Read PALERMO : CHAPTER I - MARIONETTISTS AT HOME of Castellinaria and Other Sicilian Diversions , free online book, by Henry Festing Jones, on



Since I last wrote to you there has been a continual to-do and no time for writing letters. What has been the to-do? Is it possible you have forgotten my telling you that I am studying to be a singer and that I take lessons every day? Now listen to this: Here in Palermo, a new opera was performed recently for the benefit of the victims of the earthquake at Messina. The story was taken from a great German romance and the music was composed by an Italian who is now in America. I was asked to sing as a supplementary tenor. We had a month of rehearsals and in the end the performance was splendidly successful. O my dear friend! If you had seen me on the stage! I was dressed as a warrior with a wig of curly hair and a pair of moustaches. I also received applause, and, when I appeared before the audience to bow my acknowledgments, I thought: “Oh, if only my dear friend were present, how he would be applauding me!” You will understand after that whether I have had any time to write to you; but now that things have calmed down a little and there is less going on I can write to you as much as you like.

As you know, I am always busy in the teatrino; the other evening we repeated Samson, that play which you once saw here. If you will believe me, I was thinking of you the whole time because I remembered that when we gave it two years ago you were present.

Just now in the Story of the Paladins, Orlando is throwing away his arms and running about naked in the woods, mad for love of Angelica; and soon we shall have the burning of Bizerta and the destruction of the Africans. This will finish in July and we shall then begin the Story of Guido Santo.

What have you done with that photograph of myself which I gave you and which you put into your cigarette-case? Is still there, or have you lost it? I have often promised to send you another but have not done so because when you come to Palermo in September I hope we shall be photographed together, you and I. Nevertheless I send you this one now, it was taken by an English lady who came to the teatrino last summer; you see me getting into a rage with a paladin, I am talking seriously to him and swearing at him because he will not let me dress him properly.

I will not prolong this letter, I do not wish to bore you; but I promise you that I will never fail to let you know of my doings and I count on you to tell me of yours.

Costantino, Sansone, Rinaldo, Rosina, Angelica, Ferrau, Pasquino, Onofrio and all the other marionettes embrace you and send you their kind regards.

I am and always shall be Your affectionate friend ALESSANDRO GRECO (Buffo).

On arriving at Palermo, I went to the teatrino at about ten at night; not seeing the buffo in his usual place keeping order at the door, I guessed he must be on the stage and, knowing the way, passed through the audience, dived under the proscenium, crept along a short passage, mounted a ladder and appeared among them unannounced. The father, the buffo and his brother, Gildo, were so much astonished that they dropped their marionettes all over the stage and shouted:

“When did you come?” “Why did you not write?” “Why did you not telegraph?”

Thereby spreading their astonishment among the audience, who saw no connection between these ejaculations and the exploits of Guido Santo. They soon recovered themselves, however, picked up their paladins and managed to bring the performance to its conclusion, and we shut the theatre and proceeded upstairs to the house. On the way the buffo took me aside into his workshop to show me two inflammable Turkish pavilions which he was making; Ettorina in her madness was to fire them in a few days, one in the afternoon and the other at the evening repetition, as a conclusion to the spectacle. I inquired:

“Who was Ettorina, and why did she go mad?”

“I will tell you presently,” replied the buffo, “we must first go upstairs.”

As we went up I asked after the singing and he promised to take me to the house of his professor to hear him have a lesson. Papa and Gildo had preceded us and we found them with the young ladies, Carolina and Carmela, and the child, Nina, who is as much a buffa as her brother Alessandro is a buffo. In a moment, the air was thick with compliments.

PAPA: And how well you are looking! So much fatter than last year.

MYSELF (accepting the compliment): That is very kind of you. You are all looking very well also. Let me see, Buffo mio, how old are you now?


MYSELF: Twenty-five.

ALESS: Bravo. I completed my twenty-fifth year just three weeks ago. And you?

MYSELF: I have also completed my twenty-fifth year, but I did it more than three weeks ago.

ALESS: I see. You have twenty-five years on one shoulder; and how many more on the other?

MYSELF: Twenty-five.

ALESS: It seems to me you are making a habit of attaining twenty-five. Are you going to do it again?

MYSELF: I have begun, but I shall put off completing it as long as possible. If you want to know my exact age I will give you the materials for making the calculation. I went to the Great Exhibition of 1851.

GILDO: Tell us about it. I have often seen pictures of it in the illustrated papers, but I have never spoken to anyone who was there. Was it very beautiful? Were there many people? Did you see Queen Victoria?

MYSELF: I can’t tell you much about it. I was asleep and when I woke up I was so hungry that I cried till my mother took me into a side room and gave me my dinner. Then I went to sleep again until they took me home. I have been to many exhibitions since, but I never enjoyed one so much. You see, this one did not bore me.

