De Urbis Servitute


THE other day I went to Milan. Among the country people of the neighborhood such a journey is not lightly undertaken. It involves a certain amount of physical effort and discomfort, for the trains in our part of Lombardy are neither so luxurious nor so accessible nor so exact as they are in places more favored by the tourist traffic. Besides this physical disturbance there is created a spiritual one, a more powerful deterrent, in most cases, than the mere exertion of catching a train. It is the natural reluctance of people who lead tranquil, silent lives to be jostled, bustled, poked, and shoved by the anxious inhabitants of a crowded city. We don’t like the city, in short — and unless we have a powerful reason, such as the desire to sell eggs or buy a new hat, we do not go there.

All the peasants are alike in this respect, and, although I am only a peasant in a manner of speaking, you cannot pass your days between the fields and the sky without being imbued with some temporary share of their peace, and in one respect I have the prejudices of my neighbors. I only go to Milan when I have sound reasons for doing so.

The reasons the other day were sound and numerous. They included such essentials as getting my hair cut and extracting some money from a bank. To make the chores less gruesome it is my custom, on these pilgrimages, to sample a few of the pleasures of the city folk — a cocktail or two, for instance; some restaurant food; some music when there is any going; some pictures when there is time to look at them. On this occasion one of the city pleasures to which I looked forward (which fixed, by its date, the date of my journey) was a performance of Turandot, the last and most characteristic, in its merits and demerits, of the operas of the good Puccini.

Turandot is not a work of much depth or complication, and I doubt if anybody needs to hear it often. But as I had only heard it twice in my life — once in New York, in a performance so noisy and glittery that it was difficult to tell what the music was like, and once in Munich, with some singers long past their prime — it seemed to me that this was a good opportunity to get what you might call the definitive view (if you can see with your ears) of the opera as Puccini wrote it. And the theatre, of course, was that quintessence of opera house, the Platonic Idea of which all other opera houses are but shadows, the Teatro alla Scala. One can listen to almost anything in that theatre; I even believe I could sit through a performance of Frau Jeritza as Carmen if I could be subjected to it within those classic (or at least neoclassic) walls.

So, not half an hour after my arrival in Milan, I was standing in line at the small box office on the left side of the perfect theatre. There were signs all over the place saying, Tutto esaurito (‘Everything exhausted’; or, to put it bluntly, ‘All Sold Out’). A newcomer might have been discouraged by these admonitions, but I have been visiting Italy for a good many years now, off and on. I waited. Just in front of me was an elderly American gentleman who spoke no language known to the lady behind the counter. He was a non-Aryan, very much a non-Aryan; and partly because I have a prejudice in favor of non-Aryans, partly because he was in a high state of excitement over the problem of communication, I watched his destiny with a paternal interest.

He had to pay a hundred and thirty-five lire, I noticed, for a ticket of mediocre value. He did not seem to mind, but handed out the money almost gleefully, rejoicing that his sign language had been so completely understood. I concluded that he must be one of those non-Aryans so familiar in Nationalsozialistische literature, but hitherto undiscovered in real life, who possess all the money that ought to belong to us Nordics. I hope so, because I feel sure that what happened to me afterward must have happened to him too, and it would be nice to think that maybe he could afford it.

The lady deigned to notice me after a bit.

‘What do you want?’ she asked sniffily, looking up from her more important occupations with a pencil and paper.

‘I want a ticket for to-night, but I don’t want to pay a hundred and thirty-five lire for it,’ I said.

‘There are only three seats left in the house,’ she announced firmly. ‘They are a hundred and thirty-four lire and sixty centimes each.’

This amount comes to something like twelve dollars, which is enough to keep me, in my village, for a whole week (exclusive of cigarettes and rent). There are a great many neighbors of mine who do not spend so much money in a month. You can travel in comfort from the top to the bottom of Italy for that sum; you can get a whole suit of clothes for it, you can buy about a dozen ordinary-priced boots for it, or even a certain number of Mussolini’s expensive postage stamps.

It is the highest price I have ever paid for a theatre ticket, but I did, in the end, pay it. I wanted to go to the Scala; in the precariousness of our tenure we can never foretell what next year will bring; the Scala’s season was at its end; and for all I know I may not set foot inside those echoing walls again. In view of all these circumstances, none of which could be expected to weigh much with the lady behind the counter, I fished out the twelve dollars and handed it across.

To her it was just the same as any other twelve dollars, oddly enough, and she only sniffed efficiently as she thrust the ticket at me.


