Italia Felix



DIVIDED into a dozen jealous states, Italy could not unite for its own defense; the Italians were so busy relishing life that they allowed immature aliens to kill one another for the bitter fruit of politics and the tainted spoils of war. So the golden peninsula became the battleground of Bourbon Spain and France against Hapsburg Austria. A succession of wars of succession ended in 1748 with Spain again holding the kingdom of Naples and the duchy of Parma; the popes kept control of the Papal States; Savoy, Venice, and San Marino remained free; Genoa and Modena were French protectorates; Austria retained the Milanese and Tuscany. Meanwhile the sun shone, the fields, vineyards, and orchards gave food and drink, the women were beautiful and passionate, and arias filled the air. Foreigners came as tourists and students to enjoy the climate, the scenery, the theaters, the music, the art, and the society of men and women dowered with the culture of centuries. Half conquered, half despoiled, Italy, at least in the north, was the happiest country in Europe.

Its population stood at some fourteen millions in 1700, about eighteen millions in 1800. Less than half the land was arable, but of that half every square foot was tilled with patient labor and skillful care. Sloping terrain was terraced to hold the earth, and vines were hung from tree to tree, garlanding the orchards. In the south the soil was poor; there the sardonically smiling sun dried up the rivers, the earth, and man, and feudalism kept its medieval hold. A bitter proverb said that “Christ had never gotten south of Eboli”—which was just south of Sorrento. In central Italy the soil was fertile, and was tilled by sharecroppers under ecclesiastical lords. In the north-above all in the valley of the Po—the soil was enriched with irrigation canals; these required capital outlays and a peasantry disciplined to dredge the beds and shore the banks; here too the farmers tilled another man’s land for a share in the crops. But in those teeming fields even poverty could be borne with dignity.

A thousand villages took form on the plains, in the hills, by the sea: dirty and dusty in the summer, noisy in the morning with talkative labor slowing its pace to the heat, silent at noon, alive in the evening with gossip, music, and amorous pursuits. More than money the Italians loved their midday siesta, when, said Père Labat, “one saw nothing in the streets but dogs, fools, and Frenchmen.”1 A hundred towns rich in churches, palaces, beggars, and art; half a dozen cities as beautiful as Paris; thousands of artisans still at the top of their craft. Capitalistic industry was again developing in textiles, especially in Milan, Turin, Bergamo, and Vicenza; but even in textiles most of the work was done at domestic looms as part of family life. A small middle class (merchants, bankers, manufacturers, lawyers, physicians, functionaries, journalists, writers, artists, priests) was growing up between the aristocracy (landowners and ecclesiastical hierarchy) and the “populace” (shopkeepers, artisans, and peasantry), but it had as yet no political power.

Class distinctions, except in Venice and Genoa, were not painfully pronounced. In most Italian cities the nobles entered actively into commerce, industry, or finance. The fact that any Italian peasant could become a bishop or a pope infused a democratic element into social life; at the court the possessor of an awesome pedigree rubbed elbows with a prelate of humble birth; in the academies and universities intellectual excellence outweighed the claims of caste; in the Carnival melee men and women, at ease behind their masks, forgot their social grades as well as their moral codes. Conversation was as gay as in France, except for a tacit agreement not to disturb a religion that brought international tribute to Italy, even—especially—from her conquerors.

There was nothing puritanic about that religion; it had made its peace with the nature of man and the climate of Italy. It allowed, in the carnivals, a moratorium on modesty, but it labored to preserve the institutions of marriage and the family against the credulity of women and the imagination of men. In the literate classes girls were sent to a convent at an early age—as early as their fifth year—not chiefly for education but for moral surveillance. The eager product was released only when a dowry had been raised for her, and some suitor, approved by her parents or guardians, was prepared to offer her marriage. Occasionally, if we may credit Casanova, a concupiscent nun could elude the mother superior—or the mother superior could elude her nuns—and find a way to meet a concupiscent male between dusk and dawn; but these were rare and perilous escapades. We cannot say as much for the morals of the monks.

Generally the unmarried male, if he could not seduce a wife, patronized prostitutes. The Comte de Caylus estimated eight thousand of them at Naples in 1714 in a population of 150,000. Président de Brosses, in Milan, found that “one cannot take a step in the public squares without encountering pimps [courtiers de galanterie] who offer you women of whatever color or nationality you may desire; but you may believe that the effect is not always as magnificent as the promise.”2 In Rome the prostitutes were excluded from the churches and public assemblies, and were forbidden to sell their charms during Advent or Lent, or on Sundays and holydays.

