THE DEAD LOCK IN ITALY.
A LETTER FROM AN ENGLISHMAN IN ROME, TO AN ITALIAN IN LONDON.
. . . . “You are visiting Rome for the fourth time. You have leisure at your command, you have eyes in your head, and your sympathies in the Italian question are on the liberal side. Rome is now on the eve of a change which may be felt all over Europe. Tell me, in my exile, how Rome looks.”
This very natural request of yours reaches me, my good friend, on the fifteenth of November. In one calendar month from that date, the French troops are bound, under the Convention, to leave the Pope and the People to settle their differences together. Must I tell you truly how Rome looks, under these circumstance? Prepare yourself to be astonished; prepare yourself to be disappointed. Rome looks as Rome looked when I was here last, nearly four years since—as Rome looked when I was here, for the second time, eleven years since—as Rome looked, when I was here, for the first time, twenty-eight years since. New hotels have been opened, in the interval, I grant you; the Pincian Hill has been improved; a central railway station has been made; an old church has been discovered at St. Clemente; a new church has been built on the ruins of the Basilica of St. Paolo; Seltzer water is to be had; crinolines are to be seen; the hackney-coachmen have been reformed. But, I repeat, nevertheless, the Rome that I first remember in ’38 is, in all essentials, the Rome that I now see in ’66. Nobody walking through the city, nobody looking at the people and the priests, would have the faintest suspicion of the change which you tell me is at hand, of the convulsion that may be coming in a month’s time.
What is the secret of this extraordinary apathy? I take the secret to be, that the Roman Catholic Religion sticks fast—and that the people stick fast with it. I may be quite wrong, but the impression produced on my mind by what I have seen and heard in Italy this time is—that the Pope’s position is, even yet, by no means the desperate position which the liberal newspapers represent it to be. I see three chances still for His Holiness and the Priest. First, the enormous religious influence at their disposal. Secondly, the miserable dearth (since Cavour’s death) of commanding ability in the civil and military administration of the Italian Kingdom. Thirdly, the inbred national defects of the Italian character.
Don’t crumple up my letter, and throw it into the fire! Don’t say, “The priests have got hold of him! My friend is nothing better than a reactionary and a Jesuit after all!” No Englishman living, is a heartier friend to the Italian cause than I am. No Englishman living, desires more earnestly than I do to see this nation great, prosperous, and free, from one end of the peninsula to the other. But, there are two sides to every question—the shady side, and the bright. Italian liberals and English liberals have agreed long enough (in my opinion) to look at Italian politics on the bright side only. Give the shady side its turn. When an individual man is in a difficulty, it is universally admitted that his best preparation for getting out of it, is, to look the worst in the face. What is true of individuals, in this case, is surely true of nations —doubly true, I venture to think, of your nation. Suffer a barbarous Englishman to speak the rude truth. The very last thing you are any of you willing to do, is, to look the worst in the face. Give me your arm, and let us look at it together.
You have been twenty years in England; you are almost—though, fortunately for my chance of convincing you, not quite—an Englishman. Have you noticed, in the time during which you have inhabited my country, what the religious influence can do, applied to purely political and purely worldly objects? Why, even in my country, where Religion expressly assumes to leave thought free, and to let men decide for themselves—the so-called religious influence, applied to political and social ends, fights from a ’vantage-ground in the minds of the masses of mankind equally above the reach of reason and of right.
If the (always so-called) religious influence can do this in England, what sort of enemy have you Italians to deal with, in the religious influence of Rome? You have a system against you here, which for generation after generation, and century after century, has put the priest before the people with his hand held out, and the one everlasting formula on his lips: “Let me think for you, and I will take you to heaven.” For generation after generation, and for century after century, the people have taken the priest’s hand on those terms. The greatest of human writers, the noblest of human beliefs—patience under worldly trials, consolation under afflictions, the most sacred domestic ties, the very ledge of immortality itself—have all been held through century after century, for millions and millions of your people, in the priest’s hand. In the priest’s hand they are held still and you have got him against you.
Yes! here, in his central stronghold, the priest’s immovable composure has its old foundation, to this day, in the priest’s consciousness of his power. The political tyranny that he administers—the infamous misgovernment that he permits—has alienated you, and thousands of men like you. But he has got your wives and your daughters; he has got the influence of the mothers over the children, and the other stronger influence yet of the women over the men. Nay, to come to individual instances of note and mark, he has even got your King. It is notorious to everybody out of England—though it has been carefully concealed in England—that there is a religious side to Victor Emmanuel’s character, as well as a political side, and that he presents to this day the curiously anomalous phenomenon of a zealous Papist who is in disgrace with the Pope.
