Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Sketches from my Italian household

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search




When one thinks of the pompous damsels who in England claim the title of Lady’s-Maid, or of the coquettish and pert French aspirant to that situation, an Italian “cameriera” is almost unworthy of such a distinction. In the first place, she is not above making herself generally useful; she does not consider it violates the dignity of her calling to “fare il servizis,” that is, to sweep and clean her lady’s bedroom, as well as to adorn her lady’s person. Secondly, she can not only dress hair, make dresses, and trim bonnets and caps, but she washes and irons, and sews; she can embroider, and plait straw, and she can, on an emergency, even repair her master’s trousers and make his waistcoats. In the last place, and this is what most absolutely degrades her from such a dignity, she is content with the most moderate wages. For five, four, nay three, dollars a month she will undertake all these arduous duties.

In her ordinary dress she is, I will confess, as a general rule, far less elegant than her sister abigails of France and England; but when, on an occasion of any very solemn “outing,” she does dress herself in her best, she excels them, in as much as she wears her clothes in a far more aristocratic manner, and her speech, gestures, and bearing are far more lady-like. The extreme courtesy and good-humour, which is as a vein of fine ore in the Tuscan character, is universal. The Teresinas, and Virginias, and Gelorgias have it no less than the owners of the grand historic names. A Tuscan is rarely violent or ill-tempered. The women are perhaps more so than the men; but it is not usual in either sex. I have heard many foreigners speak of them as dishonest, and there may be a set of servants who devote themselves exclusively to the service of passers-by who are so; but, judging from my own experience, they are quite the contrary.

There is a certain feudality of feeling, if I may so speak, among Tuscan servants. They identify themselves with a family, and like to remain in its service. It is a common custom among Italians to remember their servants in their wills, and it is an ambition which the true unsophisticated Tuscan servant always acknowledges, to remain many years with the same master. It is curious to hear how, after a man or woman has been a certain time in a situation, he or she always speaks in the first person plural as regards all the belongings of the family. It is always “we,” and “ours,” and “us.” There is much more familiarity than with us between masters and servants, and no other nation has retained so inveterate a republican equality in all these respects as the Italians. Social freedom and political bondage have been the two sides of the shield here, as the reverse is seen in England and America. My maid Virginia, for instance, going out to enjoy herself at the Carnival, does not hesitate to ask me to lend her any trifling ornament or finish which her dress may require. I confess I like this confidence in one’s good nature, this reliance on a bond of common humanity. The “thou” with which servants are invariably addressed has also an affectionateness in its sound (exclusively appropriated as it is to them and to the dearest and closest family ties), which insensibly softens and modifies our intercourse with them.

An Italian lady’s-maid has a great love of outdoor amusements. She must always have her Sunday “passeggiata.” The “feste” (saints’ days) must not be interfered with. She will walk all day long at such times to see the dresses and carriages in the Cascine, or along the Lung ’Arno, and to be seen. Then there is the Carnival. She stipulates, on engaging with a new mistress, that she may go once to the theatre, and once to the “neglione” (the masked ball at a theatre is so called), and to the Corso. The Corso is the drive along certain streets, on fixed days, of all the nobility, gentry, and commonalty of Florence, in their finest equipages, dresses, and liveries. Some of the carriages are full of flowers, some of bonbons, some carriages are full of masks, in some there are strange, and grotesque costumes. The carriages go at a foot-pace, the pedestrians throng the streets, and every balcony and window is lined with people. How strange it would seem to us if a sober English lady’s-maid knocked at the door of the sitting-room, and asked leave to show herself, previously to going to a masked ball, as my maid has just done.

“Come in, Virginia.”

And enter Virginia, a tall fair girl, with her bright hair raised from her forehead over a cushion, and then plaited and adorned with pearls and flowers in true rococo style, a tiny coquettish Swiss straw hat is perched on one side of her head; she wears a black velvet laced boddice, trimmed with red ribbons and pearl buttons; beneath the boddice is a white full muslin chemisette up to the throat, showing the fair proportions of a well-made bust, a white muslin shirt, trimmed with black and red, very full, and rather short (be it said), completes her dress, and her little black velvet mask is in her hand.
Tuscan Lady’s-Maid, dressed for a Ball.
Her face glows with delight. There is not the slightest levity about her, she is simply as happy as any girl can be. From the last Carnival to this she has thought of her dress, and every little scrap of ribbon or bit of lace that she could get together have been laid aside for this occasion. With the dimples on her smiling face, and her bright eyes, she is as pretty a sight as one can see, and I am quite sure she will not want partners. She is going with her sisters, her brother-in-law, her aunt, her cousins, a party of eight or ten, and—crowning felicity of all—a fiacre is to be sent for her and to bring her home. To-morrow she will present herself at the usual time, and go through her duties as quietly as before. Her dress is put by till next Carnival comes, and it is all over.

