Italian Days and Ways

Italian Days and Ways

Anne Hollingsworth Wharton
Anne Hollingsworth Wharton

Author: Wharton, Anne Hollingsworth, 1845-1928
Italy — Description and travel
Italian Days and Ways




THE BAY OF NAPLES. Photographed by Dr. Bertha Lewis 41
ON THE ROAD TO PAESTUM. Photographed by Dr. Bertha Lewis 59
AN AMAZONIAN TRIBUTE, CAPRI. Photographed by Dr. Bertha Lewis 71



Genoa, February 19th.

Your most interesting letter, Sir Philosopher, reached me at Gibraltar, and served to give me a homelike feeling in that alien land of Spain. Any one who can write letters as interesting as yours, from your library, with the mercury at zero outside, and nothing more refreshing to look upon from the window than snow and sleet, does not need to wander in sunny lands and among ancient ruins for an inspiration. No, travel would be absolutely wasted upon you, who require only a cigar and a wood fire to encourage your “reveries of a bachelor.”

You wish to know what are my first impressions of Italy, and how we three women get on together? To be perfectly candid with you, we ourselves are not wandering in sunny lands at present, and the cheerful blaze of your library fire would prove most welcome to benumbed fingers and pinched noses.

Our welcome to Genoa was not particularly cheerful. It had been raining for days; the sky was heavy with clouds, and the air chilly and damp. We can well understand why the prudent and all-informing Baedeker advises invalids visiting Genoa at this time to guard against raw winds and abrupt changes of temperature.

We enjoyed coming into the fine harbor, around which Genoa is built upon its hills and terraces in the form of a half-circle, the city widening out toward the ends of the arc. On the hills, we know, are many beautiful villas, seen to-day but dimly through veils of mist, and beyond are the mountains, which in clear weather must add much to the charm of this old fortress as seen from the sea.

Zelphine says that it would be very ungrateful of us if we were to complain of cloudy weather, as the skies might be pouring down upon us instead of only threatening, and, after all, we are having the same good luck that we had in Madeira, Granada, and Algiers in coming after the rain instead of before it.

And how do we get on together? Really, monsieur, you display courage when you ask that question, as I might here and now unburden my mind of a long list of grievances. As it is, however, I have so far no woes to relate, although I know that a sojourn on the Continent has wrecked many a friendship. We three must appear to those who meet us an ill-assorted trio; but because of our individualities we may be the better fitted to stand the crucial test of a tour of indefinite length, whose only object is pleasure.

Zelphine is the encyclopædia of the party, and, as Angela says, her information is always on tap, besides which she is amiable and refreshingly romantic. It is inspiring to travel with a woman, no longer young, to whom the world and its inhabitants still wear “the glory and the dream.” On the other hand, when one is suffering from the discomforts of travel to such an extent that it would be a luxury to moan and groan a bit and find fault with the general condition of things, it is a trifle irritating to see Zelphine sailing serenely upon the seas of high content, apparently above such trifling accidents as material comfort. You, being a man and consequently a philosopher of greater or less degree, may not be able to understand this; it is just here that Zelphine and I might quarrel, but we “generally most always” do not.

Angela you have scarcely known since she was a little girl, when she was a prime favorite of yours. In the half-hour in which you saw her, just before we sailed, you must have realized that in appearance she had fulfilled the promise of her beautiful childhood. She is a spirited creature, but with a fine balance of common sense, and with her delicate, spirituelle beauty is astonishingly practical—an up-to-date girl, in fine. Have you ever wondered, among your many ponderings, why the girls of to-day, with the beauty of their great-grandmothers, should be utterly devoid of the sentiment that enhanced the loveliness of those dear ladies as perfume adds to the charm of a flower? This question I leave with you for future solution.

Here in Genoa we meet the narrow, precipitous passages, streets by courtesy, which interested us in the Moorish quarter of Algiers, dating back in both cases to remote antiquity. They are to be found, we are told, in every old Italian town. Many of them answer to Hawthorne’s description of the streets of Perugia, which, he says, are “like caverns, being arched all over and plunging down abruptly towards an unknown darkness, which, when you have fathomed its depths, admits you to a daylight that you scarcely hoped to behold again.”

Old palaces overshadow these narrow, crooked streets, built many stories high and close together for protection against enemies without and factional feuds at home; such as those between the powerful houses of Doria, Spinola, Fieschi, and the like. The majority of these buildings have fallen from their ancient glory, and look, as Angela says, like tenement houses. This plebeian association is carried out by the squalid appearance of the inhabitants, and by the clothes-lines stretched across the streets from window to window, on which are hung garments of every size, degree, color, and ingenuity of patch, the predominant red and white lending a certain picturesqueness to the motley array.

