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The Italians

THE character of the Italians, even so late as in the last century, presents a melancholy contemplation to the philosopher. How are we to account for a whole nation being infected with some of the darkest passions that stain the human soul? Atheism and Debauchery pervaded every rank; and the hand of the Italian continually grasped the dagger and the drug. What yet heightens the enormity of these crimes, is the “immortal hatred”—to make use of a poetical expression—which characterized this Nation of Assassins. Naudé, who draws his remarks from personal observation, with one or two anecdotes, will inform the reader that these censures are not unjust.

“Italy is crouded with those kinds of men who penetrate as far into Nature as their abilities permit them; and, having done this, will believe nothing more. To trace God, in the disorder in which the world is now, we must possess modesty and humility. Italy abounds with Libertines and Atheists; yet the number of their writers, who have written on the Immortality of the Soul, is incredible. But I am apt to think that those very writers believe no more than the rest: for I hold this maxim certain, that the doubt in which they are is one of the first causes that obliges them to write; and add, also, that all their writings are so feeble, that no one can strengthen his faith by their sentiments. Thus, instead of instructing, they make a reader perfectly sceptical.
“Italy is a country, at the same time, full of Impostures and Superstitions: some do not believe enough, and others believe every thing. Every day, without truth, and without reason, miracles take place. I remember that a certain poor man was nearly drowned, and was drawn out of the water almost dead. He recovered; and his recovery was firmly believed to be owing to a medal of Saint Philip of Neri, which he happened to have in his chaplet. I did not see any thing miraculous in this, I said; and that it certainly was not always a miracle when a man escaped from being drowned; nor did I believe that Saint Philip thought one moment concerning the fate of this man.
“It is but three months since, that the church of this new saint fell in at Trepani, when more than a dozen of the congregation, who were invoking his favours, got wounded and killed. It was then, rather, that the saint should have shewn his miraculous powers, and have saved those good Christians who were supplicating God and his saintship. Had this been the case, it would have turned out an excellent miracle, and, what few miracles are accompanied by, have had a considerable number of witnesses to verify it.
“The Italians are an agreeable people enough; but, too frequently, they are found vindictive and treacherous. Revenge and treachery are the great sins of the Italians and the Easterns; and they poison to the very mice in their houses.
“It is a maxim received into the politics of this country, however it may be inimical to the laws of Christianity, that it is best to defend and to avenge ourselves before worse happens. As they have great sense, they will never offend you; but they will never pardon you, if you offend them; and they will pursue their revenge, after an interval of fifty years has elapsed since the offence had been first given. They have this proverb much in esteem—‘Chi offende, non perdona mai.’”

Descartes, in one of his Letters, writes thus—“Be not so desirous to live under Italian skies; there is a contagion that poisons its breezes; the heat of the day kindles a fever in the delicate frame; the evening airs are unwholesome; and the deep shades of the night conceal robberies and assassinations!”

The following anecdotes of Italian revenge are of good authority. An Italian feigned to be reconciled with one who had offended him. One evening, when they walked out together in a retired spot, the Italian seized him by the back; and, drawing a dagger, threatened to stab him, if he did not abjure and curse the Creator. The other, in vain, entreated that he might not be obliged to commit what he felt a horror in doing; but, to save his life, at length he complied. The assassin, having now compleated his wish, plunged the poignard in his bosom; and exultingly exclaimed, that he had revenged himself in the most dreadful manner possible; for he had caused the body and the soul of his enemy to perish at a single stroke!

One Giuseppe Bertoldo, after an absence of ten years, heard that a person, who had served him an ill turn, resided in flourishing circumstances in India: he embarks directly; he arrives; he follows him closely for two years; and, at length, having found him one day alone, and unarmed, in a solitary spot, he assassinates him.

There is a narration, written in Italian, in a manuscript in the French king’s library, tacked to the end of a volume intitled “Le glorie degl’ incogniti di Padoua.” It displays a chain of treachery dishonourable to the human character. It is translated in the Addenda to the Anecdotes of Mr. Andrews. In Addison’s Travels, there is an account of an assassination in Italy, not less remarkable than those we have noticed. I shall add an instance of poisoning, which cannot fail to interest the reader of sensibility.

Francis of Medicis; after the death of his lady, fell deeply in love with a young noble Venetian, named Bianca Capella, whom he married. This lady, who passionately loved the duke her husband, was the cause of his death; attempting to revenge herself à l’ Italienne—as my author expresses it—of a prince who was a relation of Francis. She had, with this design, poisoned some olives that were to have been presented to him. Francis, having met the servant, took two, and eat them: very shortly after he began to feel their mortal effects. Bianca Capella, who now saw the mistake that had taken place, and the qui pro quo that had caused the death of her beloved duke, took also of the same olives; and, having swallowed them, she threw herself on the bed, embracing her dying lord, and expired in his arms.

Voltaire, in his Universal History, observes, that assassinations were common in Italy in the sixteenth century. He describes forcibly the great misfortune of its wanting a general police. He notices the banditti that for a long time infested it, in the midst of the polite arts. These are some of his words: “The use of the stiletto was but too common in the towns, while the banditti infested the country. The scholars of Padua were accustomed to knock people down in the night, as they walked through the piazzas.”

I have quoted the opinion of Voltaire to strengthen my own; which, indeed, became very necessary, as it seems to differ from that of the ingenious Monthly Reviewer.

Since the above has been written, an Italian, a man of letters, has acknowledged, that the representation which I have given of this polite nation is by no means exaggerated. He has even confessed, that this character can hardly be said to be unjust, if applied to them even so late as within half a century.