Her Sundays and saints’ days’ “passeggiate” are all the pleasures she will now need. To these may be added the fairs. On every Sunday during Lent there is a fair at one of the gates of Florence, at which are sold a little fiat thin cake, something like the Swiss “gauffre,” called brigidini, and nuts. The brigidini are of very ancient date: the flat kind of tongs in which they are baked have been found in old curiosity shops, dated 1100. They are flavoured with lemon, and crisp, like wafers. These fairs are called by the quaintest names. There is La fiera degli innamorati, La fiera dei disperati, La fiera delle spie, &c., &c., according to the gate at which they are held.[1] There is also the fair of the Santissima Annunziata, held in March, where everything is sold, from a bedstead to a doll. These fairs temper the monotony of the rest of the calendar year.

Novel-reading, tea-drinking and shopping are pleasures not understood by Tuscan maids. Their reading is of the most limited kind, tea-drinking is an abomination to them, and their shopping is very desultory and undignified. They frequent fairs, and actually patronise sellers of second-hand goods. They do not like to go shopping even for their mistresses. Walking out alone they always avoid; and it appears to them an uncalled for and cruel necessity to wear out their shoes, bonnets, and clothes on “giorni di lavoro.”

On the other hand, they do not scorn and abhor any economical habit which their mistresses may think it worth while to practise. There is none of that vain glory in wastefulness which is so common in English servants. There is a greater value for money in some respects, and yet a less regard for it, than in England. So much can be enjoyed without money in Italy, so little in England, that the stand-point is different in the two countries.

An Italian lady’s-maid likes to marry a man servant in the family she serves. “Husband and wife in one service” is one of their dreams of well-being; and as it is the custom for women of all classes never to nurse their own children, the married state does not interfere with their duties. When the time comes for the child to leave its nurse, some odd corner in the house is generally found for it, where it remains “suffered” rather than “permitted” till the time comes for it to be, if a boy, apprenticed to some trade or sent to some school; if a girl, to be taught knitting, working, ironing, &c. In this primitive and patriarchal fashion, which, however, I am sorry to say, is almost passing away, the household of an Italian family is more linked together by personal affection than in our more limited and regular establishments.

That expressive phrase “keeping company” is understood in Italy quite as well as in England. Every girl has her “damo” whom she hopes at some indefinite time in the future to marry. But I am afraid it is the institution rather than the individual that is valued. There is often a change in the principal actor, though the drama goes on. “En tout bien et tout honneur,” be it understood. Single girls in Italy are taken care of and bear a good reputation. Now and then a catastrophe takes place, but owing to what the rigid world would call a laxity of morals, the consequences do not involve the entire ruin of the guilty one. All is not hopelessly forfeited. She need not sink lower in utter desperation. It still depends on herself to maintain her footing, and in time and with opportunity to regain respectability. I think, therefore, in the mode of dealing with this offence, the advantage is on the side of the Italians.

A favourite amusement of the Italian lady’s maid is that old-fashioned Jezebel one, looking out of window. When by some mishap, or miscalculation, the new bonnet or dress has not been ready in time for going out, you will see them leaning out of the window, with a “scaldino” in their hands if it be winter, or the everlasting fan if it be summer, for a whole afternoon. What pretty faces one thus sees as one looks upwards, in some of the dark narrow streets, watching hour after hour, with steady unmoved gaze, the passing crowds. Faces which bear the same lines and are of the same type as the features we have so admired in the churches and galleries. Masaccio has painted them, and Lippo Lippi and they have been idealised by Perrugino. Faces which have a sudden flashing out into smiles which is peculiarly Italian, and which, seen framed by the dark old arched windows, with their twisted columns in the centre and mediæval copings, are a picture in themselves.