Their greatest cross was the accessibility of married women to illicit devotion. These revenged themselves on their guarded adolescence and unchosen mates by indulging in liaisons, and by adopting a cavaliere servente. This custom of cicisbeatura, imported from Spain, allowed a married woman, with her husband’s consent and in his absence, to be attended by a “serving gentleman” who accompanied her to dinner, to the theater, to society, but rarely to bed. Some husbands chose cavalieri serventi for their wives to keep these from unlawful loves.3 The wide circulation of Casanova’s Memoirs, and the hasty reports of French travelers accustomed to French laxity, led to an exaggerated foreign conception of Italian immorality. Crimes of violence or passion abounded, but by and large the Italians were devoted children, jealous husbands, hard-working wives, and fond parents, living a united family life, and facing the tribulations of marriage and parentage with dignity, volubility, and resilient good cheer.

The education of women was not encouraged, for many men considered literacy dangerous to chastity. A minority of girls received in convents some instruction in reading, writing, embroidery, the arts of dressing and pleasing. Yet we hear of well-educated women conducting salons in which they conversed at ease with writers, artists, and men of affairs. In Palermo Anna Gentile translated Voltaire into good Italian verse, and published Lettere filosofiche in which she boldly defended the nonreligious ethics of Helvétius. At Milan Président de Brosses heard Maria Gaetana Agnesi, aged twenty, lecture in Latin on hydraulics;4 she learned Greek, Hebrew, French, and English, and wrote treatises on conic sections and analytical geometry.5 At the University of Bologna Signora Mazzolini taught anatomy, and Signora Tambroni taught Greek.6 At that same university Laura Bassi received the doctorate in philosophy at the age of twenty-one (1732); she soon acquired such erudition that she was appointed to a professorship; she lectured on Newton’s Opticks, and wrote treatises on physics; meanwhile she gave her husband twelve children, and educated them herself.7

The great majority in both sexes remained illiterate without social contumely. If a village lad showed an alert and eager mind the priest would usually find some way of getting him an education. Various religious “congregations” organized schools in the towns. The Jesuits had a great number of colleges in Italy—six in Venice, seven in the Milanese, six in Genoa, ten in Piedmont, twenty-nine in Sicily, and many in the kingdom of Naples and the Papal States. There were universities at Turin, Genoa, Milan, Pavia, Pisa, Florence, Bologna, Padua, Rome, Naples, and Palermo. All these were under control of Catholic ecclesiastics, but there were many laymen on the faculties. Teachers and students alike were sworn not to teach, read, say, or do anything contrary to the doctrine of the Roman Church. At Padua, says Casanova, “the Venetian government paid well-known professors very highly, and left the students absolute liberty to follow their lessons and lectures or not as they liked.”8

In addition the Italian mind was stimulated by many academies devoted to literature, science, or art, and usually free from priestly control. Chief of these in fame was the Arcadian Academy, which was now in genteel decay. There were public libraries, like the beautiful Biblioteca Ambrosiana at Milan, or the Biblioteca Magliabechiana (now Nazionale) at Florence; and many private libraries, like that of the Pisani at Venice, were opened to the public on stated days of the week. De Brosses reported that the libraries ofItaly were more frequently and zealously used than those of France. Finally, there were periodicals of every sort—scholarly, literary, or humorous. The Giornale dei letterati d’Italia, established in 1710 by Apostólo Zeno and Francesco Scipione di Maffei, was one of the most learned and respected journals in Europe.

All in all, Italy was enjoying a lively intellectual life. Poets abounded, living from dedication to dedication; the air was powdered with lyrics still echoing Petrarch; improvisatori competed in spawning verses on the spur of the invitation; but there was no great poetry till Alfieri closed the century. There were theaters at Venice, Vicenza, Genoa, Turin, Milan, Florence, Padua, Naples, Rome; to these elegant structures the elite and the commonalty came to converse and ogle as well as to hear the opera or the play. There were great scholars like Maffei, industrious historians like Muratori; soon there would be great scientists. It was a slightly artificial culture, cautious under censorship, and too courteous to be brave.

Even so, some fitful breezes of heresy came over the Alps or the sea. Foreigners—chiefly Jacobite Englishmen—established in Genoa, Florence, Rome, and Naples, from 1730 onward, Freemason lodges with a tendency to deism. Popes Clement XII and Benedict XIV condemned them, but they attracted numerous adherents, especially from the nobility, occasionally from the clergy. Some books of Montesquieu, Voltaire, Raynal, Mably, Condillac, Helvétius, d’Holbach, and La Mettrie were imported into Italy. Editions of the Encyclopédie, in French, were published at Lucca, Leghorn, and Padua. In a modest degree, in a form available to persons who could read French, the Enlightenment reached Italy. But the Italian deliberately, and for the most part contentedly, refrained from philosophy. His bent and skill lay in the creation or appreciation of art and poetry or music; a tangible or visible or audible beamy seemed preferable to an elusive truth that was never guaranteed to please. He let the world argue while he sang.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!