Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Beppo, the conscript - Part 1

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Part 2




Once upon a time the narrow strip of territory shut in between the Apennine and the Adriatic to the south of Bologna and to the north of Ancona, was, as Byron has written of Venice,

The pleasant place of all festivity,
The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy.

That small district, so niggardly squeezed in between the encroaching mountains and the sea, was once one of the high places not only of Italian but of European civilisation. It was there that the brilliant dynasties of Rovere and Montefeltro held courts at Pesaro, at Urbino, or a little further inland among the hills, at Gubbio, who gathered around them all that was most distinguished in poesy, in scholarship, in art, and in chivalry. It was there that Tasso wandered among the green valleys and by streams made classical for the second time in their existence, by his genius—wandered now a brilliant courtier, and now an outcast mendicant, as the breeze of court favour, or more surely his own love-sick fancies and morbid imagination impelled him. There flows from its ice-cold cradle in the higher Apennine to its glowing death-bed in the genial Adriatic, that storied Metauro, whose second golden age, thanks to the imperishable names and memories attached to the halcyon days of the Ducal House of Urbino, has well-nigh eclipsed the glories of its first. There, mostly on the sea-board of the Adriatic, are a constellation of cities, once the chosen abode of the arts, of prosperity, and civilised culture in every kind; the rescued fragments of whose wealth have furnished forth the museums of every country in Europe, and the story of whose prime is one with that of the morning-tide vigour of every liberal art.

It is a different region now! And a very different spectacle, and other ideas and associations are impressed on the mind of a wanderer among those Adriatic cities! The Church stretched over them its leaden hand, and numbed them! Priestly power came, and literature ceased; education was no more; commerce pined and died; wealth made itself wings and flew away; all energy departed from them; the national character became deteriorated; the cities decayed; palaces fell to ruin; even churches were defaced and their beauty destroyed by the base greed and tasteless criticism of a clergy, whose scope was to use religion as a begging impostor’s swindle. Ever increasing poverty, and the spreading canker of mendicity invaded fields and cities. Lazy squalor, brutifying superstition, and the degrading and unmanly vices fostered by the morality of the confessional, marked the fallen region as their own!

It was not to be wondered at that a population which had stagnated and languished under priestly government, while the rest of the world had been more or less rapidly and umnistakeably progressing and improving itself, and which had long been hopelessly and fruitlessly beating its maimed and broken wings against the bars of its prison-house, should have seized with boundless enthusiasm the first really promising chance of escape! Nobody was, and only few pretended to be, surprised, when the all but entire population of Romagna rose to welcome their deliverers from the worse than Egyptian bondage under which they had been suffering, and to assist in the not very arduous effort needed for driving their oppressors from the country.

But neither should it have been surprising, though many more persons were surprised at it, that a population, which had grown up under such circumstances, moral and political, should have shown itself, as soon as the first enthusiastic impulse, by which it had achieved its deliverance, was spent, little fitted for the duties and discipline of well-policied political and social life, and above all indisposed for further regularised efforts and sacrifices, the necessity for which was not apparent to them, or at all events did not recommend itself to them as requisite for their own escape from present suffering. There was nothing, I say, in this that might not have been anticipated. As usual, the emancipated slaves thought that every kind of prosperity, happiness, and well-being was to be the immediate result of their emancipation;—that no further self-sacrifice was needed;—that a millennium of universal cakes and ale had arrived;—and all troubles, at all events all troubles connected with the governing of the country, had been got rid of for ever.

Of course the disappointment that awaited on the waking from this dream was great. Of course a certain measure of discontent with the new order of things supervened. Of course this was increased to the utmost, and in every way made the most of by those whose interests or prejudices placed them among the “laudatores temporis acti.” The class which might be so designated in the Romagna was a very small one. But it was one that wielded a special and peculiar power; for it embraced the very great majority of the clergy. The clerical government, and its myrmidons, whether lay or clerical, might be driven out. But it was impossible to drive out all the clergy in the country. It was impossible to deprive parishes of their parish priests. The deposed government thus left behind it a special and very effective army, vowed unalterably to its interests. And this army was composed of a class of men to whose consciences all means were lawful for the destruction, if possible—for the embarrassment, if more than that were not possible, of the new rulers. And it is difficult to exaggerate the power which such a mass and such a class of irreclaimable malcontents exercised, when a special point of attack was offered to them, by any particular subject of discontent felt by the bulk of the population against any particular part of the conduct of the new government.