I have spoken of the Tuscan lady’s-maid. She, however, is a person of grander and larger and more barbaresque mould. She has a kind of indolent and stolid fierceness about her. Her steady wide-open eyes have far less sparkle and intelligence in them, and she is certainly not so clever or efficient as her Tuscan sister, but she is affectionate and faithful. In cases of illness, she will sit rocking herself on the ground telling her beads by the side of the patient night after night, without a murmur or complaint. Then it is more than worth her salary to hear her speak with the musical full enunciation she gives to her words, and to watch the way she holds that noble head of hers, with its loops of black tresses, fastened by the silver, crescent-shaped comb.

There is the Lucchese, of fairer complexion and slimmer figure, handy, clever, industrious, but, as a general rule, less to be relied on; the Pistorian, with “a wild-fruit flavour,” and a savage kind of grace about her, and the Neapolitan, full of tricks and cleverness, and humour and plausibilities; but all are easily contented, more obedient, and more obliging than an English servant, and more faithful and less selfish than a French one. The experience of some years has brought me to this conclusion, that no servant is more generally useful and more pleasant to have in one’s house than a good Italian cameriera. Let me add that this word cameriera means both more and less, than its literal translation, lady’s-maid.



As a companion to the Italian lady’s-maid, I must describe the Italian man-servant. This personage is at once housemaid, cook, purveyor, footman, butler, and waiter. In the morning he sweeps and cleans the drawing-rooms and dining-rooms, and prepares the breakfast; he then goes to market and buys the day’s provisions. This is done deliberately, and gives opportunity for an unlimited quantity of gossip with other servants occupied in the same manner, and a diversion into a café to look at the “Nazione,” and indulge in a little rest and a cup of black coffee. Then it is time to return home. A white apron and white cap are put on, and the real business of the day commences. The charcoal fires are lighted and the preparations made.

At intervals the cloth is laid, and then, when all is ready, and with an occasional help from the woman, the dinner is served.

An Italian servant usually keeps in his own private employment some retainer who does the dirty work, draws the water, washes up the dishes, and cleans the kitchen. This supernumerary is usually nameless, or bears a nickname. The one who is “attachè” to my servant is called “Vecchio.” He is certainly an elderly individual, but does not deserve by any means, either from age or appearance, so disagreeable an appellation as “the old one.”

After the dinner is cleared away comes a season of repose, spent over a cigar or pipe by some, in a siesta by others, until the hour of the afternoon drive. By that time the man is dressed, and ready to attend as footman; if the dinner is late and the carriage not used, the eternal café with its dominoes and cards and gossip is again resorted to. A man receives five or six dollars a month. I am always speaking of servants paid according to the rate that Italians pay their domestics. There are servants, and those by no means the best, who are engaged by English, or Russian, or American families, who receive treble that amount of wages, but the sum I have mentioned is the Italian average salary. The usual manner of house-keeping is for your servant to buy, day by day, the articles wanted for daily use, and you pay him every day or once a week. That array of tradesmen’s books, with those wonderful hieroglyphics with which the butchers like to puzzle and aggravate you, and the baker and greengrocer vie with each other in confusing you, are all but unknown. One sum in addition serves for all.

Some persons adopt a method of limiting their expenses and simplifying still more their household arrangements, which is to agree that their cooks should provide for the expenses of the family at a certain sum per diem, which is to include everything but tea, wine, or any extraordinary and unusual demand. This is termed “a cottino.” It requires, of course, a knowledge of the price of every article to judge whether justice is done in the quantity and quality of the food provided, and it also requires an exercise of imagination on the part of the cook to vary the “ordinary” of each day. To my thinking, it is not a satisfacfactory method for either party.

In Italy, the luxuries of life are cheaper in proportion than the necessaries. The difference in the weights and measures approximates the expenses of living in England and in Italy more than could be at first sight imagined. A hundred a-year can go as far in England as in Italy, but every additional hundred is worth half as much again, and after five hundred, worth twice as much again.