But I am drifting into general considerations, and am forgetting that it is my business to give you the results of my own personal observations, such as they are.
I have attended more than one of the Catholic church-services on Sundays. I have walked again and again over those remoter quarters of Rome in which the life of the people shows itself most strikingly and unrestrainedly to strangers. Go where I may, I see no change in the congregations, since my first experience of them; I discover no such phenomenon as a threatening attitude among the people. Last Sunday morning, I went to a “solemn function” at the church of St. Martin; then, to St. Peter’s, to Vespers, and Catechism in the afternoon; then, all through the Trastevere, where all the people were out enjoying the lovely sunshine; then, back again, across the river, and round about another populous quarter, to another “solemn function.” In all this peregrination I looked carefully for any signs of a change anywhere, and saw none. The church ceremonies were as superb and as impressive as ever, and the congregations (the men included, mind) just as numerous and just as devout. Four years since, I saw the catechising at St. Peter’s—the boys openly taught under one of the aisles, and the girls secretly taught behind a screen, under another. On that occasion I noticed that the girls all respectfully kissed the priest’s hand when they came out from the screen, and were dismissed. There was the whole thing, last Sunday, going on again as usual—the much-enduring boys kicking their legs on the forms, and the nicely trained girls crowding round the priest to kiss his hand as they went out. In the whole Trastevere, when I walked through it afterwards— in all that turbulent ultra-Roman quarter of Rome—I doubt if there were a soul in-doors. Were the men cursing in corners, and the terrified women trying to moderate them? The men were playing the favourite Roman game of “morra” in corners—the men were smoking and laughing—the men were making love to their sweethearts—the men went out of the way into the mud, at a place where a cardinal’s carriage was standing as an obstacle on the drier ground, without a wry look or a savage word in any case. The women, in their Sunday best—the magnificent Roman women of the people—sat gossiping and nursing their children, as composedly as if they lived under the most constitutional monarchy in the world. If they had been English women, and had “known their blessings,” they could not have looked more comfortable—nor, I will add (though it is treason in an Englishman to find any beauty out of his own country), could they have looked handsomer. Do you remember, when you were in Rome, devout female individuals stopping a cardinal out for his walk, to kiss the ring on his forefinger? I saw a devout female individual stop a cardinal, yesterday, for this extraordinary purpose, in a public thoroughfare. The cardinal took it as a matter of course, and the people took it as a matter of course, just as they did in your time.
Don’t misunderstand me, in what I am now writing. I am not foolish enough to deny that there is discontent in Rome, because I don’t find it coming to the surface. I don’t for a moment doubt that there is serious and savage discontent—though I firmly believe it to be confined to the class (the special class, here and everywhere) which is capable of feeling a keen sense of wrong. More than this, I am even ready to believe that “the Roman committee” can raise a revolution, if it please, on the day when the French leave Rome. But granted the discontent, and granted the revolution, I am afraid there is a power here which will survive the one, and circumvent the other. I see the certainty of possessing that power in reserve in the unchanged attitude of the priests; and I see the foundation on which the conviction of the priests rests, in the unchanged attitude of the people. You know the old story of the man who had been so long in prison that he had lost all relish of liberty, and who, when they opened the doors for him at last, declined to come out. When you open the door here, I hope—but I confess I find it hard to believe—that you will find the Roman people ready to come out.
So much for the first and foremost of the chances in favour of the Pope; the chance that the immense religious influence at his command will prove too strong for you. Observe (before we get on) how boldly and openly he is meeting you with that influence already, on your own ground. You know that the form of Christianity of which he is the head, is the one form that really adapts itself to the Italian temperament; and you leave the spiritual interests of the people at his sole disposal, while you take the material interests into your own hands. What does he do upon this? He declares, with the whole force of his authority and position, that his spiritual rights and his temporal rights are indivisible, and that respect for the one means respect for the other. View this declaration as a political assertion, and the absurdity of it is beneath notice. Pronounced by the Pope, it becomes an article of Faith. “You take your religion from Me,” says His Holiness. “That is part of your religion.” What is the answer to this from the life of the faithful—not in Rome only, but all over the civilised globe? The answer from hundreds of thousands of otherwise intelligent people, having their influence on public opinion, is—“Amen!”