ALESS: You should not have had your dinner there. I went to the exhibition in Palermo and the food in the restaurant was not wholesome.

GILDO: Yes, but you must remember that Alessandro is very particular about his food. He can only eat the most delicate things and must have plenty of variety.

MYSELF: I did not have much variety in those days. I took my restaurant with me, the one at which I was having all my meals.

GILDO: Oh well, if one can afford to travel like a prince

MYSELF: Gildo! I was not six weeks old and

PAPA: I have now made the calculation and I find you are my senior by six years. I hope that when I have caught you up I shall carry my age as lightly as you carry yours. Do I explain myself?

ALESS (to me): I think you look older. I should have said you were a well-preserved man of sixty-four or (stretching a point in my favour) perhaps sixty-five.

MYSELF (feeling sure that here must be another compliment): Thank you very much.

BUFFO: Not at all; it does you great credit.

GILDO: Now me, please. Ask me my age.

MYSELF: Well, Gildo, and how old are you?

GILDO: A hundred and seventy-four next birthday.

MYSELF: Santo Diavolo! You don’t look it. You must have been very busy since last autumn when, if I remember right, you were only twenty-one.

CAROLINA (tapping my right arm to attract my attention): Signor Enrico, Signor Enrico, why do you not ask me my age?

CARMELA (tapping my left arm): Signor Enrico, Signor Enrico, you have not asked me my age.

MYSELF: Because I know how old you are. You are both of you the age that charming young ladies always are, and you do not look a day older.

NINA: I’m fourteen.

CARO and CARM (comparing notes): Did you hear what he said? He said we are charming young ladies.

NINA (insisting): I’m fourteen. Do I look it?

MYSELF: I can compliment you on looking a little older. Since last year you have grown out of being a child, but you have hardly yet grown into being a young lady like your sisters, though you are quite as charming.

ALESS (taking the opportunity to begin): First you must know that Carlo Magno is now dead and the Pope is shut up in Paris and is being

CARO: Signor Enrico, Signor Enrico, do you drink marsala in London?

MYSELF: Marsala is known in London, but we do not drink it every day as you do in Palermo.

GILDO: In England people drink tea; everything is so different in England.

MYSELF: That is quite true, Gildo. In England what is like that (holding my hand out with the palm up) in Sicily is like this (holding it with the palm down:_ Peppino Pampalone taught me this gesture_).

GILDO: And that is why in London the people walk on their feet, whereas in Palermo they walk on their hands, as you have no doubt observed.

ALESS: Si; e ecco perche in Londra si mangia colla bocca, ma qui, in Palermo, si mangia nella maniera che ti faro vedere da un diavolo nel teatrino. But I was telling you about the Pope. He is shut up in Paris, where he is guarding the Christians against the

CARO: Signor Enrico, do you ever see the sun in London?

GILDO: Yes, they see the sun in London, but only on three days of the week; on the other days they send it to be cleaned.

CARM: Then it is not the same sun as ours?

GILDO: It is a different sun. Our sun is made of gold and remains always bright. The sun of London is made of copper and, being constantly exposed to the air, it tarnishes more rapidly even than the breastplate of Carlo Magno, and you know what a lot of cleaning that wants.

PAPA: All this is very interesting, but listen to me. I have something to say. When I was a boy at school are you attending? Very well, then, I may proceed. When I was a boy at school, we had a professor who told us that in consequence of

CARO: Signor Enrico, Signor Enrico, what is the English for Grazie?

MYSELF: It means Thank you.

CARM: Signor Enrico, Signor Enrico, what is the English for Buona notte?

MYSELF: Buona notte in English is Good night.

ALESS: and Paris is being besieged by four Turkish emperors, namely, Rodoferro di Siberia, Balestrazzo di Turgovia, Leofine di Cina and Bracilone d’Africa, and they have two hundred thousand men

GILDO: Now me, please. Teach me to speak English. What did you say is the English for Grazie?

MYSELF: Thank you.

GILDO: And Buona notte?

MYSELF: Good night.

GILDO (tentatively): Thank you. Good night.

MYSELF: Bravo, very good.

CARO: What does that mean?

MYSELF: Very good means

PAPA: and this professor of ours told us that in consequence of certain natural do I explain myself? of certain natural causes, it is rare for a human being to live more than one hundred years. It is therefore unlikely that

ALESS: and Paris is being besieged by

MYSELF: Yes, I know, Buffo, by four Turkish emperors and they have two hundred thousand men. I should think it must be rather a serious situation. But I want to hear about Ettorina.

