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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

William Dean Howells (1837–1920)

Gentlemen of Leisure

From “Venetian Life”

THE lasagnone is a loafer, as an Italian can be a loafer, without the admixture of ruffianism which blemishes most loafers of northern race. He may be quite worthless, and even impertinent, but he cannot be a rowdy—that pleasing blossom on the nose of our fast, high-fed, thick-blooded civilization. In Venice he must not be confounded with other loiterers at the café; not with the natty people who talk politics interminably over little cups of black coffee; not with those old habitués, who sit forever under the Procuratie, their hands folded upon the tops of their sticks, and staring at the ladies who pass with a curious steadfastness and knowing skepticism of gaze, not pleasing in the dim eyes of age; certainly, the last persons who bear any likeness to the lasagnone are the Germans, with their honest, heavy faces comically anglicized by leg-of-mutton whiskers. The truth is, the lasagnone does not flourish in the best café; he comes to perfection in cheaper resorts, for he is commonly not rich. It often happens that a glass of water, flavored with a little anisette, is the order over which he sits a whole evening. He knows the waiter intimately, and does not call him “Shop!” (Bottega,) as less familiar people do, but Gigi, or Beppi, as the waiter is pretty sure to be named. “Behold!” he says, when the servant places his modest drink before him, “who is that loveliest blonde there?” Or to his fellow-lasagnone: “She regards me! I have broken her the heart!” This is his sole business and mission, the cruel lasagnone—to break ladies the heart. He spares no condition—neither rank nor wealth is any defense against him. I often wonder what is in that note he continually shows to his friend. The confession of some broken heart, I think. When he has folded it, and put it away, he chuckles “Ah, cara!” and sucks at his long, slender Virginia cigar. It is unlighted, for fire consumes cigars. I never see him read the papers—neither the Italian papers nor the Parisian journals, though if he can get “Galignani” he is glad, and he likes to pretend to a knowledge of English, uttering upon occasion, with great relish, such distinctively English words as “Yes” and “Not,” and to the waiter, “A-little-fire-if-you-please.” He sits very late in the café, and he touches his hat—his curly French hat—to the company as he goes out with a mild swagger, his cane held lightly in his left hand, his coat cut snugly to show his hips, and genteelly swaying with the motion of his body. He is a dandy, of course—all Italians are dandies—but his vanity is perfectly harmless, and his heart is not bad. He would go half an hour out of his way to put you in the direction of the Piazza. A little thing can make him happy—to stand in the pit at the opera, and gaze at the ladies in the lower boxes—to attend the Marionette, or the Malibran Theater, and imperil the peace of pretty seamstresses and contadinas—to stand at the church doors and ogle the fair saints as they pass out. Go, harmless lasagnone, to thy lodging in some mysterious height, and break hearts if thou wilt. They are quickly mended.

Of other vagabonds in Venice, if I had my choice, I think I must select a certain ruffian who deals in dog-flesh, as the nearest my ideal of what a vagabond should be in all respects. He stands habitually under the Old Procuratie, beside a basket of small puppies in that snuffling and quivering state which appears to be the favorite condition of very young dogs, and occupies himself in conversation with an adjacent dealer in grapes and peaches, or sometimes fastidiously engages in trimming the hair upon the closely shaven bodies of the dogs; for in Venice it is the ambition of every dog to look as much like the Lion of St. Mark as the nature of the case will permit. My vagabond at times makes expeditions to the groups of travelers always seated in summer before the Café Florian, appearing at such times with a very small puppy—neatly poised upon the palm of his hand, and winking pensively—which he advertises to the company as a “Beautiful Beast,” or a “Lovely Babe,” according to the inspiration of his light and pleasant fancy. I think the latter term is used generally as a means of ingratiation with the ladies, to whom my vagabond always shows a demeanor of agreeable gallantry. I never saw him sell any of these dogs, nor ever in the least cast down by his failure to do so. His air is grave, but not severe; there is even, at times, a certain playfulness in his manner, possibly attributable to sciampagnin. His curling black locks, together with his velveteen jacket and pantaloons, are oiled and glossy, and his beard is cut in the French-imperial mode. His personal presence is unwholesome, and it is chiefly his moral perfection as a vagabond that makes him fascinating. One is so confident, however, of his fitness for his position and business, and of his entire contentment with it, that it is impossible not to exult in him.