Such a point of attack was offered to them by the conscription laws.

Military service was in the highest degree repugnant to the feelings of the Romagnole peasant. He had been used to suffer almost every evil that could result from bad and oppressive government, but he had not been used to this. It presented itself to his mind as a new and unheard-of form of calamity—a burthen the more intolerable in that the back had never been trained to bear it. It was not that the Romagnole peasant is especially averse from the business of fighting. By no means so! Call on him to fight for any cause he approves, there and then, on his own plains and hillsides, and put his wonted weapon, the knife, into his hand, and there could be no reason to complain of his unwillingness to fight. But to submit to strict discipline, to move at word of command, and above all to go away from family, friends, neighbours, from the well-known and well-loved localities and names into a strange land, this was what was intolerable to the imagination of these people.

But was there any prospect of probability that the Romagnole conscript would be sent forth on foreign service? Was it not for the defence of his native land, for service on Italian ground that he was needed? Such considerations were urged on the young men of Romagna in vain. Native land! Their native land was Romagna,—the flank of the Apennine, the banks of the Metauro, the shore of the Adriatic, the fat soil and fertile fields which make their district the granary of Italy. To their imagination Piedmont was as much a foreign country as France, or as China! A country the ways and manners, and, above all, the language of which were utterly and distastefully different from their own.

To be seized and forcibly sent away from his home, from his interests, from his loves, from his habitudes, into an unknown and distant land, where the people were hard and unfriendly by nature (the constant prejudice of Italian provincialism against the inhabitants of other districts), where they talked an unintelligible and disgusting gibberish, where they made bad bread, and grew intolerable wine, and the girls were all ugly, and not kind like the dear ones of their own genial land, this was what the Romagnole youths, especially those of the rural districts, could not make up their minds to endure.

Great, accordingly, was the amount of discontent and trouble occasioned by the inevitable enforcement of the conscription in these districts, and very numerous were the refrattarj or runaways, who “took to the hills” rather than submit to the fate which an unlucky number at the drawing of the dreaded conscription had awarded them.

And the natural peculiarities and conformation of their country afforded especial facilities for such means of escape. The fertile low-lands of Romagna are but a narrow strip shut in between the sea and the mountains. The latter are nowhere far off—nowhere beyond the reach of one day’s journey on foot. And these mountains represent not only a physical but a political barrier; a frontier which, in the case of the ill-regulated and ill-agreeing governments of Italy, always involved an extra degree of lawlessness in the habits of the people. The Apennine frontier line between Tuscany and the Papal provinces of the Bolognese and Romagna was always, especially on the Papal side, a district notorious for evil deeds and lawless violence of all kinds. And although the great majority of the Romagnole conscripts, who took to the hills to escape from military service, were for the most part very honest, and in some cases well-to-do country bumpkins, who contemplated no other breach of the law than simple escape from the conscription, yet resistance to the law, and the manner of life to which it necessarily leads, are not good training-schools for the civic virtues. Between breakers of the law, whatever may be the nature of the difference which puts them at odds with it, there is a fellowship and a community of interests which is apt fatally to widen the breach between the law and those whose quarrel with it is of the lesser gravity.

All which, of course, made the disorders arising from the dread of the conscription, prevailing specially among the rustic populations of Romagna, so much the more mischievous and deplorable, and ought to have prevented the ministers of religion, who understood the nature of the case perfectly in all its bearings, from manifesting their political hostility to the Italian government by contributing to place the young men of their parishes in positions of so much moral danger.

Yet the clergy were everywhere the agents of and inciters to desertion.

Did a Romish clergy ever yet hesitate to sacrifice morality to a political object? Their own reply would be, that they never do so because the political objects which they have at heart are, in fact, essential to the good morality of generations yet unborn, and that whatever sacrifice may be made of the moral good of present units is justified and compensated by the advantage gained for future thousands;—not to mention that the moral harm done in the meantime can all be put right by a stroke of their own art!