The second of the chances in the Pope’s favour; the present dearth of commanding ability in the civil and military administration of the Italian Kingdom; needs no discussion here, for it admits of no denial. To enlarge on this part of the subject, after the events of the late war, would be almost equivalent to reproaching Italy with her misfortunes. God forbid I should do that! May you yet find the men who can lead your brave army and your brave navy as they deserve to be led! May you yet find the men who can hold out to the discontented, disunited, degraded people of the southern provinces the hand strong enough to help them up, the hand that can rule! Here, at least, we may hope for Italy, with some assurance that we are not hoping in vain. The nation that produced Cavour, the nation that possesses Garibaldi, must surely have its reserves of strength still left.
If you were not a northern Italian, I should feel some difficulty in approaching the last of the three points of view from which I look at the Papal Obstacle standing in your way. Fortunately for my purpose, you are not a Tuscan or a Roman for it is precisely in the radical defects of the Tuscan and the Roman characters that I see the last of the three chances which the weakness of Italy still offers to the cause of the Pope.
The two striking defects of your countrymen, so far as a stranger can see them, appear to me to be: first, their apparent incapability of believing in truth; secondly, their want of moral fibre and nerve in the smaller affairs of life. The first of these defects presents the Italian to me in the aspect of a man who cannot be persuaded that I am telling the truth about the simplest matter conceivable, so long as he sees under the surface an object which I might gain by telling a lie. The second of these defects shows me my Italian fellow-pilgrim along the road of life, in the character of a man who, whenever he finds a stone in his path, skirts lazily round it, and leaves it to the traveller behind him, instead of lifting his foot and kicking it, once for all, out of the way. These are both (to my mind) dangerous national failings. The first lowers the public standard of honour, and does incalculable mischief in that way. The second leaves your countrymen without the invaluable check on all nuisances, abuses, and injustices, of a public opinion to discuss, and a public voice to resent them. There is gain, my friend, certain gain and certain strength here, for the cause of bad government all the world over.
Let me illustrate what I mean, by one or two examples, before I close my letter.
Not long ago, a certain mistake (the pure result of hurry and carelessness) was made in conducting the business of a certain English Legation. Some consternation was felt when the error was discovered, for it might have ended in awkward results. But the caprices of Chance are proverbial. An unforeseen turn of circumstance placed the Legation in the lucky position of having blundered, after all, in the right direction: a diplomatic advantage was thus accidentally gained, by a fortunate diplomatic error. A friend of mine (himself in the diplomatic service) was a few days afterwards in the company of several Italian gentlemen; all of them men of education and position; some of them men of note and mark in politics. On entering the room, my friend, to his astonishment, found himself eagerly surrounded, and complimented in the warmest terms on the extraordinary capacity of his Chief. It was almost a pleasure, your polite countrymen said, to be overreached in such an extremely clever manner. The Englishman, as soon as he could make himself heard, attempted to put the matter in its true light. It all originated, he declared, in a mistake. The Italians smiled, and shook their heads with the most charming courtesy and good humour. “Cave! cave!” they remonstrated. “You have outwitted us; but, my dear sir, we are not downright fools. The ‘mistake’ has done its work. Yon may drop the mistake!” The Englishman declared, on his word of honour, that the true explanation was the explanation he had given. The Italians bowed resignedly, and left him. To this day they are persuaded that the mistake was made on purpose. To this day they admire my friend as a master in the art of solemn false assertion for diplomatic ends.
This little incident is trivial enough in itself, I grant you; but pursue the inveterate belief in deceit that it exhibits, into the daily affairs of life, on the one hand, and into serious political emergencies on the other, and tell me if you do, or do not, see some of your domestic scandals and some of your ministerial complications under a new light.
Take your railroads again, as illustrating some of those other defects in the national character which I have ventured to point out. In Northern Italy, the railroad is excellently managed: in Northern Italy the railroad has taught the people the value of time. Advance through Tuscany, and go on to Rome, and I hardly know which would surprise and disgust you most—the absolute laziness of the official people in working the line, or the absolute submission of the passengers under the most inexcusable and the most unnecessary delays. I arrived at the capital of the kingdom of Italy by the train which they called an express. There were surprisingly few passengers, and there were only some six or eight barrow-loads of luggage. The porters—and there were quite enough of them—occupied half an hour, by my watch, in transporting the baggage from the van to the receiving-room. I never saw men lounge as those Florentine porters lounged; I never saw inspectors stand and do nothing, as those Florentine inspectors stood and did nothing; and I never saw travellers take the exasperating and disgraceful indolence of the people paid to serve them, as the Italian travellers took it. Two men protested—two men were angry. One was a Frenchman, the other was your obedient servant.