Turning a corner, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a quarrel, or a violent altercation at the best, between a pretty signora at a fourth-floor window and a vendor of fruits and vegetables on the sidewalk below. The language which the lady used, as she leaned far out of the window, was so vigorous that no interpreter was needed to make her meaning plain: the merchant was a charlatan and a villain; the saints were all called upon as witnesses to his depravity. He, the so-called vendor of over-ripe fruit, pointed to his wares, beating his breast and spreading out his hands in token of his spotless innocence. He sell over-ripe oranges? All his neighbors would testify to his poverty and that of his family because he, honest one, daily sacrificed hundreds of oranges to satisfy his unreasonable customers!

The signora’s dark eyes flashed, the Spanish mantilla upon her head shook in sympathy with the violence of her emotions, as she repeated her vocabulary of epithets. We were thankful that four stories separated the combatants, and retiring under the shadow of a doorway we anxiously awaited results. Something happened, we know not what; the fruit may have been reduced the fraction of a penny; whatever it was, a truce was declared, during which the signora’s basket, filled with fruit and artichokes, was drawn up to the window by a rope. After the lady had carefully inspected each individual fruit and vegetable, she smiled blandly, lowered some money in her basket, and the pair parted with bows and compliments. Juliet on her balcony could not have been more graceful, nor Romeo on the pavement below more gallant than this shabby venditore, as he swept the ground with his cap, one hand upon his heart!

Feeling that we owed something to somebody for the pleasure that this little drama had afforded us, we crossed the street and bought from the chief actor some fresh dates such as we had first tasted in Algiers. As we paid the asking price without protest, we felt quite sure that the valiant little merchant was making off us anything that he may have lost in his previous transaction; but the dates, of a delicate amber color, as sweet as honey and almost as transparent, were worth whatever price we paid for them.

After much turning and retracing of steps, and laughing over being lost and not having the power to make inquiries with any certainty of being understood, we finally gained wider and more open streets, and on the Piazza Banchi found an exchange, where we were able to get some money on our letters of credit.

After attending to this practical detail we turned into the little old Via Orefici, Jewellers’ Street, with its many goldsmiths’ shops. Over one of the doors is a Virgin and Child, so beautiful that it cost the artist his life. Pellegrino Piola’s master, insanely jealous of this work of his pupil, rose up in wrath and killed him. Even the patron, St. Eloy, was unable to save poor Piola’s life, but the guild of smiths, who revere St. Eloy as their patron saint, invoked his aid to preserve this lovely fresco from the ruthless hands of Napoleon when he would have carried it off to France.

As we passed window after window, some with their display of exquisite gold and silver filigree and others containing lofty pyramids of the most delicious-looking candied fruit, Angela said that after a few hours’ stay in Genoa she was quite sure of two characteristics of the Genoese: a passion for jewelry, especially of the filigree sort, and an inordinate appetite for sweets. The pretty, delicate ornaments, I am inclined to think, are only spread forth to tempt the unwary tourist; but the Italian taste for sweets is proverbial, whetted, doubtless, by the high price of sugar and the exquisiteness of the native confections.

Strolling along the fine, wide Via Vittorio Emanuele, eating our dates like true Bohemians and gazing about us upon the sights of the strange city, we turned, almost involuntarily, into the busy thoroughfare of the Via San Lorenzo, where we were confronted by the great façade of the cathedral of the same name, with huge stone lions standing guard at the door. Above the entrance—grewsome and realistic spectacle—is poor St. Lawrence broiling away on his stone gridiron! We shall doubtless behold many such spectacles during our travels, and may, like Mark Twain, become quite hardened to the sight of St. Sebastian stuck full of arrows, and of lovely young St. Anastasia and of many others, of whom the world was not worthy, smiling amid the flames; but this realistic thrusting of St. Lawrence and his gridiron into the life of to-day, as an ornament to a church, impressed us as unworthy of a people credited with a sense of beauty and fitness.

We were thankful to turn from the cathedral, whose interior we may explore to-morrow, and, like good Americans, wend our way along the Via Balbi, with its many palaces and handsome university buildings, to a lovely little square called Acquaverde, where there is a handsome modern statue of Columbus. Beside the really fine figure of the Genoese navigator is a woman who represents either Columbia or an Italianized American Indian, we were not sure which, to whom Columbus is offering the Catholic religion and other blessings of civilization. From the benevolent expression of the donor it is evident that he is making the presentation in good faith, although the lady appears singularly indifferent to the gifts offered her.

Some children with large, dark eyes and round, rosy cheeks, beautiful enough to serve as models for the Holy Child and St. John, were playing in the little green square some rhymed game in which their high, clear voices rang out joyously. It was probably an Italian equivalent for “ring-around-the-rosy” or “hot butter-beans.” We longed to know just what the words meant. Zelphine bribed the singers with soldi to an encore; but, alas! the song fell upon ears dull of understanding. This was the merriest scene that we have found in Genoa, which does not impress us as a gay city at all; but what mature and sane community could be merry under skies as leaden as these?