Throughout the Romagna, accordingly, during those first years that followed the incorporation of that province with the new Italian kingdom, wherever a conscript wished to abscond instead of joining the depôt, his parish priest was ready to aid and abet his flight; and wherever his courage failed to take that step, or his good feeling towards the new order of things struggled against the temptation to take it, the priest was at hand to suggest, to counsel, to persuade, to urge it. Had it not been for the clergy, the evil would have been easily eradicated; and that state of things in the Romagna, which gave rise to the events related in the following pages, would not have existed.


The flat strip of rich alluvial soil at the foot of the hills, and on the sea-shore, which makes the wealth and prosperity of the province of Romagna, is not specially interesting in other than agricultural eyes, save for its numerous and storied cities. The higher Apennine range, which hedges in this district from the rest of the peninsula, is a bleak and barren region for the most part, from which its clothing of forest has, to the great injury of the country in many respects, been stripped in the course of many greedily consuming and improvidently unproducing generations. This rugged backbone of Italy is not devoid in many parts of points of interest and beauty of the wilder and sterner kind; but it cannot be compared, at least in this section of it, with the mountain scenery of either the Alps, the Pyrenees, or even the Jura. But between these two regions there is a third, which teems with beauty and interest of no mean order.

The great massive flanks of the mountains are there broken by an innumerable multitude of small streams into a labyrinth of little valleys,—a world of bosky greenery, of sunny meadows on the uplands, of rich fat pastures in the watered bottoms, of woodlands on the swelling hill-sides. Less valuable as a grain-producing country than the alluvial district along the shore, it is hardly less smiling to the eye of the husbandman; it is far more varied in the nature of its products, and infinitely more beautiful. From many a snug homestead deep-niched in the hollow of some dark-green valley, a peep of the restless Adriatic, tumbling itself into white-crested breakers flashing in the southern sun, is seen across the sea side plains, through the valley’s mouth, like the section of a landscape through a telescope. Many a time the storm-wind is sweeping down from the wilderness of the upper Apennine, and teasing the Hadrian sea into meriting its Horatian epithet, “iracundus,” while the sheltered nooks among the lower hills, though they can hear the distant tempests far above them, and can see the working of it on the face of the sea far beneath them, feel nothing of it.

It is not wonderful, that the inhabitants and tillers of this favoured region should love it, and be loth to quit it; for it is in truth a lovely home,—a smiling, grateful, genial, and beautiful country.

In one of the most beautiful parts of this beautiful region, a little to the south-west of the small sea-side town of Fano, and a little to the north-west of Ancona, there is among the hills a farm and farmhouse called Bella Luce. “Beautiful light” is the translation of the name; and whether a stranger visited it when the first rays of the sun, rising out of the Adriatic, were smiling their morning greeting to it, laughingly peering round the wood-clothed shoulder of the hill, which shuts in the entrance to the valley on the southern side of it; or whether he saw it at the Ave Maria hour, when from the cool obscurity of its green nook it looked out on the last reflected beams playing with a fitful and fading smile on the darkening waters, the perfect propriety of the appellation would hardly be questioned by him.

The little stream, which in the course of ages had hollowed out for itself from the friable side of the Apennine the narrow valley, in which the house and a great part of the farm of Bella Luce are situated, runs into the river Metauro from the north. It falls into the river, that is to say, on its northern side. But as the large valley of the Metauro runs towards the Adriatic not in an easterly, but in a north-easterly direction, and as the small valley opens into the larger one not at right angles, but sloping in a direction from the west, it commanded the peep that has been described of the distant sea.

The farm-house was situated about half-way up the sloping side of the valley, the declivity of which was so shaped that the part above the dwelling was very much less steep than that below it. Immediately in front of the house, which was so placed as to look down the valley, the ground fell away in a descent as steep as it well could be without depriving the soil of its character of pasturage. Had it been steeper, the sod must have been broken by the rains, which are often very violent in this region, and the valley-side would have assumed the character of a precipice. As it was, it was a rich, deeply green, buttercup-mottled pasture. Above and behind the house, where the declivity was, as has been said, very much less rapid, there was a small quantity of arable land and a wider extent of wood. Along the sides of the valley below the farm residence—towards the opening of it, that is to say—there were several fields mainly of root-crops; but the upper part of the valley, beyond the house, was almost entirely occupied by pasture-land.