ALESS: It is a very serious situation, but do not be alarmed because

PAPA: it is therefore unlikely that Gildo will ever reach the age of one hundred and seventy-four. Do I explain myself?

CARO: Signor Enrico, Come sta? what does it mean?

MYSELF: It means How do you do?

CARO (trying her hand): How do you do?

MYSELF: Brava. Very good.

(Nina did not ask to be taught English._ She was following the conversation with sympathetic illustrative gestures not caring two straws whether anyone observed her_, just as she did not care whether anyone observed that she was breathing; and, just as she could not stop breathing, so she appeared unable to stop her gestures._ She was as incessant and as resourceful as the orchestra in_ Hansel and Gretel.)

CARM: Signor Enrico, Signor Enrico, Io t’amo.

MYSELF: Oh! but this is so sudden.

ALESS: do not be alarmed, because

CARM: What does it mean in English?

MYSELF: Oh, I beg your pardon. It means

ALESS: do not be alarmed, for it is the will of heaven that

PAPA: I may even go further and say it is unlikely that Gildo

CARO: Signor Enrico, do you know what Carmela is doing?

MYSELF: She is making lace on a pillow, no doubt for her wedding trousseau.

CARM (demurely): Not for my wedding. No one will ever want to marry me.

MYSELF: Oh, come now, you don’t expect me to believe that?

ALESS: it is the will of heaven that they shall all escape

MYSELF: Well, if this is not for you, perhaps it is for Carolina’s wedding?

ALESS: that they shall all escape to Montalbano

CARO (demurely): Not for my wedding. I shall never marry. I shall stay at home and look after my dear papa and my dear brothers.

NINA (recklessly): That’s all very pretty, but I’m going to get married. (She was sitting on the edge of the table swinging her legs.)

ALESS: that they shall all escape to Montalbano through the subterranean road which the devils

MYSELF: Why don’t you tell me about Ettorina? Come to Ettorina.

ALESS: One moment, if you please which the devils will make on Wednesday evening

CARM: You have not yet told me what it is in English.

MYSELF: What what is in English?

CARM: Io t’amo.

(By the time I had given the information Papa, who had been proposing my health in a speech of which I caught little except an occasional Do I explain myself? had begun perorating towards a close and was about to crown his remarks with a brindisi in verse.)

PAPA: Questa tavola

GILDO (taking the words out of his mouth):

oggi e assai piú bella. Enrico! Bevo alla salute di tua sorella.

ALESS: which the devils will make on Wednesday evening by command of Argantino the

PAPA (beginning again):

Questa tavola non e sporca ma e netta. Enrico! mangia, e non dare a loro retta.

MYSELF (obediently taking a pear._ It was a fine pear with a maggot in it_;_ they wanted me to take another but I knew that those with maggots are usually the best_. Not seeing why I should not be a poet also, I put it thus):

Animale Non fa male.

GILDO (instantly raising his glass):

Ora che ho mangiato non sono piú a dieta; Bevo alla salute d’Enrico che e poeta.


Anch’io voglio brindar, da povero précoce, Ad Enrico che sentir vuole la mia voce; Da un anno non ti vedo, O caro fratello! Vieni oggi, ti faro sentir l’Otello.

MYSELF (bowing my acknowledgments): Thank you very much.

GILDO: What did you say? Does that mean Good night? Is that what you said before?

MYSELF: Very much means Molto, Thank you means Grazie, and Good night means Buona notte.

GILDO: Let me try. Very much thank you good night?

MYSELF: Bravo, Gildo! You are making progress.

(Nina was not so much preoccupied with her comments as to be unable to take a line of her own when there was nothing particularly inspiring in the conversation and, just now, she had laid her head down in an empty plate and was unostentatiously putting out her tongue and making faces sideways at me.)

GILDO (taking a fig in one hand and raising his glass with the other):

Oggi mi voglio mangiare un fico; Bevo alla salute del Signor Enrico.

(I had to drink each time, not much merely to acknowledge the compliment excusing myself by saying I had not the energy to drink more.)

MYSELF: My dear Buffo, when you have sufficiently got into the habit of being twenty-five to approach the age Gildo says he is, you will not have so much energy as you have now.

ALESS: Yes, I shall.

MYSELF: No, Buffo mio.

ALESS: We will make a bet about it, but you will lose.

GILDO (to Aless): By that time Enrico will not be here to pay if he does lose, so you will not win.

MYSELF: Bravo, Gildo.

GILDO (bowing his acknowledgments): Thank you very night Why do you laugh? That is what you say. Why do you laugh?

PAPA (taking his revenge about the brindisi): Don’t talk so much, Gildo.

ALESS (taking his about the bet): You have been talking all the evening, Gildo. You are as bad as a conjurer in the piazza.