Going on once more towards Rome (but not yet, mind, out of the kingdom of Italy), we were kept waiting three-quarters of an hour for the arrival of a branch train. Three impatient men got out, and walked up and down the dominions of Victor Emmanuel, fuming. Again, the Frenchman; again, your obedient servant, and another Englishman. And what did the free Italians do? They sat talking and smoking in the sweetest of tempers. The perfect composure of the engine-driver, the stoker, and the guards, was more than matched by the perfect composure of the native passengers. Late or early, in the train or out of the train, oh dolce far niente, how nice you are, and how dearly we love you! See the Frenchman grinding his teeth, and hear the Englishmen with their national “Damn!” What a fever is in the blood of these northern people, and what lives the poor guards and engine-drivers must lead in those restless northern lands! Here comes the train, before the fourth quarter of an hour is out—what would you have more? Has any accident happened? Nothing has happened. “We have somehow lost three-quarters of an hour on the road, to-day; you somehow lost an hour on the road yesterday. Ma che? After all, we are going on to Rome. We go on. Night and darkness overtake us. The train stops, without a vestige of a station or a lamp visible anywhere in the starlight. A lonely little maid, with a little basket, appears, drifting dimly along the line, and crying “Medlars! medlars! buy my medlars!” Have we stopped to give this poor child a chance of picking up some coppers? Send her this way directly; let us buy the whole basket-full, and give the little maid a kiss, and go on to Rome. My head is out of the window; my hand is in my pocket. A gendarme appears, and the little maid vanishes. “Be so obliging,” the gendarme says, “as to come out and be fumigated.” I tell him I have come from Florence; I tell him there is no cholera at Florence; I tell him I have got a clean bill of health from Florence. The gendarme waits till I have done, and replies, “Be so obliging as to come out and be fumigated.” Everybody else has already got out to be fumigated. I hear the Frenchman in the darkness; his language is not reproducible. First class, second class, third class, we grope our way, without artificial light of any sort to help us, up the side of a hill, and all tumble into a shed. A soldier closes the door on us; a white smoke rises from the floor, and curls feebly about the people who are near it. Human fustiness and chloride of lime contend for the mastery; human fustiness, if my nose be to be trusted, has the best of it. Half a minute (certainly not more) passes, and the door is suddenly opened again; we are all fumigated; we may go on to Rome. No, we may not. The passports must be examined next. In any other country in the world, one stoppage would have been made to serve the two purposes. In Italy, two stoppages take place. As we jog on again, I consult my official guide to find out when we are due in Rome. The guide says 9 p.m. An experienced traveller tells me the guide is wrong—the hour is 8 p.m. A second traveller produces another guide—the hour is so ill printed that nobody can read it. I appeal to a guard, when we stop at the next station. “In Heaven’s name, when do we get to Rome?” In the gentlest possible manner he replies, “Have patience, sir.” I catch the vice of patience from the guard, and it ends in our getting to Rome before midnight. Next morning I try to find out, in various well-informed quarters, whether there is a public opinion of any sort or kind to resent and reform such absurdities as I have here, in all good humour, tried to describe. I can find out no such thing as a public opinion. I can find out no such thing as the nerve and fibre out of which a public opinion is made. Abuses which have nothing to do with politics, abuses which are remediable even under the Pope himself, encounter no public condemnation and no public resistance. Is it wonderful that the King of Naples still persists in waiting for his turn of luck? Can you call the “Catholic party” absolutely demented, if the “Catholic party” believe that the cards may yet change hands?
My letter is ended. All that is to be written and said, on the other side of the question, has been written and said, over and over again, already. The ungracious task of finding out your faults, and of stopping to look for the pitfalls that lie in your way, is now, to the best of my ability and within my narrow limits, a task performed. For the rest, time will show how far I am right, and how far I am wrong.
Meanwhile, I beg you will not do me the injustice to suppose that I have lost hope in the future of Italy. I have said what I have ventured to say, because I believe in the sincere resolution of the best among you to rouse the worst among you, and to show them, if it lie in human power, the way to advancement and reform. A man who honestly tells another man of his faults has some hope in that man, or he would hold his tongue. Distrust the flatterers and the enthusiasts—see the difficulties still before you, as the difficulties really are. When your people have had their Venetian holiday, send them mercilessly to school. For the future, let us have less throwing up of caps, and more throwing up of arable land—less illumination of houses, and more illumination of brains—the industry of an united people (which you have not got yet) in place of the acclamations of an united people (of which you have had more than enough). In plainer English still, do the work first, and shout over it afterwards. On the day when Italy has learnt that lesson, you will be too strong for the Pope, and you will be a free people.
First published: All The Year Round vol. XVI, 8 December 1866 pp. 510-514
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