Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Review of:
“Naples: Political, Social, and Religious” (by Lord B_____ [Frederick Richard Chichester, Earl of Belfast])

We know not who Lord B—— may be, but it is much to be regretted that he should have published this book anonymously, for the name of the author is an indispensable guarantee for the accuracy of his observations in a book which owes the whole of its value to the fidelity with which it describes the existing political and social condition of a foreign country. But notwithstanding this defect, there is much that is curious and interesting in the work before us, though it has no particular pretentious to literary skill. It is impossible not to feel considerable curiosity about the reciprocal effects which the character and the government of the Neapolitans produce upon each other; and the quantity of trustworthy information upon the subject is by no means proportionate to the very general acquaintance which exists amongst English people with the external appearance of the city and its neighbourhood.

Naples contains no less than 450,000 inhabitants, of whom “at least 40,000 are houseless beggars and idlers." The whole population is sedulously engaged in idling; and this employment is so universal during the summer months, that all other business is habitually suspended from ten in the morning till five in the afternoon. The natives pass the day in the streets, lounging or driving in carriages; and even the rest lazzarone will rather pay his last halfpenny for a drive than walk half-a-mile on foot. They dine at noon on maccaroni, salad, dried fish, and garlic, and sleep away the afternoon till the heat is past and the evening breeze cools the air. Then come the hours of cafés, eating-houses, and theatres, the reign of which continues till morning. It is natural enough that the lowest classes should be the most characteristic part of such a population. The nobility and the bourgeoisie are apparently separated from them rather by external circumstances than by higher aims or more serious pursuits in life. Under the name of Lazzaroni, according to Lord B—, is included all that part of the population which lives upon its daily, or rather its occasional labour. They are probably the laziest population in Europe. A Neapolitan workman takes eight days to do what an English workman would accomplish in one. He follows eve kind of employment by turns. He is guide, boatman, sailor, fisherman, porter, shoe-black, groom, labourer, or domestic servant, just as it happens, and so long as he can earn a few halfpence, he is perfectly satisfied; and after spending part of his earnings in lemonade or iced water, and part in cheese or sugar-plums, he lays out the remainder in taking a place for the evening at the San Carlino Theatre, which is specially intended for his class. There he sees Punchinello and Pantaloon making their jokes and exchanging blows, or he joins the crowd which congregates to see a puppet-show representing all the mysteries of the Christian religion by dolls or the shadows of magic-lanterns.

The general character of the Lazzaroni is what might be expected from such a life. The have all the weaknesses, and some of the virtues, of unsteady, ready-witted children. They are altogether destitute of anything like solidity of character. They have no principles, and no perseverance. They will lie constantly, principally because lying affords greater scope for ingenuity than truth; and they are by no means averse to the graver crimes of stealing and assassination, for neither life nor property seems to them a matter of such importance as it appears to English people. On the other hand, they are extremely ingenious and clever, and wonderfully light-hearted, and are capable, if their feelings are conciliated by kindness and confidence, of very warm an faithful attachment, and of a degree of honesty which shows that their habits of stealing resemble rather the tricks of a child than the selfish depredations of a pickpocket. They are anything but a brutal population. The Spaniards could never teach them to care for a bull-fight or auto da fé. Stories about banditti or religious processions amuse them much more. Their great passion is for play. They may be seen playing at morra at all hours in the corners of the streets, “trembling with eager excitement, stretching out their fingers with shouts of ‘Three, four—all!’ as if they were mad, or their very existence depended on the result of the game." In order to flatter this passion, and also for the sake of the revenue which is derived from it, the Neapolitan Government have set on feet a "lotto" or letter, which goes on continually—drawings taking place (every Saturday—in which these poor creatures gamble away every farthing that they can raise upon the last piece of furniture in their possession. The ceremony takes place in the ancient judgment-hall of the Vicaria, the palace of the early Neapolitan kings, which is now used as a prison. In the first-floor are confined debtors and ordinary criminals, the dungeons being devoted to political offenders. On the day of drawing, crowds of lazzaroni, men, women, and children, sometimes to the number of 2000 or more, throng the hall. Four judges, and two priests in their robes, and a strong guard of soldiers, are present. The numbers are drawn by a child from the Orphan Asylum, and publicly proclaimed. Sums of any amount may be risked in this manner, from a few half-pence upwards; and as the tickets are frequently sold to the poor on a week’s credit, part payment being made on the day of purchase, an immense stimulus is given to dishonesty by the necessity imposed upon the buyer of obtaining, by some means or other, the balance necessary to secure his chance by the Saturday. Instances came to the knowledge of the author “of respectably-dressed persons begging in the street for the means to obtain a ticket.’