(Gildo proclaimed a general silence and, as a guarantee of good faith, pretended to skewer his lips together with a tooth-pick.)

ALESS (whispering to me): Argantino is the Prince of the Devils and has commanded them to make the subterranean road from Paris to Montalbano

PAPA: May I speak one word?

MYSELF (graciously): Yes, Papa. You may even speak two words.


ALESS and GILDO (shouting): One!

PAPA: have

ALESS and GILDO: Two! There now, shut up. You’ve spoken your two words. Silence.

CARO: Signor Enrico, last year you only stayed in Palermo four days; this year you will, of course, stay at least a month.

MYSELF: I am sorry, my dear young lady, but it is impossible.

ALESS: and they will all escape and

MYSELF: Please, Buffo, how many kilometres is it from Paris to Montalbano?

ALESS: I do not remember, but it is a long way.

CARO: Why do you not stay a month?

CARM: Yes, why are you going away?

MYSELF: My dear young ladies, I must go to Calatafimi.

CARO: But why do you go to Calatafimi?

CARM: Yes, why do you not stay with us?

(Nina did not speak. She merely gazed at me as though she could not mind her wheel, Mother.)

MYSELF: I have friends at Calatafimi whom I have promised to go and see and I cannot

ALESS: and arrive in safety at Montalbano.

MYSELF: I believe you told me once that Montalbano is Rinaldo’s castle in Gascony. Did the devils make a subterranean road right across France? It is a long way, you know.

ALESS: The devils must do as Argantino commands them.

MYSELF: If he is the Prince of the Devils of course they must; but this seems rather a large order. Come to Ettorina. Why don’t you come to Ettorina?

ALESS: One moment, if you please; first you must know that

CARO: Signor Enrico, who are your friends at Calatafimi?

MYSELF: I know a baritone singer and his father and mother, two or three landed proprietors and the custode of the Temple of Segesta who lives at Calatafimi and is great friend of mine. I also know another

CARM: It is not true. How many ladies do you know at Calatafimi?

MYSELF: Well, let me see. I don’t think I can exactly

CARO: Tell us about the young ladies of Calatafimi, you like them better than you like us.

(Here sobs were heard;_ Nina’s head and shoulders had fallen over the back of her chair_, her hair had come down an she was weeping gently but inconsolably.)

MYSELF: I shall be back in three days.

(Whereupon Nina recovered herself and fixed her eyes on the ceiling with an expression of beatific joy such as is worn by S. Caterina da Siena when the ring is being put on her finger in the pictures._ Nina’s hair had now to be done up and it is magnificent hair_, lustrous, black, wavy thick and long for a girl of fourteen, wonderful._ Her two sisters did it up as though it usually came down about this time of the evening and she submitted in the same spirit_._ It was no concern of ours_.)

PAPA: It is now one year since you were last in Palermo and it seems like yesterday do I explain myself?

GILDO (so that everyone could hear): I have kept all your post-cards in a secret place. No one suspects that I have received them.

ALESS: You must know that before Malagigi died he

CARO: Signor Enrico, why do you wear spectacles?

MYSELF: In order that I may more clearly contemplate your beauty.

CARO: I do not believe you.

CARM: Signor Enrico, why do you wear your hair so short?

MYSELF: In order that

CARO: Signor Enrico, why do you wear that little beard, that barbetta?

CARM: Signor Enrico, why do you wear ?

ALESS: Why do you wear a coat and waistcoat?

GILDO: Why do you wear boots?

PAPA: Why do you ?

NINA: I can tell you why he does all these things. It is to make the young ladies of Calatafimi go mad for love of him as the daughter of Cladinoro went mad for love of Ruggiero Persiano.

MYSELF: I have never heard of Ruggiero Persiano. Who was he, a paladin?

NINA: Yes; a cavalière errante.

MYSELF: Then who was the daughter of Cladinoro?

NINA: Ettorina.

MYSELF: Do you mean to say that Ettorina went mad for love of Ruggiero Persiano?

NINA: Yes.

MYSELF (rising to go): Finalmente!

ALESS: Yes, but first you must know

MYSELF: All right, Buffo, never mind about that; at last I know who Ettorina was and why she went mad and that will do for the present. Thank you very much and good night.

GILDO: That is what I said. Why did you laugh when I said that?

MYSELF: Say it again, Gildo, and I won’t laugh this time.

GILDO: Thank you very night and good much.

MYSELF: Bravo. If you go on at this rate you will soon be speaking English like a native.

I took leave of the young ladies, and Papa, Alessandro and Gildo accompanied me to the albergo, where they left me. As I approached my bedroom door I looked up over it half-expecting to see there the words which, years ago, I had seen written over the entrance to a Tuscan monastery:

O beata Solitudo! O sola Beatitudo!