The day passed. My hair, such as it is, was cut; a bank disgorged money; a mechanic repaired my typewriter. These jobs done, I paid a visit to the Brera museum and admired the blank spaces where there used to be a certain number of masterpieces — sent, just now, to Paris for the exhibition of Italian art. (It is astounding how many of these amorous exchanges there are going on now between the Italians and the French; I live in terror that at any moment Mussolini may send Lago Maggiore to Paris in exchange for the duck pond from the Bois de Boulogne.)

Toward dinnertime I found the table I like at the Biffi, in the Galleria, and had a metropolitan meal, the sort of thing we cannot have in the country, a minute steak and some wild strawberries from France; then, replete, content, mildly expectant, having spent a lot more money than I had any right to spend, I strolled along to the Scala to sit on my twelve dollars and hear, as the climax of a pleasant day, some of the loud rapturous noises native to the Italian throat.

I had scarcely passed from the Galleria into the gaping Piazza when I knew that something untoward was happening. The Piazza della Scala was lined by small, scrubby male figures with dark, admonitory faces. Anybody who has been to Europe knows the kind of figures and faces I mean. In Paris they usually belonged to Algerian gentlemen who sold dirty postcards, at least in the old days when tourists went to France. Such figures and faces may be seen in the streets of Marseilles, Barcelona, and Cairo, in which cities their owners are dignified by the name of ‘guides.’ There is a less polite term for them in Shakespearean English.

Here again I benefited by my fairly long acquaintance with Italy. A newcomer would have taken these small, active figures around the edges of the Piazza to be what they seemed, and would have said, probably, ‘No, I don’t want to see any filthy pictures or shows; I’m busy; go away.’ I did not do this, because I knew at a glance that the grubby little gentlemen were agents of the secret police.

In Italy, when a man is made by nature to be a maquereau of the lowest class, and has the stamp of the profession all over him, he goes into the secret police. The work is better paid, the hours are shorter, and the duties are not made dependent upon that extremely volatile thing, the whims or fancies of women. Moreover, the demand in this branch of labor is always great, and no secret agent ever starves; whereas your maquereau, your genuine maquereau, has to take the lean days with the fat, and often has a very bad time of it indeed.

I must pause here to distinguish between the secret agent or plain-clothes man, of the kind I am talking about, and the spy or secret-service man. The distinction is important. The spy is an indispensable citizen of any state. Spies are necessary to a democratic republic, to a liberal government, to a Communist government, and to a Fascist dictatorship. No kind of government has ever existed, we may be sure, which did not employ the services of spies. Secret-service agents, who add to the duties of espionage those of immediate physical risk (as, for instance, in guarding potentates or in breaking up bands of criminals), are equally essential, and, as a rule, even more worthy of respect. Wherever and whenever it is necessary to obtain information secretly the profession of espionage flourishes, and is often exercised by the most amiable and (otherwise) scrupulous of persons. I have known and respected a number of spies in my life, but I doubt if anybody could respect the political plainclothes man of the kind I am talking about now.

The duties of these people are simple. They stand in a street or along a road and tell everybody else to get out of the way. They poke you in the ribs if you do not move; in case of obstinacy, they arrest you.

They have no other duties. If you have ever tried to talk to one of them, you know that their intelligence is of the lowest order; they know only that a certain area belongs to them, and that it must be kept clear; they differ from policemen in that they have no insignia and are supposed to try — with ludicrous results—not to seem to be doing what they are doing. A few years ago I used to bathe on the same beach as the Duce, and the road from Rome was lined with these small maquereaux, pretending hard, and very comically, to be peasants. They are such low-grade human material that they cannot be used in small groups or individually, but only in swarms of several hundred at a time.

And there they were, three or four hundred of them, edging the Piazza della Scala. My first impulse was to turn around and go home. I have had plenty of experience with these small dark gentlemen, and I know that there is nothing but annoyance to be found where they pullulate. But I remembered my twelve dollars and the rich tunes of the late Puccini. I went on — not easily, but, at any rate, on. Some of the secret agents seemed inclined to make me move faster, and none of them would allow me to take any short cuts; I had to gallop at the required speed all around the periphery of the Piazza, entering the theatre, at last, by the door at the left, where an imposing assembly of uniformed officers stood on guard.