We are lodged in an old palace, which opens out on those most disappointing arcades of which we have read such fascinating descriptions. We see no pretty young Genoese women in thin muslin veils nor handsome matrons in veils of flowered chintz; probably the rain keeps them and their finery indoors. We remind ourselves, from time to time, that we are dwelling in marble halls for the first time in our lives, and yet some of the appointments of this rather expensive albergo are not equal to those of a second or third class hotel in America. My room is spacious, with windows opening to the floor and commanding a fine view of the harbor, where many ships lie at anchor, among them the floating city in which we came hither. It makes us feel at home to-night to see the lights of the Augusta Victoria, and we wave friendly greetings to her and our fellow-voyagers across the bay.

“We were far more comfortable in our little state-rooms on the ship than we shall ever be in this damp palace!” said Angela, shivering. “This room feels like a cellar. Do they never have any fires here?”

“Yes, behold the fireplace!” I replied, drawing aside a screen and revealing a small hole in the wall. “We will bask in the warmth of a cheerful blaze this evening, and toast our toes before the glowing coals.”

As luck would have it, the chimney did not draw well, probably not having been used in this century, and so instead of a cheerful blaze we had clouds of smoke, and went to bed to dream of snow-storms and icebergs.

February 20th.

I awoke to hear the rain beating against my window and Angela’s merry voice at my side, saying, “Such an experience! Zelphine rang our bell, thinking that she would have a fire or smoke or something to take off the deadly chill from our room. In a minute there came a knock at the door, and instead of the chambermaid there stood a grand gentleman in a blue coat and brass buttons, with a breakfast-tray—the proprietor or head waiter, I should say. We hadn’t the courage to say a word about fire to this dignified person. Indeed, he gave us no time to say anything, as he set the tray on a table beside the bed, and vanished with ‘Madame est servie.’ Of course Z. is the madame; I don’t count, being jeune fille. Such manners Z. says she has seldom seen in a ballroom at home. So now, Margaret, the breakfast is there and must be eaten. Do order yours, and let us breakfast together.”

“A kimono déjeuner à trois,” I said, laughing over Angela’s ignorance of Continental ways, to which I had become quite accustomed during my art winter in Paris with Katharine Clarke.

“A second ring may fetch the maid and fire,” said Angela, pressing the button.

This, however, only served to bring the blue-coated waiter, with another tray of coffee and rolls. It was some time before we were able to get the maid, who, in turn, sent for the facchino who attends to the fires, and he, assisted by another facchino, finally succeeded in fanning into a blaze the infinitesimal quantity of wood used here for a fire. This “house that Jack built” distribution of labor is rather puzzling to the uninitiated. We are wondering how we shall ever compass the problem of fees, so many people are serving us.

“I don’t wonder that Eugene Field sang with longing of the ‘land of stoves and sunshine,'” said Zelphine, as she held her hands over the feeble flame, “if he ever stayed in Genoa in February.”

This is the nearest approach to a complaint that Zelphine has uttered since we left New York. She accepts everything that comes to us, good, bad, or indifferent, as a part of the game. We breakfasted heartily, calling for more rolls and boiled eggs, to the evident but entirely well-bred astonishment of the presiding genius, who was not accustomed to such early morning appetites.

The rain continued to pour in torrents; and here let me confess, with more or less contrition, that we were all three most desperately homesick. Whether it was that we missed our pleasant fellow-travellers who were steaming off for Nice to-day, or because of the persistent rain, we, one after another, fell a prey to the depressing malady. Angela, first of all, with eyes full of tears, wondered many times, in language more or less strenuous, why she had ever left her happy home for these inhospitable shores; and I—well, it matters little what I said. Zelphine surprised me weeping over my travelling-hat, which, although it did present a rather dilapidated appearance after yesterday’s rain, failed to afford sufficient cause for my tears. She, the heroic one, who had never told her woe, in attempting to console me broke down herself, and we wept in each other’s arms, which had the good result of bringing Angela to our side and making her laugh heartily. Finally, in desperation, I proposed that we should order a cab and drive over to the Hôtel de Londres and try to find some of our steamer friends who expected to stay here a few days en route for Florence.

We were cordially welcomed by Bertha Linn and Mrs. Robins, who received us in their rooms, one of which was comfortably heated by a porcelain stove. Despite their more favorable surroundings, we soon discovered that our two countrywomen were as down-hearted as ourselves. Bertha, seated upon a trunk, looking about as cheerful as Miss Betsey Trotwood when she came up to London in pursuit of her scattered fortune, expressed herself to the effect that foreign travel might be of advantage educationally and enlarging to

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