The clergy, secular and monastic, form a large part of the Neapolitan population. It is said that in Naples itself there were no less than 15,000 twenty years ago. The Jesuits are far the most powerful Order, and have entire control of the education of the country. The find means to enlist in their ranks all young men remarkable or their ability. Lord B____ tells a story of a lady who was banished from the country for sending her son to be educated in Sardinia. Falling dangerously ill, she became very anxious to return to her native country, but was only allowed to do so on bringing her son back with her, and placing him under the Jesuits. It is new to us to learn that there has been a great increase of liberalism amongst the other Orders of monks. The Dominicans, it is said, are all on the popular side, and nearly all the secular clergy, except the bishops. Lord B— has been informed that one half of the political prisoners in Naples are priests or common people. With such educators, the state of popular education is, as might be expected, as low as possible. Nothing can exceed the ignorance of the rural population. An Italian gentleman went out to sketch on the hills near Capua, taking with him two little boys to carry his drawing materials. He walked about some time in search of a point of view, and at last chose one. In the mean time he was observed by a passer-by, who told the mother of the boys that their companion was a sorcerer, who had carried them off to be murdered for the purposes of his incantations, and that he had himself seen him forming his mysterious circles. The whole population of the village poured out to revenge the woman's wrongs, and it was with great difficult that the artist and his friend escaped with their lives. A similar accident happened to an Englishman who was sketching between Salerno and Paestum. When storms broke out at about the same hour in three successive days, he was accused of being the cause of them, for the peasantry had seen him “bowing's head up and down, as he lifted his evil eyes to the clouds, and then bent them on his magic papers whilst he drew the lines of enchantment." He was saved from his assailants with considerable difficulty, and received a severe wound above the hip, from an axe thrown at him by an old woman. Even the town population are grossly superstitious. They believe in the miracle of St. Januarius, and similar prodigies, with the most implicit faith, and most of their festivals are more or less connected with religious observances. The firing of squibs, crackers, and cannon, when the image of a saint is carried in procession, is such that “during the festival of Christmas a listener might readily believe that the enemy was actually bombarding the city." There are countless monasteries and nunneries supported exclusively by begging. One convent contains 200 nuns, of whom ten go about begging in rotation. An artist, to whom they paid weekly visits, was in the habit of giving them a gran—less than a halfpenny—on each occasion, yet they always came.

The ignorance of the urban population, even of the upper classes, is hardly less gross than that of the country people.  Much and justly as the political corruptions of Naples have been denounced, its social condition appears to us more melancholy still. “Numbers of the young nobility have not even learnt their mother tongue, and are only able to converse in the rude and disagreeable dialect of the lazzaroni." It is said that the cleric instructors often have the vileness to undermine the principles of their pupils, in order to prevent them from paying attention to politics or morals. Even in ordinary civil affairs the law courts are full of corruption and meanness, and the natural ingenuity of the people exercises itself in fraudulent litigation. The commonest rights of property are not secure. Art is one of the few pursuits to which the Neapolitans are attached, yet the King claims, and actually exercises, not only a right of pre-emption over all pictures, but a right of pre-emption at a price which he fixes himself. Not long since, a promising artist had to leave the country because he positively refused to sell to the King, for about a third of its value, a picture which he had painted. Lord B—— also tells a story of a ruined family of nobles, who had in their possession three splendid statues of their ancestors, in a ruinous and hardly discoverable family chapel. An English nobleman wished to purchase them at a price which would have been of the greatest importance to their owner, but the King would not allow the transaction to take place, and would not even buy the statues himself.

Lord B____ adds little to the general impression which already exists in this country on the subject of the lawless tyranny which goes in Naples by the name of government. The history of the perfidious wickedness by which the lazzaroni were excited to revolt against the constitution, and against the better classes who defended it, and of the monstrous and ironical injustice by which those who suffered most cruelly from the émeute of May, 1848, were held responsible and punished for the outbreak, is well known to all Europe. Lord B—— not only confirms Mr. Gladstone’s fearful account of the sufferings of Poerio, but gives additional and frightful evidence of similar proceedings. Such, for example, is the narrative of Saverio Barbarisi, whose statement of his case has lately been published at Turin. He was arrested on the 27th of July, 1850, and confined, without any kind of legal judgment, for all two years before he was brought to trial. The place of his confinement was a cold and fetid dungeon, in which, at the age of seventy, he was imprisoned throughout a winter of most unusual severity—and the winters at Naples are frequently very severe—in a room which had no fire, and had not even the protection of glass to the windows. Such is a single instance of the kind of treatment which precedes a sentence of probably twenty-four years of chains and galley slavery, in which hundreds of the best-born natives of the country wear away their miserable existence, fastened to some malefactor by a chain six feet long.

The agents of this tyranny are hardly less to be pitied than its victims. The book before us contains a most curious account of the fortunes of one of the young men who are seduced by the Neapolitan crimps in Switzerland and Germany to join the regiments known as the Swiss Guard. Such enlistments are contrary to the laws of the Swiss federation, but they are carried on underhand to a great extent, and it is solely to the prowess of these mercenary troops that the King owes the power of retaining his position for a single day. The story of the manner in which when out of work, Lord ——'s informant was induced, by lying promises, to enlist—of the mean peculation by which he and his companions were afterwards driven to desertion, and of the nature of their punishment as galley-slaves—throws a singular light on the wretched nature of the bargain which a man makes when he sells himself to be a tool of tyranny.

How long such a system may last it is impossible to say. It is said that the Swiss troops are so much cheated, and so severely punished, that they are becoming disaffected—that the native troops share in the general discontent—and that even the lazzaroni, who have been so often used by the King as instruments for the oppression of the richer classes, have began to discover that, however easy he may have found it to gratify them by plundering their superiors, it is a matter of far more difficulty to continue to provide for them after that source of income is cut off. To see the end of such a tyranny would be matter of satisfaction to every good man; and however little we might consider our— selves justified in forcibly overthrowing it, there can be no doubt of our right to prevent others from forcibly sustaining it.

Saturday Review, December 6, 1856.

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