By this time I had guessed what was up. The King of Italy — there is a King of Italy — was on a visit to Milan that day, and undoubtedly he was being conveyed to the opera as part of the official programme. Opinions differ about the King of Italy. Some hold that he is real, and others that he is a figure borrowed from Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks for certain state occasions two or three times a year. Still others believe that even the puppet has been dispensed with in recent times, as no member of the ordinary public has been allowed to get near enough to see. The question is, in any case, academic, as Victor Emmanuel III was so very small (when last seen) that it would require field glasses to pick him out from any group of average Italian officers. His visits to Milan or anywhere else are, therefore, symbolical affairs, and if it were not for the noise of the bands, and the sudden irruption of secret police agents, nobody would pay the slightest attention.

I went into the theatre. The man who takes tickets at the Scala would make a good king, if kings were chosen for their suitability to the office: he is huge, dignified, fierce, and wears his traditional regalia with an air of justified pomp. He is also royally stupid, which is perhaps why he let me in. I look a few steps across the lobby and was greeted by the first delicious waves of that characteristic odor, distilled from hair, perspiration, and strong perfume, which haunts the great opera houses of Italy. This is a smell I like, for it is associated with the music of Verdi, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, the promise of spaghetti after the theatre, and the memory of red wine.

But what was this? What were these strange costumes? I hesitated, bewildered.

Every man I saw was oddly accoutred. Most of them had adopted a garment resembling, in its main aspects, what we call in English a dinner jacket. There were some who apparently intended to carry the fantasy still further, and blossomed in the full panoply of white-tie-and-tails. It was extraordinary to see such apparel in the Scala; the graceful circular corridor looked as if it had suddenly been appropriated by a congress of waiters.

In Milan the ladies have the habit of putting on evening dress at the slightest provocation; often they are so fat that the décolletage is a relief to them; but the gentlemen — very sensibly, I think — keep their evening clothes in the salutary seclusion of their trunks. Along with the scents provided by the obliging Messrs. Coty, Houbigant, Guerlain, and a host of less ambitious Italian imitators, and mingling with the warm, powdery smell of exposed female flesh, the air contained a strong whiff of moth balls.

Premonitions assailed me; but, taking a long breath through my handkerchief, I went on. It was now too late to turn back, however suffocating the fumes, however uncertain the prospect. I reached the shadowy recess behind the orchestra stalls, and there, stumbling over an usher in the gloom, surrendered my ticket.

He did not see me until we had started to enter the brilliantly lighted theatre. Then he stopped, stared, and scratched his head. His eye had fallen upon my raiment. I was, if I may say so without boasting, clean and tidy; but my harness, however respectable, did not conform in style to that of the uniform worn by the bourgeoisie at night. The usher hesitated only because he thought I might be entitled to wear ordinary kit — as were, for example, the secret police. This consideration did not detain him long, for, although little else can be said in favor of my appearance, at least I do not look like a secret agent. He returned my ticket to me and said firmly, ‘ You cannot come in.’

A Roman demigod who was standing near the door, magnificent in a gold helmet and much braid, raised his voice to emphasize, ‘ You cannot come in.’ An elderly super-usher, attracted by the scandal, whispered nervously, ‘You cannot come in.’ But although I already understood, by the horrified glances about me, that the indecency of my garb was responsible for all this, I could not resist the temptation to ask, ‘Why?’

This little word is one of the most dangerous known in any language. In Italian it is a dissyllable, Perchè? And the small extra sound seems to have doubled the venomous efficacy of the question. All you have to do to start a riot in any post office, railway station, theatre, or other public office in this country is to ask why a thing is so. Partly because the question itself has been discouraged for thirteen years, and partly because the answer is at no time easy for an average intelligence, anger and confusion ensue.

They ensued now. I was passed rapidly from super-usher to superusher, from director to director, getting farther and farther away from the theatre itself all the time, until at last I found myself in the business office of the establishment. I had stopped asking ‘Why?’ by now; the devastating effect had ceased to amuse me. Now all I asked, in the utmost humility, was that I be given back my twelve dollars.

‘You see,’ I explained, ‘I live in the country and knew nothing about the King’s visit here. I bought a ticket for a very high price; if the lady who sold the ticket knew that fancy dress was required, why did n’t she say so? I have been to the Scala a great many times in my life, and never encountered such a rule before.’

Sweet reasonableness had no effect on this official.