The character of an Italian man-servant is usually pacific and indolent. This last quality seems strange, considering the multiplicity of occupation which he gladly undertakes, but is the fact. In variety of work is repose, so philosophers tell us; and the manner in which an apartment is arranged, the absence of much, or sometimes of any, running up and down stairs, the little dust or dirt which can accumulate on those painted floors, and the facility with which wood fires are kept up, combine to spare the strength of one’s domestics. An Italian has also great personal independence. He will not sacrifice his beard or moustache on any consideration, he would forego the best situation rather than shave. On the subject of honesty there have been dreadful complaints, but I think they have been exaggerated. I do not deny that with some Italians there is a Spartan characteristic of liking to prove their ingenuity in over-reaching, not only their employers, but the tradesmen with whom they deal. They use a persistence and an eloquence in beating down the price of an article, worthy of a better cause, and if they succeed in doing so they pocket the advantage without scruple. This is not honest, certainly, according to our notions. I must add, however, that this advantage would never be conceded to the master in any case whatever, so that he is not a loser by sending his servant to make purchases instead of himself, he only loses the difference which is made in selling to an Italian instead of a “forestiere,” and which is considered the rightful perquisite of all the negotiation and diplomacy which has been employed. Yet I would trust money, trinkets, plate, as willingly to an Italian servant as to an English one. By showing the first he possesses your confidence you almost invariably secure his fidelity. The fact is, a good servant soon feels a kind of personal affection for the property of his masters, and respects it as he would his own. It is only, I repeat, when he succeeds in driving a sharp bargain that he cannot resist the temptation of profiting by it. Does no pilfering go on with us?

The weakest part of an Italian’s character is his love of making excuses. Lies are, I fear, cosmopolite; but for the inventive faculty of dressing up a falsehood with all kinds of imaginary circumstances, I think the Italians are supreme. It is often as much for the sake of pleasing “per contentarta,” as for the sake of deceiving. I must explain, however, that they jump to conclusions with a rapidity and an unreasonableness, which often bears the appearance of wilful falsehood when it is not so. Their mobile natures and vivid imaginations are to blame for this. Then their perceptions are so quick, that a look or a gesture betrays to them in what direction your inclination tends when you ask them a question, and their wonderful easiness and pliancy of temper enables them to adapt themselves in their answers to it. I must also say that there is something so childlike and simple combined with all their facility of contrivance and plotting, that their intrigues are usually very transparent. “Siamo furbi,” they say with great self-gratulation, for they prize nothing more than this reputation. Dissimulation rather than simulation is their forte. It has been so long the necessity of the oppressed against the oppressor. Fine wit has so often resisted the brutal force opposed to it, that they have acquired a faith in stratagem which it will take years of freedom to uproot.

One thing has always struck me, the indomitable and deep-seated consciousness of their own superiority, as a race, which this people have always cherished. With their necks under the Austrian heel, it existed undiminished. The Austrians were feared and hated, but even more despised.

There is little or no flunkeyism in Italian servants. They do not like to wear a livery. With them servitude forfeits no rights, but bestows a claim. I hear often reproaches made of the ingratitude and mercenariness of Italian servants. This is unjust. They are grateful for acts of courtesy, and for trifling donations, which our countrymen would often scorn and forget; but I allow that their resentment is as easily excited as their love, and often sponges out the previous good will. But I have met with fidelity, disinterestedness, and warm attachment among them, and these are qualities rare everywhere, and not, alas! the staple commodity of any soil.

Your man-servant becomes just as confidential and communicative after he has been some time in your service as your maid. Mine consulted me seriously the other day as to an intention he had of marrying. As a delicate compliment to my nationality, he said he would prefer an Englishwoman.

Non troppo, Signora,” he said; “but with a little money.”

I am so unromantic that I was not scandalised at this last clause. I like, as far as possible, an equality in all monetary arrangements between the sexes. If a woman brings her quota to the domestic outlay, it gives her, or should give her, of necessity, a voice and a potentiality in it.

Kindness to children is a remarkable trait in Italian man-servants. The patience with which they will try to please them and wait on them is wonderful. The understanding, too, between the old child and the younger one is very striking. These men have a susceptibility to impressions and an elasticity of temperament which is most child-like and appreciated by children.

I know no prettier sight than to see the tall, stout Ferdinand, with his moustache and black eyes, and ex-military air (he served in ’48), sitting the whole evening with that little golden-haired, fair little boy on his knee, making him laugh with stories of his own childhood. To that child “Ferdinando mio,” as he calls him, is a type of manly virtue and genius; to Ferdinando the “Signorino,” is a marvel of precocious and angelic intelligence.

E nostro Signorino,” says Ferdinando, claiming him, as it were, and I am quite sure that his own children are not more beloved. That child is certain of having in that man a staunch and life-long friend. His having been born in Tuscany completes and crowns his perfections.

Cosa vaole,” the Italian explains, “he was born in Tuscany, how can he be anything but a Tuscan. I cannot consider him as a ‘forestiere,’ and then, ‘e cosi gentile!