He is not without self-respect. I doubt, it would be hard to find any Venetian of any vocation, however base, who forgets that he, too, is a man and a brother. There is enough servility in the language—it is the fashion of the Italian tongue, with its Tu for inferiors, Voi for intimates and friendly equals, and Lei for superiors—but in the manner there is none, and there is a sense of equality in the ordinary intercourse of the Venetians, at once apparent to foreigners.

All ranks are orderly; the spirit of aggression seems not to exist among them, and the very boys and dogs in Venice are so well-behaved, that I have never seen the slightest disposition in them to quarrel. Of course, it is of the street-boy—the biric-chino, the boy in his natural, unreclaimed state—that I speak. This state is here, in winter, marked by a clouded countenance, bare head, tatters, and wooden-soled shoes open at the heels; in summer by a preternatural purity of person, by abandon to the amphibious pleasure of leaping off the bridges into the canals, and by an insatiable appetite for polenta, fried minnows, and watermelons.

When one of these boys takes to beggary, as a great many of them do, out of a spirit of adventure and wish to pass the time, he carries out the enterprise with splendid daring. A favorite artifice is to approach Charity with a slice of polenta in one hand, and, with the other extended, implore a soldo to buy cheese to eat with the polenta. The street-boys also often perform the duties of the gransieri, who draw your gondola to shore, and keep it firm with a hook. To this order of beggar I usually gave; but one day at the railway station I had no soldi, and as I did not wish to render my friend discontented with future alms by giving silver, I deliberately apologized, praying him to excuse me, and promising him for another time. I cannot forget the lofty courtesy with which he returned, “S’ accomodi pur, signor!” They have sometimes a sense of humor, these poor swindlers, and can enjoy the exposure of their own enormities. An amiable rogue drew our gondola to land one evening when we went too late to see the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. The sacristan made us free of a perfectly dark church, and we rewarded him as if it had been noonday. On our return to the gondola, the same beggar whom we had just fed held out his hat for another alms. “But we have just paid you,” we cried in an agony of grief and desperation. “Sì, signori!” he admitted with an air of argument, “è vero. Ma, la chiesa!” (Yes, gentlemen, it is true. But the church!) he added with confidential insinuation, and a patronizing wave of the hand toward the edifice, as if he had been San Giorgio himself, and held the church as a source of revenue. This was too much, and we laughed him to scorn; at which, beholding the amusing abomination of his conduct, he himself joined in our laugh with a cheerfulness that won our hearts.

Beggary is attended by no disgrace in Italy, and it therefore comes that no mendicant is without a proper degree of the self-respect common to all classes. Indeed, the habit of taking gifts of money is so general and shameless that the street-beggars must be diffident souls indeed if they hesitated to ask for it. A perfectly well-dressed and well-mannered man will take ten soldi from you for a trifling service, and not consider himself in the least abased. The detestable custom of largess, instead of wages, still obtains in so great degree in Venice that a physician, when asked for his account, replies, “What you please to give.” Knowing these customs, I hope I have never acted discourteously to the street-beggars of Venice even when I gave them nothing, and I know that only one of them ever so far forgot himself as to curse me for not giving. Him, however, I think to have been out of his right mind at the time.

There were two mad beggars in the parish of San Stefano, whom I should be sorry to leave unmentioned here. One, who presided chiefly over the Campo San Stefano, professed to be also a facchino, but I never saw him employed, except in addressing select circles of idlers whom a brawling noise always draws together in Venice. He had been a soldier, and he sometimes put himself at the head of a file of Croats passing through the Campo, and gave them the word of command, to the great amusement of those swarthy barbarians. He was a good deal in drink, and when in this state was proud to go before any ladies who might be passing, and clear away the boys and idlers, to make room for them. When not occupied in any of these ways, he commonly slept in the arcades of the old convent.