All this constituted a large farm, as the farms run in that part of the world, and a rich and valuable one. And Paolo Vanni, the farmer, was a rich and prosperous man—not so rich and prosperous as an Englishman might have imagined, if the long frontage of the farm-house had been pointed out to him from the opposite side of the valley, but richer and more prosperous than the same stranger would have supposed if he had formed his estimate from a near examination of the dwelling. In the first case, the imposing length of the frontage, and the quantity of the masses of building attached to it, would have led the Englishman to imagine that none save a man living in a house with considerable pretensions to something more than mere comfort, and carrying on his agricultural operations with a luxe of appurtenances and out-buildings of all sorts, could be in the occupation of premises making so great a show. In the second case, he would have marvelled at the quantity of brick and mortar apparently wasted, and would have concluded that only a man whose affairs were going to the bad could be the master of so unrepaired, so untidy, so ramshackle, so poorly-furnished a residence.

Neither conjecture would have hit the truth. Paolo Vanni was of the race of well-to-do peasants—a very common race in the rich and fertile province of Romagna. He was neither better instructed, nor more industrious, nor more enlightened, than any of the peasant farmers of the district, nor differing in his manners and ideas from them. But he held a very good farm—his father and grandfather had held it before him—and he was very fond of saving his money.

The strikingly long front of the building, which makes so magnificent a show from the further side of the valley, resolves itself into elements which have very little of the magnificent about them when seen close at hand. One very large portion of the frontage consisted of an open loggia. The loggia at Bella Luce occupied one end of the façade of the building, and consisted of a space enclosed by three solid brick walls, and in front by a range of five arches resting on red-brick pilasters. In that one of the three walls which formed the partition between the loggia and the rest of the house there was a door of communication, which, by the aid of two stone steps projecting into the space enclosed, gave access from the latter to the kitchen of the house.

Most of the case coloniche, or farm-houses, in this part of the country have an open loggia of this sort, half cart-shed, half stable, partly poultry-house, and partly family sitting-room. And much pleasanter and wholesomer sitting-rooms such loggia are in the fine weather, despite the heterogeneous uses which they are required to serve, than the almost always dark, close, and blackened kitchens. There, in the summer evenings, the cradle is brought out, and the wife plies her distaff, while the father of the family, and the son, or the grandfather, or a brother, or a wife’s brother—for these rural families are generally composite, and consist of more members than a single couple and their children—are husking a heap of maize, shot down in a corner, or busy in some other such task of rural economy. Or, quite as probably, the male members of the family are smoking their cigars, and enjoying the dear delights of chat and dolce far niente.

In contradistinction to the ways of some other districts, the rural habitations of this hill country seem almost always to have been selected with some regard to prospect. Perhaps other more material considerations than the pleasure of the eye may have presided over the selection; but the fact is, that most of these hill farmhouses are so placed that the front commands—as was eminently the case at Bella Luce—a view of more or less extent and beauty. And to a stranger, if possibly not consciously to the inhabitants themselves, a charm is added, which makes some of these picturesquely arched loggie,—especially when, as is often the case, a vine is trained around the columns and over the arches,—most agreeable and enticing tempters to an hour of farniente.

A large kitchen; a huge room next to it, that served in part as a sleeping-room for a portion of the male inhabitants of the farm, and in part for a store-room for grain; another still larger building used principally as a wood-house, and beyond that a stable for those important members of an Italian Contadino’s family, the oxen, made up the rest of the long façade. But in order to appreciate justly the entire extent of this frontage, it must be borne in mind that each one of all these rooms and buildings was at least twice as large as any Englishman would deem requisite for their respective purposes.

Over the loggia there were three good-sized sleeping chambers, two of them, however, accessible only by passing through that nearest to the rest of the house, and the furthest only by passing through both of those which preceded it. It would have been perfectly easy to arrange the two latter in such sort as to have rendered them both accessible from the first. But no such modification had struck the architect, or any of those who had had to use his handiwork, as either necessary or desirable.