That woman with the large round broad-leafed Leghorn hat, trimmed with cherry-coloured bows and streamers, with her long heavy gold ear-rings, with the strings of real but uneven pearls round her brown throat, her large cherry-coloured bows on the shoulders, her bodice, called “busto,” which tightens her waist under the full matronly frontispiece, so modestly veiled by the spotless white handkerchief, is the balia or wet-nurse.
Tuscan Balia, or Wet-nurse.
She is usually a peasant woman from some of the villages clustered like nests on the Apennines. She sends out her own baby to nurse, and comes down to Florence to seek the situation of balia. She looks much older than she is, at first sight, for she is so brown, and constant exposure to sun and air has made her skin coarse and freckled; but her features are pretty, and the face has a kind and gentle expression.

She absolutely dotes on the little baby who has replaced her own. Her patience with it is exemplary. The baby is the real Moloch (vide Dickens), to which everything else must be sacrificed. It must never be thwarted or contradicted. Strict disciplinarians, who would commence infantine education from the cradle, would be frantic at the indulgence she shows her charge.

The baby chooses her to sit on the ground, she does so; the baby will roll on the grass, it does so; the baby will have her shoulder knots, they are taken off. This is very injudicious, no doubt, but the fault is compensated by untiring good humour, unvarying patience, unswerving gentleness. In my opinion, systematic and constant indulgence does less harm than spasmodic and uncertain petting; and to trust an uneducated person with the repression of, or opposition to, a child’s temper is a dangerous experiment.

A balia is eminently a person of one idea, and that idea is concentrated on the baby she nurses; she thinks of nothing else,—lives, moves, breathes, for that alone. She is paid in proportion more than other servants, but the troublesome fancies of wet-nurses in other countries she ignores. She eats and drinks as usual, and no double allowance of porter, wine, or tea is required. In cases of infantine illness she is devoted and indefatigable, but easily frightened, and apt to despair on small provocation. She covers her face with her apron, and sobs. She is hopeless, and calls on the Madonna. The beginning and end of her philosophy is to kiss and to cry.

I remember seeing one of these women once, when the child she was nursing had a serious illness. It was thought it would die, and it was necessary to tell her of it. Her despair was touching. It was disinterested grief for the loss of her nursling, and not for the loss to herself. At the same time, when she could articulate, there was something so pagan and barbaric in her ejaculations, that it was quite ludicrous to hear her. She reproached her saints with the cruelty of taking such an “angelino” into Paradise, and expostulated on the injustice to herself, after she had taken such care of the child, had dressed it so neatly, and above all, had washed it every day! Such merit as the last deserved a different catastrophe, and was the hardest thought of all. Her patient love, her day and night watchings, and surrender of herself in every way to the well-being of the infant was natural to her; but washing it every day was an extraordinary good work, and should have ensured reward. Her affection for her foster-child is lifelong, and I have seen a balia speak to a bearded man in a general’s uniform with the same tone of tender blandishment with which she must have addressed him as a baby in her arms. The foster-brothers and sisters have also a tie with the child their mother has nursed, which is mutually acknowledged, and rarely set aside. She is very obliging, too, and when she is at liberty, will help with the other servants, and do anything she is asked. Such faults as can be found in her must be considered as proceeding from her ignorance. She is untidy and thoughtless. With all her painstaking she does not dress the child committed to her care with the taste and comprehension of finery of an English nurse, but that may be excused when one remembers how strangely wrapped and swathed are the babies she is used to, and that all these frills, and laces, and feathers are incumbrances, in her opinion, rather than ornaments.

She is never so happy as when the child, disrobed of all its pomps and vanities, is held in her arms, and is drawing its little life from her own. She rocks herself gently backwards and forwards, and hums in a low tone, with that beautiful musical intonation of her country which is universal in all classes. The simple melody harmonises well with that soft cooing gurgle with which the supremely happy infant occasionally interrupts itself. Both faces, that of the nurse and of the child bear a look of dreamy, absorbed felicity. At length the little “forestiere” baby breaks off and turns, and opens its blue sleepy eyes on the vivid dark countenance bending over it. The contrast in type and colouring is most strange and picturesque. It has often made me think (with a slight variation of Campbell’s pretty line “Morning led by Night”) it is “Morning borne on the breast of Night.”


  1. Porta San Gallo; Fiera dei Curiosi; Fiera dei Furiosi; Fiera degli Innamorati; Porta al Prato; Fiera dei Disperati; Porta Romana; Fiera dei Contralti; Porta San Frediano; Fiera delle Spie.