But the mad beggar of Campo Sant’ Angelo seemed to have a finer sense of what became him as a madman and a beggar, and never made himself obnoxious by his noise. He was, in fact, very fat and amiable, and in the summer lay asleep, for the most part, at a certain street-corner which belonged to him. When awake he was a man of extremely complaisant presence, and suffered no lady to go by without a compliment to her complexion, her blond hair, or her beautiful eyes, whichever it might be. He got money for these attentions, and people paid him for any sort of witticism. One day he said to the richest young dandy of the city, “Pah! you stomach me with your perfumes and fine airs”; for which he received half a florin. His remarks to gentlemen had usually this sarcastic flavor. I am sorry to say that so excellent a madman was often drunk and unable to fulfil his duties to society.

There are, of course, laws against mendicancy in Venice, and they are, of course, never enforced. Beggars abound everywhere, and nobody molests them. There was long a troupe of weird sisters in Campo San Stefano, who picked up a livelihood from the foreigners passing to and from the Academy of Fine Arts. They addressed people with the title of Count, and no doubt gained something by this sort of heraldry, though there are counts in Venice almost as poor as themselves, and titles are not distinctions. The Venetian seldom gives to beggars; he says deliberately, “Non ho” (I have nothing), or “Quando ritornerò” (when I return), and never comes back that way. I noticed that professional hunger and cold took this sort of denial very patiently, as they did every other; but I confess I had never the heart to practise it. In my walks to the Public Gardens there was a venerable old man, with the beard and bearing of a patriarch, whom I encountered on the last bridge of the Riva, and who there asked alms of me. When I gave him a soldo, he returned me a blessing which I would be ashamed to take in the United States for half a dollar; and when the soldo was in some inaccessible pocket, and I begged him to await my coming back, he said sweetly, “Very well, Signor, I will be here.” And I must say, to his credit, that he never broke his promise, nor suffered me, for shame’s sake, to break mine. He was quite a treasure to me in this respect, and assisted me to form habits of punctuality.

That exuberance of manner which one notes, the first thing, in his intercourse with Venetians, characterizes all classes, but is most excessive and relishing in the poor. There is a vast deal of ceremony with every order, and one hardly knows what to do with the numbers of compliments it is necessary to respond to. A Venetian does not come to see you, he comes to revere you; he not only asks if you be well when he meet you, but he bids you remain well at parting, and desires you to salute for him all common friends; he reverences you at leave-taking; he will sometimes consent to incommode you with a visit; he will relieve you of the disturbance when he rises to go. All spontaneous wishes which must, with us, take original forms, for lack of the complimentary phrase, are formally expressed by him—good appetite to you, when you go to dinner; much enjoyment when you go to the theater; a pleasant walk, if you meet in promenade. He is your servant at meeting and parting; he begs to be commanded when he has misunderstood you. But courtesy takes its highest flights, as I hinted, from the poorest company. Acquaintances of this sort, when not on the Cio ciappa footing, or that of the familiar thee and thou, always address each other in Lei (lordship), or Ella, as the Venetians have it; and their compliment-making at encounter and separation is endless: I salute you! Remain well! Master! Mistress! (Padrone! Padrona!) being repeated as long as the polite persons are within hearing.

One day, as we passed through the crowded Merceria, an old Venetian friend of mine, who trod upon the dress of a young person before us, called out, “Scusate, bella giovane!” (Pardon, beautiful girl!) She was neither so fair nor so young as I have seen women; but she half-turned her face with a forgiving smile, and seemed pleased with the accident that had won her the amiable apology. The waiter of the café frequented by the people, says to the ladies for whom he places seats, “Take this place, beautiful blonde”; or, “Sit here, lovely brunette,” as it happens.

