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Italian Traits And Characteristics
by [?]

My diplomatic friend is rarely very serious in his humour; this morning, however, he was rather disposed that way, and so I took the opportunity to question him about Italy, a country where he has lived long, and whose people he certainly understands better than most Englishmen. I gathered from him that he considered the English were thoroughly well informed on Italy, but in the most hopeless ignorance as to the Italians. “As for the house and the furniture, you know it all.” said he; “but of the company you know positively nothing.”

Byron understood them better than any other Englishman. He had his admission par la petite porte–that is, he gained his knowledge through his vices; and the Italians were so flattered to see a great Milor adapt himself so readily to their lax notions and loose morality that they grew frank and open with him.

His pretended–I suppose it was only pretended–dislike to England disarmed them, too, of all distrust of him; and for the first time they felt themselves judged by a man who did not think Charing Cross finer than the Piazza del Popolo.

Byron’s rank and station gained him a ready acceptance where the masses of our travelling countrymen would not be received; for the Italians love rank, and respect all its gradations. Even the republics were great aristocracies; and in all their imitations of France they have never affected “equality.” They love splendour too, and display; and in all their festivals you see something like an effort to recall a time when their cities were the grandest and their citizens the proudest in all Europe.

They are a very difficult people to understand. There are not so many salient points in the Italian as in the German or the Frenchman; his character is not so strongly accented; his traits are finer–his shades of temperament more delicate.

Besides this, there is another difficulty: one is immensely aided in their appreciation of a people by their lighter drama, which is in a measure a reflex of the daily sayings and doings of those who listen to it. Now the Italians have no comedy, or next to none; so barren are they in this respect, that more than once have I asked myself, Can there be any domesticity in a nation which has not mirrored itself on the stage? What sort of a substance can that be that never had a shadow?

The immortal Goldoni, as they print him in all the play-bills, is ineffably stupid, his characters ill drawn, his plots meagre, and his dialogue as flat as the talk of a three-volume novel. The only palpable lesson derivable from him is, that all ranks and classes stand pretty much on an equality, and that as regards modes of expression the count and his coachman are precisely on a level. There is scarcely a trait of humour in these pieces–never, by any accident, anything bordering on wit. The characters talk the veriest commonplaces, and announce the most humdrum intentions in phraseology as flat and wearisome.

Now you will ask, perhaps, Is this a fair type of the present-day habits–are the Italians of our time like those of Goldoni’s? My reply would be, that it would be difficult to imagine a people who have changed less within a century. The same small topics, the same petty interests engage them. They display the same ardent enthusiasm about trifles, and the same thorough indifference to great things, as their grandfathers; and they are marvellously like the dreary puppets that the immortal dramatist has given us as their representatives.

It has been reproached to Sheridan, that no people in real life ever displayed such brilliancy in conversation as the characters in the ‘School for Scandal;’ and tame as Goldoni reads, I verily believe his dialogue is rather above the level of an Italian salon.

The great interests of Life, the game of politics, the contests and reverses of party, literature in its various forms, and the sports of the field, form topics which make the staple of our dinner-talk. Instead of these the Italians have their one solitary theme–the lapses of their neighbours, the scandals of the small world around them. Not that they are uncharitable or malevolent; far from it. They discuss a frailty as a board of physicians might a malady, and without the slightest thought of imputing blame to “the patient.” They have now and then a hard word for an unfortunate husband, but even him they treat rather as one ignorant of conventional usages and the ways of the polite world, than as a man radically bad or cruel.