Over the huge kitchen was an equally large room, intended apparently, as far as might be judged from the nature of its furniture, as the eating-room of the family. And it was used as such on high days and holidays, and other great occasions, whether the farmer’s family had guests on such occasions or not. It was to the solemnity of the occasion, and not to the guests, that the respect manifested by the use of this state chamber was paid. When no such great occasion was to the fore, the great room over the kitchen remained empty of all save its long table and massive benches, and vile French coloured lithographs around the bare yellow washed walls. Above this room was a garret, which served the purpose of a dove-cote. It was the only part of the building that had a second story; and the difference in height thus occasioned broke the outline of the building, as seen from the outside, in a manner very favourable to the picturesqueness of its appearance.

Over the large nondescript room on the other side of the kitchen was a huge chamber, the two windows of which were unglazed, and closable only by heavy, massive, brown-red shutters opening on the outside. It was unceiled also, and the bare rafters were inhabited and draped by a family of spiders of very ancient lineage. The principal use for which it served was that of a deposit for grain, and at certain periods of the year for various fruits, which were spread out on its wide floor to dry. But there was a bed in one corner, which in very bad weather might appear to some persons a more desirable place of repose than the green-hill side, on which the windows looked.

The other two component parts of the long façade, the wood-house, that is to say, and the stable for the draught-oxen, had no buildings over them; and the few chambers, which have been mentioned, together with a staircase, which seemed to have been constructed with a view of ascertaining how much space a staircase could be made to occupy, constituted the entirety of the large house, with the exception of certain annexes at the back, which were devoted to divers purposes varying in dignity from that of a back kitchen to that of a pigstye.

It will be understood from the foregoing account that, notwitstanding the imposing appearance made by Bella Luce, when seen from a distance, any tolerably comfortable English farmer lives with a much greater degree of house-comfort and convenience than Paolo Vanni. With the one exception of space, every point of comparison would be very much in favour of the Englishman. But ample space is an important element in a dwelling, especially in a southern climate.

But of all the appurtenances and appendages which the English farmer possesses, and the Italian farmer does not possess, that of which the Englishman would least tolerate the absence, and the presence of which would be least cared for by the Italian, would be a garden. On that charmingly sheltered hill-side in front of the house, on that magnificent terrace on either side of it, situations that seem calculated to inspire the idea of creating a little paradise, if it had never occurred to any man before, no inhabitant of Bella Luce has ever dreamed of creating anything of the kind. Profit has been neglected, as well as pleasure, in this direction. There are no more onions than roses. Strawberries have been as little thought of as gilly-flowers! There is an old fig-tree near one corner of the house; and there is a grape-vine trained over the pilasters and walls of the loggia. There may be also a patch of potatoes among other farm crops, and certainly there will be a crop of some kind of beans, which will contribute to the sustenance of the Bella Luce family. But that is all. Nothing is more a matter of surprise to an Englishman in Italy, than to find houses and townlets in the country unable to produce a morsel of fruit or vegetable,—sometimes not even a potato.

Another large department of rural comforts and luxuries was almost as much neglected at Bella Luce as the horticultural. Cheese was the only form of dairy produce used or cared for by the inmates. They made no butter, and drank no milk, giving to the pigs all that was not converted into cheese.

The Scriptural and classical catalogue, in short, of the oriental cultivator’s needs and desires, pretty nearly completed those of Paolo Vanni and his family. Corn, wine, and oil were the main articles on which they subsisted. Meat in no very large proportion, and eggs in somewhat greater abundance, may be added, it is true. And certain moderate supplies of coffee and sugar were brought from neighbouring Fano,—sufficient to give the male heads of the family a little cup of muddy black coffee after their dinner on high days and holidays. The women took none; and the men took it rather as a symbol of feasting and luxury, than because they cared anything about it.

For all that, Paolo Vanni was a warm man,—quite warm enough to have bought up many an English small farmer, who would have most amazingly turned up his nose at the Romagnole farmer’s mode of life.

As for the question, however, which of the two,—the English farmer, or the Romagnole agriculturist,—lived the happier life, and got the greatest amount of satisfaction out of it,—why that would probably have little to do with the absence or the presence of all that the Englishman could so ill do without; but rather upon matters of a more intimately personal nature;—with some of which, as regards Paolo Vanni, it is time that the reader should be made acquainted.