagna, or elsewhere, as in their present life of beggary and self-contemplation. I often wonder, as I look at them, hearty and stout as they are, despite their mode of life, what brought them to this pass, what induced them to enter this order,— and recall, in this connection, a little anecdote current here in Rome, to the following effect:—A young fellow, from whom Fortune had withheld her pifts, having become desperate, at last declared to a friend that he meant to throw himself into the Tiber, and end a life which was worse than useless. “No, no,” said his friend, “ don’t do that. If your affairs are so desperate, retire into a convent, become a Capuchin.” “Ah, non ! ” was the indignant answer; “I am desperate; but I have not yet arrived at such a pitch of desperation.”
Though the Franeiscans live upon charity, they have almost always a garden connected with their convent, where they raise multitudes of cabbages, cauliflowers, finocchi, peas, beans, artichokes, and lettuce. Indeed, there is one kind of the latter which is named after them,—capuccini. But their gardens they do not till themselves; they hire gardeners, who work for them. Now I cannot but think that working in a garden is just as pious an employment as begging about the streets, though perhaps scarcely as profitable. The opinion, that, in some respects, it would be better for them to attend to this work themselves, was forced upon my mind by a little farce I happened to see enacted among their cabbages, the other day, as I was looking down out of my window. My attention was first attracted by hearing a window open from a little three-story-high loggia, opposite, hanging over their garden. A woman came forth, and, from amid the flower-pots which half-concealed her, she dropped a long cord to the ground. “Pst, Pst,” she Cried to the gardener at work below. He looked up, executed a curious pantomime, shrugged his shoulders, shook his fore-finger, and motioned with his head and elbow sideways to a figure, visible to me, but not to her, of a brown Franciscan, who was amusing himself in gathering some finocchi, just round the corner of the wall. The woman, who was fishing for the cabbages, immediately understood the predicament, drew up her cord, disappeared from the loggia, and the curtain fell upon the little farce. The gardener, however, evidently had a little soliloquy after she had gone. He ceased working, and gazed at the unconscious Franciscan for some time, with a curious grimace, as if he were not quite satisfied at thus losing his little perquisite.
These brown-cowled gentlemen are not the only ones who carry the tin box. Along the curbstones of the public walks, and on the steps of the churches, sit blind old creatures, and shake at you a tin box, outside of which is a figure of the Madonna, and inside of which are two or three baiocchi, as a rattling accompaniment to an unending invocation of aid. Their dismal chant is protracted for hours and hours, increasing in loudness whenever the steps of a passer-by are heard. It is the old strophe and antistrophe of begging and blessing, and the singers are so wretched that one is often softened into charity. Those who are not blind have often a new Diario or Lunario to sell towards the end of the year, and at other times they vary the occupation of shaking the box by selling lives of the saints, which are sometimes wonderful enough. One sad old woman, who sits near the Quattro Fontane, and says her prayers and rattles her box, always touches my heart, there is such an air of forlornness and sweetness about her. As I was returning, last night, from a mass at San Giovanni in Laterano, an old man glared at us through great green goggles,—to which Jealousy’s would have yielded in size and color,—and shook his box for a baiocco. “ And where does this money go ? ” I asked. “ To say masses for the souls of those who die over opposite,” said he, pointing to the Hospital of San Giovanni, through the open doors of which we could see the patients lying in their beds.
Nor are these the only friends of the box. Often in walking the streets one is suddenly shaken in your ear, and, turning round, you are startled to see a figure entirely clothed in white from head to foot, a rope round his waist, and a white capuccio drawn over his head and face, and showing, through two round holes, a pair of sharp black eyes behind them. He says nothing, but shakes his box at you, often threateningly, and always with an air of mystery. This is a penitent Saccone; and as this confraternita is composed solely of noblemen, lie may be one of the first princes or cardinals in Rome, performing penance in expiation of his sins; or, for all you can see, it may be one of your intimate friends, The money thus collected goes to various charities. They always go in couples,—one taking one side of the street, the other the opposite,—never losing sight of each other, and never speaking. Clothed thus in secresy, these Sacconi can test the generosity of any one they please with complete impunity, and they often amuse themselves with startling foreigners. Many a group of English girls, convoyed by their mother, and staring into some mosaic or cameo shop, is scared into a scream by the sudden jingle of the box, and the apparition of the spectre in white who shakes it. And many a simple old lady retains to the end of her life a confused impression, derived therefrom, of Inquisitions, stilettos, tortures, and banditti, from which it is vain to attempt to dispossess her mind. The stout old gentleman, with a bald forehead and an irascibly rosy face, takes it often in another way,—confounds the fellows for their impertinence, has