‘We did not know ourselves that the King was coming,’ he said sharply. ‘We were only informed this afternoon. We have had the rule printed on posters which are now all over the theatre. You can see for yourself.‘

He showed me a poster announcing the night’s performance. As it happened, I had never seen the poster before, but even if I had, I certainly could never have seen the notice to which he referred. It was down at the bottom of about a yard of print, in small letters, in the place usually reserved on theatre programmes for the words ‘Hats by Joe Doax, Dresses by Sally Spivis’ — information of no interest to me, and consequently never read.

It said: ‘This is a gala performance and evening dress is required.’ In other words, I was legally altogether in the wrong.

‘Very well,’I said. ‘I did n’t know the rule; I’m sorry. But I still think the ticket seller should have told me. Now, don’t you think you ought to give me back my money, or give me, at least, a ticket for another night?‘

The gentleman in the business office was incensed at the idea. The fever contingent upon being under the same roof as his King, and the passionate conviction that Fascist discipline must be maintained to-night of all nights, combined in his orthodox soul to create a mood in which I, asking for my money back, represented all the abhorred forces of anarchy and dissolution.

‘Can’t you understand? Can’t you understand?‘ he shouted at me. ‘It is a rule! There is no use talking about it — it is a rule!*


I went away. In fact, if I had not gone away I should have been swept out by a regiment of heroes who had been drifting toward the office, ready for the signal. And as I made my way slowly out of the theatre, twelve dollars poorer and (perhaps) a shade or two wiser, I was grateful to the excited little man in the business office for having stated in such irreducible terms the basic philosophy of the authoritarian state: ‘There is no use talking about it — it is a rule!‘ If the rule had involved wearing rings in one’s nose, or entering the theatre on all fours, it would have been equally sacred, equally absolute, equally unquestioned. Cause, motive, and purpose were alike disregarded; all that complicated texture of interdepending volitions which we have learned to see as the life of civilized man in organized society, a delicate balance achieved by centuries of effort, was here of no account whatever. There was a rule, and there was no use talking about it. Clearly we had passed from the stage of association — of a society made up of human beings — to the stage of gregarization, a society made up of sheep, hounded back into the herd at the first errant step.

I paused on the curbstone of the Via Giuseppe Verdi to consider this notion and my own instinctive rebellion against it.

Why did I object so strongly to being kept out of the seat I had paid for by a sudden new rule? I did not object to the rule in itself; I did not object to its enforcement; nor did I, in principle, see any reason why the authoritarian state should not make its rules supreme. That was its function by definition. But what I did object to, I concluded, was the refusal to discuss, to take into account, to admit mitigation—the refusal, in short, to exercise the faculty of reason. This was what was wrong. It was all very well to give up liberty; that would have to be done, at least for a time, I thought, in the course of human development; but why give it up without knowing why? Why give it up blindly, in abject darkness, as I had given up my twelve dollars, receiving nothing in exchange but the bare words, ‘It is a rule’?

‘ What are you doing here, signor?‘ a voice asked under my elbow. I looked down and saw one of the small dark men. And then I perceived that the whole Piazza had been emptied; that the few people who, like myself, happened to be left there like the débris of a hurricane were being pushed away as rapidly as possible by the secret agents; all was swept and garnished for the coming of the King.

The next day, at the earliest opportunity, I took the train back to the country. On the way I read the Corriere della Sera. It gave a glowing account of the events of the night before, and said that the King on his arrival at the Scala had been greeted by the enthusiastic cheers of the multitude. I was compelled to laugh hollowly at this statement. I had seen the multitude. It consisted of about four hundred secret police agents who looked as if they had dirty postcards in every pocket. No doubt they had applauded the King enthusiastically; why not? It was part of their job.

But as I looked through the window at the fields of Lombardy I reflected that these pastures had and gave off a vitality that could withstand such annoyances. They and the patient, hardy people who lived upon them had lost a great deal more than dollars in the past decade, and would lose again, in the years to come, without slackening their hold upon life and the roots of life. These and others like them were the fields where once Hannibal had passed, and the German Emperor and the French Kings, and Napoleon. Hannibal Italiam annos sedecim vastavit.That is in the books children study. To look from the secret agents in the Piazza to the farms, fields, pastures, woods, and streams was to pass at a glance from the momentary to the lasting, and to perceive in the enduring quality of the particular thing called Italy — neither a geographical expression nor a nationalistic fetish, but an all-important part of the whole human spirit — that there is something still within us that can never be permanently conquered. They may keep my twelve dollars, I thought; I have that assurance — and theirs is not the better part of the bargain.