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La Befana by T. A. T.

Putting out of the question the Piazza of St. Peter's with Bernini's encircling colonnades, which is a special thing and unlike anything else in the world, the Piazza Navona is the handsomest piazza in Rome. It is situated in the thickest and busiest part of the city, far out of the usual haunts of the foreign residents, and nearly in the centre of that portion of the city which is enclosed between the Corso and the great curving sweep of the Tiber. It is handsome, not only from its great space and regular shape—a somewhat elongated double cube—but from its three fountains richly ornamented with statuary of no mean artistic excellence, and from the clean and convenient pavement which, intended for foot-passengers only, occupies all the space save a carriage-way close to the houses encircling it. This large extent of pavement, well provided with benches, and protected from the incursion of carriages, which make almost every other part of Rome more or less unsafe for all save the most wide-awake passengers, renders the Piazza Navona a playground specially adapted for nurses and their charges, who may generally be seen occupying it in considerable numbers. But on the occasion on which I wish to call the reader's attention to it the scene it presents is a very different and far more locally characteristic one.

We will suppose it to be about midnight on the fifth of January, the day preceding the well-known revel, now come to be mainly a children's festival, which English people call Twelfth Night and celebrate by the consumption of huge plumcakes and the drawing of lots for the offices of king and queen of the revels. The Italians call it the festival of the "Befana," the word being a readily-perceived corruption of "Epifania." Of course the sense and meaning of the original term have been entirely forgotten, and the Befana of the Italian populace is a sort of witch, mainly benevolent indeed, and especially friendly to children, to whom in the course of the night she brings presents, to be found by them in the morning in a stocking or a shoe or any other such fantastic hiding-place. But Italians are all more or less children of a larger growth, and at Rome especially the populace of all ages, ever ready for circenses in any form, make a point of "keeping" the festival of the Befana, who holds her high court on her own night in the Piazza Navona.

We will betake ourselves thither about midnight, as I have said. It is a bitterly cold night, and the stars are shining brilliantly in the clear, steely-looking sky—such a night as Rome has still occasionally at this time of year, and as she used to have more frequently when Horace spoke of incautious early risers getting nipped by the cold. One of the first things that strikes us as we make our way to the place of general rendezvous muffled in our thickest and heaviest cloaks and shawls is the apparent insensibility of this people to the cold. One would have expected it to be just the reverse. But whether it be that their organisms have stored up such a quantity of sunshine during the summer as enables them to defy the winter's cold, or whether their Southern blood runs more rapidly in their veins, it is certain that men, women and children—and especially the women—will for amusement's sake expose themselves to a degree of cold and inclement weather that a Northerner would shrink from.

For some days previously, in preparation for the annual revel, a series of temporary booths have by special permission of the municipality been erected around the piazza. In these will be sold every kind of children's toys—of the more ordinary sorts, that is to say; for Roman children have never yet been rendered fastidious in this respect by the artistic inventions that have been provided for more civilized but perhaps not happier childhood. There will also be a store of masks, colored dominoes, harlequins' dresses, monstrous and outrageous pasteboard noses, and, especially and above all, every kind of contrivance for making a noise. In this latter kind the peculiar and characteristic specialty of the day are straight tin trumpets some four or five feet in length. These are in universal request among young and old; and the general preference for them is justified by the peculiarly painful character of the note which they produce. It is a very loud and vibrating sound of the harshest possible quality. One feels when hearing it as if the French phrase of "skinning the ears" were not a metaphorical but a literal description of the result of listening to the sound. And when hundreds of blowers of these are wandering about the streets in all parts of the town, but especially in the neighborhood of the Piazza Navona, making night hideous with their braying, it may be imagined that those who go to their beds instead of doing homage to the Befana have not a very good time of it there.

It is a curious thing that the Italians, who are denizens of "the land of song," should take especial delight in mere abundance of discordant noise. Yet such is unquestionably the case. They are in their festive hours the most noisy people on earth. And the farther southward you go the more pronounced and marked is the propensity. You may hear boys and men imitating the most inharmonious and vociferous street-cries solely for the purpose of exercising their lungs and making a noise. The criers of the newspapers in the streets must take an enthusiastic delight in their trade; and I have heard boys in the street who had no papers to sell, and nothing on earth to do with the business, screaming out the names of the different papers at the hour of their distribution at the utmost stretch of their voices, and for no reason on earth save the pleasure of doing it—just as one cock begins to crow when he hears another.