A Venetian who enters or leaves any place of public resort touches his hat to the company, and one day at the restaurant some ladies, who had been dining there, said “Complimenti!” on going out, with a grace that went near to make the beefsteak tender. It is this uncostly gentleness of bearing which gives a winning impression of the whole people, whatever selfishness or real discourtesy lie beneath it. At home it sometimes seems that we are in such haste to live and be done with it, we have no time to be polite. Or is popular politeness merely a vice of servile peoples? And is it altogether better to be rude? I wish it were not. If you are lost in his city (and you are pretty sure to be lost there, continually), a Venetian will go with you wherever you wish. And he will do this amiable little service out of what one may say old civilization has established in place of goodness of heart, but which is perhaps not so different from it.

You hear people in the streets bless each other in the most dramatic fashion. I once caught these parting words between an old man and a young girl:

Giovanetta.Revered sir! (Padron’ riverito!)

Vecchio.(With that peculiar backward wave and beneficent wag of the hand, only possible to Italians.) Blessed child! (Benedetta!)

It was in a crowd, but no one turned round at the utterance of terms which Anglo-Saxons would scarcely use in their most emotional moments. The old gentleman who sells boxes for the theater in the Old Procuratie always gave me his benediction when I took a box.

There is equal exuberance of invective, and I have heard many fine maledictions on the Venetian streets; but I recollect none more elaborate than that of a gondolier who, after listening peacefully to a quarrel between two other boatmen, suddenly took part against one of them, and saluted him with, “Ah! baptized son of a dog! And if I had been present at thy baptism, I would have dashed thy brains out against the baptismal font!”

All the theatrical forms of passion were visible in a scene I witnessed in a little street near San Samuele, where I found the neighborhood assembled at doors and windows in honor of a wordy battle between two poor women. One of these had been forced indoors by her prudent husband, and the other upbraided her across the marital barrier. The assailant was washing, and twenty times she left her tub to revile the besieged, who thrust her long arms out over those of her husband, and turned each reproach back upon her who uttered it, thus:







E via in seguito! At last the assailant, beating her breast with both hands, and tempestuously swaying her person back and forth, wreaked her scorn in one wild outburst of vituperation, and returned finally to her tub, wisely saying, on the purple verge of asphyxiation, “O, non discorro più con gente.”

I returned half an hour later, and she was laughing and playing sweetly with her babe.

It suits the passionate nature of the Italians to have incredible ado about buying and selling, and a day’s shopping is a sort of campaign, from which the shopper returns plundered and discomfited, or laden with the spoil of vanquished shopmen.

The embattled commercial transaction is conducted in this wise:

The shopper enters, and prices a given article. The shopman names a sum of which only the fervid imagination of the South could conceive as corresponding to the value of the goods.

The purchaser instantly starts back with a wail of horror and indignation, and the shopman throws himself forward over the counter with a protest that, far from being dear, the article is ruinously cheap at the price stated, though they may nevertheless agree for something less.

What, then, is the very most ultimate price?

Properly, the very most ultimate price is so much. (Say, the smallest trifle under the price first asked.)

The purchaser moves toward the door. He comes back, and offers one-third of the very most ultimate price.

The shopman, with a gentle desperation, declares that the thing cost him as much. He cannot really take the offer. He regrets, but he cannot. That the gentleman would say something more! So much—for example. That he regard the stuff, its quality, fashion, beauty.

The gentleman laughs him to scorn. Ah, heigh! and, coming forward, he picks up the article and reviles it. Out of the mode, old, fragile, ugly of its kind.

The shopman defends his wares. There is not such quantity and quality elsewhere in Venice. But if the gentleman will give even so much (still something preposterous), he may have it, though truly its sale for that money is utter ruin.

The shopper walks straight to the door. The shopman calls him back from the threshold, or sends his boy to call him back from the street.

Let him accommodate himself—which is to say, take the thing at his own price.

He takes it.

The shopman says cheerfully, “Servo suo!” (your servant!)

The purchaser responds, “Buon dì! Padron’!” (Good day! my Master!)

Thus, as I said, every bargain is a battle, and every purchase a triumph or a defeat. The whole thing is understood; the opposing forces know perfectly well all that is to be done beforehand, and retire after the contest, like the captured knights in “Morgante Maggiore,” “calm as oil”—however furious and deadly their struggle may have appeared to strangers.