serious notions, first, of knocking them down on the spot, and then of calling the police, but finally concludes to take no notice of them, as they are nothing but Eye-talians, who cannot be expected to know how to behave themselves in a rational manner. Sometimes a santa elemosina is demanded after the oddest fashion. It was only yesterday that I met one of the confraternita, dressed in a shabby red suit, coming up the street, with the invariable oblong tin begging-box in his hand,—a picture of Christ on one side, and of the Madonna on the otherHe went straight to a door, opening into a large, dark room, where there was a full cistern of running water, at which several poor women were washing clothes, and singing and chatting as they worked. My red acquaintance suddenly opens the door, letting in a stream of light upon this Rembrandtish interior, and, lifting his box with the most wheedling of smiles, he says, with a rising inflection of voice, as if asking a question,—“ Prezioso sangue di Gesù Christo?”—(Precious blood of Jesus Christ ? )
The last, but by no means the meanest, of the tribe of pensioners whom I shall mention, is my old friend, “ Beefsteak,”—now, alas! gone to the shades of his fathers. He was a good dog,—a mongrel, a Pole by birth,—who accompanied his master on a visit to Rome, where he became so enamored of the place that he could not be persuaded to return to his native home. Bravely he cast himself on the world, determined to live, like many of his two-legged countrymen, upon his wits. He was a dog of genius, and his confidence in the world was rewarded by its appreciation, He had a sympathy for the arts. The crowd of artists who daily and nightly flocked to the Lepre and the Caffe Greco attracted his notice. He introduced himself to them, and visited them at their studios and rooms. A friendship was struck between them and him, and he became their constant visitor and their most attached ally. Every day, at the hour of lunch, or at the more serious hour of dinner, he lounged into the Lepre, seated himself in a chair, and awaited his friends, confident of his reception. His presence was always hailed with a welcome, and to every new comer he was formally presented. His bearing became, at last, not only assured, but patronizing. He received the gift of a chicken-bone or a delicate titbit as if he conferred a favor. He became an epicure, a gourmet. He did not eat much; he ate well. With what a calm superiority and gentle contempt he declined the refuse bits a stranger offered from his plate ! His glance, and upturned nose, and quiet refusal, seemed to say,—“Ignoramus! know you not I am Beefsteak ? ” His dinner finished, he descended gravely, and proceeded to the Caffè Greco, there to listen to the discussions of the artists, and to partake of a little coffee and sugar, of which he was very fond. At night, he accompanied some one or other of his friends to his room, and slept upon the rug. He knew his friends, and valued them; but perhaps his most remarkable quality was his impartiality. He dispensed his favors with an even hand. He had few favorites, and called no man master. He never outstayed his welcome “ and told the jest without the smile,” never remaining with one person for more than two or three days at most. A calmer character, a more balanced judgment, a better temper, a more admirable self-respect,—in a word, a profounder sense of what belongs to a gentleman, was never known in any dog. But Beefsteak is now no more. Just after the agitations of the Revolution of ’48, with which he had little sympathy,—he was a conservative by disposition,—he disappeared. He had always "been accustomed to make a villeggatura at L’Arriccia during a portion of the summer months, returning only now and then to look after his affairs in Rome. On such visits he would often arrive towards midnight, and rap at the door of a friend to claim his hospitality, barking a most intelligible answer to the universal Roman inquiry of “ Chi e?” “ One morn we missed him at the accustomed” place, and thenceforth he was never seen, "Whether a sudden homesickness for his native land overcame him, or a fatal accident befell him, is not known. Peace to his manes ! There “ rests his head upon the lap of earth” no better dog.
In the Roman studio of one of his friends and admirers, Mr. Mason, I had the pleasure, a few days since, to see, among several admirable and very spirited pictures of Campagna life and incidents, a very striking portrait of Beefsteak. He was sitting in a straw-bottomed chair, as we have so often seen him in the Lepre, calm, dignified in his deportment, and somewhat obese. The full brain, the narrow, fastidious nose, the sagacious eye, were so perfectly given, that I seemed to feel the actual presence of my old friend. So admirable a portrait of so distinguished a person should not be lost to the world. It should be engraved, or at least photographed.
- * During this lust winter, the government have prohibited the models, for I know not what reason, from gathering upon these steps; and they now congregate at the corner of the Via Sistina and Capo le Case, near the Pizzicheria, from which they supply themselves with groceries.↩
- "Where are yon going in such haste?”↩
- “ To my banker.”↩
- “ To your banker? But what banker is there above the steps?”↩
- "Only Beppo. I want sixty scudi, and he can lend them to me without difficulty.”↩
- “ Really? ”↩
- “ Of course.”↩
- Signore, a poor cripple; give me something. for the love of God!”—“May God bless you, the Madonna, and all the saints!”↩
- “ A pleasant walk, young gentleman!” —“ But first pay heed to the salvation of your soul.”↩