The crowd on the piazza is so thick and close-packed that it is a difficult matter to move in any direction when you are once within it, but good-humor and courtesy are universal. An Italian crowd is always the best-behaved crowd in the world—partly, I take it, from the natural patience of the people, and the fact that nobody is ever in a hurry to move from the place in which he may happen to be; and partly as a consequence of the general sobriety. Even on such a night of saturnalia as this of the Befana very little drunkenness is to be seen. Although the crowd is so dense that every one's shoulder is closely pressed against that of his neighbor, there is a great deal of dancing going on. Here and there a ring is formed, carved out, as it were, from the solid mass of human beings, in which some half dozen couples are revolving more or less in time to the braying of a bagpipe or scraping of a fiddle, executing something which has more or less semblance to a waltz. The mode in which these rings are formed is at once simple and efficacious. Any couple who feel disposed to dance link themselves together and begin to bump themselves against their immediate neighbors. These accept the intimation with the most perfect good-humor, and assist in shoving back those behind them. A space is thus gained in the first instance barely enough for the original couple to gyrate in. But by violently and persistently dancing up against the foremost of the little ring the area is gradually enlarged: first one other couple and then another are moved to follow the example, and they in their turn assist in bumping out the limits of the ring till it has become some twenty feet or so in diameter. These impromptu ball-rooms rarely much exceed that size, but dozens of them may be found in the course of one's peregrinations around the large piazza. The occupants of some of them will be found to consist of town-bred Romans, and those of others of people from the country. There is no mistaking them one for the other, and the two elements rarely mingle together. The differences to be observed in the bearing and ways of the two are not a little amusing, and often suggestive of considerations not uninstructive to the sociologist. The probabilities are that the music in the case of the first mentioned of the above classes will be found to consist of a fiddle—in that of the latter, of a bagpipe, the old classical cornamusa, which has been the national instrument of the hill-country around the Campagna for it would be dangerous to say how many generations. In either case there seems to be an intimate connection between the music and the spirit of the public for which it is provided. The peasant of the Campagna and of the Latian, Alban and Sabine hills takes his pleasure, even that of the dance, as an impertinent Frenchman said of us Anglo-Saxons, moult tristement. That indescribable air of sadness which, as so many observers have concurred in noting, broods over the district which they inhabit seems to have communicated itself to the inmost nature and character of the populations. They are a stern, sad, sombre and silent race, for what I have said above of a tendency to noisiness and vociferation must be understood to apply to the town-populations only. Their dance is generally much slower than that of the city-folk. In these latter days increased communication has taught some of them to assimilate their dancing with more or less successful imitation to the waltz, but in many cases these parties of peasants may still be seen practicing the old dances, now wholly unknown in the city. But whether they are keeping to their old figures and methods or endeavoring to follow new ones, the difference in their bearing is equally striking. The dancing of peasants must necessarily be for the most part heavy and awkward, but despite this the men of the Campagna and the hills are frequently not without a certain dignity of bearing, and the women often, though perhaps not quite so frequently, far from devoid of grace. Especially may the former quality be observed if, as is likely, the dancers belong to the class of mounted herdsmen, who pass their lives on horseback, and whose exclusive duty it is to tend the herds of half-wild cattle that roam over the plains around Rome. These are the "butteri" of whom I wrote on a former occasion in these pages—the aristocracy of the Campagna. And it is likely that dancers on the Piazza Navona on a Befana night should belong to this class, for the Campagna shepherd is probably too poor, too abject and too little civilized to indulge in any such pastime.

Little of either grace or dignity will be observed in the Terpsichorean efforts of the Roman plebs of the present day. Lightness, brio, enjoyment and an infinite amount of "go" may be seen, and plenty of laughter heard, and "lazzi"—sallies more or less imbued with wit, or at least fun, and more or less repeatable to ears polite. But there is a continual tendency in the dancing to pass into horse-play and romping which would not be observed among the peasantry. In a word, there is a touch of blackguardism in the city circles, which phase could not with any justice or propriety be applied to the country parties.

But it is time to go home. The moon is waning: suadentque cadentia sidera somnum, if only there were any hope of being able to be persuaded by their reasonable suggestions. But truly the town seems to afford little hope of it. We make our way out of the crowd with some difficulty and more patience, and are sensible of a colder nip in the January night-air as we emerge from it into the neighboring streets. But even there, though the racket gradually becomes less as we leave the piazza behind us, there is in every street the braying of those abominable tin trumpets, and we shall probably turn wearily in our beds at three or four in the morning and thank Heaven that the Befana visits us but once a year.